NEW FICTION 2017 winner
Rules To Live By
BY LOUISE BASSETT
25TH SEP, 2017
A brutal crime and an unlikely friendship under the shadow of socioeconomic disadvantage, in the winning entry in the 2017 S.D. Harvey Award.
The judges commented that Bassett’s entry was ‘a lovely, layered piece, full of heart. The tightly controlled elements of prose and beautifully balanced themes make for a very satisfying read.’
Katherine Kovacic, for her short story ‘The Ridge’ was runner up.
Tonight the lift doesn’t stink of pee. I hold my breath and no one gets in. On the ground floor the guard doesn’t look up from his booth and a couple of ninja women in black robes – Dad tells me not to call them that – talk by the noticeboard.
Outside grey clouds hang so low I could jump up and touch them. The air bites. I’m still in shorts because I hate wearing long pants; my legs need to be free. A boy by the door tosses a basketball and spins it on his fingertip. I say hello and he grunts and heads inside.
Across the yard, the garden has a curly wire gate with a wonky wooden ‘community garden’ sign and a fence covered in jungle. There’s no one around, so I swing the gate open. It creaks. LOUD. Inside I tiptoe down skinny paths between rows of tomatoes, parsley and carrots. Tarik says the gardens are for povos, but I think they’re cool; all this food and it’s free.
Beans have climbed up a wooden grid and I stuff some into my pockets, but I storm past the pumpkin because it sucks. The corn is the best, tall with green cocoons. Under its tight leaves, the corn looks like neat yellow teeth. I pull off two cobs and drop them into my hood because my pockets are too small.
A sound like shoes skidding on concrete stops me at the carrot box. The fence is too high to peek over, but I notice a hole, so I crouch down and spot three grown-ups on the basketball court by the monkey bars. I flinch. They’re guys I dodge if I can. They wear baggy clothes, jeans that show their bum cracks and sick runners that no one here can afford.
One of them, in a red basketball top, shoves a guy in a white hoodie until he trips. White Hoodie holds out his hands, like he’s explaining something. Next to Red Top, a huge guy in a black boxy jacket stretches his arm and reaches a rung of the monkey bars – he doesn’t have to stand on his toes. White Hoodie has a motor mouth and he moves towards them, even though Red Top keeps edging back.
The gate squeaks and it’s a hunched shape: an old woman with a grey ponytail that swings as she shuffles forward, a straw basket over her arm. She’s like Red Riding Hood except she’s Asian. She doesn’t notice me; the way people don’t when they’re not expecting you. At the carrot box she pinches the soil. Why is she doing that?
I lean closer and leaves from the bush that smells like roast lamb tickle my nose. I make fists but I can’t stop the sneeze. After the explosion, I check my hands but there’s no snot.
She spins around.
‘It’s me, Johnno.’ I step out.
She squints and clutches her basket, like I’m going to nick it. ‘I know you?’
‘Don’t think so.’
‘I see you before. What are you doing?’
‘You steal?’ Her lips make a hard line.
My heart beats in my belly. ‘No–’
‘You druggie’s son, no good.’ She shakes her head.
Her words punch me in the throat. People shouldn’t say that about Dad, just because he’s sick. He can’t help it and he tries hard, but sometimes the sickness beats him.
People shouldn’t say that about Dad, just because he’s sick. He can’t help it and he tries hard, but sometimes the sickness beats him.
‘You don’t know me and you don’t know my dad.’ I glare at her and step away.
‘You steal?’ She grabs my arm and spins me around.
‘Leave me alone.’ I try to swing away from her, but I stumble and something goes flying.
She scoops it up and waves it in my face.
‘We work hard and you take, you don’t ask.’ Her face is tight, like the skin is stretched across her cheeks.
‘There’s no food at home.’ My shoulders droop and I kick at the ground.
Her cheeks soften. She looks at the cob she’s holding and her fingers are like stone, not skin.
‘No food?’ she says.
A different sound from over the fence. My stomach swirls. I run to the fence and peek through the hole. Black Jacket holds White Hoodie’s arms while Red Top slams his fist into White Hoodie’s stomach. White Hoodie caves in, bending like his back has snapped. Red Top swings again and White Hoodie tries to break free, but Black Jacket is too strong. He winces when the punch hits and I hold my breath. My skin goosepimples. Dad calls it The Fear, the shivery feeling when your heart goes all skippy and you’re cold and sweaty at the same time.
‘Why you not listen?’ Her finger stabs the air.
I press my finger against my lips and point over the fence. She frowns, then her eyes bulge and The Fear hits her too. I hide behind the roast lamb bush and she shuffles, like every move hurts, and crouches beside me.
Red Top beats White Hoodie and we cringe with every punch. After a while, White Hoodie stops struggling, sags against Black Jacket’s legs and moans. Red Top says something to Black Jacket, but Black Jacket shakes his head. Red Top’s voice gets louder, angrier and he looks around, reaches into his pocket and swings something. White Hoodie’s mouth falls open and he clutches at a dark patch over his stomach. It grows and grows, like it’s swallowing him.
White Hoodie’s mouth falls open and he clutches at a dark patch over his stomach. It grows and grows, like it’s swallowing him.
The lady gasps and puts a hand over her mouth and I bite down on my lip. White Hoodie collapses on the ground and Red Top wipes his hands inside his top. Black Jacket scans the area like a hunter and stalks towards the gardens. Red Top races after him and tugs Black Jacket’s sleeve, but he keeps striding towards us. He reaches the fence and my heart’s going to explode. Through the hole, his knee is at my eye-level.
‘Let’s go.’ Red Top says.
‘Got to get rid of this, come on.’ Red Top’s voice rises.
We look at each other, her eyes buggy, cheeks pink. She’s breathing hard and gripping my sleeve.
‘Have to be sure,’ Black Top says.
His knee starts to bend and I’m hypnotised until the lady tugs me away from the fence: Black Jacket has bent down and there’s his eyeball, floating in the hole. My heart thuds through my ribs.
‘What you going to do with it?’ Black Top says.
The eyeball disappears.
The gate creaks. We shrink as far back as we can and watch them in the almost-dark, the shiny stripes on their sneakers glowing as they crush the woodchip path.
‘What you doing?’ Black Jacket jerks his head to the right, then the left, his eyes darting.
‘Getting rid of it.’ Red Top strides to the end of the garden and shoulders a messy bush aside. There’s a black bin behind it and he screws the top off.
‘You kidding? That’s the first place they’ll look.’
‘No, look how hidden it is – blends in, yeah?’ Red Top wipes the knife on the inside of his top and shoves it into the bin, reaching as far as he can until the bin is up to his armpit. ‘It’s full of worms and shit, no copper’s going in there. They’ll go for the skip and the bins by the courts.’ Red Top puts the lid back on, his arm black with gunk.
Black Jacket shakes his hands in his pockets and bounces on his feet like he can’t stand still. He turns, his eyes sweep past us and I inch back and hold my breath.
‘Cool it, we got to act normal,’ Red Top says.
They rush up the path and the gate creaks behind them. We wait, squashed together, until she thinks it’s safe. When I get up I almost fall over, my leg is so dead from being folded under me. A cob rolls out of my hoodie and stops at her feet. She holds it out to me.
I take it. She grabs another cob, some beans and tomatoes and arranges them in my hoodie so they won’t fall out. It’s dark now, but we peer over the gate and wait a few minutes until we’re sure. I want to see if the man’s still on the court, but the lady grabs my arm. Even though she’s hunched, she races ahead to the towers and it’s hard to keep up. I can’t get enough air.
We stop at Tower B. I punch in the code and she follows me. In the lift I hit 14 and she hits 12.
‘We say nothing?’ she says.
‘You good boy, you look after me. What’s your name?’
‘Mae Lin. If you hungry come to 1202.’ She shakes her head. ‘No garden.’
But she doesn’t have to tell me, I’m never going back.
In the morning, Dad’s lying on top of his bed in his clothes and boots. He’s had his medicine. I creep up to him and put my ear to his mouth until I hear him breathing. His blanket hangs off the bed, so I pull it over him. There’s a letter on the other pillow. When Dad gets typed, stiff letters like this he hides them from me. He has to be in court for a ‘hearing’ on Tuesday – a week away. Court is never good.
In the kitchen I spot the corncobs on the table and blood rushes in my ears. There’s milk in the fridge and some Weetbix; Dad must have worked for Vincent again. I wolf the Weetbix down. Last night I couldn’t eat at all because my stomach was swimmy.
There’s nothing for lunch and I don’t know how I’m going to follow Dad’s number one rule: ‘Always take lunch to school’, but then I remember the corn. I microwave the cobs and shove them in my bag.
Rain spits on the windows. I stare at the gardens, but I can’t see the basketball court from here. Last night, I wanted to call triple zero, but Dad had taken his phone with him. I kept waking up and stressing. Did someone find White Hoodie? Did he bleed to death all over the court?
Dad always tells me, ‘Don’t dob. The police aren’t our friends, they might take you away.’ In my head White Hoodie keeps bleeding until his hoodie’s red and his whole body is white. I shiver and turn away from the window.
Dad always tells me, ‘Don’t dob. The police aren’t our friends, they might take you away.’
The lift takes ages to reach the bottom because people pile in, including Matoc with his hat and leather jacket. He looks like a basketballer, but he’s an Uber driver.
‘Johnno, have you grown yet?’ he asks.
‘Can you even see me?’ It’s dumb, but we always do it.
On the ground floor, the doors fly open and my stomach dives. Cops are inside and outside, talking to people and taking notes.
‘Whoa.’ Matoc holds his hands in the air. ‘What’s going down?’
A policewoman stands up taller. ‘A man was stabbed last night on the basketball courts. Let us know if you saw or heard anything.’
Matoc’s eyes flash. ‘He dead?’
‘No, he’s critical.’
I drag in a breath and my eyes go fuzzy.
Outside, rain fills holes in the concrete. Blue and white chequered tape twists around the basketball court and cops dash in and out of tents on the edge of the court, rain rolling off their plastic onesies. People edge around the tape like they want to see the blood, but I freeze.
How long did White Hoodie lie there?
If he dies it will be my fault.
I’ve got to tell Dad.
‘You right, little man?’ Matoc is leaning against a bike rack, smoking a cigarette.
‘Yeah.’ I tug my backpack straps and swallow but I can’t get rid of the sick taste.
‘All this rain will wash the clues away.’ He turns his head and exhales.
My heart beats in my throat. Red Top said it was a good hiding spot, but they’ll find the knife – they always do on TV.
At homework club, I read to Amira but she tells me to have a break because the words keep swimming past my eyes. I bolt to the snack table, spoon Milo into a glass and eat it with milk.
Tarik’s doing maths with super strict Nathaniel and I stick out my tongue at him. He rolls his eyes. When Nathaniel sets Tarik free, he runs up to me, grabs a sausage and squirts tomato sauce on a piece of white bread. Like blood on a white hoodie.
‘Come on, let’s go.’ I grab my bag.
After we leave, Tarik races past the soccer pitch and gawks at the basketball courts.
‘They say he nearly lost all his blood before they found him, did you know that?’
I shake my head and try not to look, but I can’t help it. The tents are still there and one police car.
‘Want to go look?’
‘No way.’ I keep walking.
‘It’s all taped off.’ I want to tell him, but my heart pounds like Red Top’s fist and I know I can’t. We keep walking.
‘Hey, isn’t that your dad?’
Dad’s in the yard between our two towers with his back to us, talking to some guy in a bright green hoodie. I’m about to run up to him when my neck prickles. The man he’s talking to grabs Dad’s hand and clenches it hard.
Dad’s in the yard between our two towers with his back to us…The man he’s talking to grabs Dad’s hand and clenches it hard.
‘That’s Jacob Hinch. Sammy says he’s big time.’ Tarik raises his eyebrows. Sammy is Tarik’s brother and thinks he knows all the big men on the estate.
This enormous guy in a grey jacket comes out of Tarik’s tower and swings his arm around Jacob. He’s changed colours, but when I see them side by side I know it’s Black Jacket and Red Top.
Dad bumps fists with them.
That night, I don’t tell Dad. We sit on the couch and eat the noodles he cooked to make up for me going to school with corncobs. Even though it’s my favourite meal, I can’t finish it. Dad sits on the couch and I sprawl on the floor and lean against him. He’s all sweaty and he’s got purple circles under his eyes and I don’t want to look at them. Even when he’s sitting, he can’t keep his legs still and he keeps going to the toilet.
In the morning he’s gone and there’s a note: Gone to do a job. See you later. Lunch in the fridge. Dad.
A job with Vincent?
Or Red Top?
There’s a fat cheese roll with bacon bits on top for lunch. I knew Dad was sorry.
Downstairs two cops sit at a booth by the lifts with White Hoodie’s photo blown up on the wall. With security cameras right near the booth, no one’s stupid enough to go near it.
‘What’s up Johnno?’ says a deep voice behind me. It’s Matoc.
I gape at him, until he puts a hand on my shoulder.
‘That’s more like it.’
We pass the booth together and Matoc tips his hat at the police, because one of them is a woman.
‘You look troubled,’ Matoc says.
I scratch my hair. ‘What’s with the booth?’
‘That’s because it’s murder now. The man died.’
My lungs feel like I’ve jumped into a freezing lake and I can’t get a breath.
‘I know, it’s horrible, horrible.’ He walks beside me. ‘But you go to school and get out of this life. You studying hard?’
If the police knew I wasn’t telling them stuff, would they lock me up?
If the police knew I wasn’t telling them stuff, would they lock me up?
If I tell and Red Top finds out, what would he do to me?
Or to Dad?
Mae Lin’s eyes are blank. She squints at me, then pats her hand against my chest.
‘Johnnie, good. You came.’ She steps back. ‘Come in.’
I stood outside her door for ten minutes before I got the guts to knock. Her flat is super clean and she’s got a black coffee table so shiny I can see my face in it.
‘Well, sit. Hungry? You like noodles?’
‘I love noodles.’ I beam at her and sit down. The couch has lacy things on the arms, which keep falling off. Mae Lin disappears into the kitchen. She’s got some Chinese program on I can’t understand, but I watch it anyway. There are photos everywhere of little kids and a few of Mae Lin with an old man.
‘Are you a grandmother?’
‘Yes, five grandchildren.’ Banging sounds. ‘You have grandparents?’
The banging stops for a second then starts again.
I do have a granddad, but Dad never sees him. He won’t tell me why, just that ‘it’s not worth it, and when you’re older I’ll tell you the whole story’. When I was little it bothered me, but now I’ve kind of forgotten. Dad’s mum died years ago, like my mum.
‘You change the channel.’
The Simpsons is on and I forget I’m at Mae Lin’s until there’s a huge crash in the kitchen. I run to her. Mae Lin’s face is all red and she can’t stop blinking at the broken plates and vegetables at her feet.
Her chest heaves in and out. ‘Look.’ She holds out her hands to me. The fingers are curled like claws.
‘What’s wrong with them?’
‘Arthritis. Some days good, some days bad.’
We stare at her hands for a moment.
‘I can help.’
Mae Lin smiles. ‘You good boy. Okay. You take this.’ She ties her flowery apron around me. ‘You chop that. Small piece.’ She points to a slab of shiny red meat on a plastic board.
‘Is that pork?’ I can’t stop grinning.
‘Yes, the best.’
‘Like this?’ I whack the knife against the meat.
Her eyes brighten.
‘Mae Lin, I’m your robot, you give the command and I move.’ I robot walk back to the bench and chop like I’m a cyborg.
She laughs. ‘Johnnie, if you help me I always feed you.’ She tries to clench her fists. ‘All my life I’ve cooked, for family, to make money. Now sometimes is too hard.’
I keep chopping until it’s done.
‘If my family thought I couldn’t feed myself…’ She leans against the counter and the sides of her mouth drop.
‘No problem, I’ll help you.’
She nods, but really she’s helping me. I don’t mention Child Protection, but she knows.
I slurp my last noodle, pick up the bowl and stick out my tongue.
‘No.’ Mae Lin’s eyebrows shoot up.
‘Just kidding.’ I look away. ‘Did you hear…that man died.’ My face is all hot.
Mae Lin nods. ‘My neighbour told me.’
‘Do you think we should have, maybe if we had…’
‘That night, I rang ambulance.’
I gape at her. ‘But I thought you–’
‘I not tell about knife, but I couldn’t leave him there.’
Prickles catch the back of my neck. ‘But they’d know it was your number?’
‘I used payphone, hung up when they asked my name.’ She takes my bowl.
Mae Lin is old, but she knows how things work.
Mae Lin is old, but she knows how things work.
Three days later, I come home from soccer and Dad’s smoking in the kitchen. He gave up months ago.
‘Johnno.’ He steps towards me.
I storm off to my room, slam the door and lie on my bed.
He taps on the door. ‘Can I come in?’
I don’t answer.
Dad sticks his head in. ‘Look, sorry mate. I couldn’t get home any sooner. The job was bigger than I realised. I know it’s not good enough but we need the money.’
‘You working with Vincent?’
‘I’ll make it up to you.’
‘I hate McDonald’s, you should know that.’
‘What then? Noodles? Dumplings?’
‘Fish and chips.’
‘In an hour?’
I nod to the ceiling and he closes the door. I grind my teeth. He’s been with Red Top, I know it.
Dad lets me order whatever I want, but I’m not that hungry. The last three nights I’ve stuffed myself at Mae Lin’s.
‘Keep it for tomorrow, hey.’ Dad wraps the potato cakes and dim sims and puts them in the fridge.
I grab the remote and flick the channels. There’s comedy on and it takes me a minute to realise Dad’s on his phone. He’s prowls around the kitchen and the lino creaks under his runners. I turn the volume down.
‘But I can’t, I’ve got court Tuesday morning.’ He walks to the sink. ‘What about earlier, or later?’
He paces to the window.
‘Give me a break…I could go down–’
Dad stares out the window. I can’t hear what the other person is saying, but he’s shouting. Dad hangs up and stands frozen for a minute.
‘Who was that?’
His eyes are spacey and he rubs his hand over his mouth. ‘Vincent. He’s got a job for me on Tuesday.’ He swings past me, towards the bathroom.
But Vincent never yells. I sit on the heater but I can’t get warm.
Ping. A text message sounds on Dad’s phone. I step into the hallway and can hear the shower running. I grab his phone and my stomach grips.
Message: Be there tuesday or your dead.
On Monday after school, the booth is still there. I pull up my hoodie and hang by the noticeboard until one of the cops heads for the toilets. I wait a bit, then follow him around the corner where there are no cameras. In the men’s, there’s a stinky trough with a yellow wax thing that everyone aims for and one toilet with a door. Under the door the cop’s pants are on the floor and his shoes poke out from under them. My pulse beats in my neck and I pull the paper I printed from my pocket and slide it under the door.
My pulse beats in my neck and I pull the paper I printed from my pocket and slide it under the door.
Check the worm bin in the garden.
But I’m out of there before he can pull up his pants.
When the alarm wakes me it’s dark, with a fuzzy square of light around my window. Rain drips in the gutters. I didn’t dream about White Hoodie last night, but now when I shut my eyes I see the knife and blood spreads until the back of my eyelids turn red.
The flat’s silent. It’s Tuesday – where’s Dad? I jump out of bed and hop around on bare feet on the cold floor until I find my uniform. I burst out of my room, slide down the hallway in my socks, bash around the corner with my heart in my throat and stop in front of the kitchen.
He’s not there.
His bed’s empty. No note, nothing. My chest is tight. I try to think but I’m all scrambled.
Heavy footsteps walk up to the front door, like someone wearing boots. The door swings open.
‘Where were you?’
‘At Vincent’s. Had to borrow this.’ He holds up a maroon tie and blinks at me.
‘I thought you were working?’
‘Job fell through.’ He grins. His hair is damp and combed and he’s wearing a crispy white shirt and black pants for court.
‘You look like a waiter.’
‘Great,’ Dad says.
I hug him tight. His shirt smells like soap.
‘What’s wrong?’ He strokes my hair.
‘Nothing.’ But I don’t let go.