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Authors: Vincent O'Sullivan

Owen Marshall Selected Stories (37 page)

BOOK: Owen Marshall Selected Stories
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T
he wooden house on the corner had been built for a successful grocer, long dead and with no later generations remaining. The big house had all the chapters of a slow decline and was eventually divided into three flats so that the place became a mixture of cheap, ad hoc alterations and solid, original carpentry. Gazz and Vicky had four rooms at the front of the house; three were self-contained, but to reach their bathroom they crossed the communal hall with its central strip of raddled carpet, flanking floorboards of mahogany stain, and the dim, green-yellow glow from the front door leadlights.

Gazz was sleeping in the mid-morning. A pink sheet was held across the window with drawing pins. The corner nearest to the bed was often used by Gazz as a napkin. He didn't snore, but lay very quietly with a damp patch by his mouth, and the scar showing in the hairs of his left eyebrow. There was a tartan rug over the wall side of him. The other side was naked apart from his blue underpants. A thin, hairy leg, an arm with no tattoos, a soft stomach, one nipple in the straggling hair of his chest. Gazz was thirty-seven years old that very day, but he'd forgotten it, and no one else would jog his memory with a celebration.

His eyes opened quite suddenly; nothing else changed as a result. Gazz lay just the same except that he took in what he could see of the room. There was someone knocking on the front door, but Gazz was neither interested, nor alarmed. He knew there would never be any good news, that any of his few acquaintances would come again,
that Vicky had her own key. It would be the landlord, or a man about starting your life anew with Christ, or a kid selling chocolate eggs out of season.

When Gazz sat up, his clothes were to hand where he had left them on the floor. It took him forty seconds to put them on and to run his fingers through his hair. He then stood by the side of the window, pulled the sheet back a little with one hand, picked his nose with the other. The twitch was almost up to the window sill; the chestnut that the grocer had imagined one day shading his entrance was a broad stump; a large japonica, though, made a blaze of pink. None of these things was of the slightest interest to Gazz.

Vicky came up the path. Her head was like a pear, heavy cheeks and chin towards the bottom of it. A fine, big, white arse, though, when he could get the clothes off it. Their eyes met without message as she passed.

‘So you're up at last,' said Vicky.

‘Yeah.'

‘No joy with dorkface down there. He won't give any credit.'

‘Shit.'

‘I had to use more rent money.'

‘Shit.' Gazz screwed his face right up for a moment as if he had a belly pain. He made a hissing sound through his teeth. ‘Shit, another week behind. Any fags?'

Vicky offered him the packet she had already opened.

‘Maybe if you went back to Gabites Plywood and told them that you're not sick any more. You're just so slack.'

‘Someone was hammering on the bloody door before. That prick for the rent, I reckon.'

Gazz went from the bedroom, across the hall to the bathroom. Further down the hall, Turtle was about to go into his door.

‘Morning, Gazz.'

‘Yeah.'

Gazz left the bathroom door open so that if he spoke up, Vicky
and he could keep talking. He washed his face with his fingers and

cold water, brushed his teeth without paste.

‘Hey, don't you use my bloody brush,' said Vicky.

‘Eh?' said Gazz, as he did just that.

‘Do you want to eat soon?' she called.

‘What time is it?'

‘After eleven.'

‘I don't mind.'

‘What?'

‘I don't care.'

‘Eh?'

Gazz turned the water off with a sudden wrench. ‘I don't bloody care,' he shouted.

‘Well, fuck you too.'

Gazz stood in the hall for a time after he left the bathroom. He listened, then moved through the diminishing green-yellow light towards the back of the house where Turtle and the Tierneys had their flats. He listened at Turtle's door, then the Tierneys'. The Tierneys had external access to their larger flat through the back door, but sometimes they left their hall door unlocked and Gazz could get down on some fags, a few dollars, or a bit of booze. Enough to be useful without stirring up the Tierneys too much. He listened and decided they were at work. He tried the handle. ‘Shit.'

He went back into the bedroom and took his electric shaver from the water-stained and lifting walnut veneer of the duchess. He could hear Vicky in the kitchen, so he had a quick flick around the room in search of her cigarettes. ‘Shit.' Gazz left the bedroom, eternally darkened by the pink sheet, and went through into the kitchen, which was half an original room with a particle board partition between it and the Tierneys' kitchen. Less plumbing and electrics that way. Gazz stood behind Vicky to shave; he could see a sufficient reflection of his face in that part of the microwave front not covered with insulating tape. Vicky was heating a spring roll. He stretched
the thumb and fingers of his left hand apart so that he could get a grip of her backside through the leather skirt. It seemed a long time since he had last had that big arse.

‘Bugger off.'

‘Come on, Vick. Just a quick one.' Gazz put his other hand, with the razor still buzzing, around her waist and pulled her back.

‘No,' she said. ‘I've had a shower, and I'm not going to work this afternoon all smelly.'

‘Aw, come on, Vick.'

‘Bugger off.' Taking his hand from her waist, she took her spring roll from the microwave, sat down at the laminated table by the window and cleared some space for her plate. Gazz was left with his reflection and his shaver.

‘I might have one of those,' he said later. She told him to make sure that there was one left for her at night. ‘So how long you going to be?' he asked.

‘I've got three hours' cleaning at the Richmond. Maybe four at the most, Tracey says.'

‘Where's that?'

‘By the hospital, Tracey says. Used to be called Aspern, Aspen, something.'

‘So you'll be back pretty early.'

‘Yeah, I guess so,' said Vicky ‘What about you?'

‘I might see if the guys in the mart want a hand. Humping stuff off the truck.'

Vicky was idly looking at the newspapers in front of her, but then it was as if she remembered some decision that applied immediately. ‘Yeah,' she said and put down her fork to concentrate. Her face was made up for the day: blue eye shadow, heavy powder over her orange peel complexion. Her gloss lipstick was worn away by eating, except at the corners of her mouth. ‘Yeah. It's getting pretty shitty around here without even the rent money,' she said. ‘It's not on, really.'

‘All right,' said Gazz.

‘You reckoned you were happy to pay the rent and then we'd share all the other stuff — food and that. You were dead keen then.'

‘So I've been short. Jesus, no need to make a thing about it.'

‘It's just getting all shitty, that's all I'm saying.'

Tracey leant on the horn when Vicky was touching up her face, and Gazz looked out of the window to check. ‘It's that Tracey,' he said. Vicky took her clutch purse and went down the hall, through the leadlighted front door, down the concrete path that was tilted to the side among the weeds because of subsidence over the many years since the grocer's death. The noon sun glinted on the chrome buckles of her leather skirt, and her solid leg muscles showed as she went warily over the camber. Gazz watched her from the top of the path by the door; Tracey watched her from the car.

‘See you then,' said Gazz as she went further away.

‘Haven't you ditched that loser yet?' said Tracey as she came closer. ‘Has he got a feather on the end of it, or bloody something?' It was the direct humour that Vicky liked about working with Tracey.

‘Don't tempt me,' she said. ‘I've just been giving him a bloody razz-up.'

Gazz stayed outside in the sun while he finished the last cigarette Vicky had given him. He took in the smoke with a very long breath and then allowed it to ease out. He looked over the rank lawn, the chestnut stump, the coral of the japonica, the section of fence that had come down. ‘Well, shit,' he said mildly to himself. The smoke drifted with his breath as he spoke.

Back inside, Gazz continued down the hall to Turtle. Turtle had been quite a successful commercial artist until he developed arthritis. With the loss of his one talent he went quickly downhill, but Gazz found that he always seemed to have a few dollars stashed away.

‘It's me. Gazz,' he said after knocking. He could hear soft noises. ‘Hey, Turtle.' The noises became even softer. ‘Open the bloody door, Turt. I know you're in there.'

‘What is it?' Turtle's voice came from so close, just behind the
door. He must have been standing right there with his face to the wood.

‘Let us in,' said Gazz. ‘I've got to go to town soon — to work.' Turtle didn't answer, but Gazz could hear him unhooking the safety lock.

Turtle didn't have a hell of a lot going for him once he couldn't draw. He was into his sixties, small, fat, a very slow mover and with a few freckles so big on his pasty face that they were like birthmarks. He once told Gazz that he'd spent a fortune on gold injections. Turtle tried to make up for his delay in opening the door by swaying, smiling, offering coffee.

‘Nah,' said Gazz. ‘The thing is, see, I need a few bucks to tide me over until the eagle shits.'

‘I saw Vicky going off somewhere.' Turtle looked at the vinyl furniture in his living room. It was a tidy room, but not a clean one. He knew that neither changing the subject, nor avoiding Gazz's eyes, would save his money.

‘She's got a few hours' work on.' Gazz knew that Turtle was soft on Vicky, that he talked to her when he had a chance, that he would wait with his door ajar for her to walk across the hall in knickers and a top. It was pathetic, wasn't it.

‘Aw, come on, Turtle. You won't miss a twenty for a day or two. You can come in later for a drink. I'm late as it is.'

Turtle went through to his bedroom and drew the door behind him. Gazz listened to the slow, soft noises there, imagining Turtle getting the money. Turtle was pretty much a creep, but he had his uses. When Turtle came back he held the twenty out as if he were surprised to discover it and could think of no better use for it than subsidising Gazz. ‘Hey, I hope I can help out a friend,' said Turtle, with his voice jollied up.

‘Good on you,' said Gazz. ‘Well, things to do.'

Gazz walked in the sun for fifteen minutes to reach the Norfolk Hotel, but he thought of nothing around him as he walked,
remembered nothing of it, assumed it the same as all the other times he had walked there to save drinking money. He had no curiosity concerning people who walked or drove by, no expectation of recognition. He wore soiled, white sports shoes that were copies of a good brand and a hip-length grey jacket with a black plastic cat hanging from the zip. He spat occasionally, without any shame to make him look around before doing so. Gazz was known to the barman in the Oakleaves Bar of the Norfolk. Not that the barman could remember Gazz's name, but he knew the combination of grey jacket and the scar over Gazz's left eye. ‘How you going?' he asked.

‘Getting by,' said Gazz.

‘That's the ticket.'

‘Yeah.'

‘Keeping you busy?'

‘So, so,' said Gazz.

He took his jug to a blue-topped stool by one of the windows that had a striped awning outside. He passed Norman Rouse, who had worked with him for several weeks on the Parks and Reserves gardening staff. Neither appreciated the other sufficiently to give up his solitude. Gazz settled down to spend his afternoon the best way he knew how. He took a mouthful of his bitter, letting it flush into his cheeks and eddy in his mouth. He looked around the bar to see if anyone had left the day's paper on a stool or table.

Two hours later Gazz stood at the back door of the Norfolk after coming from the lavatory. He enjoyed the sun on his face.

He gave a long yawn without raising a hand to his mouth, and so his slightly yellow side teeth and the dark line of fillings on his lower back ones were plain. He adjusted his trousers at the crotch, moving his cock to the left as he preferred.

A tall man in a brown suit was leaving his Camry in the carpark. When he put the keys into his coat pocket the tag still hung outside so that when he pulled the coat at the front and jerked his shoulders for comfort before walking away, the keys flipped from his pocket
to the ground. Gazz saw the quick glint of them, but he made no sound, or movement. His yawn continued to close. He stood by the door and watched the tall man walk through the archway and into Gordon Street.

When the carpark had been quiet for a full minute, Gazz walked over to the Camry, picked up the keys and let himself in. He drove slowly into Gordon Street and then Marsden Road. From there he drove to the old cemetery and parked inside the gates long enough to check the back seat and the boot — only two packets of photocopy paper and a cake mixer with a repair ticket from Nimrod Electrics. Gazz headed into Riverside until he reached the panelbeating shop at the far end of the service lane behind the bakery. He parked the car behind a Telstar that had suffered a nasty frontal.

Gazz walked across the oil-stained gravel to the main building, and looked at the two men working there. He didn't know them and they didn't know him, so he went around the side of the building to a tin, tilt-door garage that served as an office. Bernie Thompson was sorting through files in a carton that had once held twenty-four 190 gram packets of Nacho Style Corn Chips. It took Bernie a while to remember Gazz, but then he smiled and said, ‘Gazz. How's things, Gazz?'

‘I've got a Camry I don't need.'

Bernie became very matter of fact, very business-like. He pushed the Nacho carton aside and came out with Gazz, and they walked over behind the Ford to look at the car. Bernie assessed it for a full thirty seconds, then he said, ‘Nice car.'

BOOK: Owen Marshall Selected Stories
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