Winter wind’s icy fingers sneak up the loosely hanging sleeves, and creep through the head openings of their hoodies, to stab the backs of their necks. But the backpackers just huddle closer to share a jay outside the drab, butt strewn entrance to the Tea Palace.
They stare with seemingly blank eyes across the cold, wet road at “Alley Annie”, a local Ice Shag who is pointing and screaming, then wailing, then pointing and screaming, then wailing, at a power pole on Misery Corner, where Glum Street meets Jack Street, near the Needle Exchange. Mid sentence, Annie’s insane screech tapers off into a baby-like gurgle as she notices “Eureka” wheeling his bicycle up the road. He takes a right turn into one-way Jack Street, with complete disregard for the “No-Entry” sign.
Perhaps named after “Captain Jack”, Jack Street had long been one of Fractal City’s hardest, most notorious shame lanes; its dark nooks a favoured hideaway to score and jack up. However, greedy inner urban development now sees Jack Street transitioning into a “Bourgeois Boulevard”; home to cashed up couples and soon-to-be credit crunched young families. But it still harbours some Government flats – the distribution point for Eureka’s goods.
Easily identified by the fading Southern Cross tattoo on his calf, Eureka is clad in his usual faded cammo shorts and, as always, hiding behind dark sunglasses regardless of the weather. Street legend has it that no one has ever directly laid eyes on the eyes of Eureka. Fractal CID, it’s said on the street, don’t even know his eye colour.
Not that any of this is of the slightest interest to Alley Annie. Her drug honed eyesight has instantly zeroed in on the “signal”: Eureka has the drink bottle attached to his bike. That’s the sign for “cargo on board”. You beauty! He’s delivering the goods. It’s smack time.
Alley Annie spins on her heels and, now with all the smiling, innocent charm of a sweet country girl, she skips down into the Needle Exchange, whistling a tune that could be mistaken for the theme to that delightful comedy-musical, “Annie Get Your Gun”…
Joey quietly walks into the SCKINT (Senior Citizens Kinetic Investments Network Terminals) and sidles up to girlfriend Epiphany, whose attention is glued to her machine. It gobbles up another line of credits.
“Not going so well, E?”
“Arghh any minute now it’ll jackpot. Go away.”
So Joey goes over and leans on the bar, where the bar manager Aphrodite pours him a pint without needing instructions.
He nods thanks and hands over the coins, noting that Aphrodite has her “don’t give me any shit today” expression. She turns to serve Lanky, a regular barfly who’s productively spending his super payout and early retirement on the horses while doing his routine daily round of clubs and bars. Lanky’s looking agitated, so obviously the punt hasn’t been kind to him today.
“Another one, thanks Love. You don’t mind if I’m 10 cents short, do you? Me being a Member and all.”
The bar goes silent as the regulars and Members hold their breath…
Aphrodite stops pouring: “Oh sure. How about I do that for everyone? And to balance the till I’ll make it up at the end of the night, out of my own wages?”
Lanky: “OK, OK, I’ll just have to break a note, that’s all…”
Aphrodite shakes her head angrily: “Now that the Government has cut weekend penalty rates for workers, I guess you’ll all gladly give me an extra 10 cents for every pot? To go towards my reduced wages?”
All the regulars respond: “That sucks/Bloody Libs, always looking after the rich/Wealthy pricks/Politicians don’t get a pay cut/Always looking after themselves…”
Aphrodite: “So, cos this penalties cut is supposed to boost jobs and help unemployment and blah blah, I emailed the General Manger here and asked if I could get an assistant for the busy Saturday arvo shift, you know, help out with coins for the machines, pick up empties and all that.”
One Regular, who once had some sort of job in corporate accounts, clears his throat authoritatively and asks: “Yeah? How’d u go?”
“Here,” Aphrodite says, holding up a print-out of the email reply:
Regular: “Is that all? The cheeky bastard.”
Aphrodite: “Yeah. So, I emailed the Board of Management. Guess what their response was?”
Aphrodite holds up another printed reply:
Down at Fractal Sports Club, the Members are outside, cramming up against the wall under a meagre heater, trying to dodge the freezing rain as they share a joint.
“I hate the fucking cold. Hey, I haven’t seen much of Snow lately?”
Someone responds: “That grizzle guts. Probably at Misery Corner. I heard there’s been a bit of a snow drift up there lately.”
Another: “Yeah, I heard he had an online business for a while. The guys reckon that after the Summer season ended, he volunteered to clear out all the ‘old stuff’ in the Locker Room. Then, he started selling Souvenir Club Shirts online. Each one guaranteed to have been worn by a Club Champion.”
A Member: “What? How can you guarantee that?”
“Well, they said Snow would slip each shirt on himself, initial it with his left hand, and then post it. Anyway, it went bust and Snow says he’s owed thousands by partners who ripped him off.”
A Member draws deep on the durrie and adds: “I was told he was making a good quid selling Used Car Parts. Nick’s Car Parts, or Car Parts for Next to Nicks, or something like that.”
Another: “Yeah that’s right, and every car part had a Nick in it, or some damn thing like that.
“By the way, I haven’t had any joy from Merries Bag lately. I overheard that Snow reckons he is entering the ‘digital space’; he’s setting up an Uber type of business model, so goods will now be delivered on request, and with advance payment into an account. Like a TAB account, where the funds are already in the account, that sort of thing. He’s looking for a silent business partner to fund it.
“Hey, did you hear what happened to the Ex President? Unbelievable.”
A Member, squeezing closer to the heater and pulling her oversized beanie on tighter: “Yep. I couldn’t believe it. The Ex President was marching around, proudly telling everyone how the Board had written to him, requesting a meeting just before Presentation night. He said the Board wanted to discuss his impeccable record.
“So in he goes to meet the Board, but he got it wrong. He misread the letter. The word wasn’t “impeccable”, it was “impeachable”. Unreal. The Board cancelled his membership, stripped him of all Presidential privileges, and indefinite exile from the Club.”
Various Members: “No!”
“Yes! Yes! Yes!”
A Member: “They didn’t even do that to Nixon. That seems so unfair. And the Ex President and First Lady had worked so hard for so long at the Club, cleaning down benches, fixing the fireplace, rebuilding the toilets and everything. As if it was their own home.”
Another Member: “Yes, well, the AGM is this week and the Chairman is retiring so we’ll see what happens with the elections.”
As the last Intern enters, stops Tweeting and stands at the rear of the little office midway up M Media Tower, the Daily Hun Editor, Junior, unclips his beautiful, expensive cuff links and, with slow emphasis, rolls up his shirt sleeves.
Junior looks at the young, expectant faces facing him. He clenches his fists, slowly rises from his chair and leans forward, placing the full weight of his gym-sculpted physique on his knuckles, on the polished desk. But, “OUCH!” That hurts! So instead he quickly opens his hands and leans on his palms. That’s better.
“Now listen up. Some one here has been leaking to the Free Press!”
The Interns, all six of them, appear startled.
Frowning seriously and glaring from behind his expensive spectacle frames, Junior surveys each Intern.
“We can’t have leaks. Sure, there’s always the new crew of ideology driven radicals who cling to that old notion of a Diverse Media, and the Freedom of the Press and all that garbage. But our Elite Stable of Conversation Influencers, Premium Opinion, and National Political Initiative – it all costs money” – Junior glances up at the Company portrait of Andrew Nut, hung perfectly for the downlight to create the impression of a Catholic halo over his beatific face as he gazes benevolently down upon his flock – “and we can’t succeed to stay ahead of the Social Media Swamp and the Socialist Lefties of the ABC if we leak our leads.
“Now, I want loyalty from all of you or I’ll drop punt your arses over the road to Sport. How would you like that? Over there with Robbo, the Number One ticket holder at Black Dog.
“Or maybe downstairs to Digital! How about that? Hey? Down there on Digital, with Two-Faced ToneE, and PicEd ScamCam, and those guys?
“No longer working on Print, but stuck in Digital! (Junior almost spits out the word). Like … like… like the trendy Sony PlayStation, whereas we are the good, old Tonker Toy that’s ruled the sandpit forever.”
At that moment, PA taps the door and looks in at Junior: “Sorry, but she’s on the phone again.”
PA, lowering her voice: “Deep Throat. She insists on talking to you, and says the evidence is in Black and White.”
Junior: “OK, thanks.” To the interns, “Now you lot, go out there and get some Scoops. Dig up some dirt. And we need material for the Remote Drones news feature.”
As they start to leave, the Fashion Intern asks: “Junior, do you mean that there is a position open down on Digital? (She smiles and tidies her fashionable hair topknot) I mean, I’m just asking?”
The male Sport Intern puts up his hand: “Yes, I’d make the, ummm, sacrifice – just so someone new can experience Print.”
Other Interns: “Oh, me too” and “Add me to the list” and…
Joey is pissed as a fart as he trundles unsteadily down Glum Street, with a despondent Epiphany in his wake. She hasn’t done well on the Machines: the 24-Hour Random Investment Bonus has been elusive. She will have to try a new formula to crack the Code.
Like everyone else, they don’t notice the three kids walking the other way, across the street.
He is a real trooper. Probably about 11 or 12 years of age, with the chubbiness of a boy who has grown up on the Fast Food Franchise Strips of the outer struggle ‘burbs. He is wearing his best trackie dacks and faded hoodie. His school backpack is loaded full.
Close next to him walks his sister, about 8 or 9 years old and with a clean, fully stocked pink backpack. She has a firm grip on the hand of their little sister, about 5, who has a small, yellow Winnie the Pooh backpack and is clutching a well-worn soft toy.
They have just got off the 96 Tram from Hell Somewhere, and are walking up Glum Street as the rain eases to a light spray and Sunshine bursts through the grey clouds.
They pass the Needle Exchange, and the Little One stares at the unusual sights around her; Older Sister grips the little hand even tighter and is barely holding back tears. Big Brother struggles to mask his anxiety and fear, puts on his best “grown-up face” and says: “Everything will be OK, I promise. Just let me do the talking.”
They turn right, and head down into the Fractal Crisis Services Centre…