The Plunders; Ruben, Rebel and Rusty, lived in a spacious four bedroom apartment in the inner city. They could walk, within twenty minutes, to the gorgeous harbour and the sparkling city centre, with its pointy modernist towers of glass and steel. There was a large park traversing two city blocks, opposite the sixth floor apartment in the seven storey building. The well-maintained building, solid in the way of these old city structures, was vaguely forbidding, with a lean towards the neo-gothic.
The Plunders, known collectively as such, sometimes simply as the R’s, would occasionally have dinner parties. Such an event was arranged by Rebel via the phone, still with Rusty’s twelve-year-old voice providing the answer on the answering machine—If you wish to be plundered, leave your name and number and we’ll do our best. Because it came from the boy’s croaky voice, it was always considered endearingly amusing.
Several proposed dinner guests rang back, listened amused as usual and left a message in the affirmative. Rebel had already met with Shelley, her sister law, at their customary watering hole in the city, and so that guest was invited in person. All this was as expected, nothing of any particular consequence—another dinner party with booze, food and conversation between old friends and family members. A few laughs, a tear or two if the drink led to overt sentimentality and some final hugs and kisses at the door, before everyone went home in their Ubers.
There was never any question that Ruben loved his wife Rebel. The general consensus was that she was very pleasant to look at, so her quirky wit, only added to her overall allure. Some remarked on her magnificent eyebrows, two short, dark lines highlighting her green eyes. When they were closed, one admirer said, you felt that a light had been switched off. Her slim body was well-proportioned, olive in colour, her extremities, including her fingers and toes, were somehow in perfect harmony with the rest of her.
I suppose this could be said of many people but it should be noted that Rebel had a presence, seeming unique by all who knew her. She was a laugher and she liked nothing more than to see others doing it. Her personality and physical attributes were in almost complete polarity with her husband. Nevertheless, she loved him back in equal measure.
Ruben, on the other hand, was a gloomy sort of person, often given to maudlin silences. That is, when he wasn’t outraged by the stupidity of politicians or the rudeness of bus drivers, He believed the latter were rude for good reason—they weren’t stupid but due to their occupation were required to endure a great deal of stupidity. They had a far more important job than politicians, but were paid far less, a fact, no doubt, fuelling their anger.
Fortunately for Ruben, Rebel’s friends appeared to share a fondness for his cooking. Otherwise, he suspected, he’d be without company. Rebel tried to convince him he wasn’t a bad sort of person.
‘You’re just different Ruben. You have a way about you. A way that others—well let’s just say they don’t know you like I do.’
‘You know, I really wish you would show me how to be different to being different.’
‘Well, then I wouldn’t love you anymore, my darling.’
When Rebel laughed it was like the delight of a child opening presents. Ruben felt this odd sort joy hiding inside him when he heard it, one that remained locked in there somewhere. He often found himself scratching around, wondering where the key had got to. It was utterly impossible to imagine a life without his beloved Rebel.
Opinions of Ruben were as varietal as the collection of wines he had accumulated and nurtured with shuttered windows and temperature controls in the fourth bedroom of the apartment. Most of these impressions of him, unlike the wines, were often vinegary in flavour. He didn’t mind as he’d always thought of himself as being quite self-contained. He wasn’t austere, chilly or combative—well, not much—but simply had a character most found disagreeable. There seemed nothing for a person to refer to with any sense of familiarity. When people alluded to another person as someone they could warm to, they wouldn’t be thinking of Ruben.
Descriptions of his physical appearance often conflicted, and this was because he had no particularly notable features. Except perhaps his fingers and toes, all of which looked as if they belonged to twenty different people. Aside from this, if one spent a morning with Ruben by mid-afternoon, he’d be as indistinct as a chimera in the desert. One person was heard to say that he had a boyish look to him, a person whose physiology seemed undeveloped, vague, not fully established.
In regard to his character many things seemed to be missing, but then those who thought this, couldn’t quite pinpoint what they were. One person said he was mercurial but any amount of close association with him wouldn’t support this notion. He would become large of demeanour when some bee had managed to get under his hat, only to divert to melancholy, followed by an indeterminate melange of sullenness and then finally subsiding to something resembling nothing much at all.
As it happened, bees seemed to have buzzed their way into his ambit of late. He read an alarming article about something called colony collapse and started to observe them. The park was a source for what Ruben considered privately as his insectual ruminations. He had an odd way with words at times; leaving several people of his acquaintance scratching their heads.
His morning routine included walking in his neighbourhood. This seems a strange word to use in the city as it implies quiet tree-lined streets, small children learning to ride bicycles in those streets and neighbours chatting or abusing each other over their back fences. Everything is big and loud in the city where driving an armoured tank could be your best chance of survival and the humble Malvern Star, a death-trap.
His habit was to descend in the lift, exchange a few words with Henry, the caretaker and occasional concierge, before leaving the building for his morning walk. The route circumnavigated the park by crossing Elizabeth at the Liverpool Street cross-section, past the Museum of Natural History, the Aquatic Centre and St. Mary’s Cathedral. He had a habit of tipping his ratty old straw hat to the bronze of Queen Victoria on Queen’s Square, then entering the park from Prince Albert Road.
Once in the park itself and with the assistance of the massive figs and London plane trees, he could, to some degree, block out the rumble of traffic and the pandemic of concerns ruling its inhabitants. Surely there is more to be had from existence than the unabated flow of business. What was it all for, was a refrain often entering Ruben’s mind, an organ, he suspected, that was fast approaching enfeeblement.
On this particular Friday of the proposed dinner party, Ruben followed his usual route, but only after learning Henry’s wife of twenty years was leaving him because she said—you’re boring Henry and I’ve found another man who is not. Henry was down in the dumps and Ruben commiserated as best he could, with this information taking up residence uncomfortably among his thoughts.
It occurred to Ruben, although he did not know for sure from his limited knowledge of Henry, that indeed he may have been a bit boring. He was quite a nice fellow, a bit odd but always polite and kind, ready to help in his serious, solicitous way. But then how would Ruben know; behind closed doors and all that. Henry was not a man of irony or intemperance. Ruben cracked a joke with him once, involving a horse in a bar, never to be repeated, as it landed flat on the tiles between them. Nevertheless, he thought Henry was an authentic and earnest man who did not deserve to be treated so shabbily. He told Henry that his wife might discover she had made a tactical error, and that he believed boredom had its attractions. Henry gave Ruben no indication he had any idea what he was talking about, and so Ruben took his leave.
The late spring sunshine filtered down through the Moreton Bay figs and onto the flowerbeds. Delicate red and purple pansies, lilacs, yellow hellebores and snowdrop anemones swayed in the breeze. The bees gathered amongst them, ever industrious, sucking up the nectar for the hive and delivering gamete infused pollen. Ruben learnt this from Wikipedia. He maintained a close and daily watch on this activity, never having noticed before. Now that he had become aware of the intimate relationship between bee and plant, he was fascinated, often interrupting his walk to sit on a bench beside the beds and staring at the wonder of it. He knew the inadvertent collection of pollen by bees was as splendid, not to mention necessary, an evolutionary adaptation as they come.
If the bees didn’t know of this great advantage themselves, they were, in their own strange and wild way, aware that pollen was an essential form of protein for the entire bee population. On this day, Ruben felt a sudden surge of remorse for their collapsing colonies and slid off the bench and onto his knees, to take an even closer look. All of a sudden, he felt tears well up and cascade down his cheeks. Through the fog of his strange and spontaneous grief, he heard the voice of a woman.
‘Are you alright—can I help you sir?’ The woman then joined him, kneeling beside him and watching the bees.
Despite his oft-proved talent at knocking a meal together and his half-way decent nose for a companion wine, Ruben had been experiencing a form of culinary ambivalence. As the days grew shorter and the months galloped ahead, he felt his ardour for the delights of the plate waning. He fought against this creeping discontent because it was clear his food-related talent was one of a very limited number of redeeming features.
This ambivalence was regrettable because he was expected to produce the goods once again. A dinner party, an occasional event in the Plunder family apartment, was scheduled for the evening. The guests consisted of some friends, two related by blood.
Most of Ruben Plunder’s friends were actually Rebel’s. Even those who started out as his friends were now more convivial with her than they had ever been with him. He didn’t mind, he admired this ability in his wife to attract others.
Ruben was between jobs, though it was no secret he’d made himself pretty much unemployable. Until recently he’d been occupied as the food critic for a daily newspaper. This was until the quite esteemed organ of daily record urged him to take early retirement due to some litigious unpleasantness regarding a restaurant review he penned. His editor suggested he change his name and move to Brazil. It had been made known in certain circles the recipient of his vitriol had sworn revenge of a severe variety. The chef was from Marseilles and had connections. The anonymous threat, in the form of the unforgiveable cliché of a sheet of paper with pasted on words and letters, included mention of a dark night and a garrotte.
His review was venomous, according to the writ submitted to his publisher, causing irreparable damage to the reputation of the elegant eating establishment in an excellent location. The word art was mentioned more than once as a definitive word for the quality of the now besmirched cuisine. The writ asserted that the restaurant’s costly doors were closed only a few months after they had been opened as a direct result of Ruben’s scurrilous column. Naturally, Ruben believed he was blameless. He saw it as a kindness to all potential patrons when he described the oysters thus—Salmonella on the Half Shell—followed by—The Boeuf aux Crevettes, as the proprietors whimsically and ungrammatically opined, was a bituminous affair adorned with two anaemic crustaceans transported to the plate in a used condom from an oily puddle, somewhere south of John o’ Groats. The effect of chewing a small portion of this ludicrous excuse for a comestible was enough to send me reeling to the rest-room. I must pause to say though, this room was quite charming. It sported those little rolls of terry-towelling face cloths and the toilet bowls were apparently of French manufacture—a detail much appreciated, considering the circumstances.
In hindsight, it was a wilful act of sabotage on his part as he’d had, to be precise, a gutful of writing about food. Nonsensical towers of alleged victuals were being produced in self-conscious culinary ateliers whenever he turned around. Beneath delicate constructions of artisan-style, hand-cut potato chips accompanied miniscule portions of seared, organic Wagyu, which decorously lay in seaweed infused foam. It was an absurdity he could no longer endure. He’d sacrificed himself on the altar of professional gustation for too long. Ruben now had a desire to enjoy simple food paired with a decent wine, while assiduously refraining from comment.
People who wrote lifestyle columns for newspapers always did something else before. It’s not really a vocation; it’s something one falls into as one would fall into an abyss, an abyss of angry, sleep deprived editors, advert placements and impossible deadlines. In retrospect, it now seemed bizarre that Ruben had maintained his presence in that world for so long. He knew journalists who had drank themselves to death out of despair, and at least one, of the investigative variety, had been murdered for snitching on a snitch, a serious indiscretion in the newspaper business.
Before he joined the ranks of the career eaters, he was reporting on cricket. He knew virtually nothing of this arcane sport of batting averages and finger spinning, and cared even less. It appeared he had no stomach for a silly mid-on or even a short-leg and the aforementioned organ grumbled angrily all day long and well into the night, flatulence was involved. Rebel despaired of the toll Ruben’s profession was exacting and took to wearing earplugs and breathing entirely through her mouth to achieve any kind of sleep. One day he wrote what he thought was an amusing story about the eating habits of a famous cricketer, who’d achieved three hundred runs in a row.
He’d just managed to slip it through to the compositors before the evening deadline. The next day he was summoned to the editor’s desk for what he assumed was going to be a thorough drubbing, which it was—in a way.
‘It’s as fucking clear as a plimsoll across the foul line, Plunder. You are a complete fuckup when it comes to sports journalism. That last piece was a pastiche of obscurity and dissembling of epic proportions.’
‘Oh shit, you’re firing me,’ Ruben said with genuine alarm.
‘Just shut the fuck up and listen,’ the editor replied.
The editor’s eyes bulged, his nose bloomed alcoholically and he looked like he hadn’t been to sleep for about six years. This was not so alarming to Ruben or any of the other journos in the news room, because it described the customary condition of all editors.
‘The bit about this twat’s predilection for six hard-boiled eggs for breakfast and the unsubstantiated claim that the consumption of madelines between innings, gave him an erection, insinuates you may be better placed turning your hand to victuals.’
The following day Ruben found himself sitting at the Frisco Bar and Grill in the Sheraton, polishing off a tasty bit of brisket and a bottle of Margaret River Chablis. Much to Rebel’s relief the unpleasant gurgling emanating from his abdomen subsided and they both realized he had merely been hungry.
He was a much better food critic than a cricket commentator and jagged himself a bit of a reputation for sometimes insightful and often acerbic discussions, on and around the plate. At least he had a bit more meat on his bones and Rebel declared she liked that about a man.
He once described the consuming of the humble Sydney rock oyster, as being the very essence of twentieth century joie de vivre. He wrote, speaking for his manly cohort, if one was not balls deep after partaking of half a dozen of these little charmers, it would be an act of criminal restraint. Well, he wrote it, the published version turned out to be somewhat modified for general consumption, his editor noting people as young as fourteen read their rag, admittedly for the funnies and the cricket, but nevertheless. Now, of course, one could publish anything at all in the newspaper and be assured it would be completely disregarded. Ruben had long been aware the scribblings of opinion writers and lifestyle columnists serve to fill in the blanks between sightings of Elvis Presley, the parlous condition of the transport system and the racing form-guide.
Ruben concluded privately, the most enjoyable meal he’d ever sat down to, was standing up for a late night pie and peas from Harry’s Café d’ Wheels. This caravan of culinary delight glowered in a dark and seedy corner below Kings Cross, adjacent to the Finger Wharves. On one occasion an honest vagrant asked him for money to buy alcohol and Ruben was so enjoying himself, he gave the fellow twenty dollars, six times the cost of the pie. This was in those halcyon days when you could buy a pint when you were three sheets to the wind after one a.m. and the wharves were just that—wharves, and not the prize-winning architectural conversions accommodating over-rated movie stars and shock-jocks.
Whatever the case, it wasn’t too much of a stretch to suggest Ruben’s time at the paper had run its course. It was time to hand over the reins, albeit precipitously. He did, from time to time, read with wistful interest, the reviews of his replacement. She wrote about food without rancour or regret. Give it time he thought to himself, but he wished her well.
Ruben had asked around the journalistic traps to see if anything was in the offing, but the news business was changing, and not for the better. Everything was going online and real live journo’s were dropping like flies after a squirt of Mortein. These days you had to tweet your way to success. If a moronic narcissist, no less than the American president, used it to promote his particular brand of idiocy, then Ruben was happy to leave Twitter for the twits.
There was also the issue of Ruben’s body, which seemed to be in a perpetual state of decline. A variety of twinges, aches, cramps, a post-nasal drip, and thinning hair were just the peripherals. It was becoming clear to him the edifice could not be rebuilt to any satisfactory degree.
On top of this, he could not have failed to notice his personal interactions were met with even more tactical avoidance than usual. Acquaintances crossed the road rather than subject themselves to the potential for a disagreeable face to face. At least one person, a psychologist in fact, who felt it necessary to be unconstrained by social etiquette, obliged Ruben with instructions on how to be less obnoxious. He took to practicing a better demeanour in front of the mirror, setting his face this way or that, but to no avail. He was forced to acknowledge there was something off about him that couldn’t be alleviated by arching his eyebrows or limiting his mouth-breathing.
‘You should do something,’ Rebel said one day. She was getting ready for her weekly night out at the pub with her work colleagues. Ruben went once but nobody spoke to him for very long, and only then out of politeness to Rebel. He left early and got drunk on his own in a wine bar across the street. He didn’t mind because he could see Rebel laughing through the pub window. He loved his wife’s laughter, even when he couldn’t hear it.
‘Take up badminton; get yourself a bicycle, or you could take up pistol shooting. Men like that sort of thing, don’t they? What about a horse?’
‘Really? A horse?’
‘You could keep it on some paddock in the country. Visit it, give it a carrot. I don’t know, go trail-riding with it, or whatever you do with them.’
If Ruben was miserable in his cups he was an even worse teetotaller. When the necessity arose, a cruel abstinence from the vino was suggested by his GP. His doctor was and entirely forgettable man who, nevertheless, he always looked as if somebody had just murdered his entire family and then ate them. Ruben would make an appointment with him sometimes, just to snap himself out of whatever funk in which he was immersed. He offered this explanation to the poor fellow on one such visit.
‘I love my wife and kid, but apart from that, booze is the only thing that still makes me smile, a facial arrangement some have characterised as more representative of a person developing a goitre.’
‘You’re running the risk Plunder, of developing heart disease or worse, liver and renal failure. Not to mention insanity,’ he said, no doubt remembering some half-digested dead relative.
‘Worse! What, like six feet under worse? Look, I’m not giving up the plonk and that’s that. I’ll admit to being a bumbling, overweight fool, with a tendency towards morbid perspiration. I get hot feet and cold stares across crowded rooms. Furthermore, I have been displaying a tendency for truculence, overstatement, maudlin despondency and fractious ventilation on a variety of obscure matters. Have you got any sort of potion or emollient for any of that?’
The GP also suggested activities of a bucolic nature. What was this about the damn country-side? The last time he visited the great outdoors, he got a rash that made his face look like a baboon’s arse.
‘Why are you so angry Plunder?’ He was once asked by Rebel. For as long as he could remember nobody ever referred to him by any other epithet than his surname. They were discussing the parlous state of the inner-city transport system, something that affected both of them, to one degree or another. ‘This fury is often concerned with matters over which you can’t have any effect?’
‘I vent Reb. I’m a venter.’
‘Well then, I really wish you would vent in a way that was more decorous.’ She worked in visual arts and believed even disgruntlement had the capacity to be transformed into a thing of beauty.
The guests were scheduled to arrive at six. The white wine was chilling and the red was breathing. Slow-cooked apple cider lamb stew had been simmering in the oven now for two hours. It was five o’clock. Rebel’s due home from work any second. Within minutes of this thought she crashed into the apartment, violently kicking her shoes off, releasing her hair from her bun and finally smiling at Ruben across the kitchen servery. Ruben loved his wife very much, so he poured her a cold glass of Pinot Gris and leaned in for a kiss.
‘Have I told you I loved you today?’ he said. It was habitual, if one forgot, the other would remember. The sweet aroma was only partly responsible for a discreet erection as he took a little peek at the portions of lamb and champignons simmering in their huge pot—enough for seconds.
Nine for dinner, although one could never tell with Rusty. He had a peculiar eating regime, among his many other peculiarities. Ruben had started dicing a large swede when Rebel approached from behind. Sliding her hands around his middle, they come to rest in close proximity to the admiral and two colonels. This was sufficient to turn discreet into heedless immoderation and the swede was abandoned as he reached around to fondle the curve of his wife’s buttocks.
Rusty, with his usual lack of reserve, wandered into the kitchen resplendent in his undergarment of the day.
‘Hey, that’s something I can’t unsee. Jez-us.’ Rusty said.
‘Consider it payback for having been exposed to a similar traumatising experience with Angela. Or was it Tiffany,’ Rebel said as she removed her hand from Ruben’s rapidly demoted admiral.
‘Tiffany—it’s the kitchen for Christ’s sake,’ he replied and then pushed past us saying ‘whatever,’ and proceeded to ransack the fridge in search of, what had become over the years, an ineffable mystery. When interrogated about his quest, he invariably shrugged. Today was an exception.
‘What are you looking for Rus?’ I said with a flaccid sigh.
‘Chocolate milk—where the hell is it?
‘I am sure it’s in there chicken,’ Rebel said
‘I wish you would stop calling me that, I’m not five. Christ, who drunk it all?’ he said, combining moral outrage with panic.
‘Show me,’ Rebel stepped around the fridge door, looked inside and by moving a jug of juice—tantamount to poison from Rusty’s point of view—revealed the recalcitrant item. She handed it to her son, giving him a look familiar to both men.
‘It was behind something,’ he said.
‘You know what chick—darling,’ she replied, ‘I have found life is like that; there is always something in front of something else.’
‘Good to know. So what’s for dinner?’
‘Lamb stew cooked in a cider reduction with thyme and mushrooms, sides of steamed brocollini and Dutch Cream potatoes.’ Ruben said.
‘The usual gang are coming,’ Rebel said warily.
‘What, including Phillipe?’ Rusty said.
‘Unless he’s already passed out somewhere,’ Rebel replied, she was assuming a familiar blasé approach. Oh, what the hell Rusty, it said, believe it or not, this is life. We live in this world and some of us are absolute shits at it.
‘Forgot we were entertaining; anyway I don’t much like the sound of that lamb goop.’ Rusty had a problem with what he classed as exotica. Food, for instance, containing herbs, jus, foam, or anything julienned, medallioned was not considered edible. He would run a country mile from aioli but be in your face for a good squirt of tomato ketchup. His appetite was strictly pedestrian, often to be found within cans sporting names like Chunky Steak Noodle Dinner. As well as the heart-stopping sodium enriched contents of these cans, he preferred minimal association between and within food groups.
If he was to be offered a home-cooked meal, each vegetable would require isolation from its neighbour. Meat was to remain bereft of any sauces, which would end their lives congealing in an undisturbed and lonely pool at the edge of the plate. If eaten, all items would be eaten separately, starting with the vegetables. Desert was absolved from this procedure and endured a loving relationship with Rusty’s gut.
Other anomalies, not related to food, included the bumpy bits at the end of socks, which always had to be on the outside of the foot. Rusty also had an uneasy relationship with feathers. Viewed from a distance, birds were fine, but bringing one within his vicinity led to extreme agitation.
Rusty maintained the lifestyle of a professional student. This was a state of mind as much as anything else, with its principle philosophical premise being one of eschewing domesticity in its entirety, while still enjoying all of its benefits. To be fair, he was in the middle of his PhD, so there was that.
When he woke, close to if not actually afternoon, he wandered around the apartment in his underpants— augmented by a pair of Ugg boots for the winter months. Rusty was lanky, cool and entitled as you might expect of someone born in 1994, this is apparently, all perfectly acceptable.
It could be argued, the name ‘Rusty’ might be more appropriately ascribed to a pet dog and they had been in discussion about visiting the pound with the view to acquiring a small canine. One evening, Ruben was trying to go to sleep by reading a tedious and confusing novel he believed was about bears in Alaska, but turned out to be nothing of the sort. Rebel was seeing to what he thought were her ablutions in the bathroom when he heard this, emitted with alarming velocity.
This was followed by her appearance beside the bed with a pregnancy tester in her hand and a look of mortal terror on her face. The proposed canine was replaced with an unexpected biped and the name ‘Rusty’ was as good as any they could come up with.
Rusty was, between the age of two and six, a bit of a let-down. Ruben tried to engage him in the joys of the kitchen, but the boy demurred and concentrated on his arithmetic. For a brief period, around the age of ten, the boy became enamoured of the written word and had a go at it. Ruben was overwhelmed with both joy and pride, encouraging his son’s literary pursuits with an enthusiasm, some terribly new-age types might characterise as oppressive. If anybody other than Rebel could be bothered to ask, they’d be fascinated to learn that Ruben donned a kaftan in 1975 and on one brief occasion even ventured out in it. This wardrobe fail post-dated such behaviour by only five years; for some the Age of Aquarius lingered way beyond its use-by date.
Anyway, Ruben was outraged to learn that the annual short story competition was won by a certain Jessica Plink. It was called Pussy Wonker and the Jelly Bean Factory. In a letter to the principal Ruben wrote the following: Having a professional, work-a-day knowledge of the English language, I view Miss Plink’s dire scribblings as a hideous travesty, awash with glutinous adjectives and verbs and tortured by the most appalling of adverbs. Participles were barely present and pronouns wanting of personality. The Plink kid clearly never had occasion to meet even the most modest of commas. Furthermore, I believe there may be legal precedent for charging a ten year old with criminal plagiarism. Rusty’s effort was the clear winner from his father’s point of view. His story entitled The False Start, about a go-kart with engine problems, was a tour de force of understatement and sensitivity—especially the bit about the inner life of the carburettor.
Ruben caused a variety of embarrassments for his son throughout his school life. Once he arrived at his son’s senior high school with a large Tongan of his acquaintance requesting a private interview with Nathan Laurence, who along with several of his pimply minions, allegedly monstered Rusty behind the toilets. Ruben was told evidence was wanting in the case. Among other things, a person with two Christian names as an appellation is clearly not trustworthy, he told the principal. The police were called. Ruben and his assistant were led from the premises and told to piss off by the senior of the two constables.
If Ruben was Rusty’s staunchest champion, Rusty himself was, to say the least, ambivalent regarding this sort of parental intervention. University, and his chosen subject of study, Quantum Physics, was a refuge from the many awkward dilemmas that all inordinately clever people are required to endure, including the behaviour of bizarre fathers.
Regardless of all this, his parents adored Rusty and when had made off for to his room, Rebel and Ruben were standing side by side, duly chastened. Rebel reached for Ruben’s hand.
‘There’s something wrong isn’t there? Are you going to tell me what it is?
‘No. I’m fine.’
This was far from the truth, in fact, it was a lie and Rebel knew enough not to pursue it. Ruben wasn’t a complainer but he was a consummate brooder. If there’d been an Olympic event in brooding, he’d be a star performer.
Much of the time Ruben could barely put a name to his concerns. In fact this time he could and it resided in a report he’d snatched from his doctor’s desk earlier in the day. Dr. Cordell had rushed from his office to attend an emergency in the waiting room and Ruben seized the opportunity to pocket the report and discretely make an exit.
There were many occasions when a gloom settled upon him like a heavy blanket on a too-warm night. As oppressive and fearsome as these moods often were, there were other times when some sensation gripped him seeming less ominous but nevertheless reached into some depth of his being he’d not been much aware of. These were feeling for which seemed no words, though melancholy came close. He did describe it once to Rebel.
‘It’s like I’m away somewhere, some unfamiliar place. When I return home, however, it lingers, as though there is something left unfinished, and then I forget and feel I’ve failed.’
‘I wish I could understand this, I’d like to help you. You are not bereaved, both your parents are still alive, all your…our friends are still kicking, Rusty is thriving and I’m here and you love me to bits, I know you do. You’re a lucky man Plunder.’
A lucky man, is that what I am? He wondered if it was about him getting older. He thought he’d be wiser and calmer, more accepting, but most things these days put him on edge, not lucky at all. His anger with the world in general, was irrational at best. He once tried to enumerate the things about his life that gave him pleasure. He thought to categorize them into some kind of happiness quotient, divided by degrees. Joy was one category and he’d placed Rebel at the top of the list with nothing underneath. He didn’t realize that this is what made him lucky.
After much experience with tardiness, and in an effort to retain the integrity of a fresh cooked meal, Ruben informed dinner guests that the food would be served an hour before it actually was. He was expecting this lie to be sabotaged when they twigged to the innovation and compensated by arriving late anyway.
The dinner guests arrived in twos, all with a bottle in hand. Phillipe and Christian were first, followed by Sandra and Colin with their usual half bottle of cheap plonk. Ruben’s younger sibling, Shelley, appeared at the door with Rebel’s brother Bob. Shelley and Bob didn’t come together; they just showed up at the same time. At least this is what they told everyone and was the subject of hopeful amusement between Rebel and Ruben. They were both divorcees and appeared to be indulging in some tentative skirmishes to see if they might like each other rather more than they had previously thought.
It had been three months since Ruben had set eyes on his sibling, although Rebel often met Shelley for coffee or a drink after work. She approached Ruben for a dutiful peck on the cheek but he hugged her with uncharacteristic enthusiasm. She examined Ruben after he released her, no doubt looking for some madness she had not previously detected.
‘You don’t look right brother, kind of more unnecessary than usual,’ Rebel said.
Ruben was unaffected by her remarks; it would not do any good if he was. It was just a thing between them.
‘Dear sis, what would I do without your venom,’ He grabbed her by the shoulders and kissed her on the cheek.
‘I love you—I think,’ she said, then with a shrug embraced Rebel. Phillipe made straight for a bottle of Le Pin 1992 Shiraz breathing on the servery bench.
‘I’ll help myself, shall I,’ he said and poured himself a large glass of Ruben’s expensive red. Phillipe had two favourite pastimes; one was drinking large quantities of alcoholic beverages and the other was being an unmitigated shit. In Ruben’s view those two activities formed a creditable character assessment. Considering this, he couldn’t for the life of him, work out why Christian tolerated Phillipe for more than an hour, let alone the many years they had been together.
‘Must you?’ Christian said.
It was clear the two had already exchanged considerable unpleasantries prior to arrival.
‘Again, you guys? Rebel said.
‘He’s just being a vapid old cunt, as usual,’ snarled Phillipe.
‘Any chance you two might sort out whatever this is, elsewhere,’ Ruben felt compelled to remark, expecting to be ignored and, of course, he was.
The snarky enmity raging between them was becoming a bore, although Ruben sensed the general focus of disdain transferring from himself to Phillipe. Christian wasn’t a bad sort at all, so it was a bit of a shame. He was a successful artist and disported an excellent brain, but it was being whittled away by the septic interactions with his permanently drunk and promiscuous partner, who appeared to have no occupation, unless being an errant arse was now one.
Rebel suggested the dreadful Phillipe needed to be the subject of a hit, saying to Ruben once—it was a pity you got on the wrong side of that chef from Marseille. Bob and Ruben collaborated in encouraging Christian to give the fellow the flick, but nothing they said seemed to penetrate his infatuation with the drunken slut.
Phillipe once had a career. He was an arts administrator and an advisor in Canberra to the minster for the arts in the good old days, when they had such things. When he met Christian, he had carved out quite a career for himself. They fell in love, bought a dilapidated domed palace opposite Coogee Beach and renovated like there was no tomorrow. No sooner had the last of the workmen walked out the door, Phillipe fell into a middle aged funk, quit his high paying job and proceeded to enjoy his sea change with the assistance of Chateau Lafite. Perhaps something dark lay at the bottom of his soul but no one had detected it. Ruben might have had occasion to categorize levels of unhappiness, if he’d had a mind to and Phillipe’s murky sludge of ill-humour and alcoholism would find itself at the top of that list. Unlike the Joy list, it would have many companions. So enamoured of the drink was he these days, Phillipe was not often seen sober, much to the despair of Christian and every other person encountering him.
Rebel and Shelley retired to the sofa for some catch-up gossip. Bob glanced from the atrocious Phillipe to Ruben as if to say, will you punch him or can I? Colin furtively placed their half bottle of white in the fridge but before he did, Ruben observed the half-bottle was only half-full. This would not be surprising to the present company. Sandy, his wife, an imposing and wide woman with chaotic, curly red hair, possessed a penchant for both stinginess and outrageous self-promotion. She had one important redeeming characteristic; she was a brilliant raconteur, occasionally hilarious.
As an art gallery owner, she would think nothing of sidling up to new acquaintances, slipping a business card into their hands, followed by some outrageous anecdote about the art world. She insisted on sitting at the head of all tables, facing all doors or windows, as she could not bear to have either at her back. She once admitted, without embarrassment, she needed to see what was happening in most directions, otherwise she would experience an unaccountable nausea, a sensation mirroring what her acquaintance’s felt regardless of her seating arrangements. She had this serious talent for story-telling, so almost everything else was forgivable. Almost.
Colin, on the other hand, appeared much of the time, to be in a state of euphoria, care of certain controlled substances. It was rumoured the fellow had taken rather a lot of LSD in his early years and he’d become permanently baked by the time he was twenty-five. His occupation as a music producer did not seem to be impinged by this predilection, as he was in high demand. He sidled over to Christian and asked him about his recent retrospective. Ruben headed for the balcony to join Bob, who managed to snaffle the Le Pin while Phillipe wasn’t looking.
The news being passed back and forth between Shelley and Rebel was sufficiently ludicrous to elicit squeals of laughter as he walked past them en route to the balcony. Bob was sitting in Ruben’s comfy chair, momentarily pissing Ruben off. He said nothing and after tipping a splash of Le Pin into his glass, he took the other chair with a sigh and looked out to the park.
‘So what’s cooking me china plate?’ Bob had a thing about rhyming slang. This could be annoying because you often found yourself playing catch-up.
‘Lamb Stew tonight Bob.’
‘Sounds great, but not what I meant,’ He looked at Ruben warily, no doubt wondering if he was being a smartarse.
‘Oh, I see. Bit of an occupational hazard I’m afraid. Well things, as you know, have taken a turn for the worse in my career, and I am now at somewhat of a loose end. In any case I’ve had enough of restaurants and restauranteurs.’
‘You know, I always thought journalism wasn’t really your bag of fruit,’ Bob said, ‘you’re more of an academic sorta bloke.’
Ruben was suspicious of this remark. Was Bob saying, he’d have better served his natural abilities with long-winded, oblique essays on the matter of cadence in the Renaissance sonnet and vague debates over the minutia in the novels of Flaubert. In other words, become a time-wasting wanker. This was unkind as Bob was a good man and Ruben himself was a miserable old fart, and indeed, with too much time on his hands.
‘So what about you? How’s tricks in the, shoving other people’s money around business?’
Bob was the type of share-trader who favoured unleveraged fund management and blue chip stocks over scary derivatives and frightening futures. Not that Ruben had the faintest clue what all that meant. Bob told Ruben once his cohort were incapable of endearing themselves to the general population, and he felt obliged to disport himself in a compensatory capacity. In other words, he was very capable at making pots of money for himself and others without being a complete dick.
‘Same old, same old. It’s a relief to sit down with normal people. The buggers in my industry only have ears for the fiscal inner-whispers of promising put-bonds and enticing latent-defaults,’ He said, mistaking Ruben for somebody who knew what he was talking about. ‘I’m not talking insider trading mind you. I have to say however, I wonder whether there is anything else but. Believe me, it’s a fine line.’
‘Well you’re safe here, we’re not about to rat you out to the feds,’ Ruben replied.
‘Yeah, I appreciate the invite. My lot, they’ve no taste for ordinary conversation. I reckon I might be in a diminishing club of reconstructed capitalists. We oldies have been bathing in the reflected light from all these moussed up young wankers with pointy shoes for a while now. The writings’ on the dunny door though. I’m smelling another GFC in the wind.’
‘Really?’ Ruben said with alarm.
‘Sure, the Reserve Bank will call it a market correction, they still hang onto their antiquated notions of economic conservatism. The word recession is never uttered past their portal—a sacking offence I shouldn’t wonder. In banking, the R word is akin to issuing a Fatwa, and the D word—well, we won’t even go there. ‘Gosh Bob, I don’t like the sound of any of this,’ Ruben said.
‘It’s alright, tuck into the Le Pin while you still can, china plate.’ Bob replied raising his glass with a scary wink. ‘It’s just good old greed, as reliable as the rising of the sun. These jokers, the hipster traders, they’ll crash and burn, falling off whatever back they’re riding; bull, bear or their risky porcine variety. If they took a serious butcher’s hook at themselves they might realise they have a bit of a pen and ink about them.’
Right, let’s see—look and stink—Ruben double-thought.
He had to remind himself, his brother-in-law was smart enough to back away from the lure of subprime mortgages when the market lurched catastrophically in 2008. He lost money but not as much as the spivs he so regularly insulted.
‘We’ve got a banking industry royal commission coming up I think, won’t that sort out some of this stuff.’
‘There’s some serious unfinished business mate. The entire world experienced its own 9/11, just as terrifying and much more pervasive. An unpunished crime, at least in the US, of such massive proportions it’s impossible to exaggerate; and all originating on Wall Street, just around the corner from ground zero. We talk about terrorists—spend an hour on the floor of the stock exchange and you’ll be running for the hills.’
The behaviour of his junior colleagues irked Bob because he liked to think of himself as trustworthy, an iteration of the common man, which, when all was said and done, he was—except for the common bit. He had a brain as sharp as a Shun kitchen knife. He had helped all of those present avoid the worst of the GFC. Ruben liked him despite his inability to translate his lingo. He still couldn’t get his head around his underlying assets and his maintenance margins, but found comfort in the knowledge that Bob had a firm grasp of them. ‘Here’s to early retirement then. You can rest on your laurels mate, although in this era of the execrable Trump and his venal minions, all bets are off.’
He raised his glass and Ruben reciprocated. He wouldn’t be in rather nicely performing blue chips right now if it wasn’t for Bob. He peered into what remained of the Le Pin. The conversation made him uneasy, or more uneasy than his usual state of mind, that of verging on the catastrophic.
‘Have you thought of what you might do now?’
‘I am looking into bees at the moment,’ Ruben replied.
‘I do believe there is a city ordinance in regard to keeping bees in an apartment Plunder. Like to the effect that it’s illegal.’
‘No, no, not keeping them; investigating them.’
‘Have they committed a lemon and lime Plunder?’
Lemon and lime…crime—of course.
‘That reminds me of something I read recently. Bees can fool predators and help catch serial killers at the same time. They visit flowers close enough to home to fly back comfortably, but far enough not to attract predators. Criminal profilers have employed the survival tactics practiced by bees to augment their understanding of the aberrant human mind.’
‘Geez mate, you appear to have found your retirement vocation,’ Bob said. ‘Criminal Profiler.’
‘So not champion of bees then?’
‘Tell me something; do you think Colin is gay?’ Ruben said
‘Well if he isn’t, he damn well should consider it. It may be the only way to escape the diabolical Sandy.’
‘She’s a piece of work, I’ll give you that. I’d better check the oven Bob.’
Ruben, at the granite-topped island bench, was putting the finishing touches on the meal. He could see and hear all that transpired between his dinner guests. He was trying to think of why, but his day had put him at odds with the knowing sniggers and astonished exclamations accompanying Sandy’s latest artistic outrage. The remodelling to the open plan concept meant that he would never know culinary privacy again.
Years before, the Plunders renovated their apartment to make it more of an open plan design. They had finally divested themselves of their mortgage, so why not use this fabulous equity they were now in receipt of and redefine themselves? We are modern, first world people, the Plunder adults agreed. They’d forgiven themselves for being so and, at the time, it felt rather nice to be so liberated. Were Ruben and Rebel in this new and expansive frame of mind because of a realisation they were well off, that they’d arrived? What had they been before, though? Were they a category of people impossible to forgive, so as such, had to do it for themselves? Ruben briefly thought on this, but the builder needed instruction in regard to the bathroom tiles.
Rusty, sixteen at the time, couldn’t have given a rat’s fig about who they were. If he did he might have furthered the idea by relating it to free radicals, but instead deferred to the purity of physics. He did try to equate it with the trajectory of time; however, the results were uncertain. It was a physics issue after all—the distance between two bodies. Rusty enlisted Einstein’s theory of equivalence, determining the mass and speed required to produce the energy for both Ruben and himself to operate under the same roof.
He wasn’t old enough to be in that very moment with his father when the issue of arrival came up. There were many inexplicable moments. Something compelled Ruben, from time to time, to become an unpredictable Ruben—those damn free radicals again. Rusty was forced to acknowledge an improbability factor in this important relationship. If he’d asked Ruben, he would have said it was all perfectly normal and that he should just sleep on it, as he was all but convinced, Rusty would be well-adjusted by breakfast the following morning.
All of this was frustrating to Rusty. He hoped Ruben would fill in the gaps about what he got or didn’t understand about himself, but was not in a position to ask. If parents were not expected to be Delphic when it came to their off-spring, then surely that should have been made clear from the get-go. A well-formed question on such matters was an irritating phantom for any sixteen-year-old. Furthermore, why was his dad having all these personal moments when, let’s face it, his job was pretty simple; keep an eye on his son and make sure he didn’t become dark matter or something. Ruben once said—I didn’t promise you a rose garden, which was unbelievably annoying.
The king’s ransom spent on the kitchen alone might have been better spent on organising a hit on Nathan Laurence, a major thorn in Rusty’s side. When you’re young you just want your enemies to go away and die—actually, even when you’re old.
Even before Ruben had brought his Tongan friend to the school to sort Laurence out, a bully of the first rank. Certain subtle scenarios for offing him were germinating in Rusty’s mind. If he’d had the funds, he would have at least paid for a bit of biff. He spent some time working on the sums. There would be a significant financial disparity between several judicial punches to the abdomen as opposed to a broken limb. A cursory glance at the potential of his pocket money indicated resources barely stretched to a Chinese burn, only a three in the one to ten pain index and clearly inadequate.
Ruben believed Albie Peleki, his go-to Tongan, was the nicest bloke he’d ever met and a lot more people would have had the opportunity to like him, if the width of his shoulders hadn’t denied him ingress through the conventional domestic doorway. Albie was one member of an entire family involved in security for a variety of high and low class eating establishments. It was Harry of the famed Harry’s Café d Wheels who originally recommended the Peleki organisation for a nightly drive-pass of Ruben’s apartment block. The Peleki matriarch alone, also salt-of-the-earth, according to Ruben, had convictions in three states for grievous bodily harm. Nevertheless, the family was so influential they purloined gun licences off the shelf like chocolate bullets at Woolworths.
Through Ruben’s influence, the building’s body corporate employed the Peleki’s to drive by every night and make sure all was as it should be. For a while this consisted of escorting members of the local community, who found solace in the deep and gracious portico of the old building, for heroin injections and rough sex, to a more appropriate address. One of these sad souls was reported to have awoken with a one-way ticket on the night train to Melbourne. The word got out to the dealers. They were experiencing a significant thinning of their greasy wallets, so warned their clients off 196 College St.
Henry’s lost and disoriented expression as he opened the door of the apartment block for him, had stuck with Ruben all day. He surprised Ruben by talking at length about the demise of his marriage. At least it was lengthy for Henry. Ruben knew it must have been a barely endured tragedy. His wife leaving him had made him seem very vulnerable and Ruben knew he would not fare well. For all his oddness, his near autistic disconnect, his dour presence in the lobby, Ruben knew him to be a good man. Like Ruben himself, Henry suffered an isolation of his own making.
‘It’s been a month since she left me Mr. Plunder, and I have not been getting over it. Not at all. I walk in the rooms of my house where she also once was and have a sense of them, but do not know my feelings about all the things I see,’ His face was a grey mask of hurt.
In the fifteen years since Henry had been employed in the building, this was approximately two more sentences Ruben had heard the caretaker utter at one sitting.
‘I cannot be there for very long.’
‘Were there children Henry?’
‘No, they could not come, Mr. Plunder.’
It was an odd thing to say but Ruben had become accustomed to his manner of speaking, and in a way he couldn’t explain, quite liked it.
‘Plunder,’ Ruben said, ‘you can just call me Plunder, everyone does.’
‘That is not possible.’
‘Oh—okay’ Ruben wondered what part wasn’t possible. ‘Perhaps you could get yourself a horse.’ At a loss for immediate solutions, he took a page out of Rebel’s playbook. ‘Keep it in the country and visit it, take it vegetables. Equestrian activities are apparently good for you.’
‘I don’t understand that, Mr. Plunder. I doubt saying any more about it would help either. However, I have been receiving instruction to abseil—on Sunday afternoons.
‘I am abseiling. I am not proficient yet but sometimes my mind is relieved by this activity.’
‘I see, well—that’s great—I think. Nevertheless Henry, you spend too much time here. Everyone in the building thinks you do a wonderful job of looking after it. We are very grateful for your many talents. Take some time off, we can make a roster and take out the bins and do a bit of cleaning and fixing some things—though not all, of course.’
‘Mr. Plunder,’ he looked horrified, ‘the windows on the second floor need urgent attention.’
‘I applied some putty to a window frame in the fourth bedroom last March. It was quite satisfactory I think, although my effort would not meet with your standards.’
‘It’s my employment. There is no question I would not complete all of my duties.’
‘Yes, but you are here a lot, perhaps too much.’
‘It is what it is.’
That was that with Henry, as it often was. Without another word, he held the door open for Ruben as he made off for his morning walk. The thought of lonely Henry in his house rested uneasily with Ruben. There was also the incident in the park with bees, of course. What was he to make of the woman joining him amongst the flowers and the busy bees? He could still feel the gentle touch of her hand on his back. More than anything, however, was the story she told him, her extraordinary story. He felt almost physically injured by it and wondered how he might be cured of its lingering pain. Even so, was there anything about it that he could weave into the increasingly abstract tapestry of his own life? What could he make of it that could explain himself to himself?
There was something he was meant to do. It clearly wasn’t horse-husbandry, a pastime rejected by no lesser man than Henry. He remembered a conversation he had with Rebel a very long time ago.
‘I have a novel in me somewhere,’ Ruben said. It was shortly after he and Rebel tied the knot. He was twenty-seven, and she barely twenty. It was as austere and unceremonious as they could manage. God had died a long time ago for both of them. In Ruben’s case it was following a much heaven-oriented beseeching when he had to have his appendix removed. The instrument of mercy turned out to be a scalpel and not the Hand of God.
Every scintilla of evidence since—the appalling cruelty of children with cancer to the erasure of entire villages on the Afghani-Pakistan border by drones, only confirmed their non-belief. The recent admission of a dangerous sociopath to the Whitehouse was icing on the cake. A real fairy-prince in the sky wouldn’t have a bar of all the evils humanity was required to enjoy in perpetuity.
Ruben ventured into a church recently on one of his walks, just to see what had transpired since the incident with his appendix. It was actually the city’s cathedral and hunched like a demon, peering at the homeless people in the park and the posh back-yards of sinners. All the time he’d lived a stone’s throw from the church, he’d never once thought to enter it. Naturally being a cathedral, it was enormous, taking up an entire city block. The gloom was as he remembered but it on a much smaller scale than the one from his childhood. The terrifying sculpture of a bleeding man nailed to a cross remained as the interiors central motif.
Most telling, however, was the absence of an audience. Only one black-clad and veiled lady seemed to be in the pews. A closer inspection revealed the cleaner and her head-dress was, in fact, a hairnet. He expected a discreet sign requesting applications for a new priest, as Ruben was aware the incumbent was up on charges for kiddie-fiddling. If the holy apparition was around, Ruben conjectured, the church might be the perfect place to hide if he ever felt in need of some R and R.
Anyway, back to when Ruben and Rebel were first married. After leaving the registry office the newly-weds adjourned to their garden flat at the rear of a large house, shaped like a Dutch cap, in leafy Cremorne. Drinks were laid on but the only guests then were their landlords, a charming and cultured couple of German Jews who escaped the ovens by hiding in the basement of a cottage, overlooked by The Berghof in the Bavarian Alps.
‘Right under the Fűhrer’s silly little moustache,’ Klaus said with a sad kind of pride. They brought with them from Germany, an exquisitely carved chess set, one of the few possessions they escaped with. Ruben and Klaus played occasionally, in the sunroom upstairs. The room had a lovely view to Brightmore Reserve.
It was when he and Rebel picnicked and drank cheap claret at the reserve under a huge weeping gum, that Ruben mentioned his bookish aspirations. A tartan blanket was spread beneath them and a mild breeze rustled the long leaves of the tree. They watched the receding sun cast a reflection on the bay like molten gold. Rebel inched her bare feet inside the bell bottoms of Rubens pant legs.
‘I’ve heard of this sort of thing.’ Rebel said. ‘I really hope you locate this novel, Plunder. I’m not going to be hanging about with one of those people filled with the regret of never having written the book mysteriously residing inside them.’
‘It’s quite likely I may also have some poems lying in some dank corner of my mind.’
‘Oh for joy.’
Following a memorable sexual encounter when they returned home, Ruben started writing that very day, and over the next month and a half, typed precisely ten chapters of a novel and three bad poems.
He started work at the newspaper one month later and in a private ceremony, elaborate with shameful significance, burned the manuscripts. He couldn’t even remember what the novel was about anymore, although he suspected it had something to do with a love affair in the Bavarian Alps and a rabid wolf hound. The turgid mess degenerated into a kitchen sinker, where the protagonist took his dog for a walk one day and never returned. The poems were bleak affairs about things he felt he had some ephemeral connection to but in reality knew nothing about. For instance, one was a sixteen stanza free verse shambles about the ghost of a poet searching the living for the purist of emotions to absolve him of the crime of his own suicide.
This category of metaphor was so obscure, it sent Rachel looking for the Metamucil, believing Ruben was backed up and a few decent evacuations would get him straight with the world. She was artistic but also practical, an unusual combination which made her into an excellent curator. Ruben put these literary exertions down to the feverish excitement of being in love. It was the last fleeting atonement for a dull adolescence pouring out into the kitchen sink and once expiated he felt both vented and relieved.
Back at the dinner party, Sandy’s current anecdote concerned a performance artist of some dubious renown. With neither door nor window at her back, she was in her element. Rebel had already told Ruben something of Octavian De’Mure and his shenanigans. He was a well-known, but third rank artist, who largely survived on grants on the off-chance he might produce something worth supporting. It was a mystery to all and sundry, although there were rumours he had a thin and distant family connection with some senator in the state government.
De’Mure, whose real name was Phil Hole, had caused a bit of a stir in the art world by threatening suicide if the Arts Council did not restore their support. The board had declared the mid-grant assessment of his current project had been found wanting and stemmed the flow of dollars.
‘The board was generous with their assessment.’ Sandy said. ‘When a representative of the Arts Council turned up at his studio, she found De’Mure lying naked, face down in a pool of turpentine, squeezed out tubes of cadmium yellow, scarlet red, ultramarine blue and cheap rum, none of which had been applied to any canvas. The assessor attempted to revive him so that she could ask for an explanation. Much prodding with a dried out paintbrush was required but he eventually did turn over with a squeal of outrage. To her dismay the assessor discovered the drunken sot had painted the front of his torso, including his genitalia, with an Arcadian scene of island bliss, in the style of Gauguin. His lozenge of a penis was fashioned into a short dugout canoe. To complete this travesty, his face was made up to look like Mister Spock including prosthetic pointy ears.
‘Ah yes, I remember he has some strange obsession, conflating Star Trek with post-impressionism. What a complete twat.’ Christian said.
‘Yes, he’s mad as a cut snake. Anyway, De’Mure is well on the way to morbid obesity,’ Sandy said, ‘so the thought of Leonard Nimoy’s iconic character transposed to Octavian’s butterball of a head does not bear thinking about. When further questioned by the traumatised assessor, De’Mure mumbled that she was looking at the second stage of the proposed three part project entitled Beam Me Up.’ The nature of this masterpiece, he further explained, was not to be broadcast, until it’s unveiling which had now been circumvented due to lack of grant money. To wit, he prevailed up on her—you lot better give me more fucking cash or I’ll hang myself from these very rafters.’
After the laughter had died down, Sandy continued.
‘The poor official, upon deducing the worthlessness of continued investigation and the beginnings of priapic activity occurring in De’Mure’s canoe region, took her leave.’
‘He can think on his feet, I’ll give him that,’ Shelley said.
‘Considering his condition, he was more likely to be thinking on his dick,’ Rebel replied.
Shelley emitted a tight laugh. All the guests were well into the wine by then, so it may have been a hiccup. Sandy continued by relating that the Arts Council, presumably with a nudge from higher up, did offer to provide De’Mure five sessions with a psychoanalyst to help rehabilitate his project.
‘Twenty sessions with a shrink won’t even scratch the surface when it comes to De’Mure. Christian said, ‘The hiring of a forensic pathologist to determine the extent of his compulsive lying might provide some answers.’
There was much merriment. Glasses were filled in Sandy’s honour. Several toasts were called and made—Here’s to De’ Mure said one; Raise your glasses to our dearly departed Spock, cried another.
‘Is Leonard Nimoy dead?’
‘Where have you been Bob? The Vulcan took his final dividend a few years back.’ Shelley said, attempting to couch the sad event in terms Bob would understand. She was also an incurable Trekky. ‘I can see you are going to require schooling in the more important things in life.’
‘I’d be delighted to sit at your feet to do so.’
‘Jesus wept, get a room,’ Phillipe leered.
‘Fuck off Phillipe!’ Shelly said, colouring a little.
Hoping he’d just look hungry instead of mortified, Bob broke off a piece of dinner roll and dipped it in a bowl of olive oil.
Ruben spoke in the ensuing silence. ‘The worker Bees have love affairs, when they’re not working that is. They’re all female you know; the workers I mean. The male drone’s only purpose is to mate with the queen, which would make workers lesbians—strictly speaking.’ He had his head down, thinking it through as he dished stew onto plates, the steaming brocolini had been taken off the hob. Everybody looked over at Ruben as if he’d begun speaking in tongues. Even Sandy had to turn so much she was in danger of providing the balcony window with a view of her ample back. The parsnips, carrots and potatoes, however, remained unaffected by the architecture as Ruben allocated them to the eight plates on the servery.
‘Ruben?’ Shelley said. A look of dismay had formed on her face, transferring to Rebel.
Ruben glanced at her as he pushed another plate to edge of the servery. Rebel, who was routinely tasked with the table delivery, got up and started placing the meal before each guest.
‘Just thought I’d mention it—seemed pertinent somehow.’ Ruben said defensively.
The silence remained momentarily, Colin’s lower jaw had become a victim of gravity and Phillipe’s rampant dipsomania took a back-seat to what appeared to be a fugue state.
‘Ruben, do you think perhaps…’ Rebel using his given name was a red flag.
‘Forget it,’ Ruben said, making a bee-line for the pantry.
Rebel sat down with her plate and tinkered with the delicate wiring of what had just become a husband-shaped bomb. ‘Looks great Plunder; I could eat the crutch out of a rag doll,’ she said.
Everybody tucked in to Ruben’s stew and steamed root vegetables, the earthy redolence of shitake mushrooms, the sour minty aroma of thyme and nuttiness of the parsnips, circulated the table.
Christian had another anecdote about De’Mure. ‘We attended the National Art School at the same time and it was the occasion for the annual student exhibition. He was still Phil Hole when he pulled a similar stunt. I’m talking thirty years ago now. He climbed onto the roof of the Flinders Street campus with a rope around his neck and threatened to hang himself if they didn’t hang his painting. It had been rejected as ‘unfinished’. To avoid an unpleasant incident the Dean reluctantly acquiesced and they included it.
‘Jesus, I haven’t heard this one, so what happened,’ Sandy said.
‘Well, the work was a dismal affair, a poor approximation of a Jackson Pollock without the poetic fluidity and good old fashioned talent. It was a travesty, not to put too fine a point on it.’ Christian said. ‘De’Mure turned up on opening night looking like he’d been snorting snow from a feedbag. When the winner was announced, and upon discovering it wasn’t him, he commented on the decision by dropping his pants and pissing against the gallery wall and in close proximity to the winning painting. Some discolouration to one corner of the masterpiece was detected the next day.
‘Was it any good?’ Sandy said.
‘Not bad, a photo-realist painting of somebody famous at the time; got a mention that year when it was entered in the Archibald Prize, the urine stain was thought to be part of the workand nobody came forward to dispute it. In any case, it was a masterpiece in comparison to the De’Mure travesty.’
‘Actually urine became a feature of De’Mure’s oeuvre.’ Rebel added. ‘He entered a piece in the Calvin Prize for Religious Work, calling it Piss Cross. The Anglican Archbishop intervened to prevent it being hung.’
‘Anyway, De’Mure’s behaviour at the student gallery caused a frenzy of outrage and he was dropped out on the pavement by a couple of burly sculpture students. The press got wind of his shenanigans and he became a bit of a cause célèbre.
‘I remember hearing about that,’ Sandy said.
‘Yes, well realizing he had a talent for infamy, he determined to remain fodder for the tabloids for years to come. He’s a good example of someone who has achieved fame from narcissistic chicanery alone,’ Christian added, ‘one of many unfortunately.’
Colin had been gripped by Christian’s addition to the story of Octavian De’Mure as if it was manna from heaven, but spoiled the effect by belching and then farting, both with equal velocity.
‘Crikey,’ Bob remarked.
Ruben got up and reaching into the fridge for a lemon, noticed Sandy and Colin’s half-full, half-bottle of quite pedestrian Chardonnay, residing untouched in the fridge.
Colin seemed to be unfazed by his exertions and Sandy behaved as if such indiscretions were a matter of course in their household. It was known they held views quite at odds with the common flow. One Saturday, Bob was greeted at the front door of their house in Summerhill, by a nude Sandy and Colin. He’d come to discuss their investment portfolio. He told Ruben and Rebel—They asked me if I too would like to disrobe but I assured them that clothing wasn’t going to be a hindrance to me explaining the excellent dividends they were currently enjoying. I was staring with such intensity at the spreadsheets; I thought they might simultaneously combust. Much anatomical jiggling occurred, so the regular and oblivious diversification of their assets was a concern we all shared.
Colin’s percussive addition to the bonhomie did provoke a rather too enthusiastic guffaw from Phillipe.
‘Fucking hell, clear the room ladies and gentlemen. Someone call the state emergency service. I do believe we have a breach in the space-time continuum. Where’s fucking Spock when you need him.’ This caused Rebel and Shelley to laugh, against better judgement. Encouraging Phillipe was never going to be wise.
‘Really Phillipe?’ Christian said.
‘Oh, get fucked! Why don’t you and Col the doll there run away together before I puke.’ This is what he said, but it was hard to tell, slurring having become a way of life for Phillipe. A certain amount of translation was required.
So Phillipe was aware of Colin’s flirty enthusiasm for his boyfriend. Ruben thought the evening had become less predictable. Nobody had started weeping over their Pinot Gris yet but he suspected a clarion call for Ubers may need to be sounded sooner rather than later.
Was it an effort to quell an approaching storm that prompted Ruben to speak again on the matter of bees? Who can tell, but once more he launched the subject of bees. Perhaps, like Plutarch, he was looking for an answer to a universal conundrum. The Greek scholar once asked whether a ship is the same ship when all its parts have been replaced. What iteration of the world would remain, Ruben wondered, when all the bees have, one by one, shuffled off their mortal coil? Some form of the same question was fast becoming necessary for the Plunder’s dinner party.
‘Listen to this, it’s interesting,’ Ruben said, ‘bees have individual personalities. Some shirk their responsibilities; others seek thrilling escapades, some are meek, where others are conceited. They experience happiness and despair, all of which indicate they have complex emotional lives.’
Everyone turned to look their host, as if he himself was being dismantled, piece by piece, before their eyes. Yet another momentary silence ensued while they gathered their thoughts. Colin’s contribution to the conversation, an invisible but intense miasma not often experienced in mixed company, circled the room like an evil serpent.
It was easy to forget you’ve had a child, when he rarely makes an appearance. Rusty wandered in from his end of the apartment, still clad in boxers, although the crisp evening air had prompted a black T-shirt, upon which were emblazoned the words—I’m reading a great book on anti-gravity. I can’t put it down. Ruben was never amused by it, as with everything these days even its lameness was ironic, which of course, infuriated him. If God wasn’t dead, even he’d be a tad upset.
‘Hi.’ Rusty loped to the kitchen, opened the fridge door and peered in.
Ruben remembered there was a salad he’d prepared for lunch earlier, but hadn’t touched. It had rocket in it, so that would not meet with Rusty’s high standards of edibility: pre-cooked from a can, nothing exotic unless they used Himalayan salt.
‘Hey dude, how are they hanging?’ Bob said.
‘Side by side Uncle Bob,’ Rusty delivered with a soupçon of exasperation, an entirely predictable outcome.
Bob appropriated what he thought was youth-speak but was, in fact, mortifying to anybody under or even over the age of thirty. Bob was childless, so allowances had to be made. Ruben glanced at his son, witnessing the vexed eye rolling as he pulled a punnet of strawberries from the fridge. Bob couldn’t see from his place at the table.
Rusty sniffed at the open casserole dish and was visibly repelled. He busied himself creating an open sandwich on the island in the open-plan kitchen. This elaborate concoction consisted of a generous slather of Nutella on toasted sourdough, with sliced strawberries layering the top. The conversation had reduced to Christian suggesting Phillipe ease up on the wine and Sandy, telling Colin to connect his lower jaw with his upper by shutting his mouth, unless something interesting was to emerge. The others watched Rusty in silence as he cut his meticulously assembled sandwich into finger-food portions and laid them on a plate.
Nutella strawberry fingers was a family favourite, purloined from a cookbook entitled ‘Desserts of the Netherlands’. It had been languishing in the bookshelves unread for years because the Plunders were all under a vague impression it had something to do with a climate of unabated heat and endless sand dunes. Until Ruben picked it out of the bookshelf one rainy day, he had failed to question that a desert, apart from having one ‘s’ would not be a geographical feature of the most water-logged country on the planet.
Phillipe leaned in close to Christian and audibly whispered, ‘Get fucked,’ followed by a large gulp of Shiraz. Ruben noted the many rapidly emptying bottles wondering whether he’d be required to produce one of his stored wines. The following day was turning day, a once a month ritual where the reds needed a half-turn on the racks. Rebel was not above doing a bit of poaching when his back was turned. She knew he had an overly proprietorial attitude to his collection and became sneaky around his wines.
‘Reb, Isn’t that one the Barbarescos I purchased for a small fortune last year.’
‘No, my sweet, I picked it up at Liquorland on my way home.
Her assertion was about as likely as the local butcher selling Jamon Iberico. She was the constant light of Ruben’s life and so he never called her out on it. There would not be many things less worth seeing, even momentarily, than the dimming of Rebel’s bright spark. She was also the worst liar he’d ever known. He’d known a few, having been in the news business.
‘So what’s your thesis about again?’ Bob said, attempting to engage his nephew while monitoring what was happening at the other end of the table.
Phillipe was beginning to look like he’d need a good slap, sooner rather than later. Multi-tasking was stock-in-trade for an investment banker and Ruben wondered if Bob would engage this talent in regard to the repellent Phillipe. If not, then Ruben himself may feel obliged.
Rebel was doing some serious eyebrow arching in Bob’s direction to indicate that Rusty’s thesis may be better left misunderstood.
‘Entanglement Theory,’ Rusty mumbled.
They looked at him as if he’d just stepped out of the Millennium Falcon. Even Phillipe looked a little shocked. You have to give the young ones a fair shake of the sauce bottle, as Bob would no doubt remark if he had his wits about him.
A barely audible sigh could be heard from Rebel. Ruben’s thoughts about who would punch Phillipe were curtailed by the two words that had become an apt description of the current Plunder world view.
‘Pardon?’ Christian said, as if Rusty had said something rude.
‘Did he say Infinglement Beery? Is that a new brand; I’d go a beer, the wine has become all but eshtinct…exsinct—oh fuck it, just pass the fucking vinegar,’ With that he burst into laughter. He was at the point of tears when he realised no one else was amused. ‘Jesus, you lot are a bunch of real party animals aren’t you? I had more fun at my aunt’s funeral.’ There was projectile saliva present.
‘Phillipe!’ Christian said.
‘A funeral sounds like the perfect venue for you—preferably in the coffin.’ Sandy emitted angrily.
Phillipe, on the other hand, was now at the inconstant-focus stage of inebriation and failed to register that Sandy had become unpredictable; never a good sign.
Ruben was thankful for the combination lock on the fourth bedroom/wine cellar. As it was, he’d be obliged to quell the ensuing misery, when it was found every bottle had been drained—in approximately three minutes, he surmised. A judicious sortie amongst his collection for some reasonable quaffing plonk was imminent.
‘Entanglement Theory, I’ve heard of that.’ Bob said with a degree of pride.
Ruben awaited the monosyllabic reply, but Rusty astonished both his parents, when he explained the nature of his preoccupations. It was a surprisingly comprehensive account at the same time as being incomprehensible.
‘Entanglement is a term used in quantum theory to describe how correlated particles can interact, regardless of their distance from each other. For instance, there could be a galaxy or an entire universe apart. The correlation is not limited by factors such as the speed of light, for instance.’
‘Hang-on, another universe?’ Shelley said.
‘There’s another theory that there might be more than one.’ Rusty replied with no discernible arrogance—Shelley was his aunt, after all.
‘Oh dear,’ Bob said, an element approaching fear had entered his voice. The excess of wine was beginning to affect even him.
‘Distance and time have no relativity to entanglement. Knowing the spin direction of one of the isolated pair determines the spin state of the other, which will assume the opposite spin direction. I could explain the phenomenon of superposition.’ But Rusty had no takers.
‘Crikey!—I think I get it—cool!’ Bob said suddenly, as if a proton had just landed in his lap. The others looked at a loss, except for Rebel and Ruben, who had intimate knowledge of Entanglement, having cohabited with it, in one form or another, for some years now.
‘Any chance of you making me one of those, kiddo?’ Sandy said pointing to his sandwich. The girth of her hips was proportional to an inclination for all things sweet.
‘Sure, but keep in mind, its doppelganger, or at least its individual particles, will be created simultaneously elsewhere in the universe,’ Rusty said with a sly smile.
‘Gosh! Two of them! Will my other self out there be enjoying it as well Rusty?’
‘Sure, why not.’
He began assembling another sandwich for Sandy. Ruben wondered if his hitherto uncommunicative son had turned a corner in his social behaviour. But then Ruben converted that quantum leap to the notion that Rusty was trying out some new words.
‘Speaking of funerals, our mother died two years ago and I didn’t cry at all,’ Ruben said, glancing at Shelley. For a few seconds he was transported to his mother’s bedside. He’d felt incapable. Was there something he was meant to do, apart from hold her hand and wait for the tears to drop. Shelley on the other side of the bed, wept continually.
Then he was back, rocking into his default position of injured complacency. He’d found a silence had descended on the room.
‘Plunder, it doesn’t mean you didn’t care. She was ninety five, she was suffering.’
‘I know.’ It sounded angry, but not with Rebel. ‘I was sitting in the park this morning and I started crying.’
There were some nervous movements, a chair scraped on the floor, but the room remained silent. Ruben was becoming an even less recognisable component of the human tribe than usual. Even Phillipe had lapsed into something approaching reflection, or was it just a psychotic break?
‘A woman approached me and asked if I was alright.’ Ruben continued. She was very sweet. I don’t know how I got there, but I was kneeling in the flower beds. She did the same, right beside me, patting my back. She asked me what had happened and all I could do was point at the bees. I couldn’t answer her question except that I had become hyper aware of everything. At that moment all that existed, all the things that had before seemed in the familiar world, the one I was supposed to inhabit, became subsumed by another reality; the reality of the bees.’
‘Jesus, again with the bees,’ Phillipe said.
‘I read somewhere if you don’t cry the tears of grief, they will manifest through your other organs.’ Shelley said.
‘What, like you piss yourself?’ Phillipe slurred. By now he was so drunk; he was beginning to sway in his seat.
‘Do you have to be a complete dick, Phillipe?’ Shelley replied, ‘I meant that sadness needs relief and tears are a perfect and innate response. If your eyes fail to cry other bits of you feel the depth of your emotions.’ Shelley said without conviction. It sounded compelling but would require a self-help seminar to strip down and repair.
‘I saw an enormous wasp once, like it was the size of a rat. Maybe it was a rat? Come to think of it: no wait—yeah, it was a rat.’ Colin said, smiling shyly at Christian across the table. Christian wasn’t unaware of his attentions.
‘Bees are so marvellous and yet we all but ignore them. That just seems so strange to me now.’ Ruben said.
‘One of the little fuckers stung me when I was weeding a few weeks ago. I didn’t ignore that!’ Sandy said.
‘There is a hive nearby; the female worker bees have the stingers and they only sting if they detect a threat to the hive. Bees practice Kamikaze; the stings are barbed and break off, causing them to lose part their abdomen.
‘Jesus, I think I’m going to be sick,’ Phillipe said. He lurched up to a standing position and weaved towards the bathroom. Nobody took much notice, although Christian’s expression indicated relief.
‘Yes, well it’s a catastrophic price to pay to protect the hive but they will not hesitate,’ Ruben said.
‘How did the woman react to you saying the bees were the cause of your tears?’ Christian said.
‘At first she was confused. She gazed at the flower bed with interest. I managed to collect myself and told her about colony collapse. When I finished, she asked what influence I could bring to bear on the dilemma. It is a terrible thing, she said, but what capacity did I have to change the direction of such a calamity?
‘She sounds wise, Ruben,’ Christian said.
‘She calmed me down. I sat on a nearby seat and she sat beside me. As we watched the bees, she told me a story.’
I’m originally from Kirkuk in northern Iraq and arrived here with my mother in 1994. I was still a child. My father had died a year before we left. He died from grief,’ she paused and Ruben looked at her. She was perhaps thirty, tall with a fine, dark olive complexion. She wasn’t remarkable looking, except for a head of luxurious black hair. She didn’t seem to care, not dressing to accentuate her slim figure. She wore a plain brown dress and sandals.
‘It was a heart attack, but he had become a changed man.’
‘What happened to make him so sad?’ Ruben said.
‘It was shortly before the end of the first Gulf War in 1988, the one with Iran. A utility truck pulled up outside our house, screeching on the packed dirt road. The warmth of the sun had not yet managed to dispel the night air. I remember the dust swirling above the houses as my parents and I came to the front door, still in our pyjamas. We recognized the driver straight away. He was my brother’s best friend and the son of our closest neighbour. He climbed out of the truck, dressed in a tattered and bloody army uniform.
‘The truck was a dented, rusty old hulk of a thing on its last legs. There were bullet holes in the side, the tyres were bald. My father knew why the young man had come and collapsing to his knees, started crying. He thrust his arms to the heavens and then to the ground. My six-year-old self also started crying, though I didn’t know what had happened. I was frightened to see my beloved father in such distress. My mother looked into the tray of the utility where a tarpaulin was tied around my brother’s body.
‘My brother’s friend knelt beside my father and wept with him, while my mother stayed for a long time beside the truck. With her arm extended into the tray, she looked down our road to the south, her face clouded with hard anger, an anger I had seen before. It was what comes from deep within and surges when a thing is not fair, when a life is taken for nothing but the foolishness of men.
‘It was early morning and the city was quiet. Our neighbours had also been awakened by the commotion and emerged bleary eyed from their houses. They approached the utility, the young driver of the truck ran to be comforted by his parents. More people emerged from their houses, and then there was such wailing and beseeching of the sky.
‘They screamed at their god, asking for an explanation. Some of the people lay down in the street and wept bitter tears into the dust; and all this time I did not know properly what had happened. My tears were still not of grief but in sympathy for all of it around me. I loved my brother and have shed many tears for him since, but my parents failed to immediately explain this event to me, so immersed were they in their terrible sadness.’
‘Until then, I didn’t know anything of death. I barely knew such a thing was possible. When my brother came home on leave the previous December, I was overwhelmed with happiness. He strode into the house, so handsome in his uniform and his big black moustache, holding me aloft when I raced squealing into his arms.
‘I didn’t know of the terrors waking him at night, of the appalling despair on the battlefields of that vicious war. I didn’t know Saddam Hussein, our venal and sociopathic leader, was ultimately the perpetrator of these atrocities. I didn’t know to what degree this senseless war had killed so many people, on both sides. I didn’t know the war had bankrupted my country and made enemies where none were before.
‘I had no knowledge of any of these things and yet I shed those tears of loss. They leapt out of me as did those of my family and neighbours on the cool August morning in that dry and ancient city, a place forsaken to the vast Mosul Valley. We cried for different reasons but we wept together, as if our tears could replenish the desert with sons and brothers, neighbours and boyhood friends.
‘The tears I shed were those of a child who does not understand the true depth of sorrow, but nevertheless, has experienced a uniquely human substance; empathy. I now know this was no less than and even perhaps more than the sum of all sorrow, because in that moment, I had truly engaged with the other.’ She had moved her gaze from Ruben to the flowerbeds.’
‘We continued looking at the bees. A narrow flash of the sun filtered through the branches of the Fig tree above, picking them out, one by one, as they landed on a cluster of hellebores.’ Ruben said. ‘These unique creatures, unaffected by our presence, performed their complicated dance of survival amongst the flowers.’
‘Dad?’ Rusty looked alarmed. He’d been holding a strawberry and Nutella finger, chewing suspended, while his father talked. ‘So what happened then?’
Ruben had forgotten his son had been leaning against the servery all this time. Rusty’s voice had the effect of bumping him back into the room. Everybody wore expressions of concern and surprise, wondering what would happen next. Ruben looked at them all as if for the first time.
‘She stood up and so did I. I turned to her with what must have been some expectation, but she just smiled and walked away.’
‘Just like that Plunder, she just walked away,’ Rebel said.
‘Yep, just like that.’
‘Well, that’s some story,’ Bob said.
Christian looked like he was about to ask another question about Ruben’s encounter but was interrupted by Colin.
‘Tell us more about what you’re working on Christian? This show coming up—any word on the gallery? There was a quick glance from Sandy but Colin’s remark was nevertheless made with unusual clarity. It appeared he’d been glimmered by Christian to such an unaccustomed extent he was producing whole sentences.
‘It’s a retrospective, still unresolved; Rebel could tell you more. The state gallery is in negotiation with—’
‘What the fuck is all this about bees Plunder?’ Phillipe slurred, having recovered from his fugue. Perhaps he was hoping to distract Christian’s attention away from Colin. Phillipe reached out to Christian, in an effort to offer some affectionate touching of his boyfriend. Christian flinched and a half-full wine glass, followed by a bottle of not quite empty Shiraz, had decided to take up residence within the sweep of Phillipe’s arm.
‘Fuck me,’ Shelley shouted as contents of the glass landed in her lap. She kicked the bottle spinning on the floor and stood up, the wine staining the crotch of her jeans.
‘No thanks Shel, not even with his cock.’ He pointed at Bob.
‘Crikey, that’s not so good,’ Bob said. He threw his napkin down and made a move to also get up from the table, presumably to offer Phillipe a clenched fist.
Rebel, sitting beside Bob, pulled on his arm. She had a mollifying influence on people. This skill was being applied to the diplomacy of borrowing Christian’s work from his collectors. Once she’d quelled her brother’s desire to lay some biff on Phillipe, she told Shelley she’d find something to help her clean up and they both went to the kitchen sink.
‘Did you hear that?’ Sandy said. Everybody looked at her. ‘There was this bang, sounded close—you didn’t hear it?’
‘Probably a minor traffic accident; happens all the time out there.’ Rebel said. ‘Drivers think they can run the stop sign.’
‘Oh, well it sounded like a thump, not metallic. It doesn’t matter.’
Ruben chose to belatedly answer Phillipe’s question. ‘It’s simple, the honeybees are dying and for humanity to survive, so must bees.’
‘Jesus Christ, I can’t believe you just said that. Pretty weird Ruben, even for you,’ Shelley said.
‘Plunder darling,’ Rebel said from the kitchen, ‘a bit of a downer don’t you think? She was ever the optimist. The evening had one or two more laughs left in it.
‘Well while you’re all talking about some shithead art-wanker, the planet is being depleted of bees. Einstein said that within four years of the expiration of the last honeybee, most of the animal population of the earth would be dead. Even Darwin wrote, with typical English restraint, I might add—the life of man would be made extremely difficult if the bee disappeared.’
‘Really, are you for real Plunder!’ Bob remarked. No doubt wondering whether his stock futures might become a thing of the past.
‘People like us will be the first to go. As far as I know, none of us have learnt to fight, so I suggest you get your survival skills up to scratch. You’ll be using your paint brushes and rolled up spreadsheets to fend off the next crazy starveling who breaks into your lean to.’
It was common knowledge Ruben had some post-retirement adjustment issues, so sympathy was due, but the assembled guests, except Phillipe of course, still looked a bit stunned, until Bob broke the spell.
‘I can fight; I learnt Tae kwon-do a few years ago.’
Shelley said, ‘that’s good to know. I might need a bodyguard. I’ve got an adult education class for ex-cons coming up.’
‘I’d be honoured,’ Bob said, with more enthusiasm than the invitation warranted.
While returning to the table Rebel winked at Shelley without the slightest discretion. Caution from all quarters was declining.
‘I kneed a bloke in the balls once when he grabbed my arse on a crowded train.’
Sandy was not about to be outdone.
‘Did you? You never told me about that,’ Colin piped up. Up till then he’d been smiling at Christian, as if his object of worship, was about to impart some powerful, life-changing revelation. Ruben was past hoping that Phillipe would be too pissed to notice. Colin might have been giving Christian the eye of devotion but Phillipe’s returning gaze reflected a hand hovering in the vicinity of Colin’s back, a busy street and a speeding bus.
‘I did tell you Col, but you’d taken a tab of acid and answered by saying I looked like a pink tree,’ Sandy said. She would have said more but for the alarming distraction beyond the balcony doors.
‘You know, I think I heard that bang outside Sandy, now that I think of it,’ Colin said.
‘There, see, I wasn’t the only one.’ The fact that out of everyone, Sandy’s husband was the only other guest to hear it, didn’t add to its veracity.
Ruben was about to draw everybody’s attention to yet more important bee facts when Sandy spoke up with some urgency.
‘Jesus, there’s a drone out there. Look, it’s hovering off the balcony, blinking straight at us.’
Sandy was in the best position to see the alleged drone due to her insistence on having all architectural apertures in plain sight. The other’s followed her lead and looked through the living room to the balcony. A small bright light dipped and ducked just beyond the balcony handrail.
‘Can drones talk?’ Colin said.
‘You’d be best placed to answer that yourself,’ Phillipe slurred, lapsing into a lazy sort of giggle. It appeared even he was becoming tired of his infantile sniping.
‘Yes, I think I heard it talk as well,’ Ruben said.
‘It’s true, they do.’ Rebel said. ‘Is it speaking English?’
‘Yeah, I read something about that,’ Shelley said. She was the first to get up and head towards the balcony, ‘maybe it’s a delivery.’
‘I did order some Sirrah from Romania last week,’ Ruben said.
‘Careful Shelley, it might be weaponised,’ Bob stepped up behind Shelley and rested a concerned hand on her shoulder. It looked different to a friendly hand, Ruben noted. ‘Crikey, that’s no drone.’
‘Holy shit, it could be aliens,’ Colin said. ‘I’m pretty sure I was abducted once. Maybe they’ve come back for me, Sandy.’ He reached for her hand, which she patted. You could say what you like about these two; Ruben thought to himself, there’s a lot of love there, weird love, but love, nevertheless. However, then he remembered the, as yet untouched, half-empty, half-bottle of cheap Chardonnay in the fridge.
‘That was INXS Col.’ Sandy said. ‘You were all in the studio shit-faced on mushrooms.’ She thought for a minute. ‘I don’t recall you being in any other state in the eighties. At least now you’ve gone back to your roots, or should I say, heads.’
Both Sandy and Colin tittered until they were interrupted by the redoubtable Phillipe.
‘Jesus Christ, even music producers are required to be in possession of a brain. Hey Ruben, at least we can be assured the drone’s a male, eh.’ He tried to wink but used both eyes. This had the effect of sending him reeling back to the toilet, followed by an appalling sound, as if someone was being slowly eviscerated. A minor silence ensued and then more rattling sounds like the sad keening of crows. It was entirely possible he’d died after lapsing into silence.
Christian once lamented to the Plunders that, on examining Phillipe, their doctor indicated it was a miracle he was capable of perambulation. It wasn’t long after that he painted his famed series entitled The Walking Inebriate. An unkind critic, writing for one of the morning rags, described the paintings as—a pastiche of de Kooning’s late period and a particularly unpleasant zombie apocalypse. Others begged to differ (the ones that mattered) and his sales were into six figures by the following afternoon.
‘Hey Dad,’ Rusty said, following his aunt and uncle out. ‘The drones not talking, Someone’s yelling from the street?’ Ruben got up and followed Rusty. Before long, the remaining company gathered on the Plunder’s sixth floor balcony looking at the drone.
On closer inspection the drone had transformed into a rope-suspended man hung horizontally by an array of ropes. The ropes had entangled, not theoretically, in a way that caused the man’s left leg and right arm to extend out from his body. Both extremities were just out of grabbing range. A light winked from a head-lamp pulled over a beanie.
Down below, Albie Peleki, stood with another man, shining a torch up at the aerial interloper.
‘Plunder, is that you mate?’ Albie yelled.
Albie had one of his huge arms extended, waving the torch from Henry to the people peering over the balcony. Ruben now recognised Pongie, Albie’s brother. Pongie, who was the younger of the two by some years and always a tad previous in any given situation, had drawn his sidearm, a huge affair the Peleki family called the widow-maker. Pongie’s real name was Pelle but nobody called him that—Pelle Peleki was just fucken’ stupid, Pongie said introducing himself one day. Anticipating Ruben’s interest on that occasion, he withdrew the widow-maker and displayed it with great pride, explaining all its charms.
Back at the balcony and at this moment in the space-time continuum, there were twelve humans involved in the drone scenario. You could discount Phillipe, heard once again voiding his stomach contents in the bathroom. Of course, discounting Phillipe was never wise as you could depend on the full-priced drunk to reappear at any moment.
‘Shit Dad, that’s Henry,’ Rusty said. ‘Hey Henry,’—and then louder—‘Henry.’
‘He seems to be unconscious,’ Ruben said, ‘Henry.’ There was still no response from the dangling Henry.
The university students renting the apartment below came out on their balcony. All four had a stubby each and were clearly full-tanked. They leaned out dangerously and gyrated their heads to look up.
‘Yo Rus, what-the-fuck dude?’ One of them said
‘Don’t ask, Misky,’ Rusty replied.
‘Hi Misky,’ Ruben said.
‘Hi Misky,’ Rebel said.
‘Yo Plunders’, what’s the deal with the dangler?’
Karl Miskovitch was a visiting American on a research grant, the subject of which, according to Rusty, was Semiotics. Ruben would have reached for Wikipedia but was happy for Rusty to save him the trouble. Semiotics was the study of non-verbal sign systems and a branch of Post-Modernism that even Rebel privately characterised as a tedious wank. Semiotics, Rusty said, is about meaning-making through the use of non-verbal signs and occurs throughout the animal kingdom.
While Ruben was wondering why this was considered a legitimate field of study, he desperately hoped not to be exposed to Misky’s thesis on the subject. In fact, he’d be thankful for no further exposure to Misky on any level and failed to understand his son’s interest in him. Perhaps there was some hidden depth, Ruben was unable to determine. Misky’s weed was top-notch by all accounts, so perhaps it was mere expediency on Rusty’s part.
Nevertheless, Rusty’s explanation of Semiotics made more sense than they had been able to glean from Misky himself. Ruben often drove down a little-used one-way street the wrong way, ignoring the non-verbal sign warning against it. Both Rusty and Rebel disapproved of this but it provided Ruben with a good deal of satisfaction. Anyway, Ruben determined that non-verbal signs could be applied to much of what Misky communicated. He was a regular visitor to Rusty’s room and once came to dinner. He ‘chowed down’, as he winningly commented, on Duck a l’Orange, roast potatoes and a very passable side of herbed Brussel sprouts with shallots, Ruben’s signature dish at the time. Non-verbal signs popped up regularly throughout the meal but Misky had failed to notice any of them. The duck, for instance, ostensibly dead and dismembered, was unbelievably verbose in the non-verbal sign department. Rebel suggested during the course of the meal, that if she was heard to say anything even remotely dismissive above a whisper about Post-Modernism within the art milieu, she’d be promptly sent off to curate Bill Buggerlugs’ Dog Turd collection in south-western Tasmania.
Back at the ranch, Ruben was wondering what he’d done to deserve all that this endless day had launched into his life. Just as he acquiesced to the understanding that it was now ongoing and officially without an end-date, Phillipe entered the balcony and slid like a one-legged loon to the hand-rail with the rest of the crew. Ruben eyed the fixing bolts of the hand-rail.
‘Jesus wept, what’s that?’ Phillipe pointed to the airborne concierge.
Ruben turned to the dank aroma of swamp breath and some lumpy evidence of Phillipe’s activities at the toilet bowl, decorating his shirtfront. Was that lamb or liver?
‘Rus, go and get the broom,’ Rebel said.
‘Mum, sweeping Henry is not going to make this situation any better.’
‘It has a hook at the end of it.’
‘Great, let’s go fishing,’ Colin suggested with enthusiasm, indicating once more, there was not only other people’s wine triggering his synapses.
Rebel was all pumped up with practicality; being at her best in emergencies. ‘I can use the hook to pull Henry towards us. I think we can get him onto the balcony if I can pull him in close enough.’
‘She’s right kiddo,’ Sandy said.
‘Yo, Mrs. Plunder, can we grab the broom after you finished with it? We need to learn how to use one down here.’ Misky said. Although laughter hardly seemed appropriate, Misky and his pissed mates, bravely threw caution to the wind. One of them nearly fell over their balcony as the hysterics reached a crescendo. Despite this, non-verbal signs were crawling out of the woodwork but of course, Misky missed them all.
‘Hey, you blokes stop acting like little shits and pull ya fucken’ heads in before the widow-maker blows one of them off’, Albie yelled up from the street. Pongie caressed the cumbersome device in question and even stroked its barrel in a way that simply looked wrong; even to Albie, who was heard to murmur, ‘Fuck me, leave it alone bro.’
Albie’s warning to the revellers on the fifth floor was delivered with the displeasure that only a man-mountain can make and after some murmuring, the downstairs neighbours went back inside to their bong.
The broom was procured and with Rebel square on to Henry, Sandy and Ruben either side, she leaned out and hooked a strand of the rope with the broom handle, pulling him in towards her. Ruben was able to grab a leg to add power to the drawing in of the beleaguered Henry. Both Sandy, who was built for landing marlin and Ruben, who was not, held the unconscious Henry over the balcony floor while Bob, having found Ruben’s Shun in the kitchen, sawed through the rope. Ruben had to stop himself from being outraged by the repurposing of this expensive example of the cutler’s art. They and the others, all in their various ways, did their best to ease Henry to the floor.
Sandy had Henry’s wrist, checking his pulse, while Shelley rested his head on her lap. Rebel had O.H. & S. training, and having ascertained that Henry was breathing was going over the A,B,C,D protocol of revival. She checked them off verbally, one by one. All the women had the run of the show as the men stood about failing at not looking inadequate.
‘He seems to be coming around,’ Sandy said, ‘look; his eyes.’
Henry had begun to blink and then suddenly he was wide awake, his eyes shining in the half-light from the living room. He didn’t move, just stared at all the guests, one by one.
‘So, you know this man?’ Christian said.
‘It’s Henry, he’s sometimes in the lobby. The concierge and handyman for the building,’ Ruben said.
‘He has a bruise on his forehead, doesn’t look too good,’ Shelley said, while gently pushing his head towards the light from the living room for a better look.
‘He’s been sleeping in the lobby storeroom,’ Rusty said.
‘What?’ Both Ruben and Rebel said at the same time.
‘Yeah, I saw a bed in there, when he was fetching some tools, a suitcase and some clothes as well. I thought you knew.’ Rusty said. ‘He was a bit…well…he seemed embarrassed and closed the door pretty quick.’
‘What?’ Henry said. ‘Mrs. Plunder, what am I doing?’
Rebel seemed to be thinking about the question, it was a hard one. She looked up at Ruben and at the ropes and pulleys that now lay tangled on the floor and then out beyond the balcony at the cut ends of the rope.
‘I think you were abseiling down the facade of the building Henry, but I haven’t any idea—’
‘You! You are a bastard.’ Henry’s long and lanky form became animated. Before anybody had a chance to protest he was on his feet. Both Shelley and Rebel reached for him but he was too quick. Everybody else, except the reeking and swaying Phillipe, toppled back like bowling pins.
‘Henry, wait,’ Ruben shouted, but Henry’s fist landed such a heavy swipe to Phillipe’s jaw, he dropped like a stone.
Ruben and Bob grabbed either side of the lurching, wild-eyed Henry as he looked like he might add several more to the initial punch, but then they felt their captive slump, giving in to a deep weariness.
‘Where am I,’ he mumbled. He looked down at the ropes at his feet. ‘Was I…?’
‘It’s me Henry…Plunder.’
‘Hate to say it china-plate but that was well-deserved, for whatever reason,’ Bob said, looking down at the unconscious Phillipe. ‘That is the best behaviour I’ve seen from him for years.’
‘Is he even still alive?’ Colin said.
‘Of course he is. Look he’s smiling and I do believe I just heard a satisfied snore.’ Shelley said.
‘Jesus Christ, as days go, this one has got to be the most fucked-up of my entire life,’ Ruben murmured.
‘Welcome to my world,’ Christian said. ‘Every day with Phillipe has the potential for mayhem—although I am wondering why this complete stranger hit my partner.’
Everybody’s attention turned to Henry, who seemed to be predictable enough for the men to release. Ruben still had a consoling hand on his shoulder, waiting with the others for an explanation. ‘Henry, why did you hit Phillipe?’
‘That man, on the floor, why did you hit him?’
‘Do you know him?’ Rusty said.
‘I hit him?’ Henry looked at his hand and at Phillipe.
‘Yeah—hard—the guy’s unconscious,’ Rusty replied.
Ruben and, no doubt, Rebel noted Rusty’s concern with some pride. He seemed to have turned a corner of some sort, or perhaps they had just not noticed that their son had become a fully-qualified adult.
‘He…he looks like a person…I…he is like Gino, young Mr. Plunder.’
‘But Henry mate, who’s Gino?’
‘A man of mine and my wife’s acquaintance, he took her from me. She was bored by me. She told me I need to see someone, that I’m not right in my head. This is what she said and then told me that she was going off to be with Gino. This action of hers has left me alone. People have told me she was not a good person, not right for me. But I loved her.’
‘Wait…let me process this,’ Ruben said. ‘So you’ve been sleeping in the storeroom because you can’t be in your marital home now that your wife has left you and to make yourself less boring you have taken up night-time abseiling ineptly down the side of buildings, hit your head, passed out and then you hit Phillipe because you thought he was this cuckolding fellow Gino?’
‘That is in a shell for nuts, Mr. Plunder.’
It was now well past midnight on the Plunders crowded balcony but earlier that day, Ruben had no sooner got back from his morning walk in the park and his sorrowful communion with the bees, when he was obliged to visit his doctor. Redback Medical Centre’s receptionist Merle, had left a message on the answering machine.
‘Oh, Mr. Plunder, I do so love to ring you because I always receive this sweet answer when I get your machine. Not so much when I speak to you personally though, you naughty man. Is he your son, I suppose he must be? If he is, what a funny little charmer he must be. Anyway, Doctor Cordell would like to see you in his office today. He says your tests have come back. He did stress today. I hope eleven am is good for you. A text message to our office cell to confirm is fine. Just type YES.
He typed NO but then changed it to YES with reluctance. Cordell was the least alarming person he’d ever met, so a little time in his company might be a salve. He’d sent him for a damn blood test, his PSA—routine for men of your age, Plunder—, but he whacked on a bunch of others, including an MRI—let’s do some other tests while we’re at it, shall we? No, we shall not, he was tempted to reply.
He’d felt quite faint after the nurse drained him of his life force the week before. He was, thankful, however, he hadn’t received Cordell’s finger up his arse. He was given to believe such an unpleasant procedure was de rigeur when it came to prostates but the good doctor assured him the blood test was quite sufficient. Mild mannered Cordell might be, but his physical aspects now struck Ruben as overly generous. As soon as he brought up the topic of prostates, Ruben was acutely aware of his doctor’s enormous fingers.
Above all else, there was the fact that he was currently obliged, against his natural instincts, to both prepare a meal for nine people and, with equal unwillingness, sit down with them to eat it. This would require conviviality at some point, something he wasn’t currently qualified to perform, nor at any other time, if he’d given the subject a more critical appraisal. The dinner parties were always Rebel’s initiative. For her he’d walk off a cliff.
While in the waiting room of Redback Medical, Ruben pondered the word waiting. In a doctor’s waiting room, it takes on a meaning of existential depth. Perhaps it’s a matter of proportion, Rusty might call it superposition. Who knows what was in that kid’s head. Yes, the subject of the apportioning of time. Ruben had thought on this issue every time he found himself languishing in waiting rooms. In the case of doctors and others high on the food chain, this amounted to the value placed on the aggregation of an ordinary individual’s life as opposed to that of a highly-qualified and in-demand professional person.
So let us suppose, he thought, not for the first time, the available time of a fifty nine year old superannuated food critic as a fixed unit, say waiting in a doctor’s surgery. He might be alert, for instance, to the effect of the continued and discomfiting arrangement of his testicles within his trousers, having to deal with their seemingly perpetual association with the obligatory waiting-room plastic chairs.
‘Gosh Plunder, I have no idea how you guys live with these things on a day-to-day basis,’ Rebel once opined. ‘I mean, they seem incredibly vulnerable to all kinds of injury.’
Ruben could but agree at the time, but hoped she’d continue applying certain gentle punishments to the aforementioned, at risk, anatomical structures. Though the jury was still out from Ruben’s point of view, and needless to say Rusty’s, they must have been useful at least once. In any case, Ruben continued on this narrow path of inquiry, aware he may founder within some precipice of illogic.
Let’s take the time of Doctor Nathaniel Ignatius Cordell PhD, MD, FRACGP, according to his proudly-displayed credentials. He has made a very specific arrangement with Ruben Francis Plunder, BA, NPDC (No Proudly-Displayed Credentials). Let’s say this arrangement is at precisely eleven am on a Friday morning. Let’s also make clear, an important fact—the doctor in question is in his late thirties. Now, Ruben, hypothetically conjectured, who is to say one protagonist’s time is more valuable than the other?
An appointment, indeed a contract, has been made but on every occasion this contract—look let’s get real, we have a professional compact here and this holy covenant, (alright, holy covenant might be a bit of a stretch) has been broken without the slightest indication of remorse, or even acknowledgement—Oh dear, I have broken the covenant/contract I have made with you today. As a result, the least I can do is provide you with these two bottles of Glenfiddich Single Malt Whisky and an invitation to attend Redback Medical’s, Vitafake Megamall sponsored knees-up at the Radisson Plaza Ballroom. Instead, the said food critic is invited to sit on plastic and read some turgid article about a rich bastard’s waterfront in Home and Garden magazine, with a door prize of testicular injury.
How, Ruben asks himself—he could have asked the old lady beside him, but she had been asleep for the past thirty minutes—is all this waiting even conducive to good health, let alone the equitable apportioning of time?
‘Plunder, have you been particularly tired lately?’ Doctor Cordell asked.
‘Well—the last few weeks, months perhaps?’
‘Jesus, how long was I in the waiting room?’ Ruben said, looking at his watch, relieved to find it was the same day. He had been out of sorts lately, to the point of feeling somewhat unconnected to his own skin, but not so bad as to lose track of the days.
‘It’s just that Merle found you fast asleep in Mrs. Chung’s lap. Fortunately she also was asleep, so Merle managed to wake you without causing any alarm to the dear old lady.’
‘Really, I don’t recall this, but then it’s not surprising. I believe there are people still residing in your waiting room I saw on my visit a week ago.’
‘Plunder this may not be an occasion for levity,’ Doctor Cordell said.
‘Perhaps I should take my leave then, I don’t much care for anything else.’
‘It’s your bloods.’ The doctor tapped a sheet of paper on his desk. It sported the logo of the pathologist and included a report, some of the text was in red, and though he couldn’t quite read it, he was sure he glimpsed an exclamation mark, perhaps two.
‘Ah I was going to mention that, I thought they took far too much of the red stuff. I have been feeling wan and indistinct since they all but drained me.’ Even Rebel, seated right beside me on our sofa that same evening, asked where I was. Perhaps she was being metaphorical, but still…’
‘You need to be admitted to hospital.’
‘Today—it wasn’t just the bloods—the MRI…’ He slid the pathologist’s report aside and tapped another document below it.
‘Good grief! I can’t do that; apart from having zero desire to do so, I have something on. Arrangements have been made.’
Apart from his disproportionate fingers, Ruben had never taken too much notice of his doctor, but now that he was forced to focus his alarmed attention on the man, he could see why. Most people have something about their appearance that distinguishes them, but Cordell suffered from extreme unnoticeability, which isn’t a word but that is how he saw his doctor, a condition which, now that Ruben noticed it, was quite noticeable.
He was bland in every way, having the most ordinary of facial features, for instance. No blemishes, no ruddiness nor paleness, no hairlessness nor hairfulness, he was on a roll with the word-coining. Cordell could not complain of an errant turn of ear or wateriness of eye. Neither a dimpled chin nor heightened forehead interrupted a head that was not handsome or ugly. Below the bonce, retreated a physique made even less remarkable by a white shirt and blue tie lacking the slightest ornament. If a silver-coloured pen protruding from a shirt pocket could be considered an adornment, then Ruben would be tempted to report on it, for lack of any suitable description. Cordell could commit a crime in broad daylight on a crowded street and a prosecutor would not be able to provide an adequate witness—yes sir, I swear he was a man and he had a pen in his pocket—a silver one, as I recall. Other than that, I haven’t the foggiest. Umm, I believe he had hair.
As Ruben was trying to assimilate the news of imminent hospitalisation, Merle, knocked and rushed into the room.
‘Oh Doctor, I’m so sorry Mr. Plunder, its Mrs. Chung. Oh dear, doctor, this is awful but I’m pretty sure Mrs. Chung has died in the waiting room!’
Doctor Cordell had abandoned him in his office without a word. Taking the opportunity, Ruben grabbed his test results off the desk and made a discreet exit. Although he felt awful about Mrs. Chung, who he’d recognized as the matriarch of the family running the wonderful Chinese grocery on Liverpool Street, he knew he’d be as useful in the waiting room as tits on a bull. Besides, everybody had awoken in alarm from their respective dozing and there was more than enough dismay and concern to go around.
It is with the memory of Mrs. Chung’s recent demise; Ruben looked at Henry now lying on the balcony tangled in his array of abseiling paraphernalia.
When Ruben left the doctor’s surgery that afternoon he tried to ignore the pathologist’s report burning a hole in his back pocket. He walked home through the park, finding himself once again at the little grotto of flower beds attended by its bees. He was reminded of the encounter with the unusually empathic woman earlier in the day and how she tenderly responded to his crying. He’d felt a platonic bond with her and wished now she would reappear so that they could continue their conversation, preferably without the blubbering.
He stopped and sat again on the same bench. Too agitated to ignore it, he withdrew the test results from the back pocket of his trousers. He read it through twice to be certain that he understood at least the gist of the clinical words although important and urgent carried most of the weight.
He began to feel cold suddenly. Shivering, he wished he’d brought his jacket. Was this a symptom? Now, he realised with a quite finite clarity, life would not be the same from this moment forward. How awful it was to think in those terms, rather than the haphazard, unresolved way he’d begun to view his future. It was a state of mind that gave him some sense of continuance, of fluidity to his existence. He’d thought that this part of his journey had become somewhat peripatetic, that he was a careless flâneur, wandering through his own life in a state of idle abandonment; thus affording him the sensation of being comfortably unhinged.
Now Ruben was forced to conclude that mortality had intervened and would be the norm from now on. It seemed he’d be required to navigate not only the shallow reefs of pain but the deep oceans of despair. This frightened him, causing his mind to race with the limitations of time, even though nothing much had even happened yet. There were no extra twinges, although the waterworks had, of late, been showing signs of reluctance.
As a result of his investigations into bees Ruben learnt that during the Cultural Revolution, Mao ZeDong ordered the elimination of all sparrows for purloining more than their fair share of the grain crops. In the seventies, everybody in the west thought Mao was bat-shit crazy, but as Ruben saw it, trying to convince people you weren’t mad was merely another form of madness. Perhaps it was, Ruben thought. Perhaps we were all mad and the so-called sane people, like those ruling the world, were in fact merely displaying yet another, more nuanced manifestation of mental illness.
The war on Chinese sparrows led to the rise of the insects in plague proportions. Locusts, for instance, no longer required to escape their natural predator, the sparrow, multiplied exponentially and loved nothing more than to dine on the vast tracts of cultivated cereals. Logically, the dear leader, Mao, announced all the Locusts must be murdered. The pesticides used for this purpose did not discriminate between species and the bees went, as Confucius once said, the way of the locust. He didn’t really say that, but given the opportunity, Ruben felt sure he would have. How the little creatures must have flown for their lives, their pollen–laden legs weighing them down. The possibility of tears once more welled.
Ruben melodramatically imagined the hordes of Chinese workers hand pollinating flowering crops, the husks of trillions of dead bees being ground into the dirt underfoot. Confucius did say It is only when a mosquito lands on your testicles that you realize there is always a way to solve problems without violence. It was rumoured the organizer of the sparrow wars, was rewarded with not one but two virgins to deflower. Ruben considered that having a brain damaged, syphilitic megalomaniac as a leader had its drawbacks.
He glanced at the dwindling collection of bees in the flower bed and notice that most seemed to have gone. Where? Back to the hive or had they lost their way and would soon die of exhaustion from their constantly beating tiny wings? Oh for Christ’s sake, he thought. Suddenly he stood up and hurried along the path exiting the park. He stopped and pressed the button at the traffic lights. A gaggle of assorted pedestrians joined him for the duration of a notoriously interminable wait. The endless growl of vehicles along College St. looked like a conga line of lazy beetles puffing invisible poisons from their behinds in a vain hope of fending off predators.
As Ruben waited he perused the clutch of assorted people assembled at the crossing— young man with a back-pack straddling a push-bike, two guilty looking school-girls, doubtless skiving off class from the private ladies college nearby, a well-dressed woman holding a child’s hand, and a bag-lady. Ruben had seen the bag-lady before, only half conscious of her presence in the neighbourhood. She seemed very old but perhaps her life on the street had made her appear so.
She pushed her kart in beside him and rummaged about in it before producing a tattered, notebook with a ballpoint pen poking from its spine. She started to write urgently across the pages as if she was noting down her observations, a traveller fearful of losing the thread of her remarkable experiences. Ruben looked over, curious to know what it was she was writing. He saw some familiar words, it was tight and fluid, an unpunctuated river of determination, impossible to read as a conventional narrative. It had to be said, he internally conjectured, of late his reading matter was none too subtle.
He was suddenly gripped with a need to know what this woman saw that he could not. She stopped scribbling and looked up at him. Her appraisal of him was blue and crystal clear like a placid, interior lake and he felt himself being drawn into its oddly warm and viscous embrace. He had been impatient to cross and return to the cocoon of home but now he felt his anxiety sliding away. He was meant to cook a meal for eight of course but how long can the damn thing take.
‘Can I ask you what you’re writing about?’ He spoke quietly, concerned not to alarm her. It seemed important to have the question sound matter-of-fact, uncluttered by any particular expectation.
‘Not my words, the words of others.’ she said, behaving as if it was a perfectly reasonable question and ready with an obvious answer. I don’t know what they mean. I write it all down. They are there and I always write them while I wait.’
‘While you wait?’ He glanced up at the traffic lights, the stream of passing cars, the impatient pedestrians.
‘Yes. We are waiting—you know that surely, we’re all waiting,’ she said, glancing at him as if he was a fool not to know such an obvious fact.
She then became agitated, looking around. Ruben followed her gaze—both looking for this new disturbance in the ether. Her head stopped swivelling beyond his left arm. For some reason she’d focused on the woman with the child. Aware of the bag-lady’s scrutiny the woman tensed up, looking at the traffic lights, willing them to change, hoping not to be infected by the conversation going on beside her. The little boy looked up at the bag-lady with wide eyes, astonished by her.
She had spoken with an educated enunciation, belying her pathetic appearance. Her hair was a knotted bird’s-nest; her face lined and burnished by the sun, looking sculpted, not human flesh. Ruben assumed she was wearing all of her clothes, which seemed draped over her in layers. Ruben glanced over at her kart and realized the bulk of her belongings consisted of more assorted notebooks, as well as sheets of paper rolled up like scrolls held with elastic bands.
Even the covers of the notebooks were inscribed, the text closely lettered and neat. Again, he tried to read some of it and managed to see one complete sentence from the cover of one of the books—[i]The world is mysterious, we cannot know anything yet. In time we…[/i]. He wanted to read more but the flashing amber light distracted him. It appeared she also noticed it was time to cross and quickly shoved the notebook into the kart with the others.
Somewhat in her thrall he hesitated but the bag-lady immediately careered off, not even waiting for the walk sign. Her kart rattling and clunking over the kerb and guttering, she made off diagonally across the street with great determination, her head down defying the oncoming traffic dribbling to a halt for the lights. The cars shrieked and tooted at her. The driver of a restored Holden Capri with glossy vermillion paintwork poked his head out of his window.
‘Get off the fucking road, you dirty old bag.’
‘Hey, there’s no need for that,’ Ruben yelled back at the driver, suddenly offended on behalf of the old woman. ‘Pull your head in, you ridiculous womp.’
‘What…well fucknuckle, who’s gunna make me?’ The driver replied with an unpleasant smirk, an expression that, on this fool’s face, looked like it might require sutures.
The man was around forty, greasy hair dangled from a wrong-way-round baseball cap. He wore mirrored aviator sun-glasses, all of which he was already too old for. He was otherwise remarkable only as a result of a severely receding chin and what appeared to be, from their distance from each other, acne so severe Doctor Cordell would have recommended immediate hospitalisation.
Ruben was far from a violent man. Perhaps it was some general sense of injustice he was currently developing that prompted him to act. He started walking towards the car. He must have looked particularly fearsome because acne-man realised the error of his ways and quickly rolled up his window and revved the engine, presumably willing the lights to change in direct coordination with his terror. Ruben had a disturbing intensity about him that even he was alarmed with. in any case it was enough to worry a fool.
Before he could reach the car Ruben heard a loud crash and turned to see the bag-lady ramming her kart into the side of the car with an excoriating screech.
Sounds of swearing and yelling could be heard from within the coupe as she wrestled the kart back and slammed it once more into the Capri. Ruben looked beyond the deep trench in the paintwork. He saw some of the plastic bags and notebooks strewn on the road. The woman’s strength seemed superhuman and the kart itself appeared to be only slightly bent out of shape, but still serviceable as she started nonchalantly reloading it.
The young man with the push-bike stopped to help her, smiling and talking to her out of Ruben’s hearing. She started conversing with all the earnestness to the cyclist, with which she’d engaged himself.
Once again the lights changed and still screaming wildly, the driver’s face lividly inflamed, the Capri took off at a screech. Ruben walked back to the footpath while the driver behind sounded his horn and gave a thumbs-up to the bag-lady and cyclist as he calmly veered around them.
The truant schoolgirls looked utterly perplexed, as if they needed an adult to explain the event. The mother and little boy were nowhere to be seen. Other passers-bye stood around in groups murmuring amongst themselves, astonished by the incident. Ruben’s first thought was, why did she even wait for the traffic lights to change, if she had no intention of recognising the pedestrian rules. Nevertheless, these signs of communal unity allowed Ruben to regain some measure of what he thought of as due process.
The bag-lady seemed as delusional as the other enigmas he’d seen wobbling about the park like disabled pigeons, but perhaps she was the real deal, a prophet of some sort. She clearly followed a refreshingly unadorned credo. Raging from her battlements, this odd but brave woman wasn’t going to take anything sitting down. Ruben’s admiration for her was in direct proportion to his near somnolent dithering on the fringes of his own life. You need agency Plunder, his therapist told him. Agency. Everybody was on about it these days, the cool-aid for the times, as though it was the answer to everything. It was like another catch-word of pop psychology, behaviour—it’s not you we dislike, it’s your damn behaviour, look at it, it’s deplorable—one could have behaviours somewhat in the manner that one has measles and be eventually cured of them. Oh thank goodness he’s gotten past that behaviour, if he has any more, it will be quite disappointing. As with many other aspects of his life lately, he managed to turn this event into a complicated and largely unpalatable stew. Or was he just having a behaviour?
Ruben wanted to know what it was that so completely displaced the structure of the world he lived in. What made every moment different to the next, every hour a reinvention of reality? It couldn’t be this entangled he thought, but here it was, all the moments of this day like so many open sentences that had a way of finishing themselves without much input from him. He wanted to believe in some kind of magic right then, a magic that did not include his own consciousness, but embraced another world—the ineffable unreason clearly inhabiting the lives of others.
It was possible Rusty would have a physics example to demonstrate how this chaos was all perfectly reasonable. Ruben, like most people, embraced a certain set of rules for living, in fact the rules of reasonableness, but it seemed so tenuous, so without anything more substantial than a vague agreement to maintain some idea of order. The man in the Capri saw fit to abuse the demented bag-lady, Ruben wanted to punch him, bag-lady took to vengeance as though born to it, Sparrows were culled out of existence in China and a sociopathic US president wanted to build a fifty-foot wall as though flying machines were never invented. Nothing much was in concert with the trajectory of reality, something he’d hitherto felt he was supposed to implicitly comprehend.
It occurred to him that the ramblers of the city’s streets stood in an alternate universe. They dwelled above the rumblings of the subway and below the somnambulists in their skyscrapers. Ruben also wanted access to the mystery that saw bees returning to the hives; mankind claiming their little bit of space in the cracks between the stars, the dispossessed and their hidden cubicles of peace; prehistory resurrected, flesh upon long dead bones; the whole of earth’s footprint in the universe altered. He wanted to be drawn back into the long silenced recesses of memory.
Rebel and Ruben had let Albie and Pongie into the apartment and immediately two events occurred as a result of their entry. Well, three things really as Albie couldn’t quite negotiate the doorway head-on and had to enter sideways at the same time as ducking his head. For Albie, Ruben thought with some compassion, an undignified entry. Albie’s voice
bellowed into the night.
‘Hey Plunder—Plunder, you alright mate, you don’t look so hot.’
‘I’ve had better days Albie. Hi Pongie,’ Ruben spied the bulge of the widow-maker beneath Pongie’s coat and hoped there’d be no need for its exposure, although he’d given up hope of predicting any outcome. Just as he was consoling himself with this thought Pongie swung around in what appeared to be awe at the opulence of the apartment. Or it could have been—crikey, how some people live—when presented with the state of the dining room.
‘Fuck me, these people know how to drink,’ he said. Unfortunately this was followed with a frightening crash because the cloaked and wide swinging widow-maker had connected with a rather fine Japanese raku bowl that had been in unmolested residence on the sideboard for ten years.
‘Aw, for Christ’s sake Pongie! I wish you’d left that thing at home,’ Albie said. ‘Sorry Mrs. Plunder, have you got a dust-pan, I’ll clean it up.’
Ruben gasped and waited for Rebel to scream or something but she merely looked at the scattered remnants of the vase, a gift from the artist. She’d curated the work of a group of Japanese potters and a man as refined and inscrutable as his pots, Hatsumi, sent it to her in a small and innocuous wooden crate. Ruben remembered the note they found inside the bowl. For the dear rebel, I make this gift to you on the condition you do not hold on to possessions you no longer need.
Rebel slowly raised her eyes from the shattered pieces of her keepsake to Pongie. ‘Thank you,’ she said calmly, without any detectable irony.
This was followed by a strange and, on that day, unaccustomed silence.
‘Bit of a shit-storm mate. Jeez, you know how to party, I’ll give ya that—who’s the corpse?’
‘Phillipe, it’s a long story but he’s still breathing, I think.’
‘Want me to arrange a disappearance or does he belong to someone—there’s the early train to Brisbane at one a.m or…’
‘No, that’s fine Albie, we have it under control. Although maybe you could help him down to the Uber, I’m about to order a couple.’
‘No sweat mate. Yo, Henry, had a bit of a tangle with the ropes did ya. Easy done mate. I knew a bloke garrotted himself on Kosciusko. No loss—he was a prize dickhead.’
‘I hit my head, I am very…um, I’m very…better, thankyou Mr. Peleki.’
‘Geez mate, Albie’s me name, only me mum calls me Mr. Peleki.’
Albie let fly at this juncture with an astonishingly loud laugh. Sandy jumped at the explosion. She wasn’t not normally given easily to fright.
‘Shit!’ she said.
‘I should record that,’ Colin said.
‘Ah…right, Henry if you need to go to hospital, just give me the nod mate.’
‘I will do that Mr. Pel…Albie,’ Henry said. He knelt down and started winding up his rope. ‘I think it is time for me to…’
‘Hey Henry, before I forget, me Mum said if I saw ya, to invite ya over for dinner.’
‘What, really…Mrs. Peleki, are you sure. This is something that seems unlikely to me.’
‘She’s taken a shine to you buddy and she cooks a mean spag-bol, no mistake.’
‘Oh, well, I just…I mean…I’m not…’
‘Just come mate, otherwise she’ll have me balls in a vice.’
‘Oh, well that…I mean I wouldn’t want that to happen.’
‘Pongie, stop fidgeting. You smash anything else in here I’ll have ya guts for garters, ya dill. Or I could just let mum sort you out.’
‘Albie bro, no. That’s just mean.’ Pongie looked on the brink of tears.
‘Just keep fucken’ still for a minute then.’
Bee stings, though nasty and very occasionally fatal to those with rare allergies, have some benefits. The toxin Melittin, present in bee venom, can kill HIV and be beneficial to rheumatoid arthritis sufferers. They might also be let loose in a room full of drunks to great advantage, Ruben momentarily contemplated.
Contrary to Ruben’s fears, the dinner party did break-up and Ubers were summoned. Not before, however, Phillipe told Shelley she was a Bondi-dyke-Jewish-princess during a discussion of the Palestine question.
This series of accusations left everybody somewhat confused because Shelley was not from Bondi and though she did have a great fondness for some women it wasn’t of an amorous nature. Nor was she holding back enormous quantities of water. Ruben’s and her Jewishness was so deeply ancestral as to be utterly redundant. Nevertheless, and to the dismay of the aforementioned sibling, she responded by pouring a glass of perfectly good Sauvignon Blanc over Phillipe.
It was remarkable that the ghastly drunk had recovered from Henry’s fist with such renewed vigour. Albie had picked him up off the balcony tiles as one might a small log and placed him with surprising gentleness on the sofa. It was then that Phillipe began to stir, at first looking mystified and then laughing before asking why his jaw was so sore. No one bothered to answer him although Henry started to approach, looking like he might want to either apologise or offer a reprise of his earlier displeasure. It still wasn’t entirely clear that Henry was convinced Phillipe was not Gino, the usurper. Rebel grabbed Henry’s arm and whispered something to him, after which he appeared to change his mind. Amongst all this, Colin attempted to raise an argument that Phillipe had indeed been living a double life and may well have been this Gino fellow, but nobody was buying it.
In regard to the wine hurling episode and subsequent drenching of Phillipe, Ruben had reluctantly provided the Sav. Blanc from his cellar, the fourth bedroom. He’d given in to various entreaties from the guests so it was disappointing two hundred millilitres of damn good Hawkes Bay ended up on Phillipe, Ruben silently lamented, a travesty unrelieved by a solution to the Palestine question.
Albie and Pongie said their goodnights and made their sideways exits through the door with a parting dent to the architrave by the widow-maker.
‘Me mum’ll be ringin’ ya Henry mate and Plunder, give me some advance warning if ya gunna have another piss-up. We might need back-up—a crane mightn’t go astray either. Night all.
Ruben noted that Albie’s generous grin was a little light switched on at the end of this day of days, this almighty day from hell.
Christian got up shakily and started towards the door. Ubers could be heard tooting from the street.
‘Not so fast Christian,’ Ruben said. He walked around the table to where Phillipe slumped, wrenched him out of his seat and sent him sailing after his partner. Ever resourceful, Sandy edged towards the fridge while all eyes were on the kerfuffle at the door and removed the, as yet, untouched half full, half bottle of wine they had brought with them and slipped it into her bag. This had not gone unnoticed. Ruben looked straight into her cunning eyes as she left with Colin in tow.
‘I love wine and I do love you Christian…these are the two things I know,’ Phillipe could be heard crying in the corridor. Ruben and Rebel watched as Bob and Christian, either side of Phillipe, helped him into the lift. Shelley kissed both of them warmly.
‘Be good brother, you sure you’re okay—you’ve been weird all night, or weirder than usual. She peered at Ruben and then shrugged. ‘Sorry about the wine throwing, if that’s …’
‘It’s fine Shelley, I can’t imagine a circumstance where Phillipe makes it through our door again but you, my love, are always welcome,’ Ruben said.
‘Yep, you’re officially weirding me out now.’
The lift started pinging alarmingly as Bob held it open for Shelley. She ran to catch it.
Rebel closed the door and turned to Ruben. ‘I know what you are going to say, you can’t stand Sandy,’ Rebel said. ‘I know—the wine issue, her window facing psychosis but…’
‘No, I was going to ask you if you still loved me.’
‘Oh—well now that you ask, I despise the very earth on which you tread, you idiot. Of course I love you. What has come over you; all that stuff about bees and the end of days—the story in the park was a serious show-stopper, even Phillipe spared you.
‘I’m not sure what’s going on Reb. I need to think some more about it all.’
‘How much more? I don’t want to lose you to this all; it’s like your fading away, becoming less recognisable, not the Plunder I’m used to.’
‘Perhaps a little longer? Do you mind if we revisit it in the morning?’
‘Well, no but I seriously started considering which canned goods I might have to hoard. I thought that we will probably need crates of legumes, but which ones—is it white beans and chick peas or can I just collect our favourite, baked beans in ham sauce?’
‘Definitely legumes,’ he replied. ‘It’s commonly hypothesised that post-apocalyptic life would be unbearable without them.’ He felt himself smiling, a new and interesting development. He didn’t want to stop listening to her; to watch her funny mind working.
‘You know there are like a hundred brands of tinned tomatoes, some completely unpronounceable. I read the other day we should all be eating this stuff called Spirulina; I mean, what is that? And flax seeds for Christ’s sake, handy when we need to make rope out of our own faeces I suppose.’
She stopped talking and they stood, side by side, in the middle of the living room, waiting for some sign, not already obvious. Ruben felt utterly exhausted; sometimes everything just seemed to be far too much, it wasn’t just this day. He could feel the pathology report in his back pocket, folded tightly and weighing on him, like a small slab of granite. He refused to give it any air. Not tonight, but soon he’d have to come clean and then the uncertain merry-go-round of his life would drop into yet another chaotic adventure. He reached for Rebel’s hand.
‘I love you too. Very much,’ he said. ‘You could fall out of love with me; no one would blame you if you did.
‘I’ve always loved you; I don’t see much to be gained from stopping now.’
‘What about Kevin, you were with him before me?’
‘Geez Plunder, I was seventeen, how the hell do you even remember him.’
‘So you weren’t in love then?’
‘Ha! In those days it was a miracle I found my own clitoris let alone understood what was required for being in love with someone.’
‘What, are you saying you still hadn’t found it at seventeen?’
‘I’m joking, I was eleven actually and as I recall, I had rather a lot of fun as a result.’
‘Did Kevin find it?’
‘If he did, he was obviously not any good at getting any sense out of it.’
‘But I did?’
‘Yes, if you recall it was a project we diligently worked on together until bingo, I started feeling vaguely delighted which was quickly followed by sustained wonderfulness.’
‘That was a long time ago Reb. What happened then?’ He felt a child-like awe at this seldom visited world of their youth. What had happened to everything, to all those years that tumbled over each other to get here?
‘And then we lived happily ever after,’ Rebel said.
‘What about this night and tomorrow?
‘Let’s wait and see. Perhaps we can find it tonight.’
Rebel pulled him close, placing both her arms around him, just as she did on their first date and all the other times since, and then he understood—this consistently wondrous experience of his entire life was still holding him close. His lovely, charming, funny wife was the one true bastion against the doubtful times to come.
‘My dear, dear heart,’ Rebel said sleepily. ‘Can we go to bed now?’
They walked past the wreck of the dining room and into the hall leading to the bedroom.
‘By the way Reb, its hemp.’
‘You make rope from hemp, not flax. Although I suppose you could. You know that bees…’
‘Okay, enough with the bees already. You know anything about birds.