August 12, 2014

A Dancing Bear, a Novel by David Free

 Editors Note: Herewith we introduce David Free, our first contributor from Australia. This submission is another first for Fictional Cafe: the premier chapter from his novel appears in two formats, type and podcast. You can begin reading, or scroll to the end of the excerpt and listen to the author in his inimitable Down Under accent read aloud to you. In either – or both – we hope you will find A Dancing Bear as delightful as we did.

Please click on the arrow below to listen to the podcast of Chapter 1:

Chapter 1

A-Dancing-Bear-by-David-Free-202x300 (1)You lunatics
, Fenton Bland pretended to think, while taking a fiery glance at his watch. What the hell am I doing here?

In truth, he knew perfectly well what he was doing there. He had, moreover, no genuine urge to know the time. The manoeuvre was wholly designed to impress her. She was supposed to conclude, on the basis of it, that he was rich-inner-lived, sexually deft, and incredibly left-wing, and had many better things to do with his time than the thing he was doing with it now. None of these propositions was remotely accurate. In truth, he had nowhere better to be. In truth he found politics boring, and extreme politics extremely boring. In truth, his most passionately held social ideal was a desire to get through the next ten minutes without vomiting lavishly on the long green table that lay between them.

When he felt well enough to look at her again he found her doing precisely what she’d been doing before: sitting at the far end of the table, staring boredly out the window. Her chair was angled away from him; her chin was propped on her hand; her elbow was propped on her thigh; her thigh was crossed over her other thigh. A rhombus of sunlight fell across her from the window. In the hand that wasn’t propping up her chin she held a half-eaten apple. Idly she now raised this to her mouth and took another bite, leaving a clean white crater in which tiny bubbles of juice mingled with her spit. Whether she had seen him glance fierily at his watch was an open question. He wondered whether it would be a good idea, or a very poor one, to glance at it fierily again.

She was dressed in the painfully breezy manner he’d come to expect. A band or ribbon of some sort held back her dark hair. A few spirited tresses had fought their way free of it, and hung wispily around her ears and throat. She wore a short white skirt he hadn’t yet dared to look fully down at, and a thin woollen top with brown horizontal stripes that went all weak and shivery where they passed across the divine weight of her breasts. One white bra strap was visible, taut as packing tape over her tanned shoulder. Her sleeves were rolled up to the brink of her elbows. The glossy fur on her forearms looked light enough to be blown free, like sugar from a donut. Her fingernails, he febrilely noted, were of the subtly chewed kind, nibbled but not bitten to the quick, and something was written in blue ink across the delicate bonework on the back of her hand.

Outside, where she stubbornly kept on looking, the University of —— lay under a thick white blanket of something that looked like snow. Fragments of the same soft white material filled the blue sky, floating and circulating in the heat. It was some kind of fluffy seed or pollen, and it was falling in loose flurries from the trees. This occurred every spring. Grounds staff were clearing the stuff from the squares and pathways, their metal leaf-blowers glinting in the sun. Students in sunglasses walked through ankle-deep drifts of it, stirring the buoyant particles back into the air. A TV camera crew moved among them, covering the annual phenomenon for the local news.

From Fenton’s point of view, the interesting thing about this freak of meteorology was that she was gazing intently at it. This left him free to gaze intently at her. He did so. There was still enough time, at least in theory, to get disillusioned by some facial or bodily flaw, and to abort the whole project before it went too far. But no such defect came to view. What came to view instead was her thighs. They were still crossed. The one underneath was pale and slightly fattened where the other one weighed down on it. All of its tan seemed to have been pressed up into the top one, the visible one, which burned fiercely with added blood, as if blushing at its own nakedness. Her skirt fell across them diagonally from front to back, so that the lower thigh was broadening, was well on its way to being a buttock, before the cloth could intervene, her flesh slipping behind it with the casualness of some privileged person disappearing through a door marked Staff Only. If Fenton’s gaze dallied in this area for an improper length of time, if it failed to make a seemly withdrawal, he was not – it must be stressed – one of those males given to a cavalier objectification of female limbs. On the contrary: it was precisely because they belonged to her that he found her thighs so interesting.

The same principle applied to her breasts. These he now decided to take a swift glance at, on the grounds that they couldn’t possibly be as good as his last swift glance at them had seemed to indicate. So he made sure she was still gazing out the window, and he glanced. Then he woundedly looked away. They were, if anything, better than he had dared to recall. They were proud, and you could hardly blame them for that. They displayed utter indifference to his ambition to go to sleep with his face between them. They made him want to whimper like an abused dog, compose and recite an extremely long poem, become a secret agent and participate in – and if possible win – a shirtless fistfight while she watched. He wanted to ask her what her name was, inform her of his, and reach across the long green table to trace a finger along her bare wrist. But the chairs between them were occupied by four extensively bearded Maoists, who might well have joined her in objecting.

Strictly speaking, the table was not a table. It was two tables pushed together. Two of the Maoists had assembled them about fifteen minutes ago, in a manner suggesting that the start of formal proceedings was imminent. They had then begun to play, across the width of the dappled green surface, a game of flick football. A torn fragment of beer coaster served as the pill. A third Maoist with flame-orange hair and beard officiated. The remaining Maoist had a radical student newspaper spread across a large portion of their pitch. The fact that they hadn’t asked him to move it implied that he enjoyed a position of relative seniority. His beard was as lush as a bushranger’s, and harboured a fuming pipe. The lenses of his spectacles were tinted brown, in a gutsy but doomed attempt to make you think they were sunglasses. Solemnly he perused the radical student newspaper, endorsing its contents now and then with a vigorous nod of the head.

Despite the intervening revolutionaries, Fenton was closer to her now than he had ever been before. On paper, this was a signal achievement. He might have paused to congratulate himself on it, had it not rendered him too ill to move or think. His head ached. His breath kept getting lost somewhere between his mouth and chest. His heart thumped like a drunk in a paddy wagon. His parched tongue rustled audibly when he moved it. It felt and tasted like a fragment of bread discovered under the cushion of a couch. Balls of sweat as big as light bulbs left his armpits at frequent intervals, descending by various chilly routes to the sodden waistband of his underpants. His legs were drifting wisps of smog; and his cock, far from registering any interest in the proceedings, far from responding to her nearness in any constructive way, had lapsed instead into a profound state of shock. It felt as though it belonged to somebody else, possibly his great-grandfather.

His stomach, in contrast, was hideously alive. Its contents, after a prolonged struggle, had split recently into two distinct factions. The first of these kept paying humid, ominous visits to the back of his gullet, aided by some rogue agency of the brain that kept making him think of the most nauseating topics imaginable: lard, cataracts, chutney, hot dogs with melted cheese on them, a dog shit he’d once seen containing corn kernels. As he strove to drive these images from his mind, a crisis no less urgent was developing in his colon. From the nipples down, his torso felt as though it were being squeezed by an enormous hand. Slowly, but with wicked inevitability, something awfully heavy was making its way towards the seat of his pants. At best this mass was a large consignment of wind, but Fenton had no intention of putting this hypothesis to the test. The situation wasn’t helped by the extreme tightness of the black jeans that constituted, along with a pair of desert boots, the lower half of his Maoist costume. The upper half was a fiendishly itchy woollen jumper, also coloured black. This ensemble represented his idea of what an authentic leftist might wear on his first day in a new cadre. Unfortunately, none of the actual Maoists was wearing anything remotely like it. They were dressed with pronounced informality: in shorts, T-shirts, singlets, sneakers, thongs. The T-shirt of one of the flick footballers carried an artist’s impression of a straw-hatted farmer laconically raping a startled sheep.

Fenton decided to speak again, in the belief that this couldn’t possibly make him feel any worse than he felt already. He said:

“There’s no kind of joining-up fee then?”

Once more she didn’t look around. She continued to stare out the window, sitting there in her square of sun.

The Maoist with the tinted glasses, without looking up from his newspaper: “Let’s leave that till Gus gets here.”

This was the standard response of the Maoist with glasses. Fenton was starting to resent it. He still had no idea who Gus was, or when he was likely to be getting here, or why he hadn’t got here twenty minutes ago, or why none of the Maoists seemed to care about that. He said, with a pointed glance at his watch:

“Is he likely to be getting here soon?”

She took a moist chomp of apple.

“Let’s leave that till he gets here, shall we?” said the Maoist with glasses.

Fenton lowered his gaze to the table. Sunlight stretched across its laminated surface, illuminating many a sticky beer stain. He closed his eyes, and rode out a filthy wave of nausea. A purple afterimage of all those beer stains hovered behind his eyelids, the ghosts of ancient spillages and schooner bases, bobbing up and down on the pain inside his head. He was starting to dislike the Maoist with glasses profoundly. His beard had squared-off sides, like a hedge. And those tinted glasses: he wanted to inform him, in a calm and measured tone, that they were fooling nobody. He wanted to tell him that he personally, since arriving here, hadn’t for so much as a second found himself seriously entertaining the proposition that they might really be a pair of sunglasses …

Pointing his head towards her again, he slowly reopened his eyes. She was still staring out at the campus, at the falling of the fluff. The camera crew was setting up another shot down there. The feel-good guy from the local news stood around in earmuffs and a scarf, preparing to be zany. One of the flick footballers was loudly claiming a try. The red-bearded ref came off his chair to scrutinise the claim: from above, from below, from side-on. Finally he pointed to the spot, awarding the four-pointer in the internationally recognised way.

When Fenton had vowed to pursue her at any cost, he hadn’t envisaged one quite so exorbitant as pretending to be a Maoist. He had, even now, very little idea of what Maoism actually involved, beyond the key fact that it involved her. He had heard of it, of course; but only in the sort of vague, uninterested way he’d heard of things like orienteering, watercress, kabuki theatre, Cajun cookery, William Carlos Williams. Like fellatio and death, it had always seemed to be one of those things that happened to other people. But then, six days ago, he had seen her thumb-tacking an orange sheet of paper to the library noticeboard. This had proved to be a leaflet advertising the time and venue of the present meeting. Reading it, he’d discovered in himself an overwhelming urge to become a Maoist – an urge as zealous, surely, as that of any genuine radical. So here he was: and as ill as he felt, he had to admit that the move was working. It was delivering the goods. The meeting hadn’t even started yet, and already it had them sitting at the same table. This was a marked improvement on anything he’d been able to achieve with his previous wooing technique, which had consisted of staring at her ardently across a lecture theatre, two or three times a week.

But now – what was this? – she was uncrossing her thighs and straightening in her seat. She appeared to be leaving.

“Anyone else read Gus’s new editorial?” the Maoist with glasses was asking, surfacing at last from his left-wing paper.

She was leaving. She was out of her chair and departing, passing so close by him that he felt the churning of the frightened air. She moved away through an area of clacking pool tables towards the bar. An angry red crease from her chair-edge ran across the back of one thigh.

Fenton turned in dismay to the Maoists.

“It’s vintage Gus,” the Maoist with glasses was saying, jabbing his pipe stem down at the open paper, untroubled by the question of her departure.

Fenton looked back to her, turning his head slowly to limit the reverb in his skull and gullet. She was leaning against the bar, tapping a coin on its dark surface. In the space behind her the pool tables smouldered indifferently, wreathed in their own haze like barbecues. At one of them, the fattest pool player Fenton had ever seen was trying, without much success, to heave one of his log-thick legs up onto the side cushion. At the bar she shifted impatiently from foot to foot, making her skirt sway. The fat pool player stopped trying to mount the table. Blushing richly, he called for a spider from the rack. His opponent turned to get one. The fatso stopped blushing, and manually improved the lie of several balls.

“‘To all those morons who keep claiming that Communism’s dead,’” the Maoist with glasses quoted with relish, “‘I reply that it’s alive, kicking, and convening every second Tuesday in the Union bar, equidistant from the beer taps and the urinals.’”

Now a barman had materialised in front of her. His hair was pony-tailed, like a rape suspect’s. He relaxed towards her on his elbows in an attitude of monstrous presumption. He said something to her. She laughed, or pretended to. Fenton didn’t know which of these alternatives he hated more.

“‘Equidistant!’” repeated the Maoist with glasses, with deep approval.

The fattest pool player Fenton had ever seen had just sunk his shot, and won his game. He extended a magnanimous hand to his opponent: then playfully whipped it away. Chuckling, he slapped the other guy’s shoulder. Still chuckling, still holding his cue, he grabbed his half-drunk beer off the cushion and moved away from the table, crossing heftily into the line of sight between Fenton and her. Fenton shifted his head. The fat pool player kept coming. Fenton shifted his head some more. The fat pool player seemed to be approaching the Maoists’ table. The fat pool player was approaching the Maoists’ table. Now he was at it. He circled round to her chair. With an emphatic groan he lowered himself into it.

“Morning comrades,” he said, winking at the Maoists with the air of a celebrity taking time out to meet some terminally ill fans. “How are we?”

The flick footballers respectfully terminated their encounter.

“Morning Gus,” said the Maoist with glasses, pulling shut his newspaper. “Or, um” – reluctantly he looked at his watch – “afternoon.”

The fat pool player shrugged, propped his cue against the wall behind him. “Ready to roll, are we gents?” he said. And then he saw Fenton, and his face was wrenched into a look of scandalised horror. “Hoy,” he said indignantly. “Who’s this cunt?”

* * *

In addition to being the fattest pool player Fenton had ever seen, Gus amply qualified as the fattest Maoist. He looked the way the other Maoists would have looked if photographed in the process of exploding. Flesh and hair and clothing flew out from his huge person at all angles, like debris. Between the hair on his head and the hair on his face there was a gorilla-like lack of demarcation: all of it was long, black, profuse, greasy, and as forsaken as a psychopath’s back lawn. His massively distended T-shirt bore this slogan: If it’s green, smoke it. If it moves, root it. Hanging wide open on either side of this, like the doors of a great hangar or barn, was a vast leather jacket, from which a noisy array of flaps and straps and buckles dangled. His dark blue jeans looked to be as wide as they were long; their rolled-up cuffs surmounted a pair of black motorcycle boots. He looked several years older than the average student, as if his academic record described a long and shameful history of failures and incompletes. His brown eyes, set far back in the recesses of his facial dough, continued to regard Fenton with open hostility.

The Maoist with glasses palmed the bowl of his pipe and levelled its stem at Fenton. “This,” he said, “is …” Around now it must have occurred to him that he had never bothered to ask Fenton’s name. He trailed off, considered his options, and feebly said: “This is a new recruit.”

At these words, Gus’s attitude underwent a promising change. His huge shoulders relaxed. He let out a whistle of relief. “Thank Christ for that! Jesus!” He shook his unruly head, appraising Fenton with new affection. “I thought you were some kind of heavy from the Student Union, mate. I thought you were here to grill me about how we dispose of our funding or something.” He shook his head again, still rediscovering his mental poise. “It was your get-up that threw me, mate. Comrades, take a good look at this bloke’s threads. This is what a proper left-winger looks like. I swear to God, put a beard on him, he’d look like more of a Maoist than me! Gus,” he specified with sudden gravity, offering his blue-chalked palm across the table.

“Fenton Bland,” Fenton countered, submitting to the brawny grip.

“A ‘new recruit,’ eh?” Gus weighed the phrase with some fascination. Suddenly he tensed. “I’m usually dead on time, by the way,” he said, retracting his hand to make a swift gesture at the pool tables. “It’s just … Well, it was a crunch match, mate. You know how it is. You’re a man of the world – your outfit speaks volumes on that. Now, what was your name again? I promise I’ll listen this time.”

Fenton said it again, wondering when he’d get another chance to look over at the bar.         “Well Fent, it’s good to have you on board. You saw one of our signs up, did you? I had a feeling that’d bear fruit. And I swear to you mate, you have made the right choice. You won’t regret it. Whatever you might’ve heard about us, forget it. Put it right out of your mind. We’re brimming with ideas here, don’t worry about that. And always happy to welcome a bit of new blood into the rank and file.” He turned abruptly to the Maoist with glasses. “Wozz, while I think of it, slap down ‘rank and file’ on that list of terms we need to use more often.”

The Maoist with glasses, nodding obediently, broke out a weathered green notebook with a biro wedged in its spiral.

Gus leaned expansively back in his chair, and watched him write. “While we’re at it, Wozz” – he cupped the crotch of his jeans, candidly rectified his genitals – “while we’re at it, you may as well hit us with a reminder of the whole list. Cadre, paper tiger – the lot.” He favoured Fenton with a chummy wink. “Listen carefully Fent. You never know when one of these pearlers might come in handy.”

The Maoist with glasses cleared his throat and read: “Imperialism, insurgent, vanguard, agitate, hotbed, bodyblow, vig, cadre, feasible, militia, trebled –”

“As opposed to ‘tripled’,” Gus parenthetically explained, raising at Fenton a pudgy thumb.

Purge,” continued the Maoist with glasses, “hard-hitting, committee, bourgeoisie, wet job, half a klick –”        

“Instead of ‘half a kilometre’,” Gus clarified.

“Running dog, hegemony, Chinese assault weapon, rank, file,” the Maoist with glasses finished up, looking deferentially back to Gus.

Gus’s beard, as luxuriant as it was, couldn’t conceal a distinct reddening of his face. “Not ‘rank’ and ‘file’ separately, you fool!” He turned hastily to Fenton. “Ignore this bozo, Fent. You have made the right decision, believe me. You’ll soon see that. We mean business here. We get our hands dirty, mate. Unlike some of the more ‘fashionable’ mobs on campus.” He thrust an open pack of cigarettes Fenton’s way. Fenton shook his head. Gus extracted one for himself, and wedged it unlit between his lips. “Your Anarchists, and God knows who else. Cunts.” He thumped his many pockets for a lighter. “We earn our funding here, mate. Don’t be fooled by the recreational vibe of the bar. We only convene here for the coffee-house atmosphere. We’d convene in the coffee-house if there was one.” He paused. “There’s a coffee shop, I’ll grant you that. But that’s not quite the same thing. The joint’s chock-full of thesis-writing chicks with their notes spread out all over the tables mate. Plus they don’t let you smoke in there, so there goes your smoke-filled atmosphere and you’re back to square one. And come to think of it, if a brawl erupted you’d look a bit of goose wielding a jagged latte mug, wouldn’t you?”

Fenton nodded with understanding. He wished Gus would stop talking to him for just one moment so he could glance back over at the bar. It really was high time he had another look. The thought of what might be going on over there made him want to overturn the table. Surely she was almost done there. Surely she would return at any moment. And when she did, she was going to wonder why nobody, including Fenton, had stopped Gus from taking possession of her chair

“All I can say is, Fent,” Gus went on, having finally located his lighter, “we must be doing something right if we can still attract a bloke like yourself.”

Fenton said: “Actually, there’s someone already sitting there.”

“What’s that, mate?” Gus flicked doggedly at the lighter’s wheel.

“That girl at the bar,” Fenton elaborated, seizing this legitimate opportunity to look around at her. The barman was still talking to her. There was still something about his manner that made you want to beat him to death with a pool cue. At some point he had seen fit to break off his semi-literate discourse for long enough to fetch her an empty glass. He now held a bottle of orange juice quite near this, but not in a way that suggested he intended to pour any of its contents into the glass very soon. Indeed he now put the bottle fully down, in order to illustrate some asinine detail of his narrative with both his hands. She laughed again. “She’s already sitting there.”

Gus replied with a dismissive chuckle. “Don’t worry about her, Fent. That’s just Charmers. Charmaine. She’s not really a Maoist as such, mate. She just does the newspaper. Mao Now. You might have seen it. We try and get it out there about once a month or so. Or thereabouts. You know how it is. You might have seen Col and Smithy” – he waved his smoky hand at the flick footballers – “handing out copies of it outside the refectory. Or should I say, standing there holding copies of it silently up in the air, looking like a couple of complete drongoes, while everyone walks straight past them trying not to make eye contact. Of course when I say she ‘does’ the paper, Fent, it’s me that bloody writes the thing. She just knocks it into shape. Dots the i’s, that type of stuff. Bit of a computer whiz.”

“But she’ll be coming back?” Fenton said.

Gus gave him an odd look, as if wondering what could possibly interest him about so minor a revolutionist. “We’ll see, Fent,” he said with a mysterious smile. “We’ll see.”

The Maoist with glasses, whose name was evidently Warren, now moved that the meeting be declared officially open. He moved that the minutes of the last meeting be taken as read. He moved that financial statements relating to the new consignment of Student Union funding be accepted as presented. He moved each of these things very slowly, transcribing his own words into the notepad as he spoke. Fenton watched him with a growing sense of unease. With her away from the table his presence here felt suddenly random, superfluous. With her not here it was just him and a bunch of Maoists, him participating in a meeting of Maoists. The strangeness of the exercise was starting to strike him in a way it never had before. Furthermore, if she wasn’t even a Maoist, if she just did the newspaper, then arguably he had no business being here at all. He felt far too unwell to think these things through. He longed to look back over at her, in order to remind himself of the fundamental point. But he couldn’t, because Gus was still looking right at him, studying him as though he were something exotic and rare. Warren was halfway through moving something about the bringing forward of new business when Gus suddenly stiffened and said:

“Did one of these jokers offer you a beer Fent?”

“Hang on Gus,” Warren protested, looking up in anguish from his pad.

“They didn’t, did they?”

Gus,” Warren objected again.

“I’ve warned you about that tone Wozz,” Gus said sharply.

“But fair dinkum, Gus. There’s a motion before the meeting already.”

Gus rolled his eyes at Fenton, possibly to indicate that this was the sort of nonsense he had to put up with every week.

And one of you pricks is meant to be seconding these,” Warren bitterly added, more or less to himself.

Gus turned authoritatively to the Maoist with red hair. “Blue. Go and score this bloke a beer.”

The Maoist with red hair said: “Fucking why me?”

At the same moment Warren petulantly chucked away his biro, as if there was fuck-all point in even having one. It glanced up off the table and struck Fenton in the chest.

“No!” Gus cried.

The pen plopped to the carpet, and rolled.

For several seconds Gus just stared at the site of the impact with horror. Then in a flurry of leather and panicked flab he was up and leaning over the table, and both his hairy hands were on Fenton’s chest, were roving all over it, rendering desperate and shameful massage, hurting him way more than the pen had, the thick meaty fingers jabbing and prodding and burrowing at the very seat of his unstable gorge. “You okay, Fent? You right?” An unsavoury spume of smoke from his cigarette made its way up Fenton’s nose. “I know what you’re thinking, Fent,” he said with deep concern, still administering massage. “You’re thinking the rumour-mongers were right. You’re thinking, ‘I can’t wait till this pathetic farce is over, so I can run off and join the Anarchists.’”

“Not at all,” Fenton assured him, hoping the touching of his chest would stop very soon. It was doing him distinct harm. He also felt activities in the area of his shins. This was Warren, crawling round under the table to retrieve his pen.

“No, Fent,” Gus sighed. “Let’s be frank.” Having given it one final pat, he at last unhanded Fenton’s chest. He sank glumly back into his chair. “This is no time for euphemism, mate. I know what they say about us. We’ve all heard the smears. They say we’re a bunch of useless clowns. They say” – he winced: Warren was resurfacing from under the table, holding up the biro and muttering some vague apology – “they say we’re a bunch of bearded fuck-ups who do nothing but sit on our arses drinking beers.”

“What else are we meant to sit on?” asked Col hotly, or perhaps it was Smithy.

“Yeah and what else are we meant to drink?” asked the other one with equal indignation.

Fenton stole a lightning glance at the bar. He saw her passing money across it, or possibly receiving change. Her glass was full. Her return was imminent.

“The point is,” Gus firmly went on, waving these contributions aside, “it’s all bullshit. Nothing could be further from the truth. Because the fact is, Fent, we’ve got stuff in the pipeline here. Haven’t we boys? The fact is, lately we’ve been talking about doing something big.”

The other Maoists looked at him in a nonplussed fashion.

“Something a bit covert,” Gus added.

Still the other Maoists appeared confused. Fenton strongly sensed that Gus was working off the cuff now, making this part up as he went along.

“I’m talking about terrorism, Fent.” He looked Fenton intensely in the eye. “Which is a bit more solid, Fent, I think you’ll agree, than anything any of those other spastics are going to offer you. The Anarchists and that. Terrorism.” He pointed sternly at Warren’s open notebook. “Write it down, Wozz.”

Warren began to comply. Fenton dizzily watched him, still with this strange feeling that his own presence here was not quite fully justified. And now things started to blur, to overlap. Gus was looking up past Fenton’s shoulder. Something he saw there was making him lean sideways to shut the notebook, to cram its green cover down over Warren’s still-moving hand and the first few letters – TERR – of what it was trying to write. At the same time Fenton felt a wide sun-like heat on his back that told him it was her, coming back at last, closing in like a projectile on the radar of his spine.

“Anyway,” Gus said guiltily, “we’ll talk about that next time.”

She halted right beside Fenton’s shoulder, almost touching him. He saw the drink held loosely in her blue-inked hand, the black straw sticking out of it. His whole left side was melting or wilting in the rays of her nearness. For a leisurely while she just stood there, taking in the flagrant silence, letting it stretch on for her own amusement.

“Talk about what?” she finally said.

“Nothing,” Gus replied airily, leaning back in his chair – in her chair.

And now Fenton, with an heroic surge of energy, found himself standing up to offer her his own, holding a silent palm towards it to make his meaning plain. But already she was moving past him, moving forwards again, sipping confidently on the black straw. Oddly, she seemed to be making for her own chair, the chair in which Gus now sat. Fenton stayed on his feet and mutely kept his palm extended, in the waning hope that she might turn around spontaneously and see it. But she clearly wasn’t about to do that. She kept heading straight for her former seat, as though she’d entirely failed to perceive that Gus was there. A terrible thought tried to enter Fenton’s mind, but he thrust it aside. Gus was looking up at her in a guilty sort of way, but showing no inclination to budge. She stopped beside him and put down her drink on the table next to his. Then she sat on his lap.

She sat on Gus’s lap. She wriggled around on it to make herself more comfortable. Gus’s response was nonchalant. He inserted his hand between her skirt and thigh, and slid it upward. Routinely, as though he’d done it before, so many times before that the act rather bored him, he rested his palm on the pale flesh up there. She didn’t protest. On the contrary: she reached to his mouth, removed the cigarette from it, and gave him her own mouth as a substitute. Their faces gently merged. Their tongues touched and sported. Her eyes were closed. It went on for a very long time.

When they were done, Gus retrieved his still-burning cigarette from her hand.

“Babe,” he said to her, “this spruced-up firebrand here, his name’s Fent. He’s a new recruit.”

At last her gaze fell on him. She gave him what looked like a knowing smile. “Hi,” she said. The hand she wasn’t playing with Gus’s hair with gave him a girl’s wave, the one where the fingers move but the palm stays still. “I’ve seen you around.”

Fenton found that he was sitting in his chair again. He must have sat back down in it without knowing.

Gus said decisively: “Okay boys, let’s call it a day. Big meeting next time, to um, follow up on that, ah …”

“On that what?” she impudently asked him, while continuing to give Fenton the knowing smile.

Gus blushed. “Yeah. Well. Whatever. Anyhow, meeting adjourned. And once again comrade,” he added on a personal note to Fenton, offering across the table the shameless meat of his palm (on which Fenton, mechanically accepting it, was pretty sure he could feel the residue of her cool upper thigh), “Welcome aboard!”

*     *     *

David Free is a novelist and critic who lives in New South Wales, Australia. His reviews and essays have appeared in The Australian, The Atlantic, Best Australian Essays, Standpoint Magazine and The Ember. A Dancing Bear is his first novel. He is currently at work on his second, which will be much nastier. You can read David Free’s nonfiction work at and you can download the entire podcast of A Dancing Bear at

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