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!