Chris had been laid out, flat on his back, on the grassy embankment most of the afternoon, one of many drawn to the man-made beach that sultry October day. A number of people were sunning themselves on the sand. Others reclined on the embankments either side of the change rooms and toilet facilities.
Opening his eyes, the altered position of the sun alerted him to the fact that he had slept a considerable time. The giant orb sat appreciably lower in the sky than it had done on his arrival and yet the afternoon remained muggy and oppressive. Gentle ripples skidded across the surface of both lagoons, at the whim of a faint northwesterly breeze.
Without raising himself, he peeked left and right. A woman he had noticed earlier had not moved. Her face was turned toward him, eyes closed as she lay on her stomach, right cheek pressed against the grass. Her visage touched him in an odd sort of way. He could imagine her coming here every fine day, being among the crowd but apart from it because nothing in her world corresponded to the lives of canoodling couples and young families. Perhaps the grimy bags by her side contained all she possessed in the world. Maybe she lugged them with her wherever she went, knowing this to be the safest recourse, safer than leaving them in the room where she slept.
Chris took her for a South Brisbaneite or West Ender who probably resided in a house not dissimilar to the one Dougie and he moved into the previous summer. She bore the hallmarks of a boarding house habitué. In fact, she reminded him of Colleen, the Musgrave Street resident who appraised him with eternally sad eyes and called him ‘love’ whenever they crossed paths at the miserable dive they called home.
On his right ranged several sunbathers, including a girl who looked about his age. She interrupted her reading of a paperback to shoot him a glance he left unacknowledged. Raising himself on his elbows, he watched swimmers frolic in the lagoons. The sandy beach fronted the larger and deeper of the two.
Beyond a profusion of palm trees and the coffee-coloured waters of the river, the buildings of the central city rounded out the picture. Chris’s eyes rested a moment on the technology institute, adorned at the front and side with the large lettering QUT, and the endless traffic speeding along the expressway.
A young couple splashing about in the main lagoon caught his attention. The girl had on a shocking pink bikini. At the back, the lower part comprised a mere length of thread that formed a T at the base of her spine, rejoining the front of the outfit high on either hip. Her companion ducked below the water for an instant and reappeared with her atop his shoulders.
“Excuse me. Do you have the time?”
The girl holding the paperback had turned to face him. Chris studied her in silence, the affected way she pushed strands of auburn hair out of her eyes. He gave an exaggerated shrug, as though to retort what are you asking me for? After all he was without a watch. With a tinge of satisfaction, he saw her revert to her book.
Five minutes later he brushed loose grass strands off his knee-length shorts and went on his way. He crossed the embankment and donned a pair of sunglasses to offset the glare of the sun, then descending toward a bank of grey-flecked cloud. His route brought him into Musgrave Park, where some local Aborigines were gathered in their preferred place.
Ambling past a toilet block, Chris sighted several men and women sitting on the ground. Empty or partly full bottles and cans littered the space. To judge by appearances the majority of the group had long since drunk themselves into oblivion. The drooped heads and dissolute comportment told the sorry tale.
He fixed a withering gaze on one and all, a stare that a burly middle-aged man responded to with several choice words of invective. Chris instantly slowed in his walk, as if itching to take the matter further. But he thought better of it at the last. The Aborigine let it pass, preferring to take another chug on his tinnie.
The boarding house stood midway along Musgrave Street, adjacent to the park. For better or worse it had not fallen victim to the gentrification that began in earnest a decade before. Development put in place for EXPO and similar events appreciably changed the inner southside and led in turn to the closure of numerous boarding houses.
The caretaker did everything in his power to make the establishment clean and secure, but would have been the first to acknowledge the onerousness of the undertaking. He pointed out the parlous state of the building to those who dropped by in search of lodging, openly surmising that the property owner’s reluctance to green light repair work beyond the most basic stemmed from an unspoken wish to see the property deteriorate. Sooner or later, he was bound to either sell up, assuring himself of a stupendous profit given the rampant upsurge in property values, or stick around while renovation progressed. Then he would go in for the kill.
The caretaker dreaded the prospect of any imminent closure and tearing down, aware that a number of the long-term residents would be hard pushed to cope. Lives would spiral out of control, regardless of whether they continued to be lived on the streets of the inner city or in outlying suburbs, an inconvenient distance from the facilities they relied on to keep body and soul intact.
Chris knew all this – the caretaker harped on it in his conversation – though harsh realities of the kind concerned him less the closer he came to the hour of his departure. How he longed to put the prison of his four walls upstairs behind him. As soon as his mate Michael returned from the central city, Chris would find out whether he had amassed his share of the bond and the first month’s rent on the two-bedroom flat in New Farm they initially set their sights on weeks ago. Everything going to plan, they aimed to carry out the crosstown shift in the morning.
He bounded up the steps at the front of the block and continued along the verandah at the side. At the far end several chairs were arrayed around a low table. On hot days many of the tenants passed the time there rather than in the cramped confines of their individual rooms. Chris flopped down on a chair next to the pair who were out there now and brought his feet up on the table.
“What have you been up to?”
The younger of the residents, a blond-haired individual, fixed a boozy gaze on Chris. “I’ve been sittin’ here watchin’ the grass grow.”
Chris made no comment. This reply, he wryly thought, summed up the lives of the oaf and many of the other tenants. They had more time on their hands than they knew what to do with. Their days consisted of tossing back the alcohol and watching the grass grow.
“Is Dougie in?”
Chris reckoned Dougie would be glued to the broadcast of an early season cricket match from Victoria, probably in the company of the embittered New South Welshman who occupied one of the rooms across the corridor.
“Here she comes,” said the other resident, smirking. “The angel of mercy!”
Chris stopped short of lighting a cigarette when he eyed big-boned Colleen. The deep lines on her face and the grey streaks in her hair looked more pronounced than ever as she ascended the front steps opposite. He abandoned his seat and began going upstairs before she could buttonhole him with meaningless, convoluted chatter.
The sarcastic nickname was peculiarly apt. A caring woman by nature, Colleen commiserated especially with the youth and his father for the simple reason that Chris and Dougie lacked what she believed they sorely needed – a nurturing female presence. She was not a well person herself but she did what she could for them.
A young man needs a mother, she said to Chris once. He offered no opinion on that. His mother had vanished into death years ago. Through the mist of his vague memories the thing that most stood out for him in the couple of years before she died were her continual admissions to hospital. These days Dougie, drunk or sober, never talked about her.
Dougie’s door was ajar but Chris found no sign of his dad. He had gathered with the New South Welshman in the latter’s room. A moment later, over and above the din of the cricket broadcast, Chris heard his father’s companion rant.
“Where they find some of these bloody fools, I dunno.”
“They think we’ve got money to burn, mate. Hidden under our rugs. If it was their cheque it’d be different.”
Inserting a key in the lock of his room, Chris heard his father address him. “Is that you, Chris?”
Chris went inside and slumped on the bed. Months ago he had draped a spare sheet over the narrow railing attached to the window, in this way making up for the absence of a curtain. It gently slanted inward on the late afternoon breeze, revealing the humps and dips of the building’s grey-white roof. Dougie appeared in the doorway. Barefoot, he stood holding a can of beer. A tattered check shirt and shorts hung loose from his stringy frame.
“Did you have some dinner?”
Chris, lighting his cigarette, shook his head.
“We’re not doing too well in the cricket.” His son was silent. Dougie, slightly unsteady on his feet, took another swig from the can. “Has Mick fronted up with the dough?”
“I haven’t seen him.”
A furrow lining the man’s brow hinted at his difficulty coming to terms with the fact of Chris’s move. He drank another mouthful of beer. “I’m gonna get some dinner. Comin’?”
“I’ll eat later.”
Dougie turned away. “We might get tossed in the cricket. The batting’s been piss poor.”
Chris turned restlessly on his bed and called after his dad. “Dougie, close the door.”
A scrawny forearm reached in and pulled the door shut.
Chris went on waiting for Michael. At the end of an hour he walked down the corridor to the bathroom. No sooner had he finished his ablutions than he caught sight of Dougie and the moustachioed Michael conversing by his door. Approaching, he overheard the tail end of a remark of his father’s.
“ …if you need me, you know where to find me.”
Chris grimaced when Dougie stumbled on re-entering the New South Welshman’s lair, provoking a rebuke from the man.
Michael, a slow-witted but gentle person five years Chris’s senior, had obtained his share of the funds necessary for the move. They talked over plans until ten o’clock. It was sometime later that the sound of knocking woke the sleeping youth.
“Who is it?”
“Open up for a sec.”
‘No, Dougie. I’m sleeping.”
“It won’t take a minute,” said Dougie, rapping continuously on his son’s door.
“Go away, Dougie.”
“Chris, open up.”
Dougie’s patience gave out. Shaping his right hand into a fist, he brought it hard against the door.
“You’d let Michael in.”
“Shut up, Dougie.”
“Is he in there with you?” Silence. “Is he in there with you, you poofter?”
“Don’t call me that, Dougie.”
“Poofters, the pair of you!”
Chris leapt out of bed and opened the door. “I said not to call me that.”
Before Dougie could roar the jibe again he was flattened with a blow from his overwrought son’s flying right fist. In his inebriation, the hapless man could offer no more resistance than an upraised arm, an ineffectual defence against the succession of blows rained down on him as he lay supine. Chris accompanied each with a stark exhalation of breath.
“Loser!” he yelled, returning to his room and slamming and locking the door behind him.
He rose around seven o’clock the next morning and went straight downstairs. The inveterate early birds among the tenants were up and about, Colleen among them. Ignoring his customary instinctive aversion, he sat beside her on the verandah.
“David just left.”
“You mean the bloke with the hat?”
Chris remembered the strange man who gabbed non-stop about taking a stab at fortune in the gem fields. He liked to tell the very few with the patience to lend him a non-judgemental ear that during the years he worked as a boilermaker he dreamt of buying a plot of land and building a house. But a nervous breakdown and chronic heart condition put paid to those notions.
“Where’s he gone?”
Chris nodded in grudging admiration. David had spoken of the Gympie fields as his first prospecting port of call. But the young man had heard him out with the same attitude that he listened to all who spoke of leaving the city for something better. He regarded it as hot air that would never translate into action. Now, David had surprised him.
In fact the would-be prospector fronted up to the ticket counter at Roma Street and made the shattering discovery that he was several dollars short of the amount required for the bus journey north. Either he had been robbed or misplaced the money, he concluded, futilely burrowing in the individual compartments of his wallet.
He checked and re-checked his pockets and searched furiously in his bag. To no avail. Desperate, he approached strangers, but not one offered to help him out of his predicament. Soon enough, he gave up and returned to the boarding house, his enormous straw hat bobbing furiously.
Chris had sat down beside Colleen just ten minutes earlier. Both now listened to him pour out his woe.
“If someone had given me the money, I’d have picked them up and carried them!” he said, darting back and forth across the brittle boards of the verandah.
“We’re second-class citizens to most, love.”
A hunted look in his eyes, David wrung his hands. It had been like this when he returned to the world after his breakdown. Sure, they sorted out a place, a meagre room, for him, but not supervision or care. For a long time, for days on end, he never ventured outside those walls. Would this be his fate again? In his mind, unless he went now, this minute, he would never go.
“How much were you short?” Chris asked.
David told him the amount. The young man reached into the right pocket of his pants and withdraw a twenty-dollar note – all he had in the way of spare cash. Everything else had been set aside for the imminent move to New Farm. Well, though it would mean begging, borrowing or stealing, he would somehow make it through to the following week, when his next cheque was due. He pressed the twenty into David’s right hand.
“Go on. If you’ve missed your bus get the next.” Speechless with gratitude, David bear-hugged Chris before setting off. His wide-brimmed hat rode high on his scalp as he went.
Lindsay Boyd is a writer, personal carer and traveler originally from Melbourne. He has published, and self-published, numerous poetry, articles, stories, novels and memoirs over a period of many years.
You can view more of his work at: