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Authors: Vincent O'Sullivan

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BOOK: Owen Marshall Selected Stories
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Arty and Ken didn't go over at all. Arty pretended he'd seen a big trout in the hole beneath the bridge, and he and Ken went down and poked under the bank with a stick. When we came back over the bridge, we couldn't see any big trout in the hole. ‘Want to go over the pipe again?' said Creamy mildly.

‘That's hard work, that.' Matthew was always honest.

‘Good, though,' said Creamy.

As we scuffed about in the shingle at the end of the bridge, a horse and rider came past. The horse paused and, with flaunting tail, deposited vast rolls of waste. Matthew watched the horse with awe. ‘I bet horses are the biggest shitters around,' he said.

‘No, in proportion guinea pigs are far greater shitters,' said Creamy.

‘Guinea pigs?'

‘Yeah, in proportion they are.'

‘Rabbits are good shitters,' said Arty.

‘I don't see how anything could beat horses and elephants,' said Ken. As an ally he weakened Matthew's argument. The rest of us
recognised the subtlety of Creamy's reasoning.

‘Guineas are by far the best shitters in proportion.' Creamy knew he was right. ‘Imagine a guinea pig as big as a horse. Now there would be a shitter.'

‘Yeah,' said Matthew in wonder, and capitulation.

We had a swim, and threw fennel spears at each other during the rest of the afternoon. We forgot about the time, and Ken's sister came looking for him. She left her bike by the road, and came down to the fence, calling out for Ken. ‘You've got to come home,' she said. Her breasts caused furrows across the material of her blouse.

‘Have you been eating too much, or something,' said Arty. We had a good laugh at that witticism. ‘Turning into a moo-vie star,' continued Arty, pleased with his reception. He tucked his thumbs into his shirt, and paraded before her and us.

‘Oh, get lost,' she said. She began to go back up the bank towards the road. ‘You'd better come, Ken. You know what'll happen,' she said.

‘Hubba hubba, ding ding, look at the tits on that thing,' we sang.

‘Watch out for Rainbow Johnston,' I called out.

‘Hey, Rainbow, here she is.'

‘Quick, Rainbow.'

For the first time Ken's sister seemed flustered. She looked back along the riverbank, and then hurried on to her bike. I don't know why I called out about Rainbow. Perhaps, in looking at her smooth legs and breasts, I found some part of Rainbow in myself, some desire to reach out and pinch her, or twist her arm, or worse.

Ken stayed a little longer, trying to show he wasn't afraid of being late, but we soon all began straggling back down the road. Creamy and I walked the last part together. ‘I'm looking forward to the full summer,' I said. Creamy agreed. He played with his knucklebones, and whistled as he walked, his upper lip funnelling out and creating a very clear, penetrating whistle. His shoes, worn by water and grass
during the afternoon, were almost white at the toes. Creamy stopped whistling, and asked me if Ken and Matthew were the two I liked best at High School. I told him I quite liked them.

‘I'm getting sick of Arty,' said Creamy thoughtfully. ‘You know that. I'm finding Arty pretty much of a pill.'

‘So am I,' I said. Creamy tossed his aluminium knucklebones up and down again in the palm of his hand. We were nearly at the street where Creamy turned off. ‘You didn't mind Ken and Matthew being there?' I asked him.

Creamy didn't give any glib answer. He walked on for a while.

‘I suppose it's selfish to just have one or two friends,' he said. ‘I suppose as you get older, you meet more and more people and make friends with them. Only I don't seem to find as many as you. There's an awful lot like Arty.'

As Creamy went off home, I thought about that. For the first time I realised that, despite being good at everything, Creamy didn't have that many friends. Being good at everything was in itself a disadvantage even. That's what was the matter with Arty. He resented Creamy's ability. Somewhere, sometime, he'd like to see Creamy take a fall.

The next Saturday I went again. Ken couldn't come, but Matthew and Arty did. I hadn't seen Creamy, but I thought he'd be there. He had another Tech boy with him. None of us knew him. He had eyebrows that grew right across the top of his nose. I'd never seen anyone with one long eyebrow like that before. His name was Warwick Masters. When he thought something was funny, he let his head fall forward, bouncing on his chest, and gave a snuffling laugh on the indrawn breath.

Creamy and I hadn't had any snail hunts that summer. No decision was made not to, we just didn't do it. As third formers we were growing out of snail hunts, and into more fitting things like knucklebones, and calling hubba hubba, ding ding, at Ken's sister. Yet the way Warwick treated the snails made me so angry I could feel
my throat becoming tight. ‘Christ Almighty,' said Warwick, ‘look at these snails.' He reached into the fennel walls of the hut, and plucked out the snails. ‘Just look at these snails, will you.' He let his head bounce on his chest, and gave his idiotic, sucking laugh. He arranged a line of them by the wall, then smashed each one with his fist. The shells cracked like biscuits, and what was left of the snails seemed to swell up in visceral agony after Warwick's fist was lifted. Creamy made no attempt to stop him. He hardly seemed to notice what he was doing.

‘Don't do that,' I said to Warwick.

‘Bloody snails.'

‘It only makes a mess in the hut.'

‘Stiff,' said Warwick. ‘That's really stiff.'

‘Just leave them alone.'

‘Yeah?'

‘Yeah.'

‘Yeah?'

‘Yeah.' The verbal sparring quickened into a semblance of humour, and Warwick bounced his head and laughed.

‘Anyway,' said Arty, ‘I don't think you Tech guys should come to the hut.'

‘It's always been my hut too,' said Creamy seriously. Three summers are an accepted eternity when one is young.

‘Its got to be either Tech or High ground,' said Matthew. He liked things simple for his own peace of mind. ‘All the places got to be either Tech or High.' Matthew's simplicity had found the truth. All the places that mattered in our town were either High or Tech ground. The territories were marked, and only the adults in their naivety were unaware. My father never understood why I wouldn't take the short cut through the timber yard on my way to school.

‘This side of the bridge is ours,' said Arty.

‘But it's closest to the Tech swimming hole.'

‘Stiff.'

Warwick picked up some of the squashed snails and quickly wiped them down Arty's face, then crashed away through the fennel a few paces, and stood bouncing his head and snorting. Creamy's subtle and unique face creased with delight, but he made no movement. Arty flung the remaining mess of snails at him, and urged Matthew to grab him. ‘Grab him, Matthew, grab him.' Creamy dodged Matthew's first clumsy attempt. He seemed as if he were about to say something, but Arty got in first. ‘High on to Tech,' he shouted.

‘Yeah,' I heard myself say, but without reason. It seemed to come from a surface part of me, and not deeper where I thought things out. Creamy slipped from the hut, and stood with Warwick.

‘For today you mean,' he said, smiling. Creamy loved a battle.

‘For always,' said Arty. Arty was pleased that at last he had something over Creamy. Creamy was Tech, and the rest of us were High. Creamy was quicker, stronger, better at knucklebones and swinging under the bridge, a true friend, but he was Tech. Arty, like most weak people, enjoyed advantages he couldn't himself create. ‘For always. No more Tech farts on the bank. Fight you for it.'

It was three on to two, but that didn't worry Creamy. He had a sense of occasion, though, did Creamy. If it had to be Tech against High after all, then it should be done on a fitting scale. ‘Th ursday night then,' said Creamy. His full upper lip expanded as he thought about it, and his eyes took on the visionary look with which he regarded his schemes. A look that hinted at the appreciation of more colours than existed in the spectrums of the rest of us. ‘On Thursday after school we'll have the full fight between Tech and High for the bank. You get all you can, and we'll meet you. All out war.'

‘I don't know,' said Arty. ‘Maybe we should set rules and numbers.' Arty's brief moment of initiative was over; Creamy had, as always, taken control.

‘All out war,' he repeated, and Warwick's head bounced and his laugh sounded through the fennel.

‘Is it really all out war?' I said. I could see Creamy's face not many
paces away, but he didn't answer. ‘All out?' I said. Creamy's face was relaxed and droll, so difficult to read.

‘Full scale,' cried Warwick. ‘Tech against High.' And still Creamy didn't answer.

‘We'll win easily,' said Matthew. ‘We can round up a dozen or more easily.'

‘Look out for Rainbow Johnston, that's all,' called Warwick. He went off, laughing, to follow Creamy, who had turned away and begun walking towards the fence below the bridge.

I watched Creamy climb up to the road with Warwick, and I knew it had happened. I knew that him going to Tech and me going to High had ruined our friendship after all. I looked at Arty and Matthew standing by the hut, and I knew that neither of them was half the friend that Creamy had been. ‘Do you think they'll really get Rainbow?' said Arty hollowly.

‘I've heard things about Rainbow. I think we need plenty of guys.' Matthew's slow logic was depressing.

‘Can we get enough, though?' said Arty.

‘Jesus, Arty,' I said, ‘will you stop moaning.'

That week at school we started getting as many allies as we could. Arty wrote the names down at the back of his pad. He had two lists — one headed possibles and one headed probables, like trial teams. There were some names in the possibles that I hardly knew. Not even all the probables were at the gate after school on Thursday, though. Arty himself didn't show up until we were just about to go. We told him he was trying to get out of it. ‘No I'm not. I'm coming, of course I'm coming. I just had to put off other things, that's all. What do you think of this stick?' Arty had a short piece of sawn timber. He hit it against the fives courts, and then tried not to show that he'd jarred his hand. ‘I reckon I'm ready,' he said.

We began walking towards the river, but a car drew up over the road, and the man driving it called out to Arty. It was Arty's father. Arty went over and talked with him, then came partly back.
‘Wouldn't you know it,' he said. ‘I've got to go up to the hospital for my tests. It has to be tonight.' With Arty's father watching from the car, it wasn't any use saying much. ‘Maybe the Tech will be there again tomorrow night. I'll be right for tomorrow.'

‘Sure,' said Ken. Arty walked over the road quickly. As he got into the car he let his stick slip on to the roadway.

‘He rang his dad,' said Lloyd. ‘That's what he did.' Arty couldn't meet our eyes as the car pulled away.

‘What a dunny brush he turned out to be,' said Matthew and we laughed. I was on the point of telling them what Creamy had said about Arty. Creamy had him picked all right, then I remembered that Creamy had become the enemy.

That left seven of us. Matthew, Ken, Lloyd, Buzz Swanson and the Rosenbergs. And me, of course. As we got closer to the bridge, I had a strange feeling that our group was becoming smaller, although the number remained the same. Ken was walking beside me, and I saw how frail he was. His legs were so thin they seemed swollen at the knees to accommodate the joints. He had little, white teeth that looked as if they were his first set. Even as Ken smiled at me, I thought to myself that he was going to be useless. I didn't want to be by Ken when we were fighting. I'd keep by Matthew. Matthew's dirty knees were comfortingly large, and he plodded on resolutely. ‘Perhaps we should scout around first, and find out how many of them there are,' I said to Matthew.

‘I've got to be home by half past five,' said Ken. I bet you do, Ken, I bet you do, I thought. I resolved that not only would I stick with Matthew when it started, I'd make sure Ken wasn't protecting my back. I had some idea it was going to be like the musketeers of Dumas, us back to back against the odds of the Tech boys.

We stood on the raised road leading up to the bridge, and looked over the bank from the fence, across the frothing fennel to the greywacke shingle of the riverbed, where the larger stones crouched like rabbits in the afternoon sun. Creamy stepped out from the cover
of the willows two hundred yards away. He raised one arm slowly and lowered it again. It caught the significance of our presence, as a hawk becomes the sky. It had nothing to do with friendship, or compromise: it was a sign of recognition. It was a sign of deeper cognisance too, in that we were there. Unlike Arty and the others on the list, we had come. So Creamy acknowledged our equality of hostility.

Life was drama when we were young. The power of it made Lloyd's voice shake when he reminded us to keep together as we broke our way through the fennel. Creamy watched us coming for a bit, then disappeared behind the willows. ‘Where are they?' said Ken. They were below the bank, where the terrace met the riverbed. As if to answer Ken's question, they began throwing stones which snicked through the fennel.

‘Let's head for the willows,' I said. The Tech harried us as we went. I could hear Warwick's indrawn laugh, and I had a desultory stick fight with a boy who used to be in cubs with me. The Rosenberg twins were the best fighters on our side. They probably had the least notion as to why we were there in the first place, but they were the best fighters all right. They seemed to fight intuitively as one person, four arms and four feet. They rolled one Tech kid over the bank, and winded him on the shingle below. Matthew seemed unable to catch anyone to fight in this sort of guerrilla warfare. Nobody took him on, but he was too slow to take on anybody himself. He kept moving towards the willows, and we skirmished about him.

BOOK: Owen Marshall Selected Stories
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