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Tuesday, August 9, 2011

The last battle (pt 2)

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No, that’s not the end of the story. If it were, you’d be wanting your money back. There’s a bit to go yet.

  Our paths, Tommy Fittler's and mine, did not cross for some time, and I despatched the showground incident to the deeper recesses of my mind.

  One Saturday morning, Dad and I drove to Gladstone from Calliope to buy pollard and chaff.  It was drought time and my father had developed a clever policy about how to combat drought, but more on that another time perhaps. He had a few jobs to do so dropped me off at the Town Library to get a new selection of books. The instruction was that I would then walk from the Library down to the house of his brother, my Uncle Frank, and wait there till he came to pick me up a short time later. Uncle Frank's house in Bramston Street was no more than a couple of hundred metres at most from the Library.

  Under the special deal negotiated between my mother and the Town Librarian, I selected my six books and started walking down towards the ocean along Bramston Street.  It was a beautiful day, with the salt smell in the air and muggy warmth of mid-morning. The last thing I expected was to hear a shout from a house just a couple of doors up from Uncle Frank’s place.

  ‘Get outa my street, Hick-boy!’

  It all came flooding back... Tommy Fittler, the wall in the old Showground pavilion, the henchmen. The humiliation.

  Eleven-year-old boys are not very inventive with their retorts, and I’m talking about me, not him.

  ‘Get lost, Fittler!’

  I was on the street, and after all, nothing could be exchanged there but insults. Or so I thought.

  ‘Say it again, cowboy.’

  ‘Just get lost!’ I obliged. Again, not the wittiest exchange of epithets.

  ‘Right’ – or was it ‘Wright’? I don’t know which and I didn’t really care, but I surely did care about the next bit. ‘I’m coming to get you....’

  He jumped down the stairs and on to his bike, and pedalled furiously towards me. It was a shiny bike with tassels on the handlebars. I thought it was a bit girly, to be honest, as we used to build our own bikes from salvageable bits of old ones we found in the shed. Tassels!! Hmmph....

  Apart from its prettiness, it was a good bike, no doubt about it. Three speed gears and handbrakes, unlike ours that might have had a back-pedal brake, or, as in the case of mine, a fixed-wheel model devoid entirely of brakes. This was a bit hairy at times, as you could pull up only by sheer muscle power on the pedals. Tour de France, Alpine section? Eat your heart out. Try Milne’s hill, Calliope, no brakes and that sharp corner at the bottom, Cadel.

  I still have the calf muscles to prove its benefit that way. Hey, maybe that's how Cadel Evans got his start!

  But this was no time for reflection on bicycle engineering and design.  He skidded to a stop, laid the bike carefully on its side just off the bitumen, and stood with arms crossed in front of me. (Isn't that supposed to be a defensive posture? It sure didn't look like it to me.) He looked at the six clear-plastic-coated books I had under my arm and sneered with contempt.

  ‘Better put ‘em down. We don’t want ‘em to get dirty, do we?’

  I was in a terrible dilemma. Let’s get it straight right now. We were still like twins in terms of physique and I wasn’t afraid of him. In fact, under any other circumstances I would have welcomed the opportunity to try to settle the score. Remember, I had had battles with Koppo that went over successive lunch-breaks, and could take a punch or two. That didn’t bother me.

  But on the street! Two doors up from Uncle Frank’s house, and with the strong chance that my father would drive round the corner at any moment and catch me... fighting on the street.

  The thought of that made me go cold. Should I or shouldn’t I? But what would the alternative be? Grovel? To him?

  I went to put down my books. Boy-honour dictated I fight. Family-honour swung things the other way. I was still undecided, but I had no desire to look gutless, particularly not in front of him. So I put down the books and then looked into his face. I’d made up my mind. I was going to say, ‘I won’t fight you here, on the street, not in front of my uncle, or my father.’

  But he wasn’t looking at me. He was staring at something else with intense interest. I said nothing and followed his line of sight to see what the distraction could be. It had to be pretty important, with a fight in the offing.

  Down the side of Uncle Frank’s house, as with just about every house in Gladstone and half of Queensland I suspect, a declared noxious weed everyone called ‘side-rechoosa’ grew in profusion. Some years later, I discovered that this was in fact sida retusa, which I now find, consulting the oracle, has great medicinal properties.

  All we knew was that it was a bloody nuisance and you couldn’t get rid of it, but you could keep it under control by slashing it down every so often.

  This is where it comes into my saga. Tommy Fittler’s attention was taken completely by the figure of my Uncle Frank walking down the front steps of his house with a reaping hook in his hand. You know, a sickle - as on the Red Flag. This one.

Reaping hook
  Uncle Frank was never a fearsome figure, and he was on his way to despatch a bit of sida retusa down the lee side of the house, but it gave Tommy Fittler cause for serious reflection. Whether Uncle Frank knew the Fittlers or not, I don’t know – they could even be friends, or at least, on friendly terms. Or on the other hand, Tommy might have had an uncle who, observing someone attacking his nephew on the street, might have made good use of the sickle to put an abrupt end to the fight. I dunno, but Uncle Frank, halfway down the stairs and looking quizzically in our direction, was a godsend to me.

  Tommy seemed to lose all interest in the fight. He picked up his bike.

  ‘What’s the books about?’ he feigned interest in order to divert attention from our matter of honour.

  How would I know? I’d just picked them off the shelf quickly and checked them out, as I knew Dad wouldn’t be long. I mumbled something in a half-conciliatory sort of way. He got on his bike slowly, turned to me and said, ‘I’ll let you off this time. That’s twice, Wrightey.’ Uncle Frank hadn't moved.  I suspect he had witnessed Tommy Fittler's street activities at other times, and had quickly sized matters up. With one look in Uncle Frank’s direction, Tommy rode away, all twenty-five metres or so back to his house.

  Let me off?? I didn’t care right then that he took my relief as fear of him. Uncle Frank’s fortuitous appearance stopped me from having to say what I was going to. It was only later that I burned up at the thought that it was indeed twice now that he had made me look and feel bad, and something beyond my control had stopped me retaliating both times. At least one of us should have ended up with a black eye.

  I didn’t know that when we both went on to the same high school, things were going to come to a head. We had unfinished schoolboy business, but you never know what's ahead, do you?

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