|Schoolfrenz - Prologue/Chapter 1|
Prologue - June 2004
On a day in June 2004, the members of the original Mag7
were happy with their lives.
In the Bricklayers Arms Dumbo had latched onto a new patron, who had not yet been bored by his host’s exaggerated achievements in life. Not that Dumbo would have recognized or been offended by their ennui; over the years he had become insensitive to the ridicule from his fellow drinkers. The landlord looked on and grimaced at the sight. After all this time, he still hadn’t decided whether the income from his frequent fat customer had compensated for the loss of future business from first-time visitors who had to suffer Dumbo’s droning.
Inside the international departure lounge at Heathrow airport, Legs was trying to contain the excitement of his family about their imminent flight to Canada. He worked hard at his job in the council planning office, and had not taken a major holiday for three years. Unusually, the council had let him bank his untaken holidays to save for this coming extended family break. A month with his wife’s parents in Montreal, and then another two touring the Great Lakes was the perfect tonic he needed to refresh his attitude to work and family.
Smokey had arrived home from work at a reasonable time and with a comfortable feeling. Today he had received qualified enquiries demanding his architectural skills, and his biggest contract with the BudgetMart supermarket chain was beginning to generate a regular income. Predictably, his dogs, and less predictably his wife, had greeted him with enthusiasm. Having pre-announced his early arrival, she had even taken the trouble to cook him a meal rather than leave out a microwavable instant meal to thaw on the kitchen draining board to greet his erratic homecoming. She had also chatted amiably about nothing in particular. Ever the optimist, Smokey had felt at ease. He hoped he had reached the turning point in a marriage that had been floundering over the last few months.
Egghead was walking on Bondi beach in Australia. The weather was bitterly cold and he was starved of beach companions and rescue attempts. Instead, as he scanned the shoreline, he thought of his pending career change. He had been a lifeguard for ten years and in a couple of months would return to his original vocation as a history teacher. He would miss the sun, sea and sand, but with the approaching responsibility of fatherhood, a risk-free occupation and almost a doubling of his pay would be adequate compensation.
Goose had excitedly told his partner Anthony about the house clearance he had carried out earlier. He was convinced he had found a painting by William Havell and some fine pieces of Majolica porcelain that when auctioned would bring necessary cash to their struggling antiques business. They had celebrated by getting drunk on gin and tonic and going to bed early.
The Bridge had scored par for the first time during his afternoon nine holes of golf at his local course, and was feeling pleased with himself. He was entertaining his cronies in the clubhouse with a mixture of stories regarding his putting expertise and the exploits of the inmates from his nightshift at Durham prison.
For what he hoped was the last time, Fang was the victim of a male rape at the Berrima Correctional Centre approximately 75 miles southwest of Sydney. He had a rare smile on his face; in two days’ time, he would be released after five years of patience and persecution. He had a nest egg waiting for him and a dream of using it to fund a virtuous future.
Georgina was happy too. She had stepped out from the Llandinam Building Hall into the bright sunshine. Friends gathered round swapping opinions about the ease or difficulty of the three-hour exam they had just finished. She sided with those in the easy camp. She had worked and played hard over the last three years and was confident that soon she would be designated a Bachelor of Science now that her last exam was over. It crossed her mind briefly that in this politically correct age maybe she should be a Spinster of Science, but she had to admit it didn’t have the same ring to it. Georgina Haywell BSc. Her parents would be very proud.
They were happy then …
Prison life had reformed the newly named Richard Bard
until he passed Patrick Bonnett looking slim and fit strolling along
He had last seen him twenty-one years ago, but he recognized three unmistakeable features. The most obvious was the birthmark on his left cheek. About two inches by one inch, it was oval shaped and had earned Patrick the nickname of Egghead at school. To most image-conscious teenagers it would have been the bane of their lives (and Bard was well aware of the effect of physical deformities), but Patrick had been thick-skinned, and had treated his distinguishing mark as a trophy rather than a disfigurement. Then there was his shocking blonde hair; even at 35 years old, it still shone like a beacon and he styled it in exactly the same way as before, long and curly. Lastly, it was his bouncing gait. He walked as though he had rubber legs and, all those years ago, the motion had been likened to the Goons from a Popeye cartoon. Goon had been Bard’s alternative nickname for him.
There was a cool wind blowing down the street, but beads of sweat formed on Bard’s forehead as he fought the anger building up inside him. He had not felt this way since he had been buggered on his first day in Berrima. His counsellor in Berrima Correctional Centre had supposedly trained him to control his emotions, but with this crucial test of its effectiveness, the good work had been undone.
It had only been a month since Bard had been released having spent five years inside for aggravated robbery. He really thought that this time he was on his way to true rehabilitation. He had a job. Admittedly, only a temporary position Stefan Tate had arranged for him at his cousin’s plumbing firm but, strangely, he was enjoying his closeted apprenticeship mucking about with pipes and radiators. Stefan had owed him after all. Stefan had been smart and worn gloves; not that his fingerprints or DNA would have shown up on police records, because for all the blags he had been involved in, he’d never been caught or even implicated. Superficially, Stefan was the model of respectability running his own car repair workshop, particularly as his best customer was the Sydney police department. Underneath he was the mastermind behind a good proportion of the major robberies and burglaries in New South Wales during the last ten years; yet, he lived modestly and was an honourable man. When the eventually-to-be Richard Bard was caught he knew the score: say nothing about his accomplice, be a model prisoner, return the stolen money and be patient. He’d be out in a few years, and then Stefan would see him right.
Stefan had kept to his word.
The robbery of a substantial residence in Wollongong had netted $50,000 and Bard’s share was $10,000, which luckily for him was approximately the amount the victim had declared he had lost. Since there had apparently been a full recovery of money, the police had not pursued the issue of accomplices once Bard had been indicted. The victim had been Joe Prosho – a notorious villain – who could have been criminally compromised to reveal a greater loss. Less fortunate was that Joe held grudges, and through the frequent beatings, forced buggery and threatening notes, Bard had often been reminded there was the small matter of an additional $40,000 to be refunded when he rejoined the outside world. This was the major reason why Bard had resigned himself to a reformed life. He’d had enough of living on the edge and the thought of pursuit and retribution by Prosho had made even him shudder. Besides, through an intermediary prison visitor, Stefan had promised him $20,000 and a new identity for his silence, and that would set him up nicely for a fresh start; in Perth was the plan, far enough away from the Prosho influence.
From a covert release, he had been spirited to the security of Bret’s – Stefan’s cousin – house in Bondi, and was repaying his hospitality by helping to recondition heating systems. According to Stefan, the false documents in the name of Richard Bard should be ready tomorrow and that meant Stefan could then deposit the twenty grand in a new bank account. In theory, the flight to Perth and the fresh start were just a few days away, time enough to find out what that bastard Patrick Bonnett was doing in Australia.
Bard stopped to look into the shop window of a gift store. His reflection confirmed why Egghead had not recognized him. The long black coat he wore failed to conceal the hirsute and gangly appearance that was different to the last time Egghead had seen him. An ageing of twenty-one years had helped, but Bard’s short hair, beginnings of a beard and rakish frame bore little resemblance to his school-day exterior; and even the stubbly chin could not completely cover the scarred evidence of the prison beatings. He glanced right and followed Egghead as he bounced his way towards the beachfront.
Within an hour, Bard had obtained a working profile of Patrick Bonnett.
One fact was easily discernable when Egghead had entered the changing rooms of Bondi Pavilion and had emerged five minutes later adorned in red shorts and yellow top, and carrying a similarly coloured holdall emblazoned with the title of Bondi Surf Bathers’ Life Saving Club.
For the last week the sky had been cloudless and the temperature abnormally warm, yet Bard was still amazed that even in mid-winter Bondi beach attracted hoards of people intent on enjoying sea, surf and sand.
Egghead headed towards a lifeguard tower – a canopied platform raised about four metres above beach level – some fifty metres before the current tidemark. On his way, he stopped to chat with hardy sunbathers who presumably were regulars. Then he had an animated conversation with the lifeguard he was relieving, who pointed out to sea and at a group of teenage boys gambolling near the water’s edge. The contrast between the patrolmen was significant. Heights were similar, but Egghead was a thin, white individual, while his colleague was muscled and tanned. By girth, they were a David and Goliath. A lifeguard was such an unlikely occupation to Bard; Egghead was a timid, weedy and water-shy person at school.
Bard watched from a distance. The second lifeguard finished his debriefing and went to change. Egghead studied the playful group and when the members ventured into the sea, he grabbed a white rescue surfboard and strode out purposefully to the sea edge to oversee their actions. Bard took the opportunity to approach one of the male sun worshippers Egghead had spoken to earlier.
‘G’day,’ Bard said. His years in Australia had trained him to use a near native accent such that few now questioned his English heritage. ‘Is that my old cobber Patrick over there?’ Bard waved in the direction of Egghead, who now appeared to be lecturing the teenage swimmers.
‘Pat Bonnett?’ the man asked.
‘Yeh, that’s him. Haven’t seen him for years. Does he live near here?’
The man sat up and eyed Bard suspiciously. ‘Who’s asking?’
Bard caught his distrust and quickly added: ‘Richard Bard. I’m in a rush; thought I’d call on him tonight.’
‘He lives in Ocean Street. Swanky white-boarded duplex, called … Surf something … Surfhaven, that’s it.’
‘Well, thanks for that mate,’ Bard said, and strode quickly away to emphasize his haste.
He headed back to Campbell Parade – the main promenade – with the seeds of a plan in his mind. As he mingled with the crowds, he adjusted his hat to conceal as much of his face as possible. He didn’t think any of Prosho’s heavies would be looking for him in Bondi, but he still needed to be careful. While staying with Bret for two weeks, and under advice from Stefan, other than a trip to his mother’s he had not ventured further than the workshop in his backyard. At first, the minor improvement in space and freedom over the confines of Berrima had been a joy, but today, with Bret away on business for the next 24 hours and the winter sunshine streaming through the workshop fanlight, the temptation to explore had been too great.
In a stationery store, he browsed a local map and found Ocean Street. Follow the promenade into Bondi Road, and turn left in about half a mile.
Twenty minutes later he had located “Surfhaven”, though not without having to ask a postwoman on her rounds. All the properties in Ocean Street were swanky dwellings, and most of them were white. Surfhaven had fooled him with its front wall name plaque being concealed behind the purple flowers of an overflowing rhododendron bush. The building was impressive; the width and depth suggested multiple bedrooms and reception rooms and in front of a double garage were two cars: a large Ford and a small BMW. The front plot comprised, but for the small patch of ground which accommodated the bushes, an expensively tessellated parking area. Details of the rear were hidden from view by a fence and trees, though by reference to adjacent properties it probably extended over sixty metres to open parkland.
As Bard scrutinized the property from the opposite side of the road, another rush of anger consumed him as he made a comparison between his own life and his vision of Egghead’s. I bet he’s got a gorgeous wife too was passing through his mind when the front door of Surfhaven opened and he saw the head and shoulders of a brunette woman emerge. From a distance, she looked no more than mid-twenties and Bard uttered gorgeous to himself as she waddled rather than walked towards the cars. She stopped at the Ford and retrieved something from inside, and then Bard saw that her tummy bulge showed she was pregnant. He sniggered and whispered to himself fuckable too.
On past nefarious dealings with married couples, Bard had found he had a flair for ingratiating himself with women. He wasn’t particularly good-looking – not that he had ever found looks were important to a woman – rather it was a combination of his slightly rough, rugged appearance and the verbal gift he seemed to have to make women feel at ease in his presence. Flirting had always been out of the question, since this riled the husband, but make a relaxing impression with the wife and guards were dropped. Time to test whether he still had the knack. He strolled across the road and stopped at the driveway entrance.
The woman looked puzzled and said gently: ‘Do I know you?’ Then something clicked and she raised her voice: ‘If you’re from that bloody insurance company …’
The change in voice had revealed her origins. The softer introduction had the lazy drawl of an acquired Australian accent. The outburst had signalled that her origin was in the northeast of England. Quite naturally, Bard’s brain switched to a comforting Geordie accent. He took a few steps onto the driveway.
‘Nay, lass, but I know your husband – Patrick. We both went to Dovedale Secondary School in Hebburn.’
‘Really? What’s your name?’
‘Um … Colin Peterson,’ he conjured from the name of a fellow inmate, not wanting to reveal his original or new identity.
She thought for a moment. ‘Pat’s told me a lot about his old school friends. I don’t recall a Colin Peterson.’
The former was interesting. Did it mean he was still in contact with them? The latter he expected, but he had already prepared an answer. ‘We weren’t exactly friends. I was two years above him, but Patrick was renowned throughout the school for his academic abilities.’ True – flattery hurt no one.
Moving to the front door she said: ‘Pat’s at work at the moment; I’ll tell him you called.’
A put-off. He wanted to keep the conversation going. Play dumb. ‘I expect he’s a captain of industry now. Wheeling and dealing in corporate finance?’
The suspicion continued. ‘How did you know we lived here?’
‘I was at the first floor window of a café in town and saw Patrick stop in the street below to speak to someone. By the time I reached the street, he had disappeared, but I asked the man he had spoken to. He confirmed it was Patrick and told me where he lived.’ Another prepared answer delivered with the most endearing narrow-mouth smile he could muster, but she was still unconvinced.
‘Leave me your phone number. I’ll ask him to call you.’
Not a good idea. Bard was angry that he hadn’t won through. His hand began to shake. Had the time inside moderated his charm? He calmed himself and persisted. ‘If you don’t mind I’ll call back later. What time does Patrick get home?’
An answer to the final question would leave the door open for his return. She appeared relieved the conversation was ending and replied: ‘Some time after four o’clock …’
‘Okay. Thanks,’ he replied and quickly strode away before she had the opportunity to add a qualification.