On the Brink

A story in which Max Keeye (no relation to Max Key) gains a social conscience. 

Max lay on a faux‐fur blanket, face up, on the deck of the family yacht. Although he was asleep, his body twitched and jerked, rustling his silk pyjamas. The backs of his legs thumped against the wooden decking.

Max was only twenty years old, but his troubled sleep was that of someone much older. And less rich.

His mother sat in a reclining chair, but she was too anxious to recline herself. She watched Max’s fretful sleep and held a piccolo cup in her right hand. She adjusted the wide brim of her had as Max’s father sauntered onto the deck.

Dad wore an unbuttoned Hawaiian shirt with a white singlet underneath. The tops of his feet were sunburnt, as was the back of his neck. His nose and cheekbones were smeared with white zinc. He pressed his hands into his lower back and stretched and yawned, roaring as he did so.

‘John! Was that really necessary?’

Dad completed his yawn, cricked his neck and grinned at his wife.

‘Morning, Bronagh.’

‘You’ll wake Max up, carrying on like that.’

‘He should be up anyway.’

‘You know he hasn’t slept since he got back. Let him sleep.’

‘On the deck? If he wants a sleep-in, he can jolly well sleep inside, in a bed, like a normal person-‘


Max groaned and rolled onto his side. His face screwed up tight. He batted at the air in front of him with his eyes shut. He let out a small whimper, then settled back asleep.

Mum lowered her tone.  ‘His hair. It’s so messy. I can’t help but think it’s a metaphor for his mental state.’

‘He’ll be fine,’ said Dad.

‘What do you think happened to him out there?’

‘He’ll be fine.’ Dad poked Max with his big toe. ‘Time to get up, son.’

Max batted his eyelids open, his dark eyes dull. He looked dead.

‘Max, darling, would you like poached quail eggs for breakfast?’ said Mum.

Max groaned. ‘Not hungry,’ he said.

‘Come on love, they’re only tiny. Little iddy biddy-‘

‘I’m fine.’

Max dragged himself into a fetal position, knees pulled tight into his chest. He hugged his fluffy white pillow and watched the bobbing horizon through his hair.

‘Well, I’m making them for Dad and your sister anyway, you might change your mind.
‘I’m fine.’

Dad stood up. ‘If you don’t want to eat, that’s your decision. But you are sitting at the table with everyone else,’ he said.

Seagulls circled the yacht. Max watched them through the window. A tear rolled down his spray‐tanned cheek.

His sister, Stephie, was immersed in an enormous volume of Modern French Art. The sound of angry punk music leaked from her noise-cancelling earphones.

‘Another beautiful day,’ said Mum. She slid a plate of rye toast, quail eggs and caviar in front of Max. ‘Any plans?’

Max opened his window and threw the plate out like a frisbee. It skimmed along the deck, then broke into three pieces. Seven quail eggs bounced across the planks.

‘Max!’ Dad thumped his fist on the table. Cutlery rattled. Stephie looked up from her book of (artfully) nude ladies. Seagulls swooped the deck and fought over the scattered food.

Max trembled. ‘They deserve breakfast more than I do.’

Mum leaned forward and stroked Max’s face with her well-manicured hand. ‘Max! You can’t keep punishing yourself.’

‘You don’t understand.’ Max blinked hard. He wiped his nose.

‘Here, have a glass of bubbles…’

Max snatched the champagne bottle from Mum’s hand and threw it out the window as well. It hit a young seagull with a thwack.


The seagull landed on the deck. Thump. Dead.

‘I can’t do anything right,’ said Max.

‘For god’s sake, boy, pull yourself together.’ Dad’s nose flushed pink beneath the white zinc.

‘You don’t understand.’

Stephie removed her headphones. ‘God dammit. He spends one night at a backpackers-‘

‘You don’t know what it’s like!’ Tears and mucous ran down Max’s face, his ultra-white teeth reflected in the rivers of guilt.


‘No, Dad. I did it for you.’

Dad scoffed. ‘For me?’

‘Yes, Dad, for you. Your popularity has been dropping. My Instagram followers think we’ve lost touch with reality.’

‘You think?’ said his sister, eyebrows raised.

‘I saw things out there, man, thinks that can’t be unseen. Poor people everywhere. Drinking coffee. Instant.’

‘What, not even filter coffee,’ said Mum, filled with disbelief.

‘It was from a ten litre plastic tub.’

‘Pookie, I had no idea it was that rough.’

Dad tried to busy himself in the morning paper, delivered by helicopter.  ‘Don’t baby him, Bronagh,’ he said.

Max picked at the marble table.  ‘The bread. White. Extra gluten.’

Dad smacked the paper against the edge of the table.  ‘Max! Not in front of your sister.’

Max straightened, his voice finding resonance.  ‘No, Dad. She needs to hear this. Stephie. They didn’t even have sourdough. Can you imagine what it’s done to my small intestine?’ Max’s chin dimpled like a golf ball. ‘There is poverty out there. People on the brink. They can’t afford orthodontics. Their teeth aren’t symmetrical.’

Stephie shook her head.

‘How can I sleep on my memory foam lumbar support bead, when I know there are people out there, sleeping on plastic mattresses.’ His voice was shrill, out of control. Max dissolved into tears.

Dad looked at Mum. She refused eye contact. Stephie leafed through her book a little too quickly.

Dad softened. He leaned forward and made non-threatening eye-contact, just like the media coach had taught him.

‘Son. I know it’s hard. People voted for me because they think I’m ‘the kind of Prime Minister they could have a beer with’. But to be honest, I’m repulsed by the majority of my voters. People out there, with no ambition, no work ethic and no yachts,’ he smiled through a shudder. ‘But that’s how the world is. We can’t all be wildly successful. Imagine if everyone owned investment property. Who would rent out our apartments? Who would live in South Auckland? Like it or not, we need poor people to pay our mortgages and fund our lifestyle.’

Dad raised his glass, a toast. ‘If it weren’t for those slovenly folk, we wouldn’t be in Hawaii right now. We’d be on lake Taupo, in a rubber dinghy.

‘But… how do they live like that?’

‘Don’t worry about them. They’re used to plastic mattresses and fleas and seasonal pneumonia. It’s all they know.’

Max frowned. He took a deep breath. Dad smiled softly. Stephie rolled her eyes. Mum swigged champagne.

‘I think I’m hungry now. Have the quails laid any more eggs?’ said Max.

That night, Max slept inside. On the floor. It would be a few days before he would feel comfortable enough to sleep in his memory foam bed, but it was a start.

This is a work of fiction.  Any similarities between persons, living or dead inside, is entirely coincidental.


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