Harry ‘Nut Cracker’ O’Donoghue had been nagging Ricky to steal a black Nissan Patrol for ages. So when he saw one in the car park of a North Melbourne shopping centre and found the doors unlocked and the keys still in the ignition, he didn’t hesitate. Before you could say ‘taking without consent’ he was driving out of the exit, wraparounds on, Nickelback blasting from the radio.
As he barrelled down Flemington Road chewing his fifth stick of gum that morning (Ricky was trying to give up smoking), he called Harry to pass on the good tidings.
Harry sounded pleased although it was hard to tell as Helga Sukjol, his strapping Finnish masseuse, was walking over his back.
“What sort of condition is it in?” Harry wheezed as if being squeezed to death in a car crusher.
“Kylie’s arse,” grinned Ricky. (‘Kylie’s arse’ was Ricky’s phrase for all things perfect on God’s good earth).
“Good,” groaned Harry. “Don’t you go and bloody well crash it on the way over here, you dipshit.”
When Ricky heard the smacking of birch twigs he decided to hang up.
Ricky didn’t notice the child on the backseat until he was in South Melbourne. He’d just angled the mirror to check out his new ‘Chopper’ Read ’tash when he saw two huge brown eyes staring back at him. The shock was so great he’d veered across his lane narrowly missing the tram to St. Kilda Beach.
When he’d got the car back under control again and his heart rate had slowed to a hundred and eighty, Ricky looked again to make sure this wasn’t one of the less talked about side effects of nicotine withdrawal. But, no, there on the backseat, as large as life, was a chubby little red-cheeked boy. He chuckled, blew some spit bubbles, shouted ‘GAR!’ and raised his arm as if he wanted Ricky to give him a high five.
Ricky’s mood plunged like a starlet’s neckline on Oscar night. He executed a move straight out of Fast and Furious to exit the road he was on, and screeched to a halt in a side street, the sound of car horns still ringing in his ears. Ricky had to think. Stealing cars was one thing, but this amounted to kidnapping. Even worse, it was kidnapping an actual kid! This could put him in prison for a long, long time. He might even get mistaken for some twisted kiddy fiddler. He shuddered; he’d heard the other convicts treated those guys like the prison piñata. Ricky, who’d watched Dawn of the Dead the night before, had a vision of flesh-eating zombie convicts closing in around him in the shower room…
“What am I gonna do?” he groaned. This wasn’t Kylie’s arse, this was Kim Beazley’s arse (Ricky’s phrase for all things that were not perfect on God’s good earth).
It was hard to concentrate as the toddler was amusing himself by making high-pitched dolphin noises.
Ricky, who was as familiar with young children as he was with the centrifugal process for uranium enrichment – that’s to say not very familiar at all – leaned over and gently tickled his chin.
“Hey, little fella, quieten down there. Uncle Ricky’s got to try and figure this thing out.”
The child blew a raspberry, giggled, and then, to Ricky’s amazement, fell as silent as a librarian with a whisky hangover.
Ricky pondered and at last came up with a plan: he’d take the child to a place where there were lots of other kids and their mums, then, when no one was looking, he’d quietly slip away. The mums would soon figure out that the child was unattended, they’d call the police and hey presto, there’d be a happy reunion. Mum gets baby, Harry gets Nissan Patrol, and Ricky gets a thousand bucks.
“Kylie’s arse!” Ricky smiled.
Ricky was unfamiliar with this part of the city, but he was confident there’d be a McDonald’s or a play park around – somewhere he could smoothly pass his little problem on to someone else – and he set about unbuckling the child from his car seat. He was still struggling with the Gordian knot of straps and buckles several minutes later and starting to sweat profusely. As he futilely pulled, fumbled, twisted and twiddled, his admiration for the young mums he’d observed perform this task with effortless ease increased exponentially. When he finally succeeded in freeing the child, he lifted him gently out onto the pavement and locked the car (he didn’t want some low life stealing it after all). Then, taking his stowaway’s sticky little hand, they set off together.
Ricky found himself in a rather swanky, up-market neighbourhood. They passed – at glacial toddler pace – designer boutiques, exclusive jewellery shops, art galleries and trendy ‘bistros’, the sort of eating places where a ‘cheese roll’ undergoes an extreme makeover and becomes ‘a crumbled feta focaccia with julienne baby spinach and cellophane noodles’. No, no, no, Ricky thought, this was definitely not Macca territory. Most of the people he passed were wearing business suits or expensively dressed in smart casuals, and he began to feel a little out of place in his torn jeans and Harley-Davidson T-shirt.
Walking with the toddler was no easy task and it began to bring back painful memories of the time he’d tried to walk his cat on the lead. The kid would either slip his hand and go tottering up the pavement looking as if he was about to crash to the ground at any moment, or else he’d refuse to move a step and just stand there shouting ‘GAR!’ from time to time when the spirit moved him. In the end Ricky had to pick him up and he received sympathetic smiles from several passing businesswomen. With so many women working here, Ricky thought, there had to be a crèche of some sort around. All he had to do was bluff his way inside, slip out ‘to make a phone call’ and never come back.
Five minutes later Ricky’s arms felt as if he was carrying a sumo wrestler and he vowed to rejoin the gym when he got paid by Harry. So it came like the answer to a prayer when he turned a corner and found himself in the middle of a group of smartly dressed mums and their toddlers gathered excitedly around the entrance to an office building. Just as Ricky arrived a concierge came out, wedged the glass doors wide open and ushered the mums and their offspring inside. Ricky, trying to look as inconspicuous as possible, tagged on to the end of the queue.
Ricky followed them across the foyer, through some swing doors, down a long corridor and into a room at the far end. To his consternation, however, he didn’t find himself in a cosy crèche, ideal for dumping kidnapped children – he found himself on the set of a TV game show.
There was a stage decked out like a kindergarten with Lilliputian tables and chairs and kids’ paintings decorating the walls. The carpet was strewn with cables and three cameras manoeuvred backwards and forwards beneath rows of blinding studio lights. Above the stage the name of the show was written in cutesy kids’ handwriting: ‘Baby Bonding!’ and beneath was its catchphrase – ‘How well do you know your toddler?’ Opposite the stage a bank of seating was rapidly filling up with what Ricky could only conclude was ‘a live studio audience’.
Ricky pushed up the peak of his baseball cap and whistled. The little boy gave a ‘GAR!’ that seemed to say that this wasn’t what he’d expected either.
Ricky tried to consider the situation calmly. This clearly wasn’t what he’d been hoping for, but it was still an opportunity to carry out his plan – after all, there were plenty of mums here fussing over their children and making last minute adjustments to their clothes and hair…
Ricky was just trying to extricate his hand from the toddler’s who was refusing to let him go, when a bouncy young blonde suddenly popped up before him like a jack-in-the-box.
“Hi!” she beamed. “It’s great to have a dad on the show for a change. We normally only get mums. And what’s this gorgeous little guy’s name?” She squatted down, tickling his tummy and inducing a shy and uncertain ‘gar?’ much reduced in decibels.
“What’s his name?” said Ricky, his mind a complete blank. He looked around desperately for inspiration and caught sight of the cartoon steam engine on a nearby toddler’s T-shirt.
“His name’s – er – Thomas,” he said, smiling with relief.
She wrote it down on a sticky label with a thick black marker pen then stuck it onto ‘Thomas’s’ stripy jumper.
“And what’s his dad’s name?” she said, giving Ricky a look that was definitely past the nine o’clock watershed.
Since the Reverend Awdry was one of the few authors whose works Ricky knew well, coming up with another name no longer presented any problems.
“Gordon,” he said and as quick as a flash he was name-tagged too.
Ricky’s feet were now starting to get colder than a yeti’s in an ice storm.
“I just need to slip out for a second to make a phone call. Could you just watch – er – Thomas here for a second?”
“You’re not going anywhere,” grinned the blonde. “The show’s about to begin and we’re putting you two on first.”
“It’s – er – really very important,” Ricky whined and was about to launch into a story about Thomas being asthmatic and his inhaler being left behind at home when the blonde said:
“It can’t be more important than winning $25,000 dollars, can it?”
“If you get all the questions right today you take home $25,000 in cash!” and she flounced away to label a few more children.
Ricky considered this unexpected news. Appearing on a TV show with a kid, whom some people might think he’d kidnapped, was obviously foolhardy in the extreme, but then again Ricky didn’t often get a chance – legally – to pocket twenty-five thousand bucks. For that amount of money it was worth taking the risk. Besides, Ricky knew that ‘Smile TV’, whose logo was printed everywhere, was a small cable TV station which no one watched anyway.
Ricky knelt down beside Thomas.
“Hey, buddy,” he said, “how would you like to win $25,000, eh?”
Thomas made one of his high-pitched dolphin noises which Ricky interpreted as meaning, ‘Yes, I’d like that very much!’
With that, the blonde came back and led them to the side of the stage.
The game show’s host, Marvin Harding, a guy the wrong side of sixty with rouged cheeks and a wig that looked like a lacquered blond helmet, came skipping into view to rapturous applause from the audience.
After some lame jokes of the ‘Jamaica? No, she went of her own accord’ variety, Marvin explained the rules:
“Each parent gets sent into our ‘parent pen,’” he said, pointing to a windowless booth at the rear of the stage. “We then set their toddler FIVE tests. If the parent can correctly predict their toddler’s answers they’ll walk away with a cash prize of $25,000. Now please welcome our first contestants….Gordon and Thomas!” A hard shove from the blonde propelled Ricky onto the stage.
After lying with well-practised skill to Marvin’s ‘get to know you’ questions about his job (architect), his hobbies (microlighting), his wife’s name (Marissa) and her occupation (puppeteer), Ricky was then locked inside the ‘parent pen’ with a set of earphones on his head. He felt hot and a little claustrophobic inside the booth, and, to make matters worse, a previous occupant had had weapons grade B.O.
Meanwhile, Marvin’s curvaceous female assistants, tastefully dressed as teachers (i.e. mortar boards and gowns, split black skirts, high heels and fishnet stockings), escorted Thomas to one of the kindergarten tables in the centre of the stage.
Marvin took a small deck of question cards from the top pocket of his gold lamé suit.
“First question, Gordon. We’re going to show Thomas three soft toys. Which one will he pick to keep out of the three – (a) the mole, (b) the elephant or (c) the giraffe?”
No bloody idea, Ricky thought to himself, suddenly realising how stupid he’d been to go ahead with this. After all, he’d only known the kid for the last half an hour and they hadn’t exactly spent ‘quality time’ together. Oh well, there was no going back. Ricky had loved elephants as a kid so he pressed (b) on the computer screen in front of him which flashed his answer to a large monitor so the audience could see it.
Marvin’s assistants showed Thomas the toys, then set them out just within toddler grabbing distance. He made a dolphin noise, shouted ‘NA!’ and then ‘YA!” and unceremoniously yanked the elephant towards him by the ear.
Ricky heard the cheers of the audience and gave a few Leighton Hewitt fist pumps, but then stopped in case they were secretly filming him.
“All right,” drawled Marvin. “Next question. We’re going to give Thomas a taste of three fruit drinks. Which one will he choose: (a) the blackcurrant, (b) the strawberry or (c) the banana?”
Banana was Ricky’s favourite so he pressed (c). A few agonizing minutes passed before he heard the crowd burst into applause again.
“Banana it iiiis!” sang Marvin. “What do you make of that, ladies and gentlemen? Here’s a daddy who really knows his son!”
Gradually the audience quietened down ready for question three.
“Gordon,” said Marvin, “this is a sound effects question. We’re going to play Thomas a recording of a sheep baaing. How will he react to the sound? Will he (a) laugh, (b) do nothing at all, or (c) will he be scared?”
Ricky pondered. He was pretty sure Thomas wouldn’t get scared. He’d taken him on something of a magical mystery tour today and he hadn’t so much as grizzled the whole time. He was a happy little chappy. Ricky opted for (a) and was rewarded with another burst of clapping in his earphones.
When, a few minutes later, Thomas chose the green paint with which to do his finger painting over the red and the blue, the crowd erupted into cheers and Ricky found his throat had suddenly gone dry and his knees were shaking – something which hadn’t happened since he’d accidentally trodden on ‘Cruncher’ McClellan’s broken toe in the fourth grade. With shaking hands he forced another piece of gum into his mouth and tried to chew.
“For a cash prize of twenty-five thousand dollars, here’s your fifth and final question, Gordon. We’re going to show Thomas three different plastic pedal cars. Which one will he choose to ride on – (a) the police car, (b) the Harley-Davidson motorbike or (c) the fire truck?
In the parent pen Ricky, heart pounding, decided it would be crazy to change his winning formula now. He said a prayer and hit (b).
On the stage Thomas didn’t seem to be particularly interested in any of the pedal cars and was more intent on running at full totter into the wings. It was only with a great deal of fake smiling that the show’s teachers-cum-brothel Madames finally cajoled him into making a choice. He didn’t actually get on the Harley but he did deposit a large amount of drool on its seat and that was good enough. Marvin unlocked a golden briefcase bursting with hundred dollar bills, the audience went moderately berserk and Ricky, his eyes filled with tears of genuine greed, rushed from the booth, swept Thomas up in his arms and smothered him in kisses.
Ricky couldn’t bring himself to leave Thomas among a group of strangers now, not after he’d just helped him to win such a large stash of cash. So, after some deliberation, he decided to take the car and the child back to where he’d found them – or, more accurately, stolen them. He knew he’d have a lot of explaining to do to Harry, but the boss wasn’t the sharpest tool in the shed (although he was, undoubtedly, a tool) and, as long as he hadn’t spent the afternoon watching ‘Smile TV’, Ricky was pretty sure he could BS his way out of it. He strapped Thomas into his car seat (he was starting to get the hang of it now) and headed back to North Melbourne. He circled the mall a few times to make sure there were no police on the scene, then drove inside and parked the Nissan Patrol in exactly the same parking bay it had been in before.
Ricky couldn’t leave without saying goodbye to his little friend. He leaned into the back and tenderly ruffled his hair.
“We made a great partnership didn’t we, buddy?”
Thomas waggled his legs excitedly and made the loudest, most ear-splitting dolphin noise he’d made so far.
“So long,” said Ricky.
He was about to get out of the car when the passenger door was suddenly wrenched open and a woman with mad eyes and wildly frazzled hair appeared, triggering a terrifying Dawn of the Dead flashback. Ricky had no doubt that this was Thomas’s mum. His silver tongue deserted him and he sat there gawping at her, completely lost for words.
To his amazement, however, instead of trying to stab him with the nearest sharp object to hand, she sobbed, “Thank you! Thank you! I only popped out for a second to buy some tights and I got trapped in a lift for nearly three hours. I’ve just been freed by the firemen. I’ve been pulling my hair out with worry!”
“I can see that,” said Ricky.
“Thank you so much for looking after him. I -,” she suddenly stopped and pulled a pained expression.
Ricky lifted his wraparounds.
Roxanne used to be Ricky’s girlfriend. They’d split up about three years ago and she’d moved away to Perth.
“What are you doing back here, Rox?”
“I got a promotion.”
“And who’s this?” Ricky smiled, indicating Thomas who was waving his arms about as if he was conducting the Sydney Philharmonic.
Roxanne looked embarrassed.
“Richard,” she said, and then smiled, “Ricky for short.”
This struck Ricky as a rather strange coincidence. He did the maths, then as they used to say in children’s books, “his eyes grew as large as saucers”.
“Do you want to get a cup of coffee?” said Ricky.
“Sure,” smiled Roxanne.
“GAR!” squealed Ricky junior.