Summer 2021

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Shibboleth

By Todd Barrowclough

Photo by Cherry Lin on Unsplash
© Photo by Cherry Lin on Unsplash

 4.

 

Will, a Samoan man prone to bouts of obsessiveness, made a vow: today, this very Sunday, he’d remove himself from the internet. For most of the week, he’d argued with someone about the correct way to make palusami in the comments section of an article on Facebook. Will was adamant adding pisupo to the coconut cream and onion was sacrilege; his adversary felt no such way. Snide comments had devolved to ad hominem attacks.

          Will’s authenticity had been called into question, his adversary and their allies labelling him a palagi on account of his profile picture. Will’s mother was Samoan, but he had the fair skin and straight hair of his father. He’d been reduced in this way his whole life and he wasn’t going to stand for it. The world was in the grip of a pandemic, for god’s sake. In lockdown, there were more important things to spend one’s time doing than suffering the judgement of others.

          Of those things, breathing fresh air felt most immediately vital, so Will left his apartment complex in Brunswick, Melbourne and went for a run to sweat his anger out. Invigorated on his return, Will took up the household chores he’d neglected during his campaign in the digital trenches. He’d use his time more wisely from now on by doing practical things like tending the garden he’d left to the weeds, knowing he should use the small yard available to him as the occupant of the ground floor apartment. 

          Will re-acquainted himself with writing to-do lists: 

  • Garden
  • Read more
  • Develop a hobby

          From this he dedicated himself to establishing a new routine and went as far as noting this down as another task to check off. Life in this moment held new meaning. 

          That evening he took the rubbish out, promising never again to forget that waste pickup was on Monday. The tall plastic bins lined the side of the complex, two for each apartment – one refuse, one recycling – and were numbered accordingly. Will lifted the lid of his refuse bin and came face to face with two bags he hadn’t put in there. There was no room for his own. He checked the other bins. All full, save for the recycling ones. He couldn’t possibly put his regular rubbish in those. His breath, hot against his face mask, quickened but he wanted to avoid a return to his earlier anger. Today’s progress would not be stalled by an inconsiderate neighbour. It was only fair to remove the contraband from his bin, so he did, replacing it with his bags. After all, life was a social contract and he’d preside over compliance to it. He left the neighbour’s bags on the ground. They’ll see, Will thought. They’ll see and they’ll know.

 

3.

 

 

The following Sunday Will discovered he was wrong. This time both his bins were full of someone else’s rubbish. He was riding a high from rescuing his dying lettuce earlier in the day and didn’t want this business with the bins to get to him. There were nine other apartments in the complex. Perhaps this time it had been another neighbour. 

          At the bottom of the stairwell he ran into the old man from Number Four. He smelled sour, dressed in browns, and liked to offer his opinion. He always seemed rather dim. His paisley face mask shifted and the skin around his eyes crinkled. The lockdown smile. ‘William,’ he said.

          Will never remembered his name. ‘Hi there.’

          ‘How are you?’ The man was carrying a rubbish bag.

          ‘Does anyone dump their stuff in your bins?’

          ‘Oh. I can’t say they do, no.’

          ‘Lucky for some.’

          The man sighed. ‘You can’t choose your neighbours, can you? If it keeps happening, son, you should call your landlord.’

          ‘Yeah, thanks,’ Will said, unlocking his door, ‘I know.’

          The man looked wounded.

          That night, Will found a book on mindfulness in his cupboard, dusted it off and started reading it. He’d be patient with his neighbours; he was a new person.

          Sunday came again, so too the mystery bags. The old man’s bins were empty. Will’s were the only ones that were full. This couldn’t be anything other than personal. He grabbed the bags and dropped them on the ground. There was a mix of food waste and plastic recycling in each. He was incensed. This person had the gall to avoid sorting their rubbish. What should he do? He’d start with a name or some other identifier so he could focus his rage. He tore a bag open and searched for a label, a letter, a receipt. There was rotting fruit, clotted yoghurt. Something pooled at the bottom, dark like wine. The odour cloyed. In the second bag he found a curling label on the side of a sodden cardboard box. The name was smudged but the address he could read. Apartment Three, the one above him.

          That night he sat on his couch gripping his cell phone with one hand and stroking his cat, Molly, with the other. She was curled up in his lap. The message from his landlord came through a few hours later: I’ll deal with it. He poked Molly until she unfurled. ‘They’ll be justice.’ Molly peered at him through groggy eyes before yawning and curling up again. Okay then. He’d be glad for both of them.

          The bags returned the following Sunday and the Sunday after that. Both times Will complained to the landlord who assured him measures were being taken. The following week nothing had changed. Will needed to take matters into his own hands. He donned his face mask and knocked on the door of Number Three. No answer. He knocked again. The apartment was as silent as it had always been. ‘I Don’t Bite’ was woven into the fuzzy welcome mat. He knocked on the door one last time. Still nothing. ‘Shit,’ Will said under his breath and stormed off.

 

2.

 

The following Saturday night Will lay in bed in the dark, the book on mindfulness lying unread on the bedside table. He glared at the ceiling, listening for a voice, a laugh, any sound marking a spot he could thump. He reached for Molly, but she’d moved to a spot in the spare room. ‘Screw you, then.’ His mother called; he refused to pick up because she’d distract him from his crusade. Hours passed before he fell asleep. 

 

          He woke to a text from his mother. She asked how he was; how she was hopeful the lockdown would end soon so the family could have the to’ona’i she’d planned. Instead of replying to her, he strode outside with his rubbish bags and chucked them in the neighbour’s bins. 

 

          Next week they returned the favour, this time with loose refuse. Something rancid sloshed at the bottom of the bin. Will express-ordered dinner plates he didn’t need so he could crumple the polystyrene packaging and tip it into the neighbour’s bins. For good measure, he doused the mess with the liquified rot of the carrots he’d neglected. In lieu of a corporeal nemesis, he dreamed one up: fat, peevish, dark-dwelling.

 

          Into Will’s bins went sawdust glued with old honey and shampoo. He wore rubber gloves to fish the mess out and dump it on the neighbour’s welcome mat. He slammed his front door and stood with his back against it, heaving, thrilled. Somewhere in his triumph, he felt he’d crossed a line by bringing the war to their doorsteps. Would this be it? Would the neighbour bring their landlord into the fray? He swung between worry and pride the rest of the day.

 

          The next morning Will found the same mess caked on his door. He made a list:

  • Collect Molly’s fur. Shave her if necessary
  • Collect my hair
  • Don’t flush the toilet paper

          Will imagined his neighbour was writing lists too. Will was unbound and craved more satisfaction, a greater high.

 

1.

 

Sunday. Will drank glasses of water for breakfast and when his  bladder was laden, he emptied it into his measuring jug. Onto the neighbour’s welcome mat he sprinkled enough urine to emit an odour but not enough for its location to be found easily. He poured the remaining liquid over the balcony into the bushes below and crept up the stairs to the next floor landing. He peered at the apartment door through a gap in the railing. Nothing. He sat on a step. Birds chirped in the trees outside. Somewhere a dog barked. Will’s arse went numb. He looked at his phone. A few hours had passed. Disappointment settled in until there was movement. The door to Number Four opened. Will pulled his mask over his nose and pretended he was talking to someone on the phone.

          ‘William.’ The old man stood on the landing, canvas shopping bag in hand. Had he connected the honey slop outside the neighbour’s door to Will? He wasn’t the brightest, so no. The man eyed the jug in Will’s hand.

          ‘Not the one I ordered,’ Will said, holding the phone away from his mouth. ‘The bastards put me on hold.’

          The old man nodded and shuffled towards the stairs. He slowed outside Number Three and his mask shifted. ‘Can you smell that?’

          Will shook his head, gleeful. Perhaps it’s you, he wanted to say. The old man descended the stairs. His shuffling grew faint.

          Soon after, the door to Number Three opened. Will held his breath. A young man in a surgical mask stepped out. He was tall, reed-thin, palagi and looked about the same age as Will. There was something haughty about him. A cookie-cutter trust-funder from Toorak slumming it northside, no doubt. After rifling through the pockets of his jeans and letterman jacket, the young man found his key and locked the door. He stood there for a moment before sniffing under one arm then the other. Will stifled a laugh. When the man cupped his hand over his mouth and checked his breath, Will was shaking with joy. The man shrugged, glanced at his cell phone and jogged down the stairs. Will didn’t move until the exit door clicked shut.

          Monday. The tall neighbour had failed to strike back. Will felt it safe enough to declare victory. He wore his favourite sweater with ‘No Fefe’ across the chest to fetch the bins from the curb. A currawong warbled overhead; clouds daubed the sky. Across the street, children played in their yards. Everything seemed to have its own light. 

          Something rushed up behind Will in the driveway and he stumbled. A moving truck. He let it pass into the street. No apology from the driver. It ruined nothing of Will’s day. He looked for his bins and couldn’t find them amongst the others. He checked again and sure enough they weren’t there. Rage surfaced and he marched inside, up the stairs and pounded on the door of Number Three. No answer. He thumped. Again, nothing.

          ‘Where are my bins?’ Spit beaded on Will’s lips. ‘Give them back!’

          ‘William.’

          Will turned. The old man stood in his doorway. ‘Everything okay?’ he asked, looking concerned.

          ‘The guy who lives here. Where the hell is he?’

          ‘Oh. He moved out, I’m afraid.’

          ‘Fuck,’ Will said.

          ‘Are you sure everything’s okay?’

          ‘Everything’s marvellous, thank you.’

          ‘Well then,’ the old man said and went quiet. He narrowed his eyes. It was a look of sudden resolve. ‘About your rubbish.’

 

 


***


 

 

It had been six weeks since the young man had left and taken the knowledge of the bins with him. In that time Will had gone from furious to despairing to embarrassed to something approaching normal. Molly had done her best to avoid him until her belly fur grew back; he’d done his best to avoid the old man who’d threatened to report him to the council for improper disposal of biological hazards.

          The lockdown ended and life returned to the streets. He started gardening again. Sunday. His mother called. She hadn’t heard from him in a while. What happened? she asked. What had happened? It was his shame. He would never admit to it. The to’ona’i was next Sunday.

          Will arrived at the park in his sweater and a pair of jeans. His mother had asked him to bring palusami. He handed it to her on one of the plates he’d purchased. They hugged and kissed before he made his way down the line of great-aunties, great-uncles, aunties, uncles and cousins.

          ‘Come,’ his mother said, and Will approached her and a knot of more cousins at the picnic table. ‘This is Ashley, your uncle Mosese’s child. You used to play together when you were babies.’ 

          From behind the others, Ashley appeared, holding a plate of palusami. It was the man from Number Three.

 

About Todd Barrowclough

Todd Barrowclough hails from Aotearoa New Zealand and currently lives in Melbourne, Australia where he works as a librarian and creative writing teacher. He is a graduate of the Master of Creative Writing programme at the University of Auckland.