Friday, 17 October 2014

The Park







 Dusk is draping itself across the sky and settling into the treetops with the birds when a young couple wander into the park. Both are dressed in jeans and black t-shirts and from a distance only the white logo on the girl’s shirt distinguishes them. With arms wrapped around each other they follow the path that winds along the edge of the shimmering lake, past massive trees that have watched over this green kingdom for a hundred years or more. Their trunks are disfigured by whorls and battle scars which, from some angles, look like sinister faces. 

 It’s been a warm day but a late rain shower has dispelled the heat and driven away the walkers and joggers who would normally be choking the paths at this hour, all of them plugged into their own digital worlds. The girl and boy are no different from the others. She’s holding a phone up with her free hand and they’re both laughing at something on the screen. 

Only when the reach the white jetty that extends out over the water do they disentangle their arms and glance around at their surroundings. All they see is an empty park shrouded in mist. They don’t seem to notice the bulky figure in a brown uniform standing near the boat shed. The bald man steps back, sinking further into the gloom, his fist tightening around the handle of a shovel at his side. 

The teenagers follow the jetty all the way to the end. They don’t even pause for a moment to savour the glowing lights on the distant shore or the gentle lapping of water against the wood before the girl starts taking photos. When they grow bored with this the boy reaches into the back pocket of his low slung jeans and puts something up to his lips. A bright orange flare lights up his face for a seconds. A strange, sweet smell soon mingles with the aroma of damp earth and they pass the cigarette back and forth until it’s finished. From where the man stands it looks like a firefly dancing between them.  

They’re laughing as they come back down the jetty, and the girl finally puts the phone in her pocket. Her giggle sounds like ice cubes falling into a glass. Darkness is descending but instead of turning back the way they came they hesitate for a minute and then, taking hands, they follow the path deeper into the park. They look like Hansel and Gretel setting out into the woods. The man’s heartbeat quickens as he watches them. Slipping away from his spot near the boat shed he follows, being careful to stay in the shadows so they don’t catch sight of him.

Solar lights are sprinkled through many of the trees, giving the park a festive feel. He hears the girl say, “It’s just like a fairyland,” and it makes him smile. When they reach the fork in the path the man holds his breath as he waits to see which direction they’ll take. One path leads in a loop past the asphalt car park right back to where they entered. There are a few cars idling there now, occupied by people who want to enjoy the twilight without getting their feet wet. They are no doubt taking photos to upload to Facebook and Instagram despite the fact they couldn't even be bothered stepping out of the car to experience it for themselves. They might as well be watching it on tv, the man thinks. The other path leads to the children’s playground in the middle of the park where it is completely deserted.

“Which way do you want to go?” the boy asks.

“Let’s go to the playground. It’ll be fun.” The man lets out a sigh that could be either frustration or anticipation.

****

Long metal gates painted a garish red separate the playground from the rest of the park. The boy and girl squeeze easily through the gap and head straight to the towering slide. It’s almost two stories high and usually stacked with clambering children. It looks even more imposing without them.

 “I’m not climbing that,” says the boy, straining his neck to stare up at the distant platform.

 “Come on, don’t be a wimp.” Without waiting for a reply the girl skips towards the slide and disappears into the stair well. A few seconds later she is flying down the steep yellow slope with her long strawberry-coloured hair streaming behind her. She’s moving so fast she overshoots the landing pit and collides with the low retainer wall, letting out a loud “hmph” as the air is knocked out of her. “That was awesome,” she says, getting to her feet and brushing herself off. “I’m going again.” 

The boy hesitates for a moment, and then he jumps into the sandpit next to the slide and grabs hold of the flying fox sitting idle in the middle. Dragging it to one end he climbs onto the step and launches himself across the pit, letting out a ‘yeeehaaa’ that causes the man to wince from where he is struggling to catch his breath behind a tall shrub.  “I can’t believe we’ve got this whole place to ourselves,” the boy calls out as the girl comes hurtling down the slide again. “It’s so awesome.”

“I know,” she calls out as she overshoots the landing pit and hits the wall again.
After ten minutes the teenagers abandon these amusements to follow the labyrinth of hedge- enclosed paths that meander around the playground, their footsteps crunching on white stones. All of the paths have something special at the end and in one cul-de-sac they find a wooden wishing well. They drop stones into it and listen for the echo below. 

“What did you wish for?” asks the boy.

“I can’t tell you cause then it won’t come true,” replies the girl.

“Bet it was about me.”

“Whatever.”

Another path leads to a miniature tower with a bell at the top. They giggle and shove each other on the winding staircase as they compete to pull the rope first. The boy wins, and the sound of the bell peels out mournfully across the empty park. After exiting the tower they come to the entrance of a tunnel that runs underneath the playground and they scramble into it without hesitation, the girl leading the way. The tunnel is long and dark, and many a child has become lost and frightened in here in broad daylight. The girl emerges first and she glances behind and then takes out her phone as she waits for the boy to catch up. When he doesn’t appear after several moments she calls out to him, but there’s no answer.

“Come on, Jeremy, don’t be a dick.” When he still doesn’t reply she bends down and peers into the darkness, holding up her phone for light. The thin shaft doesn’t reach far and there’s a slight waver in her voice when she speaks again. “I’m not joking, Jeremy. This isn’t funny.” As more seconds pass she looks around nervously and kicks at the white pebbles with the toe of her sneaker. Dusk is giving way to night now and the solar lights are little match for the encroaching darkness. “If you don’t come out soon I’m going home without you, I swear.” 

The words have only just left her mouth when a soft crunching behind causes her to spin around but before she can see who or what has crept up on her, fingers wrap around her neck. She lets out a bloodcurdling scream that jolts the birds in the trees out of their nests and their outraged shrieks blend in with her screams. Then the incongruous sound of laughter is added to the cacophony. The hands around her throat relax and the girl turns around in time to see the boy falling to the ground. He is convulsed with laughter. “You should have seen your face,” he gasps. “That was so freakin’ funny. I wish I’d filmed it.”

“You asshole, I’ll get you for that,” she says, kicking his outstretched leg. The boy, still laughing, scrambles to his feet. With his arms raised in a gesture of mock surrender he backs away from her then turns around and takes off. She follows in close pursuit, their footsteps echoing in the darkness. When they reach the gates to the Garden of Tranquillity they both stop abruptly as if sensing an invisible barrier separating this part of the playground from the rest. The wrought iron gates are wide open but there’s a feeling that this place is special, prohibited. The gardens are elaborate and the well-tended roses distil their perfume on the cool night air. There is a large glimmering pond in the middle with a bridge over it and stone benches dotted amongst the trees.

It’s this part of the park that the man loves best. It was designed as a special place for sensitive children to get away from the rough and tumble of the other kids and it’s exactly the kind of place he wishes he’d had as a child to escape from the taunts, the fighting, the negativity that filled every minute of his day. There are places to sit and just look at the trees and flowers, a pond with ducks that come right up to you when you feed them and a special swing that he can sit in for hours. When he’s in that swing it’s almost like the rest of the world ceases to exist. He tilts his head back and watches the stars spinning overhead and everything else just drops away. He comes here a few times during the week, late at night or sometimes earlier if it’s raining, because these are the only times he can have the place to himself. It gives him a chance to dig out any weeds the lazy gardeners have missed, put some extra food on the soil for the roses and add some extra lights to his favorite tree.

 He used to come here during the day until people began looking at him strangely, like he was some kind of pervert. He told some children to be quiet once and when they didn’t listen he yelled at them and then a woman in a uniform came and asked him to leave. It wasn’t his fault. The signs say that this is a quiet area and not so long ago people took notice of this, but no one cares anymore. The children run around yelling and screaming and chasing each other as if it’s no different from the rest of the playground. Even worse than the kids are the parents who don’t even look up from their phones to discipline their children or to appreciate how wonderful this place is. Before he stopped coming during the day he noticed that some of the children were bringing phones and ipads into the garden too and he wanted to smash them all for their lack of respect. It’s bad enough that people are glued to their phones everywhere else he goes, that they don’t even have the decency to make eye contact anymore, but bringing them here was a step too far. 

“It’s beautiful,” says the girl, as she and the boy sit down on a bench in front of the pond which ripples gently in the breeze.

“Hmmm,” says the boy, “I find it a bit creepy.”

“How could you find this place creepy? It’s so peaceful.” The man feels a smile tugging at the corners of his mouth. The girl is okay, she gets how special his garden is and that means more than anything in the world to him. He’s about to turn and leave them to it when to his horror she pulls her phone out of her pocket again and her face is illuminated in its unnatural light as she holds it close. The silence is soon broken by the tinny, jarring sound of music. It’s so loud and shocking that it causes him to start and he hears the bushes around him rustle. He is about to confront the teenagers with his rage when the music cuts out abruptly. 

 “Hey, I like that song,” says the boy. “Why did you turn it off?” The girl is staring hard in the direction of the bushes.

“Did you see that?”

“What?”

“I thought I saw something over there,” said the girl, pointing to the spot where the man is concealed. “Was there anyone behind us when we came in?”

“There’s no one there, Em, you’re imaging things.”

“No I’m not, I swear I saw something move.”

“Maybe it’s the ghost of that kid who disappeared from here. People say he still haunts this place, you know.”

 “Don’t be a jerk, no kid disappeared from here. You’re just trying to scare me.”

“Seriously, some kid really did go missing here one night. It was a long time ago now but I remember because my mum was freaked out about it and she wouldn’t let me come here for ages with my friends.”

“Ok, now I’m starting to get creeped out too. I think we should go.”

“Alright. Do you want to go and hang at Matty’s place for a bit?”

“Yeah, alright.” They stand and take hands again and follow the path out of the Garden of Tranquillity, with the man gliding silently behind them. There are several painted signs showing the way to the exit and they follow in the direction of the arrows. The man knows a shortcut that will allow him to get to the gate before they do and he’s already waiting for them when they come around the bend and see his magical tree. It’s covered in what look like hundreds of   twinkling solar lights. Forgetting their fear the young couple stop in front of it, just as he knew they would, and take out their phones.

“Pretty, isn’t it,” he says, stepping out of the shadows before they can take any photos. The both scream and the boy grabs the girls arm and starts to pull her away, but the man works quickly to allay their fears before they can escape. “Sorry, I didn’t meant to scare you. I’m the night security guard,” he smiles. “I’m just doing my patrol.” He sees them looking over his uniform and taking in the logo he’s sewn on and the fear in their eyes starts to recede a little. “Would you like me to take a photo of the two of you together in front of the tree? Many people ask me to do this for them.” They are still slightly wary as they glance at one another, but then the boy shrugs his shoulders and holds out the phone towards him, not wanting to be rude. 

“Yeah, okay, thanks.” It’s at that moment, when they least expect it, that the man strikes like a deadly cobra. With lightning speed he raises the shovel which has been concealed behind his back and hits as hard as he can, listening with satisfaction to the crunching sound as it makes contact. The boy only has time to grunt in shock. The girl lets out a strangulated cry but she seems to be frozen to the spot. Before she can find the strength to flee or fight he brings the shovel down on her too. Crack, crack, crack. In just a few seconds it’s all over, their lights extinguished forever, but he can’t stop himself now. He raises the shovel again and again completely oblivious to anything around him. They are pulverised, smashed, broken beyond recognition but still he keeps going, not hearing the voices or the sound of running feet on damp grass. Not even caring what happens next.

“You psycho,” a tearful voice calls from a distance. “You absolute psychopath. That was my brand new iphone. My dad is going to kill me. I can’t believe you did that.”

“Come on,” urges a female voice, “Don't try and talk to him. Let’s go and get the police. He’s crazy” 

Their footsteps recede and when he is sure they are gone he finally looks up and takes a deep breath. The park is his again, dark and silent just as he likes it. The police will come of course but they’ll never find him. He’ll just lay low for a while and sooner or later they’ll forget all about this incident, just as they have before. He runs his hand over his bald head and is about to retreat to his secret hiding place behind the boatshed when something in the distance catches his eye. It’s a row of glowing lights bobbing along the path at the edge of the water. They are moving fast, coming towards him at a rapid pace. As they draw nearer he hears snatches of laughter and voices, all talking over each other and spouting obscenities. It’s a group of teenagers. With iphones. Hoisting his shovel over one shoulder like a rifle he marches towards the lights.



Saturday, 13 September 2014

The Poverty Pack



 
Dennis Starr liked to get outside by himself on his breaks and sit on the low log fence in the car park away from the noise and the swirling, dust-filled air in the yard. Rubbing his back with one hand he stood up and threw his cigarette away with an expert flick of the other wrist. He was a small statured man with a circle of flab around his middle resembling a child’s safety float. His hair was starting to recede but there were still signs of the blonde frosted tips he’d sported for over a decade. The thick gold chain peeping out from beneath his checked shirt contrasted markedly with his dirty jeans and work boots.

In a couple of hours he’d knock off and head home to a dinner of spaghetti on toast in front of the idiot box. Home these days was a dingy caravan in a run-down park on the edge of Kalangadoo, but not for much longer. One good thing about mindless labour was it gave a bloke plenty of time to think and he’d come up with some brilliant business ideas. Now all he had to do was find a financial backer willing to take chance on him and he’d be back in the game. He could forget all about that deceiving son of a bitch who’d caused him so much grief. Tracey and the girls could move out of her mother’s place and everything would be sweet again. He was sure of it.

Half an hour later sweat dripped into his eyes and blinded him like salty tears as he hauled timber across the yard and stacked it. He was too old for this shit. Lyle, of all people, he thought as he paused to mop up the sweat with his sleeve. He still couldn’t fathom that someone he’d trusted had screwed him so royally.

“Fucking unbelievable,” he muttered to himself, rubbing his hand across his eyes.

“Hey, Dennis, man, what’s going on? You’re slowing us down. Get back to work.” It was his supervisor, Wayne, a guy he’d gone to school with years ago. All Dennis could remember about him was that he was a sickly kid who was always getting picked on by the older boys. Now he didn’t hesitate to wield his tiny slice of power over anyone beneath him.

“Yeah, yeah,” said Dennis, “Don’t get your knickers in a twist.”

“What was that?” said Wayne, walking towards him.

“Nothing,” said Dennis, bending to lift some timber so Wayne couldn’t see his face. “Asshole,” he said under his breath.

****

“I’m absolutely fantastic, thanks for asking,” were the words Dennis had used to greet his staff each morning for years. It had become a kind of running joke with them and he’d been happy to play along. After touring the yard it was his custom to pause in front of the glass doors to the office and turn back around to survey his kingdom. Before him he saw cars, row upon row of them, slick and sparkling in the morning sun. Colourful flags fluttered in the breeze all around. The vision had caused him to stand taller and push out his chest, drawing the fumes from Parramatta Road into his lungs. For a moment he’d become one with the endless hum of passing traffic.

“Dennis the Menace,” they’d called him because no one could match him when it came to making money. “Unlike the other guys out there I’m not going to promise you the world and then hand you an atlas,” he was fond of telling the private sellers who entrusted their cars to him. “It’s all there in the fine print,” he explained with a sympathetic smile when their cars didn’t sell and they were hit with a multitude of hidden charges. There were plenty of tears and tantrums. Some threatened to come back and shoot him, but most of the time he managed to tuck them back into bed.

After surveying the yard he’d held a meeting in his office every morning to pump up the troops. First on the agenda was haranguing anyone who’d dared to take the previous day off. “Doctor’s certificates don’t cut it. Unless you’re dead you come to work.” This was followed by some motivational talk. “You all need to push harder for the premium models with new cars. Make them feel like shit for going for the poverty pack. At the very least get them to commit to some optional extras. Remember, you have to shoot for the stars with every sale. It’s the only way you’re going to land on top of the mountain.”

These meetings usually ended with him standing over the telemarketing team with clenched fists, uttering in a deep voice: “Bring me some cars, boys, bring me some cars.” He’d mastered the art of looking at them from under his brow in a way that struck fear into their hearts and made them eager to gain his approval. Their respect had never been diminished by his frequent botox treatments, tattooed eyeliner and unnatural tan, at least as far as Dennis was concerned. They knew how important appearance was in this game.

“It’s not about truth,” he’d told those who balked at some of the techniques he taught them to close a deal. “We tell people what they want to hear, make them happy. What they don’t know won’t hurt them, as long as you make them believe they’re being looked after.” If selling cars had taught him anything about human nature it was this.

There were also many people out there who loved nothing better than to argue over price, and he and the sales team had their act down pat when it came to the hagglers. “Are you trying to kill me?” he’d bellow, sending the salesman scurrying back out of his office with fear written all over his face. Once he’d gotten so carried away he’d thrown a chair out the window. Eventually he dropped the price slightly so the customer felt like they’d won.

“It’s the show they love,” he always said, “We just give them what they want.”

****

One of the great benefits of running a car yard was having a stable of prestige vehicles at his disposal and Dennis hadn’t needed to own a car in years. Every third weekend he’d roared out to the country house on his Harley to see the missus and kids. The rest of the time he’d chosen the best looking vehicle on the lot to spirit him and his girlfriend around town. His long-term squeeze had been called Tracey like his wife, which made his cheating seem like less of a betrayal.

It had been easy to gloss over any sightings of the car or unexpected speeding tickets that turned up in the owners’ mailboxes. There were test drives after all, and cars couldn’t sit idle for weeks at a time. “I give my personal guarantee that any vehicle leaving the yard is fully insured and housed overnight in a locked garage,” he said.

A black stretch limo was the most memorable car they’d had in. Nearly the whole staff had crammed into it one Friday night like clowns in a comedy sketch. He’d driven them from pub to pub, complete with a chauffer’s cap, buying drinks and supplying optional extras. The tangle of arms and legs in the back had become more chaotic as the night progressed and someone had thrown up all over the leather upholstery. The smell still lingered two weeks later when the owner came to collect the car.

They’d ended up at Star City in the early hours and he’d dropped about $8,000 on the pokies, but it had still been a great night. One of the best. Lyle, his accountant, a balding, bespectacled man who looked every inch the part, had talked him into limiting his access to the business account after that. Fortunately the kickbacks he got for looking after the dirty laundry for some of his bikie mates helped to subsidise his more expensive habits.

****

            The irony that he’d met Lyle while playing the pokies still left a tangible bitter taste in his mouth and Dennis had to resist the urge to lean over and spit in the sawdust at his feet. The high pitched whining around him was giving him a headache but it wasn’t enough to block out the memory.

Lyle had been sitting at the machine next to him that night and when he’d tried to start up a conversation a few times Dennis had blown him off. Then a big win had lifted his mood and he’d decided to cut the meek looking man some slack. He figured Lyle was just a lonely guy looking for some company. While they were talking Dennis won some more free spins that paid well.

“I must bring you good luck,” Lyle had said, buying him a drink to celebrate. He told Dennis he was an accountant currently between jobs and when he found out who Dennis was he almost fell off his chair. “You’re a legend. The best in the biz.” Before he knew it Dennis had hired the man to look after the yard’s finances. And why not, he had years of experience and he hadn’t batted an eye at some of their less orthodox business practices.  “Don’t worry, I’ve seen it all,” he told Dennis, “and I know how to be discrete.”

After that it was: “Can I get you a coffee Dennis?” “I’ll pick up your dry cleaning.” “Don’t worry about ordering out, I’ll bring something healthy back for dinner. You need to take better care of yourself.” “Would you like me to book a massage, you look tense.” Nothing was too much trouble. Every time Dennis turned around Lyle was there, and he’d come to depend on him in more ways than he’d realised.

By the time he found out that Lyle had already spent time behind bars for embezzlement to feed his gambling addiction it was too late. Now he was back in the slammer but he’d be out in a couple of years to do it all again. Meanwhile Dennis had been forced to sell nearly everything he owned to pay his shady financial backers. They’d made it clear the consequences would be severe if didn’t cough up.

Despite all this he was loathe to let anyone know how desperate his situation had become. Once the stench of failure attached itself to you it tended to stick forever and he refused to be an object of pity to anyone. That’s why he’d come back here to work, at the same place he’d started out as a teenager, and where his father had toiled away the best years of his life. There was one thing only about Kalangadoo that drew him back; it was a town of nobodies and he didn’t care what anyone here thought of him.

 Later, in the break room, he was pulling his jacket on and preparing to step out into the bleak afternoon when Steve, one of the guys who hung out with a pack of wannabe bikies approached him.

“Coming to the pub?” he asked. Ever since Dennis had told them he’d owned a Harley they’d wanted to be his mates. They were nice enough blokes but were all talk and no action, and he’d secretly nicknamed them the poverty pack. “It’s hard to soar like an eagle when you’re surrounded by turkeys,” was one of the mottos he lived by.

“Maybe,” he muttered. His phone began to vibrate in his pocket, cutting short the conversation. Few people, apart from the missus called him these days, and he didn’t bother to check the caller ID before he answered.

“Dennis Starr speaking,” he said out of habit

“Dennis, I’m glad I finally caught up with you. It’s Tom. I heard what happened with Lyle. What a mess.”

“Yeah well, shit happens.” Tom was a business associate and friend, and one of the last people he wanted to talk to at that moment.

“Listen, I’ve got a job you might be interested in. It’s only a small yard, but there’s room for growth.” Dennis didn’t have to ask for the details, he already knew what it would be like; one of those tiny two-bit lots, a blink-and-you-miss-it hole in the wall with about 30 cars, all of them shit boxes. There was no money in it and most of them folded within a few months. Of course he would be able to make it work, but it would mean starting again from scratch.

He looked out the window where the rain had started to come down in sheets. It could be a way out of here, a stepping-stone to something else, and he might even be able to bring Tracey and the girls to Sydney. But what would people think? He’d be a laughing stock, a joke. No one would take him seriously ever again in a business where image is everything. No, there wasn’t a snowball’s chance in hell he’d take something like that on.

“Are you there, mate?” said Tom.

 “Thanks mate, but I’m good. I’ve moved into timber, mate. I’ve bought a timber yard.”

“Seriously?”

“Yeah, the old man was in the timber business, so it’s in the blood.” He cleared his throat. “Listen, Tom, it’s great to hear from you but I’ve gotta go.”

Putting his phone into his pocket he turned to leave, but someone was blocking his path. He’d thought he was alone after Steve left, but Wayne must have been standing there long enough to have heard everything.

“See you tomorrow, boss,” he said with a smirk. Dennis’ face burned and his fist ached to slam into that smirk.

Later that night, sitting at the cramped table in the caravan he picked up his phone to call Tracey, but then hesitated and put it back down again. He’d already left three messages. She was taking her sweet time calling him back these days and he wondered if she was seeing someone else. He could hardly blame her if she was. He hadn’t exactly been a model husband.

Outside the rain swept silence was broken by a burst of laughter from the old men who had gathered to drink and play cards in the rec room. After his first night there he’d made excuses not to join them. Most of them were retired from the mill and they planned live out the rest of their days here. They were all divorced and rarely saw their families. The laughter turned into raised voices, like it always did when they’d had a few. Dennis picked up his phone and flicked through it till he found the number he was after. He expected it to go to voice mail, and he jumped a little when the familiar voice said hello.

“Yeah, Tom, its Dennis again….I’m absolutely fantastic, thanks for asking. Listen, I’ve had a think about that job, and it looks like I might be able to help you out after all.”

He’d give it his best shot, shoot for the stars and sooner or later he’d have to land on top of the mountain. He was sure of it.

THE END