The Health Inspectors – Part One (Anthony Macris)

(from an untitled novel in progress)

He lies on the worn lino of the living room floor, waiting for his favourite TV show to begin. The room is dark; he has turned off the light so he can feel like he’s at the movies. Stretched out on his back, propped up by a couple of battered cushions, the glow of the black and white screen washes over him. There are few moments he loves more than this, to finally have the TV to himself, to be left to enjoy his favourite show in the dark.

He looks about the room and watches the light bounce off the walls. It glances off the gilt letters printed on the spines of a full set of the Encyclopaedia Britannica, one of his father’s most prized possessions, its volumes heavy to lift and full of words he can’t understand. It catches on the gilt edges of the white plastic frame that sits on the sideboard, a frame that holds a fading Polaroid of his grandmother, his mother’s mother, an ancient widow in a black dress and head scarf. She lives on Kythera, a tiny island in Greece. He has never met her, and he knows he never will.

The TV show that is on seems to take forever to end. He jiggles his foot impatiently, willing the end credits to appear. When, an instant later, the list of names and job titles scroll down the screen, his body tenses with excitement. All week he has been waiting for this moment, and now it’s about to come. Finally, he’s about to enter another world.

But he has to wait a little longer. At least until the ads finish.

He props himself up on his elbows and looks out through the double doorway into the shop. It’s Saturday night, the middle of rush hour. Under the harsh fluorescent light, customers are crowded into the main serving area, four to five people deep, either waiting for their evening meals or jostling towards the counter to be served. His family are hard at work behind the barricade made up of stainless steel fridges and Formica-topped counters, taking orders, preparing food.

It’s a spectacle he knows well and, even from his position on the floor, he can easily picture what each of them is doing. His mother is prodding at the hamburgers on the hotplate, standing slightly back from the stove to spare her work dress the spatters of hot fat and juices that spurt up from the cooking meat. His sister, Helen, the eldest child, will be at the deep fryers, watching over the fish and chips, the dim sims and Chico Rolls. His father, freshly shaved for the big night and wearing his good dark trousers, will be taking orders and generally overseeing the whole operation. And his older brother Paul, the middle child, will be running about doing odd jobs, but mainly handing over the wrapped newspaper parcels to customers and sometimes, against their father’s orders, handling the money.

That’s usually how it goes when the shop is medium busy. When it gets really busy, as it does tonight, things can get hectic. But somehow it always seems to work out.

The customers, most of them regulars, wait patiently, even respectfully, for their meals. Or, as they so often call it, their ‘tea’. This has always struck him as a strange term. Tea is a drink, yet the customers use it to describe food. And, more strangely still, they use it to describe a meal of fish and chips. It’s very Australian. His family are not Australian. They are Greek, and Greeks would never call their dinner that. And they would never eat fish and chips for dinner, at least not his family, nor any Greek family he knows. Fish and chips, at least the way they eat it, is an English meal, not a Greek one.

Tea, of course, was the most important drink of the British Empire. He knows this to be true because he learned it at school. As he gets older the British Empire is mentioned more and more often in class: it seems to be behind everything. Most recently, he has learned that it was built on business and free trade. That was how, his teacher said, such small islands could come to rule the world: because of the power of free trade. The British Isles were so small, in fact, that they would fit into Australia thirty times over at least. He wonders if Australia is still part of the British Empire. He thinks so, but he isn’t quite sure. But then it must be, he reasons, if it still has the Queen on its coins. And that is why here, in the suburb of Kedron, in the city of Brisbane, in his family’s fish and chip shop on Friday and Saturday nights, Australians come in their dozens to ‘get some tea’, or, as the mothers sometimes joke as they leave the shop with the hot parcels tucked under their arms, ‘give the family a nice bit of fish for tea’.

On the TV screen the ads seem to go on forever. He lies there impatiently in the dark and suddenly feels the full force of the noise pouring through the doorway into the living room. It’s a noise he has lived with all his life, in this shop or the others they have owned. It’s the hubbub of waiting voices, the clank and scrape of metal, the slamming of fridge doors. But above all it’s the roar of the exhaust fans, set at full blast. When it’s very busy the fans don’t seem to cope well, simply churning up the cloud of burning oil smoke that hangs over the waiting crowd rather than getting rid of it. At the height of rush hour the crowd is forced to stand there in the reeking air, full of the sickly sweet smell of deep-frying fish, of batter and potatoes, of all those white things made soft and juicy and turned into melting flesh by the vats of boiling oil.

Once he’s noticed the noise he finds it hard to ignore: suddenly he can barely hear the TV at all. He gets up, turns up the volume as loud as he dares, then lies down again on the battered cushions. His timing is perfect. Just as he settles himself his show begins.

The word ‘Disneyland’ appears on screen, accompanied by a fanfare of trumpets. Tinker Bell floats into view, her magic wand trailing pixie dust. A male voice croons ‘When You Wish upon a Star’. Fireworks explode and the famous Disney castle appears, its towers and arches radiating shafts of light. But, only a few minutes into the program, he is surprised to notice that something is wrong. He doesn’t seem to be experiencing the same intense enjoyment he is used to. Tonight, no matter how hard he resists the idea, he has to admit to himself that he is starting to find Tinkerbell childish, the crooning voice old-fashioned and boring. It’s a feeling that has been building for some time, but tonight it seems he can’t ignore it any longer. This makes him uneasy. He has enjoyed Disneyland for as long as he can remember. Why can’t he go on enjoying it forever?

He frets for a moment then pushes these considerations aside. He listens intently to the comforting voice of the American presenter calling the list of Disneylands: Frontierland, Tomorrowland, Adventureland, Fantasyland. He secretly hopes this week isn’t Frontierland. It can be entertaining enough, but there is something about log cabins, tall-treed forests and men in coonskin caps swinging axes that leaves him cold. Tomorrowland would be preferable: there might be a spaceship or an astronaut or something to do with Mars or Jupiter. Adventureland he can usually do without: it’s too much like school in the way it’s always about the beauty of nature, and there were only so many times you could watch salmon leaping up rivers against the stream. No, what he hopes for above all is something from Fantasyland. A tale with heroes and villains, set in some magical place where anything can happen. Then, the TV screen truly no longer exists. Then, he is taken away, completely absorbed, transported outside himself and put inside that other place where he is still himself, but somehow something more. This is what he longs for on Saturday night at six o’clock. This is what he had been waiting an entire week for. To be taken to another place where he is more than what he is.

But tonight no such transformation is to happen. Instead, he is to be told ‘The Disneyland Story’. He tries not to be disappointed. It will have to do.

He notices his brother flit past the door to where the milkshake makers are. He can feel the pressure of Paul’s stare as he passes, the flash of reproach in his dark eyes. He knows all too well what it says. Why wasn’t he helping as well? Why should he get to watch TV while everyone else was working? Although he is three years younger than Paul, he is already a few inches taller than him. In his brother’s mind, this seems to qualify him for service. Up until recently, no one has any thought of him working in the shop during rush hour. It has simply never been mentioned. He is ‘O Microteros,’ ‘micro’ meaning small, ‘Microteros’ meaning the youngest one.

Sometimes his actual name — Andoni for his family, Tony for Australians — is not used for days.

But his age no longer seems to be the defence it once was. His brother has become resentful of late, and this resentment troubles him. He likes to get along with his brother. His mother and father always encourage them to be good companions, and for the most part they are. But now there is a harshness in his brother’s attitude he has never experienced before, one that makes him unhappy. Once again he tries to ignore his unease, tries to concentrate on the program. Out of the corner of his eye he sees his brother flash past the doorway again, a milkshake container in each hand, their waxed paper straws teetering against the rims. This time Paul’s gaze is fixed straight ahead. Intent on filling out the order, he has forgotten all about his loafing younger brother.

Relieved, he goes back to watching his program. But there’s a further disappointment waiting for him. Tonight’s Disneyland is shaping up to be some sort of lesson given by Walt Disney himself. He is used to seeing Walt Disney. He often makes a brief appearance to introduce a new movie or cartoon. A greying man with a cropped moustache, a man of medium build who speaks to children kindly and reasonably, he resembles his father in some ways. But appearance and manner are where the resemblance ends. Unlike his father, Walt Disney wears smart suits of heavy wool and lives in a world of massive wooden desks and equally massive movie studios. Walt Disney is a tycoon, a mogul, words he has heard but does not quite understand, apart from their obvious meaning of great wealth and power.

Tonight, Walt Disney does not simply make a brief introduction then disappear. Tonight, he wants to explain things of great importance about Disneyland, things that children like him need to know. Walt Disney explains that he is expanding his business. That soon he will be bringing his beloved cartoon characters and programs to the entire world in whole new ways.

A few minutes into this lecture he realises that the episode is a repeat, and one he has already seen at least three times. He watches anyway. And as he watches he is surprised to find that, this time around, he understands what is being said in a way he couldn’t grasp before. The way Walt Disney talks about the thousands of people he employs, the dozens of shows they make, the way in which these shows will spread all over the world, he could be talking about something like the British Empire. This comparison becomes particularly strong when Walt Disney announces his biggest news of all, the creation of an actual place called Disneyland. With the calm authority of an all-powerful sovereign he announces where it will be built: Anaheim, in southern California. He shows off elaborate maps, detailed photographs shot from helicopters, meticulous scale models of fun park attractions that the camera enters into as if they were the real thing. He explains that Disneyland the place and Disneyland the TV show are all part of the same. All the while he talks about facts and figures, of hopes and dreams. Walt Disney is building dreams. He is making dreams real.

Isn’t that what his teacher had said the British Empire was? A dream made real?

Of course he knows that Disneyland the place has already existed for a long time. But its existence is utterly remote to him. He can’t imagine ever going there. The centre of his world is the shop. It’s more important than school, than the small Greek community he and his family are a part of. And the shop is where Disneyland comes to him. He has to be content with that. And he is. At least for the time being.

For the next half hour or so he watches Walt Disney’s vision splendid, which features a large number of cartoons and scenes from favourite movies, like 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. And as he watches can’t help but feel there is a strange similarity between his family’s shop, which he knows is called a business, and what Walt Disney is doing, which is also a business, and the British Empire, which was built on business.

Towards the end of the show his brother comes in and silently sits on the floor beside him: the evening crowd has thinned out a little, and he has snuck away unnoticed. Simply from the way his brother sits so close he knows he isn’t angry with him any more. Together, they watch the rest of the show. And, for a brief moment, he feels the all-encompassing happiness of being tucked away in the dark, his brother by his side, his family all around him, the shop chugging away in the distance like the engine room of giant ship. But he also senses that soon things will change. Soon he will have to help out in the shop during rush hour, and most probably not be able to watch Disneyland any more. But will that be such a loss? There are other shows he can watch at other times. And besides, Disneyland doesn’t look so magical any more.

As the show finally ends, the creeping awareness that nothing is as it was grows stronger. The double doorway that separates the shop and the living room is no longer a window he can simply look through as a spectator. Now, it’s the entrance to the adult world, one he doesn’t feel ready for. And the TV screen is no longer something he can allow himself to be absorbed by so easily. Its thick glass, slightly bulbous like his father’s watch, can magnify all manner of meanings, not all of them, he now realises, simple or innocent or apparent. He lies there in the dark beside his brother, both of them silent, and, for a brief moment, he is overwhelmed with confusion, unable to grasp what he is feeling at all.

Anthony Macris is an award-winning Australian writer and author of the Capital novels. He is also the author of When Horse Became Saw: a family’s journey through autism, which was shortlisted for the Prime Minister’s Literary Awards: Non-fiction category. His most recent book is Inexperience & other stories. He is currently Associate Professor of Creative Writing at the University of Technology Sydney.