Pen

The Best of Times Short Story Competition


Spring 2008 Results




Politics, Power and Poopy-heads

Copyright © Amanda Gray 2008


I’d always had an ambition to get into politics and, as often is the case with ambition, there came a day when I was faced with reality. This day was a turning point in my career.

My original interest in politics had stemmed from years of receiving reports from teachers and employers to the effect that I was good at debating (which my mother suggested was a euphemism for being argumentative), was articulate (which my exhausted friends suggested would be more accurately diagnosed as verbal haemorrhagic fever or immoderate delight in my own voice), and was passionately committed to …well, whatever I was committed to (or, in my ex-boyfriend’s words, “Stubborn as a * mule when she gets an idea into her * head” – add expletives here * for the full effect of his estimate of my character).

So, basically, I felt I had the qualifications to embark on a political career. And besides, political influence looked like the only way I was going to get a decent art gallery, café and/or cinema in this small town full of pubs and Chinese restaurants. No offence meant to the Royal or Pa Ling’s Palace as I have often been seen dim-simming, yum-chaing and pool-playing in these wonderful establishments. It’s just that a recent visit to Melbourne has given me a yearning for something more, well, classy. Again, no offence meant.

The first option was to set up the 'classy' venues myself. However, an inventory of my worldly wealth and personal influence elicited only $45.35 and “You’ve got to be kidding!” from interested (or rather, uninterested) parties. So, deciding that this was probably not a realistic path to pursue, I decided the only other option was to campaign for the facilities through the political arena. And, who knows, I might end up as prime minister one day.

But that’s beside the point. To return to my narrative: previous to this day I’d been putting in time networking (read chatting with regulars at the bakery; sharing a beer with a wide range of colourful characters at the Royal; and religiously attending the local footie matches) and had struck up a friendship with Tom, formally known as Councillor Phillips.

The day of my epiphany started out as per normal. I did the early shift at Bob’s Bakery, then rushed home to cleanse myself of flour and the smell of fresh bread. I got into my most respectable gear, even hastily applying some lipstick, before rushing off to meet Tom outside the council buildings. The council meeting wasn’t until 11am, but he told me to get there at least half an hour early for my first lesson in politics.

So, after extricating myself from his hairy bear-hug, I walked with Counsellor Phillips into what I grandly imagined might be my future workplace. My first lesson in politics seemed to entail a lot of tea, cake, meaningless chatter, whispered conversations, prods and hints about 'what we discussed on the phone' and so on. Tom had been too busy with these activities to heed my confused tugs at his elbow, so I remained unclear as to what the lesson was until it was time to transition to the next phase.

We followed what seemed like a crowd into the council chambers. However, when we got there I realised it was actually a relatively small number of people whose individual presences were multiplied by their full voices, sizable opinions and generally obese auras of confidence. But before leaving me in the public gallery Tom whispered, “Lesson one: It is the private deals that shape public decisions.” And with that he winked, then walked as majestically as his rotund, hairy-biker-type figure allowed him to towards the hallowed inner circle.

As the first lesson sunk in, I allowed myself a little smile of cynicism. Hadn’t he just confirmed what had been like an open secret about politics? I started to get cocky about what deals I could make, and how quickly I would progress in politics, but then the meeting became a little rowdy.

My cockiness began to be dismantled as I became a little confused, then amused, then plain shocked at various events in the proceedings. I mean, I had seen the late night ABC screening of parliament question-time in preparation for my rise in politics, but had assumed that the throwing of insults and so forth was just a part of that remote, unreal process. That real people did politics differently. That personal attacks were only used amongst high-powered people scared for their political lives, not by local councillors trying to better their community.

But coming to the end of the session I was a little disillusioned and shaken. However, I bolstered myself with the thought that if I were in politics I would be so popular that no insults would ever been thrown at me and visa versa. So long as none of my ex-boyfriends or ex-teachers or my brother took to the same political arena.

I re-connected with Tom outside the building and he outlined the lessons that I should have learnt about politics from this session:

Lesson one (as mentioned previously): it is the private deal that shapes public decisions.

Lesson two: if you are not sure of your position, baffle your opponent with convoluted statements.

Lesson three: if you are on shaky ground, attack – loudly and using repetition.

Lesson four: if things are going really badly, insult your opponent and call them names.

A little exhausted, but protected by my good self-opinion, I rushed off to pick up my young nephew from preschool. I was doing one of my rare babysitting stints while my sister worked late at some school function.

I got to preschool and my heart sank as I saw his demeanour. He had obviously not had a great day, and his bottom lip was expressing dissatisfaction with the world. Unfortunately, Sam took after me in some of his characteristics – including being passionately committed to … well, the things he was committed to. And, just now, he was committed to finding his painted masterpiece before we could leave the building. Unfortunately, this masterpiece seemed to have gone permanently missing.

In the end, after making five laps of the preschool with a flustered carer and an increasingly unquiet nephew, I brokered a deal that would have made Tom proud. I had a quiet word with Sam and promised to let him pick a treat at the supermarket when I stopped to get something for tea. Happily, Sam agreed to the deal. So, the impasse dealt with, I set off with what I now know to be a very false sense of satisfaction.

Regrettably, the deal had not been specific enough to ward off the event most dreaded by all adults who drag children into supermarkets. Not feeling that a whole tub of double-choc ice cream (with sprinkles) was conducive to angelic behaviour at bedtime, nor to the health of my wallet, I unfortunately gave the impression of going back on my word. Despite my quiet reasoning and what I thought was a perfectly acceptable alternative, Sam repeated his demands in crescendo. I tried to bluster my way out, baffling my opposition with admirable loquacity, but obviously this technique does not always work. Sam descended to name calling.

“You’re a poopy-head! Poopy-head! Poopy-head!”

Realising that my negotiation skills, no matter how articulate, were not the most effective weapon at this point, I was yet unwilling to submit to bullying and unreasonable demands – even if they did come from a little cherub doing his best to imitate the devil. However, I was also unwilling to continue to submit to the increasingly shocked glares of my fellow shoppers who, I am sure, were on the point of calling in child protection services. So at this point I am afraid I lost a little of my cool. Reports, which I will not confirm or deny, have it that I actually said, “Shut the hell up!”

The shocked silence that followed this alleged outburst gave me a short respite in which I was able to quickly grab some instant noodles and a small, generic-brand tub of vanilla ice cream and race for the checkouts. However, it seemed that this was only the lull before the storm. Like the slow approach of a distant siren, Sam let me know with increasing intensity that he was not entirely pleased with my behaviour, ethics and general governing policies. And unfortunately the full force of his emotion hit prior to us actually getting to the checkout.

“But you said I can have anything! You said I could have a treat! I’m going to tell mum!” (There is nothing so powerful as having your ill-considered words quoted back at you) “You swore at me! You said a bad word! I’m going to tell mum on you!” And so on.

Now, at this point I wasn’t so concerned about the fact that I might never have seen Sam or my sister again for a long time – I felt that at this point a separation might have 'made the heart grow fonder.' However, I had the immediate issue of an incensed matron bearing down on me with the look of someone who would not be unwilling to interfere 'for the good of the child'. Giving her a 'you know what it’s like' smile that hopefully would bring about a fellow feeling and ward off her protest, I turned to Sam. In his ear I breathed a private and hasty offer of sprinkles and a chocolate frog in exchange for silence in general and on the subject of bad words specifically. After agreeing to the immediate handing over of the chocolate, the deal was brokered – though smacking a little of defeat on my side.

Feeling a little deflated, I tottered to the checkouts trying to convince myself that I hadn’t really seen a triumphant glint in small, sniffing Sam’s angelic blue eyes. But, I comforted myself, at least I hadn’t been required to engage with a stranger on the matter of child management. It’s all about compromise.

The rest of the evening did not progress much more successfully. First of all, I was rebuked for the lack of vegetables to go with the instant noodles (since when did children start complaining about not having vegies?!) and this was added to his mental list of aberrations to be reported to his mother. Then, after the bath and teeth-cleaning battle, the extra serve of ice cream that helped buy silence over the many topics of disagreement brought on a bout of vomiting.

When Sam’s mum rang at 9pm to ask how things had gone, I was at the point of using more bad words as I cleaned up the last of the vomit whilst trying to ignore the revived, vigorous imp who was jumping with great passion first on my bed, then on the sofa bed, and then on the lounge. The phone rang just as I was gagging over the sink whilst gingerly pulling off my disposable gloves and wiping the worst of the browny, chunky slime off my best clothes.

Fortunately, the phone call was a good bargaining chip as I impressed upon Sam that lying down would be a good idea since it was his mother on the phone. He only made one relatively feeble protest about letting her know about bad words and the lack of vegetables. But these words died on his lips as I sweetly told the phone that “Yes, Sam is in bed, and he’s been quite good” whilst advancing on him with a meaningful, menacing look. He lay down quite meekly. At least I won that debate (even if I did have to resort to menaces)!

Unfortunately, this backfired as it led to the suggestion that it would be too disruptive for Sam to be moved at this time of night and so he should stay at my place overnight. I advanced what I felt were several convincing arguments about why it is better for children to wake up in their own beds, especially on a weeknight. I delivered these with increasing convolution, aimed at disarming the opposition by baffling.

Unfortunately, these pleasing and well-constructed arguments must have lacked conviction and had too much baffling convolution as they only elicited the response, “What are you talking about? I thought you said he was asleep?”

“Poopy-head,” I said, clinging to my last defence.

“What?”

“Nothing, Elle, nothing.”

“So it’s okay for him to stay with you?”

“Sure.”

Crushed, I spent the next hour cajoling, story-telling and trying not to use physical violence until Sam fell into an exhausted sleep. Lying fully clothed on my bed, with chocolate vomit and ice cream smudges on my best outfit and in my hair, I was fully aware of the parallels between this terrible afternoon and the messy politicking I had seen earlier in the day.

Too tired and humiliated to even wipe the annoying smudge of chocolate off the tip of my nose, I couldn’t help wondering if I was really cut out for the world of politics. Submitting to the overwhelming wave of apathy and exhaustion, I fell asleep dreaming of the conviviality of pub debate.

And in my dreams I had an epiphany. I would become a publican.