Tim Winton is Australia’s most decorated and beloved novelist. Short-listed twice for the Booker Prize and the winner of a record four Miles Franklin Literary Awards for Best Australian Novel, he has a gift for language virtually unrivaled among writers in English. His work is both tough and tender, primordial and new—always revealing the raw, instinctual drives that lure us together and rend us apart. With his newest novel, The Shepherd’s Hut, he tells the story of Jaxie Clackton, a brutalized rural youth who flees from the scene of his father’s violent death and strikes out for the vast wilds of Western Australia. All he carries with him is a rifle and a water jug. All he wants is peace and freedom. But when Jaxie discovers he’s not alone in the harsh saltlands, all his plans go awry. The Shepherd’s Hut is a thrilling story of self-discovery and of an unlikely friendship in one of the harshest, most uninhabitable climates on Earth.
The day the old life ended I sat up under the grandstand nursing me bung eye and hating on old Wankbag till the sun went down. Mum always went crook when I called him that behind his back. Captain Wankbag. The Captain. Or just Cap for short. Said that was no way to talk about your father, but it was no odds to me. That bucket of dog sick was a bastard to both of us, I wished he was dead. And right then I was praying for it.
Me hands stunk of meat. I made fists of them, hard and flat as sawed beef shanks. I stared at them till there wasn’t any light left to see them by but it didn’t matter because in me throbbing head I could see a cleaver in one and a boner in the other, feel them there real as money. Sat gripping them imaginary things so long me arms cramped up and I had to come out in the night air before I keeled over again.
It was cooler in the open. Couldn’t see nothing but the lights of town. Some blokes kicked a ball way down the other end in the dark, just voices and hard thumps that gimme the yips. I didn’t know what to do, where to go. Had no money. Some ice would of been good. Like frozen water ice, I mean. For the eye that was half closed over. Fucking hell, it was like something growing out the side of me head.
The sky was blank, I seen more stars when he clocked me, and I started trying to figure the time.
Before this, back in the shop, I come to in the bone crate. Woke up arse over and half stupid in that slimy pile of shins and knuckles and chook frames, and for a sec I didn’t know where I was or how I got there. But I copped on soon enough. Where was I? Work of course. And how did I end up poleaxed in a bin? The usual way, that’s how. He wouldn’t give you the sweat off his balls, the old Captain, but when it come to dishing out a bit of biff when you weren’t looking, well, then he was like fucking Santa.
I heard the radio going out front. And that lemony detergent stink was in the air. So it had to be after close-up. And now he’s having to wipe out the trays and slush the floor on his own, the dense prick. Bitches all afternoon about what a lazy bludger I am and then makes sure he can’t get any work out of me when there’s most to be doing. No wonder he’s such a big success in business.
I looked out through me knees and tried to get to me feet, but Christ, that took some doing. Would of made a nice old picture, that. Jaxie Clackton, hardarse the kids run clear of all over the shire. Trying to spaz up out of that greasy nest of bones like a poisoned fly. Talk about laugh. But I done it in the end. Grabbed onto the bench. Pushed off the muck-specky wall. And stood there a mo with me head spinning. Probably gobbing and gawping like a goldfish. And all the time, just the other side of the partition, through the door and the skanky flystrips, the mop’s slopping and the bucket’s getting kicked across the floor, and he’s wheezing and snorting and going on some mumblefuck about how bloody useless I am and how he’s gunna flog some morals into me. And in me mind right then I was already gone. Up the street and shot through clean. But it’s like I was doing everything half speed, pissing off in slow motion. And any second he’s gunna come through the door and get me by the ear and give me a couple more to be going on with. So I told meself to harden up and get a wriggle on, to get me apron undone and kick off them stupid butcher boots. Not real easy, any of that, not with a woozy head and sausage fingers. But I got them off and grabbed me Vans and the skateboard by the back door and sleazed away quiet.
Outside the air was warm and the day nearly done. I peered up the street through the shadows and just to squint that tiniest bit hurt to the living fuck. When I touched me face it felt like a punkin full of razor blades. And I shoulda been relieved I was out and away but I had nowhere to go. All I wanted was a bag of peas on me face and a bed to lay on. But it wouldn’t be safe to go home till Wankbag was fully rummed up. Which took some doing. He was pissed all day at work, that was just him regular. Getting himself totally off his tits, that was a few hours’ hard relaxing. After a shit and maybe a shower. Rip his eye patch off and just sit there in his jocks. His empty socket sucked into a cat’s-arse squint. Grab a two-litre bottle of Coke from the fridge, tip half down the sink and fill it back up with Bundaberg rum.
And I shoulda been relieved I was out and away but I had nowhere to go.
No point me going home till he got his medicine down. He’d stagger round a bit. Park himself here and there. In the shed. Or out the patio looking at the paddocks and the train tracks. Mostly he ended up in that big rocking TV chair passed out blind, lights on, curtains open. Snoring hard enough to rattle the glass. Made it simple to figure when to make your move. Pull up outside in the dark street. Suss him through the window. Watch to see he’s out properly. Then go in the back way. Take your chance in the kitchen. And get to your bedroom fast. Lock the door. Shove the desk in front. And let him sleep it off. Tomorrow’ll be a new day. Which is really the same miserable fucking day all over again. Till then there’s nowhere to go but the footy oval. That’s why I was up there, hiding like a girl. The roadhouse was iffy and the pub was plain trouble so I had to hole up under the grandstand. That was it. And that’s what I done. I took a breath of air and snuck back up under the joists where it was all chip boxes and old frangers and Beam cans.
I waited past dark and then a few hours more. I didn’t dare look at me phone to check the time or see if there was messages, the light’s a dead giveaway, you don’t make that mistake twice. So there was nothing else to do but hang on and guts it out.
In me mind I saw him going drink for drink with himself, like he was in some kind of dipshit competition to get written off faster than anyone else in town. Sid Clackton, Bundy rum champion of the world. Captain Wankbag, master butcher, roadkill specialist, drunker than any man alive. Monkton’s finest, what a mighty hero! I imagined the slobby prick frying himself a pan of bangers and yelling at the telly. Look at this fuckwit, shut your mouth, who’s this ugly moll, this is bullshit. On and on. You didn’t even have to be there to hear it. And I thought if only it could all be poison. The rum, the beer, the meat, the bloody air he snorted. If only he could fucking die and leave me be. If there’s a God out there why can’t he do the righty for a change and kill this cunt off once and for all. Because all a person wants is feeling safe. Peace, that’s all I’m after.
Well that’s what I told meself. But that idea got old. Pretty soon what I really wanted was a few bangers of me own. Fucking peace could wait. I was hungry as a shark. And now I thought about it I didn’t want to still be out there at closing time when half the front bar spilled into the park for more. I sure as hell didn’t want to get into it with any goon-drinking darkies or the apprentices from the John Deere. I had no fight left in me, so I figured enough was enough.
I come out from under the old wood grandstand and listened for anyone out there on the oval. But it was quiet. So I stuck the skateboard under me arm and snuck across to the trees round the boundary and stayed under them till there was a streetlight and some bitumen. Then I rolled home the back way.
• • •
It was all pretty chill up our street. A couple of windows with tellies flashing in them but nobody outside that I could see, no porch-smoking Paxtons, no Mrs Mahood standing there with the hose the way she does all day.
Our place was dark mostly but I could see light spilling out from the open doors of the shed and I heard the radio going. And I stood there a sec on the drive where the light didn’t reach and tried to steel up for it, figuring better to go in now than have him come and find me standing in front of the fridge. It’s always best to be ready.
I headed for the shed and then I stopped. And I dunno why really. Just peered inside. All I saw was his ute. That shelf against the back wall piled with camping gear. The big globe hanging off the truss with a few moths clattering about it. I thought maybe he was in there tapping a drum of homebrew. But it was a weeknight. And whenever he pulled the pin on a batch the whole street give off the sour reek of beer and he got suddenly popular. It sure as hell wouldn’t be this quiet. Even if it was only him and the copper drinking it, they’d fill the place with all their bloke noise, ya-ya-ya, mate, yeah fark orf, and there wouldn’t be that meaty smell I was whiffing right now. I knew he still took sly beef from blokes passing through and he had a chiller room off the side to keep it all clear of the shop, but the doors were wide open and he wasn’t so thick he’d leave it like this, not even if he was expecting someone. And there was something funny about his ute parked in the shed. From out on the drive I could see the Hilux was way too high in the arse, like the tray was all angled up.
I flipped the board a couple of times and let it fall to the cement to show him I was there. I guess I could of called out something or coughed the way people do but he’d of heard me already. For sure. If he was in there, that is. Odds were he was waiting, foxing, messing with me. Like it’s his fucking hobby, giving a dude a nervous breakdown.
So I went in careful, with the deck of the board like a shield in front.
And I thought, I’m not seeing right. Because of the swollen eye.
Maybe that’s why I didn’t cop on straight away. Because the front wheels of the Hilux were fully off. Both of them was laying flat on the floor, one against the other. The nuts in a pile next to the wheelbrace.
And the hubs. Fuck me, the bare hubs were down hard on the concrete. And the ute was casting a shadow that no light was ever gunna make. A shadow doesn’t search for a drain like that. Shadows don’t have blowflies drowning in them. But I spose for two seconds I let meself think it was just oil. Like he’d dropped the bung out of the sump, too pissed to remember to slide a drain pan under it. From the corner of me good eye I could see the half-empty bottle on the bench. No bubbles left in the Coke. Something sucking at the open neck, a wasp maybe.
But I still didn’t really know what I was looking at. Until I crept up past the driver’s-side door and peeped over the bonnet and saw his hairy legs and his bare feet stuck out from under the roo bar.
I dropped the skateboard and it scooted away and hit something with a clang and then I saw the high-lift slumped away from the vehicle. It was laying across rags and a tarry puddle on the cement. I saw tracks where some lizard run through the mess on his way out the door. And then it was plain as dog’s balls. I didn’t even get down on me knees and check. Maybe I should of to make sure and take some satisfaction from it, but I already knew the old turd was cactus. And it’s not as if I was crying any tears but it knocked me. I had to lean against the Hilux to keep meself up.
Me head was everywhere and nowhere.
Me head was everywhere and nowhere. I mean, Jesus. But after a bit I started having proper thoughts. Like, the doors are wide open. And by eight in the morning the Cap won’t be at the shop and by nine someone’s gunna want to know why they can’t get a porterhouse and the bag of snags they ordered. I sure as hell wasn’t stopping round to have half the town point the finger at me, saying I come in and caught him when I finally had the jump on him. People knew I had good reason, it was no secret in Monkton how he was and what he done to us. They’ll say I kicked the jack out from under the roo bar and crushed his head like a pig melon. It all points to me.
So I turned round and walked out real careful not to step in anything. Left everything like it was. The radio going with some angry old prick barking stuff meant nothing to me. The lights blazing away.
I went straight for the house up the side path. But I had to stop for a sec. Near the gas bottles. Yacked all over me Vans. Puke the colour of mustard it was. I just kicked them shoes off and kept going.
Dark in the house. I found the switch in the kitchen and when the fridge kicked in I jumped. Christ, the state I was in.
Went into me room, took down me pack from the wardrobe. Looked at the swag but knew it was too big to carry. Pulled hunting clobber from the wardrobe, the camo pants and jacket. Nearly tripped and fell getting the dacks on, I was in such a hurry. Took the pack to the kitchen and filled it with tins and packets and stuff from the fridge. Took the stove lighter. Three boxes of matches. Wrapped it all in tea towels to keep it from clanking.
The big bedroom stunk of him but it still hadn’t quite give up the smell of Mum. Stood in there a mo just looking. Then I got the key that was hid up behind the doorframe. Unlocked the gun safe with it, took out the .243 and two boxes of shells, Winchester 80 grain soft points. Took the binocs as well.
Halfway down the hall I turned round and went in the bathroom. Snatched a bog roll and forgot the toothbrush.
Out in the laundry I found me steelcap boots and yanked them on. Hanging off the trough was his blue singlet, Y-fronts, a striped apron stiff with fat and blood. Just stared at them while I laced me feet in. Like those stinking rags might leap at me on their own, even now.
Then on the washing machine I saw the water bottle he took to work every day. A five-litre Igloo. Figured I’d be needing it. Filled it from the tank outside and tried not to think of his filthy mouth on the spout. I knew there was a coupla camelpacks out in the shed. One of them’d be ten times better than lugging a jug, but I wasn’t going back in there for love or money. Which was a big fucking mistake, I’ll give you the tip, bigger than the toothbrush and it cost me hard the next few weeks. But I topped the Igloo up and the brass tap give a yelp when I shut it off and when I was done I walked round the side of the house, stood under the big old flame tree a minute, getting me breath and me wits, and a roadtrain come by, taking the back way to the servo, hissing and jerking to keep his speed down, all lit up like a ship and reeking of wool on the hoof, and once he was gone I took a good look round, stepped out into the empty street and walked fast as I could.
There was no one at the oval still. Nobody that I could see, anyhow. I cut by the changing sheds and was out into mulga inside two minutes. Just a bit of moon now. Enough to see the shadows of trees and tell what was clear dirt and what was bush.
I reckon it was half an hour before I lost the lights of town. I thought that might be a good feeling but it was lonely. I coulda cried. I mean I was happy, wasn’t I? It was just sudden.
I told meself this was the best day of me life. Figured by morning I’d fucking believe it.
The preeminent Australian novelist of his generation, Tim Winton is the author of the bestselling novels Cloudstreet, The Riders, and Dirt Music, among many other books. He has won the Miles Franklin Literary Award four times (for Shallows, Cloudstreet, Dirt Music, and Breath) and has twice been short-listed for the Booker Prize (for The Riders and Dirt Music). He lives in Western Australia.