Excerpt from Magpie (a novel): my father’s story
First published in Wet Ink 2012
Shortlisted Wet Ink Short Story Prize 2012
Ch 1. The Funeral
Magpie’s sitting in the highest branch of the old gum that he’s ever dared. If he got a bit higher and leaned that way a little he might be able to see over the back fence into the McGregor place. This summer’s a scorcher, but today’s the worst; even now, the morning sun’s only a trickle through the branches, but every bit of him that can sweat, is.
When Kevin comes outside eating an icy pole, Magpie considers climbing down to get one too, but instead he watches through the branches and imagines being a drop bear. Kevin sits on the steps as the flyscreen door squeaks and bangs shut behind him. He’s thirteen, two years younger.
‘I can see you.’ Kevin picks up a rock from near his feet and throws it.
Magpie dodges it, but whacks his head on a branch. Kevin’s a good throw; plays cricket in the under 16 Firsts.
‘Mum wants you.’ He licks the icy pole — it’s already melting.
‘Go and dob if you want.’
‘This ice block’s good.’
‘Tom!’ Their mum yells from inside again.
Magpie knows when he’s in trouble; Tommy when everything’s ok, always Tom when something’s up. He pulls a twig off the tree and throws it at Kevin.
‘What’s that for.’
‘You two.’ Their mum comes onto the veranda. ‘Language.’
‘He’s up there.’ Kevin points.
She sighs and puts her hands on her hips. ‘Get down. You’ll ruin your good clothes.’
‘No I didn’t,’ he says. They’re all wearing their best, his are scratchy and uncomfortable, but it’s stupid because he’s still the same he was yesterday and the day before and last week, clothes won’t change anything. He was careful climbing up, but he wouldn’t tell their mum that.
‘And you.’ She pulls Kevin up by the arm. ‘Get up off those dirty steps. Sit there if you have to sit anywhere.’ She points to their dad’s chair.
Kevin leans against the wall.
‘We don’t have time for this.’ She walks in under the gum.
He imagines that if he stays really still he’ll turn invisible.
She comes next to the trunk and looks up at him. ‘I know it’s hard, but we have to do this.’
The branch he’s sitting on creaks, but he stays still and silent, and invisible.
‘Don’t be like this. Not today.’ She shakes one of the lower branches.
He remains motionless. Twigs and leaves drop on her head.
‘Your uncle’ll be here.’ She stops shaking, brushes herself off, and looks up at him again, shading her eyes.
She’s looking at him in that way she does to make him feel guilty, so he stares at the sky. He should’ve gone to the river.
‘Don’t ignore me, Tom.’
If it means that much to her she can climb up and get him. The one time he’s seen her climb was when their dad saw that black snake in the backyard. Magpie climbed the Hills hoist because all the sticks and twigs looked like snakes — he was young. Their mum got scared with their dad yelling and pointing everywhere, so she climbed the nearest tree, a wattle sapling. The higher she climbed, the more it bent and the closer she got to the ground; the closer she got to the ground the quicker she climbed and the more it bent, until it snapped and she fell on her bum. The stump’s still there. He smiles.
‘Don’t laugh at me.’ She crosses her arms. ‘You’ll never be too big to put over my knee; no matter how old you get,’ she says. ‘Kevin, go get the broom.’
A broom? That’s not how this goes.
‘Where is it?’ Kevin says.
‘In the laundry. Where it always is. Go on.’
Kevin The Shit runs into the house. Magpie’s seen people use poles to get koalas out of trees; the koalas always fight. He imagines his hands as claws, and himself growling.
‘I brought this too.’ Kevin’s smiling as he runs out carrying a mop and a broom, and almost trips on the bottom step. ‘I can go up if you want.’ He hands her the broom and starts hitting the tree with the mop handle.
‘No you can’t,’ Magpie says. In his mind he’s growling and hissing at them.
After a couple of minutes with the mop and broom they stop. Neither can reach beyond the lower branches. ‘Ok, stay there,’ she says and snatches the mop from Kevin. ‘Just be ready when uncle Mike gets here. Both of you.’
‘What’d I do?’ Kevin says.
‘Just be ready.’ She goes back inside.
As soon as the door bangs shut Kevin throws another rock at Magpie. ‘Shithead.’
The rock bounces off a branch and hits his elbow. ‘Arse licker.’
‘At least I give a shit.’ Kevin throws another rock, and this time it hits Magpie’s shoulder. ‘I hope mum gives you a hiding.’
‘And she’ll use the wooden spoon, I bet.’
Magpie looks toward the back gate, where the voice came from. ‘Bill!’
Bill smiles. He’s rolling a cigarette and carrying a dark-green duffel bag and leans on the fence as he puts the leather tobacco pouch back into his pocket. ‘You two’ve grown.’ He lights the cigarette. ‘So, which one’s Tommy, which one’s Kevin?’
‘Which do you reckon?’ Magpie starts down, hiding his excitement, playing it like he’s got it under control. He jumps the last bit. ‘Name’s Magpie. Only mum calls me Tommy.’
Kevin turns and yells at the house. ‘Muuuuumm! Bill’s here!’
‘Magpie it is.’ Bill nods and smokes.
He can’t remember Bill living with them very well, but remembers the night he left; it was a while ago.
Their comes to the door. ‘Billy!’ she says when she sees him, then rushes down the stairs and is hugging him before the back door has time to bang shut.
He drops his bag.
‘I didn’t think you’d—’ She hugs him tight. ‘Came straight here did you.’
He nods. ‘Got some time off.’ He hugs her back.
‘That’s good.’ She releases him.
‘A week. Not long.’
‘Long enough,’ she says; ‘let me look at you.’ She holds his hands and stands at arm’s length. ‘Did you have breakfast?’
‘I ate on the train. Caught the overnighter.’
‘A week,’ she says and steps back. She’s crying. ‘That’s good,’ she says, looking at Magpie. ‘And you, stay out of that tree.’ She wipes her tears. ‘I’m glad you made it, Bill.’ There is a silence. Then she breathes deep. ‘Ok,’ she says. ‘Tonight you can sleep in Kev’s bed. Tomorrow we’ll get something more permanent.’ She pushes Kevin towards Bill’s bag. ‘Help your brother put his things in your room.’
‘Mum,’ Kevin says.
‘Don’t listen to them. These two’ve been playing up all morning. Mike’ll be here soon.’
‘How’s Ele?’ Bill says.
‘Eleanor’s helping your aunt Jenny.’ She pushes him towards the house. ‘Do you need to wash up?’ She guides Bill up the stairs, the same way she does to Magpie, by pushing him between the shoulder blades. ‘And what’s this? Smoking now.’ She pushes him inside with one hand, and Kevin with her other. ‘You too, Tom.’
When the others are inside their mum grabs his earlobe and pulls him in close. ‘Ever ignore me like that again,’ she says into his ear, ‘and I’ll give you such a thrashing.’
He clenches his jaw in an effort not to cry out; her fingerprints will be on his ear forever.
‘You hear me.’
He nods and she lets go.
‘Good,’ she says and the door bangs closed behind her.
He’s not going inside now, not with her in there in that mood, so sits on the steps rubbing his ear, and is about to go climb the gum again when Bill comes out.
‘It’s right mum. I’m ready.’ He yells back into the house as he crosses the veranda and sits on their dad’s broken chair.
Magpie twists to face him. He and rolls a cigarette, just like their dad, but looks different. His boots are scuffed, but are a cut above; his clothes are worn, but a better fit; and his hands are battered and nicotine stained, but they’re more honest-looking. ‘That leg’s broken,’ Magpie says. ‘Reckons the sound it makes as it rocks is relaxing.’
He lights the cigarette. ‘Yeah? Maybe he’s just lazy.’ As he inhales the smoke a car backfires and a growling noise clatters up the street. ‘What the hell’s that?’ He exhales the smoke out his nose.
Magpie knows exactly what it is: it’s loud, old, brown and a Holden, and just came around the corner. ‘Mike,’ he answers. It’s like the engine arrives minutes before the rest of the ute.
‘Sounds like that car’s got the clap.’
Magpie likes his uncle — only has two speeds, flat-out and stop, that’s what their dad says; but Magpie reckons it’s because Mike’s always excited about everything and wants to get onto the next thing as soon as possible. He lived in Sydney some years back, that’s where he got his tattoos, but won’t talk about it when Magpie asks.
When the ute clatters to a stop Mike jumps out without closing the door or killing the motor, and is calling out before he’s through the gate. ‘Beth!’ he says, ‘sorry we’re a bit late.’ It’s not until he’s past the gum that he sees Bill. ‘Jesus.’ He stops. ‘Christ.’ He squints though the speckled light. ‘Bill! Shit, Bill.’ With recognition comes a smile. ‘You bastard. You scared me.’ He grabs his chest near his heart. ‘Thought you were— you could’ve given me a heart attack or a stroke or something.’
Bill stands and meets Mike on the path. ‘Need to get your eyes checked old man.’
‘Maybe I do.’ Mike punches him lightly on the shoulder. ‘You’ve grown.’
Mike’s had a haircut and a shave, he normally has a bit of a beard, but his old suit’s a bit too small. They shake hands.
‘You too.’ Bill smiles and points at Mike’s belly.
‘Hey, settle,’ Mike says and laughs. ‘Careful. It’s all about clean living. Laura’s fantastic, mate. Five years. Anniversary’s grand final weekend. She’s in the car. You meet her?’
Bill shakes his head. He’s taller than both Magpie and Mike, and looks a lot more like their dad than Magpie wants to admit.
‘Really, never met. Time goes, doesn’t it. How long’s it been?’
Mike nods. ‘It’s good you came back, then. For your mum. Speaking of which. Beth!’ he yells. ‘Come far?’
Mike smiles. ‘Spent some time there, myself. Merewether beach. Do much fishing?’ He looks at his watch. ‘Beth!’
‘Ever get to Sydney.’ He looks around.
Bill shakes his head.
Mike nods, then looks at his watch. ‘C’mon Beth!’ he yells, ‘we need to get a wriggle on!’
‘Keep your pants on, Mike,’ their mum says as she comes out the back door. ‘Kevin!’ she yells. She hugs Mike, then looks at the ute. ‘You didn’t leave Laura in the car, did you.’
‘She’s right,’ Mike says.
‘Kevin!’ she yells, then straightens Magpie’s shirt.
He steps back and rearranges himself, embarrassed in front of Bill.
‘Come on, Kev!’ Mike yells. ‘Listen to your mum!’
Kevin bustles out of the kitchen carrying another icy pole. ‘I’m here.’
‘When did you get that?’
‘I’m hungry.’ He comes down the stairs.
‘Lock the door behind you then.’
Their mum gets in the front next to Laura, who’s pregnant, and the rest of them climb into the back tray. Mike and Laura were a year apart at school, but didn’t get together until after. Magpie likes Julie but hasn’t said anything to her. In a flurry Mike closes the passenger door, runs to the driver’s side and jumps in; then the ute lurches up the street as he drives, puts his seatbelt on, closes his door and yells out his window for them to hold on. Magpie’s already holding on, and feels stupid for being in the back of a ute in his best clothes with all Mike’s tools. He hopes Julie doesn’t see him when they go through town. Mike hits every pothole between here and the church. Kev almost falls out once, but Bill grabbed his arm. After that, he decides he has to say something to Julie because he doesn’t want to die without having sex.
As they pull up outside the church he feels that nothing could make him feel good now: his guts are so nervous. Everyone who’s already arrived is bunched in small groups. People must feel better about being at funerals when they’re close to others, even if they’re strangers.
‘Where’d you get your licence,’ Bill says as he jumps down.
‘What makes you think I have a licence.’ Mike dashes around and opens the passenger-side door. ‘Newie’s making you soft, mate.’ He smiles. ‘They breed us tough up here.’ He helps their mum and Laura from the car.
‘Lead foot Radford, they call you.’
Mike laughs. ‘You’re a funny bastard. No doubt about you, is there.’
As Magpie jumps down, Mike takes Laura’s arm and helps her along the uneven cement path across the patchy lawn to the front doors. It’s an old weatherboard with wattle growing along one side and a Tallowwood out the back. His mum’s standing next to the ute staring. Magpie follows her gaze, but can’t tell who she’s looking at. It doesn’t matter to him, no one’s familiar today. Bill takes their mum’s arm and walks with her.
Magpie ambles behind as the others disappear into the waiting crowd. Is the crowd soft and comforting or is it a monster eating them. Their mum gets hugged and Bill gets hand shakes and back slaps. Magpie feels like a stranger. No one comes up to him. He wouldn’t know what to say if they did. He checks out the Tallowwood, but it’s like his mum knows his thoughts sometimes.
‘Come on,’ she says from the church door. Her arms are out in front of her as if she’s trying to hug him across the distance.
He thought she wouldn’t notice, now Bill’s back.
‘I know. It’s hard.’ She’s trying to hold the tears in.
Everyone keeps telling him it’s hard, but it’s easy; or it would be if they’d just shut up, or say what they think, or just left him alone.
‘Come on, darl.’
He can’t be the only one. By the end he was skinny and he shook all the time. It didn’t stop his temper, though. Like the night Bill left; or when he gave him and Kev a hiding for breaking that stupid chair, when they didn’t; he did, but couldn’t remember. Magpie ran away, but copped a hiding when he came back. Their dad shouted for hours that night, but didn’t make any sense.
He re-writes these stories so that when he runs away he always comes back stronger.
‘Tommy!’ his mum calls.
But the word is unrecognisable.
‘Tom!’ another voice says.
His own breathing muffles the word.
‘Tommy, come back!’
The sound of his heart in his chest and his shoes on the road are loud in his ears.
‘Tom, get back here.’
A voice like their dad. If he’d’ve been quicker he’d’ve been up that tree by now.
There it is again. That other voice, but not just a word: his name.
He stops and turns. Bill’s standing next to their mum near the church gate glaring at him. He waves him an angry summons, then goes inside without waiting. Who’s he to be angry? His mum looks like she’s never seen him before, but waves for him to come. He starts back, but as he gets closer she shrinks further away. He wipes his eyes clear, which brings her to him, but it doesn’t last long, and she blurs and drifts. He was a long way down the hill; didn’t realise he was running. It’s only when he can touch her that she looks real again. They hug, he sniffles and wipes his face, but doesn’t know where to look. His mum puts her arm around him and takes him into the church; it’s so quiet that every shuffle, scuff, sigh, breath or wriggle is louder than normal. He loves everything about her right now because he knows she’s crying for him, and not for their dad.
He re-writes this story so he takes her into the church and no longer feels weak and stupid.
Sitting next to her on the hard wooden seat in the front row, his body vibrates with her sobs, punctuating the priest’s speech in a private way that only he and his mum feel. The priest is probably saying what he always says about dead people. She holds him — Bill next to her, then Kev, then Eleanor, and he takes comfort from her softness against the tightness of the air. She doesn’t let go, not even after the priest finishes. It’s hard to breath. Magpie’s bum has fallen asleep, but he’s not moving until Bill does, and he doesn’t think Bill’s going to move until their mum does. He hopes she moves soon. The five of them stay long after everyone else leaves.
‘He was a good man,’ their mum says quietly.
The wood creaks as Bill stands, releasing it from his weight. ‘Maybe once.’ His boots clomp on the wooden floor as he walks out. His leaving loosens the air.
He feels the sobs shudder through their mum’s body again, but now he’s out of time with her. Eleanor stands and takes their mum’s hand. She searches his face too. What for — understanding, caring, proof?
She’s crying as she takes his hand as well. ‘Come on, mum,’ she says.
The four of them walk from the church together.