Quarter to three pm. My Grade 6, Class B teacher is concluding his lesson on the Khmer Rouge.
“So what was originally a Cambodian communist organisation formed in 1970, became a terrorist group which murdered about three million people after it captured the capital, Phnom Penh, in 1975,” says Mr Jones. But I’m not really paying attention. I’m watching Wayne. He’s sitting across from me on the other arm of the horseshoe shaped arrangement of desks, elbowing – hard – a bespectacled kid named Tim. He’s not reacting lest he incur greater violence and is, I’m sure, simply enduring the abuse while remembering to wait until those such as Wayne are seated before taking his place, tomorrow. I relish my position closer to the door.
“The Khmer were defeated in . . . .” The bell rings. “Well, we’ll continue on this tomorrow. Good afternoon, students – you’re excused.” No chair scrapes backward along the linoleum quite as fast as mine and I head straight for the bag rack outside amid excited chatter. Walking alone along the pathways leading to the school gate, I had no close friends in that class. But I’m not relaxed. I’m looking over my shoulder before at least every corner, scanning the faces of those behind for malice. Wayne comes, as always, without warning: removing my Byrning Spears hat from my head and continuing at a run through the gate. I give chase. He’s fast, but if I’ve gained one physical strength in my short, 11-year-old frame, it’s a solid sprint. I catch him at the corner of the school’s road and the main street, attempting to tackle him from behind. But he doesn’t yield, and instead turns around and directs a right-left-right three punches to my stomach. I keel over, he laughs, and throws my hat into a nearby fountain.
I know mum will be worried, but I’m finally curious enough about my tormentor to follow him home, today. He’s gained at least 100 metres on me since leaving me winded on the street corner, but he’s unmistakable. The grey, old backpack, the enormous black shoes, the tattered uniform shorts that look as if they’ve been handed down through three generations of his primary school-going family. There are only a couple of things different about him, out here, in the real world. For one, his head is bowed. Gone is the high-chinned laughter, usually at his victims’ expense. And his hands are in his pockets; not punching or shoving or stealing. And he kicks dejectedly at small stones and rubbish in his path, like a clichéd forlorn character. I gain within 25 metres of him as we enter an industrial area nearby the school, where it turns out his home is. There’s a wheelie bin overflowing with beer cans out the front of the house he entered through its rusting, squealing screen door. I’m also struck dumb by the house itself: mottled asbestos roofing, mouldy in some places and yellowing in others clapboard walls, and patchy lawn either overgrown or bare clay. The only thing missing is a rusting old car minus its wheels out the front. I resolve to visit again early the next morning.
My parents were incredulous at my leaving for school two hours early. And my brother was simply suspicious. But I eventually sold them some half-baked story about track and field training. It had rained the night before I stood once more in front of Wayne’s home. There were large puddles in the barren sections of his front yard, and the scattered grass glistened in the dawn. It was not, however, a peaceful scene.
“Arrrrgghh rugarfle arrrgle fuggle buggin shit!” came the mostly muffled adult male voice from within the house.
I crept up to the kitchen window. Inside, I first saw Wayne seated at the central kitchen table, swirling a spoon aimlessly through a bowl of soggy corn flakes. Already in his school uniform.
“If ya didn’t talk on the fucken phone for so long to ya fucken friends,” came a voice from the right-hand side of the kitchen, so I moved to the left to see who I presumed was Wayne’s dad – wearing paint-splattered overalls and smoking a cigarette, “then the fucken bill wouldn’t be so high!”
I moved to the right, to see his mother standing at the stove cooking bacon and eggs. She didn’t reply, and attended to the sizzling food with enthusiasm similar to her son’s.
Wayne mumbled something, without looking up.
“No ya can’t have money for the Mount Warning excursion!” the father screamed. “Why should ah work mah fucken arse off all day just so ya can go climb some Goddamn mountain!?”
Wayne left his question rhetorical, and continued swirling his milk.
Now I could hear his mother mutter something inaudible.
“No ah can’t take the fucken brat to cricket on Saturday!” came another tirade. “I’ve gotta work so you and ‘im have food in yer stomachs and a roof over yer ‘eads! And ya gotta clean this pigsty we wallow in all week!”
She mumbled something in reply.
She dropped the spatula, and gripped each side of the stove as if struggling to stay on her feet. Then picked up the frypan, turned and threw it over Wayne – just missing his dad’s head. He walked behind Wayne before grabbing her throat, she grabbed his, and they both moved together, screaming, into an adjoining room. Wayne threw down his spoon, picked up his backpack from beneath the table and ran out the front door. I watched him disappear down the street from beside the house, as yelling and crashing continued inside.
He stole my hat again, that afternoon. I didn’t chase him.