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The Pram Man
A strange journey through the setting sun.
In case you didn’t get a chance to read ‘High Danger in the Suburbs’—a 1500 word, wildly convoluted espionage thriller that was published in the very back of the fiction section of a 2017 edition of the Macquarie University student-run magazine ‘Grapeshot’—allow me to get you up to speed.
Special Agent Ruben Fiasco, organisational affiliation unknown, stalks, outsmarts, has a painfully existential conversation with, and ultimately assassinates the Duke of an unnamed Eastern European nation, in, if you can believe it, the north-west Sydney suburb of Beecroft. All I can remember about the author is that I’m pretty sure their name was Ruben also. Bold choice. The writing was awkward, the plot was incomprehensibly unrealistic, and the dialogue felt like it was written by a malfunctioning AI—but it wasn’t all bad. ‘High Danger in the Suburbs’ was redeemed by its protagonist. Special Agent Ruben Fiasco, an archetypal Anti-Bond, would go out of his way to say things like, ‘Please make sure you stir my martini,’ in between whining about the moral complexity of all of his assassaining.
The thing that made Ruben Fiasco such a special Special Agent was his unique gift to follow his target from in front. You heard me. As the Duke scurried around Beecroft (Beecroft!), cackling about the fall of the free world, with building schematics of the Opera House folded in his cape’s interior pocket, Agent Fiasco was so many steps ahead that he was stalking the poor bastard from in front! In one scene the Duke gets on a train that, literally incredibly, Fiasco has been riding for two stops. Say what you will about ‘High Danger in the Suburbs,’ this is a remarkable literary device. It’s also a very interesting espionage strategy. I think about it all the time.
A few weeks ago, after a frustrating day of work from home, I marched out onto the streets of Marrickville and began to walk away my troubles. It was one of those cool, quickly fading afternoons in late May, where the air feels refrigerated and everything smells sweet. I only meant to stretch the legs. Clear the mind. Put the day behind me. I took a weird and winding scenic route through the surrounding streets, with the hope of catching the sun set over Henson Park. It’s really pretty there, on the hill, with the big low planes coming in to land.
A few minutes into my journey, I was cut off by a man in a hoodie. He was pushing a covered pram and peeled out from an alleyway so erratically and violently that I was amazed the child was not ejected. My Crocs screeched on the pavement, like a fast car slamming on the brakes. Woah. If he didn’t have a pram, I might have laughed haughtily, tensed every muscle in my body to the point that I started to shake, and said something witty like, ‘You right mate?’—this being, as I understand it, the best practice for beginning a physical altercation with someone who has very minorly inconvenienced you. Since he had a pram I let it slide, put my fisticuffs back in their pockets where they belong. Babies have universal right of way in this country and I was more than happy to fall back.
I doubt I would’ve wasted another neuron on this hooded baby chauffeur if we hadn’t kept making the same turns. If I zigged, he’d zigged already. He was zagging before the need to zag had even occurred to me. I tried not to panic. People walk. Sometimes people walk at the same speed. Sometimes people walk at the same speed in the same direction, on the same meandering and inefficient scenic route to the same beautiful park.
In case you were wondering, yes, Special Agent Ruben Fiasco did have a catchphrase. He had said ‘We chase our own shadows,’ six or seven times—thrice whispered to himself, the rest to the Duke. This sentence came thundering back into my conscious thoughts when the Pram Man suddenly crossed the street at the exact same time as me. Spooky.
So it came to pass that on the cratered and narrow backstreets of Marrickville, six years after my first reading of ‘High Danger in the Suburbs’ and many kilometres away from the site of the Duke’s demise in Beecroft, I found myself in the middle of the street saying out loud, and entirely earnestly, ‘We chase our own shadows.’ Based on the evidence, I could only assume that the Pram Man had been sent, deep undercover as a loving father of a small child, to assassinate me.
On we walk. Every move I make, every step I take, he’s still in front of me. By now, whole entire minutes have passed. Hundreds of metres, probably. I started to feel like a character in a really bad story. Do you ever get this? A kind of deja vu, self-centred, Truman Show delusion fusion where it feels, just for a moment, like the whole world is revolving around you? As if you are the main character, the absolute centre of all things, as if the strange behaviour of strange hooded strangers is somehow designed to further your story? No? Just me?
To my horror, Pram Man walks through the gates of Henson Park and I follow my shadow through a few metres behind. He pauses and I walk past him to drink in the scene. It’s as nice a place as any to be whacked—lush, semi-professional grass, a mighty blue grandstand, gleeful off-leash dogs, and a setting sun. I see gold and green. I watch school kids trying to climb to the top of the AFL posts, then slide down and land heavy on their heels and start crying. A plane flies low over the hill, and it’s gorgeous. I nod at the scene and begin to turn around.
It’s funny the stories that stay with you. Sometimes things I read in long-forgotten student magazines, or see on TV, or overhear on the train, somehow weave into the story I’m telling myself about myself. It can be surprisingly hard to remember that the world isn’t happening for me, or to me, but entirely and completely without me in mind. I think knowing this takes the pressure off. I think it makes the world more interesting.
A flock of birds call from the trees. A cool wind washes over me as I turn to face my fate, heart pounding, eyes wide. But far from shooting me twice in the chest to retrieve the building schematics of the Sydney Opera House, the Pram Man is furtively stuffing huge black rubbish bags into the already overflowing Henson Park bins. There were three of them in his pram, beneath the cover. Our eyes meet. I stare, agog, aghast. Where the hell is this man’s baby?
I stagger backwards and look around. Everyone is caught up in their own little world, watching the grass, watching the sun. I can barely remember what my job is, let alone why I found it so frustrating. The universe seems strange and brimming with life. Colours. Dogs. And once I’ve taken a deep centering breath, I turn to interrogate the Pram Man.
In true Ruben Fiasco style, he has already disappeared into the night.