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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Literary Fiction  |  House: Booksie Classic
The first of nearly 20 short stories I wrote about life on unemployment benefit in a country (Australia) where the unemployed are treated like murderers on death row.

Submitted: December 20, 2010

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Submitted: December 20, 2010



Nearly a hundred people were crammed into the small room.They stood, leant against the walls, or sat upon the floor with their backs against the dirty, peeling wallpaper, dressed in shorts, faded jeans, or skirts and tie-dyed T-shirts, sipping cheap red wine and nibbling Salada biscuits.A low wattage, naked bulb hung down from the ceiling, looking like a caricature of a noose.The small, four-paned window admitted bursts of light intermittently, whenever the sun broke through the thick blanket of black clouds.
‘A great day for a march!’ thought Chris Smith.But then he decided that anything would be better than sitting round inside the gloomy room.
Chris felt silly sitting upon the floor with the others, but he had agreed to join in the march a week earlier, and couldn’t find any way to back out now.Still, he wondered why they couldn’t at least have a few chairs, or even beanbags, so he didn’t have to feel childish sitting upon the floor.Of course that was the whole point of the rally: if they could afford to live in comfort, there would be nothing for them to protest about.Still, they sat around upon the carpet sipping wine and filling themselves full of dry biscuits and onion dip.Perhaps it would have been better to settle for coffee or tea, so they could afford to save up to buy some second-hand deck chairs from the Footscray Auctions.Of course, the Out of Work Peoples’ Action Group only borrowed theroom from the local tech school, so they didn’t want to buy heavy furniture, but Chris couldn’t see how a few deck chairs would hurt.
Looking round, Chris seemed to see himself in a painting; something dark and sinister.‘Sitting around in the dying room! would be a good title!he thought.‘And Pablo Picasso the painter.Who else?’
In the middle of the room, a metres and a half from where Chris sat, stood the organisers of the march: Tina Forrester, or Tiny Tina as she was known behind her back, was almost, but not quite a dwarf, at 120 centimetres tall, and barely 40 kilograms in weight.The other teachers at the technical school teased her, saying she was one teacher who could really see eye-to-eye with her pupils.Chris had always felt an almost overwhelming urge to call her “kid”.But he had gradually come to accept that she was an adult, and had the power to make him repeat a year at school.Henry Potter was the “dominant male” of the trio, although he would be the first person to object to the idea of being group leader solely as a result of an accident of gender.A conscientious objector during the Vietnam War in the 1960s and early ’70s, he still wore the long ponytail and pirate earring popularised by Billy Thorpe in the 1960s.Although nowadays Potter supported equal opportunity for women in the work force, gay liberation, land-rights for Aborigines, and a better deal for pensioners and the unemployed.He was also an active anti-nuclear campaigner and was credited with having coined the expression, “No Nukes is Good Nukes!”Gabrielle Provost had been Chris’ fourth form English teacher a few years ago.At 190 centimetres, with shiny black hair which hung down to the start of her prominent backside, and breasts so large it looked as though she were hugging herself whenever she reached around them to write on the blackboard, Gabrielle had been the technical school’s resident sex symbol for nearly a decade.Chris always thought it would be more appropriate for Gabrielle to teach sex education, or at the very least biology, rather than English.
“Right, is everyone ready?” asked Henry marshalling his troops for the march.“The buses are ready now; they’ll take us to the City, where we’ll join up with the others for the march....”
Chris sat for a moment longer than the others, mulling over a conversation he’d had a few hours ago with his stepmother, Norma.“What do you hope to achieve like this?” she had asked; “you should be out looking for work, or doing your homework from night school!” “Well you’re always telling me I should get out more, to meet people my own age,” he had joked. “Yes, I know, but not this kind of people...They just aren’t your kind of people!”
“Are you coming, Chris?” asked sultry Gabrielle.
‘Just one look at you is enough to make me come!’ thought Chris.Then for a terrible moment he thought he’d said it aloud.
“Here, let me give you a hand,” she offered, reaching down to help pull him to his feet.He staggered a little and for a moment considered “accidentally” falling against her, but then decided it would be a little too obvious.
Outside, climbing the two steps up into the coach, Chris felt a touch of déjà vu, remembering back to his school days when the bus had pulled up in almost exactly the same spot to take them on a day’s outing to Luna Park, the Royal Botanical Gardens, or Healesville Wildlife Sanctuary.And as Henry Potter stood in the centre aisle to give his final address to the marchers before departure, Chris half expected him to lead them in a few choruses of Tie Me Kangaroo Down Sport, or Kookaburra Sits on the Old Gum Tree.But then he decided that Blowin’ in the Wind, or We Shall Not Be Moved, might be more appropriate from a man with a ponytail halfway down his back.
Instead Henry detailed the course of the march: from Spencer Street Station, down Lonsdale Street to Spring Street, where they would voice their feelings in front of Parliament House for three hours, then down Collins Street and back to the buses.
‘Here comes the big moment!’ thought Chris as the bus finally pulled up in the car park outside Spencer Street Station.
“What’s your fancy, Chris?” asked Gabrielle, two minutes later.
Chris almost told her.Then, reluctantly he turned to look toward where she was facing, watching Henry and the other group leaders who had assembled a few metres away to distribute the banners.
“How about ‘WORK FOR ALL!’ or ‘RIGHTS FOR THE UNEMPLOYED!’?” she asked, looking through the banners.“Or how about this one?” she asked, stooping to pick up a banner which lay on the ground beside one of the buses.
“Great, great,” said Chris, watching intently as the short skirt rode higher and higher, revealing ever greater expanses of Gabrielle’s lightly tanned thighs.“Fantastic!” he said, wondering whether he had gone too far.
“I’m so glad you like it as much as I do,” she said.“This is one of the ones that I thought up.”She held up a banner which said: “SACK BOSSES!NOT WORKERS!”
“Let me give you a hand with that,” offered Chris, seeing that she was staggering beneath the weight of the heavy, wooden banner.
“Yes, it is a bit heavy,” she agreed as Chris steadied the banner.“I tell you what, how about going halves with me?”
“Sure,” said Chris, “that’d be fine.”
As they marched down Lonsdale Street, as best they could, staggering beneath the weight of the banners they carried, Chris tried to conjure up an opening gambit to start a conversation with Gabrielle.He wondered if he should compliment her on how lovely she looked?She always did, with her long, shiny black hair, high cheeks, and full-lipped Cupid’s bow mouth.No wonder the boys in her class went around the school yard with permanent erections.Or perhaps Chris could compliment her on her figure?Certainly it was attractive: the sort of hourglass figure which all women had aspired to in the days before emancipation became another name for emaciation.
But as it was Chris didn’t have the makings of a lady-killer, or a bird-eater as they had said in the late 1980s.He had only ever dated two girls in his life.The first, a cousin from Queensland, had been more of a favour to an aunt than a real date.They had gone to a discotheque in South Melbourne, where, after less than an hour, the girl had left with another boy who she had picked up.Six months later they bad married and Chris had been left out in the cold.The second girl was Cindi Cooper.Chris and Cindi had dated together for nearly two years before splitting up recently, but again their first date had been arranged for them.By Cindi’s brother Larry, who Chris had gone to school with.Although opposites (Larry the trendy with yellow and green dyed, close-cropped hair; Chris the ultraconservative, wearing his black hair at the old-fashioned shoulder length), the two youths had been close mates.When he discovered that Chris’ half-sisters, Colleen and Rosemary Bennett were friends of his sister, Larry had more-or-less thrust Chris and Cindi together.Then Chris found himself on the outer again, after an argument with Cindi about her going to a rock concert with another boy, and Chris was forced to do his own dirty work for the first time, without really knowing how to go about it.
He supposed Gabrielle must like him, since she had arranged for them to march together.But then he supposed she liked a lot of her former pupils, without wanting to go to bed with any of them.And perhaps, he decided, she had noticed how out of place he felt, and had set out to help put him at his ease.
Chris didn’t want to overstep and put his foot in his mouth.Gabrielle had taken a lot of caterwauling and wolf-whistles from the boys in her classes during Chris’ school days.Usually with good humour, however, she had been known to put students smartly in their place at times.On one occasion, when a particularly lecherous boy had dared to pat her playfully on the backside in class, Gabrielle had retaliated by brandishing a thick, wooden, metre ruler.She had missed the boy by centimetres, but the ruler had connected with the laminated top of his desk with a crack like a rifle shot.Even Chris, sitting four rows behind the boy had almost jumped out of his skin.The boy himself had gone as white as a sheet and had almost fainted.For nearly a month afterwards the wolf calls had been unknown in Gabrielle’s classes and around the school corridors.
As the marchers continued along Lonsdale Street, Chris couldn’t help thinking of the Anzac Day marches he had attended as a boy.His Uncle Bill, his mother Beth’s older brother, had been a member of the second-fifth infantry battalion during World War Two, so as a child Chris had been allowed to march in the Anzac Day parade down Swanston Street alongside his uncle.Chris could still remember the pride he had felt at the time, at being told one year that he was the only one marching in step.
‘The big difference,’ thought Chris, ‘was the reception they received.’The Anzacs were greeted with cheers, or at worst with stony-faced indifference.Whereas angry Melburnians lined the footpaths on both sides of the road to hurl abuse at the Out of Work Peoples’ Action Group as they marched down the centre of the road.
“Bludgers go home!” shouted an old man, whose frail body belied the strength of the anger that welled up inside him at the sight of the marchers.
“You ought to be out looking for work, not marching down the road like drongos!” shouted a middle-aged housewife, in the City to do her weekly shopping.
Chris felt naked beneath the glare of thousands of angry eyes.He tried to remember whether it had been George Orwell or Aldous Huxley who had said that in a crowd people lose all trace of humanity and revert to animals.
For the umpteenth time Chris wondered what he was doing in the rally, marching with people he barely knew.He remembered his half-sister, Colleen, telling him, “Demonstrating is strictly a middle-class preoccupation.The upper class never demonstrate, because invariably their callousness has caused whatever the demonstration is about.And the working class simply doesn’t have the time to demonstrate; we’re too busy trying to keep a roof over our heads and get some kind of food to eat!”
‘Perhaps she’s right?’ thought Chris.‘Everyone says Collie is the brains in our family, and as she says, what has demonstrating ever really achieved?The Aborigines are still treated like animals, the unemployed, disabled, and age pensioners like lepers, Victorian classrooms still have forty to fifty students per teacher, and nuclear reactors are still being built...So what has protesting ever achieved?’
So what was he doing at the rally, he wondered.Admittedly he was sharing a banner with the woman of his wet dreams, but he wondered if he was such an unashamed sex maniac that he would take part in a rally, suffering the abuse of the jeering crowd, just for a chance to chat up a beautiful woman?He stole another glance at Gabrielle’s gorgeous, full-lipped face, and melon-sized breasts, and legs which seemed to go on forever and decided, ‘Yes, yes I am such an unashamed sex maniac!’
Like his half-sister, Colleen, Chris considered marches a waste of time, but he couldn’t pass up a chance to be near Gabrielle.Even if he hadn’t split up with Cindi, and Gabrielle hadn’t invited him to march beside her, he would have found some excuse to march near her.Or at least behind her, so that he could drool over the sight of her wonderful buttocks in motion as she walked.Chris had never seen the beautiful teacher naked, as much as he had dreamt of it, but he had seen her from behind in skin-tight jogging shorts and thought, ‘An anal-erotic would kill for a look at Gabrielle naked from behind!’
Chris was relieved to see that at last they had reached Parliament House.Now, hopefully, he would be able to fade into the background, while Henry Potter and the other group leaders took over the limelight.
As they crossed Spring Street, heading toward Parliament House, Chris could see a dozen or so police cars parked upon the lawns around the building.In front of the cars stood nearly a hundred policemen, -women, and -dogs.
“Could we have all the group leaders up the front, now?” called out Henry.
“Do you want we to take the banner?” asked Chris as Gabrielle started toward the front of the crowd.
“No come on, you can stand up the front with me,” she said to Chris’ horror, as he found himself more prominent than ever.
As they walked up beside him, she explained to Henry, “Chris is helping to carry my banner.”
“Good on you, Chris,” said Henry, giving him a hearty pat on the back.
After a few moments the crowd settled down a bit and Lennie Dean, an arts instructor, moved toward the front of the group leaders.Dean wore short back and sides, granny glasses, and a once expensive black suit, which looked and probably was at least twenty years old.
As Dean began to speak, a heckler in the crowd called out, “I haven’t seen a demo this big since the night they drove old Dixie down!”
Ignoring the heckler, Dean said, “I’m sure you know why we’re here...”
“If we don’t, I’m sure you’ll tell us!” called the heckler, to the snickers of the large crowd which had begun to gather around the demonstrators.
“We don’t want any special favours from the government, we just want a fair go,” said Dean, slamming his right fist into his left palm for emphasis.“And we haven’t been getting it.We’re tired of being treated like the dregs of society!”
“Then why don’t you stop acting like it?” demanded the heckler.
“Would someone please throw that piece of trash into the nearest gutter, where it belongs?” asked Dean, pointing toward the heckler.
As four marchers stepped forward to comply, the heckler quickly backed away into the crowd.And Henry Potter stepped up to say, “Now, now, Lennie, there’s no need to sink down to his level.”
But too late; a dozen police officers had already rushed forward to protect the heckler.
At first only a minor fracas broke out between the police and the marchers.But then, in the heat of the moment the police began swinging their batons indiscriminately, and, as marchers fell to the bitumen concussed, some with blood streaming from ugly gashes in cheeks or foreheads, the battle began in earnest.Within minutes three hundred demonstrators and one hundred police were brawling.
Although outnumbered three-to-one, the police, using batons, were able to more than hold their own against the marchers, who used only fists and banners (which for the most part were too unwieldy to be much use as weapons).
Marchers fell by the score and were trampled underfoot, much to the pleasure of the onlooking crowd.After awhile, fearing they were losing ground, the police unleashed their dogs.Men and women alike were savaged by the dogs, which had been carefully trained to bring out their killer instincts.Blood streamed from torn thighs, bellies and arms.One teenage girl had a cheek almost torn away from her face, blood gushed from the gaping wound which made the girl appear to be grinning from ear-to-ear, with the teeth revealed to the gums on one side of her face.The girl fainted from the shock, before the pain could set in, and was dragged out of the melee, by the feet, by her boyfriend.Who was then cudgelled unconscious from behind by a young, redheaded policewoman, who then stepped backward and felt her heel sink into something soft.
Looking down she saw that the heel had sunk into the eyeball of a man of forty, who lay unconscious on the footpath. She quickly extracted her heel, then returned to the battle, eyes shining from excitement.
At the front of the crowd Henry Potter moved about, waving his hands around, calling for order.He was felled from behind by a policeman who then moved on to cudgel two teenage girls who were standing in the crowd watching the brawl.
Gabrielle and Chris sped into action to drag Henry out from under the feet of the brawlers.
“Take his left arm, I’ll take his right,” instructed Gabrielle and they dragged Henry out of the melee, toward the steps of Parliament House.
In the distance came the sound of sirens, as more than a dozen paddy-wagons sped toward the scene.
As the paddy-wagons pulled up, the police quickly retreated from the fracas, so that tear gas pellets could be fired into the marchers.One pellet exploded directly into the face of a youth, who ran about wildly, screaming and beating at his face with his hands, until finally collapsing from the pain.
Donning gas masks the police moved back into the crowd and led or carried the demonstrators across to the paddy-wagons.The most seriously injured were taken by ambulance to whatever suburban hospitals could make room for them.
Gabrielle and Chris sat on the steps outside Parliament House, nursing Henry Potter, watching as the police rounded up the demonstrators.
“You too!” ordered a young policeman, standing over them, tapping his baton menacingly in his left palm.
“We can’t leave our friend, he’s been hurt!” said Chris, with a boldness which he didn’t feel.He found himself entranced, unable to take his eyes away from the sight of the heavy baton, as it continued to tap-tap-tap against the young officer’s palm in half second intervals.
“He’ll be taken care of...Now are you two coming along of your own accord, or what?” demanded the policeman.He tapped the baton noticeably harder into his palm, leaving no doubt what “or what” would entail.
Two ambulance men ran across to place Henry onto a stretcher, so Gabrielle stood, and to Chris’ relief, said, “Come on Chris, we’d better go with him.”And they allowed themselves to be herded into the back of the nearest paddy-wagon, which raced away, siren shrilling, toward Russell Street Police Station.
© Copyright 2010
Philip Roberts

© Copyright 2018 Philip Roberts. All rights reserved.

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