Benny Platonov by Oli Johns
Benny Platonov will save the eight hundred and fifty-seven homeless of Hong Kong. But first he has to know them, get close to them, connect with them. He has to sit with them in his box. Can he?
Benny laid himself out on the bench and let his arms dangle down, his fingers an inch away from the dirt on the ground, just like the man two benches away from him.
The park around them was still, obedient, with its leaves and bricks and fallen cigarette butts not troubling anyone. Not that there were many there to trouble, the only noise coming from two women, possibly whores, sat on the wall, and a local walking a long circle behind the benches, talking to his dog.
Benny ignored the voices and focused on the fingers of the man in rags, trying to see if they were touching the ground.
On the other side of the bench, Captain kept on talking.
“…rub it against their thigh, only for a bit though, then they grab it and they just whack it in, mate…no half push or anything to warm me up, they just stick it straight in there and-…and then what, they lie back and wait, and moan a little, but they keep an eye on you, like they’ll raise their head and look down, to see how it’s coming along.” He leaned back on the bench and tilted his head towards his crotch, mimicking them. “…and mate, they yawn. Seriously, with a cock in them, they yawn…not because it’s me, but just in general, for anyone they get. And-…that’s not even the worst of it, mate, some of them go and put the fucking TV on. They stop looking at me and look at that, and-…that’s when they cross the line, putting the TV on. If they do that to me I don’t give a fuck about them anymore. I just hold their legs up and finish it. I drill them, mate, and I don’t give a shit where they look.”
He laughed, pleased with his use of a good alternative word like ‘drill’ in place of ‘fuck’, then tapped on his can when he saw Benny was elsewhere.
“Where are you then, mate?”
“You’re touching the ground…”
“Me? No, I’m-…I’m just lying down. Tired…”
Captain looked around and saw the tramp sketching along the ground with his fingernails.
“You’re looking at that guy.”
“You’re copying him, mate, I just saw you. That guy, him.” He pointed at the tramp with his foot then moved it over and pointed further along. “There are two girls over there with skirts you could put in your pocket and you’ve got your eyes on a tramp. You’re a weird fucker.”
Benny pulled himself back up and drank from the beer they had just bought from the conveni round the corner. He had reached for another brand, but Captain had seen the one they were drinking now and told his friend of the last seven months that it was a tramp’s drink. Special Brew, eight percent, cheap, and with associations of poverty, Benny got two for himself and two for his friend.
“Ok, yeah, I am. But it’s not-…I mean, I’m watching him because he’s hopeless, isn’t he? He’s got nowhere to go. He’s lying on a bench. Don’t you think that’s interesting?”
“They’re not waiting for anyone, mate.” Captain was still with the girls. “It’s been an hour almost. No one’s coming for them. Unless they’re-…no, they wouldn’t-…”
“I’m listening. What?”
“Over there, the guy. Don’t you think he’s-…”
“Interesting, yeah, I heard you.” Captain turned round to look at the man and scrutinized him for authenticity. “You said he’s got nowhere to go, but how do you know? He might be looking at you thinking the same thing. No, hang on, you’re white.”
The man opposite them shifted onto his left side and faced the two girls with the non-skirts. Benny watched him, waiting for him to get up and start some drama. The man did nothing, just stared. Then he lifted up his beer and took a sip. His watcher, instinctively, did the same.
“Seriously, mate, he’s just a tramp. What do you expect him to do?”
“I bet he’s got an interesting story…” Benny muttered into his can.
“Here’s his story: Woke up poor, grew up poor, got no education, couldn’t get a job, spends his life in this park. It’s sad, mate, but only sad, nothing else.”
By the time his analysis ended, Captain had moved the old man off his screen. He was looking at the girls again.
“Go and ask him for me,” Benny tried.
“Talk to him? Fuck off…”
“He won’t understand me. I told you, I speak funny Cantonese. It’s off. To them it’s off, actually it’s proper, the way it used to be spoken. I told you this, right? My parents are from a village, I live in a village. I don’t speak like they do here.”
“They speak it wrong, you speak it right?”
“Yeah, exactly, mate. Example, “neih”, that’s ‘you’, it means ‘you’, they say “leih”, while I say “neih”, which is the proper way to say it. I was talking to my parents on the phone about it last week and they said I was saying it right. I listened to the way they talk and that’s where I get it from, I copy them, and they speak proper Cantonese. They’ve scuffed the language here, mate, they all speak common…”
“But they still understand you, right?”
“Yeah, but they laugh at it even though, technically, I’m right and they’re-…”
“So just go and ask that guy how he got here, onto that bench or whatever…however you wanna put it…”
Captain drank more from his tramp’s beer then crushed the can.
“I’m gonna speak to the girls instead.”
He threw the can into a bin nearby but didn’t move. The tramp stayed on his left side as Benny finished his own can and put the flip flops back under his dirty feet. There was only one of them tonight, not enough for research, and if Captain wasn’t going to talk to the guy then it was better to go back. Next time, he’d come alone and stay longer.
The tramp lifted a double page of newspaper off the ground, straightened it out then lay back down on the bench and used it to block out the park.
Benny, tired and frustrated over the waste of another day, pushed open the door from the stairs to the corridor leading to his apartment and heard the sound of tiles falling onto an invisible board and an old woman, who had probably never uttered a quiet word in her life, shout out in victory. It has to be mah-jong, he thought, he heard them playing it at least five times a week. What were they doing except playing that fucking game? What were they talking about between tile placements? In a more distant apartment there came a stop-start line of piano, a few seconds of rehearsed performance, a pause, and then the same few seconds, perhaps slightly improved. Benny didn’t think much more on it as music wasn’t a keen interest of his. It was a lesser art, an art that only appealed to the senses, not the mind. That was why he classed himself as a writer. “If I can get the authenticity of poverty then I’ll have a story,” he told himself as he opened the cage protecting the wooden door to his apartment. “Those other ideas are good, but they’re not calling cards, not like this one. I’ll come back to those when this one is done.” The cage and then the door were opened and he walked into his modestly-furnished apartment, kicking his flip-flops off, turned on the thirty-eight inch TV he had bought after only two days of doubt over the expense of it, and put the kettle on before finally letting his shoulders drop down in comfort.
The news came on the screen and by the time he was sitting on the couch it had moved onto a story about rebel fighters in Sri Lanka flaying some monks who had wandered, tourist-like, into their area from the opposing side. The Tamik tigers, they said, had killed over a hundred innocents within the last month in order to protect their territory in…Killinoti? Killinocki? How did he say it…Killinokiti? That was an achievement. A hundred people in a month, three and a limb each day. Another monk, a friend of one of the skinless monks perhaps, came on and talked about “peace first, and then justice for these immoral, disgusting crimes.” His face looked familiar, someone who had featured in Benny’s own life at some point. Is there a link between them, he wondered? We met in the past and he went that way and I went my way, and now he’s facing the prospect of getting flayed while I’m living in this fantasy land where people never get flayed. What would it be like to wake up in the morning and think that, on that particular day, someone might catch you and take a knife to your skin? There were places like that all over the world and he was nowhere near any of them. Well, Sri Lanka is close, he reasoned, and Tibet is closer, but it’s not in the same world. Hong Kong didn’t know violence like that. People died here, sure that happened everywhere, but the percentage was so small. Only eight-hundred and fifty-seven destitute in a city of seven million, he recalled. Not even one percent, krist.
The story on the TV changed to the elections in Russia, forcing Benny to shake his head as if every country were more dramatic than the one he was currently in. Another country with a recent history of suffering that put Hong Kong to shame. The Cold War, snuff movies in warehouses, Chechnyan militia, the rush to sudden capitalism and riches and surplus warheads, the tanks moving into that renegade arm of Georgia; why wasn’t I born a Russian?
He drank some water out of a clean glass and turned his computer on. He would try to make up for the days waste and write for a bit, then sleep. The air con blew into his face, reminding him that it was working on in the background, and the news reporter said goodnight from inside the TV screen. The music played out and the studio went dark and a preview came on for ‘House’, with Hugh Laurie being pulled over by a cop, a familiar cop, the guy from…what? White hair, big, six-five maybe…scrunched up eyes, who was he? When his computer loaded up he stared at it for a few minutes before connecting and going to Wikipedia. He searched for ‘House’ and scrolled down the page until he found the cast list, and then the list of recurring characters, and went down that until he-…David Morse.
“Ha! David fucking Morse…” he cried, and sat back relieved while outside the window, down in the estate below, amongst all the trees waiting for the light to come again in the morning, the benches lay empty, alone, tramp-less.