by Michael Botur
It’s 3am when the banging wakes you.
WAMP. Ha ha, zseshty na provnm! THUBthubthub. DOOFT. Aiiie. Grezy prinkfift?
Goddamn this noisy YMCA scumbucket hostel Malvern put you in. God damn having to go to a new job in a few hours and pretend you fit into the straighto world. God damn the laws that say you’re not allowed to kill a one man for fucking up the other man’s sleep.
You’re wearing boxer shorts and skin, but that’s enough. When you were Inside, cats sometimes killed each other naked. You can complete the mish in boxers. You can do anything if you’re mad enough, and these noisy cunts are about to find that out.
Silent hallways. Creeping on the balls of your foot like the lifers taught you. Dim bulbs over every door the brightest things in the city right now. Distant treble from distant clubs. Feelings of wrongness, glass legs, wincing peehole, clenched arse. Sneaking, creeping, fists curling into bludgeons. Flesh gone soft to hard.
You go up a floor on cold concrete fire stairs, find room 307, no that’s not it… 309… 311. There are feathers peeking out the bottom of the door. That Aiiie squeal again. You tap softly on the wood with two fingernails. Since you came out of jail, you’ve done everything softly. Talking slow. Swear words locked in a lobe at the back of your brain. Hands of water. Light ciggies. Limp fist.
You tap more firmly on the door, suck a sore knuckle. Looks like you’ve popped a blister, gnashing your fist in your sleep.
You hear voices whispering some gibberish behind the door, then a slice of wall appears, then a portion of a painting, then a human face. ‘What this is you want, is mornink time?’ The accent is a bit like Borat, the last movie you saw before the ninjas snuck silently into your house and pointed rifles at your head and cuffed you. The face this accent belongs to is whiter than the whitest paedo in the Buttercup unit. A good face to smash. ‘Who you are, you come to my home, you fuck with my party?’
The noisemaker is some kind of Eastern European prince. The room has a sticky, fruity, brewery stench. He’s put his champagne on the radiator and it’s tipped over and spilled and sticky bubbles are still popping and steaming. There are feathers stuck to the wall against a spray of some other kind of liquor. A woman comes up behind him, tits jiggling, nipples bouncing around, huge and free. She slides a bottle of Jose Cuervo out of the way with her lime-painted toes and puts about six hands on her man’s shoulders. They’ve cranked the heating way up but the curtains are flapping in the icy black night.
‘I say, who are these guy?’ the party prince reminds you, ‘You fuck weeth party, I keel you.’ He has gold rings through both nipples and blue eyes sparling like sapphires.
A feather settles on his shoulder. These arseholes have been having a fucking pillowfight. You take one of the breaths Loftus taught you about in the Bougainvillea Room. Loftus was a South African with a thick neck and childish yellow hair, a total hardarse who loved behind-the-scenes punch-ups with inmates in corners where the CCTV couldn’t see. You disagreed with Loftus plenty, and at the end of the day a screw’s a screw, but the man was always wise. Loftus stopped the Hitlers from chucking hot sugar in your eye. Loftus let you get in the ring with Horse – who wanted to get you shanked – and box it out instead. You got knocked out and he stomped your ear til it stopped working, but the beef was squashed and Horse’s crew let it go and you held your sore head in your hands for a week then swore no more latenight cruising with the boys, no more dairies, no more chopping bikes or shotties or rolling dealers. Accounting would be the future, the J-Hos convinced you. Computers. Software. silicon. Last time you saw Loftus, he was squatting beside you during transcendental meditation in Meadow Unit, elbowing you, telling you you had to get Tide-Fills-Lagoon breathing technique right else you wouldn’t be able to handle the aggravation of the outside.
‘So speak, zgendarya provotznye, mother farker. Hm?’ He hefts a chunky green Dom Perignon bottle, folds his arms over his champagne-sticky chest, flexes his little pecs, squits through his teeth, simulating that he’s spitting on your feet.
You smack your lips, pick salt out of your eyes. Anything to delay killing this guy for a few seconds. ‘You understand I’m in the room under you, bro? You understand I’m trying to sleep?’
‘So you are putting pillow over your ear. Anya, kommt!’ His bitch brings him a pillow. He shoves the pillow into your face hard enough to rock you. Instead of falling over, you keep your left foot where it is, swing your right leg back and get into the Orthodox Stance.
Through a drizzle of feathers, the Party Prince begins to look worried. Between four bottles of cognac on the coffee table, there is a laptop screen with a puzzled-looking person on it. Whoever is on Skype falls silent and watches the fight.
‘Listen real good, neighbour. You been makin some real dumb decisions and I’d hate you to make another.’ You lace your fingers and pick a sticky feather off your shoulder. Your fingers are fern fronds, and you are in a dark, quiet forest in the mountains of China with Loftus and pandas and a cool breeze. ‘I come from a place called Hafta. Ever heard of it?’
The Party Prince retreats a little into his room, worried, almost gnawing his hefty bottle for support. His woman has wrapped a blanket around her shoulders and is reaching for the landline to call reception. There might be a murder.
‘Hafta is a place where a lotta cats hafta do a lotta shit. Why? Someone disses your arse from their window as they’re driving past? You hafta get the rego, go to the post shop, track down whose car it is, put a cocktail through his window, burn his family up so there’s just their teeth left. Now, us peeps in Hafta-land haven’t really dealt with FUCKING MIDNIGHT PILLOWFIGHTS BEFORE. Know why I’m not used to midnight pillowfights? Cause I’VE BEEN FUCKING SLEEPING CAUSE toMORROW is my only chance to work a OFFICE job and I HAFTA be FUCKING fresh when I go in in the morning cause I’m a bit FUCKING nervous about starting work tomorrow and if you FUCK UP MY SLEEP ANY MORE, IF, IF ….IF! IIIIIIFFFFF!’ Your fingertip is an inch from his nose. There’s blood under your teeth where you’ve bitten through your lip.
‘You…. You are threaten?’ he whimpers, fingers wriggling up and down the door, unsure if closing it will get him into less or more trouble.
‘Nah, bro. Nahhhhh. I ain’t threatened you. Know why? Cause if I threaten cunts, my arse goes back to jail, so if – IF – I was gonna do something to land my arse back Inside, I wouldn’t just threaten you. I’d hafta go all the way. Nothin to lose, get it? A lag’s a lag. So you’re gonna HAFTA ask yourself whether you want me to go apeshit on your arse or not. Cause this is on you.’
The Party Prince shakes as he tries to pull some Euros out of his Louis Vuitton wallet and shove them at you. You pull the door closed, do a thumbs-up at the security camera, trot back to bed.
This 9 to 5 straighto office job type thingy involves a lotta handshakes. In Educate Straight, you trained how to handle Microsoft Excel 1997, 2003, 2010, Xero, MYOB, Quickbooks, shit even Microsoft Dynamics, but how to shake hands like a straighto? You musta missed that one.
You trail behind Prudence Flaherty-Duff, operations manager, this jiggly old white lady with fake-arse dyed hair who tells you to call her Prue as if that’s any less white than fuckin Prudence. She wears about a thousand bucks of jewellery, strokes the kitchen sink and the door frame and also strokes everyone’s shoulders as she introduces people. The handshakes these straighto office squares give you feel weird, suspect, too rigid and clean. They’re Caucasian handshakes, honky shakes, breadskin shakes, the type of peckerwood shakes you would see on BBC when you were kicking back in your cell watching Downton Abbey. That weird typa handshake that’s low-down and doesn’t make a pleasing SMACK as the palms whack together. How you supposed to trust a man to watch your back if you don’t even press chests? You suppose that’s what this office is all about: people smiling with their faces instead of their hearts. Like the boys always used to say Inside: ain’t nothin more crooked than peeps that call themselves straight.
You’re introduced to Gee Ling in payroll and Zlata from HR and Bruce Kan The Server Man and some bro starting with L who’s the building manager and an old lady who looks like she should be retired who does a young person’s job, those is all the names you can remember, plus the one with the nose and also the assistant manager from Switzerland or Swaziland or something. You don’t or can’t or WON’T remember their names ‘cause the one single name you absolutely gots to remember to not fuck this up is Prudence Flaherty-Duff: Operations Manager.
Prue Flaherty-Duff. Prue Flaherty-Duff. You mutter the name to yourself as she leads you around the office. You memorise a rhyme so her name sinks in: Prue Flaherty-Duff, silvery muff, money and stuff, rich dog goes Ruff.
There’s this black cat, Julius, one of the accountants. He pats your huge shoulders, says ‘Somebody’s been doing his push ups!’ and you flinch, ready to knock him out if the signs tell you he’s eligible. Julius takes his hands off you, laughing. ‘Sorry, sorry, workplace touching and all that. I apologise. Don’t tell the boss! There’s a few snakes around here, yes-sir-ee.’
How come the homeboy’s namedropping the word snakes? He saying you’re a King Cobra? He saying you’re gonna snitch on him for touching you? You gonna have to kill his arse already?
Prue massages your shoulders, melting you down til you can be poured into a leather chair that feels plain wrong. You ask her if you can shuffle your desk a bit, and you drag it so your back’s against the wall and you’ve can see who’s coming at you across the office. She won’t be doing your personal management; this Julius black dude’s supervising you, it turns out. They’ve given you two monitors, as if you can handle two computers at once, which is pretty fucked, but god damn the machines are fast. A million times faster than the big heavy Stonehenge-looking fuckers in the prison library. The internet here doesn’t even have to dial and whistle to get online. You spend your first morning with your face almost touching the screen, trying to add GST to column F – AND IT WON’T FUCKING ADD UP, GOD DAMN IT – and it’s making you fizz inside so much you don’t even notice the tide going out. When you finally push back and roll a smoke and stick it in your mouth and turn to ask a bro for a light, you realise everyone’s desks are empty and there’s a party in the break room.
You tuck a letter opener in the waistband of your paints, sidle up to the break room. You widen your chest, put your Apeshit Face on and sniff around the corner. No one jumps out. They all have their backs to you. Everyone is laughing over steaming mugs of coffee. There’s a platter of bagels in the middle of the table. Edging along the wall you get spotted, and they tell you to take a bagel about eight times before you finally snatch one and retreat.
10.29: back to work. You concentrate on reconciling overpayments, exporting spreadsheets to a couple of people around the corner check over some budgeting. You don’t talk to anyone, don’t let anyone sneak up behind you, don’t take a piss until the sun has burned down low. At 5 everyone wriggles into a coat and says G’night and Prue Flaherty-Duff squeezes your forearm, leans in with her old lady perfume stench and says you can stay here overnight if you like, but she’s going home.
‘Right,’ you tell her, and turn back to the screen, determined to get the Charteris sheets to match up with the schedule of payments you’ve been asked for.
‘Dear boy,’ she says, her words heavier, ‘I’m not asking. You’ve done well. Go home.’
Back up the YMCA, everyone is epic-nice to you. That can only mean they’re scared shitless. That Party Prince fuck must’ve run his mouth. People clear out of the kitchen when you pour steaming water on your pot noodles. Chickypie on reception stands up and bows. The cleaners tiptoe past your room. It doesn’t make you feel like a king. Just makes you feel like you’re back Inside.
May as well jet to work at dawn. You’re used to waking at 4.30, anyway. You catch the 5.30am train, hope to scoff some noodles in peace, but Prue Flaherty-Duff is already there in her office, standing, hunched over her computer monitors, mouth moving. Your flesh freezes. You duck into the shadow beside a bookcase. The old lady’s pacing, doing laps around an old bald white guy in a suit who’s sitting in her chair. She keeps flapping her arms like she’s trying to fly, shouting one minute then laughing, and keeps bending over the cat in the chair to type some shit on her computer screen. Your belly knocks furiously on the door of your torso, demanding to be fed, but you can’t be seen doing anything but work til Lunch so you eat your noodles dry and cold in a toilet stall, washing the sachet of chicken flavour powder down with a palmful of tap water, muttering to yourself in the mirror. Harden the fuck up, bro. You wanted this.
It’s lunch again, suddenly. You shake your head, blink, pinch your eyes. This almost-seven-foot-tall lady from Sudan, with skin so dark it shines blue, jokingly pushes your wheely chair towards the elevator and tells you to G.T.F.O. and you look down and your fist is trembling because she almost didn’t make a joke. You dust off your jacket, put your quivering fist in your jacket pocket. This is office humour, or something. Everyone thinks it’s a big laugh to totally unwind for 30 minutes. Straightos don’t realise how good they’ve got it.
You tell her you can’t eat with her gang. All you have to buy lunch with is one of the supermarket shopping vouchers Malvern hands to you every two weeks. Your metabolism is roaring from doing 1000 push ups overnight. You reluctantly pop out, get a sack of buns and some hot dogs and go back to work within 12 minutes. You sit with the people for another ten and try to keep up while they talk about what brand of line trimmer they’re using on their house. All these words you’ve never had a need of. Mortgage. Practice. Finance. Splurge. You watch your white knuckles, try to unfurl your fingers.
After fourteen days without you crushing any cunts’ cheekbones, Malvern visits the Y. It’s not that he cares about you, necessarily. Malvern just does whatever it takes to keep his bosses happy so his pay comes in every week. He stares at the ceiling, checks the hostel’s fire evacuation plan. Square, yes, straighto, fuck yes. He’s checking you’re not making kiddie porn or running pyramid schemes or pressing pills or photocopying bank notes or some shit. Wearing this thick overcoat like an old-timey private detective, he sticks his hippo nose in the air and sniffs for alcohol and crystal smoke. Malvern was a lawyer for the government in Zimbo before he brought his fat, lazy deskbound arse over here with his nine – NINE! – kids. Malvern learned in the slums of Harare that whatever you get in life is what you deserve. If you don’t want something nasty put in your hands, don’t hold your hands out.
You keep your back against the window; Malvern pulls the door fully open and wedges it. It’s protocol, he explains: his job forbids him from being inside a confined space with a client.
He sees you’ve put up your favourite poster, your only poster. It shows this black cat at the Olympics standing at first place, number one, gold medal, putting a triumphant fist in the sky over this white boy hanging his head down, defeated. That poster, man. You were never really allowed it in your cell so Loftus showed you how to hang a spare shirt over it, so it was still there, still part of your world, but the screws couldn’t see it.
‘Thees ees allowed?’ he asks.
‘What’s allowed? Putting a poster up? Or standing up against white cunts?’
Malvern snorts. He’s a brother, but not a brother-brother like you. You chuck the jug on to boil, tell him how work’s going, how most of the cats are pretty chill, how being a straighto is all about discussing what was on the breakfast news, jogging and rowing machines, fat-free muffins, signing cards for cats’ birthday kids and pouring filter coffee into a mug with a kitten on it wearing a tie. You tell him how your first pay was more money than you ever earned standing over clueless drug dealers from Somalia. You don’t tell him something that’s bugging you is you might have to smack some respect into Julius if he keeps asking you each morning at 10 what kind of coffee you want him to get you. Motherfucker’s wearing a wire, you’re half-certain. Who makes small talk about coffee? Plus Julius is bigger than you. Real good pecs on him. It pisses you off.
And a deeper truth that that: Julius’s eyes looked sad when he told you the company policy about rounding up the cost of services. There are three figure round-ups, four figure and five. If a client’s about to get a bill for six hundred, make it a nice even nine-fifty and they’ll be glad it’s under a grand, Julius explains, touching your cubicle divider for support, looking away with shame. $7260? You’re supposed to round it up to an even seven-five. These are dollars people would kill for on the outside. People are savage here in the straighto world. People fuck you over then thank you for your business.
You move onto Prue. That woman, some days you want to toss her salad you’re so grateful for the job. Other days you’re positive she’s about to fire your arse. You tremble with your brow against the glowing monitor trying to get the numbers perfect on every invoice and half the time she gets a big fat red marker pen and circles the total amount you’re billing clients and she’ll write shit on the printout like ‘Insufficient’ or ‘Under budget’ or ‘Try again.’
Your fingers wobble as you tear open a packet of Szechuan prawn, one of your top five favourite flavours of noodles, and pour the water in.
Malvern takes a step back as you hand him the steaming mug of noodles. ‘Relax, homie – I’m not gonna boil ya. Chill.”
Malvern takes off his coat, folds it neatly in his lap, and dusts off an iPad so thin and new you first think you’re mistaken in glimpsing it. ‘I’m just getting your notes up. I’ve been in touch with the directors at work.’
‘So how many peeps know I’m an ex-con? Don’t bullshit me, Malvern.’
He sighs deeply, sits on your bed without asking permission, pouts and points his droopy eyes and cheeks at you.
‘You have complete all the train course requirement, yes-no?’
‘Yeah. Yeah I fuckin’ have.’
‘And you dissarve thees job, yes-no?’
‘Hundred per cent.’
‘I have check. Prue, she liking you very much so. She say you charge de client too little.’
‘But my numbers add up!’ You punch your palm. ‘Like, I mean, I got told off ‘cause I applied the relevant Inland Revenue refunds back to them instead of us, the registered agent, okay. So we round up the price and get our quarterly fuckin rebates and shit, and those rebates compose 60 per cent of company profit. I thought these cats was sposda be straight. They’re the ones oughta be in jail. Okay. I get it. But fuck, man.’
‘If you get it, then don’t get yourself fired. If manager want the figure round charge client more, then round charge client more.’
‘I don’t like that.’
‘You think normal make like hees job? You think I like thees job?’
You push your noodles aside and throw your limp hands up in the air.
‘It’s just, like, she rounds just about EVERY number – decimals, thousands, hundred of thousands… That’s some cartel shit right there. That’s Pablo Escobar.’
You rant at Malvern for 12 minutes – that is until he checks his watch and announces he must depart, in them exact queer words. Finally you apologise. ‘Sorry, Malv. You’re the only one who knows my shit, is all.’
Malvern presses two last pages on his iPad then locks it, stands up, pulls his coat over his huge belly and prepares to leave.
‘There is job I have come into email today. Cleaner. You want to be a cleaner?’
He waddles to the elevator and leaves.
You have to get in early with just the potplants and birds and moon so you can use this thing called Google to search for answers to the questions you’re too embarrassed to ask the other cats, like how to make a pull-out slice from the pie chart, and when you should use Xero Partner Edition, and what are the six steps of project implementation.
The fire stairs are supposed to be quietly yours as you arrive, but this morning when you walk onto the cream carpet, Prue presses a keypad that locks the fire escape behind you.
‘A moment of your time.’
You follow her wobbling arse in the miniskirt she doesn’t deserve, huge 60 year old legs forced into pumps that make her taller than you, pearl necklace, suitjacket, hairdo so sharp it looks like it’d give you papercuts.
‘How do you think our investors are going to like it if I present to them $483,000 income from Zefferson Truebridge instead of $488,000? Because that difference in profitability, my friend, comes from you. From you not looking for opportunities to make the most of this extreeeemly generous opportunity you’ve been given.’
The stairs are calling you, but you’re terrified. This is Horse in the boxing ring. Loftus whapping your fingers with his stick. Gangstas calling your name at night.
Emergency plan: make small talk. Get her on side. ‘How’s your six dogs? Like, you got six poodles eh?’
‘Seven,’ she goes.
All you can do is gulp as she pushes open the doors of the Board Room. God they musta snuck in early. Something huge has gotta be up. Inside are the board room is a circle of directors standing around a desk made of clear plastic. They’re each flipping through an iPad with tight, cruel unimpressed little beaks.
Okay. Whew. Wipe sweaty hands on pants; flex pecs; shiver; follow the boss’s wide wobbling varicose veined thighs.
The board is mostly Indian and Chinese women, far as you can tell, plus one kinda bony cheeked Elon Musk-looking dude who’s had that plastic surgery shit they talk about on TV, it’s obvious from his perfect throat, and the cat’s only about 24 years old. Fuck kinda board is this? Half of them are wearing distressed designer jeans with pointless zips sewn into the legs.
‘Your timing is truly serendipitous,’ Prue says. ‘We’re on page 48. Of the investor report for this quarter. You look confused. D’you need me to explain what a page is?’
They’re all giving you the soft pity look you would give a toddler that drops his juice.
‘We were hoping for a better result this quarter,’ a woman in a purple headscarf explains. She looks like she’s some killer spy-bitch out of a James Bond movie but her accent is local. Shit’s changed since you went Inside. Races are different. They locked you up then went about the world quickly replacing everybody.
‘So it’s him?’ Headscarf says, tilting her head towards you, ‘Items nine and ten – that’s his work?’
Headscarf slides you an iPad so you can read the pages that are disappointing them so much. Your body remembers to crouch so you can spot the attack coming up. You retreat, eyeing the board, and crouch against the wall. God you wish Loftus were here to tell you what to do. Nobody in this room could take you in a fight, but they have the power right now to rip out your mana and slice it up like sashimi. They wait in silence while you study these circle graph-things you remember the Jehovah Witnesses in jail taught you were called Pie Graphs, cause they look like little pies with slices taken out.
A slice with an 8% label on it says ‘Revenue opportunity lost – 8.32%’ and then some words you mutter out loud.
‘… Human error,’ you go. ‘A’ight, so… like, I can bill, like, you know, bill eight peeps one percent extra each to make up the money and shit? Or, like, am I fired and stuff?’
‘Everybody, is our man fired?’
People in the board shake their heads and give you more smiles. It’s all smiles with these fuckin jackals. Headscarf even tiptoes across the room, squeezes your shoulder, and retreats back to the roundtable.
‘So long as you responsibly attribute the LOFs on each invoice with your own name, nobody’s firing anybody.’
‘What’s L-O- ?’
‘Lost opportunity fee. We have investors to answer to,’ says a tired-looking Indian cat with frosted yellow streaks in his hair. He doesn’t even look at you as he speaks. His hands are cupped in front of his face as if he’s been crying or praying.
‘So 8.32 per cent to make up, a’ight. And put my name on it. I got ya.’
‘YOU DO NOT SEEM TO HAVE – AS YOU PUT IT – “GOT IT”,’ Prue thunders. She throws each of her hands out to the sides. ‘8.32 per cent was LAST. QUARTER. This is a NEW. QUARTER. Are you really quite this facile all the time or have you been practising? YOU. WILL. PUT. YOUR. NAME. ON. EVERY. INVOICE.’
It’s hard to rise. Bodies made of stone are heavy. On your feet, you hover around the door, half-in this world, half-out.
You can’t take it any more. you charge at them with your fist out and find yourself shaking everyone’s hands, one at a time, going around the board, and thanking them, and letting their firm grip crush your limp fist.
You once got the strap of your overalls caught in the cogs of a laundry press that squashed bedsheets as flat as stamps. The screws wouldn’t stop the machine until it had released the sheet caught in the same place as you. You had to inch along the lino floor, squinting in case you saw your own skin spat out like ticker tape. You shuffled three feet along the ground before your strap was released by 12 different cogs. The screws could have smashed the machine, unplugged it, cut your strap, jammed it, damned the sheets. You tried to pull the strap out and it nearly sucked your fingers in. Lesson: when you’re stuck in shit, accept it and wait til the shit moves on from you. Be grateful it’s not worse.
Other lesson: people that depend on the machine will never break the machine to free someone trapped in the machine.
A machine that flattens. That’s what this job is. That’s where you are in this world, you and Julius and his perfect shiny black preschool daughter with her pigtails and her joy cause Daddy gets to knock off work at 4.30 on a Friday and take her to McDonalds and spend pay he’s bilked from some sucker. In the flattening machine, Worker of the Week gets given a crown and a sceptre and carried on everybody’s shoulders into the Duke of Dinsdale for tequilas and bubbling ciders. Everybody blows most of their pay packet. You try to sip ice water but when it comes to your round, you know you have to spend. Never question the machine.
Malvern has the authority to release you from the machine, he tells you, except he doesn’t call it a machine. He can’t see it for what it is.
“Hostel residents are moving out because they are scared of you,” Malvern explains. ‘Ees time you are getting your own place.’
Malvern reaches across the table and shakes your four fingers, palm and thumb. ‘You should be proud of yourself, moving on up,’ he says, jiggling a limp fist that doesn’t even feel like part of you.
‘It is time to start you are packing.’
Malvern turns to stare at the poster of the black cat with his fist in the air, standing above the white man. Something that’s always bothered you is the way the black cat’s got gold on him. The fist can stay but he shouldn’ta done it for the gold.
You grasp the edges of the poster and tear it down.