I am twelve years old. I sit, perched high in the old magnolia tree that shoots, serpentine and massive, from the depths of my childhood garden and out into deep blue Summer sky. I am reading a book – probably something from Stephen King’s sprawling back-catalogue, a recent and heady obsession that my parents whole-heartedly disapprove of – and humming absently to myself, engrossed in a world of shape-shifting clowns and exterminator cars; of hotels that drive men to madness and death.
A ricochet of sound splinters high and fast through old wood and past my earlobe, and – almost dropping my book into the abyss of flowers and dirt below – I thrash around like a lunatic on high alert, looking, paranoid, for an overzealous mosquito or wasp. As I do so, I barely register the rain of tiny crimson dots falling haphazardly across the naked milk of my exposed legs. I’ve been hit.
A voice, alien in its accent and somehow both nowhere and all around me: “Hello.”
I search for the owner. Below, obscured by a canopy of evergreen leaves and the rotting wood of our old picket fence, stands a boy about half my height with curly hair, a wry smile and a handful of small stones.
“My name’s Tariq,” he says. “What’s yours?”
Tariq and I become fast friends, bonding quickly over our mutual dislike of girls (a regular catch-cry of ours becomes “BAGS NOT BABY BORN!” or “BAGS NOT MY MODEL!”, as though the worst thing a boy could be is some sort of plastic plaything for girls to fawn over), of homework (“My mum doesn’t make me do it. She can’t,” Tariq boasts, and I groan, sick with envy), of the neighbourhood in which we live. Most weekends we meet in my old magnolia tree, drinking in the hours before ten am, and stay out as the sun dies, heavy in the sky – usually until his mother comes, beseeching.
“Tariq!”, she calls, following this up with a stream of words spat like bullets in a language I don’t understand; a language that sounds thick and hot and excitingly other. I notice that Tariq always replies in English, which seems to anger his mother even more: she stands, a stony, regal figure draped in fabrics the colours of blood and buttercups, eyes wild, full of heat and passion, darting between her son, myself, and back to her son again. Finally she stalks away, back to the house, ostensibly to get Tariq’s father, who’ll yell louder, punish harder.
Tariq talks big, but the moment his mother turns her back he shimmies, feline and lithe, down the tree, and follows her inside – never bothering to say goodbye, except for a cursory glance and nod over his shoulder, always performed a few steps out from the lure of his back door. I wonder, sometimes, what would happen if I didn’t keep my spot, waiting obediently at the top of the tree to return his curt nod. I don’t try my luck.
One Saturday night he invites me over for dinner. I’ve never been inside his house before, but am delighted to find it smells like foreign and mystical herbs, smokey incense and the mouthwatering allure of meat. The walls and carpets are all the same rich red and yellow as his mother’s scarves, all given a ghostly, otherworldly quality by a lighting scheme centred round low-hanging lamps and sweet-smelling candles. His mother magicks up a meal of succulent chicken and honeyed yellow rice quite unlike the bland grains of mush my own mother provides.
“Saffron,” his mother smiles, handing me a plate and running a perfectly manicured hand through my hair – a very fashionable bowl-cut. A beat, and her eyes soften somehow, hazel pools drinking, pulling me in. “My mother taught me how.”
That night I sleep on tenterhooks, tangled in the thick and downy rug that covers the raw floorboards of Tariq’s bedroom, and dream restless images of alluring, foreign cooking, of ghastly trees etched in dark black veins, of tiny pebbles with wings and needlepoint stingers jutting out of every surface, crawling, swarming ‘cross my naked chest and up my neck, into my eyes, my nostrils, my mouth.
I wake with a start, a stream of sweat sliding hard and fast down my chest. Tariq stands above me, fully dressed, a piece of toast in hand.
“Get dressed,” he says. “I know what we’re gonna do this morning.”
The sun is hot, beating cruel upon our necks and we stand, stone still, in front of an imposing wooden door.
“It’s your turn,” Tariq whispers. “I did the last one.” My hand, shaking slightly, peculiar in its look, floats up despite my misgivings, and begins to clench into fist. “Remember,” he says. “We only run when they open the door – not before.”
My hand slams forceful into the painted wood – once, twice – and in an orgy of fury the door blasts open to reveal a towering bear of a man clad only in white boxer briefs.
“IDIOT!”, he screams – though I don’t hear him. There’s a ringing in my ears, the ringing of true terror, of an overbearing survival instinct – my brain on autopilot, spasming, whispering: run, run, run run runrunRUN. Tariq and I turn but it’s too late – a gargantuan hand, rough like hewn bricks, jets out and slides round each of our necks, pulling us up off the ground.
Silence, now, and both Tariq and I are limp, afraid somehow that if we move this man will snap our necks.
A pause, and he turns us around, slowly, his face red, veins mapping the rage and confusion on his ursine features.
“Now. Where do you live?”
I burst into tears.
My mother’s justice is swift and to the point: no television for a month, and no more Tariq. He’s a bad influence, she says, and I deserve better.
“Deserve better?,” I ask. “What does that mean?”.
My mother tells me she’s seen him key someone’s car, she’s seen the way he looks at me, at other people – and now this. My mother says I used to be a good boy. A complacent boy. Like lightning, a brutal, shit-eating idea washes toxic across my mind.
“I know what this is,” I say. “You just don’t like the idea of me having friends from other countries.” I turn and advance on her, now, cheshire grin split wide and smug as I declare at the top of my lungs: “You’re a racist, that’s what you are! A racist!”.
My mother slaps me and leaves the room, the distaste, the hurt of my words written in her eyes. I turn to follow her – perhaps to apologise, perhaps to rile her further – as a face appears in the window. It’s Tariq; eyes bulging, ashen-faced and frightened.
He is crying.
I march down the street, head screaming sick and loud with thoughts of retribution. Behind me trots a small blonde girl – a girl named Jessica, with whom I once made sugared milk – with hair and skin the colour of braised butter, buzzing, excited to be included.
“We’re gonna get him?”, she smiles, her voice contorted, a faux-snarl full of bravado that doesn’t particularly suit her. “We’re gonna do it?”.
I think of my mother. Of the hurt in her eyes and the same softness mirrored in the eyes of Tariq’s mother.
“Yeah,” I reply, my voice not my own. “We are.”
We stand out the front of the offending house that had only a day earlier been the playing space for – in my pre-teen mind – a tragedy of Shakespearean proportions. I search the property for signs of life – eyes darting from window to window, sweaty hands jammed deep into my jean pockets, fingering the violent edges of tiny grey stones.
Come on, I think. Somebody has to be home.
Bald head shining in the foreign, fluorescent lights of his kitchen, I spot the bearded colossus who had earlier taken me hostage. I’d never been one for sport – or good aim, indeed co-ordination of any kind – which is why I am as surprised as my young blonde friend that my hand, acting almost of its own accord, selects the perfect stone and throws it with a deadly and frightening accuracy.
The sound permeates through the late suburban afternoon, and for a few seconds it seems to be the only sound in the universe: no cars, birds, lawnmowers or sprinklers. No cicadas. No me.
Slowly, laboriously, Colossus turns his head. His beady eyes lock onto mine and I take a step forward, trying desperately to force my heart out of my throat and back down into my body. Had I bothered to do my Religious Education homework, I might have thought of David and Goliath – instead, I simply think that I am doing the right thing.
For Tariq, I think, hand reaching for more ammunition. Before I can, however, a cacophony of stones launches into the sky above; brash and savage, careening through the air – some hitting the house, others the garden, the car, ourselves – and Jessica is whooping in some sort of demented dance, screeching, limbs whipping and cracking through the air as she launches handful after handful of earth-matter, pebbles gone, ripping up chunks of dirt and grass with raw fingers.
“HEY!”, Colossus screams, head jammed out the window, that ferocious baritone enough to pull her out of her revelry. “I’ve spoken to one o’your parents already, and I can do it again – to bothofyerz. There’s women and children sleeping, so piss off.”
Jessica stands in my kitchen, buttering thick slices of Vienna bread, lavishing them with Vegemite and smashing them together as I rifle through our upstairs attic. A-hah. I return, all smiles, with two deck chairs. I have the perfect plan.
Once more we march some hundred metres down the road, me with chairs in hand, Jessica with sandwiches, trashy magazines pilfered from her parents’ toilet collection and a 2 litre bottle of coke – no glasses.
Humming a jaunty tune, we turn the corner and begin to set up our chairs on the nature-strip out front of the offending house. The sun has begun to hang low in the sky, and though neither of us are particularly hungry, we unwrap our sandwiches and make a show of eating them, eyes fixed on the prize. After all, stone-throwing is deviant behaviour. But sandwich-eating? That’s practically our right. As Australians.
We eat slowly, savouring each saltine bite with fanatic, vocal worship – “Mmm! MMM! Isn’t this DELICIOUS?!”. The house – enemy front – remains silent, dead: windows darkened and reflecting our own Vegemite-smeared faces in the half-light of the early evening. Their car is gone – perhaps they’re out? But no. Once more, I spy movement in the epileptic sputter of the kitchen’s lightbulb.
It’s him, I think. Let’s see what he has to say now.
In the window, perfectly framed, stands a young, brown-haired woman, eyes bleary from sleep, hair knotted tight in an explosion of frizz, a chubby baby slung over her shoulder. She’s reaching for something, something out view – but as she does she notices the two kids on her lawn and starts, her face but for a second running the gamut of fear and confusion.
“Would – you – like – some – Coca – Cola?”, Jessica bellows, attempting for suavity but sounding more like the carer of a disabled child. At this, the woman laughs – silently behind the glass, her ivory smile seeming to fill up the kitchen – and waves at us, turning away to grab at something else.
I swallow, slowly, the sandwich suddenly turned to ash in my throat, and stand, nauseous hands grabbing out at the deck-chair behind me. The woman pops her head back in to flash us another smile, but it’s her flash of dread that stays with me: face creased up in uncertainty, shock, lines circling hard and fast round the waste of sleep still stuck in her eyes. The same dread I’d seen in my mother’s eyes; in Tariq’s, and the knowledge that I’d caused all three.
As I pack – Jessica’s confusion, younger than mine, ringing on dead ears – I empty my pockets, just to make sure.
A single pebble, grey and innocuous, free-falls out and hits the ground.
That’s that, then.