In 1977 Mr Soloman was fifty two and he came into our lives really fast and he went out even faster. Rumour said that the American government sent him out here to invent secret technology involving propulsion in wars. All the adults fell for that malarkey because gossip was the bush-telegraph and the bush-telegraph was the real news. “Apparently”.
The parents told stories to their kids about Soloman and the kids ate up every word and added more words about him, but I thought anything from gossip was dumb like ears of corn or eyes of potatoes. So while I never listened to the rumours or watched the lips that kept them alive and growing, I heard the stories anyway.
My mate Pumpski said his dad had said, “Mr Soloman told me he is designing a special fuel for a rocket that can make a submarine fly in orbit.” and my red-headed mate Bluey said, “Mr Soloman had tea and two scones with mum and he told her that he’s cracking atoms for secret levitation technology.” I reckoned it was all bunk because I knew for a fact that Mr Soloman never spoke to anyone because he was paranoid and had a fence that hummed.
Behind our place on the steep hill in the thick bush he’d built an electric fence right around his house and I discovered it when I was hunting for ticks. The Queensland government paid five cents for every tick you brought them because they wanted to study the Rickettsial fever, and I was about to grab a cattle tick on a blue gum twig when I first heard an American voice call out to me.
“A high voltage fence is almost touching you so you better walk backwards real slow sir.”
I didn’t see him for the dense bush, and I froze even more when he said the next bit without a single comma or full stop.
“I only turn it off when there’s rain and we haven’t had rain for a month and it’ll kill you if you touch it and can you hear the hum now kid can you hear it now just listen?”
Low under the cicadas I heard the hum and I put my hands up and dropped my tick jar and called out into the bush.
“How do I get out? I’m really scared.”
For a few seconds all I heard was a frilly lizard scampering near my foot and a bush stone-curlew wailing far away, but when the fence switched off I could hear a Christmas beetle scratching on bark and then adult footsteps that were getting closer. Mr Soloman dressed in olive drab fatigues popped out from the bush only twenty feet away and he came right up to me.
“So. You want to get out you say? You’re real scared and you want to get out?” He squinted while he waited for my answer but I had none, so he crouched down and grabbed a stick on the ground. “I’ll show you how to get out.”
Soloman carved a circle the size of a Frisbee in the dirt between us.
“This is the radar of your life, and here…” he gouged a hole inside the circle, “…is state education and here…”, he gouged another hole, “…is your marriage and here…” another hole, “…are other people’s dreams and here…” another hole, “…is the government that wants you dead!”
As he stood up and there was a tremble in his whisper. “My government sent me here because it didn’t want anyone noticing me working on their secret war toy.”
Mr. Soloman kept staring at me and he stepped backwards against a gumtree sapling and spoke like he was somebody else. “Yeah, send him to Australia and make sure he doesn’t mix with the locals.” The sapling bent, “Keep an eye on our golden-boy!”, and it cracked sharply, “You got your orders!”.
I was too terrified to move while I waited for him to go normal, but I knew I had to wait a bit longer when he threw his arms up in the air and nodded at the glue gum next to me like there were three of us there.
“Ah Mr President. I made the toy too good didn’t I?” His face twitched and he jabbed a finger at the tree and snarled. “And now you want it, and when you get it how will you dispose of me?”
A small breeze pressed the back of my shirt coldly against the sweat.
“Well Mr. President, you’re not getting it. I’m going to take it far away and destroy it.” He sagged and said nothing for a minute while he gathered himself before he lifted his head up again.
“Son you have to get rid of the blips.” He pointed at the circle in the dirt and looked up sadly at the lantana vines that were strangling the Candle Nut trees and the Sandpaper Figs.
“And then you can be a man going your own way out of this tangled mess.”
When he took his eyes away from me I ran as fast as I could and made it to the road in twenty seconds instead of two minutes. Three days later I heard there was talk of him going insane and constable Crellin’s wife said her husband thought that the army might do a raid on his property.
A week later Pumpski and I were on our street after dinner with a golf club batting cane toads that came out for the Cup Moths. He swung the eight iron that sent one over to Mawson’s paddock and he frowned at me.
“Did he explain anything more about that dirt-radar? Did you leave anything out? Think!”
I grabbed the club and swung it hard sending another toad to the paddock. Pumpski was pissing me off now.
“Stop asking me about the bloody radar. I’ve already told you ten times everything that happened.”
Pumpski snatched the club out of my hands and he looked hurt. He was about to say something when we heard the loud noise from Mr Solomon’s property. It sounded like the burner of a hot-air balloon was firing up combined with a high pitched tone and a deep rumble. The thick bush lit up with green flashes that chucked shadows on to the road, and when it stopped a few moments later everything went quiet again.
Ten long seconds passed while we looked up into the dark bush and Pumpski sucked in air and grabbed my sleeve. Under the orange street light I could see his eyes were popped and that meant he was going to jabber at me.
“Ian! I bet the Yank has made a UFO! I read about ’em and they suck ‘lectricity from the…”
When he said “’lectricity”, every sodium vapour lamp over the road switched off and the quarter moon jumped out with the stars. Mrs. Baiden’s Persian shot out from under her Fiat into a flood drain, and the air went still and thick like cool honey as we watched Mr Soloman wearing a jet-pack silently rise up over the tree line and hover a hundred feet above us.
He was inside a wobbling red haze and he glowed as he hung in the black sky gripping two handles like he was ready to ski. It was so quiet all around us that we could hear Mr’s Purnell’s Chihuahua yapping four blocks away, and he just stared down at us and waved like nothing was unusual. We could see his teeth. He was smiling
The rubber grip of the eight iron fell to the road and Mr Soloman moved over our heads without a sound before making a fast beeline for the peak at Bungle’s cliff four miles to the east. We watched him shrink to a tiny red speck that shot up the cliff wall and disappear behind it where the ocean was. Pumpski whispered to me and he sounded dead serious.
“We didn’t lick any toads tonight did we?”
For the next two weeks some friendly Americans in suits knocked on doors in the neighbourhood and they were keen to hear the gossip about Mr Soloman. People who were already very curious about Soloman invited them in for dinner just so they could ask questions, but some people got annoyed at the Yanks snooping about and told them to piss off just like Mr. Kreyton did. Everyone listened to everybody, but no one said anything interesting because nobody seemed to know anything. Not the neighbours, not the cops or the even the yanks themselves.
It took a while for the gossip about the Americans and the disappearance of Soloman to die down, but Pumpski and I talked about it for months. Eventually I got sick of it, but Pumpski wouldn’t let it drop and he kept asking me about the dirt-radar.
“Here”, He handed me a piece of paper and a Biro.“Draw it exactly like you saw it and tell me every single word he said about blokes going away.”
“No mate.” I shook my head. “I’ve drawn it for you twenty times already, and he never said blokes going ‘away’. He said blokes going ‘their own way’.”
Pumpski let the paper fall to the carpet and he sat on his bed and bit the plastic tip of the pen. He looked out of the window at the top of Mount Table in the distance and he spoke softly.
“Mr Soloman proved that governments have inventions that are secret, so what else are they hiding?” He was barely audible and he looked like he was a hundred miles away.
I indulged him a bit, “Computers. They got really big computers and they’re hiding them?”
The cap of the pen dropped from his mouth and he snorted. “One day everybody around the world will have a computer and they won’t be big either. They’ll be as small as a fridge and we’ll use ’em to play records and project movies and newspapers and they’ll be connected together like phones.”
I smiled, “Yeah sure.”
He turned from the window and stared at the blank piece of paper on the floor. “Why did he hate those blips on that radar he drew? Marriage and state education and other people’s dreams are all normal things.” He shook his head and looked out the window again.
“All the jig-saw pieces are here but I just can’t put ’em all together.”
Pumpski was a great mate, so when he talked nonsense I listened to him. “Apparently.”
Original artwork, © Ian Williams. 2013.