She pretends to wipe something from his tie, wiping too long, bodies too close, an obvious pretence. Breath-held, I act the ostrich, hoping to pass unnoticed. Our portly boss, married father, cornerstone of our employer the church, flustered, grins stupidly, stuttering in the way boffins do when words elude them. Me? A newly hired older student grateful for an opportunity blundering into the office kitchenette for coffee. Her? Our receptionist, raucous yet sad, crimson bra straps, widowed young.
Struggling through Ulysses, a set text from Seven Authors, I bunker down in my cubicle during breaks, approach that breathless Molly Bloom section. Single status known, I absorb office innuendo about hooking up with the receptionist. She must be cognizant of this, too. As obvious as our boss's clean tie to us is our mutual dislike which I kept private even before that coffee, which I didn't need.
Knowledge of this affaire de bureau leaves me anxious, the only man left on Mars, soft-footing swiftly past open doors unable to share the incriminating news, subsumed with concern about my scalding discovery, the boss's possible awareness of red herring gossip linking her with me, although utile to him, cold comfort if I lose this job.
After a liaison, a dragon in a labyrinth wreaking destruction, marriages debris-strewn, the bell clapper of my heart calls me at work, siren calls leaving deluded me trembling. That office innuendo also protects me from supposition about a mysterious woman, mobile phones, like the revelation of my boss's seismic office scandal, still in gestation, the future a ghostlike assassin.
I learn to admire our boss, a kind, well-read man who conjures obscure puns, who does spill food on his ties, and believe he likes me. Reaching the climax of my book, challenging work flourishing, I hope, forlornly, I was mistaken about the kitchenette farce, want to whisper: It's OK, I understand. We are helpless. Good people, but helpless.
A Stench of Chickens
Our parents emigrated. A restless English borstal guard, he found that place, his idea chicken farming, be his own boss. I shall always dislike the stench of chickens, of failure. The uncertainty shrouding memory draws me again, so about thirty miles south-east of Melbourne I detour. Six years earlier I prowled the perimeter of the five-acre corner block cradled by the humming bush crowding in on us, past where I hid tobacco, getaway money saved and stolen when I was thirteen, the years presaged by this. At sixteen, my sister had already escaped. A new brick house stands a short distance from our old weatherboard.
Approaching through light rain, vision blurred, I rehearse my need to stand inside the old house, left alone. A look of slight embarrassment shadows a woman's face. I eke out a vestige of charm, she relents, my imagination precluding a man allowing this. I understand tender years were always smaller than remembered, anticipate crunching glass shards, skeletons of small scavengers, yellowed curling newspapers read as a boy, mouldered linoleum, dust, much of it our skin, no relics, nor shamefaced ghosts, but I might breathe a mouse-smell semblance of neglect, invoke the forensic spectre of his rage, luminous, unlike their pioneers' gaslamp before darkness falls after they arrive home late from factory toil. Time-capsuled, he pumps, faster, cursing towards a crescendo. The lamp splutters out again. I make myself scarce. Reminders. No memorial, this.
I also reason the house, so quiet now, could be used as a shed where unwanted and forgotten things are demoted, out of sight, a last resting place where a precis of postcards, board games, photographs, the scoundrel past, gathers cobwebs. I remember a snapshot before they set out on their journey. He stands to the side and behind her, hands on her hips, his jaunty grin astounding.
Random Episodes Based On Real Life
The tv series my sons loved, the dirt about real underworld characters that rocketed up the ratings, I ignored until its rerun, and then watched random episodes, which is how I mostly remember my past. Only half-interested until a women's prison protest scene when inmates set fire to mattresses, asphyxiating two of them, I realised this was how my teenage girlfriend's much younger sister died.
The sisters, daughters of established Melbourne Italian hoteliers, were expensively educated, but the younger fell in rapture with a charismatic drug dealer who used his high I.Q., his egotistic sense of drama, for dark reasons. He had an entire episode of the series to himself as the only Westerner to break out of an infamous Asian prison and get clean away. While good-looking characters obeyed their own laws, betrayed each other, I remembered that older sister, her feverish sexual need, our brief time together ended by her father.
In my twenties I drank with the same mates in the same rough pub on weekends, wallowing in dreary habit. Bored, we decided on a change of venue, quieter, upmarket, midweek, where we sat facing a bar across a near-empty floor when a voluptuous barmaid appeared. My mates made the usual crude comments about what they would like to get up to with her as I stared in astonished recognition. What about me, they nudged, so I said, I think I already have, scoring a snort of cheap laughter.
Body electricity invigorated me walking towards her to buy a round, watched intently by those peanuts, then my stumbling re-introduction wanting a real life, not humdrum days, but you can only step back in time on the screen. I was left stricken when she gave me the flick as though a star, with me a wannabee crowd scene extra in a production about dark beasts grovelling for glamour.