The Journey (extract)
by John Marsden
Every year Argus asked his father, ‘Is it time yet? Am I old enough?’ And every year his father replied, ‘No, you’ve got a while yet’ or ‘No, sorry son’. The first few times he laughed as he said it, as though the question were a droll one to be asked by someone of his son’s age. But as Argus grew older his father ceased to smile and instead answered irritably, as if he didn’t want to think about the matter. Perhaps though, his impatience was a reflection of his son’s; for every year Argus put the question in a more insistent tone, feeling guilty as he did so, but driven strongly to ask.
Once, Argus tried to gain some insight into his father’s mind, and in so doing to bring about a change in his attitude. He asked him, ‘Why do you think I’m not ready?’ But his stern father, busy trimming a new curb for a horse, replied briefly, ‘You can’t even do your jobs around here properly. I asked you two days ago to fix that fence in North Austin.’ And after a moment’s silence the boy walked away, trying to maintain his dignity. He was too proud to say that he had fixed the fence when asked, but a fox had made a new hole in it overnight, three panels along from the repair.
One afternoon, when Argus had just turned fourteen, he and his father were working in South Austin, checking for cows that might have calved in the long grass, and tagging the ones they found. Argus held a wet and slippery new calf between his legs while its anxious mother hovered nearby. Somehow the calf got the boy slightly off-balance; sensing its advantage it twisted, bucked, flung its head and escaped, treading heavily on Argus’ father’s foot as it fled. Argus was buffeted about the face and body by a storm of angry words as his father raged. Knowing his father had lost his grip on two calves one morning just a week earlier, the boy said nothing. For the rest of the day the two worked together in silence, each reliving the argument in his mind, each trying to convince himself he was right. The unease between them lasted through the evening.
It was this incident that convinced Argus his time had come. In recent months he had been asking his father not ‘Am I old enough?’ but ‘How soon before I go?’ Now he decided he must take matters into his own hands; yet so great was his awe, love, fear and anger that it was three more days before he was able to speak of his decision. Finally, one night as his parents were folding astronomy charts, he told them.
Their reaction was an anti-climax: they both barely hesitated, but went on with their tasks, until his mother asked, ‘When do you want to start?’
‘At the end of the week,’ he replied, trying to keep his voice steady.
‘You can’t go,’ his father said. ‘I’ll need you for the harvest.’
But Argus was prepared for this. ‘You can use Ranald again, the same as you did when I was ill.’
No more was said that night; no more was said on the subject for two days following. But on the eve of his going, his father brought Argus the book from its glass case, and placed it in his hands. ‘You’d better read it,’ be said, ‘and then it will be time for us to talk.’
Argus was not able to look at his father, but instead watched his own hands, damp on the soft leather, as the silver-haired man left the room. And the boy, full of nervous excitement, began at last to read.
Argus learned from the book that there were seven stories, and the journey would not be over until he had discovered and could tell all seven of them. The seven stories that he found would be uniquely his, yet they would also be the stories of all people — the same for everyone, recognisable by everyone. The harder he searched, the more difficult the stories would be. The book warned him that nothing was simple: everything was complex, whether it be a leaf, a human, an idea, a word. Even the statement that nothing was simple was too simple, and was probably not wholly true. For the book also warned him that there were no absolutes; such extreme terms as good and evil, true and false, alive and dead, might be convenient words, but should only be seen as indications, not as definitions.
Argus read slowly, trying to understand and remember everything. He felt his mind opening up to infinite possibilities, yet at the same time he was disappointed that there were no practical directions in the book. His mind was sated but his body was restless. The book seemed to assume throughout that the journey was dangerous; it was implied in every sentence. Yet there was no indication of the form the danger might take, nor any suggestion of how to overcome it.
His father was of more practical help, though still vague. ‘You take what you choose, and go where you choose,’ he said when he came back into the room. ‘What you take and where you go will tell you a good deal about who you are. Each item you pack will slow you down with its weight. If comfort is important to you, then you might take toilet paper. If safety is important to you, take bandages. If time matters, then take a clock. But remember, speed is not everything. The slow traveller sees detail.’ He laughed. ‘But as for me, I always regretted not taking toilet paper.’
W hen Argus left, mid-afternoon, he was surprised to find that it was his father who seemed most affected. His mother was grave, almost detached, but his father could hardly speak and, as Argus hugged him, his eyes filled with tears. Argus strode away. To his disappointment his dog, whom he had imagined would have to be chained up to stop him following, did not even notice him go.
His father had told Argus that everything he saw would be important and should be noted. Knowing this made Argus more observant. He felt fresh and aware and, although he was still in familiar country, he found himself seeing things he had never seen before. The way in which a tree seemed to have one side dominant over the other. And the apparent symmetry of a tree concealed so much internal variation and chaos. ‘Trees don’t bother about how big or small they are,’ Argus realised with some surprise, thinking about how he had worried lately about his own size and shape. ‘They just keep growing upward and outward until they’ve finished. They’re beautiful, no matter what.’