A sweeping saga of loss and the redemptive powers of the Universe set against the epic backdrop of the spiritual home of the South Sydney Rabbitohs.
It was as significant as any eye contact I’ve made with a woman I loved. I was rounding the corner of Redfern Oval , a few hundred metres into my daily running quest to transform myself from a super-sized version of Kris Swales into a regular-sized one – the eight-year-old boy was on the other side of the perimeter fence flanked by two mates who were just blurs in the background.
We were separated by the fence, two metres of grass, a water bottle and a tattered backpack. Contents: one American Apparel promotional hoodie (grey), one six-year-old wallet (frayed) containing $22 and the usual cards and paraphernalia, one key ring with apartment and office security keys (priceless). I broke our eye contact and kept on running down the home strait – when I turned around 120 metres later, the kids were nowhere to be seen and my backpack was gone with them. By the time I got back to the scene of the crime and picked up my water bottle, 30 seconds had passed and they could’ve been anywhere. I leapt the fence, crossed the road and wandered up one of the streets towards the housing commission towers, but quickly realised the mission would be as fruitless as trying to find a stolen backpack in streets lined with housing commission towers.
I called the bank, cancelled my cards, and trudged home. I was sweaty, it was almost dark, and if I didn’t already know how to break into my second floor bedroom I would’ve been sleeping on a park bench. I showered, I sat on my couch eating leftovers, I pondered the overwhelming shitness of starting 2012 with a wounded heart and no ID.
What bothered me the most, apart from not having the Visa card I was relying on to survive until payday eight days later and having to spend my last $50 on a key deposit with my landlord until I could buy a new security key, was that this kid and I were from the same cultural background – he quite obviously, me so subtly that calling it subtle would be an overstatement (ie – not at all). Did he think he was just sticking one to the white man, the guy who’d met his gaze and trusted that his meagre possessions would be safe where they sat? Was this just the start of another generational cycle that in 20 years time would still have Middle Australia tut-tutting about the mean streets of long gentrified Redfern? Was I just tired and emotional and overanalysing what was most likely the random act of a kid who’d been dared by his mates?
I dusted myself off, swallowed my pride and accepted a loan off a mate to get me through the week, and continued my daily pilgrimage to Redfern Oval. I remained vigilant. We weren’t done here.
Same time, same location, four days later. I placed my water bottle in the corner of the oval, went to start my new route around the ground’s cement concourse, and we locked eyes again – he was 50 metres away in the adjacent park taking turns running up the side of a tree with half a dozen other kids. I looked over enough times for him to know I was looking at him, then started running laps as I formulated a plan on how to outwit an eight-year-old bag thief.
I didn’t want justice; I didn’t want to perpetuate the cycle of mistrust; I figured everything else was gone and easily replaced, so I just wanted my $50 key deposit back. My chance came three laps later when the kid was taunting his mates from the top of the tree. I grabbed my water bottle, walked briskly to the tree’s base, and he looked around in the stunned realisation that escape was impossible from 10 feet above terra firma.
“How’s it going mate?” I opened politely. “Have you still got the keys from the backpack you stole the other day?”
The kid was shitting bricks. He said it wasn’t him that stole the bag, it was the other kids, he didn’t rack it, my stuff was all over at Walker Street. His mate up the tree also blamed some other kids. Meanwhile, some adult passers-by had stopped to watch the street theatre unfold.
“Dude, you’re not in trouble,” I said calmly. “I don’t care about the other stuff, all I want is my keys.”
He climbed out of the tree, put his shoes on, and started to walk off.
“So you’re taking me to my keys? Awesome.”
This was an eight-year-old kid remember, and despite my zen-like calm it didn’t take long for him to crack up.
“I only just moved here last year,” he sobbed as we neared the grandstand. “Those other kids made me take it. I didn’t want to get into this sort of stuff!”
“I only got here last year as well.”
“I don’t care about you!” he cried, slumping against the grandstand, his head in his hands.
“You’re not in trouble. I just want my keys back.”
He looked up. “I’ll get them for you if you give me 50 bucks.”
“Mate, you took my wallet and the last of my money.”
By now his pals had gathered around, pointing out that a kid in a yellow shirt on a bike who’d vanished was the one responsible. My culprit picked himself up and started crossing the oval, presumably in the direction of this mystical Walker Street destination
A middle-aged lady with two dogs who’d been observing it all came over and warned me against following him. “You be careful,” she told me with a knowing nod. “You never know what you’ll find where he leads you.”
“It’ll be fine,” I assured her. “All I want is my keys. And if I get any grief I’ll just tell them my cousin plays halfback for Australia and we’ll be cool.”
“Who’s your cousin?” asked the other former tree dweller.
I casually dropped his name as I rounded the oval with the aim of heading my eight-year-old mate off at the pass. The dog walker, ironically a Doggies fan, wanted to talk footy all of a sudden.
As I intercepted the bag snatcher at the nearest intersection, the kid in the yellow shirt rode off in the distance. I followed my mate across the road towards the apartment towers – an adult woman was walking towards us on the other side. His mum.
“Hi, I’m Kris,” I said as she crossed towards us. “Your young fella was with some kids who stole my backpack the other day and I just want my keys back. Can you help me out?”
He continued to cry as he walked down the street and rounded the next corner. “I can’t talk to him when he’s like this,” she sighed, friendly but world-weary. “I’ll ask him later and come see you down the park another time.”
“I’ll be running for another half an hour and I really want the keys back today,” I pleaded. “Otherwise on Monday I’m going to fork out a hundred bucks I don’t have for a new set.”
As we walked back towards the ground together, she shook her head and muttered. “Why is it a drama around here every fucking day?”
The kid suddenly reappeared and was now following us towards the intersection. As we were about to cross the road, he threw something in the gutter in my general direction. “There’s your fucking keys!” he shouted. I walked back, picked them up and said “Thanks mate” as I offered him a handshake. “Fuck off!” he shouted again as he walked past me to his mum.
“See, that wasn’t so hard, was it?” I joked as I walked back to Redfern Oval and recommenced my lapwork. He and his mum walked past a few times as I ran – he stared up at me fearfully, I nodded respectfully back as if tipping my hat to him.
And after all that, I didn’t even have to mention my cousin.