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A Wolf at the Door

Chapter 1 of How the World Works 

As the band took a bow, the drummer said to the singer, ‘Good luck, Grace.’

‘The druggie versus the suit. I’ve got no chance.’ Grace jumped off the stage and grabbed Kate’s arm. ‘Boss, I want to go home.’

‘Stay with us, Grace. You’re about to become my boss.’

‘Look at all these people. No way they’ll vote for me.’

Kate steered Grace to the first row and they took their seats. The drummer sat beside Jim at the front table, wiped the sweat from her brow, and opened her laptop, ready to take the minutes. Jim held the mike. ‘Most of you know me as the Treasurer of the Green Door Society, but our CEO Kate has inveigled me into chairing the meeting, because our retiring President has skipped town. Our main business is to elect the board for the coming year.’

Grace told herself to concentrate, but her eyes were drawn to the other candidate, Tim Howard, with his tanned skin and business shirt with red stripes. And that poncy gold band with its little diamond. She touched the sharp points of her nose ring. I should have taken it out, she thought. And instead of this old black Hugs not Drugs T-shirt I should have worn a nice fucking blouse, with long sleeves to cover up the scars. I should have compromised, sold out, if I want to be President of the Green Door. She heard Jim inviting her to address the meeting. ‘Do it,’ she told herself. She took the microphone and faced the crowd.

‘Before I came to the Green Door I used to collect diagnoses. Drug-induced psychosis, borderline personality disorder, depression, bipolar, loony. I was homeless and using, in and out of hospital. When I was nineteen I nearly died from an overdose. That’s when I found the Green Door. Kate didn’t want to know what was wrong with me, only what I could do. I thought my only strength was cutting myself. But the Door turned me around. I stopped using. I’ve cut down on cutting. I haven’t been in hospital for two years. Now I’m doing science at uni. I’ve been a Green Door board member for a year. I’m passionate about the Door – I want the best for it. If you elect me I’ll work with everyone – members, staff and board to make this place even better, so it can help as many people as possible like it’s helped me.’

Loud applause and cries of ‘Go, Grace.’

Then it was Tim Howard’s turn. ‘As you know I’m deputy CEO of IndyLife, one of the biggest non-government organisations in Queensland, promoting independent living for people with disability. I have fifteen years’ experience in the not-for-profit sector. I believe my expertise has been invaluable to the Green Door during my time as a board member over the past year.’

Wanker, thought Grace. All he did was get in our way. And now he’s droning on and on:  ‘… quality assurance … policy development … financial management … progressing the organisation.’ All the things I should have said. Finally he wound up: ‘It will obviously be in your interest to have a representative from a major player like IndyLife as your president. I look forward to working with everyone in your organisation.’

Softer applause, but Grace thought, they can’t knock back all that stuff, quality bloody assurance and what else. He’s in for sure. She caught herself biting her fingernails. She looked at Tim, perfectly still, leaning back in his chair with a slight smile. Bastard, she thought.

Kate watched people voting, willing them not to choose Tim. Her usual calmness had evaporated, and she tried to slow her breathing. Grace should have said less about herself and more about her vision for the Door, she thought.

A scrutineer handed Jim a piece of paper and the room became quiet. ‘Members and guests,’ he announced. ‘I declare Grace Durrell elected as President of the Green Door Society Inc.’

The crowd whooped, whistled and cheered. Kate saw Tim hastily rearrange his open mouth into a thin straight line. Grace stood up and raised her arms. Kate’s eyes filled with tears. Her dream had become real. One of the people for whom the Green Door existed was now the President. But … it’ll be too much for Grace. She’ll stuff up. Call her dealer, start using again. No, no, no, she can’t. She won’t. I must believe in Grace, she told herself, and jumped up to hug her. ‘Madame President, you are magnificent.’

-0-

The next morning, Grace rolled out of bed, stood at the window and greeted the big mountain topped with TV towers. ‘Hello, Mount Coot-tha, I’m President Grace.’ She looked across the cemetery spread out below her, seeking out a distant corner near the Milton Road entrance. ‘Good morning, Emma. Just thought you’d like to know – they made me President.’

President Grace! Awesome. Suppose I gotta be nice to people now, talk to them, pretend I like them. Gross! Kate can do it, but she actually does like them. Yeah, I’ll do it. For the Green Door. It’s given me a future. Oh shit, shouldn’t have thought of the future. Back comes the pain. Fucking cold voice whispering success is a delusion, there’s no future, just more holes for me to fall into. So easy to head straight for the holes. Grab the mobile, call up the smack fairy. I’ll always be a user, even if I never use again. And I’ll always be a cutter.

She looked at the white skin of her arm. Pick up the blade, chase that beautiful pain.

Holy shit, what am I doing, deluding myself I can be President? What if I do call the smack fairy? Easy, focus on breathing. Can’t start using again – that’s exactly what Tim Howard would want me to do. Think of the headlines. Junkie in charge of rehab centre. I can’t do that to the Door. Think of Kate. Snuggling in close to her, her arms wrapped around me, my face nestling against her boobs. My little fantasy. Love at a distance. It’ll never happen, Kate’s so straight. Not just hetero, but professional straight. No way she’d get involved with anyone at the Door, guy or chick. But I love her, couldn’t even hate her when she banned me for a month, though I screamed at her that I did.

So hold me Kate, help me push those thoughts back down to their dungeon. Gotta do an assignment. Linear algebra, my cutting substitute. Beautiful pain.

-0-

A quiet coffee at Mary Ryan Bookstore – that’s what Kate needed. But an event was in progress in the café section. A man with a boyish face and short dark hair was telling the crowd about the miracle of free markets. Why was this happening in her favourite bookshop?

‘Any questions?’ asked the speaker.

A woman in the audience stood up. ‘On the back cover of your book it says you explain why people become drug addicts or criminals. But you’re an economist. Shouldn’t you leave that to psychologists?’

‘Economists can predict what people do by assuming they’re rational, that is, that they weigh up costs and benefits. The surprise is that this works not only for economic decisions, but in other areas of life – deciding whether to smoke or eat junk food or wear a condom. So we’d like to share this finding with psychologists.’

How magnanimous of you, thought Kate. There was a large poster promoting the book:  How the World Works by Ben Forster. Where had she heard that name? She studied him as he leant forward, smiling, head tilted, listening to the next question.

‘You extol the virtues of free markets as an answer to everything. But is it? What about health? In America it’s a free market and it’s a shambles.’

‘Sure, it’s a bad move to get sick in America, but it’s also unwise in the UK. The government can replace the market, but it’s usually better to fix it, like Singapore’s done.

‘Mental Health’s an example – ballooning costs, poor outcomes. I’m working on a report for the government on how we can inject market forces into mental health industry, so that we get more efficiency and choice for consumers.’

That’s how I’ve heard of him, thought Kate, in that communique. This guy’s ideas could determine the fate of the Green Door. She made her way to the display table and picked up a copy of his book. On the front the title stood out in large red font against a pleasant green background. At the bottom of the cover was a reviewer’s recommendation: ‘Read this book and you will understand the economics of everything.’ She flipped through the book and found a section on rational drug addiction and another on choosing a life partner. She looked for the dedication in his book, something she always did – it gave her a feel for the author. Spouse, children, parents, mentor, friend? But there was no dedication in Ben Forster’s book.

She bought a copy. Standing at the counter, she watched the economist sit down at the book signing table, where a long queue of people had formed. He looked up, straight at her. She smiled at this man who thought that economics could explain love, then turned and left.

In her unit Kate made the coffee she’d missed out on at the bookshop, took coffee and book out to the verandah, and settled into her squatter’s chair. She had been switching from paper to ebooks, but with a book like How the World Works she wanted to be able to write scathing comments in the margins and lend it to other people. As she read, she was surprised to find herself being entertained by his style. She had always thought of economics as boring and difficult, but this was fun.

She put the book down, googled Ben Forster on her tablet and found his website. He posted most days – comments on current affairs, cartoon characters explaining economic theory, links to his columns in The Australian. She read the short bio on the About page. A Brisbane boy, he had completed an honours degree at Queensland University and a PhD at the University of Minnesota. He now worked on policy issues at the Invisible Hand Institute, which turned out to be a right-wing think tank.

There were dozens of short videos on the website and she watched one that showed him zipping into a parking space in a BMW.  He hopped out and pointed to the sign: ‘Limit 10 minutes’. ‘All the other spaces nearby are taken,’ he said, ‘and I’m late for an important meeting. So I weigh up the cost of finding a free space against the risk of a ticket, and decide to leave my car here for an hour. This is a rational crime, and I’m a perfectly rational criminal.’

Quite the libertine, thought Kate. She wondered if the benefits would still outweigh the costs if it was a disabled parking space.

She looked at his Facebook page: over 400 friends. And not one of them significant enough to dedicate his book to. There were several posts a day, some similar to those on his website, others about music, rock climbing and travel. On Twitter his tweets became a blur as she scrolled down. She stopped and read one:  ‘The minimum wage creates the very poverty it is supposed to mitigate.’ She shuddered.

Jim’s a retired economist, she thought. He might know this idiot. She texted him: ‘The guy reviewing our funding is Ben Forster. He sounds dangerous. Know him?’

Jim replied: ‘He’s a wolf at the Door.’

-0-

By the time Ben arrived home, he’d forgotten all the people he had signed books for. But he had a clear picture of the woman he had seen at the counter, who had smiled at him. It was brief yet unhurried, the opposite of the false smile people have learnt to use to influence others. It was more like a smile shared by two people having an intimate moment together.

He picked up his book. He liked the feel of it, the substantial weight. His one regret was that it had no dedication. He wished he could have found Thommo, so that he could have dedicated the book to him. He felt baffled that someone so well-known could disappear so completely.

He thought of the smile again. Intimate moments. The only intimate moments he had now were with Rita, but he only saw her every month or so. He hoped she would soon need another consultation.

 

2 Comments leave one →
  1. Jill permalink
    May 15, 2015 3:21 pm

    You have my interest Byrce, – I like your style of writing

    • Bryce permalink*
      May 16, 2015 9:43 am

      Thank you, Jill, I appreciate your response.

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