How I will be spoken of
It was a year of firsts. My first time being sacked from a job. The first time Virginia kissed me. The first time I liked a cat. My first explosive device.
I sat. Heat curdled in air after eight hours of north winds, pressing grit and cinders through streets. The winds dropped towards evening, abrupt as a collapsed lung with its last breath. Leo and I sat in an upstairs outdoor bar through the afternoon, backs to the gusts, hunching over to light cigarettes. Leo so thin, the ink of his tattoo the heaviest part of him. “Anarchy” ran down his arm in cursive writing. Writing so graceful and looping, yet expressing a word declaring revolution and uprising.
“It’s almost finished,” he said. I tried to picture the device. Long cylinders attached to fuses. Switches and lights maybe. A battery slotted in. Crumbs from slices of toast he gnawed while assembling. If I dabbed the tip of a finger to my tongue, then picked up and tasted those crumbs what would the flavour be? Probably peanut butter salting down the groove of my tongue, recurring later when I flossed. “Are you sure about where to place it?” he added.
I nodded. Said over there’s why we’re doing this. From the corners of my eyes I watched Leo shuffle his body to follow my gaze. Bushfire haze smudged across horizons, grey as a rain shadow.
“Nothing works,” he muttered in that low voice that often left me asking him to repeat what he’d said. “Not online petitions. Not letters to your local member. Not phone calls. Not buying two or three shares so you can go along and disrupt some mining giant’s annual general meeting.”
I didn’t need to hear it. Knew the last six years were amongst the hottest recorded. Koalas predicted to be extinct by 2050. Seventeen million hectares of forest lost to fires last year. The inevitably rising seas and disappearance of more species. The likelihood of heating temperatures surpassing worst scenarios. The silence political donations bought. All that surprised me now was people’s complacency, saying it’s part of a natural cycle, there’s nothing to worry about, civilisation won’t end in my lifetime.
Leo stood, asking me if I wanted another beer. I nodded and smiled, feeling lightly anaesthetised from alcohol and glaring sun. Listened to his halting steps away, zig-zagging towards the bar. In the distance smoke lay through the skies like brushstrokes.
“They won’t get away with this,” I said as he returned. A beer banged down in front of me. Our table soaked with small puddles of spilt drinks and saturated coasters. Leo started speaking, taking me through how the device would be triggered by the mobile. He said he’d ensure that I left the building before detonating. He joked I could even order a double shot latté on the way out. I stopped listening there. Started looking across the bar at couples, heads bowed together, whispering, kissing so lightly it wouldn’t be felt past skin pores.
I walked through loud conversations downstairs. Maybe words snagged in my shirt, the way cigarette smoke did, or Moroccan cooking smells if I lingered in the kitchen when Virginia and I cooked. I swerved into the white hot street, sprinting across the road to a tram. I gripped the bars inside like a trapeze artist as it veered around corners. Down a lane my share house squatted on collapsing stumps, fine cracks through the walls like pictures of lightning strikes. Within a year we’d probably be evicted if it didn’t fall down first.
Virginia’s cat dragged its ribs along the side of my leg. I bent and picked it up, hanging loosely and warm across my hand.
“She likes you,” Virginia said. “We both do.” The cat turned calm eyes towards me and I stroked its back. Small bones arched into the palm of my hand.
I went to my room. Sat on the bed hard under me, its dipping mattress night after night waking me every time I turned over. Studied the insides of my hands meshed with lines. The hands that would carry the device into the building. I’d lay it like a foundation stone, except it would be a stone to build rage, an overthrowing, and turmoil; ultimately it would be the change this society desperately needed. People would talk about me the way Martin Luther King was spoken of.
Door knocking rapped into my room. Virginia came in, sitting next to me. She asked what it was Leo and I planned. She kept hearing our whispered conversations in his room, she said, our words muffled through thin walls. She placed her hand on my leg, fingertips pressing into tendons. Virginia said being with me was like being with two people, like twins joined at the hip but she only slept with one while the other remained a stranger, forever turned away.
“Leo finished his IT studies and needs a job,” I said. “He’s obsessing over where he’ll find it. Maybe there’s a vacancy available hacking into bank accounts.” I wanted to tell Virginia our plan, but Leo said the less people who knew the better. Plus, if anything went wrong, Virginia could be implicated for knowing. It was a shame, Virginia was as much an activist as I was. It’d started for her when walking through a clear-felled forest. There was no birdsong. No hum of insects. No leaves moving in breezes. That was the moment her activism began. Virginia leant into me, kissing slowly, the lines of her fingers cupping my face.
Leo slid the device out from under his bed. With the humidity, the room felt smaller around me the way shirts did after hot water washes. I had no idea how the device worked. What the wires joined to, and the purpose of the tape wrapping around them. I only noticed how Leo’s face changed as he studied it. He traced the length of a black wire as if finger painting, nodding to himself.
“Double revenge, isn’t it?” he said. “They blow up the countryside and now that’s what will happen to them. Plus they sack you, and we’ll also punish them for that.”
I recalled that day. A manager sat me behind a desk, cold under my elbows. A question of motivation, he said. Told me I’d started well in their employment, showing enthusiasm and reliability. But something had broken down. He paused when telling me that, as if I might explain what had happened, I didn’t reply, but had a reason, tucked away deeply like clods of tissues jammed down into the bottoms of pockets. Four months in I stopped believing in their work of habitat destruction. At the time the change swept through me, like deserting religion.
“You’re on probation so we can let you go,” he said. “You’ll need to drop back your phone and laptop.”
“Perfect,” Leo said the next day. “When you return your laptop it’ll be like leaving behind the chains they kept you in. Most important, you’ll be able to leave them our little gift. It’s nearly finished. Shouldn’t be severe enough to kill anyone. Unless someone has a heart attack.”
I’d hardly slept. Even with the warmth of Virginia’s back, her heat so absorbed into me it was as if I’d received a transfusion of her blood. Her shoulders pressed out from her back like keels on a boat. I swung out of bed, walking swiftly through the house to Leo’s room.
“You and Virginia. Will it be an outdoor wedding?”
“Where is it?” I said.
He reached under the bed, passing the device to me. “I’ll wait for you to go through those front doors. Then I’ll activate it and dump the mobile. Keep the mask on and try not to be seen by anyone but the guy on the desk. And keep it concealed under the laptop. Don’t use the toilet while planting it. Who knows, they may find your DNA.” I nodded impatiently.
I stood across the road from where I once worked. Shadows angled along bitumen. A tram bell clanged. I thought of the people I used to work with, probably on their third coffee by now, moving like moths inside a chrysalis behind squares of tinted windows. I stepped off the kerb, my foot mid-air a long time before it finally came down.
Peter Farrar is an Australian writer. He has failed at accountancy, carpentry, car maintenance, cleaning out roof gutters and most sports. Writing is his last chance, really.
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