The Intermediary

(first published in Overland 133, Summer 1993)

It has all happened so stupidly, to my mind: one moment, Meretsky standing there, brushing from off his helmet the chalk-dust which has turned his face and stiff overcoat prematurely grey; suddenly, a shout from a welder a few stories up, a falling steel beam, and Meretsky stretched out on the concrete, his head split cleanly - segmented like a grapefruit. So stupid; there is no sense in feeling shocked or dismayed about it. You take your helmet off for five seconds and someone drops a steel beam on your head.

We none of us knew Meretsky well. I was as close a friend to him as any man on the building site, and I didn't have any strong feelings for him. He was a difficult man; he had to provoke people. No doubt he didn't do it deliberately, but he rubbed people the wrong way. There had been the time he had arrived at work clutching a paper bag full of Dobostorte his wife had made for him. Dobostorte! Hungary's national cake, shaped something like a high-rise apartment block, filled with chocolate cream and topped with a kind of caramel lid, much like an eclair and just as rich. That day it reached forty-three degrees in the shade; out in the sun it must have been nearly sixty. In his perversity Meretsky choked down these cakes one by one, all day long - we laid bets that he wouldn't be able to finish them. He stuffed the cakes into his mouth, crumbs coming out of his nose and caramel and sweat smeared all down his cheeks like plaster eyebrows which had come loose. I suppose it was his favorite, he'd managed somehow to coerce his wife into baking Dobostorte, and he was damned if he wasn't going to eat it all. And of course, as the afternoon lengthened into evening, we all became tired and hungry, drained by the heat. After ridiculing him all day, laughing at him to his face, we asked Meretsky for some of his Dobostorte. He wouldn't give it up. So the fork-lift driver - an oaf called Brian - took his paper bag away from him, gave him a clip about the ears for good measure, told him he was a "dumb Hungarian bastard". Meretsky was Russian and everyone knew it, even Brian knew it, but he called him a "dumb Hungarian bastard" all the same. There wasn't much of the Dobostorte left in any case, not enough to go around, so Brian beat Meretsky up, made him promise to bring more tomorrow, sent him home with his ear and his tongue bleeding and a couple of his teeth missing.

He never took much of an interest in his work. I asked him what professional work he had done in Russia and he say "construction work, the same as here", so I suppose that he was merely lazy. His wife had been a professional cook but now she looked after the children. Two children, identical twins - both girls. I have not respect for parent with twins. it seems indecisive somehow, as if they weren't able to decide whether they wanted one child or two. He was always complaining about the twins. They used to run cat hair through his comb to make him think he was going bald, or turn on the washing machine while he was listening to the radio so that it would pick up and amplify the electrical signal. He would complain to his wife and she would tell him off for not being more assertive. Somehow their duplicity always frightened him, he would tell me; they were uncanny, there was some magical quality about them - something primitive or taboo. I used to think it was hilarious - he would work all day and be teased and taunted by a gang of men, then he'd go home and the teasing and the nagging would start up again, this time from a gang of women. On the train, he used to tell me, he could relax. On the train, to and from work - an hour and a half in each direction from Frankston to the central business district, another fifteen minutes by tram if we were working on a project in St. Kilda Road. Once, he told me, his wife wanted to move to Footscray, but he managed to dissuade her. And what would he do on the train? I asked him. Nothing: he would stare out the window at the buildings and the power lines, he would sit with his arms and legs crossed and do nothing. For three hours a day he would turn off, like a television or a toaster whose cord comes unplugged, and stare out the window. Not listening to the people talking in the carriage, if there were some girls discussing their boyfriends or their period cramps, not watching what was going on outside, if there had been a car accident or some kids throwing rocks at the train; just sitting there, so completely disconnected from the world that he couldn't remember the names of even half of the stations that he passed through twice every working day.

He lies there, as dead as the silence that has fallen on the whole crowd. All his workmates silent, stupidly silent - they stand about, they glance furtively at one another, trying desperately to suppress the urge to whisper or giggle, and suddenly I feel a surge of resentment. I resent them all, with their awkward paralysis. I resent Meretsky for being dead and I resent his wife and his daughters, who will be so distraught, so destroyed by something so ordinary. There was Meretsky, he was a husband, a father. It needn't have been him, anyone would have done as well or better, but he had been the arbitrary choice, and now he was arbitrarily dead.

I, of course, will have to be the one to tell the family. And propriety dictates that it must be done in person. Why? I consider it. The last thing these people want is to have to share the nudity of their distress with a complete stranger, and worse, an unsympathetic stranger. Surely it can be done over the telephone? Or by letter? There has been nothing solemn about the death, why the demand for solemnity now? I imagine Mrs Meretsky coming to the door, her daughters chasing after the cat up and down the hall with a pair of scissors. I imagine her, in a blue dress for some reason. A blue dress, with white gloves and a white hat, all dolled up to go out to a restaurant, a Hungarian restaurant. Will she collapse on the floor? Or shriek? Or call me a liar? Or laugh in my face? Or do nothing?

I set off for Flinders Street Station. How will they live, the family? Are the twins at a private school, taking music lessons perhaps - the double bass - a share in a holiday house in Lorne? Did Meretsky have life insurance? A ridiculous question - Meretsky didn't even have a bank account; he received his wages each month in a sealed paper envelope and this envelope arrived, still sealed, in his wife's hot little hand when he returned home that evening. And somehow, during the intervening period, a hundred dollars would disappear from the sealed envelope and find its way into Meretsky's wallet. She never caught him. I still have no idea how he did it; I don't imaging I am likely to discover his secret now. Was he an amateur magician? But he was unnaturally clumsy, he couldn't carry a hod without tipping out a brick or two. By what cunning loophole might this pettifogging hundred dollar bill, like Meretsky, experience a beatific vision and its fetters melt away like icecream? Did this hundred dollar bill, in its elevated state, transcend the boundaries of its paper prison, and make its escape into the sunlit world? What Meretsky spent the money on is of no importance. He had no imagination when it came to spending money. He would lose it on a horse, perhaps, or buy a new pair of overalls. Once he bought me and the crew a few rounds of drinks: Brian got drunk, of course; he started a fight. We were all tossed out of the pub, naturally, and Meretsky was warned not to return. The spending of the money was not important, it was the hiatus, the interlude, the moment of reverie when the bill would pass through his fingers, alone on the train . . .

A woman in a blue dress, white gloves and hat boards the train, seats herself down across the aisle from myself. "So, Meretsky is dead", she urges, in sensuous tones, "Now you have me all to yourself." I am speechless - after all, you'd think she'd call her dead husband by his Christian name. She stands up, crosses the aisle, and parks herself on the seat next to me, rubbing herself up against my body like a big blue cat. I clear my throat and glance about the carriage. Somehow, at the last station, all the passengers have managed to disembark without my noticing. I protest to the woman that I am married, and in any case on an important errand from which I must not be distracted, but she will hear none of this. "Can you deny me?" she exclaims, "Will you neglect a widow's cry for solace?" and she drags me by my trouser buttons to the floor. I have her dress down about her ankles: I should have a pair of surgical scissors to cut away her underthings, as doctors will do in the event of a car crash. With a struggle I remove her bra, and put my lips to her nipples which are as hard as buttons. She is soaking wet between her legs. I stare down with a sense of stupefaction, as if I am staring at the Atlantic Ocean. My hand between her thighs which are warm and soft like sticks of freshly baked bread, she gasps and the train comes to a standstill: we are at a new station, some passengers alight and stare incredulously at our horizontal coupling . . .

. . . perhaps Meretsky's reveries were of a different nature. I scold myself for fantasising about his widow: I won't be able to look her in the eyes now without smirking. Will she be so distraught at his death? What can she have seen in him, in the first place? What kind of woman can she be? Meretsky's face swims before my eyes: his skin in crinkly folds about his eyes and his purple lips, his neck bristling with warts, his dull brown hair as flat and as closely cropped as a cricket pitch. Not an attractive face by any means, more like something you would find while rummaging through the rubbish bins out the back of a seafood restaurant. Perhaps she is equally unattractive and unappealing. A boring couple, with their boring children and their boring cat, and their boring relatives and friends and paper boy - Meretsky's death is probably the most exciting thing to happen to them in years. This will rouse them from their lethargy, revitalise their lives. They will take up golf, perhaps, or hang-gliding.

A fellow approaches me now as I leave the station. He asks me for a couple of dollars for a train fare. I hand him my ticket, and he seems upset. He walks away; I see him a few minutes later coaxing money from another pedestrian: someone should drop a steel beam on his head. For another half-hour at least, Meretsky's wife is not a widow, her children are not fatherless - longer, if I should be unable to reach them. The twins will stay home from school for a week, farmed out to relatives perhaps, glad for this unexpected windfall. Then a day in church and the drive out to the cemetery, and the next thing you know Mrs Meretsky has taken to wearing lipstick and those earrings - fake pearls, as big as crocodile tears. She loses a bit of weight, she has her hair done - and suddenly there's a new man in the house, and the twins are spreading mayonnaise all through his underwear. Life goes on for everybody, except Meretsky, who didn't know what to do with it anyway.

I stop dead in my tracks. I will have to go back to the building site - I suddenly realise that, on the train, I have lost the piece of paper with Meretsky's address.