Short Fiction

The Plum Currency

From the open window, Stanley Damson watched the world awaken. Cool, crisp air flooded the kitchen, and it energised him. He liked this time of day best, when the

7am sunshine stirred the world for its morning coffee appointment. The sifting breeze waited among the branches, conducting a gum leaf percussion which squeezed through the fly screen. Before long the sleeping gardens became a vibrant and bustling marketplace for the bees and butterflies and beetles, but for the moment, all was still.

Breathing in that November air was Stanley’s best medicine. Spring was all about looking forward. He shed winter like a cloak and embraced summertime like a broken drought, which it was, sometimes. Spring exuded a feeling of success. It oozed a sense of survival, because another grey winter has passed by and Stanley lived to see the sun again. Living was, after all, a luxury. Stanley’s skin was hardened from eighty years spent in the sun, and his hair had thinned and dulled to grey.

Summer was creeping over the horizon just like the sun, and Stanley had empty glass jars neatly stacked upon every free surface in preparation for plum season.

*

When Stanley Damson disappeared, the neighbours kept an eye on the papers for an obituary, but it never appeared. Ted Parker from over the road shook his newspaper every morning as if it would reveal the information he sought.

“His car’s missing,” Ted announced, with his hands on his hips.

“So?” Ted’s wife, Molly, peered out the window.

“So, he’s gone somewhere. He’s left.”

Stanley’s laundry still hung from the clothesline, well dried and becoming bleached by the almost-summer sun. His windows were wide open, too.

Ted and Molly’s young son, Eric Parker, noticed this as he hopped over the fence, entering Stanley’s back garden. Eric’s nose was smeared with freckles and his knees and elbows were scarred by gravel and painted by grass. In his ten years of life, he’d learned that his own backyard was never as interesting as somebody else’s.

Eric prowled up the side of the house, teeth bared and gaze bouncing between the boundary fences. Ducking through the wattle trees, Eric found Stanley’s prized vegetable patch.

Walking amongst the rows of blistering zucchinis and withering beans, Eric noticed weeds sprouting between the leaves, and slugs marking slimy maps across the lettuce. Old Stanley wouldn’t have stood for it if he was there. Eric kneeled down in the drying soil, twisting dirt into his toes and examining the garden bed, as if it might know something.

A sweet and almost sickening fragrance lifted Eric’s attention to the back fence. Six plum trees marked the yard’s boundary, and they beckoned to Eric with their succulent, shining fruits. They called to him like sirens.

The jellied sludge of fallen plums filled the space in between Eric’s toes and stained his feet. In purple plum-juice socks, he climbed up the third tree and perched in the fork between branches. A plum in each hand, Eric’s teeth sunk through the flesh of a sun- sweetened plum, and purple juice spilled down his chin and washed his hands.

*

Eric’s stained soles left a print as he scrambled over the windowsill and dropped into

Stanley’s sitting room. A bookshelf hugged one wall, and each book stood in order of tallest to shortest and with like colours. Eric reached up and pulled a green-spined study on

Australian botany and a red-spined book on fruit preserves and switched them.

Moving into the kitchen, Eric stumbled upon rows and rows of perfectly arranged glass jars, stretched across the benchtop and stove, and up on top of the fridge. Each year

Stanley gave a jar of fresh plum jam to each neighbour. In Eric’s fridge, last year’s jam rested untouched. There was only so much plum jam a family could eat.

Gazing out of Stanley’s window, Eric saw the shrubs shrivelling and the flowers turning to grey. Stanley had always maintained a perfectly punctual plum picking schedule. He’d always had pristine lawns and hedges. Even the slugs on the lettuce used to wait their turn, probably. The jars on the bench waited patiently, while the plums outside lost grip and found the dirt.

*

Stanley clutched the railing for support with one hand, and leant on his walking stick with the other. Some fifty years earlier he’d slid down the banister because stairs were slow, and life was short. Now, life seemed so long. So did the set of steps between Stanley and the front door.

The street was lined with Jacarandas, each shaking off their hibernation and embracing spring with purple blossoms. Cars lined the curb on the narrow street.

The terrace house had four levels, two above ground level and one below. In the upstairs windows, Stanley noticed colourful animal stickers and potted plants, and guessed that those levels were being leased to somebody with young kids.

Downstairs, however, the window below street level was blacked out with a flattened cardboard box. It was dusty and had caught countless brown leaves from the breeze. The front door was red, as it always had been, but it looked as if the paint hadn’t been refreshed in all the time since Stanley painted it. A brass door knocker rested in the centre of the door, underneath a ‘2’ which had long ago lost its sheen.

Over the past week Stanley had explored other places across Redfern. He’d visited the warehouse they used to work from, and the mechanics garage. Stanley even stopped in at the

Tudor Hotel to find it scrubbed, tidy and filled with modern furniture. The last time Stanley had visited it was filled with smoke and its walls were damp. In the ‘60s there was a booth in the back room, reserved on Fridays for Stanley and Des and whoever else was around. It’d long since become the kids’ room, all padded with foam and filled with toys.

Stanley had wasted enough time chasing false leads. There was only ever one place that he might have found Des.

Stanley’s final step to the red door was bittersweet. He never dreamed he’d be back. He certainly never imagined he’d see this place with withered muscles, a bent back and stretched skin. Inside, he could hear dishes being washed, bumped together, and stacked on the bench.

When his fist struck the flaking red paint of the front door, Stanley heard a dish drop heavily into the hot water. Silence followed for a stilted moment as Stanley straightened his posture and adjusted his grip on his walking stick.

*

Faced with a locked door, Eric rubbed his feet into the woollen carpet. Moving through to Stanley’s kitchen, Eric dipped his hands into drawers and dusted the top of the fridge with his fingertips, from atop a dining chair.

            In the dining room, a ceramic dish sat on top of the highest bookshelf. Climbing over Stanley’s old armchair, Eric craned to reach it, and found a single silver key on a ring.

Hooking the key around his little finger, Eric leaped from the chair and scrambled back to the locked door. Any and all wonders rested behind the door, for a moment. It was treasure, or secrets, or golden jam jars.

With a glance around the pristine home, Eric wondered if he would find hordes of mess and mice and mould. As the door swung open, Eric saw none of these things.

Inside was a shiny black car. It gleamed despite the very thin layer of dust beginning to settle over the car. The interior was pristine, Eric realised as he pressed his nose to the passenger side window. Why would Stanley drive that spluttering, clunky old car which lived on the street, when this car rested in the garage?

The car door was unlocked, and Eric slipped into the driver’s seat. His feet stretched and tapped on the lifeless accelerator. Leaning over, Eric opened the glove box and pulled the books and papers from inside. There was a receipt from purchase, when the car was brand new in 1968, made out to Frederick Joseph Adams. There was a collection of service records, but no record of a sale to Stanley, or to anyone else for that matter.

*

Minutes passed before the red door finally opened. Stanley’s heart leaped as he realised his friend might be on the other side but fell when he found he was.

Fifty years had passed between them as if in a moment. Des was old. He was small and grey and wearing slippers. The last he saw him his hair was dark and thick and falling in his eyes. When he stood on the balcony rolling cigarettes, his hair gleamed red in the sunlight. He wore denim and odd socks on days off and a tailored suit for business meetings. When he told a joke his audience was captive, and the deal was done.

“Hello.” His voice wavered. He was old. Stanley couldn’t reply for a moment. He started to turn from the man and the doorway, feeling weak suddenly, when recognition sparked in Desmond’s eyes.

“Fred.”

“No,” Stanley said. “Not anymore.” Returning to face Des, he recognised the pure blue of his eyes, as vibrant as ever. Des stepped back into the house, inviting Stanley inside.

The carpet, the wall paper, the light fittings were all the same. Only Desmond and

Stanley had changed. They sat at the dining table and Stanley relented.

“Oh, Des. How are you?”

“I thought you were the postman. I’ve been waiting on some post.” He stared at the television, playing a documentary about cattle export.

“Look, Des, you must know why I’m here.” Des didn’t reply. “You must stop this. It’s over.”

He watched the television with an absent stare, and Stanley leaned forward. This man had been emptied of memory and personality long ago.

“Des!” Stanley became desperate, although the truth was clear. “Listen to me!”

“Fred.”

“I’m not Fred anymore.”

“Those cows,” he said, staring at the screen. “They look sad.”

*

“Eric, come here.” Eric dragged his feet across the wooden floor and fell into the seat beside his father.

“Yes?”

Ted stretched out a newspaper. Eric’s father fancied himself something of a detective. ‘In another lifetime,’ he’d say, or ‘I missed my true calling,’ neither of which were probably true.

“Back in the late ‘60s, when I was a small kid, there was fake money circulating all around Sydney, and up the coast.”

“Really?” Eric’s interest was piqued.

“Yes. They never caught him. Now, the police are looking for him again, see?” Ted pointed to an article in the paper.

“He’s probably dead.”

“That’s what I thought,” Ted said, his excitement growing. “But the notes are being printed again. They’re being used all over the city. By the time businesses noticed, thousands of fake banknotes were out. Look at this.” Drawing his wallet from his back pocket, Ted pulled a $20 note into the palm of his hand.

It looked old. The banknotes had changed since the 60s, and Eric frowned.

“They started being printed after decimal currency came to Australia. Nobody knew the difference. He added an ‘F.A.’ to the fine print, and look at the face,” Ted said, dropping a calloused finger to the figure printed on the note. “It’s very realistic, but look, he’s added a moustache.” Ted laughed.

“He was teasing them,” Eric said.

“Very right. Whoever made this knew he was cleverer than the people hunting him.

I’ve had this note since I was small. I was given it with my change at the chip shop.”

“They never knew who did it?”

“No. They had a suspect, and there was a police chase. A car in the wrong place at the wrong time, or maybe in exactly the place they intended to be. They sped off and the police followed. They think he did it, but they couldn’t find him. The car was never seen again, and neither was the driver.”

Ted picked up the remote and switched on the television. The regular program had been interrupted by a news report. As Ted scanned the channels, the news was on each one, and each reporter said the same thing: the police were searching for a counterfeiter.

“The money counterfeiter disappeared in 1970 and remained out of the public eye until last week, when counterfeited notes began circulating once again. The Australian banknote has changed in the counterfeiter’s time away, but his infamous brand has not.”

The news reporter holds a $50 note in her hands and raises it for the viewers at home.

“David Unaipon’s face is on our $50 note, and a counterfeit can be detected by an added moustache and an ‘F.A.’ on Unaipon’s collar. It is unclear what prompted the counterfeiter to return to business after almost fifty years, but police are asking the public for any information on a Mr Frederick Adams, now in his early eighties. Police are also seeking information on a 1968 Dodge Charger…”

An image of a shiny black car appears on the screen.

“That’s the car from the police chase!” Ted said, leaning forward. “And the suspect, Frederick Adams. He put his own initials on the bank notes.”

Eric looked between the news report, his father, and out the window, at the house over the road.

*

“I’d best be off.” Stanley stood, reaching for his walking stick. “Look after yourself,

Des.” Stanley turned from him. With the banknotes circulating Sydney, the media had erupted with words of Frederick Adams and it was only a matter of time before the trail led back to Stanley. Technology had improved, and police investigations had improved too.

“Take care, Fred.” With a sigh, he turned back to Des. Stanley had collected a new life from the rubble of a police investigation, using the last of his printed money to disappear. There was no point in correcting Des, when he was right; Stanley could spend all of his life burying Fred, but he’d resurface with every glance in the mirror.

With a final look at Desmond, Stanley readied himself to leave. If Des wasn’t guilty of printing the money with their signature, Stanley was out of leads. If the police couldn’t even track them down, how could he? He sighed. Two cups of tea rested on the dining table, waiting to be sipped. In the time he’d been there that afternoon, Desmond never offered Stanley a cup of tea, nor did he boil the kettle.

“Someone else is here,” Stanley realised, and Des looked back at him blankly.

“Yes, my grandson. He’s a painter. He’s painting.” Des lifted one of the mugs to his lips. Leaving him alone in the kitchen, Stanley made his way to the staircase and down to the lower level of the home.

Downstairs, the lights barely compensated for the covered windows. A young man sat at a desk, surrounded by boxes and computers and cords, with a slumped posture and his head in his hands. An old radio played music with a static hum.

“Why are you hiding down here?” The young man jumped, gripping the edge of the desk. Recovering, he pushed his hair from his eyes and stood.

“Who are you?”

“This is some art studio.” Stanley smiled, looking over the machinery and mess.

“Get out.” The music faded, and a news report began.

“Are you printing my money down here?” Stanley asked, ripping open a cardboard box and watching hundreds of counterfeit banknotes spill onto the carpet. The young man leaped across the room to try and catch the money, shouting without words, panic choking him. Stanley watched the boy turn to empty, useless rage.

“Keep my brand off it. I don’t need to die in prison for a crime you’re committing. Neither does Desmond.”

“Frederick?” In an instant, the young man’s fear and anger melted away, and he steadied himself. He embraced arrogance, slipped his fingers through his hair, and for just a moment, resembled his grandfather. “It’s out of my hands.” Twisting the dial on the radio, the static cleared, and the pair listen.

“Police are conducting a search of a regional home believed to belong to Frederick

Adams currently. The 1968 Dodge Charger has been located and is being towed for evidence…”

*

Eric gazed out the window, at ease. He’d expected to feel something stirring and churning in the pit of his stomach. No, Eric was calm.

Across the road, Stanley’s house was fenced with police tape. The street was filled with cars, and Stanley’s yard was filled with boxes as they cleared everything away for evidence.

At the kitchen counter, Eric smeared plum jam over a piece of bread. He watched as a tow truck removed the 1968 Dodge Charger. Six news reporters were standing on Stanley’s lawn, even though he didn’t like people to stand on the grass.

Lifting the jam sandwich to his lips, Eric looked at the hand-written label on the jar. When last season’s plum jam ran out, there would be no more.

***

This story was first posted at Reedsy, for the prompt: Write about a character who goes by many different names throughout their life.

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