By Paul Blanksby, 63. Helensburgh, NSW
‘You’re a sook, Miklas, a big sook.’
It’s that Johnno again. Oh, I could just…
They can’t have seen me sitting in my backyard, these boys, through the passionfruit vine and the wind-warped paling fence. An unwanted adult observer of their little drama.
A smaller boy, wearing a blue jumper and dirty jeans, has backed away from the tree, and the other kids at its feet. He seems to be clutching something in his hand. The Norfolk pine belittles the boys, its reptilian arms reaching earthward for their smooth young skin.
They have been cobbling together a ladder of pallets whacked in place with rusty nails, its knot-holed eyes gazing at me in accusation.
‘Come on, leave the sook,’ and Johnno scrambles up the pallets, leaving another boy standing on the lowest plank. Tanned youthful faces, and my wrinkled facade, all turn upward as Johnno begins to climb.
‘I think the tree is not ready for me to climb it,’ appeals Miklas, and some of the boys laugh with him. But Johnno calls down, and they crowd the ladder, cheering him on and up.
Miklas is alone, ignored, and he walks away. I have seen that look, in the mirror. I know that look, so I wish him well and roll back to the house. I know the boys never go too high, for all their raucous banter.
I’m gardening, ripping out weeds in useless disgust. ‘He’ll never climb it,’ I hear, then a scuffle.
‘What’ve you got, Miklas? C’mon, give us a look.’
A small cry, and it’s all I can do to not yell through the palings.
Johnno has wrenched open the smaller boy’s hand.
‘It’s just a crappy old watch,’ he says, and it appears above the fence, a dull glint of glass and leather held aloft in grubby fingers.
‘I reckon he stole it,’ brings laughter, perhaps uncertain, from the other boys.
I hide amongst the passionfruit and leaves, my eyes at a gap, and there is Miklas, his face dusted chalk.
‘Please, just give it back.’
‘Sure, I’ll give it back. When you climb the tree!’
Miklas wipes a sleeve across wetness, Johnno in his face, his rough brown jumper ripped and scaly, spiked hair an angry tuft.
A sudden movement, and the watch floats up, kisses a branch, flicks and drops into the pine needles at the feet of a chubby boy. He stoops over, has it in his hand. He looks at the watch, then at Miklas. Ignores Johnno, and hands the watch back.
‘Thank you. But I think the tree doesn’t want to be climbed,’ Miklas says.
‘I think,’ pronounces Johnno, ‘you don’t want to climb it, because you’re a sook.’
Kids can be almost as nasty as adults, sometimes.
‘He’ll never climb it, he’s a sooky baby,’ Johnno sings, his words stabbing memories inside me.
I go inside, to lay on my bed in the dark.
At least one of the boys was kind.
They haven’t got very far up, these boys. Maybe two thirds. The tree is a decent size, I know only too well, but despite their talk and bravado they haven’t got very high.
Miklas and the others come here to eat the tangy fruit on their side of the fence. I smelled spray paint once, saw it trickling glutinous through the gaps, black and fluoro green, and crimson veins on the trunk, the tree oblivious to this indecency.
A truck throbs whilst I sit and eat lunch. I hear men’s voices roughly calling, then a crunch and the boy’s ladder is busted, the men cursing at the timber stuck between the tyres.
They measure and drill, sap oozing from the incisions, and the scabbed trunk now wears a striped bandage and a plastic sign fluttering in the breeze, a napkin on the tree’s surly face.
A death notice.
The boys watch from the park, skateboards silent, Miklas in his patched blue jumper astride a rusty bike.
Johnno is first to the tree once the men are gone, and the boys are shouting, their contorted faces stinging me away from the fence.
Banging has roused me, not the usual cockatoos, but I am tired today.
A catalogue, two bills and the referral, and I bump down the brick path to the yard, a scrap of blue flashing high within the tree’s green needles. I peer up, but it’s just the sky, jig-sawed into the branches by a cloud.
And when I lower my eyes, through the fence I see bits and pieces of pallet thrown together and a rusty pushbike, and grow cold.
The breeze brings the sweet scent of pine and two-stroke. Chainsaw’s silenced, the men are having smoko, the climber sitting in his harness on an old Esky. My washing is out, dancing in the weak winter sun. The tea mug warms my hands.
The boys are here, herded behind the truck, impotent to this violence. Miklas loiters, away from Johnno.
Then it begins, as these things must, and the man is hoisted into the maw of the tree, and it groans and splinters and the sap spurts.
The lopper has stopped his chainsaw, and the boys, the men, and me hidden in my chair see him reach out and up.
Zzzz, and the rope sways, feet thud down.
‘Hey, look what I found up there! I got right to the top, and there it was, the band done up around a branch and all. Can’t have been there long, it’s still ticking.’
The boys are silenced, mouths agape. Oh, Johnno’s face—my hands catch a delighted laugh.
The men crowd in, and the old brown watch is passed around.
‘Whose is it?’ someone asks.
The boys, immobilised, are looking at Johnno. Miklas just waits.
Johnno, his head down, kicks his way through the bark and debris, shoves his hand out to the lopper.
‘I know whose it is.’