Here is a sample from my new book Left Luggage.
It was getting light when John woke. Nearly five thirty. He watched the minute hand of his watch creep towards the six, when the alarm in his phone would go off. He lay on the single mattress looking up at the new unpainted ceiling for a moment, as grey morning light filled the room, listening to the currawongs calling to each other, warbling away from the fig trees in the park at the end of the street. His mother’s flight didn’t get in until nine forty.
He dressed in shorts and a T-shirt, and pulled on his running shoes. In the park he did a few quick stretches before setting off at an easy pace, across Parramatta Road and down towards Rozelle Bay. The water was silver, shifting softly against the sea walls and the boat wharf. Even though it was early, the parks and ovals were starting to fill with runners and dog walkers. John enjoyed the companionable silence, everyone out early before the heat made it unpleasant, just getting on with their routines, minding their own business. He followed the shore around the bay then headed up through Lilyfield, over the ridge and down through the grounds of the old mental hospital at Callan Park to Iron Cove. The long kikuyu grass was wet with dew and soaked through his shoes so he was glad to reach the broad and well-made path that ran along the shoreline of the cove. This path was always popular and it was starting to get crowded now, with more runners and dog walkers beginning their day. John picked up his pace, overtaking people on the path, keeping an eye out for cyclists and unpredictable dogs. He came back across the Iron Cove Bridge and headed for home along Victoria Road, ignoring the noise and smell of the traffic.
It was beginning to get warm when John got back to the house, walking now but covered in sweat. He was armed with bread and the newspaper from the corner shop in Australia Street. The kid, Billy, was waiting on the veranda, sitting on a paint-spattered plastic chair.
“Morning,” said John, holding out the folded copy of the Telegraph.
“Morning,” said Billy, taking the paper and following John into the house. He perched himself on a stool and opened the paper while John went out the back door to the laundry, pulling off his sweaty T-shirt as he went. Shower first, then breakfast, that was the deal. If Billy went to school like he was supposed to, John let him help with the renovations on Saturdays. Breakfast and thirty dollars was the going rate.
The shower felt great, hard and hot. Plenty of pressure – no water-saving devices here. John pulled on his last clean T-shirt and yesterday’s jeans. Tomorrow he’d have to do some washing.
Back in the kitchen, Billy had made tea and poured it into two mugs. Now he was bent over the newspaper sipping his tea and reading something about a celebrity John had never heard of, who had disgraced herself somehow.
“I have to go and pick up my mother this morning,” John said.
Billy nodded but didn’t look up. “Yeah, you said last week.” One thing about the kid, he listened, even if it was hard to tell sometimes.
“I’ll probably be with her all day. You be alright on your own here? Keep working on stripping back those window frames?”
Billy looked up. “Sure,” he said. “Did you buy more sandpaper?”
“Yeah, it’s in a white bag, beside the tool box.”
“Okay. What’s she like, your mum?”
“I don’t know. She’s just my mum.” John shrugged. “I suppose she’s a bit unusual. Mostly French nowadays, but still Australian. Come over tomorrow if you want, I’ll introduce you.”
“Maybe,” Billy grunted.
John squatted down in front of the old bar fridge and pulled out eggs and a white paper package of bacon. “The usual?” Billy nodded and turned back to the paper.
John put a couple of thick slices of sourdough bread in the toaster, then set about frying the bacon and the eggs. He assembled the bacon and egg sandwiches on a couple of mismatched plates, adding barbecue sauce to both, but tabasco only to his.
“Here,” he said, sliding Billy’s plate across and pulling up a stool in front of his own.
Billy handed over the paper and turned his attention to the food. They didn’t talk much; Billy was intent on his food, John reading the paper while he ate.
He had first met Billy outside the house, just after he had moved in. He was getting started with the renovations, stripping out the water-affected rooms, filling a skip with barrow loads of damp plaster. Billy was outside on the footpath each time he came out. The boy was skinny and dirty. Just watching John, not saying anything. After five barrow loads, John spoke to him.
“Did you want something mate?”
“No,” the boy said, looking away but not moving.
“Just watching are you?”
The boy nodded.
“You live around here?”
John pulled off his gloves and scratched at his scarred arm. Sweat made it itch like a bastard.
“Annandale,” the boy added.
So, not a neighbour. Annandale was fifteen minutes’ walk away.
“Do you do this often – just watch houses, people working?”
The boy didn’t say anything.
“’Cause I reckon it could get a bit annoying,” said John, “me working up a sweat, you just watching. Know what I mean?”
The boy lowered his eyes, shuffled a bit, but stood his ground. “Used to be my gran’s house,” he said. “Mum says we should have got the house. By rights.”
Christ, thought John, this was just what he needed. He turned and looked up at the house. “The old woman, Mrs Sheehan? She was your grandmother?”
“Yeah,” said the boy. “My dad’s mum.”
“How come the hospital had it then? I bought it from them.”
“Granny left it to them, when she died. ’Cause Dad had cancer,” Billy said.
“So she didn’t leave it to the family,” said John.
“Dad died a long time ago.” Billy scratched his face. “Granny and Ma didn’t get on. Hated each other.”
“What about you?”
“I used to come here. When I was little,” Billy said. “Before Dad died. Ma wouldn’t let Granny see me and Tom after that. Guess that’s why she didn’t leave it to us.”
“So why’re you hanging around?” said John.
“Dunno. Heard they sold it. Thought I’d come see.”
“It’s pretty run down,” said John.
“Ma says it’s fucked,” said Billy. “Water damage.”
“Yeah, well, she’s not entirely wrong. Structure’s still good though. Good bones,” John said, pulling his gloves back on.
The boy looked dubious.
John wheeled the barrow back into the house. The boy was gone when he came out again with the next load.
But he was back the next day, late in the afternoon. This time with a black eye and a cut on his cheek.
“Been fighting?” John asked.
“Who hit you then?”
“If you say so.”
“It’s alright. It’s been worse.”
“Come inside. I’ll put something on that cut. It looks a bit nasty.”
“Nah. It’s not alright. What’s your name anyway? I’m John, John Lawrence.”
“Okay, Billy, come on. I’ve got a first aid kit inside.”
The cut was long and jagged. John cleaned it and the rest of the boy’s face, but he wasn’t sure where to stop. The boy was filthy. “You stink,” he said. The boy glared at him. “No, really. You do. When’d you last have a shower?” The boy didn’t say anything but made to move for the door. “Alright, just the cut then,” John said. He put some iodine on it and a couple of butterfly strips. “Try and keep it clean for a couple of days.” He closed the first aid kit and put it back on top of the fridge. “Want something to eat?”
“No. I’m alright.” But he changed his mind when John pulled a container of leftover pasta out of the fridge and began heating it in a frypan. He looked uncomfortable in John’s company but he was clearly interested in what John was doing to the inside of the house.
“Gran had a big clock over there,” he said, nodding towards a corner of what would have been the dining room. “Grandfather clock, she called it.”
“Yeah? Did she have nice stuff, your grandmother?”
“Some. Old stuff anyway. Lots of little china things. Like little statues. The hospital sold all that too.”
“That’s a pity. Does this happen often?” John asked, putting a bowl of pasta in front of the boy.
There was no reply – the boy was too busy filling his mouth with food.
“Because you should tell someone. The cops or someone.”
“No,” said Billy.
“They’ll stick me in a group home.”
He was probably right, thought John. If they took him away from his family, at his age, he wasn’t going to end up in some neat suburban foster home. And he wasn’t a big kid, he’d struggle in a group home.
“Okay, tell me then. Who hit you?”
No reply, nothing, just more pasta going in.
“You can’t let them get away with it.”
The boy ignored him.
“You’ve got to do something about it.”
Billy looked up at John, his loaded fork quivering in midair. “Yeah, what? Can’t do nothing. Just makes it worse.”
“Cops’ll do something.”
“No, they won’t.” It was the voice of experience.
Maybe not but they’ll get you off my hands. “I’m taking you home or to the cops when you’ve finished eating. Doesn’t matter which to me, so you better choose,” he said.
Billy looked at John. “Home,” was all he said.
Billy tried to run as soon as he was out the door, but John grabbed him by the collar. “Nice try. Now behave and get in the ute. We’re going to have a quiet word with your mother.”
“You’ll be lucky.”
“What do you mean?”
“Mum doesn’t do quiet,” said Billy. He was right about that.
Miller Street was wide and lined with huge fig trees that cast deep shadows. The roots of the trees were busy tearing up the footpath. Fruit bats screeched and chittered above them and John hoped he didn’t get shat on as he picked his way carefully along the heaving footpath. Billy’s house was a single-storey terrace set back from the street. The small front yard had no plants in it, but broken and dismantled bikes and scooters seemed to be sprouting among the deep mulch of leaves that covered the ground. John pressed the doorbell.
“Doesn’t work, you’ve gotta knock.” Billy said, stepping past John and pounding on the door with the bottom of his fist. “Still be lucky if they notice.”
There was no response from the house, so John knocked again, using the flat of his hand on the peeling wooden door.
There was a brief sound of movement from the house, then it went quiet again. John waited a moment, then knocked again, louder.
He heard the sound of a voice this time, coming from the back of the house.
“Fuck off. I said I’m going didn’t I … well I am.”
John looked at Billy.
He shrugged. “Mum.”
A light went on in the hall, then the door was thrown open.
“What?” The woman was shrunken and skinny with mad red-grey hair. She wore a short blue robe loosely tied at the waist. Thin white legs connected the robe to the ground. Her red-rimmed eyes looked at John for a second then flicked to the boy standing behind him. She lunged past John, grabbed the boy by the arm and pulled him inside. “Get the fuck inside, Billy.” The boy stumbled down the hallway. The woman’s attention was back on John now. She looked him up and down. “You a cop?”
“Fuck off then.” She stepped back and started to shut the door. “Fucking do-gooder.”
John stopped the door with his hand. “Listen—”
“Get your hand off my door.”
“Not till you talk to me about the boy.”
“Billy’s none of your fucking business, you nosy prick. Now piss off.” She tried to swing the door shut again but John didn’t move his hand. “Let go the fucking door,” the woman shouted.
Then a man’s voice called from the back of the house: “Will you shut that fucking door?” Deep bass. “I’m trying to watch the telly here.”
“Jason, help me. This cunt won’t let me shut the door.”
“This cunt, fucking do-gooder. Acting like he thinks he’s a bloody copper. Now he won’t go. Won’t let me shut the fucking door.”
A figure appeared at the end of the hall, silhouetted against the light in the room behind. A big man to match the voice. Billy ducked into one of the doorways, letting the man go past.
“Who the fuck’re you?” Jason said, picking up an aluminium baseball bat that had been leaning against the door jamb.
“Fucking interfering do-gooder,” said the woman. “Won’t piss off.”
John didn’t like the way this was developing. “Someone’s been hitting the boy,” he said.
Jason wasn’t listening. He smelled of beer and marijuana. “No one wants you here, cunt,” he said, raising the bat to his shoulder.
John stepped back. “Take it easy, Jason. I don’t want a fight. You’ll kill me if you hit me with that thing. I just want to talk about the boy. About Billy.”
Jason kept coming “He’s none of your business, so you better just fuck off.”
“Listen, I don’t want a fight,” John repeated. “I just want to talk.”
“I just want you gone,” Jason said, stepping forwards and swinging the bat at John’s head.
But nowhere near fast enough. John stepped inside the arc of the bat, trapping it and Jason’s wrists beneath his left arm. His right hand came up fast, an open-palm strike. Jason’s head snapped back and he went down hard in a flurry of fig leaves. John stepped back with the bat cocked at his shoulder, ready to swing it. But the big man wasn’t moving.
“Jason,” the woman screamed. “What have you done to him, you bastard? Jason? Jason.” She turned and launched herself at John. He caught her and twisted her to the ground.
“Don’t think I won’t hit you too,” he said quietly into her ear. She started to shout again so he hit her. An open handed slap to the ear. She kept shouting. “Shh … be quiet now. Jason’ll be alright. Shouldn’t be anything broken.”
The woman quietened down a bit. John let her get up.
“Piss off.” She rubbed her ear and face.
“Glad to. One thing, though, if I hear about any harm coming to Billy, from you or Jason or anyone else in this happy family, I will be back and I will be breaking things.” He went to the door and leaned inside. “Billy? You alright?”
The boy’s head appeared from one of the doorways lining the hall. “What?”
“Are you okay? Do you want to come with me?”
“You better go,” he said and disappeared again.
John pointed the bat at the woman, who was kneeling over Jason now. “Either of you touch him and I’m coming back. I’ll put you both in hospital if I have to.”
John threw the bat in the back of the ute and drove off, wondering what the fuck he had got himself into.
The next time Billy showed up at Camperdown he had no new injuries.
“They leaving you alone?”
“Jason left. Mum won’t talk to me.”
John looked at him. “That’s a good thing, right?”
Billy tried not to smile.
“So, if you’re going to hang around here do you want to help me? Instead of just watching.” The boy looked uncomfortable. “I’ll pay you,” said John.
That got his attention. “How much?”
“Dunno.” John scratched his neck. “Say ten dollars an hour, see how long you last.”
Billy nodded his agreement and John found a spare set of gloves for him. They looked huge on the boy, like his skinny arms were sticking out of baseball mitts, but he worked hard, filling and emptying the wheelbarrow. Once they had settled into a rhythm of work they didn’t talk much, just got on with it. Occasionally John had noticed Billy looking at his scars, but the boy never said anything.