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When Ben Truscott climbed out of his car to survey the height of the wire-mesh gate through the inky-fingered blackness of the evening, he stood for a moment, rocking back and forth on both feet, and feeling visited all of a sudden by a random and wrenching memory. The sort of memory that, now he was in his forties, quickly became so vivid as to leave him floundering. He heard the reassuring sound of Jason's car door slamming nearby him in the dark. He took another look at the gate where it was strung out, wobbly and forbidding, across the driveway on the opposite side of the street; but already, as he started to step forward over the thin, stubbled asphalt on the road, he was struggling to maintain any control over his sense of the present.
Truscott was remembering when he and Valerie had first moved into Heatley Avenue, over a dozen years ago. How they'd waited to meet their neighbours and settle in--though nothing happened and he'd just gone off to work every day at the university without really getting to know anybody in the area. They had a little Shetland collie then, named Miss Prism. His wife's idea of a joke after he'd introduced her to the genteel pleasures of Being Earnest. Miss Prism was inclined to get out to the garden in the middle of the night and bark along the back fence-line; most nights, Truscott had to get up at some point and shoo her inside. Then one summer afternoon, while he was at work, his wife answered a brief phone-call: 'why can't you keep the noise down from that fucking mongrel-dog?' Click. After talking to Valerie and hearing about some oddities that had happened over recent days, Truscott deduced that someone had stolen the mail out of their letterbox, used it to look up their telephone number and then, after replacing the mail, made the anonymous call. Truscott calmed his wife. That evening he went to each of the three houses that adjoined the back of their section. At each he'd knocked on the door, introduced himself, apologised for the trouble about the dog and promised in future to keep the animal inside at night. He carefully, but firmly, added that he would appreciate it if his wife did not receive any more phone calls. And it was this Truscott remembered so fully: how, as he stood on the porches before the trim front-doorways of these strangers' houses, with a smooth yellow glow coming from porch-lights in the sticky air and the irritation of moths battering about, and a glimpse past the creaking, pulled-back doors of long, floral-wallpapered passageways and other lives beyond, every one of these neighbours had blankly denied knowing anything. About the trouble, about the noise and, in one case, a young woman even said, 'You have a dog?' Poor old Miss Prism. Shut inside the living-room each night for the latter half of her life until, at length, she died. And all this despite the absolute fact that, throughout the afternoons on almost every summer weekend, the kid in the place to their left, that young what's-his-name, he liked to wax his car out on the road with its windows down and the base from his sound-system up loud--so loud that Truscott felt the picture-frames trembling on his walls.
Truscott pushed open the wire gate with a bit more difficulty than he'd expected. He was a tall man and athletic, heavy-necked and broad-chested, and with a large head that was balding from the front, the sort of man who had no trouble pushing open gates, but he was still in his nice casual-jacket from work. In this poor light he had to be careful not to catch any threads on the wire, and anyway the shaky, ramshackle gate rose nearly to his shoulder and so it was rather hard to shift. As he walked up the twin strips of concrete that formed the driveway, a big dog began its throaty barking from somewhere inside the house. Giving tongue, Truscott remembered his father used to call it. He could sense Jason cringing a little at the sound, even though the boy was following right behind him.
No sign of any vehicle in the slumping carport, but some lights were on inside the house. The house itself was a rough, square-shaped place, with a porch attached like an after-thought. Maximum floor-space from the minimum use of materials: typical of the state houses along this part of Crewe Crescent, Truscott decided. He eyed up the weathered-brick exterior and the chunky roof that was mostly lost in darkness, despite the glow coming through the thin curtains onto the scrappy, uneven front lawn and the path off the driveway. These people just couldn't be bothered with an outside lamp. And the ornamental garden that Truscott could make out in the shadow along the shabby front wall as he turned onto the path and approached, it was an overgrown mess, predictably. He marched up the porch steps, imagining old cobwebs hanging from the soffit. Truscott stood before the door.
He looked back for his son, with his glance meaning to say: are you sure this is what you want? The boy could see him well enough in the limited light available.
Then, examining Jason's soft-shouldered, ten-year-old frame, still small for his age, Truscott recalled that this was not what Jason had wanted when he started crying to his mother after school earlier that day, and saying he wouldn't go back there, not to school, ever. The boy took after Valerie: he just hoped his troubles would go away by themselves. And so Truscott looked up the name Winterburn in the phone-book, and it had been pretty straightforward to guess which of the Winterburns they were. Round the corner and along here with the disadvantaged.
But Truscott paused from these reflections--his son was saying something.
'He's a hori,' Jason repeated with vehemence, keeping both feet planted on the lower step, his nose wrinkling up in contempt as he lengthened the 'o'.
Dear God, where on earth did the boy learn this sort of thing? Not in their own home, that much was certain. Truscott was sure he'd never...he felt shocked. He was about to scold Jason but he saw someone, alerted by the dog's continued warnings, no doubt, coming along the corridor on the other side of the door-glass. There was just time to knock loudly and thus give some propriety to their being here, waiting on a stranger's porch, before the dog-noise ceased and the door decisively opened. Truscott made a mental note to talk to Jason about language later.
And the man standing sideways-on in the corridor was indeed Maori--not too dark--younger than Truscott and shorter, a wiry, scrawny build, a bit undernourished-looking, actually. A heavy-boned but lean face. He was wearing a ragged, sleeveless denim-jacket over a white t-shirt and one of those black tracksuit bottoms with stripes on the sides, and his longish hair that fell in front of his ears was unwashed and dishevelled--he looked as if maybe he'd just woken up.
'Mr Winterburn,' Truscott managed to say. 'Are you Zack's father?' He was about to extend his hand when a large and grimly panting Alsatian bounded round the man and stopped short on the rubber front-mat. The animal examined Truscott with its black eyes and damp nostrils wide. Then it let out a muscular growl.
'Careful,' said Winterburn. 'He's pretty wild, eh. He'd go for you.'
Jason was backing away, but Truscott thought the dog was nothing more than curious. He put forward his fist, fingers balled up well out of the road, and let the creature try a sniff.
'Watch your hand, eh,' Winterburn warned. 'He'd have it off.'
The dog put some exploratory slobber onto Truscott's knuckles and then licked them. Truscott gave the broad canine head a reassuring pat. He glanced at Winterburn: the man seemed a little disappointed.
'I'm Jason's father,' Truscott said, nodding behind him to his son. 'Our boys are at Winchester School together. Can we come in for a minute?'
Winterburn stepped back into the house and called the dog inside with an authoritative grunt. It loped off along the corridor to the far end of the passageway and disappeared round a corner. Truscott and Jason entered, and Winterburn reached carefully past them to shut the front door. Then he opened another door beside him in the passage, and they began to follow him though into what seemed the living or dining-room.
The room was in a terrible mess: cold, and with crumpled-up fish-and-chip papers and some broken toys spread around on an uncarpeted floor--just bare, unpolished wooden boards. At the far side of the room an ugly blue sofa and two grey, coarsely upholstered, second-hand-looking easy-chairs were grouped near a large television that was playing something loud from its dusty plastic cabinet. The bottom edge of some floral curtains drawn over a window was bunched up along the cabinet's top. Truscott walked further into the room and noticed that the pale green colours on the walls didn't really match; they made an uneven join at one corner. And three urchins, two little boys and a girl but each with remarkably adult hairstyles, all blond-dyed streaks cut short on the forehead and left long at the back--there was no sign of a mother anywhere--were looking up at him from the folds of the tatty sofa. Each in a garish rugby-league-club t-shirt and the same sort of orange sweatpants, stained with tomato-sauce. The girl just a pretty infant, but with an untidy ribbon in her hair and wearing jandals, and the boys somewhat older and in bare feet. Truscott had the impression the children were part of the mess too, amongst the confusion and TV noise and the close smell of grease from the chip-papers.
One of the boys, the elder of the two, appeared to recognise Jason, who was already shrinking in a bit behind Truscott's legs. Truscott could see that this Zack, though fleshy, was only about the same size as his son. Zack. Was the name short for something? A child with squinting brown eyes in a square face--it was flat with a rather yellowish tinge--who didn't appear particularly strong. Though he looked mean, certainly. One of those tough little toddlers in the playground who just doesn't care how far things go. Probably had a lot of practice at handling any hurt. Whereas Jason was a lovely, gentle, dreamy boy when he was left in peace and, not to put too fine a point on it, the lad was a bit of a cream-puff. Truscott could feel where Jason had reached out and was now curling one hand around his father's thigh for protection, but even so the hold wasn't all that tight.
Truscott shifted his gaze across to Winterburn in the middle of the room. The man didn't even look as tough as young Zack. True, Truscott saw, Winterburn needed a shave, and speckled, homemade tattoos were prominent on one of his arms where the sleeve of his t-shirt was riding up, but still...he was actually tiny. He already had a somewhat beaten look. Truscott realised that he could probably take the man in a fair fight. He told himself that this was silly, not at all the sort of nonsense he should encourage in anyone--but the thought still gave him tremendous pleasure. If necessary, he could...but, of course, there was no condoning that type of thing.
'D'you like a beer?' Winterburn asked over the sounds from the TV, although he didn't move.
'No thanks, I'm really only here about some trouble Jason's been having at school.'
And now Winterburn seemed to take action, as if he were trying to find better manners. He proceeded to shoo the children off the furniture. He had to speak to them a second time, a bit roughly because they looked reluctant, but he got Zack and the other two kids to hop off and then he motioned for Truscott to sit. Truscott lowered himself onto one soft cushion of the sofa--it sank a long way down on its springs--and as he bent and was brushing off some crumbs of fish-batter that slid in towards him, he felt Jason climbing up close alongside. Their legs were touching, although there was plenty of space. Winterburn took one of the chairs nearby. Zack and his siblings were on the floor. The scratched and gappy wooden floorboards must be chilly to sit on, Truscott thought. He could see Zack was staring hard up at Jason. Rather obviously from his face, the boy was calculating what might happen next. Truscott mused that, really, this was something he himself would decide, thank you--and so he had to force himself to pay attention to Winterburn, who was already mumbling a few nervous words.
Truscott asked, 'I'm sorry, what?'
'What sort of trouble you got?'
'Well, you see, Jason's been getting some threats at school all week. Something along the lines of how he was going to be assaulted on the way home. And, naturally, he's been worried sick and then today--'
Winterburn stood up. He muttered something more and walked out of the room through an open doorway into the kitchen, leaving Truscott with nothing for it but to look severe for a minute in front of the three children. They all watched the television while they waited. Truscott had no idea what was playing: just a lot of blurry colours with odd bursts of intermittent noise. Either the reception wasn't very good, or he wondered if the prescription for his glasses didn't need checking again. Then Winterburn was back, and he was holding long-necked green bottles with the bottlecaps taken off, one in each hand--Truscott was no drinker and he had to search for a moment to recall what type of bottle that was called: a stubbie, that was it. He had a sudden, violent memory-flash of a party he'd been at a long time past, with stereo-noise and heavy drinking and some argy-bargy.
Winterburn gave a bottle to Truscott. With the other still in his grasp he sat on the chair again, taking a sip.
'Sorry, what'd you say?' he asked, and motioned to drink.
Truscott offered his thanks and took a sip of the icy beer; but he felt as if he'd just been bested at some subtle contest, at the close of the first round. He started to say quickly, 'Well, this afternoon at school your son, Zack, he hit Jason just after the bell went and knocked him down. Then he took Jason's bag and ran off into the playing fields, you know, down the bank, and threw the bag away in the bushes, the ones on the far side.'
Truscott wondered, why was he bothering to describe which bushes, as if Winterburn had never been anywhere near the school--and did it matter? He paused, to see how this was sinking in. But Winterburn just blinked and gazed at his beer.
'You sure?' the man said at last.
That sounded like a formula: it sounded exactly like the sort of thing one said in these circumstances. But Truscott dutifully turned to his son beside him.
'Is that about right?' he tried to ask kindly.
Jason was jiggling one leg and looking like somebody who just wanted to die from embarrassment. Truscott recalled, he'd been gulping down some fizzy drink not too long before they left--it would be difficult if the kid was wanting to go pee. But Jason glanced up and managed to nod in a brief affirmative.
'Don't know if my boy'd do all that,' Winterburn muttered. But he was still blinking and staring down now at the floor, as if he'd been caught biffing the child himself.
'I can assure you there's no mistake,' Truscott said. 'Is there, Zack?'
He tried to glare hard at the damn little urchin who, like his father, seemed only interested in the patch of bare floor that he was sat cross-legged on. Oh yes, the child was guilty all right. Bent forward, head lowered, and he was twitching his shoulders sulkily in his somewhat overlarge t-shirt. Didn't like it, resisting it. Truscott had to admit the boy was gamy. He searched his mind for what to say next. He wanted to press home his advantage. But the only thing he could think of--it was the very thing he'd told himself in the car, as he'd started up the snarling engine and waved an anxious Valerie goodbye, with Jason buckled securely into the passenger seat, it was the one thing, the only thing that he'd promised himself he wouldn't stoop to using.
'I really don't want to bring the School Principal into this,' he said, 'if we can resolve this here, this evening...'
Too late--and that was that, the thing was said. He waited. Looking for Winterburn to do something. But nothing happened. Winterburn just kept staring guiltily at the floor, slumped over with his badly cut denim-jacket bunched up a bit awkwardly behind him and his elbows on his knees, the tattoo completely visible now. The green stubbie dangled forgotten from his small fingers. He was gazing downwards without even a suggestion of defiance.
'Do you think you could talk to the boy?' Truscott asked.
Winterburn nodded, but did nothing more.
So, when on earth was the man going to act, Truscott fumed. Was he simply wishing his visitors would get up and go away? He decided to concentrate his attention on Zack, settled next to those other fidgety siblings who were still all enthralled by the TV. Truscott steadied his mind and said at last, 'Zack, I think you must realise how serious this is. You just can't go about treating other people and their property this way.'
But even as he spoke, he thought how foolish he sounded, how utterly ridiculous. And how hypocritical. Didn't society itself treat these sorts of people in exactly that same terrible way, with nobody to do anything or even care? But...and he reminded himself what he was here for.
'When you hurt someone like that, you just make things worse for everybody,' he went on. 'Zack, what if everybody went round hitting other people for no reason? Would you like it, if this happened to you? You know what it's like to get hurt, don't you?'
Zack was starting to nod his head up and down hard, though he still wasn't making any eye contact. Truscott had to wonder if this, too, was just the formula on display. But he knew what was the best course: keep on sounding like an adult.
'If you know what it's like to get hurt, then you'll know why it's bad to do it to others, won't you, Zack? Zack, look at me.'
'Look at the man,' Truscott heard Winterburn growl, though now the father was only in Truscott's peripheral vision. He concentrated on the boy, sitting there with the other two children on the floor.
Zack raised his large, flat face with its puffy, almost jowly lines along his jaw. Doing his best to look innocent. And in that childish dark face Truscott could suddenly descry Winterburn's features: the boy was a miniature copy of his father, a version with baby fat, a still-unformed version. A social problem waiting to grow old enough to poison the future--all at once Truscott felt sorry for the world to come. Because Jason, clinging here, with his leg up rather too hard against his father's on the sofa in all his need of support, Jason was an unformed version of Truscott himself. What he really had to do, Truscott thought, the choice he had to make, was decide whether to threaten the father. Yell. Smack him one. That'd solve the problem, solve it for good. Speak to these people in their own fucking language. And Truscott realised how that was probably what Jason was waiting for: not this namby-pamby stuff.
He tried to slide his bottom forwards on the sofa, to extricate himself from the over-soft padding in the cushion.
'You won't do it again, will you, Zack?' he said. 'Promise me you won't do it again.'
The kid lowered his head once more and bobbed it up and down.
'Tell the man,' Winterburn growled.
Zack mumbled, 'Promise.'
They all sat quietly for a moment, with only the television's ridiculous pictures and blather going on in the background. Then one of the younger children, the girl, squirmed about a tad in her sitting posture, on her no-doubt freezing bottom, as if she were going to giggle--until Winterburn gave her a hard look. But at last understanding that everyone was, in fact, now expecting something from him, Truscott turned to Winterburn and said with the most magnanimous tone he could conjure, 'Thank you for letting me talk to your son.'
'Yeah, it's all right,' said Winterburn. Then he gestured in Zack's direction and added, 'I talk to him more later.'
'Well, Mr Winterburn, I'd be grateful if you could just...keep an eye on things for me at your end.'
There. Truscott congratulated himself. Progress. This was how adults resolved things. It would be a good lesson for Jason, and perhaps for the boy Zack, too. Yes, they'd all learned something here today. At that moment the dog shoved open the door from the passageway and came into the living-room; it had been somewhere, outside in the back garden, and it was working a pale, pock-marked, freshly-dug-up bone in its excited jaws. Winterburn ignored the animal as it nuzzled in amongst the children with the bone. The two younger kids begin to squeal, and Truscott watched them roll around with the dog on the filthy floor in delight, but then, they didn't really have a clue about what'd been going on.
Truscott stood up. He was feeling a little seedy from the beer, which he realised, only this instant, he'd been sipping at so hesitantly the whole time that he'd actually finished the bottle. But he was always more nervous than he appeared, that much was true.
'Well, thank you for the drink,' he said.
'D'you like another?'
'Thanks, but no, I don't think so.' The smell of the chips and ketchup was making Truscott unaccountably hungry. He added, 'My wife will be waiting for us at home.'
Winterburn stood up too, and he led Truscott out into the passageway. Jason and Zack were following along behind. At the front door Winterburn reached out for the chrome handle, half-turning himself back in the narrow space, and said, 'Your boy got hurt, eh?'
Was that a smile on his face, Truscott thought? But as he pondered this, Winterburn continued.
'I'll keep an eye on him.'
Ah, this was progress indeed. Truscott nodded his thanks. Winterburn opened the door for him and Truscott walked out and remembered Jason, turning back at the porch for the boy; but as he did so, his eyes fell not on his own son but on Zack. That little, grown-up-looking rogue in his footy t-shirt and high-fashion haircut, he was passing a finger across his brown neck at Jason: a you're-dead gesture. Jason was stepping out over the front-mat, and Truscott wasn't even sure if his son had seen the signal, or perhaps not.
But they were heading down the concrete driveway now. Winterburn was nowhere behind them, though the Alsatian was trotting along cheerfully enough at their heels--Truscott was going to have to get rid of it when they reached the wire-mesh gate. Seedy, the beer was definitely making him feel unwell. He saw his car waiting across the road, realised that he'd been foolish in not parking it under a streetlight in this part of Palmerston North, and for the first time began to wonder somewhat if he hadn't made a mistake.
Copyright Ian Richards, 2008
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