Floyd Collins

Floyd Collins sat on the hood of his Dodge putting on his walking shoes. The “hood” is a much more appropriate name to describe the flap that opens up to the engine than what the English would refer to as the “bonnet”, which is what you put on the head of a one year old English girl who’ll grow up to marry a gentleman of the aristocracy. Besides, it’s an American car; Floyd has maintained the original left hand drive and it drives like an American car should, all muscle and energy and James Dean swagger with the packet of Lucky Strikes under the turned up sleeve on the t-shirt.

Walking in the morning was as much as he could manage since the medication had taken effect, making anything other than breathing a struggle. The balance, the vision, the speech, they were so far up a Daintree jungle, ever been in one?, that not even his Special Tactics Unit was going to extricate him from it. The medication had given him back some sleep, it was all he could do to walk. He was sedated, so he walked, to try and get something right, release some positive energy for the day. He was desperate to snap a losing streak, six months of sleep deprivation.

Before the drugs, when sleep was a far off conception, Floyd would wander out into the night time and search for a way to make himself sleep. At 2 a.m, when sleep was hard to come by, he’d walk past number twelve, which had the orange trees in the front garden; eighteen had a landscaped garden with a pergola; fifteen had a six feet tall wall that revealed nothing, other than fear, Floyd guessed.

Twenty eight had a double garage that housed a Porsche that needed cleaning. Floyd made a note of the house numbers, he made a point of playing a game, being able to describe, when he got home, each frontage with each number, so that it might help him sleep. Another activity that helped his mind from going somewhere it didn’t need to go. At 3 a.m he’d arrive home and head back to bed, hoping for a dream but all he did was toss and turn.

At 4 a.m he’d turn on the television, in the cold, hoping for redemption in the news, in the film from Spain about a drug dealer and his girlfriend, the type of girlfriend he longed to have. No dream came and so he made a cup of tea. It happened every night, (except for the Spanish film) the sleep, the turning, the tea forgotten on the bench, the chess played against the computer only to, again, lose, the porridge prepared for the morning so that it would be ready.

At 5 a.m he’d head back to bed believing that an hour snatched could be worth more than its total but he gets thirty minutes. He tried going to bed early so as to get a head start but it didn’t work. He ended up waking at 11 p.m; he’d try going to bed late so that his tiredness overwhelmed him but that too was to no avail. He’d manage barely an hour before the waking, and the walking, commences.

At 6 a.m Floyd would drag himself out of bed for the final time that morning, having slept for less than two hours, realising that it was pointless in trying to get more sleep; and having watched part of a film about drug dealing, although, even Floyd, in his state, could see that the film was really about people. So Floyd Collins went for a walk through the crying dreaming resting suburbia, in the dark, while suburbia lay oblivious, as the rest of the world did, as the checkout child at the supermarket did, as the lady selling her fruit did, as the service station attendant did.

He’d taken up walking as a genuine hobby; it clears his head, although it still doesn’t appear to help him get to sleep. But he walks anyway; he said that he had to get a walk in or he’d get to the end of the day without really having achieved anything. He goes for his morning constitutional as he puts it; it’s part of his routine, to work his body and to, at the same time, clear his head. A few minutes in, he slows to absorb Mrs Napier’s roses, admires their beauty, and wonders what sort of kaleidoscope of colour they might form against the morning sky if, say, a bullet from one of his rifles smashes through them. He loves Mrs Napier’s roses, they’re a welcome diversion of kenspeckle colour each morning as he takes his early morning walk, past residents aching for their suburbia, practising their competitive tidying. He gazes at Mrs Napier’s roses in admiration; sometimes it would extend to chatting to her as she pruned them, or watered them, or cut them, or checked to see that no one had stolen them.

‘There are none better than your roses. None better.’

‘Thank you so much,’ not knowing to whom she was talking. ‘Thank you so much.’

‘I hope none of them have disappeared.’

Floyd keeps walking; he doesn’t really care about Mrs Napier’s roses, Mrs Napier, or whether they’re going to make full bloom any time soon; Mrs Napier feels the same about Floyd as he walks passed her garden because she is old and her roses are all she has. As Floyd starts to work up a sweat, energy is recoiled into the effort of getting up the first decent hill before plunging into scrubland that will exit onto the beatified split level of the Aston-Martins and the Gallagher’s rebuild, with Mrs Gallagher, who isn’t sure about Mr Gallagher any more but is comforted by the newly installed gymnasium he has paid for, with a treadmill and full length window looking out at the ocean. Mr Gallagher arranges deals in irony, so it’s apt that Mrs Gallagher can work off the previous days bottle or two of Chardonnay before gravity lets her secret out.

He stands aside for a bike rider coming down the hill, sharing the footpath with him, “thanks mate”, the rider says as he zooms past, on his way to work presumably, backpack on, report, lunch, change of clothes maybe. A dog is out, with its owner, wanting not much more than a run in the park, the dog that is, the owner just wants to be satisfied that the dog has gone for a run in the park. Floyd doesn’t mind any of it, even though the dog has a brief sniff of his leg before making a bee line for the open space. He waits for the dog to have its time in the park, for the owner to get bored with watching, and goes and lies down on the grass, looking up into the rising sun, legs and arms forming a star and smiling at the grass that wets his back.

Floyd cogitates as he strolls, it settles him, though it occasionally causes the anger to rise in him, seeing people in a hurry, such a hurry, to get probably nowhere, a couple of hundred metres down the road. As well as being able to take in the morning sunshine, he appreciates being able to do it at all; it helps him to recover from the things that man has chosen him to fulfil, the fighting of wars and politics, to soldier against what politics has told him to soldier against and to fight for what politics has told him to fight for. One of the special few Floyd is told, privileged to be the soldier at the front line; he can shoot the cap off a bottle from a mile away, that is one point four kilometres of verifiable distance, so almost a mile but for the sake of semantics, which Floyd didn’t much care for.

A couple of landscape gardeners drop some timber on to the ground and the noise of it sounds like gun shots ripping through his chest. Floyd jumps at it and it reminds him of, apart from his lethargy, insurgents gun fire just after he had made his escape from the foxhole, back to base Alpha so that he could bury yet another comrade who’d been shot by one of his own because he went mad with all of it.

He saw a specialist who gave hime a drug to help him with the sleep; it worked for while but it made him suffer from vertigo, the sort that makes walking about the only thing that gets his blood pumping. but it isn’t much working. It’s supposed to knock him out for the evening and it knocks him alright but it gets him up again too early. The drug knocks him out, it make him feel as though he has a hangover although he hasn’t been drinking. They’ve been prescribed, those pills, and as much as they help with the sleep, they wipe him out the following day.

While Mrs Napier had been earlier planting and then pruning her rose stems, Floyd had been sitting in a fox hole in Afghanistan, for four days, while a scorpion crawled down his back as a sniper walked past, having to choose between being bitten by the arachnid and being discovered and then shot through the head by the sniper who really was merely paranoid. The little poisonous creature wasn’t native to the country, it’d been introduced, along with a couple of thousand others, as part of the insurgency, to add as much discomfort and to add to the paranoia of people such as Floyd, to make them have to deal with something that they hadn’t been trained for, so that they too might become insane and have to fight their insanity rather than the insurgents.

Sitting in a fox hole on another day, waiting for help to arrive, hearing noises at midnight, not knowing whether it was friend or foe, wanting to piss, man did he want to piss but if he did they would smell the urine and his position would be given away. He’d be shot in the head but boy did he need to piss, his bladder was about to burst and so he summoned thoughts of an old girlfriend and tried a different tack. He smelled anyway so what would it matter, the noise went away, he started to ache, his stomach cramped to the point of not being able to breath without groaning but just as he was about to groan like a knife had pierced his abdomen he looked out, seeing nothing, and arched his back, as much as the fox hole would permit, and emptied his guts of air and gas and pain, and his bladder emptied like a late night at the hotel urinal of Old Town when the music is finished and patrons stagger towards the wall.

Sleep was cast aside while Floyd was in the fox hole, sleep didn’t exist, it was a concept foreign to him, except for a few minutes during a lull, which was the worst time to be asleep because it meant that something was about to happen. And if something was about to happen Floyd needed to know about it, often before the forces that were making what was about to happen happen knew about it. That was his job, it’s why Floyd Collins could shoot a cap off a bottle from one point four kilometres of verifiable distance.

Sitting in a fox hole for four days, trapped by insurgents who wanted nothing more to claim him, because of their paranoia, a trophy to present to their commanders, who might anyway have been replaced by the time they returned with him, allowed scant (“bugger all” as Floyd put it), room for ablutions, so another fox hole was created, below it. So to be able to shoot a cap from a bottle from a mile away is just the start of it, talent and hard work merely the entry point to being one of the chosen few. How the nerves hold up is the real issue, how one copes with the sort of deprivation we would scream to the waiter about over a long lunch.

Sitting in that fox hole, staying awake for four days, eating beef jerky and gels that would at once make him buzz and within minutes make him drop off, eating the scorpion that had crawled into his crotch, pissing into the faeces that stank, waiting for things to be made clear to him, and here the irony kicks in, his primary concern was whether his father approved of what he was doing, whether he considered that he had made wise choices.

He asked himself, as he sat in the foxhole, whether his brother really wanted him to do well in life, whether his brother was happy with not being as good as him. For his brother, a devouring passion, if time is given over to finding it, would having fallen short, eat, like a worm, at the heart from the inside. Floyd hated him for it while his brother sat bleary eyed knowing, roughly, that Floyd was somewhere in the world, in a uniform, plying at his failed passion, which became, not that his brother would know it, mere survival, crouching at the mouth of a foreign graveyard praying that his bladder would not explode.

Sitting in the foxhole Floyd wondered if his father wondered if it was him crouching at the mouth of the graveyard, bladder wanting to explode as three insurgents peered, with their eyes Atlantic wide for opportunities to make names for themselves, into crevices and abandoned fox holes, some occupied by the dead, no good to them, some occupied with vipers nests, he wondered if his father would be approving if this rather undignified standoff between victory and death, the latter of which would be the quicker less painful option.

Floyd survived and told sanitised versions of his stories, only because his mates insisted on trumpeting his heroism. Otherwise Floyd kept his own counsel, he didn’t want to talk about it. For him being one of the chosen few, one of those asked to strain every sinew, occupy a forward position, alone for days, sitting in a foxhole was what he had been called to do.

He got back from his tour of duty and couldn’t sleep, waking up at midnight, despite getting to bed early, staying awake for hours, not able to sleep, listening to music to try and quiet his head, getting up and watching television designed for night shift workers. He went back to bed and still, his body would not rest. He eventually nodded off just as daybreak threatened and awoke exhausted a couple of hours later, repeated the procedure, until the whole thing became self fulfilling. He sought out acupuncture and it worked for a few days, providing him with the sort of calm he yearned, the therapist telling him that his energy was low, almost zero, that his liver was not responding, that his stomach was out of synch, that his thyroid was shot, he considered his slough of despond but couldn’t afford the fees for regular treatments.

There is Cora Binns, who sees her new neighbour go for his morning walk, giving him a polite wave as he starts off, and wonders what it is he does all day. “It’s none of our business,” says Miro Binns, her husband of twenty-three years, as he grabs his keys and rushes out the door headlong into the citizenry and the cursory observances if not notations of the hoardings along the way to his place of work.

Floyd returns from his walk and sits, he takes a seat in his small back garden, and drinks his tea, which Cora determines must be tea because she sees steam rising through the air on this late Autumn morning, she sees a man yet to shower but whose torso arouses her. Miro is a gentle bookish type, the idea of lifting weights in order to maintain a level of physical strength or fitness is anathema to him, if not a denunciation then at least a dismissal. Cora stands at her window admiring Floyd’s form, his gait, his uprightness, it will make her buy a new top and Miro will never know why.

Miro and Cora had recently moved to the suburb, an old suburb with old money mixed with the new but mainly its recycled, they are wanting to make friends and whilst there are people to talk to Floyd appears to keep to himself. He lives alone, he gets a lot of mail, large packages are delivered, Cora notices this and wonders if the noises coming from the garage at night have something to do with the deliveries. The noises were not of things being taken apart, they were delicate noises, of things being put together, like doweling two pieces of soft timber into one, or of trying to fit a hinge, rubbing not banging.

Floyd was quiet when he worked in his garage at night, there was no loud music, at times a radio station but not a commercial one, could be heard. He didn’t appear to have any visitors, whereas Cora was busy inviting old and new friends to the house. Miro would arrive home from work and Cora would tell him what Floyd did, or didn’t, do during the day. Miro would nod, “right” he would say, drawing out the word as if to fill the void of other words he couldn’t be bothered using, and then he’d say, as if to try to end the conversation, move it on to something else, such as traffic, weather, politics, housekeeping, “it’s still not any of our business is it”.

‘If we are going to be next door neighbours don’t you think it’s worth our knowing what it he does?’

‘But you’re not interested in how he makes his living are you. You’re interested in what he does during the day, which is different.’

‘Well, don’t you think, for him to live in this neighbourhood he would have to have a well paid job to go to. He doesn’t seem go anywhere during the day, or night, its all noises from the garage at night. It doesn’t bother you because you’re working at night too, with your reports and your proposals.’

Miro didn’t say anything, at least, he thought, she’d moved on from the “meaningless spreadsheets” remarks she’d uttered when they first got married. Miro thought she should do something with her days other than play the piano, which, he conceded, she was good at, and wondering what their next door neighbour did during the day but he didn’t concern himself overly with it.

‘What day is our rubbish collected?’ enquired Miro. ‘I saw a rubbish truck in our street but our bins are still full.’

‘Monday night.’

‘You mean Tuesday morning. We put them out on Monday night.’

‘Now you’re confusing me,’ said Cora.

‘Just see what others in the street do and put the bins out then.’

‘Can’t you do it.’

‘Yes I can put the rubbish out but I’m asking you to do it.’ Miro wondered some more. ‘Why don’t you just invite him over sometime and you can find out then what he does.’

‘Who?’

‘Your boyfriend next door.’ Miro knew his wife wasn’t taking him for a fool. Did she think for one moment that she wasn’t aware of who he was referring to? ‘You should do it Miro, you’re the man.’

Floyd’s house was old, he would not have known what to do with a house like the Binns’ house, with their stucco staircase, swimming pool, expensive furnishings and their tudor style entry. His house was mostly weatherboard and prone to rising damp, an incongruous dwelling in this suburb, the last house of its type in this street before the row of modernism, starting with the Binns, showed off the street for the real estate potential that would one day claim Floyd’s house as well, and bring it into line with what most of the street was thinking.

His garden needed tending to, the garage was a minefield of parts, drills, workbenches, timber. His kitchen could be traversed in a single step, his living room a students mother would wish to tidy and his bedroom one where the presentation left as much to be desired as the bathroom left to be renovated. But the bathroom was clean, he rotated the towels, he cleaned the toilet, the living room was tidy if not ordered, he vacuumed himself, the kitchen, save for a plate that needed to be washed, was presentable, things that spill on the floor were wiped or swept. He is proud of his austere yet clean abode. He is disciplined in its maintenance, he doesn’t know where to start in turning it into the sort of home that Miro and Cora have just purchased, or that others aspire to but it is not a concern to him.

Along with his comrades, he’d have to clean up after death. The smell of it enveloped him, they would walk around when one of their own was killed, as if any of it should come as a surprise, or that the war they had been engaged in had not been what they expected it to be. But the smell of death stayed with them for days and weeks following, Floyd could still smell death as he put the rubbish out on Monday nights, as he cooked dinner at night, he could visualise split heads as he cracked an egg in the morning, even as he walked over a cat that had been hit by a car and left to decay on the side of the suburban road.

Walking was a way to try and banish the images of the dead, of Afghanis carrying their children away after they’d been blown to bits, the dead cat on the side of road just before he got to the Gallaghers residence reminded him of the bodies. The soldiers in Uruzgan remained silent, not knowing what to say, they merely had orders to act on, and this is not what a war was supposed to be like, innocents being blown up, the enemy being no one in particular, the notion that you are walking out in order to die and if you come back alive then that’s a bonus. But not the sort of bonus that awaits a banker who improves value to shareholders.

It made him think about what exactly life was meant to be for. Life is what? What is it? To spend a short time on earth and make the most of it? And now he was told to get on with his life, doing what exactly he was not sure. What could Floyd tell people? If he told Cora Binns that he had killed people in Afghanistan she would want to delve deeper, she was that type of person, and then what would he tell her?

‘I mainly did paperwork Cora; you know, filling out requisitions, that sort of thing,’ but he gave himself away, so he thought it best to keep himself to himself. He could make things up but that would be patronising but to whom would it be patronising? The people had sent him to do a job and he had done it, he didn’t have to account for himself in the court of public opinion. Since returning from Afghanistan most of Floyd’s time was taken up in asking questions of himself, so he didn’t need others asking him questions. Some of them required deep thought but if he thought about the questions too much he would go into a state of depression. It was a deep longing to know; what was the point.

The sleep deprivation from midnight to dawn, the keeping to one’s self, the anger at nothing in particular, the indignation, shouting and then silent repose just so that he could go through the same thing again. Indeed, what is life for, if anyone can answer the question.

Uruzgan province in Afghanistan is where it is at, at least that is where Floyd plied his trade, sitting in that foxhole, peering around the corners of buildings wondering if he’d meet a friend, or an insurgent ready to empty the barrel of his gun.

This particular Tuesday morning, when rubbish bins are brought in, the men who come to collect and take away, as if, for suburbia, away is some vague far far off hallucinogenic fantasy land where they make their unwanted disappear, Cora Binns misses Floyd and so the pantomime starts again. Floyd isn’t aware of it of course, he’s trying to keep himself as busy as he can, making sure he’s taking the drugs he’s been given, so that he can sleep, so that he can wake the next morning feeling sluggish but alive, able to find his shoes so that he can go for another walk. He won’t talk about Afghanistan, even though Cora Bins would implore him if she knew; she would probably pay him if she knew that he had been that person. She would have something to tell her yoga class. He keeps silent because he is honouring the dead, the children, the Afghani men who sit making fire in the Winter and who sit around that same fire making bread to go with the beans.

Some of his old friends, who were now just old, as well as being former, teased him about serving, suggesting that he really didn’t serve at all in any conflict, that he was bound to a desk, filling out stationary requisitions so that other people could write reports for the government. They never saw him shoot the cap off a bottle but they knew he served and they knew he was one of the chosen few, they just saw it as their role as friends to “take the piss” out of him, knowing he would merely smile at them.

They didn’t know about his sitting in a foxhole for four days. Sitting in that fox hole on another day, waiting for help to arrive, hearing noises at midnight, not knowing whether it was friend or foe, wanting to piss, man did he want to piss but if he did they would smell the urine and his position would be given away. He’d be shot in the head but boy did he need to piss, his bladder was about to burst and so he summoned thoughts of an old girlfriend and tried a different tack. He smelled anyway so what would it matter, the noise went away, he started to ache, his stomach cramped to the point of not being able to breath without groaning but just as he was about to groan like a knife had pierced his abdomen he looked out, seeing nothing, and arched his back, as much as the fox hole would permit, and emptied his guts of air and gas and pain, and his bladder emptied like a late night at the hotel urinal of Old Town when the music is finished and patrons stagger towards the wall.

Sleep was cast aside while Floyd was in the fox hole, it didn’t exist, a concept foreign to him, except for a few minutes during a lull, which was the worst time to be asleep because it meant that something was about to happen. And if something was about to happen Floyd needed to know about it, often before the forces that were making what was about to happen happen knew about it. That was his job, it’s why Floyd Collins could shoot a cap off a bottle from one point four kilometres of verifiable distance.

Sitting in a fox hole for four days, trapped by insurgents who wanted nothing more to claim him, because of their paranoia, a trophy to present to their commanders, who might anyway have been replaced by the time they returned with him, allowed scant (“bugger all” as Floyd put it), room for ablutions, so another fox hole was created, below it. So to be able to shoot a cap from a bottle from a mile away is just the start of it, talent and hard work merely the entry point to being one of the chosen few. How the nerves hold up is the real issue, how one copes with the sort of deprivation we would scream to the waiter about over a long lunch.

Sitting in that fox hole, staying awake for four days, eating beef jerky and gels that would at once make him buzz and within minutes make him drop off, eating the scorpion that had crawled into his crotch, pissing into the faeces that stank, waiting for things to be made clear to him, and here the irony kicks in, his primary concern was whether his father approved of what he was doing, whether he considered that he had made wise choices.

He asked himself, as he sat in the foxhole, whether his brother really wanted him to do well in life, whether his brother was happy with not being as good as him. For his brother, a devouring passion, if time is given over to finding it, would having fallen short, eat, like a worm, at the heart from the inside. Floyd hated him for it while his brother sat bleary eyed knowing, roughly, that Floyd was somewhere in the world, in a uniform, plying at his failed passion, which became, not that his brother would know it, mere survival, crouching at the mouth of a foreign graveyard praying that his bladder would not explode.

Sitting in the foxhole Floyd wondered if his father wondered if it was him crouching at the mouth of the graveyard, bladder wanting to explode as three insurgents peered, with their eyes Atlantic wide for opportunities to make names for themselves, into crevices and abandoned fox holes, some occupied by the dead, no good to them, some occupied with vipers nests, he wondered if his father would be approving if this rather undignified standoff between victory and death, the latter of which would be the quicker less painful option.

It was inevitable Floyd would run into Cora Binns. From beginning to end it was a glorious day; Miro had received a promotion, Cora bought herself a new dress for a party she and Miro were attending, and Floyd had had a consultation with his psychologist, and was feeling like he’d achieved a level of equilibrium that he hadn’t had before.

Following his session, and as Floyd walked towards the pub, and as he was walking out of the front gate, turning back to see whether he had closed it properly, he noticed Cora Bins waving at him, and walking towards him. ‘Hello neighbour,’ she shouted, in a manner so friendly that it would have been just rude to keep walking, Disneyland friendly. ‘Good morning,’ said Floyd, and stood at attention, waited for Cora to approach him and extend her hand.

‘I need to introduce myself,’ said Cora Binns, the pitch of her voice barely moving away from the dramatic. ‘I’m Cora Binns, we’re fairly new to the area and I’ve seen you a couple of times but haven’t had the opportunity.’

‘Floyd Collins, how do you do.’ He shook Cora’s hand, a handshake designed to welcome, when he could have so much have broken every bone in her hand if he’d wanted to. ‘You must be the new neighbours.’

‘Yes, yes, yes. We’re still unpacking,’ said Cora. She was lying, they had been unpacked for some time. ‘I see you walking a lot, it’s good exercise.’

‘I enjoy walking, it helps me get my day going.’

Cora didn’t want to ask exactly what it was that Floyd walked to get the day going for. She never saw Floyd go to work, not in the traditional sense anyway, not in the Miro Binns sense, hopping in the car and sitting in meetings before unpacking his lunch sense, she just noticed him in the back garden, walking out to get the mail, standing there gazing at the marketing leaflets that came through the letterbox, before disposing of them. He had had enough of marketing campaigns; enough of psychologists; he was heading for the pub.

‘I’ve only heard you at night, in the garage. I haven’t wanted to disturb you,’ said Cora. She heard him banging away, making things the day she heard it. Miro had told her to stop prying.

‘I hope I don’t disturb you.’

‘No, not at all.’ She lied there as well, as so many in suburbia do, if only to keep suburbia going the way suburbia is, suburban. Floyd banged away at night because he couldn’t sleep, he was making furniture, and it provided him with some income, making the odd coffee table, side table, dining table, the odd occasional chair for the odd antique shop, that would look like an antique, and sit on the floor of the antique shop in the Blue Mountains, until a tourist from China came to buy it and ship it back home, because it looked for all the world like an antique chair from the settler days. But mainly he made furniture to keep his mind busy, to keep the noises away.

‘I’m making furniture for people, mainly friends. It keeps me occupied.’ This wasn’t true either but it provided an explanation.

‘Oh, so it’s not your living then,’ said Cora, desperate for a close, something she could tell Miro when he gets home, information she’d have so as to continue the conversation next time they ran into each other. It wasn’t happenstance, Cora had stalked Floyd. She was a woman who felt the need to know, because of her own empty life and she didn’t have a need for furniture. ’I’ll ask my husband if he wants a piece of furniture,’ she continued, as if to stretch every sinew of dialogue she had at her disposal, while Floyd just wanted to head for the pub, where the bartender dispensed wisdom gleaned from patrons.

‘There is a direct correlation between innovation and home ownership,’ the bartender said last time. All bartenders see a correlation between something and something else Floyd thought.

‘I’d better go inside and prepare dinner,’ said Cora.

As Floyd kept walking he wondered why it was that people had to know other peoples business merely because they were neighbours. Human nature he presumed. Get close enough, Floyd thought, and you could see it in their eyes. He needed to find somewhere to sit and think, with a drink. He smelled death on Cora Binns, and he had no good reason to think so except that Cora Binns smelt like death, the sort of smell that seeped up through the bad earth in Afghanistan at the end of an advance that took casualties. It was probably not her he figured. Cora, he thought, meant well, or as well as she was ever going to mean, all the while Floyd could smell death the way he smelt death in just about everything.

She would be the perfect foil if ever he needed an offsider in the field, no one would suspect someone like Cora, she could move in circles that Floyd couldn’t, she could walk into a group of men without arousing suspicion. Yep, Cora was average, no one would notice. You’d have to check the arms, that’s the only way to tell, by lifting the sleeves. Cora would get through. Meanwhile Miro was dependable in all that he did, shifting papers, or whatever it was that he did, money perhaps. Cora was inquisitive but with enough reserve that she could be trained.

Floyd had to stop thinking like one of the chosen, he just wanted a beer. He was barely able to walk as it was, the drugs he’d been given had made him zombie like, just able to put one foot in front of the other; the drugs had induced vertigo in him, or so he thought. He was used to not sleeping and was now hoping the drugs he’d been prescribed would do the job they were intended to do. The drugs weren’t working; he couldn’t get to sleep but he was useless during the day as well, a double whammy.

He changed his mind, it was all he could do to stand up, he headed back towards his house, hoping that Cora wouldn’t notice him and begin to wonder what he was up to. What he was up to was trying to stay upright first and foremost; he could think about being functional afterwards. He was haunted by the memories of the places he’d been, the places that are never part of holiday plans, the places that people like Floyd are sent to so they can sort things out.

Floyd then realises that he needs to get some food for dinner so, as much to pass the time as anything, he walks to the supermarket. He buys some pasta sauce and some milk, stands two back behind a woman in the checkout queue who didn’t need pasta sauce but never the less, appeared to need just about everything else, and starts to have images about death once again letting him down as she complains about the broken seal on a bottle of coconut oil. She had put it in her trolley with all her other groceries and noticed that the seal on the bottle underneath the screw top lid containing the coconut oil had come lose. Floyd wondered whether she had bothered to check the bottle when she picked it out or whether she was merely shopping by numbers, two of each in case of a flood.

‘I’ll just go back and get a replacement,’ she said to the checkout girl. What could the checkout girl do? The lady in front of Floyd sighed; a polite middle class lady who would not want to create a fuss and, upon reflection, could very well have been a part of a double act. Their appearance was almost identical, not their features, just their countenance. The centre of attention was much older. The way they were turned out was in perfect harmony, down to the boots. Floyd turned on his heels and went back for some butter, he wanted out of the conflagration, but noticed the queue growing and thought better of it, so he stayed where he was.

The coconut lady returned a few minutes later with three more bottles of coconut oil, Floyd supposed, to be sure, she had checked all of them for leaks, their seals for firm contact, the lids for who knows why. She’d take one of them and the checkout girl, new to it all, would have to take the surplus back to the shelves.

The aggrieved woman had now lost her purse, or at least she couldn’t currently lay her hands on it. Now things were serious. In all the confusion, the mayhem of arriving at the checkout with a weeks supply of groceries only to have a bottle of coconut oil with a broken seal she was now in short supply of money to pay for it all. She became flustered, the woman in front of Floyd, still polite, how she must be a joy to live with, endured, saying nothing, smiling at the checkout girl, who would one day look back on this as a character building exercise.

‘Broken seals on coconut oil bottles will throw you right off your day.’

‘Excuse me?’ The fumbling customer retorted, she rummaged, she had found her money. Sweet mercy, Le Dolce Vita had overplayed her hand.

‘Broken seals,’ Floyd said, wanting it to be over. ‘They can wreak havoc with coconut oil.’ Floyd sank into himself and enjoyed the comedy of it all.

For a man who could do what he could do with a rifle, and also with his bare hands, that is, kill whomsoever was in his way, Floyd Collins considered carefully many things. As he walked away with his pasta sauce and his milk, and as he observed the coconut lady heave as she wheeled the filled-to-bursting trolley to her four wheel drive vehicle sitting in the underground car park, he pondered what kind of life that lady had. Was she genuinely happy, content with her life, satisfied with being able to purchase anything of her choosing? He surmised that she probably was, mumbling to himself “yup” as he walked home with his modest supplies and his memories.

Such as memories of the young girl in Afghanistan, the girl who got in the way. So many did. He might have killed her, he wasn’t sure, someone else might’ve, all he knew was that she was dead, collateral damage, and probably sanctioned further up the chain of command. And the world will never know what it lost with that young Afghani girl, as if the end justified the means, like the well-to-do middle class lady with the Range Rover four wheel drive who needed coconut oil for the soiree she was going to have the next day, the end justifying the tired old bloody shopworn needs.

The sun was glorious in it’s delivery this particular day, shining insistently brisk in the early Winter. Floyd slicked up the collar of his shirt, it was colder than he bargained for, the wind tallied the points against as he upped his pace back home, apologising, to whom he didn’t know, for thinking deeply about such things at all. Reality was up for grabs, so he just smiled and walked as solidly as he could, making sure the muscle and energy was extant, working together and making a difference. There was a temptation to rage, expel a righteous anger at everything he saw before him, including the coconut oil lady for railing at faulty seals but he surmised that the best thing he could do was to go back home and make some furniture, or get behind the wheel of the Dodge and go for a drive somewhere, up along the beach road, to a cafe or pub, call in and say hello to a friend. He’d need to fill up the Dodge but hated service stations, they reminded him of Afghani locals lining up to fill up their scooters, fuel was scarce, and expensive, whereas here, the queue that snaked out of the ironically named service station was due to the fuel discount, where drivers would sit, engines idling, so that they could save five dollars and waste half their day gazing at highway advertising signs that spruik the health benefits of Gatorade, the communications benefits of a late model mobile phone, or the freedom offered by the latest Jeep. Having to visit one sparked a reaction in him, a tremour, a tingling of nerve endings, knowing that petrol stations in Afghanistan were perfect killing grounds.

Instead he retreated to his garage and Rachmaninoff, to one of his favourites, the Prelude in C# Minor Opus 3. He played it because it both soothed him and stirred him, it was the piece’s discordance that appealed to him. It was his mother who introduced him to classical music, she was a piano teacher and pianist of significant talent, a force of nature, who would practice Liszt into the small hours of the morning. She was tough to learn from but she got results, her students loved her, mothers spoke of their sons and daughters “trying to please Mrs Collins.” Her standards were so high she told some of the parents that she didn’t think she could teach their child any longer because they weren’t practising enough. Word got around about her lack of tolerance but no one took her on because she was always right.

One of her crowning achievements was playing at the opening of the newly finished school hall. The school had purchased a grand piano to augment its false grandeur and the playing of the aforementioned piano by the school’s salaried music teacher at the aforementioned grand opening was designed to christen the building.
She detested all school music teachers, perhaps because they fell in their duty to provide her students with the musical education she felt they deserved. She regarded most teachers, but more particularly music teachers, as dilettantes. She considered that the teachers college, where they obtained an all too easy qualification, arranged so that enough of them could be loosed on children whose interest in music became little more than a space filler prior to lunch, was a musical and cultural wasteland. She particularly despised the school’s senior music teachers ability to play the piano, considered her a journeyman. It wasn’t that she despised her as an individual, it was that she despised her calling herself a musician, a pianist, when she considered her to be little more than a second rate musicologist, who could play the odd tune.
So when the came time for the opening ceremony, and the playing of the piano, the journeyman school music teacher couldn’t bring herself to play even something perfunctory, a prelude, a Bach prelude, anything. The music teacher notified the school Principal on the morning of the concert. 
The Principal was left in a bind, he had rung around to see whether anyone else on staff might be capable of faking a Beethoven prelude, there were no takers – “‘she’s the only one I know who can play anything decent’” cried one from the corridor. “‘I can ask if any of the music students can play for us,” “that’s rather embarrassing isn’t it’” asked another. “‘We can sell it as promoting our students.’” Then one of those self same students suggested the young boy’s mother, one who had previously been tutored by her – “‘you could ask Mrs Collins.’”
‘Is that Mrs Colllins?’
‘Who is this?”’
‘It’s Clara Pullman from the high school. I’m the secretary to the Principal.’
‘Yes?’
‘I have been asked by the Principal if you are available to play the piano at the school.’
‘What is the occasion?’ 
‘The opening of the new school auditorium.’
‘I see. When?’
‘Today.’ Clara Pullman was at this point taking deep breaths, ones designed to lower ones heart rate.
Again, ‘I see.’
‘I know it’s short notice.’
‘How perceptive of you. Short notice is not what I would call it. Rude and presumptuous is what I would call it.’
‘I’m sorry Mrs Collins but it’s rather a case of getting us out of a bind you see.’
‘What type of bind would that be then?’ Knowing precisely the bind they were in, she wanted them to work for it. She didn’t have anything against Clara Pullman necessarily but she did despise the idea that she was a backup plan. Yet the self same woman would bake a cake for her the eldest because he took the blame for Charlie Elks kicking the football through the louvers at the back of the house. She knew Charlie had kicked the ball because the eldest boy was so quick to take the rap, while Charlie stood there with his supercilious grin figuring he could pull off this type of ruse for the rest of his life. He might have argued that the eldest boy should have saved it but Gordon Banks wouldn’t have got to the ball. It was wide.
‘Well, you see the music teacher…’
‘Giselle Radowski.’
‘Yes, Giselle Radowski. Well, she has had to pull out you see, something wrong with her wrist. She can’t play.’
‘You’re right, she can’t play.’
‘Yes, well uhm, can you help us?’
‘Oh yes I can certainly help you.’ Clara Pullman was relieved, her shoulders rose from the stoop, her teeth became visible, she’d be able to tell the Principal (who is provided a title here for the purposes of continuity only, not because he was any good at his job) that she had found a solution, a pat on the back a least, perhaps extra responsibilities. ‘The question is not one of whether I can help you, the question is one of whether I am prepared to help you.’
‘I guess Mrs N—— you have us over a barrel,’ continued Clara Pullman, ‘it’s important to the school because we have purchased a new grand piano. Everyone is expecting a recital, of sorts.’
‘It kind of begs the question as to why you firstly didn’t realise that Giselle Radowski would never be able to play any sort of decent piano recital and secondly, you didn’t have the courtesy of asking me to bail you out just a little earlier. When is this recital?’
‘Eleven o’clock.’ Clara held her breath, the student sitting in the music room having a lesson sat on her hands studying Bartok while she waited for my the boy’s mother to get off the phone. ‘I’m sorry Mrs Collins.’
‘I still have students.’
‘I will need to let the Principal know.’
‘Tell your Principal that I will bail him out.’
‘Thank you Mrs Collins, thank you.’ And Clara Pullman would go on giving thanks for the next hour, as if she had supped with royalty, or celebrity. She would, Clara Pullman, discover, when she sat in the audience with the students, with the teachers, with the performers, with the dignitaries, that she had been talking to royalty, musical royalty, Liszt type royalty. 
‘Hands Fiona, lift the hands, you’re punching the pedals, caress them, caress them. You’re playing by ear again, your’e not sight reading. If you want to be great you first much learn to sight read. You should want to be great. If you want to be great you first must learn to sight read, even the most ambitious works, Mozart, Beethoven, Bartok, even Liszt.’
‘Even Liszt?’
‘Especially Liszt.’
She would turn her attention to the school auditorium once she had finished with Fiona, ten year old Fiona, who would surely be great if firstly, her mother had anything to do with it but particularly if the teacher had anything to do with it. Fiona finished her lesson early so that she could put in the twenty five years worth of practice required to play in front of a thousand people and hold their attention for any longer than the short introduction.
Turning her attention to the opening of the school auditorium meant rummaging through her sheet music, of Beethoven, Brahms, Mozart, Chopin, Rachmaninoff and of course Liszt, tucking them under her arm and making her way to the school so that she could at least familiarise herself with the surroundings, the instrument, the chair she would sit on.
So she tucked the manuscripts under her arm and strode out of the house, determined to show the Principal, given the title for identification purposes only, her husband, Floyd’s father, who would not care whether she played, for whom she played, for how long she played or under whose commission, the students, who would never have heard this music delivered like this before, and Giselle Radowski, what a real pianist could do.
Given fifteen minutes, she played for those glorious minutes – Brahms to start, then Beethoven’s Fifth. She paused during a Chopin Etude, looking up into the audience, smiled a smile that eliminated all intransigent thoughts, and moved into her work, next with Liszt, the Hungarian Rhapsody to be precise, toying with the melody, the left hand flourishing like a maestro would with his orchestra and the right hand dancing like a reinvigorated Nureyev. Beethoven’s Piano Sonata No. 14 in C# Minor brought solemnity and weight. Then she pulled out the third and final movement of Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1 in B Flat Minor Opus 23, thought to be unplayable by many in the musical establishment. It was a piece she’d go to when she was agitated, or was needing to release an energy only a gifted artist would ever understand. The piece muscled it’s way around the fringes of the new auditorium and enveloped the centre of it. The full effect of the concerto required a bank of violins and a convoy of woodwind but on this day she didn’t need them, she would use the keys beneath her fingers alone to impart it’s power. The movement finished with her playing the violin part from the piano, a feat of power and intensity no student, teacher or special guest would ever be witness to again. She played for another fifteen minutes, playing Beethoven’s Eighth Sonata, sight reading everything and if the Principal (who retained the title against all odds) didn’t like it then she’d let her transfixed audience have some more. The students stood and applauded while Ms Radowski stood at the edge of the auditorium bamboozled by what she had just witnessed.
Floyd remembered all of these types of events in intimate detail, down to the pieces she played, the name of the student she was with that morning, when the call came, to the length of time she played for. He remembered, partly because he loved his mother with a love that transcended everything in his world, but also because it was not long after that his mother had a cerebral aneurism and spent the next fifteen years in a coma that she would not wake from.
Floyd decided to honour his mother by playing her favourite music, through earphones in the foxhole to the garage late at night as he carved a piece of pine wood, to filling the confines of the Dodge as he drove up the coast road to gaze at the ocean.