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Authors: Barry Jonsberg

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Ironbark (10 page)

BOOK: Ironbark
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‘Hello?' The voice is not Kris's.

‘Who is this?'

‘Who are
you
? This is
my
phone.'

‘I'm trying to get in touch with Kris. She gave me this number. Said she'd borrowed the phone.'

I think I know who it is. The voice is kinda familiar. If my memory serves me right, she's this angular chick with bad skin and a snotty personality. I didn't know Kris knew her.

‘Oh,
I
know who
you
are. How's it goin'?
Where
are you again? Tassie, isn't it?'

‘Is Kris around, please?'

‘Hang on.' Her voice goes suddenly frosty. ‘This
is
my phone, you know.'

‘Yeah. I know.' If this continues, the thumping in my blood's gonna make another appearance. ‘But I'm in kind of a rush,' I lie. ‘So I'd be grateful if you could put her on.'

‘I'm on the school oval. She
might
be at the canteen. I'm looking for her. You can talk to me while I look.'

But I don't. Turns out it doesn't matter to her, since she's the one who wants to talk. And it's all drivel, so I tune most of it out. All about how some kid has the hots for her, but she's kinda hedging her bets since there's a number of dudes who want to jump her bones. I've never heard such horse manure. I'm not sexist, but if she barked, I wouldn't be surprised. Finally, she spots Kris. I was gonna give it another minute and then hang up. I couldn't take much more, I swear.

‘Hi,' says Kris.

‘You have gotta get a phone of your own,' I say, and I can't keep the irritation out of my voice. I try, but I can't do it. ‘I mean, this is dumb. I've just spent the last ten minutes listening to Lassie's love life . . .'

‘You are so sexist,' says Kris and there's irritation in
her
voice.

‘Yeah, I know. I'm sorry. I really am. I'm working on it. But I've been listening to her drivel when I wanted to talk to you.'

‘I told you Dad took my phone. It was good of Justine to let me use hers.'

Justine. That was it. Strictly kennel club.

‘Yeah, but . . . Look, just get another one. Text me your new number.'

‘It's not as easy as that. You might have money to throw around, but I don't.'

We've had this conversation before and it drives me nuts. Her old man with the false Pom accent is worth heaps. It's just that he's a miserable bag of pus and doesn't hand any out to Kris. Says it's to teach her financial responsibility. Insists she has to earn her own.

I tell you. He gets out his wallet and you can't see for moths flying around.

‘We're talking fifty bucks for a bottom-end pre-paid. How difficult can that be?'

‘That's exactly what I mean. I have to earn my money. And I pay rent . . .'

I can't believe this. We've hardly spoken to each other and the first chance we've got we're arguing about money. It's crazy. Then it just turns into the outright bizarre. Kris stops talking to me and talks to someone else. I can hear a mumbled conversation. Then she gets back on.

‘I've gotta go.'

‘You're kiddin'! What do you mean, you've gotta go? We've only just started to talk.'

‘Justine needs to use the phone.'

I don't know whether to laugh or cry. I can tell by Kris's voice that she thinks this sucks big time, as well. Somehow, it dilutes the argument. The absurdity overrides everything else. I laugh. She giggles. It feels like we've salvaged something.

‘Ring me tomorrow. Same time. I'll make sure I'm at Justine's shoulder.'

‘Keep her on a short leash.'

‘Stop it!'

‘We've gotta sort this, Kris.'

‘I know. Love you.'

‘Me, too.'

It's a joke we have. I love me too. Sometimes Kris laughs. She doesn't now. I flip the phone shut. I can see Granddad through the cafe window, troughing into the apple pie. He seems content. It's a good job one of us is. And then, in the reflection of the window, I see Richie. He's parked the police car on the other side of the main road. He's leaning up against the bonnet, arms folded. His eyes bore into my back.

We load our shopping in the back of the ute and get in. The engine protests but fires, and we head for the drivethrough. It only gives me a few moments. I take a couple of fifties from my wallet and wave them under Granddad's nose.

‘While you're getting yours, would you get me a coupla packets of smokes – make that three – and a slab of heavy?' I figure I'm pushing my luck if I ask for a bottle of Jim Beam. Granddad gives me a quick look, takes one of the fifties and gets out. I slouch down in the front seat and put my hand up before my face. I don't want the guy I told to swivel to see me. They're not likely to forget a face in a town this size. So I don't check out Granddad loading up the back of the ute. I don't even look up until we're out of the bottle shop driveway.

We get a couple of ks outside the town when Granddad hands over thirty-five dollars.

‘What's this?' I say.

‘Change. Half a slab, since I figure you'll be drinking half.'

‘What about my smokes?'

‘Didn't get any. You're too young.'

Just for a moment I think he's kidding. Then it becomes clear he's not.

‘Well, thanks, Gramps,' I yell. ‘This is terrific. Just terrific. I've got four smokes left and a billion days to go, stuck in woop woop. What am I gonna do, huh? Come on. Tell me.'

‘Sorry. It's against the law.'

That just makes things worse. I'm thumping my hand against the dash, raising clouds of dust. The sound echoes in my head.

‘Against the law?' I say. ‘Against the law? Well, I hate to say this, Gramps, but take a look around this ute. It hasn't even got working seatbelts, for Chrissake. The brakes are probably shot to hell, the bodywork is held together with rust. It's a deathtrap, dude. You've got about a million traffic violations right here and you talk to me about smokes and the law? This is insane.'

And that's about all I remember.

Next thing, I'm surrounded by a grey cloud, my right leg is hurting like hell, there's a thumping of blood in my temples and I'm limping down the track. The taste of dust is in my mouth. I hold onto my right thigh with both hands, but even so I'm going a fair clip. I don't hear the ute behind me. I don't pay it any attention when it draws up alongside. I only stop when Granddad parks it across the track, like a roadblock. And only then because I don't have much choice.

I stand still. The only sounds are the ticking of the engine block and a mournful birdsong in the distance.

Granddad gets out of the ute and walks towards me. He's got a strange look on his face. There's a buzzing sound in my ears and I feel dizzy.

‘Yo, Gramps. Dude.' I say. ‘What's going down?'

‘Shit, lad. You're a mess,' says Granddad. ‘Here.' He tosses a packet of smokes in my direction. I catch them. It's just reflex. ‘I bought 'em for you, all right? Just one pack. I was goin' to give 'em to you later. Jesus.'

I look at the pack. It's not a brand I like. I scratch off the cellophane and knock a cigarette into my palm. My hands are trembling. I pat my pockets, but I don't have a light. It's all too confusing.

‘Language, dude,' I say. ‘Unnecessary.'

He holds a flame under my cigarette. There's a gold lighter in his hand and I've never seen it before. The smoke is good in my lungs. Mild, but good. I suck hard.

‘Get back in the car, son,' he says, all quiet.

‘Too easy,' I say.

I get in the passenger side and reach for the seatbelt. I let the belt with no buckle flop across my lap. Granddad starts the ute and turns it around with a grinding of gears and a spinning of dust. We lurch up the track. I hitch my legs onto the ratty seat and hug them to my chest. I puff on my smoke and watch the blue swirls make patterns on the windscreen. There's silence for a couple of ks.

‘What happened back there?' asks Granddad.

I press my fingers into the soft bit of my skull, next to my left eye. Apply pressure there. Sometimes it helps. My mind is clearing.

‘Gramps,' I say. ‘I think you might have a better idea than me. Judging from the pain in my leg and the dirt all up my jeans, I'd say I threw myself out of the ute. But hey, I'm not the most reliable witness.'

Granddad glances over at me. He seems tense. If I make a movement for the doorhandle he's gonna have a coronary.

‘You really don't remember?' Like most people, Granddad is having difficulty believing it.

‘It's a blank, man. One minute we're in the ute and I'm angry you haven't got me any smokes, the next I'm hoofing it down the track. The bit in between? Gone.'

Granddad rubs at his chin. It's like hearing sandpaper scraping over a wooden block.

‘Did I do anything?' I continue. ‘You know. Anything violent?' I hate even asking the question. I can't tell you how much I hate it. Tears prick behind my eyes and I don't dare to close them. If I do, I know a tear will roll. This sucks big time.

‘You mean other than to yourself?'

I nod, but keep my head turned to the window.

‘No. You were just there one minute, thumping the dash. The next, the door was open and you're a puff of dust in the rear-view mirror. I tellya, if you're trying to give me a heart attack, you're goin' the right way about it.'

I have to close my eyes then. Sure enough, I feel big drops squeeze through my lashes, run down my cheeks. I keep my head away from Granddad, press my forehead against the glass. There's no way I can talk for a while, not without giving myself away. I don't want to talk anyway. What's there to say? I throw myself from moving cars when I don't get my own way and then I sit and sob like a four-year-old. Just self-pity? Maybe. In the end, though, I don't think it's about pity at all. It's about hatred.

There are plenty of people out there who have good cause to hate me. But even the worst of them couldn't hate me as much as I hate myself.

It's on this cheerful note that the side window on Granddad's ute, the one I have my forehead pressed up against, slips further down into the doorframe with a clatter. My head slides abruptly into the slipstream and Granddad's nerves are clearly on a hair-trigger, because he sees me lurch and must think I'm about to do another halfpike with twist from the ute. He slams his foot on the brake and I crack my skull on the window frame before crashing into the glove box.

It's so funny I have to laugh. One moment I'm crying, the next I can't stop laughing. And it's the look on Granddad's face that's the best as we screech to a stop and I lever myself back into the seat. The tears are still rolling down my face and no one, not even me, could tell if they're tears of laughter or pain.

Granddad's not laughing.

‘Shit, lad. Are you
trying
to finish me off?'

That just makes me laugh harder.

‘Language, dude,' I say.

‘Whaddya mean, language?' says Granddad. He's made no attempt to re-start the ute. He's just sitting, staring at me, and I can tell by his expression that he is seriously annoyed. I try to swallow my laughter, but it's difficult. I settle for gurgling.

‘The S-word,' I gurgle. ‘Unnecessary.'

‘Can you explain that to me?' says Granddad. ‘Seriously. I come out with a couple of swear words and you act like a priest. It don't sit easy with the way you behave neither. I don't understand.'

‘Man,' I say. ‘I'm sorry. I know I'm being annoying. Seriously. But that was funny. My head goes out the window and yours nearly goes through the roof. Come on. Start the car, and I'll tell you about the swearing thing on the way home. Honest to God.'

I make the sign of the cross over where my heart would be if I had one, dredge up what supplies of charm I can find and put them all into a smile. Doesn't work. Granddad's expression doesn't change, but he finally cranks the engine over again. I light up another smoke and watch the trees for a while.

‘The swearing thing is to do with my anger management, Gramps,' I say. ‘One counsellor said that many things can trigger feelings of antagonism – some TV shows, for example. Even certain types of colours. I mean, I don't know. It's just what he said. And swearing, according to him, was a way of not retaining control over your feelings. Swearing is like opening a path to the aggressive streak in me. And worse things than swear words might come out along that path as well. So I need to keep that path closed. Keep the demons locked up. That's why I don't swear. You see what I mean?'

Granddad glances over at me.

‘You have to keep anger bottled up? I thought that wasn't healthy.'

‘It isn't, dude. But neither is letting it rip without any control. I've got to let the demons out in controlled situations. Where they can do the least damage.'

BOOK: Ironbark
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