by Ian C. Smith
FLIMSY EXPERIENCE MAINLY of subsistence, cack-handed, with no index of crafts, he even lacks phone skill. Before his landlord awakens on Saturdays he scissors Situation Vacant from the newspaper in his back yard caravan in a working-class district of ‘60s dockside Melbourne, ekes change for the public phone. This half-starved winter he gets lucky, sets out, wind a wild beast off the water, to stride miles, arrive on time. Bakers start early. He leans forward, fists pocketed, buffeted like a ship’s figurehead.
When he sprawled at first light’s glint, resting against forlorn graffiti, throbbing, ensanguined, the only thing with him in the cell apart from fixtures was a thin raffia mat overlooked by the screws when they had finished. Clothed thinly, the useless mat wrapped around the hurry of pain, trying to sleep, bone cold, dozing, drifting awake, turning with slow care, wrists together between thighs, heat only in his contusions, black night had seemed endless. No tears. Tears ended at thirteen, following memory’s protocol for survival. He inhaled, exhaled.
On his knees, humbled before cavernous ovens, he scrapes crusted grunge to the sound of pastry slap; rat shit, cigarette butts, spit, anything spilt in swearing bakers’ haste, fingers, toes, ears, tingling a warning of chilblains in this cherished warmth. He daydreams: the sheer luck of this morning’s phone inquiry, being in the dough now, getting into scrapes—his absurdist joke gene intact—and remembering the detail of his girlfriend’s bedroom during that sore cell night, pink, velvety, in a world that never was his.
In his break he crams his mouth with vanilla slice, loves the aroma of baking bread, with coffee, among his favourite smells. He shall be paid in pastries as well as cash, augmenting meagre rations. Among his favourite sounds was a freight train’s horn heard from his garth at night when he was that boy, its lonesome moan conjuring distant places he might reach some day when that hole in his life was healed. Now, at nineteen, years beyond boyhood, he recalls the superb orchestral crescendo of cell doors opening in concert on the morning of his release.
Finishing up on this late morning, knackered, buoyant with a hint of further work, laden with baked goods almost blocking his vision, he steps with care, crisp banknotes flattened in the back pocket of threadbare jeans comforting his scrawny arse. Passing a bank, he spots another quid. Glancing about, true to nature for a second, screened by apple turnovers, coffee scrolls, Vienna loaves, he stoops swiftly to the footpath, cardsharp deft, palms a bonus.
Ian C Smith’s work has been published in Antipodes, BBC Radio 4 Sounds, The Dalhousie Review, Griffith Review, San Pedro River Review, Southword, The Stony Thursday Book, & Two Thirds North. His seventh book is wonder sadness madness joy, Ginninderra (Port Adelaide). He writes in the Gippsland Lakes area of Victoria, and on Flinders Island.