By Sean O’Leary
I struggle along Mitchell Street with my backpack and calico bag. My whole life in these two bags. It is a hot cunt of a day too. I see the Salvation Army sign and breathe a sigh of relief. I walk slowly into what looks like the office and start giving my sob story but the grey-haired man in the uniform says,
‘Hang on, friend, this is the hostel, we have weekly rates.’
‘It’s okay, you want the welfare office, it’s just through the door, back out into the under-croft, turn right, take a seat, someone will be with you eventually.’
Eventually. I don’t like the sound of that. But the under-croft is cool and the office cooler. I put my things down and wait, staring at the closed door with Welfare written across it. A half-hour goes by and another man, tall, bearded and with a huge gut, sits down. I nod at him and he wipes the sweat off his forehead. He takes a handkerchief out of his pocket but it barely covers his huge head and it is soaked after one wipe of his semi-bald head. He breathes out heavily, the weight of his problems expelled through his small tight mouth. He is not happy. He shifts his arse around on the black plastic moulded chair and says,
‘Any chance I could get in ahead of you.’
‘No, no chance of that, sorry.’ He huffs loudly and I think that’s that but he stands up to his full height and says,
‘Well, fuck you.’ He doesn’t scare me so I say with a big smile on my face,
‘And fuck you too.’ He looks down at me and says,
‘It’s a harsh day out there.’
‘It is.’ We wait.
The door opens and a guy wearing a lumberjacket comes out. In this heat in a lumberjacket. Insanity. He is sweating and the stench from him…it is….er…bad. I realise that I must also stink. Lumberjacket walks straight out and the Salvation Army guy says,
‘Next.’ The big man huffs again and I grab my bags and slouch into the office.
The Salvation Army man sits behind his desk and I dump my bags down and he says,
‘What’s going on?’
‘I’m broke. Have been for a while. Been sleeping in the Botanical Gardens. Guy woke me up this morning, told me to move on but told me where you were, so, I get paid. I mean I get my Centrelink money in three days.’
‘Any reason your money isn’t lasting?’
‘Don’t get much.’
‘Other people manage.’
‘I’m not other people.’
‘No law against it.’
‘You want a bed for a few days, is that it? Nothing else, don’t want to change?’
‘Get work. I’ll be fine.’
‘Okay, we have a place in Stuart Park. We use it for a range of things. Meetings going on through the day so you have to be out between 9am and 4.30. We give you a bed, room of your home with a shower in-between your room and the next, so you’re sharing the shower but you can’t lock the room, so take your cigarettes, any cash with you, that’s what usually goes missing.’
‘Stuart Park. Bit of a walk.’
‘There’s a bus.’
‘Bit of walk then.’
‘Right, how’s it work?’
‘We charge $10 a night. You pay this when you get your money from Centrelink. Give you dinner too.’
‘I’ll ring them, tell them you’re coming. I’ll give you a slip with some details on it, you give it to Michael, there at the Stuart Park address. What’s your name?’
‘Billy Norton. I appreciate it. I’m nearly at the end of my tether.’
‘Good of the man from the Botanical Gardens to tell you about us.’
‘Stay well, Billy.’ He hands me a slip of paper that looks like a receipt.
I pick up my backpack, put it on my back and pick up my calico bag. Walk out. It is going to be about three-quarters-of-an-hour to walk to the Salvos in Stuart Park. It is around thirty-four degrees. Dry season. I nod to the big fella as he goes in to see the Salvo Man but he ignores me. I walk out into the under-croft and then through the door and out into the hot sun and I walk and walk, head down, hat on, to Stuart Park.
I reach the Salvation Army accommodation and ask around and find Michael and we sit in air-conditioning and I know now I truly stink. I can smell myself in the clean office and say,
‘Sorry, I stink a bit.’
‘Not to worry, I’ve smelt worse.’
‘Good of you to say that.’ He gives me an odd look, like, what are you doing here?
He takes me to the room and says,
This is it. Hang on to your smokes and cash, coins. Clothes don’t go missing much. Normally you have to be out until 4.30 but it’s 2.30 now, so, hang around in the shade somewhere. BBQ at 6pm every night. I smile and I can’t seem to stop. A BBQ, bed, roof over my head, unreal.
‘You need to pay the money to me as soon as you can after getting paid by Centrelink and we ask that you move on after the three days, you’ll have your money, others need the beds more. Like you, now.’
‘Got it.’ I pull out my crumpled pack of Champion Ruby roll-your-own and Michael says,
‘Give up those, you’ll have more money.’
‘Right.’ Three days without having to worry about rent or food. What then though? What then? It isn’t just the time spent in the Botanical Gardens. It’s everything. My life stinks like my bad body odour. I can’t have a shower straight away, not until 4.30, so, I find the garden area where the BBQ will be held and sit down in the shade of a frangipani tree. Roll a smoke, light it up striking a match. A shower soon, a meal coming, safe night of sleep.
I should have told you earlier, I have schizophrenia. It’s a shit of a thing to have. There’s some bipolar stuff going on as well, super-inflated self-belief, lower than low at times but these new psychotropic drugs cover a few different disorders, depression too sometimes. You just gotta get the mix right. I’m pretty stable at the moment. You saw the way I handled the big buy at the welfare office, no fear. Given the location and the predicament we both found ourselves in he could have easily belted me. The potential for these kinds of confrontations happening are constant when you’re wandering around, no money, looking to scam or just for the cool air. They could happen anywhere. Maybe in a supermarket someone thinks I stink too much or they don’t like the look of me somewhere else.
The NT is a hotbed, man. Darwin in particular. Racial tensions. The heat. You can’t swim in the ocean. It is also the end of the line for a lot of people. Working or homeless. Lots of people are escaping past lives. Errors of judgement have forced them as far north as they can go. They’re changing their lives. At least they want to. This is the place the cops caught the infamous postcard bandit. The end of the line.
I get out of the shower. A man renewed. They have a washing machine here I can use in the morning. I have to be out of here by 9am so get up early and do the clothes washing. I have one last piece of clean underwear. The t-shirt I put on has been worn a few times but is not too bad, doesn’t stink at least. I lie on the single bed. My bags on the floor. Nothing to worry about for a few minutes.
The BBQ starts. A friendly looking guy in khaki shorts and a blue t-shirt is cooking snags and hamburgers. There is a pile of buttered bread on a huge plate and empty plates for the use of the eight of us at the BBQ. Two red sauce bottles with white spouts. Tomato and BBQ. I am starting to feel much better. The big fella from the welfare office turns up and I put my hand up to say hi but he comes right up to me and says,
‘You, you fucken prick. Cheeky bastard. I should…’ And the guy cooking the BBQ says,
‘Take it easy, mate, settle down, this is…’
‘Alright, alright,’ he says looking at the food cooking. He knows a good thing when he sees it. Points his finger at me, smiles, says,
‘Next time.’ I sigh. I don’t want to get kicked out of here for fighting with the big bastard. I know a good thing too.
‘You’re the man,’ I say, thinking, you’re a fucking arsehole. A bully.
I eat a lot and afterwards we all clean up our own mess and wash up etc. The man running the BBQ brings out this huge plate of assorted biscuits and a big can of Nescafe 43 and milk and sugar and nine mugs. I have to say it almost makes me cry. Weird, I know but it really makes me feel human again. This small little gesture of coffee and biscuits. I turn away so the others won’t see my reaction. And they’re the good biscuits. Monte Carlos and orange cream, lemon crisp, no chocolate biscuits though because I reckon they would melt in a few seconds.
I sit with my mug of coffee and handful of biscuits rolling a ciggie and this guy comes up to me pretending to be a real friendly guy. He bots a smoke and disappears when he finishes it. I know he’s coming back for another ciggie soon. I know these guys. They have money to buy ciggies but they don’t. They bludge and bludge. The trick is to give them three ciggies then cut them off angrily. And that’s how it plays out. He shuffles up once every twenty-minutes, all smiles and friendly and he says when I tell him to piss off as he arrives for the fourth free ciggie,
‘It’s only a smoke, mate.’
‘Yeah, well, buy your fucken own.’ The guy who cooked the BBQ looks over but there is a smile in the corner of his mouth. Maybe he knows the truth too.
The next couple of nights are the same and I hang around at the library during the day, reading the papers and other magazines and books. I keep my head down and keep very quiet. The air-conditioning is very nice and the staff are friendly. At around midday one day some guy walks in and stands next to me and says out loud,
‘Can’t stand these dole bludgers who come in here to read the paper.’ Good on you mate I think and continue reading.
My favourite paper is the two-day old Sydney Morning Herald.
I think about what the Salvation Army guy in the welfare office said. Don’t want to change? That’s what he said. I do want to change. I do. But I don’t want to go to church or do twelve steps of humiliation. I just want to stop. And that’s what I do when I get out of the crisis accommodation. I stop gambling. I stop drinking. I stop smoking the rollies. I still smoke a little bit of weed. I take up residence in the Salvation Army Hostel on Mitchell Street but don’t go to church.
I still can’t find work. It seems like I’ve knocked on the door of every hotel in town. I go to the Job Network and send my work history all over the place. I’m in a kind of despair. Changing, yes but I hate having no money, or only enough to cover my arse. I don’t have a trade. I’m not a cook or chef. I’m a kitchenhand, a porter, a waiter. A taciturn barman. Nobody. I wonder if I have a bad reputation. It is October now. The dry season is almost done, the tourist season winding down. The build-up has begun. Steaming hot days covered by the bruising dark clouds and 100% humidity. The eternal promise of rain that never quite comes until the wet season rain finally pummels the streets from out of the black and purple clouds. A few people will go mad before the wet begins.
I smoke a little joint here and there and it is the cause of me getting kicked out of the Salvation Army Hostel. A man can have one bad habit, surely. I move to a boarding house in Parap that is full of derelicts. No women. I meet a humourless, un-married taxi driver who lives in the room next to me. He drives through the night and spends his days playing Keno at the Casino. He won big eight years ago and went to Thailand to live. Back now, broke and searching for the same win again. What do they say about lightning? I smoke a little joint and have a shower, put on my best clean clothes and walk across Parap Road to the TAB.
I place a $20 bet on a roughie to get started. The race begins and the adrenaline starts coursing through my veins. The race caller fills his voice with excitement even though it is a tiny racetrack in Taree, on the north coast of NSW. A Tuesday afternoon. The only people betting on this race are desperadoes like me. The field approaches the corner, the roughie starts charging down the outside. I scream in my head, come on, come on you fucker! My roughie keeps coming, the favourite is charging for the line too. And the roughie wins and I’m in a kind of delirium. 20-1. $400 to me. I collect and bet and bet and I win and lose and cheer and laugh. I’m alive again. I stay for a few more hours and win another $200.
Later, I walk out and across the road and up to the Parap pub. I settle into a nice armchair with my stubbie of VB, take a nice long slug on it. Light up a Champion Ruby. I’ll buy some tailor-made ciggies soon, flush with my winnings. The races are on the TV and I can bet here too. Fuck me. I am going to get sooo pissed. Being good is bad. It’s so boring. This is no redemption tale. Darwin, you and me, we’re going to have a fucken great night. A great life.