In June I played a show at Red Wheelbarrow Books in Brunswick East, in the back room where they keep books on science and architecture and cooking and some afternoons they have French conversation meet-ups. Before we started I went with the band to get takeaway curry and beer and sat on the floorboards, eating and drinking while the room slowly filled around us.
The last time I was at Red Wheelbarrow I was reading some of my poems at the launch of a book by Jake Core, and since Jake was organising this show I thought I’d stick to the theme. I’d been thinking about how I could fuse my music and prose writing, listening to plenty of Lou Reed and Paul Kelly and Belle & Sebastian, all of whom use spoken word in their songs.
I’d already written a song for my friend Maddie to sing, sort of as compensation for having to sing back-up on all the others, and since Sam (my lead guitarist) wasn’t doing much apart from bobbing his head and playing the shitty riffs I’d shown him a couple of days before, I thought I’d ask him to read this piece. Sam has an amazing reading voice, resonant and deadpan, and I played a couple of chords and murmured harmonies with Maddie while he stood at the microphone, head down, a sheet of A4 paper quarter-folded in front of him.
That winter I got a job making choc tops at the local art-house cinema, The Royal Witherspoon. There were always two people making choc tops, scooping and dipping, so some days you’d have to scoop for hours and others all you got to do was dip. I worked with a guy named Sherwin; he must have been at least five years younger than me. Sherwin was real determined, a born scooper; he worked six days a week and would sometimes work a double when I didn’t show up. I guess I didn’t show up a lot.
Eventually Sherwin got promoted to the candy bar and then straight to projectionist, skipping box office. Sherwin’s rise was rapid. Projectionist was pretty much the best job you could get starting out as a scooper and dipper, almost twice the pay and with credentials you could actually use. I read something once about projectionists, that two thirds of projectionists are serial killers. Either that or two thirds of serial killers are projectionists. I can’t remember which. I guess it doesn’t matter. Sherwin was a projectionist, and I stayed making choc tops. I wasn’t like Sherwin. Sometimes I’d see him out the back between movies, huddled round a cigarette, his face looking like a face in a lost kitten poster.
I learned to smoke by watching movies. Not old movies, where everyone smokes, but the new ones, where the only people who smoke are angry and determined. I learned to strike the match with my fist outwards, the match in between my thumb and index finger, each hand making a protective hollow against the wind. It’s like pretending to hold a tennis ball, like learning the right way to play the piano. I learnt how to smoke through my mouth and out my nose and how to light a cigarette in the rain, super fast. I smoked Benson & Hedges because that’s what my aunty used to smoke, which is dumb because my aunty died of lung cancer. Benson & Hedges is the only cigarette, she used to say. They’re what the Queen smokes. I used to ask her how she knew what the Queen smokes and she’d say they have a Royal Warrant; they’re the official supplier of tobacco to the Queen. I’d never thought much about it until I went to a friend’s house for a dinner party, years later. They had a bowl of salt on the table with a little spoon in it. The salt was all thin and flaky; apparently you were supposed to pick it up with the spoon and crush it in between your fingers. See this salt? My friend said. That’s what the Queen eats.
I’d had this idea since childhood; I guess I always knew I’d end up smoking because I’d had this idea for as long as I can remember. The idea was that I’d always smoke with matches, not a lighter, and that I’d stick the adhesive-corrosive strip of a matchbox, the bit that ignites the match, onto the sole of my shoe. That way I could light safety matches off the bottom of my shoe, European-style. I bought a box of matches and cut it into strips and stapled the sides lengthways onto the sole of my boots, one on each boot, facing outwards at the back of the heel. The matches lit okay but I could never get them to my mouth fast enough, without rushing it, just the right speed so they’d stay lit. It was always raining and every time I went outside I’d have to buy another matchbox.
Sometimes I’d see him out the back between movies, huddled round a cigarette, his face looking like a face in a lost kitten poster.
Sometimes someone at the cinema would ask to borrow a cigarette – we worked in staggered shifts so you never had a break with the same person – but it always seemed to be when I didn’t have any left. Smoking became kind of a solitary thing, something I’d look forward to after having to work all day in a small room, alone except for Sherwin. I used to eat as much I could in the five minutes before break and then go outside to smoke myself dizzy, staring at the opposite wall and thinking up alternate histories for myself. What if I never applied for the job at the Royal Witherspoon? I thought. What if I was more like Sherwin? What if I wasn’t born in Dulcott, but somewhere like Zimbabwe or Tibet or Cambridge? What if I wasn’t born at all, if my parents decided they hated each other before they thought they loved each other? It was so cold that winter; I used to keep the oven on all night just to keep the house warm.
‘Alternate Histories’ has recently been released as a track from The Finks’ second EP, At the Royal Witherspoon. You can stream/download/buy a cassette of the EP through Milk! Records here.
Oliver Mestitz plays music as The Finks. His short story, ‘Why Frogs Puff Up Their Throats’, features in the print/audio edition, Going Down Swinging No. 33.