Short stories

 

I HAVE A SPACE JUST FOR YOU

 

By Russell McGilton

Say ‘Cheese!’ Great. Thank you for that. It’s just to remind me who has visited. We’ve had mix-ups before, especially when someone has the same name. Very embarrassing! This way, please.

As you can see this is the kitchen. Yes, you’re right. Very colourful. I thought about getting the landlord to update it, but I really have fallen in love with the mission brown brickwork and the orange formica cupboards. Sure, the aqua dolphin-patterned lino has seen better days, but I’ve done my best gaffer-taping over those bits that have been crumbling away at the edges.

Is it asbestos? Of course, it’s asbestos! Everything in this house is: asbestos walls, asbestos ceiling, asbestos floors, asbestos in the…asbestos. Everything! Ah, yes. The halcyon days of Melbourne building may be behind us, but in a way, they’re with us forever, wouldn’t you say? Oh, don’t you worry none. I’ve been living here since 1989 and my lung is working fine.

Tea? Coffee? I’m afraid I’ve only got instant. Will that do?

In any case, it’s only when you disturb asbestos does it become a problem. Bit like Astrid, who you will meet, well, if you’re the lucky one who gets the room of course. When you meet her, if you do meet her, be sure not to say hello to her. She does not like people. Unlike me who loooves people, as you’ve no doubt picked up on. Astrid does not like people and this is particularly apparent first thing in the morning. You will hear her door creak open, then her soft, but very heavy footsteps carpet bomb the stairs, then the loud bang of the back door being inconsiderately being flung into the wall as she makes her way to the outside toilet, scuffing her slippers on the concrete before coming back and making a storm in the kitchen as she juices every last vegetable in the house to make her liver cleansing tonic. She leaves this garden of destruction all over the kitchen table and floor and then hoists herself back to her room to masturbate furiously over IKEA catalogues, yodelling away like Julie Andrews slipping backwards off Mont Blanc, giving it more sound than music. Astrid’s favourite piece is The Stågll, which is Swedish for ‘arm stool’.

Milk?

No, no. You misunderstand me. I’m not against masturbation. It is a wonderful and very healthy, healthy, healthy thing. I do it at least twice in the morning (somewhat disingenuously, I might add) just to get my heart started.

Yes, yes, I’m joking. Hah hah! You’ll find I’m quite quick with a joke. They don’t call me ‘Gagging Gary’ for nothing. Anyway, best not to mention that you can hear Astrid going at it hammer and tongs as the habit does at least moderate her moods. If you do say something she may even do it louder; or for some petty revenge like taking the last of her almond milk; or for leaving the toilet holder empty; or not putting the spoons in the cutlery drawer the right way; or like selling her laptop because she’d left the hall light on again despite constant reminders.

She’s moving out next week.

Down the hall and directly under Astrid’s room…is Goran’s room. As you can see he’s not big on décor – just a dooner and a futon. Its starkness is emphasised only by his insistence on having a naked light bulb. Bit like a prison really.

Goran is an insomniac and he is up late most nights, pacing his room like a caged Balkan bear, swigging back some horrid Polish vodka while singing Serbian love songs, many of which involve family blood feuds and imagined old border disputes with Bosnian and Croatians. He always ends up arguing with his father, who’s been dead for some years, and then falls asleep – snoring away like a Chernobyl drain, a precipice of half-eaten börek threatening to fall with each laborious inhalation.

Now, in the ad I did say no tattoos (you might remember the line ‘No body adornments’), but when, or if, you meet Goran you will see that he walks around the house brazenly showing them off. Admittedly these are in the middle of his forehead – a Serbian coat of arms and a love heart. I’ve tried leaving hats on the kitchen table, beanies on his bed and even a burqa as a bit of a hint. But no. Sometimes I think he’s trying to test me.

I see you don’t have any tattoos. This is good. That puts you further up my list.

Goran, it must be said, has an unhealthy fixation with Astrid (the tattoo of her name in said love heart in the middle of his head does seem to give this away). Ever since he heard, what he calls, ‘the siren of love’ from her room he has been smitten. To prove his love for her, he once grabbed the bread knife and cut his hand and let the blood drip on to her pillowcase. She screamed at him to stop, but he said that to feel love one must also feel the extreme joy of pain. Those Serbs! Soooo romantic. Astrid demanded that I throw him out, but as he pays the rent and bills on time (unlike Astrid), I told her my hands were tied. Actually, sometimes they are. Goran has a nasty ice addiction. But don’t tell anyone. He’ll kill you if you do. Hah hah! No. I’m serious. He’ll kill you.

Sugar?

Okay, up the stairs we go.

Ah, the hallway. As the carpet is a bit worn out in the middle (well, threadbare) would you mind walking with your legs wide apart just so as to even out the wear?

No, no. I’m not joking. Honest. Look, like this. See?

I know I look like a drunk tripod but I reckon I’ve extended the life of the carpet by at least ten years, not to mention keeping our rent down. Just imagine all those dyes and bleaches not entering our oceans because of our small actions. Well, small steps in this case. You are environmentally conscious, aren’t you? I did put that in the ad.

That’s it! Even though you didn’t completely walk on the outer edges, you get another tick.

This brings us to…the bathroom and laundry, which is just here on your left. Now, we have a three-minute shower rule. Well, actually, the landlord does. If you don’t shower within the prescribed minute, the cold water snaps off and you’ll be scolded with a sudden burst of boiling hot water. I’ve only been caught out once and have never forgotten it since; especially after the cornea regraft. Best to use the waterproof timer on the tile there, and just to be safe, keep your eyes closed. Not only does this allow us to use the washing machine when we need to, but you also won’t have to worry about who in the house has seen you naked. I mean, I did put that in the ad rather clearly: ‘Must be open-minded’. Astrid is no fan of this novel way of living, but no surprises there. She just doesn’t appreciate that I’m always thinking about her and my guests. I mean, my fellow tenants, er, housemates.

Just across the way here, and past Astrid’s bolted door is my room, the largest room in the house. No, no. That’s not wallpaper. They’re photographs. My photographs to be precise. Good, aren’t they? Each Polaroid is of every person who has ever come here to see the room. Quite a lot, I know. Covers every bit of wall space. Yes, I agree. It is amazing how the fashions have changed. Big hair, big shoulder pads to short hair for women, man buns for men, jewellery crawling to the face. Unlike yourself. Hah! Another tick for you!

On this wall, you can see Astrid. Not a happy picture. Wasn’t really up for having her photograph taken, surprise, surprise. On the ceiling is Goran. Unnerving, how his eyes follow you around the room, isn’t it? If you look closely you’ll see each photograph has a brief description: the person’s name, when they visited, their age, profession, likes, dislikes, etc. The ticks next to them are my rating system: the higher the number of ticks, the higher the chances of me accepting them. Yes, they all seem to have a lot of ticks. Ah…Why are they also crossed out? Well –

Look! Here’s ‘The Room’. Beautiful, isn’t it? Wide, spacious, good light, freshly painted with broad pleasant windows. It also has a split system air-conditioning, TV, and to the back there, a private jacuzzi. Did it all myself. But don’t tell the landlord.

Ah, what’s that? Yes, it is ‘The Jewel in the Crown.’ I can see you like it very much.

But guess what?

You can not have this room.

No one can have this room.

Ever.

Why? Because this room is to remind people of the things they cannot have. ‘Life offers you things and then takes them away’. That’s right. This too was in the ad – ‘Quaint double storey brick veneer house with exceptional surprises.’ Yes, and what a surprise! Hah, hah, hah! You think I’m joking? Well, let me tell you something. I’ve tried sooooo hard to be welcoming. I’ve tried soooo hard to be accommodating. I’ve tried soooo hard just to be a nice person. I’ve tried and tried and tried, but what do I get? Rejection, rejection, rejection! Time after time after time. But, hah hah! The hoof is on the other foot now, isn’t it? I get to decide who lives here. I get to say no. I get to not return people’s calls. Yeah. Look who’s laughing now, huh? Look who’s laughing nooowwwww?!! HahaHAHAHAH!

But don’t worry. All is not lost.  I have a space just for you.

No, I’m not kidding. Yes. Right over there…in the corner of my bedroom wall.

 

O USELESS SIGN

By Russell McGilton

 

O sign , O sign

O how I don’t understand thee,

Swinging you were, fresh from

Callused hands,

Ye message bore little importance

To yon merry crowds,

But O’ it confused me –

“Park bench taken for repairs”?

And aye, the evidence baffled

Me.

Four loose holes gaping for their

Lost mother.

 

O foundations of no glory,

Did ye think some fat-bottomed

Woman would sit on that missing

Throne and impale herself upon thee?

 

O what useless sign!

What bright spock had shined

Your ingenuity?

Had doth he a mind of melting

Wax ,

All soft and malleable

And easily burnt with the

Light of his dull wick?

Twas he not a bored simpleton,

Put to better days of making

Useless signs?

 

O useless sign!, O useless sign!

O ye be a waste of

Good coin,

And light wallet of poor

Taxpayer folk.

 

Had ye not eyes!

If blind as bat couldst thou

Not notice that a chair

Had lived there once by

Passing through it?

“Park bench taken for repairs”?!

O damnable, stupid sign !

 

 

Have ye lain to rest

Scholarly debates of what

Became of the chair that was,

And now is not there?

Had thoust cured

Insomniacs of their worried

Thoughts of what became of

Thee?

 

O wretched, contemptible,

Offensive sign!

 

There!

My Doc Martin

Has cleft ye in twain.

Let ye on author know

Thy damage.

 

Come, O useless sign

Come,

To the river ye

be,

Where the fishes will make more

Sense of your wasted

Energy.

In your place I’ll be

The trickster

With my own message;

“SIGN TAKEN FOR REPAIRS”

Tis fitting, eh?

 

 

IS DIS THE RIGHT GUY, BOSS?

By Russell McGilton

 

BLACKOUT.

Ragtime music plays

SFX: gunfire, glass smashing, people screaming, cars screeching, and ragtime music.

 

BIG JOE (VO): Somewhere on the wrong side of town a hit was being staged against me.

FADE UP SPOTLIGHT on Tony, a gang leader boss. He addresses a small crowd of unruly gangsters.

 

TONY ROUGH HANDS: O.K. Bwoys! Lissen’ up. Here’s da deal. At eleven twirty we drive to Madisons. Gouche, take Johnny in de fwirst cawr. O.K.? Vinnie – VINNIE, COME ON! PUT DA KNIFE DOWN! (Vinnie drops the knife). Don’t fawk wit me Vinnie. Now, you grab de Tommies wit Francis and take out the guawrds.

Louis, you come in true da front, use your chawrm and distract the brawrd at da awfice, while Knuckles and Bruiser knife the stooges on the door. O.K.? You got dat? Good.

Dats when Vinnie and da bwoys bwurst in and blast da place! While dis is goin’ down Johnny and Gouche will come wit me ta Big Joe’s awfice. Now Gouche, only dis time kill da guy after I’ve tawlked ta him. Not before. It’s very hawrd to tawlk to a dead man. O.K.? You got dat dumb ass? When I give da signal, shoot Big Joe between da eyes. O.K.? You got dat? Good. Now we got…fif-teen minutes. So finish your cawffee and we’ll go. And remember; nobody screw up…or your feet will be facin’ da same way as Georgies. Alright. Dats all.

 

FADE OUT SPOTLIGHT

 

BIG JOE (VO) : But some body DID screw up!

 

SPOTLIGHT on Vinnie, a small time crook, picking his nails with a flick knife. He addresses a mystery figure, not on stage.

 

VINNIE: Are you tawlkin’ tae me? Huh? I said are you fawkin’ tawlkin’ tae me?…Who wants tae know? I do mawther fawker!…Who da fawk am I? Why da fawk should I tell you!…I’m Vinnie da Knife…Yeah dats right. I’m from da wrong side of town…Yeah, very funny wise ass! I oughtta cut you right now…What? Whaddaya sayin’? Huh?…Are you fawkin’ deaf??? I told you already. I’m Vinnie da Knife. Don’t ya know? I killed a kid two blocks up from here…Why? Why da fawk should I tell you?…Oh, a passin’ interest! I see wise ass. Do you really know why I killed him, huh? Do you really know why? ’Cause he looked like you dumb ass! Anyway, who da fawk are you? (pause)You’re his brother?! (terrified) Oh shit! Come on man, nice an’ easy. Look, I wuz just kiddin. I’m not really Vinnie the Knife. I wuz mouthin’ off. I’m really…I’m really Vinnie da Carpet Cleaner! Come on man. Have a heart on a guy. Put da piece away. I’m beggin’ ya…Give a guy a break !…No!NO! FOR CHRISSAKE! …ARE YOU FAWKIN’ CRAZ-…( FADE OUT. Sharp sound of pistol shot)

 

FADE UP SPOTLIGHT on Big Joe, a large man in a three piece suit.

 

BIG JOE: Ah, poor Vinnie. Dat stewpid bastard. Tinkin’ he could get away wit murder. But as my Uncle Lenny says “Kill da wrong guy, and da wrong guy will kill you.”

When Tony’s greasers went on their raid I didn’t know anything about it. They beat up da customers, raided da tills, smashed everything in sight. Ah, nasty boys. Funny. I didn’t even get a scratch. They broke up Madisons, alright. Madisons the Chinese Laundry dat is! I alway told dat chink tae change da name after I started usin’ it for my club. Ah well. At least those bozoes got a clean shirt out of it. Tony? Well what can I say. His feet are facin’ da same way as Georgies!

 

FADE OUT SPOTLIGHT

 

ALL HANDS ON DECK

By Russell McGilton

 

On warm days, I often find myself lying on our backyard deck, my feet dipping over the side as if I were in a small boat, my back feeling the gaps in the timber decking, my fingertips running over the neat polished joins. It is a place where my family have summer dinners, have friends over, where our cat hides underneath, or on occasion – parties where the thumping and jumping of guests’ dancing does not at all perturb the deck’s solid performance.

Building the deck was a Herculean task (I have no prior skills for such a feat) but I enjoyed the escape into endless problem solving, not to mention the radio world of art programs and African music, the circular saw cutting to the hard rhythmic beat of Congolese Soukous. The deck also became, at last, my free pass into conversations with men I did not know (my interest in sport is non-existent), so I could now wax lyrical about footing depths, joist stirrups, self-drilling deck screws, bearer lengths and, for the love of God, Bunnings. It gave me male kudos – whatever that means.

Yet, it wasn’t always like this.

Only a short few years ago there was no deck but rather a seismic nuisance of jagged concrete lines that were at fault for unexpected trips, stubbed toes, numerous spilt drinks and the unremitting cries of fallen toddlers. I’d had enough and, when I told my wife, SJ, of my plans to build a deck, she laughed and went off to stuff her face with bocconcini cheese, mumbling how I’d turned the ceiling in our old house into an upside-down ski jump.

Unperturbed, I lured friends over with the promise of lunch and beer if they helped cut and clear the concrete. Darren, a draftsman who thought he was a builder but clearly was neither, had promised the broken concrete to a hippie friend who, for want of a reverse Grand Design (start with the rubble and work backwards) wanted to build a house out of it.

Soon the backyard was busy with men: Graeme, tall, and directive, wrested the concrete saw cutter from Darren and demanded he do it (odd, as it was Darren’s saw). Thus, the rest of us were left with the job of loading up the wheelbarrows. There were no women here and I lamented how my life since having a child had been demarcated along almost traditional roles: SJ tended to the internal workings of the house and, apart from doing all the cooking and fixing the odd fixture or tech issue, I looked after the outside, including the car.

In any case, I was enjoying the camaraderie, the lewd jokes and the unspoken competition of who could carry the heaviest pieces of broken concrete. After a while, and like on an archaeological dig, the removed blocks revealed another time – footprints left by heavy-booted men, hessian bags, sand, broken asbestos sheets and, ‘The Last Supper’ – an empty rusty can of dolmades dating back to the early DIY Period – the 1980s. Then the cause of the ruptured patio: muscular tree roots from our liquid amber tree, its tendrils gripping the earth, slowly and silently forcing the concrete apart like a tree trunk I once saw growing out the centre of a Cambodian Angkor temple. Suddenly, I was back there, young, memories flowing of the woman I had travelled with, the sexual tension between us growing hotter with the day, a delicious fever broken only later that night and –

‘Hey, man!’

Walking through the side gate in big lanky strides, flannel shirt and sprouting a big, bushy, grey beard was Darren’s hippie friend – a man I’d met before. Well, not just met, but rather had thrown out of my car. Some years ago after a Confest[1] recce, I’d offered him a lift, but soon he was demanding that I let him smoke in my car. It’d nearly come to blows and it was only when I parked out the front of the police station did he get out.

Now the fucker was here at my house.

‘Hi,’ he drawled. ‘I’m Flynny’.

Reasoning that years of smoking dope had addled his memory, I found myself shaking his hand and introducing myself. Still, with him being here, I couldn’t help but grind my teeth as I saw him eating my food, drinking my beer and using my toilet. What’s more, the fucker not only didn’t help, but just sat there rolling cigarette after cigarette, smouldering like a coal mine in a pall of dirty smoke, and I wondered if indeed he had recognised me and was now just fucking with me, provoking me to throw him out again! I burned like the end of his rollie, but within a few hours the loading was done and Flynny was gone, his beat up Jeep truck spluttering and rattling after him. I never did find out whether he had forgotten me or not.

That night, my friends drank and laughed, compared our wounds from hauling the concrete: crushed toes, ringing ears from saw cutter, and the fuck ups with the cutting, something of which Graeme quickly glossed over, and of course, my story of throwing Flynny out of my car. We had such a good night, a first time in a long time. I wondered if this was the only way men could connect – through a physical activity. They promised to help with building the deck, but one excuse after another fell at my feet till I was left to do it all by myself, my wife laughing all the way into her cheese.