Thursday, 11 January 2018
'Alright then,' Gus boomed out in the early morning chill. 'John Wilkis, Red Leader.' The man stepped forward and got a red cap and a radio. 'Red Team is in charge of planting. With Red Team goes Sam Watkins, Liz DeHein and Steve Smith. There'll be more later John, put 'em where you need 'em. Red Team out. Shawn Stein, Blue Leader...'
Barkus watched as the 30-odd adults split off into 5 teams and set to work. He had to admit it, Gus had a knack for leading people. He studiously avoided eye contact with Big Bubba who returned the favour, but almost all of the Boys were here despite, or perhaps because of his outburst. Assignments given, Gus walked to where Barkus was standing aside from the crowd. He was fine with the execution being Gus's parade, he preferred it that way in fact. Now a clipboard festooned with coloured tape and markers and maps and lists was carried in one hand and, Barkus noticed, there was an extra bit of spring in the man's step and an extra glint in his eye.
'Where's Sheryl?' Gus asked, a radio dangling from around his neck. 'I want her around in case people start getting creative without understanding the whys and hows.'
'I think she's in the Café with Lynn,' Barkus told him. 'She seems quite nervous, today is a big day for her.'
'Yes, but she needs to be out here.' Gus looked at his watch. 'I'll go get her, want a coffee on the way back?'
It was in fact 15 minutes and 7 new volunteers later that Gus returned with Sheryl. She still looked nervous but had a determined edge that reminded Barkus of when he first met her.
'Oh, that's not right,' she cried. Gus caught her arm before she shot off.
'What's not right?' he asked calmly. Sheryl motioned to where a group had left their supplies for constructing a cluster of raised beds.
'If they leave those there then everyone has to take a detour because the direct lines, which will eventually be the main paths, are blocked. But if they move it to the other side, then they can still reach everything easily and they're not blocking the way.' Gus digested this, then nodded.
'Alright, let's go tell them.' He smiled at her. 'But I'll do the talking, alright?'
'Fine by me.'
Barkus looked around as someone called his name. A dark-haired man was standing beside a large box truck with a clipboard. As Barkus hurried over, he registered the logo of the local tree nursery on the side of the truck.
“John Barkus?” the man said, holding out a hand. “Richard Smith, got an order of broad-leaves here for you.”
“I wasn’t expecting you today,” Barkus admitted, taking the proffered clipboard and scanning his eye down it.
“I wasn't really expecting to come out today either, but we got the phone call yesterday evening and, lo and behold, there was a gap in our shipping schedule so we packed 'em in this morning.” Smith was saying as Barkus inspected each tree. He nodded, signed the paperwork and helped Smith lift each one down carefully then waved the man off, before thinking to ask who called them.
After that, it was a case of tapdancing on avalanches. Refreshments arrived and were distributed to the teams. New volunteers kept on coming, soon people were standing around because while there was plenty to be done, there were also enough hands to do it.
Barkus saw Annie walk towards him, eyes scanning the crowd that was at once busy and bored.
'Annie!' he called. She waved and headed towards him.
'Looks like you got more than 20 then?'
'Yes, but there's not enough for them to do right now.' Annie raised an eyebrow.
'I thought you wanted 30 people?'
'We have 48 plus the teens and, yes, there's another 5 walking over. I guess the word got around.'
Annie nodded and sipped at her coffee with a smile. Her eyes roamed the Square, picking out who was working and who was looking for work and who was standing around, arms folded.
'Alright,' she said at last. 'Lets see what can be done with all these idle hands.'
After about half an hour, Barkus noticed a change in the pattern. Now instead of gathering in the Square and staring at the work being done, groups of jobless volunteers were gathering at the edges and staring at the building facades. A few shops were already hives of activity, with people washing windows, scrubbing walls and cornices and even removing signs for fresh paint jobs. Some industrious teens and kids appeared to be negotiating a charge for scrubbing the sidewalks. As more people worked on the shop fronts, some were going from shop to shop with lists of paper. They jumped into a truck and eventually returned, overflowing with paints and other supplies. A woman Barkus knew to be a local florist walked from shop to shop with a list of her own and an increasingly-widening grin. Annie appeared next to Barkus with a smug kind of smile.
'Thanks for that,' Barkus said. 'Now we have room to work.' Indeed, without people standing around, it seemed like the teams were were making much better time. He watched as Sheryl and Gus wandered throughout the Square, checking on the progress of each team.
'It looks like we'll be within deadline.' Barkus commented before he saw a battered green truck reverse into a reserved spot at the top of the Square. 'Who's that?'
'Mrs. Cleary,' came the reply.
'It's not lunch time already.' Belatedly, his stomach told him how long it was since breakfast.
'Oh yes it is,' Annie laughed. 'Come on.'
Shouts increased as Team Leaders yelled their teams back into line as Mrs. Cleary, assisted by women that seemed to appear out of nowhere, swiftly set up tables and a production line-style buffett.
'When the Team Leaders hear the bell, they bring their teams and they're fed first,' Barkus heard Mrs. Cleary tell a hopeful attendant. 'And they're fed first Mr. Adams because they showed up first. You think I haven't been keeping an eye on the goings-on? Wait your turn, Ms. Watkins, you only rolled out of bed an hour ago and don't you try to lie to me girl, you were never any good at it.' She glanced up as Barkus and Annie arrived, still arranging bowls and and plates to maximum effeciency. 'Mr. Barkus and Mrs. DeHein. Ah, Ms. Monroe and Mr. Mantic.' Barkus turned to see Gus and Sheryl hurry up behind them. 'I daresay we're ready for you to ring the bell for the teams Mr. Mantic, ' Mrs. Cleary added after glancing down the table. She motioned to a brass bell and, grinning, Gus obliged. Faster than Barkus thought possible, every team member was in an orderly line, with the new arrivals tagging onto the end of the line morosely.
'So how come you're at the top of the line Annie? Barkus joked. 'You only got here 2 hours ago.'
'I was peeling potatoes at 6am, that's why,' came the smart reply.
'She's a handy lady around a pot of potatoes, is Mrs. DeHein,' Mrs. Cleary said, handing them a plate each. 'No more than one spoon from each bowl please, there's plenty of food but there's plenty of mouths too. Napkins, knives and forks are at the end.'
Barkus looked along the the groaning table and his jaw dropped. The line of women behind the tables grinned at his shock.
'Told you Mrs. Cleary runs a mean buffett table,' Annie laughed and poked him in the back. 'Come on, don't hold up the line, I want some of that Chicken Tikka.'
In the end, Barkus took half a spoon from each bowl he fancied until his plate was overflowing, then walked along three quarters of the line until he reached the napkins and cutlery.
'How long did all of this take?' he asked the woman standing there.
'I have no idea,' she laughed. 'Maybe 5 hours for each of us at the outside? Mrs. Cleary is a good organiser and she makes it fun.' The woman beamed. 'I've got some great new recipes for dinner now too.'
Barkus pondered this as he walked to the HQ table.
What makes the difference? he wondered. Is it the town? The leaders? The fact that everyone here is doing meaningful work? Or is it a mix of all three?
'How is the progress going?' he asked as Gus sat down.
'We're ahead of schedule,' he said. 'All these extra hands mean the planting is half-done, including the trees. The trashcans and benches are all in place. Gazebo's painted, pathstones are due to start going in this afternoon and the drains are so clean you could eat your dinner out of them.' He looked down at his plate. 'Not this dinner though, it's way too good for that.' He picked up a forkful of potato salad and put it in his mouth.
'So what's for after lunch?' Gus held up a hand, closed his eyes, and chewed. Barkus grinned and ate some spiced chicken. Gus eventually swallowed with a contented sigh.
'You don't talk through a mouthful of Mrs. Cleary's potato salad,' he said, by way of explaination. 'We're finishing planting and mulching, and starting the pathways, signposts and lighting.'
'They'll take till the end of tomorrow to finish up properly,' Sheryl said, dropping a plate beside Gus. She said it like it was a problem instead of more than a day ahead of the advanced finish time. Barkus stared at both of them.
'You know,' he said slowly. 'I don't want this to sound bad or anything, but the only time I've ever heard of a finish time like that, is when something vitally significant has been left out.'
'Yes, but you dont usually get over half again your maximum workforce, do you?' Gus said without rancour. 'Not everyone here is a trained craftsman but don't forget that most people have been maintaining and renewing their own properties and gardens for years.' He passed the clipboard over to Barkus who ran an experienced eye down the detailed check-list, every box for 2 pages now had a definite tick.
'Wow,' he said in reply.
'And I see you got the surplus working too Annie,' Gus commented, accepting the clipboard again.
'Well, I just reminded them how fresh and new the Square was going to look and then started staring meaningfully at the shop fronts. They got it eventually.'
By now, there was only a small line at the buffett table and people were spread out everywhere, enjoying their meals.
'Things are looking good here Barkus,' came a voice. Barkus turned to see the Sherrif and Deputy George walking towards them.
'Thanks to Gus and Sheryl, and Mrs. Cleary of course,' Barkus told him.
'Indeed.' Again, Barkus got the feeling that the Sherrif was trying to read his mind.
'I think the bell for seconds is going to ring in a minute Sherrif,' Gus told him, scraping up the last of his meal. 'If you want to get anything to eat, you had better get ahead of the stampede.'
Both officers turned and looked towards the buffett table speculatively. 'I don't think Mrs. Cleary will object to you guys taking a plateful, especially after you recovered all her patio furniture last month.'
'She made her potato salad?' the Sherrif asked.
'She assured me that she kept a full bowl back for the second round,' Gus told him and sure enough, Mrs. Cleary was pulling a large bowl out of a cooler from underneath the table. There was a rush of air and suddenly the uniforms were lining up and currying up to Mrs. Cleary and her ladies. Their efforts were rewarded by Mrs. Cleary herself putting a heaping spoon of her potato salad on their plates, eliciting jealous looks from every circumspect watcher. Barkus debated going up again, but the realisation that his belt was now two holes too tight decided the matter. He sat back and watched instead as Mrs. Cleary made a final joke with Deputy George and rang the bell for seconds. What resulted was the quietest, most discreet and yet most vicious scrum he had ever seen as everyone stampeded in then elbowed and shouldered, toe-trod and tripped, to be the first in line and therefore claim a spoonful of the legendary potato salad. He laughed out loud as Mrs. Cleary's gaze scythed over and everyone froze and put on angelic expressions.
'Look, look,' Annie said quietly with a devillish tone. 'Peter Smith is going to fall over.'
'Is he the one trying to trip three people at once?''
'Yep, but I think it's more to do with the fact that John Smith is grinding on his toe with his heel. Oh no, Clarice DeHein has ducked under four sets of elbows and is sneaking up the left flank. There are benefits to being short, you see?'
'Yes, but she's going to, yes she's blocked by the check shirt. Wait, how did she manage that?'
'Joe fractured that rib last year.'
'That's a bit mean.'
'All's fair in pursuing love, war and Mrs. Cleary's potato salad,' Annie replied. 'Oh but she's being cut off by her neice who obviously learned a lot from her favourite auntie.'
'Is that the red-head in plaits?'
Soon, the whistle blew and lunch was over. People started gathering up their trash and joking about christening the trashcans. Barkus stretched and started to walk around the Square. He passed Jeff T. Cleary with a wave and a smile, shared a wink with Slim who was talking to Big Bubba and stopped dead as a certain smell grabbed him by the throat.
His eyes fell on a group of potted roses that were standing by the gazebo, waiting to be planted. There were three people preparing to start digging the holes for them, but he only had eyes for the flowers.
'It can't be,' he breathed.
'Beautiful, arent they?' a woman ambled up, wiping her hands on a cloth hanging from her belt. 'I'm Gerri Smith, we've never been formally introduced. I run the nursery, just brought these over during lunch.' Barkus shook her hand, but only had eyes for the roses. She followed his gaze. 'They really are something else, arent they? Got the mother about 3 years ago from a friend. Best rose I had the pleasure to grow.'
'Who did you get it from?' Barkus asked in a strange voice. She looked at him with her head on one side.
'Big blue house? On the corner of Connaught and Short street?' She blinked in surprise.
'That's right.' She looked from him to the roses, and back to him. 'So you are him then. The kid who saved his rose from the burn pile.'
'From the compost actually,' Barkus corrected absently. He hunkered down and fingered the glossy leaves, breathed in the perfume. He read the hand-written label “The Barkus Rose, Climber, Red, Hardy,” and smiled. 'Mama always said that “More thorns than the road to Hell” should appear on the warning label,' he said, straightening up. Gerri smiled.
'After a while you learn to treat 'em with respect,' she replied airily. She paused. 'You know, some folks would pass comment on my charging you when you know that I only got the original because of you. And of course, you also now know that I got it for free.'
Barkus shook his head, partly to answer her, partly to clear his head of the memories that came crowding in with the smell.
'You might,' he had to pause to clear his throat. 'You might have gotten a cutting for free, but you had to turn that into a healthy mother to get offspring looking like that.' He nodded to the 5 potted roses between them. 'You're entitled to a certain price.' Then he grinned disarmingly. 'But I will be checking the dockets, so don't get cheeky.'
Gerri laughed and held up a hand. 'Scout's honour, only a fair price.' Her face turned solemn. 'Jo told me what happened, to your family. I'm really...'
Barkus abruptly turned away.
'Well, nice to meet you at last Gerri, keep up the good work.' He walked away as nonchalantly as he could manage. Gerri smiled sadly and called out;
'You too!' before bending back to her work, the smell of roses filling the air.
The rest of the day passed in a whirl for Barkus. Teams hustled to and fro, wheelbarrows whizzed by as a sense of competition filled the air. By the time dusk fell and the final whistle rang, everyone was tired but exuberant. Parents carried or walked their worn-out children to bed, while teens stood around with the adults, eyes shining as they took in all that they had achieved. People pointed, told stories, recounted tales of almost disaster, laughter filling the air. As the stars came out and the street lights came on, the group dispersed, calling out goodbyes and reminders about the morning till only Sheryl, Gus and Barkus remained.
'I can't believe it,' Sheryl kept repeating. 'Even though I'm looking at it, I still can't believe it.'
'Well you just wait till the rota for the leaf-racking comes up,' Gus chuckled.
'Oh, I'm holding workshops for that.' At their quizzical looks, she went on; 'Did you know that you can grow potatoes in semi-rotted leaves? And build raised bed gardens?' She beamed.
'My goodness,' Barkus joked. 'What have we unleashed here Gus?'
'I dont think anyone suspected,' Gus agreed solemly. He grinned suddenly. 'Except me of course.'
Sheryl laughed happily, 'And I'm very glad you did. But now,' her words were cut off by an involuntary yawn. 'I'm ready for my bed. Good night gents, see you in the morning.'
'Sleep tight.' With a wave, she was walking away, clearly floating on air despite her tiredness.
'Heard the Opening Party Committee are calling around tomorrow afternoon,' Gus said after a few moments of comfortable silence.
'Mmm? Oh, yes. About 2 o' clock I think.' Barkus yawned and nearly swallowed a bug. 'Ugh,' he washed his mouth out with the last bit of water in his bottle. 'I think they want to hold the party next Saturday.' Gus nodded and finished up his water bottle.
'They want to catch the enthusiasm I guess.' They stood in silence and watched the Square.
'The birds aren't going to know what to do,' Barkus remarked quietly.
'There's going to be a lot more singing going on, that's for sure,' Gus agreed. He turned to Barkus. 'Fancy a beer?'
Monday, 4 July 2016
“We have now entered Day 2 of Phase 1 and so far everything is on schedule,' Barkus reported. It was the next morning. He had spent half the night walking the streets of the town before finally climbing the stairs and falling into a troubled sleep. His eyes were gritty and the coffee beside him wasn't strong enough. “The materials have been delivered, the gazebo will be completed on time, the volunteer quota has been met. At this point in time, we are good to go.”
“Thank you Barkus,” Annie said, ticking the sheet of paper in front of her. It was a Square Steering Committee meeting, another one. Barkus knew how important it was to stay on top of things, of course he did. He just hated Committee Meetings. Annie seemed to have a deft hand for it though. He got up to refill his coffee and glass of water, just as Mrs. Cleary was saying that the kitchens and 'the girls' were ready and waiting to start. At the end of the table, the secretary was recording the minutes, her quick eyes noting who was saying what and her fingers keeping pace.
“Good, thank you Mrs. Cleary. Your Honour, anything on future events?”
The coffee pot was empty. Barkus sighed and, catching Annie's eye, motioned that he was going to make a fresh one. She nodded slightly and turned back to the table. Barkus stepped out quietly in search of a tap.
When he came back there was a discussion that was just short of a row. It still appeared to be about the future usage of the Square so Barkus kept with the coffee. His job was to get the Square done, what they did with it afterwards was their own business.
“...So we don't just come back around to this point again,” Annie's voice broke out of the hubbub.
*We just keep coming back to the same damn point again, don't we?* Gina's voice snarled in his head. *All the promises a girl could want but none of the goods!*
Barkus jumped and the coffee can fell from his nerveless fingers. The bang it made hitting the lino made them all jump.
“Sorry,” Barkus mumbled, in the face of the Committee's startled stares. “Bit of a butterfingers this morning.” He looked down at the coffee granules all over the floor. “Where can I find a brush and pan?”
By the time he had swept the floor and made the coffee, the table had quietened down again and Gus was speaking.
“All I know is, people wreck what they don't value and Barkus made a great point about that to me yesterday. We will have a lot of teens and kids helping out with the project and we need to make sure that after all of their work, they have a say in how the Square is used.” There were a few mutterings but Mrs. Cleary had leaned forward.
“I agree with Mr. Silver,” she stated. “The best way to alienate anybody is to make them feel unappreciated. I say we should give our young people the opportunity to organise both their own events and events for the town. Give them the chance to prove that they can.”
“What kinds of events are they going to put on though?” protested a man who Barkus couldn't remember the name of.
“There's only one way to find out,” Annie said firmly. “I designate the Hon. Peterson, Mrs. Cleary and Mr. Silver in charge of assisting our youth and kids in setting up a maximum of 3 public programmes a week, negotiable in November of next year. ” Gus, Mrs Cleary and Peterson exchanged pleased smiles as the secretary typed placidly. “Next is garbage pick-up, Marty have you gotten an answer on that yet?” The man who had questioned the youth's taste in events asserted that he had gotten verbal confirmation, which led to a remark from the retired Judge on the value of verbal contracts. Barkus let the rest of the meeting wash over him as he sipped his coffee, checked his notes and wondered exactly when Gus had come in.
“Hey, Barkus!” Barkus turned to see Gus walking across the Square towards him. It was 3 in the afternoon and the day's work had been completed ahead of schedule. He was walking around the finished gazebo, pacing off the rosebushes, the benches, the trashcans.
“How are you doing Gus?” he asked when the other man caught up to him. “What do you think?”
“Looks great. Heard the colour scheme for the gazebo yet?” Barkus looked at him in surprise, he had left the meeting after finishing his coffee and the agenda had only been half-accomplished. He had figured there were more pressing matters requiring his attention.
“I thought they were leaving it white.”
“Accents are important, apparently.”
“Let me guess, school colours?” Gus put on a look of mock-surprise.
“Now how could you possibly guess that?” There was silence for a moment, broken only by a kid playing with a dog. Gus turned to Barkus.
“What are you doing this evening?” Barkus shrugged.
“Picking up some dinner at some point.”
“Wanna meet the Boys?” Barkus shrugged again.
“What else have I got to do?”
The Camp was an hour away down roads that turned to rutted dirt. Barkus had been welcomed by men and dogs alike, offered beer and ensconced in a comfy, battered armchair that smelt of wet dog and smoke. There were about a dozen men in the Camp and as least as many dogs flopped around on the floor. A diesel generator outside provided the light and radio and paraffin lamps and flashlights were hung along the walls for easy access. A large black stove in the corner was cold, but the propane cooking stove was holding a large pan of water that was just starting to simmer. There was a porch outside overlooking the river, but it was open and the bugs had claimed it for their own while the men and the dogs lounged inside, eyeing the waning sunshine jealously.
“One of these days Slim,” one man, larger than the rest, Barkus remembered him being called Big Bubba. “You have got to close in that porch.”
“Any day now Bubba,” replied Slim. “Right after you fix them holes in my wall.” It had the air of an exchange that had been said a dozen times, and would be said a dozen more with no-one paying particular attention to it. Barkus felt himself relax gently while the time was whiled away by stories and boasts of past exploits and future prospects. The sun slipped away in the sky and the dusk settled outside and for now, no-one was claiming his attention. It was enough to be sitting there. Barkus took another pull of beer and closed his eyes, letting the conversation wash over him.
After a while, he became aware of a warm pressure on his leg and opened his eyes to see an enormous brindled head on his lap. The dog stared at him peaceably, then then raised it's head and yawned, revealing a fang-lined maw that could have encompassed a small car. Barkus swallowed, but when the dog's head went back onto his knee, he scratched it behind the ears. His reward was a delighted 'hrummph' noise and a paw on his thigh.
“If you're not careful there Barkus,” Slim called out. “You'll have Beauty up on your lap, yep, just like that.” With one movement, 'Beauty' had climbed up with a grunt and settled on Barkus's lap, ass hanging off one side and head resting on the armrest on the other. All that could be seen of Barkus was a beer bottle, shins and boots.
“You doing alright under there?” Gus asked to general amusement.
“As long as she doesn't fart,” came the indistinct reply. There was some movement under the huge dog as Barkus levered himself up a bit higher in the chair and got his arms free. Beauty eyed him calmly as he shifted, then settled down again. “I take it I'm in her chair?” Slim shook his head.
“Everybody's lap is her chair. She's an overgrown puppy that one.” Barkus managed to kink his arm around to be able to scratch Beauty's ears again. There was a contented sigh.
“Some kind of rottweiler mix?”
“Rottie, boxer, Staffordshire Terrier, German Shephard, if you can use it to hunt, she's got some of it in her,” came the proud reply.
“She's a good mama too,” another man supplied, who had a brown and white dog by his knee. “Shine here is from her two litters back and she still takes him out and shows him how to behave when I'm around. Doesn't she buddy?” He rubbed his dog's ears and thump thump thump went the tail.
“Do you still breed her?” Slim swallowed some beer and shook his head.
“Last one didn't go that well and it took a lot out of her. I got her fixed once she recovered, didn't want her going through it again. She had three good litters, that's enough.” Beauty's head shifted on her paws, eyeing her master. “Yeah you know we're talking about you, you old nusicance,” Slim called out to the bear-dog. Her ears pricked up and her butt wagged along with the stump of her tail. “Does she have a paw on the family jewels there Barkus?”
“I don't think so.” Slim pulled a bag out of the box he had been using as a footrest. Beauty's head went all the way up and she licked her chops.
“Well, we'll find out in half a second. Come here Beauty!” The dog pushed off Barkus with all four paws at once and landed on the lino, claws scrabbling. In accordance with physics and comedic timing, the armchair went backwards with a yell from Barkus followed by a crash. When the dust cleared and dogs circled their owners, barking, Barkus was several feet away from the chair in a crouched position, the beer held carefully upright in one hand. The explosion of laughter was immediate.
“Now that's a man with priorities!” hooted Big Bubba as Beauty came sniffing around to see what happened. Barkus didn't stand up fast enough and got a face-full of dog saliva for his pains. “Get out of the wreckage with your beer intact, yes sir!” Then Beauty started licking the bottle as Barkus tried to wipe the goo off his face.
“Come over here Beauty,” Slim laughed. “I don't think Barkus appreciates your facials. Bathroom's in the back if you want to wash it off. You can leave the bottle in the box over there,” he added to Barkus while taking some treats out of the bag.
“Thanks,” Barkus chuckled and, depositing the slimy beer bottle, headed off.
He didn't quite know what to expect, but he found quite a nice little alcove with a large water barrel perched at ceiling level with hoses running to a sink with one tap and a tall shelving unit with towels and everything you'd need. He grabbed the soap and noted the water pressure before lathering up. Afterwards, drying his face and hands with a towel, he spotted a curtained-off area and peeked in. Revealed was a shower set-up with one hose coming in from the large water box with a dedicated shut-off valve. *And that box* he mused. *Would be filled with hot water from the stove and those valves are to control the temperature*
“Nice little system,” he said aloud, then nearly jumped out of his skin when a voice rumbled “Thank you.” Barkus turned, heart hammering, to see a large black man behind him with gleaming white teeth showing in a smile.
“Sorry to shock you there, I guess I move pretty quietly.” The man gestured to the pan of water in his other hand that had steam rising from the surface. “I'll shake hands after I deal with this, if that's okay.”
“Sure, let me get out of your way,” Barkus said, stepping into the hallway. He watched as the man set down the pan on the shower floor, retrieved a fold-away stool from a concealed recess, then climbed the step, pan in hand and, removing the cover, poured the hot water into the smaller box over the shower unit. He reset the cover, put the stool away, then twiddled some knobs and ran the water in the sink. Barkus watched, fascinated.
“I take it you're John Barkus,” the big man said over his shoulder as he was apparently satisfied with the water temperature and started washing his hands.
“Yes, that's me, and I take it you're more than a little familiar with this set-up.” The man grinned and wiped his hands on the towel.
“I should be, Slim and I installed this thing last year. He was sick of 'farting about with saucepans' as he put it. There's still one fart left, but there's plans to get rid of that too, just have to work the kinks out.” He stuck a hand the size of a small shovel out towards Barkus. “Jeff Cleary's my name, nice to meet you at last.” Barkus shook the hand with a wry grin.
“Nice to be met. You don't happen to be related to Mrs. Cleary, do you?”
“Yep, that's my Auntie Meg. She's real excited about the weekend, wait till you see what comes rolling out the back of that truck.” Jeff rubbed his belly and licked his lips. “Auntie Meg's one of the best cooks around and when she gets her team of ladies together for a social, saints would risk hell for a turn, yes sir!” Barkus laughed along with him.
“I still don't get what I'm in for, but I can't wait to see it. So, would you mind running me through this system, real quick?” Jeff beamed with pride and turned to point out the components as he talked.
“No problem at all, Barkus. Well, you saw me put that hot water in that box up there, it's got 3 inches of insulation, so if Slim is just washing hands it'll last him all day. These valves here say if it goes to the sink or the shower. Then these ones here, determine how much hot water runs at a time, and they're wired a certain way so that you can only turn 'em up full if you know the trick. The trick takes both hands, so there's your built-in safety, very important when you're this far into the woods.”
“There's only one tap in the sink,” Barkus pointed out. “Was that on purpose?” Jeff nodded.
“The cold will run on it's own, but the hot won't, not without knowing the trick. So everytime you run hot water, there's some cold coming with it.” Barkus nodded.
“And the drains?”
“They run through a phytoremedial system before hitting the lake.” At Barkus's surprised look, Jeff smiled and said; “There used to be a dreadful smell from where the drain emptied out. Slim happened to mention it around li'l Sheryl Monroe one day and she straight away told him how to fix it, gave him a list of plants and everything. That evening Slim and I were out digging holes and laying gravel and transplanting rushes and there hasn't been a problem since.”
“Is that so?” Jeff looked at Barkus, head on one side.
“You know, when I heard that you were doing the Square, I got a bad feeling. Then I heard you were paying attention to what Sheryl was telling you about the Square, then I felt good. You looking for volunteers?”
“Yes indeed we are Jeff, can I put your name down?” They had walked from the bathroom up to the main section while they talked and some of the men turned idly.
“Sure can. Best put me down as Jeff T. Cleary, otherwise you may get someone else.” He grinned. “We got to share names around here you know.” Barkus took out his notebook and turned to his volunteers page.
“Jeff T. Cleary,” he repeated, scribbling it in.
“I heard it's at 9am, on Saturday morning and Aunt Meg is doing lunches.” Barkus nodded, storing the notebook away again, but with an eye to the audience.
“ That's right. Just got to bring yourself, your gloves and your water bottle. We'll take care of the rest.”
“What's this now Jeff?” Big Bubba called out.
“The big dig on Saturday Bubba. Just put my name down on the list.” He turned back to Barkus and stuck his hand out. “Well, I got to head off now, glad I ran into you Barkus. 9am on the Square.”
“I'll have the coffee ready,” Barkus grinned, shaking his hand. Jeff nodded, then waved to the rest of the group on his way out the door, with a fist-bump for Slim. Barkus spotted an empty seat beside Gus.
“How many names you got on that list Barkus?” Slim asked, passing him a beer as he stepped carefully through the collective mat of dogs. Tails thumped all around him as he sat down and Beauty looked to have a repeat performance of the earlier fun.
“You stay down there girl, I want to finish this one,” Barkus said to her and with a reproachful look, she settled down again. “Jeff makes 12 definites and there's a half-dozen maybes.”
“Is there enough work for that many people?” Barkus swallowed some beer and nodded.
“There's enough work for 30 people actually.”
“Really?” Slim's eyes went around the room thoughtfully.
“Oh yeah, more hands means it gets finished faster.”
“Will you not have to wait on materials and that kind of thing?” someone asked from the corner. Barkus shook his head.
“The only things that won't be waiting in the Square on Saturday morning will be the trees and the flowers and they'll be packed up ready for the green light.” He felt Gus reach out to pet one of the restless puppies, but his attention was on the group. “With 12 people, they'll be delivered Monday afternoon. If I could get 30 people they'll be in the ground Sunday night.” A murmur went around the room and Barkus felt a tipping point approach.
“Well, catch me picking up a shovel on my weekend,” Bubba jeered. Barkus blinked as the mood altered.
“You're on EI,” Slim pointed out. “Every day's your weekend.”
“It's the principle of the thing,” Bubba retorted. “Also, what's this about working on a Sunday? Sunday's the day of rest you know.”
“Bubba, you ain't seen the inside of a church since last Easter,” someone else joked, but Barkus could see men sinking back into their chairs. *We really are herd animals* he thought. “And all you ever do on a Sunday is go mudding and drinking, same as every other day.”
“I head there's going to be concerts and plays and things,” Slim said, looking at nobody in particular.
“Oh yeah? And where are they gonna be exactly?”
“Gazebo's already up,” Barkus answered. “Donny Red and his boys finished it today. It's getting wired up today and painted on Sunday.”
“Will it have roses round it?” Bubba jeered.
“Yes,” said Barkus simply. “And daffodils.”
“Oh, daffodils,” Bubba repeated. “I have a use for daffodils. Was gonna buy some for my old lady, guess now I'll wait till I can pick them up for free.” Barkus glanced at Slim who was wearing a resigned expression, then at the rest of the group who were clearly considering following this example.
“Heard there's gonna be some lovely benches too,” came a snigger from the corner.
“Wonder how heavy that gazebo is?”
Barkus closed his eyes and tried to breathe deeply. Around him, laughter erupted as one after the other, men threw in suggestions on how to pilfer the Square. People would try to tell him that it was all in jest, but he knew that if even one person stole one item, everyone would be at it and all of their hard work would be wasted. Worse, because if something like this fails once, nobody would try again. All of the hard work and all of the promises and energy would be ripped apart and stamped down and rendered for naught. And all of the nay-sayers would feel justified in jeering at Sheryl and Annie and Lynn, every time they tried to do something else to make their town better. It would never stop.
They all became aware of Barkus at around the same time. The man was staring at the ceiling, his fists opening and closing, his breath coming in hard hisses between his teeth.
“Why must you steal everything?” he growled softly. “Are you not men?” The audience sat back in their chairs. “All evening you've been posturing, telling stories and casting long lines. But now, as soon as you might have to do some actual work, you decide that you'd rather be boys. You'd prefer to parasite off others instead of putting any of yourselves into it. Laugh at the workers and steal their harvest.” Gus glanced at the rest of the room, without moving his head. Barkus was glaring around the room now and even Big Bubba avoided his gaze. The man was actually shaking with rage, Gus hoped he could keep it up. “There are things happening in your town that will happen with or without you. You have the chance to take part, to act like the men you're been pretending to be and create something that will make life better for the people that you call your friends, neighbours and kin. Or you can stay here in your boy's clubhouse and piss it all away.”
Silence. Then Slim cleared his throat.
“Barkus, could you step outside with Gus there for a little while? Gus, don't go nowhere.”
Gus caught Barkus by the elbow, got up and walked out the door while the silence returned.
Barkus stumbled over the broken step, his anger cooling as they hit the night air. The last 30 seconds replayed in his head and he stumbled again.
“Oh shit, what just happened?”
“Yeah, that's probably what's going though their heads right about now.” Gus pulled his pouch out and started rolling a cigarette. Voices started up in the house again and Gus glanced up, fingers still working. “Looks like some of what you said hit some brain cells, and some nerves,” he added as the undercurrent grew angrier. Barkus eyed the distance to the truck, he didn't fancy his chances of getting a second chance to speak. “Barkus,” Gus said as he licked the paper. “Wait for my signal, lets see how the Boys deal with this.” He lit up and Barkus stared at him, then at the house and waited. He remembered Sarah and took a deep breath. There was suddenly an explosion of laughter.
A few nervous minutes later and some kind of agreement had been reached. The door opened and Slim stepped out. Gus adjusted his hat and said, “Go wait in the truck, this won't take long.” Barkus eyed Slim but did as he was bid.
Whatever they discussed didn't take much, a few clipped sentences, tersely exchanged, then Slim was closing the door behind him and Gus was striding back to the truck, pulling a joint out of his silver case at the same time.
“Answer me something Barkus,” Gus said as he started the engine then lit up. “How good would you be at some mutual ignorance, do you think?” Barkus pondered this.
“What would be involved?” he asked eventually.
“Ignore some of those men while they ignore you. You've banged up against their pride but made sense doing it so while they'll pitch in for the town, they won't take orders from you.” Gus passed him the joint while Barkus thought about this.
Will they listen to you?”
“Will they be unpleasant about it?”
“Shouldn't think so, just don't stand behind 'em in a line-up.” Barkus considered, taking a drag as Gus drove back down the driveway.
“All of them?”
“5 of them.”
“Big Bubba? Slim?”
“Yes and no, in that order.”
“Well,” Barkus chuckled. “The next few days are going to be fun then.” He took another toke and passed the joint back. He didn't notice the smile that spread across Gus's face.
Friday, 1 July 2016
Barkus stood and gazed at the Square in the pre-dawn light. It was ridiculously early, but he couldn't stand to stare at the ceiling anymore. He blew on his fingers and stomped his feet automatically but in his mind, stakes were planted, spades were hefted and volunteers allocated. He watched the inner movie bustle and heave while the sun's rays crept across the roofs and the birds sang.
These were the times he cherished. When the pre-planning had been done but the first piece of sod had not yet been cut. How many times had he done exactly this? Standing before a site that would soon be a hive of controlled apparent chaos? Not too many times yet, he mused, marvelling that he still felt the thrill of anticipation, still got the nervous butterflies at the thought of the hundreds, no, thousands of things that could go wrong, that would go wrong without an experienced hand on the tiller. *When this feeling is gone* he decided, not for the first time. *Then I'll pack it up and find something new. But not before.*
The sound of a key in a lock woke him from his reverie and he was surprised to see that the Square was fully bathed in light, without him noticing the intermediate steps. But then, it was not the first time that happened either. He chuckled, remembering the time that he turned from a pre-site and jumped to see the whole work-force standing behind him, grinning at his absorption. That had been a good job, he remembered.
The sound that dragged him from his thoughts this time was Mary opening up and, with a last, lingering look, he turned and ambled towards the Cafe and the coffee, his heart lighter than it had been in a while.
“No,” he said, placing his hand on the pile of sod protectively. “We have plans for every piece of it. In one way or another, every piece of of sod is going back into the Square, Mr?”
“Johnston,” said the disappointed seeker of free sod. “James Johnston , Mr. Barkus. Here what do you mean, “one way or the other”? You're going to compost it? That's top-quality sod that is, you cant waste it like that!”
“Actually, it's 3rd rate sod Mr. Johnston,” Barkus replied. “And as I said, none of it will be wasted. we need every piece of it. So you just keep it damp and happy Susan.” This was to the teen who had been the target of the opportunistic Johnston. “And you figure out a different source for your your lawn replacement Mr. Johnston because this is all spoken for.” Johnston looked to argue, but the look in Barkus's eye made him nod and shuffle away instead.
“We'll need a padlock to keep it safe,” Susan said quietly. “He's the third one since I've been standing here.”
“Don't worry Susan,” Barkus assured her. “I know a trick or three for tarps and bungee cords.” Susan shrugged.
“You're the boss Mr. B.” With a smile and a nod, he walked off again.
All over the Square the demolition process was going on. Benches, path and edging stones were being removed and assessed for damage. A large truck was guided backwards into a parking space, its bed almost overflowing with mulch and covered with tarps. Behind it, 3 more were patiently waiting their turn. Trailers of compost were already sitting in their designated places, ready for the first shovel.
An increase in the shouting made him look round to see a truck with a builder's logo on the side trying to enter the Square. He hurried over as an older man climbed down from the cab.
“Mr. Smith?” he asked, extending a hand in greeting. “I'm John Barkus.” The man seemed a bit taken aback, but then he smiled and clapped Barkus's hand in his in a bone-crushing grip.
“Call me Donny,” he boomed. “Donny Red. My real name is Smith but there's so many Donald Smiths round here people call me Donny Red to keep me straight in their minds.” He laughed and shook his hand again. Barkus grinned and wondered if he'd be able to keep the use of his hand, or his shoulder. “Though now of course, they may start calling me Donny Silver,” he grinned, lifting his hat to reveal a mop of, yes, pure silver hair. He grinned at his own joke and turned towards 3 other large men who had squeezed out of the truck cab like clowns from a mini cooper. “And these are my boys, Donny Jr., Shane and Steven, if they have nicknames, they haven't told me them.” He laughed again and the sons smiled as they shook hands with Barkus, all exhibiting the same firm grip as their father.
“So where you want this Gazebo of yours Mr. Barkus?” asked Steven.
“Right there in the middle, I have it stalked out for you already. Annie said she gave you the plans?” Barkus not quite asked as he led them to the spot. Donny Jr. nodded and held up a tube of paper. Barkus could see that numerous notes had been made on it.
“We've a clear plan of attack here Mr. Barkus,” he rumbled. “We just need a clear battleground.”
“Do you need stakes? Or string?” All 4 heads shook, but the eyes were already assessing the ground before them. As per Annie's specific advice, he had started the sod removal under the eventual Gazebo location and left 3 times as much clear space as it would eventually need. There was clearly some mental mapping going on as the eyes darted in all different directions and, one after the other, all 4 men nodded slowly.
“Looks like we can get started straight away then Mr Barkus,” Donny Red said, as his sons peeled away back toward the truck. “How far up can we bring the ol' girl?”
“You can bring her up to here to unload, but then she has to back on the asphalt,” Barkus told him firmly. “I don't want the soil compacted more than I can help.” If Donny Red thought that was an odd thing to be concerned about, he didn't show it, just nodded agreement.
“Fair enough, we'll have her unloaded in a trice and then get to work.” With a nod, he strode back to join his sons.
“Looks like the wheels are turning then,” came a voice from beside Barkus. He looked to see Sol standing there, smoking peacefully. There seemed to be some kind of increased internal pressure in the man though, as he rolled back and forth on the soles of his feet and there was an extra gleam in his eye.
“Starting to anyway,” Barkus agreed. He had decided that his strange, fiery experience was some kind of dream but now looking at him, the image of a burning Sol kept butting for his attention. “The initial breaking down is always that bit that people forget about but it's necessary to get a properly finished result.”
“Cant make omelettes without breaking eggs,”Sol commented. Barkus nodded, eyes scanning the progress of each task. They had estimated that this stage would take the full day with the gazebo and material recycling taking the rest of the next 2 days. By the look of it, they would be on schedule, barring any great mishaps. Sol had just asked him something.
“I'm sorry, that was rude of me, I wasn't listening,” he admitted. “What did you say?”
“I just said that it's been a long time since the Square has seen this much action.” Barkus frowned.
“You know, you're not the first person to say something like that and I wonder, why? It's right in the middle of everything, it's fairly flat ground, it has benches.”
“It's completely open so no chance of privacy, the old paths were supplanted by the flower beds, pardon the pun, so people had to either walk right up to each diagonal corner to cross it or run the risk of suffering the wrath of the community watchdogs who are always on the look out to embarrass somebody. There was no shade or shelter whatsoever unless you brought it yourself which meant in the summer you melted and in the winter you froze. They used to allow sports until someone complained about the muddy patches not being aesthetically pleasing and they used to encourage the kids to build snow sculptures until the porno-snowmen and the “Incidents of the Yellow Snow.” “ Sol rolled his eyes and sighed. “Its almost as if someone wanted a silent town center.” Barkus looked to where Sol's eyes had briefly flickered and saw Paul Taylor's shop, it's garish store-front dominating the street.
“Oh yes?” he asked. “What would be the point though? Surely if more people were walking back and forth they would....”
“Not be spending their time and money inside,” Sol finished and then shrugged., “But what do I know, I'm just a lil' ol' banjo player who pokes his nose into other people's business.” He sighed. “I remember when I first came here, there were concerts once a week, and people threw frisbees and children played and couples lingered and then they tore down the trees for making the streets slippy with leaves.” He brightened again and slapped Barkus on the back. “But now, thats going to change, yes?”
“I hope so,” Barkus replied. “But thats up to the people, not me. I'm just here to supervise the change, not what they do with it afterwards.” The two men stood in silence for a moment, lost in their thoughts before a hearty voice pealed out.
“Unless you want to add some extra traction to the wheel, you boys had best step aside.” It was Donny Red and they both stepped aside with a laugh to allow the full truck to pass.
The younger Smiths waved off all offers to help and, faster than Barkus had expected, Donny was reversing the truck back the way it came. Sol nudged Barkus.
“Watch this,” he said. “I'll bet you've never seen anything like this before.” Barkus wondered how building this structure could be different from all of the others he'd seen, but dutifully paid attention to the Smith sons bustling about with lumber and hardware and tools. He frowned.
“Why are they stacking them like that?”
“Just wait,” Sol chuckled. “They've got quite a crowd already.” And indeed, everyone who had been working on the Square's dismantling now stood in the loose circle around where the Smiths had set up. There was a definite feeling of anticipation and Donny Red ambled back to the Square with the air of a magician about to delight and astound.
Steven, Shaun and Donny Jr. stepped back from the materials which had been arranged like points on a clock. They lifted their toolbelts and cinched them into place, then let their hands hang loosely by their sides, almost, Barkus realised, like gunfighters waiting for the signal to draw.
Donny Red turned in a slow circle, assessing each pile and son as he went. Barkus marveled at the sense of theatre the man could bring to the occasion, they were not just building a gazebo, they were creating a show. Slowly, deliberately he lifted his own toolbelt from his shoulder and pulled it tight around his hips.
“Mr. Barkus,” his voice rang out, cutting the murmured conversations short like a knife. “You say you want a gazebo right here.”
“Yes sir,” Barkus replied, aware of the need to match the tone. “The best one you can give the town.”
“Hear that boys?”
“We hear Pa,” the sons boomed out in unison.
“Then let's get 'er done!”
“Unbelievable,” Barkus said later in Jim's Place. “Simply unbelievable. I've never seen anything like it.” The Smith boys smiled and Donny said;
“Once you find your best way to work, things just go smoother, haven't you noticed?”
“But you were juggling and throwing pieces of lumber to each other, it was like something from a movie, or a circus!”
“Well we're 3rd generation builders,” rumbled Steven. “But before that we were circus clowns. Great-granddaddy felt that his youngest should try something different and apprenticed him to a carpenter during the Great Depression. But he kept his circus skills and found that they helped him get jobs where others could not. A Master Carpenter that makes your family laugh so hard that they're sick tends to stick in the mind, you know.”
“And he made sure that all his kids and grandkids learnt the fine arts of clowning around,” Shaun supplied. “And they are fine arts, believe me. Misjudge a catch or a fall and you're lucky just to be badly bruised.” He shrugged one huge shoulder. “After that it's about how to handle an audience, how to tease them out like a guitar string, how to let them laugh from their deepest corners, how to turn a groan into a gasp. Daddy is a master at it as you saw today.”
“He was something else,” Barkus admitted.
“People remember that,” Donny Jr. nodded. “There are plenty of other builders around here, too many sometimes. But we're the first ones that come to people's lips because not only do we create a beautiful product, we give them a show too.” Barkus nodded, remembering again the wonder he felt at watching those 4 big men manipulate pieces of lumber like they were matchsticks, tossing tools to each other and swinging up and down the ladders like monkeys. They didn't go faster than other builders he had known but they had dazzled. And a few times his practised eye had noticed when one Smith or other had lingered over an unimportant spot then whirled away to reveal a carved post, or a textured place for fingers to rest. They added in beauty where others would have left it plain. He mentioned this and it was like the sun rose again when all three men grinned as one.
“Grandaddy always said that it wasn't enough to just build something, anyone can do that. As descendants of circus folk we have to be able to make people pause, to linger and see things that they would otherwise have not,” Donny Jr. told him proudly.
“He said there was enough darkness and ugliness in the world, that our tools should only create brightness and beauty,” Steven mused. The men stood in silence for a moment before Barkus raised his glass.
“To Grandpa Smith,” he said. “And the creation of beauty.”
“To Grandpa Smith,” the Smith boys chorused and their glasses met with a clash.
“My, my, my but things are looking mighty fine out there,” came a cheerful female voice and the men turned to see Sarah walking over with a smile and a beer in her hand. “Progress is happening. Evening Barkus. Hullo my favourite physical comedy amateurs, long time no slapstick!”
Barkus felt a tug on his elbow as the quartet of laughter-seekers fell to exchanging insults and observations. There was a wizened old lady there, clutching what looked like a hot toddy in an oven glove. She motioned and he bent down so she could murmer in his ear. But that was all he heard, a vague murmer, with complimentary overtones. He stared into her red-rimmed eyes, mind racing as he desperately tried to pull meaning from her voice, to not embaress either her or himself. She seemed to take pity on him, for she murmered again, patted his arm and wandered back to the bar, the steam from her cup tracing her path like a flag. Barkus watched after her for a few moments, then turned back in time to see Sarah finishing the delivery of a saucy line to Steven, his brothers buckling with laughter. “Oh come here you insufferable tease,” Steven cried in mock consternation as with one hand he deftly extracted her glass and held it out to Barkus who grabbed it quickly and with the other arm spun her around and up in a surprisingly balletic movement, until he stumbled and fell. She hung at the top of the arc for a heart-stopping moment then, just as she began to fall, Shaun's arms were under her, he held her tight against his chest and spun her up and around once, twice, three times like a dancer before he lobbed her through the air back towards Steve, but he overshot and as the youngest Smith opened his eyes wide in horror and ducked to avoid her feet, Donny Jr. stepped in at the very last second and caught her securely in his broad arms. He raised her up over his head and all 4 participants struck “Ta-daaa!” poses to the whistling and rousing applause of their audience.
“Did you know they were going to do that?” Barkus asked Sarah as, beaming and breathless, she took back her drink. She shook her head and looked to where the Smith boys were getting their backs slapped and hands shook.
“Not to that extent no, but there's always something in the first ten minutes. Did they tell you that they're from circus folk?” Barkus nodded. “Then you'll understand that they're always on the lookout for an opportunity to astound and amaze.” She grinned ruefully. “I guess doing the gazebo today got their blood up cos thats the most exciting turn they've used me for yet.” She wiped her forehead and laughed. “For a split-second there even I was worried and I've known them and their ways for years.”
“But they tossed you around like a ragdoll!” Barkus exclaimed. “And you're, you're,” he faltered, aware that he may have gotten himself into real trouble. She laughed.
“Not the smallest girl in town, eh?” she laughed, stretching herself to her full height proudly. “But I was a dancer for years and there are ways of holding yourself to make it easier for someone to pick you up. Or more difficult of course,” she added. “Where's Papa Smith?” she asked Steven who had turned back to them. A momentary cloud crossed his face.
“He didn't want to leave Mama too long. She's not had an easy time of it this week,” he sighed and Sarah nodded sympathetically. “Although she asked me to tell you that the liniment you gave her has helped a lot.”
“Oh good.” He grinned again, eyes sparkling.
“And Papa said to say thanks as well, he's enjoyed applying it.” Sarah burst out laughing.
“Then work was not in vain, that's good to hear,” she chuckled. “Mama Smith just had a double hip replacement,” she explained to the amused Barkus. “Which is a good thing because the old ones were driving her nuts, but its a lot to recover from and she's an impatient lady.” Steven nodded agreement.
“She's been making rag-rugs like there's no tomorrow.”
“I thought she was photo-collaging,” Sarah said, surprised.
“She's finished that, then she finished the sweaters she promised us all ten years ago, then she decided what colours she wants all of the rooms in the house to be, now she's on to rag-rugs. And she's starting to complain that it's getting boring.”
“Oh wow,” Barkus said. “How long has it been since the operation?”
“4 weeks,” was the reply. “She gets up and walks around and does the exercises she's supposed to do, but she gets tired a lot faster than she used to. She's an active lady and and doesn't like spending all her time staring out the window.
“Does she crochet?” Steven paused, then shook his head. Barkus continued; “When my mother was laid up with a broken thigh, the only thing that kept her attention was crocheting. She made blankets and cushion covers and everything.”
“I don't suppose she taught you how to do it,” Steven asked. Barkus shook his head.
“She tried, but I was completely ham-fisted at it. Couldn't get it to work at all.”
“Mary crochets though,” Sarah supplied. “She comes by sometimes and her pieces are just beautiful. Maybe she'll come up to Loretta with a spare hook?”
“It's worth the asking,” Steven agreed. “If Mama can't find something to occupy herself, she'll do herself an injury and then we'll be back to square one again.”
“Hey Steven, you coming with us?” came the call from the door.
“Be right there Shaun,” Steven called back, before draining the rest of his drink. With a hug for Sarah and a handshake and “see you in the morning,” for Barkus, the builder walked out through the door into the early evening.
“What time is it?” Sarah asked, checking her watch. “Just gone six, good I'll make it for supper.” She drained her own drink and set the glass on the counter. “If I'm late again I won't hear the end of it.” Barkus nodded.
“Yep, you have to be careful about punctuality when a hot meal is waiting.” She laughed.
“Don't I know it. Have a good evening,” she said as she headed for the door.
Barkus blew out his cheeks in a sigh. Jim passed him a menu on his way past.
“Chef's burger and fries please Jim. And another beer.”
It was 8pm and Barkus was back in his apartment. The envelope Deputy George gave him was torn open and three sheets of paper lay on the sitting room table, Barkus was standing by the window. He didn't see the view, but the handwritten lines instead. He blinked, rubbed his face, then grabbed his jacket and keys and walked out, closing the door carefully behind him.
Sol was in the corner store when he walked in, leaning on the counter and making the young man on duty laugh so hard you could see the bands of his braces.
“Hello Barkus,' Sol called cheerily as the youth wiped his eyes with his sleeve. 'Do you have any comment on Marxism vs. Anarchy?' Barkus shrugged and pasted on a smile.
'Only that you should never count your revolutionaries until they're cracked.' A weak one, but it got smiles from his audience. 'Pack of DuMauriers and a lighter please,' he said to the attendant. Sol's eyebrows rose.
'Didn't you quit?'
'Yeah, well, some evenings are easier than others,' Barkus hedged. Sol nodded.
'Well, if its only for the evening, how about I open my shiny new packet of tobacco and give you a few rollies instead? That way, you've still quit cos everyone knows that you only start up again once you actually buy a pack.' Barkus wavered, then nodded. The youth put the pack back in it's place. Sol stood up.
'Right, lets officially break the seal on this baby,' he said, then winked. 'As the High Priest said of the Vestal Virgin.' The youth guffawed and waved them off as Barkus followed Sol out of the store and to a bench a ways up the street.
'Can you roll your own?' he asked once they got comfortable in the evening sunshine.
'I used to be able to, my roommates loved to have me around in college. It's been quite a while though.' He smiled. 'Like almost everybody it seems, I used to roll together what ends of tobacco I could find. Well, I say 'I' but really it was me and my older brothers and it was really only because our Uncle smoked rollies and we were all a little in awe of him.' Barkus swore as his fingers proved to be even clumsier than he expected. The shaking in his hands had nothing to do with it of course.
'Of course,' Sol said and Barkus frowned before he continued. 'It's usually a mysterious, older role model that starts the younger ones on something. Smoking, drinking, wearing pants that make you look like you missed the toilet.' Barkus chuckled and licked the glue on his paper before attempting to smooth it into place. 'Okay,' he admitted, holding up his creation. 'It's a sleeping bag, but at least it's not a camel.'
'Does your Uncle still smoke?' Sol asked, passing him the lighter. Barkus bent his head to shield the flame from the wind and lit up.
'Car accident when I was fourteen,' was the short reply. 'Winter. Plough came around a corner over the line, Jimmy served to avoid it, flipped through the trees and got pinned underneath his own car.' Inhale, exhale. 'Died of exposure in the dark.' Sol shook his head in sympathy.
'I don't think my father ever got over it, really. I remember the look on his face any time any of us forgot to call and let them know we arrived somewhere.' Inhale, exhale. 'The only time I ever heard him and my mother have a real, flaming row was when she had insisted on driving through a storm. I can't remember why, but she wouldn't budge. He was as tight as a bowstring for the whole day and when we got up the next morning and she still hadn't come back or called he was in pieces. He had spent the whole night beside the window with the phone at his elbow. When she walked in the door at lunchtime he alternated between screaming at her and hugging her.' Inhale, exhale. 'They were the first people to get cellphones, you know, the original bricks with the lift-out antennae? Dad got two, one for each vehicle.' *And they still ended up dying at home* came the new, now hated voice. Sol's eyebrows rose, but Barkus didn't notice.
Barkus stared at the empty yet cluttered square as the shadows began their long slide into night. His hands mechanically cupped the rollie from the wind, raised it to his lips at the proper intervals, his lungs worked to deliver the nicotine to his blood but he himself was on the other side of 30 years ago, when his Uncle could be found under the chassis of a car, whistling through his teeth, or occasionally groping for a tool that one of his nephews would hurry to hand him. James would eventually join him under there, using his skateboard to wheel himself in and out.
'What happened when your Uncle died?' Sol asked, breaking smoothly into his thoughts, Barkus blinked and realised that he was down to the end of his rollie.
'It was like someone ripped a hole in us.' He leaned back and shredded the little rectangle of paper before stuffing it into the half-empty flower pot beside him. 'When he died, nothing stayed the same.' He sighed. 'Poor James.'
'Your Uncle, or one of your brothers?' Sol asked. Barkus grinned mirthlessly.
'Both, technically. My Uncle's name was James but he preferred Jimmy. My older brother, the second son was named after him but preferred James.'
'At least it cut down on the confusion,' Sol observed. 'So why poor James over everyone else?'
'He idolized Jimmy. James was a very smart guy but he couldn't read all that well. No problem with numbers 'so long as they didn't get stupid,' in his words. But reading?' Barkus shook his head. 'Nowadays they'd call it dyslexia and give him a different method to learn. Back then in that school they called him stupid and made him the laughing stock of the classroom.' He accepted the rollie Sol passed him and lit up. 'By the time Daddy found out what was going on, it was too late. Nothing could make James set foot in a classroom ever again. So Jimmy started showing him the mechanical ropes. He told Daddy that reading didn't matter as much as understanding in the mechanical world and James had that in spades.' Inhale, exhale. 'James was supposed to start as apprenticeship with a company when Jimmy died. He had arranged it all for him, right down to the boots.' Pause. 'That's what he was driving back from when that plough came around the corner.' Silence.
'Poor James,' Sol said. 'What happened to him?' Barkus shrugged again.
'He went and did the apprenticeship, got his Red Seal, made a name for himself, got other young ones apprenticed and set on their way.' Inhale, exhale. 'He told me that anything else would be an insult to Jimmy.' Long, hard breathe. *'I just can't be as strong as you John, I'm sorry.'*
'When did you see him last?' Sol asked gently.
'Six months ago.' Barkus stood up abruptly. 'Thank you for the ciggarettes,' he said, grinding the second one under his boot. 'You're right, much better than buying a pack myself. I feel like I should go for a walk though. See you round.'
'See you round,' Sol answered, but Barkus was already gone.
Wednesday, 30 September 2015
When Barkus walked into 'Mary's', he saw Lynn sitting at a table with a computer, a cellphone and an expression of frustration mixed with harrasment and just a touch of death-rage. He elected to order at the counter and wait until she was done to ask if she wanted company, but she looked up and waved him over to join her instead. He took the cup of coffee that Mary had automatically poured for him and as he pulled the chair out, Lynn shook her head at the person on the other end of the phone and sighed in frustration.
'No, you don't throw them all out the window and hope that things magically work out which is what I can tell you are hoping I'll tell you to do.' Pause. 'Because I know you Genevieve. Instead of hiding under the bedcovers you are going to deal with this properly. You are going to brew yourself a big pot of coffee and you are going to go back to the orange file that I gave you in November, the one labeled “Steps to complete student application”. You will find the step that each application stalled at and you will finish every one of them up. Yes, even the ones that are from 6 months ago because it's not the student's fault that you didn't do it six months ago.'Pause. 'Yes, even the ones who have quit in the meantime because if they decide to try again they will need this info on file or it will go against them.' A longer pause warranted a sip of coffee. 'Well I'm sorry Genevieve but you're in grown-up world now. The actions that you do or do not do have direct repercussions on the lives of other people. In this case, your getting hammered for a solid week in the middle of completing student applications at the beginning of the year and not getting your work done means that some students are in danger of failing their courses at the end of the year, despite perfect attendance and straight As in exams. You fucked up Genevieve, this is what it takes to fix it. Luckily for you, it is definitely fixable at this point in time, you are just going to have to put the hours in and finish the damned paperwork!' In the pause, Mary delivered a blueberry pie topped with real whipped cream, melting deliciously from the warm pie. Mary then cocked an ear towards Barkus in a mime's pose that made him grin and Lynn chuckle soundlessly, then her face turned serious again as 'Genevieve' told her something else.
'Grilled cheese and ham on wholegrain please,' Barkus said in a stage whisper.
'Well thats the good thing about compassionate leave isn't it?' Lynn said bluntly as Mary nodded and slipped away. 'Thank you for keeping me informed, but don't pay too much attention to office gossip and certainly don't give it too much credence. Okay, keep me updated on your progress. Thank you I'll pass it on. Bye, bye now, yep, bye.' Lynn cut the call, then sighed and made a face at Barkus.
'It's amazing how subordinates can think it won't be noticed when they don't do the work,' he said in response. Lynn rolled her eyes.
'Genevieve is a good kid and has high hopes, but she has a bad habit of slacking on the groundwork. Hopefully this will teach her to pay attention until the work is done, not until her flatmate gets ready to go drinking.'
'Yeah, we all have to learn that particular lesson at some point.'
They lapsed into silence then, Barkus enjoying his coffee while people-watching and Lynn looking over a document and trying to eat blueberry pie at the same time before losing a spoonful over her lap. This was not the disaster it could have been because it fell on the napkin that Lynn had placed there for, presumably, that very reason.
'Well that's an easy lesson in paying proper attention to your food,' Lynn said, picking up the napkin and eating the piece of pie. 'Mama always told me not to mix food and work. It's bad for the digestion.' Mary walked over from the counter, Barkus' toasted sandwich in one hand which she smoothly slid in front of him before turning to Lynn.
'Extra napkin?' she asked, proffering said item. Lynn grinned and laid it across her lap.
'Nothing ever gets past you Mary,' she chuckled. Mary grinned back.
'Doesn't stop 'em from trying though. Anything else I can get you there Barkus?' Barkus, mouth already full, shook his head. 'Well enjoy then,' and she turned back to the register where someone was waiting to pay and, knowing Mary's clientele and how well they all know each other, have another coffee while chatting at the counter. Lynn closed her laptop and pushed it away.
'I am taking that warning from the Universe before I end up with blueberries in my bra,' she said firmly. Barkus laughed, remembering a trip to a U-Pick with Gina in the early days of their relationship. She had had to throw out a favourite set of underwear afterwards.
'No, lingerie and soft fruit stains don't mix,' he agreed. Lynn raised an eyebrow at him.
'Personal experience there Barkus?' she teased. He assumed a lofty pose
'Gentlemen don't tell tales about their ladies,' he replied then considered. 'Or about how much said ladies curse when hand-scrubbing bras with baking soda.'
'Ugh, been there.'
'So what is so interesting that it distracted you from delicious blueberry pie?' Barkus asked, finishing the side salad conscientiously, but glancing at said pie. He didn't know when his hangover belly disappeared, but he was glad for it.
'I don't know if everyone would find it interesting,' she said, pulling the pie closer to herself. 'They're recent papers on Anthropology focusing on the anthropormorphic phenomenon.' At Barkus' blank look she continued; 'The habit of putting human characteristics and feelings on inanimate objects and natural forces. Being polite to machines and saying that a volcano is angry for example.'
'Okay, is that what you do? You work in Anthropology?' he hazarded, putting his plate aside and sipping his coffee.
'Not really, I work in University admissions. I oversee the machinery of registering students and making sure they don't get caught in the cogwheels. You could say that Anthropology has an effect on my work though, cos you wouldn't believe how ingenious and moronic the average human being can be at the same time.'
Barkus thought about some of the people he had to deal with over the course of his life and he nodded agreement.
'So how come you're going through Anthropology papers then?' he asked. 'Figuring out a better way of dealing with your superiors and minions?' Lynn laughed.
'No, I'm reviewing papers for relevance to Sarah's comedy sets.' She laughed again at his non-plussedness. 'You were not expecting that answer were you?'
'No, but that's being happening a lot in this town,' he admitted. 'Okay I'll bite, why are you reviewing Anthropology papers for relevance to Sarah's comedy set?'
'Because later tonight I'll be reading the relevant ones out loud to my father and a microphone. I record papers and books and articles for Sarah to listen to while she's on the road.'
'Because she can't read them herself, or at least not easily. She has strong dyslexia, even that Specials menu,' she gestured to the wall where several lines of text described mouthwatering dishes. 'She would have a challenge reading that. She still tries,' she added swiftly, and with a touch of pride in her girlfriend's grit. “But there's no way she could get through scientific papers, but that's the kind of knowledge she craves and uses in her comedy.'
'So you read it to her instead.' Lynn nodded and captured the last streak of cream and crumbs with her fork. 'I look after my father and he enjoys listening to them too so I read aloud for a good 2 or 3 hours every evening. Then when Sarah goes on tour she listens to the sound files. She says it keeps her sane while she's on the road.' Lynn said it off-handedly but the little smile belied her pleasure.
'Yeah, before we met and I started doing this, she used to go off the rails quite a bit. The thing about showbiz is that it's a series of excitement and dread before the performance, exhilaration during the performance and sheer emptiness afterwards, until the next bout of excitement and dread begins, that's how she describes it. And that's when the show goes well. If you die on stage instead, that's a hell of a hole to try and climb out of. Different people deal with it in different ways and Sarah has found that her best way involves listening to the newest research on her downtime.'
'In your voice of course,' Barkus pointed out.
'That might have something to do with it, true,' Lynn conceded with a smile. 'I did ask her if listening to me made things easier or harder when she was away, and I didn't get a straight answer but she hasn't asked me to find a new reader yet.'
'That might just be her survival instinct though,' Barkus laughed. Lynn smiled, but there was a “oh you don't know everything” slant in her expression. 'So how does your father like it? Is he into Anthropology too?'
'Daddy has a broad interest. He was, still is a Reverend, but he, he doesn't do all that much practical work these days. In his dealings with people he got to see the direct effects of a lot of the theoretical Anthropology before he knew what the theories were.' She grinned suddenly. 'He used to get very animated when he thought that a researcher had grabbed the wrong end of the stick. Sarah said she used to double over laughing when she heard him get going. She's used a lot of his insights.'
'If you don't mind me asking, what is your father ill with?'
'ALS. Also known as Lou Gherigs disease, full title being Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis. It's a neurodegenerative disease, robs you of all muscular function and dignity before you die. Incurable.' Barkus was taken aback by her matter-of-fact tone.
'I'm sorry,' he managed to say. She shrugged.
'Don't be, you didn't give it to him, genetics did.'
'How long has he had it?'
'3 years and 8 months since diagnosis. He was doing just fine up to a few weeks ago when he lost his ability to speak. He was a Reverend see, losing limb mobility was hard, but bearable. He would sit out on his porch in his chair and people would pull in and chat with him. He would always talk to anyone and the more differently they saw the world, the more he loved talking to them. Most of the town would end up sitting on that porch, debating and discussing and pulling the world apart for hours. That's what he loved, the battle of wits, the verbal sparring that makes you see the world anew, the insights that can only gleaned from other people. Now, he can't even do that.' She sighed and suddenly appeared smaller and more frail. 'He's slipping faster now, but he's not scared at least. He's made peace with it.'
'But you're scared,' Barkus said flatly. She threw a suddenly fiery look at him.
'He's my father,' she snarled. 'I know that he's ready for it, but how can I be? How can I let him go?'
Barkus paused, aware of the minefield that this conversation had become.
'One of my work colleagues, Jim, he lost his wife Laura to ovarian cancer. They battled every step of the way, but she knew what was coming long before he could even talk about it. Gina and I, we used to go around to their house quite a bit, so did some of our other friends and between us we made sure that there was someone there for them every evening towards the end. Gina and the other women would insist on bringing half a restaurant of food because poor Jim would forget that he needed to eat and sleep. He was on knife-edges, 24/7, he wouldn't leave the house in case she needed him. Even when she told him to, he'd only go as far as the yard and even than only when there was someone with her. He was in dread of missing out on a single minute with her and when he had to finally face up to the fact that she was really dying, well. It nearly broke him, it really did.' Barkus sighed while Lynn stared at the wall, lips tight. 'Laura was able to speak to him right up to the end of course and I don't know what would have happened if she wasn't. I remember about a week before she died, Gina and I were in the kitchen, batch-cooking and Jim came in with a bottle of scotch and 2 glasses. Jim rarely drinks so when he gave me a glass and walked out to the deck, I followed. What else would a friend do? We sat out there and drank and he told stories, so many stories about Laura and how they met and what happened over their 15 years together and we laughed till we cried. And then he told me what Laura had asked him to do.' Barkus paused, remembering that evening, when the moths were fluttering against the porch lights, and the sounds of children's laughter wafted over from the neighbours and his old friend was staring into a yawning chasm, pain and grief etched deeply into his face.
'She asked him to let her go,' Lynn said flatly.
'Yes,' Barkus said simply, coming back to the here and now. 'She said that she wanted him to go on living, not to stew over her death. She knew him well enough to know that he needed that shove, that he wasn't going to let go of his pain on his own. If she had not told him to let her go, he would spend the rest of his life staring at her picture instead of moving on. But she needed him to start facing it before she died so that she would know that he would be okay.'
'You think people should be forgotten just because they're dead?' Lynn growled, but it was the hurt swipe of someone who knows that the other is talking sense but doesn't want to face it right now so Barkus just shook his head.
'No, Jim will never forget Laura, regardless of who he meets. And you should not forget your father whatever happens. But you cannot drag your pain around with you forever and until your father sees that you're okay he can't leave either.' Lynn looked like she might say something there but stayed silent. 'And don't tell me that you'd rather keep him here past his time when he has already made peace with it. That would be selfish, and even I know that's not you Lynn. Your father loves you, but he won't be able to rest until he knows that you'll be okay. You need to listen to him and let him go.'
And what about you Barkus? What do yo need to let go of? Barkus blinked and shoved the voice away, feeling a cold sweat pop out on his brow. He wiped his forehead with a hand that shook only slightly, but Lynn was lost in her thoughts and didn't seem to notice.
Very quietly, Lynn picked up her laptop and stood up. 'I'll uh, see you around Barkus,' she said. 'And, thanks.' She left, heels clicking rapidly. Barkus staying sitting, staring at the wall, his stomach started to churn and his temples started to throb.
Why did I use Jim? he asked himself. It was a true story, but it happened more then 5 years ago. Why didn't he talk about his own losses? Why didn't his own experiences jump to his lips like his friend's had? The edges of his vision darkened and his breath shallowed. Why am I forgetting them? What's going on with me? And then. Because she needed to hear about someone facing reality and you haven't been whispered a deeper voice. Because she doesn't need to hear about denial in the face of pain. She needs to hear about reaching the other shore, not drowning in illusions of false normality. And you are drowning John.
“Barkus? John Barkus, are you there?”
Barkus was dimly aware that someone was speaking to him and he forced himself to look up. He recognised Annie with an older man he didn't know. He forced his eyes to focus, shoved his mental anguish into a box and ordered his legs to hold him steady as he stood to greet them.
'Annie, good to see you again,' he said and was relieved when his voice emerged steady and warm.
“ You were miles away Barkus, I hope we didn't interrupt anything important,” Annie said airily, but her quick eyes noted his damp forehead and the lines of strain around his eyes. “This is Albert Roberts, my uncle. Albert, John Barkus.”
'Pleased to meet you Albert,' Barkus said, extending a hand. 'Are you Lynn's father or another Roberts?' he said without thinking, them almost immediately mentally kicked himself for a fool.
'No, I'm another one. Peter is my brother,' Albert said while enfolding Barkus' hand in a firm grip. “I'm sure Peter would like to meet you, but he's not as active as he used to be.”
'Yes, Lynn said actually,” Barkus admitted, sitting down with them. “I had forgotten for that moment.”
'Yes,' Albert sighed. “Sometimes I do too.” There was a quiet moment before Mary bustled over with a jug of water and three glasses.
'Afternoon Annie, Albert,' she beamed. “What can I do for you today?'
“Salad with vinaigrette please Mary,' Annie said with a smile.
“Hot chicken sandwich on white please,” Albert said. “Hows the new help doing back there?”
“Really well. He's got a knack for it and he enjoys it,” Mary enthused. “If he can handle the shiftwork then he's got a good career ahead of him.”
“Lets hope he can manage the long haul then.” Mary smiled again and went back to hand in the orders.Barkus drew in a deep, slow breath, pasted a warm smile on his face and said, “So, what can I help you with Albert?”
Barkus tried to pay attention, as both Annie and Albert talked and he distractedly wondered why they were coming to him instead of directly to Sheryl as it seemed that Albert saw that his farm was in trouble and wanted advice on, essentially, a re-haul. He said this in a pause and Albert flapped his hand dismissively and Annie's face turned deadpan.
'Sheryl Monroe might have some fancy books but I want someone who's been tried and tested. I think that fella's you Mr. Barkus,' Albert said brusquely while Annie sipped her coffee, her expression slanted away from Albert. Barkus made a mental note on this, then went back to trying to keep track of Albert's rambling narratives. A song from the cafe speakers caught his ear and memories crept up behind him. Of his father playing the old piano to records, he and his bothers and sister dancing behind the stool, his mother smiling while her hands were busy churning out jams, jellies, relishes and pickles. Those days that felt like they'd go on forever and then, suddenly, did not.
''What do you think Barkus?' Barkus snapped back to current events and looked up to see Annie and Albert looking questioningly at him. He rewound the conversation and grabbed a phrase from nowhere.
'Lady Ashford Pickles actually.'
'What?' The red faced man got redder. 'I'm looking to keep a livelihood going here and all he can think about is his stomach.'
'Well your business is growing food Albert,' Annie reminded him with a smile. It had an almost magical effect as Albert first appeared to try bluster then grinned himself.
'I suppose I can understand that problem,' he admitted, slapping his generous belly. 'But I got to deal with a financial problem Annie and I want a solution.'
'My parents ran a farm,' Barkus said quietly. 'And Dad always got a ribbing when he compared the figures from his and Mom's sides of the family business.' He smiled freely, and Annie thought she got a clearer glimpse of the real John Barkus. 'He ran the livestock and the fields you see, and Mama had the dairy, the garden and the value-addeds.'
'Value-addeds?' Annie asked.
'You know, things like pickles, chutneys, socks. Stuff that isn't just 'pick it, weigh it, charge it' items. When the final reckoning came round each year, Mama had almost as much profit as dad despite the fact that he had 10 times as much acreage as her. The secret she said, was to find what people really wanted to enjoy and make it available to them.' Albert was watching him carefully and Annie had an eyebrow raised. 'For example, she found out by accident that all our neighbours really wanted a type of pickle called 'Lady Ashford Pickles'. Thing is it needs yellow pickling cucumbers, no green at all and there were none to be had anywhere at the kind of price where you didn't have to wait for a special occasion to pop a jar. So Mama immediately contacted someone 2 days drive away that had yellow cukes and went and swapped seeds with her. The following year, three-quarters of our cukes were yellow and Mama made them all into Lady Ashford pickles and inside 2 weeks Mama was driving a rented truck to pick up as many yellow cukes as she could lay her hands on. Everyone in our town wanted 10 jars of Lady Ashfords and she was the only one around. She doubled her profits that year. Of course the next year other farmers had caught on and there were competitors but because Mama kept the Lady Ashfords almost the same price as the normal ones and because she simply made the best, no matter how many she made, she was always sold out.' Barkus laughed. 'I think we were the only kids in town who didn't have Lady Ashford pickles twice a week cos Mama kept selling them all!' Albert was clearly mulling this over, but was smiling.
'So is that still the case?' he asked as Barkus smiled at the past. 'Is she still selling out every year?' Albert and Annie watched as Barkus' face swiftly folded into neutrality, but they still saw the brief flash of grief.
'No,' he said softly. 'There are no more of Mama's Lady Ashford pickles.' He cleared his throat and picked up his coffee cup. 'Excuse me, I'm just going to get a refill.'
As he walked up the cafe, Albert and Annie shared a look. Albert sighed;
'Well I guess he does have a point,' he admitted. 'So how on earth am I going to find out all this?'
'Get one of the teenagers on it?' Annie offered with a wry grin. Albert started to snort, but then a thoughtful look appeared in his eye.
'Huh,' was all he would say.
By the time Barkus returned, Albert was scribbling furiously on a borrowed sheet of paper while Annie was sipping her coffee and watching the middle distance with a faint smile.
“Alright, I got a yellow here from last time,” Barkus heard Jim say as he walked in. There was still 20 minutes before the place opened officially, but the door was open and he didn't think Jim would mind. He stopped dead. Jim was standing with a clipboard and a pen with 3 leather-clad bikers standing on the stage in front of him, for all the world like uncertain schoolboys at a play rehearsal. Everyone, actors, Jim and audience turned to look as the door slammed shut. In the face of their stares, Barkus forced himself to walk over saying, “Is there still time to audition?”
“How you doing Barkus?” Jim asked, turning back to his clipboard. “Earl and George guys, yellow.” Barkus stared as all three men pounded a boot on a small patch of floor while Jim watched, hawk-eyed.
“Er, have you guys spent way to much time playing Battleship, or is there really a town talent show going on?” The three men on stage burst out laughing. Jim grinned and passed him the clipboard, Barkus took it and saw a diagram of the stage with numbered, coloured stickers on it.
“See?” Jim pointed. “Number 1 here is a yeller, not too bad but needs keeping an eye on, and down here is where to find it on the stage. So in this case, it says “Hard-on rock” and “Permed Reba”. If you would do the honours Bob?”
One of the actors obediently walked to a spot and dropped a curtsey to a chorus of whistles and catcalls. Barkus looked to see a landscape behind Bob with, yes a single pillar of rock sticking through the trees and turned, and turned and turned. The watching audience burst out laughing as he turned right around into Jim's huge grin.
“You cant see it from here,” he told him, chuckling. “But Bob there can.” Barkus looked from Bob to the clipboard to the stage.
“This is how you check the structural integrity,” he cried as light dawned. “That's pretty clever.”
“Yep,” beamed a proud Jim. “It's a pretty neat system if I do say so myself. The lads stamp with a certain amount of force and I can tell by the shaking if the stage needs fixing yet.”
“Officer Stewards did say that you kept a pretty tight ship.”
“Did he now?” Jim's chest swelled visibly. “Well thats a compliment and a half coming from that quarter.” Jim glanced at a clock over the bar then said offhand: “Did you want a drink? Sort Barkus here out would you please Jane? While I finish this up.”
“Sure thing boss,” a young red-headed woman chirped, coming over from a stack of pop-cans with her own clipboard in hand. “What can I get you honey?” She took the opportunity to sweep Barkus up and down with black-rimmed eyes and her smile deepened. “Anything strike your fancy?” she continued, placing her hand on her cocked hip.
“A beer for now please,” Barkus replied and smiled back.
“What kind?” she laughed. “We have more than one you know.”
“Whichever you prefer.”
She grinned again and turned away. His eyes followed the swing of her hips as she walked back to the bar, then, instinctively, checked the other men in the bar. The only ones who seemed to notice the exchange gave him the little signals which meant “no problem here, go for it if she wants you to.”
“Here you go honey.” Jane handed him a large brown bottle with a colourful label.
“What's this?” he asked surprised.
“It's called a 'Blonde Ale'. It's from a micro-brewery within the province called Pickeroons.” She shrugged one shoulder. It's not my favourite, but its a good one to start off a rookie.”
“A rookie?” he laughed, the bottle half-way to his lips.
“Well, if you're used to fizzy piss like Bud Light,” she said wrinkling her nose. Barkus was suddenly reminded of all the times he defended real coffee and he smiled.
“I suppose if I'm going to say that I'm open to new experiences I had better follow up on it,” he admitted and tried the beer. Jane's eyes watched his face as he swished the liquid around in his mouth and swallowed then regarded the bottle again.
“And?” she prompted.
“I think I could get used to that,” he said, nodding. “How much is it?”
She told him, then swiftly followed with, “But as you can see its 500ml and the hops and the jobs are New Brunswickan so most of the money stays in the province.”
“Are you getting a commission for this?” She laughed.
“Not yet, but Jim only got it in on trial on my assurance so it's in my best interest to convert people. It's pretty bad if you work in a bar and have to drive 50 miles to get the only beers you like,” she added.
“Yes, I can see how that would be annoying,” Barkus agreed.
“I got to get back and sort out these cans before the crowd comes in, but will you be hanging around?”
Barkus analysed her delivery, posture and twinkling eyes and nodded slowly. “I might be out for a bit, but I'll be back.”
“Good,” was all she said before she got back to what she was doing, head high and hips swinging. Barkus sipped his beer and considered that his day was definitely looking up.
“So Barkus,” Jim boomed jovially. He walked behind his bar and hung the clipboard on a hook. “What did you have in mind before you walked in?” He winked and Barkus smiled.
“Some advice and an introduction, I guess.”
“Yep, you appear to be holding the traditional social space of the barkeep as well as the job itself.”
“And it's of use to you eh? Who do you want to be introduced to?”
“I don't know the name of course, but in every community there's a guy who holds the reins of the main male group.” There was a non-commital shrug. “In your opinion, would this leader be sympathetic to the idea of joining the Square workforce and bringing the rest of the men with him?” Jim rubbed his chin, mulling it over.
“That depends, just what do you want the boys for?”
“General labouring, unless they have extra skills then they would be offered the opportunity to use them.” Jim didn't reply, but got himself a glass of water instead, so Barkus plunged on. “Young men need older men around as figures to emulate.”
“You sure you want them emulating the Boys?” Barkus shrugged.
“Did the Boys stand aside when people's homes got washed away? Or burnt down?” Jim raised an eyebrow. “Mary mentioned it at lunch today, how they got together and got people's lives re-started.” Jim nodded slowly.
“You have a point there,” he mused. “But most of the time they spend drinking and smoking and sitting around.”
“But when they were needed they stepped up. Young men and boys need to see that you can have a good time and still do what's right. That you don't have to be a saint to be a good man. And there's nothing wrong with the girls seeing that either,” he added.
“I hope you're not too disappointed there Barkus,” came the solemn reply. Barkus shrugged again.
“Maybe I will be, but its always worth a shot to give a man a chance to prove himself.”
“And what makes you think they want to prove themselves? At least, in the way that you mean?” It was a couple of hours later and Barkus was standing beside Gus's truck while the man himself was hanging into the engine bay.
“As a general rule, people want to spend their energy doing useful things. A lot of problems come from this urge being stifled or ignored or unappreciated. There are few places where a young man can look to for a productive, healthy rolemodel and I want to see if the boys are man enough to fill that role.” Gus pushed himself out of the engine with a grunt and accepted the rag Barkus passed him with a nod.
“In what way?”
“In the Square, in whatever way their skill or fancy takes them. Them being there is what's important.” Gus looked questioningly at him as he eased the hood down and clicked it into place. “As long as only one segment of society gets involved you're shutting out a lot of people because no one sector can represent everyone,” he explained.
“Democracy through action eh? Come on,” Gus motioned toward the cab. “Lets see if those new plugs made a difference.”
“Well the more people invest into something,” Barkus said when the engine had roared into life and Gus swung the nose onto the driveway. “The longer it will remain relevant and the less long-term damage will happen.” Gus grunted.
“Would you destroy your best friend's car?”
“Depends on what he's done,” Gus laughed. “No I see your point. Well, well, you're a surprising fellow, John Barkus. I had not taken you for a social analyst when you arrived..” Gus, eyes not leaving the road, reached into a pocket and took out his silver case. He slotted a rollie behind his ear and a joint between his lips. Barkus smiled.
“Blame my,” tiny pause, “ex-wife for that. She's spent years, decades, trying to figure out the difference between groups of people and their reactions to circumstance.”
“Oh yes?” Gus exhaled and passed the joint over.
“It's like a piece of meat between her teeth, she just cant leave it alone. I guess after 20 years it's rubbed off a little.”
“You guys been married for 20 years?” Barkus shook his head and coughed out a plume of smoke.
“Long engagement,” he wheezed. He took another puff saying, “But it's been 20 years since I saw her at a bar, reading ferociously with a ciggarette burnt all the way to the filter and a flat beer in front of her.” He smiled at the memory, passing the joint back. “I've always liked nerdy girls so naturally I went over.” He laughed and Gus smiled. “I managed to get her attention long enough to make her laugh and arrange a lunch date and then her nose was back in the books again.”
“She made you work for it,” Gus supplied, passing the joint over again and opening the window to let some of the smoke out.
“Yes she did. But she would have been amazed that anyone would have seen it that way. She was just being herself, so intense, so committed.” He stared through the joint in his fingers to 20 years before. “And 20 years later, here we are,” he muttered.
“Why are you here, John Barkus?” Gus asked in a certain tone. Barkus took a big haul, held it in for a moment and exhaled, relaxing.
“Because of a cinnamon roll.”
Barkus stared at his plate in silence. His colleague's coffee had washed across the table, people scrambled, gathering notes and lifting laptops, grabbing tissue to dam the flow. But he stared at the small plate beside his coffee mug where his cinnamon roll was sitting, gently melting in the sugary, lukewarm slop that Mark called coffee. His last home-made cinnamon roll with special apricot filling. His very. Last. One.
“Oh my gosh John,” Mark babbled, his face red. “I'm so,” his voice died in his throat as Barkus turned his head to stare him in the eye. The whole room fell silent except for coffee dripping onto the carpet.
“Why don't you ever curse Mark?” Barkus asked him, in a voice as flat and heavy as iron bars. “Don't you sometimes think that a good, clean curse would do better than apologies and mumbles?”
Very quietly and deliberately, Barkus picked up his plate, tipped off the pooled coffee, picked up his mug and left. Somebody had the presence of mind to open the door for him.
“After that?” Gus asked. Barkus sighed.
“One of the partners came to see me as I was packing up my stuff. She offered me a sabbatical until the end of my current project load, 24 months.”
“That's a long time, are they still paying you?”
“So long as I stay out of jail, yes. There are therapy conditions but the sessions don't start for another 2 weeks. I decided to go for a road trip first.” His forehead crinkled. “Huh, I may have to reschedule those,” he mused.
“That's a sweet deal just for staring at someone in a funny way.” Barkus sighed again.
“I wanted to kill him,” he said quietly. “Over a cinnamon roll, I wanted to flatten his stupid fat head against the table, stamp on his fingers, break his elbows, I wanted to tear him apart. Over a cinnamon roll.”
“Hell no, what do you think of me? My ex-wife's special recipe she inherited from her Gram with a few little touches of her own. I found that last one in the very back of the freezer when I cleaned out the flat. How it didn't get freezer burn I don't know but I saved it for my coffee the next day. Even took a detour on the way to work to get the right beans. Then I got grabbed by Mark to lend weight to a risky design I helped him with and wouldn't take no for an answer. So I went in just to sit there and he went and knocked his McDihorrea coffee all over my last, last home-made cinnamon roll from my wife.” Silence. “I wanted to kill him like I had never wanted anything else in my life and he knew it. They all knew it. So my reward for leaving as I did was to get straightened out in my own time.” Pause. “I have to pay for the Shrink though.”
“They know how much you earn I 1guess.” In the silence, Gus re-lit the joint and took a drag. “So what did you do then?” Barkus smiled bitterly.
“Well I was in luck there,” he said accepting the joint. “I had already sold my place, just couldn't stand being alone in there, it was so big and empty.” Silence. “A family has it now, two kids and a dog.” More, even more depressed silence fell until Barkus shook himself and passed the joint back.
“What kind of coffee was it?” Gus asked, taking a toke.
“You said you took a detour to get the right beans,” Gus said patiently, handing the joint back to Barkus who stared at it, then smoked it again.
“Yes,” he nodded, releasing a cloud of smoke. He coughed harshly and Gus slapped him on the back a few times. “I got them from a small independent store I knew. They were unwashed, Fair Trade beans, shipped direct and roasted in-store. I knew how much everyone made and I got a great cup of coffee for a decent price.”
“You're used to defending your coffee I take it?”
“Not defending, more like using it to point out how shit the mass-produced, over-priced sludge is. Free is too much for some of those “coffees”.” He added the visible punctuation. Gus looked at him.
“You didn't really just do the quotation marks in the air, did you?” Barkus blinked
“Yeah, yeah I kinda did.” He stared at the stub of the joint left in his hand. “This stuff is good.”
"This is direct from producer to user, I cut out the middle man." Gus's eyes twinkled when he looked over. 'Organic, outdoor and grown within a hundred miles.'
Barkus stared at him, then threw back his head and laughed. He didn't know if it was the weed, or the moon that was climbing into higher into the sky or the lack of proper sleep, but he felt lighter. An enormous weight had been partly lifted from his chest, it wasn't all the way gone, but the difference was enough to make him feel like he could leap mountains and dance on the wind. He laughed at his pride, at the path that lead him here to this spot, he could even laugh at the half-healed blisters and ground-in dirt that covered his hands. He laughed and laughed while beside him, Gus smiled.