A Small Fire: a short story

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A Small Fire: a short story

The coincidences that brought Frank and I together again were like something out of a bad 19th century novel, and perhaps that’s why I have thought about it so often since. Maybe it was what went down between us all those months ago too.

Either way, I’ve been thinking a lot about just how our lives can go.

Lani had gone away up north that morning to stay with Janet, and the kids were going straight from school to a birthday party then staying over for the night.

It gave me my first free evening for months.

I was looking forward to relaxing and doing just what I wanted. I figured I’d fix a huge spaghetti, open a bottle of wine and settle back to watch Steve and Lizette who were going to be interviewed on some arts programme. Ron had given me a DVD of an early Kurosawa and I thought I could take that in afterwards.

Not everybody’s idea of how to fill a free Friday night I suppose, but it suited me.

After work I had to make a small detour and drop off some papers at Lani’s accountant on Jervois Road, not a place I had ever been to before funnily enough -- so I ended up parking about a hundred metres away. Coming out of the office, without quite knowing why, I gazed over at the building site opposite and watched two guys stacking away gear in the site shed.

And slowly I recognised him.

The stomach was bigger and the hair a bit thinner and more sun-bleached, but it was Frank all right. It had been a long time, but what the hell?

We’d known each other so closely for a while . . .

I crossed.

“Frank? Frank Taylor?” I shouted above the noise of the digger.

“Yeah?” His reply was cautious as he turned to face me. Same old Frank.

“You remember? Allied Timber, you and me worked in the pallet shed together one Christmas . . .”

And only then was I aware that he could have forgotten it all. I was suddenly embarrassed and anxious.

“Yeah?” He was uncertain, then . . . recognition. His face relaxed into a thick, wide grin.

“Yeah. You old bugger. Jesus, you look well boy.”

“Yes, I am. What about yourself?”
“Oh bloody good. I’m just knockin’ off. Fancy a beer?”
Same old Frank!

“Sure, why not. Got nothing else to do.”
“Hey, you haven’t turned into one of those born-over Christians have you?” He was looking at my suit and his tone said, “and bugger you if you have”.

“No. Shit no!”

“Right then,” and, with his familiar gesture of immediate friendship, he hooked a chubby arm over my shoulder and called back to one of the men on the site.

“Lock up you jokers. This bloke’s from the lottery board come with me cheque. We’re off to the pub to celebrate me win.” Then turning to me, slight pause for effect and his wicked grin: “That’ll piss ’em off. Let’s go.”

Frank Taylor! It had been nearly 15 years since we’d worked at Allied Timber in Penrose. And I’d thought about him quite a lot from time to time since then.

I was in my second Christmas holidays there after finals. Three months work under the summer sun, getting fit, making crates and pallets. A good summer job. Better than average money and always about a dozen other students. And because I had been there the previous year and had been a general hand in the packaging plant in May and August holidays the guys knew me and I knew them.

I wasn’t one of those “hopeless bastard students from the university who didn’t know piss all” -- students who were regarded with a mixture of suspicion, contempt and probably a little fear.

Frank arrived halfway through my second week. Blew in like he knew everybody, in fact he did seem to know Leon the charge-hand from somewhere.

“I’ve been down the line for six months, only come up some weekends to see Pengelly play for Ponsonby league. Jesus that bastard can run! I tell you boy, they wanna hang on to him.”

I never quite figured out where “down the line” was. Frank assumed you knew.

But he and I hit it off straight away. And because I seemed to be okay by everyone else, he didn’t lump me in with “the students”. And we were quickly allies against a common enemy, a big and vicious Dutch foreman called Johannes who seemed to have it in for both of us. The fact I drove a Leyland van also made me all right.

“Good for carrying stuff,” Frank would say from time to time.

I’d nod.

“Yeah,” he’d add thoughtfully, then leave it at that.

Then, in the third week, we were put together on a big back order of pallets. A nail gun between us, a tally sheet to fill, and a place in the sun way out the back.

“Shit hot, that Dutch prick’ll never see us out here!”
And we settled in to weeks of perfect weather. When we found out we both liked the Allman Brothers, Frank brought his battered truck round the side, flung open the doors, and racked up the tape deck.

“That’ll piss those bastards off!” And he pointed to Big Mack and Boy Herewini glowing at us through the dark factory window. Frank took off his shirt, rubbed his fatty chest slowly then stretched out in the sun. Herewini gave us the fingers.

And so that summer started to disappear into an easy routine of work and sunbathing. The first thing Frank did was cut two inches off the nozzle of the gun and shorten the airhose. By forcing open the mouth of the gun with a thick staple he could get it pumping faster. Our job was to make 80 pallets a day, now we could do about 100 without pushing ourselves any harder. That meant we could put 80 on the tally sheet and keep quiet about the extra.

On Saturday’s we’d just turn up, clock in, write in the extra and leave Chinese Lee to clock us out. We got time-and-a-half for the first three hours, and double-time for the rest of the day. Lee got something to put in his pocket too.

“Good scheme boy!”

A great scheme.

And Frank had schemes by the dozen. He swapped his weekly firewood allocation for half-a-dozen crays and raffled them off in the canteen at lunchtimes on Fridays. He had to call it off hastily when it was found out that the guy from the lube bay who was winning was his half-brother. Didn’t worry Frank though.

“Bastards can’t take a joke,” he grumbled. And then he was off onto something else.

“A sure bet this one, boy.”

Naturally we started to hit the pubs together after work and for most of Saturday. He seemed to be known in every public bar in the Mt Wellington, Panmure, Penrose area. A few quick jugs and he was mates with everyone, arm around their neck bellowing some raucous joke or good-natured abuse. He genuinely liked everyone, particularly the older guys.

“Not so full of bullshit,” he sagely and none too soberly informed me one night.

I admired his crazy openness. His fearlessness and thick skin. He seemed absolutely free.

And a lot of people hated him for it.

Over the next month we carried each other out of parties and pubs so drunk we couldn’t stand up alone.

“I’ll drive, I’m too pissed to sing!”

Time and again I had to apologise to the terrified parents of schoolkids whose parties we had gatecrashed when Frank had seen a line of cars outside the house.

“C’mon boy, I know these jokers, that looks like Robbie’s Cortina. C’mon it’ll be all right!” And in he’d go. Fearless and crazy drunk. And always laughing.

Sometimes he’d come round to our flat. The others didn’t like him much, but couldn’t say so to his face. They’d tell me later in smarmy, angular comments.

One night he slithered up to Jill, full of beer and covered in the acid smell of treated timber. He put his arm suggestively around her hips, just a little too low for her liking, and breathed, “Play your cards right and you could have me, darlin’.”

We both dissolved into a heap of laughter at her horror.

Ian objected to all the food Frank would eat, Piper called him “a loser”.

But to me, Frank was more alive than any of us. He could drink more, breathe deeper, sing louder and outlast anyone . . . at work or at parties. He didn’t care what people thought of him, it just bounced off. He was living just that much higher than life. And anyway, he always bought plenty of beer.

And once, by way of a clumsy apology for calling her a “stuck-up Catholic bitch”, he bought a flagon of sherry for Jill.

Then one night there was a fight.

Frank and I came back late from somewhere. It had been Piper’s turn to cook and the left-overs were on the stove. Frank, in his unthinking way, sniffed contemptuously at them and said, “Is this all there is? Shit, a man could starve around here.”

That was it. Piper spun on him and tore into Frank with abuse. Frank stood, bewildered, and took it. He heard all his short-comings numbered off in absolute silence while the others looked on. He really didn’t understand it at all. These were his friends, it was just a joke . . .

When Piper had finished Frank walked across the kitchen and stood in front of him.

“You know what you got,” he said steadily. “You got too much of what the cat licks it bum with” and he grabbed Piper’s shirtfront, threw him through the kitchen door into the lounge and landed two full, straight fists to his face.

Piper went down in a haze of blinding blood. He fell crying to the floor.

Frank stepped over to him and looked around at the others standing aghast and terrified.

Another world had imposed itself in that unbearably silent moment.

“Go fuck yourselves.”
And he left, hurt and still honestly uncomprehending.

From then on it was harder between us. A line had been drawn that hadn’t been there before.

Some nights we’d head off to his “olds” place where he was living. A caravan in the backyard of a state house in Te Papapa with a fridge full of beet, a brand new colour television and a camp stretcher.

I turned him on to smoking dope, and one night he showed me a new way to drink beer.

“You dump the crate on the floor,” he laughed, flipping the tops off every bottle. “And then you sit here till it’s gone!”

He laughed again. He drank two to my one. He was 23. And he was killing himself.

For the first time that night I realised it.

I had to get out.

I said goodbye to Frank one night on the Mt Wellington Highway. He’d long forgotten about Piper and most of what had happened over the past three months. We were both a bit drunk and had different directions to go. And I was now glad to be going.

It had been a long summer.

But three months later, just before the May holidays, I got a call from Frank early one Sunday morning. He needed my van.

“The truck? No shit, rolled that months ago.” He seemed surprised that I didn’t know, thought everybody’d heard.

He was working up at the university on a short-term painting contract in the May break and he’d got a key to where they’d shifted a whole lot of furniture from the offices. He had his eye on a couple of things. But he needed a van . . . so he’d thought of me.

And that’s how Frank got a kauri dresser and I got a massive leather-backed chair belonging to the Dean of Arts. Looked good in the flat too.

But that was 15 years ago.

“So, whaddya drivin’ boy?”

I pointed to the near-new Toyota off down the road.

“Yeah? Japanese shit, eh? Never mind, we’ll take mine.” And so we climbed into his battered Holden, half the back seat covered in tools and newspapers and beer bottles. The other half was occupied by an evil-smelling dog covered in deep scratches and weals. It growled, low and menacing.

“Nigger! Shuddup!” and a raised hand. The dog growled some more then lay back down.

“Nice dog,” I lied. “What kind?”
“Rottweiler cross . . . They’re the latest dog.”

“Latest? What do you mean?”

“You know, for protection and that. Gotta watch ‘em though, some bastard’s pinch ‘em for fights.”

“Dog fights?”
“Yeah.” He gave me a quick glance. “Ever been to one?”
“No!” My voice gave me away. He picked it immediately.

“Nah,” he said quickly. “Me neither. No bloody good that sort of thing.” Another glance. “So, whaddya been up to?”

And before I could start he had begun. All the way to the pub he reminisced about the people we’d once known.

“I seen that rag-headed bastard a couple of times. He’s a lawyer or something down the Otahuhu Court. And that other joker, the big bastard that was a runner . . .”

“Stu Morris, the high jumper?”
“Yeah, whatever. He come over to Fishers when I was workin’ there. Said he was an engineer or something.”

And just as I remembered him, Frank kept it up. He still knew all about everyone. Boy Herewini “killed in a hit’n’run down Tuakau”; Ginger Elvis “shot through to Aussie but I seen him now and then, his sister lives over Hillsborough”.

“And Chinese Lee?”
“He’s still at Allied! The little bugger won about three grand on the treble about five years ago and didn’t tell any bastard! Just kept on working! Shit, I’d‘ve told ‘em to shove their bloody job”
And the stories kept coming.

We drank out that late afternoon in the public bar, me a little uncomfortable in my suit, Frank increasingly more garrulous as he sank his beers . . . how he’d lost that painting job at the university.

They’d been short of drop cloths and so he’d torn up a whole lot of old black curtain material he’d found in back room: “Turned out to be those bloody things you jokers wore on that parade up Queen St. Shit, how was I to know?”

The hurt innocence and bold cheek of the smile. I recognised them.

Later that night Frank opened up. Other things behind the wild stories. He’d been married for a while.

“Started to build a house too. Got about halfway through and then . . . ah, shit. You know. It didn’t bloody work out. I just sold it up and took off.”

To four years in Perth where he’d talked his way into a driving job: “Heavy rigs and that, then I got cracked up and broke a couple of bloody ribs. So I come back here and did some contract driving, down Murapara way. Really pulling in the money!”

A small building firm picking up Housing Corporation repairs, a bankruptcy, and now he was working as a foreman for some Mainways subcontractor.

“Just head chippie really, looking out for a dozen sites around the city” . . . like the one where I’d seen him and, by coincidence, he shouldn’t really have been at.

“The joker in charge handed in his notice yesterday so they just sent me over for the day to check it out. You were lucky to catch me there.”

Later he went off “to ring the missus”.

“Oh yeah. Well, not really married actually but we got a kiddie. He’s nearly six now. Name’s Khan. You know, after that movie? Carole really likes it, that Star Trek one . . .”
“The Wrath of Khan?”
“Yeah, that’s the one. We got this unit out in Hillsborough and Carole’s working at the post office. But her Mum’s sick down Thames so we thought we might go live down there for a while. What about you? Where are you livin’ now?”

And so he listened while my life made as little sense to him as his did to me.

I told him about the research I’d done, the job I had, the film script that was in the pipeline . . .

And as I spoke I noticed his gaze shift away, he was searching the room for something.

Nothing between us was really connecting. My life was foreign to him, and the more I talked the more difficult it became between us.

His life was full of energy. It rushed around him. I tried to say what I had done, the things I was pleased about in my life. I became slightly embarrassed I was having to explain things I thought he’d know about. But Frank was drinking . . . and my life didn’t have any stories.

He was uncomfortable in my company now, and I became increasingly uncomfortable in his.

For me, it had always seemed just like yesterday. All so vivid. All so clear. When we’d held each other drunk, singing Street Fighting Man outside the Mt Wellington Trust, nailing Johannes’ car keys to the shed roof at the Christmas break-up party, celebrating my exam passes in the Kiwi and Frank pissing in some Elam student’s jug . . .

We’d had an energy I’d never felt before. And seldom since. We were higher than life, bigger than the smallness around us. He’d lit a fire in me that I’d kept kindled ever since. And I’d always felt that if I really wanted, I could be like that again. I’d clung to that.

Always.

He dropped me off back at my car. We said goodbye as strangers might and drove off in different directions. I couldn’t imagine his life and he couldn’t imagine mine. We had both come to very strange lives. But they had touched once.

And they touched more deeply than reason says they should.

 

This story first appeared in Metro magazine.

© Graham Reid

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