The Rat-Boys of Canberra

Third in the Josephine Ulrick Prize, 2012


‘It’s ‘round here somewhere,’ Brian says. ‘I know it.’

‘We’ve lugged this shit for ages,’ Joe says. ‘And it’s fucking hot.’

‘I was pissed when I came before.’ Brian knows his brother’s annoyed, but a ciggie’ll calm down no end. He finishes a beer, throws the stubby away and gets another from his backpack. They’re carrying two vb six packs each. The bottles clink. ‘Don’t worry, I’m remembering,’ he says.

‘Getting more pissed, more like,’ Joe says.

He’s relieved to see the park. The playground’s in behind a stand of trees, and an old streetlamp casts just enough light. ‘Told you,’ he says. ‘Hidden nice.’ They sit on a bench near the swings, just off the tanbark. ‘Nice night for it. Stars ‘n’ shit. I love summer.’ While Joe rolls a cigarette, he unpacks the beer and puts it on the ground, then lines up his home-made bong and kit on the bench: pot, old tobacco tin, cone, pipe cleaner, lighter, nail scissors. ‘Best bong, ever.’

‘You always say that.’ Joe smokes.

‘The ceramic base makes it smooth as — gives it a good weight.’ He puts the pot in the tin. ‘Even used plumbing cement to seal it. Baccy?’

Joe passes him the pouch of Choice. He mixes the pot and tobacco 50/50, cuts them together, packs the cone and hands it to Joe. ‘Age before beauty.’

Joe takes it. ‘Brilliance before bullshit.’ He pulls the cone, then hands it back.

‘Wish I hadn’t lost me apprenticeship.’ Brian re-packs it.

‘Smithy fires everyone when he has to pay ‘em proper,’ Joe says.

‘There’s no work.’ Brian pulls the cone. ‘Can’t get a look in.’

‘Could ask my boss.’

‘Nar. Should sue Smithy for unfair sacking.’ He re-packs it and hands it to Joe. ‘My union fees were a bloody waste of time.’

‘You could go to that Fair Work Committee.’ Joe pulls the cone, then gives it back.

‘Or just rock his roof at 3am.’ Brian laughs.

‘What’s that?’ Brian says. No answer. Maybe he thought the question without speaking. ‘Someone’s here,’ he says. A light floats towards them in among the trees. He shakes his brother. ‘Joe.’

‘What.’ Joe says.

‘Look.’ He points at the light.

‘Go.’ Joe jumps up, grabs his bag and starts off.

Brian flings his kit, and the tobacco, under a shrub; then stands, but stumbles and knocks the bong to the ground.

‘You two! Stay there!’

Brian knows that voice. It’s Knutt. afp.

‘Fuck,’ Joe says, and leans against the swing’s A-frame, hands over his head.

Knutt and Lilywhite emerge from the trees into the weak lamplight.

‘We’re not doing anything, ’Brian says.

Knutt, the taller of the two, shines torchlight into his eyes. ‘We’ve told you two, how many times.’ He picks up the bong.

Lilywhite circles around to Joe. ‘Yeah. Good kids play here in the day.’

‘It’s not ours.’ Brian squints against the torchlight.

‘Where’s your warrant?’ Joe says.

Lilywhite twists Joe’s arm behind him. The backpack falls and some bottles roll out. Lilywhite smacks Joe’s forehead against the A-frame.

‘Fuck,’ Joe says. ‘We’re taxpayers.’

Lilywhite does it again.

‘You work for us,’ Joe says.

He does it again. ‘See the pattern. Shut up.’

Brian stares at Joe, who looks real afraid, and Joe’s so smart he’s never afraid.

Knutt retrieves the pot. ‘Not too bright, are you.’

Now Brian’s too shit-scared to speak, and is only just holding it together.

Knutt drops the bong and stomps it.

Not his bong. ‘Pot’s decriminalised,’ he says.

‘Is that a confession. Want a fine too.’ Knutt says.

‘No,’ Brian whispers.

Lilywhite hits Joe’s head again, then lets him go. ‘Fuck off. Both of you.’

Brian turns to leave as Knutt sits on the bench.

‘Where you going?’ Knutt says as he starts rolling a joint. ‘Your bag. Idiot.’

Brian shoves the beers in the backpack. Joe’s frozen.

‘And the empties.’ Knutt lights the joint. ‘Don’t leave your shit for others to clean.’

Lilywhite sits next to Knutt.

He collects both backpacks and can’t leave quick enough, pulling his brother along.

At the street, Joe looks back before speaking. ‘Fucking Lilywhite,’ he whispers. ‘Every time.’

Dregs from an empty leak through Brian’s bag onto his back, but he’s too scared to stop and sort it. Lucky he didn’t shit himself. He’s crying a bit.

They go to The Pipes: four concrete stormwater drains dumped in a gully in the bush behind Hawker. Two on their sides, two upright. Probably left over from building the suburb. It’s a hike from Scullin, and Joe gets the shits with him for constantly looking back — but he keeps hearing people behind them. It’s only when they crawl into the largest pipe that he feels safe. The eucalyptus here smells strong. It’s too hot to use their stashed sleeping bags, but there’s newspaper for a mattress and a goon bladder for a pillow. As he falls asleep to the thrumming of the crickets he gets the bedspins.

Next morning, their mum’s cooking when they get back to the flat: a ground-level two-bedroom.

‘Cops came last night.’ She has a beer in one hand and a spatula in the other. Bacon’s frying. ‘Woke the neighbours. Embarrassing. Had to call in sick.’

The lines on her face make her look different to the photos of when she was young, but she’s still beautiful and thin, except for her pot belly.

She points the spatula. The bacon spits. ‘I don’t want cops here again.’

He follows Joe to the table, where they fill two cups from the goon cask.

‘That’s Davo’s.’ She scrapes bacon off the pan. ‘He took off when the cops came.’

‘It’s our house,’ Joe says.

Brian doesn’t like Davo any more than the cops.

She plonks the bacon on toast. ‘No cops,’ she says, ‘or I’ll dob you in myself.’ She takes the food and beer to her bedroom.

He can hear the tv through the wall. That bacon smells good.

When Chris, Joe’s mate, comes in, Brian’s already drunk. It’s probably afternoon. Their mum’s still in the bedroom. She cleans people’s houses.

‘What’re you dicks doing?’ Chris says.

Brian hunches into his chair: the way Chris’s eyes dart always makes him nervous. And he’s always wearing the same Guns ‘n’ Roses t-shirt.

‘Nothing,’ Joe says.

‘What happened to your head?’ Chris gets a mug from the sink and rinses it.

‘Lilywhite,’ Joe says.

‘Always after someone.’ He fills the mug with goon and sculls. ‘Came ‘round last night. Ended up watching telly with the old man at home.’ He fills the mug again, sculls, then lights a cigarette.

‘You got an rdo?’ Joe says.

Chris nods. ‘You?’

‘Shifts are few ‘n’ far lately.’

‘Didn’t your boss get the cleaning contract for the new act government buildings?’

‘My manager’s a prick.’

‘A drive’ll help,’ Chris says.

‘Sure.’ Joe finishes his drink and stands.

Brian stands too.

‘I only meant you, Joe.’ Chris smokes. ‘He’s too quiet.’

Brian sinks back into the chair and drinks. He hates how Chris makes him feel.

‘He can’t stay.’ Joe points at the cask. ‘Davo’ll be pissed-off we drank his booze. It’s only a drive.’

‘Fuck.’ He takes a big drag on his cigarette. ‘Whatever.’

Outside, the day is heating. They pile into Chris’s car and do a burnout down the street. Chris put a hole in the muffler so it sounds tough. Normally Brian enjoys a good burnout, but today he doesn’t care about anything much.

‘Make yourself useful,’ Chris says as they pull into the Melba servo. ‘Grab the stuff.’

‘They’ve got cameras,’ Brian argues.

Chris glares at him in the mirror. ‘They’re broken.’

‘How do you know?’

‘Simon did the place a few months ago.’

‘Joe,’ Brian pleads.

‘It’s his car,’ Joe says.

‘It’s nothing,’ Chris says. ‘We’ll distract him. Too easy.’

‘If it’s nothing, you do it.’

‘We’re the diversion.’

‘They’ll put us in Belco Remand,’ Brian says.

Chris turns on him and his face is hard. ‘Not even as a joke. People die there.’

‘I know,’ he says. He’s sorry he said it. Chris’s mate went in for underage drinking. Not even one night. Coroner concluded suicide.

Chris turns back to the front. ‘Shit. We’ve been here too long. Pretend like we’re counting money or something.’

Chris and Joe take out their wallets. Brian doesn’t have a wallet.

‘Let’s go.’ Chris gets out.

‘Just get the stuff, ok,’ Joe says before getting out too.

He waits in the car until Chris fills the tank, then follows them inside. Chris waits in line; Joe looks at magazines; Brian steals chocolates and chips. When Chris reaches the counter he gives him a bottle of Coke from the fridge. ‘This too,’ he says. Chris scowls, but he doesn’t care.

Chris dumps the Coke on the lollies shelf. ‘The petty and a pack of Horizons,’ he says to the attendant.

Brian scarpers to the car and is already eating a Picnic by the time Chris and Joe get back in.

Chris slams the door. ‘What the fuck was that fucking Coke shit.’

‘I got this.’ Brian holds up Picnics, Mars Bars, Crunchies, and Light ‘n Tangy.

‘Put that down. Fuck!’ He starts the car and drives away.

‘I did what you said.’

‘And almost fucked it by being a smart arse.’ Chris glares at him in the mirror.

‘It’s hot. A Coke would’ve been tasty.’

‘Should’ve stolen it, then, ya thief.’

‘I only did what you said.’

‘Could’ve said “no”.’


‘He got heaps of shit,’ Joe says. ‘Look.’

Chris glances behind.

‘I’ll have a Crunchy.’ Joe says.

‘Give us a fucking Mars Bar, then,’ Chris says.

He hands them the chocolates.

They fall quiet as they eat, drifting through Scullin, Macquarie, Cook and Page. In the time the others eat one bar, Brian eats three. Afterwards, they light up.

‘Page Tavern’s ‘round here.’ Chris meanders through the back streets.

‘What ya looking for?’ Joe asks.

‘You’ll see,’ Chris says. ‘Wouldn’t mind a wad of fish ‘n’ chips.’ He circles the block again. ‘There.’ He points at an old man walking up the path. ‘It’s pension week.’ He parks between the man and the Tavern. ‘I’ll grab him, and you hold him while I search him. He gets out and leans against the car.

‘I don’t wanna hurt no old fucker,’ Brian says.

‘We’ll just take his money,’ Joe says and gets out too.

When the man’s level with the car, Chris blocks his way. ‘Got a light?’

Brian’s worried.

‘Don’t smoke,’ the old man says and tries to go around.

Chris grabs and twists his arm behind him, and forces him against the car. The bloke stares in at Brian and looks as scared as Joe looked last night.

Chris searches him.

Brian wants to help him, but if he did anything, Chris’d never forget it. He wishes a cop’d come ‘round the corner. Never around when you need.

Chris takes the wallet, Joe pushes the old guy over, then they jump in the car and drive off.

‘I didn’t wanna hurt him,’ Brian says. He feels sad.

‘Victimless crime,’ Chris says. ‘It’s government money.’

‘He hit his head on the ground.’

Chris gives Joe the wallet. ‘Let’s get pissed.’

The old school is perfect for drinking, and now they’re here, Brian can’t wait to get into it. Chris chilled out after buying the booze, and Joe bought a pack of Marlboros each — the good stuff. The old bloke’ll be ok. Chris parks in the Principal’s spot. Brian jumps out and heads off. Fuck it’s hot.

‘Fuckwit!’ Chris yells. ‘Don’t go empty-handed.’

‘He’ll carry stuff,’ Joe says.

‘Lazy fuck just left. Jesus.’

Brian goes back and Chris loads him up with both slabs and both casks. ‘What are you two carrying?’ he says.

Chris opens the Southern Comfort and swigs. Joe holds up the Jim Beam.

‘These’re heavy.’

‘Get going, then,’ Chris says.

The act Government closed the school years ago. They surrounded it with cyclone fencing and padlocked the doors, but that was pissweak. He can’t understand why they closed it.

‘Don’t fucking drop it,’ Chris says. ‘I’ll kick your arse!’

‘Hang on.’ Joe takes both red and white casks and tries to hand one to Chris.

‘I don’t want it.’

‘We don’t want him dropping the stubbies.’

‘You carry it,’ Chris says. ‘And if anyone’s already up there, Joe, your brother’s not to say a fucking word.’ He ducks through the hole in the fence.

He’ll talk if he wants. Chris won’t do anything with other people around. Joe helps him through the fence. There’s an external stairwell to the roof.

The rooftop is flat galvanised steel, but the guttering’s been removed. There’s a couch, and a big umbrella propped in a bucket of sand. Brian puts the cases down in the shade near the couch and rubs the inside of his arms.

‘What took ya?’ Chris is at the edge, pushing a pile of garbage off with his foot. ‘Dirty fuckers leaving shit for others to clean.’ He swigs some Southern.

‘The beer was heavy,’ Brian says. The roof-edge bends. He hopes Chris falls. ‘How about some of that sweet Southern for my troubles?’

‘No way,’ Chris says.

‘I just want some.’ He should’ve dropped the beers.

‘“I just want some”,’ Chris mimics.

‘It’s all our money.’

‘“It’s all our money”. You always want some, but never get any, do you.’

‘When I have cash,’ he says.

‘I mean chicks. Virgin.’

‘No I’m not.’ Brian blushes.

‘You haven’t lost it, have you.’ Chris says.

Brian’s silent.

‘Have you!’

‘Leave it,’ Joe says. ‘We know he’s a virgin.’

‘Then you can’t have any until you’ve lost it.’ He sits on the couch. ‘And don’t look at me like that. I’m no poofta.’

Brian opens a beer and sits so Joe’s between him and Chris. He comes here on his own sometimes to smoke spliffs and draw the Brindabellas.

‘This’s the life.’ Chris says. ‘This chick I fucked the other night was a goer; did her in a classroom.’ He winks at Joe.

Brian thinks he’s full of shit.

‘You wouldn’t know what to do with a chick, would you virgin.’

He ignores him.

‘Would you!’ Chris says.

He stays silent.

‘Fuck your brother’s a fuckwit. Too quiet. Should’ve left him back at yours.’ Chris stands.

Brian flinches.

‘Scare ya?’

‘No,’ Brian says.

Chris sculls a beer, then throws the empty at the garbage skip on the other side of the quad. It falls short. ‘Let’s see who can hit it.’ He sculls another beer, moves to the edge and throws. Misses again. ‘You try, virgin.’

Brian finishes his beer, gets as near to the edge as he dares, then throws. The bottle nosedives. He glances down at the edge and backs up.

‘That was shit,’ Chris says.

‘What about Joe?’ he says. He’s seen good tradies fall from rooftops like this.

Joe takes a run up and throws. His bottle arcs high, then smashes on the skip. ‘Suck that shit, dickheads.’

Brian laughs.

‘What’re you laughing at?’ You wanna fight.’

Brian backs away. ‘No.’

‘I smash fuckwits like you all the time.’ Chris drinks. ‘You’re not fucking right in the head, rat.’

‘Hey.’ Joe stands between them. ‘He’s ok.’

‘Touch a fucking nerve. You both look like fucking rats. Fucking big fucking front fucking teeth. I bet all you eat is cheese.’ He drinks. ‘And rats have AIDS and syphilis!’ He’s yelling. Joe backs away too. ‘Rattus familyus! Everyone knows the dirty fucking dirty vermin eating fucking cheese!’ Swaying, he drinks more Southern. ‘And the ugly mother rat! Only reason I come ‘round is because she gives me beers and blowjobs!’

Brian rushes him, punching, grabbing, kicking. He’s gunna push him off.

‘Get away.’ Chris punches Brian in the face.

Stars pop in his eyes; his head jolts back; he reels. He’s way too close to the edge.

‘Stop it,’ Joe says.

‘He has it coming.’ Chris swigs the Southern, then lays into Brian.

He staggers; throws air swings. Each of Chris’s hits stings that little bit more.

‘Stop!’ Joe grabs Chris’s arm.

Chris shoves Joe hard and punches him in the face too. Joe stumbles, and loses his footing as the roof-edge bows. Brian wants to move but can’t. Joe slips and falls.

Chris backs away. ‘Rat-boy fucking tripped.’

All he can hear is his heartbeat in his ears. ‘Don’t leave.’

‘Not my fucken problem, is it.’ He goes back to the couch.

‘You have to help.’ His guts feel like they’re swelling. ‘He’s your mate.’

‘Fucking rat-boys.’ Chris gathers the booze.

‘You’ll be the rat leave if you leave your mate.’ He sets himself to be hit again, but Chris just walks away, shaking his head and cursing.


When he hears Chris’s car drive off he realises he’s been staring at Joe for ages. He wipes tears, blood and snot from his face.

He’s running; he’s on the stairs, he’s bending over to Joe. ‘Wake up.’ There’s blood, a weird arm, a bad knee. The sun is high. He knows what to do. He picks Joe up fireman style. Joe moans. He struggles across the car park. Heat shimmers wobble up ahead and his lungs hurt. Every time Joe moans, he says: ‘It’s ok, it’ll be ok.’ He says it so many times. Not one car stops. No one’s walking in this heat. He puts Joe down at the foot of the dirt track that leads from Hawker to The Pipes, so he can catch his breath before climbing the ridge.

He lies Joe in the largest pipe, goon bladder as a pillow, and pads the newspaper bed with string-smelling eucalyptus leaves because he heard they’re medicine. Joe’s shaking heaps so he puts both sleeping bags on him. ‘It’ll be ok.’ His own shirt is sweat- and blood-stained. ‘It’ll be ok.’ Surrounded by the smell of wine, cigarettes, eucalyptus and blood, he strokes his brother’s hair. Magpies warble and cicadas thrum.