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Friday, January 17, 2020

Flight. Fight. Fix. Part 1


Part One: The Flight
by
D.A.Cairns


When the key broke off in the door, Rhys knew it was an omen. The key could have been old and soft like his body, or he could have been unaware of the new power he had found at the gym whilst trying to pretend his body was not old and soft.

A face greeted him, yellowed teeth protruding from within a bushy grey beard. ‘I timed that well,’ said the old man who owned the beard.

‘You did indeed, mate,’ replied Rhys, giving serious thought to the issue of timing. He was ahead of time and would arrive at the airport early. Instead of being sensible and allowing him to pick her up, Rhonda insisted on making her own way. She’d burst into the cool of the terminal like a westerly blast, looking all flustered, desperately searching for him. That was Rhonda’s style and although he criticized her for it, it was almost as endearing as it was frustrating.

The two men smoothly swapped positions in the gateway, and Rhys proceeded to his car without another word or even another thought for the old man who lived in unit one. Rhys lived in number eight, also on the ground floor but on the other side of the expansive foyer which featured an tacky side table adorned with old paperbacks, and a kooky array of plastic vines dangling from the fenced promenades above. To the left of the elevator was the staircase. To the right the laundry. Rhys had moved in three weeks ago and had only in the last few days managed to expel the toxic fume left behind by the cats who previously shared the unit with their human. The eye watering stench should have been enough to deter him from taking on the lease in the first place, but there was something about the unit which spoke to him.

Rhys was halfway inside his white i30 when his phone rang.‘Hi baby.’

‘Are you there yet? At the airport?’

‘Just leaving home now.’

‘Okay. See you there,’ said Rhonda. ‘Love you!’

‘Love you too.’

Based on instinct, Rhys had chosen to live in the former cat parlour; convincing himself everything would be okay if he could survive the detoxification period. As the days passed, thankfully carrying away vestiges of the former occupants, he convinced himself he had made the right decision. Even as he battled the headaches and nausea brought on by necessary visits to the laundry, he remained patient and positive. On the other hand, his relationship with Rhonda was wearing him out. He turned the key in the ignition, fastened his seatbelt then changed the radio station. Community radio with its extremely limited playlist and terrible news and advertising copywriters was also wearing him out. Rhonda was a lot like a community radio station. Something different, somewhat intriguing, occasionally entertaining. He had discovered over time, six months now, that she too had a limited playlist and her scriptwriter should have been fired for lack of originality, excessive use of cliché, and basic grammatical and factual errors.

The trip to Bali was her idea. He’d resisted to the point of rudeness, risking the relationship in a game of brinkmanship, before backing down. Bowing to her will, bending apologetically. Now he was on his way to Bali where every second Australian holidayed at least once, usually multiple times. The Indonesian island of beaches and clubs where the government had introduced a law against fornication in an attempt to deter troublesome antipodean visitors. Where the predominately Muslim local population tolerated the boorish behaviour of Aussie tourists because they depended on their money to feed their children. Rhys had raised the fornication laws during their holiday discussions knowing full well Rhonda would not be deterred. On the surface she had to agree with Rhys that it didn’t matter because they were not going to be having sex. Rhys had knocked Rhonda back numerous times, but not because he didn’t want to. He did. In fact, it was an almost unbearable strain to fight against his natural instinct. The reason he didn’t want to go that far with her was simply a choice he made to protect them both. Introducing sex into a relationship was like stirring up the mud at the bottom of a clear pond. He simply wasn’t sure their relationship had legs, so he didn’t want to complicate it.

Rhonda accepted his rebuffs although he knew they hurt her, but Bali doubtless represented opportunity in her mind. This was how Rhys saw it. She had to agree that the fornication laws were not a hindrance to them, but for sure and certain she was thinking Rhys would finally surrender to her. As this was the first holiday together and they would be sharing a room, there could be no other conclusion to draw. Rhys had not yet considered how to deal with the inevitable seduction, the pressure, the power of sexual desire, but he felt confident he would find a way out.

It was mystery why Rhonda stayed with him. Women being the perceptive and intuitive creatures they are know when things aren’t right. Either she was delusional or she was hopelessly hopeful. Rhys smiled. Same thing right?

Turning off Bagot Rd onto McMillians, Rhys worked on his exit strategy. It was time to end the relationship. If he could, he would encourage her to walk away, to see reason if such a thing were possible. He would need to make himself less attractive in every way. The problem with that idea was he didn’t know what she found appealing about him in the first place. They met by accident at the Intercontinental Hotel in Sydney. She was working there. Something happened which led to some other things happening; the first of which being a dinner date at Red Lantern on Riley, the last of which being Rhonda relocating to Darwin and scoring at job at Manta on the Esplanade. It had been fun for a while.

Rhys parked at the Long Stay plus where he’d snagged a five day park for only $75. From there it was a three minute walk to the terminal. He checked his watch. Just after eight. More than two hours until the night flight direct to Denpasar. Rhys was never late anywhere. His definition of late included on time. The disparity between his punctuality and Rhonda’s complete lack of it was just one of the little cracks which she always managed to laugh off. Rhys was keeping score. He had told her to be at the airport no later than ten thirty. Now, as she stepped through the sliding doors to the cool interior of Darwin International Airport, he imagined how fun it would be to run a book on what time Rhonda would arrive. He amused himself for a few moments, picturing himself laying odds, running around taking bets. An excited crowd gathering just inside the terminal doors holding their breath every time a single woman approached. The wrong woman would then have to deal with the cloud of disappointment at her arrival. She’d push through the crowd, trying to throw off paranoid thoughts, oblivious to the fact the punters had long ago lost interest in her.

After buying an overpriced coffee at Giancarlo, Rhys found a seat, pulled F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Curious Case of Benjamin Button from his backpack and began to read.

‘Hi baby!’ Her familiar voice was quickly followed by an exuberant kiss.

Startled, Rhys placed the open book on the table, cover up, and stood. Rhonda latched on to him before he was properly balanced and they nearly fell together. Rhonda laughed. Rhys frowned. She kissed him again.

‘Made it on time,’ she said. ‘Are you proud of me?’

Rhys looked at his watch. Eight twenty five. He cursed inwardly, then remembered to return her smile and congratulate her. Their second hug allowed him time to smell her hair. So fresh, and her body so soft against his, so relaxed inside his arms. Blood moved to a certain part of his anatomy in response, forcing him to break the embrace. ‘Brilliant!’ he said a little too loudly. ‘Well done.’
Rhonda kissed him again and he suddenly felt like dropping to the floor with her immediately. Admonishing himself for this weakness, he focused attention elsewhere. ‘Would you like a drink? We have time before we need to check in. Or we could check in now and have a drink upstairs. Up to you,’ said Rhys, unable to stop despite sounding ridiculous to himself.

‘Are you okay?’

‘What?’ Rhys looked at the floor, then at The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. ‘Yep.’ More words bubbling at the back of this throat, splashing on to his tongue. ‘Just nervous about the flight. I’ve never been overseas.’

She laughed as though he had made a joke. ‘The flight to Sydney is longer than this one, silly.’ She playfully slapped his arm. ‘Don’t worry baby. I’ll take care of you.’

In the headlights of Rhonda’s piercing, mirth filled blue grey eyes, Rhys had an epiphany. She was too good for him. Too clever. Thinking he had any control over her was foolishness epitomized. He’d been trying to keep his distance, guarding his heart, avoiding not only sex, but intimacy. Not even sex. Intimacy. He was afraid of her openness, her generosity of spirit, her tolerance, her lack of ambition. He had been wrapped around her finger since the first word. That something in her eyes at the reception desk at the Intercontinental. Surely, he had mistaken her professional friendliness for something more. He lied to himself then, maintain the denial even as he asked her out to dinner, fostering the falsity all the way from the Harbour City to the Top End. He was still doing it. The revelation sparked in that instant when he wanted to make love to her right there and then. Not that he wanted sex. He wanted to be close to her. To let go. To be vulnerable. The fight against his natural impulses had been premised upon a need to clarify the strength of the relationship before making a commitment. However, the evidence supporting this war was as strong as the evidence against Saddam Hussein which led to the Second Gulf War.

‘Baby?’ Rhonda placed her hands on Rhys’s cheeks and searched his eyes. ‘Are you sure you’re okay? You’re acting pretty weird. I thought you were excited about this trip.’

Did she really think that, or was it more self-delusion? Rhys’s heart was racing. He felt like a little child separated from his mother in a massive mall. Eventually, he squeezed out some words which seemed to reassure Rhonda who turned away and walked over to the bar; answering his earlier question. Rhys sat down and concentrated on his breathing. Now what? He was planning to force a break-up. To either push her into dumping him or doing so to her. He couldn’t do that now.

The subsequent two hours passed quickly albeit drenched in awkwardness.

‘Watch it mate.’

‘Sorry.’

It was a classic way to avoid paying for checked baggage; bring a suitcase on board. Bring a bag and a small suitcase. Add a handbag. Use up all the allocated space in the overhead locker and under your seat. Hit everyone in the arms and legs as you shuffle along the aisle.

‘That’s pretty big carry on you’ve got there.’

‘Pull your head in mate.’

‘Maybe I should,’ said Rhys to the man’s back. ‘That way I can avoid having it knocked off by oversized carry on luggage.’

‘Sit down Rhys.’

He hadn’t even realized he was standing. Rhonda’s admonition united with an urgent downward tug of his belt forced him to resume his seat.

‘I hope there’s no one in the window seat,’ said Rhys. ‘Then you can slip over and have it.’

‘You could slip on over with me.’ She traced the length of Rhys’s arm with her fingertips.

Rhys’s throat went dry; instantly parched as though exposed to flames. ‘I prefer the aisle seat you know.’

Rhonda laughed. Rhys turned away. Why did she always have to laugh at his factual statements? Why couldn’t she tell he was not playing her game.’

‘Mate,’ said Rhy to the passengers across the aisle. ‘Could you speak up? I can’t hear you.’

The two men frowned; simultaneously screwing their faces. The one nearest Rhys spoke. ‘What?’

‘I said you are talking too loudly. Be quiet. I’m not interested in your conversation.’

The first man looked at the second who said: ‘that’s not what he said, is it?’ The first man turned back to face Rhys. ‘That’s not what you said, is it?’

‘Flied lice’ said Rhys. ‘Keep your voice down.’ Placing his finger on his lips, he added. ‘Speak quietly please. Flied lice.’

‘What is flied lice?’ said one to the other as they exchanged puzzled looks.

Pleased the joke had gone over their heads, Rhys turned back to Rhonda. ‘The Chinese are so bloody rude. They talk as loud as they want in their own sing song ching chong language.’

Rhonda stared at him. The stare became a glare. Rhys swallowed, then averted his gaze, suddenly finding the back of the seat in front of him highly fascinating. She was a tough nut to crack and for that Rhys admired her. His behaviour was more overflowing frustration rather than deliberate belligerence. It seemed an appropriate time to try out a few things he’d often fantasized about doing. Although he was good at practicing restraint, Rhys was also good at letting go. When he let off steam he was no wimpy kitchen kettle. He recalled a former girlfriend breaking up with him with a torrent of criticism of Rhys’s sarcastic wit. She did not think he was funny, and she’d made sure Rhys knew that before giving him the finger and slapping his face. It was quite a spectacle that bust up.

As Rhys mulled over these matters silently, Rhonda returned to leafing through the inflight magazine. She’d evidently burnt out after bending Rhys’s ear right up to and including the time they took their seats on JK162. Taking advantage of Rhonda’s silence, Rhys considered his strategy. He was definitely viewing this holiday as a last hurrah. The broken key was an omen. Rhys didn’t believe in portentous signs except when it suited him to do so. This was one such time. The key snaps off in the lock, locking him out, preventing his entry without the help of a locksmith. He’d walked away as though it was of little consequence, and for the moment it was. For the next five days it was completely irrelevant. Five days in Bali. One hundred and twenty hours until the end of Rhys and Rhonda.

‘What are you smiling at baby? Finally starting to relax?’She kissed him on the cheek. 

He took her hand in his, raised it to his mouth and landed a butterfly kiss on it. Rhonda snuggled against him, filling his nostrils again with her shampoo and the intoxicating scent of her skin. Again, he became aroused; a feeling which was fortunately interrupted by an announcement from the flight crew manager.
It was a familiar spiel requesting the attention of the passengers for the safety demonstration. Rhys always paid attention and noted very carefully those around him who did not. On this occasion, the two oriental gentlemen to his left were carrying on their conversation in more hushed tones as per Rhys’s directive.

‘Hey!’ he said. ‘The lady requested your attention.’ He pointed to the flight attendant who at that moment was fumbling with the demonstration safety belt. ‘Watch the safety demonstration.’

The men once more exchanged curious glances; one even allowed a smile to bend his thin lips.

‘Dammit,’ said Rhys, noticing an unfastened strap hanging from the side of the seat. ‘Fasten your seatbelt.’

‘Mind you own business,’ said Rhonda.

The flight attendant twitched ever so slightly, ironically embarrassed by the attention. A deep voice came through the back of his seat, piercing his spine with menace. ‘You should listen to her.’

Without turning, Rhys replied, ‘That’s what I told Chairman Mao and Jackie Chan there.’

‘You’re an arsehole mate.’

Rhonda had moved right away from him, pressing herself into the curve of the inner wall of the plane, attempting to create as much distance as possible between them. The flight attendant finished her performance and was busy checking the overhead compartments were secure, seats upright, window shades open and handheld devices switched off. Mao and Chan resumed their conversation until they were interrupted by the flight attendant telling them to fasten their seatbelts. ‘Told you so,’ said Rhys, adding a theatrical clucking sound.

‘Shut up dickhead!’

Although he knew it was extremely childish, Rhys felt excited by the attention; feathers had been ruffled. He was the chief ruffler. He wasn’t afraid of the man behind him. Words were like paper airplanes.

‘Why don’t you have a drink?’ suggested Rhonda. ‘Or maybe a few. Help you chill and stop making such a pest of yourself.’

‘Good idea,’ he said. Rhys pressed the call button, then immediately called out ‘excuse me miss! Excuse me.’

The flight attendant dutifully arrived and leaned closer to speak with him in a sensible tone of voice. As she spoke Rhys enjoyed her perfume. ‘Please wait until we are in the air, and the seatbelt sign has been switched off before placing any orders sir.’

'Probably not the smartest idea to give him anything unless it’s a heavy sedative.’

‘The sound of your voice will have the same effect mate.’

Rhonda sighed heavily while the flight attendant fought against smiling. The guy in the seat behind held his tongue so Rhys congratulated himself. Once the flight attendant had walked away, the seat in front reclined into Rhys’s lap.

‘Hey!’ said Rhys as he shoved his palm against the back of the seat. ‘You can’t recline now. Don’t you listen. Put your seat up. And keep it all the way forward for the duration of the journey.’

Rhonda sighed. Deep voice behind said, ‘Arsehole.’ Mao and Chan babbled on. The reclining seat offender immediately did as requested and not a peep did they utter. Rhys sat calmly, looking forward to that drink and devising ways to annoy everyone all the way to Denpasar.


Monday, September 9, 2019

The Back of the Bus


The Back of the Bus
by
D.A.Cairns

There are sufficient seats at the front of the bus so he doesn’t need  to sit anywhere near the back. A stolen glance as he boards and presses his Darwin bus card against the scanner while greeting the blank faced driver, confirms this. Relieved, he walks through a curtain of fetid air and takes an aisle seat so he can move at least one of his legs. The buses are rarely crowded, in fact on a number of occasions he’s enjoyed their cavernous and frosty interiors in solitude. The bus pulls out into what passes for traffic in Australia’s northern capital, before he’s settled, so he’s forced to grab the handrail and swing his backside down onto the seat.

Stony faced passengers stare out through the windows if they don’t have mobile devices, as he allows the icy air to cool his skin. After a five-minute walk to the bus stop he was sweating already. It’s only seven thirty but the mercury is already poking thirty and the build up humidity draws sweat from the skin as though squeezed from a sponge.

He watches them through the window, meandering through the park in a loose herd formation. The front runner is dressed in a hi-vis shirt and King Gees. Thongs adorn his feet, but he’s carrying a Coles shopping bag in which he probably has a pair of boots. He reaches the bus stop seconds before the bus pulls in, having received its command via a long high pitched beep instigated by a passenger wishing to disembark. The bus stops. Two exit through the back door as hi-vis enters via the front. He shuffles down the aisle without making eye contact with anyone, and makes his way to the back of the bus. The back of the bus is dark and it smells. It’s noisy too and with the arrival of a hi-vis guy, the hubbub ramps up. They appear careless of the presence of others as they chatter loudly in a language he doesn’t understand.

So far, his curiousity has not compelled him beyond speculation. He’s still disappointed that the stereotype he hoped would be destroyed by his actual experience in the Top End, has instead been unambiguously reinforced. Hi-vis guy is a rarity for two reasons: he has a job and he’s sober. Listening to the back of the bus jabber makes him wonder why hi-guy sits with them. The reason strikes him quickly, making him feel stupid. He is one of them. He looks like them and speaks their language although as gainfully employed citizen he is inhabiting a different world. There are many worlds on the bus. Individual planets in which people sit in safety, enjoying their self-imposed isolation. Darwin draws people from all over the world, but no matter which piece of geographical space one occupies it is always different from others. Everyone experiences the world through the lens of their own culture.

The bus stops again, relieving itself of another burden, before proceeding along the Stuart Highway towards Palmerston. He becomes aware of other conversations taking place, but they are not in English either. All of his fellow passengers can speak the local language with varying degrees of proficiency, which makes it an unsecured mode, and besides it is infinitely easier to converse in one’s own tongue. Even though there’s no need for discretion when no one else can understand what you’re saying, most people, mindful of others, speak as quietly as they can. The mob at the back of the bus are boisterous, loudly calling to a couple of their members as they leave the bus at the next stop. Perhaps, it’s the parting shot of an argument now severed by circumstance, or maybe it’s a hearty wish for health and happiness. It’s impossible to tell. They always sound angry. The disembarkees, don’t smile as they gesticulate towards the back of the bus on their way out.

Others takes their place, dressed in the uniform dirty rags of their tribe, and set off nicely by an assortment of bandages and plaster strips. They fight all the time. He’s seen them in the parks, staggering around in an alcoholic fog hurling curses and fists at each other. He studies one of the women and realizes that she might have been beautiful once, before her lip had been split a dozen times, and her nose broken. She’s shrouded in weariness, her dull dark face framed by thick unwashed hair. The back of the bus waits for her: a broken and battered woman bearing ten extra years of life in every crease of her face. They are not a good-looking race. Oversized noses, brows and lips. He quivers with disgust at himself, but this latent racism has been nagging him ever since he arrived. They are more different than any other people and yet this land is theirs. They belong while everyone else, in one sense, does not.

He wishes it was different. That his only conversations with them hadn’t involved humbugging. That making eye contact meant being hit up for money or cigarettes. He wishes he had not seen them sifting through handfuls of cigarette butts looking for a smokeable remnant or staggering around the streets of Darwin in the middle of the day, menacingly intoxicated, or sleeping in the middle of footpaths and on bus shelter benches and in parks, flat out on their backs and oblivious. The awful statistics are on the news every night, as they valiant efforts of community leaders to rescue their people from despair. He would rather not have seen or heard any of this. The rampant racism and typecasting he heard back was easy to refute when distanced from actual experience, and nothing is more powerfully influential than an individual’s own experience.

It was becoming a torment for him to endure this increasingly undeniable awareness of his own prejudice. He wanted desperately to do something about it, to transform himself, instead of merely joining the eye rolling and long suffering majority who with differing degrees of tolerance shared the city with its minority of resident natives. His stop was approaching, and he would soon be at work, fully engaged mentally and unable to give consideration to the troubling thoughts he suffered on every bus ride. He often thought of purchasing a car, but it made him feel sick to think that was his best and only solution to the festering problem of how to live with his Indigenous brothers.
He presses the stop button and shuffles in his seat. When the bus stops, he rises and walks to the front  door. Fifteen minutes have passed but the stench of the back of the bus passengers still hangs heavy in the air and it drapes him as he exits the bus with a nod to the blank faced driver.

As he walks, he thinks of Rosa Parks: a champion of the American civil rights movement in the 1960’s. Her particular brand of protest focused on ending the restrictive and racist law which saw negroes forced to sit at the back of the bus. More than half a century later, black Australians choose the back of the bus. It’s their territory, as they travel around aimlessly, resenting the white invaders who stole their land and their children. The same invaders who pay for their pitiful, violent and alcoholic lifestyles. The irony takes his breath away, makes him feel dizzy and despondent.

Friday, May 24, 2019

Twelve Days of Misery


Image result for heartbrokenIt’s been nine days since she left the country. Twelve since I last beheld the beautiful enigma of her countenance, and tasted the salty tears which stained her cheek. She said she had to go. That we could not continue like this. It wasn’t what either of us wanted. I couldn’t argue, but I only yielded to her disturbing suggestion that we cut each off for four weeks because I believed that she would return to me as she had done before. Many times before. I loved her, so I let her go. The proverb dances through my mind even now like a frivolous fairy: If you love someone, let them go…I love her still but I let her go. She said she loved me, whispered it into my ear in the afterglow, but her words now ring hollow, chiselled out by her actions. The conflict in in her eyes, the contradiction in her voice. She was playing with me. Using me to figure herself out.

I started it as a game but overestimated my ability to subsume my feelings, to divorce the physical from the emotional. I was wrong to think I could fool around. I suck at games. When I fell in love with her, I tumbled into a bottomless chasm. She said she loved me and she opened her heart to me. We filled each other with the bountiful riches of passionate love as we surrendered to the wild affair. We filled each other. We held nothing back. Now she has taken everything away, and I can’t go on. I can’t let her go. I don’t want to let her go.
Bereft of words to accurately capture the pain which has rendered me useless for anything but morbid introspection, I desire a new alphabet to describe the agony of unrequited love and the subsequent oxidation of my heart. I’m sure it will burst any moment now. My head. My heart. My choice to risk everything, to invest so much, has bankrupted my soul.

And yet…I hold on to the hope that when she returns she will ask me to hold her, and never let her go. And I won’t.

written by D.A.Cairns

Friday, October 5, 2018

Mayor Hidey Seek

Mayor Hidey Seek
by
Mitchell Grabois


Her mama named her Ivana because the name would make her rich. There was nothing else around to pull that trick. Ivana went to the Gracie Mansion looking for Donald Trump, but her teacher told her: This ain’t where he lives.

My dentist kicked me out, not out of her office, but out of the  luxury condo we shared. From up high we could see cars drive through like baby teeth fleeing childhood. We drank martini’s and watched. I could go back to her office if I want to open my mouth to unendurable pain, but I don’t think I can do that. I suffer from Fear Itself.

This is where the mayor lives. The mayor, yeah, thought Ivana, the man that owns where she lives, all the buildings crawling with people like ants, where she sleeps in one room with her seven brothers and sisters and her mama and her boyfriend on torn mattresses.

You’re a baby, a wimp, a coward, my girlfriend, my dentist accuses. That’s all true, I say. What’s your point?
Gracie Mansion. She’s gonna tell the mayor to do something about the rats. She hates rats. Mist’ Mayor, give em a place of their own. A rat mansion.

There are heroes in Iraq and Afghanistan, she continues, and continues and continues, and every day the shrapnel pierces them, roadside bombs blow off limbs and give them closed head injuries, and you--you won’t have a silly root canal.

She’s lookin’ for the Mayor, lookin' for signs, lookin' for the Criminal Minds guys that guard him, keep him safe, keep him away from the serial killers and the perverts who lurk everywhere, who rape you or send you into free fall some other way.

I have no defense. I have to admit she’s right. All I have to fear is fear itself, but that fear towers above me like a monolith about to fall and crush me.

But Ivana doesn’t see them. The Mayor’s nowhere in sight. All her teacher shows them is stuff she calls “elegant.” Ivana’s mind tries to computes pawn value, but the numbers in her head don’t go that high.

Even if I had an attorney, I’d have no defense. I only hope she relents, blunts her own judgments, finds some mercy for this poor dental sinner.

Back home, Ivana sees two men in her building knife fighting. She sees a crack pipe on the bathroom floor. Ivana feels it: she is becoming the place. The Mayor is hiding. That’s his name, another girl on the tour says. Mayor Hidey Seek.

Bio
Mitchell Krockmalnik Grabois has had over twelve-hundred of his poems and fictions appear in literary magazines in the U.S. and abroad. He has been nominated for numerous prizes.  His novel, Two-Headed Dog, based on his work as a clinical psychologist in a state hospital, is available for Kindle and Nook, or as a print edition. To see more of his work, google Mitchell Krockmalnik Grabois. He lives in Denver.

Friday, September 21, 2018

Quickshift

This is the third and final post in the series of "commemorative" stories. Billy buys the car of his dreams, but it drives him into a nightmare. Quickshift was published in Alfie Dog in 2013.

Shout out to Alfie Dog's chief, Rosemary Kind. Thank you and good luck for the future. Check out Rosemary's novel The Orphan Train. I highly recommend it. Here is the first in a series of my short stories which she loved, and made available to short fiction fans around the world.



Quickshift
 by
D.A.Cairns




‘Are you kidding?’

‘What?’

‘Look at that!

My eyes followed Billy’s finger into a ramshackle jalopy shop packed to the gills with overpriced rustbuckets.

‘Buzz boxes,’ I said.

‘Dude. Look harder. Up the back.’

On the back row of the lot crammed up against what was apparently an office were three old cars. Some might have called them classics but I had already told my mate Billy exactly what I thought of the whole wretched lot.

Image result for 1968 holden monaro gts coupe‘The yellow one in the middle.’68 Monaro coupe. 1-2-3 on the Mountain. Same age as me, Cam. I gotta have her.’

‘You’re in the head Billy. A track version of that car won an endurance race 38 years ago and you want to buy it?’

‘Yeah,’ said Billy with his tongue hanging out of his mouth like a hungry dog. ‘Come on.’

Three weeks later, Billy called me and told me he was having some trouble with the car. I told him right off the bat, as good friends should do, that he had blown his dough on a lemon and I had told him not to buy it in the first place. He told me I was wrong then and I was still wrong because it wasn’t the kind of trouble one might have expected from an old car. Then he told me this fantastic story.

The Monaro’s bargain basement price of five hundred dollars was due to the fact that it was unregistered and undriveable. Still, Billy saw a body in rust free pristine condition albeit a little dull and dirty, and knew he could bring her back to life and out on the open road where she belonged.

A mechanic mate of Billy’s, named Matt, rebuilt the three hundred and fifty cubic inch Chevrolet engine, replaced the old transmission with a ratio quick shift, for forty percent more efficiency he reckoned, upgraded the brakes to discs all round, and whacked in a limited slip differential. Every day after work Billy called in to see the work in progress and happily hand over whatever cash was needed to finance the Monaro’s resurrection. I thought it was like flushing money down the toilet but every day his excitement grew as he anticipated her maiden journey. There was one problem though. Dust.

Billy’s mate, Matt,  kept a clean workshop; as clean as garages can be anyway, but each morning when he opened up, he discovered a thin layer of dust all over the Monaro. It was grey and silky looking like soot though much courser in texture but because it wiped off easily he never bothered telling Billy. He was curious but not enough to investigate the problem.

One morning when Matt arrived at the workshop, Billy was waiting for him.

‘You’re here early, Billy. What’s up?’

‘You’re getting’ close, right?’

‘Damn, you’re impatient. I’m not going to go any harder just because you’re here every bloody day checking up on me.’

‘I know. I know. I’m just asking.’

Matt nodded and Billy clapped him on the shoulder.‘Give us a quick look before I go to work.’

‘Nothin’s changed since last night, Billy. I don’t live here.’

‘Give us a quick look.’

His mate shrugged in resignation and pressed a button on his keyring.

Billy was in, scrambling under the roller door before it was even half way up. He was dumbfounded when he saw her.

‘What the hell?’ he called out as he ran his finger through the coat of greyish dust which covered the whole car. ‘How?’

‘She must have been out for a spin during the night.’

Turning quickly to stare hard at the mechanic who was now right behind him, Billy jabbed his finger angrily and said, ‘Not funny, Matt. If you drove it without my permission…well that’s bad enough, but where did you take her for God’s sake? How the hell did she get so dirty.’

The mechanic threw up his hands. ‘That was a joke. The bloody thing has not left the workshop since you rolled it in here last week.’

‘How do you explain the dust?’

‘I can’t.’

‘Is this the first time?’
‘No. Every morning when I come in it’s like that.’ He pointed at the car. ‘I clean it off and then get to work and it’s still clean when I leave.’

Looking first at Matt and then at the car then back at his friend again, Billy was speechless. In silence they wiped all the dust off the Monaro and when they finished, Billy said. ‘I’m going to stay here tonight.’

The mechanic shrugged. ‘See you tonight then, Billy.’

Billy walked out of the workshop without saying another word.

He returned just before five thirty as the sun was being sucked under the horizon and Matt was closing up. The latter only hung around long enough to wish Billy luck, before leaving him alone with his prize possession.

Just to hear the sound of her voice, Billy kicked the engine over and allowed it to run for a minute or two. The rhythmical deep throbbing of the mighty v-eight was music to his ears but he didn’t want to gas himself, so he shut her down.

Matt had set up an old cot for Billy in front of the Monaro, but after thirty minutes of tossing he gave up on getting comfortable and decided to sleep in the car. Billy opted for the back seat, hoping that he would be able to sleep despite not being able to stretch out to his full six foot one. Fully clothed and smothered in blankets, he peacefully drifted off to sleep with thoughts of driving Mon, as he now called her, clear across the country filling his head.

He was jolted awake when the car seemed to hit a dip and bounce out the other side. At first he thought he was dreaming, but no dream had ever felt this real, and another violent bounce convinced him he was awake. Sitting up on the back seat after throwing off the blankets, Billy noticed that he was alone in the car but she was definitely moving, and motoring very fast across a desert landscape. At least it looked like desert except for the colour of the sand which was grey. Billy stared out the window at the world rushing by and wondered where on earth he was. He felt hot too, sweaty and sticky but when he tried to wind the window down it was stuck. Looking ahead, he saw they were approaching a small hill, or was it a pile of rocks. Quickly it loomed larger in the windscreen and Billy could see a black opening at the base of the hill. In an instant, darkness swallowed him and he held his breath, waiting.

Light crashed through the windows and onto his face causing his eyes to flicker behind stubbornly closed lids. It was the light of a new day and Billy was covered in blankets lying on Mon’s back seat, dry mouthed and disoriented. He sat up slowly and looked out through the window. The walls were lined with tools and other equipment while drums and car parts covered the benches and the floor.

Next he heard shouting.‘Hey, what are you doing in there? Get out? Who are you?
More demanding questions than Billy could keep up with. He wiped his eyes and saw a familiar face. ‘It’s me.’

‘I said get out of the car or I’m going to pull you out and bust you up!’

‘What? Matt, it’s me. It’s my car, Mon. It’s my car!’

‘This car belongs to a mate of mine. Get the hell out of it. I won’t tell you again.’
Billy carefully opened the door and climbed out of the back seat. When standing in front of the mechanic, he said, ‘What’s going on? This is my car. You let me stay here so I could find out where the dust came from.’

‘The dust? What do you know about the dust? Did you put it there?’

‘What?’

Billy twisted around and put his hand on Mon’s roof feeling the dust fluff through his fingers as he did so -it was thicker than before- a tiny cloud of it puffed up and made him sneeze.

‘Get the hell out of here! Now!’

‘But…’

Billy did not know what else to say as his friend obviously did not recognise him. Did he look different? He cautiously felt his face. He needed to see a mirror.

‘Last chance,’ said the angry stranger, ‘go or I’ll call the cops.’

‘Okay, okay,’ said Billy retreating as he spoke.

The next thing that happened, according to Billy, was that he telephoned me. I don’t remember that call but he swears he called me right after he left the garage. This is how that conversation went down, according to Billy.

‘Cam, it’s me Billy. Something weird happened.’

‘Sorry who is this?’

‘Billy.’

‘Billy who?

‘Billy Kavanaugh. Stop stuffing around Cam. I need your help.’

‘Billy Kavanaugh? Bloody hell, there’s a name I haven’t heard in years. Since…what? The last year of high school?’

‘Cam, cut the bloody jokes will ya. I’m sort of in trouble.’

‘No joke, Billy. I’m stunned. Can’t believe you’ve called me after all these years, and what? You need some help?’

‘Cam, come on man. You were there when I bought her.’

‘Bought who?’

‘The car!’

‘What car? I haven’t seen you for years, I told you. Are you all right?’

Billy hung up by almost pressing his thumb right through his cell phone, then walked further into town wondering what to do. A little boy waved at him, ‘Hi, Mr Kavanaugh.’ Billy waved back and smiled faintly without the slightest idea who the boy was. He bought a Coke and wandered over to a park where he sat on the grass and drank thoughtfully. The commemorative plaque in the centre of the reserve said Civic Park which made Billy scratch his head.

‘I thought this was Stanley Park,’ he mumbled.

Deciding to return that night to the garage and his car, Billy needed to kill eight or nine hours so he went to the local cinema and watched a few movies and then to the library. Billy liked sci-fi movies but after an hour in the library he realised that the only explanation for his situation was that he must have been in a movie. His town was in some ways just the same as the day before but in many other ways, completely different. Of course he wasn’t in a movie and surely he could not have been still dreaming, so what then?

‘Alternate realities,’ he said out loud and laughed to himself before an old lady silenced him with an angry ssshhh!

That night back at the garage, Billy waited until closing time and managed to sneak in behind the mechanic’s back and hide under Mon until he left. Squirming out, he stood and noticed light from a streetlamp poking in through the workshop window, and dancing on the Monaro’s clean, smooth lines. He decided to stay awake if he could and besides he did not have any blankets or a pillow. As he was not planning on sleeping, he sat behind the driver’s wheel. The radio came alive at his touch and he scanned through the stations to find something to listen to. He felt very tired and from time to time his heavy eyelids closed in drowsiness but he was determined to stay awake.

Rattling. Rattle, bang! Rattle, bang! Billy jerked forward and shook his head. He had slept.

‘Damn it!’

He heard a chain rattling as though it were twitching and bouncing on a hard surface. A road? Yes, a road. The grey desert extended to the horizon in every direction. Billy recognised the scene but the sound was different. Rattle, bang! Rattle, bang! Bang! Bang! It stopped suddenly and Billy turned to look out the back window but they were moving too fast to see anything properly. He supposed that something had been caught under the car and had eventually broken free. Whatever, it didn’t matter. When he looked forward again, he saw the hill, and the black hole coming up quickly, and this time when darkness engulfed them, he did not hold his breath.
Back in the garage, Billy coughed himself out of sleep and watched some grey dust dance around his face. He was content to accept the alternate realities concept despite knowing it to be impossible, and Billy wondered what sort of reception he would receive from the owner of the workshop this time.

‘Billy? What are you doing here, man? How’d you get in?’ said Matt.

Recognition. Beautiful, thought Billy.

‘I snuck in late last night.’

‘Snuck in?’ The mechanic slapped him on the back. ‘You could have just asked if you needed somewhere to stay. You and Kelly have another fight?’

‘Kelly?’

He laughed. ‘Your wife, stupid. The hottie you share your life with now.’

‘Yes, I mean no. No everything’s okay.’

Kelly? Did he mean Kelly Aspinall? She married Cam. Billy did not know any other Kellys.

‘So what gives?’

‘Huh?’ said Billy wondering how he ended up marrying Kelly and what effect that might have had on his friendship with Cam.

 ‘What are you doing here?’

‘Checking on Mon. You know to try and find out where the dust is coming from.’
‘Look, Billy,’ he began but paused and winced briefly.  ‘I don’t know how much longer I can keep it here. If you’re not gonna fix it up…I mean it’s just taking up space.’

‘How long’s it been here?”

‘Months. Mate you really shouldn’t have bought it without asking Kelly first. You know what some girls are like with cars.’

‘No.’

‘They get jealous.’

‘So you’re not fixing it up for me?’

Matt shook his head.

‘And she’s covered in dust because she’s been sitting there for months?’
The mechanic nodded, before saying, ‘Are you all right? You really must have hit the cans hard last night.’

After a brief telephone conversation with me again allegedly, although like I said, I don’t remember- that afternoon, which included a very large collection of very strong words with some accusation of ‘you stole my girl!’, Billy had decided that this life was all wrong, so he arranged to stay another night. Matt agreed on the proviso that Billy would allow him to get rid of the car the next day.

Borrowing blankets and pillows, Billy made himself as comfortable as possible knowing full well that he would fall asleep whether he wanted to or not.
The intense heat woke him this time, not the bumping ride through the desert. He sat up casually and looked out the window at the blurred panorama of grey sand and then forward to where he expected to see the hill and the hole, and he yawned and thought about how this part of the journey had become a bore. So flat and featureless it reminded him of a hospital hallway. Where was it? What was it? Perhaps, mused Billy, I will never know the answer.

When his world went momentarily black he sat there calmly knowing it was temporary, and anticipating with some very faint wisp of anxiety the next adventure.
Sirens wailed. Loudly, they were close. Billy ducked down behind the front seat, pressing himself as far into the footwell as he could. He tried to suppress a cough but it forced itself out through his hands covering them in grey dust. His throat felt parched and sore but someone was banging on the roller door and soon they would be banging on the car door. No time to think or feel. They’re after me but why? Do they even know why I am here or that I am? Irrational thoughts churned in his mind. Questions led to more questions but never to answers. There was one immediate need; to decide what to do. To stay and protest his innocence whatever the charge may be, or run and virtually proclaim his guilt. There was no way of knowing whether or not his presence in the Monaro was expected or acceptable. Would the Matt in this world know him?

‘Billy, come one. I’ll help you get out of here. Quick! The cops are out front and they’ll be in here any tick.’

Looking at the friendly face of the mechanic, Billy wondered why the police were after him and how they knew he was here.

‘How did they know I was here?’

‘Mate, I didn’t tell them. I don’t know what you did but I’m not going to turn you in, okay. Hurry up and get out, will ya?’

Matt led him into the office where he pushed the desk to the side and peeled back a large square of worn carpet. Pulling up the trapdoor, he motioned for Billy to quickly jump in and when he did so, he shut the door over his head. In the quiet darkness, Billy heard the desk moving again and then his friend calling out to someone as he left the office.

‘Just a minute guys. Sorry the door’s stuck. Hang on.’
The banging stopped and Billy waited. Voices became louder carried by approaching footsteps, and he heard every word.

‘Billy Kavaunaugh? Where is he?’

‘Not here. I haven’t seen him for ages.’

‘That’s his Monaro in your workshop.’

‘Yep.’

‘So where is he?’

‘I told you. I haven’t seen him for a long time, not since he dropped the car off here and asked me if he could leave it here for a while.’

‘Why’d he want to leave it here?’

‘He didn’t say.’

‘You didn’t ask?’

Silence. Billy presumed a shrug of the shoulders or a shake of the head.

‘So when was he here?’

‘Two weeks ago.’

‘Did he seem okay to you?’

‘What d’ya mean?’

‘Did there seem to be anything wrong with him? Was he upset or agitated at all? Was his behaviour normal?’

He laughed. ‘Billy’s never been normal.’

Billy imagined a scowl spreading over the policeman’s face, before he said, ‘Next time you laugh, it’s gonna be followed by pain. Understand?’

Silence then another question. The tone strained. ‘Do you know Kelly Aspinall?’
Billy gasped and hoped like hell it wasn’t loud.

‘Yes. Kelly’s married to Billy’s best mate, Cam. What’s she got to do with anything?’

‘When did you last see her?’

‘I don’t remember. I hardly see her at all.’

‘Bulldust,’ spat the angry cop.
‘What about her anyway?’

‘She’s in the morgue.’

More silence and Billy bit his hand to stop him crying out. There were probably more questions but he had stopped listening because he knew that either he had killed Kelly or Cam had, and whichever the case, Matt was not very likely to extend his help once he knew the truth of the matter. Profuse denial, swearing on his mother’s grave and anything else he could think of would perhaps steal some time for him. Maybe.
The voices stopped, so Billy assumed they had left the office and carefully tried to push open the trapdoor. It gave a little but the weight of the tables still held him prisoner. It seemed a jail cell might be exactly what he deserved.

When the mechanic finally returned, Billy had convinced himself of his own innocence and was therefore well prepared to persuade Matt.

‘Look,’ said the mechanic. He was obviously disturbed by the encounter with Officer Unfriendly. ‘You can stay here until dark but then you have to leave okay.’

Billy nodded thankfully.

‘Stay out of sight too!’

A quick phone call to Cam was enough for Billy to realise he had done nothing wrong except fail to protect Kelly. Cam’s pathetic pleading for help through an alien and obviously inebriated voice was to Billy’s mind, a confession. Billy couldn’t wait for night fall.


On the fourth night, Billy decided to call me before he went back to ride in his weird time machine. He explained to me that the possibilities were endless and his intention was to keep searching the different parallel universes until he found the perfect one and then he would stay. I told him he was a lunatic.

‘Think of it, Cam,’ he said with almost irresistible enthusiasm. ‘I can see the outcome of different choices I have made, or will make. Which one is it?’

‘I don’t know,’ I said, playing along because he was my friend and I loved him despite his madness.

‘In the last one, you killed Kelly.’

‘Kelly Aspinall?’

‘Yeah.’

‘What for?’

‘I don’t know but you were married to her and the police came after me as the prime suspect. But you confessed to me.’
‘How the hell would I, in any world, in any time, ever have ended up marrying Kelly Aspinall? Same planet, different world, me and her.’

‘I don’t know. I haven’t had time to work through all the intricacies, but I’m taking notes and I’ll put it all together later.’

He coughed a little, then a lot, to the point where I began to wonder if he was going to be able to stop. Finally he did.

‘Bloody dust,’ he croaked.

‘What dust?’

‘It’s from the desert, the in-between land or purgatory or whatever you call it. It covers Mon every time we travel. Anyway, you gotta come with me, Cam. I want you to share this…this unbelievable thing with me.’

‘Nah.’

‘Why? Don’t you want to know what your life could have been like? Aren’t you curious?’

‘Nah, I’m happy where I am and besides I’m an asthmatic mate and that dust sounds like hell on earth.’

I still didn’t believe a word of it and to tell you the truth I was getting tired of the conversation. I had better things to do even if Billy didn’t.

‘Billy I have to go mate. Look, if I were you I’d go and see a doctor about that cough and stay away from that bloody dust.’

I waited for a response but Billy said nothing.

‘Billy,’ I said, suddenly fearful. ‘Billy, you there? You all right?’

‘You don’t believe me.’

‘Damn, you scared me. I thought you’d dropped off the perch.’

‘So you’re not coming with me? You don’t believe me, do you?’

‘It’s pretty out there, Billy.’

‘I’m telling you the truth. Just come and see for yourself. Please.’

Eventually, I said yes to shut him up but just after I hung up Kelly Aspinall walked into the room and said, ‘You ready for dinner yet honey?’

I stared at her not knowing what to say. She called me honey and was asking me if I was ready for dinner, and I knew I had to get out of there. Something wasn’t right.
‘Honey,’ she said, so sweetly that I was nearly spellbound. ‘What’s wrong? You look pale.’

Somehow I found my voice and made up a story about Billy needing my help-it was sort of true.

‘What, now?’ she asked.

‘Yeah, yeah,’ I said scrambling to my feet and out of the living room, headed for the front door.

‘When will you be back?’ she asked quietly as I wrenched it open.

‘Dunno, love. Later,’ I said, and then as an afterthought, ‘Another time.’

I heard her pleading cries fade behind me as I raced across the lawn and jumped into my car. ‘What do you mean another time?’ Squealing tyres drowned her out as I sped off down the road to meet Billy and find another life. My life.




Friday, September 14, 2018

My Yard, My Rules.


This is the second in the series of "commemorative" stories. Not quite cricket season yet, but it's getting close, so here's one for the lovers of the greatest game of all.

Shout out to Alfie Dog's chief, Rosemary Kind. Thank you and good luck for the future. Check out Rosemary's novel The Orphan Train. I highly recommend it. Here is the first in a series of my short stories which she loved, and made available to short fiction fans around the world.


My Yard, My Rules
by
D.A. Cairns


Jimmy really didn’t want to go. He really didn’t, but faced with a choice between going or staying  home and helping his mum and little sister bake cookies, he took the least bad option. It wasn’t that he didn’t like cookies. He loved them. Could have easily eaten every packet which found its way into their home and every single warm and delicious smelling one that came out of the oven. Jimmy just did not want to make them. He would rather eat broccoli for breakfast everyday for a week than bake anything.
           
‘Are you coming or not Jimmy?’

Image result for backyard cricketJack was Jimmy’s big brother. The destination he was so eager to reach was Theo’s house. It was a small ramshackle house on a corner block with nothing to recommend it except a very big, well grassed and flat backyard. Every summer it was the place to be. The neighbourhood kids would flock there each day after school and all across the weekend to play cricket. The nearest park was ten minutes drive away; too far to walk unless you were an Olympian, but who needed a park when they had Theo’s big backyard.
           
‘Yeah,’ said Jimmy with all the enthusiasm of a cat sleeping by a warm fire on a cold night. ‘I’m coming.’
           
The two brothers walked four blocks to Theo’s house, opened the front gate, strolled through to the side gate, opened it and proceeded down the side path, just like it was their own home. If Theo’s parents had any problem with the constant flow of children to and from their backyard, nobody knew about it. In fact, nobody knew for sure if Theo actually had parents because no one had ever seen or heard them, although it was highly unlikely, thought Jimmy, that Theo would have had the skill or the motivation to mow the yard. The pitch in particular would have done the nation’s leading curators proud.
           
‘G’day Jack,’ called Theo, looking up briefly before resuming his crouching position over the bat ready to face the bowler. The game had already started.
           
Jimmy looked around the yard, searching for a friendly face. Of course he knew all the kids; mostly boys Jack’s age or a bit older and a couple of girls who could not play and strangely seemed more interested in the boys than the game. Unfortunately Jimmy didn’t exactly like any of them. Maybe it was because they picked on him if  they bothered talking to him at all. Some times they just completely ignored him. Jimmy sighed and Jack left him to take up a catching position at silly mid on.
           
‘You’ll get hit there,’ warned Theo with a smile.
           
‘She’ll be right, Theo,’ said Jack. ‘More likely you’ll be out next ball!’
           
‘No close in fielders today,’ replied Theo.
           
Jack stood up straight, hands on his hips and stared at Theo. Jimmy thought his big brother looked very threatening. He had seen that posture before and always surrendered because he knew what would follow if he did not. Theo, however was nobody’s little brother. He was an only child.
           
‘My yard, my rules!’ announced Theo loudly and proudly.
           
Jimmy groaned inwardly. Typical Theo. Jack pumped his fist upwards towards Theo and backed away. ‘You’ll still be out next ball.’
           
The bowler who had waited patiently through the tense confrontation between Jack and Theo now began his approach to the crease. Jimmy watched Shah sprint in from twenty metres back, plant his foot in line with the stumps and then, with a whirlwind action, deliver the ball from his hand right onto Theo’s bat.
           
Jimmy heard the call of ‘watch out’ at exactly the same time as the ball thumped into his chest. It knocked him onto the seat of his pants and he felt tears welling in his eyes almost immediately. He bit his lower lip and stood up quickly as Jack rushed to his side.
           
‘All right, Jimmy?’
           
Jimmy rubbed the spot on his chest which stung like crazy and nodded.
           
‘Gimme a look,’ said Jack.
           
‘Nah!,’ said Jimmy bravely, ‘She’ll be right.’
           
‘Missed chance there,’ yelled Theo, still puffing after completing a double run. ‘That takes me to fourteen.’
           
Shah was on the way back to his mark but paused to ruffle Jimmy’s hair. Jimmy pulled away despite secretly appreciating the gesture.
           
‘That was no chance,’ said Shah. ‘Pointing couldn’t have caught that one.’
           
Jimmy shrugged.
           
Shah turned and stood at his mark studying the ball as he waited for Theo to nod his readiness. Jimmy was so glad they only played with a tennis ball. He could hardly imagine what a six stitcher would have done to him. The very thought made him shudder.
           
The bowler was on his way again, a determined look plastered over his face. Jimmy watched hoping like mad that Shah would get Theo out. That was the only good thing about backyard cricket at Theo’s; watching him get out. It was like a lonely ray of sunshine on a cloudy day to watch one of his petulant performances following a dismissal, which according to Theo was never justified. Jimmy was praying for it. C’mon Shah, get him out.
           
Flying from the whirlwind, the ball bounced not more than twenty centimetres in front of Theo and went passed the edge of the bat and on to hit his shin. Theo winced and staggered forward a few steps.
           
‘Howzat!’ cried Shah, accompanied by everyone else in the field. Jack was especially enthusiastic.
           
‘Not out,’ said Theo. ‘No LBWs.’
           
‘What?’ protested Shah.
           
Jimmy watched as Shah and Jack and another boy, Mat, approached Theo. This was interesting thought Jimmy, very interesting indeed.
           
‘No umpires to rule on leg before so we can’t have it,’ said Theo.
           
‘But that was an obvious one,’ said Shah. ‘You know it!’
Theo seemed unruffled in the middle of a circle of anger. His voice was calm if perhaps a little higher pitched than usual.
           
‘My yard, my rules!’

Image result for backyard cricket
           
For a moment it seemed as though that might have been the end of the game. Jack was so angry and frustrated that he was paralysed apart from his fist which Jimmy observed was clenching and unclenching mechanically like it had a mind of its own. Jack was thirteen and Jimmy had noticed how much he had changed over the last year. Half the time he could still be kind of cool and fun, the other half grumpy and mean, and every now and then he would just explode suddenly like a dormant volcano. You just had to get out of the way when he erupted or get smothered to death by steaming lava. Jimmy hoped that he would be a bit more controlled when he reached the big one three than big brother Jack was.
           
Finally after complaints from some of the other boys, Jack and Shah backed off and the game continued. Shah bowled his last delivery, a slower one bouncing high outside the off stump which Theo swung at and missed, and then someone called drinks. It was a good call thought Jimmy because although he had only been there for a little while and contributed nothing to the game except amusement for the others due to his misfortune, it was a hot day and he was thirsty.
           
Theo had other ideas.
           
‘One more over before drinks,’ he said.
           
Jimmy could not see how one more over could make any difference other than to make everyone thirstier. His mouth was already as dry as a handful of hot sand.
           
‘New bowler,’ called Jack.
           
‘Let the kid have a crack,’ suggested Theo.
           
All eyes were suddenly and horrifyingly on Jimmy. As he withered under the multitude of staring eyes, he tried to speak, to say thanks, but no thanks. When Shah handed him the ball and wished him luck, Jimmy’s heart and head were pounding as though they wanted to break out of his body. Jack strolled over and placed a comforting hand on Jimmy’s shoulder as he walked him back ten metres from the stumps at the non-striker’s end.
           
‘Here’s your chance, Jimmy,’ said Jack, too kindly.
           
‘I can’t even bowl properly.’
           
‘Sure you can.’
           
But I don’t wanna bowl, Jack.’
           
‘Sure you do,’ insisted his big brother while slapping his back a fraction too hard. ‘Sure you do.’
           
The walk back to the start of his run was taking longer than trying to swim through mud. It was only Jack’s firm and persistent push that kept Jimmy going.
           
‘Look,’ said Jack as they stopped. ‘Just bowl it straight. Six balls and then we can have a drink, okay?’
           
‘He’ll smash me all over the place.’
           
‘Maybe he’ll give us a catch then. You know, he’ll have a false sense of security, and get careless.’
           
Jimmy was solidly unconvinced. Jack slapped him on the back again and made Jimmy cough before he ran back to his position in the field at deep point.
           
‘C’mon Jimmy,’ he called loudly. Other voices joined in.
           
Shrinking inside and wanting to run away and hide somewhere, Jimmy rubbed his hand on his pants to get the sweat off, then stared at the ball. Maybe the ball itself could work some sort of miracle for him. Jack had said he should just bowl it straight for six balls, that’s all. That’s all, scoffed Jimmy to himself. I’ll be lucky to get even one ball on the pitch.
           
More cheers of encouragement filled his ears but he wasn’t sure if they were sincere or not. More likely, they were waiting to laugh at his failure. He took a deep breath and closed his eyes as he squeezed the ball inside his right hand. Then he was off on a slow deliberate run up which he hoped showed concentration and serious intent to the batsman.
           
At the crease he rolled his arm over and was pleased to see the ball fly straight albeit in an awkward looking high arc. On descent to the stumps the ball was greeted by the middle of Theo’s bat, the impact sending it racing through the air, above the grass at square leg, past the fielder and into the Colourbond fence on the full. Bang!
Jimmy jumped at the sound.
           
‘Six!’ cried Theo triumphantly.
           
‘It’s four,’ said Jack. ‘Six is over and out. Universal backyard cricket rules.’
           
Theo stamped his foot. ‘We’re not in the universe. We’re in my yard and I say it’s six!’
           
‘Whatever,’ said everyone in unison except Jimmy.
           
As he received the ball from Shah via the ground after he dropped it, he was congratulating himself on bowling straight. Brimming with confidence, Jimmy marched back to his mark, turned and waited for Theo before running in to bowl. He ran faster this time, maybe too fast but he couldn’t stop now. With his eyes fixed on the target, his rolled his arm over, bent his back and let the ball go.
           
When he raised his eyes from the pitch, Theo had already played a shot but Jimmy could not see where the ball had gone. Then he heard the cries of excitement.
           
‘It’s yours Jimmy. Look up. It’s yours.’
           
‘Catch it! Catch it!’
           
Jimmy still couldn’t see the ball and the sun was burning his eyes and blinding him as he searched the sky.  Still they called to him and still he searched. How could a ball stay in the air for so long? What had happened to gravity? Where was it?
           
‘Where is it?’ said Jimmy out loud.
           
Then he saw it. Through tightly squinted eyes, he saw the furry green ball spinning in the sky directly above him. He stared at it and raised his hands. The sounds of shouting and cheering were now muted by his desperate concentration. Jimmy watched the ball descend slowly towards him, shuffled his feet and lifted his hands a little higher.
           
Someone was saying something about soft hands but Jimmy wasn’t sure what that meant. The ball suddenly reached him and hit his open hand hard. Instinctively he closed his fingers to capture it but he was too late. The ball bounced up off his palm and into the sky once more. Still, Jimmy kept his eyes glued to the ball. He took a few steps forward as it descended again and this time when the furry pelt kissed his hands he snapped his fingers around the ball like a mousetrap, and made the catch.
           
Jimmy gripped the ball tightly as he was mobbed by the others and jostled with backslaps and hugs.
           
‘You got him, Jimmy,’ said Jack breathlessly. ‘You got Theo out.’
           
‘It’s not out,’ yelled Theo. ‘It was a no ball. Chest high full toss. That’s a no ball.’
           
Jack broke from the pack of congratulators and ran for Theo. He was right up in his face before Theo knew it. ‘You’re out!’ he snarled.
           
‘No,’ said Theo calmly. ‘It was a no ball.’
           
Jack turned away in disgust as Theo said, ‘Play on. Four balls to drinks. I’m twenty not out.’
           
Jimmy was still floating and still tenaciously holding the ball in both hands as a chant blossomed in the heat. He wasn’t sure who started it but it quickly caught on like a fire through bone dry bushland.
           
‘Out! Out! Out!’
           
Everyone joined in, even Jimmy now emboldened by his success. Theo meanwhile was trying to counter the chant with his usual words of last resort, ‘My yard, my rules.’
           
Someone changed the chant to ‘Theo’s rules suck! Theo’s rules suck!’ Then, as a group, they marched off down the side of Theo’s house, through the side gate, across the front lawn, out the front gate and away down the street all the while shouting in unison, ‘Theo’s rules suck! Theo’s rules suck!’

           
One week later, the neighbourhood kids gathered for a meeting to discuss Theo’s rules. Jimmy was pleased that his debut wicket, that of the almighty Theo had been the catalyst that sparked the monumental protest, but he missed playing. Everyone wanted to play and Theo’s yard was as close to the Sydney Cricket Ground as most of them would ever get. Theo had been badgering the kids during the week, cornering them in small groups and one on one when he could, trying to convince them to come back and play. The kids all knew that Theo was pretty much only interested in himself and his delusions of glory on his personal field of dreams, so they held fast. Despite itching to resume the battle, they resisted his attempts to persuade them.

Finally, Jack and Shah assembled the gang and convinced them to play.

‘No more Theo’s rules,’ said Jack. ‘That’s the deal we take to him, all right?’

‘Right,’ said Shah. ‘It’s cricket and we play according to the laws of this magnificent game or we don’t play.’
Jimmy and a few of the others laughed at Shah’s haughty and indignant tone. They all knew how much he loved the game and so did they. Jimmy hadn’t stopped bragging about getting Theo out in his first over. Caught and bowled: the catch of the year, an absolute classic. It was the hot talking point. That, and the mass walk out which would become a legendary event in the history of the neighbourhood.

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With the agreement of all those assembled, Jack and Shah went to talk to Theo. Jimmy tagged along just to see Theo’s face when the ultimatum was delivered. Theo might not like it, in fact, he’d probably hate it, but he needed players because cricket is not a game of solitaire.

Theo looked defiant when they arrived at his place. He was in the yard tossing a ball up for himself and whacking it against the fence. Once again, Jimmy wondered about Theo’s parents and their lack in interest in the pockmarked Colourbond fence.

‘What do you want?’ he snarled.

‘To play cricket,’ said Jack calmly.

‘Where’s everyone else?’

‘We need to make a few changes around here, Theo,’ said Shah.

‘If you want to play, you know the deal, my yard, my rules.’

Jack and Shah turned away immediately. Jimmy, suddenly and inexplicably bold, said, ‘Your rules suck!’

Theo lunged forward, but Jimmy stood his ground as Jack and Shah appeared by his side. ‘You’re a slow learner, Theo,’ said Jack. ‘Cricket rules or no cricket. That’s the deal.’

The sound of cicadas became deafening as the hot westerly wind washed the three boys. Theo was looking at the ground, scuffing at the grass with his foot, and making grumbling sounds under his breath.

‘What’s it gonna be, Theo?’ asked Shah. ‘Do you want to play with us, or with yourself?’

It seemed like such an obvious choice to Jimmy that he couldn’t figure out why Theo was stalling. ‘Come on Theo. What’s it gonna be? Are you scared I’ll get you out again?’

Theo growled but said nothing. Finally, he nodded his head while continuing to avoid their eyes as they made it crystal clear to Theo that everyone would get a fair go from now on. Or else.

Jimmy looked forward to every match, and he marvelled at his earlier reluctance. He never dropped another catch, and he, like all the other boys, had the chance to bowl and bat, and field where they wanted to. A new spirit had descended on Theo’s backyard. Everyone was a winner, and the great game of cricket was honoured. But Jimmy could still not figure out what those girls were doing there in Theo’s backyard. Maybe he would ask Jack about it one day, but for now he was going to be having way too much fun to care about anything else.