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 A Half Australian


David Will

“I stopped doing arts when I was fifteen, and took up drugs. Well, at the time I thought I’d chosen science but in fact it was drugs. It seemed the way of the future.” Emi couldn’t prevent a bitter bark of a laugh, took a drag on his home-rolled cigarette, and added as an afterthought, “Marco said we’d always have money if we knew computers.”

Claudio led the applause. “OK, you’ve said it. You’ve got it out. Want to keep going?”

Emi’s hands shook and he drew again upon the cigarette as though sucking through it for his life. Making the words come out was like wrenching parts of his body from his ribcage, each one dripping blood. Slipping and slithering, they were not reliable; would not be disciplined. His eyes danced around the room like a mosquito and alighted upon Claudio who nodded reassuringly. It had been Claudio who’d got him through the first months of the program; most of all the night the newcomer sneaked it into the dormitory and four of them were crouched in a corner, one syringe between them. Claudio grabbed him by the shoulder.

“Don’t be a fool Emi. They will throw you out of the program and then what? You will not survive.”

Emi glanced at the other three. They all shrugged and looked away. But Claudio glared at him fiercely and Emi submitted to being marched from the dormitory, out into the snow and down the mountain road in his T-shirt until the chill penetrated his skin and numbed, ever so slightly, his cravings. They stood around in the alpine trees looking over the distant lights of Turin until the lights in the lodge came on and the shouting started.

Now he ran his hand over his closely cropped head and Claudio winked at him. Even so, only by closing his eyes tightly, wrapping his arms around himself and talking through gritted teeth was he able to go on. He could hear nobody except himself, and excluding them allowed him to unleash the next sentence. “In the beginning I liked the study, but it became very hard. I just didn’t understand it. After a while, when it came close to the exams, I started getting some help. It was Marco who showed me.”

No surprise there - Marco had always showed him. Emi remembered him, aged seven, bouncing through the clothes hanging from the line, running his black hair along the newly dried sheets as they cracked in the breeze in his Mother’s garden. Emi laughed and did it too. That warm, enclosing smell hung upon them – the one you got when you wrapped up in bed at night in a clean set. Sometimes on a sleepover Marco would creep through from his room and they would huddle up together in the solace of it and tell each other ‘Dylan Dog’ stories.

Claudio was watching him closely. “If it’s difficult to talk about Marco then try telling us something else. Tell us how you handled the study.”

The cigarette was a smear in his fingers already. “Something else! Well Marco knew this older boy who’d do homework for us, if he was paid. I didn’t mean to do it but Marco had tickets to the Sampdoria game so I thought it would be okay just once. I took some money from my Mother’s purse. She didn’t know it was gone. She never did. She doesn’t know anything. So I paid this boy Alex a few Euros and he gave me all the answers to the Physics homework. I copied most of them - not all - so that it wouldn’t look suspicious. Well I was third in the class for that homework, and the teacher was very pleased. My parents were pleased too. I felt great.”


“Yeah, the Australian boy. Marco called him Testa Carrote – Carrot head. Only half Australian really – Mama is Italian - but he spent a lot of time there. Learnt a lot there he says.”

The story began to come more easily. Just by talking about what happened, the events rather than the people and the emotions, he felt partly removed from it. A few weeks later there had been a big match with Roma. When he again got good grades his teacher took him aside and asked him, pointedly, how it was that he didn’t manage such grades every week. So with a little experimentation the unsecured purse yielded up enough for a weekly payment and Emi became a climber in the class. His father slapped him across the back making him walk lightly, and his Mother talked about him in the village butcher’s. The curious looks at school didn’t go away though. One day he asked Alex,

“You must be rich man! What’re you going to do with all that money?”

Marco and Alex had looked at each other and sniggered the way – so it seemed to Emi’ – he and Marco used to as they raced away on their bikes with the fruit pie off Mrs Poggi’s windowsill. Emi didn’t like it when Marco sniggered like that with someone else. With a brief shrug he accepted their invitation into the basement and watched aghast as they shot up.

“Just try a little.” smooched Marco.

The floor on which Emi was standing seemed to shift sideways as the stranger he’d played with since childhood offered it up to him and then lay back against the wall, eyelids drooping, the present fading from his eyes. Emi peered into his face for a moment before turning and scurrying up the stairs and out onto the clean, clear street. He turned his face up to the warm rays of the sun, inviting them to melt the grime from his hair and skin. But closing his eyes didn’t erase the image of Marco’s face, and the warmth didn’t stop him shivering. He wanted to go back but it was not Marco in there and Emi didn’t know how to talk to the stranger. He wanted to go back and find it wasn’t so; that it wasn’t Marco but some other school friend or acquaintance who had magically supplanted him. His mind would not connect his childhood with the present. It wanted things compartmentalized. So he worked his way down to the marina, glancing back constantly, grimacing physically at his betrayal. He stood watching the sea for over an hour, and the next time he saw them slipping off he caught Marco’s arm.

“What about the movies they showed us? What about all the dangers? The diseases!”

“Man you just like your safe little island, don’t you? The needles are clean. Always. And I don’t do it much. I can stop whenever I want. It’s only addictive if you let it. Chill out man.”

Before his exam his teacher took him aside. “There is something strange about your work Emiliano. Your homework grades are good, but your work in class is not consistent. You do not display a fundamental grasp of the concepts always, yet your answers are often right.”

Emi shrugged. “Sometimes in class I feel inhibited.”

“Is that so? Well let’s hope you aren’t inhibited by the end of year examinations. Hmm?”

As soon as he disentangled himself he hurried to Marco. “Where’s Alex, I have to talk to him.”

“Because …….?”

Marco’s grin became more snide and contemptuous as Emi explained. “So you fail the exams. So what? You do the year again. Or go out and get a job. That’s what I’m going to do. Plenty of money in your pocket. Impresses the girls. And plenty for you-know-what. You know?”

“I don’t need you-know-fuckin’-what. You know?”

Marco understood well his horror at failing, the potential fall out with his parents. Younger Marco had stopped coming around in the evenings knowing Emi’s father would be there, unwilling to risk another diatribe about making good and contributing to the community. More than with anybody else Marco presented his angelic face to Emi’s father hiding, always hiding. So Emi could not understand why Marco wasn’t more sympathetic. Marco’s own parents just didn’t seem to care as much, didn’t even seem to realize what their son was becoming. Marco saw this as a victory over them.

“She never asks. She doesn’t want to know. And she doesn’t even tell Papa she gives me money.”

On the day of the exam he felt hollow inside. Though he did his best to concentrate his teacher’s speculative eyes returned to him frequently. He’d been placed up at the front of the class so there was no opportunity to slip out the notes that Alex had prepared. Afterwards he paced up and down before going home, preparing a brave face and an alibi of fever. Untypically his father was home from work and he was standing with his arm around Mama who sobbed into her hands, the open purse yawning as though spilling its secrets on the kitchen table.

Shame swept over him in waves standing weak-kneed in the garden afterwards, each wave thrusting his intestines into his mouth and doubling him up in a quivering ball of self-loathing. He hunched on the bench by the withering autumn roses unable to think of where to start, how to right the wrongs. Stealing was almost a fixation with his father, the great crime. His rage had been cold and hard, but not extravagant. The banishment had seemed as nothing beside the disappointment and contempt in his eyes, the curt, carefully chosen sentences curling themselves like whips around him as they flicked and lashed. He rubbed his forehead against his hands at the memory. And worse than all of this, worse than his father telling him not to come back without the money he had stolen, was his mother’s expression, her hurt silence as she gazed at the floor throughout the interview. Then as he left she looked up calmly, unforgivingly, and reached for her husband’s hand. If this came out in the village she could not show her face.

Their expectations piled up like a stack of exam folders above him, leaning and threatening to topple onto him. A physical spasm twisted him as he remembered that they did not yet know about the exam result, the anticipation of which had caused much excitement and discussion, not least in the village square. Furthermore the teacher would talk to them about his suspicions once the result unveiled him for the sham that he was. The corners of his mouth turned downwards in self-pity and he tried to blank out the thoughts that caused the nausea to rise in his gorge. But he could not see a way forward, or an alternative to make it right. Things could only get worse. He had no idea how to get the money or explain away his actions in class.

He did not mean to go and find Marco as he once might have, trudging instead to the local park as the light faded and night spread itself over him like smothering treacle. But there he was cross-legged on the grass, his hollow, darkened eyes ignoring the kids running home for tea before him. Emi hesitated only a second and then sat down beside him. Marco contemplated him briefly.

“You got any money?” Emi shook his head. “I want to have a hit. Can you get some from your mother’s purse?”

Emi’s short laugh sent Marco scrambling to his feet. “Where are you going?”

“Find Alex. He’ll give me some on tab. He’s got to.”

Emi didn’t even know why he went with Marco. Part of him felt he’d be betraying him if he didn’t, and part of him couldn’t bear to be alone with his parents’ disapproval any more. He watched Marco hurrying down the road and the night seemed to weigh on his own legs and back, dragging him down. What, on his Mother’s milk was he doing here? He could not follow and he could not stop, and as he looked around he found that he had nowhere else to go. They arrived at the basement and Marco urged him down with an impatient gesture.

Marco swore on his mother’s grave he would work for Alex the following night and Emi again watched astonished as the weight of his life lifted from his face. Alex swept his red hair over his head and patted Emi gently on the shoulder. “Don’t worry about him. He won’t have much to say for a while. Can I get you a beer or something? You look all in.”

Emi wasn’t very used to beer but he drank it quickly just the same, and then another. It made him reckless. “Alex, how come you always look so calm. Not like Marco.”

Alex grinned. “I don’t do it as much as Marco. In Australia it’s just for fun. Sometimes it helps. Want to try it?”

And the half-thought that slid insidiously across an inlet in the back of his mind was that if his parents ever saw him like this they wouldn’t be able to say anything about the exam and the homework, the purse and the truancy. This was something that overtook all of that. They’d help him. They’d take care of him. Reconciliation! And so he nodded quietly and Alex fixed him up.

The following afternoon Alex was waiting for them both outside the school yard. “Come on, you can help me sort out some business. That’s your work.”

They made their way to Alex’s ‘place of work’ and Marco was set to making coffee. Downstairs Alex took out a suitcase and began to set himself up. He had a table and chair ready when the clients arrived. They talked briefly and Alex handed over a small bag filled with white powder. He received in return more money than Emi would see in six months - even with the purse. When asked he went and checked the street for police. Afterwards Alex said to them, “Hey, you want a shot? I’ll give you a freebie for your help.”

As Marco rolled up his sleeve Emi shook his head, and said, “How long to work like this to get fifty euros?”

Emi paused in his story, this new confession and the memory of his self-betrayal making him flinch in spite of his momentum. Glancing around the group for another cigarette he saw only sympathy or boredom, and Claudio passed him a roll up. “And is that how you paid your parents back?”

Emi sighed, shoulders slumped. “Yeah, I went back home after a few days with the money, but by then they’d spoken to the teacher, so it didn’t help much. I was allowed back into the house but ……….

“But what?”

“Oh, the way they looked at me sometimes, the way my mother looked. Nobody else knew about the stealing, but the exam results were plain for everybody to see and I think people said things to her in the butcher’s. So I kept working for Alex with Marco, and he mostly took his pay in hits, and I mostly took mine in cash so I could pay into the household, but it didn’t make things much better and, now and again, I’d take a hit too. It just made things better for a while.”

Claudio nodded. “You came here following a robbery. When did that come?”

Somehow, after what he’d already admitted, the robbery seemed easy, and Emi felt his fear abate a little. They’d heard a lot worse than a robbery. He was tired but now felt urgently the need to see this out to the end.

They’d worked with Alex for some months before the robbery but it had never been easy at home. His grades were slipping now that cheating was restricted and the late nights with Alex, and sometimes the drug, made him slide still further. He was struggling to stay in school at all and he found himself listless, apathetic. Sometimes his father would drink some wine at night and make his feelings known. It quickly bored Emi to be told once more what he might yet achieve, and such was the strength of his father’s will, the conviction of his opinions, that there seemed to be no point in debating with him. Sometimes he looked at his father and thought’ “if only you knew.” He would fantasize just when and how he would reveal the true nature of his condition. He imagined the penitence on their faces, felt the closeness grow as the family reunited in refutation of the drug.

One night three men arrived. They were grey and silent, and unlike any client Emi’ had ever seen. As Alex opened his bag a gun was produced. “All of it Carote”.

Alex paused for a moment before the weapon. Then, without comment, and without a glance towards Emi, he handed the bag over. Afterwards he said to them, “That’s me cleaned out boys. They got me at a bad moment.”

“So what will you do?”

“Might have to go back to Brisbane.”

Marco sank to his knees, and Emi felt the panic rise in his own throat. He’d got used to the regular income, and still paid for a little homework assistance. Even worse his parents thought his regular contributions came from labouring down at the docks.

“We’ve got to get it back. We’ve got to.” gasped Marco.

Alex shrugged and began gathering his things up. Marco grabbed him and pushed him against the wall. “You can’t just stop. You’ve got to get more. This is our business. This is ……. Well, we’ve got to get more.”

“We need money.”

“I’ll get it. I’ll get the money.”

Alex smiled. “How will you do that?”

“I don’t know, I’ll find a way. There must be a way. There’s always a way.”

He looked erratically around the cellar as if the answer would be found painted on one of the walls. Alex considered him as if, Emi thought later, he was observing a fly trapped in a glass jar. “Well, you know, there is a way.”

Marco clutched him. What way? What way?”

“I know where those bastards hang out. I know where they stash their stuff. We could steal it back.”

Emi had not seen these men for five minutes, but he knew they were in a different league, a grey and dangerous league. Before the word insane could escape his lips a bouncing Marco clipped him over the back of the head. “We’ll steal it back. Ha. Yes indeed. Stick it to them. And then sell it. Ha!”

Alex had already begun sketching out the building and the route. As he explained his plan and the window through which they could crawl his face was impassive. Marco scarcely asked for clarification, his finger trembling as he traced the route on the paper. When he finished Emi said, “And where will you be when Marco goes in?”

Alex looked him straight in the eye, and there was no hesitation, not even the slightest pretence. “I’ll be keeping watch at the end of the road mate. That’s the danger spot, where the pigs’ll come from.”

Emi walked outside, slumped against the wall and closed his eyes. Marco was going to do it. He was too desperate, and could not hope to see what Alex was doing. There would be no talking to him, and no reasoning. Alex would not have to encourage him further, could remain quite neutral and perhaps even mildly dissuasive knowing it would only stir Marco the more. There would be no help from that quarter. The folder stack threatened to come crashing down upon him. For a moment he simply could not bear the weight.

Yet it was not the manipulation that made his eyes burn hot and wet. He knew that when Marco came to beg for help he would be unable to turn him down. He’d already left him to drift into the parallel world he now inhabited. Might Emi not have avoided all this had he just made a greater effort to stop him in the first place? Instead of slipping away that day? Now Marco could no longer be left to his own, much impeded devices. So he, Emiliano Glauco, would be committing robbery too, and this was not his Mother’s purse.

Then his lip sneered up his face a fraction. Imagine his father’s face if they were caught.

This was not a thought he shared with the group as he came to the climax of the story, and to his relief Claudio did not push him. “I’m not sure if Alex simply didn’t know about the alarm, or didn’t care. I think he was just using us. If we got the stuff, well and good. If not … All I know is that we didn’t hear anything and when the police arrived we were just climbing out of the window. Alex was gone. The police didn’t mention him throughout our interview. It was as if they thought Marco and I had acted all alone.”

Emi shifted in his seat. “It was clear to the Doctor at the police station that Marco was heavily addicted. I mean you saw how he was when he started here! They offered him a choice between prison and the program, and because I had a few needle marks in my arms they decided to offer it to me too.”

He fell silent as the group absorbed the story for further explanation was superfluous. Everybody knew the final scenes. It had been the scandal of the program, and not just in this lodge. Except that on the night the four of them crouched in the corner making up the smuggled syringe, nobody else was there. They could never know what Emi saw in Marco’s face when Claudio grabbed him by the shoulder.

“Don’t be a fool Emi. They will throw you out of the program and then what? You will not survive.”

Emi glanced at the other three. They all shrugged and looked away. Guided by Claudio he stood up but as he did he leant down and caught Marco’s hand. The clear blue eyes, unsullied by recent hits, snapped up and gazed into Emi’s own.

“Come with me. We have to stay in the program.”

Marco’s grip tightened and for a moment he seemed to acquiesce. He smiled and Emi caught a whiff of mischief whisk across his eyes, the way it was before they stole Mrs Poggi’s pies. He could almost smell the clean sheets again and for a second it was as if none of the cheating, the drugs and the stealing had ever happened, and their whole lives remained open and hopeful before them. He caught Marco’s face in his two hands, pulled him close until their breath mingled, noses almost touching. Briefly Marco seemed to relax and lean against him. Emi said, “We can get work with my father.”

Marco’s face creased and his body shuddered, and he twisted out of Emi’s grip. “For why? For what purpose? I am nothing. I have no parents that care about me. Let me pass quietly.”

Brutally he wrenched away and the last thing Emi saw as he was led away was Marco rolling up his sleeve. As they stood in the snow listening to the shouts of discovery they could not know that Marco had not yet taken his share or that, grabbing the syringe he would make a break for it, skidding across the snow-covered road outside the lodge and plunging down the hill into the dark through the undergrowth and trees. Nor could they be aware of how the other two, locked in a holding room to recover, went into convulsions as the tainted drug attacked their hearts. They saw the ambulance arrive and they rushed up, but could only wait anxiously while the news filtered out. The two, it transpired, had been pulled back from the brink and were recuperating. It was only when a wide-eyed Claudio emerged that Emi’ gripped him.

“We have to find Marco.”

Which they did, but not until the following morning when his frozen, twisted body was discovered by a dog on the outskirts of the village in the valley below. Emi, though he felt he owed it to him, could not bear to go down and identify the body, and the next day he told Claudio he was ready to speak.

A great sob burst through the silent ranks of the circle and Emi leaned around Claudio who was seated in the middle, to view the hunched figure on the other side at the back. The man was cradling his face in his hands, clearly struggling to control himself. Stifled gulps and shudders racked him and Emi felt one last little puff of satisfaction and vengeance before it dissipated into the atmosphere. For he had learnt and now realized that it was not the figure before him who had brought him to this, but he himself. He reached out.

“Babo. Babo don’t.”

What else would his father do? Albeit with an effort he stood, raised his tear-streaked face for all to see, and held himself tall in his moment of shame. He breathed deeply and looked around the room into the face of each member of the circle. He spoke slowly.

“I have been a fool. Yes, an imbecile. I have placed more importance on certain principles than on the life, the well-being of my eldest son. I have helped to bring him to this – he paused dramatically – abyss! I have cared, and I have loved, but I have allowed these sentiments to be shaped and moulded in the wrong way. I have not listened, and I have expected too much.”

He marched over to Emi, grabbed him and held him tightly, and Emi could smell the familiar mix of machine oil and fertilizer on his jacket. He clung to him like a small boy, and buried his head in his shoulder wishing it could still be that way. After a moment Claudio stood and conducted them, still arm in arm, to his office.

Claudio left them there. He returned and talked briefly to the circle and then dismissed them without further consultation. Something worried him and he wanted to get back to Emi’, for he wasn’t sure what type of progress was being made. He found Emi’s father talking excitedly. “It’s going to be all right. We are going to work it all out. You’re going to come and work for me. Forget studies for a while. Come back to the house, work for me and get yourself in shape again. Then you can go back to your studies later when you feel like it.”

Claudio watched Emi scratch his head as if he wanted to say something, but then change his mind. Claudio said, “It is important to understand that we all have a role to play in the recovery here. But ultimately Emi must make his own choices, must be allowed to do so without any sense of condemnation or judgement from anybody he values.”

Emi’s father nodded briefly, blankly, and turned to Emi again. “Once you have finished your studies the world will be your oyster. You will still make your Mother proud. For my money you should get yourself into that engineering course with my old company. You will do well with them, I know it.”

The bleak look in Emi’s face made Claudio feel suddenly very tired, as if they were still in the circle, and the circle would continue endlessly. It had been a long day and in the gloomy light of his office Emi and his father seemed hazy to Claudio. His father’s words melded into a drone which had a soporific quality about it and he could see the pair only as a blur. Strangely in the semi-darkness of the corner a watery figure that he could not identify appeared. The figure was red-headed. It hovered above Emi for a moment waiting, like an antipodean angel, and then the father in a burst of emotion stood and paced the room, and the figure disappeared.

The End

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