Monday, May 9, 2011

The Least I Could Do

What people noticed first and remembered longest about Bernadette when they met her was her scowl. The everyday look on that woman's face could peel the paint off walls. She looked like she was angry and in pain, at the same time, all of the time. It wasn't unusual for kids to come away crying. Behind her back, Bernadette came to be nicknamed The Scowl. I had nothing to do with that, of course. Well, very little.

The other thing people noticed about The Scowl was the constant criticism and put-downs that she aimed at her dear husband – and my best mate – Stan. It made people cringe. Stan put up with all this with the patience of Job. I don't think he ever complained or told her off. That's how Poor Stan got his nickname.

But every man has his breaking point.

I was having a drink with Poor Stan at the Mount Morgan Arms Hotel one Saturday afternoon when The Scowl filled the doorway with her whole self, and screamed above the noise of the rowdy crowd, "Stan, you've had enough to drink; come home!"

Poor Stan went as red as Karl Marx. The pub went quiet. People looked at their shoes and fidgeted with their coasters.

I expected Stan to put down his glass and shuffle off after her, like he usually did.

Instead, he took a long drink from his beer.

He said to me, "If I'd of killed her when I first wanted to, I'd be out of jail by now."

That's an old and tired joke; but I was pretty sure that Stan wasn't joking. He never joked.

"I suppose it's better late than never," he said.

I could see he was close to his breaking point, and that cut me up inside. Poor Stan was a bit spineless, but he was still my mate.

I said, "Don't go back to your house. Why don't you buy a carton and go round to my place? I've got to take care of something here in town, and then we'll get on the grog. How's that sound?"

Stan put his hand on my shoulder, said that sounded good, and went to the takeaway window. I said goodbye to Bob behind the bar, and left.

In half an hour, we were at my place, drinking.

We were still throwing them back, watching the sun set, when Sergeant Ted, the local police force, came around. He broke Stan the news that his wife's body had been found only an hour ago. She'd been found behind one of those big steel rubbish bins in the narrow lane behind the shops, on the top side of the main street. Sue from the fish and chip shop got a real fright, apparently.

Stan took the news of his wife's sudden passing really well. He looked a little stunned, but more like a man who'd won lotto, than a man who'd lost his soul mate.

Sergeant Ted started his investigation right there by asking Stan if he'd killed Bernadette. Motive, the man had.

Stan didn't reply straight up, then said it was obvious that it wasn't him. Ted asked why that was.

Stan asked, "You said she were stabbed once in the back?"

Ted nodded. "That is correct."

"Well," said Stan, "I always dreamed o' stabbin' her right here in the front." He pointed to his own chest. "And never, ever, just the once. Maybe a dozen times. That's what I always dreamed of doin', and I reckon that's the way I'd of done it, if I'd of done it, which I didn't."

It didn't seem that this was the kind of evidence Ted was looking for, because he had a few words to say about that.

I butted in. "He was with me, Sergeant."

Ted didn't like being interrupted either, apparently. I never really liked Ted, so I got over it, and told my story.

"We left the pub not long after The Scowl showed up, about three..."

Stan interrupted, holding up his hand. "Don't call her that," he said, "please."

"Sorry." I shrugged. "We left the pub, with a carton, and came back here. We've been drinking since then. We haven't seen her since. Have we Stan?"

Stan shook his head. "Not since she was at the pub."

Sergeant Ted scowled, reminding me a bit of the late Bernadette. I shivered. Ted said good night, told us both to stay in town, and left.

Stan went inside and then came back with two beers. He handed one to me. "There's only two left now," he said, "and we'll have finished the carton."

"Then we'll go for a walk and get another one."

"Good idea."

We drank, and I listened to the cicadas out in the scrub. We didn't say a word until our beers were empty.

Stan said, "Thanks for covering for me mate. I didn't kill her; but thanks for covering for me. Makes things easier."

I slapped him on the back. "No worries, mate," I said. "I know you didn't kill her. It was the least I could do."

This story was first published in Shift Miner Magazine.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

A Lift Home

Bruce wasn't used to having passengers in his car. It took him a minute to gather up the fast-food wrappers, coffee cups and CDs from the front seat so that Danny could get in. Danny had some sort of job with the prep plant, though Bruce wasn't sure what they did over there. Bruce threw it all on the back seat and mumbled, “Sorry about that.”

“No worries at all,” said Danny as he got in. Once Bruce was in his seat, Danny added, “It's your car. I'm just glad for the ride.

Bruce drove carefully out of the car park. Soon they were on the open road. Danny tried to start a conversation a few times, and Bruce tried hard to keep his end up, but without much joy. Bruce wasn't good at talking to people he didn't know. He almost never started a conversation. He hated that about himself, but found it hard to change.

Danny said, “You mind if we turn the radio on?”

“Sorry,” said Bruce. “No aerial.”

Danny shrugged. “You got CDs?”

Bruce coughed. “They're not really what you probably want to listen to.”

“I've got pretty broad tastes.”

“My stuff is a whole new level.”

“Wow,” said Danny. “You got me curious now. Is it very offensive?”

Bruce thought for a moment. “Not to me,” he said. “But it is to a lot of people.”

“Try me.”

Bruce tried to laugh, but it came out as a kind of squeak. He reached down turn on the car stereo.

After a moment, a man's voice began to speak. “Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life; whoever does not obey the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God remains on him.” Then, after a pause, the voice said, “Chapter four.”

“What the -?” said Danny, turning in his seat to face Bruce. “What is that?”

Bruce reached over, and pressed the power button again. He sighed. “That,” he said, “is a man reading the Bible. I'm up to the gospel of John.”


“It comes after Luke.”

Danny shook his head and scratched his hair. It looked to Bruce like he was considering jumping out of the car. Bruce wondered if he should slow down a bit.

Danny said “I meant, why do you listen to that stuff?”

“I can read a lot more by listening when I'm driving then I can find time for at home.”

“You listen to a man read the bible over and over?”

“Well, not exactly. I sometimes skip to different bits. And, I've got one version of a woman reading too. She's got a nice voice.”

Danny didn't say anything.

“I listen to a lot of other things too,” said Bruce. “I've got a stack of audio-books, and I download a lot of talks, lectures and sermons from the internet.”

“You don't like music?”

“I love music, but I listen to my music at home. And at my desk at work. Car-time is my daily bible-study time.”

“It doesn't make you fall asleep?”

“You kidding?” Bruce laughed. “Nothing is more interesting, or important.”

Danny was quiet a moment. Then he said, “You know what I think's the biggest problem with you Christians?”

Bruce glanced over at Danny. He looked tense. “Not at all.”

“You're always trying to ram it down everyone's throat. All the time.”

They drove in silence until they got to town.

This story was first published in Issue 105 of Shift Miner Magazine.