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Bruce Costello
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awayfromhome.jpg
Art by Steve Cartwright 2018

Away from Home

 

Bruce Costello

 

One warm evening during Orientation Week, a former student called Jennifer, now working as a check-out operator, exits a dilapidated, vermin-infested villa.

 She pauses at the gate and stares back at a red, hand painted sign “Slippery Lips Inn” erected above the front door by the other tenants.

 Clutching a plastic bag, she sets off for the house where ex-boyfriend Webster McIlroy lives with several other young men, nine hundred and seventeen footsteps away on Jekyll Street.

 Jennifer is a tiny girl in her late teens, her features doll-like, round and white, with rosy cheeks, dimpled chin and cute button nose. Her blonde hair is long and unruly, looking like it needs a good wash, and she walks hesitantly, seeming to stagger. Her blue eyes are glassy, as if she is dazed or feverish.

 For two days, she has not eaten and has not left her room, even to use the toilet.

 Jennifer’s parents run a dairy farm in a distant province. They have rung her several times recently and left messages, but she has not answered their calls.

To listen to her parents’ concerns and admonitions keep away from alcohol, save yourself for the right boy, study hard, make sure you eat properly – no, no, no! She’d rather go wrong in her own way than right in theirs.

 The thought makes her grimace and her face blushes scarlet. Jennifer has not told her parents she is no longer a student, that she gave up university at the end of last year after failing her exams, which she sat for just after Webster McIlroy did the dirty on her.

 Students crowd the footpath outside the Admiral Hook Tavern waiting for half-price happy hour. It is not yet dark, but many are already drunk. Vomit decorates the doorways of neighbouring businesses. A black-haired girl wearing mauve lipstick squats on the road between two parked cars and a rivulet of urine runs down to the gutter.

 Webster had seemed different than other boys. The son of a prominent surgeon, he spoke with an upper-class English accent and hadn’t demanded sex on the first date.

 On the second date, after the shagging, Webster cuddled Jennifer for over half an hour, whispering love.

 A tsunami of memories floods Jennifer’s mind. A sob escapes her lips. An odd sensation comes over her, as if she is no longer herself, but someone else, floating high above the crowd with its drunken physicality, stinking of sweat, beer, cigarettes and wacky-baccy.

 “Watch where you’re going, why don’t ya!” A greasy-faced fat boy with ears like table tennis bats bends down to slobber into Jennifer’s face. “What’ve we got here?” He grabs her bag and peers into it. “Shit!” he shrieks, and leaps back, a hand clasped to his nose.

 Jennifer picks up the bag and continues, soon arriving in Jekyll Street, where the Orientation Week Street Party is underway. Two couches and a double bed are in flames on the footpath. Broken bottles are everywhere. Music blares. Students dance and prance about, oblivious to traffic. Burly youths pick up a small car, lift it over a low brick fence and heave it onto a flower garden, all the while singing the Song of the Volga Boatmen.

Webster McIlroy, wearing a toga, is stomping up and down on a veranda roof, screaming obscenities and throwing beer bottles at a female police officer below, who is bellowing at him to get down before the whole thing collapses and someone gets killed.

 Webster lives in an ancient rambling house, barely visible behind trees and overgrown shrubbery. The back door has been left wide open and the lights are on, but nobody is home.

 Jennifer strides along the hallway to Webster’s room, empties the contents of her plastic bag into his bed, and ruffles the blankets to disguise the lump.

 She dances a little jig, stands back to admire her accomplishment, her face rippling with laughter, then leaves.

 On the street the party has become quiet. The music has stopped. Students huddle in small groups, crying, as police, fire fighters and ambulance officers dig into the rubble of a collapsed veranda.

 Jennifer skips home to the Slippery Lips Inn, humming softly.

 

***


Bruce Costello lives in the seaside village of Hampden, New Zealand. After studying foreign languages and literature in the late sixties at the University of Canterbury, he spent a few years selling used cars. Then he worked as a radio creative writer for fourteen years, before training in something completely different, and rather weird, and spending 24 years in private practice. In 2010, he semi-retired and took up writing to keep his brain ticking over. Since then, he’s had a hundred and twenty stories accepted by mainstream magazines and literary journals in eight countries.

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