When I dropped the kids off [late], a clutch of Parents gathered under the big Moreton Bay Fig lightly mocked and sledged my casual relationship with the ticking of the clock. Other people’s clocks. I winced and laughed and offered up some flighty banter. But in the face of a psychedelic array of high-viz Stealthlite burglary shoes, planted with tanned trimmery, housed in a dizzying display of ActiveWear, I am clearly outnumbered and out of my depth.
I am wearing some hard-cotton striped jammies under my brandless shopping centre trackie dacks. My naked feet are incarcerated in breakfast-stained blue velour side-gusset Grosbys. My torso has been force fed into a Collingwood footy jumper, with its biohazardous seasonal tide marks my only nod to sports participation – its faded number [5!] the coded explanation as to why it’s such a cosy fit. My eyes lurk behind a pair of Dorkly mirrored aviators, $2.99 ebayed in from the USA straight to my face.
I catch my reflection as the swinging glass doors hoover my kids into the World of Knowledge and recognise that I have become the person my mother warned me against, ‘Don’t be a slob, darling. Slobs never prosper.’
‘Later,’ I say to my slightly skittish audience, clearly rattled by my excessive coolness as I back away towards the gate, the gutter and the shelter of the 1993 190 Benz I bought from Belty for too much. Ten minutes post-sale, the front seats blew their stitching, the floor panels took on rusting as a matter of urgency and the family determined it a designated tip. Inexplicably, like a kind of demented archeologist, I begin to brush decades of failure silt from the dashboard, only to reveal further layers of scudge and foo, re-engineered as a sealant to creek the rivers of cracks in its fine vinyl surface. If this was a movie, I would start to sob about now. It isn’t. I don’t. Instead, I make a mental note to Do Something About Myself.
Satisfied that the first step had been taken, I retrieve the half-pack of salty snacks from the jaws of the passenger seat’s exposed springery. I ignore the once-frosty can, still full, its plastic net caught in the torn floor mat, and coax the pride of German engineering into life. Its arthritic crackle matches that of the fist of crisps secreted in my face and harmonises with the emphysemic whistle of the disintegrating exhaust system that Belty claims he could fix in an hour, if only he had an hour to spare. Who has, these days?
It turns out that I do.
As soon as I have exhausted the employment possibilities that Centrelink insists I pursue in exchange for a tweezered gratuity carefully tailored to humiliate and demean, I am left to my own dangerous vices. Alone, I am an autonomous state of irresponsibility, open to whatever direction any sly zephyr would propel me in. Barely a month out of work after two decades hard at it, the possibilities for self-indulgence are myriad. And welcome.
Still, that profile…
But it’s mid-morning and time for elevenses with Belty. I point the Merc towards his yard that hides in plain sight on the riverbank. Behind the decrepit fence with its absurd graffed signage announcing Belty’s Bazaar – It Could Be Here!, Steven Maurice Belt [‘Not guilty, your worship!’] plies whatever trade you need.
Today, I need a therapist to walk me away from an overreaction to self-consciousness.
Belty’s yard is an oblong acre that runs all the way to the river’s edge. It shouldn’t, it’s illegal, but it does. Piles of ‘the good stuff’, as Belty is pleased to call it, are cast about in what appears to be careless disorder. At first glance, it seems clumps of unrelated detritus from The World are heaped in varying heights, often spilling one into another. Chaos. And that is precisely what Belty would have you think. But no. This is a miracle system of such cack-handed cunning and left-brained codification that if somewhere within it lay the solution to The Unified Theory of Everything, urgently needed to prevent the planet from imploding on Tuesday, Belty would grab it for you ‘in just a sec’. Or a tap for a 1930s restoration. That too.
Belty is a big, bald bloke
Belty always wears steelcaps, shorts and a clean white short-sleeved shirt with a slim black tie. ‘Mormons got it from me,’ he laughs when challenged, adjusting some unfortunate inquirer’s spine with his big meaty slaphands. If it’s cold, he wears a fez. Today he has his fez on.
He lives in a weatherboard lean-to at the centre of his chaos. He shouldn’t, it’s illegal, but he does. Simultaneously muttering and whistling, he is fussing the controls of an original 1906 Bezerra espresso machine watching it puff steam into the thick, cold air, while pumping the joystick on the side of his Koken hydraulic barber’s chair [circa 1900], allowing the seat to rise and fall in time with each erupting cloudlet.
‘Ah, Two-Grand,’ he greets me. This salutation stems from a disputed valuation on a kitchen he fitted in my house nearly a year ago. It was as if the room had been transported whole from a trade display somewhere, probably not local. Cupboard doors did not make the cut, owing to the need to leave with some haste.
‘Cupboard doors,’ I shoot back.
I pull up a chair. Belty pours a yodge of thick black goo into a china tea cup and hands it to me.
‘Dilutation?’ he asks.
I nod and he leavens the caffeine with a splash of clear liquid from a hose he takes from his pocket. This is Belty’s Eau de Vie, it’s purity ensured by the labyrinth of copper piping snaking across the ceiling from the swollen belly of the still, barely camouflaged as a pile of kitchen pots. It’s strength is enhanced by the deployment of already fermenting grapefruit in its mash.
Before I sip the concoction, allow the scalpel of its clarity to ream my sinuses and send an arctic breeze through my frontal lobes, I share this with Belty: ‘I think it might be time for me to tidy myself up.’
Belty reveals a gap-toothed smile, but his eyes stare through me and out into the street. He takes the cup from my hand and pours it onto the ground.
‘Three grand,’ he says, stepping back into the gloom of his shed, ‘as soon as you can.’
I have my answer.