The Black Mariah


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    Hey, Gordy! said Hedley, in a whisper as loud as a cocky.

Sssh! Dad'll hear. 

He tried again. We gotta go! 

It's too cold.

Yeah, a bit, but the pidgeons'll  be sleepy coz, and easy to grab.

We've got to get there first.

It's all set. Fair dinkem. Ol' Scratchy Bum's fence is all set to go. I got it ready before tea. 

It won't work. 

G-o-r-d-y, said Hedley threateningly in his big-brother voice. 

The two boys slept head to toe, toe to head in a bed in the sleep-out that used to be Hedley's but since their little sister, Ral, came along, Gordon's bed went to her in what used to be his room, in the house, so the boys had to share: one under the sheet, one on top. They weren't told why, but Hedley knew that Gordy was still very young and still had baby germs. Hedley was the oldest so his name couldn't be babyfied but Gordon wasn't just the younger, he was also the used, Hedley the user - but sometimes the slave, but always the follower. 

Hedley's plans always got Gordy into trouble. 

Little Raldene had been a baby so out of their thoughts for a hell of a long time. Months! But she had growed and wanted to join in their games, mainly Cowboys and Indians. It was always Cowboys and Indians like on Saturday arvo at the pictures. Mum forced them to let her play with them or else they'd get a hidin' til their legs went red, but really they found her useful, with them as the Indians, hootin' and shoutin' with chook feathers in their hair and slapping their hooting mouths with the palms of their hands which was what real Indians did - everybody knew that - so she had to be the cowboy who was tied to the clothes-hoist, but when she kicked up a stink about always being tried up with the kindling stacked around her feet screaming blue-murder when they lit a match Mum made them make her the Indian, so they did and put chook feathers in her hair an' all, but she couldn't hoot and shout because she was still tied up to the clothes-hoist as the two cowboys skipped and slapped their thighs and danced around her like real cowboys always did in saloons and stuff, and still Ral screamed and yelled sounding no way what a real Indian would sound like. Ral was never satisfied with her role. She was a girl. 

Their school was down the street and around the corner a bit, but as the crow flies, it was near as a neighbour but you had to climb on the chook-house roof, jump over one fence, through a pumpkin patch, over another fence with the help of an apricot tree, down a lane full of leaves, rats, and bits of rusty bikes, and then through the back paling fence of old Mrs. Overdon who they called Ol' Scratchy Bum coz she was forever tugging at her 'lastic coz her undies kept stickin' in her bum crack. 

On Saturdays, if the boys were good, which wasn't often, they were allowed to go on the tram by themselves into the city to the pictures, buy an ice cream or a biscuit, and back on the tram again; all for sixpence. Oh, hey! When you had to write sixpence you had to write it with the letter 'd' after the number which was really stupid coz the word 'penny' started with a 'p' not a 'd' but that's what the king who lived in England said we had to do so because the king in England said that, that's what we had to do which was really stupid. But that's kings for you. 

Anyway, Hedley had to look after Gordy and Hedley took his role very seriously. Hedley had to hold onto Gordy's hand as they got on the tram and Gordy always wanted to sit near the door so he could see the cars going past but Hedley made him sit right in the middle of the tram as far away from the door as possible because he didn't want Gordy to fall off - there were no doors; but not because he was afraid Gordy would get run over, flat like the pennies they put on the tram tracks to watch them buckle and pop as the tram went by, but because he would get a hidin' from Dad if he didn't do what Dad said, and that was he had to look after his little brother, which was what big brothers were supposed to do.  It was a rule, Dad's rule.

Rules had to be followed coz Dad said that's the way the world works. He called it an axiom. Dad knew some strange words. He worked in a really big factory. Hedley knew not to ask stupid questions so he worked it out for himself. He knew that some words were related but had different endings, like god and godly, and some words went together like sauce and sausage, so he reasoned that the word axiom had something to do with axel; and he knew that if you broke an axel the car wouldn't go so he kinda understood what his Dad said about rules. But that didn't mean he never broke them. And that's why there had to be The Black Mariah that hung behind the kitchen door, when Dad wasn't using it to sharpen his razor, that is. And that's another thing. He knew about rules but he also knew that he broke some. It was like there was two Hedleys, one who knew the rules and one who kept breaking them. This was a confudlement. He couldn't ask Dad coz he'd get - Don't ask such stupid questions - and he couldn't ask Mum coz he'd get - Ask Your father - but like all confudlements he knew that everything would become clear when he was a grown-up. But he also knew that some grown-ups did stupid things. There were some new people, English people, who lived in the lean-to off the side of Charlie Berendt's place: the cobbler, and someone said that in summer when it got really hot the English people hid under the bed because they thought the hot sun would set them on fire. That's really stupid! Didn't they have a sun in England? And they were grown-ups! Well, some of them. Maybe they didn't have sprinkers in England. They should see their king about that. 

Gordy! If you don't get up right now I'll give you such a Chinese burn! 

Oh, Jeez Hedley, whined Gordy. 

The two boys eased themselves out of bed trying not to make the bed-springs creak and put on what clothes they could find in the dark. It didn't really matter what clothes they put on, they were all Hedley's. Getting the louvers out of their slots was trickier still but within five minutes or so they were out of the sleep-out, grabbed the stashed potato bag from its hiding place, over the chook house, and on their way. 

When they got to Ol' Scratchy Bum's place, they knew exactly where she kept her ladder, propt-up behind the laundry, and when they got to her back fence, Hey Hedley, these palings are already loose, whispered Gordy. Y-e-a-h! I told ya, dumb-bum. I did 'em before tea. Come on! And with great and silent care they manouvoured the ladder and themselves through the fence and into the school yard. This was territory Hedley knew as well as he knew the freckles on Gordy's face. Within minutes he had the ladder against the stone wall of the toilet block and was shimming up to where the pigeons were roosting on top of the stone wall under the corrigated iron eaves. It was easy. Before you could say Bob's Your Uncle Hedley had five pigeons and a couple of handfulls of twigs, feathers and stuff in the potato bag and they were scurrying at each end of the ladder back to Ol' Scratchy Bum's laundry with the bulbous bag full of fluttering pigeons bouncing against his back. All they had to do was pop them in the little pigeon coop they'd tacked together that afternoon, out of chicken wire, vege boxes, rusty nails, and binder-twine, on the side of the chook-house. The twigs, feathers, and stuff made the birds feel right at home. 

Jeez, they were clever. Here was their little business. At threepence a pop there was more than a bob cooing and snuggling into their new home. And this was just the first night! Wait tell they see the look on Dad's face when Hedley says, No, Dad, put your sixpence away, we don't need your money for the  pictures. We've got our own!

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