Johnno tried to peer out onto Lygon Street through the dusty windows of Joe's Bazaar, but the failing Melbourne sun wasn't having anything to do with it. Shapes devoid of definition slid past, like a living expressionist painting. Two minutes earlier he'd been out there, in the real world, sitting on a tram totally engrossed in the book his girlfriend Beth had given him. He looked up, thought he'd missed his stop and jumped off, only to realise he was down the wrong end of Lygon Street. Then he noticed the second-hand shop, sitting on the corner like a broken toy – Joe's Bazaar.
Inside, he looked around in amazement at the piles of junk and wondered why the place hadn't been shut down – surely it was violating some sort of health and safety regulation. Over in one corner there were piles of magazines and yellowing newspapers reaching the ceiling. If one of those toppled on you you'd be dead for sure – if not from suffocation then by being eaten alive by the scores of rats that were bound to be living down there. Behind a counter that looked as though it was made of plate steel the owner, perhaps sensing the unspoken accusation, glanced at him from over the top of his newspaper and humphed.
Johnno went back to his ruminations, thinking of all the human-interest articles waiting to be written about this place. If only they had an equivalent back home in Shepparton. He could start his own weekly column: 'From the Junk Heap'. Where did all this stuff come from? And why would anyone buy it? There were ratty deer's heads on the wall, a partly dismantled car engine sitting by some magazines, shelves full of nick-nacks, and numerous boxes of old clothes littering the floor. He walked up an aisle, away from the front windows, and then something caught his eye.
It was an old-fashioned tin toy, sitting at the back of the shelf, half hidden in the shadows. Johnno pulled it out and turned it over in his hands. A monkey, dressed in a suit and wearing an old-style hat with a press ticket painted on the side, sitting in front of a small tin typewriter. A key stuck out of its back and he gave it a twist, surprised to find it offered some resistance. Cogs grinded inside as he gave it a few turns. When he let it go the monkey's hands batted up and down on the keyboard, making a small, clattering noise.
The shop owner, dressed in his grey dust coat, humphed again and rustled his newspaper. He mumbled something.
"What was that?" Johnno said.
"This isn't a fucking playpen," he said, and returned to his paper.
Johnno took the monkey and made his way to the counter, side-stepping a rusty old Victor lawnmower. Beth would love the monkey. Well, no, not exactly – she'd hate it and be disgusted by it. But she'd hate it in that loving, light-hearted way of hers. He couldn't wait to see her face.
"I'll take it," Johnno said, placing it on the counter. Joe looked from the monkey to Johnno and back again.
"Am I wearing a fucking Salvation Army uniform?"
Joe sighed. "Am I wearing a fucking Salvation Army uniform?"
Johnno realised the misunderstanding and laughed. "No, I mean, I'll buy it."
"Bet your arse you'll buy it." Joe picked it up and looked at it. "Fifteen bucks."
"What! You must be joking."
Joe gave him a look that said, 'I never joke about money'.
"I never joke about money," Joe said. "You obviously don't realise what you've got there, do you."
"No," Johnno said, starting to feel more than a little pissed off. "Maybe you should explain it to me."
Joe picked up the monkey and leant across the counter, so close that Johnno could smell his breath. It reminded him of those pickled lizards they had in the science department at school. Joe peered around the shop, although Johnno was clearly the only customer.
"Look at the keyboard," he whispered.
Johnno looked at the tiny typewriter. There was a painting of a keyboard, worn away where the monkey's hands struck.
"Look at it properly."
Johnno looked again. This time he noticed that the keys weren't in the correct order. The QWERTY order.
"So? It was probably made in China or something."
Joe made a hissing noise – part frustration, part contempt.
"It's a Dvorak keyboard."
Johnno tried to pull away – this was getting a little too weird for his liking – but Joe grabbed his upper arm firmly.
"Let me tell you a story. Do you know about qwerty?"
"No. Well, yes. Not really." Johnno slung his daypack off his shoulders and onto the bench – he had a feeling this was going to be a long story.
"In 1930 August Dvorak, a man from Seattle, US of A, was studying at the University of Washington, and as part of his course he did a doctorate thesis in the efficiency of the qwerty keyboard. In the process, he discovered an awful truth.
"You see, when Christopher Scholes invented the typewriter in 1870, he arrived at the keyboard layout via a process that was somewhat, shall we say, hit and miss. Or rather, hit and hit. Originally the letter keys were arranged in alphabetical order, and you can still see the remnants of that pattern if you look at the middle row of letters.
"But there was a problem. Scholes's typewriter was a clumsy beast. Hit two adjacent keys in close succession, and you'd spent the next fifteen minutes trying to disentangle the inky, stubborn, letter rods. And you couldn't have that. It was a waste of time, and time is money. The qwerty layout minimised the problem by moving the most commonly used keys to the edges of the keyboard.
"Dvorak, bright egg that he was, realised that with more sophisticated typewriters, this inefficient system could be done away with. He devised an alternative – and what a doosy it was. Dvorak estimated that whereas the fingers of an average qwerty typist would travel between twelve and twenty miles a day – more for mobile typists on trains and whatnot – his Dvorak equivalent would cut this to one mile. One mile! You can imagine his excitement! I can't say for sure, but I'd imagine he spent much of the next few days rubbing his hands together contemplating the day when, as a filthy rich typewriter tycoon, he'd be able to light cigars with hundred dollar bills and buy the most expensive whores in town.
"Dvorak's study was published, the Smith-Corona typewriter company stepped up to the plate, and that, as they say, should have been that." Joe smiled mysteriously.
"So what happened?" Johnno said, worried that he was taking a tad too much interest in this story.
"Think about it, lad! Think about how much cashola the qwerty industry was worth. Think about how many greenbacks the government would have to spend, replacing all their typewriters. Think of all the typists who would have to be put through re-training."
"It would be a big job," Johnno said.
"Big job! Exactly! It just couldn't go ahead. It would be flying in the face of all the ideals the Americans hold so dear to their hearts. So what happened was this. There was an unprecedented alliance between the typewriter cartels, high-ranking government bureaucrats, and the militant arm of the American Typists Union, all working together to sink Dvorak and his new-fangled typing system. And then the depression arrived, and everyone had more important stuff to worry about – like where their next bowl of grits was coming from."
Johnno looked at this watch.
"You can't leave now, boy! I'm just getting to the crux. In 1940 Dvorak, still doggedly chasing his dreams, utilised connections in the US Navy to conduct another typing efficiency study. His reckoning was that if his keyboards were good enough for the US armed forces, they were good enough for the average Joe in the street. They subjected 54 marine graduates – who were probably wondering what the hell was going on; they'd joined the marines to shoot people, not to desk-jockey – to 72 hours of rigorous typing. They typed like they'd never typed before and, at the end of it all, the Navy study backed up Dvorak's claims. This was something not even the qwerty lobbyists could refute. So once again, the US government was poised to adopt Dvorak's board as the US standard."
Joe stared wistfully past Johnno, out through the dusty windows into Lygon Street, trying to make the most of the moment.
"So what happened this time?" Johnno prompted.
Joe shrugged. "The Japs bombed Pearl Harbour. Typewriter companies started building tanks. And that, metaphysically, should have been that. But then in 1975, Dr August Dvorak passed away; some say he died of a broken heart. The coroner said prostate cancer. A reporter for the Seattle Times wrote an obituary and, in the process, dredged up the old efficiency test results. The masses, looking for something to protest about now that the Vietnam war…the Nam…"
Joe stopped dead. Well, not actually dead, but more than a little stunned. Johnno waved his hand in front of his eyes, but there was no response.
"You were saying?"
Joe looked at him as though he was crazy.
"The Nam? The Nam? What do you know about the Nam? I gave a year of my life for you – three-hundred and sixty-five days of pure hell on earth – and what did I get for it? Huh? Huh? Well, I did get that piano, but that's beside the point."
Joe faded out again, and Johnno picked his bag up off the counter.
"Where are you going? Hmm? I'm not finished yet. Put it down." Joe smiled a crazy smile, and Johnno thought he should comply.
"That's better. Now, where was I? That's right. The masses, looking for something to protest about now that the Nam…" Joe's left eyebrow jiggled like a caterpillar on a barbecue plate, and the right side of his mouth turned down in a rancid grimace, but he continued "…was done and dusted, grabbed hold of Dvorak's barely cool corpse and held it aloft as a martyr. Metaphorically speaking, of course.
"The American National Standards Institute assessed the reports, found them to be accurate, and was ready to adopt the Dvorak keyboard as the American national, well, um, standard. And then President Gerald Ford, going against all advice, buried it."
Johnno gave Joe one of those 'can-you-move-this-along-a-bit-I've-got-to-meet-my-girlfriend' looks. Joe thought he looked dumbstruck.
"You have to remember that at this time some major, landmark-type Repetitive Strain Injury damages cases were going through the courts. If the Dvorak keyboard was finally adopted as a national standard, the plaintiffs could argue that the government had known the dangers of qwerty all along and so, therefore, was liable for the RSI claims. It could have ruined the American typewriter industry.
"So President Ford tried to throw up a smokescreen and bury Dvorak's board, but this time the American people didn't have a depression or a war to throw them off the scent. And that nasty incident with JFK in Dallas had shown the people that shooting a President was a perfectly legitimate way of expressing yourself. It all came to a head in September 1975. On the fifth, in Sacramento, Lyn Fromme – a member of Women Against Qwerty – got to within 25 yards of the President, raised her .45 pistol, and took aim."
"Shit! What happened?"
"Well, she had RSI. Couldn't pull the trigger. Two weeks later, another Wacko – that's what the Women Against Qwerty called themselves; and interestingly enough, that's where the term comes from – had a crack. Sara Jane Moore actually squeezed a round off at the Prez from her .38. All that saved him from certain death was some quick thinking by former marine Oliver 'Billy' Sipple – ironically one of the marines who'd taken the typing test. He grabbed her arm just as the gun went off, and the bullet embedded itself harmlessly in a nearby tourist. Well, harmlessly for Ford. The tourist died."
"But we still don't have Dvorak keyboards."
"Of course not. Adopting Dvorak after the assassination attempts would have been akin to bowing to terrorism, and the US government just doesn't do that shit. Which is why, from that year on, the CIA – my guess is some sort of special Black Ops division – has adopted a policy of clandestine yet aggressive suppression of the Dvorak keyboard and its ragtag band of followers."
Joe looked gravely down at the tired tin monkey. "What you're holding there is a rare piece of guerrilla memorabilia. No pun intended. So, fifteen bucks. Take it or leave it."
"I'll give you ten."
Johnno paid, snatched the weird monkey toy, and all-but-ran out of the shop into the sanity of Lygon Street. He wondered if mental illness was contagious, and expelled as much air from his lungs as he could. Then he checked his watch and was relieved to find he still had time for a beer before he met Beth. He walked down Lygon Street, shoving his prize into his daypack, and the further he got from Joe's Bazaar, the more surreal the incident seemed. Bizarre, even.
Johnno was drawn to The Rose by the cool waft of air-conditioning and that familiar pub smell. Inside it was dark and empty, save for a couple of old boys sitting down the far end of a long, pock-marked wooden bar. As he walked in the barmaid, transfixed by Dirty Dancing on the wall-mounted television, waved a fly away from her nose.
"I love this bit," she said, partly to Johnno but mainly to herself. Johnno looked up at the telly in time to see two people fall into a lake. Priceless.
"VB thanks," Johnno said.
Johnno watched the beer flowing into the glass and suddenly became aware of the fullness of his bladder. He was right – it had been a long story.
"Where are the toilets?"
The barmaid, still watching the telly, gestured vaguely and then flipped off the beer tap. Johnno walked to the back of the pub, finding a door with a picture of a silhouetted, top-hatted figure on it. As he pushed through, he realised he still had his pack on his shoulder, but couldn't be bothered taking it back to the bar. Besides, the barmaid didn't exactly look interested in watching anything other than the telly, so it was probably safer with him. Johnno stepped into a short passageway, barely big enough for the doors at each end to open at the same time, and wondered why there weren't more toilet door accidents. Toilet doors are big, heavy, and never have windows in them. People are generally in a rush when they use them, especially on the way in, and yet he'd never been involved in a serious toilet door accident. Maybe he was just lucky.
Johnno stepped up to the trough, unzipped his pants, and sighed as the yellow burst of urine spurted out against the dull metal. He aimed his stream at the small deodorant 'hockey pucks' in the bottom, idly musing on his toilet door accident theory. Maybe there would be a news story in it for when he got back to Shep.
Behind him, he heard the door open and slam into the wall. He started to turn but before he could get his head around a large, beefy man dressed in a coal-black suit and wraparound shades slammed his face against the porcelain tiles with his forearm. Johnno heard his nose pop, and blood gushed over his mouth and chin and into the trough as the flow of urine dried up and his privates shrivelled up against his body. Another man, dressed the same as the first, ripped his daypack off his shoulders and unzipped it.
He tried to turn around and was rewarded with more pressure against his neck pushing his bloodied face into the cool tiled wall. He felt warm air in his ear, and a strong body against his back.
"Just relax. Don't give us any trouble, and you'll be outta here in no time," the American accent said. Johnno's mind raced at a thousand miles an hour, descending into a spiral of insanity. CIA? Black Ops? "Give us trouble, and you'll find yourself up on charges of conspiring to smuggle Class A drugs."
"But… but… I don't have any drugs," Johnno said, the blood bubbling over his mouth as he spoke.
The figure snorted in his ear. "I didn't say possession, I said conspiring to smuggle, wise-ass."
Johnno could hear various zips being opened, and his stuff being pulled out of his bag. There was a dull clatter as his camera went skittering across the toilet floor.
"Got it," the other voice said.
"Right. This is a warning. Leave Dvorak alone, okay?"
The brute gave Johnno one last shove and then they were off, sauntering through the door. Johnno slumped into the trough, his body quivering. One of the figures turned and Johnno instinctively averted his eyes, worried that if he saw the man's face, they'd kill him.
"And if anyone asks," the man said, "you ran into a toilet door." The pair laughed, and then were gone.
The trough jets burst into life and Johnno felt cold water gushing down his back. He pushed himself onto his feet, trying to keep his nose from dripping blood all over his stuff, which was now scattered across the floor.
He knew even before he checked. The monkey was gone. Johnno started wearily packing his gear into his bag, collecting his broken camera and now sodden book, wishing he'd never heard of Joe's Bazaar.