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Authors: David Ireland

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The Chantic Bird (6 page)

BOOK: The Chantic Bird
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Don’t get me wrong; you can get a good feed any time you like, any place. But it was fun listening to Stevo, he and Chris were actually practising talking, and laughing to each other. Now and then there’d be a yell and Bee’s voice would appear on the sound track.

‘Who did that?’ she’d say.

‘Sum buddy,’ Stevo would answer and both would laugh. When Chris trod on his hand, he said gallantly, ‘My hand won’t hurt, Mum. I eat pickles.’ Food made strength straightaway for Stevo.

I could see him transferring Bee’s brown sugar from the basin to the lid. From the lid it went you know where. If he was caught, he’d say he was cleaning the lid. After a bit, he said, ‘I’m a little bit upset, Mummy.’

‘Why are you a little bit upset?’

‘’Cause I want to be a little bit upset.’ He just wasn’t game to own up.

The usual thing happened and he wet his pants. He got the stick for that.

‘Just a little stick,’ said Bee with a coaxing voice.

‘Lilly stick!’ he yelled as she hit his legs, and he hopped about, crying a bit.

‘Lift me up, Mummy. You’re a big girl now.’ I could have listened all day.

When Bee took them out for the afternoon walk, she made sure the kids went to the toilet first. But Stevo had some idea of being equal.

‘Mummy wee-wees, too.’ She laughed. It was a nice sound.

I got down through the manhole while they were out, and when Bee got back to do the ironing, there I was. She was never surprised to see me. She told me, soon as she clapped eyes on me, that Stevo was pretty upset that I walked out on him last time when he wanted to tell me his story. She said I should listen, because he looked up to me.

After being so close to Bee that I could have talked in a whisper and had her hear me, I just had to have a woman. Bee looked so good you could eat her. I bet if there was no religious prejudice against eating people there’d be a lot of killings. I’ve seen people with the sort of meat on them that you’d never find on a bullock or a smelly old sheep, although I think someone you liked would taste better than someone whose guts you hated. But that’s no good, you’d only kill the ones you liked. I feel peculiar when I even think of hurting Bee, not that I don’t think of it, but I couldn’t do it. Couldn’t. What I meant was what about all the famous lovers? They practically eat one another, what with kissing and slobbering and biting. To hear about them, you’d think there wasn’t any part of your girl friend that you couldn’t put on a plate with potato and peas.

Anyway, there I was back in the cemetery on the prowl. If you want to hear better and breathe quieter, the thing to do is open your mouth and breathe through it. You’d be surprised how many people have given themselves away with the sound of their breathing. And you’d be amazed if you knew how many times I’ve got away from someone simply by hearing them a few seconds before they heard me. I’m not exaggerating.

I’ve heard a person’s eyelids click. And I thought I was caught once, but what I could have sworn was a man muttering as he was about to grab me, was only two trees rubbing.

When I went prowling I often thickened up my eyebrows, wore a few extra clothes in case I had to shed some to get away, or else wore a leather jacket. You’d be surprised how frightened people are of a leather jacket. Kids dressed in leather get the blame for all sorts of things.

Mind you, I only had a go at the sheilas that needed a bit of excitement. Except when the young ones looked too good to miss. The one I got that day in the cemetery wasn’t too good-looking, in fact some people might say she was a bag. She was short and a bit wide. You’d call her a thick girl. You felt her thighs were rubbing together under the dress material.

She was one of those that can wreck a pair of shoes in one day; you know, they’re all over on one side with foot spilling everywhere and toes and heels roughed up. But she was a girl. Under her stringy hair, which was a sort of beige colour, she had this round face which was much the same colour. Come to think of it, her dress was beige, too.

Her legs were prickly where she had shaved, and I’d say she had about four days’ growth of stubble. Still, she was a girl. She didn’t have to shave her face, and that was a relief. She reminded me of a girl called Jean I knew when I was in Russell Lea kindergarten. Every afternoon we used to chew up wheat grains and make a sort of chewy mixture. It was great fun. Every afternoon for a week or two, I mean. I must have been one then, or five; some age like that.

She didn’t yell much. She was probably used to being attacked in the cemetery, lots of people hang around Rookwood. She even tried to kiss me. I didn’t like that because she had food around her teeth, where the teeth go into the gums, and as I sort of turned away, my elbow caught her on the side of the chops, and she got upset and lay face down, having a bit of a sob.

So just to round off what I actually meant to be a sexual attack, I got out my runny old Biro and wrote on her backside, ‘Neglected, exposed to moral danger’. She asked me what the words were and I said, ‘I love you’. The words didn’t come out too clearly because I hate saying ‘love’ and I always say it pretty softly, but she didn’t seem to doubt me. If she had asked me why there were more letters than you need to write I love you, I was going to say I went over the letters a couple of times, but she didn’t ask me. Two beetles on the ground joined up end to end, looking in opposite directions. Doing it because something inside commanded them. I tried not to think of my own parents.

There was another girl I saw later, she reminded me of a girl called Rene that I used to give rides on my pushbike when I was much younger, about eleven, and I was just about to slide out from behind someone’s big flat slab and race up behind her, lift and gag her in one move and keep going for the grass on the other side of the road, when I heard the clatter of a car on the loose board of one of the bridges over the culverts. I took that as a sign of danger and let her go. Some days I get very superstitious.

When you grab a girl like the beige girl, you’re not really attacking her. Not even molesting. If you were, you’d soon see headlines in all the papers. The trouble with the kids that end up in court is, they ditch the girl as soon as they get satisfaction and generally treat her like a bit of dirt. If they took the trouble to take her out somewhere and let her down easy, they’d be free. Unless you get a real hard case girl that’s been brought up wrong with a chip on her shoulder against men. Then you’re in strife, and you may have to finish her off.

I played a joke on the cemetery keeper, or whatever they call him. The one that goes round just to see everything is falling to pieces at the right rate. There’d been a cave-in in one of the crypts, the kind where rich people get buried. Someone had been in there, young kids probably, and opened the newest coffin. All I did was move the coffin near the entrance, and took out the old girl inside it and propped her up where you’d see her if you were checking up on cave-ins. She looked like the old landlady we had, I used to have to go up and give her the rent; Ma wouldn’t go, she said the landlady gave her the creeps, what with being so old and looking dead till you said, ‘Hem’, in your throat.

‘Live and let live,’ she’d say. The landlady. Anyway, this cadaver was sitting up; I spread her arms and took the cloth off her. I was surprised there wasn’t more of a smell, but her appearance was frightful. I had to get a fair way away from the crypt to watch, I even had to leave a trail of bottles and papers to draw the man’s attention to my little trick, but it was worth it. You should have seen that man go to water when he clapped eyes on the poor old lady corpse propped up there starkers.

Of all people, why did I turn out to be me? Now and again I get the miserables, I can’t help it. I was leaning up against a tall flat slab with a round point at the top, and a spot on the right side of my head, above the ear, rubbed on the slab edge. At the same time I got a funny tickle on the right side of my neck, at the back. I did it some more, and got the same tickle. I thought about it for a bit, then I felt so sleepy I went straight to sleep in the sun, between two old granite blocks.

They were all done up in a lot of clothes and smarmed with greases and powders as if their fine ageing bodies held a great mystery and must be preserved. I stood on the edge of the crowd round the hole in the ground that the men in the yellow digging machine had made the day before. They were singing songs I didn’t know, but I joined in with bits of songs I had picked up from juke boxes and top of the pops parades. I couldn’t actually say I know one song right through. Not one. Only the very old ones my auntie Olive used to sing when I was a very young kid. And you never hear them now. So there I was, leaning backwards against a thin whitish stone and mumbling the words that came into my head, like ‘Shake it, baby, pretty-eyed baby, you’re the neatest one, paper-doll baby, let’s move, you hear me, let’s move it, c’mawn baby, get me outa here…’ And so on. I didn’t mean anything by it, except I’d never sung at a funeral before, not even my brother’s, or Ma’s, or the old man’s. It didn’t seem the right thing to do. Just shutting up would have been better. Silence. While they put on their clay blanket. And the funeral car men fidgeting around their cars, dying to get away, and trying to have a smoke without anyone seeing.

Anyway, this slab I was leaning against broke. That put me down on top of a vegemite jar of plastic flowers. I was still riding the slab so I didn’t cut myself when the jar broke, although I did have time to hear the nice sound of the breaking glass. And they chased me. Right in the middle of the singing, with the box still topside. The whole lot of them, except a couple of thick old ladies. I think the average person has a lot of savagery in him, far more than you’d think to see him standing with no hat on looking at the ground, making no comment and listening to the sound of some tired old minister mooning on and on, lie after lie. You couldn’t help agreeing if you’d seen those mourners chase me. The car drivers didn’t move. They took their cigarettes out from behind their backs and smoked openly.

Mourners have more speed than you’d think. By the way, if you don’t think it’s fair what I said about the lies, you listen at your next funeral. It’s the ministers’ fault. No one is as good as they say; no one is an inspiration for good; no one is a kind, good, generous, loving person. At odd times a few are, but the way they put it you’d assume they were like that all the time. People are just people; dirty and clean, good and mean, generous and dishonest. Actually the average person is pretty rotten, if you ask me.

I got away, but some of the young ones nearly caught me. They’d had no exercise all day, what with standing around waiting, so they were fresh. I ran into the shade in a culvert and got my breath back in the cool. I laughed a bit about the slab, I can still hear the thick crack of it, and the sort of shrieky laugh of the glass.

It’s not much fun singing in the street, but if you keep saying to yourself that the listeners are rubbish, you can do it easily enough. I tidied my clothes, specially around the neck—people like you to be neat around the collar and wet my hair with some beer and sang a few songs outside a pub not far from the cemetery. This got me enough for a good meal and a couple of schooners of beer. I can get served in a pub because I’m sort of big for my age. Funny thing, to get served in a pub I have to ruffle my collar and mess up the old hair.

I didn’t feel cold that night. I walked about a bit on the cemetery roads thinking of things like you do when you’ve had a few beers and nowhere special to go, about Ma being dead and the optician still sending cards asking her to come and get her eyes tested, and the kids I used to play with and fight with, some of them are respectable now with jobs and higher purchase, but they look old. And how when the old man was lowered away, his brother, my uncle, that broke his nose with a brass candlestick, had tears in his eyes, which I thought was a fine thing, and how the other uncle gave me an old watch he had no use for, but he was a Brother and wouldn’t eat with us, not even a cup of tea…It wouldn’t surprise me if they found parents and grown-up people to be the cause of kids like me and my naughty ways: they do the stupidest things, and try to make life complicated all the time.

I saw a funny thing over where the slabs end and the houses start. A man was waving a light to stop people going down a hole in the road, quite a few people come through the grounds after dark—the cemetery’s a short cut to some places—but a man on a rusty bike thought it was someone like me up to tricks and swerved away. Naturally he went down the hole. It made me laugh, but I didn’t stop thinking. I remembered my old man calling me in to his room, he had TB and had to have a room of his own, he asked me what I was going to do. He meant when I was older. I told him the first thing that came into my head, but when he said that it was getting dark up the street I knew something was wrong. A few mornings later Ma told me they were coming for him, so I tried to shave him with his own razor. I got a lot of stubble off but the parts near his chin were thick and strong and I left him with half a beard. They did a better job at Randwick. When he was dying and making a great racket in his throat I slept on the billiard table—I’d gone to visit him, it was only about the third time in three years—but in the morning he was dead, and they wouldn’t let Ma see him.

Thinking about that reminded me of the girl I had when I turned sixteen. I must have made life hard for her, she had a small breakdown. It was plain enough to me that after a couple of days in hospital she’d be as good as a bought one, but why did she break down? What is it inside you that breaks? She was always nervy, very anxious to please everyone. Don’t be like that. Don’t be anxious to please everyone. Maybe she was pretending to have a breakdown.

Talking about breaking down, that was always a good trick in the cemetery. You get out of your car and wave to people when they come past, as if you’re broken down. When they get out, you jump them. Easy. Another good trick was to put heaps of gunpowder out of bangers in the middle of the road, then light them in front of cars. Kids I know bet on whether the driver will swerve or throw out the anchor. You should see the cars stand on their noses. If people went around prepared—ready for anything—as if they were in a jungle and the next minute might be their last they wouldn’t get so het up about a simple little emergency.

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