Single story weatherboard bungalows, with peeling paint and old sofas perched on verandas, stuffing coming out of them. Couple of guys in leather jackets standing around an old Harley drinking beer from cans and arguing about something. Strands of their matted hairs flipping in the breeze like pieces of wool left to dry for too long.
Charlie lowered his head and quickened his pace. He did not want anyone to notice him. He figured he could reach Trish’s in about twenty minutes, slip through the back door and leave the place before the dawn, unseen. He spent a long time planning it all and debating with himself whether to visit Trish’s for one last time before to leave the whole damn town behind him.
He could never think about leaving without remembering his mother and how she called the place ‘shit-hole’ just before she left. She might have been right; he should have left ages ago too. Not that he has not thought about it. All those nights sitting on the front porch gazing down the road, waiting for her to come back and take him and his brothers to the city like she said she would.
When his old man found out, and put stop to it, Charlie rostered his brothers to sit and wait for ma. Jeremy said he could not remember what ma looks like. Charlie slapped him so hard to knock him over and would beat his life out of him if the old man did pull him off. It was the first time Charlie experienced the violence that emerged from the depths of him and he had not known was there.
That night, the old man took Charlie to a pub with him and treated him to a beer laced with lemonade. Then he told him that ma is not coming back. She is gone with another fellow. They probably have a family by now. She does not want to remember them boys or her life in this town any more. Charlie ran out of the pub, crying tears of rage and hurt. They burned hollow in his gut and set his chest on fire. He ran past his house and set for the dirt-road leading out of town. Couple of days later local cops brought him back home. He was starved and soles of his feet had bleeding blisters. Charlie never waited for his mother again. His old man made sure no one mentioned her again in front the boys.
He was approaching the town’s main square. Empty semicircle surrounded by the post office, cop-shop, paper-decorated Chinese take-away, couple of forlorn looking stores, and a court house. Tall wooden statue of a forestry worker with the sleeves of his shirt rolled up, holding a chainsaw stood in the middle, his gaze fixed on the town below. Cigarette butts and empty bags of potato chips scattered at its base.
Charlie looked down the road past the court-house. Around the corner there was a library and a local high-school. For a moment he felt the urge to walk there, just to see whether the opening in the fence he cut all those years ago is still there. He went to a lot of trouble to make it big enough for him and Ines to pass through. Smuggling tools was not a problem. He was always good at woodwork and had almost free access to the school’s work-shop. The trouble was how to work on the fence without being seen. On the end he did it all at night and returned the tools before school started. He wanted to make sure nobody finds out.
He remembered the day he showed her the opening for the first time. It was winter and snow-flakes danced in the sharp air landing on the heavy branches of the pine trees. Charlie chose that part of the school-field to cut the opening because of those trees. They sheltered the fence. It was what he always wanted for her; to make a safe shelter. Ever since she first arrived at their school.
Charlie was in his third year for the second time because his old man was adamant all of his boys should finish high-school and did not give up even when Charlie had to repeat his third year because of his absences. What he really wanted was to quit school and find a job with the local forestry gang. The money was good and almost all of his mates were there. But the old man threatened to threw him out on the street and break his neck in the process, so Charlie returned to school.
It was still summer and the commotions of the brand new school year in full swing.The class teacher was a tiny woman with a large glasses and high-pitched voice. She tapped her desk few times for silence and introduced the new girl. Ines. New in town, just arrived from a big city, please welcome her. She stood there with her hands limp at her sides and long blond hair hanging loose, covering her face. She went to sit at the place teacher pointed without raising her head.
He did not understand why, but the first thing Charlie noticed was that the girl was bare-footed and had no school bag. Or carried anything needed at school. Even her dress was more like going out dress then going to school dress. He wanted to ask her about it. And whether he name means anything special. Charlie never knew anyone called Ines.
As soon as class finished, Charlie walked to where Ines was sitting and introduced himself. He was young, but thanks to his old man and Trish’s fine establishment he had his share of girls. Ines did not raise her head. Or moved her hands clasped tightly in her lap. When he asked whether cat got her tongue, she stood up and walked out of the class. Charlie did not know what to make of it. Except that he really wanted her to look at him.
At the end of the school day, Charlie went looking for Ines. He saw her walking across the school’s rugby-field towards Bone Street. He knew he could follow her without her noticing. When she turned into Elizabeth Street, Charlie could think of only one place she is going; Fat Betty’s foster home.
Fat Betty ran a foster home ever since her fellow ran away with the local pub’s new waitress and left her to fend for herself and their three children. Betty figured that taking in others who have nowhere else to go or have been thrown out of all other places, can help feed her and her children. The place was cramped and always smelt of piss, burned milk and stale cigarettes. Some of Charlie’s school friends were Fat Betty’s kids. They went hungry most days, but Fat Betty never laid hand on any of them and they had safe beds to sleep in which was more than they had in places left behind.
When he saw her opening the Fat Betty’s gate, Charlie turned towards his own home. That evening while sitting at the table with his brothers and their old man eating baked beans and chips, he decided to make Ines look at him even if just once.
Years later, sitting at the table in the local jail, Charlie will come to think of that evening as the exact moment his life started to slide off under him … (to be continued).