The first punch got him square in the stomach and the wind flew from his lungs. His arms circled wildly about his head as he fell against the gutter. The second blow caught him on the back of the head with pain so intense, a burst of adrenalin filled his eyes with the golden sparks of fireworks.

The physical blows churned the pain out through his mouth in whimpers which only fueled his attackers onto more brutality. Laughter registered in the murkiness, and the further hits saw his blood drip into the filthy gutter, mingling with discarded cigarette butts and rubbish. The attack lasted only a few minutes but, with one of him and three of them, it had not been a fair contest. Fairness in life wasn’t something he expected.  It was an idea, like so many others, he wanted to believe in. But fairness was not his experience of reality.

Cal’s life had been hard. He never complained though. He knew that he was better off than some. He was born out near Ned Kelly country in Victoria. He was always hoping some of that proud Kelly fire might one day fill him up make him a giant  just like his hero Ned did all those years ago.  Having Irish in his blood, he hoped the proud Gaelic spirit would never desert him.

 His dad left before he could walk, and his mother, Shannon, ignored her responsibilities where Cal’s welfare was concerned. Shannon was young and deeply inadequate in her life skills,   and the extra stress of a crying baby, well it was just about it for her. She never quite understood that a baby cries when hungry or wet, or when it needs comforting. Cal’s cries were just an inconvenience to sleeping. 

Shannon left Cal with his Grandma one morning; he must have been about two years old. He was all chubby legs and smiles, his face full of opportunity and potential.  He had the dark blue eyes of an Inverell sapphire and wispy brown curls which would later turn the black coal hair of the Irish.  Shannon rang the next day to say she was in Sydney. She had got a job and would be back as soon as she had made some money. No, she didn’t know long she would be in Sydney. Yes, she did realise that she had responsibilities and a child.  Cal’s mum never did come back for him. She would visit intermittently,   but it usually was to borrow money or to help her get out of a fix. Sure, she did make an effort to act like a mum, she even probably felt a bit guilty. But her guilt was never enough to stop her getting back on the train to Sydney.  Two years after leaving home she died in a dirty ally behind a King’s Cross takeaway. She was beaten to death by her iced up boyfriend.

Cal’s grandma later said that Shannon could never pick the fellas, she had a radar for losers, and that she never truly had a chance, thought life was to be enjoyed. He found out the truth of his mum’s death when he was about twelve years old. Wes , his uncle, blurted it out one night around the kitchen table after too many cask Yalumbas. Cal had been told his Mum died in a car accident when it happened, but he supposed being beaten to death would pretty much look like you’d been in a car accident, so they hadn’t really been lying.

Cal would sometimes steal a look at photos of his Mum kept in shabby box under his Grandma’s   bed. The ghost of his mum lay in there with all the other pictures of past relatives and acquaintances, a jumble of polaroids and snaps, lives all heaped in on one another.   Shannon’s pretty face smiled out at him. At times Cal chose to believe she was on a long holiday rather than think that her life finished among the cockroaches scuttling along a dirty Sydney alley.  Once when Cal was looking at her picture, he thought he felt a wisp of her hair falling softly across his face. He could only imagine it because he didn’t know or remember his mother at all.

Cal was never good at school; he tried but was never able to concentrate on the things that were necessary for good grades. Leaving school at fifteen he got an apprenticeship with the local butcher, Roy McMahon. Roy’s family had owned the shop for three generations, but Roy’s two sons, not wanting to be lumped with their inheritance, made their lives far enough away to be sure that this ‘proud’ heritage ended at them. 

Roy saw that Cal was a worker and was sure that their working partnership would be good for both of them. He wasn’t wrong. Cal loved the job and Roy’s knowledge of all things meat. Cal reckoned Roy should write a book.

     ‘Yeah a great read, best seller mate, something you could really sink your teeth into.’ Roy would laugh.  Cal couldn’t work out when Roy was serious or just having a lend of him.  

Cal cut, deboned and sliced for a year, until Woolworths wanting more of the Aussie meat pie, opened a store in town. It was only eight months later when Roy bolted the door on his butcher’s shop for the last time. McMahons, a business built upon three generations and thousands of man hours, went to the wall along with Cal’s apprenticeship.  Cal would visit Roy now and then, but Roy was more misery than company, having had to move to the local caravan park after paying out his debts.  Cal told him it wasn’t all bad, Mrs. Price always stopped him to say how Woolies chops were all fat, not like Mister Mahon’s premium cuts.  Sometimes you just had to concentrate on the good things, since the bad things can get so big there’s no way out. But Roy McMahon found his way out. He died of a massive heart attack. His doctor said it was probably brought on by the stress of the past twelve months. That combined with a diet of meat for breakfast, lunch and tea, he was a human time bomb; ticking, ticking, BOOM.

That same year Cal’s grandma got sick. She had always liked her ciggies having her first one at eight. She had never tried to stop as she said everyone had to die of something.  After seeing her struggle for breath in last few weeks of her life  as the cancer ate away at her brain and lungs, Cal didn’t think she would have signed up for  THIS something.  No one was with her when she died.  Wes was visiting at the time, but had just popped out the back for only a few minutes to have a smoke.

Cal had been unemployed since the butchers had closed, and now that his Grandma’s home was to be sold, he packed his few things and went to live with Wes. Wes was only ten years older than Cal. Wes worked as mechanic for a guy in town. He always had a bitter smell of sump oil around him, no matter how much Solvo he used. Cal could always conjure up Wes with his rough man hands and blackened nails when he smelt oil, it didn’t matter how long it had been since he’d seen him.

Wes’ girlfriend, Chaz, was always at the house in those early days. They had been a couple since high school. Chaz was all legs and big hair. Wes had the Sandman with the  loud car stereo and fat wheels. They were going to get married but the engagement didn’t seem to be progressing to the church isle as quickly as Chaz hoped. Wes was all for taking it slow and Cheryl was all for taking it fast, having kids and a mortgage. Not long after Cal moved in, Chaz left town with Wes’ best mate Brad. Chaz said Brad had ambition, and they were going to Brisbane where he had a building job lined up. Wes was a bit cut up but decided it was for the best, after his mates reassured him women were trouble, it was best to play the field, and if Brad did have any ambition he wouldn’t be wasting his time in Brisbane.

The time Cal spent with Wes at the house on Constitution Street was the happiest he’d remembered. Wes would often have a big cook up after some of the fellas had been pig shooting. They were a rough bunch, most on unemployment or disability benefits;   they had a shot at life but had crashed and burned. They’d all sit around on chairs in the back yard drinking beer, laughing and swearing, the clothes line draped with the remnants of a tattered towel or two.  The music would be turned to an ear bleeding volume, until a knock at the door by the local cops. Usually a brawl would break out, and a few of the blokes would be carted away in the paddy wagon to enjoy the comforts of the lock-up.  The rest stayed late, the fire burning, keeping them warm in the cold night air; the Milky Way a creamy blanket against the dark chill.

There were lots of hangovers, even though Cal was too young to drink and drive, he did both.  He loved the feeling of being in control of the car but being out of control at the same time. Most of the blokes smoked weed so Cal smoked too. The THC made him float and his shoulders lost their heaviness. He became as light as air.  Cal loved the anaesthetic relief chemicals provided his brain. His shivering synapses slowed and thoughts blurred and dimmed until he couldn’t make them out any more, like the fade out at the end of movies. He was happy in his substance induced coma.  NO dad, NO mum, No Mister McMahon, No grandma, No ONE, No ONE at all.

Cal did manage to get up out of the gutter that night after the bashing. He staggered along the road not too sure of how to get home.  Confusion scrambled his brain as the concussion started to rise in his skull. He tried to form   thoughts in his mind of were to go, where was home? He vomited.   He could feel the bruises starting to close his eyes, the blood hardening along the cuts to his face. He swayed a little, a thumping headache started behind his eyes. He wasn’t far away now. Cal was sure. He could feel her hair, the smell of her skin, her tentative touch.

When the guy driving the car hit Cal he thought he’d hit a stray dog. The bloke was on his way to pick-up his girlfriend. He was late and in a hurry. She didn’t like to be kept waiting and he knew he wouldn’t be getting any if she was in a shit.  He didn’t stop. What’s a stray dog to stand in the way of a sure- thing. The police caught up with the driver but no charges were laid. Seems the cops reckoned that Cal was dead before the car hit him anyway. Cal’s death made the papers, a few lines in black and white, a conversation over backyard fences between neighbours.

     ‘Terrible thing to happen to that young fellow. Which family was he related to?’

     ‘Terrible yes, but I’m not surprised. You know, he never knew his dad and his mum left him when he was just a baby. They never came back for him.’

      ‘What kinda family does that?’

      ‘I don’t know, you tell me!’