The back of Jack’s house was like many old weatherboard places that don’t get painted often enough. The creamy-white paint was curling and lifting from the edges of the weatherboards, and years of boys playing with various toys, balls, and other implements—innocent and not-so-innocent—had scuffed and damaged the patina so much that one wonders if his parents had looked at the surface and decided it was all too much hard work. It was far beyond just being painted now. It had been so many years since it had been done properly that it would need to be washed down, completely sanded back, and painted again from scratch. Last time it was done, the elder boys had done it, and the state it was in now was a testament to how ‘well’ they had slopped the paint onto the outside of the house.
Jack approached the battered and chewed-looking fly screen door that was doing its best despite severe handicaps; well, the main handicap being an almost total lack of fly screen. The happy, drooling, scruffy dog that doted on Jack started wagging his tail as Jack approached and, scenting the fish in Jack’s bag, followed his favourite family member over to the outside sink where Jack gave the fish an extra clean, giving the dog any bits that he didn’t think his mum would want.
The total absence of a sense of flurry made Jack look over his shoulder at the house once or twice. His brothers mustn’t have been at home, given the quietude of the house and the yard. Usually his dad was in the shed when the boys were home, making a racket all of his own, but this time he wasn’t there. Actually, Jack thought, looking around, even the car was gone. Maybe they all went somewhere together. Weird. Placing the fish on the tray that he left outside for the purpose whenever he went fishing, Jack dried his hands on the crap, spidery towel kept under the sink, and leaned against the sink appraising his dog and vaguely day-dreaming about the disturbing afternoon he’d had. It wasn’t until his dog started to lick his shin and nuzzle his leg as though after more tasty morsels that Jack came back to himself. Slinging his bag onto his back he picked up the fish and trundled inside, keeping the dog out with the toe of his right foot as he did so.
The entire house was empty. He walked in and put the fish on the draining board next to the sink, and dropped his bag in the corner of the kitchen on his shelf. Resting on the top of the set of shelves was a note instructing Jack to disregard the menu that he’d been given that morning, because plans had changed, but to make sure to fillet and break the fish up into little pieces for a curry that his mother would be cooking instead. And, by the way, everyone would home at around seven o’clock because they’d gone to the cinema for the afternoon to see the latest Aussie film that everyone had been raving about.
Jack, po-faced, pale, and extraordinarily controlled, crumpled the note in his left hand. Looking around at the truly enormous amount of fish that he’d brought home, and thinking about his mates, each of whom had had to relinquish a certain amount of the fish for Jack’s benefit, he stood and stewed in a cold rage for the best part of five minutes. The curry comment added insult to injury; she could have used any shit fish for that, rather than beautiful, fresh redfin. Suddenly coming to a decision Jack grabbed three of the most succulent fish, and cut their heads and tails off. He put the relevant detached parts next to the other fish, as though the entire fish were still there, but with their middle parts simply invisible. In the gap, he placed a very neat note that read, ‘Fucking Great Joke. Ha ha.’ Then he grabbed his smokes and headed outside. Kicking the fly screen door so hard that it hit the peeling weatherboards and caused a mini-avalanche of paint chips and dust, he stalked out to the furthermost part of the large yard and sat right at the back of the shed.
Once, when nobody was home, he’d cleaned out the back corner of the shed and furnished the space with milk crates and other bits and pieces, primarily based on discarded bricks, bits of wood, and other backyard flotsam and jetsam, and created a cosy hidden-away little place. He never came here when anyone was home, if he could help it; it would make it too easily discovered, someone would see him, and then he’d be made to dismantle it. But when no-one was home it was the best place in the world. On his way to his corner, he threw the fish to the dog. The dog couldn’t believe its incredible luck at scoring such a wonderful feed at such an unusual time of day, and promptly picked up both hollow bodies and trotted off to its own special corner, where it sat and crunched away in utter delight.
Jack sat on his milk crate leaning forward with his elbows on his knees. His pack of smokes was carelessly thrown into the dust beside him, where the force of the throw had kicked up a small mount of dirt, into which it was wedged. His lit smoke dangled from his right hand, between the middle and third fingers. He stared blank-mindedly down into the dirt between his feet; the smoke from his cigarette curled gently around his long fingers and lazily made its way more or less straight up. There was very little air movement behind the shed because of the configuration of the neighbouring fences, and because of the piles of shit that blocked off Jack’s entrance and the other path to the corner. Littered with all sorts of crap, it was a snake and fire hazard, but it made Jack comfortable. It also meant that he didn’t get bathed in smoke if he decided to have one.
The fucking bitch, he kept thinking. She fucking made me do all of that, just because she was pissy at me going out fishing and occasionally not going to school. He took a drag on his smoke and flicked the grey ash into the dirt at his feet. He couldn’t think of anything except outrage at his mother’s poor excuse for a joke. The fucking skank. No doubt he’ll get a right kicking for giving the dog the best fillets—he was pretty sure that Bevan had caught those, that they were the best of all the fish they’d collectively caught all year—but, fuck her! His self-righteous anger stewed and swirled around in his guts and he had no inclination to shift it. It was better to let it sit and rot.
Most of his smoke burned away without being smoked, so he grabbed another one and donkey-rooted it. He leaned back and flicked the first smoke into the butt-pitt he’d dug against the fence. Part of him hoped that one day the whole lot would just catch fire and burn the prick of a neighbour’s fence to bits. Lifting his feet off the ground and resting them on a pile of bricks conveniently stacked just for that purpose, he rested his back against the shed and smoked thoughtfully. Eventually his mind turned away from his mother and her deceitfulness, and away from his righteous anger, and turned into despair. He couldn’t help but think about events that afternoon.
>About the body in the river. He was certain it was a body. He was certain that it was human. Nothing else could ever smell that bad. He’d seen all sorts of dead animals in all sorts of situations and none of them had come close in appearance or in smell to that godawful mess in the river. That swarming, pulsating, beige mass that spread through all those reeds. That leaping, buzzing, busy plethora of insect life living in amongst such clouds of noxious fumes as he’d never smelled before. That red satin piece of clothing with the sparkly parts on it. That curly mass of dark hair resting in amongst the mess, so different to the rest that it had to have been a mistake. Surely.
He sighed and nearly felt sick at the remembrance, and got angry all over again at his inability to make his usually dominant personality dominate just when he believed that it had to. His anger turned to anxiety at the idea that they hadn’t done anything about it, if they could have done anything. And his anxious illness turned into a deflated sourness when he remembered the last time he’d seen that girl.
If it was that girl.
Had to be that girl.
Who else had hair like that?
Who else wore red satin with sparkles, just like that scrap of fabric sitting at the edge of the water?
Jack absently flicked the butt of his smoke into the butt-pitt, forced his way through the pile of shit on the other side of the shed, and threw up until he could hardly stand.