Billy joins john down in the paddocks at the end of the village. Beyond the paddocks, a swollen stream full of celery weed. Beyond the stream, Whitelock Farm and the national park that fixes the boundaries of the village so it can never grow any bigger.
John is in bare feet even though the ground is sodden. His jeans are rolled at the bottom and he’s wearing an old work shirt, hot pink singlet underneath. His face has eroded into hard lines, but his hair is a bright crown of curls, which makes it difficult to figure out his age. He seems old, but his hair is so full of life.
John slips the bit into Rocky’s mouth, buckles the bridle and swings himself up on to Rocky’s back. He doesn’t use a saddle. He says he used to, but when the leather cinch finally broke he weighed up his options and went au naturale instead. John rides Rocky most places, or just walks. He doesn’t leave the village, doesn’t own a car.
John might not be too old, but Rocky is. Their fastest pace is a walk, like cowboys.
“Come on, Prince Billy,” John says.
Billy doesn’t know why John calls him Prince, but he likes it, that’s for sure.
“Stay away from behind us.”
Rocky kicks. Billy learned the hard way. His hooves are steel-shod because most of the town’s streets have been sealed, and when the tide is high and the beach is inaccessible, or when the southerly is bad and John wants to get somewhere quickly, they take the road.
John is riding to the shops to buy some coke for his vodka this afternoon, and the daily paper. He says he prefers smoking pot to drinking but it’s not that easy anymore, not in this town, full of yuppies and dickheads and people who obey the law even while they pretend not to. He’ll stop for a coffee at the cafe, unless there’s already too many people. But at this time of the morning, just past 8am, the village is quiet. He can have a smoke and read the news in peace, and there won’t be too many kids to get up in Rocky’s face.
Sometimes – not enough but he’s always grateful – John reaches down and swings Billy up in front of him, so Billy is straddling Rocky right up on his withers. Rocky is part Clydesdale, he’s a giant. Today isn’t one of those days, but Billy won’t ask. John has his reasons and his moods, like Rocky, and if they don’t want him up there he’s not going to beg.
So Billy trots alongside them in the gutter, hand fluttering up now and then to rest against Rocky’s heaving chest.
Billy has some dog in him, that’s what John says. Half boy, half dog, like a sweet mongrel puppy without an owner. It helps Billy to think of himself like this. Helps him work out how to behave, even though he has a mum. The kids at school say she’s a hippy. She likes crystals, and doesn’t shave her legs or under her arms – but Billy can’t see how that’s a bad thing. The real problem is that even though she laughs a lot, and pretends to be happy, she’s always talking with people Billy can’t see.
He wishes she would tell him what to do, or how to do it, but she never does.
When they reach the cafe, John ties Rocky to a street pole. Billy fetches the bucket from inside and fills it at the tap, hauls it outside and stands there while Rocky dips his muzzle in and out, frothing up the water a bit, looking sideways at Billy. Billy loves him so much, even though Rocky is mean and would bite if he got half a chance and John wasn’t around to give him a whack.
“Shouldn’t you be getting ready for school, Billy?” The cafe owner asks. She’s standing in the doorway with one hand on her hip, grey hair spiked into a peak.
“Reckon I could have a hot chocolate?” Billy says in reply. She’s safe, she doesn’t make him feel greedy or rude for asking. A few minutes later she returns with his hot drink in a takeaway cup, a few marshmallows piled on top. He perches on a wooden chair at John’s table. John puts down his paper and raises his own cup of coffee. “Cheers, Billy,” he says.
Billy should be getting ready to go to school, but it’s a Friday, and recently his teacher asked his mum if Billy could stop coming to school on Fridays. “What do you think, Bill?” His mum asked, as if it was his decision, and he said, “Okay,” because it was what the teacher wanted, even though he liked school and didn’t understand why it was best if he stayed away. John used to be a school teacher and he thought Billy’s teacher should be fired for asking Bill to leave school. “She can’t do that,” he said, “it’s against the law.” But Billy wasn’t sure what he was supposed to do about it. He wished John could be his teacher, and not Mrs Brunton.
Billy doesn’t want to risk outstaying his welcome, so when he finishes his hot chocolate he jumps up and says, “I’m gonna go check the river, see if I can catch any flounder. Want one if I do?”
“Right, Prince Billy, sure,” says John.
“I’ll drop one round before Scouts tonight”, Billy says, mainly to let John know he’s still going to Scouts and hasn’t dropped out yet. He’s never caught a flounder big enough to eat.
“Good Bill. See you later then.”
BILLY MAKES HIS WAY back along Marine Parade towards the river mouth, but at Peel Street he diverts suddenly right, away from the sea, up the hill towards the Norfolk pines he likes to climb. They line the street like plastic lego, weird and symmetrical. He’s half way up the tallest tree when a car skids to a stop beneath him. At first he thinks it has stopped because of him, because it’s against the rules to climb these trees, because he’s supposed to be in school, but the driver door opens and Finn’s mum gets out, swearing at the boys inside the car.
“Finn! Get out you filthy little shit. Get those pants off.” She marches round the front of the car and yanks open the passenger door. “We’ll have to go home and change and you’ll all be late for school and I’ll be fucking late for work.”
Finn must have wet his pants in the car. He falls out the door and stumbles to the trunk of Billy’s tree. Billy prays Finn won’t look up. He doesn’t want Finn to know that anyone has seen him, or seen his mum being so mean. Finn takes off his shoes and pants and Billy himself looks up through the crowded branches towards the sky, refusing to invade his classmate’s privacy.
Finn’s in Billy’s year at school. He’s lucky, at least that’s what Billy thought till now. He’s smart and good at sport and the teachers like him. He always has new runners. He and his brothers all look the same, a happy gang. They also look like their mum and dad, who go to parent teacher interviews and school working bees and know every kid in school by their first name. It’s a shock to see Finn’s mum being cruel.
Finn shuffles back to the car, naked from the waist down, and his mum slams the door after him. Something makes her look up and she sees Bill, hiding above them. Billy thinks she’ll swear at him like she did at Finn, but instead she forces a smile across her face, pretending nothing just happened.
“Hi there, Billy, what you doing up that tree?” Her voice is strained and suddenly ugly. She’s trying not to show her surprise. “Kids, eh?” she says, as if he’s not a kid himself, as if he’d have done the same thing to Finn if he were Finn’s mum, running late for work.
She eases the car away from the curb, driving slowly now. She pulls a U-ey and drives back the way they came. Billy breaks off a long pine tendril from the branch above him and throws it like a spear, after the car.
BILLY SLIDES DOWN THE trunk and decides to go to the river after all. He spends the rest of the morning building complicated traps for juvenile flounder. They shelter in the river mouth, just above the tideline. You see them best if you lie flat on the bank where sand chunks off like icebergs into the fast-running water. You have to relax your eyes to see their rounded diamond bodies, perfectly camouflaged on the river bed, no bigger than an adult’s hand and mottled the way adult skin goes. Eventually you make them out. They’re not very clever. You sneak up behind them, put your hands under their bellies and pick them up. They barely even flap around.
By the end of the morning he’s built three separate complexes with four or five fish in each. Sometimes he thinks of the traps as farms. He’s farming the fish, sorting them into pens like salmon or sheep. Sometimes the traps are more like hotels. He’s rescuing the fish, giving them brothers and sisters, keeping them safe from predators and dangerous weather.
Whatever he’s doing, it’s only playing. Soon enough the tide will come in and engulf the beach. Salt water will dissolve the sand traps and the fish he has caught will rejoin the ones he didn’t see, didn’t catch.
BILLY IS FIRST AT the Scout Hall, and mucks around in the park while all the other kids are racing home from school for a snack, changing into their uniforms and racing back by 4pm.
It’s a few months now since he stole his mum’s EFTPOS card and withdrew $60 at the dairy to pay the Scouts fees. He did ask his mum, and it wasn’t the cost that stopped her from saying yes. She wasn’t tight with money, she just didn’t agree with Scouts. “It’s all bullshit, Bill. You know you have to swear allegiance to the Queen. Well, to the painting they’ve got of her in there. And all that ANZAC crap. They’re just trying to indoctrinate you.” She was exaggerating, of course, having a bit of a laugh, but she didn’t understand how badly Billy wanted to join.
He already knew how to use her card. She always sent him down the shops to buy bread and milk, maybe an icecream if she was in a good mood. He knew her PIN off by heart and even though at first he’d been scared of the EFTPOS machine and didn’t know whether to press the cheque or the savings button, the dairy owner helped him work it out. Eventually it became easy, and Billy learned how to say Sanjeet’s name, and Sanjeet would ask, “How are you, Billy?” and even if he didn’t really want to know, “How’s your mum doing these days?” When the card got declined he let Billy put it on tic until his mum got paid the following week.
So when Bill decided to withdraw the cash from his mum’s account he knew he could do it without being found out. But he wasn’t prepared for how bad it felt. His hand was shaking, he couldn’t look Sanjeet in the eye and he nearly got the PIN wrong. In the end, Sanjeet didn’t seem to notice and was already looking over Billy’s shoulder to the daytime soap on the TV. So Billy got away with it. Gave the $60 to Dan, one of the scout leaders, who assumed it’d come from Billy’s mum cos the notes were flat and clean. And Billy became a scout. He stashed his t-shirt in his school bag and because he got home late anyway, his mum never asked or suspected a thing.
ALL THE KIDS COME skipping and running down the hill to the hall, some of them on their bikes, some on scooters. “Billy!” they cry, “You’re so lucky you don’t have to go to school,” “Mrs Brunton is such a bitch,” “She’s only ever nice to the girls.” Eventually the leaders manage to get them into their sixer groups and they do their pack cry and spend the next hour and a half running around like loons.
Billy stays to help the leaders clean up, and its past dusk when he steps out of the hall into the park. He sees Rocky and John lumbering up through the track, returning to the paddocks at the end of the village. Rocky is so black only the gleam in his eyes is visible.
“Prince Billy!” John cries. “Come on up here.” He leans down and pulls Billy up in front of him. He smells of vodka and isn’t even holding Rocky’s reins. “We’ll take you home, won’t we Rock?” and Billy really does feel like a prince. Dan comes out of the hall and thinks John has come to pick him up deliberately, and that is really as good as having a real dad, better even, because John is an ex-teacher and pretty important in the village.
John lets Billy take the reins. “That’s right, Bill, soft on his mouth. You’ve really got the knack.” Billy feels down through the leather to Rocky’s mouth, and from Rocky’s mouth to the horse’s brain, and thinks, “I’ve got you Rocky,” and he holds on to the warm leather all the way home, where John lets him down and kicks Rocky onwards.
Billy is so euphoric he forgets to take off his scout shirt, but when he goes inside his mum just looks at him and says, “Are you a scout now, Bill?” and seems pleased.
WHEN HE GROWS UP, Billy thinks, he’ll get his own horse, and look after children. Maybe he’ll be a teacher. Maybe he’ll be a vet.