SEEING RED by Jackie Tritt

Red Erikson had spent the majority of his eighteen years in and around the small township of Woolly Butt. Despite his permanent scowl, he liked it there. He’d given the big city a try, for three weeks after he left school, but he couldn’t find a job, couldn’t stand the noise and had nearly been run over by a tram that he wasn’t expecting to be in the middle of the road. So he walked seven kilometres from town, to the well-known spot where the trains had to slow almost to a standstill and he leapt onto a freight train, into an open truck occupied by pigs. They proceeded to grumble to each other about the intruder and he grumbled back about their stink, saying it was nearly enough to put him off his ham sandwiches. And in this way they spent the seven hours that it took to reach Woolly Butt.

His parents had not been expecting him to return so soon. In fact, from the look of his bedroom, it seemed they had not expected him to return, ever. A bench had been built over his bed for Mum’s sewing machine and his wardrobe was filled with bolts of material. She could keep the robe, he said, he’d always been happy to pile his clothes on the floor. But the bench and sewing machine had to go. She did a lot of sighing and her eyes looked watery, and Red thought maybe the hay fever season had started earlier than usual. Only his black Labrador, Jedda, seemed happy to see him – possibly because he reeked of hog. She sniffed him and licked his hands and found a piece of fluffy ham in his pocket.

The family soon adapted to his being around again. Dad, not normally known for his helpfulness, had a word with his mate, Sam, owner of the local soup cannery. Okay then, Red could start at the bottom, Sam said, and work his way up. So Red spent his days watching silver cans swivel past him like shiny Daleks, making sure that each was lined up precisely under the stream of the soup of the week. Each Monday he looked forward to discovering the new soup’s identity. He sucked the vapours of tomato soup deep into his lungs, and he savoured the herbs in minestrone, but the chillies in the spicy Mexican bean soup caught at his throat and made him cough so much he was sent away from the belt to get a drink of water.

This particular week it was something new. Something rich and meaty. His nose couldn’t work it out. He looked in the cans and even then he wasn’t sure. It was too dark for chicken, too gamy for beef. He had to ask Raelene, on labels.

‘Ya don’t know?’ she giggled.

He fancied Raelene. Even with the white, unglamorous hairnet that covered her dark hair, making her, like all the other workers, look really dumb, she was gorgeous. Her brown eyes shone and her teeth gleamed when she laughed, which was most of the time. Her white uniform was bulky, but his imagination easily drew what lay beneath.

‘No. What’s so funny?’

She held her elbows against her body, arms forward, hands downwards, and jumped with her feet together.

‘I’m no good at charades,’ he said.

She scratched her armpits and made small tutting noises.

‘Skippy? No! You’re kidding.’

‘Gourmet soup of the week, mate. The furry half of our revered coat of arms.’

‘Kangaroo soup? Smells okay, I suppose.’

‘Kangaroo tail soup.’ She put on her TV commercial voice. ‘Only the choicest cuts go into Sam’s Soups.’

Sam chose that moment to strut past, glaring at them, so they shrugged and turned back to their work. When they stopped for lunch, Raelene grabbed Red’s arm and hissed in his ear.

‘Come with me. I’ll show ya something.’

‘Oh yeah?’

For a moment, all the delightful things that Raelene might choose to show him flashed through his mind. It was not to be. She looked around, dragged him through the wide, clear plastic strips hanging across the entrance to the cool room, and shoved at heavy doors into the freezer itself. Red had never been in there. As a Dalek watcher, he knew his place and had never sought to go beyond it. It was, as he’d expected, very cold. Patches of white fog clung to the walls and corners. He stared at carcasses of pigs and sheep which hung from hooks on high rails, solid ghosts staring dully through the chill vapours. Suddenly one of the pigs swung out towards him, squealing. He shrieked. Raelene jumped out from behind the pink torso, laughing.

‘God, you’re easy to scare.’

‘Just gave me a fright, is all. I wasn’t expecting it.’

‘Ya don’t have to make excuses. Here’s what I wanted to show ya.’

In the mist-shrouded depths of the far wall, hung row after row of long, cone-shaped cuts of meat.

‘That’s them,’ she said.

‘That’s what?’

‘Kangaroo tails.’ She lifted one down and held it as if she was ready to strike. ‘Ever play baseball?’

He shook his head.

‘Light sabre?’

“Oh, yeah!’ He unhooked one and they jousted for a couple of minutes, doubling up with laughter, until their fingers grew too icy to hold them any more.

‘We’d better go,’ she said, ‘before they notice we’re missing. Plus, it’s cold enough to freeze the - ’

‘I could cuddle you to keep you warm.’

‘Don’t you start,’ she said. ‘Just hang ’em back up. C’mon. Let’s go.’

They sat on the front steps of the factory and thawed out in the midday sun, drawing patterns with their shoes in the dust, ignoring the comments of Woolly Butt’s drifters. With her cap off, Raelene’s hair gleamed blue-black as a raven’s wing and rippled over her shoulders. Her eyes sparkled, her teeth – Red was starting to think like a folk song. He knew he was in love.

During the afternoon, he lost concentration and his mind drifted from the pirouetting Daleks to places far from Sam’s Soups. Someone yelled at him. The precious kangaroo tail concoction was flowing past the cans into the drip tray below. He brought his mind to the job and nudged the cans back into place again. At the end of his shift he had no recollection of how the hours had passed. He touched Raelene’s arm.

‘Walk you home?’ he said. The smile on her face froze as she stared over his shoulder.

It was Sam. ‘I’ll need you for an extra half hour in the cool room, Raelene.’

She gazed at the floor and nodded. ‘You better go, Red,’ she said.

He’d reached the front gates by the time he remembered his lunchbox. His brain had stalled, he thought. It wasn’t much of a brain, but it usually handled his day to day needs without too many glitches. He turned around, explained to Pete on the door why he needed to get back in, retrieved his lunch box from his locker and thought he’d just ask Raelene if she’d like to go to the Drive-in with him, Sat’day night. Grease had just made it to Woolly Butt and he really liked Olivia, ’specially in those tight black leathers. He’d seen it three times already the previous year in the nearest big town. ‘You’re the one that I want’ bopped inside his head.

He pushed into the cool room. Raelene wasn’t there. He tried the freezer. There was movement in the corner. And small shrieks. Frightened shrieks. Something stopped him from calling out. He pressed between the swinging corpses until he could see her, see the whites of her eyes, see her open mouth groaning and puffing small clouds into the bigger mist. And he could see the man who was shoving her against the wall, causing her to cry out.

Red, filled with fury, dropped his lunchbox, lifted down a frozen kangaroo tail and swung with the baseball skills he hadn’t possessed that lunchtime, connecting with the back of the man’s head. The man sagged to the floor and a trickle of blood seeped out through his greasy black hair onto the sawdust beneath. Red rolled him over to see his face.

‘Sam?’ He couldn’t believe it. Not his boss. Not Dad’s best mate. Sam’s eyes were shut, his breathing shallow.

‘You okay, Raelene?’ She wriggled her uniform back over her hips and closed the top buttons. She nodded.

‘You came just in time. He didn’t, you know…Best get out before someone comes.’

‘What about him?’

‘Best we leave him to cool off, eh?’

‘You reckon?’

‘Oh yeah.’ He put his arm round her shoulders, feeling the heat coming off her body, and steered her towards the door.

‘Hang on,’ she said.

‘What?’

‘Better get the weapon. It’s probably got your fingerprints all over it.’

‘What?’

‘Stick it up your shirt or something. I’ll chat up Pete on the door, so he doesn’t notice.’ Pete was Security with a capital S. Muscles like a Sumo, eyes always on the watch. No one tried to smuggle the odd can past Pete.

As Red emerged, he wished he’d worn a singlet under his shirt, like Mum always told him. The kangaroo tail stuck icily to his skin and poked out, top and bottom, of his shirt. He tucked his chin over its thin, whippy point and wrapped his arms round its fat base. Idiot. He’d forgotten the lunch box – again. He slipped into the freezer, found the box where he’d dropped it, checked that Sam was still breathing and ran back out. Raelene leaned sexily against the doorframe, attracting every bit of Pete’s attention. Red slipped through, unnoticed, and headed home, his heart thudding against the cold tail. He wondered, briefly, what had happened to the rest of the roo. He hoped it wasn’t like shark fins. However much you hated sharks, it wasn’t right to just cut off their fins and let them swim off, bleeding into the sea. He’d have to ask Raelene. She’d know.

The heat hung heavily in the air and blood soon started to drip from beneath his shirt. He heard someone running after him, but he daren’t look round. There was a thump on his back and he stopped breathing, waited for the cold steel of handcuffs on his wrists.

‘You okay?’ It was Raelene.

‘That’s the third scare you’ve given me today,’ he said.

‘So – what are we goin’ to do with it now?’

He shrugged his shoulders. ‘Chuck it away somewhere?’

‘It’ll stink in no time.’

‘I’ll think of something. What about Sam?’

‘What about him?’

‘He’ll die if we just leave him there.’

‘So?’

‘He’s not worth goin’ to jail over.’

‘Nah, you’re right.’

‘I’ll phone Pete and tell him to look in the freezer.’ She started to interrupt. ‘It’s okay,’ he said, ‘I’ll disguise my voice. I’m good at Daleks.’

Raelene smiled, kissed him on the left cheek and ran home.

Disposal of the weapon proved not to be a problem, after all. Jedda came bounding out to meet him, snuffled up his shirt, gripped the meat with her teeth and pulled. She dragged it under a bush in the front yard and started the demolition job.

He pulled off his shirt, had a quick wash, being careful to avoid his left cheek, tugged on a clean t-shirt, waved through the kitchen window at Mum, who was stamping on snails in the veggie patch, and reached for the phone. Two minutes later he heard the ambulance siren start. Four minutes later it passed the end of his road and did that weird change in tone, first high, then low. Sam should be okay, but he was the one who deserved to be arrested.

‘The only tricky moment,’ he told Raelene, as they steamed up the back of Dad’s Holden at the Drive-in, ‘was when Jedda spewed up tail bones in front of the cops who came to exterminate me.’

‘Interrogate, d’ya mean?’

‘Oh, yeah. Reckon they should interrogate Jedda, eh? She’s the one who tampered with the evidence.’ Olivia hadn’t got into those tight black leathers yet. He had plenty of time to concentrate on Raelene.

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