When I was still just a boy, I learned that to want is a weakness and to want too much is to give power to others. Now I know that this is the history of the world but back then it was just another hot Saturday afternoon as I pushed my bike across the bed of a sandy creek and then rode up the dirt road towards Marinko’s house. I passed the field where Marinko told us he had killed the kittens. He had been about to dash their heads against a wall, as he’d done previously, when he decided instead to put the sightless, newborn cats in a hessian bag. Then he left the bag in the middle of an empty tomato field to bake in the summer sun. Each hour he would come back and make bets on which kitten would survive the longest. He was cruel, that boy, the cruellest boy in our town.
And, one day, in the fruit-packing shed at Marinko’s, I came to want the German greatcoat. I had seen it many times before, its black leather covered in stains, the tears where white undercloth showed through. It hung in a corner of the corrugated iron shed with the smell of rotting fruit and fertiliser. On this particular day, Marinko pointed it out to me. “My Dad got it off a German during the war. It was an officer’s jacket”
“How did he get it?” I asked.
“He was a partisan in Yugoslavia,” Marinko said and then, seeing I was interested, he called to his father, “Hey, Dad, tell us where you got the jacket.” Mr Vujkovic didn’t look up from the bunch of bananas he was de-handing with a knife. He said something I didn’t understand and Marinko shrugged. “He never tells you anything. It’s true though; he was a partisan.”
Marinko’s father showed us only the top of his greying hair, head down, washing the hands of bananas and laying them in neat rows on the bench in front of him. His white singlet was covered with the stains of banana plants, his black shorts smudged with mud. He never spoke to us and only pointed towards the house when we found him in the fields and asked about Marinko.
“Can I have a closer look?” I asked. Marinko climbed onto the fruit-sorting table and unhooked the jacket with two hands. We were only thirteen and he groaned with the weight. “It’s heavy; real leather.” Marinko handed the jacket to me and I held it clumsily, unable even to hold it upright in front of me. I longed to put it on even knowing that it would not fit. Marinko seemed to know what I was thinking. “It’s too big for you,” he said as he took it back and he wasn’t able to resist smirking at me. I hated him then, not because he was right, but because I felt something shift between us that made him powerful and me weak.
Then summer came and the cicadas shrill ringing in the trees added a familiar accompaniment to the trembling landscape of greens and browns. I rode my bike past the shady rows of bananas on the Vukjovic plantation which sat on the edge of the dry river. It was early afternoon and the fallow fields seemed to sway in the heat. I leaned my bike up against the wall of the fruit-packing shed and squinted into the darkness. The Vukjovic home, a small rectangle of fibro and tin, adjoined the shed with a single door and I heard this open.
Mr Vukjovic came out, paused for a moment and stared at me. “Is Marinko home?” I asked. He said nothing and moved toward bunches of bananas lying on their backs on a rusting trailer. I stepped into the shade and gradually my eyes adjusted to the light. I asked him again, “Is Marinko here?” Mr Vukjovic lifted a bunch of bananas onto his shoulders and then onto the bench. He picked up a short knife stained black with banana juice. “No,” he said. His voice was thick and guttural. We had had this conversation before and it never went any further. Each time I would get on my bike and ride away. But now my eyes briefly sought out the German greatcoat. Mirenko’s father noticed this and he put down the knife and handed the jacket to me.
I stood there holding it and feeling him watch me. “Germans,” he said. “We come out of the hills like this.” He made the sound of a machine gun and waved the imaginary weapon backwards and forwards. Then he laughed and I smiled back still holding the coat uncertainly. “Did you kill this German,” I asked.
Mr Vukjovic dropped his arms and his smile disappeared. “He was dead already,” he said and then he added, “But I made sure anyway,” He lifted his head and dashed an upraised thumb across the white stubble of his neck. Then he looked down at me with his arms by his side.
I heard him say something under his breath. When I didn’t reply he appeared to grow angry. “Do you want the jacket, boy?” I nodded. “Then you take the jacket,” he said abruptly. He motioned me away with his arm.
“Can I really?” I asked.
“You take it. I won’t shoot you.” But he didn’t smile when he said this.
“Thanks,” I said quietly, feeling confused like I sometimes did when my Grandfather made a joke that was like some kind of trap.
I walked towards my bike, the coat dragging on the ground. Marinko’s father followed me and stood by me as I tried hopelessly to fold the greatcoat, tried to place it on my handlebars knowing that it would not stay there. It fell and I picked it up, refolding it into a clumsy parcel. Somehow I managed to gain my seat and went a few metres before falling sidewards against the packing shed wall and then the hard earth.
Marinko’s father stood beside me and said nothing as I rubbed a scratch on my leg made by the bike pedal. “You put the coat on,” he said and pulled me to my feet with one arm. I said nothing now as he jerked the army jacket roughly over my arms and shoulders like a cape. The weight made me hunch forward. Mr Vukjovic picked up my bike, put an arm around my waist and lifted me onto the seat. “Go,” he said. “Go.” But part of the jacket had fallen over the back wheel making the pedals harder to push. I felt the man’s hand on my shoulder and knew that this was all that kept me balanced. Then the front wheel twisted in the sand and I fell. Again Mirenko’s father pulled me to my feet, placed me on the seat and pushed me forward.
When I fell once more, he turned me over roughly on the ground and pulled the greatcoat from my back. Then he walked into the shed and I could hear him dropping the hands of bananas into the water of the cleaning trough. I was crying silently, pushing my bike to the harder edge of the dirt track that led away from the house. I felt the sun’s heat on my neck; saw that I was covered in dust and that my tears had made strange patterns on my arms where I’d wiped my eyes.
A few weeks later I waited for an excuse, some small provocation, and then, without warning, I punched Marinko Vukjovic as hard as I could in the face. Blood spurted from his nose and water sprang to his eyes. He was in pain but he was also hurt; he thought I was his friend. “Why?” was all he said and then with sudden anger, he screamed at me “Why, you little bastard?” Other boys pulled us apart but I had finished. I walked away, my hands in my pockets to stop them from shaking. I never hit any one again in my life and I learned not to want things.