The Warnie

It was eight years ago my brother got sent down for GBH. The idiot got five years for breaking the left arm of a stranger in the Burke and Wills pub in Toowoomba. I had to go collect him at Wacol as soon as he was released because I’d promised him I would, and Robbo wasn’t the kind of bloke you went back on your word on.

When I lobbed up outside the prison and asked: “What do you want to do?” I was hoping he might opt for a coldie, but he said: “Stay at yours for a bit.” It was the day after Boxing Day I remember and hotter than the hinges on Hell’s gates. In the baking sun and light breeze we walked across the carpark towards my ancient Holden Kingswood, happy and shadow-boxing each other. Suddenly he stopped and stared at me over his sunnies, a big-muscled drongo with swirling tatts and boyish grin: “If ya don’t want me to stay just say so.”

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I didn’t want him to stay. I laughed: “As long as it’s not forever.”

We got into the car, and a few minutes later he said: “Couple of nights, a week tops. Any longer and we’ll be barneying.”

I wondered how long it would take before he got me in a choke-hold. He was a year younger than me, but he’d always been the bully. The more you tried to fight with him the tougher he fought.

He was never easy-going about being back in my house, right from the get-go. Nor was I, because it took him less than five minutes to begin telling me what a dickhead I was, that my so-called job running a second-hand record shop was a load of bollocks, that my ex-wife had done the right thing by giving me the flick, that when the oldies left us the house, I’d cheated him by making him sell his half back to me. I could never put up much of an argument, knowing that he was right on everything except the house (he’d pleaded with me to buy his half and I’d given him more than what it was worth at the time). His typical bullshit rant bothered me, but as long as he didn’t start smashing the place to pieces or try and strangle me I could cope. Truth is I quite liked the excitement of having him around again. Robbo and Stevo back together, brothers in arms, the last of the family still standing.

When we were teens we broke into the city golf club’s clubhouse in the middle of a sticky December night, nicked a set of Lee Trevino clubs, and flogged them to one of our mates’ old man who was keen to take up golf. You’d think we’d robbed a bank the way we carried on about it, skiting to the tough boys and the older chicks at Toowoomba State High, giving out fags, inciting rebellion as if we were long-lost rellies of Ned Kelly. Other than stealing a can of Kirks creaming soda from the 7-Eleven a week later, the Trevino heist marked the end of my life of crime. I didn’t want to get caught and beat up by the coppers and our dad; also I didn’t want a police record in case it would ruin any chances of getting a cushy council job like mum had. Robbo told me I was a piker and a poofter and from that time on ditched me for our cousin Keith, who’d done six months in Juvie for spray-painting Oink on the footpath outside the cop shop in Neil Street. 

Our reunion lasted for more than the week both of us thought it would: it dragged on for a year. The first month he brought home a prozzie whose name was, and I kid you not, Sheila. It all happened casually; he came back from the pub with her, both of them blotto, and this Sheila fell arse over tit over the back of the couch and conked out. I wanted to drive her to the hospital but Robbo persuaded me—as in held me down and kneeled on my chest until I agreed—to let her sleep it off. She stayed with us for over a month, during which time Robbo dreamed up the idea of setting up my place as a brothel. He even bought a red light bulb to show me how serious he was. Sheila wasn’t so keen. There wasn’t any hissy fit. I just arrived home from the shop one arvo and found she’d shot through, left us a one-sentence note: “Got a better job offer in Brisvegas. Soz.” No signature, but a red lippie smudge-kiss. Robbo took that note to his bedroom and I never saw it again.

Halfway through the year my little brother grew up and got himself a job that didn’t involve crime.

“You got a job?” I repeated. “Where?”

“Mercer and Luck,” he said. “Storeperson.”

They were an electrical mob in Stephen Street, been going since 1959, which was something. “I’m impressed,” I told him. And I was. But three days later I was the opposite; he’d quit the job on the spot, done a walkout because he didn’t like it when the boss told him there were to be no more smoko breaks other than the one in the morning and the one in the afternoon. Robbo was of the opinion he should be able to duck outside for a quick puff whenever the need arose, which, being a twenty-a-day man, meant almost every half-hour or so.

Almost all his dole money was spent on ciggies, the rest on beer. There was no point in asking him to cut down on either because, as he put it, “a bloke needs to have somethin’ to cope with all this shit”.

Centrelink and the job agency hassled him so he found another job, this time with a furniture removal company. Two weeks in he took the “removal” part of the job description literally and stole a one-drawer filing cabinet, on the premise it must have something valuable in it if the owners had gone to the bother of gaffer-taping it up. The valuables turned out to be nothing more than files filled with paperwork.

With no skills, no patience, no CV, and a huge chip on his shoulder about anyone telling him what to do, jobs came and went like the months themselves; one week he was collecting trolleys at Aldi (fired for stealing gold coins from the slots), the next he was killing chooks (fired for not killing them quick enough). There would be weeks where he just disappeared, told me when he came back that he’d been out bush, or gone to visit a mate fallen on hard times. Then the big mistake: I felt sorry for him and let the mad bastard work with me at the shop.

The first two days went well. I asked him (nicely) to stock some shelves and clean up a bit, nothing too serious, and was careful not to boss him around or get up him, let him have as many smokos as he wanted, even played his favourite album—Johnny Cash’s (Live) At San Quentin. The bust-up happened on day three when a young fella, a student from USQ, told Robbo that Brian Johnson was equal to Bon Scott as a frontman, but that Bon Scott was an idiot for dying the way he did. Robbo told the guy that dying accidentally from being on the piss was as good a way to go as any—and better than many—and that studying to get a degree in information technology (as the student revealed) was a waste of time because our robot overlords would kill him as soon as they got the chance. The student left pronto without buying anything, as did most customers Robbo interacted with in his five-day career at Stevo’s Sinbin of Music.

Robbo shot through the day before my fiftieth birthday (saved him buying a prezzy). The trouble was when we had a blue—and there were some beauties, more effing and blinding than Albo in the privacy of his own toilet, tossing mum’s thinned-out crocheted cushions like ninja stars: the usual argy bargy—it was too much like adolescence resurrected, and in the thick of it it felt to me as if we’d done nothing but kick-off like this from the instant we shared that twin pram in the 1970s, with hardly any pause, and that it would continue like this until one of us carked it. The fact was, as I look at it now—and saw it on occasion then—that much of the time we spent together was a good laugh.

I’d had a premonition before he bailed that our time as brothers reunited was almost over, because one night we had the biggest barney of the lot. We were sitting at the dining room table after a good feed, telly on watching the cricket, two or three stubbies sunk so that there was no reason for the ensuing kerfuffle.

Suddenly he said: “You’re a ratbag, Stevo.” I was watching the cricket, and ignored him. Then: “Stevo, look at me when I’m talkin’ to ya.”

I turned my head to him, grinned, and went back to the cricket. Maybe I shouldn’t have grinned, but Australia was on the cusp of beating England.

“I reckon ya still owe me money on the house,” he said.

“Give it a rest,” I said, eyes on the screen.

“Don’t crack the shits with me, mate,” he said, fingers tapping the table. “I’ve been locked up while you’ve been here livin’ it large, happy as Larry.”

I was just scraping by like most people I knew, so that I couldn’t help having a dig at him, still watching the telly: “You broke that bloke’s arm because he beat you in an arm wrestle.”

“It was a bloody accident,” he said, lowering his voice. The cricket lost its hold on me; the red mist was in the air.

“I gave you five grand more than the valuation.” He never trusted real estate agents or lawyers—fair enough—but he couldn’t even trust his own blood.

He snorted: “Youse ripped me off.” That old lie; for years he must’ve been in his cell cogitating over it until it became truth.

“Are we watching the cricket or what? I don’t want a fight.” 

He chucked the stubby cap at me, catching me on the cheek. Could’ve had my eye out for all he cared. “You arsehole,” I said. “Why can’t you just have a drink and a yarn and watch the cricket like a normal person?” But he wasn’t a normal person, unless normal people hated everyone and everything.

Then out of the blue he said, “Chopper Read wrote Hooky the Cripple.”

What did that have to do with anything? He reckoned he could write a book for kids just as good as the infamous criminal, asked me if I’d lend a hand with the spelling and grammar. I asked him what ideas he had for a story, but he started raving on about me ripping him off over the house again. My nerves were sizzling like snags on the barbie. I was ropable and shouted at him to zip it, told him he shouldn’t have ditched me for cousin Keith, that if he’d stayed on the straight and narrow instead of being a yobbo crim he’d have had a fair crack of the whip just like I did. Then I put the boot in by reminding him he had as much chance writing a book as I had getting hold of Ringo’s signed copy of the White Album.

He lunged and got me in the dreaded choke-hold, not so much as to kill me, but bad enough that I couldn’t breathe. Then he let go of me and stormed out of the house.

I was sad but relieved when he didn’t come back. I’d had it up to here with his drama. I was lucky he didn’t kill me. One day he’d break more than some bloke in a pub’s arm, and that would be it. At least the oldies weren’t around to see how troppo he’d become. Things might’ve been different if they were still alive; who can say?

Two weeks after throttling me he got nabbed for trying to rob a bottle-o in Warwick. There were no weapons involved, thank God, but he gave the poor staff member on duty a fright. I got home from the shop one arvo and my nosy neighbour handed me the local rag. “Toowoomba Man Arrested in Bottle Shop Robbery” ran the headline.

Can you believe I missed him? Having someone in the house for a year, even though he drove me crazy, was better than living alone. I’d gone through the five stages of grief when Angie dumped me for a pharmacist a few years back, and then I’d had my hernia to deal with, but eventually I found a way to keep living in an empty house, pretending it was always going to be a temporary phase. But Robbo blowing in and then blowing out made me feel as if no one would want to be around me permanently ever again.

Christ, I sound like a sook. Life wasn’t that bad; I could afford a drink when I wanted one. And there was always the cricket. My lot was a bit on the Heartbreak Hotel side, but at least I was alive and Elvis wasn’t, and eventually I got to the point of taking it easy, come what may. There were customers to remind me I was still connected to the human race. Even Sheila blew in one week for a bit of nostalgia. When we slept together—no payment involved—the night before she left, she told me our mother must’ve played away because Robbo and I were so different.

Life went on as usual for three years after Robbo was put in jail again. Then, from what I heard on the grapevine at the RSL, Robbo had got out and was back in the Darling Downs. He dropped in on me one Saturday arvo in winter.

I was mowing the front lawn. The noise of teens hooning around the neighbourhood, magpies whingeing and mutts barking blended with the angry sound of the mower engine on its last legs.

The minute he walked around the corner I knew it was him. It gave me a bit of a shock, but. Three years away had thinned his hair out, thickened his gut, and bent his back. He didn’t walk as if he was the sheriff on his way to a gunfight any more. Prison and getting old had finally taken their toll. He’d always liked wearing singlets to show off his tatts and muscles but now he wore a cheap checked shirt. Gone were the sunnies and thongs he’d wear in all seasons. The boyish grin had survived, and I was grateful to see it.

“G’day, big brother,” he said, entering through the gate as if he’d been invited in. “Been a while between drinks, eh?”

The last drink we had was when we watched the cricket and he almost throttled me. I’d sent him the occasional postcard since, but never visited or phoned.

I turned the mower off. “Hey, Robbo,” I said, and walked down the path with the mower so that he could follow behind me to the house. He took his shoes off as we went into the hall, as though it was expected, even though neither of us had done such a thing since we were kids when the oldies set it into law. “How’s it going?” I asked, moving into the living room.

His face was to the telly—I’d left the cricket on—and I wondered if it brought back unpleasant memories for him. Or maybe I was pissed off at his surprise visit, because I grabbed the remote and turned the cricket off, something out of character for me.

“Still breathin’,” he said.

“Take the load off. I’ll get us a coldie.”

He sat down in the same seat at the dining table as always, stared at the blank telly as if the cricket was still going. “Even Steven,” he said. “Nothin’ knocks ya off balance.”

I couldn’t think what to say so just went and got the beers. We chinked stubbies together, awkwardly and with too much force so that mine almost dropped from my hand.

I noticed he was staring at the framed print of Shane Warne on the wall above the telly: Warnie’s in his whites, facing the viewer, tossing the ball about a foot above his right hand, looking cheeky and resolute. The portrait was painted by the English artist Fanny Rush, commissioned by the Marylebone Cricket Club in 2005 to hang in the Lord’s Long Room.

“When did ya get that?” he asked.

“Six months after Warnie died. Got it from an online sports memorabilia mob.”

“How much?”

“Nine hundred and ninety-five dollars.”

Robbo shook his head, his expression accusing me of being a mug. Then he grinned: “Just as well her surname wasn’t Rash.”

Trust him to bring coarse humour to fine art. “When did you get out?” I asked.

“Last week,” he said. He’d never been a bloke that runs off at the mouth, but he seemed even quieter than usual; not just quiet but lifeless. But maybe he felt odd at seeing me and being in the old place again after a few years, with everything—except for the Warnie—as it had been the last time.

“So what’s the plan?” I asked.

“Stay outta jail,” he said, looking at me now, “get me own place. Find a job.” He laughed. “Live the dream.”

“Where are you staying?”

He ran a hand through what was left of his hair. “Mate’s place.” It surprised me he had any mates left, or if he did, they probably weren’t good for him—and vice versa.

He returned his attention to the Warnie. “Bit of a boofhead but a bloody great bowler,” he said. He walked over to the picture, leaned in, squinted: “How do ya know it’s his signature?”

“It’s official,” I said, hoping it was but never really knowing. “It’s licensed by Cricket Australia and authenticated by the Warne family. You get an individually numbered Certificate of Authenticity.”

“Yeah, but they could all be in on it, couldn’t they? Cashin’ in on Warnie’s death.”

I didn’t want to believe it. Surely they wouldn’t stoop so low? Mind you, cricket wasn’t what it used to be. Then again, nothing was. “Not everyone’s a criminal,” I said, not meaning it as a personal criticism.

“Ya could’ve fooled me,” he said, though in a faraway manner.

We didn’t speak for a bit, just sipped our beers. I wished I hadn’t turned the telly off.

“Tell ya what, Stevo,” he said, pointing at the Warnie with his stubby. “Give me that and we’ll call it quits.”

This was almost as much a shock to me as him showing up out of the blue. “Whadya reckon?” he added.

And then something strange happened. Warnie used some telepathy on me and told me to lighten up. I knew it was really just me talking to myself, but it freaked me out for a sec—in a good way. “It’s all yours,” I said, and even managed a smile.

“What?” he said, confused, as if something in his crappy life was going right for a change.

“I want you to have it.” I drained the last of my stubby and added: “Warnie wants you to have it.” It was the sole picture in the living room, other than the old family photo on the bookshelf. We were barefoot and sunburned in that one, Seventies kids in the best days of our lives.

“Serious?” he said, his face lighting up in a way that reminded me of that time when we were kids and I’d given him twenty cents to go into the milk bar and get us some lollies (he kept the twenty cents and stole the lollies).

“Dead straight,” I said. I felt larger than life, as if I were a king in some distant time granting a boon to a worthy knight. We sat looking at the Warnie for a while. It started getting dark out. I entertained the mad idea of asking him to stay the night. To prove I wasn’t taking the piss, I unhooked the Warnie from the wall, gave it a quick dust with my jumper sleeve, and handed it over to him. “There you go,” I said, “look after it.”

“You’re orright, Stevo.”

He took the Warnie in both hands, holding it like a relic. I could tell he was stoked. The look of contentment on his face was priceless, or at least worth nine hundred and ninety-five dollars. I’d have to flog a lot of vinyl to recoup the moolah, but so what? If it meant the monkey on Robbo’s back would go back to the jungle then it was worth it, a bargain.

Robbo finished his beer, stood. “Righto,” he said, tucking the Warnie under his arm. “Better make a move.”

I wanted him to stay but didn’t say anything. We both must’ve felt the gap of my invitation waiting to be filled. “Don’t be a stranger,” I said. “Stop by whenever you want.” Next time you get out of jail, I almost added. And then I felt guilty at not asking him to stay.

He turned the collar of his cheap shirt up as we stepped outside into the cold twilight. “See ya,” he said. He grinned at me and headed off. For a man in his early fifties and fresh out of jail, he owned nothing but the clothes on his back and the Warnie. It was better than nothing, I supposed.

Two weeks later I was walking into town along Ruthven Street. Passing Cash Converters, I had an instinct to go inside. There it was, the Warnie, stuck on the wall behind the counter. For half a minute I wondered if it was mine; the other half-minute was me wondering why he’d sold it. The money, of course, but I felt there was more to it; as if he knew I’d check up on him and find it, as if he knew it would get to me. And it did. I felt betrayed, gutted. I would’ve lent him some money if he’d asked me.

Did I want the Warnie back? I looked into Warnie’s eyes, hoped he’d speak to me like he had before. But I was left looking at my reflection none the wiser.

It wasn’t walking into a gunfight that did for Robbo in the end. It was a knife-fight, and the poor bugger didn’t even walk into it. He was heading out of the Burke and Wills pub when he was spotted by the cousin of the bloke whose arm he’d broken all those years ago. The cousin chucked a wobbly, ran up behind Robbo, and stabbed him in the back of the neck with a steak knife. They say he was dead before he hit the floor.

I was the only one at Robbo’s funeral. When the coffin lowered to the sound of Bon, Angus, Malcolm, Mark and Phil belting out “It’s a Long Way to the Top (If You Wanna Rock ’n’ Roll)” I wanted to cry but couldn’t. At my stage of life even tears abandon me. I remembered mum’s funeral, and then dad’s. It dawned on me that Robbo might’ve come up with a story for a book if he’d lived and I’d helped him. Who can know?

Stephen Beckett lives in Toowoomba. His story “Buggerlugs and Millsy” appeared in the January-February 2023 issue

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