(June 2015 – Draft #1)
The Death of Honey Bees
By Chris Roughsedge ©
Ruben Plunder lived in an apartment in the city with his wife and adult son. His wife, ten years his junior who always called him Plunder, even in the company of family and friends, was an art curator with a renowned state gallery, sometimes artist and a natural comic. To be honest she was pretty funny. There was something about her smiling eyes and cheeky mouth that makes one want to smile back, even Ruben. She told him he’s on the spectrum, particularly after he became irritable and even depressed if the kitchen knives were criminally in the wrong drawer or his socks end up feloniously with his underwear. He on the other hand, felt that if there was a place for such things then that was where they should consistently be found when they are called upon for further use. If his wife believed that this behaviour requires a label of a clinical nature then she had not observed his sister lately; a person Ruben believed to be certifiable.
Ruben had been reading a lot about dying honey bees. Due to the spread of a parasite Nosema Ceranae, a phenomenon called ‘colony collapse disorder’ was occurring world-wide. The creatures were dropping like bees away from the hive. They didn’t return to feed the young and the queen, leading to the extinction of not only bees but many other life forms including us and probably because of us. This was not the only threat to bees. It was not only this parasite that was implicated in the death of bees. During the Cultural Revolution in China Mao ZeDong ordered all the sparrows eliminated as the prevailing wisdom of the time was that the birds were purloining more than their fair share of the grain crops. The Maoist zealots were delighted to find their efforts to wipe out the entire population of grain eating Sparrows successful. It was rumoured that the organizer of the sparrow wars was rewarded with not one, but two virgins to deflower. Needless to say having a brain damaged syphilitic megalomaniac as a leader had its drawbacks.
The demise of the birds in China led inexorably to the rise of the insects in plague proportions. The little creatures, particularly locusts, now not having to bother themselves with escaping their natural predator, the Sparrow, multiplied exponentially and loved nothing more than to dine on the vast tracts of cultivated cereals well after the cows came home. Logically, the dear leader announced that all insects must be murdered.
Unfortunately 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, I am sure he would have. The upshot was that the demise of an extremely efficient and planet enriching ecosystem resulted in hordes of Chinese workers wandering around crops laboriously hand pollinating flowers to this day. Apparently Confucius did say the following “It is only when a mosquito lands on your testicles that you realize there is always a way to solve problems without violence.”
Ruben had read so much about honey bees and their imminent demise that he could write a thesis but he feared it would depress him. He was a bit of a melancholic if the truth be known but let’s not have that as an encumbrance to a good story.
Ruben’s son, Rusty called him ‘Hey’. He called his mother Sybil, which by the way was not her name; it was Rachel. They were known collectively, by some, as ‘The 3 R’s or simply ‘The Plunders’. They still have, on their answering machine in Rusty’s twelve year old voice, If you wish to be plundered leave your name and number. The Rusty they occasionally see today, is a very different one from the sweet sounding twelve year old. Come to think of it even at twelve he was a bit of a little shit. Rusty attends university and was engaged in something to do with Physics which causes his unscientific parents emotions mixed of both consternation and pride in equal measure. They thought that a career in the arts, a potter perhaps, a movie director or something else suitably arty, might be a more likely choice.
When Rusty got up in the morning which was usually very close to, if not actually afternoon, he wandered out of his room clad only in underpants and said ‘Hey’. When there was an attempt made to engage him in conversation he said ‘Whatever’ or ‘Yo’. He was lanky, cool and entitled as you might expect of someone born in 1992. Although Ruben was no aficionado of early twenty first century family dynamics, all this was perfectly reasonable or so he’d been led to believe.
Ruben thought thought that the name ‘Rusty’ could be more appropriately ascribed to a pet dog. Ruben had to admit it would have been the preferred outcome but for Rachel’s incontrovertible evidence of a human growing within her. One evening twenty four years ago, just having celebrated his fortieth birthday. Ruben lay in bed trying to go to sleep by reading a tedious Russian novel about depressed aristocrats. Rachel was seeing to her before bedtime ablutions in the en-suite. Suddenly he heard an angry SHIT! and while wondering whether this exclamation was too much of an info-dump, so to speak, Ruben was confronted by the sudden appearance of Rachel at the en-suite door. She had a pregnancy tester in her hand and a look of mortal terror on her face. The proposed canine was replaced with an unexpected biped instead and the name was as good as any they could come up with.
Anyway that”s all history now and largely irrelevant to what I’m about to tell you. Ruben is retired so he has a lot of time on his hands and snooping is a newly acquired pastime. He watches people on the street from his thirteenth floor balcony go about their daily and tiny lives. He sets himself up with his morning granola, yogurt and espresso in his wicker armchair and peers down at the busy people and growling cars.
Hyde Park was a virtual mecca for the threadbare and unhinged as well as reclining suits and shop assistants airing their unshod feet and, of course, the tourists. A glimpse of the Opera House can be gleaned if one was to take the risk of leaning out over the balcony and looking to the north. The winds from the south can cut a howling swathe through the high risen caverns of this city, so it was advisable to consider limiting balcony-leaning to a minimum.
Ruben was not one of these creepy people who felt the need to install a set of high-powered binoculars for his titillation; rather he merely developed a not fully formed and largely ambivalent interest in the human condition, especially when it can be observed unhindered from a great height.
The people and the cars all looked small. The vehicles were like matchbox toys except when they are Harley Davidson’s which look more like ants but sounded like extremely angry lions with throat infections. Even up on the thirteenth floor they sounded appalling. Noisy car mufflers are frowned upon by the law, so why not Hogs, as they were charmingly referred to. He’s doesn’t lord it over the street people as such; he wouldn’t say that; he didn’t feel superior…well maybe a little, come to think of it.
As it turns out Rusty alerted Ruben inadvertently to the plight of bees when Ruben was snooping around in his sons malodorous bedroom one day last month. The fruit of his loins was attending a tutorial. String Theory today, he enigmatically opined as he breezed out the door. Ruben wondered if Rusty had rejoined the Scouts, which would be odd, because he had complained, in particular, about all the knot tying palaver they seemed to get up to.
While negotiating the usual carpet dwelling piles of underpants, flora and fauna in Rusty’s room he happened to wake up his laptop and among the fifty odd tabs open in his browser he found, apart from loads of porn and the usual passive aggressive insults on Facebook, a report on Reddit about the imminent demise of bees. The porn was pretty classy actually, he had taste, Ruben gave him that, but it was the bees that drew his attention.
Now, venturing into any story on reddit.com is like having fallen down the rabbit hole to be completely discombobulated not dissimilar to the confusion experienced by Alice in wonderland. In fact, come to think why not whiterabbit.com or couriouserandcouriouser.com although that may be a bit long winded.
As the incessant and feverish commentary by the extremely disturbed strangers inhabiting Reddit progresses, one can drown in a world of extremes, paranoia being the prevailing glue that holds this sprawling virtual edifice together. These strange pages are the very definition of the conspiracy theory and the internet is the perfect conduit for it.
Ruben felt none of the bemused delight that Alice appeared to have experienced and not being entirely up on the joys of personality disorders, found it very uncomfortable being in a virtual room with a bunch of people who were clearly bananas and would ordinarily be domiciled in padded rooms, having escaped the notice of the relevant authorities.
Ensuring he left things as he found them, he departed Rusty’s domicile and pursued his own enquiry on the matter of bees while at the same time attempting to minimize any advice from lunatics.
He discovered that, among other things, if the honey bee becomes extinct our planet will only produce enough food to feed 500 million people; one fourteenth of the current global population. Einstein suggested that within four years of the expiration of the last honeybee most of the animal population of the earth would be dead.
Furthermore, Charles Darwin wrote with typical English restraint “….the life of man would be made extremely difficult if the bee disappeared.” The young Darwin noted their propensity for organised survival and connubial bliss, and so proceeded to emulate them in choosing a wife. He became melancholic on the issue of children however, due to the fact that the little beasts would be so consuming of his time and, as we now know, he had much to do. He was very concerned with the possibility of being befuddled by visits to the seaside and the necessity for picnics, ballgames; not to mention the energies required for bedroom activities.
All of this would be an unwanted distraction from delineating the complex details of species origination. Nevertheless, with some apprehension he married. Emma was a strikingly beautiful young woman who also happened to be his first cousin, a factor that raised no encumbrance at all in those blessed days of tenacious profligacy. A pregnancy was confirmed in short order and the the man of the house made arrangements for a long absence aboard the Beagle. This was after a child was produced with no discernible discrepancies or mutations. Mr. and Mrs.Darwin’s first born did eventually become a banker and that was reason enough for some to discretely allege that the union was an unholy alliance.
Ruben did become inordinately worried about the imminent bee-generated global holocaust. Blame for this inflammation of his imagination, can to some degree, be laid at the digitally enhanced feet of Reddit. There was a dearth of comfort to be found within its increasingly neurotic pages. Life, Ruben catastrophised, being irrevocably snatched from our species, was not something that he anticipated so early in his retirement. He had already come from the pointy end of all manner of human excess in his newly-retired-from job, so Ruben could tell you for free he had seen much to concern him. Ruben had been a food journalist.
Chefs and restaurateurs, by and large, were a very sorry lot indeed, overwhelmed as they were, by the urgent need to turn bangers and mash into gourmet sausages with pesto infused smashed potatoes with a side of plaited snake beans. Having sat at table for a living and met the many and varied of the culinary trade and thus came to the conclusion that life would be deeply unpleasant if the bees departed.
It was sure bet, from Ruben’s point of view, that those humans high in the food chain would be ensuring their receipt of the lions’ share of the diminished offerings available. The whole thing would be an utter shambles, the logical outcome being that we would inevitably end up dining on each other. One day, the last human will look up from a blackened hubcap full of her partners’ fried toes and wonder what the fuck just happened.
As I said, he had a lot of time on his hands.
Ruben also ruminated on his past. He followed the crooked line of his late adolescence, which was more late than most. He tarried in that netherworld of childhood and yet cherished independence, separateness. He liked his own company but felt lonely within it.
He met Rachel when he tripped over her long, brown legs on the grass of the university quadrangle. He was crossing the lawn between the opposing palisades whilst reading James Joyce’s ‘Ulysses’. Rachel was reclining with a dog eared pamphlet on an obscure sect called the Aetherius Society placed over her face in an effort to obscure the bright sunlight. Ruben landed face down on the page in Ulysses describing Blooms enormous fart at a tram stop.
Rachel erupted with an expletive filled tirade which included a threat of garrotting and testicular cruelty. As Ruben stared up at her all he saw was wild and fuzzy blond wisps of hair at the centre of which was a golden orb of sunshine.
‘Look at my fucking shin for fucks sake; I’m going to have a bruise as sure as mud you pork chop! Jesus, no wonder your on planet Zog, reading Joyce and it’s not even midday.’ She calmed down then and helped him up. Ruben brushed himself off and nervously explained that his professor expected everybody to have read ‘Ulysses’ if they wanted to come anywhere near his lecture room.
‘Pompous knob!’ She said, lifting her right leg and rubbing her sore shin, her sandal dangling precariously from her foot.
Ruben replied by immediately falling in love with her although he has never been entirely sure at whom the insult was directed. Nevertheless the incident did lead to one of those apocryphal stories couples tell their friends and family which acquire a patina of quaint corniness with every retelling. We had literally fallen head over heels in love. Grace is accorded to those lovers who lived a life and have had a history, so cheesy trespasses like this are forgiven. In any case, after Bloom’s incommodious discharge Ruben skimmed the middle and read the last chapter with a fresh understanding of how not to write.
The next day Ruben asked Rachel out, she looked at him as if he was ever so slightly insane and then said yes. They went to a performance of a drunken folk singer who fell off his stool half way through his set. There was an audience of fifteen people in the basement of the YMCA building on Elizabeth Street and nobody reacted much to the musician’s antics. Ruben, however, helped him back on to his stool, restored the battered Gibson to the beleaguered muso and even opened another can of beer for him.
The muso played on for another half an hour. His music was the avant-garde variety of folk. There was lots of intricate fingering, a deliberately dissonant ‘D’ string and obscure lyrics about love gone wrong in cars as best as Ruben could discern. His name was Rick Blue which Ruben assumed was a stage name but, as it turned out, really was his name. Rick Blue chain smoked cigarettes, this was before the nicotine wars and everybody smoked like there was no tomorrow including Ruben and Rachel. Now, of course everybody drinks and eats chocolate to excess, because they can’t smoke anymore.
When it was time to leave a few people thanked Rick Blue and one even clapped but Ruben just felt unreasonably responsible for him and approached him again to offer assistance. The musician didn’t seem to know what to do next but he picked up the remains of his six-pack and carefully installed his Gibson in its case. He mumbled something about Les Paul and Ruben suspected that this was a confederate of Ricks who would rescue him in a VW Combi at some point ready to whisk him away to his next gig. There was a re-purposed cornflakes package within which was a large collection of closely typed pages spilled partially on the floor. The pages were abundantly annotated in pencil and florid with red wine and coffee stains. He hailed from Guildford, Surrey on the southern outskirts of London. Rick Blue asked Ruben if he wanted to go for a drink but he demurred and wrote his phone number on the side of the cornflakes box.
On the way back to her place Rachel hugged Ruben with both arms around him which resulted in an uncomfortable crab-like walking style but fortunately she just lived around the corner from the ‘Y’.
-Is that something you do a lot?
-Well I just felt sorry for him, it was no bother to me really was it and perhaps it helped him.
-He was an odd sort of man.
-I hope Les Paul turned up.
They had a variety of fumbling sex and she cried all the way through it. Alarmed he asked her if he was hurting her but she just said she always cried the first time, she said she just felt as if she was falling between the cracks but he didn’t want him to stop. He didn’t understand but small, silent tears also welled in the dark and fell onto the wispy crown of her white blond hair. There seemed no other possible explanation for the way he was feeling, he was hopelessly in love and he realized that it was a completely unique experience.
They met several times after that and when Ruben finally declared his feelings for her, Rachel promptly replied by stating she had not decided whether she loved him back and added that he was old but that she would try not to let that hinder her decision, although the fact that he was already married was something of a complication. He complained that it was an age difference of ten years only and he should not be penalized for it. He had fallen in love, he said, and there is nothing he could do about it. Besides, his marriage had been on the rocks since the day after they signed the certificate six years ago.
One day not long after falling over Rachel he accidentally met her at the farmers market in Chinatown accompanied by his wife Audrey. Audrey was a tall and striking actress who had made a name for herself for her part in a successful movie playing the part of a wilful young woman on the cusp of a brilliant career as a writer. Ruben clumsily introduced Rachel, even forgetting her name momentarily, so flustered was he. Rachel shook hands with Audrey and told her she admired her acting and then moved swiftly onto the aubergines. Audrey said that Rachel may have been the most beautiful girl she had ever seen, confirming Rubens own assessment.
Audrey’s blooming career had not allowed for a great deal of connubial bliss, such as it was, and the following day she was to leave for Los Angeles to meet an agent. Over a somewhat rushed farewell dinner that night Audrey asked whether he was in love. Ruben pierced a slither of radish with his fork and peering at it said yes and that it wasn’t with her. Audrey raised her eyebrows with her habitual exasperation when Ruben missed the point and said that it was OK because she had been having an affair with Felicity for several years and it was probably time for them to admit the marriage was a mistake. Ruben unaccountably felt miffed about Felicity, with whom he was acquainted and decided he never liked her anyway but, all things considered, it was a reasonable outcome.
He moved out the next day to his sister’s place and began inexpertly wooing Rachel in earnest. Shania, his sister just said that it was about time that he had woken up to the fact that Audrey was a lesbian and Ruben shrugged and experienced a mixture of feelings which condensed to something like shame for not believing her in the first place. Shania, who was younger and ferociously competitive always made him feel tense and ridiculous. There were times, however, when she was kind in a sort of exasperated way that Ruben had become accustomed to.
He was twenty nine which made Rachel a very precocious nineteen. Her friends thought he was a little on the weird side, one of whom described him as a ‘Discomposed jumble of gormless neuroticism.’ This prompted her to acquire new friends and marry Ruben at their earliest convenience. She still played him a bit for the sport of it during a week or two remaining mum to his enquiry about her feelings towards him.
-Have you made a decision yet Rachel?
He asked her several times at her usual patch of lawn in the quadrangle and she stared at him tight lipped and vaguely hostile, gauging his veracity and generally checking him out for any weirdness beyond those already on display. Nearing the end of the second week since they had met she was pretty convinced that she was going to permit him to marry her but let it slide for a while longer. He visited her one Sunday at her parents’ manse in Balmain and she told him through the locked front gate to….
-Shut the fuck up! You are emitting too much noise and you really are annoying me now. I will see you at the uni bar tomorrow evening after my six o’clock tutorial. Be there or be square.
At least she said it with a smile. A minor compensation for Ruben who was by now in a lather of despair and sleep deprivation. Rachel invited him over to her place for lunch on Sunday. She told him to come casual and then demanded he wear shorts and sand-shoes. Although her specific request as to his expected costume seemed somewhat odd, if not presumptuous, he complied.
The rusty gate parted creakily and he tramped up the driveway to meet the sunny smile of his beloved perched on the tessellated Federation style porch. She kissed him there on the threshold with such warmth that his sore heart nearly burst and then she uttered succinctly the word ‘yes’ and kissed him again. Ruben was pretty sure that Rachel wasn’t just asking him as to the reason for his visit and smiled back. The discreet shedding of a few tears of utter joy were interrupted by a tall, handsome, somewhat disheveled looking middle aged man with a mop of crazy hair dressed in a torn black shirt with a picture of the rock drummer Ginger Baker stamped on the front, oversized shorts and crusty sandshoes appeared at the door and introduced himself as Paul, Rachel’s father.
-Yes to what?
-Please meet the man I am going to marry dad.
-Goodness….well….you had better come in sir. Miriam…Miriam! Rachel has a fellow here she wants to marry.
He had a voice like a sports caller, a variety of snapping syntax that was vaguely unnerving. Miriam, Rachel’s mother appeared, looking like an only slightly dated carbon copy of her daughter; an unruly crown of wispy blond hair above a pretty face and a slim body encased in a worn lab coat. She had no shoes on and she was spattered with drops of white paint. It occurred to Ruben that the entire household was not in receipt of a comb, an iron or a needle and thread and he surmised they well may be in need of a cobbler.
-Mum this is Ruben
-I won’t shake Ruben, I’m filthy and I am going for a shower. I’ve been painting the attic. Rach take Ruben and make him a mojito. I’m assuming you’re staying for lunch Ruben, unless you intend going out and getting married immediately.
-O thankyou…ah yes. I mean no we are not going to marry right now…are we Rachel?
-No I have to clean my shoes wherever they are. Besides Ruben has to arrange a divorce. By the way do you own an iron Ruben?
Miriam rushed off towards a staircase and Paul wandered distractedly to some other part of the house without excusing himself.
-Rachel, didn’t they know about me?
-Ruben you are going to have to get used to my family pretty quick if you want to be part of it. People wander in and out of here all day long on the weekends and even during the week. A friend of dad’s turned up on Wednesday, raided the fridge and left without so much as a how do you do and he’s a university professor; you should see what the bloke from the pub does. He’s just the bloke from the pub, we have no idea who he is; he has no teeth and a club foot. Dad calls him the ‘limpenproletariat’ and we have to be kind to him because life, in general, hasn’t.
– I mean they didn’t even know I was coming for lunch?
-It’s just like that here. Nobody knows what’s going on most of the time. I could have told them but it wouldn’t have made any difference. I’m sorry.
Ruben noticed the interior of the house for the first time as they ventured into the large living room off the foyer. He thought from the outside it had seen better days but inside was a dimly lit amalgam of ancient over stuffed furniture, gaudy candelabra and various receptacles on the floor filled with odds and ends. A wellington boot snuggled up to an assortment of umbrella’s and old hats in a big ceramic pot. A box by the huge fireplace contained not only sawn up scantlings that may have come from a dismantled schooner but a moldy rolled up cow hide, an ancient fly swatter, a collection of tattered comic books and two cats who peered out at Ruben with expressions of clear and present dislike.
The floors consisted of wide scratched and pitted boards of Baltic pine burnished to a honey coloured hue and practically every square centimetre of the walls were obscured by various sized modernist paintings interrupted by oriental hangings placed here and there like shrouds down past the dark wainscoting and into the dusky corners. The pale light from the windows was obscured by a verdant growth which appeared to have attached itself to the exterior walls. A spindly plinth rose from the depths beside one of the hanging carpets which served to display an equally spindly sculpture comprising of welded metal and again bits of old boat. Rachel later told Ruben it was actually priceless and of considerable significance since the sculptor died ten years ago, inconveniently from Rachel’s point of view, in the very spot it now stood. It was the one place in the room she would have placed a bean bag but the mater and pater wouldn’t hear of it; it’s like some kind of shrine.
His name was Clive Taggart, who was now more famous dead than alive and lived with them for years and even when he was dangerously hung-over he would shamble off to his rented studio around the corner by the dock, work all day and roll in the door at all hours often unaware of his surroundings calling for the innkeeper in his sonorous voice waking everyone up and scaring the shit out of the cats. Eventually the studio, which was just an old falling down boat shed, was sold to developers who planned to build film studios. He hung on there until a bailiff and his Tongan assistant came by one morning to evict him. Taggart arrived home the same night, bruised and drunk as a skunk, fell over against that tapestry and never got up again. Rachel said that nobody knew he was there until well into the next evening when they discovered his body under the tapestry he had tugged off the wall in his effort to keep himself upright. Rachel was ten and Robert thirteen at the time and they thought it was all very exciting although he was a tad smelly by then.
An entire wall was given over to a floor to ceiling bookshelf filled to overflowing with the sum of considerable arty knowledge. The floor around the foot of the shelves was awash with piles of magazines, periodicals and paperbacks dating back to Gutenberg. They arrived at the dining room where, brooded a vast gothic table burdened with a mountain of more books the summit of which was precariously festooned with a menorah pushed up to one end presumably to allow the occupants of the house to partake of meals when the opportunity arose. The menorah alarmed Ruben a little as his own faith had been lapsed for some generations past and it occurred to him he may be called upon to engage in some ancient rituals of which he had, embarrassingly, no knowledge.
There had been an attempt to provoke an open plan style by pulling down the wall between the dining room and kitchen but aside from a monstrous and cobwebbed raw beam slung across to hold up the roof not a great deal of attention had been given to finishing the project.
Rachel handed Ruben a tall glass of Mojito, not that Ruben would know as he had never had one. The drink consisted of cold sparkling water, rum, mint and lime juice and he found it delicious. Rachel explained that they all drank Mojito’s at lunch time on Sundays, it was a festive family ritual; they also danced the Samba after lunch which she added was hilarious but made Ruben bilious with fear. Rachel further explained that the tradition was instigated by Paul as a remembrance of the ‘Bay of Pigs.’ According to Paul he was actually there, on the beach with his comrades when President Kennedy was trying to decide whether to start world war three.This piece of information seemed to Ruben to be utterly preposterous but with Rachel’s family he could never be sure.
Rachel said her brother Robert would be there soon and her mum and dad will take turns dancing with him. They traversed a beautiful sun filled sitting room and this appeared to be the main family area. It included more old furniture with considerably less stuffing, a wide built-in daybed, some old leather chairs and a chunky coffee table on a Persian rug. Many brightly coloured cushions were scattered on the chairs and daybed and spilling onto the floor. Magazines, opened letters and a half eaten piece of toast resided on the coffee table. It had a welcoming lived in feel about it and served to calm Ruben’s nerves a little. More paintings hung on three walls and the picture window looked out onto the back garden, most of which was taken up with a full sized, somewhat weedy tennis court.
Rachel’s father shambled into the room and gave Ruben the once over and quite without an ounce of guile challenged him to a game of tennis as if it was the traditional ransom required for the privilege of marrying his daughter. As it turned out Ruben’s only claim to fame sport wise was winning the over sixteens championship in his suburb of Bondi twelve years before and but for a brutal case of tennis elbow would have continued playing. Now, however, he viewed Paul’s proposition with alarm and immediately indicated his rustiness. Paul would hear nothing of it and went out to a small shed beside the court to retrieve the gear.
-Jesus, why didn’t you warn me about this Rachel, I haven’t played in years. His enthusiasm for the sport indicates a prowess beyond my abilities.
-Ha, he’s terrible at it. He is by far the worst player ever to grace a court. Whatever you do Ruben, do not let him win.
-He will be very angry if he wins. When I was sixteen he banished a boyfriend of mine because he suspected he let dad win and he didn’t talk to me for a month. He hates that and I don’t want him to hate you. He knows he is shit at it but he also hates to be patronised. He loves the game Ruben, he’s just not any good at it.
-Great, thanks a lot for the heads up.
-You would never have come.
-You wanted to meet my parents, right?
-Of course but……
-It’s just a game Ruben, just make sure you win.
Ruben wiped the sand with Paul and for all intents and purposes Rachel’s father was very impressed. Lunch was served at the free portion of the table and consisted of a myriad of delicacies some of which Ruben had never encountered. He was seated below the threatening Menorah and was somewhat discomfited by this.
Miriam delivered an enormous platter to the table with artfully placed cuts of cured and roasted meats, roasted and pickled vegetables, cheeses, olives, nuts and fruit. This arrangement was called Antipasti and was accompanied by another plate of steaming Piroggi. They were all ravenous and ate with gusto. Paul poured them all another mojito each from a giant, chilled pitchermaking sure to festoon each glass with a sprig of mint.. Ruben kept a wary eye on the lopsided, golden Menorah mainly because of his fear that the thing would fall on him and crack his skull.
-I see you have noticed the Menorah Ruben; it’s an heirloom. Its twin is lying about here somewhere. It’s probably worth more than this house.
-I wish you would get rid of the bloody thing dad.
-They belonged to your great, great grandmother Rachel…they have significance for me as you well know. She brought it all the way from Kiev on a leaky steamer Ruben. She made my father swear to light it when she passed. In 1910 the old girl slipped on banana skin, of all things, she loved bananas not having ever seen one until she crossed the pond and there were always bananas in the house. She even grew trees where the tennis court is now.
After the fall she was never the same. She prided herself on being able to dance the tango into her ninety’s and I’m convinced she danced my grandfather to an early grave. She lasted a year after the bananas revenge and my father gathered us around this very table and lit the fourteen candles of the two menorah one at each end. My grandmother, resplendent in a beautiful jeweled dress she boasted she had worn to the funeral of Catherine the Great, lay angelically supine on the cedar table top. I was seven and my dear brother was ten. Even my grandmother had not seen the inside of a synagogue since arriving here but for some reason we all prayed for her deliverance into the benevolent hands of the Hebrew god. It was a moment to behold Ruben. The light from the candles reflected off the jewels on grandmama’s dress and absorbed in turn by the faded tapestries. She shone in death like a beacon as she did in life.
Ruben could only think of this recollection as somehow ominous and felt he would like to be excused from the immediate presence of the relic.
-I should explain to you Ruben that my father comes from a long line of lapsed Jews so he experiences both guilt and innocence in equal measure, which probably makes him the quintessential Jew really.
-My daughter is the spawn of the devil Ruben and I am most gratified that you are taking her off my hands.
Robert came in time for the Samba and as Rachel said both her mother and father took him as a partner while Rachel showed Ruben the ropes. He had become so merry with Mojito’s that he acquitted himself quite well after learning the original Brazilian steps.With the footwork being pretty fancy. All that backing off followed by saltry forward movements, sexy hip bracing and toe pointing caused Ruben to conclude that it was a teasing dance and would have preferred a little more embracing. Rachel’s father explained that they were purists when it came to the Samba. Ruben had no way of telling purity from adulteration when it came to the Samba but he was not overly fond of the backing off part of it.
-I have a novel in me somewhere
Ruben said one day after he and Rachel tied the knot unceremoniously at the registry office and moved into a garden flat at the rear of a large house shaped like a Dutch cap on the north shore. The landlords were a charming and cultured couple of German Jews who escaped the ovens by hiding in the basement of a cottage literally overlooked by The Berghof in the Bavarian Alps. Right under the Fűhrers silly little moustache, they said with a sad kind of pride. They brought with them an exquisitely carved chess set, one of the few possessions they escaped with. Ruben and Klaus played occasionally in the sunroom upstairs. It had a lovely view to Willoughby Bay and Brightmore Reserve.
Ruben mentioned his bookish aspirations while he and Rachel picnicked on olives, stilton and cheap claret at the reserve under a huge ghost gum, a tartan blanket spread beneath them. A mild breeze rustled the long leaves of the tree; they watched the receding sun cast a reflection on the bay like molten gold. Rachel inched her perennially bare feet inside the bell bottoms of Rubens pant legs for warmth and she replied by saying there was no time like the present or to be precise….
–pull your finger out Plunder and get on with it. I’m not going to be hanging about with one of these jokers who regret never having written the book they had mysteriously residing inside them.
–Mmmm. I also may have some poems in me.
-O for joy.
Notwithstanding Rachel’s cynicism Ruben started that very day, wrote 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 poems were bleak affairs about things that he felt he had some ephemeral connection to but in reality knew nothing. For instance one was a sixteen stanza free verse mess about the ghost of a poet who was now searching the living for the purist of emotions to absolve him of the crime of his own suicide; a category of obscure metaphor that sent Rachel looking for the Metamucil, believing that Ruben was just backed up. Eventually, he put it all 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 vented and relieved.
The Plunders had occasional dinner parties. Ruben is the cook in the family which is not surprising considering he is a food critic. Sorry, he was a food critic until the newspaper he worked for urged him to take early retirement due to some litigious unpleasantness regarding a review he penned. They also suggested he change his name and move to Brazil as the recipient of his vitriol had sworn revenge of a hitherto unrevealed but, apparently severe variety. Ruben’s review was so venomous that it caused irreparable damage to the reputation of the elegant restaurant and the hatted chef within, causing it to close its costly doors only a few months after opening them. Just for the record he was being kind when he described the oysters as “Salmonella in the Half Shell” and the beef or “Boeuf aux Crevettes”, as they 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.”
In hindsight, it was probably a wilful act of sabotage on Rubens part. He had had literally a gut full of writing about food after eating it. Having sacrificed himself on the altar of professional gustation, he now intended to just eat and refrain from commenting. The ludicrous towers of ersatz nouvelle cuisine perpetrated in noisy, open post-modern kitchen ateliers were, of late, making his stomach turn. Below that delicate pile of artisan hand cut chats and miniscule portions of seared organic Waygu lay a seaweed drizzled foam of nonsense that he could no longer endure.
People who wrote columns for newspapers always did something else before. It’s not really a vocation; it’s something one falls into as one would into an abyss but in this case an abyss of words and deadlines. It’s absurd to think that a stringer could actually maintain the lifestyle indefinitely. It is madness to suggest that a political journalist remains one as he or she would either drink themselves to death or just merely be murdered. So Ruben, before he joined the ranks of the career eaters was reporting on cricket about which he knew nothing and cared even less. It appeared that he was one of these people who had no stomach for a silly mid-on or a short leg and the organ grumbled angrily and complained contemptuously all day long and well into the night, much to the despair of Rachel who eventually took to wearing earplugs to achieve any kind of sleep.
One day he wrote an unamusing story about the eating habits of Donald Bradman which covered a full six inches double column and was immediately summoned to the editor’s desk for what he assumed was going to be a thorough drubbing which it was in a way. The editor told Ruben what was as clear as a plimsoll across the foul line that…
–Plunder you are a complete fuckup when it comes to sport journalism. Your last piece was a mélange of obscurity and dissembling of epic proportions. However, the bit about ‘The Don’s predilection for a hard fried egg after each innings and the clearly unsubstantiated accusation that he found lamingtons gave him an erection, insinuates that you may be better placed turning your hand to victuals.
The following day he found himself sitting at the Frisco Bar and Grill polishing off a tasty bit of brisket and a bottle of Margaret River Chablis. Much to Rachel’s relief the unpleasant gurgling emanating from Ruben’s abdomen eventually subsided and they both realized he had merely been hungry.
He was much better at food journalism 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 Rachel 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 that if one was not balls deep shortly after partaking of half a dozen these little charmers, it would be an act of criminal restraint. Well, he wrote it but the published version was somewhat modified for general consumption, his editor noting that people as young as fourteen read their rag, admittedly for the funnies and the cricket but nevertheless…Of course, nowadays you could publish anything in the newspaper and be completely assured that it would go disregarded. The scribblings of opinion writers and lifestyle columnists serve to fill in the blanks between and the parlous condition of the state transport system and the racing tips.
Ruben had long ago came to the conclusion that the most enjoyable meal he had ever had was a pie and peas from Harry’s Café d Wheels, so it’s not too much of a stretch to suggest that his time in the paddock had run its course and it was time to hand the reins, albeit precipitously, over to more enthusiastic culinary equestrians. He did from time to time read the reviews of his replacement. She was a lady of his acquaintance in both the biblical and collegiate senses. The fragrant Mirielle, with a delightfully flawless and ample bottom as pale and downy as a white peach, coupled with a splendid personality as a bonus. She still wrote optimistically about food without rancor or regret. Give it time thought Ruben, but he wished her well.
And time was what Ruben now had.
He had time to ruminate on the big and not so big questions that assailed the human spirit or at least on questions that did not require an escargot fork to excavate. Now, he was retired and with Rachel packed off to work, he would descend in the lift, exchange a few words with the concierge, the sturdy and polite Abdul as he left. He liked to circumnavigate the park crossing Elizabeth at the Liverpool Street cross-section, then coming back past the Museum of Natural History, the Aquatic Centre and St. Mary’s Cathedral; tip his hat to the big old bronze of Queen Victoria on Queens Square and then enter the park from Prince Albert Road.
Once in the park itself Ruben could block out, with the assistance of the massive figs and London Plane Trees and an abundance of flowering shrubs, the ever-pervasive rumble of traffic and the pandemic of concerns ruling the cities inhabitants. Would it matter much if these all too human busy bees thought less about the foreclosure of some poor sods brick veneer in Campbelltown or the decidedly dodgey insurance claim for a burnt out factory in Taren Point and more about the state of their very being. Surely there is more to be had from a working life than a question as to whether life’s tenure is going to survive next month’s sales figures. This is the thing that now concerned Ruben; W.T.F was it all for is what he acronymically asked himself.
On this Friday he followed his usual route but only after learning that Abdul’s wife of twenty years was leaving him because she said he was exceedingly boring and had found another man who was not. He was definitely down in the dumps and Ruben commiserated as best he could and began his constitutional with this information taking up residence uncomfortably amongst his thoughts. It occurred to Ruben that although he did not know for sure from his little experience of the man, Abdul may have been a bit boring but seemed otherwise a very nice fellow; always polite and kind, always ready to help in his serious, solicitous way. But then how would Ruben know; behind closed doors and all that. Abdul was not a man of irony or intemperance. Ruben cracked a joke with Abdul once, involving a horse in a bar, never to be repeated as it landed flat on the tiles between them. All jokes aside, Ruben thought that the concierge was an authentic and earnest man who did not deserve to be treated so shabbily by his spouse. He thought she would discover, perhaps too late, that she had made a tactical error. He himself had learned of late that boredom had its attractions.
The late spring in the park sunshine filtered down through the majestic Moreton Bay figs and onto the flowerbeds. Delicate red and purple Pansy’s, Lilacs, yellow Hellebores and Snowdrop Anemone’s swayed in the slight breeze. Bees gathered amongst them, ever industrious sucking up the nectar for the hive and delivering gamete infused pollen from the outstretched stamens to deposit it with the stigma and thus promoting reproduction. Ruben watched this activity closely. He had never taken any notice before but now that he had become aware of the intimate relationship between bee and plant he was fascinated.
He interrupted his walk to sit on a bench beside the beds and stared at the wonder of it. He now knew that the seemingly inadvertent collection of pollen by bees was as necessary an evolutionary adaptation as they come. If the bees were not cognizant of the benefit it afforded the plant kingdom they were most certainly aware of the benefits of pollen to the hive for it was an essential form of protein for the entire colony, including in the manufacture of the royal jelly for the queen larvae. He suddenly felt a surge of remorse and tears welled illogically to cascade down his cheeks. More of this event later.
Now…ah yes, as I said he gave dinner parties. All his friends loved to come and even his sister Shania and Rachel’s brother Bob who both adored her but were less than warm in regard to Ruben. In fact most of his friends were really Rachel’s. Even the friends who started out as his friends were now more convivial with her than they had ever been with him. He didn’t really mind, he admired this ability in his wife to be so easily attractive and witty; besides everyone seemed to be fond of his cooking which despite his culinary ambivalence was still a pleasure although even that, as the days grew shorter and the years galloped ahead he felt his ardor for the delights of the plate inexorably waning.
He was well passed middle age; that was a time so long ago now, punctuated momentarily between the soft thighs of Mirielle who said he had the finest set of balls she had ever seen and loved to cradle them like twin incubating eggs in her warm hands. He discovered in Mirielle’s arms that climaxing while having ones testicles handily finagled must be very close to the kind of deranged religious ecstasy of mythological proportions much explored in Renaissance art, sheer and utter rapture. Latterly though, the body was more often than not non-compliant and the entire edifice would eventually require demolition, never to be rebuilt. The mind raced pornographically while the corporeality barely reached handicap honors.
It’s just that these people, these friends, for want of a better word, displayed a vague distaste for him personally, which he could have done without but also seemed unavoidable. Several even to his face intimated that he was less than likeable. It’s true; there was something off about him. He is no oil painting, a miserable drunk and an even worse tee-totaller; he is bumbling, slightly overweight and has a tendency towards morbid perspiration. He furthermore has a penchant for disagreeable truculence and flatulence for that matter, caustic overstatement, maudlin despondency and fractious ventilation on a variety of obscure matters. All of these personal traits have caused disquiet amongst those with whom he come in contact, except Rachel, who for reasons not entirely clear to him nor presumably her associates, dotes on him as one might a favourite uncle? You could say he was an uncle with benefits.
The benefits for the moment, however, seemed to be mainly centered on the kitchen. It is at the pots and pans that Rachel finds him on this afternoon. She breezes into the apartment after a day at herding artists for an upcoming group show, kicking her shoes off, releasing her hair from her practical but disheveled bun and the lovebirds smile at each other across the kitchen servery. He pours her a glass of Pinot Gris. He is en préperation for another night of equivocal bonhomie. The guests are scheduled to arrive at six, the wine is chilling and breathing, the plump, slow cooked apple cider pork medallions have been simmering in the oven now for two hours. The emanating sweet bouquet is unaccountably causing him a discreet erection as he takes a little peek at the perky medallions.
Rachel takes a large swig of wine and spends a small amount of time suggesting to Ruben that an island should be set aside to domicile artists so that the general population may enjoy the benefits of not being exposed to them and then approached him from behind as he dices a swede, places her hands around his middle and begins to slide them down to rest in immediate proximity to the admiral and two colonels sufficient to turn discreet into heedless immoderation. The swede is abandoned for the tender curves of his wife’s buttocks.
Rusty, with his usual lack of reserve wanders in resplendent in his undergarment of the day and says blearily.
Then he said.
-W.T.F?…..that is something I cannot unsee, jeeesus fuck.
It was becoming clear to Ruben that everybody these days was acronymically inclined.
-You could knock.
Rachel said as she removed her hands from Rubens admiral which had rapidly been demoted to deckhand.
-It’s the fucking kitchen for Christ’s sake.
He replied and then pushed past us to access the fridge saying.
They arrived early in two’s. After much experience with tardiness Ruben now tells guests that dinner will be served an hour before it actually is but he is waiting for them to twig to this innovation and sabotage it by merely compensating for the lie and arriving late anyway. Phillipe and Christian first followed shortly after by Sandra and Colin and then finally his sister, Shania and Rachel’s brother Bob. Shania and Bob didn’t come together; they just coincidentally showed up at the same time. At least that is what they told everyone. It had been three months since the siblings had set eyes on each other although Rachel met Shania regularly for coffee or a drink after work. Shania approached Ruben for a dutiful peck on the cheek but Ruben hugged her tightly and uncharacteristically. She looked at him quizzically after he released her and she remarked that he looked somewhat insubstantial and grey, kind of more unnecessary than usual really. Ruben just looked at his sister with a kind of curious love seemingly unaffected by her usual cynicism. She shrugged and kissed Rachel.
Phillipe made straight for a bottle of Le Pin 1992 Merlot on the servery bench.
-I’ll help myself, if that’s OK.
Phillipe said as he began pouring a very large glass of Ruben’s very expensive red. Phillipe had two favourite pastimes; one was drinking other people’s expensive beverages and the other was being an unmitigated shit. In Rubens view, those two activities were not mutually exclusive and he couldn’t for the life of him work out why Rachel tolerated him.
Said Christian with a withering look at Phillipe.
-Again, you guys?
Said Rachel, getting a bit fed up with their incessant squabbling.
-He’s just being a cunt.
-Any chance you two might take it outside; you are hardly enhancing the atmosphere.
Ruben felt the need to remark, knowing that it would be ignored. The snarky enmity that lately raged between them was becoming rather a bore, although the general focus of disdain had been subtlety and happily transferring from Ruben to them and in particular to Phillipe. Christian wasn’t a bad sort really. He was a very successful artist and disported an excellent brain which was slowly being whittled away by the septic interactions with his permanently drunk and promiscuous boyfriend who appeared to have no occupation unless being an errant arse was now a vocation. Rachel had on numerous occasions suggested to Christian that Phillipe needed to be the subject of a hit or at the very least, have several of his limbs modified. Ruben merely encouraged him to give the fellow the flick but nothing they said seemed to be of use as he was unaccountably besotted by the drunken slut. Truth be known, Phillipe had a career once. He was an arts administrator and then 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 was carving 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. Unfortunately, no sooner had the last of the tradesmen trundled out the door, Phillipe fell into a bit of a middle aged funk, quit his high paying job and proceeded to enjoy his sea change with the assistance of the bottle. So enamored of the drink was he these days that he was rarely seen sober much to the despair of the hopelessly in love Christian. Ruben had known great and unreciprocated love in past life so he felt some sympathy for Christian.
Shania shrugging off her coat grabbed Rachel by the arm and they disappeared into the guest room to offload all the latest gossip not fit for general consumption. Bob glanced from the atrocious Phillipe and over at Ruben as if to say will you punch him or can I.
Colin furtively placed their half bottle of white in the fridge. Ruben privately observes that he could be wrong but he thinks the half bottle was only half full. This would not be surprising to the present company. Sandy, an imposing, tall and wide woman with chaotically curly red hair had a penchant for both stinginess and outrageous self-promotion. A gallery owner, she would think nothing of sidling up to new acquaintances and slipping a business card into their hands before she even inquired as to their names. She insisted on sitting at the head of all tables and facing all doors or windows as she could not bear to have either at her back. She once admitted, without embarrassment, that she needed to see what was happening at all times otherwise she would experience nausea. Clearly she had not considered the possibility that her behavior was nauseous regardless of her seating arrangements.
Colin on the other hand appeared, much of the time, to be in a state of euphoria brought on by the imbibing of certain controlled substances. It was rumored the fellow had taken rather a lot of LSD in his early years and became permanently baked by the time he was twenty five. Oddly his occupation of jeweler did not seem to be impinged by this predilection, as he was in quite high demand. He sidled over to Christian and asked him about his recent exhibition while Ruben turned and headed for the balcony to join Bob who managed to snaffle the Le Pin while Phillipe wasn’t looking. It made no difference to Phillipe, of course who, realizing the absence of liquid intoxicants immediately opened one of the bottles of rough red he had uncharacteristically brought with him.
Clearly the news being passed back and forth between Shania and Rachel was sufficiently ludicrous to elicit squeals of laughter as Ruben ventured past the guest room door enroute to the balcony. Bob was sitting in Ruben’s comfy chair, a fact that Bob would not have been aware of but nevertheless pissed Ruben off. He said nothing and after a splash of Le Pin in his glass he took the other chair with a sigh and looked out to the park.
-So what’s cooking mate?
Bob said. Bob was the sort of person who said mate, crikey, bag of fruit etc and favored solid unleveraged fund management and blue chip stocks over scary derivatives and frightening futures. He talked like this because he was a share trader and they generally can’t follow simple English but possess a confident bonhomie peculiar to certain Australians without actually endearing themselves to the general population. At their age, Bob and his cronies from the trading floor, are a club of unreconstructed capitalists bathing in the light of ambivalent glory shed upon them by the moussed up, spikey haired young up and coming wankers who would inevitably enjoy a long fall off a snakes back.
Bob and his ilk, stately, sedate pin-striped types, the sort of men who could talk vaguely about Rugby but not at a rugby leagues club or mix with the hoi poloi at a pinch but not spend the night with them. They were men who prospered in the good years of the nineties and early millennia, they were smart enough to back away from mortgages when the market lurched towards boiling point and the whole shebang fell in a heap in September 2008. They lost money but not as much as the spivs. The world as a whole experienced its own 9/11, just as terrifying and much more pervasive. An unpunished crime of such massive proportions it is impossible to exaggerate it and all originating on Wall Street just around the corner from ground zero. As indicated, Bob is fortuitously Rachel’s brother and had helped all of those present, in one way or another, to avoid the worst of the GFC. He wasn’t a bad sort thought Ruben, especially when you were able to translate his lingo although 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.
-Pork medallions tonight Bob.
-Sounds great, but not what I meant.” He looked at Ruben rather warily, thinking he was being a smartarse no doubt.
“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 restaurateurs, who in the main are a bunch of tossers.”
-Here’s to retirement then, you can rest on your laurels mate.
He raised his glass and Ruben reciprocated, realizing if it hadn’t been for Bob he would not be bathing in blue chips right now. He peered into the remains of the Le Pin in his glass and then said. Have you thought of what you might do now?”
-I am looking into bees at the moment.
Ruben said. Once again that look that says are you having a lend of me?
-I believe there is a city ordinance in regard to keeping bees in an apartment Ruben. Like to the effect that it is illegal.
-No, no not keeping them; investigating them.
-Have they committed a crime Plunder?”
Ruben chose to ignore the question but it did stir a bee memory.
Did you know that 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.
-Fascinating! You appear to have found your vocation.
Remarked Bob uncharitably and less than dexterously changing the subject.
-Tell me something; do you think Colin is gay?
-Well if he isn’t he damn well should consider it. It may be the only way he can come up with to escape the diabolical Sandy.
-I had better check the oven Bob.
He stood and so did Bob and they made their way inside.
Rachel and Shania also emerged from the guest room and flopped themselves on the sofa opposite Sandy and Colin and listened while Sandy told the others about an incident regarding an artist she occasionally showed at her gallery. Sandy, neither door nor window at her back and with all attention beaming on her, was in her element. She was telling them about Augustine De’Mure, a notoriously well-known but third rank artist who had largely survived on grants from the Arts Council. De’Mure, whose real name was Phil Hole, she mentioned with a giggle, had caused a bit of a stir in the art world by publicly threatening suicide if the Arts Council did not restore his recent grant. Apparently the council’s board had declared that the mid grant assessment of his current project was found wanting and stopped the flow of dollars.
Actually the board were generous with their assessment; when a representative turned up at his studio they found De’Mure lying naked, face down in a pool of turpentine and squeezed out tubes of cadmium yellow, scarlet red, ultramarine blue and several empty bottles of cheap rum none of which had been applied to any canvas. She eventually revived him to ask for an explanation. According to the assessor he turned over and she discovered to her dismay that the drunken sot had painted his genitals with an Arcadian scene of island bliss in the style of Gaugin and his face was made up to look like Mister Spock from Star Trek including prosthetic pointy ears. De’Mure is well on the way to morbid obesity said Sandy so the thought of Leonard Nimoy’s iconic character transposed to his butterball of a head did not bear thinking about. De’Mure sputtered something to the affect that what the assessor was looking at is indeed the second stage of the proposed three part project entitled ‘Beam Me Up’.
He can think on his feet, I’ll give him that said Sandy. Rachel interjected at this point to suggest that, considering his prone condition, he was more likely to be thinking on his arse. Shania emitted a tight laugh that sounded like and may well have been a hiccup and Sandy continued by saying that the board did offer to provide a mentor and five sessions with a psychoanalyst to help rehabilitate his project. Christian piped up and said, clearly from bitter experience, that five sessions with a shrink won’t even scratch the surface when it comes to De’Mure.
-Are you aware that worker bees actually work themselves to death, they commit suicide on behalf of the hive”.
Ruben said. Everybody turned to look at Ruben as if he had just spoken in tongues.
-Just thought I’d mention it….I mean…Oh forget it; dinner will be served in five.
Rachel piped up at this juncture, in an effort to defuse what was quickly becoming a Ruben shaped bomb. She could see he had a serious case of bonnet bees.
-Thank Christ for that, I could eat the crutch out of a rag doll.
Dinner was served and devoured by the hungry guests and a few more bottles of wine were also given a serious nudge. Everybody desired to be further assailed as to the welfare of Augustine De’Mure. It seemed that everyone had an anecdote about the idiot. Christian said that he was a contemporary of De’Mure, who was still Phil Hole at that time, at the National Art School thirty years ago and he pulled a similar stunt. He climbed onto the roof of the Flinders Street campus with a rope around his neck and threatened to end it all if they didn’t hang a picture that had been rejected kindly as ‘unfinished’ for the annual student exhibition. To avoid an unpleasant incident the Dean acquiesced and hung the painting.
Christian said that, from memory, the work was a dismal affair, indeed looked unfinished and a poor approximation of a Jackson Pollock without the poetic fluidity and good old fashioned talent. It was a joke, Christian said. When the winner was announced on the night of the opening and De’Mure discovered it wasn’t him he promptly commented on the decision by dropping his pants and pissing against the gallery wall beneath the winner’s painting. Needless to say this caused a frenzy of outrage and he was literally kicked out on the pavement by a couple of burly sculpture students. Of course the press got wind of his shenanigans and he became a bit of a golden boy for the tabloids and remained so. He is a good example of someone who has achieved fame not from any particular talent but from narcissistic chicanery alone, Christian said.
-Did you know that bees have personalities? Some shirk their responsibilities, others seek thrilling escapades, still others are meek and mild and some are quite conceited and have impressions of themselves that others in the hive believe to be unwarranted. Apparently they experience happiness and despair as well, all of which indicates that the bees may be in receipt of complex emotional lives.
Ruben said. Once again all eyes turned on him as if he was an interesting new species himself, eventually their eyes glazed over and a small silence ensured while they gathered their thoughts.
-What the fuck is this about bees Plunder?
Phillipe piped up smirking, clearly hoping for a bit of fun at Ruben’s expense.
-The honey bees are dying; where have you all been? Don’t you know it’s the end of the world as we know it? For humanity to survive so must bees. Twenty billion dollars worth of cash crops pollinated solely by bees, employing many thousands will no longer exist if this insect becomes extinct.
-Jesus! really Plunder? Rachel said. Bit of a downer don’t you think darling?
-Well you are all sitting around talking about some shithead art wanker and in another ten years we will all be dead; people like us will go first because none have us have learnt to fight. I suggest you get your survival skills up to scratch because Armageddon is coming and you are not going to be able to paint your way out of it; instead you’ll be sharpening the hard end of your brushes to stab the next crazy starveling that breaks into your lean to.
Ruben said. He had now commanded the attention of the entire table. It was common knowledge that Ruben had some post retirement adjustment issues but they still looked like they had just witnessed a brontosaurus stroll past the balcony.
-I can fight. Bob said breaking the spell. I learnt Tae kwon-do a few years ago.
-I kneed a bloke in the balls once when he grabbed my arse on a crowded train.”
Sandy said, not to be outdone.
-Did you? Christ you never told me about that. Colin said to Sandy.
-I did actually but you had just taken a tab of acid and you answered by saying I looked like a pink tree. Sandy answered.
It was easy to forget you have a child when that person rarely makes his monosyllabic appearance, but Rusty wandered in from his end of the apartment clad still in only his underpants.
-Didn’t know we were entertaining?
He said as he opened the fridge door and peered in looking for some morsel that wasn’t herbed, spiced, al dente’d, aioli’d, jus’d, julienned and definitely not meat that has been noisetted, ratatouille’d, ragout’d or medallion’d. His appetite was of a strictly pedestrian nature often to be found within tin cans sporting names like ‘Chunky Steak Noodle Dinner’. Apart from the heart stopping sodium enriched contents of these cans, he inexplicably preferred only minimal association between his food groups. If he was to be offered a conventional meal the vegetable would have to be meticulously isolated from the meat and the sauce would be confined to a lonely, congealing pool at the very edge of the plate, which would, as a rule, go undisturbed. He would proceed to eat all items separately starting with the vegetables. Sweets were absolved from this procedure and endured a loving relationship with Rusty’s gut, whatever form they were presented. He was a strange brew, the bumpy bits at the ends of socks had to be always on the outside, for instance and he had an uneasy relationship with feathers; viewed from a distance they were fine but bring a bird into his vicinity and he will start to become extremely agitated.
-Hey dude, how are they hanging?
This was Bob. Ruben looked over at Rusty to view his customary vexed eye raising which he managed even though he was busy creating an open sandwich comprised of a .5 centimetre slather of Nutella and meticulously sliced strawberries to cover it and then cut into small finger portions. This concoction was actually a family favorite purloined from a cookbook entitled ‘Desserts of the Netherlands’. It had been languishing in the bookshelves unread for years because they all were under a vague impression it had something to do with sand dunes. They had not stopped, in their busy lives, to question that a desert, apart from having only one ‘s’ would not necessarily be a geographical feature of the most water-logged country on the planet.
-O, side by side Uncle Bob.
Rusty said with more than a bit of exasperation probably brought about by Bob’s appropriation of what he thought was cool youth-speak but was in fact toe curlingly mortifying to anybody under or even over the age of thirty. Bob was childless so allowances must be made.
-So what’s your thesis about again?
Bob persevered even though both Rachel and Ruben were both doing some serious eye and eyebrow acrobatics indicating that it may be better to let sleeping dogs lie.
Rusty said whilst devouring a strawberry encrusted Nutella finger. Everybody looked up more out of politeness than anything although some thought he said infringlebent beery. You have to give the young ones their fair go so Bob said.
Rusty swallowed and elucidated in an uncharacteristically non mono-syllabic way.
-Entanglement is a term used in quantum theory to describe how correlated particles can interact regardless of their distance from each other. For instance, they could be a galaxy or an entire universe apart. The correlation is not limited by factors such as the speed of light for instance. 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 I suspect that might be sufficient
Rusty said judiciously.
-Crikey!…..I think I get it……cool!
Bob said. The others looked completely at a loss except for Ruben and Rachel who had intimate knowledge of Entanglement, having cohabited with it for some years now.
-Any chance of you making me one of those kiddo?
Piped up Sandy, who always had an eye out for a nicely turned out open sandwich.
-Sure, but keep in mind that its doppelganger, or at least its individual particles, will be created simultaneously elsewhere in the universe.
He said with a smile.
-Gosh, two of them, even better! Will my other self out there be eating it Rusty?”
-Sure, why not.
Rusty passed the plate of Nutella and strawberry fingers to Sandy and the others looked enviously at it. Before they could add their order Rusty, saying goodnight, strolled off in the direction of his room. Ruben considered his goodnight and thought perhaps his hitherto uncommunicative son had turned a corner in his social behavior or, Ruben further thought that perhaps he was merely a trying out some new words.
-As you know our mother died two years ago and I didn’t cry at all.
Ruben said glancing at Shania.
Bob said. Once again they all looked at Ruben as if he had immediately grown a new head.
-Darling, it doesn’t mean you didn’t care. She was ninety five, she was suffering.
-I know but I was watching the bees today in the park and I started crying. You know the flower bed near the entrance to Museum metro. A woman approached me and asked if I was alright. She was very sweet, she sat down on the bench beside me and patted me gently on the back and this only led to more tears. She had a strong accent which I could not place but spoke perfect English. She asked me what had happened and all I could do was point at the bees.
-Jesus, again with the bees?
-I read somewhere that if you don’t cry the tears of grief, they will manifest through your other organs.
-What, like you piss yourself?
Phillipe slurred. By now he had drunk so much that he was beginning to sway in his seat. Christian was becoming increasingly mortified.
-Well, not quite. I think it means that sadness needs relief and tears are a perfect and innate response. If your eyes fail to cry other bits of you do.
Shania said without conviction.
-It was so fucking sad, bees are so marvelous and yet we all but completely ignore them
-I was doing a bit of weeding in the garden last week and one of the little fuckers stung me. I didn’t ignore that!
-There is a hive in your garden or nearby, if you were stung. The female worker bees have the stingers and they only sting if they detect a threat to the hive. They literally attack you even though it will cost them their lives. The stings are barbed and when they detach from it they lose part their abdomen with it. It is a catastrophic price to pay in their effort to protect the hive but they will not hesitate.
-How did the woman react to you indicating the bees were the cause of your tears?
-At first she was confused and then looked closely at the flower bed. I managed to collect myself a bit to explain about the imminent demise of the bees and she observed me with a little ironic smile but also with compassion. She asked what influence I can bring to bear on this dilemma. Surely it is a terrible thing but did I have the capacity to change the direction of such an inexorable calamity.
-She sounds very wise Ruben.
-Yes; she gave me some tissues from her bag and she stayed with me for quite a while. As we watched the honey bees she told me a story. She said she was from Kirkuk and arrived here with her mother as refugees. She asked me if I knew where Kirkuk is and I said that I thought it was in Iraq, in the north and it had a lot of oil but that was all I knew.
She said that was more than most. She continued. Shortly before the end of the war with Iran, it was August nineteen eighty eight, a utility truck pulled up outside our house. I remember the car screeched to a halt and the dust swirling around and we all came to the front door. My father walked out onto the street to see what was going on and as the dust drifted back to earth we recognized the driver. It was my brother’s best friend dressed in the tattered and bloody uniform of the Iraqi army, the truck was a dented and rusty old hulk of a thing on its last legs; I remember there were holes in the side. My father knew straight away why the man had come and collapsed to his knees and started crying and my five year old self also started crying although I did not then know what had happened. I just hated to see my beloved father in such distress. My mother walked solemnly out and looked into the tray of the utility where a tarpaulin was tied around the body of my brother.
My brother’s friend, Kasim went down on his knees beside my father and wept as well. My mother stayed for a long time beside the utility her arm extended into the tray and looking towards the south, her face clouded with much anger. It was early morning and the streets of the city were quiet but our neighbours had been woken by the commotion and emerged bleary eyed from their houses and approached the utility. Then there was such wailing and rising of arms to the sky asking their god for an explanation; some of the people lay down in the street and wept bitter tears into the dust and all the time I did not know properly what had happened. My tears were not of grief but of sympathy for all of the grief around me. I loved my brother and have shed many tears for him since but my parents failed to explain this event to me so immersed were they in their terrible sadness.
Until then I did not know anything of death; I did not know that 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 moustache, his beautiful knowing eyes and held me aloft when I raced squealing into his arms. I did not know of the terrors that woke him in the night screaming, of the appalling despair on the battlefields of that vicious war. I did not know that Saddam Hussein, our gloriously venal and sociopathic leader, was ultimately the perpetrator of these atrocities. I did not know that this senseless war that had killed so many men, women and children on both sides, bankrupted my own country and made enemies where none were before. I did not know any of these things and yet I shed a category of tears as did the others on that warm August morning in my homeland, a dry ancient city in the desolate Mosul Valley. We all cried for different reasons but we wept together as if our tears could replenish the desert with sons and brothers, good neighbors and boyhood friends.”
“I believe the category of tears you shed are those of a child who does not understand the depth of sorrow but nevertheless has experienced for the first time the uniquely human substance we call empathy. I think this not less than and even perhaps more than the sum of sorrow because you have truly engaged with the other. You look at these tiny creatures, so unique and productive and you mourn for what is ineffable and beyond your control.”
She stood at this point as if she was to take her leave. I had become completely mesmerized by her story and the beautiful cadence of her smokey voice.
-My name is Nukia, and yours?
I told her and she said ‘good’ and walked off towards the station.
-Just like that Plunder, she just walked away.
-Yep, just like that.
Ruben said and drained his wine glass.
The dinner party finally broke up but not before Phillipe told Shania she was just a jumped up Bondi dyke Jewish princess during a lively discussion of the Palestine question. Shania poured a glass of Merlot over him while mortified, Christian made for the door. Rachel said ‘not so fast’ and wrenched Phillipe out of his seat and sent him sailing after Christian. Ever resourceful, Sandy edged towards the fridge while all eyes were on the scandal at the door and surreptitiously removed the, as yet untouched half full, half bottle of wine they had brought with them but this had not gone unnoticed by Ruben who looked straight into her cunning eyes as she left with Colin in tow.
As Rachel closed the door behind them she turned to Ruben. He had the look of someone who had experienced a mild shock. His mouth was partially open and he eyes appeared to be vacant.
-I know what you are going to say, you can’t stand Sandy. I know, the wine issue, her window facing psychosis but…..
-Actually no….I was going to ask you if you still loved me. I can’t recall asking you this for years.
-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 – jeez I started considering which canned goods I might have to hoard. I mean we will probably need more legumes than chocolate bullets I guess. Which ones?….is it white beans and chick peas or can I just collect my favourite, baked beans in ham sauce. There are like a hundred brands of tinned tomatoes. I read the other day we should all be eating this stuff called Spirulina; I mean what the fuck is that and flax seeds for Christ’s sake, handy when we need to make rope out of our own faeces I suppose.
-I love you too….very much…..It’s hemp.
-You make rope from hemp.
Ruben reached over and touched her hand, she leaned in and hugged him close nestling into his chest and saying quietly.
-What’s wrong Plunder?
-I am out of kilter somehow…..something’s not adding up.
-Well things may be not adding up because you’re not focusing on the good things in your life-perhaps you should think about them or try some long division. Are you unhappy?
-I’m not sure I know what that means. It’s kind of too existential isn’t it?
-Either you are or you’re not and I think you’re not. You seemed to be happy when you were working?
-I was biding my time, filling my days with clams in white wine sauce so that I didn’t have to think too much about the mollusc kingdom. I had you and Rusty to think about but you are immersed in your work and Rusty may as well be estranged.
-You’re depressed Plunder, you need to see someone. Don’t worry about Rusty, he might be surly and moody but he has a good set of ethics behind him…all thanks to you in the main.
-I saw that lady, Nukia.
-You need a professional. Besides you said she just disappeared into the metro, what are the chances of meeting up with her again?
-Not great I admit but she was good for me. She illuminated something for me but I need her to finish her story.
-Sounds like you need a friend and you can’t be friends with me or Rusty. People aren’t friends with their spouses or children. That just doesn’t work, we just want to be adored and lavished with unadulterated affection.
-I guess you are right but…..
-Plunder lets go to bed and have sex, at the very least you need your pipes cleaned.
-I hope it works.
The next day Ruben found himself ascending instead of descending in the lift. There was a pleasant common area on the top floor which led to a rooftop garden. He had not a clue who maintained these areas but they were always immaculate. There were sun chairs and tables, a bar-b-q and the plants were always healthy and lush. He had always assumed that a maintenance man or gardener employed by the body corporate saw to these things but when he emerged into the sunlight he found an old man in a sagging grey cardigan, shorts and long socks with sandals tending to the plants. Ruben inwardly groaned and was about to turn around and leave when the man greeted him amicably with an upper class British accent. He had a rather full head of tangled silver hair and sported a pair of old wire frame glasses on his forehead.
-I say, hello there old chap. You look a tad lost.
-You may have hit the nail on the head sir…..It’s Ruben
Ruben extended his hand and the man removed his glove and shook hands with him.
-Only my mother calls me sir…Rod Bascombe. I am assuming you live in the building.
-Yes, thirteenth floor, and you?
-Fortieth, been here since it was built. I started up the management committee and served until I could no longer bare it. Sometimes thought that I may well be in hell, after eight years I pulled the plug. The others probably thought good riddance I warrant. Bit of a stirrer Ruben, I’m afraid so if you have any sense you wouldn’t have anything to do with me. The better half opined that I had created a rod for my own back. Get it! You have to get your jollies where you can when you get to my age Ruben.
-Can’t say I have any desire to be on the committee myself.
-I strongly recommend you maintain a commitment to that inclination Ruben.
Roger pulled a weed from the bed and nodded his head a little to cause his spectacles to drop onto his nose.
-Bloody onion-weed, how did that find its way up here?
-Search me Rod.
-My dear fellow I will do no such thing. We have only just achieved first name status.
The bricked up garden beds were large rectangular planters dotted about the roof. The rather stylish and comfortable garden furniture was placed to take advantage of the shade provided by the bigger shrubs. The beds were built to allow easy access to either side of them. Ruben noticed an elaborate sprinkler system poking up from the beds. Some beds were lined on the outside by lattice work allowing creepers to cascade over the sides.
There was a studied symmetry to it all and the effect was pleasing both to the eye and something deeper Ruben felt. Ruben realised that the garden had been very carefully planned and as with many things that of late are coming to his attention he had not taken much notice. Ruben and Rachel had not been up here for a long time and he was convinced that Rusty would never have ventured up here.
He moved to the safety rail on the western edge of the roof and took in this particular view over the city. He could not view much by looking due north as there was an even taller building next to theirs, which was a disappointment because that part of the panorama that included the city’s jewels, the Opera House and the Harbour Bridge facing each other across the blue water could only be imagined. The diminutive ferries ploughed back and forth this loveliest of all harbors like amphibious draft horses past Goat Island to Mort Bay and beyond leaving the white-washed furrows in the wake behind. He saw the complicated concrete slipways soaring over Sussex St and Darling Harbour past Iron Cove with a glimpse of the Anzac Bridge with its enormous ‘a’ frames and suspension cables. In the foreground, the burgeoning Barangaroo Casino building site with its monstrous cranes and thrusting gantry’s puncturing the sky with their payloads of hubris beyond compare; a billionaire’s priapic dream of glittering prizes and dirty money brought to our insouciant shores to be cleansed by the fall of a card or the circumnavigation of a roulette wheel.
Further to the left could be seen Central Station, Broadway and the entrée to densely populated shires in the south-west. Ruben had this broad view west and south and need only turn to observe the ancient eastern suburbs that stacked up onto each other like a cubist painting as they stretched out to The Domain, the Finger Wharves and past Woolloomooloo into the beautiful blue harbour and out to the twin headlands. He could turn back a little to his right and look up to Potts Point Hill, into The Cross, Darlinghurst and beyond via the traffic jammed conduit of William St.
All of this seemed to Ruben a revelation, as if he was seeing it for the first time.
-Rather spectacular, isn’t it?
Rod had joined him at the railing and they both looked out over the expanse of the city with the wonder of children because no one could remain unaffected by the power and immensity of such a sight. A single cloud sailed the ocean of clear blue sky. It seemed to be ambling towards them but it was white and diaphanous, not a portentous cloud, one with no particular objective but to provide a modicum of fleeting shade for the earthlings below.
The two men looked down towards the park and watched the tiny people scurrying about, moving in and out between the trees; crossing from College to Elizabeth streets, from Park to Macquarie streets or just skirting the park altogether via Albert Road on a mission towards Market Street and the opaque translucence of glass and shiny steel business district.
People, mostly busy, purposeful but a few loitering, ambling, admiring the art deco fountain near the park’s northern entrance, some sitting on its edge paddling their hands in the cool of the water. A woman crouches, ministering to an infant, another child in hand and there, three teenagers on bicycles, weaving expertly between the pedestrians along the broad avenue. Men carrying their jackets over their shoulders, briefcases gripped not so firmly as their efforts and thoughts are slowed by the park’s allure. Straight backed, black clad ladies, sensibly shod en-route to the grand department stores to beguile the stylish princesses from the silvery eastern shore. The gardener alighting from his cart extracts his rake and disappears beneath the canopy as lovers emerge into the light holding hands, shortly to be parted for the day’s work ahead.
It was all vague summation, so small yet filled with drama and as such incidentally, unknowingly they saw the even tinier creatures the flying and crawling insects, the small mammals-certainly great pickings for rats furtively dwelling in the invisible orifices of the city, aloft the restless, croaking miner birds, the now silent, sleeping bats inhabiting the dense figs that spread and gripped the earth like giant Jurassic claws. They could both see and not see them, all was indeterminate and yet palpable up in their eerie. For Ruben since his forced retirement, there was some solace in this detachment. On the ground it was real and confusing and of late, as we know, he had become prone to precipitate sorrow.
-I looked but did not see any bees around the plants.
-Ha, and you won’t my dear chap, no flying insects up this high.
-No…you have lived here for how long?
-And you have not noticed that there are no flying insects on your thirteenth floor.
-Well, now that you mention, no I haven’t.
-Wake up and smell the Rose’s my dear fellow…goodness me, where have you been?
-Indeed, I fear so and for this we must seek a cure. Flying insects cannot reach more than a few stories and from there up we are insect immune in our ivory towers. How lucky are we Ruben? They just haven’t the stamina for it. You do, however, get the occasional fly taking a wind elevator and landing on your balcony or even a real elevator but it’s pretty rare.
-So no bees. What about pollination?
-Ah, I only plant self or wind pollinating plants but I have been known to do a bit of manual pollinating, an arduous and exacting task which requires eyes better than mine, I fear….but I do my best.
-You appear to have succeeded by the looks of things.
-It is for others to decide. I will tell you something Ruben, dealing with the natural world opens doors you may not have perceived before. There is calm and solace yet much mystery and complexity if you develop an eye for it.
Ruben glanced at Bascombe and it occurred to him that he had made yet another friend of his own without much trying on his part. He changed his routine and suddenly here and now he knew a man of depth, a man who had mystery and wisdom about him. Perhaps it was too soon to make such rash assumptions but he had a notion of this man.
-Well Ruben I have still a bit to do if I want this garden to survive the rather too clement weather we are experiencing at the moment.
Rod laughed and took Ruben’s hand and asked him to visit him again saying he could be found there most mornings. As they shook hands the lonely white cloud settled a blanket of shade over them.
For two days Ruben holed up in his apartment discomposed by all that he had experienced recently. He moped about out of sorts and somewhat grumpy; a state of affairs that had not gone unnoticed by Rachel and Rusty who kept a wide berth in the hope that his stormy countenance might be shortly becalmed. Immersed in his dreary mood Ruben had not noticed the weather had taken a sharp turn; cold air from the Blue Mountains had descended on the city and brought an icy spark, though the bright sunshine still emerged unhindered.
Eventually Ruben descended and spoke to Abdul in the foyer and after commiserating with him on the matter of unmarried bliss Abdul told him Bascombe had said that they had met.
-Yes, you know Bascombe well Abdul?
-Very well, he is my savior. He is very good man and sometimes strange I think.
-Why is he your savior?
-He has allowed me to share his apartment.
-Goodness! He is a very good and generous man indeed. You know him well then?
-For very a long time Mister Plunder. He hired me to concierge this building and he says he has not one regretful day I have worked here and I am proud to say I have worked here many, many days; more days than I have bothered to count….many thousands I believe.
The lift arrived and a woman with whom Ruben was vaguely acquainted emerged into the foyer and greeted the two men politely as she left. Abdul was particularly solicitous with this woman, accompanying her to the door and wishing her well. She was wearing a winter coat, leggings and high boots. Ruben thought that it was a bit odd that she was dressed so, considering the sunny weather outside.
-It seems strange that I have not met Mr. Bascombe before that day on the roof?
-He does not leave the building very much, I know this. He talks to no one except me and now you….one or three others include lady just left. He was on building strata committee but he is sick of nonsense, he say. He say they are like a bunch of angry cats in a bag, although I fail understand this. Why put cat in a bag, of course it become angry?
-Yes. So he said he was here when the building was built.
-He was first owner and builder.
-Pardon, are you saying he was the builder?
-Yes and he design. He was architect. He is remarkable man Mr. Plunder and he knows many things, mystery things, he know Kaballah and study Ruhani.
-I don’t know what that is Abdul.
-Kaballah is magic and Ruhani ancient Arabic texts within which the magic lies. I am translate; it is old Arabic and difficult but I manage.
The volume of Abdul’s voice lowered considerably when he spoke of the Kaballah but he could not mask his pride. As he was about to leave on his constitutional Abdul said that he believed Ruben to be not adequately attired for the weather. He wore chinos and a voluminous pull on shirt he picked up at the medina in Marrakech, an item of clothing he bought on Rachel’s urging who said that it allowed ample room for his burgeoning girth. A rather rakish crumpled old straw hat protected his pale dome.
Ruben started on his usual route around the park. The traffic was particularly snarly, the Peugeots and Hyundais were heated and irritable and the Fords were positively fuming; the sleek black Chryslers were, however, purring with self-satisfaction as the sweaty, Lycra clad cyclists plied the dangerous ravines between the vehicles. The ever queuing buses always angrily, screeching and jolting at everything that crossed their paths, providing the occupants with ambit concussions or frozen shoulders along with an exceedingly unpleasant mode of transport. Meanwhile beneath his feet the metro rumbled darkly as they exhaled through the dark tunnels of the underworld.
Ruben felt unsettled by recent events. He tried to ignore the slapping slipstream of the street and the harried pedestrians who all appeared to be bearing down on him as if he were going the wrong way; he often felt he was doing that nowadays, he doubted his intentions. A lack of conviction, of determination enveloped his perambulations so that no path was entirely clear. He found himself walking slowly and deliberately for this reason, attempting in some way to to extract some dignity from the insidious distractions enveloping his mind. Habit alone, it seemed brought him to his destinations as if he were an inveterate passenger on an airport travelator.
What caused him to go to the roof instead of the street the other day or more importantly, what made him feel as if he were an observer in his own life? What was it that saw him having familiar experiences which nonetheless made him feel as if he was ingenuously embarking on some new and not entirely safe adventure. It was within the grip of such a state of mind that he found himself at the same place near the southern entrance to the park and once again he diverted his walk to approach the garden beds beside the metro station. The bees were busy as usual harvesting the nectar gently tickling the open, lascivious stamens which swayed like svelte ballerinas in the breeze. He sat on the bench seat once again, his eyes itched momentarily but he was not overwhelmed this time.
Before he knew it a half hour had passed and he shook himself from the ghost of absence and stood to leave.
-I see you have returned to the bees.
Nukia was walking up the path from the metro station. She held a crisp white plastic carry bag which appeared to contain a recent purchase. A leather satchel with a long strap graced her right shoulder so that the satchel rested on her left hip. This time Ruben was able to take in her appearance without the veil of tears. She had short black hair styled in the way some modish boys like it; a long bang at the front and layered at the back. Rusty had a similar hairdo. She had on a short black leather jacket and dark blue jeans with black and green leather plimsolls with red laces. A pair of red framed glasses perched on a long straight nose and she wore no makeup on her olive skin except what looked like gloss on her full lips. She had an attractive, slim almost boyish figure. Ruben could think of only one word that summed up the this somehow jarring vision – exotic. He guessed she was around thirty five years old. He rose and shook hands with her and he noted she had a firm grip, not in any way ladylike.
-Ah, you have caught me in a slightly better mood Nukia.
-Have these fellows divulged any further mysteries…..it’s Robin isn’t it?
-Excuse me, I was close don’t you think?
Ruben felt a strong connection to this unusual woman. She spoke affably with a resonant and deep voice for a woman; a kind of ironic inflection lit it with a child-like mischief. Her accent only enhanced this sense of playfulness.
-As for the bees, no more revelations as yet but they are dependable and benevolent don’t you think although sometimes they seem to sway a bit as if intoxicated…look, like that one.
-You know what I think they are drunk with the nectar Ruben!
-It appears so.
-Where do you live Ruben?
She looked straight at him at him with this quizzical expression, one which disarmed and confused him slightly.
-What! You live here?
-No, no I mean over there, across the road and down towards Market Street…an apartment. Would you like to go for a coffee?
The reader may be thinking right now that some sexy things may be about to happen but alas you would be wrong and you may feel insufficiently titillated by this revelation. Some sexy things have already happened, but this is not going to turn into one of those.
They started walking through the park towards the Parks and Elizabeth streets intersection and Ruben began to feel cold suddenly. He shivered and Nukia glanced over but shrugged and pressed the button at the traffic lights.The interminable traffic growled along like a conga line of lazy beetles puffing invisible poisons from their behinds. As Ruben waited with a clutch of other assorted people, a small old lady dressed in a disparate ensemble of several layers and pushing a supermarket kart, arrived beside Ruben. She had opened a tattered notebook and started urgently writing across the pages noting down her observations like a renaissance traveler fearful of losing the thread of experience . Ruben looked over curious to know what it was she was writing down. He saw familiar words that appeared to be conjunctions but it was mostly a fluid, unpunctuated river of unknowable determination. He was gripped with a need to know what the old lady saw that he could not.
The traffic lights changed to permit them to walk but Ruben and the old lady stayed where they were. Nukia, who had started crossing stopped and returned as Ruben started speaking to the bag lady. She looked up at him. Her eyes were blue and crystal clear like a placid lake and he felt himself being drawn into them, swimming in their warm embrace.
-Can I ask you what it is you are writing about?
-These are not my words but the words of others. I cannot know what they mean, I just write them down. They are always there and I merely write them while I wait.
The old lady glanced over at her trolley and Ruben realized the bulk of her belongings consisted of assorted cheap notebooks, exercise books and loose sheets of paper all of which were covered with her writing. She spoke with an educated enunciation that belied her appearance.
Ruben knew that this person was as delusional as the other dancers to different drummers he had seen wobbling about the park like disabled pigeons but he wanted to believe in some kind of magic right then, a magic that did not include his own self-consciousness but embraced the other worldly, the ineffable. It was within the lives of such people, who stood outside the rumblings of the subway and the somnambulist’s in their skyscrapers. He wanted access to the kind of magic that saw bees returning to the hives; mankind claiming their little bit of space in the cracks between the stars, their hidden cubicles of peace; prehistoria resurrected, flesh upon long dead bones; the whole of earths footprint in the universe altered. He was drawn back momentarily into the long silenced recesses of memory.
In 1967 Ruben Plunder did two things he had been meaning to do for a while. Firstly he released a long pent up anxiety by inexpertly losing his virginity and then decided to celebrate by leaving school at his earliest convenience and before he had matriculated. Ruben’s mother and father were not informed of the former event but of the latter. They had much to say with turbulent wringing of hands and arguments raised for an alternative view, with one of his teachers ominously suggesting that it would not be wise to embark on adulthood with regret. All this was punctuated by his cynical older sister, now in her final year at university, telling him it was an excellent idea because he was too young and stupid for school, which he resented for its facetious accuracy. In any case he could not endure the thought of another long hot summer in the arid wilderness that was the Western Suburbs. The excitement of the big brash city to the east awaited callow, cow-licked boys just like him and he was not about to disappoint it.
In those days one either attended a tertiary institution or one became employed. Nobody contemplated the possibility of sojourning on the dole then, the ‘pool of unemployment’ was a phrase not yet coined. He knew that as soon as he could afford it he was moving to the city. He worked at a variety of process jobs including a stint at a confectionery company called Macklens. The huge grey factory scowled on a hilltop overlooking a suburb with the elaborate name of Mars Field, separated by a dismal little creek in the densely wooded valley below. This geographical arrangement served the factory well as it was quietly and efficiently able to dispose of its pollutants into the creek with nary an eye batted nor lip pursed. It was a long time ago; green was just a colour then and not a movement.
He applied for the job accompanied by his best friend at the time, Andrew and they were set to work immediately. Following a brief guided tour of the place by the white-coated and hair netted production manager, Andrew was given the job of watching a huge cauldron sat upon a concrete plinth and punctuated by an elaborate network of pipes and pulleys that mixed and boiled the fragrantly minty ingredients to be spat out and turned into actual Lifebuoys, a small round minty confection, somewhere in the bowels of the factory below. From that day on Andrew boasted to anybody who listened that he ‘put the holes in the Lifebuoys’ which was a gilding of the truth that afforded him some amused notoriety. They never did get to discover how the holes were created.
Ruben, on the other hand, was made to stand at the bottom of a long brass chute and catch a hot sticky mess of molten toffee and peanuts with a big aluminum platter and deliver it to the ladies on the process line. This happy gaggle of mainly migrant women transformed the stuff by means of an array of templates and guillotines into little oblongs of ‘peanut brittle’. Occasionally he was ordered up to the source of the peanut goo to assist the mixers. The first time he was sent up the steep steel steps he was amazed to find burly, sweating men in their singlets stirring the mixture in rotating brass kettles the size of and similar in appearance to mechanical cement mixers. Vast piles of bagged sugar and peanuts were crammed into the space beside the mixers, the contents of which along with immense slabs of butter, were poured into the kettles kept at constant scorching temperatures. Ruben’s job was to pierce the bags and feed the gaping mouths of the kettles. It was hot and strenuous work causing him some mental pause as to recent life choices.
Most of the big men were friendly but one was not. He barely acknowledged Ruben’s presence and he went at his job with a bitter resentment all the time chewing and chewing his raw materials, the peanuts. He fiercely and habitually uttered one sentence in a language Ruben could not understand. He asked one of the other mixers why he was so angry and was told that Evander was a successful architect in Czechoslovakia but he was forced to flee the Nazis in 1938 and this had caused him much unhappiness. This was all they had learned about the surly Czech although a Hungarian line worker was able to give a rough translation of the words he spat out to all and sundry. It was ‘fuck you sideways.’
The world awaited Ruben or so he thought, at the very least the city was waiting and the city was the epitome of culture and the place he was meant to be. From its tall buildings to its pokey little back streets and beautiful harbour he loved it all and desired to make it his. The composition was changing rapidly but there were pockets of the old city still to be seen and one of those was an old Georgian building he walked into to apply for a job was that of William Thames and Son Booksellers.
Thames, no longer exists, having been replaced with a particularly ugly high rise, but in its heyday it was the most successful of the few second-hand bookshops dotted around Sydney. Its location helped. It was a short walk from Circular Quay in busy uptown George Street and it sported a very well stocked art materials store downstairs, attracting all the famous artists of the day. In the late sixties and through the seventies the city was under permanent re-construction. The long and tumultuous construction of the Opera House was nearly completed. There was a palpable air of optimism on the streets.
As soon as he crossed the threshold he knew that this would be a safe haven for him. Young Mister Thames interviewed him. He was William Thames the Younger and he was not much older than Ruben. He wore thick, black-framed spectacles, he was quite handsome nevertheless but this was corrected by a disability which had caused the left side of his body to be partially paralysed and Ruben felt helpless with pity when he first met him. As it turned out he seemed to be oblivious to his bodily malfunction and got by quite well. He was quiet and serious but a pleasant person as well and Ruben liked him very much. However, during his period of employment there, it was William Thames the Elder who hung like a shadow over the grim Dickensian portal of Thames and Son and who loomed stern and remote while grooming his son to take on the onerous responsibility of managing the store on his own. Ruben discovered that Thames senior had plans to retire to his gloomy manse in Mosman when William junior was sufficiently schooled.
William, who asked Ruben to call him Bill, took him around the store to introduce him to the staff. There was Audrey, a defiant looking but pretty woman slouched at her little booth near the entrance to the store. She greeted him with a strong London accent; Ruben found the raised vowels strangely thrilling. Next he made the acquaintance of Adelaide, a tall, plain person of perhaps forty. She wore sombre clothes and held herself erect but she had a gentle demeanor and with a warm smile she made Ruben welcome.
William took Ruben down the staircase adjacent to the store’s entrance where he met Ronnie who ran the art supplies department. Along with the brushes, easels and paints one small wall between rooms stood a locked case full of carefully stacked daguerreotypes. Ronnie explained that there was quite a decent trade in the precious glass images. Next there was Gordon, a dapper little man who greeted him from a ladder on the first floor. He turned his head, his hands laden with a hard bound book in each, and issued a ‘welcome aboard, lud’ with a wink followed by a violent collision of the two books.
Once introductions were over and he had shown me around the store William informed Ruben of his duties which included the selling of books and when not selling books dusting the shelves. There was a little station located at the entrance to the room known as ‘Fiction A to M’ at which he was to finalise the sales. A till without a cash register resided under the bench along with a feather duster, a receipt book and some pens. A to M was a large, narrow and gloomy room. Row upon row of bookshelves lined all the walls. Ruben wondered how on earth the top shelves might be accessed when young Mister William peremptorily pointed into the gloom at the back of his new domain and there loomed an A-framed wooden stepladder especially designed for the purpose.
-Never let the customer climb the steps Ruben, we are not insured for it. This will be one of your tasks.
William smiled with a bit of a lopsided wink, which indicated that he thought the rule absurd but, nevertheless, must be obeyed. As it turned out customers would invariably be found ‘dangerously’ up the ladders ignoring the dire warning signs in every room and no ‘member of staff’ ever to his knowledge, requested that the offender descend the apparatus. Quite the contrary, they admired such courage. Ruben loved the ladders because he was sure that if there was to be a literary ‘find’ it was surely to be found at the very peak of the Thames edifice. On more than one occasion he was seen fingering the cracked and dusty spines, pouring over one arcane volume or another, instead of busily dusting, dusting, dusting.
As Ruben discovered, dust was the constant companion of the bookseller and book dust was unique in both odour and physicality. He immediately became aware that booksellers were at war with the dark and satanic legions of dust. By day they challenged the cursed motes and bunnies with the whiplash of their steely feather dusters. They roamed the lowly rancid marshes and the serried poisoned peaks searching out their prey with merciless and relentless fury. Alas, by night their silent and tenacious enemy would regroup and rally upon the defenceless Penguins, the wretched McMillans not to mention the weary and beaten spines of Harper and Collins.
He came to Thames with a sense that he had arrived at a gentle berth. He was happy to be there; after all what greater honour could there be than to serve those who read. He would stand resolute beside the stool at his station behind the tiny counter waiting to serve and to seek knowledge. He stood as much as he could rather than sat on the stool because the boss, Mister William Thames the Elder believed it was inappropriate to be slouching about on a stool. ‘What would the customers think?’ He would regularly direct at delinquent staff with eyebrow-arching odium.
Which is precisely what Ruben wanted to know. He was keenly interested in what the few customers that graced the esteemed and ancient portal thought. What, precisely, brought them into this store of shadows and dusty words in the first place when the world outside was filled with new light, new air and the promise, perchance of a smile from a pretty girl. He was, nonetheless, fascinated by this bookish environment and Ruben greatly romanticized the profession but he was young and it is the prerogative of the young to have these romantic notions.
Audrey, on the other hand, would not stand beside her stool. Oh no, she sat, wilfuly defiant. She maintained a grim and unforgiving countenance in an unsuccessful attempt to disguise her natural beauty. She dressed in a concoction of what appeared to be widows weeds, baggy lace garments the likes of which he was sure he had seen in his mother’s undies drawer in a fever of adolescent irregularity. Audrey chose to top and tail her flinty defiance with fedora’s and tooled cowboy boots.
-Why provide a fucking stool, if it was not to be sat on.
She imparted to Ruben one day. She did not see bookselling in the same romantic light he did; rather Mister Thames the Elder was merely another ‘fat industrialist exploiting the noble proletariat in “the dark satanic mills” and subsequently undermining nature and the human spirit in one ghastly flick of the duster. Is it any wonder Ruben fell for her. He didn’t stand a chance, besides she quoted Blake and that alone set her apart from other women he had known. He ignored the clear evidence that Mister Thames the elder was neither fat nor an industrialist unless you were of the persuasion that the violent displacement of dust was an industry.
Ruben gormlessly watched this gorgeous but dishevelled woman in awe of her bravado, thrilling at her use of the procreative expletive of which he was so fond, although never proclaimed himself. He watched her theatrical eyebrows arch, her thespian lips purse with disapproval as she blasphemed the relatively harmless Thames the Elder.
-Ridiculous old fart, walking around with the entire fucking Encyclopaedia Britannica up his arse; I have never seen that monstrosity smile or, in fact, emit any emotion other than one of disappointment…if that is an emotion.
Then she looked to Ruben for a sympathetic response and she must have known then he was full of uncertain longing. He looked away embarrassed, of course. He actually believed he was an open book and that people were able to read his mind merely by looking into his eyes, the reflective well of his secrets. So he invariably averted his gaze.
She was a great girl and she laughed and punched him lightly on the arm one lunch time.
-Come on Ruben let’s blow this joint, I’ve got the munchies.
She said in her cockney accent. He was so much in awe of her. Her unconventionality filled him with longing more than her body did, though her small but impudent breasts were not without their charms. She seemed so brave and honest and he fell in love with that really. She was an aspiration, a symbol of contrariness that he so wished to emulate himself.
The most unconventional thing Ruben did in those days was to wear corduroy pants. This was, he considered, an earnest message to the world that he was bucking the system. He was a wild libertine running around in his outrageous corduroys. His parents deeply disapproved of corduroy, as they believed it was the fabric most worn by navvies and even preferred by the devil himself if ever he deigned to be seen about town. This was like a red rag to a bull and a silent procreative expletive darted from his eyes and, of course, they were defenceless against it, withering away into the living room as he trounced out to meet the world head-on, a la corduroy. It was fabric of choice for his trousers from then on. He thought this was the epitome of modernity and may well be his entré into the glamorous world of the glitterati. He eventually added a corduroy jacket with leather elbow pads and sported a pipe to complete the suave look of a massively interesting person. At this time, however, he could only afford the pants. Cheap ones from Lowes, two blocks downtown from Thames, where the navvies bought their clothes.
Notwithstanding his fantasies Ruben was really just a boy from the western suburbs getting a bit above himself in the big city; writing sad poems in his private moments and obediently standing beside his stool, endlessly straightening books in their shelves that nobody would read; providing change for the shapeless ghosts that traipsed in and mooched about the remanded bins. He was the epitome of the callow youth and when he saw the photographs his mother had of him from that time it is a view of a wan boy with hooded, dark confused eyes, a cowlick and a desperate smudge of pale fuzz above his upper lip.
Ruben was a bit out of time, out of place; in his mind he resided in an époque of grand and polite gestures, of fresh and innocent design. He wanted to be Oscar Wilde, not exactly a sodomite as his proclivities lie elsewhere or an imbiber of absinthe because he might embarrass himself irretrievably as an addict, but an urbane, dazzling gadabout nonetheless. He could imagine himself the confidante of beautiful heiresses and the toast of any soiree with his glib but brilliant phrasing and perfect delivery and of course sartorially blessed in his corduroys.
Alas, this was not to be for when he looked at those photographs he saw a somewhat frightened, painfully shy young man who was always looking for new ways to appear insignificant. Bringing attention to himself was anathema to his very soul. He would run a mile from the mere hint of a public speaking suggestion. He was a keen observer though and learned a lot from looking and listening. He had one thing that seemed to be in his favour, however. Girls liked Ruben, which was just as well because he liked girls… a lot and it did not take too long before he and the comely Audrey were between the sheets.
Because William Thames and Son Bookshop was the most well-known purveyor of rare books in the city and indeed the country, their dim rooms would, occasionally, be graced by the presence of an eminent person or two. A retired governor general wandered in one day although he would not have known him from the rest of the distracted, lonely blow-ins on their lunch break. Gordon pointed him out to Ruben and added he was filthy rich but he looked, for all the world, like a bit of an old derelict and when Ruben refuted this preposterous assertion Gordon said.
-Watch and learn wee boyo.
Whereupon, his mentor walked up to the old man and addressing him by his appellation in his very best Scottish brogue said.
-How are yee to-dee (Sir So and So); could a be uf service ta yee?
The ragged looking man looked down at the diminutive and sartorially splendid Scot rather snootily.
-Why yes young man.
Was the plummiest of replies
-I have reason to believe you have a first edition of ‘The Origin of Species’ by Charles Darwin in reasonably good order.
He then gazed into the middle distance as if expecting the immediate appearance of the said tome. Gordon did, indeed scurry off in search of Mister W. Thames the Elder. The ex-governor general was completely oblivious to the impression the tableau of these two men might have on an observer. On the one hand a skinny stooping, unshaven old man in a threadbare suit and beside him a small, neat immaculately dressed Scot who in fact was a mere few years younger than himself. The man was obviously addled beyond measure.
Mister W. Thames the Elder was the only person permitted to acquaint the customers with the rare books. He had keys to the array of glass cabinets that graced the hall adjacent to his office on the second floor. When Mister Thames walked the dim corridors and climbed the dusty steps of his establishment a little bell tinkled along with him. A little warning to all and sundry that one must look sharp because the great man approached. Even the customers seemed to stand more respectfully when the great man passed by. This bell was attached to the set of keys on a chain and enclosed in the fob of his vest. Ruben never saw him without the fob or the vest although once he did see him jacketless on a particularly hot day and he had no doubt he probably felt practically naked.
Within these locked cabinets languished an astonishing and valuable collection of rare old books. There was an occasion that he was permitted to be present when Mister W. Thames the Elder removed, white gloved, the large format first and limited edition of ‘The Magic Pudding’ by Norman Lindsay, an absolutely priceless book worth a small fortune. He only glimpsed a few pages but he nearly wept when it was withdrawn from his gaze and placed carefully back in the cabinet and he was dismissed.
He would look longingly into the cabinet at the spine of this book whenever he passed the cabinets and can now only regret that he did not have the temerity to ask the dreadful old trout if he could look more closely at the beautiful volume. Mister W Thames the Elder was so overbearingly proud and proprietorial in regard to his collection that he probably would have consented to a chaperoned and be-gloved viewing. In Ruben’s own time, of course but he never acquired the necessary courage to prevail upon his majesty.
The bookshop was a magnet for the lonely and the odd, both customers and employees. Gordon the Scot was a good illustration of how those otherwise spurious notions of national traits can sometimes be completely accurate. He was ‘as tight as a fleas bum’ as Audrey would say. Audrey despised the very ground Gordon walked on and it was very fortunate that they were, for the most part separated by their mandated location in the store.
Gordon resided on the first floor and his presence anywhere could be confirmed with the sound of the violent smashing of books together in the aisles. Although our dusters were forever on standby, taking two books from the shelves and slapping them together as hard as you could to dislodge the dust was the preferred manner of dusting at Thames. Not a great deal of thought went into the eventual resting place for the dislodged dust. Ruben’s suspicion was that it roamed around a bit, somewhat gratified by a bit of an airing, and then settled itself comfortably back from whence it came. Gordon was a very prodigious and enthusiastic book slapper.
One would invariably walk past the stairwell and glance up at Gordon’s domain to a racket of loud book slapping and plumes of dust that would so obscure the first floor. One could be forgiven for thinking that a re-enactment of the London blitz was taking place here in uptown George Street and gas masks may be shortly required, which in reality would be an entirely appropriate response as the plumes assailed those below decks. God knows what the customers thought; any idle thought of broaching the upper reaches of Thames and Son’s mysterious aisles might end in a swift exit on hearing and viewing the cacophony from the relative safety at the bottom of the stairwell. Mister Thames the Elder was no doubt aware of the literary vengeance the little Scot applied upstairs but strangely did nothing.
For reasons he could not fully understand Ruben quite liked Gordon and he in turn, always had the time of day for Ruben. He was his bookselling mentor giving Ruben entrée into the strange, albeit dusty world of the second hand book trade. A trade which he had plied also in Edinburgh before he emigrated as a ten pound Scot with his wife and two children in 1952. Ruben, however, was more interested in Gordon the man. What was this nuggetty, furious little man about with his magnificent shock of red hair, which belied his age; his red, permanently grimacing face and his very keen attention to dress and appropriate behaviour? He came to work looking in every way a man born to the city. He actually owned beautiful clothes; even a corduroy wearer like Ruben could see they were of very good quality. He wore tailored suits in colours that suited his fair skin and excellent brogues on his feet and he often wore a camel hair overcoat, a great little trilby hat that would be considered fashionable today and always carried an umbrella and a briefcase ‘just in case luddie’. In the briefcase he had his morning paper, which he read on the train from Hillsdale, a suburb not far from the city. He also had his lunch and a thermos of tea in the briefcase. Occasionally he would share his tea with Ruben at morning break if he could find a mug.
Ruben also carried a briefcase to work but no items of food could be found in it, ever. He had his novel or novels he was reading at the time, some writing materials in case the muse approached, some rolling tobacco, his trusty Zippo lighter and secreted away a condom or two. It should be remembered, that in 1969 one could smoke oneself and everybody else to death with impunity and as a bonus fornicate ones-self silly, for AIDS was not even imagined although, I am sorry to say, the occasional NSU was.
Gordon told Ruben a bit about his life, his wife and his two girls who were grown up and married and who supplied him with grand-children on whom he obviously doted. He married late in his thirties and then promptly went to war to ‘Barnie th’ bludy hin‘. He inherited the bookshop in Edinburgh from his father after the war and apparently ran it quite well despite the fact that he had little interest in reading apart from the newspaper. It turned a small profit and they had a reasonably quiet life for a few years until a fire in the baker’s next door burnt his shop to the ground and he discovered he had no insurance, a blight from thence forward referred to by Gordon as ‘white muns budden’.
Eventually he and his family made it to Sydney and he found work pretty much straight away first at the University Co-op Bookshop at Sydney University and then after an altercation with his boss, the details of which are murky although Ruben believed it did involve a professor of Irish poetry who was actually an Oxford don on sabbatical, a hefty anthology of the minor English poets and the launching of the same at the “blaady bratish coont” as Gordon put it “he wa er complit bastid, a tossa of the fist wota”. His boss gave him a vaguely ambivalent reference and sent him packing straight into the waiting arms of William Thames and Son Booksellers and there he had stayed slapping away angrily ever since.
He came to work one day a bit out of sorts. As we sat down for afternoon tea Ruben asked…
-What’s the matter Gordon? Cat got your tongue?
-Wot…ah weel laddie aw these noo fangled appliances tha weer aboot these dees
He told me that he had an argument with his wife after she indicated she wanted to buy a vacuum cleaner. He, in turn, reasoned that she could continue to take the carpets out and hang them on the washing line to beat the living crap out of.
-Those vacum clenner thingamajigs will weir tha blewdy carperts oot in nu tim ut ul and ten he wud be oop fa noo carperts for Christus’s sak.
It appeared that dust, for Gordon, was a constant and reliable companion, along-side his hard earned readies.
–Ur ye gonnae come tae lunch oan sunday lud. Et be Robba Buns birthdee and th guidwife es makin’ haggis with neeps-n-tatties. It’ll be a reit bludy fist tae be sure.
Gordon pronounced one Friday morning over another thermos of the black tar. Catching his breath following a tentative sip of the appalling stew he called ‘char’ Ruben wondered what he meant. He just managed to get the bit about lunch but who or what was Robba Buns and what on earth was haggis, neeps and tatties. Was it something one consumed or some regalia they were to dress up in for the purposes of celebrating this fellow Buns’ birthday? Was Mister Buns a much admired neighbour who was to accompany us as the guest of honour as we all dressed in our finery of birthday haggis adorned with the customary neeps and tatties? It was all a mystery to Ruben but he did not want to appear ignorant.
–Weel dornt answer reit awa’ laddie.
He said gruffly and not without an air of displeasure.
–Ye can rin’ me oan th’ telephain tonecht but Th’ haggis takes a bit ay makin’ and tay wif well nid a beer ay notis”.
-I will be there Gordon and thanks to you and your wife for the invitation”
Ruben replied and he hoped his sense of trepidation was not apparent. How could he refuse as Missus Gordon was going to so much trouble busily knocking out haggis at her sewing machine for the party goers not to mention dragging the carpets out to be thoroughly pounded.
-For Christ’s sake Ruben, you’re going to lunch with the little fucker?
-Look Audrey, we will have to disagree about Gordon. I like the ‘little fucker’ and you are not going to dissuade me from going to his place for lunch. Why is this a problem for you? He is a good man and if you just gave him a chance you might be surprised by…
-Surprised, surprised by what? He is a psychotically enraged immigrant, tight arsed Scottish prick who hates the very idea of…well an idea! Not only that but he is unbearably obsequious. Every time Thames the bloody elder makes an appearance he is up his arse like a rat up a drainpipe.
A pregnant pause ensued……
-You know, you really surprise me Ruben.
She looked askance at him and by that I mean that suspicious, sideways look that only Audrey could produce. It was a look that she knew could break his heart. They were lying in bed at four a.m. on Sunday morning after a night of magnificent, heroic carousing, drinking and basically very dangerous behaviour, having driven completely pissed from The Orient pub in the rocks to Audrey’s digs in Balmain. He steeled himself against the usually overwhelming tides of her disapproval.
-You might do well to remember that the Scots have been under the thumb of you Brits for a fucking millennia. Perhaps really you are csustaining some kind of national guilt trip or you are just being wilfully unkind and might I add naïve!
Audrey had now reached a zenith of fury.
-O right…unkind am I. A bum fluffed fucking hic from the suburbs thinks I am naive. Jesus, you are just out of high school, you fucking twat. At least I have had a tertiary education…Jesus, you’re just a complete arsehole aren’t you?
Once again the askance look but he had become uncomfortably tumescent by now and he knew from experience that this exchange could go either way. But Ruben forged on regardless of his chances of actually getting any limb mingling that morning. He decided to invest all in the traditional combative manoeuvre.
-One could hardly presume a second year NIDA dropout as having had a ‘tertiary education.
At this her eyes met Ruben’s with a hurt and violent gaze. She looked as if she could plunge Macbeth’s dagger squarely into his heart. His expected sexual dividend plummeted with his erection. The game was up and he braced himself.
-You fucking prick, you puissant, wet fucking hypocrite. How dare you presume to know what I have been through…you have no fucking idea.
-Please enlighten me.
With Ruben’s penis safely relaxing like a shy snail beneath the shrubbery, his bravado was a loose cannon. This was obviously the beginnings of a bear market so it was a case of in for a penny, in for a pound.
-O, fuck off.
At this she turned over and within minutes was snoring grumpily. He lay in sullen silence until he spoke again, nudging her to wake her up.
-Fuck….wa. What is it now; you can forget about fucking me.
-I think I am in love with you Audrey”
She turned over and stared into his eyes as if he was about to be her next meal.
-And I think you might be mistaken. I suggest that you may be confusing what you are feeling for a real experience. See, you think that now you are having these delusions about being all grown up, your emotional vacancy can be excused
She knew how to apply the knife did Audrey.
Gordon died just before tea break the following morning. It was a Friday and Saturday was the date planned for the Gaelic soiree at Hillsdale. Gordon entered Thames looking moderately less fiery than usual. He was dressed in his customary suit but on this occasion sported a cravat. This was 1970 after all so cravats were enjoying a revival with the mods. John and Merrivale’s ‘In Shop’ had opened in the city at this time and Ruben had definitely considered a cravat. He had already purchased a puffy shirt with incredibly long pointy collar so a cravat was a mere pay packet away. He was pretty sure, however, that this momentary fashion lapse had not informed Gordon’s use of the neck cloth.
At the time Ruben was serving a customer and anticipating the imminent electro-therapy of brackish tea. Today he had bought some pastries to enjoy with the brew or at the very least to moderate the contents of Gordon’s Thermos. It was July and as cold as a ‘wetch’s hottentots’ as Gordon was heard to utter as he arrived that morning. Late for work again, Ruben was a tad sheepish and a whole lot hung-over. He had not dressed appropriately. It was standing room only on the ferry, at least it was warm indoors but by the time it had pulled into the Circular Quay terminus he was reluctant to disembark. He considered staying on the ferry and returning to his bed. He ruminated on this possibility and waiting until everybody had got off, followed them with callow resignation.
Pastries purchased at the terminus café, he made his way into the mad rush and bustle that was the city. Buses inched up the Alfred Street terminal to engorge themselves with the cities workforce for the offices and shops lining Pitt, Castlereagh and George. Cold, pinch-faced and withdrawn, the milling commuters clambered aboard the doubled-decked green and yellow leviathans as Ruben pushed his way forward against a bitter wind whistling up George Street. Walking in the door to Thames shivering and clutching his thin jacket tightly around him, immediately receiving a withering look from Audrey who was stacking books into a remainder bin. He shrugged off his jacket to hang beside hers. He joined her at the bin and sheepishly smiled, hoping for appeasement. She glanced at Ruben and spoke quietly.
-Audrey please ..I…
He didn’t finish because Bill stood near the shop entrance and stared with his innocent smile that suggested a forlorn but faint hope that we might go about our business… or his business really. She spoke again firmly with a furtive glance towards the boss in her wonderful accent sounding even more cockney than usual. He adored her all the more because even in her anger and her hung-over state she was the picture of loveliness; his English rose albeit slightly limp from their furious excesses with the remnants of the Sydney ‘Push’ the night before.
-Listen, I’m still cross with you…don’t talk to me.
-I’m sorry you know, I was drunk and stupid.
-Will you have lunch with me…we could walk around to the Botanical Gardens.
-Look, just piss-off will you.
She glanced up at me then and said less harshly.
She moved off before finishing but at least he knew there was hope yet. He nodded guiltily at Bill and passed Adelaide with a smile. At the bottom of the steps to the first floor he heard Gordon book-banging away. At this time of the day Thames was not busy although one or two regulars often appeared at the doors before opening in the hope of a look at a first edition that may have arrived or a hopeful rummage through the shelves en-route to work.
Ronnie asked Bill if he could pinch me to assist him downstairs in the art department. Ruben was accustomed to this as it was becoming more regular, eventually migrating downstairs permanently. Ronnie was a pudgy, middle-aged ‘bachelor’ given to gossip and bitchiness but his sense of humour redeemed him and he often had Ruben laughing at his bad double entendres and outrageous but observant character assassinations. Ruben later discovered that he also happened to have one of the best private modern art collections in Australia.
-See to Mister Whiteley and treat him with the respect he is due young Ruben.
At the time he didn’t have a clue who Whiteley was but he certainly did not look the type that would require one to defer to him. He was wearing paint-smeared paisley tights and a black fez over a mop of radiating blond curls. He was a nice man, quite playful and he made Ruben feel at ease immediately. While he ordered rather a large quantity of oil paint he asked Ruben if he painted and Ruben told him he wanted to be a poet after which he thought a bit and chose a tube of Madder Rose and then he said that either you are a poet or not. It is not something you become. He said it in a kind, distracted way but Ruben did, momentarily despair.
When Whiteley left, Ruben made a mental note to tell Audrey he was a poet and not trying to be one. As he was imagining her response of ‘Christ you’re a wanker’ or ‘you really are a complete tool aren’t you’ he heard a large thud and a lot of running about upstairs followed by a muffled ‘O my God’ from Adelaide. Ronnie and Ruben looked at one another. We both knew that Adelaide was the most undemonstrative person on earth and new something serious was going on upstairs. We weren’t about to be left out. As we reached the top of the stairs he saw Bill on the phone speaking urgently, red faced and somewhat crazed. He looked at us at the same time and then with a look of horror, up the stairs to the first floor. Ronnie spoke first.
-O dear, what has happened?
His usual impertinence had escaped him.
Ruben walked tentatively towards the stairs leading up to the first floor and noticed a large book spreadeagled and broken spined on the floor to the right of the first step. The dust was still settling over it and he suddenly felt sick to his stomach. Nearby two people, a man and a woman, were peering up with rather frightened expressions. He could hear crying upstairs and as he made for the stairs he glimpsed the word ‘Byzantium’ on the cracked spine of the fallen book and for some reason this calmed him. It seemed like the most beautiful word he had ever read. Climbing the stairs two at a time he reached the top landing to witness a tableau that was destined to be stuck in his mind forever.
In dust motes of half-light glimmering from a small window high above them Audrey and Adelaide kneeled, heads bowed like supplicants over the reclining body of Gordon. Adelaide held Gordon’s right hand in her left and was stroking it with her right while her tears rolled off her pink nose creating a damp patch on his vest. Audrey, who was also weeping had her left hand under Gordon’s head protecting it as she might a small bird from the dirt of the floor. The back of Audrey’s right hand rested on Gordon’s throat. A gesture that was both clinical and gentle at the same time. So static and yet full of deep emotion was this vision that Ruben held his breath and stood where he was as if frozen to the spot.
The wake was held at Gordon’s home in Hillsdale to which all his colleagues were invited. The sun had deigned to show itself that day and Audrey and Ruben called a truce, albeit tentative. She held his hand as they walked from the bus stop. The leafless ghostly grey Maples that lined the old suburban street made way for the winter warmth. Starlings flittered about in the spindly limbs. They were a bit early so they stopped at a tiny park adjacent to the railway track and sat on a weathered old bench seat for a while. For once they were not hung-over and they talked companionably about nothing of consequence until Audrey moved close and put her arm through his.
-Did you mean it when you said you were in love with me.
Nukia and Ruben were about to enter the little café next door to his building when Abdul rushed up to them.
-Mister Plunder you must come at once please, it is Mister Bascombe.
-What has happened Abdul?
-Please come now and this lady, please help.
…….to be continued