Gravel Roads and Rubber Shoes
The strong summer rays had sapped the green life from the grass, leaving it sharp and yellow, and Joseph's tanned arms were wrapped around my neck as I carried him through the paddocks on my back; that way the long blades wouldn't scratch his bare legs, but his shoes were always falling off. Red rubber shoes. I would have to run back and pick them up again for him, and then we would keep going, over the gate and onto the reddened gravel driveway and into the farmhouse for dinner, and all the way there he'd chatter on about the sheep and little things that didn't matter but were nice to hear about anyhow ... and when we said goodbye, I would shake his brothers' hands, but not Joseph's; he was too small and I loved him just that little bit more, so I squeezed him tight instead.
It used to take me by surprise, the way things changed. Somehow I thought a six year old would never grow up and there would never come a time when the red rubber shoes didn't fit anymore; he would always walk with his hand in mine, pointing at the sheep; I would always be strong enough to carry him. It wasn't so long ago ... was it? And yet it feels like another life.
Now there's a gravel road going past my house - sort of like the one Joseph and I used to walk on - and a little lonely boy rides his bike at the end of it, making tyre marks in the dust and falling off and getting back on again. His mother wants him to wear a helmet because she's afraid that he'll hurt himself, but he laughs and tells me his helmet is sitting on his bed at home and that's where it will stay, because every ten year old boy believes he was born under a lucky star. You wouldn't think he was ten, to look at him. He's so small you could mistake him for six or seven at first. Maybe that's why he never hurts himself too badly, because he's so light. I have to get the mail at the service station so I walk up there most evenings, and he comes with me; doesn't ask if I mind, just invites himself along and rides the bike on the road next to me and asks me questions and talks about motorbikes and dogs all the way there and back. I tell him to cut his hair and he replies he wants it as long as one of the boys' at school, and I let him know how ridiculous I think it is, because that is what friends do, and he laughs at me and says he'll look just fine. He doesn't say thank you all that much, but it doesn't matter because I find his gratitude in the way his eyes shine and he laughs and says he's never had so much fun before. He's a little boy, after all, and he can focus on every moment. I used to do that. Now I watch as he shows me his new tricks, mop of brown hair falling over his face, and I know I have only a while more of this company, my friend and I going down the road and talking about nothing in particular. It will be gone before I want it to. Little boys grow up. Little shiny bikes become too small. Little rubber shoes are discarded. Only gravel roads remain, but they are not the same when they are empty; so I fill them with memories that I can keep even when everyone who walked them is gone. One day I'll come back and walk along this road just to remember, to pick up the stones in my fingers and throw them as far as I can, to watch the dust rise up in clouds, to try and picture again a brown haired boy too small for his years, leaving his bike in the middle of the road to crouch down and cup his hands around butterflies he will never catch.