Hello! Sorry I haven’t sent something out in a while. Here’s a short story I’ve been playing around with for a little bit. I think it’s a short story, at least. Might be the first bit of something longer. Anyway, have a read and see if you enjoy it.
PS This isn’t a Proxy story or even a sci fi story, so don’t keep waiting for the bit where people are robots or whatever, like I did the time I thought The Robber Bride was The Blind Assassin and read around 3/4 of that book wondering when the aliens were going to land.
All The Ruckus
I was fired from the library for being hammered, which I hope you’ll understand is really a lot of bullshit. Sorting books at the library isn’t exactly a job that requires full sobriety, and I said as much to Maureen while she was threatening to call “security” (the word security here in inverted commas because the library’s “security guard” is Len, who doesn’t technically work here, but once found a pervert wanking in the magazine section over a copy of Fishing and Boating Australia (?!) and threw him out, literally threw him out the front door like in an old western, after which point Maureen started calling him our “security guard” as a joke, except Len didn’t see it as a joke, started turning up in a blue parka with a torch on his belt and combat boots and bothering anyone who was in the magazine section too long, so eventually Maureen stopped calling him that ironically, even though he’s absolutely not on the payroll and doesn’t use the staff toilets).
Maureen said, “There is an OH&S concern, as you are well aware.”
“An OH&S concern?” I asked, incredulous but also gathering up my things because I could see Len was making his way over to see what the ruckus was all about, and, employee or not, the guy’s upper body strength can’t be denied, “What exactly are you concerned about, Maureen? Am I sorting these books while operating a fucking forklift?”
This was a funny joke, objectively, but Maureen was on an absolute tear, by Maureen standards, and leant in very close and in a whisper said, “It’s not like we haven’t spoken about this before, Brett.”
And look, fair play to Maureen on this one, this had been the topic of conversation previously. Around a month before what we’re talking about now happened, I’d set down my backpack on a box of new arrivals, forgetting that there was a half full bottle of vodka in there, which I had also forgotten to seal. The vodka leaked through the bag and ruined an amount of books. And sure, destroying books is, as Maureen pointed out, very much the antitheses of the core business of any library, and is precisely why “we don’t allow drinking at work”. But as I pointed out in return, the fact that it was vodka in the bag is irrelevant, in terms of book-destruction. Imagine I’d placed an identical backpack on an identical cardboard box but instead of vodka it contained an unsealed half full bottle of orange juice. Now, in this scenario, the same number of books are destroyed (possibly more — pulp), but despite this, would there be all this hand wringing and OH&S reporting and official warnings? I very much doubt that. I’d say the whole incident would be laughed off as a humorous workplace mishap, like the day Kerry wore odd shoes by mistake or when Dianne had a stroke in Young Adult Literature.
Regardless of how right I was about any of this, Maureen issued me with an official warning on the spot, meaning that if it ever happened again, I would “find my position terminated”. So, when it did happen again, and she caught me drinking out of a hip flask by the self-help section, she said that was that, and started talking in that way that people talk when they’re trying to be a serious person, where they sound like slightly concussed lawyers.
“I am informing you, Brett,” she said, unsure of what to do with her hands, “that I am terminating your employment as of effective on this moment hereafter,” she paused before adding, “in perpetuity.”
I asked her to give me one more chance, but I was careful not to beg. You can’t beg in negotiations like this. You’ve got to keep your begging powder dry otherwise you have nowhere to go when dignity fails. She told me I was “asking her to do the impossible”, as if I’d just told her to eat a piano, and it was around that time that she threatened to bring Len into all of this.
Trying one last ploy, I said, “You know this is terrible timing. I don’t know if you read the news, Maureen, but we’re in something of a global economic free-fall. There are no jobs. There is a war on. Caroline got let go from the roast chook shop last week, Maureen. No, that’s not in the news, but I’m telling you. No one’s eating roast chook right now because of the economy. It’s not a priority.”
This was true, Caroline had been let go from the roast chook shop one week earlier. She’d worked there for five years. I’m not saying that’s a crazy amount of time to work somewhere — I didn’t expect Daryl to buy her a gold watch and throw a big party at the Opera House to see her off — but five years isn’t nothing, either, in terms of the time someone has to be alive. So, when Daryl told her, casual as you like, that they were having to cut back everyone’s shifts while “the economy sorted itself out”, she assumed that while it wasn’t ideal, we would be able to get by on a little less money until the world economy was in a position where people once again could enjoy rotisserie chickens. But that wasn’t the case. Daryl went on to explain he was planning to cut her shifts back to “zero shifts”, then paused, put his hand on her shoulder and said that she needed to remember to turn the cool room lights off, at which point Caroline went, I think rightly, completely apeshit at him. There were some things said to Daryl that make Caroline’s future employment at the roast chook joint, even if the impenetrable global market forces which govern whether people eat a roto-chook on the reg were to realign tomorrow, an impossibility.
And she’d come home from work and we’d made dinner and then she’d told me, with a forced smile on her face, that she’d been let go from the chook shop on account of the economy. She’d said that it was of course a bit worrying, but told me not to fret because it was the start of a new adventure. And I’d put my hand on hers and told her it would be okay, that the library job was steady while she worked out what that adventure would be. We finished dinner and ate the rest of a Viennetta that had lodged itself in the top corner of the freezer for months, hanging there like a watchful guardian over the frozen peas and carrots.
This is all to explain what I meant when I told Maureen that it was bad timing to be let go.
By now, Len had lumbered over with his torch swinging from his belt. His torch was a big Maglite thing, the kind they used to run over with trucks on TV.
“What’s the problem here, Maureen?” Len asked, and eyed me like someone who had spent too much time leafing through Fishing and Boating Australia.
“Maureen is firing me, Len. From the library. It’s terrible timing.”
I’m not sure why I was appealing to Len in this moment. He was less an employee of the library than I was, but here I was begging for his mercy like he was Maureen’s superior, rather than what he was, which was a guy who bought a big torch.
Maureen was turning red, and I have to say that despite the fact that she was public enemy number one at that moment, in terms of Brett-stuff, I did feel for her. She’s not a bad person. She hates conflict. Once, someone came in and got angry with her that we didn’t have the latest Liane Moriarty novel available and she took it so personally I had to gently suggest she go home. It was the real pits to see her like that, so I went onto that borrower’s account and gave them a $20 fine for being rude to nice Maureen. Of course, you don’t have that option on the drop-down menu, but if you just put it under “damaged return”, very few people will argue the toss. So I did feel bad about putting nice Maureen in this position, but also, nice Maureen was trying to fire me from the library, so I guess people are complicated and contain multitudes, even Maureen.
I think Len maybe sensed Maureen’s discomfort and stepped in.
“Look, Brett,” he said, eyeing the hip-flask, “I get it’s a bad time, but it’s not like there’s a good time to be fired from the library, mate”
And I had said, and immediately regretted, “What about the day before the library explodes?” I had meant this just as a contrarian response to his “no good time” point, but which came off — and here I will admit that I can see how you could take it this way — as a direct threat to blow up the library the following day.
Which I obviously had no intention of doing, and what’s more did not do.
Still! Very bad timing.
I finished my flask on the bus home. I’d never caught this bus home because I’d never been fired from the library halfway through my shift before, and there were a lot of kids on it. One of them looked at the flask and whispered to their friend. That didn’t feel great, but if you’re going to drink a hip-flask up the back of what you were now starting to realise was, in all probability, a school bus, you probably had to be prepared for some whispering.
I felt something in my throat and I realised something was coming loose. It wasn’t just the loss of income, which, obviously, was not great; it was that for the first time in my life, I felt my long held conviction that on balance, it’s fairly probable that things will turn out okay was ebbing away from me, and it was only as I started to question it did I realise that it was a more or less fundamental rule by which I’d led my life, up to this point.
Which was, I thought while sitting there, stupid. Why should everything turn out okay? What was the evidence for this, Brett? And, far more alarmingly, what was the evidence against this? How come I’d never looked at this bedrock tenet before I was fired from the library and realised it held up to no scrutiny at all? People’s whole lives are ruined all the time for entirely arbitrary reasons. You don’t even need to watch the news to see that happening. I think about a science teacher I had in year nine a lot. One day, he’d knocked his coffee mug into the sink on one of the lab benches, and had stood looking at the shards of porcelain for a full minute, then, without saying a word, he had walked out of the room and never came back. I don’t mean he didn’t come back during the lesson, I mean he walked out of the room, and then the school and never came back. I never saw him again. As far as I’m aware, no one did. Such a small thing breaks, and you turn your back on the world and walk and keep walking.
And as I sat on the bus trying to work out how to tell Caroline I’d been fired from the library, I tried hard not to cry. I don’t mind crying, but I don’t like crying in public. As I tried to explain to Caroline a few years ago when I got some bad news in a Red Rooster, crying in public is very similar, in terms of reaction, to pissing your pants in public. It’s not bad, per se, but no one really knows how to handle it when they see it happen because they need more information before they can act.
A veteran got on and a woman offered him his seat, which he turned down. This got him applause. I’m not kidding, some people clapped him for doing that. I wanted to point out that the guy was missing an eye, which last time I checked didn’t affect your ability to stand up on the bus, but it occurred to me that this was precisely the sort of thing people said in shaky phone videos uploaded to YouTube said, right before the veteran whacked them in the face and everyone cheered as they fell over. Then again in black and white and slow motion. Whack, cheer, fall.
Caroline was painting when I got home. It was a horse in a field next to a barn. As far as it all goes, it was pretty good. If you showed that painting to anyone on earth and asked them what was in it, they’d say “horse, barn, field”, provided they were familiar with those concepts going in. She’d rediscovered painting since losing her job at the roast chook shop, and while I wasn’t sure her plan to parlay it into cash money would bear fruit, (“I could sell art at the markets,” she’d said, which to me sounds like something you can only do in idyllic coastal towns or the Middle Ages) I was still glad that she had found something that made her happy.
“What do you think, hon?” she said, rolling her chair aside so I could properly take in the painting.
“It’s really something” I said, and gave her a kiss on the forehead. I was dreading the next part, the telling her about being fired from the library part. I was dreading it so much, in fact, that I decided not to do it at all. It could probably wait until later.
We’d have a drink first.
I didn’t tell her later, though.
Every time I’d think about doing it, I’d feel a huge lump in my throat and know that the moment I said it, I’d begin to cry, and she’d put her arms around my neck so that my head was on her shoulder and she’d say “Oh, darling” and I’d just cry some more, so instead I suggested we watch TV with dinner. This was smart from me, because over dinner is where we usually ask each other about our days, and I knew that if she asked me about my day, I wouldn’t be able to outright lie to her, and then we be at the crying and the arms around the neck and the “Oh, darling” stuff, and so TV it was.
Given our TV only got two channels, and we were no longer allowed to share Patrick’s Netflix log-in as we were, in his words, “gunking up his algorithm”, we were not spoilt for choice. There was a reality show where people had to try and trick an intelligent bear and an hour long investigative report about our troops on the ground in the war. The bear show was pretty good. People had all sorts of methods to try and trick it, (showing the bear images of itself, but the images are doctored with computers to make the bear look a lot older; giving the bear its food in increasingly huge bowls to give the bear, I guess, the impression it’s shrinking; performing close up coin magic on the bear, etc) but the bear saw right through all of them, and the host, who I think used to be an AFL player, would shout “You’re dumber than a bear!” and the person would get to go home.
After watching the bear show, I cleaned up the dishes in the sink. We might be okay. Things could work out. Worse things happen. Just tell her. Tomorrow.
Later that night, as we’d put out the lights and were lying in bed, it occurred to me that, given the premise, it was strange they hadn’t called the show something like Smarter Than The Average Bear. Here was a show about trying to outsmart a bear, and it was called Clever Bear, what a missed opportunity. And these guys, the ones who named the bear show, were probably on decent coin. It annoyed me so much that I said it to Caroline, even though I knew she was almost asleep, and she mumbled that they probably couldn’t get the rights from the Yogi Bear people, then snuggled up on my chest and drifted off.