I had seen glimpses of this suburb by train. Never from the saddle of a red racer.
From behind the protective glass of the carriage the yawning streets and grey tiles had looked like parts of an abandoned movie set; but now, as I shuttled over the uneven footpath in the cool margarine air, it didn’t feel so alien.
I was deep in the bowels of the city on my way home from Barney’s. “South of nowhere”, I’d told the cab driver as a side note to our conversation over the gentrification of the world. “Capital friends are hard to come by,” he’d suggested in return, although I wasn’t sure what he was implying. The party had been a small affair: gentle hip-hop music tumbling from a sparsely furnished living room; couples discussing illustrations on back issues of the New Yorker. In the kitchen, a mountain of raw finger food provided distraction for the smokers and sullen hipsters. There weren’t any females of note except for a Norwegian pixie, who’d been strutting between the balcony and the bedroom towing an obedient Italian acupuncturist. I’d intercepted them with a story about how my father had been the last person to see Pavarotti alive, but the pixie jerked on Mario’s woollen blazer and they marched away. Such a lack of stimuli forces me to mix my drinks and drink them fast, and I’d soon found solace in pre-midnight smashedness; so much so that I thought I’d even caught Barney’s wife smile as I exited the bathroom. It may have been a smirk or even a grin, but I found it arresting, almost arousing in its fleetingness.
Later, while I was discussing the futility of NASA’s mission to Mars, one of the hipsters pointed out that my fly was undone and that, should I wish to correct this wardrobe malfunction, he would finish rolling my cigarette. I am a prodigious drunk – this much I advance – and also an eloquent one. I told the hipster to “eff a wet tea bag” and “do something effing useful like skip off and procure me another effing Hefeweizen”. The fuzz on the hipster’s lip quivered. He was clearly impressed.
“What don’t you e-e-d-d-ucate yourself on the state of the universe?” he stammered.
Barney gave me one his ‘I’m disappointed’ looks: the one where he resembles a potato about to be thrown into the boiler. I agreed to make my way home on two conditions: that a) I be allowed to choose one bottle of alcohol for the ride home; and that b) Barney lend me tenner for a cab.
“I’ll pay you back, Barns,” I said as I sifted through the kitchen sink. “Think of me as an annoying busker – I turn up while you’re having fun, entertain you with music you don’t like, and then you pay me to go away.”
“You already owe me one hundred from poker. When am I going to see that?”
“Look, we’re finishing up anyway. I just found out that I have to be at the airport.”
“Going somewhere nice?”
“Family stuff. I fly out at 5:65.”
“I didn’t know there was such a time. Seen my cigarettes? No matter, keep them. Now, how about those ten bones?”
“No bones, no more. Take my bike. I’ll drop by next weekend to pick it up. Here’s the key – the rusty red racer out front. I chained it to the drain.”
“Oh, that one.” I had urinated on it earlier in the evening. “Well, see you around. And give my regards to Naomi.”
“That’s what I said.” I edged closer to Barney. “You know, I think I may be attracted to your wife.”
“You can stop talking whenever you feel like it.”
“No, as a friend I have to tell you this. I always had the feeling that I repulsed her in a way. Just why I can’t imagine. I have a stunning wardrobe and meticulous grooming habits. I mean, she didn’t even say a word to me at your wedding.”
“You called her a family ‘a tribe of proud warriors’, remember?”
“Are they not? It was a compliment.”
“They’re from New Hamburg.”
“Then they’re more uncivilised than I had guessed. But tonight, I think she actually smiled at me. I see this as a turning point, Barnaby.”
“So nice to see you again, Todd.”
So I left Barney’s, reeled around the stairwell until I’d found the exit and peeled away on the red racer; bottle of polish vodka in hand and leaving a wonderfully long track of urine in my wake. All I could think of was Ngaire in a fur coat, purring ‘Good evening’ in Polish. Dobry wieczor.
And now I was lost. I couldn’t recall the direction in which I was supposed to ride and, at four o’clock in the morning, there were no locals to bother with my predicament. I took out my phone. The battery was dead. I rode on hoping to hear the sound of traffic or the rattle of train tracks – anything to guide my way out of this suburban mouse trap. But apart from the hum of the city and red racer’s squeaking, there was only that awful silence: an atavism of some pre-urban past when people obeyed curfews.
Where in Flaky McPutty’s cakehole was I?
Shuddering around a corner I came across an illuminated bus shelter. There was sure to be a map or timetable there, or at least some evidence suggesting I’d not crossed dimensions. And indeed there was a map – hanging squarely over the snoring lump of the most rotten smelling individual, in whose presence my nostrils have had the displeasure of properly functioning. The man, for I guessed from his knotted facial hair that it was male, was either a dwarf or very fat and hairy child. The length of his body barely reached the end of the shelter’s plastic sitting bench. Yet what he lacked in stature he compensated in odour many times over. I held my breath as I hovered above him. I tried to decipher the map in the dim light but his evil steam frothed in my eyes. Despite several attempts, my lung capacity wasn’t adequate and I had to take a few steps back. The dwarf must have heard my gasps, as he ceased snoring, rolled over and regarded me with a frightening eye.
“What do you want?” he snapped. “Can’t you see I’m trying to sleep here?”
I inspected his face and found there to be a familiar tragedy cast in it – in the puffy bags that hung on each side of his angular nose and in the hooked lines around his snarl.
“Believe me, I didn’t mean to wake you. I was just trying to look at the map. Just a bit lost,” I said, instantly regretting the last admission.
“Are you alright in the head, boy?”
“Of course I am. Have you never lost your way, sir? Never taken a wrong turn, a bad alley, eaten an off prawn?”
“Wouldn’t be sleeping in an effing bus shelter if I hadn’t. Have you got a coin or two to give me?”
“No, I don’t. But how about half a bottle of Polish vodka? Freshly opened.” I took a swig and handed the bottle to the dwarf. He stared at it greedily with his open eye, then snatched it and buried it inside his vile overcoat.
“Where are we going then?”
I hoped he was using the first person plural in the figurative sense. “To the city centre or thereabouts. If you just tell me how I get to the square, I can find my way from there.”
“City centre, ay?”
“Your hearing is very good.”
“What else have you got? Cigarettes maybe? How about some chewing gum? All you types always carry some chewing gum around with you.” The man sat up, yawned and stretched his little legs. “What a night. More ups and downs than at the races, I tell you. I swatted something real rare just before, out the back of that Italian over the way – a full margherita and half a bottle of wine. A mighty swoop with a napkin to go.” His legs swung in the air as he cackled. I have to admit that I was feeling nervous (not that I feared the fellow. I could have surely outpaced him, even if I were forced to abandon my transport) but his demeanour and that one, terrible eye hinted at a stewing evil; one that could, at any minute, spew forth an unpredictable horror. The allusion to Naples did not escape me.
“No gum either. Sorry. Look I have to go, if you’d just care to tell me in which direction to ride, I’d be very grateful. My girlfriend is waiting for me. She’s taken rather ill you see, and I really have to get back and change her gauze.” Why I invented this fabrication I don’t know, but the man’s silence encouraged me: “Burns victim. It was a terrible house fire. In the country. We suspect a passing car threw a lit cigarette out the window, setting the corn fields ablaze. Let’s just say the wind was not favourable. The gardner we lost.”
“Corn fields? No gum? No gum…” his voice trailed off.
What an insipid waste of vodka. To hell with this dwarf!
I mounted the red racer and made to ride away but the man lept from the bench and seized the handlebars.
“Stop that! Let go!” The man backed down and arched his back. The sleeping eye popped open and I noticed that, despite his matted beard and filthy, charcoal-stained skin, his face now had a clear intensity about it. “Look, I already asked you for directions and even gave you my last bottle of vodka . Are you going to tell me where the city centre is or not?”
“That way,” he said pointing furiously down the street, spitting like lard on a skittle. “But it won’t get you to where you’re going.”
“Why not? Right now it seems like a very appealing option. We’ve just sent a probe to Mars you know. If I can’t be allowed to ride around aimlessly in the dark in my own city without a light and a hope and with the full benefit of Earth’s gravitational force, then why bother at all?”
To my surprise, the dwarf seemed to consider this. He nodded and rubbed his beard with his caterpillar fingers. “What was that you said about Mars?”
“I said, we sent a probe to Mars and–”
“Oh my!” He jerked backwards. “You’re one of them, aren’t you? ”
“What on Earth are you talking about?”
“On Earth? On Earth?” The dwarf cackled, spraying me with his malodorous spit.
“You’re one of the deniers. You don’t even know where you are, boy! I shouldn’t even be talking you. Get away from me!” The small man pivoted to the left, thought better of it and then sprung in the opposite direction, his legs wapping and fwopping like two eggplants being rolled down the stairs.
“Oh, well then eff you too!” I cried after him and pushed the red racer away. “You might consider investing in bar of soap if you value the success of future social interaction!”
I careened over the gutter and back into the street. Somewhere behind me I heard the dwarf curse and the sound of a bottle smashing on concrete.
Further down, the street offered nothing new – there were the same grey apartment blocks, cowering together as if under the weight of a bestial depression; the chained doors of convenience stores, beer and soft drinks behind barred windows; the odd tree punching its way through slabs of cement. I began to detest this nameless district. In defiance I spat at parked cars and telegraph poles as I passed them. I wished for the demolition of everything around me so that I might be able to gauge where I was. It was my third year in the city: three years ago to the week that I was seduced by that Polish cocktail waitress and coerced into staying (and I employ the word ‘seduce’ and ‘coerce’ in their loosest of meanings). Natalia and I had nothing in common at the time, except that we lived along the same train line and bought the same brand of condoms; and that she had a cousin who enjoyed playing poker. That cousin was Bartek Karpicki, or Barney, as I christened him one night after he cheated me out of a twenty with a pair of nines. Since then, whenever the poor boy struck any sort of fortune, even if it was a double serving of haloumi on his döner, we chanted: Barney nines! Barney nines! Well, I did at least. Life was swell. I had a few friends, worked a few freelance hours as creative director in a featherweight advertising agency for food and took advantage of Natalia’s unique talents with her employer’s top shelf liquor. It was Barney who’d told Natalia I’d cheated on her with a waitress in the women’s toilets at his wedding reception. My argument, that I was simply helping her retrieve a rogue gherkin from the back of her dress, was dismissed. Nevertheless, despite the bad timing and Barney’s initial irrationality, we remained on good terms and he and Ngaire even permitted me use of their couch for a month while I searched for new lodgings.
A car engine sputtered to life. This relieved me – anyone industrious enough to get up at this hour would certainly be of sane disposition. “Wait!” I cried. “Hey, early riser!” I pushed hard on the pedals and the red racer’s thin wheels danced between the stones towards the ruby lights. Exactly how fast I was cycling I cannot remember; it was definitely too fast to break. Red became white. The front wheel of the red racer hit the car’s rear bumper and my body, with my thighs still pumping up and down, sailed into the window. I’m not sure what I hit or how I hit it, but I ended up on my back and facing the sky.
The vastness of space draped over me like a spotty blanket. I must have been sobering up, as the universe shifted into focus, twirled above me and flickered with tiny blue-green dots. There was one, bluer than the rest, hovering just above my nose, expanding and contracting, breathing like a long distance swimmer. It vanished with a flash.
“It’s okay, nothing broken,” I tried to say through the drool. Nothing yielded as I gathered myself and the red racer from the street. There was no blood. Even the red racer, dilapidated as it was, had escaped further scarring. At the end of the street, the red point of a cigarette bounced about in the cabin of the car. “You nearly killed me, you effing cupcake!” I hollered, ignorant of my taunt’s inefficacy. Luckily, someone spoke up to correct me.
“I don’t think they heard you. Are you alright?”
“I think so.”
“You hit the deck pretty hard,” Ngaire said, her voice singing in the wispy air.
“It’s nothing, really. I’ve had much worse, believe me.”
“I don’t, you know. What are you doing back here?”
“Back where? Have you been following me?”
“No, this is our street.”
“Don’t tell me you’ve been riding around in circles all night.”
“Barney’s left for Poland for a few months. His father’s sick.”
“He mentioned that. Well, not that his father was sick but – wait – a few months?”
“Only a short trip this time.”
I decided not to pursue the subject. Discussing geography had only brought trouble. “Look, you wouldn’t happen to know the way back into town would you? My effing arse is getting a little sore and I’d like to welcome my impending hangover in bed, not on the back of a stolen 10-speed.”
“You didn’t say a word to me all night. I was starting to think you didn’t like me.” Ngaire was truly something special. I was right when I said I’d noticed something, although I was still incapable of describing what. She wasn’t smiling or frowning or exhibiting any emotion, but her brown eyes and her lips – folded together like two halves of a ripe plum – seized me with a sudden viciousness.
I cleared my throat: “It was that Norwegian girl. She wouldn’t leave me be the entire evening. I told her I wasn’t any relation to Pavarotti, but she insisted that I wear that goddamn scarf! Actually, come to think of it, I think I am a little shaken up. Is there any chance I could crash on your couch for a few hours? For old time’s sake? I don’t snore as loudly as Barney, if you remember.”
“I don’t know about that, Todd.”
“It’s okay. I know you hate me. That thing – what I said at the wedding, it was just a joke. I was drunk and I think someone spiked my drink with-”
“No, it’s not that.”
“Oh. The gherkin?”
Ngaire’s face opened as if to roar and I saw the first glimpse of her pulsating white teeth. What a fine and fierce creature my Polish friend had snared. What did she see in him? Barney was sincere, polite, generous and never turned up late. He was a serial hoarder – he didn’t even throw bread ties and his socks had more holes than a silicone sex doll. I, on the other hand, was reckless, capricious, merciless in my criticism of averageness, indifferent to the feelings of…
My throat tightened as she padded closer. I straightened my back and, anticipating an assault, reached into my pocket for my dead phone. Why, I did not know, but it made me feel safe. “I’d better get going,” I said.
“You don’t have to, if you don’t want to.” Ngaire grasped the back of my head with her left hand and pulled my mouth towards hers. Our lips fused and I felt her body draw against my thigh. I had to dedicate a small part of my brain to keeping this leg taut as the other was shaking from hip to ankle. The kiss was long and deep. I kept my eyes open – the memories of the moment would be useful.
Ngaire whimpered and released her grip.
“What was that?” It was cosmic.
“It was what you wanted, no?”
“I don’t know,” I said.
This time I took the initiative. I wrapped my arm around her and gained purchase of her formidable rump. She took my head in her hands and we kissed once more. All thoughts of my predicament, the quarrels with Barney, Natalia, the accident, the insane dwarf, and the universe itself, drizzled away like warm treacle. The stars came back to me – blue, green and winking – like they were soldered to every neuron in my body. From behind my eyelids I noticed daylight breaking from above; I felt it warming the back of my neck, through my spine, down into my legs and to the soles of my feet. I know, I know, I repeated to myself and felt as if I had been forgiven for some imperceptible yet horrendous sin. I finally know.
When I opened my eyes I couldn’t see. But I knew by the rock in my back that I was still on the street. I faced a red sky.
I tried to raise myself. It was impossible to move without great pain. My legs were cold, – I took this to be a positive sign. From the uniform shape of buildings and the tally of parked cars I gathered that I was in a residential street. Ngaire! I tilted my head and saw that the street ended in a cul-de-sac. A sign with white, bold lettering stood in the distance. It was partly covered by blue foliage and was just close enough for me to read without squinting:
Athabasca City (New Berlin), 200m
Earth was a 35 million miles away and I was home.