Flotsam

At first, I thought I’d died. There was a little buzz of anticipation. Finally, I’d know what happened when I got what I deserved. Then a wave shushed over my feet. The feeling of exhilaration and comfort was too familiar to be any kind of revelation.

My cheek was on the sand. I couldn’t remember closing my eyes, but if I opened them, I’d have to stand up and figure out what kind of mess I was in. There was something missing. Well, everything was missing. My head was numb – not even the stale throb of a hangover.

All those told-you-so guys had got it wrong. They thought they were doing me a favour by pointing out that smoking and drinking are no good for me, but it wasn’t my health that got me washed up on the sand. The bastards might have been right about going fishing in my favourite tub of a boat on my own, but at least I knew it was only me and the old girl I had to worry about. I hoped she hadn’t washed up on rocks.

Then suddenly, there were all these people around me, talking in baby voices. “Can you tell me your name?” “You’re doing fine.” “We’ll have you out of here in no time.” All those things they say when you’re really in the shit.

Let me tell you, hospital is nothing like those TV shows. Everyone wears shapeless shirts and hats, like workers in the fish market. There are people wearing smart suits and starched white, but they don’t talk to me.

The drugs have been great. I’ve hardly felt a thing. I must be in recovery because nobody’s wearing masks. So I recognise Angela Hawthorn straight away.

I don’t remember her as timid, but now it looks like she’s trying to find something to hide behind. Strange, because she was always laughing and tossing her head around with all those blonde curls. Now, her hair is tied up inside an ugly hospital cap.

Those were the days, when Angela’s hair lit up the school playground; when I was hanging out with Stevo and Denny. They were my best mates but, let’s face it, they were probably my only mates. I don’t think they were really brothers. The junkie they called Mum probably took them off other junkies so she could keep the welfare money.

She was a real bitch, their mum. My mum was only a bitch because Dad made her like that. At least Stevo and Denny were left alone. Their mum didn’t have rules. I was a bit younger than them, so it was my good luck they let me hang out with them, even if I did have to be home in time for tea.

When they got really good stuff from the careless kids who left their bags lying around, they would share it with me. One day, I got to be champion when I pinched that brat Snotsmith’s lunch money. I didn’t like what they did to Dad’s dog, but it was a mangy mongrel anyway, and it was great when they broke Dad’s nose, after he gave me a real hiding.

I guess they’re still rotting in jail and hating my guts for selling out, going on the programme, and getting let off for good behaviour. What does that mean, “good behaviour”? Stevo and Denny had the best behaviour. They looked after me.

Don’t know why I’m going on about me. It’s Angela I’m worried about. I really hoped she could be okay after what happened to her, but I was always too scared to find out. I’m just another patient to her, now. She’ll remember the others but I was always invisible to her.

I want to know how she got here, wearing a crappy nurses uniform in a second rate hospital. Maybe it’s the drugs but I’m getting the courage to talk to her.

“Are you the doctor?”

She doesn’t look at me. “No, I’m the Nurse Aide.”

“Gee, smart girl like you, I thought you were the doctor.”

“Nurses are smart, too, you know?” She almost looks at me.

“Yeah, but you said nurse’s aide.”

“That’s me. All care, no responsibility.” She puts a mark on a clipboard and turns to leave.

“But you were the smartest kid in school.”

She looks at me. I’d forgotten about her eyes. You could drown in those liquid blue pools, and it would be a merciful death. “How do you know that?”

Whew, she really doesn’t recognise me. “See!  Good guess! Now, you’ve told me you were the smartest kid in school.”

“I wasn’t that smart. Just knew how to pass exams.”

“But you have to be smart to pass exams, don’t you?”

“Just have to do your homework.”

“Oh! You were a bit of a nerd?”

“No!” her voice raises a pitch. “I was never a nerd.” Her eyes flash at me, then she looks down.

“Too pretty, eh?”

“Whatever!”

“No, not whatever. Here I am, lying on my back in this hospital, bored out of my skull. I’d rather be out fishing for a big fat cod, but you have to take care of me, so you have to let me fish for a few answers.”

I give her the wink, closing one eye without using any other muscles in my face. Throws people off guard, but then I ruin it with a stupid grin. Thought she’d like it, but she stares at me as if I’ve announced I’m God, and I really did create the earth as a bit of a joke.

She turns away, fiddles with some dials then leaves with a mumbled, “Got a lot to do before my shift finishes.”

“Fuck it!” I breathe. She knows.

I’m not here to make excuses for myself. I want you to understand how lovable Angela was, and how I could love her again, if I was given half a chance. But any chance was lost years ago, in the old shed at Peril Bay.

She had everything when she was a kid. I’d watch her drive by in the family’s big, fat, shiny beemer. I could imagine her sleek legs prancing around in ballet tights; the flick of her tennis skirt revealing a tidy little bum; or shimmying into a flimsy swimming costume beside her daddy’s pool. But it does no good to go there.

When she comes back to take my temperature with one of those things they stick in your ear, I’m sure she doesn’t know me. Her touch gives me a thrill. It’s a buzz of guilt and shame. I don’t want her to look at me too hard, but flirting is a habit.

“Does your boyfriend pick you up after work?”

That sends her gaze away from my face. “Don’t have a boyfriend,” she mutters at the floor.

“A girlfriend, then?” I’m feeling cheeky, loving those drugs.

“No!”

“A husband, maybe?  Pretty girl like you must have somebody.”

“I’m not pretty.” She really means it.

“Well, that’s your opinion”. I’m not giving her anything to argue with because I don’t know how to change a person’s point of view.

She throws out a bright lure. “I live with my mother”.

I don’t know if I’m the fish or the fisherman. I’m looking at the bait, but also watching her. If I pull too hard on the line, I might snap it.

“Nothing wrong with living with your mother, ‘specially if she’s nothing like my mother.”

She shies away. “You’ve been in jail, haven’t you?”

“Do the tattoos scare you?”

“No. Just curious.”

“I hate the bloody things. Did all the right things inside. Went to therapy, learned how to write a CV, and dress for a job interview, but I was only qualified to be a fisherman. Was the only job I could find with these tats. It’s good pay.”

“What’s it like, being in jail?”

“It’s okay. Regular food, and bed with blankets.”

“Doesn’t sound much like punishment. What were you in for?”

Whoa!  What a question. Straight to the point, but it proves she doesn’t remember me. I stop liking her for a while because she’s forcing me to lie to her.

“I was helping out some mates. Got caught doing the wrong thing at the wrong time.”

“Robbery?”

“Yeah, something like that.”

“Have you ever hurt anyone?”

“We had to protect ourselves. I’m used to getting the bash, and I gave more than I got. Have you ever hurt anyone?”

“No, not on purpose.”

“How to you know when you’ve hurt someone?”

I get that electric blue shock when she looks at me. “They say ‘ouch’.” Then she smiles. It’s a shy smile, like a dog that’s been kicked too many times.

It really fucks me off that they thought I could hurt her. I wanted her, no question, but I didn’t want her degraded and begging for her life. Maybe, Stevo and Denny thought, if they frightened her enough, they could scare the world into playing fair. They didn’t know that hurting her only proved there was no justice.

If only I’d been a bit older, taller than Stevo, I could’ve stopped it. If I could’ve been like me now, back then, maybe Stevo and Denny could still be good blokes. It’s like the rogue wave – a mistake of timing and distance. A few seconds or a few metres can mean the difference between adventure and disaster.

If the order of things could happen in the right way, maybe we wouldn’t feel like we need to change the world. It’s why I’ve joined that mentoring programme for At Risk Kids. Some of them are little shits who need a good hiding, but sometimes it only takes somebody to show them how to stand taller.

I think it’s too late to give Stevo and Denny a hiding, but who knows? I can’t go see them, so I can’t find out what would help them. We’re not mates anymore.

I’m starting to like it when Angela looks at me, so I ask, “Has anyone ever hurt you?”

“Yes.” It’s so quiet, it could have been breathing.

“Did you say ‘ouch’?”

She shakes the curls locked under her hospital cap and says, “No”, with a defiance that fractures into tears.

“Come here, Angela,” I say as kindly as my half-drowned lungs will allow. “Tell me what happened to you.”

“I was only sixteen.” She says it like she’s only six. “They took me, dragged me into a car when I was walking home from school. They locked me in a shed. It was cold. There was a bucket for a toilet.”

I’d seen it all in the news, but I want to hear her version. It comes out as words between sobs but I don’t need the details. I know it all anyway.

It was her father, the Judge, we wanted to hurt. He put our mates in jail. Stevo said it wasn’t fair. Rich people got sent to counselling. Poor people got locked up. I wanted to help. Only kidnapping, they said. A scare to make that bastard Judge get real and stop picking on the wrong people.

I thought I’d get to spend some time with her; thought she might start to like me. Of course, it would never have happened in a million years but, back then, I thought being a hero was all I needed to get noticed.

Stevo wouldn’t let me near her. Said she’d talk me into letting her go; made me stand guard outside the shed. Then I heard the noises. It was like something out of those sick porno movies we stole. I tried not to imagine what they were doing to her.

If only I’d been bigger, if I had a gun, if I’d been a different person, but there was no way I could save her. So I went to the cops. It didn’t make me a hero. Her father got to be the hero, making sure justice was done.

At least I didn’t get done for rape. Rapists are the real bad guys in prison. Kidnapping and robbery are small fry. Stevo probably likes being the tough guy. I hope he’s looking after Denny.

‘Accessory’ is as sissy as it sounds. It got me less time in jail, but long enough to get branded with these tats. Stupid thing is, the Judge got us all locked up, and then he died. So much for revenge. There was another judge to take his place.

Angela tells me some really stupid stuff her dad said before he died. “You don’t want to be a tall poppy. Best to be a blade of grass, content to greet the sun every morning. Don’t stick your head up so some bastard can come along and chop it off.”

I take her hand. “Doesn’t matter who you are, darlin’. The rogue wave will take you on the ride of your life or throw you onto the rocks. Just depends where you are in the tide.”

It’s only water but you can’t fight it. You can ride the wave, or get over it before it breaks, but you have to kick to hold your head up for air. I can’t tell her I saved her because I was the one who locked her in. There is no way to unturn that key. Stevo and Denny are probably locked into the best deal for them but what of us?  I’m a floater and she’s got her head trapped in a shitty hat.

“Angela, would you do something for me?”

“Depends.”

“Please come and tell your story to our mentoring group.”

She nods without saying anything. There’s no breath left for words but at least we’re still swimming.


Did I get the right voice for the  male character?

4 Replies to “Flotsam”

  1. Flotsam is ultimately a strong, engaging skeleton of a city builder with little meat to chew on once you understand the interactions between its major systems. That’s not to say the grind becomes easier — quite the opposite — but those not already interested in the genre may want to wait until Pajama Llama fills its seas with more interesting sights. 

  2. I’ve known Kiwis to put “o” on a name. I was hoping to make the setting universal because the idea of justice shouldn’t be limited to a culture or place.

  3. Yeah, you nailed it. And I’m not being biased. I’d tell you if you didn’t. 🙂

    Definitely set in Australia, due to one lad called Stevo. It’s gritty yet at the same time touching. He has a heart and remorse. Many blokes don’t.

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