I am focusing on my bowl of cereal and trying to ignore my mother's sighs while she reads the newspaper. I have isolated a rectangle of Nutri-grain in a pool of milk on my spoon. My mother clicks her tongue three times to indicate her disapproval. The rectangle of Nutri-grain has three round holes. The middle hole is misshapen. It looks like a smile. My mother is waiting for me to ask her what she is reading. I am waiting for the milk to warm at the back of my mouth.
“Did you know this boy?”
“Hashim.” She taps an acrylic fingertip on the newspaper. “The boy who was killed.” I shake my head. There is a metallic coldness on my teeth. My mother is unsatisfied but she is late for her shift at the RSL club. I don’t tell her that Hashim was my friend. I don't tell her that he lived just across the railway line
Before the railway line there were lines of fig trees. Our town sent figs all over the country when the ground was still fertile. Fresh figs. Dried figs. Fig jam and caramelised figs. Our town’s fig paste remained famous long after the farms were subdivided; replaced by cheap housing.
My mother opens the front door and I can see my father watering the fig tree.
“These indian mynahs are destroying the garden Leanne.” He motions with the hose, lassoing water into the space left by the retreating brown bird. “They’re an invasive species.” My mother slams her car door. I don’t tell them that fig trees are an invasive species too.
Our town is at the end of a railway line. I didn’t think that was strange until I learnt that living here is a last resort for most people. My mother says that we are here temporarily. We are waiting for my father to find work. At the end of the railway line inoperable trains are abandoned. They sit idle, frozen in time. They have shattered windows and faulty engines. Their cold steel is covered in layers of paint, like hieroglyphs on an ancient tomb. The people who live in our town are all frozen in time. Their houses have shattered windows and fences covered in graffiti. The people sit idle on their porches or inside in front of the television. Our town is for people who have given up on their dreams.
When my mother has left for her shift at the RSL club, my father stops watering the fig tree and sits on the porch to listen to talk-back radio. I leave my remaining Nutri-grain floating in the bowl. The newspaper has a photograph of Hashim wearing a cricket helmet. His brown cheeks are meshed against the grill and he has a wide smile displaying a cracked tooth, like a piano with a missing key. The article says that Hashim was hit by a city-bound train on a railway bridge near our home. He fell 15 metres to the creek bed below. “On windy days it is impossible to hear approaching trains” reads a quote from an unnamed resident. “Impossible. Until it’s too late.” I open the bin and let the newspaper rest under its lid. I am nearly sick from the smell of rotting figs.
Hashim had a rotund belly and large breasts that seemed to lead him when he walked so that he looked like a tea-pot about to spill over. He and I walked home together along the railway line. In summer we walked from the cricket club where Hashim was nicknamed ‘Tendooka’ by virtue of his caramel complexion rather than his skill at the crease. In winter we made our way home from football training where Hashim was more simply nicknamed ‘Blob’. The balls of our feet balanced on the warm steel rail as we practised our inswingers using the track ballast. We knew which tracks we could walk on and from which direction the next train would be coming. Hashim almost exclusively talked about cricket. He wanted to become a professional player.
A line of mynah birds perched on the overhead wire above the railway tracks. They fluttered between the wires or swooped below, exchanging positions. Their social singing mirroring our banter below.
“But you’re shit at cricket” I said.
“For now” Hashim said. “But my Dad reckons I just have to wait to lose my baby fat”.
“Yeah? And then what?”
“Then I’ll be hitting like Sachin Tendulkar.”
Hashim and I were both shit at cricket. And football. And Hashim was shit at school too. Sometimes I would help him with his English homework. I told him that I wanted to be a writer.
“You could write about me one day” he said one afternoon. “Hashim Al-Khatib: Australia’s greatest batsman”.
“All right I will. But it will be more like Australia’s greatest blob.”
Hashim had lived with his family in a small red-brick unit that backed onto the railway line. Hashim’s father had installed a gate at the back fence so that his son could cross the tracks and walk to school or the cricket club or football training. Before Hashim died, his father had used the gate on weekends to scrub graffiti from the external wall of their car-port. He was the only one of our neighbours that had ever bothered to scrub graffiti.
The indian mynah bird was introduced to our town to deal with insects that were attracted to the fig trees. The plan backfired. The mynah birds ate the figs. The mynah birds took territory from the cockatoos and the lorikeets. They terrorised fig farmers and their dogs. They bred too fast for the townspeople to control and now the mynah birds are all over our town. An invasive species. When Hashim and his family moved here my father called them mynah birds.
I was walking with Hashim along the railway line. The tracks raced into the darkness as we crossed the railway bridge. There was a dim haze at the end of the bridge from a nearby light pole that sits above an empty playground. As we got closer to the playground the glaring yellow and green rails looked alien in the surrounding darkness. Two swings were violently tangled, their chains stretched and pulled, bustling for position in the wind. I was standing adjacent to the playground when I realised that I was alone. I turned to see Hashim’s dark figure between two bright beams of light. We did not hear the train. Impossible. Until it’s too late.
My father does not notice the groan of the shed door. He will not notice that I am gone. Underneath the railway bridge I remove a steel aerosol paint can from a plastic bag and climb the dusty steel ladder from my father’s shed. You could write about me one day. I press my forefinger down on the cap and guide the spray of crisp white paint. Afterwards, I walk along the railway line and place the ladder alongside the external wall of Hashim's car-port.
A chorus of indian mynah birds echo from a roost underneath the railway bridge. They abandon their nest when a train thunders overhead and shakes the stagnant water below. When the water stills the tall white letters written on the wing wall of the bridge are reflected onto the water.
“R.I.P. Blob.” The wall reads. “Australia’s greatest batsman.”