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30: Brambles



As phoenix from ashes
Like snowdrops in snow
From nurture self chosen
Such qualities grow


It was three days later that David met one of the tenants who called the yellow house home. Because he left early in the morning to catch a bus for school, spent all his time away from the place and was allowed in later than the rest who lived there, he had been afforded little opportunity to meet anyone.

     He hadn’t bought any groceries for himself yet. He’d had no time. Getting from school to Yevy’s for his shift was about all he could manage. As well, the thought of trying to find an all night grocery in the area after work didn’t appeal to him. The frightening experience of having barely missed eternity was still with him. He ate all he could at Yevy’s and when he left he stuffed a couple of buns into his jacket pocket for breakfast. Lunch had become a feast of flute music produced without interruption in a practise room.

     His walk from Yevy’s to the house was now close to a run, while he checked constantly over his shoulder and scanned the street ahead, fearing the two assailants he had met on his first night along the route might seek revenge. At school he was safe, at Yevy’s he was busy, and at the house he was in his warm room, able to practise unheard and uninterrupted in the depths of the basement.

     This emerging schedule had allowed him not to think of anything except what he was doing at the moment, and at this particular one he was restless.

     Still unable to sleep well in his unfamiliar surroundings, David headed for the kitchen at two in the morning, hoping someone had left an unemptied coffee pot from which he could scrounge a leftover cupful.

     As he went through the kitchen door he hesitated, startled at the sight of a lithe young male clothed only in a damp towel, black hair in a bun on top of his head fastened with a couple of chopsticks, busy spooning grounds into a drip filter over a big mug.

     The smell of the fresh roast made David take a deep breath.

     At his entrance the fellow tenant turned, looked him over with interest and remarked,

     “Hey man, you look like you got hassled.”

     “Yeah,” replied David noncommittally as he reached for a coffee pot.

     “That’s Harv’s,” commented the other boy. “He’s a pig. Never cleans up after himself. You always walk around looking like that?”

     “Yes!” was the crisp, brittle reply as David gave the questioner a warning glance.

     “You a night moth?” was the next laughing enquiry.

     “You a pimp?” came the retort from the recipient of the question.

     “You’re pretty edgy aren’t you?” returned the boy still laughing.

     “Quit pushing me.”

     “I was joking. It’s just that you look like you’re advertising. You shouldn’t do it if you don’t intend it. First time from home?”

     “Seems to be obvious to everybody.”

     “You must be the newbie warrior.”

     “I’ve been here a couple of days if that’s what you mean.”

     “Rumours through the snitch vine,” the other boy told him, “Have it that somebody around here took on Clout and Dagger a couple of days ago and came out on top. Dagger’s laid up with a broken shoulder and Clout’s purple in a vital place and won’t go prowling around without his big buddy. We were beginning to think we’d have to take them on as a group project. We’re all greatly impressed.”

     Absorbing this news, David put down the empty coffee pot.

     “Don’t be,” he replied at last. “They scared the hell out of me, and I didn’t know they were celebrity bullies. I almost bought it from a knife.”

     “Oh—a reluctant hero. Thanks anyway. They made life impossible for us around here. We feel a little safer now.”

     Then, seeing David’s disappointed face as he’d put the neglected pot down,

     “Would you like a cup of coffee?”

     “Uh—,” the smell of fresh coffee softened David’s approach. “Yeah, if you can spare one.”

     The boy reached up to a shelf, took down a mug, shook the finished grounds out of the filter from his own mug into the sink and said,

     “Here. You’ll have to use this. I only brought one.”

     Having been willing to drink leftover coffee David didn’t mind accepting a slightly used filter.

     “I’m David,” he offered the olive branch.

     “Lava,” was the return, then seeing the question in David’s eyes he continued, “You know—that hot stuff which comes out of volcanoes. My real name’s Po Lok, but don’t call me that. Everybody laughs.”

     David didn’t.

     “Guess we can’t help what our parents dump on us,” he sympathised.

     “We’re all shaped somewhat by our parents—let’s go sit in my room,” invited the boy. “I can’t sleep either.”

     “It’s kind of late and—I have to get up early,” David replied a little reluctantly, glancing at his watch, still wrapped in his shell of being on his own.

     “You can leave whenever,” grinned the other. “I just like to be comfortable with my coffee. Got sugar and cream there too. If you have anything don’t leave it here. Somebody will eat it, along with the package it’s in. Do you really have a job?”

     “Yeah. I get in late.”

     “Never mind,” came the idea of comfort, “I’ll tell you how to get welfare. We’re all welfare here. Why work when you can get more for free?”

     “I’m not a palmer,” came the indignantly proud response.

     “Time will tell,” laughed Lava. “Your flute playing is pretty neat. I’ve been sitting on the stairs listening to it.”

     “Didn’t know I had an audience,” returned David, surprised by this admission. “My practising isn’t the best entertainment.”

     “You’re really very good,” came the remark, kind to his ears, as the one who had made it picked up mug, coffee and spoon and headed out of the kitchen.

     Mug in hand, David followed his guide down the hall, turned to enter the room and found himself looking into oriental elegance.

     “Come in. Take your shoes off.”

     Following his host’s example David did so and stepped into the room, softly lit by a small lamp on the floor, which was covered with reed mats. The window was hung with loose yellow curtaining overlaid with a gold-threaded pattern, its folds reaching to the floor, and in front of that stood a long fish tank, bright with its light, and shining occupants. A black lacquered screen with stylised butterflies on oiled rice paper shielded the bed from the rest of the space. The bed itself was covered with a beautifully embroidered throw. There was a representation of a poetry scroll, the calligraphy from the brush of the artist set directly on the wall. A vase of flowers sat beneath it. A low table with cushions on either side occupied the middle of the room. Books were stacked everywhere, and the visitor’s eyes fastened on the sheath of a ceremonial sword hung above the bed.

     Lava saw him looking at it and laughed.

     “Denny took away the sword for safe-keeping. Thought I might commit mayhem or suicide or something. It’s come down through the family. One of them used to be a war lord.”

     “What are you doing here?” asked David, not concealing his obvious surprise.

     “My father sent me to the Americas to learn English and commerce. I learned about gambling and girls instead. He found out about it and cut me off. Terrible disgrace for the family and myself. Told me he’d send me a ticket home and nothing else, but right now I’m into more interesting things than school has been teaching me. Maybe I’ll take him up on it when it gets colder.”

     “If you can last that long, from what I’ve seen around here in a short while,” was David’s sceptical assessment. “What does the scroll say?”

     “It expresses that ancient concept of Change. The exposition of it is my own. It’s my philosophy. Let me give you a loose translation—

Life is for the living
Let wealth and glory go
Across the bridge it cannot pass
Let joy and pleasure flow

     “That’s a kind of hedonistic approach isn’t it?” queried David of the plainly set forth idea.

     “Why shouldn’t life be like that?” asked Lava. “Wealth is relative and glory is an insane concept. If things are going to change they might as well do it my way. I’m going to enjoy myself while I’m here.”

     “You seem to be following your creed,” returned David as his eyes hit a deck of cards lying on the low table.

     Setting his mug down he picked up the deck.

     “Is this part of your philosophy?” he asked as his hands and the cards did a graceful and intricate little dance together.

     “You a pro?” came the startled question as Lava watched the performance.

     “It’s just for fun. Friendly game of poker now and then.”

     “Do you have any friends left to play with after they see you doing that?” enquired Lava. “I wouldn’t throw my money at you.”

     “They know I don’t cheat. They like to challenge me—like taking on the champ. I’m good at games, that’s all. Otherwise, I’m just a magician doing card tricks.”

     “A musician and a magician—and an honourable one. Like a dragon you change just as a person puts out a hand to touch. You have strange talents. I think we’ll get along well. There are places a person can make good money that way if they know how. I know some nice girls. We’ll have fun together. Would you like a bit of wine? It’s just Chinese cooking wine—cheap and no law against it for us to buy.”

     David’s new friend picked up a bottle and a couple of small glasses from the top of a stack of books.

     “Sure,” agreed David with a shrug of acceptance. “Maybe it’ll help me sleep.”

     “Sorry I don’t have any of the puff stuff. It’s better for sleeping—and I don’t think I’d sleep well either if I walked around looking like you do. You’d better learn to be less visible. I’ll help you to appear more like you belong. You look too rich for this area. You’ll be trashed in no time. A bit of advice. Take that watch off. You’ll get hit on for that—probably hack your hand off at the wrist if you don’t give it to them.”

     “Nice welcoming neighbourhood,” was David’s ironic reply, thinking Lava’s words were a bit melodramatic.

     “I guess you did get a rough one but thanks to you it’s a little less so now. Maybe they’ll go somewhere else after this. It’s always nice to have company with a cup of wine.”

     “You got that right,” agreed David, and drank.

     David looked across the room to the fish tank where the constantly moving inhabitants were vibrating their almost transparent fins and tails like trailing faery wings under water. Blue, gold, silver, glittering orange, they flashed the length of the tank, turned and swirled in the other direction, undulating up and down, reflecting the light and the rippling water.

     Seeing that David was watching them Lava said,

     “Beautiful aren’t they. The carp is mine. It has a very long life. That is my ambition, a long life full of fun. This one is very young. The others—whenever someone new comes into the house, I get a fish for them. They represent our dreams, floating so easily and safely there. If someone leaves I give them their fish and tell them to remember their dreams and those they associated with here. I’ll get one for you. We all have dreams. What’s yours?”

     David, watching the gorgeous creatures of the water swimming back and forth in their well kept confines, had a feeling of claustrophobia come over him.

     “Thanks Lava, but I don’t want my dreams to be penned up in a tank. Mine are going to swim free in the sea like the salmon.”

     “Dangerous choice,” came the smiling reply as Lava refilled the glasses. “I prefer the safety of a home on shore. There are too many fishermen dragging the sea with nets.”

     “Let’s wish each other good luck then,” replied his visitor, accepting the proffered glass of wine, “Because there are lots of hunters prowling around on shore with snares and guns.”

- - -

He turned up at the café for his next shift wearing a heavy old, grey, long-sleeved tee shirt and a sagging, shapeless, high-crowned felt hat, both loaned to him by Lava. His backpack had been rubbed studiously with dirt, and trampled thoroughly. He had refused such treatment for his flute case.

     Underneath the hat was stowed his mass of hair, with two slim polished chopsticks thrust through holding it neatly on top of his head. At least—Lava had tried to make it neat. He hadn’t been able to do anything with the wisps of curls everywhere, in spite of his efforts. He told David to pull the hat down low over his forehead to hide all that.

     When this boy walked into the café and came straight toward his table, Yevy thought for a moment he was about to be robbed until he recognised his kitchen help underneath it all.

     “You look greatest,” he grinned as the hat came off. “You smarten up you ass at last. Go wash.”

     The dirt and disorder at the café bothered David almost more than his own problems. Used to a life with a plethora of belongings and the cleanliness which had come with it, the barren, scraped cubicle he now called home and the disorderly, neglected restaurant disturbed him deeply.

     He bought his own detergent for the dishes and without asking he started cleaning things up, mopping the floors and washing down the tables and chairs and windows, unknowingly working out his anger and despondent feelings of exile as he scrubbed and cleaned with all the energy of his troubled youth.

     Once his anger had been somewhat assuaged David began to be taken over by a feeling of accomplishment. The place was getting clean now. It looked it. He felt pleased and satisfied that he had done this. He could influence things simply by doing something about it. He could make a difference, not only to his own situation but to that of others.

     His self-respect slowly began to emerge without his reflecting on it. It was already there just waiting to be given a chance. His spirits picked up. If it didn’t amount to happiness at least it wasn’t the total desolation which had haunted him before.

     He was acquiring an inventory of his own worth, something which he’d never been encouraged to possess at home. He had been told that he was an idiot, a nuisance, a lily, inferior to his brothers. In his own mind he had always felt he was not. He knew he had skills and intelligence, but the constant reinforcement of negativism over the years had nurtured doubt. He saw now that he actually was worthwhile, even if it happened to be for washing dishes and mopping floors. He could take his two big hands and do something useful with them other than magic and card tricks, or playing the flute, which his father considered to be effeminate.

     This new idea which had been planted subconsciously in his mind by a man with no reading or writing skills, began to give him a healthy respect for himself. ‘This my place, my business. No debt. I run it. Mine!—You work hard you do well too.’

     His view of ‘self’ took a stride forward.

     <I’m me, myself, and nobody else. I can do my own things and I don’t have to doubt them or be ashamed. I can do well too.>

     At this point his self-confidence suffered a bout of over-inflation.

     Busy washing dishes one evening, he heard an altercation coming from the counter in the café. As it went on he began to think that it might end in blows. He listened as a deep voice stated,

     “Aw go on. You’ve got too much Russian in you. Maybe some Eye-talian. You’re not a Greek. You’re a mixture mutt.”

     “You insult me. Get outta here!”

     “Hah! Try and make me.”

     Out from the kitchen strolled a well-knit youth with the air of a young and arrogant war lord from an ancient dynasty, holding a large vegetable knife firmly in his hand.

     David was learning fast, and not necessarily the best subject matter.

     “You got a problem Yevy?”

     The two older men looked up with shock in their faces.

     “Hey shepherd boy,” cautioned the surprised proprietor, putting up his hands palms out, “Don’t get heavy. We friends long time now. Bert an’ me alla time talk togedder. You go back an’ wash dishes.”

     “Okay. Just don’t let them hassle you.”

     “Good grief Yev! You got a bodyguard working for you now?” asked his friend as David went back to the kitchen. “Blew me out of the few wits I’ve got.”

     “He okay,” returned Yevy, rather pleased that David had come out to defend him even though it had been unnecessary. “Bit too fast wit’ fists. Mad at world. Not street wise yet. I teach him.”

     “Work fast, yeah? I don’t want to meet him charging out of a dark alley.”

     The next assertive step took him too far where Yevy’s world was concerned.

     Cleaning up the kitchen on another occasion, he distinctly heard the words,

     “Okay gettcha hands up and gimme the money.”

     The gunman didn’t know what hit him until he found himself face down on the floor with a foot in his back and his arms yanked up behind him while a sixteen year old stated,

     “Call the cops Yevy!”

     To David’s amazed surprise Yevy came running around the lunch counter shouting,

     “Hey! You quit ’at. Leggo him!” and he gave David a push.

     Startled, confused, David slowly released his victim, looking down at the holdup artist and becoming even more surprised to see that the big boy lying there was now sobbing and hugging his arms around his head.

     “It okay Zack,” soothed Yevy, bending over the boy. “Not to worry. He don’t mean ’at. He okay. Won’t do it again. Jus’ playin’. Part of our game. Okay? Here. Get up. ’At’s it.”

     As he helped the boy up he waved one hand at David, ordering impatiently,

     “Go wash dishes!”

     David backed off and as he turned to head for the kitchen he saw Yevy pick up the gun from the floor, hand it to the boy and dust him off. Then he reached into his pocket and took out a twenty dollar bill.

     Patting the visitor on the shoulder he said consolingly,

     “You don’t pay no mind ’bout it. We won’t play ’at rough game no more. See you again nex’ Friday, okay?”

     The blubbering big youth went out the door, nodding and wiping his sleeve across his face, and Yevy headed for the kitchen.

     “Okay!” he addressed David sternly. “You gotta learn. You don’t hit ever’body right now. You wait an’ see if ’ey need it. You too quick wit’ bangin’ people. He don’t know nuttin’. Don’t got smarts like you. He simple. Ever’body know him. We been playin’ ’is game long time now. He go buy potato chips an’ pop an’ give rest to Momma. Ain’t got no money. ’At gun—toy stuff. You can see. He get told by udder kids to do ’is. He t’ink it a game. Almost get jail from doin’ it at anudder place. He come here now. He safe. Okay—you got it? No more jumpin’ till you know what goin’ on!”

     His employee, back turned, face burning, scrubbing furiously at a frying pan, returned the one word,

     “Sorry.”

     Lots of silence punctuated with rattling and banging of pots and the clashing impact of dishes as they were stacked came from the kitchen after that, but Yevy felt that much of the silence in between the noise was thoughtful. He hoped so.

     Subsequently, David met others of Yevy’s circle.

     There was Stella. She came in often to get warm, and without fail tried to proposition the youngster who was totally embarrassed by her direct approach at first. Finding that he blushed easily when she broached the subject she’d tease him mercilessly with suggestive talk until, face aflame, he’d head for the kitchen to hide, hoping she’d leave before he had to come out again. He finally learned to deal with her by giving back as good as he got and the bawdy exchanges between the two kept everyone present entertained.

     He missed out on the daily regulars, but Bert Raleigh, Yevy’s friend and ‘accountant’, was an accomplished raconteur and when he came for his evening dinner he would regale David with stories about happenings of the day, laughing hilariously at things which Yevy put up with stoically in his dealings with the public.

     The washer of dishes was learning that Yevy’s Café was a hangout for dropouts, failures, hard-working family men and women, hard working night moths and butterflies, homeless people, strayed kids, welfare everybody, and anyone else in the vicinity who was down on their luck.

     The police dropped in for coffee at any given moment, eyeing the customers there, some of whom got up immediately and left with slow haste, which was what the officers had in mind—moving them along. They liked having coffee at Yevy’s and didn’t want the place to turn into a drop-off point.

     They even checked out David, examining his arms and the rest of his personal person, leaving the boy furious, red-faced, outraged, and laughed at by Yevy who had seen that sort of thing too many times before.

     The cockroaches and silverfish got to David. He’d pick up a utensil or a used towel and they’d skitter in all directions. He beat at them, flailing away with an old rag, or he tried to get rid of them by throwing used dishwater around, feeling personally offended by their presence.

     He had not yet come to the realisation that, like himself, they were merely trying to survive and doing a better job of it than he was.

     Yevy, coming across him in his efforts, shook his head and told him,

     “Hey shepherd boy, give it up. ’Em don’t go away. Come in from pawn shop next door. He got no sense. Junk all over. Filt’y place. Wouldn’t go in it.”

     The next evening Yevy found David down on his hands and knees in the kitchen, shaking a powder along the baseboards and under the sink.

     “Hey!” he shouted. “You don’t put no poison aroun’ my place. You wanna kill somebody?!”

     “Yeah. All these bugs.”

     Yevy made a grab for the container but David snatched it away.

     “Yevy—calm down,” cautioned David, “It’s not poison, it’s diatomaceous earth.”

     “Dyin’ what? I tole you I don’t want no dyin’ around here. Anybody gonna do ’at it gonna be me. Better ’ey eat ’roaches.”

     “Nobody’s going to die except these little pests. It’s just powdered diatom shells—little microscopic sea creatures... .”

     David saw the look on Yevy’s face.

     “Oh—never mind.”

     “You sure nobody gonna get killed?”

     “Not unless somebody’s dumb enough to breathe it in until it cuts their lungs up. Just don’t blow it around while you’re putting it out. It’s a dust, that’s all.”

     “Got ’nuff of ’at around a’ready. So what good ’at gonna do?”

     “It’s like if we were to crawl on our stomachs with no clothes on,” explained David, “Over a field of broken beer bottles with all the jagged points up—we’d get cut to pieces and bleed to death.”

     Yevy’s eyes got big.

     “You been sniffin’ glue or sumpin’?!” he asked in a horrified tone. “At’s awful! I dunno if I wanna hear li’l bugs screamin’ all over, rollin’ around an’ kickin’ ’eir feet up an’ dyin’.”

     David stopped what he was doing and looked up.

     “You know what? You’re a big faker—pretending to be tough. You’re really a damned Albert Schweitzer in a cook’s apron.”

     “You callin’ me names?!”

     “Yes, but it’s a good one.”

     “Huh! Bert al’ays say ’at too. You guys al’ays say ’em like ’ere sumpin’ wrong wit’ me. Mebbe one day one o’ you can tell me what so good about ’em ’cause I gettin’ worried.”

     “Wait’ll I finish here and I will,” promised David.

     Yevy shook his head and tried again.

     “Don’t like killin’. Shouldn’t kill t’ings.”

     “Yevy, where do you think the meat for your burgers and stuff comes from?”

     “ ’At’s different,” returned Yevy looking a bit defensive and guilty. “ ’Ey a’ready dead. Anyways, I gotta serve ’at or nobody come here.”

     “You ever tried anything else?”

     “No—an’ I ain’t gonna.”

     “I ain’t tried it either,” laughed David, “But maybe we should, just for the hell of it and the good of your conscience. Vegies are good. Why don’t you try it? Lots of people are eating that way now.”

     “You wanna run me outta business?” came the indignant question.

     “You can always serve the other stuff too. Give them a choice.”

     “You cracked!” proclaimed Yevy.

     “You totally broken up!” laughed David.

     “Hey! You a smart-ass kid.”

     “Hey! You a dumb-ass cook. How about letting me do the cooking tomorrow? You don’t know how.”

     “You tell me I don’t know? I been at it prob’ly more’n two times you lifetime a’ready.”

     “Well you don’t seem to have changed much over time. You’re stuck in a rut, always cooking the same things.”

     “Put ’at stuff away an’ wash dishes like you asposta!” came the only defence Yevy had found to use against this bumptious employee, “You too damn smart mout’. You get killed you don’t stop bein’ smart.”

- - -

A week later David stood in the kitchen regarding the big old stock pots, skillets, saucepans and ladles hanging up on the wall, covered with dust, looking as though they hadn’t been used for years, and decided to do something about his ideas.

     This decision was the cause of Bert Raleigh’s surprise as he entered the café a few days afterwards for a late lunch, looked around and exclaimed,

     “What the hell are you doing with flowers on the tables?”

     “Nice huh?” smiled his friend. “Shepherd boy brought ’em from Gram. Sorta classy, yeah?”

     “Oh yeah, for sure. Those jars are real class.”

     “Ever’body like ’em today. Some of ’em even swipe some.”

     “Damned little thieves.”

     “Hey—flowers die. Let ’em like ’em while ’ey’re still nice. Don’t cost us nuttin’.”

     “Why the hell isn’t that kid living with his grandmother? He’s always going on about her.”

     “Nonna my business. Family problems. What you want? Usual?”

     “Sounds just right.”

     While Yevy was busy getting his ‘usual’ together Bert took a look at the flowers on the lunch counter and sneaked a sniff. When he started on his meal the first bite from his sandwich got closer attention than the flowers.

     Abruptly he moved it to arms length from his face, squinted at it with his far-sighted vision, and around his mouthful asked with suspicious concern,

     “What’s this stuff in my sandwich?”

     “Sprouts.”

     “Sprouts?!

     “Yeah—’em little stuffs what grow from seeds.”

     “I know that. Did I ask for this? Where did you get that idea?”

     “Shepherd boy—say it good for you an’ make you healt’y. Cheaper’n lettuce for here too. He growin’ ’em out back.”

     Bert put down his sandwich, making a face as he chewed, picked up his spoon to start on the soup Yevy put in front of him, then dropped it into the bowl with a splash.

     “Okay—what the hell’s this?! I asked for vegetable soup.”

     “Yeah. What you got. Kid make a big pot of it last night. I t’ink it taste pretty good.”

     “You ate some?”

     “Yeah. He say it better’n ’at can stuff you al’ays order—cheaper too—make you live longer.”

     “Huh! What for?”

     “So ’at’s what I tole ’im,” laughed Yevy with rueful sympathy.

     “Oh—for pete sake—the buns are all brown! What’s that about?”

     “Tole yuh. Good for yuh. Hole wheats. Got lots of vital means an’ germs in ’em. Al’ays t’ought germs no good, but shepherd boy say udderwise. Seem like ’ere be some what’s good in plants. Live an’ learn.”

     Bert peered warily into his mug while reaching for the sugar.

     “I suppose he’s been at the coffee too.”

     “Not yet. Tole him leave it alone. Only reason lottsa people come in here. ’At’s brown sugar. He say white no good, an’ maybe people don’t use so much anyway if it brown. Sweeter he say. Cost less,” then, reaching under the counter he told Bert, “Here. Got some white hid for me.”

     “Keep this up and I’ll go somewhere else to eat.”

     “Doubt it. Not so cheap anywheres else—an’ comp’ny prob’ly ain’t so good eider.”

     “You have a point.”

     Bert put brown sugar into his coffee.

     “Wait’ll you see breakfast—oatmeal!” announced Yevy with something like enthusiastic pride in his voice.

     “That does it! I’m not comin’.”

     “Sure you do. Nowhere else to go aroun’ here. It good for you. I gonna make it myself. Cheaper. Give you energy an’ stuff like shepherd boy got.”

     “That’ll be the day,” came the comment from his disgruntled friend—but he ate everything anyway, finally remarking,

     “Not bad. Maybe a change is good. Shouldn’t get stuck in a rut.”

     “Shepherd boy say ’at too,” grinned Yevy. “Kids what come in today like it all. Say so.”

     “You shouldn’t encourage that useless lot. They take advantage of you.”

     “Hey! Most of ’em pay.”

     “Half price.”

     “So wadda ya want? ’Ey should starve inna street an’ die on my doorstep? I don’t wanna sweep dead kids away ever’ mornin’. Give my place a bum rap. Ever’body’ll t’ink my food done ’em in.”

     “Damned philanthropist.”

     “Quit callin’ me bad names or I make you eat can soup, an’ white sugar an’ bun like you al’ays get so you kick off sooner,” threatened Yevy with a grin.

     “It’s a good name, actually.”

     “Don’t sound good to me. Kid keep callin’ me stuff too now an’ sayin’ ’at’s good.”

     “Believe me.”

     “If you say so,” agreed the restaurateur, reflecting that the place was beginning to take on a definitely more cheerful tone since his new employee had arrived, and maybe that was what Bert meant.

     He liked that.

- - -

In a short space of time David’s small room which he had regarded as a cell that first night, had changed into his home. Music scores papered the walls, pinned there as he practised. Posters advertising musical events he couldn’t afford to attend brightened up the place. The floor had a cheap rug found in a second hand shop. Dried flowers sat in a jar on the table because the weather was keeping the fresh ones hiding in his Gram’s garden.

     He visited her on weekends and sometimes Li and his mother were there. Edith and Li came to his little room by invitation only, restraining themselves from dropping in unexpectedly. His days were spent mostly at the university, studying, his first term, or in the conservatory practise hall, and his evenings were at Yevy’s, cooking and cleaning and exchanging jokes with the customers.

     What money he had left over from expenses he spent mostly for music scores. A bit of it he gambled away on a lottery ticket once a month, having talked Yevy into subsidising his own weakness. David would buy the ticket and give it to his boss for safekeeping as though it actually happened to be valuable. They’d wait for results, or mostly David did, and always it was the same.

     “We’ll get it next time Yevy.”

     “For sure,” the man would laugh, not believing a word of it as he took his share out of the till for the next gamble and handed it over to David. “Guess we need anudder one.”

     What spare time he had left over went for having a bit of fun with Lava.

     Sometimes a lot of the free fun they had together on weekends at the house got noisy and out of hand as the two teenagers, getting along like brothers, pushed and wrestled and tested each other in good-natured friendship, practising soccer together in the hall and the community room when it rained, with the usual breakage of lamps and anything else which got in the way.

     They were billed for this by their landlord.

     Denny finally decided to sit on them when he found them rampaging around the shower stalls one evening after midnight, where they’d been snapping soaked towels at one another, and slathering each other with their toothpaste and a can of shaving foam which someone had been careless enough to leave behind. The sound of his approach was lost in their loud shouts of laughing contest as they fought for possession of the spray can while it foamed and hissed between them.

     “Okay you two, cool it!” he ordered. “No more of that. People are trying to sleep—including myself. It’s almost two in the morning. Clean this up. Let’s have a little responsibility from the two of you for a change.”

     With an instantaneous meeting of minds there was a swift shift of target and the two turned on their landlord, hooting and shooting.

     Denny, who was the size of both of them put together and then some, turned his face aside, grabbed them by their hair, hauled them under a shower and, pushing them to the floor, turned on the cold water full blast.

     Rather than cooling the two off they howled, tackled him, wrestled and slithered and hauled him down with them, foam, toothpaste and cold water splattering in all directions until David wriggled free from the mess. He shot for the door like a runner out of starting chocks, and Denny, knowing Lava was no match by himself, let the other boy go.

     Sitting there in his soaked pyjamas with his back against the tiles, getting hosed down with his own cold water treatment, he roared with laughter as the boys fled, one for the hall, the other for the basement stairs, shouting after them,

     “You bloody little beggars!

     He kept them going for a couple of hours afterwards, making them clean up the mess and mop the hall, wet from their hasty passage. Sticking to his rules, the two were forbidden the community room for a week, which meant, among other things, no television. This didn’t bother David one bit. He never had time to watch it anyway. Lava complained about unfairness, but Denny told him that when he earned his own living he might be too busy to get into hellery in the daytime too. After that there was peace—for a week.

     David became content with his newly found freedom. There was no one constantly ordering him around. No one putting psychological pressure on him and calling him an idiot. No omnipresent disapproval. No conflict with mother or brothers because his father created it. No one telling him who paid the bills. He earned his own way. He felt now that he was his own man.

     He had learned to get by on basics—a warm place to live, food, a job, friends, and his flute. He had found that when it came down to it everything else was extraneous. He didn’t need anything else. His clothes and belongings got older and showed wear and tear but he didn’t care. He had enough.

- - -

A miserably cold rain pelted the café and that, combined with the chill of the evening, kept customers to a minimum. Yevy noted though, that his employee was whistling and wiping tables with so much spirit and verve that he started to wonder. This lightheartedness didn’t seem to fit the weather, nor did it seem typical of his usually more quiet dish washer.

     He began thoughtfully going over a few things he had heard and a few things he had noticed. Particularly, the arrival of a well-known youth who had begun coming to the café just before closing time, waiting for David to finish his shift. The over-abundant cheerfulness seemed to have stemmed from that time.

     At last he asked,

     “You been goin’ places wit’ ’at Lava?”

     “Yeah,” was the reply. “He’s lots of fun.”

     “You been girlin’ around an’ playin’ poker wit’ him at places, yeah?”

     The table being wiped off suddenly got even more attention. Yevy noted the lack of an answer. He decided he’d better speak up.

     “Lava—he trouble,” Yevy informed David. “Got in too deep wit’ ’em men. Poppa Lava, he come an’ hafta pay plen’y to buy ’em off, but ’at Lava he don’t go home. He keep on. Now ’ey use ’im as delivery boy for stuff. ’Em guys set kids up an’ get ’em owin’ money an’ tell ’em ’ey gotta do t’ings to get outta it. You got inta owin’ yet?”

     Yevy’s words sent an unexpected warning coursing through David. He had only been twice to the games—and twice he had won. Knowing his own skill he had thought at the time that he was smarter than the other players but now, remembering, it occurred to him that the wins had been too easy and too often. An inexperienced boy like himself, no matter how skilled, surely wouldn’t have been so good that he’d win against men who made their living at it. He didn’t cheat. Now it seemed plain that they did, to manipulate the play for his benefit. He hadn’t paid that much attention, too pleased with himself and his winnings, and maybe he’d been even a little—drunk and cock-sure.

     Now he wondered if Yevy might be right, and that he was being set up.

     “No,” he replied at last, “I’ve only been to a couple of games.”

     “Well don’t go no more,” Yevy ordered. “You don’t need ’at. You got study to do. You keep on ’at way wit’ ’at Lava an’ you don’t work here no more. You got it?”

     “We’re just having fun, Yevy,” argued David, annoyed at the criticism but concerned by the man’s words.

     “I tole you afore. ’At ain’t no game for kids. ’Em nice l’il girls you meet—you win money an’ pretty soon ’ey get it back from you for ’em men. You an’ Lava just smart-ass kids. T’ink you know evr’t’ing. You don’t. People get killed. I know. Now you quit.”

     “Well—I’ll think about it,” came the reluctant reply.

     “You t’ink damn fast. I hear you do ’at again you out from here. I don’t want no hit men comin’ in here wreckin’ my place.”

     When Lava came to pick David up a few evenings later Yevy heard his employee declining a party, saying he had studying to do. He watched the two separate and go their own ways as they left, then locked up his café feeling more at ease with himself and his dish washer.

     David’s studying paid off. He bounced into the café the evening of the day he’d won the competition, announcing with justifiable pride,

     “Hey Yev! I won!

     Yevy and Bert were sitting at the far table and when that news came the café owner got up without a word, went into his living quarters at the back of the place, returned with a bottle of brandy and some cigars and smiling like David was his own grandson said,

     “Siddown here shepherd boy. Never mind dishes. We celebrate. Have a cigar.”

     After that there were late evenings of mandolin and flute music with Bert Raleigh singing along. Brandy and cigars came out as a matter of course when Yevy felt certain David wasn’t going around to parties with Lava anymore. The problem of not getting home by midnight was solved with a call to Denny, and an old army field cot was set up in the kitchen on such occasions. Poker playing rolled free and wild in the back of the café, loud with laughter and unhindered by the law. The three raised hell in their own harmless way, and both Yevy and Bert were glad David seemed to have been diverted from the usual route taken by so many of the young people they had seen come and go through the old café door.

     As winter deepened so did the bond between the three.

- - -

David zipped up the collar of his jacket and stuffed his hands into his pockets against the chill of late October. Although there was no snow it was cold and threatening. He whistled as he walked along, going over some music in his head, walking with the air of intention and destination he used now to let others know he knew where he was and where he was going.

     He was no longer a stranger here.

     He whistled the score over and over again as he went, remembering little nuances, places of impact, places for tenderness, places where he could present himself, his own feelings of what he thought the music had intended.

     Seeing Bert coming toward the café he waited for him to catch up.

     “How’s it going David?”

     “Great,” grinned David. “Got through my preliminaries. Heading for the big one.”

     “We’ll see you in the symphony yet,” smiled Bert as they walked along, but as they came up to the café they found it dark, with only a faint light from the back of the place shining out—and there hanging on the door was a CLOSED sign.

     “What the hell... ?!” exclaimed Bert.

     “What’s wrong Bert? Where’s Yev?”

     “You’ve got me kid,” returned Bert and began banging on the door. “Come on Yev, open up. It’s us!”

     A light went on inside the café and a moment later Yevy peered through the window, then unlocked the door.

     “What the hell’s up Yevy?” demanded Bert.

     “Get in an’ quit makin ’at noise,” was the reply. “I ain’t asposta let nobody in. Healt’ inspector close me down.”

     “Did what?!” rejoined Bert. “They can’t do that!”

     “Can—an’ did too. What you gonna have? Usual?”

     “Didn’t you tell them you’d fixed the things they told you to last time?” asked Bert.

     “Sure.”

     “The plumbing?”

     “Yeah.”

     “Dishwasher?”

     “You standin’ by him. Tole ’em I had a good one. Don’t do no good.”

     “Ach—that’s not what the inspector meant!” Bert informed his friend. “You have to fix your automatic dishwasher!”

     “No way!” retorted Yevy. “Damn t’ing use up too much hot water an’ stuff. Never go right anyways. Allus onna blink. Shepherd boy helluva lot better wit’ dishes. Keeps place nice’n clean too—an’ cooks. Ain’t no damn machine gonna do all ’at.”

     “I thought you hired David just because you needed help,” said Bert, knowing now that he’d totally misunderstood. “This is the third time they’ve hit you. They can fine you for operating like this. You’re defying the law.”

     “Yeah. What he said. Damn official creep. Allus pokin’ a nose inta ever’where he got no business. Tole me I gotta have sprinkle system for fire now too. I gotta close up for a bit again till he get offa me.”

     “This is serious,” Bert told him seriously. “They can lift your licence, or put a day to day penalty on you until you go broke.”

     “Broke anyway.”

     “No wonder, the way you give everything away.”

     “ ’At’s what food for—eatin’. No use keepin’ it all for me or until it go bad.”

     “You’re supposed to be making money selling it you dim-wit!” exclaimed Bert with exasperation in his voice.

     “You callin’ me a name again—an’ I know ’at ain’t a good one. I got ’nuff money.”

     “I’ll have to get in touch with them again and see what I can do,” was Bert’s worried reply.

     “Okay,” agreed Yevy matter-of-factly. “Like I say—watcha gonna have? Usual? Hey—here come Stella. Gotta tell her go arounda back way now.”

     “What the hell are we going to do with the silly bastard?!” asked Bert turning to David in despair as Yevy ran for the door.

     “Well—maybe we can think of something,” came the optimistic suggestion.

     “Oh great! You’re as bad as he is. You’re unemployed now—you got that out of it did you?”

     David gave Bert a look of sudden intelligence.

     “Oh—geeze! Now what am I going to do? How am I going to pay my rent and stuff?”

     “Maybe you can think of something,” came the immediate reply.

- - -

After they’d closed up the café early David headed for the house, worrying over his future. Yevy had assured him immediately that he could still eat there for free, which eased his mind where food was concerned, but most of the money he had saved was set aside for his next month’s rent. He needed bus fare, he had to make a payment on his tuition fees, plus all the other day-to-day expenses which always came up.

     <Well, maybe like Bert said, I can think of something. Maybe another job somewhere until Yevy opens up again. I sure didn’t need this right now just when I want peace of mind. I’ve got the damned exams to think of—and where will everybody else go to eat? It’s going to hit everybody. They can’t all come in the back door and anyway, he can’t afford to feed the whole neighbourhood while he’s getting whacked with fines every day. What if he gets caught? Maybe I can thumb to classes, or maybe I could play my flute for money like I’ve seen guys standing around doing, or—maybe—Lava and I could hit the games a couple of times—before they get wise to us.>

     He ran up the stairs to the big old house feeling a bit like the way he had that first night of panic, and pushed open the door.

     There was confusion within. Police were there. Tenants stood in little groups down the hallway, talking to the officers. As Denny came toward him he asked,

     “What’s going on Denny?”

     “Lava O.D.’d.”

     The shock which showed in the boy’s face made Denny pause.

     “He didn’t do drugs,” David said, in denial. “You know that.”

     “No—but selling them is just as deadly.”

     He saw the disbelief in the boy’s eyes.

     “You didn’t know? You were pretty close to him. I didn’t either until just now. He came in saying he didn’t feel well and a bit later when I thought I’d better check on him he was throwing up and turning blue. He said something about maybe somebody put something in his drink.”

     A horrible and obvious thought hit David.

     “He’s not—?”

     “No, but he’s a pretty sick boy. I think you better just go quietly down the back way to your room and stay there until this is over. You’d better keep out of sight. You weren’t here.”

     David went quietly to his room and closed the door, the thought of hitting the games suddenly becoming a frightening and dangerous proposition. He had the alarming feeling that the perimeter of this space which he had regarded as a safe haven was suddenly closing in on him with malicious intent. He began to see the sharpness of the thorns which hedged him around in this world of brambles, not as protection now but as a growing threat. He sat there wondering where his rabbit hole would lead him next.

- - -

Edith Godwin’s voice conveyed concern as she spoke to Yu Ching Li on a morning bright and fresh with a first snowfall.

     “Li, I went to see David a couple of days ago. He didn’t ask me, but I went anyway because he hasn’t come to see me for awhile. I didn’t stay long. He has a terrible cough and I don’t think he’s taking care of himself very well. He keeps looking for another job and he has this—well—rather frantic air about him. It came out that he’s pretty worried about not being able to meet his commitments, and he told me Lava’s father came with immigration officers and took the boy away home, which is probably a good thing for everyone.

     “As well, David hasn’t touched his flute for awhile. It was still lying exactly where it was on top of that bureau when I saw him last, and he hasn’t been to classes or the conservatory for some time now. I’m guilty of checking. He’s so ill and harassed looking and he won’t go home. He says he can never live there again.

     “I know we agreed not to interfere with his decisions but—I feel we need to, because I don’t think he’s capable of deciding for himself right now. He seems so confused out there by himself and can’t see that being on his own isn’t necessarily the best thing for him right now. He said he doesn’t want to bother anyone, which makes me think that he needs help but feels he’s being a weakling, like his father has told him for so long. Li, would you go and speak to him when you get the time? He keeps saying he doesn’t want to cause me trouble, but—I have this idea... .”

- - -

The surprise showing in David’s face when he answered the knock on his door was not missed by the visitor standing there.

     “Hello David. I hope you do not mind my dropping in so unexpectedly.”

     “Geeze—Li—hi.”

     David stood there, his hand on the door, just standing looking until Li suggested,

     “May I come in?”

     “Oh—of course—come on in.”

     David stood back to let his visitor enter, and broke into a rumbling, rasping cough, the consequence of a bout with the ’flu. Li also noted the untidiness of the place, and David’s own unkempt appearance. There was a bottle of Chinese cooking wine beside an almost empty glass on the bureau and an insistent pungent fragrance pervaded the place. An ashtray on the desk held a twisted, soggy-looking small butt in it. This was totally different to the well-maintained room and the cheerful occupant he had visited before.

     Closing the door, David began to pick up things—scattered clothing, books. He made a swipe at the unmade bed, pulled a book over the ashtray, then invited Li to sit in the old armchair, pulling out the chrome stool from the table for himself.

     The two looked steadily at each other saying nothing for a few moments until Li broke the silence with the comment,

     “Things have not been well for you lately, David.”

     “No.”

     “You have not been attending classes either.”

     This was said rather as a statement of fact than as a criticism.

     “No,” came the monosyllable again and then, as though he felt this needed some reasonable elaboration David added “I’ve been sick.”

     Remembering Edith’s remark about the flute, Li looked around. The instrument was gone from the top of the bureau, replaced by bottle and glass. There was nowhere it might be stored—the bureau drawers were too small. The pinned up music scores had been removed from the walls. He asked a straightforward question, but gently.

     “Where is your flute David?”

     There was a moment of silence and then David replied,

     “In the pawnshop next to Yevy’s.”

     Li well knew the struggle which must have taken place before David would have parted with that treasured instrument which was such a strong sinew of his life. It suggested to him that other possessions had gone the same way before this last transaction had taken place.

     “You do not have another job yet then?”

     “No. Just—part time things.”

     David dropped his eyes, staring at his hands folded on his knees.

     “Then I have good news for you.”

     Li got up, went over to the bureau where the bottle sat and asked,

     “Do you have another glass?”

     David looked up, surprised.

     “Uh—yeah.”

     He got up, opened a drawer, took out a plastic glass and gave it to Li, who poured himself a drink, topped up the other glass and handed it to David, saying with a smile,

     “I know where there is a fine job. This is our first drink together. We can do this, even though the law says you are not old enough. We know better. You are a young man now. In six months you have earned such responsibility. One who has had the courage to face this unkind world alone and yet has remained himself is indeed able to make his own decisions. To our very good future, which I am sure will be as happy as our past years of association have been.”

     As they pledged each other in this familiar fashion a feeling of the old closeness passed between them as their eyes held. David sat down on the bed, not at all feeling like someone who was facing the world responsibly, but a faint wash of hope went through him as he looked at this friend he had known since childhood.

     “Did you say you know where I can get a job?” he asked.

     “Indeed. I know your grandmother is in need of someone to help her. She has discussed it with me many times. She pays large amounts to businesses for the maintenance of her place and she feels they try to take advantage of her. Now, I would propose to her that you take on this job. You are capable, trustworthy and willing, and I think it would give her a feeling of security, knowing that she is no longer the victim of these people. It would also give you stability to continue your studies.”

     David gave him a doubtful glance as Li, looking into the troubled eyes facing him continued,

     “You are going to tell me that you do not want to cause problems in the family, but this is a business matter between yourself and your grandmother and no one else.”

     David took a drink from his glass to ward off another coughing spell, then said,

     “I want to run my own life, Li.”

     “This you already do, and your grandmother also hers. Has she ever made you feel otherwise?”

     “No—but—my father will say I’m a stupid, gutless trouble-maker, hiding out at her place again.”

     “Would this be so?”

     Li watched as David considered and finally answered with conviction,

     “No!”

     “Ah. Then there is no problem. I am sure you will stand up straight, face your father and firmly and quietly inform him otherwise—and since as you say, you run your own life, it is not for him to attempt further control. In fact he has already given up that place—and this I add of my own poor wisdom—only a fool does not know how to accept help when it is needed and offered. I know you are not a fool, and you do at this moment need help. Your grandmother is dedicated to helping people. Surely she should be allowed to give her own grandson the help of obtaining a job.”

     David sat there dully. Here was this known and trusted friend, a man who would not pressure him in any way and who was now offering sound advice.

     He was extremely tired, and had spent most of a week in his room except for visits to the café for a meal or two as he’d fought with his illness. What he had come to regard as his fine independent world had been unceremoniously tipped on its ear. At this moment he wanted only to lie down and avoid his problems by losing them in sleep, but Li’s last words caught his attention.

     <Gram does all these benefits and things to get money for people who need it. Maybe she could help Yevy. If I told her how important the café is to everybody, and how everybody’s getting squeezed because it’s closed, maybe she could talk to him and they could do something together which wouldn’t make him lose his own control over things. Maybe we could get Bert to talk to him. He knows how to get to him, and Yevy’s pretty practical. People may think he’s a fool, but he’s not, and—Li’s right. I’m not exactly doing so great now either. I can’t do anything for anybody this way—not even for myself.>

     He looked at Li and let the truth of the man’s words reach him.

     He needed help.

     He gave up the stubborn stand he had held for so long.

     “Will you speak to Gram about it?” he asked at last.

     “I will do this immediately. Would you come for lunch with me?”

     “Thanks Li—but—”

     He knew he couldn’t handle more time right then with this man who had such faith in him. He thought he had fallen in disgrace and he felt ashamed. He wanted time to compose himself—to sort himself out and regain some self-respect.

     “I haven’t been sleeping well lately—or thinking too clearly,” he told Li at last, trying to explain his recent behaviour. “I drink a bit to help me sleep—too much I guess—and—right now I think I’m overdone. Maybe I’d just better lie down after you’re gone and get some sleep.”

     “That is wise,” comforted Li, understanding. “We three will now take this new direction together. Your father will not accompany us along this path.”

- - -

David stood at his grandmother’s door, backpack over his shoulder, strain in his face, back stiff, hesitation in his manner, and rang the bell.

     Edith Godwin opened the door, saw her thin, distressed grandson standing there, uncertain, looking so ill, which made him appear so much older than she had expected that she abandoned all the cool, cautious, careful things she had told herself she should do when greeting this youth, now a boy no longer.

     “I’m so glad you came,” she told him, reached out and hugged him.

     The backpack dropped. The tight young man became David again.

     “Geeze, it’s great to be here,” he replied with a slight break in his voice, hugging her back and trying to control the sudden, unexpected prickling of imminent tears. “Where does the hired help go?”

     “Your room’s ready. Take your things up and then we’ll have tea.”

     “Thanks Gram—thanks.”

     David picked up his backpack, headed for the stairs and took them quickly two at a time to get away, wanting to hide his expression which was bordering on breaking up. Walking into the room he lowered his backpack, that symbol of itinerant lives, and stood there feeling sudden relief.

     He was back.

     He was back in this happy room, his temporary refuge during years of anger and ridicule, his place for dreaming and magic, that world of music and make-believe of his own creating which had so angered and alienated his father.

     On the desk was his top hat and cane ready for acts of legerdemain and there in the comfortable stuffed chair was his comfortable stuffed bear, wearing a fisherman’s sweater and sea boots, new for the occasion, his seaman’s cap at a jaunty angle.

     A small smile began on the young man’s harried face as he walked over to the chair. It seemed to him that he’d been away for so much longer than six months. He had been so busy and absorbed in keeping himself going from day to day that there had been no time to reflect on anything else. Now he knew how deeply he had missed all this.

     The pull of his trustworthy confidant came over him again as he said softly,

     “Hey Bjorn. Got lots to tell you.”

     He was about to sit down when he saw his music stand over by the window, his treasured flute lying on the lip of it with an open score readied for a practise session.

     He knew Li had retrieved the instrument from the pawnshop, because he hadn’t told anyone else what had happened to it. He walked over and picked it up, but was too emotional at that moment to play. His favourite Mozart would wait, as it had been doing for two hundred years and more—waiting for the breath of life to be given once again by those who felt it as the composer himself had when it had first vibrated from his mind into the world of sound.

     Feeling as though he had just been given back his future by a friend who himself had received a similar gift from David’s grandparents years ago, David took his flute with him to the chair and sat down

     He was back. He was back for good.

     He had come up from his rabbit hole at last, out from under brambles, having found the strength and purpose to walk into the open and face down the hawk.

     He was no longer a rabbit.

     Edith Godwin waited for so long with tea that she finally went up the stairs to see what was keeping her grandson. Still wearing the clothes he had arrived in, his legs stretched out, his arms folded around his teddybear and flute, he was asleep in the chair, his face turned sideways and half hidden in his wealth of curls. The half she could see looked almost young once more.

     She decided tea could wait awhile, along with Mozart and herself.

- - -

Sitting atop Cliff with Wind rustling the dry grass tufts among the rocks, and Sun turning Sea into a moving display of light and shadow, two people sat looking across at a far horizon as their friendly association took on further understanding.