Mike Murphy

The first three pages of The Man Who Didn't Like People

He wasn’t going to give any of this menagerie his money, that was for sure. Fat women with sagging breasts, pear-shaped arses bulging out of skin-tight pants, no make-up, hair unwashed and unbrushed. Several men had their greasy hair squashed flat by dirty baseball caps like rejects from America’s skid row or whatever they called the place their down and outs went to decompose and become part of every city’s detritus. Even the ones without the caps had uncut, unkempt hair or tangled beards like deranged birds’ nests. Humans were ugly.

Joe Westerley was slumped on a bench between a key-cutting and watch repair kiosk and a doughnut stand. The walk from where he had parked his ute had been an effort and his legs felt weak, his chest constricted. He didn’t want to be in this place, hated what was happening to him, what he had to do. He didn’t want to be here with these people. He wanted to be back in the bush, sitting in the sun at the back of the house, alone with the trees under a clear sky, the only sound the twenty-eights squabbling over the corn on the feeding table he had built for them under the old karri tree. That was heaven. This was hell.

As the wheezing in his chest slowed and his breath came easier he tried to focus more attentively on the parades moving in opposing directions up and down the shopping mall. He’d recognise June if he saw her, even after all this time. If she still came here it was his best chance of finding her. Then he could follow her to find the others, to learn what he needed to know.

A Chinese woman passed in front of Bras ‘r us, her image mirrored in the window stooped shouldered, grey clothed, grey haired and a grey face nothing like the bright smiling, gaily coloured and scantily clad mannequins behind the glass. A woman coming out of the shop had blond unkempt hair that could have been attractive if she had given herself the slightest amount of attention. She looked to be in her forties, about the right age to be his eldest daughter, Katherine, and could be her for all he knew.  He’d probably recognise her but couldn’t be as sure as he was with June. Katherine  had been twenty-one when he last saw her, would be forty-three now. People could change a lot in twenty-two years. Would he be giving Katherine some of the money?

Any of the men who looked around forty could be his son George. Hopefully not the one with the mean face and khaki shorts wearing Nike-style shoes that had seen better days and never a gym or running track. His t-shirt sleeves stuck out of the armholes of a woollen jerkin some sad woman had knitted badly. His pot belly sagged into it like a half-full bag of chook food.

Still, at least someone had loved the man enough to knit the jerkin. That was something. No-one had cared enough to knit anything for him. He shook his head, discarding the sadness of old hurts. They had no relevance to what he had to do today.

Children ran everywhere, snotty nosed, yelling and apparently uncontrolled by any responsible adult. He had no idea if he had grandchildren, or great grandchildren for that matter. It seemed unlikely but not impossible when he did the maths.

Young girls had tattoos on their upper breasts, arms and shoulders, studs in their noses, lips, ears, eyebrows and he didn’t want to think where else. They held shopping bags, licked ice- creams, chewed hamburgers and sucked from plastic bottles. Occasionally they looked in the windows of the shops they were passing but for the most part they hurried along with disinterested eyes, their mouths muttering to themselves or into their cell phones.

Any one or more of these people could be his family, sad as that was. That was why he had come to this mall. It was where June had done most of the family’s shopping for the twenty-five years he had been her husband and their children’s father.

It was possible they had moved away in the twenty-two years since he had walked out of the front door, carried his suitcase down to the train station and disappeared from their lives, but June had been so wrapped up in her job she was unlikely to have moved far away. When he’d seen no signs of her as he drove past the old house, this was the only place he could think of to continue looking.

His searching gaze focused on a purple-haired girl in the florist. Short yellow skirt that only just managed to reach her thighs, green singlet-style top with some sort of slogan in red letters, shoes with thick platform heels. People made themselves so unattractive. Didn’t they care what they looked like? Did they think they were proving something, making some sort of statement?