“Who’s he supposed to be?”
“No idea. Russell Crowe?”
“There’s a sign below his feet. Go read it.”
The schoolgirl breaks through the semi-circle of onlookers with cherry-stained Slurpee lips, approaching the living statue with trepidation. She’s at once giggling and trembling at the possibility of what this pseudo stone figure may do once confronted.
Standing in profile, its bearded face, knotted neck scarf and wide brimmed hat are encrusted in powdered white paint that, unbeknownst to its curious observers, took hours to apply.
Russell Crowe? Neville thinks in disgust. You dumb little girl. Don’t they teach you anything in school? His arms are crossed in strong defiance, mimicking his chiseled jaw and stoic facade. With his gaze fixed on a looming Telstra sign, the melodies of a South American pan flute massage his inner ear. He feels the girl’s presence as she creeps near his shins, gnawing on a cud of chewy. Her incessant giggle is interrupted by a barking cough.
Bloody hell. Smoking at her age? What kind of parents are allowing that?
“Says John Batman,” the girl yells over the crowd.
“Where’s Robin?” the second girl yells, seeking approval from the boy next to her.
Neville grinds his teeth, but not enough to make the muscle in his jaw flex. He’s been out here for six seasons, and he’s sure as shit not going to break character for another Batman and Robin quip. The girl at his feet stares up at his face, fascinated with his features and how the whiskers of his beard spindle down the side of his cheeks in alabaster curls. She loses herself in thoughts of being held in his strong arms and kissed in the bush when she’s tugged away.
“C’mon, slut. We’re going to Macca’s,” says the friend, clumsily clopping in over-sized school shoes.
Neville watches them cross the tram tracks incautiously. Making sure not to move his eyeballs, he lets them traverse his view, a trick he learnt from his grandfather who once graced the steps of Flinders Station as the distinguished navigator of the same name. Neville’s choice of pose and persona is no accident. It’s from a famous portrait of Melbourne’s discoverer and allows him to lean back on one leg comfortably for hours. The way in which his arms are crossed is not only relaxing but also allows him to surreptitiously scratch his armpits with his thumbs when no one is staring too hard
How’s the serenity? thinks Neville, chuckling internally. What time is it?
Let’s see. Shadows are covering the round part of the ‘R’ on the Telstra sign, so it must be two fifteen. It’s been a good take today. Sounds like about $26 in coins, and I saw a fiver drop out of those tourists’ hands. That’s better than last week combined. Must be the weather.
Around the corner come two afternoon boozers bearing black cans and sloppy grins.
Oh, Jesus. Look at these guys. God, they can’t even walk straight. Was that me before I met Stacy? Oh, Stace. Why’d you leave, love? We had so much in common. Shit, they’ve spotted me. In their Bundy and coke haze, they’ve seen me. Oh, here they come. Just great. Fuck off! I’m trying to make a living here.
Ow, my toe! What they hell was that? Stay still. OW! The hell? That can’t be from stubbing it on the fridge this morning. Oh, lord. Please don’t’ let it be cancer. Don’t be ridiculous, Nev. You don’t have cancer. I still need to follow up that mole scan. What if it’s already spread? Nah. OW! God, that hurts.
“Huh. It aint real,” slurs one of the Bundy brothers.
“Nah, mate. Yuz can see his eyeballs. Pretty fuckin’ good, but. Fiver says you can’t make him laugh.”
“I’ll take that bet, kent. Ever seen a dancin’ bear?”
The punter pours the remainder of his can down his throat, placing a dirty gym bag filled with the rest of his afternoon on the ground. He tucks his T-shirt into acid-wash jeans and tightens his belt before rising on his tip-toes and bending his knees with curled hands in front of his chest.
“Ever seen a dancin’ bear?” he repeats, speaking directly to Neville. “Bat dat dada dada dat dat,” he yells in a syncopated attempt at a circus entry song. His mate is coughing up his can from hearty laughter and a strong cigarette while his comrade dances in front of fifty people and a fake statue.
“He aint budgin’, mate! That’ll cost you a fiver.”
“Bah!” says the drunken bear with a dismissive gesture. “He aint seen me penguin yet.” He wobbles his way around Neville’s pedestal, playing to the laughing crowd.
Neville smells the blend of sweat and cheap body spray while gauging the man’s movements in the eyes of the crowd. No longer are they fascinated by Neville and his rock-solid ability to stand inert for hours but instead have debased themselves with the drunken antics of a penguin impressionist. When Pingu comes full circle, he’s wobbling over Neville’s donation bucket.
“Fiver, then?” he yells to his mate.
Don’t do anything you might regret, thinks Neville
“Plus some gold coins for rollie papers,” his mate replies.
Neville sees some of the crowd pare off with lost interest. Others are amused at the curious sot, wondering what, if anything will come of the challenge his mate has given him.
“Ya’ gonna’ smile for me, then?” he asks the statue.
I’ll make your Mother smile by straightening you up with a kick to the chin`.
Cues from a pointing couple suggest that this Bundy brother, imitator of animals big and small, is about to dip into the statue’s bank. A muscle twitches wildly in Nev’s calf. His breaths, which he normally draws at six per minute, have quickened, causing unprecedented abdominal flux and great torment in Neville. Panting with the anxiety of losing his temper again, he tastes a gritty stream of sweaty plaster worm its way into the corner of his mouth. Below his line of sight comes the sound of rustling coins. The crowd is now split between laughing at the potential thief and scrutinising Nev’s potential movement.
Oh, please just walk away. Please let me keep my sanity and my dignity, and don’t make me do it. God DAMN IT! Just go!
“Here’s your fiver,” yells the penguin to his mate. “Goin’ deep sea diving now for your rollie money, mate.”
Ok, that’s it you scum-sucking bastard. No, Nev. Stop! Step one: Push away the anger.
“Bloody gold mine!” comes the voice from below.
Neville controls the violent shaking of his hands under his armpits by tightening his chest and biceps. All he sees is red.
I can’t hold back anymore. I have to do it. It’s my money, not yours. You can’t’ just take it. Get ready to feel the pain, arsehole.
“Get your filthy paws out of there!”
The voice gets louder. “I said get your bloody hands out of that bucket!”
There’s a buzz in the crowd as the woman approaches. “Drop that note and take your act somewhere else. Beat it!” she yells.
Neville wants to look down, see his Stace and take her in his arms; he wants to dress her up and take her out and treat her with respect, never embarrass her again. But he maintains his pose. He releases the clutch on his armpits, lets the muscles around his eyes and mouth relax. He summons the canvas of his vision, the finite corner of Bourke and Swanston streets and rests on his back leg smiling from within as Stace enters his view and just as quickly, disappears.