Short Story by Phil Brown
Tom Ridley had just sat down to watch the news on cable television when the doorbell rang. “What now?” he muttered to himself.
His wife was at tennis and he was looking forward to a morning at home. But he had already been interrupted twice – once by a telemarketer and a second time by a real estate agent touting for business. He dispensed with both quickly, made himself a strong short black, put his three mobile phones on the coffee table in front of him and had just sunk into the comfortable leather when he was up again.
“Coming, coming, bloody coming,” he said impatiently.
He opened the door to a bloke dressed in khaki who looked like a wildlife ranger lost in the suburbs. “Yes mate?” Tom said curtly.
“Hi, I’m Matt the gardener. I’m here to do the gutters.”
“The roof gutters.”
“Oh yeah, the roof gutters,” Tom remembered. “I forgot about that.” In fact his wife had mentioned that she’d arranged for someone to clear the leaves out of the gutters just before she had left the house
“Okay, come through here,” Tom said, leading the gardener through to the back deck. Standing on the stairs that led down into the back garden Tom pointed up.
“See?” said Tom. “Full of leaves. That silky oak sheds ‘em something shocking at this time of year.”
The gardener looked up. He was standing close to Tom, who leaned back a bit to escape the other man’s pungent body odour.
“It’s pretty high,” the gardener said.
“Yeah, well, it’s a roof, what can I tell ya?”
“I think my ladder should reach. Maybe.” He didn’t sound too sure of himself which made Tom a bit impatient.
“Well mate, can you do the job or not?” Tom asked. “If it’s too much, don’t worry, we can organise someone else. But we better make up our minds quickly because I’m pretty busy.”
“No, I should be right,” the gardener said, a bit thrown by Tom’s insistent manner. “It is very high but if I put my long ladder on the stairs I should be able to get up there.”
Tom looked at the stairs and then looked up at the roof and wondered how that would work but decided he didn’t care. He just wanted the job done so his wife would stop nagging him about the leaves. It had been going on for weeks. She’d hoped Tom would get up on the roof and do it himself but when he refused she had taken matters into her own hands.
“Yeah? Okay, so why don’t I leave you to it,” Tom said to the gardener. “It’s mainly at the back here, the front gutters aren’t too bad but you can get up and have a look at them too just to be on the safe side. Right?.”
Matt nodded, lifted a hand to shield his eyes from the sun, and looked up at the roof which had leaves sticking out like hair from under a hat. As he did that Tom noticed a huge wet patch under his arm. ‘Ever heard of deodorant?’ Tom thought to himself.
“I should be fine,” the gardener said then, sounding a little more assured.
“Good, mate,” Tom said dismissively. “Glad to hear it. If you need anything just sing out. I’ll be inside. I’m working from home today.”
In fact, he worked from home every day although most people wouldn’t exactly call it work. Tom was, or at least he told people he was, a self-employed businessman involved with import and export, which was partly true.
He shook his head over the gardener’s ambivalence, went back into the house, sank into the couch again and took a sip of his coffee.
“Ah, mother’s milk,” he whispered.
Tom channel surfed for a minute and then stopped on CNN which was showing a news feature about North Korea. He was interested in totalitarian dictators and always watched and read everything he could about the pudgy, innocuous looking Kim Jong-il. He was almost as fascinating as Hitler or Stalin. What a nutter. What an arsehole! But what an interesting bastard too, he thought. What’s life like in his household?
In the background he could hear the rattling of a ladder as Matt the gardener went about his business. Soon the rattling stopped and it was followed by clumping on the tin roof. Satisfied that the gardener was doing his stuff Tom watched images of Kim Jong-il, who, to his way of thinking, actually looked like a fat lady with a perm in a safari suit, waving to the North Korean masses parading in front of him like so many lemmings, worshipping their “dear leader” like a God. It was bizarre. Then one of Tom’s mobile phones rang and it was a call he was expecting.
“Yeah mate,” he barked as he put the phone to his ear.
“The merchandise has arrived and is awaiting pickup,” a voice said.
“So who’s gone down to get it?” Tom asked.
“Johnny,” the voice said. “He phoned a minute ago and he’s just passing Dreamworld, so he should be there in about 20 minutes. No hassles, no worries.”
“Sweet,” Tom said. “Let me know when it’s en route. The Chink is expecting his stuff by tomorrow morning and you know he gets ugly when anything’s late.”
“Gotcha,” the voice said. “I don’t want him opening up a can of that kung fu shit on me again.”
“No way mate,” Tom laughed. “Ring me when Johnny’s picked up the shipment. I’m just sitting at home here with Kim Jong-il.”
“Doesn’t matter. Catch ya.”
He put the phone down and took another sip of his coffee. Images of famine were on the small screen now, North Korean peasants picking at dry, barren ground with hoes, trying to eke a living out of the dead soil.
“Jesus,” Tom muttered. “We don’t know how lucky we are.”
It was at that moment that he heard a garbled cry. It was half a shout, half a cry, actually and it was accompanied by the sound of something crashing down the back stairs. There was also a rustling of leaves that Tom would have put down to possums had it been dark outside.
“What the fuck?’ Tom said to himself as he got up and walked out onto the back deck. As he went he called out.
“You right out there mate?!”
He went to the stairway, looked down and saw a ladder lying at the bottom of it. Next to it, half on the path, half on the lawn lay Matt, the gardener.
“Jesus, mate you wanna be a bit more careful,” Tom said, going down the stairs towards him. “You could have hurt yourself. If you weren’t up to it ya should have said so.”
There was no answer from the gardener, who just lay there. Tom looked down at him, waiting for him get up and dust himself off. But he wasn’t moving.
“Mate?” Tom said. “Mate!?”
He leant down and looked at the gardener closely to check his condition. He was no doctor but the gardener’s position didn’t look good. The head was tilted at a funny angle and one of the arms was bent behind him. Tom put his finger on the man’s neck to check his pulse, held it there for a few seconds, then drew it away rather suddenly.
“Oh no, no, no,” he said. “No way! C’mon! This is fucken bullshit! What, you’re telling me you’re dead? Is that what you’re fucken telling me? I can’t believe this shit.”
He stood for a moment looking down at the man, projecting into the rest of the day, how it would play out with a dead man on his hands. An ambulance would be called, the police would be notified, the cops would come round to the house and they would draw a line of chalk around the body and seal the joint off ….no, no, no, he couldn’t have that. He was supposed to be having a quiet morning at home while his wife played tennis. Then they would go out for lunch somewhere and later in the afternoon, after he had picked up the kids from school, he would meet the boys at the warehouse to check the latest shipment. It was supposed to be a good day, a profitable day, and now it was all screwed because the dickwit who was supposed to be cleaning the gutters – a job that should have taken half an hour – had gone and fucking died on him. Never trust a man with body odour, he thought. And his breath wasn’t too hot either.
Tom shook his head. He went upstairs and grabbed one of his mobile phones.
“Boss,” a voice said.
“Tony,” Tom said. “Tony, get your arse over to my house pronto mate. I’ve got a situation here.”
“What sort of a situation?” Tony asked.
“A fucken situation which I will tell you about when you get here so don’t ask any more questions and come now. Bring Mickey the Greek with you.”
“Mickey’s still asleep,” Tony said.
“Well fucken well wake him up, promise him some souvlaki for lunch, and get over here for Christ’s sake or we’ll all be in the shit before long.”
It took them just over half an hour and Tom was angry when they arrived.
“What took ya?” he said.
“Boss, you know I can’t find my way around on the north side,” Tony said. “Why the hell did you have to go and move to Wilston? What’s wrong with West End anyway?”
“You know my wife wanted to live in a respectable suburb,’ Tom said. “Away from all the wogs and boat people.” He hadn’t wanted to move to Wilston at first. He’d never even been there before but his wife had seen this house in the newspaper and had fallen in love with it and they had done what Tom said he would never do - move to the north side of Brisbane.
Mind you it wasn’t so bad. He had even grown to like the fact that it was a bit quiet, that the streets were clean and that when you went up to the shops you never ran into any junkies or deros. The coffee wasn’t that great but you have to make sacrifices.
“Fucken boring suburb, Wilston” Mickey the Greek grunted.
“Oh, it speaks, does it?’ Tom said. “You look like shit Mickey. What have you been doing to yourself mate? You’re a wreck.”
“He’s got a girlfriend,” Tony said.
“Well I hope she’s better looking than your last one,” Tom laughed. “I never saw a girl with five o'clock shadow before.”
“Ha Ha,” Mickey responded. “What did you want us for anyway, boss?”
“I was lonely and wanted some stimulating conversation,’ Tom sneered. “Come with me.” He led them out to the back deck and over to the edge of the veranda. The two men looked out at the trees and then they looked down and did a double take, like something out of The Three Stooges.
“What the fuck?” Mickey said.
“Holy shit,” Tony added.
“Exactly,” Tom confirmed.
“What did you do to him boss?” Mickey asked.
“I didn’t fucken do anything to him you dickhead,” Tom said. ‘He fell off the fucken roof trying to get the fucken leaves out of the gutters. The fucken idiot.”
“Shit,” Tony said.
“Fuck,” Mickey added. “So what are you going to do with him boss? Have you called an ambulance?”
“It’s not so much what I am going to do with him as what you are going to do with him,” Tom said.
“Aw, boss,” Mickey wined. “We don’t want to get mixed up in this. Anyway, are you sure he’s dead? He could be stunned?”
“He looks cactus to me,” Tony insisted.
“He looks fucken cactus to me too,” Tom agreed. “Listen, it’s a quiet morning, there’s no-one around and I want to keep it that way. I don’t want no cops snooping around and if we call an ambulance the boys in blue won’t be far behind.
“And if my wife comes home and finds the emergency services and the constabulary here she’ll have my guts for garters.” It’s amazing what lengths I will go to not to upset that woman, Tom thought.
“So what do you want us to do boss?” Tony asked, resigned to the fact that he and Mickey were going to have to clean up the mess.
“It’s simple,” Tom said. “You’re going to put him in one of those big green garbage bags that he’s got there, stuff him in the back of his truck, drive it out of town somewhere and leave him there. Nobody will know what happened or where it happened or how it happened. And we haven’t done anything wrong because we didn’t kill him. It was an act of God.” The two men looked down at the body and then at each other. Tony shrugged his shoulders.
“How will we get back into town?” Mickey asked.
“Boofhead,” Tom said. “Jeez Mickey, if you had another brain it would be lonely. One of you will drive his car and the other one will follow and then just put him somewhere nice and isolated, then you just piss off back to West End. And nobody knows what happened.”
“What will you tell your wife?” Tony asked
“I’ll tell her the truth mate,” Tom smiled. “Or truth as I see it. That the guy never turned up. She only got his name from a flyer he put in the mailbox. He’s never been here before and she’s never set eyes on him so it’s no big deal.”
Mickey and Tony had gone quite pale now.
“So let’s get a fucken move on and clean this shit up,” Tom said, rubbing his hands together, even though he didn’t intend lifting a finger. “And don't forget we got a busy evening ahead of us.”
Tony and Mickey went over and stood over the gardener’s body.
“Who does this guy think he is anyway?” Tony asked. “He’s dressed like bloody Steve Irwin.”
“Yeah and he’s dead too,” Mickey grinned.
“Don’t try to be smart Mickey,” Tom said. “It doesn’t suit you. Now I’m going inside to make some calls so I can keep you blokes gainfully employed. So come and tell me when you are ready to go and keep a low profile, for Christ’s sake. Back his truck down the driveway so nobody can see you.”
Anything the pair did in broad daylight would appear suspicious. They looked like they were up to no good standing still. Tony was short and stout with muscular arms that bulged out of his black t-shirt. He wore a constant scowl on his face. Mickey was taller and always wore a blue singlet. He had thick black hair all over his shoulders and halfway down his arms and had once wrestled competitively.
So neither had any trouble with the dead weight of Matt the gardener, the poor innocent bastard who had turned up to do an honest day’s work and was now in the care of a couple of heartless body snatchers.
After stuffing him into the leaf bag Tony and Mickey carried him down the side of the house and put him in the back of his own work truck. His car keys had been attached to his belt so they had removed them. Satisfied that nobody could see them and that everything was in order Tony went back upstairs to tell Tom they were ready to go.
“You got all his stuff?” Tom asked. “There’s nothing left on the premises to show that he was ever here?”
“Well his ladder scuffed the paint work on the stairs a bit,” Tony said.
“That’s okay,” Tom said. “I’ll make up some bullshit story for the missus about that. Nothing else?”
“We cleaned up out the back there,” Tony explained. “We’ve loaded him and all his gear into the truck. So where do you want us to take him?”
“How the hell should I know,” Tom said. “Think of the last place on earth you’d like to spend eternity. Only it has to be somewhere not too far out of town. Where did you take that guy last year?”
“Out near Burpengary, in the forest,” Tony said. “That was a nasty business.” He even shuddered a little.
“Yeah, well he had it coming to him, just remember that,” Tom said. “It was either him or us and if we hadn’t sorted him someone else would have. Anyway, he was going to rat on us, the bastard. But don’t dump this bloke in the same place. You can use that forest but makes sure it’s a little way away from the last place, if you can recognise it.
“And make sure nobody sees you. Mickey, don’t take the car right up to the truck. Arrange to meet somewhere nearby after Tony’s dumped it. He can walk out to you from whatever dumping spot he finds. We don’t want the cars seen together. Got that?”
“Check,” Tony responded. “No worries.”
“Sure boss,” Mickey said, scratching his head.
“Okay,” Tom said. “Well off ya go then. And pull your heads in.”
They drove out of the driveway and turned into the quiet, leafy street. The weird thing about the streets in Wilston was that there was nobody around. In West End there’s always some bludger lurking but here it was quiet as the grave.
They swung the car onto Kedron Brook Road, drove through Wilston village, on past Grange and along Webster Road, both driving slowly, carefully, Tony in front with Mickey trailing behind, not too far, not too close.
Mickey drove with his arm out the window, smoking a cigarette but Tony, seeing him in his rear vision mirror rang him on his mobile and told him to put it in so it didn’t draw attention to himself.
“Wind your fucken window up and pull your arm in ya mug lair,” Tony said. “You’re driving along looking like a bloody criminal or somethin’. Put the cigarette out too, keep both hands on the bloody wheel and just follow me.”
“Yeah, yeah, yeah,” Mickey said. “Whatever mate. Keep your shirt on. It’s all good.”
Now the outer north of Brisbane isn’t exactly aesthetically pleasing. They drove past desiccated suburbs, baking under the hot, late morning sun, past unattractive shopping malls, light industrial wastelands and on into the parched Nowheresville beyond the city limits. Neither of the men enjoyed being this far from their home turf. It was a fine place to die but you wouldn’t want to live there.
They drove along the highway for a while, keeping in the left lane and going under the speed limit. Everything on the road passed them, trucks that had come right up to their bumper bars before veering into the next lane, tradies with ferocious dogs in the back, manic van drivers who attempted to defy gravity in vehicles that could easily be torn asunder with any household can opener. One gave the finger when he went past.
Normally this would have enraged the men and Mickey did think of giving chase and running the bloke off the road. Tony noticed him speed up and quickly rang him again and told him not to react.
“We’re supposed to be unobtrusive,” Tony said.
“Whatever that means,” Mickey replied and he meant it. Wrestling and a vocabulary didn’t go together. Eventually they veered off the highway onto a side road and drove westward. Then Tony put on the blinkers. He rang Mickey on the mobile again.
“Mate, I’m going to turn off here so you keep driving straight ahead until you get to a rest area about half a k up the road. Pull in there and wait. I’ll walk back. It will take me half an hour, so just sit tight.”
“Do you even know where the fuck we are?” Mickey said. “None of this looks familiar to me mate.”
“Yeah, yeah, I know where we are,” Tony said. “Don’t sweat it.”
Tony turned off the main road onto a dirt track that led to a nearby pine plantation while Mickey went straight ahead. After bumping along for a few minutes Tony entered the plantation, where the forest created its own dark netherworld even in the brightness of noon. There wasn’t any sign of civilization here, no-one could see him and he couldn’t see anybody. He parked the car just off the track and then wrestled the body out of the back of the truck. He slid the gardener onto the front seat then, propped him in the driver’s seat and put both his hands on the heel.
“There ya go mate,” Tony said. “Who the fuck am I talkin’ to?”
He couldn’t help noticing the man’s body odour and he pulled a face as he positioned him and propped his head back against the seat.
“A bit of underarm deodorant wouldn’t kill ya buddy,” Tony said as he worked. “There ya go mate, good as gold. Not that you give a shit.” His own black humour amused him.
Then he wiped the car down to make sure his fingerprints weren’t on anything.
Then he hiked through the forest heading back to the main road. He was careful to walk lightly on the grassy bits of ground, mindful not to leave footprints in the dirt.
Soon he and Mickey were back in their car heading back into town, feeling relieved.
“Nobody saw us?” Mickey asked, looking for reassurance.
“Nobody saw a thing,” Tony said. “They’ll find him there in a few days and the cops will be completely baffled, as usual.”
“Yeah,” Mickey laughed. “Fucken cops.’
Tom, meanwhile, was sitting overlooking the Brisbane River, having lunch at Portside Wharf in Hamilton with his wife, Therese.
There was cruise ship in and the passengers were disembarking.
“Look at those rich old bastards,” Tom said as an elderly couple wobbled down the walkway. “Half of them can’t even stand up.”
“Don’t be so cruel,” Therese said.” One day that might be you.”
“No way,” Tom disagreed. “You’ll never get me on one of those things. Bloody dangerous. Besides, the ocean’s full of rogue waves that could take one of them baby’s out no trouble.”
“You’ve been watching too much National Geographic Channel again,” Therese said as she picked at her sand crab lasagne. Just then one of Tom’s mobiles rang
“You should have turned that off,” Therese said. “Or at least put it on silent.”
“Sorry,” Tom said. “Business.”
He pointed outside and walked out the door to take the call while his wife shook her head.
“Talk to me,” Tom said.
“Everything’s sweet boss,” Tony reported. “All done and dusted.”
“Pleased to hear it,” Tom said. “And that’s the last time we’ll mention this little episode. To anyone.”
“Gotcha,” Tony agreed.
“Just call me when the stuff arrives this arvo,” Tom ordered.
He went back into lunch.
“Oh, I forgot to ask,” Therese said. “How did the garden man go with the gutters?”
“The gutters,” Therese said. “I organised for the man to come and do the gutters this morning.”
“Nah, he never turned up,” Tom replied, feigning bewilderment.
“Yeah, typical tradie,” Tom complained. “It was probably all too hard. They like easy money, these guys. Couldn’t work in an iron lung, most of them. Our roof is pretty damn steep; he probably took one look at it and just kept on driving.”
“That’s really annoying,” Therese said. “I’m going to ring him when I get home.”
“Sure,” Tom said. But he had already taken the flyer off the fridge, burnt it in an ashtray and washed the remains down the sink.
He felt relieved that the whole thing was over and that as usual, he had managed to find a way out of his dilemma without the authorities cottoning on. His old man had taught him that set of skills.
He felt relaxed, until the children arrive home from school. Then the usual mayhem erupted. Tom tried to get his youngest, Lachlan, to do his homework as soon as he got home which was pushing shit uphill.
His daughter Sophie helped her mum make a cake while his older boy Harry plonked himself in front of the computer and proceeded to take on an alien invasion with the sound up full bore. At five o’clock one of his mobiles rang.
“The eagle has landed,” a voice on the other end said. It was Tony again.
“Very theatrical,” Tom said. “I guess you mean the shit is there.”
“Yep,” Tony confirmed. “All present and accounted for.”
“Have you rung the Chink?”
“Yep, he’s cool. Says he owes you yum cha.”
“He owes me more than that,” Tom said. “Okay, well, I’ll be over there soon.”
Tom went into the kitchen.
“I just have to pop over to West End to the factory,” Tom told his wife. She raised her eyebrows.
“I won't be long,” he said.
“I’ve got to sign some papers.”
“Of course,” Therese said. “Call me when you’re on your way back. And by the way, do you know where the flyer is for the gutter-cleaning man? I'm going to ring him and find out why he never turned up.”
“No, I don’t know,” Tom said. “Don’t worry about him He’s obviously unreliable. I’ll just get someone else from the yellow pages.”
He drove to West End and heaved a sigh as he went across the William Jolly Bridge. He felt better on the south side. Must have been some sort of Feng Shui thing. He pulled up in front of the factory and went inside to find his crew there, unloading sacks from a truck.
He felt prosperous and happy.
A couple of days later Tom had forgotten all about the episode. He was having coffee at the Coffee Club at Wilston Village, grappling with the newspaper when he saw what he first thought was some sort of apparition. It was Matt the gardener. He walked up and plonked himself down at the table next to him.
He had his arm in a sling and a bandage on his head. It was definitely him. He was sure it was him. He was with another bloke and they were chatting and the gardener hadn’t noticed Tom cowering behind the newspaper. Tom dialled Tony.
“Guess who the fuck I’m lookin’ at,” Tom whispered.
‘I don’t know,” Tony said. “Elvis?”
“No, you stupid prick, the item that you disposed of in the forest out Burpengary way the other day.”
“What are you talkin’ about boss,” Tony said. “He was dead as. He’s history.”
“Well maybe not,” Tom said. “I wondered why I never heard anything about it on the news. He’s sitting down at the table right next to me at the Coffee Club. Stay close to your phone and I’ll call you back in a minute.”
Tony was worried.
Tom was beside himself. This is bad, he thought, very bad. But he wondered why, if the bloke was alive, he hadn’t called the cops and reported Tom. That was weird. But here he was large as life sitting at the Coffee Club ordering a cappuccino. Then Matt the gardener, cleaner of other people’s roof gutters, looked at Tom, nodded and smiled.
What the fuck does that mean, Tom wondered?
“Morning,” the gardener said. He smiled back. He was mortified. He’s fucking with my head, Tom thought. This guy’s playing with me. But then the gardener just went back to chatting with his mate.
“So you really don’t know what happened,” the friend asked as Tom listened in while pretending to read the paper again.
“That’s right,” the gardener said. “It’s all a blank. The last thing I remember was going to bed on Monday night. The next thing I remember after that is waking up in the middle of a pine plantation near Burpengary and I have absolutely no idea how I got there. I went to the hospital and the doctor says I've got amnesia from a fall but I can’t remember what happened.”
“Weird,” his friend said.
“Weird alright,” the gardener agreed. “The doctor said I may get my memory back or I may just lose the whole episode forever.”
Tom smiled and took a sip of his coffee.
by Phil Brown
Copyright © Phil Brown