Jan '03 [Home]


The Fruits of Courage
by Russell Griffin

Jason was getting his nerve back.
          There was no particular thing he could say had caused this to happen. He was still living in the two rooms on the top floor of the old red brick block.
          The carpet was as darkly stained and musty as when he had moved in. The grimy cream paint was lifting more on the wall that leaked from the roof during rainfalls. The lights on the balconies and stairwells had not been repaired.
          Money was hard to come by but his stomach was filled. That was no big deal because he knew his gut had shrunk for lack of food, and he did not like what filled the knot that was left. So it wasn't any of that made him feel better.
          Perhaps it was because the guy on the second floor in No. 5, the one who went round setting fire to people's balcony planters, or their cycles, was taken away. Jason would have liked a planter, like old Ron's at No. 8.
          It was also true he had started being sociable. He talked with the young Filipino guy in No. 2, front ground. He was bringing up three little daughters in a place the same size as Jason's. This made him a little ashamed.
          And then it came to him what was missing. The young couple next door to him no longer played out their drama.
          The architects had sited No. 11's bedroom window at right angles beside the door of No. 12. It was bad enough anyone rattling the key in his sleeping ear, and their laughing and joking as they stood on the narrow balcony smoking.
          But the boy, Matthew, was worst. He would come back drunk early in the morning and stand at the weathered door yelling out for Skye to let him in. She wouldn't and then he would yell out how he was trying to help her be straight. It was always the same, and then two fists and two feet would hammer a violent tattoo on the door. Jason was afraid even to close the window.
          Skye wasn't so smart in her choice of boyfriends, Jason thought as he lay in the bed tensed at the vibration of the angry voice and the rhythmic hammerings not a metre from his head. She was smart enough to have the lease in her name and to keep the keys.
          One night Jason had got so scared of what the boy was doing he slid out the end of the bed and scuttled on his hands and knees into the other room to the emergency-only phone.
          The operator answered, 'Hello, Jason,' which terrified him nearly as much as the boy yelling outside. In the musty darkness his dry whisper asked how they knew his name. The operator ignored him and asked what was he calling about.
          He told her about the boy. She asked Jason how he was and he said frightened, when he really meant scared shitless. The operator said someone would be there in a while.
          Maybe that call had helped him feel better. A patrol car came round, its light flashing silently on the concrete parks below. Two policemen walked up the six flights of stairs.
          Matthew was so absorbed in what he was doing he did not stop until they were standing just about outside the Jason's door. He had been peeking out through the moth-eaten orange curtain. Now he leaned against the wall in his pyjama shorts, sweating and tense, dreading an official knock on his door, and then to see
          Matthew's hot blank stare that meant a beating when the law had gone.
          But the police did not knock and say, "Good morning, Jason, is this the young punk you complained about?" Nothing like that. They talked in measured tones to the boy, one with his arms crossed, the other's hand resting on her gun butt.
          Electric blue glinted off windows and badges, and polished shoes angled against the balcony railing. Jason was careful to keep his face concealed behind the curtain.
          Matthew had had enough of whatever earlier in the night that he denied Jason's report. He kept repeating that the girl had refused to let him get his 400-watt stereo. Skye must have been listening behind the door. She opened it and said he could take the effing thing and himself. He wanted to stay. She said no, all in words that ended in -ing.
          That's when Matthew left, protesting about his stereo and Skye and justice. The cops followed him. Next day, Matthew's mate Wayne came round and picked up the stereo and his clothes.
          After that, the bedroom window stayed closed for a week and Jason prayed that he wouldn't get set on by Matthew and his mates. Finally, Jason tired of being afraid. He opened the window anytime he was there. He liked that. It helped conceal the musty smell, and there was a breath of air when the brickwork and the concrete heated to its summer furnace capacity.
          Yes, his nerves were getting better. Skye passed him in the stairwell one day and asked if he was the arsehole who had ratted on Matthew? He said he was and he thought she'd be grateful. She told him he was an old shit and pushed past down the staircase. Strangely, her ingratitude didn't both him. In fact, he straightened his shoulders and took the stairs up two at a time.
          He began buying pieces of fresh fruit and vegetables. He even stopped blaming himself for not having the courage to fossick in the mini-mart's garbage skip when they weren't looking.

(Russell Griffin, 58, has been an international journalist, PR manager, bus driver and teacher. He is trying his hand at short stories after five years on his first novel, an adventure romance that links California and the Australian Outback with terrorism and greed. He has just begun his second novel.)