Thursday 20 November 2014

First prize winner in Greenacre Writers Short Story competition

Mr E Plays Dead by Andrew Dutton

With a little practice, it is possible to distinguish footfalls; the familiar from the unfamiliar, the friendly from the not-so, the harmless sort from the keep-aways. Keeping ears cocked and eyes peeled, essential skills, those. Helps to avoid trouble; helps with seeing them before they see. Like an animal on the hot, wild plains.

Staying out of any conceivable eye-line is harder. In a bigger place it wouldn’t be so tough but in a two-up-two-down it isn’t entirely possible to hole up out of sight. There are lines of sight at doors and windows front and back, and a more-than-casual gaze can spot more or less any motion. Not so easy to get a bead on the upstairs but an imprudent movement could be spotted from the street or by a carefully-placed observer at the back. Closing the curtains helps, upstairs, but then even on the best days that makes the rooms a prison of semi-light, and besides who wants to live upstairs all the time? It’s do-able, but it’s not dignified.

We live too much on top of one another these days, just too tangled up in each other’s business like it or not, there’s no privacy even when no-one intends to intrude. God, imagine being famous, being doorstepped, the paparazzi starbursts every time you twitch a finger. Human beings aren’t meant to live like this. Rats go mad in similar circumstances, it’s been proved. Fight and kill, they do.

The windows: dead eyes of a house that’s lost its soul. Keeping the windows dirty helps make the place look neglected, unused. But press up against the pane and the effect starts to be lost. So make sure the nets are up – filthy, old things, keep nothing on the sills but dirt and dead flies, but even that isn’t illusion enough; too penetrable. No mirrors, not anywhere. Why help a predator to see round corners? Lights out and TV off, no light no noise, not even the glow of a fire. Live with cold and darkness and boredom, for safety’s sake.

The rooms must look the same day in day out, so move nothing, clean nothing, not a thing here must look used or loved. It’s necessary to make the place look half- empty and dead, and yet to try to keep alive within. It’s hard: a brown-grey vista, a dull and flat atmosphere, joyless. But the intruder eyes are looking for prizes and gewgaws, so if nothing glitters and nothing shines, maybe they will take their greedy magpie gaze elsewhere. Everything shut and locked, all the time. The doors are solid enough of course but maybe there are forces out there than can cut through the stoutest door like a winter blast. It would need more than a draught-excluder to keep them out, oh yes.

 The back of the place is too open too, no hiding places there apart from curtains and caution. Makes for tidy, thrifty habits; every cup and plate must be washed and put away so the kitchen looks the same every day, not a crumb of food in sight, no sir, the only food in here rotted to nothing long ago, far as invading stares can see. They won’t even find a scrap in the busted old tin bin as they lurk by the one-hinge wooden gate; they’re the sort that would look.

So tough to live like this - hiding like a rat. No, not like a rat – like a possum, playing possum, that’s the phrase. Or a dog playing dead; worse, maybe an ostrich, who thinks it’s hidden from everything but there it is in plain sight, arse in the air, without even a shred of dignity.

Surely they can’t be there watching the whole time, on street corners wearing fedoras and raincoats with turned-up collars like private dicks in a bad film? But it feels like they’re there, every moment. If every move is watched then every move must be calculated. Slow and deliberate, keep below window level where possible, scuttle to cover if out in the open; back to being a rat again. Slow-motion in the semi-dark, glide like a shadow and leave no trace, let them begin to believe in ghosts.  A defensive wall of sham death; there is nothing and no-one here, gone, all gone.

The wolves are at the door–wolves with warrants and the backing of the treacherous joke that is the law. Full of their own importance, biding their time, trying to penetrate the manufactured murk, trickster children tormenting the miser, the misanthrope who won’t open up and offer treats. But who can afford what they want, because they want it all.

When they come in sight they are shadow-figures, silhouettes caught in nets, they are looking, they are seeking, cracks to open, gaps to widen, spaces to climb through, they whisper, they call out; comeoutcomeoutwhereveryouare.

So it’s a siege; now what will you do, old dog, old rat, old comical ostrich: old possum? Succumb? Wait them out? Lie doggo until the flies come for you, uncaring of the difference between dead and alive?

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