I stand two behind him in the express lane. I know I’ve seen him before. I stare at him like a passport control officer analyses travellers. Look for visual clues, read the body language. I strain to recall, but pale memory frustrates and eludes, tantalising beyond reach.
Who is he, dammit?
The supermarket is short staffed. That’s an understatement – a single, junior operator does her best to handle the rising, irresistible tide of customers. She’s stressing out. Why does she have no help when it’s so busy? Cutbacks, I guess. This is not my first time stuck in line at this supermarket, in fact it’s now a regular thing. I’m getting used to it.
To pass the time I turn my thoughts to the interactive game I play online with a group of late-thirty-something, sad-arse nerds like me; a bunch of regulars and random drop-ins. One of the best players is a funny girl from America. She’s always zapping out zany one liners that make me smile; I hope she’ll be online tonight. I’ve got a frozen microwave dinner in my hand; no cooking, no washing up. Just nuke the box, eat the contents, rinse a fork and stick it back in the drawer. Convenient instant meals give me more time to indulge my virtual life, which beats the hell out of my miserable real life.
The oddly familiar guy in line draws my attention again. Be about seventy, maybe, or close to it. I’m hopeless at guessing ages. Sparse, slicked-down strands spread across a skull etched with furrows. A stomach of immense circumference sways over stout legs in worn, grey tracksuit bottoms. Ample backside about a cricket bat wide. Pendulous breasts like an old woman’s. They bulge in his grease-stained polo shirt, jiggle up and down and side to side with the merest movement. He holds a wrinkled plastic bag in one hand, a carry basket of meagre shopping in the other.
Next please, the check-out chick finally calls him up. He shuffles obediently to the register to be processed; his large, liver-spotted hands drag out home-brand baked beans, corn flakes, cat food, milk, tea. The operator scans the items and places them in the faded, weather-beaten bag. The man extracts a tied handkerchief from his pants pocket. He unties it clumsily and silver coins clatter onto the floor, some spinning, others bouncing or rolling away. He tries to wipe sweat from his brow but succeeds only in smearing it all over his face. He bends, puffing and snorting, to pick up the coins, but only a few are within reach.
Jesus Christ, someone mutters. Silly old bastard, mumbles another. I stifle a profanity. We watch the old man scrabbling about. I feel my face redden, ashamed at feeling frustrated, but also sharing the man’s embarrassment. I feel a vigorous tap on the shoulder. A sharp-featured woman in a charcoal pantsuit thrusts a brand new twenty-dollar bill in my hand. Pass it down the line, I’m in a hurry, she growls in an undertone. I reach around the two people in front of me and touch the man on the wrist. He sees the banknote and eases it from my grasp. Thank you, he says, catching my eye. Don’t thank me, I say. It’s the lady behind me. He smiles at her and mouths another thank you. She grins superciliously and waves her hand at him as if to say get on with it.
Something about his eyes, the way they’re crinkled at the edges. The shape of the eyebrows, too. A spark of recognition ignites in the recesses of memory, fades to a tiny dot then disappears.
But I do know him. I’m certain of it.
The man pays for his shopping with the donated funds and takes the change. A store employee, a teenager with abundant and flourishing acne, runs over to pick up the runaway coins. The man asks him to return to the lady in the queue the amount on the docket, $12.20. He calls the woman a good Samaritan, and she shakes her head, blushing crimson. No, she insists, you keep all your coins, and the change from the twenty. I don’t need it. God bless you, he says to the woman. I should be feeling a warm glow after witnessing this give-it-philanthropy and take-it-gratitude. But I don’t. It’s a sham. I just feel nothing.
After I’ve paid for tonight’s prefabricated meal I exit the automatic doors into a dark car park. I jump in my early-model shit-box and head for the exit. As I indicate to turn left, I see the old man sitting at the bus stop across the street. He stares vacantly into space, the shopping bag rests atop his Uluru stomach. A hint of a smile lifts the corners of his mouth, and why not? He’s just scored a free load of shopping and $7.80 in cash courtesy of the impatient woman.
I cannot drive away and leave him. Curiosity compels me to stop.
I lean across and wind down the passenger window. Hey, need a ride? He can’t hear me as a truck roars past. What? he asks. Need a lift? I shout, in case there are more loud vehicles on the way. He shrugs his shoulders. The old boy must be deaf. I park the car a metre in front of the bus shelter and go to him. He accepts my offer of a ride, relief spreading across his face, and I help him ease his awkward frame into the car. The springs in the seat creak under the strain of his weight.
Thanks, mate. Next bus ain’t for another half hour, he informs me, as we head for … I don’t know. I forgot to ask. Where to? I say, leaning over so he can hear me better. In the confines of the car I notice an odour that wasn’t apparent in the checkout queue. It’s nauseating. Stale pee mixed with tobacco, body parts that haven’t seen soap and water in weeks, unwashed clothes. I suppress an urge to gag and wind down my driver’s side window to let in refreshing air. The stink abates, but only marginally. It’s about a ten minute drive to my flat, he says. I pray I can last the distance without puking over the steering wheel. He gives me his address. Neither of us initiate conversation, and we make the short journey in silence.
We ease up outside the block of housing commission flats where he lives. The surroundings are familiar. A couple of my school friends used to live around here. The area evokes childhood memories of winter sleep overs and summer lemonade stands. I’ve not been here for ten years or so, although it’s only one suburb away from my place. This neighbourhood was home to working-class families, battlers. Now it’s street after street of broken windows, artless graffiti, front yards full of rubbish and broken things. The battlers have gone, replaced by the unemployed and the socially marginalised.
I let the man grasp my forearm so he can get out of the car. I can barely keep my arm steady as he heaves his body to an upright position with surprising ease. Strong legs on him. Can I see you to your door? I propose, desperate now to learn the man’s identity. He accepts readily, thrusting the bag of shopping at me, and now I feel duty bound to carry it. I’m glad to see a lift as we enter the building, in case he lives on one of the higher floors. He presses the button to hail the lift, which arrives with a clunk and a shudder. We enter the cabin, the walls of which are covered in scratched obscenities, initials and phone numbers of people providing or seeking sexual favours. Sixth floor please, he requests, as I’m nearer the panel.
At first glance, his flat is one of those feral places they like to show on current affairs programs. You know those exposés that humiliate people for living like pigs? Shameful. But I have to admit I sometimes watch those stories with a macabre fascination. But this reality… this squalor… up close. Bloody hell.
I can’t see much of the floor, bestrewn as it is with the detritus of the man’s existence. Beer cans and stubbies lie scattered around the front room like mushrooms that have sprouted after rain. Cigarette butts crowd at the bottoms of bottles because there’s no more room in the ashtrays. Crushed cardboard food packets, cracked, filthy disposable bowls from microwave meals, plastic knives and forks, an incalculable mess of disposableness. I see a threadbare orange-and-brown recliner in one corner, inattentively guarded by a sleeping cat that must be as old as its master. I can tell by their height that the two high-stacked piles of newspapers and junk mail catalogues camouflage pieces of furniture underneath; the width of one suggests a sofa, the other probably a second recliner. An ancient television sits on a milk crate within easy reach of the armchair, I guess because there’s no remotes for tellies as old as this.
As much as I reel from the kaleidoscope of visual chaos, it’s nothing compared to the assault on my sense of smell. I recall how once, of acute necessity, I visited a pay toilet when backpacking across Europe, and how that street-side convenience seethed with noxious ammonia fumes. The odours in this flat far exceed the stench of that Parisian pissoir. A phantom taste of blue cheese lodges in the back of my throat and its sharpness stings my sinuses, my eyes fill with tears that my organism generates to flush out reflexively detected irritants. I catalogue the sources of identifiable odours: cat excretions clearly dominant, followed in order of strength by lingering tobacco smoke that hangs like an invisible cloud, damp mould, sweat, stale beer. Floor-to-ceiling windows hide behind heavy curtains; I doubt they’ve been opened in months.
As for sound, there is but the soft hum of an air-conditioner and the light snoring of the elderly cat.
Then he speaks, making me jump.
Would you like a beer? I bought a carton on pension day, he says. Sure, I reply, not wanting to be rude.
His face lights up with a child-like joy at my acceptance, and I’m guessing he doesn’t get too many visitors. I’m thankful he doesn’t want to give me a cup of tea and a biscuit – that would require him touching stuff that I’d have to ingest. I plan on skolling the beer and finding out what I want to know as fast as possible. After that, I’m outta here. I worry I’ll faint, vomit, or worse, in this toxic atmosphere.
With a heaviness of foot befitting his bulk, he slowly trudges into the just-out-of-view kitchen. He turns on no light there in the gloom, in a vain attempt, I imagine, to save money for his other indulgences. I hear him yank on the door of the fridge, which shakes. Items on top teeter and clink, or maybe it’s the contents rattling. The fridge door is reluctant to break the air lock created by its rubber seal. He grunts and heaves again, the door pops open. I see his broad silhouette bobbling against a wall as the refrigerator light blinks on.
He’s back, thrusting a cold can into my hand. I stand rooted to the spot I occupy since we entered the flat.
Cheers, he says, raising his can in a toast. He gently nudges the snoozing cat, which awakens and leaps from the cushioned seat to the top of the recliner and immediately curls up again. The man wriggles his bottom down into the freshly vacated seat. I’m grateful for your kindness, he adds. Such a rarity these days. Despite his gratitude, he repulses me.
I lift my can to drink, and the hoppy aroma of the fresh beer wafting up my nose almost dispels the stench of the flat. I take a sip, a sniff, another sip and another sniff. If I take little, regular sips maybe I can stave off the nausea.
See that pile of crap there? he says, pointing his chunky index finger. Just bung it on the floor. There’s a chair underneath. I dispatch the rubbish to the ground with a sweeping arc of my arm, and yes, there’s a chair. He chuckles in amusement as he watches the papers fly. I slowly lower myself and flinch momentarily as a sharp spring stabs the back of my thigh.
Drink up, he says, and you can fetch another for us. Thirsty work that, shopping and driving me home.
Sorry, can’t stay long. I’ve gotta be somewhere else soon.
You can stay and you fucken will, he thunders at me. Spittle gathers at the corners of his lips. His florid face aquiver, the man looks like a fleshy volcano; I imagine his off-the-scale blood pressure is about to rupture his skin and spew a bilious lava of fat and guts across the room. When someone offers you a beer, he roars, you take it, okay?
Suddenly I don’t give a shit who he is. I just need to leave. I jump out of the seat and take three big strides for the door. It’s locked from the inside and I can’t see any way to open it. I don’t panic; the bloke is twice my age, wheezy, unfit. Just reason with him.
Please, can you let me out? I really can’t stay, but I appreciate your generosity. Some other time, yeah?
His face is blank for a while, then he sighs and shakes his head. I’m sorry for that little outburst. Don’t know what came over me. But I’d really like you to stay a bit, at least until you finish your beer. It gets lonely with just Roger the cat for company.
Five minutes, okay? I say. I’m nervous, but he seems to have calmed down quickly enough, so I sit back in the chair. Just a touch of dementia, probably. I mean, what can he do to me?
I want to ask him straight out. Who are you? But the words won’t come. So I take the circuitous way around. Have you lived here long? He says no. Do you have any family? No again. Monosyllabic negative contributions don’t make for good conversation. There’s no getting around it. I have to ask.
So, what’s your name? I’m Liam.
He looks through me, as if I’ve posed an unfathomable conundrum. I repeat the question. He blinks rapidly and takes a deep draft from his can. He lights a cigarette from an economy pack the size of a house brick, and draws back hard.
Liam, you say? I used to teach PE to a young fella called Liam at high school, year eight or nine. He looked a bit like you. Bloody useless at sport, he was.
He doesn’t give his own name, but there’s no need.
I remember him now. Mr Watkins. An eager man with spikey hair and a military moustache. I picture a blustery, cold afternoon and a muddy oval as slippery as an ice rink. The game is football in name only, but the way the teacher runs the show it’s state-sanctioned violence with a dash of anarchy. I hate the painful collisions, the pointless chaos of the exercise. I somehow find myself in possession of the ball, but before I can get rid of the hateful object I’m tackled by three boys at once. My face smashes into the freezing ground and their bodies drive into my ribs from behind. Electric agony rips through where I imagine a kidney to be. I cry like a girl, tears and snot everywhere, and Watkins leans in close to my face and bawls at me: get up, you little prick, get up.
I look at my watch. It’s time to leave, the five minutes is up, my curiosity satisfied.
Let me get the door for you, he says. With disturbing respiratory sounds he raises himself out of the recliner, leveraging himself with a walking stick that appears from nowhere – a sturdy-looking piece of wood with a silver handle shiny from wear. Why didn’t he have the damn thing when he was out shopping? He walks towards me, balanced by the stick, his gait now surer and steadier. Do I imagine it, or is he moving with longer and lighter strides?
I wait for him to produce keys to unlock the door, but he just grips the latch that I struggled with and flips it open with ease.
You’re still a piss-weak little runt, Liam, he whispers. Can’t even open a fucken door. What a pathetic excuse for a man. I feel the moist heat of his breath in my ear and choke on the stink of his body; I want to do something, say something, but I’m paralysed. His mass presses into me and squashes me against the door. He brings the walking stick up, holds it against my neck and pushes; his weight is an unopposable pressure. The hard wood is right on the point of my larynx and it won’t be long before my wind pipe is crushed and I die.
But then he eases back a touch, taking his stick off my throat. I inhale greedily, but my chest has nowhere to go as it’s pinned against his stomach. The panic in me rises; over Watkins’s shoulder I see Roger the cat yawn and stretch contentedly.
Please, I beg, tears forming. Let me go. He shakes his head slowly. Don’t be a bloody sook, he says. Fight back. His strength is overwhelming, and I’m no match for him. I’m sad that if he kills me I won’t get to chat with the American girl tonight.
Watkins tosses his stick to the floor, clamps my throat with his left hand and pulls back a balled right fist, primed to rain blows on my face. I brace as best I can, which amounts to no more than closing my eyes hard and holding my breath. I am about to lose bladder control and my heart thrums. I hear his fist whooshing past my head and a booming smack as it strikes the door inches from my ear. There’s a warm wetness in my pants as I leak a bit of urine.
The grip is released completely from my neck, but I don’t dare look at him yet. I hear footsteps retreating and I open my eyes with grim reluctance to see him already back in his recliner, staring catatonically at the wall, the remains of a cigarette smouldering beside him in a saucer.
Something hot is sliding down my cheek and I wipe away a tear. Except it isn’t a tear, it’s blood. My hand is covered in it. He must have hurt his hand when his punched the door and now his blood is on my face. And then a searing pain racks my nose, my right jaw. I’m sure my nose is broken and the jaw shattered. That terrible noise wasn’t his fist hitting the door at all. I’d taken the full impact of his strike, but by a miracle I am conscious and standing.
I check my pockets and feel my car keys. My eyes are swollen up and I’m peeking through puffy slits. Blood continues to drip from my nose, but there’s no time to attend to injuries. I fling open the front door and hare down the stairwell, flying over two and three steps at a time. I stumble near the bottom, but somehow don’t fall.
Back in the safety of the car, I tremble and breathe erratically, trying to calm myself enough that I can drive to the hospital. I check my reflection in the rear-view mirror.
An unrecognisable stranger looks back at me.
But I know him.