Facing the Sun

Chapter 1

Darkness in the desert has its good and bad points. The sudden and complete blackout tends to be disconcerting for anybody not expecting it. But the tallest of the three boys strode along the dark street at a determined but erratic pace suggesting important business while the others, faster but uncertain in the shadows, followed at a quick trot.  The brief opportunity before the clouds moved and the stars sprinkling across the night sky would betray them to passersby loomed large in Adam’s mind, while nothing in the shadows disturbed his intense focus.  He seemed almost unaware of his companions, dismissing their odd flinches and squeaks when the scrub to either side of the road revealed abundant night life in tiny shivers and disturbing rustles. People were unlikely, rarely out late at night on this side of the streets of Birdsville, but dark spirits and unknown creatures of the imagination fully occupied the minds of the twelve year old boy and his fourteen year old brother.  Adam led them down the street towards the abandoned house where their booze had been stashed.  Tonight his mind was on the strange sensations he’d been having in his legs during the afternoon and how desperate he was to be rid of them. He’d tried several ways over the past months, but all his efforts seemed to intensify rather than diminish their effects; although alcohol blotted it out temporarily.  The house was set back into bushes, and it took a nudge from one his companions to prevent him missing the driveway. In the light of the torch, he could just make out the door set into the wooden frame but not enough detail to see the lock.  The two boys with him faced the road, standing at the foot of the few steps and keeping a sharp eye out for intruders while he struggled to pick the lock unnoticed.  One muttered anxious encouragement over his shoulder while the other lit a smoke kicking at the dirty sand with his bare feet, the hair falling over his face blinding him to everything but excitement.  Adam hadn’t been in Birdsville since June.  Without him around excitement was at a low ebb.

Both boys jumped and turned sharply at the sound of breaking glass.  The inadequate light went out, the walls of the house fading instantly into impenetrable deep grey shadows against the desert dust, and Adam seemed to have disappeared.  Using their hands to guide their feet the two boys kept close to the front wall of the house as they worked their way past the veranda towards the first corner, rough scrubby weed growing against the wall scratching at faces and impeding progress.  It was the bite of glass into bare feet which pulled them up, shrieking involuntarily as lowering a second foot to relieve the first only aggravated the situation.  One made the dire mistake of sitting to pull a shard of glass from his foot and let out a yell as glass penetrated his shorts.

From inside the house Adam shushed at them impatiently.  Darkness made it impossible for him to see anything, and he couldn’t risk exiting via the hole, once a window, with only thongs. His hands were bleeding from where he’d lifted himself into the room.  He’d chosen the side window because it was hidden from the road by bushes.  Breaking it with the torch had been impulsive and stupid to say the least, but god it had felt good to smash something really hard and feel it collapse under his hands.  If the other two hadn’t been outside he would have continued attacking the glass with his measly weapon until he’d powdered every last piece.  Now, he needed to think.  Feeling for his phone brought him up short.  In his mind’s eye, he could see it on the window ledge of the front porch where he’d put it down to leave his hands free for the lock, forgetting the pockets in his shorts.  He felt for the lock of the front door in the dark but couldn’t turn it, or see any detail to work out what the problem was.  Someone must have changed the locks, which meant their stash had probably been found.  They needed to make an abrupt getaway, besides which the beer would have been hot anyway.  Why hadn’t he thought of that?  The whole adventure was lame.  All adventures these days were hollow leading nowhere and bringing dim satisfaction and certainly little relief from the worry.  Now, he’d just made everything worse.  Dad would definitely find out because, although the stupid old house was never used, everyone knew everything in Birdsville, and, by breakfast, Dad would be after him.  You couldn’t even run away.  He’d spent night after night trying to think of a plan to escape from his life, but no one would accept an offer of giving a child a ride to Adelaide, or anywhere really, without knowing the story behind the escape.  Truckies knew their work depended on being trusted by the locals.  No-one would serve a cold beer to a driver who had made off with someone’s son.  Dad was going to kill him for this.  At least then the problem would be gone.  But no!  Slow torture was more Dad’s style.  A clout or two followed by endless nagging insistence on his every step being done Dad’s way; and now Mum would take his side as well.  Despite the despair, he made his way to the back door and picked his way around the house to the front going for his phone before tackling the glass strewn side of the house.  He could hear the two boys muttering, wailing, moaning and wished with all his heart that they would just shut up and wait until he found some light.  The porch jumped out at him as he slammed his whole body into the pillar holding it up.  Finding the phone was a blind man’s nightmare until he realised he’d put it on the step of the doorway and not on the window ledge.

The time it took to find his friends seemed interminable, as he picked his way carefully around the veranda steps and unsuccessfully avoided the bushes, several times finding himself tangled in unknown vegetation.  This must what it was like to be blind; a daily experience without traces of hope, of ever…he broke off the thought and drew a deep breath sensing how much fear was holding him up.  Instead, he drew on the pictures of the shrubbery as he imagined the house from the road.  Even still, it was not where his hands expected it, and a lone branch wacked at his face.  When he came close to the noise of his friends, he slowed, picking clear spaces for his feet while feeling the crunch of glass beneath the thongs, thinned by wear and not made for walking on large pieces of broken glass.  The two boys were only just short of hysterical which frightened him so much he blanked out, recovering with difficulty. Reaching for his phone, which had been flashing a ‘battery low’ signal since he’d set out on the misadventure, he attempted to calmly plan the next move.  Of course! Only one choice.  Ring Jack.  His uncle turned out to be nearby; one of his homes being his Ute out the back of the Birdsville Pub.  “Wear shoes,” he told him. “There’s glass everywhere.  And blood.”  The most valuable part of Jack was the way he could keep his questions to himself and just act when necessary. “Don’t forget to bring light.  You’ll need light.”



We are pulling up camp at the foot of Big Red. Sandro and Josh spent yesterday re-organising our equipment.  Everything has to be ship shape; even more than usual.  With his renewed leg and arm, he has his skill back, but I can’t say much for his mood. I’d like not to snap back at him, and not to shirk work, but he’s impossible, and I want to run.  If the place hadn’t been filled with other campers who’ve pulled in too close, it wouldn’t be grating so much. It’s embarrassing!  I can feel their eyes on us.  Birdsville’s much busier than I expected.  It’s a shock after being on our own for weeks.  Smiling at fellow explorers as they pass heading in the other direction, doesn’t count as socialising.

Once we’re loaded, you’d expect Sandro to be relieved, but now he’s heading my way with a big metal bucket swinging from one hand and a heavy, black scowl on his face.  Here we go!

“Where on earth did you get this bucket from Bridey?”  I stand my ground returning his glare.  No more tip-toeing around his bad temper.  He takes it as a personal insult that I was magically given water in this bucket last night!  “What are we going to do with it?”  His raised voice exacerbates my stubbornness.  Hands on hips, I lean forward to shout at him.

“Don’t you yell at me!”  I am so angry, I can feel spit spray from my mouth.  Luckily he’s standing back, and it misses.  “Get over yourself, Sandro!”

“Well, what am I supposed to do with it?  It won’t fit in the truck, and I can’t leave it here.”  His loud angry, I’m about to jump all over you, voice frightens me enough to take a step back.  “You’re going to have to put your feet in it.”  He sneers at me, and suddenly Josh appears from the other side of the car.  When Sandro spies him, he yells, “Don’t you start interfering!”  It’s getting out of hand, and we’re attracting the attention of other campers.  I turn to walk away, which winds him up more.  “Don’t you dare go off!” he shouts, “We’re about to leave.”  The whole performance is unusual, but he has spoken to me like this before, and when he does it, I feel like leaving him.  Flashes of the earthquake and the hospital remind me that he has a terrible temper which lies hidden under his usual reasonable self.  In the first instance, I was terrified of him, and my desperation to escape was more than hampered by a broken ankle with the attached foot being  buried in rubble (so I chose to play dead). In the second event, his helplessness made it really hard to be angry.  Here, the problem is there’s nowhere to run.  I can’t just escape into the Simpson Desert; no matter how much I’d like to.  He’s behaving like a real bully.  What on earth am I doing with a bully?

I lower my voice into a seething hiss.  “If you think I’m travelling anywhere with you while you’re in this mood, you’re wrong.”

“Oh, for God’s sake, Bridey.  Just get in the car.”  He’s about to come over and grab me, yelling out, “Josh!  You’d better be seated before I turn around.”  Is he going mad?  What’s Josh doing?  While I stand staring at him trying to think of what to do in this nightmare, my whole body freezes because, just to the right of his shoulder, one of our neighbours is heading our way.  A part of me wants to warn him, but I can’t speak.  Josh sees it too.  Oblivious to everything except his own fury, Sandro keeps coming.  Unsure where the true enemy lies, Josh glances from us to the stranger and back again.  Sandro raises an arm to grab for my wrist, and I suddenly can move again.  A single step backwards. Then, all three of us freeze.

“Alessandro!”  The voice is loud, harsh, determined and, frightening.  It has an instantaneous effect on Sandro.  He stands rigid, a dead tree in a paddock, while his face slowly drains of its polished wood colour becoming white before taking on a dark red flush.  “You treat your woman like this.  What man are you?  One who shames me?”  The speaker has arrived clapping one hand to Sandro’s shoulder so forcefully that he sags under its pressure, until a sudden wrench frees him to whip around and face the intruder.

“You!”  Sandro’s teeth are bared now.  “You!”  He’s struggling for breath.  “You leave your woman in a strange country; alone.  With a baby!”

The atmosphere is electric, Josh and I witnesses watching them stare at each other like two dogs. I’m sure they’re both growling.  Any moment they’ll be fighting.  Sandro raises his hand which still holds the bucket and shakes it at the intruder, silent and rigid with rage.  I’m scared he’ll throw it; the heavy metal bucket could hurt this man badly.

“Weeks in the desert,” the speaker hisses at him, “and you stay here another day to play.  What is this thing you do?”  Josh gazes at them intently.  “You come to visit your father, but have no courage for it, and you blame your woman.”

The bucket falls from his hand to the desert floor while Sandro drops his head.  His opponent suddenly turns towards me.  “I apologise for my son’s behaviours,” he says.  I can’t believe he just said that, and it was so sincere!  Although I’m glad about a few things here, I don’t really want him to be talking to me this way.  Suddenly, I’m on Sandro’s side, which is very annoying.  Of course I do nothing, so he continues to talk about stuff that shouldn’t be said.  “He has been too long without his father.  He does not know the way for treating beautiful woman.”  The grin is at the same time disarming and shocking.  What’s unfolding feels unsafe, and confusion keeps me mute, until he adds, “I beat him for you” at which point I spring back to life.

“No. No. No, don’t, please.  This is a very big day.”

“It is poor excuse.  His mother, she makes him spoilt and selfish.”  This is said with complete conviction.

“I’m right here!”  The surly voice only makes him sound silly.  “Come on!  Give it a go!” he says. His father steps towards him again but only takes the bucket.  “So, it was you?”

He holds it out towards Josh (like he’s some sort of servant) who comes to take it and stands with me while the other two continue staring at each other waiting for a move.

“Sandro.”  He glances towards my voice, then turns back, watchful.  “We’ve come a long way.  Surely you are not going to fight him.”  It has absolutely no effect.  His lean and handsome, now totally brown, proud body faces off with his father who looks startlingly similar.

The father shrugs, dropping his arms to his sides and, ignoring Sandro, walks over to me, smiling his award winning smile, so much like that of his son that it’s confusing whether to take an extreme dislike to him, or to give him a chance.  “I am Sohrab.  Pleased to know you, beautiful one.  You are Bridey?”  It feels disloyal smiling at him, but I can’t prevent my lips from doing it.  Although he’s older and quite weathered, he’s a charmer who was once very handsome.  He bows to me saying, “Please to come to my tent for meal.  It is noon.  You are hungry.”  Then, as if that’s settled, he turns towards Josh holding out his hand.  Josh looks quite short there, and a bit grotty in his torn off jeans which haven’t seen water for a very long time.  His light brown hair hangs in his face partially concealing the wary frown which has replaced his curiousity.

“I want to meet you, friend of my son.  Or are, maybe, brother?”  Josh shakes his hand darting a look at Sandro.

“No.  Just a friend.”

“Good.  Come now!”  And, he takes my hand through his bent arm leading the way to their campsite leaving Sandro with his mouth open.  Josh begins to follow, pausing briefly when the greying head in front of him tosses back to him, “You and me.  We speak of my daughter. Later.”  I glance back, confused, taking in Josh’s wary face.  Sandro has begun to trail along behind us.  He actually deserves to sweat it out.

The campsite is tidy.  A lanky, dark man sits on a once striped canvas stool before a fire, smoking.  Sohrab introduces us as friends of his son, but I don’t catch his name.  He comes slowly to his feet offering me the stool, and then gives me no option but to sit on it.  He takes a log of wood instead and sits casting me an all over checking out which I dislike intensely.  They push out an Esky for Josh and offer Sandro another log which he grudgingly takes, perching on the very edge.  He’s sullen, and at first refuses the food they offer until his father barks at him again about his manners.  It’s bread but more like Lebanese than our damper. Yoghurt, dips, and fruit remind me of the old couple in Frankston.  Once we’re all chewing, Sohrab begins again.  “It is good to cast eyes on you, my son.  You have taken the longest route, up the Oodnadatta Track.  But, you have crossed the thousand sand dunes and have made me proud.”  The eyes in question fix on Sandro until they catch a slight nod in return.  “Sulk is not best now.  You must behave with care for my friend.”

This is not the way to handle Sandro.  I want to tell him to be kind because Sandro is overwhelmed, but there’s no way this man is going to listen to what I think, even though he seems to be making lots of effort to be nice to me.  He could get nasty.  Josh hasn’t spoken a word.  We eat largely in silence.  Every now and then, I check Sandro’s face, and it is not the face of someone who’s found his dream. Even though I’m angry, I feel like crying for him.  When we met back in April in Melbourne, he’d been searching for his father as though his life depended on it.  The last time they’d spoken to each other was in his early twenties and Sohrab was in the Baxter Detention Centre.  That encounter hadn’t turned out the best either.  Seeing his father in that place had left a deep impression, and he’d gone away shattered.  Now, we have come all the way for this.

Suddenly Sandro speaks.  “How long have you been watching us?”

“We come to wait for you here, two days”

“How did you know?”

Sohrab casts a glance across at Josh, who squirms and stiffens on his log of wood.  “This Josh.  He has come to meet first.”  The boy appears to be waiting for some axe to fall, but Sandro and I are just confused.  “He has spoken of you to my friends.”  Josh looks across at Sandro who returns his gaze, puzzled.  An eerie silence lasts a couple of minutes while I’m struggling to wrap my head around how that might have happened.  Then, I remember Sohrab’s greeting of Josh and decide it can’t be all bad whatever has happened, but nothing prepares me, and most especially Sandro, for what comes next.  “Who is this man, Flagran, with crazy red hair?”  Then it clicks.  The two had disappeared during the days when tension around the campsite had risen to dangerous levels, and I can’t remember what they’d done.  Everything had been so bad for me that it’s all a blur.  He continues.  “Fortunate it is, the red hair man prevents this boy from taking your sister when she is only fourteen.”  His intense eyes lock on Sandro while his son struggles to take in the shock.  “Because, I would not wish to do harm to a friend of my son.”


The whisper brings Sandro’s eyes around to stare at Josh again, uncomprehending.  It’s a piece of steel he’s holding in his mouth when he says slowly pushing out the words, “The girl was my sister?”

“I didn’t know Sandro.  I swear.”  How could he have known?  No one knew.

But Sandro is facing his father and the steel sets his mouth hard.  “Molly?”

“Yes.” The deliberate tone leaves no room for discussion, but the next words cement the day.  “You have brother also.  Adam.”

“And, how old is he?”

“Adam, he is seventeen in three months.”

Disbelief.  Dismay.  Emotions flicker like a badly tuned TV screen across Sandro’s face while he struggles to process the words and turn them into meaning.  Then, without speaking, he stands with a jerk, turns and strides (almost a trot) away into the desert behind us.  He’s in shock! I vividly remember that feeling.  He doesn’t know what he’s doing.  I’m on my feet and have turned to run after him when Sohrab’s ringing voice brings me to an abrupt halt.  “Sit!  This is not for you.”  Torn, I pause thinking someone’s got to go get him, but the voice is strong and  commanding, and I don’t know how to respond to this total stranger who’s  messing up everything.

Josh is also caught.  Sohrab catches his attention before he can make any decisions.  “My daughter, she is beautiful?”  Josh nods without thinking it through, but I’m unsure whether committing himself like that is safe.  “Now, she dreams of you.  This is bad.”  He is making some attempt to hide the light which this information produces in his face, again wary and watchful, (a familiar stance for Josh) when Sohrab leaps and springs at him before he sees it coming.  The boy ducks the blow to his ear falling back onto the sand, and Sohrab stands over him, glaring down.  “We must go now to my house.  I will send you to the house of my friend.”  The friend in question flashes a menacing grin at Josh.  Where on earth is Sandro?  This is not happening.  Surely, he has not disappeared into the desert leaving us with this!

Drawing on all my courage, I leap to my feet and stand between them forcing Sohrab, the gentleman, to take a couple of steps back, “If Josh can’t come with us, we won’t be going to your house.  He is in our care.”

To my complete surprise, Sohrab smiles slightly.  “So.  My son’s woman is in charge now?”  This doesn’t seem to be a bad thing.  “It is fortunate.  Alessandro, he sulks while you do his work.”

“Go on, bag him behind his back!  You tell him he has a whole nother family.  What did you expect him to do?  Say ‘oh how nice’?”  We all stare at Josh who is glaring, daring him to continue.  “He’s come all this way after his accident.  Couldn’t even walk much.  To find you.  And now you treat him like shit.”  I want to tell him to shut up now.  He’s said enough.  Sohrab ponders the words while his friend offers to deal with Josh, and I glare him down.  When Sandro comes back, I’m going to kill him for this.  Leaving us to deal with these horrible, dangerous men.  He stands thinking for a while, and we wait.  I’m holding my breath, I realize, and have to shake myself to start up again.

“What accident?”  He stares at me and glares across at Josh. “Tell me.  My son has accident?”

“He was hit by a car.  Nearly died.”

“So.  Then he comes to see his father.”

“No!”  This man is a complete package.  “We were coming all the time.  Then he had his accident.”  Mad as I am with Sandro, I’m wondering why it’s his fault.  Sohrab was in Melbourne for goodness sake.  “Why didn’t you go to see him?  You were living there.”  He’s as bossy as his son.

We’re not going anywhere with you. Maybe not even when Sandro comes back.  We all stand around angry.  Then he says, “I go to find my son.”

“Good idea!” says Josh.  I wish you would shut up.  Why can’t you see the danger?

But Sohrab, calm and pleasant as a lowering indigo cloud, responds.  “You, I will deal with later.” The belligerence on Josh’s face moves him not one jot, instead he gives his friend a slight shrug and bows to me, “Thank you for company.  I apologise for my rudeness, and for that of my son.  I will bring him back to you soon.”




The Source


Sandro was powering, directionless, across the vast, trackless Simpson Desert without a hat or water, in a sleeveless dark singlet which quickly became drenched in sweat.  He had been lost in mindless fury for over half an hour, brain locked out in the intensity of his turmoil, before I stopped him.  Shaking his beautiful head in confusion, until droplets of moisture sprayed out around him, it took some moments before he could ascertain why he had halted; and indeed what he was doing in the middle of nowhere.  When he became aware of my presence, an unmistakable shock of sweetness and clarity, he swore at me.  “You knew.  You knew all along.  How could you make me wait all these years, and search and search for him, when you knew?”

“Shall we sit for a while, Sandro? You will think more clearly if you rest now.”

“Think about what?  I don’t want to settle with it.  I want to kill someone.”

Interested, I asked him, “Me, perhaps?”

“Of course not.”

“Well, I only ask because that’s who usually cops the blame for these tragedies.”  I was hoping to make him smile, but it had been a faint hope.

“Look.  This isn’t funny.  It’s not a joke.”

“I’m not making fun of you, Sandro.  It has been a painful shock.”

“Why didn’t you warn me?  Why didn’t anyone tell me?  Did the Caretakers know?”

“No.”  I waited while he slowly gathered himself, and then I asked him to shift his focus.  “You have left two people in your charge in the middle of the desert with strange men who have uncertain tempers.  One is Josh, whom your father has already lifted his fist to, and the other, the supposed love of your life, whom you attempted to attack yourself this morning because you were afraid.”


“Fortunately, they are able to handle themselves quite well.  There is much to be done here, my dear.  You must get back to your father who is on his way to find you now.  He will bring you many challenges.  He has suffered heavily over the years since you lived with him.  Listen to his story.  Help him with his current dilemmas, and you will learn much.”

Although he couldn’t visualize what happened, I took his hand to pull him to his feet, drawing him close and kissing him as his father should have greeted him this morning.  He was filled with hope and courage and remembered much that was good in his life.  “You are well loved, my dear.  Check your temper, and think before you attack this man.  Guard Josh for me.  His life has been much harder than yours, and yet he has defended you since you left the camp.”

Tears sprang into his eyes as he whispered, “I’m sorry, Love.”

“You are forgiven.  Go now, and keep talking with me.”  Then I disappeared, and his misery returned like the backwash of a blocked drain in a flood.

The day was calm and still, the antithesis of family matters left unresolved for decades.  His footsteps were clear and easy to follow, especially for these two whose knowledge of desert was well developed.  A further twenty minutes went by until they met, each observing the other’s progress for ten, until they stood only metres apart.  Sandro’s eyes filled with tears again, and he pushed the back of his hand across them to clear his vision, ashamed of his weakness in front of the father who watched and judged.

“You cry because you don’t want your brother?”

A flash of anger was quickly suppressed as Sandro saw how it must look.  “I have missed you all of my life.  And now, you know nothing about me.”  The tears flowed freely, and he ignored them.

“Why come?”  Sohrab said, completely overlooking the offering.

“Why have you come?”

“To find my son.”

Sandro took a step forward saying, “Let’s start this again.”  Drawing in a deep breath to calm himself, he said, “My behaviour this morning was atrocious.  You were right.  I was afraid.  But, to know you have another family feels unbearable.”

“You are not pleased?  You don’t want a brother and a sister who are beautiful?”

“Aaahhhh!”  His impatience wasn’t helpful, but it was costing him plenty to hold back the frustration.  His eyes closed for a minute, and when they opened, he said, “Come and greet me like a father!”

“You come!  Greet me as a son.  With respect.  Not one ashamed of his father.”

Sandro stared into the hard face before him, thinking, waiting, wondering what would help.  Suddenly something else inside overtook the doubts, erasing them, leaving room only for the flood of emotion he had been fighting for over a decade.

“Forgive me, Baba.”  Words he had repeated endlessly with no-one to hear them.  “I was too young and stupid.”  His face crumpled into his hands, and he bent forward sobbing uncontrollably while Sohrab watched and waited.  Still.  Silent.  Sandro lifted his face, tears streaking through the desert dirt mixing with snot from his nose and running uncontrolled over his lips and down the front of his dirty singlet.  “It was too hard to see you like that.”  The man he faced gave no sign he had heard the words.  “I am so sorry,” he pleaded.  “I have regretted walking out for all of this time…and maybe for the rest of my life.  I have searched for you everywhere… trying to make it up to you, but you wouldn’t let me find you.  Would you?”  Gazing out over the sand hills, the image of his father in Baxter Detention Centre haunting him, he waited.  The father stood staring away from the son, also thinking of the humiliation of that day ten years ago.  Then, abruptly, he dropped his hand onto the shoulder in front of him.  “We have much to speak to each other, my first son.  My lovely one.”

At these words Sandro’s legs buckled, but he grabbed the arm with his hand and clung to it.  Sohrab, struggling with hurt which could not be expressed beginning the year Sandro had been taken from him, the year he had said goodbye to Gabriella, goodbye to them both and to his own happiness, let go of the shoulder and shaking off the locked hand moved in closer kissing his son’s forehead. Then he straightened abruptly.  “Must return, Alessandro.  My friend will be like guard dog.  Not good for your family.”

“Fuck!  I’d forgotten again.”  He winced as his father’s three fingers made abrupt contact with the back of his skull.  He groaned with half a laugh.  “It’s many years since anyone’s done that to me.”

Sohrab dismissed this.  “Who is this new father of yours who does not know how to make my son polite?”

“Violence is not his way,” Sandro grimaced, remembering, “but, Baba he did try.”