Table of Contents
'Cameron Rogers lives in Melbourne and is the author of The Music of Razors, available through Penguin Books Australia. Please buy it. He needs food.'
It was the kind of job that should pay danger money but doesn't. The client was a Chinese immigrant passingly acquainted with the English language. Her radio, an antique, was busted and she needed someone to fix it.
We said bring it into the shop. Only she doesn't leave her apartment. Ever. Too dangerous, she says. Never leaves.
So they sent me out. She lived in the projects.
It was a grey day. Pouring. The building was the standard L-shaped block of storm-coloured concrete - forget-they're-here grey. The playground was deserted except for a couple of kids in soaked hoodies kissing like porn stars in the rain. Where twelve year olds learn to do that I'll never know.
I took the toolbox from the back of the van and quick-marched to the shattered frame of the stairwell door and headed up.
It came as no surprise that it smelled like piss.
She lived on the seventeenth floor of a set of forty floors of identical halls and rows of doors. Rats were common, dark ripples where wall met floor.
I found her number and knocked. Her door number was represented by the pale shadows of where actual numbers used to be. I had to knock three times. Her voice was a pinpoint of sound - a meek mumble - behind the locked door. She asked who it was, one of a repertoire of English questions I imagine she knew by rote (Who there?) I told her. She wanted proof. I said you called. Recited the phone number. Gave my name. Invited her to check me out through the peep hole and she said she couldn't reach it.
Realising that the wet kids from the playground were looking at me from the end of the hall I asked if I could come in. She unlocked an arrangement of deadbolts and key locks, opened the door, scanned me up and down three times, then undid the three police chains and ushered me through. I looked back as I stepped inside, and the kids were still there. I looked away, oddly grateful now to be inside. I had to pivot flat against the wall to let her relock everything.
She had every window covered with brown paper, the muddy light only serving to further age the place. Directly in front of me was the toilet - a tiny, open-doored cubicle with a stainless steel crapper, like one you'd find in a prison cell - with a little square of brown light directly above the water closet. She'd placed a sprig of jasmine in a clay pot by the flush button. To the left was a cramped kitchen, to the right a lounge room with enough space for a couch, your legs, and an additional piece of modest furniture of your choosing. In this case it was a folding formica-topped bridge table. The radio was on it. One of those really old numbers that yups nowadays pay through the nose for. Looked like a brown cathedral window with dials. Might have been a Philco. She pointed.
"Go quiet," she said. "Fft."
I looked at her. It was like someone had taken a nice, reasonably-sized Chinese lady, squashed her down and pickled her for ten years.
"Fft," she said, slashing a hand sideways across her throat. "Nahting."
I put the toolbox on the couch, popped its hinged silver catch and opened it. She slapped my arm. "Fft," she said, dusting my hand away. "What you do with that?"
"I gotta open your radio," I explained. "You gotta busted tube or something I gotta replace it."
"Fft. No open. Jus' fix."
I really didn't get paid enough for this.