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Short Story: The Last Card

Last Card cover

The cigarette butts are sodden and autumn leaves cling to the footpath like starfish. When it’s cold and wet the thing is to keep moving. Walk, walk, walk. Walk away from the cold and the stomach pains, walk away from the hunger and vertiginous thoughts. But it’s hard today, I am so very tired. Yet I must continue. You never know when God is going to talk to you – today might be the day I find the last card.

My jacket is not made for Melbourne winters and the cold stabs my bones. If I were someone else, someone with a full stomach and warm clothes and a safe bed and a loving family and a calm head then I might find the sight of me funny. An old bum with a white, tangled mop of hair and a weather-seared face wearing a pinstriped jacket. With cold-clumsy fingers I feel the playing cards in the jacket’s pocket, 97 of them held together with an elastic band. My life’s work, as yet incomplete.

I turn onto Sydney Road near McDonalds and look in the bin beside the tram stop. Even while looking through the bin I keep an eye out for a card. You never know where they will turn up. God moves in mysterious ways. In the first 30 years of searching I found an average of three cards a year, but in the past week I have found seven cards, one a day.
The first card I ever found was not long after the Fall. Everything had turned to shit so quickly that I was stunned. How could this smart young man, who had gone to uni, worked hard, obeyed the rules and believed in the system, suddenly be out on the street? I didn’t know anything about survival back then so ended up sleeping in a mausoleum in the Melbourne General Cemetery. One morning, while thinking of ways to kill myself, I found a card on the steps of the mausoleum. A seven of diamonds, the pattern on the back like a Persian carpet. Who had lost this card – just a single card – and why had I found it? I turned the card over in my hands. Diamonds were my birthstone and seven had been my lucky number. What did it mean, if anything? Something within me shifted. It was the first time since the Fall that I had thought of anything other than my own grinding despair. I put the card carefully in my pocket and began to walk the streets.

I dig deeper in the bin and sure enough, it provides. I find a nearly full packet of French fries and half a Big Mac.

I eat as I walk towards the city, continuing to scan the broken footpaths of Brunswick. The Vic market is on today, and the market’s always good for a few bucks. It’s hard to ignore an emaciated old man when your arms are full of imported cheese and organic bananas. But it’s the cards that are my main mission, my purpose. I’ve found two cards at the market over the years, the first a ten of clubs, the second, about eleven years later, a five of spades. The seven cards I have found in the last week have been seven of the eight I need to complete the full pack. That alone proves something, because statistically it would be impossible, not only to find that many cards, but to find the exact ones I need. The more cards you find the harder it becomes until, with a few cards left to find, it becomes mathematically impossible. Or so the ignorant might think.

I long for the last card, the final proof I need that God exists.

I cross Brunswick Road, cars honking – as if I care – and walk down Royal Parade beside Princess Park. Joggers lope past in Lyrca and headphones, some pushing prams. Their breath juts from their mouths in white plumes.

The pain flares again in my stomach, the tubes of my guts writhing like snakes on hot sand. I toss away the food and bend over and howl at the pain until it begins to recede. When I straighten I am lightheaded and shaky.

I used to walk 30 kilometres a day. I walked everywhere and saw everything. I ranged as far as Fawkner in the north, Yarraville to the west, Kew to the east and St Kilda to the south. There is not a street or a lane I do not know. But recently my steps have become brittle, the restless energy that has always powered me has begun to fade. Getting up this morning took all my resolve. Fortunately I still have an abundance of resolve: I must achieve my goal. I must know for sure.

The cold’s menthol breath is chiselling the edges off me, making me lose focus. My hands feel like frozen rissoles. I massage some feeling into them and then rub my eyelids with the heel of my palm, as if I can cram concentration back into my skull. I can’t afford to drift away now, not when I’m so close. I set my eyes on the leaf-strewn track and resume walking.

After finding that first card in the cemetery I began to look for more. It’s amazing how once you look, you see. A queen of hearts in a gutter near a Lygon Steet brothel, a king of clubs on the steps of the parliament, a three of spades on a construction site in North Melbourne, a mouldering joker near Luna Park. Pacing the streets I had time to think about each card’s meaning and the meaning of the cards as a whole. Even then I knew that there was clarity locked within them. After some time, perhaps a few years, I became certain that I wasn’t finding the cards by chance, but was guided to them by a higher power. The cards were the crack in reality that allowed me to glimpse God. After that, every time I found a card it reaffirmed that my life was worth living.

I trudge on beside the park. An old guy jogs past, wiry legs in flapping shorts, chest hair bursting from beneath his singlet. That should be me. Fit and healthy, getting some exercise before heading to work at Melbourne University. If my cards had been different I could be an English literature lecturer in a building draped in ivy. But that wasn’t to be. It riles me that most people have no idea of how close to a Fall they are. You split up with your partner, get a little sick, lose your job. It’s only when the bills mount up that you realise how alone you are and how much your mortgage is. The next thing you’re sleeping on somebody’s grave and using a bin as a larder. It’s so very easy. Still, despite it all, I pity them, these people who focus only on the air in front of their faces. I’m the one who has been chosen to prove God exists. But there is blood in my shit and I still need to find the last card.

I force myself into longer steps, eyes scanning the brown grit of the jogging track, legs feeling as flimsy as reeds.

The cold is deep into my bones. My feet are carved from ice. As I approach the end of the park I suddenly turn left towards the cemetery instead of continuing down the road towards the market. I follow my aching feet beneath the ornate ironwork gate into an avenue of graves, the tombstones arranged as neatly as a model city.

I am close now. The cold recedes as a tingling starts at the nape of my neck and flushes warm through my body. My steps falter as I follow a small track through a row of marble graves, bunches of plastic flowers sadder than nothing at all.

I stumble and fall to my knees beneath a cypress. And that’s where I find it, at the end of the row of graves, face down beneath the tree.

I pick the card up. The back of it is blue, another Persian carpet design. I feel the card in my fingers, the surface roughened from exposure to rain and sun. I smell the bitter-lemon tang of the cypress’ dusty leaves. Nearby a wattlebird screeches.

As I turn the card over I feel euphoric, shot through with warm embers and sunset clouds. The proof feels wonderful. The proof feels right. This is how it feels to find the last card.

Short Story: The System

pic for system

I try not to think about it. It’s like walking down stairs or riding a bike – if you think too much you’ll fuck it up.

I take the ball, push the roulette wheel and flick the ball around the track in the opposite direction. The red and black numbers blur and the casino’s bright lights gleam off the wheel’s chrome spokes. I roll my shoulders, trying to dispel the tension that’s built waiting for Lee.

‘Last bets,’ I call.

The only customer at my table is a pale, blinkless man slouched on his stool like a melted candle. He peers furtively into a dog-eared notebook then dolefully plops a few more chips onto the green baize. I look around for Lee. He should be here by now.

Like Lee, Blinkless is a regular in the Las Vegas room, though, as far as I can recall, I’ve never dealt to him before.

‘No more bets.’ I sweep my arms over the table as the ball slows and pings musically across the wheel’s spokes before coming to rest.

Zero. Bang on target. I place the dolly on the winning number with a surge of triumph.

Dealing roulette is the one thing I’ve ever been good at. I don’t have a girlfriend, I’m not witty, I have few friends, I hate sport and I’m not artistic – but damn I run a good game of roulette. Not only do you need to be an enforcer, keeping control of big games where arms seethe across the table like tentacles, but you also need the brains to calculate complex payouts.

What’s 35×4 + 17×6 + 8×7 + 2×11?

Too slow. Three hundred and twenty.

Lots of dealers have the basic skills, but few turn dealing into an art. I’m not normally a graceful person, but years of spinning, clearing chips and delivering payouts has allowed me to refine my motions until they are as smooth and precise as tai chi in a park.

I sweep Blinkless’s losing bets towards me using a gentle breaststroke motion then use the back of my hand to brush the chips into the maw of the chipping machine.

Blinkless has lost $500 in 20 minutes. He seems to bet with a system – most regulars do. He chews his pencil and jots in his notebook. The book’s rumpled pages are full of scrawled calculations, sketches of wheels and columns of numbers.

‘Place your bets.’

Lee hooks his leg over a stool and throws a wad of notes on the table. He rolls up the sleeves of his blue shirt to reveal his colourful tattoos and turns a smile on Blinkless. ‘Any luck tonight, Chief?’

Blinkless shies away, hiding his notebook from view.

I count the notes onto the table. It’s all there. Ten thousand dollars, half of it mine.

‘One hundred dollar chips,’ Lee says. ‘I’m feeing lucky.’

How can he sound so confident when I can hardly keep my hands from shaking? It’s just one of the reasons I admire him so much.

I take five stacks of black hundred dollar chips and slide them across the table.

I got to know Lee at the $2 tables. At least twice a week he’d wander in and lay down a few hundred dollars saying something like, ‘Plumbing, the last frontier of cash-in-hand.’ Unlike most regulars he was sociable, always up for a chat – a welcome distraction on long, quiet nights. It didn’t matter whether he won or lost, he was always in a good mood, joking with the waitresses, speculating on the backgrounds of other punters, taking the piss out the casino’s kitsch décor and cheesy background music. He said he liked the way I dealt.

Blinkless sneaks a peek in his notebook and dolls out chips. Lee confidently puts a chip straight up on 0 and further chips on 32, 15, 19, 4 and 21 – the numbers to the right of zero on the wheel. He places further bets on 26, 3, 35, 12 and 28 – the numbers to the left of zero on the wheel. This is called a neighbour bet. It’s a simple, undetectable plan, but my heart still kicks hard in my chest.

I dry my fingertips on the leg of my trousers and send the ball zinging around the wheel. ‘Last bets.’

Blinkless plonks down a few more chips. Lee leans back on his stool and orders a bourbon and coke from a passing waitress. The ball orbits smoothly around the wheel with a gentle scouring sound.

‘No more bets’. I wave my hands across the table as the ball plinks and plunks across the frets.

I swallow and glance at the wheel. ‘Twenty-eight, black.’

I place the dolly on Lee’s black chip and sweep away the losing bets. Blinkless has lost as usual. I slide Lee over his winnings: 35 black chips. Revenge really is sweet.

Blinkless looks dolefully at his few remaining chips. This is one of the reasons I hate the casino. It presents itself as a glamorous destination for sophisticated people, yet it gets the bulk of its money from people like Blinkless – addicts in tracky-dacks. The casino thinks its moral responsibility ends with a gambling helpline poster in the toilets.

Lee takes five chips and uses his thumb to roll one chip off the front of the stack and flip it to the rear. It’s a deft trick, made even more difficult by all the rings he wears on his fingers. When we meet later, I’ll have to ask him how it’s done.

‘Place your bets.’

When I was training to be a dealer, back when I was bright-eyed and had a full head of hair, they showed us surveillance footage of people trying to swindle the casino. The footage mostly showed hapless punters trying to slip a chip onto the table after the fall of the ball, but there were also clips of dealers trying to steal as well. The dealers’ ruses were slightly more sophisticated, such as passing a stack of $2 chips with a $100 chip hidden among them to an accomplice, or else slipping a palmed chip into a sleeve or pocket. It didn’t matter how sophisticated the scam, each clip ended with a visit from a black-suited security guard. The message was clear: we have 20 cameras focused on each table – you shifty bastards better not even think about shafting us.

The casino doesn’t realise a lack of trust provokes a lack of loyalty.

Lee places the neighbour bet centred on 28. His drink comes and he chats easily with the waitress. He is often at the casino with a beautiful girl, a different one each time. Blinkless makes a calculation in his notebook and lays down his chips until he only has three left.

The other reason I hate the casino is more personal. Hundreds of dealers work here, but I’m one of the best. So why am I still dealing shitty tables in the Las Vegas room after 10 years? Lesser dealers, with lesser experience, are earning twice as much working in the VIP rooms. I should be up there too.

Once a year it gets explained to me at my performance review. As well as cameras on every table, they also monitor the number of spins, and my spin rate isn’t high enough. As one pit boss explained, ‘You average twenty spins an hour. That’s 33 percent below your performance target. Don’t worry about making it look beautiful, just start spinning faster.’

I’m a professional. I’m not going to spin up every two minutes like a robot. I’m proud of my work, even if they aren’t.

I take the ball and spin up again. I love the sound of the ball whizzing around the wheel, the way it changes pitch as it slows and the satisfying clunks as it tumbles across the wheel.

‘Twenty-six, black.’

Blinkless loses. We win.

And it’s undetectable. There is no fast fingerwork to be caught on camera. No hushed conversation between conspirators. It just looks like luck.

Back when I was training, the instructor mentioned some veteran dealers were able to hit the same section of wheel each spin. I pictured the ball rotating 40 or 50 times one way and the wheel rotating a similar number of times in the opposite direction. He had to be joking. It would be impossible to spin the ball and the wheel with the exact force required to land the ball on the same section of wheel each spin. I smiled quizzically at the instructor, not sure if this was some kind of roulette initiation, like an apprentice being sent for a left-handed hammer.

Lee incorporates our winnings into the rampart of chips building before him.

‘Place your bets.’ I unload some chips from the chip-stacker and arrange them neatly in the bank while Lee places the neighbour bet around 26.

Blinkless plonks down his three remaining chips. I’m reaching for the ball when he speaks. ‘This game’s rigged.’

His voice is clear and sharp. It’s a shock to hear him speak, wrong somehow, like one of those mute TV puppets piping up after a lifetime of silence.

I recover enough to give my standard reply. ‘The game’s not rigged because it doesn’t need to be rigged. The odds just aren’t in your favour.’

Blinkless stands up and shakes his notebook at me. ‘It’s rigged, I know it’s rigged – I just can’t quite prove it.’

Lee turns on his stool and looks at Blinkless steadily. ‘Shut the fuck up,’ he says, ‘you’re speaking shit.’

Blinkless hunches into his shirt as if trying to disappear. Lee gives him a final glare then turns back to the table and takes a sip of his drink.

I take a deep breath and spin the wheel, but immediately know I’ve pushed harder than normal. I try to compensate by spinning the ball slightly harder, but know this spin is purely chance.

‘Five, red.’ Almost directly opposite 26 on the wheel. Lee gives a sound between a groan and a growl, and makes the sound a second time when he sees Blinkless has landed a split.

Blinkless drags his stool further away from Lee and sits down. He accepts his 17 chips thoughtfully and studies the cover of his notebook for a long moment before shoving it deep into the pocket of his tracksuit pants.

I remove the dolly from the winning number. ‘Place your bets.’ I glance at Lee. He seems unperturbed by the loss. We had spoken about this. The occasional loss was to be expected; sometimes the ball can hit the right section of the wheel but bounce along the frets for longer than usual. As long as we stay ahead in the long run.

‘I still think the game is rigged.’ Blinkless watches Lee lay his bets. ‘They have magnets beneath the wheel.’ When Lee finishes laying his bets, Blinkless places his own.

I suddenly get the shakes. They start at my knees and run up my legs to jangle my spine. Until now I had just gone along with everything, but now I realise this isn’t just a dealing exercise, it’s stealing, and more than that – I can’t afford to lose. My share of the kitty was cash-advanced on my credit card. What the hell am I doing?

I take a couple of deep breaths, stretch my fingers and spin, hardly even looking at the wheel. The spin feels natural, the ball seeming to roll for the perfect length of time, but it lands on 18 – outside the neighbour bet.

‘Yes!’ Blinkless pumps his arm. He has another split.

I sweep away the losing bets, the black chips seeming heavy in my hands, and pay Blinkless.

Lee’s rampart is reduced, though overall we are still up. I try to give him a look, or as much of a look as I can with so many cameras covering the table. I catch his eye and twitch my head from side-to-side.

Lee cuts down a pile of chips then stacks them back up. He spots a waitress and orders another drink. His smile is as easy as ever. He lays bets around the 18.

‘Aren’t you going to say “Place your bets”?’ asks Blinkless.

‘Place you bets,’ I repeat mechanically.

Trying to spin a section of the wheel started as just another challenge. I wanted to test the rumour. At first I concentrated on regulating my spin – the same push of the wheel and flick of the ball every time. After a month I was ready to give up. While my spins felt uniform, the winning numbers remained stubbornly random. But I didn’t become a good dealer by not persisting, so I experimented with different spins, a little harder and a little softer than normal, still seeking consistency from spin to spin. After three months I found a spin that sometimes hit the same section of wheel. Initially the ball often skittered to another section before coming to rest, but, buoyed by my progress, I redoubled my efforts. Little by little my accuracy improved, until after about five months of effort I finally mastered it, culminating in spinning the number 3 fives times in a row.

That was the night I ran into Lee in the Rage Bar. I sometimes dropped into the bar for a couple of beers after work, especially if I had been dealing a big game. It was the first time I had seen Lee outside of the casino and it was strange not to be separated by the width of a roulette table. He was just as friendly as usual, insisting on buying me a beer and laughing at my casual clothes. Perhaps I had a few more beers than normal – as well as perfecting my spin I had had my performance review.

At work I had to be circumspect when chatting to Lee, but at the bar I could tell him what I really thought about the casino. I wasn’t surprised to learn he shared my feelings about the casino’s greed. ‘They’re leeches,’ he said, ‘Leeches. Someone should take them down.’ Then he put a hand on my shoulder and said seeing me spin the five 3s had given him an idea.

‘You going to spin or what?’ It’s Blinkless again, twitching with excitement.

The next spin feels good, though maybe I’m a touch heavy on the wheel. Still, as the ball circuits I feel hopeful. ‘Last bets.’

The ball rattles and I glance at the wheel. ‘19, red’.

We lose again, but Blinkless’s luck has definitely changed. He is straight up on 19 and receives his 35 chip payout with the makings of a smile.

Lee fiddles with his chips, continuing his nifty thumb roll trick. Why would a plumber wear so many rings? Wouldn’t they catch on things?

‘Place your bets,’ says Blinkless and leans over the table with a handful of chips. Lee places the neighbour bet once more.

I can still do this. I close my eyes and imagine a graceful flick and a smooth spin. Just like I’ve done a million times before.

But the spin feels wrong, I’m too keyed up – I’ve flicked the ball too hard. It runs for longer than usual and drops on 22, black.

We lose, Blinkless wins again – two chips straight up on 22 for a 70 chip payout. Even with $5 chips it’s still a $350 win.

I pray for Lee to take the remaining chips and cash out, but he finishes his drink and leans forward to bet again. He looks grim, scolding, as if teaching me a lesson. But it’s his money too. Why would he stay?

I try and regain my groove, but the pattern continues, Lee loses while Blinkless maintains his freakish run of good luck. Their piles of chips reverse, Blinkless gaining while Lee’s pile erodes, 11 chips per spin, first down to three stacks, then two, then one. After each spin I pray for Lee to leave, to take our remaining chips and cash out. But he stays, obstinately losing $1100 a spin, like he doesn’t even care about the money.

Lee places his last 11 chips on the table, doggedly maintaining the neighbour bet around the previous winning number.

‘Last bets,’ I croak.

Blinkless is energised. He places handfuls of bets, always avoiding the numbers Lee selects. Lee places his final chip and pushes up from the table to stand. He looks severe. I realise it’s a look that seems natural for him, more natural than all his jokes and smiles.

The ball races around the track. The wheel glitters beneath the lights.

‘17, black’. I place the dolly on Blinkless’s pile of chips.

Lee looks at me. His eyes have volume and weight.

‘Sorry,’ I murmur.

I begin sweeping away the losing bets. I try to calculate Blinkless’s payout, but the number won’t come.

A mirthless bark of laughter makes me look back up. ‘Don’t be sorry,’ Lee says, smiling coldly. ‘I never thought it would work.’ He takes a step closer to the table and drops his voice. ‘You owe me now.’ He nods, his smile widening. ‘I’ve got some plans for you.’

He takes two steps backwards, keeping me locked in his gaze, then turns to stalk across the carpet and deeper into the casino.

‘I think I proved my new system,’ Blinkless says. ‘Never bet where the black chips are.’ He pushes his chips across the table towards me. ‘Cash me out.’

——–

First published in Page 17.

Short Story: 22 Minutes in the Life of Mikhail Mankov

Bardot coverThe drips from the faucet thunk into the stained sink, doling out time like a miser. The smell of cabbage soup fills the flat. Aleksandr says the photo will be sold in 22 minutes. He is selling it on the computer, some kind of novyj bidding thing. He says the highest bid so far is 2000 roubles, 70 US dollars. Two thousand roubles is an insult. Not enough money for a coffin let alone the operation.

‘Remember I get 20 percent.’ Aleksandr fiddles with his laptop, a model citizen of the New Russia.

Aleksandr is Olga’s nephew. When I told Olga I wanted to sell the photo and use the money for a holiday on the Black Sea she didn’t believe me. ‘You haven’t been on a holiday in your life!’ she said, waving a sausage-arm at me dismissively. ‘And besides, you’d never sell your girlfriend!’

Olga lives in an identical two-room flat next to mine. The thin crumbling walls of the apartment complex mean we know more about each other than we’d like. She coughs and spits in the shower and sings along to old Pojuschie Gitary songs. When Olga realised I was serious she became shrewd. She assured me Aleksandr could sell the photo on the internet and some inostranec with more money than brains would buy it for a fortune.

The computer looks strange on worn orange laminate of the kitchen table.  Aleksandr’s fingers tap and peck over the keyboard. They are as fine and pale as votive candles. Fingers that have never known the weight of a shovel or the heft of a pick. Somehow he manages to see the keyboard through the fringe of black hair that wilts over his head and droops down his face. A metal loop pokes from the hair marking the position of his right eyebrow. He clicks on something and waits for the computer, peering disdainfully around the flat: the peeling wallpaper, the empty bottles of bathtub vodka, the piles of unwashed plates, the struggling begonia and, of course, the photo.

The drip continues to count out time in the sink. Aleksandr knows that I don’t like him and that even in this feeble state I could still crush him with one hand. But he also knows that I need him more than he needs me.

I shuffle over to the stove to make some tea, the few steps leaving me gasping for breath.

Until Yeltsin destroyed everything in the ‘90s, Chelyabinsk was a coal town, the entire city delineated in shades of grey, as if drawn in charcoal. Emerging from the mines at the end of the day, we cheerfully scrubbed coal dust from our faces and hands. But unbeknownst to us, the dust also accumulated in our lungs, breath by breath, blackening them and forming little dark nuggets like a diorama of the mine in which we worked.

From the table Aleksandr says, ‘You got another bid, 2500 roubles. Fourteen minutes left.’

The operation costs 61 000 roubles. Doctor Onishchenko at the clinic says I will die within the month without it. I pointed out a miner’s pension is only 1500 roubles a month, barely enough to afford bread and soup. He shrugged and looked at his watch. Another New Russian.

As the water heats on the stove I turn to the framed photo beside the window as I have every day for the last 52 years. Age has faded her a little but she remains the most beautiful woman I have ever seen. Brigitte Bardot. Her name still stirs the ash of old dreams. I may be old, but I’m not dead yet.

I fell in love with Bardot in 1955 when I was 19 years old. Stalin had just died and while we were lonely without him there were new possibilities too. The Zaryadia Cinema had begun screening the occasional foreign film, something that would have been inconceivable a few months earlier. ‘La Lumière d’en Face’ had a plot as bad as most of the Soviet movies, but it starred a young woman so beautiful, so sensual, that men – both the sober and the p’janyj – stood and declared their love to the screen. During the scene where she swims naked in the river there was pandemonium. People were applauding, yelling, standing on their seats to get a better view. At that time nobody had seen her before; nobody even knew her name. I stayed in my seat, leaning forward to concentrate. Her black-lined eyes were wide and guileless, tinged with a melancholy only I could see. Her mouth, with those bee-stung lips, was large and loose with an insolent cast. Her legs – oh, those legs! – were long, slim and strong. Even through a sweater the jut of her breasts turned me to water.

‘It’s going up fast,’ Aleksandr says. ‘Five thousand roubles, and there’s still eight minutes left.’

For a boy studying at the Chelyabinsk Mining Academy, surrounded by the belch of industry – the tractor factory, the tank factory, the electrometallurgical works – the very existence of this woman was a revelation. And it wasn’t only that. It was that there was a country where such a woman could exist. A country where people wore exquisitely cut clothes as they walked down clean, tree-lined streets on their way for lunch at a bustling cafe. I knew it was Western propaganda but it worked: I wanted that too, all of it – the fancy drinks, the restaurants with linen tablecloths, the dancing girls, the sporty two-door cars and most of all Brigitte Bardot. And why not? I was a Russian and we were the best people on earth. We were the superpower who had defeated the Nazis. We were working together to make a nation superior to any other in history! A workers’ paradise would have all that and a Bardot for every man. Unfortunately this wasn’t a goal I could share with my fellow students. These things could be easily misunderstood, and the consequences could be dire. Bardot was a secret to be held to my heart and warmed like a hatchling.

I set aside the teabags to reuse later and trudge back with the drinks. There are no end to the indignities of poverty, age and ill-health. I’m stuck with this bent back, these black lungs and my shrivelled pod of a skin. At least in Soviet times we were all equally poor and if you got sick healthcare was free. If I were Aleksandr’s age again, with my back as straight and broad as a birch tree, I’d go to Moscow and spit in the face of the politicians who’ve sold this great country to the mafia and the oligarchs. For three years running – 1958, ‘59 and ’60 – I had the highest average coal yield of any miner at the Number 5 Chelyabinsk Plant. In 1959 I mined 94 tonnes of coal in a single shift! I, Mikhail Mankov, was a hero with his photo in Pravda!

I sip my tea and listen to the rattle of the keyboard and the plink of the tap. All that was gone now, so completely erased that even my memories seemed suspect. Did we really believe we could change the world and show the way to a workers’ paradise? Did we really give our lives for that dream? And what for? So pril kids like Aleksandr could chew gum and plan their London shopping sprees?

‘It’s at ten thousand roubles now,’ Aleksandr says. ‘I told you it always goes up at the end.’ He takes a sip of his tea and smiles. ‘You’re going to have a great holiday, old man.’

I look back at the photo on the wall. It was summer when I wrote the letter, the only season where a dream like that could take flight. In winter the drunks freeze in the street and the only way to lever the chill from your bones is to go down a mineshaft and work as hard as you can. Chelyabinsk is a dirty, stinking town, but in summer, outside of the city, the fields are dotted with pink and yellow flowers and the sky is so blue it seems to swallow you whole. So it was only because it was summer and I was stupid and nineteen and in love that I wrote that letter and stuck in an envelope addressed – in Russian – ‘Brigitte Bardot, Paris’.

I checked the letterbox every afternoon for four months. On 12 November 1955 a beautiful cream coloured envelope arrived, the paper thick, smooth and waxy, so different to the coarse, brown stuff I was used to. Inside was a photo of Bardot wearing a black bathing costume, her signature scrawled diagonally across the picture in a marker as black and bold as her eyeliner. My heart beat enough for five men. To think her hand had pressed against that very photo! Anything was possible. I have not been as happy before or since.

‘Three minutes left,’ Aleksandr says. ‘Lots of bids now. Twelve thousand five hundred –– fifteen thousand!’

In the photo Bardot stands beside a cane chair striking a model’s pose. She is turned slightly to the side, her front leg bent so her toes rest lightly on the sandy floor. Her arms are clasped behind her back, squaring up her lovely shoulders and lifting her chest. The straps of her bathing suit rest more on her upper arms than her shoulders, creating the exquisite tension that they might just slip off…Her nostrils flare as if in contempt of the photographer, and she looks away disdainfully. With her strong shoulders and proud chin all she needs is a wrench and boilersuit to be the ultimate model of the Soviet worker-hero. I have never got married, because nobody else has ever come close.

‘Thirty seconds left.’ Aleksandr leans towards the screen and sweeps the hair from his eyes. ‘They’re going mad for it! Twenty thousand, thirty thousand, forty thousand!’

I know just enough about computers to find the off button. Aleksandr tries to slap away my hand but it’s too late. The screen goes blank. He swears.

My back is a little straighter as I stand. I am not a New Russian.

Aleksandra turns to me, somewhere between quizzical and irate, ‘What did you do that for?’ He surveys me a moment. ‘You do know you can’t turn off the internet, don’t you? Your picture sold, old man. It’s time to start wrapping.’

——

This story first appeared in The South Circular

Short Story: The Real Man

He stalked into the supermarket in a pair of shorts, their worn fabric, barely visible between his heavy gut and chunky thighs, like a rag stuffed into a corner of a couch. Stopping in front of the line of registers, he looked up at the aisle signs. Shoppers described caution-sized arcs around him, their dark winter coats in stark contrast to his smooth pale skin.

I continued placing boxes of tea on the shelf. There is no door policy for a supermarket. One of the games I played to pass the time was to assign weirdness ratings to customers. Wearing only shorts on one of the coldest days of winter was a seven: moderate oddness promising further peculiarities.

The man continued to stand like a latex statue at a modern art museum. About 40 years old, he had a broad, oddly faceted face – the planes of his forehead, cheeks and chin bluntly moulded as if from plasticine.

Suddenly he lurched forward into aisle 9 (dog food, cat food, tissues, toilet rolls) and I abandoned my boxes of tea to follow him. His stomach lunged and rolled as he paced along scanning the shelves. When he paused in front of the cleaning section I stooped to rearrange packets of Omo.

The man removed a mop from a rack. He hefted it, testing its weight, before continuing to the end of the aisle.

In the next aisle (Baby and Home) he stood before the tape selection, his bare feet splayed across the scuffed linoleum. After rejecting Scotch and masking tape he took a roll of duct tape.

I was no longer pretending to stack shelves. The man was oblivious to anything apart from his mission. I revised his weirdness rating to eight: too interesting to miss.

In aisle 3 (cooking oils, pasta, cooking implements) he stopped in front of the pots, pans and cutlery. Tentatively he picked up a knife – a Santoku chef’s knife with a seven inch blade – before quickly returning it to the rack. He stood for another minute before selecting a slender Wiltshire fruit knife with a four inch blade and white, plastic handle.

The man examined the blade closely, as if trying to sharpen it with his eyes.

It was only then I realised there was nobody else around. At times like these there was never anybody else around. Customers and staff always melted away at the faintest whiff of the unusual.

The man twisted the mop head from the handle and threw it to the floor like a severed head. He tore off a length of tape and bound the knife to the mop’s shaft.

I should have run, alerted management, called a Code Blue. But I didn’t. This was life – weirdness at a level 10 – and I was the only one here to witness it.

He lofted the spear in his right hand, gazing up at it with a look of stern satisfaction. Suddenly he turned to me, eyes piercingly intent, and I stumbled back against the shelves.

His eyes continued over me to the end of the aisle. He walked stealthily in a sideways sidling motion, spear raised, crossing one leg in front of the other. As he passed I smelt his sweat, sharp and briny, despite the cold.

He continued to the end of the aisle and turned left.

I breathed again. I should have gone the other way, headed for the safety of the staff room. But after a moment to ponder the beat of my heart I followed him to the end of the aisle.

Peering around a display of corn chips I saw him 20 meters away stalking across the empty supermarket between the fridges and aisles, the spear held steady above his head. His movements grew even slower. Crouching, he moved like a traditional dancer miming the hunt. He seemed completely alert, completely alive.

He took a step, then one more, before coming to a rigid halt. He held the posture for an agonisingly long time before, in a single clean motion, he hurled the spear low and hard.

I stepped out from behind the shelf to get a clear view. The handle of the mop was sticking from a fridge at a forty-five degree angle.

The man removed the spear and with a triumphant roar raised a bloodied side of beef above his head, shaking it like a macabre standard.

The PA system clattered to life, ‘Code Blue in the meat department, Code Blue’.

The man removed the meat from the spear, grinning wildly and letting out a long raw howl.

Dropping the bloodied spear, he strode towards aisle 10 (plates, napkins, barbeque equipment).

———-

This story was first published in NMIT’s Time to Write anthology.

Poem: Unteathered

He sits alone with

laugher like sarcasm

and music like insults,

one hand raised

for a beer.

 

Under fluorescent light

the dregs of coffee

dry hard;

a thousand papercuts

can kill.

 

She folds her clothes

like origami,

eyes down,

while he waits

on the bed.

Short Story: Diary of a Stupid Animal

 

Twelve Earl Street fits the bill. No obvious alarm. A freshly painted weatherboard on a quiet, prosperous street. In my limited experience, cleanliness is next to wealthiness.

I ring the bell and listen for footsteps, straightening and preparing my South-East Water charade. Just to let you know we’re doing some work in the next street. Your water supply might be affected for a minute or two…With my fluoro vest and faded boiler suit I look the part.

No one home. I hurry back down the street. Once I’m around the corner I cram my vest into a pocket that also holds my screwdriver. What scares me is how calm I’ve become. I’m so adept at ignoring reality that I no longer see it. Most of my life is background babble, a black and white TV playing at the margin of my vision. It’s only when I’m with the Queen that I come alive.

The bluestones in the alley are as uneven as a river bed. There are the usual sodden leaves, cat shit and decaying fruit. The rear of number twelve has an eye-height wooden fence, weathered the colour of old roast beef. I haul myself over the top and drop awkwardly into the backyard.

I crouch and hold my breath. For a moment I get a glimpse of reality and I’m scared—I’m scared of getting caught, I’m scared of Joel, but most of all I’m scared of being stopped just before it all comes good. All I want to do is to put everything right, to be normal once more. My luck has to change soon.

The yard is paved with red bricks. A teak table and chairs glow in the afternoon sun. Terracotta pots of oregano and basil are arranged along the base of floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking the yard. Through the windows I see the benches and slate floor of a kitchen. No movement.

I scuttle across to the backdoor and flick through my keys…or Tim’s keys, really. He collected them as a kid, buying them at fetes and begging old ones off neighbours. He liked skeleton keys the best—the name as much as anything—but he had plenty of old house keys, too. Tim left them behind when he moved out with his mother. He’s only fifteen, but he vowed never to speak to me again after he found out about his savings account. He didn’t understand that it was just a loan, that I’m going to pay him back. That I’m going to pay everyone back. All I need is for the reels to line up right. I’m overdue, long overdue.

I insert a key into the lock then pull it out a little. I turn the key a few degreesand tap the back of it with the handle of the screwdriver. Nothing. I slacken the pressure slightly and tap the key again. This time the lock turns with a smooth brassy ride.

It’s amazing what’s on the internet these days. I learned to break into houses from a YouTube video that taught ‘bumping’. You file down a key at the points where the lock’s tumblers contact and, with the right jolt and a lot of practice, you can unlock nearly any door.

I don’t waste time in the kitchen, just scan the benches for wallets or cash. There’s only a bowl of coins, mostly twenties and tens. I scoop them into my pockets anyway, snacks to feed the Queen.

Thinking of the Queen gives me courage. The first time I played her I was with friends after work. Friday night, a couple of beers and $20 for a flutter. It was fun, it was more than fun, it was exciting and all my problems just dropped away. I won $80 that first night, and after that I was back every Friday. I craved the Superman lift to elation when I won and dreaded the tunnelling hunger of another loss.

After six months, when my friends started meeting elsewhere, I went to the club alone. Not long after I started going twice a week, then three times, finally every day. After they caught me going through my workmates’ bags, I could spend all day there. My longest session so far has been thirty-six hours: the bank gave me a fifteen thousand dollar loan for a second-hand car that didn’t exist.

My friends don’t call any more, but my passion for the Queen remains undiminished. All I need is a little luck and everything will be all right.

Joel would probably pay well for the fifty-inch plasma TV in the lounge, but it’s too large to carry. The stereo is more likely, a mini-system, Sony. Joel pays fifty cents per CD.

Joel was the guy always hanging around the club sipping whisky and chatting with the staff. He was friendly while lending me money, but became a different person when he demanded repayment, emphasising his words by slamming my head against a wall. Joel was the one that suggested how I could make some quick cash, identifying likely suburbs, the best times of the day. Depending on his mood he either gives me a pittance for the goods, or else nothing at all, just subtracting a few dollars from the twenty-seven thousand I owe him. Joel is the devil with a flick knife. Some days I think my best option is to deliberately provoke him into using it.

In the bedroom there’s a photo of a young couple, grinning into the sunlight, heads pressed together, eyes shining and teeth bright. My wife says I’m a disgrace. In the past three years she’s moved from surprise, to concern, to anger, to despair, to her parent’s place in Rowville. The divorce papers are with her lawyer. Her new phone number is unlisted.

In the study I find a laptop. On a good day Joel might pay a hundred dollars for one with a DVD player and wifi. I shove it into a sports bag I find on the floor. On a shelf I find a Nikon digital SLR. The last I heard, Tim was learning photography at school. I imagine presenting him with the camera, his delighted smile, his grateful hug. There are so many reasons that this will never happen I don’t have time to think of them all. Tears come to my eyes as I thrust the camera deep into the bag.

This time I’ll use the money to pay a few bills and buy food. But already I hear the Queen’s hypnotic theme music and see her coloured lights…three pyramids wins fifteen free spins, all payouts tripled.

I bag an iPod, a scanner and three electric guitar pedals before returning to the lounge for the stereo and CDs. I hurry through the kitchen and into the backyard, closing the door behind me.

Joel will be waiting in his usual lair, but the weight of the coins pulls at my pockets. Hope is a stupid animal that refuses to die.

—–

This story was first published in 21D magazine. Those dudes were so mean contributors not only didn’t get paid, they didn’t even get a complimentary copy. Ouch!

Short Story:_iH_ttocS_

S
     		     S
        		         SS
           	 	             SSSS
           		                SSSPPP
                		        PPPPPP
                  		          PPPPPPE
                    		             EEEEEE
                W                 	   EEEEEE
               	                            EEEEEEW                      W
      			W           WWWWWWWW        W
           				   WWWWWWWWWWW

If you’re reading this then I win. Do it Scott; no backing out now – we looked each other in the eye and shook. I know you only agreed to the bet because you were sure – I mean totally convinced – that you’d win. Well guess what Scottie boy, your prose is ezod on. And that’s the way I’m going to beat you and get this published, by being a bit Zany and imaginative – publishers love that shit. Words written backwards have the opposite meanings.

You’re a great writer. The class agrees. That’s not sarcasm. Sarcasm would be_you’re_a_great_writer. I mean it, you write the bejesus out of those sentences. Those guys are streamlined and drop-forged and bought up in cages. They’re like supermodels: great to look at, absolutely no body fat. When they move people admire their lovely lines and sculpted cheek bones. But they’re vacuous. Everyone claps while they are on the catwalk but later, in their homes, the audience nurses vague irritation while the models spew up their anti-depressives. Hello? Are you there? I_love_your_writing_and_want_to_see_ you_again_soon.

EROTIC FORMALDAHYDE

I know what you are doing right now. You’re reading this, scowling a little and tugging on your lower lip. And that means, you think this is really doog. Maybe you’re marking it up on the page with your esoteric editorial symbols. Too many adverbs, you always wrote on my work, cut down 40–50%. Sometimes you just put a lazy slash through the whole page.

Well drop the pen, Scott, the course is over. After two years of study the unemployment rate creeps up marginally. No for you obviously, you’ll go on to great things, drifting around the world beneath a head like a hot air balloon. Sure I can sling a few sentences together; even use a semi-colon or two, but I’m no writer. You use words like pellucid and roil and exculpate without the faintest awkwardness that comes from a lexicon source book. I can’t do all that shit you do, you know, story arcs, characters A + B’s profound interactions leading to a transformative nexus. A snappy opening and a resonantly ambiguous ending. That was nice, let’s have another cup of tea. Oh_how_interesting.

I don’t care what you, the teacher, or the class says: I’d rather follow the erratic stalkings of my own brain

                                                /////

                                             (  .)  ( .)  

                                                 <  

 I know I’m wrong, but I can’t help it. Your level of control throttles the life out of words, leaving pages of corpses like lines of mangled ants. Honestly, I don’t have the patience. Did I hsiw I.

You sigh and complain you’ve been working on your book for two-and-a-half years. Two-and-a-half years! You’re not a writer you are a construction worker. Some imagination might bring those ants back to life, get them dancing across the page. You_can_do_it!

The bet was to see who could get a short story published here first. You smiled your self-satisfied smile, said you had a few things they might be interested in. You never realised how much I wanted to slap that look off your face. To see a bright bloom on your pale cheek. To replace that look of unshakeable confidence with anything, even if it was just surprise. Well I guess I’ve finally done it.

It was sickening how they all desipsed you in class. The teacher practically took notes of your proclamations. And of course you look like an American soap star, so our broody female classmates lay back and received your wisdom like aural insemination. I had to bite my tongue and stay my hand. Receive your red biro over my work with a grateful nod. I’m sure you were under the impression I idolised and admired you too. That this bet was just a way of prolonging our interaction after the course finished.

            Well a bet’s a bet Scott, and you lose.

 


Editor’s note: Scott O’Grady’s short story Timelines appeared in Etchings 7. His debut novel, Awakenings, is out with Allen&Unwin in December.

 

———————————————-

This story was originally published in Etchings 8.

Short Story: The Long Night

Monday

I was in the mall when the lights died. Without the fluorescents the shopping centre looked as grim as a concrete toilet block. Still, people weren’t fazed. They made for the exits in festive moods, chatting like the blackout was a celebrity they were too cool to acknowledge. We all like a little drama in our lives. Not too much, just a pinch; a bit of mild flooding, some fearsome wind, a sudden deluge of hail. So when the power went down strangers caught each other’s eyes and smiled.

The ATMs wore dead black faces so I couldn’t withdraw money, and anyway both the supermarkets were closed. The wind buffeted me all the way home, clapping me on the back like a beefy friend. Sirens ebbed and flowed like the careening birds. I was dreading the argument that would ensue with Lucy. She would assume the blackout was just another excuse I’d made up to evade my responsibilities – yet more fiction. I would become mutely obstinate as she grew loud and shrill. I’d quietly remind her of the boy and she’d descend into tears and lock herself in the bathroom. As I thought this, Lucy rang on the mobile. The power was out in the city too. My excuse was validated like a Metcard.

Back home I dug some batteries out of the back of the kitchen drawer and fired up the radio. Power was out across the state. Strongwinds had damaged transmission lines; crews were working in dangerous conditions; electricity was to be restored to most areas in a few hours. In the meantime it was chaos. There were reports of people trapped on trains, in elevators and falling down steps in dark underground stations. Traffic lights weren’t working. Intersections were littered with broken glass. The announcer pleaded with people to stay home until normalcy was restored.

Lucy just asked me what I was writing, which is unusual in itself. In the candlelight she looks younger but more tired; her make-up can’t hide her. I said I’m writing notes on the blackout, so I can compare what’s going on with the start of my book. As soon as I mention The Long Night her face hardens and she turns away and starts to knit again, the clack, clack, clack of her needles all the reproach she thinks she needs.

Most afternoons I would have been listening to the radio while editing my manuscript on the computer. At the end of each draft I think, That’s it, finally – I’ve finished the bastard.Then I return to the start and think, Shit.

The basic premise of my book still hasn’t changed. North Korea makes a nuclear attack on the United States whose retaliation plunges the Northern Hemisphere into nuclear winter. At the start of the book Nick, a former SAS officer and engineer, is working at his boring office job when the news of the first attack breaks. As the power goes down, riots break out and he needs to use all his survival skills to protect his wife and son. It’s possible for people in the Southern Hemisphere to survive, if they’d just listen to people like Nick and put aside their petty jealousies and egos. In the first draft Nick was fairly jovial despite the situation, but with each subsequent rewrite he’s become darker and darker. There are now hints at incidents he’d rather forget. Killings. Affairs.

With no electricity, I fidgeted until it was time to pick up Gus from school at 3.30pm. The whole school was outside playing sport. Gus’s cheeks were red from chasing the football. He was wearing his beloved old Richmond beanie with the big goofy pompom. It used to be mine when I was a kid. We walked home hand in hand. It sounds like the blackout might just be the most exciting thing that’s ever happened to him. He kept repeating the moment when Mrs Keeling turned and pressed her marker to the board and the lights went off.

Tuesday

Last night really was like the end of the world. Lucy called on her mobile around 5.30pm. She said she had been trying to get through for ages. She laughed that slightly hysterical laugh that meant she was scared. The trams and trains still weren’t running and traffic was gridlocked.

I hitched Lucy’s bike onto the back of mine and slung Gus into the baby seat. It was already past six when we headed into a darkness so total it pressed against the city like a velvet rag.

Police directed traffic at the larger intersections but the rest were in chaos, snarls of headlights and horns, cars stretching back hundreds of metres. Ambulances and fire trucks attempted to bluster their way through the maze, turning the world dizzy with their lights. At the corner of Nepean and Glen Eira a 4WD had T-boned a hatchback leaving it crumpled like an aluminium can.

Lucy was so glad to see us that she greeted me with a hug.

Just caught the news. It’s worse than I thought – power is down all over the country. The experts on the radio are talking about a series of natural disasters that overloaded the remaining power-grid – huge fires, lightning strikes, winds and floods.

There is something they are not telling us.

Maybe there’s been a nuclear strike. Chapter Three is like this, the chaos after the attack. I can’t resist mentioning this to Lucy, but all she does is look to Gus and murmur, ‘God I hope not.’ Back when Gus was a baby she read the first draft ofThe Long Night. Her only comment was, ‘It’s a bit pessimistic.’ Sometimes I don’t think she read it all. She wants me to get a ‘real’ job, even after I started part-time at the café. She says I need to face my responsibilities as a father. She says I can keep writing in my spare time, lots of writers do it.

Years ago, back when we first started going out, she praised every word I wrote. Back then so many of those words were for her. I wrote love letters, poems, prose. Sleepy words of adulation.

With the power still out, both Lucy and Gus stayed home today. When the laptop’s battery finally died Lucy joined us on the couch where we remained all afternoon, reading and writing, the three of us under a mound of blankets like a real family – the kind they show in chocolate ads.

How long does a blackout have to last to save a marriage?

Tonight there was talking and laughter from the street, and when I went outside I found dozens of people standing about a fire-barrel in the centre of the road. Tony, typical Tony, had blocked off the road with his workmen’s fluoro signs for a street party. He said I should have checked my letterbox for the handwritten invite. Cranky old Con from next door wheeled out his gas barbeque and cooked up homemade chorizo sausages for everyone. He said we had to eat them before he was forced to throw them out. Tony’s wife, Kathleen, strummed away on a guitar, singing folk songs with a pale soaring resonance. I’ve lived next door to them for six years and I’d never had the slightest inkling she was musical. It’s a cold, clear night. With no streetlights or houselights the stars put on quite a show.

Wednesday

The worst thing is nobody knows what the hell’s going on. The radio dispenses as many rumours as the gassy old bag at number 14. There are reports that some of the damage attributed to the storms might be terrorist related. They say help is due to arrive from overseas. They say the army has been called in to assist police and help restore power. They say to boil all tap water before drinking and that the sewerage system is failing and spilling untreated effluent into the ocean. They say to bury your waste at least fifteen centimetres deep. They say they are setting up emergency relief stations in town halls, but only the most desperate can expect assistance. They plead for our patience and urge us to stay home and conserve supplies. Everyone on the radio sounds the same: concerned, determined, stoically optimistic. The authorities are worried we will get impatient and destroy ourselves.

There was a knock on the door about noon. It was Tony trying to get together a street security patrol. All the streets are doing it apparently. Tony said come dusk they’d block the ends of the street again and have a few blokes at either end with a little fire to stay warm. The way he put it made it sound pleasant, like a camping trip. I stifled a smile. He’d told me once he had wanted to be a cop. He’d probably make anyone who joins him wear some sort of uniform. I declined. He asked if I had anything I’d like to donate to the security patrol. ‘You know, like weapons, baseball bats and stuff.’ When I said this seemed a little extreme he said Kathleen’s car had been nicked sometime last night.

Bastards! I just checked the Mazda and the fuel hatch was open and the tank drained. I’m going next door to sign up for the 4am to 7am shift.

Without my novel there’s nothing to do all day. Lucy said she’s worried that she is falling behind implementing her work program. I laughed, thinking she was joking. Again the turn of the shoulder and the needles, clack, clack, clack. I decided to go for a walk. I took Gus; he’s like a dog in that he starts gnawing at things after a few days locked up.

The streets were very, very quiet. Too quiet, as they say in the Westerns. People are conserving petrol now that they realise service station pumps require power. There was no sign of the army or police. There were a couple of smashed cars, surrounded by crumbs of glass, abandoned near the station intersection. Two men sawed up a dead tree by the railway tracks. Some of the milk bars and convenience stores were open and doing a good trade.

There was no bread, milk or anything fresh. The first two places had sold out of batteries and candles. The third place was charging $20 for a box of ten candles and $10 for two double-A batteries. Bastards. If the power doesn’t come back soon we will run out of money. But then if the power doesn’t come back soon money will cease to be particularly useful.

We continued to the mall where two crumpled-looking security guards stood in front of the locked doors. From around the corner near the car park came a big bang and then the sound of breaking glass and a cheer. The guards looked at each other for a long moment, cigarettes burning between their fingers.

Someone had driven a black Corolla through the front windows of Coles. Dozens of people, mostly young men, were scrambling through the broken glass into the supermarket. The guards tried to stop a few of them, but without conviction. The sound of breaking glass must have been the call people had been waiting for because hundreds came. The mob smashed the doors then yanked them from their hinges, allowing them to wheel their laden trolleys away. I was amazed at the things they decided to loot: Coke, Bamixes, chips, DVDs. Sirens sounded, growing closer, and the mob got busier. A fat man waddling behind a trolley full of baked beans and tinned fruit edged down a gutter sending a cascade of tins to the ground. He continued, hurrying along the road towards the station, tugging up his pants as he went. I looked at the tins on the ground. Their labels were bright in the dirty gutter. I put Gus down and scooped them up, shoving as many as I could in my baggy pockets then removing my jumper to carry the rest. This is all in Chapter Four.

The Prime Minister was just on the radio calling for people to remain calm while work continues to restore power. He denied reports there had been an explosion in a power plant. He denied some army and police were deserting to be with their families. He promised the emergency relief centres were nearly ready and international aid was on its way. His words had the hollow gravitas of lies.

Tonight there’s a glow on the horizon to the northeast. The city is burning. Sirens suture the night but still the glow continues. Shocked, we decided to fill a few buckets to leave about the house, but the taps just spluttered and gasped. This too is Chapter Four: the pumping is done with electricity and the back-up generators have run out of fuel. As Lucy and I stared at the drips plonking into the bottom of the bucket she said, ‘At least we have a water tank.’

I put my arm around her and pulled her close. ‘I love you,’ I said without thinking. How long has it been since I’ve said that to her? How long since I’ve meant it?

Thursday

The gas isn’t working this morning. That leaves us with a fancy cardboard box – no power, no water, no gas, no sewerage. But that’s the least of our problems.

Last night, before my shift, the street was rent by motorbikes, the sort that fart so loud they set off car alarms. There was yelling, a bang, the roar of bikes and then long, long splashes of breaking glass. In bed I clutched Lucy and Gus tight. Gus said in his sleepy voice, ‘Daddy, what’s wrong?’

Once he’d shut his eyes again I got the axe handle out from under the bed.

Every car in the street had had its windows broken. At the barricade at the top of the road I saw Kathleen crouched over a man lying on the tarmac. Tony, his eyes closed, a hand clamped over his mouth. He was shaking, crying. When he removed his hand a fragment of tooth slipped towards the wet road, suspended in a strand of blood and saliva, like a chip of eggshell in albumen. Kathleen said, ‘Push here,’ and put my hand on a cloth against his stomach. It was warm and sticky. Tony tried to sit up. I saw his ruined face, his shattered mouth, his wonky jaw. He was trying to talk, his eyes blazed, he had something, something important he wanted to say. I wasn’t seeing this as a writer, taking notes in longhand. I was seeing this as one shit-scared man watching another shit-scared man die. Tony gasped a few more times then slumped back to the ground. Finally Kathleen pulled my hands away, making me let go of the cloth. We took him back to his house and put him on the patio floor and covered him in a blanket. When I tried to call the police the line just rang out. When I tried again my battery died. Kathleen said the bikers promised to be back tomorrow. We were to provide them with a hundred litres of petrol and five boxes of food in exchange for their protection. Every street had to pay.

People began coming over to Tony’s until nearly the whole street was there. There were tears, screams, anger. Then we tried to work out what to do. Some people wanted to pay, at least until we could contact the police or army. Others said they were going home to pack their things and leave. But leave where?

I washed my hands at the water tank then hurried back inside to Lucy and Gus. I didn’t tell Lucy the full story until this morning to give her a last decent night’s sleep.

You want to know the scariest sound in the world? The hiss of a full spectrum of radio static. It’s now ten in the morning and I’m struggling to keep it together. My other neighbours, Con and Toula, are not leaving. They are old and brittle and slow. At least their place is fairly secure; tall gates, big dog, screens on all the windows. We struck a deal: he can have our 2000 litres of tank water if he gives us forty litres of fuel.

Lucy and I cleaned all the broken glass from the car and filled it with food, camping gear and blankets. We put Lucy’s jewellery in the glove box, my axe handle beside the driver’s seat. This is what my book was missing. The feelings, the emotions – a fear so strong it locks muscle to bone.

I’ve told them I have a plan. I’ve told them to pack the last of their things and we’ll go on a little holiday. But this is not fiction, I have no plan. All I can think of is how people smiled at each other when the lights went down.

 

—————————————————-

This story was originally published by Visible Ink. The line ‘people smiled at each other when the lights went down’ came to me at shopping centre during a blackout. It demanded to be pursued.

Short Story: The unremarkable road across a featureless plane

Two boys walked down a road. The surrounding countryside was featureless, the road underfoot unremarkable.

One of the boys looked at the other, “So who are you?”

The boy looked down at his feet and firmed his lips in perplexity, “I’m not sure. How about you?”

The other boy tilted his head back and sighed at the sky, “I’m not sure either.”

They walked on in silence. There didn’t seem much to say.

For a moment something almost happened, but then things settled down.

They walked on some more.

“Nice day for it though,” one of the boys remarked.

“Is it?” the other boy replied, surprised.

“Well, maybe not.”

“Hard to say for sure.”

They continued to walk along the unremarkable road across the featureless plane.

Far up ahead was a feature, a dark dot in the centre of the road. As they got closer it resolved itself into a dirty old rug, an old sack, a pile of clothes. When they got to a certain distance it turned into a dog and then kept this form.

“It’s a dog.”

“He already said that. It’s poor form to repeat information already given.”

“So there’s rules to this then?”

The other boy pondered this, still walking towards the motionless dog. “Yes, I’d say so, seeing I said so, if you get my meaning.”

“It’s dead,” said the other boy coming to a halt by the dog.

The dog had been dead long enough to have sunken in upon itself and hardened. Its shrunken skin had locked its teeth in a snarl. There was no smell. There were no flies. Just a dead dog in the centre of an unremarkable road on a featureless plane.

“I’d say this was part of the plot.”

“It’s all part of the plot.”

“Well, yes, but this is probably an important part, I mean it’s something isn’t it?” The boy looked dubiously at the dog.

“Definitely,” the other boy said with sudden confidence. “This is definitely the start of the plot.”

They looked around the featureless plane.

“Well?”

“Well what?”

“What do we do with it?”

The boys picked up the dog. One took the front legs, the other the rear, and walking awkwardly, slightly sideways, they continued down the road.

“This is rotten,” a boy said, staggering a little. “This thing is heavy.”

The dog, completely desiccated, was surprisingly light.

“That’s better, but this still sucks.”

“How far are we going to have to walk with this thing?”

“Who knows? What a stupid plot. Two guys walking down a road carrying a dead dog. I mean, there’s no characterisation for starters.”

The taller boy scowled at the shorter who wasn’t carrying an equal weight, “You lazy sod, I’m taking all the weight, start helping me carry the damned thing.”

The shorter boy juggled his grip. His skin was very pale and his eyelashes and hair a straw yellow. “Screw you. You’re older than me, you should take more weight.”

They continued down the road with the dead dog held between them.

“Some plot,” the older boy said. He tried to spit but nothing happened.

The younger boy was daydreaming, “Some plots have pirates and treasure and huge pudding feasts and fast cars…”

“Some plots have killer clowns with chainsaws and deranged policemen abducting hikers.”

“We get a dead dog.”

“We sure do.”

They walked on for an interminable time passing several things of non-descript appearance.

“Have you noticed,” the older boy said, “how he uses double quotes instead of singles?”

“Double what?”

“Quotes. Quotation marks. The squiggly lines around our conversations. The trend in fiction writing is towards singles. I don’t think he knows what he’s doing.”

The boys walked on for a long, long time. The day grew hot. The dog had grown very heavy and was threatening to stink.

‘How do you know so much about quotation marks anyway?’

‘I studied English literature for four years.’

‘Isn’t that a little unrealistic for a boy?’

‘Don’t believe everything he writes. I’m twenty-five.’

They continued to shuffle sideways, carrying the dead dog down the featureless road.

‘What’s the word count?’

‘Let’s see…nearly 700.’

‘How many do you think he’ll write?’

‘I don’t know. I can’t imagine this as a novel. It’s probably a short story.’

‘How many words is a short story?’

‘Who knows? You might as well ask how long this road is.’ The older boy paused to renew his grip on the dog’s legs. ‘Most short stories are around 2 000 words.’

‘What’s he up to now?’

‘Seven sixty.’

‘Shit! Two thousand will take all day.’

‘Well it’s not like we have anything else to do.’

They continued down the unremarkable road.

The younger boy said slowly, ‘Have you ever thought of what happens after?’

‘After what?’

‘After the end of the story. I mean what happens to us.’

‘No, not really. Nothing I guess.’

‘Yes, but what kind of nothing? Do we live on?’

‘Do you call this life now?’

‘Well, yes. I’m here, now, carrying a dead dog down an unremarkable road with an English literature graduate; it’s not much of a life but it’s better than nothing.’

The older boy grunted. ‘He’s still referring to me as a “boy”.’

‘I like to think we’re going to live on after this is over. That we’ll get rid of this dog and have other adventures with new, better writers.’

‘Now that would be good! Imagine being picked up by someone like Jonathan Franzen or Peter Carey.’

‘I bet they would come up with something much better than this. This is really starting to drag. A dead dog on an unremarkable road across a featureless plane — I mean that’s just dumb!’

‘This guy’s a hack. He’s spelt “plane” wrong all the way through — look there he goes again!­ ­— and check out the typeface. Sans Serif. Everyone knows that’s a font designed for webpages. This is just pure crap.’

And then the older boy went to work in a discount Chinese coal mine while the younger grew up to be frighteningly ugly.

 

The End

‘Like hell it is.’

‘Does this mean we can put the dog down now?’

————————————————————–

This story originally appeared in Southerly volume 68 No.2. I find being daft a great escape from the confines of ‘proper’ narrative.

Short Story: A for Australia, A for Alive

Often I remember the whistling, soft at first like a forest bird, then getting louder with a sound like breaking branches. When the mortars found their range the earth shook and the thatched huts burnt like flares. Women were screaming, parents were calling for their children, bullets stung through the air like angry wasps. People were running everywhere. I went to my parents’ hut but they weren’t there. I ran to the edge of the village and hid in the tall grasses like my father had told me. Their sharp leaves cut my bare knees as groups of djellabas ran passed. The shooting lasted two hours. We had no guns. We were farmers with our cows, millet and maize.

At dawn our huts were smoking black rings on the red dirt. The cattle, goats and chickens were gone. Only the bodies of the people remained, sprawled where they fell. Some black rings enclosed piles of ashes and bone; people trapped in their hut and burnt alive. The bodies of men floated in the river, arms tied, hacked with machetes to save bullets.

I found my parents near the luaak, the cattle enclosure, either side of my youngest brother, the three of them in a row, limbs twisted, fingers clutching the earth.

I tried to dig a grave with a stick but it was February and the ground was too hard. I found some half burnt thatch and covered them the best I could. I was eight years old.

A few other villagers survived the attack. Deng, a friend who lived two huts from ours, and Benson, a man who was respected for owning many cows and who had seven traditional scars on his forehead. Benson told us we had to leave. We had to walk east towards the border.

I didn’t want to leave. I wanted to wait for my brothers and sisters to return. I was sure they had been hiding like me.

Benson told me he had seen my oldest brother, Benjamin, hiding in the forest the night before. Benjamin told him to tell everyone to meet him at the border.

We ran towards the dawn, ducking into the tall grass whenever we heard a noise ahead.

 

When I first saw Australia from the plane it was just before dawn and I marvelled at all the cooking fires. It wasn’t until we were driving past closed factories and shops that I realised they were electric lights and that Australia was a country that could afford to light up places where no people lived. I remember thinking how strange it was that some people could have too much and others too little.

The former immigration minister said that Sudanese have trouble integrating. He said we don’t fit into the Australian way of life quickly. That was why he halved the number of Sudanese refugees allowed into this beautiful country. Maybe the immigration minister is correct in saying we have problems integrating. I am six foot seven and very, very black.

 

Some of the djellebas were black, others lighter skinned. Many times we hid in tall grass as they ran passed. Occasionally there was the sound of gunfire, which grew more distant as we ran away from our smouldering village. My feet were bloody from sharp leaves and roots. After several hours Deng fell and started crying for his parents but Benson told him to get up and have the courage of a Dinka.

Deng got up and kept running. He had nothing, not even a pair of shorts like me.

There was many times on that trek through Sudan when I thought we would die. I thought God had turned way from us, and kept looking away, as if waiting for every last boy to die. There were many boys heading to the border from villages like mine. Sometimes big aircraft flew overhead and dropped bombs on us. It was dry season and there was little food or water. Sometimes all we had to eat was mud. It filled your stomach and gave a little water but many died anyway.

We referred to it as ‘falling over’. A person would die mid-step. We left them where they fell, we had no choice – we were dead too, but still walking. Most died from dehydration. They went grey like ash, then almost white.

Nobody had enough tears to cry. There were piles of bones under the shade of trees where people had laid down and never got up. That became another term for death. To ‘sit in the shade’. Some boys who made their way to the border said they had followed the piles of bones.

After two months Deng died. It was probably from lack of water, although he had also been bitten by a snake.

There were so many people fleeing the fighting that villages sometimes shamed themselves by refusing to share what food and water they had.

They didn’t believe that the war would come for them too.

 

On my first day in Australia I was taken to a supermarket. The aisles were as wide as roads and lined with thousands of things in colourful packaging. I was asked what I would like to eat but there was nothing there I recognised as food. When I saw some eggs I was very relieved. I asked for some milk too and they bought me several litres. The supermarket had beef in white trays covered with clear plastic but I didn’t like the look of that beef and said I didn’t want any.

In truth there is a great variety of food in Australia but much of it smells and tastes strange. Even your milk is not the same as our rich, creamy Sudanese milk. As a boy, tending the cows, I used to squirt it straight in my mouth.

 

When we arrived at the Kakuma camp in Kenya we were just hips and heads. I looked for my brothers and sisters but they were not there.

Later, when I finally saw a map of Sudan, I saw we had walked 800 kilometres pursued by bullets, bombs, hunger, thirst, wild animals and disease. Maybe God was watching us after all because nobody should have survived that walk.

Kakuma was just a bare paddock and a few thorny achuil trees. There was no running water, no toilets or shelter from the sun. We made shelters from branches, plastic bags and grass, but the red dust still got into everything, into our eyes, mouths and the little food we found. The dust was so thick that later, when a car finally came to the camp, it had to drive with its headlights on even during the day. But it didn’t matter; we were safe. When the UN dug a well it was the best water I had ever tasted.

I was in the camp for ten years. At the start it was very hard and we were hungry all the time, but slowly things improved as we organised the camp into zones and formed committees to improve facilities. It was in Kakuma that I attended my first ever class under the shade of an achuil tree. I traced English letters in the red dust with my finger. The first letter was ‘A’. ‘A’ for Australia. ‘A’ for alive.

 

When I arrived in Australia I found a job loading boxes onto pallets. The boxes were very heavy but I didn’t mind. When that job finished at five p.m. I changed my clothes, ate my dinner then started to work as a security guard. Security was a good job as when it was quiet I could study English. It was a very hard schedule and I usually only had four or five hours sleep a night, but I didn’t mind.

All the money I saved I sent back to the camp, to Benson, to the friends I’d made. I remembered the lessons of the elders, of Benson. Don’t forget.

 

Now I am an Australian citizen and love this country – its peace and freedom – very much. But maybe some people still think I am having trouble integrating. I am still six foot seven and very, very black.

I haven’t forgotten. Sometimes at night I still dream about herding the gentle cows of Dinkaland.

———————-

This story was first published in ‘Caught in the Breeze, Blemish Books, 2010. It was inspired by the research I was doing for a Sudanese character in my now defunct novel. My background reading includedThey Poured Fire on Us From the Sky by Alephonsion Deng, Benson Deng, Benjamin Ajak and Judy Bernstein; and God grew Tired of us by John Bul Dau and Michael S. Sweeney.