Book 1: At Play: Chapter 1
Brisbane, late spring in November, 1986
‘YOU WOULDN’T KNOW anything about this Brisbane Handicap fiasco, would you Hill?’
Would I ever? Kidnapping, deprivation of liberty, extortion, supplying illicit drugs . . . I was looking down the barrel of a minimum of fifteen large at the tender age of twenty-one. I would be lucky to be outside the nick for New Year’s Eve 1999.
‘No, Boss, I don’t know anything about it,’ I said meekly, staring into the face of the chief steward of racing, with a bloody great copper standing by. On the few occasions any of us got to meet the chief steward, we always called him ‘Boss’. I’m sure another name is on his birth certificate, but, for our purposes here, he is Mr Joe Boss.
Mr Boss waved the copper out of the tiny office, saying he would call him when he was needed. As the copper shut the door, Boss stood up and leaned forward, spreading his fingers like two fans onto the table. He made a great effort to give me a look of utmost sincerity. ‘I’m sorry about what happened to your mate, Clarence. Is it true he rang up the Canterbury stewards and abused them for ten minutes for moving the barrier stalls five metres after a sudden downpour?’
It didn’t seem important any more, but I wanted to give Mick Clarence due credit.
‘It’s true, Boss. Mick stood to win ten grand on a horse beaten by a nose at the Canterbury midweeks,’ I said. ‘He’d worked out that his horse was a certainty, even though it was paying twenty-to-one. He told me he had calculated it would win by a head or so.’
‘How old was Clarence when this happened?’ Boss asked.
‘I guess he was about seventeen at the time.’
‘What, was he crazy or something? How could moving the barriers five metres have changed the result of a six-furlong race?’
‘Mick wasn’t crazy,’ I said evenly. The chief steward let me go on. ‘Well, maybe he was just a bit crazy, but he was a mathematical genius. After he gave the stewards a prolonged blast, he redid his sums with the barrier moved five metres, and it came out that his horse would get done by a nose rather than winning by a head.’
Boss looked at me in disbelief across his desk. ‘You’re only a baby, Hill. What the fuck are you mixing with these lunatics for? What do you think’s going to happen to you?’
‘I haven’t done anything, Boss. Is this about that mad Russian?’
Brisbane, two weeks earlier
MORNING PEAK-HOUR traffic in Brisbane plays as a slow and noisy industrial carnival band: engines on vocals, the bass of tyres on bitumen and wind on bonnet. The horn section cuts in without notice. The whole show is a cacophony of nose-to-tail metal, lit by strobing brake lights. I ponder this musical analogy to dull the torture of the inane pop song on the car radio.
I’m sitting in my Holden EH ute, an elbow out the window, the other hand on the leather steering wheel cover. This baby’s a vintage beauty, lovingly cared for over the years by a fastidious copper, who would tear around all day in his police car and then come home to polish and oil his pride and joy, ready for a leisurely Sunday drive up and down, round and round Mt Mee.
That was the beloved routine. Until around midnight, a month ago, at an illegal card game, the red ute changed hands, due to the copper being a few beers worse for wear and my steadfast loyalty to three eights in the face of a probable ace-high straight.
Now the crimson beauty is mine, all mine. The ute’s already not quite what she was; there’s a little rattle coming from the back that I’m sure wasn’t there before, but there’s plenty of leg room, enough even for my long angular frame. With the driver’s window down and the breeze scattering my longish straight blond locks, on the rare occasions when the roads are free of congestion, I am commander of the streets of your town. But not today.
I insert my pirated tape of the Go-Betweens 1982 single Hammer the Hammer. That’s all there is on the fifteen-minute cassette, Hammer the Hammer. I foolishly tilt my neck to the left to see what is causing the delay. There is no cause. If there were no delay in the morning peak-hour traffic, there would be a cause. I am crawling along Sandgate Road in the metal parade of stiffs, fantasising murder, suicide and all shades in between. That’s the stiffs pondering all that morbid stuff. Me, I’m a placid sorta bloke.
I notice a teenager sprawled across the footpath ahead. He is wearing black jeans, an unbuttoned denim coat and, under it, a black T-shirt with a graphic below a band name I cannot read. Sitting on a brick fence behind the prone body are three other teenagers, two boys and a girl. All wear black jeans; one has on a black T-shirt and the others flannelette shirts, in the middle of a boiling hot Brisbane late spring – it would pass for high summer in most countries, but not in Australia.
The trio on the brick fence aren’t looking at their prone companion. They keep glancing down the road. My bet is they are not seeking a cop car. Drug overdose, smack or speed, I reckon. Take your pick, as I’d say the young bloke, flat on the footpath, did. I hope his mates are watching out for an ambulance they have called.
A bag of fruit is walking down the street with his nose inside a plastic folder. He glances over its top edge, takes in the prone body, and pretends to be lost, backtracking down the concrete path and turning into a side street. That is what you call going out of your way for the unfortunate.
I duck down the one-way Frodsham Street at Albion to save a second on my journey. I would save a few seconds this way, but savvy stiffs are following me or leading me down Frodsham Street to save their own precious second. For stiffs, every second counts. By stiffs, I mean the clock-watching, bored and boring sods who do what they do because that’s what they did yesterday. Experts of all persuasions are lining up to convince them they are time-poor, and in need of greater efficiency. Me, I have plenty of time up my sleeve, but I am not letting the stiffs better me by my going the long way round. My life is extended by a second.
A few hundred metres on, I get stuck in a traffic snarl beside Bogan Street. Ever since I left the orphanage, I have met teenagers and young adults who dream of escaping Brisbane to Sydney, Melbourne or London. For them Brisbane is Boganville, full of unsophisticated young Bogans living squalid lives, unenriched by the gifts of youth culture.
Me, I like Brisbane. I am on my way to its inner-city suburb of Spring Hill – the Go-Betweens wrote a song about it – to see Mick Clarence, the bloke who taped Hammer the Hammer for me.
I had fruitlessly scoured Brisbane underground record shops for a copy of the single. Promises of imports never came through. Then I thought of Mick. He was using American military spy computer programs to pick the winners of horse races, so I figured he could track down a copy of the single, and he came good.
The tape was still rewinding when I heard a siren in the background. I hoped it was an ambulance for the ill lad. I can never tell the difference between a police siren and an ambulance wail. I don’t want either coming for me.
Mick had asked what else I wanted on the fifteen-minute tape. He smirked. ‘What about an album by the Ramones?’
I replied, ‘nothing.’
Mick, true to his word, left me with the one short song, alone in a world of static, which no one could quite figure out the meaning of.