Read Frederick's Coat Online

Authors: Alan Duff

Frederick's Coat

BOOK: Frederick's Coat


When Johono comes out of prison, he resolves never to go back again. But his new life is not easy, especially as he soon finds himself in sole charge of his strange young son, Danny. Danny isn’t the kind of son he would have chosen, but, in caring for the boy, Johno finds new meaning and new direction.

But what do you do when the world you’ve so carefully built comes crashing down? Can you ever escape your past?

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To Charles and Sofana McArthur — for a memorable almost five years living in their lovely French chateau. What better place to start a comeback. Joanna and I thank you with all our hearts.

hey were thirteen, first year of high school and only three weeks in, as Shane was reminding him. Friends since the age of four. ‘You scared?’

Johno didn’t answer.

‘I am,’ said Shane.

‘Why, if you’re not fighting?’

‘Shitting myself.’ Shane was having to run to keep Johno’s pace as they headed for the fight venue around the side of the school gymnasium. ‘He’s two years older.’

‘I heard three,’ Johno said. ‘Doesn’t matter if he’s ten years older. I’m the one he picked on.’

‘Yeah. But you’re s’posed to cop it if he’s a third-year and we’re—’

‘I know what year we are.’ Johno didn’t let Shane finish.

‘Oh yeah? So a first-year punched a third-year?’ Shane said. ‘How does that work?’

‘He started it. Shoved me for no reason. Called me a punk,’ said Johno.

‘Did he throw the first punch or did you? I got there too late. By then you two were at it. He’s good, Johno. Got a rep.’

‘Who cares? Didn’t say I’d win, did I?’ But he looked as if he would. ‘Just not standing for being pushed around.’ Johno slowed down to make his point, glared at Shane. A large group of fellow students followed them.

‘Hey, I’m right here beside you, aren’t I? Don’t look at me like that.’

‘You know I hate bullies.’

‘Mate, we all hate lions, too. But we don’t go sticking our hand in their cages.’ Shane gave Johno a look. ‘Got that from Taronga Zoo.’

‘What? The words?’

‘No. From me and you going there one time and I got to thinking how stupid it’d be to get near a lion.’

‘What if you’re born stupid, like you?’

‘Jesus, you
wound up. You sure you’re not scared?’

This time Johno stopped. ‘The way you keep asking that, it’s not a question. And you’re pissing me off, Shane …’

‘Sorry. Couldn’t think of anything but your fight all afternoon.’

‘Well, you won’t have to think about it for much longer.’ Johno gave his audience a contemptuous look, resumed his charged walk.

‘This is as big as it gets,’ Shane said. ‘He’s been in the First Thirteen league team since he was a first-year. They say he’ll play for New South Wales under-sixteens, even Australia one day. You’re not listening, are you? Nope.’ Shane shook his head. ‘Best let you concentrate.’

‘Nothing to do with concentrating,’ Johno said. ‘I’m not being pushed around, that’s all.’

‘Why’ve all you Ryans got a thing about bullies? I mean, they’re part of life, aren’t they? You can’t stand up to them all,’ Shane said.

‘What you said about the hand in the lion’s cage?’ said Johno. ‘I didn’t stick my hand in. I was minding my own business and that league player ape comes along.’

‘Sheesh. Lions and apes — what next? Jesus Christ, look at the crowd, J. My old man would say you should’ve made it indoors and charged admission.’

‘What for? Not gonna last that long. I’d have to give their money back.’ He looked confident, too, even murderous.

His friend just shook his head. He knew Johno Ryan.

‘Oh, God, J. Oh-my-fucking-God, did you give it to him or what?’ They were walking along Johno’s street in Balmain. ‘You just kept hitting him.’

‘Did you count?’

‘Did I what? Course I didn’t
the punches,’ said Shane. ‘But there were a lot. Why’d you ask that?’

‘My dad and Gramps always said, give a bully at least five back for his every shot and he’ll never do it again.’

‘Well, that’s right. I’ve heard them say it.’

‘I had that thought when I got on top of him. Five for one. Five for one.’ Johno spoke through gritted teeth, part of it triumphant smile.

‘It was around that. Yeah, I’d say it was close. Let’s see, his opening punch. Missed. His second. That caught you. Till I realised your stagger was acted so he rushed at you and bang-bang-bang. Oh,
, Johno. I didn’t know you’d fight that well against that big bloke. Every one of them connected. He went down and you sat on his chest and
it to him.’

‘Told you I was mad. Can’t stand anyone touching me. My old man calls it “with bad intent”. I don’t go round picking on other kids, do I? Let alone three years younger, the fucking coward. He won’t try it again.’

‘Boy, you’re still mad. Don’t start on me.’ Shane held his hands up in mock fear. ‘You gonna tell your old man? Might get a smile out of your grandfather.’

‘Leave Gramps alone. He’s like a second dad,’ said Johno. ‘Makes up for when number one isn’t at home.’

‘Tell me about it. What’re you gonna say to them? “Hey, Dad, Gramps, guess what I did?”’

‘Be silly. I don’t talk like that.’ Johno opened the little front gate to the concrete pathway going up to the front door of just another brick house with a red-tile roof in working-class Balmain. ‘Car’s not here. He’s gone on one.’ Meaning a bender, in the company of Shane’s father more than likely.

Reading out loud the note on the kitchen table, Johno mimicked his father’s raspy smoker’s voice. ‘Gramps and me are out for the night. Something came up. You can eat at Shane’s. I arranged it with Bev.’
Coughed at the effort of putting on the voice.

‘You can bet my old man’s with them,’ said Shane, but without his friend’s disappointment — maybe even hurt. ‘Hopheads.’

‘It’d have to be on the day I did the Ryan name proud.’ Johno muttered ‘Fuck him’ under his breath.

Shane said, ‘They’re doing this overnight lark quite a lot, eh?’

‘Yeah,’ said Johno. ‘But least you got a mum.’ His had died when he was a baby. Cancer. ‘I only ever knew the old man’s girlfriends, and they came and went.’

‘You’re telling me. I met every one of them and none was like my mum. Even though she’s my adoptive mum, I love her.’ Shane with that reverent look he had whenever on the subject of his mother. ‘I’ll ask her to cook us roast pork with crackling. But don’t mention the fight to her. You know how she hates violence.’

‘So do I,’ said Johno. ‘Only fight when I’ve got no choice.’

‘Will you tell your dad that? He won’t get it, you know. He’ll say, “Son, ya can’t tell me you don’t like violence after what you did to this kid. Bloody beautiful — you gave it to him. Tell me the whole story again.” He will, won’t he?’

Johno grinned. ‘You know him better’n I do.’

‘I got his voice, too. You’re not the only one can do voices.’

‘Oh yeah? Next you’ll be saying you fight as good, too.’

‘Never that. But you know I can hold my own, eh?’

And when Johno didn’t say anything, Shane said, ‘You know I can. Remember that boy with the ginger hair? I had him for breakfast. J …?’ At his friend looking sceptical. ‘All right, you can forget your roast pork and crackling, mate. Nah. Go away.’ As a laughing Johno tried to put an arm around him.

Being the hero at school only felt good for a little while. Johno lost his study concentration due to all the fuss, had to catch up. Shane had no academic inclination, couldn’t wait to reach legal age to leave school, but Johno had an idea he might like to do engineering of some description. His tidy mind kind of worked logically and he understood
things mechanical. Shane said he should consider a career as a boxer. Johno laughed it off, though he did follow the sport.

He knew now that he could be proud, even fierce when he had to be, and that
no one
would ever bully him, ever. He found his peers childish after that, except Shane, because, as everyone said, they were joined at the hip. Besides, he could let Shane know when he was acting like a kid with a phrase taken from his father, said in a sarcastic tone: ‘You sure about yourself?’ It pissed Shane off but it did bring him back into line.

In their second year, early in the first term, the boys were messing around one Sunday at Johno’s place when his father and grandfather approached together, like he was in trouble or about to be told bad news.

His old man, who didn’t beat about the bush, said, ‘You never asked me what I did for a living, son.’

‘When I asked, you said you’re in the minding business. Remember?’ Aware he was catching his old man in height.

‘I was kidding. You never gave me a chance.’

Glancing at Shane, Johno saw too much guilt for his pal to know nothing. ‘So what do you do? I mean I don’t know any kids interested in what their old man does for a job. Do we, Shane?’ See if he could flush Shane out, explain that sheepish look.

‘Speak for yourself. I’ve known what my dad does for ages,’ said Shane.

‘Didn’t I ask once and you said you didn’t know?’ Johno said.

‘Did I? You sure you haven’t forgotten?’

‘Shut up, you two.
telling the story,’ Laurie Ryan said. ‘Gramps and me thought you just weren’t interested because you knew but you sort of didn’t.’

‘You mean about what you’re talking about now? I knew but sort of didn’t?’ Johno confident enough to mock his father, but with a grin.

‘Just tell him, Laurie,’ Reg Ryan told his son, between cigarette puffs.

‘Well, for several years before you started high school, I was a bookie. You know what that is?’

‘Yeah. I’ve heard kids talk about it. You put bets on with them, right? On horses.’

‘That’s right,’ said Laurie. ‘On anything that moves and competes against another of its own species. There’s legal bookies and not legal.’

Thinking he got it, Johno said, ‘It’s fine if you’re not legal. What do I care? How bad is it taking bets, legal or not?’ Didn’t take much figuring out that his father wasn’t legal.

‘You got it, kid. When the government takes bets through the TAB, it’s all morally sweet and lawful,’ said Laurie. ‘An enterprising citizen does it and they lock him up. Before bookmaking I did stuff that was way more illegal.’

‘Yeah?’ Hoping his father wasn’t going to ’fess up to some seriously criminal act, like robbing a bank — though that would be pretty exciting.

‘Like I did,’ said his grandfather. ‘And my old man and grandfather and great-grandfather, the original Irish convict. The whole line-up of Ryan males.’

‘I figured you might be a tricky customer, Gramps,’ Johno said, and meant it. ‘But you, Dad?’

Reg Ryan came back first. ‘Don’t ever ask me favours again. Tricky customer he calls me …’ Sucking at the fag permanently fixed between his nicotine-stained fingers. Probably why Johno had started smoking some months ago and Shane was already ahead of him. ‘After all I did for you.’

‘Yeah, okay, Pops. I’m telling it,’ said Laurie.

Johno listened as his father went through a list of what he
do. ‘Nothing to do with violence, firearms, conning, burglary, any crime against poor people.’ A regular Aussie Robin Hood, it would seem. ‘I just don’t do things, um, straight.’

Johno just shrugged. No big deal.

‘As for drugs — never, never, never.’ He and Gramps had drummed this into Johno since he was so-high. Never gave it a thought why they were so anti, but it did put him off drugs. When some kids his age were
trying out weed he didn’t want to know, and, by close association, nor did Shane McNeil.

‘Outside of those categories, I’ll do anything that comes up,’ said Laurie, quite matter-of-fact. ‘And mostly that’s on the wrong side of the law.’ Trying to read his son’s reaction.

‘Like what sort of thing?’

‘Well, I’ve blown many a safe in my time,’ said Laurie. ‘Back in my younger days when you don’t think about mistakes that can blow

‘Oh.’ Johno didn’t get it. ‘Isn’t that burglary?’

‘I should’ve said
burglary was something I’d never do. Going into someone’s house, violating their privacy … It’s all some people’ve got, isn’t it? Be ashamed of myself if I ever stooped that low. Way I look at it, banks are fair game. Least they used to be. I’m way past that now.’

‘Okay. So you and Gramps are …’ Johno didn’t know what to say. ‘Crooks, kind of? Now I know. And I still love you.’ Said with a silly grin. But his world had suddenly shifted sideways. It was almost as if the two men he loved most had walloped him in the guts.

His father said, ‘Right. From a long line of professional crooks. Took this long to tell you ’cause we didn’t realise you had no idea. Did you?’

‘No,’ Johno shook his head. He could feel something ebbing out of him, as if his future was more or less decided before he had a say in it. Like being told he’d been offside all his life and never knew it.

‘Listen, sonny,’ said his grandfather. ‘We can either be wage-earning nobodies in this world. Or —’ puff, suck — ‘we can go out and get some of the action. That’s all we’re saying.’ It was pretty obvious — Johno was expected to carry on the family tradition. Same words Shane later told Johno his father had said to him.

One of the rare times he thought how nice it would be to have a mother to confide in, ask for advice. Much as he liked Bev, Shane’s mum, and she him, it wasn’t the same.

But already the process had started. A voice in his head said:
Not as though you were going to become a church minister, Johno Ryan.

What did he tell the school careers adviser now?

The next life-changing event came when he was fifteen.

He and who else but Shane were heading home from school one hot afternoon in early summer, with the beach in mind. Shane had noted how many Holdens were parked in the street and how it made him feel proud to be Aussie.

‘What?’ said Johno. ‘Proud to be the sons of Aussie crims?’

When Shane said, ‘Sure, why not?’ Johno shook his head in disgust and stopped to pat a dog he knew a few doors up. ‘I need a job so I can buy a dog. I love Labs.’

Shane said, with a little snigger, ‘You want to ask your old man or shall I ask mine how we can get started on … you know?’

‘Oh, sure. See if there’s a safe we can blow the door off.’

‘No, the dough’s in cars,’ said Shane. ‘One is all it’d take. My old man does several a month. Good money in them.’

‘What, we learn how to hot-wire the ignition and we just take one?’ Johno’s knowledge of the subject was flimsy, heard from other boys. They talked about it like they did about guns and sex, knowing little about those either.

‘The insurance company pays,’ said Shane. ‘If you’re worried about the deed fitting into your old man’s code: he never mentioned leaving out insurance companies.’

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