Booking a spot of trouble in the village.
Lester McCluskey did not need telling this was bad. The Rec Room's wide-screen Samsung television with its row of icons for Netflix, Neon, and any stream not involving running water was dead. Press the buttons. Belt the remote against the chair. Yell at it. Plead. Beg. Nothing worked. That screen stayed black.
Remembering what Sylvia, his wonderful wife, said his swearing did not help. 'I have had enough. Thirty-nine years is enough. If you want dinner any time between now and getting wheeled off to the undertaker's oven that language has to stop.'
So far, he had put two expletive-free days in the bag. That was good. This was different. Nothing like this had come along to rev up the rage. He was there for the football final. The TAB bet was on. His anticipation pulsed all week. He held the first of what he expected would be several beers. Well, nope. The TV was stuffed. He didn't have Sky Sport at home. Radio Sport had gone the way of the milk bottle, the pound note, and cheap petrol. Trudge home and it was doom; footy-free, house decoration and cooking shows.
He bit back profanities, obscenities, general abuse, and oaths. This took work, enough deep breaths to send him spinning into mild hyperventilation, clenching his fists tight, closing his eyes and praying to any God passing by. Having Sylvia standing there on Swearing Watch added to the suffering.
Finally, he trusted himself to let out a 'There'll be trouble in the village over this'.
The road to Lester's fury booted up at Mary Phillips launching her slim book of poems. She ran it off on the photocopier and stapled it together herself. There had been a couple of disappointments at the bookshops at discovering they didn't know genius when it was in front of them, were never whipping it on to the shelves, or dropping heavy, or any, promotion on it.
She still had the launch and that would salvage everything. She invited everyone in the village. It would dawn on her she might have made a couple of mistakes. She told everyone they would have to buy at least one book, and mentioned the twenty-dollar price, which on reflection, she had to admit might have been a tad on the steep side.
Mary rang three hundred and forty-two of the residents. Fifteen turned up. Two of them looked around for the sandwiches and sausage rolls, couldn't see any, and slithered out the door. Another chap's nurse came to take him back to his room. Someone joked about them being the stranded survivors. Mary didn't like that. It lowered the tone. She would improve things, make the best of it. She would establish a high, literary meeting of minds. If they insisted on being peasants Mary and her poems would lift them to a better place.
She swept the room with a quick glare.
Bob Castle got the full frost. He did not want to be there. He was sent by his wife, who did not want to go but insisted the household was represented. Bob's idea was to do a quick drive-by, get seen, and bolt for the beach to do some surfcasting while the tide was right.
Plus, Bob has this feeling he should get Mary back on side. He'd accidentally smacked her ankle when she walked across the bowling green 'because it was her right to go anywhere she wanted' just as he realized he was five shots down and sent a bowl bulleting down the green, spraying the kitty and the other bowls, turning them into lethal missiles. One hit Mary on the ankle. She hobbled off, to kick off months of hurt looks, sniffing, and frequent reminders of her agony and loss of mobility. Bob's decided his repentance would include taking the book home, tossing it in the back of the wardrobe, unread, and enjoy freedom from Mary's sniping remarks about her recovery.
Mary was not having anyone up and leave. Her jaw firmed up. She flicked her hair in what she was sure was a stylish and artistic way. This was her day, her moment, and it was not going to drift away. She waved the thin little crowd forward. 'I will read' she announced, in a dramatic way. She'd seen writers do that in the movies, which meant it must be the right thing to do.
She ripped through the one about how the Pohutakawa tree was not a Pohutakawa tree at all. It was a symbol of the injustice of how rugby test matches, and rugby generally, soaked up vast sums of money needed for poets to create wonderful works shining truth down on the unenlightened, who could become enlightened by exposure to Great Art, saving them from wasting their days pulling snapper up on to the beach.
Bob was not sure he saw the connection with the Pohutakawa. Best not say anything. Keep quiet and it all might finish a bit quicker. That worked in the Army, where indoor training sessions tended to end when the questions dried up. If no one asked any more the class was dismissed and everyone could leg it, for home, the Mess, or a bit of extra sport.
Janice Milligan-Smith saw Bob itching to get away, and was not forgetting that time he'd pointed out she slid a couple of extra tiles into her wall in the Mahjong. Janice hadn't done it but Bob mentioning it was a sin needing more than Confession to wipe away. She turned to Mary. 'That was wonderful. Can you do another one? Please'.
Mary did not need to be told. She was off, sprinting off through the one about how the Devil was not Satan but was Sky Sport for turning young minds away from truth and beauty.
Bob didn't know much about poetry, probably because he'd never been interested enough to read any that wasn't on a Condolence card at a funeral. He was thinking he doubted Mary was ever lining up for a season ticket at Eden Park.
Mary finished the reading, nodding, bowing and acknowledging and encouraging the worryingly-thin applause. A few 'Wonderfuls' and 'Greats' floated over her. She smiled in a faux-modest way. She'd been at other launches and that is what truly talented poetesses did.
Bob was wondering if there might be able to salvage something from this horror. Probably not. The turning tide was about to stuff the surfcasting. If he was stuck her there was still a chance she would keep reading and she might get through the lot. Hear them all and he could get away without buying one. Bob had one boring book at home and did not need another one.
He couldn't see any little pies, sandwiches, or sausage rolls turning up. What he could see was wine. Mary had gone big. The chap from the supermarket was wheeling in at least four cartons of it. Someone was putting it out on the table, along with the beer handles; after the wine glasses had been locked away by mistake.
Bob looked at the labels on the bottles. He'd seen them before, in the Six Buck Special bin down at the end of the freezer full of chicken breasts.
'Oh well, a soldier in the field has to make do with whatever resources are available.'
He filled one of the handles with what he hoped was the least vicious reds and sent it on its bacteria-cleansing, jolting, shuddering way down past where his tonsils used to be. He was sure he could feel it ripping at vulnerable tissue all the way through his intestinal system.
There was only one thing to do, crank up the anaesthetic effect with a few more.
He looked down at an empty bottle. That was a surprise. 'Wow, they must have cut back on the amount they put in them.'
No one seemed to be taking any notice. Mary was firing off another poetry missile and everyone was looking her way, smiling, adoring or grimacing. The other two chaps there looked like they were praying for deliverance from this Purgatory, and because they were trapped up at the front they were cut off from the wine till Mary gave permission.
Bob got another two or three handles away and looked at another empty bottle. 'Better get them out of sight. He slid them back in the carton and tried to Cellotape it back down so it would not look opened.
His wife told him the civilised thing was mix and mingle and perhaps another glass or two, to be sociable and slow down all the talk around the village of him being a bit of a yob and a lout.
So, he did.
A couple more glasses and a few laboured attempts at small talk later Mary got herself and her books by the door. There was no way past. Bob, twenty bucks lighter, wobbled out into the darkness.
He bumped into a couple of the building's walls. 'Whoopsie Daisy, I might have had one too many. Look, you used to be a soldier. Adapt and keep going.' This worked until the end of the building, where the painters had been doing touch-ups on the window frames. They had shifted some of the wires leading to the village's television satellite dish to one side, and forgot to put them back.
One was hanging down.
It brushed Bob's forehead. Flashes of his time in the army's jungle training smashed back.
'It's the snakes. It's the snakes.' They'd sent him into bowel-trembling terror then and they did now.
He grabbed and ripped and tore at the wire, yanking it out on the ground and stamping on it over and over, until it looked still and dead.
'Thank you, God, for sparing me.' He stopped. Where's the bloody book! He had to drop to his knees and crawl around until he found it under the hydrangas. 'Thank you for letting me find the wretched thing.'
Bob staggered home and flopped on the couch, falling asleep in front of his television, hooked up to his computer to stream the football finals. Two doors away Lester McCluskey was learning more than he ever needed about how a single contrast colour used sparingly could add a theme to a living room. He seethed, and could not help howling a 'Damn, damn, damn!' His wife looked across at him in a way Lester did not like. Was this going to be trouble in the village?