Tin Duck Award
Aloysius 'Spider' Webb did not look like a man who'd been to the End of Time and back. He didn't look like a man who'd been offered ultimate power, and turned it down. He looked ordinary, a middle-aged Australian bloke, a bit overweight, losing his greying hair, and with a bitter hardness about his eyes, a face that had been disappointed, and done the disappointing.
A long time, another lifetime, ago, Spider had been a promising young police officer. But then fate intervened and now he was stuck fixing broken time machines for (not much of) a living.
Though he hated time machines with the white-hot fury of a thousand suns, as they say, he did have an aptitude for the work, which surprised him, though it helped that most time machine problems were stupidly simple, or indeed simply stupid. More often than not, Spider wanted to hit the owners around the head and shoulders with a copy of Time Machines for Dummies, or maybe a large fish, he couldn't decide.
Spider's problem was that he was a good man living in a rotten world getting more rotten by the day.
Right now, he just wanted to get home to the Lucky Happy Moon Motel in Midland, but was stuck in traffic in Guildford. It was bucketing down warm rain when his phone-patch rang.
"Webb, go." Spider maneuvered his recumbent bike to the side of the road. It was late, and the Guilford traffic, improbably, was a seething mass of cars, bikes, and vans, all inching along, horns blatting and howling. It was almost a relief to get a phone call. But who could be calling at this time of night, he wondered. He needed to get home, get some sleep and get up early, fresh and chipper, ready to fix the city's endless supply of malfunctioning time machines. Spider barely heard the voice coming through his phonepatch.
"Al, it's me," said Molly, his very nearly ex-wife.
"Molly?" This was a surprise. “Um, hi," he said. Molly had always been the only person he permitted to call him anything resembling his actual first name, Aloysius. It was a name he had always hated, and which had got him into trouble when he was a kid in school. A friend at university nicknamed him 'Spider', and the name stuck. Molly, who he had also met at university, had never liked it, and insisted on calling him Al.
"Molly, just a tick, it's noisy," he said, imagining she was calling to make sure he had signed the bloody divorce papers, but no.
"Are you okay?" she said. “You sound tense."
Spider had always loved Molly's voice. It was one of the things about her that made him first notice her, perhaps even fall in love with her, once upon a time, a long time ago. He used to provoke her into arguments just to get her to talk to him. He knew he could have engaged her in ordinary conversation, but even as a callow Arts undergraduate, he noticed that Molly's thing was arguing. Prickly to a fault, she would discuss any damn thing; take any position, any opinion, just to be provocative, just to get a rise out of him, or out of anyone else within her blast radius. Somehow her passion was profoundly attractive. It was not until many years later that she had started to seem manipulative, annoying, and even cruel. The divorce had been Molly's idea.
"I'm in traffic, Moll," he said. “I'm on my way home."
Spider had talked Molly into a trial separation, during which, oddly, in the course of doing countless odd jobs for her, he wound up seeing more of her than when they had been properly married.
"Yeah, it's just, look, something's come up," Molly said.
"Uh-huh." Spider tried to concentrate on Molly's voice while ignoring the traffic around him.
"Can you come and do a bit of house-sitting for me, for the next, ah, two weeks, maybe?"
"Two weeks? What?"
"I have to go to America. Kind of sudden, I know."
For a moment Spider wasn't sure which part of Molly's statement required comment first. North America, these days, was terribly dangerous; and yes, this was a little bit sudden. Spider had seen Molly three days earlier, and there had been no talk of anything like this then. “Um?" he said in the end, always ready with the right thing to say.
"Yeah, I know. A gallery owner, from Mosman Park, has some contacts in New York, and he's—"
"What? Have you seen the news? New York? It's—"
"Look, if you can't do it, just say so—"
"It's not that, it's—"
"God, Al, this could be my big break and typical bloody you, all you can think of is your selfish self."
He took a deep breath, waited for his heart to slow, and tried to focus. “Molly, let's start again. You want me to house-sit? Is that right?"
"That's right. Stéphane wants me to fly out with him tomorrow. Business class, Al! Business class!"
"Stéphane?" he said, nearly choking on the pretentious name, and hating him. Hating that he had money, hating that he was on good terms with Molly, hating that he was taking her to New York, and hating that he had 'connections'. But most of all hating that he was probably sleeping with her. That burned, right there, that thought. Molly sleeping with anyone else. In Spider's mind, despite the divorce papers still waiting for his signature, he thought he could, maybe, one day, win her back. Stéphane! Good grief, he thought. He was losing her. And after everything he'd been through, that they had been through, and everything he did for her, up to and including bringing her back from the End of Time, saving her from Dickhead's torture (never mind, he told himself, that it had been more or less his own fault that she had been caught up in that nightmare). But she wouldn't know anything about that; wouldn't remember it — in her mind that future had never happened.
In this timeline, their timeline, life was proceeding as normal — everything unfolding as it ought to.
"Al? Al, you there? Hello?"
"I'm here, Moll"
"So, are you excited for me?"
"Excited for you?"
"It's gonna be huge, Al. Just huge. There's talk they could get me into MoMA, for God's sake. Imagine that! Can you believe it?"
Holy crap, Spider thought, knowing what an exhibition in the prestigious Museum of Modern Art would mean for Molly's career as an artist. Knowing it could make her a success. Could set her up for life. A life in which he had no part to play, not even for doing odd jobs like fixing the router on her toilet system. He found himself, suddenly, on the edge of tears, his throat closed up, and his eyes stinging. Wiping at them with the back of his cold hand, he said, “Molly, that'd be brilliant! This guy can really do that for you?"
"Al, this Stéphane, he's bloody amazing! Just amazing!"
And in that one word, he thought, he could feel so much more about Stéphane's capabilities than simply his business skills. This Stéphane could give Molly everything she ever wanted, the things she most wanted, her heart's desire, in fact. All the sorts of things he had never been able to provide. Even when he had had a proper, decent job, in the police, before things went bad, he'd made pretty decent money, never enough, of course; it was never enough for her, to set her up the way she wanted to live. His work in the WA Police was so intense, so horrifying a lot of the time, and the police took so much crap from the public, all the criticism all the time about every single thing they did, and of course the government was always finding ways to claw back most of what they earned — which was a rant for another time.
What Spider did earn, particularly once he made detective senior sergeant, was okay. They'd been able to buy a house, a bit of a fixer-upper, with a big mortgage. Nothing flash, certainly no luxury, but there was a separate room for Molly's studio, not all that big, but it was enough, and she toiled away in there, sometimes all night long, working on her bizarre stuff, stuff he never did quite understand, and some of which, let's face it, gave him the absolute creeps. The point was, it was home, it was theirs, it should have been enough for her, but it never was. Molly would complain about being stuck in the arse end of the world, which was Perth — the wrong city, in the wrong state, on the wrong side of the country. The arts world was all over east, in Melbourne and Sydney. That's where the coverage was, where the money was, the rich bastards who actually bought expensive avant-garde artworks were all over there, and of course, that was where the arts-related media all were. Here, in the boonies of Western Australia, Molly had always been restless, frustrated — the word she liked to use, now he thought about it, was 'alienated', a theme that showed up all the time in her work.
Spider thought, Things are looking up for Molly. And the mature, grown-up thing to do, if he genuinely did love her, was to let her go, wish her well, and do whatever he could to help her out. Be a friend, first and foremost. So Spider said, “Yeah, sure. I'd be happy to look after the old place." Once upon a time his old place, too. “Take three weeks, if it'd help. Those bastards in New York, they won't know what's hit 'em!" he said, perhaps overly cheery.
He could hear Molly smiling. “Thanks, Al. You're the best."
"One endeavors to provide satisfaction," he said, quoting the immortal Jeeves.
"It's okay. Look, um, so what do you need from me?" He checked his watch, saw it was well after ten p.m., a cold and wet Thursday night in late April, rain pounding hard and loud on the bike canopy over his head. What was she doing calling at such a late hour? he wondered — and then remembered the time difference between Perth and New York; it was about twelve or thirteen hours, depending on daylight saving at the New York end. Molly had probably just got off the phone with Mr. Stéphane. Or maybe she and he had just had a fantastic evening in bed together in Mosman Park, and Molly had come up for air just long enough to call him, asking for a favor. It was a corrosive thought, eating through his mind, and he tried to unthink it, to get the image out of his head, but it wouldn't leave.
"Oh, one more thing, Al," Molly said.
"Popeye?" Spider said, surprised, thinking about cartoon sailors with improbable forearms.
"You know, Popeye. My fish! Mr. Popeye! He's a Panda Moor! I got him, oh, must be, two years ago, you remember! You were with me that day."
Oh, he thought. “Sorry, Moll. Not me. I'm sure I'd remember going fish-shopping with you." Shopping with Molly, for anything at all was always such a lovely, stress-free experience, he thought.
"Okay," she said, surprised, but not troubled. “Well, I've got this fish—"
"Mr. Popeye," Spider said.
"Yes, that's right. And, thing is, Mr. Popeye, he's—"
Spider understood all at once. He closed his eyes, waiting for the blow. “Let me guess, he's sick and you want me to look after him while you're away, right?"
"Well, yes, of course! It's just a little thing. Fin rot. So you have to make sure he gets his medication."
Spider was gobsmacked that there was medication for fin rot, medication which almost certainly cost more than the fish itself had cost. He sighed, pinched the bridge of his nose, trying to keep his breathing under control. “Okay," he said. “No worries! Just leave me instructions, it'll be fine. The little guy will be bright-eyed—" perhaps, he thought, more accurately, the little guy would be 'pop-eyed', “—and bushy-tailed by the time you get back from your conquest of the Big Apple."
Then Molly did something Spider thought she would never, ever do, something that shocked him more than he'd been shocked by anything lately. Molly squealed as she said, “Can you believe it, Al! I'm going to New York City! MoMA, Al! It's just—"
"Unbelievable, yes, Moll," he said, and added, “Go forth and kick arse."
"Stéphane says its fall over there."
"Oh," he said. “Is that so?"
Then there was a pause on the line. “Al, you're not jealous, are you?" Molly said.
"Jealous? Why, no, I—"
"You are jealous, you are!
Spider could imagine her smiling. “Silly Aloysius! There's nothing to be jealous about. Stéphane's gay."
Of course he is, Spider thought. “Sure. Okay. Um, cool."
"It's sweet of you to be concerned for my virtue, though."
Molly's virtue was the last thing he was concerned about, but he let her witter on in that vein for a while, as she told him all about the 'lovely' Stéphane, how she met him, and how he'd introduced her to a bunch of his lovely friends in the art biz, some of whom, it turned out, went through Curtin University's Fine Arts program at about the same time she did, but she didn't remember any of them. It had been a long time ago.
And now she was about to be swept away into the glamorous world of New York art galleries, and from there, Paris? London? Frankfurt? He would never see her again, he thought, except in news feeds and vids that featured profiles of Australians who'd done well for themselves overseas and finally came back home after ten or twenty years — a huge success.
Could he deal with Molly leaving his life like that? Could he deal with her success? He didn't honestly know.
Then, Molly said, “Oh God, look at the time!" Spider glanced at his watch; realized Molly had been talking for over half an hour. She went on. “Look, I'll be in touch with final arrangements about the house-sit, okay?"
"Fine," he said. “No worries. I'll be around."
"'Night, Moll. Love you."
"You, too!" she said, and was gone, leaving him in cold silence, feeling like he'd woken up from a strange dream, to find himself tucked inside his bicycle, the rain beating down on the canopy.
He sat for a long moment, one leg keeping the bike upright, reminding himself that he had told Molly a number of times that he was always ready and available for whatever little odd jobs she might have around the old matrimonial pile that needed doing. He had always told himself it was a good way, perhaps the only way, to stay in touch with her and her life. Maybe, he convinced himself, in the course of carrying out these odd jobs, she might notice once again that he was a good man worthy of her love. He thought of it as the 'drip method', and told himself that a steady stream of water drops falling on a piece of concrete will, over time, break that concrete. Not that Molly was in any way like a piece of concrete, all grey and hard and lacking in tensile strength, really... No. Molly was merely her own person. She had allowed herself to forget that she and he had once been a fine pair of souls. He had hoped to remind her of this and it simply never occurred to him that his plan might backfire. The prospect of two weeks in the old home, tending to the needs of a sickly fish did not fill him with unalloyed delight. But he would do it. He would do it with something approximating a smile on his face. He had to be the grown-up. He was, after all, nearly fifty years old. It was more than time to behave like a grown-up.
The fact was, when he'd told Molly he loved her, he meant it, and she knew he meant it, but it meant nothing to her. He was her past, an 'issue' to work out in her artwork. No matter what he said to her, no matter what he promised, or tried, he would never get her back. She would always, no matter what, just look at him, maybe smile a little, a sad look on her face, and tell him he was doing himself no favors with all this sad and pathetic nonsense. Molly had decided against him a long time ago, and it was just a matter of Spider grasping that, internalizing it, and moving on.
The one thing Spider did have going for him was that he was a good man. Back when he'd been a copper, he'd done his best to be the best, even, ultimately, at enormous cost to his own career. If he'd been prepared to go to the dark side, he could have saved his job, had money, better clothes, a nice car, all of it. All of the things Molly had always wanted. But that had not been who he was, and they both knew it. Spider wished, had always wished, that what he was would be enough for Molly — but that had never been the case. She always looked at him as if she were wondering how on Earth she had ever fallen for him in the first place — as if she didn't know what she'd been thinking.