In a silence on the mall
A short story by Dan Byrnes
PAUL Wilson walked on the concrete of the mall after having cut through Central Park. There had been a moderate frost in the night, covering the grass. His socks were a little too thin, or the soles of his shoes were worn, so his feet were cold and getting colder.
That didn't bode well either, and since he was a student not
distinguished in anything, not even looks, but for his eyes, all he
could think of as he stood planted in the middle of the mall, in view
of only three other people there, if they cared to look, which they
All he could think of was, he'd begun to despise time, past, future and present, and to develop a forced affection for the remainder, the debris, and the spaciousness of failure. Just what failure, where, he could not properly identify. Somewhere.
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Though with secret affection for the remainder, of course. Meanwhile he had to wait for the shops to open, the people to arrive. Perhaps he might discover something? He certainly needed to, discover something, about what he loved, since everything else had continued to disappear.
Wearing the sum total of his warmest clothes he held the cold at bay with will and took pride in the fact he required ... he required ... he required only ... he went and bought a newspaper, and standing in front of the newsagency like someone with an interesting life he idly noted how a friend's interesting buy had gone up from the buying price on the Sydney stock exchange. His eyebrows shot up in surprise. Judgement! He actually had a pal with judgement! Now, there was something that might be handy in the near future. No, the more distant future. He wasn't going to be doing anything for a while.
With the thick Saturday morning paper across his thighs he sat on a bench which had been squared about a loom of vegetation, hoping he would not meet anybody stoned at 9am on an empty stomach. It was far too early yet, he felt, looking the mall over. An uncounted number of yellow lamp-posts stood. They merely stood, he saw. The place needed a flag, flying patriotically, of course, in the winter wind. If I was a patriot, where would I be? he questioned himself, eyeing the fat black Labrador near his feet beginning to rise and wander off.
So that's how I am, Wilson considered, watching the dog leave, to shake its belly down the mall, or sniff at the base of another bench. A dog doesn't like me for company.
After a period of moodiness increased by the observation of a couple of the local untouchables, he shook, then punched the newspaper into shape and ended being interested in an article on violins in the Eighteenth Century.
"The science of materials through that time remained fixed on
an old alchemical conceptual framework. Their goals were pursued with
ingredients of midnight moon, witchcraft, lead oxide and chicken
manure," Dr Nagyyvary said. Illustrating the violin maker's
alchemy in treating violin wood, he said:
"For emotion, take a heart, for power and durability take cartilage, for mystery take some blood, and for smoothness add some oil and wax. Then mix it with the droppings of your favourite household animals, shake it with some beer, and you possess the ingredients of the mysterious, crucial formula of the great Italian period of violin making."
Wilson scratched himself at that, and wished he knew someone who played the violin. They could talk it over, the great Italian period of violin making. But he knew no such significo. Favourite household animals, eh? He remembered driving in hard rain once, uphill behind an empty cattle truck bouncing on potholes. With each bounce there slopped off the back of the truck onto the road a greenish-black bilge, shining in the headlights. Cattle shit wasn't household, though. But he decided to shake it with some beer, when the pubs opened.
All around him, people had gradually appeared on the mall, the
best place in town to watch people. Only there seemed to be nobody he
knew. Only two girls walking past, one saying to the other:
"Yes. He does a bit."
There were people with soft morning coughs, hockey sticks and pleasant futures of some kind. There in the shop window was the suggestion, coloured in red and blue, "Ask Mr Travel".
He peered closer at the posters displayed on the board in the window and decided while he was waiting for the pubs to open he may as well go to Fiji. In the meantimes, in the waiting, yes, the pleasures of meeting people somehow died in the arse. He turned to rise on the balls of his feet to see over the movements of people. He saw nobody he cared much to talk to.
During the waiting, some things quite normal turned as unfamiliar as happening to overhear an African dialect in a bank foyer. Or as startling as that girl parading and controlling that great mastiff through the crowd. That's a bloody mediaeval sort of thing to bring on the mall, he decided. I wouldn't be courageous enough to order about a dog like that. Or even feed it. Or, are mastiffs really docile at heart? That mastiff has feet that dance. She's dancing the bloody great thing right through the mall. So he ended up giving her eight out of ten for originality.
Nor was there anybody he knew in the hotel, to the extent he felt personally deserted. Only a stock and station agent relaxing early with two clients, four tourists, and other students modifying their education with booze and a passing gander at the apparent happiness of others. And the women getting the counter lunch section ready for later, clattering plates, were, as he leaned forward to peer at the menu, furtively criticising the bar managers latest appointment to the staff. They were giving snorts of support and humour to each other, women afraid for their jobs.
Gazing with a beer in his hand at the wall of the lounge he decided what the wall needed badly this morning was a good, honest, soul-searing painting of a combine harvester out on a hot December day, depicting someone with darkened armpits cursing a broken fan belt, or whatever, and a gold-lettered caption reading "Such is Life". As the wheat dries out.
He shifted uncomfortably on the bar stool. Already the towel on
top of the bar was damp, and beginning to spoil his elbow. You cant
exchange a sad winter for next summer so very quickly. He moved to a
seat by a window from which he could gaze out to the mall. At a woman
saying solemnly to another,
"Well, I'll be seeing Noel tomorrow." People do make plans.
Out there when the clouds clothed the naked sun, people hurled
their coats round their bodies, puffed their cheeks and whistled in
surprise at how cold it was. There were Asian students he recognised,
carrying food. But, he surmised, it is all very well to be
cosmopolitan and easy, today I feel ratshit. So he bought a second
beer. Leaving a place could get you down almost as much as staying
On the other hand, he couldn't tell which came first. The downer or the leaving? Of a little "cathedral city". With just two cathedrals, neither of them particularly large. Two unprepossessing students had once burned a church down before they left Armidale, to leave their mark behind. A Cathedral City, so they said, where the autumn must have been the most spectacular in the whole country. Only it wasn't an Australian autumn, it was an English autumn. Whereas an Australian autumn was so delicate, you feared to seek out the evidence of it. He felt red, and yellow; depressed with the fires of autumn-falling leaves, falling finances, falling ambitions, falling spirits.
Once returned to the earth, the leaves eventually came back up again, in a different vegetative form, like a woman who's come back to you, finally having learned something, but not enough, still.
The beers could have been tastier. In the absence of company he
bought a third beer. How many years did someone want to stay in the
town reading books anyway? Three? Six? He always had hated the way
the wind moaned about the university library - a hollow and freaky
sound, while you sat inside in a place where someone surly had
scratched into the wood the observation...
"The moon's a traitorous bitch".
What could you say to that? When on the mall out there lovers in varying states of confidence were touching fingers and each other's bums and so on. All the business people were after all trying so damned hard to be progressive, you felt you had to support the triers. Old women needed their daughters badly for support in walking. An old man tipped his hat to a girl of seventeen who couldn't believe it, such old-fashioned manners! He raised the beer glass to his lips, smiling in amusement, and toasted the both of them.
In the hotel he'd forgotten how cold it was outside. Anyway, the sun was making headway. Earlier in the morning your breath had made mist: precise, formulated gusts of it for amusement' sake. Out there on the mall there were beginning to appear people he knew.
Before he turned around to see who it was behind him, someone was telling his friends, "I am a man of great leisure and no wealth." Wilson thought, Dole Bludgers Ahoy! That reminded him. To take out a fragmented notebook and write with disgusted swiftness on a new page, Dole on Mon. He jumped when a hand rested sharply on his shoulder.
"How are ya?" Wilson was constrained to turn around and
see Kotler, who grinned stolidly this morning and already had an
early beer in his hand.
"Bit down," Wilson said.
"A rum would have been better than this," Kotler said, criticising his beer, then coughing.
"The barmaid was going to give me a remedy. More and more rum. Anyway, whadya been doin?"
Kotler was genuinely interested.
"Planning to leave."
"Oh yeah. So was I, last week," Kotler nodded in easy agreement.
"This is my week," Wilson told him, with no pride in ownership.
Odd. Kotler was a fellow with enough trouble in life to make the necropolis resonate with a sympathetic stillness. But Kotler always kept his sense of humour. Especially while he was drinking. "You want to forget about that teacher," Kotler advised.
All of Kotler's advice was aged 24, cynical, and well pickled.
Strangely enough, his advice was often sound.
"How the hell can you forget a teacher in this town? There's a half a dozen schools here, a Teachers' College and a university at least half-devoted to producing teachers. The place reeks of education! How do you suppose I forget a teacher, eh? A whole town and memories as well!"
Wilson thrust out his arm as though flagging down certain memories.
Kotler saw the anger and said, "Yes, I see what you mean."
He sucked rather appreciatively on his beer.
"Well," he offered, "you could just grit your teeth and maybe take up, oh, Modern American History?"
"I've decided America is a sort of reluctant, inadvertent Empire, of which we are a reluctant, inadvertent state, of which I am a reluctant, inadvertent citizen," Wilson said.
"Try not to take these things personally," Kotler murmured kindly, "you'll get a hangover."
They moved into a vacated drinking cranny with an imitation wood
surface. Wilson asked irritably,
"Why mention America to me, anyway? I mean, this morning? Here I am trying to rouse up some future."
Kotler gazed out the window for a little, before he said,
"Maybe just that I overheard some birds yesterday with American accents discussing reluctantly, or discussing inadvertently...?"
Wilson asked further questions out of a perverse, rather
objectionable frame of mind.
"No," Kotler said.
"They were discussing enthusiastically, I thought. Yes. I can say, I think they see some prospects out here in Australia."
"I wish you wouldn't use the term `out here'," Wilson said.
"I mean, Im living here, for the next how many weeks? It's not `out here'. It's ordinarily here. So bloody ordinary Im leaving," he finished morosely.
"Whadayagunnado then?" Kotler asked after another while.
"I was thinking vaguely of a fishing boat up in Queensland for a while. But I'll have to sit on the dole for a while till some money comes through."
"I'd keep Queensland vague, if I were you," Kotler said.
"An acquaintance of mine once spent some time on a boat up there. The bloke who owned the boat kept a dead pig on the deck for a week. There's nowhere to go on a little boat, you know. Still, he said he otherwise enjoyed it. Sun and sails and other maritime clichés."
"Reminds me of the story of the Gadarene swine," Wilson said, and ponderingly drank his beer.
Kotler eyed him.
"You know what your problem is? You're too religious."
"I'm not religious, I'm just reverent," Wilson joked.
"You've got the mind of a concert pianist and the face of a bank teller. No wonder you confuse people," Kotler said.
"Bullshit," Wilson replied.
His mirror had been giving him much worse news than that, of late.
Faces could sometimes be very dubious matters when seen from within the bones that formed them.
So they both fell silent for a while. Kotler drew back in his seat
for the rest. He took Wilson's newspaper, separated the job
classifieds from the rest, and after swallowing the last of his glass
browsed in the editorial. In a mockery of the contrition he suspected
he should feel, he asked,
"Want to argue politics?"
"Read the editorial to you aloud?"
"Finish your beer and come for a stroll. Breakfast's over," Kotler said.
They walked together on the mall, past a Chinese girl with a
thick-set body, a bronze complexion and the face of a tender
barbarian, who looked neither to the right nor the left as she
walked. Wilson considered the nature of self-possession, which he
lately seemed to have lost, and wanted back to the pub.
"You've stopped coughing," he told Kotler.
Kotler thumped his chest.
"So I have. Must have been the beer. I feel better already."
"I suppose life is replete with tonics when you take the advice of barmaids," Wilson considered mockingly as they entered the newsagency.
"Dead right," Kotler said. "I'll have some more later. Now, there was a book here. Here it is."
Kotler picked it off the shelf.
The Bog People, by P. V. Globb. Subtitled: Iron Age Man Preserved. Published by one of those alternative publishers famous for deluding people about mysteries by trying to make mystery rational again. When Kotler opened the book he saw remarkably mellow black and white photographs of people who'd been laid in peat at their death. And preserved, hair intact and all. Quite remarkable.
Kotler when he'd paid for the book immediately took it out of its paper bag and began to pore over the photography as though photography was his hobby. His enthusiasm began to bore Wilson, who eyed on the street those little women whose tight jeans showed at the crotch a pliant groove, something he suspected they preferred to show in public rather than bare in private? As blokes joked bleakly, women closed their eyes when they kissed because they couldn't stand to see a man enjoying himself.
Wilson sighed and with his hands shoved in his coat pockets seated
himself on the bench beside Kotler, who was avidly reading his book.
"Human archaeology! That's the word for it," exclaimed Kotler.
"As when, you know, they opened up those Egyptian mummies and discovered what the person had for breakfast, or lunch, or dinner, depending of course on the time of the hour of death."
"Ah, shit!" Wilson said in disgust to all and sundry at being imposed upon by Kotler's long curiosity about death. But he was beginning to be captured strangely by something imaginative. He found himself looking at the texture of the skin of the passers-by, comparing them with the faces of the long-dead Bog-people. And he found himself imagining the mall as a giant, invisible peat bog, just excavated. He knew he'd just begun to dislike the town ever since Jenny had left, but this was beyond a joke. Even one of Kotler's jokes.
"You care for a counter lunch at 12?" he asked Kotler.
"Prefer beer at 11, actually," Kotler replied.
"I'll go for a walk, I think," Wilson told him.
"Don't get lost," Kotler advised, burying himself again in his book, in human archaeology, death and preservatives.
"Are you waiting for a woman or something, got something going?" Wilson asked him.
"Not necessarily," Kotler said.
"But you're hopeful?"
"Never say die," Kotler said.
"At twelve then?"
"Order me a steak," Kotler said.
Wilson saw, Kotler was the kind of bloke who could actually make a bench look like a lively place to be. But what a bloody curiosity at 10.45am! People dug up out of a peat bog!
So he walked through the 10.45am chimes of the courthouse clock. By then, Wilson noted, the two Tribune sellers were one at either end of the mall, at corners, trying to catch Capitalism and the Fraser government in a pincer movement.
Bikes were located in bike racks quite naturally. Burly Labradors were on their usual reconnaissance missions. The three-tiered fountain in the middle of the mall was drained and drying in the cold. For some reason the fire brigade was parked out in Beardy Street.
"Sounds like her voice," someone said, and suddenly began to run the length of the mall. I too would run to the sound of her voice, Wilson said to himself, if I weren't feeling so ratshit, if she was here by any chance. He grabbed a chair and clattered it to one of the tables surmounted by an umbrella of plastic. Being careful not to crash his skull on the umbrella has he had last week, he sat down and moved aside the emptiness of a 370ml bottle with a straw poking out of it. He opened his newspaper.
They say watching people is the cheapest entertainment there is. He actually didn't want to read the newspaper. He just wanted to idly scratch the back of his hand and observe the texture of the skin of human beings. For instance, the face of the girl he'd now seen walk hurriedly up and down the mall, four times. Her Saturday morning unease was of a different cast to his own, but she really seemed uneasy. Or those people, any guy, with a beard, walking, solemnity, a cigarette and a newspaper. Things are actually simple, or, they can be, maybe. But Wilson kept looking about, as though for Jenny. He stared at someone who had succeeded in disguising his loneliness, who was walking along wearing a green and black Frankenstein's Monster mask bearing an expression of the melancholy resultant upon anyone's cursing the hour of his own birth.
Wilson shucked his newspaper into line to be able to read it more comfortably. He supposed that wearing that monster mask was probably a lot cheaper than getting pissed all the time. It was probably a Teachers' College student wearing that mask, probably on a dare involving money. On the mall were people testing out new clothes for the effect. The yellow lamp-posts. People leafed through records in the music shops. There was a real estate agent making affable gestures to someone who looked perfectly respectable. He kept noticing the textures of people's skin, even the pores on the noses of dogs. He did not want to talk to anyone just now, did not want to be grouped into any common interests. Now, none of the "oh yeahs" of agreement would have been relevant.
It was just the usual Saturday morning promenade of married couples, children unanimous in laughter, supermarket bags, the refrains of gossip, mongrel dogs sniffing hopefully, some fear-filled eyes, some introductions, some business, some coffee and a bun, and who do you know? He kept seeing the texture of skin, and quite a variety of it there was too, in the great, invisible, excavated peat bog bottommed with concrete, that he had momentarily turned the mall into. And it all became more intolerable as he sat there, not even reading the newspaper. He walked back through the crowd. He had become a connoisseur of skin. He went in to buy his own copy of The Bog People. Worse, he knew why he bought it. There are days when you want to start living, but what happens is that some disturbing insight rises through you like a great, dirty gas bubble off the floor of the ocean, and he felt, weak, sick and expanded with it much too quickly.
He strolled back into the hotel.
Kotler, all lively, said, "You bought a book! The world is full of curious souls. What's the book?"
Wilson lied and told him, "The Wit and Wisdom of Benito Mussolini. Im feeling dictatorial."
"The book has large print, has it?" Kotler asked.
"Have you ordered?"
"No. I was distracted there for a while, fanning an old flame, but she left by the door you came in."
Kotler went back to finish reading the newspaper's analysis of the country's economy and other sorrows.
Salting his steak, Wilson asked Kotler out of the blue...
"Did I ever tell you why Jenny and I split up?"
"No. I saw a few moods and groans and cool silences. I had my own problems at the time."
"The basic thing was, I called her a nigger lover one night, just joking."
Wilson carved the steak into small, regular pieces, more or less as a work of distraction from his memories.
"Why did you call her a nigger lover?" asked Kotler, as if he didn't know, or hadn't guessed.
"I was thinking she was spending too much of my time on `the Aboriginal question'. Quite apart from her own time," Wilson explained.
Not that he was entirely satisfied with this explanation. He feared he never would be.
"You broke the rule that says, `never joke in slang with a
lover about something they think is important', and a very
long-winded rule it is too," Kotler said.
"But I'm surprised. I thought you were against the use of American slang. You miss the girl, is that what you're telling me? I'm not sure she is a nigger lover, actually. I thought she wanted to be helpful."
"I was possessive," Wilson accused himself.
"You were very helpful to her, I imagine," Kotler said.
"I mean, she might have used you, in that during her career of trying to be helpful, she can point to you as precisely the sort of unthinking slob who doesn't look at things the way she does, she being ideologically perfect, or something. She can leap into the fulness of life without you, and so on. Maybe she just wanted to go into the desert? To feel purified out there, as people say you get? Maybe she's just on some kind of a culture bash?"
"You said you only observed a few moods," Wilson accused him. There were a lot of people who admired Jenny's dedication, or, said they did.
"Where did she get interested in `the Aboriginal question' anyway?" Kotler asked.
"In her childhood, I think."
"You may have made the unavoidable mistake of not enjoying her childhood as much as she did," Kotler said mysteriously, without breaking his rate of food intake.
Wilson gazed around their table to ensure no one was
"Do you really believe that?" he asked Kotler.
"I don't have to believe it. I just thought I'd put it up for inspection," Kotler said amiably.
"She was doing courses on Aboriginals. She had a library on them," Wilson said.
"I've got a good library on stereo systems," Kotler said, unable to see why people shouldn't collect books on what interested them.
"You've bloody well stopped living," Wilson told him.
Kotler rose abruptly, clinked together the two beer glasses on the
table, and said, "My shout. Like another beer?"
While Kotler was at the bar, Wilson gazed out at the emptying mall. Kotler's copy of The Bog People lay upside down on the table. All around Wilson was the texture of skin. He remembered the skin of the woman he had used as a replacement for Jenny, until she had moved on too. He had to admit, the women had him thrown.
"You still haven't told me what you're going to do when you leave Armidale," Kotler complained with the beer delivery.
"I don't know."
"Neither do I know what I'll be doing when I leave. I understand Jenny didn't know what she'd be doing when she left."
"You know what I'd like to be? A good, honest maths teacher," Wilson said gloomily. "An uncomplicated life. I could amuse myself on weekends developing the perfect betting system."
"I've got to go," Kotler said. "Will you be at Leon's party tonight?"
"Couldn't miss it."
"I've got to work. I'll see you there, then."
Kotler put his coat back on and left.
Wilson took out his own copy of The Bog People and sat considering dead skin, live skin, the colour question, black and white and Chinese and whatever. What does it matter centuries later when people dig you out of a peat bog? These mellow black and white photographs really were impressive. The textures of preserved skin. How odd, to sit around, hungover, imagining a crowded mall as an excavated peat bog.
As he bore homewards, the cafe reminded him of the vitamin C he'd forgotten to take in today. And there in the cafe was yet another lesson in skin. There were three teenaged brats, little punks dressed in a uniform of arrogance and ignorance. One of them just out of boredom hissed "Get!" at a little dark boy waiting innocently at the counter.
Wilson slammed a glass down on the counter top with a severity
that surprised everyone present, including himself. He touched the
dark boy on the hair, then stepped forward to eye the punks harshly.
Just stood there.
One of the punks soon succumbed to a trance of embarrassment, and began weaving his head about and shuffling his feet. The Greek girl of the café stood with her hands placidly on the counter, waiting. The other two punks held Wilson's gaze in a short test of wills, until Wilson asked, "Well?" The little dark boy hung between fear and curiosity near the half-open door of the cafe.
"WELL?" Wilson demanded, again.
The punk silence became extremely muddy as the dark boy moved more
confidently back to the counter.
"Well?" Wilson asked again.
"Waitin' for a hot chocolate," said one of the punks, expressing his rights.
Wilson noticed the Greek girl had stilled her hands on the espresso machine as she watched. She gave no sign of her sympathies, until she let the espresso handles down and moved to serve the dark boy, who waited in what resembled impassivity.
"You might have been waiting for a hot chocolate,"
Wilson told the three punks as he reached again for his own orange
"Now, you get." He spoke in the way one speaks to dogs, to get.
They walked out at a medium speed.
The dark boy munched appreciatively on a Kit Kat and sauntered outside without a backward glance.
"They are little bastards," the Greek girl told Wilson when the punks had left, as she swabbed down the stainless steel fittings.
She was almost like the dark boy, Wilson wanted to say nothing, just to get on with things.
He burst out of the cafe wrapped in a cloud of complex feelings he could have mistaken for a peat bog. The punks' attempt to intimidate the dark kid was just the sort of situation that had used to enrage Jenny about `the Aboriginal question'.
During the walk back to his rented room, he noticed the purer organisation of natural things, how close Armidale was to the sky, how to the west there was an eloquence of pillarless grandeur as light hit the edges-only of the clouds. There was real brilliance.
But for himself, he was silenced. In his room he threw the book on The Bog People into the green plastic bag he used for laundry, to read the bloody thing while he was waiting. He gathered clothes, especially clothes for the party, and trundled to the laundromat.
With his laundry bag, a student. End of term. Might not come back anyway. He felt he resembled a small-town chameleon, merged with his surroundings, merging with some kind of useless surrender, he could not be sure. He sat on a chair of cheap orange plastic, drinking a cup of vending machine coffee as his clothes were sent through turbulence in the washing machine.
In the laundromat were two dark women who worked together at the
wash tubs without saying a word.
Jenny was now teaching dark kids. She'd written to him only once, mentioning in passing one little dark kid who'd slit her tent open when she'd been camping out in the bush one weekend. But then again, she didn't want to see him again. It wasn't much use thinking about her.
He sipped his coffee, cupping the paper container in two hands for
the warmth. There was a surprise with the two dark women working at
the wash tubs. They were far more silent than he was. He wondered
what kind of a life would make people so throbbingly silent.
He wondered, if it was worthwhile writing to her, maybe just mentioning in passing the punks and the little dark boy in the cafe. All the poor little kid had wanted was a Kit Kat. Whereas what he had wanted with Jenny was love, but what he seemed to have now was a peat bog.