The Mars Tiles

August 10, 2017 at 7:36 am | Posted in Uncategorized | 2 Comments
Tags: , , , , , , , , , ,
Martian_face_viking

This story ran in Eidolon magazine in 1999. My style has changed much, but I’ve resisted the temptation to ‘fix’ everything. Therefore, please consider this an ‘artefact’.

While sitting on the toilet of my rented worker’s cottage last Saturday night, I became aware of something that had been staring up at me for months. My floor tiles are not rectangles of slate. They are in fact textured photographic plates of the surface of Mars, coated with a protective epoxy resin. Though I find it more exciting to have images of Mars on my floor than common slate, I can’t imagine that the arrangement is permanent. Further, I feel strongly that my new awareness has placed me in danger.

It was late and I was drunk. To prevent the toilet from spinning, I was rocking and trying to focus. My gaze eventually fell to the floor, whereupon my disinhibition allowed me to penetrate the tiles’ disguise. Heedless of time, I stared in wonder at spectacular canyons, towering volcanoes, dry ocean beds and massive craters. The detail was incredible – superior to anything that’s been on TV. The planet looked like a raw, early Earth. But that comparison falls way short of the truth. Mars is so much more… epic. It’s maddening; the words don’t exist to describe what I saw. How can they, until we’ve been there to invent them?

At first my discovery seemed accidental. Then I recalled a prelude. I was surprised on viewing the cottage for the first time. It had just been renovated and I’d been impressed by the ancient, polished bedroom floorboards and the sheer indulgence of slate through the rest of the house. I remembered thinking, ‘who lays slate in their lounge, kitchen, bathroom and toilet – especially in a rental property?’

Then there was my criticism of the renovations after moving in. They’d looked fantastic during the agent’s tour, but fell apart under scrutiny. Doors had been badly rehung; the paint had drips and bristles and many floorboards were cracked, pitted and badly filled. Shabby work; except for the tiles. They had been immaculately laid. The other renovations seemed desperately ham-handed in comparison, as if seeking to draw attention from the perfect floor.

Finally, there was the anvil. I’d picked it up at a garage sale, since it looked like the one in ‘The Road Runner Show’. While hefting it though the house, I tripped. Fifty kilos of hardened steel plummeted pointy-end first into the lounge room floor. I should say onto the lounge room floor, because the anvil not only failed to shatter the tiles, it didn’t even mark their clear coating. It actually bounced twice before coming to rest.

That my tiles are textured photographic plates of Mars makes sense of the foregoing phenomena. They have been hidden in my home. By the Americans. In a place the rest of the world will never think to look. Until it’s safe to retrieve them.

After my discovery, I began to feel frightened.

The tiles had been laid immediately prior to my tenancy. Was I their unwitting guardian? I thought back to my tour, how the agent had drawn me away from the meandering competition to say she liked me and would put three ticks on my form. Though unemployed, I beat fifteen other applicants. Had she selected me because I was too stupid to notice the plates? Or was I someone who on recognising them, would realise the importance of keeping the secret? When I summoned the courage to ring her this week, I was told she’d been transferred. They wouldn’t say where. Since then I’ve received notice of an inspection that wasn’t due for five months. They’re coming tomorrow.

Yesterday I found one of my rubbish bins smashed. The old security door I’d propped against my rear lane entrance had fallen. Yet there’s been no wind. I suspected a burglar, but nothing was missing.

It’s now Friday night – almost a week since my discovery. I’ve just spent an hour taking Polaroids of the tiles. None has come out properly, though all the lights are on. Only those taken near the skirting boards bear any resemblance to their subject. The walls are crystal clear, but there’s only black where the tiles should be. I tried to chip a piece off one of them after I ran out of film, and nearly brained myself with my mechanic’s hammer. It bounced back with more force than I’d put into the blow. My telephone has rung three times. Each time I’ve picked it up, there’s been silence. I put my answering machine on and there hasn’t been a call since. ‘Skat’, my cat, refuses to come inside.

I’m writing this because I feel too foolish to tell anybody. Reading it over I feel better, since it all sounds like crap. Dave, my best friend (my only friend) is coming over. We’ll get pissed and I’ll read him this and he’ll laugh himself silly. The night is very quiet. A van has pulled up; I can see it through the gap in my curtains. White Mitsubishi: nothing threatening about that.

Ah, here’s Dave, running up my stairs. I’ve got to go.

*********

They say I look good for 35.

I’m 31.

Still, I know I’ve been here a while. I have injection scars on both arms. I’m fatter too.

Dave came to see me today. He’s still my best mate. I couldn’t help myself – I had to ask again what happened, even though it meant loss of privileges. They had him out of the booth before I’d even finished my sentence. Poor Dave. He only ever gave away that one morsel when he first saw me here. He was rattled and I was together enough to exploit that. I’ve never hurt a living creature in my life. If there’s only one thing I know for sure, I never touched Skat. I saw the look in Dave’s eyes though. He believes them, whatever they told him. The Americans. So why does he keep visiting?

Maybe he feels guilty about living in my old house. It’s all open plan now, apparently. The owner gutted it after the fire. The floor’s been carpeted. Whacko; it’ll be warmer in winter.

I get ‘New Scientist’ in here with the staples removed. The other month they ran a Mars special. I leafed through it till Mills snatched it from me to make hats. I didn’t bother chasing him. I’d seen all the pictures before.

I look forward to bath time. They let us lie as long as we want. Until the water gets cold if we like. I enjoy floating and staring at the ceiling. Just the other week, I noticed patterns in the flaking paint above me. I thought I saw a huge blueprint, covering the whole room. I have a theory, but the ceiling’s too high for me to test it. I’m going to have to wait until one of the paint flakes falls. This will be difficult, since I only have a bath every third day. So I’ve decided to map every flake. I’m going to start soon. That way, I’ll see if any are missing each time I come here. If I wait long enough and no paint flakes fall, I’ll know they’re not really paint flakes. Then I’ll find a way, somehow, to get up to that ceiling and find out what’s really going on in this joint.

Pic by NASA.

Brought to you by Imagine Day the book.

 

 

Advertisements

On spec

August 9, 2017 at 9:06 am | Posted in Uncategorized | 3 Comments
Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Eidolon

 

Long ago, but not very far away, a young man wandered with scant purpose

through Melbourne’s CBD.

He happened upon a bookshop (now gone) specialising in speculative fiction.

In its window was a handsome periodical (now defunct) dedicated to same.

The man was young enough to vow – and mean it – that one day his writing would appear

in that magazine.

In rather less time than anyone expected, this dream came gloriously true.

Twenty years on, the same man writes

to remind himself

why he is here.

And what he can achieve

if he follows his dreams to

the end.

 

Brought to you by Imagine Day.

 

 

 

The Kombi-van rail cannon

May 3, 2015 at 7:21 am | Posted in Short Story | 2 Comments
Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Three couples sprawled around the lounge, digesting pasta. Wine lapped at tilted rims as wreaths of smoke cruised into guttering candles, spread against the ceiling and descended. Fairy lights completed the scene.

‘Let’s go out!’ cried Yvonne.

A shudder swept through the others. Liam, the host, shot a visual plea to Neil.

‘Now now, sugar.’ Neil stroked Yvonne’s long hair. ‘We’ve got everything we need right here. Liam and Sylvie have created a lovely environment for us; why not relax and enjoy it?’

Yvonne tossed her head. ‘Because I think we should all go out. Club Foramen is only 600 metres from this ashtray. We’re young and it’s only 10:30. We’ve gotta live, before it’s too late! Come on; let’s hear some sounds and see some cats! Whatta ya say?’

Ever the diplomat, Sylvia calmed Liam with a caress. ‘I’m easy; what does everyone else think?’

Yvonne leapt up and gazed into each face.

‘I do not mind,’ pronounced Ulrik. ‘I will go if every body else wants to go.’

Sonya patted his thigh. ‘That’s my boy; two shots of Finlandia and you’re anyone’s. What the hell, we never go out.’

Liam baulked at leaving the cocoon he’d so carefully constructed. ‘It’s your night folks, but may I remind you we have entertainment here.’

‘Guitars and PlayStation?’ retorted Yvonne.

‘Yeah!’ chorused the boys.

‘No way. You guys can do that anytime. Tonight’s a celebration.’

Ulrik looked up. ‘Of what is it a celebration?’

Yvonne whipped a quarter ounce from her jacket and tossed it to the floor. ‘Of the biggest goddamn joint you ever saw in your life!’

Liam leaned forward, beanbag balls streaming like tadpoles under his thighs. ‘Ahem. This er, hmm. This could well alter the fabric of the entire evening.’

‘So we’re going to experience the greatest girl-band of all time?’ said Yvonne.

Sylvia’s eyes sparkled. ‘I’m in.’

‘Me too,’ said Sonya.

‘I also think it would be fun to go out maybe,’ said Ulrik.

Neil looked hurt. ‘How long’ve you had that ganjar, Sugar?’

‘Doesn’t matter, baby,’ sang Yvonne. ‘All that matters is we’re gonna get out and get it on.’

Liam fondled the baggie. ‘Get me the scissors, Sylvie. There’s something I must do – for all of us.’

**********

A chill wind whipped through the railings. Liam swung from the door and let the bright stars careen around him.

‘Come on, you old bugger!’ said Neil. ‘Come away now.’

The others fell against each other in baseless mirth. Liam crashed down the steps and they set off raggedly, reflections dancing in a glittering alterworld.

‘It is nice to be outside; fresh,’ observed Ulrik.

‘Too right, Vegemite!’ said Yvonne.

The Dane frowned. ‘I am sorry? What is that?’

The group cobbled a questionable explanation and Ulrik again lamented that their history could never be his, no matter how he studied the language.

Yvonne raced like a sprite among the puddles. Neil lit a cigarette and ambled after her and the two embraced in the brash night. The others followed suit, savouring their own styles of intimacy.

Eventually they reassembled at a tram stop, their destination visible through sprays of barrelling taxis. Naked bulbs festooned the venue, pulsing counterpoint to the muffled boom within.

Liam signalled for silence. ‘Well, this is it folks … ‘

‘Over the top,’ added Neil.

‘Yes, quite. On the advice of the young and feisty Yvonne here, we are about to enter an alternate dimension, replete with alcohol and very loud music.’

‘Yyyay!’ said Yvonne.

Liam grinned. ‘I want us to form a cosmic circle, to unite our groovy energy before crossing over.’

‘Unreal,’ slurred Sonya, missing Sylvia and Ulrik’s outstretched hands.

Liam guided her back. ‘Is everyone ready?’

‘Yeah.’

‘Then let us clasp fingers, close eyes and meditate on this moment before it is lost forever.’

Sonya giggled. ‘Oummm.’

Another taxi roared past, leaving an uncanny quiet. The ring of revellers listened. The silence continued – palpable; like air conditioning shut down.

Sonya opened her eyes. ‘Sh*t! The place is deserted!’

The street was indeed empty. All noise had ceased, no vehicles approached and light rain had begun to fall, transforming the scene into a surreal tableaux. The six stood in awe of the strange aberration in such a busy district.

‘It is an omen!’ proclaimed Liam. ‘The stage is set; a sign imminent! We must wait and watch.’

‘I’m getting wet,’ said Sylvia.

‘My love, that is of no import. In any case, I presage that this experience will be brief. Just hold for a moment more and believe!’

‘All right then.’

Neil lifted his long arms. ‘Whence shall come this sign, Master? From the sky?’

Yvonne leapt onto a bench. ‘Yeah, from the sky?’

Liam gazed along the glistening tram tracks, listening like a blackbird. ‘Nay, children; not from the heavens. The sign shall issue from the earth. Hark! It approaches even now!’

At first there was only silence. Then a lone light materialized. It grew slowly, but remained too dull to belong to a modern vehicle. The collective expectation of a motorcycle faltered as the engine’s staccato identified it unmistakably as a Volkswagen. At last the image resolved into a Kombi-van. An ancient, dilapidated Kombi-van, with one headlight.

‘Behold!’ cried Liam. ‘The messenger!’

‘Hurrah,’ offered Ulrik.

The group gazed at rusty panels, faded flowers and dribbling slogans. The streetlights splayed over filthy windows, rendering the driver invisible. The rotting muffler vomited detonations as the van shuddered past on the slippery rails, a scrap yard its only credible destination.

Liam stepped into the street to witness the van’s departure. Sylvia spotted a phalanx of traffic and pulled him to the safety of the opposite footpath. The others followed. As the van disappeared, the spell dissolved and the street came back to life.

‘Well?’ said Neil.

‘It has begun,’ intoned Liam.

‘What has?’

Liam’s face was deadpan. ‘The Kombi-van rail cannon.’

‘What is that?’ asked Ulrik.

‘I don’t want to talk about it.’

Sonya punched Liam lightly in the chest. ‘Oh yes you do. You’re going to explain to my boyfriend, in simple terms, exactly what just happened.’

‘I cannot.’

‘Bullsh*t, man,’ said Yvonne. ‘You got us into this space. What was the bloody sign?’

‘There was no sign; I was mistaken.’

Neil approached Liam from behind and put him in a headlock. ‘Are you sure there was no sign, cobber?’

Liam looked at the ring of expectant faces. ‘Very well. Release me, oaf, and I will reveal all inside the beauteous Club Foramen.’

**********

They entered the dark, smoky space as the headline band came on. Pushing through bodies, Yvonne navigated closer to the stage, trailing the others behind her. The musicians tested their instruments, then launched into deafening orbit.

The lead guitarist was elf-like, her legs clad in velvet. A mesh top sat over a yellow brassiere. Over this hung a large flannel shirt, tied at the waist. Her hair was fastened with camouflage netting that trailed to the stage. A hand-rolled cigarette rode her tiny mouth, twisting as she wrung the neck of her Rickenbacker.

Behind her stood an Aryan percussionist. Her face shone as she thrashed her drums. Tattoos flexed and a thonged top strove to contain her as her arms fell in king hits.

To her left stood the bass player; tall and thin with angular face. Sheathed in a cat suit, her only adornments were a gold link belt and a spider ring that flashed and scuttled over her fretboard. She stood with one leg forward, regarding the audience with faint disdain – occasionally favouring the drummer with an undertaker’s smile.

The singer pranced and posed like a demented bride; prowling the stage in taffeta rags. With wild hair reaching for the rafters, she taunted the crowd, raged against them, lifted them and lay them on her lyrical bed. On her feet were silken points. In moments of complete incongruity, she interspersed her base gyrations with perfect pirouettes.

Spellbound, Yvonne and her girlfriends barely registered the boys’ retreat.

**********

Snooker balls clacked over burn-pitted baize, the music blunted by connecting doors. Neil set three glistening beers on the tiny table and took a stool.

Liam drank deeply. ‘Thanks, man.’

‘Enjoy it, friend. You’ll not get another till you explain the Kombi-van rail cannon.’

Liam smiled. ‘That old chestnut. Surely you don’t want to hear about that?’

‘I certainly do want to hear about it,’ said Ulrik.

‘Shoot,’ ordered Neil.

Liam massaged his eyes, triggering a head spin. ‘Under democracy, issues can be debated ad nauseam, increasing the time it takes for government to act.’

‘What is “Norseum”?’ asked Ulrik despondently.

‘Bear with me man; I’ll recap. This delay frustrates all players and infuriates the public.’

Neil took out his cigarettes. ‘I’m with you.’

‘Good. Now, a perennial threat to democracy is that discontent over inaction can lead to such disaffection that the system is rejected in favour of anarchy.’

‘Of course,’ mumbled Ulrik, staring at the filthy carpet.

‘To neutralize this threat, our government has created the Kombi-van rail cannon.’

Neil regarded Liam narrowly. ‘Go on.’

‘The Kombi-van rail cannon is designed to break deadlocks in the sort of drawn-out debates that really get people’s goats.’

‘Like?’

‘Reconciliation, euthanasia, injecting rooms, the Republic.’

‘I see. And how does it work? Exactly.’

‘Well, simply put, each party to a debate constructs a blockhouse to protect a carton of eggs. They then attempt to destroy each other’s installations with Kombi-van rail cannons. The last side with an intact egg wins the debate.’

Neil took a long drag. ‘Are you trying to tell me that what we saw tonight was … a projectile?’

Liam sipped his beer. ‘Precisely.’

‘You Australians are f*cking crazy,’ spat Ulrik. ‘I am going to the band.’

Neil ignored him. ‘How come we’ve never heard about this bold new concept?’

‘The government wants to enrage the media, to maximise subsequent coverage.’

‘How come you know about it?’

‘It was trialled successfully in Chad and our government loves benchmarking. The signs have been there, for those who know how to look.’

‘But, why Kombi-vans?’

‘Symbol of the people. Worked for Hitler. Did you see the detonator on the bonnet?’

‘No,’ said Neil, with heavy sarcasm. ‘And I suppose the windows were treated to stop us seeing inside?’

‘Bloody oath! Imagine the panic if people realised they were pilotless.’

Pilotless?’

‘Of course! Why do you think it’s called a rail cannon?’

‘So it goes on … rails, does it? On our tram lines, to be precise.’

‘Correct.’

‘So, what if one of these vans hits a f*cking tram?’

‘Impossible; they’re launched according to timetable. You’ll only ever see ’em late at night. That’s the best time.’

Neil crushed his butt. ‘You’re full of sh*t, man; I don’t believe you.’

Liam stared at him. ‘Why not? You think our government isn’t capable of something like this?’

A minute passed.

‘All right smart arse; why haven’t we heard an explosion?’

‘Two possibilities. One: we’re in a club with the loudest band in the world. Two: the van hasn’t reached its target yet. That line runs as far as Kew, you know.’

‘My parents live in Kew!’

‘So you believe me.’

‘Of course I bloody don’t! In any case, I’d know if a blockhouse had been built there.’

‘I wouldn’t be so sure, mate. Who can tell what they’re building these days, once those hoardings go up?’

‘Do you know the location of any of the blockhouses?’

‘No. But I’m confident at least one will be fairly pinpointed by morning.’

Neil drained his glass and scowled.

Liam stood. ‘My shout?’

‘For the moment, you bastard. But this discussion is far from over.’

Brought to you by The Feisty Empire.

The spruiker

April 17, 2015 at 8:00 am | Posted in Short Story | 2 Comments
Tags: , , , ,

The traffic lights went red and Sydney Road turned expectantly for Ray’s first syllable.

Ray polished his shoes, put on his best suit and took his resume to the interview. He needn’t have bothered; the Bargain Bin was not a professionally managed operation.

The balding director waved at a couch with a Winfield Blue and hairy, ring-ridden fingers. His mobile battled love handles for a purchase on his belt, while his staff pecked sullenly at computer terminals to hits of the 60s, 70s and 80s.

‘Siddown. I’m expecting 20 of youse.’

Ray waited patiently. Two more applicants arrived, both nervous and twitchy. Latching onto Ray they began simultaneous, high-speed monologues. After a while, they found two things in common: broken homes and car accident injuries. To Ray’s intense relief they bonded, crossed the foyer and studiously continued their prattle.

Eventually it became clear that the other 17 candidates had better things to do. The director waded towards the three whose chances of employment had improved out of sight. There was no interview or audition, the theme of the director’s address being, ‘Youse’ll all get a go to see how ya get on’.

Ray watched with surprise as his new colleagues, having missed the message completely, began a mellifluous ingratiation contest.

‘Perhaps I could dress in costume – a gorilla or the Easter Bunny – something of that order – so as to entice more patrons into your shop? I was once the Lolly Gobble Bliss Bomb Boy, you know. And the Town Crier at the Cheltenham shopping centre.’

‘Have you heard about the special at Tandy? For $19.95 you can buy a microphone which transmits to a radio frequency. All you need do is bring your own stereo and tune it to the microphone. Perhaps your other employees could make use of this technology. You could save a great deal of money.’

The director heard them out; Ray couldn’t imagine why. When they had exhausted their store of offerings, there began the allocation of territories. Ray was given Coburg. It wasn’t close, but he was prepared to travel for $20 an hour. He thanked the director and took his leave as the others argued the relative merits of Maribyrnong and Moonee Ponds.

**********

The Coburg Bargain Bin has the same stock and layout as every other metropolitan store. It is different, however, in terms of its careworn fittings and the tang of despair which hangs, like machine shop mist, in the fluorescent air.

In Prahran and the CBD, browsers pick up an item or two on impulse. In Coburg, the Bargain Bin is an essential source of substitutes for those unable to afford the real thing. For these Australians, chocolate is waxy, nuts are bitter and perfume loses its fragrance on application. Better than Somalia, certainly. But poverty is relative.

**********

Having scored a park outside the shop, Ray suppressed his nerves and went inside. A stout young woman with the eyes of a survivor greeted him pleasantly and summoned the manager over the tinny intercom. Plastered with pricing stickers and sporting a bird’s nest of dyed hair, Soula bustled from the back room and received Ray’s handshake uncertainly, then pointed out the day’s specials.

Ray took notes, filled two baskets with bargains and carried them outside. The woman plugged in his extension cord and soon all was ready. The traffic lights went red and Sydney Road turned expectantly for Ray’s first syllable. Heart pounding, he took up his microphone and reached into a basket: cat food. He began in a hoarse and quavering voice.

‘Er … good morning and welcome to the Bargain Bin … I’m, um, Ray and today we have some wonderful specials for you … today. Um … specials like this … cat food for only … 50 cents a can. That’s four cans for … um … two dollars. And, um, we have dog food … too. Here … Today …’

The lights went green and Coburg turned its collective back on the performance. Ray felt sick; he had four hours to fill.

He struggled on, having no impact on the flow of customers into the shop. He felt like a failure, both to himself and to his employer. Then the director’s words came back to him: ‘They’re bunnies; they go for noise and movement. Doesn’t matter what you say or do; just get their attention.’

Ray realised there was no need to be boring and facile. He was a writer and performer of things black, surreal and occasionally funny. He resolved to see how far he could pursue his own twisted path while selling crap from a footpath. He returned to the odious cat food, from a very different direction.

‘Ladies and gentlemen, the thing about cats is that they do not watch television. Nor can they read. Hence they are unmoved by the advertising of multinational conglomerates. Cats are not interested in two grams of sun-dried tuna, served on crystal and costing more than cocaine. Rather, they are interested in having sex and forcing as much food down their throats as possible.

‘The Bargain Bin recognises this truth. We have large tins of cat food for only fifty cents. Gram for gram, this represents a saving of over $320 in comparison to the sliver of tinfoil known as Sheba – available in the David Jones food court. Nor have we placed any limit on the number of tins you may buy. As far as we’re concerned, you may arrive with a flat tray truck and purchase our entire stock in one hit. Yes! Unlike the supermarkets, you may exploit our bargains to your heart’s content.’

To Ray’s delight, several people slowed, then turned into the shop.

‘At the Bargain Bin, we have more bargains that you can poke two sticks at. We have everything you could possibly need. We even have a wide range of things you don’t need. And our prices are so low you can afford to hurl your unnecessary purchases straight into the bin, unused, the moment you get home.’

The trickle of customers swelled. Ray held up a six pack of toilet paper and raised the bar.

‘I believe society can be divided into two categories. There are people who pay $3.50 for six rolls of toilet paper, and there are people who pay $1.50 for six rolls of toilet paper. Those in the first category lead miserable, stunted lives, devoid of pleasure and meaning. I, in the second category, choose to spend only $1.50 for a product whose use is temporal and whose fate is preordained. I elect to save $2.00 every time I buy toilet paper. I thus have more discretionary income for really exciting things, like, drugs, gambling and wild, salacious women.’

Inside the shop, a second register was opened to cope with the influx. Ray’s second hour flew and the lunchtime rush began. Superglue, candles, confectionery, sticky-tape, Tupperware, hose fittings, greeting cards, baby clothes. All became subjects of a relentless socio-political discourse. A middle-aged Asian man mistook Ray for a busker and tossed him forty-five cents.

His bold approach thus validated, Ray turned up his amplifier. A screech of feedback startled the street. As Ray fought to bring the unit under control, a shadow fell across him. He looked up. It was the owner of the bottle shop next door.

‘You crack my window with that racket and I’ll crack your face.’

Ray beheld the man’s bloody minded determination, and the blonde he was seeking to impress. He thought of witty retorts, which he was too weak to deliver, and retreated. Victorious, the man smugly took the waist of his mistress and began loudly extolling the virtues of his shopfront. Burning with rage, Ray fiddled with his merchandise. An employee from the same bottle shop sauntered past and bluntly added his disapproval of the morning’s performance.

**********

Ray took a break to settle his nerves, then carefully tuned and oriented his amplifier away from the bottle shop. Slowly, he got back into the swing of things.

‘These jigsaw puzzles are only one dollar each! So cheap that if your child chokes on one of the pieces, you’ll have saved enough to pay for the hospital bill!’

Car passengers wound down their windows and grinned. A knot of youths stood off and endeavoured to look cool.

‘Many of you with gardens will be familiar with their propensity to grow, especially in spring. The Bargain Bin can help you combat this phenomenon with the Big Scary Saw. This saw is not only big, it’s scary. In fact, the American Institute of Weapons Research, which plots tool size and scariness relative to price, has rated this saw a whopping 9.71 on the Big Scary Saw Scale.

‘Nor is the Big Scary Saw’s use limited to pruning. With the advent of Victoria’s gun control legislation, the Big Scary Saw is an ideal substitute for dealing with difficult domestic situations. It can also be used to discipline children, repel home invaders and cut the heads off garden gnomes.’

People smiled as they passed. Many went inside the shop. Curious children had to be dragged away. At the end of a well-received monologue on the Amazonian Tiger Lily’s ability to self-fertilise, the knot of youths moved forward.

With thick lips and pimples, the leader stepped close to Ray.

‘Gi’s a go on the mike, will ya?

‘No, sorry mate, I cant.’

‘Carn mate, gi’s a go!’

‘No, I can’t, mate. Sorry.’

‘Gi’s a f*ckin’ go, C*NT!’

The youth seized the microphone and yelled ‘GET F*CKED M*THAF*CKAAAAR!’ to his suburb. The gang fell about with laughter. Ray snatched back the microphone and summoned his most threatening face. The leader leered defiantly and stared back. Ray held the gaze, panicking for his fragile amplifier. The seconds passed until suddenly, the young man feigned a punch, halting his fist millimeters from Ray’s nose.

To his own astonishment, Ray did not flinch. The leader noted the assembling onlookers. With a final insult, he ceded to the imprecations his friends and withdrew. Ray realised why the money for his new job was so good.

**********

After the third hour, Ray began to come out of shock. Rival shops had hastily pressganged their employees to counter his pull on customers. The bored voices of back-room staff droned through bodgy tannoys.

Ray felt safer for their presence and flattered by their attempts to emulate him. Filled with the desire to blow them off the planet, he picked up a lime green, sausage-shaped draught stopper and swung it around his head, narrowly missing an exiting customer. A tram halted and a group of tourists pointed and laughed.

‘Ladies and gentlemen, this is without doubt the most exciting product in the Bargain Bin’s range of consumer goods. A product whose use is limited only by your imagination, and one which can save your marriage overnight.’

Afternoon shoppers looked at the whirling sausage and snorted with surprise.

‘Tomorrow is Friday. I want you to get a slab of beer and/or a couple of bottles of red. I want you to buy one of these items and lay it on your kitchen table. I want you to turn off all the lights in your home and fill it with the twenty-cent candles I spoke about earlier. Then, when your partner gets home, I want you to change his or her life by …’

A grey Akubra caught Ray’s eye. He lowered the draught stopper and fumbled to a close. A silver badge reading “Bruno, Moreland Council” moved toward him.

‘How’s it going?’ enquired Bruno.

‘Oh, pretty good. Yeah. Not bad.’

‘We’ve had a few complaints; four in the last hour, actually. Could I see your permit please?’

Ray’s blood chilled. ‘Permit?’

Bruno unfolded a many-times photocopied paragraph.

Ray read the by-law he had unwittingly violated. He pointed behind him. ‘I’m employed by the store. They’ve probably got a permit inside.’

‘They don’t; we warned them three times last week about this.’

‘Well, surely it’s a matter between you and them, then.’

‘No. You’re the one breaking the law. This is between you and the Council.’

‘What’s the penalty?’

‘First offence, $100.’

‘Jesus. Five hours’ work.’

After an impassioned plea, Bruno let Ray off with a warning.

Ray alerted the store manager.

‘Oh, they’re always threatening us. Don’t pay any attention; they’re just full of hot air.’

‘I have to pay attention, Soula. I can’t afford a hundred buck fine! Can’t you get a permit?’

‘I’ll talk to the boss. What d’you want to do? Are you gonna go home?’

‘It’s almost knock off time. Maybe I will go home. Can you get the boss to let me know what the story is?’

‘Sure.’

‘How’d we do today?’

‘You did good. You were fine.’

‘See you, then.’

‘Yeah, see ya.’

**********

Ray is still waiting for his cheque.

The director of the Bargain Bin has advised that he is ‘looking into’ the permit situation.

 Brought to you by The Feisty Empire.

Pic by Lauri Rantala.

Imagine Day – The Book!

March 26, 2015 at 8:39 am | Posted in Short Story | Leave a comment
Tags: , , , , , ,
The great unboxing. I cried so many tears of joy I couldn't read the dedication!

The great unboxing. I cried so many tears of joy I couldn’t read the dedication!

This post is dedicated to my dedicated readers and subscribers.

Your past actions have suggested you enjoy this blog.

Well, now you can hold my creative content in your hands!

In a fair dinkum, read on the bus, book book.

A 20-year dream realised at last!

A 20-year dream realised at last!

Prepared in total secrecy by my wife and friends for my 50th birthday, this tiny tome collates 19 of my surreal short stories for the first time in print.

This first edition, strictly limited to just 200 copies, will be the only one featuring dedications written with my Magic Red Pen.

Email paul@thefeistyempire.com to order your personalised copy.

Thank you for reading yet again.

Kind regards,

P.

🙂

Brought to you by The Feisty Empire.

Shane the slug

January 28, 2013 at 7:41 am | Posted in Short Story | 4 Comments
Tags: , , , , , , ,
5107038796_1e18266125

Commuters on two train stations heard
Fon’s scream …

Feisty and Fon married and bought an inner-city cottage.

It was warm and humble, with hand-made bricks, a kitchen fireplace and 13 types of vermin.

Though these were not evident until some time after the auction, Feisty calmly resolved to combat them by humane, environmentally responsible means.

As it turned out, this was not always possible.

When a plate-sized huntsman spider in the bedroom ignored his well-reasoned arguments, Feisty persuaded Fon to take the only remaining course of action.

She smashed it with one of her Doc Marten’s ten-ups, on the understanding that he would handle all similar transgressions by reptiles and tigers.

The next day, on their walk, Fon tested Feisty’s resolve by shouting ‘Snake!’ and leaping into his arms. He immediately rushed towards the indicated area.

‘What the hell are you doing?’ shrieked Fon.

‘I’m gonna club it to death.’

‘What with?’

‘Your Reeboks.’

Fon struggled to her feet in disgust. ‘That’s not what I had in mind.’

Despite her best efforts, Graham the Jack Russell terrier failed to impact the mouse population.

She lay snuffling for hours in the pot cupboard (and once accidentally overnight) as a robust clan devoured box after box of poison.

Feisty bought a mousetrap and experimented with cheese, salami and corn chips.

Only when he tried pre-softened Kit Kat fragments did he meet with success.

The victims stared bright-eyed up at him in a highly unsettling manner, strengthening his resolve to encourage Skat the cat to take a more active policing role.

Though she toyed mewing with the tiny corpses hurled on the roof, she steadfastly refused to source her own.

It was a wet autumn. As the house gradually slipped into the ancient sewer beneath it, cracks opened in the walls.

Worst affected was the shower. Week after week, Feisty watched the tiles diverge, until one night he found himself gazing right through the ceiling at the evening star.

‘This is crap,’ he observed to Fon, who vehemently agreed.

‘I hate the mould. It’s gone out of control since the recess broke. We’ve got to get it fixed.’

But they’d spent all their money on furniture and celebrating.

The toadstools appeared shockingly, literally overnight. Pale and spindly, they felt horrid even through the wads of toilet paper Feisty used to pluck them. When flushed, they spun lazily to the surface and clung to the bowl.

‘Jesus,’ moaned Feisty. ‘This wasn’t in the brochure.’ He lifted a broken tile to reveal rotting wood smothered in more fungus. Then a huge, febrile centipede shot out and reared angrily, startling him into the shower door with a crack.

Swearing and trembling, he fetched his silicone gun and glued the tile fragments to the best of his modest ability.

Though this worked for a while, the mould became worse than ever.

The couple took it in turns to scrub, but the stains went too deep. Soon the shower resembled a gritty wire-frame model of itself.

When it seemed it couldn’t possibly get any more hideous, the slugs arrived.

Commuters on two train stations heard Fon’s scream.

Feisty flew from their bed to find her rooted to the spot, clad only in her sparkly shower cap. Through chattering teeth she wailed, ‘Feisty, there are f*cking SLUGS in our shower!’

Feisty followed her bloodless finger and recoiled as four of the fattest gastropods he’d ever seen pulsed nonchalantly across the walls and floor.

Losing all sense of karma, he mounted the cubicle, reached in and turned the hot tap on full. Aiming the showerhead like an Indonesian water cannon, he blasted the writhing intruders onto the drain hole and into oblivion. He then hosed the surfaces repeatedly as Fon regained sufficient motor control to retrieve her robe and retreat to the kitchen.

A few days later, two more slugs appeared. Ashamed of his former reaction, Feisty gingerly plucked them with disposable chopsticks and threw them in the garden. They returned the following night. And the next.

He didn’t want to kill them, but could find no merit in allowing them to stay. Then, completely by accident, he encountered an enchanting article on slugs in New Scientist.

A naturalist in ever-damp Sydney, on observing three species of slugs in his shower, had discovered that they loved eating mould.

Through a series of experiments, he had even determined that the Great Grey Slug (limax flava) exhibited the optimum combination of appetite, light aversion and territoriality.

He provided a ceramic oil burner, to which his ‘leotard’ of slugs returned every morning. In return, they cleaned his shower nightly – growing up to nine centimetres long in the process.

‘No f*cking WAY!’ replied Fon to Feisty’s carefully worded suggestion.

To her eternal credit, she eventually capitulated under his intensive lobbying and agreed to a trial.

Elated to at last be dealing with critters in an holistic, non-violent fashion, Feisty installed his own oil burner and waited for results. Sure enough, the mould began to recede, particularly in wet, hard-to-get-at places like the door tracks.

Though the switch from daylight saving caused several fatalities, the program proved a success. So much so that during one full moon, a baby slug appeared.

Feisty was amazed to find that his revulsion had turned to acceptance.

Fon was markedly less enthusiastic and declined his invitation to name the new addition.

‘How about Séamus?’

‘I don’t care.’

‘Sly?’

‘I don’t care, Feisty.’

‘Simon, then?’

‘I really don’t give a damn what you call it. I am not bonding with the slugs the way you obviously are.’

‘Shane?’

‘Yes; Shane. Fantastic! Shane the Sh*t-eating Slug. That’s the one; let’s run with it, shall we?’

Feisty regarded her narrowly. ‘You’re not just saying that? You really prefer Shane?’

Fon unmuted the TV and concentrated on a ‘Toilet Duck’ ad.

‘We’re the germy germs, under the rim … ‘

Feisty stared at the screen, and was struck with a sudden thought. ‘I wonder if they really could be trained to clean toilets.’

He jumped up and ran an eclectic keyword search on Google, only to stump it for the first time ever.

‘Trial and error it is then!’ he declared excitedly.

🙂

Brought to you by The Feisty Empire.

Pic by SleetDro.

Sole trader Christmas party

December 18, 2012 at 5:48 am | Posted in Short Story | 2 Comments
Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , ,
Graham Christmas Small

You put these parties on and people make a mockery of them …

I work alone from my home office. Running your own business is great, but it can make you a bit paranoid.

Last year was tough and, as my only employee, I really carried the can.

When December came, I felt a party was needed to reward effort and boost morale.

Before

I asked for volunteers to form a committee. Naturally, I was the only one who gave a damn. After squabbling over the budget, I decided not to allow partners.

I couldn’t agree on a venue, so opted to have the party at the office. I did the invite myself, after the printer said he couldn’t be bothered with such a small run.

The name tags didn’t take long either.

The RSVPs came back straight away, with 100% acceptance. I took it as a good omen.

I ordered light beer (someone had to look out for company liability) and a variety of appetisers. Even those horrible spurty asparagus vol-au-vents that burn your mouth.

I sourced a Portaloo in case there was a queue.

Anyone who’s organised a party knows what a time-consuming and thankless task it is. My sole reward for chairing the committee was that I got to choose where I sat.

During

I’d booked a limo for the night, but was the only one to cough up his share. It cost a fortune, since some idiot got the address wrong.

I arrived late because I didn’t want to be uncool. Even so, the cook, waiter, barman and DJ were the only people present. They seemed to be having a pretty good time.

The smoke, strobes and balloons were disorienting. I put up with it, recalling that I too had been young once. I’d authorised a taxi voucher, so I figured it was safe to have a tipple.

The barman gave me a drink with a funny name. It didn’t taste like beer, wine or orange juice.

The theme was ‘Fun with Fur’. I was disappointed when I saw another koala in the bathroom. Whoever it was must have also been upset, since they stayed there all night and wouldn’t talk to me.

The DJ refused to play my request, so I went outside to join the party games. I might be the boss, but I’m not aloof.

The limbo competition was a dead loss and blind man’s bluff took forever, but I won every other event except the three legged race (there were odd numbers).

The dinner was fine, though the Christmas crackers were impossible and some prankster rearranged the name cards. I ordered chicken but got beef and no one would swap. That’s gratitude!

In my speech I thanked everyone for coming. Despite having the best sales figures, I didn’t get a bonus; I’m so tight.

I did a quick change into Santa; I don’t think anyone realised it was me. Kris Kringle was a giveaway, but at least I got what I wanted. I even won the door prize.

The dessert wafers were so small, the waiter put two of them straight on my tongue. I left the party an hour later so as not to cramp my style.

Once I was gone, I really cut loose.

I did a skit taking the piss out of the boss. No one laughed – out of respect I guess. When the DJ played ‘Time Warp’ and ‘Nutbush City Limits’, everyone danced in time.

I fired up the jukebox when the DJ left, but someone chose the same song seven times. I quite like the Nolan Sisters, but I felt for those who didn’t.

I tried a conga line but it didn’t catch on, so I grabbed the company video camera.

I couldn’t find anyone to film except the koala in the bathroom, who also happened to be filming.

When the hired help had gone, I went outside for a ciggie. No one would let me back in and I had to smash a window. The cops came; then the fire brigade.

Some fool had butted out on my tree fern.

At least there were no gate crashers.

After

Now I always front for work no matter how much I’ve drunk but I almost couldn’t face myself the next morning.

No one offered to help clean up and the only bright moment was when a bunch of thank-you flowers came.

You put these parties on and people make a mockery of them. Next year someone else can organise the damn thing.

Come to think of it, I might even take myself off the guest list!

🙂

Brought to you by The Feisty Empire.

Bondage Bear – A True Story

December 14, 2009 at 2:59 pm | Posted in Short Story | Leave a comment
Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

The leather was dark and fragrant …

It was a slow, hot day in the shop. Bec and Feisty waited for customers. She was used to it; he was out of his mind with boredom.

Bec wandered to the street display and retrieved the belt basket, which was almost empty. Feisty looked in and spotted a dozen spare keepers. He pushed two onto his fingers.

The leather was dark and fragrant, crossed with stout twine stitches bitten, no doubt, by some impoverished piece worker.

‘Cool loops,’ enthused Feisty, who was very easily amused.

‘Yeah.’

‘Why’d they send us so many spares?’

‘Dunno.’

‘Hmmm.’

To Feisty, everything had a message – sometimes obvious, often oblique. The best were those he invented: ‘omens of the highest order’. He resolved to divine the message of the spare leather loops.

‘I’m going to divine the message of these spare loops, OK Bec?’

‘Go for it.’

The toilet was even hotter than the shop. Tripping an angry dispersal of fat blowflies, Feisty dropped his jeans and sat in the oppressive fug. Perspiration dribbled down his back. A zephyr checked itself at the window.

Why send spares? Those poor buggers only make eight cents a day. Quality control? Sabotage? The desire to create an illusion of prosperity in the minds of Westerners. Now there’s a theory!

‘Additional loops? Of course Sahib, we have many, many loops; a veritable cornucopia of leather fragments for your utility and pleasure. Here, take some! Take 12! And go with God…’

Feisty daydreamed until, too soon, it was time to return to work. He’d determined the reason for the loops’ arrival. Now, how best to employ them?

A stock cabinet stood at the top of the stairs. As he chose paperweights to replace the morning’s sales, Feisty spotted a teddy bear jammed at the very back of the lowest shelf. An old, old stock item. Reverently he withdrew the bear and took it downstairs.

Bec moved the limbs and cocked the furry head. ‘Yeah we got ’em years ago, but they didn’t go. We had a sale.’ She sat the bear on the register. ‘They’re from India.’

Feisty regarded her narrowly. ‘India? Are you certain?’

‘Yeah; says on the tag. See?’

Feisty clutched the bear dramatically, fingers plumbing humble kapok filling. Then he took a leather loop from his pocket and examined it minutely. ‘Do you know what we’re going to do, Rebecca?’

Bec fanned herself with a greeting card and grinned past her chewy. ‘I cannot begin to imagine.’

‘We’re going to use two of our spare belt loops to create a wondrous product from this unpopular plaything. And do you know how we’re going to do it?’

‘Nuh.’

‘Watch!’

Feisty seized the bear and threaded its arm through a loop. Crooning with satisfaction, he slid it to the bear’s shoulder where it rode snugly amid the fur. With mounting enthusiasm, Feisty repeated the process with the other arm, then stood back and gestured wildly.

‘Behold, Bec! I give you… Bondage Bear!’

Bec snorted, first in disbelief, then with reluctant approval. The tawdry gewgaw had indeed changed into something novel. She picked it up and felt the… arm bands. A butch teddy with a fetish.

‘Hm. Hm. Very good.’

The weekend ground on. Feisty’s interest in Bondage Bear waned. But not before he’d explored every positional permutation. On finding the composite discarded by its creator, Bec put it in a dim corner and forgot about it.

**********

It was a slow, cool day in the shop. Bec and Feisty waited for customers. Both were used to it. A strange man entered – strange even by the shop’s standards.

He towered over the counter, bones prominent at selected chakras, jester suit tattered under diaphanous sarongs. His feet were curled and petrified.

He greeted the shop assistants with rabbit teeth and one good eye, while the other took a crazed, milky inventory. Then he made for the dim corner and retrieved Bondage Bear.

‘I’ve just got to buy this.’

Bec looked sharply at Feisty, but on seeing him stunned, held fire.

Feisty recovered quickly, to enjoy the rarest of retail triumphs. ‘Will that be cash?’

‘Yes thanks.’

Bec shook open a plastic bag.

‘Lord no! Bondage Bear must be wrapped thus!’

So saying, Feisty put the bear into a kneeling position and trussed the arms behind it with a rubber band. The customer nodded. Feisty snipped a corner off the bag and tied it firmly over the bear’s head with raffia. Bec watched, mouth agape.

The strange man placed his purchase carefully inside a knapsack and beamed. ‘I’m so pleased I found this.’ And he swept away into the dusk.

Bec and Feisty gazed after him.

‘What, in God’s name, is he going to do with that thing?’

‘It’s not a thing, Bec. It’s Bondage Bear. Don’t worry, his mystical hand-tooled Indian arm bands will protect him.’

‘Bullsh*t; our belts are made in Sydney.’

Feisty froze, a horrified expression on his face. ‘…I see.’

Bec glanced at her watch. ‘It’s five-thirty; better bring the stock in.’

Brought to you by The Feisty Empire.

The Farting Biting Cat

September 25, 2009 at 6:05 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | 2 Comments
Tags: , , , , , , , , ,
Fluffy. The Farting Biting Cat.

Fluffy. The Farting Biting Cat.

Deep in the hold of the airliner, the Farting Biting Cat bit angrily at the slim bars of its cage. Then, it farted. Growls of protest sounded from the other pets. These multiplied and crescendoed to shrieks of outrage as noxious gas filled the chamber and hung, like swamp moss, in the dank air.

Unperturbed, the Farting Biting Cat resumed its methodical shredding of the thick newspaper lining its cage. Sharp claws ejected from fat, furry paws, noisily slitting layers of typescript.

Every now and then, the Farting Biting Cat scooped up a clutch of tapers. Eyeing them with hatred, it opened its horrible mouth and bit with piebald gums and worn teeth – teeth worn from biting. Then, closing its eyes in an ecstasy of vengeance, the Farting Biting Cat farted.

By the time the ground crew arrived, the hold reeked of methane and was littered with moist, masticated fragments of paper. When a gloved finger protruded into the cage of the Farting Biting Cat, it drove its good fang through the stout canvas.

The sudden savagery of the attack tensed its muscles, causing it to emit a loud fart. The baggage handler recoiled in pain and surprise, leaving behind the tip of his glove and a morsel of flesh. This the Farting Biting Cat devoured with relish, and with a sturdy, contented, fart.

**********

Roger eyed Stephanie with anxiety as she released the Farting Biting Cat into their new home. She cooed and murmured to her pet, as it ambled from the cage and flashed its red eyes at Roger. Then, with a force astonishing for something so revoltingly obese and orange, it sprang and fastened itself to Roger’s chest.

Spread-eagled on his heavy jumper, the Farting Biting Cat bit his collar bone ferociously, its corrupt breath hot on his skin. Roger leapt back, smashing into the front door, his frantic thumbs digging into the folds of fat under the Farting Biting Cat’s forelegs.

With all his strength, he flung the animal to the ground and kicked it. The Farting Biting Cat spun across the polished floorboards, farting profusely with rage.

Stephanie shot Roger an angry look and stalked down the corridor with muttered recriminations. Roger slumped to the floor, bloody and unconscious.

**********

When Roger woke, Stephanie had already left for work. A note pinned to his sleeve detailed his chores for the day. He saw with dread that Chore One was to feed the Farting Biting Cat. A cloth bag at his feet held the ingredients for the Farting Biting Cat’s breakfast.

Swearing into the warm draught of the stove, Roger stirred a vile goulash. Eggs, beans, cheese and sauerkraut vied for supremacy over bubbling lard. His stomach recoiled at the stench.

From the end of the house, Roger heard a low fart and a disturbing crunching sound. The Farting Biting Cat was awake. He glared through the door and stabbed at the goop, which plopped sullenly and slithered around the sides of the battered fondue pot.

With a final stir, Roger turned off the gas and carried the pot to the Farting Biting Cat’s terra cotta feeding bowl. Hoping to deposit the meal before its owner arrived, Roger scooped recalcitrant gobs of the heinous matter and flung them earthward.

Before he had finished, however, the Farting Biting Cat entered the lounge, and farted.

Eyeing his nemesis warily, Roger steeled himself, filled the feeding bowl and stepped back.

The Farting Biting Cat advanced, regarding Roger through hooded slits. Roger retreated to the kitchen, took down a carving knife and clutched it to his breast.

The Farting Biting Cat glanced disdainfully into its bowl. Lowering its heavy, whiskered head it began to eat. For seven minutes the Farting Biting Cat feasted, not once taking its eyes from Roger.

Every time its drool-drenched jaws closed on a chunk of unmelted cheese, The Farting Biting cat emitted a long, low growl and a hideous, breathy fart. Nauseous and dizzy, Roger began to sway in the doorway.

The Farting Biting Cat straightened, having expanded to twice its size. Unable to stretch, it farted, then bit languidly at a flea. Roger exhaled with relief. Stephanie’s pet always slept after dining. He began to think about coffee and a shower. He was jet-lagged and let his eyelids close in a long blink.

When he reopened them, the Farting Biting Cat was gone.

Roger shook his head. The lounge was tiny, the coffee table glass-topped; no place to hide for something as large and smelly as a catcher of grass from a poo-ridden nature strip. He assumed the Farting Biting Cat had returned to the front room and stepped out of the kitchen.

The Farting Biting Cat launched itself from the bookcase, thudding into Roger’s neck and piloting him through the coffee table. Roger struggled from the glass-sharded confines and lurched back into the kitchen. The Farting Biting Cat rode shotgun, seeking his eyes, farting continuously and biting murderously into his scalp.

In the ensuing struggle, Roger dropped his knife. Sensing victory, The Farting Biting Cat tightened its hold and slashed open his forehead.

Blinded with blood, Roger’s desperate fingers sought a new weapon. Glass and crockery crashed to the floor. At last his hand closed around something smooth, which dovetailed into his palm with familiarity.

It was his old Junkers oven ignition pistol.

The Farting Biting Cat continued its attack. The pain made Roger’s hands twitch spasmodically and the oven pistol crackled with sparks. In preparation for the coup de grace, the Farting Biting Cat released a cruel, voluminous fart.

Instantly the pistol kindled it, sending a jet of blue flame into the body of its author.

The explosion was deafening. Billowing acrid smoke, the Farting Biting Cat rocketed from Roger’s shoulder, slammed into the lounge room wall, plummeted to the floor and died – farting and biting uncontrollably.

Nursing his ravaged face, Roger fumbled for the telephone.

Two Thieves

September 21, 2009 at 8:01 am | Posted in Short Story | 2 Comments
Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Today I learned to be wary of heroin addicts who hum along to Indian devotional music, and doe-eyed temptresses who bemoan the size of their breasts. For today, unless I am gravely mistaken, representatives from these singular demographics ripped off the handicraft shop at which I work.

The day had been quiet and pleasant, until a diminutive humanoid stepped past the caneware. The straps of her mismatched gym wear rode like tendons over her emaciated frame, binding her together.

I was certain I’d seen her before – in a colour-coded dissecting manual. Her eyes were tar-black and crossed. Her jagged teeth jutted. Three meagre sprays of greasy hair sprouted from terry towelling scrunchies; brown, smeared with molybdenum grey.

‘Owareyedarl?’

It talked. I gripped the banister and stared from the mezzanine. Her face twisted up in salutation, her good eye boring into me.

‘Good, thanks.’ Alarm bells shrilled. Druggie! Thief! Flipper! Though the costume was unique, the demeanour was familiar. I recalled previous dealings with the dispossessed and my manager’s insistent advice: ‘You can spot them. They’re over-friendly. They don’t stop talking. They cart you all over the shop until another customer distracts you; then they strike.’

Yet this woman was tiny. And we’d hidden the Thai sword after the terrifying Christmas incident. I was free to watch her every move. So why was my heart racing?

‘Beaudifulday.’

‘Y..yes.’

‘Gunnabehottertamorra.’

‘Really?’ My wooden words tumbled like blocks. What was she after? Her hands were spiders, scampering lightly and at speed over the stock.

Then she picked out a carved box and held it towards me. ‘Where’sthismade, darl?’

Her face got me. Suddenly, the drug addict was gone. In its place, a pathetically disabled woman, with no friends, no government support and nothing to do all day but seek contact with strangers.

I saw freckles, and echoes of what she once looked like. Privileged and whole, who was I to judge? Flayed with Catholic guilt, I pompously granted her the benefit of the doubt.

I lengthened my answers to her ceaseless questions. She was looking for a present. Pay day (pension day?) was Thursday; she’d come back then. She wanted to find a nice wooden box. Maybe for some tarot cards. What did I think? Did I know the tarot? Where could you buy tarot? Could you get lessons? What about runes; what were they about? Did I know? She didn’t believe in them, but you never knew, did you? Still, a nice box was always nice, wasn’t it? She could get one of those even if she didn’t get the cards, couldn’t she? How big were tarot cards anyway? Oh, so there were different sizes, were there? Should she get some cards first, to make sure they fitted the box?

And so on. I listened and responded as a community service. My good deed. Keeping up with her was draining and I willed her from the shop with all my might.

Finally, she completed her obsessive examination of everything downstairs and mounted the mezzanine. As she passed the register, she threw yet another inquiry over her bony shoulder. It was only after answering that I thought I detected a faint change in her tone.

‘Whatsyername?’

‘Paul.’ I tasted where the word had been, feeling like it had been plucked from my tongue. I shot back clumsily. ‘What’s yours?’

Again the friendly, lopsided grin. ‘Ronnie.’

Great. So that was the name I’d give to the cops if something went missing? Mistrust raised its hand from the back of my class.

‘Geez, yerdoin the right thing with this jewellery, with the glassanall. Otherwise people’d comeinere an pinch the lot.’

Surely this was proof she was testing the water. I decided to frighten her. ‘Yeah, we get a lot of thieves in here. Once we caught a woman trying to stuff a dress down her underpants. She said she was “trying it on”. Then she stood outside and begged from passers by until she had enough money to buy it.’

‘Geez, I’m surprised ya didn’t call the cops.’

Touché. Slippery bitch. That was it; she was gearing up for a hit. I resolved to stop her.

Then came the humming.

We play music from the countries in which our goods are crafted. I had on my 16th Century Indian chants. On quitting the jewellery cabinet for the clothing racks, Ronnie’s fingering became even more intricate and exaggerated.

She muttered comments, stood on tiptoe, peered intently, nodded to herself and hummed along with the sitar. The sound was awful, her tuneless drone spectacularly out of sync with music she could not possibly have known. Yet she persisted. And it grated.

At last there was nothing left to explore. She approached the counter, her wretched face wreathed in an oily smile. ‘Gottapen, darl?’

‘Why?’

‘I juswanna getta few prices down, ferwhen I come back.’

Yeah. Sure. I leaned back to witness the pantomime. It began where she had – the front of the shop. I winced. Christ, she was going to do the grand tour again! This time taking notes!

I had nothing on her. All I could do was watch, wait, and listen to her murder my music. Ten agonising minutes later, three school girls breezed in like a cool change. Ronnie looked up sharply, straight into my eyes. The kids can take what they want, Ronnie, but you shall have nothing! She crouched over a pile of rugs. Her paper bag cleavage sagged open, incongruously large on her wiry frame.

The sheer sadness of the ploy, if it were one, almost made me look away. Then the giggling girls sought my attention. I spun abruptly. Yes they could try on the f*cking sarongs. As I looked back, Ronnie’s scoop-necked leotard slapped back into place.

She stood and turned, her attitude subtly different. I spotted the faint lump between her breasts. The fruit of her labour. My pulse leapt and I swallowed. A thief in the shop! With the goods still on her! Apprehend her this instant! Go!

I stalled, terrified. I hadn’t actually seen the act itself. What if I were wrong? What if it were a… a tumour on her chest? How would I confront her? What were the rules of citizen’s arrest? Would I be able to hold her captive and call the cops? How long would they take? What if she were armed? With a blood-filled syringe? Would the neighbours help? Was her boyfriend outside? Oh Jesus! I can’t do it!’

Ronnie continued her tour of the stock, though with markedly less interest. It was time to get out. I stayed safe behind the register and plied her with a coward’s shower of questions, hoping she’d take fright. But she did not. Talking and humming, she paced herself magnificently, manoeuvring ever so slowly towards the door.

‘Thanks, I’ll seeya Thursday.’

In despair, I tried oblique guilt and answered sweetly. ‘OK Ronnie, see you then. Have a lovely day.’ Even then I stopped short of ‘God be with you.’

My harmless missiles fell at her feet and she slid outside, stopping to examine one last thing. A back scratcher. For a long time, she studiously dragged the bamboo claws across her mottled flesh; luxuriating in her triumph. Or just itchy.

I tore down the stairs. Eight hand-tooled candles stood mute on the shelf. Had there been nine? Would that I had counted them that morning. The size seemed about right for Ronnie’s lump. I mitigated my guilt with the shaky affirmation that she’d taken forty minutes to steal a mere $2.95.

Plodding back to my station, I regarded the fresh-faced school girls. For all I knew, their capacious school bags were stuffed with loot. I assumed a position of vigilance, methodically casting my gaze to every corner of the premises.

The fringed face of a young female materialised suddenly in the street window. She peered intently into the shop, her body shrouded by glancing reflections of afternoon sun. On spotting me, her small mouth dropped open and she squinted. Then she was gone.

Minutes later, she was back. Like a vixen at a bait, she crept tentatively into the shop. Her voice was hushed and secretive. ‘Where’s the… other girl… the dark one?’

‘She’s working tomorrow.’ Immediately I scolded myself for revealing information without reason.

The girl approached my counter and leaned forward conspiratorially. ‘She… yelled at me.’ Her blue saucer eyes stared at length past her flaxen fringe. Then she drew back with a solemn nod, as if having imparted a critical truth.

‘Really?’ The warning bells sounded again. But this time my visitor had identified herself. The “other girl” was Rachel, who only ever lost it with thieves and threatening customers. After the debacle with Ronnie, I was in no mood to suffer either. ‘What happened?’

‘She… yelled at me.’

‘So you said. Why was that, do you think?’

The girl shook her head, hands splayed out in patent bewilderment. ‘I don’t know. She just…’

Yelled at you.’

Yes. That’s right. It was awful.’

The voice belonged to Marilyn Monroe. Perhaps the girl was insane? This thought angered me, because it clouded the issue. Could Rachel have misinterpreted her behaviour? I was gripped by uncertainly, bane of the reasonable. ‘Well, the other girl rarely loses her temper, it must have been…’

‘Oh please don’t talk about her! Look at me, I’m… I’m trembling.’

She fled to the clothing racks, patting her chest and hyperventilating. I began to think that eleven bucks an hour was a little lean for this sort of shit. Of course it was a stunt. But what if she were truly deranged? I shut up and watched. She calmed down and began sorting through the designer section.

‘Can I try these on?’

She held three garments aloft. I counted the hangars. Twice. There was no way she was going to make off with one of these.

‘Sure, use the left cubicle.’ The closest to the counter.

She took a long, long time. Customers came and went, receiving indifferent service as I kept my eyes on the girl’s ankles, moving mysteriously below the tattered curtain.

Finally she emerged, wearing the most expensive dress in the shop. It was a stunning, aquamarine creation with a lace up bodice. The sort of thing Tinkerbell would wear to the Hilton. Sequins sparkled from the hem, which cascaded in petals to the floor.

Gaily the girl pirouetted and studied herself in the mirror. ‘I love this dress.’

She looked fantastic. I tried to close the sale. ‘Many have tried, but no one has ever managed to make it fit.’

She slid her hands slowly over her breasts. ‘It’s a pity I’m a bit too big up top, don’t you think?’

I looked at her eyes, immune to her seductive pose. Though light years away from Ronnie in terms of technique, she too was seeking to beguile me, perhaps even turn me to stone. Well, I’d fix her.

‘My girlfriend has the same figure as you. She wears Elle MacPherson Intimates. The effect is stunning in dresses like that.’

A shadow crossed her face and she flattened her lilting voice. ‘Really?’ Abruptly she re-entered the cubicle. And lingered long.

To my astonishment, she returned two dresses to the rack and handed me the third.

‘Do you have Eftpos?’

‘Absolutely.’ I took the card. Sylvia Jeffries. A sale instead of a loss. I’d won. No matter that she’d yielded solely to quell my suspicion until her next attempt. She would find me just as vigilant next time.

The Eftpos machine said ‘damaged card’. I swiped until it took, extracted money from Sylvia Jeffries and wished her the most pleasant of evenings. She took her defeat like a pro.

Now I was humming to Indian music – in the correct key. It was time to close up. I tidied the clothes racks and checked the cubicles.

The empty hangar mocked me with great mirth.

It spoke of an exquisite $215 slip dress, concealed between the twice-counted garments Sylvia Jeffries had carried carefully into her cubicle.

Filigreed plastic speared into my palm as I destroyed the evidence of my second failure. It could have been the schoolgirls, but I think not.

Crazy, Drug-F*cked Thieves:                                     2.

Degree-Qualified Former Personnel Manager:   0.

Next Page »

Blog at WordPress.com.
Entries and comments feeds.