Short story by Michael Botur
We’re on the bourbons out where the river bleeds into the ocean having a maaass piss-up. It’s a Saturday night Cigarette Party and me and my best bud Benny Kalynchuk are selling cigs for ten bucks a pack and bro: you wouldn’t belieeeve the stacks we’re making. It’s black and cold and windy as fuck but who gives a shit. A piss-up’s a piss-up. The yellow flames of our bonfire stretch like spikes reaching out to spear the people from school that’ve showed up, each of them with a little rolled-up fifty in their hand and a hoodie with a decent pouch to hold their smokes.
I try to wrap my arm around Benny so we can chant that song we made up about the rammy we done last month to get the cigs but he grabs my wrist and flips me into the sand and kneels on my chest. Fuck Benny’s schizo sometimes. He has his sunglasses on, as if that’s gonna stop people from knowing he’s tweaking. We got 358 packs of ciggies when we crashed into the Mobil – fuck it was a blast counting those bad boys – but since half our stock’s gone already it’s time we raided another gassie. I’m tryina tell the bro I wanna work with him again cause he’s a natural but he’s wayyy agitated. Benny gets distracted cause he spots Ogre pulling up and he’s got some beef with Ogre so he sniffs and forgets he attacked me and gets off my chest and strides away, barging through a group of people like he’s so high he doesn’t even spot them. I want to yell at Benny to keep a lid on things cause he’s a wanted man, not to piss off anyone that’ll squeal and tell the cops where he is, but Benny’s already away, picking up a flaming stick. He’ll be lucky if the Armed Offenders Squad hasn’t got him by the morning.
First thing I see as I get up and dust the sand off is little Cathy Kalynchuk, with her hair pulled back in pigtails so tight they make her skull and eyes poke out. She’s a pixie, little Cathy is, darting in the dark behind the flames, pretending to gasbag with her girls but really she can’t stop staring at me. I’m the most average-size dude you’ll ever meet, heaps of people have given us hidings over the years, but I guess from Cathy’s perspective I’m like a big deal or something. It was when she was 11 and I was 15 that the glances started, the secret smirk, the pink cheeks, the way she’d suddenly slam her bedroom door as you walked though Mrs Kalynchuk’s house then she’d open it straight away and bury her face under her eyelashes if I looked back. I know Cathy wants to trade her purity for my dirty so we can each taste each other’s world but a man doesn’t do the dirty with his best bro’s sis. Well, not if anyone’s looking. On the sly is all good.
I shoot a quick voddy into my throat and we trudge through the dunes into the pine forest, black as a building. The beats and treble and vocals fade and the firelight turns orange, then brown, then we stand amongst the tall cold columns, shiny wet wood. Little bits of bonfire dance in her crystal eyes. First she nips my neck, then nibbles, then I’m scoffing her face, eating the skin off her chin. We can’t keep our lips off each other’s flesh for more than a second. We’ve been on mute for years and suddenly the volume’s cranked up. We pour into a bed of pine needles. I wriggle into her and she shakes and bites her knuckle. There’s wayyy more pashing than any other chick I’ve rooted. Afterwards I roll over and pretend to sleep. I’m so drunk, I want to cry. I’m a fucking idiot. She rubs my back and I tell her she’d better go and hang with her brother. Keep an eye out for cops with cuffs.
When I wake up, embers are hissing in the grey rain and there’s only a couple of emo losers left. They tell me I missed some maaaassive drama ’round sunup. The cops came out all this way and Benny knocked out this massive black cunt then they tazed him and tackled him in the ocean. I shoulda seen it.
That’s big news, that’s serious shit, no doubt, but way more serious is where the fuck is Cathy? Cause we didn’t use protection and she could be telling anyone right now, and you’d think my timing’s amazing and I haven’t had handcuffs put on me, but if you look at the thing with Cathy, I’m cuffed as fuck.
Mrs Kalynchuk smokes so much that she’s crazy-thin, like with zero tits and yellow fingers, and I’ve never seen her eat, but she makes this epic lasagne that – no shit – has actual pumpkin literally in it, like the world’s grossest vegetable somehow converted into deliciousness. Ever since I was like in primmers, Mrs Kalynchuk’s been like a second mum, just chilling at the dinner table smoking, enjoying the fact that there’s a male enjoying her cooking. That part’s good, I can eat lasagne and bring some balls to the table, but when the lasagne runs out, it’s Mrs Kalynchuk and Benny’s little sister at the table and they’re both studying me as I scoff my cheesy pumpkin and glug my milk and once the pan’s had all the cheese scraped out, we have to talk about how come Benny’s locked up and not me.
I keep saying how sorry I am Benny caught a lag and not me but Benny’s mum keeps trying to make out like it’s all good, busting out these little philosophies like “I guess it’s karma for the dharma” and other hippie shit she picked up back in the Seventies when she moved a lot of acid from India. Cathy doesn’t say anything at the table. She speaks with her body. She listens with her eyes. I feel her toes on my ankles. We wash the dishes together and she thanks me with a peck on the cheek. Soon as her mum’s got Antiques Roadshow on the TV and her glass of Southern Comfort and her cigs, Cathy tugs me into the laundry and we go at it, humping on the washing machine, no time for condoms, afraid to miss a single second. Our mouths are pulled together with elastic. We can only separate our tongues for a second before they’re slurping and wrestling again. Cathy sends electric shocks through my blood. The washing machine shudders and spins at 100 miles an hour and I throw my head back as the floodgates open and chemicals smash through me. Cathy sniggers a little. She’s so much tinier and weaker, yet she’s the one controlling my body like a puppet. She puts gentle butterfly kisses on my howling throat as I stammer, like There, there. Cathy is a maid, cleaning up the emotions I can’t stop spilling around her.
The biggest thing in my life right now is supposed to be Court, with my Legalaid tellin me I’m lookin at six months jail or some biiig, big hours of community service, but the second biggest thing, a real close second that I can’t even fess up to is how I’ve gone absolutely mental for a girl I used to chase around the backyard with a jar full of wasps, shaking it up, hunting her til I trapped her in the woodshed, approaching slowly, watching her chest puff, the fearful O of her lips. Right now, though, it’s me that’s afraid of what’s approaching, cause there’s guaranteed to be a baby in her.
Cathy will do anything I ask her. It’s not cause I’ve strongarmed her or nothin. She’s just a maid, a servant. Devoted. Completely selfless – so selfless that she puts a towel over her head when she’s puking to muffle the sound so my sleep isn’t interrupted, even though it’s her house I’m sleeping at, in her brother’s bed, cause we haven’t had The Conversation with Mrs Kalynchuk yet.
Half the time she goes out with no makeup and just trackpants on, cause all she thinks about is how can she give someone a lift, how can she buy them lunch, how can she iron my Court Shirt for me. Me and Benny used to lol about how all we need in life is a good bangmaid, bangmaid this, bangmaid that, clinking our bottles, but when you’ve got a girl who’ll actually worship you, it feels way wrong to use her.
I get my Korean legalaid lady to ask the court for a non-custodial sentence and I stand in the dock with my heart jackhammering the way it does whenever me and Cath get five minutes alone. I’ve gone to the effort of wearing the court shirt and even blacking my shoes – well, getting Cathy to – and the judge is surprisingly a good cunt. My legalaid tells the judge me and Cathy are looking at starting a family and it’s like, Bro, cringe. But the picture we’ve painted of me and Cathy lasting forever actually does the tick and I get 300 hours community service instead of jail. 30 times 10 hour days? I guess that’s alright.
I have to do supervision which means I have to live with Straightos, long story short, I have to keep living with Cathy’s mum and rada rada rada. Stuff’s different now that it’s an order instead of a choice and the Kalynchuk’s place starts to feel like jail as soon as I get back there. Shackles, cuffs and walls. The whole trifecta. I have to go out back for a sesh and Cathy follows me out with a cup of tea and I’m like Cath, honest: just let me have ten minutes on my own.
She waddles away and I study her body. Her bum’s filled out a tiny bit. Her stride is getting wide and slow. I scroll through my contacts but I don’t know who to bitch to. There’s a rumour goin round that I sold out my mate just so I could root his sister so I barely have anyone on my phone that’d actually want to hear from me, plus I got this letter from Probation with a list of people I’m not allowed to talk to. They’ve given me a job at Hilton Fasteners where I’ll be doing 7.30 to 4 o’clock five days a week, then on Saturdays I have to do PD, and that’s my life sussed for the next nine months. Working for minimum wage. Working for nothing. Working for some tadpole in Cathy’s belly.
I get a good stone on, twice as much as I need, really, cause I’m a bit worried about how this year will go for me. I make it to the couch and plop down and the couch creaks. It hasn’t had a man on it for a while, I guess. Cathy lies with her head in my lap. I stroke her arm and she purrs.
Mrs Kalynchuk’s fingers search her sidetable for her ciggies, she remembers she’s on the patch, and puts alcohol in her mouth instead. She’ll be going through a lot of pain without ciggies but she’s trying real hard to give this baby a good start in life. There’s even a package from Benny on the coffee table, on top of a pile of Baycorp notices, and Cathy-the-log reaches out and hands it up to me. She says it’s from my brother in law and I’m thinking, Lady, don’t mention marriage. Don’t say Benny’s my brother, like as if what I done was twice as bad cause he’s not just a mate, he’s a brother. And don’t say law.
I tear open the package. Benny’s excited about his little nephew, or niece. Benny’s been learning to knit in jail and he’s sent some tiny little baby booties.
I toss it all on the floor – the envelope, the booties, the letter – and lift Cathy off my lap way rougher than I need to.
‘You’re not supposed to be goin any- ’ Mrs Kalynchuk starts saying to me, but I’m already out the door with Cathy’s car keys and I drive and drive and drive, hills to swamp to lake to coast, no bros left to visit, I drive til I pass midnight. In the morning I’m supposed to be starting 300 hours of PD so I may as well drive to the Community Probation Centre, sleep outside, give up my Saturdays, be ready for the chaingang starting eight hours from now.
This lady with a tough voice but a nice face is knocking on the dewy window and asking if I’m alive. The early morning light is shining through her wavy hair and I stare at her for a moment too long before I realise she’s a screw, a Corrections person. Probation. A pig.
I root around for my ciggies, tumble out of my car – well, Cath’s car – and step out of the car, stretching and yawning and trying to find my lighter. The Corrections lady looks like a surfer dude, mummified in the sun, her blonde hair scorched dark, eyes blue as the ocean, skin creased and crinkled like a brown leather jacket. She has a rough smoker voice and big shoulders and a wide, flat chest.
I still can’t find my lighter and Rachael pats me down armpits to crotch before she turns me around and finds the lighter caught in the hood behind my head.
‘No place to go?’ she asks, lighting her smoke before mine.
‘Fuck off, I got a place,’ I insist, ‘I mean, like – just it sucks at home at the moment.’
She licks a finger, wipes something off my cheek. ‘Have a shower here, if you like. I won’t watch, I promise.’
She’s quite friendly, but it only takes her about two sentences to make it clear she’s in charge and I need to not swear in front of her and smoke downwind. Turns out she’s a Supervisor-manager and her name’s Rachael. I walk with her up to the warehouse to join the queue of boys getting assigned to vans to head out for the day’s work. My stomach’s growling as I get in line. Rachael leaves me to do a circuit of the 40 or 50 dudes standing in neat rows. She tells one dude to take his cap off, another dude to put his bandana in his pocket. There’s this real crusty-looking Hells Angel dude who won’t his patch off and I reckon our Rachael’s pretty savvy cause she just hands him some overalls so he can cover the patch up so he doesn’t lose face. She moves over to this big goon with a metre of dreadlocks who’s got Bull tattooed on one cheek and Dawg tattooed on the other cheek and she asks him if he’s gonna hand “it” over like a good boy or if she’s going to have to take it from him. Mr Mongrel Mob can’t think of something to say so he just shakes his head and whistles and gives her a bro-handshake out of respect. Turns out “it” was a sharpened screwdriver stashed down his gumboot that no one else would’ve even spotted. This Rachael lady, damn. She’s O.G..
We hop on a van and go and shovel mud out of the drainage ditch along the edge of this hockey pitch out in the wops for an hour. An hour’s all a man’s obliged to do on any day of PD, really. Rest of the time, peeps play cards while the supervisor listens to cricket on the van radio.
The day goes from morning dew to a boiling sun that stabs through a thin winter sky and cooks us all. It feels nice out here, and although my weeks are long – moving pallets stacked with screws on a forklift – I do my PD again the Saturday after, and the Saturday after that. I find myself looking forward to it One because I get to see Wrinkled Leather Surfer Babe Rachael, with the soft eyes in the tough body, and Two because even though I’m in a house with Cathy, I don’t want it to feel like home. It’s Benny’s home, not mine. Ain’t nothin gangsta about being comfortable.
I’ve done 100 hours across ten Saturdays and made some decent mates and got my arms tanned and muscly when Rachael’s hard wrenches the scruff of my neck.
‘Why don’t you work with me today,’ she goes, and leads me into her office.
She parks me on the far side of her desk. She’s a principal, I’m a naughty kid. After about ten minutes of nothing I throw up my hands and go, ‘Um, like hello? Does this count towards my hours or…. ?’
‘Oh,’ she says, pouting with fake disappointment and pretending there’s something interesting on her computer monitor, ‘You don’t want to spend time with me. I thought you were different.’
‘I am different.’
‘Then you’ll give me one of those cigarettes, won’t you, Mister Different.’
My smokes are inside a zippered compartment deep within the pouch of my hoodie. Lady must have x-ray vision. Or she’s just trained herself to stay ahead of dudes.
There’s a place in the shed full of wagons and leaf rakes where the CCTV cameras can’t reach us. In our private pocket I share nine cigarettes with Rachael, who’s got a throaty laugh that keeps making her cough into her elbow. There’s some kind of child in her, which kind of makes sense, seeing as her son’s left home and she’s got a big house and big car and boat all to herself, and no man to get in the way. She says I should totally come check her place out which I think is a weird thing to say, and I tell her I would except my weeks are craaaazy busy, what with working 42.5 hours then PD then our so-called Family Day on Sunday.
‘Go on,’ she says, ‘This is on the clock. I’ll be your counsellor.’
We lie back in a trailer with a rolled-up tarp under her heads. I tell her how Cathy smiles at me every single Sunday til I turn the wrestling off, even when it’s a real gripping triple threat match, and walk us down to the park where we skim stones in the pond and read baby names off Cathy’s phone.
‘Who’s Cathy?’ she asks, and when I tell her Cathy’s my missus, Rachael sits up and checks her watch and tuts.
‘Back to work, mate.’ She orders me to drive out to where the PD crew are and catch up on hours.
‘I thought you were different,’ Rachael goes, locking herself inside her office, like she wanted something from me that I’ve failed to give her.
She wants a man, Rachael does. A young man she can stand over and outwit. A man with cheekbones and abs and the stamina to fuck over ten minutes.
She doesn’t say it in words. She says it with a bucket of chicken we eat in the car park, and wine that she pours into our KFC cup, and a girly movie that makes her cry. She says it as she’s dropping me around the corner from Cathy’s place, reclining the seat of her Range Rover, lying back and hiking her skirt up. It’s up to me to climb on top of her. She can tell everyone I was the instigator.
I could tell the boys that a cougar’s pounced on me but this thing with Rachael, it’s yucky and secret and even though I admire her for being staunch, it’s like I’ve got bugs all over my skin when I’m with her. Second time we sneak out to dinner, the waiter is my age and he’s got the same skull tattoo as me on his forearm and as he sets down our steaks, smiling, I can tell he’s impressed I’ve taken my mum out for dinner.
My PD hours are getting ticked off, Rachael assures me, but each Saturday feels like I’m walking on a glass floor and if I look down I might drop into the abyss. Cathy has been insisting on dropping me at PD but now that her tummy’s so big it presses against the steering wheel it’s a good excuse to tell her she needs to stay home and let me do my hours alone. I’m knackered by Friday afternoon from lifting 20 kilo buckets of nails but I’ve always just got a little bit of energy to show up to PD on a Saturday. Rachael – who likes to pull me into the handicap toilets and kiss from my nipples down to my tummy and beyond – would probably smash Cathy if she saw her. Rachael’s pent-up real tight and she threatens me, once, with the Mongrel Mob shank she’s been keeping in her top drawer for some reason. Just go for it, I want to shout. Stick me and let me bleed out and I won’t have sore guts from stress any more. Benny’s getting paroled in three and a half months – the same time Cathy’s due to have our baby – and I just want to not be in the way of everybody. It’s easy to fantasise now that I’m hardly ever home. Rachael’s always dragging me off to places. I’m telling Cathy that I’m doing extra hours of slave labour on the side and it’s sort-of true.
Rachael has a bach on the coast, with a jetski you can launch from her boat, plus meeeean fishing rods, and she takes me there one Saturday while all the other boys are out digging a storm drain. We hoon out about 500 metres offshore and she takes my arms and wraps them around her and takes a selfie of us and even from out here, bobbing and rocking, I can see her place winking at us in the sun. The boat. The bach. The six burner barbecue. All my hours ticked off. No baby. No game shows. No bangmaid. No shitty car. No vomiting. She’s offering me a life with her, and all I have to do is not trip up on a little bit of sentimentality I’ve got for some little girl that reckons she loves me.
Should be a piece of piss, bro. Easy peasy. Just don’t fuck this up.
I smoke a jay on a pile of overalls in a cupboard while Rachael draws pictures on my skin with her fingertip. Her small, square boobs are pressed against my shoulder. She has soft fingers for a hard woman. From her drawer of confiscated merch, Rachael has brought us a gold roach clip, pipes of elegant blue glass, a foil of weed and a nice bong. She’s not allowed to smoke weed cause she gets her urine tested all the time, but she holds the lighter for me while I smoke the stress away til I’m as floppy as a baby.
I feel bad about how I’m getting through my hours. I know I’m gonna get my arse kicked by the boys soon enough. Judging by their little comments and winks, they must know I’ve been rooting a screw, and considering just talking polite to a screw is punishable offence, I’m counting down the days til I get jumped. I wish I could tell my best bro Benny, or at least Cathy. It’s a triple threat match, the way these people are crushing me. They’re squeezing me from three sides and all I can do is look directly up at God and hope he’ll lift me out.
Rachael starts telling this ten minute story about how her man left her when she was real young and she went lesbo for a few years then swung back the other way, and everyone in her life used to give her instructions on how to raise her kid til finally she told everyone to fuck off when she hit 35, grew real staunch, raised her kid with no man and no nana and now that her son’s left home to go be a chef at this ski resort, Rachael’s free to explore the naughty 40s. She’s telling me she’s in her prime and looking expectantly at me, like I’m supposed to say encouraging stuff.
I ask her if she realises she’s twice my age, plus four years and she laughs and says Of course. ‘I know you inside-out, boy,’ she says. Rachael quotes my date of birth, my star sign, the fucking hospital I was born at. She has read my file front to back, she tells me. She knew I was special.
She wriggles on top of me and gets ready to go again. I look at the time on my phone. Cathy’s picking me up in four hours, Cathy who has to recline the seat to fit behind the steering wheel. Cathy almost driving lying down. Cathy who arrives at the end of the day and is shy around the screws but so desperate to use the toilet that she opens the nearest door, finds it’s a closet with condom wrappers on a pile of overalls.
Rachael slams the door shut, points down the corridor and barks at Cathy, ‘DOES THIS LOOK LIKE THE TOILET TO YOU?’
Cold, stiff and robotic, she turns at me with a disgusted look.
‘You’re going the wrong way,’ she growls as Cathy skulks along to the correct door.
Going the wrong way, Rach. Yeah. Sounds about right.
I’m supposed to love these Saturdays but I’m still chained up. A man can run in chains, but he’s still cuffed as fuck.
Rachael takes me to this swank pool party up in the hills where pretty much the entire place is made of glass so the ocean views are endless. She drives me there and we listen to her music – country western shit where the singer’s moaning about breakups. After 30 minutes of on a polished marble floor sucking prawn cocktails and these little bits of veal and kiwifruit held together with toothpicks, she tells me to jump in the passenger seat of a golf cart and we tootle down the hill then park up beside these two couples dressed all in white, smoking cigarillos. Good thing I wore my bestest white hoodie.
Rachael orders me to light her a smoke and introduces me round. ‘This is the boy I was telling you about,’ she explains, and they all say ‘Ahhh’ and give me warm, thick handshakes with toothy smiles. One’s a dentist, one’s a director – he doesn’t say of what – and I don’t even know what the other people are. Sharecroppers or stockholders or some word like that. Somebody whistles and Rachael throws her hands up with delight then heads over to this trio of women and they all embrace.
I can’t think of any conversation but luckily the people-in-white do the talking. ‘You’re doing a wonderful thing for that girl,’ says an old white dude with a warm, sunburned scalp.
‘She’s been looking for someone like you for ages,’ a dude in a white top hat says, checking cellphones in each hand and hardly looking up. ‘Someone who’ll stick around.’
‘A patient man,’ says the first bloke, with a wink.
‘Guess I’m a stickler.’ That’s my voice, I’m surprised to realise. I’ve embarrassed myself. ‘Scuse me, boys.’
I have to wade through a lake full of lily pads and eels then battle through a minefield of bulrushes before I hit the road and thumb a lift home. It’s a 90 minute ride and I stare down at my ruined hoodie, soaked the colour of shit.
When I get in, Cathy’s fallen asleep on a stack of undies and socks she’s been ironing for me. The pleats are perfect.
I don’t give a fuck if the baby’s due any day now. Today is Saturday, it’s my last day, my final hours, and I’ve told Rachael I’m not spending it with her. I don’t have to be a slave to Rachael’s pussy power. I have my orange overalls on and a spade over my shoulder. I am one of the boys.
We’ve do our mandatory 29 minutes, rounded up to 30, rounded to 60, then it’s time to build a bivouac and have smoko. I’m struggling already, unsure how to get my mind to accept a 10 hour day. I’ve drifted away from normal-people conversation and it’s hard to catch up on the talk of cars, hip hop, poontang and hidings. Kimbo Slice died, apparently; the Kiwis beat the Kangaroos, somehow. I’ve missed big icebergs of information. There are a couple of jokes about me and I start to think one of the icebergs is me. We pass a tiny wrinkled joint around the circle. They ask about the girl I got back home, puking and waddling and touching her lower back and wincing, and always pissing, and I look at them hopelessly.
‘But I never told you guys about Cath?’
‘Sall good,’ the big mobster goes, ‘Benny told us what’s been goin down.’
‘But he’s not out?’
‘You sure about that, G?’
They want to know about her. I don’t tell them how she never complains. I don’t mention my ironed handkerchiefs, pressed into perfect geometric triangles to show she loves me.
The other boys must see the thoughts leaking out my ears cause the sky goes shady, then fully black, and I stumble backwards til I trip into the ditch. They’re all standing over me, crowding out the sky.
‘Got any other bitches on the go?’ the goons and gremlins ask me, tittering and elbowing each other. I’ve been rooting a screw to get easy hours. Walking on glass. This is it. I knew my beats was gonna come.
I close my eyes. I don’t wanna watch the hiding hit.
Mister Mongrel Mob with his grey skin and dreadlock helmet holds a tool in front of my throat. It’s a big nail that’s been forced through a piece of wood then rubbed flat and sharp on the concrete. I try not to gulp because it makes my Adam’s apple rise up to where the point of the blade is. At last the big fella gives me sincere, flat, concerned eyebrows. ‘Bro: go to your missus. Now. Today. And put a ring on her before the baby comes out, for fuck’s sake.’
But I don’t need to go to my missus. Benny’s told her where to find me and she’s driven out to our worksite and she’s hovering in the car park, bare feet and belly and a smile as if her bliss beats the bullshit, and when I hop in the car, heavy with worry, the car sinks, and five little toes kick towards me, and Cathy says ‘Oh!’ and pats her belly.
‘How was work?’ she asks.
‘Never mind,’ I tell her, ‘Oi – Cash Converters over near the motorway. Stop in there. They do jewellery, right?’