Ferocious animals

MY DAD WOKE me early to go down town and buy streamers. It was 1989 and our team was in the grand final for the second year running. I was eight. The year before we’d been in the grand final against the Bulldogs and had been beaten 24-12. It was a hard loss for a seven year old. This year we were in the grand final against the Raiders. I didn’t think we could lose, since in our house the Raiders were made fun of for looking like Milo tins. This was my mum’s contribution to the footy, deciding what pantry items the teams’ jerseys most looked like. We were a traditional household in this way.

My dad and I started decorating as soon as we got home from the newsagent’s. I held the pre-torn pieces of sticky tape on the ends of my splayed fingers, while he wound crepe paper around the veranda posts and swigged from his beer bottle. There were four posts at the front of our house and we moved from left to right, turning them into black and orange barbers’ poles as we went. People beeped their car horns as they drove past and somehow it was possible for my dad to tell whether they were supportive or non-supportive beeps. For the supportive ones, he raised his bottle and swigged as if he were toasting the victory to come. Otherwise, he took a longer swig, wiped his lips with his forearm or the back of his hand and said something like, ‘We’ll see just how many big-shot horn blowers are left at full-time.’

As we were finishing up with the last post, my mum came to the front door. She was pregnant with my sister at the time and was wearing a pale blue T-shirt, pyjama pants and slippers. Her hair was tied in a ponytail and the loose strands were tucked behind her ears.

‘Are the men ready for their breakfast yet?’ She had spatter marks over the front of her shirt from the bacon fat and her forearms were marked by little red splotches.

‘You bet your life they are,’ my dad told her. ‘Aren’t we, Tiger?’ I felt his hand come to rest on top of my head. ‘Breakfast of champions,’ he said, giving my hair a ruffle. ‘Isn’t that right, Tiger?’

I nodded and felt his hand slide down the back of my head, past the spot where I’d had the number thirteen shaved the day before. It was the number of my favourite player. My dad had taken me to the barber’s specially. Against my mum’s wishes he’d got the barber to shave the number eight into his own head. His hand settled at the base of my neck now and he gave my shoulder a light squeeze.

‘Well, come on, then,’ my mum said, ‘before the flies get in.’ She held the screen door open for us. It was a warm morning, late in September. The plum trees along the footpath were just beginning to blossom and the tin on the roof made a ticking sound as it was heated by the sun.

We’d just begun moving toward the front door, my dad with his hand still at the base of my neck, when a yellow Falcon sedan slowed on the street directly out front. The driver pressed on his horn. Five short blasts, with the sixth flattening into a long dead note that must have lasted a good four or five seconds. All three of us turned.

‘Great, so now we’ve got to put up with idiots like this all day, do we?’ my mum said.

I felt my dad’s hand lift away from my neck and, when I looked up, he was sticking his middle finger up at the driver of the car.

‘Go on!’ he yelled. ‘Rack off back to Canberra, ya parasite.’

‘Graham!’ my mum said.

The driver let out another blast as the car passed by the bottom of our driveway, this one even longer than the previous.

‘Ringworm!’ my dad yelled. He stumbled forward then, like he’d been shoved from behind by some drunk, invisible friend, and hurled his bottle in the direction of the car. It sailed out from beneath the veranda with beer spiralling from the open top like petrol from a Molotov cocktail and exploded on the road just behind the car.

Graham! What the hell are you doing, Graham!’ my mum said.

The car’s brake lights came on.

My dad didn’t answer back. His nostrils were drawn together as if he were sucking in a great amount of oxygen. His blue eyes looked pale and hard.

‘Quick,’ my mum said. ‘Inside. Now. Before you really start something.’

But my dad wasn’t having any of it. He stood his ground, the vein in the side of his neck bulging like a garden hose with a kink in it.

The car’s reverse lights came on.

‘Michael, over here now,’ my mum said. ‘Quick smart.’

I was standing next to my dad. He had his hands on his hips and I put my hands on my hips too. We were both wearing our jerseys. We both had our favourite players’ numbers shaved into the backs of our heads. On my bottom half, I was wearing the team shorts, black with an orange stripe down each leg. My dad was wearing jeans and thongs. The other team wore white shorts, with a yellow and blue stripe on each leg. Their jerseys were the colour of Milo tins, while ours were black and orange, the colour of a ferocious animal. Neither my dad nor I moved.

‘Michael!’ my mum said again. ‘Over here. Right this minute!’

I heard the screen door clap shut behind me, and the scuff of her slippers on the polished concrete. She took me by the arm. I tried grabbing hold of my dad’s hand, but she yanked me clear of him. She held me just above the elbow, gripping me tightly with her long fingers.

ON THE STREET out front, the yellow car stayed where it was. A white car heading in the same direction slowed as it came up alongside our front gate and the woman in the passenger seat craned her neck to look up at the decorations on our veranda. She waved excitedly and pointed through the windscreen at the little black and orange flag attached to the aerial of their car. We had one on our car too. As did half the people driving around town. The other half had Raiders flags. They were given away free with Saturday’s newspaper. For a moment it seemed as though this second car was going to come to a stop behind the yellow one. But it pulled slowly out onto the other side of the street and continued on, the woman peering back at us with an apologetic look on her face.

Speaking very softly, my mum said, ‘Graham, think about what you’re doing.’ She placed her free hand in the middle of my dad’s back then, like she were calming a horse or something. She said his name again then. ‘Graham? You haven’t had anything to eat yet. Come on. Come inside and have your bacon and eggs. Before they get cold. I’ll put the kettle on, Graham.’

My dad didn’t budge. It was grand final day. You didn’t mess around with coffee on grand final day. Even I knew this. Not when you’d waited a whole year for this day to come about – the opportunity to make right the previous year’s loss.

My mum tried shifting her hand up onto my dad’s shoulder. But he shied away from her. I felt her fingernails dig in above my elbow.

‘Fine,’ she said. ‘That’s just fine, that is.’

She began marching me towards the front door, her left hand wrapped around my left arm. It was an awkward way of moving and I stumbled as she dragged me along, half beside her, half in front, and I kept tripping over my own feet, over her feet too, but she moved me on regardless, and when we got to the door she opened it and pushed me in ahead, before finally letting go. She came through herself then, forcing the door shut against the weakened strut at the top.

‘Stay out there then!’ she called back through the door. ‘See if I care!’

She began making her way down the hallway towards the kitchen. I could feel her nails digging into my skin even after she’d let go. She used the wall to help her through the narrow gap where the telephone table stuck out on one side. At the kitchen doorway she stopped and pivoted all the way back around. It was like a car trying to perform a three-point turn in a narrow laneway. When she was right around, she took her hand away from the wall and pointed her index finger at me.

‘And as for you and that ridiculous haircut–’

I didn’t wait to hear what she had to say next. I grabbed the handle and pushed the door open to get back out there with my dad. His hair was darker than mine and, from where I was standing, the whiteness of his scalp showed the number eight as clearly as if it were written in chalk on a blackboard.

Michael!’ my mum smacked her hand against the wall, causing a photo frame to jump off its hook and slide down the plasterboard. It was a picture of the two of them on their wedding day. My dad wore a velvet bow tie and her a big floppy, see-through hat that looked like something a beekeeper might wear. ‘Back! Now! Right now!’

I waited for my dad to turn around and say something to override her command, like he’d done with the haircut, laughing about it with Morry the barber while my mum sat furiously in the seat by the door. His attention was on the Falcon now, though, not me. And so I had no option but to do as she told me, stepping back into the hallway until I could no longer see my dad on the veranda. I made sure I could still see the Falcon, though. It hadn’t gone anywhere. It was sitting in the middle of the road with its reverse lights on and its tail-end blocking our neighbours’ driveway.

‘Keep coming,’ my mum said, drawing me further back into the house. ‘Idiot wants to ruin grand final day for himself, well, that’s up to him. But he can do it by himself. Do you hear me?’ she raised her voice. ‘I said, you can do it by your bloody self!’

That’s when he came into view again. He’d jumped down off the veranda and was making his way across the front yard, paying no attention to my mum whatsoever. His arms swung stiffly by his side. When he reached the dirt path that ran from the centre of the veranda to the front gate, he lifted the gate’s latch and went to step through. My mum let out an incomprehensible scream, causing him to swing his head back over his shoulder. I don’t know how much he could have seen as it was very bright outside and I was standing in the darkened hallway behind the flyscreen door, but I raised my hand to him like I were toasting some great victory that had or hadn’t yet occurred. I wanted him to know that I was with him either way. My mum grabbed hold of my hand on her way past and threw it back down against my side.

She bundled herself out onto the veranda then, slamming the door behind her with enough force that it skipped its latch and bounced open again. I caught it on the bounce, holding it slightly ajar. She was eight months pregnant and carrying a lot of weight. With each step, the heels at the back of her slippers flattened out and turned white. I stood with my nose pressed against the flyscreen. It smelt like bacon fat. Using one of the decorated veranda posts for support, she lowered herself down off the veranda and onto the pathway.

Dad, look out! I thought to yell. But when I opened my mouth nothing came.

AS IT TURNED out, she wasn’t going for my dad, anyway. She barged straight past him, kicked the gate the rest of the way open and tramped out onto the footpath.

It was my dad who went after her then. She moved quickly too, like the pregnancy was nothing. When he caught up, he tried putting himself between her and the Falcon and she hit at him with the flat of her palm. The hair that’d been tucked behind her ears a few moments earlier hung over her face now. It hung in her eyes. She hit my dad in the cheek. She was like a front row forward, palming defenders off as she went. My dad moved sideways to block her again. She stumbled down off the lip of the gutter. I thought she was going to fall right over, but she managed to stay on her feet. One of her slippers came off. My dad bent down and picked it up and handed it back and she hit him with it. He put his hands up to protect himself. All the while, he kept looking back over his shoulder to see what was going on with the yellow Falcon. Nothing was going on with the yellow Falcon. It stayed right where it was. I stayed right where I was.

When it finally became clear to my mum that she was not going to get past my dad, she hurled her slipper in the direction of the car. It landed on the car’s boot.

‘Get away from here!’ she yelled. ‘Get away from our house! Leave us alone!’

The car’s reverse lights went out.

Go, I said! Go on, go! Get out! Get out!

The brake lights disappeared then and the car began moving off. It moved slowly at first. After two or three houses, though, the driver dropped his foot and squealed the tyres. My mum’s slipper lay flat in the middle of the road, like somebody’s flattened cat.

Rather than going to pick it up, she circled back around. She was breathing heavily and on the verge of tears. My dad reached out to put a hand on her belly, as if to make sure she was okay, and she slapped it away. Her foot was bleeding from the broken glass all over the road. She didn’t bend to pick the pieces out. Instead, she march-limped back along the footpath, through the gate and toward the house. When she got to the veranda, she reached out and took hold of one of the posts and used it to pull herself up onto the cement. I pushed the screen door open and held it for her.

Just as she was passing me, a ute with an orange and black flag attached to its aerial came up alongside my dad. He was still standing in the middle of the road where my mum had left him. The passenger, a young man with a can of beer in his hand and no shirt, leaned his bare torso out through the open window so that he could high-five my dad on his way past.

Up the Tigers!’ he cheered, foamy beer spilling from the top of his can as their palms slapped together. The ute sped off again then, with the young man still leaning out of the window.

With his hand raised high in the air, my dad stayed where he was until the ute had made its way to the bottom of the street and turned off. Slowly, he lowered his arm again and looked back toward the house. I don’t know how much he could see from down there, but I stood inside the doorway looking out at him with my hand at the back of my neck. There were bloodied heel prints all over the cement, and an orange streamer, which had come loose as my mum was pulling herself back up off the dirt path, lay coiled in a heap at the bottom of its post: a sign, I suppose, of the disappointment that was still to come.

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