The first time I watched him I hadn’t planned to. We’d been playing in my backyard, my school friends and I. We heard these sharp cracks of noise from the lane. After running to the back fence to investigate we saw him standing on the gravel, barefoot. A boy no older then we were. Damp with sweat he flung around a bull whip with these rhythmic movements, cracking the thing. Each time I flinched.
My friends made fun of him, making sure their voices were loud enough for him to hear. He never stopped though, didn’t even look at us. He just kept flinging the whip back and forth, kept snapping at the air.
We lived in the few blocks of fibro houses and quiet dirt lanes fenced by the main road and the Barlow dairy farm. There were fruit trees in everyone’s backyard and the dogs barked at wild rabbits through the night. People waved hello at their neighbours over back fences. The kids would gather around the Dwyer’s yard to watch the old couple feed the lorikeets that perched on their hills hoist come evening time.
The kids all knew each other from school. Friends because we were the same age and happened to live down the road from one another. We didn’t really mind who we were hanging out with back then. Just as long as they could kick a ball and ride a bike.
But the boy with the whip; we never hung around him. He lived in the granny flat the Cook’s rented out to single mothers doing it rough. The tiny building was wedged right up against the dirt lane at the back of the Cook’s property. Not really a house but a shed on a concrete slab with home job Gyprock walls put up. We’d ride our bikes past his house. Yelling names at him. Doing skids in the gravel. Through all that loose dust we had torn up on our BMX’s I always noticed his whip; perched on the plastic picnic chair that sat on the front porch. The braided kangaroo hide would be rolled into a neat spiral. If it weren’t for the dog behind his chicken wire fence we would have stolen that whip. No doubt we would have left welts on one another’s bony arses, chased the cows on the dairy farm with it.
The second time I watched him I wasn’t with my friends. I was riding my bike home from a mate’s place around dusk. The lane was drenched in that blue evening light and cicadas. I stopped outside his place. The lights in his house were on, the curtains open. I could see right into the living room. The couch faced the front window where the telly sat. The walls in that room were all yellow. Yellow like piss. He walked in then, taking a seat in the middle of the couch. His head turned and he spoke to someone in the next room. I couldn’t see who it was. I remember him wiping his eyes. Pressing the heels of his hands into his sockets so hard I bet he was seeing colours. When he took his hands away he looked straight at the telly, right towards that window. He could have been looking at me. But it was dark, no way he could have seen. No way.
Lying in bed that night, streetlight coming through the shutters, I pushed my hands against my eyes until I saw colours too.
The third time I watched him I had been thinking about him at school that day. It was the last day of term before Christmas. It was so hot our arses were all sweating on those plastic seats in 6th period. The teacher had put a movie on; no one does school work on the last day. It was Red River; a mutiny amongst all that Western dust. As John Wayne took a whip from the wagon, ready to punish Bunk Keneally with it, I thought about the boy with the whip standing barefoot in the lane.
That afternoon he was out there. I hid in the sprawling nasturtium that drowned my back fence. Amongst those peppery flowers I watched his arm draw back and forth, guiding the braid of leather. Sharp and aggressive. He whipped above his head, then he carried his arm across his body, flicking the whip in a horizontal line. His movements were skilled, measured, practiced. Like a seasoned cowboy. Each crack of the whip was so loud I reckon you could have heard it streets over. I still flinched, even though I knew it was coming. He was scaring off all the birds and he was making dogs bark.
The lorikeets didn’t come to Dwyer’s hills hoist that evening. The old woman just sat on her floral fold out chair, hands in her lap. Her husband stood beside her, clutching the breadcrumbs. Like that, they waited.
Building a Bed