May 18, 2015 § Leave a comment
My once good friend Benets has this place in Tangier; an apartment that isn’t all that cosy, that has a pair of bedrooms sized like halls and a balcony that overlooks a skyline of cracked still-cracking walls and peeling paintjobs, domes and lanky minarets. We rest our elbows on the stone balustrade and run our eyes along clotheslines that span buildings, bridging windows, hard to tell from telephone lines or lines strung up for reasons long forgotten. We drink our drinks, he scotch and I port. We admire the remains of Spanish-run days and of the sun, and then we move inside to take ease on his leather settees, in the evening heavy and cool.
‘Couldn’t you just eat this view?’ he says to me.
I tell him I doubt it could fit in my mouth even if I tried. I take the two-note noise from his throat to be some sort of a chuckle.
‘Scotch?’ he says sitting up and holding a position.
‘It’ll do me, Benets. I don’t mind port.’ We call him Benets to his face.
Benets grunts his way out of the hollow in the settee made by his ass. The patter of his loafers peters off into silence, but I know he’s only a little way off, by the coat stand pouring what he wishes was a scotch and what I’m hoping is just port.
I look out towards the balcony at the purple sky and I see a pair of minarets peeking over the railing. Below, between the uprights, I can see the rest of Tangier and it looks glorious as far as the bay. Has a rundown charm even in silhouette. I pull back my focus and fix it on the womanly curves of the balcony’s plinths. My gaze washes over the whole thing, balustrade and all, and I think – in a fit of melancholy – that I haven’t a thing in the world to stop me throwing myself off of it.
‘What was that?’
I say, ‘what was what?’ surprised that my thought could have somehow been made word.
Benets is back with scotch on the rocks in one hand and port in plain glass in the other, wearing an uneasy face.
‘I didn’t get everything but I don’t think I liked the gist of what I think I heard, Moss,’ he’s saying as he struts to his spot on the settee.
‘Benets,’ I laugh, ‘I didn’t say a thing.’ I really want my port and want it in me now.
I laugh. ‘No.’
Benets sits the glasses on the glasstop table but doesn’t sit. Gives a one-note chuckle.
My breath is cordoned. His gaze lacerates me, but then its edge blunts and his face softens and he picks up his drink and seats himself stiffly; glances at me and then away.
I watch him suck on the tan booze, see ice hit his lip and melt a little. He groans (perhaps from pleasure), elbows rested on his knees. Leaning forward I slide the petite glass my way and lift it and knock back a drop; my eyes they never leave him.
‘Must be so nervous I must be hearing things,’ he says to the darkening outside. To the crystal glass at his mouth.
I pitch in by clearing my throat and sipping more port. Benets asks if I ever hear things when I’m nervous.
‘No,’ I say. ‘But my bowels they go funny sometimes.’
Benets says, ‘that’s not so odd.’
I don’t feel quite settled where I’m sitting, like my ass is in the clouds. I ask him what’s gotten him so unnerved; if it’s not just the wedding.
‘Bah…! Anouk’s a big girl and so am I,’ he says.
So as not to laugh at this slight misspeak I roll booze round my mouth. But I find that I’m really not that amused.
I say, ‘maybe the bigger the girl the bigger the nerves. Is that something people say?’
Benets silently shrugs.
‘I’m not nervous,’ he says with sudden verve, after an extended post-shrug silence. ‘Do I look nervous? Maybe anxious, but that’s a different thing to nervous.’
‘Well,’ I say, ‘I hope it’s just anxiety and not nerves.’
Anouk, Benets’ bride to be, hasn’t an anxious bone anywhere anyplace. She’s a French expatriate whom Benets met on a boating trip, the kind well-off folk take to remind themselves how well-off they are and how much less well-off they could be. They talked as they sailed from Boumerdés but that’s all I know of how they encountered.
My first encounter with Anouk was at a newsstand, on the cover of a magazine. She would later disarm me with her deathly sense of humour and her dissertation on the benefits of being underweight. Benets is crazy about her and I think I am too.
The laces draped over the French doors leading onto the balcony beat softly in the tepid sundown breeze as though fanning Benets. I watch Tangier blacken all around him, watch the laces fall still again, still as he stands. For whatever reason, I get up and amble here, amble there. I eventually stop and stand.
‘I wish there was some way I could say thank you,’ I say.
‘You could just say it.’
‘Been saying it since yesterday, since the airport.’
‘And you think I don’t think it’s enough.’
‘Enough. Such a shit of a word. Is it ever enough for anybody?’
I feel like a hatstand he’s hung his gaze upon. And then I feel naked when he reclaims it and casts it upon the view from the balcony. All is silent for not too long. I’m briefly amused that the glint of the city might outdo that of the stars.
Now past my amusement, I give a quaint laugh. Benets doesn’t ask ‘what?’ as I’d hoped. I step forward once, twice, till we are in effect level-shouldered. I clear my throat of muck. ‘I’m still trying to figure out the catch,’ I lightly say with a hint of a put-on chuckle.
Benets quarter turns and I can see, in the glass he’s holding, a thin film of gold clinging to the rocks now reduced to mere hailstones. His look is blank as he says, ‘what catch?’
‘Feels a little like winning the lottery. Being your best man.’
Benets stares at me. ‘You want out.’
‘Alec,’ I declare. ‘Alec. Please. Not at all. I’m just saying.’
‘I’m just listening.’
‘It’s only – it was odd that you found me, is it not? Hell, remembered. What were the odds?’
‘You forgot me.’
‘If I ever did I can’t recall when. All due respect, but how could I forget? I’d hear your name around…the names of the women you were with…blah, blah. I’d read it in the paper and think to myself I knew that guy. A tower your namesake…Then I’d remember how we were friends once.’
‘You say once as if it’s permanent. I’m not so changed, Moss, just not so stupid, and broke. For sure not broke.’
‘No.’ I feign a smile. ‘It’s just — this is the kind of good thing that doesn’t happen in forever.’ Suddenly, the melancholy.
He has this way of stating questions.
‘Maybe I exaggerate.’
‘Come outside with me for a sec.’
In the darkness of the night on the balcony we are without drink and it all seems so very honest. Far, as far as the bay, I see something queer on the water and think it would be nice if it were the sail of a yacht that was out for a late stroll.
Fifteen floors underfoot on a two-way street that should be a one-way, two cars duck each other like ex-lovers in a grocer’s aisle. I choose to follow the one on my right with the one dead taillight that’s readying for a left turn but then slows at a junction for a stop sign. Benets chooses to rest his chin on the hair-darkened arms he’s lined up on the balustrade, like a child gazing down, taken with heights.
‘If you leapt,’ he says out of nowhere – and my ears prick – ‘that’d be it.’
I consider the drop with a welling pulse and it is truly quite a drop. ‘So much time to think.’
‘If you leapt you wouldn’t be thinking.’
‘No. But two-thirds down you’d begin.’
‘Huh,’ he says. ‘I wonder what of. Maybe,’ he continues, ‘all the things you’d be leaving behind.’
‘Maybe for some,’ I say despite my suddenly leaden throat, ‘all the things you don’t have to leave behind.’
Benets’ brows collide and his forehead creases and he frowns. ‘You don’t have to. Then why do you?’
‘No no. You leap because there’s nothing to leave behind. Because you don’t have love or money or a daughter or a son or something to fight for, and you don’t have a clue about anything.’
I notice my lungs have emptied and that I am without breath. But I let air leak slowly in as though I don’t need it so much.
Slowly Benets’ lips ease and his forehead skin smooths out and his brows tease apart. Now he is upright and his hands are nestled in his pockets, hidden from this cheeky breeze, this breeze that carries with it the rumpus and spices of Casa Barata, the thieves’ markets. I can almost hear it, the heckling and friendly insults.
‘It’s a sad thing,’ says Benets, ‘that you had so much to gain.’
I’m thinking it’s a sad thing that I still do.
‘A sad thing,’ he says,’ but a good thing. Somehow.’
I look at him.
Two days before the wedding, Benets throws himself from the balcony and drives his skull into the ground. People can’t believe that he fell, how on earth he could have fallen, how drunk he must have been. I can’t believe it either because I know for a fact that he threw himself.
He is survived by a few things ¶.
I was meant to spend the next five days celebrating a marriage. These I end up spending wandering the thieves’ markets or lying in bed reading, in my bedroom in a four-star chain motel. This is when I’m not being summoned to the police station to confirm answers to questions that I’m certain I’ve already been asked.
I know no-one, none of the other guests, certainly not anymore if once upon a time I in fact did. And, from what I hear, none of them are eager to stay much longer in Tangier.
But for me this is free time that I could never pay for out of pocket, and I find that I’m unable to complain, but for the tragedy.
Five days later, I board the return leg that Benets paid for and I fly back to where I’m from, with the knowledge that he chose me to be his best man but ended himself before I had the chance to do him the honour.
¶ Benrhine Systems Inc., currently down 0.38 per cent on Bloomberg, the presidency of which is soon to be filled by one of a number of very worthy candidates; 714 100 in-car GPS systems worldwide, two million units of a now discontinued line of android smartphones, roughly 8300 sets of security gates installed in stores all along the west coast of the United States and spreading, the IFE (in-flight entertainment) systems of the entire fleets of two international and seventeen regional airlines, the patronage of a well-known Perth-based oil exploration company; Benets Towers in south Seattle, home to 86 offices and 115 residential units including a penthouse featured in Luxury Home Magazine last year; two ex-wives, both of whom remember him as a good man but a bad husband, and barren; nearly three dozen ex-lovers (a love affair being arbitrarily defined as having lasted more than a month), most of whom would describe him as a decent man and a good lover, but incompatible with commitment; a Cessna Citation Sovereign business jet, and a Cessna Corvalis TTX that he was learning to fly with, which looks avocado green in the right light, usually late in the evening; two godchildren; homes in 5 out of 6 major continents numbering 8 in all, homes being properties that do not earn rent in the owner’s absence – his personal property investments number in the tens and fetch tens of millions; a weeping, head-turning beauty of a fiancée who I suspect will never again betray her vow to never invest herself, her time or her heart in people, fickle people.
December 2, 2014 § Leave a comment
Nia: Babe, I’m at work.
Jez: When do you finish?
Nia: Eleven thirty.
Jez: Fuckin’ shit.
Nia: You poor thing, I’m so sorry; that suuucks.
Jez: (emphatic sigh through the nose)
Nia: How much did you put in?
Jez: Forty bucks. And I opened a Coke.
Nia: Can you at least pay for the Coke?
Jez: What’s the point of that? That doesn’t fucking help me.
Nia: Isn’t there anyone else you could call?
The line briefly goes dead, or just dead quiet.
Jez: I’m sorry the first person I thought of calling was you.
Nia: Don’t be like that; I’m just saying…maybe someone’s free like right now.
Jez: Fuck it. I’ll just bounce –
Nia: No, don’t! Don’t, Jez. Um…give me like fifteen minutes.
Jez: Fifteen? Fifteen fucking –
“Nia. Why are you sitting?”
Nia: Um, just – text me the place bye!
“Always, she’s sitting,” says Devon to who knows who. “You come to work late, then you sit.”
Nia’s sprung to her feet and has just managed to get her phone out of sight. The staff tea room looks kind of cramped tonight, especially with Devon’s head poking in and taking up space.
“Yeah, I wasn’t sure if there were any deliveries ready or anything,” says Nia.
“How can you know by just sitting? See here, Matt has a bag bulging; go see what’s he got. Matt! You have some delivery for Nia?”
“Yep,” someone yelps from somewhere unseen, presumably Matt from presumably the kitchen.
“Okay, go, now you have something,” Devon says with a refractory gentleness and an encouraging hand on the shoulder that is calculated but generally sincere.
He watches Nia slink past him in the tea room doorway, all thin long arms, black hair and no tits. He knows that he should goddamn fire the girl, but it wouldn’t be a simple ‘pack your things and leave, you pain in the ass’ deal. She’s not insolent or a brat, or combative; she’s not wilfully unprofessional or maliciously untrustworthy. He wonders if moping is a fireable offence because this she does do a great deal, the whole moping thing.
Matt says “hey” as he swings two taut, large paper bags pregnant with food-filled disposable tubs onto the counter, an invoice stuck to the stapled-up mouth of one of them.
The violence and heat of the kitchen has always put Nia off, has always made her feel kind of unwell. She sneaks a peek at her phone in case Jez has texted his whereabouts, which he hasn’t.
“Your old mate,” Matt says patting one of the bags, looking in the mood for a chat.
“My old mate? What, who?”
“Mr Good-looking Nice Smile Can’t Cook. Remember him?”
Nia’s smirk is tired. “Oh. Him. I thought he forgot about us.”
“Probably learned to cook.”
“He just happened to forget how to turn on the stove tonight?”
“Maybe he discovered that he can’t actually cook for shit, but needed six months just to be sure.”
Whilst chuckling away what little energy she has, Nia catches Devon pulling a long face in the hallway, so she kills the laughter, tells Matt that she’ll ‘catch him’ and exits out the back way. Her little 1998 Nissan is angled parked such that the windshield stares directly into The Chef and I where Devon’s patrons enjoy the redone décor and the upmarket, new, apparently revisionist Thai menu.
Before placing the bags at the foot of the front passenger seat, Nia scans the invoice to kill her curiosity:
Curry puffs x2 10.00
Kanom buang 18.90
Tung tong 9.50
Green papaya salad 14.50
Pla sam roas 36.90
Steamed jasmine rice x3 10.50
100.30 (incl. GST)
Pretty standard stuff. Must be stocking up for the next few days, she thinks, or some brief apocalypse he alone is aware of. Probably wouldn’t matter if the goods arrived a little cold then, which is convenient seeing as she’s a little behind on the delivery, time-wise. According to Devon’s rule, an order should be in a customer’s mouth, bathed in saliva, no more than forty-five minutes from the time of its being placed.
The phone shivers in Nia’s pocket and she draws it like an ace gunfighter from the old west.
Jez: Nia, are you coming or should I just bounce and deal with the consequences?
Nia: Just – hold on, Jez. Fuck, just wait.
With one hand on the wheel, she floors the old wagon into a rapid reversing arc and motors off, barely slowing at the stop sign standing not twenty feet from where she was parked. Doing something that normally makes her hurl silent curses at fellow motorists, Nia alternates between looking ahead at the road and at her iPhone’s cracked screen and soon hears herself cussing Jez for not even bothering to help her help him by letting her know, at the very least, where exactly it is that her help is needed.
Babe, I’m at work. Babe, I’m at work. She actually said this to him.
Babe: a remnant of a time when she might have been a little smitten, now an instinctual overcompensation for the fact that she no longer feels all-consuming affection or has even a whiff of animal attraction but is instead subject to something more akin to the self-punishing sense of responsibility one often bears after having purchased a faulty used car they failed to properly evaluate or made a bad bet at the races. But what does it matter? Whether for love or duty, being at the behest of a noob is a downright waste of whatever potential she might currently possess or might have once had.
At this rate she may as well just place herself enroute to 87 Deluca Close where the customer whose name she knows to be Ray (aka Good Looking Nice Smile Can’t Cook), who once made her navel flutter every time she approached his door with a bag of Pad Thai and Tom Yum and who she swears made sex eyes at a then very barely legal her, is probably growing impatient by the minute in his boxer shorts.
Then it comes: caltex moretoun st; on a lit up screen and accompanied by a quick burst of vibration muted by the scuffed-up seat upholstery.
Nia says, “bloody hell,” but quickly accepts that she will no longer be making a left turn at the next lights but will instead be continuing straight for another five kilometres.
The old tan Commodore Jez’s grandpa bequeathed him rests beside the fuel dispenser that’s in closest proximity to the mart which itself looks like one large rectangular lantern in the darkening night, it’s so brightly lit. Perched on his ass on the kerb edge just outside the sliding glass doors is Jez, smoking and drinking a can of Coke. Nia kills her car beside the giant freezer advertising ten kilogram bags of ice going for only three dollars a bag, bringing the total number of parked cars on the lot to five.
Jez holds out his smoking stub to which Nia responds by shaking her head.
“Didn’t realise I was smoking vodka.”
She exchanges gazes with the brown man standing behind the counter, inside the capitalist lantern. “It’s not a good look, turning up at someone’s doorstep smelling like a cigarette.”
“It’s not a good smell,” he says, overly proud of himself and smiling about it.
“I see you demolished the Coke.”
“Well,” he says, seeming almost ashamed (Nia notes with pleasure) “couldn’t exactly put it back in the fucking fridge.”
“Okay, time’s going; let’s pay.”
Jez mumbles something as he stands and follows Nia into the shop. He slows and stops as he passes the skin mags, leaving Nia to approach the counter alone.
“Hi. Number six please.”
“Number six…” says the attendant as Nia appraises the contents of her wallet and he rings up the damage on the till. “…Seventy two ninety one.”
“…no, number six; the brownish car just there.”
“Yes, seventy two ninety one.”
Nia looks at him as though she could have sworn he’d just called her mother a whore, until the obvious realisation dawns on her that Jez is far more likely to insult her mum than this man wearing a tucked-in polo shirt and a Caltex nametag that reads ‘Vinay.’
“Petrol, Coke, cigarettes…comes to seventy two ninety one –”
“Okay, okay, just wait,” she snaps at him as she snaps around in order to hurl eye daggers at Jez who appears to be eye fucking all the skin mag cover girls at once. “Jez, what the fuck?” She says in a whisper.
He just looks at her, his vacant face and hollow posture a marvellous substitute for the most apathetic shrug you ever saw. The futility of reprimanding or attempting to draw reason from such a human being is not at all lost on Nia and she wisely returns her attention to Vinay who is taking no shame in lapping up this latent spectacle that’s dropped by to disrupt an otherwise dull as shit shift.
Nia breathes out hard and long, fingers her wallet, pulls out a card and says “just on credit. Thanks.”
Mad for not being madder at Jez, Nia nothing short of careens into Deluca Close and nabs the first kerbside vacancy that presents itself, knowing full well that she needn’t walk the hundred metres from here to her destination when she could just as easily get away with double parking right outside Ray’s door for the whole of half a minute. But it seems she needs the walk, or perhaps wishes to punish herself with it, the sheer torture that it is.
Nia yanks the order from the front passenger floor and basically assaults the car with its own driver-side door when she throws it shut.
Apart from skinny black-clad Nia stomping down the poorly-lit street, there is someone else further along, a lady stepping out of a car and then burying her torso back inside, probably fumbling with something. Nia marches past and startles the poor woman who is understandably alarmed by the sound of aggressive walking emanating from so close and on this dim street and while she has her back turned. By the time lady has locked the door and begun her high-heeled horse trot towards the curve of the cul-de-sac, Nia has arrived at the door numbered 87 and knocked on it. The door opens and, sure enough, it’s Ray looking like he always has, only now freshly-shaven and reeking of several colognes, decked out in a crisply ironed business shirt and yet, despite all this, coming across as weirdly dishevelled or at the very least a little shambolic.
“Hi, I have an order –”
“– that I made like five fucking hours ago,” he spits through tight, hushed lips.
While he is eyeing the paper bags in Nia’s hand as though debating whether or not to accept it, Ray’s attention shifts abruptly upwards and beyond her. His face falls and turns sallow at a sudden and he pushes past her and jogs out into the dark yelling, “Alexia!”
The lady who had been trailing Nia is now walking back to her car, Ray pursuing her barefooted and repeating her name. He catches up to her and seems to be battling and failing to win himself an audience with her. It’s like a pantomime, all gesticulations and no sound apart from half murmurs and mumbles carried on a barely-there breeze; all that Nia can deduce is that this Alexia isn’t too happy about Ray having Thai delivered to his place; either that or his baby smooth face and collared shirt are somewhat offensive to her, or maybe she thinks that she is being cuckolded by a titless, teenage delivery girl.
It’s over quicker than Nia expects and with a slightly disappointing lack of histrionics. Ray watches Alexia enter her car and drive off. It’s only on his walk back to 87 that Nia realises that he is wearing dress shorts and that this may very well be the straw that broke Alexia’s back.
Ray murders Nia with his eyes as he approaches and she smartly stands aside to let him enter his home.
“…how did you want to pay for this?” Nia squeaks from behind Ray, who turns around and looms over her like a gargoyle’s shadow.
“What was that?”
“I was just wondering how you wanted to pay for the food –”
“I’m not paying for any fucking food. What fucking food? You mean the food that turned up late and ruined my fucking evening? You can take the food and go fuck yourself with it; fuck off.”
Ignoring the avalanche of fucks, Nia stands her ground, not so much from resolve as from being a bit stunned.
“Sir…I can’t leave without payment. Is the thing.”
“Then sleep here.” He hurls the door in her face and assaults something inside, something likely – hopefully – inanimate.
Against her better judgement Nia persists with a series of knocks, none of them thankfully answered.
For some minutes she proceeds to wander back and forth across the two big windows at the front of the unit like some caged beast, the light inside Ray’s place stabbing its way out between the folded blinds. Nia is all of a sudden alarmed by the current paucity of thought that has overtaken her. As her hand is being lightly steamed by the contents of the paper bags, her mind is doing absolutely goddam nothing.
“Nia, so long you’ve been gone,” is how Devon greets Nia as she walks into The Chef and I through the back door, carrying Ray’s unpaid-for food.
Nia stares at him without response, nervous in a way that is unusual for her in his presence.
“He didn’t pay,” she says simply.
“He wouldn’t pay for it, the food.”
“Why?” He takes a step forward and eyes the bags. “Did you take the wrong thing?”
Devon non-maliciously snatches the bag with the receipt stapled to its mouth and peers at it, mouthing ‘curry puffs’ and ‘kanom buang’ before he walks off towards the counter, leaving Nia feeling sick and on her own, with one bag in her hand. She can hear him quizzing Janice and Matt about the order in his usual fussy manner.
Nia cracks open the staff room fridge and finds a largely undrunk bottle of water which she pours into herself, making her innards feel only sicker. Devon walks into the room without anything in his hands.
“You were gone half an hour, Nia,” Devon begins. “It doesn’t take half an hour to drive to Deluca, Deluca is just around the corner; how does it take you half an hour?” he says in a stutter of exasperation.
“It didn’t feel like half an hour.”
“But it was a long time. I remember thinking, where is that girl?”
Nia is looking at different regions of the staff room floor.
“Are you well, Nia? If this job, you’re tired of it, you can always –”
“It wasn’t half an hour.”
Devon looks at her as though his mere gaze could crack her like an eggshell.
“The order, there was no problem with it, so what…he decide he doesn’t want to eat anymore or what? You don’t want to eat, you take the food, you pay the money, you put it in the fridge…but he refuse totally. Why?”
Nia may or may not notice that her right leg has now begun to bounce. Devon certainly does; he’s eyeing that right knee.
“Can’t we just store it?” Nia suggests.
“No. We don’t do that anymore here. The customer, either he pays or…you can take the food home like a…like a…” Devon has something on the tip of his tongue. “…like a…souvenir.”
Devon simply looks at her and she suddenly knows where he’s going; where he’s just gone.
“I don’t want Thai food as a severance package, I want to keep working. Please. I’ll pay for the food.”
“Is not the point.”
“Okay, then I’ll get him to take his food and I’ll get the money. Okay?”
“But why he didn’t take it; what did you do? You were gone such a long time.”
“I don’t know, but I’ll try again. Can I just try again, please?”
Ignoring Devon’s tone, Nia grabs the paper bag at her feet and starts for the doorway, pushing past him. She finds the bag with the invoice stapled to it sitting on a workbench in the now empty, closed-for-the-day kitchen. Devon can still be heard calling her name from the hallway, and as Nia is opening the back door her boss rushes into the kitchen and says “Nia!” in a way that makes her finally come to a halt.
Devon cocks his head to one side and dresses his face with an expression of gentle reproach.
“I don’t like this,” he says. “This I don’t want. I want this to be a new restaurant. This –” he gestures at the food in her hands, “– is not new, is old. I’m tired of this, Nia. I like you, but I’m a businessman; I run a business.”
Nia’s gaze fixates strangely on his nose, dropping in and out of focus.
“You don’t worry about the food,” Devon tells her. “Enjoy it; is my treat.” He’s hoping to god and all of god’s alternatives that she’ll say something, which she doesn’t. “I’ll write you a very nice reference.”
He concludes with “go home, Nia. Rest.”
Devon walks out of the kitchen to presumably attend to his few remaining patrons.
It’s uncanny how mercifully free streets can be when one’s mind is anywhere but on the road ahead. Uncanny, that is, when one does not find oneself ploughing into something. From Nia’s point of view she might as well be ploughing into some void.
The phone kicks up a sudden stink in Nia’s pocket. She shocks herself by slowing down to take the call, decelerating to the upper fringes of the legal 70 kph so as to more safely captain the car with just the one hand.
Jez: Whereabouts are you?
Nia: At work. Why?
Nia knows for a fact that he’s just shrugged. He’s the kind of person who would shrug in a discursive capacity while on the other end of a line.
Nia: Did you just shrug?
Almost immediately, Nia expires deeply through her nose, annoyed at her herself for coming out with a sentence playful and wanton enough for Jez to latch onto as evidence of her having forgiven him for doing whatever it is he thinks she thinks he has done wrong; as proof that everything is O.K. now.
Nia opts for an abrupt change in tone.
Nia: What is it Jez?
Jez: Why’s it got to be anything?
Nia: It doesn’t. But what is it? I’m driving.
Jez: Was just thinking about your tits.
Nia: Right. I hope they’re thinking about you too, but I need to drive.
Jez: Come over later.
Jez: Don’t be frigid.
Nia: Fuck you. I said maybe, that’s enough. And I’m driving.
Just before she kills the connection, Nia can hear Jez flapping his loosened cheeks rapidly back and forth, emulating some kind of propeller. This kind of inane shit would have normally teased a laugh or a smile from her, coming from him at least, but at the moment it’s quite possibly turned her scowl into a frown, the same frown that decorates her face as she beats Ray’s door with her fist.
She cruises his still-blinded windows behind which a dim light shines. While she’s at this, the front door whines open and Ray half steps out.
“Why are you harassing me?” he says.
“I just want the payment.” She holds up the bags. “I brought your food. Please take it. I can’t take it back.”
Ray looks at her hands, then at her face.
“What, you’ve been driving around with that for the last hour?” says Ray.
“There’s nothing wrong with it.”
As though she just realised her arms had dropped back down, Nia offers up the food bags once again.
Ray fixates on her face. “You really fucked up my evening.”
“I wasn’t that late. But I’m sorry.”
“You were late enough to fuck up my night; do you have a problem with accepting that fact?” he says with a sudden surge of hostility.
“I’m sorry I fucked up your night,” Nia says; diplomacy under duress.
During the exchange Ray has somehow edged his way from halfway in the doorway to being four feet from Nia in the tiny courtyard. Ray weirdly asks her if she’s had her dinner.
“I’m not too hungry.”
“After ruining my shit, the least you could do is help me not eat alone like some old spinster. My shout.”
Nia intermittently fears that this dinner table silence portends some latent sexual intent on Ray’s part, as though he is subtly expressing his dominance by way of inexpressiveness; by being comfortable in his own domain on top of being older, taller and more testicled. Alternatively, it might be some form of punishment by awkwardness, like being forced to have dinner with the school principal for detention.
Matthew and Clinton cooked the hell out of whatever this is she’s eating; the tung tong she guesses by means of elimination. Nia will freely admit to not being particularly enamoured of Thai fare. Perhaps that kitchen she so hates/hated killed whatever allure the cuisine might have once held for her.
Nia makes a note to thank Ray at least once, while scooping an unexpected second helping of papaya salad, for the meal he has so graciously provided (omitting the ‘graciously provided’ part, tactfully). He grunts “no worries” and refills his already half-full mouth.
As she is wont to do, Nia very suddenly releases her fork and nudges her plate away by half an inch to signal – more for herself than anyone – that she is done, turning her head to watch Ray who apparently doesn’t mind being watched as he eats.
“Was that your girlfriend?”
Ray waits till his mouth is slightly less packed. “Soon to be ex. Officially.”
“Because of – ?”
His not answering is precisely the answer. Nia looks away, guilty but only for the briefest instant.
“What, doesn’t she like Thai?”
Sudden laughter and a mouthful of jasmine rice is the kind of poor combination that lands Ray in a fit of coughing and scratchy nasopharyngeal clearing as he tries to dislodge a grain that’s presumably found a home somewhere in the back of his nose-throat. After a few minutes whose awkwardness is nullified by the unselfconscious flailing of a man with rice in the wrong part of his head, Ray downs a quarter bottle of beer and silently belches. He then explains that he had invited his now-ex to his place to try to dissuade her from quitting him, like Ennis Del Mar was so desperate to do with Jack Twist in “Brokeback Mountain”. As an illustration of his sincerity, and of his willingness to develop into a holistic male whose cooking was favourably comparable to his tyre-changing and beach cricketing prowess, Ray decided to treat her to a meal prepared by his own hands. Or rather, one he’d hoped to prepare.
“I didn’t plan it very well,” Ray says as he tries to figure out what he would next like to eat.
Nia drinks from her glass of water somewhat shyly, as though Ray has been politely insisting. She watches Ray eating for a moment.
“What if you’d gotten away with it?” Nia says.
“Gotten away? You make it sound like a…heist,” Ray replies with a somewhat pinched smile.
“Well…you were gonna cook for her, but you didn’t and ordered Thai instead.”
“I started cooking,” he says, pointing in the direction of the kitchen sink from which some pot handles are sticking out like drowning hands waiting to be saved. “I wasn’t sucking my fucking thumb for eight hours before I called you guys.”
Nia is quiet for a moment.
“I just figure it’s the thought that matters, not the food. Like…even if you’d made shitty roast and veggies, wouldn’t that have been better than take out?”
“Well…the point is that we were supposed to have dinner and talk; me cooking was just to add a bit of texture, but at the end of the day it comes down to you being fucking late and, basically, that’s it.”
Nia stares at him sideways, debating whether to retort.
“I wonder if she would thank me.”
“Thank you? For what exactly?”
“For, like, exposing your lies,” Nia says, trying to conceal her dead seriousness with teenage jocularity.
Ray sits up and glowers at Nia. He wipes his mouth with a serviette and continues to eat. “What are you, the moral fucking police or the delivery girl? I ordered Thai, not bullshit feminist justice.”
“No, I’m the delivery girl,” says Nia with a mocking meekness that seems to be lost on Ray, thankfully. She pats her belly and downs the rest of the water in the glass. “I deliver gender-neutral justice.”
Ray stares at her from a hunched position and chews.
“I think I’m gonna head,” she says with a groan of satiety.
Like a gentleman, Ray pays for the food, standing in the doorway. Before Nia has even turned to leave, he closes the door on her. Nia carefully lines her wallet with the notes and bulks it up with the coins.
Walking to her car which she parked at the mouth of the cul-de-sac, Nia briefly glances through the four messages she had felt buzzing through into her pocket one after the other while she was sharing dinner with Ray. She can’t quite decide whether, by ignoring these as they came, she was being polite to Ray or rude to whom she believed to be the sender. Sure enough, all four are from Jez, appropriately inane and poorly spelt, telling her to speed things up and make an appearance in his bedroom; that her tiny tits are on his mind.
She replies that his tiny dick is unfortunately not on hers.
September 30, 2014 § Leave a comment
Sasha Bunmi-Watkins tips his head to the concierge’s desk as he crosses Acacia Grande Central’s modest lobby in the direction of the lifts. Unless he’s fabricating things, the young man behind the counter with his face buried in something, who doesn’t seem to care that someone has just entered the building at the very dead of night, is the same young man who checked him in a few days ago in a way quite unbefitting someone in the hospitality trade; whose nametag identified and still identifies him as Lachlan with no apparent last name.
The boy – a description Lachlan does not satisfy in body but may very well do in mind and in manner – surprises Sasha by looking up from whatever very important thing he’s been looking at and following the Bristolian’s journey across the barren foyer with a very blah gaze. Sasha knows this because he catches Lachlan’s blah eyes while waiting a good two minutes for one of the lifts – any of the lifts – to arrive. He initially repays the look with one of equal dispassion, but then, almost of its own accord, his face cracks out a drab smile and his head nods “evening/how’s it going?” Lachlan simply goes back to whatever it is he’s doing and in a moment or two the lift doors chime open. Sasha supposes that this is what he gets for travelling cheap and boarding even more cheaply: rude lookaways and dispassionate stares that follow you from behind like you’re a most uninteresting oddity.
Once again Sasha makes it to his room on floor six without any visual reassurance that he is not in fact this hotel’s sole guest. Of course he occasionally hears shuffling and chatting in the hallway when he is emerging from the whooshing gush of the bathroom after a poo or when he is bent over the minibar taking stock of what’s inside, but how coincidental must it be that the seen and the heard are so consistently – almost deliberately – dissociated?
On letting himself into his room, Sasha experiences the brief glow of contentment that tends to hit him when he finds the slight mess he left behind in the morning replaced by a turned-down bed and three-and-a-half star cleanliness. In a show of appreciation for whoever’s hard work, Sasha lobs his shoes aside and takes a quick peek at the selection of booze in the little stump of a fridge. He picks one out, one that is named after either a grouse or a turkey, and unscrews the cap and, drinking from it, thinks back on how, within ten minutes of Cal Marvale having departed Oddknots in a silver taxi, he had already decided to abandon the Kirin bottle and split, telling himself that if this was some sort of metaphysical slap in the face of his Aussie acquaintance, then so be it. When he was fairly confident that Cal was well on his way to Dee Why or wherever else he routinely laid his head in the blasted city, Sasha walked outside and hailed a ride. It wasn’t so much that he’d lost his nerve or that he couldn’t bring himself to engage a complete stranger in some sort of exchange of words, as if he was so irreparably shy that he lost fewer calories running laps than he did talking small. Oddknots just wasn’t the place, maybe not tonight, maybe not ever. He would find a joint with better energy and there he would finally enjoy himself and expend what was left of his quickly dwindling youth.
Looking and smelling much the same as he has this last hour, apart from the leather jacket, scarf and reapplication of cologne, Sasha crosses the lobby, this time in the direction of the street, only to double back and startle Lachlan with an abrupt request.
“Were you after a place for dinner?” Lachlan replies, in a monotone.
“I’m after an exciting place to have a drink and run into strangers.”
There is no reply.
“See, I’ve already had my dinner. Now I’m looking for a place to — I suppose I’m looking to have a good time,” Sasha clarifies.
Lachlan inhales as though preparing for a six month sabbatical underwater.
“Well…there’s a couple of bars along this street, so you could try one of those…”
“You’d recommend them, these bars?”
“I don’t know about recommend, but I’d say they’re worth a try.” The poor boy doesn’t know what the fuck’s going on.
“Yes, but which would you suggest?”
“I don’t — I haven’t really been to any of the ones around here much, so I’m not sure if I could legitimately vouch for any, like, with any authority. Which is the problem.”
“Well, I’m not a local, as you can probably tell, so I’m curious to know where locals go. For the sake of curiosity.”
“Yeah, I get it, I mean — I suppose you could look up some bars on Time Out Sydney, you know…the website, or Urbanspoon maybe. Or you could just head to the city and have a walk around.”
“I see. Time Out. Are you a local?”
Lachlan smiles and redistributes the weight on his feet momentarily, wondering – one would assume – what the hell this is. “Basically,” he says.
“I’m in good hands then.”
“Do you have a smartphone?”
“I have my Galaxy on me, yes.”
“Time Out Sydney’s better than most locals, trust me, and I think the app’s just as good, and free.”
It really does feel like the dead of night at this desk, in this lobby, in this hotel.
“Or you could just check out some of the bars around here like I was saying. There’s a few places up and down the road that seem to get a fair bit of action. I mean, they seem pretty popular from what I can tell; big crowds, open till early, cheap drinks. Probably wouldn’t be the worst start.”
“No. But what would you say is the best place you’ve been to in the last month? ”
Lachlan looks right into Sasha’s face as he presumably thinks of an answer. It would be disconcerting if his face wasn’t so bland.
“I really like this place in the Rocks called Oddknots,” he sighs like a beach ball losing all its air in a rush. “It’s more of a pub and it’s got a really chilled out vibe; it’s not really where you go to – like – get down, but I’d definitely recommend it. It’s just a really cool place. But seriously, you should get onto Time Out.”
Lachlan smiles as though there’s a finger up his ass and goes back to his business. He has officially left the conversation.
“Enjoy yourself and they’ll enjoy you,” Rams Marques, ladies’ man and second-year dropout, would often say as he led a crew of college boys out into the city back in their UCL days, and in adherence to this mantra, Sasha currently adopts – without being totally cognizant of the process – an affected look of relaxed confidence that manifests as a constant mellow smirk and an almost sleepy gaze. If smiling induces happiness in the smiler, surely this will displace his baseline unease and replace it with something more socially workable.
He is perfectly aware that this particular demeanour, if executed poorly, will make him appear either high or a bit special, and considering he has been nursing a rum and coke for the last twenty minutes without arousing even the mildest look of interest, Sasha wonders if he may need to revise his face.
For example, those two fetching lasses further along the bar, one of whom is chatting with that pale haired young history-student type, entered Bloom Bar not more than five minutes ago and he’d had them in his sights from the get-go. They saw him looking at them, this he knows, but they elected to sit beside this individual. Perhaps it is because he had his back to them and was thus less imposing, or less creepy. Whatever their reasons, he is certain that one of these must pertain to the fact that his mug is not as inviting as he intends it to be. So he drops it, the put-on look he is wearing, and just about halves the rum-coke mixture at his front in one foul gulp.
There is something comforting about the clattering of pool balls. Perhaps it’s because there’s always something to watch when a pool table is present, or at the very least something to do or consider doing in-between rejections or while avoiding them. Sasha swivels on his ass and leans his back against the bar, and proceeds to watch a young man sizing up the cue ball, the dusted end of the cue itself sliding back and forth like a hesitant phallus between the two fingers he’s planted firmly on the green felt. In a flash and with a crack, a solid snaps into a corner hole and can be heard rumbling through the table’s guts. The player meanwhile pulls the cue to himself like a Marine would their bayonet, no discernible joy or elation on his face but a great pride implicit in the way he plods alongside the table, surveying the field. Sasha notices that the furthermost table is unoccupied though it is surrounded by standing drinkers.
“Hey, care for a game of pool?”
Sasha has, without even a glance in their direction or a quick bit of personal pep-talk, sidled up to one of the two girls whose eyes he had hoped to catch on their entering the bar and has spoken these words to her, to which she responds by glancing briefly at her blonder companion, now in waning conversation with the art-school boy.
“Okay,” she says.
Sasha is a little floored by the unqualified acceptance but is not quite sure why. He extends a regrettably limp hand and says, “I’m Sasha, by the way.”
“Goia,” she says, pronouncing it Joya.
The blonder one introduces herself as Mel, with shocking cordiality, and to conclude the handshakes, Sasha clasps palms with Bruno who will insist on calling him ‘bro’ henceforth.
“Nice to meet you, Bruno.” The handshake lingers.
Having led the three across the room to the far table, fed the necessary number of coins into the table and set up the balls inside the triangle, Sasha offers Goia the honour to break, but she shirks on account of her being ‘too shit at it’ though Sasha strangely responds to this, on a level inaccessible to his cognizance even, as some sort of sexual rebuffing. Curdling a little on the inside but not knowing why, he holds out the cue to Mel, who takes it and explodes the rack like a pro, sinking a stripe in the process.
“Boys versus girls?” says Bruno.
Mel downs two stripes in a row and is circling the table, her long, overly straight hair swaying and parting gently against her bare shoulders.
“How about Mel versus everyone else?” says Goia.
“Yeah…fuck, she’s good,” Bruno concedes as booze rolls from his mouth back into his throat. “You hear that, Mel? You’re not terrible.”
“Do you play much?” Sasha asks Mel as she is leaned over, prepping a shot which she ultimately misses, for which she partly blames him, unbeknownst to him.
“I like playing,” Mel shrugs as she hands the cue to Bruno, “but I don’t seek it out, like, I don’t look for it. My dad had a table when I was growing up so we played all the time.” She ends with a shrug.
They watch Bruno nudge a solid towards a hole without really placing it in a position of any advantage.
“So you’re from Sydney?” Sasha continues, mirroring Mel’s stance somehow.
“Why do you say that?” she says in a tone that may or may not be drily cheeky.
“No. And you?”
“You don’t sound super British. No offence.”
“No, it’s okay; I accept that I’m mediocre.”
She gives him an odd look as Goia waves the tip of the cue in his face, somewhat absent-mindedly.
“Mediocre?” Mel says.
Sasha takes the cue from Goia. “Mediocre, as opposed to super?”
“A-ha.” She’s not convinced.
“But, if you must know my mother gave birth to me in Lagos, so I suppose that’s why I don’t sound like the queen.”
Mel nods her head and makes a face that would be saying ‘that’s pretty cool’ if it wasn’t really saying ‘not sure what to do with this conversation now that it’s flatter than flat Fanta.’
Sasha takes a shot and nicks the ball that Bruno has already pushed a few inches closer to the hole. He fucks it up, groans to himself, hands the cue to Mel and joins his drink at a table by the wall. Goia and Bruno seem to be sharing a joke. Sasha takes a meek swig.
Gioa approaches Mel, who is scanning the scene on the table. They exchange half a word, it seems, and Goia is off, trotting to the bar.
“Where’s she going?” Sasha says to Bruno.
“To get more drinks.”
“I wonder if we should be doing that.”
“You think we should be getting drinks for her?”
Sasha looks at Bruno and his shoulder length hair and stubbled upper lip. “For them.”
“Mate, women can buy their own drinks in Sydney,” Bruno says before he grins.
“Are they allowed to orgasm too?” says Sasha, who can’t believe he’s just said what he’s said.
Bruno rasps with laughter and describes Sasha’s line as ‘fucking amazing.’ They then watch Mel sink another ball with a deft angle shot.
“You backpacking, bro?” says Bruno.
“Why would I be backpacking?” Sasha responds, not quite sure whether to be offended yet, or even at all.
“This is, like, kind of a backpacker joint, in case you didn’t kind of pick up on it.”
“Are you a backpacker?”
“I wouldn’t mind fucking a backpacker,” Bruno says, grinning on the inside.
“Then I take it you’re from here, or at least not a backpacker.”
“Bronte, bra. You been to Bronte?”
“I think I‘ve heard of it. So you’re here to pick up backpackers?”
Bruno laughs “Bro. Absolutely. Don’t fucking tell anyone.”
Goia returns to Mel’s side with what Sasha guesses to be two caprioscas, pinkish in short glasses.
Sasha leans in to Bruno while looking at the two young women. “Are they backpackers?”
“I don’t think so. But I think they might be staying where backpackers stay. Which pretty much makes them backpackers. If you get my meaning.”
Mel’s run of luck ends. She passes Bruno the cue and he accepts it and confronts the table with a swagger that belies his clear lack of talent, leaving Sasha on his own with the two women. They’re having a quiet exchange and nipping at their drinks, looking as though they’ve already left the venue in spirit.
Sasha becomes abruptly conscious of his current predicament, which may very well exist solely within the confines of his own mind. Standing where he is, holding his drink as he is doing without even the slightest air of self-comfort, Sasha could either appear to his two female companions – as well as to whoever in this bar is watching and judging – like a tagalong, hovering, hoping to get an in, but hopelessly so. Conversely, and noticeable only to Goia and Mel and perhaps the more perceptive of people watchers, he could appear unduly aloof, trying to imply to these women that he is unaffected by their impression of him, whatever that may be, and that he does not feel in the least bit excluded by their secret girl talk, a stance which would not in any way increase his appeal in their eyes despite what certain schools of male sexual thought would have him believe.
“Can I get you guys a drink?”
Goia and Mel look at Sasha, their brand spanking new cocktails inches from their lips.
“We just started on these,” Mel says.
“Oh, okay,” says Sasha, knowing full well that there was no logic in his move. “But I’m getting your next drinks though, so don’t forget.”
They both smile and watch him approach Bruno, who is still considering his shot choices, none of which would be particularly easy for anyone below the level of an amateur shark. The two men exchange words and Sasha is off to the bar.
Sasha hands Bruno his third house beer. The game of pool has been over for a good hour and up to this point the four have barely gotten any real juice on each other. Bruno (surprise, surprise!) is a student, but of surveying, contrary to Sasha’s assumption that it would be of history. He’s in his second year, though he spends most of his time surfing and wasting time.
Goia’s older sister was once Mel’s best friend but they fell out some time ago, Mel and Gia that is, Gia being the sister in question. Interestingly, Mel always felt like more of an older sister to Goia than did Gia and their relationship has thus persisted, though it is somewhat clear that Mel is far less invested in the friendship than her junior. Mel is in public relations and wouldn’t say more (not due to any conscious taciturnity but a genuine disinterest in this sort of talk), and Goia is spending her gap year waitressing and saving up funds in hope of a Central American voyage of self-discovery. None of the three seem particularly impressed that Sasha is a doctor, not in the least, which is unfortunate seeing as this may be the most interesting thing about him.
At this very moment, the two friends have retired to the ladies’ room (immediately prior to which Sasha reminded them that he still owed them a drink each and that they had better not forget), leaving the two acquaintances to engage in one of the few topics that males who are unfamiliar with each other are more than comfortable baring their souls and being honest about.
“Mel’s pretty fucking hot, bro.”
Sasha agrees wholeheartedly but is unwilling to be one of those guys, even though he knows he more than fulfils the criteria by simple fact of his owning testicles.
“You don’t reckon?” Bruno persists.
“I think they’re both attractive,” Sasha concedes.
“Goia’s cute, but Mel’s hot. Cute’s good though. Like…you should totally go there; I think she’d be keen.”
“Why would she be keen?” Sasha says, unsure of whether he is simply being interrogative or whether he is in fact hoping for some sort of a pointer.
Bruno shrugs. “She’s young. You’re a doctor. You’re black. No offence.”
“A tree shouldn’t be offended if you call it a tree. Only if you call it a plank.”
Bruno nods with a James Franco grin. “Nice. I like that.” He looks around. “This place is a bit dead tonight. It’s weird.”
“Do you come here a lot?”
“Not a lot, but I come here. I’ve been here. Before.”
“It is a Tuesday.”
“Everyday’s fucking Saturday for backpackers, bro.”
Sasha cracks a smile.
“So, like…” begins Bruno, “what would a plank be then?”
Sasha looks over at his drinking buddy, surprised that such a throwaway statement could have such staying power. He shrugs. “A starving child, a pimp, a car thief, a gangster. The usual.”
“The usual planks? Most planks are wood, you know.”
“So most car thieves are black?”
“You know what, I take back what I said back, about liking what you said about wood and planks. That was a piece of shit metaphor.”
An airless moment of uncertainty passes between the two before they finally grin and softly chuckle at the silliness of it all. Sasha watches Bruno drain all but the teeniest bubbles of foam from his glass.
“One more?” Sasha asks.
“Mate, you haven’t even finished yours.”
Sasha stares down the cloudy yellow potion half-filling his schooner and does away with it in a handful of ambitious gulps. As he is about to depart for the bar, Bruno informs him that he’s going to run to the men’s room to do a two or maybe a three. He doesn’t need to tell Sasha that he also intends on finding out where the hell Mel and Goia have hidden themselves.
So Dr Bunmi-Watkins finds himself, after a ten minute hustle at the bar, standing at a small circular table, nursing two schooners of pale ale, one of which he sips like he is an understandably overcautious orphaned fawn, all the while listening to, or rather, being forced to hear the rumbling soundtrack of inebriated chatter and aggressively virile Atlanta, Georgia krunk. He tries to part, with his eyes, the gathering patronage of tipsy travellers and predatory indigenes stumbling around Bloom Bar in hope of spotting Bruno, but more importantly, Mel and Goia, or if the universe decides to be kind, Mel, as she approaches him with a sly smile and a drink he has somehow payed for. Instead it is Bruno who materialises from the dimly lit throng and squeezes his way between two presumably Nordic blondes, both of whom he very quickly appraises almost without looking.
“My man,” Bruno says, aping Denzel Washington, accepting the beer and digging into it like a man who’s just come in from the wilderness.
“They’ve gone next door, dude.”
“Next door? What’s next door?”
“Another bar, bro. Well, more like a club, like, for dancing and popping pills. So this bar and the club next door share some of the same bathrooms, the ones outside. When I was coming back from taking my piss-dump,” he swallows a belch, washes it down with some alcohol, “I swear I saw them in there shaking their white lady booties. No. I saw them in there.”
Were Sasha a natural drinking man, he would pound down the glass of Fat Yak pale ale leaking condensation all over the table and soaking the cardboard placemat. On the contrary, he is certain that if he takes a sip he might throw up, just a touch. But he does take a sip and he does throw up, but only in his mind. He goddamn mentally empties out his entire twenty feet of bowel, not entirely sure why but nonetheless in the throes of catharsis.
“Should we — go?”
Bruno casts a glance Sasha’s way. “You mean should we, like, follow them into the club next door.”
“When you put it that way…”
“What way? You want to follow them, I’m down, bro. The dick wants what the dick wants.”
“I expected you to tell me it was lame.”
“I’m not saying it’s not. In a sec though. Let me just work on this a bit more,” Bruno says with a raised finger, returning to his beer like an office cog returning dutifully to his quarterly report after some trivial trans-cubicle workplace chinwag.
Having been denied entrance to Quigley’s @ 66 via the back way by a hulking black-clad goon, Sasha and Bruno find themselves forming the rear of a substantial queue stretching out from the front entrance, constituting mostly horny young males and a few token females who seem to be wondering why in the hell their gender hasn’t worked for them like it did all the other hot young things they are certain managed to circumvent the queue earlier tonight, in groups for that matter.
Movement of the line is currently glacial and the surrounding air is almost as cold.
Sasha’s face falls as he reads a promotion flyer that skirts the pavement near his feet, carried on the back of a light breeze.
“We have to pay?”
“It’s called a cover charge, bro,” says Bruno.
“I know what it’s called. I’m not paying it.”
Bruno faces Sasha. “You’re not coming?” The look of concern/disappointment seems startlingly earnest.
Sasha puts on a pained face. “I think I might call it in.”
“I was kinda hoping to catch up with those girls. I reckon Goia’s keen, dude.”
“Goia that bailed on us with Mel?”
Bruno gives Sasha a look that seems to say ‘come on now; be serious.’ He says with a laugh, “dude, you can’t, like, afford to feel hard done by on a night out; everyone’s drunk and just going with their mood and seeing where it takes them; don’t take it personally. Like, the night hasn’t even been born, bro.”
“Well…I think mine may have died in utero,” Sasha says, to which Bruno responds with a blank stare, not necessarily due to a lack of understanding, but most likely due to apathetic resignation and there being something else on his mind right at that moment.
The queue has been inching forward, stealing its way along, and Sasha and Bruno inching towards the entrance with it.
Sasha extends a hand. “Thanks for the company, Bruno. Hope you get to…engage in conversation with a backpacker.”
“To be honest, I’d be happy just fucking Mel,” he says with the most surreptitious wink.
They disengage hands and Sasha pokes his head out towards the kerb, looks up and down the street in search of a taxi with its tiny rooftop light switched on, which is to say, one that is available.
“Hey, Sasha. Bro.”
Sasha draws his head back in and turns to Bruno, who has sidled up to him ever so modestly.
Bruno says, “hey, could you lend me like twenty bucks. I’m broker than I thought.”
“Twenty,” Sasha’s mouth seems to say of its own volition. He stares at Bruno, who stands next to him like a crackhead hovering around his dealer, telling him how much of a “fucking champion” he is, shameless.
Mentally stamping to death wild flickers of irritation, resentment, even hate, Sasha fishes a twenty from his wallet and hands it to Bruno who slyly accepts the note in the guise of a very prolonged, very bro pound hug complete with an unnecessary back pat.
Bruno must be a master of timing, or maybe he is The Sandman himself because, the very moment they separate from the hug, Bruno is up next in line. He silently salutes Sasha, turns and flashes his ID at the front door goons and is let through so that he can pay the cover charge girl.
Sasha watches Bruno disappear up the dark stairwell leading to Quigley’s @ 66, the one that is being constantly smeared with dull flashes of strobe that have strayed from the dance floor.
Sitting directly behind the driver, a technique he often uses to relay his utter unwillingness to converse in any mode or manner, Sasha quietly awaits the wave of low-grade regret that he is more than certain he will have to endure at some point during the next twelve hours. He meanwhile finds himself counting the drinks he bought while at Bloom Bar, perhaps in hope of upgrading the low-grade regret to high-grade self-loathing, or rather, expediting its onset, because it always makes an appearance, without fail, given enough time.
So that would be eight drinks then, Sasha concludes in his head. Three for himself, five for Bruno, and none for those girls, or anyone that he fancied for that matter. Sixty dollars at least. That’s not counting the silly contribution he just made to Bruno’s Help Me Fuck Mel Fund. By the end of tonight, at the very least, there will be a handful of pretty happy, pretty soaked urinal cakes in the male restrooms at Bloom Bar and at Quigley’s @ 66 on Broadway, and in the outhouse that the two venues apparently share.
August 26, 2014 § Leave a comment
Sammy di Stefano wasn’t willing to stick his neck out any more than he already had which was understandable, but for this Merryn Dieter reserved the right to call him names and curse his grandmother’s hooha. No one cared to comment on this. Whatever the case, Marmoset would have the chance to prove to a hostage audience that they could thrash out a tune and that they were irrefutably punk, plus Sammy’s desire to exact some kind of petty revenge on a poor assistant stage manager would be satisfied, on top of his being paid a handsome little stipend. Wins all around, in short.
On the eve of the Waysles Chamber Ensemble’s opening performance, and by the light of a quickly dipping sun, the band lugged their scratched black cases round the back alley way and stole into Bart Street Recital Hall through the rear entrance. They stowed their load in a quiet corner, snuck out and stole their way back in the following night, that is to say, tonight, with the distinct aim of not drawing undue attention from the orchestra members who are now currently standing around sagely, tending to their instruments as though having intimate chats with dead friends.
Clad semi-formally in black and white, the members of Marmoset remind themselves that they too are musicians and that they have every right to be backstage with these classically-trained people (of whom Merryn is one), absorbing the anticipatory buzz of the unseen audience so calmly as to be practically arrogant.
‘Do not, I repeat, do not unpack your shit until the musicians are on stage,’ di Stefano stressed to the five-piece over drinks and steaks at a pub two days earlier.
‘What are we then?’ said Raven, lead guitarist of Marmoset.
‘Sorry?’ said di Stefano.
‘I said what are we if they’re musicians? What does that make us then?’
Sammy considered Raven who had the sourest look on her face at that moment. ‘Clowns,’ he said. ‘What would you like me to say?’
He turned his attention to frontman Bosco: ‘this shit does not come back to me, ever, agreed?’
Bosco just stared at Sammy who then turned to Cyrus (his main contact with the band), smiled incredulously and said at a rather intimate range, ‘mate, that two hundred bucks hardly wets my beak; don’t let me regret being a good friend here, because I checked out your bandcamp and I’m pretty convinced I’m not doing this for your particular brand of noise.’
This was precisely when Merryn decided it was only right that she talk ill of Sammy’s granny’s nether parts. But no one cared to defend di Stefano considering noise punk was one of their genre descriptors.
Cyrus might not be much when he’s propped on a stool behind the drum kit making sticks pirouette across his fingers like it means something, but gosh golly did he come through and prove his worth. He probably won himself immunity against the common cold shoulder by coming through the way he did, and likely staved off eviction from Marmoset by unanimous decision for the next little while.
Raven still stands by what she says about him having no true sense of rhythm and Dieter thinks he doesn’t have even one hundredth of an ounce of what Keith Moon had when he was passed out on stage, the exact nature of what Keith Moon had when unconscious on stage being something she doesn’t seem to want to expand on or explain. He lacks oneness with the sticks, she says; hasn’t been gifted with an innate flair for the instrument he’s chosen slash been assigned slash resigned himself to playing. If bass man Otis has anything to say about Cyrus it would be that he’s too clean, too plastic (not elastic), as if he’d learned to play the drums at high school discos where the band geeks did live renditions of ‘Heart of Glass’. The rhythm section, says Otis, must be in sync like Siamese clones and Siamese clones he does not feel they are.
Bosco, generally ambivalent about his bandmates to one degree or another, hasn’t said anything worth quoting about Cyrus’s skills as a pacemaker. If he cuts one member down he’d have to cut them all, so he cuts none.
One night, after one of many regrettable fucks, Merryn Dieter began typing away on her lap computer almost as soon as Otis had come and rolled off of her.
‘What’s that you’re saying about me?’ he’d said, trying to sound as if he didn’t really mean it.
Rather than saying something in return Merryn swung the laptop across and showed him the ad she was drafting: “drummer wanted…preferably inspired by Keith Moon (though John Bonham will do and Dave Lombardo is probably acceptable)…dynamism, showmanship, personality, blue-collar understated sex appeal and unpredictability mandatory…must be powerful without overpowering…”
‘He’s not that bad.’
‘That’s probably the worst thing he could be,’ she’d said.
‘Does Bosco know?’
She took a long, deep, savoured breath.
‘I may have shown him an early draft last week, after we both came.’ That shut Otis up.
Being a friend – being the friend that scored him a spot in the band – Otis threw Cyrus pointers to help him not get the sack: ‘don’t be a metronome, Cy, be a fast fucking heartbeat. With murmurs. The murmurs being me and your brass.’
Cyrus responded by drowning everything in cymbals, which Otis felt was, at the very least, progress.
But real progress came when Cyrus had a bright idea that involved Bart Street Recital Hall, a touring orchestral ensemble that would be playing it, an assholeish friend who happened to work as a janitor at Bart Street Recital Hall, a seminal 20th century classical piece, and a then undecided sum of money.
The hundred plus audience patiently fills Hall C, one of Bart Street’s tinier performance spaces, configured in a mini proscenium-thrust style. A concert piano and a lonely-looking harp are the only things keeping the stage from being totally barren.
It’s a mixed crowd generally skewed towards the retired and the semi-retired though there is a smattering of families with curiously young children in tow, dressed cutely in smart casual and looking like they’ve recently budded off their parents fully formed, fully dressed, but just a bit small. Accompanying the fond glances and smiles aimed at the young’uns are the gently concerned looks of those patrons who worry that the inability of something like Sibelius’ ‘The Swan of Tuonela’ to seize a six-year-old’s attention will quash their enjoyment of tonight’s show in the sense that these bored children will fidget and squirm incessantly. Granted, this concern is tempered by an air of humility that suffuses the room, something decidedly bashful about the way the patrons shuffle along the aisles and assume their seats and the way they take shape around the stage like birds rimming a water bath. Tonight they will not be witnessing an hour-long Prokofiev opus performed by Berlin Philharmonic, but a live mixtape of twentieth century orchestral hits rolled out by a “pretty good” ensemble; a middlebrow musical degustation designed for dabblers, wannabes and musicological tourists. Of course, it’s the tiny minority whose egos are burnt by this truth because for the vast majority this will be a pleasantly “cultural” night out and a nice prelude to dinner at that restaurant down the road that does Modern European, Angelo’s Fire.
The doors opened at a quarter to. Just after six struck, the growing spectatorship was joined in Hall C by eleven black-clad players who appeared spectrally on stage, bringing with them a pair of violins, a viola, a cello, a clarinet, a flute, an oboe, a bassoon and a horn. For those on the floor who failed to notice this sombre manifestation on stage, on sitting down and gathering their bearings their eyes widened in gentle surprise and there was often a small smile. Parents pointed the obvious out to their offspring, hoping their excitement would be mirrored.
At eighteen minutes past the hour the hushed shuffling of bodies has now given way to a restless kind of quietness and Hall C seems somewhat dimmer though there has been no obvious dimming of any lights that anyone can attest to. People must be trying not to cough because when the first flurry of them eventually sounds they’re explosive, urgent and purgative. Then silence returns while anticipation continues.
The musicians seem to be striking a pose. Maestro strides onto the stage and in response his liege perks up ever so slightly. The audience, not used to the exact etiquette of high performance, offer brief, uncertain applause and he graciously accepts before turning his back on them, rudely almost. His baton rises, hangs poised, flickers. The first note sounds.
waysles chamber ensemble, september 7
(1) violin sonata in g-sharp minor, janāček
(2) vitebsk: study on a jewish theme, copland
(3) phantasy (for oboe and string trio) in f minor, britten
(4) sextet (for piano and wind quintet) op. 120, poulenc
(5) contrasts, sz. 111, bartók
(6) 4’33’’, cage
(7) string quartet no. 2 in f major, op. 92, prokofiev
(8) spiegel im spiegel, pärt
(9) string quartet no. 8 in c minor, op. 110, shostakovich
(10) 3 pieces (string quartet), stravinsky
(11) sonata, debussy
‘When in fuck’s name did this get moved?’
Bosco has his finger pulp squashed down on the double three on line seven (piece no. 6), his stare honing in on the list as though the list is expected to answer for itself. ‘Cyrus, did you fucking know about this?’
‘Know about what?’ Cyrus says, arranging his snare by shifting it here minutely and there minutely.
Bosco’s got the set list crinkled in both hands.
‘Our cue’s been pushed back three fucking spots,’ he gnarls.
‘How much time does that give us then?’ Raven says while down on her haunches, tuning her guitar.
‘More time than we fucking had before, which was too much to begin with. Not if we’re expected to get into the zone and stay in the zone and stay potent.’
Dieter is standing by the drawn curtains, listening to the violin shivering on the other side. ‘No one’s expecting us to be in any zone,’ she says. She moves away from the curtain and lifts her hand-me-down Les Paul from its case. ‘Someone with a phone, figure out how much time we have.’
Dieter throws Bosco a look that’s telling him to cool it, at least volume wise.
Otis approaches the frontman with an Android in his hand, his bass hanging in place from his shoulders.
‘May I take a peek?’
‘Be my fucking guest,’ Bosco says, almost tossing the sheet into Otis’s hand.
Bosco skulks off towards the rear entrance, almost certainly for a bout of chain smoking.
Otis’s eyes leaps from sheet to screen while his fingers dart across the keypad. By the number of disparaging tongue clicks and mutters emerging from his mouth, the typing errors must be flowing freely.
As for the maths, this he does in his head:
16 minutes approx.
12 minutes approx.
14 minutes approx.
18 minutes approx.
17 minutes approx.
‘We’ve got at least an hour.’
Raven is miming chord progressions, walking around on the spot, her mouth puckered up as it often does in the heat of performance. Merryn is back beside the curtain. It’s unclear whether she is enjoying the Janāček rendition or judging the way the violin and piano converse with each other, her face is so straight. Every once in a while she’ll wander back amongst the others as though taking stock of her troops.
Bosco returns stinking of unfiltereds.
‘How long?’ he says.
‘Seventy seven minutes approximately.’
Bosco turns on his heels: ‘I’ll be out back.’ He stabs an index finger at Cyrus. ‘Your fucking friend has a lot to answer for. You too.’
Raven is now miming what seems like a solo, staring after Bosco pucker-mouthed and wearing the absent gaze she often does in the heat of performance. Otis has stopped twirling his sticks and now just sits behind the drums like a deer caught in a thicket and resigned to it.
‘Typical male,’ says Merryn. ‘Beating his chest while shitting his pants.’
Eager if not rapturous applause sounds at a sudden from beyond the heavy, heavy drapes, almost in response to Dieter’s quip though obviously not. The rhythm guitarist walks away from the curtain with a contorted face. But knowing Merryn Dieter means not knowing what this face means in the slightest.
‘I still say this is silly,’ says Raven.
‘What is?’ says someone.
‘This thing we’re about to do.’
‘Silly how?’ challenges Otis, rapidly double-fingering one of his bass’s strings as though preparing to crank out ‘Eye of the Tiger.’
‘How many of these oldies are we hoping to get to our next gig? Wait. Take a step back. When’s our next gig?’
‘Well…maybe I’m too slow or something, but I thought our aim was to get notorious. Shock and appal.’
‘Shock and appal who? We’ll piss off a couple of retirees, max.’
‘Still earns us some credo.’
Raven lays her guitar on the floor and does the same with her body. She stares into the rigging way up in the ceiling, then cranes her neck and visualises Cyrus behind his drums, upside down and Dutch-angled and still looking quite sullen.
‘It won’t stop being dumb,’ reiterates Raven.
‘Skim milk is dumb,’ Merryn spits. ‘This – what we’re doing – is anencephalic.’
‘You know those babies literally born without brains? What we’re doing is what they would do if they weren’t stillborn.’
‘Wow. That’s some rough talk,’ says Otis, chugging away at those bass strings.
‘She’s got the right idea though,’ says Raven.
A mosquito viola hums from somewhere beyond the curtains.
‘Four thirty three is a punk masterpiece,’ Merryn declares. ‘You can’t outpunk it and you can’t piggyback its genius.’
‘…and now she’s got the wrong idea. Jesus, everything’s genius these days. What’s genius about it? Educate me; educate us,’ says Raven.
Otis says, ‘educate yourself,’ which Raven ignores.
‘The fact that you’ve even asked me that means you’ll never get it,’ Merryn says.
‘Because it’s all so self-evident.’
‘Because it’s not?’
‘I’ve never heard it, so how the fuck would I know?’
‘Yet you’re confident enough to talk smack about it.’
‘I’m talking smack about the concept, not the song.’
‘You can’t know the concept unless you’ve heard it. It’s not a song.’
Otis pipes up: ‘Ever get given detention, Ray? At school, sitting on the floor, nose into the wall. Silence.’
‘Then you know the concept.’
Merryn turns on Otis. ‘Have you listened to it, slut?’
‘It’s not about fucking silence. It single-handedly expands the definition of music to its farthest limits. Music isn’t just created, written down and played. Music is. It just is.’
‘Right,’ Raven says. ‘So when the audience applauses, is it for the musicians who didn’t do shit, or for John Cage and his obvious cynicism and contempt, or for themselves, for buying tickets and sitting still and being cultured? Or is it for the dude who coughed at two minutes twenty seven?’
Otis’s bass line sticks its nose into the heavily pregnant silence.
‘Heathens,’ says Merryn.
Raven gazes up at the riggings and traces their lines as ‘Vitebsk’ courts her ears. She thinks aloud, ‘I wonder if anyone’s ever fallen from up there.’ She then thinks to herself, ‘if anyone did, they surely didn’t make it.’
Bosco now positively reeks of cigarettes and his shirt is off. He’s pacing on the spot, swinging the microphone round and round in a vertical loop, gradually increasing the radius of its path by letting the cord slip through his damp palms.
The other members of Marmoset hover in position, awaiting their cue. The final fading strains of ‘Contrasts Sz. 111’ bleed into tentative but keen applause, and as the last few smatterings dissipate, Cyrus taps his sticks, one, two, three, four.
Paired melodic chainsaws begin hacking at each other without warning, one eventually withdrawing in order to howl and whirl around the other like a mad dervish humming a nursery rhyme.
The drummer launches an assault on his skins, trying to kick a hole in the bass drum and dent his brass circles all the while bestowing a constant shower of hi-hat trills upon the proceedings.
Bosco cuts in with a barely comprehendible bellow, like a lion maddened by a thorn whose tip has broken in its paw. He appears to be eating the microphone or perhaps regurgitating it, barking about how he’ll wait for someone’s iron will to rust and how the two of them will fuck this evening, but not for lust. Or something along these lines.
Supporting him is a subterranean bass line that grumbles along before giving in to brief, hypnotic spasms of driving funk a-la Minutemen. Otis’s bass seizures are backed up by a flurry of hiccupping snares from Cyrus, who is doing much to prove his worth as a drummer at the moment.
Merryn re-engages Raven and the buzzsawing hits new heights of reverb and aggression without completely losing its melody in the hanging cloud of drone that has built up over the last forty five seconds. The two guitars jerk around each other like a couple tangoing furiously at the bottom of a swamp.
Bosco vomits into the mic before swinging it in the air, “like Cerberus chewed off his middle fucking head.” Sweat drips from his man tits and his tattooed back. The mic’s orbit sails perilously close to Raven’s head, who takes a step towards the frontman for heaven knows what reason.
Marmoset blaze through one more verse-chorus combo and round out with a minute-long freak-out, Raven beating a solo out of her instrument with the possessed swaying of a snake charmer, stabbing through the mountain of muscular noise Merryn and Otis keep piling notes onto. Cyrus may have developed ballismus, the way his arms seem to launch themselves from side to side, in utter hysterics.
Bosco swings and swings the microphone until it finally flies out of his sweaty grip and smacks into a black wall, letting off an ear popping bang, practically coinciding with the advent of the ghostly guitar shriek that seems to hang in the air seconds after the four instrumentalists have ceased playing.
The dripping frontman staggers over to where the mic lies, picks it up, makes it pop three times with the palm of his hand and declares “we’re Marmoset, spelt just like the animal. Find us on bandcamp and support our shit. Just type in Marmoset. You can now go back to having your dicks yanked by Mr Cage. Thank you. And many thanks to assistant stage manager Gordon Sezlack for his lack of vigilance.”
Merryn’s frown deepens. She yanks the lead out of her Les Paul’s jack while the amp is still turned on, letting off a screeching blast of her own.
Two hulking men in black t-shirts have appeared backstage, flanking a skinny aghast-looking man presumably in his early thirties. The heavies take a few steps towards Marmoset, but seeing as the band is already packing and the damage has already been done, they take the conservative approach and keep a close eye on things, fists clenching and unclenching like nervous anuses.
Merryn looks over at Bosco. “Unnecessary,” she says. She kneels to clip her case shut and gently calls him a dumbass.
Cyrus looks as though he is about to throw up on his skins and his left knee is bouncing madly when the applause carries over from the stage, across the drapes, weak and troubled and sparse. With as little ado as possible, an attempt at appeasing the audience is made with some Prokofiev.
August 6, 2014 § 2 Comments
The conference officially ended three hours ago which would make it now eight or a touch past eight, and the four gastroenterologists – or rather, three with one aspiring – are now commemorating their five-day makeshift friendship at a pub in the dapper locality of The Rocks.
Three laminated passes hang visible at the end of Pfizer and Sanofi lanyards slung around necks recently freed of ties and shirts buttoned-up to the collar. This flagrant display of professional status could be due to simple absent-mindedness, or it could be that some men still believe their vocation to be sexy and simply irresistible to the lay pub-going masses.
Hamburg Iiver physician Darius Renker strongarms them all into one more round of this charming beer Asahi, Japanese, crisp and light on its feet unlike the obese, warm, frothy brews Sasha is accustomed to being forced into sipping on. While Renker is off at the bar buying, local boy Cal Marvale informs Sasha and their Tampa, Florida, colleague Kermode that Asahi is so widely guzzled in Sydney that it may as well be an Aussie brew. “Kind of how Foster’s is almost considered a Yankee drink now,” Marvale adds with a smirk.
“Yeah…nobody in Yankeeland considers it a Yankee drink,” says the Yank.
“Okay. Ouch. Imagine: you have a divorce. Mum’s trying to toss full custody of the kid to dad and dad’s like ‘no, he’s better off with you.’ Foster’s Lager: the unwanted child.”
Kermode’s grin has a wonky skew to it. He downs the last bit of foamy piss from the bottom of his schooner and straightens his lips with the rim of the glass. He doesn’t care an inch for these young cowboys who make a good bit of coin running cameras up people’s backsides in place of real doctoring; who talk like adolescents.
To avoid the tensed-up silence, Sasha looks around the interior of Oddknots Hotel bar floor. He figures you can tell a lot about a place by the way its people go about public drinking on midweek evenings. If Oddknots was anything to go by, he’d say Sydneysiders don’t drink much, that they drink at home, or that they drink in pubs other than Oddknots. And that they all drink cider.
The hepatologist approaches their tall and slender roundtop table as though walking on the thinnest ice, four dewy bottle huddled together in his warm palms. He’s clearly never waited a table in his life, the way all his thought and effort is focused on his not dropping thirty four dollars’ worth of imported alcohol on the carpet.
“Of all the people to encourage drinking,” Kermode says as he gratefully receives a slender, chilly Asahi from Renker.
“Drumming some business up for himself,” says Marvale as he clinks bottlenecks with his three drinking buddies. “He’s a smart bugger this one.”
Sasha smiles as openly as he can as he sets his bottle down unlike the other three who – no time wasted – inaugurate theirs with hungry glugs.
Marvale considers Sasha for a moment and seems to think of something which he chooses not to say. Instead he says, “craft beers are the thing now. Guy I went to med school with, really smart, good doctor…started a craft beer label a couple of years ago: Yardmen/Poolboys, with a slash – a forward slash – between the Yardmen and Poolboys. Doesn’t want to be a surgeon anymore, wants to make esoteric beer. Good on him. I think they’re expanding overseas now, to Bali, and Thailand, two honorary members of the Australian empire.”
“He’d do well in Portland. He should take it there,” Sasha says, relieved that he has now spoken.
“Why Portland? You mean Oregon Portland?” says Renker.
“That’s where all the hippies who drink weird beers are…is what I’ve been told,” Kermode clarifies.
“Hipsters,” Marvale corrects.
“Hippie is short for hipster.”
Marvale rolls the crisp coldness around his mouth, chooses not to respond, and swallows. He knows that the others know that Kermode is full of shit. That’s why Renker is glancing elsewhere. And this guy Sasha…
He looks at Sasha again, at his general otherness. “What do they drink where you’re from? Where’s it that you’re from again?”
“Is that a Bristol accent you’re wearing, mate?”
“It’s a diasporic ECOWAS accent.”
“A what what?”
“Lagos via Bristol. In Lagos they drink Gulder, Star and Guinness because I remember having to get Gulder, Star and Guinness from the fridge for my father and my uncles and their guests when I was a boy. I really don’t know what people usually drink in Bristol.”
“Okay. Then what do you usually drink in Bristol?”
“Milk. Occasionally I drink Coke, or fruit juice mixed with tonic water.”
Marvale smirks, unsure of how much sarcasm Sasha’s sentence was laced with. A great quiet descends on the table and the quartet finish off their beers in the midst of it.
It’s soon a touch past nine and the general body language that the four men display is that of the common breadwinner rounding up their after-work drinking session and preparing to return home to the house-spouse and the children.
“Well…I have an early flight tomorrow so I’d better get moving,” says Kermode, stepping off the tall stool. “Gentlemen: it’s been a pleasure…”
Renker says, “Me too, I fly in six hours.” He holds out a hand first to Sasha (“nice to meet you, Sasha”) and then to Marvale (“Callum. When you’re next in Hamburg.”)
Kermode does the same, shakes hands. The American and the German then conspire to share a taxi and leave the pub doing so. Sasha and the local conspire to remain seated.
“So when’s your flight?”
“A few days from now.”
“Taking some time to see the sights?”
The crowd has grown ever so slightly more boisterous and Sasha must now draw his voice out from deeper down within his innards in order to be heard above the tipsy hum. When he is forced to do this he often squeaks from the strain, and once in a while a gnat of spit will set flight from his mouth and attach itself to the listener’s face and melt into their skin, sometimes going unnoticed by either.
“So, you’re from Sydney,” inquires Sasha, or rather, reiterates.
“Dee Why. Ever been to Dee Why? Know where Dee Why is?”
“I’ve never even heard of Dee Why. How do you spell it?”
“D-double-E W-H-Y. It’s up north, north of the bridge, sits right on the pacific. The ocean’s my bathtub, mate, my washbasin.”
Sasha leans back in his chair and nods absently. The two men look at each other for a moment, but there isn’t much at all in the look they share. Ambient chatter displaces what would normally be called awkward silence. Sasha shuffles forward on his stool and rests his elbows on the table.
“So…like…where are the best places to have a good time?”
Marvale stares; smiles. “A good time? What do you mean by good time, what type of a good time?”
Sasha looks around Oddknots, which has admittedly picked up, and says, “there’s nothing much happening here. I’d like to see where things are really moving, where there’s a buzz, action. Energy.”
“Mate, I haven’t been in that arena for — belch — some time, pardon me.” He leans in, half whispers: “Are you looking to get laid?” He lets the question hang unanswered.
Sasha’s mouth twitches, microscopically. He says, “I just want to have something to talk about when I fly home.”
“You don’t seem to be the biggest fan of talking.”
“Because I have nothing to talk about.”
Marvale holds Sasha’s eyes hostage in a brief but intense stare match. He then leans back. “Come back here on a Friday night, or Saturday. What’s wrong with this place?” He looks around. “There’s nothing wrong with this place, it’s a bloody Tuesday.”
“But you must know other bars you could show me.”
“Nooo no no no no no, there’s nothing to show, buddy, you just walk in, order a beer and see what happens. Chat someone up; leave your tag on as a talking point.” He presents the back of his very vascular left hand. “I’m no longer on the market, as you can see. And I’m too chickenshit to cheat, so I can’t be your John Stockwell. But you’re a big lad. No offense, but you’re black – which women love; you’re a pom, sort of – which may not necessarily help, but it may; you have your whatever accent you call it…you’re reasonably young I assume, you have money and you’re in a foreign land where you have no bridges to burn for the next — when did you say your flight was…?”
“Sunday Morning –”
“– one, two, three, four days in a land that won’t remember you when you’ve fucked off. You don’t need me, mate, what you need is more alcohol.” Marvale shifts off his stool, readies himself for the dismount. “And what I need is to get my hide home soon before I get in trouble. Have you tried Kirin? I’ll get us a couple of Kirins and then I’ll disappear so you can get on with business.”
“It’s Asahi for men with testicles. Watch my satchel.”
June 30, 2014 § Leave a comment
By Janus Qillemaning
March 17, 2014
A healthy pinch of trepidation would diffuse through anybody’s body as they coasted up the driveway of the sprawling home of a moneyed old bachelor with a taste for the grotesque; a tiny voice warning of dark things to come would not be unwarranted either.
It’s not an unimaginably long driveway, but every metre of it is a metre by which you can clearly sense yourself deviating further and further from the comforting arms of what the average person would call “normal.” It is untarred and ever so winding – the driveway – and is lined by (probably) gum trees that may or may not be dying or already dead. All that is certain is that they are leafless and a little scoliotic. The car is trailed by a parade of unsettled dust for a half kilometre or so and when I bring it to a halt outside a squat but broad house we – the car and I and the settling dust behind us – are met by the unassuming gaze of a lean old man in a fitting jumper and jeans: ‘I eased up on wearing black when Jobs’s get-up became iconic, so now I wear greys and tans and even patterned ones when I’m feeling a bit silly. But you can’t beat black on top and denim down below.’
Alan Saville is the kind of guy whose impressive wealth was probably acquired so modestly and legitimately that it could not be expressed in more extravagant a way than its being used to accrue a large collection of useless oddities. A retired small-business owner and a long-time “amateur” shares investor (an activity from which he has certainly not retired), Alan spends much of his free time sourcing, bidding for, paying for, and collecting objects that fascinate him as much as they repulse most. Not yet a tourist attraction – which Alan assures me it will never become – his expansive single storey abode which sits nestled on a 50 acre property named “Goorman’s Hive” located somewhere between inner Sydney and the Blue Mountains houses what must surely be one of the largest private collections of stuff this side of the equator.
‘It probably began with me collecting my own teeth,’ Alan tells me as we briefly sit to a black coffee for me and a green tea for him. ‘Now you can imagine how young I would have been when I started doing this, maybe four or five. There was no method to it initially, no reason, but I would just keep the teeth wrapped up in a tissue or in one of my father’s handkerchiefs for whatever reason, and then one day I sourced a jar my mother had washed and de-labelled for general use – it was an ex jam jar if I recall correctly – and I put the teeth in it, and by this time I had three or four less teeth in my mouth and enough in the jar to make a decent rattling sound. But I can vaguely remember the moment I realised that this hobby was more than something I just did to pass the time. We had family over one weekend and an older cousin of mine discovered the jar with its tiny white contents lying somewhere around the house and he vomited all over his shoes and my folks weren’t too pleased with me and my aunt and uncle weren’t too pleased with my cousin soiling his shoes or with the jar and its contents even though they didn’t say anything about it, but I remember looking at the tooth jar and getting a new kind of kick out of it. The value of it suddenly skyrocketed in my eyes, I was kind of proud of it, about what it could do to someone. Kudos to my parents for letting me keep the jar despite the obvious ickiness of it, but I completely understand why they put their collective foot down when I announced that I would branch out into collecting my siblings’ teeth as well. That was probably a bit much on my part.’
‘Some would say that what you’re doing is still a bit much,’ I offer, playing the role of hell’s advocate.
‘A bit much for who though?’ he responds with well hidden irritation. ‘You know, I think this may be the reason why I still do it; or at least one of the reasons I still collect all these blatant offenses to good taste. Bit childish, no?’
I refrain from commenting, using a mouthful of hot coffee as an excuse.
Over the years Alan has managed to amass a grotesquery of objects including everything from real shrunken heads and deformed foetuses, to authentic (he claims) nooses and injecting apparatus used for state-sanctioned executions carried out within the last half century. He even has a screening room for snuff films and other audio-visual material which would be best left undescribed. His latest acquisition, and the reason for which I ventured out to Mr Saville’s property, is Swordsman’s Glory, the contraption which has been described as a sex arcade game by its inventors but which caused one hell of a stir when it was successfully sold to an underground Sydney sex club after reputedly being rejected when pitched to Sexpo. It’s the contraption that was labelled the “rapist trainer” by some fervent detractors, which is probably the moniker that sufficiently raised Mr Saville’s interest in it: ‘humanity’s potential for darkness and depravity has always fascinated me, as well as anything that seems to trouble people deeply or take an axe to social norms. I don’t necessarily consider myself a dark person, just a curious one.’
‘With a few dollars to my name, yes.’
We enter a fairly spacious but musty room with high ceilings and a decidedly warehouse feel. Suffice to say, my neck hairs are quite erect.
‘This is the room where I keep objects I haven’t quite found a place for. It’s like a quarantine zone. Some of these things have been here for months.’
His eyes and attention are briefly drawn to a book bound in what seems to be rough pig-skin but which Alan informs me is cured human hide. The topic of the book seems to be cartography-oriented and by a layman’s guess the pages probably date back a century or two if not more. I’m assured by Alan that this and other such books would have been – at the time – fairly legal (if in bad taste) in that the skins would have been respectfully peeled from corpses belonging to universities which offered classes in anatomy and dissection and which had their own printing press. Alan decides to hold onto the book as he leads me to the item of the hour, Swordsman’s Glory.
It turns out that the little warehouse-cum-shed which houses the thing I have come to see contains, mixed in with all the weirdness, items as mundane as those that clutter the garages of the militantly non-eccentric. Boxes of…
“– oh, those just contain old kitchenware, pots, pans, plates…unusable really if only because I’m sure whatever you cook with them would taste of dust and cardboard and age however much you scrubbed.”
Many of the boxes it turns out contain his children’s old toys, which he retains for sentimental reasons. The fact that he has adult children and ex-wives works to unprickle my skin a great deal, and Alan Saville begins to come across as more of a charming hoarder than a twisted fetishist, the kind of assertion of mutual exclusivity one should always be careful not to make. Surrounded by these boxes, perhaps perversely, is an object hardly bigger than a pinball machine. What catches the eye first and foremost is the life-sized replica of a female’s body from the waist down as though it were a mannequin sawn in half; and, like a mannequin, little attention has been paid to detail and realism apart from size and general anthropometry. The hips are flexed to ninety degrees and so are the knees; it’s the position the lower half of one’s body is in when on all fours, the butt protruding somewhat and the knees hovering a good foot and a half off the floor. A medium-sized screen sits at the far end of the machine, presumably to display high scores and the like. Across one side of the contraption’s body is the title Swordsman’s Glory, scrawled in a disappointingly juvenile font similar to that in which titles like “Tekken” and “Mortal Kombat” are written. After we’ve both silently assessed the item for a good minute or two, Alan proceeds to explain its workings.
‘It’s a deviously assured piece of design if you think about it. Our lady’s bottom half actually turns on its horizontal axis like so –’
Alan grabs the calves – which he informs me are mostly plastic not fibreglass – and swivels the model 180 degrees such that its knees are up in the air and its – for want of a better word – gash sits out and in the open, not quite flapping in the breeze; to call it a vagina would be frankly insulting to vaginas. It’s also clear that little attention to detail has been paid to the intricacies of the vulva. One can only hope that gifting the poor mannequin with a clitoris at the very least was a consideration on the parts of the clearly male inventors.
‘What’s more extraordinary,’ Alan says with measured excitement, ‘is how the hips can be abducted, splayed open, up to thirty degrees,’ which he demonstrates for me with utmost care while kissing the model’s groin with his.
I can only assume that my disgust is already beginning to show because Alan decides to lament the fact that ingenuity of this sort could be put to such chauvinistic use. He says this while straddling the mannequin which now has its legs open wide, in waiting for a cock to be thrust inside it.
So what does the screen look like?
‘Well…I unfortunately don’t have a power point around here…so I can’t plug it in and show you what it looks like. But I have seen it and I wouldn’t call it the Swordsman’s strongest feature. I mean, it has the usual high scores and all that, but while a player is…playing…the screen has a point-of-view depiction of a woman’s face and the player has a choice of six or so ladies to choose from before they start the game. It’s live action actually, not animated, which is quite impressive because as far as I understand the responses of the virtual sex partner are directly related to how good or how poor a lover the player is.’
‘The guy,’ I say.
‘Pardon?’ he says.
‘You’ve been saying the player, but it seems to me that the player is always going to be male. Or were there any lesbian players?’
‘I don’t have any definite answers to that, but I can’t imagine why they wouldn’t or couldn’t have been lesbian players. I actually believe that cunnilingus is a mode of play. That’s all I know, but that’s a valid question.’
I can feel myself smile at this though I do not quite know why.
So why did he decide to spend $78000 on this thing?
Alan Saville stares for a moment before breaking into a laugh and playfully gesturing to the absurdity that is the Swordsman’s Glory as if to say “why the fuck would I not spend $78000 on this thing?’
Bernie Josiah Collins (or BJ) and Len Dolan do not seem to have been particularly stung by the furore, backlash or outright hate surrounding their creation.
As we sit down for coffee at a café half a minute’s walk from their temporary office/studio in Marrickville, BJ and Len are largely as one would expect them to appear, apart from the fact that they do not strike me as being dangerously undersexed men who guzzle down porn and are unable to converse somewhat naturally with women. They’re both approaching thirty and have receding hair lines to varying degrees but nonetheless have an air of early-twenties what with their mild fleet-mindedness. They’re also the kind of guys who absorb fashion trends without being overly aware of this and thus come across as unwittingly modish, which is probably a significant portion of males in inner west Sydney.
‘What did you think of it?’ Len asks.
I express my honest opinion and he does not seem too fazed. He simply says, ‘cool.’
‘Did you find it actively sexist though?’ BJ says, continuing the line of question that Len was perhaps to coy to press on with.
‘I generally ask the questions,’ I say with a smile, and so proceed to ask him if sexism must by needs be active in order for it to be unconscionable.
BJ consults his friend-partner with a glance and they both consider the question.
‘Well, no…’ begins BJ, ‘but I do think that active hate is a greater sin than passive hate.’
‘Like…can anti-Semites who sit quietly hating on Jews ever be comparable to Hitler and his goons? Sure, they’re terrible people too, but they don’t necessarily torture or kill, and maybe we need to accept that passive haters will always exist but that it’s kind of okay as long as they remain that way.’
Okay, but what about ideals? ‘Forget the practicalities,’ I say. ‘What about ideals and values and the upholding of these?’
Len pipes in after spending a minute cooling his coffee with his breath: ‘I totally disagree that Swordsman is sexist though. It says nothing about women, at least nothing that either of us intended for it so say; if it does, no one has properly explained to me what that is. Like…the game ranks guys based on how well they have sex…it’s guys competing to please the virtual woman better that other guys. I’d say that the game reduces men to objects just as much; it plays on the anxiety society places on us to be great lovers with large cocks.’
‘Just as much as what?’ I say.
The game reduces men to objects just as much as what?
‘Well…just as much as it may be perceived as reducing women to mannequins that are just expected to open their legs for men.’
So could the game be a social comment then?
BJ steps in: ‘Uh…I wouldn’t go so far as to say that, but I don’t believe that social comments have to intentionally come out of the mouths of people to be real and valid; they can be implied in inanimate objects without anyone meaning for this to be the case. Maybe that could be true for Swordsman.’
Len says, ‘sure, that’s true, but I just don’t appreciate the whole sexism uproar crap. The game could be seen as sexist to men or women, depending on who you are. Actually, I remember some guys complaining about how much it plays on the perception of male sexuality being mindless and the idea that guys approach sex like sport, flexing their sex muscles and ranking their exploits and all that.’
‘Yeah,’ says BJ. ‘And there were quite a few gay guys who called it homophobic too.’
‘Yeah,’ echoes Len.
‘Well, I didn’t say it was only misogynistic,’ I say, to be a nuisance.
BJ smiles into his coffee and Len is a little taken aback. BJ asks me if he can smoke and I bid him be my guest.
I comment on the fact that they’ve just tightened the noose around their invention during the last few minutes. BJ states that the thing is already well and truly hung. He seems the more philosophical of the two whereas Len appear somewhat more attached to Swordsman’s Glory, more sensitive and defensive. Is it purely personality-related, or does the Swordsman’s ultimate failure have a greater meaning for this particular member of the design duo?
I ask the pair about the machine’s conception. Who came up with the idea and so on and so forth.
As it turns out and as could be expected with such an invention, Collins and Dolan, both studying industrial design in one shape or another, were “shooting the shit” one day when one of them – they claim to have forgotten who it was though I suspect Len Dolan is the most likely candidate – narrated to the other his experiences playing an online game in which getting his avatar to have sex with the avatars of other online players was the ultimate aim and in which points were awarded for sexual prowess and skill and for Game, or at least the virtual iterations of these. What commenced as two male friends in their mid-twenties joking about the absurdities of such a game morphed into two friends joking about the absurdities of a game in which a player engaged in simulated sexual activity much as they would brandishing a fake pistol while playing ‘Time Crisis’ at an arcade or hopping into a simulated rally car a few games down and turning the steering wheel wildly. As they joked and kidded, the frat boys and the industrial mavericks within them merged and mutated into sleazy geniuses and they that very day left whoever’s room they happened to be in with plans to design and build what they believed to be the first ever coitus simulator that judged sexual performance in a competitive context.
‘We never expected this to be anything more than a pet project which would at the very least get us attention for our originality or innovation or whatever,’ Len explains. ‘The sex aspect was kind of secondary, secondary in the sense that it wasn’t something we envisioned people getting off on, you know? We’re not like…pornographers. Sex just happened to be a there and we never thought too much about it.’
‘You’ve got to understand,’ says BJ, ‘that we – well, at least I – didn’t really expect to get past the “we’re sort of thinking about making this random thing but it probably won’t happen” stage. I never ever saw myself, saw us, actually building this thing, but by the time we were in fact actually building it we had completely overlooked all the social aspects because we could hardly believe that we had gotten from the stage of just fucking around with ideas to actually trying to study the anatomy of the vagina and how its sensation is mapped and researching different materials and circuitry and all that –’
‘– and where all the cum goes,’ pipes in Len, at which they both stumble into fits of laughter; not brash and extroverted laughter but rather a more inward, half-swallowed kind.
The cum was in fact to be collected in large condom-like films of non-latex plastic which would have been worn by the mannequin like a brief, with a large vaginal pocket that would line the appropriate space. The coital diaper would be spat out by the machine once payment had been received after which the player would then dress the mannequin, assume a position – either missionary-based or doggy-style – and begin fucking, watching the screen intently for points awarded for criteria such as rhythm, stamina, clitoral and G-spot stimulation, and even size (for which there is an inbuilt handicap system.)
Bernie explains: ‘We actually bounced around the idea of the virtual vagina being like a real one in that it would be cleaned out by its own juices or whatever. We were trying to figure out how it could constantly wash itself out so that the players could just use their own condoms and feel confident that they weren’t significantly touching swords by proxy. You can probably tell that we didn’t expect that Swordsman’s Glory would ever be used. Anywhere. We made it for us really.’
There is a very pregnant pause after which Len begins to snigger. BJ smiles. ‘As a creative challenge for us, not to get our rocks off.’
Who came up with the name?
‘Well,’ says BJ, ‘we’ve never be that satisfied with the name, but we didn’t have anything better to call it so we just went with something obvious and a bit cheesy. The “glory” part is a bit of a play on glory holes…even though it’s more a fleshlight than a glory hole.’
And did they consider the utter impracticalities of such a game, aside from all the social implications?
‘We kind of did,’ says Len, ‘but maybe too late? Like, obviously the impracticalities and health issues and social bullshit was why Sexpo was like “uh, no we’re not having this abomination in our show.” And which is why only one underground, pretty dirty sex club was like, “sure, whatever, how much?”’
How much did the sex club, Marquis Descending, pay for ownership of Swordsman’s Glory?
They consult one another once again. $12 000…? Something in that ball park..? In all earnestness though, how could they not know?
By this point our brunches have arrived and been devoured and round two of coffee commences without any reservations.
‘How shocked were you by the uproar?’
This question hangs in the air for quite some time.
‘I was probably mostly confused by the fact that this thing we’d basically made for fun and which was sitting in some dark room in an underground sex club where people fuck goats for all we know was suddenly a thing,’ Len says; ‘a thing that people were getting upset about, like…how the fuck do you even know it exists? Did you just happen to run into it while you were wiping the goat cum from your mouth?’
BJ extends a gentle ‘dude’ to his friend and business partner. I smile. I’m correct in thinking that Len is a little more sensitive about the matter than is BJ.
‘Sorry, I don’t mean to be such a foul mouth.’
No, not at all. So what’s next for the duo?
They are currently in the process of starting up a design and development firm which they hope will be a frontrunner in all things design and innovation, at least in Sydney to begin with though with enough grease and sweat it will have a global reach at some point in the future. They both agree that Swordsman’s Glory is not worth disowning or relegating to their respective skeleton closets though they pray every day to every conceivable deity that it does not end up becoming their ultimate legacy.
‘I thought it was kind of funny. But let me be plain and honest with you: I run a club who’s “come one, come all” policy stops just short of permitting murder or child molestation. Everything goes here, man, as long as it’s in the dark, as long as all parties involved gain some measure of satisfaction, and as long as everybody walks out with the exact number of body parts that they expected to walk out with. So, to summarise: I thought it was funny and unique, I figured some of my clients would be into it which some of them were, and I had the money to waste, so I wasted it.’
Arianna M, as she likes to be known, is the personification of an out-of-body experience. Seeing her and hearing her are strangely disjunctive and I find myself wondering, how does this husky and commanding voice emanate from so petite and pretty an entity who at the same time dresses like a ballerina who quit the stage to become a mechanic while retaining the delicate makeup and nimble grace. Think about it.
Sitting in Arianna’s office, one would have zero idea that they were in the control room of a hard-core sex club that caters for all sexual predilections and tastes from simple swinging to BDSM and most flavours of fetishism however extreme. Bestiality is one of the few partialities not permissible at Marquis Descending because (a) human-animal relationships tend to have a significantly skewed power dynamic and (b) even if both parties consented to sexual activity i.e. the dog were wagging its tail or sporting a moist pink boner, reason a still holds. A shelf standing against one wall in Arianna’s office houses neatly stacked folders and books, and two of the other walls are adorned – one each – by two cheap-looking Degas prints. No framed smiley pictures of hubby and the kids sitting askew on the table though, so I can be assured somewhat that this is not a David Lynch movie, which is exactly why it probably is a David Lynch movie.
‘I haven’t had sex in a week,’ Arianna says to me from the other end of the desk, leaning forward across it.
Uh…why would she tell me this?
‘Just so you realise I’m not a sex fiend, that I don’t have semen and pussy juice coming out my ears. Not to blow my own horn but I’m kind of gorgeous – as you can see – and I know what I’m doing most of the time, but I have standards, and standards aren’t always easily met. Sometimes I have to go a week before my standards and criteria are even close to being satisfied.’
‘So how did you get into this?’ I ask.
‘Into what, running a sex club? You know, I always wonder, “how do people get into insulation, or piping?” You’re driving down the road and you see these trucks with piping hanging off the back and on the side of the truck it says “Speedy Piping or Hunter Insulation or Someone and Sons.” How do they get into that? Anyway, with me…I’ve always worshipped sex and I think it’s as vital a part of a healthy, happy life as is twenty-one percent oxygen and regular bowels, and like a doctor or nurse who is there when you need pain relief or antibiotics or an enema, I’m here when you need to get off or feel sexy or feel good about yourself. I’m no less important than your cardiologist and I’m definitely more important than your shrink. As for why I actually decided to open this place? No idea. I just felt like it. Sorry.’
Arianna surprisingly goes on to ask me if she answered my question which she clearly knows she did not on account of the apology she offered a few seconds earlier.
‘So,’ I say, ‘tell me more about Swordsman’s Glory and how it landed up here.’
‘I get a lot of unsolicited shit from lots of people, you see, amateur pornstars and people who want to do exotic dances and whatever they think it is that we provide here. We’re not a strip club, and we’re not VideoSleazy. But when these two guys emailed me about this machine they’d made, I took a bit more notice. Firstly, it was novel — I’d never seen or heard of such a thing; secondly, they sent me a pretty long and detailed email which was a far cry from all the poorly written ones that say “here’s me and me niece fucking, hope you like, here’s me bank details, money please.” So we met up and they showed me the Swordsman and explained how it worked.’
‘And what did you think about it?’
‘I thought they were fucking insane and kind of creepy for even thinking to make such a thing, but brilliant at the same time. Look, sex is strongly subconscious and as a result it often has a hilarious side, so to run a sex club you need to see the funny side of sex, to appreciate the humour inherent in it. Their machine made me laugh, which put it in good stead.’
‘Did customers enjoy it? Did they offer any feedback?’
‘The funny thing about the Swordsman is that it was more the kind of machine you would find in a sex gym, if such a thing existed. As far as I know the virtual vagina didn’t simulate secretions or contract and relax like the real thing does, so I don’t imagine it was the kind of toy that people would rush to in order to get their rocks off. It was really a technique enhancer, and I think the clients who gravitated to it used it as a way to hone their penile dexterity, or even their finger or tongue skills…to a limited extent of course, granted the virtual vagina was not super-detailed anatomically and whatnot. You know how there’s scoring and ranking –?’
‘– well I’m not aware that my clients actually embraced the competitive aspect of it. It was all about personal bests I guess.’
And the hygiene issue?
Arianna M shrugs.
‘Are you aware,’ I ask, ‘that some people nicknamed it the “rapist trainer?” Was that one of the reasons you decided to offload it?’
‘I’m not that beholden to public opinion; I run a sex club. The problem was more that the machine was now tainted and doomed to just sit in the corner collecting lint and dust like an artefact. I’m not an antique collector. It was going to get offloaded sooner or later after shit hit the fan.’
As for it being called the “rapist trainer…?
‘Rapist trainer…hmmm. I don’t think I really want to comment on that.’
Not even a little?
‘I think it was an effective but unfairly inflammatory term. I don’t know many rapists. In fact I don’t know anyone at all who has confessed to or been convicted of rape, but I’d imagine that rapists don’t really give a damn about pleasuring their victims, which is kind of what you score points for when you fuck the machine.’
But the machine does dehumanise women. You’re fucking a machine with a pixelated personality that has no sovereignty and no say with regards to the acts it is about to be subjected to.
‘Well, I don’t believe blow-up dolls create rapists. Look, without being overly aggressive, I must say that I really don’t appreciate being placed in the position of having to defend that stupid, juvenile and somewhat depraved invention. I bought it on a whim, a regrettable whim, that’s all. But I also hate people getting so sensitive about something so benign.’
Understood, and no aggression perceived, though her claim that Swordsman’s Glory is benign is contestable.
There were some parties who slammed the Swordsman for practically alienating straight women and gay men. Thoughts?
‘I figured it was meant to [alienate straight women and gay men]; in the same way that tampons alienate straight men and lesbians. That’s a joke.’ I guess I mustn’t have smiled appropriately.
‘But honestly,’ Arianna continues, ‘I didn’t think it was logical to expect a sex toy to cater for all genders and sexualities. When it comes to that level of versatility you’ll never beat the vibrator. So I figured it was worth the purchase. Plus, something about the fact that Sexpo found it too risqué made it irresistible.’
‘Did Sexpo say that they found it too risqué? I ask.
‘Knowing Sexpo, they probably did. I’m kidding, I love Sexpo. I go every year. I should have season passes.’
‘So who brought Swordsman to who’s attention exactly?’
The business owner in Arianna comes out, finally: ‘I won’t go too much into the details, but a former staff member took issue with the machine and escalated things by contacting the press when they felt that I wasn’t doing enough to…get rid of the thing for which I had just paid fifteen thousand big ones. But I don’t blame them, and no, I didn’t fire them, they decided to part ways with the sex industry. I’ll be the first and last to admit that Swordsman is a ridiculous creation, that it was a ridiculous move on my part to even think of buying it and putting it in my club. But I did turn one hell of a profit selling it to some weirdo, god bless him.’
June 9, 2014 § Leave a comment
I got on me knees and looked in the cupboard under the sink. Mum said why would she keep them under the sink, they were in the next one over, behind all the pots and pans she abandoned when she got the Teflon non-stick ones. So I pulled all the plastic plates and bowls out from behind the pots and pans and stacked them up but mum said why did I put them on the bloody ground. Now she’d have to wash them again.
Dad said it said in The Advertiser that the Africans were dentists.
Mum said, ‘all of them?’
Dad said just the bloke was a dentist. ‘Got a wife and three kids it says here.’
Mum was scrubbing the plastic china with Palmolive and a sponge and I stood and watched because I thought I deserved it. Dad twisted his neck over the back of the sofa.
‘Em. Emily. Oi! The bloke’s a dentist, they can afford their own crap,’ he said but mum said that third world dentists weren’t like dentists here. That’s why they came to Australia. Besides, a church ladies group was behind the whole thing, just to make the Africans feel at home. And to add to their congregation she guessed. Said it wasn’t her idea, calling dibs on the new people. Just that she thought she didn’t want to waste decent dinnerware.
Dad said what about a garage sale, he’d been thinking about having a garage sale. Mum said that was another story, put the soap and the sponge back under the sink and said we might as well throw in the pots and pans too. Dad said what if we need them one day.
Mum said, ‘it’s not a gift, Roger, it’s just a bloody loan.’
We’re playing handball in the quad, me and the other retards, because that’s what they call us, the other kids, because they can’t be bothered talking to us. There’s ten squares crushed into the cement with chalk some dickhead nicked from roll call. Shetty’s in king, Trent the ranga’s in queen and I’m in jack but I think the ranga’s trying to get me out because he’s hitting all these low fast balls at me. It’s like everyone’s trying to get me out ‘cause they’re all hitting low fast balls at me. Brendan Carter’s just got out but he won’t get out and people are yelling at him, ‘get out of it!’ But Brendan’s saying ‘nah! Bullshit! Nah!’ throwing his arms around and pushing everyone away. But then the principal walks out of the office with one of the Africans mum was talking about. A boy. Brendan is so busy looking he gets shoved out of his square and everyone up to that square moves up one. Some of us are also looking at Mr Woz(niakiewicz) and the African boy. I’m one of the ones also looking.
Turns out he’s in me roll call, him and his sister. They look heaps like each other, not like twins, but they’ve got the same nose and lips sort of. And apparently their hair’s like carpet, at least his is. They sit right up front in front of Ms Jarra’s table, talking to each other so quiet you can’t hear them. You can’t even hear them say yeah when Ms Jarra says Tu-Too-Toondie? Where’s Toondie? Ne-Nu-Na-Nagozie? Maybe because she’s saying it wrong or maybe because they can’t understand Australian. But their names aren’t even Australian. A few names later Ms Jarra says Matthew, Matthew Rusk, and I say yeah. That’s the only thing I say the whole time because I’m up the back and no one is talking to me.
The African girl Nagozie ends up being mates with Bec Dunner and Kayla Redman and the other sluts but I don’t think she knows they’re the sluts. Toondie’s all over the place, hanging around with the boofheads that reckon they’re awesome-as and the careers lady’s weird son. I even see him talking to some of the cooler retards between class because he’s in the same classes as them, all the harder ones, like harder Science and harder English and yeah all the harder ones. After like a month the African kids don’t talk to each other as much ‘cause they’ve got their new mates. But it’s still a pretty quiet one for me, roll call, ‘cause I’m up the back and no one’s saying anything to me.
Dad’s back from the mine because I can hear him stomping his steel-cap boots outside the front door. I’m in the kitchen pouring some lime cordial because that’s all that’s left. Luce finished off the raspberry I reckon, and I can’t stand lime, but I can’t get enough of Cottees. I don’t know why but I sneak off to me room before dad comes in but I listen to him rumbling to mum about work as I sip me cordial and wait for me PlayStation to startup. But mum yells tea before it starts up.
We have lasagne for tea, the one we had for tea yest’y and the day before. Mum’s passing dad a massive plate when she says did he hear what the Africans did with all the stuff the church ladies rounded up for them. Dad says what and mum says the Africans said they didn’t need it because they had their own stuff coming by ship from South Africa and besides they were living in the Keenans’ old house on Colin street because the dad knows Mrs Keenan and she’s renting it out to them and it’s fully furnished and everything. Dad’s up for another plate after mum’s said all this. So I pass him the casserole dish.
‘Heard their boy’s in your year,’ dad says to me as he shovels lasagne with the cake scoop. I nod with me mouth full. Mum says do I know him and I say not really. But I seen him around.
Mum says, ‘don’t you want to invite him over? Show him your PlayStation?’
I stuff me face again when she says this and I think dad notices because he says ‘Matty’s not into inviting people over much, are you mate?’
‘Be good to know the new dentist in town,’ mum says into her plate. Dad says yeah, if it happens it happens, if it doesn’t it doesn’t. Lucy isn’t saying anything. She never says much round the house, only when her mates are over, then she’s talking loud and acting like she’s king shit. Mum’s just drank some water and she’s picking her teeth with her tongue.
No one says anything for ages, and then mum says why don’t I take me bike and ride over to Colin street tomorrow and give them new people some cassette tapes or something, just a taste of real Aussie music and hospitality, maybe a bit of Farnsey for the grown-ups and a bit of INXS or Barnesy and maybe some of me own CDs. She says the boy is probably wanting to make some friends but I reckon she means me. Dad says what about some Troy Cassar-Daley but mum says they might not get it; what about all that Aussie rap I’m always playing in me room and I say um…like I don’t know, but I think she means The Herd.
Sweat’s running into me eyes it’s so hot. And every time I stop me bike at a stop sign the flies are all over me like those stars when a cartoon gets whacked in the head. Our town’s streets are wide like highways, and the sky’s blue like it didn’t want to be blue but was forced to be blue and now is like you wanted blue so here it is. The road’s so hot it’s like I’m looking through water and as I’m riding I’m wondering will he know who I am, will he remember. I’m thinking why did mum have to make me do this.
Once when I seen Toondie in the corridor at school I said how’s it going and he said ‘good and you?’ He sounded not how I expected him to sound. He didn’t sound that African. It was weird. Then once, he came over to where we retards eat lunch and play handball and he was sitting with Glen and Spandy Lachlan and they asked him did they have TV in Africa and he said yes like it was a stupid question and they asked him like what shows do they have and he shrugged and said the usual like The Simpsons and Buffy and CSI and Egoli and Carte Blanche and Jam Alley but I don’t know if he was making it up ‘cause I’ve never heard of them last ones. Then Toondie said he saw a dead roo on the road, are there heaps of them around town hopping down the streets and someone said nah it’s not like in South Africa with the lions and all that. Then Glen asked Toondie if he wanted to come to youth group on Frid’y (‘cause Glen and Spandy are churchies) and Toondie said he’ll think about it. I stopped listening in and kept eating me ham cheese mustard sambo. Then a tennis ball rolled up to me feet but I was too busy eating me sambo to pick it up and Bowdy said ‘Oi, Rusky! Rusky, you ugly cunt, chuck us the ball!’
So I turn into Colin street and keep an eye out for the Keenans’ house cause I seen it before. Looks pretty much the same now, just that the front lawn’s now sand. I ring the doorbell with me free hand. Toondie opens the door but not the flyscreen so I can’t see his face too good because of the glare. I say g’day and he says hello. I think he remembers who I am. I hold up me hand with the CDs and tapes and say just wondering if they wanted to have a listen to these, they can keep them for a bit if they want. He looks at the stuff in me hand and says no thanks, they’ll be fine. Then he slowly shuts the door but he doesn’t even touch the flyscreen because it’s already shut in me face.
‘Decent bloke. Got a bit of an accent on him. Good thing he doesn’t talk much.’
Dad had a pretty bad toothache the other night. Heard him from me bed yelling bloody fucking this and bloody fucking that and mum saying bloody fucking watch your language.
‘They’re arrogant,’ mum says as we watch Eddie McGuire trying to throw someone off the answer they’ve locked in: B, Bay of Pigs. She says they just walk in and act like they own the place. We’re just trying to make them feel at home. Dad says yeah. ‘Good dentist but. Fixed me tooth up.’
I’m on the floor with me back and me head against the hard chair arm. I say something about youth group on Frid’y night and dad’s like, you’re not a churchie now are ya. Mum’s like, let him. If you want to go you should go, Love. Like it’s me last hope of being cured of something, some disease.
‘Why don’t you go to the disco thingamajig with Luce, meet some real people?’ dad says, but I can’t dance for shit and I don’t want to do it with me sister.
So I turn up at the Uniting Church with me bike. The parking lot’s almost empty and there’s light coming from an open door. It’s almost eight but it’s like the sun doesn’t want to move from where it was at five and it feels like someone is breathing in me face it’s that stuffy and warm.
Spandy calls me Ruskie when I walk in. Ruskie’s what everyone calls me because they reckon I’m an idiot. There’s about eleven people and that’s about it. Eight kids and three grown-ups. Spandy’s dad says dig in, there’s plenty to go around so I stuff me face with lollies and pizza and weak-as cordial and pretend to listen to the churchy stuff. Toondie and Nagozie and their little brother I never seen before look how I reckon I looked when I fell asleep on CountryLink and missed me stop and ended up in Gunning. But the grown-ups are trying to get them into it, like it’s a matter of life or death. Because when they come to school to talk about God and stuff all the kids think it’s a bunch of shit even though they act good and pretend to listen.
We play games all night and eat sour worms and I’m drinking cordial like I’m me uncle Lance and Cottees stands for Tooheys.
When I’m chucking me plate in the kitchen Toondie’s getting a plastic cup so I ask him how’s he liking it here and he says it’s alright, then I say has he got a PlayStation and he says no and I say I’ve got one and he says cool. After games Mr Lachlan gives us a talk. Says Jesus says we should come to him with all our problems and that he wants to be our friend and that he’ll be the only friend we ever really need. But I reckon if Jesus was here he’d call me Ruskie and not talk to me ‘cause he’d reckon I was an idiot.
Maybe if people knew who he was they’d be sad and not just act it. I never seen him before but he sounds like he could of been one of us even though I never seen him or heard of him or remember him playing handball. The whole town’s going on about it but out of respect or something it’s not in The Advertiser. But I reckon one day they’ll have one of them notices in the back with all the birthdays and weddings and old people who died and hot country girls looking for love.
They say his nan saw something in a tree across the paddock and thought it was just a big branch that lightning had snapped that was just hanging on by the skin. After the coppers took him down they say his dad stayed up all night hacking down the tree with a chainsaw and his mum can’t walk past his bedroom without having a scream. Heard all this from mum ‘cause all dad can say is that it’s bloody disturbing just thinking about it.
Luce says I should of seen Mr Driscoll at assembly today, he was spewing, but in his quiet Mr Driscoll way, like he’s a bottle of coke that someone shook hard, and he said that this is a lesson for everyone, that we should look after one another and we should have respect for one another and compassion and this is a bloody disgrace. One of them boofhead bullies was having a guilty cry and Mrs Callaghan told him to go do it outside. I wish I’d been there to see him crying like a poofter but I went shithouse in me School Certificate last year so now I’m working at the sausage factory. Dead set, it doesn’t stink as bad as it makes the rest of the town stink.
‘Funeral’s Monday week,’ mum says to I don’t know who. She loves this kind of thing, the kind of thing she can shake her head at and wish she’d never heard. Me head’s in the fridge, so I don’t say anything. I just grab a bunch of seedless grapes and close the fridge door and am walking to me room when mum asks did I know him and I say the one who necked himself and she stops mashing potatoes and says what’s wrong with me, why would I say that.
I say, ‘never seen him. Maybe I seen him once.’ Me head’s down when I say it.
Mum’s looking at me funny and I wonder what she’s doing. It’s not like I’m sick or anything ‘cause that’s her sick face, the face she has on when I have the flu or gastro and am spewing me guts up.
The doorbell’s just rang and mum says go get it. She probably reckons it’s Luce come back from Nagozie’s house ‘cause they’re mates now. I been to their house once. They’ve got a new house and a pool and everything so we went for a swim but Toondie never come in because he doesn’t like water much. But I reckon he doesn’t like me much. I reckon his mum said I could come round just to be nice. Yeah, the swim was good but Nagozie kept saying I peed in the water. I don’t know how she knew, it was just a trickle.
Saw Toondie in IGA the other day but. Buying spinach for the old lady ‘cause I saw her parked in the car park waiting, and he nodded his head at me and walked past and I spent the next minute trying to figure out who he was nodding at until I figured that maybe it was me.
It’s not Luce at the door, it’s me old man in his orange Hi-Vis shirt and his Hard Yakka pants and his boots. He’s about to stomp when I open the door and he looks at me through the flyscreen and I say dad and he nods, still looking at me.
‘Thought you might be having a beer with the boys from work,’ he says through the flyscreen.
I say I didn’t feel like it and he just looks at me through the flyscreen with the sick face. His sick face is different to mum’s sick face but it’s dead-set his sick face and he’s looking at me with it.
That’s pretty much all he says. Then he looks down at his Blundstones and gets on with stomping the dirt out from under them.
May 27, 2014 § Leave a comment
by Conrad Babayaro
May 8, 2013
IT BEGAN WITH A MISSING PERSON’S REPORT TO THE GANTON-TURSERVILLE DISTRICT POLICE, something Perry Doer would never have dreamed himself being at the centre of.
Eadie Furrows, she who came forward, wondered about the whereabouts of her next-door neighbour, the aforementioned Perry Doer, a fellow resident of low-cost Banskia Mews in east Ganton, unseen for weeks by the time the report was lodged; days shy of a month really. She and Mr Doer weren’t achingly close or chummy in any sense of the word, but they saw enough of each other to expect to see each other often and with little fail. Fleetingly, yes; awkwardly even, but often.
She also had a favour to ask of him, soon.
“What was the name again?” said the lady at the desk who did not look like a cop but was in fact a cop, a senior sergeant; Snr. Sgt. E.B. Dell.
“Perry…?” Eadie asked herself, asked the lady, asked the universe, wondering how it was that she could not state with any certainty what she felt so certain was his name, no, knew to be. The lady’s eyes pressed for more: a last name, a middle name, an initial, anything.
“I had nothing, only Perry — that was all I’d bothered to know. I just stared like a moron at the receptionist lady [sic]. She had a look on her that was like, you couldn’t come up with a more creative way to waste my time, sweetie?”
Yet seeing the speckle of urgency in Eadie’s manner convinced Snr. Sgt. Dell, despite a creeping tension headache, to ensue with a standard stream of police questioning: did Eadie have a photograph of the missing? No, they weren’t nearly that close. When and where did she last see the missing? A little over three weeks ago, in a stairwell. At Banksia Mews? Yes, at Banksia Mews. When did she last hear from the missing? A little over three weeks ago, in the stairwell — he didn’t say much. Any particular place or places the missing might visit? No idea. Did the missing have any medical conditions or require any regular medications? Wow. Wouldn’t have a clue. Any friends or contacts the missing associates with or might associate with?
“She shrugged, pouted her lips, shook her head. I was tempted to ask why she even cared,” Dell recalls. “I think I was even tempted to tell her to eff off, stop wasting my effing time — I had such a headache.” She reconsiders. “Maybe I did.”
Eadie nonetheless insisted that she could provide an accurate identikit of this fellow Perry, which so goes: tall (over six foot) with a very lean build; skin, a dusty, even, unblemished gray; long neck with a prominent apple; close cropped hair of the negroid persuasion; cheekbones high but blunt; apologetic brows roofing the blackest brown eyes; a gaping doorway between his two front incisors; full brown lips of equal size, often dry; something attempting to be a moustache rimming his top slightly pinker lip — otherwise, he is clean shaven; and of all things, an aquiline nose, broken. He has small, low set ears on either side of his head, free-lobed, and a strong, masculine chin — a jaw. Not the most or second-most handsome face by any means, but a strangely pleasant one.
“Oh, and frown lines,” says Eadie, as though she’s only just remembered, no, realised.
“It wasn’t an unpleasant face as it turned out,” recalls Vin Campesino, police sketch artist, nodding. “Yeah, very non-threatening. Forgettable. Something about it was vaguely familiar though. I was sure I’d seen it before. ”
When Campesino casually questioned Eadie regarding her relationship with the missing (was he a loved one, so on, etcetera) she stated that he was just a neighbour albeit one she quite liked, and that she had a civic duty to report his noticeable absence to the relevant authorities. In truth, a truth she could not bring herself to air to the police, she had only knocked on the door to Perry’s flat five days that week on account of her dog, Karl, an aging white-haired Puli who needed baby-sitting.
KARL, A FRANTIC WET MOP OF A POOCH, SEEMS TO HOVER GIDDILY OVER THE LIVING ROOM RUG, letting off little Morse code yaps here and there, suspicious of my shoes yet curious of their scent. Eadie tickles the back of his ear and then shoos him away, looks around her flat, and kneads her hands with a pathos one can’t quite get a handle on. And then Karl is back again, yapping.
“I didn’t want to come off like a selfish, dog-obsessed bitch. I genuinely did wonder where he was, you know, not just for my sake. I mean, you live next to someone for some time, they become part of your — I don’t know — your normalness; your normality? Yeah, sure, it was a little bit about me I guess, but it was definitely about him too.”
What Eadie failed to tell the sergeant and the sketch artist was that, as had been the case on numerous occasions, she wished to leave Karl in the care of Perry while she spent a few days out of town in the coming weeks, reasons for which varied from year to year, some years being writers’ festivals, professional-development workshops (she is a defected bookkeeper), weddings, wakes; other years family get-togethers, school reunions; in the latest instance, some kind of women’s retreat. Eadie always gave fair warning and he always agreed, “as though he couldn’t not.” She was inclined to consider theirs a symbiotic arrangement, but one might call it more a form of commensalism.
A few days passed and Perry persisted in being a no-show, and Eadie still hadn’t a contingency plan regarding Karl should Perry’s reappearance have become indefinite and up in the air.
“I always take siesta,” says Eadie, “don’t ask why. I was taking siesta after lunch and the phone almost rang itself off the receiver, so I rushed over to it all sleepy and it was some lady from the missing persons unit, but not the one I’d spoken to when I was there, at least it didn’t sound like her.”
Ruth Paisi was an intern at the unit and this was one of her first solo deliverances of unsavoury news, over the phone, “which I thought was heartless. At least let her come in to the station in person. I asked her if she was Eadie Furrows, which she was, and if she’d filed a missing person’s report regarding a Perry Doer, which she had.”
“Hearing his last name made me sort of well up,” Eadie says. She has a moment. “Anyway –”
Ruth then proceeded to inform Eadie that Perry was deceased. That he had been involved in an accident roughly three and a half weeks before, run down by a newspaper truck careening through the streets in the wee hours of a Tuesday morning. He was dead on impact. Body had been unclaimed, stowed in the city morgue and later incinerated. It might have ended up in an anatomy lab had the skull bones not been so thoroughly splintered, had it not been a coroner’s case (as are all road fatalities). Perry might have at least been useful in his demise.
Both ladies recall a shrieking silence at the other end of the line punctuated by the odd intake of breath, and closer to home an unease much less bearable, right where they were, where they sat so very still, clutching their phones to their heads.
Eadie couldn’t cry. Crying didn’t make any sense, as though she hadn’t any right to. Her mind was a fog, visibility zero. She was clueless as to where her responsibilities lay with regards to Perry, his remains, his personal effects — the artefacts of his existence, and those by whom he was survived if in fact he was survived by anyone. Legal matters had always raised her pressure, made her fidget, even though she was no more than an acquaintance of Perry’s and no more responsible for him than the street vendor from whom he habitually purchased freshly-pressed waffles.
Wasn’t this the kind of thing that happened to strays, Eadie wondered, dabbing at dry eyes with Kleenexes as though this might inspire them to seep. To die and be scraped off the streets and thrown into a fire? An odd sense of complicity held her captive for some time and she felt driven — compelled — to atone.
“I’m a keen blogger, have been for a year or so,” she says. “I felt as though I owed him a tribute, and an apology for not knowing his last name. I thought I might do a post; say a few words about him, like an online eulogy, a eulogy blog.” A eublogy? “He was the sweetest man; boiled but sweet. He was a — how would you say it — a gentle soul, really gentle, like one of those monks. He didn’t say much, I don’t know why. Maybe he was shy.” She cocks her head in reconsideration. “He didn’t seem that shy; just kept very much to himself. Wouldn’t mind you telling him your whole life story, but wouldn’t so much as tell you whether his day had been okay or not so okay. He was always up to nothing. Nothing much was ever up with him.”
OUR INTERNET IS LIKE A SEWAGE SYSTEM PULSING WITH EVERYTHING IMAGINABLE. FLOATING AMONGST THIS MUCH, of course, are gems and masterpieces of the information era, dynamic, intelligent discourses on politics, science, arts and culture, big business and bigger personalities, this thing the economy, sports, life in the public sphere and all things plebeian, and those beloved Bushisms; there are our watering-holes of knowledge that render our world ever more so a village, yet one progressive and informed. There are these. Then there are the thousands upon thousands of opinionated, well-meaning folk who publish their thoughts and whims in blog form, freely available to whoever might fancy a wander through. The likelihood of being heard, of having a hit, varies. Who knows: perhaps it comes down to nothing more than mere luck. But there clearly is some skill to it, some knack. This is generally understood.
Furrowed Brows is Eadie’s baby, a blog she has maintained for some months, on which she routinely deposits nuggets of amateur social commentary. Much of it is quite readable. Some of it has valid points to make as evidenced by the thoughtful comments she receives, forgiving their grammatical shoddiness and rickety spelling. But most of it is unseen as she has very few subscribers and nary a promotional bone in her being. Consequently, it remains very much a private journal.
So when she laid down a few words in memory of Perry it was no surprise that no one seemed to care by way of simply not knowing. It was at this point that Eadie’s guilt sparked in her a sort of guerrilla creativity.
PETER RICHARDS WALKS BY THE OLD, BOARDED UP REVIVALIST CHURCH ON PENNANT STREET EVERY MORNING, on his way to the Pennant Street bus stop where he waits for the bus to work. outside the church is a large notice board that once sported posters with slogans such as “Don’t let Christians put you off Christianity” and “You think Jesus holds onto your sins? Take a look at his hands”. When the congregation packed up and moved to snazzier premises the board became public property and fell victim to people selling puppies, students wanting roomies (read: fuckbuddies), nightclub party promo, a thousand and one indie bands playing at the local pub, neo-communist clarion calls and flyers insisting that you “VOTE DENNIS CURTIZ”. There is no courtesy amongst people who use this board. Things are pasted over things, things are scrawled over with crayon and sprayed over with spray paint, things are torn down for the heck of it. It’s a fight just to be seen.
“I never take notice of it,” says Peter about the board. “I never took notice of it when it was about God and I didn’t take notice now that it was about rock and roll. And raves. I just walk by and stand and wait for my ride.”
Peter Richards works in Water and Sanitation and puts in his nine to five, and like most ordinary folk he has developed a way of engaging with the world and its inhabitants, at arm’s length so as not to rouse its underlying viciousness. He is perfectly content riding the 442 into the city with the same people, day after day, getting off at the same stop as them, walking down the same stretch of sidewalk to the same coffee cart and sipping from the same type of cup. And he won’t know their names or what line of work they are in. And it won’t bother him. And it didn’t.
“It didn’t. Why should it have? I had my own life and they had theirs.”
He shrugs. He means it.
Weekly meetings are held on Thursday mornings at the office. It was sometime past eight and Peter was half-jogging to the stop when he came to a halt in front of the old, boarded up church. Something on the notice board had stolen his eyes’ attention.
“I remember thinking to myself, I know that man,” Peter recalls. “I must have stood there a full minute – people were already queuing alongside the bus, taking out their passes. I knew I should get going but I wanted to know why this face meant something to me.”
There it was. Vin Campesino’s imperfect but precise greyscale representation of Perry Doer stared at the passing public, its starkness standing out from the spastic papier-mâché mess surrounding it. It was black on a plain white background. The words ‘HAVE YOU SEEN THIS MAN?’ hung like a manifesto above his head. Underneath, in slightly smaller font, it read: IF NOT, GO TO furrowedbrows.blogspot.com.
No number, no police contact, just a blog.
If Peter had ever been hook-line-and-sinker, he no longer was. He had no patience for juvenile silliness, so he went on his way. Decided to think no more of it. But that face…
It was at work, in his spacious-enough cubicle, that Peter realised. He felt like he’d just free-fallen ten metres.
The same thing would happen to almost a dozen people over the next couple of weeks. But back to Peter for the time being: “Three months earlier my wife had walked out on me,” he says. “She didn’t fight for the house, not for anything. Didn’t once raise her voice or blame me or hold me accountable for anything. All she wanted was out. Said she’d decided to wait for our youngest daughter to leave home before she came clean. Like it would hurt her any less. It was clear that she was seeing someone else; that she must have been for some time. And it killed me.”
Peter spent weeks holding back tears. But in his line of work this doesn’t matter. Anonymity is such that even a severe flaky skin disease might have gone unnoticed for some time. Funnily, this applies to the wider world just as much even though, to the grieving man, everyone’s eyes are watching. Add to this the fact that standing in line, waiting for the bus to work, only magnified his self-pity.
“I was trying to keep it together, make sure my look wasn’t any more miserable than anybody else’s.”
Not that anyone would have cared. Anyone besides Perry, who wound his neck round to look at the man to his left, a little to the rear. It was a long, heartbreaking look. He then asked Peter, in the most tentative voice, if he was okay — sir.
“Of course I said I was fine, and gave him a bit of a look. I was a little annoyed that he didn’t mind his own business.”
So what was his impression of Perry Doer?
“I don’t know. He struck me as ragtag, calling me sir and all. Not like a homeless person or anything, but he wasn’t the first person I would want prying into my affairs — it made me uneasy, the look of him. He could have been the nicest person on earth but he could have also been bad news. But I guess that’s true of anybody, I guess.”
Whilst taking a piss at work, Peter broke down: “things like that eventually get to you — someone you don’t even know caring enough to give a shit.” The man at the adjacent urinal made a note to quicken his stream and promptly left Peter to his tears.
Twice, thrice, four times, five, Peter walked past the poster of Perry which was surprisingly undisturbed, probably as a result of unanimous respect for the missing. He spared a glance each and every time. The lucky sixth, on his way home, Peter copied the website onto a loose Post-It and later that night paid a visit to Eadie’s blog.
“What I read made me sick. I felt sick at myself, knowing what I’d thought of him. I felt I should post a comment but I didn’t. Not that I knew how anyway.”
Peter hit up Furrowed Brows with increasing frequency, especially after he conceded to moving out of the house he shared with his then wife and shacked up in an inner city apartment not dissimilar, one could imagine, from the one in which he currently resides.
“I wouldn’t say that it was a phenomenon from what I could tell…I mean, I wouldn’t have known how to know, but when you read a bunch of people expressing regret for never learning the name of some guy who showed them some kindness at some moment…you begin to think. Like…who the fuck is this guy?”
Peter apologises for the expletives and offers more tea. I reject the former and accept the latter.
“I never did leave a comment,” he says after pouring two more cups. “Sometimes I still tell myself that it would have been perverse if I had said a big heap of nothing about a man I had totally written off one time and I kind of still believe that, sometimes.” We observe a moment of silence.
“For all that internet stuff I wonder if anyone actually knows who he was and what the fuck he was really about.”
I waive away his second apology and prove how much I don’t care by drinking some of that tea.
While Peter chose to pay his respects by being silent, others opted to offer tentative public tributes to an individual who for all intents and purposes thrived on not being recognised. What follows is a tiny selection of these e-bituaries, errors left uncorrected so as to honour the spirit in which they were written:
“just ti let you know, i really appreciated it. thanks” j_stamos
“rest easy, Dude” not_THE_anonymous
“Sorry for looking at you weird. I just didnt expect anyone to give a damn. I feel as though you’re at peace. Mad appreciation vibes, Leia” lcmahmood24
“Hey. Why d’you leave before I could say what’s up? Peace” G. Paul Oneros
”RIP strange beautiful man” DDparsons
“I was tempted to feel sorry for those who knew and loved you. then I realise, they were the lucky ones.” patstamp
“doer of good things, lame but true. rip” bleachmeRingo
“My dad asked of you – yeah, I told him about you. I’ll tell him you say hi. wish I could have gotten to actually know you or at least say thanks or something. lesson learnt: notice the people around you and say shit now. Rest inn peace” Argoss
“Heaven clearly wanted it’s angel back. Enjoy!xxx” Dana Brand
“good people should never die bad deaths but they sadly do. So rest now, good sir.” Mrs amherst
“Thank you. our thoughts go out to your family, many condolensces .” sadmangladman85
“ENJOY ETERNITY PERRY DOER! X” randy_dogette
Interestingly, none of the tributes or anecdotes gives evidence of grand sweeping gestures of philanthropy. Nobody publicly declares that they would be dead this very day if not for Perry’s generous donation of a kidney. No one was pulled out from the base of a debt mountain or saved from an assault in an alleyway.
In the spirit of journalistic inquiry, emails were sent to most of the authors of the above tributes, but while roundly received with a decent sprinkle of enthusiasm, there seemed to be a general poverty of memory when it came to reminiscing about what Perry Doer actually did so as to mean so much to so many people he hardly knew, who practically new nothing of him.
“Its kinda disappointing when you think of it,” writes Patricia Stampton in one of the more heartfelt emails, “disapointing because you think this person has had such an impact on you but when you’re pressed to talk about it your mind goes blank, at least mine does. and it’s not because there’s nothing there, but it’s like how things are more defined when you’re in the moment, more concrete than when you think back on it and it seems vague even though you know it was actually significant at the time. He was a guy I would run into years ago, maybe 8 years, cause we lived on the same bolck and would run into into eachother because we went to the same pizza place or laundromat. But we never became friends. We were hardly aqcuantiances but when I look back I realise how unhappy I was and how I felt okay being unhappy after sharing a word or two with him, or lend him some coins for laundry or whatever we did back then. It sounds weird, but I felt as though he allowed me to just feel and be human and miserable and not care about seeming okay — I didn’t feel I had to smile and be happy like I had to with my friends, or felt I had to. And he was the kind of person you noticed, you know? like there was something about him that you remembered, something physical. Maybe it was his skinnyness. Or maybe it was because he seemed sad himself and I gravitated to that. Who knows.”
It seems that Perry’s contribution was to notice that which most people have gotten so good at hiding out on the street while it erodes them from within, and which so many people are so good at not noticing.
Noticing, it seems, was Perry’s gift.
A LITTLE AFTER 2:30 IN THE MORNING, JANUARY 23RD, THE STREETS WERE AT THEIR DEADEST. LAST NIGHT’S OWLS HAD GIVEN IN TO SLEEP and whatever bars were still open closed up. Unsuccessful prostitutes put out their last cigarettes and reported to their pimps, and brief light breezes rolled empty bottles of booze off the sidewalks and into the gutters where they could be a little more comfortable.
Llewellyn Slater was finishing off his coffee while taking two aspirins while doing up his buttons while watching infomercials on mute so as not to wake anyone. He remembers thinking “that’s a pretty sweet deal”; considered ordering a pair of the super-absorptive dish towels for Julie, the woman he was living with, the mother of his second child. For a change, he decided to do his hair up in a bob instead of a ponytail, and ended up looking like a middle-aged samurai, thanks in part to his balding crown. A quick piss and a gargle of mouthwash later and Llewellyn was ready for work.
The big man quietly left the apartment and walked eleven blocks to the head office of the Greater Ganton Gazette, to the back of the building where the loading dock is. For the hairdo, he copped some congenial teasing from co-workers that were filling his truck with bales of newspapers, ready for delivery to 47 outlets across the district. All to be done before 8 am. It’s a rush hour most people don’t know about — trucks loaded with ‘fresh produce’: bread, fish, milk, the morning paper; rushing to provide what the consumer has come to expect in the same way they do the sunrise.
“I’d been feeling pretty poorly for a while to tell you the honest truth. I didn’t know why at the time and I didn’t want to see anyone about it because I didn’t know that it was actually a thing and I didn’t want to have to take any time off work if there actually was a thing and it wasn’t compatible with work. Turns out it was something not so great, but I don’t really want to go into it too much.”
Llewellyn is however willing to go into the fact that he had been passing old blood with his stools for some months by that point. He was, at the same time, plagued by dreams of having a colostomy bag like his granddad and having to empty it several times a day only to fail at it horribly and get watery shit all over himself.
“That’s the kind of stuff that was going through my mind, plus I’m thinking, what if it’s worse than that, you know…my kids, what happens to them if a bag is the least of my problems? I’m thinking all this as I’m driving. I really shouldn’t have been driving but I know guys who drove with bad appendicitis and broken hearts so I got in the truck like a man; like a delivery man. They say ‘don’t drive drunk, don’t drive tired’. What about ‘don’t drive anxious and anaemic?’”
Llewellyn shifts in his chair, quietly enjoying his line, and his new partner, Margo, watches him do so with an air of very gentle supportiveness.
“No wonder I hit him. I was fucking anaemic.”
Margo smiles at Llewellyn. She then smiles at me. “Are you going to run all these cuss words?”
I tell her that I’ll try and we share in the laugh.
By around a quarter to five that morning Llewellyn had covered a very serviceable proportion of his route and was making his way along the southernmost half of Milton road which is in a part of the district of Ganton-Turserville in which the Gazette has never had much popularity for reasons unclear. Llewellyn had two paper drops which he completed relatively on schedule and therefore had no undue need to hurry. Being that he had encountered next to no traffic whether meat or metal for most of that morning shift, Llewellyn was utterly blindsided not just by the fact that there was a man at the side of the road on Milton road at that hour, but that this man had – in half a blink – walked into the grille of his moving truck.
“I don’t doubt that he intended for it to happen now that I think of it. I was there, I saw it. I mean, I didn’t see his face enough to say man, that guy is suicidal, but when I found out that he wasn’t deaf or blind or retarded or anything I figured it had to be that. I could be wrong but what does it matter now anyway? He stepped off the kerb, in front of the one truck in sight on a super long road at four in the morning. And I hit him.” He glances at Margo. “I remember thinking he timed it really well, for like maximum impact.”
Was he speeding when he hit Perry Doer?
“Was I speeding? Maybe. I don’t know. Probably. The limit was seventy and I may have been five over or something. I try not to think about it. I honestly couldn’t tell you because I honestly don’t remember if I even knew at the time.”
According to the coroner’s findings there was no evidence of intoxication on the part of the victim or the driver, no evidence of foul play, and there was definitely no mention of deafness, blindness or mental retardation. It was noted, however, that Perry Doer was in generally poor health which may not have given him the best chance in the face of such a physical insult. On initial impact some ribs were snapped by the truck’s bonnet. The thing which killed Perry, however, was a large and fast intracranial bleed. Perry’s virtual anonymity certainly helped to ensure that the case was wrapped up with little ceremony. A cremation was organised and within three weeks Perry Doer went from carbon-based life form to carbon and a couple of other bits and pieces. The coronial verdict was probable suicide.
“Some insensitive prick – I don’t remember who – said that it was like hitting a really sick dog. Even the slightest knock just ruins it beyond repair. Maybe he was right but I didn’t think the wording was great.”
The incident did very little to derail Llewellyn professionally, something which didn’t sit right with the lapsed Baptist.
“I remember being a little…” he smiles to himself and then his face falls serious again in an equally quick instant. “I remember being a bit hysterical, in like a quiet way, like quietly freaking out. Because I remember going up to my boss and asking him what was going to happen…whether I would have to face some disciplinary board hearing or lose my license or whether the state or district or whoever was going to bring some kind of charge against me. Even though the only thing I could remember having done wrong was having bled out my ass — god, my mouth is really trashy today.”
Margo tells me that he brushes his teeth three times a day but that maybe he should just wash his mouth out instead to which Llewellyn responds with an absent-minded grin.
Llewellyn’s boss told him not to worry too much about the matter and within a fortnight he was back on the road earning his keep and worrying about his health. Soon after, his then partner Julie convinced him to get his bowels checked out.
“I really don’t want to talk about that.”
I assure him that this is fine. I’m here to talk about Perry.
“Well,’ he says, scanning the carpet as though it is his mind, “that’s kind of all I know about the guy, what I’ve already told you. I was kinda hoping you’d tell me a bit more.”
REINER’S PEOPLE REALTY AND HOUSING IS A GANTON-BASED ESTABLISHMENT THAT’S BEEN IN BUSINESS SINCE THE LATE EIGHTIES, PATIENTLY BOLSTERING ITS REACH from local to regional to statewide over the decades. Debbie Reiner derives a measure of pride from the fact that – even as she is both president and CEO of RPRH – she still hosts showings and open houses just as she did when her fledgling company was still scrounging around for a market share. Admittedly, humility is built into RPRH’s particular real estate niche and, admittedly, she engages in the grassroots aspect of the business far less often than she would ordinarily have herself do.
“We’ve always had an issue with destitution and bummery in this part of the world,” says Debbie as we sit in her not so humble office, “and after twenty-something odd years in this business — I still couldn’t tell you why that is. But my philosophy, our philosophy, the RPRH philosophy is that sometimes a roof over one’s head is exactly what some people need and that’s it, at least for a start. I’ve been passionate about low cost housing for quite some time because it seems like such a practical real-world solution to such a pervasive problem in our little locale. No one should sleep out in the cold, not even dogs. Maybe cats; they kind of deserve it.”
Debbie doesn’t remember personally handling the rental application that Perry Doe submitted when he first moved to east Ganton from out of state, but she is more than accommodating with whatever records are available. Together we peruse these.
“…so it was a shared rental, him and someone else — Carson Manit it says, don’t remember him — they must have met through work maybe…which probably made it doubly difficult because they were both new to town with pretty low-paying jobs and zero rental history we could base any of our decisions off of, so we had to get co-signers for both of them who themselves weren’t super watertight …and the landlords at the time didn’t care that their properties were basically four walls and a floor and a ceiling and a door and maybe a window if you were lucky…they just weren’t willing to take the risk and they made things unnecessarily difficult even though they’d eventually cave and randomly approve one of the damn applications. They’d say who are these kids?! And I’d say these aren’t kids, these are grown men that deserve every chance in the world. They never really got my point, but they quickly came to realise that these kids were the only ones willing to sweat out a double shift just to pay for their little brick boxes.” Her fingers ski across the dully white application papers.
“7/45 Inverness Avenue…” reads Debbie. Perry’s unit in Banksia Mews was obviously not his first home in Ganton-Turserville district.
She continue: ”Yeah, there’s a bunch of super cheap flats there, super basic, but we try to get good people in there so it doesn’t turn into a ghetto too quickly.”
That was when ago?
So would it be safe to say that the neighbourhood is now a ghetto?
“Well…I don’t think it would be unsafe to say.”
Perry’s co-signer was his mother Eloise with whom, it can be assumed, he was living prior to his migrating. His first employer in the area was the proprietor of a local fuel station chain who hired Perry as a cleaner, mainly of restrooms and diner kitchens. The position paid poorly but it paid well enough for him to make the rent slightly late, provided roomie Carson pulled his weight which it seems he frequently did not.
And it seems that, towards the end of his time on this planet, Perry was struggling to pull his weight too. The most recent five years’ worth of rental records is news to Debbie, who goes on to postulate that Perry must have been a “shit of a tenant” what with the scores of rental reminders, threats of eviction and incomplete bond refunds. At the time of his untimely passing, Perry had placed an appeal with the department of fair trading regarding his tenancy, the details of which are unclear but which could not be far removed from the picture of rental discord Debbie and company at Reiner’s have dug up.
“So he killed himself?” she asks. I explain that it is the predominant theory.
“Theory?” she says as she draws the mess of paper back into one pile and rounds up our session.
Mohan Emerson, manager of Motormouth Fuel & Food Co circa 1993 declined an interview on the grounds that (a) he was no longer affiliated with the struggling company and therefore did not feel comfortable accepting the role of “spokesperson”, (b) he could not for the life of him remember hiring anybody that went by the name Perry Doer and (c) that even if he could recall such a person, what could he possibly say about a man he’d hired to wipe up piss and spilt gravy?
In deference to Mr Emerson’s rhetorical skills the interview request was pursued no further.
Obviously, Perry’s portfolio of jobs grew with time, but horizontally as opposed to vertically, almost always menial and frankly a bore to investigate. He did a lot of cleaning, a lot of stacking, some hammering and screwing, a bit of packing and the devil’s share of heavy lifting. Whether this vocational stagnation was for a lack of effort, ambition, aptitude, fair opportunity or fortune is any man’s guess but suffice to say, Perry did it tough and did so for quite some time. During the six months predating his untimely slaughter, Perry landed a job, through an employment agency, as a nightwatchman in a largely industrial neighbourhood that had fallen victim to artless graffiti and assorted vandalism. This nocturnal posting was his steadiest job in years though it lasted only seven weeks on account of the appearance of some arguably artful pieces of street art on various walls in the area.
Lydia Korsakoff, acting manager for vOKation, an apparently not-for-profit undertaking that sources employment for those without much of an ego to stroke or lifestyle to maintain, states that the only feedback received from the strata group that had employed Perry to watch their premises at night, was that he was “abrasive and argumentative” and that he “display[ed] little evidence of remorse for his incompetence.”
This will be the first explicit mention of Perry Doer’s aggressively less pleasant side.
IT’S NOT OFTEN THAT A NEWSPAPERMAN IS EXTORTED BY A POTENTIAL INFORMANT, AT LEAST NOT IN THE MANNER that Cosmas Nero goes about it, exchanging a bit of scoop for grocery supplies.
At the risk of stereotyping, for a grubby blue-collar man scrapping a living as a low level council worker, a job that mainly involves him holding up “slow” and “stop” signs during late night roadworks, Cosmas’s requests are surprisingly gourmet. The shopping list he submits, which really finds him pushing his luck with admirable success, feature foodstuffs like kielbasa and ackawi and an assortment of spices, many of which this newspaperman has never heard.
Cosmas (“Call me Cossie”) shrugs as he fries up some haloumi. “I’m a foodie, I like to cook. It’s the only good thing my mum taught me. Unfortunately she also taught me to hate women, which I’m trying really hard to unlearn. That’s off the record by the way.”
Everything’s on the record; it was our deal when he agreed to have his shopping done.
“Fine. But I’ve never been a sexist, just a sometimes misogynist. That’s got to count for something. You know, Perry wasn’t a bad cook either.”
Is that right?
“Yeah, after a long night we’d sometimes head over to one of our places, either his place or my place, and we’d cook up a bloody storm for breakfast. We figured the heavier we ate the heavier we’d sleep. He was into cooking common dishes well, with a bit of zing. I’m into the weird stuff; goat’s brains…Polish food.”
Is Polish food weird?
“Where I come from it is.”
On and off for years, Perry was on the Ganton-Turserville Council casual payroll and would spend many night holding up signs alongside Cossie, striking up a nocturnal friendship in the process, something at which it appears Perry was not a natural, that is to say, friendships, whether at night or during the day.
“I’d talk and he’d listen, that’s usually how it went. When he did say something though it was kind of…” he thinks for a moment. “You couldn’t really just shoot the shit with him and tell him your stories and hear him tell you his stories. Like…I think it was cooking that got us being friends because, now I think of it, food was the one thing he could talk about without sounding like he was going to, I don’t know, cave in, like his soul was going to cave in. I can’t explain it.”
What kind of things would he say?
As we eat our haloumi – and it must be said that Mr Nero can fry his haloumi excellently – Cossie considers what to tell me, perhaps in order that he may portray a dead man with honesty without painting him in an excessively defamatory light, one in which the man in question is too dead to contest. By the way, Cossie’s reaction to the news of Perry’s passing is understandably subdued. Shocked and saddened, sure, but in muted tones.
“I remember him once saying something like…” Cosmas begins to speak with the rubbery cheese rolling around his mouth, “…something about how the most honourable thing he can do is to not let the inside of him get onto the outside, or something like that. He’d say to me, Cos – he called me Cos – he’d say, Cos, when I’m in my apartment, sitting on the couch, I hate everybody, I hate myself, I hate you, I just hate everyone. But I can’t take the hate with me out my door. I just can’t. I walk out and I care about people. I want to protect them from me and from all this dark stuff I represent. That’s almost word for word. And then he says, I’m Mr Jekyll and Dr Hyde [sic], I’m a two face. Shit, I’d hate to have been in his head, but somehow I liked the guy. He was honest is what I thought at the time.”
Can one be both honest and two-faced?
Cosmas thinks about this one for a while. Tired of waiting for a response, I dig back into the relish he’s ladled onto my plate, lapping it up with oily slices of fried haloumi.
“I don’t know,” he begins, out of the blue. “I’m not a philosopher but…if a man is actually two people, is he a liar by being this guy one day and that guy the other day, or whatever?”
He offers more haloumi and, to be honestly, refusal is close to impossible.
“MY BOY WAS ANGRY AND I DON’T DOUBT THAT HE DIED THAT WAY.”
ELOISE DOER SPEAKS OF HER DEAD SON with a resignation so dignified you’d think he was born to die by newspaper truck. If she is grieving, then she grieves like a person who believes sadness is as essential as joy, like someone who does not deem themselves fit to question pain. Or perhaps Perry’s death is a tragedy for which she has been long prepared.
She is one of those people who can hold a stare so strongly that one feels as uncomfortable looking away as they do matching it. But it’s not so much a questioning stare as it is one that forages and scratches at the sand covering another’s soul. And her face is concurrently younger than would be expected for a late septuagenarian and old beyond her seventy-plus years: younger in that she has a certain aura, a vital glow; older in that her face is a maze of shallow wrinkles and shadows.
She doesn’t offer me tea or water or Digestives. We simply sit on old couches, facing each other across a short oak coffee table, hearing the grumble and beep of what sounds like a garbage truck that slept in and decided to do its run in the mid-late afternoon.
“Did they tell you the details of how Perry died?” she asks me.
Being too unsure to open my mouth and speak I decide not to speak, to which she responds saying, “it’s okay if you can’t or won’t say, I shouldn’t put you on the spot like that.”
“But…” she continues, “the truth is, whatever you tell me would only make me feel a bit better because all I can imagine is him dying in fear and being so very angry, and it hurts, to think that those were his last feelings ever as a person. So if you told me the truck hit him so hard that his — that his brains came spilling out too quickly for him to know that it was all over…if you told me that, I’d take some comfort. I’d like to think I would.”
What a large intracranial bleed or a brain splatter would do to the consciousness of a man is probably a mystery to most people, but mentioning this as a if not the cause of death seems to please or reassure Eloise somewhat, although not enough for her to offer a drink.
458km northwest of Perry’s place of death is his place of birth, 116 Quinn Street, Trimsolna, or rather the place to which he was brought when he was torn out of Eloise’s belly at Trimsolna Civic Hospital in the same way that his three older siblings were welcomed into the world.
“I know it sounds wrong but when they cleaned all the jelly off of him and checked that he had an anus or whatever they do when they pull babies out, they wrapped him up in a blanket and handed him to my husband at the time, Perry’s natural father, and he brought him over and I took one look at him and I knew he would be the kid that made my heart heavy. There’s always one in every litter, every decent-sized litter. I have sisters and they’ll know what I mean. You just look at a child and you know that this kid and this world are not going to get along. And I knew it; as I was lying there while they were sewing me up I had his head against my bare chest and it felt so heavy, supernaturally heavy. His eyes were open in a way you don’t see on most newborns and he looked at me but in a way he didn’t look at me, and I just got this overwhelming sense of sadness and I began to sob. Of course everyone thought I was overcome with happiness so I just let them think that. How was I supposed to say, oh, my son’s a sad baby and I don’t know if he’ll ever be happy? How do you say that?”
Eloise’s is an old terrace nestled amongst similar terraces populated by old folks whose kids have left home either for good or with a return ticket tucked in one of their back pockets. All five of Eloise’s have flown the coop and none have yet come a-calling. Perry never did and certainly won’t be doing so now.
Contrary to the picture of lifelong hardship that this profile hitherto seems to paint, Perry was not born into disadvantage but into the middle class from which he would eventually drop out. Unlike him, Perry’s siblings either remained hovering around the median-most social stratum or – in the case of brother Nathaniel and sister Lux – ventured into the dollarsphere with mixed success, the point being that Perry was not necessarily fated to suffer and die as a flag-bearer of society’s underclass. So why then is this where he ended up? And why he of all is siblings?
Perry is survived by all four of his littermates. Apart from Lux, Perry’s immediate elder with whom he shared a close bond in childhood, the Doer children were essentially a pack of boys, and boys’ boys at that. Rough and tumble and gregarious by constitution, the Doer brood required a firm hand if they were to be moulded into men and woman of reasonable social conduct. Perhaps as a habit or due to some inborn belief that mild religious influence in the early stages of life contributes positively to the task of child rearing, Eloise and the Doer kids’ two main father figures (Leroy and Davidson) took them to church on most Sundays. Of course, once they had departed the church grounds, god was simply a figurative entity though it must be said that an element of the concept of a Beneficent Deity would eventually play a large part in fostering in Perry a rage and disillusionment of the kind that makes Eloise still quiver inside. Some of those who bore witness to the very peak of Perry’s meltdown prior to his leaving Trimsolna and heading southeast remember a man who was so internalised as to be virtually absent. Perry frequently wondered what he had done to displease a god for whom he’d honestly rarely spared a thought and he seemed to have an on-and-off belief that the universe had a malicious streak, randomly honing in on people who were already doing it tough only to twist their nipples just that little bit harder. He raged against everything from his apparent ugly duckling status in the family to his tongue-tied ineloquence to the gap between his front teeth to his natural air of aloofness.
Gabby Homan is an ex-classmate who still lives in Trimsolna and still calls in on Eloise every once in a while for the sake of neighbourliness. She and Perry were childhood friends of circumstance; the circumstance being that Gabby lived close-by and was one of Perry’s few peers lonely enough to put up with his brewing unpleasantness. She would frequently present at the Doer home on her bike and ask if any of the kids wanted to ride with her. Eloise, desperate to rid the house of Perry’s gloom for even a good half-hour, would force her second youngest onto his squat little dirt-collecting BMX and watch him ride off down the street in the straightest line, Gabby on her taller mountain bike swooping around his peripheries like an eager bird. A sort-of friendship eventually developed though Gabby denies any romance: “I was lonely, but not that lonely. Besides, he would not have responded well, if at all.”
“He wondered why he couldn’t relate to anyone,” Gabby goes on to say, “but people were spooked by this brooding angry black dude who was constantly muttering to himself all pissed off and whatnot; not like a crazy person but someone who was perpetually frustrated and down on himself. It just wasn’t the greatest combination to be perfectly honest.”
“It was bad,” says Elouise. “There were days when I was certain he would stab someone with something; maybe not there and then, but someday. He wasn’t very external about it, the rage; he never threw tantrums or fits or punches, but you just didn’t want to be around him too long, the intensity of his anger…you could feel it. But at home we didn’t talk about things, especially if it was something that was a little uncomfortable, and none of Perry’s teachers ever mentioned anything to us to make us think that he was struggling. As far as I knew and still know, he sat and did his work and didn’t cause any trouble.”
In fact Perry was a moderately bright student, or rather, a bright student with moderate grades. No one was ever particularly certain of what dreams or plans young Perry had for himself, but it seems no one really asked either. The Doer household was not big on dreams and fostering self-esteem and giving due praise let alone undue praise; you just got on with life and followed where it took you, a philosophy which was likely championed by both his fathers, neither of whom were particularly aspirational men to begin with.
Older brother Lanyon Doer recalls Perry’s possible interest in the electrical: “he was always fiddling with Walkmans and radios and wanted to be like Benjamin Franklin or something. He’d take them apart and put them back together again but they wouldn’t work after that. I remember my father shouting him down for wasting money just because his fingers couldn’t sit still. After a while he stopped talking about Benjamin Franklin and electricity. I didn’t hear him talk about too much before or after that.”
Lux Doer works in airline catering in an administrative and logistics capacity and has been based in the UAE for the last seven years. She hadn’t spoken to Perry much in the last thirteen years when I contacted her by phone. Like her mother there is a determined resignation in her voice but it’s obvious that her line of work does not encourage such passive fatalism and so there is a business-like can-do quality to her speech.
I did not expect to be the one to inform Lux that her brother was dead, and great care was taken to slyly gauge how informed she was of the tragedy that had befallen him. Unfortunately much of the Doer family are estranged from one another to the point that nobody, not Eloise nor Nathaniel nor Randy nor Lanyon and certainly not Lux, has a clue in hell as to whether any of the others know about anything, take your pick of what anything is. So when I explain to her that I am writing a feature article about her brother, Lux asks if he is okay.
There is a dreadfully long pause. “Is he hurt?”
I answer saying, “I’m extremely sorry.”
After the silence that follows I expect to hear a slow wail or sudden deluge of tears, but there is simply a shuddering intake of air and a plain “what happened?” I provide the details within the limits of my knowledge while she quietly listens.
“So this was definitely Perry…” are her first words after my storytelling has concluded.
What about the story strikes her as unconvincing?
“Perry and I don’t talk much, but we did speak in the last year and he was in a pretty bad way. He had to convince me not to fly down to see him. I‘m not saying that things couldn’t turn around in a year, but I’m just trying to figure out what all this online tribute business is about. What’s the blog URL please?”
Who would think that listening to the over-the-phone silence produced by a somewhat estranged sister as she peruses a blog page dedicated to the memory of her recently deceased younger brother would contain such dramatic tension, and one so sustained?
“What exactly did he do for these people that they feel the need to write obituaries online with bad spelling?” Her voice is tinged with anger; I wonder if there is an element of guilt somewhere in there as well. “Hardly any of these say anything about what he actually did. Like, what did he actually do? It just feels like a bunch of people who don’t want to feel as though they contributed to the death of a stranger. Not that they did, but he died, possibly intentionally, after he’d met them all. If he had such a positive effect on them, then why didn’t they have a positive effect on him? Why did it have to take him being hit by a bus (I abstain from correcting) for anyone to notice that he had even had an impact on their lives?” She exhales. “I’m sorry, I just finding it hard to reconcile what I’m reading with what I know. For the love of god, people use the word ‘angel’. I just don’t see it.”
Does she at all wonder if Perry’s apparent rage was related to his home life, his up-bringing?
“But he’d been away from home for years, years, when I spoke to him, and he sounded terrible still. Everyone blames everything on childhood, it’s such bullshit, no offence. I mean, ours wasn’t perfect, but most of us turned out reasonably okay. I just can’t help but feel that this website is getting him wrong. These people obviously don’t know him.”
But does it negate the possibility that he had some sort of a positive effect on them? Or even the possibility that he had found a way to exorcise himself of rage and frustration and whatever else was eating him up?
“No, of course not, I’m not saying that. But, he was so troubled and for this to be how he’s remembered at the end of the day seems almost like an insult to his life. You were talking about negating; doesn’t this blog negate all the pain he went through, painting him like some kind of ghetto saint or something? No, not even that, saints at least suffer. It makes him look like he was kind of simple, like a holy fool or something. I don’t know. I just feel so bad for him, which is so unfair because on the surface this looks like a good thing.”
“What did he want from life; do you know?” I ask.
“Look I don’t know.”
If silences can ever get pregnant, this one has quintuplets. I wonder if that small stuttering breath I can hear for the briefest moment is the remnant of an aborted sob.
Lux quickly apologises for having to hang up on me as she has some errands to run and some places to be, but she is deeply appreciative of the call and would be very happy to be contacted once again if there are any further questions or developments.
Randomly perusing Eadie’s blog some weeks later, I notice that the tributes dried up quite some time ago. But a new post sits at the bottom of the page without any comments or likes or shares:
“Should have flown down back when we talked about me coming down, I kick myself every day but anyway, hope you’re in a better place now, or at least happy wherever you are as long as it’s not hell, lol. Love you much, as always” anonymous
May 13, 2014 § Leave a comment
War would hardly wake me, but Timmy couldn’t sleep through drizzle. Not until fatigue does him in and knocks him out. Rhoda is in between. Nothing worth noting unless perhaps the one-off sleepwalk. Trips to the kitchen to check on the chicken in the grill. Once caught taking a midnight tinkle in the bin. Timmy would never find out about it nor would she. A man must protect the ones he loves. A man must protect the ones he loves but he can do so only so much. Heaven and hell and everything between knows I would have chained my beloved of two decades to the bedposts had I foreseen the terror in the eyes of our ten year old Timmy. Our only kid, Timmy.
From what I gather there wasn’t much drizzle that night. So whatever kept Timmy awake is Timmy’s secret to keep. I suspect it was the dog.
Me, I was out like a blow to the head with a spade. My boy must have pinched me, punched me, slapped and scratched me but I woke to only a gentle rocking of my shoulder. And when he said to me, ‘daddy? Daddy?! Daddy,’ I knew all wasn’t right.
Her silhouette spooked me as it did our boy, motionless against moonlight that leaked into the dining room from who knows which window. I called her name saying, ‘Rhoda’. She said nothing so I took Timmy by the hand and we went to her. But halfway to her I stopped and said to Timmy, ‘Timmy, go to bed.’ He said, ‘but–’, but I said, ‘Timmy–’. So he left me with his mother and I took her by the armpits and staggered back to bed.
Taking Timmy to school in the morning I told him mommy simply had a really big dream, a big humongous one. He asked me, ‘is mommy going to be okay?’ and I said, ‘I think mommy is.’ I dropped him off at St. Ignatius saying, ‘don’t worry, okay?’, and then I drove myself straight to the offices. Jill was in the copy room when I walked in just before midday. I said her name in an offbeat sing-song and she responded saying, ‘hey, Tobes.’ There and then I asked her who to see if I knew someone who sleepwalked. But first we talked about that evening’s lottery, about our chances of hitting the jackpot.
Hay fever was in the air and spring cleaning in the bones, Rhoda’s bones to the very core. She pulled down every curtain one Saturday morning and let the sunlight kill my slumber. And then made me sweep clean the garage for which I hated her until lunch. All Timmy had to do was smooth out his duvet. After a sandwich lunch he gazed at the TV in the sun-beaten living room while I washed the dog and Rhoda tended to the pot plants.
Coda was an Alsatian, a lean streak of shades of black and brown with a regal greying round the flanks and muzzle. Ears that pricked at every rustle, eyes like needles, breath like a gassing, for all he was worth Coda was the dumbest thing I knew on four legs. He was moulting so I quickened things with a heavy duty brush. Funny, each time I dragged it through his coat he whimpered like Rhoda’s nose circa that time of year.
‘They have doctors for sleep.’
I said this to Rhoda in bed, after she was done talking about April. Rhoda always talked about visiting her sister who lived interstate. When we had Timmy April spent two and a half months with us while Rhoda got over her depression. We lived somewhere else then. But Rhoda dragged with her a sense of debt to April, dragged it to every place we’d been since. I see, sometimes, that it makes her sad.
I told her about the sleep doctors. I said, ‘these people dedicate their lives to sleep, Rhoda, think about it.’ And she said, ‘the less they know the more they make. They’re good, these doctors. What did you say they call it?’
‘A parasomnia,’ I said. I’d looked it up.
She considered it. ‘Parasomnia.’ Then she sighed. ‘Coda’s hairs are everywhere.’
I said, ‘sorry. It must have been the wind.’ Then I tickled her tummy, but she turned away; I kissed her nape, but she said, ‘Toby.’ My rise fell. I tugged myself in silence but never quite came and never quite went to sleep. Must have been why I saw the dark blotch cross our doorway like the shadow of a cloud.
My word was to his body what a shock was to the heart and he spun like a wind vane in the gust. He’d been peeking through a window that looked out onto the front yard and front gate. I asked him why he wasn’t sleeping as I shifted the curtain and lace with my hand and squinted into the moonlit dark.
‘Coda squeezed out again.’
As I looked upon the front gate no sense was being made inside my head. The spaces would hardly let through a big man’s thigh; the bars were thick galvanised sheets angled like rooftops, with blunt edges that would peel the same man’s thigh like a carrot being peeled with a fingernail.
‘Again?’ I said to Timmy.
He must have thought I was reprimanding him because he froze up. Maybe I was in a way. My hand swam in his head hair as I told him to go to sleep, that I’d wait for Coda if Coda ever chose to come back. I promptly nodded off against the wall but came to in time to see the dog string his rump and hind legs through two of the bars like a paraplegic, making that dog sound which sounds like a cheap dog whistle, with the odd yelp thrown in. Each yelp he gave shot through me like pain. But as soon as he was through he limped a step or two and trotted off out of sight into the back.
Carlton Keyes was perhaps into dogs because he was himself a dog; on this the whole office could agree. At the water boiler I questioned him about Coda and about the night before. He said it happens, in that voice of his; that it was that time of year, and that the bitches were in heat. He told me this as though no one else in the world knew it. Death alone would stop the males and their heat- seeking missiles, he said. He was painful to be around but he knew things, Carlton Keyes.
I came home that evening to a wife paging through women’s magazines on our marital bed. Three or four of them were spreadeagled beside her submerged ass and hips. Lingeried and like porcelain, every Playtex girl on every open page was a benchmark for and an affront to real women. Rhoda’s eyes searched me where I stood in the doorway.
‘Is this normal?’
The words tumbled past something caught inside her throat.
‘This, Toby, is this?’ she said, and raised up a magazine and thumbed what looked like a chip fat stain on it. ‘He’s only ten. Do they think like this at ten?’
I wished I had an answer she would have liked.
I wished I had something I could have said to her at dinnertime to stop her draping dirty, sad looks over our boy. Sorry looks. Looks you gave someone who was into pain and suffocation and feet. I wanted to tell her not to worry as I put away the dishes she washed and handed to me; I wanted to tell her that there was an explanation for it. But I had to protect them from the facts.
Timmy was in bed and yet to doze off. Walking past the en-suite to my bedside I saw Rhoda inside, in front of the mirror, wearing a dressing gown. She mustn’t have known I was looking. She stared at herself. She touched herself, touched her face, touched her neck, turned her head, stroked her curls, trailed her fingers down her chest and touched her breasts like they were stray dogs. Flicked them up and down because they sagged just enough to allow it. Flicked them with distaste. Then she continued to floss.
When I told Rhoda about Coda she said she’d told me so. By now we were in bed.
‘Told me how?’ I said.
‘We should have had it neutered,’ she said, but I asked her what good would have come of it. She was right in saying it would have been good for Timmy in the end but I wished she would look at me when she said it.
I told her I’d talk to Timmy. I said, ‘I’ll talk to him.’
She said, ‘I’ll talk to him too’ but I said, ‘you wouldn’t know how.’
I pulled the duvet to my nipples and told her not to fret, that it was my place as a father and that I’d do it.
‘Toby,’ she said, ‘I don’t like that the dog does that. It’s not civil.’
‘It’s a dog, Rhoda. What else is it going to do?’
‘I’ve seen better.’
‘Yes,’ she said, ‘that can roll over too, and sit.’
I sighed and pulled at my chest hairs and said, ‘chopping its balls off might be harsh.’
‘Why must I see a shrink because you say I walk when I sleep?’
‘Because you need to get better sleep. And it won’t be a shrink. Just a doctor.’
‘My sleep does me fine.’
‘You never have any energy for us anymore.’
She looked me up and down and looked me all over and her face seemed to twitch a little and before we knew it we were both asleep until I woke and decided to please myself a little. It was while pulling that I heard Coda and his dog sounds and stole away from bed to take a look. Again I drew aside the curtain and lace and witnessed him squeeze himself like a rock-hard motion.
Then he was gone.
That night I took the car for a roll through the neighbourhood. I wasn’t sure if I was in search of the dog or just rolling through the streets of our neighbourhood. Not much was about. I did catch a possum in the headlights scurrying into some poor class act’s prim little hedge. I must have circled our block four times before I turned off onto Karlsson Street and then onto Hunter before busting onto Oates; rode it all the way down to where it became Convent-Leigh. I saw people on the street forming non-memories and being drunken silly with one another. Somehow I found myself down Mason Avenue where all the naughty places were. Places announced by cheap neon lights that bleached clients blue, green and pink. Further along Mason were women and wannabe women smoking and squelching stubs with their stilettos as they held out for guys like me. I parked in an unlit spot and window shopped, thought about finishing that tug but never got round to it. There were cute young ones that looked too right in their school-girl get-up. One of these was acquired by a man in a Burgundy sedan but as they drove past it struck me that he looked like he might be a monster; something about the way he stared out from beneath his brow made me dread one of the next mornings’ papers.
The route I took home was convoluted and stupid. I wanted to wash my hands and rinse my eyes. I rolled through familiar turf not far from our house. And as I did I let the headlights sweep the streets. They caught two more possums; a tyre almost killed one. Calling it a night I headed home and somewhere along the way I found him.
The dog was skipping along the footpath in my general bearing and his eyes flashed twice in the headlights. As did, perhaps, what must have been his dick as it dangled from its sheath. I just drove myself home and left the car in the driveway, left the keys on the coffee table on the way to the master bedroom and was relieved to find Rhoda sleeping. Lay in bed and waited for Coda and, when he came, listened to him yelp and whine his way back in.
Rhoda was at the hotplates flipping cakes in a pan. I was having my juice and my paper but would later be having coffee with pancakes.
I said to Rhoda, ‘you should drop in on April one of these months.’
It took her a while to answer what with all the mixing and pouring and flipping and stacking she was doing.
‘You don’t just drop in, not interstate.’
‘She’d give up her bed; you know it. Call her. We’ll be fine on our own for a few weeks.’
She talked over her shoulder. ‘But you’d have to come too. Wouldn’t you?’
I told her I guessed so and drank some juice.
‘What are you going to say to Timmy?’
I said nothing.
‘Right–’ I said. ‘I’ll just take it as it comes. It’ll be better that way.’
Rhoda took a scourer to the pan in the sink.
I said to her, ‘you should see your sister if you want to. You should see April. I’d hate for me to be keeping you from anything.’
Rhoda said, ‘promise you’ll talk to Timmy,’ and I said, ‘yes, yes, promise.’ Then I watched whatever news was breaking on telly while I waited for Timmy to have his milk and cereal.
Coda watched us exit the driveway after Rhoda had closed the front door.
I drove Timmy to his school and we listened to the radio the whole way there without saying any words. In the lot he hardly let me slow down for him to get out and as he shut the door on us I realised I’d forgotten to talk to him about a thing I’d been meaning to talk to him about. I would have called him back but he was late and in a rush. I’d forgotten to tell him that I would be picking him up from school a little late that day because his mother would be seeing a sleep doctor and we just might be a little late.
May 7, 2014 § 1 Comment
On an ageing couch in the Ward 8 lounge the father sleeps with a dated copy of The Lancet blanketing his lap; the newest issue will soon be collecting dust in the family P.O. Box. He took out a subscription seven months ago with the help of a doctor friend, who also helped him subscribe to the MJA, the BMJ and the Journal of Paediatric Haematology/Oncology –
– And possibly the New England Journal of Medicine. Just for some semblance of control. Some way to help his helplessness.
When he’s not quietly cursing the word-tangled articles and wondering about paraproteins and p-values, when he’s not giving ward staff the cynical eye and popping cans of Sunkist from vending machines –
– He co-owns a less than thriving luxury upholsterer, Conroys and Oost, which operates out of Elanora Heights and boasts clientele as far north as The Entrance, down low as far as Scarborough and westwards to the Blue Mountains, out Katoomba way.
“Mr Oosthuizen, sir.”
A cold hand on the arm stirs him and though he is out of it he stands with a cartoonish sense of purpose. The older-than-she-looks nurse informs him that Dr Gunn would like to speak to him and Mrs Oosthuizen. That Kip is now awake and that he has just had something to eat, something light.
He is led off down the hallway busy with people seemingly idle, the back of his shirt rumpled and untucked and The Lancet left lying limp and in an odd way on the floor of the lounge while a soapie plays – muted – on the TV.
A joke must have just been shared if the three tired smiles are anything to go by. They all turn to look as he enters but it is Gunn alone who speaks.
“Sir, have a seat,” Gunn says, slowly letting go of his smile.
“Champ. How are you feeling?” the father whispers to his boy as he settles into a chair near the back of the room.
“Fine,” says someone other than Kip or the doctor.
He’d hardly noticed her on entering, and he knows it and Lydia Oosthuizen knows it. Man and wife stare at each other as though oddities each to the other.
“So he’s eaten then,” man says to wife.
The wife, now as the mother, looks at the boy, who gives a lethargic nod to the man. “Good,” says the father to the son. “That’s good.”
The doctor proceeds to hack at the itching silence with talk of 70% cure rates, outpatient treatment every four weeks, vinblastine, chlorambucil, and the risk of permanent infertility. But Gunn couldn’t be more pleased with the prognosis, the finally clearing horizon.
It all sounds good, Lydia guesses, content that all she can do is nod and guess to herself considering Graham most likely isn’t hearing a thing…considering the blankly smothering gaze he’s fixed upon their son. Despite the ‘I understand’ glances he throws – on occasion – at Dr Gunn.
Once the spiel is over they thank the paediatric oncologist, who then reassures Kip in a quasi-private manner clearly meant for show. He finally sweeps out after quick handshakes with both parents, who then sit if not collapse upon the cheap vinyl chairs. The late afternoon sun saturates the room in a haze of warmth and light, seducing Kip to slumber and tricking the adults into blinking a lot more than they normally would, so much so that they forget what it is to speak; to think.
Kip remembers little of the day of discharge. Only that he felt a weirdness on leaving that was thankfully not coupled with some melancholy desire to return to that place of ruin, that room with its machines. It was strangely low key, and satisfyingly so. No applause. No slow walk through a tunnel constructed from smiling hospital staff in their unflattering get up. Just a quiet departure from the place he’d come to regard as home, an exit dignified in its anonymity.
But if that place was not home then he is not sure where home is. One week on and dad has been oddly absent, not counting the afternoon he took some freshly done laundry – dried but unironed – and disappeared. Shirts for the office and shirts for play. Pants too, and some books and things. And for all the keenness in his eyes he simply could not stay to watch the Tahs and the Crusaders collide on the big 50-inch. The Tahs. Their Tahs.
He just left.
“He comes home when you’re sleeping,” mum assures him as she chops the carrots more viciously than he remembers.
“Why’s he always working all the time? What about on the weekend?”
“Things are hard, Graham, things aren’t getting easier,” she snaps, as she does the asparagus ends.
“Mum, you said Graham.”
“I said Kip.”
That night Kip stays awake with little effort but he hears no car pull up to the garage; sees no car as he stands in the pitch dark living room, staring out at the unlit driveway. It’s sobering how quickly he seasons to a house without a dad. How dumbly he comes to accept that his father doesn’t sleep in mum & dad’s bed anymore, doesn’t live at home any longer. Though the words ‘dad’s moved out’ never quite occur to him. And why should they?
So mum isn’t quite as gifted a carpooler as dad was. Can’t quite work an audience under the age of ten. Can’t quite bring herself to marvel at the awesomeness that is Transformers, the single greatest treatment he remembers receiving on the wards. Besides, the pool’s down from five to three, driver included: just Lydia, Kip, and this other boy Lance.
Ghosh’s parents, Brett’s mother, both very sorry, both very grateful for the offer. But six months is ample time for alternative arrangements to become permanent arrangements. Ghosh has moved schools anyhow, and Brett never cared much for Kip, a feeling fairly mutual.
Lydia watches the two boys toddle off into the bustling quad at St Augustine’s, Kip’s daffodil-yellow cap standing out almost as much as his egg-bald head very soon will. She then slips out the station wagon and steals into the head office, filling the secretary in on her appointment with the headmaster and taking a seat as she is told to please do.
Why the hell would you go private?
The words still sting, variations of which spat forth from every friend’s mouth at every mention of Kip’s lymphoma and of their plans for its destruction. It had been like a reverberating chant, a Greek Chorus of sorts really. No one understood their reasoning nor seemed to want to. But Lydia and Graham were adamant, stoic, and perhaps – in retrospect – daft as shit. They’d researched and they’d decided…what had they decided? They’d thought and thought and finally concluded that…what had they concluded again? Lydia massages her forehead skin as she juggles half-formed thoughts in her jellied mind, hoping she doesn’t mistake this meeting for the interview she will be having at 1:15 this afternoon, during the lunch break of her current job which she is damn intent on keeping.
Kip was never a presence, magnetic, the class Clooney or school Connery. Not anywhere, certainly not on the ward. But never before has he felt so anonymous, egg-head notwithstanding, despite eyes like wet cats in shallow grottos, a gaze pale and famished. One would think he’d never been absent at all, that he had not swayed on the verge of being an absentee forever. That perhaps some doppelganger filled in for him these last few stolen months.
He wouldn’t have thought it but he quietly yearns for the occasional tease, to be called baldilocks or Charlie Brown or Peter Garrett or something equally lame, and to be pointed at. Even a look of pity which comes naturally to some of the teachers might be refreshing coming from some of the boys. Anything other than nothing. Something to assure him that these last six months have meant more than just needles, tears, bad food, hair loss and vomit.
Graham is thankful to have his son for the night. At least before Kip starts spending evenings and nights with the neighbours, the Petits, while Lydia prostitutes herself at some college for adult education, putting her English major to nocturnal use and teaching immigrants phrases they will never use in the real world. Not once did he believe the mother of his child would be working two jobs, like a minimum-wage-earning bum, or a too-young mother, not the wife of a moderately-successful self-employee struggling valiantly to pay for half a year that has come and gone like lottery money, or the mildly talented sales manager that she appears to be.
He sighs into his pasta and carbonara sauce and sighs once more when his son asks him if he is ever coming home.
“I don’t think that’s going to happen, sweetheart.”
“But how come? It’s been ages and you’re always working and mum says you come back at night but you don’t.”
“Kip. Kip, listen. Some things were never meant to happen. See. Sometimes it takes something really really big for you to realise that those things were never ever meant to happen. Ever. But hey. All that matters is that you’re better now. Isn’t it.”
They eat in silence. Not an awkward one, but a beautiful, snug-like-the-quilt-Nan-made-me one. Kip pops a mouthful of penne, puts down his fork and chews. Halfway through chewing he smiles and Graham smiles back. The man then looks around at the tiny flat and the few remaining, unopened boxes and thinks to himself, what a shitbox, what a dump. Fuck.
He washes up while his son watches TV, hopefully something appropriate for a nine-year-old though you can’t be sure about seven o’clock programming these days, these crazy days and times.
Man and boy sit on the sofa together after the washing-up’s been done, son cuddled up to the father who kisses the hairless head at his chest and strokes the once-withered shoulders just below.
Memories of promises he once made flood him out of the blue as though he were a dying man, a bystander shot suddenly through the heart or thereabouts. Promises of a sister or brother for Kip, of another life upon which he and Lydia could dish out love. Promises of a ski trip to Switzerland in the coming Sydney summer, perhaps with a cheeky Italian detour to Lugano, maybe Milano, savings for which he fought to preserve until they simply had to be eaten into as the chemo snowballed and Ward 8 became the place where their hearts grudgingly were.
Has the room gone cloudy and hazy all of a sudden? Graham slyly stubs the inner corner of his eyes with his finger tips, rubs them up and down and sniffles.
“So. Champ. What d’you reckon about Narrabeen Public?”
Kip is slow to answer. “Am I moving?”
Christ, Graham thinks in calm exasperation. That woman. That Lydia.
“No, nothing,” he says to Kip, “dad’s just a little tired.” So fucking tired. “How are things at school?”
“No one being silly, being an idiot?”
Kip lifts his head from his father’s chest and shakes it three times.
Graham attends to the knock at the door and grants Lydia entry with hardly a hello. Kip begins packing his few things with the longsuffering of a production-line worker, as though it’s a job he’s been doing for decades. Slow and joyless.
Lydia says, “Have you had dinner?”
Graham says, “Of course. It’s quarter to eight. What, aren’t you working tonight?”
“After I drop him off at the Petits’.”
“Why not just let him stay here?”
“Graham,” she says with the weariest groan.
“Fuck, he’s your son, take him.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?” she manages to say through lips contorted with disgust.
“I don’t know. I don’t know if I know anything anymore.”
“I just want him to be close to home, Graham. I trust Clara and Dale.”
“Whatever. I’m not arguing. I need sleep.”
Only then do they notice that Kip is hanging about in a ghostly manner, his backpack hitched up high, him pretending not to have seen or heard anything though one can’t question the heaviness that must be clutching at his throat.
“Night, champ,” Graham says as he watches Kip shuffle past him and out into the stairwell, eyes on no one, followed out by his mother in her long wool coat.
“Okay then…” Lydia says in a moment of limbo. Then she turns and heads down the staircase, adding an extra two beats to the helter skelter echoing of Kip’s descent.
Back inside and alone again, Graham aimlessly wanders the kitchen, opening and closing cupboards, sweeping crumbs onto the floor, looking in the fridge and being disappointed by the lack of Coronas and cubed ice. Ignoring the Manila envelope that wasn’t on the kitchen top prior to his wife’s arrival a few moments ago.
Patience is not a gift of hers and however much of it she might have once had has been depleted so much so that she’s now in the red.
That Colombian bitch, she thinks. And that Angolan prick. And that Taiwanese whorebag, and that Dutch dick who is clearly in no need of late-night English tutoring, the filthy sleaze.
She locks up and makes her exit on tiptoes as some classes have only just commenced, at ten thirty on a Friday night. In the car she takes a moment to breathe not having planned on sobbing much less bawling, head first upon the steering wheel – BAAAAHHP! – And then against the window. How did it come to this? How could something inside a sweet little child turn out to be such an undoing? Undoing everything. Unless nothing had been done up to begin with. And even if there had been nothing to begin with, at a time there had been at least ignorant bliss.
How hard will Kip freak when he comes home to find that his beloved big screen is gone, pawned off for a measly, ordinary 27-inch on which SpongeBob will look so much less than ordinary? The mountain bikes too, exchanged for hard fast cash, as was the tumble dryer, the lawnmower, and a stash of old records and miscellanies. Besides, where they’re going, these things would have been mere redundancies.
They are expected to be out of the house in a little over a week to make way for the new owners, and her sister and her sister’s husband are expecting them any day now, anytime. Whether Kip would understand the very tightness of money is anyone’s blind stab. But it’s for his sake damn it. For the boy to continue living he cannot live as he once did.
Lydia starts the car and careens through a tight angry U in the parking lot, coming to a jolting halt were the gravel meets the road and its steady stream of headlights.
“What’s cancer like?”
Eleven-year-old Karen Petit jumps at the hollow sternness of her mother’s voice. Kip gives her the plainest look, and if a face could pull a shrug then that is what Karen’s face has just done. She stands oddly and skedaddles, leaving Kip alone with the television, all noise, all colour, bugger-all purpose.
Clara Petit calls out from the kitchen: “Honey, your mum won’t be much longer now.”
Kip cares precious little. Tomorrow he returns to Paeds for his first round of outpatient chemo and who knows how that will go. He might sleep through it, or drift off in some dreamy stupor, or he might throw up every inch contained within his skin. Right now all he sees are visions, like a colour-saturated montage from a movie reel. Road trips with the folks out to the country to see Nan and Pa. Trips to Thredbo and slapdash outings to Palm Beach to picnic by Barrenjoey lighthouse. Nights when mum would sit beside him as the fan swept across his sweat-drenched body, as she iced his forehead and sighed, gently cooed. Days when he was so fatigued he could hardly breathe, when dad would read him Watership Down till he dozed. How mum wouldn’t force broccoli on him because he really truly had no appetite. How he would catch them on the sofa, barely touching, watching M*A*S*H wooden-faced and silent, and tell them – with tears in his eyes – how it felt like there were fire ants beneath his skin.
There are visions. Then there is a feeling, guttural, deep down and unwilling to be found. A dull pang, a sting of nostalgia blade-sharp yet murky as a long dead lake; a feeling he cannot articulate to himself. The kind mankind must have felt prior to its very first words, its first meaningful grunts. Words which – on uttering – would go along the lines of “things were so much better back then. Back when I was getting sicker.”