You are reading Part 2. Click here for Part 1.
Ten years ago, there had been nothing here. No Grant & Woodson, no expensive bakeries, no shiny townhouses, no string of cafes lining the harbour a kilometre away. All that stood here was Victoria Park. A lone field, opened in 1905, named after a queen that had died just a few years earlier. Yet it was so far from downtown, most people didn’t even consider it part of the city centre.
It stayed that way for years. Just the park on its lonesome, an afterthought, the meaningless landmark you passed before exiting the city. Nothing of note stood within three blocks in any direction. Some may remember the lone fish market, the bruised waterfront stretch of abandoned buildings, the few old wooden apartments from the sixties barely holding together. But nothing you would ever bother to look at twice or remember. “I forgot this was even here!” some probably said as they drove past.
But even back then, Victoria Park was much more than just a large field lined with London plane trees. There was history in that park. Great Britain and the NZ Maori had played a rugby league match there once. During World War 2, US soldiers were housed there in temporary barracks. At the height of the 1918 flu, the fields were lined with bodies, a temporary morgue while the city figured out how to bury that many dead. Over the years wealthy businessmen had tried to close the park, more than twice, in an attempt to build a mall or a skyscraper, or something else that would surely be worth many slabs of gold today. “The city needs a new carpark, and there is no better place than here!” But they never could. Through one hundred years of wars and plagues and property sharks, the park survived.
And now, it seemed, it would survive forever. Every few years a new building popped up, a new bakery opened. The Grant & Woodson tower was built, right across the street, on the park’s doorstep. It couldn’t have been built closer if they’d tried. The national airline opened their regional headquarters just a block over. Old buildings got bulldozed and replaced with fancy coffee shops and boutique consulting firms. The apartments surrounding those fields were spruced up, and slowly the tenants changed from students living on toast and ramen to young professionals living on ASOS subscriptions and fancy credit cards. It was just ten minutes walk to the harbour, where dozens of chic bars and restaurants – the kind that served Austrian craft beer and antipasto – had opened along Jellicoe Street looking over the water. The only thing that stayed the same was the park, standing in the centre like a proud grandparent, watching the world blossom around it. The fields were always green. The trees were always tall. The feet that trodded across it every morning evolved, but for a hundred years, Victoria park survived, and didn’t change at all.
I didn’t know any of this back then. To me it was always just the park, another section of my morning walk to work. On this particular morning (for the second day in a row, my sleep pattern had upended, and it seemed I was now coming to work early again) I decided to walk under the trees along the sidewalk, rather than across the grass, remembering how my socks had gotten wet the day before, and perhaps there was a leak in my sole I didn’t know about. As I strolled along, dodging puddles from the night rain, clouds of fog exited my mouth each time I breathed, and I pretended I was smoking a cigarette, like I used to do on school mornings as a kid. Just two minutes earlier, I’d said hello to the auburn haired girl, outside the bookshop. Apparently our relationship had now elevated from straight lipped smiles to one word greetings. She’d said “Hey” as we passed, and smiled, and I’d said “Hey” right back. Afterwards I replayed it in my head, and wondered if I should have said something different. Maybe it sounded like I was copying her, and now she thought I was unoriginal. I decided the following day I would say something new, perhaps even more than one word. Something a little more adventurous like “Good morning” or “Have a nice day”.
When I hit the double doors of the Grant & Woodson tower, I caught Jeffery the Scotsman coming in at the same time.
“Bit early, aren’t you?” he laughed.
“Ol’ Drewlove crackin’ the stick now, eh?”
We both smiled, lacking coffee, and took a silent trip up the elevator.
We didn’t spend much time alone together, the Scotsman and I; he was one of those friends you seemed to only see while with others, which meant you never really got to know him that well. You knew things like his lunch preferences, and where he came from, but not so much about what went on in that mind of his – what his aspirations were, what he was afraid of. He was always friendly, and smiling, and willing to sink a beer and have a good time, but a mystery, too. The type you wouldn’t be surprised if you found out he enjoyed bird watching, or ballet, or death metal, or some other obscure interest that would seem bizarre for anyone else. On Friday nights, he was always the first to offer a round, always asked if you wanted anything when he ran off for food, always made sure you had a ride home, but you never saw him chatting to a lady, or dancing, or talking shop outside with strangers over a cigarette. He just sat there and pounded beer after beer, that distant lull on his face. Though I suppose I wasn’t much different.
We didn’t say anything as the elevator doors opened on the top floor. Just jutted our chins at each other, as he walked off to the east side. I went to reception to see Sienna.
“I need a card.”
She held a finger up. She was on a phone call.
I waited while she clicked her mouse around the screen.
“Okay, we’ll see you then! ”
She smiled brightly as she said it, as if the person on the other end could see her face.
As I stood waiting for her to hang up, I looked down at her hand, click click clicking on the mouse. Her nails were painted bright blue, I suppose to match the blue headscarf she was wearing that day. Then my eyes flicked further down her fingers. She had a ring on every one, including her thumb, which was also blue. Further up her wrist was a Swatch watch, white face, but a custom band with blue and white stripes. I wondered how it was possible she had time every morning, to organise her daily outfit down to such detail. I barely had time to match a shirt to a tie.
“No, it’s not an engagement ring.”
I’d been staring, obviously. Her words snapped me out of it.
“That’s always the first thing people ask, when they see this one.”
She held her hand up, wiggled her fingers unenthusiastically. On her ring finger was a silver band fixed with a rock.
“I just wear it on that finger because it fits. My grandma gave it to me.”
“I didn’t even…I mean, when you get engaged…I didn’t even know you wore it on a specific finger.”
“Yeah! Ring finger left hand. How do you not know that?”
“Because I’ve never been engaged?”
“Such a weirdo.” She reached down into her drawer, glancing at me like a tired older sister.
Grant & Woodson was a new building, and they had bragged to us during recruitment about how modern it was. “Global safety standards” was the recruitment lady’s catch phrase, citing how staff safety was their primary concern, and security in that building would be considered the highest quality, anywhere in the world. But after three days, we realised all that meant was working in that building was three times more annoying than it needed to be. Firstly, the toilets were in the stairwell. To get there, you had to leave the office through the fire exit opposite reception, through a steel door that looked like it belonged in a nuclear bunker. Not only that, the toilet door itself had a keypad with a special access code, which they changed every two months. Then to get back into the office when you returned, you needed a special access card to open the nuclear bunker door again.
It all looked and felt very fancy, but since every staff member knew the code, and every staff member had a card, I didn’t see how it made anybody safer at all. All it seemed to mean was clients kept getting themselves locked in the stairwell, and you could hardly hear them banging through that ridiculous steel door when they did. And staff kept forgetting the access code, which meant half the time you went to the toilet you had to come back to reception and ask Sienna before going back out again. Eventually, she just stuck the code on a Post-it note on the back of her screen, so she didn’t have to spend half her day reciting the same four digits to every person who needed to take a shit.
And then of course people, like me, always asked to borrow the reception cards, which were supposed to be for visitors. We always left our access cards in our cars, or at our desks, or in our bags, or simply couldn’t find them, and especially after lunch, nobody was going to walk all the way across the office to the east side to get their card and then all the way back to the toilet.
Sienna pulled a card from her top drawer and handed it to me. I took it from her bright blue fingernailed hand, and waved it at her with a wink.
“Last time,” I lied, shoving it in my back pocket, and pushing through the steel door towards the toilets.
I never liked sitting on the toilet at work, but coming to work just a few minutes earlier had seemed to upset my morning rhythm, and now instead of getting that business done at home, I felt nature calling just as I arrived at the office. From memory, I hadn’t needed to perform a morning potty sit at the office since my first year.
There were only two cubicles in the male toilet, and both were free. I chose the furthest one from the door. As I stared at the seat, it looked clean, probably even cleaner than my one at home. But just the idea that some thirty other backsides had graced it that morning gave me pause. I unrolled three long tugs of toilet paper and wiped the seat vigorously. Then unrolled three perfect strips and lined the toilet seat with it. Then I unbuttoned and sat down.
Just as I did, I heard someone else walk in. As the door clicked open I prayed that their footsteps would trail over to the urinals. But they didn’t. They trailed towards me, then stepped inside the cubicle beside me, followed by the unusually loud shick-shack of the cubicle door locking. Then I started praying he might be one of those strange fellows who, despite there being urinals available, had some unshakable preference to pee into a regular toilet bowl instead. But he wasn’t. I listened to the clink of his belt as he dropped his trousers and sat down. I could tell he was not as hygienically predisposed as I was, as there was no delay to wipe down the toilet seat or line it with toilet paper. With him, it was bare bottom to seat without a wink.
And then we sat in silence. Just the two of us. Waist down naked men, sitting a metre apart with our pants down, divided only by this flimsy partition, no idea of who each other was. The etiquette of how to behave was complicated all of a sudden. Of course I wanted to pass my daily bowel movement as quickly and comfortably as possible, I needed to; one could even argue a healthy morning bowel movement was essential to being able to perform my duties as an accountant that day. But bowel movements come with noises and smells and sometimes, the odd whimper; all totally normal of course on any regular morning, but suddenly seemed unseemly with someone else so nearby. As my stomach fluttered and I felt a stool coming – normally I just let them fall at their own will – but this time I tried to ease it out, as silently as possible, and hoped for a clean splash, like an Olympic diver piercing the water, not a loud one that belly flopped and left rebound spray all over your under thighs. Then I felt a little churn in my colon, and did my best to engineer any collateral passing of gas to come out stealthily like a leaking tire, rather than a blubbing balloon. Finally that first stool passed, with great relief, and though the splash wasn’t great, though not horrendous, the gas had been a false alarm, and everything passed with barely a sound.
My neighbour wasn’t so courteous with his morning ritual, and from his side of the wall, after an uneventful opening thirty seconds, came a fast and furious, sour-smelling airstrike of continuous onslaught. Unpleasant in every way, of course, though that is not what preoccupied my mind. It was now my exit I was wary of. I had finished, and was cleaning myself up, and was almost ready to flush and re-pant myself and go. But what was my neighbour doing? He had been silent for some seconds and hadn’t moved, and I suspected he had a second round on the way, just a little road block in the intestine, perhaps. I was hesitant to button up and leave my cubicle, because while washing my hands, the last thing I wanted was for him to also leave his cubicle, and then we’d have to see each other, and navigate the awkward interaction of saying hello while pretending not to have heard each others’ intimate moments just seconds earlier. What could you even say? “Hey, sounded like you had a fine faecal passing in there!” Every time I saw that person in the office from that day, it would be the first and only thing I could think about it. What if it was one of the partners? Or that oafish guy down in audit who tried to blend in your conversations at lunch sometimes? What if was Drewlove, for heaven’s sake! No, I’d much rather our identities remained a mystery. I decided to play it safe, stay in there another minute or so, and hope this person left first so we could all save face and I could wash my hands in peace. Then ten seconds later, my prediction was correct, and my neighbour offered a second, but slightly milder onslaught into the bowl, and then without much delay I heard the rumble of the toilet paper unrolling and sighed with relief. I was fully dressed now, ready to go, just standing in my cubicle waiting for my all clear. My mystery neighbour wiped and reclothed in record time – can’t have been ten seconds at the most – and once again I heard the shick-shack of the lock and the sound of footsteps to the sink.
Water. Air dryer. Footsteps to the door. Click. Silence.
I waited an extra ten seconds just to be sure – maybe he’d return for a forgotten wallet, or access card, or pair of spectacles – and then all my maneuvring would’ve been for nothing. But he didn’t. I unlocked the cubicle and stepped out. Washed my hands. Took an extra minute, to be doubly safe. Then walked innocently back into the office. Now I could start my morning in peace.
When I got to my desk, Chocolate was standing there with a coffee, talking to Jeffery the Scotsman.
“Drewlove’s gonna come over here and whoop both your asses.”
“He’s not here.”
“He’s in Wellington.”
“Ohhh yesssssss.” I raised my arms in triumph, the way I’d done as a child when I’d gotten a Nintendo for Christmas. My smile stretched from ear to ear. So did theirs.
“What’s he doing down there, anyway?”
“I dunno. West side stuff. Who cares?”
I threw my bags under the desk and went to the lunch room to make a drink.
When I had first started at Grant & Woodson, Chocolate used to offer me coffees throughout the day. We had one of those fancy coffee machines in the lunchroom; those German ones the size of a dishwasher, with all the options on it – black, espresso, cappucino, latte, mocha – and you just pushed a button and watched it rrrrrr and do its magic. So it wasn’t any bother to make two cups instead of one, and he visited that machine at least three times a day. At first I would always nod and request a mocha, but it was just to be polite, I felt bad saying no to such a kind gesture every morning and afternoon. But as we became friends, I just started saying no, and then eventually I didn’t have to say anything, just a quick shake of the head, a little scrunch of the face, and he knew what that meant. It was nothing to do with him of course, or that I didn’t like mochas. I just had my own drink I liked to make, and only I knew how to make it.
It started with the hot chocolate option on the coffee machine. I would drink one most days, and it was fine, but tasted flat, and sugary, like cheap candy. Then one day I saw the big jar of Milo in the pantry, so I started adding a scoop of that as well, and that was a vast improvement. Some weeks later, I noticed there was a “steamed milk” option on the coffee machine, almost hidden, with its own little white button in the corner. How bizarre, I thought, to hide an option that was so versatile and useful. It should have been right in the centre! So that day I skipped the hot chocolate button altogether, filled a cup with steamed milk, and added a scoop of Milo, and it was even more amazing than I’d predicted. A few days later I decided to put two scoops of Milo instead of one, and it was so good I drank four cups that day. The next day I tried three scoops, and as impossible as it seemed, that was better still. Later that day I tried four scoops, and that’s when I realised even Milo could go too far, and three scoops was just right. But the final perfected recipe still needed a little touch; a generous layer of freshly sprinkled Milo over the frothing milk on top. And with that, it was perfect. I called it the Secret Milo.
Earlier in the year, we’d had a few summer interns join us during January. None of us could understand why, since there was never any work in January – all our clients were on holiday and the tax year didn’t even finish until March. But, I guess the partners were pressed to keep up appearances; big firms were supposed to have interns after all, so they hired four or five scrappy students to dress up in suits and come to the office to read tax law all day.
One morning, an intern named James came walking around the east side.
“Hey, morning guys.”
He was a cheery lad, tall and thin, with shortly cropped red hair, and a boyish grin.
“I was just wondering if you guys had any odd jobs you wanted done? You know, anything at all.”
Chocolate shook his head, but I was actually semi-busy with study that day, and called him over.
“Well, it’s not really a job, but it’s something to do, if you’re down.”
“Anything, man! I’ll clean your shoes if you want! I been reading that blimmin’ tax bible for three days now.”
So I explained the Secret Milo recipe to him, in perfect detail; how the Milo had to go in first, three scoops, how he couldn’t use boiling water, or fridge milk, but only steamed milk from the coffee machine. I explained where the steamed milk button was hidden, and assured him while the cup might appear somewhat empty after one fill, and he might be tempted to push the button a second time, that once was more than enough – the cup would fill with froth once he stirred it vigorously for ten or twenty seconds. Then I told him how the final garnish was as important as the drink itself – a fresh sprinkle of Milo on top, so it looked worthy of all that effort, like a flat white from an overpriced coffee shop. He stared at me as I explained it, his eyes glowing, like a dog waiting to be thrown his brand new toy. I could tell, it was the most exciting thing he’d been asked to do since he’d started.
I’ll be honest – I’d doubted him, but Redhead James perfected the Secret Milo on his first try. Even Chocolate saw how delicious it looked and his mouth watered, even though I’d made one for him once before and he hadn’t thought all that much of it. He requested one for himself – and Redhead James was more than happy to oblige.
But it got better. The following week, Redhead James immortalised himself at Grant & Woodson. He’d been bringing Chocolate and myself Secret Milos every morning and every afternoon, and I remember almost feeling guilty. I thanked him profusely every time, but he insisted it was not a big deal, and in fact, probably the most fun part of his day. Each time he’d linger for a while, and have a little chat with Chocolate and I, before excusing himself after a few minutes, I presume being mindful of not wearing out his welcome. We still had work to do, after all. But one afternoon as he brought us our drinks, I noticed a shiftiness about him. I thought nothing of it, really, and took a sip, and Chocolate sipped his, and then we looked at each other. And then we sipped it again, and we didn’t quite know why we were looking at each other, but we were. And at that moment we noticed Redhead James watching us, and he finally couldn’t hold it in any longer and grinned like a guilty schoolkid.
“Notice anything?” he asked, nervously.
I sipped mine again.
“Yeah dude, it’s…different.”
Chocolate nodded at me, then looked back at James.
“Is this Milo?” he asked, looking up at him, sipping it one more time. “Tastes like…tiramisu.”
“Made a little adjustment,” he grinned proudly.
“But I mean, you guys like it, right?”
Chocolate and I both glanced at one another with unease; it felt like a joke, but normally a practical joke would involve chili sauce in your cup, or mustard, or vinegar. But Redhead James just smiled again, like a proud chef, holding back a secret recipe.
“Alright, alright. So…I used your recipe. But then at the end, I took one of those French vanilla teabags, and one of those cinnamon teabags, and soaked them in there a minute or two.”
Chocolate and I thought it over for a second, then laughed finally, and drank a few more gulps.
“Fuckin’ not bad man. Shucks.”
“Shucks alright. Bloody genius.”
I nodded at him, impressed.
“Alright man. I’m glad you guys like it. I’ll see you later.” He jumped and clapped his hands before he left, like a five year old girl.
And from that day, word slowly got around about Readhead James and his new vanilla and cinnamon Secret Milo. It was so good, and he delivered them to our desks so promptly and without complaint, I didn’t even care he was getting all the credit for my recipe. Before long he was making it not only for Chocolate and I but for Jeffery and Steven Black and Korean Amy, and even Peter Mack, and Sienna at reception, and by the end of the month, half the team down in audit too. Seemed like harmless fun, but we knew he was finally getting too popular when the email came around reminding everyone that teabags were “not for taking home”, and if anyone knew why all the vanilla and cinnamon teabags were sudddenly going missing to let Chef Margot know.
When the interns finished at the end of February and headed back to university, HR sent an email saying they were in the process of deciding who to offer graduate positions to for the following year.
If you have any feedback on our recent summer interns we might find helpful, please let us know.
I marched straight into HR and said Redhead James had been a spectacular intern, and had helped Chocolate and I immensely, despite not even being assigned to our team.
“Anything specific?” she asked.
“Oh, so many things,” I replied. “We were quiet in January so I was studying a lot, and he helped me summarise cases for tax law, he pretty much did all our team’s filing one week in about twenty minutes. I got him to fill out some GST returns for me, not a single mistake. Was perfect.” I thought I’d better stop there, before it stopped being believable. We found out the following month only two interns got offers. Redhead James was one of them.
Of course he wasn’t working here yet, so I was now making my own Secret Milos again, only now with his improved recipe. As I stood there dunking the teabag, I looked at my watch.
Thursday. Two more days to go.
It was an easier Thursday than most. With Sam Drewlove away, the stress level on our block was always lower, we took long morning tea breaks and played music (quietly) at our desks. Chocolate took three times as many cigarette breaks as usual. Of course we still had timesheets to fill – we were charged out to clients by the hour, and we all had our quota to meet. But it was always easier to fudge that sheet when one Sam Drewlove wasn’t wandering the office.
Jeffery the Scotsman and Chocolate were still standing there talking when I got back to my desk.
“Long lunch then?” Chocolate asked as I sat down.
“I’m in. What’s the plan?”
“Dunno, we were thinking dumplings?”
We hadn’t been down there in months.
“That’s a deal! Who driving?”
Jeffery the Scotsman bounced his eyebrows.
“See y’all at 12.”
Jeffery the Scotsman was early for once. When Chocolate and I exited the building, about a minute past 12, he was sitting there grinning behind the wheel, parked right in front of the entrance, staring at us through his aviator sunglasses.
“He’s early!” I laughed.
“Nah, you boys are late!” he shouted back.
There was only one place we ever went for dumplings, and that was Dominion Road. It was a little far for the usual lunch hour, but on a day like this, lunch was as long as we wanted it to be.
Lunch hour at Grant & Woodson was between 12 and 2. You were allowed a one hour break, which you could take any time you wanted between then, but nobody kept tabs on you. People just assumed if you weren’t at your desk during those hours, you’d gone for lunch. Except Drewlove, of course. If he came to the east side at 12:30, and saw you weren’t there, he’d come back at 1:30 sharp, and if you still weren’t there, you got one of those delightful Drewlove lectures, and he’d start watching you so closely during lunch hours it was like having his thumb jammed between your buttocks for the next three months.
On the rare days he was gone, though, lunch was a celebration. We could be gone for the whole two hours, and nobody would notice a thing.
Chocolate ran around to the front seat. I jumped in the back. U2 was playing on the stereo: Beautiful Day. Indeed it was.
Jeffery the Scotsman’s car was an old Nissan Sunny. It was dark forest green, and that’s how I knew it was old – because I’d never seen that shade of green on any other car in the country. Though there were other clues too; the engine for one, which sounded like it was built a century ago, and the upholstery looked like it had been left out in the sun for a thousand summers. But despite all that, he managed to keep it rather clean and respectable. There were no rips or stains or Burger King wrappers scattered along the back seat. The stereo always worked. He always had a little scented air freshener hanging from the rear view mirror. A ride in Jeffery the Scotsman’s Sunny really wasn’t too bad at all.
That didn’t mean it was a great car. More than once, on a weekend trip, or a Friday night, Jeffery the Scotsman had had to jump out and pop the hood, and go fiddling in there with his sad excuse for a toolkit – just a few wrenches and sticks wrapped in a rag in the boot. We laughed often about the one time we’d road tripped to Hamilton in the middle of the night, because Jeffery the Scotsman had sworn there was a bakery down there that would be open at 5 a.m., which had the best chicken and vegetable pie in all of New Zealand. It didn’t take much to get us on board; it was a Friday, we’d all had a river of beers, and so everyone thought it was a fantastic idea. It took us almost two hours to get there, and the car putted to a stop not once but twice, like it had done many times in the past. It was pitch black outside, not a soul on the roads other than a few truckers, and Chocolate, Steven Black and myself all wagered we’d be calling the AA and getting hauled back to Auckland by a tow truck. Jeffery the Scotsman called our bluff – “How much?” – and we each put $100 on it, and of course Jeffery the Scotsman fixed his little baby Sunny up just fine and was $300 richer by morning.
We pulled up to that bakery at almost 5 a.m. sharp, and we weren’t even mad when we saw the big CLOSED sign on the door, which said they opened at 9, just like their website had said. “It’s wrong, I grew up there!” the Scotsman had insisted before we’d left Auckland. We sat outside that humble bakery for three hours, passing around a bottle of Jameson and a bottle of Coke, and eating Cheezels from the gas station around the corner. That gas station had pies too, of course, but we pledged we’d come all that way to eat those famous bakery pies and would settle for nothing else. As it turned out, the owner recognised Jeffery, and kindly let us in an hour early while they were still thawing out cakes and baking their loaves for the day. When we told him we’d driven down from Auckland just for a pie, he hooted with laughter, and told us the pies and the coffees were on the house that morning. As long as we promised to “always make a pit stop” there any time we drove through town. He was a clever fellow, that bakery owner, because I never forgot the gesture, and many years later, I was still stopping at that bakery for a pie and coffee any time I drove down the country, and had done so at least ten times since then. Jeffery the Scotsman was right, too. To this day, I never tasted a better chicken and vege pie than that one.
None of us could figure out why Jeffery the Scotsman kept driving that Nissan Sunny all those years. He seemed to have a new car to flip every week, much nicer ones, newer ones, ones that he spent his weekends fitting with new seats and new wheels and new stereos. Surely he could have flipped his own somewhere along the way. But he seemed to love that car, it was like a challenge to keep it going year after year, breakdown after breakdown. He did clean it often, and wash it often, and while the forest green panels certainly didn’t look new, it didn’t look like a piece of trash either. It just drove like one.
That day was a good day for Jeffery the Scotsman’s Sunny, though. We made it to the dumpling street in one piece, and as soon as we stepped out of the car, we mmm‘ed at the smell of stir fries and flaming woks and steaming broths that drifted under our noses. Dominion Road was like the Chinatown of Auckland, a one kilometre stretch of noodle houses and dim sum restaurants and tea shops that never failed to fill your stomach with happiness. There was more Chinese signage on that street than English, and you could have forgiven yourself for thinking you’d just wandered into a little stretch of Hong Kong itself. It was actually Korean Amy who had brought us here for dumplings one Friday night, during my first year, and since then it had become the Friday night feasting spot, around 3 a.m. when we’d all sobered up, ready to forget alcohol even existed, and just have ourselves a darn good feast.
We marched straight into our favourite joint. None of us even knew the name of it – the signage was all in Chinese – but we knew where it was, and that the sign was red, and that our favourite table was the round one in the corner. The Scotsman ordered a round of Tsingtao beers. Then Chocolate grabbed the menu, and we waved our hands at him, giving him the all-clear to order dumplings for the table, like he always did.
Pork and cabbage. Beef and coriander. Fish with chives. Chicken and corn.
The plates came out quick and steaming, as usual. We cleaned them just as fast, as if feasting one last time before Lent, soy sauce and vinegar splashing all over our sleeves. The first beers went down like tequila shots. It was the greatest thing Korean Amy ever did, introducing us to that place. We loved it like our own grandmothers’ cooking, and without her, none us would’ve even known it was there.
“How much money you reckon these guys make?” I asked, picking at the last few scraps on my plate.
Jeffery the Scotsman looked around, back at the kitchen, then at the plates scattered on our table.
“Quarter mil a year?”
“You seen what kinda crowds they bring on a weekend? Quarter mil a year, easy.”
Chocolate nodded, also looking around.
“Yeah, probably close to that…”
“A quarter mil? Selling $15 plates of dumplings?”
“We do the accounts for that little Italian spot, up on Symonds. They did nearly half a mil last year.”
“But Italian joints, they sell wine and fancy dinners and charge you $15 for a few shitty breadsticks. These Chinese places can’t rip you off like that.”
“What’s a quarter mil in profit?” Chocolate shrugged, doing the numbers in his head. “Seven hundred a day? That’s easy.”
“Fuckin’ hell man, easy? Drewlove ain’t payin’ us seven hundy a day! We need to get out of these suits and start a dumpling joint.”
“What we gonna call it?”
Jeffery the Scotsman, clunked his beer down on the table, laughing.
“Samoan style ones. Filled with corned beef, and palusami.”
“Shucks…and coconut ones for dessert!”
“We’ll be millionaires!”
We all laughed and lounged back in our chairs, bellies round with satisfied grins on our faces. It was times like these that I most wished the world could pause, or that work didn’t exist, that I could sit there all day and enjoy the post-lunch glow, that we could simply be there as friends rather than workmates, let our meals digest with laughter and banter all afternoon. Lunch conversations were always so joyful; good food, and jolly company, and it felt so wrong, to interrupt such beautiful moments so abruptly. Just to return to our cubicles. Of all places. But that was life.
When we’d sighed our sighs and finished our beers and paid our bill and climbed back in the car and finally turned the final corner toward the office, we’d expected Jeffery the Scotsman to just pull the car up to the entrance and let us out. But he slowed a few seconds early, and turned into the carpark entrance just next door.
“Can one of you swipe me in?”
My access card was at my desk. Luckily Chocolate’s was in his pocket.
“What you doing, anyway?” he asked, handing him his card.
“Gonna park in Drewlove’s spot.”
Chocolate snapped his head and stared at him, aghast that he hadn’t thought of it himself.
“Someone needs to park there today. Might as well be the ol’ Sunny!”
We laughed as the gate rattled open and he turned his forest green clunker into the parking spot, the ‘Sam Drewlove – Grant & Woodson‘ sign plastered on the wall.
“What it’s like to be partner for a day, eh!”
And as we opened the doors and stepped out, we felt it too. Walking into that building through the carpark entrance, it was suddenly like we’d become the big men in the building. Hard to believe a special parking space could make you feel so important. But it did.
That night after work, my brain had almost exploded from trying to study. The beers had left me in a mild daydream, and the dumpling coma had hardly helped. It was close to 7, and I went wandering over to Korean Amy’s desk. She had her earphones in, and slowly pulled one out when she saw me.
“You studying IFRS?” I asked.
She laughed and pulled out her other earphone.
“Only a few months left.”
We both looked at the ground and sighed.
“Yeah. I know.”
I picked up the box of snacks on her desk. It was something I’d never seen before.
“What are these?”
I pulled one out and took a bite.
“Wow. It’s like a cookie. Shaped like a straw. With chocolate.”
“You’ve never heard of Pepero?”
“Should I have?”
“It’s like the most popular snack in Korea.”
I pulled out another one and ate it. They were amazing.
“Take the box, please! I’ve been eating all day. I have heaps, anyway.”
She pointed to a stack of boxes under her desk.
“Woah! Strawberry flavour. And cookies and cream.” I knelt down and grabbed them, studying each box like they were rare jewels I’d never seen before.
“Did you buy in bulk or somethin’? Why have you got like twenty boxes?”
“That’s nothing,” she laughed. She opened her bottom drawer. It was the deep drawer for us to keep files in, but hers had not a single file. It was filled with junk food, all Korean, I presumed, brightly coloured wrappers with foreign writing and pictures of chocolate muffins and cream and berries and whatever else would set a five year old’s eyes on fire.
“How else are you supposed to get through a day in this place?” she grinned.
I walked over and dug my hands inside. It was neverending.
“How are you even alive?” I laughed. “There’s enough sugar in here to kill you in a week. Anyway, I gotta go. Girlfriend’s waiting.”
“Here, take her a gift, from me.”
She pulled something from the drawer and threw it at me. It had some English on it. Choco pie. Photo of some marshmallow and cookie, covered in chocolate. Like a big Mallowpuff. I smiled at her.
“She’ll love it.”
My girlfriend and I usually met for dessert on Thursdays. It used to be dinner, but with me staying at the office later and later that year, I never seemed to make it on time. I think she preferred dessert anyway. So did I. Dinners always took forever.
She’d chosen a little spot in Ponsonby that day. She was already inside waiting.
I sat down.
“Hey. Brought you a gift.”
I put it on the table in front of her. She smirked, like it was a little magic trick.
“What is it?”
“No idea. Amy gave it to me.”
“Amy…that’s the Asian one, right?”
They’d met once before, at the office mid-year party. It had bored the life out of her, since all we did that night was sit and talk about work. Luckily the girls took her off to dance, and the boys sat and talked rugby and decimated the dessert table. It was tame compared to usual Friday nights; nobody had wanted to drink too hard with all the west siders around, and nobody wanted to go around meeting partners’ husbands and wives either. Luckily it had ended before midnight, and we salvaged the evening with some late night drinks down on the Viaduct. That was the first and last time she met any of my work friends.
Didn’t mean she didn’t know about them, though. In fact, it was all we ever talked about. My friends at work. Her friends at work. The job I was doing that was really hard. The new person at her office who everybody liked.
As we picked at the cheesecake she ordered, she told me about the big ‘scandal’ at her job, where one of the managers was leaving, and taking more than ten staff with her. “Such a shitty thing to do,” she said, “But I bet she’s getting paid something crazy.”
I spooned off another piece of cake. “I bet,” I said, doing my best to look interested.
It hadn’t always been that way. In our earlier years, things had been quite exciting. We talked about doing a gap year in Spain, where we’d learn to dance, and take weekend trips to Portugal. We said we’d save for a year, and then we’d go. But then her Mum had an operation, and she wanted to be around for that, and then she got promoted, and then my third year began, and our talks changed to how we were a little older now, and she wanted to think about buying a house. And you couldn’t spend a year in Spain when you had a mortgage, of course. A year in San Francisco would have been cool, we had talked one night about going there too, after Spain, riding those trams, watching the 49ers play, holidaying around California. We’d still be young, right? What’s an extra year abroad? But she seemed to laugh at them now. “Dreams we had when we were kids,” she called them one night. Yeah. I guess she was right. Now she liked to talk about our careers, how we were both earning decent money now, how the housing market was hot, and we really needed to start looking. “We could be home-owners in our twenties!” she’d say excitedly. “What a dream that would be, right?”
I wasn’t sure why it all seemed stale. Not just the cheesecake; the conversation, the smiles on our faces. I wondered if things felt stale because work was stale, and that staleness made everything in life seem stale. Mornings were stale. Evenings were stale. Weekends were for sleeping. And stale. I shrugged it all off. Maybe it would get better. Maybe once I passed these exams, I’d be less stressed, and life wouldn’t be so tired all the time. Maybe we’d still get to Spain after all.
We kissed each other goodbye and drove home. I’d asked if she wanted to stay the night, but she said she had early meetings the next day. She hadn’t stayed over in a few weeks, but I didn’t mind, to be honest. I’d only asked because I always did, and didn’t want her to think something was wrong. Beside, she talked a lot when she stayed over, and I had too much on my mind these days. The Clairewell job is going over budget. Hintons are coming in for a meeting tomorrow. Did I include the interest on that return? Why couldn’t I reconcile that GST? For the third night in a row, I fell asleep on the couch. A bottle of water in my hand. In my socks and underwear.
“What you want?”
I already knew it would be Fanta or L&P.
I walked into the lunchroom, where some of the boys had already settled in the corner with a round of beers. Rugby was on the TV.
“Ehhhhhh there he is. Drewlove letting you clock off early eh boy! C’mon we already got one for ya.” Steven Black tapped a freshly opened beer on the table.
I smiled and pulled two L&P’s from the fridge.
“I’ll be back.”
I headed back to the reception desk and handed Sienna a can, and we cranked them open at the same time.
Friday night drinks was sacred at Grant & Woodson, and one of the few things they did well at that office. Each Friday morning the fridge was stocked with classic beers, soft drinks, pretzels and potato chips, the pantry lined with bottles of red wine. Then once the clock hit five and the week officially ended, the lunch-room filled and quickly became intoxicated, the clanging of bottles and chatter echoing all the way into the hallways at the end of the floor.
Some of the partners were regulars there too, chin-wagging and making sure they stayed friendly with the staff, and the ladder climbers were always sure to chin-wag back and make sure they stayed friendly with the partners. Even Drewlove made an appearance now and then. But slowly, around six, the partners headed back to their offices to work, and then headed home. The managers went home to their kids and wives and husbands, and by six thirty, surely seven at the latest, it was just the usual Friday crew left. Steven Black liked to call us the rat-pack – “Where’s the rat-pack heading tonight boys?” – and when the clock hit 9 or 10 it was time to head down to Pride of Persia for a kebab or a few samosas, before moving onto the bars. Sometimes we walked down the road to the wild and sprawling Sales Street Bar, other nights we hopped the fancier bars on the waterfront, but wherever we went it was always the big highlight of our week – maybe the only highlight of our week – so we never failed to spend a lot of money or have a good time. We didn’t always see each other much during the week, sometimes not at all; a lot of the rat-pack worked downstairs, or were out at clients, sometimes too busy to even make it to morning tea, but we always saw them on Friday night, and sometimes didn’t say bye until Saturday morning, maybe even Saturday afternoon, or on a few rare and legendary occasions, Saturday evening.
Sienna never joined us though. While we all clocked out at 5, she had to sit at reception for an extra hour, just in case someone called or a client came in. So I always started my Friday night drinks with her, standing over the front desk, sharing a drink and a bowl of pretzels.
“What is this?” I asked, picking up the book underneath her purse. I looked the cover up and down a couple of times.
“A Streetcar Named Desire…” I read out slowly.
“Cool…you read this kind of stuff?”
“I’m studying it.”
“You’re in school?”
“A few weeks ago.”
I smiled at her, proudly for some reason, and she smiled back.
“Well, what are you studying?”
“Drama? That’s a subject?”
“Yes, dick. It’s a subject.”
“So, what it’s…bachelor of drama?”
“Bachelor of arts.”
“Oh. And wait, let me guess…majoring in drama.”
“See…I’m arty. So what does that mean…you going to be an actress or somethin’?”
She sipped her drink, shaking her head at me.
She shook her head again.
I squinted, biting half a pretzel, trying to read the hidden smile on her face.
“Close to a screenwriter…” I mumbled.
I looked at the book again.
“A screenwriter editor?”
She laughed sadly.
“No weirdo. This is a play,” she said, pulling the book from my hands and waving it. “A Streetcar Named Desire. A playwright. I want to write plays.”
She handed the book back to me.
“Sorry. Playwright. That’s…”
I looked at the cover again.
A Streetcar Named Desire. Tennessee Williams.
“That’s really cool actually.”
She studied my face for a split second, and saw I was being genuine. At least I hoped that’s what she saw, because I was.
“What made you wanna do that?” I flicked through it, not slow enough to read anything, but still looking at the pages as if I could.
She was silent, so I looked up at her. She was thinking.
“I saw a play once, and I loved it. And just decided…I wanted to do that.”
I spun the book between my fingers, intrigued. Actually it took me a second to realise, but I was more than intrigued. I was jealous. And I wasn’t 100% sure why I was jealous, it just suddenly seemed so…I mean…we all came to this office every day in pressed suits and worked to strict deadlines and had millionaires coming in the door to ask us for advice, and we had all studied and worked so hard for that privilege; it just didn’t seem fair that the most interesting person in the building might be the girl at reception. All those years at university suffering through case studies from Harvard Business School – “we’re very privileged to have access to this,” I remembered them saying – and reading the manuals on accounting software, writing essays on The Taxation of Trusts, because that’s what you do at university, right? You force yourself to learn these things so you can get a job later and earn some money. And I’d just never realised until then, there was a whole other side of studying, where people went to university and studied things just because they liked them.
“So what do you even do, in a playwriting class?”
“We learn stuff like…how to create scenes, and how to create different emotions, stuff like that.”
I had barely touched my L&P. She looked like she’d almost finished hers.
“So you’re going to write a play huh. And become famous. And I can tell everyone I used to know you.”
“When I was a starving receptionist.”
“And I was a starving accountant.”
“You’re not starving!”
“I’m spiritually starving.”
“So how does a playwright become famous? Are there any famous ones? I don’t think I know any.”
“Oh! Right. Okay.”
“Hey I know him too.”
“Really? What did he write?”
I shrugged. “I dunno, but he has that famous quote, about following your dreams and stuff.”
“Never heard of him.”
“Hunchback of Notre Dame? Les Mis?
“Ohhhh! Yeah. Playwriting, huh…how cool is that.”
For the next half hour I turned through the book, read out random scenes, asked her questions that probably sounded moronic – “Who decides how loud the music is in this scene?” – little did she know they were more sincere than any accounting question I’d ever asked anyone in that office. For once, I actually wanted to know the answer.
Once the pretzels were finished I picked up the bowl and asked if she wanted a refill. She didn’t.
“Alright, I’m gonna go see the boys. You gonna join us after?”
But I already knew what she was going to say. Not this time.
“Not this time.”
And that her boyfriend will be here soon.
“My boyfriend’s on his way.”
I handed her book back.
“Alright, Tennessee Williams. Thanks for the chat.”
“Thanks for the drink.”
As I walked away I held my fist up and punched the sky. And somehow, we both knew that meant “You’re welcome.”
That night, when all the managers had gone home, and the rugby game on TV had finished, and the sun had gone down, and we’d been through eight bags of pretzels, Jeffery the Scotsman decided that night was finally going to be the night.
“We’re going to empty that fridge.”
Every Friday night since I had worked there, Chocolate and Jeffery the Scotsman had joked about finishing every beer in that fridge. But this night, the Scotsman seemed serious. He’d even gone and calculated it – there were seven rows left of Heinekens, with eight bottles in each row, and six boxes of Lion Reds, with six cans in each one, and six boxes of Amstel Lights, with four bottles in each one, and that added up to only 116 beers. Between the eight guys in the rat-pack, that meant “only 14 and a half beers each”.
He opened the fridge again and counted a second time.
“This is it, man!” he said, as if looking at some treasure map, about to undertake a voyage that was going to change his life. “The clients we had in here tonight made a pretty big dent. We could do it tonight, seriously!”
I looked at Chocolate. He’d already had five or six, and it would be tough for him to do another 14. Although at his barbecue a few months earlier, he had finished a dozen himself pretty comfortably. Steven Black still looked sober and I could see he was game. Me – I’d never drank 14 beers in one night in my life. And they knew I couldn’t, too. That didn’t stop them from trying.
Jeffery brought over a round of fresh Heinekens and popped them open.
“14 more rounds, boys. Tonight’s the night.”
Steven Black grinned.
We all clinked bottles.
And for the next few hours, as we sat there destroying our livers, and fresh bottles continued getting plonked in front of me, the laughter and shouting faded, and I drifted into a daydream. I thought about my girlfriend, at first, what she might be doing at that time, and that I should probably message her. And then I had this odd image in my head, of her on a cloud in front of me, drifting away. Once she disappeared, Sienna appeared behind me, holding a box. I turned around, and I couldn’t see her face, but I knew it was her, somehow. I opened the box and a newspaper was inside. The title at the top said LIFE. There was a red stain in the corner, which I guessed was tomato sauce, or maybe jam from a jelly donut. Then Chocolate appeared. He had boxing gloves on, and suddenly him and Steven Black were sparring each other and laughing. Jeffery the Scotsman watched, confused. Then Sam Drewlove drove his car, right into the lunchroom. Walked right over to me, and handed me a beer. I tried to drink it, but it kept spilling on my chin, and my shirt, and my hands. And then I could feel the wetness, running down my sleeve, and it was real, the whole thing was real. And then laughter. Just lots and lots of laughter.
“And he’s awake!”
The laughter was Steven Black’s. And Chocolate’s. And Jeffery’s.
“Relax mate, just a little water.”
I sat up quickly, smelled the patches on my shirt. Water.
“Steve’s idea,” Chocolate grinned, still holding the glass.
“Bro don’t even try to…” Steven Black laughed.
“You been out for a minute, mate. Shucks.”
“Yeah, wow. What time is it?”
I looked around, making sure I was where I thought I was. They must have sensed my haziness.
“You orright, man?”
I rubbed my eyes. I’d slept so deep, there were crusts in the corners.
“Yeah, man. I had this dream. It was like…high definition. Surround sound. Fucking IMAX or something.”
“Any cute girls?” Chocolate joked.
I looked up at him and shook my head.
“Nah,” I said seriously. “Not really.”
He put the glass in his hand down in front of me.
“Slug some water, man. Big night tonight!”
I took a gulp, then popped a pretzel in my mouth from the packet on the seat next to me.
“You guys empty the fridge?”
“Mate you still got six beers left, and then we’re good!” Steven Black said, pointing at me.
Jeffery the Scotsman was sitting on the bench by the fridge, eating a kebab from downstairs.
“Nah,” he said, sounding disappointed. “We didn’t. But we came close. 22 left.”
Chocolate turned and stared at the fridge for a moment. He could barely stand straight.
“You know what. We’re gonna fucking do it.”
He marched out of the room. A minute later he came back with a storage box from the mail room. He started with the cans, stacking them along the bottom. Then he started laying the bottles on top.
Steven Black and I looked at each other, confused, then smiled cautiously. Jeffery the Scotsman sat there, still eating, and watching, like it was the most normal thing in the world.
“How you gonna get that downstairs, without the elevator camera seeing you?”
Chocolate turned at us, breathing heavy, like he was in the middle of an aerobics session. It looked like he might even be sweating.
“I’ll go down the stairs.”
“Seven floors?” I said.
He said nothing. I shrugged.
“It’ll sober him up, at least,” I said quietly.
“It ain’t like we stealin’ ’em,” he shouted finally, his head still in the fridge.
“That’s exactly what you’re doing,” I laughed.
He pulled the last few bottles out and set them on the bench.
“Looky ‘ere. We gon’ drink em. Right? We drink ’em ‘ere, or we drink em down ‘ere. What’s the diff’ence?”
He packed the last few bottles in the box, then turned and looked at the fridge proudly.
I had to admit. It did look kind of…neat. All the top shelves were empty, and for the first time, all we could see were the white panels in the back. There were still the Coke and Sprite and L&P cans on the shelves below, but we weren’t looking down there. Chocolate took out his phone and snapped a photo.
“That’s what it looks like boys. Victory.”
Myself, Steven and Jeffery took the elevator down. Chocolate took the stairs, with his overflowing box of stolen drinks, and dropped them in the boot of his car, which he’d moved into Sam Drewlove’s spot after everyone had left for the day.
By then, it was just the four of us left. The rest of the rat-pack had filtered out and made their way home, while I’d been asleep, dreaming in 4K. But I was awake now. A few pretzels and some water, I felt re-energised. Sobering. Somehow ready for whatever craziness might be ahead. After all, Friday only came once a week.
As it turned out, Chocolate raiding the fridge was as crazy as it got that night. We went to Sales Street Bar and drank a few rounds, but it was quiet, the rain dampening the usual Friday night festivities. Around 3 a.m. our stomachs grumbled, and we left to get food at one of our favourite burger joints downtown. Jeffery the Scotsman wasn’t interested, and decided to head home early.
After our bellies filled, and our minds cleared, we made the slow and long walk back towards the office. Chocolate’s phone beeped.
“It’s Jeff. He said don’t drive yet. Cops are out breath testing everywhere.”
We all stopped walking and looked at each other.
“I’m sober,” Steven said.
“Yeah, I am too,” I nodded back. “But the breath test won’t say that. Gotta wait a few hours, at least.”
It was still drizzling with rain, though it wasn’t bothering us; it was light enough that the droplets just sat like weightless sparkles on our hair, rather than matting it to our foreheads. Just slightly, you could feel the air warming, the faintest glow of a sunrise in the distance.
“We got a shitload of beers, I guess.”
Steven and I flicked our eyes at one another, smiles stretching across our faces. We’d forgotten about that. Maybe Chocolate’s idea hadn’t been so stupid after all.
We sat in Chocolate’s car, in front of the water, looking out over the quiet end of the city harbour. After sitting in the office carpark for an hour we’d gotten antsy, and Chocolate had the bright idea to drive out here. Besides, it was only a five minute drive away. And a view worth ten times as much. By then the sun had half risen, and the rain had gone. With a bit of imagination, it almost looked like summer.
“Fuck marry kill,” Chocolate grinned, staring out the windscreen.
“Let’s say. Blonde Amy. Korean Amy. Sienna.”
“Dude, that’s easy,” I laughed.
I was laying along the backseat, my feet resting on the window rib. Steven Black sat beside Chocolate up front.
“Well I’m killing Blonde Amy.”
“Definitely,” Steven Black laughed. “And I’ll marry Sienna.”
“Eh!” Chocolate scoffed.
“What’s wrong with Sienna?”
“Nothing, but she’s a receptionist.”
“I always just thought, since they’re both not bad looking, you just marry the richer one.”
Steven Black and I thought about it for a moment.
“Nah I’m with Stevey. I’m marrying Sienna.”
“Shucks…you guys better be rich.”
“Dude, have you seen how Korean Amy literally never stops talking, ever? You want to go home to that every single day?”
“If she makin’ six figures, ain’t no thing.” He sipped his beer quickly, as if he couldn’t start another sentence without another mouthful. “Once you pop a few kids, you barely god time to talk wid her anyway. At least dat mortgage’ll be gone quick smart. We’ll be like that couple, what’s da one?” He clicked his fingers at me.
“Yeah, dat guy and dat Jaguar. If you marry Sienna, it’s a Toyota Corolla for the rest of your life, mate, shucks.”
We all laughed. Once he had enough drinks in him, Chocolate was always the cynic – the cynic who slurred with passion and broken syllables. It was true what they said, with him anyway – a sober man’s thoughts becoming a drunk man’s words.
“Alright alright, how about this one,” he continued. “Korean Amy. Sienna. Buck.”
“Oooh.” Steven Black sucked air between his teeth, thinking intensely.
“That’s a tougher one,” I said. I stared at the ceiling, thinking even harder than Steven.
“I’m still marrying Sienna,” he said finally.
I stared at the back of his seat.
“Of course! Wasn’t that obvious? I was trying to decide who to kill.”
Chocolate screwed his face up.
“You guys man!”
“What, you think I’d marry Buck instead of Sienna? Dude?” I kicked the back of Chocolate’s seat, like he needed a shaking. “Girl can’t even eat a normal pizza.”
“Yeaaah she’s bit of a wobbly one,” Steven Black said. “So you’re killing who, then?”
“It’s gotta be Buck. I’ll be honest, one night with Amy? That wouldn’t be so bad.”
“Well I wouldn’t mind a night wid Buck either. She’s probably inta some freaky shit.”
I nudged the back of his seat again.
“Yeah, she’ll dress you up in goat cheese and plum sauce, and turn you into an interesting pizza, that’s what she’ll do.”
I kicked the roof laughing, Steven Black laughed so hard he almost fell out onto the concrete. Chocolate was unfazed, shouting over the top of us.
“Y’all two just loving on Sienna too much. While I marry my freaky pizza girl. Jealous, eh!”
He sat up and pulled another beer from the box, threw it at me. Handed one to Steven Black. Opened one for himself. I watched him gulp it down. I guessed Chocolate had forgotten we were supposed to be sobering up so we could drive home. Or perhaps he thought the faster he drank, the faster we’d run out of beers, and then he could sober up for real.
I didn’t open mine. Just spun it between my palms, round and round. Then I sat up. Opened the door. Put my feet on the ground, looked out over the water.
“You guys ever think about moving on from this?”
The sky was light now, some people were even out for their Saturday morning jogs. I didn’t look at the time, but I guessed it was maybe 7 o’clock.
“From what? Drinking?”
“Nah, man. Not drinking. This. From GW. This whole thing right here.” I waved my arm out at the city, like a magician, as if making it magically appear for the first time.
“Look at it. This city. This life.”
Chocolate suddenly sobered. He shuffled up in his seat, stared out at the city with me. Like he’d been waiting for this conversation all night.
“You know what man? I been thinking about that a lot too lately.”
“Yeah bro, I looked at my payslip the other day. And it’s like, the taxman takes half my check. And my student loan takes the other half of my check. And my ex takes the third half of my check. And then Kiwisaver takes the fourth half my check. And I barely got enough for a sausage roll after they give me the rest. It’s like, shucks man, what the heck am I even doing here? Just paying for everyone else’s life.”
He crushed his beer can on the dashboard and dropped it down at his feet. It almost made me uncomfortable, how serious he was all of a sudden.
“That’s a good idea, man.” He turned and looked at me. “I should just get out of here. You know. For a few years.”
“And do what?” Steven Black said. He was suddenly serious too.
“Anything, man. I ain’t chasin’ one o’ dem west side manager cubicles, man. There’s no point me being here anymore. Shucks. I was looking at jobs the other day, they need accountants in Japan, in Italy, in New York. There’s a world out there man. I mean Italy, how cool would that be? You can eat pasta there right off the damn trees. How about that, eh? Chocolate from Manurewa, taking over the world.”
“That’s what I’m saying man! I’m with you, bro. Let me shove one right up this fucking exam. And then I’m right there with you.”
“I dunno, you guys.” Steven Black tipped his beer to his mouth. “It’s all greener grass I say. Look around, man. This is the best country in the world. Fuckin’ Aotearoa.”
“That’s ’cause your Dad owns half this damn country.”
Steven Black rolled his eyes, like he’d heard this before. Because he had heard this before.
“Probably rides one of those horses right up into parliament. Everyone bows down, hey hey hey! Mr Black is here!”
“Fuck off bro.”
“He’s right, bro. It’s different for someone like me,” Chocolate said, grabbing another can. But he didn’t open it right away this time. Just rested his hand on top while he talked.
“I’ll tell you what I know, man. All that shit I went through, with my Mum, and my kid, and my ex. Man, I’m already a fucking miracle, is what my family thinks. Where I come from, you gotta be brave to have a dream. Nobody’s ever going to believe in it except for you. You’ll sound like a flippin’ egg, talking about Italy around there. But when you make it, they all come running. But then…”
He paused for a moment. Smirked.
“If you screw everything up. Nobody’s gonna come save you.”
Steven Black didn’t say anything. I just smiled.
“Next year, Chocolate. Me and you. We’re out of this place. I’m serious man. Let’s swear it.”
He opened his beer and held it out. I opened mine and knocked it with his.
“Fuckin’ cheers to that.”
It was around 10 a.m. when we decided to leave there and head back to the office. Miraculously, Chocolate made the five minute drive in one piece. He parked in Drewlove’s spot again. None of us had managed to sober up. In fact, in the hours we’d been sitting out there by the water, we’d gotten even drunker than when we’d started. We all had a few hours before we could drive, at least.
“Let’s wait upstairs,” I said. “You guys go up, I’ll grab us some breakfast.” I didn’t mind a few hours in the office. I had some exam stuff to print anyway.
I headed to the French bakery around the corner. On the way there I noticed the huge crowd inside Pride of Persia. A hundred people, at least. Everyone wore long beautiful gowns, with those Muslim hats on their heads. Maybe some kind of prayer meeting, I guessed. I caught sight of the owner whose name we didn’t know, talking to a few men in the corner. They all laughed, like he had just told a great joke. I kept my eye on him as I walked by, in case he saw me out the window and I could wave. But he didn’t. The bakery was quiet when I got there. An old lady was at the counter, buying half a dozen baguettes. A few kids dressed in soccer uniforms were pointing at the chocolate tarts and looking longingly at their mother. She got in line and ordered herself a coffee. And then the tarts. I got to the counter and bought a dozen croissants. In true French style, the girl packed them neatly in a box for me, all facing the same way. They weren’t cheap, but they looked delicious. And after the night we’d had, delicious was certainly more important than cheap.
When the elevator doors opened, I found Sienna sitting at reception. She laughed at the sight of me, and I wasn’t sure if it was at the confused look on my face, or the tragic hair and grimy shirt and sullen face from a long and unsavoury night. But then I realised, I didn’t really care why. Just the laugh was enough to make me smile.
“I came to study.”
“Ahhh yes. Sienna’s a student now.”
“You smell like beer.”
I lifted my arm, sniffed it.
“Yes I do,” I nodded. “Breakfast?”
I opened the box of croissants.
“Wow! Yes please.”
Even I wow’ed in my head. It looked more delicious inside than I’d remembered. Ham and brie. Cream cheese. Butter and jam. Dark chocolate. As I watched her hand linger, I already knew she’d be taking a chocolate one. But she didn’t. She reached in, biting her lip, and carefully pulled out a butter and jam.
She grinned as she bit into it.
“I’ll be back. I’m gon’ take these to the boys.”
Steven Black and Chocolate were sitting in the lunchroom, in the same spot they’d been sitting 12 hours earlier. The news was on the TV.
I pulled up a seat, put the box of croissants down, took a chocolate one for myself.
“Ohhh you flippin’ legend!”
They both grabbed one, then a few seconds later, another, and as we ran through them hungrily, we pointed at the empty fridge and giggled nervously.
“Might get in trouble for that.”
“Why? We drank ’em. That’s what they’re there for.”
It was hard to argue with that.
The rugby highlights came on the screen, and we all groaned with approval, our feet up, our mouths filled with half-eaten croissants, lazy smiles on our faces. It wasn’t the perfect start to a Saturday morning; each of us would have much rather been lying in our beds, well rested, hangover free, starting our day with a hot shower and a fresh pair of underwear. Maybe topped with a fresh cup of coffee, a head that wasn’t thumping, some clean socks to put on.
But as we were about to find out, such things would be the very least of our worries that day.
In a few seconds, it would begin.
And our lives would never be the same again.
End of Part 2. Click here to go to Part 3.