‘Crisis Central’, gritty short fiction by Pavle Radonic

Australian by birth and Montenegrin origin, Pavle Radonic’s eight years living and writing in S-E Asia has provided unexpected stimulus. Previous work has appeared in a range of literary journals and magazines, including Big Bridge, Ambit, Southerly, Citron & Antigonish Reviews.

Judging by the voice the girl might have been early twenties, perhaps still in her teens. She was coming in loud and clear from out front. Greg lived one off the front of his block. The place opposite had to be fully forty metres away.
         ​— That’ll be Jodie, Greg said. This he repeated absentmindedly shortly after as the row went on.

         We sat quietly and listened. It was impossible to do anything else.
         ​— ….Give me my fuckin’ stuff back!…. You fuckin’ low-life…. Give me my stuff….
​          The place directly across the street had only been operating as a boarding house a few months. Earlier Heinz the Nazi had run it as another of his backpackers, after having brazenly added another storey without council permit. After Heinz’s widow went through the proper procedures and completed the building, she sold it to one of the welfare organizations.
         ​— ….Who said you could take it? Give it back now….
         ​Now it seemed to be coming from the other place on the corner beside the Crisis Centre. A few years ago that one too had been owned and cowboy-refurbished by Heinz. Greg had done the plumbing and a pal of his the carpentry. For a couple of years the Nazi had run the place as a backpacker, before selling out to the Crisis people.

         Backpackers made rows of a different kind to the crisis people. Greg had it both ways there just off Grey Street. Most of his block had been sub-let to backpackers by a couple of shrewd operators; then there was the Coffee Palace a stone’s throw away. Really Greg had it up and down and all sides round in his little possie. Trying to stay clean was a big ask situated as Greg was.
​         The voice was not coming from the Crisis Centre on the corner. It was the new place across the street, Greg said.

         It didn’t seem to be the case, but of course Greg knew best.

         The place opposite took the overflow from the Crisis Centre. The two were unaffiliated seemingly, formally at least. There was never enough accommodation of that sort. The problem was there was no live-in worker or supervisor at that place, Greg said. While they had employed one they had been on top of the problem.

         Greg’s place was on the first floor and Jodie’s voice rose from a lower level, with a kind of resonant basement tone.
​         —….I wan it now…. I don’t fuckin care. I don’t fuckin care you scumbag.
​         In her teens she could have been.
​          We couldn’t help cowering a little. There was no escape. Nothing to do but listen quietly. Bow and quietly hear it out.

         The tone and volume suggested the person being addressed was not in the same room.
         ​—…… You’re a worm. You’re a scumbag….Who’d wanna be pregnant to you….

         Greg might have become acquainted with the pair, unless they were newies and some kind of word had got out. The turn-over was high. Greg knew everyone and everyone knew Greg. A few years previous he had been on one of the TV investigative shows on after the 6pm news. Yes, I use heroinha-ha-ha, they mimicked Greg up and down the street for months afterward. Fancy making such a confession on national television.
​         Trying to fix the voice to one of the faces from the street was useless. A young girl like that especially.
         ​Greg didn’t say anything further about Jodie. What was there to say? Somehow she had desisted all of a sudden and there was not a squeak more. The scumbag must have softened her somehow.
         ​Sometimes the teenage mothers pushed prams up the hill on Grey Street toward the free feed at the church. Sometimes father-partners took the pram while the girls stood on their corners to work. Before mobiles became commonplace up at the phone booths half-way up the hill there’d be messages for the girls scrawled on the footpath. Other messages covered the booths and the phone surface.
​         Living in that tight knot Greg got to know all of them, whether he wanted to or not. Mostly Greg wanted to, though it could be risky when they knew where you lived.

         In the last few years Greg had turned to a bit of dope-dealing. It had started out as a profitable and easy little line after he had given up the hammer. Once he was back on again—coke more than hammer this time—it financed the habit. The backpackers were good customers; the crisis people less so.
         ​The episode with Jodie was earlier in the week, Tuesday late morning. We never did hear anything further. The racket had seemed untimely for a Tuesday. The party nights late week and Saturdays were always rowdy. Greg couldn’t have coped in the suburbs.
         ​It was a bad case of mistiming, knocking later that same week on the Sunday night and answering Greg’s call with, Who you afraid of little man?
​         While he delayed and listened from behind the door, the taunt was repeated.
         ​Usually Greg opened right up. The security door was always locked from inside as a precaution. Greg might call out to ask who it was if he was having a tickle, or otherwise dubiously occupied, sometimes out-of-sorts. More often the door quickly swung open to sight the visitor, before the wire-door was unlocked. No doubt many of us played the game of standing off from the peep-hole.
​         The lump of wood Greg had in hand this Sunday night was no joke. Not at all.

         Sure enough, a pick-handle as he said, unattached. Greg wasn’t kidding.

         With a bit of recollection the earlier billiard cue and baseball bat too came back. It was difficult to see Greg wielding any of them, defensively or otherwise. The weapons would always have been an absolute last resort.

         Greg was a lover, not a fighter, as he self-described once or twice. There was no doubt. No doubt at all. Greg was full of the rattle. He would have been able to talk his way out of most tricky situations, not a problem in the world. It would have been a tough, unreachable nutter, someone on some really bad gear, dangerous and threatening, that collected a swing of one of Greg’s weapons.
         ​It took a while for the tension to lighten that Sunday night. 

         In retrospect the unease should have been apparent sooner. That shaggy sheepishness that comes over Greg occasionally was well-known by now. It doesn’t happen often. When it does Greg is usually caught out seated in a bit of limbo, the chat running thin and halting. In this fix, this coming-off of wheels, Greg will ruffle his grey bouffant in a couple of passes, then flounce the rear upward once or twice. Sometimes when he tries to meet your eye following the grooming he does it sidelong with head turned, right iris sliding toward his temple and ogling from there. A kind of wary fish-eye gaze.
​         The usual joshing and blarney was zipped that Sunday night only a few days after Jodie and her partner.

         Some preliminary jabber soon ground to a halt. The old wooden pick handle had gone behind the door, wrong way up. The piece must have been scavenged from somewhere with only one purpose in mind. The billiard cue and baseball bat were no more. Many people kept such-like behind their doors in St. Kilda. Or used to keep them. In other suburbs too, so how not St. K.?
         ​Three or four weeks before a fellow had been killed in the rooming house opposite, apparently. Bloodied and staggering, he had come out into the street before collapsing. With the blood pouring from a head wound, the ambulance had been called immediately. It was not enough to save him. The police had fanned through the area and insisted people kept indoors. A number of times Greg had tried to get out to have a look at the commotion. A number of times the female police officer had told Greg to stay put and eventually threatened him with arrest.

         It fitted. Not a difficult picture to compose. Greg a jack-in-the-box, sticking his head out every few minutes, edging along his balcony to have a geezer. A self-described toey bloke like Greg could never stay put for long. There would be good reason to make one’s own assessment in such a situation too of course. Perfectly understandable. A young unreliable copper on the wild streets of St. Kilda.
​         Now another tough guy was said to be standing over the people in the same rooming house opposite. Cigarettes, food, clothing, money of course, was being extracted from the tenants by this Jason guy. It happened in rooming houses the same as in jail. Reversion to the jungle.
         ​The word was out for a while when Jason landed on Greg’s doorstep a few hours earlier that Sunday night. The bounding up the stairs Greg had heard from behind his door. A creaking second step had long been Greg’s early warning system for visitors. Like the other customers, Jason had knocked and called out. But this guy Jason certainly had no intention of paying for what he wanted.
​         Opening the door, Greg found Jason with his back turned. Leaning over the railing, he was looking out at the other, better class boarding house on the other side. ($240 per week in that handsome Tudor establishment, which a few years before had been an upmarket backpacker charging some way above that.)

         Greg had given it a minute before opening. Jason cooling his heels, looking out through the car-park trees.
         ​— I want some bud, Jason had demanded in the direction of the neighbouring Tudor house.

         Back still turned, looking across at the building that had been shipped out from England, it was said, by some notable Edwardian who had made good in the colonies.
         ​— Who the fuck are you mate? Greg volleys, knowing full well how to handle these characters. A clear No-go from the very start.
         ​— I want a fuckin bud!
​          Jason wanted it now.

         Greg wasn’t going to deal with this turkey.

         The pair ra-ra-ed a short bit, temperature quickly boiling. Greg told the fellow he didn’t know him. Leaning on the rail the whole while, the Jason fellow suddenly turned.

         The stand-still had ticked over two and three long seconds, bursting words over the top of one another, before Jason leapt at the door.

         Greg hadn’t opened all the way, there was just enough time for retreat and pulling to.

         In this a blade out thrusting through the wire, which had been torn a long while back.

               — Ya cunt.

         Blade flashing through the previous slits and making new ones, scraping on the steel.

               — Ya gunna fuckin get it.

         Pick-handle parrying.

         The bloke was told he’d be getting his too, blah-blah.

         — You’ll get yours real soon, wait and see. Won’t be long.

         This sends Jason down the steps at a run, flinging over his shoulder his knowledge of where Greg lives, what he does, his times. Taken for everything he’s got Greg will be. The car, the tools, the lot.
         ​Greg could cope with the street. The tough-arse guys didn’t do as well. Everyone knew Greg was a softie and a goodie, everybody’s helpful emergency plumber. The dead-set hard boys he knew—and Greg knew plenty of them—knew his value. All Greg needed to do was give them the word about Jason and the fella would get the message quick smart. The stand-over tough boy wouldn’t come back in a hurry, to buy or anything else. No thug had a real long run. Smarts always got you further. Treating people with respect. Greg always did.
         Right now though, a couple hours after on the Sunday night, Greg was understandably toey. The heat of the fencing joust had left plenty of simmering embers. 

         TV off, which was unusual. Greg leaning back on the couch in a way that shrunk his person. Jiggling his leg. 

         The flouncing of bouffant on this occasion was not the usual case of rudderlessness in a stagnant pool; the run-down, fagged-out treading of water. 

         Two passes made in a slower, pensive tempo. 

         Greg’s hair was done by Dianne around the corner in exchange for plumbing—Dianne who did T.V. heads at the studios.

         The iris sliding out edgeways as far as it would go beneath the rich, grey quiff. 

         As in the rest of the town, Sundays the neighbourhood quieted early.

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