Mum has chewed her lippy off, and she is driving fast. Instead of putting on more lippy, Mum calms her nerves with a smoke. She drives with one hand; that way she can pop the Marlboro out of the red-and-white box, clinch it between her teeth, and light it. It’s hard to do with one hand. I know, I’ve practiced the moves. I sneak into their bedroom whenever Mum is digging the veggie patch and Dad is down at the shearing sheds. Cigs are always in the drawer of the bedside table, and matches are on the top shelf of the bookcase, out of my reach — so I haven’t lit one, yet.
Mum ashes out the window. The embers are pretty, like shooting stars, only orange, not yellow; they rush past, caught by the wind, and disappear. Dad’d be mad if he saw. Mum’s city born ’n bred. He says one ember could torch the whole farm. Mum just laughs and gives him that out-of-the-corner-of-her-eye look. He goes a bit red, and grins, when she does that.
When a bunch of bugs spatter the windscreen Mum swears a blue streak, as Dad’d say. She flips on the wipers smearing bug-legs and grey-green goo and makes a big mess. A few bugs also fly through her open window. Mum, swears again, sucks back on her cig, swats at the grasshoppers as they jump around the front seat, and winds up the window — all at the same time. The car wiggles back and forth across the white line. Both of Mum’s hands are off the wheel. She is driving with her knees. Dad showed her how to do it. He’s a pro at eating a burger and driving at the same time.
Mum grabs the wheel with both hands to drag the car back to one side of the white line. She blows smoke out one side of her mouth, the ciggy held tight on the other side — one day, when I’m tall enough, I’m going to practice that, too. A fog of blue smoke wafts into the back seat. The mum n’ dad smell of it is as comforting as honeyed crumpets in front of the fire. Mum sucks down to the filter and stabs the cig out in the car’s overflowing ashtray.
Up ahead, where the black road drops down a hill, a low cloud stretches sideways as far as I can see. Dad will be happy to get some rain to fill up the dam. Goulburn’s dry country, Dad says. Except this summer of 1962, when the paddocks lining the Goulburn highway are a juicy green. They’re going to fill up the bank account, Dad says.
The radio plays ‘Return to Sender’. Mum smiles, and sings with Elvis, as we slow down, and turn in to our long dirt driveway. Crowds of grasshoppers are here too, flicking, jumping, leaping — I’ve never seen anything like it. Mum turns the volume on the radio right up and sings very loud. She grips the steering wheel like it’s trying to escape. The ’hoppers tap at the glass as if they want to invade. They’re carrot, potato and lime colored. As soon as we get to the house, I’m going to catch the pretty ones in a glass jar, and show them at school. We drive past the shearing sheds; I can’t see Dad, so he must be inside. I count twelve full termite stacks, and two fallen-down ones before we drive through the home gate.
Where there are lots and lots of ’hoppers — in the rose garden, in the veggie garden, in the orchard, and around the house — munching everything green. Dad won’t be happy with that. With the engine off, the noise of them eating is like the roller-coaster we went on last summer. There are so many bugs now that the sun has gone dark as a dried apricot even though it’s lunchtime. The rain cloud I thought I saw, isn’t a rain cloud, it’s a ’hopper cloud.
Mum bites her lip and tells me to stay in the car until she comes back. She pulls her chiffon scarf down round her face and leaps out of the car. ’Hoppers jump on her pink scarf, then more, and more. She slams the door, with a ’hopper-covered hand, but not before a mob of grasshoppers bound in. My plastic lunch box is perfect. I open it up. The sandwich crusts and lettuce attract some of the ’hoppers. I flick out an ugly brown one, before slamming the lid closed on the fruity-colored ones. I can feel them bouncing at the lid, trying to escape. Grasshoppers land on the red vinyl car seat and crawl around, trying to figure out how to eat it, I suppose. The remaining few hop on me; I shake my arms and brush at them with my hands, though they hold on with their hard, scratchy legs.
The car door is wrenched open. Dad reaches in, wraps me all up in a beach towel, and pulls me out. He slams the car door shut, turns, and ploughs through the hail of ’hoppers, crunching them underfoot. He jogs to the house with me bouncing on his shoulder, muttering about bleeding bank accounts, meal-tickets, and living hells.
Tomorrow, when all this is over, when everything is eaten to the ground, I’ll take the lunch box full of ’hoppers to school; they’ll be the brightest things for miles.
e. munro writes in New South Wales, Australia.