Adhi kuikaimaw – Let’s begin the story
He was taller than me, a couple of years older too. Kids around us had started chanting: fight, fight, fight, fight, fight. School had just finished for the day and there were children and parents everywhere.
I probably should have thought that through a little better.
He snarled, full of menace and bravado yet pale and sweating in the tropical Cairns heat, saying something like, C’mon cunt, I’ll have ya.
I ignored the noise and his bluster and instead sized him up, estimating the length of his reach, calculating where I would strike first. Usually somewhere unexpected. Not the head – everyone always goes straight for the head. At 15, I already had years of martial arts experience behind me, regimens of barefoot running and full-body sparring that these days would be considered more like child abuse than training. Add to that my fitness from footy, basketball, pushbikes and swimming – if it was daylight I was moving, or wishing I was. And, thanks to my Tongan dad, I was a big, solid kid.
I hit him first. He was ready for me, though not ready for how hard my fist was or how much it hurt. To his credit, he came back at me with everything he had but I didn’t feel a thing. This kid had stolen a bike from a little boy, my cousin, and had failed to return it when asked nicely. So I wasn’t asking nicely anymore. I was filled with rage and fought with a righteous fury.
Somewhere along the way the kid’s friends joined in, and then my younger brother, and it quickly turned into a melee. Some brave parents weighed in, trying to break it up, but we were fighting like dogs and it was too dangerous to pull us apart.
The fight ended with the other kid on the ground, not moving much. My brother and I picked up our school bags and walked away like kings, high on adrenaline and what we considered justice. He wasn’t going to steal from a blackfella again. No-one tried to stop us, even though we had basically just put someone in hospital. But we were both in our school uniforms and people knew who we were.
I probably should have thought that through a little better too.
The repercussions of the fight started that evening. I told Mum what had happened as soon as she came home from work. She was quite rightly furious, so that didn’t go too well. Yet she wasn’t so upset that she failed to see into the heart of the matter.
Did you get your cousin’s bike back?
Yes. I got his bike back.
That wasn’t nearly enough to get me off the hook, though.
When she subsequently told some of my uncles about the fight, and my nan, that didn’t go well either. They all wanted a piece of me. And within a day or two I was called into the principal’s office. That really didn’t go well. I’d not yet finished Grade 10 but he wanted me gone. Expelled. Piss off and don’t come back. Any future I might have had was shrivelling up fast.
Looking back, it’s surprising the police weren’t involved. Maybe the other kid’s family were worried about the stolen bike. Maybe someone within my extended family had put a word in with the right people. Or maybe – given that Bjelke‑Petersen had not long been out of office and Cairns was still, well, Cairns – the cops simply couldn’t be bothered.
My righteous fury had fallen away almost immediately, and in its place was a sense of sorrow. Like any 15-year-old in hot water, I felt sorry for myself, but I increasingly felt sorry for the other kid too. I’d hurt him pretty bad. A week or so after the fight, without any prompting, I went around to his parents’ house and apologised.
But it was to Mum and Nan that I most needed to say sorry. They’d brought me up to be better than some schoolyard brawler, to know better. They wanted me to make something of myself. Every day, through a thousand practical actions, they taught me about right and wrong, but they were lessons I was destined to learn over and over again – usually the hard way.