by Bruce Costello
Slouched in a bus, heading back to my flat after another gruelling session with the probation officer, for some reason I found my mind drifting back to my father’s Vauxhall and how, when I was a kid, I would pretend we were in the cockpit of a Lancaster, flying on some mission, like Biggles. It was a pretty flash car in those days, just a pity our family was, well, dodgy, and my father a minister.
Anyway, there was this woman across the aisle, and, you know how when you catch someone’s eyes, sometimes you get this sense of knowing each other, a kind of connection?
Well, there was nothing like that. Not for me, anyway. She gave me that look women give when they’re interested, and my eyes ran up and down her body. I’d been living on my own since my wife and I separated.
I turned away, the probation officer’s words ringing in my ears.
“I’ve had enough of your griping about ‘abandonment issues’ and ‘addiction issues’, what pathetic excuses, all nonsense. It’s time for you to stop wallowing, quit dreaming, face reality and take responsibility for your life.”
The sun was beating into the bus, glinting on the chrome window surrounds. Starting to feel sleepy, I stretched out my legs and closed my eyes.
* * *
“Hullo,” the woman across the aisle said. Her voice was quiet against the rattle and shake of the bus.
“Hi,” I replied, looking around.
“Don’t you remember me?”
“I don’t think so,” I said, taking in her face.
Of course! I’d never been good at keeping up with the way girls changed their hair colour. Pam had been blonde when I knew her. Now she had black hair. She’d been in my class at Intermediate School. She couldn’t read for peanuts and went bright red when Miss Osborne pointed to her. At lunchtime, she’d always hang around with us boys.
“And you’re Dennis Hickinbottom,” she continued. “Kids used to have us on about our names.”
“Oh, yes,” I said, awkwardly. Pam Smellie had lived on the same street in an old house with broken windows and long grass, and kids at school reckoned her mother was a witch, but my mother said she was a drinker and her father was in and out of jail.
Kids used to tease Pam, you know how kids are, always picking on someone. I knew what it was like to be picked on. I felt sorry for Pam, and hung out with her, usually on the way home from school in the bushes by the river.
“What’ve you been doing all these years?” I asked when we got off at the next bus stop and, heading in the same direction, fell into an easy step together. We were sizing each other up as we talked. Her dark green eyes were the same but she had that, you know, worn kind of face.
“Aw, not much. Still live in the same house. I was looking after my mother until she died last month. What about you?”
“Oh, you know, got through high school okay, trained as a teacher, married, got a job at a primary school, got divorced. Lost my job. The usual stuff. Sorry about your mother.”
“That’s okay,” she said.
After leaving my wife, I’d taken a cheap flat in the neighbourhood but hadn’t been down the old street since I was a kid. My father had landed a parish on the other side of town and we’d moved away, just before I started high school.
I walked with Pam to her house. Nothing had changed. It was more like a shack, really, with peeling paint, rotting weatherboards and a rusty roof. We stood outside the gate.
“Would you like to come in for a coffee?” Pam asked.
“Okay,” I said, taken aback. I used to walk her home when we were kids, but she’d never asked me in. I remembered being glad about that at the time, because of what I’d heard about her mother, and with her father being a jailbird.
Plus there was the other thing I recalled with a jolt, the feeling of having done something wrong and not wanting to be found out, the same feeling that made me shut off even more from my parents.
Pam pushed open the creaky gate, and I followed her up the crumbling path through the weeds to the front door.
The things Pam and I used to do in the bushes were normal adolescent stuff, mainly just feeling each other up, but I’d known it was sinful and God would punish me.
I remembered Pam used to often cry afterwards and say she was scared I’d drop her.
The thought came to me that, in those far off days, Pam and I had had a kind of intimacy we both needed.
* * *
Pam sat with her head in her hands.
Stroking the worn but comfortable wooden arm rest, I thought about our fathers. Were they really that different in stuffing up lives? Her father was in Paremoremo Prison for robbing a bank and mine was in charge of a large parish in Auckland, preaching against adultery, the very reason that my mother left him.
“You know,” Pam said, perking up as if reading my thoughts, and shifting her weight to the front of the tattered old armchair in a way that made the floorboards squeak, “my father might’ve been a bad bastard, but at least I had some kind of relationship with him, even though it wasn’t a good one. He was a grumpy bugger, but he never abused me, not physically or sexually, or anything. He always kissed me goodnight and when I was wee, he’d read to me when he put me to bed. But Mum...”
The animated expression left her face and was replaced by an empty look. She shook her head, slumping into her chair and began to cry.
After a while Pam dried her eyes, straightened up and asked, “What about you?”
“Me?” I said, and snorted. “When Dad was caught humping our session clerk, Maureen Wilson, Mum fell to bits, and I started a life of petty crime. Dunno why really. Self-disgust at being his son, I suppose. I scraped through to the sixth form and ended up on the dole. Couldn’t hold down a job and smoke weed at the same time.”
Pam leaned forward, gazing at me.
“Then I got ‘saved,’ by a mate’s sister, Angela Abraham, a blonde with blue eyes. I fell for her big time. She got me going to her church and helped turn my life around.” I stopped talking, my Adam’s apple feeling like a boiled egg stuck in my throat.
“Go on,” said Pam.
I swallowed and took a deep breath. “Angela and I got on okay until about four years ago.”
“What happened then?” Pam sat, her hands clasped on her lap. Her dark eyes were soft and her expression was mellow.
Angela’s eyes flashed into my mind, harsh and accusing, her lips firing words like wasps.
“Aw, I just assume everything’s my fault and end up feeling hopeless.”
“So do I.”
“Blind leading the blind here, then, eh?”
“Two blind people see better than one. Tell me what happened.”
“One day I lost it with her. I hit her.”
Pam was looking hard at me.
There was a long silence before she spoke again, her voice trembling. “You were so kind to me at school. You always stuck up for me, and you were so patient when I used to get upset and cry all over you.”
I blinked at her.
“I’ve often thought about you over the years,” Pam whispered, her eyes open like a child’s, reading mine for a response. “I write children’s stories. I wrote one for you last week.”
“Yeah, for you, about this gentle dog who got beaten daily by his nasty mistress. After a few years, he bit her and then fell ill with guilt... until his fairy godmother appeared.”
She smiled at me. My eyes were drawn to her cleavage and the delicate curl of hair beside her ear.
“You’re a writer and you wrote that for me?” I asked, mystified.
“More of an artist,” she replied. “Would you like to see my latest?”
She lifted a dusty sheet off a canvas to reveal a man with a strangely boyish face at an ancient writing desk, a quill in his left hand, poised over a scroll. Beside the man, a candelabra was burning with seven candles. Wisps of blue smoke curled upwards. Castles seemed to flicker and float; woods and cottages, dancing soldiers, fairies with wands, lovers hand in hand and a black cat playing a flute for a nightingale, its beak open wide in song.
“Recognise anyone?” Pam asked.
I peered at the man’s face in the painting and my own stared back at me!
* * *
The bus hit a deep pothole.
Not knowing if I’d cried “Good God!” out loud or not, I thrust my fists deep into my pockets, yawned with a certain nonchalance, and took stock of my surroundings.
I did a double take at the woman across the aisle. “Hey, aren’t you Pam Smellie?”
“Yes.” She snapped a finger at me. “Dennis Hickenbottom! Are you for real?!”
Copyright © 2014 by Bruce Costello