It was one o’clock in the arvo, and ‘Gab’s Golden Curry’ was full. Its plastic chairs and tables accommodated the same group of worn men who trudged fifteen minutes every day along the high perimeter walls of Sector A from the interface factory to the cosy restaurant, for its five dollar lunch special: a mountain of fluffy rice and a moat of caramel-brown Japanese curry with islands of carrot, potato, mushroom, chunky beef and sliced chilli. Only one factory worker, Frank, looked up at the sound of Gabby, the owner, slapping a wet dishcloth onto the front counter as she argued with Mike, the wombat-faced chef. Georgie and the rest of Frank’s co-workers were too busy gulping down curry to notice. Besides, a bit of a barney was nothing out of the ordinary here – Gabby had capsaicin on her voice and was as fiery as the curry she served.
‘Mate, we’re not bloody putting any more chilli in the curry.’
‘But Gab, it needs it. Trust me! Don’t you want the best curry shop in Sydney?’
‘I don’t need the best, Mike, I need to survive. I want my kids fed, mate, not a damn title.’ Gab swung her arm out towards Frank and Georgie’s table.
‘Look. Look at Georgie.’
The iceberg of a man had tears dripping off his chin and a pile of rice and curry waiting on his spoon. He snorted a droplet of snot back into his nostril and filled his mouth. And Georgie wasn’t the only one. Each customer, all well-muscled men from the factory, had teary red eyes and were sniffling like sick children.
‘These are hard times, Gab. Can’t a man cry?’
Gabby tossed the dishcloth into the sink and leaned forward over the register.
Georgie looked up and took a deep sniff before replying.
‘Why’re ya’ crying, mate?’
‘It’s your curry, Gab. It’s tasty, but the spice does make ya’ tear up a bit.’
Gabby turned back to Mike, her arms crossed under her bosom.
‘What, Gab? He said it was tasty.’
‘No more chilli, Mike.’
‘Look, I’m the head chef here-’
‘You’re the only bloody chef, you shit-wit.’
‘That makes me the head chef.’
‘It makes you chef. No more chilli, you keep it as it is. For some reason, these idiots like having bushfires in their mouths. But, no more, I don’t want anyone spontaneously combusting in my restaurant.’
* * *
That night, with the restaurant cleaned and closed, Mike lit up a burner under one of the tall curry pots and stirred the last few servings congealed at the bottom. As the heat freed the scent of the curry sauce, heavy with tangy cumin and robust turmeric, Mike drew it into his nostrils. The day’s leftovers were always the best. The garlic, ginger and chilli all filtered to the bottom, giving each spoonful chunks of spicy sharp flavour. Mike refused to deseed chillies. The seeds and heat had to be present. The bubbling of the stew dispersed the seeds and they would show up in odd places – stuck in some marrow, imbedded in a chunk of carrot and floating elegantly on a glossy patch of oil. The seeds and heat of the chilli tied the entire curry together through a sensation of sensual pain. If Mike could serve his ‘end of day special’ to every customer he would, but only his most important customer would ever taste it.
The kitchen window rattled as leather knuckles rapped on it.
‘Hold on Steven! Almost done!’ Mike danced across the room and shovelled rice into three bowls. He opened the back door of the kitchen which led into a tight alley and placed one of the bowls next to the shaggy pile of man who was sitting outside on the cracked step.
‘That’s for Roger.’
After slopping curry into the remaining bowls Mike sat down on the step next to Steven, who had deep dirty wrinkles, cauliflower ears and a scraggly white beard which touched the crotch of his stained jeans as he sat. Steven’s fingers poked out of his tatty grey coat to accept the bowl that Mike passed him, and he paused for a moment with the bowl cupped in his palms so that the flesh of his hands could embrace the warmth. Mike extended his hand to Roger, the bulldog-cross-something-or-other, who had already finished his bowl and whose snout was freckled with rice.
As the mutt wobbled over Mike said, ‘How’s things, Steven?’
‘No good, Mike. There’s been more licensed hunters about in the sector. They almost saw me the other night. You’re taking a big risk feeding me with them around, mate. You know they’ll kill you too if they find us together?’
‘Don’t worry about it, Steven. I’m a chef – we feed people, homeless or not, right? Serving hot food to anyone who needs it is my hypocritical oath.’
‘Yeah, that. I don’t care if helping a feral is tantamount to being a feral and all that garbage they spew on the streams. I’m not letting you go hungry just because you can’t get a job or afford rent. It ain’t right.’
Steven raised the first spoonful to his mouth and gingerly blew on it before slurping it in. His grey eyes smiled a second after, and he lifted the bowl to start pushing the rest of the meal into his mouth. Mike watched while scratching Roger’s chin. While Steven finished his meal, Mike picked up his own bowl, but the curry was too hot to eat, so Mike blew on it and stirred while waiting for the verdict.
‘Mate, your curry is the best I’ve ever had. You’re still not putting in enough chilli, but you’re getting there now.’
‘Still not enough!’ Mike laughed, ‘The macho factory workers sniffle their hearts out for this stuff! You should see Georgie, real mountainous bloke, tough guy, but we feed him this stuff and he’s crying like a newborn. My curry was already bloody hot before I started taking your suggestions!’
Steven chuckled and said, ‘Well you know how to give a feral a little happiness, mate. Thanks.’
‘Don’t worry ‘bout it, Steven. Just be careful out there, mate. And make sure not to let anyone see you when you come here. Gab is a great lady, but she’ll fire me if she finds out I’m helpin’ ya’. She’d have to; she’s got a husband and kids.’
‘Yeah, you can’t blame ‘er. You’re one of the last places that don’t pull a cricket bat, or knife on me, you know? There just isn’t a place for ferals anymore. Is there, Roger?’
Roger had flopped onto his side while Mike rubbed his belly. He was panting and trying to catch whatever grains of rice were within his tongue’s reach.
* * *
After hearing a glass smash and the usual bustle of lunchtime become silence Mike stopped chopping vegies and walked out of the kitchen to see what had happened. Nausea strangled his stomach when he saw a tall teenage boy in a hunter’s uniform standing at a table with a face of enraged pink and a mess of broken glass on the floor next to him. Three other boys sat at the same table, all in the same uniform – a thick brown button-down, deep red overcoats, dark olive trousers and shiny black combat boots. The standing boy had the mohawk from that old Robert De Niro movie perched on his head and wore stylish glasses. Two of the others had shaved heads and the last had a greasy mane.
The boy grabbed his plate off the table and held it in front of him towards the front counter where Gabby and Mike stood side by side.
‘The hell’s wrong with this food!? Are you taking the piss? Did you put all that chilli in it to have a laugh at us?’ He raised the plate above him and flung it at the floor. Rice and gravy exploded over the cream tiles. ‘Well, ya’ had your joke.’
‘Gabby, shall I call the police?’
Gabby pulled open the till and yanked a twenty out of it.
‘Mate, do I look like I have police insurance?’
As Gabby stepped around the counter, Mike hissed, ‘Gabby, it’s not worth it; they’re hunters. They’re killers. I’ll call the police, we can split the visit cost. You’d make it back in a few months.’
‘We can’t afford what they charge, Mike. Let me handle this.’
Gabby strode towards the boy in the stylish glasses holding out the twenty dollar note in front of her.
‘Look, lads . . . ’
The boy kicked over his chair and stomped over the brown explosion on the floor towards Gabby with his head cocked.
‘If you don’t like it, you can have a refund and leave.’
The boy slapped Gabby’s hand away and grabbed the belt of her apron, pulling her towards himself.
‘We don’t want to leave, and I don’t want my money back. You Sector C turds need to learn to respect us hunters.’
‘Take your hand off me, lad.’
‘What’re you gonna do if I don’t?’
Gabby leant her upper body towards the boy, leaving enough room to swing her right knee into his groin. In the instant of brain-wrenching pain that followed, the boy’s hand loosened, and he saw Georgie’s shoulder speeding towards him. The impact flung him back towards his fellow hunters, whom he saw open their mouths before a black flash of unconsciousness took him when he hit the cream tiles. The long-haired boy shouted ‘Theodore!’ as he watched his friend hit the floor and stood up, reaching for the knife in his coat pocket. The two boys with shaved heads hurried to help Theodore, who was writhing on the floor unable to remember how to stand.
‘Georgie, thank you. That’s enough,’ Gabby said, placing her hand on Georgie’s back.
With the help of the shaved boys Theodore managed to get up and started swaying towards the doorway.
‘Boys. Sorry this happened like this. Here, take your money back; no hard feelings,’ Gabby said, stepping forward and with the twenty in front of her again.
The long-haired boy flicked his knife out, but Frank and the rest of the factory workers stood, so the boy hissed and retreated with the knife in front of him, following his friends out the door.
* * *
The claxon wailed over the factory floor for the lunch break just as Frank tightened the last screw into the back of the glass charcoal-black interface. He wondered what exactly it would be used for. Light Touch Interfaces had hired the factory to assemble these highest-tech boxes, but no one in the building, from their gas bladder boss down to the warehouse kids knew what they did. When the software was loaded into them they could be anything from a Sector A housewife’s bathroom console to the controller console for a tank.
UNIVERSAL. MODULAR. UNRIVALED.
Frank ran his fingers over Light Touch’s embossed catchphrases at the bottom of the glass front panel. Whatever it was for, he knew he’d never see one running.
‘Hey Frankie. Let’s go get some curry, I’m starved.’
Frank and Georgie were the first to leave for lunch and walked alone along the outside of the graffiti covered Centre Sector wall, which partitioned Sector A’s south from Sector C, a couple of minutes ahead of the other sixteen men who were the ‘Gab’s Golden Curry’ regulars. As they walked, Frank asked Georgie how many interfaces he had got done today.
‘Fourteen. Boss isn’t gonna be happy, but I’ve been getting some splitting headaches this week.’
Frank had worked damn hard today and popped twenty out, which meant he was still in the running to get the fortnight’s high productivity bonus of two hundred dollars. The problem was: Georgie usually got thirty done by lunch. Word must have gotten round about Sally’s hand, Frank’s wife’s hand, getting crushed at the government weapons factory. Georgie and the boys were lagging behind to make sure Frank got the bonus. Even though the doctor and ambulance fees alone were going to put Frank into debt for a couple of years, and how he was going to keep Sally and his daughter, Rebecca, fed and under a roof he didn’t know, but knowing the boys were looking after him, the knot in his chest loosened slightly.
The two men were almost at ‘Gab’s Golden Curry’ when they heard shouting and stamping feet coming around the corner of a sharp intersection in front of them. An old man in a grey coat rushed around the corner and crashed past Frank, stumbling but not stopping.
‘Hey! Ya’ idiot! Watch it!’ Frank shouted after him, before Georgie quieted him with a ‘Frank’ and pointed towards the corner from which the man had come. Frank heard the clattering feet around it and in a second the hunters from the day before burst from the alleyway sprinting after the man.
‘Where’s your papers you feral fuck?’ screamed the fastest one, mohawk flapping as he ran ahead of the pack. When he recognised Frank and Georgie, he stopped in front of them. The boy spat and flicked his fingers towards them as the other boys dashed past, and then he snatched a rock off the ground and sprinted after his comrades. They had almost caught up with the feral who had stumbled as he ran across the empty road. The boy warned his friends before he hurled the rock at the old man with a practised swing. The Cricket ball sized chunk glanced off the side of the feral’s head hard enough to make him finally lose his balance. The boys quickly caught up and began the procedure.
Frank saw Georgie’s muscles tense and grabbed his shirt before he could move to help the feral.
‘Georgie. Phillip needs you. You can’t let him lose his husband to helping a feral.’
Frank and Georgie stood for a few seconds. They were unable to halt the gurgling cries of the man because they were needed. They could not afford to go to prison or get killed for interfering with hunters doing their lawful duty. So they paid their quiet respects.
‘These hunters are animals. They’ll have their day. Let’s go,’ Frank said, tugging again on Georgie’s shirt.
As they left the scene, Georgie looked back. The boy in the stylish glasses made eye contact with him and grinned as his boot heel mashed the spongey flesh of the feral’s right kidney.
* * *
The two bowls of curry on the tabletop had started congealing. Mike passed his spoon through the middle of his, pulling the skin formed on the top and pushing it down into the sauce. He ate a spoonful of the cold curry and took a bite of one of the oily tempura prawns he had cooked an hour ago. After hearing a whine outside the back door he opened it and found Roger curled up on the top step.
‘Hey buddy. What’s wrong?’
Mike squatted to pet the whining mutt before getting him his food. When he placed the bowl of rice and prawns in front of Roger, the dog didn’t move.
‘That’s odd. I guess you’re a tough customer aye, Roger? If it’s not hot, send it back! Where’s Steven? He’d eat it, cold or not.’
Mike sat down on the step and started to eat the cold prawns and rice himself. Roger whimpered and flopped his head on Mike’s knee.
‘In a bad mood tonight?’ Mike petted the small dog again.
‘What’s that brown stuff you’ve got on your face, boy? Did something happen? Where’s Steven?’ Roger whined against Mike’s leg.
‘I’ve never seen you without him.’
When Mike got up to wash up, Roger followed him, limping more than usual, into the kitchen keeping his head against Mike’s leg whenever Mike stood still. Mike had washed the curry pots earlier, so all that was left were the bowls for him and his most important customer. He sighed as he scooped the curry and rice into the bin.
‘Where’s Steven, Roger? I hate wasting food.’ The dog kept its head against Mike’s ankle.
‘I guess you’re staying for the night then. You can sleep in my room. I’ll make you a nice blanket nest on the floor, alright? Come on, let’s go to bed, mate.’