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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.

 

***



drindistress.jpg
Art by Ann Marie Rhiel 2019

Doctor in Distress.

 

Bruce Costello

 

Out is out and there’s no way back in. It’s like having a baby.

          When you’re in a position of professional responsibility, you have to be careful what you say, to stay within your role. You’re there to provide a service, not to amuse yourself, or entertain your patients.

          I guess we all mess up occasionally but, once words have slipped out your lips, there’s no way you can suck them back in again.

          I haven’t a clue why I told the woman I’d had a funny dream about her. A weird gleam sprang into her green eyes.

          “Do you know anything about dream interpretation?” she demanded.

          “Not a lot. Do you?”

          “I most certainly do. And the meaning of your dream is perfectly clear. The Cornish pastie you tried to give me is symbolic.

          “Oh, really? Of what?”

          “You may be a doctor,” said the woman, sitting up, “but you’re also a disgusting old bugger who gratifies his sexual needs by having sexual fantasies about his female patients. I shall complain about you to the Medical Council.”

          With a look on her face that would freeze an Eskimo, she sprang off the examination couch, tripped and fell to the floor, exposing her shapely backside with its heart-shaped tattoo. She jumped to her feet, leapt into her jeans, and stormed from the room, head held high, snorting like a bulldog with Brachycephalic Airway Obstruction Syndrome.

           Maybe I’d thought a touch of humor would help her relax, lighten things up. Or maybe it was to relieve my own stress, because doctors aren’t made out of steel, you know. We feel things, and sometimes use humor to distract ourselves. Especially when we’re tired out, last patient of the day, sort of thing.

          Or perhaps there was no reason, deep-seated or otherwise. Just something I said, spur of the moment, without thinking.

          Does everything have to have an unconscious motivation? I could navel gaze until I’m blue in the face, but it wouldn’t get me anywhere. I’m not what you’d call a self-analytical type, though I think I’m quite insightful about myself, as self-aware as most men.

          Of course, I could be wrong in thinking that, and if I am, how would I know?

          Where do I go from here? Time to retire, maybe? At sixty-three, I’m near the end of my working life. I’ve had a distinguished career, both in general practice and as a regular guest lecturer at the Medical School.

          I can’t understand why her reaction has upset me so much. If she does make an official complaint, it’s bound to be dismissed as frivolous. I’m sure of that, having served on the Complaints Panel myself on numerous occasions.

          Anyway, I asked my lawyer to make some enquiries about the woman and he found out she had a doctoral degree in psychology. She’d written her thesis on Sigmund Freud’s theory of dream interpretation, but, for reasons he couldn’t uncover, had never been registered as a psychologist.

          I spoke to a prominent Freudian analyst whom I happen to know rather well. In his opinion, the woman was way out of line reacting to my dream in the way she did.

          “Silly as a hatful of arseholes,” was the quaint expression he used.

          Why am I so bothered? I’ll never have to see her again. She probably won’t make a complaint and if she does, it wouldn’t stand up. I’ve nothing to worry about there.

          But it hurts. It just bloody hurts. You live an honest life, work hard, wear yourself out trying to do your best for your patients, then you innocently say something better left unsaid, and get shafted by the person you’re trying to help. Or that’s how it feels, anyway.

          Maybe I need to increase my own medication.

          I’ve got lots of patients, but not much family and few friends. I did have a wife once, but she sent me packing thirty years ago for reasons that had little or nothing to do with me.

          A man’s got to be fairly robust to survive a long-term relationship with a female and I don’t think I am, so I keep to myself. There’s safety in solitude.

          I must say, though, at times I do yearn for feminine warmth in my life, the softness of a woman cuddling up, someone to talk to, laugh with, weep with.

          It’s especially hard for me as a doctor, because two thirds of my patients are female, constantly reminding me of what I don’t have. It’s like being famished and standing outside a restaurant with open windows, wafting with the aroma of roast lamb—for other people, but not for me.

          What that patient said seems to have really hit home for some reason, though there’s not a grain of truth in it. Not a grain.

          You must admit the story does have its amusing side, I tell myself, but I start thinking about the strange gleam in her eyes. There’s a knocking on my front door and I wonder if she’s found out where I live.

 

The end.






Elegant on the Outside

 

Bruce Costello

 

 

Warder Morton Lockwood was a portly Dickensian character, good-natured with whiskers. He led me up a narrow flight of stairs, and through a steel door into a barren corridor.

“I’ll fetch Paul Stone from his cell for you, Reverend. Have you met the man before?”

“He took over from me as minister at St Jebusiah’s.”

“Buggered if I know how he ended up in this place. Awfully nice turn-the-other-cheek kind of chap, do anything for anyone. The other prisoners think he’s great.” Pointing to a seat by a door marked Interview Room, he said, “You can wait there,” and strode away, boots heavy on the floor, a bunch of keys dangling at his side.

I didn’t feel like sitting.  I paced the empty corridor, looking out through the inner windows onto prisoners walking in the mesh covered courtyard below.

***

The interview room had a table and two wooden chairs. Paul Stone and I sat staring at each other.

“Is it true?” I asked.

“No, it’s not true.”

“You’re the last person I would’ve thought...”

“You believe me?”

“You and I went through college together. Ordained on the same day. Brothers in Christ for forty years…”

Paul spread his hands, palm upwards, on the table. “Praise the Lord,” he breathed. “I prayed you at least would believe I’m innocent.”

Heaven has no rage like love to hatred turned,” I quoted. “Nor hell a fury like a woman scorned. Do you want to talk about it?”

Paul took off his big round glasses and wiped them with his handkerchief. “Do you remember a Mrs Angelina Renton, a divorcee? She was at the church when you were minister.”

I nodded.

“Every now and then, when she was laid low by her chronic depression, I’d visit her on my pastoral care round, pray over her, read Bible verses and so on.” He cleared his throat. “One day, when I was leaving, I touched her shoulder, as you do, an innocent gesture of empathy. Well! She spun around, embraced me, and said she wanted to have sex with me. ‘It’s perfectly okay,’ she said. ‘It’s only love. I wonder where she got that idea from? Anyway, I refused. She flew into a rage and I took off. Soon after that, the allegations were made against me by both her daughters. But I’m sure you read all that in the newspaper. Absolute lies, I swear to God. Just her getting back at me. Never saw any of it coming.”

Same old Paul.

“The irony is, standing up to her was the godly thing to do and it’s landed me in jail. If I’d given in to her, I’d still be a free man, like you.”

My face reddened. Paul gazed at me with a strange reproachful expression. I saw his mouth twist into an incongruous smile.

“We have all sinned and come short of the glory of God,” he said, reaching across the table to pat my hand. “Don’t worry. The Lord works in mysterious ways. I like being in here. The other prisoners might be rough diamonds, but they’re straight up and down. They accept me for who I am and open up to me.” He smiled. “There’s a genuine closeness I’ve never had before and a refreshing honesty you don’t get on the outside.”

***

  “It’s one of the last operational Victorian Courtyard Prisons, you know,” said Morton Lockwood proudly, leading me back down the stairs. “Built in 1885. Queen Anne style. Elegant on the outside, but inside grim, dark and claustrophobic, as the books say.”

“I know. But Paul Stone seems happy enough.”

“He’s a really genuine guy. We all love him.”

***

The factories and nearby shops were closing as I stumbled down the worn stone steps onto the street, where flocks of people plodded the darkening footpath with faces like yesterday’s porridge.

Car keys in hand, my thumb and forefinger caressed the jade cross Angelina Renton gave me just before I left the parish. It evoked the smell of her hair when we kissed for the final time, her breasts in a strapless dress pressed firmly against me, our hands still hungry for each other.

My wife was waiting in the prison car park across the road, checking Trade Me auctions on her i-pad.  She didn’t even look up when I got into the car.

“How was Paul?” she asked, sliding a finger across the screen. “Do you think he did it?”

“For sure...” I said, staring back at the prison as I reached to close the door. The keys fell from my hand and the jade cross broke on the concrete.

As I bent down to retrieve the pieces, the copper cupolas of the prison, luminous through the winter smog, glared down at me disdainfully.

 

 

The End.





No

by Bruce Costello

 

It was 3am. I was on my knees in the toilet, arms wrapped around the bowl, trying to vomit but couldn’t.

          After ten minutes or so, feeling a little better, I had a quick shower, then went back to bed and thought over the events of the previous day.

          I probably wasn’t physically ill, just in a state of shock, having done what the idiot counsellor suggested and having to face the consequences.

 

It started with a visit to Student Counselling in the morning.

          “Rachel, have you tried just saying no to the guy?” the counsellor asked me, “without feeling the need to explain yourself?”

          “You mean saying no just like that, without saying why?” I said, staring at the counsellor, a thin man in his fifties with a ring in one ear and a gray pony tail that swayed when he shook his head.

          “If he’s a decent type he’ll respect how you feel, even if he doesn’t understand, and if he’s not, you’re better off without him.”

          “Well, that sounds a bit simplistic,” I said. “Rather cold and hard. No without any explanation to soften things? How do you think that would make him feel?”

          Ponytail leaned back in his chair, hands behind his head. “You need to stop worrying how other people feel, Rachel, and think about how you feel yourself.” He crossed his legs, then uncrossed them, peering at me through half-closed eyes. “Depression is common among first-year students, especially if it’s the first time away from home. There’s normally a simple cause that requires a simple solution. It’s not a good idea to over think.” He nodded sagely, casting a sideways look at the clock.

          “Well, maybe, but it’s not as easy as that. I was expecting you’d come up with some clever strategy. But to just say no and leave it at that? I couldn’t do it.”

          “Maybe you could now that we’ve floated the idea.”

 

I had lunch by myself at the Student Union Cafeteria and in the afternoon went to a couple of lectures, Psychology and Theology, although I can’t say I took much in. Afterwards, I walked home to the flat via the public gardens, shuffling my way through the autumn leaves on the paths. My flat mate was out when I got home, probably at the pub. I tried to get some study done, but couldn’t concentrate, so I gave up and blobbed out on Facebook and You Tube.

          Around tea time, Quentin Sullivan turned up with fish and chips. He’d been really nice to me since I’d told him I was on a downer.

          We watched the television for a while, kissing and fooling about with each other on the sofa, then we had a joint and a couple of beers and Quentin said “Let’s go to bed.”

          “No.” The word just popped out of my mouth.

          “Eh?”

          “I said no.

          “What do you mean - no?”

          “What part of no don’t you understand?”

          “You‘re having me on!”

          No.”

          “Is it because your father’s a minister?” he asked, raising an eyebrow.

          No.

          “Then why?”

          “Just don’t want to.”

          “Don’t you love me?”

          No,” I said. “I don’t.”

          “I thought you did,” he whispered after a lengthy silence, his voice thick with emotion.

          No.

          He got up from the sofa and slumped into a chair on the other side of the room, took off his John Lennon glasses and stared at the ceiling with blinking eyes. Then he lifted his knees to his chin and covered his face with his arms.

          Such a boy. Weak with softness. The son of a surgeon. Awfully clever, a bit of a nerd, thinking he could pull chicks like the other guys, though his heart wasn’t in it. Victim of the student sex/booze culture. Trying to be what he wasn’t.

          He looked up, breathing heavily. Tears ran down his cheeks. His mouth moved. He didn’t speak but made a weird moaning noise, which seemed to well up from somewhere deep inside him. I wondered what old memories my words had triggered in him. The thought flashed through my head that I knew very little about Quentin Sullivan.

          And then I said…and God knows why…it was as if something in me was enjoying a new sensation, like a surge of my own power, a sense of control at last. Inserting the butcher’s knife and then giving it a good twist.

          “Love you? Never did. Never will. You’re a dork.”

          Quentin ran from the room. I think he was genuinely upset, not just doing a Hollywood. I heard the front door slam, his footsteps running down the path, and his car speeding off with a scream of tyres, probably to his mother’s place.

          Then I had this weird feeling, like I’m lost in time and space and everything’s unreal and nothing’s for sure. Was this really me…here in the city, far from the family, drinking alcohol, having dramas about sex, smoking, doing the very stuff Mum and Dad had warned me about? Don’t just follow the crowd, they always said. Stick to your principles. Concentrate on your studies.

          Last year I was Head Prefect at Hampden District High School. I played in the Hockey 1st Eleven and sang in the school choir. I taught Sunday school at my father’s church and played the guitar during the evening youth service.

          Was that me? Or is this me?

          That was when I started to feel sick inside and ran to the loo, wanting to vomit. After the shower, although I felt better, my mind was going a million miles an hour. I made myself a coffee and collapsed onto the sofa.  What if…there were so many what ifs, too many to count. My imagination ran wild. All sorts of scenarios ran through my head - what Ponytail had called ‘catastrophe thinking’ - and I felt the emotions that went with them, as if they were real.

          The most disturbing scenario had me really freaking out. Everything was in sharp detail with cartoon-like colour and clarity. I imagined a loud knocking at the door. A red faced, blue-eyed policeman was there, together with a tall policewoman with black eyes, straight yellow hair and a prominent jaw.

          Quentin had been killed, they said, speaking in a matter-of-fact way. He’d driven headlong into a logging truck. Can you confirm he was here last night? Had he been depressed or suicidal? Did he do drugs? How much alcohol had he consumed? How well did you know him? What was his state of mind when he left?

          Quite upset, I said, because of something that didn’t happen.

           What didn’t happen, the policeman wanted to know, flipping out his notebook and nodding from time to time, like he’d heard it all before.

          And that was it, except as they stood to leave, the policewoman asked if I’d been upset by the news of Quentin’s sudden death and offered to organize a Victim Support counsellor for me.

          “Not bloody likely,” I said. “I’ve had it with counselors,” and showed them out.

          My head felt like a volcano about to erupt. The minutes seemed to go on for hours.

I paced up and down, freaking out. Telling myself it was all in my mind and that nothing real had happened, I’d imagined it all - Quentin wasn’t dead, he was alive. But I couldn’t stop crying and felt like ringing Mum and Dad, only I couldn’t bring myself to pick up the phone.

          There was a loud knocking at the front door and something exploded inside me. I felt like I was wading through mud as I struggled across the room to answer it.

          It was only my flat mate drunk, as usual, and couldn’t find the key.

          Then I got a phone call from Quentin. “Sorry I was such a dork. Do you think we could start again, somehow?”

          “No,” I said.

          I finished off a half-smoked joint, and then climbed into bed.

          A watched clock never boils. No, that’s not right. A potched watch, ha ha, get it right, girl. Roll on tomorrow, if it ever comes. Still pitch black. How many days till dawn?

***


In 2010, New Zealander Bruce Costello retired from work and city life, retreated to the seaside village of Hampden, joined the Waitaki Writers’ Group, and took up writing as a pastime. Since then, he has had 135 short story successes – publications in literary journals (including Yellow Mama), anthologies, and popular magazines, and contest places and wins.



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