Winner NT Literary Awards Short Story section 2013
Troy left the porch in a rush, clearing the steps in one jump. His bike lay nearby; he lurched for it and pedaled frantically away, juddering over the deep ruts of the drive.
The gate at the end of the drive was out of sight of the house; once he’d veered through it he stopped pedaling and stretched high on his toes, letting the bike ease to a coast. His initial dash over, his breath began to ease, and as the thumping of blood in his ears receded he felt a great sense of control. He bounced a little on the pedals, testing his balance, then settled back onto the bike’s seat.
It was six kilometres to town, but school was further and he rode there everyday in less than half an hour. Plenty of time. Troy let the bike slow to the point where it was unsteady, lurching, then slowly, listlessly, started to pedal, veering back and forth across the gravel road to keep his pace to walking.
If they’d had a phone it wouldn’t have mattered that the car keys were missing, he wouldn’t have had to ride into town. They could have just rung. But Troy’s dad wouldn’t allow a phone anymore. Not since he came in early one day and found Troy on the phone to his mum, sniveling like a bloody baby, his dad had said. Can’t have that, he’d said as he yanked the socket from the wall, and then his heavy tread to the back door and the phone flung from the house with such force that it hit one of the dogs, who’d held his leg shy of the ground for a fortnight after. ‘We can’t have a phone in the house if it makes you into a fucking crybaby,’ his dad had smiled as he turned back towards Troy and his disgraceful tears, and it was like losing his mum all over again.
Troy hit the brakes at the sharp bend above the creek and let the bike hit the ground, its wheels turning slowly, purposeless. He slivered down the bank to the rocks by the creek’s sluggish flow and squatted heavily for a while, bouncing rhythmically as he watched the dragonflies swoop to skim the water’s surface. They could do that all day, just keep bouncing off the surface like that, he thought as he rocked. The sun licked a warm tongue across the back of his neck; it was a comforting warmth, it felt like being tucked tight into bed by his mum when he was little. He’d been so warm, swaddled by the blankets, he’d never had trouble falling asleep then. And he found his eyes starting to sink, the way the sun huddles its warmth and sinks slowly each day when it’s time to sleep.
But this was no good, this was wasting time. And time wasn’t to be wasted, thought Troy, jerking to his feet. That’s another reason his dad had refused to get another phone in the months since he’d smashed the old one, it would just encourage Troy to waste time, and god knows he was already useless enough as it was.
Troy turned quickly from the creek and scrambled back up the bank to the road. This was not the time to be idle. He’d probably only come a couple of Ks. He pulled himself over the road’s shelf and scuffed back to the inert bike, his hands pushed deep in his pockets. The bike seemed to him to have an air of expectation in its motionlessness, sprawled on the ground as if impatient to resume its journey. It wasn’t a bad bike, it would get him to town as swiftly as his twelve-year-old legs could persuade it.
Troy pulled his right hand from his pocket as a fist. Over the hovering front wheel he opened it. The tack on his palm was rusty and old, but the point was still good enough. He placed it carefully on the road by the bike’s front tyre, and leant heavily on the handlebars as he rode over it. It was typical really. This sort of stuff happened to Troy all the time, he was always having accidents. It was part and parcel of him being so bloody useless his father would say at the inflicting of another accident. Just like his clumsy mother.
Troy leant and released the tyre’s valve cap for a bit, then resumed riding with his weight still pressing on the handlebars, till maybe a kilometre later the rubber was blousing emptily beneath the rim. Like a dead snake, thought Troy, and he despatched the useless bike into some scrub. He didn’t think anyone would steal it, but he wasn’t sure whether he might need it in Sydney. He began to walk the remaining distance to town, kicking at rocks and following their crooked route.
His mother’s post office box was in Sydney. Not in the neighbourhood where she lived, she had to travel to get her mail, she’d told Troy when she gave him the address, telling him to write it down very carefully and put it in a safe place. She thought it would be better to have a post office box in a different neighbourhood, just in case. They both knew how vulnerable safe places were. While the old dog was still limping from the phone, Troy wrote his first letter. It was hard for him, he’d always had trouble with his spelling. Even in his second go at grade 5, Miss McEwan still winced over his exercise book. He’d never been very bright. ‘A workhorse,’ said his dad, ‘not a show pony.’
His mother didn’t write back. Troy wrote again, tearing pages from his exercise book. When? he wrote next to the jagged edges. Will it be sune? Every day his heart would judder as he eyed the daily pile of bills on the kitchen table, but there was never a letter from his mother among them. Soon it was his gut rather than his heart which palpitated whenever he saw the mail. His father would sort it slowly, holding each envelope high in turn, saying ‘Hmm, this one doesn’t look very interesting does it? What about this one?’ And he would hold out an envelope with the bank’s logo, his eyes intent on Troy labouring under the nausea of disappointment. ‘Nothing very interesting at all.’ And later, his blue eyes with that special sparkle, the one that pierced, he said, ‘Maybe we should get you a penpal eh? A friend to write to you. That’d be nice wouldn’t it?’ The big smile, the alligator face. ‘Hey son? Be nice to get a letter now and then.’
The sun smiled from just to the west. Troy figured it had probably taken him just over an hour to dawdle to the last bend before town. He stopped for a moment, safely out of view, and dropped to his knees on the road, rubbing his arms to the elbow in the dust. He stood slowly, with a sense of purpose, the heavy weight of responsibility, and broke into a stumbling run.
The doctor’s surgery was in Peterson Street, round the corner from the IGA. Troy ran harder once he reached the first of the town’s cluster of boarded up shops. But at the doctor’s gate he slowed to a jog, not wanting to be too out of breath.
In the surgery two elderly couples and a large wheezing man filled the plastic chairs. In the corner was a young, tired looking girl; at her feet a large infant with tousled hair and a messy nose thumped a wooden block onto a toy with destructive glee. At every bang the girl winced and deflated, while the elderly women tightened their mouths and trained their gaze on something distant.
The doctor’s receptionist wore a clean white smock. Her hair was helmeted into a neat bun, so that not a single strand waved. She raised her eyes as the door closed and frowned at the sight of this dirty little boy. Looked like he’d been rolling in the dirt. She lowered her eyes to her clean desk again and left them there.
Troy stood and waited. Finally, she sighed to her appointment book. ‘Can I help you?’
Troy realised he was being addressed. ‘Um,’ he said, ‘I need to see Dr Forster.’
‘I see,’ the woman exhaled. ‘And you have an appointment?’
Now the woman’s eyes rose to his. Troy knew this look well: scorn tinged with delight. ‘I’m sorry,’ she smiled, ‘but Dr Forster is fully booked this afternoon.’ Her eyes darted to the glum little crowd in the waiting room.
‘But I need to see him,’ murmured Troy.
‘So do all these people. That’s why they’ve made appointments. That’s what appointments are for.’ Her eyes scraped over his dusty arms, his scabby elbows, with evident distaste.
Troy shifted from foot to foot. The woman’s expression conveyed to him, with ill-concealed satisfaction, that he wasn’t very bright, and that wasn’t good enough for her.
‘Can I wait?’
She sighed as if expelling something unpleasant. ‘Dr Forster is too busy to see you this afternoon. You’ll be wasting your time.’
That was okay though, that was fine. Troy was good at wasting time, it was one of his talents. He was a moper, said his dad, always waiting around for something that was never going to happen. ‘Hear me boy? Never.’
Never was a horrible word. It clogged his throat and made it hard for his breath to get in and out. He could live with Useless and Not-Very-Bright, and his dad’s favourite, that long one, Ir-res-pons-i-ble, always delivered with a heavy kick, but not Never. The thought made Troy gag.
But he was calm now, breathing normally. He turned his eyes from the receptionist’s bright red lipstick and shuffled towards a plastic seat the same colour and just as hard. He would wait. He was good at that.
It was only the force of the word Never that had destroyed Troy’s capacity for patience. It had filled him with the bile of desperation. He’d taken such a risk, stealing the coins from his dad’s jeans while he was having his shower. He knew it was an Irresponsible thing to do, but Never was like a lead weight, and under it he’d be crushed.
After school the following Monday he’d dropped his bike on the grass next to the phone box. At the back of his maths book was the magic number, broken into pieces and disguised as a long division exercise. It had been his mum’s idea, the first time she’d rung and given him the phone number. That way it was hidden and he wouldn’t lose it. He could ring her whenever he liked, as long as he was careful. Dad mustn’t know he had it.
But then the phone had swirled across the backyard. Troy was responsible for the phone’s demise, which, in turn, had made him responsible for getting into town.
He’d fed the public phone his stolen coins and dialed the number disguised by lines and symbols. At the sound of his mother’s voice he’d choked, and then he heard himself begin to wail, a real crybaby now, he’d thought, if his father had been there to hear him. He’d sobbed so hard that he couldn’t even speak, and his mother kept saying ‘Troy?’ like she was trying to gulp him through the phone. And finally he’d managed to breathe again and he’d howled at her, like a little kid, ‘Why don’t you never write to me?’ and she’d gasped back, ‘I do Troy, honey, every week.’
‘Oh God,’ said his mother and she started to cry and Troy saw his father’s smirk over the pile of uninteresting mail, and it was like a graveyard, the phone and all those letters buried in it, rotting.
Troy sat perfectly still on his plastic seat, watching the clock slowly tick the remains of the afternoon away. Every now and then the doctor’s door would open and someone would emerge looking relieved, and a few minutes later the door would open again and the doctor would stick his head round it and say ‘Mr Wallis?’ and wait while someone would grunt their way out of their uncomfortable chair and shuffle into the room. Troy would stiffen, wondering if the doctor would notice him there as the clock’s hands journeyed. But the door would always close again, and the people waiting would readjust themselves and settle back to their magazines. Troy watched as one by one the elderly couples, the puffing man and the sad mother were called into the room and replaced by other glum-looking people.
Occasionally the phone would ring and the receptionist would crisply make appointments in her ruled up book, allowing precious quarter-hours of the doctor’s time as if bestowing gifts.
Finally there was no-one else left on the plastic seats. It seemed like a lifetime since Troy had hung sideways on the porch steps, quietly slipping his dad’s car keys through the gap in the boards. His bum was quite numb now. He’d been waiting for hours.
Dr Forster sauntered from his office, stretching his tired arms. It had been a long day. His eyes fell on Troy, looking worried on the hard seat. He frowned. ‘Hello there,’ he said, but his voice wasn’t very friendly, ‘are you waiting for someone?’
‘I need to see you,’ gasped Troy, all his relief at having finally arrived at this moment, this release of responsibility, making him giddy after the tension of having waited so long. So long.
‘I told him he couldn’t see you without an appointment,’ piped the receptionist, smug in her attention to protocol.
‘It’s me dad,’ spoke up Troy. ‘There was a brown trapped in the shed. He’s been bit.’
There was the tiniest of pauses, tiny but bloated with the significance of Troy’s words.
‘How long ago?’ snapped the doctor.
Troy shrugged helplessly. ‘Dunno. She said I had to wait.’
The doctor reeled round to the receptionist, whose red mouth was moving soundlessly. ‘How long has he been here?’
‘I … I … he didn’t …’ It was like watching a chip bag in the fire, the way her face crumpled and collapsed, thought Troy.
‘My bag!’ ordered the doctor, heading for his office. At the door which Troy had watched opening and closing all afternoon, he turned back to the receptionist, who seemed unable to stand, barricaded by her desk.
‘If we are too late for this man I’m holding you personally responsible,’ he barked.
Troy watched her face as it disintegrated under the weight of responsibility for Troy’s dad’s death. It was hers now, this responsibility. Troy could go back to being Not-Very-Bright and Ir-res-pons-i-ble, in Sydney. The woman turned stricken eyes to him and he smiled at her, companionably.