Oliver yawns and rolls his head slowly, easing the stiffness that has gathered while he slept. The gentle heat of the coffee cup in his left hand is the only warm thing about a four-thirty winter start. The pre-dawn cold and dark are not at all inviting. The moon has set but the sun is still a way off making an appearance, and the clear air holds a bone-biting chill as he pulls the front door closed. The snick of the lock clunking shut echoes un-naturally loud in the silence. The van lights blink twice as he keys the remote, the handle icy to the touch as he opens it. He tosses his kit bag across the cab to the passenger seat and climbs behind the wheel.
At least the rain hasn’t materialised which would have necessitated setting up his equipment on the concrete pad in front of the toilet block on the oval. The odour of urine is somewhat off-putting, more so if you are breathing heavily from exercise. The idea makes him wince. The location is excellent though, central to the expensive Northshore side of Kallaroo with a large number of women, mainly though not exclusively, of a certain age; ready to shell out thirty dollars a pop for boot camp first thing in the morning. Definitely a better way of earning a living than sitting behind a desk in an office.
It takes two tries to get the vehicle going. Sluggishly, the juddering engine adopts a smoother, quieter rhythm. Scalding coffee sears his tongue when he takes a slurp; too soon. He puts it in the cup holder. Oliver rummages for a muesli bar in his pocket and tears the wrapper open with his teeth, squeezing the bar out like toothpaste from a tube. The honey and nuts stick like glue as he chews. The tail lights flare as he engages reverse and edges off the driveway into the street.
The road to the park takes him North on Marmion Avenue. The traffic builds, dull yellow-white beams of oncoming cars appearing over undulations in the highway. Poor sods, on their way into the city to be imprisoned for nine hours in airless, strobed bright boxes. The daily requirement to smile and flatter seems a small price to pay for freedom; the repetitious routines and cajoling praise, “Come on, keep it up. Good job!” Even the occasional instances of inappropriate touching, though unwelcome, are bearable.
Of course, the level of inappropriateness depends on who is doing the touching. An image of Lexi, face down, butt up in her tight shorts, and tiny top makes him grin. The way her hair swings down to brush the grass when she’s performing the downward dog. Lexi could touch any part of him any time, not that it’s likely to happen, with her husband always around. The thought of Lexi reminds him of the sumptuous Suzie of Secret Harbour. No bloke in his right mind pushes off to sea for three months leaving a girl like her alone.
Oliver signals and turns right, pulling off the dual carriageway into Belrose Entrance. With fewer street lights the dark is more profound here. Drawing level with his usual spot under the casuarinas at the edge of the field, he indicates and begins to turn. The headlights illuminate an irregular shape huddled beneath his tree. The tree he uses as a shade for his table.
“What the hell?” He grits his teeth.
He brakes, stopping in the middle of the road and looks at the bundle. In the headlamps’ glare, it is stripped of all definition, a black sloping sided hillock rising against the blacker bowl of the park.
An approaching car flashes full beams, so he straightens the wheel and moves forward to allow the other to pass. Further along, he pulls over on the corner underneath one of the street lamps, the tyres crushing the scattered detritus of autumn. Perhaps the heap is old clothes in plastic bin bags stolen from the charity bins at the shopping centre nearby, dumped, having been rifled through. One day there was a suitcase broken open in front of the goal posts at the western end of the park. Clothing and cosmetics were strewn around, one red high-heeled shoe sitting forlornly between the central white poles. Who would take a single shoe? The ranger came mid-morning and cleared it away.
The cabin of the van is warm, the unfamiliar parking spot unsettling. The scene in the rearview mirror is black on black. He scratches his chin with his thumb, thinking. The stubble catches on the cuff of his sweatshirt. Maybe some homey or a kid sleeping rough. Probably should take a look. Oliver switches off the engine. Outside the cab, the air is still icy. A knife-like breeze slices the flesh where his track pants have ridden up, exposing his ankle. He shivers and shakes his leg, shuffling the fabric downward to cover the bare skin.
The luminous dial on his watch reads five-thirty already. To be ready for his girls at six sharp he needs to set up his gear, so he drags his kit from the back. Sweat chills instantly on his forehead, and top lip as the weight of the dumbbells, fitballs and circular bar weights warm his deltoids. The foam mats fight against him scuffling and clinging to dead seed heads and grasping twigs. Each trip from the van to the growing circuit, he glances along the verge hoping for some movement from the lump; anything that would allow him to identify and ignore, to absolve him of responsibility.
After the circuit is made, mats, weights and fit balls spread out exactly as he likes, he closes the rear doors and walks over the grass towards the mound. Overhead the sky is paling, the dark grey canopy pierced with upward radiating rays of light like the splayed fingers of a hand. The bundle is partially hidden by the trunk of the tree, appearing larger now he’s on foot.
On the other side of the street, a creaking door cleaves the early silence, an elliptical trapezoid of amber light spilling out across the yard. A tousled woman draws her dressing gown tighter around her body and shoos her terrier out of the door, slamming it shut behind him. Oliver frowns. Rusty has a habit of depositing his own particular brand of parcel under the trees, the owner never emerging to clean up the mess. Disgusting, kids play sport on this oval. The dog ambles over the road and disappears behind the toilet block off to the left, well away from the equipment laid out on the park. Oliver keeps walking.
It is light enough now to see that the lump is a person in a sleeping bag. From the open end, only a mop of dark hair is visible. Around it on the ground are strewn Macca’s wrappers and an empty pre-mixed bourbon and coke can. Wedged between the prone figure and the tree trunk is a carry-all. The red, blue and white checked woven raffia bulges, the zipper broken, contents erupting like lava. Inside the sleeping bag, the person is hunched, knees drawn up, an anorak spread over the upper half making it even bulkier. The stale smell of unwashed skin and that pungent ochre scent of piss fill the cold air. Oliver starts to breathe shallowly.
Hovering over the sleeper, Oliver tries to discern a heartbeat without actually having to touch. No sound of a breath breaks the stillness. A gentle cough produces no response either. Nothing. As he bends to tap the upper shoulder, Rusty appears, sniffs and cocks his leg. Oliver shoos with his hands, hisses,
“Fuck off Rusty.”
Rusty takes no notice. The stream of pee arcs golden in the first low rays of the sun, coming to land on the exposed head. It dribbles through the greasy curls, running in a thin stream below the collar of the spread coat. A strangled laugh escapes as Oliver straightens and steps back, too late clapping his hand to his mouth. The mound moves. It uncoils from the floor, coat, bindis and leaves falling away, becoming a dark navy column briefly before the sleeping-bag too slithers to the ground.
“What the fuck you laughing at, Dickhead?”
The guy is 6′ 4″ and bullish. Broad shoulders strain the seams of a weathered leather jacket. Frowning, he runs his hand through his hair, brings it to his nose and sniffs. Grimaces.
“You think it’s fucking funny to let your dog piss on people?” Out of the bag now, stepping over the crumpled folds, he grows in size, his right hand in his thigh pocket.
“Hey man, he’s not my dog.” Oliver takes another step back, one hand pointing vaguely in the direction of Rusty’s home, the other held palm out in a placatory gesture.
“I just came over to check you were alright.”
“Yeah right, so how come you know his name then?” The stranger grabs Oliver by the throat and pushes him hard against the tree. The bark grazes the back of his ear as his head is forced to the side. Oliver is held there, fingers clawing at the muscular hand around his neck, his feet extending until he is on tiptoes as pressure is exerted on his hyoid bone. Rusty barks, high pitched, then whimpers as he catches a steel-toed boot in the ribs. He skulks away. Oliver feels the sharp point of a knife on the skin of his neck.
“Hey dude,” he tries again, “I’m just a personal trainer. That’s my van over there.” His arm windmills wildly, breath rasping through his crushed windpipe.
Spittle and sour breath assault his senses.
“Yeah, the fucking personal trainer who fucked my wife.” Red stained eyes bore into his.
“That kind of confirms it, doesn’t it?”
Oliver grunts as the bridge of his nose cracks with the force of the head butt. Time stops as monochromatic night swamps his vision. Obscured by the run of trees along the verge, across the road the door to number thirty- five opens. Rusty, summoned home by a whistle, trots away.
“What d’ya know?” he growls as he unzips his fly. “Wasn’t your dog after all.” Finished, he picks up his tartan bag and his jacket, wraps the sleeping bag about his shoulders like a cape and folds his knife closed, sliding it back in his pocket.
Oliver, coming to, runs tentative fingers over his swollen nose and broken cheekbone. He levers himself into a sitting position against the solid mass of the tree.
“My face!” He gasps, spitting metallic salt blood and a piece of broken tooth from his mouth.
“Not so pretty for the ladies now are you!” He turns and begins to walk away, “I could’ve fucking killed you. Your face?” He spits, “You destroyed my life!”
Oliver sits with his back against rough bark moaning, his ruined face in his hands. As usual, Lexi and Mark arrive first. Lexi leaps from the car and runs towards him, Mark right behind. They find him rocking, blood dripping between his fingers as he cradles the damage.
“Oh my God Mark, there’s blood everywhere!” She bends over Oliver putting a soft hand on his shoulder. Her hair brushes his neck, an intimacy he would have welcomed half an hour before. He flinches and turns his face to the side looking past her to avoid the sight of her breasts swelling against the skin-hugging lycra inches from his smashed nose.
“Is he okay?” Mark’s concerned face appears over Lexi’s left shoulder.
“Lexi, just leave me alone. Please.”
Oliver wraps his arms over his head, pulls up his knees and begins to weep.
The Trainer was previously published as Dark Dawn by Penelope Walker and as such is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.
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