Billy led Amber under the lights along a pathway that snaked its way around ancient trees and comfy chairs. Rolling grassy parkland extended way off to the left, around the base of the hill leading up to Crag Hat and continuing all the way around to the Opera House. Tranquil ponds settled in seclusion under trees where families spent lazy days feeding bread to ducks, and watching in horror as the murky water came alive in a wrestle of slimy eels fighting for a slice of their own.
This side of Crag Hat came to a T–intersection at a rock wall on the harbour foreshore. Deep blue water descended just metres off the path where fishermen concentrated on their lines under lamp posts that attracted curious fish. The rock wall, a fully stocked supermarket for big fish hunting for a feed of fingerlings hiding amongst the crevices.
The left led Billy and Amber into a salty breeze. Past a lighthouse–like–fisherman, his eyes searching the darkened waters, his mind focused on the line running over his wrinkled old index finger. Billy wanted to ask him how he’d made his fishing line, but he knew better than to disturb a man on the hunt. Suddenly the old fella jerked into lightning quick action, setting the hook and hauling in his dinner. It flapped against his chest wildly as he struggled to get a hold of it and remove the hook.
“Mullet!” he smiled wide with pride.
“Billy!” Billy replied.
It was only then that the old man looked at Billy proper, sea spray blurring his focus through Coke–bottle glasses, his ping–pong sized eyeballs staring Billy straight in the face — a schoolteacher’s wisdom sure of a smart–arse.
Billy stared back, enthralled by the show his eyeballs presented as they slowly rose all the way up to the tips of Billy’s long red ears. And suddenly back again to Billy’s delighted face. They squinted then, trying to focus past Billy’s face to the rats and cat swinging from the broomstick over his shoulder. Then his eyes bugged out even bigger and his jaw dropped in a display that Billy would one day find impossible to describe to his brothers.
“This is Amber,” Billy blurted out, keen to see what the old fella’s face would do next and proud as punch to be introducing her to someone.
“Hello,” Amber giggled, quickly leading Billy away and leaving the fisherman to close his own mouth.
Billy steered her off the path, past a large sandpit filled with swings, monkey bars and a pirate ship, into a darkened area of picnic tables and the glow of a fire, withered now, too tired to shoot stars into the night sky.
“Nice place, Billy!”
“Yeah, good spirits here.”
They sat straight down around the fire and added some fresh wood to the coals. Not too much, just enough for a cosy little two person fire while Billy got straight to work on dinner knowing how hungry Amber was. From his bag he retrieved the tiny obsidian knife that Cobar had used for his circumcision, and made a small incision beside a rat’s anus.
“Watcha doin’?” she asked while poking at the fire to liven it up.
“Pullin’ the shit out.”
“Know what it’ll taste like if I don’t?”
“Ya gotta make me some toast!”
“Might not have to if your cooking’s as good as you reckon it is.”
“Well I’m never gonna get any toast ‘cause my cooking’s the best!”
“It would have to be to make a rat taste any good!”
“They gonna be good, Amber, they got …”
“‘… plenty fat on them.’ I know. I can’t wait.”
He broke a twig into a hook and carefully inserted it into the incision, gave it a twist and slowly pulled out a nice, neat, little, sausage of faeces. He cut it, tied a knot in what remained of the intestine, shoved it back inside the incision and then threw the carcass into the flames. It flared up impressively, making Amber reel back in disgust, the smell of burning fur tightening her belly into a ball.
Billy thought it was the flames frightening her, little did he know that his first dinner date wasn’t going well at all.
A moment later when all the fur had burned off, he dragged the carcass from the flames and proceeded to scrape it clean with his big knife.
Amber was totally grossed out at the sight of the bald rat held so casually in Billy’s hand, the knot in her stomach getting tighter by the minute.
Satisfied it was clean, Billy then used a stick to scrape a pile of coals away from the flames where he lay the rat to cook.
“Don’t you take the rest of the guts out?” Amber enquired, not sure if it would have made her feel any better anyway.
“Nah, taste better like this.”
“Sure makes it easy.”
“I don’t have to look for water all the time too ‘cause it’s still inside him.”
“I’ve never seen anything cooked like that before. How do you know when it’s ready?”
“When his bum starts steaming like a teapot.” Billy watched Amber out of the corner of his eye as she checked the rat’s bum, and then he cracked up laughing.
“You bugger!” she laughed with a slap on his arm. “They don’t steam like a teapot.”
By the time he’d finished removing the sausages from the other rats, the first two had cooked through. So with much bravado, he proudly lay one on a piece of wood and passed it to Amber.
She just stared at it in disgust. Its lips had dried and curled back exposing two, long, yellow teeth.
Billy decided to lead the way so he pinched a foot between thumb and forefinger and gently twisted, pulling the rump until it released like a tiny chicken drumstick. Holding it up lovingly, he admired the steam swirling above the glistening white meat.
“See, lots of water!”
“Ooo,” Amber groaned, her eyes wide with dread.
Then he clamped it between his lips to suck on the bone, the little rat foot with its long, dirty, white claws sticking out and moving about as he kneaded the meat with his tongue. A drizzle of fat oozed down his lip, making Amber cringe. He crunched into the bone, spat the foot into the fire and licked the fat off his lip in delight.
“Mmm, mmm — that’s good tucker, mate!”
“Oh God!” Amber groaned again.
“You gonna like it, Amber. Go on, they the best ever!”
“I am so hungry!” She heaved out a sigh and did as Billy had done — pulling and twisting but without any real ambition. And then, far before she was ready, she found herself staring at a fat little rump of rat, its moisture glistening in the moonlight, time standing completely still.
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