“Hayley, boom! Whaddup dog?” called out Caleb as I climbed onto the school bus. I smiled indulgently and took my usual seat near the front. Caleb was probably my best friend. He had spent a week in Perth with his cousin over the Christmas holidays and had come back all gangster. Maybe it was because we were country kids and nothing very exciting happened in our small community, but every time Caleb spent time with his cousin he tried on a different personality, hoping to find one that fitted; one that was different from farm kid.
At fifteen, Caleb and I were the oldest kids who caught the district east bus to school; next year we would both be going off to board in the city. I was the last stop before we got to school. I settled down with my book for the thirty minute drive into town, blocking out the excited back to school chatter. I was re-reading The Hunger Games for the third time. Katniss Everdeen had all of the qualities I wanted; she was honest, bold, and brave.
Glancing up from my novel, I noticed a red pram by the side of the road. It stood out starkly against the dry brown countryside. It was wedged against a tree and looked brand new, the metal was still shiny, the cloth unstained. The bright red of the pram against the faded summer foliage reminded me of a scene from a movie Caleb and I had to watch in English with a little girl in a red coat.
We were in the middle of nowhere. There were no farms around here, and my farm was the last farm before we got to town. Between here and the town was just uncleared bushland. How did the pram get here? I wondered where the mother and baby were now.
I thought about the pram during school that day and wondered about its owner, the baby it was bought for. The community we lived in was sprawling, but we all knew each other’s business. There had been no births recently. Why was a brand new pram left on the side of the road in the middle of nowhere? Had something terrible happened to the baby and the new pram been banished from sight, an unwelcome reminder?
On the way home from school I looked out for the pram. It was still there, still in the same position as it was the next day and the next. Looking out for the pram became a ritual. I longed to see it gone one day, to see it united with its owner, a bobble-topped baby peaked out from under its awning.
I started to read articles in the newspapers about babies to see if I could find the pram’s owner. I read the most abhorrent things. Mothers mad with post-natal depression: drowning or smothering their babies, wracked with guilt and sadness, slipping through the system that is set up to protect them. I learned the word infanticide. I read of babysitters shaking babies, physical abuse, neglect. I learned that even doctors, whom mothers trusted the most, sometimes sent babies home to die. I was surprised there weren’t more empty prams.
While waiting for the bus one afternoon, I spoke to Caleb about the pram. I asked him where he thought it came from; he asked me what I was talking about. He had not noticed it. I told him what I had learned, felt the tears well up as I did. Caleb pulled me close and hugged me tightly saying nothing. We sat together on the way home that afternoon, not talking, just looking out of the window together. Just before my stop, Caleb told me to stop worrying, to stop learning these new words. He said it looked like the pram had probably just fallen off the back of someone’s trailer on their way home from a holiday.
I resolved to look at the pram less, to pull myself out of the melancholy funk I had found myself in thinking about the pram. I was in my last year in at my district school; my life was never going to be like this again, next year everything would change.
The next day on the bus I did not look at the pram or the day after that. I no longer worried over news stories recounting abominable acts. I was fifteen; I had a life ahead of me for that.
Times that I happened to glance up and chance to see the pram I was surprised to see it still there. This was the type of thing that the local boys would usually have collected. I remember when Caleb’s little sister had grown out of her fold-up stroller, we had spent an afternoon careening down the mud in it and into the dam until eventually it collapsed and sunk to the bottom.
By the end of summer, the red cloth had faded to a dull pink, one of its wheels had deflated, but the pram had not budged.
Winter was a good one for us farming families with lots of rain, and the dams were full. The pram fabric was disintegrating, the pink fading further.
Caleb and I both had to go to Perth for interviews at our respective boarding schools in the October holidays; we were nervous and apprehensive. Our mums took us down, and we stayed in the same hotel and made a holiday out of it. Caleb didn’t talk like Snoop Dogg anymore, and for the first time, I understood how easy life would be if we could simply wear the persona of another.
When we got home, we had six weeks of Year 10 left and then our days at our little district school would be over. No more school bus, no more familiar faces. I wanted to press pause and hold on to time. I think Caleb did too although he would never say this. We were both quieter around each other, more reflective.
On the last day of school, there was a graduation ceremony held for us. This was the tradition for all Year 10s regardless of how many students the school had graduating. Caleb and I didn’t have to wear our school uniform that day. Mum had bought me a new dress when we were in Perth, Caleb also had new clothes. We would catch the bus for the last time that morning. Our parents would be coming to the graduation and we would drive home with them.
Caleb and I sat together on the bus. We would never be this close again. Neither of us said very much, both caught up in our thoughts: excitement, apprehension, fear. I was happy that Caleb had been with me for this chapter of my life. I would miss him, I think he felt the same about me.
On the way home from school in the back of the car, I glanced out of the window. I saw the frame of the pram as it lay rusty in the dry scrub, its shape and form no longer recognisable. As we drove away, the last slither of pale pink fabric was picked up by the wind and danced across the windscreen before being carried away by the breeze.