I'm worried about my boy's neck.
A pillow under his bum and another on his lap, he's been sleeping for the past 45 minutes contorted at one of those impossible angles, achievable only with a capricious blend of rubbery bones and tendons.
I watch him hunched next to me in the front passenger seat of the ute. I think how his muscles must be as loose as those of the camp oven pork on which we feasted the night before; a low and slow farewell, forked apart, mature and yielding, no need for knives or brutal incisions.
I think of umbilical cords and embryos, of stem cells and inchoate joints; flexible and miraculous.
Spots of rain hit the windscreen and I think of wet school days when we'd huddle in ripe, unflued classrooms and watch Animal Farm (the 1954 version, not the 1999 remake) or the (1984) Nadia Comaneci biopic. Small, supple children bending; perpendicular, parallel, uneven. More miracles, perfect 10s. It's what the meal deserved had it been judged, which it had, in the same gentle way the whole weekend had unravelled.
I think of sleeping next to him in the swag. He was the youngest of the quartet, the other dads (with whom I'd huddled in those smelly classrooms 35 years before) having already lost the privilege of curling up next to their own boys as the bush and the grog lulled the compound to slumber. I think of The World According to Garp and how John Irving described a father's "first awareness" of his son's mortality ... It had been an unpleasant sensation for Garp, shortly after Duncan turned six, to smell that Duncan's breath was stale and faintly foul in his sleep ...
Four boys and six unguarded bottles of beer chilling in a pristine creek.
A recipe for disaster.
They'd smashed the bottles against smooth rocks and were already back among us, blinking, innocent, poking the fire, when the aggrieved party - a woman with a Canadian twang - materialised before the flames and mounted her watertight case.
I placated our slightly embarrassed Commonwealth sister with a fresh six-pack from the battery powered larder humming in the tray as the boys were suitably castigated before being marched across the border into hostile territory and made to apologise. Eye contact. No slouching. Stiffen the (lithe) sinews, summon up the blood.
An important lesson and retrieving those shards, like every other activity captured in this brief, holiday terrarium, had turned into an adventure.
We're hauling a new trailer, which allowed his bike and our own (now spent) firewood to make the journey, so I've deliberately avoided the congestion of service-centre parking lots and made our stops on the points of luxurious turning circles of roadside rest areas. More pit toilets. Unsung heroes who make these things possible. I want him to be aware of such realities.
MORE B. R. DOHERTY:
I'm hungry and I rub his arched spine and his crumpled face (resembling his uncle's, according to the consensus of campers with the benefit of distance and time) turns from the pillow across his knees.
His neck is fine.
"Dad, there are lots of songs with diamonds in them," he says.
"Yes, there are. Can you name some?"
"Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds ... Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes ..."
"I'm not sure ..."
He realises we've come to a stop. He's ravenous.
We make ham and cheese sandwiches, drop the tailgate and and swing our legs in the cold drizzle.
"Why don't you ever go hungry in the desert?"
"Because of the sand which is there."
We're at the same refuge into which, 13 years ago, his mother and I - having returned from an overly ambitious tour with our firstborn (his sister) - had careened for an emergency nappy change. The heat had been so intense, not even the blowflies could be roused from their protective swarms against the concrete to investigate the stench being unpeeled on the table above.
I think about that terrible trip as child number three, blowfly-like, remembers how a member of the group had gifted us two cans of Coke; a rare treat, as rare as the father and son's discovery in Cormac McCarthy's The Road.
"Don't tell your mother," I say.
Two wonderful tubes later, we're back on the freeway, the foreign sugar invades the cabin and he's on a roll.
"Dad, was Batehaven deaf?"
"Beethoven, not Batehaven. Batehaven is a place down the coast. Beethoven was a composer."
"Was Beethoven deaf?"
"Dad, when you said Toyota, I thought you said toy Yoda."
"That's a bit like when you said Darth Vader's TIE fighter, I thought you said Darth's Vader's typewriter."
"Dad, when I stand up for 20 ... 10 ... five minutes ... I need to sit down."
Even through the wipers, the unfamiliar becomes vaguely familiar and he begins to trace our path. We drive through a town with a park he recognises. I wonder whether, if alone, if somehow abandoned, he could make his way home? Does he know his own address? Our phone number? I quell an urge to have him microchipped, like a dog. Is that some kind of invasion of privacy? He's mine. He's my property. Isn't he?
Arriving in our village, we navigate a wide arc around our house and pull up in front of the garage. My wife greets us and he falls into her arms, relieved she still exists. He's still hers, barely mine at all.
Knowing we've been left shattered by one or two camping excursions in the past, she asks if I'm tired and I say I feel great, speculating that red-line exertion must be more about the company you keep, rather than the Herculean erection and demolition of ephemeral living quarters at either end of a seven-hour drive.
She reminds me we have a funeral to attend tomorrow, a local man, another of a diminishing element to our community.
Twenty-two hours later, I pat my boy's elastic chest as we watch adult children lower a coffin into the ground. John Denver is competing with the wind through a speaker.
Some days are diamonds, some days are stone ...
"Dad, that's another one."
- B. R. Doherty is a regular columnist