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Authors: Alan Duff

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BOOK: Frederick's Coat
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B
arwon Prison, high security, about an hour’s drive in a prison van from Melbourne city, handcuffed to a steel rail, peeking out a tiny window at the free world being left behind — Christ, how it was left behind.

Barwon. Living the story of the recidivist — no sooner out than he’s back in. For doing a job that sounded so easy — aren’t they all? What crims have in common: they always want the easy way.

Having already served close to four years at Long Bay prison, Shane was now looking at a whopping fourteen —
fourteen
— years for armed robbery in Melbourne. Back to the same reduced world, measured and defined by perceived insults, looks, slights, offence taken. Watching your back, careful in everything you said and did. Oh, how many times did he wish he could turn the clock back?

The Midees — Middle Easters — were upset at him. Not as if he’d insulted their sacred Muslim religion — fucking hypocrites, in here for selling heroin. All the inmates felt like asking if Allah approved of them selling smack. But the Midees as a group were too crazy when it came to their religion. Was it some act of aggression? A filthy look?

No, he’d jumped ahead of one Midee in a shower cubicle. Big fucking deal. Start a world war over that? Not as if Barwon, only opened in early 1990, didn’t have lots of facilities like decent clean showers, better grub than Long Bay’s. Every cell had its own toilet so inmates didn’t have to go through the undignified process of taking a dump in a line of doorless loos.

Anyone serving less than a ten-stretch wasn’t a resident here. This was the big time. Lots of blokes thought they’d arrived coming to Barwon, but Shane McNeil was cured of that hero outlaw crap the moment the High Court judge sent him down.

But queue-jumping for a shower? Like who here was in a hurry, had a plane to catch, some important job to do?

Seemed at any given time he was under some swarthy guy’s evil eye. In his head, Shane asked his old mate how he’d get out of this situation, but since Johno didn’t even appear in spirit with good advice, Shane wondered who among the hundred or so in this unit was likely to take his side, even up the numbers to make the Midees think again. Like none?

Avoiding the ablutions block, the exercise yard and the recreation area where most of the violent action took place, Shane felt he had an attack covered. Best not to move too far from his cell.

He saw Gerardo Lagano, and when the Italian nodded with a serious face, Shane hoped like hell he’d seen a sign of support. Gerardo was true Italian, and not just through parentage but born in Florence, came to Australia with his family as a teenager and still had an accent twenty-five years later. Not that bullshit second-generation acting of the Midees like they grew up in sight of pyramids baking in forty-five-degree sun, or had Israel as hated neighbours, or whatever the political issue was in a region even Shane knew was in permanent tumult and featured frequently on the TV news.

Suddenly that favour Gerardo had sworn he owed Shane came to mind. Shane had been passing Gerardo’s cell one cold June morning last year and saw the Eyetie was in trouble — a heart attack, or some kind of fit. His prompt action in getting help for the overweight
thirty-nine-
year-old had saved his life. He wasn’t fat any more. Remembered, too, that Eyeties and Midees, though they never talked to one another, often seemed much the same — jealous about their women, extreme views on so many things, strong family ties, talked an awful lot about not much, extremely volatile. Both groups were doing big sentences
for drug offences. The Eyeties moved marijuana in bulk, no fucking around, by the truckload, and they had got onto the huge returns in buying methamphetamine ingredients from China. In the same line of business and moved in packs, yet they never talked to one another.

‘Hey, Gerardo. How’s it going?’

‘I’m going same as yesterday, last week, last year, Shane. Bad because I miss the freedom I took for granted. Yet good because I’m still alive to fight another day. Yeah?’ In his put-on, breezy, semi-Italian way. ‘And you, my friend?’

Shane seized on the ‘my friend’ bit, put out a hand to shake. ‘Not so good, actually.’ Watched — hoped — for the frown of concern, which came.

‘What’s wrong? You get a dear John letter?’

‘Not me. Girl I trotted out couldn’t read or write. Only joking.’ He could get like that when he was nervous or scared. There were the crazy Midees, but this bloke had a dangerous air about him, too.

‘That’s quite funny. But you’re not smiling, huh?’

Shane told him of the trouble looming. ‘I was wondering if you could get someone to talk to these hotheads, calm them down. Let them know I’m not out to upset anyone.’ That leaf out of Johno’s book and another to follow.

‘I’ll apologise if I have to.’

‘To who?’ Gerardo no less than incredulous. ‘To those date-eater camel-fuckers who were born here, never set eyes on a camel and only dates they know are with their hairy girls?’

‘Words right out of my mouth,’ said Shane. ‘But can’t say it, can we? Like we can’t about almost anyone here.’

‘A few can,’ Gerardo said. ‘Like the man you’d like me to go to, yes?’

Shane hadn’t dared consider asking such a favour. ‘Well, you
are
mates.’

‘He has associates, not mates. But he is Italian born,’ said Gerardo. Primo’s name meant first born, and he acted like he was entitled to anything he wanted.

‘He also has tendencies … What if he wants to —’

‘The Midees can kill me.’ Shane wasn’t going to hear another word.

‘He’s not a homo. I don’t like the word gay. It don’t fit what they are, which is male sluts, whores for free. Primo is just horny and it’s too long to wait before he has pussy again. He is very discreet.’

‘Jesus, Gerardo, you for real? Just the thought makes me wanna chuck. And no such thing as discreet, not in this place.’

Grinning, Gerardo said, ‘So you would do it if he was?’

‘I’d put a shank in his coozers, then wait for your boys to take me out,’ said Shane.

‘They’d make you suffer before they killed you.’ Gerardo’s tone had changed, but then he went on: ‘I wasn’t serious about Primo fancying your ass. You have no humour in this place, then anger and all the other shit takes over. I’ll talk to him. I owe you one. And …’ his eyes narrowed, ‘he respects me.’

Back in his cell later with a foot ready to kick the door shut on attackers, Shane almost slammed it in Gerardo’s face.

‘He says you’re too ugly to screw,’ Gerardo began. ‘The matter is closed. No apology required, but you need to be careful who you jump ahead of in the shower.’

‘In case it’s a big stiffy following me, eh?’ Shane let his relief show.

‘Not likely, my friend. As Primo says, nature was not so kind to you in the looks department.’

‘And that’s fine by me,’ said Shane. ‘Now I owe you a favour — a big one. I wasn’t prepared for the Midees.’

‘You know your problem? You need to operate in numbers, but only with the most trusted who will never betray you or fuck you over.’

‘That an invite?’

‘It could be discussed. You saving me will help your case. If they agree, you’d have to learn our language. Think you can do that?’

‘I left school at sixteen and could have left five years earlier with what I didn’t learn.’

‘So you’re not prepared to put in the effort?’

‘Shane McNeil speaking Italian?’

‘I speak English.’

‘Why would you want me?’

‘We have a saying: blood kept circulating in too few families turns to bad blood.’

‘I’m not into arranged marriages.’

‘I’m not talking breeding with you,’ Gerardo said. ‘And in the future — far off, you have to say — when you’re a free man, I wouldn’t recommend you marry an Italian girl. Her family will swallow you up. But if you speak our lingo, that’s different. Might surprise them, but our lot in here are always open to new ideas, another way of thinking. This is why we not only survive, we flourish.’

‘Let’s get one thing straight. If I’m not the best-looking bloke you ever saw, then I’m sure not the smartest.’

‘So, what you telling me is new?’

‘Just so you don’t think—’

‘It’s not intelligence our organisation lacks,’ Gerardo cut in. ‘It’s loyal people, an Aussie with integrity instead of this “mates when the sun is shining”. You could be a — how you say — a go-between.’

‘I’ll think about it.’ Shane not sure he liked his compatriots described as fair-weather friends. He knew plenty who’d die for each other. Just not the two he’d made the terrible mistake of hooking up with on that armed robbery fiasco.

‘Good. Only a fool rushes in. I’ll still talk to you if we aren’t your scene.’ Gerardo as he turned to leave, ‘If you do decide yes, you’re in with us, take down those filthy pictures of women showing their pussy. In our culture we respect women.’

‘Oh yeah? So how come in the movies the Mafia guys screw everyone in a skirt? No different to how they are in real life.’

‘Because there is the public man,’ said Gerardo, ‘and the private man. They know each other but they don’t feel a need to have a discussion.’

Christ, the bloke was a true philosopher who happened to have about six years left to serve of a sixteen-year sentence for conspiracy to
supply marijuana in vast quantities. Maybe joining up with them wasn’t such a bad idea.

‘You want your two ex-mates hurt?’ asked Gerardo.

Shane’s first, spontaneous reaction was to say no, yet he heard himself asking, ‘How, if they’re in another jail?’ Feeling excited, not to say tempted.

‘We know people everywhere, inside and outside. If you’re accepted, we can get it done.’

But then again the damage was already done and nothing could change it. So Shane said, ‘Nah. Let it pass. They’ll get theirs, one day.’

Gerardo just shrugged and left a relieved Shane to enjoy his habit of re-reading letters from his faithful mother. He’d told her that he’d accepted he messed up and was getting on with the consequences, even though it wasn’t true. Just didn’t want to worry her with the truth that he was doing his time hard.

After her one visit — without his father, she said he wasn’t well — he told her the trip from Sydney was way too much trouble and she needn’t bother again. Got that one from Johno: cut the emotional ties to make it easier on everyone.

As he read his mother’s untidy writing, the memories came back. Of Johno as a kid, often as not eating at their house but kind of keeping his distance, like he could love only his dad and grandpa, and Shane of course.

Thought of his brother, Willie, ten years older — the age difference, and maybe Shane being adopted, meant they never connected him. Of him and Johno opting out of their rough, criminal pubs in favour of Shane’s mum’s great home cooking and her good, cheerful company, and Johno teasing Shane for the fuss his mother made of him, of her stern moments worrying about the pair following in the footsteps of their unlawful fathers.

A friend so close he could be one of Johno’s ribs. No, one lousy rib didn’t do justice to the friendship — they definitely were the Siamese Twins.

The invitation to the Italian camp didn’t come without first showing his credentials.

See that guy there, Shane? He needs some serious straightening. Okay? Take him out. Not asking you to kill the bloke, just hurt him so he knows he’s been punished. So that’s what Shane did.

Afterwards, in his cell, shaking as the lock-down bell went off, meaning the badly injured inmate had been found in the storage room. Shane had taken him down with the old favourite: a heavy battery in a sock. The screws were running along, pushing guys into their cells and slamming the doors locked — if any inmates hadn’t already done it themselves. A funny feeling pulling your own cell door shut, like you’re accepting being here, or closing yourself in hell.

What would Johno think of him hooking up with the Italians? And where was he now? What was he doing? Did he ever think of his closest friend? Every day looking at the letters board, hoping Johno might have written. Die of shock if he did, or joy.

W
hen Danny asked once too often after his mother and sister, Johno knew something was building. And was it any wonder? Their seemingly perfect relationship had been too good to be true; there had to be other inner processes at work, especially in a kid so intelligent and sensitive. Of course he’d think about Evelyn and Leah. Not that Johno had anything to tell the boy. His mother wrote only to Danny, and Johno didn’t like to ask about the letters. Though Danny did show his replies, a mix of prose and drawings which Johno thought astonishing.

He’d recently signed papers sent by Evelyn’s lawyer, granting him custody of Danny. He’d put aside seven hundred dollars a month and intended sending four years of accumulated savings to Evelyn, yet something held him back. And when he felt resentment, even jealousy, at Danny starting to ask about his mother and sister, he realised his supposed act of responsibility assumed custody of Danny till adulthood, and that he probably wasn’t going to give Evelyn the money till he was absolutely certain he wouldn’t lose his son. A form of blackmail, if he was honest. Without a knowing victim.

‘They’ve been gone a while now, Dan.’ He tried to shut the subject down. ‘And Perth is right across the other side of Australia.’

Danny had his easel set up in the living room, which was in the usual mess of paints, brushes and pencils and strewn with big pages of his artwork. ‘Why do you never talk about them?’

Taken off-guard, Johno said, ‘Guess I thought you and I were getting
on with our lives. You want to go see them, maybe the next holiday break?’

‘I don’t know. I think about them,’ Danny said, not looking directly at his father. ‘I have dreams about them.’

Pointing, Johno said, ‘So I’ve noticed.’ An older woman with dark hair and a girl with similar features had featured in Danny’s work over the past several months. Got Johno to wondering how long ago Evelyn had dyed her hair that streaky blonde, yet why their son depicted it only as black.

‘You’re famous again.’ Johno tried to change the subject to his plans for the next new business to be called Danny’s Drawings. But the boy only shrugged.

The name had proved a master stroke, but only because Danny’s artistic output more than lived up to its promise, with his framed works adorning the walls. On its own the name aroused curiosity, but even if the typical customers were no art connoisseurs, not even close, they still appreciated Danny’s pencil drawings, his watercolours and intriguing abstracts in oil. Even Johno, who wouldn’t know good art if he fell over it, found meaning in his son’s work. But then an adoring father would.

Within six months the new place was turning a profit, which kept a steady upward track, and Danny’s art was always the talk of the place. He’d employed Tahu Kanohi initially as a kitchen hand and grown very fond of him — ‘Start at the bottom and work your way up to maybe manager.’

The relationship between father and son had become very close; Danny often as not ended up sleeping in his father’s bed. Their bathing together had become a morning ritual, and Danny liked nothing better than having his back soaped, the sneaked little tickles, their shared laughter. Johno told outrageous stories from his imagination, and Danny matched them with his own far more inventive tales. If this is fatherhood, Johno thought, never let it be taken from me.

If Danny appeared at any hour of the night, Johno was expected to be fully alert and hear out his son’s dream, or some thought troubling him, something he wanted to draw as soon as he woke up. The kid would lie
there, his hand tracing in the air the shapes he was seeing. He remembered each bizarre, spectacular, beautiful dream, often in such starkly vivid detail that he could recreate it on paper, a remembered landscape teeming with figures and packed with incident and event. Often featured was the boy’s fear and loathing of violence. He would draw figures suffering at the hands of brutes, with winged creatures swooping down on them in the name of justice, tearing the villain to pieces.

‘Panoramascopes’ Johno dubbed Danny’s dream recreations. Or ‘vistalands’. Ordinary English couldn’t convey how a kid so young could dream so big and remember with such clarity.

‘Dad, there’s this big concrete wall. It’s a dam. I’m standing looking up at it and then I hear a strange sound. I only know I have to get out of there. I turn and run but I trip over. I can hear cracking behind me but I don’t dare look. Then there’s water at my feet. Like a bath filling except it’s the whole world …

‘Next I’m looking at the dam from a hill. It’s being shaken like in an earthquake on television. There’s a huge crack like thunder and there’s water everywhere. People are swept along and broken trees and roofs off houses float in the debris. Others my age are screaming and drowning.’ It was as if he were recalling an actual event. To Danny it was real.

‘I might,’ Danny said to the offer of a holiday with his mother and sister.

‘Would you miss me?’

‘Yes.’ Danny’s eyes blinked rapidly; the expected confusion of a child caught in the middle, even if more than three years had passed. ‘Stop looking at me like that.’ He stormed off to his room.

After several minutes of the bedroom door being opened and slammed shut, Johno had had enough. On his way down the passage, though, he caught a glimpse of his son peering out. Just in time, he managed to paste a smile on his face and by the time he got to the door being shut on him, and then pounded, he had better control of himself.

‘Hey, Dan? That noise is getting to me.’ Waited. Sure enough, the door was wrenched open and slammed again.

He said, ‘Dan? If I started tearing up your drawings, knowing it would really hurt you, how would you like it?’

The door opened. Danny stood there in his full eight-year-old defiance. ‘Go ahead. I’ll just draw some more.’ A pause. To convey — couldn’t be anything else — pure hatred. ‘And you can take down all my drawings at your stupid restaurant!’ Bang! The door slammed.

Johno was shaken enough that he had to draw in several deep breaths. More when the gesture got repeated — once, twice, a third time. He wanted to grab hold of the door handle or kick the door in, if it wouldn’t make him feel so much the failed parent.

‘When I was younger, Danny, you wouldn’t have recognised your dad. If someone threatened me or just made me feel uncomfortable, you know what I’d do …?’

Waited. The door opening just a crack.

‘What?’

‘I’d hit that person …’

‘Oh yeah? You going to hit me?’

‘I don’t want to …’

‘Yes, you do. I can tell.’

‘No, I don’t. You know why …?’

‘Why?’

‘Because it would say I don’t love you. And if I didn’t, then who would?’

‘Mavis.’

‘That’s right. And she doesn’t hit you, doesn’t even raise her voice, does she?’ No response. ‘And we all like living in a house where we love each other. Right?’

He’d never talked like this in his whole life. Wouldn’t like an audience, that’s for sure. ‘And much as you love Mavis, she’s not family and I am.’

‘I don’t care.’

‘I think you do. Do you know what else …? My dad never hit me. Nor did Gramps.’

‘Not ever?’

‘No,’ Johno said. ‘Not ever.’

‘Not even once when you were really naughty?’

‘Not even then. So I’d have to be the same with my own son, wouldn’t I?’

The door was pulled wide open, rather slowly, and yanked violently shut again. The boy laughed. Johno just stood there in silence.

After several minutes the door opened. ‘If you bring my mother and sister then I’ll stop.’

Johno sighed. ‘Well, I guess we’ll just have a permanently opening and slamming door, won’t we? Because I can’t bring them here, I can only send you to them.’ Held back on saying such a visit wasn’t his preference.

And even with the door slammed again in his face, Johno continued. ‘But you can go stay with them, if that’s what you want.’ Silence.

‘Can I talk to them on the phone?’ Muffled but clear enough.

‘Sure you can.’

‘Can I go and live with them?’

‘If you want to,’ Johno said. ‘It would break my heart. But if that’s what you want …’ Aware his head had lifted and his jaw was set and hurt churned in his gut. A tiny trembling had started in his legs, like fear stirring.

‘I could?’

‘Not what I want. But yes.’

‘Honestly and truly?’

‘Yep.’

Silence.

‘You mean it?’

‘Losing you would be like losing the business, my father, Gramps, all at once,’ said Johno. ‘Except worse.’

‘How worse?’ Was the door opening slightly?

‘So worse I can’t say.’

Now Danny was standing where the door had been, and he was saying, ‘I might not want to go and live with them.’

‘Well, that would make me happy. But you can go and see them.’

‘They might not take me for Sunday pancake breakfast,’ said Danny. ‘And if they wanted to see me, why haven’t they written to ask?’

‘What if they did?’

‘But I can’t have a bath with
girls
.’

‘They wouldn’t mind.’

‘I would. They’d see my diddle.’

‘So what? I see it. You see mine. No big deal.’

‘It is when girls see it. Will you call them?’

‘I’ll call the person who knows how to get in touch. That what you want?’

‘Maybe.’

‘You just let me know.’ Johno ruffled his son’s hair. ‘You must be hungry. Guess what I’ve got in the fridge?’

‘What?’

‘For me to know and you to find out.’

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