Wallman illustration for Liam
Type
Fiction

Liam

In the year my uncle Liam turned sixteen he spent twelve months in youth lock-up after being convicted of a break and enter on a newsagency. The shop was run by a Mr Quigley, who had been to war in New Guinea. Although he never spoke a word about it, Quigley returned home traumatised by the experience. He’d wake in the night screaming with uncontrollable rage, which would rouse his wife sleeping beside him. Quigley would lash out and strike her as she attempted to calm him. It was common to see Mrs Quigley walking the streets with blackened eyes and bloodied scratches on her face. One rainy afternoon, when Mr Quigley was out the front of the shop repairing a damaged advertising hoarding, he heard a car horn behind him, followed by the screeching of brakes. He turned to see the prone body of a woman slumped across the tram-tracks. It was his wife. Quigley ran to her. She was dead.

The newsagency business went rapidly downhill, to a point that newspaper proprietors, confectioners and tobacconists, each owed substantial amounts of money, would no longer supply Quigley with goods. He kept the shop open nonetheless. Newspapers and magazines, many months old and nibbled away at by mice, sat on the shelves unsold. An unsuspecting customer might enter the newsagency and quickly exit, confronted by the dishevelled appearance of the mumbling shopkeeper wearing nothing but a moth-eaten dressing gown, reeking of urine.

While he appeared to live in poverty, a rumour circulated the neighbourhood that Quigley had large amounts of cash secreted around the shop. The story of hidden loot took on the status of myth, eventually tempting three teenage boys. One of them was my uncle Liam. He was the youngest of my grandmother’s five children, a deceptively sweet-faced boy with an auburn fringe that curtained his large brown eyes. They say my grandmother was a seasoned drunk by the time her youngest child was born.

Liam broke into Quigley’s newsagency with a kid who lived on the same street, Martin Cater. The boys jemmied the front door of the shop with an iron bar and ransacked the shelves and cupboards in search of the supposed treasure, while Quigley slept upstairs. He was woken by one of his night terrors and heard a noise downstairs. Quigley armed himself with a metal shoe last that served as a doorstop and tore down the stairs screaming a war-cry. When he reached the landing and turned toward the bottom flight of stairs he fell and tumbled into the hallway. He broke a collar-bone and several ribs. Hearing the commotion, Liam ran through the shop and saw Quigley on the ground moaning in pain. He panicked, ran into the yard and escaped by the side gate.

Liam was arrested at home two days later. The evening before, Martin had told a girl he was dating that along with Liam he’d broken into the shop. The girl went home and told her father. When the police arrived at the newsagency forty-eight hours after the initial break-in, they found Quigley lying in the same place he’d landed after the fall. He was in pain, dehydrated and had soiled himself several times. The boys appeared before a judge at the Children’s Court two months later. Rather than be served with a probation, which was the likely sentence for a relatively minor crime, they each received a custodial sentence as a result of, according to the judge, an act of extreme cowardice committed against an Australian war hero.

 

During the time that Liam was in the Home I visited him regularly with my mother. She would take him a chocolate bar, a bottle of soft drink, a comic book and a small packet of Viscount cigarettes. If the weather was fine we’d sit at a bench in the sun, my mother preening her younger brother as if he were a small child. Liam had that effect on people. I was six years old, turning seven when he was sent away. Each time my mother and I left the Home, I couldn’t comprehend that he wasn’t allowed to come with us.

When the time arrived for his release, it was decided that Liam would live with us rather than return to my grandmother, even though our house was already overcrowded. My parents shared the small front room with the lounge suite, a 21-inch television set acquired on the never-never, and a radiogram that played 78 records. I slept in the second room with my older brother, Matthew, and my three sisters, Margaret, Irene and baby Rose. The room housed a pair of double bunks, one on each side, and a cot under the single window for Rose, who was a little over a year old at the time.

The house was dominated by my father; his physical presence, sullen moods, the sounds of his shuffling work-boots and his unpredictable explosiveness. If he was unhappy about Liam coming to stay, he kept his feelings to himself, perhaps realising how important it was to my mother that her youngest brother had somewhere secure to live. He arrived with his only belongings in a battered suitcase, a few spare clothes, a breadboard he’d made for my mother in the workshop and a pile of comic books. She decided I’d move down to the bottom bunk with Matthew, allowing Liam to have the top bunk to himself. My younger sister, Irene, who was four years old at the time, slept in the top bunk across the room, above Margaret. Irene could barely take her eyes off Liam from the day he arrived, initially regarding him as some sort of alien, and then, as happened with most people, falling for his charm. She’d wake early of a morning and climb down from her bunk and up the ladder into Liam’s bed. I’d wake to the sounds of his whispering voice telling Irene a story that he’d made up, or reading to her from one of his comic books. At the time I felt that I was stuck somewhere in a world between my brothers, my sisters and my parents. It made little sense to me back then, but often I did not feel like a child, while at the same time understanding that I was shut out from the life of adults.

Liam had been at the house less than a week when Margaret arrived home one afternoon in tears. A girl had confronted her in the schoolyard, announcing to the other students gathered around her that our family was sharing our home with a criminal, a murderer, and that the Catholic Church should never allow such a sin, and that Margaret should be expelled. That night, as the rest of us lay in bed, Margaret sat at the end of her bed waiting for Liam. When he came into the room she asked him if it was true that he was a convicted murderer. He promised her he wasn’t. I swear on your mother’s life, he said, and told us the story of the newsagency break-in. He said he’d made a mistake and felt terrible for the trouble he’d caused Mr Quigley. Margaret stood up and kissed him on the cheek, and said thank you.

 

Liam settled into the house. His probation officer arranged a job for him at Stones Timber Mill, not more than a ten-minute walk. He enjoyed the work and never missed a shift. Any time he happened to be passing by our house on the truck, delivering sawn and dressed timber to a worksite, he’d drop off a hessian bag of off-cuts for our fire. He changed the tone of the house with his warmth, his humour and his skill as a storyteller. He never told the same story twice, unless we insisted on it. He held the attention of the entire family gathered around him from the first to the last word. After he left the room one night, on a visit to the backyard toilet with a kerosene lamp for company, my mother said that if Liam applied himself he could one day become a writer. If she’d said those words about anybody else we knew – family, friend or enemy – they would have sounded ridiculous.

His influence on the family gradually extended to my father. While Liam told a new story my father would poke the glowing fire, occasionally adding a block or two of wood. To our surprise my father began telling stories of his own. While he stumbled on his words and his stories were not of the quality of Liam’s, I gradually began to learn more about my father’s past on those nights; his childhood spent on the road with my grandparents working as casual labourers in fruit-picking, and his own years in the Army, a time he’d never spoken of before. My mother would also listen intently to Liam. She enjoyed the nights of storytelling as much as anyone, but not once did she offer a story of her own. I knew little of her childhood and would learn no more from her during those nights in front of the fire, or in the months or years after.

 

Six months after Liam moved in I was out doing one of my regular jobs, helping Margaret with the Saturday morning shopping. It was her job to go into each shop – the grocer, the butcher and the baker – while I would wait in the street with the battered baby pram that doubled as a shopping trolley. That morning, I was looking in the window at the grotesque line-up of decapitated pigs’ heads that both frightened and fascinated me when I felt something licking the side of my leg. I looked down and saw a dog. It was a solid animal with a rich brown coat with the exception of white socks on both its front and back paws. I dropped to my knees and gave the dog a pat. It ran around in circles, wildly wagging its tail and jumping up and licking me. Margaret came out of the shop and ordered me to leave the dog be. I did so, reluctantly.

The dog followed us, first at some distance. When we turned the corner off the main street, the dog charged at me. Margaret tried shooing it away, with no success. She then unwrapped the parcel of meat, took out a lamb chop and waved it. The dog snapped at the chop but missed it. Margaret ran into the middle of the road and hurled the chop into a weed-infested vacant lot that had been a derelict warehouse until it was bulldozed years before. The dog raced into the lot, sniffing amongst the weeds and rubbish in search of the meat. We turned into our own street. I looked over my shoulder several times, but the dog was nowhere to be seen. Margaret was about to open our front gate when the dog came running down the road with a portion of lamb chop hanging from the side of its mouth.

There’d been many occasions in the past when my brother, sisters and I had asked my father if we could have a dog. It was a time when dogs were given away free. It was common for a box of pups to be left outside the corner milk-bar for anyone who wanted to take one home. My father always said no, claiming he could hardly afford to feed his own children, let alone an animal. It wasn’t quite true of course. My father was no drunk, not like my grandmother, at least. But he enjoyed a glass of beer after work and bought the newspaper every morning.

He’d drunk more than he was used to the night before the dog followed us home. It was my father’s birthday and his crew on the garbage run had thrown him a surprise party at the end of the shift. He spent the day in bed with a hangover. While Margaret and my mother unloaded the groceries, I made a peanut butter sandwich and snuck out of the house. I ate half of the sandwich and offered the other half to the dog. It showed no interest in the food, but followed me through the streets anyway. The dog spent that day with me on the Flat, a scrubby patch of land dotted with broken swings, a seesaw, a maypole and a slide. The Flat was where kids played marbles or British Bulldog and learned to smoke cigarettes. One of the older boys got down behind the dog and told me it was a girl dog. She’s got no balls. By late afternoon, when it was time for me to be home and light the fire, I didn’t know what to do. She followed me home. I snuck her into the backyard and tried coaxing her into the toilet, but she was too smart for me and sprinted around the yard in wide circles. The dog barked loud enough to bring my mother into the yard. She pointed and screamed a dog! Liam was close behind. He smiled, ran to the dog and tickled her behind the ears. My mother shook her head and walked back into the house, leaving Liam and I to play with the dog until the sun went down. The house across the lane from us was empty, and with Liam’s help, I broke into the back shed and made a bed in the shed for the dog, where she remained over the weekend.

My father finished work on the garbage truck before lunchtime most days. He would come home, have a sleep and then sit up in bed reading through the pile of paperback western stories he bought from the Book Depot. In the late afternoon he’d head for the hotel and have two glasses of beer before walking home. We could set the clock by the regularity of his habits. He was always in the house ten minutes after six o’clock closing. I had fed the dog in our yard and was about to return her across the lane when my father called me to the kitchen table. Now! I left the dog, ran inside and sat at the kitchen table praying that she’d keep quiet at least until my father fell asleep in front of the fire, which he usually did soon after we’d eaten.

My mother cooked chops that night. As she dished up she complained the butcher had pulled up short on a lamb chop. The dog picked up the scent of the chops. She barked, yelped and scratched at the back door. My father jumped up from the table, pulled the door open and screamed what the fuck is this! Ignoring his anger, Matthew and my sisters ran into the yard and gathered around the dog.

In any other circumstances my father would have kicked the dog up the arse and thrown her into the street. Liam came to the rescue, saving me and the dog both by inventing a story about the dog following him home from the street. My father then delivered his usual sermon that we couldn’t afford to keep and feed a dog. Liam assured him that he’d pay for her food from his own money, that he’d pick up her shit in the yard and he’d care for her, and she wouldn’t become a nuisance. We all looked at my father for a response. He didn’t say a word and walked back into the house, resigned to defeat for one of the few times I remember during my childhood.

We enjoyed that summer with Sally Ann, the name Irene gave the dog, after her best friend in kindergarten. She followed me everywhere during the day and slept on the kitchen floor on a stuffed hessian sack at night. My father left the house early of a morning for work. Once he was gone, I’d fetch Sally Ann from the kitchen and put her in bed with me, which Matthew didn’t approve of, seeing as the bed was already crowded. She also ate breakfast with the family, enjoying a bowl of milky tea and two slices of buttered toast. Sally Ann was a loyal dog and we had no problems with her except that she didn’t like men, my father included. Whenever they passed each other in the house she’d let out a low growl and he would grunt. Although Liam was about to turn eighteen, he didn’t seem to count. With his baby-faced looks and sense of innocence, to Sally Ann he was another child in the family.

 

One night during the winter I was lying in bed when I heard a heavy knock at the door. Sally Ann let out a growl from the kitchen. I thought it was Liam at the door. He’d been to the football that day and hadn’t come home afterwards. A few minutes later I could hear raised voices in the next room, followed by a scream and the sound of someone sobbing. I shook Matthew awake and told him our parents were fighting, which hadn’t happened since Liam had come to live with us. He told me to get back to sleep. I put a pillow over my head to block my mother’s cries and eventually fell back to sleep. The next morning, I woke and got out of bed to go into the kitchen to fetch Sally Ann. I noticed that Rose’s cot was empty. I walked into the kitchen. My grandmother was sitting at the kitchen table, with my mother across from her, nursing Rose. Sally Ann lay on her bed, looking mournful.

I hadn’t seen my grandmother in a long time. She looked terrible. Her hair was a salt and pepper colour and stood on end, while her face was caked with a powder that gave her skin a grey appearance. A young man stood against the kitchen sink drinking tea. He wore a grubby pair of overalls and a work jacket. I would learn later that he was also my uncle, Liam’s older brother, Michael. My mother turned to me. Her eyes were raw. She ordered me back into the bedroom.

It was a Sunday morning and Matthew, Margaret, Irene and I went off to Mass at Saint Patrick’s. A Bedford truck was parked in the street outside the house. I held Irene’s hand as we walked the street, as much as for my own comfort as her own. I knew there was something terribly wrong. It was clear that Margaret knew something more than the rest of us. When the Mass ended, she insisted we say a prayer at each of the twelve Stations of the Cross. Matthew refused and sat on the stone steps out front of the church and waited for us. We returned home. The truck was gone from the front of the house and my grandmother’s brief visit was over. The house was deadly quiet. My mother was nowhere to be seen and my father, who was awkwardly nursing Rose, handed her to Margaret.

My mother came home around lunchtime with a steaming package of fish and chips that she opened at the kitchen table. Such food was a rare treat in our house. We ate in silence, both savouring the meal and holding the tension at bay. After lunch my mother put Irene in the cot with Rose, handed her a cloth book and asked Irene to read a story to her baby sister, which wasn’t easy, seeing as Irene could hardly read at all. She then ordered we three older children to sit at the kitchen table, where she delivered the news. Liam had been killed the night before. After the football match he’d met up with several of the boys he’d been in the Home with. They’d gone to a pub and then onto a house party. Later in the night Liam got into an argument over a girl at the party, and found himself in a fight in a laneway behind the house. He won the fight and turned to walk away. Liam was shot twice, once in the side of the head and once in the back, as he lay face down on the roadway. My mother told her story absent of emotion. I was a seven-year-old boy, and yet she had included me in an adult conversation. It made little sense to me at the time and it makes not much more to me decades later.

 

The days and weeks following Liam’s death remain a blur. I do remember that my mother hardly spoke and that my father quietly shuffled around her. It was Margaret who stepped forward. She took care of Rose and kept a watchful eye on the rest of us. Matthew, not unlike my mother, remained silent over Liam’s death in the days between the murder and the funeral. He never spoke of the crime or our uncle again. Irene missed Liam terribly and repeatedly asked me where he had gone and when would he be returning to us. Some weeks after the funeral I took her by the hand, and with Sally Ann at our side we walked the streets in the rain until we arrived at the entrance to the laneway where Liam had been shot dead. I looked down at the bluestone pavers and wondered where he could be. Sally Ann sniffed the air but wouldn’t enter the lane. I felt I had no choice but to tell Irene the truth, that he died here and he won’t be back. She nodded her head as if she understood a mystery she could really make no sense of.

After Liam’s death I took it upon myself to pay for Sally Ann’s keep from the money I made as a paper-boy. I didn’t mind. I loved her. The next year she had a litter of pups after a wild night out with a stray mongrel from the wrecking yard in the next street. We kept the runt of the litter, Rusty, for the next twelve years, until his death. Sally Ann found herself in increasing trouble on the street. A debt collector turned up at the front door one afternoon demanding the money we owed on our time-payment television set. My mother screamed at him and he screamed back. Alerted by the ruckus, Sally Ann bolted from her bed in the kitchen, along the hallway, barrelled by my mother and bit the man on the calf. He returned to the house the next week with a bill for the ‘invisible mending’ needed to repair a hole in his suit pants. Sally Ann bit him again. The following day a policeman arrived at the house riding a black bicycle. He picked up a broom in the yard and chased Sally Ann, waving the stick above his head. He eventually backed her into a corner, broke the broom handle across her back and proceeded to give her what my father would have called a good kicking.

Poor Sally Ann was stubborn when it came to authority. Only two days later I was coming home from the Flat with her. It was getting dark and I was late and began to run. We turned the corner into our street and crashed into a Salvation Army Major, bowling him over. He’d been giving out prayer cards and collecting donations. He got to his feet, brushed the knees of his pants and screamed at me to watch where I was going and to restrain my dog. Sally Ann was spooked. I tried calming her. She whined and skipped nervously from left and right before leaping at the Major and taking a chunk of flesh out of his forearm. She turned and bolted for home. I ran after her, leaving the Major sitting in the road nursing a bloodied arm.

The next day the police returned to our house with a piece of paper granting them authority to take Sally Ann away. They came with a caged van and a large net. She put up a good fight. It took the three officers fifteen minutes to net her. She continued to fight; barking, snapping and tearing at the net with her claws until she was in the back of the van. One of the policemen laughed and winked at me before getting into the driver’s seat. Margaret, Irene and I went to the back of the van. Sally Ann had her snout pressed against the wire and licked my fingertips. The policeman hit the horn and warned us to step away. We stood in the middle of the road until the van had turned the corner at the top of the street.

Later the same day I asked my mother where Sally Ann had been taken by the police. She told me the dog had been sent to a holiday farm where she can be free to run around. That night at the table she took the piece of paper that the policeman had given her and handed it to my father. He read it, stood up from the table and walked out of the house and into the street. I cleared the table and helped Matthew do the dishes. Irene and Margaret dried up and put the dishes away. With the kitchen clean my mother asked me to go out into the street and see what was keeping my father busy.

He’d dragged a chair from the verandah onto the footpath. My father was sitting quietly with the offending piece of paper in one hand and looking up at the stars. I sat down on the footpath alongside him and didn’t say a word. The night sky was full of stars and the street was empty and still except for the sound of our shared breath. I have had many nights since then, sitting beside my father, neither of us saying a word. He taught me, without words, of course, that sometimes it is best not to speak at all.

 

 

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Tony Birch is the author of Shadowboxing, Father’s Day, Blood, The Promise and Ghost River. He is a senior research fellow in the Moondani Balluk Academic Centre at Victoria University.

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