“Some New Mornings”
some new mornings when his dreams drifted away he was left with the lips of the woman he’d most like to kiss again, or the first cracking right to lay him flat on a damp canvas, or the gorgeous row of black and white keys he’d coveted as a boy in a city music store. Sometimes, coming awake, he’d hear things too—a melody from a familiar album or maybe even a tune he’d made up himself. Then again it might be the one-note clang of the corner bell, that sound sharp enough to wake him into the darkness of yet another four or four-thirty morning.
Which it now was—4.07 a.m.—Charlie Smoke’s eyes opening to luminescent numerals a little blurry and dream words rapidly fading.
‘The world doesn’t know it needs you, boy, so go shake its tree.’
Coach Joe, speaking to him from the ether.
Not so much tree-shaking left in Charlie Smoke these days, but he gave Joe Pacca a silent nod and thought about coffee and a glass of cold water, plus the interminable wait for sunrise.
Charlie Smoke was Carmelo Fumo; one of the first promoters he’d been involved with had changed his name to something more Australian so fight fans wouldn’t know they were buying a ticket to see some stupid dago in the ring. ‘Smokin’ Charlie Smoke’ sounded a lot better anyway, and that’s what stuck after his first professional fight—Australia Day, 1937—in a sweatbox fleapit of an Ipswich gymnasium, less than fifty people watching. The forties were Smokin’ Charlie’s real fighting years, even if they were interrupted by a military service spent mostly in the mud and jungles of New Guinea. Still, Old Terry Darcy, gambler, promoter and all-round criminal, had used his considerable influence to protect the boxers he liked, of which Charlie was one. Old Terry greased enough palms to save Charlie from the internment camps, but he couldn’t get him out of military service. Charlie wanted the military service; there was no question in his heart that he needed to defend this country he loved. Meanwhile, Charlie’s father—who migrated with his wife in 1915 and had a totalitarian bent only when it came to family, despising Fascism, Nazism and Communism in equal measures—found himself interred in a camp at Enoggera along with hundreds of other predominantly Italian, Japanese, German and Austrian émigrés.
After the war Charlie was out of uniform and training again. By ’48 he seemed ripe to relieve the state’s middleweight champ, Diego ‘The Danger’ Domingo, of the belt the man had held three years in a row. Old Terry had different plans; the way it turned out, after that one so-called championship bout, Charlie never took to the ring with real ambition again.
He abandoned the fight game on another Australia Day, this one in ’53, with a loss in front of—yet again—no more than fifty fight fans. The clock had turned back and not for the better. By then he’d learned the bricklaying trade and was a part-timer anyway; no one ever talked about a late-life comeback, much less Smokin’ Charlie himself—and he found he never wanted to return to a fight venue as a spectator either.
Now, in the darkness, he stretched and moved, blinking away the heaviness of sleep, making a quiet grunt of pain. He sat up, and a shot through the joint of his shoulder was exactly that—it felt like someone had taken aim with the aluminium slug of a BB gun.
Gesù Cristo, getting old means waking up every day with some new part of yourself hurting.
Charlie went to the dark of his window and looked at the shadows of the neighbours’ houses and all those hunkered-down outlines of parked motor cars, one or two of them derelict, abandoned under silhouetted poincianas and paperbarks. His narrow street led into a small shopping district of Asian market stalls and a Vietnamese restaurant. There was also a Chinese café and one small pub, which Charlie mostly avoided, except for its bottle shop.
Further on from the suburb’s small centre was the primary state school and police club, and in the other direction were long-lost farmlands subdivided into quarter-acre blocks. People kept chickens, some had rabbits, and everyone grew something other than flowers. Spinach and silverbeet and herbs, tomatoes, zucchini, sweet potato and beans; you took a bag with you and paid a few coins here and there for whatever you wanted. Yet up on a corner of the main road the new fluorescent-lit supermarket, sitting right next to an ancient service station, wanted to say something about that. The supermarket was supposed to mean progress. It had already forced Mr and Mrs Tran to pack up and close their corner store. Now Kun Tran cleaned school corridors and toilets and his wife,Wei, helped at the police station and club.
Most times he felt guilty for the simple fact of owning a home without a bank or building society loan against it. Not that his place was all that much to look at, just a timber worker’s cottage he’d extended by turning the garage into a nice training room. Still, the entire suburb was close to the poverty line, twenty-plus kilometres from the city of Brisbane, good enough for Charlie Smoke and roughly two thousand other folk. It was only the kids who really dreamed of getting out, and if they didn’t he told them they had to.
Man, shoulder’s really got something against me this morning.
It felt as if the joint had worn itself away and the bones were grinding against each other. Today he’d start with an easy run, cure for just about any ailment he’d ever known. The police-club kids wouldn’t like it, not until the last stretch when they got their second wind and the looming clubhouse became a finish line each wanted to reach first.
Charlie squeezed his shoulder then rubbed the back of his head as if searching for a lump; his throat was dry and rough. If he was going to drink so much red wine on a Saturday night he ought to buy better than that rotgut they sold up the road.
He went to another window and took in his patch of Kulari, the name taken from some place or some thing or someone he’d never know. A good three-quarters of the folk here were migrants. A big, strong, close Vietnamese community, but there were Tongans and Samoans, Indians and Filipinos. Only a scattered bunch of Europeans and most of them didn’t speak to one another, main reason being that Kulari attracted quiet types, real loners, people looking to get away from something. Just like Charlie Smoke. Here it was the one thing they could be guaranteed of succeeding at.
For him, best thing was only a few locals knew about Smokin’ Charlie. The majority might look at his face and see the ex-boxer in him, thinking he probably hadn’t been a very good one. Charlie’s nose had been broken three times and mashed a half-dozen more; the left eye socket was cracked and repaired and cracked and repaired again. His left cheek, once split by a concussing head clash that made enough bone show through to both delight and terrify the punters in the front rows, carried a shiny snakeskin scar. But he didn’t slur and he didn’t twitch; when he played his piano his hands were steady and the fingers, even thick as bananas, mostly did what they were supposed to. The police had never come after him about any of the dodgy bouts, and by now most of the bad guys had been good enough to die or simply forget about him. Though you could never be sure. What he hoped was that out here in Kulari there was nothing to remind any last remnants from his past that, guess what, Charlie Smoke was still around. Passing decades forgave all sins, except for the ones you carried in your head.
Charlie shuffled in thick socks to the kitchen, rubbing his shoulder as he passed the upright piano. He set a kettle over a gas flame then returned to the piano. There was a new photograph on the polished lid; one week back Charlie had slipped it under his black suit coat as he’d left his ex-wife’s wake. Gazing at the picture he felt a wave of something that felt like sadness married to guilt; without thinking he made a right-handed blues run on the keys.
Huh, fingers hurt from working on the heavy bag last night, but that sounded nice.
In that stolen photograph his daughter, Sistine, was about eleven or twelve, cuddling to her mother. But now, of course, the girl was a full nineteen years of age and hadn’t wanted him at Tracy’s service. He’d gone anyway, keeping to a back row before following the stayers to a wake at the small house mother and daughter had shared. There Charlie saw people he didn’t much want to see. His old adversary Diego for one, and Miranda Domingo with their boy, Bobby, a floppy-haired wisp of nothing, twenty-one years of age. Definitely not a kid following his father’s old fighting ways.
Everyone had been polite to Charlie but no one noticed or minded when he left. Sissy hadn’t looked for him one way or the other. He had a nerve being there in the first place, and a bigger nerve helping himself to that photograph, but his daughter could have given him a minute, maybe even a hug, time enough for him to say he was sorry a good woman like her mother was gone.
Charlie kept considering the photograph, this young girl with his brown eyes. Maybe Tracy’s mouth. Mother and daughter smiling into the lens of a camera held by—well, probably some very worthy and reliable gentleman. Still, Charlie heard Tracy ended up taking her last breath with only her daughter beside her, holding her hand.
That’d be good enough for me, to go like that.
The kettle started to whistle; the water was boiling; he wanted his coffee and for time to pass.
Which it kindly did, to six-fifteen, when he could leave the house. Six-thirty his crew would all be running and by seven he’d line them up in the gym.
Out front Charlie walked by his ute, always parked in the short driveway, and when he was on the weed-filled concrete of the footpath he started a shuffling walk-run. It didn’t take long for things to loosen up, though he kept his pace steady because of this new old-man thing in the shoulder. He jogged through the small neighbourhood, heading down his long street until number fifty-four, where Mia Wang, twelve years of age, waited with her ma. Charlie raised a hand to Mrs Wang then Mia was by his side. The pair turned off into an alley to collect Tony Chow, Fairlie Tiet, Tran and Tia Xanh, and the Miller twins. They jogged a triple column to a narrow street redolent of cat piss. At number eleven nothing happened. Charlie made the kids return, then they waited as he leaned across the wire gate.
‘Leila Hatami! Will you grace us with your presence?’
The front door opened and Mrs Hatami was there, shy as ever. ‘She come, Mr Charlie.’
In a minute Leila emerged, straightening her hijab. She wore her formal veil with a T-shirt, jeans and sneakers.
‘Some of us have to sleep, coach.’
‘And all of us have to double it,’ Charlie said, clapping his hands at the kids. ‘Let’s see it.’
They took off at a faster pace, Leila at the front. Charlie was about to head after them but his shoulder made him stop. Spasms travelled in jolts down to the pit of his belly. As if he meant it that way, Charlie turned and with his good hand waved to Mrs Hatami. She raised a very lined palm in return.
‘You has to has a good day, Mr Charlie.’
He started a slow half-shuffle, but the kids were already ahead and turning the distant corner, and goddammit but it was hell catching up.
Half an hour later Charlie stalked around the gym, a place he’d made of the unused clubhouse out back of the Kulari police station. The small timber structure had been dusty from years of neglect, floorboards rotting and some walls cracked, more than one window smashed by bored kids. Graffiti was spray-painted on just about every surface inside and out, mostly by teenagers hauled into the adjoining station for infractions real or imagined. That was how it happened for Charlie Smoke; a local cop found him one night in the street, drunk after a session in the pub. Just about twenty years living in Kulari by then, and that was his first visit inside both the public bar and the police station. Officer Carney let Charlie sleep it off in one of the three empty cells. Next morning, head throbbing and eyes aching, he’d looked out the back window.
‘What’s that dump supposed to be?’
Carney and another cop, name Charlie couldn’t remember, helped him repair and spruce up the clubhouse. He used his own money for paint, new timbers, new window frames and panes, and a door with a strong lock. Then Charlie had gone to three different sports stores to haggle over the price of gym fittings and heavy bags, before purchasing equipment like hand pads, boxing gloves, headgear and skipping ropes. Any money he spent didn’t bother him; bricklaying earned him enough to live on and there was no one to spend his extra on anyway. Renovation done, the idea to train local kids took a while to take hold inside that local community of innumerable nationalities, but six months on he had a young crew, roughly forty regulars ready to follow his routines.
This morning Charlie kept his old coach Joe Pacca’s stopwatch in one hand, a talisman that reassured him he knew what he was doing. He moved around studying everyone’s form, offering a tip here and a word of encouragement there. The heavy bags swung, some more than others depending on the size of the kid and what he or she could put into their punches. Five kids in a row were on the skipping ropes, another half-dozen wore hand pads for the half-dozen others belting combinations. Some of the combinations were easy— jab, power, hook—but the majority of them required concentration and coordination: jab, duck, power, duck, jab, jab, duck, finish with an uppercut and power. Now all with your left: jab, body rip, double the hook, step back and make your second attack fast as you can, a lightning-quick left jab and finally your right for power, put your opponent down.
This was the sprint. Young arms pumped and the skipping ropes flew. Charlie clapped his crew on until he called time and Mrs Tran was on her way in to set up drinks and food. Every week he gave her the few dollars she needed to buy it all, and paid for her time. She put her fare together in her kitchen at home, in between feeding her family. Even the drinks were a Vietnamese concoction of lemon, ginger and secrets she wouldn’t disclose. Tasted good, light in the belly. You could drink a glass down, catch your breath and get straight back to the routines.
‘Okay, go feed your faces and cool off.’
The trample of feet to the tables. At the start of the morning Charlie was the best friend these kids could have; by this time of morning, sweating, puffing and exhausted, they were cursing him and treating Mrs Tran like an angel from heaven.
‘Mr Charlie, you feed the inside man, okay?’
‘Don’t worry, this one’s doing fine.’
He stood back and watched her breakfast trays empty.
Evening came through with glimmers of dying light on the horizon but he was still far from home, having stayed at the clubhouse through the afternoon to work the day away with small repair jobs. Mainly it was to timber joints that took the brunt of so many pairs of feet. He always looked carefully for the nail heads that so much activity might have forced to pop up in the hardwood floor. He was taking the long way now, still up the other end of Kulari and passing neat homes with their produce out front, by gates in baskets or boxes and with hand-printed signs on bits of cardboard. No one put much effort into their spelling, not if their kids didn’t do it for them, and sometimes that was all wrong too. So you could have things like a dozen yellow ‘lennons’ for ‘fitty’ cents; two ‘buddernut punkens’ for the same; always there was free silverbeet: ‘Today we gots so much.’
‘Hi, Mrs Kapoor,’ he said, adding coins to the box and placing fresh ginger into his carry bag.
Mrs Kapoor, half blind, waved in his general direction. Next Charlie was at the Hardys’, who always had the best potatoes for baking, Sebago. He helped himself to four and left some coins, adding bunches of thyme and coriander. Here at the corner was Signora Selina’s house, where he liked to get his bottled tomatoes. When you opened those recycled glass jars of hers their contents were gorgeous, fragrant with extra virgin olive oil, rosemary and just the right amount of salt. You could practically eat the stuff straight. Charlie put two bottles in his bag and picked a bunch of basil and another of rosemary.
He felt in his pockets, found no more coins, then dug in his bag for his wallet. While he did, the signora came to the fence from where she’d been watering her gardens with a hose. She spoke in Italian; her dialect, Calabrese. His was from further south. Neither would ever modify their dialect to suit the other yet they managed an understanding.
‘I saw your daughter. How about that, Carmelo?’
‘You what, signora?’
‘I saw Sistine. But she’s getting so beautiful.’
‘Like her mother.’
‘That one should think about being a model not a waitress.’
‘She’s not a waitress, signora. She’s at university. Psicologia e filosofia. She’s in her second year and doing very well.’
‘Must be a part-time job then.’
‘Where did you see her?’
For some reason, which happened all the time with the foreigners in Kulari, Signora Selina switched to her form of English. ‘My ’usband he take me to dinner for our anniversario. He don’ know much, got the one place in his ’ead so we go dere. Very nice. You like?’
Charlie had a feeling he knew where she meant. It was just about the only special place people like the signora’s husband would ever think about spending their money.
‘You sure she’s working at Diego’s? It wasn’t someone looked like her?’
‘Sissy she kiss me. I say, “You want I tell hello to you fudder?” She say, “No, you leave him alone.” Den she get our food.’ Signora Selina smiled at him, kind understanding in every line of her face. ‘Carmelo, you gotta fix tings with you girl, huh?’
He finished his walk home carrying his vegetables and herbs, thinking about what the signora had told him. It had been on his mind anyway, since Tracy died, how to fix things with his girl. When he went inside he put everything away then lifted the perspex lid of his turntable. Buddy Guy and Junior Wells, 1959. He found he’d lost the urge to make himself something decent for dinner. Instead, he poured a glass of last night’s rough red and filled a small bowl with marinated olives and artichoke hearts. Then he sat at his chair by a window, blues for company, and passed another evening in his shadowed street.
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