At the entrance to the shopping centre, the soldier stops to calm his racing heart. Twice before he has come this far and turned back. Like the other times, fear churns inside him. But he also feels the payload tight against his midriff, knows what he has to do. One more breath and he strides into the foyer.
From the glass ceiling a banner cascades down, showing a man who some would say is ‘to die for’. Perfectly tangled locks. Deadly cheekbones. Laser-guided pecs and a smattering of chest hair that has been trimmed with military precision. Then come the abs – atten-shun! – in neat pairs. And below, the product. Underpants. They’re brief style, curving around his buttocks and cradling him at the front in the same snug way that a holster cradles a weapon. The brand name is printed at the bottom of the banner, underwritten by a familiar sigil of red: Westfield.
The soldier lowers his gaze and walks on. Ahead there’s an information post, which he ignores – he has studied the map and knows the route by heart. He steps on the escalator and stands to the left with the other shoppers so as not to attract attention. An unnecessary measure; they’re blind to the danger in their midst. He sees them on the other escalators, their blank expressions. Up and down they’re carried, like zeros in a monstrous calculation.
Off one escalator, a short turn, then onto another. He looks up at the glass ceiling and admires the blue sky beyond, but remains on guard. He knows the way these places work, the tricks they use. Once they designed churches to lift eyes and souls to heaven; now they design shopping centres to stupefy people, to trap them. Once he was trapped too. No more.
‘Use quiet moments to check your ammo,’ the soldier reminds himself. He adjusts his stance, confirms the pressure of the payload against his gut. Then he steps off the final escalator.
Now the target comes into view: the food court, this masticating mass of humanity. Looking at them, he knows why some people grab a gun and start blasting. His preference is chemical weapons.
A group of girls sits at one of the tables. School age, and already they have that cruel, impervious beauty, every hemline and hair so perfect they’re like a lash across the back for those who don’t meet the standard. He takes the table next to them and without wavering bears down on the payload. Sonorous, with a hint of moisture, the fart asserts itself over the din.
The girls stop talking. He has his back to them but is sure their mouths are open. Fire and brimstone fill his nostrils, then comes the sound of dry retching.
‘Ohmygod I’m going to vomit.’
Their shoes clap across the polished concrete floor. He imagines them running to the entrance, under the underwear ad, and across to the park where they will hopefully play on the swings and ruin their manicures. He salutes the pungent air around him.
Soldier’s name: Kevin Tomic
Disenfranchised is what some people would call me, though I still eat plenty of McDonald’s. I order two happy meals and put the toys in my pocket, for my brother. Since the accident he loves all that kid stuff and the therapist says opening little plastic bags is good for him. He’ll be having a wholesome lunch today: shepherd’s pie, cooked up by the Lovey Karen. Karen Lovey is her real name, the respite lady, but I call her the Lovey Karen. Private joke between me and my brother. Actually, these days Erik doesn’t really do humour, so I get it all to myself. Have to be careful not to OD.
After lunch I de-escalate down to Woolies. Despite my anti-consumerist airs I do buy stuff, just nothing as big ticket as designer underwear. In my shopping trolley it’s mostly Home Brand except for the Coke and Tim Tams, and they’re nearly always on special. Sometimes the Lovey Karen asks me to pick something up for a recipe. She keeps threatening to teach me how to ‘sizzle a sausage’ and I keep wanting to ask if that’s some kind of sexual code except that I know she wouldn’t see the funny side and the truth is I don’t think I could handle having to look for a replacement. These couple of hours I get away from Erik are like … like that gulp of air you get before someone shoves your head back under.
Up the escalator, back under the banner of the underwear man. I don’t look at him but I know he’s there, staring down at me. I’ve got bags now too – like any other shopper – and the plastic digs into my fingers and I feel a bit blasted by the lights, a bit defeated. I let out another fart, my parting salvo.
Although the main bus station is just around the corner, I prefer to go to the stop by the park. When I arrive I check the timetable. Five minutes till the next bus, it promises. The only person here with me is the rather attractive middle-aged woman on the ad in the bus shelter. She holds up a sign that says, OLD CAN WAIT. I get an Artline out of my backpack and carefully draw a comma: OLD, CAN WAIT.
‘Just as well dear,’ I say to her. ‘These buses practically never run on time.’
Back at home, the Lovey Karen is wiping the counter in the kitchen, like it’s the last little thing she has to do before everything is finished.
‘I’ve left shepherd’s pie in the fridge, and some pumpkin soup. You can eat the soup with some toast tonight – did you buy bread?’
I pull the loaf of white out to show her.
‘Remember, eat light at night.’
I nod obediently. When she comes on Thursday I’ll tell her that the soup was delicious. The sink really enjoyed it.
‘And remember Erik’s exercises.’
‘We’re doing them!’
‘OK. Just reminding you that it’s important.’
I nod again. ‘Thanks for coming over.’
‘No problem.’ She gives me that smile that makes me want to wince, it’s so forced. ‘See you Thursday.’ I bet she’s dreading it.
‘Bye Erik!’ she calls from the door. From the recliner chair where he’s watching TV, Erik raises his hand and gives an uncoordinated wave that makes him look like a spastic. I go over, nod him a hello and throw him the toys from the happy meals. They land in his lap and he looks up at me.
‘You can open them. The doctor says it’s good for you, and you heard what the Lovey Karen said about exercises.’
He gestures with his head at the DVD shelf.
He nods. I would have thought that he’d never want to see another car again after the accident, and yet he regularly clocks up eight-hour viewing sessions.
‘2007?’ He loves that season. Kangaroo on the track at Bathurst.
He’s not so good at shaking his head, but I get the drift. And lately he’s been asking for 2010 a lot. I hold it up. Bingo.
‘Who says we don’t practise your fine motor skills?’ I say, a joke I’ve repeated as many times as he’s watched the DVD, which is a lot, even though he never laughs, or even smiles. The doctor says that’s normal, that it’s impossible to predict how long it will take people to recover from brain injuries, or whether they will recover. He always seems to put special emphasis on that last bit, and I just wish he would come out and say it: Erik is not going to get better.
I bring him some chips and put a non-spill cup of Coke in the holder next to the chair.
‘I’m going to do some work, yell if you need anything.’
My brother tends to be less demanding when I’m not in his line of sight, so while he basically lives in the lounge room, I spend most of my time in my bedroom looking at internet porn, playing first-person shooters, or bending virtual worlds to my sadistic will – aka ‘work’.
This isn’t what it was supposed to be like and definitely not the way my little sister painted it. She said it was an ‘opportunity’. That was after she came back from her London secondment and declared our family in domestic crisis. Mother couldn’t cope anymore, we had to put her into a home. And someone had to look after Erik, so Teresa sat down with me and went through the numbers, including what she was going to contribute. She made me feel that it wasn’t only my duty, but that it was – and when I remember the word I really do hate her guts – an opportunity for me to look after my brother full time. He didn’t need that much care, and he was supposed to get better. All I’d have to do is cook and clean the house, take him to appointments and help with the rehab. So I quit my prestigious job as deputy assistant fleet manager and went on carer’s benefits. Then Teresa had to take a role on a long-term interstate project because of the depressed job market in Sydney, blah blah blah, and I was left with this great … opportunity.
‘Keveh!’ The cry washes in on a wave of static from the lounge room where the remote control has probably gotten the better of Erik again. I take my hand off the mouse and go to help. When I have restored order to his universe I offer Erik the remote, then pull it back when he reaches out for it.
‘Early night tonight, OK. We’ve got a doctor’s appointment tomorrow. Yeah that’s right,’ I add, when I see his reaction, ‘we’re going to the Junction, baby.’
Once again the soldier enters the danger zone, but instead of a ‘back-end assault’, today his task is insurgency. And he is using a classic strategem: the Trojan horse.
He leads the ‘horse’ slowly towards the elevator, manoeuvring with care around potted plants and frozen yoghurt stalls. As expected, the crowd parts, but this time with a difference: big and clumsy, the horse has the power to both attract the shoppers’ attention and make them turn away.
Downstairs, the soldier sits the horse in the middle of a sweeping wooden bench, then sits down too. After a few minutes, a thirty-something woman in a drab brown dress joins them. The horse turns to her and brays a hello.
Yes, this horse talks, in a clumsy way. Caught off guard, people usually look up at the broad flanks, the wild mane, the clenched coal-black eyes, and are shocked into a response.
The soldier steps in now, apologising for the horse and the way it speaks. When she insists that there’s nothing to apologise for, he tells her how the horse came to be and the work he has to do to look after it – feeding, cleaning, exercise.
She offers up her name as a token of trust. Helen.
Despite the coincidence, this is not a face to launch a thousand ships. Her body, however, is blessed with mortal wonders: the olive skin and light downy hairs of her forearms, the small, plump hands with their doll-like thumbs. The soldier will cherish these treasures, later.
Then, just as he thinks she’s opening the doors of her soul, she reaches into her handbag and pulls out a phone. The adored thumbs dance across the screen, then she puts the device to her ear, stands and walks away. For a few minutes the soldier and the horse wait, in vain.
Back to chemical warfare.
I leave Erik on the bench near Woolies so I can get this over and done with. When the hot checkout girl asks for my Rewards Card I stretch out my arm, unleashing a wave of BO. There is no deodorant in my trolley, or in my armpits. It’s expensive, and just another trick they’ve pulled, another essential they’ve lumbered us with. As the smell hits her, the girl’s features recoil in disgust. Finally, a bit of honesty.
At the bus stop, the ad with the middle-aged woman is gone, replaced by one for champagne. It shows a couple walking towards what looks like a glamorous picnic in the botanic gardens or some other VIP spot. The man is leading the way and his torso is twisted to one side to show off his build. The girl is wearing a short shimmery skirt and is carrying a magnum-size bottle, hanging it down behind her like a club, ready to slam someone over the head. I’ve indulged in enough fantasy to notice that it’s the woman wielding the weapon of ecstasy. I get my Artline out and draw a GER on the end of the label, then settle back on the other side of the bus shelter to snigger at my handiwork: CHANDONGER.
I turn to Erik. A funhouse mirror cackles back at me.
We get up at 7:30am on weekdays. The doctor says it’s good to have a routine, and I work better in the mornings.
‘Wakey wakey!’ I shout as I knock on Erik’s door, then continue in the same public-service-announcement volume: ‘If you’ve wet yourself, go and have a shower. And make sure you put your pyjamas and the sheets in the machine but leave me to wash them.’ I know it’s not his fault, that it’s because of the accident. The Lovey Karen has explained all this, how making him feel bad isn’t going to help his recovery. It’s just a shame that the injury affected some parts of his brain and not others.
But he’s had a dry night for a change and shuffles out in his pyjamas to where I’ve set everything up. Cereal, orange juice and Alan Jones: breakfast of minions. I pour, Erik says ‘whe’.
One of our favourite games used to be imitating Alan Jones to bait Mother, who never missed a show. Erik played Alan and I’d be the sycophants.
‘There should be a statue of you, Mr Jones.’
‘Well thank you very much, Ailsa.’
‘If there was, I do declare, I would kiss it.’
‘Oh, well, I…’
‘And then, I would slowly rub myself up against it, to feel your rock-hard Aussie resolve against my wet, wet Tasmania.’
That’s when Mother would usually start screaming at us.
I do both voices now, but it’s not the same – Erik doesn’t get it, and Mother is probably enjoying the broadcast in peace, with kindred spirits in the nursing home, hands linked. Every now and then I say something funny enough to make myself laugh, and Erik smiles along. Other times he seems to be listening in earnest, which is scary. We used to say that you had to have brain damage to like Alan Jones. Doesn’t seem so funny now.
After breakfast I let Erik take his plate to the sink, just like I promised the Lovey Karen I would. He teeters through to the kitchen, bounces off the counter, then slams into the sink and manages to hang onto the plate, which finally crashes in there.
‘Nothing but net!’ I say in my best NBA commentator accent. He comes out wearing that grotesque smile, like his jaw has been dislocated and then botoxed into place. His trailing arm slides the fruit bowl off the counter and it smashes on the tiles. He takes a short step forwards, then backwards, then forwards again. His feet are bare.
‘Stop moving you retard! You’ll cut yourself.’
I kneel down to inspect the damage, and so I don’t have to look at his face. We used to call each other retards all the time, he must remember that. Or maybe he doesn’t even understand.
‘That’s the end of Mother’s crystal fruit bowl, no sniggers please. And most of this fruit is shrapnelled, we’ll have to throw it out. So that’s a win-win.’ I glance over the counter to check whether he’s angry. He’s looking away from me with his teeth clenched. ‘Stay there while I clean this up.’
In my slippers I crunch into the kitchen and get the dustpan and brush from the cupboard under the sink. I sweep the kitchen first, then move out into the large dining and living area where shards have skidded into every possible nook and cranny. When I go back to the bin there’s something wet on the floor around Erik’s feet. Then I notice the dark stain on his pyjama pants.
‘Come on, Erik. You do know how to go to the toilet by yourself.’ I guess I’m shouting.
‘You seh doan moo.’
‘Go and clean yourself up.’ He starts to shuffle off. ‘And put your clothes in the machine. Looks like I’ll have to do a fucking wash after all.’
This is how it happens. By the time he’s settled in front of the box half the morning will be gone. While he’s in the shower I wash up the breakfast things. There’s a brochure on the counter that I didn’t put there. Karen must have left it under the bowl, her droll way of checking on our eating habits: if you’d eaten your fruit you would have found it.
Courses for carers it says. Building a Healthy Diet, Therapy Begins at Home, Diabetes and the Older Person … I leave it on the counter for later. Much later.
When I was in Year 9 and Erik was in Year 12, he got his Ps and used to drive me home from school. I thought it was impossibly cool how he went around corners too fast, accelerated through orange (OK, sometimes red) lights, did backstreet burnouts and carpark donuts. He was an accident waiting to happen, and for that he won my admiration.
But when the accident finally did happen it wasn’t one of those high speed, ding-dong, flipped over seventeen times jobs, just a delivery van behind him whose driver either lost his brakes (according to his lawyer) or fell asleep at the wheel (according to ours). Erik didn’t even go to the hospital until the next day when the headache got so bad that he couldn’t walk. Brain swelling. Then this.
On Sundays we go to the nursing home to visit Mother. We get a taxi over, and on the way we drive through the intersection where Erik had the accident. I look at him when we go through, checking for a flicker of recognition. There’s nothing.
We’re wearing our Sunday clothes, the ones Mother used to buy us. For the first couple of months she used to check up on our domestic affairs: if we were eating well (Do we look like we’re starving, Mother?); if I’d been reading through the bank statements carefully, because they put bogus charges on there sometimes, Alan Jones said so (Then it must be true, Mother); and if Janette in apartment 3B had been leaving garbage in the corridor again (Janette moved out two years ago, Mother). The first couple of visits were distressing. She cried when we left, as if we were going on some long and difficult journey with no one to make sure we had clean and ironed underwear; to me it was just as sad that where she was going there would be plenty of anonymous hands to change her. She wasn’t the only one crying.
She’d held the reins for so many white-knuckled years that of course it was going to be hard for her to let go. But as the weeks went by she started to. She talked about their outings, or told stories about the ‘old country’. Now, when the sun shines on our little morning tea at a table in the garden, I sometimes wonder if she really belongs here. If she can rave on about the latest book she’s read, she doesn’t need to be in a nursing home.
I excuse myself and go to burn a cigarette in the smoking area. Meanwhile, Mother and Erik incline their heads towards each other like two old lovers. She seems to be confiding the deepest secrets of her heart, and Erik, who barely speaks at the best of times, is practically confabbing. At the green wrought iron table in the sun, surrounded by the pink and white flowers of the nursing home garden, it’s like a wormhole has opened up between the two rarefied worlds that are their brains, a cosmic event that could blind you if you looked at it for too long. I leave the cigarette burning down in the ashtray and when I get back to the table it’s like I’ve snapped them out of their trance and they’re both lost. Me, an intrusion of the real world. Now that is screwy.
‘Mother seems happy,’ I say to Erik on the way home in the taxi.
He nods, though his expression is sad.
‘What do you two talk about, anyway?’
I don’t know why I bother asking, it’s not like he’s going to produce an intelligible answer. All it does is get him wound up, trying to coordinate his jaw and tongue and lips. He looks like an old man trying to stop his dentures falling out. I’m about to shush him with a pat on the arm when he cocks his head upwards and says: ‘Bloody Asians.’
Except for the deep voice, it could have been her. He absolutely nails it and I let out a couple of guffaws in shock, which sets Erik off and starts a chain reaction of laughter. I’ve got tears in my eyes when he says:
‘The nehhh, the nehhh.’
I wonder if he’s trying to continue with the impression. It doesn’t seem like it. But it makes me laugh more and he repeats it louder to get over the top of me.
‘The nehhh! The nehhh!!!’
And then I remember: the Asian nurse hanging around the courtyard. Our poor racist Mother. I look at Erik, his face creased up like mine must be, and for a second I can believe he’s thinking exactly the same things as me, about Mother’s black looks when the nurse serves her food or checks her blood pressure. For a second it’s like it used to be, and I forget how we’re in a taxi on our way from visiting Mother who is now living in a nursing home.
For a second.
I might be able to pour pumpkin soup down the sink without the Lovey Karen noticing, but I’m pretty sure they keep attendance lists at these carer courses. I agreed to go on the diet one, and she very kindly promised to make the booking, which means this week I only get one proper break from looking after Erik.
Like pretty much all bus shelters these days, the one closest to our house – not a major transit point – has its own bus shelter, and ad. ‘We believe in Freedom’ it says, above a boxy leather lounge. I take my time, drawing the vertical bars of a prison cell across the whole ad, using that trick where you make the edges darker so the bars look rounded.
I finish with a minute or two to spare and peer down the road, trying to visualise the bus not coming around the corner. I imagine it broken down back at the start of the route, making it impossible for me to get to the course on time. But no, mercilessly it appears.
Like the bus, I arrive at my destination right on time. I’d imagined the usual layout: desk and whiteboard for the teacher, seats for the students, including a few hidden at the back. This is more like a kitchen and the only place to sit is around a big counter where there are already six people, all female. They swivel to face me as I come in and it feels as though there’s a floodlight on me, the heat of it flushing my face red. The short walk from the door of the classroom to the bench is like a marathon.
There are three neat, middle-aged women, one acne-afflicted teenager, an overweight thirty-something in a tracksuit (snap) and one girl who might be about twenty-five and whose kind and welcoming expression is the only thing that stops me spontaneously combusting.
‘You must be Kevin,’ she says.
I nod, stiffly, like Erik would.
‘Grab a stool, we’re just about to start. My name is Kelly.’ All I can manage is another nod. ‘I’m the teacher for today. But we’ll all be making the food. Now, before we get prepping, a pop quiz: what is the most-cooked meal in Australian homes?’
‘Vegemite on toast?’ says a voice that comes out of my mouth.
Laughter breaks out around the table.
‘It probably gets eaten in the most homes,’ Kelly says, ‘but in my book, toast is not a meal.’
‘Sausages?’ offers one of the middle-aged ladies.
‘Nice try,’ answers Kelly, ‘but no.’
‘Spaghetti bolognese.’ It’s the teenage girl, stating rather than asking.
‘Yes!’ Kelly pulls a mini Toblerone out of her apron pocket and slides it across the counter while the rest of us clap. The girl deserves a prize for being under twenty and answering a question without looking it up on the internet. Kelly rolls on. ‘That’s what we’re going to make today. Now, what are the ingredients?’
‘Spaghetti,’ says one middle-aged lady.
‘Garlic,’ says the lady next to her.
‘Meat,’ says the third.
Kelly raises her hand as if to hold back a wave of further responses. ‘What kind of meat?’
‘Minced beef.’ Another sniperlike contribution from the teenager.
‘Very good! What else?’
‘Bolognese sauce,’ says the tracksuited woman.
‘Hmmm,’ says Kelly, ‘that’s definitely part of the recipe, but I want you to tell me the base ingredients. Kevin?’ She fixes those kind eyes on me, and I strain my mind back to when Mother used to make spaghetti bolognese. There was that cheese she was always nagging me and Erik to try, the one that smelt like vomit … I look at Kelly’s eyes again, and instead of adding to the pressure, they help me locate the file in my memory.
‘Fantastic! We usually put that on at the end, but a lot of people would say it’s not complete without a sprinkle of parmesan. What about the sauce?’
Kelly keeps pushing us to name ingredients, but I’ve done my bit and slouch back to the extent possible in a stool, letting the others come up with the rest. Then she guides us over to collect our professional-looking dark blue aprons, matching cooking hats and the hardware: knives, chopping boards and pots and pans. The edges of the room are lined with ovens, bristling with gas rings that Kelly shows us how to light. We put huge pots of water on to boil and add a ‘pinch and a punch’ of salt. Then we go back to the bench in the middle to prepare our ingredients.
She shows us how to chop an onion, tucking our fingers under so we don’t cut ourselves. Her onion looks like it was done by a CAD program; mine looks like Erik did it. ‘Rustic is good!’ she says. She shows us a trick with the garlic where you bash it under the flat of the knife so the skin comes off easily. Then we have a carrot-grating race, which after the amount of practice I’ve had in similar hand movements I am frankly disappointed not to win. Following her instructions, we each start preparing our own dishes.
‘If you look this recipe up on the internet, you’ll find about a million versions,’ she says as she moves around the room, stirring a pot here, wafting aromas there, ‘but don’t let anyone tell you that you’re doing it the wrong way – you’re doing it your way. If you want to add mushrooms, bacon, herbs, whatever, go for it. This is just a basic recipe that you can play with. Time for the meat!’
We up the tempo, stirring the mixture so the meat doesn’t clump, then add canned tomatoes, salt and a sprinkle of sugar.
‘Once you’ve broken up the tomatoes, give it a good stir and put the lid on. Now, how’s that water going?’ As if on cue, steam starts jetting out from under the lid of my pot.
In less than fifteen minutes we’re all sitting around the centre table again, this time each of us with a bowl of pasta. Kelly passes out the cutlery. ‘I guess you’ll be wanting some parmesan, Kevin?’
I can only grimace as she grates it over my bowl. ‘Thanks, that’s heaps!’ I say as quickly as manners allow. As I chew, I brace myself for the spew-like flavour of the cheese. Thank God it’s not as bad as I remember.
‘So?’ Kelly asks.
Full mouths, nodding heads.
‘Well done! And once you’ve cooked it you can let it cool and store it in the fridge. It tastes even better the next day.’
We’ve made enough for a classroom of thirty, so she gives us plastic containers to take away our leftovers, plus a copy of the recipe.
‘How did you go?’ asks the Lovey Karen when I get home.
I place the container on the counter, which as per usual is getting the final wipe down. ‘I cooked spaghetti bolognese. Try some.’
She does, chews slowly, then raises her eyebrows.
‘Erik!’ She calls out to my brother who is in his armchair. ‘Kevin here is a bloody master chef.’ In a softer voice she says: ‘It’s a beautiful afternoon. Why don’t you take Erik out for a walk?’
Apart from the Sunday visits to Mother and essential doctor’s appointments, I basically stopped taking Erik out after the time he fell over at the top of our street. But a quick trip to the shops we could probably manage.
‘What do you reckon Erik, ice-cream in the park?’
From his armchair, he gives me a thumbs up, straight and high.
The park is pleasant enough, especially in the late afternoon sun. And at times like these I don’t take it for granted – I know that sitting here is a luxury, that every car whooshing past is a reason to be thankful, that most people spend their days racing. Across the road there’s a mechanic’s garage, and wedged in behind that is an ageing terrace with a billboard on the side. It’s an ad for one of those Gatorade-type drinks, apparently aimed at business people rather than athletes. It shows a corporate ninja slicing through a breakfast table with her sword and reads: ‘Kill Morning-itis’. At the bottom there’s a bottle of something that, apart from the trendy label, looks like a lot like red cordial.
‘Red cordial makes you hyper,’ I think. I can see where the words should go, how someone could easily climb onto the shed at the back of the mechanic’s and spray-paint the message.
On the way home I park Erik on the footpath and duck into Bunnings. When I come back he squints at the bag in my hand, his way to avoid speaking the question. If he wants to know he can make the effort to form the words – I reckon the Lovey Karen would agree.
My usual work is on the backburner. Bolognese sauce, however, is almost permanently on that front element of the stove and we eat variations on the recipe every other day. Erik sits at the kitchen counter and when I want to check whether the pasta is done or the sauce needs more salt or sugar, he’s my go-to man. Although he can’t control his bladder three nights out of seven, it seems like his palate wasn’t affected by the accident.
‘We should open a restaurant,’ I say to him. ‘What would we call it?’
He gives me that look where he lifts his head, straining his neck. It’s like there’s an invisible string between his chin and his shoulder that he’s trying to break. Then, in a passable impression of Al Capone, he says:
‘The Bolognese Brothers.’
He pronounces all the usually silent letters in bolognese, including the ‘e’ at the end. It’s actually quite funny.
‘Imagine the menu,’ I say, ‘bolognese, bolognese, bolognese.’ Erik cracks up. For a change I’m not bothered by his deep haw of a laugh, like a long saw blade jagging up and down.
‘And garlic brea. Garlic breaaaa, Garlic breaaaaa’
He’s not actually trying to riff on my repetitive menu, just trying to say bread. It makes no sense that he can say the c at the end of garlic but not the d at the end of bread. His speech therapist says it’s the muscles in his mouth, that he needs to keep exercising them.
‘Come on bolognese brother, if we’re going to build a pasta empire, you need to be able to read the entire menu. Give me a D!’
‘Brea,’ he pauses for a second and takes a breath, ‘brea–’
There’s a knock at the door. I go over to open it, expecting one of the neighbours. Instead it’s two men I don’t know, both about the same age as me. One is short and handsome in a pale, pointy-faced way. His suit is three-pieced and probably tailored. The other guy looks like he might share some genes with me and Erik, specifically those related to girth, double chins and patterns of facial hair. He wears trendy jeans and a too-tight T-shirt with a silhouette image of a guy blowing his brains out, releasing a flock of birds. ‘Hi there,’ he says in a broad Aussie accent. ‘Kevin Tomic?’
He offers me a fat hand. ‘I’m Fergal. This is Mike.’
The other also holds out his hand, while Fergal leans his head around the door. ‘Any chance we could come in?’ Before I can hesitate, he continues: ‘We’re from the company that puts ads on bus shelters.’
With my stomach on spin cycle I open the door wide and lead them over to the table, introducing Erik on the way. I grope around mentally for how much it might cost to clean a bus shelter, or how much I could get fined. Fifty dollars? Five hundred?
‘Let’s get straight to the point,’ says Fergal. ‘We’re interested in your work.’
‘The graffiti you’ve been doing on our ads,’ says Mike. I stare at them, probably looking more brain-injured than my brother. ‘Dr Lewinn’s, Freedom Furniture, vitaminwater. It’s getting some traction on social media.’
Out of his top pocket Mike pulls a phone, which remains connected to his waistcoat by a fine gold chain in the style of a fob watch. He slides and zooms for a few seconds, then shows me the screen. It’s a facebook page where a photo of the bus shelter with OLD, CAN WAIT has been posted. Below it are comments: Brilliant, says one, Punctuation power! says another.
‘How did you know it was me?’
‘All of our positions have CCTV to protect them,’ Mike says. ‘And the police help us track down vandals. However, in this case we’re not interested in pressing charges. Graffiti like yours helps us leverage social media. In fact, we’re looking at a new concept in value-added for our clients, to move their ads virally.’
Fergal smiles smugly. ‘We call it adnarchy.’
‘Our proposal,’ Mike continues, ‘is that you carry on graffitiing and contact us every time you do something. If we think it’s suitable we’ll push it through our channels.’
‘So I’m basically allowed to graffiti whatever I want?’
‘Only our positions.’ Fergal points to the logo running up the side of the bus shelter in the photo. ‘And we’d rather you did it when no one else is around. Apart from that you get a free pass to vandalise, and a commission for every job we approve. It’ll only be a grand a time, but…’ a microsecond glance around the room, ‘every little bit helps, yeah?’
‘And contracts, paperwork?’
‘Nada,’ says Mike. ‘Adnarchy, baby.’
Today the soldier’s mission starts as soon as he leaves the house. His field of vision has been expanded, along with his field of action. Targets are everywhere. In his backpack he carries his equipment: three Artlines, a can of spray paint, and a plastic folder to store the recipe he will receive in his afternoon cooking class. A soldier must keep his strength up.
He arrives at the bus stop early to conduct reconnaissance. With guerrilla-like stealth he moves down the route, his ears alert to the sound of the approaching bus so he can sprint to the nearest stop. At the first shelter he finds a car ad, at the next an ad for a bank. They’re unexceptional elements of the urban landscape that no passer-by will focus on – so neither does he. Near the TAB there’s a billboard for Nescafe that attempts to make human conversation synonymous with (or ideally, reliant on) a jar of brown granules. His mind picks up the slogan, starts to rewire it. He stops. Instant coffee in the Eastern Suburbs? Too easy a target. A sniper has to save his bullets, choose his marks carefully.
The sound of the bus coasting down the hill jerks him out of his thoughts. Luckily, the nearest stop is only metres away. He thrusts his arm out. The bus pulls over.
Kelly shows us how to make chicken burritos, talks to us about the importance of marinades and the joys of fresh chillies. Just like with the parmesan cheese, I accept a couple of miniscule slices on my burrito and spend the rest of the class panting like a Shih Tzu. There are no leftovers today, but we finish ten minutes early, enough time for a quick shop to get more ingredients for tonight, then a mad rush down to the bus terminal under the train station. I chug down to door D, past ads that line the glass walls of the space: girly magazines and jeans, ISPs and sunscreen, the Northern Territory, home insurance, ice-cream, an art festival, condoms, the underwear man again. They’re like targets in a shooting gallery, but there’s no time to get a bead on any particular one.
A sniper has to save his bullets, choose his marks carefully.
Unless he’s working for the man – then he can use as many bullets as he likes.
The bus is there, has almost swallowed the line of people who were waiting for it, and I step on board just as the doors pivot closed behind me. While the passengers find their seats I stand in the aisle, puffed and dizzy. The press of people are breathing all the air, leaving none for me, and when they disperse I flop onto a seat and paw in vain at the sealed window. Finally, it’s the cold of the chicken breast in the plastic supermarket bag resting against my hand that revives me.
Before I open the apartment door I visualise the Lovey Karen wiping down the counter, but today she’s sitting at the table next to Erik, showing him some kind of brochure. ‘I’ll leave this for you, in case you want to look at the courses,’ she says. Then, on cue, she gets up and slings her handbag over her shoulder. ‘Want me to take the rubbish out?’
I walk over to the kitchen bin and step on the pedal. The bag is three-quarters full, probably good to go. Then I look up to the counter and see the ad men’s business cards. ‘Call us when you’ve got something,’ they said. I fold them neatly and drop them in before tying the bag and handing it over to Karen.
‘See you on Thursday,’ she says.
After she leaves I crack open a Coke and take a slug before offering it to Erik.
‘Energy boost bro. It’s cooking time.’
‘Can you say burrito?’