Monday, 14 September 2015

Chapter 4.1

Chapter 4

Barkus opened his eyes and groaned as the hangover hit. The guilty cigarettes made his stomach heave and his lungs ache and scratch.
“What the hell was I thinking?” he said aloud and winced at the sound of his own voice. He lay there and ran through the events of the night before in his head.
Let's see, Lynn, Sara and Sheryl had come back to his after Jim's Place for one more drink. Then Jim showed up with Sol and Gus and a couple more from the bar because it was suddenly closing time. Then someone remembered a dusty bottle of tequila in a house around the corner and then, beer appeared in the fridge?
Barkus stared at the ceiling, brow furrowed. That can't have been right, could it? And then came the drinking games which he had tried to stay out of but couldn't and that's when he gave in to his nicotine craving and nearly brought up a lung as well as the contents of his stomach. Soon after that Lynn, Sara, Sheryl and Jim propped each other up and out the door. The tequila donor and his friends staggered off with Gus, and Sol...
Sol combusted on the sofa.
No, that really can't be right.
But the memory had slammed into his mind's eye with the force of a punch. Of Sol sitting there with his eternal scotch and fedora, the last guest while Barkus flopped into an armchair and muzzily tried to decide if he'd make a start on the tidy-up or leave it until later in the morning. Sol began a monologue on social forces acting on the individual psyche or something like that, he had missed the beginning. Then he made an analogy to volcanoes, took out a lighter and, erupted into flames.
Really, Barkus mused. Who would believe him? He certainly didn't. He heaved himself out of bed, waited for his organs to follow and lurched into the living room.
It wasn't as if there was any physical evidence left for what he would claim happened. Men don't just blossom into flame everyday, and when they do, afterwards there's usually some kind of residue and at the time, some fuss and a certain degree of panic. Not a calm discussion on the sociological effects of terrifying mysteries on the psyche of the human herd and it's resultant consequences on individuals expressing the diversity that allowed the human race to flourish in the first place. Or something like that. Feeling a more pressing need than the mystery, he swung into the bathroom and propped himself up against the wall as he relieved his bladder.
*He was actually on fire * he thought afterwards, staring at himself in the mirror as he brushed his teeth and tongue. He'd have to get a new toothbrush, he had forgotten just how awful cigarettes make the inside of your mouth feel.
“He was sitting on the sofa and he was actually on fire,” he told his reflection, because his head wasn't big enough to hold the words. Then he winced and pulled the blinds down as the sun breaking through the clouds outside recharged his headache.
“Right there,” he muttered, wandering back into the living room. There was certain physical evidences in here, by way of pizza boxes, half-empty cans and half-full ashtrays on the windowsill where he remembered up to five people hanging out the windows at a time. Thankfully, as he had remembered, everyone had left in two groups and so Barkus did not have to deal with a somnolent lodger.
“Well obviously not everyone left because he was sitting on the sofa and he was on fire.” Barkus glared at the offending sofa, but it refused to show any sign of extreme heat or embarrassment. In fact, if it wasn't for the pure shock that had cut through the alcoholic fog and seared the image into his brain, he would think that it was some kind of weird dream. He knew it wasn't, knew it in his bones, but he knew equally well that any attempt to convince other people of this would be at best laughed off and at worst taken as proof of psychosis.
*Is that why he did it when I was drunk and alone? * Barkus wondered. *So it would be instantly discredited if I did try to tell anyone? * The nonchalance, the smooth ignition, the amused glances, looking back it all looked practised, like it was a routine Sol did every day. Restless, ignoring his head, stomach and lungs, Barkus worked his way around the room, opening windows, picking up cans and bottles and glasses, putting pizza boxes by the door for the dumpster downstairs, emptying ashtrays.
“ 'When the head can't work, the hands still can and will bring the head along eventually' “ he muttered absently, not quite realizing what he was saying until he heard the last few words. He stopped, his chest tight and his throat clenching. How many times had he heard his mother say that? How many mornings had he arrived downstairs trying to hide a hangover to find two slices of buttered toast, two big glasses of water and a list of chores on the kitchen table?
How many more would there have been if only that night hadn't happened?
'I tell you boy, a man can take more punishment than any other creature on God's green earth if he can keep his head between his ears. But the “if onlys” will drown him in no time.'
Barkus' heart jumped into his throat as his father's voice sounded in his head as clearly as if he had been standing behind him. He closed his eyes before turning, just in case. But the sight of the empty hallway behind him was worse than any Japanese horror movie.
All alone, John Barkus of society fame, darling of the architectural trade and idol of colleges of graduate students dropped the empty cans, sank to his knees and wept.

Barkus looked around at the sound of his name. George was walking across the road towards him with a tall, broad Native man, loping along easily. Barkus paused, a tray of coffees in his hands, a bag of donughts dangling.
“Can we walk and talk George? I've gotta get to a meeting with the Square Committee.”
“They love them Committees don't they? Well, when you're finished could you stand to stroll up to the station porch for another coffee?” At Barkus' look, he went on. “Not for official business, it's just that my shift starts in ten.”
“I could wander up that way,” Barkus nodded slowly. He glanced at George's companion who had made no move to introduce himself but was watching the Square with a far-away expression.
“Good to hear it.” George turned to his friend. “Come on Longman, I'll get you sorted out before I start work.” With a final, searching glance at the Square, the stranger turned and fell into step beside George, without once looking at Barkus, who stood there for a moment before carrying on his way.

“Well, we have quarries and sand-pits nearby, a local construction company for the lumber and screws and pipes and things. There's an outdoor tree nursery 2 hours away and plenty of guys with big trucks and trailers to fetch what we need. I know who to call on for started annuals,” Sheryl went on, running a pen down a list and talking fast. “Those can go in as soon as the ground is ready, same as the trees.”
“Okay, the best time to get the trees in and the beds made looks to be next weekend. Not the 4th, the 11th. Now, I reckon it will take 10 people 3-4 days to get everything done if all of the materials are already in place. Has anyone ordered mulch?”
“Yep, 3 big trailers full.”
“There's not going to be an empty trailer in town.” It wasn't exactly a grumble.
“Now given,” Barkus sat forward, coasting over the detour expertly. He had lead more of these meetings than he cared to remember. He caught Annie's eye who had sat back at the beginning with her coffee and doughnut and was watching everyone with an amused expression. “Given that we have 10 names we can apparently rely on, I'd rather structure our game-plan around those 10 and have the option to widen it out, rather than plan for 20 and have it fall flat, if you understand me.” Nods went around the table, though Barkus noticed that Annie smiled to herself and sipped her coffee instead. “So I would say that the gazebo materials be delivered Wednesday morning at the latest and started on Wednesday afternoon. I'd rather start that even on Tuesday if we could so that a lot of the long pieces are already in place before the trees arrive. We want as little transplant shock as possible and that means zero damage.” In the face of their surprise, he went on. “I've seen so many building sites I'm not even surprised at damage incurred anymore, I just plan to minimize it.”
“And anyway,” Sheryl interjected. “That means we get those 4 men back in the main job after 3 days, ready for the big push.”
“Is that all it'll take?” asked a man the end of the table doubtfully.
“Donny Red and his boys are doing it,” was Annie's first comment of the meeting. “When I left this morning they were arguing over where the materials should be stacked.” That, Barkus observed, appeared to be that on the gazebo score.
“How are we keeping everyone fed and watered?” he asked, moving his pen down to the next item on the list.
“I have that in hand young man,” a Mrs. Cleary announced. A slight nod from Annie meant the food and drink box was ticked. The pen moved down...

“So how goes the Ark?” George asked as Barkus trotted up the street to the Sherrif's porch. “You needn't have run by the way,” he added as Barkus only slightly flopped into the chair beside him, completely ignoring the protests from his still-poisoned stomach.
“It's how I avoid going to the gym,” Barkus explained, catching his breath. “I go at a running pace where I can. It's been a while since I remembered to do it, so I figured it was as good a time as any.” He accepted the water George passed him with a grateful nod.
“Coffee's just finished if you want one of them too,” George offered, getting up and going through the screen-door to the office.
“Yes please,” a yawn cut off Barkus' words
“Sounds like you're not sleeping.”
“Well there was the party last night, if you recall,' he laughed. 'But I always have trouble adapting to new beds anyway.” It wasn't a lie.
“I guess the jet-setter lifestyle didn't suit you then?”
“Going home was always the best part of the trip. Anyway,” he accepted the proffered coffee. “I wouldn't call it a jet-setter lifestyle, barely more than a week a month.”
“Oh yeah, is that all?” George asked innocently, sitting down again. Barkus paused in the act of looking surreptitiously for the cream and sugar.
“Alright, it got to be more at one point.”
“Uh huh?” Barkus shot the Officer a glance, but the other man was watching the streets with no apparent interest in Barkus at all. He suddenly wanted to leave the whole “new beds” conversation alone.
As if reading his mind, George said, “Are all the ducks getting lined up?”
“Yes, surprisingly well actually. Who is Mrs. Cleary by the way?”
“Is she leading the catering?” George turned his face towards Barkus, quick as a bird. “Tall, black older lady, wears a black sparkly broach on a coloured scarf?”
“Yes and she said she had the food and drink in hand.”
“I'll just bet she does too. You'll have no shortage of volunteers Barkus, I can tell you that. If Mrs. Cleary is in charge of catering, you're going to get trampled by willing hands, or at least hands willing to work for a turn at a Mrs. Cleary organised buffett table. She hasn't lead one in years.”
“I'm sorry,” said Barkus, thoroughly at sea. “What do you mean, “organised buffett table”? Surely everyone just brings something?” George smiled benevolently at him.
“Oh, you just wait and see what Mrs. Cleary can do.”
Mystified, but suspecting that was all he was going to get right now, Barkus sipped his naked coffee and watched the street for a while.
After a minute or two, George wordlessly passed an envelope over to Barkus. He accepted it, and when he saw the handwriting, his heart leapt and sank at the same time.
”Arrived this morning,” George said by way of explanation. “I was going to bring it round to Mary's if I didn't see you today.”
Barkus turned it over and over in trembling fingers. It had been addressed to him, care of the Police office.
“Thank you.” Barkus coughed to clear his throat. “She has my email and all of my other contact info of course, and she sends me a letter instead.”
“Sometimes things just look right on paper,” George rumbled thoughtfully as Barkus tucked it carefully into his shirt. “Did I offer you sugar or cream by the way?”
“Er, no, um, I just need cream,” Barkus stuttered, head spinning.
“Well, the fridge is in the kitchen, 2nd door on the right.” Barkus took his mug and went inside gratefully. After a few minutes of breathing deeply, he returned with a perfectly doctored coffee and sat down again. George didn't appear to have moved, just watched the streets. Barkus realised they had an unparalleled view of the square and 4 of the 5 connecting streets from his vantage point. When he pointed this out, George grunted and pointed to a curved mirror across the way.
“From this chair, you get a view down the 5th street in that mirror, your chair doesn't quite get the right angle.”
“That's why yours is the comfier one, eh?” George grinned.
“That's right.”
“So how long have you been in law enforcement?”
“Since I got convinced that I got do a lot more shaking shit up on the inside than in the Big House.”
“Oh yeah?”
“Yep.” George grinned at Barkus' surprise. “Anyone could tell you that I was a Hard Blood back in the day. All petty stuff, but it wasn't going to stay that way for much longer. At one point I was sitting in that office facing a breaking and entering with the additional charge of assaulting 2 police officers. Prison bus was on the way, I was a Native boy in big trouble and I knew it.”
“What happened?”
“Well,” George took a sip of coffee, eyes never stopping moving over people in the streets. Every now and then, his hands raised to acknowledge a greeting. “Luckily for me, the officers were Old Jimmie and Mike. Jimmie was the Staff Sergeant at the time, Mike his right-hand man. See, I was stuck half-in and half-out of a window when they shone a light on me. I was pulled out then laid out Mike in a panic. Jimmie spun me round, caught my swing on his arm and I saw stars. Woke up in a cell with an ice pack, then got put in front of the big desk and had all my options laid out in front of me. I picked schooling and a career in law enforcement. That was 20-some years ago.”
“What did your old gang have to say about it?” Barkus asked, fascinated.
“Well, considering that my uncle ran it, and my mama was his favourite sister, there wasn't much they could do. We had a chat after I graduated, he told me my mama would have been proud and he disapearred into another Reserve. I get Christmas cards every now and then, but that's all.”
“You grew up on a Reserve?”
“That's right, I aint no Paper Indian.”
“Paper Indian, someone who's only Native in a technical sense. There's a lot of people who want the status for tax reasons and don't care about what really matters.”
“Growing up on a Reserve?” Barkus asked without thinking and received a scowl for it.
“Don't be stupid. What matters is the culture, the old stories that tells us how our ancestors saw the world and how they fitted into it, the dances and the Pow-Wow, the sweat lodges and Ceremonies and all the little things that non-Natives don't know. The Reserves aren't what makes us Native, they're what holds us down.” There was an unexpected level of bitterness in George's voice and Barkus hesitated, but plunged on.
“I've heard the opinions of capitalists and liberals on what is going wrong with the Reserves, but what's yours?”
“Lack of ownership is a big one,” George mused. “If you cant be proud of what you own because you don't own anything, or be proud of what you've done or where you've gone because you haven't done anything or gone anywhere different than everyone else, than what is there to be proud of?”
“Culture and heritage.”
“Take a minute and think about that one,” George replied, waving a finger. “Are you familiar with Stockholm Syndrome?”
“Yes, its where you subconsciously decide that you should worship your captor because they must be so much better than you otherwise they would not be in charge of your fate. It's a survival tactic used by the oppressed.” Barkus frowned. “You think that's the problem?” George spread his hands.
“It's as good an answer as any that I've heard so far. People forget how much we've lost over such a short time, how many families disapeared, how much knowledge is just, gone, like ashes in a breeze. Many have tried hard to keep what is left, but its like trying to replicate a hugely intricate mosaic with a handful of tiles. So now, when Native kids are told to be proud of their heritage and culture, they cant help but wonder why, because all they see are the ruins.”
“So thats where the Stockholm comes in?” Barkus asked, puzzled. George shrugged.
“If you look at the surface of the history books. White man landed and metaphorically speaking, got out a broom and swept all the Native populations into a dustpan. It's not really true of course, but if you only take a look at the surface it might as well be. And that's quite hard to face and be proud.”
“But you cant take a ruler and draw lines of comparison like that,” Barkus protested. “Leaving aside the simply enormous effect of infectious diseases that nobody on this continent was exposed to before the Europeans arrived, the various European cultures have always been based on battles and war. Large-scale, highly organised and mechanised methods of warfare evolved after literally centuries of annual, brutal campaigning against everyone.” Barkus pause. “Okay, my wife could have said it better than that, but still it really was a case of the biggest psychopath wins every time. No matter how brave and strong individual warriors or tribes may have been, they simply did not have...
“What it takes?”
“Yes, no! It's like trying to compare a bicycle and a steam-roller. Both have wheels, both can be steered and both usually hold one person, but there the comparison ends because that's all the two have in common.”
“So just what are you saying there Barkus?”
“I think I'm saying that you need to speak to my wife cos I don't know the words but she would.” Barkus' eyes fell on his left hand and he sighed. “I mean ex-wife of course.”
“Be that as it may,” George said after a moment. “Many held a nagging suspicion in the back of their heads that the reason why it looked so easy is because the white man was simply better than our ancestors and deserved to win. Then afterwards of course the missionaries finished the job by taking full advantage of this psychological mess and made damn sure that most of the survivors turned to the Christian religion and lost the last traces of what made them proud and independent. And then they started the Residential Schools and we were sent straight up Shit Creek.” There was silence for a few minutes, then Barkus slowly said:
 "So you'll be reading the Truth and Reconciliation Report as soon as it comes out, eh?"
 "Yes, yes I will. Not to place blame, or anything like that,' George went on. "But to read what was found and find out how the story is being told."
 "But you know a lot of it already," Barkus hazarded.
 "I should do, I'm a Survivor myself. But everyone has their own stories and experiences to share."
 "What do you want to see come out of this?"
 "Acknowledgement,' George said at last. "Of why things are the way they are and that anything else is an excuse."
 "Is that what you want?"
 "For myself, but I cant speak for everybody. But I think that when the non-Indigenous population realise that those dark stories that slipped under the door of social consciousness weren't just real but are only the tip of the iceberg. And not only that, but those awful things were done in their name and under their noses, I think they'll be horrified."
 "You want them, us, to be horrified?"
 "I want the scales to come off your eyes. I want your ears to unplug. I want you to come to the table as fellow human beings, without the assumptions that have stopped you from being true neighbours. You don't have to come with sorry on your lips, though if you are moved to say it sincerely it will be accepted. All you need is an open heart. That's all I ask."
Barkus thought about it, there didn't seem to be anything more to say, and George didn't seem soured by the conversation. They sat in a companionable silence for a few minutes, watching the town go by.
 'Hello George,” came a voice and both men turned to see the man who, at the Council Meeting, had been Barkus's saving grace.
“Good morning Your Honour,” came the jovial reply. Barkus looked at George quzzically as the man climbed the porch stairs.
“Your Honour?” he asked in puzzlement.
“Yes indeed,” the man said, taking the seat on the other side of George and placing his Tilley hat on his knee. “Retired judges get the same honorific as active ones, Mr. Barkus. I realise that in the very brief introduction you received yesterday I was one of those skipped over but that was for reasons of expediency, not deception or disrespect. I am, in fact, Joshua Peterson at your service.” He smiled at Barkus's chargrin. “Certain members of the Council wished to strike while the iron was hot in the hopes of getting the result that we did in fact get. Thank you George,” he said accepting the proffered cup of coffee. He opened the hitherto unregarded cupboard beside him to reveal a mini-fridge. Barkus glanced at George who appeared not to notice as the retired judge took out a jug labelled “Cream”, and poured a generous helping into his cup before replacing it and closing the door. * “It's the little kindnesses that show humanity” * he remembered. “Though I have to say,” Peterson continued. “Without your expertise and, may I say, showmanship, it would not have mattered how fast or fiercely we would have hammered.” Barkus shrugged and smiled disarmingly.
“Getting people to agree to unusual designs is a large part of my job,” he reminded them. “It doesn't matter how many great ideas I or my team have if I can't convince the site owners to buy into it.” There were nods as he continued. “I believe in Sheryl's design and I can see that she has spent a lot of time and effort in making it meet the needs of the town far better than what I could come up with. Why shouldn't I champion it and make it a reality?”
“It also means you get out of here a lot faster,” came the reply. Barkus smiled at the old judge.
“I would be lying if I said that it never crossed my mind but it didn't put a lot of weight into my decision. Like I said in the meeting, I have a professional reputation to uphold and if I sign off on a design that doesn't work, my reputation and future prospects suffer as a result.”
“Indeed,” Peterson mused, staring clear through Barkus as if reading his thoughts on the wall behind him. “Reputations are important.”
Barkus shifted and in a hopefully nonchalant fashion drained his cup and stood up. “Well, I should get on and get some more strings tied, as the corset maker said to the model. I'll leave my cup beside the sink George.” George nodded as Barkus disappeared briefly then re-emerged to gather up his things. “It was nice speaking with you George, Your Honour.” Both men waved goodbye and Barkus turned and walked down the porch steps and away towards Mary's.
Barkus heard the low buzz of conversation start as he strode swiftly away, trying hard not to show how unsettled he was by the Judge's apparently off-hand comment. The letter inside his shirt seemed to burn his skin and it was all he could do not to break into a guilty run.

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