The Johnston Tradition: Kieran Stevenson, Hot Desk Fellowships 2014

The Wheeler Centre Hot Desk Fellowships, supported by the Readings Foundation, help writers to find time and space to work on their writing, by providing a desk for two months and a $1000 stipend. This week, we’ll continue to publish a series of extracts from the work created by our last intake of Hot Desk Fellows during their time here.

Kieran Stevenson’s The Johnston Tradition is a novel that follows Padraig Johnston, a young man who has fallen into a life of alcoholic isolation since the suicide of his father when he was 19. Here’s an extract from the novel.

We headed outside, took a little metal table that rocked if either of us put any weight on it. Abe took a swig and wrinkled his nose. ‘That’s pretty bad.’ He drank again. ‘Eh, not that bad actually. Not great but drinkable.’

‘This is a good lot. Top of the keg, the infection hasn’t had time to grow. You should’ve tasted the last batch. By the end of the barrel it smelled and tasted like sick cat shit. Dude had to throw out the last third of it because it was starting to hurt business.’

‘Why does he brew his own beer if he isn’t that good at it?’

‘Search me. Classic Mick. Try to get invested in something, then see how bad you can half-arse it.’

I lit a cigarette as Abe drank again. He sat there visibly weighing up the quality of the beer, frowning slightly. He looked up. ‘So how do you want to play this?’

‘Play what?’

‘Argent Mills or whatever his name is.’

‘Argus. Argent? What the fuck is that?’

‘I don’t know man. Argent, Argus, whatever. How do we play it?’

‘I think argent is a type of stone or something. I dunno.’ I took a swig, held it down. ‘We have to find out who the fuck he is first, I guess.’

‘You know anything else about him?’

‘Not a thing.’

‘Hm.’ Abe took out his phone and started tapping away. ‘Can’t be too hard to find, surely. Pretty uncommon name.’

I squinted into the afternoon sun and watched a house sparrow hop around the table next to us, wrestling with fragments of chips far bigger than it was.

‘I’m getting somebody with the last name Mills who worked for one of the fifteen million newspapers called The Argus, and some legal case against Argus Hosiery Mills from like the forties.’

‘Not promising.’

‘I don’t suppose he’s much of a social media guy.’

‘I dunno.’ I took a drag and let cigarette smoke pool in my mouth. I breathed it in. ‘I dunno anything about the fucker.’

Abe put the phone back in his pocket. ‘I need to piss.’

‘Good old Abe,’ I said. ‘Always pissing.’

‘I dunno what it is,’ he said. ‘Maybe I got a small bladder. I had a pretty big coffee while I was waiting for you in that car.’

‘Maybe you have diabetes.’

‘Ugh.’ He waved his hand and walked off.

‘Two more of these!’ I tapped my glass and lit another cigarette. The pack was nearly empty: two left.

Image: Quinn Dombrowski, Flickr.

I watched the bird skittering around, watched it tear tiny chunks off one sad-looking chip which bounced away with each jerk of the bird’s head. The bird tore at the chip, which went flying and landed on the table where Abe had been sitting. The bird hesitated for a second, cocking its head this way and that, before it gave a flap of its wings and alighted on the table in front of me. ‘Screw you, bird,’ I said. ‘You free as shit little son of a bitch.’

Another minute or two of the bird sitting there throwing the chip around and Abe came back, a pint in each hand, and the tiny creature panic-scrambled away, returning to its old table and glowering at Abe. Abe brushed the chip off the table and the bird set to work again on the footpath.

‘I found something,’ said Abe. He was peering at his phone.

‘What were you, using your phone while you took a piss?’

‘On the walk to and from, and at the bar.’

I drained the old beer, took a sip of the new. ‘Hey,’ I said, and raised my eyebrows.

Abe glanced up. ‘Oh yeah, I got us good beer.’

I reached out and clinked his glass. ‘Skal.’

‘Kanpai,’ he muttered, eyes down. ‘Here, look here. A local carpentry … group, or something? Guild maybe? I didn’t know they did that. They have a members list. Halfway down: Argus Mills.’ He turned the phone around so I could see.

I nodded. ‘Great, so he exists.’

‘Hey, that’s something,’ said Abe, and went back to his phone. ‘But that’s not all. That led me to this.’ He offered me the phone, so I took it.

It was an article from some local newspaper’s blog. ‘Do these local papers think putting their shit on the internet is going to make people care about it?’

‘Read it.’

It was dated about half a month ago. The headline read simply: Chairman. Below it were the words Local Woodworker Places Second in Competition. I groaned, but started reading it out loud. ‘The state furniture competition, sponsored by Handy’s Hardware — I hate that name — has seen its share of talented craftsmen. This year’s event saw a local man, Bernie Haverday, added to the board of illustrious names in the field of furniture making. Abe, this is written like shit.’

‘Man, who cares, keep reading. He’s in there.’

I sighed. ‘All right. Local resident and recreational woodworker Mr Haverday came second in the competition with a minimalist chair, boldly cut from two pieces of wood. He was narrowly beaten to the post by an Art Nouveau cabinet made by Argus Mills from Stoneleigh council.’ My pulse started to quicken. ‘Well would you look at that.’

‘Scroll down, there’s a picture.’

I did. There were four men, an official and the three placing contestants, each holding a small plastic trophy. Bernie Haverday, on the left, was jolly-looking, beaming from his round and reddened face. Next to him, in the middle, was Argus Mills. He was middle-aged, mid-forties maybe, strong-jawed, with slightly thinning grey hair and thick-rimmed glasses. There was something anachronistic about the way he was dressed, in slacks and suspenders, a pressed pale shirt. He was showing none of the pleasure Haverday wore on his face. Darkly amused, he looked out at me. I stared back. The sun began to feel too warm.

‘Strike me down.’

‘What?’

‘That’s him.’

‘Well I mean yeah, judging by the search he’s the only man named Argus Mills on the planet.’

‘No, I mean … this is him. For real, I know this face.’

Abe took the phone back and studied the photo again. ‘Yeah? Man, you remember?’

‘Nothing specific, nothing about what happened, but fuck me if that face doesn’t look familiar.’

He looked up, took a swig and furrowed his brow for a second, then looked back down and started tapping the phone.

‘What are you doing?’

He didn’t say anything, just made small humming noises, noises of purpose. He found what he was looking for, made a few more swipes, and held the phone to his ear.

‘Abe. What are you doing? Are you calling Argus? Did you get his number?’

He held up a finger and quickly snuck another draught of beer before whoever it was picked up.

‘Hello? Is this the Greater East Woodworking Group?’ he said, and gave me the thumbs up. I gave him the finger in return. ‘Great,’ he said. ‘I work with the local paper out at Stoneleigh and I saw that you hosted a competition there a couple of weeks ago that a Stoneleigh man won… Yes, that’s right. Well I was just wondering if you had his contact details at all, we’d love to get in touch with him for a piece… Well, I suppose so, but we only just caught wind of it… Certainly, thank you.’ He grinned at me and took another drink, spilling a little on his chin as whoever he was talking to came back on the line. ‘M-hmm. Yep. Yes, hold on, where did I put my pen?’ He gestured frantically at me and I pulled out my phone. While Abe slowly repeated what the Woodworking Group guy said, I typed it in, shaking. When he was done Abe gave me one final thumbs up and I put the phone down with fingertips. I lit a fresh cigarette.

‘Fucking hell,’ I said, when Abe had said his goodbyes and hung up.

‘How easy was that?’

I tapped my phone. ‘This is his address? His phone number?’

‘The ones they had on file. I assume they’re legit.’

I took a drag and a drink and glared at Abe for a moment. I let my heart beat mayhem, unacknowledged. ‘All right,’ I said. ‘Pretty good.’

‘I know right?’

‘Pretty good, but that’s the easy part. Tracking someone down is no effort in this day and age. How do we get to him?’

Abe spread his palms and put on his best shit-eating grin. ‘Hey, if genius works, why mess with the approach?’

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