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A dish served cold

When my brother bullies me, I see red.

‘Let me go, let me go’, I screamed while my face puffed up in pain.  I thought he was going to kill me that brother of mine.  Finally, he released the headlock grip and began to laugh as I writhed in pain.

Cain’s eyes were bloodshot and he was in a stranger mood than even normal for him.

He was fifteen which meant he was in charge.  It was a sticky hot night after a belter of a day.  

Cicadas clicked in their high pitched calls like the echoing of a faulty pop-up sprinkler.  Mossies emerged from wherever they spend the daylight hours like well marshalled squadrons, seeking out the rich rewards of the veins of juicy humans.

Mum and Dad had gone down the street to a party at number eight.  They’d left Cain with enough money for dinner and an instruction to, ‘look after your brother and not do anything stupid.’  The reason Cain’s eyes were bloodshot in the first place was because he did something stupid last night, something they wouldn’t tell me, but they seemed to have forgotten.  Either that or the party at number eight was too appealing to ignore.  When you live in a town of a few thousand people the social options are somewhat limited.

Seeing I had recovered he scratched himself and asked, ‘Waddaya want for dinner anyway Mouse?’  in his teenage boy/man voice.

I hated that nickname.

‘If ya don’t answer, I’ll just decide, remember I’m the one in charge here, boy!’ Cain strutted over from the couch and lent over me.  He was two feet taller and had just started up this ridiculous weight regime where he lifts barbells and medicine balls in the garage.  

‘How ‘bout Chinese?’, I suggested.

 ‘Chink food?’ he retorted.

‘Suppose we could, go run and get the menu, there’s a good girl.’ Cain laughed at his own teenage country boy humour as I gladly scuttled from under his hairy armpit.

The kitchen was the coolest place in our squat low slung suburban brick abode.

A wide metal fan was perched at the end of the green lino benchtop.  It rattled as its head turned a fast sweeping arch.  A discoloured cream blade that would have been snow white when it was back in its box in Kmart, spinning furiously and protected by a metal cage that guarded against a stray hand or finger.  There were three wide raised plastic buttons on its base, one of them pressed down, being the fastest setting, the others were seldom used and were as useless as, ‘tits on a bull’, as my Pop might say.

The air conditioner had decided to give up the ghost and had become a sad boxy ornament poking its rectangular face out of the plasterboard wall in the last few weeks.  Shocking timing in the middle of a summer heatwave, just after Christmas and New Year’s.  When it packed it in, Mum threw a wobbly when the old man couldn’t fix it and told her they couldn’t afford a new one.

I raced down to the river and stayed all afternoon, dropping bombs off the rope swing at the bend.  It wasn’t cold but at least it was wet and I could escape the inevitable escalation of bad tempers at home.

I did some calculations as I rode my pride and joy, a mongoose BMX with high handlebars spread wide, down to the riverbank.  If the old man bought two slabs of VB a week instead of three he could put a new air conditioner on credit.  Credit was a wonderful thing, as it let you get things you wanted before you had all the money.  

We got most of our stuff that way, occasionally someone came and took things back, like a fancy new microwave Dad got Mum for her birthday, but Mum told me it was okay because she didn’t need it anyway.

When they came to collect it, she got called in next door on account of our Kelpie, Ralph pushing his head in between the fence palings and chasing the neighbour’s chickens just as the guy in the truck was collecting it.  While Mum was gone I looked at the sheet of paper he’d left.  Up the top a big red stamped notice, ’Repossession Order‘ and then columns of figures.  The initial price of $579.99 then the payments for the first six months and then ‘missed payments’ last three.  Even if we had made all those payments we’d have ended up paying nearly a thousand bucks by the end.  I asked Mum how it worked and she muttered something about ‘interest’, followed by ‘highway robbery’.

I was good at maths but I just didn’t get it.

Maybe next year when I went to High School with Cain I’d be able to do some real maths and figure that out.

‘You comin’ or what Mouse?’ his cracked-up voice sang out from the lounge.

I hurried on over to the fridge, grabbed the selection of take away menus, flat pieces of paper folded down in thirds from under the thick plastic magnets, the top one was tragic.  A grade four photo of me smiling with two big gaps in the front.  It was bad enough I lost those teeth so late, but worse that Mum insisted using this magnet as the main one on the fridge.

I stuck the others back holding onto the one for the Red Lobster Restaurant, with its bold red letters on a gold background and a photo of the store and the phone number in big print.

‘Here it is’, I said as I held it out at full stretch towards Cain.

He predictably snatched it.

‘Okay let’s see, Mum gave me twenty bucks.’ he said.

I creased my brow but didn’t say anything’.  I’d seen at least thirty dollars change hands earlier, he was planning on pocketing the rest.

‘How about Beef and Black Bean for you, Sweet and Sour Pork for me, a large special fried rice and a couple of Cokes?’, he suggested.

‘The crackers?’, I asked.

‘You get them for free you moron.’ Cain replied.

‘Okay then, will we order down there or ring up?’, I asked.

Cain rubbed at his eyes, they still looked angry, the paleness of his freckly white skin all reddened around his eye sockets.  He seemed to be considering things, delving into some unknown space between his ears and trying to remember something.

‘You can go and get it‘, he said.

‘What by myself?’, I asked slightly shocked.

‘Yeah, why not, you scared?’ He threw out his, I don’t give a shit teenage attitude, defying me to challenge him.

‘No,’, I began.

‘Listen, the A Team is on in twenty minutes and I’m not missing it.’, he slouched back in the armchair, Dad’s usual prime spot in front of the telly.

‘It might be cold when I get back’, I said in a meek effort.

‘Fuck me, it’s still thirty degrees outside, besides, they put it in those plastic containers.’

‘We got enough?’, I asked.

‘It comes to nineteen dollars and forty cents, here’, he said, handing me a red bill with the menu.

‘Go on, on your bike then, scram.’ He feigned to get up and I made my way back into the kitchen and replaced the menu, not making eye contact with my younger self, captured with lacquer on plastic for all posterity.

Could be worse I thought to myself as I ducked through the laundry and out the back door.

My Rip Curl tank top clung immediately to my shoulders and chest as sweat started to form as soon as my bare feet hit the concrete step.  Ouch, it burned and I quickly hopped into the pair of thongs just beside the step.  

Ralph lay in the corner of the backyard.  His brown head with the splash of white across the bridge of his nose rested on the grass between his outstretched paws.  His eyes followed me without excitement as I grabbed my bike from where it lent against our small aluminium garden shed.  My helmet a bright orange boxy stack hat rested by its strap dangling from a handlebar.  I was sorely tempted to leave it at home but feared retribution if the wrong person caught me.  My bike was very cool but the stack hat was not.

Something caught my eye in the dark recess between the far wall of the shed and the fence to the back neighbour.  I peered in there leaning over my bike’s frame, stomach pressed into it.  There was a black backpack and the zipper at the top was partly open, it looked like paint spray cans inside.  Someone had thrown it back there.

I’d stuffed the twenty deep in my boardies and put a hanky over the top.  I pushed the side gate open and stood for a couple of minutes on the small patch of grass opposite the front door.  

Our car sat parked in the drive which curved around a few metres to the footpath, a boxy XD Ford, it was blood red and had some pretty good mags on it.  Dad had bought it on impulse after a big win at the races and it was one thing we had that I was sure wasn’t bought on credit.  He’d got the quaddie on Cup day three years ago and it was the only time I ever saw Mum go to the TAB to help him collect.  They went straight from there to the car yard.

That was a good day.

I fastened the thick black strap under my neck and pushed off.  The smell of barbeque and the sounds of weekend revelry in the air, as I picked up a bit of speed you could hear the occasional splash from backyard pools, or bark of a dog stuck behind its fence as it sensed me glide by.  I thought about Cain and how he’d lied about the extra money Mum had given him.  She was so trusting with everyone really, not just Cain.  That was part of her problem and it pissed me that so many people took advantage of it.  Cain had started to get pretty sneaky about some things, I wouldn’t have been surprised if his saying he wanted to watch the TV was just cover for something else.

It was not a long ride down to the main street and my bike moved smoothly against the warmth of the bitumen road. Shoulders relaxed I felt the damp sweat between my finger joints against the dimples in the grips.  I pumped my legs hard in some short sharp bursts and the Dad of one of my school mates waved while watering his front lawn as I sped past.

Reaching the highway, I turned my shoulder to look down the long straight stretch that lead out of town as I approached the one set of traffic lights, still a bit of a novelty having been installed last Easter.  Nothing but a dim set of lights a fair way back.   I bunny hopped the kerb and sprang over to the other side past the fire station on the corner. Flags on the poles hanging limp for a lack of breeze.

I could see the lights of the few takeaway shops and the supermarket beginning to glow now as the sun made its final dive beneath the flatness of the horizon.  A group of teenagers, possibly some of Cain’s mates sat in the grassy centre strip that divided one side of the main street from the other.  They’d dropped their bikes in a cluster nearby as they horsed around at the base of the water tower that reached upwards to the rapidly darkening sky.

I parked my bike in the bike rack out front, my wheel wedged between the two steel bars that sprung at right angles from the footpath.  The smell hit you straight away, that sweet, dense combination.  Straightening up I checked my pocket and felt the note still there resting under the protective hanky.  My stack hat was removed quickly and I sat it just under the back wheel, feeling the dampness of my hair as I moved towards the store.   It was lighter in there and I could see the family that owned it dressed in their uniforms of black jackets, trousers and skirts, combined with white shirts and red waistcoats.  

The image of the large Red Emperor fish emerging from the golden water stencilled into the front door greeted me on the way in.  Opening the door the little bell heralded my arrival as I stood on a small elevated platform in front of the counter.  One of the family, I could never tell how many there were, (people said that at weekends their relatives came up from the city to help), nodded as I took a step forward.

‘G’day mate, you want take-away?’ he greeted me with a toothy grin.

‘Yes please’, I replied feeling the coolness from the wide porcelain tiles reaching up from the soles of my feet.

 ‘You want a menu?’, he asked.

‘No, that’s okay.  I know my order.’ I replied.

‘You Cain’s little brother, right mate?’ he said bending over slightly as he replayed his toothy grin.

‘Yeah’, I said.

‘I saw him last night,’ he said.

‘Oh yeah’, I replied.

There was a pause and the waiter looked back out towards the dining room beyond us.  The punters sat at round tables with their plastic tablecloths while they spun stacked plates around on the spinning wooden wheels in the middle of each table, diving into each dish before spinning the wheel again.  Little kids loved that shit.

He caught the eye of another waiter and gestured not so subtly at me.  Then he returned his attention back.

‘So, what you want then boy?’, he asked.

I gave the order.

He considered it. ‘That order too small for whole family, you need more.’

‘Oh no, it’s just for me and my brother,’ I said.

‘Ah, your brother’, he replied, looking down at his notepad.

‘Which one for you, sweet sour pork or beef black bean or you share?’, he asked.

‘I don’t eat pork, he does’, I replied.

‘Ok then.  Ten minute, you wait there.’ he said.

I watched as he huddled with the other waiter and their foreign tongues tangled, voices rising and falling with meaning and glances back to me before the one who took my order scurried into the kitchen.

It sure smelt good and I began to realise how hungry I was.  I watched the giant fish tank that was inserted into the wall and wondered if the lobsters in there were ornamental or part of the menu.  Outside the street lights began to flicker as thick films of insects rose, shrouding beams of yellowish light.

The waiter came back out, ’ready now boy, here’s your order, that’s nineteen forty.’

I walked over and fished out the note, he took it and measured out my change, handing me the plastic containers, plastic knives and forks and napkins in carry bags.

‘You enjoy boy and tell your brother, Jimmy says Hi, after he eats his dinner, okay?’ his toothy smile replaced by a more serious look.

Outside I balanced the bags on the handlebars and took off.  I held Cain’s Coke in one hand so it wouldn’t fizz up, its chilled surface felt good.  

When I got home, Cain looked like he hadn’t moved and was glued to the final act of the A Team.  B.A Barracus shouting at someone, his Mohawk bouncing around, muscles, arms, legs, guns and helicopters.

He glared at me, ’took your time didn’t ya?’ 

He looked hungrily at the bag.

‘Just bring mine over here’, he grunted. 

‘I’ll get a bowl’, I said as I deposited the bag at the foot of the couch.

‘And a proper spoon, these plastic things are useless as tits on a bull’, he yelled as I reached the kitchen.  I fished out some utensils including a spoon.

He was already downing his coke, eyes still on the screen, then an ad flicked up on the telly.  It was a ‘Life Be in It’ ad the jingle starting with fat Norm on his couch.

Cain shifted his focus to me.  He grabbed the bowl and scooped more than half of the fried rice into it.  Then he opened the sweet and sour pork.  He dumped half of its contents in his bowl, the sticky blobs of battered pork with their red juices oozing in between covering the rice, pieces of pineapple turned orange and red, peppers dark green almost black.

He began to shovel it in, hardly pausing for breath, seemed to me he’d have it finished before the sixty seconds of ads.  He was a machine.

Then the propulsion of food into his maw stopped.  He turned to me eyes beginning to water, face reddening.  He dropped the spoon which bounced on the carpet before resting, spreading sticky redness on the white shag pile.  He began to choke, I stepped towards him and noticed his face now was as red as a beetroot.  His bloodshot eyes bulging, sweat pouring off his face.

He pushed me away.  ’What the fuck! Those chinks have poisoned my food!’ He yelled between splaying pieces of pineapple and pork across the room.  Then in a way that reminded me of the coyote in the Roadrunner cartoon, he scrambled out of the lounge, feet seeking traction as he rushed to the toilet, a ball of furious chaos.

I sat back and surveyed the mess. Cain hollered out in pain and soon the stench began to creep down the passageway.

My mind’s eye took me back into the Red Emperor, the smiling Chinese waiter and the words that now escaped my mouth with newfound meaning, ’Cain, Jimmy says Hi!’

Shaun Huntington is someone who has a lifelong interest in literature. More recently he has began to explore creative writing through short fiction and poetry. His work of non fiction has been published in Urban an online industry magazine.

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