Originally published in On The Ledge of the World – Visible Ink, Issue 25, 2013.
Red and black. The faded colour of the old man’s footy jacket. Head down, one hand in his frayed pocket, he limps along Fitzroy Street. His elbow is occasionally jostled by the Sunday afternoon throng, and the cigarette in his gnarled fingers is dropping flakes of ash with each step. He hears a call from up ahead and lifts his head. A smile spreads across his face revealing mottled, brown teeth. There’s a gap in the front where he once tried to prise open a beer cap. He lifts his arm and stiffly waves at a young bloke who is sitting with a bunch of mates outside the Metropol. They’re sipping beers, enjoying the last of autumn’s sunny days.
“Hey Bill. How’s the team going?”
Bill gives him a one-fingered salute. “Ahh, get stuffed. The lot of ya.”
“Come on mate. Only a thirty two point loss yesterday. Things are lookin’ up.” The young bloke guffaws with his mates.
“Shut ya face, ya one-eyed idiot. If ya weren’t such a girl I’d clobber ya.”
“Come on Bill. Have a cold one with us.”
“Nah, me pension’s nearly gone. Catch ya next week maybe.”
“Don’t be an old woman. I’ll shout you one.” The young bloke nudges a mate. “Go on. Get him a pot.”
Bill keeps walking. “I told ya. Get stuffed. I’m not a charity case. Look after meself.” He chucks his cigarette butt in the gutter and plods on.
He waits at the Canterbury Road pedestrian crossing, befuddled by the noise of the traffic. It’s bumper to bumper. Bloody Sunday tourists, he thinks. The lights change and the clacking noise speeds up. The rapid tempo makes him hurry his shuffle, afraid he doesn’t have enough time to reach the safety barrier. He’s just in time to catch the lights and he crosses to the island tram stop. He sits, pulls his jacket closer and squints as he scouts the sky. He eyes the young girl beside him. She’s sucking on a Winfield Blue.
“Weather’s a bit of rough, hey? Sun’s tryin’ hard but the wind’s a bit off.”
The girl looks sideways. Bloodshot eyes peer at him through a black shaggy fringe. He’s about to say something derogatory about her thick eyeliner and the metal studs in her nostril, but he decides to change tack.
“Bot me a ciggy would ya love?”
She sneers at him.
“Come on love. Good lookin’ sort like you must have a kind heart.”
The girl turns and picks up her satchel. He thinks he’s in luck. An eddy of dust flies around them as the tram pulls up. The girl takes a couple of quick drags on her cigarette then discards it on the cement. Her Doc Martens clang on the metal tram steps and Bill watches for a glimpse of knickers beneath her micro skirt. He’s sure they’ll be black. No luck.
He waits for the tram to move off then bends down. “Waste not, want not.” He picks up the cigarette remnant and brushes off a bit of dirt. The black cherry lipstick on the filter doesn’t bother him. “Good as new,” he mumbles and wanders back across to the main strip, puffing on his score.
Down at St Kilda’s Maccas, his grubby hands leave smudges on the plate glass window. His eyes move from table to table watching families and young folk scoffing their prefabricated lunches, put together by pubescent staff with toothy grins, or twenty something’s with grey faces – the result of fronting up to work straight from last night’s rave. He hones in on a lone dad and his son. The chubby pre-teen has insisted on ordering a Big Mac Meal and now he’s having trouble finishing it. Bill watches the dad’s lips move, berating his son while helping himself to the boy’s french fries.
“Don’t force yerself,” Bill mutters. “I’ll help ya out.” He limps around to the entrance and, stepping back to let a gaggle of uniformed netballers spill out the door, he waits patiently then slinks into the restaurant. He seats himself at a table next to the father and son. The father picks up a napkin and wipes mustard sauce off his son’s chin. “Come on, that’s enough. Let’s go.”
Bill is onto their leftovers like a seagull swooping on a hot chip thrown at the beach. He grabs the half eaten hamburger and shoves it in his mouth, then gathers the remaining chips and almost full cup of lemonade and heads back outside. He knows better than to dally and consume his scavenged meal inside. Last week he’d been ejected by the manager after some stupid woman had complained about his rank odour. “What’s ya problem ya fat cow? I wash me face and hands every other day!”
His hunger satiated, he moseys down to the Espy and plonks himself on the front steps. He stares at the mixed crowd. The women in their designer jeans, pink cut-off quilted jackets and the men in their loose shirts, designer t-shirts and suede boat shoes. Bunch of poofs, he thinks. A loud cheer comes from inside as a rock band takes to the stage. The base is thumping and a male voice is screaming indiscernible lyrics. Bunch of crap, he thinks, remembering the buzzing jazz bands that used to draw crowds back in the 60’s, when he would frequent the Snake Pit bar and hang out with the off-duty prostitutes. He could afford to utilise their services in those days. Not anymore.
To his left, a woman stands up and grabs her handbag. “Loo!” she announces to her friend. “Back in a mini.”
“Hang on,” her girlfriend says. “I’ll come with.” She empties her wine glass, pushes her chair back and follows her friend. They’re deliberately oblivious to him, giving him a wide berth, as they climb the stairs. Half way up one of them pauses to speak to a waiter.
“Darls, another bottle of Sav Blanc, please?” She points to their table.
The waiter nods, delivers the meals he’s carrying, and takes an order from another table before going back inside. Bill waits. “Hurry up, hurry up,’” he mutters. He wipes his sweaty palms on his jeans. He’ll need a good grip. Another couple arrive and head for the vacated table. “Oh, I think someone’s still sitting there,” says the female. “How about over there?”
Bill chews on a bitten down fingernail. The waiter reappears with the wine and places it on the women’s table. A patron beckons and he obliges. A bikie coasts past on a Harley. The fat noise of its rumbling exhaust makes all heads turn towards the sound. Bill doesn’t hesitate. His speed belies his arthritic joints as he jumps up, snatches the bottle and stuffs it inside his jacket. He’s gone before anyone notices.
It’s getting dark as he pushes open the gate to the rooming house. The weatherboards are decaying, the windows filthy and cracked, but it’s better than other places he’s been. He squats to pick up a copy of the Leader newspaper which he’s dropped from the bundle he has tucked under his arm. He won’t need them but it’s a habit he’s formed from surviving on the streets.
His roomy is sleeping face-down on his cot. A half-drunk bottle of cheap brandy is lying on the floor next to him. The carpet near the neck of the bottle is stained brown. Bill throws his papers on the spare cot and picks up the bottle. He sniffs it then takes a swig, screwing up his face as the alcohol burns its way down his throat. Another swig then he sits on his mattress, placing the bottle back on the floor. He takes off his shoes, ties the laces together, then pushes the battered runners between the mattress and the bed base. On the bed, he lays with arms folded behind his head, staring at the peeling paint on the walls and counting the plaster leaves that form part of the ceiling rose, surrounding the light fitting which boasts a bare light bulb.
He sits up and checks his roomy is still out of it, then leans over and forces his hand between the mattress and the wall. He finds the frayed slit he is seeking and his fingers fumble for a moment before drawing out a crumpled yellow envelope. Inside is a wad of money and a creased, faded photograph. He pulls out the photo. It’s a young girl. Her chin, her eyes and the tilt of her nose are reminiscent of his. She’s dressed in a blue cape. A mortar board balances on her head and in her hands is a scroll of paper. She’s all smiles.
He reaches into his pocket and pulls out a few more notes. He adds the money to the stash already in the envelope then replaces the photo and pushes the bundle back into the hole in the mattress. His eyes are moist. One day when he finds out where she is, he’ll send it to her.