In this companion short story collection to the highly successful and award-winning collection, Town, young people are linked in very different ways—through chance meetings, found objects, social connections, the civil disobedience of the shadowy Poet, and the streets of a city. This place has no name, but any reader who has ever lived in a city will find it immediately familiar. It is a striking collection of connected stories that reflects the young peoples’ lives and those of the people they pass each day.
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About the Author
James Roy is the author of Almost Wednesday, Billy Mack’s War, A Boat for Bridget, Captain Mack, Full Moon Racing, The Legend of Big Red, and The 'S' Word.
Read an Excerpt
By James Roy
University of Queensland PressCopyright © 2012 James Roy
All rights reserved.
BUS 555 – 4.36pm
Yesterday, I see you waiting near Main Station. It's where you usually wait, just by the Francis Street bus bay. You're standing with your arms folded, your Astro Boy satchel over your right shoulder. There's a new badge on the strap. It's hard for me to see what kind of badge it is, but, being yellow, it's possibly a smiley.
You've a thin ribbon in your hair. Pink. I like pink on you. It suits you. It suits your skin, which is perfect, like milk. I try not to think about your skin. But once I try not to think about it, it's all I can do to stop.
There are only three ways I could see more of your skin.
First. If you showed me and I don't want that. We barely know each other. We've only met the once. There's only one kind of person who would show me themselves so readily, and I can't bear to think of you like that. Maybe if we knew each other better. Maybe one day.
The second way is no good. You'd hate that. A single tear tracing its way down your face – the very thought of it makes me grind my teeth.
And the third is the only way left to me. It won't feel right, but it will probably feel less wrong. Yes, it will.
So I cross the road, at the lights, in a crowd. And I walk on down to the bus bay, three metres behind you, still anonymous in a small crowd of tired commuters, and I stand at the far end of the bench, and there I wait.
By now I guess you've probably heard some of the story from Mal, and how after what happened with the junkie teacher, it was up to me to sort out all my own shit, once and for all.
Sorry. I know you hate it when I talk like that, with those kinds of words. So I won't.
I guess I could pick up the phone and call you, all the way over there at the other end of the country, but there's something about hearing someone's voice on the line that makes it hard to say out loud what actually happened.
So that's why I'm writing it all down. I'll give it a few days, to give you a chance to read it, then I'll call you. And you'll have to forgive me if I forget to write something down that I later rely on in court.
Sorry about that. I'm kidding. I guess you could tell. You always did know when I was joking. Remember that time I tried to convince you that Sam Winslade's mum had died, and that he needed me to go over to his place and help him get ready for the funeral? I was young then, and stupid, I guess. I didn't think that you might ring his dad to tell him how sorry you were about his dead wife. You must have been pretty surprised when she answered the phone. I'm not sure why I thought I'd ever get away with it.
Maybe I'll go back to the beginning.
You remember that place down by the water where we used to go for picnics when I was a kid, where the ferry used to come in? There was a little park there, with a kind of small garden in the middle, and a sundial, and a view of the city, and we used to try and guess how many Lego blocks it would take to build that skyline. Do you remember that? We'd go down there sometimes when the weather was nice, and buy chips from the corner shop just up the hill. I loved those chips. They weren't crisp on the outside and soft in the middle like some of the chips you get now. These ones near the ferry wharf were a bit soggier, and were better with a bit of vinegar. But they were cut by hand from real potatoes. In the shop, I mean, behind the counter, next to all the different kinds of raw fillets. They still wrapped them in newspaper, even when I went back there a few weeks ago. And I don't know anywhere else that still uses newspaper.
Do you remember that place, that park? I bet you do. Well, guess what – it hasn't changed much. The sundial is even still there. The skyline's changed a bit, though.
(While I remember, I'm sorry for what I just said about Sam Winslade's mum dying. Not about telling you some lie – that bit's okay, and I apologised for that ages ago – just the bit where I talked about his mother dying. And I know this bit seems out of place, but I just thought I should say sorry, because of everything.)
Anyway, so I went back there. I don't really know why. It wasn't an especially nice day to be down by the river. It wasn't sunny but it wasn't windy and wild either, which can be really great by the water. It was just nothing, you know? The sky was all grey, like the Morris 1100 that Grandad used to have. And the water was grey too, but a bit greener, maybe, like the colour we painted the wrought iron on the terrace in Frederick Street. Remember that terrace? Of course you do. That wasn't a bad place, although it seemed strange, when you and I moved in there, after Dad left. It felt like half a house, maybe because it had that skinny little path to the front door, which was jammed right over hard against the wall that divided our porch from the one next door. Then you'd go in (I always thought it was strange, having a doorknob in the middle of a door) and into the hallway that led through to the kitchen, but with the staircase on the right. And on the left was the wall, which was next-door's wall as well.
I remember you walking down that hallway, after you'd stopped for a second and glanced up the stairs towards the second floor, like you thought there was someone up there about to come down. You walked to the end of the hall where the kitchen was, and you stopped, and turned around, and you nodded. Remember this? You nodded, and said to the real estate lady, 'Yes, this'll do the two of us just fine.' I think that was when I knew that it was final, and that Dad wouldn't be back. And you hadn't even gone upstairs to check the bedrooms.
I quite liked that place, even though you could never get parking, and when you could park near the house, the car used to get covered in bits of sap from the big trees. Remember how mad that made you?
But I'm getting off the topic. What was the topic? Oh yeah, the park at the end of the street where the river ferry comes in. Chips and seagulls and grey sky and grey water. And like I said, I didn't know why I went there, but I wandered down from the little park to the ferry terminal, which as you probably recall is just like a bus shelter on a kind of jetty arrangement. And there was some graffiti down there.
There's a lot of graffiti around here these days, probably more than you remember. I don't like graffiti. I don't mind public art, where whole laneways are handed over for proper, skillful urban artists who actually have something to say. But a guy just scribbling some kind of tag on a fire-reel cupboard seems pretty dumb to me. I know you'd agree.
But this wasn't a tag. Well, not really, anyway. It was a poem. A haiku written on a wall with one of those big black felt-tip markers. And when I saw it I thought of you because you always liked poetry. Is there someone there who has time to read some to you? I hope so.
Anyway, this is what it said. I thought of you, then I texted it to myself so I wouldn't forget:
waves beneath the jetty slapping like a mother's hand barnacles can cut
Do you like it? I do, I think. I hope you don't think I like it because it talks about a slap like a mother's hand. I just like it because I reckon it's pretty good.
All right, I think I'm going to tell you why I was down there at the ferry terminal, and it wasn't to read poetry or to eat chips. I was meeting a guy you've never met called Jenga. (That could be his real name – I don't really know. But I seriously doubt it.)
Why was I meeting Jenga at the ferry terminal?
Because it was a place that was easy for both of us to find, and because it's close to where he likes to work.
What was I meeting Jenga for?
I wish I could tell you that he's a semi-professional haikuist, casing out new venues to showcase his work. But if I said that I'd be lying, and as well as teaching me that you – sorry, that one – should never start a sentence with 'and' or 'but', you also taught me that lying is wrong.
But so is buying drugs from people whose name probably isn't real.
It's funny, you know, how you're allowed to have those drugs that you're on, in your little pump. When that nurse with the blonde hair came around in her Mazda to deliver your pump, she didn't even ask if anyone in the family was on junk or anything. Not that I was, or ever have been, but that's not the point. She just trusted that because you needed the morphine, then it would only be you taking it.
I reckon if Jenga was your son instead of me, you'd never have got any morphine apart from what was in the machine when she first delivered it. What was that nurse's name again? I can't remember. But she was nice and she had a thumb-ring, with a Celtic pattern around it.
But seriously, if Jenga had been there he'd have taken all of those morphine ampoules and shot through with them. They'd have been on sale down at the Crazy Fiddler before you'd even had time to tape the little needle to your skin.
By the way, does that hurt? The first time I saw you put your own needle in I could hardly watch. I guess it must work, though. Why else would you do it, if it didn't take away the pain?
I didn't have that excuse when I went to see Jenga down at the ferry terminal. I wasn't in any pain. I was just feeling a bit edgy, that's all. Fidgety and jumpy, I suppose you'd call it. Not strung out like those fiends you see in that playground with the busted swings near Sam's place, or in the courtyard on the east side of the station. Just a bit nervous, I guess.
I never set out to be friends with a dealer. Or even acquaintances. To even know one at all. But I do know one. And I hate the guy. I hate the sight of him, and his smell like the stalest of ashtrays. I don't look forward to meeting him. Why would I? He takes my money, and what he gives me in return only works for a day or so before I need to see him again. And then the price is often higher.
I don't smoke, as you know. I remember when you were going through the break-up with Dad, and you stopped having the occasional cigarette with a drink when you were out with friends, and started smoking at home. I pinched one of your smokes one time and tried it. It was filthy, and made my eyes sting and my throat clench. I chucked it away and buried it under the lemon tree so you wouldn't find out, and I never did it again. After that I could never understand how anyone smoked their second cigarette, then their third and so on, until they were hooked.
It wasn't like that with this stuff. I took the first one because it was there and because my friends told me I was a wuss if I didn't. It sounds corny, I know. Such a cliché to succumb to peer pressure. 'It's okay to say no.' That's what they say in their drug education talks. But they should add, 'It might be okay to say no, but it can also be social suicide.'
I guess it won't surprise you that Chunks – sorry, Greg – was part of it. It was at one of his parties that I first got high. There was this guy there who I didn't know, and he offered me a little blue pill. I don't really want to go too much into what was said, but in the end I took it just to shut everyone up.
I didn't think it worked all that well, at first. I just started feeling a bit warm and incredibly happy. I don't want you to get upset when I say this, but it was the first time I'd felt warm and happy for ages. At that stage you weren't sick, and I think if you had been I'd never have accepted the dare, or the challenge, or whatever you want to call it. But the only thing wrong with you then was that you weren't living with Dad. It doesn't matter whose fault that was, but I don't think I felt sorry for you. For either of you. I always thought that if you'd bothered to try, you could have worked it out between you. I'm older now, and a little wiser (I hope), and I understand that sometimes people who once loved each other reach the point where they just can't live together anymore.
So I took that pill at that party. I've done a lot of reading since then, and some people talk about everything being more vivid, and clearer, and more beautiful. I just felt warm and happy. Not sleepy or drowsy, just nice. Really nice.
Do you feel warm and happy when your little pump is whirring away in its little handbag thingy? Or does it just take away the pain?
God, this sounds pathetic. For you there was no moment where you could ask yourself, 'Do I do this or not?' You never had a choice and it sounds like I'm trying to make my decision sound noble and kind of inevitable. But it wasn't and I know that. It was just a matter of weighing up my two choices, and playing pros and cons. If I took the pill on offer, the pros were that everyone would slap me on the back and we'd have that moment in common, forever. 'That time we got high at Chunks' party – remember that?' The other pro was that it might feel good, but to be honest that had little to do with it the first time because I wasn't sure how I'd respond to it.
And the fear was one of the cons. What if it was like the pills they showed us on that DVD at school, with someone pouring dishwashing powder into a big silver bowl along with whatever was in those filthy little science beakers, before scooping the mixture into a pill press?
The pros of not taking that pill? Now it's obvious. But back then the only upside was not having to worry about what extra ingredients might have been added. And the cons of saying no? Well, I think I've covered that. So I took it. It took a big glug of Red Bull to get it down because my throat and mouth were so dry, but eventually it slipped down.
Lauren. I just remembered the name of the nurse with the Mazda and the Celtic thumbring. That was starting to bug me. Lauren. I never told you this; I liked her a lot. I never said much to her, but that didn't matter. I liked her, and not just because she was looking after you. You remember those times you asked me to make her a cup of tea? Well, I would have done it anyway, even if you hadn't asked me to.
Lauren. I feel better now, having remembered her name.
So anyway, I found myself down by the ferry, reading haiku written on the wall with a felt-tip marker by some oddball who thought I needed a short, intense description of the place. I tried writing haiku once, when our English teacher thought we should learn some poetry. It's not bad, actually, once you let go of the whole five-seven-five idea. Who wants to count syllables? Life's too short for counting syllables.
(Remember that time, before you got sick, when I was doing that barista course at school and I borrowed that fancy coffee machine from Sam's mum so I could practise? Remember that? And I offered to make you a coffee with it. Then I said, 'Unless you'd prefer instant,' and do you remember what you said then? 'Life's too short for instant coffee.' But you didn't realise what you'd said and I laughed, and you went, 'What?' Then you laughed too.)
So, what haiku would I write about waiting down by the ferry stop? I did one in my head. I can't recall exactly how it went but it was something like this:
here I sit alone waiting for a guy named Jenga he'd better come alone
Or something. It's not all that good, is it, especially with the same word at the end of the first and third lines? It's probably just as well I kept it in my head and didn't write it down.
A ferry came a little while after that, and that made me a bit nervous, to be honest. I didn't want Jenga turning up while all those people were getting off. In the end, only two people got off, and it turned out that one of them was Jenga.
He walked past, quite close, and said, 'Are you Jeremy?'
'I might be,' I said.
I'm pretty sure he rolled his eyes when he heard me say that. 'Well you're not James effing Bond – are you Jeremy or not?'
'And you are?' I asked, and this time he definitely rolled his eyes and might have even sighed.
'How many people get off the ferry and just happen to know the name of someone waiting there?' he asked. Then he told me that I shouldn't look so worried, and I guess the fact that he said that was a pretty good sign that I wasn't hiding it very well.
But I said, 'Well, I've never done this before.'
'There's nothing to be frightened of,' he told me. 'But before we go any further, for the record, are you a cop?'
I almost laughed out loud when he said that. I mean, you know how young I look, and I wanted to say, 'Yeah, I'm a cop – I went to the Police Academy instead of doing Year Eight.'
But I didn't say that, of course. I just said, 'No, I'm not a cop. So, how does this go?' He looked around, then stuck his hand in his pocket and pulled out a small ziplock bag.
'Here you go – the two like you said you wanted plus a free one. Consider it a gift,' he said, holding the bag out with his right hand and sticking out his left hand at the same time. He wiggled his fingers a bit, and said, 'Come on, look like you mean it.' Then I put the money in his hand and it was done. I'd just bought my first drugs.
Excerpted from City by James Roy. Copyright © 2012 James Roy. Excerpted by permission of University of Queensland Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
ContentsBUS 555 – 4.36pm,
FAST MUSIC THROUGH SORDID SUMMER,
THE TIPPING POINT,
BUS 555 – 5.08pm,
TOYOTA OF THE BEAST,
BUS 555 – 5.43pm,
JAY ON THE TRAIN,
OSONDI OWENDI (One man's meat is another man's poison),
I DON'T CALL THIS VANDALISM,
BUS 567 – 5.54pm,