The first sign of trouble was when the Six Million Dollar Man appeared in Jason’s cubicle at work.
“Is that the one with the bionic eye?”
This is Phil, Jason’s best friend. Phil is still married.
“Yeah,” said Jason.
Phil looked around. “Tell me bud, what the hell are you going to do with a Six Million Dollar Man doll? At work?”
Phil had a point; Jason was 41.
“I don’t know. Mum had a clean out and sent me a box of stuff,” replied Jason.
“What are you, twelve?”
“Let me show you something else that was in the box,” said Jason. He produced a 1980’s Scalextric toy catalogue.
“I remember this stuff. Slot cars right?” asked Phil.
“Yeah, but look at the pictures. Look at these kids. Look how happy they are. I never had any of this stuff.”
“You realise that child is an actor? And this document is produced by the kind of people who work in our marketing department, right? You’ve met them, they make people want insurance.”
“I know, but,” said Jason.
“I mean look at this,” Phil indicated a page in the catalogue where a nuclear family was racing on an enormous slot car track, “nobody’s mum ever played slot cars with her kids.”
“Don’t you ever think about childhood?” asked Jason.
“I have three kids under 10,” replied Phil, “I’m consumed by childhood.”
“I mean your childhood.”
“It was the ‘70s, I’m not sure my parents put much thought into it.”
“What do you mean?”
“Well they were drinking a lot of cask-wine as I recall. For example, my mum used to let me ride in the parcel shelf of her Volkswagen. Forget airbags, there weren’t even seatbelts in that heap of shit.”
“But do you think you missed out on anything?” asked Jason.
“Like maybe we grew up too quickly and got miserable.”
“Well I always wanted a big train set.”
Phil looked at him dubiously, “I didn’t want to be one of those guys.”
“Who cares?” said Jason, “if it makes you happy. You remember what Einstein said?”
“I can’t recall the exact equation.”
“About doing the same thing and expecting a different result.”
“Oh yeah, insanity,” recalled Phil. “I’ll tell you one thing I remember though. I was crazy about Cherry Ripe.”
“Isn’t that more like a ladies’ chocolate?” teased Jason.
“Whatever, I was a kid. Anyway, one Christmas, my mum bought me a box of ‘em. A whole box, like 48 bars or something.”
“That’s pretty cool,” Jason replied.
“It was like getting a suitcase full of cash. No, better.” Phil was lost in thought for a moment. “I must do something like that for my kids.”
Jason’s dream was always the same – walking through a large shopping mall and stumbling upon a toy shop. It was a perfect toy shop full of everything he desired as a boy: the Corgi Batmobile with the circular saw; the Lego police headquarters; and the Cox PT-19 control line airplane with the nitro engine. And look over there, an AT-AT Imperial Walker from The Empire Strikes Back, Tracy Island from the Thunderbirds and a range of enormous 1:32 scale Matchbox plastic model aeroplane kits. A wave of sadness rolls over him as he realises all of it is beyond his pocket money. But wait, “I’m a grown man on a salary now. Strange how I never noticed this place before. I should come back here now that I have the cash. Must remember where it is. Must remember. Must…”
“So how’s the divorce going?”
This is Gillian, early fifties, hard as nails. She’s Jason’s boss. She jogs.
“Is this part of my performance appraisal?” asked Jason jokingly.
“No. But never let it be said that I don’t care about my staff.” Gillian re-crossed her athletic legs – welcome to cougar town. Jason noted the quality hosiery. “Seriously, are you dating yet?”
“No I’m ahh – working through some things on my own.”
“Not on your work computer I hope,” replied Gillian dryly.
“No nothing like that,” protested Jason.
“I don’t judge,” said Gillian. “But look. A word from experience, when the time comes use a paid dating website.”
“Why’s that?” asked Jason.
“Well, you’re forty. Think of it like antique shopping. Sure, you might find a bargain at the flea market, but you’ll have to sift through a lot of crap in cardboard boxes. Save yourself the trouble, pay for quality. And ask for exactly what you want.”
“I’ll keep that in mind,” said Jason.
“Oh, and get rid of Steve Austin will you,” said Gillian, “I can’t take you seriously while the Six Million Dollar Man is eyeballing me.”
It was an enviable battle order for either commander; the Afrika Corps combined with German Paratroops and Japanese Infantry were lined up against Ghurkas, British 8th Army and Australian Infantry. Jason took the 1:32 scale plastic soldiers from the box and lined them up on his kitchen table. As a boy he’d painted them and given them all names. After 30 years they were still ready for battle: fixing bayonets; pitching grenades; and charging the defences. Jason turned a machine gunner over in his hand. On the base was his boyhood handwriting – Dave the Aussie machine gunner. You could rely on Dave in a tight spot. There was a comforting simplicity in his form; at 3/8th of an inch to a foot he was just the right size – life on a manageable scale. Jason rummaged around in the box. He looked at the old Airfix packaging, yellowing with age. The artwork was so evocative; men leading the way, firing from the hip, observing the fall of shot, cutting through the jungle with a machete, wading ashore under cover of night. So evocative a boy might get the idea to run away and join an army.
“I’m worried about Dad.”
This is Lauren, Jason’s only daughter. She is nineteen, independent, practical.
“Yeah,” said Phil, “he’s been taking a lot of leave.”
“You know him pretty well, do you think he’s depressed?”
“We work in insurance so it’s impossible to tell. But he is acting differently.”
“The other week he was talking about revisiting his childhood. He actually had an action figure on his desk at work.”
“Steve Austin.” Lauren gave Phil a blank look. “Before your time. The boss noticed.”
“Can you go and see him? I offered to visit the other day and he made a lot of excuses about why I shouldn’t come over just now.”
“Okay,” said Phil.
“Oh Phil,” Lauren looked him in the eye, “you don’t think he’s into drugs or anything?”
Phil walked up the path to the front door. He noted the lawn needed mowing, badly. He knocked and listened. There was no response.
“Jason it’s Phil, you in there?” There was a strong smell of chemicals, solvent, paint. “I have beer,” he added.
Eventually Jason came to the door dressed in jeans and an Astro Boy T-shirt. He was unshaven.
“Hey Phil, come on in.”
“Haven’t seen you at work bud, thought I’d make sure everything was … Jesus!” Phil stopped dead in the entry hall. His mouth hung open. He stared vacantly into what was once the living room – it had been gutted.
“Is that – is that – Laguna Seca?” asked Phil after a moment.
In place of the lounge suite and side table was a giant slot car layout that dominated three walls, complete with buildings, grandstands, track advertising and mountain scenery.
“Yeah,” replied Jason. “Race ya?
“Sure, as long as we can drink and drive. And I wanna drive the McQueen Porsche.”
They raced for hours, laughing. The beer flowed. Plastic cars crashed. Pizza arrived. Occasionally, the red mist descended.
“Rubbin’ is racin’,” stated Phil pragmatically.
Phil did a victory lap, stood on a chair and sprayed his beer, podium-style. “How good is this lounge room?” shouted Phil, collapsing in an armchair. “Now I see.”
“Anyway, so are you going to tell me about Sio-bahn or whatever her name is?”
This is Phil again. It’s a few weeks later over coffee at work.
“It’s pronounced sha-vawn,” said Jason.
“She ahh, cool with Le Mans in the living room?”
“Totally, I can’t believe the website matched us up.”
“In a good way?”
“She’s incredible. She likes to dress up.”
“What, like lingerie?”
“No, more like, ahh,” Jason looked around and leaned in, “more like comic book characters.”
“No way! Did you videotape that shit?” asked Phil, suddenly alert.
“Nah, of course not.”
“Seriously, I’m a married man. I would pay to see that.”