Frankie Fey

by Rigby Taylor

Chapter 4

Into the Wilderness

Virtue's parents took the news of their daughter's demise with such serenity the police figured they were either deaf or demented. They were neither. Her father, ex Police Sergeant Fey, had recently been granted permanent compassionate leave on a minimum pension, due to stress-related mental breakdown. The increase in violent crime over the preceding dozen or more years caused by political refusal to reduce incarceration rates by providing adequate housing, employment, health and education services, suitable recreational facilities and living conditions for socially disadvantaged children, and refusing to introduce rehabilitation programmes both during and after imprisonment, ensured that no matter how hard they worked, police officers hadn't a hope of maintaining a safe and pleasant urban environment. His wife, after long depressing years as a social worker, was as equally burnt out and bereft of hope as her husband—a normal reaction to the horrors caused by the disappearing social safety net for disadvantaged families and individuals. Both had been born with a powerful sense of social justice and fair play, but the rapidly widening chasm between the health, wealth and hopes of the multitudes, and the obscene riches and influence of the very few, were the nails in the coffins of their sanity.

Instead of wasting money on counselling, their employers prescribed sleeping pills and anti-depressants, which the Feys shoved in a drawer and refused to take, not wanting to destroy what was left of their brains. Instead, they searched the Internet for natural remedies for Weltschmerz, and discovered the "Society for Spiritual Renewal and Repair", whose Enlightened Sages preached the Perfection of the Present.

It was a beguilingly simple philosophy: "When we think, our thoughts are always about either the past (what we have seen, read, heard or done) or the future (what we hope, expect or want to do or see done). This means that thinking prevents us from being fully conscious of the present. This is serious, because we live in the present, and this lack of conscious awareness of the present moment is the reason for the mess the human world is in. The solution is obvious—we must stop thinking and allow the mind to be constantly aware of the present moment."

Their daughter and her husband no longer existed in the present moment, so to think about them would be a pointless dwelling on the past. By the same logic there was no point in a funeral or any other ritual for people who were dead and unable to share in it. Ingenio and Frankie disagreed with the first point but agreed with the second. And once they learned there would be no inheritance, Simon's cousins also agreed that a burial ceremony would be a pointless expense and waste of time. This was good news for The Accidental Death Insurance Company who arranged a bulk-billed cremation with a score of equally forsaken hospital casualties, and pocketed the remaining Funeral Insurance payout.

Five weeks earlier, with their brains in ferment about planetary bio-collapse, water wars, land wars, global warming, global droughts, global starvation, rising seas and diluvial disasters… the Feys had discovered the "Catastropharian" Internet site, on which an advertisement for a large block of land in Southern Tasmania where one could live "in hyperborean bliss beyond the reach of mad mortals", attracted their interest.

They made an offer, conditional on the sale of their own house. Being in a sought-after central city location it was sold within a week, and the purchase of the Tasmanian property finalised. For what seemed the first time in their lives the Feys relaxed. They had somewhere to go where they could live in the present without fear for the future. For reasons that were unclear even to themselves—perhaps as a way of asserting their independence from a son they had never fully forgiven for rejecting them fifteen years earlier, they decided not to tell Ingenio about the sale of their house, or their impending move. Another disincentive to share the secret was the realisation during their afternoon meditation session, that their grandson Frankie would soon be the recipient of his parents' life insurance policy. As it would be a substantial amount, it was their clear duty to take responsibility for him.

At fifty-seven they were still in reasonable health, although they had to admit that establishing themselves in an untamed forest far from any possible nuclear target and high enough to escape even the most dire rise in sea level, would be a bit of a strain. Fortunately, lean and fit Frankie was in urgent need of firm moral guidance, so it would be their duty to remove him from the undesirable influence of his secular-humanist incestuous uncle, and take on the responsibility of providing the nurturing spiritual environment in which their grandson would absorb the pleasures of unthinking abstinence and the joys of simple living on the fruits of his labour. Frankie might think he wanted to live with his uncle, but he was too young to know what was good for him, so they invited Ingenio, Constantine and Frankie to dinner to arrange for Frankie's transfer to their care.

Mrs. Fey's cooking was almost good enough to distract from the large coloured photographs of exploding hydrogen bombs, melting glaciers, flooded cities, and hordes of starved, dead and dying refugees that decorated the walls of the dining room. The atmosphere was as unfriendly and tense as usual, so it was no surprise to Ingenio when his parents informed him that Frankie should live with them.

'No I shouldn't!' Frankie snarled angrily. 'I'm going to live with Inge and Con.'

'You are only fifteen and don't know what's best for you, and…'

'I am the only person who knows what's best for me, and living with old people is the worst thing possible.' He turned to Ingenio. 'Tell them. Inge!'

'He's right, Mum. He does know what's best for himself. He's asked Con and me to adopt him. The papers are already with the Department.' He turned to his father. 'Surely you can see that, Dad?'

Mr. Fey senior turned helplessly to his wife, who, in a voice dripping with sweetness and resolve, replied, 'The best thing for Frankie is to live with us, not with a couple of godless, spiritually void perverts!'

The three young men were shocked to silence. Neither of the parents had ever seemed to care about their son's sexual orientation or lack of spirituality. Frankie jumped to his feet ready to argue, but Ingenio silenced him with a protective hand on his shoulder. Then without saying another word they got up and left the house.

Before sunrise on the morning of the day they were to leave for Tasmania, the Feys loaded their old Land Rover with everything they needed—tent, sleeping bags, primus, cooking gear, dried food, water, clothing, gardening implements and the meagre contents of their bank account in cash. After a quick breakfast they phoned Ingenio, apologised profusely for their inexcusable rudeness at the dinner party, and, as a way of atoning for their indefensible insults, which of course they didn't mean, invited Frankie for lunch in the park followed by a visit to a much-publicised exhibition of environmental painting and sculpture in which he had expressed interest.

After some persuasion from Ingenio, Frankie reluctantly agreed and was pleasantly surprised by his grandparents' friendliness. Relaxing on a rug in the park, plied with delicious pies and sweets, he willingly agreed to forget the past and cement the bonds of love and friendship by joining them in swallowing in one go the contents of a small tumbler containing a special brew of herbs that had been picked and distilled that morning by his grandmother. It was very sweet and not unpleasant, so he accepted another. By the time they had cleared away the picnic he was deep asleep.

'I knew those sleeping pills would come in useful one day,' his grandfather grunted as they heaved Frankie into the back of the Land rover, handcuffed him to a stanchion, covered him with rugs, and drove away.

Several hours later he woke to the muffled sound of engines. Whatever he was lying on was vibrating slightly and rocking gently. He was naked, felt sick and headachy, groaned and tried to sit up. The handcuffs stopped him. In panic he screamed. Not words but a shriek of anger, fear and a refusal to accept what was happening to him.

'Shut up!' his grandmother snapped. 'If you make a noise I'll throw you overboard. No one knows you're here so do as you're told. You wouldn't live with us freely, so you're coming under compulsion. Get used to it.'

'Coming where? Where are we? Where are we going?'

'We're on a ferry on the way to Tasmania. We're not supposed to remain in the vehicle during the voyage, but I hid so you'd not be too upset when you woke up. If you promise not to shout I'll take off the handcuffs and we can eat and drink.'

'I need a piss.'

She passed him a flask. 'Do it out the door but don't make a fuss or you're dead. We are not going to suffer because of your pigheadedness.'

Frankie stared into her eyes, realised the threat was real, and wisely decided to do as he was told. Once on dry land he'd be able to escape.

His grandfather returned as soon as the ship docked. Frankie was again handcuffed to the stanchion and, like his grandmother, concealed under clothing and rugs as they drove out of the darkness into a sunny morning. It was a relief not to feel the rocking of the boat, but being chained was frightening. After an hour's driving they stopped for breakfast. He was freed, but without clothes or shoes, escape was not an option. Whenever they stopped for diesel or to buy food, he was handcuffed and concealed.

During the three-day trip south, an increasingly incredulous Frankie was introduced to his grandparents' esoteric beliefs through readings from the Catastropharian Handbook of Spiritual Survival, and treatises on the Virtues of Not Thinking, published by the Society for Spiritual Renewal and Repair.

One evening in the tent beside a mosquito-ridden swamp, realising his grandparents were not only crazy but also dangerous, Frankie agreed to join their band of believers in exchange for clothes and shoes. Kneeling with his forehead pressed into the damp earth he repeated after them a solemn vow to live constantly in the present moment and expunge all thoughts not directly connected to spiritual survival.

Furious and ashamed at having succumbed to such insanity, he made a silent counter vow to plan for a future escape, rather than embrace the present with a couple of demented old relics. Concealing his anger he asked if Ingenio knew where he was.

Instead of replying, his grandfather took out his mobile phone, dialled a number, then held it to Frankie's ear. Ingenio answered.

'Inge! It's me,' Frankie shouted. 'I'm…'

His grandfather snatched the phone away and spoke harshly. 'Your mother and I have departed the city of sin. Frankie is with us in good health. If you want to see him again, do not search for us and do not go to the police!' He snapped the phone shut, threw it onto the ground and stamped his booted foot on it until it was smashed to smithereens.

'Why'd you do that?' Frankie wept; almost insane with grief. Ingenio didn't know where he was so couldn't come and get him. He was alone with two mad people and he thought his heart would break. He sank to the ground and wept inconsolably while a hatred of which he hadn't realised he was capable filled him to bursting. Eventually he looked up, ready to murder this horrible old man who had stolen him away from the only person on earth he loved. But the old man was ready with a heavy stick and from the look in his eye Frankie knew he was prepared to use it. Quelling the bile that burnt his throat, he forced himself to remain calm. His only hope was to pretend to accept his fate and prepare carefully for escape. At least Ingenio knew he was alive, and that was the most important thing.

Trailing an aura of sanctity along with the fumes of a poorly tuned diesel engine, they drove slowly south through bleak, desiccated farmland devoid of both natural and human charm. On the western horizon mountains reared; too distant to relieve the dreary monotony. The trip took longer than usual because they avoided civilization by using secondary roads. Arriving in a state of exhaustion at the settlement of Geeveston, they replenished supplies before bouncing and rattling due west up a dusty, stony track into the Hartz mountains. Much of Frankie's anger and irritation evaporated as he gazed at the magnificence of unspoiled temperate rainforest. Gigantic old trees, dense ferny undergrowth, vertiginous drops to one side of the narrow road that wound ever upwards, vast panoramas at every second corner, and waterfalls tumbling down rocky hillsides, sometimes so close they splashed the Land Rover. After seventeen kilometres the road divided. They consulted the Lands Department Map and took the left fork—a dotted line that turned out to be little more than a rocky riverbed through even denser forest. Five kilometres and an hour and a half later, the rutted trail ended at a large cube of stones.

They clambered stiffly out, stretched, breathed deeply of the cold, fresh, odourless air, and stood gazing down a softly sloping, roughly cleared half-acre of wild grasses. About fifty metres in front of them the land dropped steeply, enabling magnificent views due south to distant snow-sprinkled mountains and deep, forested gorges. Scudding clouds propelled by gale-force icy winds straight off the Antarctic, raced across an indigo sky. Spring had arrived in Melbourne; here it was still winter. The strip of cleared land was bordered by dense forest about ten metres to the left of their vehicle, and a hundred metres to the right.

Apparently impervious to the cold, the Feys stood ecstatically at the top of the slope with raised arms, hurling incantations to the wind, shouting their relief at having made their escape from evil humanity. Shivering violently in insufficient clothing, Frankie inspected the stone cube, which turned out to be an unlined room with an ill-fitting wooden door, a fireplace, a window, and not much else. The wind whistled under the eaves of the slate roof and stirred up the dust of the earthen floor.

As they had done each evening since arriving on the island, Frankie and his grandfather erected the tent, this time inside the stone box, while his grandmother heated canned soup on a primus and sliced chunks of camp bread. After spreading their sleeping bags on the floor of the tent, they crawled into them for warmth, and downed the soup and bread. With nothing better to do, and as it was already quite dark inside, they made themselves as comfortable as possible. Despite the howling gale, they fell asleep. In the morning there was ice on the piss bucket outside.

The following months were a torment for a fit but skinny lad who suffered the cold and hadn't the inner fire of belief in the rightness of what he was doing that sustained his grandparents. After days of digging the heavy soil they planted Chinese cabbage, dandelions, chicory, endives and a few herbs. The results were unthrifty, but sufficed to stave off scurvy, and were a welcome addition to meals of dried beans, lentils, nuts and raisins, which were bought in bulk when the grandfather made the occasional arduous trip alone to the nearest shop. He always bought more than they would need and they soon had a respectable hoard of food stored deep in one of the narrow caves Frankie had discovered while looking for a cleaner source of water than the murky, rain-filled pond that had been excavated by the previous owner.

He'd been exploring the edge of the cleared land where it dropped steeply into a gorge, and while negotiating a rocky ledge, slipped and grabbed at vines that were rooted among the moist rocks of a narrow fissure. There were five such clefts, one of which was large enough to be called a cave; slightly larger than their stone hovel, with a smooth sandy floor. Beside it, a substantial trickle of clear water ran down the cliff into a small pool before spilling over into the gulley where it joined a stream and eventually, Frankie supposed, the sea. Over the next few days he and his grandfather chipped out a gently sloping zigzag path down to the relative tranquillity of the caves. Now they had a supply of good drinking and washing water, leaving the dam water for irrigating their herbs.

As winter reluctantly gave way to spring the cottage was buffeted by heavy rain, sleet and powerful winds, but remained solid until a minor earthquake caused a wall to partially collapse and the roof to slide off. They relocated to the largest cave, which was much more comfortable than the hut after they'd sealed the opening with stones and the door from the cottage. Gradually, they chipped away at the walls and roof to create enough space to move around without bumping into each other or the ceiling. One of the other caves was already the larder for their growing mountain of supplies, and when they discovered mushrooms growing in one of the others, their diet improved.

To keep warm and stave off boredom Frankie took over the gardening, leaving the grandparents free to perfect their ability to not think. For hours at a time they sat at the edge of the cliff above the caves and gazed out at the world, minds blank, senses open, aware but intellectually and emotionally uninvolved. Along with the loss of interest in the outside world, came a loss of interest in both food and personal hygiene. Conversation too ceased. Having no thoughts, they had nothing to say. They were returning to the womb.

Stupefied by the mindless labour, the endless cold wind, the lack of human interaction and stimulation and with no possibility of altering his situation, Frankie swallowed his contempt for his grandparents' crazy ideas and, with the determination of a genuine seeker after truth, began to meditate, sitting for hours in one of his secret spots, concentrating on not thinking, dragging his mind back every time it strayed, until one day he found himself in a state of complete sensory awareness; submerged in a myriad of sounds, smells, sensations and sights of which he had never been consciously aware. Not so pleasant was the terrifying realisation that he was totally alone; no different from the tallest tree or the tiniest bacterium, and just as insignificant. The monstrous indifference of life; the never-ending callous, unthinking, selfish struggle for survival demanded of all living things overwhelmed him. In panic he dragged his mind back to the present and spent several minutes deep breathing until he was calm enough to view the experience rationally. Eventually a slow grin spread along with the realisation that in some ways he had always been deaf and blind.

'Thinking focuses my brain on one thing and therefore stops me noticing everything else,' he explained to the trees and whatever else was listening. 'If I deliberately look at something, I only see what I'm looking at! But if I don't look, then I see everything around me.' He laughed wildly at the apparent paradox. 'If I look, I don't see!' he shouted into the wind. 'If I listen, I don't hear! If I think, I'm deaf and blind!'

His grandparents, interrupted while sitting in unthinking torpor on smooth rocks, failed to respond to his revelation; their eyes remaining unfocussed. Only a slight twitching of thin lips indicated awareness of his delight. He didn't mind, because he was beginning to understand what was going on in their heads.

But understanding didn't mean conversion to their choice of existence. They might want to join the living dead, but he was young, fit, healthy and energetic. He needed stimulation. He had grander plans than playing nursemaid to idiot grandparents. If his grandfather hadn't deliberately smashed his mobile phone he would have stolen it and phoned his uncle in the hope of rescue. He had no idea how to drive the unpredictable old Land Rover, and where the keys had been concealed remained a mystery. He could have walked nearly thirty kilometres to the nearest settlement, but each time he started out an irrational sense of duty to his crazy grandparents stopped him.

From the first moment of their arrival he'd been hoping there'd be tourists or bush walkers or a Ranger. But not a single human had appeared. With no radio or other news he couldn't help wondering if his grandparents had been right and the civilized world had imploded. Perhaps an atomic bomb had been dropped on Australia to knock out all the U.S.A. military and spying bases like Pine Gap, and he was one of the last people left alive while a radioactive cloud was on its way. Perhaps the Greenland ice cap had melted and caused a tsunami that had obliterated eighty percent of human civilization. Perhaps Ebola or another dread disease had wiped out all other humans?

The valley that belonged to them was too steep for him to enjoy walking in it, and wasn't pleasant, being always in shadow, cold and damp. Fortunately, the National Park that abutted the single-wire boundary fence at the west of their garden was full of interesting look-outs, caves, glades and even a magical lake. When not occupied with gardening, preparing meals, cleaning and repairing their cave, Frankie would wander through the Park, filled with reverence at the enormity, abundance, diversity and seeming impossibility of life—from giant trees down to the tiniest ferns, orchids, lizards and ants. He followed animal tracks leading to the lake, found shallow caves and interesting rock formations, and no sign of human life, which sometimes pleased him and sometimes increased the loneliness that dogged him. And the nights. He could have done without them. Too dangerous to wander alone without a torch, so to bed as soon as it was dark. The cold. The ever-present fear of snakes, poisonous spiders or other creatures invading his space. The nightmares about looking for Ingenio and never finding him. Of being chased by nameless demons that would do something dreadful if he turned to look at them. No, the nights were not nice at all.

After the sensory revelation triggered by sitting still and not thinking, he got into the habit of wandering deeper into the forest where he'd choose a comfortable place to sit and open his senses for twenty minutes or so; each time discovering anew the life that lived unseen, but not unheard, under leaves, stones and earth. He noted hundreds of different species of plant, flower and seed, distinguished different birds from call, plumage, the way they walked or flew, and rejoiced as the living world became alive in a way he had never dreamed possible. Not knowing the common or scientific names of his forest companions was irrelevant because he had his own descriptors.

The air warmed up during the day but it was always cold at night and in the shade. Being young and fit, Frankie's body quickly adapted to the climate so he was seldom aware of discomfort and usually only wore sneakers, jeans and a t-shirt.

It was usually less windy down in the valleys, and so felt warmer. On sunny days, of which there were plenty, he would strip off and leap from a rock into the lake, emerging gasping for breath. Melting snow fed the stream that filled the lake, so the temperature was never much above freezing. Arms flailing he'd swim energetically to the sandy beach, stand in the shallows at the edge and scrub himself thoroughly with the fine sand from the bottom, determined to keep as clean as possible without soap, because he couldn't bear to pollute such a pristine world.

Afterwards, he would lie on a sun-warmed rock to dry, fantasising about being with someone like himself to share his daily wanking that, despite the momentary pleasure, always left him feeling a bit sad so he'd decide not to do it again. But he always did.

One afternoon while weeding the garden, he heard a vehicle arrive and stop. He sniffed the air. It sounded and smelled like a four-wheel drive. An adrenalin jolt alerted all senses. Who could it be? A murderer disposing of a body? Drug traffickers. Arsonists? The garden was invisible from the old stone hut due to the long grass, but he wouldn't be if he stood up, so he slithered for the cover of the forest and watched a tall, solidly built, deeply tanned man get out of a dusty Pajero with the National Park Logo on the side, stretch, shade his eyes to look briefly at the view, then wander over to the Land Rover.

Frankie guessed he was in his forties with a bushy black beard and a round, cheerful face. Powerful hairy arms dangled from a short sleeved, khaki shirt unbuttoned to expose black hair on a barrel chest and belly. Equally strong and hairy legs swelled from khaki shorts. Thick woollen socks and tramping boots completed the picture.

After peering inside the Land Rover, he kicked at a tyre, squatted at the front and rubbed the mud off the number plate, took out a tablet and typed something in. A few seconds later he stood, read the response, shook his head, looked around again, returned to his vehicle, placed the tablet inside, slammed the door and jogged into the National Park following an overgrown track that Frankie was embarrassed not to have noticed, having always entered from lower down their own property.

So, he was a Park Ranger. That was a relief. But why had he come? Was he checking to see if they were harming the forest? Well they weren't, so that was Ok. Where was he going?

Using his ears rather than his eyes, Frankie followed.

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