A western-suburbs-Sydney hundred-in-the-shade summer’s day, and the party had fallen under the backyard’s only tree - laughing on backs, on lawn. The esky emptying fast, grog runners sent. Ice-water fights left hair and shirts dripping - where shirts were still on. Matty was drenched… always first, best, biggest, loudest. Little sister Rachel’s twenty-first was cooking over a fast heat, and Matt was burning bright. Few of the gathered mates could have told you that the southerly had blown in an hour ago. It stirred great wheels of dust, whipping dripping cheeks with dried grass now sticking wet. Inversely entwined, the wild party heat rose as the temperature fell.
“Just once… “, Marie swore, “For Christ’s sake, just once I’d like to ditch bloody Mum, get to a damned party before the smell of beer is my only screen door welcome.” By nature, Marie Johnson was her good Catholic mother’s daughter… But you’d never dare mention it. Not when she’d just sat through another tidal wave of straight-jacket nagging, and hell-fire tears. Certainly not as she nervously, rebelliously stepped through Rachel’s folks’ dark humid hall. These were her older brother’s footy mates and their girls, out of public school, into the Royal - fellas the bar, girls the lounge… And crucially, a world away from Marie’s own “bloody Mum”.
“Hey! Marie!” Matty was too welcoming, and the gang - as ever - followed him with a hard-to-read laugh. “Spumante darl?” It didn’t ease her nerves, but the rebel bloomed…
“One of those”, Marie corrected, pointing at Matt’s ‘Rech’s’ can, “today!” “Hey - Rach - got a glass?” Marie’s Bacardi bottle went down hard on the picnic table - loaded, cocked, aimed, and… “Cheers!”
Marie met Matt’s car first. His big, red, bloody near brand new, almost straight, not entirely legal, pride and joy. She heard the thunder of home-grown Holden V8 a block before she saw the car outside The Royal, and then… Matty’s goonish grin, elbow out the window. Lion’s roar… Law of the jungle.
Rachel yelled “Saturday arvo” over the idle-rumble.
“Great Rach… Never miss a party!” A spontaneous acceptance, and sharp flutter of awareness that it was Matt who never missed a party. And now he’s handing Marie a beer, wide-eyed in mock admiration.
“I didn’t know you were a ‘Reckers’ girl ‘Rie”
“You don’t know much, Matthew.”
All bluff… Outside, she was all southerly cool drinking beer grin. Inside, breaking apart, in… What was it? Fear? No. Fear was turning away - walking the seven suburban blocks back into her parallel universe home. No - this is…
“Even me Mum’s stopped calling me Matthew.”
“Maybe that’s where she went wrong, mate.”
His grin cracks, sharpens… his bare left shoulder leans in, she feels skin wet from beers, cheers, water fights. Clink on her tinnie, and the party fades to a murmuring blur.
“Maybe… “, he whispers, and with a vague snarl “What do you reckon?”
It’s not fear. But it’s not exactly not fear.
He regretted it before his jibe moved air. Matty had been taught hard… Keep your fists up, strike early and often. And now - he thinks he’s scared her. He saw Marie flinch, cursed his fierce tongue, and lost his balance through his own fear of what she might do. But - she didn’t pull away, only closer…
Matt somehow sensed a life-line in Marie. He knew hard times were getting harder. As a kid, his father was absent, violent when home, drunk either way. And now - pissed off for good. Maybe dead. Fine. But his mum has stopped calling him “Matthew”. She rarely speaks. He lost his job in a hangover, and dodgy knees ended his glorious half-back career. At the fine age of twenty-two, he is drinking away the fear of life slipping out from under him. He’s still sharp enough to see that. And since he first caught Marie’s eye, riding his burbling HT into the pub carpark, there seemed this last angelic chance - a last roll of loaded furry rear-view dice.
He sipped, clinked tinnie on tinnie, took a longer draw, and met her eyes, “Don’t fuck this up, dickhead.” - it rang so loud in his head he worried she’d heard. Another silent whisper, “don’t fuck it up.”