It was a lopsided one-storey house on a street called Turkey Way, in the western quarter of District Five, one of the enclaves that formed a semi-urban ring around the sprawling city. The verandah, a flat frame of splintered boards, wrapped around the house, and at the back of building tacked onto the outer cladding was a room. No effort disguised the fact that this flimsy addition was an afterthought; the walls were made of plasterboard, and there were two doors leading in and out—one opening into the kitchen and the other straight into the backyard. The floor of this room and the floor of the kitchen on the other side didn’t quite meet, leaving a perfect toe-stubbing join at the threshold. Outside, in the dust, a concrete block replaced the wooden steps that had long ago rotted away. The splintered wood lay under the house. There was a gap under the door of a good five centimetres, allowing wind to blow dust and debris into the room, where it piled up stubbornly, no matter how often it was swept.
It was summer. A faded black T-shirt and a misshapen nylon tank top dangled from the wire washing line over a yard of concrete, dry grass in spiky, straw-like tufts, dog shit and piles of recently pulled weeds. It was the middle of a heatwave that was predicted to last seven days, the sort of heat that gives any city a distinct hell-scape vibe. Inside, the room was so dry it seemed to crackle like it was about to catch on fire. The old sleepout bore all the signs of a fully realised bedroom, complete with a long-legged wooden bed, constructed from timber off cuts pilfered from a wrecked house on the other side of the street. The mattress was larger than a single but smaller than a double, a size officially known as a king single, but there was nothing regal about this bed. It was simultaneously too soft and too lumpy, and, on account of a measuring oversight and the dearth of materials, one leg was slightly shorter than the other three—only by one or two millimetres, but this was enough to make it rock under the smallest weight or in response to the slightest movement. Owing to these quirks, the bed was at best uncomfortable and at worst hazardous, and sharing with another person was almost totally out of the question, which suited Pinky fine. The bed served his purposes perfectly and he liked it better than a mattress on the floor or a couch, simply by virtue of it being his.
On the wall above the bed were a few decorative items. A nail polish ad, ripped from a magazine. A playing-card-sized image of the Sacred Virgin, the corners frayed smooth and rounded. A list written in blue pen on a scrap of lined paper. It read: honey, rice, laundry, drive away fear, new photos, pay internet bill. A photograph of a woman in a blue jumper leaning over a nasturtium patch, squinting at the camera.
In the backyard, which was large enough to accommodate a large-scale social event, there were the vestiges of a veggie garden and an old shed made of wood and corrugated iron. The shed was, for most of the year, used as the pottery and woodworking studio of some of Pinky’s housemates. Briar, the unofficial house mum, also kept a decrepit Toyota in there, with which she tinkered as a way to relax.
The housemates were gone, some of them piled into a complaining station wagon and driven to a remote corner of the country in order to protest outside a mine, in keeping with their annual summer holiday tradition. Usually the house at Turkey Way was heavily populated. People came over a lot to use the internet and have meetings in the kitchen, and there was a constant stream of visitors staying on the living room floor or in the bedrooms of inhabitants, whether they were there or not. But right then the house was empty of visitors and residents, except for Pinky. He had been taking advantage of this time of relative solitude to explore areas of the house that had been previously, implicitly, off-limits to him. It was seven months, almost to the day, since he had arrived at Turkey Way, and this band of wayward adults had for the most part accepted his presence with grace.
Pinky had bounced around for years, like a piece of human flotsam, from house to couch to car to floor to backyard to couch to bed. This was his first summer at Turkey Way, and inside the shed, his bare feet scuffing little patterns into the dirt and wood dust covering the concrete floor, he felt overheated, bothered, just as out of place as he ever had. He sat at the long wooden desk covered in ceramic dust and scribbled frantically in his diary.
Is there somewhere I can go that isn’t in the city? And if I do that, what is the trade off? How do I survive?
Surely everyone harbours the secret dream? Of leaving the city, moving far away, to some imaginary mid-century village, with WiFi but also lonely forests, mossy paths and babbling brooks. He rubbed his sweaty forehead in stressed little circles. On the table, next to his notebook, he had laid out an old textbook and a few sheets of tough, thin cardboard that he’d pilfered from the arts and crafts cupboard at the community centre, where, despite the years it’d been since he was a real-life teenager, he mercifully still looked young enough to get a meal and a cup of tea without anyone asking him for ID. His fingers were stained with dirt, and other colourful substances. Before he reached for the paper, he wiped his hands on his T-shirt. He supposed it had once been white at some point before he owned it. Now it was his most commonly worn colour: stained, stretched, greyish beige. The essence of wearing, the proof of use. He picked the T-shirt from his belly and wiped the sweat from his face, leaving a muddy smear, and tried to remember what it was like in the colder months. In winter, his new bedroom had been so cold that Pinky had nailed blankets onto the walls in an attempt at insulation. He’d lain in bed wearing a beanie and scarf and could see his breath in the air. He could hardly remember how that felt, now, with the stinking hot air pressing down on him from all sides, at all hours. When his feet were like ice-blocks—he would rub them together and they still wouldn’t regain feeling; when he couldn’t sleep on his side or stomach or back because every way was too cold; when he would be wearing a parka and scarf and beanie indoors and still his teeth chattered. He tried to remember the cold and be grateful.
Last summer it was hotter than this, but Pinky had felt less oppressed by it. He’d had a bike, an extended loan from some merciful friend, and his favourite thing to do was ride around and look at vacant lots. He didn’t exactly have to move out of Del’s place, but he wanted to. There was the stench of fear and damp in the air over at Blenham Court, with St Barnaby’s reluctant to do repairs on the apartments, even though they’d been as trashed as any other buildings by the storm. When Martha hit, he’d bailed out buckets of water from the lower floors with Del, Nan, and the rest of them, but by summer there was nothing he could do. He wanted to get out of the way. There was someone living in a tent in a lot near the District Four high school who was his inspiration. There were hundreds of lots like this, forgotten in the Martha aftermath. He found the perfect place, an overgrown plot of land behind a converted warehouse where some tech businesses had their studios, where the cyclone fence was bent out of shape and unlocked. The plaques next to the door of the warehouse next door read a series of business names: Ape Designs had a picture of a monkey wearing a gridiron helmet, and a short list of surnames, evidently the business owners. Arcana had no other information apart from the name etched in an unassuming sans serif. The neighbourhood was non-residential, it was summer, and nobody was around. A wooden structure that had once been a shed, or a home for chickens or tools, sagged in the corner behind a tree, the only structure standing.
Pinky had slowly scavenged and deposited bricks, timber, and other materials at the lot, each night for several weeks, dragging each sketchily acquired item from building sites and from the ruins of buildings that hadn’t been able to withstand Martha. After a failed Christmas with his sister and her boyfriend’s family (who disliked him about as much as he disliked them) Pinky spent the holiday season screwing old metal and wood together with new screws and a borrowed drill, and chucking lumps of rotted wood into the grass. He swept piles and piles of dirt out of the shed, fitted cracked and cloudy corrugated plastic into the window holes, propped the sinking structure up, even lay some floral linoleum taken from a skip over the floor, and put together a tiny little room. It sat on top of broken bricks, a padlock on the surprisingly sturdy door. Inside there was a camp mattress and an LED lantern from the two-dollar shop. When it got too hot in there, he knocked the plastic windows out to create a cross breeze. After spending a harried, sleepless night being bitten, his blood sucked by an army of mosquitoes, he rode his bike around to the university college and looked through the bin, found a mosquito net and took it back, nailed it to the ceiling. It covered the entire room.
Pinky had spent that summer blissfully ignoring the wreckage of the world around him. Living in the shack gave him the welcome sense that he was outside of the current century. He read old pirate novels in the light of a headlamp. He flashed his low-income card at the community centre and took a course in shoe-making, entertaining an aspiration of becoming a cobbler, as though this were the 1600s, and there was any sort of market for such a thing in the battered economy of the post-cyclonic, sprawling city. He took apart handbags and jackets from the clothing donation bin, constructed a misshapen pair of slippers from the sewn-together pieces and wore them with unbridled, inordinate pride.
The rumble of thunder gave him some anxiety, but he prayed to St Jude, his favourite, patron saint of desperate causes and impossible situations—to whom Pinky had prayed for as long as he could remember—and the roof was miraculously leak-free. St Jude came through. To celebrate, he invited his friends over to visit and they struggled past the ivy-covered temporary fence blocking access to the lane. He wanted to have an open fire to cook dinner on but Del advised him not to, casting an eye over the warehouse next door. He invited his sister Josie too, but when she got to the fence at the back of the lot she shook her head incredulously, turned on her heel, and left.
‘Pinky, I am not going to visit you while you’re living in a chicken shed,’ she said over the phone, talking in the quiet, strained tones that let him know her boyfriend was home. ‘Come and stay with me if you need to. Please.’
Pinky wouldn’t. He knew Francis, her boyfriend, was even more awful when he was around, on account of finding Pinky disgusting and intolerable. The feeling was mutual. He would stay in his shack.
The people working at the studio building came back two weeks after Christmas, and since it was hard to believe that they didn’t notice that someone had moved into the shed behind their building, they didn’t seem to care. Even when Pinky went on expeditions, under the cover of darkness, to locate a power outlet he could plug his elaborate string of extension cords into so he could boil his kettle and charge his phone, and peeked out from under his hood to notice cameras monitoring the back and front entrances to the building, even then nothing happened. He never found a power outlet, and the extension cords lay coiled in a shopping bag by his bed.
The romance of the situation began to wear thin as it got colder, but Pinky was too proud to go back to Del’s couch at Blenham Court, too afraid of the despair in the air, and too committed to keeping his head above water, having struck out on his own in the least viable of ways. So he made himself a counterfeit membership card to the pool attached to the community centre, where he could take a hot shower. The hours spent on the library computer meticulously copying the barcode of the card he’d found on the ground paid off. He worked out the times when the pool was emptiest, broke easily into lockers for a squirt of other peoples’ body wash, and skidded around in the empty change rooms with his body lathered in borrowed soap. He found an internet café, a relic of another era, only a short train-ride away, and this place didn’t have restricted website access or need photo ID, so he could still run his dirty underwear business.
Then came a cloud over the sunlight in Pinky’s world. The pool introduced a new system: scan your membership card for hot water in the shower, and have your account charged eighty cents per minute. When Pinky saw them installing the scanner, he knew his golden days were drawing to a close. In the shower, he’d be dripping, still cold to his bones, shivering on the nonslip mats and watching the goosebumps rise up all over his flesh. Too horrified to move. What sort of amount of money is eighty cents to charge for a shower anyway?
The end of summer is a time of stuffing experiences like a sleeping bag into a sack, packing them in with the least possible room. The temperature was dropping and the pool was becoming hostile to Pinky, who liked to push the envelope until it burst. All the while the post-Martha cityscape played in the background like a twenty-four-hour news ticker on a billboard screen. Changes in legislation outlawed blankets in public places, mandatory sentencing was introduced for trespassing on private property, and it was all private property. The chief of police lamented on prime-time news that urban areas had become all too comfortable for people sleeping rough, so much so that homelessness was becoming a lifestyle choice.
‘We are committed to encouraging people to present at shelters, so they can be assessed for assistance, rather than filling up the central business district.’
Pinky, lying on his back in his dusty little shack, daydreamed of another era and a sleepy seaside village where he could lie on the rocks and bask in the sunlight, where the water was always warm and fish brushed against his shins when he waded out into the shallows.
It was a Sunday afternoon when he was finally thrown out of the pool for the last time. His fake membership card had already been confiscated the last time he’d tried to use it, and so it was with disbelief that he was regarded by the exasperated desk employees when he entered the pool reception, avoiding eye contact and sauntering over to the barrier.
‘Excuse me,’ said the high-pony-sporting employee, ‘excuse me, have you scanned your membership card?’
Pinky dropped to the floor and was halfway under the turnstile, averting his eyes, shoving his backpack before him, when the exasperated employee picked up the phone and announced his presence to security. Knowing—his belly scraping against the cold tiled floor, stuck beneath the hard plastic halfway between the two worlds of inner and outer, public and private—that he would be soon experiencing the all-to-familiar ejection, Pinky sighed. If he paused his attempt to enter to the pool, it was merely momentarily. If failure is imminent, all the more reason to push for success, he thought. He popped out from under the barrier, pulling his legs free and stumbling upright at exactly the same moment as the enormous hand of a security guard rested on his shoulder. This hold was so common that he was almost surprised any time he examined this area of his body and failed to find finger grooves there. As he was being twisted towards the exit, and ejected from the premises, he placidly listed in his head all the things he had got away with, not just in regards to this pool but throughout his small career of hustling. He did this every time he was caught in the act and brought up short in the face of a cold and inflexible system of order, not just to consolidate his successes but to keep himself from being overcome by the gravity of his inexorable slide into failure.
Outside, Pinky sat on the concrete kerb beside the bike rack and alternately rubbed his shoulder (sore from the grip), his wrist (sore from the impact of the ground as it caught him where he was tossed), and his knees (same). As he was brushing gravel out of the grazes, adding this experience to his catalogue of Crying in Public, in the ‘soft weeping from physical pain’ category, a shadow fell across him. He looked up, expecting the security guard to reinforce the message to move along, but found himself gazing instead into two brown eyes, in the middle of a handsome, brown face. Pinky had to gaze a long way up, being that he was on the ground, and the young man looking down on him was tall.
‘You are seriously unpopular here, man,’ said the stranger.
He extended his hand to help Pinky up off the ground.
‘I am but one in a series of dissatisfied customers,’ Pinky said.
‘You still want to go to the pool?’
‘I mostly want to go to the sauna.’
‘Come on. I’ll pay for you.’
Pinky watched the argument between the tall stranger and the girl behind the desk with fascination. It was a battle of ideologies, and at times it looked as though Pinky’s advocate would lose against the relentless force of swim centre bureaucracy—eventually his steady gaze and persuasive charm won out. He paid for Pinky’s entry (full-price, as granting a concession to the little swindler was beyond the scope of what management would consider reasonable), and they filed into the pool together under the watchful eye of the same security guard who had so recently given Pinky a bruised shoulder, and looked as though he would like to do so again.
After a brief splash in the pool, which to Pinky was essential, as he believed the chlorine was the answer to the problem of not having somewhere to regularly wash, and a rinse under the showers, Pinky joined his new friend in the sauna.
‘What’s your name?’
The stranger’s eyes flicked over Pinky’s non-regulation body in its non-regulation swimwear.
‘I’m Jameson. Do you live around here?’
They had sex that night in Pinky’s shack, and Jameson slept over, challenging himself to stay in the weird little room that smelled of decaying wood, to sleep tangled in sweaty sheets on the camp mattress, even though it made him want to scream. He was trying to be less uptight. He knew he was responding to the pull of something magic, the need to access the portal that was the boy with the grazed knees. In the morning he was woken early by the sound of a coffee percolator spitting, and looked out of the open doorway to see Pinky crouched by a camp stove in a dirty white cotton robe, with bare feet. One leg under him, one knee up where his chin rested. He watched the coffee and stirred a pot of beans. Jameson observed him from the bed through one open eye. Pinky looked, in this dawn moment, like an exiled prince, banished to a lonely life in the wilderness. His small life, his strange impact. Pinky pressed his chest to his knee, looked back over his shoulder and smiled.
It was only the once. The magic was real but they liked it better as friends. Jameson had to leave early that morning, donning a polyester polo shirt with the logo embroidered over his left pec, ‘H & H’, the ampersand supported in the palm of an upturned hand.
‘Thanks for the pool entry,’ Pinky said.
‘No problem. Maybe we should go again.’
‘Nah. I think my time there is done. I’m going to find another pool. I think the one at the uni might be easier to get into.’
Jameson nodded, lacing up his boots.
‘What are you doing today?’ Pinky asked.
‘I started this job last week, at this delivery company. Horss and Hudson. I work in the depot packing the van and shit.’
‘What do you deliver?’
‘I don’t deliver. I just pack, warehousing stuff. But it’s mostly medications and packages for nursing homes and other residential places where people all live together. It’s called Helping Hands.’He pointed to his chest, indicating the embroidered hands. ‘H & H, see? It’s okay, I guess,’ he said, ‘pays minimum wage, which isn’t a lot, but it feels like it is.’
He ruffled Pinky’s hair before he left.