May 2, 2014 § 1 Comment
The in-laws would gloat if they could see all this: the sad commute from Chatswood to Artarmon to Wollstonecraft to so on and so on. Mondays to Fridays, like a one-track record on repeat. The quick, desperate weeping in the train station lavatory. Before that, the innocent unknowing kisses and hugs from the wife and the kids; have-a-good-days and love-yous.
Imagine the insults they’d hurl, the questions, the judgements, the spitting on the ground, the arrogant look-aways. The dusting of hands as if to say, ‘I was right all along. My work here is done.’
Look at him, they’d think, disgusted in that quintessentially Nigerian way of being disgusted. Doesn’t he have shame? He wanted to read literature. What did literature do for him in the end? Chinyere, didn’t we tell you to marry someone with sense? Someone with a Profession. You went to read Law and then went to marry a man who read nonsense. Didn’t we tell you? How does it feel now, to be taking care of your –
He gets a shove in the back. Then another. Oh crap. People are waiting to alight and they’re looking at him all pissed off as he hurries out onto the platform at North Sydney and stands beside the hissing train. Diligently, like a porter. Head down, like a porter destined to die a porter.
People stream out, stream it. All he can hear are Chinyere’s parents. See him there like a servant, they’re saying. What kind of name is Miles anyhow? Miles Agahowa. What kind of useless surname is Agahowa? I knew someone with that surname. She was useless. They dust their hands again.
The train departs.
Next to him a woman is talking on her flip-phone. She is going on about some guy, presumably to a lady friend. Says things like, “I’ve dated too many kids, Loz, I’ve dated too many and now I’m just tired, sick and tired and pissed.” Things like, “as if gender equality gives him the right to be such a shit. As if. He pretty much just moved off of his parents’ couch onto mine. I know! Get an effing job!” And whines and sighs followed by words like “see you tonight, babe. Should be a good night.”
The lady buries the phone in her bottomless handbag, looks ahead, looks around, and then her eyes meet Miles’. She looks at him as if to say, You’ve been listening to what I’ve been saying, haven’t you? And Miles looks down at his shoes as if to say, I’m sorry. Please don’t judge me; I’m in a really bad place right now. Which is accurate.
The water view from the bridge, Opera House’s browning ivory shells, the plainness of Centrepoint Tower, all hold little beauty anymore. That calm he once felt now feels like one huge big nothing and he suddenly becomes aware of how little he is; schoolkids even, towering above him like trees from the Niger Delta.
Flip-phone woman gets off at Wynyard. Miles hops down one stop further at Town Hall, along with the masses. Like ants they go their own little ways, bumping, almost bumping, scuttling round one another and popping through ticket gates and dispersing like pollen.
Miles emerges onto the surface, onto George Street with its rush and its racket and its buildings blocking out the sun. Looking down along it, his nostrils begin to sting and the breeze makes his eyes shimmer. Or maybe it’s not the breeze.
Somewhere up there, in that building over there reaching for some puffs of cloud, is where he first felt euphoria. Where he consummated his love for words, for reading them, for the eureka moment when a gem glints out from among the dirt. But to Bleak & Flats Publishing he was just a rubber. Use and discard. And they did. Reader for nine years, never making editor, by choice: he’d had it coming. But, one month on and a generous redundancy package in the bag, he still feels more gutted than a snapper at the Fish Markets. More fucked than a hooker paid in counterfeits.
But if there is a good side to everything it must be that he was a loner, just him and the words. The good thing about not having friends from work: wives can’t wonder how other wives are dealing with layoffs.
He stands on the street corner with his briefcase and thinks, I’ll do juju on you all! Juju being black magic. Then he turns and descends into the subterranean and buys a one-way ticket to Bondi Junction. He walks past a charcoal-black man wearing orange, green and brown, whose whole look screams ‘I have a humanitarian visa’ and ‘I shovel gravel for the city council’. Whose eyes seem to say, Join the club, my brother.
In response Miles would say, ‘I have a degree in English literature, my brother,’ to which the man would reply, ‘how’s that working out for you?’
‘I hope you’re enjoying the minimum wage.’
‘Have fun lying to your children.’
Because standing on public transport is his little thing, his little OCD quirk, Miles refuses to sit, despite how odd it might seem what with all the empty seats, what with the lack of rush, what with the lack of a job to rush to.
The train hits Bondi Interchange and Miles hits the bus stands; joins the 380direct to the beach. On the 380 there is a black man, another one. An African. Must be. Oh, and he’s debonair: shaved head, pinstripe suit, slick tie. A dentist Miles guesses. He stares Miles down as Miles walks to the back door and stands against a pole.
Dr Dentist (or Mr Diplomat; one can never rule out diplomat) is most probably considering the back of Miles’ head thinking, Jobless…aimless and wandering…unsure of himself…feels he is not worthy to sit in a public bus. Why did he have to be one of us?
Miles can’t wait to get the hell off.
It feels nice out on the promenade. Enough for Miles to forget, momentarily, how much he wants to die. The sun is civil in its heat, the breeze gentle, the ocean serene in its violence, the sands lightly peppered with people who apparently don’t work. People like him. He should go down and introduce himself.
He walks up and down the length of the beach numerous times, but never on the beach. Disillusionment will do that to you.
Pasted to a telephone pole is a poster with the word MISSING screaming off it. A sixty-something-year-old man: plain-faced, conservative to the core probably, loved by many, all of a sudden lost and at large. Grandkids keep asking, ‘where’s poppy?’
‘Wherever poppy is, he’s thinking of you and you and you and you. Okay?’
But inside mom and dad know that the only child grandpa ever really cared about – that One-Stop auto shop he birthed and breastfed and brought up – is gone, liquidated, and so too his will to live. They know exactly where he is. That he won’t be doing a Lazarus along with the economy, whenever the economy does. The poster is just a sick formality to convince his restless ghost that his family made every effort.
Miles can’t understand how it is that he has been staring at a poster for fifteen minutes, in a daze for fourteen of those. Even more unbelievable, how hours can be burned up just strolling. Simple, aimless strolling. Hours, days, burned up. Boredom, guilt, calories, the last scraps of hope and sanity. Kilometres upon kilometres. Miles. Popping into surf shops, sitting on benches, looking odd with his coat and his briefcase as he watches the hissing surf flirt with the sand, kissing and running away. Being suddenly overwhelmed and disappearing into a public toilet cubicle, shuddering but unable to force out even a tear.
It’s lunchtime and he could vandalise a plate of fish and chips. Café Kuhli seems good, reasonable. And it is good. Reasonable, not so much. But the waitress is pretty.
A little drama plays out on the beach as Miles is slurping down his chips. Someone has stepped on something (needle? broken bottle? bluebottle?) and the sand is getting redder. A lifeguard flies out with a first aid kit. Miles imagines himself flying out with a copy of To Kill a Mockingbird and an appraisal of George Saunders’ newest book.
‘Why are you thinking about me? I can’t help you now, I’m dead,’ he can envision his father saying, spit congealed in the corners of his mouth. ‘If you were a doctor you wouldn’t be like this, eating fried potato and walking around like a street kid, like agbero. Useless. You wouldn’t be eating fried potato with money your lawyer wife gave you, watching that man exsanguinate.’
‘Papa, it’s my own money.’
‘Of course. What else could you do with your own money?’
Miles signals for the bill; would like to signal for a paper bag to vomit in when he takes a look at it. Luckily his wallet contains a fifty he hadn’t been aware of. So he leaves a hefty tip for the pretty girl, a tip he cannot afford. Just like his father used to do whenever they ate at roadside restaurants in Abeokuta.
Across the street, hanging around the bus stop, Miles feels a buzzing in his coat followed by an annoying, instrumental ditty. Into the pocket goes the hand and out comes the phone. A number he does not recognise, international no doubt what with its string of digits.
Nothing. He knows what this is.
These peo–ple, he thinks in his most savage thought-voice. His nephews Angus or Elias most likely, calling to ask for money for who knows what. Demanding ‘just some thousand dollar’ which he will end up sending because – well – because he just can’t not. They do that, these people, these so-called ‘family’. They call, then they hang up. Saves them credit. He will never call back, so he puts the phone away.
On the 333, not to the interchange this time but straight to Elizabeth Street, the buzzing starts again. Like Billy the Kid drawing a gun Miles brings the phone to his face.
“Hello?!” Probably a bit too loud because people turn to look.
Again, no answer.
Miles wants to throttle somebody. Like that lady down there who keeps looking, turning and looking as though she hopes she won’t miss anything.
Idiots, he rages at his nephews. Fools! Selfish, he rages at the rest. They think people breathe money in the west? Bathe in it, dine on it? Piss it, shit it, impregnate their wives and lovers with it? Maybe he should one day ask the Western Union clerk how transfer of bodily fluids works. Chinyere is far more accommodating, far more generous of heart, of spirit, of mind. Stupidly so? Maybe.
Miles suddenly thinks of her, of how he would kill to lie by her feet and cry like a buffoon and beg for her pity because her mercy would be too much to ask let alone her forgiveness. It would slay her to think that he feared her judgement, expected any judgement at all. That he feared being an embarrassment to her.
As the city floats slowly past he can’t help but feel that he has never felt so small, and that she – God, Chinyere – that she deserves bigger.
Dora and Nonso. What about Dora and Nonso?! Could a father sink lower than lying two-faced to his kids? Lying about who he is and what he has become however shameful? Accepting from them Hallmark cards that claim he is the World’s #1 Dad. Eating Dora’s everything-goes omelette in bed, and Nonso’s burnt toast.
“I am scum,” he tells himself softly.
‘Idiot,’ say the in-laws.
“Scum,” he says again.
‘My child. I didn’t say it. You said it,’ says his mother, looking away wet-eyed.
The bus scrapes the kerb.
Miles drifts along Elizabeth Street, crosses over to George Street, traversing all those other streets. Sleepwalks into Dymocks and peruses books of all sorts. Blows two hours perusing. Hopes one of the store clerks will notice him and find it incredibly odd that this black guy has come in every working day for near on a month now and done nothing but peruse. But no one approaches and when the clock hits four he is walking to Wynyard.
“Excuse me, sir…”
Miles is too tired – or who knows what else – to just keep on walking to Wynyard station, so he approaches the young man wearing a t-shirt.
“Sir, I was just wondering: have you heard of GlobalSpree?”
Miles just stares at the boy’s t-shirt: GlobalSpree – spending injudiciously for social justice.
“Well…you’ve heard that thousands of children are dying every day in underdeveloped countries from preventable causes.” He’s beating pamphlets with the back of his hand. “Malnutrition, dirty water, preventable diseases, war – ”
“I’m sponsoring a very large family. A very large, useless family. Who call at two in the morning to ask for money.”
“It’s very funny, because I have to eat. My wife has to eat, my children have to eat, they can’t go to school naked, I can’t walk on the street naked, my wife can’t go to work naked. My children go to schools that are hungry for money. Fundraisers, this, that – ”
“Sir, I – ”
“On top of that, I have no job, I’m like a child. They ‘let me go’, as you people say here. So here I am, jobless. I haven’t done anything today. Can you believe it? Nothing. No–thing. You want to take my coat and send it to Sudan or Burkina Faso or wherever, for them to eat? Here. Take my shoes. Take my briefcase.”
People are beginning to stare. Subtly, respectfully maybe. But it is definitely a slow-down-as-you-walk-past spot on the pavement. The boy is flustered, dry-mouthed, keen to rip off the GlobalSpree t-shirt and make a dash for it. This job sucks and it doesn’t pay shit and it isn’t worth this.
“Sir, thank you for your time – ”
“Take my watch.”
“Thank you, sir. I won’t take any more of your time.”
“You’re very kind.”
The boy steps away.
Miles gives a stiff-handed wave goodbye, walks away semi delirious, ignorant of the staring.
Miles breaks his rule; sits down inside the train. Slumps really.
At North Sydney a cavalcade of people flood the thing. Miles is in the upper galley, whose aisle fills up with people flowing up from below, who search for seats and, not finding any, end up standing.
Beside Miles is a lady again, this time strapping in business attire, seeming sure of what she is doing in life, where she is going, and how she is getting there. As the train starts for Waverton Miles half stands and leans forward into the lady’s field of vision.
“Excuse me. Do you want to sit down?”
She half turns; looks at him from top to bottom to top, him still half standing, her poker face entertaining — what could it be — a smirk?
“No, I’m okay,” she says, then looks away.
Miles sits his butt back down, smiles to himself, embarrassed. No proof exists and no research has been done, but Miles will vouch for this: that she would have taken his offer like that if he wasn’t a jobless, bona fide sad excuse for a man.
Come Chatswood, Miles leaves the train, joins the escalator rising from the platform and emerges in Chatswood Mall on Victoria Avenue. He finds a bench in the middle of the walkway and plonks down on it. Wouldn’t he love to see his face right now. See if he hasn’t perhaps grown a beard or sprouted one or two greys. What a day. What a nothing day.
Oh Christ, now his shoulders are lurching and his face is squeezing and he sobs but tears aren’t streaming though his eyes do turn an emotional shade of red. Miles hides his face but couldn’t possibly care who might be slowing, gawking, pointing, whispering.
When he is done he raises his head. Looks up. A gaggle of schoolkids exit a surf/skate store right in front of him. They must be from Nonso’s school because that is the uniform: navy-striped shirts on black slacks. Because – for goodness sake – Nonso! Wearing sunglasses!
Today is Tuesday and on Tuesdays he has after-school tutorials. And here he is, wearing sunglasses.
Nonso sees Miles and slows. A moment passes between them. A father is disheartened when his son places a secure future in jeopardy. Miles would know. But what does a son feel when he comes upon his father on a bench in a crowded outdoor mall, eyes red and obviously dripping, shoulders hunched, his face looking older than the sum of his woes? What does a child begin to think?
The group keeps moving and Nonso with it.
Miles can’t decide whether to be mad or anxious. But the boy won’t say anything. And even if he does what would it be? And who would believe it? Were Nonso one of his cousins back home, back in Osogbo, he’d be addressing him as sir, forget ‘dad’. Doing half-bows in place of casual hellos and hi’s. Seniority trumps all, for now. Until, eventually, the bills become that little bit harder to pay and the budget becomes that little bit tighter and Chinyere demands she has a look at all the invoices and statements because it just doesn’t make sense.
‘Chinyere,’ he’d say as paper goes flying, ‘please. Please understand. Chinyere?’
Miles stands, kneads his head with his fingers and waddles to the nearest bus stand. Shrugs off whatever he can and collects himself. Starts piecing together some sort of a story in his head. Some sort of workplace grievance: colleagues, deadlines, racism. Work is always more believable when you appear to hate it.
* PS: I wrote this story before I saw or even heard of the fantastic film ‘L’emploi du temps’ (Time Out) directed by Laurent Cantet and released in 2001. It’s a far, far superior iteration of this premise and I recommend it highly.