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By James Moloney
University of Queensland PressCopyright © 2007 James Moloney
All rights reserved.
The Deputy Principal scurried along the corridor, his leather shoes pounding the old wooden floorboards like hammers. Two unhappy boys, heads down and shoulders hunched, hurried to stay in his wake. As the little procession passed each classroom, heads were raised inside and eyes tracked their progress until they were out of sight, then the heads were lowered again, like animals in a field returning to their quiet grazing.
When they reached the bank of grey metal lockers, the marchers halted and the Deputy Principal said simply, 'Aldridge, I want you to get out your guitar case.'
Luke Aldridge stepped forward. Though only fourteen, he was almost as tall as the Deputy Principal, but whereas the Deputy was a ball of a man, with muscular arms and legs and a head that seemed to sit on his shoulders without need of a neck, Luke was slim and angular. His movements were awkward; he hadn't yet learned to control his rapidly growing body. And now he was nervous, which made his movements even more clumsy as he worked the dial of the combination lock. It fell open, and as instructed he withdrew a black guitar case, ancient and battered, made from the rigid cardboard used before vinyl and plastic became available. It was secured by two catches speckled with rust.
'Open it,' commanded the Deputy Principal.
'It's locked and I don't have the key,' Luke said.
'Don't give me that! This is your case isn't it?'
But the Deputy was deprived his full measure of anger when the second boy interrupted, digging into his pocket. 'I have the key, Sir.'
'Is that so. Interesting. Well then, you open it, Tertzowjic.' He pronounced the name perfectly and couldn't resist a satisfied smile to himself at the evident surprise this confident performance produced. Most who confronted this name baulked and stammered their way through it.
The second boy, who now held the tiny key in his hand, took the guitar case from his companion and placed it carefully on the floor. Kneeling beside it, he inserted the key in each lock in turn, then released both spring-loaded latches together, with a 'flick-thud' sound. The boy hesitated then, head bowed, and a second later the Deputy Prindpal denied him the dubious honour of raising the lid. Instead, he hooked the toe of his shoe under the rim and flipped it upwards.
All three stood gazing at the contents without the least surprise. After all, why should there be any surprise? The two boys had both known exactly what was inside and the Deputy Prindpal had certainly expected to see what lay before him now. That was why this little melodrama was being played out.
Neatly cradled in the worn velvet lining of the guitar case lay a .22 calibre rifle.
Luke Aldridge sat in the reception area outside the Principal's office, watching the second hand of the large Education Department clock tick off each tiny portion of his life. He knew it was an Education Department clock because it was plain, it was brown and there was one identical to it in every classroom in the school. He was able to pick up a few phrases from the Principal's office when voices were raised. His friend Cristo was inside, along with Cristo's parents and the Principal.
Luke was nervous, but not because of the thought of facing the Principal. In fact, that interview was already over. Luke's uneasiness came from the knowledge that his mother would soon join him; as he watched that relentless clock, her arrival grew uncomfortably near. Luke Aldridge feared his mother far more than his school Principal.
Earlier, when the Deputy had delivered them for interrogation by the Principal, the latter had been less outraged than intrigued. In all his years as a teacher, he told them, he had discovered students with knives, chains, slingshots, firecrackers, even brass knuckles hidden away amongst their text books and lunch boxes, but this was the first time he had encountered a gun. A gun in a guitar case, at that. He wanted to know why it was there.
Luke's mate, Cristo Tertzowjic, was happy to explain it all to the Principal, who, unlike his Deputy, could not master the boy's surname. But he had met Cristo before and always called him by his initials, as did the entire world; except for the Deputy Principal, of course.
'It saves us time,' said CT.
This was hardly the answer the Principal had anticipated. It took a moment or two to digest this information. 'I see. I imagine it works wonders on the line at the canteen. I suppose you saunter up to the head of the line, brandish the gun under a few noses and get served first. Is that it?'
CT gave the Principal a vaguely impatient look that told the silly man to be serious if he expected a serious answer, and began to explain. 'The rifle belongs to my father. Luke and I are improving our accuracy with the gun by getting in some practice after school.'
The Principal was a tall, stocky man with thick black hair which the girls, experts in the matter, claimed to be dyed to hide the grey. He interlaced the fingers of his large hands behind his head and leant back in his chair the better to observe the two boys. They were seated on chairs specially chosen so that the people occupying them found themselves lower than the Principal and forced to look up at him. 'Where do you practise?' he asked.
'In the forest up beyond Whannell Road,' replied Luke. 'It goes for miles and there's never anyone in the bush. We're very careful, always.'
The Principal didn't comment on this beyond a doubtful grunt. He would deal with that piece of information later.
'I still don't see the necessity for bringing the rifle to school.'
CT took the lead once again. He normally did. 'But that's just it, sir. It's a question of time. Luke and I live in the opposite direction. If we ride home first to pick up the gun then head back past the school up to Whannell Road, it's well after four by the time we get there. Then we have to walk into the bush for about ten minutes to make sure we're away from people. That doesn't leave much daylight, specially in winter. If we have the gun at school it saves us half an hour.'
'Whose idea was the guitar case?' demanded the Principal.
The boys looked at each other. 'Sort of both,' offered CT. He decided against revealing the details.
In fact, it was CT who first suggested the rifle could be kept at school, cutting out the frustrating and tiresome dash home. But it was Luke who came up with the practical means. He'd just watched a gangster movie in which an assassin carried his weapon in a violin case to avoid the suspicious eyes of the police. The following day, his eye had lighted upon the forgotten guitar case left on top of a wardrobe by a lodger who had left his mother's house hurriedly after an argument over the rent. With a little remodelling of the interior, they had their solution. There were dozens of similar guitar cases carried to and from school: his was unlikely to attract attention. Special lockers were even provided to secure them during the day, and Luke had obtained access to one of these. They had gambled that the teacher in charge would not bother to check whether Luke Aldridge was actually learning to play the guitar.
'But how do you two fourteen-year-olds obtain ammunition? I would have thought any responsible dealer would refuse to sell bullets to young teenagers.'
Neither boy wished to answer this one, but the Principal insisted. In the end CT admitted that he filched the bullets a few at a time from his father's supply.
'Ah,' sighed the Principal. 'I need hardly ask then, CT, whether your father is aware that you and Luke are 'borrowing' his twenty-two?'
'No, sir, he doesn't know about it,' mumbled CT, losing his enthusiasm.
Luke felt the need to set the record straight. 'Sir, we never kept the gun and bullets together. We always had the bullets separate in CT's bag. There was never any danger.'
Alas, the Principal did not see his point. 'Listen, Luke Aldridge. You carry a gun into my school, hidden in a guitar case, with a handful of bullets stuffed into your mate's pocket or whatever, and you tell me it's not dangerous. Well, I've got news for you.'
Luke and, for that matter, CT had said nothing after that, as the interview became a little one-sided.
That was over an hour ago. Any moment now Luke's mother would arrive for the second act. To take his mind off this dread encounter, he stood up and tentatively began to examine the photographs which lined the wall of the reception area. His lanky frame was drawn to one in particular, a photograph of an entire year group taken in the early 1970s. He'd explored it once before, on his first day at the school, knowing that both his father and mother were present somewhere amongst those faces. He had eventually identified them, but not without painstaking reference to the lists of names at the bottom. Wayne Aldridge, one of the tallest, stood in the centre at the rear and Alison Watty was third from the left in the second row.
Luke gazed at the tiny face of his father, and was amazed at how little he had changed. (There were no photographs of Wayne Aldridge at home. There was no Wayne Aldridge at home.) Then Luke caught his own reflection in the glass that covered the photo. He saw the thin nose and high cheekbones of his freckled face. His light brown hair was unruly as always: no matter where he tried to part it, a stubborn tuft would refuse to go one way or the other. He said out loud: 'God, I look just like Dad when he was a kid. Mum's not going to like that.' Then it occurred to him that though he had just discovered the resemblance, his mother must have noticed it ages ago.
Cristo emerged from the Principal's office with his parents on either side. His mother was dabbing tears from her eyes with a crumpled handkerchief, emitting stifled sobs and mumbling under her breath, 'Two weeks, two weeks'.
Cristo smiled briefly at his mate as he passed by and rolled his eyes as if to say, 'The silly old girl's crying over nothing.'
They had been gone a few moments when a gust of chill westerly wind through the open door announced the arrival of Luke's mother. Her jaw was set tightly; as she looked at Luke her eyebrows dipped towards her nose like an angry cartoon character. She looked as cold as the wind. A few moments later they were ushered into the Principal's office.
The Principal had spent his anger and was becoming bored with the problem. After only fifteen minutes, Luke and his mother were back in the reception room, free to go. Alison Aldridge didn't hesitate, heading straight for the heavy glass doors and the stairs beyond, as though she couldn't bear to stay one more minute on the premises than necessary.
The bitter westerly wind gusted across the playground, flapping the hem of the white uniform Luke's mother wore and skidding dust into her face. She set her face against it and struck out firmly from the base of the stairs towards the car, leaving Luke to fall in meekly behind her. During the meeting with the Principal she had remained calm and polite, but Luke knew her anger was building like the heat within a volcano: any moment now it would erupt all over him in a scorching stream of words. They reached the car and he waited patiently at the passenger door as his mother unlocked her side, throwing him a withering glance that made the winter wind seem paltry. Easing himself onto the seat to avoid the broken spring that protruded on one side, he slammed the door as he knew he must to ensure the latch would hold. The whole car rocked and rattled at the impact. His mother knew as well as he that such treatment was essential, but now it served only to sharpen her annoyance. This rust bucket had one wheel in the wrecker's yard but it was the only car they had, and there was little prospect of a replacement.
Alison had slotted the car into the traffic on the busy main road — she still hadn't spoken — when Luke blurted out: 'Mum, my bike. I rode it to school this morning. It's still in the bike racks.'
'It can stay there,' snapped his mother.
'But it will get stolen,' worried Luke.
'Then I'll have the school lock it away. You won't be needing it for a while anyway.'
That sounded ominous, thought Luke. The punishments were starting to appear.
Now that Alison had broken her silence, her anger began to bubble and fizz and launch itself at her son. 'You certainly won't be needing that bike of yours for two weeks at least. You won't need it to go to school on for a start, and I don't see why I should let you go anywhere else either.'
She lifted her voice now, the humiliation she had felt in the Principal's office inflaming her, spurring her on. 'Two weeks. Two weeks suspension from school. I can hardly believe it. How could you be so stupid! Taking a gun to school. Luke, didn't you realise how dangerous it was? One of your mates could have been shot dead. Do you understand that? I don't care if you had any bullets for the damned thing or not. Sooner or later one would turn up, left in the gun itself when you got careless, or else in the guitar case — or some boy who is an even bigger fool than you might just happen to have one in his pocket, and there you are with a loaded gun amongst a bunch of kids. How can I get it through to you, Luke, that what you did was extremely dangerous. The Principal is being lenient, pompous old pain that he is. He probably should have expelled the pair of you.' She drew breath. 'As for target practice in the bush after school ... I'm flabbergasted. You have no idea how many people might wander around there. Council workers, surveyors, even birdwatchers for God's sake. And what about other school kids like yourself, out for a bit of fun. What if you had killed someone, Luke? How would you feel then? Come on, how would you feel?'
'I don't know,' muttered Luke in misery.
'That's right, you don't know. You don't know anything,' concluded Alison. Her anger abated for a second as she manoeuvred in the traffic, working the car over to the right-hand lane ready to turn. It was always a chancy task; the engine was likely to stutter and complain when that extra ounce of acceleration was needed the most. Having forced her way into the appropriate lane and come to a halt at the lights, Alison took a new tack. 'I suppose I should blame myself for you roaming around free in the afternoons. I'm still at the hospital when you get out of school. They don't exactly let trainee nurses pick and choose their hours. I had no idea you and CT were riding all the way over to Whannell Road.'
A green arrow appeared and they turned off the main road to wind their way through row after row of houses that differed only in the colour they had been painted and the number of trees in each yard. Luke hoped that, now they were close to home, his mother would calm down ... alas, her mention of CT's name sparked Alison's fury again. 'Well, you won't be seeing much of CT for a while, either. Do you hear me, Luke? You are not to see him, talk to him or anything, until your suspension is over. God knows if all this will make any difference to CT. His father'll probably belt him round the ear a bit then ignore him for the rest of the fortnight, as he normally does. Poor kid. But not you, Luke. You are going to wake up to yourself. God knows I do enough for you. Surely I don't have to act as your common sense as well.'
She slowed down to negotiate a corner. 'Your father's behind all this, you realise. He's the one who got you hooked on guns. His little toys. I should have realised something like this would happen when you had your nose stuck in all those shooting magazines he gave you. Just as well I banned those from the house when I did. Your father didn't have any common sense either. That was quite obvious when we were still married, and I don't think he's developed a terrific store of it since. Well, I hope this suspension of yours will rattle him. He might realise that he's setting his son on the same useless path he's followed all his life.'
Alison glanced across at her son in the passenger seat, aware that her apportioning of the blame would not be welcome. The hurt and the disagreement she had expected were there in Luke's eyes.
'Oh yes, I know your father's a keen hunter and a good shot. 'Armalite Aldridge' — isn't that what his mates call him when they're not calling him something worse behind his back? They were calling him that before you could walk. Once I was proud of the nickname. Thought it was a compliment. Not any more. I see it all in a different light now. If I could cut him out of your life I would. As a matter of fact ...'
Alison stopped spitting out words to reflect a moment, then she said: 'I must speak to Belinda. She might be able to turn this whole sorry story to some use.'
Belinda was Luke's aunt, Alison's younger sister. She worked in a government department that Luke could never remember the name of. But she seemed to know a lot of rules and regulations about kids of divorced parents, rules that applied to Luke. Long ago, a court had ruled that Luke's father, Wayne Aldridge, should be allowed to see his son every second weekend. At first, when Luke was still young, seven or eight years old, his father hadn't bothered to take advantage of his rights. But as Luke grew older, Wayne Aldridge had found more to enjoy in the company of his only child. Now, rarely a fortnight passed without Wayne arriving to spirit Luke away to the footy or the speedway races. Alison didn't like it but the regulations defeated her.
Alison Aldridge was a determined woman who had learned a lot about courts and laws in her thirty-three years. She knew that defying rules was waste of time. The way to get what you wanted was to use the rules to your own advantage.
Excerpted from Crossfire by James Moloney. Copyright © 2007 James Moloney. Excerpted by permission of University of Queensland Press.
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