Tuesday, 1 January 2019

A Steady Interest


© Denis Fitzpatrick, 2016

‘. . . people who love downy peaches are apt not to think of the stone and sometimes jar their teeth terribly against it.’ George Eliot, Adam Bede

Jake Fleming, ever since his twentieth birthday a few years ago, had always been very clear to himself and others why he chose to be homeless. So he could read. All day, and most of the night. Jake had become a serious bibliophile from the age of eight, after his father had given him Crime and Punishment to read. Jake’s father gave his only child the book when he appeared to be bored, sitting on the couch after dinner and just staring into space. Mr Fleming, Tony, had finished the book recently and it was still close to hand.
      ‘Here you go, Jake,’ said Tony, dropping a book in Jake’s lab. ‘You should read that. It’s a great book.’
     Jake picked up the book and quickly leafed through it.
     ‘But, Dad,’ said Jake. ‘It’s got no pictures!’
     Tony replied with a small, unexpected, chuckle, and then said,
     ‘Don’t worry, Jake, when you’re older you’ll be reading heaps of books with no pictures.’
     Jake was impressed with the wisdom of this last, and then naturally set about reading ‘heaps of books.’ The resultant addiction became more concerning to his parents when he chose books over rent. His parents found out accidentally that he was squatting, from a neighbour who’d seen him routinely enter a large, old, abandoned house, in Redferne, in dusty inner city Sydney. His father came to visit him, but Jake couldn’t be budged. Spending the money he saved on rent mostly on books, giving up work to read, was entirely rational in his own, Jake’s, particular case. He had, he said, discovered the only thing that made him truly content, happy, and isn’t the purpose of life to be happy? Tony left after a fruitless hour, but with also a good amount of unadmitted respect for his son. When it really comes down it, Jake had a good point; to be happy really is the meaning of life.
     Sure, though, no-one could ever read voraciously all the time, day and night, and Jake did take the odd day and night off, where he drew, or wrote. For the past few months, though, since the start of a warm 2016 spring, he had been doing so, instead of reading, in the large, bare living room of his squat in Standmore, inner city Sydney. Instead of reading he daydreamed smugly and idly filled his journal or sketchbook, looking the while at all the busy bees heading off to the office. Or from the office. Or back to the shop. Sometimes he was so content with his lot that he seriously wondered if he was in fact God. After all, only God could have such perfect inner peace.
     But one day his Paradise was invaded. It was still late spring, 2016, and Jake had just come home for the evening from buying his daily meat from the deli at Jewell supermarket in nearby Newtown. Along with his second bottle of vege juice and a raw carrot that was his dinner for the day. He actually managed his food well (his only bill) buying from the supermarket and greengrocers instead of buying takeaway. So, he was still feeling well fed and marvellous when he arrived home and was surprised by the front door to his squat being open. He was sure he closed it, he always made sure.
     Entering the large living room at the front he instantly noticed his sketchbook and his journal were missing. So too the handheld CD player with its attached speakers. Upstairs in his bedroom he was also cleaned out, except for the books. Probably too many to carry away, and anyway, they were mostly second hand. But his clothes, filthy as they were, were stolen, his sleeping bag, his candles, CDs, incense, everything that made his rough way of living bearable, and with a purpose, was stolen. But the worst loss of all was the loss of his food store. His two shopping bags full of tinned meats, tinned veges, and other long life food staples were gone. That was the worst theft because he often reminisced about that store, or stared at it fondly from his mattress on the floor, a guarantee that he would never be completely hungry, that he could weather all calamities with those bags of treasure. But now it was completely obliviated.
     He re-entered the living room, feeling exposed and vulnerable.
     After a few minutes of blankly sitting in his armchair he realised that he would have to replace his food store quickly. He now fully realised he was completely on his own in the urban wilds so he’d better rebuild his defences quickly. He would just have to go without buying his daily books for a few days or so.
     Unless he stole the books? After all, they’d stolen from him, a thoroughly helpless and poor fellow citizen. And it would only be for a few days, until he received his next unemployment welfare, so the chances of getting caught would be very small. That realisation decided him and he set about taking a shower (Jake’s euphemism for washing himself from a bucket of cold water) to be as clean and inconspicuous as possible in his thieving.

*

Jake was able to buy books again, and completely refill his bags of treasure, four days later when he received his unemployment welfare. The money he had had left before payday went to replenishing, in part, his food bank. The daily books he needed were surprisingly easy to steal, the bookseller not really expecting to be robbed while he, Jake, simultaneously, with three books down his jeans front, bought one or two cheap books. Mind you, Jake could have saved all of this hassle and drama simply by joining Newtown Library, but he wanted to keep as many of his books with him for as long as possible. He also soon made sure to be clean and cleanly dressed, looking somewhat like an earnest artist. Stealing was in fact so easy for him that he decided to continue stealing his books every day, and maybe put aside the large money so saved in an interest bearing bank account. It would indeed be certainly fantastic if he had this second pile of treasure, living life as a very God.
     Stealing was in fact too easy, choosing secondhand bookshops around Sydney’s inner city, to the point where he became sloppy, almost blasé and unconcerned whilst thieving, and was thus caught in the act, three months into his new career. He had three books piled down the front of his jeans but they tumbled out while he accepted change from a two dollar purchase. There was no way he could reasonably explain himself so he instantly offered to pay for the books and nevermore return to darken the bookshop’s step. The bookseller was dubious, especially since Jake claimed to have lost his ATM card and had to go to the bank to get out the money, but Jake gave him his bare wallet with only his welfare ID and pleaded for just thirty minutes to pay, and then everyone would be happy. The seller eventually agreed, with Jake’s ID as surety. But it would be a strict thirty minutes of grace.
     He had the money for the books, $48.50, but it really did seem a shame to dip into his savings account for something that really could be had for free. He already had a good several hundred, almost a thousand, in his dedicated bank account, the monies saved in not needing to buy books any more, but reducing it by any amount almost viscerally hurt him. He still had fifteen minutes of grace left, was there any way to not spend his money and not potentially be criminally charged? Not very likely, especially since the shop had his name and address details.
     He could always leave his squat, move to another suburb? He would be virtually untraceable if he spent his welfare in cash and kept more on the move. That might mean he’d occasionally have to sleep in a park. Getting another ID may prove difficult too but apart from that he should be able to continue on as before. In fact, he had everything to gain and nothing to lose, considering the remote chances of being picked up again elsewhere. Also, if he were to invest in some disguises he was bound to be unidentifiable, and thus untraceable.
     He had no trouble in finding another squat in close by Camperdown and after several weeks of safety was not at all expecting to be pulled over by the police. They said he had the same thin, blonde dreadlocks of someone they were looking for and asked to see his ID. He really should have bought those disguises. He told them he had no ID, and felt his stomach sink when they asked for his wallet. He briefly considered saying he had no wallet, but that would probably just give them an excuse to search him, making the situation more hostile. His wallet had some of his government ID. He had only replaced it so he could get concession travel. He handed it over and was almost resigned to now being a criminal when they eventually charged him and led him away.
     His trial came up quickly and he was given a six month good behaviour bond, considering that this was his first offence. The magistrate, though, was clear in telling Jake that this was his only chance, and that good behaviour meant finding stable housing and using his welfare monies for what they were intended, in finding a job and being a productive, healthy citizen. Jake accordingly promised to get his act together, pointing out that he was grateful for the chance he’d been given. He was not going to waste it. He was going to grow up and act more rational from now on.
     Accordingly, it still being morning, he headed into Kings Cross, in the heart of Sydney, to book a bed for the week at Ulysses House, a homeless shelter for men. He got one of the last beds and by the sixth day of his stay he had found a place in a boarding house in Redferne. The rent took up most of his welfare but at least he was secured from incarceration.
     Six months later he’d had had enough. He’d had enough of never having anything, having to eat thanks largely to charity, and never having enough books, of most of his cash going on the rent. No, now that his six months were up, he was going to go back to his squats and save most of his money, while he helped himself to free books all over Sydney. He would be much smarter this time, obviously needing some sort of disguise while he went on his thieving rounds. And if he was caught again he’d pull that line once more about paying for the books and never returning. The seller would be sure to accept the deal, being a capitalist at heart, only interested in the money. He would also be sure to pay this time around.
     He left his boarding house exactly at midnight the day his good behaviour bond expired. He had his books with him, some clothes, and three wigs that he’d bought earlier in the day. Doubtlessly he would need to refresh his disguise every so often but if he also stole his food he could afford to maintain the different outfits. On the train away from Redferne, to get off somewhere that seemed right, he wondered if he could use the money he was sure to accumulate from saving most of his welfare in buying some rare books. They’d be a real thrill to read. Something to think about.
    
~~~

If you have been enjoying Fitzpatrick's stories here you may also enjoy his short story collections, and other books, available online as both Kindle books and paperbacks (go to http://amzn.to/1NfodtN). Other ebook and paperback options are available at  http://bit.ly/1UsyvKD Fitzpatrick has also had a collection of short stories, Aberrant Selected, published by Waldorf Publishing, available on Amazon.

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