The Big Issue : Edition 568
THE BIG ISSUE 2018 61 FICTION EDITION He grabbed me by the shoulder. “Outside. Both of you.” They marched us along a side lane next to the shop and told us to face a brick wall. The second policeman elbowed me in the kidneys and told me to spread my legs. We were both searched. Spider lost his packet of cigarettes, six dollars he’d won at the pool game and a flick-knife he kept in the side of one gym shoe. Patting me down, the policeman felt something in my back pocket. “What’s this?” he asked. I turned my head towards him. “Not sure. But it looks like a book to me.” He slapped me across the back of the head with the novel. “Don’t be a smart-arse.” He read the title of the book, The Outsider, and showed it to his colleague, who was enjoying one of Spider’s Marlboro Reds. “These two are fucking outsiders. Must be an autobiography.” We were put in the back of a police car, driven to the local station and locked in an empty room, where we were to wait until our parents were contacted. Spider would be in the clear but I knew that my mum would be angry, being called up by the police at the factory where she worked testing spark plugs. “I’m bored,” Spider said after an hour of staring at a police force recruiting poster – We Care. “Where’s your book?” “He took it off me. The copper who searched me.” “What’s it about?” “It’s about this fella who doesn’t care about anything. His mum dies and he doesn’t cry or anything. And then he kills another fella on the beach and he doesn’t care about that either. Even when they catch him and lock him up.” “Is that it? Is that all that happens?” “Pretty much. Except I think what it’s really about is that he really does care, but he doesn’t want to believe that. He doesn’t want to think too much either, because he’ll work out he’s bullshitting to himself.” Spider stood up and paced the room, looking at me the whole time. He eventually stopped and stood under a bare lightbulb hanging from the ceiling. “Have you ever done that?” he asked. “Bullshitted to yourself about something. Like you didn’t care or you tried to believe something that wasn’t true?” I hesitated. Not because I didn’t have an answer for Spider, but because I wasn’t sure that I wanted to hear the words coming out of my own mouth. “Yeah,” I said. “I have.” “Like what?” “Like I say I hate school and I never want to be there.” He looked shocked. “But you do want to be there? Fuck.” “Well, not all the time. But some of it, the reading, talking about books and writing stories. I could be good at that if I tried.” He craned his neck and stared at a crack in the ceiling. “What about you, Spider. Do you bullshit to yourself?” “Yeah,” he whispered. “About my dad.” “Tell me.” “Well,” he said, not taking his eyes off the ceiling. “I tell myself that I hate him and I want him dead. But I don’t. He’s a prick, for sure. But when I see him in the hospital, dribbling from his mouth and forgetting who we are, I want him to get better. And I want him to come home.” Spider wiped tears from his eyes just as the door opened. A copper stood in the doorway, looked at Spider and laughed. “You can stop being a crybaby, son. Your mother’s here.” He looked at me. “Yours too, genius. And she’s pissed off.” I never went back to school. I never had a choice. When it was reported to the school that I’d been picked up by the police, I was expelled. My mother knew someone who knew someone else who got me a job in the cafe at Coles in the city, picking up dishes from the tables and taking out the rubbish. It was no career, but at least it wasn’t the meatworks. I was carrying a stack of dirty plates one lunchtime when I spotted the school librarian, Miss Costa, seated at one of the tables. She was with a woman around her own age. They sat close, rubbed shoulders and smiled at each other. Before I could turn away, Miss Costa spotted me and smiled, her gold tooth on full display. “Daniel,” she said. “How are you?” My cheeks reddened. “It wasn’t like the Christmas cake,” I blurted. “I didn’t steal it.” She had no idea what I was talking about. “Steal? What do you mean?” “The book you loaned me. The Outsider. I didn’t steal it from you. A policeman, he stole it from me.” She raised her eyebrows. I told her about the morning Spider and I were picked up by the police and how one of them had whacked me over the head with the book and then confiscated it. When I’d finished the story, she laughed. “Oh, Mr Camus would love that.” She leaned across the table. “You should consider applying for another school, Daniel.” Although the idea appealed to me, I knew it was too late to turn back. “I couldn’t do that. My boss here says I’m the best dishwasher he’s ever had. He says I have a future,” I laughed. Miss Costa and her companion stood up. “Well, if you ever change your mind, let me know. I could write a reference for you. You’re a bit of a wild boy, Daniel,” she winked. “But it beats being dull.” I stood and watched as Miss Costa left the cafe. She reached out and lightly brushed the back of her friend’s hand with a fingertip. Tony Birch is a Melbourne-based writer. His books include Shadowboxing (2006), Father’s Day (2009), Blood (2011), The Promise (2014), Ghost River (2015) and Common People (2017).