Those You’ll Never Know
A novel: part two
The romance of running a bookstore took about five minutes to wear off.
Over the course of the next week Ernest showed me the ins and outs of the business. But he wasn’t instructing me on the nuances of John Steinbeck or Henry James — not in the slightest — no, my education consisted of how to balance the finances and what computer systems to use. At the end of each day my head was spinning from all the procedures I had to learn and all the rules I had to follow.
I’d foolishly thought the whole thing would be easy — I mean, I’d helped Dad out on the odd day or two and it was a piece of cake. Although, as I thought back to those fleeting occasions, I realised all I’d really done was dust the shelves or unpack boxes. All I could think now was: I have to know all this AND read the books? What a silly way to make a living!
Ernest and I spent every free moment together in the store, crunching numbers and writing notes. He even took time away from his job. Ruckus was also there every step of the way, lending his support by sleeping in the corner and playing with the receipt rolls. Finally, around seven o’clock on Sunday night Ernest ceased the seemingly never-ending lesson in small business and asked me the best question I’d heard in days: “How about we grab a pizza?”
“Do I have to declare it on my tax forms?” I inquired, stuck in a weird frame-of-mind where I was scared stiff that any unnecessary expenditure would come back to haunt me.
“No, my boy,” Ernest chuckled. “This one’s on me. I’ll run down to the place around the corner.”
Before I’d even had the chance to regather any sane manner of thinking, Ernest was slipping on his coat and heading for the door. He paused just before exiting. “You’ve put in a lot of hard work this week, Will. You’ll do fine, my boy.”
“Thanks, Ernest,” I said, with an exhausted tone even I was aware of. “I hope so. Thanks for everything.”
“My pleasure. I’ll be back in a jiffy.”
As the door closed and the jingle of the bell came to a rest, I took up a seat on the floor. I rested my aching back against the shelf where the fiction section began. Ruckus, hearing the bell a moment earlier, appeared from around the corner. He slowly idled towards me, before stretching his front paws out and yawning at me. “Been a hard day of sleeping, has it?” I asked of him. He meowed back at me in agreement.
“So, what do you think, buddy? Can I actually do this?” Over the course of the past few days I had found myself talking more and more to Ruckus. It hadn’t really dawned on me until that moment just how much I had become like a crazy pet owner. But as I sat there waiting for Ruckus to respond with something profound, he managed to do just that: he did respond.
It wasn’t with words, nor with visuals — it was just his way. He hopped up onto my lap without a second thought and began to lick my hand. It was something I had only ever seen him do with Mum and Dad — never with me. His tongue was coarse, like sandpaper, but perfectly gentle and comforting. He then did a few circles around my lap and promptly plonked himself down. And so we just sat there, Ruckus falling quickly asleep in my lap, my hand stroking over his fur. He purred like I had never heard him purr before. Part of me just wanted to sit there for as long as possible, enjoying this moment. It was only a few minutes later when Ernest returned and the other part of me — the hungry part — was glad to have the moment interrupted.
“Sorry I was a bit longer than expected; I grabbed Ruckus some food as well. I didn’t think we’d be here this long.” Ruckus looked a little disappointed he wouldn’t be joining us for pizza.
“That’s okay, I lost track of time any way. I’ve just been soaking up the atmosphere of the shop.”
“Your father certainly created a place full of that,” Ernest said with a smile. “Come on, it’ll get cold.”
Ernest emptied a can of tuna onto a plate for Ruckus and he promptly began to gobble it up, realising his chances of pizza were slim. We spread ourselves out on the bookstore floor and quickly devoured our dinner. We heard the wind pick up outside, rattling the doors and the windows, as if the weather was commanding us to stay inside. Heavy rain followed quickly after, and none of us were too thrilled about the idea of leaving until it died down.
So, we sat there — in the middle of my father’s bookstore, surrounded by discarded pizza boxes and more obscure memories, as Ruckus began sniffing at the pizza boxes and licking away what little flavour remained on the cardboard. As the night wore on, a bizarre thing happened: in what felt like the blink of an eye, hours flew past. Ernest began telling story after story about my father and I lost all track of the world around me.
I heard about how they would sit together at university, right up the back, and still manage to take in the lecture while choosing which girls they wanted to ask out. I heard about how Dad had taken up smoking as a way to calm his nerves for his exams, and how he hated what an addiction they’d become over the course of his life. I even heard a little more of how he and Mum met. He’d gone into a florist one day to buy flowers for this other girl he was keen on, and was so taken with Mum that he ended up asking for directions. It was weeks later before he finally got up the courage to ask her out. He went back into the store and selected a bouquet of flowers for ‘the prettiest girl he’d ever seen.’ When Mum asked what the address was he picked up a business card and read out the address of the florist. It was lame, but pretty sweet at the same time.
After she agreed to the date, Ernest told me that no matter how many legal cases Dad won; that would be his greatest accomplishment. It was only a couple of years later when they got married.
I could have listened to the stories all night, but when Ernest glanced at his watch and saw it was nearly eleven o’clock he jumped up like Ruckus had dug his claws firmly into his thigh. Ruckus was in fact quite content sleeping on one of the pizza boxes, looking up only briefly to see what all the commotion was about. “We must get home, my boy. Look at the time!” he exclaimed.
“I suppose you’re right,” I said despairingly, looking at my watch and concurring that it was, in fact, getting on. Part of me would have preferred just to camp out on the bookstore floor, given the alternative was making the long train ride home to a large and abandoned house. I pulled out my phone and began to examine the train schedule when Ernest interjected.
“We’ll have none of that. Tonight you’re coming home with me. Besides,” he added, passing it off as common sense rather than the command that it was, “it’ll make it easier for us both in the morning.”
“In the morning?” I repeated, quizzically.
“When I come back here with you. I’ve decided to give you a hand for the first couple of days … just to make sure you’ve got the hang of everything.”
I had to admit I was a little relieved. The prospect of running the store on my own from day one, coupled with Dad’s customer horror stories, had filled me with a slight sense of trepidation. The fact that Ernest had so perceptively picked up on my dread, which I have to admit I thought I’d done a reasonable job of concealing from him, was a feeling of great comfort. It was nice to have someone there to take on the role of father figure when I had so abruptly been thrown into a world without one.
We gathered up our things and after attempting to usher Ruckus into his carrier, I manhandled him as gently as I could. We pulled our jackets tightly around us and burst through the door. We had tried to build up as much momentum as possible to make our way through the still piercing winds. It was only a short walk to the car, but even then we had all managed to feel the icy grip of a cold Melbourne night. Ernest turned up the heat in the BMW as far as it would go, and we headed cautiously through the city streets to his house.
Ernest lived with his wife Debra in a luxurious apartment just on the outskirts of the city. She and Ernest had met on one of his trips back to England to see his family, and when she first came to visit Australia she fell in love with it too. She always said the down under sunshine was too good to leave behind for the dreary Mother country. They’d never had children, but had only a dog named Checkers to keep them company.
When we arrived Debra was just about to head for bed. We walked in on her finishing off a cup of tea. She turned around, a little startled. “I was wondering if I’d ever see you boys.” She walked up to me enthusiastically and gave me a hug. “Will, it’s so good to see you. I was so upset I was still out of the country when your father passed.”
“It’s great to see you too, Deb.” It really was — she was such a motherly figure, and it was reassuring to have someone to dote over me a little.
“And Ruckus,” she said, grabbing the carrier from my hand and opening it immediately, “how are you?” She took him and cradled him like a baby — which the extra level of volume prevalent in his purring suggested he enjoyed immensely.
Debra sat back down on the couch, smothering affection on Ruckus. Checkers, who had been previously sleeping next to the fire, came over to inspect all of the commotion and get his fare share. He was an ageing Springer Spaniel, the loveliest of dogs and incredibly intelligent. He sniffed around at Ruckus for a moment, before leaping up onto the couch next to Debra and promptly returning to his slumber. Ruckus and Checkers had met on a few occasions over the years and had a healthy respect of one another.
“Well, not to break up the little menagerie that we’ve got going here, but us boys really need to hit the hay. We have a big day tomorrow, don’t we, Will?”
“We sure do,” I replied to Ernest, with as much enthusiasm as I could muster to keep him confident.
“Yes, Will, I’ve made up the guest room for you and there are also fresh towels next to Ruckus’s bed,” Debra intervened. “Make sure he doesn’t get those confused.”
“How did you know we were coming?” I asked, amazed at Debra’s efficiency.
“Oh, it’s just my fantastic sense of intuition,” she replied, the English whimsy I adored so much prevalent in her tone.
“I called ahead while I was picking up dinner,” Ernest interjected.
“Oh, dear, you’re no fun,” she protested, winking at me as she did. “Alright, let’s all get to bed. We wouldn’t want you too exhausted for your first day. Goodnight, Will.” As she handed an extremely docile Ruckus back to me, she kissed me on the forehead. It was extremely comforting, but also made me miss Mum, who used to do that every night when I was younger.
“I’ll expect you dressed and ready at seven-thirty, my dear boy. Sleep well,” Ernest uttered, with a renewed sense of energy. I patted Checkers as he followed his beloved owners to bed, before Ruckus and I made our way for the guest room. It was beautifully made up as always, with even a fresh vase of flowers on the chest of drawers. I smiled as I thought of Mum yet again.
I placed Ruckus delicately onto his bed and after trying to wrestle his eyes open again he briskly fell back into a relaxed slumber. I found a pair of pyjamas left on my pillow, and although I felt a little silly in flannelette coated in puppies, they felt divine compared to my outfit that was still reeling from the outside elements.
I stood staring out of the window for a while before heading for bed. Ernest and Debra lived like twenty stories up, and it gave a spectacular view of the city. The Yarra River glistened with the reflections of the surrounding skyline. From a distance the city was quite the spectacle to behold. The night sky dulled its intimidation. I found that being able to look down on it — rather than from within it — made it impressive and not so scary.
Finally my failing eyes could handle it no longer. I felt my head nodding and I knew it was time for sleep. I gave Ruckus one final pat and he rolled over and looked at me for just a second, before curling himself up in a ball once again and drifting off. As I clambered into bed I felt okay about the impending day and what was to follow. It was a new chapter in my life, and who knew what it could bring. I didn’t remember a thing as soon as my head hit the pillow.
The next few days passed by in a haze. I stayed with Ernest and Debra for the duration of Ernest coming to the shop with me; it was just easier that way. Each morning I was awoken by Ernest at seven-thirty on the dot. I emerged out of my slumber having slept so deeply that it felt like it passed in a matter of minutes, and I hadn’t in fact rested at all. I consumed more coffee in those few days than I ever had in my early days of drinking the stuff. My palette hadn’t quite developed a taste for it yet, but it did a hell of a job of keeping me at least semi-awake.
Each day we would then utilise the following hour to get ourselves ready and then would hop on the tram to be at the shop by nine o’clock. It was quite the routine, and in a strange way it was really nice to have a routine. I suddenly felt like I had a purpose again — even if it did feel like a fairly rudimentary one. We left Ruckus at the apartment so he wouldn’t distract us on those first few days getting sorted. Besides, Debra was there to look after him while she did writing for a magazine she worked for — not to mention the fact that he and Checkers had developed quite the friendship and enjoyed sleeping away most of the day in each other’s vicinity.
Each morning Ernest and I would unlock the door at nine o’clock, flip around the ‘Open’ sign, and he would educate me on the various tasks I would need to do to keep the shop running. He showed me how to process orders and returns, and even the way that Dad liked to merchandise the shop. My favourite part of this was Dad’s labelling of the different sections. He had the obvious ones like Fiction, Biography and History; but then he also had a section for things like Dieting and New Age with a sign above it called ‘Fads.’ It occurred to me how little interest I had ever taken in the shop and, had I known things like this, I would have come to visit more often.
So I began to get the hang of things reasonably quickly — and with the aid of the Internet I felt I could quickly look up any tricky book questions I may get asked. It was like high school really.
The one thing I wasn’t confident about was the customers. For one thing, there weren’t many of them. Each morning it must have been at least an hour or two before we saw a soul. To be fair it was a very small shop, and a little out of the way, but even I would need more human interaction than this once I was in here on my own. “Is it always this quiet?” I asked of Ernest.
“It varies,” he replied with a wry disposition. “When I’ve been in here before I’ve certainly seen more people than this.”
“More than nothing?” I asked. Ernest chuckled.
“Give it time, my boy.”
Ernest and I carried on for the next few days. At one point I asked him how he knew all of this to teach me. He replied by telling me that Dad had actually asked him to come in when he sensed his health was waning. He wanted to show him the ropes before it was too late. “Why didn’t he just ask me to come in so he could show me himself?” I asked.
“He didn’t want you to know that he was worried about his health,” Ernest said. “He was also worried you’d turn him down.”
I felt incredibly sombre knowing that. My Dad and I were so disconnected that he didn’t even feel he could pass on his legacy to me. It was a thought that made me hate myself quite a bit.
All up it was four days that Ernest and I ran my Dad’s bookstore. As we were closing up on the fourth day he asked me if I felt I was ready to do the job on my own. He told me his cases were beginning to pile up and he had to return to work. The idea spun around in my head just like when it had first been suggested to me. I still felt so very weird about the whole situation — I still felt weird even thinking both Mum and Dad were gone — but I couldn’t ask any more of Ernest. He’d done so much for me and for Dad. “Absolutely!” I said to him with an emphatic smile. “These three or four customers won’t know what hit ’em.” I added, just to lighten the mood. Ernest laughed.
“You really do have your father’s sense of humour, my boy.” That one comment made me feel instantly better than I had. I felt a connectedness to Dad that could only come from one of his closest friends observing it. I decided I was ready to take on this challenge, and I couldn’t wait for tomorrow to come to tackle it.
Next morning it had begun: I was on my way to the first day of work that I would face on my own.
It had all gone to plan so far. I’d set my alarm correctly and even managed to extricate myself from bed after hearing it. I was able to convince Ruckus to stay at home without me — an extra helping of his kibble did the trick on that front. I was able to make myself presentable and get to the train station on time so I didn’t see it pulling out as I sprinted to a door closing on my face. All in all — it had been a successful morning so far.
I rested my head against the cool glass of the train window, and watched the city blur past me outside. A hefty dose of early morning commuters were around me, all ignoring each other with their typical precision and skill.
I’d left far earlier than I probably needed to, but I didn’t want anything to go wrong today. With the extra air of relaxation I’d afforded myself, I took a strange comfort in my surroundings. I decided the train was somewhat beautiful in its peculiar way. Sure, it wasn’t an obvious beauty — the chairs covered in years of reckless stains and the walls lined with rebellious graffiti were more obvious than ever. But really, who wants obvious beauty anyway? There’s enough of that in the world. There was enough of it in just the dog-eared tabloid magazine resting beside me — nothing about it beautiful enough to warrant the owner holding onto it for longer than a few minutes of frivolous interest.
But the train was, somehow, beautiful. It glided along like a ghost, giving me the feeling I was moving effortlessly through walls. I was a spectre unimpeded, as the shadows of bridges and tunnels passed over me. I felt every curve, every dip, every bump and shudder left over from the tiny imperfections in a railway line painstakingly built over thousands of hours. I admired the Melbourne landscape in the distance, fading out-of-sight slowly while the rest of the world flashed for just an instant in the blurred foreground.
Then a long stretch of trees rushed past the speeding train and blocked out the sun ascending between buildings far off in the city. Suddenly the train’s window had its reflective quality imparted on a backdrop of green that zoomed along outside. That’s when I saw her — well, her reflection — just for a second. She too was staring mindlessly out of her own window on the opposite side of the train. Her arm rested against the side of the carriage, her hand propping her head up. As quickly as she appeared she was gone again. The trees disappeared behind the train and the distant scenery returned to my field of vision. The window was no longer a mirror, but once again a vessel to the outside world.
I took a second to consider how I could get a better look at the girl in the window. I thought about the angles involved and deduced she had to be sitting a few rows in front of me on the opposite side of the carriage. As surreptitiously as possible I glanced over that way, pretending to look past her, but ensuring my eyes had just half a second to settle on her fully.
She was, for all intents and purposes, gorgeous. But it was the kind of gorgeous that was subtle; the kind that you had to look for — the kind I adored. She was also promptly getting up and heading for the exit. In my distracted state I hadn’t even noticed how many stations we’d pulled into already.
I ran through a list of options for my next course of action. I considered asking her the station; knowing fully well it was Windsor — and meeting her reply with glee that this was station I was looking for. Okay, granted, that wasn’t the best idea — nor was my list a particularly long one — but it was all I had. Just when I thought I’d mustered up the courage to try something foolish, I remembered I had a job to go to. I was in the real world now; and the real world had no time for frivolous girl chasing. As I re-gathered my boring and logical thoughts, I saw the carriage doors open and then I watched her leave — taking with her my extravagant hopes and dreams.
The train continued on, and I forced myself to remove the mystery girl from my mind. After all, I knew it was a futile and brief fixation; I’d had a habit in high school of falling in love two or three times a day, so I was making a conscious effort not to get too carried away with someone whom I had never even uttered a single word. Besides, I was pretty confident I’d meet the next love of my life later today — after all, it’s a big city. I refocused on the day ahead, and quickly realised that all my daydreaming had taken longer than I’d thought — the train was pulling into Flinders Street.
As the train ambled its last few hundred metres into the city, a sense of dread came over me. It wasn’t from the impending first day as a solitary business owner — although the weight of that was bearing down on me more and more every second — but instead from the feeling that someone was now watching me.
I felt the unmistakable weight of someone’s eyes studying me — probably the same feeling I’d imparted on the girl who just fled the train in fear. The stare was coming from my side, and as I glanced around casually, I caught the glare just long enough to observe its owner.
As my luck would have it, it wasn’t the next love of my life; it was probably the least likely person in the entire world who would become the love of my life. No, it was simply an unassuming old man.
He must have been in his eighties at least. Wrinkles adorned his face and hands, while sparse, greyed hair sat atop a head adorned with character. He was dressed humbly in trousers and a shirt, enshrouded with a large overcoat. The only evidence of extravagance that the man exuded was the fedora he held protectively in his lap. He had a tight grip of it with one hand and tapped it lightly with the fingers of his other hand.
I quickly looked away, adjusting to the shock of such a severe stare. I looked through the window, but could still feel the intensity of his gaze raining down upon me. I took a few more moments, before looking back again. His eyes were still looking into me; I tried smiling but was met with no reciprocation. Finally, he looked away — just as the train came to a stop. I got up quickly from my seat and jostled ahead of the crowd to emerge onto the platform ahead of anyone else. I quickly darted up the Flinders Street stairs, still spooked by the old man’s eyes. Suddenly, the beautiful girl was just a distant memory; this man was all I could think about.
As the rest of the day progressed the old man had, in some strange way, made it far easier than I was expecting it to be. The image of his stare haunted me to the point that nothing else seemed intimidating.
The day started easily enough — I simply went through the morning ritual as Ernest had instructed me: I readied the computers; I prepared the displays, and I counted the money into the till. In fact, I had plenty of time to make sure the shop was ready to go — I didn’t see a customer for the first hour and a half. But even still, all the preparation in the world wouldn’t have made me ready for the first customer to walk through the door and jingle the bell.
Eccentric was the best way to describe her look; like someone who loved Mary Poppins just a little too fondly. I greeted her with a friendly hello, to which she simply bowed her head gently as if she were the Queen. “Is there anything I can help you with?” I asked, trying to sound as in control as I possibly could on my first day.
“Just browsing,” came her posh reply.
“By all means. Let me know if there’s any way I can assist.”
Once again she gave me a small nod, and I wondered if I was supposed to wait in line and give her a curtsey when she came closer.
I turned away to look over my emails — I was awaiting responses from a number of publishers about the status of Dad’s accounts — but before too long I felt the woman’s presence on the opposite side of the counter. I promptly stood up from my desk and once again offered my assistance. “Is there a specific title you’re trying to find this morning?”
“Hmmm . . .” was the extent of her initial reply. Then followed a series of grunts, murmurs, coughs and hand gestures I thought were going to turn into an interpretive dance. Finally, after the third time she had placed her hand to her chin in a ponderous fashion, the conversation progressed. “Well, perhaps,” she uttered.
I continued to wait, with more awkwardness than I have ever experienced throughout my entire existence, until finally I deduced that was the extent of her thoughts on the matter for the moment. I interrupted the deathly silence. “Do you know the title?” I asked, as politely as I could muster.
“Ahhh . . . “ she replied. “You know, I can’t for the life of me remember the title. I do know it has a red cover though.”
“How about the author’s name? Do you remember that?”
Once again I saw her eyes roll straight upwards as she presumably searched the attic of her brain for the information.
“Ummm . . . the name. The name is, wait, no, thought I had it for a second. Definitely a red cover though.”
As I felt my resolve beginning to wain, I probed for any idea the woman might have.
“It fiction or non-fiction? Something real or something made up?”
“No, it’s definitely real. Why would I come into a bookstore for a book that doesn’t exist?” she said.
“I understand it’s a real book. But is it a real story or a work of fiction?”
“Well it’s an interesting one; could go either way I suppose.”
I feigned a search on the computer; just to appease the woman into thinking I had any hope of finding her mysterious red book. She wandered off from the counter, looking around again, and I hoped I’d heard the last of the matter. However, my reprieve was only momentary, as a few seconds later her shrill voice interrupted the silence once again. “There’s a red one!” she announced, rushing over to the fiction section and tugging at the red spine of a book she had noticed. “Nope, that’s not it,” she added inspecting the cover with disappointment.
“Perhaps it’s this one,” she said, grabbing at another red book. “Come and give me a hand here, will you? You have lots of red books.” I lurched myself from behind the desk, realising there was little point in questioning the woman’s logic. I simply decided that the sooner she was satisfied that I didn’t have her red book, the sooner she would leave — it would also make it sooner that I could take lunch.
Half an hour later, after rifling through every red book my father kept in the store, I was able to shuffle the woman out of the store with the assurance I would try and order her book. I promptly grabbed the ‘Back in one hour’ sign and left the store in search of food. I made my way to the little cafe I would visit when I had helped Dad in the store previously. Waiting for my order, I contemplated the idea of colour-coding the store to avoid having to assist in any further frivolous book searches based on cover hue.
Before I had worked out the specific kinks of my idea, my name had been called and a paper bag thrust into my hand. I decided I needed some fresh air, and despite the fact that the air was still cool, it was a clear and sunny day. I made my way up to Federation Square to sit in the sunlight and take in the bustling midday city atmosphere. The city, as always, was a cacophony of movement: people rushed, cars zoomed, and trams sidled.
In the five or so minutes it took me to eat my simple chicken sandwich, I must have observed hundreds of people pass me by. From my vantage point I was able to observe people far away, flowing from the train station like a steady stream. I was also able to observe them close-up, as they passed me through the surrounds of the square. Some of them sprinted, some of them sauntered — but they all had one thing in common: they all ignored me. Of course there was no logical reason for anyone to engage me in any sort of human interaction — I wasn’t making effort to smile or make eye contact — it’s just that I had never realised how desperate I was for companionship.
I chucked my rubbish in the bin and headed for the adjacent stairs. They wound their way down to the neighbouring Yarra River, which on a day like this would be surely glistening in the sunlight. I hoped some connectedness to nature — no matter how minute — would decrease the sense of isolation I was feeling.
But it seemed even the natural world was determined to add to my loneliness. Despite the ubiquitous dots of human pollution that were always evident along the stretch of water, the river was sparkling today. It brought a smile over my face, which was only heightened when I spotted a family of ducks paddling its way close to the edge. I wandered over to them, when I observed the tiny ducklings becoming separated from their mother. For just long enough the ducklings thrashed about in the water, terrified about being left alone, before the mother turned around and got them into order again.
I knew it was stupid, but the interaction between parent and child I was observing in simple ducks did nothing but remind me of my own parents. I felt ridiculous — I didn’t want to become one of those people whose every little experience throughout every day does nothing but serve as a reminder of why I was sad. I immediately made myself snap out of it and I headed back for work.
The rest of the day passed by with little event. I had maybe two-dozen people wander in and out of the store, and I even made a few hundred dollars. Before I knew it, I found myself back at the train station, sitting in the least occupied carriage I could find and waiting for our departure. During those few minutes of nothing I felt a small sense of satisfaction; I had survived my first day. But even before I could let a small smile settle over my face something happened — something I couldn’t have prepared myself for.
I saw him before he saw me.
It was the guy from the other day at the train crossing — the one who had laughed at me with Ruckus on his leash. I remembered that face immediately, and I just knew I didn’t want him to recognise me. I couldn’t decide why — I just had a feeling. He seemed to emanate trouble.
I sank down into my chair and looked out the window to try and avoid eye contact. Despite all my best efforts, he caught glimpse of me and promptly took up refuge in the empty part of my seat. I felt like the flame to an unbelievably annoying moth.
“Hey, buddy!” he exclaimed. I wasn’t sure at what point between the first time he saw me and laughing his head off at my situation that we had become friends, but apparently we had.
“Hey,” I replied. I didn’t even pretend to feign enthusiasm. Apparently that didn’t worry him.
“I remember you from the other day! You’re the guy who thinks his cat is a dog … yeah?” He chuckled to himself, not needing me to answer. I did anyway.
“I guess that’s me,” I responded meekly.
“I was just having a lend of you, mate. It’s just not something you see every day,” he said, still chuckling as he obviously thought of the mental image again. “I’ve seen plenty of dogs on leashes, even plenty of babies, just never a cat. They seem to snooty for it, don’t they?”
Before I’d had a chance to reach for the book I’d brought home — ‘Catcher in the Rye,’ as recommended by Ernest — or stick my headphones on — which I just remembered I’d forgotten anyway — I realised that I was going to be stuck in a conversation with this guy, whether I wanted to be or not. He continued on. “What’s up with babies on leashes anyway? Is it just me or does that look ridiculous? I think if you’re not responsible enough to keep your baby within reaching distance then maybe you should rethink your contribution to the gene pool.” I couldn’t help but snicker.
“The name’s Dainty,” he declared, holding out his hand. I promptly shook it, almost like an uncontrollable reflex. I guess I’d subconsciously decided that with my isolated state-of-mind, I wasn’t in a position to turn down any unprompted gesture of interaction — even if it was from the guy who’d made fun of me.
“Will,” I said, with the best half-smile I had the energy for.
The doors around us slid abruptly shut, accompanied by their usual imprisoning thump, and the train slowly began its departure. It had yet another random concoction of strangers from all walks of life stranded within its metal casing — yet another collection of people who had no interest in learning a single detail about anyone else, but who simply wanted to get home to their places of refuge and recuperation. Finally, it had Dainty and me, who were about go against the grain of everyone else around us and actually interact. We were going to let someone new into our lives, at the risk of changing our respective paths forever. I thought about how amazing that possibility was: that one little variation to routine really could alter everything. It made me decide to choose my words very carefully.
Suffice to say, Dainty did most of the talking. The first thing he told me was that, of course, that wasn’t his real name. His real name was Jimmy — Jimmy Danes. But in primary school he had been a larger kid and, as he described it, not terribly graceful. The other kids teased him for having a bit of a funny walk — they said he waddled like a penguin. He never competed in any sport, and his clumsiness had left him on more than one embarrassing occasion transitioned from an upright position to one sitting firmly on his arse. The other kids thought moments like these were hysterical of course, and after one of the cleverer kids had given him the nickname it quickly became something he had to live with.
But everything changed for Dainty when he transitioned to high school. Suddenly his size caught up to his weight and he became somewhat of an enforcer to all the kids who had spent so many years demeaning him. Suddenly he liked the name Dainty, and used it as a symbol of fear — like Batman he told me. He’d kept it ever since.
He was originally from Sydney, but his family moved to Melbourne when his older brother Luke kept getting in strife with the cops. His brother was quite the troublemaker for a while he told me, but he was on the straight-and-narrow now. “What’s he do now?” I asked.
“I don’t talk to him much any more,” was his simple reply. “He’s moved away, but I’m sure he’s doing better. It’s kind of a brotherly intuition.”
“And what about your parents? What do they do?”
“They’re back in Sydney. They never really wanted to leave, they just did it for Luke, but as soon as he was sorted out they moved back. I don’t talk to them much either.”
I decided not to ask any more questions about his family. While it was clear he enjoyed a chat, it was even clearer he didn’t want to divulge too much information about anything too close to home. “And so why did you choose to stay in Melbourne?” I deviated.
“I dunno really. I just like it. It feels more open than Sydney, like there’s more room to move or something. And it was just nice to get that fresh start.”
“Fair enough,” I added, knowing just what he meant. The time seemed to fly by talking to Dainty — I didn’t think it was possible to learn so much about a person in a twenty-five minute train ride. Other snippets I picked up included his job as a bartender and his love of cars. I also didn’t think it was possible for someone to be so comfortable divulging a fair chunk of a life story to a complete stranger; but he was incredibly comfortable about it — I deduced he probably needed it.
It was also nice to learn that the bully I met initially had more than one dimension to him. He had grown up from that kid in high school — he clearly had sensitivity and vulnerability to him. I began to see bits of myself in him, and I think he could sense the same.
But I also realised that I had to interject the seemingly never-ending stream of words flowing from his mouth. “Sorry, but this is my stop coming up,” I interjected awkwardly.
“No way? Mine too. I guess that explains why I got to meet your funny-looking dog the other day — we must live in the same neighbourhood.”
“I guess we must.” I wasn’t quite sure how enthused I felt about this fact, but there was little I could do about it.
Along with everyone else whose long day had brought them back to Ripponlea, we disembarked from the train and watched it quickly depart en route to the next station and beyond. Thrust into the frigid night air, the whole crowd of travellers shivered, seemingly in unison. We all scurried along the platform — the more obtuse individuals nudging and shouldering their way ahead — ran our cards over the ticket machine, and darted through the station opening. The tight-knit collective of people quickly dispersed, each individual heading off in a different direction, desperate to get home as quickly as possible. Dainty and I were left there awkwardly. Well, it was awkward for me anyway.
“Well, I’ll probably see you around,” I uttered, my teeth already beginning to chatter.
“You probably will,” he replied. “How often do you ride the rail?” I hesitated with my response; unsure whether this was a potential friendship I wanted to pursue. I opted for a non-committal response that didn’t appear too dismissive.
“Most days,” I said.
“Well, I ride it every day,” he replied. “So, yeah, I’ll probably see you around.” With that, he turned and walked away. It was strange, for someone who had talked so much; it was all over rather abruptly. I wondered if I’d been too obvious in my ambivalence. I wondered if he’d seen straight through me.
As I walked home, I replayed our final conversation over in my head — and I came to conclusion that, in fact, I was a bit of a dick. For someone who had unveiled so much on the train, he’d left with barely a whimper. His final question was clearly an offer to talk some more, even if it was just during another ride on the train, and I barely even reciprocated. I decided then that if I were ever to see Jimmy ‘Dainty’ Danes again, I would count myself lucky.
By the time I got home I was completely exhausted. I’d never really thought about how hard my parents had to work in their respective retail endeavours. I’d always thought Dad had taken the easy road retiring to run a bookstore; now I knew better. I made my way through the front garden, the nighttime darkness now firmly entrenched over the city, and I felt an ominous hole in the pit of my stomach. Glancing over the expanse of the house, it all just felt so wrong — there was barely any light emanating from anywhere. The only glimmer I could spot was coming from Robyn’s living room. The scant illumination flickered and shimmered, barely noticeable. She must have been watching television, alone, like she’d done for quite some time now. I felt an intense pang of sadness for her — for us both.
I was suddenly growing tired of everything in my life reminding me that they were both gone. It also struck me that I’d meant to leave a light on when I left the house that morning; poor Ruckus would be beside himself. While most cats were best in the dark, Ruckus became a bit of a sook — mainly because he knew it meant no one was around.
I ran the short distance left to the front door, threw the key into the lock and flung the door wide open. Ruckus, as if having heard me from a few blocks away, was waiting at the foot of the door, meowing incessantly. I immediately picked him up and held him to my face. “I’m so sorry, Ruckus. I didn’t mean to leave you in the darkness. It will never happen again.” Ruckus looked at me as if to say: You’re damn right it won’t happen again.
His meowing lessened, eventually turning into purring as I continued to rub his face against mine. I couldn’t believe how attached I had become to him, but the degree of guilt I felt about leaving him in the dark was a pretty good indicator. Before I’d even had a chance to think about my own dinner, I raced to the cupboard and gave him an extra large helping of his canned food. After that he seemed to forgive me.
Soon after, in the midst of my important decision between take-away pizza and take-away Chinese, Ernest rang me. He was exceptionally curious to see how I’d survived my first day, and I told him that aside from the uncertainty that had been brought upon by a few eccentric customers, that it had been fine. We talked for at least half-an-hour, in which time Ernest must have reiterated three or four times that if I needed anything to call him or Debra straight away.
It was comforting to know that I had them looking out for me. Finally, after arranging to have them around for dinner in a few nights, I managed to say my farewell and hang up the phone. I felt my energy collapse as abruptly as the phone.
The rest of the night seemed to pass by in a blur of escapism. I grabbed a few bits of wood and got a small fire going, which Ruckus in particular was happy about. I also decided my fast food decision was too difficult to make and ordered both options; besides I was in no rush to hone my skills in the kitchen and could use the leftovers for the next couple of nights. I also turned the television on and found the most trivial show I could possibly find — there was ample selection. I enjoyed a couple of slices of pizza and some honey chicken as I fended off Ruckus’s advances at my feast. Before too long my eyes fell heavy and I struggled to keep up with the intricate plot line of the reality show I was watching.
Before I knew it, my eyes snapped open and I found myself in a panic. Where was I? What was happening? I looked around and got my bearings. The fire in the corner had dulled to a flickering flame, and Ruckus had fallen asleep on a closed pizza box — his efforts to prize it open thankfully in vain. I calmed myself, realising I had simply fallen asleep in the living room. I fumbled for the remote that had fallen down the side of the couch, before muting the characters on the sitcom blaring from the television.
With the room silenced, I was able to regather my thoughts and make some kind of sense of the situation. I checked my watch and saw that the time was just about to go past midnight. It was well and truly time to head to bed properly. I extricated myself from the chair with great difficulty, before tidying the room of its take-away material. Ruckus was not impressed when I picked him up from the comforting cardboard box that he had converted into his bed.
I placed the food in the fridge, and was in the process of turning off the lights when I heard a noise that made the entire house shake. The soothing sound of subtle raindrops that had just started to fall were overpowered by the thunderous roar of a car engine ripping through a nearby street at what had to have been at least a hundred kilometres an hour. I ran over to the window and peeked through the curtains, but the car, or any remote trace of it, was well and truly gone — whatever its destination, the driver was wasting no time in getting there.
I picked Ruckus up — who had scurried behind the couch in fear — and held him closely to my chest. He butted his head against mine in what was becoming a new bonding ritual of ours and I returned the gesture. “It’s okay, buddy — just some lunatic. Let’s go to bed.” And with that, Ruckus and I made it to my bed in record time, and even faster returned to our delicate slumber.
The following morning saw the return of sunshine.
I first noticed it when it blinded me out of my otherwise perfectly comfortable sleeping ritual. It even managed to get to me before Ruckus did — in fact even he seemed more upset about being awoken than showing any interest in food as he normally would. He quickly got over this and decided that I should get up to feed him. As per usual, his meowing and occasional paw in my face meant there was little point in arguing.
After I showered and readied myself for my second day at work, I was washing the dishes in front of the kitchen window when I noticed just how perfect the day looked. I spotted my neighbour Robyn out in the garden and decided I should thank her again for attending the funeral. My thought of her the night before had made me think how lonely she must be, and how much good we could each do for the other at the moment. I made my way outside and did my best not to startle her in her gardening. “Good morning, Robyn.” She turned around, her garden hose firing on all cylinders. I pulled a quick evasive manoeuvre and narrowly managed to avoid the flume of water that was send hurtling towards me.
“Oh! I’m sorry, my dear,” Robyn pronounced, embarrassed. She promptly turned the nozzle and ceased the flow of water. “Did I get you?”
“No, no, I’m fine,” I said laughing.
“I just didn’t see you there. You know, miming might be a career choice you could follow if you haven’t considered it before.”
“Well I’ll keep that in mind if the bookstore thing doesn’t work out.”
“Oh, of course. How are you going with it?” Before I could reply she leant in and gave me a hug. She carried on, seemingly forgetting about her initial question. “I’ve been worried about you all alone in that massive house. You let me know if I can do anything, okay?”
“I will,” I replied with a smile. “But so far I’m okay. And the bookstore is all right. It’s keeping me busy, which is good.”
“Yes, it’s best to keep the mind focused at a time like this.”
A moment of silence passed between us at that point. We both seemed a little unsure what to say next. I returned my mind to my original intent. “I just wanted to thank you again for coming to the funeral. It really did mean a lot to me, and I know it would have meant a lot to Mum and Dad.”
“Don’t be silly, dear. I wouldn’t have missed it for the world. I’ll miss them both terribly.” She gave me another hug, before smiling comfortingly at me.
“Anything you need, dear, you know where I am.”
“Thanks, Robyn. I really appreciate it. Well, I’d better get to work.”
I began to walk away but felt compelled to stop and say one final thing to her, the picture of her alone in her house last night replaying in my head. “Robyn, I hope you know that if you need anything from me please also don’t hesitate to let me know.” She smiled at me.
“I know, dear.”
I turned away again and raced back inside, realising that time had skipped away and I was cutting it close to make the train I needed. I gave Ruckus a quick pat on the head as he slept soundly in the sunlight bathing the living room carpet. He barely acknowledged my farewell, which was something that used to offend me, but that now I took as a sign he was getting back to his old content self — that made me smile as I raced out the door and down the block.
To say that I was cutting it close would be the definition of an understatement. To say that I sprinted as fast as I could through the station and edged through the doors just as they closed, nearly knocking over three people would be the accurate way of describing exactly what happened. I apologised profusely to everyone involved and sullenly made my way to the furthest seat possible from the incident.
I kept my head down long enough to feel the judging eyes of everyone else on the train slowly dissipate and return to their books or their phones or whatever else they were looking at that wasn’t me. When I finally had the courage to look all the way up I was struck by who I saw in the next carriage down — it was Dainty.
Even though I’d told myself I wouldn’t, I hesitated. I was angry with myself for doing so, but it was just so hard to break away from my natural instincts. I was wary, I had always been wary, and unless I made myself change I would always stay wary. I looked around me, at everyone ignoring everyone else. Maybe they all had a good reason to act like that? But I saw the way I was in all of them — and I knew that I didn’t have a good reason to act like that. I knew that if anyone on this train needed to reach out to someone else it was me. I knew that I just didn’t know how to get out of my own way. So I did. I got up and marched straight down to the next carriage.
When I got there I stopped. I was frozen. I hadn’t thought my plan through as well as I’d hoped. Luckily for me, Dainty quickly ended my awkwardness. “Hey, buddy,” came his enthusiastic reply. I was still unsure how comfortable I felt being referred to as buddy after just one day, but I was simply grateful he still wanted to talk to me. And I learned even more than our previous encounter that Dainty was one hell of a talker.
First up were his thoughts on train etiquette: “Lesson number one:” he said to me, “do not dawdle. If you dawdle you’re going to be standing like we are right now. We look like a couple of chumps.”
“I actually don’t mind standing,” I replied.
“There’s plenty of time to stand, but on the train is not one of them. Look at all these suits around us. They already think they’re better than us — sitting just adds to their sense of self-satisfaction.”
By this point I could feel the odd glare starting to emerge on the faces of the people around us, and not just ‘the suits’ as Dainty referred to them. He certainly had little comprehension of tact, preferring to speak at as loud a volume as possible. But perhaps that was his intention all along. “The other thing you need to know about the train,” he said, as if I’d never been on one before in my entire life, “is that there is no room for manners. You look like the kind of guy who would give up your seat for an old lady.”
“Well, yes, I…”
“Rookie mistake,” he announced, cutting me off. “They don’t give a shit about you, and so you shouldn’t give a shit about them. I don’t care if they’re old, young, or pregnant on roller skates. You get your arse in a seat as quickly as possible and don’t you dare give it up.”
I was now getting a little more than just uncomfortable. I was beginning to regret my seize-the-day attitude, and missed the anonymity of my seat in the other carriage. I tried my best to calm Dainty’s unexpected tirade. “Well, it’s just a seat on a train. It’s no big deal.”
“It’s not just that. It’s a microcosm of life. People will step over you to get what they want. And if you’re not prepared to step over them every once in a while, you’re going to get trampled your whole life. People are shit. Not ‘essentially’ shit, not ‘basically’ shit — they’re just plain shit. They let you down and that’s just what they do.” Silence hung in the air just long enough for me to think he was done, but then he drew me even further into the conversation. “You think I’m exaggerating, don’t you?” I didn’t know how to respond to the question, but unsurprisingly he did it for me before too long.
“Okay, I’ll give you an example,” he said. “I guarantee you that within thirty seconds some twit on this train will pull out a phone and be having a conversation for the whole world to hear. We’ll hear a joke about how they really shouldn’t be saying such embarrassing things in public, but you know what? They’ll keep talking. Why? Because they’re shit. And before you know it we’ll all know about how drunk they were last night, who they slept with, and where they’ll be having dinner later tonight. I tell you, it would be great information if we were stalkers. People will happily give up their personal information to the would-be muggers they’re sitting next to if it will make them feel important. Thirty seconds — I guarantee it.”
Dainty and I waited. I counted seconds in my head — ten went by; then fifteen. I checked my watch to see that forty seconds had elapsed, when there it was: someone’s phone rang. I looked up. Glancing around, trying to find the source of the noise, I saw Dainty reach into his pocket. He pulled out his mobile phone, its case emblazoned with half-naked girls. He looked at the name on the screen and let out a churlish, obnoxious laugh. He held off answering the call just long enough to exclaim: “So I was a few seconds off.”
I stared back at him, unsure what to reply, before he quickly took the call and promptly launched into a conversation about how hungover he was and the girl he slept with last night.
I was dumbfounded, but the feeling waned as I recalled his instructions he had given me only ten minutes ago: step on people before they step on you. As we pulled into Richmond station he slapped me on the back and broke away from his phone for just a second. “I’ll see you next time, buddy,” he said, darting from the train ahead of all the other passengers who were also disembarking. I saw several of them shoot me death stares and I retreated into the corner of the aisle as best I could.
As the train took off again, I simply stood there, swaying with its undulations, unsure what to think as his words swirled around in my head. Maybe he was right. I was well and truly out in the real world now. Maybe I was just fine keeping my distance from people. Maybe that would help me get ahead.
But I didn’t want to think like that. I didn’t want to think like Dainty did. Despite my apprehension towards people, I didn’t want to be so cynical towards them. I was at a point in my life where I needed to cling to optimism; not drown in apathy. But here I was — this guy was all of a sudden the closest thing I had to a friend. He was the first one in my new life to reach out to me.
In the isolating sea of city-life, I was being held afloat by a random person’s shameless honesty. This guy had been my one shining light of real, tangible humanity — and that terrified me.
The rest of the day passed by fairly uneventfully. It was another slow day in the store, the highlight being the woman who insisted there was something wrong with a fellow who worked in a bookstore and had never read any Sylvia Plath. I placated her as best I could, assuring her I would read some, knowing full well it would never happen.
My train ride home was thankfully isolated. I passed the time by reading and falling in love two or three times. Suffice to say I didn’t have the same cavalier attitude as I’d had with Dainty that morning. By the time I’d made it home I was once again exhausted. Ruckus, however, was far more jovial when I walked in the door — the light in the living room that I’d made sure to leave on made him feel far more settled than the previous night.
The evening passed by in another whirlwind of take-away food and bad television, but I varied the pattern by going to bed the instant I felt tired, which was rather early at a paltry 9pm. I had enjoyed a few blissful hours of deep sleep when I was awoken by the car engine of the night before. I was sure it was the same car — the shattering impact of its screeching tyres and the thundering bellow of its engine were unmistakable. It seemed almost as if it were alive and yelling, quite literally, for attention from any person who was willing to surrender it.
I inspected the time and it was once again just after midnight; I was beginning to wonder if this was going to be a nightly occurrence. But just like last night that was the beginning and end of the disruption. The attention-seeking car vanished abruptly into the night, and Ruckus and I promptly fell back into our dreams.
My night’s sleep proved to be a frustrating experience.
I was plagued by strange dreams the entire time, but none of which I could recall upon my awakening. In fact there was only one sensation I was aware of as my alarm woke me: pain. A tremendous weight was pressing down on my legs and I had the stinging sensation of pins and needles shooting up my body.
My head was still placed firmly on the pillow as I attempted to turn myself over, with little success. Flicking my legs up and down the source of the weight quickly became apparent. Ruckus meowed at me; clearly upset I had disturbed his resting place. After a few licks of his paw he sidled off me and leapt to the floor. The sense of relief was euphoric, and I nudged myself to the edge of the bed.
“I think I have been feeding you a little too generously, buddy,” I said to Ruckus. He meowed at me as if to say: Don’t be crazy, human.
After readying myself for work and feeding Ruckus just a little bit less than normal — of which he made sure to express his disdain — I made my way for the city. The commute passed by uneventfully for a change, and before I knew it I was entrenched behind the bookstore counter watching the minutes tick by. By the time 10.30am had rolled around I was yet to see a single soul. My eyelids hung lowly and I struggled to maintain focus.
After the second time my head almost hit the cash register I decided I needed a project to make the time pass. I stepped outside to get some fresh air and my brain began to whir with ideas on how to freshen up the store. Firstly: a name. For the entirety of the store’s existence it had always just had a sign out the front that simply said: ‘Bookstore’. It described what it was, but the store had no personality, no character — and such a tremendous shame. Dad had been too focused on getting the store up and running that he had just put that sign up temporarily and simply never remembered to change it.
I wouldn’t have even contemplated changing the name if there had been one; but the simple fact was that the store needed an identity. I felt like it would keep my father’s memory alive.
I had started to feel the cold of the enclosed street and returned to the warmth of the store. Immediately I jumped onto the Internet and began researching bookstore names — if the store was going to have a name it was going to be unique.
Hours passed quickly, but so did my enthusiasm. It seemed as if every clever bookstore name had been taken — everything from ‘A Tale of Two Covers,’ to ‘Index Appeal.’ I decided I wasn’t going to think of anything in this state of mind.
It was also nearing lunchtime and I had seen only a handful of people — and only had two sales. As the name ‘Going out of Business’ began to seem like a viable option, I decided it was time for another break. I was in the process of gathering up my wallet and coat when the door jingled. I spun around to advise the customer the store would be closed for the next hour, but words escaped me when I saw the person looking back at me.
He offered me a simple hello, tipping his fedora as he did, before beginning a slow amble around the store. I stood mesmerised, staring relentlessly at the old man from the train as he had done to me just days ago. I sensed that once again he had looked at me knowingly; but he did not give up the same extended stare that he had the other day. He walked both with purpose and vacancy all at the same time — as if he knew exactly what he was searching for, but had no hope of finding it.
I asked him if I could be of any assistance, but he politely declined. Minutes ticked over, and I tried to look busy, but between every catalogue that I pretended to fumble through, and every computer click I feigned a purpose, I couldn’t help by glance at the old man as he trundled around the store. He repeatedly went to the Classics section, picked up the same book, studied it for a moment, then replaced it on the shelf and did another lap of the store. He must have done this four or five times, on each occasion grasping for the same book, almost with a look of torment on his face, turning it over in his hands a few times, and then replacing it with perfect precision, from the spot he retrieved it. From my vantage point I was unable to see what the book was, but it held the old man in a trance. It seemed to bring him immense sadness, but that he wouldn’t be able to leave the store without it.
Finally, on his sixth trip to the mystery book, it remained in his clutches. He carried it carefully, hidden within both his hands as he traversed the store a few more times, before he made his way to the counter and placed the title delicately down. I don’t know what I expected the book to be, but Jane Austen’s ‘Pride and Prejudice’ wasn’t my first guess. The man didn’t say anything, but simply waited patiently for me to run the red light of the scanner over the book’s barcode. “That’s nine, ninety-five,” I said. The man handed me a ten-dollar note, still in complete silence. I couldn’t handle the awkwardness any longer, and as I handed him his five cents and placed the book in a paper bag with the level of care and safety that he had exhibited, I let words fall out of my mouth before I had really considered them closely.
“I was supposed to read that one in high school,” I said. The man looked up at me, studying my eyes. “Seemed pretty boring,” I added, “so I just read the notes online. Got a pretty good mark on the essay somehow.” The old man looked at me with the kind of stare that hid exactly what he was thinking. I imagined that he was probably a good poker player.
“You should read it. It’s a great book,” he replied. I had no idea what to say next. Flushes of anxiety came over me as I realised I’d put my foot in it. Why I’d thought announcing to a guy who looked like he could be a university professor that I had never read one of the classics of literature was beyond me. I decided to return to professional formalities, so I could finally get to the lunch that my brain clearly needed.
“Well I hope you enjoy reading it again,” I said.
“Oh, I’ve never read it before,” the old man replied, returning the fedora to his head and offering me a simple wave as he turned for the door. As I stood there, completely confounded, he turned around a final time and removed his fedora again — placing it over his heart. “I am sorry about the loss of your father,” he said. “He was a lovely man and I will surely miss him.”
Before I had a chance to recover from the shock of his condolences, or to ask him any further questions about whom he was and how he knew my father, he had left the store and entered into the cool Melbourne air.
The slow morning turned into an afternoon that whizzed by in a sea of questions and confusion. Who was this man? How did he know my father? Why did he recommend books he’d never read? I had nothing — absolutely nothing — to base a search on in order to solve these questions. My only hope I decided would be Ernest. When I had ensured the doors to the store were safely locked for the day I headed quickly for the train station in the quickly diminishing weather of the winter’s night.
I pulled out my phone and fumbled over the numbers as best I could in my gloves. Dashing around the other people heading home, I heard the phone ring only a couple of times before Ernest’s voice materialised on the other end — he was not tardy when it came to his phone response time. I guess lawyers couldn’t be.
The conversation was brisk, but successful. Despite the inclement weather I had convinced Ernest and Debra to come around for dinner. I had swayed them with the promise of my signature dish: take-away from the Chinese place down the road. He said they might even bring Checkers to chase Ruckus around the dinner table.
I made my way through the gates of Flinders Station to inspect the timetable for the night’s parade of trains that were already marching all over the city. Much to my chagrin, I observed that the next train on my line was leaving now. Despite a well-intentioned sprint down the stairs I arrived in time only to see it speed off without me. I took up an available seat to wait out the chilly twenty minutes before the next train would arrive.
Before too long I was met with a sudden sensation on my shoulders. I leapt, turning around to find Dainty with his hand placed firmly on me. “Well, fancy running into you here,” he exclaimed.
“How did you find me?” I asked, still recovering from the surprise.
“I wasn’t stalking you, if that’s what you’re implying,” he laughingly said.
“I know that,” I uttered, trying to brush off the embarrassment of thinking that he actually was stalking me.
“We both ride a lot of rail. We’re bound to run into each other. But if you want me to be another face in the crowd, I can accommodate.”
He really was doing a great job of making me feel like a jerk — which I probably deserved. He started to turn away. I decided to throw a bit of his medicine back at him. “You know, this sensitive side is really going to hurt the rebel image you’re trying to put out there.” And with that we were back to normal: a slowly developing friendship that, while strange and unconventional, I needed badly — and I suspected so did he. He sat down and the conversation began to flow. This time it was unexpectedly about me.
“So what is it that you do, William?” he inquired, his eyes focused squarely on everyone who passed by.
“I run a bookstore.” It sounded so weird to say it out loud.
“That’s cool. How the hell did you score that gig?”
“Family,” was all I replied.
“Family?” And what does that mean? Your family gave you a bookstore? You shot a family and took their bookstore? Or you have a family you need to support, which you do by running a bookstore?” I mulled over the options a moment.
“The first one is the closest.”
“Fair enough,” he said without expression. “But you’re not ruling out shooting a family for something else?”
“Or having kids,” I added, laughing. Dainty smirked, taking his focus off the people for just a second.
Before too long the next train had arrived and we had managed to skip ahead of the horde to find a couple of seats in one of the back carriages. Our conversation progressed, still focused on me. Dainty had lots of questions, some of which I asked and some of which I didn’t. I kept my cards close to my chest when further prodding about my family occurred. But after that, I was happy to talk.
I told him a little more about the bookstore, and then about my fairly mundane school life. As the talk steered towards fun things like girls and parties my repartee began to dry up. I floored him when we got to the topic of our favourite drinks — something I had zero experience in. “You don’t have a favourite drink? Does that mean … does that mean you’ve never even been drunk?” He asked the question with a demanding tone and with a look of shock on his face.
“Never,” I replied meekly. “When I started high school my parents would give me a sip of their scotch at night — I guess to try and acclimatise me to what they viewed as the inevitable teenage rite of passage — but I never fell into the partying circle. I was more in the solitary student club. But it wasn’t all bad — I was the leader of that club.”
“Wow,” was all he could reply. “I think the first time my friends got me wasted was when I was eleven. I’m not sure though — I didn’t remember much of it.” I laughed.
“It just seems like it turns people into things they aren’t — makes them do things they normally wouldn’t. I’ve just never liked the idea of it.” Our exchange suddenly became awkward. “But I did like the sips I had,” I added, trying to fix it.
“Well that’s a start I guess,” Dainty said.
The train pulled into the station and, as we stepped off and onto the platform, we were met with the mist of a new round of rain that was settling in. We sprinted for the cover of the station and regrouped. “Okay, here’s the deal, ‘Sippy’: you and me, later tonight at the bar I work in over at St. Kilda. I’ve got the early shift and it finishes around ten — you’re buying the first round.”
“I dunno, man.” I said, with my inner voice screaming at me with annoyance.
“You’ll be there, and you’ll be cashed up.”
Before I could argue any more he had forced me to swap phone numbers with him and he had sprinted off into the night, his jacket held aloft to shield himself from the rain. I ran my travel card over the scanner and headed off in the opposite direction, happy to let the subtle raindrops fall over my body.
It was lucky that my walk from the train station home was such a short one, as the rain quickly picked up in intensity. I had been ambling along, playfully splashing my shoes through the puddles and taking in the surroundings, when the weather morphed from a spluttering of raindrops to a torrential downpour seemingly in an instant. I would have been surprised, had I not lived in Melbourne long enough to realise just how flippant the weather could be.
I sprinted along the side of the road, now dodging the puddles I had been so casually enjoying mere moments ago. I took only a second to check for cars as I dashed from one side of the road to the other, and then again. If any cars were rushing along, devoid of their headlights, I would have surely been taken out — so quickly had it become impossible to see more than a metre ahead. Finally I saw the refuge of my front porch. I made the final few leaps along the driveway and up the steps to safety.
The realisation of just how wet I was took a moment to sink in. I looked down, water billowing from every extremity of my clothing. Pools formed around my shoes, and I stepped aside, I felt my socks squelch within the confines of my sneakers. I looked back over the scenery and still all I could observe was a wall of water engulfing the city — I had never seen anything quite like it. I began to wonder if Dainty had made it home before the storm, but I was immediately broken from that thought by the sound of the front door being flung open. “Get in here quickly, Will. You must be drenched.”
For a split-second I imagined my mother and father calling me in, enveloping me in a large, lush towel and placing me next to the fire. It was almost as comforting to see Debra there though, her reassuring smile leading me into the house. I was also glad they had an extra key, as I already smelt the enticing aroma of food and felt the comforting clutch of the fire from the living room.
Ernest appeared quickly as well, blocking my progression from the concreted entrance and onto the carpeted living room — he knew how much my parents had spent on importing that carpet, and how little water did for the value of it.
“So, is it raining out there, or did you swim home?” Ernest asked, with a look of humour on his face that only someone of his age-bracket could achieve. I smirked, still noticing his shifting eyes as I edged a little closer to the carpet. I didn’t have the heart to tell him that Ruckus had given up his scratching post and had started kneading the fibres of the carpet in just about every corner of the room.
“Why don’t you go and get yourself dry, Will?” Debra said. “We’ve ordered dinner and it shouldn’t be too far away.”
“Presuming the delivery guy can fit our food in with all the animals,” Ernest added.
“The animals?” I asked, too tired to try and figure out the answer for myself.
“He means on the Ark, dear,” Debra clarified. “Just ignore him.”
I chuckled slightly, thinking to myself that one was kind of funny.
“Okay guys, I’ll be out in a few minutes. Don’t start without me — I know your appetite for Spring Rolls, Ernest.”
I made my way into the bathroom. I contemplated a shower, but concluded that I’d seen enough water for one day. I judged my reflection in the mirror — I still had droplets of water hanging from my fringe. I brushed them away from my face and analysed how much I had aged in just the short amount of time since I had finished school. I struggled to remember what I looked like then, what innocence felt like then. All I felt now was the hollow defeat of reality; all I saw was a shell of a person with little left to lose.
It was then that I felt the comforting brush of whiskers against my leg. Ruckus had heard I was home and had come to say hello. I kneeled down and he rubbed his face against my hand — I felt the dampness of his nose, then the smoothness of his teeth. He walked around and in between my legs — his soft fur was reassuring, the curl of his tail against my skin was relaxing. I looked down at him and he meowed at me. I picked him up and rubbed his face against mine. He meowed again.
I placed him back down on the counter next to the basin and, after a few calculated circles around the marble, he sat himself down, seemingly content. I splashed my face with warm water, just to try and get some feeling back.
As I turned the taps off Ruckus decided he was not as content as he first thought. He looked at me for just a moment, seemingly saying: Yes, I do need a drink. Before I knew it he was stepping into the basin and running his tongue over the nozzle, enjoying the drops of a tap that had always been notorious for leaking. When he was done he promptly remained in the basin, deciding the porcelain was a great material to sleep on.
Realising there was little I could do to change his mind; I turned my attention to drying myself, and finding a fresh set of clothes to change into. My bedroom was chilly, so I quickly opted for comfort over style. Moments later I was extremely content with my choice of tracksuit pants and a T-shirt that was just one size too big.
Before heading back into the dining room I checked on Ruckus one more time.
“Are you coming?” I asked of him. He looked up at me for a second: You’re going to make me move again? his eyes indicated. I switched the light off and left the room. Only seconds later I heard tiny footsteps following me, and then felt him attached to my leg again. As we rejoined Debra and Ernest in the dining room suddenly I didn’t feel as alone as I thought I was. The delivery guy must have also survived the storm, because the smell of Chinese food now lingered in the air. If there were a sure-fire way to make me realise how hungry I was then this was it.
It didn’t take long for all of us to realise we had eaten too much. Even Ruckus had retreated to a spot on the carpet with his own food coma, as I managed to sneak him pieces of chicken under the table through the whole meal. He also seemed relieved that Checkers wasn’t here to chase him around.
Ernest was in the midst of refilling his and Debra’s wine glasses when my mind wandered back to the bookstore and the old man. I had been relieved by how few questions I had been asked about the store, as I wasn’t really in the mood for talking about it, but this was one subject I was desperate to know more about.
“Did you know many of Dad’s regular customers, Ernest?” I asked as casually as possible. Ernest, who was swirling his wine in his glass like a professional — something he told me made it taste better — contemplated the question for a second.
“Well, my boy, he didn’t have too many regulars.” He took a sip, which he clearly enjoyed thanks to all the swirling. “But the ones he did have I knew most of them. We talked a lot about work when we got together for dinner or drinks.” He took another enjoyable sip. “Why do you ask?”
“Oh, there was just an older man in today who offered me condolences about Dad. I didn’t even realise Dad had regular customers, let alone ones who would notice that he was gone. I just thought it was nice and wanted to know more about him.”
“Was he wearing a hat?” Ernest asked.
“Yes!” I exclaimed. “A very fancy fedora. So you know him?”
Ernest looked at Debra, and she back at him. They both smiled at each other before talking in unison.
“Walter?” I asked.
“Walter is a lovely man,” Ernest said. “At least, that’s what your father would tell us. We’ve never actually met him. But your Dad would tell stories about this solemn old man who would come in and buy books once a week — the same day and the same time: every Tuesday at eleven. He would never say much, but he just had this aura about him. Your Dad said he seemed like a quiet and gentle soul.”
A moment of silence passed as Ernest and Debra smiled at one another. They seemed happy at the thought of this old man, whom I now knew as Walter, but also seemed to have a tinge of sadness like there was something they weren’t telling me.
“So,” I said, interrupting the silence, “he only comes in on Tuesdays, hey?”
“From what your father told me, yes. It was always a Tuesday when he would visit. And he would never leave without buying something.”
“Well, I guess he’s consistent. Today’s Tuesday isn’t it?” The days had started blurring into one another, now that I didn’t have a high school timetable to keep up with.
“It is indeed, my boy. In fact, Wednesday is creeping up on us — it’s after eleven-thirty.” I didn’t believe him at first — surely the evening couldn’t have flown past that quickly. But yes, a quick inspection of my watch and it was indeed into the final half-hour of the day. All this talk about the bookstore and the old man had led to the night skipping away. Ernest and Debra began clearing the table, but I instructed them not to worry about it.
“Are you sure, dear?” Debra asked.
“Hey, I’m a fully-fledged adult now. I think I can handle a few dishes.”
Ernest and Debra chuckled, before gathering up their coats and bags.
“Thank you for the company,” I said, now deciding I needed it more than I realised. I walked them to the front door, opening it to see that the rain had finally cleared and the night stood clear and beautiful.
“You look well,” Debra said, with her usual comforting smile.
“Indeed, my boy. Your parents would be proud.” We exchanged hugs, and I watched them make a quick dash for the car — the temperature still bitter. As I watched their headlights disappear into the night I couldn’t help but stand there in the chilled night air and ponder about Walter. I wondered just how close he was with Dad — I wondered what he knew that I didn’t know.
I stepped back inside and closed the door, locking the freezing night away. All the noise had awoken Ruckus, as I suddenly felt him rubbing up against my leg again. I picked him up and felt his luxurious, soft fur against my face. I regretted all the time I had missed out on what I now knew was one of the most comforting feelings in the world. “You weren’t very sociable tonight.” I informed him. His meow sounded embarrassed, but not necessarily apologetic. I imagined it must be hard for him to be around Mum and Dad’s closest friends. He playfully launched his head against mine to make up for it. It felt wonderful, and unsurprisingly, I forgave him.
As I returned Ruckus to the floor I felt a vibration in my pocket. Instantaneously I remembered, I was supposed to meet Dainty for drinks. I wrenched my phone from my jeans and looked at the screen — three unread messages. I had been completely overtaken by the revelations of the night that I forgotten all about the plan, or the fact that I had a phone. The first two messages simply read: ‘Are you coming?’ One was from ten-thirty and the other just after eleven. The last message sarcastically read: ‘I hope the emergency isn’t too dire.’ I thought that for a guy to be so rough around the edges, he sure seemed to have a sensitive side.
I quickly wrote a reply, saying that dinner had gone longer than I’d thought and that I was sorry, but we could try again another night. After twenty minutes had gone by I sent another message saying just: ‘Hello?’ Again I waited and again no reply came. I decided I couldn’t wait any longer and I readied myself for bed. Ruckus again joined me in the bathroom, this time sitting atop the washing machine and looking at me curiously while I brushed my teeth. His expression was obvious: You humans are a strange bunch.
I curled myself in bed, trying to keep the heat at its optimum. When Ruckus had finished the late-night special serving of kibble I had given him he jumped onto the bed and nestled into the perfect Ruckus-sized nook I had created with my body. I wasn’t sure if I had done this consciously or subconsciously, but either way, I liked it. He began purring and I felt safe — almost even happy. It was quite astounding how quickly he had made me love him.
Then it happened yet again. We were both thrust out of our near-slumber by the sound of an engine. Firstly it was a distant buzz, but it abruptly became a flashing roar that whizzed past the house and was then gone again. I sat up, listening to the hum as it died away. It somehow sounded angrier than before — like the engine had something to prove; like the accelerator had been pushed just that little bit harder to the floor; almost like it was a car possessed.
It had now happened too many times for it to be a mere coincidence — I knew there had to be more to this ‘ghost car.’ I lay awake for a few more minutes, but like every other night, it never came back. Eventually I found sleep again.
Life became consistent over the next few days — something I hadn’t felt like I’d had for a long time.
I began to feel more comfortable with the bookstore — and the sales even increased a little — but other things were beginning to bug me. The questions I wanted to ask Walter started to eat away at me, gnawing at me like a mosquito at flesh. It bugged me even more because, if Ernest and Debra were right, I wouldn’t get a chance until Tuesday to ask anything of him.
I also still hadn’t heard from Dainty, and I was bemused with just how much that was annoying me. I’d sent a few more messages, but each was met with no reply. I’d attempted sucking up, as well as his level of scorn, but nothing worked. Finally, I could take it no more; I simply told him I was cool to hang out when he was ready.
It was then that I decided to refocus my attention on Walter.
It was Saturday, and I knew I wasn’t going to be able to get through the whole weekend without talking to him; instead I opted to take matters into my own hands. It had been a painfully slow morning, and I only realised why when I heard the vague hoot of trumpets in the distance. The city was hosting one of its quirky arts festivals, which brought out the weirdoes and subsequently kept away the customers. A quick search on the Internet revealed that apparently the alleyway into the store had been blocked off for a parade and, unless I could interest the marching band in some literature, I probably wouldn’t be making too many sales today.
So after locking the doors, I began going through the list of customer orders that Dad had accumulated. Some of them were on the computer, but most he still had on little notes from when he first started — he had never been great with any type of modern technology. The written records were no longer in any discernible order, so it was purely a matter of wading through them until I found Walter’s name.
I could only find one reference to a Walter, and I had no solid reason that it was the old man other than the fact that I really wanted it to be. His full name was Walter Lawrence, and he had once ordered a hardback copy of The Little Prince. I was in luck though: there was an address. He lived in Brighton, on the same train line as me. That alone was reassuring, as I was starting to think when I saw him on the train that it was just a figment of my imagination, or some kind of astral projection. But no, he was very real then and he was very real now. He lived in Brighton, and I was going to visit him. It had to be the right person; it just had to be.
I quickly closed down the shop and made my way for the train station. I had to go around the block to avoid the festivities, but that was okay — festivities had never been my thing. The train station felt different on the weekend — in fact the whole city did — but I couldn’t decide if it was for the better or worse. It didn’t feel as bustling, which was certainly a plus, but it had also lost that sense of normality. Suddenly it seemed like the tourists had taken over. It didn’t feel real or authentic, and something about that felt off.
I managed to arrive at my platform just as a train was about to depart, and I took up a seat in the corner, as far away from any other person as possible. The train grunted off, emerging from the station and into the open; blue skies could be seen from every window, and it was as close to feeling warm as it had been for quite a while.
Eventually we reached Ripponlea station, and I had to remind myself not to slip into my usual robotic actions and depart. It had been a long time since I had gone further than my station, and in a weird way it almost felt like I was going on a holiday. I struggled to remember what a holiday was like, but I did feel re-invigorated as the scenery passing before me was suddenly new and fresh. It was the Middle Brighton station where I departed, and as I did I was met with a similar feeling of renewal; my surroundings no longer felt stifling — the air was fresh and the world was anew.
Walter lived on a street called The Esplanade, and as I followed the map on my phone I realised I was heading towards the beach. I didn’t think much of it until my nose was filled with the unmistakable essence of the beach. Then a gaggle of seagulls flew over, two of them still fighting over a bread crust they must have found on the ground.
A conflicting flash of memories attacked my senses — I thought I saw a moment where my Dad and I threw a tennis ball to each other in the waves, but that was quickly shut out with me scattering his ashes over those same waves. I stopped myself, rubbing my eyes to remove the images from my brain. I continued on, managing to focus on other things like the warmth of the sun on my face and the sound of my shoes on the sidewalk.
Finally I had arrived at the address. It was a humble, but pretty home. The houses adjacent towered over it, but it had a charm that meant it wasn’t out of place at all. I stared at the front door, hoping it was the right Walter. I hoped he even still lived here. I hoped he could shed some light on the father I wish I knew more about.
But then all of a sudden I began to question why I was here. What could this old man tell me that I didn’t already know? What could he tell me that Ernest couldn’t? He was just a customer in a bookstore — nothing more. I almost turned back, but some indiscernible force compelled me to continue.
I walked through the front garden, beautiful flowers and plants on either side of me were thriving. I arrived at the front door and, after once again questioning what the hell I was doing, I knocked — three slow taps on the wood. A few seconds passed before I saw a blurred figure appear through the frosted glass panels, and then the lock clicked and the door opened. Standing opposite me was Walter Lawrence, the old man whom I first saw studying me on the train. It was now I who was studying him.
His initial look was quite expectantly one of surprise — but it was not one of shock. He examined me for a second, before simply stating my name. That alone seemed to indicate I hadn’t made a complete idiot of myself, and that alone gave me the courage to talk. “Walter Lawrence,” I said in reply.
“That’s me,” he said slowly, wisely, contemplatively.
“My name’s Will — as you clearly are already aware.” Frustratingly, I was already stumbling over my words. I pressed on regardless: “I’m fairly sure you were in my store — well, what was my Dad’s store — the other day?”
“You offered me condolences for the passing of my father.”
“I did.” He continued to speak slowly, but surely. It seemed as though the ravages of old age had slowed down his speech, but it certainly hadn’t hampered his articulation.
“I understand this is probably highly unexpected,” I said, “but I looked up your address because I wanted to come and ask you how well you knew my father.”
“I would say it’s a great bit of detective work.” He smiled, albeit apprehensively.
“Would you mind if I came in for a minute?” I asked. He hesitated, turning back to look into his darkened house. I noticed him rubbing his hands nervously.
“I’m afraid it’s a little messy,” he said, seemingly trying to come up with a reason off the cuff. I quickly glanced past him and the bit of the house that was visible seemed spotless. He quickly tried to steer me away from the idea. “What would you like to ask me?”
“Thank you, sir. I’ll keep it short,” I began.
“Please call me Walter. Sirs are the people the Queen touches on the shoulder with a sword.”
“Walter,” I said beginning again, after a few chuckles of laughter. “I’m not even really sure what I want to ask you, or why I’m here. It’s just that my Dad never really spoke of customers he was fond of — in fact he usually just told me about the stupid ones — and yet there you were, eyeing me on the train and offering your condolences when I’ve never even heard of you.”
“I didn’t mean to spook you,” he replied, still cautious.
“Oh, you didn’t. Well, not too much. But I guess I’m just starting to realise I didn’t know my father all that well. I just wondered what you might be able to tell me.”
Walter paused. He shifted backwards slightly before glancing back inside his house, as if he was going to change his mind and offer for me to come inside. I got another quick glimpse inside his house: most of his windows were covered by drawn curtains — all except for one that gave him a beautiful view of the ocean. He came back towards the threshold, remaining defiant in his decision to keep his sanctuary to himself. Again, I didn’t press the issue.
He spoke again, more confidently this time. Wisdom flowing from his lips: “It’s a tragedy not to know those closest to you in your life. Let’s just say that your father was extremely kind to me when I lost the most important person in mine.”
“Oh,” was all I could muster in reply, staring at the ground. I was tremendously embarrassed. “I’m very sorry,” I added meekly. “Look, I’m sorry I disturbed you. I’m should go. I hope to see you in the shop again.”
“You will,” he replied reassuringly. “It looks like you’re doing a fine job in there.”
I looked back up, but before I had a chance to thank him he had closed the door. I felt completely foolish and insensitive. How could I just have shown up at the house of a man I knew nothing about and bring up the ghosts of his past? I felt a little sick. I paced around the neighbourhood for a few minutes, sucking in the crisp air to get my equilibrium back. There was little left for me to do but return home, no more enlightened than when I had arrived.
I glanced at my watch as I left the platform of my familiar surroundings at Ripponlea station.
It had just gone past five and dusk was beginning to settle all around me. I began to think ahead to tomorrow, contemplating the idea of opening the store. But the more I thought about it the less I liked the proposition. Dad never opened on Sundays, and I was going to honour his memory by maintaining that very civilised tradition. My thoughts then turned to what I would do with a night that would precede a Sunday morning sleep-in. I realised I had few options, and so prayed that my one possibility would eventuate.
I waited until I got home to compose the message, hovering over its wording for a good few minutes before I sent it. I was surprised when it was only a few minutes that went by before I received a reply. It was one word only, but it was the one I wanted to see: ‘Sure.’
I’d figured Dainty had just needed a night to get over my forgetfulness, and I was quite upbeat by his acceptance of my offer to make it up to him. Given his succinct response I was sketchy on the details, but I decided to proceed with the plans I had laid out: to meet him at his pub at nine and let the rest take care of itself.
On my way home I stopped in at the supermarket, determined not to resort to take-away for the fifth night in a row. Traversing the aisles I realised two things: I was only qualified to cook frozen dinners, and that frozen dinners were, in my mind, far enough removed from take-away that I could inform anyone who may have asked that I was, in fact, cooking tonight.
Luckily, the girl who served me at the checkout seemed completely uninterested in the ten-minute Bolognese that would surely become my culinary masterpiece. As I watched her scan my few items — I had also picked up lollies and chocolate — I pictured us sitting down to a lavish dinner at a fancy restaurant, staring lovingly into each other’s eyes while a solitary candle flickered between us. I was broken out of my fantasy when she impatiently asked me for my money. I quickly paid her, choking on any words I was trying to form to make an impression. It was quite apparent she hadn’t had the same daydream as me, and before too long I arrived home — sure the embarrassment was still planted firmly on my face.
My dinner was surprisingly edible. I had managed not to explode it in the microwave, and the dessert I’d painstakingly selected was in particular especially delightful. This cooking thing wasn’t so hard. Ruckus too had been satisfied with his extra helping of tuna, and was now sleeping peacefully on the chair next to me. It was approaching eight o’clock, and I decided it was time for me to try and work out what I was supposed to wear for a night out on the town.
I decided on jeans without much debate — that seemed like a no-brainer. But the shirt was another consideration all together. I tried both collared and non-collared options, unsure of the general etiquette of the pub. Finally I opted for the safe bet of a plain white T-shirt and a jacket; I had no interest in being so bold as to attempt to stand out. I gave Ruckus a quick pat, as well as my reassurance that I would be back later, and made my way for the tram that would take me over to St Kilda.
It was a short ride, filled with the usual gaggle of people: the ones talking too loudly about the party they were going to; the ones sitting silently minding their own business; and the ones who had a weird odour that everyone else tried to sit as far away from as possible. As I stepped off the tram I was met with the smell of sea air; but it wasn’t the refreshing waft of ocean water that struck me — rather the decadent stench of the city coastline. This was nothing like the untouched beauty of Apollo Bay — this part of the world had surely been oppressed and quenched by the heavy hand of people.
I checked the address of Dainty’s bar again — it was only a few blocks away. I made my way hurriedly through the crowds of people. There had to be someone from just about every walk of life around me. People were drenched along the sidewalks, eating at restaurants or drinking at bars. They almost seemed to be overflowing — the younger ones trying desperately to be seen, the older ones trying desperately not to be forgotten.
I put the distractions around me out of my mind and finally arrived at the bar. I tried as hard as I could to look like I belonged, but as I lingered outside just a little too long, I already felt like I was in way over my head. A group of guys were loitering out the front, all blowing cigarette smoke into each other’s faces and talking loudly. They looked so confident and assured of themselves. I studied them, wondering how much of it was real and how much was a façade. They paused just long enough to look at me like I shouldn’t be there — which wasn’t very long at all — before returning to their vulgarities. I decided to keep my head down and charge for the door. I was almost through when another guy, much bigger than the others, laid a hand on me. “Excuse me,” he said, in an unexpected display of formality. “I just need to see your I.D.”
“Of course,” I replied nervously. “Sorry, mate, I come to these places so often I’m just used to walking straight in.” I wasn’t sure where my sense of confidence had come from, but I decided I liked it. Despite my attempts to fit in, though, I could tell he wasn’t buying it. That was okay — suddenly neither was I. After some awkward fumbling for my wallet, I found my identification and showed it to him. He looked me up and down, as if to make a mental image of my face for later on in the night, before he ushered me in. I had done it; I had passed the first test. Now came the really scary shit.
Entering the bar itself did little to alleviate the feeling that I just didn’t belong here. I felt a group of eyes study me for a split second, decide I wasn’t worthy, and then quickly return to their drinks and conversation. Even though the night was still relatively early, the place was already starting to feel busy. I retreated to a corner as quickly as possible and fumbled with my phone, hoping to make it look like I was messaging my group of buddies and my hot date. As I glanced up a few times, eyes darting from one side of the room to the other, no one seemed to care either way.
I took another glance around the room to try and spot Dainty, when I saw him at one end of the bar churning out drinks like a pro. In that moment, I was incredibly jealous of just how easy he made everything look — life in particular.
I jostled my way through the line of people waiting for a drink and grabbed his attention from the edge of the bar. I waited patiently for him to spin around and start mixing the lavish cocktails that had been ordered by a group of girls coated in every colour under the sun, and then yelled as best I could to get his attention. “Hey, Will! You made it,” came his eventual response. He seemed genuinely happy to see me.
“I made it!”
“You didn’t bring your cat with you?” he said, laughing as he shook up a concoction. It felt like a cheap shot, and I was a little unprepared for any kind of witty reply. All of a sudden I wasn’t so sure he was happy to see me. I made myself brush it off. I couldn’t let my own doubts get the better of me — not tonight.
“I thought the place could only handle one cool cat tonight.” I immediately regretted by choice of response, but it seemed to fall on deaf ears anyway as he returned his attention to the girls, who were now screaming with delight at the arrival of their cocktails. A quick exchange of money and he spun back around to me.
“I finish in about an hour, so why don’t you scope the place out and have a drink or two. What’ll you have?”
I was already starting to regret coming, as he seemed to be almost toying with me. He knew how inexperienced I was with this whole scene, and it seemed like he just wanted to make me suffer for blowing him off the other day. He certainly didn’t mention that I would be on my own for the first hour. But I tried to remain as calm as possible. “Whatever you recommend,” I replied finally. He ducked around the corner, before coming back a few seconds later with what was unmistakeably a glass of white wine — I had seen my parents drinks enough of them in my time. Again, this seemed like another attempt to embarrass me, after all he could have just given me a beer, but I just went along with it. After all, no one was paying me any attention anyway. “What do I owe you?” I asked.
“It’s on the house.”
Before I even had a chance to thank him he had turned back to the horde of people begging for his attention. I shimmered away to the darkest corner I could find and embraced adulthood with my elegant glass of white wine.
It was an unexpected taste — certainly not as enjoyable as I had expected. It hit me with a sour feel, but after a few sips I began to enjoy it. By the time I was halfway through I wasn’t sure if it was the taste I was becoming accustomed to, or if this was what was known as getting drunk. The buzz that I was beginning to feel suggested it was the latter of the two. Before too long I was nearly done with my glass and enjoying the band that had begun thrashing away in the other corner of the room. Time was flying, and the next thing I knew Dainty was seated next to me with another drink for me. He started the conversation.
“So, how do you like the wine?” he asked. I considered my answer for a moment.
“It tastes like crushed grapes,” I said, laughing a little too enthusiastically at my own joke.
“Wow, it seems to be working too. Your sense of humour has improved. Here’s the next drink on your alcoholic education tour. This one is called, wait for it, a beer.” I glared at him sarcastically as he offered me the darkened bottle. Its smell was far different to that of the wine. I tasted it and nearly spat it back up.
“Okay, that’s definitely not as good as the wine,” I declared. He laughed loudly, although it seemed as though this time it wasn’t at me, but with me.
“You know what, Will. You’re alright.”
“You too, man.” It was strange, I heard myself talking but somehow it didn’t sound like me. In a blur of drinks I felt like I was becoming an entirely new person.
“I’ll be right back. I’ll bring you something else — I don’t think beer is your drink.”
As he walked off I felt myself slipping. I couldn’t quite describe what it was, but I reasoned that I must have really been starting to get drunk. I felt my head wobble and the room slant. I was excited and terrified at the same time. I thought about my parents for a second. It occurred to me that they weren’t here to protect me any more. I thought that if I let this continue anything could happen. I started to talk myself out of any more, but before I knew it, Dainty was back and I had another drink in my hand. For whatever reason, I drank it. Rational thought left my mind. Part of me hated it; part of me loved it.
I started on my next drink — whiskey this time — and asked Dainty why he wasn’t drinking. He told me that he doesn’t like drinking. When I asked him why he was insisting I should try it he simply said that it was silly to put something down before trying it. That kind of made sense, but it was just about the last thing that made any sense that night. The rest of it was hazy wrapped up in a blanket of mystifying.
The hours passed by in a blur of decadence. I had flashes of things happening around me, but nothing I could describe in any intimate detail even as they were happening. I could see glasses building up on the table, flashes of light, pretty girls coming and going all around me. I heard music, I occasionally recognised snippets of songs. I heard lots of shouting, but could only discern a few words.
Then I could see the room spinning, and finally I had the vague sensation of being helped up, walked through the bar and outside, where the unrelenting night air shocked some sort of composure back into my system.
The next thing I knew I had been flung into a car and was being driven away. My eyes fluttered and I tried to keep my head straight. It kept falling from side to side, like I’d never learnt how to control it. “Where are we going?” I finally managed to ask.
“I thought it was time to call it a night,” came Dainty’s reply out of the darkness alongside me. Despite my lack of coherence, I could tell he was a skilful driver, taking turns with efficiency, precision and ease. I saw his face softly illuminated by the dashboard lights before him — his eyes were locked on the road, predicting each subsequent turn before he actually reached it. “You did well though,” he added. “You didn’t even puke.”
I felt relieved, knowing I hadn’t done anything embarrassing. I had always heard stories of people having a few too many and doing things they regretted — sometimes for the rest of their lives. “So this is being drunk?” I asked, slurring my words. I’d never felt so stupid and free all at the same time. As much as I could hear myself talking strangely, I couldn’t stop myself from doing it.
“Pretty much,” he said. “What do you think?”
“It’s okay!” I said triumphantly. It felt enlightening, like I had finally gone through some kind of rite-of-passage that I was supposed to. I had instantly had a second wind. I felt slightly more coherent again — but only very slightly.
“Well, good. We’ll see if you still feel the same way in the morning.”
I suddenly felt flustered, like there was an invisible blowtorch in the car pointed directly at me. I wound down the window and stuck my head out; the wind felt like perfection running over my face. I could hear Dainty’s laughter from within the car, but I didn’t care. I remained like that until a few minutes later when the car came to an abrupt halt. In the dim glimmer of streetlights and moonlight — and with my eyesight still trying to compensate for the alcohol in my system — I struggled to discern our destination. “Where are we?”
“Train station,” Dainty informed me. “I’ve been asking you for the last couple of minutes to tell me your address, but you were a little distracted with your sightseeing out the window.”
“My address?” I asked rhetorically. I racked my brain, trying to remember, but came up with nothing. I was beginning to feel a tinge of that drinking regret everyone talked about. I just wanted to go home and go to bed. I racked my discombobulated brain for the numbers and words that made up my home — that place that was now without my parents, the place where I’d never felt so lonely in my entire life. I came up with nothing. Then I thought of how lucky I was to have Ruckus. He was my best friend now. I smiled and forgot Dainty’s question.
“Well, I figured this was the closest point of reference for us,” Dainty said. “I’ll walk you the rest of the way — if you can remember where to go that is. I think you’ll work it out — it’s amazing how the drunken human brain can always find its place of rest. If not, I guess you’re staying with me.”
He exited the car and walked over to the track crossing. He seemed quite content not to rush me, but I felt horrible for how difficult I was being. Against the wishes of my now-throbbing head, I lurched myself from the car seat and stumbled out onto the gravel. I took a moment to get my bearings, before joining Dainty at the edge of the tracks.
I stood there, still enjoying the winter wind caressing my face. Eventually I had to sit. The grass felt like a cloud — a dewy, arse-soaking cloud. “This is a pretty special place for me, Will,” Dainty said, sounding different to any way I’d heard him speak before — and it wasn’t because of my state-of-mind. It seemed almost sombre. Even though I was sitting, I felt myself sway, but I tried to concentrate on what Dainty had started to tell me.
“This place makes me feel alive. This is where I feel connected to my brother. I wish he’d come back. I fucking miss that son-of-a-bitch.” He picked up a loose stone from the ground and pelted it at the train tracks. It ricocheted off one of the rails and bounced further down the line, scattering into the blackness.
“Maybe he will. I’m sure he misses you too.”
“Maybe,” he replied simply.
“What about your Mum and Dad? Do you still miss them?”
“Not really. They live in their own world these days. They don’t really give a shit about me.”
“I’m sure that’s not true.”
“Ah well, it doesn’t matter. Let’s work out where the fuck you live. I’ve only got one bed, and I’m not really into dudes.”
I stood up again and spun around — slowly — a few times, still trying to get my sense of direction back. Eventually I recognised the exterior of a café I always walked past and deduced it had to be that way. We set off and before too long had reached my front gate. Dainty only had to catch me two or three times before we got there.
“Holy shit!” were his first two words. “I’ve seen this house before. Tell me it’s your folks’ — because otherwise you’ve definitely been holding out on me.” The walk must have done me some good, because I was beginning to feel slightly more coherent — even if it was at the expense of my increasingly painful head. My words came out more like I was used to hearing them:
“It’s my Mum and Dad’s. Although, they’re not around any more, so I guess technically it’s mine.”
Dainty eased off his excitement about the house, instead opting for sympathy about the information I had given him. It was annoying, I wasn’t ready to divulge this to a guy I had only known for a couple of weeks, but it seemed a loose tongue was another unfortunate side effect of the drinking. “Sorry, dude,” he said. “Look, it’s late. I should let you get as much sleep as possible. You’re probably going to need it for that hangover tomorrow. Take it easy.”
He started to walk off before I’d had a chance to say anything further. I regained my failing balance against the fence, before calling out to him:
“Hey!” He turned around. “Thanks for my education tonight. I feel a little more, well, grown up I guess.”
“You did well. After tomorrow let me know if you ever want to do it again.”
With that, he was off for good. His solid figure cast an imposing shadow across the road as he passed under each of the shimmering streetlights. A few seconds later and he had rounded the corner and I was left there on my own. I took a moment to look up at the night sky. I was really beginning to feel the cold over me now, but the faint stars and the low-hanging clouds were too beautiful not to enjoy.
I was broken out of my trance by the same noise that had begun to take over my life. The hum of the engine was low, but it grumbled to a crescendo like it did every night and then it was gone, just as abruptly. I waited around to see it appear, but for the only time I was in a perfect spot to see it properly, it was nowhere to be seen. It existed only as sound, and I began to wonder if it was truly a ghost car. I also wondered if Dainty had heard it — I would try and remember to ask him about it the next time I saw him.
Soon enough the bitter wind became too much to bear and, as much as I wanted to make the front porch my bed, I instead raced inside. Ruckus was attached to one leg before I’d even got both of them inside the door. I picked him up, apologised for being out so late, and carried him to bed with me. I only had the energy to remove my shoes, and I was pretty sure I was asleep before my head hit the pillow.
To be continued.
Copyright © 2017 Nick Duhigg