Phelps wandered the halls, sharpening his knives. The air was cool and silent.
Nobody but us, whispered Shiffman in bony word-thoughts that flickered greenly across Phelps's line of sight.
Shut it. Not now, prayed Phelps, but he knew that the fugue was coming, and Shiffman would be at the wheel, steering them into a new abyss, while Phelps was along, not-being but watching, seeing his hands doing the work of another.
Phelps hobbled around a corner. He took out the serrated knife again and the sharpening stick, whisking one against the other. The sounds of their collision were granular, sparse, hard. The air was colder, but the outside-sounds grew louder, and through the spiderwebbed glass he could see the moving shapes of the customers milling about, picking meats out of the freezer case.
"Phelps, mate, you ready?" called McGalash. "Get a move on, for the love of-". McGalash's becarbunkled head hove into the periphery of Phelps's vision, and despite himself, Phelps jumped back, breathless.
McGalash straightened his paper toque and toupee, all in one fluid motion. Phelps stared at the man's pudgy club-hands, scarred from a thousand cuts, calloused from a thousand burns. The hands of a vrai charcuteriste, both of lamb and cow and maybe sometimes, let's be honest, koala, but also of man, in the bad old days. Rabaul. Phelps was there, too, in a different unit. Same island, worlds apart. Phelps had stepped on a landmine and lost a foot, but he had gained so much more.
You got the pleasure of my acquaintance, kid, came Shiffman's gravelly voice, more than a whisper now, bolder. That thick Chicago accent. Christ, why did it have to be a Yank voice. Bad enough hearing those riding around town, knocking up all the girls and raising hell. Crikey.
My old man trained me in all the carving techniques. Just slide on over and let old Shiff take over. Just like old times. The voice rattled, the anticipation poking out, like fingers behind Phelps's eyeballs. Phelps said nothing.
"Phelps, are you there, boy? I said get a move on." McGalash paused and inserted a porcine pinky up his right nostril. He didn't look at it, just flicked in the general direction of the floor, rich in sawdust and bathos. "If this were the war, you'd be,"
"I know, I know. I'd be court-marshaled and hung. A thousand apologies." Phelps swung his hands grandly, and pushed through the doors.
"If you weren't so bloody talented," said McGalash, "and if the customer's didn't care-" His words were cut off by the swinging doors, with their skirting shuffling sawdust in and out of the area behind the counter.
The clientele was simple, even doltish. Old women, young men, all of Brisbane picking out that sirloin or the rump steak, or whatever, whatever pleased them. There was no appreciation for the artistry behind it all, the exquisite nature of the way the knife laid into-
Enough, Jesus, kid. You sound like a psychopath.
Says the imaginary voice, shot back a truculent Phelps.
The seer tells all from curve of the meat. It tells him the way of Zeus, the way of Quaoar, the way of all of them. Every bend of omentum and every bulge of trapezus. It is all there, the way of the future, the fatum mundi, the ascriptions of heaven, and the people pay homage to the High Priest as he examines, determines, discerns, wielding the sacrificial knife, the fires burning low, the smoke rolling across the grove, protecting the tribe in what is, essentially, a cloak of nebulized ash.
These thoughts roll across the mind of Phelps as he peers through the red-glow at Shiffman, at Old Shiff, working. McGalash drops his broom in amazement, and little children stare, open mouthed, as Shiffman carves a small fresco of the Ecstasy of St. Theresa out of a four-pound cut of rump roast. A blue haired lady, probably the wife of a convict sent here long ago, faints, but with a smile of satisfaction on her face.
"Ladies and gentleman, our own Septimus Phelps!" cried McGalash, clapping his hands. Seeing the blank expression on Phelps's face, he nodded knowingly and shoved him back through the doors into the storeroom. Phelps could hear the voices yelling loudly, bidding on his work. "Perfect for this Sunday, my mum-in-law's coming to town!" shouted a series of purple circles that no doubt equate to a man in a loud shirt on the other side of the cracks and etched pane of the glass that gives Phelps his sanctuary.
Not too shabby, breathed Shiffman. I think he'll give us a bigger cut this time, maybe thirty percent. Maybe more.
Phelps was more reflective. Where did you come from? Why are you doing this?
I was always here, said Shiffman. You just never knew.
"Think he'll ever recover?"
"I don't know. The blast took off most of his right leg."
The doctor sighs, looking at the youth on the table, and what has become of the war. He bends over the youth, looking at the uniform. "ANZAC, looks like."
The lieutenant nods. "A shame. The mine was theirs, they left 'em there when they escaped in forty-two."
They light their cigarettes and exit the tent, leaving the young man alone with the mosquitoes and morphine. He wonders what he is going to do. He looks at the surgical blades, sitting on a nearby tray. He thinks about the future. His war is over.
A gust of wind blows the tent flap open. It knocks over the tray, sending a number 2 directly at his arm. He moves through the fog, catches it in his hand. He studies it.
The voice is gravel in his head. Hello.