I had heard that redheads smelt different to other people. It was some sort of chemical thing – an enzyme….”
by misha cahill
Wind whipped in under the portcullis and dragged in wet air. Rain fell lightly outside the veranda, lit up like snow by the dim security light. I stood in the Philosophy Department stoop in the darkness. It was seventeen minutes to eight. The yellow flicker of the security light only reached a metre into the wet night.
I fingered the two hundred bucks in my pocket to cheer myself up. Efelco’s money always turned up in an envelope in my room the day of the meeting. Even though I knew it wasn’t smart, it amused me to carry it with me to the meeting. To know that my betrayal of these violent morons glowed in my pocket; if they’d had a sixth sense, they would have seen it radiating through my jeans.
But they just saw me as a dull boy from the commerce department.
I’d been on one sabotage mission with them. I didn’t cut the wires under the Efelco logging truck, but no one noticed. I rubbed dirt over my hands to make it look like I’d been crawling around on the forest floor in the dark. Ted, the strongest of the bastards, had smashed the truck’s window with a wrench. I wondered whether he’d smash my head with a wrench if he knew what it I was up to.
It didn’t seem to matter, though, that I didn’t join in much with the party line; they thought I was just shy. It made me think that I should have behaved this way more around my real friends; hung back, smiled occasionally. Sometimes I hated them for not trying to draw me out – as if they thought I was a fucking idiot. Noelle was the only one who really looked at me.
At three minutes to eight, she arrived. Her head was bowed as she walked up the stairs in the drizzle. Her red hair glistened in the dim yellow security light. The frizzy curls were flattened. Her skirt swirled around her legs. It must have dragged on the ground. The hem probably got wet in this kind of rain.
— Hello, Henry, she said, as she unlocked the door. A little bit shy, head down, like Princess Di.
We climbed the stairs inside the philosophy department. It was warm in here, and smelt of paper, old wood, furniture polish, and Noelle’s hair, which had already started to dry, giving off a woolly odour. I had heard that redheads smelt different to other people. It was some sort of chemical thing – an enzyme. I wondered whether that was true. Would the skin on her neck smell strange? I could see the white nape where her hair parted over her shoulders.
Noelle opened the door to the conference room and I walked in behind her. I sat down, but she didn’t. She busied herself making coffee. I got out my notepad. The hem on the back of her skirt was dirty. A smear of mud had spread along it. Just as I thought. It was hard to tell how she slim she was under the cardigan and the skirt. But she was thin. I knew this from a year of meetings.
8.00 p.m., June 27, 2007
Eighteenth meeting of the Internationalist Society. Efelco should note that a protest is planned for next month.
The others drifted in and settled into their seats. Noelle stood up and announced she had a copy of a new book by Noam Chomsky, if anyone wanted to borrow it. I watched her lips as she spoke. The skin above the top lip was bluish. When she turned to write on the white board, light illuminated hairs on her chin.
I don’t know what I want to do, but I know it involves you
I crossed that out, over and over. God, it was bizarre how I’d come to think about her. Despite her wearing those hippie rags, and me in clean clothes – they all smelt of pot, her billowing rags. And then there were her puffy cheeks and her streaming red hair. My father would have said, ‘There are nits in there. Those bastards don’t shower.’ He warned me to watch out when he got me this job. If you can call spying a job.
I turned back to my notes. I always tried to get one whole A4 sheet of notes, to earn my $210. Tonight everyone seemed to be rambling about Noam Chomsky. Usually I got something more useful.
— Henry, you’re real quiet.
I looked up. Ted was leaning forward on his knees, looking at me with an amused expression on his face. He was a good-looking bastard: high cheekbones, pale white skin, and very thin. He always looked neat and tidy; a white shirt tucked into sixties-style trousers. Stylish. I knew he hated my jeans-and polo shirt- commerce student look. Commerce vs. commie. He didn’t trust me, I could tell.
— Come on, tell us what you think about Chomsky’s account of the invasion, Ted went on. He had this little smirk on his face.
— Seems very relevant, I said.
— Relevant to what? Henry, I get the impression you’re not listening. Then, like he was stabbing me in the heart, he looked at Noelle instead of me, and helplessly, she exchanged a smirk with him. I lost concentration, staring at her, and didn’t answer.
— Look, Henry, why do you study commerce, then come to these meetings? Do you think you’re going to be working for the cause when you’ve got a job in middle management, denying insurance claims to little old ladies? Ted asked.
— Not all commerce students are right wing, I said. Like, there’s this group in the department who study economics, and they write all these articles about how the government is doing stuff wrong … like, how taxes shouldn’t be lowered and stuff …
— Oh, yeah, that sort of ‘stuff’. Ted laughed.
— Come on, man, Noelle said. Not everybody has to be a theorist. People can work from the heart, not the head. But she was laughing too. A dagger of rage shot through me. If these fucking idiots knew what I had in my pocket, they’d be laughing on the other side of their faces. So, I couldn’t be bothered to memorise a bunch of commie sloganeering. You only had to look at the real world, the real economy, history, to see the facts. That’s why they had to come up with all this pseudo-intellectual rot: to cover up the fact they didn’t know what they were talking about. Fucking terrorists.
— Well, what I think, right, I said, Is we don’t wait for some convenient opportunity to protest. We collect up all our gear … wrenches, hammers, whatever … go to the head of Efelco’s house, in the middle of the night, and bash out all his windows. Run off, jump through backyards, whatever. Get the bastard. Shake him up.
— Hmm, Noelle said. That’s maybe a little violent. I see where you’re coming from, but … anyhow, we don’t know where the guy lives. And I bet he has security guards, or something. Typical CEO, you know.
— No, he doesn’t, I said. I know where he lives. There are no guards.
— How do you know? Teddy said.
Everybody was staring at me. I couldn’t tell whether they thought I was cool, that I’d been doing my own research, maybe biking around after dark on my eco-friendly transport in order to plan terrorist actions in the future, or they suspected me, thought it was a bit weird I knew this.
— Read an article, I said. In this magazine in the … commerce department lobby.
— Oh, right. Teddy sat back and smirked at Noelle. Saying to her, ‘typical commerce student’. She ignored him. Anyhow, Teddy went on, wouldn’t be practical. We’d just get the fuzz coming down on us big time. It’d look bad in the press. People’d just think we were vandals. You know the routine. I don’t know, Henry. Sometimes I think you don’t really care about the poor, or the environment. You’re just here for some sort of terrorist type buzz. You never seem to read any of the books Noelle suggests.
— I do, I said. I’m just very busy with coursework.
— That’s true, Noelle said, looking annoyed. You never read any of the Chomsky book we were studying together. Tell us, Henry. Tell us that you really do hate late capitalism. Then we’ll know for sure that you’re here for the right reasons.
— You want me to say that? I said.
— Yeah, right. Something like that.
— Sure. Why not. The truth was, I didn’t want to say it. I felt hot and uncomfortable. It was surprisingly difficult to lie. I loved business. I loved my father’s Porsche. I loved destroying the environment, burning around in it on the weekends, driving miles just for the sake of it, taking stupid girls out into the countryside. Like Jeremy Clarkson on Top Gear. What would they think if they knew that was my favourite show? He wouldn’t lie. But I had to. – Yeah, sure, isn’t it obvious. I hate capitalism and its effects on the poor and the environment. That’s why I’m here. That’s why I come out every Wednesday night instead of lying at home in bed. I hate capitalism.
Noelle looked reassured, but Ted just slumped back in his seat. What a fucking poser. He was wearing this checked shirt and tight black jeans, very tight, like some sort of rock’n’roll derelict. Just the type certain girls went for. Girls like Noelle. Would she, secretly, prefer a Porsche? I wondered how easy it would be to corrupt her.
The conversation drifted away from me. I still felt a sort of burning annoyance at having had to lie, to betray my principles. The room began to smell of this mix of cheap tobacco and pot. By the end of the session, the place stank. It came off their clothes. I felt more and more hot, and a little dizzy, as the meeting went on. At the end of the night, I stumbled out into the dark, feeling like I was going to faint as I walked out through the philosophy department door.
The night air, the blackness, privacy and coolness of it, was a welcome change. I pushed my bike out into the darkness – didn’t say goodbye to anyone, didn’t look back. I cycled up Alfred Street, slowly, pushing down onto the pedals, still a little hot-faced with bad temper. I was sick of not having my say.
I stopped by the gym to have a quick perve at the girls doing aerobics. My favourites were the fat frumps at the back, who giggled in their big T-shirts and didn’t try to follow the moves. I didn’t mean that as an insult. I liked those girls, I don’t know why. It made me feel relaxed, watching them.
Drops of water fell from the guttering, and the sound they made hitting the puddles rang out across the concrete paths and walls. My adrenaline started to dissipate. I was free. All I had to do was never see them again.
I started sobbing. It must’ve been the strain, or fatigue or something. Noelle’s face appeared in front of me; I imagined her underneath me, her eyes screwed up, as she came; I’d watch her the whole time. Then Ted, sprawled out on the ground in front of me, blood matted in his hair.
My father had got me this job. He was a respected member of the community. I tried to imagine Ted behind bars, where he surely would be one day, but instead, all I saw was my father in jail, in his suit, with the usual malevolent expression on his face.
(illustration: dee sunshine)
Misha Cahill hails from New Zealand and is currently completing a degree in English poetry. She has been published or has work forthcoming in Thieve’s Jargon, Skive, and Long Story Short. More of Misha’s stories can be found in the Vault of Smoke.