The Painful Art of Wrestling

Fiction
Simon Barker


John sat in a pew in the Catholic church with his brother and sister and watched his mother get married for the second time. The service was conducted by Father Patrick who carried the stub of a hand-rolled cigarette wedged behind his ear. John’s uncle, Sid, was giving away the bride. Sid was a detective sergeant and he was wearing one of the shiny suits he normally wore to work. Sheila, the bride, was dressed in white. Sid had insisted she wear white because her first wedding had been in the registry office and she’d worn a brown suit. Sid hadn’t forgiven her. This time would be different. As the service progressed John noticed his mother inching further and further away from Roger, the man she was being married to. Roger was wearing his police uniform.

John sat very still. Next to him his little brother, Greggie, giggled and during one of the hymns undid the buttons of his fly. Normally John would have punched him. But before he had a chance the baby started screaming and his sister, Chrissie, had to push past him to carry it outside where its scream wouldn’t compete with Father Patrick’s emphysemic voice.

Once the service was over it turned out that there weren’t enough cars. John and the other kids waited on the church steps in the sun while the adults drove off to the RSL club for the reception. They waited there on their own for what seemed like hours. None of them could tell how long because they had no watch. John thought they’d been dumped. When they were finally brought to the club the adults were drunk. A band was playing and somebody was singing Moon River.

“Aren’t we all having bonza time?”the compère asked at the end of the song. They were all having a bonza time.

John sat in a corner of the club while Greggie helped himself to a schooner of beer he found on a window ledge. Chrissie walked about the carpet holding the baby like a pet pig. Father Patrick fed money into the poker machines as if he was dispensing liturgical wafers. John watched his uncle—pink in the face from Dinner Ale—propose a toast to the New South Wales Police Force. The wedding party posed for the police photographer and the scene made a picture like the paintings on glass outside pubs.

As soon as the reception was done, John’s mother flew to the Gold Coast for five days of honeymooning. In their mother’s absence Sid took the kids back to the house in Victoria Street where they’d been living since their father died. They were each allowed one bag. Sid waited while they packed. Then he drove them along Oxford Street and through Paddington to Roger’s house in Bondi and introduced them to the housekeeper he’d hired, Mrs Richards. Mrs Richards was a bloody old bag and Greggie told her so. But she didn’t take telling. She grabbed hold of Greggie’s ear and dragged him to the bathroom where she washed out his mouth with soap. John had heard adults say, Wash your mouth out with soap, when a child had used a swear word, but he’d never known it to be done so he was impressed. If it had been Chrissie’s mouth he would have kicked Mrs Richards in the shins and made her stop but since it was Greggie he didn’t bother. Greggie annoyed him, even though he was right about Mrs Richards.

The other thing Sid managed during the honeymoon was to hire two men with a flat-topped truck. They turned up one morning at the unoccupied house in Victoria Street. Over the years Bill had pretty much filled the place full with his collection of stuff—his books, his photos, his pamphlets, his banners, his old copies of Tribune and Australasian Post, the paintings he’d been given by various people as well as paintings of his own for which there was no longer any room in the cellar of the pub where he’d painted them. A great load of rubbish, Sid called it. Sid gave instructions to the men that it was all to be taken to the tip, even Bill’s clothes. They could flog off the furniture for what they could get, but first they had to clear out the rubbish. Sid gave the cat an almighty kick so that it skidded down the yard to the back fence and scrambled away. If there was one thing he couldn’t stand it was blasted cats.

Sheila looked very unwell when she returned. Chrissie asked her what was the matter and she said there was nothing the matter, she was fine. She got stung by a jellyfish when she was swimming. That was why she had the mark. But it didn’t hurt. It looked bad but it didn’t hurt.

Mrs Richards was paid in cash and left in a taxi for the racetrack. “Did you have a good time while I was away?” Sheila asked the kids. The kids looked at her blankly. They had never known their mother to make jokes before.

Sheila and her new husband slept in the front bedroom of the three-bedroom Bondi house. The back bedroom was for Roger’s gymnasium. There he kept a set of dumbbells and a punching bag that swayed eerily from a chain. The walls of the gym room were painted black and the door was locked, even when he was inside. John said this was to stop anyone seeing him use his skipping rope. But nobody asked him why he kept the door shut. That left the middle room for the kids. They slept in bunks, except for the baby who was not out of his cot.

Bill, Sheila’s first husband, hadn’t been much for routines. He’d get up early and go to work when he had to. But some days he didn’t get up at all and other days he’d get up but there was no work to go to. The building industry was like that.

Roger was different. Roger always got out of bed in the dark and exercised for an hour in his gym. After that he’d eat a steak and three eggs. Then he showered and shaved and brushed his teeth. Having dressed in his uniform, he left the house and unlocked the garage. Inside the garage he kept a bass drum that belonged to the New South Wales Police Band. Roger never claimed to be musical, but he’d got it into his head that banging the bass drum would tone up his forearms and that would improve his right cross, which used to be the weak point in his repertoire of punches. His right cross was a beauty now. He’d bought himself a record player too. He’d drop his favourite disk onto the platter, grab the mallets and off he’d go.

By the end of each practise John would be stretched flat on his mattress with a pillow over his head. The baby would be screaming. Sheila would be thinking about having a migraine, and Greggie would be out of bed on the linoleum marching on the spot in his striped pyjamas.

Roger left the house unannounced. At night his routine was reversed. The banging came before the punching. The rest of his time he spent watching TV and drinking coke. He liked to rest in his La-Z-Boy Reclina-Rocker, his feet propped on the cantilevered extension. Sheila would fetch him a tray with a family-sized bottle and one of his favourite tall glasses, one decorated with line drawings of boxers. The Coca-Cola Company was running a competition at that time. Roger would prize off the cap with his teeth and then gouge out the cork lining to expose a hidden name. Whoever found two matching names was a lucky winner. Hardy and Laurel. Costello and Abbott. Juliet and Romeo. Roger’s unmatched caps were kept in an album waiting for their partners. Roger tested each glass against his cheek. He kept them refrigerated. If the chill wasn’t biting he’d bellow for a replacement. “Always take the one at the back of the fridge. Remember that.”

Sheila had never been much chop as a cook, but it hardly mattered. Roger shovelled down whatever he was given. If it was baked and if it had once been four legged it would do. Coke was the only thing he fussed over.

After a week or two John considered the situation his mother had got them into and decided that life stank. Even school was better than home now. After the last school bell instead of going home he’d wander down to the sub-branch of the city library with his friend, David, and sit with the old men who slumped behind their newspapers and coughed. In the dusty silence the pair of them would piss away their time flicking through war magazines. Once the library had closed they’d wander back to David’s house in Brougham Street. Sometimes John would stay there for dinner. Dinner would always be curry. David’s father never cooked anything else but curry and his mother never cooked. His mother was usually at work or if she wasn’t at work she was too drunk to cook. John would catch the bus back to Bondi.

If Roger noticed him missing dinner, he didn’t say. As far as Roger was concerned he could starve, just so long as he took care of the drum. That was the thing Roger had told him was the most important. It was John’s job each night to take the instrument down from its rack in the garage and rub its lacquered shell with a lamb’s wool pad dabbed in beeswax then polish the silver plaque with Silvo. An engraving on the plaque recorded the generosity of the drum’s donor, Col. E. Campbell. Roger inspected John’s polishing during the television commercials. He fitted his black-framed spectacles and flared his nostrils. If the plaque’s reflection wasn’t sharp enough for him to count his nose hairs he’d order John to repolish it. John grew to hate Col. E. Campbell.

The weekends were the worst. Roger would turn the TV up loud and tune into the wrestling. Saturday was the day of wrestling. Often Greggie watched with him, but from a mat a few feet off to the side of the La-Z-Boy, avoiding at all costs crossing Roger’s line of sight. Roger’s line of sight was a deadly beam capable of searing him in two.

On one Saturday morning during the wrestling Chrissie came bouncing home from the local tennis court, her hair stuck to her forehead with sweat. She was terrifically excited. She’d just played her regular match and she’d won. It was normal for her to win. But this time she’d won against one of the boys. The boy’s friends had laughed at him and he’d thrown a tantrum and the coach had run after him to sooth his feelings, but not before saying to her, out of everyone else’s hearing, “You’re a champ, Love. Keep it up.” When she came into the lounge room she was so excited she almost stepped into Roger’s deadly beam and only pulled back at the last second by squeaking her toes on the linoleum and hopping two-footed in reverse. Roger frowned without turning his head. She mouthed silently to Greggie to come outside so she could boast to him about the match. But he refused to leave the wrestling. She went into the bedroom and told John, but it wasn’t satisfying because he didn’t take his head up from his book and probably wasn’t listening. So she went out again and started tapping a ball against the side of the house. She couldn’t help herself. She was wound up. She swivelled about and slammed the ball at the garage door making it rattle. It was too good not to let anyone know. After three loud impacts Roger shouted from the TV room.

“Cut it out!”

But Chrissie didn’t hear. In her fantasy she was serving for the match. Greggie could see her through the window walking back to the gate.

Wack.

“Ace!” he heard his sister call out.

The final rattle must have broken Roger’s beam. He left his chair, went outside and made a careful inspection of the roller door while Chrissie bounced from one foot to the other halfway up the drive. Then he strode towards her and grabbed the racket. “Are you deaf?”

“No,” she said, puzzled.

He walked back inside. A minute later he re-emerged with the racket and with three silver trophies. They were the trophies that had been presented to his stepdaughter for victory in the district under-eleven, under-twelve and under-thirteen years girls’ tennis competitions. They were ugly, cheap bits of silver-coated plastic. But they were more precious than anything else in the world to their owner. Roger lined them on the concrete drive in front of her and for a second they both stared at the things in silence, the three little silver girls in flowing tennis skirts, frozen in time as they rushed to return a ball.

Then Roger stomped on them. Chrissie watched in disbelief while he stomped on each statuette until it was in bits. He gripped the Dunlop Junior Champion tennis racket. It was her last ever birthday present from her dead father. Never mind that it was stolen merchandise. She had used it every Saturday. Roger gripped it in his horrible great hand and volleyed the concrete repeatedly, until he’d reduced the gift to a flail, then tossed it over the neighbours’ fence. Chrissie started wailing. Roger walked back to the TV room, sat down and gouged the cork from another Coke cap.

Romeo, the hidden message said.

He smiled, opened his album, found the cap with the name of Romeo’s true love in it and popped the pair of them into his fob. There’d be a prize for him next week.

Outside Chrissie went into hysterics. She sat on her arse and cried her eyes out. Whether she expected anyone to come to her aid or not, nobody paid any attention. Greggie didn’t hear, John kept reading and Sheila made herself voluntarily deaf from anxiety. In the end Chrissie collected the bigger trophy pieces—the broken limbs, the half a pedestal and the torso—gathered them in the front of her skirt and retreated to her bedroom where she sat quietly sobbing on one of the bottom bunks. John lay on top doing his English homework. He hadn’t registered when Roger had entered a few moments before to pillage the trophies.

Muttering the text of Macbeth to himself he resolutely ignored his sister until eventually the sobbing died down. Then Chrissie glanced at the window and caught sight of the three dustless circles on the sill and cried again. John chucked his Arden Shakespeare at the lino. “Can’t you go and bawl somewhere else?” he demanded.

Chrissie gave him a heartbroken look and slowly unfolded her skirt to reveal the pieces.

John observed them from his bunk. “What happened to them?”

Chrissie had trouble getting out any words. “Roger… Roger…”

“What?”

“Roger… Roger… busted… them.”

John sat up and seemed to look interested. “What’d he do that for?”

“I… don’t… know. He… hates… me.”

Chrissie sobbed out the details of the story while John waited with uncharacteristic patience. When she’d finished he put on his shoes and left the room.

Chrissie sat on the bed with her skirtful of shards and sniffed. John must have gone out the front yard to have a look, she thought. She stared out the window at the neighbours’ lonely palm tree. The birds in the tree were fighting noisily. She felt wretched. She made up her mind that she’d never be happy again. Then she heard the garage door roll up and the music of Colonel Bogie playing on the gramophone Roger used for his drum practice. From habit she expected to hear the drum, and she winced, but the drum didn’t bang. It wasn’t Roger’s practise time. The wrestling was still on. He was glued to the TV. Instead she heard someone else making music. It was John. He was singing. He sang loudly and tunelessly but kept in time with the record.

“Hitler… had only one… left… ball!”

Chrissie spluttered with laughter so suddenly that snot flew out her nose.

“Rudolf… had two but ve… ry small.
Himmler… had something sim’lar.
But poor old Goebbels… had no balls… at all!”

Chrissie laughed and cried at the same time, wiping her nose on the back of her hand. Dad—her dead dad—had sung this when they were living in Victoria Street. She’d heard him in the shower. He was the sort of man who swore all the time and didn’t care if his kids swore. But Roger never swore, not once. Even funnier than the singing was the sight of her brother’s head. She saw it through the window going up, down, up, down, as if he was trampolining, except with a deep boing-boing sound that Chrissie realised could only be one thing. The drum. John, her big brother, was singing one of her dad’s dirty songs and trampolining on Roger’s drum. At the end of the second chorus there was an almighty rip and the head didn’t come up again.

Roger came out of the house with his Coke still clutched in his hand. He stared at the punctured drum resting on the lawn beside the garage as Colonel Bogie wound up. John was standing in the middle of it, his legs emerging from the cylinder as if he too was some kind of trophy. Roger didn’t say anything. It took him a full minute to comprehend the enormity of what had happened. Then he turned to John. “You little cunt,” he pronounced, and shoved him towards the garage.

Chrissie, who’d been watching from the bedroom, ran out and tried to intervene but Roger knocked her sideways and before she could climb back on her feet the garage door was shut. Inside Roger put his Coke down so angrily half of it shot out of the glass. He could barely manage to place the record player’s arm back onto the vinyl he was so angry. He turned the volume to eleven. As the needle generated monstrous crackles he took up the two drum mallets and stared at John.

“You break police things,” he said, twirling the mallets in John’s face, “they break you.”

And with that he started drumming. John put up his hands to shield himself. But it did no good. Roger drummed all over him, his head, his shoulders, his face, his limbs. He was in a fury. Words couldn’t describe the way he felt about that drum.

Chrissie screamed through the grimy garage window. But Roger didn’t miss a beat. She ran into the house. “Mum! Mum! Roger’s belting John with the drumsticks!”

At first Sheila didn’t seem to understand. She stood in a trance. Chrissie shouted at her and shook her until finally she shuffled out to the garage. Just as she caught sight of Roger through the window, one of his mallets struck John square on the nose and blood sprayed across the shed onto the pane of glass. Sheila seemed to snap. She wrenched vainly on the locked door and then screamed at the top of her voice for Roger to stop. Roger ignored her. He started to puff with the effort he was putting in. Blood from the bleeding nose spattered the pair of them. But Roger stuck resolutely to his task until John fell to the floor. Then he lifted the gramophone needle, refreshed himself with Coke and said hoarsely, “We haven’t finished yet, son. You’ve got plenty more coming to you.” And away they went.

Chrissie was calling out, “POLICE! POLICE!” But then she realised the absurdity and stopped. There wasn’t a peep out of the neighbours. Inside the garage Roger kept on drumming until John lay clutching his face, unable to pick himself up any more. The performance over, Roger came out, relocked the door behind him and went back to the TV. He was unappeased. While he’d been dealing with John he’d missed the effing tag-team match, his effing favourite.

The garage stayed locked for the rest of the day. Roger changed his shirt and ordered Sheila to rinse out the blood. At dinner he and the remains of his stepfamily sat in silence, apart from the sobs now and then escaping Sheila’s pressed lips. Roger shovelled down his roast lamb and when he noticed that neither Sheila nor Chrissie was touching her food he ordered them to eat. Sheila watched the pink juice ooze from the meat as Roger attacked it and she felt sick. Greggie tittered in embarrassment at his mother’s grief. Chrissie managed to get him a swift kick under the table. After viewing Deadly Ernest’s Creature Feature on the TV Roger summoned Sheila to the bedroom. Everyone needed to be taught a lesson. The entire family.

During the small hours of the night Sheila lay awake in the darkness and listened. She strained to hear any sound of John in the garage. She could hear nothing. It would have been a relief if he’d groaned or cried out. What did it matter about her? She’d manage. It was the children she couldn’t bear thinking about. But all night until the hour Roger left the bed she heard nothing.

Roger did double exercise in the gym that morning. He couldn’t stop thinking of the crime that had been committed on the drum. In his mind it seemed like a monstrous act of cruelty, an outrage. He went to the garage and unlocked it.

“Out,” he ordered. “Clean yourself up.”

John, when he appeared, looked like Banquo’s ghost. Blood had dried on his cheeks and all the way into his ears and his hair. Sheila could barely look at him.

“Leave him alone,” Roger told her. “He can clean himself up.”

John made no effort to clean himself up. He sat at the dinner table that night spilling his food and choking. Roger concluded it was a ploy and ordered him to his room. Sheila was told to stay and eat.

When Roger finally left for the station on Monday Sheila picked up the phone and, with her hands shaking, tried three times to dial her brother. She burst into tears when she heard his voice.

“I want to go home!” she cried.

Sid was amused at this. His sister was such an idiot. “What do you mean you want to go home? You’re at home now, aren’t you.”

“No, I want to go back to our old place.”

“What? You can’t go back there. You just got married.”

“I don’t want to be married.”

“You don’t want to be married? You should’ve got married in the registry office again. You got married in the church this time. Properly. That’s it.”

Sheila tried to explain about John but Sid cut her off. “Look, Sheila, what’d I tell you?”

“I don’t know.”

“I told you what that kid needs is a good hiding. Didn’t I tell you that? You’re too soft on him. You wait—it’ll do him the world of good.”

Click.

Sheila went back into the bedroom where John lay on the bed. There was no problem hearing him now. He breathed loudly, as if he was eating the air. She looked at him and broke into more sobs. “What are we going to do?” she choked.

Not that it was a real question. She was too upset to ask a real question. But John looked at her coldly and said, “Call David’s mum.”

Sheila didn’t seem to understand.

“Call David’s mum,” he repeated.

He watched the expression on his mother’s face. He hadn’t mentioned David’s mother since the great row when he’d heard her scream at his father that she never wanted to hear that woman mentioned again. That woman being David’s mother.

“Call her,” he insisted.

“But I can’t.”

“Why not?”

“Because.”

“Because why?”

“Because we’re not on speaking terms.”

It was all she could manage to say.

John stared at her. He watched her teetering on the brink, looking helpless. “Call her,” he said again, and that seemed to do it. With her head cast down she turned towards the room with the telephone and, as she moved away, John felt suddenly and unexpectedly restored to power.
pencil

Simon Barker is an Australian who comes from Sydney but has lived in both Melbourne and California. Among other things he has worked as a bus conductor, an opera ticket seller, a librarian and (unwittingly) as a typist on the Star Wars Project. His fiction has appeared in Overland, Fieldstone Review, Eclectica, Word Riot, Istanbul Literary Review, Ranfurly Review, Antipodes and Identity Theory, and is due to appear in Cantaraville and decomP. E-mail: submission7[at]me.com

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