Walking down the street one Saturday morning, Rodney heard the old Steely Dan song ‘Rikki Don’t Lose That Number’.
It took him, as it tended to do on the rare occasions he had heard it over the years, back to 1974. Straight back. The unmistakeable, delicate firsts and fifths on the keyboard were coming from the doors of a café.
None of the patrons there would have been around in the 1970s. That was, he thought, their bad luck.
He was 23 back then, and despite the war in Vietnam and the tumultuous political times under Gough Whitlam, life for Rodney held endless choices and possibilities. The world was his oyster. The 45 years since however, had seen that oyster disappear.
The whole concept of giving someone your phone number had effectively gone now. The song, obviously, had dated. Nothing these days was scribbled on bar coasters or cigarette packets in dark bars at closing time.
The strains of the song were redolent of a time when he had money and girls. More than enough of both. The thoughts that came back most vividly to him when he recalled those days were smoky bars, live rock bands and a classic old hamburger joint near the water in the city.
Today was Grand Final day, but he had work to do.
Back in 1974, Saturdays were sacrosanct. You just went to the footy, no questions asked. These days, Rodney just went to work.
It wasn’t meant to be a forever job, selling cars, it just turned out that way.
The money was okay though, as were the perks, including having a different late model car every weekend. Money and a flash set of wheels set him apart from his mates at university. As did his clothes, the compulsory sharp salesman’s suits. Of course, the chicks were no problem either.
He passed a couple of cops in the street. The young female had a heavily tattooed forearm. He couldn’t remember that sort of thing in 1974. Maybe he was wrong, but back then the coppers always seemed to be older, taller and male.
Since Rodney had been an adult he had never really taken public transport, at least in Australia. Hadn’t really been near railway stations much at all, since he was a kid.
Perth City Station now seemed nothing like he remembered it. The stone federation structure remained, but the rest seemed gutted, minimalised, unnatural.
Rodney thought back to the days when, as a teenager he took the train to the footy at Bassendean Oval on Saturday afternoons, where he followed the Mighty Swans. The City Station was pulsating back then. The trackside newsagency sold everything, from the Weekend News to buckets of steaming hot chips. The porters and conductors were friendly, helpful. Blew whistles. Carried your cases. Smoked. Whatever happened to porters and conductors, he wondered?
Probably gone the same way as driveway attendants at petrol stations, he thought. For years everyone referred to them as ‘service stations’ despite the fact that service was the last thing they offered after about 1980.
Rodney never had any musical education, as such. A year of two learning the recorder at primary school, that was it.
But he somehow understood it. It touched him, the really good stuff. Always had. To be able to play music himself, like the Beatles, the Stones, would have been his dream. To play bass like McCartney.
He played air guitar in the mirror, in the shower. In his mind, he could play every song on Abbey Road, Sergeant Peppers, in order.
He put those vinyl records on continuously at times when he had a girl back at his place. Some of them liked it well enough, but he never really got a connection out of it. If Golden Slumbersdidn’t move them, he thought, then there was no future there. And there rarely was. Never, in fact.
The motor industry was good to him. Got him where he was today. But it did have its drawbacks.
In 1975 it took him to prison. At nights, there was a machine at the big shed which they used to wind back the ‘clocks’ and a 100,000 mile car became a 50,000 mile car overnight after a rewind. Doubled in value.
Not that it was his idea, it was just the way it was. Didn’t seem that bad to him, everyone did it. The punters expected it, the bosses told him.
When the cops came to ask him questions (before the management could brief him) he was upfront. Couldn’t imagine it would have got him twelve months inside. But it did.
Fremantle Jail was tough. He walked past C Block everyday where they had hung someone ten years earlier. He had heard about that as a school boy.
The bucket toilets were the worst. Sharing a cell with a perfect stranger and his shit all night.
After a month he got transferred to a prison farm, Karnet, about a hundred kilometres from the city. He missed his family, his cars, his girls, and he missed his music.
There were no records in jail. A few long-termers had guitars, but none of them could really play. Some had saved up for ghetto-blasters, purchased from years of accumulated prison gratuities, on which they played tapes of country music, Slim Dusty, Willy Nelson, Charlie Pride. Not really Rodney’s cup of tea.
Sometimes, passing by a warden’s post, he caught a snatch of a cricket game or a horse race on the radio. Nothing he was really interested in but it was, even more than music, the sound of freedom.
Sitting in his office 20 floors above the city terrace, Rodney took in the view of the river. Hearing that song this morning had affected him.
For some reason he had spent the whole morning ruminating over ‘Rikki Don’t Lose That Number’.
As best he could recall, he had never owned a copy of it. It had no emotional significance to him, had no special place in his life. Why was he coming back to it?
It wasn’t one of those annoying, boppy, repetitive songs that you just couldn’t get out of your head. This song was 1974 coming back to him in spades. But why?
Getting out of prison was probably one of the most bewildering moments of 1975. The last four weeks had been interminable, much worse than the previous 11 months put together.
Over cups of tea, the soon-to-be-released guys planned their first nights of freedom. Beer, more beer, hookers and dope were top of the list.
But for Rodney, for reasons he couldn’t explain, there was only one thing he wanted; water.
All his life he had lived more than an hour away from the beach, but he had always loved it. Every weekend for as long as he could remember Rodney would drive to the coast for a swim.
He envied those people from the seaside suburbs, and aspired to live there. One day, he thought.
On the day of his release from Karnet, a Sunday, his mother had made him lunch, his favourite roast, which he gratefully ate, saying little. The family didn’t push him.
At around 3pm he borrowed his father’s car and drove alone to Cottesloe Beach. He sat on the groyne watching the water, waves, surfers, seagulls. After the sun had set on the horizon over Rottnest Island, he made his way back to Bassendean in the dark.
They can take everything away from you, he thought, clothes, cars, women, and booze, but what had hurt him most, he realised, was the freedom to go down to the sea when he wanted to. When he felt like it.
A close second was the freedom to listen to music, real music, what you wanted, when you wanted it.
A day later, the song. This time from a jeans shop.
‘Rikki don’t lose the number, you don’t want to call nobody else.’
There it was again. 1974. Engulfing him.
‘Send it off in a letter, to yourself…’
Twice in two days. Odd, he thought.
He hadn’t really walked the streets much in recent years. The luxury of his own carpark had long ago removed that necessity. But since losing his drivers licence a month ago, he sort of had taken a liking to it.
At first the three month disqualification was a piss-off. The fine was meaningless to him. Being deprived of driving everyday, particularly to work, was initially daunting.
But after a couple of days, he adjusted. Taxis at first, then trains, and he gradually started to warm to the idea, liked it even. The streets spoke to him, told him a lot more about the city than his usual sources of information, newspapers, TV, talkback radio.
The beggars, buskers. The meth addicts sleeping rough in doorways. Things that he hadn’t really noticed during years of parking securely in the basement of his office block and taking the lift straight to his floor.
The sorts of things that he hadn’t seen out cycling, walking the dog, or at the beach, now confronted him.
He had something to thank that traffic copper for, he thought. For the random breath test he failed after a couple of quiet Thursday night drinks at the golf club.
It had taken his BMW off the road, but it had put him back on the street, brought him back to a reality he had all but lost over the past 20-odd years.
It was Monday morning and Rodney had just bought himself a coffee outside the Railway Station. And then there it was again, the song.
‘Rikki don’t lose that number, it’s the only one you own. You might use it when you feel better, when you get home…’
The unmistakeable riff. The tonic, the fifth, repeat, repeat again. Had it just been re-released? Remastered? Hardly. He knew every beat of the song despite the passage of 45 years.
Just to be certain, he asked his secretary. She was an FM radio person, followed all the current shows on reality TV. She would know if Rikkihad made a comeback.
But no, she had never heard of it, she said. Steely Dan? Never heard of him.
Not that Rodney had let on that the song was following him, if indeed it was.
He would have to put it down to one of those coincidences that seem to happen to you ever now and again. The person you haven’t seen for years, then run into at a party, at the airport, or a restaurant, a couple of times in a short time span. An unnerving coincidence.
On Tuesday Rodney was having his hair cut, his barber talking loudly about the football. And in the background against the noise of the scissors, there it was, on the radio. He tried to tune it out in his head, but there was no escaping it.
‘We could go out driving on Slowhand Row…
We could stay inside and play games, I don’t know…’
“Sean, do you know this song? Steely Dan?” he eventually asked. “Can’t pick it up,” the barber said.
Tempted as he was to pursue the subject, Rodney let it pass, as the Hendrix bridge solo filled the salon.
On Wednesday afternoon, walking back to the railway station, Rodney paused to look at some suits at a clothing store advertising a ‘two for one’ deal. The city mall was bustling with 5:30pm commuters. From a distance, he could just make out a busker playing oversized conga drums, tapping out an infectious two/four beat. Turning to walk toe the station, he could scarcely believe it as the ageing hippy began to sing, in a neat, alto voice, the song, accompanied only by the rhythmic pattern of the drums.
‘I thought our little wild time had just begun…’
For Rodney, this was beginning to be disturbing. He tossed a few coins in the man’s hat and hurried off to his train.
Laying awake that night, Rodney thought that if any song was going to be sent to follow him, haunt him even, it should probably have been something quite profound.
Maybe something like The Sounds of Silence. Something full of meaningful double entendre and spiritual and classical references. Songs that voices never heard. Words of the prophets that were written on the tenement walls and subway halls.
Maybe it should be one of those mysterious Leonard Cohen songs about Joan of Arc, Susanne, or someone’s Famous Blue Raincoat.
But no, this song that was hunting him down after five decades was something quite benign, almost foolishly naive, recorded by a band that was on the verge of being unknown.
Rodney’s home phone rang at 8.30am.
His mother, he assumed. Few people these days rang him on the landline, despite the fact that he had the same number, unchanged for as long as he could recall. It was easy to remember and he had kept it whenever he had moved over the years.
Silence ensued. Was this some kind of joke? Something that his secretary had put someone up to? His barber? He hadn’t mentioned the situation to anyone else who might be likely to run with it.
“Yes, you remember me from Karnet? Back in 1975?”
The voice was that of an elderly man, possibly indigenous.
“You gave me this number when you left.”
Rodney’s mind raced. Initially nothing was ringing a bell.
“You said I could call you when I got out.”
Gradually, like a mist slowly rising over a field on a winter’s morning as the sun came up, Rodney remembered.
Rikki. The lifer he had shared a cell with briefly in prison in another lifetime.
Apparently he had killed a man, as he now recalled, in a drunken fight over a carton of beer. On the day of Rodney’s release, he had written his phone number down for his friend, saying to call him if he needed anything. He never did.
Unlike most of the Nyoongar boys in jail, Rikki had no friends. He had no visitors. Apart from Rodney, he seemed to mix with no one.
The victim of his crime had apparently been a person of some importance in the indigenous community. As a result Rikki was, he gathered, distinctly persona non gratain the jail community. He wasn’t vilified but just left completely alone.
He was, Rodney began to recall, the antithesis of a murderer. Somewhat older than himself, he recalled Rikki as being quiet, and well-mannered. He came from the bush, small place, somewhere near Mount Barker or Albany.
They played cards together. Shared a radio, listening to the football on Saturdays. They shared stories, despite having virtually nothing in common except their miserable existence and a love of the Swan Districts Football Club.
Unlike Rodney, who with a 12 month sentence could see the light at the end of the tunnel, for Rikki there was nothing but hopelessness.
“You’ve just got out now?” Rodney asked. Could he really have been in prison all this time?
“Yes, on Grand Final day.”
“Did some silly things, Rodney, after you left. The place sort of got to me.”
“After I did my twenty years I thought I’d get out, but they just said no. Not sure why. I couldn’t handle it, lost the plot a bit, and they sent me to Graylands with the crazy fellas.”
Rodney listened, struggling with the concept of a voice from so long in the past. A life that had stood still for 40 years.
“No one would ever sign off on my parole, reckon’d I was too crazy. Better off inside.”
“So what happened? Where are you now?”
“Eventually I got better. Last month I got the letter, about getting out. Done 47 years Rodney.”
“Jesus… And you kept this number the whole time?”
A quick calculation by Rodney put the man’s age as now possibly approaching 80.
“Sure, I was hoping I might have been able to use it before now. But…” His voice tapered off.
“Where are you mate, do you need any help?”
“At a backpackers place in Northbridge, not too good. Everyone’s on the piss all day – and drugs.”
“How long you there for mate? Are you sure you’re okay?”
“They paid up a fortnight’s rent for me to stay here, and gave me a few bob when I got out. Haven’t got on the dole yet. Next week I’m out of here. Not sure what I do then…”
“You got anywhere to go? Any family?”
“Nah mate, all gone, long time ago. All my brothers, even nephews, all finished. Don’t know anyone on the outside.”
“Can I do anything for you Rikki? Do you need some money?”
“Maybe. I’m not tryin’ to hit you up Rodney, just wanted to talk to you. Talk to someone. No one here wants to know me, old bugger like me.”
“Rikki can you meet me tomorrow? Ten o’clock in front of the railway station? I’ll sort something out for you. If you want? I’d do it today but I’m really flat out.”
“I’d like that Rodney.”
Rodney called his secretary. A very small single bedroom unit he held as an investment property had just become vacant. It was furnished, functional and central. He told her to take a couple of hours off and set the unit up with linen, blankets and some basic food. Get the keys off the agent, and drop them off at his place. He’d meet Rikki the next day and set him up.
The following morning Rodney took a cab to the city. The radio in the taxi was tuned to a FM music station. The news came on and Rodney mentally tuned it out as he pondered stopping at an ATM to get Rikki some cash.
Stopping in traffic at a set of lights, not far from the Railway Station, the radio became more audible.
“Police are investigating the death of an elderly Aboriginal man in Northbridge last night. The man appears to have been the victim of a robbery outside a hostel around midnight, and later died of multiple stab wounds at Royal Perth Hospital. Police are seeking witnesses.”
Rodney froze, paralysed in his seat. The news bulletin continued on through sport and weather reports. The taxi drove off again.
Then came the unmistakeable strains of Steely Dan.
“Rikki don’t lose that number. It’s the only one you own. You might use it if you feel better. When you get home.”