By Michael Botur
The arterial road outside their flat droned thickly. A stretch of logjam lanes and bottleneck bends leading to the rubber-lashed motorway, to the airport. A road for police pursuits. There was more guttering than pavement. Pylons were planted over sooty flowers.
Jos drove his Mama to the airport. Mama politely refrained from snoozing. Jos made small talk about the billboards that passed over them.
‘If I had a million bucks, jeez… I’d buy a billboard that says, Mama Rocks, lol!’
‘But this you do not, Josiah,’ she said. Instead of a million bucks, vegetable seeds and seedlings were his inheritance, bought instead of cigarettes, beer, Squiggletops, Lotto tickets. Jos’s other half, Saff, had handled the gratitude. Jos wasn’t good at those sorts of things. Jos commented on the amount of petrol in the car. It was he who hadn’t topped up the tank. Mama had given him the car. He didn’t look her in the eye while he complained.
He didn’t have two bucks for the parking machine. She said it was okay that he didn’t stay, even for fifteen minutes. When he hugged her across the seat, hibiscus petals from behind her ear were knocked onto the gear stick. She’d taken the flower from one of Jos’s neighbours, the only other Islanders in the block of flats. Jos didn’t speak their lingo.
As they kissed cheeks and brows, pollen irritated his nostrils.
Mama lugged her own suitcase. It almost disconnected her arm. Jos’s car limped to the first roundabout. Jos considered pulling out in front of a truck. The week with Mama had been apologies and patches. She’d sent the car all the way from the Islands fourteen months ago, and Jos hadn’t even washed it.
‘Why you house smell like smoke, Josiah?’ Mama had demanded, Where you girlfren Saff? What for dinner?
He could only reply in the negative. Saff was the one with the positives, but she was hardly ever home.
Jos abandoned the car in the driveway. He lobbed Mama’s pumpkin and carrot seeds at the pigeons patrolling their rug-sized allotment of lawn. He munched margarined bread. The pigeons refused to eat the seeds. They eyed Jos’s crust jealously. He blinked his longsighted eyeballs behind thick lenses. A big female limped at the rear of the pigeons, supervising her flock.
He cleared the day’s junk mail from their letterbox. Mama would be taking off for the Islands, now. Car horns stained the street.
Saff searched for a new flat on the laptop. This sort of thing wasn’t done in person any more. The web browser was an extension of her fingertips, the ethernet was a vein. Jos watched his woman, watched the sidewalk through the lace curtain, which lay on his face like a hijab. Pram-pushers were rare. Jos sucked a salted lemon from a neighbour’s tree. He was one tequila short of a party. He recognised his neighbours’ unpronounceable names from reading their letters. Some days he stole their junk mail just for something to read. Holiday brochures, Caribbean cruises, Monte Carlo. Escape now and save!
Saff said ‘Ssh.’ Jos felt like he was in a library.
‘I should be doing that,’ he said, ‘Searching.’ He fingered the windowpane putty.
‘You got your own thing,’ Saff said, looking at the laptop screen.
Jos hadn’t had his own thing since he’d finished his Masters. Academicaly, Saff had shot past him, big as bamboo. He hadn’t actively turned the PhD down, it was just that the invitation had been buried under catalogues. Being a student had been a career – the census let him say so. A re-enrolment delay of two days, then the weekend, then the weeks after that had stretched into months, seasons. Now all he did each day was try to keep their flat warm with body-heat.
Jos moved to monitor the driveway. The car was safe, because it had had an immobiliser fitted.
‘I could sell the car? I know we gotta scope new places but we got that rent to catch up on.’
‘Don’t sell it,’ Saff said, ‘What about public holidays and junk? How we supposed to get away?’
The flat was so uninsulated that she could see her own breath as she spoke, like a smoker. In neighbouring flats, caches of refugees warmed themselves over rice pots.
Saff took a lot of baths. She asked from the tub, ‘What were those seeds?’ Her glasses had steamed up. The laptop was perched on her knees. Jos put Saff’s cup of rooibos on the toilet seat lid. She could reach it from the bath, because the bathroom was an armspan wide.
‘Mama’s seeds? Pigeon scratchings.’
‘And the seedlings?’
‘Cabbage and carrots, she reckoned. Woulda been nice if she’d chucked us some Big Wednesday tickets,’ Jos said, ‘Can’t eat seedlings.’
‘So, darling, the seeds weren’t suitable for pigeons then.’
‘If you say so.’
‘I’m Wikipedia-ing it now.’ The laptop wobbled on Saff’s knee and began slipping down the wet leeside. She scrabbled at it, the screen slippery. Jos’s heart stopped–
She caught it.
Jos would have complained, but he liked to say original things, and he had run out of new things to say to Saff. She had a habit of Googling his neologisms, adding them to Urban Dictionary.com. She blogged and Tweeted and wrote columns in the student magazine, without even getting paid! Readers thought that Saff lived exotically, a jetsetter. Readers had no idea what it was like to live under the bellies of the planes. Saff used to go back to South Africa on summer holidays and stay with her grands, but she was in the real world, now. Her parents had been slaughtered, their white Mercedes keytag cut from their fists like ivory, their corpses dumped in a ditch in a red-dusted township with corrugated iron roofs.
‘Straighten this out for my LiveJournal,’ Saff said from her bathmilk. She’d been washing her hair with soap. She squinted, shortsighted. ‘The seeds that we could’ve grown veges from, you chucked to the pigeons. Seeds which are likely poisonous. And the seedlings– ’
‘Yeah yeah, I’ll root ‘em.’
Saff smiled with one corner of her mouth. ‘Now buzz off, I’m flathunting.’
When he had wrung all the sleep out of himself, eleven hours, he rolled out of bed into the damp air, tried to do push-ups on the thin carpet. He managed half a push-up. He checked the spare room and the bathroom for Saff, in case she was still at home. The windows were dappled with condensation and he pretended he was inside a submarine.
The shower’s hot spears pierced him. He let yellow piddle warm his feet – he was doing a good deed, saving on toilet bowl water. He put on yesterday’s clothes, no socks. He opened up his neighbour’s recycling bin and pulled out the previous weekend’s newspaper, bulky and sodden with beetroot juice. Balkans, some of the neighbours were. As alien as Mama, but down-to-earth, too, like Saff.
Saff was gone most days, hammering her thesis on the office anvil. Sometimes she drove, and the railway barrier arms would try and hold her. Jos had nothing to do, since Saff was handling the hunt for a new flat. They had a Gestapo landlord who followed the diktats of the realty conglomerate he’d been absorbed by. Jos and Saff didn’t dare get their windows glazed or put up decorations.
Jos made sure there was nothing of use in his rubbish bin, then hauled it to the kerbside, checking the mail for bills and tag. Old tag was part of the landscape; new tag was unwelcome.
Inside, nothing new had been added to their particleboard bookcase. The DVD player gathered dust beside it. They’d sold their DVDs for parking coins. The dust collection was deeper than the book collection. Jos didn’t read anything apart from catalogues now, but he still thought of himself as an Educated Writer, with the impoverished pedigree of Kerouac. His $12.70 in late fees kept him away from the library. He kept his canon inside his head.
He left the flat for just a short amount of time, tiptoeing to the shops. The pedestrian sign said DON’T WALK. He watched a crash as a driver tried to change lanes. Ahead, a flock of youths were on a bench outside the dairy, thumping each others’ shoulders, sniffing out players. The 1041 Boyz, who’d poisoned their own postcode. Jos wasn’t any player. He pretended to put something into the post box so he could avoid the boys. Some of them had forsaken shoes and spent their money on coloured scarves and bandanas instead, stretched over their mouths and brows, as if preventing contamination. They each had one leg of their shorts or pants rolled up. Jos snuck into the dairy and used the parking coins which he’d told Mama he didn’t have. Jos had the packet of cigarettes open before he’d even left the dairy. Their filters looked like rows of grinning white teeth. He wondered how he’d make up the missing rent money, and paused in the gutter. A passing truck blocked his view of the flat.
On a weekday morning, Saff’s journal was left on the bed. She would be in the office early, Jos supposed, making calls to landlords from the Postgrad phone.
Jos pawed the journal randomly. Her journal said that her supervisor had told her off about her internet use. She’d been searching for something… flats?
Against the spine, in the centre of the journal, hundred dollar notes were wedged. Coins, too – he pocketed those. He shuffled the notes, suddenly suave as a card dealer. There was enough there to cover the bond on a new place, although there was still that late rent to make up before they left here. He could get fourteen bucks for the hot water pipe if he took it to the scrap merchant. Quality copper, that. He’d even been eyeing up the window glass, and the carpet, and the bath tub.
Jos put the money in his pocket, just for the feel of it. It didn’t weigh anything, so it wasn’t a big deal. Saff’s journal was yawning. He closed its accusing mouth.
He went about his day, exploring the hot water cupboard, where he found a mummified mouse. He spelunked under the couch cushions. He played with a tube of superglue until it stuck his fingers together. It was impossible to pull them apart.
Saff came home, kissed his cheeks, opened up her laptop flaps.
‘I’m stuck,’ he moped. She had to split his bonded fingers with scissors.
There were no vegetables with their dinner.
Every time Saff went to school, Jos played with the bond money. The afternoons weren’t too long if he got up at lunchtime. Once, he put the notes under the elements of the oven, just to see what heat did to it. The plastic curled. He put the money behind his ear, down his pants, in the pocket of his thready dressing gown. Stray Saff hairs kept sticking to the lint pilled on his clothes.
A recent journal entry, a note about a flat, read APARTMNT 8th FLOOR. NO PETS; 20 MINS FRM BOTAN GARDNZ.
No pigeons, no pets, no room for books or babies. Perhaps Jos could haul up a bag of potting mix for pot plants. He thought about contacting Mama and asking her for–
He went to check the junk mail. On the concrete path, there were still scattered seeds, and a stiff pigeon with foam bubbling out of its beak. Planes droned overhead. The pigeon’s name was Pecky.
Saff walked into the bedroom and yelled, ‘Why’s my journal under the bed?’
‘Hey is there anything to eat?’
‘You got a parking ticket, too. For staying overtime in your spot. I found where you hid it.’
Jos cringed and turned away slightly, poised for a beating.
‘Oi, I found us a flat,’ she said, ‘Come look at it with me.’ She pinched his ear and jingled the car keys.
‘You got us a new place without asking?’
‘Are you saying you won’t help me move?’
Jos studied the parking ticket like he’d never seen it before. Saff’s feet were grounded tree trunks.
‘OI! Are you refusing me?’
‘Good.’ She patted his head. ‘You need to inform the neighbours.’ Saff ran the hot tap. Jos gawped at the hot water cupboard. He thought of the neighbours’ unpalatable names, Mirovic, Rakaihautu, Aidid, Fa’alogologo. Saff was saying things into the air; his ears didn’t let her language in.
The fruit bowl was empty. The road roared against their front door.
When Jos had finished reading Saff’s journal, and her internet history, he went walking. He didn’t take a direction with him. At the dairy, he swiped his library card through the money machine, grabbed the box of rooibos and ran like a refugee.
Between the temples and white-weatherboarded bungalows were suggestions of bush. He could smell the stormwater river and its shroud of redwoods and cypress– nothing native. The scrap metal dealer had trucks in its driveway, and rottweilers on chains, and only yellow grass. The mosques were busy with people with purpose. The Orthodox, Assemblies of God and Korean Presbyterian churches were less busy. He searched a clothing bin with a sign written in scribble, which almost bit off his arm. He picked cigarette packets up and checked them for sustenance. There was fresh chewing gum on the ground. Sometimes his feet stuck.
Behind a group of tiled retirement villas, he stumbled down a muddy incline to where the river ran through the depression. This was the lowest part of the isthmus the city had grown on. A modest torrent licked thighs of soil. Bamboo stopped the banks from breaking. Jos could see the pipe which fed the water further upstream. The laundry-grey colour of the bubbly water meant the stream bed could not be seen. The colours shoudn’t have mixed, he thought. He pitied any fish trying to make a living in that river.
He came back towards the shops, rumbling his fingers along fences. He took a book of DVD coupons leaking from a mailbox. He glared at houses which looked abandoned, or maybe their occupants were at work. Or maybe they weren’t houses, maybe they were Homes.
A public holiday hit them by surprise. The road was busier than ever, so they stayed stationary, played possum.
While Saff brought the groceries in from the car boot, Jos fixed the batteries in the DVD remote. Saff had got the negative and positive ends mixed up.
Saff’s brow was sweaty. ‘Pudding, if you’re gonna stuff around all day, plant those seeds, the ones which made the pigeons sick. And these, please.’ Saff had a box of hibiscus and proteas. They had supermarket Special stickers stuck on them. He tried to peel them off but the stickers tore. Saff hit the couch and said, ‘That’s me, I’m rooted.’ She sipped a tin mugful of Council Wine, poured crisp from the cold tap. She didn’t look unhappy.
Some sun shone. Jos pulled up clods of earth by hand. Sometimes he hit concrete – the flat’s foundations were deeper than he thought. He pulled worms out of the dirt clods. On the uneven path which encircled the flats he made a pile of refuse. Grass roots, popsicle sticks, bulbs, bottle tops, cigarette filters, lollipop sticks, can tabs and cockle shells.
‘I sold the DVD player, by the way,’ Saff yelled from inside. He words were almost rushed away by the traffic.
‘But I had some vouchers?’
‘We need the extra dosh. Read a book. Read The Blue Lagoon.’
He groped along the roots like tracing tripwires, and disconnected them. His fingernails blackened. He pulled up the handle of a cricket bat, used it as a digging stick to make holes to put the seedlings in. He turned the stump in his hands, thought about a tale they’d taught him at primary school, a giant whose digging stick had snapped, a giant who’d carved fertile land for people to live on.
He pushed a protea seedling into the ground. It was hard to stabilise the protea. He pushed it deeper. A hibiscus followed.
He buried Mama’s seeds randomly, then sat on his bum and recovered. The Serbs in the flat next to him had crazy plants on their lawn, dill and cabbage in large clay pots. Sure, duh, obviously it was obvious, but it still weirded him out: there was soil under the dumb grass.
They moved past midday. The clouds darkened. The traffic slackened.
‘Got your smokes,’ Saff said, leaning out the front door, throwing out broken bread for the birds, ‘They’re in the fruit bowl.’
‘You’re a lifesaver.’
Saff ran a bath. He heard the water pouring through the copper pipe. The copper sang to him. Those extra dollars could patch up the rent they owed, let them leave this place. Jos paused outside the bathroom door, listening to Saff. She was watching a film on the laptop and chortling. Jos wasn’t big on music – this was the sound he liked, Saff’s secret foment. Jos opened the heart of Saff’s journal, took out the bond money. He crept to the front door, went to bury the money with the seedlings, but noticed the clods of bread instead.
Saff told her friends about their leaving party, and some of them said, ‘You still with him?!’ Saff had more friends than Jos. Anything was more than nothing. They decided against inviting their neighbours, because they were too shy to pronounce the neighbours’ names.
Saff scrawled BOND PARTY!!! on the wall with lipstick. Her new dress had petal-patterns. Jos yelled across the room that they would lose their bond if Saff wrecked the place. Guests entered through random doors and windows, interrupting him with hugs and cheek-pecks and fist-bumps and shoulder barges.
She screamed, ‘Kiss MY wreck!’ tipping seven dollar wine on the carpet, ‘We’re MOVING!’
The friends showed up in intimidating numbers. Saff told the story over and over again, buzzing, about the thousand bucks she’d saved with her student allowance and her scholarship and something else which Jos couldn’t make out. How they just had to sort the bond and she’d slip into this great apartment and We’re stickin it to the landlord WOOOO!!!
Her friends multiplied by mitosis. They gifted her edible body paint, candy knickers. Their shoulders knocked Jos. He went outside and watched the 1041 gangstas roll past, drawn to the fringes of the light, scavenging the beats from Saff’s stereo. Jos wondered if the G’s ever went outside their postcode. He hoped not.
One of Saff’s mates, strong-jawed and greasy, slipped them a tab of acid each. ‘Congrats on ya new place,’ the dude said with a wink, ‘And get your fill of Saff, bro. She’s a awesome root if I remember rightly.’
Jos ran his tongue over the acid tab and walked away.
Soon he was following Saff round the party, tugging the back of her new dress, demanding to know where she’d got the money for any bond and a dress too. She snapped, ‘I’ve been SAVING!’
He was outside on wet knees, sniffing the seedling stalks when Saff came to check on him. A chaingang of friends followed her. Everything throbbed for Jos. The road appeared to him as rocky rapids; the median strip looked like whitewater rocks. He grabbed Saff so she wasn’t swept away.
He ran inside, locked himself in the bathroom with the laptop, reading Saff’s Facebook. There was an email from his mama. Each word stung him, burrowing through his layers of skin. She didn’t get his style like Saff did, Mama didn’t take risks, didn’t live at the splintered present-end of history.
Jos poured someone’s tequila down his throat, spat it into the sink, forced more down. The last swallow lodged in his throat and he was hiccupping. The toilet seat throbbed. The tapwater was jelly.
Saff began kicking everybody out. Jos heard the Acid Dude ask her if she was with that loser still. Removing her admirers was like peeling paint off the walls. She kicked the bathroom door in. She used the hem of her new dress to wipe the vomit from Jos’s lips. Farewells were yelled across the neighbourhood as the drunks dispersed. The 1041 Boyz broke a pot plant over Acid Dude’s head, then scattered into fugitive specks.
A sequence of police cars screamed past. One of the cars tried to change lanes and collided with another. Saff held Jos’s head in her lap. They watched the walls swim. Jos called out for copper.
A letter, crumpled as an accordion, protruded from the rubbish bin. Saff read it to him like a bedtime story. The letter said that their water was going to be cut off.
Jos walked for half an hour to hire Saff’s favourite film. He passed the scrap metal dealer’s, and a new car yard run by a man from a disintegrating country. When he got home he remembered that Saff had sold the DVD player, and cursed himself for caring.
The Serbian neighbour stuck his head out the window. ‘Josiah, hey! You landlord he come – I tell he to Odjebi! Fuck off! He bad reality.’
‘Realty, Mr Mirovic.’
She’d been too tired and too buzzing to write in her diary. Her LiveJournal had lapsed. Saff was less and less able to upload and release. They stole their first sleep-in together in months. In bed, Jos held her head against his chest. Her neck seemed thinner, her wrists were floppy and her shrinking breasts made her nipples look larger. She talked about how elevated the new apartment would be. He said the paving was weird in town. They heard pigeons flapping as some turbaned neighbour fed them bread. They identified each pigeon by its calls – Flappy, Grey, Warbler, Mr Feather.
Into banana boxes, they packed diplomas, Saff’s Bachelor degree, Jos’s Masters, fading bills and receipts: records of their debt. The plants on the lawn weren’t going anywhere.
‘Seen my journal?’ Saff had her face between the mattress and the carpet.
‘I wish,’ Jos said. He’d practised his response.
‘Pretty sure I put the bond money in there. It’s just that the landlord’s coming round soon… ’
‘Bond eh? Did Mama loan that to ya?’
‘A lady never tells.’
‘You can tell me though.’
Saff glared at him.
At the end of the day, the veins in their arms had thickened. New calluses on their palms, broken fingernails. Saff scrubbed BOND PARTY!!! from the wall with methylated spirits. She paint bubbled. She hadn’t changed her knickers in three days. There was vomit in the washing machine, but they disconnected its pipes anyway. Avoiding eye contact, Jos mentioned that the hot water pipe might have to come out. She asked why; he muttered something about their bond.
Outside, watching the pigeons, Jos found a $2 coin gleaming in the gutter. He walked past chopped-up notes in triangles and rectangles, some of which had come loose from the bread which he had wrapped each fragment in. He wasn’t sure if the pigeons had eaten the money or not. Judging from the distribution of the confetti notes, strewn across the concrete, the birds hadn’t eaten much. The wind has snatched the other scraps of money. He asked the pigeons not to disturb the vegetable bed. He fetched himself and Saff a scoop of deep fried chips, stole the slices of bread which the neighbour had chucked at the pigeons, and made chip butties.
They couldn’t sleep.
Jos writhed, then joined Saff to his midsection. She whimpered. Jos rolled flat on his back, looking up, and held Saff above him. The mildewed towel twisted as they fucked, devouring each other’s mouths to muffle the sound of their stomachs screaming. Saff shuddered; Jos’s eyes rolled back in his head as everything he had in him squirted out of his tiny, underused keyhole. The duvet fell away. Shadows shifted across their bare backs. They hugged like a DNA helix. Saff slept on the side closest to the door.
Saff awoke first, unpacked the kettle. She found two wet teabags in the sink, put them in mugs, still good. She whispered into Jos’s ear, ‘Where’s that bond, big guy? I’ll grab us some McDonalds hey?’
Jos squeezed a knot of duvet, kept his eyelids sealed.
Ten minutes later, pots were clattering. He heard something shatter. Then she was standing on his shoulders, shaking him. ‘Where is it? Where’s the bloody bond money? Who took our bond?!’
The washing machine was already boxed up. They couldn’t change clothes. Saff wore the duvet, Jos wore the towel. They sat on the bare floor, broke. They ate the candy knickers for breakfast, sucked the edible body paint from their fingers. Saff buried her face in Jos’s chest, hugged her man until her arms were numb and she couldn’t move. Pigeons squabbled outside the door. Fragments of chopped-up money were blown against the dew on the windows.
With a scarf over his face to disguise himself, Jos bought bread from the dairy. The crumbs would make the pigeons happy. He checked the vegetable beds. The pumpkins and carrots had rooted and risen. He nodded at the postcode gang; they appeared puzzled – even they didn’t disguise themselves with scarves. Then Jos drove to the car yard and handed over the keys and papers. He told them to go ahead and tear out the immobiliser. As he walked to his home, he hummed an island tune, pockets fat with cash. He felt like digging out his old school gear and drawing a graph, showing how high he’d bounced back. He used to be good at accounting, that’s right. Wasn’t there supposed to be, like, heaps of money in accounting?
They unpacked bowls and spoons from a banana box, pulling handfuls of documents out with them. The invitation for Jos to sit his Ph.D. surfaced. That evening, they ate microwaved carrots and pumpkin soup, and Saff rummaged up a jar of jam for dessert.
‘Can you open this?’ she said, wincing and handing him the jar, ‘You’re strong.’
Afterwards, Saff took a cold shower, and screamed when she got in, but then she got used to it and started singing. Jos’s ear was pressed against the bathroom door. He went and meddled in the hot water cupboard, made sure the copper piping was firmly in place, turned the connection back on and then the warmth came through.