ON SOME WINTER mornings in Launceston, the fog doesn’t lift until midday. Today it’s so dense you can see the water droplets hang in mid-air, like rain in suspended animation. Crossing the car park, I turn the collar up on my leather jacket – a poor choice considering the cold and damp, maybe.
At least it’s black.
I have come out to farewell Sonny Burgess.
I spot Danny, Sonny’s elder brother. He’s a big guy, muscular. He looks out of place in a suit. Bluish tatts equally incongruous on the coffee-coloured skin of his neck and hands. A bleach-blonde girl, much younger than Danny, holds tight to his arm, sobbing like a runaway child come home.
‘Shut the fuck up,’ he says through tight lips. He stiffens his shoulder deliberately, jolting her head to the side. I experience an almost paralysing wave of fear the moment he notices me. After what seems like a deliberate delay, he grants me one subtle nod before turning his glare back to the girl. His wife? Or his daughter, perhaps?
I breathe out, relieved. And scold myself for being such a pussy.
Our childhood relationships and experiences imprint themselves on our adult consciousness way longer than they should. Danny was a bad-ass and a bully when we were kids. Still is, from what I can see. His hawkish looks made him a hit with the girls, but to us boys they made him even more formidable. During early high school, on a sleepover at Sonny’s house, Danny made me take off my sneakers and close my eyes. He directed me across their mottled front lawn until I walked in fresh dog shit. He made me stand on the spot while the crap squelched up between my toes. He threatened to smash me if I moved. Danny and his mates got a real kick out of it.
It was Sonny who pulled me away and rinsed my feet with the hose. Danny didn’t say a word – he never did to Sonny. He looked after him. Cared for him. Everyone loved Sonny, it seemed. But he and Danny shared something special back then.
Special is the wrong word…
Something dark and awful.
Their father was an abusive piece of shit.
I SCAN THE crowd. The gathering is a mixed bag: elitist flash-blacks, common swamp riffraff, everything in between and any colour you like. If there is one thing I’ve learnt about blackfellas, it’s that they’re scarce when the cops are around – or Centrelink is on their case – but they’ll come out in droves for a funeral.
I spot Kev, Sonny and Danny’s estranged brother. He has his finger on the chest of the red-faced funeral director. Someone comes to the man’s aid and Kev backs off smiling, mouthing. Kev has a chip on his shoulder. Always has. When we were kids, we joked that it was because he was a ranga. The truth was, though, he copped a lot of shit from his family because he was fair-skinned, while the rest had a bit of colour in them. It must have got to him, made him bad-tempered.
Kev is the oldest. For some reason, he grew up with his grandmother. He called her ‘Mum’. Everyone else called her ‘Nan’, even me, before she passed on. She was a spindly lady with streaked, wiry hair. Spoke with an ‘h’ in front of her vowels. Always wore paisley and had a thing for brooches. A real clean freak too, forever scrubbing the floor. She lived in Invermay. ‘The swamp’, we called it – an old cottage just a few streets away from Sonny’s. Year-round, that house smelled like mothballs and boiled vegetables. The family – Sonny’s aunties, uncles and cousins – used to gather around her back porch in the summer, drinking longnecks and telling stories. The older boys would be off swimming at the gorge or hanging out at the York Park footy grounds, while Sonny and I hovered around the oldies trying to listen in. We’d eventually get the run. They didn’t like us ‘ear-wiggin’’, they’d say. I didn’t mind, really. All the stories seem to revolve around birdin’ or people Sonny knew and I didn’t. Sonny hung off their every word. The stories stirred something in him. I could never understand it back then.
Sonny’s father, Gary, was a real piece of work. I’ve often wondered why arseholes are blessed with such long lives. Must be some kind of joke only God knows the punchline to, because he’s still around – these days he haunts the local nursing home where my ex-wife works. I don’t expect to see him today. He’s been a ghost for years.
To be fair, he had one or two good things going for him back in the day. Sober, he had an edge to him – something always simmering just beneath the surface – but he was a quiet man who tried to hold down a job. Unlike the rest of Sonny’s family, he didn’t mind us kids listening in. On his good days, he spoke about old times, about growing up on Cape Barren Island, going muttonbirding and the people he called ‘the old fellas’.
Drunk, which he was more often than not, he possessed a cyclone-like rage that seemed to come out of nowhere and was as scary as hell.
Gary was mad keen on boxing, which matched up terribly with his drinking. He spent his younger days on the road with a travelling troupe, but he never made it as a pro. He tried to train the boys and was a pretty good coach when he wasn’t charged up. Danny had the tough but lacked the grace. Sonny was the opposite – a natural mover and super quick. But Sonny hated fighting. Despised it. Ironically, he was named after Gary’s favourite fighter: Sonny Liston. I’m sure the fact he hated the sport fuelled Gary’s rage towards him. But it was Danny who copped the brunt of the abuse. He protected Sonny, took the blame for any small slip-ups Sonny made at home.
‘Dad’s one of the stolen generation,’ he told me once. I didn’t get what he meant back then. I’ve come to realise he was making an excuse for Gary’s behaviour. Sonny never had a bad thing to say about anyone. He was like a ray of sunshine in the shadowy lives of those around him. People were drawn to him – I know I was. We fed off him like parasites.
His mum shot through just after he was born. Hooked up with one of her own, he said, referring to her white heritage. I don’t think he ever thought badly of her, though. I mean, who could blame her for leaving a man who blew his wage on piss and spoke with his fists? Sonny’s Aunty Joyce sheltered him from his father through his toddler years. She was a nice lady who worked at the Aboriginal Centre in the early days – one of the pioneers. She was a fixture in Sonny’s life up until a few years ago when the old pack-a-day finally caught up with her.
I can’t remember the day Sonny started school. He turned up sometime during Year 1. But I remember the day we first met. It didn’t take me long to notice we were nothing alike.
‘Why are you brown?’ I asked him. He just looked down and shrugged.
Another thing was that he spoke differently, said words differently. It wasn’t unique to Sonny. His whole family spoke that way, especially his nan. Now I recognise that it was the accent of the blackfellas – the ones from the islands – but as a child it was something exotic and it made Sonny special. (It also made him the target of persecution by the other kids, but that came later. And it was my fault.)
But differences don’t really matter when you’re six years old. They are what they are.
In fact, part of what bonded us in our younger years was that we were so different. My family life was easy. I was an only child. Dad worked for a shipping company in Low Head, operating the pilot boats that guided cargo ships through the Tamar River mouth. Mum was a dedicated housewife. We were by no means rich but we were privileged, I guess – looking back. Sonny stayed with us often, right through primary school and high school. He was quiet at our place. I think he appreciated the respite from his father. He never stayed for more than one night, though. He worried about Danny. Sonny loved to go out on the boat with Dad – we both did – and we often played around the gravelly shores at Low Head, making little fires among the rocks and cooking shellfish. Sonny knew the right ones to get, said that his nan had showed him. They had another name for the Tamar River, too.
They had so many names, for places, for objects. I couldn’t pronounce them. It was like they had their own language; their own lexicon. I couldn’t understand. I was always on the outside, trying to find my way in.
It wasn’t until we started high school that our differences affected our friendship. It started when Gary took Sonny out of school for five weeks around Easter time and sent him to go muttonbirding with his aunty on Big Dog Island. I hated it, partially because I didn’t get to go, but also because it was halfway through Year 7: a critical time for me.
Sonny was my ticket to popularity.
He was good-looking and could run like the clappers, making him handy on the sports teams, and popular with the girls. When you’re in Year 7 that really matters. If I was going to matter, I needed Sonny.
When he came back from the trip, he wouldn’t stop talking about it. Suddenly, it was like being Aboriginal was the most important thing to him. I acted cool, but I resented it. I had worked out early that his family was unusual, and the word blackfella had been bandied around a lot, but never ‘Aboriginal’.
Things came to a head one day on the footy field.
Sonny always got picked first. He could play football – by God he could. Watching him play and run like he did…it was beautiful. He was beautiful. As strange as that sounds, everyone understood it. Even Gary – who blamed football for his son’s lack of interest in boxing – was proud. He was the proudest man on the sidelines. Of course, he never said so, but you could tell. During practice one day we were picked on opposite sides. I was playing terribly and Sonny couldn’t do a thing wrong. It was as if he was a magnet for the ball. Some of the other boys were getting frustrated too. I remember it all so vividly. I’ve gone over it a thousand times in my mind. Someone kicked the ball to me out of the square. It was a high ball and I was directly underneath. Sonny was in the right place at the right time and took a mark straight over the top of me, riding my shoulders and driving me to the ground. Any other day I would have laughed it off, but this day it had me fuming. Sonny hit the ground running and he was off with the ball.
In my frustration, I called out after him: ‘Run, Darky, run!’
And run he did, and kicked another goal.
I didn’t immediately regret what I had said. I was still angry. But my heart sank when the other boys kept up the chant – and more.
Run, Darky, run… Run, Abo, run.
It’s like we had all been so blinded by his coolness, his easy smile and his footy skills. We’d looked past his colour, the strange way he spoke. The muttonbirding. But suddenly, in that moment, we shared a moment of clarity. In unison, we perceived the divide. He was Aboriginal. Sonny Burgess was a darky. To my dismay and shame, the name stuck. Sonny laughed it off, but we could tell he didn’t like it.
The two of us never spoke of that incident and I didn’t call him that again. He was my best friend, and we remained that way right through high school. He still went muttonbirding every year, but I was no longer sore about it – that left me that day on the footy field.
Sonny ended up playing in the seniors. He was our hero. Practically a celebrity in the local footy circles. But the name stuck. It stuck. Whenever he got the ball the opposition supporters would call out, ‘Run, Darky, run’, and then the laughter started. And other names. Worse names.
It got around that Danny handed out a few floggings over the worse names they used on his brother, so nobody had the guts to say those in front of him. It was my greatest fear back then that Danny would find out it was me who started it all.
And seeing him in the car park just now has made me realise that’s why I’m still so scared of Danny.
Sonny got picked up by the AFL. We all knew he would. On his way to training one night in Melbourne, he was the victim of a hit-and-run and didn’t walk again for twelve months. He tried to get back to form but he was injury prone after that. Three years after being picked for the AFL, he was back in Tasmania again, playing local footy and looking for a job. I ran into him in town one day, not long after he returned. We hadn’t spoken for a while, which was my fault. He’d reached out a few times during the height of his footy career, but my life was a shambles and I was jealous of his success, so I’d responded coldly. He eventually stopped calling.
‘I started the “Darky” thing, Sonny. I’m sorry,’ I said after the small talk petered out.
He just looked down and shrugged, like the day we first met.
‘We were just kids,’ he said.
THEY SAY THAT it’s the ones you don’t expect. I reckon that’s true only about half the time. But never would I have imagined that Sonny would do what he did. Neither did anyone else, especially his brothers, who went on a rampage, desperate for answers. Was it financial? A woman? Somebody had to be at fault. After all, Sonny was a hero. He was miraculous. He was larger than life. In my mind, we were all guilty. We all wanted some of him to rub off on us. We all used him in our own way and we sucked him dry – me worst of all.
He never stopped giving, though. To me and to everyone. That was just what Sonny did. And when we no longer needed him, his job was done.
Sonny was my best friend. I made him feel small, that day on the footy field, attacking a part of him that was special, that he held sacred and that made him who he was. And then I pushed him away when he made something of himself. Truth is, it was me who was small and insecure. I was the darky.
People are starting to move inside to the service now. From my pocket, I take out a pin in the shape of a muttonbird and in the colours of the Aboriginal flag. I poke it through the collar of my leather jacket. Another thing I’ve learnt about blackfellas is that they guard their flag as a symbol of their identity. People look at the pin and then at me. There are a few frowns.
But today, I don’t care. This is for Sonny. He would have liked it.