©Copyright Kelley Mether, 2016
(Photo By Jean Housen (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons)
PicnStory is a website that publishes photo prompts for people to write short pieces about. I wrote this one in response to their September 2016 photo, and it was featured on their site as “Lost People”. “Boundless Plains To Share” was my original title, as a form of sarcasm.
I couldn’t use their original photo, of course, but if you want to see it, or visit their site, click here.
She stared at him, continued twisting the balloon, but making sure he understood the violence in her hands.
The finished work would be a pretty pink poodle, another to add to her display, another to entice excited children to beg exhausted parents to produce more money for another needless acquisition. She gave the neck a final twist, her eyes still holding his malevolently.
“I’m supposed to be here now,” he said. He eyed her cautiously, recognising hate when he saw it.
“No.” That was all she said. He tried again.
“Yes, I am.” He waved his tag at her. “You see? I have the council approval tag.”
She shrugged. “I don’t give a shit about council approval. I was here first.”
He tried to judge her accent. Possibly Spanish. Definitely another backpacker, like himself. If she wondered about him, she didn’t show it. She continued brutalising more balloons into shapes; the poodle had been joined by a pirate sword and a beetle during this short conversation. She was good, he thought admiringly. But a bitch, all the same.
“There can’t be two of us in the square at the same time,” he said. “Council doesn’t allow it.” At her blank stare, he waved the tag again. “Regulations.”
She pointed with her chin to the other side of the small square. “You can go over there,” she narrowed her eyes at him, “unless you’re selling balloons like mine. If you are you can piss off.”
Well, that clinched it. She was Australian too. Funny that he hadn’t picked it up sooner. She must have been travelling a long time, to have lost the signature flat nasal tone.
“If council catches us we’ll both be in trouble.” He sighed irritably at her stubborn refusal to cooperate. “Listen, mate -”
That was as far as he got.
“I’m not your fucking ‘mate’, got it?” she hissed. “Now, if you want to make some money, you go and busk in that corner, and I’ll stay here in mine. If you let on to anyone that I’m an Aussie, I’ll make you wish you were dead. Understand?”
Totally nonplussed, he gaped at her. “Why don’t you want to be known as an Aussie? People usually love talking to us. It’s something I usually rely on, my accent.”
She stood straight, taking his measure, judging him. When she next spoke, she seemed to have relented.
“So did I, until yesterday.” She leaned over her trolley, adjusting her display as she stuffed a daisy next to the poodle. She pushed her hair off her forehead, frowning at her recollection. “Yesterday a young man and woman heard me speaking to some kids I was selling balloons to. They came over and asked me if I was Australian, and when I said yes, the girl spat at me. Just like that.” She used her hands and face to express the dismay she had felt, as she told her story, and he liked her more for it. Finally human, he thought.
She went on with the story. “I was so shocked; I didn’t know what to say. The girl walked off, but the boy apologised for her. I asked him what it was about, and he said that the girl was studying about history and immigration and politics at university, and she had just found out about Australia’s refugee policy.” She shrugged as if that was all there was to say.
He wasn’t sure what to say himself. He didn’t even really know what she was talking about. He said so. She stared at him in amazement. “Our refugee policy? It’s world headlines. How can you not know?” He felt stupid in the face of her obvious scorn.
“Well, it’s just not something we talk about, where I come from,” he said miserably. He worried a bit. Had something bad been happening back home, that he, as an emissary to the world, should know about and be prepared to defend, or abrogate, as the case may well be? He hated the feeling that he seemed a country bumpkin, in this world traveller’s eyes. She was bloody good looking, too.
She shook her head at him, pointed with her chin again at the far corner of the square. “There’s your area, mate,” in a voice dripping with sarcasm. “And don’t come on to my land, there’s not enough room for both of us.”
He moved away, defeated. And quite certain that he was missing an irony, somewhere.