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.