When Charlie came out of the clink for the first time in the last ten years, he carried all his possessions in a duffel bag slung across his shoulder and just enough money to pay for a woman.
Sunshine exploded inside his pupils as he stumbled through the high iron-gate into the open air. He spat and steadied himself. A free man.
An empty shingle road stretched before him, curving around the woods towards the first township. It was a rickety settlement kept together by those who stayed on even after forestry no longer offered much work, and those who found jobs in the nearby prison. They clung to each other; ex-lumber jacks and factory hands planting dope for a living in their backyards, beating their wives on benefit days and fixing cars older than their children. It was enough to keep cops and prison guards employed.
The breeze rustled leaves into a shiver, disturbing droplets that hung on their edges.
Charlie looked towards the woods. He inhaled deeply letting the sharp scent of damp earth and early buds fill his lungs. He closed his eyes and knew he would see her then; sitting on that crooked swing made of an old truck tire, her feet dangling over the almost bare patch of grass, loose strands of blond hair disguising her face and a small child she sheltered with her body.
He shook his head slightly as he always did when he wanted to clear it, straightened the straps of his duffel bag, then took to the road with long, purposeful strides. He knew the road well; it was the same stretch of dirt his old man took to work each day to put food in his and his brothers’ bellies, as he was fond of saying. The same road their mother crossed to jump into the other man’s car; ‘I am going away to find work in the big city and a place for us to live. This place is a shit-hole and I am fed up with your father’s drinking and beating us all. I will come back for ya boys very soon. It’s gonna be fine.’ she said. She never came back.
That was years ago when he and his brothers were still kids.
The old man worked shifts, slept, drank and whored. But he never laid a hand on any of his boys again. Charlie once saw him sitting by the bed of his youngest brother the whole night while the boy was burning with fever. Charlie could swear the old man was crying.
Around the time their voices started to break, the old man took each of them to Trish’s. She keeps a fine establishment Trish does, he would say.
Charlie could still recall the jasmine scent of his first whore he had at Trish’s. He was the oldest and the old man told him to ‘just follow the lass and you will soon pant as a farm-dog on hot summer day’. He paid for the newest girl; a young Russian girl going by the name of Daria. She had the slight body of a trapeze artist and firm, small breasts. When she took her slip off, curls of her long blond hair brushed against large peach-colored nipples. Charlie could not remember his mouth ever being so dry.
Sun was starting to beat down on his exposed neck, pale as baby’s bottom after years spent indoors. He rolled up his collar and quickened his pace. He touched the little stash of cash inside his pocket and wondered how much has changed at Trish’s. He knew from prison guards that Trish’s daughter was now running the place.
But the old girl still sits most nights behind the bar and talks to old-timers.
Charlie smiled thinking of Trish and the old-times. He knew she was found of his old-man, even if she never said as much. And she always had a big heart on her, Trish did. She once brought home a pregnant lass from somewhere up North with cigarette burns all over her. Trish put the girl up and paid for the doctor. When the baby was born, all them girls cooed over it like each one gave birth to it. They were regular scuffles over who would take the baby out for a walk. Charlie could not remember what happened to that baby.
He was almost upon the first houses.
Single story weatherboard bungalows, with peeling paint and old sofas perched on verandas, stuffing coming out of them. A couple of guys in leather jackets standing around an old Harley drinking beer from cans and arguing about something. Strands of their matted hairs flipping in the breeze like pieces of wool left to dry for too long.
Charlie lowered his head and quickened his pace. He did not want anyone to notice him. He figured he could reach Trish’s in about thirty minutes or so, slip through the back door and leave the place before the dawn, unseen. He spent a long time planning it all and debating with himself whether to visit Trish’s for one last time before leaving the whole damn town behind him.
He could never think about leaving without remembering his mother and how she called the place ‘shit-hole’ just before she left. She might have been right; he should have left ages ago. Not that he had not thought about it. All those nights sitting on the front porch gazing down the road, waiting for her to come back and take him and his brothers to the city like she said she would.
When his old man found out, and a put stop to it, Charlie rostered his brothers to sit and wait for ma. Jeremy said he could not remember what ma looked like. Charlie slapped him so hard to knock him over and would’ve beaten his life out of him if the old man hadn’t pulled him off. It was the first time Charlie experienced the violence that emerged from the depths of him and he had not known was there.
That night, the old man took Charlie to a pub with him and treated him to a beer laced with lemonade. Then he told him that ma is not coming back. She is gone with another fellow. They probably have a family by now. She does not want to remember them boys or her life in this town any more. Charlie ran out of the pub, crying tears of rage and hurt. They burned hollow in his gut and set his chest on fire. He ran past his house and set for the dirt-road leading out of town. The next day local cops brought him back home. He was starving, and soles of his feet had bleeding blisters. Charlie never waited for his mother again. His old man made sure no one mentioned her in front the boys.
He was approaching the town’s main square. An empty semicircle surrounded by the post office, cop-shop, paper-decorated Chinese take-away, a couple of forlorn looking stores, and a court house. A tall wooden statue of a forestry worker with the sleeves of his shirt rolled up, holding a chainsaw stood in the middle, his gaze fixed on the town below. Cigarette butts and empty bags of potato chips were scattered at its base.
Charlie looked down the road past the court-house. Around the corner there was a library and a local high-school. For a moment he felt the urge to walk there, just to see whether the opening in the fence he cut all those years ago was still there. He went to a lot of trouble to make it big enough for him and Ines to pass through. Smuggling tools was not a problem. He was always good at woodwork and had almost free access to the school’s workshop. The trouble was how to work on the fence without being seen. In the end he did it all at night and returned the tools before school started. He wanted to make sure nobody found out.
He remembered the day he showed her the opening for the first time. It was winter, and snow-flakes danced in the sharp air landing on the heavy branches of the pine trees. Charlie chose that part of the school-field to cut the opening because of those trees. They sheltered the fence. It was what he always wanted for her; to make a safe shelter. Ever since she first arrived at their school.
Charlie was in his fourth year for the second time because his old man was adamant that all of his boys should finish high-school and did not give up even when Charlie had to repeat the year because of his absences. What Charlie really wanted was to quit school and find a job with the local forestry gang. The money was good and almost all his mates were there. But the old man threatened to throw him out on the street and break his neck in the process, so Charlie returned to school.
It was still summer and the commotions of the brand-new school year in full swing. Theirs was the split class and teacher was a tiny woman with a large glasses and shrill voice. She tapped her desk few times for silence and introduced the new girl. “Ines. New in town, just arrived from a big city, please welcome her.” She stood there with her hands limp at her sides and long blond hair hanging loose, covering her face. She went to sit at the place teacher pointed without raising her head.
The first thing Charlie noticed was that the girl was bare-footed and had no school bag. Or carried anything needed at school. Even her dress was more like a going-out dress then going-to-school dress. He wanted to ask her about it. And whether her name means anything special. Charlie never knew anyone called Ines.
As soon as class finished, Charlie walked to where Ines was sitting and introduced himself. He was young, but thanks to his old man and Trish’s fine establishment he’d had his share of girls. Ines did not raise her head. Or moved her hands that were clasped tightly in her lap. When he asked whether the cat got her tongue, she stood up and walked away. Charlie did not know what to make of it. Except that he really wanted her to look at him.
At the end of the school day, Charlie went looking for Ines. He saw her walking across the school’s rugby-field towards Bone Street. He knew he could follow her without her noticing. When she turned into Elizabeth Street, Charlie could think of only one place she was going to – Fat Betty’s foster home.
Fat Betty had run her foster home ever since her fellow ran away with the local pub’s new waitress and left her to fend for herself and their three kids. Betty figured that taking in others who had nowhere else to go or have been thrown out of all other places, could help feed her and her children. Social welfare checks helped.
The place was cramped and always smelt of piss, burned milk and stale cigarettes. Some of Charlie’s school friends were Fat Betty’s kids. They came to school without lunches on most days, but Fat Betty never laid a hand on any of them and they had safe beds to sleep in which was more than they had in places left behind.
When he saw her opening Fat Betty’s gate, Charlie turned towards his own home. That evening while sitting at the table with his brothers and their old man eating baked beans and chips, he decided to make Ines look at him even if just once.
Years later, sitting at the table in the local jail, Charlie would come to think of that evening as the exact moment his life started to slide off away under him.
Charlie tried to sit next to Ines whenever he could under the pretext of helping a new pupil, despite the sniggers of his classmates. She was younger then him and even though school work was not something he was really interested in, he knew most of the material for her year. Ines continued to turn up with only one notebook which she used mostly for doodling during the class time. With her blond hair hanging loose and covering most of her face, long flowing dresses and colorful pieces of strings tided around her right ankle she looked somebody who just stepped out of a fairy tale without noticing.
What started as an intriguing curiosity, was turning into frustration as Charlie started to feel irritated with Ines’ complete absence of interest in anything around her including him.
On the rare occasions when teachers called her name, Ines would look up like someone who had been rudely waken up from a deep slumber.
She never made use of the answers Charlie whispered to her and on more than one occasion the teacher said she should at least honor Charlie’s efforts and repeat the answer he was so gallantly providing her with. She remained silent. During the mid-term test in biology, Charlie slipped her answers on the piece of paper. She squeezed it into the palm of her hand without even looking at it. Then she stood up, handed the test back without answering a single question and walked out of the class with the answers still clinched in the palm of her right hand.
Watching her walking out, gliding through the door oblivious to anything around her, Charlie made up his mind to visit Fat Betty’s home that evening and find out what was really going on with Ines. He could not name it, but he felt the odd sensation of being pulled towards and away from her at the same time. It was something he hadn’t experienced before.
Ordinarily he went for plum girls with sexy booties and easy smiles. He loved how they threw their heads back and laughed at his ready-made jokes with their whole bodies, their bosoms bouncing up and down until steadied in his hands. Which was always as soon as he decided he wanted it.
The only time he made Ines laugh was when he offered her his peanut butter and banana sandwich and she commented that it was very good. He asked whether she never had one before and she laughed. Her laugh was like water rushing over pebbles in a spring; clear and light.
After the biology test, Charlie set out to look for Ines, but she was nowhere to be seen and had probably gone home.
Sitting through another boring English class, Charlie examined his idea to visit Fat Betty’s home. Ines had asked him never to follow her and he promised not to, but he reasoned that it would not be following since he would be coming on his own.
As soon as school was out, Charlie set out towards Fat Betty’s. The autumn air was just starting to crisp up, with gold and red leaves falling from the trees. Walking down Bone Street towards Elizabeth, Charlie started to wonder whether he would be able to speak to Ines in private. Or whether visitors were even allowed. He never visited anyone living there.
The small iron gate that stood between the street and Fat Betty’s front yard was swinging half-open on the only hinge that still held. Charlie tried to close it behind him, but it would not move so he abandoned the effort and climbed the couple of steps, making his way through a clutter of plastic toys, a broken tricycle, deflated paddling pools and various other articles that heralded the presence of small children.
The entrance door mimicked the gate, crooked and half-open. For a moment Charlie could not decide whether to enter or knock and wait. He could hear voices inside the house and smell the musty odour of poorly aired rooms. He decided to do both; knocking lightly and then immediately entering as he has seen some of his father’s friends do when they came by the house.
The entrance hall resembled the front porch with exception of rain-coats, school bags and variously sized gumboots covering every inch of it. Charlie manoeuvred his way towards the room on the left which was where voices were coming from. There were only curtains where a door once must have stood and after he parted them, Charlie found himself looking into a large room fitted with a massive stove and large wooden table. Several cabinets and shelves were fixed to walls in a haphazard fashion. For some reason Charlie noticed there were no curtains on the window looking directly into the back yard with its round clothesline in the middle. A big grey and white cat was staring at him from the window ledge.
Standing in the door-frame, holding curtains in his left hand, Charlie felt more than he saw stares of children’s eyes fixed on him with all determination of those unaccustomed to visitors. He wanted to say something to pierce the sudden stillness as all activities stopped when he appeared. He really wanted to ask where Ines is, but found himself only able to smile uncomfortably.
It was than he saw her swaying leisurely on a cut-out truck tire tied to a branch of an old oak growing on the outskirts of the backyard. Her hair pulled back neatly. Her bare feet brushing over patched grass under her.
Charlie crossed the kitchen and opened the half-glassed door that lead him directly to the clothes-line.
He was almost in front of the oak tree before she turned around, aware of footsteps. It was only then he saw a small child she was cradling close to her. If Charlie ever saw Michelangelo’s Madonna With a Child painting, he would have remembered it then. But Charlie never saw that painting. What he did see made him feel cold inside.
The child’s face was tangled mess of scars. Like some evil god decided to play with it and deform its features until they no longer resembled a human. Even the child’s eyes looked like they had been moved from their ordinary positions and then fixed on an odd angle inside mangled skin.
A few minutes passed before he became aware of Ines’s gaze on him. It was a calm and steady gaze directed straight at him. Her body stayed wrapped around the small child she was holding.
They would have remained in that frozen tableau if it wasn’t for loud swearing followed by crying that burst through the open back door from the kitchen.
Fat Betty has returned home and was demanding to know “Where that useless girl was with her brat and why no tea has been made and everyone is starving!”
Ines slipped from the tire and passed Charlie on her way to the kitchen.
It was only later, much later, while lying on the cot in his cell, unable to sleep, unable to stop his blood burning his insides, that he remembered how all he could think was how it was the first time he saw, really saw, how deeply green her eyes were.
Charlie never followed Ines to the kitchen. He made his tracks back to the front yard and left Fat Betty’s. On his way home, he felt an inexplicable desire to run. As fast as his feet will carry him.
That night Charlie waited for his old man.
Heavy footsteps and scraping of steel-cupped boots against the front door roused Charlie from the doze he fell into leaning on the kitchen table. He shook himself awake and reached for the door, but it swung wide open before he could have reached it. His old man smelled of wood and glue and his eyes were bloodshot from staring for hours into machines that turn wood into plywood.
The old man’s surprise gave way to gladness. It has been a long time since he arrived home from late-night shift to find anyone awake. Charlie put the kettle on and took the factory-issued Swanndri from his old man.
They sat down to two steaming mugs of tea in silence. One was chipped at the handle and had remnants of decorations made in primary school for some long-forgotten Father’s Day.
Charlie waited until his father took the first sip of tea and pronounced it to be decent brew. The old man wanted to know right away what is it that Charlie needed help with. Charlie pinched a small island of skin between his thumb and forefinger, the way he always did when nervous. He was desperate to start his speech with something (anything) except ‘there is that girl at my school … ‘but at the end he could not find any other words.
The moment Charlie uttered those words his old man roared with laughter. It was as Charlie feared.
His eyes glistening with tears, his old man told Charlie that of course there is a girl and that there always will be. It is how things work. He then wanted to know whether Charlie put the girl up the duff and once it was clear that he did not, he advised him to go to bed and have a decent sleep. Plenty more where that one came from.
Charlie watched his old man drain his cup of tea, rinse the mug in the sink and disappear down the hallway to the bedroom he once shared with his mother.
He then turned around and fished the bottle of whisky from behind the dusty baking utensils and poured some into the rest of his tea.
That night Charlie dreamed of his mother for the first time in years.
In the days that followed Charlie kept himself away from everyone. He went to school, did his chores around the house, smoked more than usual and muttered insults at anyone who bothered to ask him “how’s life treating ya”.
Anger was steadily carving its permanent layer in Charlie’s insides.
He neither saw nor was searching for Ines.
On a morning so cold that tiny icicles formed inside his nostrils, Charlie entered the school gates and tossed his last stub amongst frosty bushes. He was late but not in a hurry.
The long corridor was sprawling like a linoleum snake in front of him with doors firmly shut on either side. An old cleaner was lazily dragging a mop from one side to the other.
At the end of the corridor was a nook with paneled door – the principal’s office. Charlie knew it well from all those talks he had to endure there. He felt like walking in there and declaring that he is done. With school and all that bullshit. He was thinking about it more often than usual.
Charlie made few determined steps towards the nook when the sound of the door opening, and soft male voices stopped him. And there she was. Escorted gently out of the principal’s office and towards the stairs on the other side. Her back turned to him and an unknown male’s hand gently guiding her on. Hand resting just mid-way between shoulder blades. Hand-knitted bag slung across the body and long woolen cardie over an even longer skirt. Long hair cascading down her back. Disappearing from his view.
If Charlie was given to reading poetry he would have searched for some familiar verses to help him ease his anguish. Kieth or Rilke perhaps. Pain of longing, of desire, of being young and in love and alone. But Charlie did not read poetry. He stood rooted to the spot and all he felt was rage. Hot, urgent rage to tear down windows, punch the walls, smash the principal’s office. And above all to scream until he goes deaf.
Charlie did none of those things. He turned slowly and walked out of the school office the same way he came in. Only his legs felt even heavier now. Like wading through a swamp. He squatted behind the woodwork room, found the last pinch of tobacco in his pocket and wept. Silently, hugging his knees and keeping his eyes down. Small clouds of frozen breath mixed with cigarette smoke rose towards heaven.
Later he figured that school must have her new address. But they would not give it to him because of some privacy laws so he made his way back to Fat Betty in the hope she might know.
Fat Betty was slumped across an old sofa and in that peculiar state of tipsiness when the urge to give advice is irresistible. She neither had, she said, nor cared to know the address of that lazy slut and her clingy, malformed brat. That sort is good for nothing and Charlie should not waste any time on the likes of her. Didn’t he know that girl was dumb. She could not even read. Not a bloody word, at that age!
Charlie ran outside and away from Fat Betty’s before he could no longer control the urge to shut her up with his fist.
He moved his feet down the familiar street and his body followed. But all he could see was that day she walked out of the classroom with his note clenched in her fist. She never even looked at it. He never thought it was because she could not read. He never came across anyone above the age of seven who could not read even a little bit. He wanted to kick himself for being so dumb.
Fortified with guilt, Charlie’s determination to fined Ines grew and gave him wings.
Kevin was a chubby youth with pimply face and hands permanently stashed deep inside his trousers’ pockets. He was also the school’s secretary’s son. His mum was a large woman fond of flowery dresses and matching cardigans. She was also very fond of, in her own words; ‘proper process and procedures’ and at pains to point out that there will be no favors for anyone on her watch. And especially not for Kevin, who ‘even if I say so myself’, is one of the top five percent, all thanks to good, old hard work and perseverance.
Kevin and his mum would attend church together on Sunday morning and the pastor would often ask Kevin to talk about his love for science and math to younger parishioners in the hope they might follow his example. Kevin would walk to the improvised podium making sure to keep his hands out of his pockets, trying his best to look detached and preoccupied in a manner he believed all really clever people do, then proceed to talk in a single pitch voice about algebra and robotics using as many big words as he could remember. His mum would later lead the ladies in prayer and, on assigned evenings, cross-stitching, assuring those that needed it that God had plans for their sons too.
Charlie never gave a Kevin second glance until the day he saw him emerging from his mum’s car just before the main gate. It was a deep red sedan and well heated. Charlie thought how nice it would be to curl up inside and sleep against leather seats and all that warmth. Without meaning to, he watched Kevin drag his bulging backpack towards the physics lab and before he saw him disappear behind the lab’s big door, Charlie realized the kid might be his lucky break.
For the rest of the day Charlie’s brain buzzed with schemes. He would need to get Kevin to help him enter his mum’s office unobserved. Once inside Charlie was certain to find Ines’s file and in it her forwarding address.
In the end it was easier than he thought it would be. All he needed to do was to casually mention his ‘special privileges’ at Trish’s for Kevin to lap it all up.
If it was possible that he could sneak into Trish’s without anyone (especially his mother) finding out, Kevin said he was prepared to go to the gates of hell and back, let alone making a copy of the key that opens the school’s office door. Charlie smiled to himself – it was just like his old man always said – every man has his price.
And so, it was arranged.
Charlie got Trish to usher Kevin through her back door to let him salivate over the impressive bosom of its bored owner whose one stroke of the teen’s bulging crotch produced the desired result even before she had a chance to stroke it properly. For that privilege Kevin produced not only the key to the school office but the filing cabinet too.
The files were arranged in a ferociously alphabetical order thanks to Kevin’s ferociously ordered mother and were inside a filing drawer that glided open as soon as Charlie pushed the key into its lock. His search was urgent even though he knew the whole building was deserted at that time of night. He was separating files stacked behind the divider with a bold letter ‘I’ in front when he realised he needed to be looking under surnames. He did not know Ines’ surname. An angry ‘fuck’ pierced the stale air and he brushed his fingers over the entire contents of the cabinet which made it sound like a dusty accordion. To look into each file to find one with Ines as a first name would take hours!
Charlie could feel familiar warmth of anger starting to fill his lungs when he spotted a small plastic box on top of the filing cabinet that looked like a miniature version of the big one. It even had a small key dangling from its tiny lock. Charlie turned the key and moved the lid that opened upwards revealing stack of what looked like cards. Then he saw it. Contents of each filing cabinet draw was written on each card in block letters; CURRENT PUPILS, INVOICES, DETENTION NOTICES, STOOD DOWN, MEETING MINUTES, LEFT THIS YEAR. It was all he needed. The last draw contained the names of those that left in the current school year and there could not be many. The drawer only had three files and one of them was for SWARTZ, Ines.
Charlie did not have time to ponder this foreign sounding surname, or absence of the customary ID card while leafing through the file containing the brief history of Ines’ brief stay at his school. He was intent on finding her forwarding address. Some sort of business card embossed with golden letters was loosely attached by a yellow paper clip on the inside off the file. It was advertising a shop dealing in second hand goods in a suburb which name Charlie seemed to remember from a TV news story on gang violence. The city the suburb was part of was the biggest city Charlie knew and he had only visited once when his old man took him and his brothers on a road trip to visit some distant relatives one Christmas. Charlie enjoyed the road trip but disliked the city on the spot.
Realising that the business card with its shop address was the best clue he had, Charlie shoved it in his jean’s pocket and tucked the almost empty file back in its place. Then he closed the cabinet, returned the card into its miniature slot and left the office as quietly as he could.
The rest of the night he spent trying to figure out how to organise his trip to the city to find out whether a man whose name (Joseph Swartz) and cellphone number are written on the back of the business card could help him find Ines. Charlie was guessing that the man was probably Ines’ father or at least some sort of relative, given they had the same last name.
It took him a week before he finally worked out a plausible enough lie to take the bus to the big city without making his father suspicious.
He dialed the shop number couple of times and once even the cellphone number on the back of the card but then he’d hang up before anyone answered. How do you ask if anyone knows where Ines Swartz is when all you have connecting her to the phone number is a business card stolen from a school file?
Tormented by those thoughts, Charlie decided the best course of action was to simply bus to the city, find the shop and act as a customer to start with. With some luck he might be able to strike a conversation with a shop assistant and maybe even find out who this Joseph dude was. Charlie remembered how people always used to say to his old man to ‘watch that kid – he can talk his way out of jail!’ It made him feel better.
The bus was all but empty with only few backpackers dozing over their overstuffed bags and well-used maps. Rolling hills dotted with cattle were passing in what seemed endless successions. The monotony of the sound of the bus engine and the passing landscapes lolled Charlie into an easy sleep from which he was jolted with some force when bus abruptly stopped at some traffic lights. They were approaching the city.
Charlie rubbed his eyes and tried to stretch his neck that has gone stiff. His legs were no better, and he needed a smoke.
The bus terminal was the biggest Charlie ever saw and, unexpectedly, largely under the roof with ‘no smoking’ signs prominently displayed. Charlie swore softly into his chin and moved towards what he decided must be exit.
He saw a man dressed in a bus driver’s shirt holding an unlit cigarette in his hand and followed him to a corner without ‘no smoking’ signs visible.
Once they both took their first long drags, Charlie asked the man if he knew how he could reach the suburb named on the business card. The man said that would be no trouble as his bus stops there so Charlie could just come with him. He then asked him what he is looking for there and when Charlie named the second-hand shop, the driver told him that the bus stops just before it and he will let him know. “It will take about forty or so minutes as traffic can be a killer.”
Charlie was relieved and thanked the man as he’d been a bit worried about getting lost in the city.
Once they finished smoking, Charlie and the bus driver walked towards the bus together and Charlie climbed into the nook just behind the driver. He settled next to the window and looked out. The city’s landscape was soon replaced by wide streets of suburbia dotted with single story bungalows separated by low gates of similar makings. Further south from the city they went, the shabbier the dwellings became. Charlie was surprised how similar this city looked to some parts of his town. Even the broken couches on some of the porches looked like they came from his own street.
The bus moved slowly from one stop to the other and eventually more people were coming in then going out, so the air became heavy with human odours.
Charlie was considering how to open a window when the bus driver shouted that the next stop was his if he still wanted to find that shop.
Once on the street, Charlie followed the bus driver’s directions and soon found himself in front of what looked like an island amongst the rows of houses. There was a fish and chip shop, a dairy, Thai and Indian takeaway, pharmacy and a second-hand shop with the name displayed above the front door in the same lettering as was on the business card.
Charlie stood still for a few moments and then turned back towards the bus stop. He wanted to sit inside the bus shelter for a few moments and gather his thoughts. His heart was racing, and his hands started to sweat.
Once inside the bus shelter Charlie was grateful that it was empty. He lit a smoke and inhaled deeply. He felt a familiar release and told himself to think.
Has he really gone to all this trouble only to turn back with nothing but a used bus ticket? He felt that odd sensation pulling him in two opposite directions. He stubbed the cigarette out with more force than was necessary, tucked his hands into the side-pockets of his jacket and walked towards the shop.
The moment he pulled the door open, a loud mechanical voice coming from somewhere above him exclaimed; ‘Hello and Welcome!’ Charlie jumped from surprise and that unsettled him for a moment.
He could not see anyone in the shop.
The place was small and crammed with goods of all age and levels of usage.
Bookcases of various dimensions lined the walls, their shelves stuffed with kitchen utensils, pots, pans, the odd mixer, kettles with knitted tops, tea sets with drawings of delicate roses with matching cream and sugar bowls next to old-fashioned garden tools, a hatchet, racks of clothing and piles of costume jewelry including what looked like a wedding tiara.
The air was gloomy from poor lighting and full of the musty odour of old furniture. It reminded Charlie of his grandmother’s house just before she died. In one of the cabinets with a glass door that seem to need a key to open, Charlie spotted a display of what seemed like an old military stuff. He moved closer and peered inside.
The bottom of the cabinet was covered by burgundy colored material that was once possibly a luxurious velvet but was now worn and thin in places. Still it gave the cabinet a kind of distinguished look which was no doubt the intention of those using it to display the possessions they are most proud of.
Several medals were on display, none of which Charlie had any knowledge of. Amongst them there were pieces of fabric in various colors and shapes that look like they came off military coats. At the back of the cabinet, looking over its content, it was a black and white photograph of a young man dressed in a full uniform, standing next to an old-fashioned car. The photograph was yellow in places and it was hard to see the man clearly. On the right side of the cabinet, there was a painting of a girl, no more than ten or eleven years old. She was dressed in a white dress with a wide fuchsia-coloured sash fastened across her waist. The girl’s hair was long and brushed into soft curls that cascaded down her back. She was painted sitting in a bay window seat gazing over rolling hills that sloped towards the harbor.
Charlie stared into the painting. He was surprised by the strong urge to yank the cabinet’s door open and take the painting out.
The sound behind him startled him and he almost fell on nearby clothing rack. The bulky man with a clipped mustache laughed and helped Charlie steady himself.
The man’s bulk was restrained inside suspenders and trousers of a well-cut and well-worn suit. He had a flashy mouth and small beady eyes that darted over Charlie as if examining him. His moustache was pencil thin and looked as if painted over his upper lip. He had a comb-over and sharply cut sides. His manner was at the same time overly friendly and overly confident. There was a time when a certain type of woman found him irresistible.
Charlie felt that he should thank the man for helping him but before he could say anything, the man slapped him on the shoulder and asked if he is a military fan too. Charlie was confused by the questions and did not know what to say.
The man did not wait for the answer, but proceed to tell Charlie about his father who was a highly decorated officer in the German army (“those are his medals!”) but when it all ended the way it did, he took them all to Australia “where life was real shit for us”, especially their mother who in the end killed herself and some years later their father took them all to New Zealand where it was easier especially after dad found work again.
“He was a butcher and a damn good one. We started to thrive again. But then it all turned to shit when a heart attack took him. I took over the shops and it was all going fine until I married that slut from that shitty timber town.”
At that he trailed off and looked at Charlie like he only just saw him.
Charlie was feeling hot and almost dizzy from the shop’s stifling air and the man’s constant chatter but did not know what to do to change that. He heard the man’s voice (he still had a slight accent) asking him what is it that he is looking for.
Later, Charlie could never tell what made him do it, but he pointed at the cabinet and said that he would like to see the painting of the girl. The man flinched like somebody just slapped him hard across the face. He straightened his bulk and looked Charlie straight into eye. Then he asked why. It was an unexpected question and all Charlie said was the first thing that came to his mind; ‘It is very pretty.’
At that the man laughed. But it wasn’t jolly or funny laugh. There was an unmistakable menace in it that reminded Charlie of that fellow Trish threw out and his old man beat up when it was found he was fond of cutting girls for fun.
The man then said, yes, it is pretty, and the girl was very pretty too.
He then asked Charlie if he is fond of pretty girls.
Charlie did not answer but asked him if he knows who is the girl in the painting.
The man’s face shadowed slightly, and he said that she was his daughter. She died.
For the reasons he would never be able to explain Charlie asked what was the girl’s name.
It was the female voice that answered:” Her name was Ines. And she did not just die. She killed herself when this fat bastard made her give up her little girl. He called the little mite a monster. And he was the baby’s father too even if he keeps on denying it! But I know! I was her mother and mothers always know!’
The woman was screaming now.
What happened next imprinted itself in Charlie’s memory in the same way and for the same reasons stone age people imprinted images of their hands inside caves.
The flow of air and time stopped inside the room overstuffed with remnants of human lives.
At the end of the shop where a divider with fake paintings of geishas separated the shop from living quarters, Charlie’s mother stood in a pale pink dressing gown hanging loosely over her thin shoulders. Her hair was a tangled mass and large tears were rolling down her hollow cheeks.
The man and Charlie moved towards her simultaneously.
When the man reached for his mother, Charlie reached for the hatchet laying on the shelf next to him.
The man was bigger and taller than Charlie. The first hit took him between the shoulders. He stumbled and fall on his knees, roaring. Charlie took better grip on the handle and swing hard. The skull cracked open. Blood splattered everywhere. The next blow sprawled the man on the floor and left the hatchet jammed in the skull.
When police arrived, they found a thin woman kneeling on one side of the corpse rocking silently back and forth and Charlie kneeling on the other side, bloodied and hoarse from chanting the word ‘mum’ endlessly.