Reportage

Scratch the Surface - Wonder years

Early Saturday morning was an odd time for dad to be mopping the porch. Stranger still was the fact he had the front door closed. I was scratching sleep from my eyes when I opened the door to see the yellow sponge swipe through a thick pool of blood. I remember it as a perfect circle, the radius of a hula hoop. Initially the blood looked like an acrylic red disc – hard, like you could pick it up and use it as a painter's palette. Then Dad carved through the centre with the mop and the edges of the pool descended into madness, desperately wanting to fall back into order, to that perfect circle, expanding and contracting like an exposed human heart.

'Don't come out 'ere,' Dad said. 'Go back inside.'

It was 1989 and I was ten years old. We'd been living in Bracken Ridge, in Brisbane's northern suburbs, for less than a month. We had a three-bedroom home in the heart of the suburb's Housing Commission cluster, a brief series of intersecting streets that you could find yourself in if you took the wrong exit off the Bruce Highway on the way to the Sunshine Coast.

The suburb seemed raw then – like a frontier – full of promise and dread. Only later would I be privy to its secrets: the boy who injected a syringe full of heroin into his girlfriend's belly to abort her pregnancy; the man who died alone in the toilets of the local tavern, choking on a piece of steak that he was still chewing as he did his business; the mother who stabbed a school bully in the eye with a steel ruler; the man who burst into my friend's lounge room with a bloody tomahawk, screaming, ‘Hide this, hide this!' News reports that evening said the man had tied his father to a chair and tortured him with a tomahawk.

I remember the streets were named after the knights of the round table: Arthur, Lancelot, Gawain, Percival, Geraint and Pelleas. I once pondered the streets being named in honour of lesser known legends of the area. Goon Man Street, in homage to the guy living two doors up who sat on his porch every afternoon drinking from a cask of wine until it put him to sleep, his head slumped forward so awkwardly that blood ran to his forehead until he was the colour of a red onion. Goon Man had tried to kill himself once by feeding a hose from his car muffler through the driver's side window and locking himself inside. KGB Close, in honour of the Russian who ran the newsagency. He spoke of being ‘connected' back home, and was our very own double (news)agent. Ibis Terrace, in honour of the one-legged bird that hopped around our backyard, searching for insects. It lost its left leg to a length of fishing line.

I could see dad's shadow through the curtains in the lounge room, mopping up the blood and wringing it out into a bucket. I remember walking outside on to the ramp at the back of the house. Every ramp looked the same in a Housing Commission home, a long slab of concrete sloping down to a side gate with two horizontal hand rails, coloured maroon. You could navigate through any Housing Commission home blindfolded. Laundry off the ramp, kitchen off the laundry, lounge room off the kitchen. Everybody had the same lounge: the $200 sofa bed from Super A-Mart in your preferred floral pattern. The hallway always had two rooms on the left and one bigger room at the end, enough for a single parent.

At a time when the Australian economy was about to hit a recession and unemployment in Queensland would peak at 10 per cent, it cost less than $150 a fortnight for a single father to house his four sons. We never had a bad word to say about the Housing Commission. In the next decade, the Queensland public housing portfolio would double to 49,300 dwellings. We had a brick one: practical and ugly red brick, as opposed to practical and ugly fibro.

The Housing Commission mostly left you alone. In the nine years I lived in the house, I only saw a commission officer once, and that was when they sent a man out to inspect our kitchen. One week later, we had a brand-new kitchen with drawers that slid on rollers. When something needed fixing – a hole in the wall, a busted hot water system, fleas, cockroaches, another hole in the wall – it would be fixed in days. Santa Claus was unreliable in Bracken Ridge. But you could depend on a Housing Commission officer.

 

FROM THE RAMP, I NOTICED SEVERAL DROPS of blood running along the patch of grass at the side of the house. I followed the blood drops like they were breadcrumbs. They led to the black wheelie bin. I opened the bin lid and hoisted my skinny frame up so my belly was balancing on the bin's edge. At the bottom of the bin, inside a large knotted yellow plastic bag, was a pig's head. The head filled the width of the bin; tilted on its side so its big dumb eye seemed to look up at me. The pig's neck still dripped blood, which gathered in pools at the corners of the bag.

We were told later that the pig's head was placed on our porch by a local thug, nicknamed Boo, who worked at the meatworks. If it was Boo – we never found out for sure – I never understood his motivation. I could understand if, say, my father was the local police chief or if my family name was Bacon. But the act had no connection to anything else. It was such a graphic, random act. So hostile. So full of hate. But there was a secret I'd learn later about Bracken Ridge: there were a million reasons to hate the place and none at all. Boo was introducing us to the neighbourhood, his own version of a neighbourly sponge cake.

One afternoon some weeks later, while playing cricket in the backyard with my eldest brother, I was struck in the shoulder blade by a flying piece of manure. I turned around to cop another piece of manure on the cheek. Boo was laughing with his friend, Sharpie, who lived in the house directly behind us. My eldest brother – my own King Arthur – immediately leapt the rear fence and drove his right fist into Boo's mouth. A following left to the chest sent Boo falling back on to the manure pile. We left Boo there spitting blood into his cupped hand.

I spent the following nights fretting, pondering the monstrosities Boo planned for retribution.

Then I was confronted by Boo and Sharpie in the frozen foods section of the local Foodmart. I would often lose myself for ten-minute periods standing at the frozen food bay, running my hands along frozen meat pies, party pies and party sausage rolls, picturing myself before the television watching The Wonder Years while feasting on Birdseye fish fingers and various pastries dipped in tomato sauce.

I felt a presence close in behind me. I turned to find Boo smiling. I'd never seen him up so close. His hair was brown and stringy. He had homemade tattoos on his arms. When he smiled, one of his two front teeth jutted out like a garage door halfway open. He leaned in close. ‘Tell your brother he's got a good punch,'
he said.

Boo laughed and patted my face, then walked out of the frozen foods aisle, his thongs flip-flopping towards the cashier's counter. A knot untangled itself in my stomach. There by the Black & Gold bags of frozen peas, the message was clear: in Bracken Ridge, violence was respected.  ♦

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