Written c. July 2007.
(CP: This is a work of short fiction.)
The alarm woke me and the three o’clock news began emanating throughout the bedroom. The trains are running late, there’s an election coming up, Arsenal lost again this morning. I turned the radio off and packed up the junk from last night into my black pouch. From the bedroom I walked through the hall and into the lounge room. I turned the computer on and, after opening the door, walked out onto the balcony. I was only wearing boxer shorts and a t-shirt and the cold immediately sent beautiful shivers through my body. My cigarettes were still on the table from yesterday. I took out a Peter Stuyvesant and lit it, drawing the first draught of smoke for the day deep into my lungs.
It had been raining, or at least overcast, for weeks now. The city skyline was completely obfuscated, the water indivisible from the fog. It was like it was actually morning.
I walked back inside and over to the coffee table where the computer lived. The time spent smoking enabled me to avoid the ennui of waiting for it to load. I briefly considered just how non-smokers waited for buses or were able to write essays. I logged onto the Internet, opening up my e-mail inbox, Windows Messenger and Facebook. First to e-mail; six new messages. I looked at the senders’ names and emitted the first silent sigh of the day. Friends, but not the ones I’m looking for. The number of e-mails I receive has been decreasing steadily. I used to be invited to a lot of parties or dinners or get-togethers. I guess I still am invited, I just don’t get the invites any more.
I picked up the phone and listened to the dial tone. The alternate tone piqued my interest. I rang the voicemail number and listened:
“You have one new message.” I hit the One Button.
“Hi Alexander, it’s mum. There’s an ad in the Herald today for something on one of the music video stations – not MTV – just V I think it was. Anyway, will you look it up for me? Love you, bye.”
I hung up the phone and walked through to the bathroom and denuded. The bathroom mirror stood three feet from the floor above the sink. Standing on the edge of the bathtub I could look into it, directly at my penis, as other people would see it. It had never really grown since puberty. I turned on the hot water tap and waited for the water to heat before stepping under the sprays. I cleaned the sleep out from my eyelids and rested my forehead against the wall, the hot water splashing on my back like flagellation.
I thought up long monologues about how I would explain my behaviour. I didn’t have a father and I’ve been in a proper relationship and being with you gave me so much confidence and we spent so much time together and… I would digress to new arcs randomly. You know love isn’t a bad thing; it was love that caused me to always look out for you, and it was because I loved you that I would take you home when you were drunk and it was because of love that I helped you out when Simone left you and it was because I loved you that I never did anything when you were naked and believe me I had opportunities… But my tone would change. I don’t understand why you did all that stuff, why you ran away from me, why you can’t just say you’re sorry, why you stole my friends off me, you were my best friend… And I would become bitter. You fuckin’ cunt, I’m gonna fucken kill you and make you pay for this. The water turns cold before I even touch the soap.
I emerged from the bathroom draped in a towel and sat in front of the heater. In summer I could spend an hour drying by this method. The cold forced me to act, and a minute of adequate chafing with the towel was sufficient enough to leave me in a state of bearable dampness. I dressed in a pair of Davenport boxer shorts, my red Eskimo Joe t-shirt, a pair of Ben Sherman jeans and my new favourite blue Ben Sherman hooded jumper. I hadn’t shaved in a while and the designer stubble was suiting me. I felt like shit but looked great.
I carried my socks back to the living room and turned the TV on to music videos. We had all six music channels. In the past I had described flicking between them as my life. Lovestoned on V, I Wanna Love You on V2, Thunder in my Heart on Music Max, some song by Pink on MTV, Read My Mind on VH1, some random song on the Country channel. I thought of the lack of verisimilitude of all six stations playing a song at the same time. They always seemed to be playing ads for mobile phone ringtones.
I put socks on and dug around under the couch for my really old and much loved white (originally, now more brownish) Lonsdale sneakers. I put my phone and wallet in my right pocket and my keys, cigarettes and lighter in my left. I took my Tuesday Prozac and walked out of the apartment and into the vestibule. It’s been raining for weeks now but I still risk going out without an umbrella. I have to put my hood up over my ears to protect me from the cold. Also I like the mystery of the hooded figure walking the lonely streets on a bleak day. Fog everywhere, fog in the streets, fog in the sky. I am Pip, Phillip. This isn’t Hampshire any more.
I have lunch everyday at McDonalds. I don’t think the staff like me because although I order the same thing everyday I seem to have a habit of bringing tension into the store. Pro: School hasn’t broken up yet so there isn’t much of a queue. Con: There are no kids from the local private schools to keep me amused. Pro: It’s a weekday so all the staff are sub-continental and I can treat them like shit without any guilt. Con: Jake the chemo kid isn’t working today. I walk up to a Korean girl.
“Hello, medium Fillet of Fish meal, not too much ice in the Coke, a cheeseburger, no salt on the chips,” My first pause, and then, “Eat in. Credit.”
She’s struggling, so I seize the moment to make life difficult for her.
“What’s wrong?” I whinge. “I order the same thing everyday.”
“I’m very sorry, sir, I’ve just got to get manager…” She trails off. The problem is the chips without salt, they all struggle with that. Eventually Steve, the early 20s full time McDonalds employee, comes over and shows her.
The McDonalds I have lunch at everyday recently changed their system. Previously a row of kids took orders and then turned around to get the burgers from a tray linked to the kitchen. They would then get the chips and pour the drinks. Essentially the food was made and ready to go, the kid would just take your order and your money and food would materialise. But the system has changed. Now the food is prepared after you order. What this means is that the kids taking the orders move on to the next customer while a runner waits for the food to be made and then delivers it to you. The runners, however, don’t ever speak to you, so unless they actually look at the receipt, which they none of them do, they never know if you’re eating in or taking away. The thing I hate most is when I’m presented with a brown paper bag of food instead of my food on a tray.
Today’s runner is a moderately overweight Mediterranean woman who works at the store most days. Her heart clearly isn’t into her job at McDonalds, and when she puts my food into a bag and then places the bag on the tray I’m ready to explode…
“I asked for eat in,” My tone is forceful and demeaning. I must sound like the biggest arsehole in the world. She just looks at me, as if it’s totally unreasonable to unpack the bag of food after taking a seat in the restaurant. I don’t move. By this stage customers and other staff members are looking at us. With body language tantamount to saying ‘you are the pathetic person in the world’ she opens the bag and unpacks my food. When she’s finished I look at her and say “…with a smile”. Her look is priceless. I’ve totally destroyed her, but I do feel a little bit guilty because I want people to like me.
I picked up a copy of the Telegraph and sat down to eat. I always start at the back, working my way through the sport section before reading the news headlines and the letters. I like to save the death notices till last. There’s a story in the paper today about a Down’s Syndrome kid who’s meeting the Queen because he climbed Mount Everest. This sort of stuff really puts my own failure into perspective. I’m a 28-year-old unemployed virginal degenerative alcoholic gambler with a substance abuse problem and this kid with related parents and an unco face has just climbed a mountain, dined with the Queen and wears a permanent fucking smile. I look up from the paper and see Steve walking towards me with the most nervous looking smile I’ve ever seen. He sits down opposite me.
“Hello Steve,” I speak through my teeth.
“Hi, I was wondering if we could have a chat”
“Sure, what’s up?”
“Do you mind if I ask your name?”
“Don’t call me that,” But he misunderstood.
“I’m sorry, Mr Phelps”
“No, it’s, um, actually Dr Phelps,” I’m struggling now. “I meant no-one calls me ‘Alex’. It’s Alexander.” He looks at me as though finding out I’m a doctor has totally changed my appearance. He’s no longer talking to his most regular, yet rudest customer. He was a kid, dancing along the rail at the zoo with unabashed temerity. But he’s fallen into the lion’s enclosure. The onlookers gasp or scream or pray; they await the onslaught. But I’ve already eaten at this McDonalds once today. “It’s alright. I’m not like a GP or a surgeon. I have a PhD.” I pause for comic effect. “In Sociology.” And he smiles and I know we’re going to be friends.
“Okay Alexander,” Steve’s doing well now. He even looks into my eyes for renewed acceptance. “Look, we really appreciate you coming here everyday. You know, we know you come in for lunch-”
“I just can’t stand that I have continual problems with my ordering,” I interject. “I order the same thing everyday and with this system you’ve got now, I don’t mind waiting a little longer, I just can’t stand having my food put in bags when I’m eating in. If you only want to give people food in bags then don’t use trays at all; make the whole store take-away.”
“Okay,” Steve realises there’s not much he can do. He doesn’t own the store and whoever does knows that replacing my custom is much harder than finding someone who can make hamburgers. “I’ll tell the staff to make sure they put your orders on the trays.”
“Thank you, Steve,” He stands up and walks back to the staff area. Now that I’ve been confronted about my behaviour I have to choose whether I’ll be a hero by changing my ways or really take on the position of world’s biggest arsehole by continuing as though nothing has happened. I imagine it takes a lot of courage to do what Steve did.
There’s only the death notices left so I decide to take them outside onto the covered landing so I can smoke while I read them. I take out a Stuyvesant and light it; the shivers run down my spine and I feel good. There are a few young people today: a 22-year-old man from Padstow who died suddenly. He has an anglo name so I’m thinking suicide. If it were woggish I plum for car accident. There’s a 12-year-old girl, who is described as having gone through ‘a brave battle with illness’. I assume cancer but I like to think it might have been consumption or ebola. One of the notices is for the whole family that got swept away in their car during the recent floods up north.
Curtis, Scott (b. 1967)
Curtis, Sally (b. 1970)
Curtis, Beau (b.1993)
Curtis, Samantha (b. 1996)
Curtis, Travis (b. 2000)
Taken from us 1/6/2007
Although they are gone,
They are still together,
Although they are not with us,
There love is forever.
A combined service for the Curtis family will be held at Merewether Crematorium on Thursday 7th June at 1pm.
In the care of
A family owned business
A couple of things struck me about this notice. The first one was the malapropism in the incredibly trite poem commemorating this family. Similarly, the antiquated use of ordinal numbers in the date reflects poorly on the funeral company handling this account. Much more importantly, though, I thought of how I definitely did not want to share my death notice with anyone, no matter how closely related. I also didn’t want to have to share my funeral. Actually, I now considered deeply, I wanted the mass for the eternal repose of my soul to be held at my alma mater, and then my burial somewhere near my grandfather.
A vibration in my pocket interrupted my funeral arrangements. I heard two subtle tones and I withdrew my mobile phone to observe the text ‘1 Message Received’ on the screen. I hit the buttons opening up the message and my heart raced as the message loaded, could this be the one? Paul saying he’s sorry, or asking if he could call me, or congratulating me for something, or wishing me ‘happy birthday’ for six weeks ago. But the message loaded and I could see it was from Nick Zakora and my whole body shrugged simultaneously. It was something about his girlfriend having birthday drinks in the Cross this weekend. I would deal with that later, but it wasn’t totally out of the question.
I folded the paper up and left in on the outside table. Walking back to the counter I approached the Mediterranean woman and said, “I’m sorry about earlier. I’ll see you guys tomorrow, okay?” I silently rapped my knuckles twice on the counter and then turned and walked out.
The weather turned and it started raining. Although I’d been sitting outside the subtle change from overcast to raining struck me. I thought of when I was a kid and I would go to the movies in the afternoon and come out in the evening and how the change was so fundamental. The absence of dusk couldn’t prepare me for the night and although it was only seven I would rush home and go to bed as though it were midnight.
The McDonalds was on the other side of Ford Street to the apartment block and the traffic lights were about 50 metres down the road. There were no shop awnings between the two so I stood just outside the McDonalds’ exit waiting for them the change. As I saw the perpendicular lights change to amber I began walking briskly to the corner. But I had misjudged it. As one set of traffic was stopped, turning traffic was opened and my route was blocked by speeding cars. I stood there in the pouring rain. I thought of Paul driving past and seeing me here and, although my hooded jumper protected me from the rain, I felt more exposed than if I were naked.
Eventually the lights changed and I crossed Ford Street and began the slow trudge back to the apartment block. My original enthusiasm for avoiding the weather had been defeated and I’d accepted that if I were going to be saturated I might as well not be out of breath. As I continued I passed a man walking under an umbrella. He smiled and said “Nice day for it.”
“Couldn’t o’ picked a better one…” Was my laugh-infused reply.
Outside the apartment blocked I checked the mailbox. It was one of the big three moments of the day, along with my first e-mail check and ringing up my phone messages. There were a couple of letters for my grandma and one for me. I took the bundle and walked up the path and into the apartment hallway. Opening the front door of the apartment I could hear the television. Gran was home from her all old-people stuff and was watching one of her serials.
“Hey Gran,” She was in her 80s and well ahead of her time. At least she was in the 1940s. Back then she was like someone from the 1960s. It was 2000s now but she’d never gotten passed the 1970s.
“Hello darling,” She looked up from her show, “You’re soaking wet. Get out of those clothes before you catch a cold.”
“Gran,” My tone was patronising, “the cold is a virus. You don’t catch it from being wet. I’d have to contract it from someone.”
“Well do it for me, will you?” Whenever gran put on her guilt treatment I had two choices. The first was to just do it in order to let it be over. The upside of this was that it was over. The downside was that it encouraged her to keep on guilting people. The other option was to steadfastly refuse to do whatever she wanted. The upside of this was that it would infuriate her and go part of the way to making up for all the guilt trips she’d sent us all on over the years. The downside of this was that often what she wanted was also what I wanted and, as a result, I would have to suffer just as much.
“I’m alright.” I replied, sitting down despite my clothes being soaked.
She sighed and I was happy with my Pyrrhic victory. It was only a few minutes before she broke the silence. “Was there any mail?”
“Yeah. Here.” I handed her the letters.
I made the mistake walking between her and the television.
“Watch darling, I’ll miss something.” I looked at the TV. A black man and a white woman were talking to a caramel kid about how they had fallen out of love with each other and into love with other people.
“They certainly are restless,” I emitted a muted chuckle and got up to walk to the bedroom.
I sat on the bed and opened the letter. It was another letter from Centrelink asking for more information about my medical situation. Since I’d been declared medically unfit for work I had been receiving a pension, but they were always at me. I had to send them new certificates every month and the hassle was such that it almost wasn’t worth it.
I kicked off my sneakers and peeled my wet socks from my feet. After unbuckling my belt I slid my jeans off while still remaining on the bed. My jumper was the most wet and taking it, and the underlying t-shirt, off was an arduous task. It was like when I was a kid and mum made me swim in a t-shirt and then taking it off afterwards was like struggling with a straitjacket. I thought about closing the blinds, but I was sort of thrilled by the idea of passing octogenarians seeing me naked, so I took my boxer shorts off without bothering. I looked down at my tired, wet, soggy penis. It was stupid to pass judgement at this time, temperature and angle, so I relieved my insecurity by playing with it a bit to get it going again.
After Paul left me I needed to stop thinking about him so I bought my first and only porno. There were limited options at the newsagency, but the most appealing was one so graphic that it was wrapped in plastic and had its cover obscured by a piece of paper from the Office of Film and Literature Classification. Picking it up from the stand, I read the warning sticker:
The contents of this magazine have been modified to meet Australian censorship standards.
I was intrigued. It could be that this magazine showed positions and procedures previously unbeknownst to me. Alternatively, I worried that the pictures of cocks had been drawn over with vaginas. It was $23, which was twice what the hetero magazines were. I guess they knew we didn’t have dependants.
As I began to get into it I removed the magazine, which was called ‘Fresh Men’, from my bedside table drawer and began flicking through the pages. I turned on the radio to mask any noises and, using saliva as a lubricant, gratified myself. It wasn’t one of the best, perhaps a six or seven out of ten. The tens were becoming rarer as I moved more deeply into my twenties. God, I’m so lonely.
I put on my dressing gown and walked into the bathroom to wash my hands. Emerging free of guilt or shame, I walked back into the lounge room and sat down at the computer.
“Oh, good, you’re out of those wet clothes,” I was. But if gran knew what it had led to she’d make me put them all back on.
There had been no new e-mails. I scrolled back through the past. As the dates went from recent to distant the number of e-mails received increased. Back six months and there were about 15 a day. Back a year and it was in the 20s. By the time I got down to Paul’s time it was ridiculous – maybe 100 a day. It seems like too many to be possible. They weren’t all from him, of course. The others, the ones he was still friends with, they were there. So were the friends that just couldn’t be bothered with me any more. I looked at the date of the last e-mail he sent me, the one where he told me to accept the situation for what it was and move on with my life. I tried to work out how long it had been. It was over two years – about two years, three months. I wrote down a few numbers on a sheet of paper and added them up: eight hundred and fifteen.
I shut off the computer and walked out onto the balcony. I took my cigarettes out of my pocket and lit one, throwing the pack down onto the table. When I first moved back it was still warm and I would sit out here smoking. I don’t really know why I told him that I loved him. I knew it wouldn’t lead to anything. I guess what I wanted was for him to give me a hug and tell me it would be alright and that he was proud of me and that he’d teach me how to pick up. I extinguished my cigarette.
I could hear that the radio was still playing in the bedroom so I went back in to turn it off. I looked at the clock, it was 5:19. ‘Fresh Men’ was still on the bed so I opened the bedside drawer to conceal it again. From the open drawer I took out my small black pouch. I placed in on the bed and unzipped it. From it, I took out my temazepam packet, my lighter, my spoon and my syringe. I popped four capsules from the temazepam sachet and, taking out my spoon, I opened my capsules one-by-one onto the bowl. Heating the contents with my cigarette lighter, I watched the powder slowly morph into a more syrupy texture. Using a cotton ball as a filter, I drew the contents up into my syringe. I took off my dressing gown and used the cord to make a tourniquet in my left arm. It was taking a bit longer to find veins, but I’d read on Wikipedia that it’s only an urban legend that the veins actually die. Maybe they just hide. Eventually I found one and inserted my needle into the inside nook of my elbow. With steady precision I applied pressure to the plunger, injecting the drugs into my arm.
I laid back on the bed and thought about tomorrow. I’d have to ring up Centrelink to make sure I kept getting money. There was Nick’s invite to the party in the Cross; I’d have to let him know I couldn’t go. There was lunch at McDonalds; that would be good. School should be out when I go in tomorrow, so Jake might be there. And there were e-mails and phone messages and a mail box to check. Actually, there’s a lot on tomorrow, I’m glad I’ve got 20 hours of sleep to prepare.