Tag Archives: Humour

Queues and Robbers, Jonathan Grew

Angela was intent on nothing ruining her day. Sure she was running very late for work, the traffic was a nightmare, and some buffoon had parked in the clearway, costing her so many previous minutes. Despite these setbacks she was determined to have a good day today and was excited to start it off in one of her favourite places, the bank. Angela was a born bureaucrat, she had always enjoyed crunching numbers and paperwork and although she knew she was mostly alone in this regard, she didn’t care. She had always found that bank tellers at this bank were like her, especially Susan. Angela only wished that the other people in the bank would share her enthusiasm.

She took a quick survey of the room, noting an adorable old man having a sleep on a chair in the corner and also the security guard leering at her from the other side of the room. Angela noticed Susan as usual was wearing a big smile on her, clearly relishing the challenge of the queue in front of her. She turned her focus to the man in front of her, she could tell just from the back of him that he was having a bad day. Determined to cheer him up with a joke she asked him.

‘Banks are always the same huh,’ she said to him. ‘No matter how much they make the place look nice you can never escape the queues.’

‘Heh, yeah,’ the man replied somewhat nervously, eyes still glued directly ahead of him. Much to her displeasure she was unable to even crack a smile from the poor man. Undeterred however, she smiled to herself, resolute to have a good day.

*

Allan was once again thinking about how he ended up here. Every morning when he turned up to work he felt like he was looking down the barrel of a gun. His life simply wasn’t meant to be like this. Allan had been a star recruit at the police academy until he had accidently tasered the department’s beloved veteran police dog. His father had warned him that people with cynophobia (fear of dogs) don’t make for good police, but Allan hadn’t listened. He had tried to argue that it was the dog’s fault for sneaking up on him, but the academy officials wouldn’t hear any of it. Seeking comfort, he lowered his hand toward his gun holster and brushed it gently, thankful that his job affords him this concession at least.

Allan realised he should probably be paying attention and began to survey the room. Sitting on the chair was an old man who hadn’t moved in a while, prompting Allan to make a mental note to check on him in a few minutes, fearful that he might be dead. He noticed two people talking in the queue for the teller. A fidgety looking man was ignoring the woman behind him, which Allan realised must have been a lover’s quarrel. Allan had a fiancé once upon a time, but after the incident she left him, just another thing gone wrong in his life. The fidgety man began to look increasingly agitated. He kept toying with something in his jacket pocket. Allan could understand that feeling, and once again reached to touch his gun holster. The fidgety man looked over at Allan and immediately looked away. Allan didn’t pay him much attention however, thinking that his stare alone was probably enough to intimidate the man.

*

Su could see the frustration on their faces and could not have cared less. Whenever she told people she worked at a bank they asked how could she stomach it, how could she work for such a reviled institution. The answer was simple, Su thrived on their hatred. When she had started working at the bank she had been so hopeful and idealistic, committed to working hard and providing an excellent banking experience for her customers. Over time however, her optimism faded, and the banks soullessness got to her. First they made her wear a name tag with the name Susan written on it, despite the fact her name is Suyong. Senior management had told her it was to make her more approachable to the customers. Then, despite repeated requests and pleas, it was the refusal to install air fresheners in the bank. Every day the same stale smell had ultimately destroyed Su’s spirit, and though on the outside she wore the same smile she always had, inside Su was bitter and hollow.

That is why on this particularly busy Monday morning, Su took extra delight in watching the sheep squirm impatiently as she slowly dealt with each customer. She watched as a woman tried fruitlessly to talk to her friend in front her of, and laughed to herself as he ignored her. There was a sleeping old man sitting on a chair in the corner of the room, probably dead Su thought. Allan looked as though he was intense in thought, though often Su wondered if he was capable of thought at all. He was staring in her direction so she called on the next customer, preferring to deal with him than even look at Allan.

‘Hello sir my name is Susan, how can I help you today?’ Su asked. Instead of receiving an answer however, the man stared at her vacantly as if unable to say anything.

Su slowly began to feel the anger rise up inside of her. She knew that he heard her, how dare this man come up to her counter and not even pay her the decency of responding? Instead he stands there like a buffoon, hands in his pockets, big stupid coat on. Su felt every muscle in her face strain as she forced them to make a smile.

‘Sir, how can I help you today?’

‘Oh um, yes um, I would like to make a withdrawal.’ The man began to jerk his head downward, lifting his eyebrows as he did it. Su began to wonder if he’s having a fit of sorts until she realised he was indicating to the hand in his pocket. Su stared in confusion before it hit her, a bank robber. Luckily for this bank robber he was gifted with perhaps the only bank teller in the world who would welcome such a situation. The chance to gain some small piece of revenge on the bank was just too good of opportunity for Su to pass up on.

‘Ok sir, I understand completely. Don’t worry about a thing, stay calm and I’ll be right back,’ said Su, who gave the man a wink before leaving. She hurriedly rushed to the room behind her, where the bank kept large amounts of cash in lock boxes before they were moved to other banks. She unlocked one with her key, before filling a bag with cash. Su made sure to keep a terrified look on her face, so any camera footage would show a fearful bank teller, not a sinister saboteur. Su hadn’t felt this alive in years. She hurried back to the man to give him the bag.

*

Gus felt absolutely awful, for the past few days he had been bedridden with the flu and though he desperately wanted to be nowhere else rather than bed, he had been forced to go to the bank today. Gus’ boss had called him first thing and told him that the cheque he had received from a client last week had to be deposited at the bank today, to give the business some much needed capital. And Gus, being the good natured, model employee that he was, said that he’d get on it right away. Now that he was in line at the bank, he was regretting his decision immensely.

Gus had wrapped himself in a coat before he left and despite that he was still cold. He felt his forehead and found it hot to his hand and also drenched in sweat. The line was moving at a snail’s pace, but Gus knew that if he could make it through this queue, then everything would be okay. Gus made note of the old man asleep in a chair, thinking to himself that he’s got the right idea. He stared at the wall in front of him, trying to distract himself when he heard a voice behind him. It took Gus a few moments to realise the voice had come from the woman behind him, and she was in fact talking to him. Unsure of what to say, he gave the most generic answer he could think of, hoping that it would be enough to placate her.

‘Heh, yeah.’

Gus held his breath for a few moments, praying she wouldn’t respond, and breathing a sigh of relief when she didn’t. He reached into his pocket to feel for the cheque, relief flooding through him when he felt the edge where it had been ripped from the chequebook. Out of the corner of his eye he could see the bank’s security guard staring at him, looking at him briefly before turning away. Gus always felt guilty when people of authority stared at him, even if he had done nothing wrong. He suddenly realised he was at the front of the line and stepped toward the teller.

‘Hello sir my name is Susan, how can I help you today?’

Gus lifted his head to speak to the teller and was immediately lost for words. Standing in front of him was perhaps the most beautiful women Gus had ever seen, smiling, just for him. While Gus did not have the most confident way of talking to women usually, he had never before been left speechless. He knew he should say something; in fact he was terrified that with his silence he was instantly destroying any chance of getting to know her.

‘Sir, how can I help you today?’ She still had the same smile on her face, much to Gus’ relief.

‘Oh um, yes um, I would like to make a withdrawal.’ The words had left his mouth before he even had time to process them. Gus knew he wasn’t here to make a withdrawal, but he was still somewhat lost for words. This nervousness, coupled with his fever, resulted in Gus instead using his head to motion towards his pocket where he kept the cheque in a delirious attempt to communicate.

‘Ok sir, I understand completely. Don’t worry about a thing, stay calm and I’ll be right back,’ she said, winking as she left.

Gus could not believe his luck, she had winked at him! Not only had he met an amazingly beautiful woman, but a smart one as well. She was able to understand what he had meant just by him gesturing towards his pocket. However, the fact that this did not make any sense soon began to dawn on him. How on earth could she have possibly known what he meant when Gus barely knew what he meant? His thoughts were interrupted however by Susan returning with a bag. She handed it to him with a cautious smile. Confused he opened the bag and looked inside, finding it filled to the brim with bundles of cash.

‘Woah woah woah,’ he said. ‘What are you doing? Why are you giving me this?’ Su looked at him, a confused expression drawn across her face.

‘Aren’t you robbing this bank?’

‘I’m robbing this bank?’ said Gus, perhaps a bit too loudly.

It was at this exact moment that Gus knew he had made a terrible mistake. The entire room had frozen and all eyes were immediately focused on him. He turned towards the security guard, who was wearing a big grin on his face as he reached for the gun in his holster.

‘Freeze scumbag! Do not move an inch or I swear to God I will blow you away!’ Gus froze, too terrified to even breathe at this stage. ‘Okay,’ said the security guard, ‘now slowly put the bag down and put your hands on your head.’

Gus immediately complied. However, as he slowly put the bag down, a gun shot rang out.

*

Michael loved banks. He loved watching the people inside of them go about their lives, each with their own set of unique set of problems. Michael used to be just like them, that was, until he started robbing banks. Admittedly it had been quite some time since he had robbed one however, and he was unsure his body was still up for it, even if his mind was. This was to be his last hurrah, one last job before he kicked the bucket in just a short few months. He had chosen this bank for the simple fact that its lone security guard was Allan. Though he might be a bit trigger happy and a hothead, he was buffoon, meaning it would be easy for Michael to get the better of him. So Michael had decided to spend the day scoping the place for the upcoming robbery.

He had watched the sick man with the flu come in, feeling sorry for him as he joined the queue. He had then watched the woman behind him come in, clearly trying her best not to let the bad day get to her. Michael also watched Allan with much amusement, laughing to himself as he made notes of Allan’s frequent penchant for daydreaming. He was also acutely aware that the Korean teller was wearing perhaps the fakest smile Michael had ever seen, which Michael realised meant that she probably would not care if he tried to rob the bank. Michael also noticed however that no one really noticed him. Sure they glanced at the old man sleeping on the chair in the corner, but that was about it.

It came as a shock to Michael then, when he heard the man with the flu say he was robbing this bank. Michael wasn’t sure but was pretty positive he heard the inflection of a question being asked when he said it, but right on cue Allan had pulled out his gun and began yelling at the top of his lungs. Michael watched in amusement as the sick man put the bag down and began to lie on his stomach. It then occurred to him that there was no better time to rob this bank. He had a bag full of money and a distracted security guard.

Michael stood up, pulling a gun from inside his jacket and fired a single shot into the air. Before Allan could even react, he had his gun aimed at him.

‘Ladies and gentlemen this is a robbery. Allan, if you would please put your gun on the ground.’

Allan didn’t need to be told twice and quickly put his gun on the ground before lying on his stomach and placing his hands behind his head. Michael walked over to the sick man and picked the bag up.

‘Thanks for this,’ he said. He flashed a glance at Su and winked, before heading toward the door. Outside he is pleased to see his car right where he left it. Although, when he parked it he didn’t realise it was in a clearway. Michael laughed to himself and jumped in the car, driving away.

 

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Thriving on the Poverty Line: A Guide for Gen Y, Jasmine Walker

Our parents must hate us. They bought out all the nice houses and won’t leave their jobs. In our youth we were promised success and happiness but instead we got a financial crisis and houses that cost more than our souls. Alas, instead of flailing in the gutter, crying about our empty hip pockets, let us band together and share our thrifty living ideas so we may soar into the future. Here are mine:

 

Cut your own hair

There is something liberating about cutting your hair off. Locking yourself in the bathroom, you blast some encouraging music such as “I Am Not My Hair” by Indie Arie while looking straight at yourself in the mirror and saying ‘you little rebel you’ as you take that first slice off your pretty mane. Now that might sound weird, but having a stranger stand behind you with a sharp instrument making cuts at your head is weirder. And the amount of times my friends have come to me after a haircut absolutely devastated at the result has convinced me to just to do it myself.

The first time I cut my own hair was when I was three years old. I only cut one side leaving a lopsided do. To counter this, my mum would just pull my hair into a side ponytail, which I thought washilarious. My best attempt at a home haircut though was when I was in year six and I hacked my fringe down to a crooked one centimetre tuft a day before school photos. More recently I angrily took a large pair of shears to my thick hair one night. My good friend Emily, after inspecting the damage, declared that although she thought I had done a reasonably good job, said that it did look very similar to a mullet. Lucky for me she is pretty handy with a pair of scissors and fixed it. Not only I did save myself the $55 I usually spend at the hairdresser, I also saved myself from the hour long conversation of ‘how’s the weather today?’ and got myself a haircut that no one else dared have.

 

Embrace the Hipster lifestyle:

A Hipster is described as a person who, according to the Urban Dictionary, ‘rejects the culturally-ignorant attitudes of mainstream consumers, and are often seen wearing vintage and thrift store inspired fashions’. The Hipster embraces being poor and makes it trendy. Living in Newtown I see a lot of these ‘Hipsters’. They walk with a swagger as their ripped jeans trail the sidewalk and always have a pair of dark sunnies on that make them ooze cool. The male ones grow their beards out, some almost down to their nipples (which I’ve been told helps them save on money usually spent on shaving cream and blades). There are even beard decorations, such as bobbles for Christmas and flowers for girlfriends that male Hipsters can weave into their hairy facial tangle.  My husband went through the Hipster stage once and decided to grow his hair long. One day while visiting his family his niece Sophie pointed to his ponytail and, while laughing, said that he ‘looked like a girl’ and that ‘only girls had ponytails’. It’s fair to say she didn’t find the Hipster look trendy or cool.

 

Make Op Shops your ‘go-to’ shop!

The second hand look was not always trendy. When I was younger I would never set foot into a second hand clothing store. It was seen as very uncool. If my mum tried to drag me in while we were downtown I would cringe and offer to wait in the car. If she brought me back anything I would have nightmares of wearing it and finding out it was someone’s old tatty piece of clothing from school. That would have been pure social death. The only clothes I would wear were brand names such as Nike or Adidas with the most ideal outfit being a matching tracksuit.

Now that I am out of school and living on my own, second-hand stores have become what Bunnings is to baby boomers. There may be no sausage sizzle out the front, but there’s always a lovely old lady called Julie standing at the counter waiting for you to say hi so she can tell you a boring story from her week. As you pretend to look busy in the material cut-off section your eyes water as the dankness of the clothes fills your nostrils. Your friend laughs out loud before whispering in your ear ‘I bet these clothes came from dead people’.

Nevertheless a sign out the front saying ‘Fill a bag for $5!’ still gets me a little too excited. As I rummage through the $2 bin singing ‘I’m gonna pop some tags, only got twenty dollars in my pocket’ Julie looks over giving me her stink eye. At least she won’t tell me her foot surgery story now.

This change in culture, from buying new to buying second hand, has been sparked by the cost of living for young people. With Sydney being named as one of the most expensive cities to live in it is no surprise people are turning to second hand goods to save some extra money.

 

Keep everything

Both my parents are hoarders. They have kept everything that has ever come in contact with them. It doesn’t matter if a grimy container lid is missing the actual container to go on, the lid must be kept – just in case one day along comes a lasagne the size of a swimming pool that needs to go in the fridge, and all containers are needed on deck to pack away this giant lasagne for future eating. This habit of keeping everything has been passed onto me and almost become a relationship breaker. When my husband and I moved from a large, airy apartment on the coast into a tiny matchbox apartment in Sydney we had to down-size, which caused a problem, as I couldn’t bear to throw anything out. As he eyed my paintings from childhood, an array of fairy statues and my box of rocks from that nice day by the river, I found myself feeling sick. What if I needed those rocks one day? We would have to collect them again, or even buy some from a garden shop, wasting precious money. If you have something now, you might just need it one day, and that someday could be tomorrow, so keep everything… just in case.

 

Don’t be fussy

Don’t think you have choices. You don’t. If you’re at a restaurant and have $5 in your pocket you’re getting the cheapest, nastiest thing on the menu. No fancy salad for you, Gen Y. At the supermarket the ‘almost out of date!’ basket becomes your best friend. After wondering if sardines are still okay to eat after their use by date, or if it’s even legal to sell fish so close to expiry, you remind yourself that you’re not rich enough to ask these kinds of questions.

Finding a decent place to rent in Sydney is as painful as getting your genitals waxed. It always takes longer than you remember, is more painful than the last time and has you baring everything just so you can complete the process. In the end you settle for an awkwardly shaped, falling apart, dodgy apartment that you convince yourself is wonderful and that you’ll be proud to call home.

Even after you secure a place you’re still bubbling in hot wax with the threat of rent rises and shitty neighbours. Not to mention quarterly inspections where a stranger, known in general society as ‘your agent’ gets to poke around in your personal space for an hour before saying, ‘You’re doing a good job keeping the place tidy, but for next time make sure you wipe the dust of the blinds’. You smile politely and promise you will. As you shut your apartment door you stick your finger up in their direction while doing your best Jim Carrey impersonation of ‘Alrightly then’ in defiance.

 

Live with your parents for as long as possible

We all have those friends, you know, the ones who still live at home. The friends who go on overseas holidays every few months and have a car that actually works. The smart friends who seemed to foresee how expensive and unnecessary moving out would be. In this day where the median house price in Sydney has just reached around one million dollars, living at home is seen as reasonable, smart and even normal. The Australian Bureau of Statistics states that in 2011, 29% of 18-34 year olds were still living at home with one or both of their parents. That’s almost 1 in 3. When you add up how much you spend on rent, bills and food, you realise how much you are chasing your tail. So why not extend the stay at home and add an extra ten years after high school? And let’s not forget all the other benefits that you get living at home, such as having your socks and undies ironed, your dinners pre-made and left in the fridge for you and being able to see cute pictures of yourself as a child on every blank wall around the house.

 

Carry around loose change rather than notes

Carrying around coins rather than notes is a great way to spend less as the sheer weight of the coins makes it impossible to have too much with you. I once had to raid my coin jar before a night out with friends after realising I had no money left in my bank account. As I laid down my piles of 20c on the counter of the bar, I gave a strained, awkward smile while saying a pathetic ‘I’m sorry!’ to the bar staff who gave me an annoyed but understanding look. As they picked each coin up one by one off the sticky counter I sank a little deeper feeling more embarrassed. People looked on curiously as though witnessing a dodgy deal. Finally the transaction was over and I walked away sheepishly with my cocktail thinking, ‘Can’t wait to line up for the next one.’

 

Always look down

It is amazing how much change you can collect when you keep your eyes on the ground. When I was a teenager I once found two fifty dollar notes rolled up in a bobby pin while walking to school one day. It’s fair to say that, as a fifteen year old, that was the best. Day. Ever.

Looking down will also ensure you avoid eye contact with the money sucking beautiful people that are often found on street corners. ‘Hey nice to meet you! I’m Justin – that’s a beautiful face you’ve got on today – will you sign your name here, here and here? No of course I won’t sell your details to third parties!… Wait, where are you going?

By looking down you will also stay grounded and realistic, as looking up into the clouds will only tempt you to dream a little bigger or hope a little more. Keeping your eyes on the pavement will also help you steer clear of a peek into the inner world of the rich. Glimpses of private jets, pent houses and VIP rooms will only make you cry. Instead look at those pretty flowers in the garden next door, that dog shit you want to miss stepping into and also for that step, since you probably don’t have health insurance or enough sick leave to cover your time off work if you fall.

 

‘I’m so poor this week …’  

Working in a seasonal job means that winter in my workplace becomes a contest of who is the poorest. Like the popular ‘Yo Mamma’ jokes of the 90′s, winter becomes a time for one-liners such as ‘I’m so poor this week I had to go on three Tinder dates yesterday, one for breakfast, lunch and then dinner just to eat’,  ‘I’m so poor this week I washed my clothes in the change room’s sink just to save on laundry money’ and ‘I’m so poor this week I lived on a $2 bag of carrots for three days’.

Gen Y face a society where more part-time and seasonal/casual jobs are available than full-time work. This makes it harder to get a loan or afford weekly expenses. Even if you have two jobs your second one is taxed almost 50%. I once worked for a place that paid a daily rate rather than an hourly rate. Once I worked out how many hours I had actually worked and tax was taken, I realised I was getting less than ten dollars an hour. Not cool society, not cool.

 

Become a Homebody:

You know you’re a Homebody when It’s a Saturday night and you’re at home on the couch in your PJ’s, pouring chocolate sauce in your mouth and eating ice-cream out of the container and loving life. At the end of your crazy night the total bill comes to just $11.60, the price paid for the gooey caramel and vanilla ice-cream, now empty, and the out of date chocolate sauce you found in the cheap basket. Out with friends you can expect to pay at least ten dollars for one cocktail that lasts one minute before moving onto the next and the next and the next. Before you know it it’s midnight and you’re catching a taxi home, setting you back fifty dollars. You then wake up with a splitting headache, mascara-smeared face, stale beer-smelling clothes and a minuscule bank balance. Homebody = 1, Night out = 0.

 

Learn to live like they did in the good old days!

My Grandma knew her shit. She could sew her own clothes, make a killer roast and have a cupboard full of pickled goodies she had chopped, vinegared, sterilised and bottled herself. She didn’t buy take-out every second day or pay someone to do her laundry, and would take the bus or walk instead of driving. She was self-sufficient, relying on herself to do all those extras that many of us pay someone else to do. Getting back to the roots of how things are made and grown can be a great way to not only save money but also feel more connected to the things you own and eat. So put the packet mix away, the electric hand mixer back in its box, go outside, pick some herbs and maybe drop by Bunning’s for their free sausage sizzle because lord knows we malnourished Gen Y’s need some meat this week.

 

 

Works Cited

Australian Bureau of Statistics. “Living arrangements and family life”. Australian Bureau of Statistics. 2011. Web

“Alrighty then”. Jim Carrey. Ace Ventura: Pet Detective. Dir. Tom Shadyac. 1994. Film.

“Hipster” Definition. Urban Dictionary Online. 2015. Web.

Indie Arie. “I am not my hair”. Testimony: Vol. 1, Life & Relationship. 2006. Song.

Mackelmore & Ryan Lewis. “Thrift Shop”. The Heist. 2012. Song.

 

Download a PDF of ‘Thriving on the poverty line: A guide for Gen Y’

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Skyfall, Stephen Henry

 

It was a way to fill in two hours and a velvet darkness that promised forgetfulness and escape, so Kyle bought a ticket to the latest Bond movie without even considering the name – Skyfall. He chose a seat at the side and settled in to the soothing murmur of other cinema goers, the softness of the seat and the gentle sound of cola and ice in a paper cup. He closed his eyes and fought that familiar sense; of a mindfulness of the present that teeters on the edge of the abyss… that threatens to fall and lose itself in the past.

The lights had no sooner dimmed for the previews than Kyle heard the giggle and ‘Shit!’, as popcorn was spilled and a teenage couple found their seats behind him. The

chatter began directly as the boy commented on the kiosk worker, ‘That guy really was a prick – he just ignored us for about ten minutes’. Then a read-aloud text from the girl – her friend wanting to know where she was.

‘Don’t tell her,’ said the boy.

Their attention was diverted to the screen, but the boy determinedly maintained the chatter as the new instalment of ‘Madagascar’ was previewed.

‘Mum’s gonna drag me along to see that next week, wants me there to help look after my little brother.’

‘He’s such a freak, you know he pinched my phone and sent a message to Ruby, telling her she has a big ass.’

They had a comment about every preview. ‘She’s fat.’

‘He’s hot.’

‘What a douche.’

Kyle thought about turning around. He should have hissed at them or told them to keep it down. A year ago he would have, if Megan had been with him, she would have, without a doubt. She probably would have told them to shut up or get out. Now though he didn’t have it in him. Besides that – he was thinking that he used to be like that,  that there was a time when as a fourteen year old, he crept sweaty-palmed out of home for the movies with Megan, and his heart was thumping and his mouth was dry and he was glad when she took his hand. They’d laughed their way through ‘The Blair Witch Project’ and shared a strawberry milkshake afterwards. She’d worn skinny jeans and a white blouse and had tied her hair up with a red ribbon, which he’d wanted to touch. So perhaps he should let the rituals of teenage romance take its course.

There was a faint scent now in the cinema, a perfume just out of reach and he half turned to the empty seat next to him before stopping himself. He took a sip of cola and swirled the ice, stretched his legs out under the seat in front of him and then tuned in to the couple behind again. They were weighing the merits of an actor in an upcoming sci-fi movie.

‘Ruby thinks he’s so hot but I think his neck is too long, see how his head just sits way up there?’

‘And he’s nearly bald anyway, I don’t really get what his movies are about.’

Their attention waned, but their conversation didn’t.

‘Hey, check this bruise out will ya? It’s kind of glowing here in the dark, all yellow and shit.’

‘That’s so freaky, how did you get it?’

‘Fell over, chasing my kid brother, knocked my knee on some rocks . . . didn’t hurt though.’

That little bit of bravado reached out to Kyle. He and Megan had discovered a mutual love for everything outdoors not long after Megan’s family moved into the area when Kyle was ten. Exploring the bushland behind Megan’s place, they had climbed or scrambled up whatever they could find, from small rock faces to the larger railway cuttings or the old willows with the ribbed bark that crowded down by the creek. One day they both scraped their right knees after running and falling among the mossy stones that lay scattered along the clear flowing water. Kyle had sat there barely holding back the tears while Megan laughed at him and called him a ‘sissy’. Later, Megan’s mother had stood them against the wall and hosed them off like baby elephants at the zoo before looking at the matching bruises and calling them a ‘pigeon pair’.

Kyle thought that once the feature started the pair behind him might shut up.

They didn’t, but their comments were drowned by the opening action in which Bond commandeers an excavator on the back of a moving train and uses it as a shield. Kyle was more interested in the backdrop as the train moved from a Turkish cityscape to the more scenic setting of sheer granite mountainsides and pine forests. He found himself automatically assessing the cliffs as potential jump sites and wondering what lay at their feet. By this time Bond had made his way onto the roof of the passenger section and was wrestling the villain for a gun as the train rolled over a high stone arch bridge that spanned an impossibly deep ravine. Eve, Bond’s accomplice, had stationed herself above and was looking down her gun sights at the two men fighting atop the train. She hesitated despite being ordered to ‘take the shot’ and hesitated again before squeezing the trigger. She winged Bond sending him sideways and over the edge of the train. Kyle’s breath caught as Bond fell head first, the camera refusing the urge to slow him down, in his grey suit he plummeted like a misshapen lump of granite into the swift flowing river at the base of the ravine. Kyle imagined the train rolling on into the mountains and Eve left there with the heaviness of the gun and its smell, the silence of the pines and the sky, broken only by the distant sound of that rushing river.

If he’d been thinking clearly he would have got up then an there and walked out of the cinema into the gathering twilight instead of sitting there while a nightmare underwater-world formed a surreal backdrop to the opening credits and the boy behind him commented stupidly on Bond’s remarkable ability to hold his breath.

He really was about to say something a little later when the smug little comment, ‘It’s a sawn off shotgun’, floated forward to the on-screen accompaniment of a man . . . sawing off the end of a shotgun.

In fact he was about to turn around and say, ‘You know about guns do you?’, and toyed with the idea of asking the precise make and model of the gun, or for an explanation of why shotguns are sawn off but realised he had no idea himself. Besides, there was that time, when he had pointed out a ‘Harley’ parked out the front of the corner pub. Only, when he had taken Megan over to admire its leather and chrome he’d noticed the ‘Honda Gold Wing’ insignia and hurried her away on some other pretext.

He and Megan had started some more serious hiking and abseiling together as teenagers, but the desire to feel the weightlessness of flight and air had made Kyle restless and Megan didn’t take much convincing. Their first attempt at hang gliding had been from a sea cliff on a day when the whitecaps on the Pacific looked small below but the instructor had suggested they wait for the wind to die a little. After lumbering to a take- off both had been struck by such a strong updraft that it blew them back up the slope to the tree-line, snapping a wing strut, puncturing a wing and leaving them laughing at their inability to fall. They had been introduced to base jumping by one of Megan’s friends and the jumping seemed to be a natural progression from the adventure sports that had come to dominate their life together. Their first trip out of Australia had been to jump from a span over a gorge in New Zealand generally used for bungy and from there they had ventured further afield. There was the terrifying morning they’d flung themselves from the bridge that joined the Petronas Towers in Kuala Lumpur and then a series of jumps in the south western states of America.

Kyle leaned back into the softness of the cinema chair, unable now to avoid thinking about the world of Bond and the world of certain types of men. Guns and motorbikes and falling from the sky without dying, men were expected to know about these things—he supposed. Although the last two years had shown him that such things often demanded a high price from boys and young men, and offered little in the way of redemption at the end of the process.

The action scenes on the screen had given way to the dark timbers, candlelight and cane furniture of a classic Shanghai hotel room. A perfumed Eve and a showered and towel-waisted Bond were getting dangerously close to each other, separated only by a razor. When she’d finished the shave, Eve’s tilt of the head and ‘That’s better’, were met by ‘Yeah’, from behind. He thought about the drama being played out so close to him and realised that the boy was testing out his desired role, weapons expert, one shot wonder and smooth talker. Over the next hour Kyle was privy to a mysterious process of becoming, amidst the popcorn smells and darkness of the cinema.

The boy started to respond on Bond’s behalf.

‘I didn’t think you could come up here’, queried Moneypenny.

‘You can’t’, the boy replied.

He tried his hand at repartee.

Bond: Everyone needs a hobby.

Bad guy: What’s yours?

Teen Bond: Kicking your ass.

He strategized like Bond.

‘He’s heading for the river dude, cut him off.’ He even started to give advice to Bond.

‘Leave him there under the ice, the bastard.’ As if Bond was his sidekick now, Robin to the teenage Batman.

Kyle wondered what the girl thought of the magical transformation of her boyfriend into wise cracking lady’s man secret agent. For the most part she sat there in seeming silence or simply murmured some indistinct response.

The silver Aston Martin DB5 represented the young Bond’s best chance though. He confidently announced it as a ’65 Aston Martin’ and kept up the patter as it took its usual place in the action. At one stage Kyle felt a sudden kick and pressure on his back as up on the screen a car chase took place. He realised that the boy had shoved his foot into his chair and was pressing down hard on the accelerator as Bond’s car came through the top of a corner.

Despite the initial discomfort, Kyle simply settled deeper into his chair and allowed himself to drift, back to that day, his car, Megan riding passenger. He was taking the corner on a rain slicked road just before dawn, jamming the old silver Skyline into fourth. The first glimmers of light could be seen to the east and the windows were down. It had rained last night and might rain again, the air a mixture of wet soil and eucalypt, but he figured they had at least three or four clear hours to get up there for the jump. Megan was looking west to catch the first glimpse of their next challenge. Her hair was hidden under a black cap but as she turned he caught a flash of red. This was to be their tenth jump together, but the first from an antenna mast. Their previous jump had been on their trip to the US, from the top of the sheer El Capitan in Yosemite National Park. There had been a light cover of snow over on the top of the Half Dome across the valley and the westering sun had changed the usual grey tones of the rock to a burnished bronze. The valley floor had moved into early shadow by the time Megan launched herself into space. He watched her grow small and the red of her opening chute below was like the flare of a distant match struck over the darkening valley. He had followed, and felt like some comet falling through the sky, for a moment giving no thought to whether his chute would open or not. The air numbed his cheeks and the tops of the pines rushed up to meet him. He glimpsed the river, ice blue from snowmelt before being jolted back up into the air by his harness. He’d landed next to Megan on the washed gravel of the riverbank and they’d built a driftwood fire there that evening as a way of holding on to such a moment and such a place. They’d talked for a while under the stars but their voices disappeared into the vastness of it all and so they sat, back to back, and fell into a sleepless quietude.

They were planning on another trip, Europe this time, and had been scraping some money together by doing some training work for a small sky diving company and working odd hours in the sports store owned by Megan’s brother.  So this jump was an indulgence, and a recognition that they were linked by the intangible nature of air. They were to be the first to jump from this particular antenna mast situated on the lower slopes of Mt Picken, overlooking the coastal plain on the north coast of NSW. The base of the antenna mast was a little way back from the road and they cut their way through the chain link fence surrounding it. A last check of equipment, harnesses, canopies, footwear, first aid and they started their climb. The first sixty metres was a steel ladder but after that they climbed using the spikes welded to the inside of the antenna. They stopped twice on the way up, the first time to watch the sun lift above the horizon and the second at a small platform two thirds of the way up for the warmth of thermos coffee and a pastry. The highest antenna array was three hundred and fifty metres above the plain and they arrived there, short of breath, forty five minutes after starting their climb. The sun, now well above the horizon, had turned the serpentining river course silver. This was the rich farmland of the river delta and the fields were a patchwork of gaffer green and stubble brown, the ocean, mirage-like, glimmered on the horizon. The adrenalin and the breeze which whistled through the guy-wires made normal conversation difficult, but they didn’t need to say much anyway.

As had become customary, Megan opted to jump first and eased herself to the exterior of the mast. She looked back at Kyle and smiled before turning her attention to what lay in front of her, the distant ocean and the patchwork below.

‘Three, two, one’ . . . the familiar jump, the abandoning of the self to the air, a gust…the shiver of a guy-wire, its tug and release, the sight of her hands spread wide to catch the sky and a glimpse of her face, pale under the black cap and then a flash of red as she twisted unnaturally, not like her at all, plummeting, misshapen, the wind now screaming.

He angrily pulled himself back to the cinema, shaking his head and focusing on the screen. Bond had found his moment of redemption. Kyle thought about how ridiculous that was, an impossibly smug bastard Bond, surviving falls and gunfire and wrecked cars, wisecracking and womanising all the while.

He gathered his rubbish and was about to stand up when he felt the movement behind him as the teen couple, quiet at last, stood to leave. He watched as they came into this field of vision and moved down the steps towards the exit.

In the half light, Kyle caught a glimpse of hair tied back with red.

He was alone again, back at the top of the antenna mast, the serpentining river, the wind through the guy-wires and the moment of his un-becoming – when the sky – just – fell.

 

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Direct Line, Lauren Armbruster

‘Could all persons with a Green Card please proceed to Gate number Ten? I repeat, Green Cards to Gate Ten,’ the disembodied voice said, its instructions echoing around the cloud filled arena. Green Card Number 62498365-2Alpha stared at the trait selection card in her hands…

This is the first chapter of a young adult fiction novel (in the making) which explores the contention between fate and free will. Temperance Broadfoot begins life with a special gift. One given to her by an accident at birth. Temperance has the power to communicate with Steve, the all-powerful Creator of Life. In her quest to find her place in the world and become the person she want to be, she finds that having a direct line to the big man upstairs is not as useful as it sounds. Especially when the decaying world she lives in is looking for a scapegoat.

‘Could all persons with a Green Card please proceed to Gate number Ten? I repeat, Green Cards to Gate Ten,’ the disembodied voice said, its instructions echoing around the cloud filled arena. Green Card Number 62498365-2Alpha stared at the trait selection card in her hands. An A4 puce coloured card; empty boxes and nothing to show for her time so far. She had not really been listening to Steve the Creator or any of the other orientation seminars, and now realised that her inattentiveness may be the start of her downfall. She glanced furtively around at all the other faces. They were all shiny and new, like polished belt buckles. On her left stood another Green Card. Her honey coloured hair seemed attuned to the light emanating from the luminescent stars above and below her. Her green robes flowed behind her, as she stood still gazing, ethereal, at the centre of the arena. Alpha stared, envious. Honey blonde began to take steps towards Gate Ten, which appeared like a sentinel on the far side of the arena, huge neon numbers flashing above it.

‘Um, excuse me…’ Alpha began.

Honey blonde turned. She had penetrating blue eyes that glowed like sapphires. She smiled like liquid, lips melting into the softness of her precise chin.

‘Do you…um…I mean… Hi first,’ she stammered. ‘…and then do you know where Gate Ten is?’ Alpha began, grossly aware of her lack of finesse. Around her bustled other bodies, Greens and Blues, all moving like waves from the orientation buildings on the far northern end of the arena. Around her now she could make out sounds of white noise taking on voices:

‘I think I’m going to put in for Generosity…’

‘Oh no, you want Ambition, trust me my boy.’

‘…who would want Greed?…Selfishness?’

‘I think Seductive might come in handy Down There, know what I mean…’

‘Ha! Compassion! As if… ‘

‘Hello?’ said the voice closest to Alpha, ‘I said, it’s over there, in the far south western corner. Can you see the numbers?’ Honey blonde was pointing, seeming to take on the form of an archaic Roman statue. Her selection sheet was neatly folded in her palm. All filled in with neat crimson ticks and circles.

‘Oh thanks. I ah, it’s all a bit weird you know.’ Alpha failed to mask the awe she felt building within her. She nervously touched her hair remembering with disgust the red dirt colour framing her pudgy pudding face. At the Nationality Rounds, she had pulled out Irish Australian. She had been pleased, but it was now apparent, in the wake of this transcendent blonde beauty that perhaps the crown of red hair sprouting from her skull like maniacal thought bubbles was not the best start to this Life thing. If there was one thing clear to her at this point in her existence it was that Steve, despite what he has told them all a moment ago, had not created every being equal.

‘I’ll go with you if you like, I’m a Green Card too as you can see.’ Honey Blonde offered her hand to Alpha, ‘What’s your number? I’m 05005Zeta, but just Zeta will do, I’ve not met another Zee so far, but then I’ve only spoken to you and that Blue over there.’ She pointed to a Blue who was slapping other Blues roughly on the back. His black hair and almond-shaped eyes suggested he had plucked Korean of some kind from the draw. Lucky for him, Alpha mused, tucking her unruly curls behind her ears.

The two began walking together in no particular hurry and almost immediately the conversation turned to the next round of selections. The final round was to be free of Steve’s influence. Alpha was beginning to feel more certain that this was his way of ensuring all care and no responsibility. She peered at her card again, noting the heading in big chunky lettering ‘Free Will’. She would now need to make the final choices that could make or break her whole life. She recalled now, the first educational film she’d been shown, merely hours after her conception. The large theatre had seated a million or more. There has been speeches from alumni, those who had returned from Life and a whole bunch of boring orientation information, most of which she had successfully tuned out. In the final educational seminar, they were all shown the one and only film of Steve. Lulling back on a sun lounge, wrapped in a white terry-toweling robe, he grinned confidently from behind his oversized sunnies sipping some kind of blue drink complete with a bright pink umbrella. Suppressing hysterical laugher from behind his shades he warned that all choices would have direct and severe consequences after Birth.

‘Some choices can be altered by where and how you might be born, but for the most part, the qualities you choose, will stay with you throughout your whole life. So choose carefully’ he said, before disrobing, sculling down the beverage and diving into a crystalline blue pool. Alpha had heard that this pretty boy had only ever really worked a week in his whole life, so it was really no surprise that he had obviously very little interest in the whole process.

‘How much longer do you have?’ Zeta asked Alpha, interrupting her from her thoughts.

Alpha checked her Casio. The hands seemed to have moved rapidly from her last check. ‘Holy Crap, I am due for Birth in fourteen minutes! I thought we had days to do this!” Her heart began to quicken in her chest, the rhythm of a fast moving train. Her head spun. She showed Zeta her watch. Zeta flashed hers back; she had been here a lot longer but still seemed to have hours left. ‘Why is yours going so slow? I don’t get it!’

‘Ok, you need to calm down and remember your training.’

‘Training? What training!’ Alpha stared in disbelief as the minute hand began to speed up. She noticed that the blood in her was draining rapidly to her feet, she felt faint, the seconds ticked rapidly and just when it was all about to go black, a searing pain echoed through her cheek, resting somewhere in the back of her brain. Zeta stood before her open palmed, a look of serenity on her face.

‘You hit me!’

‘I had to; you were going to lose all your time panicking. You have to just calm down, remember what they told us in orientation. Time is relative. If flies when you are excited and anxious and slows down when you are calm or bored. Did you take in nothing?’ Zeta said.

‘Not really, I tried to listen, but it was all so boring.’ Alpha felt the hot sting on her face and glowered at Zeta. Zeta sighed and swiftly grabbed Alpha’s card from her sweaty palm.

‘I see your problem; you were allocated Impulsiveness and Impatience as your two allocated qualities. You are going to have to try and balance that out with some of the other traits before you get Down There or you are probably going to be back here before you can blink’. Zeta roughly flicked the card back to Alpha. Alpha held her card steady examining the information noticing that there had indeed been several qualities already greyed in.

‘I though we got to choose everything?’ she implored.

Zeta sighed. ‘You really didn’t pay any attention in orientation did you?’

Alpha had no time to answer before Zeta’s watch began to chime. The overture from The Nutcracker Suite began to play from her wrist and both girls looked at it curiously. Steve’s grinning head appeared suddenly on the watch face. ‘Hey. Look’s like someone is about to be born! You better cruise on over to Gate ten my friend and remember, don’t eat yellow snow!’ The transmission ended and they both looked at each other.

‘Well, looks like my Birth is about to happen. Maybe, I’ll see you sometime Down There. I think now that we met up here, we are supposed to find each other again Down There.’ Zeta’s excitement seemed to enhance her beauty even more. Her blue eyes twinkled as she leant in and gave Alpha the tiniest of kisses on the cheek. She smelled of strawberries and summertime and although she promised they would meet, Alpha knew instinctively that Life for her would probably be very different.

Alone again and watching the passing crowds of unnamed individuals, it was painfully clear how little she had prepared for this. Around her, people seemed to be charming and confident. She contemplated just throwing the ridiculous little card away. What good was free will if you were too stupid to figure out what to do with it, Alpha mused.  She sat herself down on the nearest cloud and sank deeper into her own distress, when from across the room, a Blue spotted her and began to walk her way. He was and older man, probably late forties. It was then she noted her youthfulness and recalled something about appearing at the prime of your life. This guy was obviously a late bloomer, she noted, whilst dismaying that her own existence seemed to peak at about fifteen, then gradually decline for the remaining years.

‘It appears to me, that you could use a little help.’ The man stood before her in his blue robe. His silver hair swept grandly off his face, the beginning of wrinkles teased the corners of his eyes as he gazed down at her full of heroic confidence.

‘I, um, I didn’t really pay much attention at orientation. I have no idea what I’m doing. I’m a complete spaz.’ She felt unreasonably obliged to give this man a full confession.

‘Nonsense, just tick in the order you think it best. Start with some Confidence to outweigh this natural Anxiety I can see in you,’ he began, reaching for her card brushing her thumb with his own mighty hand, ‘then see how you feel.’

Alpha poised her little pen and flicked her eyes across the grid until she found a row labeled ‘Confidence.’ Under each heading the scale went from zero to ten. Tentatively she put her pen on the number ten. A light orange mark appeared and she immediately felt better. In fact she felt great. As the tick formed on the ten, her heart pounded with a new sensation. She looked up sharply to this old man before her noticing with glee the deep trenches around his eyes, the wobbly paunch of his belly. ‘I feel amazing!’ she exclaimed. Beaming, she stood up and pushed past the old man who stood decrepit and wounded. She felt as though she was positively drowning in her own brilliance. The man frowned, he snatched the card from her grasp and held her by the shoulders.

‘Now, you should know better than that. Don’t start with tens. You can always go up, but you’ll feel gutted if you start at the maximum and then pull back. I bet you feel like a brand new penny right now, don’t you? Well, you have to remember that this is Life. Confidence is great but… are you even listening to me?’

Alpha could see his lips moving but registered nothing he said. He had, at once, become so boring. ‘Yeah, yeah, all I hear is blah blah blah old man.’

He grimaced. Then taking her card in his hand, and using his own pen, changed her ten to a four.

In seconds her newfound sense of self-amazement vanished. She felt like dirt. She glared at the man, overwhelmed by her own sense of failure.

‘I’m sorry I had to do that to you. But you can’t go around like that in Life. You have to find some balance,’ he said calmly. She hated him, she hated this process and most of all she hated Steve.

‘Ohhh, this Life thing is so much worse than I thought. How the hell am I supposed to choose who I want to be? I have no idea what this place is going to be like. What if I make all the wrong choices? What if I pick things that seem fine here, but are fucking useless Down There?’ Alpha slumped into an outcrop or clouds. They cushioned her fall, gently enveloping her. ‘This is all bullshit. I’ve got half a mind to tell Steve what a fuck up he has made with this whole…’ No longer had the words popped from her lips when a resounding sharp whistle cracked through her skull. The voice of Steve was like that: a half-tuned frequency, fingernails on a blackboard, the sound a shovel makes on concrete. She nursed her head between her knees and sobbed.

‘Questioning Steve are we now? He has a way of making sure you keep your complaints to yourself,’ the old man grimaced in sympathy. It had been a while since he had questioned Steve and his ears were still ringing with the memory.

‘I wonder if it’s the same Down There, you think Steve knows when you’ve got a gripe?’ Alpha mused. Her ears remained in tact. Questions about Life were not usually a problem, they did, after all, have the same destination.

‘I don’t really know. All I know is, you have about two minutes to make up your mind before you are called. I suggest you stop dallying, my girl.’ The old man held out his hand and helped her to her feet. He brushed her tears away with his finger and smiled warmly. ‘It will all be fine. Just pick three to five traits that you think will make you happy and then wait your turn. There’s no way really of knowing what it will be like for you. It’s different for everyone, or so they told us at orientation. If you had listened.’ He playfully knocked her chin with his knuckle, stood up and disappeared into the crowd. Alpha watched him go making a note of him. She hoped they would meet Down There and felt certain as he left that a part of her went with him.

Right. Think. She told herself resolving to make her choices and be done with it. She stared helplessly at the words: Piety, Humour, Resilience, Tenacity, Spite. There was no division between good and bad qualities and the ten-point scale, as she has just found, was not the easiest way to select. She flipped the card over in her hands again and reread the instructions of the front cover. The idea seemed simple enough, using a forty-point total, she was to select her personality for entry into the world Down There. Her survey card included over one hundred and twenty qualities to choose from which meant a whole lot of deciding. Trying to allay her panic again, she resolved to just begin ticking. She started with Passionate, four points, and suddenly the process seemed so much more important. She added a little Reluctance, six points, and then, after much convincing and debate, she tentatively rubbed them out. The combination of Excitement with Passion made her show four Blues and two Greens her card in a spin of jubilation, so she removed all but one point of that.

With ten points left unassigned, and debating the merits of being Flippant or Devoted, a panpipe version of a Bee Gees track began to play from her watch. ‘No, no, I’m not done yet!’ she gasped. The tune got louder and began to vibrate on her wrist. Suddenly Steve’s face appeared again, parroting the recorded message she had seen on Zeta’s watch. A baby somewhere needed a soul. Needed a Green Card. Frantically and without another thought she allocated her total points. She ticked Selfish, Greedy and Lazy as her first three, hoping that these would be helpful qualities. Tick by tick, she cared less about the process and more resigned to her eventual fate. Moments later, Doubtful of her future, pregnant with Wanting, and loaded to the teeth with Skepticism she hiked her way across the crowded arena to Gate Ten.

At the gate, an angel greeted her. She was chewing gum and looked bored. ‘I’m  62498365-2Alpha.’ Alpha said, examining the nonchalant figure.

‘Do I look like I give a shit,’ the angel replied, blowing a massive pink bubble that burst and slipped sheepishly back into her mouth. She grinned at Alpha and wordlessly nodded to a guard who stood a few metres away. Alpha contemplated asking this angel about the qualities she had selected, but balked after noting the absent minded way the angel began to stare at sections of her fringe. Taking the cure to leave, Alpha made her way to the bloated guard. ‘I’m 62498365-2Alpha,’ she tried again, hoping that this red-faced balloon may be a little more helpful.

‘That’s just super! Are you all ready to go?’ hje replied, his cheeks jiggling with the effort of speaking.

‘I guess so,’ she said.

‘And your soul mate, have you made a meeting spot in Life with them?’

‘My what?’ her eyes widened. ‘I’m sorry. My what?’ she demanded again.

‘Ah geez, don’t tell me you didn’t sort out your meeting place with your soul mate!’ he barked and pulled out a small two way radio. ‘Merv, we got another Green here that hasn’t sorted her SM situation. Copy.’ A crackled voice echoed indecipherable responses to which the guard responded with a wordless nod.

‘Look I’m sorry kid, but you ain’t got time to do nothing about it now. There’s a baby that needs ya.’ The guard paused, removed his hat from his balding head to wipe his brow and looked at Alpha with a rough mixture of pity and boredom. ‘Well, good luck Down There,’ he said.

‘Wait. You said I have a soul mate. What is that? What was I supposed to do?’

‘Look kid, I gotta lotta Births today, my back is killing me and my wife’s about to leave me for the schmuck over at orientation. I don’t have time to deal with your problems,’ he looked away, ‘Next!’

‘No wait! I only met two people here.’

‘Next!’

‘Please, I didn’t make a meeting place with either of them. Is my soul mate one of those?’

‘Next. Kid. It’s time. Adios.’ The guard waved her on, took her card from her clutched and in one swift movement, swiped his access card through some kind of reader. Alpha could feel her legs going out from underneath her. Her memories of orientation, what little there were, began to slip. She felt as though her whole body was imploding, sucking inwards and shrinking. She panicked and reached out for the only thing she could grab as she shrank further and further into what felt like a watery puddle. In one deft movement, she swiped the guards two way radio from his belt and descended into the puddle, the radio seeming to melt into her palm, disappearing somehow into her own flesh.

‘Steve! Help. I don’t know who my soul mate is! Steve!’ she cried into her palm.

But it was too late. Temperance Broadfoot, daughter of Angelica and Angus, was being born in a barn, somewhere southwest of Launceston.

 

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Apples & Old Spice, Joseph Sheehan

‘I’m sorry Claire, we’re going to have to let you go.’

I wasn’t sure how I was expected to react to this.

‘The thing is, we had to make some cuts,’ Charlie said, loosening his collar. A bead of sweat moved down the pink rolls of his neck and disappeared under his shirt. ‘The economy isn’t great, and people just aren’t buying newspapers anymore…’

I stood up. ‘It’s fine, Charlie, you don’t have to explain.’

‘We’ll give you a great reference,’ he called as I walked out of his office.

Bullshit they’d give me a good reference. I knew everybody there hated me, but I didn’t care because I hated them right back. When I started that job I was promised ‘opportunities for growth’. Ha. What I had envisaged as an exciting journalism career had quickly disintegrated into three years of getting vanilla slice for Chunky Charlie and occasionally compiling the death notices if someone else was off sick. To be honest I wasn’t really shocked they’d sacked me and tried to blame it on the GFC – I wasn’t exactly Little Miss Sunshine around the office.

‘I’m sorry Claire, but I think you should move out.’

That, on the other hand, had winded me. Looking into Sean’s face and his puppy-dog eyes, my first instinct was to reach over and slap him. I went for the second, less melodramatic option. ‘What? Where is this coming from? If this is about me staining the towels with fake tan, I told you I’d buy new ones.’

‘You know things have been rocky for a while,’ he said. ‘You can’t tell me that you hadn’t seen this coming.’

Okay, so things weren’t perfect, but what relationship is?

The funny thing was, I should have been upset. I should have cried and thrown myself on the ground like a ballerina pretending to be a giant swan. My boyfriend was dumping me. I had lost my job and my relationship and the roof over my head in the space of two hours. But in truth, I knew I should have been prepared for this. You’re with someone and it’s all wonderful, then the cracks begin to show and their little habits that you used to think were cute start to drive you crazy and next thing you know, you find yourself alone on a plane to the arse-end of the world. Tasmania.

‘Darling!’

Some woman was flying toward me as I walked out of the terminal, arms outstretched. She flung them around me and squeezed. I coughed, half with the strong scent I couldn’t quite work out emanating from her, and half from spitting her wild curly hair out of my mouth. Who the hell was this crackpot?

‘Mum,’ I said, looking her over as she led me out of the airport. ‘You look … different.’

‘Don’t I look like an old hippie?’ she said, playfully bumping my hip. ‘I’ll tell you what, the amount I used to spend on make-up and shampoo, I’ve saved a bomb. Whoops, don’t say bomb at an airport!’

She cracked up at her own joke. I hardly recognised her. It can’t have been that long since I’d seen her … two years at most. Gone was the lawyer in the suit with the mobile permanently attached to her ear, whose favourite pastime was yelling at someone on the phone. In fact, I think this was the first time I had actually seen her laugh.

‘So …’ I said as we drove home, racking my brains for conversation. ‘How’s the farm thing going?’
‘Oh, we love it,’ she said, reaching over to tune the radio and settling for some old seventies song. ‘The travellers come from all over to pick the apples, it’s so interesting. I know you were a little shocked when we told you we were going to move here, but it just felt right. We needed a change, and now we wouldn’t leave it for the world.’ She wound down the window and sang out. ‘Hey farmer farmer, put away the DDT now! Give me spots on my apples, but leave me the birds and the bees … pleeeeease!’ She turned back to me. ‘And how are you, sweetheart? After everything that happened?’

I looked out the window. ‘I don’t want to talk about it. It’s done.’

‘But you must be feeling a little upset, you were with Sean for two years. You know what would take your mind off things? I’m going to a meeting tomorrow night, we’re trying to stop some deforestation –’

‘Mum!’ I snapped. She kept quiet the rest of the journey. I wanted to say something to lighten the mood, but couldn’t find the words.

We pulled off the country road and through a gate. Up on the hill I could see their house. It looked like a log cabin from an American movie, with smoke billowing from the chimney. Mum parked and jumped down from the truck. ‘Look, here’s your dad now!’

Unless my name was Lisa-Marie Presley, that was not my father. The silver Elvis suit hugged his belly, the fake jewels glinting in the sun.

‘Don’t look so shocked, Claire Bear!’ He pulled off his black wig and sunglasses. ‘Give your old dad a hug!’

My dad, unlike Mum, did smell the same as I remembered. A mixture of Old Spice, coffee and something else, something sweet I couldn’t quite put my finger on. I remembered curling up next to him when I was little as he napped in the afternoons. I’d lie there for hours, trying to figure out what that smell was. I never worked it out.

‘I’m just on my way to work,’ he said.

I raised an eyebrow. ‘Work? Are you aware of how you’re dressed?’

He laughed and said, ‘I’m a marriage celebrant now.’ Like that cleared things up.

‘Do the people know you’re coming like that? You might want give them some warning, it’s supposed to be the happiest day of their lives. It’d put a dampener on things if the bride’s mother died of shock.’

‘He runs a Vegas-themed wedding chapel near Hobart,’ Mum said. ‘It’s called Gayceland.’

‘Graceland?’

‘No, Gayceland,’ said Dad. ‘Since the bill was passed all the gays are coming here to get married. It’s been great for tourism. I have to be off, I’ve got Trace and Shirl from town coming in for a rehearsal.’

He waved and climbed into the truck. I was still standing there with my mouth hanging open as he drove away. I really didn’t know how to react. Your dad dressing up as Elvis and performing gay marriages – you couldn’t make that shit up. Mum put her arm around me. I felt myself stiffen, unsure how to react to that too.

‘Doesn’t he seem happy? Better than back home when he was always between jobs. This has been so good for his self-esteem.’

I didn’t know what to say, so watched in silence. Part of his cape was caught in the door and it flapped in the wind as he drove away. By the next morning I knew I hated farms. It was a bloody zoo. So far I had almost tripped over a pregnant dog, a pig had snorted at me, and one of the goats kept staring at me which was creeping me out. My hands were freezing, my feet were killing me from Mum’s gumboots, and I needed a coffee – none of this dandelion tea crap Mum had lying around. It reminded me of the last time we’d been to Tasmania when I was fifteen, one of the only family holidays we’d had all together. Most of it consisted of Dad and I trying to keep the noise down while Mum stomped about on the phone to her law firm, trying to sort out some Big Case and abusing her colleagues.

We stayed at a farm like this, and one morning I was standing at the fence with a basket in my hand. Mum had suggested we go get some eggs – meaning I got the eggs while she watched and criticised. I really didn’t want to go in there. In my opinion chickens were mean, spiteful creatures, and I knew that the moment I stepped in there I would be savaged, and my remains would be discovered months later covered in feathers and claw marks.

However, amazingly, for one moment she wasn’t glued to her phone, so I felt like I should do it.
I took a deep breath and walked through the gate. I stopped in front of the coop, my gumboots squelching into the wet grass. How would the chooks react to me taking their eggs? Were they territorial like bears? Did they have teeth in those wicked little beaks?

I lifted the wooden flap and tentatively reached in. I closed my hand around the closest egg, keeping an eye out for any vicious chicken that might attack me at any moment, and took it out. I turned it around in my hand. It was different to eggs that you buy in a supermarket. It had freckles like it had been out in the sun.

Suddenly, out of nowhere, a large goose was charging at me like a Spanish bull. I fell backwards in shock, the egg flying out of my hand and cracking open on the side of the coop, yolk running down the side.

The goose was honking in my face, running around and flapping its wings, nipping at my arms and legs with its beak. I screamed, jumped up and ran towards the gate, hands covering my head. I jumped up and climbed over the fence and fell on the ground again.

I got up and felt the wet patch on the back of my jeans from the mud. I looked up, but Mum was gone. I could see her sitting on a log a few metres away, back turned, talking heatedly on the phone. And that’s when it finally dawned on me, what I realised I knew all along. That I would always come second.

Well, she could get her own bloody eggs now. Just because I was stuck here on their farm didn’t mean I was going to be doing chores.

‘Good morning!’ she said brightly as I walked into the kitchen.

I smiled awkwardly in reply, unsure how to react to this personality one-eighty.

‘Darling, you remember I mentioned the meeting yesterday?’ she said.

‘Mhmm.’

‘Well, what do you think? Don’t you want to come and see what it’s all about?’

No, I’d rather shave my legs with a cheese grater.

‘No thank you,’ I said.

Mum sighed. ‘I think you’d find it really interesting. Did you know that if this permit is granted, over seventy percent of the forest in the south-west will be open to loggers –’

‘Mum!’ I said, cutting her off. ‘No matter how many times you ask me, the answer will still be no. I’m not here to chain myself to a tree or run around banging a tribal drum, singing the wonders of Mother Earth.’

‘Why are you being so hostile? I thought you were here to spend time with us.’

‘I’m here because I got fired from my job and my boyfriend kicked me out. End of story.’
‘But –’

‘Leave me alone. That’s what you’re good at, right?’ I turned my back and walked away.

As soon as I did, I wanted to turn back, and grab my words from where they hung in the air. But I also wanted to tell her that I used to lie next to my dad and try to figure out his scent, and that at the same I’d try and imagine what my mother’s was. I came up with different combinations in my head – chocolate and raspberry, or lilies and musk. But every time I tried to imagine I came up short. It’s hard to remember the scent of someone who is never there, who was always working late and chooses her job over her family. In the end I stopped trying, and I closed my eyes and pretended that all three of us were lying there safe together. And then I’d open my eyes, and her side of the bed would be empty.

Say what you want about Tassie, but it sure knew how to put on a night-time spectacle. I hadn’t known there were so many stars in the sky.

‘I’ve got something for you, Claire Bear,’ said Dad, walking out onto the veranda. I was relieved to see that the shiny bodysuit was gone.

He held out a bowl with a large slab of pie. ‘Made from the apples picked in our orchard.’

‘I’m not that hungry for pie served with slatherings of guilt.’

‘Not even a very hot, sweet, sticky guilt pie with ice cream?’

The pale ice cream was melting over the hot pie, pooling at the bottom, making my mouth water. I took it from him, the bowl warming my hands.

‘Claire …’

I exhaled. ‘Look Dad, I know you’ve come up here to try and talk me into apologising, but you needn’t bother.’

He held up his hands. ‘I’m not here to tell you anything. Not even about how excited she’s been since you called and told us that you were coming. Or that she knows what she’s missed. Maybe this is her trying to reach out a bit.’

‘But she can’t just give me some apple pie and expect that it’s going to make everything okay.’

‘But maybe it’s a start.’

I looked out across the hills to the mountain in the distance. Back in the city you couldn’t look further than a few metres ahead of you because of the concrete buildings blocking your view. Somehow it was calming to look ahead to the horizon unobstructed.

Dad put his hand on my shoulder. ‘Let me know if you want some hot chocolate. I’m famous for it around here.’

‘Hot chocolate and apple pie? Don’t make me write to Jenny Craig to dob you in.’

He rubbed his stomach. ‘How do you think I got this?’

I couldn’t help smiling. When he was gone, I lifted up the bowl and inhaled. Then I stopped. That was it. The fragrance I’d noticed on Mum when she’d hugged me at the airport – it was the scent of apples.

‘Claire!’

Mum looked surprised to see me up so early the next morning. She was standing at the sink, dangling a dandelion tea bag in a lumpy mug.

‘I’ve been thinking,’ I said, leaning against the bench. ‘I think that an article on a group of loyal environmentalists trying to stop deforestation would be a perfect piece for my journalism portfolio, for when I start looking for a new job. It would really help me out to come along to your meeting.’

Mum tried to hide her look of surprise. ‘Well … so do I, darling. It’s very topical. Everyone’s into the environment these days.’

‘It’s not going to be a puff piece though.’ I pointed to her. ‘I’m going to write it as I see it. Journalistic integrity and all that. If you charge in there and boss everyone around like a tyrant, the world is going to know.’

She smiled and nodded. ‘I would be disappointed with anything less.’

I turned to walk away, but she came and hugged me from behind. I breathed in, locking that apple scent away in my memory, ready to take out whenever I needed it.

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Weight in Gold, Illya Lugovoy

Had he not been so intent on discovering what were to become the Lost Statues of Frunzenskaya, had he instead made his way out of the station like all the others, had he not dared to venture forth along dark corridors that led to machine gun-toting revolutionaries, his life might have continued on amicably for a few more years, at least until the alcohol poisoning that his life at the early age of thirty seven. But he was an inquisitive soul and thus had found himself atop a tank at the wrong end of the barrel with three tonnes of gold statue wavering above his head.

He was there. He had arrived. He had worn the ears off of all his family and friends as to the majesty of St. Petersburg – he, however, preferred the more affectionate name Piter. Now he was to traipse its very streets…except the word ‘traipsed’ implied that his venturing forth was unsure and unfounded; he was very sure of his path and where he should go. And all the chaos of Moscow (his Moskva) would dissipate amongst this semblance of culture. He knew that up ahead to his left were the famous marbled walls of Frunzenskaya, their decadence replete with golden statues calmly reaching out to the thronging masses. They had been the highlight of his readings during his schooling. He had already his notepad and fountain pen out to record his thoughts at that moment. They were always readily available in the front pocket of his attaché pouch. They (the statues) were an ode to tepid times past; and to moments of sincerity through struggles. Stalin had been a quiet man. Would he have heard their call as he passed them by? Would he have heard anything above the bedlam? They were wont to-

‘Keep moving! And don’t leave bags on floor.’ The command was accompanied by a hand pressing into his back.

Vissarion momentarily faltered and then recovered himself to see that the presser had melted already into the crowd of thousands, with more to accost him if he were to remain an encumbrance. He regathered his belongings and made to join the masses.

At the station of Frunzenskaya, one of the city’s deepest underground stations at 105 metres, one had the option of several departure points: towards the streets of Nevski; down the way to the square of Lenin; or further along to the station of Electrosila.

‘Again fool! Why you not desist? Tourist!’

Vissarion was aware of the swarthy uniformed guard now standing in front of him. The man came up only to his shoulders but still cut an impressive figure. The epaulettes on his shoulders suggested he had been decorated for more than quelling crowds of wandering people on the metro. The name embroidered on his chest read Romek Abramowicz. Decidedly un-Russian.

‘What your problem? There is no time for observation,’ the guard began. ‘Can’t you not sense mood here?’

‘I only just arrive now. I want to look round.’

‘If you just arrive now, you must go verify documents. Or else we send you away. But this is bad time for you to arrive. You should be going away.’

The guard was gone. Vissarion stole one more glance towards the resplendent wall and once again gathered his belongings.

He pushed past several babushki, rather forcefully, ignoring their cries of unorthodox behaviour, for they would do the same to him and not bat an eyelid. The metro in Piter was a hive for the infirm and decrepit: the women held out twisted and gnarled hands for money and crossed themselves every few moments whilst the men, mostly war veterans and sans legs, trundled through at knee level, also asking for money, for a helping hand, for a prayer to god. People from all walks of life were represented on the Russian metro. The Russian metro face was perhaps the best poker face ever: faces devoid of any emotion, staring straight ahead, not warming to one another, not registering a single thought process.
Vissarion’s eyes had been intently following the spiralling artwork on the ceiling, so much so that he passed by the escalator to the surface and continued around it before coming upon a dead-end at the underside of the escalator. He paused so to record his sightings and then turn back. There in a lugubrious niche stood a statue.

This surprised him as he knew that Frunzenskaya had only the one set of statues along the esplanade, all other statues having been lost since the Cold War.

He moved closer and marvelled at the beauty this particular statue possessed. It was a finely wrought work that was both out of place yet couldn’t have been placed anywhere else. The statue somehow belonged here. It hinted at some untold factor. It drew Vissarion closer…yet revealed not a thing after he scoured every inch for half an hour. And he was now very thirsty.

The whisky was a welcome refresher after his travels. He hadn’t had a drink in several hours. His bags were arranged on the small area of marble ledge jutting out from the floor and he was seated beside them. His coat and jacket lay over his bags and his tie was loosened. He was calmer now than he was beforehand, though that had not really been anxiousness he felt earlier. Merely the effect of his first time in Piter. So far, only minor chaos.

There was a steady hum that would have, without a doubt, without a thought, been attributed to the machinations of the trains. Vissarion only began to take note of the hum after a dull thump started drumming behind his eyeballs. Usually this occurred after a bottle or two of whisky; he had only finished his first flask. After a bottle or two, one could be forgiven for believing that elephants were dancing inside one’s head. They would touch upon certain nerves and receptacles that elicited extroverted responses; right now Vissarion was sure he could feel the rumble of these elephants taking place outside of his person as well, as if they were bouncing around in a china shop that was conveniently located to the aft of the station.

A stronger rumbling confirmed that Vissarion’s constitution was still strong, that there was some deep disturbance rising up to the surface.

The violence of these rumbles was its strongest yet about twenty seconds later. Vissarion was rocked from his perch, his coat and jacket falling to the ground, his fountain pen rolling over to the far wall. Grumbling over his soiled garments as he picked them up, he moved also to pick up the pen and felt an intense heat on the right side of his face as he bent over. Turning his head, he saw…what he made out to be a door wedged open the tiniest amount. He espied steps leading downwards.

Another rumble. More heat – stronger this time – was propelled through the door.

Whatever was going on was taking place beneath Piter. Logic told Vissarion to walk away and take a canal tour: discover the creations that Piter had to offer from the sanctity of the puttering barge, to delve not deeper into certain chaos.

But these days, there was nothing logical in Russia and Vissarion wasn’t about to start.
The passage was dank and grimy yet this was no matter as he soon came upon a sight that quelled any quibbles he might have held, at least for a few seconds – dead ahead was another statue.

Vissarion was a religious man by culture, not nature; his belief in fate, however, was paramount. He sensed that he was about to be graced by some epiphany that would have him on his knees in reverence.
He was there when he saw the fourth statue.

Vissarion crossed himself for posterity. He was all a jitter.

Three statues more. I not believe such things yet I can see them with own eyes.

The hum that had been so persistent earlier on had diminished to a barely audible drone. It lightly tickled one’s senses and frolicked about the edges of perception. Vissarion had all but forgotten about it, lost as he was in his statue discoveries. He was still holding his book and pen and had continued to take down notes, though whether he would be able to read his writing would be another matter as the light here was not at all strong. His fountain pen, he knew, was close to running dry and the refill cartridge was in a pocket of the bag left behind.

The distant hum had now been replaced by a sound that chilled Vissarion’s blood. Chilling because Russia had made great progress these past few years without the aid of that sound.

He rounded a corner, coming out onto a precipice of a very deep-running, far-flung cavern and was presented with the following scenario, orchestrated in all its majesty and bedlam: the gunfire he had just heard was coming from both ground level and what seemed to be a hole in the ceiling of the cavern; soldiers on what were apparently the streets of Piter (the European quarter, he noted) were firing down through the hole at platoons of men and these men were returning fire; helicopters, amidst the hail of bullets, were taking off and attempting to exit through this opening in the ceiling, flying to who knew where; what looked like scientists were scurrying about across the cavern floor, having being concerned it seems with all the machinery (tanks mostly) that was assembled about this vast expanse, and now wildly fearful for their lives; the assembled machinery was now slowly rumbling towards a tunnel on the far side of the cavern; a rocket launcher was discharged and its payload slammed into the side of one tank, sending it crashing into another tank; several tanks raised their long shafts and returned a devastating assault; the soldiers on the roads above were sent into oblivion, not even a sceric of their DNA would be recoverable; Vissarion was wild-eyed as he surveyed the chaos in front of him; he heard voices from the passage; he dove for a ladder nearby to him and which led downwards to the ground; bullets whizzed close by his head; he was close to having a conniption; the voices above were directed his way; he stayed on his course, sure he could find a niche to cower in.

The niche never eventuated for Vissarion; he slipped and fell from the ladder, but only a short way, onto a passing tank. He landed atop the swivelling gun head, holding on for dear life; he had a front row seat to the mayhem around him. The roar of the gun was deafening: wodges of rocks garnished the ground below, creating a haphazardly-shaped mural that ran black and red with oil and blood, respectively. One of the helicopters had taken fire from above and it was spiralling back to earth. Vissarion watched the rotor blades slice through several scientists and soldiers and then pop off, to whir past his head and embed themselves in a large drum of noxious liquid. The fervent purple liquid cascaded forward and lapped up those whom had fallen, whittling them into granular nothingness. A soldier fell from above onto the tank, a splash of red leaping up to cover Vissarion; he screamed aloud, his voice barely audible amidst the commotion, and pushed the body away.

The top hatch flipped up to reveal a quizzically goggled face. ‘What you doing here? You not soldier.’
Guns continued to play around them, bullets pinging here and there. The gaudy splashes of red were offset at intermittent periods by a fine pink mist.

‘Speak, interloper! Do not hide your inquisitive face.’

The tank slowed to a halt, the man pulling himself up out of the driver’s chamber. Vissarion stood up slowly, noting that this man also came up only to Vissarion’s shoulders. The name embroided on his chest read Natan Abramowicz.

Why so many Polish working here?

The Pole began speaking.

Up above, the statue that had been hoisted into the air was now wavering dangerously, several wayward bullets having clipped the wire attached. It was ready to drop onto the two men below fifty seconds into the following impassioned speeches:

‘…and so you see that we ready ourselves now to take over that bastard city that thinks can give orders, that think we are lesser than they, that we like dirty monkeys. We start by taking back statues that belong to us. You know they were stolen from us and we look long time searching for them and then one day, stupid Russians, they give to us textbook of Russian history, replete with pictures of so-called Russian art and culture. They talk about famous statues at station. We Polish knew straight away that they were Polish statues, that Russians had taken them from us. We let them take vodka as theirs, but these statues are our pride and joy. We must reclaim title that was…is…ours….That is mindset we are in: we think like Russian and so we make attack look like Russian versus Russian. You are learned man. Why not join us?’

Vissarion’s blood-streaked face trembled. ‘You te-telling me statues I have held so dear to my heart are P-P-Polish, that you here to take them, that this mayhem is all for something in p-past, something so pet-’

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