RYAN LAMB - RENDERED
Ryan Lamb is 26 years old. He is formerly unpublished. He enjoys books by many different authors including Isaac Asimov, Yukio Mishima, Cormac McCarthy, and many others.
He often thinks that he would remove his little finger and perhaps both of them if it meant that he never again had to experience winter. He loathes the constant downpour, the weeks upon weeks without a glimpse of blue sky and the icy wind that bites at his face and makes his eyes water. It is through this wind that John Taylor trudges along the cracked and weed-ridden pavement that begins at one end of Siren Street and lead away from work and toward the bottle shop. He passes several people on his way, one of which, a man of about forty with a long and greying beard and only a few visible teeth, steps into his path as he approaches.
‘Excuse me, Mate, do you have a dollar?’ He says in a raspy voice.
John steps around the vagrant and keeps walking, leaving the man swaying on the spot, dazed and barely there. He can see the bottle shop now. He begins to walk faster and reaches for the bottoms of his jacket pockets, eager for even a few minutes respite from the wind’s bite. The metal doors slide open at his approach. He steps inside the shop. It is warmer in here than outside but still cold and so quiet that John supposes he might be in a bottle shop on a deserted moon colony. He looks down the aisle at the fridges where the beer is kept. He knows he shouldn’t be here. But he is past feeling guilt. He will allow himself any small pleasure he can afford. He walks over to the beer fridges and opens the door where the Smith’s is kept. Through the glass he looks at the green tacky label stuck to the bottles. Could they not have spared ten minutes to draw up some picture to decorate the swill? He wonders what is worse; that beer so bitter and flat and full of nasty chemicals, pissed out by lifeless machines, can be deemed fit for human consumption, or that people like himself are desperate enough to drink it. He opens the fridge and takes out a six pack briefly looking at the Tiger Beer in the next fridge over. How long has it been, he wonders, since he could afford Tiger? The silence is broken by a man’s voice, warm and upbeat. ‘This premises is property of the NLH Group. This premises is monitored by CCTV and facial recognition technology. Any theft or vandalism will be reported to the authorities. Violators will be prosecuted. Thanks and enjoy your day’
He closes the fridge and walks over to the checkout. He scans the beer and places his bank card on the reader. He takes the beer and heads for the door, bracing himself for the harsh elements beyond it.
At the bus stop he waits, at first sitting on the old and graffitied shelter bench and then pacing backward and forward along the footpath, rubbing his hands together and breathing on them. He looks back every minute or two to make sure his six pack is still on the bench where he left it. When the bus arrives he picks up his beer, pulls his beanie from his head and stands before the camera mounted next to the door. A woman’s voice, authoritative, detached, instructs him.
‘Please remove all hats, glasses and scarves. Please look directly into the camera. Please do not move until you see the red light.’
He stands in front of the camera, looking into the lens and waits until the red light appears next to it and puts his beanie back on. He presses his bank card onto the reader below the camera. The doors open and he steps onto the empty bus.
As he makes his way to a seat at the back he hears the woman’s voice once again.
‘This bus is property of the Australian Transit Enterprise. This bus is monitored by CCTV and facial recognition technology. Vandalism of this bus is illegal and violators will be prosecuted to the fullest extent.’ He sits at the very rear of the bus next to a window. The window has had some words drawn on it with a thick black marker. He slides over to the next seat and reads the words ‘I’M A HUMAN TO’ scrawled on the glass pane. The words have been struck through with a large scratch, probably from a knife or a screw driver. He looks up at the camera above the seats two rows in front of him and wonders who wrote this message and where they might be now.
It is dark when he gets off at his stop and begins the walk home, cutting through the park as always. As he makes his way he pulls one of the beers from the six pack and opens it. Glancing around he tries to remember the last time that he saw a police officer in his neighbourhood. He sees nobody as he plods along the gravel path, past the rotting picnic tables and barbecues and the overgrown flora. It is not until he is almost past the playground that a voice addresses him from the dark.
‘Yo.’ the voice, female and adolescent, calls and he stops and turns and sees the silhouette of something human perched at the top of the slide.
‘You need anythin’, Mate?’ Mate: the word is awkward as it comes out of her mouth, as though she is trying it on.
‘Huh?’ he says approaching the playground, his feet now in the white sand.
‘I said you need anythin? Anything I can help ya with?’
He squints through the dark at the girl, dressed in a pair of jeans and a thick track jacket. She looks younger than his daughter. He thinks that at a stretch she is fifteen but that nothing about her yet resembles a woman.
‘Nah.’ he says. ‘I’m alright.’
‘Cool.’ she replies pulling her phone from her pocket and looking at the screen. She looks younger still in the pale blue light of her phone screen. He turns toward home and carries on.
He exits the park and steps out onto the street. It begins to rain. The drops make his skin crawl as they hit his face, neck and hands. He walks faster still. Throughout the streets few houses are lighted and the few street lamps that have not been broken with rocks give off a dull yellow light.
He arrives at his house and walks past the rusted mailbox and up the driveway. He drinks down the last of his beer and drops the empty bottle in the bin on the way to the door. He holds his keys up to his face and squints as he searches for the one that opens the deadbolt. Inside the hallway is dark and only the light from the living room guides him. The heating is off too. He feels a sudden anger at having to come home from work to an unheated house but stifles it, supposing that he is the only one within reach who can be blamed. He takes of his mock-leather shoes and walks down the hallway through the living room where his wife sits huddled under a thick blanket reading a paperback.
‘Hey.’ He says as he passes through into the kitchen.
He thinks that she has learned not to talk to him, or at least not to try and engage him in any real conversation, when he gets home from work. He knows that it is him who has caused this distance between them. Often he must remind himself that his family is all he has left. He opens the refrigerator and places the remaining beers inside before sliding one out of the soggy packaging. His eyes shift to a small container with a green lid. He pulls the container out and opens the lid. Chilli con carne; the kind that comes in a can. Small kindnesses like these are typical of her. Working out the grocery budget so that she can afford his favourite food. Probably going without something herself. So why, he wonders, is she a magnet for his frustration? He knows a lesser woman would have let them fall to pieces long ago. He puts the container in the microwave and then reaches around the back of the unit and flicks the power on at the wall. He sets the microwave timer to cook and leans against the counter sipping his beer.
‘That the same book you were reading last night?’
‘Yeah.’ She says without looking up.
‘Is it good?’
The microwave beeps and he opens the door. He takes the container out with one hand, switching off the power with the other. He takes a fork from the drawer and sits in the armchair adjacent to the couch where she sits with her feet on the coffee table.
She looks up at him as he drops into the chair. ‘You okay?’ She asks raising her eyebrows.
‘Yeah. Thanks for getting chilli.’ He leans over and squeezes her knee gently.
She smiles at him, scratching at the back of his hand before looking back down at her book. The door to the hallway slides open and their daughter walks in. She is wearing flannel pyjamas. Her school uniform is folded over her left arm.
‘Hey, Chicka.’ He says to her as she walks across the living room and into the kitchen. ‘Shouldn’t you be in bed?’
‘My uniform only just dried. I need’a iron it.’ she says as she opens one of the kitchen cupboards below the stove and pulls out a small saucepan.
‘I could’ve done that for you.’ Tony says without looking away from her book.‘It’s okay. I don’t mind.’
He watches as she puts the saucepan on the stove, turns it on high and then walks over to the ironing board that leans against the wall next to the television.
‘How was work?’ she asks taking it and leaning its surface against her body as she works to unfold the stand.
‘Yeah, fine thanks. Bit busy. How was school?’
He wakes at ten. He has no shift today. He is free of obligation, free of purpose. For the rest of the morning he helps Tony in the Garden. They harvest broad beans and peas and pull carrots from the ground. They plant an apple tree which they bought from the market for twenty dollars. They are sure it will wilt and die like the last one but still they plant it and hope. The house is old and the back yard large. Where there was once a swing set, a patio and an above-ground swimming pool there is now soil and plants.
‘One good thing about having to grow our own food is we eat a lot more veggies, I guess.’ Tony says as she twists a carrot from the earth, brushing the dirt from it with her gloved hand.
‘Yeah I guess so.’ The same reply he gives each time she says this. He tries to pull a carrot from the ground but only succeeds in breaking the stork from it. ‘Fuck’s sake.’
She gets to her feet and steps with care through the soil and over to where he sits. She takes off her glove and rubs her hand on his back. ‘Why don’t you go inside and relax?’
‘I know. But I’ve got things out here. You just enjoy your day off.’
‘Are you sure?’
He kicks off his dirt stained sneakers at the door and goes inside and lays on the couch. Tony’s book is on the coffee table. He picks it up and looks at the cover. Some romance novel by an author he’s never heard of. He used to feel some insecurity when she’d read these novels but now he doesn’t begrudge her a little escape from their impoverished life. How long has it been since he’s risen to the challenge? A grey aura of impotence has fallen over him and he hasn’t the fight to banish it. He puts the book down and lays his head on one of the couch cushions. There are three soft knocks on the front door. He ignores them, deciding it can only be the freeloading neighbours from down the road wanting a cap full of washing powder or some glad wrap. There is another knock, then another. Frustrated, he gets to his feet, walks up the hallway and opens the door. He is greeted by a man of about his height; handsome, clean-shaven and with cropped hair. He wears a flannel shirt, a faded brown suede jacket, faded jeans and riding boots. He holds an akubra down by his side. John thinks he looks like the kind of guy who has a degree, a beautiful wife and a nice four wheel drive. The kind of guy who runs in charity marathons and goes skiing in Japan or on Safari in Africa. The kind of guy who is virile and gives his wife orgasms every time they go to bed. Who never loses his temper with his children and always dispenses good, sound advice.
‘Good morning, you must be John.’ the man says, extending his hand.
He looks down at the man’s hand before taking it.
‘I’m Eric Bradbury. I’m a representative of the Bussle Heights Community.’
‘Ah, I see.’ He hears the back door slide open and then closed followed by his wife’s hurried footsteps. He turns to see her behind him.
‘Hello! Hi!’ She says, pulling the dirty gardening glove from her right hand and extending it to shake Eric’s. ‘I’m sorry,’ She says. ‘I was in the garden and I lost track of time.’
‘A green thumb?’ Eric asks with a smile. ‘That’s good to hear.’
‘Listen,’ John says. ‘I think this a mistake. I’m sorry Eric but me and Tony’ve discussed this at length. Great length.’ He says, looking his wife in the face. ‘I appreciate it I do-.’
‘For God’s sake, John, just give the man a chance to explain things.’
‘It’ll only take a minute.’ Eric says, raising hands, palms outward as if to show that he isn’t holding a weapon.
‘Please, John.’ She says, taking his hand in hers. ‘Please, I’m begging.’
He glances for a moment at his wife and sees the pleading in her face. ‘Alright. I guess you’d better come in, Mate.’
John and Eric sit opposite each other at the dining table while Tony stands in the kitchen spooning coffee into three mugs and filling them with water.
‘It’s instant I’m afraid.’ She says as she places the cups on the table and sits down next to John. ‘The cheapest of the cheap. I can’t offer you milk either.’
‘Absolutely fine.’ Eric says, picking up the cup and blowing at the steam. ‘We’re actually working on getting a few coffee plants going at the community.’
‘Oh my God. When was the last time we had fresh coffee?’ She asks John who looks at her and raises his eyebrows half-heartedly. ‘How many people do you have living there now?’
‘About seventy-five if you can believe it. We’re growing fast but we still have room for more for the time being.’
‘That’s right.’ John says. ‘The pitch. Go on.’
‘Right, I guess it is sort of a pitch. Well you’ve seen the website, and I’m sure Tony’s told you a lot about us as well. We’re just a small self-sustaining community founded with the goal of giving people who have been displaced by the turn the economy has taken, the former middle class I guess, a place to go. We grow our own food, generate our own electricity, we’ve even begun teaching the children on the grounds rather than having them attend the public schools.’
‘Almost sounds a little cultish.’
‘I can certainly see how you’d think that John, but there’s absolutely no religion involved in the running of the community. All members are free to undertake whatever religious practices they like, provided they aren’t harmful to others or the community, but we’re in no way religious as a group. We’re just people.’
‘And what are our obligations? If we join?’
‘The only thing we ask is that you complete the daily workload delegated to you. That may be working in the gardens, in waste management, with the livestock, or just general upkeep of the place. You’ll also need to agree to a pretty thorough background check as well. It’s important to us that no member of our community has any previous trouble with the law. I know it’s pretty stringent, but the safety of our residents is our first priority.’
‘Of course.’ Tony says. She begins rapping her fingers against the table.
‘But aside from that you’d have as much freedom as you have now. You’d have your own living quarters with electricity and you’d be free to come and go as you please.’
Tony looks at John. He returns her gaze and then looks down into his coffee cup.
‘Our son.’ She says, looking back at Eric.
‘Ah, yes.’ Eric replies.
‘She’s filled ya in already then?’ John says.
‘Tony gave me a few details, yes.’
‘So what about him?’
‘That’s where things get tricky. Where you both have a decision to make. As I said there’s a very clear policy about admitting members with criminal records. Your son’s sentence is nearly over, correct?’
‘He’ll be out in a few months.’ John says without looking up.
‘Well I can’t say the rules are likely to change by the time he gets out. I can’t say for certain that they won’t at some point. But I doubt it.’
‘No.’ Tony says, ‘Probably not.’
‘But as I’ve said, as a member you’re free to come and go, to associate with whoever you please.’
‘But we could never take him home with us.’ John says. ‘We’d be cutting him loose in a world where he has even less of a chance than everyone else. What could we possibly expect him to do?’
‘I know, John. You’re right.’ Tony says. ‘But what about Melissa? What other chance are we gonna get to give her a comfortable life?’
‘We can’t just abandon our son.’
‘Maybe we can sort something out. Find a place for him. Pay his rent with our basic income.’
John slams his hand down on the table. ‘We can’t-’ He says before cutting himself off. ‘We’ve been over this.’
‘Okay. It’s okay.’ Tony says, rubbing his shoulder and flashing Eric a look of apology.
‘I just don’t see it, Tony.’
John walks Eric to the door while Tony clears the table.
‘Thanks for comin today, Eric. Sorry to waste your time.’
‘That’s okay, John. A decision like this isn’t easy. Not much is these days.’
John opens the door and Eric steps out onto the porch.
‘All I can say to you, John, is that this offer isn’t forever. I understand your position with your son. But what about Melissa? What about Tony?’
‘Right. Thanks anyway. Have a good one.’
‘And you, John. All the best. We’re at thirty-one Stake Hill Road if you ever just wanna have a look.’
They shake hands and Eric turns and begins to walk down the driveway. John watches him go.
‘Why us?’ He asks and Eric stops and turns to face him. ‘By the sounds of it a lot’a people wanna join.’
‘Tony’s a nurse.’ He says. ‘We don’t have one yet.’
‘And what about me?’
‘I’m sure we can find something for you. You seem like a useful guy.’
He wakes at ten to his alarm blaring beside him. He presses the snooze button twice before sliding his feet out of bed. He stands in his flannel pyjamas, thermals underneath, shuts his eyes and listens to the light rain outside. He runs a hands over his stubbled face. He turns his head to Tony who still lays in deep sleep. He has a short, lukewarm shower, making sure as usual not to turn the taps on all the way. He gets out and dries himself and then begins to shave. He leans close to the mirror as he shaves, careful not to miss a small patch of hair or to cut himself. Afterwards he applies aftershave and heavy duty deodorant and brushes his teeth and gargles mouthwash. How cruel it is, he thinks, that he was once paid over eighty-thousand dollars a year for a job that didn’t even require him to shower before coming in. Now he makes less than a quarter of that money for a job which requires him to so thoroughly groom himself. He takes his uniform from the ironing board and puts on the trousers, the black button up shirt and the thick dress socks. He then walks into the living room and puts on his cheap, black, faux-leather shoes. As he walks up the hallway toward the front door he feels the soul of one shoe curl back as it catches on the wood floor. He lifts his leg and examines the bottom of the shoe, grabbing hold of the loose rubber and peeling it back to see his sock. He looks out the window next to the front door to see that the rain has picked up. He heads back through the living room to the kitchen, opens the bottom drawer and rifles through it. All he finds is a roll of thick, grey electrical tape. He takes it into the living room and sits down on the couch. It takes him two or three minutes and the rest of the roll of tape to feel fully satisfied that no water will find its way inside his shoe. He drops the empty roll on the coffee table and hurries out the door.
The bus is empty again. He sits in the middle this time where the screens are mounted to the backs of the chairs. He flicks through channels. He passes a few sitcoms and a cooking show featuring an attractive woman in her thirties and some more mindless programming until he reaches the news channel. Every so often he finds himself checking up on what’s happening in the world, subconsciously hoping, he suspects for something big. Nuclear war, invasion, natural disaster, anything to bring on a change in the status quo. Instead he finds a story about a new highway he’ll never travel and how it will supposedly save freight companies a small fortune in fuel costs. He loses interest in the news. He leans his head against the window and shuts his eyes. When he opens them he notes the bus’s registration number displayed above the door. He is on the same bus which took him home from work the day before last. He turns in his seat to search for the message scratched into the glass pain on the bus’s right side. He doesn’t see it. The glass has been removed and replaced. He must have only missed the vandal by an hour or two. The sound from the television catches his focus again. Two words draw him in: Brutal attack. The anchor speaks of a group of men who assaulted a well-known CEO as he was leaving a restaurant in Perth’s northern suburbs last night. Two men have been arrested in connection and are believed to be tied to a radical political group. Two more are wanted for questioning by Authorities. A mugshot of each is displayed side-by-side on the screen. They are ugly and rough looking.
He steps from the bus onto the street. His walk becomes a jog and his jog a run. As he pounds the damp pavements he feels a wet sensation on his foot. He looks down to see the tape has come loose from his shoe. Ignoring it, he continues along the dilapidated footpath, past the buildings, their fittings rotten, stolen or vandalised. As he crosses Read Street onto Siren, feeling the rain soak through his pants, he breaks into a sprint, now running along newly replaced pavements he passes the barber shop, the tapas restaurant and the health food store before arriving at the bistro. He hurries around the side of the building and enters through the back door. In the staff room he removes his jacket and beanie. His legs ache and he is panting and his skin is awash with a mix of rainwater and sweat. He takes his comb out of his jacket pocket and shoves the rest of his belongings in one of the empty lockers. Standing in front of the sink, he looks into the mirrors and brushes his soggy hair down flat. Hard soles clap against the vinyl floor, getting louder as they approach.
‘Sorry, Kim. The bus was late.’ A stupid excuse.
‘The buses aren’t late.’
‘I know.’ He says turning from the mirror and placing the comb in the locker. ‘Won’t happen again.’
‘What’s that?’ She asks looking down at his feet.
He looks down to see his shoe burst open at the end once again, the soggy tape now hanging off to the side. ‘Shit. I’m sorry.’
‘Just find something to fix it up and get out there, alright?’
The restaurant in busy today with twenty tables filled. His sock is still wet through and his shoe re-bandaged. He stands before a table, order tablet in his hand. Two men sit opposite each other at the table. One is fat and middle-aged with dark hair, thinning on the top. He wears a black suit and a pale green shirt with a paisley tie. The other is younger, blonde and appears in good shape. He also wears a suit although it appears far more stylish than the fatter man’s, apparently tailored to his body with an elegant tie and matching pocket square.
‘Steak,’ The fat man says. ‘medium rare. Not rare. And if it’s overcooked I’ll throw it at you.’ He says, pointing a finger at John. ‘Chivas and soda with two limes.’
‘Not a problem Sir’ He says, punching in the order. ‘and for-’ He is cut off by the younger man.
‘I don’t like any of this.’ He says to the fat man. ‘Just get the chef to make me a Greek salad. No feta.’
‘That isn’t on the menu Sir but I’ll see what I can-’
‘Just tell him to make it. It’s a Greek salad it’s easy.’
‘And to drink sir?’
‘Nothing for me.’ He says to the fat man. ‘Gemma made me buy a couples’ membership to X-Fit. If I’m paying ten grand a year for the gym I wanna be in fucken shape.’
The fat man only laughs.
‘Will that be all gentleman?’
‘Yeah, yeah.’ The fat man says waving him away.
‘No worries.’ He turns and heads toward the kitchen.
‘No worries.’ he hears the fat man say from behind him, his mocking tone thinly veiled.
The truth is that John Taylor was once able to afford lunch in a place like this. Certainly not every day, maybe not even every week but he and his wife and children had enjoyed moderate comfort only a few years ago. Now he waits on the elite, the only ones who can still afford a degree of luxury. He takes orders for ten hours a week in a desperate effort to supplement the pittance that is the Basic Minimum Income. And he’s one of the lucky ones, jobs like this are few. And why shouldn’t they be? There are machines that can take orders and run plates and even cook excellent meals. Machines that run without fault or delay, that aren’t late for their shifts, that don’t drop plates or spit in people’s soup if they don’t like their attitude. So why is he here? Because the people who run this world like to take a look at the poor every once in a while. To remind themselves that they are still here, scurrying like roaches to survive. To see them dance for barely enough money to keep the lights on and the children fed.
The afternoon goes slowly. It’s during a lull in business around three pm that he takes his fifteen-minute break. He walks into the staff room and sits down in one of the plastic chairs tucked in at the table, lays his head on the table and closes his eyes.
‘Fucking sick’a those rich cunts.’ a voice says. John looks up to see Jeff, another waiter, walking over to a locker and pulling out his jacket and a packet of cigarettes.
‘Yeah.’ He replies staring into space. ‘Fuckin joke.’
‘Well, at least their wives are all fuckin their pool cleaners. Or so the movies tell me.’
John manages a dull chuckle.
‘Alright,’ Jeff says putting on his jacket and taking one of the cigarettes out of the packet. ‘I’m goin for a smoke.’ He turns and heads for the back door.
‘Hey.’ John says standing up. ‘Can I have one’a those.’
Jeff stops and turns around. He looks at John and then down at the cigarette packet. He opens the lid and looks in. ‘Sure. Why not?’ He takes a cigarette out of the packet and hands it to him. The two head out the back door and around past the front of the restaurant and across the street to where a bench sits covered by a pergola. The rain has let up but dark clouds still block out any trace of blue sky. Jeff lights his cigarette then hands the lighter to John. They sit for a while, smoking in silence.
‘Did you see on the news about that CEO?’ John asks.
‘I don’t watch the news.’
‘Neither do I, normally. But there was this bit about a CEO gettin beaten almost to death, by some political group they reckon.’
‘STM. Seize the Means. That’s the group. They’re some radical group tryin’a stir up a rebellion.’
‘The means of production?’
‘Yup. They’re a bunch’a nuts. Ex-bikies and violent criminals. They reckon they’re gonna stage a revolution, take the means of production and redistribute wealth. All they do is beat the shit outta the occasional person or blow up a car here and there.’
‘How many of em are there?’
‘I dunno. I can’t imagine very many. Would you be willin’a spend the rest of your life in jail for participating in a coup?’
‘Probably not. But it’d be nice if they did it for us, right?’
‘Course it would. It’ll all fizzle out pretty quick though. As soon as they figure out who’s behind it the cops’ll be all over em. They’ll either have to run or go to prison.’
‘Well we can dream.’
‘Hey at least they’re tryin to do somethin I guess. We’re just sittin here hopin Walton hasn’t completely forgotten about us.’
‘Walton? He hasn’t been Prime Minister for two years.’
‘Oh. Who is then?’
‘I-’ John’s forehead creases in thought. ‘I don’t know actually.’
‘Makes no difference really.’
The quiet is interrupted by two men coming up the street toward them on the same side. The men are dressed well and walk with drunk joviality. They laugh with vigor at some inside joke as they approach. As they get closer he can tell that the two men are in their early thirties. They are handsome. Each wears a large gold watch on his wrist. There is nothing said as they approach, the men in their finery, Jeff and John in their dress pants and cheap shoes and service shirts with restaurant logo embroidered into the breast.
‘Smile boys!’ One of the men blurts out eventually. The other throws his head back and laughs and then both are cackling wildly.
‘Smile! It’s a beautiful day!’ The men continue and are soon out of sight and finally out of earshot.
There is a break in the rain as he gets off of the bus. He begins on his normal route, a beer open in his hand, the rest of the pack tucked under his arm. He thinks that if for whatever reason a bronze statue of him was ever erected, it would be blasphemy not to include the essential stubby in the hand along with the rest kept on his person. It is not until he reaches the park that he thinks of the girl sat at the top of the slide and sure enough when he arrives at the playground she is there.
‘Hello, Mate.’ she says.
‘Hi.’ he says slowing his pace and then stopping and turning toward her.
‘You change your mind?’ she asks.
‘No.’ he says approaching the slide. ‘How old are you?’
‘Why? Are you a pedo?’
‘What? No!’ he says with the panicked vehemence of any adult being accused of a desire for the under-aged.
‘I have a daughter your age. Maybe older.’
‘Good for you, Mate.’
‘I have a son too. He’s in jail.’
‘Look, Mate,’ she says leaning forward, ‘if you don’t want any shit then we’ve got no business talkin to each other. So fuck off.’
‘Alright.’ he says taking a step back. ‘I’m sorry.’
‘Yeah, fuck off!’ she shouts at his back as he walks away. ‘And don’t come through my park again! I know some nasty fuckin people!’
The bus ride home from the prison is four hours long. He sits, two hours into it. The clouds have parted and the sun is visible. The day almost seems bright. Despite this his jacket and pants are soaked and he shivers as drops of rain fall and explode against the windows in silence like useless kamikazes. A few people get on and off on the way back to the city. An old woman wearing shabby clothes and carrying a canvas bag tries to get on at one point but the doors do not open when she looks into the camera. He hears her curse at the bus, sees her spit at the camera as they take off. They are still over an hour out when a sign catches his eye. It reads ‘Bussle Heights 5.’He reaches up and presses the button for the next stop. He gets off, tapping his card on the reader and almost turning to thank a driver absent many years. He stands in the cool air for a moment and feels the invisible drops of rain on his face. He begins to walk back toward the sign. The road is silent and there is thick bush and tall trees on either side of him. After a few minutes he reaches the sign and turns left down the road. He is forty-five minutes in his reaching Bussle Heights. The town centre is quiet, the buildings as old as any he has seen.
‘What the hell are you thinkin?’ He asks himself.
Not far from the centre of town he come to a service station. The ground surrounding the station is covered in litter and sand and dead leaves. There are two rusted pumps and empty spaces where two more have been removed and the ground where they once stood is discoloured from the rest. One of the windows is boarded up with a panel of balsa. There is a man at one of the pumps. He appears to be in his late twenties. His skin is red has been gnarled and ravaged by the sun. He is wearing a hoody and track-pants and there is a paper cup in his hand. A small and rusted jerry can lays at his feet. He hold his bankcard up the reader and pours what can only be a few dollars of petrol into the can. As John passes him the man pours some of the petrol into his cup. Slowly and carefully he brings it up to his nose and inhales deeply, eyeing John with a hostile scowl as he does. John looks away and continues inside. The station is old, almost seventy years he thinks, and although it has been bought out by the NLH Group and fitted with an automatic teller he can only see one camera fitted above the counter. This service station is so out of the way of anything, he figures, that it is hardly worth the cost and effort of protecting it seriously. He makes his way through the aisles, past the overpriced non-perishables, the coolants and motor oils and headlight globes until he reaches a small shelf with a few roadmaps on it. He was hardly expecting to find anything like this here. All self-driving cars are fitted with GPS. But out here in the country, where there is not such a large police presence, some people still drive their old utes and hatchbacks short distances. He looks up at the camera. It looks down at him. He picks up one of the maps and sits down on the floor, out of view of the camera. He can count on one hand the amount of times he’s used a roadmap in the last ten years. These days the buses take him to and from work and he does not need a map to find a bottle shop. He looks through the index to find the pages related to stake hill road. He then rips them out of the book, folds them up and shoves them in his jacket pocket. He stands up and places the roadmap back on the shelf at the bottom of the pile and heads out the door. The young man is gone by the time he makes his exit, off to nowhere in particular John supposes.
Stake Hill Road is only a thirty minute walk from the centre of town. The route is straight though he more than once begins to worry that he has somehow diverged from it. In the midst of one of these short bouts of panic he comes across a rusted old mailbox, standing at an almost forty-five degree angle with the number 31 on it. Why is he here? He wonders. What does he have to gain from coming to this place? He feels as though he’s test driving a life he knows he can never afford. He considers turning around but his curiosity and an ember of blind optimism which he thought long doused, push him up the dirt driveway and through the gate.
He walks up the dirt road that leads to the community, a good half a kilometre or so, he estimates. On either side of him there are gum and banksia trees and small bushes and the ground is littered with brown and withering gum leaves. Eventually he sees the top of a large shed peeking out over some trees on his right. As he gets closer he sees a man leaning back in a camp chair under a portable gazebo. His feet rested on an old trestle table in front of him. The man is chubby, wears a slouch hat, jeans and a button up fishing shirt with a thick jacket over the top. He has a week’s worth of black stubble on his face with flecks of grey throughout. He watches John as he approaches, not moving or saying anything. John stops a few metres from the table.
‘How can I help you, Mate?’ The man says without moving, suspicion in his voice.
‘My name’s John Taylor. Eric told me to come by.
‘We’ve got a couple’a Erics here.’
‘Doctor Eric aye?’ The man takes his feet down and leans forward in his chair.
‘Yeah. I guess so.’ he says, trying to hide the surprise in his voice.
‘And what’d he send you for?’
‘Just to check the place out I guess.’
‘Uh-huh. Alright,’ The man says standing up. ‘You can go through. You gotta wear one’a these though.’ He says reaching into a pocket of the camp chair and pulling out a yellow piece of laminated paper tangled in string.
‘Smart cookie.’ He says and throws the pass to John.
John’s legs bend as he fumbles to catch it. He untangles the string and puts it around his neck.
‘Just keep following the path.’ The man says. ‘The first building you’ll see is the reception. They’ll help you out there.’
‘Okay.’ John takes a few steps and then stops and turns to the man. ‘What’s your name?’
He continues down the trail. A few minutes pass before he begins to hear the sounds of people off in the distance, children playing. A building comes into view, a small demountable no bigger than the shed in his backyard. He reaches the building and knocks on the fly screen door. Through it he sees a small, round woman appear. She looks at him through the door but does not open it.
‘Hello.’ she says, looking up at him.
‘Hi. My name’s John Taylor. I’m here to see Eric Bradbury.’
‘Okay, and is he expecting you?’
‘No. Not today.’
‘Okay, well he might be busy but I’ll see if I can get him on the radio. Wait here please.’ The woman disappears into the room and he hears her speak into the radio.
‘Reception to Dr Eric. Reception to Dr Eric.’
There is silence and then the crackling of static and a distorted voice which he cannot understand. ‘Okay.’ the woman says in response. ‘Thank you, I’ll tell him.’
The woman appears once again behind the screen door. This time she clicks the latch on the handle and opens the it. ‘He’s on the other side of the property. He’ll be about ten minutes.’
‘Okay.’ he says. ‘Thank you.’
‘Would you like a cup’a tea or coffee? Or some water? I can put it in a takeaway cup.’
‘No thank you. That’s kind of you though.’
‘Okay well come and sit inside while you wait for the doctor.’ She pushes the door open and makes way for him. He walks inside and she gestures to an old leather couch that sits against the wall to his left. He sits hunched forward, his hands together. The room looks bigger from the inside. Grey linoleum lines the floor and the cream coloured walls are decorated with old knick knacks and drawings and paintings by young children. There is an ancient Ikea desk on the other side of the room and an old office chair, its fabric beginning to tear at the seams. On the desk there are papers and stationary and an old laptop.
‘What do you do here?’ he asks.
‘Mainly just the office work. Paying the bills and getting any permits we need.’
‘Do you have much trouble?’
‘Not really. I think they’re happy to have us out here. We’re not really depriving them of anything by being out here. And it doesn’t cost them anything more than our basic minimum income.’
‘I see. And are you happy here?’
‘It took a lot of adjusting, and it was a while before I was convinced. But yes, my family and I are very happy here.’
He nods and then leans back in his seat. The woman sits down at the old desk and begins shuffling papers around. There is a knock on the door and Eric enters. He is wearing a rain jacket with the hood pulled down and there is something in his hand. Two small brown paper bags. He is smiling.
‘Room-Service.’ He says.
The woman spins around in her chair and stands up. ‘Hello, you.’ She says smiling.
‘Hello, Sue. How are you?’
‘Lovely thank you, Doctor. You didn’t bring me a muffin did you?’
‘I did. They just had’em cooling as I passed the kitchen.’
‘You’re terrible.’ she says as they meet in the middle and he hands her one of the bags. She turns to look at John. ‘Bribes’ll get you anywhere here.’ She says holding up the bag.
‘How are you, John?’ Eric says, walking over, his hand extended.
John stands up and shakes his hand. ‘Not too bad thanks. Been visiting my son over at Melbrook.’
‘How is he?’
‘He’s alright. Keepin busy. Just trying to make the best of it I guess.’
‘Well that’s good to hear.’ he holds the remaining paper bag up. ‘This is for you.’
‘Oh, thanks.’ John says taking it. The bag is see-through with grease and it feels warm against his numb hands.
‘Got some wonderful cooks here. Sue’s daughter’s one of our master chefs in training.’
‘Well anyway you came here to see the place I’m guessing?’
‘Yeah. I guess so.’
‘Great. I’ll give you the tour.’ he says turning and opening the door. ‘I’ll see ya later, Sue.’
‘See ya, Doc. Nice to meet you, John.’
‘And you.’ He says, following Eric.
They walk a short way down the trail and then they are approaching the community. On either side of the trail there are demountable homes. Some, he thinks, are just single rooms while others look to have as many as four in them. They pass a small grassed area with a barbecue pit and a gazebo and a block of toilets and showers.
‘I didn’t expect to see you again.’ Eric says as they walk.
‘I didn’t think I’d come. I was just passing on the way back from the prison.’
‘Well maybe seeing the place will help you make up your mind.’
‘I think my mind’s pretty well made up.’
‘Then what are you doing here?’
‘Maybe I’m hoping there’s something I’m missing. Some way this can all work out.’
They continue walking. He is in awe of what he sees. A playground, a pen with five fat pigs in it, fruit trees, and too many demountable houses to count, all arranged throughout the grounds in small rows as though in a street. Eventually they arrive at a gate. Through the gate they continue until they come across an enormous where carrots poke out of the ground. Further along he sees corn and what he thinks are snow-peas. Acres upon acres of crops.
‘Jesus.’ he says as they stop walking.
‘We have to eat something.’ Eric says leaning on the fence which surrounds the crop.
‘It’s enormous. I knew it’d be big but I never could’a imagined this. How the hell did you afford this.’
‘Would you believe it was donated?’
‘Neither did I. But it was.’
‘I don’t know. None of us do. Remaining anonymous was part’a the deal.’
‘But why would they?’
‘I don’t know. Maybe it’s a tax write off. Or maybe even some of the one percent have a conscience. Whatever the reason is, we’re very grateful.’
‘And the land tax?’
‘All members pay a small amount of their Basic Wage to help cover the costs. But they don’t need money here, as long as people work they get fed.’
‘Do you really think this is the only answer? Living like this? Isn’t there another way?’
‘This is the only way, John.’ Eric says, gesturing back towards the community. ‘There’s nothing else out there for these people.’
‘But what about you? You never told me you were a doctor. Surely there’s something you could do.’
‘There’s nothing, John. Can’t ya see that you and me are the same? Yes our careers were different, but I’m willing to bet that our stories are almost identical. Stop me if I’m wrong; you bought into the dream: house, nice car, family. You had a job, you worked hard. You didn’t wanna be filthy rich and you didn’t wanna change the world. You just wanted to be comfortable, and you were. But technology caught up with you. Some gear head figured out that your job could be done by a machine, much more efficiently as well. So they let you go. And like that, everything you’d worked so hard for was gone or had at least become totally unstable. Yeah you have the basic minimum wage, but that’s barely enough for groceries, let alone bills and public transport to get to your unskilled job where you earn fifteen dollars an hour ten hours a week. They have these machines, John, that can diagnose illness much more precisely than I could ever’ve hoped to, and much faster too. And that’s a good thing. But what it means is; that I’m obsolete. We’re obsolete, John. The people who run this world don’t want or need us and there’s no place in it for us except under their feet. You, me, and the rest of these people have nowhere else to go. I know you’re being ripped in two, but you have to think of Tony and Melissa, of yourself. Your son made his bed, maybe you need to let him lie in it.’
John looks away from Eric. ‘I can’t. I can’t leave my boy out there.’
Eric looks down at his feet and nods. ‘I admire you, John. But I can’t help you.’
It’s past nine by the time he reaches Rockingham. The bus barrels into the suburb with cold and inhuman speed. As he lays crumpled in his seat he thinks of his son and his wife and daughter and wonders what their future might possibly be. He is vaguely aware of the rambling voice emitting from a tv screen at the back end of the bus, left on by a passenger who has since reached their destination. Some small and impotent act of defiance. He snaps upright as the words Seize the Means flash amongst the droning. He stands, steadying himself on the back of his seat and the one across the aisle, and makes his way toward the noise. He sits in front of the screen playing the news channel. There is footage of a house, trashed and abandoned. Police in riot gear stand idly in the front yard, their weapons held limp in front of them. The reporter details a raid coordinated in hopes of catching people involved in the Seize the Means political group. The inhabitants of the house, however, have moved on. He leans back in his seat and switches off the screen.
He struggles to see through the black night as he makes his way toward the park. Stopping as he reaches the path which leads through it he remembers the girl on the slide and her warning. Drinking down the rest of his beer and tossing the bottle into as bush he takes of down the path, he decides that on the list of people whom he’ll let push him around, a prepubescent drug dealer is not among them. He is not used to walking through the park this late at night and he arrives at the playground much sooner than he realises. He feels relief at the absence of the girl’s silhouette from the space at the top of the slide. Continuing past the playground he freezes as he hears a cough in the distance before him. Composing himself and moving forward he is able to recognise the young girl as she sits cross-legged on the bench.
‘Hi.’ he says as he passes her.
‘Fuck off.’ is the shaky and timid reply.
He stops and turns back toward her. ‘Are you okay?’
‘I said fuck off.’ her frail voice whimpers.
For the first time he remembers the torchlight on his phone. He sits his beers on the path, pulls his phone out and shines its light on the girl. She turns her face away from the light and holds up a shaking hand.
‘What the fuck’re you doin?’ she moans. ‘Fuck off or I’ll get you bashed!’ She turns her head toward him for a moment and he sees the masses of dark on her cheek and beneath one eye, the red splits in her swollen lips and her smashed nose.
‘Are you okay?’
‘Just fuck off.’
He takes a step toward her. ‘I can call someone. I can get you h-’
‘Just fuck off, ya fuckin pedo! You tryna come on to a fuckin thirteen year old girl? Fuck off!’
‘Fine.’ he says turning, forgetting his beers on the path. He continues in haste through the park and she doesn’t call after him and he doesn’t look back.
He wakes early in the morning. His wife is not beside him. He can hear somebody in the kitchen. He gets out of bed and puts on his dressing gown and steps into the hallway. His daughter is in the kitchen. She does not see him as he sits at the breakfast nook. She has earbuds in. She stands at the kitchen counter, in her school uniform, buttering toast. She places the lid on the butter, picks up the container and turns toward the fridge. She pauses as she sees him, smiles and takes out her earbuds. He hears the low buzz of her music coming from the dangling ear pieces.
‘Good morning.’ he says.
‘Did I wake you up coming in last night?’
‘Nope. I was still up.’
‘You sleep in?’
‘Yup. Just a bit.’
‘Don’t be late.’
‘I won’t.’ She says, slinging the straps of her backpack over her shoulders and picking up her piece of toast. She walks around the counter to the breakfast nook and hugs him tight. ‘Love me?.’ She says.
‘I do.’ he says gently gripping one of the arms which embrace him. ‘And I’m proud’a you.’ He fakes a yawn to hide the fact that his eyes are filling with tears. ‘Love me?’
‘Yes. And I’m proud’a you too.’ She lets him go and smiles at him and then she is gone.
He hears her call out a goodbye to her mother in the backyard and then the sound of the gate opening and closing. He wipes his eyes. He stands and walks over to the small table that sits against the wall in the living room. He opens the draw and rifles around the papers and stationary inside until he finds the small card with Eric’s number printed on it. He goes back to his bedroom and takes his phone and dials the number. It rings three times before he hears Eric’s voice.
‘Hi, John. What’s up?’
‘Take them.’ he says.
There is quiet on the other end of the line and then Eric’s voice ‘Are you sure?’
‘Yes. I’m sure. You can help them. I can’t.’
He walks out the sliding door and into the backyard. He holds a mug of tea in his hand. The steam billows out of it in the frosty morning. The ground is cold against his bare feet. He watches Tony, her back to him, picking beans from one of the many storks and dropping them into a bucket. She has managed to keep all of herself despite it all, he thinks, and he feels that he’s never been more proud of her. He walks across the soil toward her.
She hears him coming and turns around. ‘Good morning, Stop-out. Why were you so late getting back last night?’
He looks away from her face, holds the mug out to her.
‘Thank you.’ she says as she pulls off her gloves, takes it and blows on it.
He hugs her, pulls her head into his chest. ‘I love you.’
‘I love you too.’
‘You’ve kept us going. This whole time it’s been you.’
‘Hey, hey.’ she breaks free from his hold and puts the mug down on the ground. It tips over and the tea spills into the dirt. She places her hands on his shoulders and looks up at him. ‘What’s goin on?’
He looks at the ground. ‘You have to go.’
‘You have to go. To the place. The community. You and Mel have to go.’ His eyes are wet.
‘No. No John, no. You come with us. Or we don’t go at all.’ She tries to hug him but he holds her wrists out in front of him.
‘Tony,’ he looks at her now. ‘You and Mel have to go. You go and get settled. That’s your job. I’ll stay here and wait for our boy. And when things change, when they’re different, for our son, we’ll come. But I’ll stay here, for now. That’s my job.’
Her eyes are wet now and he sees pain in her face. She sobs, her head against his chest. He holds her tight.
‘It’ll be okay.’ he tells her. ‘It’ll all be okay.’
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