by iAN Derrick
The problem with understanding Harry was that he always fiercely protested he was clearly misunderstood, which was perfectly understandable when you take into consideration Harry’s dysfunctional background.
Life is never normal when you are asked to grow up without ever knowing your grandparents on either side of the family, and you progress through childhood without knowledge of siblings, aunts, uncles, cousins, or the normal entourage of blood relatives that claimed the right to be recognised at birthday celebrations and funerals.
Hell, Harry did not even know his parents.
They had a word for unfortunates like Harry … officialdom called them orphans.
A poor bloody little orphan was what Harry understood to be his standing in life, or even sitting when it came to it. There was no way you could claim inheritable status except by surrogate relationships with other unfortunates portraying a desire to establish such a kinship.
They were the ones who understood Harry.
They numbered five in total — Fluffy, Ratty, Sniffy, Bob and, of course, Harry. Originally they were a gang of six until Daffy forgot to remember the schoolyard chant of “Look to the right, and look to the left and you will never ever be run over.”
Daffy’s was the first dead body Harry had ever seen, and oh gawd, it was all so quick, the screech of skidding truck tyres, the sickening thump, then the whole world went quiet. A black cloud of despondency hung over Harry and the rest of the gang. From others outside their immediate circle of friendship there were utterances of condolence. However sincere these expressions of sympathy might have been, Harry believed that not everyone could appreciate that, to him, the death of Daffy was like losing a member of the family.
They simply would not understand.
Upon this particular morning, sticking to the established routine of fairweather days of the week, Harry journeyed off to meet up with his mates who were currently decorating the wall behind the bus stop, directly opposite the Cock & Bull eatery on the corner of Sunshine and Dolphin, down in the less salubrious section of the “old town”.
There was a more modern area known to one and all as the ”new town”, but the welcome mat was never extended to scruffy dysfunctional seriously misunderstood types like Harry and his gang, even if they did swear never to perform shocking anti-social acts while cooling off in the city’s architecturally magnificent fountain memorial to someone long dead.
‘Here he comes,’ announced Ratty, ‘bloody late as usual.’
Harry would ignore the comment until the completion of the recognised form of greeting that was required of all the gang members. There were those in the passing parade who would declare most loudly that the gang’s traditional mode of greeting was quite disgusting — not that their remarks ever worried the gang. Harry, being a stickler for tradition, knew the world at large genuinely never bothered to understand.
‘You yapping yer jaw off as usual, Ratty? It’s alright for you, mate, you only live just around the corner.
I have two kilometers plus a dirty big hill to negotiate before I make it this far. Now, what is on the cards for today?’
‘Well, you should know,’ says Fluffy, ‘this is your week in the chair.’
‘Quite correct, Fluffy, quite correct. Bloody Ratty put me off me thinking with his usual whine of unhappiness.’
The chair became an integral part of gang meetings. It was a democratic honour, hidden within the unwritten part of the constitution, that each gang member would take it in turns to decide the day’s social activities, provided of course such adventures had nothing to do with gainful employment.
Work was not a word that materialised in their vocabulary.
They were hopping back onto the low wall. Bob moved over to allow extra room for Harry, to a general nodding of heads amongst the others. They didn’t call him “Brown Nose Bob” for nothing.
‘OK, Sniffy, you live down near the river. What was the tide doing when you crawled out of bed this morning?’
‘About to turn for the run-in, I reckon. Probably even starting to move that way within the hour.’
‘Good one,’ says Harry. ‘Today, fellers, it is Operation Clarkie.’
Harry noted the mumbles of dissent. No misunderstanding Harry, they all knew the rules … whoever was in the chair decided the activity for the day. You kind of just prayed no one suffered from a dangerous imagination.
Many moons had passed since they last pulled Operation Clarkie. That time had been highly successful. The previous effort had been a brainwave of the late, much revered, Daffy. Sniffy wasn’t too sure the air was smelling right for a repeat performance.
‘How do we know old Clarkie is going to be there?’ asked Sniffy, knowing full well it was dead against gang rules to question whoever was in the chair.
“Because, smartarse,’ barked an insulted Harry, ‘I passed him on his bike this morning and he was heading with all his gear for his favourite incoming tide spot at China Bay. Now you all know the rules, so we are going to perform yet another fantastic Operation Clarkie.
A few weeks prior to Daffy’s tragic accident, the gang heard much being said about exercise being good for both mind and body. Mental improvement would be out of the question when it came to such dysfunctional members of society, but a spot of bushwalking down to China Bay could produce matters worth further investigative interest.
Having almost reached the bay, they spotted their target on a pushbike, obviously bent upon piscatorial pursuits, namely catching a free feed for his ever-loving family. The gang, without being too bleeding obvious, decided on a spot of illegal stalking. You never knew, if it didn’t prove to be too much like hard work, they just might develop an interest in fishing. They reckoned they would stay their distance and sneak up under cover of the surrounding scrub to observe and learn.
There were many around town who would claim into their beers that, when it came to fishing and catching low-life crims, old Clarkie would be the best one around to hand out free lessons.
Observe they did, but whether they learnt anything was dubious.
Well-hidden in the tall grass, they observed that a true fishing aficionado first set about clearing a small area best suited for personal comfort then checked to remove any hidden snags that may prevent the successful landing of the world’s largest bream, or even a flathead with any luck.
Luck never visited Clarkie. When it came to fishing it was pure skill. Luck was for those silly buggers who just tossed in a line then prayed for deliverance.
When he has sorted out all his gear and placed it in the most advantageous location, set up his rod, correctly baited the hook and cast his wishes upon the waters, a true fishing tragic will settle back with cup and thermos to enjoy a morning beverage, complete with bickie, within the shade of a weeping casuarina tree.
The gang, of course, observed all this, but when the lack of dramatic activity became boring, Operation Clarkie was put into effect.
Daffy had noted that when Clarkie had retrieved his line to refresh the bait, he would then move to the edge of the bank and ensure there was no tree branch obstruction before releasing in full flight the baited hook and line bearing the enticement of a fatal free feed for whatever was lurking below.
Having watched the distant plop of the sinker, Clarkie would stand as if transfixed by what he imagined was happening within the unseen currents. Had there been activity on the sinking bait, was the rig set correctly for any fish that might display an interest?
All these matters and more would capture Clarkie’s intense concentration before sat and awaited signs of a jerking tip of the rod.
As Operation Clarkie was Daffy’s bright idea, he had elected to claim the rights of birthing his devious, cunning plan which was to question the mental state of a person he had never met.
Daffy had crept closer to his target, closer, then ever closer, just a few centimeters at a time. He arrived at the desired position, long before Clarkie decided to make his next cast.
The fisherman had stood and, walked to the edge of the bank, once again performing the perfect cast.
Daffy had silently reached out to drag the plastic bait bag back into cover of the scrub, then returned to the noiseless greeting that awaited such a successful operation.
The gang stayed just long enough to savour the look upon Clarkie’s face when discovering his bait had disappeared. The poor fellow, completely mystified, ordered his eyeballs to search the sky, the clouds, the treetops and the surrounding scrub. Some strange bastard had pulled off the ultimate heist … right from under his copper’s nose they had pinched poor Clarkie’s bait.
Now they were about to embark upon yet another quest to divest Clarkie of his precious bait. Once was enjoyable enough, but twice, now that should drive the gent fair up the creek, if not up the proverbial wall.
Some may well reason that these bludging, youthful crims should be taught a lesson.
I mean fancy trotting around the countryside pinching a poor bloke’s bait.
Then again, from a fish’s point of view, the gang’s criminality probably saved some mother fish from swimming straight from the creek and into the frying pan.
Clarkie probably would not understand Harry, so why should Harry try to understand him?
Except for the fact that Daffy was missing, it seemed like old times. There they were, hiding in the long grass, spying upon Clarkie going about the serious noble business of catching edible fish.
Only now it was Harry that was doing the sliding through the long grass.
Harry was not born in the days of the Saturday arvo pictures, when you sat mesmerized, eyes glued to the big screen watching super clever North American Indians silently slither through the savannah grasslands before scalping the cowboys.
Right now he would have made any Indian proud to call him “Man who move like snake in grass”. Harry belly-squirmed his way almost to the very same spot where Daffy once lay, completely hidden, except maybe from the prying eyes of a passing ant.
The moment of truth and understanding had arrived.
The only sound was the swish of the rod as the bait flew out across the placid backwater of China Bay. Here was a fishing master totally absorbed in his art of fishcatching.
Here was Harry, super slithering Harry, stretching out to pull away the plastic bag of delicious bait. Here was a wee tinkling sound followed by a strong hand that firmly gripped the back of Harry’s neck. ‘GOTCHA!’ was the sound that echoed across the surrounding scrub.
‘Stop your wriggling son and life will be much easier for you. Thought you could pull that rotten trick on old Clarkie a second time, did you? Hell, you would be surprised, mate, how many crooks we catch when they foolishly return to the scene of a previous crime. Modus operandi, if you really want to know, is a law enforcement phrase to describe a criminal’s characteristic pattern and style when it comes to committing heinous crimes … like pinching my bloody bait and not have sufficient nouse to know I am going to set a trap.
I’ve been sweating on you doing just that, you little turk. See, this time I set a trap and, as they say in all the good books, you fell for it hook, line and sinker. Pretty simple, eh! Break off a short length of green branch, use the fishing knife to cut a pointy end, shove that through one end of the plastic bait bag, push the stick well into the bank soil, then way up on the other end attach one of these.’ Clarkie stopped talking to wave the object of Harry’s current predicament in front of his eyes then, for extra fun, clip it onto Harry’s ear.
‘See, it’s a little bell hanging off the end of a tiny spring attached to a small alligator clip. Fishermen using several rods clip them onto the rod tip to ring a warning that something possibly delicious is tugging on the wet end of the unattended line. Only this time instead of a fish I have caught you’.
Harry quickly recalled the advice of Brown Nose Bob: ‘If you ever get caught, mate, keep your trap shut, say nothing, and don’t start trying to fight your way out of trouble. Just be good, do what you are told, and most of all remember to say absolutely nothing. You see, mate ,when you do nothing and say nothing it confuses them no end, and they are faced with a quandary of what to do with you. Fair dinkum, mate, they just would not understand.’
‘SIT!’ roared Clarkie.
‘And don’t try entertaining any smart ideas about running away or I will hog tie you to that tree over there. You and I are going to stay here until the fish stop biting. In the meantime you might reflect upon your future. Certainly your entrepreneurial criminal enterprise by attempting to bugger up Clarkie’s fishing trip has just come to a crashing full stop.’
Harry had experienced visions of being tossed out into the wetness of China Bay. He had once done a spot of dogpaddling but he was not really into swimming. Now at least it looked like he would be remaining sad and sorry, but dry. As for his mates, well they would have pissed off long ago. Just another one of their crazy gang rules: ‘Disappear if the shit hits the fan and never dob in a mate.’
Clarkie hauled in another fine specimen of seafood, which improved his mood no end.
Clarkie actually smiled at Harry, who then made the mistake of shifting his weight.
‘Stay!’ Man of few words was Clarkie when it came to the voice of authority.
Harry watched the fisherman scale, gut and clean the fish. Seems Clarkie was having a good catch, judging by the heap of scales littering the bank. It was starting to look like a chiropodist’s floor after a busy day at the office.
Clarkie tied his gear to the bike frame before informing his prisoner that there was no such thing as a free ride. Harry, sad-eyed eternally misunderstood Harry, poor little bloody orphan Harry, would be required to trot along at a fair pace on the long way home.
‘Don’t have much to say for yourself do you, son?’ remarked Clarkie as he pedaled in comfort, while keeping a wicked eye upon the trotting malcontent for any signs of a freedom dash.
‘Probably would surprise you to learn, I reckon, that I know where you live. Does a green and purple house at the bottom of Taylor’s Hill strike a bell? Yeah, of course it does. I could see the flash in your eyeballs, mate. Couple of things you should know about old Clarkie. One, I have never had a lowdown sneaky crim escape from my clutches; and two, old Clarkie never forgets a face. In case you are interested I have got yours imprinted in my photographic memory box for the rest of me natural. So cop that, young Harry.’
This last remark from the policeman caused instant consternation for the young prisoner.
A thunderbolt of apprehension shot through the tiring legs, which almost made Harry lose his stride. Cripes, it was bad enough Clarkie recognising his face, but to also know his name was way beyond the pale. Some rotten bastard has been snitching to the coppers. Unless of course it was someone outside of the gang.
After all, his name was no secret. Butchers, bakers, even trouble-makers went around saying loud and clear things like ‘G’day Harry, howyergoin’ mate?’. Yeah that was it, no risk. Old Clarkie must have heard a spot of everyday sorta chit chat.
They had arrived at the steep end of Taylor’s Hill when, looking up at the ever ascending incline, Harry, with a stroke ofHoudini-like genius, thought of how to escape Clarkie’s clutches.
Roughly about three quarters of the way up the hill, there was an extra kick in steepness. The policeman would be forced to change the bike cogs to another gear, even desert the comfort of the bike seat to stand and deliver additional power to the pedals. The bike would wobble with this ungainly action and that was the moment when Harry would streak away, shoot fair through Macca’s yard, skirt around the Stargatt house and disappear up Jamieson Lane. No-one would sight hide or hair of Harry until the sun dropped in the west and darkness took control of the night.
Later, when all would seem to be forgiven and forgotten, Harry, casual as you like, would emerge from hiding, show a face of benign innocence to anyone interested, then check what remained of dinner.
Much to Harry’s everlasting disgust, Clarkie dismounted well before starting the hill climb. ‘I’ll push the bike. You hop up on the seat, son. Can’t have you trying to do a bunk just when we reach the steepest part of the hill.’
‘Typical, bloody typical,’ moaned Harry to himself. ‘Of all the flaming coppers in this town, why did I have to score one who took a crash course in mind-reading.’
When the bike stopped outside the green and purple house, Clive Watkins did not notice Harry, firmly parked behind the bigness of the policeman. ‘Hi there, Clarkie, what brings you to this neck of the woods? Are you selling fresh fish in your spare time?’
‘I’ll have you know, Clive, I am delivering a prisoner who committed the heinous crime of attempting to steal my bait. Now,’ says Clarkie, dragging young Harry full into view, ‘if I am correct I believe this young scamp belongs to you. I am not going to charge him this time but take my advice, Clive, and keep him better occupied at home. The Council takes a dim view of cunning, devious jack russells roaming the streets. Spotted him of late hanging out with his mates in the old town, five little hairy hoons all bent on making mischief, only this one has now progressed up the criminality chart into the serious crime of stealing. So for old time’s sake I am going to let him off with a caution.’
Harry made a squirming wriggle for freedom to seek sanctuary under the house, but the restraining hand gripped even tighter. Obviously the policeman was not finished. Harry knew he was about to suffer a copper’s lecture.
Clarkie raised Harry for an eyeball to eyeball conversation. ‘What is his name, Clive?’
‘Sandra called him Harry, don’t ask me why. Maybe she thought he just looked like a Harry. Sandra can be a bit funny like that. She often names things after what she thinks they look like. We once had a pet python. Reckoned he was too small for a carpet, so she called him Mat.
’Well young Harry,’ smiles Clarkie, now enjoying a nose-to-nose discussion. ’How about you and I come to an understanding. I will not cart you off to the cop shop and you will stop pinching my bait.’
Some folks are just wild about HARRY…but then poor Harry is terribly misunderstood.