My father loved to hunt Australia’s feral animals. I grew up understanding this, and watching my poor mother and grandmother dealing with the results of his thrice-yearly forays into the Australian bush.
These hunting trips usually lasted a week, and dad would return with brown hessian sacks full of ducks which needed plucking, rabbits that needed refrigerating, large and expertly-butchered sections of wild pigs, much smaller and ready-for-the-oven piglets, and various parts of kangaroo which confused my mother and grandmother no end. There was no such animal where they’d come from – Serbia and Russia respectively – and its preparation and rendering into something edible was a mystery to them. But, Slavic women can cook at levels that defy belief – and if in doubt about a certain type of meat, the default position was always to make it into soup. Whatever it was, it could always be made into soup. The Second World War was a harsh but effective teacher in that regard.
My father was a stern and forbidding man, shaped not unlike a fridge. He had been an officer in his king’s army in Serbia, been wounded and captured by the Germans, spent several years in the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp, and had made his way to Australia in the first wave of European post-war immigrants.
My relationship with him was fractious and strained. Once he had worked out his tubby, short-sighted son was unlikely to ever play soccer at the elite level he’d hoped for, our relationship became somewhat distant. Sure, once a year, we’d do the father-son thing on cracker night, but by and large, he left me to be raised by my mother, aunt, and grandmother.
But three of four times a year, I would watch with ever-growing interest as my father prepared to go hunting with his friends – most of whom were also WWII veterans from his homeland – then load himself and his many rifles into one of two or three cars, and disappear for a week, only to return with the aforementioned hessian sacks full of dead animals.
But he not only brought home meat. He brought home pelts – kangaroo, rabbit, fox, and trophy tusks from wild boars which were truly terrifying to behold. I was captivated. What awesome monsters did my mighty father slay out in the Australian wilds?
Each year, pretty much from the age of five, I would ask if I could go with him. Each year he would tell me when I was older, I could come. I would then ask what age that might be.
“We’ll see,” he’d say with a small smile.
Of course, this was not the point at which I’d launch into a tantrum and demand answers, or pester him to provide them. And there was no thought about going to mum and seeing if she could persuade him.
When my father indicated the conversation was over, the conversation was indeed over. My feelings, opinions, counter-arguments, or demands for an explanation, were not relevant, and would certainly not be countenanced or addressed. Children of the Sixties were never indulged in that way. We were told, not asked. And we complied. There were consequences for not complying, and we learned what those consequences swiftly and early in our lives.
Did that stop me asking every year if I could go? No. I would ask, and he would always say the same thing: “When you’re older.” When I asked when that might be, I was always told: “We’ll see.”
And that was that.
Until the year I turned eleven. I was about to start high school, and was feeling very grown up. I felt grown up enough to maybe push the old man a little this year. Maybe see if I could nail him down to an actual age when I could join him and his buddies, and their older sons, on one of these awesome hunting trips. I’d had an air rifle for a while, so I knew how to shoot, and I had been given a stern lecture about gun safety, and I felt I was totally across that.
My confidence was high as I approached my father, who invariably prepared for these trips at the kitchen table. The kitchen and its table were his office, his place of relaxation, and obviously where he ate his food. He almost never sat on the lounge. He did not watch any television as far as I knew, but would now and again pause in his movement about the house to stare at the six-o’clock news for a few minutes, then move wordlessly on.
I used to think this was because he mainly worked night-shift. He’d start at 10pm and come home around eight in the morning, do some stuff, then go to bed. And he certainly had no time for morning or daytime TV. But many years later, when I asked my mother about him, she told me he was just not interested in television at all. He didn’t watch films, he never went to a movie, and apart from staring at the news for a minute or two, never bothered with the television at all.
But he loved listening to music. And the advent of cassettes was one of the greatest things that had ever happened to him. Not only was he able to get Serbian cassettes from his mates, but when radio 2EA started broadcasting in the Seventies, he was able to record the Serbian music it would play once a week. And then we, as a family, could all listen to it each and every time he was in the kitchen. Which was almost all the time, if he wasn’t in his garage doing things.
The sound quality was awful, but it didn’t matter. It was the only game in town, and my father loved to hear the music of his people. Often, it brought tears to his eyes. I was at a loss to understand the powerful emotions this music would evoke in him until I was much, much older. I was a mere child, and I had acquired a transistor radio, and I was very much enthralled by the 2SM playlist. The alien caterwauling, wailing, and droning my old man would weep over at the kitchen table was not for me at all. That many of these songs were ancient lamentations of a war-like people was entirely lost on me. I understood the words, but their meaning was unknowable to me. But not to my father. They were his songs. They spoke to him.
Anyway, the day I went to ask him if I could go hunting with him, he had his little cassette player on, volume up, and the song was making him pause now and again in the cleaning process of one of his rifles, close his eyes, and shake his head slowly. It was like he was absorbing the music.
“Dad, can I go hunting with you this time?” I asked when the song was finished. I knew better than to ask questions mid-song. He looked at me intently, then nodded, and said: “Yes, I think you should. It’s time.”
I did not expect that, but a second later I was hugging him in gratitude, and knocking all his rifle-cleaning shit onto the floor.
“Go pack,” he said. “We leave at dawn.”
I ran immediately to my room and stood there like an idiot. Pack what? It’s not like I had any idea what to pack, or even possessed anything that might suit a hunting trip. I had never been on one. And also, I had nothing to pack anything into. No backpack, no duffel bag, no sports-bag, no suitcase, nothing.
I tried to think what the old man wore when he went hunting, and realised he pretty much wore what he wore at home – slacks, a singlet, a shirt, a cardigan, and Hush Puppy loafers. My father had never even put on a pair of jeans or a T-shirt.
My mum came into my room. She looked a little upset.
“Your father said you were going hunting with him,” she said.
“I know!” I squealed. “I have to pack.”
“I will pack for you,” mum said, and in less than five minutes had put pretty much all the clothes I owned on the bed, and refolded them. We were not a wealthy family, so I was not a child who had a lot of clothes, as you may understand. Everything I owned could pretty much fit into two drawers, or, if you squashed it up, you could wedge it into a schoolbag. So I did that, thus becoming the first child in history to go hunting with his brand-new Sydney Boys High School schoolbag, purchased at great expense not a week ago.
The next morning, my mother shook me awake an hour before dawn. As I blinked myself awake, I realised she was muttering prayers and repeatedly making the sign of the cross over me, imploring God to keep me safe.
This had been happening my whole life, so it was nothing weird, and had thus far only failed once when I fell over running down a hill in the nearby park and broke my arm. On that occasion, mum gave profuse thanks to God that it was not my neck, so they remained on good terms.
Dad was already up, and was busily stacking his twelve rifles, ammo, empty hessian sacks, water bottles, and his own bag of clothes near the front door. I remember his bag of clothes being smaller than mine.
I got dressed, washed my face, and sat down to breakfast with my father. Mum had made an omelette, and she busied herself with toast while dad and I ate our way through a half-dozen eggs. A horn sounded from the street in front of our house, and I ran to the door. I’d been pretty much running everywhere since dad had told me we were going hunting. My excitement simply allowed for no other motion.
The car outside was Voya’s brown Ford station wagon. Voya was my father’s army buddy and they had hunted together for years. I knew Voya’s son, Dragan, would be in the car. He was eighteen and had been going with the men for years. And there was another bloke in the car, who was just then getting out of the front passenger seat so that my father could sit there. This was Pane. He was in his thirties, a recent immigrant from the then-Yugoslavia. He had been a soldier as well, but had not been in a war because the had not been one to be in.
There were two other cars behind Voya’s Ford, one of which was towing a trailer, and each of them was full of heavily-armed Serbs. A few of them got out, laughing and smoking, and I could hear three different types of Serbian music playing on each of the car’s stereos.
“Carry the stuff out to the car,” my father intoned behind me.
I immediately began lugging out his rifles, then the ammo, then his personal bag of whatever it was he was taking, then three orange crates full of food mum had made, the hessian sacks, and finally my own gear, such as it was.
“Congratulations,” Pane said, slapping me brutally on the back. “Your first hunting trip. Don’t do any stupid shit.”
I got in the back seat between Pane and Dragan as my father and Voya somehow squeezed all the stuff I’d brought out into the back of the already packed car, and I ended up with an orange crate full of salami, onions, ajvar (a homemade eggplant-onion-garlic-and-capiscum relish no Serb would dream of eating meat without piling it on top, and several loaves of bread, on my lap.
And off we went.
We were barely out of the street before I began to wonder what happened to my father and who the fuck was this bloke sitting in the front seat, using words and phrases I had never heard, which when I repeated them back to my mother a week later caused her to fall to her knees and beg Christ Jesus for salvation.
As we made our way out of Sydney, Pane had peeled an onion, sliced off some bacon fat he’d produced from a bag at his feet, opened a jar of chillies, and was busily taking bites of each. He offered them around, but there were no takers, and he was told “Ma idi u pichku materinu, ti it tovoje ljute paprike!” (Get into your mother’s cunt, you and your hot chillies!) by my father.
“Want some?” he said, holding out the onion, the opened jar of small chillies, and a thick slice of salted bacon fat – the Serbs call this “slanina”, and it’s cured pork back-fat; like speck, but saltier and fattier.
I did not want any. I was eleven. But I did not want anyone to think I wasn’t a worthy member of this august hunting party. So I took a bite of the onion, placed the slice of slanina in my mouth, and added two chillies. And chewed. Then my head exploded…
PART TWO WILL APPEAR SOON…
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