Short Friction

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Wayne’s date

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I found myself in this really uncomfortable situation today. Again. Why can’t I just act like myself with chicks? Anyway, I’m going out with Sandra, right, for the first time — this is like a full-on date so I’m excited and all — we’re catching the train (she’s so great, likes public transport because its better environmentally — so no need to impress her with a car, eh?) and the moment I sit down next to her: kabang! My mind goes blank. It’s like when you go in the video store, right? You walk in, you know you want that classic movie — whatever — and you just forget the minute you walk through those plastic security things. End up walking out with “The Night of the Cows”.

So I’m sitting there and my mind is blank. All I could find to fill the terrible void was the knowledge that, hey! I’m sitting next to a gorgeous chick here and what’s more she knows me and what’s more she is still happy to sit next to me! But I figured that was no good to have a conversation about. So I’m sitting there and well aware that for every second that goes by in which I say nothing, the relevance of whatever I do end up breaking the silence with must increase exponentially if I don’t want to sound mundane. It’s like, if two people sit in silence for fifteen minutes and one suddenly says, “Nice weather, innit?” the other will inevitably think, “what a complete twit,” or something to that effect. Once two people have been silent for more than about thirty minutes, the only hope for starting a conversation successfully is for one of them to be struck by lightning, allowing the other to ask of their ensuing well-being and perhaps also comment, “ ‘s a nuisance when that happens — really puts a damper on the rest of your day, don’t it?”

A thirty second pause like I had to deal with isn’t nearly so irrecoverable, but I knew I had to act soon. So when a conversation topic of even mild potential hit me, I jumped on it without a moment’s hesitation. In order to give my statement at least the appearance of some context, I made a point of first subjecting the interior of the train to significant observation. I turned my head this way and that, looked at the lighting, the seating, the hand-holds. I applied a look of intense bewilderment to my face. It worked — Sandra looked at me, followed my eyes in an effort to determine what was so interesting.

I looked back at Sandra and observed, as casually as I could manage, that for the least populated, least profitable and most dangerous train line, we seemed to consistently be getting the newest and most comfortable trains all of a sudden.

She looked at me with mild surprise. She couldn’t believe I didn’t know the story behind that fact. But, believe it or not, I didn’t. She said it was all in the papers. That was great — more conversation! I got to tell her that I didn’t read the newspaper or watch the news on tv. So then she told me how it all came about.

Sandra pointed out that the new trains no longer had the scrolling electronic advertising signs at either end of the carriages. These had been in Melbourne trains for as long as I’d lived in Melbourne – so at least since 1998 – and had proclaimed a single message day and night without variation in all that time: “Put your name here and be seen by over 1 million people a week!” Never once had anyone bought advertising time on the system.

Sandra explained that it just so happened that a start-up IT company in the city finally bought advertising on the electronic signs for next to nothing with a contract guaranteeing certain minimum daily exposure on particular targeted (i.e., wealthy) lines. The advertising department were so excited about someone finally showing interest that they jumped on the contract without hesitation – hopeful it might lead to future interest. Unfortunately this all happened too late for the production of the new trains, which had dumped the electronic signs for paste-up advertising due to lack of interest. The new trains now used a similar sign in the centre of carriages to display the names of upcoming stations. The powers that be in Connex believed that having similar signs displaying advertising would create too much confusion, and refused to retrofit the new trains with them. The company with the advertising contract to Connex to court over the issue and the end result was that all the new trains were to be put on lines that weren’t in the advertising agreement until the contract period had completed.

Anyway, it was a nice save for my awkward silence. Her enthusiasm for the whole story was very encouraging, and it was easy to find things to talk about after that.

Written by shortfriction

22/11/2009 at 13:05

Supermarket

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Each day when Sandra got home she emptied out all the annoying silver coins that made her purse weigh a ton into a small bucket. Her plan was to use the collected money to shout herself to something extra-special when she filled the bucket.

Now, the bucket was close to full and she couldn’t think of a good way to exchange so many coins for cash. Her best idea was to slowly “evolve” the collection into larger currency units. She figured, for example, that each day she could replace each gold coin in her purse with the equivalent in silver coins. Then, she could use these whenever she purchased something at a vending machine or the like.

Today she needed to buy a weekly train ticket on her way to work. At nine dollars ninety, she figured it was the perfect way to get rid of forty-two twenty-cent coins and three fifty-cent coins. She dropped a ten-dollar note in the change bucket, and took out a hefty total of forty-six coins. Too bulky to fit in her purse, she dropped the handful in the side pocket of her handbag.

At the train station, a billboard asked in bold white letters: “Want to know what makes women tick?” Somebody, thoughtful enough to carry a can of spray-paint with them wherever they went, had scrawled the reply, “it’s their pacemakers.”

Sandra considered the implications of this as she continued feeding coins into the ticket machine. She felt she was lucky to be able to use the machine at all. It wasn’t uncommon for her to arrive at the station in need of a new ticket, only to find the machine a scorched and molten mess. She figured the elderly passengers who frequent this line must have a particularly strong objection to the new machines. Sandra grinned at her mental image of a disgruntled old lady and her husband petrol-bombing a ticket machine.

The cumulative counter seemed to be taking forever to get to the target value.

$7.70… $7.90… $8.10… $8.30… clunk.

Something that Sandra felt didn’t make sense was that, suddenly, her coins wouldn’t go through the slot. She grunted her dissatisfaction at this turn of events as she jiggled and shoved a coin in a vain effort to get it to make its passage into the machine. Behind her, someone had arrived and was waiting for an opportunity to use the machine.

The counter disappeared to be replaced by the message, “Please wait: your money is being returned.” The machine jangled its cache of coins menacingly. Behind Sandra, the person sighed significantly.

Suddenly, and with great violence, the machine spat thirty-seven coins from its return slot. Coins danced and spun on the bitumen, and found their way into obscure crevices.

Sandra cursed the machine, and gave it a kick to let it know precisely how she felt. It simply responded with, “Please select a ticket.”

The person waiting for the machine stepped aside to watch as Sandra stooped to retrieve her coins. In the distance, Sandra heard the sound of a train whistle. So did the person waiting for the machine, stepping on Sandra’s hand in the rush to get to it and buy a ticket before it was too late. Already the crossing gates next to the station were sounding their warning bells and coming down to protect the intersecting traffic.

By the time Sandra collected all her coins, the train was long gone. She decided to abandon the train idea for the day, and instead purchase her ticket at the local shop and catch a tram. The shop attendant didn’t appear to appreciate the mountain of coins Sandra dumped on his counter, but obliged with a ticket, nevertheless.

The tram trip was not uneventful. Sandra lived in a town where the once majority white, male oppressor had allowed himself to become overrun by ethnic “minorities”. Sandra, with her blond hair, blue eyes and pale skin liked the feeling of being the odd one out when she rode the tram. Of course, not being male, she couldn’t completely fulfil the category of the oppressor. But you can’t have it all. On this occasion there was, in fact, only one individual on the tram who was truly qualified to fill the role of oppressor. He was not happy with his position, either, it seemed.

When Sandra first got on, she took a seat across from a scruffy looking gentleman who was sitting bent double. She spent a moment feeling sorry for his apparently debilitating condition – until she realised he was just having a very difficult time picking up a cigarette someone had dropped. After several minutes of bending and reaching, the man finally reached the treasure and straightened up. Things proceeded in a relatively normal fashion for a full two minutes before he decided to break the ice with his fellow passengers.

“Speak English!”

Up and down the tram, backs straightened and faces tensed… but overall, the man was ignored. Across from Sandra, an earnest conversation in Turkish was interrupted just briefly enough to allow a sideways glance at Another One of Them.

The man waited only a short time to see if anyone had paid any attention before repeating his demand. “Speak English! You’re in Australia now, so speak English!” This time the pair speaking Turkish stopped completely to glare at the man.

“Surely if there is a language we must speak in this country it would be Australian, hmm?”

The logic was lost on the man. He knew a response was expected of him, so he decided to stick to what he was familiar with. Nodding emphatically he assured them, “Speak English! You are in Australia now!”

Around the man, argument erupted. People were happy to contradict each other in order to prove to this man that he was Silly. He was told (and Sandra thought it was a very good point) that it was interesting that of all the people on the tram he was the least fluent in the language he was so greatly in support of. He was dropping his ‘g’s. He was fond of double-negatives. He was losing an argument. One man versus an entire tram. People began to really enjoy their trip. New friendships formed up and down the tram. People sided with strangers. Years later, perhaps, they would remember this day over a cup of coffee together.

“Conflict is a strong uniting force,” Sandra’s brain told her as her stop approached. She didn’t want to get off. She wanted to make friends with a grinning, debating stranger, too. She disembarked reluctantly. Duty called.

Once off the tram, Sandra ran the short distance from the stop to where she worked. She managed to arrive only two minutes late. The girl whose shift she was relieving gave her a look of immense relief as she came through the doors at a sprint.

Sandra often wondered to herself if getting the supermarket job was really worth it, even if there weren’t any alternatives. It was okay when she was working at the checkout – no one noticed her problem then – but when she was stacking shelves or pricing products, she was in full view of the customers. Some of them even stopped what they were doing to watch her. Admittedly she was a strange sight – doing her peculiar dance across the tiled floor on her tip-toes. But today it looked like Sandra was going to get a break from being stared out. For once it was her turn to stare.

There was a young gentleman looking distraught in aisle four – the one which contained the shampoos, toothpastes, hairsprays and deodorants. This man seemed particularly preoccupied with the hairsprays and deodorants. He wasn’t just taking forever while he calculated relative value for money on each item – Sandra had seen that often enough – rather, he appeared to be handling every single item on the shelves. He systematically took a can, shook it, replaced it, and grabbed the next. Sandra watched, fascinated.

There was a lapse in customers, and Sandra’s checkout ceased to be in demand. Intent on finding out what the gentleman was doing, she put up the “checkout closed” sign and headed for aisle four.

“Can I help you, sir?”

The man jumped at the sound of Sandra’s voice, his hand stopping mid-reach. He pulled his arm slowly back to his side, still holding a can of “Impulse” deodorant, and turned to face the person who had startled him. He found himself looking at a supermarket attendant – an attractive young lady around his own age, possibly a little older. She had short dark hair, tied back simply and economically. She was slender, and had a sweet smile. Her name tag identified her as “William”. Nevertheless, he was fairly confident she was actually a girl. He found himself quite instantly attracted to her, which he figured was typical. He always met the most promising people in the most embarrassing situations. He sought an explanation for his behaviour that might not sound entirely lame. He couldn’t find one, so he went for second-best.

“I was… just… testing products. I am looking to branch out and try new things in the deodorant and hairspray department.” It would have been a fine excuse, he felt, if only she hadn’t happened along while he was in the ladies’ section, holding a can of undeniably feminine deodorant. “Vanilla Kisses,” he read, holding it up for her inspection. “I know it isn’t every man’s choice, but I am finding myself in a deep rut when it comes to hygiene products.” He tried to grin, but only managed a lopsided twitch which, he felt, must have compounded his appearance as Severely Disturbed.

But Sandra responded with an even sweeter smile. “While I think you may find yourself pleasantly surprised by its lovely aroma, I think there may be something here more suitable for you.” She took the can from his hand and returned it to the shelf, then moved along, beckoning him to follow, to the male deodorant section. She picked up an obscure looking can from the far end of the shelf, and took his hand to spray some on his palm. He pulled his hand back in alarm.

“No! No, it’s okay… I’ll just… take your word for it.”

She looked slightly disappointed, but handed him the can, which he held awkwardly: he didn’t have a shopping basket. He hadn’t even come here to shop – he’d just happened to think of all those unshaken cans as he was walking past, and couldn’t help himself. But she couldn’t find that out. Sandra saw his discomfort and offered to go get a basket for him. He smiled thank you.

Wayne began to feel agitated while he waited for her. He moved away from the aerosols, but it didn’t help. He felt a tremendous need to finish shaking them all, but knew that if he shook even another one there would be no talking his way out of it. He decided all that could be done was to buy a few items and leave as quickly as he possibly could.

As she returned with the basket, Wayne noticed for the first time that something wasn’t quite right about the way Sandra walked. She took very deliberate, light steps… mostly on her toes. She looked like she was dancing to some bizarre beat that only she could hear. The thought of this supermarket attendant hearing hallucinatory music in her head cheered Wayne up considerably – maybe he wouldn’t have to worry about seeming like a weirdo after all.

“Thank you, um… William,” he said as she handed him the basket.

“It’s Sandra,” she replied, “Obviously Tommo has decided to play the name tag swap prank again today. I should have remembered to check – he has a repertoire of around three pranks that he systematically cycles through each week.” She laughed infectiously. “It’s actually so old now that I find it hilariously funny every time. You know – a bit like when you repeat a word so many times it starts to sound funny?”

“Yes,” said Wayne, who didn’t know, but felt admitting it would somehow brand him as ignorant. There was an uncomfortable pause, during which Wayne experienced a chaotic stream of conflicting thoughts and urges out of which an impulse unexpectedly manifested in action and he found himself speaking again.

“Well, ah… I’m going to just wander around and buy some things but … when do you? Well, I mean, if you aren’t busy after you … you seem very interesting and I would enjoy talking to you some more if you’d like to catch up some time. Maybe … ?”

Written by shortfriction

19/11/2009 at 17:30

Help from the wall

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In all my years of policing, I had never come across this kind of punk before. The usual punk I come across is a wannabe-somebody graffiti vandal, less than 5’5″, hiding their spotty face behind a dark fleece hoody. Of course there are older punks, but I never come across them: Their greater age doesn’t just give them greater “skilz”, but greater invisibility. My usual punk makes a pretty poor effort at not being seen, but this pair were hopeless. They were trying so hard to be inconspicuous, but doing such an amateur job, that I felt embarrassed for them. To me it seemed like every passer-by must be staring at them. The bloke was wearing a pair of oversized black pants and a black wool coat so big on him that he looked like he’d had his head shrunk by New Guinean cannibals. He’d turned up the collar – I’m supposing because he was thinking he could hide behind it. The girl was wearing black parachute pants and a navy blue puffy jacket, too long in the arms, that was clearly slowing down her work with the paintbrush. Mind you, she was slow enough already – each time her brush neared the mortar between bricks she would slow her stroke right down, stop, breathe, talk to herself, then continue her stroke over the mortar and into the next brick.

This pair of punks was fascinating to watch. I suggested to my partner that we needed to keep an eye on them to collect evidence before charging them, and we moved to where we could watch them unseen.

While the girl worked with a paintbrush, the bloke was squatting down, watching her, glancing around nervously and checking his watch every couple of seconds. He also looked like he was reciting some kind of mantra to himself the whole time. He had a spray paint can on the ground next to him. I’d seen him shake it before she started her work, but then he just sat it there and did nothing with it. Maybe he was mentally working through the ethics of what they were doing. I would have assumed they were both flipped out on drugs except they both obviously lacked the street knowledge to even know how to ingest a drug, let alone source and purchase them.

Eventually the bloke took one last look at his watch, made one more visual survey of their surroundings and then grabbed his can, stood up and started making his mark on the wall. Predictably, his paint had already started to settle in the can and he couldn’t get an even finish out of it. He clearly wasn’t willing to give it another shake, and by the time he’d managed to tilt the can in such a way as to get a reasonable spread of colour, the girl had nearly finished her piece.

It was interesting contrast, his half-completed stick-man to her vignette of a grassy green hill and blue sky. She finished up by painting a “window” around her scene with another can of black spray-paint, and then adding some words.

The whole while they were doing this, the pair of them were quite obviously becoming increasingly agitated. Their glances around them became increasingly frequent and, at one point I got ready to give chase because they took one long look at each other and seemed to silently agree to abandon their little project. But, just as I was ready to leap out after them, they seemed to resolve to continue, and finished their work.

As soon as they started putting their equipment back into the black backpacks they had brought with them, my partner and I strode across the street and made our arrest. Having watched them all that time, it somehow didn’t surprise me that they didn’t even try to run. Instead they both looked dreadfully embarrassed and apologetic. I actually found myself feeling sorry for them. But, the law is the law, and my dedication to upholding it overrode my sense of pity.

We photographed their little piece of “art” to accompany the charges. They had added to a previously existing piece of vandalism, but were insistent that the original work was not their own and they couldn’t be charged for it. Given today’s performance, I had no trouble believing them, because I know they would have been caught the first time.

Help did come (Click image for actual location)

Help did come (Click image for story with original graffiti)

Written by shortfriction

21/06/2009 at 14:55

Sandra’s date

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I can’t believe how long I spent getting dressed for the evening. Normally I don’t fall within that stupid girlie stereotype of taking hours to get dressed, deliberating over the smallest detail. But I was feeling fragile. My first date with Wayne had gone so well… I’d felt we could really relate to each other, and that seemed like a bad sign. I mean: I felt we could really relate to each other — like in the “he’s perfect for me” kind of way that I so hate other people talking about. I’ve always been the cynic who thinks other people are just fooling themselves when they say that (and inevitably it turns out that they are). So I felt like my sense of the perfection of this person was really only a sign of how utterly foolish I myself had become. I felt that the slightest mistake could mess it up forever — hair worn wrong, wrong shoes, wrong skirt… or if I said the wrong thing — it would be over, and I would have to face that terrible admission that I’d been wrong in the first place. I would have to convince myself Wayne was, in fact, a total loser. That, of course, is the only way to cope with a failed relationship — vilify the other person, say, “Why didn’t I see how arrogant and malicious he was to begin with,” and pretend you’d been blind and now suddenly you can see, and that… that is why it didn’t work out. Not because you were stupid enough to not give him the chance to give you his genuine apology after he made some little mistake.

So I’m going off on a tangential rant here. Excuse me. My point is to give you an idea of why I was so paranoid about getting everything right. I gave myself three hours to get ready before I needed to meet him at the train station, and that almost wasn’t enough. But I managed, somehow. Perhaps it was worth it, too. In the end I wore my pin-stripe pants (I decided to ride my bike to the station, so a skirt was out of the question), a simple top, just a touch of make-up and left my hair out. Simple as it may have been, it seemed to hit Wayne like a brick. His jaw actually dropped, momentarily. I thought that was something that only happened in tacky romance-comedies. He regained his composure quite quickly, though, and we settled down to a comfortable conversation about some of the graffiti adorning the station. He had been particularly disturbed by some graffiti promoting “Critical Mass” — a bunch of cyclists who periodically take over city and suburban streets and tell the cars they can rack off for a while so the cyclists can make some point or other. The graffiti said, “Cars smell funny! Support Critical Mass! 100 cities can’t be wrong!”

Wayne said this had been puzzling him while he’d waited for me. He wanted to know what 100 cities weren’t wrong about, and why it was they couldn’t be wrong. I said it must be that 100 cities had Critical Mass operating in some form, to which he responded that if that were the case, 100 cities could very well be wrong… in fact, almost certainly had to be wrong if one were to reason purely by number. If 100 cities can’t be wrong, surely 101 cities can’t be wrong either. In fact, given that any number, x, of cities can’t be wrong, we could safely assume that x+1 cities must also be right. By this reasoning, if 100 cities can’t be wrong, we could say that the 100 cities with Critical Mass are, indeed, right. But, we have a problem. Assuming there at least 200 cities in the world, if only 100 have Critical Mass that leaves at least 100 without. That means the cities without Critical Mass are also right. It would be a safe assumption that more cities don’t have Critical Mass than do, and should we on the basis of being a majority give them the benefit of the doubt? If we were to do that, we would have to admit that 100 cities were indeed wrong… but if we instead say those cities without Critical Mass are wrong, we are still having to say 100 cities (and more) were wrong. Wayne’s conclusion was that the graffiti was wrong to begin with. 100 cities can easily be wrong.

“People shouldn’t be allowed to paint misleading graffiti like that where just any old fool could read it and not have the intelligence to pick the flaw in reasoning,” Wayne told me. “It’s worse than false advertising. People really believe graffiti.”

I reminded him that people weren’t allowed to paint misleading graffiti like that, and in fact, weren’t allowed to paint graffiti at all. This seemed to comfort him, somewhat. But he did contend that he liked graffiti, and it would be a real shame if nobody broke the law, at least in that respect.

We were still discussing some of our favourite graffiti when the train arrived. Wayne said one of his favourites was one that said, “Legalise it rally: March 23, city square.” He liked it because one could never tell whether it was more than a year old or not, and the graffitier hadn’t bothered to include a year. I still think my favourite is one I saw many years ago, around the time of the Gulf War: “Give blood… join the army.”

I told Wayne about my graffiti experience during my ride to meet him at the station. On my way to the Upfield bike path I saw a piece of graffiti off Sydney road near the Brunswick tram depot. It was a simple, black stick figure painted on a bright yellow wall. The figure was crying pale blue tears, standing under a brief verse:

In one dark night
I lost all my love
please help me wall

Please help me wall

Please help me wall (click image for actual location)

“I don’t think I have quite the passion for graffiti that you seem to,” I admitted to Wayne, “But I have to say I felt compelled to respond to this one. I wanted someone to provide some reply to suggest that the wall somehow had helped.”

Wayne nodded, “I know that one,” he said. “and I’ve felt the same – if I could ever bring myself to graffiti the first thing I would want to do is provide a response to that.”

We had to change trains in the city. Since the second was a late train going out of the city, it contained many inebriated individuals. One rugged looking gentleman sitting across from us had fallen asleep, VB stubby in hand, and obviously had forgotten he was on a train and not at home in his flat. The train was pretty noisy, particularly around corners. Now and then, when the train bumped or groaned loudly, the man would roll his head in frustration and thump the side of the carriage wildly with his arm. “Shuudup! Shuddup! I’m tryna sleep here!”

Further up the train, a man with bright red hair was fascinated by the same sounds that were so upsetting the other man. He was trying to imitate them. He particularly enjoyed the beeping of the train doors. At each station, he would try to replicate the sound by whistle. Across from him, a naïve young couple looked concerned for their safety.

Our destination was Wayne’s idea. I liked it very much for its simplicity. We were going out to a park he knew that was sheltered from the intrusive lights of the city. He had brought a little gas camping heater and a picnic basket so we could eat, talk and look at the stars. The night had turned out perfectly clear for the occasion and, sitting on the train, I couldn’t wait. Wayne continued talking, now about his vision of a future where all governments were privatised, and ethnicity was a function of one’s employer, not physical location or race. As much as I liked listening, I was starting to feel several nights running of late shifts at work catching up with me. Finally, I couldn’t help myself. All I could hear was the pleasant rhythm of his voice, as I lost grasp of the content. I fell asleep on his shoulder, listening to him talk. He didn’t mind.

Written by shortfriction

02/06/2009 at 13:00

Posted in Fiction, Sandra, Wayne

Tagged with , , , ,