BY ANN-MARIE BLANCHARD
I was at that age when I’d do anything for twenty bucks. My skin was royally pissed off and I spent every minute working out ways to have sex with boys without having their babies. Obviously I was still susceptible to bad advice. Mum told me to do the job because it’s not like anybody would ever know I’d helped the neighbourhood scum.
“Just feed the mutts while they’re on holiday,” Mum said, as if those kind of people ever go on holidays.
As usual, she sat in front of the tellie watching wrestling and complaining that the summer heat was killing old people and her vegetable garden. Her lettuce was already dead. Magpies had beak-fucked her tomatoes. But it’s not like she really gave a shit. She just loved to complain, and admittedly she had a lot to complain about. As usual, she wore fuchsia pink leggings like a skanky teenager and she moved gooey, blobbing from remote to lemonade to Women’s Weekly, her blonde hair swooshing as she explained how to keep the dogs alive, as if I didn’t know how to feed lazy bitches.
“But remember, if anything’s dodgy,” she said as I walked out the door, “run for it.”
I moved through the paddocks like a pregnant horse, grumpy at the heat and dead grass. But I wasn’t fat. I was so skinny my hips projected like stages, which most boys thought was sexy. Nobody knew I was always hungry for fat. Lame neighbours liked to say that I was beautiful like my mum, which made no sense since she was old (but not that old). Going by the photos, she’d once been hot. In school, all the skaters wanted her and most had her, till she met Dad at a party where she had a rough high and he nursed her through a coma. After that, she was all Dad’s. He had spiky, bleached blonde hair like Eminem, which was cool back then for white boys. He was textbook white: blue eyes and skin that didn’t do well under the Australian sun.
Teachers who were stupid thought he was an angel.
I heard an engine growl. Being a country girl who didn’t trust strangers, I hid. Searching the lane, I saw a van leave the scum’s house and speed away. I swore at Mum, even though she was still on the couch, since she hadn’t even bothered to make sure the scum had left. Mums were supposed to protect daughters. I was ready to run for it, but then I remembered the twenty bucks. The van was gone, so the scum had to be gone. I’d seen it with my own eyes.
I belted up the scum’s driveway. Stopped at a chained gate. Grabbed hold of the top rung. But couldn’t jump over. I was dazed. I’d stalked their property for years, trying to get a glimpse, needing to see why people thought scum were scum, but the overgrowth kept everything secret. I’d imagined a zoo of mastiffs and no chickens. Instead, I saw birds everywhere. Bantams and a flashy rooster. I’d imagined the scum would be really ugly. But a man came out a shed, and although men aren’t beautiful, he was beautiful. I saw his beard first, hot as the Simson Desert. Whippets tore down the hill to the gate like ballerina dinosaurs. The man followed and spoke in whispers till they sat in a line and smiled with spotless teeth.
“Are you the girl?” Beard Man asked. “The one who’s giving the dogs a feed?”
“Dani,” I said. Most girls would’ve got out of there, but I jumped the gate onto the scum side. The dogs nuzzled my box-gap and I liked it.
“Sorry,” he said. “They only have one way of making friends.” I shrugged, because I had dogs too.
I thought of all the stories our lame neighbours told about the scum—drugs, murders, orgies. I hated that Mum was even friends with the lame neighbours. She claimed that she was lonely, but I knew she really wanted to play the queen, shake her head at lowlifes. Mum called it doing my time, but cleaning up our lives didn’t seem like justice to me. Dad was paying hard, while Mum bulldozed our family history by pretending we had no history. And what was the point? Nobody actually believed we were clean.
“You better still pay me,” I said to Beard Man. “Even if you don’t need me anymore. I’ve got big plans for that money.”
He grinned like I was young and he was old. But he only looked a bit over eighteen, which meant we could almost have sex legally. “We still need you, Dani. I just have to finish one last thing before I’m gone for good.”
“A drug thing?”
He stopped grinning. “We’re in a bit of trouble.”
“Not a chance.”
“Come on. It’s summer holidays and there’s nothing to do except watch Mum bleach her hair for Dad’s homecoming.” Beard Man looked stressed, but he didn’t have to be worried.
He cupped his hand over his mouth and mumbled, “Little mate…last free day…”
He dropped his hand. “Are you solid?”
I shrugged a yes, since honesty in my family involved half truths. What happened next, I couldn’t believe. He nodded for me to follow, said to keep up. I was the chosen one! I stepped where he stepped, since the yard was probably covered in grenades.
“Everyone else is gone,” he said. “But I had to stay and do the dirty work.”
I knew a lot about that. “Why’d they pick you?”
“I don’t have a record yet, so if I get caught the cops will go light on me.”
We passed a fence and right there in front of me was the scums’ house. The lame neighbours had always talked crap about their joint: bongs, porno posters, blown-out couches, peach paint and peach countertops and peach lino. I’d once asked ugly-eyebrows-Jimmy if he’d even been to the scum’s house, and he changed the subject to me failing art at school, as if anyone these days wants to paint a still life. The prick didn’t know I’d aced chemistry. That man definitely wanted to sleep with my Mum, because she was old-person-hot. God, I couldn’t wait for Dad to come home.
Although I knew the neighbours were all lying bastards, I still hadn’t expected the scum to have a cottage surrounded by sunflowers. When I saw a statue of a saint, I snorted.
“Hey,” Beard Man said, “people like me need martyrs on our side.”
“What can dead people do?”
“Keep alive-people alive.”
He stepped into a dark shed that smelled like cat piss. I didn’t bolt, because I knew that smell. Listening, I could only hear frogs outside hammering from dams. I wondered why Beard Man had brought me into the shed, and hoped it had something to do with drugs, murder, or orgies. He seemed pretty smart, so he probably knew drugs and murder could happen in broad daylight, but sex would be best in the dark. The thought of having sex with a man, especially one with a beard, made me higher than all the cones I’d smoked with Mum on Christmas day. I was bored of teenage boys and their thin penises. Dizzy, I realised Beard Man’s hair was probably red all over.
“Kid,” Beard Man barked, “get a move on.”
My eyes adjusted and I saw a Datsun with a drooping muffler. Chains hanging from rafters with big, soft-tipped hooks. A drip came from the roof, pooled on a cluster of ferns. And there was Beard Man, dragging stuff from a makeshift shelf. Going by what he grabbed—chainsaw and hessian bags—I doubted he was about to take off my clothes. Reality was lamer than my neighbours.
“You know I’m not that young,” I said and grabbed a knife that I shoved down my boot. Beard Man kept hunting. “How old are you?”
“Old enough to go to jail,” he said.
“My dad’s in jail,” I said. He shrugged like his shoulders were giving him trouble. Of course he knew I was Dane’s daughter. Everyone knew. That was probably the only reason he trusted I was solid. I crossed my arms. It was weird because I loved my Dad, but sometimes I just wanted to be me—if I did something solid, I wanted it to be my solid.
“They didn’t go light on Dad,” I said, “even though he was pretty much your age.”
“Your parents must’ve been babies when they had you,” he said, missing the point.
“Teens,” I said and felt relieved. For the first time in my life, I didn’t have to lie. There was nothing to be embarrassed about in front of scum. Anything crazy that my family had done, they’d done worse.
“I bet you remember when the cops got your dad,” he said.
Dad made me street smart. Rather than talk about raids, I kicked the dirt. The ground came loose. My skin got prickly in a good way. Kneeling, I stuck my finger in the soil, felt metal. I swept the grime away, saw what I expected. A trapdoor. Spray-paint read welcome, which was stupid. At least my dad hadn’t been a stupid criminal, and yet, he’d still got caught and no martyr had saved him.
“Time to set fire to your idiot lab,” I said.
Beard Man looked ready to throttle the life out of me. “Not everyone can be as solid as Dane.”
We had a stare off. His cheeks got all red like his beard and he didn’t look good anymore. Although I didn’t want to be just Dane’s daughter, it put muscle on my bones using my family clout. I was so used to hiding my history, even though nothing was really hidden in my town. Our business had been epic before it got bulldozed. Beard Man’s eye twitched and I couldn’t help laughing. He cursed, but then chuckled. What was the point in making him feel embarrassed? Even though he was a rookie, we both knew I’d still do him a solid. I was born to protect scum.
I was five when Dad came home revved. He had a secret that he was ready to tell. Mum was making mac-and-cheese—Dad’s favourite—because back then she wasn’t lazy. Dad marched around the kitchen, his bare feet kissing the lino. Ciggy smoke hung around his head, making him a ghost. I should’ve known he wouldn’t always be around.
“It’s all about diet pills,” he said. Mum looked unconvinced. “You’ve just got to extract pseudo stuff.”
I don’t know where Dad got the money, but the next day he towed a caravan home. The thing was nasty—the colour of mustard—and the panels were shaky. His dog Lunatic (Luna for short) barked at the caravan like it was packed full of steak. I was excited too, but for a different reason. We were finally going on holiday! I imagined all the stories I’d tell the neighbourhood kids who called me povo. Wouldn’t be long till I hung keychains from theme parks on my backpack. But Dad drove to where the bushland got scraggily and Mum shoved me in front of the tellie.
“Dad’s got work to do,” she said.
I was falling asleep watching adult news when he walked through the door. He looked whiter than I remembered. He grabbed a bowl of Cocoa Pops, fed me a spoonful, and asked me to promise that I’d never go near the caravan. I bit him, because I was allowed to be an animal since humans are animals. But when Dad told me Luna couldn’t even go near the caravan, I understood it was dangerous. I promised Dad that I’d never let him die.
Each afternoon, when I got home from school, I sat in a tree and kept an eye on Dad. Usually, he and his mate were outside the caravan on deckchairs. They drank tinnies and wore nothing but boxers. It was weird that they never wore proper clothes, especially since it was winter. Sometimes smoke came out the caravan vents that smelled gross. Dad started to smell gross too. At first he stunk like granny’s sandwiches: eggs and mayo. But once his business grew—three ugly caravans—he stunk like cat piss and walked with swagger. I copied his stride and he loved it, but Mum threatened that she wasn’t going to have sex with him anymore.
“You want to go back to being poor?” he asked, holding her hips.
She patted his head like he wore a broken crown. “We still are poor, babe.”
That was the only time I saw my dad cry.
But we didn’t stay poor. Everything changed when Dad gave Mum a box of Juicy tracksuits for her twenty-first birthday that would’ve cost like five-hundred dollars. After that, when Mum dropped me off at school, the other mums backed off from her bedazzled arse. She wasn’t supposed to smoke on school grounds, but she did. Although she looked too flashy, she was proud of herself, and that made my tummy full, like I’d eaten seconds of mac-and-cheese. The best part was that the other kids still called me scum but they looked down, like they weren’t as confident that scum was bad.
But in our town, scum had to stay poor, never get three caravans, never walk with swagger, never go on holidays, buy those theme park keychains. Our bills had to be printed in red. Our gutters had to sag, our socks sag, our boots sag. Weeds could grow on our property, but not the type we could sell for coin. And when we went to sleep at night, we were supposed to lie down sad, wake up to sad new days.
I was probably up my tree when they came for Dad. Mum was probably soaking her feet on the verandah in a tub that got rid of toxins. Dad was probably sunbaking on the bench beside her, rolling over to bite her thigh, make her grin and bite back. I don’t want to remember the panel van and the men’s grungy ponytails, how Dad welcomed them, trusted that Bucko sent them. I don’t want to remember Luna running out the bush with a baby bunny, dropping it on the verandah, the thing hobbling around like it had myxomatosis, and how I focused on the bunny rather than focusing on Dad slipping the men their baggies. If I’d watched Dad, I would’ve seen when they slammed his face against the bench and cuffed him, and I would’ve seen Mum fight the cops like a hurricane. What I do remember is jumping out of the tree, landing messy, biting the cop who cuffed Dad. What I do remember is that I hugged Dad, even though he couldn’t hug me back.
The lab was already cleared out. Beard Man said they’d done it before sunrise. Grinned at having saved the goods. I covered the trapdoor anyway. But there was still one last job to do. Beard Man loaded me up with hessian bags, grabbed a chainsaw, and tried to start a motorbike but it was dead. We set a cracking pace on foot, right after I snuck a jerrycan under the bags, since it’s always good to have flammables on hand. Everyone always said the scum owned the shittest block of land and they weren’t wrong. The dirt was hunchbacked and messy with wattles. I didn’t know where we were going, but I was used to following a leader who had secrets.
We broke into a clearing where weed grew to my hips. The sun beat on the stash like it was the chosen land. Nobody ever talked about how pretty drugs are in my town. I held my palm up to a leaf. It had seven fingers and that made me feel like my people were special since we grew something special.
“Can you guess how much this is all worth?” Beard Man asked.
“A few thousand?”
“A lot more than a few.”
He walked into the centre of the crop with a chainsaw and hessian bags. Standing proud, he looked like a farmer who grew corn and prayed to a bearded god. It was nice imagining he lived a less complicated life. He yanked the chainsaw to life and went at the the base of the plants, dropping them like soldiers. I felt bad for them, but the less drugs the cops found the freer Beard Man would be, so I pulled the knife from my boot. As I went at the plants, I wondered if every ten years I’d be fighting to keep young-scum free. And I wondered if every ten years I’d lose the fight. If things kept going that way, one day there’d be none of us left. And although that’s how the town wanted things, I didn’t want my people wiped off the face of the earth. Maybe Mum had been right: We needed to clean up our lives. But we didn’t have to be lame. We might’ve cooked some dangerous stuff that fucked up teeth and brains, but with talents like that, we could make medicine for dogs or something.
I was bleeding down my leg. The blood smeary. There were plant smears and dirt smears too. I looked like an ugly national flag. What the fuck was Beard Man thinking? That we’d spend all afternoon harvesting and bagging the crop, lugging the goods through the wattles to his panel van? It was so typical of scum-men to put product first, even when they knew the cops had been tipped-off. God, by sunset I’d be in juvenile detention. Wouldn’t even get to welcome my dad home. We’d trade off time-in-the-clinker like a game. I was sick of following men. I uncovered the jerrycan and trailed fuel around the outskirts of the crop. Chucked the can into the scrub. And jogged to Beard Man who lobbed the last plant, stood sweating and smiling.
“You should’ve run when everybody else did,” I yelled in his face. He rubbed his head. I wasn’t crying, but my eyes were hot. I grabbed a hunk of weed, shook the dank thing at him. “Don’t you get it? Young scum have to be smarter.” He swallowed. “You listening?” He swallowed again.
I grabbed him by the hips. He didn’t shove me off, since our blood ran down the same massive river, but he looked confused. I was sick of our river. Crazy ran in our blood—but crazy had to get a hold of itself. He smelled like chili and tobacco. I lifted his shirt, saw the dirt of his skin, the red hair that snaked. There was no room for hesitation. Scum were always out of time. I shoved my hand down his front pocket. Felt the tough nudge of his thigh. The sky filled with King Parrots who knew how to get safe. And so did I. Tracing my fingers over the length of the thing, I took hold of the answer. Wished my Dad had put the thing to use before our family got ripped to shreds. I got a grip. Released my hand from the pocket. Flicked the lighter and cupped the flame. Lit the royal weeds.
We ran from the flame. Beard Man cursing me blue. The heat at our back. The smoke an incredible god. A storm was coming. The wind took the fire in the opposite direction. Black leaves spat into the sky like bats. Before long, the fire would be chewing up the lame neighbours’ land. Beard Man didn’t stop cursing as he chucked his duffle bag and whippets in his panel van. He looked like he might cry, and I wished he would so that I could call him a baby.
“You couldn’t have handled prison,” I said and flicked the lighter just to piss him off. “Lucky I saved you.”
“They never raid during the day—” He rubbed his hands all over his face. “Fuck—we had ages.”
Reasoning with an idiot never worked. “Where’ll you run to?” I asked.
“The sea,” he half-yelled. “I’ll be a regular Jesus. Sell my catch of the day.”
He grabbed me in an angry hug.
Walking home through the paddocks, black smoke pummelling the sky, I carried the saint statue that I stole. She was heavy and had a smile that said she was happy to be stolen. I promised not to let her down.