Night Shift by Mark Czanik

Three weeks before his six month holiday visa ran out, Frank tore up his return ticket home. He was with Alice at the time, her three-year-old daughter Tamsin sitting on his knee. He wasn’t ready to go home, he said. He’d only just begun to enjoy himself. He may not have a cent to his name, but he had good friends, it was November and the sun was shining. He had his very own laundry to sleep in with a view of the cherry tree in bloom. Why should he have to go back to England just because a piece of paper told him to? He belonged here just as much as anyone else.

Tamsin collected up the pieces from the table, dropped them in the bin under the sink, and then climbed onto his lap again. He lacked the courage to ask Alice if she wanted him to stay, but at least he knew her daughter did.

Of course the truth was more complicated than that. Going home didn’t feel like an option. The shame of returning empty-handed with all his bridges burnt. He had always told everyone that he left Art College to come to Australia with Phoebe because his heart had given him no choice. But this was only half true. He’d been kicked out really, or would have been if he’d tried staying much longer. He had preferred being with Phoebe to going into college to work: cooking porridge on the open fire; drifts of untouched python-white snow wedged considerately against the cottage door while the two of them slept away the afternoons upstairs, or read long novels to one another.

Frank enjoyed his new status to begin with. He felt liberated by his sudden loss of identity as if a rope holding him to account for all his old mistakes and wrong turnings had been severed. The sense of release was not unlike the sense of unburdening he had felt when Phoebe left him that terrible night in the squat for the third and last time. Only at the moment when he realised she would never be back had he realised just how tired he had become of fighting for her. How much easier life was when you didn’t have to struggle to keep someone who didn’t want to be kept.

There were periods of anxiety, paranoia bunkers he dug himself into. In the days after his visa expired he lay in the laundry reading Milan Kundera, expecting the police to turn up any moment, amazed he had given up his freedom in such a reckless way. One afternoon he got a shock when he and Alice and Tamsin came home to find two firemen standing in the middle of the kitchen in search of a fire to put out, and the sight of the blue uniforms was almost enough to make him turn on his heels and make a run for it. Yet when the police failed to materialise, his sense of apprehension was replaced by a feeling of lightness that was anything but unbearable. Suddenly he could do whatever he wanted to. Go anywhere he wished. Reinvent himself. Anything was possible.

One of the first things he had to do to prepare for this new life was to change his name. There was a satisfying sense in which he was following in his father’s footsteps in doing this. His dad had changed both his names after he fled Hungary during the 1956 Uprising in order to fit in more easily with the English way of life. (Frank’s cardboard suitcase had belonged to his father originally, and still had his old initials embossed in gold letters on the clasp). Frank decided to keep his Christian name, and change only his surname, quickly settling on Robinson. After all, how could he not feel like a Robinson here, washed up on his own desert island? The past had been wiped clean, raked smooth of footprints, including his own.

He spent his first Christmas away from home getting burnt by the fierce December sun. For New Year Lisa, his new girlfriend, took him to meet her mother in Coogee, and confessed on the way she might be pregnant. It turned out to be a false alarm, but he almost wouldn’t have minded, as if everything was pointing towards some new and unexpected start he was drifting towards.

This feeling of rebirth was accompanied by an odd feeling of invisibility. Hardly anybody knew his real surname, or had any idea where he was. Other than his passport which he kept hidden in his suitcase under his bed, he had no means of identification, no documents linking him to his former self. His bad habits intensified. With a magician’s pride, he stole harmonicas from their impregnable glass cabinets from right under the sales assistant’s noses, walked out of the Art Gallery with books tucked under his jumper the size of patio slabs. Once he stole an American dollar bill from a pavement artist’s hat when he mistook it for a hundred dollar note. He felt no shame, since it seemed to him his behaviour bore no relation to the self he presented to the world. If you thought of yourself as invisible pretty soon that’s what you became.

Evidence of his not there-ness pervaded his work life too. Tired of scraping by on busking, he got a job as a telephone salesman at an insurance company called Professional Transformations. He was interviewed for the post by a genial, pipe-smoking old man who clearly had no idea how to assess the suitability of prospective employees since he failed to ask Frank a single question. Consequently, Frank accepted the post without knowing what he had been hired to do. There was no sign of the insurance agent for whom he was supposed to make appointments, or anyone to ask for advice. The office was divided up into seventy cubicles, all unoccupied. Each cubicle had a desk, a swivel chair, a directory, and a black dial telephone. After much deliberation, he chose one tucked away by the window.

On his first day he made one or two unsuccessful calls. Still, he didn’t let this discourage him. He was a self-motivated person and always carried a book with him. Milan Kundera’s Life is Elsewhere kept him company most of the time. And if he grew tired of reading, there were contemplative pleasures to be had in studying the ant-like trails of people in the street below or watching the sundial of a yellow crane.

It was twenty-one days before a cleaner discovered him, and told him he had been sacked a week ago.

 

Not long after becoming an illegal immigrant, Frank met someone else who had outstayed his welcome. On the surface Stefan had all the accoutrements of respectability: a successful business, a big house and flashy car, a works van with the name of his company emblazoned on the side. But Stefan was a German who had been living in Sydney illegally for twelve years, according to Alice. More importantly, he too had been lured here by a woman, and abandoned.

Frank went to see him in his workshop on Nelson Street, convinced there would be some kind of unspoken understanding between them. A man wearing a green combat jacket with straw coloured, uncombed hair and a nicotine-stained, porn-star moustache was sitting at his desk, smoking. He didn’t immediately give the appearance of someone who had given up everything for love.

‘Have you ever done any painting and decorating before? Stefan asked.

‘No, but I was an art student for four years. I know how to handle a brush.’

Stefan stubbed his cigarette out and leant back in his chair. ‘Show me your hands.’

He held out a pair of soft pink palms.

Stefan said he’d be in touch.

A week later, Frank and Alice’s boyfriend Jacob were given a job painting a living room in a small terrace on nearby Henry Street. The house was empty, the old lady who lived there having gone to stay with her sister in Italy while the work was being carried out. Frank found the rituals of the work comforting: clearing the mantelpiece of its cherished ornaments and family photos; covering the furniture with shrouds of dustsheets; carrying in the tools of his trade. He enjoyed the feeling of the first layer of Jasmine White going on, the sense of new beginnings it implied. He liked working with Jacob too, and was at ease with his Zen-like silences; this man who, with Alice, had probably saved his life by taking him in when he’d turned up on their doorstep in his anorak with nowhere else to go. Half way through the week Jacob was called away to another job, and he was even trusted to finish the room alone. With each brushstroke Frank felt his confidence returning.

The next job was in Double Bay on the top floor on an office block. It was a big job. On the day he and Jacob arrived, workers were still sanding the partition walls. Tools lay everywhere. Two men had just finished laying a carpet, which went by the fanciful name of Egyptian Sand. Once the dust was settled, Frank’s job was to take care of the paintwork for which he alone was responsible. He threw himself into the work, laying the paint on generously. In doing so he openly disregarded his boss’s advice to apply the expensive paint sparingly, but by now he was coming into his own. He didn’t believe in skimping, not where his creative integrity was concerned. True, he wasn’t the cleanest of painters, and got a certain amount on his clothes and the dustsheets, but this was a small thing. Indeed, the paint he accrued on his trousers and T-shirt, gave him something of a rakish, artistic appearance. If the other workers laughed, let them. To him it was the canvas that mattered, not a few unruly paint blotches. And when he got home Lisa would be there waiting to pull those paint stiffened jeans from his legs.

He was pleased with the results. He felt like a pioneer. Part of him was here forever now on the top floor of this twelve-story office block on the other side of the world.

Stefan was impressed too. He made no direct comment on the walls, but the way he quietly appraised them while taking thoughtful drags on his Winfield told him he wasn’t unhappy with his fellow expatriate’s work and had chosen well. However, when they drew back the dustsheets and saw the state of the carpet, Frank realised Stefan’s faith in him was about to receive its first significant test.

Paint footsteps. Dozens of them. Scattered all over the room. He stood with Stefan and the office manager, looking down at these strange manifestations. Only half a dozen or so were complete, fully formed footprints; most were only fragments. But there was no denying that was what they were.

‘Show me your shoes,’ Stefan said.

Frank showed him the soles of his trainers. There was a small amount of paint on them. Maybe even quite a lot. And the tread did look similar. He had a slight instep to his left foot, and this too was discernable in some of the better prints. He couldn’t explain it. He’d taken the necessary precautions, hadn’t he? How had all that paint found its way under the dustsheets like that? There was something almost miraculous about it.

The manager was a tall hunched man with a placid, kindly disposition and hooded dark eyes. Frank warmed to him, much as an accused man warms to his executioner.

‘The carpet’s new,’ he said. ‘You’ll have to remove this paint. But I’ve got staff turning up first thing Monday morning and we can’t have decorators here during office hours.’

‘You’ll have to remove them,’ Stefan repeated.

‘How do I do that?’ Frank asked, not unreasonably. Looking around, he was bewildered again by the sheer amount of walking he appeared to have done over the last six days.

‘I don’t care how you do it,’ Stefan said. ‘Just do it. You can work nights.’

And so Frank set about the painstaking task of removing his own footprints. Each night when the office closed at eight o’clock and the last office workers left he would let himself into the building, catch the lift up to the eleventh floor, and begin meticulously snipping at the paint footprints with a pair of scissors. If this failed to work convincingly he scraped away the paint with a razor blade, although the stains often went deep into the fibrous roots of the carpet. His problem was compounded by the realisation that the more he scraped the more indelible the holes became. Over the course of the week some of the better prints became literally shadows of themselves. Faint ghost prints gradually took the place of the painted prints that when viewed from certain angles gave the appearance of footprints in sand.

He took off his shoes and placed his feet into these, as if he was indeed Robinson Crusoe discovering his own footprints on the shore and mistaking them for somebody else’s. A companion with whom to share his desert island.

Not that there weren’t pleasures to be had in having such a vast building all to himself. He could play music as loudly as he wanted. He could hold his breath, press his forehead to the windows, and look down at the tiny glowing beads of traffic moving silently far below, and wonder if Phoebe ever dreamt of him while she lay in that Irishman’s arms. Imagine he was some character in a fairytale who had been set this impossible task, and not be free of this dark tower in which he had been imprisoned, and able to win her back until he had completed it.

He did complete it, though. By the end of the week only a few partial footprints remained. When he had finished dealing with these he vacuumed the carpet one last time, being mindful not to push the hoover anywhere near the areas he had been working, some of which were disguised by nothing more than tamped down layers of fluff by this time. Then he got the lift down to the ground floor, and began the long walk home.

The day was already hot. He stole a bottle of milk from an office doorstep and drank it as he walked. The streets were eerily quiet to start with, but as he got closer to the city unusually large crowds began to gather. George Street was closed to traffic and it was only then, as he struggled against the huge tide of people making their way down the wide street that he remembered it was Bicentennial Day. Prince Charles and Lady Diana were due to speak outside the Opera House that afternoon. The tall ships were entering the Harbour to commemorate the arrival of the first fleet. People were carrying teddy koalas and joeys and waving Australian flags and wearing T-shirts saying, ‘Heaven is Down Under.’

Then behind them came hundreds of Aboriginals holding placards saying things like ‘Year of Mourning,’ ‘White Australia has a Black History,’ and ‘Australia Day = Invasion Day.’ Some of the marchers were dressed in dusty T-shirts with the black, red and yellow Aboriginal flag on, but many of the men wore only loincloths, their faces and bodies decorated in painted white dots and symbols. One raised banner depicted rows of silhouetted Aboriginals linked together by neck chains.

He wondered if he should go with them. But he continued on his way, weaving through the crowds, clinging to the shade, cutting through air-conditioned stores, his trousers, T-shirt, hair, and spectacles smeared with whole galaxies of stars.


Mark Czanik’s short stories and poems have appeared in Southword, Wasafiri, Cyphers, The Frogmore Papers, Riptide, and been broadcast on BBC Radio 4. He was born in the sweet borderlands of Herefordshire, and now lives in exile in Bath. He studied at Bretton Hall, Bath Spa University, and The University of South Wales.

 

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