Television people

Josephine Scicluna

I cook them chips because they ask me to, even though they never eat them. It gives us all something to do. If I’m sleeping over because of a double shift, Ogden, his housemate Irwin, and I can be together in their house for up to 24 hours straight. Whenever I start work Ogden greets me from the filthy velour couch, his voice as hoarse as Agro the puppet. Nursie’s here, hahaha. You make us chips for supper, go on. I’m not a nurse, I protest. I don’t even have first-aid training. But the name ‘Nursie’ sticks and so does the job of cooking chips. Ogden butters me up, I slice the potatoes, and Irwin supervises the frying. Don’t forget to lock up the sharp knife, Irwin says, as he hovers over me at the stove. And don’t forget the salt. He helps me transfer the chips to a battered oven tray. They are then left on the bench until the next morning when Ogden throws them over the fence to the dog next door. Ogden spends a lot of time lying on the couch. His spine is so twisted he can’t stand or sit for long. When he does get up, it’s usually to collect his cigarette allowance—two cigarettes every two hours. We portion them out so that his supply will last until pension day. There are variations on this ‘two every two’ agreement. Sometimes he snaffles three when I unlock the cupboard. Or, he takes one and offers me the other. I’m really trying to cut down, I say. Don’t stop smoking, he says. He pats me on the back. Smoking puts hairs on your chest. He never forgets to remind me of his kind gift later on. My cigarettes are much stronger than his. Ogden and Irwin’s television blares all day. When I first started working with them I tried to resist its influence; I had moved out of my parents’ house because of it. Every night my father cranked back his recliner, and our evening of news and current affairs programs would unfold. While my father dozed, my mother and I fantasised about changing channels, but we were never game to steal the remote from his hand. Let’s sleep in the lounge room tonight, Ogden would sometimes say. Irwin would flinch. Only if I can have the couch. No, no—get your mattress out here, it’s more fun, Ogden would urge. Go on, mate. I help ya. They would drag Irwin’s sagging mattress into the lounge and dump it on the floor. Then Irwin remade it. I counted seven sheets one night, which he tucked in, one on top of the other. Once he had fallen asleep, Ogden would chuckle and scamper off down the hall to sleep in his own room. I’m sitting in Irwin’s room one evening watching him play his Sega Megadrive. He’s having trouble getting the little computer character through the fourth stage of its perilous journey. He hands me the controller, but I can’t even make it through the first stage. He grabs it back again and hunches over it, jabbing the buttons. There is a big poster stuck on the wall titled ‘Irwin’s Circle of Friends.’ Black texta circles a photocopied photograph of Irwin. At the edge of the circle is a stick figure drawing of Ogden. Another bigger circle has been drawn around the first with photographs of the workers who staff the house—including me. ‘Here’s a story of a lovely lady…’ Ogden sings in a baritone. Sometimes he reaches notes so low that his voice lapses into a bark. He beats an empty plastic Coke bottle against his chest in time with ‘The Brady Bunch’ music. I tell him he sounds good. Shut up, Ogden, Irwin whines, but then joins in when I start singing too. ‘They were four men, living all together, yet they were all alone…’ Ogden has a girlfriend named Marg. He visits her once a week if she doesn’t have a headache. When Marg’s got a headache, she goes off, he told me once. He pulled up the sleeves of his raincoat to reveal the scars on his arms. She had taken swipes at him with a kitchen knife. Now he always rings ahead before asking the staff to drive him over. Marg lives alone in a second-storey flat in a street where nearly every property is a block of flats. The last time I took Ogden to visit her, he wanted me to come inside with him. I didn’t cook you lunch, Marg says. That’s okay, I answer. I’ll just watch TV. Ogden and Marg sit at the kitchen table eating hardboiled eggs. Each mouthful is alternated with puffs on their cigarettes. Marg starts coughing. You all right, love? Ogden asks. He strokes her hand as he blows cigarette smoke into her face. Yes, love, Marg answers. She withdraws her hand and runs it through her frizzy greying hair. On the midday movie, a middle-aged man is standing at a rack in a lingerie shop. A woman in a tailored lemon jacket and matching skirt is on the other side of the rack. She picks out a blue satin G-string and holds it up. She glances over at the man and he looks down at the carpet. When he leaves the shop, the blonde woman is waiting for him outside. ‘Excuse me for staring at you in there,’ she says, ‘but I couldn’t help it—you are so attractive.’ ‘I was just buying something for my wife,’ the man answers and starts to walk away. The woman then invites him to her apartment, offering wine, food and anything else he wants. She names her price. ‘So you’re a hooker?’ the man says. ‘No, not really,’ she answers. ‘There’s no time limit. You can stay as long as you like. A hundred dollars is all I ask.’ Ogden and Marg continue to shell hardboiled eggs while the man in the movie goes to the woman’s apartment. The woman opens a bottle of wine and says, ‘I’ll just go and slip into something more comfortable.’ She returns in a slippery-looking negligee. When I tell Ogden that it’s nearly time to leave, Marg slams her fists onto the table. He’s got to do the dishes before he goes. And, she adds, he’s got to take my washing home and do it for me. That’s up to Ogden, I say. I turn back to the movie. The man is back at home working in his garage. His wife comes in and demands to know where he was the night before. Before he can respond she asks: ‘How come you don’t make love to me anymore?’ ‘Well maybe you could make it more interesting for me,’ he snaps. ‘Maybe you could seduce me.’ ‘Okay,’ she says. ‘The kids aren’t home. I want you to make love to me.’ He turns his back to her and picks up a piece of wood. He starts filing at it. Marg gets up from the table to collect her dirty washing. Ogden does the dishes. When Ogden is ready, the man is back at the woman’s apartment. I tell Ogden that I’ll wait for him in the car. I’ll just be waiting in the car, Ogden, Marg mimics. Then she says to me, Give us a lift to McDonald’s. I’m about to say sorry, that she knows we’re only allowed to take clients in the government car. But I change my mind. Okay, I say. Yeah, yeah, Marg says, but she shuffles straight past the car and continues up the driveway in her pink moccasins. Ogden waves to her from the car window. He sighs and settles back into his seat. She’s a good cook that woman. Oh yeah. Ogden spends the afternoon washing the three items of clothing Marg has given him. He dries them one at a time in the clothes dryer. He waltzes around the house with each article, holding it up in the air. These are Marg’s clothes, he says. Irwin looks on from his chair in the corner, wedged between the heater and the desk. We haven’t got any sugar for tea, he says. That night I yell answers at Sale of the Century and Ogden laughs at me. Irwin talks to himself. Jimi Hendrix is great, he says. I glance at him. Although he isn’t looking at me, his head is turned in my direction. Yeah, he is, I say. Jimi Hendrix is dead. I smile and then remember that I have heard the lines before on an ad. Did you put the knife in the office? Irwin asks. Yeah, Irwin I did. He moves the time two hours forward on the digital clock. Oh, he says. It’s nine o’clock. Time for our tablets. Ogden and Irwin love The X-Files. Its theme music gives me the creeps and is my cue to go outside and have a cigarette. Tonight, as I stand shivering on the front porch, I see a police car pull up in the empty car park across the road. Two officers get out to speak to a couple of young men wearing black parachute tracksuits and big white runners. The youths roll up their sleeves and the policemen inspect their arms. Ogden watches from the window. He worries about thieves. When I come back inside he asks me to help him label his possessions. He tips a bag out onto the office table: half a He-man doll, a cigarette lighter, and some Spiderman comics. I start writing his name out on adhesive labels. Big John rooted Mary in the dayroom, Ogden says as he sticks a label on the Heman doll. Did he? Big John come at me with a cut glass. I hit him and hit him. What happened then? He didn’t wake up. They took me to Pentridge. Better bring your car in tonight, Nursie. Oh, it’s okay on the street, Ogden. No one would steal that old bomb. Bring it in the backyard. Come on. I open the gates for ya. Ogden heralds the new day by thumping on the sleepover room door. The riskiest time in my job is first thing in the morning, when Ogden has gone ten hours without a cigarette. I open the door a crack and pass him his allowance. While I’m getting dressed I hear shouting from the next yard. I open the curtains and wipe away the condensation on the window. A man is standing in the driveway yelling at his little boy. You should have had your act together. Now get your arse in the car. I take Ogden and Irwin’s medication out of the cupboard and join them in the lounge room. We watch dragon cartoons until breakfast with the heater cranked to its highest setting. By late morning the winter sun generates enough warmth that I decide to sit outside. The backyard is one flat square of lawn with a Hills hoist in the centre. There is nowhere to sit except on the bonnet of my car. It isn’t long before Ogden and Irwin come out too. Irwin steps down from the back door as if emerging from a daze. He doesn’t get outside much because he doesn’t smoke. Ogden slumps against the corrugated iron fence. He is in the same clothes he wears every day: a pair of baggy cotton pants, a grubby white t-shirt, and a dark-green plastic raincoat. He lights up one of his Holiday Ultra-mild extra-thin cigarettes. As soon he finishes it, he smokes the other one and then sits staring at the opposite fence. Wanna have a water fight? he asks me. Bit cold isn’t it? His pale eyes look past me. There’s nothin’ else to do. The car ignition clicks. Irwin is sitting in the driver’s seat. He turns the windscreen wipers on and they scrape across the glass. I grimace back at him and he turns the ignition off. He picks up all the McDonald’s wrappers from the floor and places them on the passenger seat. He puts all my loose cassettes into their boxes and lines them up on the dashboard. Come and sit out here, I call to him. The sun’s lovely. Irwin climbs onto the bonnet next to me. Across the rooftops the land slopes away upward, and the fibro houses form terraces to the horizon. The walls look as though they are bleached. A few palm trees jut out against the sky about a block or so away. You could almost imagine we’re near the beach, I say. Irwin looks at me, deadpan, and I wonder if he and Ogden have ever been on a holiday; if they have any sense of an existence apart from what they see on the TV. They discovered virtual reality long before computers were designed for the task. I ask Irwin if he’d like a cup of tea. He frowns. What for? he asks It is the last hour of my shift, and Ogden is lying on the couch. Irwin is huddled in his chair in the corner. I decide to write in my journal instead of watching television. The lounge room is so dim that I have to turn on the lamp to see the page. While I’m writing, I glance up to see Irwin watching me. I continue writing nonstop for about fifteen minutes and then put my pen down. I close my eyes and fold my hands in my lap. Irwin comes to sit next to me. His sleeve rubs against mine, and I can smell tea on his breath. Then it fades. I use it as an indication of whether or not he is looking at me. This is the first time I have known Irwin to sit somewhere different. I almost put my arm around him but remember that I’m not in the innermost region of his Circle of Friends. The next morning I wake up in my own bed, and I am haunted by the fragments of a dream. First, I am flying the Starship Enterprise in city traffic and I am about to crash. Then I am down at the docks seeing Ogden and Irwin off on a boat trip. They wave goodbye from the deck with fishing rods in their hands.

Josephine Scicluna is a poet and fiction writer. She collaborates with musicians to create performance works and recordings, which have featured on RRR, ABC RN & 3CR. She lectures (contract-willing) in the School of Communication and Creative Arts at Deakin University. ‘Television People’ won the 2001 Judah Waten National Story Writing competition.

(8/11/14 #54)

Illustration by Matt Mawson.