Robert and Alex were on autopilot as they walked up the gravel driveway to the side of the house.
‘Hey, Alex? Why don’t they use the front door?’
‘Dunno. They just don’t.’
In the six years that they had been visiting the house, neither brother could remember having ever used the front entrance.
‘David, they’re here!’ Emma called to her brother, coming to the kitchen door.
‘Hi Emma,’ the brothers said in unison, entering the kitchen.
‘David should be down any second. He’s upstairs.’
‘No, I’m not!’ David slid into view down the banister, just managing to keep his sock-clad feet as he landed on the tiled floor.
‘Hi, David,’ Alex greeted his best friend. ‘Great landing!’
David and Alex met at the local youth group, while Robert had gone to kindergarten with Emma. The four friends were inseparable. They were always in and out of each other’s houses, off in the woods riding their bikes, or just hanging out in one of their cubby houses.
‘David,’ a voice called from the living room. ‘Did you just slide down the banister?’
‘No, Mum,’ David rolled his eyes. ‘How long can you stay?’
‘Mum’s picking us up when they’re finished.’
‘Last time it took all day,’ Robert commented.
‘That’s ‘because Dad and Pa did it themselves. It’ll be quicker this time.’
There was an awkward silence as the four friends gazed at the black and white floor.
‘What do you wanna do?’
‘We could play release-o,’ Emma suggested.
‘C’mon, Em. We don’t want to hang around the house. Not today. What about the woods?’
‘Good idea. We can check on our cubbies and make sure Geoff and Peter haven’t wrecked them.’
Geoff was Alex and Robert’s brother. He and his friend Peter spent most of their time trying to find and take over or destroy David and Alex’s cubby houses.
‘Mum,’ David called out. ‘We’re going to the woods.’
‘All right. Wear your gumboots. And stay out of trouble!’
‘Yes, Mum!’ David rolled his eyes again.
From David’s house, Green Wood was accessible from the reserve over the main water pipeline for the city. It had been the wettest March in memory. Vast puddles covered the reserve.
‘I’ve got a bad feeling about this,’ Robert said, looking at the water on the ground. ‘Maybe we should go back to the house.’
David walked out onto the reserve a short distance to check the conditions.
‘If we stick to side towards the woods, we should be okay. C’mon. We’ve got this far.’
Ten minutes later, the friends were sitting on a log that a week earlier had been their tree house. A fence crossed a path that Alex and Robert often took to get to and from David’s house. Beyond the new fence was a fresh clearing.
‘I wonder how far it goes,’ Robert mused.
‘Let’s check it out,’ suggested David. ‘Who’s coming?’
‘I’m in,’ Robert replied.
Emma had a worried look on her face.
‘We shouldn’t go in. What if someone sees us?’
‘C’mon, Em. We’ve been going into the woods all our lives. You’ve never worried about it before.’
‘This is different. There were no fences before.’
‘Don’t worry, David,’ Alex assured his best friend. ‘If Emma doesn’t want to go, I’ll wait here with her.’
‘Okay.’ David held up the bottom wire of the fence for Robert to get under. ‘If we’re not back in ten minutes, Seymour got us.’
Old Man Seymour’s land backed on to the woods. A small creek, bordered on both side with blackberry thickets, marked the boundary of Green Wood. Although Seymour did not have any claim on the woods, he spent a lot of time chasing children away from the blackberry thickets.
‘I’m going to miss this place, Em. We’ve had a lot of great times here.’
‘Remember the summer you cousin stayed and we told him there was a bunyip in Brew’s Pond?’
‘David grabbed his leg from behind, just as I popped up in front of him with weeds on my head. You know, that’s still the fastest I’ve ever seen him move!’
They were still laughing when David reappeared.
‘They’ve cleared right down to the creek. I need to go home. Rob’ll be back soon. He’s pigging out on blackberries.’
‘I hope they haven’t been sprayed.’
‘Are you coming back?’ Emma asked.
‘Yeah. Where’ll you guys be?’
‘We’ll wait for Rob. If you get back and we’re not here, head for Brew’s Pond.’
Alex and Emma were still sharing memories when Robert finally returned from his impromptu brunch.
‘You took your time,’ Alex greeted his brother.
‘I was hungry. Anyway, someone had to eat the blackberries before they’re ripped out. Now I’ve got a tummy ache.’
‘That’ll teach you. C’mon. Let’s go to the Pond.’
Robert placed a hand on his stomach.
‘You two go. I think I’d better head back.’
‘Can you tell David where we’ve gone, please?’ Emma asked as Robert headed off down the path.
‘When you get to the pipeline, stay on the side like we did coming in,’ Alex called after Robert. ‘It’ll be too muddy further out.’
Robert waved a hand as he disappeared into the trees.
Brew’s Pond was the best source of tadpoles in the neighborhood. It lay a kilometer further into the wood. Alex and Emma turned off the path that had brought them to the new fence, and onto one leading to the pond.
Rounding the final bend in the winding trail, the pair found themselves looking at another new fence. Beyond a padlocked gate, the canary yellow of earth moving equipment crowded the banks of Brew’s Pond.
‘They’re not going to fill in the pond, are they?’ Emma was almost in tears.
‘It looks like it, Em.’ Alex put an arm around her shoulders.
‘But they can’t! Where are we going to swim?’
‘I don’t know. Maybe what they put there’ll sink.’
‘I hope it does!’
‘Yeah. So do I. C’mon, Em. Let’s go home.’
Emma and Alex made their way back toward the edge of the woods, and the pipeline. Neither of them felt much like talking.
‘Hang on. Did you hear that?’ Alex asked, coming to a sudden stop. ‘It sounded like someone calling out.’
‘Are you sure it wasn’t a bird?’
‘Help! Alex! Emma! Anyone!’
‘There! It sounds like Robert. Robert? Robert! Where are you?’
‘I’m out on the pipeline. Help!’
Coming out of the trees, Emma and Alex were greeted by the sight of the top half of Robert, in the exact center of the reserve. The rest of him had disappeared into the ground.
‘What the…’ Alex started, reaching his younger brother. ‘I thought I told you to stay on the side of the pipeline.’
‘Yes, I did. Didn’t I, Em?’
‘He did, Rob.’
‘Well, I didn’t hear you. Anyway, I don’t have to listen to you!’
‘You don’t. If you did listen to me, you wouldn’t be stuck in the mud to your belly button, would you? Can you move at all?’
Robert tried to turn towards the woods without success.
‘No. I’m stuck.’
Alex looked at the state of the ground around Robert.
‘Okay. Put your arms on the ground, and see if you can sort of push yourself out using your feet.’
Robert leaned forward as far as he could, his arms braced against the wet ground. Rather than propelling himself upwards, Robert started sinking further into the mud.
‘Push up, not down.’
‘I am!’ Robert was starting to panic.
‘Okay, calm down. I’ll pull while you push.’
Alex took Robert’s arm in both hands.
Alex struggled to get a firm footing on the boggy ground.
‘Stop, stop. Try another way. Give me both your arms and I’ll pull.’
‘Do you still want me to push?’
‘Yes! I’m not doing all the work. You got yourself stuck, so you can help get yourself unstuck. Ready? Now!’
This time there was a loud sloshing noise as the brothers pulled and pushed. Robert rose a couple of centimeters towards ground level. For a moment, it looked as though Alex’s plan was working. Then, without warning, Robert stopped moving.
‘What happened?’ Emma asked.
‘There’s too much water. The mud moves, but then the water fills the hole again. I’ve got an idea. Em, run home and get David to bring a shovel. If we can’t pull Robert out, we’ll have to dig him out.’
‘Okay. Back soon.’
While Emma was gone, Alex continued to try pulling his sibling free. He only managed to get himself covered in mud as well.
‘What’s taking the others so long? I’m going back to David’s.’
‘Don’t leave me here,’ Robert pleaded. ‘What if I sink more?’
‘I’ll only be a couple of minutes, tops. Just keep calm, and don’t move!’
Alex met David halfway down the drive.
‘Where’s Emma?’ Alex asked.
‘When Mum heard what’s happened, she wouldn’t let Emma come back out.’
The boys ran back to rescue Robert. Despite what Alex had told him, Robert had continued to struggle to free himself.
‘Rob, give David your hands. David, you pull, while I try to scoop the mud to one side. Ready? Now!’
There was a loud slurping sound as Robert finally started to move toward ground level. Without warning, David lost his footing. Before he knew what was happening, he found himself flat on his back in the mud.
David looked up at Alex as the rain started.
‘Don’t you dare laugh!’
‘Who, me?’ Alex was fighting to keep a straight face. ‘Would I do that?’
‘Yes, you would,’ put in Robert.
‘Do you want to get out of there or not?’ Alex helped David to his feet.
‘Okay. This time for sure! On three. One, two, three!’
There was another sucking sound as Robert finally emerged from the ground, minus a gumboot. Luckily, the boot was easier to recover than its occupant had been.
The sight of the three boys – soaking wet, and covered in mud – was reminiscent of a 1950s B-grade horror movie. If they were expecting any sympathy from David’s mother, they were soon disappointed.
‘You’re not coming inside like that,’ was the greeting they received at the back door. ‘You need a bath. Go and get undressed in the laundry. There are some towels in the dryer.’
Clutching their towels, the boys dashed across the yard, and into the house. David’s mum put their clothes in the wash, while the boys went to clean up.
Over the years, David’s father had been renovating the old Edwardian house. Once the servants’ quarters, the upper floor now housed three bedrooms, and a wet room.
David headed upstairs for a shower, while Alex and Robert went into the family bathroom downstairs.
After some time, there was a knock on the bathroom door.
‘How much longer are you guys going to be?’ David called.
‘We’re getting out now,’ Alex replied.
‘Okay. When you’re dry, come up to my room and we’ll find some clothes for you.’
Dried and dressed, the boys went downstairs to the kitchen.
‘About time,’ Emma greeted them. ‘Lunch is ready.’
Over pizza muffins, the friends discussed the morning’s events.
‘Well,’ David stood up started clearing the table. ‘What’ll we do now?’
‘Yes, Mum.’ David rolled his eyes on the way back from the sink.
‘Right. It was Colonel Mustard, in the conservatory, with…’ Emma’s voice trailed off.
The sound of a heavy truck struggling along the undulating, dirt road could be easily heard in the living room. It was the noise they had been dreading. Knowing what the sound signified, the children looked at each other. Nobody spoke.
‘Boys,’ David’s mum came in carrying Robert and Alex’s now dry clothes.
‘That was the moving van. Your mum will be here soon.’
Back in David’s room, Alex and Robert reluctantly changed into their own clothes.
‘I wish we didn’t have to move.’
‘It’s alright for you,’ Alex told his brother. ‘This is the third time I’ve had to say goodbye to my friends.’
‘Do you think we’ll see each other after you move?’
‘I hope so, David. Look on the bright side,’ Alex smiled. ‘Whatever happens, we’ll always be mud brothers.’
Copyright © 2018 Bronwyn Joy Hansen. All Rights Reserved.
Image Pond by london road ([CC2.0 via Flickr)