‘Patrick, you can’t keep them, not a whole closet full. What will the police think? They’re bound to turn up here. Someone will have seen you coming home, fumbling for the key. We can’t just get up and leave. There’s nowhere else to go. And they know you by now. They know you.’
SHE is thinking I’ve wormed my way around her again, eluded her in the supermarket or snuck off when she was having a snooze. SHE’s too old now to keep her eye on me all the time and SHE’s weary, weary of me.
‘Don’t you leave this house,’ SHE says. ‘I don’t want you on the street or hanging around the shops,’ SHE says. And then SHE slams the wardrobe door.
I want to tell her I’ve had an idea. I could set up a stall on a street corner, a ‘Claim Your Footwear’ stand that had a sign apologising for all the polishing and repair work that hadn’t, I regret, been done.
‘It’s the only thing I can think of,’ I say, even though this makes no sense because I haven’t told her what it was I was thinking of.
Have I got my keys …? That’s it, hook them through the loop, that’s it … if only I could stop my hands from trembling … tablets … what is SHE doing …? Been away for nearly an hour … I’ll go and see if SHE is coming … just walk around a bit … I won’t go far … as far as SHE is away … I’ll meet her … my pills will calm my hands, stop the trembling … I watch my feet go down the path, concentrate on making them walk … foot down, foot down … there, that’s better … onto the pavement … gate closed … foot down, foot down … now I can look ahead at the yellow roses that I like the feel of, so soft, like suede or velvet. Touch is my most intact sense. I know that they smell nice. SHE is always saying it … but I can’t smell them … no smell, no smell … and here comes the rose, wilting a little, turning pink at the edges, reminding me of painted lips … one petal hinged down as if someone has been crushing it, damaged it … I try to put it straight and see that my hands are so unsteady, which reminds me … SHE should be coming … I try to smell its scent, would love to tell her, ‘What a lovely fragrance …’ I have a big sniff, put my nose right up to it but my eyes slide and I want her to arrive now so I look down the road, the wide road, along the fences of the houses … one side and then the other, all the time my nose to the rose as if I am smelling what is inside it … and I’m thinking after I’ve met her, helped to steer her big square shopping trolley down the path, and we’re back at home and unpacking the groceries together, I’ll find that SHE has bought me something I like … a piece of steak … and I’ll cook it … SHE doesn’t have to, I know how … but SHE’s not coming and I feel myself getting hot … there’s sweat on my forehead, large pooling blobs of sweat. I can feel it wet on my hand and the pavement is beginning to move, lump around like a conveyor belt gone haywire so that I hang on to the fence to steady myself, to keep my feet down … and I am waiting, leaning back, one hand in my pocket as if everything is casual and there’s someone coming, a shopping trolley in front … I go to a tree, hide behind it … SHE hasn’t seen me … her head is down, concentrating on the ground, moving her legs in big circles because of the bulges in the moving pavement … so I won’t jump out and say boo … I’ll stay tucked away here until SHE’s gone past …
‘Patrick, there’s someone here to see you.’
SHE is pounding on my bedroom door.
‘Patrick, don’t muck around, please.’
I don’t see the point of these visits now. At first the girl did her best but after a while there was nothing to talk about, nothing left for her to do. I know she means well, this lovely, worthy person. But we’ve been through it before. I’m too old to change now, too much my own man. So how can anyone be hopeful? There’s not a hope left. Not for me. The only thing the girl is good for is taking me to the hospital to get my medication.
‘Patrick!’ SHE is calling again, her voice like the rusted springs on my bed. I sit on its edge and bounce in the way that makes them squeak. ‘I’ll throttle him,’ I hear her tell the girl. ‘I’ll throttle you!’ SHE yells back through my door and over the squealing bed. Then I hear her going into the kitchen, and I stop the bouncing so I can hear what SHE is doing. SHE’s putting the kettle on. I can hear her filling it from the tap. Ever since the girl helped her bake the scones that time, SHE’s made her a cup of tea.
‘Jackie’s a good girl,’ SHE told me, ‘better than a lot of other social workers. Jackie’s herself, natural. She’s not one to play games, which makes her the right type for this sort of work. You have to be the right type of person to last in a job like hers.’
I open my door just a little and listen.
‘How is he?’ the girl asks.
‘He’s the same,’ SHE says.
‘Mrs Pissarro, I wouldn’t ask. I know you don’t like people prying, but if I’m going to be of any help I need to know what happened before you came here.’
I knew it would come to this. I knew eventually the girl would want to know, try to get it out of her. But SHE isn’t going to tell. I know her too well. SHE’s as cagey as me about what’s gone on, especially now, after everything that’s happened here. If one more piece of evidence is stacked against me, as SHE said herself, this town will lock me up, put me in a cell and throw away the key.
Besides, it’s the same story over and over; there’s nothing to tell the girl that others haven’t found out, and they’ve never been able to stop me, or make things better.
‘We haven’t been able to settle anywhere,’ I hear her say . ‘Not since Mr Pissarro died.’
‘You’ve been moving around all that time? What is it, over ten years now?’
In the patch of silence that follows I lean forward. My heart is thrashing. SHE is going to tell her. Suddenly I know SHE is going to tell.
‘Patrick’s damaged, dear.’ SHE clatters cups and saucers in the sink. ‘They took the foster parents to court. He’d been maltreated. Awful stories, things people don’t get over. Neglect and nastiness, cruelty it was, pure cruelty.’
Even though I can’t see her I know her eyebrows will be pushed together, trying to convey exactly what went on without saying it all. After the first time SHE’d explained it SHE’d promised herself it would be the last; the details would always be kept a secret, except for one, which I know will be the next thing SHE will say. I wait.
‘Even further back, before the foster parents, things were pretty appalling. His real mother would leave him in a cot for weeks at a time. Affected his motor skills. But, of course, much more besides.’
It shocks people to hear that stuff about me. The girl makes sorrowful remarks that lucky people say in response to all the evil things they hear done to children. To add to the girl’s confusion and get her past her sympathy, I come out of my room. SHE shuts up – not because I’ve appeared, but because that’s enough of that. SHE doesn’t want to start a discussion up.
‘Patrick,’ the girl says. ‘How are you feeling?’
The girl always speaks to me like this when she visits, as if things are going to plan, as if things are in order.
Looking my usual anxious self, I smile quickly at her and go to switch the radio on. ‘I didn’t sleep last night,’ I say. ‘There was a cat meowing at my window all night, wanting to come in but SHE hates cats,’ (I’m pointing at SHE) ‘and so I couldn’t let it in.’
‘I don’t hate cats,’ SHE says. ‘I just don’t want stray ones in the house. And you never said anything to me about a cat last night.’ SHE is looking over, annoyed with me again.
I stare at the shoes on the girl’s feet. I can see them because she is sitting on a high stool, leaning on the bench, and her jeans have ridden up her legs, freed them. ‘Jackie,’ I say, figuring I can’t get into more trouble than I’m already in. ‘I could clean your shoes for you, polish them and maybe repair that flap at the back that sticks up. I could make them look like new. Why don’t you take them off, sit back and relax, put your feet up on the table there, maybe rub them on the table leg and then just let them rest up there.’
The girl throws back her head and laughs, a loud, full laugh. SHE’s correct about her. The girl is the right sort of person for the job, exactly the right sort of person.
The meat … a big red open cut that wobbles like jelly as the knife slices … and then, when it falls, curling like a tiny wave, and the knife appears, the long blade like a dagger being drawn away after a stabbing … The fork is already plunged further up … the cow’s hindquarter redder than the inside of my mouth, redder than the blood on the butcher’s hand … fat sausages land smack, beside it, long strings of them, a giant daisy chain … Oh … They’re asking me to leave … shooing me away from the window with their waves and flailing arms, their huge knives cutting the air and pointing at me … It’s my shaking that has put them off … if I could keep my hands still … breathing … the girl says to breathe … but I can’t, I’m sure my lungs are shaking too … the trembling comes up my arms and across my chest … I’ll think about black pointy shoes … with a heel so slender and the stiletto high … and bumps that the toes have made in the leather after it’s had to curve around them, bulging, protruding because they’ve been squeezed in … but the butcher isn’t happy despite my efforts and he’s coming out of his shop … I turn … walk away hurriedly, as hurriedly as my wonky walk allows … and then I’m passing a sports store, with its fishing nets and its spears … there’s a lady showing a man some golf clubs … she’s got blue shoes on with no heel and a rounded toe … the man is leaving … he doesn’t buy the golf clubs … he’s gone from the shop and I step in with a large wobbly step over the threshold and inside the store … the saleswoman approaches me … offers to help in her soft blue leather shoes which I stare at … at the way they are gathered around the edges, making the leather ripple around her foot … I tell her she should enter a competition I’m running, tell her there’s a trip to Tahiti to be won, and that all she has to do is dance, just for a little while and that she can leave her shoes with me while she competes and I’ll clean them for her while the judges, who’ll be SHE and maybe the girl, make their decision … I tell her that it’s possible to have a practice run in front of me now … You can do it on the counter, I say … Get up over the hooks and sinkers and little metal fish that look like bait to do a few steps … but leave the shoes off, I tell her … on the floor, on the floor and I’ll make sure no one steals them … I stop to let her talk but she’s not moving … not even her face … then she’s asking me to take a seat on this little stool at the back of the shop, where it looks crowded with things and rather messy … I’m smiling at her but it’s making no difference … I say, no problem, which doesn’t really make sense because I turn around to leave … telling myself to put my foot firmly down on the pavement as I go through the doorway … I can feel myself shaking and I’m beginning to sweat … I’ll have to go home … cuddle up … I wish I had the soft blue leather shoes to take with me … but that lady wasn’t going to give me her shoes … she didn’t like me … I know … Oh, the police are there … I’ll have to keep my head down … but I’m smiling at them despite that thought … and they’ve stopped to talk to me … asking me if I’d step into the back of their van and come down to the police station … they’d like to ask me a few questions … I’m not sure about this but what choice do I have … The cop car smells of cat’s piss and I wonder if they’ve picked up the cat that was hanging around outside my window … that’s probably what they want to talk to me about … that cat and its damn meowing … I don’t think they would want to see me about anything else … I’ll tell them I’m planning to have a stall … give them all back … I’ll promise them I’ll give them all back.
‘You’ve been charged with theft, Patrick. Theft of twenty-nine pairs of shoes over the past six weeks.’
The girl isn’t cross, she’s being firm.
‘Patrick, perhaps we could go to an op shop,’ she says. ‘Buy some second-hand shoes for you to clean up.’
The girl doesn’t know, she is trying to help but she doesn’t know.
‘Jackie, can I borrow ten dollars?’ I ask her. It’s a question to put her off as much as for the money.
She leaves, her hands clasped behind her head, the question lingering until she disappears. I have packed our bags, our plastic supermarket bags; we’re leaving exactly as we came two months ago.
Because I’ve spent our money on tickets we have to walk to the station. The girl would have given us money for a taxi if she’d known we had to walk. She wouldn’t have been happy about us leaving, but she would have given us money and her blessings anyway. She’s a good girl, Jackie, a good sort of person.
It’s a pity we can’t stay. I like this town. But I like every town we go to. Towns just don’t like me, so we end up leaving. And lately the stays have been getting shorter. Someone else will have to have a stall on a street corner to give those shoes back. Somebody will find them stacked in the wardrobe to be returned. But we’ll be gone, SHE and me, to another town, perhaps somewhere coastal, where the points of shoes are cut out and you can see women’s toenails poking through the tips of their sandals, snug as snug, squashed in like breasts in a bra. In a town like that, I’ll be able to buy myself a shoe-shining kit and keep my promise of a good polish. I won’t need my medication and I’ll be able to keep my saliva in my mouth outside butcher shops. I’ll be a better person and treat SHE more kindly. Yes, in a town like that I’ll relax and SHE and I can start a business. I’ll mind shoes while SHE will treat people’s corns and ingrown toenails. SHE’ll make a good podiatrist, and I … well, I will do a good job, a very good job, of polishing and cleaning and fixing their shoes.
Arrest Assured was published in Island #!42 magazine. Summer of 2015.