Pavle Radonic ~ Crisis Central

Judging by the voice the girl might have been ear­ly twen­ties, per­haps still in her teens. She was com­ing in loud and clear from out front. Greg lived one off the front of his block. The place oppo­site had to be ful­ly forty metres away.

​— That’ll be Jodie, Greg said. This he repeat­ed absent­mind­ed­ly short­ly after as the row went on.

We sat qui­et­ly and lis­tened. It was impos­si­ble to do any­thing else.

​— Give me my fuckin’ stuff back!… You fuckin’ low-life… Give me my stuff…

The place direct­ly across the street had only been oper­at­ing as a board­ing house a few months. Earlier Heinz the Nazi had run it as anoth­er of his back­pack­ers, after hav­ing brazen­ly added anoth­er storey with­out coun­cil per­mit. After Heinz’s wid­ow went through the prop­er pro­ce­dures and com­plet­ed the build­ing, she sold it to one of the wel­fare organizations.

​— Who said you could take it? Give it back now…

​Now it seemed to be com­ing from the oth­er place on the cor­ner beside the Crisis Centre. A few years ago that one too had been owned and cow­boy-refur­bished by Heinz. Greg had done the plumb­ing and a pal of his the car­pen­try. For a cou­ple of years the Nazi had run the place as a back­pack­er, before sell­ing out to the Crisis peo­ple.

Backpackers made rows of a dif­fer­ent kind to the cri­sis peo­ple. Greg had it both ways there just off Grey Street. Most of his block had been sub-let to back­pack­ers by a cou­ple of shrewd oper­a­tors; then there was the Coffee Palace a stone’s throw away. Really Greg had it up and down and all sides round in his lit­tle possie. Trying to stay clean was a big ask sit­u­at­ed as Greg was.

The voice was not com­ing from the Crisis Centre on the cor­ner. It was the new place across the street, Greg said.

It didn’t seem to be the case, but of course Greg knew best.

The place oppo­site took the over­flow from the Crisis Centre. The two were unaf­fil­i­at­ed seem­ing­ly, for­mal­ly at least. There was nev­er enough accom­mo­da­tion of that sort. The prob­lem was there was no live-in work­er or super­vi­sor at that place, Greg said. While they had employed one they had been on top of the problem.

Greg’s place was on the first floor and Jodie’s voice rose from a low­er lev­el, with a kind of res­o­nant base­ment tone.

— I wan it now…I don’t fuckin care. I don’t fuckin care you scumbag.

In her teens she could have been.

We couldn’t help cow­er­ing a lit­tle. There was no escape. Nothing to do but lis­ten qui­et­ly. Bow and qui­et­ly hear it out.The tone and vol­ume sug­gest­ed the per­son being addressed was not in the same room.

— You’re a worm. You’re a scum­bag. Who’d wan­na be preg­nant to you.

Greg might have become acquaint­ed with the pair, unless they were newies and some kind of word had got out. The turn-over was high. Greg knew every­one and every­one knew Greg. A few years pre­vi­ous he had been on one of the TV inves­tiga­tive shows on after the 6pm news. Yes, I use hero­in. Ha‑ha-ha, they mim­ic­ked Greg up and down the street for months after­ward. Fancy mak­ing such a con­fes­sion on nation­al television.

Trying to fix the voice to one of the faces from the street was use­less. A young girl like that especially.

​Greg didn’t say any­thing fur­ther about Jodie. What was there to say? Somehow she had desist­ed all of a sud­den and there was not a squeak more. The scum­bag must have soft­ened her somehow.

​Sometimes the teenage moth­ers pushed prams up the hill on Grey Street toward the free feed at the church. Sometimes father-part­ners took the pram while the girls stood on their cor­ners to work. Before mobiles became com­mon­place, up at the phone booths half-way up the hill there’d be mes­sages for the girls scrawled on the foot­path. Other mes­sages cov­ered the booths and the phone surface.

Living in that tight knot Greg got to know all of them, whether he want­ed to or not. Mostly Greg want­ed to, though it could be risky when they knew where you lived.

In the last few years Greg had turned to a bit of dope-deal­ing. It had start­ed out as a prof­itable and easy lit­tle line after he had giv­en up the ham­mer. Once he was back on again—coke more than ham­mer this time—it financed the habit. The back­pack­ers were good cus­tomers; the cri­sis peo­ple less so.

The episode with Jodie was ear­li­er in the week, Tuesday late morn­ing. We nev­er did hear any­thing fur­ther. The rack­et had seemed untime­ly for a Tuesday. The par­ty nights late week and Saturdays were always row­dy. Greg couldn’t have coped in the suburbs.

​It was a bad case of mist­im­ing, knock­ing lat­er that same week on the Sunday night and answer­ing Greg’s call with, Who you afraid of lit­tle man?

While he delayed and lis­tened from behind the door, the taunt was repeated.
​Usually Greg opened right up. The secu­ri­ty door was always locked from inside as a pre­cau­tion. Greg might call out to ask who it was if he was hav­ing a tick­le, or oth­er­wise dubi­ous­ly occu­pied, some­times out-of-sorts. More often the door quick­ly swung open to sight the vis­i­tor, before the wire-door was unlocked. No doubt many of us played the game of stand­ing off from the peep-hole.

The lump of wood Greg had in hand this Sunday night was no joke. Not at all.

Sure enough, a pick-han­dle as he said, unat­tached. Greg wasn’t kidding.

With a bit of rec­ol­lec­tion the ear­li­er bil­liard cue and base­ball bat too came back. It was dif­fi­cult to see Greg wield­ing any of them, defen­sive­ly or oth­er­wise. The weapons would always have been an absolute last resort.

Greg was a lover, not a fight­er, as he self-described once or twice. There was no doubt. No doubt at all. Greg was full of the rat­tle. He would have been able to talk his way out of most tricky sit­u­a­tions, not a prob­lem in the world. It would have been a tough, unreach­able nut­ter, some­one on some real­ly bad gear, dan­ger­ous and threat­en­ing, that col­lect­ed a swing of one of Greg’s weapons.

​It took a while for the ten­sion to light­en that Sunday night.

In ret­ro­spect the unease should have been appar­ent soon­er. That shag­gy sheep­ish­ness that comes over Greg occa­sion­al­ly was well-known by now. It doesn’t hap­pen often. When it does Greg is usu­al­ly caught out seat­ed in a bit of lim­bo, the chat run­ning thin and halt­ing. In this fix, this com­ing-off of wheels, Greg will ruf­fle his grey bouf­fant in a cou­ple of pass­es, then flounce the rear upward once or twice. Sometimes when he tries to meet your eye fol­low­ing the groom­ing he does it side­long with head turned, right iris slid­ing toward his tem­ple and ogling from there. A kind of wary fish-eye gaze.

The usu­al josh­ing and blar­ney was zipped that Sunday night only a few days after Jodie and her partner.

Some pre­lim­i­nary jab­ber soon ground to a halt. The old wood­en pick han­dle had gone behind the door, wrong way up. The piece must have been scav­enged from some­where with only one pur­pose in mind. The bil­liard cue and base­ball bat were no more. Many peo­ple kept such-like behind their doors in St. Kilda. Or used to keep them. In oth­er sub­urbs too, so how not St. K.

​Three or four weeks before a fel­low had been killed in the room­ing house oppo­site, appar­ent­ly. Bloodied and stag­ger­ing, he had come out into the street before col­laps­ing. With the blood pour­ing from a head wound, the ambu­lance had been called imme­di­ate­ly. It was not enough to save him. The police had fanned through the area and insist­ed peo­ple kept indoors. A num­ber of times Greg had tried to get out to have a look at the com­mo­tion. A num­ber of times the female police offi­cer had told Greg to stay put and even­tu­al­ly threat­ened him with arrest.

It fit­ted. Not a dif­fi­cult pic­ture to com­pose. Greg a jack-in-the-box, stick­ing his head out every few min­utes, edg­ing along his bal­cony to have a geezer. A self-described toey bloke like Greg could nev­er stay put for long. There would be good rea­son to make one’s own assess­ment in such a sit­u­a­tion too of course. Perfectly under­stand­able. A young unre­li­able cop­per on the wild streets of St. Kilda.

Now anoth­er tough guy was said to be stand­ing over the peo­ple in the same room­ing house oppo­site. Cigarettes, food, cloth­ing, mon­ey of course, was being extract­ed from the ten­ants by this Jason guy. It hap­pened in room­ing hous­es the same as in jail. Reversion to the jungle.

The word was out for a while when Jason land­ed on Greg’s doorstep a few hours ear­li­er that Sunday night. The bound­ing up the stairs Greg had heard from behind his door. A creak­ing sec­ond step had long been Greg’s ear­ly warn­ing sys­tem for vis­i­tors. Like the oth­er cus­tomers, Jason had knocked and called out. But this guy Jason cer­tain­ly had no inten­tion of pay­ing for what he wanted.

Opening the door, Greg found Jason with his back turned. Leaning over the rail­ing, he was look­ing out at the oth­er, bet­ter class board­ing house on the oth­er side. ($240 per week in that hand­some Tudor estab­lish­ment, which a few years before had been an upmar­ket retreat charg­ing some way above that.)

Greg had giv­en it a minute before open­ing. Jason cool­ing his heels, look­ing out through the car-park trees.

​— I want some bud, Jason had demand­ed in the direc­tion of the neigh­bour­ing Tudor.

Back still turned, look­ing across at the build­ing that had been shipped out from England, it was said, by some notable Edwardian who had made good in the colonies Downunder.

​— Who the fuck are you mate? Greg vol­leys, know­ing full well how to han­dle these char­ac­ters. A clear No-go from the very start.
​— I want a fuckin bud!

Jason want­ed it now.

Greg was­n’t going to deal with this turkey.

The pair ra-ra-ed a short bit, tem­per­a­ture quick­ly boil­ing. Greg told the fel­low he didn’t know him. Leaning on the rail the whole while, the Jason fel­low sud­den­ly turned.

The stand-still had ticked over two, three and four long sec­onds, burst­ing words over the top of one anoth­er, before Jason leapt at the door.

Greg had­n’t opened all the way, there was just enough time for retreat and pulling to.

In this a blade out thrust­ing through the wire, which had been torn a long while back.

— Ya cunt.

Blade flash­ing through the pre­vi­ous slits and mak­ing new ones, scrap­ing on the steel.

— Ya gun­na fuckin get it.

Pick-han­dle parrying.

The bloke was told he’d be get­ting his too. Blah-blah.

— You’ll get yours real soon, wait and see. Won’t be long.

This sends Jason down the steps at a run, fling­ing over his shoul­der his knowl­edge of where Greg lives, what he does, his times. Taken for every­thing he’s got Greg will be. The car, the tools, the lot.

​Greg could cope with the street. The tough-arse guys didn’t do as well. Everyone knew Greg was a soft­ie and a good­ie, everybody’s help­ful emer­gency plumber. The dead-set hard boys he knew—and Greg knew plen­ty of them—knew his val­ue. All Greg need­ed to do was give them the word about Jason and the fel­la would get the mes­sage quick smart. The stand-over tough boy wouldn’t come back in a hur­ry, to buy or any­thing else. No thug had a real long run. Smarts always got you fur­ther. Treating peo­ple with respect. Greg always did.

Right now though, a cou­ple hours after on the Sunday night, Greg was under­stand­ably toey. The heat of the fenc­ing joust had left plen­ty of sim­mer­ing embers.

TV off, which was unusu­al. Greg lean­ing back on the couch in a way that shrunk his per­son. Jiggling his leg.

The flounc­ing of bouf­fant on this occa­sion was not the usu­al case of rud­der­less­ness in a stag­nant pool; the run-down, fagged-out tread­ing of water.

Two pass­es made in a slow­er, pen­sive tempo.

Greg’s hair was done by Dianne around the cor­ner in exchange for plumbing—Dianne who did TV heads at the studios.

The iris slid­ing out edge­ways as far as it would go beneath the rich, grey quiff.

As in the rest of the town, Sundays the neigh­bour­hood qui­et­ed early.

                                                                                    St. Kilda, Melbourne


Pavle Radonic is an Australian writer of Montenegrin her­itage, based the last eight years in SE Asia. Previous work has appeared in a range of lit­er­ary jour­nals, includ­ing Ambit, Big Bridge, Another Chicago Magazine, New World Writing Quarterly and Citron & Antigonish Reviews.