Musings and photographs from a man in a little house by a river, on a little island at the bottom of the world.

Friday, 28 December 2012

A Fairy Tale Not Of New York

The Imagining

His guts had stopped sourly roiling, but one sensation had been replaced by another – he now felt hollow in the chest - empty, spent. But he’d done it. She’d warned him what would happen, and followed through, but not before she’d let him have it – with both barrels. A ‘fire cracker’ one of his mates had called her a few years back, after he’d witnessed a similar explosion over one of his indiscretions – this time after he’d had a few pints too many. After that shaming, he had vowed to change, and had cut back on the grog. He was proud of himself for doing so, in fact up to the eve of this morning he’d been feeling much better about himself all round.

In his youth he had gone to that big school on the hill, at the southern fringe of his industrial coastal town. In fairness, though, he hadn’t been much chop at his studies, although he had tried. The only subject he’d remotely developed some affinity for was manual arts, but even then his projects never seemed to turn out quite right. He only lasted half a year at the big college after Year 10. When the offer of a position came up, working for a small family painting firm, he’d jumped at the chance. He didn’t much enjoy the constant scraping at walls the job entailed, but he sure enjoyed spending his pay packet at the weekend

He met her at Siroccos, the town’s only late night venue, now long gone. In truth she wasn’t much to look at, but had a comfortable enough figure, and, after a few more fizzy drinks, he lost his virginity to her in a damp bedroom of a house he shared with mates. He continued on seeing her off and on over the course of the next year or so – they were ‘friends with benefits’ – a term he hated, but it seemed apt. Then she fell pregnant. He ‘stood by her’. They had a desultory little ceremony and became man and wife. He knew she didn’t love him, and she was certainly less than he had hoped for. With his tendency to meatiness, a balding pate of gingerish hair and pallid complexion, he couldn’t really expect much more than Merryl, who really stacked it on in the months leading up to the birth of their daughter. She showed no inclination to lose it in the months thereafter. By this stage the painting job had gone, with the firm going belly-up, and he was on the dole. For a time they lived with her mother, a habitual smoker, whose favourite opening gambit was, ‘It’s none of my beeswax, but…….’

It was the smoking around the baby he loathed, so he was relieved when the Housing finally allocated them a dismal little flat in a big, but ageing, block down by the foreshore. The best part of his day was his ‘escape’; his afternoon walk along the boardwalk into the shops, pushing the stroller before him. The mother had soon taken to visiting most days and, although his wife never smoked, she seemed impervious to her mother’s addiction as they sat around the table in the fug, ‘bitchin’, as he put it, happily. She had continued to expand, living largely on the junk food that made her fatter and fatter. And, as jobs around the town dried up, so their debt became, well, also fatter and fatter.

He’d picked up, over time, a few bits and pieces in terms of employment, but nothing seemed to stick. Each time he’d arrive home, with the news of another laying off, the ‘fire cracker’ in her would re-emerge. After giving him a tongue lashing, off she’d storm to her mother’s, Shayla in tow. He didn’t care much about her; it was the effect on his daughter that would cut him up. After a few hours or a few days she would return, calmer, and they’d sit down and try and work out where they could cut back to make ends meet. They’d talk of perhaps moving south to the island’s capital, or even across to the mines in the West. In reality, though, he knew she’d never leave to forge a new life elsewhere. She was conjoined at the hips to her mother.

And on it went as Shayla started school and worked her way up through her primary years. She was nothing like either of them. She was tall for her age, ‘willowy’ one of her teachers had called her a few years back, at a parent-teacher evening. They both enjoyed attending these for Shayla thrived at school and, bright and vibrant, she was doing well. At the most recent one Miss Perkins had talked of ‘an excellent academic future’. Even university had been mentioned. They left the school feeling much better about the world. This had been enhanced by the digs they’d been successful in applying for – a new independent unit in a hillside suburb. It wasn’t the best address in town, but their new abode was roomy and, apart from a bit of hooning and marital disturbance, the street was relatively quiet.

He’d almost given up on regular work when, half way through 2011, his job provider called saying there was a position for him at the little city’s largest employer, on the nightshift. The company produced some of the giant machines that fed the mineral boom on the mainland, and he knew this was make or break. Merryl had warned him that, unless he found work soon, she’d leave him, taking Shayla. She was sick of subsisting on his dole and her meagre returns as a cleaner, and coping with ever increasing debt.

He found nightshift to his liking, the melding together giant steel plates as part of a team rewarding. The other guys were all personable; the shift supervisors fair. His WPAs (Workplace Assessments) were reasonable. There were always some dot points to improve on, but they seemed to indicate he was making a worthy contribution. He knew he was slow on the uptake, it had often to be explained to him a few times before he’d ‘get it’, and he had majorly stuffed up on a couple of occasions. Still he felt he had turned a corner. At weekends he had taken to working out at a gym. He’d hoped that would be contagious and that Merryl would join him, but she was too busy ‘bitchin’ with her mother in the smoke haze. It was Shayla who’d accompany him more often than not. She’d taken up with Little Athletics too. He enjoyed transporting her to her meets during the warmer months, and comparing notes with the other proud parents. The fact that he slept during the day, waking to welcome Shayla from school, and to cook her an evening meal while Merryl was cleaning, suited him. His sex life, as a result, was non-existent as he would see his wife for only a few moments as she arrived home, and he left for his work, just before midnight. He didn’t mind that too much and knew his wife would far prefer a Big Mac to fifteen minutes of ‘nookie’. Night shift paid well, and their debt was becoming more manageable. He was even starting to feel the distinct possibility of happiness, of inner peace.

As 2012 progressed a shadow started to hang over his life. There were rumours of retrenchments as the Chinese economy, on which the mining boom relied, had started to flatline. A sister company in Thailand had come on-stream, and it seemed, although nothing official was ever said, that orders were down. Would their workplace go the same way as so many others and be moved off-shore? Being a contractor, with less than excellent WPAs, he knew if any of that eventuated, he would be in the gun.

 It was the final shift before the Christmas break and he had actually started to feel safe. If anything were to occur, surely it wouldn’t be just before their week off for the festivities. He was wrong; he knew that as soon as he arrived to the news that a meeting had been called. His heart sank. The management men told them officially that it was all looking pretty crook – that there were to be layoffs now, and more than likely further pain in the new year. Night shift was to cease. They were all to go to their work stations and they would be individually informed of their reallocations, if that were to be the case, or the other. He knew which it would be for him, and sure enough, all too soon Management Man came along, tapped him on the shoulder, apologised and told him he’d be clearing his locker at the end of the shift.

He had just wanted to get out of the place, to get home and face what was coming to him as soon as possible. His mates, though, convinced him to stay on for a while and have a few ‘coldies’ at the barbecue the same management had put on to celebrate the final working night for the year. In truth it was less a celebration than a wake. Soon word would get out and the town would find out they had yet more families to support in the name of maintaining the profit margin. He just needed to tell her and be done with it.

After doing the deed he just sat for a while, wondering if indeed she was gone for good or would it follow the usual pattern. Of course it was all mainly about Shayla. For the first time in years they had had the dough to give her the top present on her wish list, and he badly needed to see that. Then he made a move to do the mowing he’d promised her he’d do in the morning the night before – the night when he still felt like a man.

The Reality

‘I don’t give a flying fuck about the mowing. Fancy coming home and telling me what’s happened, that you’ve done it again, and then start rabbiting on about bloody mowing. You are a poor excuse for a man, a bloody hopeless father to boot – a friggin’ no-hoper, that’s what you are! And you’re pissed as well, rat arsed! You don’t give a fuck do you? What are we going to do now - and right on Christmas? What’s that to be like for our Shayla, you stupid, stupid man? Well, you were warned, you bloody drongo. I’m fuckin’ well outta here. C’mon Shayla, let’s go!’

And that’s what greeted me from just across the road. I’d just come around to my mother’s to let her know of my Christmas Day plans and that was being yelled out for all the world to hear. Soon a door slammed shut and a small, dumpy, obese woman wobbled – that was the only way to describe it – out of her front door and scurried up the driveway to a garage. She was closely followed by a tall, lithe girl, sobbing her heart out and clutching a book under her wing. As I rang the doorbell a car charged off down the street.

In fact I’d just left my son’s abode and all wasn’t well with him either. He was flat when I’d expected him to be happy as larry he was on his break. At first I’d thought he’d been laid off. He had relayed to me the rumours that had been circulating in his work place, but he thought it had all picked up in recent times. He’d had good WPAs in any case and hoped he’d be okay if there had to be terminations – and that proved to be the case. He was ‘down’ because many of his mates were told that they were parting ways, that his lucrative night gig had ceased to be and he had been moved to evening shift, and because they’d been all told there may be more bad news to come. Still he had survived the first cull and he knew I was very proud of him for that, and the fact that he was a good worker, a ‘self starter’; one who was adaptable and picked up new skills with relative ease. I knew his always generous heart was feeling for others and it would cast a pall over his Christmas.

As I left my mother’s home a short time later, on the lawn opposite, a man was mowing, wearing the same hi-viz work clothes as had been my son a hour or so beforehand.

In the district’s largest McMansion, on a hill overlooking the sea, my island’s richest man was presumably in residence. I’d wonder if he would have sleepless nights for the family Christmases he’d ruined, for the town he’d let down.

The Song

Snow has been forecast for Christmas Day in New York City. Already a chill wind from the north was blowing down the avenues as the Irish pubs all over the city came alive to the city’s working citizens on the completion of their final shifts for the year. Twenty five years on from its conception, all knew that sometime in the next few hours the song would be sung. The craic would cease as the opening bars of this paen to another pre-Yuletide squabble, not so different to the one played out on a far away isle, came on sound systems in every Celtic bar in NYC. Gradually the punters would join in on the lyrics of this greatest of all anti-carols, tankards of the ‘black stuff’ would be raised as, with relish, ‘You scumbag, you maggot. You cheap lousy faggot,’ would be belted out by wannabe Shane MacGowan’s, minus the rotting teeth, and wannabe Kirsty MacColl’s, minus the rotten fate. As the song’s siren call came, ‘And the bells are ringing out for Christmas Day’, fists would be pumping, Guinness would be guzzled.

On the North West Coast of my island there would be no ‘bells ringing out
for Christmas Day’ as Burnie had taken another hit. The little city had had a few of these in recent times, but was resilient and her people would bounce back. I was not one of them these days, having made that move south, but many I loved still were, and it made me sad that such a thing could be done right on the cusp of a special time.

The Fairy Tale

On a bright, sunny antipodean 25th of December, from a window of a little home in a maligned suburb on an island in the southern seas, a couple watched as a young lass rode her new bike up and down the street below, a smile as radiant as an Uluru sunset plastered on her face. The man reached his hand out to the woman. She took it.

From the Blue Room, may all your fairy tales come to pass in 2013.

A YouTube  of  The Song =