I hear them talking in the dark. I hear Douggie sobbing, telling Mum everything, things mothers aren’t supposed to know. And I’m angry with him for being so weak. Angry with him for breaking the rules, for telling and getting us all into trouble.
We’ve been at the local park together, the Oxley Creek boys, wearing footy jerseys and jeans against the cold of a Brisbane winter night. My little brother Douggie, his best mate Steve, Russ, Jacko and me, have been drinking all day, the usual casks of moselle. It’s Saturday so we’ve had time on our hands. No bloody school. Some of the others dribbled in after footy and work at the garage and tried to catch up. Jacko drove his heap of shit bomb to the pub and bought spirits, bottles of vodka and rum and scotch, and litres of coke to mix with it. It was going to be a big night. No special reason, just Saturday.
We scored an ounce of dope from school yesterday and there’s still most of it left, despite us smoking a dent in it last night, bonging on in the cubby-house down the back of our place. It’s on the banks of the creek, camouflaged by mangroves and overgrown bamboo, an old chook shed we’ve fixed up and turned into the best cubby in the street. It’s taken us from boat and bike adventures, ciggies and soft drink, to bongs and beer. There are cushions and carpet and even electricity to plug in the CD player and the heater on cold nights – the perfect place for endless weekend sessions.
But tonight the party got too big for the cubby, fellas we didn’t even know that well turned up hoping for a smoke, waving bottles of rum and pretending we were best mates. It was getting way too crowded and noisy and Mum was freaking, so we moved to the park.
Scrambling under the barbed wire fence at the end of the street, we cut through the paddock and spooked the skittish white horse that lived there. It chased after Douggie, almost biting him on the arse, and we all cracked up. Streetlights lit up the fog floating in the gullies like smoke machine effects in a rock video as we crossed the field to the park. In the black shadow of fig trees we sat on benches near the creek and partied on.
It was a dark night, no moon, and finger-burning cold. The spirits warmed us but not enough, so we made a bonfire, first with fallen branches and rubbish from bins, then with the bench we were sitting on. It was heavy, weighted down with cement blocks buried in the earth, but with all of us rocking it forward and back, heaving and falling, we managed to drag it onto the flames. Sparks flew up into the sky, spraying high firework orange against the night.
We laughed, and sang stupid songs, boasted about girls we’ve had, played air guitar, and clapped sticks together. We pretended we were Abos and danced around the fire swivelling our feet on the slippery grass, acting like crazy birds and hunters. The dope made us laugh. Well, usually it did. But we weren’t laughing that much tonight. There was a bad mood hanging in the air, hovering over each of us, but mainly over Douggie.
I’ve noticed it happening to him over the last few weeks, especially when we’ve been smoking the really strong heads. He hasn’t been able to keep up. His eyes get that stupid glazed-over half-crossed look and he starts speaking bullshit. Hearing stuff that no one says, getting paranoid. We all noticed.
Even so, Steve couldn’t understand it when suddenly Douggie said, ‘Fucken shut up Steve. I know what you’ve been saying about me. What you’ve been doing, you bastard!’
‘I haven’t been doing anything. What’re you on about?’
I was sitting between them, my arse cold and wet on the dewy grass, my face roasting in the fire. Steve hadn’t said anything about Douggie..
‘Don’t bloody lie to me. I can hear you.’
Really, Steve hadn’t said a thing.
‘Keep your shirt on Doug. You’re my best mate. Why would I say something?’
‘I don’t know. I don’t know.’ Douggie shook his head, then started getting all teary, choking up. Everyone else had gone quiet, nothing but the screeching of fruit bats echoing in the dark.
‘Fuck you, you arsehole!’ Douggie yelled. ‘Don’t pretend. Don’t lie to me!’
He leapt up and started laying into Steve, his small fists hard and pointy. Steve’s much bigger than Douggie, all rugby player, no neck, and he didn’t want to fight. They’ve been best mates since grade three. But Douggie was hurting him, drawing blood. So he struck back. Holding onto each other they punched at close range, fight-dancing too close to the fire. The fellas we didn’t know made a circle and started the chant.
‘Fight, fight, fight.’
‘Douggie! Stop it!’ I yelled. ‘He didn’t say anything.’
I tried to pull them apart but only got whacked for my efforts, punched from both sides. Jacko and Russ came running to give me a hand. We were mates, blood-brothers, the Oxley Creek boys. We fought other people, not each other. Russ held Steve back while Jacko grabbed Douggie’s arms and helped me pull him off. He was throwing wild punches and swearing, his face distorted and ugly in the firelight, saliva and blood spraying as he screamed.
‘You bastard! You fucken bastard! You’re supposed to be my friend. How could you do that to me? How could you say that?’
‘Shit Douggie, I haven’t said anything. You’re crazy, bloody crazy!’
‘Fuck youse!’ roared Douggie and wrestled free of our arms, wriggling out of his jersey, leaving us holding only its emptiness, the shell of the boy that once was. He ran off into the foggy night, running from the demons that were chasing him.
He’s my little brother but I didn’t run after him. I sat there with the others, consoling Steve, drinking more, rolling another joint, shaking my head over Douggie losing it. I stayed on with our mates while he ran off into the darkness alone. Because I was afraid. I was afraid of the voices he heard that were so real to him, afraid that if I listened hard enough I would hear them too. And if I heard them then everyone would be shaking their heads over me, and calling me a ‘fucken crazy bastard’ too.
The fire died down and everyone but our gang went home. We didn’t have the strength left to move another bench, so we pissed on the embers till they were soaked and headed back to the cubby. We went back the secret way, scrambling along the creek-bank, sliding and falling into the mud.
Back at home I went to get some water from the laundry under the house. It was late, after three, Mum was asleep for sure. With any luck Douggie would’ve found his way to bed to sleep it off. There was no Dad to wake up. No Dad to come waving his belt as a threat, roaring at me about looking after my brother. Maybe Douggie would’ve been able to keep it together if Dad was still around. He was always Dad’s favourite. Douggie’s never been the same since Dad died. He’s too soft. It doesn’t pay to be soft. It’s different for me. I’m older. I’m hard.
I’m at the back of the house, the unmown grass wetting my jeans, when I hear them. The voices. I hear Douggie crying, telling Mum everything, about the fight and the drugs and the booze. Then I hear Mum, but it doesn’t sound like her. She isn’t yelling. She doesn’t even sound angry. Her voice is soft and low, coming from Douggie’s room, a gentle rumble, comforting him, telling him that everything’s going to be all right – that he’s going to be all right.
And I’m angry. Angry with Douggie for being so weak, for running and telling, for dobbing and getting us all into trouble. I’m angry and guilty and sad. A groan escapes from the back of my throat. He’s my little brother and I didn’t even stand by him. I should’ve stopped him smoking when he first started hearing shit. I should’ve taken the bong away, stopped him drinking, listened and tried to understand. But I didn’t do anything.
I stand cemented to the grass, listening and hating myself. The sound of Douggie’s pathetic whimpers and my mother comforting him, cuts me deeper than I can bear.
Forcing my legs to move I take the three extra steps to the laundry and pick up one of Mum’s empty vodka bottles from the floor. I turn on the cold tap over the grimy cement tub but it squeals and sings in its rusty pipes. I turn it off in a hurry but it’s too late. There’s quiet, then…
‘Brian?’ Mum calls. ‘Brian is that you? Come here, love.’
I don’t answer. I have no voice.
I drop the bottle smashing it into the tub, and run, my heart thumping, back down the hill to the cubby. Almost there I retch and heave, vomiting violently, black-red like old blood. I wipe my mouth and my eyes on my jersey and go back in to the fellas.
Everyone’s asleep but Steve. He’s holding the bong close to his battered lips and crying.
‘Shut up,’ I say and snatch the bong away.
I grab the whisky and drain the last of it in a couple of burning swigs. I pack and pull three huge cones in a row, till I can’t feel the ache in my guts anymore.
I’m sixteen. Douggie’s fifteen.
He isn’t all right. He’ll never be all right again.
When the police car pulls up in the driveway at home, it’s almost dawn. Kookaburras are laughing their heads off like it’s any other day. If I’m lucky, Mum won’t wake up to answer the door. But from where I’m sitting in the back, I see her already peeking out through the lounge room curtains. What the fuck am I going to say?
The pig beside me gets out and comes around to my door.
‘Can’t I just stay here?’
He keeps a firm grip on my arm as we trudge up the overgrown pathway, behind the other two cops.
They knock like only trouble can, hard and sharp, like gunshots.
I hear Mum inside rustling around, chucking things behind the couch. She’s still tying the cord on her dressing gown, and smoothing back her hair into an elastic when she edges the door open.
‘Yes, that’s me. That’s my son Brian you’ve got there. Bri?’ She holds out her hand towards me and I lift my eyes from my sneakers. Hope she can’t tell I’ve been crying.
Mum leans towards me, her arms stretched wide and I’d do anything just to drop into them and hide. Be ten again and let her take care of everything. I step closer to her but the pig beside me drags me back. ‘Hold your horses,’ he says.
Mum frowns and puts her hands on her hips. ‘What? What is it officer? What’s he done?’
‘There’s been an incident, Mrs. Spencer. Brian here has been charged with possession of a prohibited substance and is due to appear in court day after tomorrow.’ He checks his watch, ‘Make that tomorrow, at ten. Do you take full responsibility for his attendance?’
‘Incident? Illicit substance? What’s going on? A bit of pot? Is that it? I know my boys have been dabbling but they’re good boys really. You see they lost a good friend only a few months ago and their father…’
Oh shit, I hope she’s not going to tell the whole bloody story, break down like she usually does.
‘Mrs. Spencer I think we’d better come inside.’
‘No. I don’t think so. I know my rights. You just give me my boy and be on your way. I’ll be ringing my lawyer about this.’ She doesn’t really have a lawyer but it sounds pretty good. ‘Give me my boy.’
They let go of my shoulder and I let her hug me. Then something awful happens. I cry. Right there in front of the pigs. Can’t help it. Mum only comes up to my chin these days but there’s something about the way she holds me that makes me feel small. I struggle for breath, cling to her, trying to pull myself back together but I don’t know whether that’s possible. I feel like I’m a thousand piece jigsaw puzzle that’s been tipped onto the floor. Who knows if all the pieces are still there? It’s been one shit of a night. Once Mum finds out what I’ve done she may never hold me again.
She squints up at the police in the glare of the front-light.
‘What’s going on here? What’ve you done to my boy?’
‘Just calm down, Mrs. Spencer. We really need to come inside. There’s been an incident.’
‘You already said that. What is it? What he’s supposed to have done?’
‘Mrs. Spencer, it’s about your other son.’
‘Doug?’ she whispers. ‘Douggie?’ She sets her face for the worst, holding herself up on me. ‘He’s done it. He’s dead.’
‘No, Mrs. Spencer, he’s not dead. It’s not his life that’s in jeopardy. There’s been an incident, a serious incident. We really should come in.’
She tears me from her just like I knew she would. Shakes me. Hard. ‘Where’s your brother? Where’s Douggie? What’ve you done? Can’t you look after him for once in your life?’ She raises her hand like she’s going to slap my face but a policeman steps between us.
I open my mouth to tell her but nothing comes out except a groan.
To read more you’re going to have to buy the book I’m afraid!