My short stories

Robot Mode by Quentin Poulsen

(published in the Winter 2007 edition of Ken Again http://kenagain.freeservers.com/

Four trolleys burst out of the aisles at the same time and made a run for the fast lane. The guy in the orange sweater got cut off by the middle-aged woman, who in turn collided with the thin, sour-faced woman, leaving the elderly lady to come through on the outside and nose her trolley in front.
They all of them had more than ten items in their trolleys, but since there was no one else waiting, I served the old woman. She was not in a hurry any more, however. Firstly, she paid by cheque, the most time-consuming method available and practically obsolete in the age of debit cards and eftpos and what have you. Then, with a twinkle in her eye, she asked me to bag the groceries for her.
A decade or so back, early in my career as a checkout operator, we’d had assistants do the bagging for us. But they had disappeared during the company’s ‘streamlining’ process, which had been hyped as some revolutionary method of making the supermarket run more efficiently, when all it had done was double our workload so that it took twice as long to serve everybody.
Having done the bagging as requested, I turned next to the middle-aged woman, who had come in second and piled her items onto the conveyor belt. Even as I served her, an overweight fellow of similar vintage rushed hastily up and added an armful of groceries to hers.
The customers behind said nothing, as if it were not happening; as though everyone were behaving in a perfectly civilised manner. But when I scanned the items and hit a snag with the bar codes, they grew increasingly fidgety and took to tutting and huffing and rolling their eyes.
The sour-faced woman was up next, followed by the man in the orange sweater. By this time the queue had lengthened considerably and I went into robot mode. I did not even look at the people’s faces; just greeted them as ‘Sir’ or ‘Madam,’ scanned their items, accepted their payment and bid them good day.
A pack of cigarettes dropped onto the belt in front of me, as if from the ceiling. Extending my vision I perceived the stiff, charcoal grey fibres of a business suit.
“Hello, Sir. How are you today?”
“How do you think I am?! I’ve spent half the morning waiting in this queue for a pack a bluddy fags!”
I had no reply to offer, just scanned the cigarettes and took the coins he tossed down.
“Aren’t you going to put them in a bag for me?” the next customer exclaimed.
I ignored her, already serving the customer after, robot mode.
She snatched up a plastic bag and started filling it herself. “Well I never! You people ought to take some pride in your work.”
Suzy, naturally, was late back from lunch. She came out with the usual line about it being only a few minutes and why did I always get so worked up about a few minutes, and I told her it was almost ten minutes out of my break and that was a big deal to me. She laughed and said my watch was fast, then began serving the next customer before I had chance to respond.
I went into the tea room to eat my sandwiches. Dougal was standing behind Tom, sucking on a bottle of cola.
“You gotta get with the times,” he was saying. “The Paleolithic age is over.”
Tom paused as he brought a triangle of pizza to his mouth. “Know what you are, Dougal – A fuzzy-haired, four-eyed, bow-legged parrot.”
“Well, thank you for that intellectual observation,” Dougal giggled, beaming around at the girls. “It is easy to see how you have risen to the lofty rank of floor supervisor.”
“More’n you’ll ever be,” Tom scoffed over his shoulder, then wolfed down the pizza.
“Oh!” Dougal feigned surprise. “That’s odd, Thomas, ‘Cause I’m going on the journalism course next year.”
“Said that last year! An’ don’t start thinking you’re better than the rest of us either.”
Dougal bounced along to the end of the table, the customary idiotic smile in place. “Feeling a little inadequate, are we?” He beamed at the girls again, as if expecting applause.
I finished my tea and went out to get a haircut. It took about twenty minutes to find a place where you didn’t need an appointment. And then it was one of those trendy hair studios where the people were too cool to talk to you; just charged you about five times as much as you were expecting to pay then sent you out the door with one of their personalised business cards. They gave me such an effeminate haircut I spent the rest of the lunch hour walking around in the rain trying to get rid of it. A short, bearded guy in a queue at a Fast Cash machine saw me go by several times and laughed his stupid-looking head off. I felt a sudden urge to go over and kick his teeth in for him. But I didn’t, of course.
The staff had a field-day over my ridiculous hairdo, which the elements had only made more bizarre. Even the manager emerged from his office to see what all the fuss was about, and he practically laughed himself into tears when he saw, his pallid bald spot visible among the fiery wreath of orange hair as he doubled over in mirth. It seemed an eternity until six o’clock.
The gym was across the other side of town and I had to walk along the main streets, in the middle of rush hour, the gale blowing the rain directly into my face.
Walking those streets was an art-form, if you wanted to stay out of trouble. First of all, it was vitally important not to stray onto the right-hand side of the footpath, or else people would slam right into you for being on the wrong side. If you wanted to get in or out of a store you had to wait for a break and duck across the footpath as quickly as possible, apologising profusely to anyone who might have been forced to check their stride. It paid to be careful about catching anyone’s eye as well, because they might take it as a challenge and slam into you. And there were guys who would get all snarly-faced and threaten to smash your face in for you. It was not a good idea to avoid looking at people altogether, however, and especially not to look down into your bag or at a newspaper or anything, because then they might cross the footpath and slam into you just to show you how careless you were being. It was also worth bearing in mind that a lot of people objected to being overtaken, and especially to anyone walking too quickly, so it was safest to stay at the same pace as the general flow.
Those were the basic rules, but when it rained you had little chance even if you’d mastered them, and on the way to the gym I was slammed into by several people and forced to apologise to one of the snarly-faces. I had a mind to slam into one of them back, but I didn’t want to end up in a fight or anything.
I got to the gym half an hour before my class and decided to kill time on the punching bag. It was in a corner of the weights room near the cycling and rowing machines. I wasn’t much interested in boxing but I enjoyed slamming my fists into the big hard bag sometimes. It gave me a sense of satisfaction or relief or something and made me feel good.
I’d been at it for a few minutes when there came a weird, high-pitched giggling from behind me. Glancing around, I came face to face with an obese, heavily-tattooed fellow with bushy hair. He elbowed the guy beside him, a similar specimen in appearance, who wasn’t smiling.
“Ooh, wotta ya reckon, Koro?”.
“Duzn’t know what he’s doing, bro,'” the other replied, and the high-pitched giggling startled me again.
So I gave up on the bag and headed for the aerobics studio. As I passed through reception a stocky guy emerged from behind the counter and cut me off. He had a shaved head, dense black moustache and copious tattoos.
“I’s watching you on the punching bag, bro,'” he said, shaking his bald head gravely. “You got no technique, eh.”
With that he swung up onto the counter and sat there, probably to avoid neck-ache from looking up at me. I figured him for a weights instructor or something, so smiled politely back.
“Well, I’m not planning to take on Tyson just yet.”
He blinked seriously, looking slightly down at me now. “Yeah, but your legs were all over the place, bro.’ I’s watching you.”
“Oh.” I nodded, like I cared less. “So, you’re a boxing coach?”
He broke into a toothless chuckle, seemingly flattered by the idea. “No, no. Not me, cuz. I just wanted to tell you dat. You got no technique.”
I kept the smile on and continued through to the aerobics studio, robot mode.
Timmy-Jay took the first class, blitz aerobics, involving a lot of sprinting on the spot, high kicks and suchlike. He was attired in basic black this evening, his skin-tight leotard rolled up around the thighs. His receding dark curls had been bleached ginger since Thursday’s class, and there was now a stud in his right eyebrow to go with the ones in his nose and nether lip.
All the regulars had their spots and I had mine next to the wall just a few paces from the door. It wouldn’t have been appropriate for a beanpole like me to progress into the middle and block everyone else’s view, and neither did I feel inclined to go down the back where it was always so crowded with cool people.
Being sort of a beanpole, I tended to resemble something like a giant stick insect when it came to high knees. Timmy-Jay would be barking, “Getcha knees up! hup! hup! hup!” and mine would be practically hitting me in the chest. I could see in the mirror how ridiculous I looked. And Timmy-Jay liked to mimic me sometimes, with comical exaggeration. It would make everyone grin, so he’d do it again.
He put us through about a million press-ups and by the end of it my arms were trembling violently with the effort. I didn’t realise what was going on until I heard the laughter, then looked up to see I was the only one still doing them
“Whoa! He da man!” Timmy-Jay announced, feigning an American accent.
I peered sheepishly around at the grinning faces. Timmy-Jay rolled his eyes and licked his lips theatrically.
“Oh, yeah, folks! He da man!”
Tracy came in toward the end of the class and took her customary spot right in front of me. Her hair was bleached sort of yellow and she was impossibly tanned for winter. She began to prance about, a pear-shaped body in a g-string leotard, her buttocks so prominent I could make out the dimples. Once or twice she glanced over her shoulder and caught my eye. I decided it was time to send her a message and moved across to the other side, not caring that I totally incensed somebody by encroaching on their territory. When Tracy looked over her shoulder again and saw nobody there, her eyes searched around until she found me, then her expression changed instantly to hatred.
Her class was next, low-impact aerobics. I always stuck around for that because blitz got me so pumped up I wanted to keep going another hour, and I wasn’t much for doing weights or riding the cycle machines or anything.
This particular evening, however, Tracy threw a lot of changes into the routines, so that those of us who came regularly found ourselves cavorting off in all directions. Some of the others looked fairly irritated about it too.
“So, ladies, how is everything?” Tracy got chatting, addressing all but three of us in the class. “Some racy outfits out there tonight! No wonder we’ve got a couple of guys lurking about, eh.”
She glanced directly across at me from the stage, looking slightly downward now. “Know what I hate?” she went on, like this would be upper-most in our thoughts at that very moment. “The gawky beanpole type. They look so ridiculous – especially in shorts!”
Everyone grinned, a few of the girls laughed out loud, and Tracy stood up there on the stage with a self-satisfied smirk, a pear-shaped instructor in a g-string leotard, sucking her Gatorade, as if expecting applause.
Neither Anne nor Bev were home that evening. Probably they were staying over at their boyfriends’ places. They tended to do that when they weren’t fighting with them. Nonetheless, it gave me a very strange feeling when I woke up next morning to find I was still alone in the house, as though everyone had disappeared over the edge of the world and left me on my own.
The phone had been ringing incessantly, though I had not bothered to answer it because the phone was never for me. But now I was beginning to think there might be some emergency, as it had been ringing non-stop since before dawn.
Next time it rang, about ten seconds after I had this thought, I picked up the receiver.
“I’m calling about the house.”
“House?”
“The house for sale, in the paper.”
“House for sale?”
He said the telephone number and it was ours.
It occurred to me that, if our house were being sold, they would use the owner’s number, not ours, since we were only renting.
There was a pause, then the voice replied, “Sez to ask for Burt.”
“Burt? He doesn’t live here. Look, give me your number and I’ll have him call you.”
Before leaving for work I’d filled a page of the message pad with the contact details of people who had called about the house.
And the telephone was still ringing when I returned home that evening. After filling another two pages of the pad, I decided the next call would be the last before I took it off the hook.
“Been any calls about the house?” It was a metallic version of Burt’s voice on the line.
“About five million.”
“Yeah? Choice! Take any messages?”
“Three pages full. Why didn’t you use your own number?”
“Look, I don’t have a residential line, okay, and not many people have a mobile. If I advertise with a mobile number the charge might put people off calling.”
I wondered what kind of people were in the market to buy a house but weren’t prepared to call a mobile phone because of the charge.
“Are you going to be here this evening? If not, I’m taking the phone off the hook. I haven’t had any peace since I got home.”
I was startled by a metallic version of Anne’s voice. “Don’t you dare take that phone off the hook. The company will put a buzzer through it and charge us for it.”
I doubted they would do that, and what would they charge anyway? Fifty cents?
“Okay, I won’t take it off the hook.”
As soon as she hung up I took it off the hook.
I watched the evening movie on television. It was a remake of an old classic but turned out to be a disappointment. The actors were poorly casted, I thought. They just went for pretty-boys these days, whereas those old film guys had had a lot more character. They’d made more of an impression on me, those old film actors.
Then it was the ad’s break, and some depraved lunatic was screaming at me with a big, greedy-looking grin all over his face, when I heard the front door slam. Rapid footsteps advanced up the hall and Anne flounced into the room, followed a moment later by Burt.
“I thought I told you not to take the phone off the hook,” she seethed down at me.
Burt marched across and replaced the receiver. “You might a cost me a sale, mate. A hundred grand we’re talkin.'”
I shrugged to show my indifference over a hundred thousand dollars. What did he expect me to do – drop to my knees and grovel for forgiveness?
“There’s three pages of numbers for you to call,” I said.
That shut him up for a while. He went over and started examining the numbers, as if they would tell him anything before he called them.
“Yuv had it off ever since we rang,” Anne went on. “We tried calling every fifteen minutes.”
“That was just me busy taking messages,” I said halfheartedly. They had seen the receiver lying on the table.
She shook her head slowly and tutted like a schoolteacher when you got the answer wrong. “You might a cost Burt a hundred grand.”
I had completely lost interest in the film by then and went to bed. Besides, I was tired from having been woken up so early that morning. But I found I was too angry to sleep. I just lay there in the dark, blinking at the cracks of electric light around the door, wondering how it could be that people treated me like fungi then made me out to be the villain.
Next morning, the red digits on my alarm clock showing 6:52, I heard the phone ringing, a piercing drill in the quiet predawn. Then it stopped. And the next time it rang only a couple of times. Anne must have been home answering it. I sandwiched my head in my pillow and tried to sleep.
But there was no way to keep that noise out, and half an hour later I climbed out of bed. Wandering through to the living room, I was surprised to find not the plump features of Anne, but the bird-like frame of Bev at the telephone, holding the receiver with one hand and writing on the message pad with the other.
“That thing’s gunna ring all day,” I warned her.
It rang before she had chance to answer, and I waited while she took another message.
“Burt’s using us as his personal secretaries,” I continued. “He should be here to take the calls.”
“Look,” said Bev, “I’ve got my own problems, okay. I don’t need this right now.”
I stared at her for a moment, dumbfounded by her answer. She had spoken as though the whole thing were my fault. The phone rang again and I slumped down on the couch while she answered it, chuckling wryly to myself; a manic chuckle, even in my own ears.
Then Bev disappeared into the shower and I had to take the calls. The first one was a woman and she simply asked for Burt, without a ‘hello’ or a ‘please’ or anything.
“Sorry, Burt doesn’t live here; just uses the number,” I replied a little curtly.
I expected her to leave a message but she just hung up without another word.
That evening I was home by myself again. I put the phone right beside me on the couch so I would have time to replace the receiver if Anne and Burt came back. But when I heard the door slam around ten o’clock and their footsteps advancing up the hallway, I somehow knew I was in trouble again.
“What’s the matter?” I asked, and immediately regretted doing so. It sounded so ‘guilty.’
“What’s the matter?!” Burt glowered fiercely, coming and standing over me. He was a short, stocky guy, remarkably ugly up close. “My mother called here this morning and you were rude to her. That’s what’s the matter!”
“And Bev was up before seven answering your calls!” I snapped back.
“We’re talking about my mother, mate!”
His self-righteous indignation was such I couldn’t suppress a slight chuckle, and for an instant he looked as though he were going to thump me. I could see the veins in his eyes and the pores in his pallid skin. His cologne smelt like campsite kerosene. He hovered over me like that, twisting his shoulders from side to side, like he were Tyson limbering up for the fight. Probably he expected me to drop to my knees and grovel for mercy or something.
Anne popped her plump head out from behind him. “You’re a really inconsiderate person, you know that.”.
It was all I could do to contain my rage. I wanted to shout at the pair of them. ‘Inconsiderate?! Me?! Who’s been answering your calls for the past two days?!’ But I didn’t, of course. Anne might have evicted me.
“He’s a rude bastard,” Burt snarled, stalking back over to the message pad.
When they had gone again, leaving me there with a constantly ringing phone, I took it off the hook and waited for the movie to come on. There were more of the insane adverts but I ignored them, turning my mind to other things, robot mode.

 

Gregory

Published in http://kenagain.freeservers.com/PROSE.HTML

This thin, bald, bespectacled guy answered the door. He was wearing a charcoal grey suit, though it was Sunday. He might have been to church. But who apart from Pacific Islanders went to church? Perhaps he was going to a funeral. But he did not appear sad. Maybe it was a wedding. Would he be interviewing the day he was going to a wedding?

At first I picked him for an old guy; perhaps early forties. Looking closer, however, as his small hand slid through mine, I realised he was probably nearer my own age. The baldness, the serious look in his eyes even when he smiled, and, mostly, the charcoal suit, made him seem older.

Gregory showed me around the place, which took about thirty seconds. The flat was tiny. But it was well-furnished and had all the modern conveniences, even a microwave. I had never been in a place with a microwave before. After a year at Bruce’s, where we had not even had a television set, it seemed like more of a luxury than I deserved. I fully expected to be rejected once again.

The spare room was next to the lounge and had a sliding door. Obviously that wasn’t going to keep out much noise. There was just space to walk between the narrow bed and the two large tallboys against the opposite wall.

So I was none too bothered when Gregory handed me the now familiar ‘I’ll call you’ line. I had received it at every place I’d visited so far, and not one of them had called.

I understood why and tried not to take it too personally. People had always told me I was a strange sort and a bad conversationalist. Too often my opinions conflicted with theirs, and you had to be careful about that sort of thing. I’d lost count of the number of people who had stopped talking to me because I’d disagreed with them on some matter or another. It was one of the flaws in my personality.

I had to ask people to call me at work. We did not have a phone at Bruce’s, and I did not want him to know I was looking for another place anyway. It would be pretty embarrassing to tell him I was moving out then not be able to find a place. The boys would have a field day.

And not being able to find a place was beginning to seem like a very real prospect. I had to tell them to call me at the supermarket, where I worked on check-out, and then a subtle change would come into their eyes, like a neon ‘vacancy’ sign switching off.

Gregory, in fact, asked no questions. Neither did he seem much interested in anything I said. He hardly stopped talking from the moment he opened the door and introduced himself until the moment he told me he would call me and closed it again.

It was Thursday when the assistant manager summonsed me from check-out to take the call. He scowled across at me with his fiery red eyebrows, like an angry lobster, as though I had just broken some sacred ethical code. He could go to hell. It was the first call I’d taken in over two years.

Dougal was in the tea room with some of the high school girls. They were getting ready to take over for the evening shift. Dougal had fuzzy black hair, thick-rimmed glasses and a seemingly permanent idiotic smile. He bounced along when he walked, his arms flapping at his sides, which added to the overall muppet effect of his appearance. At twenty-six he was the oldest guy on checkout after me, and had been telling us for the past three years that this was only a temporary station for him until he gained a place on the polytechnic journalism course. He fell in behind me as I approached the telephone and began scratching himself under the armpits. The girls laughed away and the idiotic grin on Dougal’s face grew so wide he looked more like a muppet than ever.

“Keep it down,” I remonstrated with the girls. “This could be important.”

Dougal’s eyes bulged behind the glasses. “Gosh, an important call. Could it be from Jane?”

The girls laughed again and Dougal could not resist continuing his performance.

I suspected the call must be from one of the places I had looked at, difficult as that was to believe. Nobody else would be calling me at work. I tried to imagine which of the places would be polite enough to call me up to reject me .

“Greg-o-ree speaking,” said a flat, disinterested voice. “When do you intend to move in?”

It took me a moment to comprehend what I was hearing, and another to figure it out. Gregory had waited four days before calling me. No doubt he had been unable to get anyone else for the room, it being so puny and lacking a proper door to keep the noise out. I wasn’t too keen myself. But no one else was going to accept me and I was desperate to get out of Bruce’s.

Rick moved me in with his new Hilux. He was always prepared to help me out, even if I did have to listen to his big-brother lectures in return. I didn’t have many things and might have carried them on the bus except for the mattress. I would have felt ridiculous hauling a mattress around on public transport. Rick, naturally, approved of my departure from Bruce’s. He had always considered my friends a bunch of losers. He seemed to hit it off with Gregory too. They stood there in the kitchen talking quietly together while I wrestled my mattress through the house to the bedroom. Then Rick had to get back to inspect the plans for his new house. He and Barbara were going to live in Seatoun Heights, overlooking the harbour.

No sooner was I settled in my new room than Gregory called me through to the kitchen. He was seated at the small table in the corner by the fridge, an empty vase and a bowl of plastic fruit beside him. He gestured for me to sit down opposite him. It seemed important.

“It’s two weeks’ in advance plus two weeks’ bond.”

“No problem,” I said, taking out my wallet and piling the cash on the table.

Gregory swept up the notes and carefully counted them, one by one. “I’ll also need thirty dollars for food.”

I placed three more notes on the table, and he counted them as well, though anyone could see there were three blue notes there.

“That’s for the basics,” he said. “If you want things like coffee or biscuits, obviously you buy those yourself.”

He twisted around to look up at the calendar on the wall behind him. “Right, wot nights will you be cooking?”

I gazed stupidly back at him. “Cooking?”

He blinked at me through his spectacles. “Yes, you’ll be cooking three nights, I’ll be cooking three nights, and Saturday’s we’ll provide for ourselves. I often go out for dinner on Saturday evenings, and no doubt you’ll have your own plans.”

I had difficulty drawing my next breath. The idea of cooking for this guy every other night held all the appeal of a prison sentence. But I had to tell him something – until I could find a way out of it. “I can cook Sundays, Mondays and Wednesdays, I s’pose…”

Gregory shook his head slowly. “No, it’s got to be alternate nights. Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays, for instance.”

I stared in disbelief at him, sitting across the table from me in his charcoal grey suit. “I’ve got rugby practise on Tuesdays and Thursdays.”

“Then make it Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays.”

“I work late on Fridays.”

He blinked at me some more. “So give up one of your practise nights.”

“But that won’t work,” I appealed to him, sounding like some desperate leper even in my own ears. “It’ll be both practises and I’ll lose my place in the team.”

His expression did not change, as though all this meant nothing to him and the only thing of consequence in his life was that I cooked on the specific nights he wanted me to cook on. “Well, you’ll just have to decide wot’s more important to you, won’t you? I’ve never had anyone here who wasn’t prepared to cook before.”

I wondered in a moment of bitterness just how many people he had had there before, and what the average term of their stays had been. I couldn’t see myself lasting very long, and this was only the first day. But I needed the place, at least until I had chance to find somewhere else. I couldn’t go crawling back to Bruce’s now. The boys would have a field day.

My mind raced. “I s’pose I could put something on before practises, then dish it up as soon as I get back.” He was frowning, so I quickly added, “I’ll have it on the table by eight or so.”

Gregory massaged his narrow jaw a while. “Well, so long as it is on the table by eight. No later.”

I took a deep breath and slumped back in my chair. I had meant closer to eight-thirty. Practise didn’t finish till eight so I was going to have to leave around twenty minutes early. I would not be able to keep that up for very long. But at least I had gained a temporary reprieve. I hated to think how Rick would have carried on had I been forced to call him the same day he had moved me in to ask him to move me back out again.

Gregory, having settled the life and death issue of cooking nights to his satisfaction, then set about explaining the rules of the house to me. They were numerous and mostly trivial. He was still droning on when a light tap at the door interrupted him. It was an old woman seeking donations for the Crippled Children’s Society. I had my wallet open and was approaching the door when Gregory apologised to her and closed it in her face. He had just taken half a month’s wages off me and was refusing to make a donation.

That evening I was sprawled out on the leather couch when Gregory entered the living room and asked me to remove my feet from the coffee table. He sat down right next to me and used the remote control to switch on the television. It was all a bit strange, if you asked me, and him wearing his suit and drinking coffee at twenty-to-nine.

I was not a fan of television either. Most of it seemed like it was designed for mentally-handicapped toddlers. But it would have been rude to get up and leave the moment Gregory sat down. So I stayed and watched it with him. He flicked back and forth between the two public stations and the tacky private one, before settling on a movie, ‘Last of the Mohicans.’ That lasted about twenty minutes, at which point he declared it ‘typical American rubbish’ and switched channels again. Now we were watching ‘COPS’ and some old white officer was being congratulated for shooting a black youth as he fled down an alley. There were slow motion replays of the guy being killed, like a football game. Gregory decided that was ‘more American rubbish’ and switched channels again. So now we had the local version of Candid Camera on and some overweight aerobics instructor was baring his buttocks to a class full of women; a chorus of mechanical, screechy laughter in the background. Gregory chuckled too and put the remote control down.
Then he got talking about his career. He babbled on about that for quite a time, but he might have been speaking Greek for all the sense it made to me. Next he explained how he was dealing in shares for himself nowadays as well as on behalf of his clients. He even tried to talk me into investing some money, and it required a considerable effort on my part to persuade him I was not interested. Next he enlightened me with his plans to go into property development. There was a “cool fortune” to be made in that, he reckoned, gazing at me with bulging bespectacled eyes. It was all I could do to prevent myself from yawning into his face.

When Gregory went into the kitchen to make another coffee, I seized the opportunity and escaped to my bedroom. He returned a few minutes later and turned the television up. I could hear it through my sliding door just as clearly as if I had still been sitting on the couch beside him. He flicked through the channels again and finally settled on the movie he had earlier denounced as ‘American rubbish.’ This presented me with a dilemma. I was actually interested in the movie, but I didn’t want to listen to Gregory, and what I discovered was this: If I stood right by the wall with my door open a fraction, I could see all of the television screen apart from the bottom left corner which was obscured by Gregory’s head. So after that I watched television from inside my room, peering out through the gap between the wall and the sliding door, and I didn’t have to listen to Gregory talking.

Coach was not accustomed to me running off twenty minutes before the end of practises, and he roundly abused me every time. But it was mostly warm-downs, and I kept my place in the team regardless. Probably it was too late in the season to disrupt things by changing players.

The boys, naturally, had their fun. They were exceedingly witty, nicknaming me ‘The Nanny,’ and even presenting me with a frilly pink apron after one match. I suppose I couldn’t blame them. I had become a pretty easy target, what, with this business of cooking for Gregory. They never said anything about me moving out of Bruce’s though.

It started raining one night so Coach sent us into the gym lest we chew up the field. A game of touch was organised and I scored a couple of easy ones inside Pigsy. He was only suited for scrummaging, with that big beer belly of his. If you beat him once he would feign disinterest in the entire affair and call out ”bring the ball back when you’re finished” each time you glided by him, like you were just being being downright childish or something. As tighthead prop he, naturally, regarded himself as the epicentre of the team. So I liked to give him a cheeky wink along the way.

I was going by Pigsy for the third time when an electric current shot through my knee and my leg went out from under me. I gazed up at the timber ceiling as the faces began to gather at the perimeters of my vision. They gawked down at me, saying nothing, like I was at the bottom of a well and they were looking into it. And it seemed to me, in my dazed state, that what I saw in their eyes was not concern but something closer to triumph. Only Coach’s face appeared genuinely perturbed when it joined the circle of starers.
“Haven’t done your bluddy knee in, have ya?” he asked in his gruffest tone.

“I’ll be okay,” I assured him through clenched teeth. The pain had hold of my knee like some demon bull terrier.

Coach turned to Wheels. “Go an’ fetch Mat. He’ll be out on the main ground with the seniors.”

It seemed an eternity before Wheels returned with the physio straddling along behind him. Even Pigsy looked like a titan next to Wee Mat. The boys were chuckling into their sleeves at the sight of him, a chubby green elfin in a soaking wet tracksuit.

“Wotcha done to yourself there, son?” he enquired, squatting down beside me.

I pointed to my outstretched leg. “Just wrenched me knee. I’ll be right in a jiff.”
He made a prolonged examination, entailing much painful prodding and bending of the knee, before agreeing with my assessment. From his bulky sports bag he produced a tube of ointment.
“It’ll ease the pain,” he told me, massaging a little into my knee. “But you’re finished for the season, sorry to tell ya.”

It took me a moment to comprehend what he was saying. I was out for the last five games! I was so disappointed I neglected to thank him as he straddled back out, an elfin with his bulky sports bag, and the guys pointing at his back and chuckling among themselves.

My despair turned to alarm when I realised it was seven-thirty. It would take me half an hour to get home on this leg. I’d be lucky to have dinner on the table by quarter-past-eight.

I was close with my estimation too. By the time I got back it was already eight, Gregory’s dinner deadline. He was sitting at the small kitchen table in his charcoal grey suit (perhaps he had a collection of them), the electric light shining on his spectacles and frowning forehead.

“Wrenched me knee,” I explained sheepishly. “Got home as quick as I could.”

Gregory removed his spectacles and laid them on the table beside the bowl of plastic fruit. A lime-green apple tumbled out and he smartly replaced it. The irritation was in his eyes but failed to prepare me for what was to come.

“Look, this isn’t working out,” he said flatly. “I don’t ask much, but if you can’t make an effort to comply with the few simple rules that I do set down, then you’ll need to find another place.”

In that moment, as I stood there on my aching knee, having hobbled home through the rain at maximum speed just to serve him his dinner, I had a very strong impulse to pummel his narrow bland face in. But stronger than this was my growing sense of desperation. I had not got around to looking for anywhere else yet, and going back to Bruce’s held about as much appeal as hauling my mattress out to the city dump and taking up lodgings there. I had to be able to reason with this guy.

“My season’s over anyway. It’s not gunna happen again.”

Gregory replaced his glasses and rose from his chair, shaking his head with finality. “No, it’s not just the cooking. There are other issues besides. The way you disappear into your room every night, for instance. It’s insulting.”

“You should a said something. I’ll watch television with you this evening, if you like.” It sounded pathetic even in my own ears. But I was desperate.

The head kept shaking, and for an instant I felt the way I had in the gym as my teammates had gazed down at me. Gregory turned away, as though I no longer existed, and went through to the living room.

“My decision is final,” he said over his shoulder. “I’ll give you a week to find another place.”

I hobbled after him. I wasn’t about to grovel anymore. He wasn’t going to change his mind. Though I still had to contain my anger, for I needed that week, I was prepared to be a little less pathetic now that it had come to this. “Well, I’ll need my bond back before I go.”

Gregory sat down on his leather couch and shuffled through a few sheets of paper on the coffee table. “You’ll get your money the day you leave. Don’t worry yourself too much about that. We’ll settle your bills first though.”

I took them from him and immediately noticed they were dated the month before I had moved in. It figured. The bills for the current month couldn’t have possibly arrived yet.

”Oh!” He feigned surprise when I pointed this out to him, as though a guy who practically had dollar signs in his eyes didn’t know what month’s bills he was looking at. “In that case I’ll have to hold onto your bond till this month’s bills arrive.”

Perhaps it was the light on the lenses of his spectacles, but he seemed to be gloating as he looked up at me. The urge to pummel his bland little face in was very strong in me then. I wondered how long it would be before someone actually did, for it could only have been a matter of time. But, as for me, I needed that week. I made up my mind I would have it all out with him the final day, and if he didn’t come up with my money then, I’d punch his teeth out, smash his spectacles and take his microwave or something.
Meanwhile, I had to find somewhere else to live.

 

Turkish Taksi

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I slid gratefully into the warm interior of the taxi and pulled the door closed with a muffled clump. It had taken ten minutes to flag one down. Normally they came in swarms, cutting each other off to get to you first. But on rainy days the tables were turned, and when it rained during Ramadan, you might be lucky to get one at all.

“Merhaba,” I greeted the driver. “Taksim, lutfen. Karmashik Sokak.”

The driver nodded in assent. He seemed a respectable sort, middle-aged with streaks of silver in his hair and crows-feet forming at his eyes. He was attired in a chequered sports jacket and dark green polo-neck. I relaxed a little in my seat. You never knew what you were going to get with these taxis. I had been fortunate with the vehicle too, a late-model Renault with smooth suspension and a barely audible engine. Hot air swirled around my damp legs as we waited at the traffic lights.

“So, my friend,” the driver smiled at me, “Where are you from?”

“Denmark,” I told him. “But it’s okay. I can speak English.”

The driver was visibly put out, having no doubt anticipated ‘America’ or ‘Britain’ as the response, and having some oft-used follow-up at the ready.

I stared out the window at the blurred forms of the office blocks. Suit-clad figures hurried back and forth. A cream Mercedes with tinted windows moved up beside us, tires swishing over the wet tar-seal.

“Earopean Onion, yes?” he enquired gruffly, finding his feet again. “And what do you think about Turkey entering to EU?”

“Why not?” I replied diplomatically.

He leaned toward me, smiling with his wizened eyes. “Turkish people very friendly, yes?”

Before I had chance to answer, the lights changed and, amid an orchestra of blaring horns, the Renault surged forth, dodging through the lanes, cutting off rivals and sending tardy pedestrians scrambling for cover. Eventually we emerged from the pack and raced along at breakneck speed. I glanced anxiously at the driver and tightened my seat-belt.

“Very friendly, yes?” he picked up where he had left off a few minutes before. “It is our culture. Hospitality – very important.”

He lit a cigarette as we swerved around a bend. Even at this velocity we were overtaken by a dolmush, the big yellow taxi-van rounding the curve like a Ferrari. Another intersection and the lights changed from amber to red as we sped through it. The driver flashed his headlights at the encroaching cross-traffic, and they duly made way for him. That was something, I thought. Most places I knew they would have blasted their horns in anger. Here at least they all seemed to work together.

“You like cigarette?”

I declined the pack he thrust beneath my nose. The cab was already full enough of smoke, and I would have preferred him to concentrate on the driving. Even as he tucked the cigarettes back inside his chequered jacket he was forced to brake for an old woman in a shawl and headscarf. She was halfway across the road, a veritable mound of cloth with a cane, and showed no sign of hurrying to get out of his way.

Approaching Taksim the traffic got heavier and the rain fell harder. The driver worked his horn like it were a part of the machinery that made his vehicle run.

“Baaah! Taksim!” he exclaimed, throwing his arms up in the air. “Every time problem!”

I gazed ahead in silence as his ranting grew more vehement. A bus had got caught in the intersection and was impeding our progress, though the lights were green. The driver switched back to Turkish, possibly to avoid offending me, though more likely because he lacked a sufficient repertoire of English swear words for the purpose. Either way, his entire manner had become decidedly intimidating.

He threw himself about in his seat, peering out each of the windows in turn, a trapped animal in search of an escape route. Then abruptly he began to back the Renault up, and before I had time to protest we were hurtling down some narrow, bumpy side-street, forcing startled pedestrians to leap onto the sidewalk.

“No, no, no…” I muttered under my breath.

A Turkish taxi driver’s detour invariably takes twice as long as the orthodox route, even allowing for the traffic. But it keeps the meter ticking over at a rate more to his liking, and my fare was about to be doubled.

On this occasion, however, we were in for further difficulty. The alternative road the driver had sought was cordoned off for reconstruction. A little beyond the orange cones was the bizarre spectacle of a beefy police officer screaming at the top of his lungs into the open window of another taxi which had evidently progressed too far, knocking one of the cones over. So fearsome was the cop’s demeanour I half-expected the taxi driver to get out and rumble with him, knowing how ill-tempered some of these drivers were themselves. But the cop had a gun in his holster and the law on his side, and the driver did not emerge from his cab as the tongue-lashing continued.

My driver, meanwhile, backed up again and resumed ranting. “Taksim! Taksim! Her kes Taksim’e gidiyor!”

I understood enough to know he was angry with me for wanting to go to Taksim. Ludicrous as that was, I kept quiet. Arguing the point would have antagonised him more.

We drove around the side-streets for a while, the driver pausing from his tirade only to light another cigarette. He reached a crescendo when we turned a corner and found ourselves behind a hand-drawn junk-cart. It was several minutes before he was able to negotiate his way past it.

When finally we emerged back onto the main road we had been on earlier, we were a mere two blocks on, but with an extra three-and-a-half lira on the meter. A crowded bus which had been behind us was now waiting at an intersection a hundred metres or so ahead. Once through that, I observed, it would be into free-flowing traffic. I shook my head in disbelief.

But worse was to come. The driver now decided this predicament was not to his liking either and began to back up again.

“No! Hayir!” I shouted. “Just stay on this road.”

“Allahallah!” he growled, and continued reversing. “Taksim! Taksim! Her zaman chok trafik!”

“Hayir! Stay on this road or let me out now.” I gripped the door handle to ensure he understood my intentions.

At this he slammed on the brakes and thrust out his hand. “Eight lira!” he demanded, though the meter showed 7:10.

“I’m not paying. You haven’t taken me where I want to go.”

His dark eyes bulged menacingly. “Polis!”

It was almost comical. Having broken at least half a dozen traffic rules on the journey thus far, he was now threatening ME with the law.

“Oh, Polis?” I scoffed.

He glowered back at me with the self-righteous indignation of a head-mistress. “Polis!” he thundered, as though expecting the word to reduce me to a quivering mound of jelly.

“Yes! Police!” I nodded animatedly. “Chok iyi. Take me to polis.”

Seeing that he had no intention of doing so, I opened the door to get out. In the process I was dealt a heavy blow to the back, right between the shoulder blades. I spun around and swore at him in Danish. Though even in my anger I felt a twinge of apprehension as his own door clicked open. He was a burly fellow and evidently volatile. I had no intention of backing down, when I was in the right, but neither did I fancy the prospect of it coming to blows. It was to my relief, therefore, that he appeared to think better of it, slammed his door closed again, and roared off down the side-street.

I stood there on the crowded sidewalk shaking, and not just from the cold. The rain poured down with increased intensity. The noise of the traffic was a river swishing slowly by. The rancid exhaust fumes formed visible clouds in the frigid air. There was not a vacant taxi in sight.

Then it seemed I was in luck. An occupied taxi had stopped up ahead to unload its passengers. I hurried over and waited beside it while they paid the driver and got out.

“Taksim,” I said, clambering into the back seat. “Karmashik Sokak, lutfen.”

The driver’s eyes fixed me in the rear vision mirror. “Hayir, Taksim’e deyil,” he said, shaking his head gravely. “Chok trafik. Prob-lem.”

My heart sank as I observed the finality in his tone. Was I going to get to Taksim at all? I climbed back out and blinked disconsolately around in the rain. What to do? Take a bus? That would only get me to Taksim Square, half the remaining distance. But it would get me through the worst of the traffic, and I ought then to be able to complete the journey by taxi.

The first bus that came along was so packed I thought I’d have no chance of getting on. But in the event I was able to gain the boarding steps, and there I remained when the door hissed closed behind me. Twenty minutes later I stepped gingerly out at Taksim Square. Even in this weather the place was a hive of activity; crowds swarming in and out of the metro in their raincoats and shapkas, a veritable sea of umbrellas progressing up and down Istiklal, blue-uniformed policemen milling about their armoured trucks and patrol cars, shoe-shiners huddling beneath the overhanging roofs of the flower stalls. And amid the teeming traffic it was not difficult to locate a vacant taxi, albeit an old Toyota with various dings and scrapes on its panels.

I got in beside the driver, a bent old man with white whiskers and a crescent of white hair around his bald pate. He looked too frail to be working these chaotic streets, and should have been enjoying his retirement somewhere on the Mediterranean coast, I thought. Only the tips of his nicotine-stained fingers protruded from the sleeves of the tattered coat he wore. Drowsy Turkish folk music crackled out of the radio.

“Iyi gunlar. Karmashik Sokak, lutfen.”

He squinted at me with watery brown eyes in that expression of acquiescence peculiar to the Turks. Then, with startling alacrity, he swerved out into the traffic and put his foot to the floor. It was at this point I discovered my seat-belt did not work.

“No prob-lem. No prob-lem,” he assured me with a toothless smile.

I stared back at him in horror. “Yes problem! Istanbul traffic crazy. Seat-belt very important.”

He waved his hand dismissively. “Amerikalimisiniz?”

“Hayir. Danimarkaliyim.”

“Danimarkali?” He raised his eyebrows in interest, then proceeded to ask me in Turkish the same questions his predecessor had asked me in English. Did I think Turkey would join the EU? Did I agree that Turkish people were very friendly?

The motor droned, the chassis shook and vibrated ceaselessly. Every bump seemed like a speed bar, every pothole a crater. The old driver refused to put the wipers on automatic, preferring instead to flick the switch himself every now and then, so that we spent more time peering through a rain-blurred windscreen than we did through a clear one.

Before I realised it we had passed my turn-off. I explained this to the driver with some irritation, and demanded he turn around at the next opportunity. But that did not occur for another half-a-kilometre or so.

Rather than driving back along the main road, however, the driver took us directly into the myriad of side-streets. He seemed to know what he was doing, so I left him to it as we bumped and rattled along the little alleyways. Then the driver stopped the car and stared wildly at me.

“Nerede?”

“You’re asking ME where? You’re the taxi driver! Don’t you have a map?”

He gave an exaggerated shrug to show he did not understand me, and my best efforts to communicate with him in Turkish were greeted by the same gesture.

Another car swung into the alley and the old man was forced to back up to let it pass. Before it did so, he wound down his window and engaged its driver in discussion.

“Karmashik, Karmashik,” he repeated several times while they spoke.

The middle-aged, mustachioed occupant of the other vehicle scratched his chin thoughtfully and babbled in a tone which was not entirely reassuring. The upshot was that we continued down the alley we were on, then turned left into a street literally swarming with cats. One of the ground-floor apartments was evidently the back of a fish market, for two middleaged men were gutting fish in the doorway and tossing the scraps to the mangy felines.

Another block on and the driver turned right, at which point we found ourselves on the edge of a busy market place, and no amount of animated horn-blasting on the part of the driver would open a path through the throng. But two things served to cheer me; firstly, the rain had eased considerably, and secondly, one of the minarets of the Green Mosque was visible beyond the buildings up ahead. I had my bearings and could walk it from here in ten minutes. When I told the driver my intentions he demanded the fare.

“I’m not paying. You haven’t taken me where I wanted to go.”

“Four lira and eighty-five,” he repeated, this time in English. The frightened rabbit look in his watery eyes had given way to dogged resolution. Next thing he was shouting at me and thumping his dashboard. But I figured I was safe this time and would not be assaulted as I made my escape from the taxi.

No sooner had I got out than I was confronted by a broad-shouldered youth in a heavy black overcoat.

“Hey, Yabanci,” he said, stepping into my path. “Why don’t you pay my friend here?”

It irked to be addressed as a foreigner by this stranger and I told him to mind his own business.

He calmly reached inside his overcoat and, with a vague smile, produced a ‘Polis’ badge. “Pay!” he barked into my face, and pointed to the driver.

It tested the limits of my self-control to refrain from arguing with this fresh-faced cop, perhaps half my age. But, of course, I did as he ordered.

“Here,” I snapped at the driver, handing him a twenty lira bill.

He glanced at the green note and shook his head firmly. “Bozuk para ver.”

“You can’t change a twenty?!” I stared at him in disbelief. “I don’t have anything smaller.”

The cop gestured at the market stalls. “They will break it for you.”

So there I was, running around the crowded bazaar in the light rain, endeavouring to get a twenty lira note changed for a taxi driver who had not taken me where I wanted to go. An adolescent boy of Kurdish appearance worked busily at his shoe-shine stand. An old woman in a head-scarf hobbled about begging for coins. An overweight man stood on a stool in a shopping cart fixing the electric sign above his store as the masses bustled by.

Then the Call to Prayer burst out of the minarets of the nearby mosque in sonorous, warbling Arabic.

 

Gregory

Published in http://kenagain.freeservers.com/PROSE.HTML

This thin, bald, bespectacled guy answered the door. He was wearing a charcoal grey suit, though it was Sunday. He might have been to church. But who apart from Pacific Islanders went to church? Perhaps he was going to a funeral. But he did not appear sad. Maybe it was a wedding. Would he be interviewing the day he was going to a wedding?

At first I picked him for an old guy; perhaps early forties. Looking closer, however, as his small hand slid through mine, I realised he was probably nearer my own age. The baldness, the serious look in his eyes even when he smiled, and, mostly, the charcoal suit, made him seem older.

Gregory showed me around the place, which took about thirty seconds. The flat was tiny. But it was well-furnished and had all the modern conveniences, even a microwave. I had never been in a place with a microwave before. After a year at Bruce’s, where we had not even had a television set, it seemed like more of a luxury than I deserved. I fully expected to be rejected once again.

The spare room was next to the lounge and had a sliding door. Obviously that wasn’t going to keep out much noise. There was just space to walk between the narrow bed and the two large tallboys against the opposite wall.

So I was none too bothered when Gregory handed me the now familiar ‘I’ll call you’ line. I had received it at every place I’d visited so far, and not one of them had called.

I understood why and tried not to take it too personally. People had always told me I was a strange sort and a bad conversationalist. Too often my opinions conflicted with theirs, and you had to be careful about that sort of thing. I’d lost count of the number of people who had stopped talking to me because I’d disagreed with them on some matter or another. It was one of the flaws in my personality.

I had to ask people to call me at work. We did not have a phone at Bruce’s, and I did not want him to know I was looking for another place anyway. It would be pretty embarrassing to tell him I was moving out then not be able to find a place. The boys would have a field day.

And not being able to find a place was beginning to seem like a very real prospect. I had to tell them to call me at the supermarket, where I worked on check-out, and then a subtle change would come into their eyes, like a neon ‘vacancy’ sign switching off.

Gregory, in fact, asked no questions. Neither did he seem much interested in anything I said. He hardly stopped talking from the moment he opened the door and introduced himself until the moment he told me he would call me and closed it again.

It was Thursday when the assistant manager summonsed me from check-out to take the call. He scowled across at me with his fiery red eyebrows, like an angry lobster, as though I had just broken some sacred ethical code. He could go to hell. It was the first call I’d taken in over two years.

Dougal was in the tea room with some of the high school girls. They were getting ready to take over for the evening shift. Dougal had fuzzy black hair, thick-rimmed glasses and a seemingly permanent idiotic smile. He bounced along when he walked, his arms flapping at his sides, which added to the overall muppet effect of his appearance. At twenty-six he was the oldest guy on checkout after me, and had been telling us for the past three years that this was only a temporary station for him until he gained a place on the polytechnic journalism course. He fell in behind me as I approached the telephone and began scratching himself under the armpits. The girls laughed away and the idiotic grin on Dougal’s face grew so wide he looked more like a muppet than ever.

“Keep it down,” I remonstrated with the girls. “This could be important.”

Dougal’s eyes bulged behind the glasses. “Gosh, an important call. Could it be from Jane?”

The girls laughed again and Dougal could not resist continuing his performance.

I suspected the call must be from one of the places I had looked at, difficult as that was to believe. Nobody else would be calling me at work. I tried to imagine which of the places would be polite enough to call me up to reject me .

“Greg-o-ree speaking,” said a flat, disinterested voice. “When do you intend to move in?”

It took me a moment to comprehend what I was hearing, and another to figure it out. Gregory had waited four days before calling me. No doubt he had been unable to get anyone else for the room, it being so puny and lacking a proper door to keep the noise out. I wasn’t too keen myself. But no one else was going to accept me and I was desperate to get out of Bruce’s.

Rick moved me in with his new Hilux. He was always prepared to help me out, even if I did have to listen to his big-brother lectures in return. I didn’t have many things and might have carried them on the bus except for the mattress. I would have felt ridiculous hauling a mattress around on public transport. Rick, naturally, approved of my departure from Bruce’s. He had always considered my friends a bunch of losers. He seemed to hit it off with Gregory too. They stood there in the kitchen talking quietly together while I wrestled my mattress through the house to the bedroom. Then Rick had to get back to inspect the plans for his new house. He and Barbara were going to live in Seatoun Heights, overlooking the harbour.

No sooner was I settled in my new room than Gregory called me through to the kitchen. He was seated at the small table in the corner by the fridge, an empty vase and a bowl of plastic fruit beside him. He gestured for me to sit down opposite him. It seemed important.

“It’s two weeks’ in advance plus two weeks’ bond.”

“No problem,” I said, taking out my wallet and piling the cash on the table.

Gregory swept up the notes and carefully counted them, one by one. “I’ll also need thirty dollars for food.”

I placed three more notes on the table, and he counted them as well, though anyone could see there were three blue notes there.

“That’s for the basics,” he said. “If you want things like coffee or biscuits, obviously you buy those yourself.”

He twisted around to look up at the calendar on the wall behind him. “Right, wot nights will you be cooking?”

I gazed stupidly back at him. “Cooking?”

He blinked at me through his spectacles. “Yes, you’ll be cooking three nights, I’ll be cooking three nights, and Saturday’s we’ll provide for ourselves. I often go out for dinner on Saturday evenings, and no doubt you’ll have your own plans.”

I had difficulty drawing my next breath. The idea of cooking for this guy every other night held all the appeal of a prison sentence. But I had to tell him something – until I could find a way out of it. “I can cook Sundays, Mondays and Wednesdays, I s’pose…”

Gregory shook his head slowly. “No, it’s got to be alternate nights. Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays, for instance.”

I stared in disbelief at him, sitting across the table from me in his charcoal grey suit. “I’ve got rugby practise on Tuesdays and Thursdays.”

“Then make it Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays.”

“I work late on Fridays.”

He blinked at me some more. “So give up one of your practise nights.”

“But that won’t work,” I appealed to him, sounding like some desperate leper even in my own ears. “It’ll be both practises and I’ll lose my place in the team.”

His expression did not change, as though all this meant nothing to him and the only thing of consequence in his life was that I cooked on the specific nights he wanted me to cook on. “Well, you’ll just have to decide wot’s more important to you, won’t you? I’ve never had anyone here who wasn’t prepared to cook before.”

I wondered in a moment of bitterness just how many people he had had there before, and what the average term of their stays had been. I couldn’t see myself lasting very long, and this was only the first day. But I needed the place, at least until I had chance to find somewhere else. I couldn’t go crawling back to Bruce’s now. The boys would have a field day.

My mind raced. “I s’pose I could put something on before practises, then dish it up as soon as I get back.” He was frowning, so I quickly added, “I’ll have it on the table by eight or so.”

Gregory massaged his narrow jaw a while. “Well, so long as it is on the table by eight. No later.”

I took a deep breath and slumped back in my chair. I had meant closer to eight-thirty. Practise didn’t finish till eight so I was going to have to leave around twenty minutes early. I would not be able to keep that up for very long. But at least I had gained a temporary reprieve. I hated to think how Rick would have carried on had I been forced to call him the same day he had moved me in to ask him to move me back out again.

Gregory, having settled the life and death issue of cooking nights to his satisfaction, then set about explaining the rules of the house to me. They were numerous and mostly trivial. He was still droning on when a light tap at the door interrupted him. It was an old woman seeking donations for the Crippled Children’s Society. I had my wallet open and was approaching the door when Gregory apologised to her and closed it in her face. He had just taken half a month’s wages off me and was refusing to make a donation.

That evening I was sprawled out on the leather couch when Gregory entered the living room and asked me to remove my feet from the coffee table. He sat down right next to me and used the remote control to switch on the television. It was all a bit strange, if you asked me, and him wearing his suit and drinking coffee at twenty-to-nine.

I was not a fan of television either. Most of it seemed like it was designed for mentally-handicapped toddlers. But it would have been rude to get up and leave the moment Gregory sat down. So I stayed and watched it with him. He flicked back and forth between the two public stations and the tacky private one, before settling on a movie, ‘Last of the Mohicans.’ That lasted about twenty minutes, at which point he declared it ‘typical American rubbish’ and switched channels again. Now we were watching ‘COPS’ and some old white officer was being congratulated for shooting a black youth as he fled down an alley. There were slow motion replays of the guy being killed, like a football game. Gregory decided that was ‘more American rubbish’ and switched channels again. So now we had the local version of Candid Camera on and some overweight aerobics instructor was baring his buttocks to a class full of women; a chorus of mechanical, screechy laughter in the background. Gregory chuckled too and put the remote control down.
Then he got talking about his career. He babbled on about that for quite a time, but he might have been speaking Greek for all the sense it made to me. Next he explained how he was dealing in shares for himself nowadays as well as on behalf of his clients. He even tried to talk me into investing some money, and it required a considerable effort on my part to persuade him I was not interested. Next he enlightened me with his plans to go into property development. There was a “cool fortune” to be made in that, he reckoned, gazing at me with bulging bespectacled eyes. It was all I could do to prevent myself from yawning into his face.

When Gregory went into the kitchen to make another coffee, I seized the opportunity and escaped to my bedroom. He returned a few minutes later and turned the television up. I could hear it through my sliding door just as clearly as if I had still been sitting on the couch beside him. He flicked through the channels again and finally settled on the movie he had earlier denounced as ‘American rubbish.’ This presented me with a dilemma. I was actually interested in the movie, but I didn’t want to listen to Gregory, and what I discovered was this: If I stood right by the wall with my door open a fraction, I could see all of the television screen apart from the bottom left corner which was obscured by Gregory’s head. So after that I watched television from inside my room, peering out through the gap between the wall and the sliding door, and I didn’t have to listen to Gregory talking.

Coach was not accustomed to me running off twenty minutes before the end of practises, and he roundly abused me every time. But it was mostly warm-downs, and I kept my place in the team regardless. Probably it was too late in the season to disrupt things by changing players.

The boys, naturally, had their fun. They were exceedingly witty, nicknaming me ‘The Nanny,’ and even presenting me with a frilly pink apron after one match. I suppose I couldn’t blame them. I had become a pretty easy target, what, with this business of cooking for Gregory. They never said anything about me moving out of Bruce’s though.

It started raining one night so Coach sent us into the gym lest we chew up the field. A game of touch was organised and I scored a couple of easy ones inside Pigsy. He was only suited for scrummaging, with that big beer belly of his. If you beat him once he would feign disinterest in the entire affair and call out ”bring the ball back when you’re finished” each time you glided by him, like you were just being being downright childish or something. As tighthead prop he, naturally, regarded himself as the epicentre of the team. So I liked to give him a cheeky wink along the way.

I was going by Pigsy for the third time when an electric current shot through my knee and my leg went out from under me. I gazed up at the timber ceiling as the faces began to gather at the perimeters of my vision. They gawked down at me, saying nothing, like I was at the bottom of a well and they were looking into it. And it seemed to me, in my dazed state, that what I saw in their eyes was not concern but something closer to triumph. Only Coach’s face appeared genuinely perturbed when it joined the circle of starers.
“Haven’t done your bluddy knee in, have ya?” he asked in his gruffest tone.

“I’ll be okay,” I assured him through clenched teeth. The pain had hold of my knee like some demon bull terrier.

Coach turned to Wheels. “Go an’ fetch Mat. He’ll be out on the main ground with the seniors.”

It seemed an eternity before Wheels returned with the physio straddling along behind him. Even Pigsy looked like a titan next to Wee Mat. The boys were chuckling into their sleeves at the sight of him, a chubby green elfin in a soaking wet tracksuit.

“Wotcha done to yourself there, son?” he enquired, squatting down beside me.

I pointed to my outstretched leg. “Just wrenched me knee. I’ll be right in a jiff.”
He made a prolonged examination, entailing much painful prodding and bending of the knee, before agreeing with my assessment. From his bulky sports bag he produced a tube of ointment.
“It’ll ease the pain,” he told me, massaging a little into my knee. “But you’re finished for the season, sorry to tell ya.”

It took me a moment to comprehend what he was saying. I was out for the last five games! I was so disappointed I neglected to thank him as he straddled back out, an elfin with his bulky sports bag, and the guys pointing at his back and chuckling among themselves.

My despair turned to alarm when I realised it was seven-thirty. It would take me half an hour to get home on this leg. I’d be lucky to have dinner on the table by quarter-past-eight.

I was close with my estimation too. By the time I got back it was already eight, Gregory’s dinner deadline. He was sitting at the small kitchen table in his charcoal grey suit (perhaps he had a collection of them), the electric light shining on his spectacles and frowning forehead.

“Wrenched me knee,” I explained sheepishly. “Got home as quick as I could.”

Gregory removed his spectacles and laid them on the table beside the bowl of plastic fruit. A lime-green apple tumbled out and he smartly replaced it. The irritation was in his eyes but failed to prepare me for what was to come.

“Look, this isn’t working out,” he said flatly. “I don’t ask much, but if you can’t make an effort to comply with the few simple rules that I do set down, then you’ll need to find another place.”

In that moment, as I stood there on my aching knee, having hobbled home through the rain at maximum speed just to serve him his dinner, I had a very strong impulse to pummel his narrow bland face in. But stronger than this was my growing sense of desperation. I had not got around to looking for anywhere else yet, and going back to Bruce’s held about as much appeal as hauling my mattress out to the city dump and taking up lodgings there. I had to be able to reason with this guy.

“My season’s over anyway. It’s not gunna happen again.”

Gregory replaced his glasses and rose from his chair, shaking his head with finality. “No, it’s not just the cooking. There are other issues besides. The way you disappear into your room every night, for instance. It’s insulting.”

“You should a said something. I’ll watch television with you this evening, if you like.” It sounded pathetic even in my own ears. But I was desperate.

The head kept shaking, and for an instant I felt the way I had in the gym as my teammates had gazed down at me. Gregory turned away, as though I no longer existed, and went through to the living room.

“My decision is final,” he said over his shoulder. “I’ll give you a week to find another place.”

I hobbled after him. I wasn’t about to grovel anymore. He wasn’t going to change his mind. Though I still had to contain my anger, for I needed that week, I was prepared to be a little less pathetic now that it had come to this. “Well, I’ll need my bond back before I go.”

Gregory sat down on his leather couch and shuffled through a few sheets of paper on the coffee table. “You’ll get your money the day you leave. Don’t worry yourself too much about that. We’ll settle your bills first though.”

I took them from him and immediately noticed they were dated the month before I had moved in. It figured. The bills for the current month couldn’t have possibly arrived yet.

”Oh!” He feigned surprise when I pointed this out to him, as though a guy who practically had dollar signs in his eyes didn’t know what month’s bills he was looking at. “In that case I’ll have to hold onto your bond till this month’s bills arrive.”

Perhaps it was the light on the lenses of his spectacles, but he seemed to be gloating as he looked up at me. The urge to pummel his bland little face in was very strong in me then. I wondered how long it would be before someone actually did, for it could only have been a matter of time. But, as for me, I needed that week. I made up my mind I would have it all out with him the final day, and if he didn’t come up with my money then, I’d punch his teeth out, smash his spectacles and take his microwave or something.
Meanwhile, I had to find somewhere else to live.

 

Mr McDougal’s History Lesson

i

Outside the assembly hall we paused to do up our ties. Inside we needed a moment for our vision to adjust; that musty darkness, rank with the odor of dry timber and mildew, slowly giving way to shadowy forms, faint colours and details. Row upon row of crewcut heads, tanned and freckled faces, gray uniforms and cardinal ties. The hall hummed with chatter and partly restrained laughter.

“Lancaster! McKay! Ya homos!” We greeted the boys we knew.

“Johnson! Davis! Ya fags!” They grinned back from their seats.

The hall abruptly fell silent as the headmaster entered, came clumping down the narrow aisle among us, stepped up onto the wooden stage. All stood to attention. A tall, barrel-chested man, Mr Henderson, he wore a gray suit and the cardinal St James College tie, while around the back of his pink cannon ball head ran a crescent of stark white hair. From behind the square-framed glasses blue eyes peered down at us, and in a low, sonorous tone we were instructed to be seated again.

“It is always a pleasure to greet new pupils, and to welcome pupils back for the new school year. We have spent much time and energy these past two months preparing for what is certain to be a stimulating and rewarding year, here at St James College . . . “

The same speech as the year before, and the one before that. To begin with we remained attentive, then slowly grew fidgety, wisecracks were whispered, titters smothered behind hands, seats lightly kicked – though drawing no response from the occupants. By the end of it we were struggling to contain ourselves at all.

Back to our feet the sonorous tone bid us, to sing the national anthem. Not once but many times we bellowed out those words, and those of us who could not remember them by heart were able to do so by the end of it. Next we were coached through a few renditions of the headmaster’s favourite: ‘Yellow Submarine” – a more cheerful tüne, at least, despite its senseless lyrics. Over those verses we stumbled, but when it came to the chorus we shouted in unison:

“We all live in a yellow submarine!
Yellow submarine! Yellow submarine!
We all live in a yellow submarine!
Yellow submarine! Yellow submarine!”

From the assembly hall we trooped back to the Churchill Block, taking care not to stray from the concrete pathways, for hard shoes on the cricket fields was punishable by detention, and nobody wanted to stay behind after school to pick up rubbish.

First lesson of the day, English with Edmunds. A frail, waxy fellow with a wild crop of fair hair and a red mustache, old Edmunds, he put us to task on ‘Othello,’ and it was almost a different language, what, with all that ‘thee-ing’ and ‘thou’ing’ and words you normally only saw in the Bible.

“Sir, what’s ‘bumbast?”

“Same as ‘bombast,’ Matthew. To act importantly. To show off.”

“Sir, what’s a ‘Moor?'”

“The Moors were from Africa, Jonathan. They invaded Europe in Medieval times.”

“Were they black, Sir?”

Mr Edmunds paused to consider this. “More of a brownish hue, I should imagine,” And a few of the boys tittered.

Throughout the lesson we peppered him with questions, for it was easier than trying to figure out anything for ourselves, and the play was excrutiatingly boring.

History with DcDougal followed, further down the corridor. He had a face like an old bulldog, McDougal, and liked to write on the blackboard a lot, making it squelch with his quick sharp strokes. White clouds of chalk dust swirled in the air around him, while upon the wall beside the blackboard hung a map of Europe. Using the yardstick, Mr McDougal prodded at places on it.

“Aye, the turrible Tarks!” He rapped the yardstick against the lower right corner of the map. “The scourge o’ Yurrup for more ‘an five centuries. Some turrible things they did too. Generation upon generation o’ Christian Yurrupeans lived in fear o’ the turrible Tarks.”

At the images he conjured we shuddered. Christian throats slit by the bloodthirsty Ottomans in the streets of Constantinople. What dire misfortune had delivered them into Turkish hands in the first place? I wondered. Had I been a Christian in those times, I would have stayed as far away from the Ottoman Empire as I could get.

“Awesome!”

Raising his bulldog head, Mr McDougal peered toward the back of the room, and those of us at the front looked around too. Sitting at the back, rocking on the hind legs of his chair, was a bushy-haired boy, a caramel face among the rosy ovals behind us. At the attention he grinned broadly.

“And who do ye think you’re addressing, laddy?” Mr McDougal barked.

“I reckon they were awesome. They conquered half a Europe.”

Behind the steel-rimmed spectacles the teacher’s eyes bulged, so that he looked set to attack at any moment. “Wot’s your name, laddy?”

“Hori.”

Audible titters filled the classroom. But the bushy-haired boy at the back of the room just kept grinning.

“’Hori – SIR!’” snapped Mr McDougal. “And as for your ‘awesome’ Tarks, they soon became the ‘Sick Man o’ Yurrup,’ as we shall see. T’was only a question o’ time before we finished ’em off. Aye, and that glorious event duly occurred, as ye all should know, when Great Britain emerged victorious at the conclusion o’ the Farst World War.”

“Oh, me dum’ Hori!” said the bushy-haired boy, and now everyone laughed.

There was even a spark of amusement in old McDougal’s eyes as he responded. “Aye, that ye are, laddy. That ye are.”

ii

The Chinese army had reached the hedge at the back of the section, and each time one of them came through and made a run for the fortress we mowed him down. Sometimes they came in waves, but we mowed them down relentlessly, jaws clenched in grim determination, like heroes in the war movies. I could almost see them writhing in the dirt beneath us, blood spurting from their wounds. Then Lancaster’s mother brought chocolate biscuits and glasses of cola out to us.

Lancaster’s uncle had given him a book for Christmas, a glossy hardback with hundreds of pages. Through those pages we flicked: Hazy black and white photos from the Second World War – grinning Nazis, skeletal Jews, glowering Japs, untold corpses – and some of those people had died in unthinkably horrible ways. In fascination we stared. The dark side of human nature. Thank God we had never had to experience a ‘real’ war ourselves, and how righteous we felt that our nation had fought against such evil – and prevailed.

“Even Hitler admired the British,” crowed Lancaster, exposing a mouth full of chocolate. “He admired ‘em ‘cuz the British an’ the Germans are basically the same.”

I nodded pensively, registering the fact that, although we were not actually British ourselves, our parents were. Both of my grandfathers had served Great Britain in the Second World War.

When Lancaster’s mother called him in for dinner, I rode my bike home. Mum was in the living room, watching the ‘Chris Washington Show.’ She held a glass of red wine in one hand, while a cigarette burned between the fingers of the other.
“There’s sausages and mash on the stove,” she informed me, without removing her eyes from the screen. “Just heat ’em up a little.”

“I was at Simon Lancaster’s. His dad built a fortress in their back yard.”

“That’s nice.”

“It’s awesome! Wish I had a fortress like that.”

From a bottle on the coffee table she refilled her glass. Another hour or so and her speech would become slurred. Another hour after that and she’d be asleep in her armchair, mouth open, the TV flickering away in front of her. By that time I would be safely in my bedroom.

“There’s a kid in History called ‘Hori.'” I chuckled. “Said the Turks were ‘awesome’ an’ just about gave the teacher a heart attack!”

“’Hori?’”

“He’s a Mowri.”

“Not daft, am I? Course ‘e’s a Mowri with a name like that. Take my advice and stay away from that lot, son. Nothing but trouble. Now do shoosh-up. I wunna watch my drop a culture.”

The familiar brick buildings of Manchester had appeared on the screen, accompanied by the eerie strains of trumpet music, a cat curling up to sleep on one of the tile roofs. Buxom Becky was behind the bar as always, chatting with Ken and Elsie while she poured the beer. They were all getting on. I vaguely recalled the days when Ken still lived with his parents and Elsie was still attractive. Retreating to the kitchen, I turned on the oven to heat up my sausages and mash.

iii

At twelve I found Hori in the locker bay, knowing he would come to put his books away, as all the boys did at the end of class.

“Going for lunch?”

“It’s lunch time, cuz.” He giggled back at me.

“I mean . . . ‘where’ ya going for lunch?” I hastily added.

“Cross the road for a pie.”

“Yeh . . . me too.”
I imagined Lancaster, Smithy and Winchester waiting for me at the bike sheds, wondering where I was. But they wouldn’t wait long, of course, and it was of little concern to me right then anyway. My only intention was to befriend Hori.

Outside the school gates he paused to light a cigarette. “Know why they call this place ‘Poneke?'” he asked as I came up beside him.

“Course. It’s Mowri for ‘Port Nicholson.'”

“Nah, cuz. ‘Port Nicholson’ is English for ‘Poneke.'” The caramel face grinned broadly; teeth flashing white in the sunlight. “Y’know, it’s real name ain’t ‘Poneke’ at all. It’s ‘Whanganui a Tara.’”

“What’s that mean?”

“Means ‘Harbour at Peak,’ cuz. Me ol’ man tol’ me. For us the south was up an’ the north was down, so this harbour was the peak a the North Island.”

“Why did they change it?”

His eyebrows narrowed and the smile faded. “The British came, cuz. Don’t know much about history, do ya?”

With that he flicked his cigarette away and led me across the road to the dairy.

iv

From the back of the class the perspective was different. You took in the whole room, not just the teacher looming above you. All those crewcut heads, sandy-haired, blonde, brunette, a couple of them coppery-ginger. Pale necks, gray backs, patches of sweat between the narrow sets of shoulders. The teacher seemed smaller, less imposing, yet the bulldog face barked, the rampant chalk squelched, the white haze swirled in the air, and the yardstick rapped against the map of Europe on the wall.

“In sixteen eighty-three Black Mustafa marched his army to the gates o’ Vienna, but this was to be the last Muslim onslaught on Christian Yurrup. While the Tarks were fighting the Habsbargs, the Poles crossed the Danube and lined ’emselves up for a downhill assault. Aye, an’ the outcome was a rout. The Tatars fled, the Hungarians followed, and most o’ the Tarks went with ’em. Ten tho’sand were killed on the field o’ battle and a farther seven tho’sand perished when a bridge o’ boats collapsed beneath ’em. A glorious victory for Christian Yurrup it was, putting an end to the Tarks as an invading farce and indeed they were never to retarn.”

“Aye, the turrible Tarks!” the caramel face growled beside me.

Hearing that accent coming out of his mouth, I chuckled aloud. His teeth caught the light, while in the amber eyes there was a mischievious spark – something akin to defiance. A green tiki glinted between the undone top buttons of his shirt.

“Turrible!” I agreed, but failed to roll the ‘r,’ so it didn’t come out so well.

The teacher appeared to have heard, for he turned to face us at that moment, bespectacled eyes roamed the classroom as if seeking out the agent. They did not come to rest upon me, however, but upon Hori.

“Something to say, laddy?”

“It was the end a the terrible Turks, Sir,” I interjected hastily. “Christian Europe was safe at last.”

“But the world wasn’t safe from Christian Yurrup.” added Hori.

All heads turned to stare. For a moment there was complete silence. The teacher’s normally pallid features had turned a dark shade of crimson.

“Wot’s that, laddy?! You with the unbuttoned shirt again! Got a problem with Christian Yurrup, ‘ave ye? And who do ye think dragged you into the civilized world in the farst place? Who do ye think gave ye your freedom. Aye, if it hadn’t been for us you’d all be speaking Garman right now!”

“But we’re speakin’ English, ain’t we?”

“And wot language would ye like to be speaking, laddy – Chinese?!”

Audible titters around the room brought a gleam of triumph to the teacher’s eye. But Hori was no longer smiling.

“Why should I be speakin’ English?”

Mr McDougal lowered his head, so that his eyes were mere inches from Hori’s. “So far as I’m concerned, laddy, you Mowries ought a go back to where ye came from.”

Up sprang Hori from his desk, the chair clattering onto the floor behind him. “Go shove ya haggis up ya kilt!” he snapped, and stormed out of the classroom.

“Aye, and good riddance to bad rubbish!” the teacher declared, slamming the door after him.

 

Gladstone’s Jewellers

‘Gladstones Jewelers,’ read the sign on the window. The sales assistant raised his eyebrows as I entered, evidently surprised. But he was busy with other customers, and I browsed the shelves and display cabinets while I waited. In the copious mirrors I could see him keeping an eye on me. Slender, waxy, prematurely bald, a wisp of a mustache beneath his stub nose. No sooner had the other customers left the store than he came darting out from behind the counter toward me.

“May I help you?” He clasped his hands in front of him, as if in prayer.

The sales assistant wore a pinstriped suit with a lavender tie. I felt awfully scruffy in my sweater and jeans.

“I’m looking for an ID bracelet for me girlfriend.”

“I see. Well, perhaps you would like to have a look at these.”

He glided across to a display cabinet near the back of the store. The bracelets were all nestled on small velvet stands. Men’s and women’s, silver and gold, some of them encrusted with jewels. My gaze came to rest upon a slender gold bracelet. I pictured it on Hine’s wrist. She would look like a princess! I could afford it too, now that I was a working man, though the price was about the limit of what I had planned to spend: fifteen dollars. And there was still the engraving to be done.

“I’ll take that one.”

The assistant’s eyebrows jumped but he otherwise betrayed no emotion. “The Bambini? It’s an exquisite piece. Fourteen karat gold.”

“Wow! An’ only fifteen bucks.”

He blinked at me a few times. “One thousand, five hundred, actually.”

For a moment I was too dazed to respond. Those zeros were dollars? Who in hell had one thousand, five hundred dollars to spend on a bracelet?

The sales assistant gestured with an open hand toward the other end of the display cabinet, where he had been standing all along. “How about these?”

“What do they cost?” I inquired gingerly.

“It depends which one you want. The prices vary, starting from around twelve dollars.”

“Twelve dollars? I’ll take one!” It no longer concerned me what it looked like. At least, after all, I could afford something.

In fact, the one he drew out wasn’t so bad. Exchange the russet colouring for gold and it differed little from the fifteen hundred dollar Bambini. The engraving cost fifty cents a letter. Two dollars more to have Hine’s name put on it.

The sales assistant winked as he handed me the package. “No charge for the gift-wrapping.”

“Hey thanks!” I wasn’t sure if he had taken a liking to me, or just felt sorry for me.

On the way back to the games parlour I paused outside a men’s clothing store. There were black bomber jackets in the window, like the ones all the kids in town wore. Nylon on the outside, imitation sheepskin on the inside. ’39-99,’ the price-tags read. I’d soon be able to afford one of those too, now I was working at the factory.

Crossing the road at Courtenay Place, I found myself surrounded by a group of youths, and my alarm rose as I observed the hostility in their eyes. They were all Polynesian, mostly bigger than me and presumably older. Among them was a girl. She might have been attractive were it not for her chipped teeth and a string of green dots running down the side of her face, like moldy tears. It was she who snatched the gift-wrapped package out of my hand.

“Ooh, a present! How kind!” she intoned theatrically, and her companions chuckled down at me.

I was too afraid to protest as she töre the wrapping off. The youths had formed a tight circle around me. They all wore the standard black jackets and jeans.

“Hine?” the girl exclaimed. “I’ll hafta get that taken off.”

“I bought it for me girlfriend,” I said as forcefully as I dared. The idea of her having Hine’s name removed from the bracelet appalled me. I was almost angry enough to snatch it back—though not quite, of course; not with all those Polynesian guys standing around me.

“Givvus ya money!” she demanded, and the circle closed tighter.

Reaching into my back pocket I drew the brown envelope out. There was barely thirty dollars left inside, and I hadn’t even given my mother the rent yet. My despair was complete as she grabbed it out of my hand.

“Give it back.”

The circle opened and I saw Hori standing there, grinning as if it were all a big joke. And behind him was Hemi, showing no expression at all.

“This fullah’s me mate,” Hori told them. “Give ‘e’s stuff back, eh.”

To my astonishment—and great relief—the girl did as he had asked, returning not only my pay but also the bracelet and torn wrapping paper as well. Meanwhile the others began to disperse, still chuckling as they sauntered off.

“We were just kidding!” The girl laughed at me. “You should a stood up for ya-self, fullah.”

Hori offered me a cigarette. “They always pull that shit, cuz. But she’s right. You hang roun’ this place, you better toughen up.”

“He was pathetic!” Hemi growled, nostrils flaring in contempt. “He just gave ‘em everything!”

I was too ashamed to reply. They were harsh words, but they were also true. I might have got work in the factory, but that still didn’t make me a man.

 

Barbed Wire Tour

i

Beneath the overcast sky a helicopter droned back and forth. Nelson Street was cordoned off and the cops were diverting traffic. Now we heard them, many voices chanting, like an approaching army. They came into view, marching past the intersection ahead, hundreds of them, perhaps thousands, all in hooded raincoats, some with motorbike helmets, holding banners and signs aloft.

“One, two, three, four! We don’t want this racist tour!”

Hori trotted forward to join them, and I followed. The cops stood by in their navy coats, porcelain faces beneath white helmets, fibreglass shields in front of them, batons at their sides. They were the law, the establishment, and they were the enemy.

“Aye, an’ good to see you lads taking part too!” A fleshy, middle-aged face peered out of a raincoat hood at us, like some ghostly monk from a horror movie.

I was instantly transported back to a classroom at high school, to a squelching blackboard and clouds of white chalk dust. It was old McDougal from History. “Hello, Sir,” I said, like I were his student again.

Hori said nothing, and it seemed a little rude. Yet undoubtedly I was the one who had reacted foolishly. McDougal might have been on this protest march, but he was still the old Jock who had said the Maori ought to go back to where they came from; the same old Jock who had got Hori expelled.

The helicopter swooped low, right over Nelson Street, rotor blades clattering like machine gun fire. Upon its side featured the initials of the national TV station. They were filming us.

“Perhaps we’ll get on TV.” I nudged Hori with my elbow.

“Let’s go get some beer.” He scowled. “Game kicks off in an hour.”

Twenty minutes later we were back at the flat, glasses of beer in hand, watching the pre-match hype on TV. The South Africans were here for the first time since sixty-five. It was the equivalent of the ‘world championship.’

Anne entered the room with plates of spaghetti on toast. “Oh, you’re not watching the rugby, are you? We’re s’posed to be against that.”

“’We?’” Hori gazed up at her.

“We joined a protest march today,” I chipped in proudly.

Anne burst into laughter. “You joined a protest march an’ now you’re back here to watch the game on telly? You guys are unbelievable!”

Hori scowled at me. “You’re not helping, cuz. Look, thuz half an hour til kick-off. We can be down the pub in fifteen an’ watch it there.”

So that’s what we did: wolfed down the spaghetti and toast, pulled our jackets back on, and headed out again; the sound of Anne’s laughter ringing in our ears.

The back bar of the Station Tavern was crowded with Polynesian railway workers. But no one was playing pool or darts that day, and even the juke box was silent. For all eyes were on the big colour TV at the front of the bar.

From among the multitudes in front of us, a face turned and caught my eye. They were the bearded features of Joe, and beside him stood George and Zak, the three of them at a table near the front. He grinned and gestured for us to join them.

“Surprised all these guys aren’t against the tour,” I told him, gazing around at the railway workers in their faded dungarees and heavy work boots.

“We’re all against it, bro.’ But the ‘Boks are here anyway an’ thuz nothing we can do about it, so might as well enjoy the rugby, eh.”

For an hour and a half we stood transfixed, watching the beefy men in black doing battle with the beefy men in green upon that muddy pitch, the packed stadium roaring the home-side on.

Mercifully New Zealand held on. We had won the first test and needed only take one of the remaining two.

ii

Friday night, pay in our pockets, the week was done. We were hanging out again. This was everything I needed: Friends, money, a sense of belonging.

Gazing over at the bar, I saw through the smoky haze a group of men standing around a table. They were robust, a little intimidating, and most of them were Polynesian. The one looking back at me, however, was tall and fair. Twelve months’ labouring on the construction site had transformed me into a powerfully built young man.

Through the doors behind us came a group of young men, all of them in black leather jackets with ‘Warriors’ patches on their backs. Among them was Hemi, dreadlocked and tattooed. Swaggering up to our table, he helped himself to my glass of beer and one of my cigarettes.

“Swarming with cops out deh!” he growled.

“Course, bro,'” said Hori. “It’s the anti-tour demonstrations. ‘Boks are playing here tomorrow.”

“I know dat.” Hemi leered across the table at me. “How ’bout you, honky? Why aren’t you out deh?”

“Me an’ Hori joined in a protest march before the first test,” I replied.

“For about three minutes!” Hori giggled.

I scowled back at him. “You’re not helping, mate.”

Hemi’s features remained hostile, eyes fixed on me. “An’ tomorrah? You gunna be out deh protesting, or you gunna be inside the stadium watching?”

“How ’bout you?”

“Nunna your business. I’m asking you.”

“We’re all against it, mate. But the ‘Boks are here anyway an’ thuz nothing we can do about it. So might as well enjoy the rugby, eh.”

“No Maori gov’ment would a permitted this tour.”

“All the more reason to go out an’ protest. I’m not the enemy.”

“Who are you to judge us?”

“It’s just my opinion.”

Hemi exhaled a long stream of smoke directly into my face. Hori began trying to calm his brother down, for it was apparent Hemi was becoming agitated.

“How ’bout I tell me bro’s your ‘opinion.’ What a ya fink would happen den?”

“Leave ya mates out of it,” said Hori. “This is between you an’ ‘im.”

I glanced incredulously at him. He’d made it sound like Hemi and I were headed for a fight, something which had not fully occurred to me till then.

“That’s right,” Joe added. “Take it out into the carpark, guys.”

The solitary light bulb at the back of the pub provided no more than a dim orange glow. In the cold and darkness we were surrounded like a pair of prize-fighters. The Black Warriors had come out with us, together with a few curious onlookers who’d caught wind of what was going on.

Hemi charged straight at me. Probably he’d expected to drive me back. Instead I drove him back, gripping his arms like they were the handle-bars of a wheel barrow full of cement mix. My own strength surprised me, and clearly Hemi had no answer to it. Forcing him up against one car after another, I hauled him around the yard then all the way back to the rear entrance of the pub again. To this point I’d not thrown a single punch, nor harmed him in any way, and I was already beginning to tire. Finally he stumbled and went down beneath me. I dropped on top of him and pinned him to the ground. He was at my mercy. But I was completely out of breath, and had no desire to pummel my fists into his face anyway – not in front of his brother; and certainly not in front of his Black Power mates. Ironically it was one of the latter who came to my rescue, driving a steel-toe boot into the side of my skull. In reality, it didn’t hurt a great deal, but I rolled off Hemi and clutched my head as if in mortal agony.

“Hey, it was a fair fight!”

Peering out through my arms, I saw that Joe, George and Zak had confronted the gang members, not so much squaring up to them as appealing to their sense of fair play. Hori, meanwhile, helped his brother up. And there, to my considerable relief, it all ended. Hemi did not come at me again, and I observed that he was panting even more heavily than I was. The hostility had left his features entirely. Undoubtedly he must have been discouraged by his own ineptitude.

We ventured out into the streets to see what was going on. Traffic teemed by. Trolley buses queued at the Courtenay Place shelters, silhouetted beneath the street lights. A mechanical voice reached us from the direction of Pigeon Park. We wandered over to have a look. Some kind of demonstration but no cops around, just a bunch of people with banners and protest signs. I had thought they were men, what, with their coats, trousers and boots, their cropped hair and rugged faces. Upon closer inspection, however, I could see I was mistaken. ‘Women Against Rugby!’ one of the banners read.

“Women are fufty-two per cent a the population an’ we are opposed to this tour,” the mechanical voice droned. “Racism is a male issue . . . ”

“Not a Maori among ’em.” Hori giggled.

“Think it’s funny, do ya?” one of the protestors bellow at him. She moved toward us, brandishing her protest sign.

“I’ll laugh if I wunna. It’s a free world.” Hori started to walk away.

“That’s right! You’re all cowards. I’ll take you on, mate. Any time ya like!”

I hastened after him. “Come on, Hori. Gotta stand up for ya-self, mate.”

“I ain’t gunna fight no woman, cuz. Forget ’em. The guys are halfway down the street.”

From behind us we heard that hateful snarl once more: “Any time, mate! I’ll knee ya in the balls. That’s all it takes to drop a man!”

At Manners Mall we turned down a dark alley to the Jubilee Bar. An angry din of tuneless music greeted us at the entrance. Freaky people, these. Dyed hair, spiked up, mohicans, shaved bald. They wanted to be different, yet they all ended up looking kind of the same, what, with their leather jackets and tapered jeans, their combat boots, dog chains, silver studs and safety pins.

The guys actually got into a discussion with the weirdoes at the bar beside them. I struggled to make sense of anything until there was a break between angry songs.

” . . . a lot of other countries we shouldn’t be playing sport with either,” one of them was saying. “Look at the Yanks, supplying South Africa with weapons to use against their own bluddy people!”

“That’s right,” added his companion, an Englishman. “An’ then you got the French. Testing their bombs in the South Pacific. That’s our bloody back yard! But nobody complained when their rugby team came ‘ere!”

“Know what?” said the other. “If this series means so much to everybody that they’re out there fighting in the streets about it, I hope we bluddy-well lose.”

I gazed at him in disbelief. Being against the tour was one thing. Hoping your own country would lose defied comprehension. Why, it was akin to treason, changing your religion, or homosexuality or something. These weirdoes, with their spiked up hair and leather jackets, now appeared like aliens from some far off galaxy to me.

The punks took their drinks and walked away. The back of the Englishman’s jacket featured a picture of the prime minister’s face – complete with a Hitler mustache. Freaks they may have been, but at least they had a sense of humour.

Finishing our own drinks, we headed back out, soon finding ourselves on Victoria Street, walking alking toward the Arizona Bar.

Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young strummed out of the stereo system, a more agreeable sound, by far, than the din we had encountered at the Jubilee.

Heads turned, bearded faces glanced up, staring eyes followed us. Comments were grunted. Somebody howled like a monkey. A doubtful-looking barmaid served us our jugs without speaking. We took a table at the back, by the exit.

“Who let the boonga in?” an older guy called out. He was bald and sported a handle-bar mustache, more grey than red.

“Let me-self in, mate,” Zak called back.

The middle-aged bikie continued to grin. “Nah, I mean, who let you into the country?”

Everyone within earshot erupted in laughter.

“The Big Guy in the sky,” said Zak. “I’s born ‘ere.”

“Or the Prince a Darkness below!” the bikie intoned, and his companions laughed again.

What went through Zak’s mind, I wondered, when he had to put up with nonsense like that? It must have rankled. Then again, the guys would’ve expected this – surely. So why had they chosen to come here? They all looked cheerful enough; all except Hori, whose amber eyes scowled around the bar. It was an expression I recalled from our high school days.

Up rose one of the bikies and sauntered across the room toward us, holding his beer in one hand. He was very tall, his cheekbones prominent, his mustache dense, and upon his head he wore a Stars and Stripes bandana.

“Wotcha staring at, boy?”

Hori stood up to confront him. “Dunnoh. Left me book a zoo creatures at home.”

Even as we laughed, the bikie reached out with his beer and began emptying its contents onto Hori’s head. Before he could complete the act, however, Hori tackled him around the midriff and drove him across the bar, back into his own table, causing a couple of chicks to scramble aside shrieking.

“We might hafta help out,” I muttered to Joe.

“Nah, bro.’ We’ll just sit ‘ere an’ let ’em show us how stupid they are.”

I looked back at him in surprise. Was it possible that, in spite of his robust frame and copious tattoos, Joe was actually a coward?

In fact, the bikies merely formed a circle around the pair and began cheering them on. The middle-aged guy with the handle-bar mustache yelled encouragement, laughing boisterously all the while.

Hori managed to pin his opponent and looked set to unleash a flurry of blows. But with the circle of bikies pressing closer, he evidently thought better of it and got off him. Thus it all ground to a halt, and the giant with the Stars and Stripes bandana was soon back in his seat, a roll of toilet paper under his nose.

We finished our beers and slipped quietly out through the rear exit.

iii

Eventually we saw them, the masses at the bottom of the hill, a wall of cops in white helmets and navy coats in front of them. TV cameras and news crews circled around behind. The helicopters clattered overhead. The mechanical voice rambled through a bullhorn.

“One, two, three, four! We don’t want this racist tour!”

“Move! Move!” the cops barked back.

They were pushing us away from the gates. Batons swung. Angry shouts. One woman came away with blood pouring down the side of her face and paraded in front of the TV cameras.

“This was a peaceful demonstration, an’ look what the bast’ds a done to me!”

Another baton charge, more bloodied faces and angry shouts. We were no longer moving toward the parliament gates but in the opposite direction. The mechanical voice now began instructing us to march to the police station and continue the protest there. Across Lambton Quay we swarmed, the cops following close behind, the TV cameras and newspaper photographers on every side.

“Shame! Shame! Shame!” the chant went up as we approached the police station.

More cops ahead of us, and these ones had dogs – fearsome beasts that strained on their leashes and snarled, lips curled up to expose their fangs. We were surrounded at this point, though the mechanical voice beseeched us stay calm. It was a legal demonstration. We had a right to be there. The helicopters continued to clatter around in the overcast sky, the dogs continued to snarl in front of us, the cops continued to close in. We stumbled and collided, waves of momentuum taking us this way and that. It was all I could do just to stay on my feet. Somehow we emerged at the front, finding ourselves face to face with the cops, the dogs right there too, barking furiously as their handlers held them back. It was an impossible situation. The cops were forcing us back with their fibreglass shields, and our comrades were pushing us forward from behind. For certain the cops were bigger and stronger than us – and well-equipped, too, with their batons and shields, and the dogs they had at their sides. I didn’t want to be there if they launched another baton charge.

Some unfortunate lost his balance and careered into the cops. They immediately laid into him, chopping him down with their long batons. Anne went to his aid but a fibreglass shield sent her reeling onto the road. Now Hori spraing forth, stabbing at the cops with the picket of a protest sign. One of the cops cried out and backed away smartly, holding his face in his hands. The others, meanwhile, turned their attention to Hori, dragging him down among them, and as the blows went in the guy who had lost his balance in the first place managed to scramble away.

I charged at the police, a fibreglass shield slammed into me, and then I was on the ground beside Anne, staring up at the dark blue wall in front of us. I lept up and charged again, and again the cops sent me sprawling back onto the road. This time I could only sit there in a daze, pondering my impotence.

“They’ve arrested Hori!”

Anne got back to her feet, and I stood up beside her, both of us peering into the ranks of police ahead. There was a glimpse of Hori’s bright green helmet bobbing along among them. He was being led toward the police station itself.

“Shame! Shame! Shame!”

I charged once more, and this time, to my own surprise, I cut right through. The fibreglass wall simply opened in front of me. And then I knew why. The cops wrestled me down, pulled my arms up behind my back and snapped on the handcuffs. I’d been arrested too!

“Shame! Shame! Shame!”

The long corridors were as familiar to me as if I’d been there the previous day, and how depressing it was to be back there! I was supposed to have left that part of my life behind; the mixed-up youth who didn’t know how to behave himself. But here I was, back in this awful place, and I felt terrible. Downstairs for mugshots and fingerprinting they led me. At least they took the handcuffs off, though they also relieved me of my wallet, watch, jacket and shoes; along with the bike helmet Joe had loaned me.

Next I was taken to a holding cell, and when they opened the door I immediately spied Hori, seated upon the wooden bench inside, leaning forward with his elbows on his knees so that I could not see his face clearly.

“The bast’ds!” He raised his head slowly after the door pounded closed. Thick blood covered his nostrils and lips.

“Hell, mate, reckon they broke ya nose!”

“Never mind that, cuz.” Hori scowled back at me. “We’re stuck in ‘ere. How we gunna see the game now?!”

 

Antonio’s

With our bottles of Lion beer we prowled across to an empty table by the dance floor. It was a good spot, offering a prime view of the chicks on display. And it was like they’d all just stepped out of the beauty parlour, what, with their hair-dos, their make-up, their glitzy attire, their high-heels. They’d gone to an awful lot of trouble.

One caught my eye and I smiled at her in what I hoped was a friendly sort of way. She gave me a look as though I’d just vomited in front of her or something, then turned to her friend. They both seemed very irritated.

“How ‘bout those two?” said Bruce, gesturing with a nod toward a nearby table. “They’re on their own. Look friendly enough.”

“Nah, out a my class,” I grumbled.

“Don’t be a wimp! Go talk to ‘em.”

It didn’t feel right, but I got up and strolled over there anyway. I had nothing to lose, of course; nothing except my pride.

“Would you like to dance?” I inquired, smiling in what I hoped was an unthreatening sort of way.

They shook their heads. “This isn’t a good song.”

That was something; they’d blamed the song. They hadn’t told me to get lost.

“Mind if I join ya?” I lowered myself into the empty seat opposite them.

They shrugged their shoulders. Not exactly encouraging, but they still hadn’t told me to get lost. And it got better. They actually talked.

“Come ‘ere often?” I asked.

“No.”

“Really? We come ‘ere every Saturday.”

“Every Saturday?”

“After rugby.”

“So . . . what line a work are you in?”

“I’m a check-out operator.”

“In a supermarket, ya mean?”

“Been there over a year.”

Next thing they were pulling on their jackets in front of me. “Look, no offence, but we’re not really in the mood.” And with that they rose up from their seats and walked away, leaving their half-finished drinks on the table.

I gazed after them in astonishment. Just as I’d been gaining confidence! It was a few minutes before I could bring myself to return to the guys.

Bruce guffawed into my face. “Stupid to tell ‘em ya work in a supermarket, mate.”

“Why? Least I got a steady job. Plenny a people are out a work, y’know.”

“Should a told ‘em you were a lawyer or something,” Stumpy said. “That’s what I always do. Say you’re on an important case an’ ya can’t tell ‘em any details. Works like a charm.”

Bruce nodded in accord. “Make up some bullshit story to impress ‘em, mate. By the time they find out the truth, it won’t matter anyway.”

Trev had spied three chicks dancing together. Stumpy and I got up and followed him over there, and we all began strutting about near them, catching their eye and smiling in what we hoped was a friendly sort of way. They gave us a look like we’d just vomited in front of them or something, and promptly moved to the other side of the dance-floor.

This I accepted with a degree of resignation. Trev and Stumpy weren’t too flash on the dance-floor, truth be known, and they weren’t the best-looking pair of guys you’d ever see either.

“What a disaster,” I groaned to Bruce, slumping down in my seat. “We can’t get within spittin’ distance a these chicks.”

He guffawed into my face. “Reckon that’s lucky fa you. eh!”.

Stumpy returned to the table a moment later, looking far from discouraged. “Checkum out, mate!”

I followed his gaze to the table beside ours, where the two chicks I’d scared away had been sitting, and where now two more had replaced them. They were all dolled-up, smoking cigarettes, sipping cocktails. No beauties, these, but everything about them told me we didn’t stand a chance.

“C’mon, Stumpy. They’re way out of our class,” I said.

Bruce leaned away from me, his eyebrows forming a ‘V.’ “Ya do like girls, don’t ya, mate?”

“Course I do.”

The frown eased into a gap-toothed grin. “Then you’re chickenin’ out?”

So what else could I do but get reluctantly to my feet again and set myself up for another rejection?

“’Scuse me,” Stumpy asked, both of us smiling in what we hoped was an unthreatening sort of way. “Would you like to dance?”

One said something, more to her friend than to us, though I couldn’t hear above the din of the music anyway.

“Sorry. Was that a ‘yes’ or a ‘no?’”

The one who’d spoken rose up from her chair and almost pecked me in the face. “Fuck off!”

I was back beside Bruce before my mind began functioning again, feeling more like a failure of a human being than ever. And it didn’t help either, that he guffawed his stupid-looking head off at me for about the next fifteen minutes.

 

Rebecca

i

How difficult it had been to find a place when I was the one looking, yet how difficult now to find someone who wanted to move in with me! I couldn’t help thinking it was just ‘me’ that people didn’t want to live with. By the end of the second weekend I would’ve accepted just about anyone, but no one showed any interest.

I was in the process of calling the newspaper again when Alan’s head poked out of its bedroom and actually spoke to me.

“Someone called about the room. I told ‘er to come roun’ at eight. Name’s Rebecca.”

That head, which I’d only seen a few times since it had moved in the month before, then disappeared back into its bedroom. I got the impression Alan was a little excited about this Rebecca coming around at eight, though I couldn’t see why. Even if she did move in, he’d probably never meet her.

Sure enough, there came a knock on the door just before eight, and upon answering it I was astounded to find myself confronted by two smiling young women, the pair of them fairly dolled-up for the occasion. As I breathed in the sweet fragrance of their perfume, a series of thoughts occurred to me in rapid succession: Whichever one of the two she was, she would never move in. If she did move in, she would already have a boyfriend. If she didn’t already have a boyfriend, she would never be interested in me.

The blonde, it turned out, was Rebecca. As we sat drinking coffee in the living room she explained she’d only recently arrived in the city and would like to move in right away, if that was alright. It was a few awkward seconds before I could get my mouth into motion.

“So . . . yull be moving in then?”

“Well, if it’s okay with you. I mean, this is so much nicer than any a the other places we looked at. Some a them were rully grotty.”

“Course – “ I paused to clear my throat. “Course it’s alright. I’ll get you the spare keys an’ ya can move in straight away.”

The following day I spent the entire evening on the couch secretly gazing at her, while she sat in the armchair watching TV. It wasn’t that she was super attractive or anything. Only the women on TV and movies ever were. She was a little overweight and bore the early signs of a double chin. But she seemed like a goddess to me.

“It’s gunna be so nice to have someone roun’ here to talk to,” I blurted out. “Alan’s always in his room.”

Rebecca gave my a look like I’d just vomited in front of her or something. I realised I’d probably sounded a little pathetic, carrying on like that to someone who’d just moved in. Of course, it was true about Alan, but there were some things best left unsaid, and I never seemed to know which ones until I’d already blurted them out and it was too late to take them back.

ii

I was giddy with excitment as I sprinted up the driveway after work next day. The thought of spending another evening with Rebecca, and of the indefinite procession of such evenings to come, somehow seemed way too good for the likes of me.

Deeming it best not to appear too eager, I went into the kitchen to make coffee first. I could hear the muffled burble of the TV through the wall, so I knew she was in the living room, since Alan never watched it.

As I was making the coffee, however, I became conscious of two voices distinct from the TV. One was Rebecca’s; the other a man’s voice which I couldn’t recognise. My spirits plummeted at the thought of a guy being in there with her; undoubtedly the boyfriend. I’d known from the start it was too good to be true. She was way out of my class.

For a few minutes I stood at the doorway listening, desperately hoping for something to be said that would tell me it was a mere friend, or perhaps a door-to-door salesman – anything but a boyfriend – and slowly I began to detect something vaguely familiar about the male voice. Poking my head around the corner I was intrigued to find Alan sitting in one of the armchairs.

My relief at it not being the boyfriend was tempered by the fact it was ‘him.’ Why had he suddenly come out of hibernation? I was even a little offended. But mostly I was jealous. The delight of Rebecca’s company was no longer exclusively mine, it appeared.

Alan gave me this chummy greeting when I walked in with my coffee, like we were best mates or something. I knew he was only trying to show Rebecca wha a super-friendly guy he was. I stared down at his big false-looking smile and resolved to tell Rebecca what an unsociable bastard he really was the moment he returned to his bedroom.

They had pulled the armchairs closer to the TV, and a little closer together as well, I noticed, so that I was left sort of excluded on the couch behind them. And they were discussing what was on the news, though it meant nothing to me, since I never watched it. And I could hardly have felt more inadequate, sitting back there on the couch, not knowing what in hell they were going on about.

“God, America’s a sick society,” Rebecca said to Alan.

“Everybody’s got a gun there, y’know,” he naturally concurred. “Can’t walk down the street without being shot at.”

“You been there, Alan?” I asked. “I mean, you must a been there an’ had people shooting at you while you were walking down the street.”

I’d tried to make it sound like a sincere question, but they both ignored me and continued gazing at the TV.

“They’re all idiots!” Rebecca scoffed. “Did you see ‘em during the Olympics. So patriotic. It was sickening.”

I lept to my feet and began goose-stepping around the room, thrusting my right arm out in front of me. “Heil America!”

Rebecca frowned curiously at me as I reigned in my limbs and returned to the couch. “What on earth’s got into him?”

Alan shook his head and replied in a murmur: “Lost his marbles, I’d say.”

She seemed satisfied with that explanation, so I didn’t bother offering one of my own. Actually, I wasn’t sure mine would have been any different. But suddenly I felt too depressed to care. There were two distinct entities in the room now – Them and Me. Them sitting in their armchairs together. Me the insignificant clown in the background.

iii

I knew it was hopeless, but I did it anyway. I wrote a love poem and slipped it under her door. I didn’t even want to think about the consequences. Much as I tried, I could not picture myself with a woman like her. I wasn’t sure I could picture myself with anyone at all. Whenever I thought of my future, I saw myself alone. Sometimes I imagined if I met the woman of my dreams, she would die.

Rebecca didn’t say anything about the poem when next I saw her, and the lack of any kind of expression on her face might have led me to suspect she hadn’t found it at all. But when Alan twisted his head around and smirked over his shoulder at me, I knew she had read it – and either told him about it or shown him.

So I sat there on the couch, contemplating all this with a mixture of anxiety, humiliation and despair. One emotion rolled into another, over and over, while I bided my time for more than an hour. At last Rebecca got up from her armchair. The ad’s were on and a suave young couple were sipping coffee on the patio. She collected the empty mugs from between the chairs, along with the empty wrapper and tray from the chocolate biscuits they had shared in front of me, and went through to the kitchen. I stood up and followed, and as I did Alan glanced over his shoulder at me again.

I shut the kitchen door behind us. “Did ya like my poem?”

“It was cute,” she said, without looking up while she made the coffee.

I didn’t like the sound of that too much. ‘Cute’ meant you weren’t being taken seriously. I stared down at the coffee jar and thought of the suave young couple on the patio. Yes, they could have been Rececca and Alan – but never me. I was way out of my class.

Rebecca opened her mouth to say something, but at that moment Alan came through the door behind me. He moved in between us and looked first at her, then at me.

“She’s not interested, okay.”

I could see he thought he was a genuine super hero for telling me that, as though I were some crazed stalker who refused to take no for an answer.

“This is between me an’ Rebecca! Now get out a the kitchen before I throw you out!”

He took a step backward when I said that. A skinny guy of average height; he was the type who’d probably never been in a fight in his life. I hovered menacingly over him, raising my arms, seizing the advantage. Now Rebecca would see who the ‘real’ man around this place was.

“Oh, don’t be so childish!” she scolded me.

I lowered my arms to my side in shame, and the hostility returned to Alan’s features as he saw that the threat was gone.

“You’re nothing but a thug!” he sneered into my face, rising up onto the balls of his feet to do so. “A check-out operator in a supermarket! What kind a future can you offer anyone, eh? Ya can’t even hold normal conversations with people!”

I glanced across at Rebecca, hoping she might dismiss all this as so much nonsense; perhaps even scold him, the way she had scolded me. But her eyes remained fixed on the electric jug, which was now coming to the boil. Her double-chin was prominent when she looked down like that, though it made no difference to me. I turned back to Alan, seeing him up close for the first time, his receding hairline, the pale blue eyes and narrow chin.

“This is nunna ya business,” I told him forcefully.

“Actually it is,” Rebecca said quietly.

“I was the one who found your pathetic li’l poem!” Alan snickered into my ear.

I remained paralyzed on the spot for a moment, not wanting to comprehend what I was hearing.

Rebecca poured the coffee and the pair of them returned to the living room, steaming mugs of coffee in their hands.

For at least twenty minutes afterward I stayed in the kitchen, gazing through the window at the raw timber fence separating our property from the neighbours.’ I didn’t want to take my pain and humiliation back into the living room where its source lay. Nor did I want to take it down into the solitude of my bedroom. It were as though I were floating somewhere on the perimeter of the universe, rejected and alone, not good enough for this world, a weirdo who was incapable of holding normal conversations with people, who wrote “pathetic li’l poems.” My despair was intense.

 

Flies

i

The cars in my price range invariably had a lot of mileage on them and were at least ten years old. Some of them were full of rust, dents and dings. I was very surprised, therefore, when we came across a shiny red station wagon, just a few years old, with less than forty thousand kilometres on the clock. It was perfect for me. Larry laughed at me for wanting to buy a Lada, though I didn’t see why. Even the dealer said it was a real steal. It’s only previous owner had been a little old lady who’d hardly driven it at all; just used it for shopping. It was tidy inside, fairly roomy – and even had a radio-cassette player. I was already picturing myself in the driver’s seat with a beautiful girl beside me. This car was going to change my life!

A few days after I bought it the clutch dropped out and I had to take it in for repairs. I called the dealer to see if that was covered by the warranty, but he merely laughed down the line at me as if the notion were ridiculous.

“Not for that car, son. It’s only a cheap li’l Lada.”

My immediate problem was the work function I was supposed to be attending that evening. It was at some country lodge way out of town. And that’s all I concerned myself with right then. I didn’t want to think about the bigger problem – how long it was going to take, nor how much it was going to cost, to have the clutch repaired on my new Lada.

“Tell you wot,” Larry beamed, “I’ll come with ya, eh. I’m not doing anything tonight.”

So we drove out there in his V8 Charger, British rock’n’roll blasting out of the big speakers all the way.

I’d insisted on being punctual and we were the first there. Larry proceeded to occupy himself chatting up the barmaid, which seemed to amuse her, more than anything. But you could tell she wasn’t interested. Whenever she went out back for some reason or another, he’d turn to me with a big frenzied grin on his face and growl something like: ‘Cor, mate, see those knockers? She’s a goddess!” All I could do was smile sheepishly back at him, thoroughly embarrassed by his antics.

When the others began to arrive Larry gave up on the barmaid and turned his attention instead to the check-out girls. They, too, just laughed it off the way the barmaid had done.

It didn’t take him long to get drunk either, and my biggest concern as the function continued was how I would be getting home that night. I watched with a mixture of amusement and apprehension as his antics became progressively more obsene. At one point I looked over at the dance-floor to find him prancing about in the middle wearing nothing but his socks and underpants.

“My God!” shrieked one of the women. “Who brought him here?!”

Just then I overheard the branch manager talkng to her husband about getting a move on. I slipped over and asked them for a ride back into town.

ii

During the ad’s ¬break before kick-off I hurried through to the kitchen for another cup of coffee. Larry came in while I was pouring it, wearing dark blue overalls and green gardening gloves.

“Mind giving us a hand with the gard’ning,” he said, taking the orange juice out of the fridge and drinking straight from the jug.

“Eh? The game’s about to start, Larry. I’ll come out soon as it’s finished.”

He scowled back at me. “That’ll be a cuppla hours, won’t it? Be getting dark by then.”

“It’ll be over by four-thirty,” I assured him. “I’ll come out straight after.”

He seemed to scowl right through me then, like he felt betrayed. “Look, I’m not gunna do it all meself. Last chap ‘ere never did a thing and I don’t wunna get lumbered with the lot again.”

“Oh, come on, Larry,” I forced a chuckle. “I do me share. Just this morning I mopped the floor.”

He glanced down at the chequered titles, where he’d left a trail of large muddy boot-prints. “Oh, sorry ’bout ‘at!” He guffawed into my face.

“I did the bathroom too,” I added, and, feeling I’d justified myself, continued on into the living room.

But how could I enjoy the game when I knew he was out there toiling away in the garden, and that he had asked for my help and I’d refused? He’d helped me out when I’d been looking to buy a car, afterall.

Larry didn’t say much when I joined him in the garden; just showed me what he wanted done. I was to pull out all the weeds that ran around the edge of the back yard, then do the same in the front garden.

“Hell, it’ll take weeks,” I moaned.

“Best get started right away then.” He beamed at me.

Wandering over to the garden shed, Larry returned with a hoe, a spade and a pair of green gardening gloves like his own, all of which he handed to me.

An hour or so later I stood up stiffly from my work, my lower back aching, my palms and the sides of my fingers stinging with watery calluses despite the gloves, the back of my neck burnt from the sun. I decided I’d take a break to see what the score was and grab a glass of orange juice while I was at it.

Approaching the front door I noticed Larry over on the front lawn, sitting on a beer crate, a can of the beverage in his hand. He was chatting loudly with the neighbour, who was seated on his doorstep about ten metres away.

The grin froze on his face when he realised I was there. Then he chuckled boisterously, as though it were all a big joke and you had to love him for being such a rascal.

I glanced across at the neighbour. He looked like some ancient Indian chief, sitting there with his leathery, tanned face and long white hair.

“G’day, Fred!” I called.

He murmured without looking at me, the way he always did. I got the impression he didn’t like me much, old Fred; not that he knew me at all.

The All Blacks were ahead when I switched the TV back on, and there were only about fifteen minutes to go. Australia were hard on attack, however, and a converted try would give them the lead. Suddenly, weirdly, I found myself hoping they would score. I was actually cheering against the All Blacks! Hell, I’d become a ‘traitor!’

When the Wallaby halfback burst clean through to score between the goal-posts, I impulsively leapt up and punched a fist into the air. “Yesss!” And that sounded very strange in my own ears.

Iii

Even for spring there seemed an extraordinarhy abundance of flies around; large black buzzing flies that got into your face and pestered you when you were eating. Larry and I cooked for each other twice a week and on his cooking nights he would leave my meal out on the kitchen bench, so that when I arrived home from work I’d find all these big black flies crawling over it. I kept asking him to cover it but he’d just guffaw into my face and say, ‘Crikey, mate, they won’t eat much!’ as if it were his own original joke. Yet when I cooked he’d always complain if he found so much as the tiniest shred of potato skin in his mashed potato.

“Ain’t seen ol’ Fred about for a while,” Larry observed one evening.

“Maybe he went on holiday.”

“No, ‘e would a told me.” He blinked pensively at the TV screen.

Later that night there came a sharp knock at the door. Larry went to answer it and returned with Simon, the fresh-faced beanpole of a local constable.

“When did it ‘appen?” he asked as they sat down.

“Not sure. Two or three weeks ago, maybe more. I’ve seen a few bodies in my time, mate, but this was not a pretty sight at all. Maggots all over ‘im!”

A big black fly buzzed into my face as I listened, and I waved it away irritably.

“Don’t think ‘e ‘ad any family ’round ‘ere,” said Larry.

“No, reckon he didn’t. Might a lain there for ever had the postie not noticed his mail piling up in the box.”

Larry began to chuckle. “Funny thing was, last time I saw ‘im ‘e’d just ‘ad ‘is ‘air cut! Bit like Samson, eh. Loses ‘is ‘air ‘n’ snuffs it!”

Simon laughed with him. “Poor ol’ Fred!”

I couldn’t see much humour in it myself. I was just thinking about how many flies there’d been around lately.

 

The Supernatural Matador

All I knew as I climbed into my Lada was that I wanted to get far away, to escape it all, and with this vehicle I had the means to do so. I drove through the town, on past the supermarket where I spent most of my waking life, observing the manager’s green Rover parked out front as usual, and I knew that I did not want to go back there. A little further along I saw a rusty Anglia bump to a halt in front of the Black Warriors fortress. A puny skinhead leapt out and spray-painted a swastika on the concrete wall, then scrambled back into the Anglia, which was already speeding away before he could properly close the door. I supposed that puny skinhead had to find a way to feel big about himself.

The lights turned red as I approached the state highway intersection, and an old pink van with a green peace sign on the side pulled up in the lane beside me. The driver sported a blond ponytail and ginger beard and was smoking a roll-your-own. He caught my eye, so I gave him a casual wave, just to be friendly. His response was a clenched fist and menacing gesture; his nose screwed up; his mouth forming a snarl of crooked, nicotine-stained teeth. Mercifully the lights changed and a moment later I was out on the state highway, far away from the guy.

People might have knocked my Lada but little did they know. I could get her up over a hundred-and-ten if I kept my foot flat long enough. That’s what I was doing too, though the engine screamed. It was my anger, of course. I couldn’t stop having all these angry thoughts. I was thinking about progress and it seemed to me that society was going in entirely the opposite direction. The more people had, the less they needed each other, the more selfish they became, and fear and greed were coming back to the surface. If there were a god, surely it would eradicate us from this planet just as we might eradicate some destructive pest from our environs. I could see that. I really could. And if the eradication of our species made sense to me, then surely I was as messed up as everybody said I was.

A rugged section of highway forced me to slow down. One lane was blocked off by orange cones and a big ‘road works’ sign. The workers weren’t there on a Sunday, but the cones and the sign remained. I found myself thinking about all the road-works that must have been going on right then, and all the planning that was involved for each and every one of them, and I couldn’t help but wonder how we managed to keep it all together; this incredibly complex world we had created. Surely it could only be a matter of time before it all just fell apart.

The road-works went all the way through the passing lane, and by the time we emerged from it I was at the tail end of a very long queue, all of us stuck behind some absolute bastard who was crawling along at about sixty. People like that ought to have been kept off the roads, if you asked me. Usually they were old people, too frightened to go any faster in case they had an accident.

When at last we came to another passing lane a big articulated truck swerved out to overtake the front car and used up the entire passing lane to do it. It was another three or four kilometres before we came to the next passing lane. Most of the cars got free of the slow-motion driver then, but before I had chance the signs came up warning the passing lane was about to end. The car behind me flashed its headlights when I failed to overtake, but hell, I didn’t want to cause an accident or anything.

Soon after we were on a long straight and, though there was no passing lane, it was obviously safe to overtake. The car behind me shot by first, but I had the Lada up to its maximum one hundred and ten and reckoned I’d pass smoothly enough. Once I drew level with the slow bastard, I didn’t seem to be making any more progress, however. I checked the speedometer and the needle was still there, vibrating wildly over the ‘110.’ Yet I couldn’t complete the manouvre. Then a car loomed up on the horizon and swiftly approached, flashing its headlights at me as it did. I was slightly ahead of the other vehicle by then and decided to risk it. A cold sweat broke on my forehead as I cut in front, half-expecting to clip it, wondering if the next instant might find me flying through the windscreen. Mercifully it didn’t, but the other car was right there in my rear-vision mirror with its headlights on full beam, and that’s where it remained, two blazing headlights in the middle of the afternoon.

After a while the gap between our cars opened, gradually at first, then suddenly the other vehicle became a mere spec in the distance, as though the driver had decided the game was over. Even as I was observing this there came a blue flash up ahead, and next thing a white police car swung out from behind a cluster of bushes.

I drove very conservatively after getting that speeding ticket. I didn’t care less that it was going to cost me a hundred dollars. It was more the humiliation; the sheer humiliation of the slow-motion driver going past at about sixty again, laughing his stupid-looking head off at me.

At the next town there was an intersection where you could continue going north or take the other road west toward the coast. I found myself pulling away from the general flow of traffic and heading west. I still didn’t know where I was going, only that I had to keep going. What the hell, it was my life, my car, my money that paid for the petrol. Why shouldn’t I just drive off into nowhere if that’s what I wanted to do?

No sooner was I out of the town and back onto the open road than a big black Falcon came out of a driveway and just moved in front of me. I mean, I was already up to eighty or so, and this guy just cruised out doing about twenty. He didn’t even make an attempt to speed up or anything. I gave him a blast on the horn, impulsively, and knew right away what a mistake that was. A tattooed arm came out of the driver’s window and stuck its middle finger in the air. So I ended up trapped behind the guy doing about seventy in a one hundred kilometre per hour zone. There were regular dips and bends in the road, and no opportunity to overtake arose until about five kilometres on. Wouldn’t you believe it though, this bastard refused to get out of the passing lane, and when I moved into the slow lane the big Falcon rumbled noisily and sped off ahead.

Not long after that we came up behind a double-trailer sheep truck, which kept us at about sixty until the next passing lane. Of course, the bastard in front of me drew level with the front trailer and stayed there until the signs came up warning the passing lane was about to end. Only then did he motor past it.

“To hell with the signs,” I muttered angrily to myself. Where had the rules ever got me? But as I started to accelerate the truck swerved into the fast lane to prevent me overtaking.

I supposed it would have been reckless to pass then. It was just that the Falcon had got me so mad. This truck driver was quite the bastard too. There were a few places further along where he could have moved over a little to let me pass. But he didn’t, and I had to follow that dusty, stinking sheep truck all the way to the next town.

It pulled into a service station and at last I was free. I needed petrol myself but had no intention of stopping there. You never knew how people were going to react these days. The truck driver might pull out a crowbar and smash it over my skull or something. You heard about those kinds of things on the news. It was a fair distance to the next service station as well, and I fretted those last few kilometres as the fuel gauge dipped below empty. The Lada kept droning along regardless, and somehow I made it, much to my relief.

By nightfall I was out on the coast, driving along a narrow shingle road. I hadn’t seen another vehicle since the last town an hour or so earlier, where I’d filled the tank for the second time that day. I didn’t have enough money on me to fill it again. Even if the thought of returning to the town had appealed to me now, I couldn’t have gone back. But it didn’t. I had a sense that time was liquid and I was already looking back on my life as I lived it. And nothing mattered anyway, because I’d never existed at all.

At first it was peaceful, being alone on the road like this, with no people around to drive me insane. But peaceful was too easy. Memories conspired against it. How they’d all laugh if they could see me now, fleeing in my Lada. They were all up there in the darkness of the sky, sort of pecking down at me with contempt, triumphant because they had driven me to this.

Two yellow dots appeared in the distance and the hostile faces kept pecking down at me. I was selfish, rude, an inconsiderate bastard. I was a weirdo who rammed his views down people’s throats. . . ‘ The dots became yellow circles, racing toward me, and I was racing toward them, my foot hard on the accelerator. The silver rim of the horizon was the finish line and I was almost there.

The faces kept pecking down at me savagely, two yellow circles blazed. The sky was a star-spangled banner, waving me on toward the finish line. The flagman screamed hoarsely at me; a supernatural matador in a horror movie, then with a blast like a rifle shot the whole world spun abruptly over and an unbelievable force ripped through my body. The stars and stripes were in flames all around me. The used car salesman was giving me the ridiculous notion-chuckle because the warranty wasn’t going to be covering this one. But what did I care? I’d arrived at the finish line and the challenge was gone.

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