December's Writers Bloc workshop piece comes from Ben Allmon. It's a gorgeous slice of realism, and expertly crafted. I talked to Ben about its themes, writing short stories, and what he's doing next.
ANNA: Weiji carries themes of poverty, love, desperation. What makes these so ripe for stories?
BEN: They are universal human experiences - most people can relate in some way to Pete and Sally and empathise with their predicament. Poverty is a dark time in a person’s life, and that darkness makes fine things like love, selflessness, and sacrifice that much brighter. I think the best stories are works of contrast.
I wanted Pete and Sally’s relationship to contrast with the unrealistic portrayal of love we are so often presented with. There is a grimness to their love – it is not necessarily pretty, but it is real, tough, and their poverty and desperation imbues it with its own beauty. Love, like life, is easy when things are going well - it is only when the bad days arrive that love’s true nature is revealed.
ANNA: What do you like about short form fiction? How is it different from other kinds of storytelling? What are the challenges that come with writing this way?
BEN: Short fiction is to a novel what a photograph is to a movie – its chief strength is its ability to convey as much in that which you see, as that which you don’t. With the longer form, the writer must reveal far more of their own vision, furnishing the reader’s imagination, whereas the short form allows the writer to hand the reins over to the reader a little more – what was happening before the shutterclick? What happened after?
I don’t know what happens to Pete and Sally in the summer, but I’ve spent an afternoon or three in happy speculation, and that reflective idyll is the short form’s ongoing gift.
ANNA: What motivates you to write? Where do you feel the writing in your body? What else are you working on?
BEN: Curiosity. I rarely know what my characters will do or say, where the story will lead, or end. It is as though there is another person inside me telling me story, and I love being told stories, so it’s a cheap form of entertainment! Also, if I don’t create something each day I feel restless, uneasy and out of sorts. Can’t sleep. And like Pete, I’ve worked a lot of jobs where escapism was crucial to retaining equilibrium, so writing was an act of self-preservation.
I feel it in that peculiar cul-de-sac near the pancreas, and it’s the same feeling as falling in love – nervous, kinda sick, and so filled with excitement I can barely sit still. I’ve been at it for twenty years, and the feeling is yet to go away.
Currently I’m shopping my book, Foot Notes, to agents. It’s the story of a 50-day, 1000km ramble from my home down the coast to Sydney to promote an album I recorded, carrying a bedroll (I slept in the dunes), a pack that converted into a stool, and an acoustic guitar with which I occasionally assaulted ABC Radio listeners when not conducting routine forays into penury, starvation and geographical confoundment.
Like most writers, I’m in the middle of about eight short stories, as well as three full-length projects, a motley crew of poems and a new batch of songs. I want to write something my son will one day enjoy (after he outgrows Peppa).
The alarm is blaring electronic funk in the pre dawn bedroom. Pete rolls over and fumbles it into silence. Sally doesn’t stir. In the early days of their marriage she’d woken with him, made him coffee while he showered.
He’s on the road by four thirty. The car seat is cold, and the windscreen is fogged. Winter is coming, he thinks as he turns the radio on. The worst season for a pool cleaner, even one on the Gold Coast. The water of the Skyline Resort’s pools is frigid. Two hours of cleaning the floor grates and he needs to spend twenty minutes in the sauna to get his core temperature back up – not that the management knows he uses the sauna, and would fire him if they did. But they don’t start until 9 o’clock and even then they never leave their temperature-controlled offices. He likes the sauna, likes to lean back and smell hot wood and watch steam rise from the sizzling rocks and pretend he is a rich guest on holiday.
He navigates the '78 Fairlane to the same spot he has parked it for the past two years. The oil stain from his leaking sump marks it as his. He routinely gets the car serviced, but a week later the leak returns, and over time the stain has spread.
Walking to the service elevator, he passes Tatiana, the head cleaner in Building One. She smiles at him and murmurs good morning, her words flavoured with something exotic, Eastern European, perhaps Russian; he has never asked.
“Good morning, Tatiana, how you doing?” he replies, slowing but not stopping as he heads for the lift.
“Goot,” she says.
“That’s goot,” he says with gentle mimicry, and she makes a shooing gesture at him, smiling as she does so.
The elevator opens on the fifth floor, where Navneed is mopping the marble floor. They smile at each other but say nothing; he knows some Hindi, but not enough to feel comfortable to speak to her. It is in the resorts of the rich where true multiculturalism exists, he thinks as he tiptoes around the glistening section she is working on. Here it is not some abstract idea they go on about at universities and council meetings - here the poor of a dozen tongues toil side by side in the shadows of tall buildings, the monuments of wealth and extravagance.
Walking past the Lagoon in the darkness of pre-dawn he notices the wind is quite strong, especially for this early in the day. He looks up at the palm trees, sees their shadowy forms tossing about against the starry background, and curses. He vacuumed the Lagoon yesterday, and it will be full of dead fronds again.
“Ever want to know what the definition of futility is?” he sometimes says to Sally as they lie in their narrow bed, listening to the sirens wail down their street or the drunks argue in the apartment above them. “Work as a cleaner.”
“Yes, Pete,” she says, as she will say a hundred times over the course of the year, as she has said thousands of times over the course of their marriage. She loves him more than he loves her, he thinks.
“Every day you get your heart broken.”
“Yes, Pete.” She rolls over and props herself up on one arm. “You could do something else, you know.”
He continues to stare at the ceiling, hearing the heavy tread of Rowena’s latest boyfriend on the other side, hearing the muffled yelling from Rowena herself. She is always yelling, either at her five children – all under the age of seven – or at the boyfriends who show up with motorcycle jackets on their backs and vacant expressions on their faces. Sometimes the sirens are because of Ro. Pete wonders if she ever gets tired of all that yelling, all that drinking.
“Like what?” he says.
“I don’t know. Anything. You could do anything, if you just set your mind on it.” She rubs his shoulder, his neck, the knotted muscles that lie under the skin like small creatures that never really sleep. “You could get a better paying job, better hours, and tell that prick Eddie and the powers what be to go to hell.”
He is silent for a moment, thinking. She never finished high school, and although he managed to get through until the end, didn’t do so well in his grades and can’t see what good it did him. He knows she’s right, that there is a better prospect out there somewhere, but he can’t see his way to it.
“Nah, better off with the devil I know, I reckon. Getting ahead…it’s who you know, and I don’t know nobody.”
They are quiet for a long time, the kind of silence only married folk know, the kind that is really a conversation.
“I love you, Petey,” she says after a while.
“Yeah, I know Sal. I love you too. Go to sleep, eh? Big day tomorrow.”
“Every day’s a big day,” she says, and he can hear the smile in her voice, even if he can’t see it in the dark. Soon she is snoring softly, but he lies awake, his back aching, his mind full of pumps and pipes.
He walks past the vending machine as he does every morning, and as he does every morning, gives it a kick on his way past.
“How you doing this morning, you old bastard?” he says cheerfully. The vending machine has been here for two years, was installed not long after Pete himself arrived. It even has a name, printed in pink capitals down one side.
Pete loves relating the story of Weiji; it always gets a chuckle from the boys at the pub.
The day it was installed by two Chinese guys in short sleeved business shirts, Weiji caused something of a stir amongst the staff. Instead of the usual freight of salty treats, sugary drinks and confectionary, Weiji held esoteric items like pre-packaged underwear, bottled milk, tinned fish, canned vegetables, and toothpaste. There was even, Pete marvelled, an entire row devoted to waterproof nappies, of all sizes and designs.
Then there was the music it played. For some reason, the people who had constructed Weiji thought the best music for impulse consumerism was Mancini’s “Baby Elephant Walk”. It played all day and night, endlessly looped and capable of pushing you to the brink of madness if your work happened to bring you within earshot for any period of time. After a while, though, Pete stopped hearing it.
The selection panel was something of a wonder, too. You had to navigate an electronic touch screen almost wholly depicted in Chinese. You would think you had selected the thing you wanted, say, a can of Coke. You’d hit a button that said “BING!” and out would come a packet of aspirin.
If you were lucky.
Most of the time nothing at all happened, and Weiji would keep your money.
There was a refund lever that did nothing, and the selection panel would dissolve back to its default setting, a looped sequence of dancing cartoon cats in pink tutus that looked as though they were giving you the finger, and all the while “Baby Elephant Walk” would ring out, the soundtrack of futility and fruitless investment.
“Hey! This thing just took my money!” was commonly heard, as was “Goddamn thing!” “What the hell?” and the sound of kicking or shoving. Weiji was bolted to the concrete, but constant abuse had loosened the brackets and it would rattle when pushed. This also produced a change in the pitch of “Baby Elephant Walk”, speeding it considerably until it sounded like a crazed kind of getaway music. To the best of his knowledge, Weiji had never, ever worked correctly. After a while it stopped dispensing anything at all.
“How come the resort doesn’t get it fixed?” someone at the pub would always ask.
“Because,” replied Pete, who had thought long and hard about this, “the most people lose is two or three bucks, five at the outside. You know how much a room at the Skyline costs? People who can afford to stay there don’t care about a couple of dollars, and it’s not worth stopping your holiday to go complain to the front desk. So nobody in charge knows anything’s wrong.”
After another round of chuckles, someone asks, “But surely it gets serviced by those Chinese guys, restocked and all that?”
“After that first day, I’ve never seen nobody do nothing to it. And since it never really worked, it doesn’t need restocking. I tell you, though,” he says in a lowered voice, and the men lean in over their beers, “I reckon there’d be a thousand bucks in there at least, maybe two.” He lets this hang in the air for a few seconds, letting each man dwell on the import of that, a vending machine that has not been emptied in two years, that may hold in its dark cavity a small fortune. Then he adds the final words that flare in these men’s minds, these men who have always been on the losing side of life’s ledger, by fate or by fault.
Pete dips an exploratory toe into the water, and recoils. He looks out over the pool, half expecting to see an iceberg drift by. Sighing, he walks down the steps, feeling the icy water clutch his ankles, then his calves, then his thighs. Behind him, “Baby Elephant Walk” plays on faintly, the only sound in the five o’clock darkness. Exhausted as he is, the song still brings a smile to his face. The chill water actually serves to wake him up a little, which is no small achievement after two hours sleep.
Taking on a second job as night cleaner at the local university has seriously eroded his sleeping time. He hadn’t wanted to do it; it’s a dirty, thankless job in the small hours, cleaning up after wealthy teenagers who seem to have a picnic in every lecture theatre. His fingers are raw from scraping chewing gum out of the pile with a putty knife.
“Pool cleaning’s a noble art,” he’d say to Sal in the evenings as he was leaving for the uni, “but there’s no art in cleaning up after a bunch of spoiled brats night after night.”
“I know darl’, I’m sorry. But we need the money now.”
He looks at her, sitting on the couch watching A Current Affair, her shapeless hairdresser’s uniform concealing her expanding belly. He wonders if maybe it’d be better to have an abortion. In his darker moments – usually when he comes across his fifteenth wad of gum - he thinks about leaving her. But it is a fleeting thought - he wasn't built to cut and run, not how he was made.
“Yeah, I know,” he says, grabbing the keys to the Fairlane. It has started to stall at traffic lights, but he doesn’t have the money to get it fixed. “See ya.”
“Bye,” she says, trying to smile.
He takes a deep breath, and plunges underwater, sinking to the bottom where a suction grate has come loose. The water is so cold it burns, and he wonders if his heart could just stop from the shock.
Refitting the grate takes several minutes, and after a while he no longer notices the temperature, although it is never what you could call comfortable. It’s like grey hairs in your beard; at first they’re all you can look at, but after a while they just becomes part of the scenery, a part of getting older.
As he towels himself dry by the pool’s edge, he sees a guest approach Weiji. It is a woman in her mid forties, dressed casually in gym sweats, but the jewellery and implants give her away. The people who stay at the Skyline exist in a parallel universe; they don’t see the Pete’s of the world until something upsets them and they want it fixed.
“Why is the water so cold, can’t you make it warmer?” or “Is it going to be this windy all week, can’t something be done about that?” He can never say anything rude or he’ll get fired. With the baby on the way – the baby they were told they would never have – he has to bite his tongue and tug his forelock, and it makes him bitter.
So it is with some pleasure that he observes the woman make her selection, insert her money, and then wait with rapidly eroding patience. She touches the screen again, then again, then harder, until she is hammering on it, and through all of it Weiji abides and Mancini plays serenely on. She utters an exasperated sigh, kicks the bottom of the machine and storms off.
Pete smiles, shakes his head and heads for the sauna. Although everything in his life seems to be changing, it’s comforting to know Weiji stays the same.
Pete sits on his esky, staring at nothing. He is at the end of a hundred hour week. The sun is coming up, earlier now but Pete doesn’t notice. He is waiting for the coffee to kick in, to undo the ravages of minimal sleep night after night.
“You should ask them for a raise,” Sal says to him, trying to get David to latch. Pete looks at his son, at his chubby arms waving, at the string of drool depending onto Sal’s arm.
“Who? The uni guys or the pool guys?”
“Either. You work too hard – damn! He gummed me again!” David shows little sign of remorse, Pete thinks, which brings a wan smile to his stubbly face.
“I haven’t been doing the uni job long enough and the pool guys want to cut back my hours as it is.”
“Well it’s not fair,” Sally says, and she means it. Tears are in her eyes, although that could be from having her nipple pinched.
“It’s life, darl’,” he says, and bends over to kiss the top of her head, but she doesn't seem to hear.
The coffee just isn’t doing it this morning.
He thinks about Sal, about little David, and a wave of deep depression engulfs him. He looks forward in his mind, but he can’t see an end to this life, this treadmill cranked up to top speed that he can’t seem to get off. He remembers the one time he saw the career counsellor at high school; this must have been when he was about fourteen or so and trying to grow his hair to cover the pimples on his forehead. He’d told the woman he wanted to be a pilot, fly around the world and see exotic people and places.
He can’t remember wanting to be a cleaner, can’t imagine any little boy wanting to grow up to scrub the accretion of human fats and oils from spa filters, or breathe in the chemicals needed to make a university toilet hospitable to human life.
He feels as though his whole life since that day with the counsellor has been a baffling struggle ever deeper into a thicket, and now he’s so enmeshed he can’t see where he came in or how he can get out.
Feeling trapped, suddenly frantic, Pete gets off the esky and paces back and forth, the pool shed slowly filling up with sunlight. He reaches into his pocket and pulls out a fiver. The shops down the street don’t open for another two hours, and he’s got to get the new pump installed for the indoor pool. Hard to do that on a cup of coffee and next to no sleep. Weiji stocks Red Bull, he knows, but it is a futile notion given the history of said machine…
“Fuck it,” he says, “God hates a coward.”
As he approaches Weiji, the music gets louder, a siren song luring doomed customers into its clutches. He sees all the items arrayed in orderly rows, peculiar things that no vending machine should have; eggs, mascara, small stuffed pandas with the words ‘Good Boy’ stitched into their side. On the screen, the dancing cartoon cats are giving him the finger, he’s sure of it.
“Good morning, you old bastard,” he murmurs to Weiji, wondering if its name means something.
The screen goes black at the sound of his voice, the music dies, and the lights go out. He steps back involuntarily, suddenly afraid. The damn thing never worked right from day one, he thinks, it could be about to blow or anything.
“It’d be just my luck if you electrocuted me while I tried to get a can of frigging Red Bull,” he mutters, eyeing the seemingly lifeless machine warily.
At the sound of his voice, Weiji hums back into life, Mancini returns and the lights come on in time to illuminate the strangest thing Pete has ever seen.
For there, tumbling free from their neat and orderly rows is every item in the machine. The slot at the bottom slides open, and a torrent of stuff slithers forth, pooling at his feet. Dental floss, sunglasses, tinned crabmeat, Advil. Still it comes, and now a new sound introduces itself, a grinding, metallic noise.
A smaller slot slides open, and from its mouth spew coins; ten, twenty, two hundred. A river of silver and gold, hundreds of dollars clattering to the marble tiles. Notes drift down from the bill slot, floating calmly to come to rest in the growing pile of coin.
Pete looks around in astonishment, tinged with guilt. He feels as though at any moment someone in authority is going to appear and demand to know what he’s been up to. But there is nobody around, absolutely nobody. He could take it all and nobody would ever know.
He looks back down and can’t get over seeing the mound of goods partially buried in money. The machine is nearly empty, spitting out the last few coins. There must be a thousand dollars lying there, maybe two thousand.
There is one last rattle, and from the dispensary slot tumbles a can of Red Bull, frosted with moisture that glitters in the early light.
Pete bends over to pick up the thing he came for, and, for the first time in a long time, begins to laugh.
Ben Allmon is a writer and musician, and balances these peculiarities with mostly sensible fathering and husbanding. He has plans to refederate Australia, and crossbreed guinea pigs with terriers to produce the Guinea Terrier; Savager of Shoelaces. His work has appeared in Aurealis, Mamamia, and Renaissance, amongst others. Check out his blog, or find him on Twitter.
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