After school, at the end of the summer of 1989, Nathan Smith rode his bike to the pharmacy. Inside the shop it was cool and dim. The blinds had been drawn to keep out the sun, and the beams of light caught the dust that swirled and eddied in the air currents. Nathan liked the smell of the pharmacy. It made him think of the times when he was sick when he was a little kid and home from school, his mum sitting by the side of the bed giving him a spoon boated with bright pink medicine, think as mercury.
‘It’s a scorcher,’ said the pharmacist, Mr. Porter.
‘Yeah,’ said Nathan.
‘You’ve got eight deliveries today’. The pharmacist handed Nathan eight small parcels of medicine, each wrapped separately in a bag of stiff brown paper. ‘I’ll need to have you back at five o’clock sharp, hottest day ever recorded or not’.
‘Okay,’ said Nathan.
‘Five o’clock. Don’t forget. I have to leave on the dot today’.
At four o’clock Nathan made his final delivery for the day, dismounting his bike outside Mrs King’s house at the top of the hill. ‘Thank you,’ said Mrs King as she took her parcel of medicine. As far as Nathan was concerned, Mrs King didn’t have anything wrong with her at all. Her face was smooth and white, a slice of bread carved with a blunt knife, unwrinkled.
‘You’re welcome,’ said Nathan as he looked through the short, dark hallway and into the sun flooded backyard. In the backyard Mrs King’s granddaughter was jumping on the trampoline. He felt like he was like looking from a cave out into a clearing.
‘Is that Gwen?’ asked Nathan, who already knew the answer.
‘Yes, love,’ said Mrs King. Her voice sounded tired.
Nathan watched Gwen in the bright light of mid-summer. She was wearing a pink bikini. The trampoline squeaked and groaned.
‘Wow,’ said Nathan quietly. His mouth felt full of cotton wool.
‘Dirty,’ said Mrs. King, ‘Dirty.’ Nathan was taken aback by her comment, but then realised that she was looking at his scruffy shoes. Nathan gripped the flyscreen door and stared. Mrs King noticed his grip and went to shut the door, but Nathan held on tight.
Gwen bounced high and hard, as though there was nothing in the known universe that could bruise or cut her. She bounced like she could never fall and die.
‘Gwen goes to my school,’ said Nathan as he watched Gwen settle into smaller jumps. ‘She’s in my class.’
Gwen came to a stop, sat on the trampoline. She looked down at herself. One of her breasts had fallen out of her bikini. She adjusted the material. Nathan let go of the door.
‘Well then, you can see her at school soon enough.’ Nathan continued to stare through the flyscreen mesh.
Gwen sat now, on the edge of the trampoline, and stared right back at him, through the tunnel. She pulled her legs slightly apart, just for a moment, and turned her back to him and began to jump hard and high again.
Nathan walked to his bicycle, mounted it and prepared to roll back down the steepest hill in town to the pharmacy. He was about to start when Gwen caught up with him and tapped him on the shoulder. She was still in her bikini top but now wore a sarong. Her feet were bare.
‘Hi,’ she said.
‘Hi,’ said Nathan.
‘I want to show you something’.
Nathan realised that she could suggest anything and he would say yes.
They walked five blocks into the centre of town, Nathan pushing his bike. ‘Here,’ said Gwen.
They were standing outside The Grand Royal, the town’s only theatre. Gwen walked into the foyer and he followed her into a room at the end of a corridor. It was a small room without windows. Along the right wall was a row of filing cabinets and along the left wall, a row of pigeonholes, each the size of a letter box.
‘Look,’ she whispered. ‘Pigeonholes’.
Nathan bent over. ‘Coo Coo, any pigeons home?’
Gwen laughed and stationed herself at Nathan’s back. He could feel the heat from her bare arms and chest, the heat of her sunburn, and the burnt smell of her bikini. He stood, hoping her skin would touch his. Her sarong brushed against the skin of his legs. The air felt too thick to breathe. Somebody walked by. Nathan stepped back, afraid to be seen. ‘Will someone kick us out?’
‘Who cares if we get caught?’ said Gwen. ‘What are they gunna do? Put us in jail?’
Gwen grabbed Nathan’s hand and pulled him towards the back corner of the room, to the farthest pigeonhole. ‘Look,’ she said. ‘This is what I wanted to show you. It’s exquisite’.
This pigeonhole was much larger than the others, at least three times bigger. Instead of holding internal mail and documents it had velvet curtains tied at each side. Inside the pigeonhole were tiny wooden actors and tiny wooden furniture. Two actors, a male and a female, stood centre stage, dressed in evening wear, facing each other, the woman with a gun at her side. Behind them, through two enormous windows, there was a painted backdrop of snow-capped mountains. Also in the miniature room, a vase on a table filled with red flowers, and a teapot. The red flowers were tiny bits of tissue with red blotches in the middle, as though someone had cut themselves and used the tissue to soak up the blood. The stalks were used matches. The teapot was made from plasticine. The table was a Queen from a chess set, sliced in half and turned upside down. A tiny old lady made of wood sat at the table with her head in her hands. An old man lay dead on the floor.
Gwen still held Nathan’s hand. He could barely breathe, his mind caught in his fingers, wrapped together with hers, wet from perspiration, squeezed tight as though it would hurt to separate them. The name Ibsen was written, with small gold stars, under the pigeonhole.
‘I wonder who Ibsen was,’ said Nathan.
‘I don’t know,’ said Gwen softly, ‘but isn’t it exquisite!’
Nathan moved in closer to Gwen. He thought he might vomit. She moved her face closer to his. Stupidly, he spoke.
‘Yeah,’ he said,’ but where does the mail go? If you put a letter in there it would kill the little people. It’d be like an avalanche’.
Gwen let go of his hand and stepped back, her eyes were narrowed, her neck blotchy. ‘You’re missing the whole point! This is one of the most exquisite things I have ever seen!’
Nathan swallowed. ‘Sorry’.
‘God! I’m wasting my breath on you. I knew you’d just be a stupid piece of shit!’
She left through the door, into the lobby and out into the summer light.
Nathan tried to stop his tears but he couldn’t. He looked at his watch: five minutes before five. He couldn’t stop crying. He stood and stared inside the velvet curtains, wiped his eyes. He then noticed a tiny wooden dog in the corner of the miniature room, lying on a tiny rug in front of a fire place, the rug made from the middle section of a band aid; the flames of the fire, red cellophane. He held it up and looked at its face. The person who painted the dog had neglected to include eyes. The dog was congenitally blind, doomed to stare into darkness until someone granted him sight
He put the dog in the pocket of his shorts and went outside into the sun. He looked at his watch. It was one past five. ‘Shit!’ he said. He knew he’d be sacked by Mr Porter. Tears flooded his face. He rode down the hill, the lines of his tears drying in the wind and heat of the day.
He told his mum he quit the job, said the hill was too steep. Every day after school, for three weeks he sat with his mother on the side of the divan in the sun room as she smoked cigarette after cigarette, lighting one with the stub of the last.
She would tug at his clothes to try and get his attention, but he would pull away. ‘I think you should go back to the pharmacy. If you want to be a doctor, it will help knowing about medicines.’ Nathan flinched. He was embarrassed for his mum; her drooping face, her naivety. She just didn’t get it.
‘Bullshit mum, what planet are you on?’
Nathan’s mum closed her eyes, ‘I’m on this planet, the same as you’.
A few weeks later Nathan asked for his job back, but it had been taken. The next day he intercepted the new delivery boy who was on his way out of the pharmacy.
‘I’ll save you the ride up the hill if you let me deliver Mrs King’s stuff,’ said Nathan.
‘If you want,’ said the new boy, ‘but don’t lose it. She could die of a heart attack or something’.
Nathan looked the boy but couldn’t think of anything to say. In his mind he saw Mrs King as an indestructible statue. He rode up the steepest hill in town.
‘Hello, Nathan,’ said Mrs King.
‘Hi, Mrs King. Here’s your delivery’.
Mrs King stared at his shoes. He’d cleaned them the night before.
‘I was wondering…’ said Nathan.
‘You’d like to come in. You’d like to play with Gwennie.’
Nathan legs trembled. She may as well have kicked him between his legs.
‘Oh,’ he said. ‘No I was just wondering if she was…’ He looked down the dark hallway, but the back door was shut. He had hoped to see Gwen on the trampoline, or maybe she would have answered the front door.
‘Gwennie’s upstairs. Do you want to see her?’
‘Oh’ he said. His brain felt incapable of forming words.
Mrs King began to swing the flyscreen door a little open, and then a little shut, as if a bird was caught in its hinges and she wanted to kill it. ‘Are you in or are you out?’ Her face looked stiff.
‘No, I think I’d better get going,’ he said.
‘Okay, suit yourself.’ She looked at him up and down as if he was food that had gone cold.
Nathan changed his mind halfway down the hill. He stopped and took the valve cap off the tube of his front tyre and let the air out in a long, pleasant hiss and walked back up, his heart banging against his ribs.
Gwen answered the front door.
‘Hi,’ he said. His face burned hot just looking at her; blue eyes, freckles.
‘Hi,’ she said. ‘I thought you told granny you weren’t coming in.’
‘I changed my mind. Is that alright?’
She smiled and let him in, led him to her bedroom. Gwen sat cross legged on her pillows and he sat cross legged too, at the other end of the bed. She was higher than him, perched up on the pillows, and he strained his legs to keep from overbalancing. He felt clumsy, uncoordinated.
‘So, what do you want to do?’ she asked.
‘I don’t know,’ he said. ‘What do you want to do?’
‘Anything,’ she said.
‘Anything like what?’
‘Anything like anything.’
Nathan wanted to be standing when he kissed her, not sitting on a spongy bed where he could barely keep his balance. What would be perfect would be for her to get off the pillows and lie back a little, or even lie back completely.
‘Let’s play murder in the dark,’ he said.
‘That’s a game for lots of people.’
‘Yeah, but, but that doesn’t matter,’ he said. ‘I have another way of playing.’
She stood and closed the curtains.
‘But the light’s on,’ he said.
Gwen smiled, ‘Turn it off then’.
As soon as it was dark, he began to call out in a stupid voice: ‘I’m the murderer! You’d better hide!’ His voice sounded muffled and unfamiliar; not like himself at all. He shut his eyes. She squealed and ran, and then there was nothing. He couldn’t hear anything over his breath and surging pulse. He stuck out his arms in front of him like a zombie, but the room was silent.
He opened his eyes a fraction. Gwen was lying on her bed on her back, not moving at all. He knew where she was, but pretended to find her with clumsy, outstretched zombie arms. ‘Aha,’ he said. ‘I’ve got you.’
It wasn’t murder in the dark if you didn’t find somebody by putting your hand on their leg or arm, or getting your fingers caught in their hair. He touched her leg, on the inside.
‘Ooh,’ she said. ‘You got me.’
He kept his hand on her thigh because it felt like she wanted him to.
‘You’re dead. Now you have to murder me,’ he said. His eyes had adjusted to the dark. She was smiling. He removed his hand, which had become limp.
‘I’m bored, let’s play my way now.’
Gwen sat up and put her face in front of Nathan’s. They were an inch apart. He closed his eyes, felt ready to die. He pursed his lips, pushed them outwards. Then he heard Gwen’s voice. She had moved away. The light came on, and he realised that she had been watching him sitting on the bed, his lips waiting for a kiss. Nathan felt the blood rush to his face. He pulled his lips back and pursed them, pushed himself off the bed and stood up.
‘I’d better go downstairs now,’ he said. ‘It’s getting dark outside’.
When he got to the front door he remembered.
‘Shit!’ he said. ‘My tyre. Can I fix it here?’
Mrs King was suddenly standing behind him. ‘Nathan, are you still here?’
‘I’m going now,’ he said, afraid to turn around.
Gwen was standing at the bottom of the stairs, her arms folded. Her face was inscrutable. Mrs King looked at Nathan. ‘Well,’ she said. ‘We don’t have any puncture repair kits anyway, do we Gwennie?’
Gwennie shook her head. ‘Definitely not.’
‘Oh,’ said Nathan. He swallowed, made sure that the tears stayed down. ‘Don’t worry, I’ll walk to the petrol station or something.’
Nathan walked away, steering his crippled bike. When he was far enough away to be sure that Gwen couldn’t see him, he stopped and reached into his pocket. He took out the tiny wooden dog that he had taken from the pigeonhole at The Grand Royal. He’d intended on giving it to Gwen, but hadn’t.
He looked at the dog under the street light. Three days before he’d taken the dog to school, and asked the Art teacher if he could use a fine paint brush and some paint. With the sound of his friends outside in the yard playing kick to kick as a soundtrack, he carefully painted eyes on the dog, given it sight.
As he painted on the eyes he fantasised that he would give the dog to Gwen, and then they would walk together to the theatre, and return it to the diorama in the pigeon hole, and then kiss.
The sky held onto the last corona of light of the day, only a pale rim of illumination hugged the horizon. Nathan stared at the dog in the twilight. He thought about Gwen and what had just happened and how he had felt. He thought about himself.
Instead of walking the direct route home, Nathan detoured to The Grand Royal. The doors were open. Inside an amateur theatre company were rehearsing. He recognised Mr Porter on stage, reading some lines whilst holding a skull in his hand.
Nathan snuck into the room with the pigeonholes. At the back, the miniature Ibsen scene was as he’d left it. Tiny actors on a tiny stage. He placed the dog carefully in front of the fireplace, and pointed his face towards the painted windows and their panoramic view. Now the dog could rest and see the mountains with snow on top of them, and see the beauty all around.