At the local graveyard I watch the boys hoick agapanthus from between the graves. They work in two groups of three: one with a pick, one with a spade and one walking armfuls of them to the trailer. The fertile ground opens easily; the tooth of the swinging tool digging and the spade spitting them to the surface. I lean on the vehicle, calculate that my place is a short detour between the burial ground and the next assignment. They’ll look good, I think, blooming along my driveway.
It’s been a long morning with the lucky crew – lucky to have their sentences commuted to community service, a get-out-of-jail-free-for-a-few-odd-jobs arrangement. Niggles from the boys: bloody flies, fucking sun, bullshit tools, ruddy Corrections have burnt small craters into my frontal lobe. I’ve exerted a little of my own well-matched hard-speak to meet theirs: You lot sound like a bunch of whinging cry-babies; Problem is your pommy albino skin; It’s because of those ten sets of thumbs you’re sporting; Come on, you’re crims, Corrections is your peak body. This last crack was pushing things, but I’m paid to volley their grumbles back and nine times out of ten the day finishes well enough, can even deliver a sense of satisfaction from completing a task or three.
Truth be known, this is my dream job. I get to be outdoors, use my skills for monkey-bar building, retaining-wall construction, BMX bike track planning and further on from that, there’s something imaginative about this bunch. As much as they bitch and moan with boring brainless complaints, they’re Rodgers and Hammerstein compared to the Catholic kids I took for woodwork a couple of years back, all trussed-up and uncommunicative.
Besides, my view is that most of the boys in the crew have had a short suck on the old straw of life and there’s a lot to be said for their mettle when their sorry stories come to light. There’s only the occasional one that’s got any real streak of nastiness, although by the same token, few have any charm, which makes it easy to draw the line between them and me. Fraternising is out: clarity of roles is essential because the fence separating us is thin enough, standing, I would say, (and have when pontificating on the subject) mainly on account of my having avoided the eye of the law.
And that brings up another sad distinction: most of them think everything’s chipper. Blindly mistaken would be my take on that.
But perhaps that’s where the boys and I are closer than I’d calculated, seeing, despite a flash of lucidity about a big mistake, I find myself hurtling up the driveway of my lifetime project, them leering at it from every available angle in the van with me. And, despite being cognisant of breaking a golden rule I’ve adhered to unwaveringly for the last five years – saying to myself, once won’t matter – and whistling in that singalong way I know signals a number of things about my psychological state, I continue on. Certainly I should have known better, should never have considered lowering the barrier of my life so the boys could stretch themselves into it. But it’s too late. My crew of petty crims and hard-muscled smart arses, my crew who most of the time play easy ball and only take a little pulling into line, my crew who deserve some respect except from the people who have seen their charge sheets, which is me, are lusting, albeit with cool calm eyes, upon that which I hold most dear.
‘Thought you didn’t live here anymore?’ Darrel Baxter is a sniff of a guy with greasy hair and a fetish for gym clothing. ‘Thought you and ya Mrs split?’
‘They did, says Jimmy, who’s sitting on the other side of Darrel.’
I throw them a sly look.
‘But have ya or have ya not?’ Darrel says.
‘Do ya, or do ya not?’ Jimmy leans forward, guffaws across the dash, twisting his finger into another he’s coined in a circle.
‘Get a hold of yourself, Jimmy.’ I pull the automatic gear stick into second to help the twelve-seater up the hill. ‘Still my place. She’s staying here till we work out a property settlement.’
And there it is, the mistake not only made, but carving an irreversible scar into me. In the rear-view mirror, I check the boys in the back, wonder if they’ve heard. I can see Harvey Patton staring, projecting his boredom onto my temporarily-dispossessed fields and Collin Menace Jones beside him, trying to get something out of his nose with a very dirty index finger. I haven’t known these guys long, and they’re groovy boys, especially Harvey, more sophisticated than I’m used to amongst my crims.
My gaze slides forward, a careful realignment. It’s one thing having Jimmy and Darrel know my business, quite another in regard to the rest. Matt and Adrian are out of range of hearing, sitting in the seats at the back of the vehicle. They like being separate, come from an even rarer breed than the trendy boys: the one-off, slip-up breed who won’t be back for a second round with this crew.
When we come over the last rise of the driveway, Petal, Rachel’s piebald bull terrier, is poised – not quite sitting on her haunches – in full view. I’m surprised the dog’s here. Petal goes everywhere with Rachel like every bull terrier she’s ever owned, so I’m suddenly thinking Rachel must be home, that she’s taken the day off and might be scantily dressed somewhere amongst her cacti and roses.
Petal’s tail begins to whip back and forth. I’m depending on the fact that Rachel’s having one of her soup-bowl cups of coffee upstairs. Maybe even on the balcony I stumbled off eight years ago, breaking my nose on my knee as I landed, thank God, on an old trampoline we used to have set up in the yard.
‘You guys unload the trailer.’ I engage the handbrake. ‘Put them on that side of the driveway.’ I indicate the spot.
‘Where ya going, Russ?’ Jimmy says, a silly look on his face.
‘Mind ya bum fluff. Now come on!’ I bark then, to remind the crew they’re in the penal system and I’m not, which is, I keep telling myself, what I’m paid for: to keep some sort of upper hand, a slap-behind-the-ear hand.
They begin to get out of the vehicle as I go to find Rachel, to warn her I’ve got the crew here. I don’t want to alarm her, don’t want the flick of her anger-at-having-been-left tongue whipping over me in front of them. And then there’s another consideration sidling into my mind: the she-won’t-be-happy-I’m-here consideration. I start to cringe at my behaviour but I continue walking towards the house, perhaps because when it comes to my land I’m driven beyond any ability to censor myself. I know I should turn around, drive away, take the agapanthus to the tip, which was the original instruction from my supervisor, Ms Margaret Turner. But even as I’m considering it, I discard it.
At the house I peer through the kitchen windows. Rachel’s at the table, steam rising from her cup, scarves circling her neck, her dark hair tacked up untidily. She always looks beautiful when she’s pinned together in an untidy way. I comb a hand over my own mop before I realise what I’m doing, before I knock on the Tudor doors I pinched from a tiny disused church ten kays further along the road. She turns, looks over her shoulder and, without indicating whether she’s pleased to see me, beckons me to come in.
‘Rach!’ Surprise ripens my voice. ‘Didn’t expect you to be here! Just dropping off some agapanthus I dug up with the boys.’
‘Don’t leave them here.’ Her voice is curt.
‘Why not? There’s a whole load and I need the trailer this afternoon.’
Rachel stands, her lazy day-off clothes loose and flowing on her. ‘This is my home, Russ, for the moment at least. You can’t just rock up when you feel like it.’
‘I’ve already got the boys unstacking them. I can’t tell them to load up again.’
‘Fine.’ Rachel glides past me. ‘I’ll tell them.’
I can tell by the way she sets her expression she won’t be stopped. I even get the impression she’s been ruminating on the less-than-gracious particulars of my character and the sight of me here without having told her I was coming is infuriating those ruminations, making her think I turn up whenever I like.
I follow her. Petal is watching the bad boys move in an orchestra of unburdening the trailer.
‘Hey!’ she yells. ‘You can pick them all back up again.’
There’s a general hiatus of movement except in the case of Harvey Patton. Harvey, at the same pace he’s been evacuating the bulbs, begins putting them back. There’s not so much as a thought passing behind his eyes. Or, perhaps, too many thoughts.
Rachel shakes her head at the rest of them.
‘Only accepting instructions from the boss? Well, if you don’t pick them up I’ll ring the cops. Maybe you’ll listen to them.’
Petal stands like a piglet beside her. The cop thing, and, of course, my silence, clinches it. They scoop up the bulbs dropping them back onto the tray of the trailer.
Rachel squares up to me then, her eyes rummaging over my face. When I can’t maintain her gaze she simply walks past me, towards the house. Petal, sensing who’s come out on top, trots off after her.
I can’t arc up for obvious reasons, the biggest one being that Rachel and I are ugly to watch arguing, an ugliness that would give the boys something to mimic to their advantage. As it is there’s plenty of gristle for them to chew open-mouthed on now. Already it’s evident. The boys, working with an unusual skip in their step, have filled the trailer back up in no time. I catch Harvey’s eye, his un-phased penetrating stare.
By the time the boys load themselves into the vehicle, I’m seething behind the steering wheel. I can feel the crew nudging and nodding towards my hard-worked house, built ground-up by unplugged guts, my guts. Laughs packed between his words, Darrel says, ‘We’re sorry, Russ.’
Then Jimmy pipes up. ‘We feel for ya, mate.’ And the two snicker in their usual underhanded sniggering way, surreptitious and ugly. I catch Menace smiling and know everyone’s heard. Harvey’s too-Harvey and the boys at the back too pink-cheeked to laugh. That’s the only reason they’re not all doubled over with the joke of it.
I bite down. Bastards, I think, giving them nothing more to draw on. But that’s when Harvey’s voice carps up from the back seat.
‘You sure she’s gunna give you the place?’
I land a cool eye on his in the rear-vision mirror.
‘Positive, I say.
I go back to the house four days later when I see Rachel’s car in town outside her workplace. In the trailer I have the agapanthus, saved, after all, from being dumped at the tip. Confirming her absence, Petal doesn’t greet me and I drive to one of the back sheds, begin emptying the trailer in swift shovel loads certain she won’t see the midden of bulbs. But as the last few tumble from the trailer’s edge bad-boy Harvey Patton, his smart-boy dandy jeans hanging loosely from his hips and his head cocked over in annoying passivity, appears.
‘Harvey!’ My voice slews off unreliably. ‘What are you doing here?’
‘Servicing the generator.’ Harvey stands, wiping his greasy hands with a rag, a spanner somewhere between them. ‘Saw Rachel in town. We got talking. Offered to come and take a look at it.’
I close the back of the trailer acting as if I’m totally cool about this when in fact I feel like someone’s got a vegetable peeler against my chest, is removing the wispy hair that grows there by raking it back and forth. I look at him. ‘Forgot you were a mechanic. Hope you know what you’re doing.’
Harvey smiles, nods in a way that says absolutely bloody right.
‘You want to leave a message?’
I stand there nodding, trying to think of what the right thing would be and it dawns on me that it won’t be good if Rachel knows I’ve been here.
‘Actually Harvey, I’d appreciate it if you didn’t say anything about the agapanthus, or my being here. It’s just between Rach and me after all.
Harvey makes the smallest shrug and I move to the driver’s door, pretending there’s nothing eating me. I wave to Harvey and get in my car like I’ve got things to do. But as I’m pulling away, watching Harvey in my side mirror, I’m thinking Harvey’s being here is Rachel’s doing and that she’s trying, trying and succeeding, to upset me beyond a decent limit with her employing one of the crew, having them work on the property. And she’s not even here.
I want to ring her, but that’s exactly what she’d expect and a demonstration of anger from me will only drive her closer to him. My mind pinions on this as I drive back to town. I’ll wait. I see the boys again Saturday. As long as the blowfish doesn’t squeal on me beforehand I’ll say I learned that Harvey was at the property from Harvey. I shake my head. This is beyond the pail, beyond all decency; Rachel’s lost all regard for the rules we laid down about mixing the personal with work.
In a town like Menence there’s pity-little to do when it comes to entertainment. Routines become crucial and entrenched in this kind of place and traditionally I spend my Friday nights at the bar of the Terminus Hotel. I can have a sure bet who’s going to be there and who’s not. That’s why I always feel it’s a safe place to drink since, usually, I know exactly who I’ll bump into. This is important, given drinking can severely interrupt an amnesty that might otherwise work well with any certain person. That’s why I feel wary when Darrel and Jimmy walk through the door like they’ve come into a Wild West saloon and they’re keen on being someone more than the Milkybar Kid. My plan, which consists of a relaxing session with my new woman, Kitty Holt, is to be foiled.
‘Didn’t know you two drank!’ I say by way of hello. ‘Thought you were purely yandi boys. Bong hogs.’
I sound dry humoured, relaxed, while really there’s a powerful rumble of foreboding in me.
‘Russell.’ They both nod, ignoring my goads, each pulling a stool up to the bar as if they’re about to make a deal of some importance. Darrel leans forward, looks hungrily over the counter. But then Darrel, I think, always looks hungry.
I introduce Kitty, an unpleasant but necessary call seeing I’m not going to back down from my usual seat in my own local. Also, I’m thinking once the introductions are over nothing much will come in the way of chitchat. And, after the boys’ eyes roam unabashed over the two of us, that’s what happens. Everyone bunkers down in their own conversations.
Kitty tells me about her day, starting with the hygiene practices of fifteen intellectually handicapped adults she cooked relish and strawberry jam with at work.
‘A lot of hair twirling despite the surgical caps,’ she says. ‘A lot of ear tweaking and nose picking.’
When Kitty and I pause for a guzzle from our pots, Darrel leans forward.
‘Russ, ya got some house out there.’
‘Didn’t know you had an eye for such things.’
It’s a warning; one that’s not picked up.
‘Not as much of an eye as Harvey’s got,’ Jimmy squawks, laughing as if someone’s using a mallet to hard pack the guffaws down in him, to sledgehammer them into his oesophagus.
‘What are you on about Jimmy?’
‘Harvey’s seeing your place from the inside.’
‘Bullseye.’ Darrel tips his pot Jimmy’s way.
I shake my head as if they’ve really lost it, try again to give the impression I don’t approve of them blathering on about my life.
‘Harvey’s shaggin‘ ya ex, Russ,’ Darrel persists. ‘Living by ya pots and pans in the very kitchen ya built with ya own donkey-mule muster and blow.’
I frown, know Darrel’s been rehearsing this. They crack up. Jimmy, his beer at his lips poised to swallow, is so busy crowing he can’t take a sip.
‘Fuck that!’ I say which is an understatement given the rage curdling in me.
‘Ya better get out there cause Harvey’s got a good mind to reinvest himself inta your property. He’s a cunning one, the old Harve and well, your Rachel, maybe she’s just tryna get one over you.’
‘Alright Darrel.’ I hate that he’s just said what I myself have already thought. ‘Got any real news about the state of the world?’
Darrel mocks disappointment but Jimmy can’t wipe the smile from his face. They both tap the bar, can’t hold it in.
‘How bout a beer, Russ?’ It’s Jimmy.
‘No thanks, we’re off. Kit?’ I say to her. ‘Don’t drink too much, lads, full day tomorrow.’
‘We’ll be in stripes.’
‘I’ll bring the dogs.’
When we get outside Kitty turns to me. ‘You didn’t take those guys out to your place, did you?’
I rub my hands, knead my palm with my thumb.
‘Oh Christ,’ she says. ‘That’s a moment not thought through.’
‘It’ll blow over. Don’t worry. Let’s buy some cider. Go home and get real happy.’
At work, the cider easing its way through my liver, making me heavy limbed, there’s a message in my pigeonhole. Harvey Patton will not be in attendance today.
With the bent postures of the boys smoking cigarettes, falling in sloping silhouettes across the pavement outside, I collect myself to portray impenetrable, upright, taking-of-no-bullshit. But the atmosphere is not as I expect. Without Harvey, there’s an easy mood amongst us. It’s clear I’ve been naive about him, about his quiet power, his ability to lead the group even if he doesn’t appear to. It’s that charismatic ‘deeply cynical’ thing, his quiet brooding demeanour. Probably the very trait that makes him attractive to Rachel. But despite that, I’m sceptical. Can’t believe the thing between Rach and Harvey can be true. Boys have got me collared, I tell myself, they’re having an almighty tug on my un-jailed legs. So I instruct myself to calm down. Besides, the only way I can deal with it is to hold it in, especially seeing I’m the one who left her, seeing I’ve already got myself a new beauty I adore.
And while I’m thinking this, while I’m watching the boys in DayGlo vests with long tongs and big rubbish bags, with rakes and wide-nosed shovels, cleaning up at the town’s showgrounds, I’m settling on an idea, allowing it to fill my mind by adding peripheral plotting and fringe benefits for all those I manage to rope in. I make my first move and call to the crew.
‘Down tools. Early lunch. Hot pies courtesy of Corrections Victoria.’
Keeping my promise, I drive the good bad-boys to the Perry, a wide chugging river that hugs its barren chewed banks with a certain desperation. We sit at a picnic table by the edge of the water, squinting, our cold breath mixing with hot mince and pastry.
I tell them this lunch is in order to soften the blow, so they won’t feel hard done by, won’t be too pissed off with Harvey when they hear.
‘Huh?’ Darrel has his head cocked.
‘Hear what?’ Menace’s brow is deep-furrowed.
‘I thought he would have told you Menace.’
Menace shakes his head.
‘He’s been excused from doing his hours.’
‘Really?’ Jimmy is frowning.
‘It’s not possible. Is it?’ Darrel’s hair is washed for once and it’s knotted in a clump behind his right ear.
‘Someone must have pulled strings. Found a loophole.’
‘I saw him Thursday.’ Menace’s detestably dirty fingernails clamp his pie. ‘Didn’t say anything. Well, except for mentioning the view from your balcony.’
‘Half his luck. Got everything going his way. Must be charm or something. I mean, I don’t see it personally but he’s got the gift. He’s got the power.’
‘Fuck that.’ Darrel’s thin track-suited leg is suddenly jigging up and down as if it’s having its own private epileptic fit. ‘Harvey’s got another 200 hours or something. I’ve been here for weeks and nobody ever mentioned no loopholes to me.’
‘You sure, Russ? You sure he’s been excused?’
‘Positive. There was a note at work not to expect him back.’ (This is a white lie as far as I’m concerned and something I can recant later, plead misunderstanding of.) ‘Meanwhile, he’s shacked up with Rach, living the high life at my house and you sorry bastards are working your arses off. Don’t understand how some people get away with shit like that.’ I shake my head for effect. ‘Wonder what argument he used.’
‘Maybe the fact he’s involved with the boss’s ex.’ Jimmy hisses and winds up his hammered-down giggle.
I scoff. ‘If only! Nah, it’s certainly not that. More likely he’s made a complaint about the company he has to keep, claiming you blokes corrupt him. He’s hot on himself, stuck up or something.’
I let it rest there; take my time.
‘That’s not right.’
‘Should fucken kidnap the bastard, bring him out here.’
‘Make him watch us for 200 hours.’
Darrel laughs as if he’s taken a double dose of his dexamphetamines.
‘Harder to watch than do the work.’
Jimmy’s squawking causes a general rumble of mirth amongst the crew.
‘Boredom’s a killer.’ Darrel’s leg is pumping with the seizure again.
‘Let’s do it.’ Jimmy jumps up, is pushing his fingers into the air like he’s P Diddy Combs. ‘Let’s go get him from his love bed.’
I take in Menace’s chiselled face, see he’s considering things.
‘We can tell him we miss him,’ Jimmy sings, laughing so hard that good-boy Matt can’t help but strike a laugh in contagion and the whole crew are writhing with hilarity.
‘Let’s go,’ Darrel calls theatrically. ‘Let’s go get him.’
‘You can’t just go get him,’ I say, wiping an eye.
‘Bullshit. He should be suffering with the rest of us.’
‘I’d be sacked and you’d end up in the slammer, some screw making your life hell. You’d have to do it at night with balaclavas.’ They roar at this, at the over-stated humour I’ve displayed.
‘Yeah,’ Darrel shouts. ‘Drag him out for a dose of reality. Leave him all night.’
‘Drive by my place and toot.’ I wink at them, a clinching of the fact I can claim it was all a joke. ‘I’d like to know he was suffering.’
During the afternoon they talk on and on about the idea asserting it as their own at some point, turning the tide against Harvey. All I hope to do is upset the apple cart between Harvey and Rachel. She won’t want them approaching Harvey at the house, or in the street. I’m pretty sure it’d be enough to put her off the cool Mr Patton for good; so I’m pleased, can’t help but feel I’ve put in a decent day’s effort with the crew, fixing the mess I made.
That night, cosy on the couch, Kitty wrapped around me, I’ve almost put Harvey and Rachel out of my mind. But strangely the lack of a car horn – as if I expected they’d really carry out the plan – germinates my curiosity and, typical of me, once the inkling of something is seeded it’s an impossibly wide birth around it. The next thing I know I’m fighting off a great dread of Harvey and Rachel walking down the aisle and going straight from there to a solicitor’s office so they can live on in the house she’s got possession of.
I try to relax, concentrate on the devastation of an American town flattened by a monster tornado. But a far-off disaster distilled through a camera and onto the TV is not enough of a distraction and agitation surfaces in me so that this time Kitty can’t help but notice.
‘Sorry, honey,’ I say. ‘Seem to have a pea in my sub-conscious. Need something to wipe out a few brain cells. How about I score us a smoke?’
‘I’ll come with you.’ Her white teeth flash between full lips.
‘No, I’ll shoot round to Paul’s. You know what he’s like, no extras, no one waiting in the car. I’ll only be half an hour.’
I kiss her on the head, know she’s not happy. But I figure if I can see for myself that it’s not true, that nothing’s going on between Harvey and Rachel, I’ll make it up to her, give her my undivided attention and, more importantly – in the fullness of time – she’ll get to enjoy the house, my house, my wonderful house.
I scoot out the door, know I have to be quick to make it to my place and back in thirty minutes. I’m all energetic heart palpitations and speed along the road, my eyes peeled back in the fading light. If Harvey’s there I’ll get onto the lawyers, pressure them to speed up the process, push it through. I swing along the highway, make the right turn five kays out of town to head out to my property. And as I’m hurtling along the road, as the bitumen runs out and I feel gravel tickling the tyres, I get the sense something other than the heartbeats of Rachel, Petal and the fauna are cracking a rhythm. And then I notice a great glow mushrooming into the night.
Bonfire from hell.
The car lopes and scuds across the runnels of my driveway. My headlights kick up from the potholes. The glow seems to find centre directly ahead. And as I come over the final rise, I can’t believe my eyes. My house is one great glowing tinderbox. I take it in: the huge oily flames leaping from the roof, the great flakes and fluttering embers swirling into the trees and across the sky.
I get out of the car, recognise the bad boys standing around, their mouths gobbed open with surprise.
And as I scream for them to get buckets, as I start to rush around looking for the hose, Darrel comes towards me.
‘What happened? I call over the roar, seizing the hose-nozzle and scrabbling at the tap.
Darrel’s eyebrows cross furtively. ‘Set fire to the compost. It burst into flames. Exploded actually. Spread to the house.’
‘What? What the fuck were you doing lighting the compost?’
‘Rachel asked us to. That’s where she’d chucked the agapanthus. We had no idea the house would catch. Neither did Rach.’
I turn from the pathetic trickle coming from the hose, scowl at him.
‘We were gunna take Harve out,’ Darrel says as if I’ve no right to be pissed off that my house is one curling ball of flame, ‘string him up. But it’s not true, Russ. We asked Harvey and he only missed today. He’ll be back next Saturday.’
‘It was a joke!’ I scream in frustration at the hose, at Darrel, at the whole idiotic and unbelievably messed-up disaster. ‘It was just a fucking joke!’
‘Sorry mate,’ he murmurs, the wail of the Country Fire Authority registering in my mind as their truck makes its way along the road. Then, insanely hopeful I might nod in agreement, I hear through the roar, him again. ‘I guess it would have been better to take the agapanthus straight to the tip.’
I fall to my knees at that moment, my folly a great huge weight pushing me down. And all I can envisage, all I can conjure in my mind, is the swollen bodies of agapanthus bulbs and the thought that I’ve never really liked the plants they turn into anyway.
Agapanthus by SJ Finn was published in Sleepers Almanac #5