“I roll onto the advanced course in framing and truss”: a short story set in the construction industry by Northland author Michael Botur.
Tonight my inbox is nothing but rejection. There have been 51 submissions to fiction publishers over the past five months. Each failure I’ve charted on a spreadsheet. The last submission cost 20 euros and maxed out my credit card.
Heavy wet drumming on the roof. My flat is uninsulated; condensation dribbles down the windows. The weather is never going to get better, nor are my hopes of making a living from literature. Cluttering my desk are letters from Visa saying I’m shifting funds between credit cards too much. It’s hard to earn a living when you’ve pledged to only work for ethical companies.
I tiptoe past the baby’s crib to bed, put my head on the pillowy cream folds of my wife’s belly. She rubs healing oil into my stressed scalp while I turn my latest novel in my hands. The book cost $9 for each copy; I ordered a thousand. The North & South adverts for the book cost eight grand. It sold 22 copies at its launch. 800 books sit in unopened boxes under my bed. A poet was supposed to perform at the launch but he had a nervous breakdown. A student TV channel interviewed me then lost the footage. I got in trouble for taking time off work to chase the exhilaration.
My wife rubs my oily skin, pauses, swallows. I can hear her summoning some difficult words into her mouth. After the massage is complete, she explains that to get a decent job, I’ll need to chop the literary achievements out of my CV. I came runner-up in my library’s short story competition, sure, nobody can take that away from me – but that stuff’s just not essential on a résumé. Start over, honey. Emphasize the floors you swept when you were 21, babe. The summer gig delivering furniture back when you bounced through your days, splurging on shoes and caps and beer and bongs. Tossing my surfboard into the sunset after a day of sticky summer work.
I trudge back to my computer and prepare to quit. I have a few grams of energy left to give my email a final check and confirm there’s no miraculous publishing contract waiting in my inbox. Sleep is pulling me into a black well. Do this before it gets worse, dude. You’re costing your family.
I prepare an email to my university, my fourteen fans, my hermit publisher, telling everyone this whole famous writer thing is an expensive joke and I’m quitting. Doesn’t matter if I have an agent in London telling me my next manuscript might break through and she’ll fly me over to tour bookshops. Nope. Not worth the hours of risk. Can’t be away from the babies. Too big a leap. Could get killed.
I hit the Send button, tell the world I give up.
Within a month I’m bending and hammering and sweeping every day. Construction work begins at minimum wage but the pay goes up pretty quick once I’ve got my SiteSafety ticket. My hunched spine straightens out. Food and water and coffee tastes better gulped on a sweaty smoko break when every minute counts. I stop taking my Prozac. There are no monsters lurking, no upsetting emails. Everything’s reliable. Do the hours, get a paper pay stub. No more waiting for drip-fed dollars from Kindle. No more shifting money from Visa to Mastercard and back.
The days pass quickly. The boys are impressed by the way I bring big words into my jokes. I roll onto the advanced course in framing and truss. It gets me ahead of the others. I begin doing seven hour shifts, dawn til two, then having a shower, changing into a button-up shirt and studying at night. The boss starts asking me for input on plans. I show him where on the designs he can make the structure smarter, save on materials, labour, consent costs. It’s strange, feeling essential, getting thanked. Writing always seemed to be about cutting the world with criticism till I could sew myself inside the wound.
One day my publisher phones while we’re doing a concrete pour – well, former publisher. My books’ve been selling three a month, he reminds me, and if I write a good essay for Landfall we can surely hit the ten mark.
I hang up while he’s shouting in my ear. Shoulda killed that whole risk-taking author thing yonks ago. Shoulda strangled the impulse.
Because I have years of experience handling stakeholder conflicts in my writing, contracts and tenders are a breeze. I write convincing proposals about how my firm can realize this tunnel or that foundation with the best suppliers for the best price. I back my words up with market trends, charts, price points. After a year it makes sense to start my own firm, get a couple boys under me. Residentially Engineered homes are prefabricated for the future. They’re built more quickly with fewer fuck-ups and with a higher chance of building inspector approval, saving clients $40K per house. My outfit gets $25,000 of that saving. Half of it’s profit. Multiply that by 1000 RE homes a year, the numbers are satisfying. Understanding markets is everything. Stupid that I wasted a decade standing outside the literature market complaining about it.
Four years after getting into the construction game, my wife can’t keep up with the numbers so we get an accounts lady, then two, plus a fella to handle HR and a girl on front desk. I can’t remember all my builders’ names. I can barely keep up with my kids, either.
The wife has this drunk little smile on her lips all the time now, a blissed-out smirk, amused how our lives are going, like she’s in dreamy disbelief. Laughing at our old selves. She likes landscaping so much we jet to Bali so she can select statues and birdbaths to import. After Bali we head over to Hong Kong to see Cantonese theatre, that’s a must, then it’s a 14-day tour of China including Beijing’s Forbidden City. While I’m there, it makes sense to get talks going with John Holland Group in Shanghai. They control all Chinese supply to Australia. We put figures on some charts. I have to get my numbers a lot more lean if I’m going to scale up and do business with them. Get my pre-frames designed in Guangzhou, nailed in Manila then freighted to Tauranga. Get those import and rebrand costs competitive enough and over the next half decade I’m looking at ten figures a year revenue, with plenty of profit.
In the office, people treat me like a king on a throne. Spose I do look a little like Henry VIII on my chair, worried mouth stretching my jowls down, chest starting to droop. I don’t have time to walk places and I eat most of my meals at my desk. They bring me coffee, fried chicken, birthday cake. They reckon 65 hours a week is too much work. I tell ’em the company doesn’t run itself. My kids’ve got motocross lessons, piano, ballet to be paid for, plus the company’s sponsoring my boy’s school’s rugby shirts. The bills add up.
Weekends I used to agonize over pages of text, sweating and typing and worrying what critics think; now weekends are all about the boat. The Family Free, she’s called. She’s a brand new Maritimo M51. 45 feet, 670 horsepower Volvos on her; burns 300 dollars of diesel just getting out of the harbour. I’ve got new rods, too, obviously, and you can’t cook snapper on a dirty barbecue so I’ve had a six burner installed. The fellas in my fishing club, they’re hardskinned business boys. You can say anything to these people and they won’t run off crying and publish a blog about it.
We see each other at conferences most months – Melbourne, Auckland, Vegas. Our favorites are the ones in Rarotonga. We wear white shirts with short sleeves. Our neckties trickle over our bellies. We ogle the waitresses, stroke their flowers, our drunken eyes softened. After the agenda’s done for the day, us business boys file off into our shacks one by one. We all get a woman. Gotta feel alive, don’tcha.
My son’s Wednesday night prizegiving begins with a haka up on stage, then waiata songs, bagpipes then some motivational speaker jackass. Buried in the black audience with my phone secreted under my shirt, peering down my chest, I manage to clear 22 emails before the wife slaps my wrist and tells me to concentrate. Here eyes are glued on Motivation Boy. She must have a wide-on for the prick. She’s not happy about the sneaky roots I’ve been having. She’s been sleeping in her own bed, wants to separate. I’d better behave. Be a good boy. Kill my risky impulses.
The motivational speaker is some young pup in a suit jacket and skinny jeans. He keeps pausing on the lip of the stage, using his fingers to enunciate. Some bigshot wet-behind-the-ears author with a slideshow. I yawn, eat potato chips off my belly, look around the walls. God, I went to this school. I have memories of locking myself in a disabled toilet at lunch cause I couldn’t take my eyes off The Catcher in the Rye. Everything else in my world turned grey while Holden Caulfield throbbed, radioactive. The book burned the veneer off the phony world.
The young fool in front of the projector screen is concluding his speech, ordering everyone to go off and follow their dreams. He finishes with an arrogant bow. Applause popping and cracking like fireworks. I use the distraction to peer at the screen stashed under my vest and send a firm message to the fuckers in Wellington trying to suck the nutrients out of our deal: 100 orders or no. Please confirm and I’ll courier contract Monday. Regards.
People are standing and clapping and whistling for some reason. I excuse myself, stumbling over kneecaps towards the toilet, regretting the bourbon I’ve drunk to get numb enough to sit through two hours of this.
The bourbons come out into the urinal in a golden stream. I have the toilet to myself, for thirty seconds.
The door swings open. Applause leaks in. Someone enters. In the mirror I see the jacketed young man – that writer prick – rinse his hands and push wet fingers through his hair. I sneak up behind as he dips into the basin. My thick forearms make a knot around his neck. I haul the young man’s body backward, tipping to maximize gravity as I choke him. He kicks. We fall across the bathroom, bang into a toilet stall. The soles of his shoes scrape the walls. He is about to walk on the ceiling then, with a twist, he struggles free, hops onto the iron radiator, pushes a casement window open. Cold night pours in. He glances behind at the force that wants to kill him, looks down, sees it’s a risk, and takes the leap anyway.
Next week’s short story is “The Tearooms” by Mandy McMullin.