You’re trying to focus on the good stuff as you walk to work on a springtime Saturday morning. Pink and white cherry blossom falls from the trees. The air still has its night fragrance. The sky is baby blue. Your neck isn’t bruised. The sound of children playing, that’s a surprise. You’re an observant guy. Over the year you’ve taken this route you’ve gathered only retirees and singles live along this stretch. Perhaps they’re grandkids, nieces or nephews. As you walk further the sound changes. It’s not children playing. It’s one child, wailing.
Fences block your view. Is the child hurt, betrayed, belittled or unwanted? The wails become muffled for a moment. A man shouts something. A door slams. The wails redouble. The next driveway reveals the source.
The child’s mouth forms an almost perfect oval. Its eyes are squeezed shut as though to wring from them the tears which run down its cheeks. Perhaps five or six, brown-skinned with curly black hair, it’s probably a boy going by the “Superman” top and blue tracksuit bottom. He’s barefoot.
A smudge of white on the boy’s right arm is a hand. The hand belongs to an adult, a Pākehā woman with purple hair. She’s wearing a skin-tight crimson top, black ankle-length skirt and jandals. Her toenails are painted black. She looks at the boy with indifference. The boy takes a breath, opens his eyes, gives you a mournful look and explodes into more tears. The woman grasps the boy’s arm tighter and pulls. He plants his feet and leans backward.
They’re not respectable, these people. They’re rough. This is how bogans behave. It’s none of your business. You haven’t stopped walking and you look away, at the footpath, at the trees. You hear a loud smack. She’s hit him! She’s bloody-well hit him! You debate whether to turn around. Of course, she knows no better. Her mother probably hit her too. But the boy!
“Isn’t it interesting priests wear black?” your flatmate said the night before last. “Black shirts, black suits, black shoes. The colour of death, darkness and the devil. Only a flash of white at the throat. Why is that, do you think?” You smiled. You’d never thought about it before. You said you didn’t know. He’s always asking you questions, many of which you’re surprised he thinks you know the answer to. It’s one of his endearing traits, his curiosity. You were talking about heaven and hell, God and religion because of a documentary you watched together. He’s read the whole Bible. He was an altar boy for two years. You pictured him younger, with his blonde hair and flawless skin and the same fit body only smaller. As if reading your mind he said, “I was never molested. Our priest ran off with a nun!”
When he’d moved in six months ago after you chose him from a handful of applicants, you told friends he was Irish and two of them, both English, sneered about bloody Micks. You bridled. After all, he rarely drinks, doesn’t smoke, goes swimming twice a week, is well-groomed and keeps the place tidy. He has the ready speech, to be sure. In the first week he’d pointed out the grime in the kitchen cupboards, the need for a new fridge, commented on your drinking habits and how he thought the volume of food you ate was excessive. You’d been living solo for months and your discipline had slipped. You told your friends he was good for you. He was a painter and decorator back home. When you told him you’d asked tradesmen you know about getting him a job, since he was new in town, he told you to mind your own business. He got a job in hospitality. You bought a book about how Irish monks and scribes saved the western world’s classical and religious heritage during the Dark Ages.
Three weeks after he got the bar job he knocked on your bedroom door. “Can I come in?” Surprised, curious, worried, you said sure. You were reading the book by the light of a bedside lamp. He took the other half of the bed, propping himself against pillow and headboard. He was above the covers, you below. He had changed out of uniform and was in denim shorts and a t-shirt. He raised his knees, keeping his size eleven sock-covered feet flat on the bedspread and you thought of Rinaldo in Poussin’s “Rinaldo and Armida.” You felt his weight on the mattress, the covers pulled tighter over you because of it. He smelled of the bar. The few hairs on his arms and legs shone in the lamplight.
“They’re bitches on wheels,” he said.
You almost laughed. “What?”
Your eyes met for a moment, his big and blue and then he looked at his fingers which fiddled with the hem of his shorts.
“Women. The whole feckin’ lot of ’em.”
“Well, I don’t –”
“They are! I’m startin’ to see why you’re gay.” He moved his left leg, the one closest to you, so it lay flat.
Your heart skipped. Soon after he’d moved in you’d seen him naked. You’d held his gaze, his body out of focus, and then, after a second or two, he moved on. On a walk together you’d said you needed a leak and he’d said he needed one too. He went in the toilets ahead of you and you stood at the other end of the urinal and from the corner of your eye, you saw him unbutton. You didn’t look at what he’d pulled out, you didn’t want him to think you a perve but you knew it must be substantial going by the curves it made in his jeans and his black work trousers, the same curves that were in his shorts beside you on the bed.
He named a woman he worked with. He’d already told you he had a crush on her. She had a boyfriend who had moved to Melbourne and she’d told your flatmate they’d broken up and responded to his flirtation but now, “She’s thinking of following him over there.” He said he’d seen her and her flatmate, another bar girl, talking and looking at him and laughing. He said her flatmate was a “mouthy slag.” He looked at you and asked questions. Should he express his love? Should he convince her to stay? Did you think her flatmate was turning her against him? Should he move to Melbourne?
You contemplated life without his fifties-style slow hip twist and finger snapping to his favourite music, without the smell of his soda bread baking in the oven, without his questions about the exact distance from the Square to the flat, the origin of words, or why vinegar and sauce is not free at fish and chip shops here like it is back home, without his amateur hand-written poetry, without the curves in his jeans, his black work trousers and his shorts. It took all in your power not to wrap your arms around him and tell him everything will be all right if you’d stay with me.
“You’ve got a good heart, pal,” he said after you’d given your advice. When he patted the covers over your thigh electric fire played in you long after he’d left.
Two weeks later when you got home from work he grabbed your arm, pulled you to the dining room and pointed at the iron. “You eejit! You didn’t plug out! You want to burn us down?” He smelled the beer from your two after work pints. “The state of you,” he said. “You’re a feckin’ pisshead!” He didn’t want to see you again down his bar, either, because you’re an embarrassment. “People will think we’re shaggin’ the way you stare at me.” He was going out.
As you prepared your tea you debated whether you should leave a portion for him, like you often did when he had a late shift, or eat it all to show you were upset. Would it make him angry again? Would it be childish? You hadn’t done anything down the bar you thought embarrassing. You watched the play of muscle under his shirt when he pulled taps and admired how he charmed the patrons, but you didn’t stare. You would’ve told him that if you hadn’t been so dumbstruck. To be fair he was probably just worn out from sleepless nights worrying about his visa and he had a point about the iron. You left a portion.
Some days you pick him up from work in your car. You’d offered. You like how he asks, “What’s the craic?” when he gets in, like how he teases you by crossing himself each time you pull out and like how your hand brushes his leg as you change gear. Two weeks ago, just as you were about to go get him, he asked you to pick him up from a different pub an hour later. You arrived on time but he didn’t come out. You messaged him and he said he’d be out in a minute. Ten minutes later you went in. He was drinking a pint with one of his mates, who you suspect is gay. You decided to have one too. When you’d finished your flatmate said he’d decided to stay. In that case, you told him, you’d wasted petrol and time. You weren’t his chauffeur. You gave the bottom of his glass a push upwards to spill some of his beer and spill it did on him and the floor. He slapped you and threw at you what remained in his glass. You went home. Later, he burst into your room, waking you. He said your move with the glass had chipped his tooth and cut his lip. He said you’re a faggot, a jealous queer. He said you weren’t his friend. He said he was moving out. You lay awake all night.
“How are you?” he asked the next day when you got home from work.
“Shattered,” you said.
“I’ve made a stew. Sit down.”
He sat beside you as you ate. “You’re a bit better than Satan’s wife,” he said, using the nickname for his nemesis at work. He smiled his white teeth smile and you melted like the lamb in your mouth. “I’m not moving out, pal. Don’t worry yourself.”
You felt tears well.
“People either love me or hate me. You’re definitely in the love camp,” he said. His fingertips tapped his knees. “You’ve got a good nature, but… it’s not practical.”
You looked at him, but he kept his eyes on his fingers.
That evening you swore you’d set your sights elsewhere, that it was silly yearning for a straight guy and you told him so, but it hasn’t been easy what with the way he started coming into the lounge in his underwear to check the WiFi, or how he was captivated by Brandon deWilde in “Hud,” or how he went to Godley Head with you and put his arm around your shoulders as you walked.
Last night after work you parked near the pub, which is five minutes’ walk from home. You’d started the second and final pint when you got a message from your flatmate to say he’d taken the car. You’d given him a key for it not long after he’d moved in. You had two more pints. He was home when you got back. You asked if the real reason he took the car was that he was worried about you driving drunk. He said yes. You said you didn’t believe him. You said he’d assumed you had no plans of your own. You said he hadn’t had the manners to come to the pub to ask. He grabbed you by the throat, dug his fingers in and pulled up so you stood on tiptoe. “You’re drunk!” he shouted. “You shut your drunken mouth! You feckin’ queer tossbag!” You took a long walk around the neighbourhood then snuck to your room and prayed he wouldn’t come in.
You’d looked up why priests wear black, after the documentary. It represents a dying of self, a reminder the priest does not belong to himself but the church. The white collar symbolises obedience to God and the church and comes from the tradition of slaves having a ring around their neck.
You turn around. The woman still has the boy by the arm. She looks in your direction like nothing’s happened. “Don’t hit people!” you shout. The woman lets go of the boy’s arm and puts hers around his shoulders, drawing him close. You turn on your heels, coursing with indignation.
You’re walking to work from the bus stop because days ago you’d agreed your flatmate could use the car today. As you approach the pedestrian crossing you see boys playing cricket in the school grounds opposite. It must be the first match of the season. You cross and hear another loud smack. You realise it’s the sound of bat on ball you heard, not flesh on flesh. Relief fills you like it did when you saw your neck in the mirror this morning, but you redden at what the woman must think.
Months ago your flatmate mentioned his father was an alcoholic who used to beat him. Perhaps you triggered him. You were a bit confrontational and had the smell of the beer on you. You’ll try to avoid that in the future.
Overall he’s a good man. He’s cleaned the kitchen and done a good job. He said the other day he’d think about going to Akaroa with you. You hope last night hasn’t put him off.
Scott Menzies is a South Island-born New Zealand writer, based in Ōtautahi Christchurch. His nonfiction has been published at home and abroad. His fiction has appeared in takahē.