It was the sort of town you could find your way around without a map. Though if you had a pocket-sized family tree handy then you would find picking up sheilas a lot less awkward. Are you a Mahoney? A McAlistair? A Page? Let me buy you a drink. Most of the women, though, I knew alright. I’d played house with a few of them in high school, kissed ’em on the same hay bales, taken ’em to the same flicks. Jaffas rolled down the wooden floors, drowning out the sound of love bites and popcorn. In a town that small you were bound to catch the same film twice. The reel can get sort of crackly. She was alright though. We were alright, actually. She loved my scar. Stroked it with an absent kind of grin on her face. Said it made me look ‘tough’, said she liked that. She tongued the lip of the amber bottle. Sweat and condensation mingled, trickled down her arm and dropped from her bent elbow. She said she could ‘stay this way forever’. Said I had it ‘pretty sorted’. Said ‘footy is an honest kind of game’. Said ‘a bit of mud makes a man’.
A railway track ran through the cobbled square. The wood of the sleepers sat cracked and hollow looking, like empty cicada shells. Your hands would burn if you tried to hold the calloused red tracks. Ten seconds can seem an awful long time when you’re in pain. The wired mesh that marked them out of bounds was the only intact fence in the whole damn place. It kept no one out. On Friday nights when the pub shut, kids drunk on false immortality would scale the wire and cling to the insides. You were a god if you could hold your breath past the driver’s cabin. Lights bearing down brighter than bright, and air crushing your ribcage. A mouse crouched in a diesel tunnel. Brown paper pie bags and milkshake straws swirled like missiles. Is a scream still a scream if no one can hear it?
His name was Murray. He was gonna play footy. He was a kicker, was gonna be a kicker. I wouldn’t of missed a single game. I woulda married her, honest. I’m a decent bloke, the stick around kinda guy. Saved up, bought my own tools, rented my own shop. Pulled apart a million engines, held torn rubber tubes between trembling fingers. Entire worlds in the palm of my hand. We woulda drunk malt and ate pies and peas. She’d have collected the Women’s Weekly from the newsagent each Tuesday. Blue bonnets and black booties. Pins would have littered the floor like thorns. I would have learnt to wear my boots inside. It would have been a dusty little hole and the tube lighting would have hummed. But a hum can fill an entire room, and enough elbow grease can make any mess shine. It was gonna work. We were gonna make it work.
I was an apprentice once. I was learning how to gather enough oil under my nails to call myself a man. After so many years a mechanic just gives up. Black lines his fingerprints in an indelible print of toil. The hair on his arms grows only in patches; exhausts can get bloody hot. There’s nothing quite like the gunmetal chatter of a loose chain, the quiet keening of the beer fridge. Diesel hugs your hair and the women breathe it in deep and slow. If you hold it in your lungs everything sort of tips. You never really leave the workshop. You can take off as many splattered overalls as you like, but the grease will always cling to your scalp. No matter how much you wave it about, a white rag can never stay white for long. Sediment behind your ears. Grit, in your throat. Palms hard. Nails brittle, bitten raw.
I still hear that ringing in the dead of the night.
He had sat on that same stool for as long as I could remember. Spent each hot day wrapped in a cotton shawl, feet up on a wooden crate: ‘Resch’s Pilsener’. The corrugated roof enveloped the porch, cast a shadow over his shock of grey hair. They said he’d snapped. He was only forty-five, ran into the trenches, eighteen-and-a-half. He had hardly learnt to shave. Returned a true blue hierarchy-hating crackpot. Was one of those first ANZACs, given an acronym but not enough money to make ends meet. He listened to Beethoven’s seventh symphony on a decaying gramophone, crackling, but loud. The second movement only, over and over again, almost all damn day. When his family’s villa went up in flames he strolled down the front steps, cigar in one hand, the other conducting an absent orchestra. The gramophone was already by the mailbox. Each night he limped into the pub, clutching at his hip flask. Whiskey goes well with more whiskey. He hummed Waltzing Matilda half a key out, and laughed too loudly. His hands shook and he spat when he talked, but every dart he threw landed true. He gave off that stale tobacco and alcohol smell. The mozzies didn’t touch him, I guess they knew there was little of him left to give. He cried sometimes. Always silent and still. But the day the newspaper declared we were at war again he wailed with laughter for a full minute. ‘The world’s lost its damn mind but ‘business as usual’ for us, eh Menzies? What a sodding waste. I coulda used this paper to wipe my arse.’
The last time I played footy was the first time I got knocked out. They all cheered my name as I fell, face first in the mud. Held me aloft, stitched lip and aching jaw. Red Ribbon and tarnished cup. In those days concussion was for pansies and if you could nod then your brain can’t have been too badly scrambled. ‘She’ll be right,’ and in you went again. Woollen socks and rusted cleats. Orchestrated madness. They cheered, straining vocal chords and stamping feet. Raucous nights bred anthem dawns. Except for when we lost. No one sings when you lose. The first time I got knocked out was not the last time I laced my boots. There are plenty of scrums you gotta run into, in life. It can help if you are only half conscious, believe your thin voice, ignore its watery echo. I’ll be right. We’ll be right. It’ll all be right.
About three months in, the boys stopped merely clinging to the mesh fence. Brushing death was no longer close enough. They made this new game. Thought it was new. Played it as though they were the first, as if they’d be the last. They would clamber over the wire, torn knees and dust. Stand in the very centre of the tracks and close their eyes. Feel the mud trapped in the hair of their legs, their shoulders ache. Scream until they could feel it in their very bones, then, silence. Tensing. Sweating. Shaking. Euphoria. In this moment it didn’t matter if you remembered to move, if you forgot how to breathe, forgot to think. You were alive. Actually, in that one moment it didn’t even matter if you were alive. You were a hero. Would forever be a hero. The thing of legend. People would think of you once a year and write you anthems and poems and prayers. They would buy you a beer and slap you on the back, say,
They found him in the morning. He was lying in the centre of the tracks in his finest suit. Silvered hair neatly parted, nails short and clean. A golden medal from the ‘Great War’ dangled from his chest. He’d shat himself. A single bullet hole marred his lined face and one white feather peeked out from his breast pocket. I wondered if he died right away. If the bullet clear blew his brains out, or if blood beat a dripping beat on his temple. If his side seared, his scars burnt like rust. He didn’t have his hip flask, hadn’t been to the pub in days. He smelt only of dirt and sweat.
I wondered if his old man would have been proud.
The day after he died, the pub did not close. The door stood open, the sound of brass knob against wood wall. A morse code waltz. All night the room stank of burning cardboard as a hundred moths flung themselves at the hot hanging bulb. The ping of their death march was broken only by the clink of glass against counter. The sharp scratching of bristled beard. Creeks of condensation pooled in broken circles. No one used coasters. No one gave a damn.
It gets into everything you know. You wake up with chunks of it nestled in your still-burning cheeks. Eyelids swollen and nose slick. Half a rancid inch of gut rot and despair. Your father stops calling you ‘son’ and your mother stops calling you altogether. But you could stop any old day. Just not today. Not just yet. You fall asleep with a companion and wake up alone. You buy one bottle and drink five. You say never again; again and again. And spirits are everywhere if you listen, and vodka can’t wipe away half the stains you got. Trust me, I’ve tried. Can’t do anything about yesterday but can clear bugger up every tomorrow you ever had. Not that it matters. After all, tomorrow is a luxury; we all must learn to surrender in the end.
We called it the Second World War. It got a number, not like the first one. We finally understood it was just one of a series, didn’t fool ourselves into thinking us humans could learn not to shovel the same shit. We used to wave at enemy planes, you know. They would fly so low you could make out the insignia on their helmets. They’d smile and wave back, like some glance between mates on death row. We knew we weren’t alone, not ever. Dying is the one great shared adventure. It was almost kinda nice. Until one day they dropped something, something they didn’t return to collect. Any gift from above will shatter, given enough time. Vertebrae are fragile and man is spineless. We shot at them from then on. Eventually, man himself learnt to fly. Grecian beaches steeped in sunshine, Icarus in a shredded silk parachute. One hand can take many lives. I hadn’t even finished my breakfast. We burnt but we understood. We could graze God, but only if we held guns. We touched the moon with atom bombs in our back pockets. Insurance, after all, is everything.
She didn’t want to marry me. Said Murray wasn’t mine. Said ‘a mechanic isn’t worth a damn’ and she, she ‘couldn’t bear’ for me to go and not come back. Said she’d ‘miscounted’. Said ‘the doctor would provide us with a better home’. Said ‘football is a brute’s game’ and she’d ‘had a bit to drink, after all. Sorry if I was unfair.’
A million landmines a minute.
She sent me a picture, once. Murray wasn’t mine, wasn’t hers.
We’d had a daughter.
She has my eyes. Has her hair. She is bloody perfect. In a world like this, it’s best I never held her.
No matter how hard you scrub, hate fills your pores,
and some things are too beautiful to hack it.
Aimee-Jane Anderson-O’Connor is in her final year of a Bachelor of Arts majoring in English and History at the University of Waikato. She can be found reading everything except what she should be, and hopes – one day – to take over the world with hyphens.