‘You’ll be back.’ He yanks the heavy metal gate open.
Predictable. But you’re not going to let a screw’s sarcasm get you. Not now. You stand your backpack up on the trolley, squat, grab it around the middle, lift it through the last gate. They said you’d be leaving first thing in the morning not after the lunchtime muster, but at least you’re out and have the rest of your life ahead. Where the shadow of the sandstone wall ends, the pavement radiates heat. You can think of things you’d rather hug than a backpack. Keep your gob shut until the gate clanks. For the last time.
The backpack’s heavy. Not like you’re out of shape or anything. Never been in better nick. You hoist it up by the straps, attempt to swing it onto your shoulders. Good move you gave your telly to one of the cooks. Just after you’d gotten clean, he’d piled your plate with mashed spuds. That kind of friendship counted.
Rach is waiting outside some fish and chip shop she’s crazy to visit. She’s come up to take you back to Wollongong to live with her. Help you find the dole office when you get there. Maybe she’ll cook a roast dinner to celebrate. That’s what big sisters are for.
Lighten the load. You hope Chalkie isn’t watching the books sail out of your hand and into the bin – level 2 English, the dictionary, Streetwize comics with emergency phone numbers, veggie maths, a history of your own people. No offence to her or the teachers. You transfer the squashed sandwiches and the bruised banana to an outside pocket of the pack. Just in case. Jump the backpack onto your shoulders and walk towards the road to Sydney. You have to cross four lanes of traffic to get to the bus stop. Whoever planted natives on the divider didn’t bother to water them. There’s still enough time to get to the dole office.
You carried Kaila in the backpack when you were in Year 10 and she was almost one. As soon as the high school lunch bell rang, you’d sauntered across the playground, nipped behind the sheds, hurried across the dirt track next to the field and loped towards home. Skye’s flat was home, the housing commission flats. Only a few k’s from here. If Skye was awake you sneaked back to school in time for sixth period. If she wasn’t, Kaila would need to be changed and fed. Carried in the backpack to the park. Skye was fourteen years older than you, old really, but, whatever. She didn’t mother you or anything, and you cared for Kaila like she was your own daughter.
The bus shelter’s roof is bashed in. No shade. The sun bounces off a couple of syringes on the paving around the side. You don’t need them now, but your mates inside would give anything. The traffic whizzing past stirs the air around. Just as you lean over to pick up the fits a car swerves to the curb near the row of liver brick flats and skids to a stop, spraying gravel on the dried out nature strip. The driver’s door opens and a bloke in a mustard tee-shirt gets out and checks a front tyre. Looks you over too. You’re standing at a bus stop outside a gaol, carrying everything you own. Your situation is tattooed all over your dark skin. You squint into the glare until the bloke slams the door and roars off. A freak out. The traffic flies by, streaks of red and white, yellow and white, puke green. Sweat’s running down the back of your neck. He might not have been after anything. Maybe you should’ve gone over to the car. Asked for a lift. You pay out for never being friendly enough. Or you save yourself. Hard to know. Leave the fits for someone who needs them. Bat the flies away.
Almost three hours before the appointment. Nothing between you and the dole office but the two buses and train to the Gong. Rach’ll take you to the pub after, introduce you around. The bus when it finally pulls up is packed with kids in school uniforms. Must be on an excursion. You get on anyway. Only going a couple of stops. Kaila’s five now, in kindy.
How long since you felt air-conditioning?
You took two stairs at a time when you heard Kaila crying, turned the key, picked her up from the drawer she slept in. She was eight weeks old when you moved in. You learned to wash the bottle and heat the milk fast to stop the crying. Often by the time Skye got out of bed and took the baby with her to score, it was too late to sneak back to school.
A boy in school uniform sitting on the bus seat next to you gets up and stands in the aisle. Stares at the tatts on your arms. Your legs. You’re a leper. Scum. But Kaila wouldn’t be afraid, she’ll remember the way you took care of her.
You remember walking to school. Kindy. When everyone sits down we’ll have a story. We are all waiting for you, Gavin. You liked the story about the Scottie dog. Maybe the cats in Scotland came in funny shapes too. Scottie cats? Suppose Kaila asked you things like that? Skye’d say, How the fuck would I know what fuckin’ cats look like in fuckin’ Scotland?
On the footpath a man in shorts leads a little girl by the hand. Her father? Grandpa? A pervert? Who could tell? You sent Kaila a card with the release date printed in big letters. Drew a picture of the two of you carrying fishing poles like cartoon Kooris carrying spears. She always laughed at your jokes. Kids don’t forget.
You check the directions on the piece of paper and get off the bus near the fish and chip shop. Rach said she’d be early. Maybe she came earlier. Or her train’s late.
Don’t look over your shoulder to check who’s staring. Don’t turn around and don’t look down. Focus on the picture painted on the shop window – a blue fish with a bloodshot eye and twisted lips. Too many hooks. Poor bloody fish.
An hour of freedom wasted at bus stops. You go into the shop, the only shop within sight, and buy a bag of chips. Not bad. You sit on one of the benches outside sucking petrol fumes and chip fat. Of all the places to meet in Sydney, why did Rach pick this spot? Must’ve scored here or something. Should have insisted on meeting at the Country Trains Platform.
Don’t look down or you’ll get into feelings. Look straight ahead, chin level with the ground the way the gaol psych taught in NLP. Neu-ro Lin-guis-tic Pro-gram-ming taught you a thing or two. Handy to check out what others are thinking. If they’re looking high left they’re lying, high right and they’re imagining or remembering. When the psych with the shiny clean-shaven cheeks said to visualise the colour of the first house you lived in, you lied. Everyone else in the group had lived in a house. You had to lie.
A skinny guy is sitting opposite you under the window of the fish and chips. Teeth missing. Pumpkin grin all over his dial.
You lower the pack to the ground, face the other way, run your fingers through the number two clip the do-gooder nun gave you. Too short. It’s like everyone can read what you’re thinking, a cartoon bubble floating over your skull. You have questions ready to ask Rach if she shows up. Is NLP just a con job for shrinks to get their fingers into someone’s brains?
A bus stops four lanes across the road and two chicks get off. Shame their skirts aren’t shorter. Sensational legs. One has curly brown hair, thick glasses, long long legs. Last time you saw her, Rach’s hair was pulled back, a ratty fringe attempting to disguise how craggy her face looked. Probably she’d wear sunnies and a peaked cap. Might even bring a spare cap she’d picked up at St Vinnies for fifty cents. You take out a scrap of paper and add – NLP common knowledge? Everyone must recognise a junkie who’s just gotten out. Probably looking for track marks. But everyone has them. Everyone who’s shot up with a communal fit sharpened on paving. You could have rinsed those fits in vinegar from the chips.
Several people stand near the entrance to some medical offices, smoking. A woman hurries outside, down the steps, flicks a yellow plastic lighter. She smokes a tailor-made in three breaths. What a waste. She scrubs the sole of her shoe on the pavement to crush the life out of the butt, and pivots to go back inside fast. Needs a chill pill. You’d learned to make every drag last, then given it up in seggro. The skinny guy definitely is eyeing you over.
In one of the exercises you were supposed to visualise a person you were scared of. The psych said, now picture this person a little shorter than you, then shrink him to knee high. Look down at the top of his head, move him closer. You pictured the smart ass crim in the weights yard. You made him drop the weights, wiped the sneer off his ugly face, then scooted him around like something in a video game. Dress him in something ugly. You snort when you remember the bubblegum pink dressing gown, his hand holding the toilet brush, cover your nose and mouth with your hand too late to muffle the noise. When the psych asked you to do the exercise again, you shrank Dad, tied an apron around his gut, added oven mitts. Do this if someone is giving you a hard time, the psych had said. Don’t give them the satisfaction of seeing your anger. You don’t even have to speak. Maybe NLP has its uses. You didn’t tell the psych anything he hadn’t already read in the report with your name on the top.
The heat is rising from the street in dry waves. Another bus pulls up. No peaked cap gets off. No Rach. The skinny guy pulls out a packet of Drum.
The Parole Board is cool about you living at her flat. You know fuck all about Wollongong which is a good thing. No fear of running into old dealers, or junkies who think you owe them, no fear about Skye getting you to score. No history at the dole office or the cop station. But you’d rather stay in Sydney to see Kaila.
‘Mate?’ the skinny guy on the bench calls out. He extends the hand holding the packet.
Rach mentioned a job in the kitchen of the pub where she works. Can’t be worse than the gaol kitchen. If you can work for a screw you can work for anyone.
You’d lost the kitchen job for calling the screwess a clueless lardy cunt. Earned a week in seggro. One side of the zoo cage was metal bars, with most of the paint scraped off. The other sides were sandstone covered in layers of ice blue paint. Paint so thick you couldn’t read the carved messages. You wouldn’t forget the stainless steel crapper without a seat or lid set smack in the middle of the cage, facing into the corridor. With your habit, having a shit took a week. The welfare worker and one of the teachers had turned their faces away when they walked by, but the screws, even the women, gawked. Screaming obscenities won you more days in the slammer.
How were you supposed to get dope when you never saw another crim? You’d had to stop using. Then they had nothing to hold over you. Withdrawal gave you the shits, same as it always did, but also choices.
A mutt darts from behind the fish and chip shop, between the parked cars, into the traffic. Brakes screech. Yelps rise above the honking, the crash of metal. The skinny guy stares at you. You shrug. Kaila’s still too young to be allowed to cross streets alone.
In seggro your stomach cramped-up, eyes, nose and guts streamed, and your head ached so bad you never thought of correspondence courses, let alone exams. Then Chalkie brought the exams down to your cage. She wouldn’t start timing until you had a table and chair.
‘He can sit on the crapper,’ a screw said.
Chalkie said examination conditions meant a desk or table and a chair.
‘Who’s responsible if fuckface here decides to heave furniture?’
‘I’ll phone the Ombudsman and ask?’ Chalkie said, all snide.
It’d taken two screws to edge a park bench into your cage. As if you were a maniac. As if you wanted to heave furniture. You hadn’t wanted to, that was the thing. You just wanted to pass the exams. To learn. To excel. You liked the feel of the word in your mouth. Excel. The way the tip of your tongue flicked the roof of your mouth. Excel. Excellent. That’s exactly what you wanted. And they’ve gone and made you chuck all the books in the bin. Fucking cunts. Hardly your fault if no one picks you up.
As the skinny bloke approaches, his pumpkin head flickers. The sun touching his cheekbone or something. Your hand reaches for the Drum.
A quick look to see if big sis is shimmering through the waves of heat. Nope. Only twenty minutes before the train leaves. Then you would have had an hour and a half with nothing to do but stare at the talent. Where the fuck is Rach, anyway? Not the first time she’s let you down. Once something like this happens it’s always the same. There’s no moving on. It’s meant.
It was meant that winter afternoon when Skye first let you snort her smack. You both thought so. You can bunk at her place if Rach doesn’t show. See if the kid remembers you this time. Just one hit would be a bit of all right. The Parole Board doesn’t have to know everything.
The pumpkin head flickers again, brighter this time.