Fiction

Surrounded

IN TERMS OF the event, the make or type of bikes surely doesn’t matter now, but it weirdly did then, so the issue seems to warrant emphasis in the process of looking back. The dragsters and stingrays, the one or two mid-sized racing bikes and the custom jobs – extended forks welded onto dragster frames with racing-bike front wheel and dragster rear wheel. For twelve year olds, such ‘work’ meant help from a big brother or maybe an Old Man, as well as access to welding equipment. It was about rights, skills and being seen as older than one was.

Surrounded by these bikes, these machines, with their front wheels raised and bearing down on him, Brett didn’t consider being seen as older, bigger or stronger as a sign of maturity. Weedy, as they called him, and odd coloured. He felt he was much more mature than them, for all their accrued power and mutual reinforcement.

There was no avenue of escape – the bikes and their riders, feet braced on the park grass, were too close pressed. It was sunny inside the circle, though clouds were building over the distant hills and there’d be a storm in the evening. Brett was sure there’d be a storm. He loved storms – they open up new possibilities, he told his cousins, who would laugh. Mum would say: stormy weather makes kids cranky. There was nothing mysterious about it – the elements weren’t conspiring against him; rather, it was all logical. A storm was coming, even if the other kids didn’t know it. Just the feel of a storm, even though the sun was shining over the plain, over the suburbs, into the park, was enough to make kids cranky.

Brett reasoned that as the boys in his year hated him, and that a fine day was turning oppressive, they’d likely go from the usual verbal taunts to physical action. If a storm was possible, violence was possible. It stands to reason. He loved that saying: It stands to reason. It does, doesn’t it? And, what’s more, he’d always considered his cutting through the park to get home a calculated risk... It shaved off a couple of minutes at most, but there was always the risk because other boys stopped off there for a furtive smoke, and sometimes a sit-down and yack, occasionally kicking a footy, which Brett would have loved to have joined in with. They didn’t appreciate his kicking skills like his cousins did.

Some of the front wheels were still spinning, if slowly. Strange when they’d been elevated to attack position for so long, the motion of lifting them sharply compelling the wheels round and round. Some had reflectors and whirligigs between spokes that dazzled in the weird afternoon light. Brett liked to think such light always meant storms, even if they weren’t predicted. But some of his attackers weren’t as stable on their feet, their outrigger legs wobbling, and the front wheels going up and down and spinning more conspicuously. They are displaying a loss of control, thought Brett. In slow time as it was, he pondered this. Cruelty is slow, he thought.

But it was just moments away – the coming down of the wheels on him. He calculated the precise moment, predicting the future out of the confusion, the entangling, the falling of some bikes and their operators as they struggled to maintain their pose, the inability to wait...wait for it. There’d be side effects, but he’d cop the worst of it, no doubt, no matter what. His situation was dire. He was the bit of the tale that couldn’t hide, couldn’t escape fate.

What were they saying? It was hard to pick out a storyline from the cussing and belittlings. He found the longest extended forks, the biggest front wheel, and saw past it to the inspiration, the Captain of industry, the General. He had demanded other kids call him Captain, but now wanted to be called General. It was hard for the followers to adjust. Fear makes it come out wrong, reasoned Brett. The welding of the Captain-General’s forks was a miracle of survival – forks upside down welded onto standard forks, and then another set reversed so the bike swam as it rode, a pretend suspension, a flowing letter S, large front wheel so far ahead that the bike required a turning circle as large as that of a bus. The small rear wheel of the bike seemed like sarcasm. So, the Captain, the General, was way back in his banana seat, behind the circle, in a circle by himself, and he had Brett pinned with his eyes, pinned so his forks could come down and stick him to the ground, a pinned insect. He was saying nothing, he was letting his bike do the talking. When his wheel came down he would be slightly outside the scrum, immune – his followers would finish the pinned insect off.

Brett considered the welds on the Captain-General’s bendy forks. They didn’t really look like very good welds. Brett was no welder. In fact he’d never welded anything or seen anything welded, but he did have a bike he didn’t ride to school anymore because when he rode it, on his birthday, the day he found it in the loungeroom with streamers hanging from the handlegrips, when he had ridden it to school along the footpath, carefully...well, other kids vandalised it while it was locked to the bike racks – taking off the chain, jumping on the pedals till they snapped off so he had to wheel it home and Mum had to send it off to repair... And when she rang the school, they said they’d look into it, but they never did. Months and months ago. That’s because they think you’re a latchkey kid, said Mum, who was always home on time for him with a scone or a cake, just like those kids said their mothers gave them, though whether or not this was true was none of his business. Some of those kids are angry and upset, said his mum, because their lives are tough. We have it easy, Brett.

Brett wondered what an easy life was, and wasn’t.

 

BUT BRETT KNEW from the welds on his own bike that they should be smooth, not full of holes and irregularities like those on the Captain-General’s wild and ominous machine. He thought: some of these kids have it tough, and some don’t. They all like cake and bikes and most like their mothers. Why was this happening? Those forks weren’t strong forks – they were precarious. The Captain-General, or however he thought of himself, was riding a bike with amazing but dodgy forks, with a front wheel too big to be supported by them for long. Those forks, those amazing wiggly long forks, just wouldn’t endure, Brett was sure, was pretty sure. No way.

So Brett, sweating, distracted himself over the slow seconds by considering the clouds piling up so fast over the distant hills, and the close-by park swings that were starting to move with no one on them and his own tacky hair trying to stick up. He looked past the forks at the Captain-General, who was chewing gum. Brett never trusted time because agonising things happened so slow when they were happening so fast. But with what he had available to him, he wanted to try to look into the faces of his attackers. He knew them all, he even knew their bike wheels, but he wanted to see each one there and then, recognise them by their eyes and not through their bikes. As riders, and not as a circle of machines working together. Wheels within wheels.

And then a bunch of maggies started warbling in the pine trees along the fence that divided houses and the park. The trees were starting to sway and the magpies were garrulous – louder than the boys yelling and gibing him. Brett muttered under his breath to the birds, which, though over-talking him, started at every word, even if they took him as much of a threat as the rest of the boys. They were aware of the situation, but indifferent to his position in it. His role. I need help, he told them, and they turned their beaks up towards the hope of a storm breaking over the hills, spreading out, flying high and low. Maybe you can shit on the Captain-General, he laughed, but the maggies were gone, their interest being in the dim and distant possibility of a storm and not in his story, he knew, which hurt him in ways the bikes could never manage.

But Brett laughed out loud anyway, and the Captain-General came alive from the outer circle of his own making and said, Whadyya laughin at, girlfriend? Nothing, said Brett. Well, you’re a little squealing girl poofta aren’t ya, Bretty? Yes, said Brett, knowing it was the only answer that would give him a few more seconds, or stretch out the seconds he had left – make them even slower, allow the storm to kick in and change things, perhaps change things. And the maggies were gone, far away but feeling close, and in one of his eyes, deep in where it couldn’t be understood by anyone but him, there was a branch of lightning streaming over the crags and quarries and houses and bushland of the Scarp, and Brett was counting down the thunder. There were so many seconds, and those wheels were aggravated now, going up and down and spinning with the stiffening breeze...the wind…and almost on his head...the wheels within the wheel unable to wait any longer, needing to fall, to finish and move on.

Then the thunder. The Captain-General yelling Get him, now! No! yelled Brett, wanting them to stop before they started, but also wanting the pain to come to get it over with, but half-thinking that by calling out countermanding the Captain-General’s instructions, that maybe they’d just stop. Just like that. But even though thunder exploded in his head, and out of the sunshine rain came down sudden and heavy and a gust of wind swayed some bikes and they fell away, he was alone and the wheels were coming down on his head and shoulders and he instinctively lashed out against them and the Captain-General laughed much louder than the noise of the storm or the memories of the maggies having their say a short while ago. Brett hated the pain. He lashed out. There was no storm, and that hurt more, really hurt – he’d tried to conjure the storm, but there was no storm. He knew there was no storm; that though storms made kids cranky, there was no storm. The day was calm and the magpies were warbling and the boys on their bikes were laughing and the wheels were bouncing off him. There was no storm, but he could hear a storm laughing at him. A joke.

 

YOUR FATHER WAS violent, Brett, and that’s why we can’t live together. He says he didn’t mean to be violent, but he sees violence as the way of controlling the world. Brett remembered his father’s ‘firm hand of discipline’ and was glad he’d long gone away and remarried and had other children. Brett’s half-brother twins, and half-sister. His mum said: Don’t worry, I am sure he doesn’t hit your little brothers, and your sister is just a baby and I am sure he doesn’t push his wife around, his second wife... He didn’t hit me, not really, but he would push and pull and direct me around like I was a child... Brett always smarted at this – he didn’t like to be pushed or pulled by anyone.

He couldn’t remember his father back then, and rarely saw him now, not really, so he didn’t know but he knew his mother always said, Violence is never the way, Brett. But she didn’t leave him with anything else to get himself out of sticky situations – words seemed to make matters worse, and he’d tried giving gifts and doing what other kids told him to do, even baddish things, but it didn’t work either. One time he’d stolen a pair of lady’s ‘briefs’ off a line and given them to Captain as the Captain-General was back then, because Captain had ordered him to: Go on, ya wimp... Bring me a pair from one of the yards near the school, off a clothesline – tomorrow – or you’ll get a hiding ya little poof. Captain was direct. He had risen to being a Captain-General. He would soon be a General-General.

 

BRETT LASHED OUT, flailing his arms, and felt knobbly rubber scrape-slide over his wrist and another spinning tyre abrade him. He felt the sharp bit of a nut holding a wheel in place gouge his arm and warm blood flow into the humidity. The storm, mocking, was there now, he was sure it was there and not just inside his head, and lightning was scaring some of the riders away – there were fewer wheels now. He hadn’t fallen, not completely, but was hunched, crouched. And then only the Captain-General remained, distant, lifting and dropping his big front wheel on Brett’s bent and bobbing neck and head. And then there was a creaking and a sound like stretching liquorice rope and a crack and another crack and the wheel and the S bend of two welded forks in front of Brett flashing and splintering lightning and their breaking was thunder then nothing. The Captain-General’s bike had broken and the Captain-General was falling, falling to the ground. The grass was verdigris and parchment from the deadly summer, and the rain from the Captain-General crying over his broken forks. His fallen wheel lay stilled and helpless on the grass filling the gaps where beetles tumbled over each other.

Captain had lost General, he had fallen, his tumbled body embedded in the grass, the bike frame and body, the busted forks gouging yellow park sand through gaps in grass to expose black coastal sand. Captain, stunned at first, leapt up, grabbed the broken forks still attached to the front wheel and searched for Brett’s eyes, which were slowly rising into the late afternoon light. Brett, staggering, found it in himself, more out of shock than sympathy, which he didn’t quite know how to conjure, to say, I am sorry about your bike. He didn’t know why he said it, and waited for Captain’s fists to rain down on him. All the elements of weather, in the park.

But Captain only said: My bike’s broken and my older brother will kill me! And the lull in the storm, the storm on the clear afternoon: My brother has just started an apprenticeship as a boilermaker and the old man said he’ll make a shit boilermaker because what good is a boilermaker who can’t weld for shit?

Brett wondered if the fact of seeing the bad weld might mean he himself would be a good welder, and then regretted the thought. It would be cool to be a good welder. He imagined even his own father would find that admirable, and his mother would at least tolerate it. Brett had a vision of the world and thought what’s amazing about magpies is that they are welded together by lightning and dark clouds and water and sunlight and afternoons and kids and trees and they all walk over the grass under the sky. We need a storm to clear everything up, he said, out loud, then realising and flinching. He waited to be impaled by the forks with the big wheel that would spin again.

But it didn’t happen. But maybe only because Brett ran, and he ran as fast as he could. He ran because the maggies had flown. He ran because he knew Captain was a General, too, and that the Captain-General was better at his schoolwork than Brett and better at sport than Brett...and though Brett read lots and had lots of big words to annoy people with even when he didn’t want to annoy them, he couldn’t organise his thoughts in class and his writing in tests came out all wrong. He ran because he was poorer than Captain but felt richer. All kids have it tough, he said to himself, though he kind of doubted the thought. He ran because the storm in his head made him run in search of the storm on the fine afternoon after school when his mother would be worried he wasn’t home yet. He ran out of the park across the confused grass and onto the pavement with its uneven slabs he sometimes tripped over but today he ran smoothly, he ran slightly uphill towards home and thought about the big, distant hills – the Scarp. He thought about distance and what existed far away and up there and over there because it must be better with less stink of cars and welding machines and anger, but the Scarp was now really smothered by rain and even lightning while down on the coastal plain, down where he was, the sun was shining low and blindingly orange in the sky...

He ran because he knew Captain would be different, would be less General with him from now on, that there would be less complexity all round and that they might even become begrudging friends because Captain would think it over once his anger and fear had abated and he broke free of the story he was writing for himself and all the other kids, too. Brett ran, though it repulsed him that this was an escape, that this was a change like the confirmation in his church he’d just gone through that had meant nothing more to him than wine on his lips, a wafer of bread stuck to his palate. He ran towards the brutality of friendship finding its feet and away from the cover of storms to his home where there was peace.

Griffith Review