Everyone I passed was wearing a beanie, even a little guy swaddled in blankets sitting like a little bogan Buddha in his pusher. I tried to smile but the numbness had spread to my face. I managed a slight upturn of my lip. The mother of the kid thought I was snarling: just another dangerous teenage malcontent out on the streets looking for trouble.
My feet scuffed the ground and my eyes turned away from the faces of people I passed. I stopped under a big heavy-limbed tree and foraged through my jeans for my crumpled pack of cigarettes. I'd shoved them in as I rushed out the door and now they were crushed. I pulled one out and gave the sorry thing a little shake to return some of its form.
Above my head a bloody crow started to laugh in that dark and sarcastic way most crows do. I glared at it and its head swiveled a little like it was giving me the evil eye or something. I cupped my hand and ran my thumb along the lighter. The crow jumped a little on the branch and a few drops of left-over rain dripped down on my head.
"Piss off!" I cursed upward, maybe to the crow, or maybe a little higher to someone or something beyond. The sky was steel grey, as usual, and the sun was playing truant. The crow jumped again but there was no way I was going to let some dust of rain change my mood.
I was angry. I was alone. I was not going to be distracted from my funk.
The cigarette never caught. I flicked it to the damp grass and collapsed beside it, my legs sprawled out in front of me. I breathed out, and the sound was more definite than anything I had done all day. It was like a statement. Already my bum was getting wet from the grass.
The bay was humming with boats. People were coming and going: tourists with their little kids in bright rain coats; fishermen with their catches and emphysema; locals with nothing else to do. I hadn't always been trapped here at the end of the Great Ocean Road. One time I was a city kid, a kid who wasn't hemmed in by freezing water, a smelter and the rushing Antarctic winds. One time I was a kid living in a vibrant metal and glass jungle, free to roam the streets, the hub of retail and commerce or the desolate spaces of industry.
I wasn't alone back then.
I had friends, a gang, maybe. We climbed into warehouses, up along shipping containers, in through half-completed malls, out through the high end of town. There were times when I would climb up fire escapes or along a series of narrow balconies, dangerous, like doing the hurdles but sideways at ninety-degrees to the ground. I remember living on the streets for two days, or almost two days. It was never cold in the city. There were always places you could go for warmth, or even free stuff like food and hot chocolate. People knew people back then.
There are worse things than being homeless on the streets of a big city.
I once burnt down a church. I hate church.
It was after my dad ran off the first time. He hit me and mum. A thin black cord around my neck.
No one ever blamed me for it, at least the people who found out about it never did. They told me it was fair enough, that I deserved a little bit of vengeance. Not that my dad was very religious. Later, after he died at the end of a bottle, we had a service in a church. The words that slipped out of everyone's mouths made him seem religious. Apparently he had gone to a Catholic school. I suppose that counts.
We moved after that. Mum couldn't afford the mortgage in the western suburbs so we had to move in with my cousins. They lived in one of those high-rise apartments, but not the well-to-do ones. It was like a rat's nest, full of addicts and domestic disturbances. Mum had a breakdown. That's when I started to smoke. There was this ledge just outside the cousins' apartment. You had to crawl through the security grating along their joke of a balcony, but I was used to climbing. It was a secret place to sit and think, to block out the yelling and the screeching of the 'block kids'. I think my first smoke was stolen from this old woman across the hall. I think she was Polish. Or maybe Samoan.
The thing I remember most about my childhood was the way I could always find a place to be alone. Before dad died, there was the streetscape where you could always find a place where no one had been in a long time. And then when we moved I had the ledge.
It's funny but I always used to look up when I was alone, like I was taking a break from real life and checking in with the Big Guy. On the ledge I would count the stars and if there were an odd number I knew the next day was going to be crap. If it was an even number then that would be okay, things wouldn't 'escalate' and I could relax a little.
But now, I guess, the stars had nothing to do with it. They were just blinking thousands and thousands of kilometers away. Like everyone on the planet, the stars didn't give a damn about me.
Looking up from the grass my eyes narrowed. The crow had found a friend.
I wondered which of the two black birds was the original. They were taking it in turns leaping about the top branches. One would leap, and then the other. They would stop for a while and look down at me. And always the rattling laugh.
My mum had a rattling laugh towards the end.
Like dad, she hit the bottle pretty hard. I used to have to heave her off to bed after school, when I decided to go to school of course. She stank. She never bathed. Her teeth were deteriorating every day. No one tried to save her, not even me. I just realized that everything dies eventually, that everything falls apart. Her hair was blond, originally, like one of the front cover girls of Cosmo or Girlfriend. But nothing lasts, especially not blond hair and model looks. Mum got fat, lost her gold, lost her mind.I guess I should feel ripped off. Being abandoned by your parents one after the other, being robbed of a childhood and shunted to the end of a lonely highway, well, that should make someone a little upset, right?
Is it any wonder I'm disconnected? I'm the only one in this town who can see that white does not always mean goodness, that dark menacing things sometimes appear innocent. White cancerous lumps along a mother's arm are not something to smile about. Laughter is not always sane. In fact, laughter is hardly ever sane.
I drag myself up to a sitting position and pull off the stray bits of grass that have embedded into my palms. It's Sunday. The churches are filling behind me, across the stretch of road. I can hear voices, high and full of life. Some kids are calling to each other, glowing in the bleak daylight, trying to make it a little better.
I hear my name.
The voice pulls at me, against my will, like it always has. Memories crumble. It's not really fair. The crows above me chuckle as I stand and turn around to face the church which looms over everything, even though it's across the street. I rub my hands down my jeans and walk to the edge.
"Jason! Hurry up!"
I raise my hand in acknowledgment. It only gets half way, but they're used to my lethargy. They understand. Everything.
My mother is busy talking with one of my teachers. My dad stands behind her, holding her hand, allowing her to engage in this light and tangy weekly gossip. You can tell they are still in love. My dad's hand in hers, an easy grip, secure. He smiles at me. I step on to the road and wish that a truck will collect me.
Deliver me from a life of boredom . . .
Ben Langdon lives and writes in Portland, Victoria, Australia.
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