Short Stories

Big R

The unlikely companionship between a pale faced city boy and a sunburned, bearded bush man.

“Life is like riding a bicycle. To keep your balance, you must keep moving.” 

“Cool, it sounds so philosophical.”

“I borrowed it from the German-born theoretical physicist Albert Einstein.” 

“Do you ride a bicycle?”

“I used to; now I walk everywhere.”

It was so obvious, Big R living in a little cabin amongst the bushland filled with gum trees, near Barkers Creek, about 3 kilometres from Castlemaine. 

From the edge of the town to his simple cabin was an unsealed dirt road. The narrow path only carried his footsteps, occasionally added were mine. At the time I was in my teens, a curious skinny boy who really looked up to the muscular Big R.

We were unlikely companions, he had a bushy beard covering half his sunburned face; I was a pale faced city boy. He knew the land where he lived like the back of his hand; I was a visitor only appearing during the school term breaks. His body towering over mine, I felt small standing next to him.

We met up in Victory Park if he wanted to spend some time in the town centre, which was not that often. 

“Victory Park has been a popular meeting place and political campaign meeting place since the early 20th century; stock auctions were also held here. The market building next to the park is a historic site, preserved by the National Trust, now contributing to the culture and tourism.”

I loved to walk along the streets with him. The symmetrically planned streets were always clean and tidy, people were friendly and relaxed. He seemed to know everyone in town, he said hello to them, had a few chitchats, then moved on; never staying for a long talk, not in front of me anyway. 

“At Specimen Gully, a hut-keeper and shepherd discovered gold in 1851. This attracted an enormous rush of diggers from all over the world. Castlemaine became the centre of the Mt. Alexander goldfield. During those immensely rich gold mining days, thousands of men feverishly worked in the dirt, hungry to make their fortunes. Some did become rich, but most of them spent what they earnt on foolish things like drinking and gambling. A few tales of glory, with plenty of unsatisfied stories.” 

He raised my interest in the gold rush time in Australia’s past. I started to visit the library, spent time reading any book I could borrow on Australian history. Soon I ran out of books to read on the two hundred years of history, but my interest continued.  

We were standing in front of the Theatre Royal built in 1857 on Hargraves Street one day, the sun shining on his face. I could see the golden glow reflected on his skin; he was almost inhuman. If there really were such things as angels, at that moment, I believed they would look like Big R. I looked at him without any emotion, he kept talking like his life’s purpose was teaching me how to look, think, observe, learn and live.

“Take notice of these impressive Victorian, Georgian and Edwardian architectures,

we don’t build these kinds of buildings anymore. Victorian architecture had daring styles, with elaborate and bold colours and designs. Edwardian architecture was generally less ornate than Victorian, it was lighter in colour, decorative patterns were less complex. Georgian designs were symmetrical with mouldings characterised by greater flat surface areas and slightly less ornate curves.”

He certainly taught me appreciation of the architecture of past eras, I wouldn’t have bought my terraced house without it. 

Big R was like an encyclopedia; there was not much he didn’t know. I got used to him telling me stories. Even if I knew the story, I would still let him tell me, because he had a way with telling tales. 

At the eastern end of Mostyn Street is the towering Burke and Wills monument, erected in 1862 to honor the death of these famous explorers. I didn’t tell Big R that I already knew the story, I read it in grandpa’s book on the shelf in his study. I let Big R go on and on telling me about their adventures in front of the monument.

Big R had wide shoulders, thick wavy hair, good physical stamina. He didn’t like small talk, had no time for unimportant things. If it was a subject that he liked, he became a good talker. I never got tired of listening to him.

When I first met him, I was only fifteen. My grandpa had retired from the workforce and had moved to Castlemaine with grandma. Ever since dad died, I spent all my school holidays with dad’s parents. At first, I didn’t like the idea of travelling over 100 kilometres to a country town to visit my grandparents after the school term ended; I’d be away from all my friends. After I met Big R, Castlemaine became my favorite place to be, I didn’t mind that I didn’t see any of my friends during the holidays anymore.

I spent lots of time seated right beside Big R fishing, sometimes hours went by and we didn’t speak a single word to each other. Often we watched the sunrise in silence, observed the sunset in peace, contemplated our thoughts in stillness.

I learnt that timing is important from him.

“Fishing is a recreational activity that anyone can enjoy during their leisure, just remember for catching any type of fish, the correct time to fish matters. This is because some fish prefer bright sunlight, while some like cool waters with afternoon light. Accordingly, some fish will gather foods during noon and some will hunt in the afternoon. Hence, set out for fishing with bait when your target fish is likely to come out to hunt its prey.”

He taught me the correct actions to get results.

“Choose the right bait for the fish you target, make sure your bait stays alive and active. To make the bait appear original, fix the bait in such a way that it is in its natural form. If the bait is not active, change to one that is. Be patient and pull the fishing line gently whenever you hook a fish, otherwise the fish may escape with an abrupt shaking of the line.”

After I was accepted to study law at university, I was caught up with study and casual jobs. Two hours of travel on the train to Castlemaine became a luxury for a time poor student. Going to class was my first priority, work was next, weekends were spent with assignments, projects and study. Castlemaine became a place that I would like to visit; it was on the top of my list for four years in a row.

Finally grandpa’s funeral took me back to Castlemaine. By that time grandma had already settled in a nursing home that catered especially for dementia patients.

Mum very kindly kept me company all the way to Castlemaine. Dad’s death had put a gap between her and dad’s parents. Dad was the only child that my grandparents had, so mum’s help was really needed.

We were very busy organising and arranging everything for the funeral; I didn’t have any time to work through my loss. After the wake, I went to visit Big R.

It was in the late afternoon during summer time, the sun still brightly shining on his cabin. I saw an old man seated in front of Big R’s cabin in the distance, his hunched back coated with golden sunbeams. I thought that must be Big R’s friend, nice to see he has friends other than me. 

As I walked closer, I realised that the old man was Big R. What had happened? I hadn’t seen him for only four years, but he looked as if he’d aged at least twenty years. My feet were so heavy to lift, I stopped walking. I just stood there in the middle of the bush, looking at him through the gum trees and my misty eyes. I didn’t know how much time passed. Ten minutes? Half an hour? 

He saw me, without any emotion, he walked slowly towards me. I forced myself to walk towards him, suddenly I didn’t know how to greet him.

When we reached each other, tears running uncontrollably, I embraced his broad shoulders, he seemed much smaller then I remembered. I had a very good cry, was that for the loss of my grandpa or because I had missed Big R terribly? 

I had never sobbed like that in the past nor did I afterwards. Maybe that was my subconscious mind bringing out those tears.

He didn’t talk about himself much as had always been the case, but he was very interested in my casual job as an office boy in a law firm. 

“I am giving you a case to solve,” he said. “In another year you’ll have graduated with a law degree, hopefully you can use what you learn to get an answer. 

There was a young couple, they met and fell in love like lots of other couples. The unusual thing was he was an ordinary looking man, on the other hand she was an extraordinary looking woman. From the beginning he was so glad that he had won a beautiful woman’s heart. After a while he noticed men were attracted to his wife. He became possessive, worried she might leave him for another man.  

He went to work every day, she stayed home doing what she did best – painting. Every day back home after work, she would show him what she had done during the day – the paintings she liked or disliked, even those she had torn away from the frame.

Life was good for them. If the weather was good, on the weekend they went to the park for a picnic. He would socialise with other people who were around; she would do her painting quietly in a corner.

In the morning, she would pack a lunch and wash some fruit for him to take to work. Before he left the house she would hold him so tight like she would never let him go.

He called her everyday from his office, asked her what she was doing. She would tell him how she mixed the colours, how she found a different way to use her brushes, what she was going to cook for dinner, what she would prepare for his lunch the following day.

When he got back home, she would rush to the door like she hadn’t seen him for a long time. After dinner, he would hold her in his arms, both of them would curl up on the couch and watch television or listen to their favorite music together.

He saw his life in a certain light, like it was almost too good to be true.

He thought he was the luckiest man that ever lived. A couple of years passed, then gradually he noticed that she changed.

In the morning, she didn’t want to get up to make breakfast for him anymore. When he kissed her goodbye before he left home, she didn’t even react, like she cared nothing about him. 

She was not interested in making lunch for him anymore; washing some fruit was too much trouble for her. Eventually she asked him to buy his lunch.

When he called home from the office, often there was no answer. When she answered, the conversation was always short with a few words. He felt that she was not happy talking to him on the phone.

Often when he got back home from work, he found her lying in bed without dinner on the stove.

After dinner, she would sit alone doing nothing. Her eyes often stared ahead, her mind was somewhere else. 

For a while, she didn’t touch her brushes. She didn’t do any laundry, no ironing was done; the house was a mess.

She sat up at night, looking at nothing, doing nothing.

He started to suspect that she was having an affair, that thought was killing him. What did she do every day? What was she concentrating on? Why had she changed so much? What had he done that was so wrong that he had lost his wife’s love?

The worst thing after his wife’s change was that she got pregnant; his suspicions got out of hand. He thought of leaving her, but he knew too well, he could not live without her. He did not dare to ask her, her answer may have destroyed him completely.

He suffered a great deal, but couldn’t find a way out.

After the baby was born, he couldn’t bear to look at that poor little child. When someone made a comment like “Amber is so beautiful, just like her mother”, he thought that was a hint to him that Amber wasn’t his child. 

A child should look like both parents, shouldn’t they? Why mention the mother only but not the father? Did that mean others noticed that she wasn’t his?

He never touched Amber or cared for her.

One day, Amber was being cared for by Crystal’s best friend, so Crystal could have a chance to catch up on her sleep. 

He came home from work like any other day. Crystal was in bed. He sat down in front of the desk in the bedroom. He could still felt the warmth on the chair. Crystal must have got off that chair not that long ago.

Then he saw the note in Crystal’s handwriting. “Forgive me, I can’t take it anymore, where’s my happiness gone?”

He didn’t move, didn’t touch the note, didn’t look at Crystal. Just sat there. Then the house started getting dark. He still didn’t move, just sat there. 

Don’t know how much time passed. Finally he got up from the chair, went to the park where they used to have their picnics. He tried to look for Crystal – the Crystal that he was once so much in love with.

When he came out of his breakdown, he let Crystal’s best friend Anne keep Amber. He didn’t see her, he just signed the legal papers to cut off any connection.

Now the question is, when he went home, he would have had enough time to save Crystal, but he didn’t. I would like you to use your knowledge to prosecute him.” 

“I’ll try. Will let you know when I’ve got an answer as to whether there is a case against him. Did he find out whether Amber was his child?”

“Very good mind, Nicholas. I am impressed that you asked the question.”

“So, did he find out the truth?”

“A quarter of a century passed, he suddenly heard from Anne.

Anne told him that Amber was always a happy-go-lucky person. She lived her life the way she wanted and the youth in her thought she was invincible.

Amber spent a few years working and travelling with her partner overseas. She suddenly came back to Melbourne because her partner had died.

Amber herself was in a bad condition as well. Her kidneys were unable to properly filter waste products, remove extra water from the body and help maintain the blood’s chemical balance. She needed a kidney transplant.

The kidney transplant waiting list was very long. Amber didn’t have time on her side. Anne and her husband’s blood type were different from Amber’s, so Anne thought of him.

He didn’t want to openly tell Anne that Amber might not be his. 

He gave all the excuses and reasons he could think of as to why his kidney was no good for Amber.

Anne guessed his thoughts:

“You are not suspicious that Amber is not your child, are you? I didn’t think you were! Crystal had serious depression, the many hormonal changes that occur during pregnancy contributed to it and was aggravated by the childbirth. She couldn’t help losing her ability to feel joy and pleasure. Depression is much more than just sadness and she was living in a black hole. I didn’t understand Crystal’s illness and was not able to help her then. But I know Amber’s needs now. I want to save her before it’s too late. Poor Amber lost her mother when she was only a few days old; please don’t walk away while she’s critically ill. You both are the same blood type, your kidney would be the chance for her to live.”

Vincent Van Gogh is one of several artists whose creativity was influenced by mental illness, in the end he ended his own life. No one understood him during his lifetime, did anyone understand Crystal during her lifetime? 

The guilt overcame him. He had let an innocent woman die because of his own stupidity. If he had done the right thing, she would still be here with him today. 

He couldn’t eat, sleep or handle any task, just cried like a baby for days. He prayed to Crystal for forgiveness, he kneeled and called out Crystal’s name, he was in desperate need for some punishment. He didn’t deserve to be alive, he would do anything to help Amber, not only because Amber was his daughter but more importantly she was Crystal’s daughter and Crystal was the only woman he had ever loved. 

After clearing his mind, he called Anne, she begged him to go to the hospital straight away.

On the way to the hospital, he thought “I have so much to catch up with Amber, I’ll make up for lost time. I’ll be a good father to her, I’ll give her everything that she wants. I’ll tell her what a wonderful woman her mother was and how I had loved her.”

He was too late. Amber died while he was waiting for the lift in the hospital foyer. All he saw was a face that he remembered was Crystal’s – lying in bed, but this face had a little dimple in her chin – his family resemblance.”

I was moved by this story, my face was covered with tears when he stopped talking. Well, it was an emotional time for me; I could see Big R’s eyes were red too.

We were quietly sitting in the twilight for a while, listening to the birds declare their territory. I was thinking that I didn’t have a chance to say goodbye to grandpa before he died. I sighed: “He didn’t have the chance to talk to his daughter!”

“He wasted time on self pity, there was no one to blame but himself. Nicholas, life is too short to play the “self pity” game.” 

He walked me to the main road that evening, that was the only time that I had stayed at his place after dark. Without a sealed road and surrounded by featureless gum trees, I wouldn’t have been able to walk my way out.

When I said goodbye to him, he waved his hand to tell me to go. I walked about twenty steps and turned around, saw him still standing on the roadside facing my direction. He waved his hand again then disappeared into the bush.

After my graduation, before I started to work as a first year junior lawyer, I heard on the news that Castlemaine had the worst flood in decades.

I thought of Big R and his little cabin near the creek. As soon as the road to Castlemaine re-opened, I drove to the road near Big R’s cabin, put on my new gumboots and ventured out to the then still muddy bushland.

I started from the little sandstone building that stood by the road, that miner’s house with the iron roof from the gold rush time. That was the only thing that I could identify on the way to Big R’s cabin.

There were no sheep eating the grass in the paddocks because there was no grass around. All I could see was mud, nothing else but mud. Passed the paddock, there was the gumtree forest and more mud.

The rocks surrounding the cabin were nowhere to be seen. Big R told me that he had collected those rocks from the paddock or nearby farms to make the fence for the cabin. Those smaller rocks may have been washed away by the flood but what about the large ones?

A few hours later, all I had got was frustration and mud all over me; I could not find the location of Big R’s cabin. The only explanation I could come up with was that during the flood, the creek had relocated. I had totally lost my orientation.

I went back to my car, cleaned myself with the towel from my gym bag and headed to the town centre, hoping someone there would be able to tell me where Big R was.

“Who? Never heard of Big R.”

“Er? Who?”

“The tall bearded man? Haven’t seen him for a long while.”

Castlemaine’s total population was under 7,500, how could no one have noticed him? I remembered he talked to everybody and anybody. Someone must have known where he was.

Two weeks later I went back to do the same search again, came back with the same result.

Big R had vanished, at least from my life.

I never got the chance to tell him that I could not find any evidence to put that widower away; there was no evidence that his wife was alive when he arrived home. The widower had received a traumatic shock on finding his wife’s suicide note, therefore he ended up breaking down, and the widower himself was a victim too. Lack of knowledge doesn’t make someone a criminal. The widower paid a big price for his wife’s suffering. No law could ever bring back his wife and daughter; no law could prosecute an innocent man either. 

One night I was lying in bed, the memory of Big R occupied my mind. I remembered asking him what does “Big R” stand for? 

He replied: “R is for robot, don’t you think I look like a big robot?”

A robot is a mechanism; it can perform tasks and moves around automatically, sensing and walking aimlessly through life. It has no feeling and doesn’t have a soul.

Why did he call himself “Robot”? 

He’s a highly intelligent man with a well educated background, why did he end up living in a simple cabin in the bush? 

Was he telling me his own story? Maybe he knew it was the last time we would see each other, he wanted me to know. 

I shook my head, no, how could he know that was the last time we would see each other? No, no way.

The story he told me was as romantic as it gets. I can’t fit him into the character, it simply does not fit.

Big R, wherever you are, it would be good to see you again.

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