It grounded on the bitumen and writhed beneath bike wheels like a beached worm. Ants sallied instantly into an insurmountable regiment. They engulfed the amputated flesh like seagulls on an abandoned picnic of fish and chips. The boys laughed. Erin and Olivia peered down curious about what was so funny. They ran off squealing – not because they were necessary disgusted. They were at the age of acting out roles like shoes to decide which matched or suited them most.
When Dunston told his father about the lizard he told him not to worry. It would grow back. ‘It’s a natural defence,’ his father said in case a bird attacked. ‘Better its tail than its head,’ he chuckled down the phone line. His father bought Dunston a ‘Critter Trapper 5000.’ Everyone ‘ooowed,’ and ‘aahhhhd,’ when he showed it in class. Daryl asked how it worked and Dunston said, ‘Pheromones,’ proudly even though he didn’t know what that was.
Russell and Aaron helped him set it up under the verandah at the private entrance to the convent. Peering through the wooden lattice that fenced the two-step gap between the dirt and decking it looked dark and creepy and smelt like snake skins. It was perfect. Sister Margaret found it three days later compacted like dirt. It was full and blackened with centipedes, slatters, spiders, beetles, bugs, cockroaches, caterpillars, moths and grasshoppers. They were frozen by death and pressed hard up against the plastic prison exposing segmented jaundice bellies, barbed legs, pincers, antennas and black-tack eyes.
The whole classed ‘ewed,’ except for Erin and Olivia who ‘eeked.’ Dunston punched Russell in the arm for forgetting who then punched Aaron in the arm for forgetting. They had got distracted by Dunston’s new portable ‘Adonis video game console.’ But this again was all forgotten as Lieb announced he had just seen Hitchcock’s The Birds, before everyone else in class had ever heard of it.
Lieb’s parents were both university professors. As a precocious offspring he felt charged to preserve their cultural and intellectual integrity and edify the class’s standards with referential and bombastic speeches. At lunch he guided them scene by scene through the film, easily shaping a more terrifying version in their nubile minds than the master himself. He beaked his hand with his thumb under his fingers and cocked his arm at the elbow and described murders of crows pecking and gouging the eyes out of rampant villagers.
Finn didn’t admit that he had already seen it on film, or that he owned the seventeen minute abridged 8mm version. It was good but it wasn’t that scary. In the shoebox his mother gave him, Finn had inherited Airport, a ‘70’s disaster film in which nothing actually disastrous happens, Black Hole, Star Wars, Empire Strikes Back: Part I, and was tacitly assured he was getting part II for his birthday. There was Steven Spielberg’s personal edit of Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Alien, a version of Lawrence of Arabia that managed to cut two and half hours into a single 400m reel without any action, a live Beatles concert from the Hard Day’s Night album and two signature examples of Ray Harryhausen’s clay animation with Clash of the Titans, and Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger that had both turned red with age. The collection also included a number of three minute cartoons; Woody Woodpecker, The Roadrunner and Mighty Mouse but they were silent and Finn decided cartoons weren’t funny without the sound effects.
That weekend the local video store was astounded when the two weekly copies of ‘Birds,’ were requested by fifteen phone calls. But this was soon forgotten as summer made way for autumn and the athletics sports carnival loomed. When Dunston told his dad he bought him silver and black chequered trainers designed by engineers who worked for Ferrari. They even put a transparent air cushion in the sole. Dunston was quick but Saul was a Jewish hare and Phoebe a puritan deer that dominated the running events. And Russell’s bellicose size and boorish strength gave no contest to javelin, shot put and discus. The same way at every aquatics carnival Callum was a fish in the pool and Olivia a frog.
Finn got excited when the days shrunk. When the wind turned cold and emptied the trees of leaves and the class ate lunch inside because rain lashed the playground it reminded him his birthday was near. Dunston shared the same birthday as Finn, which made the rest of the class almost as excited as their own birthdays. Every year Dunston invited the entire class, including the nerds Sean and Emily and tomboy Kelly.
They were extravagant and exaggerated, decorated in a theme, crowded by parents, toys, music and magicians and the backyard was inflated by activities. Prodigal plates of food painted every raised surface – the kitchen table, dining table, coffee tables, picnic table. They even erected trestle tables there was so much food: sausage rolls, spring rolls, baby frankfurters, baby pies, rissoles, double choc brownies, chocolate crackles, butterfly cup cakes, fairy bread that always seemed to taste better at parties than when the kids made it at home, sponge cakes plastered with icing, Swiss rolls with lemon butter, vanilla slice, caramel slice, honey joys, donuts filled with jam and custard, and parquet patterned bowls full of barbeque crisps, Cheezels, bit sized chocolate coated honeycomb, chocolate raisins and bullets that no kid ate, sugar babies, choco babies, silly snakes, strawberries ‘n’ cream, jelly beans and musk sticks. Everyone won a prize and left at the end of the day with a lollybag the size of a grocery bag and second slice of cake in a ziplock bag.
No child slept well that night. But Aaron and Daryl were the ones who never learnt to stop eating at Dunston’s birthday parties. Each year one of them got sick, vomited in the backyard, had their t-shit changed for one of Dunston’s that he hated, brooded for ten minutes then went back to eating. Finn went last year but he remained cloistered in his own ruminations.
Dunston liked and hated his birthday at the same time. He liked getting presents but always got what he asked for so he never felt surprised. He liked the party because his dad was there, but his mum and dad invariably found a way to have an argument somewhere they thought Dunston wouldn’t notice.
Finn’s favourite birthday was the year before when he was supposed to go to Dunstons house. His mum pretended to take him there but drove to Edward’s house instead. He was already waiting out the front, hopping with anticipation like he needed the loo and wearing a proud grin because he’d kept the surprise secret for so long. There was even a moment he thought his guts would burst. The three of them went into the city. They saw Batman, even though they shouldn’t have been allowed admittance because they were too young. Afterwards they had lunch at Burger King. Finn’s mum let them order anything on the menu. And one of the staff brought out a Neapolitan ice cream birthday cake. There was even an instant that may have been a minute when Finn forgot and it made him fervently happy then sad like waking from a dream.
Edward wasn’t ordinarily good at keeping secrets though. When Finn showed him the 8mm projector he was hooked. He was so animated by the copy of 2001: A Space Odyssey, Finn’s mum bought on Ebay for Finn’s birthday Edward spilt the surprise a week early. He had already spent three days goading Finn saying ‘If you want me to tell you, I’ll tell you.’ And when Finn finally hesitated Edward blurted it out. It didn’t matter because Finn looked so wonderstruck Edward felt his reveal was more physically than the roll of film itself. They wouldn’t be able to watch the movie until he got the present on Saturday anyway so Edward convinced himself he did nothing wrong.
It was Finn’s mum’s idea to celebrate his birthday with a movie night. Together they designed movie club membership packs. They laminated membership cards with Finn’s uncle’s laminator and included crazy straws, variegated plastic beakers, a can of coke, a half-buck of sweets, a microwave sachet of popcorn, a pack of glow-in-the-dark stars, and an attendance card with an intergalactic hologram on the back. Finn intended to host a monthly movie night and loyalty stamps on attendance cards would be rewarded with Star Wars pencils, erasers, sharpener, and notepads his mum bought.
When news of Finn’s rival party reached Dunston he charged at Finn through the playground with Russell and Aaron attached to either shoulder creating a vee of wake. His punch was more a culmination of momentum like a shove rather than a genuine swing. Every junior saw Finn fall backwards onto the pavement. Finn silently got to his feet, brushed the dirt off his uniform and picked the gravel out of the skinned ball of his hands. His taciturn poise cooked Dunston into an odium of a verbal denigration he couldn’t understand, predict or control. As his vehemence weakened he recognised it was pity in Finn’s wet gaze that provoked him and made him shout,
‘At least I have a dad.’
The schoolyard sheltered a gasp. Russell and Aaron looked away in shame. And Dunston, wrestling to bury his compunction, stood obstinately until Finn walked away.
Edward, Austin, Pete, Sean, Emily, Kelly and even Josephine attended Finn’s movie party. Josephine had declared she was vegetarian and learnt Finn’s mother was too, which Finn said made him three quarters vegetarian. But it wasn’t really the compatible food at Finn’s party which attracted Josephine. It was a calculated gambit. Her greatest fear was exclusion and there was something unreadable about Finn. She couldn’t afford not to be the first person to share in something great.
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