A familiar ringing pierces the opaque curtain of Alex’s pre-dawn dreams which parts violently as if jerked and then released by an invisible hand. Alex rolls over and slaps his alarm clock silent. He turns on the lamp that sits on his bedside table, then resets the clock to go off in another five minutes. He stuffs it under his pillow then buries his head under the blankets. Even the sun takes its time rising. Five minutes of conscious appreciation of his previously unconscious state settle Alex’s mind, give him a sense of preparedness for the day to come. Some mornings it works better than others.
When the alarm sounds again Alex has steeled himself and rolls out of bed without hesitation. He dresses quickly and treads lightly down the stairs to the front door. Closing it behind him quietly, Alex slips on his gloves. He takes the bike propped up against the brick wall of the empty carport and wheels it along the gravel driveway towards the street. Swinging one leg over, he mounts the bike and turns on the weak front and weaker rear lights, fumbling with gloved fingers. He takes the reflective vest out of one of the two milk crates attached to the luggage rack behind him and fastens it around his chest. Pushing off into the frigid air of what is morning by name only, Alex cycles down the street. The wind works its way into his gloves and stings his face. He squints his eyes and takes a hand off the handlebars to wipe his running nose, feeling well and truly awake as he cruises through the streetlights’ glare and the shadows in between.
The shopping centre occupies two corners of the central intersection of this sleepy suburb. A branch of the national bank, a bakery, supermarket, and fish-and-chip joint fulfil most of the community’s needs. Alex pulls in behind the newsagency and leans his bike against the wall. Two crates stuffed with newspapers rolled in cling wrap sit by the back door. Alex begins transferring them into the crates on the back of his bike. The local Courier fills the left crate while Financial Reviews, Country Gazettes and National Records – niche interests – all go in the right. The screen door opens and Steve – the newsagent and postmaster – steps out.
“Morning, Alex. How did you go yesterday?”
“Not bad. Got them all except for one. Eight letters: blank, U, blank, C, blank, blank, blank, blank. Desist; end.”
“Pfft, no idea mate. Let me know when you figure it out.”
“Will do.”
Alex points at the newspaper in Steve’s hands. The headline reads Pleas for Peace Ignored as Offensive Continues.
“Can’t be good.”
“You’d know better than me. I just sell ‘em to the better informed. Anyway, you’d best get going. Finish off on a high note.”
Steve hands Alex the morning’s run sheet, which outlines which houses receive what newspaper.
“Same as usual.”
Alex folds the piece of paper and tucks it in his back pocket.
“See you soon.”
The stars are fading and the navy blue of the sky is lightening to azure as Alex begins the route he has committed to memory. 89 Henderson Lane: one Courier. 91: a Courier and a Gazette. 104: Financial Review. He reaches behind and throws the papers onto front lawns, avoiding letterboxes, birdbaths, cars, and garden gnomes. Cars generally give him a wide berth, even if their drivers take advantage of the early morning laxity to cross double lines or neglect to indicate. With just a couple of exceptions, the houses are all in the same single-storey, brick-veneer style that must have been in fashion forty years ago when the town expanded to encompass this sleepy hollow between the two hills. Alex knows that not everywhere in the world can look like this, that this must in fact be unique, exotic even to someone from one of the many places he knows only from the World section of the newspaper. He can hardly imagine how it would feel to step outside and find himself on a Parisian boulevard or a New York avenue. The experience seems too grand to be comprehended. Cycling these streets leaves Alex with the feeling that he has seen all there is to see one thousand times over but is still missing something essential, something that lies invisible beneath the surface, able only to be understood but never grasped.
The papers are one way to keep track of the days when the schoolweek bleeds into a single blur of white walls and black text. Mondays bring Photo of the Week, the National’s collection of pictures from all around the world. Alex carefully looks through them all before choosing one image to join the montage on his bedroom wall. Together they form a sort of non-linear calendar, where the days aren’t crossed off and the weeks torn away but where time accumulates, with each photograph serving as a frozen window onto the particular arrangement of the world at that point in time. The hundred and sixty-four images on Alex’s wall are testament to his just over three years in the job. Tuesday is coupon day. Twenty percent off at the butcher comes in handy every now and then, but mostly it’s buy one get one free of something he’d never want in the first place. Wednesdays are nothing special, they pass largely ignored as if it had been agreed that to acknowledge the day would be to prolong it. Thursdays have the classifieds, personal and property. On Fridays the Courier publishes the upcoming fixture and lineups for the weekend’s sports. Skip training on Wednesday evening and you have to wait until Friday morning to see if you still have a spot on the team. Saturday is the biggest day of the week. Weekend specials sometimes mean two papers, which means an extra trip to the newsagency to refill the crates.  If it is going to be a big one, Alex wakes up at 5:30 instead of his usual 6:00AM, as customers start complaining if their papers aren’t delivered by 7. Saturday is also payday. On Sunday Steve does the route himself, driving around the neighbourhood and chucking the papers out the window as Alex makes the most of his one sleep-in per week.
Alex makes his way up Mansfield Avenue, climbing the ridge that not so long ago seemed so much higher. On his right lie the remains of a pine plantation, half burnt down by a bushfire the previous summer and the other half harvested not long after. Beyond its sharp, blackened stumps the industrial glow of the gold mine, recently back in operation, backlights the native trees surrounding it. Their silhouettes sway, subject to an imperceptible wind. Downhill, to Alex’s left as he cruises along, snake streets along which sit homes as outwardly similar as the inward lives they house. Permutations of a finite set, rearrange to solve for x. Do you dream of running away or returning home? Married with children or keeping your options open? Peas or carrots with your dinner?
Eight letters: desist; end. I call on you to desist immediately. The end of an era. Termination, culmination. His termination was regrettable, but necessary. Tonight’s performance marked the culmination of a splendid career. Eight letters, blank, U, blank, C, blank, blank, blank, blank. Drawing a blank.
With two papers left in his crates, Alex takes a shortcut through the playground that now stands where the Summers’ house once did. The fire lit up that night, its roar even drowned out the fire engines’ sirens and Mrs Summers’ excruciating cries. Must be almost ten years ago now. Alex hasn’t brought himself to read the plaque at the base of the two sapling eucalypts planted in memory of James and Alyssa. He skirts around the tanbark and pushes uphill to the street. Following it behind the school and cutting through the church carpark, Alex comes to a rest beside a wooden sign. Acacia Acres Retirement Living. He leans his bike against it and, taking the last two newspapers, heads towards number 16. He knocks on the screen door and takes a step back.
“Coming!” a voice from inside announces.
Locks click open and a wizened face appears behind the screen door.
“Morning, Alex. Right on time.”
“Morning, Mrs Greenfield.”
Mrs Greenfield opens the door and Alex hands her the papers.
“Wait here, I’ve got something for you.”
She disappears back inside the house, then remerges holding an envelope.
“A little something for you. Spend it how you wish. I’m not sure how I’ll get on without your wake up calls. Next person to knock on this door will probably be the police after someone notices a funny smell.”
“Don’t say that, Mrs Greenfield. You’re doing better than most. No way could I get myself up before 7 when I don’t have to.”
“I’ve got to make the most of the time I’ve got left. How did you go with yesterday’s puzzle?”
“Got them all but one. Eight letters, desist; end. I’ve got no idea.”
“Desist; end… What could it be? Abstain, refrain…? I’m all out of synonyms.”
“Second letter is a U, fifth is a C.”
“Put your young mind to it. Now you’d better run along, I don’t want to keep you.”
“I’ll come and visit you whenever I’m back. Promise.”
“I’ll hold you to that.”
“Bye Mrs Greenfield. Thank you for the present.”
Alex coasts through the empty shopping centre carpark and pulls up in front of the newsagent. Steve looks up from the newspaper he is reading at the front counter.
“All done?”
“All done. No overs or unders.”
“I don’t even need to ask. You’re one of a kind, Alex.”
Steve opens the cash register and takes out two twenty-dollar notes. He lays them out for Alex, then slides the newspaper towards him.
“Here you are. Last payday. From me, anyway. I'm sure you’ll be making mega bucks before long. Take the paper too, I’m all done with it.”
“Appreciate it, Steve. It’s been a good job. Thanks for keeping me on.”
“No worries, mate. Couldn’t just let you go. Let me know when one of the little ones wants to take up your spot.”
“Will do. I’ll stop by and say hi when I come back sometime.”
“It’ll be good to see you, mate. Bye for now.”
Alex slips the two notes into his pocket and heads out of the newsagent. He passes the bakery and waves to Mr Stewart, with whom he shares the tacit fraternity of the early-risers. He continues on to the supermarket. Kristy unlocks the sliding double doors and flips the sign from Closed to Open as Alex approaches.
“Bright and early. Nice to see you, Alex.”
“How are you doing, Kristy?”
“Still half asleep, but complaining about it would just wake me the rest of the way up, so I’ll keep my mouth shut for now.”
Alex smiles and makes his way to the cereal aisle, picking out a box of Sultana Bran on special. He grabs a two-litre bottle of milk and goes up to Kristy at the front, placing the items on the conveyor belt. Kristy takes a look at the date on the milk.
“This is getting close to its best-before. I’ll just give it to you for free.”
“You sure? It’s still got a few days. I didn’t want–“
“No, no, it’s all good. On the house. That makes it an even three dollars, which saves me from counting out too much change.”
Alex takes out one of the twenties from his pocket and hands it to Kristy. She gives him the change and a coupon for the Choose Your Charity boxes by the entrance.
“See you around, Alex.”
“Bye, Kristy.”
Alex walks his bike through the carpark out the back. As he passes by the bakery, Mr Stewart comes out with an armful of bread.
“Got a little something for you. Stick these in your crates.”
He loads up Alex’s bike with five loaves of bread, packing them in next to the milk and cereal.
“Wow, thanks Mr Stewart.
“Chuck it in the freezer, it’ll keep for weeks. Hope the kiddos will be alright when you’re gone.”
“Yeah, I hope so. I feel pretty bad for leaving them.”
“Not your job to stay, mate. You’ve got plenty ahead of you. You looking forward to going?”
“I think so. I’m ready. Recently I feel like all I’ve been doing is saying goodbye.”
“Well, I’ll save you one more of those. Have a good one, Alex.”
Alex nods and hops on his bike, giving Mr Stewart a wave as he pedals away.
Alex first notices that the carport light is on as he turns the corner into his street. As he comes down the driveway towards the house, he sees his mum’s maroon Camry parked at a haphazard angle, halfway under cover, halfway not. He comes to a stop, and feels his hands clench the brakes tightly as he takes in the scene. It is not the first, but it may well be the last time. Alex leans his bike against the brick wall and opens the front door. He goes back to his bike and grabs the milk, cereal and an armful of bread. Heading inside, he goes to the kitchen and lays it all out on the dining room table. He takes his shoes off quietly in the hall, placing them on the wooden shoe rack his father made a long time ago, then takes the stairs two at a time. Pausing outside his mother’s bedroom, Alex hears breathing, raspy but regular enough to calm his fears. He opens the door opposite and makes his way to the window, taking hold of the curtain and watching the front of sunlight make its way across the room as he opens it. When the golden line reaches Brayden’s chin, Alex stops.
“Wakey wakey.”
Brayden stirs, opening his eyes just a millimetre.
“Breakfast time. I got your favourite.”
In the other bed, Elsa sits up, wide awake.
“Coco Pops?”
“Okay, I got your second favourite.”
At the dining room table, Brayden and Elsa clamour to fill their bowls with Sultana Bran. Alex pours the milk for them, then sits down to his coffee and toast.
“Did you hear mum when she came in this morning?”
Elsa nods, while Brayden shovels another spoonful of cereal into his mouth.
“Everything ok?”
“I think so. She slammed the door.”
“Hope it didn’t wake you up.”
Elsa shrugs. Alex looks down at his plate.
“This morning was my last paper route.”
Brayden looks up at him.
“Will you miss it? All the houses and everything?”
“Not as much as I’ll miss you guys.”
“We’ll miss you too. Can we write to you or call you or something?”
“Of course. I’d love that. Every weekend, at least, okay? As soon as I arrive I’ll get my dorm number and postal address and figure out the phones and everything. I want to hear what you two are getting up to, how you’re going–“
Footsteps thump across the upstairs landing and the bathroom door slams shut. Muffled sounds of vomiting interrupt the breakfast conversation.
“Finish up your cereal, guys. Then you’d better go get dressed. I want to do something special today.”
“Special? What kind of special?”
“We’ll see. If you’ve got any ideas, I’m sure we can work something out.”
Brayden and Elsa look at each other.
“Oh, and before you go…”
Ales digs through his pockets and takes out the change from the milk and cereal at the supermarket.
“Pocket money.”
“Thank you, Alex.”
Elsa whispers something to Brayden in childlike conspiracy, and they both hurriedly finish the last couple of flakes in their bowls before racing off upstairs.
Alex sits at the table and stirs his cereal absent-mindedly. He looks around, as if missing something. The newspaper. He opens the front door and walks to his bike, taking the folded newspaper out of the rear crate. A gust of wind catches the door as Alex pulls it closed and it slams with a bang.
“Keep the fucking noise down.”
Alex looks in the direction of his mother’s room upstairs. He stands there for a minute, trying to muster the indignation to overcome the tired resignation with which he long ago began to face his mother, this house, this life. It is not fair on them, on Brayden and Elsa. But who came for him? Who came for Alex when he had to stand up to his mother’s boyfriends, knowing full well the consequences for doing so? When he had to beg for a job just to make sure there would be food in the cupboards in the mornings before school, when he had to cut short his after-class study in the library, sacrificing the one chance he had of making it out of here, of leaving, of abandoning the only people who could make a claim to his attention, of visiting first-hand the second-hand sins of his father…
Alex unfolds the morning’s newspaper and lays a torn-out crossword on the table. Flipping past headlines of hope and horror, he goes straight to the comics and games section. He turns the paper upside down and locates the answers. Scanning down the list, he looks for 27 down, the only word left unfound from yesterday’s puzzle. Eight letters: desist; end. Solution: surcease. Alex frowns and looks at the newspaper. It is a foreign word, to him at least. He stands up and heads to the bookcase, taking down a thick Oxford English Dictionary. Back at the table, he riffles through to S.
surcease (archaic or North American)
n. 1. ending, cessation
he teased us without surcease
1.1. relief, consolation
drugs are taken to provide surcease from intolerable pain
v. stop; cease
In order to surcease my sorrow I sold the house so full of memories
Alex sits at the table staring blankly out the window onto the backyard. A kaleidoscope of native birds crowds the piece of tin guttering nailed to the verandah that he fills with seed a couple of times a week. His mind is buffeted with thoughts, none of which he holds onto long enough to apprehend in any detail. Alex blinks, the interstitial darkness enough to snap him out of his runaway train of no thought. He looks down at the paper and picks up a pencil. Eight letters. Surcease.
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