That’s what they called me. Or should I say that’s what one particular person called me and then it just stuck. Even Angry Man has started referring to me by this nick-name and he knows full well my name is Klaus. The fellow who started the nick-name virus began working in the kitchen not long after I arrived. For some reason I was immediately offended by him. The fact that he looked about a third of my age and had the air of a smart aleck wasn’t helping.
On the other hand, naming a person based on their appearance or personality traits has a certain appeal.
‘You’ve quite a style about you mate,’ the kitchen-hand said when we first laid eyes on each other. He dished me up something that was impossible to strictly describe as food, but after my enquiries, I was assured that it was. We were mostly always hungry, so we ate it anyway and it has to be said that whatever it was, it usually tasted of something vaguely recognisable without one necessarily being able to put a name to it. That struck me as vaguely ironic, but I couldn’t be bothered pointing this out to anybody. Approximate Food might be a good appellation for what we were dished up.
I didn’t know the kitchen-hands real name, but then if I had been made aware of it, I would have considered it to be made up. The Beard is what I called him, although Top-Knot would have been just as apt. He had the blackest and bushiest beard I’d ever seen. Most of his face was obscured by it and one could only ever arrive at an approximation of his expression via the twitching animation of his facial hair. I tried The Beard out with Angry Man but he just looked at me in this weird way he has—as if trying to decide whether to kill me or not. I should say that he looked just to the left of me, not strictly at me, so that must be kept in mind. At least he didn’t start shouting loudly, his usual response when displeased and generally leading to sedation. Anyway The Beard idea didn’t take, so I kept it to myself, secretly referring to the kitchen hand as thus.
‘Love the jacket dude,’ The Beard said.
‘Thank you,’ I said looking directly at him, straightening my shoulders. I would have placed my right hand in the side pocket of the jacket for more effect, but I needed both hands to pick up the tray. The jacket in question was black and made from velvet—real velvet, made from silk. ‘It’s real,’ I said.
‘Sure, if you say so, I’m not sure what you mean though—are you talking about the jacket, or something else.’
A smirk developed on his mouth, or so it looked that way to me. The exchange was brief because he had to serve Curly Man next but I went away thinking The Beard might become somewhat of a problem until I happened to meet him on the outside. On that day, I tidied myself up in my room as usual before embarking on my stroll. I duly noted the appearance of the phantom in the mirror. It just stood there as usual, with an air of expectation. I named it simply and obviously, The Phantom.
Apparently my meds were suitably regulated—we all took pills that worked to a greater or lesser degree—until, of course, they didn’t. It was never going to be a well-defined art and like the food, it could have enjoyed the name Approximate Pills. My pills were provided in what is called a Webster pack. I’m not interested in who Webster is, although at some point, it may be worth investigating. The daily dose consisted of three in number and red, white and a blue in colour. The white one was for my hypertension, the blue and red for something else.
I swallowed the pills and headed out on my daily constitutional to the bay. I always have my right hand secreted in my pocket and my back straight. I had combed my luxurious and distinguished looking grey hair, so that it rested gently on my shoulders. It was a pleasant feeling. Upon passing the tall apartment blocks on Market Street I entered a small and serene park the highlight of which was an avenue of old Moreton Bay fig trees. Crested pigeons and currawongs lived in their branches. Territorially speaking, there seemed to be ample room for these two different species but no others.
The parks exit was adjacent to a catholic girl’s school. I timed my walk so that the students were already at their desks. I had learnt that if I hadn’t timed it thus the park would have been awash with giggling, bantering, mobile phone wielding adolescents crowding the park and avenue. They seemed incapable of understanding what the comfortable egress of pedestrians might entail.
My custom was to stop at Coluzzi’s Kiosk for takeaway coffee and sit on a bench in the shade of the pines lining the esplanade. I’m fair, so too much sun is not good for me and a hat would look ridiculous on top of my excellent head of hair.
I liked to watch the boats moored in the bay and the sun’s reflection roll across the water like gold. The boats moved infinitesimally, gently rocking on the gold which appeared approximately the same time every morning. I became anxious if, for any reason, I was unable to attend this spectacle—usually requiring another pill, the blue one. I was sometimes moved to alert passers-by to the gold, but thought better of it after one encounter. A woman was walking with an infant in a stroller along the esplanade. Look, I said to the child and pointed at the bay of gold. The infant looked but the woman just quickened her pace.
‘Sartorial Man,’ The Beard said. He was seated on the bench adjacent to mine. I remembered he had not been on duty at the kitchen that morning.
‘Hello.’ I felt compelled to be polite.
‘My day off,’ he said. He followed this with a quicksilver smile. He had coffee and some sort of pastry. ‘Want to share my snail?’
He pointed at the pastry—it vaguely resembled a snail I suppose, a sort of flattened out one.
‘No, thank you.’
For a while we both stared out at the golden bay, each on our benches. This may have been the beginning and the end of our social interaction but for the fact that a pine needle dropped on top of The Beard’s snail.
‘Ha, what are the chances,’ he laughed. His voice came from deep inside his black beard. If one looked closely one could observe a pink little mouth, but I didn’t like to stare for too long. He picked the pine needle up and looked at it. It flopped around as he twirled it between his fingers.
‘Is it really?’ I said.
‘Such a coincidence.’ I sipped my coffee.
‘Ha, nah, I guess not. Hey, you’re a lefty like me.’ He picked up his coffee with his left hand and winked. From my point of view this observation did nothing to promote any sort of comradery.
‘These were for masts in the old days,’ I said, pointing up with my index finger, while continuing to look at the golden bay.
Peripherally, I could see he followed the direction of my finger in a searching way and then back at me. Clearly he was confused, and thought it might preclude any further conversation. This was not to be.
‘I’m…ah…I don’t get it dude.’
‘The seeds for these Norfolk pines were sown a long time ago. Even before my own parents were born.’
‘Shit, that’s old.’
‘Well—yes.’ Although I was disconcerted by it, his remark also indicated interest. ‘They were planted along the shore so that seafarers in need of a new mast would have ready access to straight timber.’
‘You’re having a lend of me mate.’
‘If you mean, I’m lying, I’m not. Norfolk’s were prized over all other timbers for ships masts.’
‘Lying’s a bit harsh. I just I thought you were joking.’
‘Again, I’m not—I don’t understand jokes so it is unlikely I would attempt one myself.
‘Thanks for clarifying that man,’ The Beard said.
‘All the ships had carpenters on board, as well as other craftsmen.’
‘Interesting—I never knew any of that.’
When I first came to the half-way house I was struck by the long dark corridor leading out into a courtyard and all the rooms lined up at the rear. At first glance from the street it looks like a house in need of repair or demolition—one could flip a coin to make a decision. I hoped no-one would be flipping the coin for a while as this was the third time I’d moved in two years and I was a little weary these days. On the day of my arrival I was accompanied in the van by Curly Man.
He was eventually called Curly Man by The Beard for two related reasons. He had very curly hair which he never combed. He also had a habit of curling each hand backwards quite unnaturally with the other hand, seeming to dislocate them. He walked around with his arms pushed straight into his sides with his hands strangely pointing out. With Curly Man’s ground focused shambling gait, alarming hair and propensity for hand acrobatics, he was quite the odd fish to observe—which is saying something around here. When The Beard gave him his pseudonym, I thought it was apt, clever even.
Entering the house for the first time, I found the corridor was interrupted by a wide common area for food and other activities.
‘You blokes are free to come and go as you please,’ I was met by a man who I now call Cut Man to both myself and The Phantom. It had occurred to me to point this out to The Beard, as he hasn’t come up with a pseudonym for Cut Man and I quite think he’d like it. Cut Man was big-headed and impressive. He had a scar that started at his forehead and dribbled down past his right eye, like molten wax, to his chin.
‘It was a bar fight. Glassed—long time ago. I like to get that out of the way when I meet the new blokes.’
‘I see.’ I said. Curly Man hadn’t uttered a word from the time we had made the detour to the hospital to pick him up, to our arrival here. I don’t know why he was in the hospital. In any case, I felt compelled to answer for both of us. ‘I wasn’t going to ask—that would have been rude. Nevertheless, I’m glad you filled us in about your alarming appearance,’ I said.
‘Ha! Well, you’re a turn up for the books mate.’
‘Am I?’ I know by now that most people say things that shouldn’t be taken literally. I still don’t know what he meant though.
‘The rules are here,’ he pointed to a piece of paper encased in plastic and stuck to the common room wall, ‘Make sure you read them—it’s rare we give blokes second chances.’
Curly Man was looking at the ground so he hadn’t had the opportunity to read them. I have now been here for nine months and I’ve never seen him make eye contact with anyone.
‘You okay mate,’ Cut Man said to Curly Man, ‘you’re not gunna be any trouble are ya, me china plate?’
‘No.’ Curly Man had a voice so quiet one was never sure whether it was him or a mouse doing the talking from his top pocket, which appeared to be the fixed subject of his gaze.
‘Good on ya.’ Cut Man looked like he was going to pat him on the back or something, but presumably thought better of it. I have learnt you could never tell what might happen if contact was made. People were deeply sensitive, including myself—it’s the frayed nerves they say. We all seem to have nervous complaints to one degree or another. I eventually learnt that in the case of Curly Man, apart from the incurable shyness, the looking down was the result of his obsessive search for discarded cigarette butts. He roamed the streets day after day, his eyes glued to the pavements. Less and less people smoked these days, so this great enterprise of his was Odyssean in its scope. Odd thing is, I never saw him actually puffing on any of the results of his quest. I imagined bags filled up with used butts in his room.
There were ten of us most of the time. Some left of their own accord and took to the streets for days on end. One fellow, who The Beard called Raggedy Man, pushed his haphazard way along the streets, telling people rudely to get out of his way. He had an urgent thirst to quench at the various pubs he frequented. He was constantly being thrown out of these establishments. I passed the verandah of one of these pubs once, and a gobbet of spit arrived with a slap directly in my path. Raggedy Man had chosen that moment to expectorate onto the sidewalk. He was the most disgusting man I’d ever met, slovenly, unbelievably insulting, unwashed and often delirious. During the course of my first three months at the house, Raggedy Man broke so many of the rules he was told to leave.
Someone had given him a walking frame as he was practically paralytic from the drink. Cut Man put his filthy rucksack on the seat of the walking frame and sent him on his way.
‘Off you go mate, you’ve got some thinkin’ to do. Don’t be comin’ back until ya do.’
‘Fuck you and ya sister.’
‘If I had a sister, I’d give ya a good kick up the arse for good measure, you silly old bugger.’
Two days later he was run-over by a delivery truck and was dead by the time he got to hospital. Cut Man delivered this information to us with a ponderous gravity, misrepresenting, in my opinion, the worth of the man. When I was a child I was taught to treat the less lovable with a charitable forbearance but my only sentiment was a sense of good riddance to bad rubbish. This was something my aunt Felicity used to say.
She also said cat got your tongue and not playing with a full deck—the latter having been overheard by me when I was supposed to be on the outside doing kicks with my cousins. Like all sports I’d ever had the displeasure to engage with, kicks was something I was never going to be good at. My cousins often and loudly indicated this fact to me and anyone else, they thought should know.
Before leaving my room in the morning, I am careful to brush my velvet jacket and my hair with extra ceremony and confirm The Phantom remained within the mirror before leaving.
‘What are you waiting for?’ I asked, but as usual it failed to provide an answer.
‘Hey Sartorial, what gives?’
Of late, The Beard has taken to wasting part of his day off by sitting at my bench uninvited with his left-handed coffee and snail. Not only had he shortened the nick-name I’d only barely become accustomed to, but initially he tended to ask a lot of questions. I found both these developments somewhat unnerving to start with, but after a while and despite my prejudices, I looked forward to his company. On more than one occasion, I even shared his snail.
I don’t like questions of any kind, so I usually provide information to The Beard unasked. Eventually he got the hang of this preferred form of exchange and merely waited until I presented him with one of the many facts his impoverished education had denied him. The Beard seemed to hang on my every word—something I found quite flattering.
Sometimes The Beard and I found ourselves waiting for our coffees outside Coluzzi’s together. I don’t think anybody working at Coluzzi’s was Mr. or Mrs. Coluzzi. The manager’s name was Bruce and Bruce Coluzzi didn’t seem to fit. He was always stressed looking, as if the burden of running the kiosk was far too much for him and he needed a holiday. It was a busy place where they sold lots of fried foods and big baguettes filled with things that had exotic names such as Teriyaki Chicken and salads with something called Kale in them. The cost of the food was more than my budget allowed; otherwise I would have indulged myself. The Battered Barramundi with Fries & Coluzzi’s Aoli was to die for apparently. I overheard a woman say this once while waiting for my coffee. I think I understood her meaning but it was nonetheless alarming to hear. The variety of coffees was long but I had settled on Flat White a long time ago and never varied my order.
‘It has been estimated that a single cup of coffee provides a profit of 63% to the vendor.’ I said.
‘Really,’ The Beard said.
‘Not as good as it used to be. Twenty years ago it was 500%.’
We found our usual bench to be unoccupied and sat down. I placed myself so I could be both attentive to The Beard and the Bay of Gold. For historical reasons it was officially called Belmore Basin but for personal reasons I renamed it.
‘Are you aware that once they had asylums where we were locked in and promptly forgotten?’ I said.
‘No, but who is we?’
‘If you’d waited, I would have told you.
‘I guess you’re not talking about a collective surname?’
‘No, as you have no doubt noticed, we have a tendency to walk a lot. That sort of walker. Did you seriously think we had always been allowed out?’
‘Yeah, I guess I did.’
‘An innocent abroad,’ I said.
‘It doesn’t matter. What does matter is the forward motion. Walking promotes the progress of thought. Some thoughts are circular and become closed systems and other thoughts are ever-expanding,’ I said. I very much would like The Phantom’s opinion on this but it was not forthcoming on this or any other matter.
‘Okay, I think I get it. But…’ The Beard said
‘Angry Man’s progress, for instance, is of the circular variety. Think of a snake swallowing its own tail—a very common archetype. The more he walks, the more his thoughts return to the sanctum of his initial understanding of the world. This is not a judgement by the way. I respect Angry Man’s position.
‘So what is it he’s always coming back to and how does it explain his angry behaviour?’ The Beard said.
‘A good question but as I have indicated questions aren’t helpful—they are simply in the way.’
‘Alright Sartorial, keep your silk shirt on.’ I was disappointed to see him slip the last morsel of the snail into his beard.
‘Have I given any indication I am about to remove my shirt? I suppose it’s possible—I’m sometimes absent-minded.’
‘Nah, go on.’
‘If you watch Angry Man closely you will see his shouting and pop-eyed rage is not directed at any particular individual but an unseen entity, whose corporeality is not available for us to see. This entity is intermittent but also a constant in his life. Its presence has his full attention and he defers to it on all important matters. I was so curious I followed him once and his walks cover a lot of territory, sometimes returning to his departure point only to walk the same distance all over again with renewed determination. During this time he will rage and shout loudly, even when no-one is around. He’s quite exhausting actually. One can’t ignore his physicality. He is small and nuggety, built for strenuous activity.
‘So—the angry part?’
‘I was coming to that.’
‘The entity Angry Man’s addressing is necessarily passive and thus eminently receptive to his monstering. This allows him to vent on the many wrongs that have offended him during his certainly unhappy lifetime, in a loud and demonstrative way. It must be quite satisfying for him.
‘Yeah but people don’t know it’s not them he’s pissed with.’
‘I agree this is a potential problem but I have not witnessed anyone confronting him and this is because he is very skilled at appearing to be insane and as such he is given a pass. Simple, but effective.’
…and so on.