While I waited for my morning coffee in a crowded café, the name Jimmy Hepler caught my eye. A disused industrial trolley served as a bench for the daily papers, and the woman ahead of me had the Telegraph open to page three. Intrigue compelled me to rudeness, and I craned my neck to read over her shoulder.
Jimmy Hepler. The name had a ring of familiarity like a school bell heard again many years into adulthood.
I got halfway through the report before the barista called me to collect my coffee. I considered tearing the page out of the newspaper, but not even rabid curiosity could push me that far.
The paper cup burned my hand as I strode along the footpath, a cold winter wind flapping the hem of my overcoat. The name buzzed around inside my head like a blowfly. I crossed the street and, instead of turning left towards the office, detoured towards the newsagency. Perhaps the story would be online, but I didn’t want to find it only to come up against a paywall.
I gobbled the remainder of the story standing outside the newsagency, paper in hand, coffee cooling beside my business shoes. Reading it did nothing to unearth my association with the name, which seemed buried deep inside a stockpile of memories. I folded the newspaper with numb fingers, tucked it under my arm, and continued to the office.
The newspaper sat on my desk, open to that page, for nearly the whole day. It taunted me, like a bully who had stolen something and now dangled it just out of reach.
Two minutes shy of five o’clock, I stood up to stretch and begin tidying my desk for the day. That was when the bully opened his fingers.
I sat down again.
My mother died not long after she became my mother—an undiagnosed infection that went to her heart—and after the funeral, my father fled to his parents’ farm near the town of Mangrove. That was how I grew up rural, with three parents instead of the regular two. Even though I called them Grandma and Grandpa, Dad’s mum and dad were also my mum and dad. In those days, the nuclear family still prevailed, and some of my school mates had a hard time coming to grips with our unorthodox arrangement, but it never bothered me; reality is what you’re born to.
Our property numbered among a straggle of farms still hanging in there against the suburban spread. The southern side backed onto bushland, and if a person rambled far enough through the branches and brambles, he would reach a river where Depression-era fishermen had worn a foot track between a cul-de-sac at the ‘town end’ and the gateway to the national park in the east.
My best friend from age three was Neil Triggs. He was only two days younger than me and lived on the farm that adjoined ours on the eastern side. Neil had dead-straight brown hair, ears that stuck out, and a rather frantic mode of speech, all of which led to the schoolyard nickname of ‘Chimp.’ It seemed a fitting sobriquet to me, albeit for another reason: Neil loved to climb. On weekends we often made our way to the old fisherman’s track, as the locals called it, and spent hours in the forks of stringybark trees or the uppermost branches of river oaks.
We discovered the treehouse on the second day of the 1986 summer holidays when we were both eight years old. A local boy about our age had gone missing a week earlier—information we absorbed and then let go, as kids do. But before my father would let us leave the house, he made us promise we would stay together. It was no great imposition—Neil and I were inseparable anyway.
That day we ventured farther west along the fisherman’s track than usual because Neil had a new toy excavator and I had a toy dump truck and we wanted to play with them on a small sandy cove we knew about. It cut a bight into the riverside embankment and the old fisherman’s track curved around it like a bow under tension. We were padding along the sand before we saw the treehouse.
Nestled high in the branches of a eucalypt a short distance from the riverbank, its fresh timbers, wet from overnight rain, glowed amber in the morning light. Not even Neil could have shinned up that eucalypt’s smooth trunk, but it didn’t matter—an ancient hardwood extension ladder ascended to the entrance. In my eyes, it looked like a stairway to the sky.
Neil dropped his excavator and shot off across the beach, his bare feet kicking up the coarse river sand. I gave chase, and we hurdled onto the embankment together. We slowed as we approached the ladder, then looked up.
“Who built it?” Neil said.
My first thought was that the big kids from town had put it up, but it looked too good, too professional. No wobbly platform six or seven feet off the ground this one; it had a proper floor and walls nailed to a frame, a peaked roof, and everything looked square and level.
“Would we get in trouble if we went inside?”
I glanced around. We were alone except for a water bird hunting in the shallows. “There’s nothing saying we can’t.”
That seemed to satisfy Neil. He ascended the cylindrical rungs with a monkey’s surety, almost as if he were running upwards rather than climbing. When he was a body length ahead, I put my hands on the ladder. Exposure and constant use had battered its iron-hard frame and I could feel splinters beneath my fingers. Although familiar with climbing ladders, I didn’t like this one’s narrow gauge or the way the sole of my foot could roll on its rungs, or that it happened to be the only recycled item in an otherwise new treehouse. The ladder’s sturdiness suggested the side rails were bolted to the treehouse floor, yet that did little to reassure me.
“Come on slow coach! It’s amazing!”
I tried to ignore Neil’s voice (muffled because he was inside the treehouse) and concentrate on where I put my hands and feet. As I neared the top I encountered a fresh pine scent so overwhelming it made me queasy. But then my feet were on the treehouse’s floorboards and my anxiety vanished.
The interior seemed enormous, much bigger than two boys would ever need, and it had been furnished with a table and two simple benches fixed to adjacent walls. A window cut into the third wall provided access to the trunk of the tree, while the entrance framed the river to such becoming effect that even two eight-year-old boys could appreciate it.
We were princes in a pine-board palace.
The first thing I did, of course, was hold onto the wall of the treehouse and lean out to look down below.
“Who’s coming?” Neil said.
“You went all weird and said, ‘He’s coming.’”
I wiped some dribble from my chin with the back of my hand. “No, I didn’t. I just looked over the edge and got dizzy.”
“It was weird, man.”
We could sustain an argument about who was weird for two or three minutes, but that day we were too excited to go on for long. We talked about who else we would allow up in the treehouse, and what we could hide from our parents within its walls, and the possibility of bringing up sleeping bags and staying overnight.
When our first rush of enthusiasm receded, we realized a problem: it wasn’t our treehouse. We mulled this over in silence, and then Neil stood up, his eyes bright.
“We could find an old door and screw it on, and then put a padlock on it. No one could get in unless we gave them a key!”
I opened my mouth to voice to some concerns—the treehouse’s rightful owner calling the police or pummeling the keys out of us, for instance—but before I could utter a syllable, Neil flinched away and said, “Ow, don’t pinch me, Chris.”
“I didn’t.” I looked around to see what could have hurt him and, just inside the doorway, spied a small green grub on the shadowed timber. We kids were well acquainted with the cupmoth caterpillar, which when threatened would extrude bursts of yellow spines that looked like miniature dandelions. We had a simpler name for these grubs.
“You’ve been stung by a stinger!”
I pointed and Neil’s eyes followed my finger to the culprit. Then, after a short contemplative pause, he burst into tears.
He began to climb down the ladder with the affronted arm tucked into his ribs. I stood at the edge of the doorway and watched his head bob as he stepped on each rung. Even with his eyes full of tears and one hand out of commission, Neil descended as agile as any chimpanzee.
Before I started down the ladder myself, I gave the grub a departing glance. We boys would often touch one with a twig to make its bright yellow defenses bloom out. But this one, I noticed, was all closed up—just a pastel green blob. Plus, it had been on the opposite side of the doorway to Neil when he had accused me of pinching him. But I thought no more on it—we had to get Neil back home so his mum could apply whatever remedy lurked in their bathroom cabinet. My grandmother swore by ‘blue bag’ (a concoction of ultramarine and bicarbonate soda wrapped in muslin) for insect stings; other parents advocated calamine lotion or paw-paw ointment.
But not long after we were back on the old fisherman’s track with toys in hand, Neil seemed to forget about the sting. We wound up excavating the soil in front of the cowshed at my place.
Nothing short of death could have deterred us from the treehouse for long and we returned the next day after finishing our chores. Thick cloud and the forest canopy brought an autumnal gloom to the old fisherman’s track while the river, dead slack, looked more like polished steel than water.
We arrived equipped for long-term occupation. In my pockets were a deck of cards, a penknife, a slingshot my grandfather made for me (“Don’t tell your grandmother or she’ll have a pink fit!”), and a small cloth bag containing my best marbles. Neil’s pockets bulged with biscuits, cough drops, and anything else he could filch from the pantry before his mother got wise, plus his own bag of marbles. All our plans would be for naught, however, if we discovered the teenaged boys from town up there smoking cigarettes.
As we emerged onto the cove, we could see the treehouse was deserted. We made jubilant noises and raced one another across the sand.
Another rainy night had left the grassed area below the treehouse mushy, and our bare feet sank into it. Moisture made the ladder’s cylindrical rungs all the more precarious, and I found my toes clawing for grip. I didn’t bother trying to match Neil’s upward pace.
The treehouse seemed to have shrunk with no morning light beaming in. It reminded me of Grandpa’s tool shed, except without the familiar scents of dirt and cow muck, or the ordered rows of shovels, spades, mattocks. The floorboards felt cold and rough beneath my feet. None of this made the slightest difference to Neil and me. We sat at the table and commenced a poker game (my father had taught us a moneyless version to the intermittent soundtrack of my grandmother assuring him it would corrupt us).
A dozen hands later, we grew bored with poker, and talk turned to which kids at school were the toughest. While we chatted, I got up and moved to the treehouse’s small square window. On the trunk of the tree, at arm’s length, I saw a chunk of bark in a rough diamond shape. It stood in relief and was darker than the surrounding bark, so I reached out to put my fingers under it.
Neil thought Michael Daley was the toughest. When I plumped for Shane McClelland, he uttered a howl of protest.
“Shane? He cried when he got sent to the principal’s office for being out of bounds.”
“I heard that was bull,” I said. “Anyway, he’s still tougher than Mike. He beat that boy in sixth class, remember?”
“No, he didn’t; he just spread that around.”
“I was there. I saw it.”
The chunk of bark had some give in it, and I leaned back to try and pry it up with my body weight. When that didn’t work, I took out my penknife and selected the longest blade, then slipped it in where my fingers had been.
“You did not.”
“I did so! They fought behind the lunch sheds and Shane decked him.”
“You’re making it up. I would’ve heard about it.”
“Don’t believe me if you don’t want to.”
The bark came away from the tree with a sharp crack. I put my penknife away and resumed pulling at the bark with my fingers.
“You’re just saying that so you’ll be right. But I heard—Shit! Shit!”
Neil’s eyes were as big as boiled eggs, and he was jabbing his finger at the tree. I turned to see an enormous white spider, inches from my hand. I screamed and dropped the chunk of bark, which clattered on the tree branch and then tumbled to the ground.
Neil was already on the ladder and descending fast, but not fast enough for my liking. I yelled at him to hurry and then got down on my hands and knees at the edge of the treehouse, keeping one eye on the window to make sure the spider wasn’t in pursuit.
When we reached the safety of terra firma, we stood together panting and staring up at the spider. It hadn’t moved a spinneret.
“It’s a ghost spider,” Neil said in awe.
“No, it’s not,” I said. “It’s just a huntsman.”
“Then why did you run away from it?”
“I’d never seen a white one before. It must be a whatchamacallit. An albino.”
To show how unafraid I was, I bent down, picked up a rock, and hurled it at the spider. The rock struck a fraction to the left of its target, which remained motionless. Neil also pegged a rock and missed. We began to hunt around for more rocks, but they were hard to come by in the spongy, leaf-littered soil. We resorted to sticks. I tossed one end over end and was sure it hit dead-on, but the spider didn’t react.
This stillness reinstated our courage and we climbed back up to the treehouse. Spiders were part of country life, so I didn’t tell Neil the one outside the window was still giving me the creeps. I felt certain it was peering in at me as I used a half-rotted stick to draw a brown circle on the treehouse floorboards.
Although level, the floorboards weren’t flat, and they added a third dimension to our game of marbles. The playing surface’s vagaries were rolling in Neil’s favor, and he had knocked four of my marbles out of the circle when he said, “What did you do that for?”
“Just because you were losing. You’re a dick.”
He got up and stalked to the doorway. I glanced down and saw that only my marbles remained.
“I’ll never find them now,” Neil wailed.
I joined him near the door. “What happened?”
“You know what happened.”
“I don’t. What are you talking about?”
“You threw my marbles out the door!”
“I didn’t touch your marbles.”
“You’re being weird again.”
A great surge of anger ripped through me. Then the anger turned to dizziness, and my vision grew fuzzy. The chatter of magpies in a neighboring tree became indistinct and watery, then vanished altogether.
When the dizziness cleared, I found myself with one hand propped against the doorway and the other dangling out over the ladder. Below, sprawled sidelong on the damp sod, lay Neil, eyes pinched shut and bawling like an infant.
Sudden nausea bloated my stomach. My hand clenched tighter on the treehouse’s burred wall and I leaned forward, expecting to send down a shower of vomit. But the nausea passed as quickly as it had come, and I climbed down the ladder faster than I dared. Halfway, my foot skidded on one of the rungs and I ringbarked my shin, although I barely noticed.
When I reached the ground, I knelt beside Neil and put a hand on his shoulder. “Are you okay? Did you—”
He lashed out like a tomcat and caught me across the face with a full-blooded slap. The pain was so intense it had a color—scarlet—and I dropped onto my backside with tears of my own.
“Hey, I didn’t do anything! It’s not my fault you slipped.”
“I hate you! You stupid shit, I hate you!”
He forced the words out in a breathless way I didn’t like. I wondered if his fall had damaged his ribs—and how much trouble I would be in if he had to go to the hospital.
“Is he all right? What happened?”
A man emerged from the town end of the old fisherman’s track. He wore tattered blue shorts, heavy boots, a collared shirt. An adult.
“We weren’t in the treehouse,” I said, mopping up tears with my shirt. “We were just, um, fishing—”
“I’m going home,” Neil announced in a sulky voice.
Seeing him on his feet lightened my heart. He moved off in somewhat drunken steps, but when I tried to put his arm over my shoulders, he pushed me away so hard I stumbled.
“We’re going home,” I called back to the stranger, then added as an afterthought: “It’s not our treehouse.”
I only looked back one more time before we disappeared from view along the old fisherman’s track. The stranger watched us go, dark eyes inscrutable in his long, unshaven face.
Neil never forgave me for the treehouse incident. He didn’t say as much, but when I began to inquire if my friend was free to play, he would have homework to do, or be mysteriously grounded, or out visiting relatives.
Not long after, Neil’s father sold their property and moved the Triggs clan to a suburb far beyond a young boy’s reach. I rolled with this in the melancholy but resilient way that children do, and when the Easter school holidays arrived, I had a new best friend, and Neil became another face on the school playground.
More than two decades passed before I revisited the treehouse. The acres of bush that previously surrounded the area had been cleared, leaving a brown moonscape. A large sign foretold an impending housing estate and, if not for the tell-tale curve in the river, I might never have known I was in the right place. Nearby, machines of demolition—an excavator and a bulldozer—stood silent and unmanned amid felled trees and piles of earth, as if abandoned in a hurry.
One tree, however, remained. In its boughs sat the treehouse, timbers weathered and grey but sturdy-looking nevertheless.
I drove home to make a phone call.
“All Weather Roofing, how can I help you?”
I had never heard him speak as an adult, and yet I knew right away from the hectic delivery—as distinctive as a watermark—that I had the right person.
“Hello, Neil. It’s Chris Rowe.”
He paused long enough for me to wonder if the tides of time had added to his resentment rather than eroding it. But then he gave a little laugh and said, “It’s been a while. How did you find me?”
“Your parents are still listed in the phone book. They gave me your number.”
Neil offered no further small talk, so I said, “Have you been reading the newspapers lately?”
“I don’t read the papers. They’re full of rubbish. Why do you ask?”
The newspaper lay open on the bedspread. The house was silent except for the light patter of raindrops. My finger traced the headline and came away with newsprint whorls.
“Could you meet me for coffee somewhere? I need to see if you remember something. Make sure I have it all straight.”
Another pause. “I guess so. Not right now, though; I’m in the middle of a job. Can I call you back tonight?”
I smiled. Trust Chimp to be the only roofer in town who worked in the rain. “Sure, whatever suits you. Did you get my caller ID?”
“Yep. Can I ask what this is all about?”
“It’d be a waste of time trying to explain it over the phone. Get back to work, and I’ll hear from you tonight.”
Neil called me at just after six that evening. During our short-and-to-the-point discussion, we discovered our separate lives had led us to settle only two suburbs apart. He even knew the café where I suggested we meet—a cramped venue that stayed alive on the quality of its brew.
Saturday’s drab weather had passed on, and a fresh morning beamed through the windscreen as I drove to the café with a newspaper on the passenger’s seat and golf clubs rattling in the boot.
Age and grooming had calmed the apish features of Neil’s otherwise familiar face. Harder to reconcile with my memories was the lanky frame below it. I had always been taller than Neil when we were kids, yet as we shook hands, I estimated he had five or six inches on me.
“It’s good to see you, Neil.”
“It’s good to see you too. Strange, but good.”
We ordered our coffees, took a number, and folded ourselves into a corner table by the window.
“First off, I want you to know I didn’t push you out of the treehouse that day.”
Neil shrugged and gave me a polite smile. “Kids will be kids. I’d forgotten all about it until you called.”
I opened the newspaper to page three, folded it along the spine, and turned it around. Neil gave me a quizzical look, then dropped his head to read.
MAN FACES COLD CASE MURDER CHARGE
Police have charged a man with murder after a body discovered on the site of a proposed housing development proved to be that of a boy missing for 23 years.
Seven-year-old Jimmy Hepler was reported missing in December of 1986, but despite a month-long search in and around the town of Mangrove, his body was never recovered.
In April this year, a demolition crew clearing trees on the site made the grisly find and reported it to police.
Further investigations and DNA testing led police to arrest retired builder Don Bateman, now living in the state’s north.
When Neil finished reading the report, he appeared at a loss for words.
“We were lucky,” he said eventually. “That could just as easily have been us.”
“No, don’t you see it?”
“I didn’t push you out of the treehouse, Neil.”
He sat back in his chair and crossed his arms. “Maybe that’s how you remember it, but I know what I felt. I was shoved in the back, and down I went.”
“I think that was Jimmy watching out for us. Being cruel to be kind. A few minutes later, Bateman would have baled us up in the treehouse and . . . well, that would have been the end of us.”
I could feel my cheeks reddening as Neil stared at me. Then he snorted and laughed and looked up at the ceiling. “Oh, Jesus. You’re blaming a ghost, Chris? You were what, eight? Eight-year-olds do stupid things sometimes.”
I tried not to look sullen, but I felt like that eight-year-old kid again. “I didn’t push you, Neil.”
“Okay, I can see this conversation has reached a dead end.” He gulped down his coffee and stood up. “I’m sorry, mate, but I have better things to do with my Sunday. I’ll see you around.”
With that, he sidled out of the café and left me there alone. I nursed my cup for a few minutes and watched the world go by.
Those who matter to us can hurt us the most. Had a stranger off the street belittled me about Jimmy Hepler, I would have gone on with my life without losing a wink of sleep. But because Neil and I had once been close, his dismissal bothered me. So did the injustice of it all.
I suppose that’s why I went back to the housing development the next day. I wanted to affirm my sanity or least laugh off the whole episode as childish imagination.
When I rounded the access road’s final bend, I came upon a small red car parked nose-in at the temporary fencing. A woman with curly blonde hair stood beside it, her fingers laced through the chain links.
I got out. A cold wind whipped past my face, and I turned up the collar of my coat. The woman turned to look at me as I approached. We studied one another for a while.
“We know each other,” she said.
I groped for the name, another one stored in the dark and cluttered attic of my mind.
“Melissa . . . something. Starts with D.”
“Delessio, right. It’s Chang now, actually. And you’re Chris, the farm boy.”
I nodded. She smiled and then refocused her gaze on the treehouse twenty or thirty meters distant.
She said, “Jimmy saved you too, did he?”
My mouth fell open.
“How did you know?”
“Why else would you be here?”
“You read the story in the paper?”
She didn’t answer, just stood there with a far-off look in her eyes. Then, in a sudden burst of motion, she grabbed a section of fence and tried to lift its concrete foot.
“What are you doing?”
“This is heavy. Come and help me.”
“It’s private property,” I said. “And a crime scene.” But I joined her, and together we shifted the fence section far enough so we could slip through.
The rain-wet grass soaked my shoes and trouser legs, and when I stood at the bottom of the ladder, the slick soles of my business shoes were all I could think about.
“It’s probably not safe to climb anymore.”
“Once the court case is over, they’ll knock it all down,” Melissa said. “Come on; there’s something I want to show you. Assuming it’s still there.”
She kicked off her high heels and climbed the ladder with feet bare but for stockings. As I climbed up after her, I experienced a wonky sense of déjà vu, a sense of reliving an event through a distorting lens.
The treehouse lost its fresh pine scent, of course, but inside, the timbers showed little wear. It was almost as if no time had passed at all.
“I brought my crayons up here,” she said. “I had no one to play with, and my mother wanted me out of her hair, so I came up here to draw.”
“How did you find it?”
“Dad and I were out bushwalking one day, and we came upon it. He told me he didn’t want me visiting the treehouse alone, but . . . well, you know what life was like back then. Kids were free-range most of the time.”
I nodded. Don Bateman’s scheme would have netted little in the twenty-first century.
“I was sitting at the table drawing something. My box of crayons suddenly upended and spilled all over the floor. I thought it was a gust of wind or something. I picked them up, and when I went to sit back down again, I saw that.”
She pointed to a pine panel just above the rudimentary table. Scrawled in black crayon were two words:
“It scared me so much I left the treehouse and ran all the way home. I never told anyone what happened because I thought I’d get a belting.”
For a long while, I couldn’t avert my eyes from those crayon words, fashioned in messy loops and lines—a child’s hand.
I looked around the treehouse. A bulldozer would soon come and push over the tree, and men in high-vis workwear would turn Don Bateman’s evil construction into a pile of scrap timber. The thought made me smile.
I turned to Melissa. “I wonder if you’d be good enough to talk to an old friend of mine? His name’s Neil, and he thinks I’m mad.”