Clarry was a bloody cute kid. Ringlets, toothy grin, the whole shebang. His sisters thought he was a dork, but he didn’t care ‘cos he could catch dragonflies better than them …
He had a real ace bug catcher and he set it up just right with a little bit of honey, just like Uncle Bill showed him, and just when the dragonfly was within reach he’d shout ‘Aaaaaah, gotcha!’, slamming down the lid just in time. He’d keep the dragonflies in a jar, but they’d always die. He wished they wouldn’t, but they died and he’d cry.

Yeah, Clarry was a cute little bugger. His mum thought so, his Aunties said so, so did Mister Cullen. His sisters thought he was gross, but he thought they were ugly anyway. His dad thought he was too bloody cunning and would clip him about the ear from time to time, just to keep him in line.

His dad was a drinker, a heavy drinker. And when he was drunk he was ugly, real ugly. One day his dad smashed his mum in the mouth and Clarry saw the red, red blood spurt from his mum’s nose and it made him think of the lipstick she wore on a Saturday night. “Get to bloody bed or you’ll be next”. Trying not to be afraid, he went to bed singing “Jingle Bells” ‘cos it was nearly Christmas.

The fastest kid in town

When he was seven Clarry learnt to ride a bike and knew he was the fastest kid in town. Except for Johnno next door, but Johnno didn’t count ‘cos he was a dickhead. Clarry’s bike was red and he called it the Red Rocket.

The Red Rocket would take him all around the town in a blur of red light and shiny speed. He was real fast. Sometimes he fell off, but when he did it was always in a shower of dirt and dust and shiny metal. It looked real tough, like a stunt rider. He wouldn’t cry. Stunt riders don’t cry, and maybe if he could make it, he’d be tough enough to ride the rodeo.

Mister Cullen was smart and funny

Clarry had wanted to be a train driver like his Uncle Bill, but when Uncle Bill went to jail for bashing Auntie Marj Clarry thought maybe being a train driver was a one-way road to trouble. He thought instead when he grew up he’d be a teacher, like Mister Cullen. Mister Cullen was smart and funny and always brought sweets.

His dad said “That bloody Marj, bloody asked fer it, the bitch”. Clarry didn’t know what Auntie Marj had done, but it must have been real bad. Clarry was 11 and in love for the first time in his life. It hurt so much he thought his heart would burst, but he never said a word. She was the most gentle and kind girl in the world.

Everyday at school she would say “Hi Clarry, what’s up?” She was the only girl he’d ever met who talked to him with a smile on her face. He loved her and he couldn’t help it. He couldn’t imagine her ever doing anything to make him hit her. She was perfect.

A bit weird

Just after his 12th birthday things went a bit weird. His mum shot his dad in the arse with the shotgun. His dad’s face turned blue and then purple with rage. He picked up the shovel and smashed her in the face. She fell to the floor with a thud and a whimper, her eye hanging out on the lino.

Her breath was ragged and shallow. She gurgled raspberry bubbles. Clarry looked at his dad with terror in his eyes. Quick as a whip he span and ran. He ran from the house as fast as he could, grabbing the Red Rocket on his way.

His father lumbered down the back steps roaring with rage “Don’t you run from me you little bastard!” Clarry kept going. He threw himself onto the Rocket and peddled with all the power he could muster. His legs pumped the peddles and he prayed that his dad wasn’t faster than he thought. He whirled around the corner, pebbles and dust spraying out from under his wheels. He hoped he wouldn’t fall off, now was no time to be a stunt rider!

At last when he was out of breath and sweat poured from him, he stopped and looked over his shoulder. Dust still stirred in his wake. He pricked up his ears and listened hard. He tried to hear above the sound of his blood pumping through his veins. He held his breath. Silence. Tha-doom, tha-doom, tha-doom. Silence.

Just his heart beating like a noisy traitor. He struggled to catch his breath and looked around. He was near the school, not that far from home really, but too far for his dad to run with a gutful, he was sure. Mister Cullen lived next to the school and was in his front yard in a big straw hat, bending over working the soil with a garden spade. Plants sat primly at his feet waiting to be added to the prize-winning floral display. His bum was wide and flabby in his loose black pants.

Clarry wheeled his bike up Mister Cullen’s driveway and stopped, watching the man in peaceful contemplation of his garden. Some people have nice houses and nice lives, thought Clarry, where no-one gets hurt and no-one bleeds. “Well if it isn’t Clarry McQueen”, said Mister Cullen. “You look like you’ve been racing the devil, boy. Come in and I’ll get us some lemonade”. Mister Cullen squinted at Clarry from under his hat, pulling a white handkerchief from his pocket to wipe his brow.

Squeaky clean

Mister Cullen’s kitchen was squeaky clean. His mum would love a kitchen this clean, but with five kids and a bastard husband she could never keep up. “Keep this bloody place clean will ya, bloody filthy bitch”. Whack. Didn’t take much to set his dad off. His mum never spoke. Not anymore. Never. Not since he was little did Clarry remember his mum holding him and kissing him and telling him he was gorgeous.

Not since the night Uncle Bill and his father had come home from the pub real drunk. That night all the kids were sent to bed and his dad put some Elvis on the record player. From his bedroom door he’d seen his mum pushed up against the table and his dad and Uncle Bill took turns making her cry. He didn’t understand then, but now he knew. He was 12 and nearly grown up, now he knew they’d raped her.

He sat at Mister Cullen’s kitchen table and cried. Mister Cullen laid a gentle hand on his shoulder and just looked him in the eye and nodded his head, as if to say it’s alright now. Everything’s alright. Mister Cullen made them a cup of tea, strong and sweet, with a shot of brandy to warm the soul.

The brandy made the tea taste sharp and bitter, but it went down just fine and made Clarry feel warm and safe. He slept the sleep of angels that night. Safe and warm in a bed in Mister Cullen’s house. Where no-one could touch him and make him bleed.

That first year at Mister Cullen’s house, Clarry felt safe. He was clean and clothed and fed like a lamb. At every step, Mister Cullen was there with a handful of sweets and a kind word. But often Clarry would wake to find Mister Cullen sitting on his bed patting his brow as if he’d been crying again.

And sometimes Mister Cullen would come into the bathroom while Clarry was in the bath. “Make sure you clean behind your ears, Clarry”. Clarry grew to feel uncomfortable, but didn’t want to offend the kind man who had taken him in and given him a better life. His mum was dead, his dad was in prison, his sisters were with Auntie Marj and doing it tough. Clarry was on a good wicket and he knew it.

Slowly slowly, softly softly. Day by day. They call it “grooming” these days.

Clarry didn’t like it when Mister Cullen came to his room in the night, and he didn’t like the way Mister Cullen smelled on a hot sweaty night. “It’s okay Clarry, you’re safe here with me. Other boys in your situation, they’re sent to the boys home, but I won’t let that happen. You’re safe with me.” Clarry didn’t like the line of sweat on Mister Cullen’s top lip.

Sniffing petrol

Clarry began ditching school the following year, and by 14 was sniffing petrol. He never said a word to the other boys about Mister Cullen, but everyone knew. “You’ve changed Clarry”, they’d say. At 15 Clarry was drinking worse than his father ever did, and his temper was just as mean.

Mister Cullen looked at him with fear in his grey eyes, no longer able to control the kid. He threw Clarry out. Told him to leave the house with the neat little garden and the clean, clean kitchen, threw him out into the street to fend for himself.

“Get out Clarry, before one of us ends up dead. You ungrateful sod.” Clarry landed a right hook on Mister Cullen’s jaw, and a king hit to the back of his head. Leaving the ageing man groaning on the floor, he disappeared into the dusty afternoon.

He survived for a while on the street, sleeping with whoever was willing, whoever would pay, wherever it worked. He felt numb most of the time, but the slightest thing would set him off like a storm.

When he ran out of smokes, he would bash someone. When he ran out of grog, he’d bash someone. If a girl, a friend, a john, rejected him, he’d cut himself. By the age of 30 Clarry was ugly and violent and dangerous when pissed.

Yeah, Clarry had been a damn cute kid. He still believed he could be a stunt rider one day. He still had a toothy grin and ringlets. But he was a stunt rider of a different kind now. He barely knew who he was anymore. He loved alcohol like air, like he’d loved the girl at school. The girl with the long brown hair. But he didn’t dream of her anymore.

When he was asleep he saw his mother’s eye lolling on the lino, or Mister Cullen with his baggy black pants around his ankles and a sweaty glean to his face, eyes half-closed. Every night, always the same. At 38 Clarry’s life amounted to nothing more than an ugly, rotting, stinky mess of piss, sweat, bile, and blood, with the occasional fury thrown in.

Dusty outpost

These days Clarry lived in a dusty outpost, miles away from the town with the school, the neighbours, the girl with the long brown hair and the friendly smile. Miles away from the Red Rocket and Uncle Bill and Mister Cullen. His community was declared dry.

Not dry in the way farmers talk about ‘the dry’, dry in the way the government talks about ‘dry’. The way the Christians talk about ‘dry’. About ‘being dry’. Clarry knew about the rules, but he didn’t know about the changes, about things getting tougher. He didn’t know and he wouldn’t have cared if he had.

His cycle continued: sleep in a sweat, wake in a sweat, drink in a sweat, vomit, pass out. He’d been hauled before the cops a couple of times with a beer or a flagon or a bottle in his hand. He’d swear and scream and spit at them when they took his grog.

He’d laugh out loud, imagining the Red Rocket and how fast he’d get away if he’d had it by his side. “Bloody Red Rocket” he’d shout, “then you’d bloody see, ya bastards! Ha ha haaa”. He’d stagger out the cop shop door, laughing and flinging spit and sweat as he went. “Ha! Bloody fucken Red Rocket, ha haaaaaa!”

“Fucken mad abo”, the cops would sneer. “He’s gonna go a row one of these days”.

Just before Christmas an aboriginal man was sent to jail in the Northern Territory. He held the ignoble honour of being the first imprisoned for alcohol possession within a dry community. Six weeks. It might have been Clarry, but it wasn’t. It could have been Clarry, or some other ugly, violent, pissed arsehole. It could have been Clarry, or some other abused and violated kid. I don’t know who it was, just some other faceless bloke. Imprisoned.

When Clarry was 12 the kind sweet girl with the long brown hair moved away to Darwin. Clarry still thinks of her occasionally, what’s-her-name, and wonders if she’s married. But then he thinks, fuck her, fuck em all, I’ll fucken show them who’s a bloody fucken stunt rider, as he slices the blade up his arm.

His blood is as red as the cheap port in the bottle on the bathroom floor, as red as the raspberry bubbles that came from his mother’s nose so long ago, as red as the red red lipstick she wore on Saturday nights. As red as the Red Rocket. He slides down the grotty tiled wall and into the empty bathtub with a thump, laughing and shining with sweat.

He laughs and dreams of the Red Rocket, racing and shining in the afternoon sun, dust streaming and whirling behind his rear wheel. He squints into the sun and laughs as he slips silently, accidentally into the red, red night.