September 2019

Back to Issue 6

The way to work

By James Hannan

It was Monday morning and the city was busy. Pat got off the train and stepped into the usual battle on the streets. Cars straddled lanes and loitered across intersections; people shoved past each other, crowded footpaths and waited for any tiny gap they could exploit.

Everyone was so rushy and shovey about it. Pat summoned an effort to move in time with its stopping–­starting pace, but it wasn’t easy when everyone around him pushed when there was obviously nowhere to go. They weren’t going to get ahead no matter how much they veered unexpectedly all over the place or stepped in front of others and cut them off. He tried his best to rise above it and not be affected by its arrhythmic bouncing and heaving.

His phone buzzed: a text message from an unknown number.

Can you cut the hedge this evening. And can you make sure that you get to the very top as well, even if you have to jump.

Someone was messing with him. He did think it was his flatmate, Frank, but it did sound like something his father might say. Frank never met the old arsehole, but it didn’t stop him consoling Pat when last year when his father started to go downhill. He told Pat he shouldn’t worry, that his dad was in good hands and he would pull through. Pat recognised it for what it was: Frank trying to be nice. It was an okay gesture, as far as that sort of thing went. Soon after, the doctors, in the middle of a routine procedure, nicked an artery in his father’s leg dropping his blood pressure dramatically. It was the latest in the long line of medical conditions his father had suffered, but this one finally brought him down.

Coming out of the station and waiting at the lights, Pat caught a glimpse of himself in the glass of a shop front. His hair still looked okay, the effects of a haircut a week or so ago still evident but he should have ironed his pale blue business shirt. His whiskers could have done with a clip too. He had considered ditching his satchel bag before, but it carried his wallet, glasses, keep cup and usually chocolate for later in the day. He wasn’t thatdifferent to everyone else. He turned up every day, swiped his pass at the gate to the train, swiped his pass at the entry to his building, logged onto his computer, sent emails, went for coffee, came back again to send more, and then told his boss about what a good job he, Pat, was doing.

Frank didn’t go to his work today. He stayed home to watch the Oscars. A few weeks ago it was the Super Bowl. Frank loved his American glitz and glam. Pat didn’t. He thought it a load of brain-rotting shit. Frank had two sick days left before he had to get a medical certificate and this second last one was for the Oscars. The last would be for the PlayStation.

When the SuperBowl was on, he made fatty Philly Cheese steaks and ate them at 10 in the morning, just in time for the half time show, with a carton of Budweisers to wash them down. There was one left over when Pat got home from work that night. It reminded him of stale, tepid water from drinking fountains where someone had spat phlegm in the basin; he’d only drunk it because there was nothing else. Nothing like his carefully selected IPAs that had that special bracing, aggressive bitterness.  

For the Oscars today, Frank had the same crew coming around, mainly his male mates but there was Alex, Sophia and Maisy as well. Pat liked Maisy and hoped against hope that Frank wasn’t into her, or, even worse, that she wasn’t into him.

His phone buzzed again. Another message.

Can you please remember to fill the car so it has enough fuel for the weekend? Last weekend I had to fill it and the kids lost their minds screaming while I was doing it.

He could imagine Frank and his mates sitting around coming up with this kind of shit to send to him. Frank knew he had dated that Alice woman like a year ago, with the two young boys. Alice was nice but didn’t want to introduce him to her children. She was weird about that and it made Pat feel like she knew something about him he didn’t know about himself. After it ended Frank tried to tell him he was better off without her. Women with children were full on and did he really want to get involved in some busted-up family? Besides, Frank had said, she’s old, wrinkly, her breasts are probably super saggy, like they’ve the had the life sucked out of them and she’s probably got a crazy ex who’s stalking her and would stalk Pat too if he got involved. Pat hated that Frank was right. It only made it worse that it had ended, that he couldn’t be a step-dad to those kids or save their mother.

Pat cleared the throng of the station. It wasn’t a long walk from the train to his building, but still he avoided the main thoroughfares. They were less inhabited, especially the seedier side streets, which he walked down holding his breath, trying not to inhale the acrid, urine smell polluting his nostrils and permeating his clothes and getting in his hair too. Sometimes he would ramp up his pace from a sprightly saunter to a brisk walk, especially if there were lots of bodies sleeping on the ground, but usually he wanted to appear like he wasn’t intimidated by the uglier side of the city. He did think going slower he would have to take in more of the tainted air, but it was better than people thinking that he might be affected by all the drug addicts and losers bundled up in their scummy blankets and sleeping bags.

His phone buzzed again.

Got a hacksaw, can pass it over as you pass maybe.

Perhaps it wasn’t Frank who was texting him. In fact, he was sure it wasn’t, but he wished it were. His phone was malfunctioning. His mobile provider sent him a message telling him, but it didn’t stop him thinking this was something that Frank would probably do if he got the chance. Frank was like all those friends that he’d had growing up that his father would think the world of and shower praise on. Confident, chatty and social. His father liked that. He liked people that could talk, make jokes people would listen to and laugh at. Pat could never compete. He was a mumbler, bumbling his words, according to his dad.

Frank was good at sport too. Another big tick in his father’s book. God knows how his Father had laughed when Pat tried to do anything physical or exercisey, but it annoyed the old man too. He remembered him yelling at Frank from the sideline to wake up when he had drifted from the action of a game he was playing. Then there were the ‘impromptu coaching sessions’ in the car on the way home when his Dad would point out everything he had done wrong like the old man had made a mental list to lash him with.

Pat’s phone buzzed again.

I’ll make sure my bum talks to you next time.

This was like the one the other day that he had seen on Frank’s phone that said:

Come over again, pleeeeaaasssse!!!!!!!! I promise I won’t freak out again, and I promise I can make you happy, like you know HAPPY, like your big, hard cock exploding in my face happy. Pleeeeeaaaaasssse!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

No one ever sent Pat messages like that unless it was a mistake. His father would have loved how popular Frank was with women. When Pat was nine, he watched his father’s eyes swim all over the mothers and wives who were dancing at their house alongside his mum, jiggling and giggling to Abba and the Bee Gees, and then getting more serious and into it as the Eagles, the Beach Boys and Fleetwood Mac came on.

Pat had been put to bed early, but the noise of the party kept him awake. He wasn’t supposed to get up, but the music and laughter drew him in. Walking into their living room, yellowy-brown cigarette smoke hung like a brown stained curtain, just low enough to make his eyes water and his chest wheeze. Bottles of beer, champagne, wine, and empty and half empty glasses sat on every surface, even their beloved television, the old Panavision, that his father had repeatedly told him he was never, under any circumstances, allowed to touch.

Pat ran into one of the mothers, Mrs Saunders, who almost fell out of her dress as she bent down to him. She was dripping in sweat, stank of alcohol and had laughed as she adjusted herself and straightened up. His dad appeared a moment later, dragging him away from her but not before pulling Mrs Saunders close and whispering something in her ear that made her blush and laugh at the same time.

His father had been sitting in a corner watching with Billy Graham; they were best mates. His dad was drunk and had forgotten about what he said earlier about Pat staying in bed. Not the dad he normally knew. He wasn’t the big, stern or erect man anymore, but rather bent forward and fixated, absorbed by legs and bottoms, breasts and cleavage that he would only turn away from to see if Billy was looking too. Billy would smile and play along but he more watched Pat as Pat watched him.

Pat’s phone buzzed again. It wasn’t a message this time but an Instagram notification. Frank has posted a picture: a shot of the television in their living room, with the caption:

Had to stay home sick today. Not all bad though #oscars.

Pat wanted to comment and say something like, just zoom back a bit, or, how many are there with you #fakesickies.

As Pat approached his building, he saw the phone shouting lady again. Every morning she was out the front of his building having extremely loud, extremely animated and extremely pissed off conversations with some unseen, but terribly frustrating interlocutor. Like most mornings, he could still hear exactly what she was saying, even though she was at least ten metres away from the entrance to the building, the closest Pat ever came to her. Last week, she was holding the phone in front of her face, shouting at it, wildly gesticulating with her other hand. That morning Pat slowed down and, for a brief second, stopped to watch her. He was convinced that she might toss the thing against the wall.

It was the sort of fight he wanted to have with his father now. Pat should have flung something at him for all the good that it did him trying to be restrained, trying to calmly persuade him, like he had been advised to do by his counsellor. The closest his father ever got to an affirmation was when he said, but Billy’s old now. Apparently, the dashing Billy’s jet-black hair had turned silvery white, what was left of it. He didn’t waltz around anymore like God’s gift either. All those cigarettes he’d coolly smoked bringing on emphysema and an amputated leg. The worst thing Pat ever threw at his father was one Billy misdemeanour after another, but his old man, swaying back and forth and to side to side like a seasoned prize fighter, managed to evade the blows.

His dad did send Pat packages, though. The first one was a drone; it was one of the first ones ever to come out and must have cost a fortune. Pat liked it until he realised what it was for; when he did, he flew it full speed into a brick wall. Then came a bike, with big chunky tyres and massive metal shock absorbers; he rode it once, to Flinders Street station, and that was the last Pat saw of it. The next was an iPad. Late one night Pat went to the big hill overlooking the freeway to see how far it would fly as a Frisbee.

Pat wondered what the lady with the phone did, and why she had to do it right there every single morning. The only good thing about her was that it made him enter the building quickly, forgetting for a minute that he was going to work. Her loud ranting would push him inside without the feeling that he was going to another day spent doing not much, for no particular reason.

His phone buzzed. Another text.

Just saw this! Get home safe and rest up—hope you feel better soon!

He got to his desk. He sat in the pod opposite Jessica Williams, a bigger girl, who came to work every day dressed like she was going out dancing, wearing skirts and tops that fit her a little too snugly, perhaps too snugly for the office. Today she wore her brown leather skirt again, the one that barely went below her underwear and as usual he found it hard to look in her direction.

She called Pat creepy. She didn’t say it to his face, but she said it nonetheless. His buddy, Mona Fraser, told him. He did want to say something to her but how was he supposed to do that. How was he supposed to say that he was different from all those other men out there, the ones that kept on looking, the ones that whistled, the ones that called out. The ones that pushed up too close on trams and trains with their hands deep inside their pockets, the ones that crept into your room late at night. The ones that wouldn’t stop when told no, the ones that would never leave you alone, that thought it was their God-given right to do whatever they wanted.

His phone buzzed.

Whoops. Saw you wave (for the record).

The last package Pat received was a Sherrin footy. He still had it in spite of trying to kick it away, put it in the rubbish or simply lose it. It had always been returned, like the people bringing it back were trying to remind him of his father, like, there you go.

One day Frank was in Pat’s room and saw the footy, immediately suggesting that they go to the park, you know, to have a kick. Sherrins were there to be booted, bounced, and handballed, he said picking the ball up and playing with it. They could practice their goalkicking, torpedoes, drop punts, bullets passes, and snaps, he said, holding the ball in both hands now like he was lining up the big sticks. Pat didn’t want to have a kick. Well, Frank asked twirling the ball on his index finger, could he borrow it, take it for a kick himself, it was a footy and a good one. No, his father had given it to him, Pat said trying to give an explanation. So? Frank said.