Fiction

The quickest way home

Patrick Hagan sits watching an old woman, someone’s gran or nan, loading a boy into a car. BMW i3, as per his salary package, long gone. He studies her dents and guesses she can’t drive, but what’s that matter, she has a BMW and he has a Mazda. The way she scolds the six- or seven-year-old, stands with her hands on her hips, shaking her head and saying something he can’t hear. He decides he dislikes her, immensely. But there are plenty like her: mums with pigeon pairs in their blazers, socks down around their ankles, carrying trombones and violins, as a high-vis teacher waves to the kids. It’s all so happy. He finds his smokes, searches the pack, but it’s empty. The ziplock bag with the roach, but again, empty. The few cans on the floor. He reaches over, picks one up, drains the last bit of sun-warmed Scotch, continues watching the boys coming through the gates.

There he is! He gets out, calls: “Harry, over here a minute.” The boy stops, looks at him strangely, but decides to do as he’s told. Drags his cricket bag over to Patrick, ex-accountant, ex-partner, ex-worker, ex-person. But Patrick doesn’t care, it’s past that now, it’s decided, and what’ll be will be. As Harry (he’s sure that’s his name) approaches, he squints and angles his head and says, “Hi.”

Patrick’s sure. He remembers the photo from his boss’s desk, and from when Rod showed him his family snaps – when was it, a Christmas dinner, last year, the year before? – before he was called into his office. Yes, he’s sure this is the boy. And he says, “Your dad asked if I could pick you up.” Again, the boy looks confused, concerned (he’s smart, Rod’s told him he’s smart). Patrick tells him Rod was busy and asked if he could pick him up and take him home. The boy still isn’t sure, but Patrick knows he has no time to lose, because what if the boy’s mother – Cyn, Sally, some fucked-up name – arrives trying to pick him up, and it all comes out?

Patrick (busy checking for CCTV) says, “And your mum can’t come, so I’ll have to do, okay?” He’s studying the boy’s semi-familiar face, his high cheekbones, sweptback hair, trying to persuade himself even now that this is the best course of action. For what’s transpired. Rod closing the door and telling him it’s worse than he thought, he can’t keep paying 17 staff. Continuing. Unfolding. But still, standing outside St Thomas’s, full of personal rage, this small, nagging doubt grows and Patrick wonders if … Either way, it doesn’t matter, because he’s come too far, he’s committed, and Harry’s seen him and how the hell would he explain this now?

Then Harry says, “But I thought…?” Patrick wonders if he knows, if he’s been told, if he’s heard something around the dinner table? He says to the boy, “You thought what…?” But Harry just shrugs, decides, loads his bags in the back seat and gets in the car. He removes the smokes, the TAB slips, the McDonald’s wrappers from under his arse, and says, “I thought Dad said you’d quit?” No, no, no, Patrick says, and he starts the car, checks no one’s watching, pulls out and heads down the oak-lined avenue. And now it’s done, he thinks. He hears Rod explaining how someone has to go … and this is about the hardest thing I’ve ever done, Patrick. Well, not the hardest, Patrick thinks, studying the boy’s badges, his piping, his Windsor-knotted tie, his small, bony hands, perfect teeth and long, whisky-coloured legs.

Patrick turns onto Payneham Road, wipes the syrupy grog from his lips and says, “Big day?” Right onto Osmond Terrace, and he asks Harry, “I bet you were surprised to see me?” Yes, the boy says, because he can only remember having seen Patrick once or twice, a staff event, and when he and his girlfriend, who was it, Terese, maybe, dropped by for drinks. The boy says, “You’re the one who writes novels, aren’t you?”

Patrick doesn’t reply. He did, he wrote one, it won an award but no one would publish it, but he thinks now, this might make a good novel, about what happens when you fuck your employees around, when you give them two weeks’ notice when you know they’ve got a million-dollar mortgage. The boy says, “I was thinking of becoming a writer,” and Patrick laughs, almost runs into a van, says, “That’d be the dumbest decision of your life.”

He doesn’t want to give too much away. That’d make it difficult. This seemed like a good idea half an hour ago, not so much now. The kid’s got a fresh face and a quiet, unassuming voice, he twists his legs together and says things like, “That school’s got so many dodgy teachers,” and he, Patrick, feels the need, the desire, to start a conversation, but knows he can’t. That would ruin everything, Rod telling him he’ll find a new job soon, and there’s Terese, eh, she can help you out for a while? The boy says, “Dad wants me to work for him, but I couldn’t think of anything worse. An accountant. Fuck.”

Patrick can’t help but smile. The kid says fuck, and now he’s smelling the ziplock bag and asking where he gets his roach. A red light, but Patrick guesses he might as well run it, then the sun blinds him, and the world seems different to what it was. It seems like there’s some story, some narrative, from which he’s strayed, mainly because of his impatience. The gear in the boot, sitting, waiting, so there’s no chance of it coming back to him. The route he’s planned. Harry saying this isn’t the quickest way home, and him trying to decide whether it is, or not.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Oct 23, 2021 as "The quickest way home".

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Stephen Orr is an Adelaide-based novelist, essayist and short story writer. His most recent book is Sincerely, Ethel Malley.