‘Amnesty’, by George Toseski

tomato seeds

Photograph by Lucy Crosbie. Reproduced under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic License

Darko woke early and stepped into the backyard still wearing the trackpants and T-shirt he had slept in, and his mother’s slippers on his feet. The low sun peered through the sprawling blackberry tree and stabbed his eyes. He shielded them with the back of his hand and walked to the garden at the rear of the yard.

“Motherfucker,” he said.

He had been cultivating two marijuana plants that had reached up to his chest. Their heads were outstandingly formed. His mother, who thought they were tomato plants, had been watering them for him. Both plants had been chopped, leaving only a bit of stem poking up from the soil. He threw his unlit cigarette onto the ground and ran back to the house.

Wearing a flowing black skirt and a singlet displaying the anarchy sign, Victoria approached a housing estate on Marion Street. She picked at the pus forming over her new piercing near the top of her ear. Outside the first house, two boys were hacking at a large tree with pretend swords, while on the balcony a woman in a headscarf was spreading a thick blanket out on the railing. An older woman, also in a headscarf, was watching her carefully and drinking coffee.

“Why don’t their parents get a job?” said the old man. “Or grow some vegetables.”

Holding a clipboard and pamphlets and proudly displaying her Amnesty International badge, Victoria knocked on the front door. Both women on the balcony yelled downstairs and a man with a precise handlebar moustache opened the door and said, “No like.“

Victoria, modifying the spiel she’d rehearsed, said simply, “There are starving people in Africa.”

The man repeated, “No like,” and closed the door. The woman on the balcony slapped the blanket with her palm.

Victoria knocked on a townhouse. “Children in Africa are starving,” she said.

“Why don’t their parents get a job?” said the old man. “Or grow some vegetables.”

“There’s a terrible drought going on,” she replied. “Not everyone’s as lucky as we are here.”

“What you want me to do?” said the man fluttering his hands in the air. “You wanna bring more of ’em here?” he said and nodded to his neighbours. “This country’s going down the drain already, now you wanna bring Africans here too?”

“We’re just asking for a contribution,” she said, but she knew there was little chance of that. And the old man was starting to enjoy himself.

“You know, we coming here to work. We building this country.”

“Who did?”

“Us Greeks. And few Italians… and Poles. We build the Harbour Bridge.”

“What about the Macedonians?”

“What Macedonians? There are no Macedonians. They’re just Greeks who speak funny dialect. Why, you are one of them?”

“You Greeks just steal everything,” said Victoria. “Greek salad, Greek coffee, Greek yoghurt, bullshit, it’s all Turkish.”

“Piss off,” said the old man and closed the door.

“Muuuum,” Darko yelled throughout the house, unaware exactly where his mother was, “Did you cut the tomato plants?”

“Stop yelling,” she responded from the laundry, “I’m right here.”

“Did you touch the tomatoes?”

“No,” she said. “There are no tomatoes. Those plants are useless. Why, what happened?”

Darko ran through the house and onto the footpath in front of the house, looking for signs of the plants.

“What’s the screaming for?” asked his next-door neighbor Victoria, who was smoking a cigarette on her front steps.

“Someone flogged my plants,” he said. Victoria was his most important client.

“I know who did it,” said Victoria and got to her feet. The thump of heavy drums from somewhere across Yagoona filtered into the yard. “It was Vlad. That night he crashed my party…”

“What, with the twins?”

“Yeah, that night. I caught him looking over the fence into your yard. It must have been him.”

Darko nodded. “His sister’s getting married today, isn’t she?” A sustained note from a clarinet snaked across the neighbourhood.

“Yeah,” she said.

“Well, you help me get ’em back.”

Victoria knocked on the third house for several minutes. Her eyes darted across at the other houses but no one was watching her. There was no answer, so she walked to the side of the house and looked into the backyard. She saw Darko’s head bouncing up and down behind the wooden fence at the rear of the yard where he had been waiting. She gave him the thumbs up, then walked out of the estate, dumping her pamphlets into a red bin.

On the wall above the television he saw an enlarged photo of Vlad and his sister embracing while sitting on an orange Ford Cortina before the Harbour Bridge.

Darko jumped the fence into the tiny yard. The yard was L-shaped and neat; nowhere to hide two large marijuana plants. He examined the corner where some garden tools were held in place by spiderwebs, but there was no sign of his plants. With a pair of garden scissors, he sliced open the screen door and entered the house.

Inside were plates of peanuts and pastries, empty bottles and cans jammed into the bins, and half-filled glasses scattered across the kitchen bench from the morning’s wedding festivities. On the wall above the television he saw an enlarged photo of Vlad and his sister embracing while sitting on an orange Ford Cortina before the Harbour Bridge. Pushed into the corner of the living room were a heap of boxes tied up in ribbons – the wedding gifts – and envelopes placed on top. Darko glanced into the kitchen then went upstairs in search of Vlad’s bedroom, convinced that the plants were somewhere. The first room he looked inside was obviously his sister’s; make-up, towels and shoes were sprawled across the bed.

Then he found Vlad’s bedroom. He looked under the bed, then behind the television and video, but there was nothing. He opened the wardrobe and pushed aside some clothes. Standing on his toes, he noticed something on top of the wardrobe wrapped in a black garbage bag. He pulled at the bag and objects scattered on the floor. They were video tapes, porn tapes. There was Seka Sizzles, Nina Hartley Presents, and another one called Muscle Studs featuring an enormously built man squatting down and sucking upon the penis of another man.

“Fucking faggot,” Darko let out audibly.

He looked out of Vlad’s bedroom window and saw Victoria pacing outside the estate and gave her the thumbs down signal. He left the porno tapes on the floor where they had fallen, but placed Muscle Studs right by the doorway, stepped over it, then walked down the stairs. He leapt back over the fence and walked around the block to where Victoria was.

“They’re not there,” Darko said.

They walked home along Marion Street. “What do we do now?” she asked.

“This road stinks,” he noted.

“Dar-KO, Dar-KO,” a voice screamed from across the road.

“Man, that woman is so embarrassing,” said Victoria.

“I’ve got these for your mother,” the woman yelled over the traffic. It was Darko’s Aunt Letka. She’d been wearing black clothes and a black headscarf for fifteen years since her husband passed away.

“She can sniff you from a mile away,” said Darko. “She spends her whole time on the verandah looking for someone to chat with.”

Aunt Letka approached them holding a tray of seedlings. “Give these to your mother, dear,” she said, handing the tray over to Darko. “She asked me for some tomato plants and these are all I have left. “And you,” she pointed at Victoria, “tell your father to stop drinking for a couple of days. He might afford to buy you a new pair of stockings.”

Darko kissed his aunt on the cheek and walked home with the tray of tomato seedlings.

“I’ll see you later,” he said to Victoria, then opened the latch on the side gate of his house and walked into the yard. His mother was digging in the garden.

Over three hundred guests attended Vlad’s sister’s wedding reception in Riverwood. Vlad sat on the main table immediately to the left of his parents drinking scotch straight from the bottle as relatives approached him and pinched his cheeks and told him he was next in line to get married. “I’ve only just finished school,” he complained to the first few, then gave up and just smiled. They passed by him kicking their legs out in time to the folk songs about a liberated Macedonia.

“Drink up, everybody,” he urged the unimpressed guests. “My father is paying for everything.”

Late in the evening he rose unsteadily from the seat. “Move,” he said to his uncle and only just made it to the toilet to vomit. After that he asked for a Black Russian and had to teach the waitress how to mix it. Then he grabbed the microphone from the singer during a lull in the music: “Drink up, everybody,” he urged the unimpressed guests. “My father is paying for everything.”

At the end of the night he walked around the tables at his mother’s request, collecting the half-consumed bottles of scotch, and placed them in boxes. As the remaining guests formed a circle and farewelled the married couple, Vlad carried the boxes of scotch to the boot of his father’s car. The band packed up and counted the money that had been hurled at them during the night. The limo drove the new couple to a hotel room in Bondi, and Vlad was driven home by his parents. Along the way he fell asleep.

The lights were out in all the other townhouses. Vlad’s father parked the car outside the garage door; the tables and chairs from the morning’s festivities would have to be cleared inside the garage before the car could go back in there. Vlad’s mother opened the car door that her son’s head had been resting on, but it didn’t disturb his sleep; his head merely flopped in the other direction. She took off her painful shoes and walked barefoot into the house.

“Mitre, come quick,” she yelled.

The back door was open and the screen door was cut. Vlad’s father went immediately to the pile of gifts and grabbed the envelope containing the money the guests had given to the new couple in the morning. He opened the envelope and saw the money inside; nearly $10,000.

“Call triple zero!” his wife yelled.

“It’s not an emergency,” Vlad’s father tried to calm her.

“The video and the TV are still here,” his wife noted.

Vlad’s father grabbed a knife from a kitchen drawer and walked up the stairs slowly. “Go wake him,” he said, and his wife hurried to the car to fetch her son. When he reached the top of the stairs he switched on the light in his bedroom and checked the jewellery.

“The jewellery’s untouched,” he called out.

Then he looked inside Vlad’s room, which was in greater disarray that the rest of the house. He stepped over some items scattered on the floor and noted that Vlad’s TV and video were still there. Then he saw the porn tapes. He picked up the one closest to him and turned it over several times in his hands, then placed it under this armpit. Muscle Studs was its title. “Get that drunk up here,” he called again down the stairs.

Vlad was roused from his sleep: “They’ve ruined our house,” his mother said. He staggered half-asleep, half-drunk through the house, assuming his mother was referring to the mess made by the wedding guests. His father walked down the stairs with something under his arm.

“What did they take?” his wife asked.

“Nothing,” he answered, then looked down at the floor. “Go clean up your room before your mother sees it.”

Vlad passed his father by the stairs. His sister’s room was empty and it occurred to him that it would be that way from now on. Reaching his bedroom, he noticed his porn tapes scattered on the floor. He quickly gathered them together and returned them to his hiding spot, even though it had been discovered, and threw the black plastic garbage bag over them. He closed his door and flung himself onto the bed face-first. Tomorrow, he resolved, he’d find a new spot for them.

He was woken in the morning by the clinking of plates and glasses as his mother washed the dishes, but he remained in bed. Then the vacuum cleaner was switched on. When the noise of the vacuum finally subsided, someone ripped their lawnmower. Then his father burst into this room.

“What are you doing?” asked Vlad, his eyes glued together.

His father stomped across the room and pulled several cables from the electricity socket behind the small cabinet. He placed the video recorder under his arm and walked out of the room with it. Then he slammed the door.

Born in Wollongong, George Toseski is a writer from south-west Sydney. He works with migrants and refugees as an English-language teacher. His writing has appeared in Award Winning Australian Writing, the Stories of Sydney anthology and more.

Amnesty first appeared in The Lifted Brow: Digital, Volume 16: Don’t Call It a Comeback.