Writing: In the Detail

This writing short is of an encounter with a charity representative on the Friday after work. It got me thinking and it got me Googling. It was an unusual, if not strange, encounter so I thought I’d write something. I hope the guy I spoke to was genuine. I do believe he was.

On the back of a late night Jarrah Hot Choc ☕ is this story. #suddenlyinspired

**

In the Detail

I have never understood how you’re supposed to sign away your details on spending five minutes with a charity sales representative.

This Friday afternoon walking in the opposite direction of a hospital, after staring at spreadsheets all day, I was stopped by a guy dressed in a white lab coat. He waved me down. I thought he needed help. Turned out he wanted to show me a packet of something.

‘Take a look at this,’ he said. He had light brown hair, pale skin, and rosy cheeks. He was pretty enough to be a member of a boy band.

He handed me a packet of powder. I’m not sure how he did. The exchange was seamless. 

I suppose I was distracted, trying to figure out which boy band he could be a pseudo member of. He had a bit of Alex Band from The Calling going for him. Maybe a touch of Kian Egan from Westlife? Mixed with Take That’s Gary Barlow, a younger version perhaps? I’ve put too much thought into this.

My naïve brain jumped at the thought: ‘He’s handed me something nefarious! Something illegal! He’s a dealer? I was expecting something a little more subtle? It’s no wonder school kids get caught up in this.’

I looked at the packet.

It said ‘Plumpy Nuts’. 

Not what I had been thinking. The incredulity of seconds ago vanished. In its place was a shred of intrigue. 

I decided against walking off. He had managed to get my attention. I’d spare a minute to hear him out.

‘What’s the number one killer of children?’ he asked.

‘Uh. Famine?’ 

‘Close. Diarrhoea,’ he advised before launching in to facts about the product in front of me. Nutritional information the live version was far more entertaining than reading off a cereal box.

He continued, ‘How much do you think one pack costs?’ 

It was like a ‘Who wants to be a Millionaire’ question, minus the million at stake, the multi-choice options, Eddie McGuire, Eddie McGuire asking what I do for a living, Eddie McGuire wanting to know my hobbies, my edge-of-your-seat lifelines.

I decided to reason out loud any way.

‘Well, they’re probably mass produced. You’re asking me, so it must be something ridiculous. Can’t be expensive. Probably really cheap.’ I paused, the silence an amplifying, dramatic effect, bugger I needed an adbreak, ‘Fifty-cents?’

‘Almost, you’re ten-cents off. They’re forty-cents. Imagine how many children could be fed with a monthly donation.’ 

Before I could let my imagination run wild, he reached for his iPad. It was here that the charity he represented was revealed. On the corner of the iPad screen was the logo: Médecins Sans Frontièrs. It was strange, he hadn’t mentioned it, nor was he wearing anything to identify himself as a representative of the charity, nor was his setup any kind of charity stall. Donations must have been down. There was just his backpack on the ground and a couple of boxes. There were no flyers or anything to remotely indicate he was a bona fide rep. There was nothing to suggest this wasn’t a scam. There were two of them. His colleague had the attention of another passerby. His colleague had grey hair. He could have been the boy band’s manager. The iPad screen was open to a sign up page. I noted at a glance it required the donor’s name, date of birth, and address. Why did they need a bunch of details straight up? It was a donation after all. Why did they require a date of birth?

He told me I could sign up today. I’d receive a free welcome pack to show my commitment to this program. That was supposed to convince me. 

I nodded slowly. Nodding would convey my acknowledgement, and combined with the relative pace of nodding, my reservation. I thought I was being subtle. 

The next two minutes did not go as he had planned. You see, he had lost me with the sign up page asking for too much too soon. It was time for me to get back on track. Quite literally: I had a train to catch.

‘Thanks for the information. That’s very interesting and I’ll certainly be Googling ‘Plumpy Nuts’, was it? That’s good work.’ I honestly wanted to Google it.

He closed the distance between us, encroaching but marginally missing the boundaries of personal space. ‘What’s stopping you from signing up today?’ 

‘Look, I’ll go on the website. I like doing my research,’ I replied.

‘Or you could just sign up today?’ he repeated inching the iPad closer. It looked like a real MSF page. That said nothing of the veracity of the page or the security of information entered.

‘I could, but I can always sign up on the website. Like I said, I’ll be Googling Plumpy Nuts,’ I said trying to best convey enthusiasm about the cause and uninterest in his.

‘You could sign up right now?’ he prompted again. There was a demand there. He’d made the question into a statement. 

‘I’ll go on the website,’ I said again. Unable to stop myself I added: ‘Also, I’m not exactly comfortable entering all my details right now into what really is a random iPad’. In hindsight, I should have just been honest and mentioned that dentist appointment I had been putting off, got around to booking, and was ‘Oh, would you look at the time?’ running late for. That, or the infinitely better options hindsight has divulged.

He took that as cue to state that it was in their terms and conditions to take privacy seriously. I’m not sure if it occurred that at this point my doubts were about him and his operation

Despite which, I did think he was being genuine. 

Even if he had appeared as legitimate as you could represent with these things, I’d still have gone with a click to the website. Research is fun, unlike wet socks. Or for that matter, getting scammed.

I made one more mention of the website to which he looked at me as if I was a freak. His face was screaming all things paranoid and tin-foil hat. He was taking this personally. What was my problem? 

The air was thick with non-verbal cussing. 

I’d implied there were issues with the legitimacy of his whole setup. I’d implied he might be a fraud. 

No boy band member likes to hear the truth. They were concerns nonetheless.

I’d tried subtlety. It hadn’t worked. 

‘Look mate, I’m going to be wasting your time. Nothing you say is going to make me sign up. Like I said, I like doing my research and the website will be there when I get on to Googling Plumpy Nuts. I appreciate the info. Cheerio.’ Blimey, I’d carried on with more indignance than intended. 

‘Okay,’ he said backing off. 

He returned to more non-verbalised cussing. 

He had gone from passionate to pushy to peeved in the space of five minutes. I’d repeated myself like a broken record.

The earbuds were back in as I walked to the station. 

I bookmarked the Wikipedia page to ‘Plumpy Nuts’ so I wouldn’t forget the name.

I changed my mind about him. He couldn’t be a pseudo member of any good boy band. He might’ve had the looks but, like everything, it was in the detail—and I hadn’t had to look far. He didn’t have the voice for it.

I hit shuffle. 

‘No Matter What’ came on for my listening pleasure. 

Dulcet tones told me: ‘No matter what they tell us. No matter what they do …. What we believe is true.’ 

Thanks Boyzone.

There’s a real message in that.

**

enchirist 2018

Writing: The Playground 

To me, this is almost non-fiction because a great deal of it is true and happened. I tried to style this in a way where the age of the writer, their voice on the page, is ambiguous, indeterminate. 

Well, that was my intent, any way. 

I hope my fellow nine-year-old, as we were in this story, is doing well.

I have fond memories of childhood. It was a time of learning, growing up, and finding your way. It brings back memories of simpler times. Some of that I have tried to channel with this piece.

As an aside, I continue my quest for spirit appreciation with pay day bringing to the palate: Canadian Club Whiskey. I’m finding it quite plain. Mixing it with Coca-Cola, which I unfortunately didn’t have on me, I’ll have to try.

On the back of CCW, is this story. #suddenlyinspired

***

The Playground

We were two nine-year-olds in the playground.

She was angry at life. Her mother had died and it was her first day back at school.

Unsure, avoided glances in the corridors assured her that they knew. Whispers from the staff room trickled down to hushed morning discussions at the drink fountain.

It was a car crash.

There were questions they wanted to ask. Questions that they knew were out of bounds. It was an unwritten rule, and much like the out of bounds area that only year fives and above were allowed in, you weren’t meant to broach these things.

How did it happen?

Who was making her lunches now that her mum was gone?

Who was dropping​ her off to school?

What was it like not having a mum?

How was she feeling? 

Was she sad?

Did she need a hug?

**

We were hanging out in our usual spot. The spot by the sandpit with the monkey bars, and the log roll, and those chains wrapped in tyre material you could spin around on until you got dizzy. Some kids were good at doing a lot of spins. 

Today was no different to any other day. I got on with balancing on the log roll, and occasionally climbing on top of the rail. It was more fun to use playground equipment as it wasn’t designed. She was sitting in the sand digging shallow holes and refilling them with sand. We sometimes buried our change from buying ice-creams in the sand, wondering if someone would find them. It was usually the twenty-cents we hid. Garlic bread at the canteen was twenty-cents. Someone would be really lucky. A pile of twenty-cents would buy a lot of garlic bread. Or Nutella breads. They were fifteen cents. I think garlic bread was more popular.

I asked her how she was going. She was okay. 

She asked me how I was. I was okay. I told her it had been a while since I had seen her. She agreed.

Conversation was sporadic. I talked a lot more than her today. What she shared, was whatever she wanted to, and vice-versa. It had kind of always been like that. 

I’m not sure if pressure is the right word, but if it were, there never was any. 

Being an active listener was a difficult job. You had to be quiet and listen to someone else’s thoughts. You had to think about what they were talking about. You had to have empathy and compassion, and you learned not to judge. You got to hear them. I don’t think I’ve met anyone since who understood things quite like she did.

I asked her if she was okay with being back. She said she was. 

I asked her about things that weren’t the kind I thought she would be asked.

She told me Jasper still liked sitting under her dad’s car. 

No, she didn’t take him for walks.

She told me they had Chicken Treat for dinner the night before. 

No, she hadn’t wanted the sweet and sour pork with special fried rice from Amelia Li’s. Li’s was in the town shopping centre. I usually bought one spring roll from them after I went in for a look at the snack aisle at Woolies.

Yes, she had thought about Bruno’s Fish and Chips.

We both thought takeaway was special because it was a sometimes thing. It was even more special because Chicken Treat was the only real fast food place in town. 

We both agreed that the smell of yummy food, takeaway fried chicken especially, would make you hungry, when it was almost mealtime and you had already raided the fridge. It would be bad if you had eaten two Vegemite sandwiches for lunch and you didn’t have room.

Food journeys had consistently been a topic of discussion between us, if a little one-sided at times.

I was glad she didn’t mind the questions I asked— food, or otherwise. 

They were banal.

No, she hadn’t been watching the shows on ABC from three to five in the afternoon. She did watch Toasted TV some mornings. It had been pretty boring lately.

Yes, she had played basketball on the weekend. She was good at it. Her cousins had forced her to but. They ended up doing practice shots only. She told me it had been good to get out in the sun. 

I had always liked when she told me about what she did. They were like little gems of detail, unique in their own way. I liked hearing about life outside of the uniform.

She asked me about what I had been up to. I talked way, way more than she did.

I had been riding my bike after school. I would zip around the backyard as fast as I could. We had dug these massive holes in the dirt. They were about half a bucket deep. We ran the hose until they were full of water and the dirt was all muddy. It was our backyard BMX trail and we would ride our bikes over the holes, like obstacles you had to pass. It was hours of fun. Then we would have to hose our bikes down because they got very grubby. We would cover our bikes in blue tarpaulin and lock them to the security grills on our bedroom windows to make sure no one stole them.

I told her about the most fun thing I’d done: rides on our washing line. It was an old steel Hills Hoist. I would hang on to one of poles that formed the line’s cross-shape and push off the ground. I’d spin around so fast on the washing line, it was like flying. I would do little running take-offs as the spinning slowed, and then I’d be flying again. It was the best thing ever.

We talked about awesome rides. We decided if theme park rides ever came to town we would eat fairy floss and do all the crazy ones, the ones everyone would be scared of going on. They would be the most thrilling. The Street Party was the annual town event when the streets at the whole centre of town were closed off for one big event with food and music stalls, and rides. It was at Christmas time, ages away. I’d seen the rides but never gone. They looked like scary rides. We could start with those. She thought that would be a good idea.

**

She paused and walked over to the monkey bars. 

She told me that it was different.

She missed doing stuff. She missed stuff. Her aunty had been helping out at home, taking care of little things like meals and washing. They weren’t really little things. Her aunty had taken her out a few times. 

Things at home when it was just them were hard.

They were lost without her.

She woke up some days disbelieving. It wasn’t real. It was a bad dream. 

Silence punctuated her thoughts.

Her eyes were dry as she spoke. They were eyes searching​ for answers. She hid her sadness. She was frustrated. She didn’t want this to have happened. She was angry that it had happened. Then she was resigned that it had. Then she was angry. Then it was not real. Then it was.

Where was fairness? Why?

Why did it have to be her? She told me that was constantly in her thoughts.

I didn’t know what to say that would be consoling. How could anyone console someone who’d lost their mother? Was that even possible? Even grown-ups would struggle with it. I recall awkwardly telling her that I didn’t know what to say but I would be there for her. I moved to sit next to her on the monkey bars. I told her if I could help in anyway she could tell me, and I would. She nodded.  

She returned to the sand and we were quiet for a bit. It was a reflective, comfortable, okay silence.

She dug a bit more in the sand. 

She looked up and smiled. Her eyes barely crinkled and her lips barely moved, but there was the tiniest hint of a smile. I hoped maybe it meant she was feeling a tiny bit better in this moment or at least that she was okay sharing that with me.

I guess in a way it told me she was resilient. Things would not always be okay, but she would be okay. 

From everyone around her, she needed their acceptance not curiosity. 

She needed company not words.

I would try to do that. I just felt useless at it. 

She laid back on the sand.

She told me she had forgotten​ to mention the chips from Chicken Treat. Sharing our chip-trying escapades was one of the things we did. The chips had been hot and crispy which was good because sometimes if you went at dinner time and they were busy you could get rushed chips. They could be soggy and oily or burnt. She would have given them to Jasper if they had been. It was good to know.

I went over to the sand and threw off my shoes, and wriggled my feet into the sand. It was nice and cool.

I remember that it was a hot day. We had our hats. It was lucky that we had both remembered them or we might have been stuck in that esky of an undercover area. Or worse, it was such a nice day we might have overlooked the dangers of borrowing from the spare hats basket. 

The siren rang. ‘Eeeeer. Eeeeer.’ It was a strange siren, our school siren.

Lunchtimes always felt like an eternity. It was sad when they came to an end. We walked back to our class. We both agreed we weren’t looking forward to silent reading. At least there was library in the afternoon, which meant going on the computers to do ICT work then having free time that was either spent playing computer games or doing actual reading. Most kids didn’t choose reading.

As we walked back to class, she put her hand on my shoulder. 

‘That was a bit fun you know. Not really like old times but I would eventually have had to be back.’

‘I’m glad. Peyton, let’s hang out after school, if you’re okay to.’

‘I am,’ she nodded, ‘Where?’

‘How about, the washing line? 

Line up, line up to be spun around on the highest spin cycle in the ride of the century,’ I said in the best gameshow host impersonation I could do.

She looked at me with raised eyes, the puns well and truly sinking in. She sighed with a look like she had given up on me as a friend.

‘You know, I’m not okay to be back. That was the worst thing I’ve heard from anyone today,’ she said half-exasperated, half-serious, and half-amused, if it were possible to be all at the same time. Maths was never my strong point. 

I couldn’t help but smile. 

I’d spent lunch asking lame questions about her dinners, and now I’d gone and dropped washing line puns in the hopes of getting her spirits up. 

Somehow, I think we were both okay with that.

Two-player Miniclip online games would be alright this afternoon.

***

© enchirist