December 2011 – January 2012


Three boys

By Sonya Hartnett
Illustration by Jeff Fisher.
Illustration by Jeff Fisher.

He straightens from the grass and sees them immediately, already close, already seeing him, and he’s stunned he didn’t hear the danger coming, like you ought to hear a train. Walking along the path are two boys he knows from school, not close friends of his but friends in the easy way that boys will be friends with other boys who don’t in some fundamental way offend. On the broken bitumen of their schoolyard he plays football with these two, and they laugh at the same things in the classroom. They are in their last year of primary school and thus are the princes of their playground. All princes are not equal, however, and already Tom feels himself falling. There’s a hank of grass in his hand which he tosses away as the boys draw alongside. On his shoulder the bird makes a wading movement, and he feels the small scimitars of its feet. “Hi, Leon,” he says. “Hi, Marshall.”

They’d been grinning but their smiles are fading now, as if two plugs have been loosened. Marshall is the taller but neither is big, nor stupid. Thinking of it, Tom doesn’t know anyone who is stupid. Except himself. Except, in some contemptible way that even God wouldn’t forgive, himself. “Where are you going?” he asks, his mind a racing slot car, making the same kind of scream. “They’ve fixed the Galaga,” Leon replies, but his heart isn’t in it, he’s too busy staring. Last year Leon had broken into the kiosk at the cricket club and stolen a box of Mars bars. He’d been with an older boy, but was himself only 11 at the time. The police had become involved, yet Leon, to the admiration of the schoolyard, had seemed genuinely unperturbed.

Tom grabs the information like a gift. “Finally,” he says, rolling his eyes to show how impatient he’s been made by the repairing of Galaga. In truth he rarely gets to play the machine except on the mornings when they run out of milk and his mother sends him to the milk bar to get some; even then it’s a brief, unsatisfying game. Typically his relationship with the machine consists of standing amid the audience which gathers to watch the older guys play. A few months ago, not long after the shining machine took its place between and instantly usurped the two pinball tables, a kid in the audience, a boy Tom didn’t know, had slumped on melting legs and thrown a fit on the floor. Everyone, even the guy playing, had reeled back like the apostles in that painting of the Last Supper. Only Michael, the fat man behind the counter whom everyone assumed was of no use for anything, had jumped forward, shoving a ruler between the fitting kid’s teeth. Shortly afterwards the machine disappeared and everyone had disgustedly assumed that Galaga was being blamed for the fit, but then word went around that cleaning fluid had spilled into its workings and it was merely away for repairs.

Now it’s returned, and Leon and Marshall are going to pay homage. Marshall is staring at the bird, but Galaga’s grip on his mind remains strong: “You should come with us,” he says. And perhaps if there’d been only this taller boy, a lesser prince, there would have been possibilities; but Leon is a boy like tinder, and around him, if something is flammable, it must burn. “What’s that?” he asks, although the puzzlement on his face is gone.

Anyone watching would have seen three boys talking on a path that lisped down the centre of a sunbathed and weedy parcel of wasteland. There are swings at one end of the land, and sometimes little children and their parents come here. When they see the bird on Tom’s shoulder they gather, ask questions, marvel. In those moments, Tom is a hero. He explains about the bird and about the seeding grass he collects for it from the park, he shows them the claws and the scarlet undersides of the wings. Tom is usually a most unimportant boy: but when strangers flock to admire the bird, he flies.

This morning, despite the sunshine, the swings hung empty, there’d been no one to impress. Now there are Marshall and Leon, and nobody is watching. “Just a bird,” Tom says.

“What sort of bird? Not a sparrow.”

Tom shakes his head and smiles, not enough to seem smug. “A lorikeet. It fell out of its nest when it was a baby, and our cat got it,” he explains. There’s still the possibility that if the story is good enough then the tide will turn in his favour. “Mum rescued it, but its wing was mangled and it couldn’t fly. So we kept it as a pet.”

“So, what – now it lives on your shoulder?”

Tom recognises the tone: it’s like the cry which makes powerless creatures jerk their heads up from the grass. Again he smiles. “It has a cage. But mostly it just walks around the house.”

“And the cat doesn’t eat it?”

“No, she’s frightened of it now. It can bite.”

“So it just walks around the house biting and shitting everywhere?”

He would deny it, he who loves the bird, but biting and shitting are indeed what it does: so he winces a touch, companionably.

The two boys consider him. Tom is of average height, a wiry boy with floppy hair. The girls at school like him. He plays football, knows jokes, and has been known to smoke a cigarette behind the school hall. He’d endured a stint as an altar boy, as both Leon and Marshall have done. None of them has ever had cause for complaint against another. Leon is sizing Tom up now, eyeing the blue-headed bird. Almost casually he decides, “You look homo.”

“He does!” Marshall brings swift support. “He looks bloody homo.”

Leon asks, “What are you? A pirate? Standing in the park with a bird on your shoulder? A bloody homo pirate?”

They chortle, and Tom laughs too, though he understands he’s beginning to drown. He sees that homo is the word they’re dragging around like a pleasing stick they’ve found, battering it against anything that will make a sound. We saw Tom on Saturday, the homo had this bird. No one will guess, as Leon and Marshall haven’t guessed, that he brings the lorikeet to the park to be a hero among children, which in itself is pathetic, embarrassing. No: on Monday he will stand before his peers and they will see what they’re told to see, not a boy dutifully collecting grass for his pet but this weirdo birdy-boy about whom whispers will be passed, and jokes made. “It’s just a pet,” he says helplessly. He reaches up and the parrot steps onto his finger with a surprisingly beefy weight which suits it, for it has a beefy personality. It’s a smart bird, a demanding bird, a bird with a sense of humour. Sometimes it seems the only thing it can’t do is fly. “You can pat it,” he says, holding out his hand. Leon and Marshall jump away. “I’m not touching that!” Leon hisses. “Don’t touch it, Marshall!”

“She’s tame —”

“So what? Birds are germy!”

That’s what he says, but there’s fear there also, casting a shadow which all of them see. Tom might be a homo, but Leon is afraid. It should be like air to the one who is drowning, but life doesn’t work that way. “I wouldn’t have a pet like that,” says Leon sourly. 

“Gross,” Marshall agrees.

“It’s just a bird,” says Tom.

“It’s diseased, is what it is. And look at it – it’s ridiculous. It doesn’t look right. You should put it out of its misery.”

Tom glances at the bird. It is faintly ridiculous because its tail, injured in the cat attack, has never fully grown. Its right wing hangs lopsided, permanently mutilated. He is accustomed to the sight of it but sees it fresh now. The creature is nattering in its way, bobbing, chewing its tongue. It is used to strangers, uninterested in the boys. Its eyes are black beads in its gorgeously blue head, the ball bearings of billycart wheels. Lamely he says, “It’s not in misery.”

“It can’t fly!”

“That’s ok. She’s just a pet.”

“You think a bird wants to be a pet? Living in a house instead of the sky? How is it a good pet? What does it actually do, besides shit and give people germs? It’s not like a dog, is it? It’s not even like a cat.”

Tom shakes his head. “It’s a pet,” he says again, intensely aware that Leon cares less about the bird than about bailing Tom up against this wall because that is what’s been started and must be seen through to the end. It’s the devil’s blessing when Marshall interrupts. “My uncle had a fish that had a lump on its side, a big lump that was fish cancer, this disgusting black lump. The fish started swimming sideways, not eating, just drifting at the bottom of the pond. It was suffering, so my uncle killed it. So what he did was, he caught the fish and put it in a plastic bag that the bread came in, and then he goes wham! and whacked the bag on a rock.”

“Eww,” say Tom and Leon.

“Then he looked in the bag and I asked, Is it dead? And he keeps looking in the bag – and then he goes wham! and whacks the bag on the rock again. Then he looks in the bag and he looks at me and says, Yeah.”

“God,” says Leon. The three boys gaze at the lorikeet. It has shifted the length of Tom’s finger, its claws leaving pink dots in his flesh. “You wouldn’t kill the bird like that,” Leon muses. “Not with a bread bag.”

“You chop off a chook’s head with an axe.”

“Have we got an axe, dumbo?”

“We’re not killing it,” says Tom.

“Shut up, homo, I’m just saying.”

“You could probably tread on its head —”

Tom says, “You’re not killing the bird!”

“We aren’t killing the bird!” cries Leon. “God, homo! Do you see us killing the bird? Why would we want to kill your stupid bird? Why don’t you go home crying to mummy, pirate boy?”

Tom’s world has grown rank and hard, he thinks of the cupboard in the garage that is filled with his father’s tools as well as tins of paint and kerosene, coils of wire and bottles of oil. To open the cupboard is to release a huff of dead air and to see, before you, blackness. He pictures the schoolyard on Monday, the looks on the faces. “Let’s go play Galaga,” he says.

Leon snorts. “Homos can’t play Galaga.”

Tom pauses, and chooses wisely. “Get stuffed, wanker,” he says. “I could beat you at Galaga with my eyes closed. With my eyes gouged out. I could beat you even if I was having a fit on the floor. I could beat you if I was dead. I’ll take the bird home, then we’ll go. I’ve got money. We can get pies.”

“Yeah, ok,” says Marshall.

“Ok,” says Leon agreeably.

Relief is like stepping back from a cliff; Tom gathers the lorikeet and turns to go. Then Leon speaks again. “I know how to do it!” he says. “I saw on TV. You grab them by the head and swing their bodies around. Breaks their necks.”

“That wouldn’t work,” says Marshall.

“How would you know, homo? Would it work, Tom?”

He’d like to run but they’re friends again now, he’s made his way to safety only to find it too is a trap, that he must give them his time and his camaraderie, give them in some way his soul, to prevent the return of birdy-boy. He looks at the parrot which survived the cat and now terrifies the cat, which shrieks so loudly the television can’t be heard, which destroys with its beak every small object that crosses its path. It seems to possess a strength that mere feathers can’t possibly contain. He cups the gem-like head in his palm, feels the smooth skull beneath. He twists his wrist to show that slaying such a beast can’t be simple, to prove he’s a normal boy just like them, and to demonstrate to himself that he is in truth lowly, a coward who will do what is necessary. And is aghast when the bird falls from his hand and lands with a soft plume of sound on the concrete.

“Shit!” Leon squeals. “Shit!”

“Ah shit!” echoes Marshall.

Tom’s heart leaps to a place where it must constrict his breathing. “Shit,” he says.

“Look what you did!” Leon shouts. “Tommo, you killed it!”

Tom goes down to his hands and knees. Shock has him like a dog with great teeth. He can still feel the shape of the bird’s skull in his palm, but nothing else. No break of bone. Yet here lies the evidence. He gapes at Leon and Marshall, two looming silhouettes. “I didn’t mean to,” he says.

“Bloody hell! You idiot!”

“I didn’t mean it,” he groans.

Leon and Marshall stare down at him, speechless. Eventually Leon says, “Bloody hell, Tom. That was crazy! Look: if you want, we won’t tell anyone anything. You can just say it died of old age.”

“Cockatoos live a hundred years,” says Marshall.

“Shut up, dick.” Leon turns again to Tom: business-like, he says, “You tell whatever story you like, and we won’t say anything. We didn’t even see you here today, far as I know.”

“Sure,” says Marshall.

Tom sags back on his heels. There’s a lava of grief rising through him, and he struggles to keep it contained. Under no circumstances may it break the surface while these two stand here. He looks at the bird, its shining eye and withered feet, its carnival-coloured feathers. “All right,” he says. “Thank you.”

“Maybe we’ll see you at the milk bar later. Play Galaga.”

“Yeah,” says Tom.

He waits while they walk along the path and through the grass and finally around the corner. Then gingerly he lifts the bird, whose head rolls freely, livingly. Something so charming while alive has become skin-crawlingly unpleasant. He doesn’t know what he will tell his mother and father – something like the truth, but not the truth. His mother will be upset, his father commiserating. But on Monday nobody will hear the story of the birdy-boy, and that at least is something. Tom trusts Leon and Marshall will keep their promise, because that is what boys do. He tucks the parrot to him so it lies like a fold of paper in his arms, and stands. All around him is silence. Only he will know the boy he is.

Sonya Hartnett
Sonya Hartnett is the acclaimed author of Thursday's Child, Sleeping Dogs, Of a Boy and The Midnight Zoo. She won the Astrid Lindgren Memorial Award for children's literature in 2008.

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