Short story by Michael Botur

The Hiding

 

1

You’re at the intersection where it points north, thinking about how the Dutch have zero traffic lights and it’s entirely roundabouts and it’s so smooth and harmless and no crashes ever occur when your steering wheel headbutts you and your dashboard rears back for another assault and you’re rolling forward into the tulips in the centre of the doughnut and you’re ripping the handbrake up and running to the back of the car to check if Livvy’s okay in her black plastic shell and you can see a big cocky white Jeep backing away and the driver, a man with tattoos on his neck and a gold chain with a dollar sign, a man who looks about 24, 25, same age as you, actually, he could be a companion in another dimension, he’s about to drive away until you tell Livvy you’ll be right back and step in front of the Jeep waving your arms like you’re putting out a fire and bellow STOOOOOP.

‘You hit us! What the hell? I have a kid in the back.’

‘Shouldn’ta stopped so quick, lady.’

He’s chewing and staring ahead. The rear of your car is half in the roundabout flowers, half on the road. You are blocking his way.

‘I was – I don’t know my directions very– my husband moved us here cause his company’s – look I’m sorry if I did, I mean I just… Hang on. It’s a give way sign. You’re supposed to stop.’

Jeep Man is a brown jaw with black sprinkles and some teeth and fingers in the middle of a black cap and big white metal cube. Behind his black tinted windows he’s armoured in a thick white cotton Nike jersey. Thick sunglasses. A head that doesn’t want to look at you.

‘You’re sposda just slow down at Give Ways so peeps don’t rear-end ya.’

‘But I have a baby in the back.’

‘Yeah yeah. Heard you the first time.’

‘DON’T YOU HAVE KIDS?’

‘Listen, I gotta jet. Got clients to see. Back in ya car, already.’ He thumps his horn twice.

‘I’m pretty sure we need to swap, um, swap details, I mean –

‘So you lost a coupla chips off your bumper. Get yaself a can of spraypaint from Mitre 10, problem solved.’

‘But – but I mean, don’t you need to hop out and, um, like check for dents?’

‘Did I stutter? You gonna move or what?’

You ask Livvy for her patience, give your little girl a quick thousand kisses, promise you’ll make this horrible incident up to her, get back in your car and reverse. There must be ten, twelve cars waiting patiently at each mouth of the roundabout. You’re holding everybody up. A few hours into the day and already you’ve fucked up. Typical.

You drive thirty metres north, find a spot to pull over, race to the back seat to inspect Livvy.

Jeep Man follows, slowing as he passes you. He winds down the black passenger window. You duck as he aims a dark gunbarrel. It’s the man’s pursed lips. He’s blowing you a kiss as he tosses a business card out the window. Stiff charcoal card. Gold letters.

CuzzyCutz. 12 John St. Get 5 haircutz 6 is free. @Cuzzycutz

On the back are empty squares you can have stamped or clipped before claiming your bonus haircut.

Livvy’s face is the pale yellow of wet bone and she’s saying she needs a ambliance, squeezing SuckyDucky’s neck. You pay for an hour in the underground car park beneath the bank, drive into the furthest, darkest corner. Your face stretches. Livvy begs Mummy to stop crying, be smiley, mum-mum. You sniff your face dry and drive to the Emergency Department.

*

Anton is giving you and Livvy his updates through the Apple MacBook positioned at the head of the table. A finger of steam curls into the air from Daddy’s cooling cannelloni. It took 40 minutes to stuff the tubes of pasta with the mince and herbs and sauce. Hopefully he can smell the coriander. You went out of your way to buy the actual leafy herb for him instead of the powdered stuff, not that he’ll even eat it, all the way over in Sydney. Putting his portion on a plate is just a gesture to keep him appreciating you while he’s away across the Tasman earning money for the family. You would’ve poured cheese sauce directly into the cannelloni tubes except you couldn’t get the jar open, even running it under hot water, even using the rubber glove. Just one of the many things that need doing around here. There’s some critter caught in the humane mouse trap you’re afraid to shake out into the yard. Hidden in the folds of your neighbourhood are bad things that bite.    

From his little goldfish bowl of a screen, Anton is giving you and Livvy a lecture about how his team are drilling a four inch cable-tunnel through a mountain of solid granite. They’ve got their soil samples approved, they have the permits, now Anton’s looking at a five figure bonus for every week the project is completed ahead of–

Anton has frozen. Coloured squares are eating his beard.

Livvy makes noise and looks at you from her high chair, choking SuckyDucky, her eyes big and terrified. She’s still pale from the crash.

Anton wriggles out of his mosaic prison, asks what you and bubs got up to today.

Church play group, you tell him, then Wriggle & Rhyme, then the pools.

‘Then I wrestled with this freaking thing, ha ha, wish you were here for that!’ You waggle your bottle of unopenable sauce.

‘The relevance of which is… ?’

‘You know. Cause you’ve got strong hands.’

‘Anyway pools, yeah, wicked, that reminds me,’ Anton says, doing a drum beat with his fingers, ‘We’ve been tryina get some fibre through these swamps and we made eeeeepic progress with the Parramatta council, right, they’re as invested in optical partnerships as we are, really putting some serious finance into this thing which means some tasty kays but what’s really eating me is getting the copper relayers in place by January else my arse is grass, so that’s us for the next few months, eh, if we’re going to land that 18 mil we promised the shareholders. We’re really forging ahead in terms of systematic lines revisioning. Exciting times, you oughta be here.’

‘So are you coming home for Christmas?’

‘What?’

‘I don’t know anyone in this town. I need you here.’

Anton’s face freezes in disgust. The signal isn’t lagging. He’s just unimpressed your life doesn’t move as fast as his. ‘I have to drop something important cause you can’t open some sauce by yourself? Literally? Look: January I can pop over. Will that suffice?’

Anton’s fingers get large as they reach to switch the camera off.

‘I got hit by a car today.’

Anton frowns at the webcam, thousands of kilometres away. For a moment, you’re sure Skype has frozen again.

‘I don’t think I heard you right.’

‘Well not me. The car. Our car.’

My car, if we’re being technical, since you don’t earn anything – but no, what in God’s name happened? Insurance haven’t phoned me. It’s my name on the papers.’

You tell him about the crushed flowers, the chipped bumper. Holding up traffic. Speared with embarrassment. Burning cheeks. Jeep Man’s gunbarrel lips blowing the deadly kiss. Jeep Man up on his white armoured steed. Don’t cry, Mum-mum. You get your kneepants wet.

‘And you got his details?’

‘I Googled… he does haircuts from home, he’s like a famous barber and everyone in town knows him and –

‘How much is this gonna cost me?’

‘It’s…. not? I dunno, the man said it wasn’t that big a deal and he just sorta drove off… .’

‘But you’re not hurt?’

‘I’m shaken. And you should’ve seen Livvy’s colour, she was ashen, she was shaking on the drive home, she was–

‘JESUS. Please don’t frighten me like that again. We have insurance for a reason. I’m really busy, seriously, you’re lucky I scheduled you guys in. I got a report that won’t write itself. Liv: g’night, baby girl. Love you.’

Livvy waggles her cup of juice at the webcam but the screen’s already black.

So is the inside of Livvy’s mouth as she screams four hours later when she wakes from the nightmare.

So is the inside of the car she swears she’ll never get back into because your baby has been traumatised.

 

 

2

You watch Livvy stack blocks in the barred pen in the corner of the waiting room. Usually she stuffs the toy cars with tiny dolls and rams them together. Today, she’s shoved the cars into the far corner.   

Ahead of you in line to see the doctor will be Mrs Lowndes, who sits with a romance novel perched on top of her knees, glowering down at it. You can tell Mrs Lowndes wants to ask about the glass jar of pasta sauce in your handbag. You know Mrs Lowndes from church play group. She’s okay, closest thing you’ve got to a friend in this ocean of strangers, though she asks about your husband’s job way too much. The only other person waiting is an ex-con-looking man in his 50s. His skull is shaved shiny. His skin is dark with ink. His knuckles have spiderwebs on them. There’s an angry bulldog printed on his neck. While he waits, he crushes and chokes a pamphlet.

Livvy was found at the ED not to have a concussion. Having doctors fawn over her is important, though. You’ve read that the symptoms of whiplash might not show up for a week. She is the most beautiful wee schnookum in the entire world and she deserves attention and praise and concern. It’s annoying, actually, when the nurse comes out and tells you for the second time that the doctor’s late by another 15 minutes on top of the existing 15 minutes of lateness. Jesus Christ. You’ve got six figures in the bank. You could enrol at a better clinic if you wanted. The only reason you keep coming to a clinic in the muddy, broken-fenced part of town is Dr Tana is a good listener. Once you cried into her tissues while she stroked your knuckles.

Livvy reached out. She needs help separating the pages of a cardboard book glued shut with something sugary.

‘She yours?’ the shiny dark man asks.

Strange question. Why would a person not have their own child? You suppose whatever culture this man came from, the children are raised by their village, or something.

You tell him yes, Livvy is yours, two years old going on 16, ha ha, a little stroppy when her dad’s not around but she had a heart of gold, ha ha.

Gold teeth. Black windows. Gunbarrel.  

The shiny dark man is nodding as he processes. He’s stocky and bulging with flesh and has jowls silver with stubble. He wears a rugby league shirt and shorts even though he looks too old and fat to play any sport. He jiggles his jandals relentlessly. It’s freezing in here. The man must have thick skin.

‘Me, I had a couple nieces come stay after m’daughter died,’ the dark man says.

‘Oh, I’m so sorry. That sounds dreadful.’

Mrs Lowndes looks at you, tilts her head towards the dark man and checks the time on her watch.

‘It was her time, I guess, eh. What’s that expression – Make plans; god laughs?’

God laughs? LAUGHS at your pain, your humiliation?

End of conversation, surely. You smile, pull your scarf tight and tuck your head down. You read an email from Anton, stroking through his words.

‘Whatchu in for?’

Anton begins his email with an apology for telling you what to do, reminds you that he honours the sovereignty of women everywhere who should never be told what to do, especially after thousands of years of oppression, but having said that, he’s emailed you a list of services which you can use to find friends and hobbies. There’s the Women in Business club, the tennis club, the Women’s Warcraft League, macramé, Boxfit, SPS, which is the Solo Parents’ Suppor-

‘I SAYS WHATCHU IN FOR, MISS?’

Mrs Lowndes has begun moving down the hall towards the doctor’s office, clutching her novel against her chest and tutting.

‘Sorry, I didn’t… I had a car crash – no, I crashed into another car and – actually, no, no, another man, he crashed into us, sorry.’

‘Quit sayin sorry. Sign of weakness.’

‘I’m just worried cause Livvy hasn’t been herself.’

‘Whiplash?’

‘I’m hoping to get an expert opinion on that.’ You move a seat closer to your daughter, then another, kicking your handbag deep under your chair. There is a thunk as the glass jar hits the wall.

‘D’you give ’im a slap?’

‘Give who a slap?’

‘That cunt what ploughed into you.’

Even the receptionist has disappeared. There is no one around to help you get out of this conversation. Livvy is trying to cram a plastic dinosaur inside a tiny cot.

‘Oh, ohhhhh – no it wasn’t that bad at all, no. Just a ding.’

‘Was it your enemies or something?’

‘Oh no, no no no. A complete stranger. Just some local barber guy. Cuts hair and dings people’s cars, I spose, ha h-

‘Cuzzy Cutz, oi.’

‘Um, yes, actually, as a matter of fac- ’

‘What’s with the jar?’

Dark Shiny Man walks across the waiting room, squats, reaches between your legs, finds the jar of cheesy pasta sauce and hefts it like a brick.

‘I can’t open it. Sorry.’

‘Shoulda got your man to open it, miss.’

‘Oh, he’s at work.’

‘After work, then.’

If you run from this conversation, this insane person is likely to choke you. You look at your babygirl, but Livvy has no idea you’re drowning.

‘He works overseas, mostly…. He’s not around.’

‘Fuck kind of a man leaves his woman all alone? Anyway: ding my car, you fuckin die. Specially if my kids is in it. I’d’a given him the hiding of a lifetime. Put the fear of God in the cunt. Want me to fuck im up?’

‘No, no it’s perfectly okay. It was my fault.’

‘OI: it was not your fuckin fault. Y’understand?’

You spread a Woman’s Weekly magazine in front of your face and block the scary man out.

BLOOSH.

From outside a thud and the crack of broken glass.

You’re out of your seat and rushing to the window. It’s just an old man across the road dumping his recycling bin on the sidewalk but when you turn back, Livvy’s looking at you from the arms of the scary tattooed beast. She has a question in her eyes and she has started to bawl.

The scary man waltzes your baby girl as he shushes her, roaming reception, not looking to see if his knees will bump the chairs.

‘Unkie Graeme’s gonna smash the bad man isn’t he, yes he is, yes he is,’ the scary man is saying to your daughter. Graeme, apparently.

A nurse appears and almost calls your name. Her eyes bulge.

From beneath Livvy’s legs, four fingers and a thumb emerge. In the so-called Uncle Graeme’s fingers is a cheap cellphone.

‘Chuck your number in, I’ll tex you,’ he’s saying, ‘We’ll go see Mr Cuzzy Cutz, yes we will, yes we will.’

 

  

 

3

 

You’re in your car five houses down from the house of the villain, Jeep Man, Cuzzy Cutz, waiting for him to return home.

He won’t walk past and spot you. You’ve decided he’s a person who wears his car as armour.

Slumped low in your seat, you watch the white-Jeep-metal-tank pull into the driveway. Out hops Mr Cuzzy Cutz with his white cap and his chain and a stack of colourful boxes that look like pizzas with pink stripes. He approaches his door.

Graeme has told you you need to be close enough to “come in for a peep” but far enough away that you won’t get spotted.

You hear something like ‘Yoooooo, what up?’ as Graeme waddles up behind him. Graeme is sticking one hand out OH MY GOD THEY KNOW EACH OTHER, THEY’RE FRIENDS, OF COURSE THEY ARE, YOU’VE BEEN SET UP, SWITCH YOUR IGNITION ON AND GET OUT OF HERE then Cuzzy has his fingers out like a blind person because he’s sinking, he’s dropped the boxes, which appear to have ribbons on them, and he’s searching for something to hold his weight as he faints and Graeme’s arm swings back behind his head and there is a hammer in his fist and he’s putting his fingers inside Jeep Man’s pants – all this publicly visible! Anyone could drive past! – and Graeme’s pulling Jeep man’s keys off him and unlocking the house and dragging the floppy, rubbery, sleepy body of Jeep Man by his hood up the steps. Graeme puts fingers in his lips and spits a powerful whistle down the street at you– oh my God, he can see you, you’re totally busted – then he takes Cuzzy inside the house, disappearing.

You open your car’s back door, flop Livvy into your arms and run with her as if you’ve stolen a paper bag of groceries, stepping over Cuzzy’s dropped pizzas wrapped with little tiny trains, teddy bears, unicorns.  

Not pizzas. Presents.

This is not your neighbourhood. You cannot be seen here.

You get inside his house and get the door closed behind you because Graeme has told you ten times over the past week that this whole thing is in-out, quick as a flash. Hundred seconds and it’s done.

DOOR.’

‘Sorry!’

You seal the room and stand with your back against the exit, pulling a Christmas tree half-over your chest, trying not to knock over a mirror and table stacked with clippers and razors and combs in pots of blue disinfectant.

Cuzzy is on his knees, burrowing between the legs of his dining table like a loose rat. Graeme is stalking the man, hammer in hand, pulling the chairs out one by one then putting each chair immediately back, tidy and respectful.

Musical chairs concludes after a few seconds when Graeme whacks the hammer directly into the centre of Cuzzy’s forehead, stunning him. Graeme grabs the man’s chain, which snaps. He tosses it at you. ‘Catch. Souvenir.’

Graeme gives three efficient smacks of the hammer on Cuzzy’s throat, nose and chin.

Cuzzy the beaten barber has pulled his limbs into his body now like a dying cockroach. He bumps the wall and a photo of his children slumps off its hook.

Graeme pulls Cuzzy’s hood over his head then gives a further three smacks. A purple stain blooms in the white fabric.

Graeme sets to work on the cockroach’s legs and arms, bashing ankles, toes, shins, kneecaps, elbows and fingers, any piece of bone sticking out of the bleeding bundle. The wet thwack of snapping celery.

Finally Graeme catches up to you, panting. ‘Whoo whee. Haven’t had a workout like that in a while! Here: want a whack?’

You press yourself into the corner of the door and test the handle. Livvy’s face is sickly pale again. You cram your fingertips behind her ears and press her face into your shoulder and jog her. There is a Christmas tree. You pull a bauble off, offer it to Livvy, who offers the bauble to SuckyDucky.

Graeme pulls an inhaler from his pocket and gives it a mighty suck. He puts his hands on his knees, and catches his breath. ‘We’ve gotta boost. Any last words?’

It stinks like a longdrop toilet in here, raw and salty, like farts and rot and cold dripping public toilets with shit splattered on the walls. There is a dark beetroot stain creeping through the fibres of the carpet. The cockroach in the red-spotted hoodie is jiggling as if something is electrocuting him. His fingers twitch. His head has withdrawn deep inside his hood like a turtle.

You try to come up with a threat.

‘Anton,’ you begin, ‘I mean, not… .’

Easier to shut up.

‘Get ya photos in now. HURRY.’

You unlock your cellphone, aim and extend it like a slingshot.

‘NOW, woman. NOW.’

 

*

 

Anton speaks through his rectangle over a steaming plate of ravioli and cheesy pasta sauce. He’s leading his cable into the fibre splicing station now that the shareholders permitted a loan of two mil to free up leasing of equipment to get the tunnel dug ahead of schedule and Anton’s company securing government partnership to convince a quorum of ratepayers to–

‘Stop. Just stop.’

‘I beg your –

‘Stop. Talking. Your boring. Work. SHIT.’ Livvy pulls the pasta bowtie out of her mouth and watches. ‘We need you here. So get back home already.’

Anton looks at his FitBit and frowns. ‘I sacrificed a very important call with San Fran for this and if you think– ’

‘SHUT UP. SHUT. UP.’ You point your cellphone directly into the webcam like a knife. Your finger hovers over the Play triangle. With a single click you could show him. Show him what you are. Show him what you’ve got in you. ‘You wanna be man of the house, be a man, and be in the FUCKING HOUSE.’

You pick up the laptop, walk to the far end of the table, the dark cold end. Put Anton down. Shut the lid.

Livvy grins, cheesy teeth.