This is a short story from the WAG anthology From the Edge available from Bent Banana Books. Enjoy.
In memory of more than 2000 people who suicided, after receiving computer-generated ‘robo debt’ demands – many erroneous – from the Federal Government Centrelink social security organization.
South-east Queensland, September 1998
It was Barbie the Baritone who recommended me.
‘Barbie the baritone suggested you might talk to him, Steele,’ the Gooroo said.
We were sharing tea and scones on a bright spring morning in Con’s Tweed Heads unit. The Gooroo had just turned 68 and he had decided to retire from his somewhat illegal SP bookmaking business. It was fun while it lasted but legal corporate bookmakers had begun to compete with the previous trilogy of government totalisators, on-course bookies, and the dwindling numbers of illegal SPs like the Gooroo.
I had given my best mate, Con Vitalis, 35 years my senior, the nickname the Gooroo after the Local Aboriginal word for deep place or something like that.
‘I’ve created a spreadsheet to map all the punters who owe me money,’ the Gooroo said. ‘I’ve worked out probabilities of people paying me back and also the percentage they are likely to pay if they refuse to fork out the full amount.’ He smiled. ‘I was pleasantly surprised at the results and I have only one outlier.’
I took a sip of tea before I inquired if the Gooroo was talking to me. ‘Are you talking to me or to yourself? Because I don’t know what a spreadsheet is and I don’t know what an outlier is. I pretty much understand the stuff in the middle and it’s good that it looks like you’ve got a pleasing result coming your way.’
‘You know what a spreadsheet is, Steele. It’s got information and maths calculations on it. A bookmaker’s ledger is a spreadsheet. You’ve been working with spreadsheets for 10 years. Just not as sophisticated as the modern computer ones. An outlier is a result far different to the average.’
‘Like an outsider in a horse race,’ I said.
‘Yair, something like that and Charlie Barra has come up as an outlier with me having next to no hope of collecting what he owes me.’
‘How much does this Charlie Barra owe?’
‘Write it off,’ I advised.
‘This may surprise you, Steele, but writing off bad debts without trying earnestly to collect is frowned upon in the business world.’
‘Then talk to him,’ I said
‘I was going to, but Barbie the Baritone was concerned he was emotionally fragile.’
I saw what the problem was. ‘Charlie’s dropped three grand betting on the ponies. Of course he is emotionally fragile. Once he’s wiped the slate clean, he will feel much better.’
The Gooroo was not convinced. ‘I don’t know so much. Barbie is concerned.’
‘Did Barbie offer to clear his slate?’
‘She isn’t that concerned. She suggested you talk to Charlie Barra.’
I might be 6-foot tall but I wasn’t coming at this. ‘I’m not heavying a bloke about a gambling debt. No way.’
The Gooroo was offended. ‘Who said anything about heavying anyone? I’m just asking you to talk to him so I know what the score is. I’ll give you a couple of hundred even if we have to write off the whole 3-gees.’
I was embarrassed after being reprimanded for my dark thoughts. ‘Awlright, I’ll give it a go but I don’t need any money for it. I’ve had a good week on the punt. Maybe Charlie Barra has too. Where does he live?’
‘Dunno,’ the Gooroo said, reaching into his wallet for $40, what he called ‘petrol money’. ‘We did business on the telephone and settled debts in cafes.’
‘I thought it was frowned upon in business not to know the address of customers.’
Barbie’s mum called her Barbara and I called her Barbie the Baritone because it always made me laugh or, at the very least, smile to hear the moniker. She was the lead singer of an all-girl pub band which moved up financially to do cabaret and play corporate gigs for the big money. As a novelty, the blue-eyed blonde sang a set of songs usually performed by baritone or bass vocalists. She would do The Superman Song by Crash Test Dummies, Better Get a Lawyer by the Cruel Sea, the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ Fight Like a Brave, It’s Midnight by Elvis, Light My Fire by The Doors, 16 Tons by almost everybody, and even way back to Old Man River by Paul Robeson.
The punters loved Barbie’s baritone/ bass set and why wouldn’t they? It was way cool.
She opened the door to her unit beside the Brisbane River and I admired the views outside, through the patio window, and in. ‘So, this is your new place. Wow, you done all right for a girl.’
Barbie drummed her fingers on the back of the open door to an old Melanie tune, and invited me in. ‘You know you’re not supposed to quote song lyrics without permission,’ she said. ‘How’s Natalie?’
‘We’re kind of taking a break at the moment,’ I said.
‘Why does that not surprise me? You know, Steele, you’d be a good catch for any woman. If you were not such a hopeless arsehole.’ On cue, Barbie’s CD player gave us the satirical Pretty Fly (For a White Guy) from pop-punkers the Offspring’s new album Americana. ‘And what brings you to my humble abode?’
I scoffed. ‘Humble abode, that new group of yours, Barbie and the Beetroots, must be going sensationally.’
‘It’s Kirsty and the Kalettes. We were going to call ourselves the Scalettes but that was taken. So, we went with the vegetable.’
‘Like in that prickly stalky cabbage stuff. That tastes yuk. That kale will never take off. Kirsty and the Kalettes is cool for a band name, but.’
‘Way cooler than what you called us. As a name, Barbie and the Beetroots wouldn’t work, not even in those pub dives you frequent.’
‘You mean those pub dives where you learned your trade, Barbie.’
‘Fair point but I’ve told you not to call me Barbie.’
‘I always call you Barbie.’
‘And I always tell you not to.’
We bantered about this for a minute and it led to good band names and great song titles and killer lyrics. We had to stop so the whole morning was not done before we talked about a more serious matter.
Barbie was still playing the pubs for peanuts when she first noticed Charlie Barra at one gig. He was at others and he always sat in the same spot to her right, three tables back. He never tapped his knee in time with a song or mouthed the words. At the end of a number he would only clap politely. It was quite disconcerting.’
I nodded. ‘I bet it was. For Charlie. Sounds like you were stalking him.’
‘That’s not funny, Steele. You can get some creepy guys at gigs. That’s how I met you, remember.’
She got me there. I raised my hands in surrender, and sat mute as she continued her tale.
‘He surprised me one night when he came over during the break between sets to buy one of our EPs. He said he really liked the sad song I had just done.’
Barbie appreciated the compliment because the song was an original she had performed in public for the first time. It normally takes quite a few listens before a punter catches onto a song and decides they really like it.
Charlie seemed safe enough and Barbie talked to him at gigs and occasionally they met over a coffee. Small world and all that, it turns out Charlie bets on horse races with Con Vitalis who is Barbara’s grandmother’s second cousin.
When I ask, Barbie does not know what Charlie does for a living. She suspects he may be on a pension as his complexion is pale and he is prone to bouts of coughing. She does not pry into any medical issues. At one time, he mentioned working in an air-force base, maybe as a civilian, Barbie thought.
‘Do you have his address?’ I ask.
She sat silent for a while. ‘What do you want with him?’
‘I thought you said to the Gooroo I should talk to Charlie.’
‘No, that’s not what I said. What I said was you and Charlie probably spoke the same language.’
I had some idea what Barbie was driving at and was not really offended but it was only fair to embarrass the successful performer. ‘What’s that supposed to mean?’
Barbie’s face tinged reddish but she was saved from attempting an awkward response. Dexter Holland, vocalist of the Offspring, burst into the song Why Don’t You Get a Job? Barbie laughed.
I laughed. ‘Don’t like that song much,’ I said. ‘I suppose it’s about the band inheriting a bunch of hangers-on since their success. It just comes across as judgemental. Nice tune, but.’
‘It’s a hit with a lot of people,’ Barbie said.
She got up and walked towards a coffee table with one CD and a sheet of note paper on it.
‘Sure is,’ I said to her back.
Barbie handed me the CD and the paper with an address on it. The CD was Dream’s Up, Kirsty and the Kalettes’ new album. ‘I was supposed to post this to Charlie. You can take it to him if you like. I’ve got a copy for you, too. Just promise me you won’t ask Charlie for money until you come back to see me. Maybe we can work something out. I’ve a bit of cash at the moment but you know what the music biz is like, Steele. One day you’re a bird of paradise, the next day you’re compost.’
Brendale is an industrial suburb north of Brisbane in the shire known as Pine Rivers named after the north and south Pine Rivers. The north and south branches merge into just the plain old Pine River before it empties into the sea. Everything’s pine, up that way.
Brendale has lots of industrial buildings, mostly small. But also modest houses and flats for some of its thousands of workers to live in. I was visiting an octet of brick flats, one of which might contain Charlie Barra. The flats looked like they were built on the cheap with bricks of varied colour. Some bricks were cracked and a few jutted at dangerous angles to the horizontal. Moss stained the base of the two-storey building. Some brick buildings lasted hundreds of years. This one would be lucky to see fifty.
I knocked on the thin wooden door of ground floor flat n0. 4 and a tall man, maybe 6 foot 3, stooped over me, and I was looking at his forehead and the receding grey hair above it.
‘Hi,’ I said. ‘I’m Steele Hill and I was driving out this way so Barbie asked me to deliver this CD.’
The man straightened his head but his shoulders still appeared hunched. ‘Who’s Barbie?’ he asked warily.
‘I mean Barbara,’ I corrected. ‘Barbara Truscott, Kirsty.’
‘But I already paid for the CD.’
‘I know, Charlie. I’m a friend of Barbara’s and I’m delivering it for her. There’s no charge.’
He was trusting enough to invite me in. It was a one-bedroom flat which despite its small size looked larger because of the lack of furniture. A television set and a CD player sat on a round cane table. One lounge chair faced the entertainment devices. Another cane table had two cane chairs underneath. In the kitchen was a thin stove, a noisy old refrigerator, a single washbasin, and a bench running along one wall with a single set of drawers underneath. On the bench were an electric jug and a toaster.
‘Would you like a cup of tea, Mr. Hill? I only got tea. Coffee is very expensive except for the cheap stuff which doesn’t taste nice and I would rather go without.’
‘Tea’s fine, thanks. No milk, no sugar.’
He indicated one of the cane chairs for me to sit in and retrieved tea bags and cups from one of the drawers beneath the kitchen bench.
As we sat drinking bland tea and munching plain biscuits, I realised I would need to lead the conversation as the man had exhausted his dialogue with his observations on cheap coffee. Looking at him, I would say he was about 50, which made him 15 or so years my senior.
I decided not to mention the Gooroo. ‘You go to a lot of Barbara’s shows?’ I asked.
‘A few. What about you, Steele? Did you ever go to the Storey Bridge Hotel when Barbara was in her other band? You look familiar to me.’
‘In ’94, ’95?’
‘Probably. Yair, for sure,’ I said
He seemed satisfied at his memory. ‘At first I thought you were from the Air Force. Undercover. But you don’t look like you’re Air Force.’
‘No I’m not in the Air Force. Are you in the Air Force Charlie?’
‘No. I’m in dispute with them.’
‘I used to work for them. As a civvy in the F-111 Deseal/Reseal section.’
‘Sounds heavy,’ I said. ‘What’s that?’
‘Cleaning and patching up the fighter jets’ fuel tanks. That’s what I did for 12 years, the 12 years from 1981 to 1993. For 12 years.
‘I’ve always been a big bloke but I would crawl into those F-111 jet fuel tanks. I would scrape off all sorts of toxic shit and patch up holes with other sorts of toxic shit and seal the whole thing with different toxic shit.’
Charlie sounded more regretful than angry. ‘Do you ever get depressed, Mr Hill.’
‘Call me, Steele. I guess we all do sometimes.’
A wave of sadness crossed Charlie’s face. ‘People who say that, who say everyone gets depressed at some time, are usually the lucky ones. They don’t get real depression. They don’t get so anxious they can’t open the door to collect the mail. How old do you think I am, Steele?’
I replied truthfully I was no good at ages but he insisted. I decided to be kind and shave a couple of years off what I thought his age was. ‘47-48,’ I said.
It turned out he was 38-years-old. ‘I have grey hair. I have emphysema and I’ve never smoked in my life. I have depression, migraines, and anxiety attacks. I take seven types of medications every day. Some of my medicines are not subsidized on the pharmaceutical benefits scheme. After I started to get depressed, Amy took the kids and left.’
This was not going well. I could not see any lead-in to questions about Charlie’s debt to the Gooroo. ‘Doesn’t the Air Force pay for your medication?’
‘I’ve been battling them for compensation for three years. They keep saying it is under assessment but my condition could have been caused by something else. I never had a day’s sickness in my life before this. I thought that would work in my favor but they say they haven’t got my medical records to eliminate other possibilities.
‘They have their own medical records on me. The Air Force won’t give them to a journalist following my story. They say they’re protecting my privacy. Even my specialists are having trouble getting information from the Air Force. I’m just about at the end of my tether. If I can put enough money together, I’m going to Vietnam. It’s cheaper to live over there and I’m hoping I get to keep my invalid pension. I don’t think I’ve got that long anyway.’
Not knowing what to say, I sat silent for a while. ‘I probably can’t do much, Charlie. But if there’s anything, here’s my phone number. There is one thing, though.’
‘If I leave you 20 bucks, will you promise to buy yourself two giant jars of expensive coffee?’
He smiled ruefully and the deal was done.
I knew the Gooroo would anonymously send Charlie the money for the airfare to Vietnam and some more to set himself up there. Who knew what tall tale Con concocted to explain why Charlie was receiving the windfall?
I did drop back into Barbara’s place. I stopped calling her Barbie because she probably didn’t like it. I told her the Gooroo had written off Charlie’s debt and she was pleased.
Charlie and I corresponded for a while – neither of us owned a computer for those new emails thingos – and I was most pleased when he wrote he was seeing a young woman.
His last letter to me told how he had lost his latest review for compensation and he was not sure if there were many anymore appeal avenues to travel down.
My last letter to Charlie was returned to me along with a note from the Vietnamese police. Charlie Barra had hung himself.