Pen

The Best of Times Short Story Competition


Spring 2017 Results




The Inner Temple

Copyright © Doug Hamilton 2017


Australia was in crisis. A gnome protection policy in place, the Australian border patrol sending kayaks, old tankers and all our dud submarines to watery graves, but still the illegals kept coming. First gnome buyers seeking product, the local gnome construction industry unable to meet demand, gnome smugglers emerging from mines all over the world.

I'd thought I was out of the game. Been in the Gnomads section of the Victoria Police Sculpture squad for years. and I'd happily spent my time cleansing the homeland of smuggled kitsch. But I'd made a mistake. The Cholmondeley gang from Mayfair were bringing them in without caps and I'd missed it. Upshot was a last man standing in their Carlton warehouse and I was still moving slowly with the knee I got falling off a stack of broken gnomes. G talked retrenchment but news came of the Point Horsfall sculpture competition and she decided I could still be useful.

"You're from the Peninsula, aren't you?" she asked, "sleepy hollow?"

"Still play AFL for the Point," I said.

"And you know Anthony Loftus?"

"Tony? Yeah, he's an old mate."

"Not any more," she said, "because you're going undercover. Loftus has a campaign in the works he's calling Operation Gnome Improvement. Arranging for a gnome to win the sculpture competition and then he'll flood the market with the sneaky little bastards. But keep his trust and with any luck you'll discover some gnome truths, and we can get back to dealing with the North Koreans."

She said to prioritise, not chase down every gnome lead.

"You're to concentrate on known gnomes, those fitting the gnomenclature. Grand old gnomes. Stately gnomes. Contemporary gnomes."

"Contemporary gnomes?"

"Biodegradable. Mobile gnomes."

Hoped Tony wasn't the bad guy, but I felt energised, ready to send captured gnomes to retention centres in Cambodia. Holding costs to be capped at $3k per gnome, no point wasting taxpayers' money.

*

Cultural tensions in the Point community, and I learned how deep they ran at half-time in that Saturday's match against South Shoreham. Ten goals down, coach decided he'd told us enough about football.

"Hey Loftus," he said, "you know anything about this sculpture thing?"

"Major move into culture," said Tony, "put something impressive on the village roundabout. Raise the local profile. Art for all to see."

"And who elected you to bugger the place up?" asked Phil Turner, back pocket and a natural critic, "nice Moreton Bay fig there, good shade in summer."

"No planning permission that tree," said Tony, "so it's dead wood. Not everybody can understand culture, Phil, and I was wondering if you think artists use their palettes to taste things?"

A lot of pushing and shoving then. Would have been good if we'd tried that on South Shoreham.

Went for a beer at the Taupe Kangaroo with my old mate Bernie Woodrow to see if he'd heard anything.

"The sculpture competition?" I asked him.

Hard scratch of his bum.

"You mind?" I said.

"Adventure going to the loo these days," he said, "irritable bowel syndrome they call it. Lot worse than that. Angry bowel. Furious. Furious b..."

"Keep the bowel news for Facebook," I said, "and skip the face news."

"There's stories," he said, "Jimmy Taggart working on something contemporary, word is he won't get a look in."

"Due process? Sub-committee?"

"Won't meet. All been fixed. Big name sculptor and lo and behold a gnome town champion."

"So big name gnome home?"

"Hard to say."

"It's not true?"

"Just hard to say."

"Whose decision?"

"Village cultural uber-layer. Tony's mob. Pre-emptive strike, rest of us not qualified. No cultural awareness. No appreciation of what goes into a gnome."

"Old gnomes?"

"That's a real zinger. No shot for Jimmy or the others, forget it."

Went and looked at Jimmy's sculpture in the coffee shop window. Jimmy the young barista, now having concepts. Barbed wire, bits of driftwood, stolen copper piping, emerging work hinting at an early colonial weltanschauung.

"Life affirming," said a stranger walking past with his dog.

"They never call 'em Spot any more," said Bernie.

Took my cue from the dog and kept my nose to the ground. The anti-Gnome action group (AGAG) produced a leaflet pointing out gnomes not indigenous, look like people who've heard about the economy. Cultural elite sufficiently worried to call a meeting to explain social imperatives. Tony on his feet to remind everybody the town uncouth, needed a focal point, gnome atop the aesthetic ladder. Explained the resistance group wouldn't understand culture if it bit them on the arses they were talking through.

*

Decided to sound Tony out, see what was what. Best footballer in the team, plenty of bonhomie, member of the drinking club. Against that a darker side, known to watch political debates, laughs when he asks how much I make working undercover. Not well hidden then. Lives in a mansion facing out over Bass Strait, mansion reputed to be sliding down the cliff, you could get fifties if you thought it would go in the next five years and I was thinking about what global warming might do to the local tides if I got lucky. I knocked and the door played the theme from Gnome and Away. He invited me in and it was good to be out of the wind.

"First time since the renovations, Jake?" he said.

"Yep. And I just love the way you've captured the zeitgeist."

"Sorry?"

"You don't have to apologise. I just love the way your rose garden surrounds the featured mineshaft with emergent gnome. The structural hints suggesting the house is on the verge of leaping into the sea, that it lingers on the cliff in a last salute to the land. The way the stone path melts into the faux rubber carpet. How the swirled staircase reaches most of the way between the two floors. The subdued palette, that velvety texture where you've used plastic and the way you've achieved a rare combination of transparency and density with all those neon lights."

"Any idea how much it costs to buy a gag these days?" he asked.

He poured himself a glass from a bottle on the coffee table and showed me the label. It was a great label. I did the best I could. Raised my eyebrows, panted like a dog and nodded at the bottle. "Good idea," he said, and poured himself another. "Now what's this about?"

"The sculpture competition. Want to know about due process. You behind the gnome?"

"News to me if I am," he said, "I've always found it hard to move gnomes."

He took a call on his mobile and frowned.

"Yeah, whatever. Twenty k and that's final. Take out a mortgage you weak prick."

I raised an eyebrow.

"The old man's looking for a gnome," he said.

I left him to it.

Resistance still widespread but culture donors know all about the fait accompli. Lots of noise in the village that night, the locals keeping their heads down. Then next morning the Moreton Bay fig gone, giant gnome sneering down on the bikies arriving for early morning prayers. Had to be a prefab, so all that trouble and not even an original. Anger flared in the coffee lounge and I spoke to some AGAG members.

"Don't do anything silly in the heat of the moment," I said.

They said they wouldn't and I'd heard that before. A lot of noise in the village again that night. Next morning the gnome deep in the shit and I confronted them about it.

"Couldn't say," said their leader Warwick, "but I've heard it's surprising what you can do with an elephant, a crane, three tonnes of fast food and a broad spectrum laxative."

Shook my head. Situation at flashpoint.

*

Felt sure that G's suspicions were justified and Tony was planning a mass release of gnome illegals. Thought he'd keep them close and I roped Bernie in for a midnight investigation. Didn't think Tony would expect a frontal assault so we climbed the cliff from the beach.

"What'll we do if he's there?" Bernie asked.

"I'll intimidate him."

"How?"

"I'll give him my Dan Brown look," I said, "feral ferocity, eyes of a rabid animal, threat of fiendish violence. Picked it up from a page in The Lost Symbol."

"It's a lot to put in one look," he said.

"Even more if I'd read the next page."

"What's it like? Is it a good look?"

I showed him.

"Gee that's a great look," he said.

A bit of CPR on Bernie when his angina kicked in half-way up but we got there in the end and hauled ourselves off the cliff on to the front deck. Tony in a reclining chair with his feet up.

"Why didn't you drive up?" he asked, "spare space in the carport at the moment. Diane's got the Merc while she's in at the Gnome Show."

"We were checking the surf," I said, "and thought we'd see if you were at gnome. At home, I mean."

"That's a great fake Freudian slip," he said, "but I've got nothing to hide. Did you want to take a look around?"

"Yeah, that'd be great."

He laughed. "Not a chance. I'm gnome-free. A gnomeless man."

"We'll go," I said, "but don't think we won't be back," and I could see he was struggling.

"Don't think we won't…?" he said, "does that mean you will or you won't? You will be back, is that it? Why didn't you say that?"

I eyeballed him, not ready to defend conservative grammar.

"Bugger it, I can see you're going to be a pain in the arse until you've had your peek," he said, "so come on in. Wipe your feet and don't waste your time looking thirsty."

"I shouted the last round at the club."

"The affluent like me use money."

"What about me?" said Bernie, "I tried to talk him out of this."

Loyalty isn't Bernie's strong suit when a drink's in the air, and I remembered him saying he'd sell his mother for a top-shelf single malt shortly before she vanished.

"Help yourself," said Tony, "whatever you like. Drink it where Sherlock here can see you."

I asked Bernie later why he'd given in so easily.

"Easily?" he said, "what about you? What happened to the look? The famous Dan Brown look? What happened to that?"

He had a point. I'd lost the look.

We searched long and hard. Tony followed us around, keeping Bernie's glass filled and humming something he told me was called 'gnome sweet gnome', and I doubt we'd have found anything if it hadn't been for my pre-planned diversion. I'd told Jimmy that Tony had prevented his sculpture from seeing the light of cultural day, and he hadn't been happy. There came a sound of breaking glass.

"It's a gnome invasion," I shouted, and saw Tony's eyes flick to the far wall of the living room where the glowing outline of a door could be seen.

"Aha," I said, and his shoulders slumped.

"I kept the gnome fires burning," he murmured.

Hidden room set up like a temple, huge fire burning behind an altar. Gnomes by the score all arranged in rows, head gnome standing in front of the altar, one of Snow White's acolytes held high above his head.

"Dwarf-throwing installation," said Tony, "shows who's boss in the underworld."

"Nice one," I said, and it was.

"You'll never prove any of this," he said, "gnomes'll be gone by morning, you're the ones in trouble. So unless you've got a group from the Sculpture Squad primed to respond to a call on a specially programmed phone, then..."

I showed him the phone, and G came through the door with her team. Tony picked up a gnome and held it in front of himself while he backed up against the wall.

"You wouldn't shoot a man in his own gnome, would you?" he shouted.

I was tired and nobody knew the trouble I'd seen. "Put it down Tony, it's game over and time to put an end to the culture wars. Time to let Point Horsfall return to its normal serenity. Time for peace to enfold the Peninsula in its comforting embrace. Time for..."

"Enough already," he said, putting up his hands, "bloody hell Jake, stop watching those aged care commercials and I'll go quietly."

And they took him away.

*

It was too late to do anything about the gnome in residence but the bigger danger had been averted. Tony emailed me a few weeks later to say he'd be back in time for the pre-season and could I talk to the coach about our game plan. Said we should try to make the most of our gnome ground advantage next year. A slip of the keyboard or was his remorse unstable?

Bumped into him at the general store the other day, and we could see the gnome in the distance. Huge underpants on his head. The gnome's, not Tony's. School holidays.

"Back from the great ungnome, Tony?"

"Learned my lesson. Went to some TMA meetings. "

"TMA?"

"Tiny Miners Anonymous."

"You paid the fine?"

"Gnome and contents covered most of it. Lost my collection of Gnome and Garden originals though."

Time to cut him some slack.

"Training starts next week."

"Yeah, I'll be there."

"Good to hear."

A smug look. "Got something on," he said, "Operation Barbican. You'll love it, Jake."

"What? You're building a fortified outpost confronting the Southern ocean, defying the winds, steadfast against the onslaught of the waves, crenelated walls providing the onlooker with vantage points unparalleled along the entire coast? A mighty edifice that says here I stand, staunch against the perils of life come what may? Something that says against all the odds I have self-actualised? Something that..."

His eyes glazing.

"Fuck off. And you can forget my number if you ever go into real estate."

So not a new house. Operation Barbican? Shook my head, no bells ringing. Bumped into Bernie down at the Taupe.

"Seen this?" he said, waving his ipad.

"What?"

"New boat artefact problem. Border patrol back on alert, search and destroy missions in train. Shiploads of smuggled dolls, Barbies and Kens. Lost out to Trump figurines in the States."

Barbies and Kens, I thought, and suddenly it hit me - Operation BarbiKen. Surely not even Tony would stoop…? Of course he would and I was sure the figurines would soon follow the Barbies. Boat Trumps, there was a thought. Still, nothing I could do for the moment. Just our own gnome left and I looked at it, feeling a little melancholy. Gnome alone, I thought.