The Best of Times Short Story Competition

Spring 2008 Results

Polly the Palette

Copyright © Barry Rosenberg 2008

Suzuki-san taught at the Nambour Institute of Calligraphy, Karate and English Remedial. Of course, one look at the initials and everyone immediately cried, “Nickers.”

This might even have been encouraged by Suzuki-san as he was very keen for his Karate students to enter tournaments. In competitions, the dojo would echo with the cries of, “Up Nickers!” and “Down Nickers!” In Nambour, such simple humour seemed to keep the numbers up.

The Old Nickers did Calligraphy. The Young Nickers did Karate. At twenty-two, Mattie was one of the Young Nickers. He trained three nights a week. And did he train! When he punched, his partner flew backwards. When he kicked, the punch bag bounced off the wall. When he threw, the floor vibrated. When he sparred… well, that was the problem, when he sparred.

Mattie was a tall lean fellow with spiky brown hair whose kicks and punches were a blur. Unfortunately, that didn’t work too well in a Karate tourney. One solid strike was one point. A flurry of strikes was too hard to interpret. Was his opponent staggering from the impact or was he simply being pushed back? Without electronics, it was impossible to say. In other words, Mattie was too fast for his own good.

After one tournament, Suzuki-san said, “You fight well tonight, Mattie. You are state champion. Vely good. But if you want to be national champion, you must change.”

Mattie, psyched up, was bouncing on his feet. “Change, Sensei? How?”

“I think you win in first minute but judge not see impact.”

“Yeah, I reckon that, too.”

“So, you need to become more stlong, more fast with one blow.” Suzuki-san patted down the air. “To become more fast, more stlong-fast, you must become more still.”

Mattie tried to stop bouncing. “More still?”

“Yes. More stlong-fast, more still.”

“Oh, I getcha. A sorta zen thing.” Mattie tracked a pair of teenagers sparring in the ring. “How’d I do that, Sensei?”

“You must learn Calliglaphy. Saturday morning, you come to Calliglaphy class.”

“Aw, Sensei, Calligraphy! With the Old Nickers?”

“Old Nickers teach you.”

“But I can’t draw.”

“Calliglaphy not dlaw.”

“Oh, well.” One of the teenagers threw a roundhouse. Mattie swivelled as if deflecting it. “Do I hafta bring brushes and a palette and all that?”

Suzuki-san grinned. “Blushes, palette and all that plovided. Just bling mind.”

“Yeah, I can bling mind, all right.” Mattie groaned. “I just can’t draw.”

Following instructions, however, the young Karate student presented just before nine at the industrial shed that served as a dojo. Several rooms led off of the main space. An international group headed towards the left. That was where Yvonne Suzuki taught English Remedial. Another group, silver haired and overweight, headed towards the right. These were for Calligraphy. Mattie took a deep breath then followed.

A dozen green tatami mats were arranged in a circle. Suzuki-san, dressed in traditional gear, was kneeling on one with his eyes closed. The Old Nickers quietly entered the room and each sat in the centre of a tatami. Most used a small stool to keep the weight off their knees. Mattie removed his shoes and knelt on a spare mat. Out of habit, he bowed. Suzuki-san immediately opened his eyes. He closed them. Then they flashed open again in surprise.

“So, Mattie-san,” he said, “you did bling pallot.”

The rest of the group turned to look. One by one, they gaped. A green and red parrot balanced on the young man’s shoulder. Mattie nervously stroked it.

“Is it okay, Sensei?” he asked.

“Is okay.” Suzuki-san chuckled. “Pallot also do Calliglaphy.” He squinted. “What you call pallot?”

“Polly.” Mattie shrugged. Not very imaginative. “Just Polly.”

“Ah, so.” Suzuki-san held up a small stone. “This palette, not pallot.” He dripped water into the hollow in the stone. Then he rubbed a blue-black stick into it. “One colour only,” he said. He continued to rub until the stick became a paste. With more rubbing, it became a fluid. “This ink.” Carefully, he dipped a brush into the liquid. Very quickly, he drew a line on a sheet of paper. Inspecting it, he said, “Still not light.”

“No,” Mattie agreed, “it’s dark.”

“Light! Light!” Suzuki-san said emphatically.

“Right,” an Old Nicker explained. “Still not right.”

“Oh! Sorry.” Mattie jiggled nervously.

Suzuki-san continued to rub more of the stick into the liquid. He made another mark.

“Ah,” the Old Nicker exclaimed. “Perfect!”

“Perfect,” the parrot cried. “Polly, perfect.”

With a little smile, the Sensei quickly drew a complex shape. The ink flowed out of the brush as smoothly as molten chocolate. “Sign for Kalate,” he said. “Empty hand. Now you make, please.”

There was a concentrated silence as people dipped and dripped. Mattie stirred his concoction. He shifted his weight. His knees were beginning to hurt. He added more ink stick. Polly peered closely at the liquid. Mattie stirred again. The ink seemed all right now. Swiftly, he drew his brush across the paper. It looked as if a spider in Wellington boots had tap danced across the sheet.

Suzuki-san inspected the line. “Vely good,” he said. “Vely good.”

Mattie gazed at him in disbelief. “Aw, Sensei. It’s terrible.”

Suzuki-san looked at Mattie. “Ah, you Young Nicker, not Old Nicker. Vely bad, vely bad. Tly again.”

“Vely bad,” Polly echoed. “Vely bad.”

Suzuki-san chuckled.

Mattie tried again. His lines were knock-kneed. He muttered under his breath. His own knees were killing him. He changed to a cross-legged position. That was better. He tried yet again. Suzuki-san had a look.

“If that building,” he remarked, “building fall down.”

“Aw, Sensei,” Mattie protested, “I just can’t do it. It’s too hard.”

“Mattie-san, you still tly too quick. Fastness must come from stillness.” He looked at Polly. “Pallot can do better.”

“Palette?” Mattie picked up his ink stone.

“Not palette, pallot.”

“Oh, you mean Polly. Yeah, she probably could do better.”

“Polly do butter,” the parrot squawked. “Polly do butter.”

Suzuki-san shook his head. “Tly again, tly again, tly again. Carefully dip blush into palette.”

“Dip blush into parrot,” Polly said. “Dip blush into parrot.”

Mattie turned to look at Polly. She stood on his shoulder, her beak wide open. Confused but thinking, ‘Sensei is being zennish,’ he slowly and gently inserted the brush into Polly’s mouth.

Suzuki-san was taken aback. “Not pallot, palette. Dip blush into palotte.” Hearing his own words, he began to have doubts. “Dip blush into palette? Dip blush into pallot? Hai!” He clicked his fingers. “Must concentlate on bleathing.” He waved his hands in small tai chi movements. Gradually, his face smoothed out and his gaze became indrawn. Finally, though, his expression lit up.

“Take pallot,” Suzuki-san said.

“Parrot? Palette?”

“Hai, pallot, pallot! Polly the pallot. Dip pallot into blush.” Puzzled, Mattie gently held Polly and mimed rubbing her against the brush. “Hai, yes. Then swiftly, gently, make mark.”

Everyone watched as Mattie rubbed Polly’s head against the brush. Polly seemed to like it for she rubbed back. Then gently, ever so gently, he ran Polly’s head over the paper. As if by magic, the complex shape was left behind.

Mattie wiped sweat off his forehead. “Phew, Polly did it.”

“Hai! Polly speak English and write Japanese. Polly is Polly-glot.” Suzuki-san inspected the sheet. “With Polly, you vely good at Calliglaphy.”

With the feel of Polly still in his grasp, Mattie took hold of the brush. He dipped it in the ink and quickly drew. The result, however, was not good. Mattie stared at it. Polly took that pause as her reason to act. She dropped down to the palette and dipped her head into the ink. Then, in true kamikaze fashion, she swooped across the paper. She left a long clean mark. Mattie gaped.

“Aw, Polly,” he said, “you’re embarrassing me.”

The parrot returned to his shoulder. Suzuki-san returned to his side. He studied the paper.

“Pallot dlaw better,” he said. “Better you dlaw with pallot.”

“Aw, Polly,” Mattie repeated. “I’m gonna boil you into soup.”

“Boil, Polly. Boil, Polly,” the parrot said.

An Old Nicker looked over Mattie’s shoulder. “That’s good,” she said. “Sensei, I’ve got a dog. Can I use him?”

“And I’ve got a python,” a second said.

“And I’ve got a pelican,” a third called.

Suzuki-san looked interested. “You have pelican?”

“No, not really, Sensei. Just joking.”

“Hai, vely funny. Dog? No. Python? No. Pelican? Yes. Kangerloo? Yes. Vely good.” He looked at Mattie. “Please tly again with Polly.”

Once more, Mattie used the parrot. Then, once more, he tried without her. He was definitely better with. For another hour, he suffered. He was extremely relieved when they stopped and he was trying to shuffle out unnoticed when the Sensei called him.

“Mattie?” The Karate student held his breath. “Polly sing?”

The Karate student released his breath. “Yeah. She can sing. You wanna hear her, Sensei?

“Yes. Polly speak in English and write in Japanese. Maybe she sing opela in Italian?”

“Aw, Sensei. She’s not really a polyglot.”

“No, Mattie, not leally. Still, can you ask her to sing?”

Mattie looked around. The Old Nickers were in the dojo, pretending to be checking the mats. Only their ears were flapping. Mattie felt terrible. Polly had shown him up on Calligraphy and now he was in the spotlight for singing. Why a parrot, he asked himself. Other blokes had dogs. He had a parrot. Oh well. He extended a finger and Polly hopped onto it. He rubbed his nose against her beak.

“Sing a song, Polly,” he cooed. “Sing us a song.”

“Polly, song,” the parrot screeched. “Sing, Polly.”

“Polly, Polly, Polly,” Mattie sang. The bird tilted her head. “Sing us a song. Sing us a song,” he hummed, “and it won’t take long. Sing us a song, for my hair grows long.”

The parrot grabbed Mattie’s nose. “Thing uth a thong,” he crooned.

Polly let go. “Sing,” she cawed.

“Sing us a song,” Mattie repeated.

“Sing us a song,” Polly sang.

“Sing us a song,” Mattie echoed.

“Sing us a song,” they sang together.

Suzuki-san watched. The Old Nickers stopped their pretending and listened. The young man and the parrot were nose to beak and crooning. The Sensei blinked.

“You good man, Mattie,” he said. “Vely good man.” And he vigorously blew his nose.

Still, despite being a good man, even a vely good man, Mattie’s sparring didn’t change. He was still too fast. Suzuki-san watched.

“Hit once then stop,” he said.

Mattie took him literally. He punched then stopped. Seeing the opening, his partner punched once, twice, three times. Mattie’s padding went thump, thump, thump.

“Not stop, stop!” Suzuki-san exclaimed. “Stop, start. Stop, start.”

“Sorry, Sensei.” Mattie blushed.

He tried another punch. Stop. A back fist. Stop. A side kick. Stop. Within the stops, his partner rained blows upon him.

“Vely good, Mattie. Vely good.” Suzuki-san’s inscrutable face was becoming very scrutable. “Now: start, stop, start. Start, stop, start.”

“Start, stop, start,” Mattie mumbled. “Start, stop, start.” He scratched his head. “Isn’t that a waltz, Sensei?”

Suzuki-san shook his head. “Okay, I clap. You attack. I clap. You attack.”

Sensei clapped. Mattie whacked his partner. He waited.

His partner whacked him.

His partner whacked him.

His partner whacked him.

“Enough!” Suzuki-san said. “Mattie blake my peace of mind.” He waved a finger. “More Calliglaphy with Polly, Mattie. More Calliglaphy.”

“Aw, Sensei.”

“You see.”

“Aw, Sensei.”

“No aw. You bling Polly.”

On Saturday, Mattie and Polly again fronted up. He tried Calligraphy with a brush. He tried again with Polly. He was definitely better with the parrot.

Suzuki-san rubbed his smooth head. “Ah so,” he said, “you now bling Polly to Kalate.”

“Aw, Sensei,” Mattie said.

“Polly, Kalate,” Polly cried. “Polly, Kalate.”

“Your pallot has a bigger vocabullaly than you,” Suzuki-san observed.

“Aw, Sensei,” Mattie repeated.

Ever obedient, Mattie brought Polly to the next class. When all the students were sitting, Suzuki-san held up a tiny gi. “For Polly,” he said.

“Aw, Sensei,” Mattie said. “You’re embarrassing Polly. See, she’s gone all red.”

“Polly always led. And gleen. Still, good to hear Mattie make big speech. Not just aw, Sensei.”

“Aw, Sensei.”

“Okay, enough, we start.”

Polly watched the sparring with interest. She jumped when Suzuki-san clapped his hands.

“Now Mattie-san, you spa’ with me. Hold Polly in light hand. Only attack with light hand. I just move. Not attack. Not defend. Okay?”

“Attack with Polly?” Mattie said doubtfully.

“Polly attack! Polly attack!” the parrot sang out.

“See, Polly has stlong ki,” the Sensei said. “Okay, we spa’.”

He fronted off with Mattie. The young man sighed and took a firm hold of Polly. Mattie saw an opening and punched. Desperate not to hurt Polly, at the last moment, he slowed down. His knuckles made light contact on Suzuki-san’s chest. Mattie quickly withdrew his fist.

“Good,” Suzuki-san said. “Vely good.”

Mattie struck again and made contact. Suzuki-san then started to dodge. Mattie followed, quickly hitting then withdrawing his fist. Each time, at the moment of contact, he briefly slowed down.

“Excellent!” Suzuki-san was jubilant. “Excellent!”

“Polly, exlant,” the parrot said. “Polly exlant.”

“Now, Mattie-san, tly little cushion instead of Polly.” Mattie took two small weighted bags. “Pletend cushion is Polly.”

“Hello, Polly,” Mattie said to the cushion.

“Aw, Mattie,” Suzuki-san said.

Holding the weighted bags, Mattie punched. He made the faintest contact. Mattie grew more confident. Never forgetting that he was holding a pretend-Polly, his fists shot out. At contact, they paused for a moment and then shot back.

Suzuki-san’s face glowed. “Good, good. Now, empty hand.”

It worked. Mattie’s hand was a blur going forward, stuck for the briefest of moments, and was a blur coming back. The other students clapped.

“Now, feet.”

Mattie kicked: roundhouse, sidekick, back kick. He was a blur of motion, except for the instant of contact. That moment seemed to exist within a frame. It was a snapshot within the blur of motion. Suzuki-san clapped with delight.

“Now,” he said, “you are ready for tournament. Polly has teached you.”

The parrot flew down to Mattie’s shoulder. “Polly teach. Polly teach.” Mattie stroked her.

At the next tourney, Suzuki-san whispered, “Don’t forget what Polly teach you.”

Mattie didn’t forget. His blurs were blurs. His contacts were contacts. He won every contest. His mates were ecstatic.

“Up Knickers!” they shouted. “Up Knickers.”

When Mattie draped his medal around Polly’s neck, they chanted, “Up Polly! Up Polly!”

The parrot, however, flew around Mattie’s head. “Aw, Sensei,” she cried. “Aw, Sensei!”