World No Tobacco Day, 2014
“Later he’d tell police she looked like an Aboriginal Anne Bancroft: tall, a classy brunette with a good plump figure, well dressed with soft brown or hazel eyes and a crinkly smile that reached right into those eyes. “
He parked the cigarette paper on his cracked bottom lip as his big square fingers plucked at the fine, dark, sweet-smelling tobacco. Outside the salt-streaked windows the sky was a black smear like a grill plate in a greasy spoon joint. He spread the White Ox evenly along the paper and deftly rolled a smoke, pinching off the ends. Like riding a bike, you never forget.
He threw Turpentine logs on the fire, set himself down in the saggy green Club chair and struck a match, inhaling the insult of sulphur. It had been twenty-five or more years since he quit. Hawkey was PM.
His shabby orange jumper was holed in the chest right about the place he imagined underneath was the creeping stain of cancer. He was unshaven and had pulled a beanie down over his surprisingly lush head of grey hair. His track pants were knobbly with pulled threads and three days worth of dishes clogged the sink in the two-roomed shack on the south coast where he’d come to smoke a cigarette.
The violent coughing brought the baked beans back up into his throat and stole his breath till his head spun and he thought he would pass out. The tobacco tasted acrid in his mouth and he was dizzy from the nicotine hit.
He didn’t hear her knocking and would have hidden except obviously someone was inside and so he shuffled to the door, breathless and blue around the lips.
Later he’d tell police she looked like an Aboriginal Anne Bancroft: tall, a classy brunette with a good plump figure, well dressed with soft brown or hazel eyes and a crinkly smile that reached right into those eyes. Chunky green necklace. No handbag, no car in sight.
‘I need a favour,’ she said urgently.
‘Poor old fella Cyril Larkins has been admitted to hospital. He’s taken a bad turn— emphysema and now pneumonia—this is Wonky, and he needs someone to take him in, just for a few hours till we get sorted.’
She handed him the leash and without another word kissed his whiskery cheek, squeezed his bony shoulder and dashed out into the rain. The Border Collie limped into the room and took up residence by the fire, sinking down onto the hearth rug like a hovercraft coming to rest. Expelling a deep sigh he looked up at the thin man and butted his dry hand with a wet nose, thumping the floor with his damp tail.
‘Christ, all I need now is Johnny Cash CD and a fifth of bourbon,’ he thought to himself.
Without his glasses, Russell Doyle couldn’t find a grand piano in a one-roomed humpy.
At St Joseph’s Convent he’d been smacked from pillar to post by red-faced nuns who tried in vain to break his habit of defacing library books. The only books young Russell read were pinched from underneath his father’s filthy mattress.
When fat boy turned into big beefy bloke, Rusty worked in a sandpit on steroids, hauling loads of 350 tonnes in a mining dump truck seven metres high.
A thousand years ago, at his workplace, when the trees were saplings, rail-thin black men stepped stiff-legged like Brolga in the grasses, sedge and daisies. They would track emu and kangaroo or climb the giant River Red Gums hunting possum.
Their stories were written in rock 30,000 years ago, but these ancient books were in a library which also held rich reserves of minerals.
Funny what you remember when you’re for the high-jump. Rusty had plenty of regrets, starting with the destruction of those cave pictures. The bosses had noted his co-operation and he’d moved on up the ladder finding a niche in workplace health and safety till he retired. He was sorry what he’d done couldn’t be undone.
Every one called him Rusty. How appropriate now that he was buggered. Lungs poked full of holes. He poured a whiskey and sucked on the smoke. The dog whined and looked up at him with rheumy old eyes.
‘You poor old bugger,’ he thought. ‘And that makes two of us’.
Rusty had a stack of eye fillets on ice. He was oddly gratified to see the old mutt light up as he scarfed down the steak. Rusty rubbed the dog’s head and got comfortable with another drink. He’d been reading a Cliff Hardy mystery—they were about the same vintage him and Cliff and they shared a love of booze, dames and old Falcons. Hardy was a fixture in his life. He ate em up as fast as Peter Corris could crank em out. About 36 books in, the tough guy Sydney PI rolled over with a heart attack. Tricky for sure, but better than the Big C. You can fix up a heart like you can fix up a Falcon.
Rusty swallowed a couple of painkillers with a big gobful of Dimple and zoned out and that’s how he found himself talking to the old dog like he was a Priest.
‘Wonky for chrissakes. Who’d call a dog Wonky? Gives him no chance.
He banked up the fire.
‘The smoke’ll make me cough but I can suck up a bit more morphine through my nebulizer and Bob’s your uncle.’
Rusty walked unsteadily to the fridge: Butter, steak and vodka. Life’s essentials.
He had lost 20 kilos in the past few months, 40 pounds in the old money. His hair had grown back but his bony arse hurt if he wasn’t perched on a cushion.
He was sick and ugly.
‘Couldn’t get a root in a wood yard,’ he told Wonky.
‘I’ve only been out of Australia the once. Never seen the sights of Europe, the Eiffel Tower, the Parthenon. Why would I? Happy as a sand boy right here. No money to travel when I was young and too much sense to travel when I got old.
‘SARS, terrorists, nutters, mad mullahs, superbugs. Fuck’ em all.
‘So Wonky, just last year me, this 61-year-old travel virgin, arrives in Tijuana, Mexico, via LA America. You’d be interested to know that I was after something they use to knock off animals like you. Nembutal, also called ‘death in a bottle.
‘I like detective yarns and Westerns but back then I found myself riveted to The Peaceful Pill Handbook – it lays it out nice and simple like and the best thing to get the job done is these Mexican pills. Had the names on a little bit of paper in my Hawaiian shirt pocket and $50 bucks to pay for it. I went into a pet shop in Tijuana and did the deal, no sweat. So Wonky, all systems go except the bastard customs officers in the good old US of A tipped off the Aussies and they took it off me just before I was home free. Heart fucking breaking it was. And I was charged with importing a barbiturate and bailed. But I don’t intend to hang round for the trial son. Up them.
‘Canberra in the summertime. I used to like to ramble around a bit. Good rock art if you know where to look. Field mushrooms. Always feel better after a bit of a walkabout. We’ve lost the plot us humans, going mindlessly to and from work. No time for scratching our nurries and just lying on the hearth, snapping at flies or dreaming in front of the fire and sniffing the stew.’
Wonky assents, putting his greying muzzle in Rusty’s crotch and rolling his eyes.
‘Well mate it’s after three. Time for me steak sandwich.’
Rusty hauls himself out of the armchair, the effort leaving him blue in the face and gasping for breath.
‘Christ I couldn’t even blow out one candle with these lungs, let alone 62. Happy Birthday to me.’
He gets to the stove and puts butter in the fry pan. When it’s smoking hot he tosses in the steak, cooking it for a couple of minutes on each side. He opens a package and inspects the mushrooms. A quick fry, some more butter and garlic. Next he assembles the sandwich and takes it to his armchair where he pours a mugful of whisky.
‘Jeez Wonky, I don’t wanna piss myself, or worse.’
Rusty makes it to the bathroom and sits down on the can like a girl. Tears come to his eyes.
‘Fuck it,’ he says, hauling himself up and pulling up his trackie pants. He does his belt up. He’d lost so much weight he’d had to poke holes in it with a fork.
Rusty makes his way back to the lounge room and in a second he takes in the scene before him. The dog is retching . . . the steak sandwich with the death cap mushrooms is gone.
He holds the dog’s shaking body against the orange jumper. The old collie bumps Rusty’s hand with his hot, dry nose . . . and closes his eyes.
Later, police told Rusty no Cyril Larkin ever lived around here. As for the mysterious black woman who looked like Anne Bancroft, they couldn’t help him.
One of the cops had got him a chair.
‘Look, mate. The dog was old, and sick and in pain.
‘It was the kindest thing . . .’