The Last Resort
Maurice Batcheldor’s thumbnail sketches and short yarns depict the misadventures of assorted eccentrics and non-conformists flung together by adverse circumstances – largely self-induced – that have skewed their oddball lives. Their bolthole is a country pub that’s seen better days.
An Early Start
“RECKON WE SHOULD crack one before we head out?” Tangles called from the top of the staircase.
“S’pose it wouldn’t hurt,” said Dickybird, coming to a halt on the landing. He took a seat on a carpeted step. “Won’t be much of a cut today anyway – too cold last night. No need fer an early start.”
From his icebox he took a stubby of beer and removed its cap with a twist of his wrist.
Tangles too sat down, on the top stair, dug into his icebox and uncapped a beer. They sipped in silence as first light seeped grey and cheerless through grimy windows high in the hotel’s airless stairwell.
“’Sparra’s not gonna last too long now,” said Tangles at last. “I reckon she’ll be stuffed well before Christmas. It’s the drought, yer know, Dickybird. It’s too bloody dry, gettin’ thinner and hollerer every day.” He threw his mate a sudden hostile glance. “I saw that yesterd’y while I was cuttin’ an’ you were sleepin’ it orf by the fence, yer bloody little piss-pot!”
“Yeah,” said Dickybird, and he pulled thoughtfully on his beer.
“Bloody little bastard,” said Tangles. “Yer only cut half a row. I gets back after four laps of the paddick and I’ve got three tier on the downers and I’m fairly tonguein’. I goes to get a cool one an’ yer’ve bandicooted five o’ the bastards – an’ yer put the tops back on so’s it looks like they’re still full. I only got one full one – one full one! Then I looks across the paddick and there y’are sleepin’ it orf by the fence, rollin’ round in the burrs an’ the bindies an’ the dust.”
“I was feelin’ a bit crook – touch o’ the ’flu,” murmured Dickybird.
“Bull! You were hung over from all the grog yer tipped into y’self the night before. Yer a bloody disgrace, Dickybird, leavin’ me do all the cuttin’ and then bandicootin’ me grog.”
Tangles ran a finger and thumb down the blade of his warped and bumpy nose. He scratched the silvery bristles sprouting from his jaw and shook his head side to side.
“Nah, I can see now the ’sparra’s pretty-well buggered round here. Not like the old days, Dickybird, when there was hundreds of cutters goin’ like mad rabbits diggin’ it outa the ground. October to Christmas an’ the cannery goin’ flat-chat three shifts a day stuffin’ a noxious weed inter tins, and the supermarkets chargin’ like poison fer the stuff. It’s all gone now. Nothin’ but a few acres left where once there was hundreds of acres and millions of rows of it an’ everyone makin’ a good quid. An’ plenty o’ houses got paid off with all that money them housewives earned cannin’ the stuff during the season. Plenty o’ good Christmas presents fer the kids, too, I can tell yer – hang on a sec, gotta take a leak.”
Tangles got stiffly to his feet and hobbled out of sight down the corridor to the lavatory. Dickybird drained his stubby and, after cocking an attentive ear, darted up the stairs and dipped into Tangles’ icebox. He removed a full stubby, screwed the cap back on to his empty and buried it in the bottom of Tangles’ cooler. He had returned to the landing and taken a good swig when Tangles returned and sat down on the top step.
“Well, whaddya reckon Dickybird? Should we have ’nother one before we head out?”
“Can’t see why not,” said Dickybird.
“Yeah. As I see it the guts has fallen outa white ’sparra. No market for it nowadays, Dickybird. It’s all been ploughed in ’round Bridgetown. Everyone wants green ’sparra. You know they cut it with machines down Jugiong and Shepparton way? Reckon they don’t even touch it with human hands.”
“Yeah, I heard that,” said Dickybird.
They drank in silence, each absorbed in his thoughts. Tangles reached out with a crooked finger and hooked a cobweb from the banister; Dickybird contemplated horny toenails poking out of his ragged sandshoes.
“Gotta siphon the python,” said Dickybird rising to his feet.
“Righto, mate,” said Tangles. He leaned aside as Dickybird climbed past him on the stair.
The lavatory door closed with a click and Tangles sank the last of his beer, tiptoed down to the landing, removed the top of Dickybird’s icebox and fished out a full stubby. He replaced the cap on his empty and pushed it to the bottom of the icebox, closing the lid. At the sound of the toilet flushing he was seated again on the top stair, sipping a fresh cold beer.
“Won’t be a real good cut t’day,” said Dickybird resuming his place on the landing. “Like I said, it was a bit too cool last night fer it to get outa the ground. Hardly worth goin’ out. We can do a two-day cut tomorrer.”
“Yeah,” said Tangles, whose eyes drew narrow as Dickybird dipped a skinny hand into his icebox. The stubby cap came off with a lively fssst! and Tangles allowed himself a thin foxy smile – Dickybird had chosen a live one.
“Whaddya sayin’, Dickybird? D’ya reckon we shouldn’t go out ’til tomorrer? D’ya reckon we should have the day off, eh?”
“Well,” said Dickybird after a moment’s thought, “If I throw me hat three times on the floor it means we’ll have the day off – hey, you go any more grog? I only got a coupla stubbies left an’ it’ll be an hour or so before the publican turns up.”
“Gotta few long-necks in me ’fridge. They’ll do us ’til he gets ’ere. We’ll jest go back to me room and have a yarn an’ a beer.”
Dickybird slapped his grubby bush hat three times on the landing.
“Stuff work!” laughed Tangles.
“Yeah, stuff work!” echoed Dickybird through a perfectly toothless grin. He got to his feet, picked up his icebox and mounted the stairs
Together they ambled down the corridor and stopped outside Tangles’ room. Tangles put his key in the lock and pushed the door open.
“What time is it, Dickybird?”
Dickybird glanced at his wristwatch – it read 5:50 and they hadn’t put a foot outside the front door of the Hotel Bridgetown, better known as The Last Resort.
The Ferret’s Breakfast
WHEN CHICKA’S MISSUS tired of his wayward ways she tried to choke the life out of him and, though in a state of advanced pregnancy with her fourth child, threw him bodily into the street. Chicka picked himself up and trudged downtown to The Last Resort where he booked a room for a week, paying in advance with a cheque drawn on the Housing Department’s emergency fund for the destitute.
Chicka checked in late in the afternoon and bore with him the semi-circular marks of fingernails in his throat and a battered little suitcase held together with a frayed leather belt. The suitcase was jammed full of bits and pieces and odds and ends the missus had pelted out the front door, so he said later, while she roundly denounced his bad habits and his no-good bludging mates. Chicka also brought along a ferret called Babe in a cage contrived from a wire shopping basket he said he found one night behind a local supermarket.
Chicka clumped up the staircase to the guests’ quarters and went out on to the veranda at the back of the hotel. He found for Babe an out-of-the-way corner, filled a saucer with tepid water at the washtub, and, murmuring words of tender solicitude, draped a damp cloth over her cage. With Babe bedded down for the evening Chicka went to his room, dumped his suitcase on the bed then wandered down the corridor seeking the company of acquaintances, all residents of The Last Resort, among them Quill, Billy-Boy and Moses, Speck, The Sour Kraut, Tangles, The Flying Dutchman and Ding-Dong.
Quill opened his door to a furtive knocking and Chicka slipped into the room. He looked weary, harried, up-tight.
“Where is everyone, Bro?” he croaked. “You’re the only one who’s home.”
“Sleeping it off, I’d say,” said Quill. “They’ve been partying big-time, drinking plonk and yahooing out on the veranda all day – here, what’s wrong with your voice? You got the ’flu?”
“No, Bro. But I need to talk to you.” Chicka’s face was full of appeal.
“I’m really wound up. I need to chill out, my friend.”
“Sure,” said Quill. “What’s the problem?”
Chicka sat down on the edge of Quill’s bed. He wore a rumpled long-sleeve shirt buttoned at the wrists, and long pants and sneakers on even the hottest of days to hide the psoriasis that blighted his body from larynx to ankle, an affliction that filled Quill with guilt-ridden revulsion. At the same time Quill found himself fascinated and repulsed by the smudged blue spider’s web tattooed across the left side of the gaunt face, the teardrops inked into the bags under each eye, the rotted stumps of teeth lurking behind a ragged chin beard.
Chicka related his tale of woe. At its conclusion Quill said, “Well, I’m truly sorry, Chicka. Very sorry. Perhaps your wife might relent once you’ve spent a few days lying low – you know, drying out. Maybe a spell from the grog and the dope is what you need. Probably do you the world of good.”
“Yeah,” Chicka agreed. “I gotta dry out and get my head together.” His scarified features brightened and he reached out and shook Quill’s hand. “Thanks, Bro. You’ve got no idea what it means to be able to talk to a real friend.”
“Not a problem,” said Quill, feeling rising disquiet at Chicka’s prospective residency and the unknowable affects it might wreak on his reclusive and relatively peaceable tenure. Then a jaded sort of Catholic concern for the lookout of others overtook misgiving and Quill said in spite of himself, “Have you eaten today? I can knock up a decent sandwich if you’re peckish.”
“No thanks, Bro. I’m gonna duck up the supermarket before it shuts and pick up some tucker – coupla kilo of prawns, maybe a leg of lamb, some tomatoes and a lettuce. I’ll make a real big feed for us later on. There’s a fridge in the kitchen, isn’t there?”
“Yes, there is. But a word of warning: never put any food or grog in that fridge. We’ve got a share-farmer living among us. Put your stuff in this one, here, in my room, and it’ll be safe.”
“No worries, Bro,” said Chicka getting to his feet.
“I meant what I said,” Quill persisted. “Last Friday night I defrosted my fridge. I put a packet of sausages and a tray of chicken legs in the kitchen freezer so’s they wouldn’t thaw out. Saturday morning the sausages were gone, and only four of the drumsticks were left. I hit the bloody roof! But what could I do? They were gone and that was that. Other blokes have lost steaks, chops, butter, bread, grog – you name it – from that kitchen fridge these past couple of months.”
Chicka frowned. “Who’s the tea-leaf then, Bro?”
“I have a suspect and no proof, but I reckon Ding-Dong might know something. He’s as mad as a meat-axe, as everyone knows, but then again he’s as cunning as a dunny rat – fifty percent crazy and a hundred percent cagey, if you know what I mean.
“In the time he’s lived here – and that’s been two maybe three months – he’s hung about the TV room all day drinking only black tea. None of us has ever seen him cook a meal for himself, never seen him hook into any food other than what we’ve offered him.
“And early Saturday morning I heard him leave the pub before I went to the kitchen to get my meat. And get this: Friday night he told Speck he was going to spend Saturday at his grandfather’s place. Now, it’s not unreasonable to suppose, is it, that he might have taken a spot of lunch for himself and the old bloke? The evidence, if that’s what it is, is improbably circumstantial, I know, but it’s all I’ve got.”
“Leave it with me, Bro,” said Chicka with a tired wink, and he slid round the door and was gone.
Within the hour he stood again outside Quill’s door holding two long-necks of beer but no groceries.
“Sorry to hassle you again, Bro,” he whispered as Quill admitted him to the room. “I’ve just been up to the house to get some things. Here, I got you a beer and a coupla CDs. The missus gave them to me – the CDs, not the beer,” he tittered. “I don’t need them any more – the CDs that is, not the beer. Hee-hee!”
Chicka handed the discs to Quill. While Chicka twisted the tops from the beers Quill scanned the titles, Dire Straits’ Brothers in Arms and The Very Best of Smokie. Quill winced at the second title – Yankee schmaltz, quasi-country trash. Dire Straits he looked upon most favourably.
“They might be a bit scratched,” said Chicka, gesturing at the CDs with his bottle. He took a quick swig. “They’re not too bad, though – I think . . . I hope.”
“We’ll bung ’em on and see.”
Quill inserted Brothers in Arms into the mini-player atop his wardrobe. The disc began to regurgitate sound only seconds into the first track.
“It’s buggered, Chicka,” Quill sighed, “But I think I know how to fix it.”
Quill removed the CD from the player. From a toiletry bag in the wardrobe he took a tube of toothpaste, squeezed a dab on to an index finger and gently massaged the compound into the disc’s shiny surface.
“Watch this – I learned this trick from my young brother,” he said, holding the CD in the airstream of a fan whirring next to the player. With the paste dried, Quill wiped it from the disc with a clean handkerchief, moving across its surface from centre to outer edge. This done, he returned the CD to the player and switched it on. The album played without a hiccup.
“That’s fantastic!” Chicka yelped. “You’d better do the same with the other one ’cause it’s worse than that one was.”
They sipped their beers and hummed along with Dire Straits while Quill repeated the toothpaste procedure with the second album.
“Mind if I ask you something personal, Chicka?”
“Well, I hope it doesn’t upset you. If you don’t want to talk about it I’ll understand.”
“Shoot!” Chicka tipped back his bottle. Quill watched the scaly larynx bobble to each thirsty swallow.
“Your tattoos – what does the spider web signify?”
“It’s not a spider’s web, Bro,” he said solemnly. “It’s my river of dreams, my lifeline . . . the history of my life.”
“And the teardrops?”
“This one” – he put a nail-bitten finger to his left eye – “is for a mate who got hooked on speed and committed suicide. Hanged himself. And this one’s for the bloke I murdered when I found out he was molesting my little daughter by my first wife. I did eight years for that. They called it manslaughter but it was murder – I meant to kill him, Bro, but I kinda mellowed out while I was in the big house.” Frowning, he jumped to his feet, pointing at the CD player. “Listen Bro, can you try the other CD?”
The Smokie album played flawlessly too, but Chicka seemed not to hear it and stared fixedly at an invisible spot on the wardrobe door. Then with a deep sigh he excused himself, leaving Quill to ponder as fanciful notion: what if wounded souls, like damaged CDs, could be restored to soundness with a squirt of toothpaste?
DEEP and prolonged retching in the bathroom echoed down the corridor into Quill’s room. Quill groaned, pulled the sheet over his head, trying to block out the vile sound of gagging in the dawning of the new day. Scrappy recollections of yesterday’s grog party coursed through his mind, mental splatterings from his excursions to hang out some clothes he had put through the washing machine.
Seventeen four-litre cartons of cheap and nasty plonk, Chateau Cardboard Moselle – 68 litres in all – his fellow residents had consumed. Half-past seven they had started drinking, Billy-Boy and Moses, Speck, The Sour Kraut and a motley gathering of hangers-on and deadbeats who, hearing the hoopla on the veranda as they aimlessly trudged the footpath by The Last Resort, clambered up the back stairs and joined in. By noon they were splithered, and as the afternoon dragged on the noise of the bacchanal ebbed and flowed around belligerent, cacophonous disputation interspersed with bawdy laughter and slurred obscenities thrown at passers-by.
When at last the party broke up about five o’clock the patio tables and the floorboards were awash with wine spillage strewn with crushed and sodden cigarette butts. The overturned chairs, the gutted cartons with their bladders squeezed dry of wine, the capsized cups and glasses in which more butts had been drowned, they left abandoned.
The vomiting ceased. Quill got out of bed and shaved, showered and dressed – he was expected to lunch with friends at a farmhouse on Bridgetown’s outskirts and the prospect buoyed his jaded spirits. He left the hotel at eight o’clock, returning slightly under the weather at seven-thirty in the evening.
Quill was about to retire when a familiar tapping sounded at his door. God no, he thought, give me a break, will you? Still, he opened the door.
“Hey, Bro,” chirped Chicka, pale-blue eyes a-twinkle. “Got a bit of time for your old mate?”
“Sure,” groaned Quill.
“You’ll never lose anything from that fridge in the kitchen again – never, no more.”
Quill brightened. “How so?”
“Ol’ Ding-Dong’s been spewin’ his gut up all day – all day, Bro! Man, has he been crook, chuckin’ an’ spittin’ an’ heavin’ since early this mornin’. An’ he’s only just stopped! – ha-ha-ha!”
Quill sat down on his bed. “Then it must have been Ding-Dong I heard this morning calling the cows. I thought it was one of the party boys from yesterday’s binge. Okay, how’d you do it, Chicka?”
“Easy, Bro – dead easy.”
Chicka looked up at the silent CD player on the wardrobe then back to Quill.
“Come on,” Quill urged. “What did you bait him with – arsenic?”
“No Bro, but I know where to get my hands on a tin of the stuff if ever you want any . . . no, not arsenic – sausages!”
“What sort of sausages?”
“Babe’s sausages. I baited him with Babe’s breakfast.”
Chicka stood just grinning.
“Well?” said Quill.
“I brought ’em back to the pub last night when I went home for the CDs, ’cause I forget to get ’em when the missus threw me out. And they’re really rotten, Bro – frozen, sure, but dead rotten. An’ Babe just loves ’em that way, but you’ve gotta keep well upwind of her when she farts ’cause the stink’ll kill you.
“Anyway, ol’ Ding-Dong must’ve raided ’em during the night ’cause the packet had been undone and re-wrapped. Four sausages gone when I got Babe’s breakfast this mornin’ – hoo-hoo-hoo!”
“Beats me how he could eat rotten snags – did he say why he was so crook?”
“He’s an ol’ bushie, Bro. He’s eat the butt-end out’ve a dead possum if he got hungry enough. I saw him again this arvo comin’ outa the jake. He’s been spewin’ again – looked bloody awful. Reckons he must’ve caught a tummy bug – a tummy bug? Bull! He got a gut-full of Babe’s breakfast, that’s what he got. He’s your tea-leaf, Bro. No risk.”
Quill said, “Thanks a lot, Chicka. We owe you, the boys and me. Thanks again.”
“No worries, Bro. Anything for a friend.”
Hesitancy crossed Chicka’s features and again he glanced up at the CD player.
“Hey, Bro. You know those CDs I gave you?”
“Well, see, I’m goin’ back home tonight, an’ I wonder if I can have them back.”
“Sure,” said Quill.
Quill took the discs from the wardrobe.
“So you’re going home. I’m glad for you, mate.”
“Yeah. I went to see the missus this arvo. We had a long talk. I’m gonna start doin’ the right thing. I can’t stay away from her.” He dropped his eyes, as though admitting a shameful indiscretion. “I dunno, I just love her, Bro – truly I do.”
He took the CDs from Quill.
“See later, eh?”
“Yeah,” said Quill. “See you later, Chicka.”
Quill closed his door and went smiling to bed.
The Bald Bog-Eye
CHICKA SAT HUNCHED on a barstool nursing the mouthful of beer in the bottom of his glass. Not ten minutes after opening time – no more money and no one to buy him a middy. He licked his lips, thirsty as a brickie in a brewery. No use asking Horny for a couple on the slate – no more credit, no exceptions – until all accounts were settled in full. And already Chicka was in for fifty-odd dollars.
The phone rang behind the bar.
“For you, Chicka – it’s Mickey,” said Horny to his sole customer.
Chicka tipped the grimy baseball cap to the back of his head and took the receiver. Horny went back to his cup of coffee and the real-estate pages of the newspaper spread on the bar top.
An air of despondency hung heavy on the reek of disinfectant Horny used to swab out the bar. Christmas-New Year trade had been down on past years. It had not picked up. Horny blamed the drought – everyone blamed the drought for Bridgetown’s economic and employment ills. For Horny the downturn had been nothing less than catastrophic. His favourite music, the sweet ring of the cash register, stifled, stilled by the dead hand of the lingering dry.
Chicka put down the phone and turned punching the air hissing, “Yes!” through his broken teeth. “Yes! Yes! The drought’s broken, Bro!”
“What’ve you been smoking, Chicka?” scoffed the publican. “Do you see any clouds out there?”
“No, no. Not that sort of drought – the work drought,” said Chicka. “Y’know, labour, employment, gainful occupation . . . Mickey’s just told me he’s got three-hundred wethers to crutch. Today. Like right now, Bro. Seventy cents a head, cash in hand.”
“That’s handy,” said Horny smiling graciously. “You’ll be able to settle your tab.”
“No worries, Bro. Take it as done.”
Chicka downed the last of his beer and wiped his mouth with the back of his hand.
“It’s gonna be real hot out there in that shed crutchin’ all them sheep. What d’ya reckon, Horny? Think you could spring us a carton of long-necks ’til we get back to town this arvo, old mate, old pal, old buddy of mine? Cash money – guaranteed.”
“I can’t do that,” Horny clucked. “You know the rules.”
“Yeah, but you make ’em, so you can break ’em,” Chicka countered. “C’mon Horny. Be a sport. You were a farmer once. You know how it is. You’ve gotta drink a lot of fluid when your quoit’s runnin’ a banker and the sweat’s flyin’ outa your boots.”
Horny raised his palms in protest. Chicka cut him short.
“Can I use the phone? I’ve gotta get on to Big Sean to give me a hand. He’s a gun shearer – been out west an’ all over Queensland. Did his back in, though. But he can still peel the wool off on a good day. Hundred an’ five dollars each. Not bad for a few hours work, eh Horny?”
The publican hesitated, calculating.
“Okay, I’ll advance you half a carton. That’s six long-necks – no more! You’ll fix up your tab when you get back to town. Understood?”
“You’re a gold-plated champion, Bro,” grinned Chicka, snatching up the phone.
Shaking his head, confounded by the flouting of his own better judgment, Horny went to fetch Chicka’s long-necks from the cool-room.
“WHY don’t you get y’self a half-decent car?” griped Big Sean. “This thing’s no bigger than me kids’ Matchbox toys.”
Excruciating contortions and strangulated profanities had facilitated the leverage of Big Sean’s burly big-boned frame into the tiny hatchback. Remarkably, his joints remained connected and the passenger-seat still bolted to the floor once the procedure was completed – at least for the time being. He crouched now, impossibly cramped, brooding at the bug-spattered windscreen, stubbled jaw resting square on the knees of his dungarees, twisting a tip of long-horn moustache between thumb and forefinger.
“You knockin’ my wheels, Bro?” said Chicka.
“Bloody oath I am!”
“How’m I gonna get another car? Can’t even afford the rego on this one.”
“S’pose you’re gonna tell me you haven’t got a licence either.”
“So that puts insurance out of the picture.”
“Sure does, Bro – but the car’s in the missus’s name.”
“I’ll put a deposit on ’em when we get paid today.”
“You’re mad! You just can’t walk into the RTA and slap down a payment on your licence an’ rego an’ drive off. They’ll have you in the slot quick as a flash.” He shot a pointed glance at Chicka. “How much grog you ’ad this mornin’, eh?”
“Coupla middies – that’s all, Bro – while I was on the phone to Mickey ’bout the crutchin’. Says he’s got a couple cartons waitin’ for us at the shed, though.” Chicka neglected to mention four of the six long-necks he had quaffed in the time it took Big Sean to walk across town to Chicka’s house.
“You’re a disaster just waitin’ to happen, you know that Chicka?” said Big Sean. “But I need the dough, so I s’pose I’ll jest have to take me chances with you. Just drive properly, eh? It’s bad enough as it is bein’ cooped up like a pelican in a shoebox.”
“Relax, Bro,” said Chicka. He reversed the hatchback out of his driveway and set off down the street. “There’s a beer on the back seat. I only had enough cash for two.”
Big Sean gave a surly grunt, retrieved the long-necks and, unmindful of consequences, uncapped them and handed one to Chicka. “You done much crutchin’?”
“Yeah,” said Chicka, placing the bottle between his knees. “Not for a while . . . but yeah, I can push the ol’ bog-eye.”
Big Sean took a swallow and turned a probing gaze on Chicka’s gaunt profile, but there was no telling what was going on behind those mirrored wrap-around sunglasses.
Chicka piloted the hatchback through Bridgetown’s southern backstreets to join the Brogan Highway at the Brogan River Bridge and crossed to the western side. His application was short-lived. With the long-neck clamped between his knees, Chicka tried simultaneously to swing left into Canberra Road, change down a gear and pull a tobacco tin from his shirt pocket. The hatchback veered into the middle of the intersection – Big Sean bawled an obscenity and Chicka wrenched down on the steering wheel, hauling the vehicle back into the left-hand lane.
“Keep yer eye on the friggin’ road, will you, Chicka!”
“Roll us a scoobie,” he cooed, lobbing the tin in Big Sean’s lap. “Light her up an’ chill out, Bro.”
THE domed crown and drooping brim of his dusty black Akubra lent Mickey the appearance of a withered toadstool. He was little, mean and ugly, a purgative rendered almost palatable by an early lunch of nine cans of beer, his first taste of the amber fluid in two long weeks.
Mickey looked and felt almost happy. Today’s crutching would thwart fly-strike in the wethers and, by extension, might even restore him to Mother’s grace and favour after that last bender in Bridgetown. And hadn’t it been lollapalooza – five days lost to unwashed, unshaven, unholy oblivion. Dear old Mother – bless her cotton socks – had brought the shearers’ beer out from town only this morning . . . one of these days she might relent and re-open her purse-strings to Mickey. Then again she might not. Life was a bitch, and then you died – but not today, not with cold beer in the shearing shed after a fortnight shackled to Mother’s water-wagon.
Rusted sheet-iron, dilapidated timber slabs, warped railings and tangled skeins of eight-gauge wire constituted shearing shed and yards. Exhausted by decades of neglect, weathered beyond salvage, forlornly they clung together in the face of imminent overrun by a rampaging grove of tree-of-heaven.
Mickey stood on the shed’s rickety loading ramp, watching the hatchback climb the track from the gate down on the Canberra Road. It beetled among the kurrajongs and granite tors strewn like giant marbles across the slope. Red-grey dust rose from the tyres, spread out and lay like a pall over the paddock.
“Here they are, the bastards,” Mickey informed his dogs, and brushed a fly from his splayed and pitted nose. He drained his beer and tossed the can on to the sprawling heap of empties to the side of the ramp.
“G’day Mickey.” Big Sean unfolded himself from the hatchback and leaned against the passenger’s door, yawning, stretching, massaging cramped muscles. “Got a few for us, mate?”
“Coupla coldies in the fridge,” said Mickey.
“That’s a start – now what about the sheep?”
“Oh – yeah, ’undred an’ thirty-five.”
Big Sean turned on Chicka. “You told me three-hundred!”
“The phone line was bad – honestly, Bro,” Chicka gabbled. “Real bad it was – I could hardly hear what Mickey was sayin’.” He appealed to Mickey. “I could’ve sworn you said three-hundred, Bro!”
Mickey riveted him with a cynical stare; Big Sean tugged his moustache.
“Hardly worth comin’ out here for a bit more than an hour’s work, Mickey. What’ve you got to make it worth the effort?”
“Handpieces, combs an’ cutters – all provided,” said Mickey, boss of the board for one day and swelling with self-importance. “I’ll rousey an’ pen-up an’ maybe I’ll give youse a hand if youse need a spell. Youse get all that plus fifty bucks each and a coupla beers – what more do youse want?”
Big Sean pondered a moment. “Well, s’pose it’s better than nothin’. Righto, let’s git into ’em.”
Mickey and Big Sean went into the shed; Chicka sauntered after them, leaving Mickey’s dogs to mill about the hatchback peeing the scent of town dogs from its wheels.
Mickey got three cans of beer from the fridge and stepped with Big Sean on to the sagging two-stand board. Chicka took his beer and wandered about peering into the shed’s nooks and crannies, looking at everything and nothing in particular.
“Here’s yer handpieces,” said Mickey off-handedly. “Combs an’ cutters are all brand new. If youse don’t knock ’em ’round youse won’t have to sharpen ’em. All right?”
“Grind!” snarled Big Sean, irked to the extreme by Mickey’s uppity manner.
“Grind what?” Mickey’s upper lip unpeeled over a rat-toothed simper.
“Combs an’ cutters. You don’t sharpen ’em, you grind ’em on a emery wheel!”
“Yeah – whatever.”
Mickey shrugged off Big Sean’s rebuke and picked up a handpiece from the greasy board. (Wool-grease, or lanolin, fuels ferocious and spectacular shearing-shed fires.) This handpiece was sheathed in red felt, a “rug”, in shearers’ parlance. Mickey twisted the handpiece from the down-tube and handed it to Big Sean then stepping to the second stand, disconnected a shiny steel handpiece, this one “un-rugged” – a bald bog-eye.
Big Sean examined one, then the other, turned them over in his powerful big hands, tried them for weight and balance, examined the combs and cutters, tweaked the tension nuts then scrutinized each handpiece all over again.
“Well, mate,” he said to Mickey at last. “They’re certainly not Sunbeams, but I s’pose they’ll have to do.”
Big Sean opted for the red handpiece, a well-worn Lister, and put it with his tobacco pouch, wristwatch and oil tin on a ledge at the back of the first stand, behind the pull-rope and the down-tube. He hung his towel on a nail driven into a black-pine upright by the chute, one of four haphazard uprights supporting the hardwood beam on which the overhead gear hung bolted under a mantle of bird-droppings and dust-ridden cobwebs.
While Mickey reconnected the bald bog-eye – an early model Lister – to the down-tube at the second stand, Big Sean stood at his bat-wings finishing his beer, appraising his pen of wethers. Ill-tempered, big-boned, wild-eyed “Ropelled” brutes – so-named for the male growth-hormone injection given at the two-tooth stage – they stared contemptuous of the shearer, belligerent in confinement.
On the wool-table in the middle of the floor there sat a white cockatoo cracking sunflower seed from a chipped saucer. It watched Chicka’s wheedling approach through a searching beady black eye.
“Hello cocky . . . nice cocky . . . cocky want a scratch?”
The drawn out cry of agony rang against the corrugated-iron roof and reverberated through the shed. Spooked, the wethers drummed the timber decking with a rush of scuffing hoofs. The cockatoo flapped and screeched and, hoisting its yellow crest like a battle standard, marched across the tabletop – barking and baying like a mastiff. The dozing sheepdogs jumped up from the floor and ran in circles yapping at each other.
“Heeyah!” Mickey roared over the hullabaloo. “You leave my bird alone Chicka!”
His face blanched of colour, teardrops bubbling over the bags under his eyes, Chicka hopped about on one leg clutching his right index finger.
“Siddown ya bastards – siddown!” Mickey yelled over the clamour of Chicka, the cockatoo and the dogs in full cry.
“You wanna muzzle an’ chain that friggin’ bird,” Chicka gasped when the hubbub subsided. “Near bit me finger off.” He tried to smile. “I don’t know what it is but birds just hate me, Bro – even chooks!”
“They’re like any other animal,” said Big Sean grinning broadly as he palmed the red handpiece into his down-tube. “They can read your vibes – they know you’re scared an’ they reckon that, well, because you’re so scared, you might try an’ hurt ’em . . . so they nail you first.”
“But I really like birds!” Chicka wailed. “I really love ’em, Bro. I’ve got three big cages full of ’em at home an’ the missus has gotta feed ’em ’cause they eat me alive if I get in with them an’ try to feed ’em. An’ that’s just the quails an’ the goldfinches – forget the bloody parrots!”
Mickey held out a hand. The cockatoo climbed aboard, alighting on the wool-press, an old Ajax portable, muttering, “Job’s right! Job’s right!”
“What’s his name, Mickey?”
“Job’s Right?” Chicka frowned. “What sorta name’s that?”
“The right one,” said Mickey. “’Cause he’s me best mate.”
“C’mon you blokes – let’s git into ’em,” Big Sean called from his stand. He threw the electric power switch and the overhead gear thrummed to life in puffs of grey dust.
Big Sean thrust the bat-wings inward and bore down on the nearest wether, a hefty monster standing side-on, haughty, indomitable. A forceful knee in the groin pinned it against the other bodies; a sturdy hand seized its rump, the other whipping around the jaw. It tried to resist, but raw strength dumped it flat on its behind. Big Sean grabbed the forelegs and dragged it backwards and bewildered out through the bat-wings.
His right leg perpendicular to the down-tube, handpiece resting on the board, he hitched the wether’s left foreleg behind his left knee. Thereby bringing the sheep to tentative submission, Big Sean took up his handpiece and tugged the pull-rope, engaging the overhead gear in a smooth oily shirring of cutter on comb.
Two quick blows removed the sideburns, “wigged” the wool below its eyes; two more “top-knotted” the scalp.
Big Sean took two backward dolly-steps then bent down, leaning his right knee into the wether’s groin. Gently yet firmly nudging aside the pizzle, he made two circumspect blows, one either side of the organ, peeling away the stained smelly wool.
He pressed the knuckles of his left hand hard into the right groin. The leg flexed straight and he rolled the sheep on to its left flank. A blow down the inside right leg; one above the tail; another from the tail down the back of the leg to the crook of the knee; a blow under the tail; and another down the inside left leg – relentless, stylised motion. Inclining the wether farther to the left, Big Sean delivered the final blow, a clean stroke down the back of the left leg.
A yank on the pull-rope silenced the handpiece. Big Sean put it down on the board and stood to his towering full height. The wether scrambled to its knees between his legs and lunged for the chute, then baulked. A moccasin planted firmly in its backside sent it slithering down the chute into the counting-out pen outside the shed. Big Sean had turned on his heel and re-entered the catching-pen before the wether hit dirt.
CHICKA had regained some of the facial colouring and self-composure lost in his encounter with the cockatoo. He sidled to his stand and picked up the bald bog-eye, sneaking a sidelong glance at Big Sean who, with greased rhythmic blows, was deftly wigging and top-knotting another wether. While Mickey whisked up the crutchings with a tatty millet broom and tossed them into a wicker wool-basket, Chicka gave the bald bog-eye the once-over, slapped it down on the board then tramped into his catching-pen.
It shot through the bat-wings like a racehorse from the starting gates. Heedless of the headlock Chicka had thrown around its neck, the Ropelled wether dragged him thudding and grunting across the board through the dags and pizzle-wool. Instantly the dogs rose in uproar. On top of the wool-press Job’s Right danced and pranced, sooling the pack onward – “Woof, woof, woof, woo-oo-oo!” Wether and Chicka, dogs at their heels, hurtled across the shed. Chicka let go just as the wether’s hoofs lost traction on the uneven floorboards and slammed headfirst and belly-up into the wool-press. Job’s Right squawked and reverse-somersaulted up through the rafters to crash-land in a sprinkling of feathers on the wool-table.
“Heeyah!” yelled Mickey. He dropped the broom, dashed to the end of the board and kicked open a tired wooden gate, shouting, “Git ’way back, Sam!” A brindle bitch, more bitser than kelpie, wheeled the wether with a nip on the snout just as it reached the loading-ramp doorway, and turned it back past Mickey, through the gate into a pen adjoining the race behind the catching-pens.
Chicka got slowly to his feet and brushed himself down. Mickey slammed the gate shut and let fly with a curse that cowed the dogs and made Chicka cringe. Big Sean kept crutching, seemingly deaf to the disturbance.
“Yer friggin’ lunatic! Whaddya think yer doin’?” Mickey demanded, his pinched face screwed up in blind fury. “Yer told me yer done a bit a crutchin’!”
“Yeah, yeah – ’cause I have, Bro,” said Chicka breathlessly. “Stupid sheep just took off – barrelled straight past me when I went in the pen, that’s all. Couldn’t let it run off without tryin’ to stop it, now could I?”
“Hmph,” grumped Mickey. “Yeah, well . . . better get back over there an’ knock the wool off a few. Big Sean’ll have ’em all done before you even start to work up a sweat.”
“I’m sweatin’,” said Chicka. “Believe me Bro, I am sweatin’.”
“Job’s right,” croaked the cockatoo.
Big Sean had dragged another wether from his pen when Chicka limped back to the board. “Took a bit of reinin’ in that wether, eh Chicka?” With a thick hairy forearm Big Sean swept the sweat from his brow. “I reckon you’d give Shane Dye a run for his money, the way you stuck with that gelding.” He laughed and turned away, jerking his handpiece into gear.
Chicka flinched at the remark and flung open his bat-wings. Latching on to a pair of hind legs he strove to pull another wether from the pen, intent on running it wheelbarrow-like to the stand. A couple of hormone-fuelled kicks smashed Chicka through the bat-wings, hurling him flat on his back among the dags on the far side of the board.
Again he picked himself up and shuffled stooped and stiff-legged back into the pen. Mickey, leaning on his broom, glowered after him in seething mute rage. Big Sean started on another wether.
This time Chicka chose a smaller sheep. Straddling its neck, walking it through the bat-wings, he steered it to the stand, bony fingers locked around its stubby horns. The bald bog-eye lay on the board at his feet and just above it dangled the knotted end of the pull-rope. The trick was to hold on to the wether, tug the rope and pick up the handpiece.
The wether stopped struggling; it seemed to relax. Chicka himself relaxed. Reaching out slowly, cautiously, he hit the rope with a sudden downward grab. The bald bog-eye jumped chattering and tap-dancing on the wooden board. Chicka snatched it up, but the wether reared as he tried to make a top-knotting blow and he drove the handpiece into its right horn. There sounded a ruinous gnashing of cutter and comb.
“That’s it!” Mickey leapt across the board, reefing on the pull-rope, throwing Chicka’s handpiece out of gear. “Get the hell out of it, Chicka! If ever you’ve done any crutchin’ before then I’m – I’m whatsisname, that hairy German brainbox? – yeah, then I’m Alfred Ironside!”
“Aw, c’mon Bro,” Chicka mewled. “I’m just a bit rusty, that’s all.” He plucked a pendant of green dag dangling from his left earlobe and flicked it to the floor. “Give us a break, Bro.”
“No way, Chicka! Yer ’bout as useful as a bull with no back legs. Yer can pen-up. Big Sean’s jest ’bout finished his pen. I’ll give him a bit of a hand when I’m not rouseyin’. Just you make sure we got plenty o’ sheep penned up.”
Mickey took up the bald bog-eye. Two tines had been snapped out of the brand new fifty-dollar comb. With an angry toss of his head he took the handpiece to a cluttered workbench cramped against the wall at the end of the board and began to remove the damaged comb.
Chicka, waiting on the board, eased his grip on the wether’s horns. Suddenly the animal was free, clattering across the shed making straight for the loading ramp. Job’s Right danced a jig and barked blue murder. The dogs took off in pursuit but the wether had cleared the doorway, launching itself in a flying leap off the ramp and sprinted down the paddock.
“Git behind, yer bastards!” Mickey howled after the dogs. “Git behind – ’ere Satan, Sam, Daisy, Dodger!”
“Now you know why they’re called sheep, Bro,” said Chicka through a lop-sided grin. “Because that’s exactly what they are – sheep. What else you gonna call ’em?”
“Jest git down the paddock an’ fetch the bastard when we’re finished this lot. Got it?”
“All right, Bro,” said Chicka crestfallen, and made his way to the race behind the catching pens.
DEMOTED, relegated, downgraded and down-skilled – it just wasn’t fair, especially since Chicka could almost feel the caress of those lovely dollars on his outstretched palm. If the truth were known then, yes, he’d crutched only one sheep in his life. And a fine mess he’d made of it, just as he had this one. But Big Sean and Mickey could not know that for a fact. Anyway, who cared if they suspected or even knew for certain?
Chicka sat on a railing by Big Sean’s catching-pen and consoled himself by rolling and smoking a joint, listening to the song of the shed manifest in the duet of handpieces now that Mickey was ploddingly pushing the bald bog-eye, and the sheep chorusing like monks at matins.
Coils of smoke trickled from his nostrils, unfurled on the fetid air and soared in lazy blue wreaths among the dust-ridden rafters overhead. All was not lost – not by a long blow. He would pen-up and do a good job of it, too. It was a matter of elementary logic, wasn’t it: you put the horse before the cart, such was pushing up those wethers – you just got yourself behind them and made a noise and they ran ahead of you. Dead easy. And whether Mickey liked it or not, Chicka told himself with steely resolve, he would be taking fifty dollars back to town.
A shout from Big Sean blew away Chicka’s reverie.
Chicka jumped off the railing and opened the gate to Big Sean’s catching-pen in which there remained only two wethers. Certainly knew his work did Big Sean, Chicka had to allow, the way he’d mown through all those sheep. Chicka turned away and the wethers, being sheep, as he had so eruditely informed Mickey, rushed through the open gate and re-joined the crush in the race, leaving the pen as bare as its planking.
Going to the far end of the race Chicka began to whoop and whistle, trying to drive the leaders into the catching-pen from a distance of more than half the shed’s width. The leaders, of course, did not bother to budge. Chicka bawled and howled, stamped his feet, waved his arms, but they would not turn about and cross that threshold.
Big Sean swung into the pen to grab another sheep. “For Chrissakes, Mickey,” he shouted over his shoulder, “Show Chicka how to run these bloody wethers in!” He strode into the race, snatched a wether out of the crush and hauled it one-handed to his stand.
Mickey booted his finished wether down the chute and whistled for his dogs. Only Job’s Right responded, yapping and shrilling as it inched sideways to the end of the wool-table. Not a sheepdog could be seen or heard.
“Friggin’ bastards – they pissed off!” Mickey swore over the cockatoo’s deranged ranting. “Gone after that bastard Chicka let loose.”
“I don’t care if it grew wings and flew to Mars – I want sheep!” Big Sean boomed at Mickey. “Now jest you git in there and git ’em!”
Strutting across the table-end, head bobbing, war bonnet aflutter, Job’s Right accompanied Big Sean’s angry shouts with crazed woofing and howling interspersed with armour-piercing screeches and gabbled mimicry of Mickey cursing and roaring at his dogs. Down at the end of the race, Chicka raised a hue and cry in a doomed endeavour to get the wethers moving.
“Sheep-oh!”cried Big Sean over the din.
“Job’s right!” shrieked the bird. “Job’s right!”
Mickey ran panicking into the catching-pen. In the race beyond the open gate the lead wethers had turned back into the followers. He grabbed a leader by the snout and tried to turn it away behind him, into the pen, but it ducked away and drove its head between the hind legs of the wether in front. Again Mickey tried to turn it, with the same result.
“Sheep-oh!” honked Big Sean powering into the catching-pen.
“Git up ’ere an’ give us a hand, Chicka!” Mickey shrilled across the shed.
Big Sean shoved Mickey aside, knocking the Akubra from his head. Before Mickey could snatch it up, however, Big Sean was hauling a wether to the bat-wings. The domed black hat fell under his back-stepping moccasins and the wether’s hefty rump rolled it into the putrid decking. Scowling, Mickey retrieved what resembled a dag-slimed Frisbee, punched it into rough shape and plonked it back on his head.
Chicka arrived breathless at Mickey’s side and together they tried to rake and kick and claw a few wethers into the catching-pen. Job’s Right screeched and squawked and whooped and yapped. Mickey told him to shut-up or he’d cut its bloody throat, but his threat produced an even greater uproar. The wethers neither would be driven nor manhandled into that empty catching-pen.
No one saw them enter – did not even hear their vehicle pull up outside the shed. Indeed, they might have fired a pistol and still not have been heard over Job’s Right’s raging dementia and the frenzied yipping and yelling of Mickey and Chicka.
Big Sean ran the last blow down the back of the leg and disengaged his overhead gear, about to straighten up and dispatch his wether down the chute. His jaw dropped open like a gallows trapdoor. Two pairs of pressed navy blue pants strolled towards him on two pairs of black boots. Job’s Right suddenly and inexplicably shut up. Big Sean swallowed, his mouth instantly dry as the dust dulling the shine on those boots. He stood up. Slowly.
“Fancy running into you in this neck of the woods, Sean.”
The silken voice belonged to Senior-Constable Ray Whitlock. The grey cold eyes bored into Big Sean. Whitlock’s offsider, a mannish constable, fists planted on her skinny hips, sniffed the air with an expression of pronounced suspicion and threw a probing gaze into every corner of the shed.
“G’day,” said Big Sean warily. He nudged the newly crutched wether down the chute. “How’re you goin’, Ray?”
Whitlock smiled icily. “Found yourself a bit of shed work I see, Sean.”
“Yeah. Gotta earn an honest crust, Ray.”
Whitlock appraised him coolly.
“Mickey Connolly – here is he?”
Big Sean’s taut facial muscles relaxed somewhat. “Mickey owns the place.”
Whitlock sighed, averting his eyes. Suddenly he swung them back on the shearer.
“I don’t recall asking you who owned the place, Sean.” The smooth voice rustled with constrained annoyance. “I said, ‘Mickey Connolly – is he here?’”
“I’m here Mister Whitlock,” Mickey quavered, edging through the bat-wings. “Anything wrong, Mister Whitlock?”
The female officer condemned Mickey with a glare of hostile disdain, but whether she took offence at his physical ugliness or his daggy hat, no one could determine.
“Ah, Mickey,” said Whitlock. “I want a word with you.”
“I’m not bein’ arrested am I, Mister Whitlock?”
“No. It’s a confidential matter, Mickey. I want to have a bit of a yarn with you. Step outside.”
“Youse blokes want a break?” Mickey looked at Big Sean then cast about looking for Chicka, but Chicka was nowhere to be seen. Mickey gave Big Sean a bilious smile. “I’ll be back shortly, I s’pose.”
“I’ll have smoko,” said Big Sean, lifting his towel from the nail in the upright at his side. “Only a short run ’til we cut these wethers out.”
The female constable began to walk away. Whitlock motioned Mickey to follow.
“I’ll be seeing you, Sean,” said Whitlock.
“Yeah. Righto Ray. See you later, eh?”
Leaving a wintry parody of a smile with Big Sean, the senior-constable took up the rearguard as the party traipsed solemnly out of the shed.
Swabbing the sweat from his face and neck, Big Sean hit the kill-switch for the overhead gear then went to the fridge.
Chicka materialised, wraith-like, at his side.
“What’s the problem, Bro?”
“Dunno,” murmured Big Sean. “Wallopers wanna talk to Mickey.”
The shearer draped the towel around his neck and took two beers from the fridge, cracking one as he trudged to the board. He sat down, propped his singleted back against the holding-pen rails. The first beer he emptied in a single thirsty draught. He belched lustily, crushed the can in his fist and lobbed it with a clatter among the junk on the workbench. The second beer he opened, stood it beside him on the board then rolled a smoke.
Mickey’s dogs trotted panting into the shed, doubtless having hosed down the wheels of the police vehicle, given their pink tongues lolled from toothy canine smiles.
“That Dickless Tracy was sniffin’ up big on that joint you blew,” said Big Sean darkly.
“How was I supposed to know the cops’d turn up – out here, in the middle of the sticks?” Chicka protested.
Big Sean gulped his beer. “Fair call, I s’pose.” He drew deeply on his smoke.
“I hope the bastards don’t check the rego on the car,” said Chicka fretfully. He fingered the tatty cap to the back of his head. “It’ll be a long walk back to town if they do, Bro,”
Big Sean grunted.
“I’m dead serious Bro! I mean – ”
“For Chrissakes shut-up, Chicka!” Big Sean flared. “You could talk the teeth off a chainsaw, so help me.” Jets of angry smoke surged from his nostrils. “I’ve gotta get these friggin’ wethers done before we can even think’ve gettin’ back to town. An’ I’m not even halfway through ’em. An’ why? ’Cause you’re a useless bull-artist an’ Mickey’s bloody hopeless. I shoulda stayed home.”
Chicka blinked and chewed his lips. He took a beer from the fridge and found some broken handpiece components that demanded absorbing and exacting attention at the workbench.
A motor started up outside the shed, idled for a time, receded out of earshot.
Mickey tramped into the shed and tossed some blue-grey papers on the wool-table.
“It’s an AVO. Ex-missus slapped it on me, the bloody bitch.”
He was plainly incensed, but the toxin had been sapped from his ire, the sting drawn from his tail.
THE visit by the police conferred on the shed a curious and salutary legacy: friendly co-operation broke out between Mickey and Chicka, clearly apparent when Mickey took the time to explain to Chicka the knack of moving wethers into the catching-pen.
“Open the gate in the race in the race an’ git in there with ’em. Jest walk into ’em. They jest wanna git away from yer, but they gotta run past yer – straight into the pen behind yer. Jest watch they don’t jump all over yer toes when yer in the race there with ’em,” he counselled. “That’s all yer gotta do. It’s real easy. Now git in there an’ give it a go.”
“It works, Bro!” Chicka cheered the triumph of his first attempt.
“Told yer so. I’ll make a cocky outa yer yet, Chicka.”
“No, Bro . . . anything but a cocky,” said Chicka glumly.
“Sorry, mate,” Mickey cackled. “I was fergettin ’yer run-in with ol’ Job’s Right.”
Even the dogs tuned in – to Mickey’s every whistle, word and gesture they leaped and darted from yard to pen to race and back again, bringing the last of the wethers into the shed. Job’s Right sat on the wool-table whispering into his own ear, listening intently to what he had to say to himself.
Big Sean remained watchful and aloof of this outbreak of peace and harmony. With a dubious shake of his head he pushed through the bat-wings, seized another wether and dragged it to the board.
“Yer better go an’ fetch that one that got away from yer earlier,” said Mickey to Chicka. “Git down the paddock and walk ’im up along the fence. Let me know when yer git ’im in the yards an’ I’ll go an’ fetch ’im inner shed.”
Chicka set off down the paddock, a man on a mission.
AN HOUR later, the crutching finished, Big Sean made straight for the fridge.
He had towelled off, sprawled and spent, beer in hand, on a half-bag of wool-packs when Mickey and Chicka tramped back into the shed from the yards after counting-out the wethers. Chicka tossed his cap and sunglasses on the wool-table, about to park himself beside them, when he glimpsed Job’s Right side-stepping towards him, malice aforethought glinting in those bright black eyes.
“Go pull some nails outa the roof,” Chicka suggested through a grimace. He pulled up an empty oil drum next to Big Sean and sat down beyond easy reach of his avian nemesis, this plumed monster with bolt-cutters for a beak.
Mickey dipped into his hip pocket and pulled out a pair of grubby fifty-dollar notes, presenting one to Big Sean, the other to Chicka. Big Sean glared accusingly at Chicka who assailed him with a wink and a grin.
“Thanks, Bro,” said Chicka.
“Yeah . . . thanks a lot, Mickey,” Big Sean echoed none too enthusiastically.
Chicka put his note under the sunglasses in his upturned cap and sat back down on the oil drum. Mickey handed out more beers and climbed on to the wool-table, dangling short spindly legs over the side, his back to Job’s Right, the AVO papers and Chicka’s cap. Chicka opened his tobacco tin and rolled a joint, passing it to Mickey who lit it and passed it on to Big Sean . . . and so the afternoon evaporated in a haze of grog and grass, of boisterous yarning and raucous, unrestrained laughter.
By five o’clock the beer was gone and seeds and stalks all that remained of Chicka’s marijuana stash.
“Time to go,” said Chicka.
He picked up his cap.
“Job’s right!” squawked the cockatoo at the far end of the wool-table.
Chicka blanched. “I’m gonna kill you, you bastard of a bird!” he squeaked.
Job’s Right screeched and donned his war bonnet.
“Heeyah!” Mickey interposed. “You still bluein’ with that bird, Chicka?”
“It’s chewed up me fifty bucks, Bro! Look!”
He passed the cap under the noses of Mickey and Big Sean. Pieces of fifty-dollar note lay like a rat’s nest in the crown.
“Why couldn’t he wreck that AVO instead of me fifty bucks?” Chicka whined, waving a hand at the court papers lying untouched on the tabletop. “Where’s the serial number? I can’t cash it like this! I’m gonna have t’ glue it back together . . . somehow.” He took a pinch of note and let the pieces spill like confetti into the cap. “You got any sticky-tape, Mickey?”
Big Sean guffawed at Job’s Right’s handiwork, and then spluttered the last of his beer all over his singlet and dungarees.
Mickey tittered, “I dunno. I got a tin o’ glue for the emery wheel over there on the bench if yer can find it, but I got no sticky-tape. No.” Then a spark twinkled deep in his dull black eyes. “I know what yer can do . . . ask Horny fer some when youse get back ter the pub. He’ll know what ter do – they reckon he’s still got ’is play-lunch money under ’is mattress.”
With Big Sean’s belly-laughter aggravating his wounded feelings, the doleful Chicka bore the cap from the shed, nursing it to the hatchback parked in the shade by the tree-of-heaven. He took the ashtray from the dashboard, tipped the butts and ashes on the ground, scratched the remnants of the fifty-dollar note into the tray and slid it back into the slot and put on his cap and sunglasses, ready to move out.
Mickey and Big Sean straggled out of the shed. Pausing on the loading-ramp, rubbery-legged, swaying before a non-existent breeze while the dogs took turn giving the tyres a farewell splashing and Chicka sat simmering behind the steering wheel, they traded slurred farewells and effusive declarations of earnest mateship.
“C’mon, Sean,” Chicka called, “Let’s get the hell back to town.”
Big Sean inserted himself into the passenger seat, without difficulty or reproach.
“See youse in the pub Monday – I hope!” Mickey shouted after them as the hatchback started down the track to the Canberra Road.
“WIND your window up, will you,” yawned Big Sean after a lengthy silence. “I gotta roll a smoke.”
The asphalt road rolled out before them through shimmering pools of heat haze, past vast paddocks scorched by yet another long afternoon of unrelenting drought. With both windows closed the hatchback quickly filled with oily engine fumes. When Big Sean had lit up they hastily put down the windows and gusts of torrid but appreciably fresh air surged into the vehicle.
“I’m knackered, Bro,” Chicka yawned. “Ridgy-didge an’ dinky-di de-balled I am.”
“Know the feelin’,” said Big Sean, adding after a pause for further thought, “Then again, you might spare a thought for that timber cutter I heard about the other day.”
“Yeah?” said Chicka dreamily.
“Bloke from Tambar. Went up the back of the house one mornin’ to split some logs.” Big Sean pulled on his smoke. “’Bout two hours later a coupla mates come knockin’ on his door. His missus tells ’em he’s up the back, so they tell her they’ll go up there and see him. Yeah, she says, go and bring him back to the house and we’ll all have smoko. They found him, all right, sittin’ bolt upright on a log with his balls jammed in the crack – like strawberry jam they were – stone dead, of course. But the funny thing was, he had this big grin on his face.”
“No. He had a smide a diled wile on his – hang on.” Big Sean plucked the cigarette from his mouth and licked his lips. “He had a smile a mile wide on his dial, poor bastard.”
Chicka shivered and pulled his head into his shoulders.
“That’s weird, Bro.”
“I reckon,” said Big Sean.
“What happened? Did they find out?”
“Yeah – well, sort of. They reckon his balls must’ve fell outa his shorts an’ slipped into the crack while it was startin’ to open up the log. Couldnt’ve noticed, poor bastard. Anyway, he’s sittin’ there hammerin’ away, beltin’ and bangin’ then he sideswipes the wedge and whang! – it flies away to buggery and the crack in the log snaps shut” – Big Sean clapped his hands once – “fair over his balls.”
Chicka jumped and quivered.
“They reckon the pain killed him just as he opened his mouth to scream. I reckon that’s why a bloke should always wear underdaks. Gotta be better ways to die, eh?” opined Big Sean, reaching for the ashtray and snatching it open.
“No-o-o-o!” howled Chicka.
Fragments for fifty-dollar bill exploded around them. Snatched by the cross-draughts they swirled and eddied like a swarm of gnats, round and round, out through the windows.
“Me fifty bucks, Bro – !”
“Jesus wept, Chicka! You know I can’t throw me butt out the window – not in weather like this! Why didn’t you put them bits an’ pieces in yer ’baccy tin?”
Chicka brought the hatchback to a juddering halt on the road shoulder and slumped over the steering wheel, groaning, forehead resting on his knuckles.
“No use cryin’ over spilt milk,” consoled Big Sean, though the ends of his moustache twitched to the ripples of mirth playing on his lips. “You’ll just have to get busy again with that ol’ bald bog-eye. Ha-ha-ha!”
Chicka slammed the hatchback into first gear, gunned the motor and took off, a rooster tail of dust and gravel rising from the tyres.
“Goin’ to the pub?” said Big Sean.
“Gonna drop the car off at your place first?”
“No way, Bro. I’m gonna get meself blind, rotten, motherless drunk.”
FRIDAY evening happy hour was in full swing at The Last Resort. In a corner of the air-conditioned bar, just inside the main entrance, the jukebox blared and thumped to an incomprehensible grating and clanking likely recorded in a scrap-metal yard. A pack of roisterers slouched by the adjacent pool-table watching two tearaways play a smash-and-grab match in which more effort was spent chasing the cue-ball across the floor than playing with any discernible skill, antics which provoked high-pitched hilarity and sudden hysterical screams from the girlfriends.
Acknowledging the greetings of several among the group, Chicka and Big Sean nonetheless ambled further down the bar and found space among the older, less excitable drinkers – a dozen or more of the blue-singlet brigade – all yarning equably over their beers save four long-faced strangers – house painters at a glance – who stood apart, knotted together in desultory small-talk.
Behind the bar Horny worked flat-out pulling beer, his high patrician forehead slick with perspiration; in his ears the dulcet tinkling of the cash-piano; in his eyes the adamantine glitter of entrepreneurial fervour; and in the bottle-shop out the back a rush of townies buying weekend liquor had waylaid his bar manager, Jim “Hurricane” Carter. Thus Chicka and Big Sean were obliged to wait for service.
Big Sean leaned his elbows on the bar, fifty-dollar note clenched in his fist, biding his time, running a blood-shot eye over the gallery of curly-edged snapshots thumb-tacked to the canopy over the spirit shelves. Among them a beer-bellied shearer peeling a big-bellied sheep, oily and leathered bikers astride stationary machines, a utility-load of firewood cut and split, a threesome of laughing women seated at a bottle-laden table, and a tussock of brown beard – or was it public hair? – dangling on a string from the fascia. On the ledge above this montage of immortal moments a grumpy-looking garden gnome, flanked by a plastic wombat in a South Sydney league guernsey and a clockwork crab in top-hat-and-tails, glowered from on high strumming his plaster guitar.
Chicka wrung fidgety hands and snatched a quick survey of the bar then turned to Big Sean.
“Buy us a pint, Bro?”
“What! After I done all the bloody work out there today?”
“Yeah, but . . . it cost me petrol and runnin’ to get us there.”
“In an unregistered, uninsured sardine tin – with an unlicensed driver.”
“Keep your voice down, Bro.” Chicka glanced about to see if anyone had overheard. “You’ve gotta admit, though . . . I got us there an’ back.”
“Jesus wept! Where do you get off, Chicka?”
“Right here, Bro. Same place as you – just one, eh?”
Big Sean’s indignation crumbled and he grumbled, “Yeah, well . . . just one.”
“Good on yer, Bro. Yer blood’s worth bottlin’.”
“You haven’t got any loot?”
“Not a brass razoo – not after me fifty bucks flew out the window. An’ I tell you somethin’, Bro: I’m goin’ out to Mickey’s place one day when he’s in town here on the grog an’ I’m gonna shotgun that friggin’ cocky. I’m gonna –”
“Two pints, Horny,” Big Sean called after the publican who swept past them in a lumbering gait to the cash register.
Horny nodded over his shoulder, “Two pints – right you are!”
“Now you can’t say I don’t do nothin’ for you,” said Big Sean smugly, turning back to Chicka. But Chicka had vanished.
Horny placed the frosty pints before Big Sean, took his fifty dollars and returned the change from the register. Big Sean had but finished his jar and still Chicka dallied whencesoever he had gone. The allure of the untouched pint proved irresistible. He set down his empty glass and took up Chicka’s beer and sipped while, over its rim, he caught the eye of a stocky bald-headed man in bib-and-brace overalls, seemingly cut from a paint-spattered drop-sheet, who had brought four empty schooner glasses to the bar. Their eyes locked and the painter ventured, “Worked up a thirst, eh, friend?”
“Reckon,” said Big Sean. “Been a cow of a day.”
The painter’s darting eyes took note of the checked flannel shirt hanging unbuttoned over the faded blue singlet, the rolled-up sleeves, the baggy dungarees, the greasy moccasins, the immense soft-skinned hands, then flicked back to the heavily bristled jaw and the elaborate moustache.
“You know, friend, if we were truly smart fellows we’d be lawyers. Both of us. Call ourselves Whitewash and Fleece’m – got to be easier money in pettifoggery than honest graft, don’t you think? Anyway, the name’s Bob – Bob Dunstan.”
Somewhat bemused by his offbeat banter, Big Sean tentatively shook the man’s proffered hand. “Sean McGrath.”
“So tell me Sean, what’s made your day so – four schooners, thank-you barman! Sorry ’bout that,” said Dunstan turning again to the shearer. “You’ve had a lousy day?”
Big Sean rolled his eyes, leaned back groaning against the bar and embarked on a lurid account of his bedevilled hours . . .
In the men’s lavatory, meanwhile, Chicka dropped a forlorn gaze from the louvred window and zipped his pants. No. Surely it couldn’t be. He flushed the urinal and stooped for a closer look. Yes indeed, the crescent edge of a one-dollar coin protruded narrowly beneath a yellow-brown deodorant block in the bottom of the stainless-steel trough. “Filthy lucre, Bro,” he murmured with a wry smile – but how to retrieve it and not befoul his fingers and hands, nor incur the repugnance of anyone entering the lavatory during the salvage operation?
A solution presented itself, though he would need to work quickly if he were to avert discovery. Running hot water into the hand-basin, Chicka made thin suds with a tablet of hand-soap. Then he fetched a toilet brush from the adjacent cubicle, pausing on his return to pick up a metal ashtray the size of a shoebox from the tiled floor. Crouching side-on to the urinal, he nudged aside the toilet block with the brush, swept the coin into the ashtray and, rising spritely, tipped it into the hand-basin. A hasty rinse and he pocketed the coin, returned the brush and the ashtray to their rightful places then strolled to the poker-machine room, an alcove off the bar.
Chicka peeked into the gloomy recess – all eight machines seemed occupied, two women and five men sitting on stools and staring straight ahead, grimly besotted by the tumbling, blinking banks of colour, utterly deaf to the farrago of digitalised jingles that fanfared every winning combination, no matter how miserly. Two women and five men . . . frowning, Chicka stalked the vacant machine to the corner of the alcove where stood, tall and imposing, King Colossus, a five-reel monument to gambling’s ineffable folly. Chicka put his dollar in the slot and King Colossus promptly rung up one hundred one-cent credits.
“Five bucks, Bro,” he begged the machine. “Just five lousy bucks – enough for a pint, eh?”
He stabbed the play buttons, five credits per line over twenty lines, and shied away, unable to watch, dreading the outcome as the wheels began to spin. Clunk, clunk, clunk – clunk, clunk, they fell. An intolerable moment of silence, then King Colossus delivered a frenzied broadside from its synthesised keyboard. Chicka spun round. Five scattered colossi – fifteen free spins, with bonus credits for every subsequent colossus appearing anywhere on any reel.
Chicka gaped, gasped and swallowed, grimy fingers caressing scrawny throat. The credit meter fluttered and whirled – five thousand, seven thousand, ten thousand, eleven thousand, twenty-thousand credits – two hundred dollars! – before the reels stopped spinning and the digitalised music expired. Chicka licked dry lips. Should he chance it, double or nothing, red or black? He rapped the black button. Yet another synthesised salvo and across the screen there flashed in bold crimson lettering, CONGRATULATIONS, YOU WIN! PLAY AGAIN?
Horny was hugely unamused. Always satisfied to watch punters throw their money into his hoppers, now he appeared curiously strained, as in the throes of acute constipation, whenever winners asked to collect – a rare enough occurrence – especially winnings like Chicka’s windfall.
“Here you go, Chicka. Four hundred dollars. Sign here.”
Chicka could barely hold the pen.
Horny counted eight fifty-dollar notes on to the bar.
“Now, Chicka. You’re bar tab.”
“Sure, Bro. Whatever I owe you.”
Chicka glanced across the bar-room. Big Sean, his back to Chicka, had moved away from the bar and was holding forth among the painters.
“Horny?” whispered Chicka.
“Mmmm,” growled the publican, plucking two fifties from the stack (how it galled him to pay himself with money he considered his very own).
“Get us two pints, will you . . . and don’t say anything to Big Sean about this, eh?”
“Mum’s the word, all right? I’ll get your beers and your change.”
Chicka folded and poked his winnings in his shirt pocket behind his tobacco tin, then ferried the pints around the bar.
“Thought you were broke,” said Big Sean taking a pint and handing Chicka his empty. “I had to drink the one I shouted you ’cause it was gettin’ hot. Anyway, where you been?”
“Seein’ a man about a horse,” Chicka replied.
He put Big Sean’s empty glass on the bar and turned back to the group, suddenly and sorely aware the men were regarding him with expressions more satirical than welcoming. Chicka extended his hand to the nearest, Bob Dunstan, who shook it heartily.
“Chicka’s the name. I’ve seen you ’round the once or twice – paint houses, do you, Bro?”
Restless, Big Sean rocked on is heels.
“Tell Chicka what you just told me. Go on, Bob, tell him.”
Dunstan took a sip from his schooner, meeting Chicka’s mystified gawk with a twinkling steady eye; his workmates turned away shaking their heads.
“Are you familiar, friend,” Dunstan began, “with that old proverb, ‘Misfortune comes by the yard and goes by the inch’?”
“No, Bro,” said Chicka. “Does it mean somethin’ like, ‘Don’t count your chickens until they’re hatched’?”
“No, not quite – ”
“‘It ain’t over ’til the fat lady sings’?”
“Well – ”
“‘Don’t put all you’re eggs in one basket’?”
“Jesus wept, Chicka!” Big Sean groaned. “Give the bloke a go, will you?”
“I’m sorry, Bro,” said Chicka trying to look contrite. “But I’m in a very, very buoyant frame of mind, that’s all. Sorry to interrupt. Go on – please.”
Big Sean drilled him with a suspicious sidelong stare.
“You’re all right, friend,” Dunstan smiled with a hint of polished denture. “I’m not crying over spilt milk.”
“Ah-ha!” cried Chicka. “‘A dog, a woman and a walnut tree – the more you beat them, the better they be.’”
“Chicka!” rumbled Big Sean, his patience unravelling.
Dunstan contained an impulse to laugh outright.
“Anyway, to cut a long story short . . . we four, the men and I, we came up from Sydney to do a job for the Housing Department. Three places up on Bingarra Circuit to be painted inside and out – a good job, a good week’s work. We’ve been staying here at the pub and that’s why you might’ve seen us, but that’s beside the point. Every morning we’ve gone to work early and come back late in the afternoon. Five long days, they were, and in that time we wouldn’t have drunk more than a half-dozen schooners between us. Abstemiousness was our by-word – get in, get the job done then get back to Sydney for the weekend. You’d know the score, wouldn’t you, friend?”
“Too right I do, Bro,” Chicka agreed.
Dunstan took a mouthful of beer.
“We couldn’t believe how helpful the tenants were. Absolutely marvellous, lugging furniture from room to room, morning and afternoon tea all laid on for us – coffee, tea, soft drinks, scones, fruitcake, biscuits. ‘It’s true,’ I told the men, ‘bush people are the friendliest, the most hospitable folk you’ll ever encounter. They can’t do enough for you.’ So we put that little bit extra into the job, you know, made it mickey-smick seeing as they looked after us so well.
“Well, this afternoon we finished the job and the inspector from the Department came to pass the work. He looked in here, he checked out there, he put his nose in everywhere, scratching his head, scribbling notes on a clipboard. Then he came up and he said to us, ‘It’s a top job, chaps, really first class . . . but I can’t authorise payment.’ ‘Why not?’ says I. ‘You’ve just told us the work’s good, the job’s right – ”
“Job’s right!” Chicka yowled. “I’m gonna get me a twelve-gauge – ”
“Shut-up, Chicka,” snarled Big Sean.
“I know, I know.” Chicka studied his bruised finger. “Just a flashback, Bro.”
Dunstan looked nonplussed.
“As I was saying,” he continued, “this inspector fellow said he couldn’t authorise payment because – well, because we’d painted the wrong bloody houses.”
“Be buggered,” said Chicka, repressing the urge to fall down in a fit of hysterics. “The wrong houses, eh? Well, that sure is something. So what’re you gonna do now, Bro?”
“We’ve got to stay on another week. And we’ll paint the right ones this time, I’ll give you the drum. Anyway, this inspector – he seemed a decent enough sort of fellow, as far as inspectors go – he said he’d try to rectify our snafu. We’ll just have to wait and see.”
“Snafu?” Chicka queried, tears of merriment glistening in his eyes.
“Situation normal all fouled up,” Dunstan replied matter-of-factly.
“Makes our day look like a Sunday school picnic, eh Bro” said Chicka blinking at Big Sean. “Hey, what’re you blokes drinkin’, Bob?”
“We’re in a shout, thanks all the same, friend,” said Dunstan.
“No. It’s my buy, Bro. I insist – ”
“Well, if you insist – ”
“ – And two pints!” Big Sean added hastily.
Chicka went to the bar and placed the order. Plucking the folded notes from his shirt, peeling off a fifty, waiting for the beers, he sensed an onerous presence at his left shoulder.
“Where’d you get all that loot?”
“Ask me no questions and I’ll tell you no lies, Bro.”
Big Sean caressed his stubbled jaw with lanolin-softened fingertips.
“Reckon you could lend me a couple of them pineapples, Chicka. I’m runnin’ a bit short meself.”
A Bite of Bluegrass
“ME TEETH, QUILL – haven’t found ’em, have yer?”
The query carried not a trace of refinement. Or friendliness. It was the command, clipped and clamorous, of a drill-sergeant on parade. And Tangles came stalking across the footworn carpet in heel-slapping thongs, on bony flamingo-pink legs jutting from powder-blue shorts, his stiffness of carriage evidently calculated to stamp his predicament with a semblance of soldierly dignity.
“I can’t find me teeth anywhere – some lousy bastard’s knocked ’em off!”
Swabbing out the ashtray under the foot-rail beneath the bar-counter, Quill paused, stood the mop in the bucket and leaned on the handle.
“Now why would anyone want to swipe your choppers, Tangles?” he grinned. “There’s no one can operate ’em as well as you do.”
“It’s no joke,” Tangles rasped crossly. The nutcracker face hung grooved and grog-blossomed under his peaked cap; the lipless mouth minus upper denture, a partial plate, reminded Quill of a gapped and rusted crosscut saw.
“I got a gut-full of tawny port last night. Didn’t know who I was, where I was or what time it was when I went to bed – not under here, are they?” He stooped and squinted under the pool table.
“No, mate. I’ve already vacuumed under there.”
“What about the dunny?”
“Nope. I’ve mopped them out. No pearly whites grinning at me in the piss-trough – nor in the bottom of the women’s crapper, for that matter.”
Tangles glared at Quill through angry slits, their raw edges swollen, blood-shot.
“When I want to talk to a clown I’ll go to the friggin’ circus. All right?” But his anger died as quickly as it had flared and he almost pleaded, “Not behind the bar are they, Quill?”
“Don’t think so. Ask Horny when he comes downstairs. He shouldn’t be long. It’s almost opening time.”
Tangles grunted and strutted down the bar, moving aside chairs, tables, bar-stools; he looked behind the jukebox and the gas-heaters, ran a bleary eye along skirting boards and window ledges, peered into blind corners.
“What about your bed?” prompted Quill, drawing the mop-head through the rollers. “Not tangled in your sheets, are they?”
“I’ve pulled the bastard to bits. No, they’re not there. Can’t find ’em anywhere.”
Tangles placed both hands flat on the bar-top. “I need ’em ’cause I gotta drive Big Sean to Bunyah this mornin’. Bugger of a track, too,” he grumbled. “Single-lane gravel, five-dozen creek crossings, uphill all the way. Dunno how I got meself roped into it – piss talk, probably.”
The lobby door wheezed and clicked and Horny Horne bustled into the bar.
“Ah, Tangles . . .” The publican’s eyebrows rose in hoary arches on his broad shiny forehead and he enquired in a surgeon’s bedside manner, “And how are we feeling this morning?”
“Crook as Rookwood, if you really must know. I don’t ––”
Horny raised a silencing finger. “You realise I had to throw you out last night . . . when you got back here from the RSL club full to the gills with your . . . your little brown soldiers?”
“I don’t remember a thing – ”
“Oh, good,” beamed the publican, relishing the moment. “Then you wouldn’t remember flinging yourself down on the floor when I told you to go?”
“Banging your fists and kicking your legs like a brat throwing a tantrum in a supermarket?”
“Roaring and bawling that you’d stay just where you were – until doomsday if need be – until I served you another drink?”
Tangles pursed his lips. “Many people in the bar, were there?”
“Couple of dozen. Oh, they enjoyed the performance, Tangles. A real show-stopper it was. Just about the closest thing anyone’s ever seen to a galah that’s been hit on the head with a stick – and just as noisy.”
“Holy snappin’ duck-shit . . .”
“Y-e-s,” drawled Horny. “Goodness me, how everyone cheered when Kel Culper finally picked you up and slung you over his shoulder and carted you bucking and bellowing up the stairs to your room.”
“I’m sorry,” Tangles said tersely.
“Apology accepted. I know you’ll never again do anything even remotely like that.” Horny’s gimlet-eyed graciousness conveyed an unambiguous significance. “Well, now that that’s all over and done with, how can I help you?”
“He’s looking for his teeth,” said Quill. “Needs them to drive to Bunyah today.”
“Going to wave and smile at the gum trees, are you Tangles?” twittered Horny.
“Smart-arses, both of you . . . fair dinkum, I’ve lost ’em, Horny. Haven’t seen ’em, have yer? Not behind the bar, are they?”
“No. But if I do find them I’ll be sure to put them away. Can’t be putting the bite on me if they’re locked up safe and sound, heh-heh!”
Tangles about-turned and, tossing a look of lethal disdain over his shoulder, flip-flopped ramrod-straight out of the bar.
The mopping finished, and with it the clean-up after yesterday’s trading, Quill emptied the slops out the back, stowed the mop and bucket then took a stool at the bar. After fiddling and fussing and finally opening a tardy cash drawer with a bang of his big fist, Horny paid Quill for his labour, switched on the air-conditioning and unlocked the doors to the street, then pulled off the warm beer from the lines into a plastic bucket. When it was pouring amber and cold, he filled a pint and placed before Quill the first of two freebies, a bonus wrung from Horny by Quill for having hauled himself downstairs at short notice that morning after Katie the cleaner had phoned in sick.
Another scorching, stifling drought-stricken day. Horny leaned an elbow on the bar and flicked through the Sydney newspapers – The Last Resort was open for business.
HIS back to an air-vent, its cool draught drying the sweat from his T-shirt, Quill sipped his beer and allowed his thoughts to roam. They settled, inexplicably, upon the subject of teeth, sound teeth, in particular their scarcity among the residents of The Last Resort. Though full and partial dentures might mask many a gapped and gummy smile, the truth of it was: if all of their healthy teeth were extracted and installed in a single skull, its owner should survive only by eating foods mashed and ground to pulp – hash, in a word, such is the appalling lack of incisors, canines and molars among the tenants.
Quill dismissed out of hand any notion of wisdom teeth . . . but he smiled thinking of Speck, the terminally comatose gnome with the handbag of moselle permanently attached to his arm. Some weeks ago Speck had mislaid his dentures; he had searched for them high and low, or so he complained in a slurred whine to all he encountered. Days wore on, and so did Speck’s whingeing. Then one morning he lurched on to the veranda sporting a sunny though lopsided grin. Where had he found his teeth, the assemblage demanded of him. “’N the backer me freezer, unner the snags,” Speck had burbled with great effort. No one questioned or even doubted his explanation; nor did they alert him to the fact that he had managed, somehow, to install his dentures upside down . . .
“Horny!” – the strident summons rent the silent bar. Horny and Quill flinched in unison. Neither had heard nor seen Tangles enter the bar through the beer-garden door. “Six long-necks – and make it snappy, chappie!” And he grinned in malicious triumph.
“Why Tangles, you’ve found your teeth,” observed the publican, his thinning grey hair settling back on to his scalp. “Wherever were they?”
“Under me bed.”
Quill opened his mouth but Tangles ambushed any rejoinder.
“Just don’t ask me how they got there because . . . I . . . don’t . . . know!”
Horny placed the bottles on the bar and Tangles paid for them.
“Gotta hit the track. See yez later.”
“Yeah. Hoo-roo, Tangles,” said Quill.
“Tangles,” said Horny.
“You will go straight to your room when you get back to the pub, won’t you, if you should encounter any little brown soldiers on your travels today?”
Tangles snorted and strode away into the beer garden.
“Would you like your second pint now, Quill?” said Horny, a fresh glass poised under the beer tap.
“No thanks. I’m going upstairs to bathe the body beautiful. I’ll have it when I come back down.”
A little more than an hour later, breakfasted, showered, shaven, freshly changed, Quill had resumed his seat in the deserted bar when Chicka scuttled frazzled and gasping off the street in a blast of heat and traffic noise. He peeled off his sunglasses and subsided on the bar-stool next to Quill.
“Gonna be a warm one, Bro,” he panted, sleeving runnels of perspiration from his forehead.
“A real stinker,” Quill conceded. “Boil a waterbag in the shade.”
Chicka probed the bar-room with rheumy eyes. “Good place to build a pub. Where’s Horny?”
“In the bottle-shop, at a guess.”
Chicka nodded, dug a pouch from his shirt and began to roll a smoke.
“Shoulda seen Tangles and Big Sean this mornin’, Bro.”
“Up home. Just then. They picked up me buck ferret. Takin’ him to do the job on a bitch belongin’ to a mate of Sean’s. Up Bunyah way.”
“Drunk, were they?”
“Legless. Tawny port and long-necks.”
“So, what’s new?”
“Nothin’, I s’pose. But ol’ Gonads sure showed ’em who’s boss. Thirteen-week-old buck ferret and built like a wombat, he is – and wild, Bro, real wild. Nearly tore their friggin’ arms off – hey, Horny! You sell beer here or what?”
The publican had trundled back into the bar and stood now smiling at Chicka over the beer taps.
“Sorry to keep you waiting, Chicka. A young lady – oh, and a very attractive lass, I might add – well, she wanted a bottle of nice red wine, so she said. Now I just had to show her my extensive cellar, didn’t I?”
“So long as that’s all you showed her. Gimme a schooner, Bro.”
“Having that pint now, Quill?”
“Thanks. Now, Chicka. This ferret of yours – Gonads, is that what you call it?”
Horny tried not to eavesdrop as he pulled the beers.
“Yeah, Gonads. American pedigree ferret. Paid top dollar for him . . .”
“Well?” said Quill after a moment, but Chicka had fastened his attention solely on the beer that Horny was about to place before him. Then Quill and the publican watched enthralled as Chicka tossed it back, his larynx bobbing up and down like an emu trying to swallow a golf-ball stuck halfway down its neck.
Chicka belched robustly and put the empty glass on the bar, and knuckling tears from his eyes, whispered breathlessly, “That was so, so good, Bro. Give me another one.”
He seemed to be drifting off to a parallel universe and Quill obliged himself to haul him back to the here and now.
“C’mon Chicka. What’s with this Yankee ferret and those mutilated arms and legs?”
Chicka blinked then grinned, “Only their arms, Bro. Only their arms. Shoulda seen ’em. But I warned ’em, so I did. I told ’em when we were walkin’ up the back yard – well, I was doin’ the walkin’, they were staggerin’ all over the place. Anyway, I says, ‘Whatever you do, just don’t put your hand in the pen. Right?’
“So we gets there and Big Sean looks over the fence and he sees Gonads and he says, ‘Aw, he’s only a squirt. Wouldn’t hurt a fly. I had ferrets – real ferrets, big as ponies – when I was a kid. I know how to handle the bastards. Fact is, there’s not much I don’t know about ’em, even if I do say so meself’. Then he dumps his great paw over the fence.
“Well, ol’ Gonads thinks this is a real treat – fresh meat, Bro! So he sinks his teeth into Big Sean – snick-a-snick-a-snick, like a bloody sewing machine – from his wrist right up to his elbow.”
Horny and Quill traded chuckle for wink as Horny put Chicka’s schooner before him. Chicka took a lush mouthful and smacked his lips.
“So, while Big Sean’s swearin’ an’ fallin’ around an’ tryin’ to stop the bleedin’, Tangles spots the weldin’ glove that I handle ol’ Gonads with – a gauntlet I think they call ’em – anyway, he pounces on it. ‘My brains’ll beat your brawn any way yer look at it, yer friggin’ dimwit’, he shouts at Big Sean, an’ drags the glove on his right arm – then drops his left arm into the pen!” Horny roared and thumped the bar, his face turning an alarming shade of puce as he fought to catch breath through his belly-laughter; Quill came within a snort of wetting himself. Shuddering and spluttering they whinnied and brayed until at length Chicka stilled their unbridled amusement with a gesture, though the odd snigger still ruffled the hush he had meant to impose.
“And Tangles got stitched up too?” puffed Horny at last.
“Too right, Bro!”
Again, raucous laugher crashed around the bar.
“But get this,” Chicka shouted over their wholesale hilarity. “Tangles is bleedin’ all over the place – right? But . . . but while he’s cursin’ an’ carryin’ on like a lunatic, he’s tryin’ to dig his handkerchief out of his pocket with the hand with the weldin’ glove on!”
The publican threw back his head, hissed like overwrought steam engine and promptly flushed ripe mulberry. He waved his arms in circles, stamped his feet, toppled sideways, but managed to grab the bar with a beefy hand and pivot upright before he could tumble to the floor. And while he hacked and hawked, the weeping and whooping Quill used his bar-stool to drag himself, convulsing, up from his knees. Chicka took a deep drag on his cigarette and let fly a stream of smoke through the yellowed palisade of remnant teeth, then downed the remainder of his beer.
“Give me another one, Bro.”
“I could’ve sold a million tickets to a show like that – would’ve made a truckload of money,” ventured the publican, his composure somewhat restored by the notion of riches unrealised. “Here, Chicka, this one’s on me.”
He placed a fresh schooner before the stupefied ferret raiser – stupefied because everyone knew, Chicka only too well, that Horny Horne was chronically averse to any prospect of having to put his short arm in his long pocket. In fact it was rumoured – reliably, of course – that Horny still hoarded play-lunch money from his schooldays in an old Arnott’s biscuit tin under his bed, and counted it before he retired every night.
An electronic buzzer sounded behind the bar; someone had walked into the bottle-shop and Horny hastened away to dance attendance.
The talk between Chicka and Quill dwindled and fizzled out. They lapsed into an amiable silence while they sipped and smoked and stared blankly at the lines of motor vehicles, reversed in the bar mirror, moving through the traffic lights at the intersection outside the hotel.
THE Last Resort is a renovated relic of the six o’clock swill, an era of antediluvian liquor laws, when at day’s end parched workingmen packed the public bar, conveniently tiled toilet-style from floor to ceiling, lining up beers and guzzling them down, one after another, in the boisterous boozy crush before closing time at six. And in those days of gender segregation, a lady was consigned, with her escort, to the tiny dim private bar or, unescorted, to the parlour, the sow-pen, to sip a shandy or a sweet sherry. Furthermore, the abundance of tiles made the pub cleaner’s job fairly simple: he merely hosed out the broken glass, the spilled beer, the blood and the puke after the throng had staggered off into the evening.
Times and customs change. These days The Last Resort trades on a twenty-four hour licence, though Horny opts to close its doors at ten o’clock, even earlier – much earlier – if he deems business too slow. Gone are the glazed nicotine-tinted tiles, overlain now by wall-to-wall carpet of indistinct hue and panels of artificial wainscotting. Gone too are the private bar and the parlour, both torn down, their respective spaces incorporated into the one area occupying most of the ground floor.
The hotel has endured almost eighty years on an extensive block of prime real estate at the foot of Bridgetown’s main street, where it huddles against the eastern approach to the Brogan River Bridge, flush with the intersection of the east-west Brogan and the north-south Evans Highways. Its bricks and mortar have withstood two mighty floods, both in the 1950s, when the surging waters peaked at barely schooner-glass clearance of the lofty ceiling in the public bar.
Four decades on, The Bridgetown Gazette declared the placement of the town’s first set of traffic lights outside The Last Resort – though the hotel was not mentioned in the editorial – as irrefutable proof of the town’s coming-of-age. At long last, official recognition – at State level, no less, via the Roads and Traffic Authority – as an advanced regional centre of unquestionable mercantile significance. The Gazette’s rhapsodising was arrant twaddle, of course. Bridgetown is, and destined to remain, a torpid backwater for which the worthy citizenry might thank its myopic municipal minders.
Some sort of activity, reflected deep in the bar mirror, stiffened Chicka’s wilted spine. He sat up, stock-still, and peered beyond the smeared and flyspecked surface, his schooner stalled halfway to his lips.
“No-o-o,” he breathed through a slow-breaking smile. “Look at that, Bro. Might be a bit of excitement over there in a minute.”
Quill sat puzzling; try as he might he could see nothing, not a thing in the mirror that might warrant close observation. All at once Chicka was on his feet. Beer in hand, he skipped over the carpet to a bench by a window affording an unrestricted view of the intersection.
“Get over here – quick, Bro!”
Sighing, Quill unravelled rangy legs from his bar-stool and took his beer to the window where Chicka sat as eager as a schoolboy awaiting the start of a Wild West movie matinee.
“See that truck next to the sports car?”
Quill could see them. Both vehicles had stopped at the head of two-lane traffic at the bottom of the main street. The open sports car, a sky-blue MG-B restored to showroom splendour, idled in the inside lane, waiting to turn right past the pub. The shabby old farm truck, carting a long-legged Holstein milking cow in a lopsided steel crate, shimmered in a haze of engine fumes ready to lumber westward over the bridge.
“Look! Look!” urged Chicka.
Above and athwart of the sports car, the Holstein had arched its tail and backed itself up against the rusted grille, hind legs spread wide of an ample, pendulous udder. Down below, in the MG’s two-seater compartment, the nattily turned-out driver was flirting with a young woman who viewed her world through enormous designer sunglasses, her hair tied back in a fetchingly lustrous saffron headscarf – a handsome, stylish, city couple evidently delighting in each other’s company on an exhilarating jaunt through the countryside.
Ever so casually the Holstein hunched its big bony black-and-white rump. The girlfriend, with a brilliant display of flawless teeth, threw back her comely face in frank enjoyment of her consort’s apparent witty remarks. Then there descended from on high a golden cascade that arced across the compartment, drenching the astounded couple, the hapless damsel twice enduring the downpour as it splashed outward over the car then receded to a trickle over the side of the truck.
The lights turned green but no one went anywhere. Traffic stood stone still. Drivers and passengers hung gawking out of windows as the dishevelled lass clambered over the side of the MG, her companion scrambling after her heels. Stamping a daintily sandalled foot on the asphalt, her chestnut tresses dangling in sodden hanks over her shoulders, wet blouse clinging to her breasts, she regaled the truck driver with a tirade of indignation and brandished the soggy scarf as if emphasising the magnitude of her outrage. The driver leaned a brawny arm and an impassive sunburned face out of his window. The aggrieved girlfriend repeatedly jabbed an accusatorial finger back at the crate, in which the Holstein had about-faced itself, and stood now ruminating in bovine wonder at the brouhaha of which it was the unwitting object.
The plainly uncomprehending truck driver pushed a sweat-stained hat to the back of his head and thoughtfully picked his nose. The girl broke down in tears and dashed back to the MG, hands clasped over her face, while her boyfriend took up the issue using a succession of mild-mannered explanatory gesticulations. The truck driver at length understood. He craned grinning through his window and looked back at the cow, which, raising its head, turned to him and voiced a drawn-out and melancholy moo, as if deeply cut by such histrionics over what, after all, was an innocent answer to a call of nature. With a parting shrug, a broad smile and a crunch of gears, the driver gunned his motor and the truck set off moaning over the bridge, leaving the intersection wreathed in diesel smoke.
“Oh – ooh, that’s terrible!” Horny wailed, breaking the thrall of jollity in which Chicka and Quill were revelling. Unnoticed by either larrikin, the publican had come to the window bench where he had stood behind them, smitten to silence by the couple’s plight. He raked plump fingers through his hair and shook his head. “We can’t just leave them in a mess like that. They’ll need to clean up, for goodness sake. I’ll see if they want to shower. Keep an eye on the bar. If anyone comes into the bottle-shop, tell them I’ll be back in a minute.”
He bound through the door on to the street, hallooing and beckoning. Traffic, meanwhile, had started to crawl down the outside lane, following the truck across the bridge; but vehicles wanting to turn right were still blocked by the stationary MG, while its driver leaned across the compartment trying to coax the aggrieved girlfriend back into the car. She relented only when a chorus of cars hooted impatiently behind them. And as the MG swung round the corner, Horny finally caught the boyfriend’s attention with a piercing up-country whistle and manic waving in the direction of the hotel carpark entrance. Chicka and Quill next glimpsed the bedraggled, dismal couple being ushered into the foyer and up the stairs by the solicitous Horny, who chatted volubly while obligingly carrying their overnight bags, one under each arm.
Chicka and Quill were making light of the incident, no one having entered the hotel to interrupt their amusement, when there sounded a loud bang, followed by the harsh clattering of steel on road metal. A mini-bus towing a box-trailer – The Riverina Bluebelles Bluegrass Band painted on its peaked canvas cover – had stopped dead in the roadway right outside their observation post. Quill noted the expressions of sudden alarm and ensuing anxiety animate the faces, all of them female, at the windows.
“It’s dropped a universal joint,” asserted Chicka, an acknowledged authority in certain circles, including the constabulary, on the intricacies of bush mechanics. “That bus’s goin’ nowhere, Bro. They’ll have to tow it or push it out of the way.”
The bus door folded inward and out into the harsh sunlight stepped the driver, a tall, slim woman of mature years, rigged out in blue jeans, crimson short-sleeve blouse, black neckerchief and a flat-crowned felt hat of the type favoured by well-to-do pastoralists. She got down on her knees and looked under the bus. Seeing the tail-shaft collapsed on the roadway, she stood up, planted her fists on her hips and looked about, frustration, inquiry and determination vying for dominion of her features.
“Make you feel good, did it, doing your boy-scout deed for the day, eh, Bro?” Chicka called to Horny as the publican, streaming perspiration and smiling like the Cheshire cat, hastened through the lobby door. “It’s our turn now. Tail shaft’s dropped outa that bus out there . . . wouldn’t believe it, would you? C’mon, Quill – finish your beer and we’ll give the ladies a hand.”
“Wonders never cease,” said Horny, snatching a peek through the window as he scurried by the bench and darted behind the bar.
With the female passengers lending combined effort – eight in all, and a remarkably robust middle-aged crew, Quill conceded – they rolled the mini-bus and its single-bogey trailer into the carpark, though the sun poured down on them like liquid fire, and brought them to a halt by the MG.
A modest but nonetheless attentive mobbing and genuine expressions of gratitude riffled by chiming, silvery laughter rewarded Chicka and Quill’s neighbourly gesture. Chicka broke away from the gathering, leaving a nonplussed and uneasy Quill to contend with these gently animated women, country women of sun-tanned face, firm of hand-shake, of minimal make-up and knowing, twinkling eyes patently amused by his boyish awkwardness. Chicka met the driver as she alighted from the bus. They conversed in earnest then got to their knees on the blistering asphalt, the woman frowning and nodding while Chicka talked quickly and with much authority, pointing at various parts of the bus’s underside.
Rising to his feet, slapping the dust from his knees, Chicka turned and announced, “Thank-you ladies, your attention please!” The women observed a polite silence. “I regret to inform you that your journey will be delayed while your broken tail-shaft is replaced. This may take several hours. But the good Lord be praised for small mercies, because you’ve broken down at The Last Resort, the finest and friendliest pub in Bridgetown. I suggest you collect your personal effects from the bus, then proceed forthwith to the cool comfort of the bar where mine host, Theodore Horne – better known as Horny – will furnish you with ice-cold tinctures and lotions of your choosing. This way, please.”
“Where’d you learn to talk like that?” said Quill, as they led the women toward the hotel’s main entrance. “Have you ever considered becoming an emcee, a moderator . . . a spruiker . . . a ringmaster, perhaps?”
“Hey, Bro, I’m not as silly as I look,” he protested. “I did an English course while I was in the can doing those eight years for manslaughter. Anyway, the old girl just said she’d give me fifty bucks, cash-money, to find another universal joint and put it in. So I’m on a bit of a high – savvy?”
Tentative new respect for his emaciated acquaintance with the tattooed face overtook the confounded Quill.
THE bar was silent, gloomy, but ever so refreshingly, captivatingly cool. Horny glanced up from his newspaper and flushed radiant at the extraordinary influx of patrons. Positively oozing the universal publican’s compliant pleasantness, he folded the paper on the bar-top, hitched his pants up around his beer-belly and stood waiting behind the bar as the women trooped in chatting and laughing through the glass doors. In their jeans, riding boots, western-style blouses and hats they looked like RSL club line-dancers. Chicka and Quill brought up their rear, shepherding the gladdening flock into the bar-room. Four of their charges immediately sought the restroom.
For fifteen frantic minutes Horny smiled and sweated and bowed and bent and scraped. He poured scotches and dry and ice, gins and tonic, several beers, an ice water and a couple of lemon squashes; he sold crisps, peanuts and a packet of buffalo jerky. And all the while his cash-piano played an engagingly lively tune. The women then drifted away from the bar and sat at some tables scattered before the tiny low bandstand, by the wall, opposite the jukebox. Chicka, Quill and the red-headed bus driver, who had introduced herself as Helga – Helga McIntyre from Deniliquin –ilda Hilda stood talking with Horny at the bar although Quill, about as mechanically minded as a gnat, was excluded when the conversation veered to the problem of the broken universal joint.
Presently all was arranged. Chicka would use Horny’s phone to canvass quotes for a replacement joint from local wrecking yards, then he would borrow Horny’s toolbox to carry out repairs once a substitute, of an acceptable price, had been located and delivered COD to the carpark. Helga McIntyre handed Chicka three fifty-dollar notes, with the instruction to “come and see me at once should the part costs more than a hundred”. And yes, the girls would require light luncheon, she informed Horny in a voice possessing the timbre of whisky-steeped mahogany, since it was “too damned hot for one to go gallivanting up the street in quest of salad rolls and such like”.
“I regret the hotel kitchen’s out of commission, but I’ll send out for plates of mixed sandwiches . . . if you like. There’s a most reputable sandwich bar, Royce’s Cake Shop, up the road a bit. Their prices are most reasonable, I assure you,” gushed Horny. “Will that be sufficient, do you think?”
“Quite,” Helga McIntyre replied crisply. “But they’re not under any circumstances to put cucumber on those sandwiches. I simply cannot countenance the stuff. Speaking for myself, I find cucumbers to be on par with chocos – you know those wretched things that seem only to thrive when they’re overgrowing dilapidated outhouses? Never could fathom the mentality of people who sing their praises, never mind sitting down and actually tucking into a plate of the damned things. Why, even my late husband’s porkers turned up their noses at chocos.”
Horny, Chicka and Quill nodded in solemn agreement, for she seemed rather formidable to them, did Helga McIntyre from Deniliquin.
Suddenly she turned a stare on Horny that nailed him wide-eyed to the wall.
“I take it the girls can bring their instruments into the hotel? Some live bluegrass might lighten the atmosphere. Seems quite drear in here, don’t you think?”
“Oh, quite – I mean, yes, indeed,” he flustered. “If you and your friends want to play some music, it would be most welcome. Music doth soothe the savage beast, as they say – heh-heh!”
“They most certainly do not,” Helga McIntyre corrected primly. “‘Music has charms to soothe a savage breast.’ – William Congreve, The Morning Bride. It serves one well to get one’s quotations correct, my dear sir. Doesn’t make one look quite so . . . so unenlightened.”
“Why of course, Ms McIntyre,” said Horny, chastened and reddening. “Can I get you another drink?”
“Same again, thank you.”
“Now, ah, it was a scotch and . . .?”
“Ice. Three cubes, no splits. Otherwise, it’s more scotch.”
“I see,” whispered Horny.
“Icy?” Helga McIntyre regarded Horny with the predacious glare of a red hen espying a plump earthworm in a corner of the chook-yard. “Do you mean to imply that my demeanour, my disposition is cold? Well, I never! Look, sir, I can tell you that I’ve long learned to speak my mind, if that’s what you mean. I find that dispassionate forthrightness dispels a lot of falderal and hoo-ha. Strengthens one’s constitution too, you know; and candour’s a capital remedy for constipation, physical and emotional.”
“Why, of course ma’am. I meant no offence.”
Helga McIntyre allowed the publican the benefit of her doubt.
Horny pulled beers for Chicka and Quill. The bottle-shop alarm sounded and Horny almost galloped out of the bar, away from this redoubtable redhead, leaving Chicka and Helga McIntyre to resume talk of universal joints and tail shafts.
A shortish, plumpish woman in a voluminous straw cowboy hat got up from a table and came to the bar, standing next to Quill.
“I’d kill for another G and T,” she said.
“The publican’s ducked out to the bottle-shop. He’ll be back shortly,” Quill told her, adding hurriedly, “I understand you ladies play bluegrass?”
“Indeed we do,” said the woman pleasantly. “But in truth we’re just a bunch of blue-rinsed boilers – wild and wanton widows and divorcees whose chief interests in life now are bluegrass and lawn bowls . . . and the odd tipple.”
“At the same time?” said Quill, trying for levity.
“Heavens no,” she giggled. “You can’t play a banjo with a lawn bowl, but I suppose you can get a drink most anywhere, anytime. Does that tell you anything?”
Quill smiled, at a loss.
“I’m Dulcie Burns.” She bared a set of gleaming dentures. “Dulce to my friends.” Her sea-green eyes, probing from under the expansive hat brim, lingered over Quill’s clean-shaven features.
“Quill,” he said simply, squirming under her scrutiny. “Pleased to meet you, Dulce.” He cast a hesitant glance about the bar. “All you ladies from Deniliquin?”
“Yes. We’re heading home to Deni. Been up the Central Coast for a week playing music, playing bowls and playing up. It’s been a great trip, until this morning’s mishap, that is. But then we’ve learned to expect the unexpected . . . and to make the best of it. Isn’t that right, Macca?” She addressed her remark to Helga McIntyre.
“What’s that, Dulce?” said Helga McIntyre, abruptly disengaging from Chicka’s effusive tail-shaft talk.
“I said The Bluebelles always make light going of heavy weather.”
“Of course we do,” Helga McIntyre replied emphatically. “Speaking of which, our mechanically-minded friend here” – she jerked a thumb over her shoulder at Chicka – “can get cracking and find that replacement universal joint, and we can get our instruments. Mine host says he’s no objection to a song or two. Might brighten up the place somewhat.” She swept the bar with a look of disdain. “Heaven knows, it’s grim in here.”
“Good-oh, Macca,” said Dulcie Burns. “Can you get me a G and T – a double?” she murmured to Quill. She produced a twenty-dollar note from the hip pocket of her jeans.
“I can give you a hand, if you like,” mumbled Quill taking the note, “With the instruments, that is.”
“No, no, no, thanks all the same. We’ve been lugging them all over the countryside for seven years now, Tilpa to Tamworth and all points between. We’ll be right. Just make sure there’s a G and T waiting for me – double, no ice,” Ducie Burns admonished with a girlish wink. She turned away and called to the troupe, “Show-time, girls – let’s set up!”
DOUBLE bass, violin, banjo, guitar, dobro and mandolin – the standard bluegrass line-up thumped, whined, plunked, planked, plonked and plinked in cacophonic unison during an interminable ten-minute tune-up. Yapping down the phone at the end of the bar, Chicka winced and scowled, plugged a finger in an ear, shook his head then dragged the receiver into the poker-machine recess, pulling the coiled lead as taut as a fiddle string.
At a tight-lipped nod from Helga McIntyre, who stood stiff as a corset stay at her bass, The Bluebelles sauntered into an instrumental version of Cripple Creek, stepping up the tempo after each solo – Dulcie Burns delivering a blistering banjo break – until the perennial standard concluded in an all-in, full-tilt finale.
Silence boomed through the bar when the music echoed away. Quill stood speechless, flabbergasted. Chicka, who had come out of the poker-machine room, a hand clasped over the phone’s mouthpiece, appeared wholly spellbound, as though he had just seen and heard the glories of heaven. Even Horny, very much the philistine in matters musical, regaled all and sundry with toothy admiration.
“Go The Bluebelles, hey Bro!” Chicka bawled, awaking from his trance.
“Hooray! Marvellous!” cheered Horny, his big hands smacking together in jarring thunderclaps. “Great music, ladies – can you play another one for us?”
Helga McIntyre and Ducie Burns conferred; the guitarist and the mandolinist used the moment to sweeten a tangy G-string. Helga McIntyre’s boot-heel stomped the bandstand timbers – one-two-three-four! Dulcie Burns’s banjo showered the breakneck backup with torrents of coruscating notes. They leaped and soared, looped and spiralled, gambolled and galloped over the bars, her fingers working the instrument in a blur of virtuoso dexterity – another spirited instrumental standard, Foggy Mountain Breakdown, made famous by the celebrated maestros of bluegrass, banjoist Earl Scruggs and guitarist Lester Flatt.
The Bluebelles’ guitarist took an extended solo. Smaller though more full-figured, a younger woman than her sisters, she stood stone-faced, stock-still under an immense felt hat, legs planted wide apart, dwarfed by the bulk of her Maton six-stringer. The instrument sang, lilting and mellifluous, like an aviary full of songbirds. The accompaniment gradually rose behind the guitar, swelling and billowing and brought the number to a reverberating finish.
“They’re sensational!” shrilled Quill to Horny. “Book them to play here some Friday night. They’ll bring the house down!”
Horny’s expression of sublime wonderment changed at once to one of narrow-eyed wariness. “They’d cost to much – I couldn’t justify the expense.”
One of the two women remaining at the tables before the bandstand rose from her seat, crossed the bar and placed two empty spirit glasses on the counter before Horny. She ordered scotches and dry, no ice.
“You approve of the music,” she purred as Horny served the drinks.
“It’s wonderful, yes,” he said.
“What’re their names, ma’am?” Quill interposed, instantly mortified at his boyish impetuosity. “I mean, I’ve met Helga and Dulcie – but what about the other players? And you, too, of course – and, sorry ma’am, do you play too?”
“No, I don’t play. I travel with them, just a run-of-the-mill roadie, but I adore their music. Anyway, I’m Jean Mortimer, but they call me Morty. Sounds like a kelpie brood bitch, doesn’t it?” she laughed. “Well now, in answer to your first question: That’s Macca on bass and Dulce on banjo – you’ve met them, you say? – then Ellie Rankin on guitar, Sue Palmer playing the fiddle, Jan Osborne on dobro and Dolly Makepeace on the mandolin. And that’s Merle Quigly sitting over there. She’s a roadie, like me. Mighty fine outfit, The Bluebelles, don’t you think?”
Quill readily agreed; Horny conceded somewhat circumspectly, “Yes, they’re very accomplished.”
Jean Mortimer returned to the table with her drinks. Chicka hung up the phone and made his way along the bar. Horny poured beers for Chicka and Quill and The Bluebelles struck up another lively standard, Orange Blossom Special, which transported Quill to yet another term of thraldom.
After a brief parley with Horny over the counter, Chicka slipped behind the bar and followed the publican to a back storeroom. Rummaging through empty boxes, bric-a-brac and unclaimed lost-property, Chicka eventually located Horny’s toolbox, a miscellany of mismatched thingumabobs. He dumped it on the bottle-shop floor and went back to his beer at the bar, leaving Horny to minister the needs of a dishevelled young sot who had shuffled into the bottle-shop.
Freshly showered and changed, looking physically refreshed and restored, each wearing a milder expression of disrelish than when they had entered the hotel, the MG driver and his girlfriend, meanwhile, had opened the lobby door and paused there to survey the bar and the band. Pushing her sunglasses up on the top of her head, swathed now in a turquoise silk scarf, she arched an enquiring eyebrow and almost smiled. He, in T-shirt and shorts, inclined his head toward the bar. They took stools along from Chicka and Quill who both stole furtive eyes-full of her pert bottom, all but clad in skimpy cut-off shorts, and the swell of bra-less breasts under her sleeveless primrose blouse.
Horny hastened back to the bar and approached the couple wringing his hands, bobbing and smiling. He poured two lemon squashes then again disappeared out the back to reappear bearing a bucket, a bottle of detergent, cloths and a large sponge which he put in the bucket and placed on the bar beside the driver.
The Bluebelles finished Orange Blossom Special with a resounding flourish. The girlfriend applauded graciously; Chicka and Quill cheered deliriously; Horny stood pensively, hands thrust deep in his trouser pockets, then trudged to the phone and picked up the receiver. The boyfriend drank down his squash, pecked his paramour’s cheek and left the bar toting the bucket, Quill guessed, to swab out his sports car.
“I suppose I’d better get out there and fix that universal,” Chicka said almost ruefully. “Won’t earn fifty bucks sitting on my butt.”
“You’ve found a joint?” said Quill, who entertained no intention of lending assistance, not while there was bluegrass to enjoy – gratis.
“Yeah, Bro – got on to a second-hand one. They’re dropping it off in half an hour or so. It’ll give me time to pull out the broken one.”
“Good luck,” said Quill as Chicka emptied his pint. “Think of me, won’t you, seeing to the welfare of that lovely damsel with the glorious arse.”
“Which one’s that, Bro?” Chicka said with a lecherous wink and a sweeping gesture of his right hand toward the older women.
“Get out of here!”
The Bluebelles sallied forth into Down Yonder, yet another bluegrass standard, its tempo slightly less frenetic than the preceding compositions.
THE beer-garden door burst inward and a nuggetty broad-shouldered figure stood silhouetted in the doorway. Four toughs at his heels, all hurrying to get into the bar, piled into his back and jammed themselves in the doorframe. Cursing and shoving they disentangled themselves, pushed inside and stood blinking into the gloom.
“Grover,” muttered Quill to himself. “Trouble on the hoof – malevolence incarnate.”
Adrian Grover, hill-country marijuana grower, dealer and abuser of most drugs illicit, bar-room king-hitter and all-round brute, had long incurred life bans from Bridgetown’s pubs and licensed clubs for anti-social antics including assault, affray, intimidation and offensive conduct toward female patrons. An infrequent caller at The Last Resort, Grover somehow had managed to sidestep serious trouble within its precinct. This and the fact that he never had been arrested or charged for drug cultivation, dealing, supplying or self-administration – though most townspeople including Blind Freddy knew well of his activities – had caused Quill occasional puzzlement. Yes, some years ago Grover had been gaoled for a particularly vicious assault, and had taken a savage bashing in his cell in reprisal, yet still he plied narcotics and violence around Bridgetown, with apparent impunity, since the day of his release.
The blithe strains of Down Yonder were ringing through the bar. Grover and his ratbags – Dooley Watkins, Sam Skinner, Turk Downey and Goose Gleeson, a hang-dog crew in grubby jeans and T-shirts and uniformly in need of bath-soap and sharp razors – shambled to the end of the counter opposite The Bluebelles where, awaiting service, they began horsing around, sniggering and shoulder thumping.
Horny, cupping the phone, called out over the music, “With you in a second, Grover.”
Grover did not trouble himself to acknowledge the publican. He leaned with his back against the bar, his weight on his elbows, sizing up The Bluebelles with the cold detachment of a hangman assessing the condemned preparatory to execution.
Two of his flunkeys, Dooley Watkins and Turk Downey, sidled to the pool table; another lackey, Goose Gleeson, snatched a cue-stick from the wall-rack and began clouting the cue-ball up and down the table. Grover flipped a two-dollar coin in the air and it landed edgewise on the faded and threadbare baize. The hulking boor with the greasy blond pigtail tied back from a baboon-like brow emerged triumphant from the ensuing three-way scramble for the coin.
“You’re playin’ me, Dooley – for two rums,” Grover snarled through thin lips that barely moved.
Dooley Watkins, dope fiend and petty thief, whacked the wooden triangle down on the table and began setting up, slamming the balls into the prescribed arrangement. Turk Downey and Goose Gleeson, brothers in debauchery, left the table to laze on the bar next to Sam Skinner.
They each drank rum and cola, by the can, which Horny rushed to them by the armful. Even before he had returned from the cash register with Grover’s change from the first round, they had downed the drinks, crushed the cans in grimy hands, clamouring for more. Horny all but ran in circles about himself trying to slake gargantuan thirsts until summoned to the bottle-shop by the buzzer.
Quill and the girlfriend’s warm ovation at the close of The Bluebelles’ set drew scowls from Grover’s hangers-on.
“Thank-you, thank-you so much.” Helga McIntyre spoke with an air of – at least to Quill’s thinking – surprising meekness. “We’ll take a little break. Don’t go away, now – we’ll be back shortly.” She installed her bass on its collapsible stand by the wall; the other women stowing their instruments on similar, smaller devices, and together they breasted the bar at a discreet distance from Grover’s goons.
“It’s got me wonderin’, Grover,” whined Skinner, the flat-faced hoon slouched on the corner of the bar, loud enough for all to hear, “How come an ol’ stick with tits can play a flamin’ big fiddle like that one?”
Grover doubled his ball with a plop into a side-pocket and casually looked up from his handiwork, his black eyes glittering like chiselled coal.
“Hey, Skinner – you know the difference between a banjo and an onion, eh?” he asked in a cruel half-smirk.
A jolt of uneasiness stilled the bar and a groan, barely audible, issued from Dulcie Burns’ lips. The toughs observed a deferential hush as Grover took his time to line up another shot. His ball thudded into a corner pocket. Grover slowly raised his head.
“No one cries,” he said, articulating each word, “when you cut a banjo in half.”
Whoops and howls spewed from his flunkeys. Staggering, reeling, they horse-laughed and snorted at each other over and again, “No one cries when you cut a banjo in half!” – hah-hah, haw-haw-haw! Good one, Grover.” Even Horny, who caught the punch-line as he returned from the bottle-shop, permitted himself a surreptitious titter. Farther along the bar, the MG driver’s girlfriend screwed up her face in a disapproving grimace.
When the commotion had all but abated Helga McIntyre braced her reedy frame and rose to her full height. Staring daggers at Grover, she raised her glass and announced in a voice of stately defiance, “Girls, I give you a toast – damnation to all bastards!”
“Damnation to all bastards!” they chorused and tossed back their drinks. Horny, Quill, and the girlfriend laughed out loud, but not half as heartily as The Bluebelles did. Helga McIntyre sealed her triumph with a smile.
Grover’s glowering features tightened and darkened. He smacked a two-dollar coin down on the edge of the pool table.
“Dooley,” he seethed, “put this in the jukebox and play some real music.”
Their drinks replenished, The Bluebelles moved nattering cheerfully back to their tables as the doleful introductory bars of Led Zeppelin’s overlong and overplayed Stairway to Heaven began to fog the bar with ponderous, pretentious rock ’n’ roll.
THE effects of the rum – on top of illicit substances they doubtless had ingested before they set out for the hotel – were telling on Grover’s unholy retinue. They had passed through that stage of intoxication distinguished by shoulder-punching bravado and asinine hilarity. Now they were falling into the sentimental sharing of confidences and swapping vows of enduring mateship. Grover, however, still held command – tenuous to be sure, Quill speculated – of both the pool table and of self-composure, having beaten each of his minions while he downed two rums to their one. He had not bought a drink since he shouted the first round – to the victor the spoils.
The girlfriend, meanwhile, had responded with a nod and a sweet smile when Dulcie Burns suggested she join The Bluebelles at their tables – agreeable company a pleasant diversion while she waited for the boyfriend to cleanse his sports car of its bovine dousing. Her willowy figure did not escape the scrutiny of Grover; he interrupted his game to lean on his cue-stick when she crossed the bar and drew up a seat, following the motion of her firm, cheeky bottom with the salacious delectation of a satyr.
The booming climax of Stairway to Heaven ebbed to a maudlin whimper and Horny bore down on the tables bearing four plastic-wrapped platters of daintily cut and arranged sandwiches. He set them down, one to a table, and basked in exclamations of approval and appreciation, as chuffed as a chef presenting the centrepiece of a gastronomical triumph.
Raising a sceptical eyebrow, pouting her lips, Helga McIntyre, plying long bony fingers, peeled the plastic from the plate before her.
“I trust there’s no cucumber on any of these?”
“Definitely not, ma’am,” gasped Horny, aghast at the notion. “I was very specific when I placed the order, ‘No cucumber, thank-you’, I told them.”
“Very good,” said Helga McIntyre, who had taken a sandwich and was now subjecting its innards of thin-sliced silverside and beetroot to rigorous scrutiny.
The metallic rasping of the bottle-shop’s sentinel warned Horny of incoming customers and he cantered off to serve them. At his departure the wail of uilleann pipes sounded the prelude to Steve Earle’s Copperhead Road, yet another jukebox favourite played over and over ad nauseam. Grover’s mates graced the lyrics with a boozy, caterwauling accompaniment that obliged the women to conduct a shouting-match in maintaining intelligible conversation until the song was finished.
When he spotted the few uneaten sandwiches lying on the platters, the flounder-faced lackey, Sam Skinner, lolling aslant the bar, ran the furry tip of his tongue over his lips and rubbed his belly. Beset by an urgent, irresistible attack of the munchies, he launched himself across the carpet and halted behind Helga McIntyre’s seat. Seeing the warily upraised eyes of her table companions – Dulcie Burns, Jean Mortimer and the girlfriend – Helga McIntyre twirled her head round. Skinner’s mouth hung slack over her shoulder, his eyes floating in his face like oysters in a crock of chowder. He jiggled a crooked finger at the leftovers.
“Gis a coupla them.”
“Certainly not!” replied Helga McIntyre. She waved a hand in airy dismissal.
“Buy some peanuts.”
“Don’ like peanuts.”
“Then eat your boots!” – she rapped out the words.
“No – I wan’ some o’ them!”
“For heaven’s sake, will you go away!”
“You talk too much, ol’ woman – ol’ stick with tits!” Skinner taunted. He might well have set off a firecracker under a clucky hen.
“Begone, crapulent parasite!” squawked Helga McIntyre.
But Skinner pitched forward and snatched a fistful of sandwiches. They pulped in his clutch, oozing in scrolls between filthy fingers. Helga McIntyre recoiled from his reek of rum, tobacco, halitosis and body odour.
“Skinner! That’s enough!” Flinging back the counter flap, Horny dashed from behind the bar and confronted him. “Leave your drink and get going – now! I won’t tolerate your sort of behaviour in my hotel. Go-on – git!”
Skinner stood his ground. Horny seized an elbow and steered him to the nearest door. Skinner was still gobbling up sandwich remnants from his right hand as Horny propelled him on to the footpath.
“I’m awfully sorry, ladies,” said Horny when he returned blushing to the tables. “One of our more colourful local characters,” he explained. “I’m afraid he’s taken on board more than an elegant sufficiency.” And even though it pained his hip-pocket nerve more than anyone could imagine, he added gallantly, “I hope you’ll accept the sandwiches – on the house – as a token of my regret for this incident.”
The door opened slightly and Skinner poked his ugly face into the bar.
“See yez later, eh?” he mumbled at Grover and company through a mouthful of pulpous sandwich.
Horny turned snapping, “Off you go, Skinner, and don’t come back – you’re out for six months.”
“Screw you – and screw that lousy ol’ bag o’ bones too!”
“Make that twelve months!” Horny retorted, but Skinner was gone.
“Such a noble creature,” Helga McIntyre observed caustically. She swung her gaze from the doorway and fastened it on Horny. “Give these leftovers to our hard-working mechanic, would you. Heaven knows, he looks like he could do with them. He’s such a beanpole, but then I should talk . . . He’s had a drink while he’s been working on our bus?”
“Oh yes,” Horny said dryly, “Chicka hasn’t gone short of a beer – or three.”
Helga McIntyre lowered her eyelids and inhaled deeply, holding her breath for a long moment – a nerve-settling restorative. Slowly she exhaled and opened steel-grey eyes. “Some more music, ladies?”
They replied in unison – positively, buoyantly – in the wake of Skinner’s freebooting intrusion, then slid out of their seats and made for the stage. Horny put the leftover sandwiches on the one platter, stacked the others, topped these with the women’s empty glasses, and took them behind the bar.
A smoky sheen glazed Grover’s hard black eyes.
THE Bluebelles vaulted into a bright, melodious foot-tapper called Avalanche. Sue Palmer’s flirtatious fiddle took the lead, teasing, tempting Dulcie Burns’s banjo into titillated, chattering pursuit – the instruments at last conjoining and dovetailing into bassist Helga McIntyre’s seductive sixteen-bar solo. Dobro, mandolin, guitar, banjo and fiddle then hung back, vamping to every fourth beat.
Grover stabbed the jukebox selection keys with a belligerent forefinger and Jimi Hendrix’s Manic Depression screamed into the bar-room – Avalanche faltered, broke down under the impetus of Hendrix’s fiendish electric guitar playing.
“Well done and thank-you – sir!” Helga McIntyre piped bitterly once The Bluebelles’ euphonic acoustics had been snuffed out.
“Your welcome, ol’ girl,” smarmed Grover, sinking his ball while Turk Downey and Goose Gleason wobbled and thrashed imaginary guitars.
“Grover!” Horny commanded over the din. He leaned across the bar, a compelling figure when roused. “What’re you doing? Why play the jukebox while the band’s playing?”
Grover stepped coolly round the pool table and fronted the publican. Glacial arrogance glimmered under the menace beclouding his eyes. The Bluebelles watched in silence, their foregoing sprightliness drawn now into tense watchfulness.
“You get three songs for two dollars – right?” Grover challenged.
“That’s right,” said Horny.
“So, this’s my third play. And it’s rock ’n’ roll with balls – not this hillbilly horseshit,” he sneered, brandishing his cue-stick at The Bluebelles. “I’m doing what I’m allowed to do – by right.”
“That maybe so, Grover, but I think a little tact – yes, respect – wouldn’t have gone astray. You could’ve waited ’til they’d finished their number.” Horny’s mouth crimped at the corners, signalling decisive finality. “I think you and your mates had better finish your drinks and go. You can come back tomorrow – except Skinner. He’s out for a year.”
“We’ll finish this game and our drinks and then we’ll get out of this flea-pit – right?”
“Good!” crackled Horny with marked asperity. “Now, hurry up . . . I don’t want to bar you altogether – this is your last port of call in this town, as well you know – but I’ll put you out if need be . . . without a skerrick of regret.”
A muscle twitched in Grover’s clamped jaw. He eyeballed Horny who returned the compliment, boring unblinking into the bruiser’s resentful stony face. Grover broke off the stare-down and, returning to his game against Dooley Watkins, stumbled slightly as he crossed the carpet – a hairline crack in his erstwhile cast-iron bearing.
Horny lunged for the jukebox volume-control on the wall behind the bar and screwed it down, abruptly consigning Manic Depression to near inaudibility – practical reinforcement of his declaration. Bent over the pool table, Grover looked up scowling from his shot, but it was an impotent affront to the publican who was abashedly informing The Bluebelles, “Sorry ’bout the interruption, ladies. Technical difficulties. We’ll be resuming normal transmission before too long.”
The musicians trooped from the stage and assembled murmuring and sipping of their drinks about Helga McIntyre’s table. The girlfriend rose and went alone to the restroom. Grover’s soulless gaze followed her every undulating long-legged step until the door swung closed behind her.
Horny stood watch over the impasse. Grover went on with his game in brooding determination while Turk Downey and Goose Gleeson, nursing the dregs of their rums, shuffled and grumbled in sterile dissent at Horny’s directive to leave the hotel. The Bluebelles soon shed collective misgiving. Returning to the bandstand, they went into a tight huddle to fine-tune already accordant instruments.
Horny ignored the bottle-shop buzzer until its summons grew too insistent to disregard any longer. With a backward look of warning at Grover he darted through the doorway behind the bar, leaving the last sedated strains of Manic Depression to fade away under the click of eight-balls and the plink, plonk, plunk of instruments being tuned. Quill, pondering whether to step outside and see how Chicka was faring with the repairs to the bus, or to order another pint, dispatched the last of his beer and opted for the latter.
The scream was brief and muffled, barely audible. Silent seconds passed. The restroom door banged open and the girlfriend, glancing fearfully over her shoulders, ran helter-skelter into the bar-room desperately trying to stuff the tails of her blouse into her unfastened short-shorts riding bunched on her sun-bronzed thighs. She smacked side-on into Dooley Watkins, the pig-tailed barbarian bending low and unsteadily over the pool table, at the very instant he fired his black-ball shot. They fell tangled and thrashing in a heap on the floor. The white ball ricocheted in-off the black and Turk Downey and Goose Gleeson, seeing the tumbling, flailing bodies and Dooley Watkins’s game-losing foul on the black, burst into demented laughter.
In one fluid movement Dulcie Burns shed her banjo, dropped it in its stand and sprang from the bandstand. Sitting with fellow roadie Merle Quigly, Jean Mortimer jumped up from the table – she and Dulcie Burns bounded into the fray before the others knew what was happening.
“Get off . . . get off me!” squealed the girlfriend, struggling against Dooley Watkins’s fumbling opportunistic groping.
The Bluebelles turned as one at the cry of sisterly distress. Helga McIntyre, clinging to her bass, shouted round the fingerboard, “Send the bastard to hell in a hay-cart, Dulcie!”
Dulcie Burns promptly latched on to one of Dooley Watkins’s grotty joggers, hauling back on it for all her worth. Jean Mortimer snatched an arm, wrenching and hauling in the opposite direction. Dooley Watkins yelped and kicked out. The shoe came off and Dulcie Burns plopped heavily on her backside. But Jean Mortimer had prised the middle finger from his right fist and gave it a vicious twist. The cruel click of the dislocating knuckle extracted an anguished howl.
Jolted into semi-sobriety by his mate’s predicament, Turk Downey’s jaw dropped to his belt-buckle – never had he seen a woman, a tubby, middle-aged woman at that, disable a young buck like Dooley Watkins in such fashion. The gallant Goose Gleason slammed his empty rum-can down on the bar-top and rushed at Jean Mortimer, apparently intent on shouldering her aside. The roadie nimbly sidestepped his charge and he flew on past her to trip on Duclie Burns’s deftly outstretched leg. He speared headlong into a table and chairs, knocking them flying, then crashed to the carpet and rolled on his side.
Grover, casually zipping his fly, stepped from the women’s restroom. He bore the expression of a man who had just relieved himself after an unavoidable and uncomfortable wait. Meanwhile, Jean Mortimer had taken the girlfriend’s arm, helping her up from the floor. She fussed and murmured, tenderly brushing her down, tucking her blouse into her shorts, hoisting them around her hips.
“That fellow,” the girlfriend sobbed, cringing in abject dread as Grover strolled manfully to the pool table, “He came into the toilet . . . dropped his trousers . . . I . . . I ––” but she broke down, inconsolable. Jean Mortimer placed a comforting arm around her heaving shoulders and assisted her to a table where the non-combatants, clucking and cooing, sat her down under a canopy of nodding and bobbing Western hats.
“Just what sort of animal are you!” bristled Dulcie Burns scrabbling on her hands and knees and clambering to her feet. Her fiery elfin face glowed with exertion and fury under the straw-hat riding lop-sided over her eyes. Grover shrugged, graced her with his finest smirk. Dulcie Burns righted her hat with a tug and marched straight up to him. “You’re a monster . . . a depraved low-life!”
Turk Downey, who had toddled rubbery-limbed over to Grover’s side, stood glassy-eyed, gaping, when Dulcie Burns abruptly loosed a murderous haymaker. It fairly scythed through the air. Grover smartly bobbed and her fist slashed over his close-cropped skull, collected Turk Downey’s cheekbone and shanghaied his head face-first into the wall. He gagged and spattered blood and teeth on to the carpet, then stared in woebegone bafflement at the mess.
Slowly, painfully, Goose Gleeson began extricating himself from the jumble of table and chairs he had skittled in his thwarted rush on Jean Mortimer. Again, Dulcie Burns rounded on Grover and rammed his chest with hands like a forked lightning-strike, taking him totally unawares. He reeled backward over the carpet toward the bandstand. Dulcie Burns pressed her advantage, pushing, shoving, bull-whipping his ears with ladylike gibes such as “turd in a punchbowl”, “carbuncle in the groin of masculinity” and “friggin’ maggoty CHOP – a chauvinistic, hedonistic, opportunistic prick”. Her last strenuous thrust forced his boot-heels against the bandstand, enough of a buttress to arrest his rearward floundering.
Grover raised a retaliatory fist but Helga McIntyre, watching like a SWAT sniper behind her bass on the platform, suddenly snapped the towering instrument forward and whacked the back of his skull with the fingerboard’s wooden head. A reverberant humming issued from the bass’s ample soundbox. Grover grunted, spun around on Helga McIntyre, and Dulcie Burns kicked him squarely in the seat of the pants, lifting his feet off the floor. He whirled about to meet her renewed assault and Helga McIntyre’s bass-head, with a terrible crack, once more found its target.
“Git holda this fat bitch behind me – I’m gonna smash that big fiddle if the last thing I do!” Grover clamoured at Goose Gleeson who was kneeling, poking a finger into the gory gap where his front teeth had resided until he kissed the table’s edge. “Git up an’ git here, Goose!”
Goose Gleeson bumbled groggily to his feet as Grover again turned on Helga McIntyre and clumped a boot on the bandstand, about to throw himself at the bassist. But Helga McIntyre wrapped her spindly arms around the instrument’s polished bulk, hefted it off the floorboards and brought the steel spike in its underside down on Grover’s fancy leather boot, skewering its tooled toe to the timbers. Smoothly wheeling around on Goose Gleeson, Dulcie Burns pulped his nose with the bright smack of a vicious straight right at the exact moment Helga McIntyre whacked the bass-head into Grover’s wide-open mouth, a big chromium-plated tuning key mashing and smashing through his lips and teeth. Grover’s eyes rolled back in his head and he fell flat on his back. Helga McIntyre frowned as if bewildered at her handiwork, and then roughly yanked the spike out of Grover’s booted foot. It slid off the bandstand and flopped, leaking blood, on to the carpet.
“Bravo! Bravo!” The Bluebelles’ non-combatants hooted and whistled and clapped – even the girlfriend rallied a smile, teary and fleeting.
“I’ll drink to that!” crowed Quill, standing atop the bar-stool whereon he had watched the melee. “If I had a drink, that is.” He jumped down and looked about in feigned annoyance. “Where the hell is Horny? I’m as dry as a drought. Yoo-hoo, Horny!” And he rapped his empty pint glass on the bar-top.
THE police were summoned, as was an ambulance. Paramedics ministered first-aid to Grover’s foot and mouth and he was taken, under guard, to the local hospital. They also tended the broken, bleeding faces of his confreres and snapped Dooley Watkins’s disjointed finger into place. Shortly after the ambulance departed, a pair of grinning constables herded the four walking wounded to the paddy wagon parked haphazardly by the hotel’s main entrance then re-entered the bar and stood flanking their sergeant.
“ . . . and where did you say you were when the brawl started, Mr Horne?”
Horny ran trembling fingers over his sweat-drenched scalp.
“In the bottle-shop, Sergeant, taking a delivery,” he babbled, pocketing his hand and blinking rapidly. “I wouldn’t have been gone a few minutes because it was a small delivery, you see. A few cartons of soft drinks – that sort of thing. The first I knew that anything was wrong was when Quill here gave me a shout. By then it was all over.”
“That’s right, officer – all over in a flash,” Quill blathered. “Those lamebrain hoods had no idea of what they were getting themselves into. And they didn’t stand a chance. Poetic justice, I’d call it.”
The sergeant muzzled Quill with a withering glance.
“Now, ladies,” he said to The Bluebelles sitting as prim and proper as country dowagers partaking of Devonshire tea. “You’ve all given your details – addresses, phone numbers, etcetera – to my officers?”
Yes, they had.
The sergeant addressed the girlfriend and her man.
“We’ll be needing you to make a detailed statement, ma’am, with particular regard to the incident in the toilet. Are you well enough to accompany us back to the station?”
“Yes, yes. I’m all right.”
“I’ve got my car out the back, Sergeant,” said the driver. “We’ll follow you. But I’d like to duck upstairs and get our overnight bags first. Is that okay?”
The sergeant nodded assent.
While the sergeant, the constables, the girlfriend and the MG driver – Horny officiating as usher – exited by the front entrance, Chicka stole into the bar through the beer-garden door. He made a cautious beeline for Quill who was seated alone now at the bar.
“These ol’ girls sure know how to mix it – hee-hee! – eh, Bro,” he snickered.
“But you missed all the action,” said Quill.
“No way, Bro. I saw the lot. Came inside for a leak. Just going back outside” – he inclined his head toward the beer-garden door – “when it all blew up.”
“I didn’t see you,” Quill insisted.
“Of course you didn’t. You were jumpin’ on your stool an’ soolin’ ’em on. I was right behind you, Bro. But I ran like blazes to the bus and got the hell under it when Horny called the wallopers. I don’t like ’em. And the feeling’s mutual, I can tell you. Anyway,” he beamed, “who’d’ve thought Grover’d get done over by a . . . by a bevy of bonny biddies. You like that Bro – a bevy of bonny biddies?”
“An admirable alliteration, amigo,” said Quill with a wink. “Fixed that universal have you?”
“Just finished, Bro – an’ picked up seventy-five bucks for my trouble, considering ol’ Helga gave me a hundred and fifty and the replacement cost only seventy-five – hee-hee!”
The Bluebelles, Chicka and Quill were gathered at the bar amid high laughter and lively chatter when Horny re-entered the hotel. Drinks all round were declared and the behaviour of Grover and his louts – particularly Grover’s role – roundly denounced.
“Castration with a rusty hacksaw would be too kind for that monster, that Grover,” opined Helga McIntyre to the publican over the bar.
“Quite right, Ms McIntyre,” Horny conceded, helping himself to a stiff belt of brandy.
“A scabrous psychopath,” she declared, “a grotesque egotist who finds self-expression only in the chaos he himself creates. And we know there’s one thing to remember about depraved creatures of that sort – don’t we Mr Horne? – one cardinal rule. We never let them know we’re scared, unlike that unfortunate chit of a girl. Oh yes, she wore a brave face. But that Grover scented her fear the instant he walked through the door. And getting a whiff, he awaited his chance and attacked like a mongrel dog.”
Horny swallowed the spirit in a gulp, began pouring another.
“I take your point about fear,” he coughed. “In man-to-man confrontations I believe that to be so. Never let them know you’re afraid. But then never have I seen the fair sex tackle a pack of hoods like Grover’s. You gave them an awful shellacking, Ms McIntyre. I mean, really, I’m simply speechless. When I was a lad my mother, my grandmother, all my aunts drilled it into me that women are the gentle sex, the highest order of humanity. The child-bearers, carers, each and every one of them a queen – you know, velvet ribbons, red roses, pink champagne.”
“Fiddlesticks,” sniffed Helga McIntyre. “Real women are not like that, Mr Horne.” She swirled the double scotch and ice in her tumbler. “All that fluffy stuff is mawkish hoo-ha. Women should never survive in this world if, inside, we were soft and helpless. Your view of women vaguely reminds me of Venus flytraps. You know, those flowers that eat insects . . .”
The beer-garden door slowly opened and a most peculiar figure doddered inside. One by one everyone turned and stared. Conversation fell away to a low murmuring. Gingerly, painfully, Tangles leaned side-on against the bar-top. He wore a skullcap of fresh surgical gauze, his right hand hung limp from a white linen sling, his right eye-socket bulged purple from his face, and his left forearm looked as if he had used it to fend off a maniac run amok with a barbecue fork. And he was almost smiling, a lop-sided sheepish sort of grimace.
“A pox on that friggin’ ferret o’ yours, Chicka,” he scolded in a grog-sodden croak. “Bastard of a thing totalled me car. An’ Big Sean’s in hospital. Smashed his arm in four places. An’ I feel like I been chewed up an’ spat out of a chaff cutter ––”
“Where’s ol’ Gonads?” Chicka yowled, advancing down the bar. “Where’s me ferret, Tangles?”
“Gallopin’ ’round the scrub out there somewhere, I s’pose.”
“Whaddaya mean?” Chicka shrilled. “What happened?”
“Bastard got out of his cage ’bout six clicks this side of Bunyah.” Tangles loosed a torrent of words. “Jumped in the front seat an’ went fer Big Sean, bitin’ an’ scratchin’ an’ clawin’ like mad. He flogs it off an’ then it goes fer me! An’ I’m tryin’ to flog it off an’ steer at the same time an’ me car hits loose gravel an’ over we goes three times! Me car’s a write-off – an’ then the coppers did me fer PCA causin’ bodily harm. Big Sean ’ad ’is arm hangin’ out the winder when we went arse-up – didn’ he – the friggin’ big goose!”
“Ah, Tangles,” cooed Horny, squinting at him across the bar. “You look like an extra who’s escaped from the set of The Curse of the Mummy. What can I get you – a glass of fresh sand?”
“Argh, break it up, Horny. Give me a little brown soldier – just one, mate – an’ make it a double will yer? Fer purely medicinal purposes. I’m all shook up, yer see, the victim of unforseen circumstances.”
“A victim of your own stupidity, I’d say. And no, you can’t have a tawny port. I told you this morning they’re confined to barracks. You can have a beer.”
“All right,” Tangles said meekly, “Give us a pint.”
Chicka and Tangles took up spirited conversation, Tangles recounting in gory, minute detail the escape of Gonads from his cage on the back seat of the car, the battle with the ferret in the front seat, the subsequent accident, Big Sean’s injuries, the attendance of ambulance and police, and his arrest and bailing for drink driving. Chicka mourned the loss of Gonads to the wild and rugged bush, though his disposition grew sunnier with every pint Tangles bought for him by way of solace for his bereavement.
While they were talking and The Bluebelles straggled to the stage after making arrangements to stay overnight at The Last Resort – Helga McIntyre declaring “the girls and I have imbibed a little too much drink to continue our journey today” – Horny Horne took a stroll about the bar. He carried a little plastic coin bag and barbecue tongs and stooped every so often to pick up items lying by the blood-spots on the carpet.
He had returned behind the bar when a couple of locals sidled in off the street, their thirsty long-faced expressions turning to wary puzzlement when they saw the line-up of women on the stage.
The Bluebelles took up a hoary standard of yore, Keep on the Sunny Side and a glint of caustic jollity danced in Horny’s narrowed eyes as the women sang and gently swayed and tapped their boot-heels on the bandstand floorboards.
There’s a dark and a troubled side of life
But there’s a bright and a sunny side too
Though you meet with the darkness and strife
The sunny side you also may view.
And then they thumped out the chorus:
Keep on the sunny side
Always on the sunny side
Keep on the sunny side of life.
It will help us every day
It will brighten all the way
If we’ll keep on the sunny side of life.
“I’ve got a really excellent present for you, Tangles,” said Horny. He went to the taps and poured a pint.
Placing the beer before Tangles with the one hand, Horny produced the other from behind his back and dropped the coin-bag on the bar-top.
“Keep these,” he said tapping the teeth he had picked up from the carpet, “And you’ll always have a few spares – if ever again you mislay yours.”
The Four-Bottle Bath
TANGLES LOVES a hot bath. It is as much an indulgence as a rite. And The Last Resort’s old-fashioned tubs, agreeably accommodating, are altogether suited to his therapeutic needs. In length and depth they rival sarcophagi without lids. Hot water flows in abundance around the clock.
Long before his fellow guests bumble out of bed – most of them hung-over, red of eye, dry of mouth – Tangles has run a steaming tub-full and wallows in luxury, soaking up the water’s curative warmth and the restorative contents of an ice-cold long-neck of beer. A second bottle stands at hand on the ledge at the head of the tub.
After an immersion lasting an hour and two bottles the battle-scarred carcass is satisfactorily simmered and steeped. The retired army sergeant emerges from the tub prawn-pink and wrinkled and towels off. Stepping out of the bath cubicle he stows his empties in the bin under the wash-basin, brushes his dental plate and what’s left of his own teeth then shaves his throat and trims his beard in the wall mirror. The beard and the feathery fringe around the bony scalp he grooms with a pocket comb, turning his head this way and that, coaxing every bristle and hair into its rightful place.
Ablutions done, Tangles dresses in freshly pressed clothes lain on the bed he has made in precise military fashion upon rising. Lastly he dons a battered peak cap. He might then uncap a third long-neck or make a cup of coffee and sit by the air-conditioner in the guest-lounge reading yesterday’s newspapers or watching television. At least that’s the routine the residents had got to know until the morning he took a four-bottle bath.
Yes sir, he had sure tied one on yesterday. The brain-crushing headache, the furry tongue tasting of cocky-poop, the shaky hands, the growling intestinal convulsions and the sprint from his bed to the lavatory. Too much beer and too many glasses of tawny port – little brown soldiers he calls those shots of fortified wine. Evidence of a monumental bender was unquestionable – guilty as charged, M’lud! And what of his sore ankles and the apparent carpet burn on the top of his head? What had happened? What had he done?
The revivifying bath and a half long-neck stirred his memory enough to recall that after drinking since opening time in the bar downstairs, he had wandered up the main street mid-afternoon to refill The Last Resort’s barbecue gas-bottle at the service station. Returning to the hotel he had stood the cylinder on the bar and ordered a schooner with a port chaser from publican Horny Horne, inveterate tightwad and wit, a former grazier of robust physique going to seed, and, it was generally agreed, an all-round pretty good bloke.
He and Tangles were the bar’s only occupants.
After serving Tangles and reimbursing the cost of the gas refill with a dark frown of feigned misgiving – for which Tangles rebuked him for being as tight as a mud hut – Horny moved along the bar and opened the guest register, doubtless looking for rental arrears among the less reliable of his permanent residents. A cigarette dangled unlit from Horny’s fleshy lips and Tangles, raising his glass, struck upon a bright idea. From the cylinder head he removed the safety cap, placed one hand on the tap and dug a lighter out of his shirt with the other.
“Need a light, Horny?”
“Thanks,” the publican said absently, his attention on the register.
“Here y’are then,” said Tangles.
Whoosh! A jet of billowing orange flame surged along the bar top. Horny swore and jumped backwards . . .
Tangles groaned and shifted in the tub. This wasn’t a soothing hot bath; it was a bed of bloody nails! How could he have been so stupid, pulling that half-witted stunt with the gas bottle? He sat up. “Damn!” he barked in self-reproach.
Tangles finished his long-neck and put it on the ledge. He opened the second bottle, took a long easy swig then settled back into the tub. No doubt about it, those little brown soldiers – those accursed tawny ports – they were his downfall. The sneaky little bastards had brought him undone in the past – big time! – but he just never seemed to learn. With a despairing shake of his head he ran a hand over his scalp and flinched when the tender patch burned under his fingers.
The stinging produced an impression, vague yet compelling, chillingly so, like an horrific nightmare half remembered. Somehow it related to his sore head. He closed his eyes. Horny’s gnarled toes and dusty sandals loomed before him, as if he had stood on his head for the express purpose of eyeballing those big ugly feet at close quarters. It made no sense.
A lightning bolt of realization jolted Tangles’ memory and he gasped, “Holt snappin’duck-shit!” Taking the long-neck in trembling fingers he tipped it back and drank deeply, hoping the beer might flush away self-mortification. Indeed, yes, later in the afternoon Horny had stood him on his head – grabbed him from behind and up-ended him in a single swift motion. Tangles had gurgled and struggled to right himself, but the publican had seized his ankles and shaken him out like a bag of flour.
“Fancy y’self as a bit of joker, do you, Tangles?” Horny had laughed. “Think y’self a heavyweight, do you? Mate, you’re just a bantam-brained pest.” His beer-belly bobbled loosely over his belt and his round face glowed crimson.
A gaggle of regulars lounging against the bar had honked and hooted as Tangles’ wallet, loose change, cigarettes, lighter, car keys, cap and comb tumbled to the floor. Then Horny had suddenly spun the spindly legs and Tangles executed a perfect pirouette on the crown of his polished pate. Horny released his grip and Tangles flopped to the carpet in an undignified heap at the publican’s feet. Oh, the embarrassment; oh, the pain . . .
Tangles clambered out of the bathtub and ran off more hot water. Towel draped round his waist. He set off barefoot to fetch another pair of long-necks from his room.
Skulking out of the kitchen, nursing a fresh mug of tea, Ding-Dong, unshaven and hang-dog, spied Tangles padding back to the bathroom, bottles in hand, following a trail of wet footprints.
“Hey, Tangles! Forget somethin’, did you? Boy, were you drunk when I saw you last night. Roarin’ drunk, I’d say. Well, it was this mornin’ I think. ’Bout half-past two when I got up for a leak – ”
“Shut-up Ding-Dong. You talk too much.”
“Ooh, got a little shit on the liver, have we?”
“Just shut yer mouth,” Tangles grouched and slammed the bathroom door.
“All right, all right,” Ding-Dong declared grandly, retreating into his room. “No need to get orf yer bike.”
Quill poked his nose out of his room, dismayed at bickering among the residents so early in the day.
“Hey Quill. Get a squiz at these,” said Ding-Dong.
Ding-Dong stood in his doorway, an assortment of moulded plastic reptiles cupped in a big callused hand. Among them Quill could make out a skink, a bearded dragon, a blue-tongue lizard and a red-belly black snake. In his right hand Ding-Dong held a colossal plastic grasshopper, a loathsome iridescent mutant seemingly poised to leap on and tear limb from limb any living thing that might excite its diabolical fury. Ding-Dong thrust the grasshopper at Quill.
“Should throw this one in with Tangles. What d’ya reckon?”
“I love my life very much, Ding-Dong,” said Quill. “Do your own dirty work.”
Ding-Dong’s apelike brows shot up over close-set black eyes which, unlike our simian cousins, bore not the slightest glint of intelligence.
“I know what I’ll do,” he brayed. “I’ll get Kerry to throw it in with him when she comes to clean the rooms.”
“You mean Katie, don’t you?”
“That’s right. Katie. That’s what I said.”
Quill closed his door on Ding-Dong’s twaddle.
TANGLES lowered his wiry frame into the topped-up bath. Comfortably reclined, he opened his third long-neck. Yes, he had made a fool of himself – and he had been made to look the fool – in front of everyone in the bar yesterday. But so what? Everybody stuffed up now and again. It was only human. He had jarred Horny and the publican had jarred him in return. That was only fair. If you couldn’t stand the heat, you high-tailed out of the kitchen. An open and shut case – definitely not guilty, M’lud! Still, in spite of the self-exoneration he struggled to justify, creeping apprehension began to envelop his conscience like a rising toxic fog.
Residents of The Last Resort shuffled to and from the lavatory in ragtag succession. By the time Tangles opened his fourth beer, still puzzling over that spooky elusive presentiment, Billy-Boy, Moses, The Sour Kraut, Speck and Quill were gathered round the table on the veranda – Billy-Boy, Moses, The Sour Kraut and Speck drinking moselle, Quill a cup of coffee. Tangles could hear the listless chit-chat through the louvers.
A cheerful “’Morning boys!” at the back stairs announced Katie’s arrival for the weekly change of bed linen and general cleaning. The men at once became animated. For Katie does not converse in the conventional sense: she carols, a mellifluous magpie strolling about a garden spangled with dewdrops and sunbeams. To the disillusioned, the jaded and the hopeless she imparts easygoing happiness born of enduring optimism and buoyancy of spirit. Having dispensed a generous measure of this tonic, Katie withdrew to begin the housekeeping.
Tangles paid no heed to the sounds of lively good humour. His thoughts whirled dark and fuzzy. Already he had drunk four bottles of beer and still he could not shed that dread sense of impending calamity. It rankled worse than grass-seeds in his socks, or a boil on his bum. And if only Katie would take that damned vacuum cleaner to buggery – it had been roaring in the corridor outside the bathroom for ten bloody minutes!
In trying to recall an incident from the haze of a drunken spree, it happens sometimes that momentary diversion opens memory enough for the bones of misdeed to spring clacking and leering to mind. So it happened with Tangles’ annoyance at Katie’s vacuum cleaner: its wheezy bluster blew open the door to his skeleton closet and out jumped a hoary horror.
Tangles’ blood ran cold, the breath froze in his throat; he shivered head to toe in the depths of the hot water. Last night bar-manager Hurricane Carter had kicked him out, given him marching orders. The redoubtable Tangles, retired military man, jester and raconteur, had been dismissed from the bar – dishonourably discharged in shame and humiliation – for hoisting up a leg of his shorts to compare the size of his testicles against those of a truck-driving mate while they drank and yarned at the bar. And in full view of a party of women . . .
It lobbed over the partition like a hedge-hopping combat ’chopper, an apocalyptic, kaleidoscopic ’hopper with bulging malevolent eyes, flailing black antennae and a maw full of twisted fangs – a monstrosity born of a madman’s hallucination. Tangles voiced a short sharp squeak just before it crash-landed on his chest. His arms and legs went into action, thrashing the bathwater, striving to vacate the tub using a combination backstroke and high jump. Only when he stood panting on the tiles, quaking and dripping, did he fully grasp that the airborne abomination lay inert, harmless among the suds. Tangles reached into the tub, pulled the plug, retrieved the plastic grasshopper and dropped it on the ledge next to his empty beer bottles.
Out on the veranda they heard the commotion. Since there had been no smack of body contact with the floor-tiles or the bathtub, no crunch of breaking bones, no call for help and now only the sound of bathwater slurping down the plughole, they might reasonably assume that Tangles was unharmed. Billy-Boy disagreed. He began to rise from his seat and Katie lurched through the doorway, hand clamped over her mouth, tears running down her cheeks.
“What’s wrong?” the men asked as one.
“Oh God, I hope I haven’t killed him,” Katie sniffled. “Poor Tangles. He got such an awful fright.” She shuddered with soundless laughter and steadied herself against the table-edge.
“Well, come on woman – out with it!” commanded Moses in a voice of biblical magnitude.
It so happened that Katie had seen Ding-Dong loitering near the bathroom door as she plied the vacuum cleaner along the corridor.
“What’re you doing hanging ’round here, Ding-Dong?”
Ding-Dong had grinned stupidly and held out the grasshopper.
“Who’s in the bath?” Katie shouted over the din of the appliance.
“And you want to throw that in with him?”
“Well, I – er . . . yeah, heh-heh . . .”
“Oh, for God’s sake, you’re such a gutless wonder. Give it here.”
Katie had snatched it away, marched into the bathroom and tossed it over the partition.
THESE days Tangles maintains a dignified and steadfast silence; any reference to grasshoppers and four-bottle bathing he deflects with a tilt of his head and an equivocal smile.
He drinks only middies of beer nowadays because, on Horny’s specific order, little brown soldiers are confined to barracks.
THE LAST RESORT is a menagerie of the depraved, a gobbet of spit in the face of God-fearing, law-abiding ratepayers – just ask any of Bridgetown’s civic exemplars. Consult the mayor (a prosperous property developer, no less), the benevolent solicitor or the venerable vigneron. They’ll tell you The Last Resort is a cesspool of base idlers, a sinkhole of impudent dole-bludging drunkards and pot-heads, every one of them uncouth and profane, each a grubby blot upon a provident citizenry sanctified by its devotion to the workaday ethic.
And yet among The Last Resort’s permanent guests – inmates, if you prefer – there abide individuals of unique and unsung talent, of singularity of purpose and unrivalled accomplishment.
Take Tangles, for example: Tangles can start a fight in an empty room.
Or Speck, the tear-away Bridgetown kid who took to the city and haunted the streets of Kings Cross, drug-addled, for five long years. These days he works hard for his disability pension. Every morning he wakes and fortifies himself with a tumbler of three of moselle. Thus primed, he begins his day watching Thunderbirds on children’s television. Such is the strain of sustained viewing that by the end of the mid-day movie he has collapsed, sprawled senseless on his bed. Roused at four-thirty by Channel Seven’s brassy evening news fanfare, he sips steadily into the night until the wine saturates his brain and unconsciousness overtakes him again.
Then there is Moses. Air-lifted from South Vietnam, a conscripted soldier wounded in body, mind and spirit, Moses limped from the troop transporter when it landed at Sydney Airport, unsheathed the samurai sword he had souvenired in action against the Viet Cong and plunged it into the tarmac. It’s still there, he asserts straight-faced, roped off in a special enclosure, a latter-day Excalibur defying both man and machine to draw it from the asphalt. Moses’ jittery roommate, Billy-Boy, bolsters the delusion, averring wide-eyed, “M-my word, that s-sword is s-still in the g-ground. Believe m-me, I-I s-seen it. No one c-can get it out and b-boy-oh-boy, there’s b-been a lot that’s t-tried.”
The Flying Dutchman is an exception in that he has a job. He pushes the carcasses of freshly slaughtered sheep, cattle and pigs into the chillers at Bridgetown abattoirs, and he is ravenous after his day’s work. Monday to Thursday evenings he fires up the barbecue on the veranda – a portable unit, the barbecue, yet its legs are bolted to the floorboards lest it walk down the back stairs and stray into someone’s back yard. Come Friday afternoon, the stone-cold Flying Dutchman primly waits for his wife to pick him up for the drive back to their Emoh Ruo, an hour south of Bridgetown. Sunday evening she drops him back at The Last Resort.
Another specimen is Quill. Quill is a bookish, nervous sort of fellow, a sentimental idealist, docile while sober but garrulous, tending to argumentativeness in his cups. One evening an urgent rapping on his door shattered his rapt absorption in A.J. Cronin’s The Keys of the Kingdom. The paperback flew from his fingers and fell flapping in the ashtray at his bedside. He sprang off his doona and pulled the door open to confront he knew not what – a cop bearing an arrest warrant, news of death in the family, fire in one of the rooms? No, it couldn’t be fire: there was no clamour of smoke alarms, no pandemonium in the corridor, just as there was no cop casting a long shadow into his room. It was the Flying Dutchman wobbling and leering toothless in the doorway, ears jutting like spigots from his polished urn-shaped skull.
“Yo, Quill! You wan thome meeth? Man, I goth more meeth than I can eeth in a month of Thundayth. Ith on the barbie now. Come on outh an’ hep y’thelf.”
Quill collected himself. The Flying Dutchman’s dilated blue eyes swam in watery pink whites and he reeked of grog and marijuana fumes. He swallowed dryly and his liver-brown lips and whiskered cheeks sank wholly into his face, like some sort of horror-film monster swallowing its own face. He wore only rumpled shorts slung under a pudgy hairless belly. He proffered a brace of long-necks.
“I had a win on the horthes, man – paid forty dollarth an’ I ’ad ten on the bwuddy nothe! Now, youth alwayth hepped me outh when I been thort of a dollar, man, thow you ’ave a beer on me. I owe you, man! C’mon outh an’ geth thome meeth ’cauth ith my thout – whoopee-do an’ hallelujah, bwother! We gonna do thome partying! Hey, you wantha lenda thome money?”
Quill declined the loan but accepted the beers. Indeed, the Flying Dutchman had owed him two long-necks for a week or so.
“I goth plenthy a money,” The Flying Dutchman almost implored, plunging hands deep into his pockets.
Quill shook his head, then remembering he had only a half-dozen sausages in his freezer, and with payday still four days off, he said, “I’ll take a couple of chops, mate. Give me a minute and I’ll be right out.”
“I love you, man!” gushed the Flying Dutchman is a spray of spittle, and lurched barefoot down the corridor calling over his shoulder, “I love you, man! Yeah man, I love you!”
Quill put one beer in his fridge and opened the other. He picked up the paperback, inserted a bookmark at the page he had been reading, then swept up the scattered butts and ash from the polished timber floor.
THE afternoon sun had dipped behind a tall gum-tree which, in spite of the worst drought in a century, somehow thrived in the middle of the asphalt carpark behind The Last Resort. Sparse but welcome shade had fallen across the veranda, although the redbrick walls and pillars, the parapets and the lichen-crusted roof-tiles radiated an unrelenting heat captured and held day and night over the long hot weeks.
The Sour Kraut sat at a patio table, his swollen ivory-yellow stomach protruding from an unbuttoned khaki work-shirt, handbag of wine at his elbow, sipping from a mug filled with moselle and cracked ice. The Flying Dutchman squatted opposite on a chair, toad-like, sucking on a long-neck, assailing the Sour Kraut with rambling small-talk which the older man forebore with a confessor’s pained indulgence.
Tangles lurked by the washing machine at the veranda’s far end. Stark blue eyes glittering manically under a peaked cap pulled low on his brow, rolling his shoulders, stretching skinny arms, extending and retracting his head in sublime parody of either a turtle or a tai-chi routine, he prowled the floorboards growling and grunting – drunk. His long-neck of beer stood on the washing machine.
Against the wall to the right of the Flying Dutchman, under an overlay of grilling lamb chops, steaks and sausages, the barbecue quietly sizzled – enough meat to feed two-dozen starving labourers, Quill had noted as walked on to the veranda. The Flying Dutchman got up and began turning the meat with long-handle tongs, his tongue lolling from his mouth as he worked.
Quill was yarning with the Sour Kraut when Tangles picked up his long-neck and sidled over to them.
“Hoy, Quill!” he barked, interrupting their parley. “Did I ever tell you about that box-head, Frank Stoltz?”
“Well, no you haven’t – ”
“Yeah,” said Tangles, ploughing on regardless, squinting into the past. “Years ago Stoltz an’ me went to a dance in one of them tinpot village halls. I was pissed, Stoltz was pissed – all of us was pissed. Anyway, Stoltz says he’s goin’ out the back for a bog. We were all inside the hall and after a while we hears this yellin’, ‘Help me! Help me! Aw, someone come an’ help me!’ So we all tumbles out the back door to the ol’ thunderbox. An’ it’s dark, see. No light in the place – black as the grave.”
Tangles put the bottle to his lips, took a long pull and loosed a rattling belch.
“’Scuse me. So, anyway I gets me Ronson lighter an Í flicks it on. Well, you wouldn’t want to know. There’s ol’ Stoltzy sittin’ there with his strides down ’round his ankles – an’ he’s squattin’ on a mop bucket. ‘I can’t get up! I can’t get up!’ he’s squawkin’. An’ no wonder – every time he tried to stand up he put foot on the pedal and the rollers jammed together and grabbed him by the gonads! Ha-ha-ha! Good one, that – whaddya reckon, eh? The cleaner’s ol’ mop bucket got him in the Christmas grip every time he tried to stand up!”
The Sour Kraut and Quill chuckled politely; the Flying Dutchman staggered coughing and cackling at the barbecue.
After a sip of moselle the Sour Kraut said, “When I was cuttin’ ’sparra down the river – oh, it’d be thirty-odd years ago I reckon – we came in for smoko at the barracks one morning and in walks this bloke who’s cuttin’ with another team. Good cutter, he was, and a bloody good fighter, too. He could really go the knuckle. Well, he had two black eyes and his nose was spread like jam all over his face. And his knuckles? Skinned to the bone.
“I knew him, like, so I said, ‘What happened to you, mate?’ ‘Just don’t ask me,’ he said. So I said, ‘Looks like you zigged when you should’ve zagged’. ‘Oh shit’,’ he said, ‘I suppose I better tell you ’cause you’re bound to find out anyway’.”
The Sour Kraut paused, topping up his mug from the handbag.
“So the bloke said, ‘Well, I got on the grog in town last night. It was pretty late when the taxi dropped me off back here at the barracks. It was dark and I was bustin’ for a leak. So I stepped up to leak on the chimney – it was dark, bloody dark, like I said – and when I got up to the chimney this bloke jumped me. Smacked me fair in the eye. Knocked me back a step or two, he did. Now I’m not hexaggeratin’ when I say I can go a bit, you see, so I step up again and – bang! – he put another one on me, only this time it’s the other eye. Well, by now I’m startin’ to get pretty cranky, so I went at him whalin’ an’ swingin’ an’ thrashin’ an’ goin’ in for the kill and hell’s bloody bells, this time he smacked me fair on the snout!
“‘Bugger you, mate, I said, you’re too bloody fast for me – I can’t even see where you’re comin’ from! I reckon I know when I’m done, so we’ll just call it quits, eh?’ So I downs tools and went to bed thinkin’ one day I’m gonna find out who you are and I’ll belt piss an’ pick-handles outa you for jumpin’ me in the dark, you bastard. Anyway, when I got up this mornin’ I took a look at the spot where he got me, just in case he left somethin’ behind, a clue or somethin’ – know what I mean? Well, there was nothin’ there, nothin’at all bloody a bloody garden rake that some stupid clot had left propped against the wall with its teeth stickin’ up on the ground. I tell you, mate, I felt like a real goose . . . but I’ll tell you this, too: so help me, it’s the only time I ever lost a fight’.”
When the laughter subsided, the Flying Dutchman, brandishing his tongs, called for donations of salad items which was only fair, he spluttered through rubbery lips, since he alone had provided the meat and it was almost cooked. The Sour Kraut volunteered tomatoes, a red capsicum and an onion; Quill offered half a head of lettuce and a bowl of yesterday’s egg-potato salad. The Flying Dutchman said he might have a few shallots and a bottle of vinegar and would Quill throw the salad together and fetch the plates and the knives and forks from the kitchen if he and the others did the washing up? The Sour Kraut and Quill readily agreed, but Tangles snorted and turned up his nose, declaring he was not at all hungry.
“HOY!” Tangles bellowed through the kitchen door. Chopping shallots, lost in reverie, Quill convulsed and dropped the carving knife with a clatter in the sink.
Cackling mightily at Quill’s reaction, Tangles strutted into the kitchen and whacked a plastic-wrapped tray of frozen sausages down on the table.
“Whaddya doin’, Quill the pill?”
“Why sneak up on me like that?” Quill quavered, riled and shaken. “Can’t you see that I’m using a friggin’ knife? You carry on like a bloody idiot sometimes, Tangles.”
“Hoy! Who you callin’ an idiot?” Tangles squared his shoulders, shuffled his feet, threw back his head and glared down his nose. “I’m nobody’s idiot – you understand? You wanta watch yerself, chappie, or I might just rip yer bloody head off and crap in the hole.”
“I didn’t call you an idiot – I just said you behaved like one. There’s a clear and distinct difference,” Quill huffed, trying to recover his poise and bits of shallot scattered across the sink top.
“‘A clear and distinct difference’, eh?” Tangles mimicked Quill’s rebuke with a namby-pamby sneer.
A volley of door-knocking and a rattle of good-humoured banter sounded in the corridor as the Flying Dutchman summoned the other residents from their rooms.
“Mess call,” Tangles observed sourly. “Just you watch Billy-Boy, Moses and Ding-Dong and Speck. They’ll climb all over the top of each other tryin’ to shovel tucker inter their guts – with both hands. Ol’ Kraut’s all right, though. At least he knows how to use a knife and fork.”
“I suppose that explains these?” said Quill, pointing the knife at the sausages. “Dining on your lonesome tonight?”
“Yeah,” said Tangles. “Buggered if I’m gonna fight with them bums over a coupla maggoty chops. None of ’em’s had a bath in a week or more. You gonna ask ’em, ‘Oh, please, will you kindly pass the bread?’ and take a slice from a greasy paw that’s been somewhere you don’t wanta know about?”
With a sniff of disgust he tossed the sausage into the microwave oven, put the appliance on defrost and removed the lid of the electric frypan.
Quill ferried the bent cutlery, the chipped plates and the tired salads to the veranda and put them on the table before a gallery of hungry unshaven faces – Ding-Dong, Speck, Billy-Boy and Moses.
“What sorta wine d’you recommend, garcon?” Moses rasped through a silvery white beard streaked nicotine yellow.
“Why the Chateau Handbag Moselle, of course – c’est magnifique, monsieur!” said Quill with a flourish of mock-Gallic gallantry.
“A frog went walking on a summer’s day, ah-ha – haw-haw-haw!” boomed Moses in robust and sole appreciation of his rejoinder.
Trowelling a paint-spotted scraper over the hot-plate, the Flying Dutchman scooped up chops, steaks and sausages and flopped them in a lop-sided heap on a cracked platter and dumped it on the table. The mob fell upon it – all but the Sour Kraut who, amid the clash and clatter of knives and forks, picked up his handbag and mug and took himself to the parapet. There he leaned on an elbow observing the free-for-all. Quill threw himself into the cut and thrust, scoring three chops and a rump steak, medium rare, without the loss of fingers. He scuttled inside to stash the booty in his fridge for re-heating later on.
Tangles was waging verbal warfare – evidently against his ex-wife now living in Darwin – as Quill came down the corridor towards the kitchen. “. . . Yer got me for five-thousand bucks last month,” he was thundering. “Now you want me to cough up another two grand. Go to hell! Go to hell! It was you that dumped me . . . it was you that took off with that smart-arsed bastard. And what’d he do? He bedded yer fer three years, then he dumped yer at the bus-stop with yer ports and all and then he shot through. Now leave me alone – just leave me alone!”
Quill slipped unnoticed into his room and closed the door. He abhorred violence, verbal and otherwise, and sat on his bed nursing his long-neck, unwilling to return to the veranda for some salad until Tangles had settled down.
But tangles ranted on and on – he stamped, he swore, he keened, he cursed, he sobbed and he scowled – in a voice like an angle-grinder. In the sanctuary of his room Quill turned on the television hoping it would overwhelm the tempest while it lasted. Ten minutes went by . . . fifteen.
Suddenly Quill was on his feet. From a tobacco tin at the back of his wardrobe he produced a joint, a reefer, a scoobie given to him by an overnight guest of the hotel who had dropped his wallet in a shower cubicle. Quill had plucked it off the floor and found inside two ten-dollar notes and a driver’s licence. He had checked the licence-holder’s name against the guest register downstairs then went and knocked on the owner’s door. A sleepy grizzly-looking but thankful young man had thrust the joint into Quill’s shirt pocket as a token of poverty-stricken gratitude.
Quill went into the kitchen where Tangles stood clutching a long-neck in one hand and a fork in the other, tongue-lashing four sausages reposing unresponsive and uncooked in the bottom of the frypan.
“Wrap your laughing gear around this, Tangles,” said Quill. “It’s pretty good, so I’m told.”
Tangles turned and eyed the joint.
“What’s this, chappie? ’Lectric lucerne, eh?”
Quill nodded. “It’ll sharpen your appetite, Tangles. Then you’ll sleep like a baby.”
“I put more white lines up my nose than there are on the road when I was drivin’ interstate. Ooh, you could feel the hair stand up on the back of yer neck.” Tangles tone conveyed a hint of repentance, insofar as an angle-grinder can repent. “I haven’t had a joint since Jesus Christ ran ’round in nappies.”
He put the beer bottle and the fork on the sideboard, lit up the joint and sucked greedily.
“Get into it,” urged Quill, waving aside Tangles’ offer to partake. “And by the way, you just might get to cook those snags if you switch the power on.”
Tangles blew a gust of marijuana smoke at the ceiling. His glance darted to the frypan then back to Quill. “Reckon I should rub a coupla sticks under ’em?”
“Might help some,” said Quill exiting the kitchen in quest of some salad.
He needn’t have bothered. The salads had vanished, likewise Moses, Billy-Boy, Ding-Dong and Speck. The Sour Kraut, however, had resumed his seat at the table with The Flying Dutchman who sat sprawling slack-jawed, snoring. Mauled morsels and sticky droplets flecked his sunken lips and cheeks; driblets of egg-salad ran like bird droppings over the swell of his hairless belly. The tabletop, its overburden of greasy plates and cutlery, even the floor, were strewn with dollops of salad, rinds of fat and chop bones.
“The boys enjoyed the meal,” the Sour Kraut observed dryly and took a sip of wine.
“Looks like it,” said Quill. “I wonder how they’d fare in a swank restaurant – you know, liveried waiters, silver service and all the trimmings?”
The old man shrugged. “I reckon you’d want to count the silverware before they left.”
The Flying Dutchman stirred and groaned.
The Sour Kraut said, “What’s happened to Tangles? He’s gone quiet all of a sudden.”
“He’s in the kitchen, arguing with his sausages.”
The Sour Kraut barely inclined his head as a flicker of mirth crossed his lips.
The Flying Dutchman got up and lumbered yawing and stretching to the now cold barbecue. Ding-Dong slunk on to the veranda like a mongrel dog circling a campfire.
“Kraut, Quill – youth take the reth of thith meeth,” said the Flying Dutchman. “There’th a heap lefth over.”
“I’ll have some too!” yelped Ding-Dong.
“Thure. Gwab y’thelf a coupla peetheth, Bing-Bong, and leave the west for Kraut an’ Quill. Goob-nighth you blokth.” The Flying Dutchman shambled off to his room.
Ding-Dong took a dirty plate from the table and drifted over to the barbecue.
Pouring himself another mug of wine the Sour Kraut said to Quill, “So much for the washing up, eh?”
“Looks like we’re going to have to do it,” said Quill.
“Ha!” scoffed the retired asparagus cutter. “Not me. You can if you like. The Dutchman reckoned him and the others were gonna do it. Bloody bastards, they eat like horses then they bolt off to bed. Look at this place – it’s a bloody pigsty! No, I’d leave it if I was you. Let ’em do it themselves tomorrow.”
“Just testing, Kraut,” Quill smiled.
“No!” The Sour Kraut would not be soothed; he seemed intent upon whipping himself into a conniption. “What I mean is these blokes have got no respect for anyone or anything. Every day they’re out here gettin’ blind drunk, makin’ a mess and carryin’ on like the idiots they are. I come out here for a quiet drink and I’ve gotta sit on the piles of garbage they leave behind. I’m sick of it, I tell you. They want to cook a barbecue, they can bloody-well clean up after themselves.”
“I take your point,” said Quill casting about for another topic and finding an escape. “I’ll go see how Tangles is getting on.”
Tangles stood staring into the frypan – his agitation apparently lulled by the joint – listening intently to the sizzle of searing sausages. Quill stood at the kitchen door, watching. Tangles moved not a muscle, uttered not a sound. He’s stoned, thought Quill. ’Twas a fine idea giving him that joint. If only he were like this all day every day – gentle as a lamb.
Quill returned to the veranda, passing by the women’s lavatory where, through the open door, he glimpsed the Sour Kraut taking a sly pee. Ding-Dong had disappeared into the evening with all of the leftover meat from the barbecue.
“Bastard!” Quill hissed.
“What’s wrong?” Zipping his fly, the Sour Kraut stepped on to the veranda through the door behind Quill.
“Ding-Dong – he’s snaffled all the meat that was left on the barbecue.”
The Sour Kraut allowed himself a sardonic cackle and eased himself into his chair. “He can eat, that boy. Butt of beef and a sack of spuds is just an appetiser for Ding-Dong.”
“He’s a bloody thieving glutton . . . but then I’ve done all right, I suppose. The Flying Dutchman certainly looked after me. Did you score any meat, Kraut?”
“Yeah. I put some in my fridge earlier on, before he started cooking.”
“All the same, I hope Ding-Dong gets a big gut-ache and then a dose of galloping diarrhoea, the damned swine.”
The Sour Kraut took a mouthful of his wine, stroked his jaw.
“I got a dose of ring-sting once,” he said. “But it wasn’t diarrhoea.”
“Yeah?” Quill sat down on the chair vacated by the Flying Dutchman.
“Got caught short cuttin’ ’sparagus,” said the Sour Kraut. “It was a stinkin’ hot day, but I held on and held on ’cause, bein’ a bit crook from the night before, I was laggin’ some behind the gang. After a while I just had to go; I couldn’t hold on any longer. So I bolted down the riverbank and dropped me shorts. Oh, the relief! There I was squattin’ in the shade of a big ol’ willow tree and I reached behind me, like, and I grabbed a handful of grass and gave meself a good wipe. Well, I thought I’d been shot fair up the clacker – just about jumped right across the river the pain was so bad. They were nettles, you see – I’d wiped meself with a handful of stingin’ nettles!”
“Sheesh, I can’t imagine such a thing,” said Quill wincing and giggling. “Bring tears to your eyes, those nettles, did they?”
“Oh-ho!” cried the Sour Kraut. His gummy mouth opened like a billiard pocket as the whites of his eyes grew as round as the plates on the table. “It’s funny now, I can tell you, but it wasn’t at the time. I’ve never felt pain like it. I had to walk around bow-legged for three days, and all the while the sweat’s dribblin’down me crack. It was bloody agony. I even got some cream from the chemist and rubbed it in every mornin’, but it wore off as soon as we started cuttin’. I’ll never forget that.”
The Sour Kraut drank the last of the wine from his mug.
“Think I’ll hit the hay,” he yawned. He picked up his handbag and sauntered away. “See you tomorrow, Quill.”
“Yeah. Good-night, Kraut.”
Quill sat for a time, alone with his thoughts, then rose and went inside. Though the evening was oppressively hot, the corridor was uncharacteristically noiseless. Not an open door and not a sound – not even a television – seeped from any rooms. A full belly doth sound sleep induce, Quill mused.
Passing by the kitchen doorway he was puzzled to see Tangles still standing at the sideboard, staring into the frypan.
“What’re you doing, Tangles?”
Tangles turned slowly, dreamily; he had stabbed an overcooked sausage with the fork, pinning it to the bottom of the pan.
Quill advanced into the room. “Your sausages are done – overdone, I’d say. Aren’t you going to eat them?”
“Uh-uh, yeah,” Tangles sighed, surfacing from his trance.
“That joint knock you around a bit, eh?”
Tangles’ bleary eyes found their focus and grinning warily he murmured, “Whoa! That’s strong stuff, chappie. I’ve just realized I’ve been standin’ here fer an hour tryin’ to stop these snags climbin’ over the side of the pan and walkin’ back to the butcher’s shop. Had to skewer ’em down with me fork.”
Quill chuckled quietly. He got a plate from the rack and held it steady while Tangles forked the sausages out of the frypan.
“I’ll wash up the pan in the mornin’,” he said and took the plate from Quill’s hands. “G’night, Quill . . . the pill . . . heh-heh!”
Quill switched off the kitchen light as Tangles threaded a woozy path down the corridor to his room.
Indeed, next morning Tangles had washed and dried the frypan – and all the greasy plates and cutlery left on the veranda overnight – long before anyone had awoken. He had cleaned down the barbecue, too, swabbed the table and swept up the food scraps from the veranda floorboards.
But that’s Tangles for you.
Footnote: The final postcard in this series Corridor of Stabs in the Back is, as they say, in the mail – M.B.
Copyright © Maurice J. Batcheldor, 2012.
In the late 1970s Maurice Batcheldor returned to the Big Smoke from Queensland’s Deep North, where he reckoned he’d met his fair share of characters. Gaining a taxi driver’s licence, he took to the streets of Sydney to maintain body and soul as one. The fares quoted in this collection of sketches were typical of the time.
A TAXICAB, insofar as this ex-driver is concerned, is an encapsulated travelling circus, at times a zoo, a theatre, confessional and an asylum. The cabbie is essentially a ringmaster. He is the audience, too; the sole spectator of feats and contortions performed by that unpredictable troupe called the travelling public.
Cab driving is not a vocation, unless one happens to be an owner/driver. For the majority of cabbies it is a halfway house between penury and scant sufficiency, the domain of out-of-work actors, journalists, lawyers, writers, musicians, artists and university students. And it is not easy work. At best it is gruelling, enervating and poorly paid. The cabbie is the hostage of time, traffic and whimsical passengers to whom he is both servant and master.
My first fare was a woman, middle-aged, dumpty and brimming with cheerfulness. She hailed me in Oxford Street, Paddington, and asked to be taken to “the Kingsgate Hotel via Darlinghurst Road, love”. I knew the way. Luckily.
She was going to work, she said, and although she didn’t like the job all that much (she was a housemaid), it was the best she could do in these lean times. Whenever bed-making or vacuuming got her down all she had to do was think of the holiday for which she was saving. At Christmas she was off to New Zealand to visit her daughter and son-in-law. She hadn’t seen them for four years, not since their wedding here in Sydney. The thought of travelling abroad alone for the first time made her a little afraid (her husband was dead ten years), but this she overcome by visualising the snapshots of her grandchildren, a boy and a girl, two darling little Kiwis, whom she had never seen in the flesh, never cuddled. Oh, it would be so lovely. She would take presents for them all and they would have such a wonderful Christmas . . .
I was suddenly horror-stricken, still in Oxford Street but three blocks past Darlinghurst Road. She dismissed my mortified apology with a giggle and a blush.
“I talk too much, I know,” she said.
Outside the hotel she took three dollars from her purse.
“You’re new at this, aren’t you, love.”
“Yes. How do you know?”
She pointed at the meter – I had forgotten to turn it on when I picked her up.
“Don’t worry, love,” she laughed. “We’ve all got to start somewhere. The fare’s usually about two-dollars twenty. You take this and buy yourself a beer when you finish your shift. You’ll need one.”
* * *
KINGS Cross, a kaleidoscopic razzle-dazzle of bright lights and sex-for-sale. Waiting on the rank on Darlinghurst Road one can watch the eager young moths fluttering gaily in its deadly electric ambience.
She threw herself on the back seat and slammed the door. Her long black hair was dishevelled, her mascara tear-smudged.
“Cos-mo-pol-it-an,” she wailed.
“Certainly – hey, are you all right?”
“Please, just get me to the Cosmopolitan.”
“Okay, okay. But you’ve got to tell me where it is. What sort of place is it?”
“Please . . . just get me to the Cosmopolitan.”
I explained there were at least fifteen Cosmopolitan listings in the Sydney phone directory, among them hotels, motels, restaurants and a travel agency.
“Double Bay!” she howled.
I drove like a demon down New South Head Road and pulled up outside the Cosmopolitan Hotel. She thrust two dollars at me. I counted out her change, inquiring again whether I could assist her in any way. Perhaps the police –
“No! Not the cops!” she screeched. “Just leave me alone, will you.”
She balled the coins in her fist, scrambled out of the cab and ran crying into the night.
* * *
I WAS nettled by attitude of my last passenger, a spotlessly dull executive type. After handing him change of a twenty-dollar note (for a fare of one-dollar ten), he took a ten-cent piece and flipped it through my window. It landed between my feet. Nursing stung pride I drove in the deepening twilight into the city.
She stepped in front of the cab. I swerved and stopped.
“Cambridge Lane, Paddington,” she snapped.
I eyed her in the rear-vision mirror. Late twenties, blond hair cascading to her shoulders, delicate features, fine high cheekbones and temptingly full lips. She sat straight as a ramrod.
Nearing Paddington I turned to her.
“Look, I’m sorry but I don’t know the exact location of Cambridge Lane. If you like I’ll pull over, switch off the meter and look it up in my street directory.”
“You told me you knew where it was,” she scoffed.
“I didn’t say anything of the kind. But I can drive around for the next couple of hours or so in the hope that I find it – miss!”
“Wait here,” she instructed when we stopped in Cambridge Lane a few minutes later. “If my employer isn’t home I’ll want you to take me to Bondi.”
I was ashamed of my outburst, but it eased to an odd sense of accomplishment for having stymied her wrath, I suppose, because she spoke more easily when she returned to the cab. Heading to Bondi we exchanged apologies.
“Just one of those days,” she sighed. Her alarm clock had not rung that morning. Late for work, she had run to her new car and found a back tyre was flat. She looked in the boot but there wasn’t even the sign of a spare. Little it mattered because she didn’t know how to change one. Business at the office was chaotic all day. She had worked through lunch trying to clear a mountain of work, missed the bank in the afternoon and worse – tomorrow she was expected to drive to Gosford on business. She had only seven dollars. How could she pay for the cab then pay a mechanic to change the wheel for a mere seven dollars? New to Sydney, she had no friends who might lend her some cash. And her employer, overseas on business and due back in Sydney tonight, had been delayed yet another day.
We discovered by torchlight a spare wheel, a jack and wheel-brace in a compartment under the lining in the boot of her car. I changed it for her and then asked for the fare. She paid happily and invited me into her flat for coffee.
* * *
TWO-THIRTY in the morning. The windscreen splattered with droplets of light; traffic lights fusing, spilling in streams of colour over the road. At the junction of Parramatta and Pyrmont Bridge Roads a pale gown clutching a bundle of cloth hailed me from a bus shelter.
“You take me to hospital, mister?”
Her face of chiselled mahogany was smeared with tears and rain-drops, the aureole of crimped and clipped hair water-logged. The child, sexless in sickness, lay limp in her lap.
Only a short run to Royal Prince Alfred on Missenden Road, but the traffic lights conspired against urgency. Sounding the horn in long blasts I edged the cab through red lights. Safe, I stamped on the accelerator. Outside emergency admissions she turned her head against the door pillar. Her huge shoulders heaved under her sodden nylon dressing-gown.
“I’ll help you inside,” I said, unfastening my seatbelt.
“Please mister,” she sobbed. “I only got sixty-three cents.”
We humans can be merciless machines, cold automatons, unthinking creatures of habit. The meter was running. It read $1.25.
* * *
“WOOLOOMOOLOO, mate. But we’ve got some gear – better open the boot.”
He was tall and shabbily dressed. His nose, like a shark’s fin with clumps of nasal hair sprouting under its tip, arced away from his face between narrow eyes. His mate slouched astride a box amid odds and ends strewn on the footpath. Shirt-tails and underwear trailed from two ruptured suitcases bound with ancient neckties. Odd shoes, socks, TAB guides spilled from cartons and plastic shopping bags tied with string and electrical flex. He helped his mate to his feet as I opened the boot.
“Des, Des – c’mon, mate. Get in the cab. This bloke’s gonna help us with the stuff. That’s what he’s paid for. C’mon, mate.”
Des teetered to the cab and lay like a grimy foetus on the back seat.
A pair of artless dodgers, to be sure. But fares had been depressingly scarce all evening and the need for the almighty dollar overruled caution. Besides, it was only a short run from Liverpool Street, Darlinghurst, down to the ’Loo.
He took the front seat and introduced himself as Cec. Des snored. We swung into Darlinghurst Road and Cec stretched himself.
“Shiftin’ camp we are, mate. Gotta nice place down the ’Loo.”
“Yeah, mate. I tell you, a bloke’s glad to get outa that place,” he said, jerking his thumb over his shoulder. “Bloody landlady always complainin’. Bloke couldn’t even scratch hisself without her stickin’ her snout in the keyhole and bangin’ on the door. But Des ’ere won the lottery – couldn’t believe our luck.”
“How much did he win,” I asked, the prospect of a decent tip registering instantly.
“Thousand bucks, mate. We picked her up this arvo. ’Course we had a few jars, just to celebrate. That’s why old Des’s a bit under the weather – hey! Stop ’ere. Stop at the pub.”
I ran the cab into the kerb at the New Crest Hotel, outside the bar where drinkers brooded over glasses, glaring at passers-by. Cec roused Des who snorted, grunted and produced a clammy roll of twenties from his trousers.
“Thanks old mate,” Cec crooned, stuffing a couple in his shirt and giving me a wink. “Gonna get a few tinnies so we can ’ave a bit of a house-warmin’ tonight. Hang-on a tick.”
The meter clicked away merrily and Des snored on while I scanned the wildlife beginning to walk the streets of Kings Cross as night began to fall.
“Look out, you dopey bastard!” Cec’s voice thundered over a muffled crash and the dull clatter of tumbling cans.
I jumped from the cab. A natty little bottle-shop attendant stood holding a carton of canned beer by the back door. Another carton lay broken at his feet.
“Geez, mate,” Cec blustered, “Put the bloody cartons on the ground, open the bloody door and then put the bloody things on the back seat . . . bloody hell, you’re about as handy as a pocket in me underdaks.” He wrenched the door open and placed two flagons of port on the seat. “Bloody little horse’s hoof,” Cec sneered, dropping to hands and knees, retrieving cans from the gutter and under the cab.
“How dare you,” the attendant declared, and let the carton drop to the footpath. Cans rolled everywhere. “You boorish, smelly hayseed.” He stamped his foot. “I’m not obliged to endure abuse from the likes of you, you great hooligan.”
Cec leapt to his feet, grabbed the attendant by the throat and thrust him against the cab.
“Hey! Cut it out you two,” I yelped. “You’ll have the cops here in five seconds flat. Break it up.”
The attendant, his face turning puce, suddenly took Cec’s nose in his right hand and gave it a vicious twist. Cec squealed and the attendant, still clinging tenaciously to the nose, wriggled free of Cec’s chokehold.
“That’s enough,” I said.
The attendant’s cheeks were now white and sweaty. He gave the nose a last vindictive tweak, hissing, “Don’t you ever set foot in my bottle-shop again”, and disappeared through a clot of gawks who had stopped to see some action.
“The grog!” Cec shrilled. He pulled the dozing Des out of the cab and together they raked up the scattered cans and tossed them in the back.
“Where to?” I said to Cec as we left from Wilde Street and hove into Cowper Wharf Road.
“I dunno where it is,” he whined, staring through the windscreen, running forefinger and thumb down the blade of his nose. “I reckon it’s back the other way.”
“No it isn’t, Cec,” piped Des, peering over the seat. “It’s straight ahead, driver. Third on your left, then second on your right.”
“Bull! Turn round, mate. Drive back up the street.”
“But Cec – ”
“Shut it, Des. It’s back the other way – I know where it is, me old mate. Have I ever let you down?”
Twice more we drove up Wylde Street, McCleay Street and Darlinghurst Road and back down to the wharves.
Cec could not remember the address and Des had relapsed comatose on the back seat. We headed back again into Kings Cross, and Cec swore he would find the place if only he could recognise a building or two.
“She’s right, mate. I know where we are,” he announced, just as my patience was about to snap. “Turn right here. Yeah, this is it – here.”
We got Des to his feet and unloaded their belonging.
“Right,” said Cec, when the cans and flagons and suitcases and bags were dumped on the footpath. “How much does he owe you?”
“Orright. Give ’im fifteen, Des.”
I jammed the cash in my pocket, jumped behind the wheel and took off. I stared in the rear-vision mirror and couldn’t believe my eyes – I had delivered them to the exact spot at which Cec had hailed me.
And I wasn’t going back to let him know.
* * *
THEY stood arm in arm at the kerb. She carried a bouquet of blood-red roses. They kissed and he helped her into the cab. She turned and waved until he was out of sight.
“I’ve been courting my husband. Sounds silly, doesn’t it,” she said.
“Not at all. I’m sure there’d be less broken marriages if couples continued to court each other after their weddings.”
“I nearly divorced him.”
“I’m sorry . . . but I’m happy – well, you know what I mean.”
“We’ve only been married two years. But I nearly divorced him, nine months ago. He nearly killed me. Neighbours found me in the street. I don’t know how I managed to get away from him, out of the house.
“He’s a good man but he’s an alcoholic. Three-thousand dollars I had in the bank when we got married. But he drank and he gambled, spent it all in a bit less than a year. Then he started borrowing – from some men at the club, I think. They came to the house and spoke to him at the front gate. They didn’t touch me. They didn’t say anything to me, but I knew he was in some sort of trouble. He came home late one night. Drunk. I was just so worried about things I had to say something. He bashed me up. Broke four ribs, blinded my right eye and ruptured my spleen. But I’m glad all the same.”
“Yes. When they opened me up on the operating table they found I had cancer. If he hadn’t bashed me up then I wouldn’t have known. The doctors took it out before it went too far. He’s been off the drink ever since. He wanted me to stay with him tonight, but I said no.”
“I should bloody-well think so.”
“Oh, he would’ve treated me well. Matter of fact he wants us to start all over again. I haven’t told him yet, but I’ll go back to him after he’s been off the drink for a year. They say that’s the worst time, the first year.”
“You’d go back to him, a man who beat you like that?”
“Yes. I believe in him.”
“For God’s sake – why?”
She smiled, her right eye opaque, a moon of frosted glass; the other bright and moist.
“Because I love him.”
* * *
“MARRICK-VILLE,” he hiccoughed.
His suit was well-cut but rumpled and stained, his hair was styled but tousled. I glanced at his bristly face and the bleary red eyes and pondered the Transport (Public Vehicles) Regulations: “ . . . The driver of a public vehicle on any public street shall not knowingly carry . . . any person who is drunk, or dirty, or attired so as to cause annoyance to any other passenger, or is likely to soil or damage the public vehicle or the apparel of any other passenger . . . ”
A borderline case, I decided, twisting the meter key and easing the cab into the traffic on McLeay Street, Potts Point.
“I’ve been on the turps for two days,” he said.
“Have a good time?”
“Nah. Been drinking Ben Ean. You know what Ben Ean is, driver?”
“Some sort of table wine, I think.”
“Awful stuff. ’S the Kraft sheese of wine . . . wake me up when we get to Illawarra Road, will you?”
“Warren Road.” His head fell back and he began to snore, deep and loud.
We were nearing Warren Road when he sat bolt upright.
“Turn left – here!” he ordered.
He directed me through a maze of backstreets, lanes and then alleys that became narrower and darker. The thought struck me: What if he’s planning to dong me on the head and help himself to the miserable few dollars I’ve taken tonight?
“Stop here. Shine your lights on that door over there.”
Oh-oh, here it comes. I stealthily released my seatbelt, ready to jump from the cab and run for my life.
“Wait here,” he instructed, extracting a key from a handful of coins and screwed up notes. He reeled to the door of the building, a factory by the look of it, and fumbled with the lock. The door swung open and he lurched inside, slamming it shut.
Just my luck. The old in-the-front-door-and-over-the-back-fence trick. There are a few resourceful people – the bane of every cabbie – who are ever vigilant for the opportunity to evade a fare. Like the impeccably dressed and “trebly” well-spoken dowager whom I’d picked up in Double Bay and driven to the city. We had stopped at traffic lights at Elizabeth and Market Streets, opposite David Jones.
“I shan’t need you to take me to Circular Quay, driver,” she tootled. “I’ll alight here.” She proffered a fifty-dollar note.
“I can’t change that, madam. Would you have something smaller?”
She hadn’t. I pulled out my wallet and began assembling her change from one- and two-dollar denominations. The lights turned green as I counted, and a Transport Commission bus began to trumpet and roar like a wounded elephant, right on my tail.
Now there is an undeclared street war between the drivers of PTC buses and taxis. Whenever one catches the other in the wrong, certain procedure is faithfully observed: Each plants a hand firmly on the horn, hurls abuse and waves a fist the other to accentuate threats most dire. After I’d wiped the froth my lips and the sweat from my brow I turned around. She was so elegant, so poised this woman, but she was gone, had smoothly vanished with her fifty dollars into the lunchtime crowds.
“Hey mate, open the door.” My fare had returned to the cab with a cardboard box tucked under each arm. “Righto, you can take me home now,” he said, dropping them on the back seat.
“Five dollars, thanks,” I said when we stopped outside his home, a palatial spread at the end of drive lined with pencil pines.
“It’s only five,” I cautioned, mindful that drunks and cash can be an explosive combination.
“It’s a bloody tip, isn’t it,” he boomed.
“Gee, thanks a lot. Don’t forget your boxes.”
“They’re yours, mate,” he called, climbing crab-like up the front steps to the pillared portico. “See you later, eh?”
They were sealed cartons, lightweight and unmarked. I wanted to rip them open there and then, but I resisted the urge and put them in the boot. Later in the night I stopped at home for a snack and a short break. I rushed up the stairs, past my wife.
“What on earth’s the matter?” she demanded. “What have you got in those boxes?”
“Gifts,” I gloated. “At last, at last I have my reward for all the unrequited devotion, the care, the sympathetic hearing I give to unutterable bores, the courtesy I heap upon my passengers. Yes, a benevolent Samaritan has taken pity on me for all the unsolicited jibes I suffer from punctilious garbologists, the lemon-powered slights I endure from supercilious society matrons, all the acrimony, all the insults I withstand without one retaliatory utterance. My hour is come,” I announced, reverently placing the cartons on the lounge-room floor.
My wife was unimpressed. “You’re drunk,” she declared.
“Look, my darling, for all I know these could be stuffed full of fifty-dollar bills, negotiable stocks, shares – wealth! Maybe they’re Aladdin’s lamps, one for you and one for me. Now wouldn’t that be something, eh? It’s an omen, I tell you. Here, you open one and I’ll open the other.”
My wife groaned. I was crushed. Each carton contained four-dozen three-packs of dish-washing sponges.
Last cab to Ongungung
EIGHT O’CLOCK MONDAY morning, Queen’s Birthday holiday. Sydney’s as quiet as a nunnery in retreat. I’ve been pushing the cab for two hours and taken only five dollars. I’ve cruised from Paddington into the city and over the Coat-hanger to Mosman and back, down to Bondi-by-the-sea for nothing but a couple of local fares, and the fleet’s radio is ominously silent.
Cab rental for the shift is thirty dollars, fuel will account for another twenty – all up fifty dollars before I begin to make money and only eight more hours to run. Dammit, at this rate I’ll have to raid my sly-kick to meet costs. A labour of love for the co-op. I ply the backstreets of Kings Cross and Darlinghurst in the hope that a late-finishing lady of the night will hail me, command I take her home to the outer suburbs with her bundle of tax-free cash. Nothing, no one. And there are six cabs parked on Kings Cross rank, arguably the busiest in the city at any given time. The drivers are out of their cabs, gathered in listless small-talk on the footpath. Even this bustling, brassy part of town is mysteriously depopulated. I join the queue and switch off the motor. At least I’ll save some fuel.
Sitting there twiddling my thumbs, fighting an inclination to despair, the voice of my instructor at the taxi drivers’ school replays itself in high-fidelity foreboding: “It is a statistical fact,” he growls. “The majority of those who attack and rob cab drivers are fares from Kings Cross. Now I warn you – pick up from the rank in Darlinghurst Road, or off the streets thereabouts, and you put your money and your life at risk.” But like legions of rookie drivers who find the first few weeks at the job dreadfully unrewarding, I’ve just got to take the risk.
Action, at last. Four cabs ahead are hired in quick succession, then another. Suddenly mine is point car, first on the rank. The back doors fly open and two men jump in. Their faces are flat, polished; they smell of a mixture of ginseng and Brut. The fat one says: “Solly . . . velly solly . . . no tok Ungliss.” He hands me a page from a notepad with “Wollongong” written thereon. What? Wollongong? My dear fellows, welcome aboard.
“Emmuss?” he barks.
“I’ll beg your pardon?”
The radio operator, to my tremulous query, drawls through his nose: “King Cross to Wollongong fifty-five dollars plus waiting time. Jackpot, eh driver? Have a good trip.”
“Fifty-five dollars, gentlemen,” I smile.
“Ah, so.” He scribbles another note and passes it to me, but he’s written “$45”.
“Sorry sir, fifty-five.” I write the correct price beneath his figure. He studies it and converses in a sort of verbal scrawl with his gaunt, unsmiling companion.
“Ah, so. Hokay Joe – Ongungung.”
We cruise down the Princes Highway, out of the city. They shout at me to stop at the cliff-top pub at Bulli. I switch on the meter (waiting time) as they clamber out of the cab with a camera and collapsible tripod. With the delayed-action shutter set they stand arms about each other laughing, posturing against the backdrop of sky, curving beach and breakers melting into haze away in the distance. They return to the cab in a while with a dozen cans of cold beer. Meter off and we’re away again, stereo cassette blaring Herbie Mann, spurts of froth with every opened can.
“Hoy!” Fat Chap shouts at traffic lights in the middle of Wollongong. He’s wrestling with a map, but it’s upside-down and back-to-front and opened at the strip of coast between Brisbane and Kempsey.
“Cow,” he says.
“Cow!” – emphatically.
They’re sitting there grim and silent. What on earth does he mean – a milk bar? I sketch an effigy of a cow, huge horns, preposterous udder. Fat Chap gurgles, nods appreciatively, then composes himself and says gravely: “Cow . . . menny cow? (nod, nudge – wink, blink) . . . menny cow?” To my charade of hand milking he bursts into a boisterous affirmative babble.
“A dairy!” I cry, relieved. Ah, so . . . but just where do you find one in downtown Wollongong?
I point the cab south and switch on the meter (after all, they’ve asked me to take them further than their stipulated destination). We follow the escarpment of the Great Divide, past smallish herds of grazing cattle. I slow the cab and turn to my passengers. But they’re rigidly unimpressed. Fifteen minutes out of Wollongong and I decide it’s time to grab the bull by the horns and swing right into a lane winding away towards the bush, into the hills. Oh, lucky man am I. Up ahead by a culvert there’s a farmer mending the fence and in the paddock with him are cows, menny, menny cows. Excited chattering in the back. I stop the cab and climb down the embankment to greet my unwitting benefactor.
“Yeah, they can take pictures of my cows. But don’t let them run them about too much,” he frowns, watching Fat Chap and friend scrambling through the fence wires. “You know,” he says, pushing a shapeless bush hat to the back of his head “You know there’s a bloke up the road a bit who’s been winning awards at the Royal Easter for the last ten years or so. Friesian stud he’s got. Nice place. Why don’t you take them up there? I reckon he’d be only too glad to show these blokes around – know what I mean?”
Yes, yes. I know what he means, but my passengers, looking like a pair of be-suited Buddhas, do not. They stare blankly at my gesticulations but eventually they re-enter the cab, like scolded schoolboys.
The lane wanders through bush, culverts, past smooth green paddocks and over a rickety single-lane bridge. Then a huddle of buildings surrounded by pines and ancient eucalypts – a dairy, a real dairy with haysheds, silos, electric fences, milking shed, homestead, duck-pond, machinery and everywhere big black and white Friesians.
The dairy farmer is obliging, understanding. “Would you get my boots for me, dear?” he calls to his wife from the front door. “Couple of blokes here from Sydney want to have a look at the place.” He smiles with a hint of embarrassment as the Buddhas bow to him.
Morning milking has been finished for some hours and it will be late afternoon before the cows amble back to the dairy for the evening session. My passengers seem blithely unconcerned. The farmer’s children, a boy and a girl, join the party as we set out. The travellers exclaim and push a two-dollar note into each pair of pink hands, ignoring the father’s protests. The men insist, the children are shy and uncertain, father relents. Forward we go.
Buddhas scuttle across the farmyard and into a hayshed. Shrieks, laughter and loose straw soar through the doorway. A big grin breaks across the farmer’s face, his children gawk. Buddhas are rolling in the hay and flinging fistfuls at each other. Fat Chap, panting and brushing chaff from his suit, hands me his camera for a couple of informal shots.
“Funny little fellas,” the farmer confides as we stroll past the duck-pond. The children twitter furtively, eyes a-twinkle, cheeks rosy. Buddhas are overwhelmed by the stature and quality of the cows. Each one blandly munching cud, sad-eyed and obstinate, they stand slightly shorter though broader than thoroughbred racehorses. Fat Chap and friend on hands and knees examine the capacious udder of a particularly docile looking beast.
“I hope Bessie doesn’t get him, dad,” the boy murmurs.
But Bessie, who evidently doesn’t understand their lingo and is overcome by lavish praise, swings her head as Fat Chap gets to his feet. Her steamy unfurled tongue, the texture of sodden emery paper, slops a glistening slick of green mucous across the side of his head. The children gag on their fingers, their father frowns darkly at them. The Buddhas reel in paroxysms of glee, calling for the camera. Pictures, pictures, backslapping and still more pictures of everyone standing beside, before and behind the benign and indifferent Bessie.
“Any idea where they’re from?” the farmer inquires as we follow them through the fence to the adjoining paddock.
“Haven’t a clue, I’m afraid.”
Buddhas squat close to an electric fence that contains a herd of strip-grazing milkers. “Might be some excitement if they grab one of them wires,” the farmer chortles. “I’d better get over there and keep an eye on them.” They stand quickly to attention as we approach. They turn out sods and tufts of grass from their pockets. “Yeah, sure, fine,” says our host. “Take some samples if you want to – that’s all right. Funny little fellas though,” he chuckles aside.
Inspection of the milking shed proceeds with businesslike formality. The farmer, using his arms like a semaphore, imparts an idea of its workings to his visitors. He throws switches, pulls levers, traces pipes from clusters of teat-cups in the bails to an immense stainless-steel vat in a room next to the milking floor. Buddhas are sedulously absorbed, running their hands over the equipment, nodding, shooting off another roll of film and erupting in burst of unintelligible gabble.
An invitation to tea and scones at the homestead is politely declined. Buddhas consult their watches and shake their heads regretfully. “Perhaps next time, then,” says the farmer. They bow deeply to him and offer their business cards. Both, it seems, might be either dairy farmers or government officials from Kyonki-do Province, South Korea. Mr Kim Nam-Hoi (Fat Chap) is president of the Saemaul Farming Technician Federation and general secretary of the Namyang Lions Club. His companion, Mr Cha Myung-Hwan, is president of the Livestock Breeding Advance Association (Hwasung County) and a delegate to the National Conference of Subject Unification.
We farewell the farmer, his wife and their children on the front steps of the homestead. My passengers wave through the cab’s back window until the family is well obscured by the trees. As we cross the little wooden bridge Mr Kim indicates, eating an imaginary meal with imaginary knife and fork, that he and Mr Cha are hungry (and would I like to dine with them). His intense famishment Mr Kim communicates by rubbing his substantial belly and groaning.
Wollongong, one presumes, would boast restaurants proportionate in number to the size and population of that cosmopolitan city. But none is open. We stop at an ugly red-brick hotel in the hope we may partake of late counter lunch. But the barmaid offers instead some charred and gristly objects that resemble too closely the patty-cakes strewn about the farmer’s paddocks. Mr Kim snorts his disapproval. Mr Cha purses his lips. Together we shamble back to the cab.
Over all the stupid oversights . . . I’ve locked my keys in the taxi. I can see them dangling smugly from the ignition. Messrs Kim and Cha peer through the windows and twig to our plight. Mercifully, enterprising Chinese have established thee Canton Restaurant – a hole-in-the-wall we have overlooked – on the corner of the next block. Messrs Kin and Cha can see too the restaurant down the street. Ah, so. Yes, they will order lunch while I telephone the NRMA to rectify matters.
The mechanic arrives in a trice. A laconic sort of chap he glances at the cab’s Sydney colours. He regards me with silent mockery as he deftly dismembers a wire coat-hanger. He forces a straightened length into the door and instantly trips the lock. My humble thanks he acknowledges with a smirk.
Closed. The Canton is closed and Messrs Kim and Cha are vanished. The street is empty but for a clutter of Harley-Davidsons parked amid papers and cans strewn in the gutter a stone’s throw from the restaurant. The ubiquitous greaserie? Indeed, a gastronome’s nightmare. Webbs of fatty dross over the deep-fry, dusty Coke and Chico posters peeling from the walls, dog-eared and grimy floor tiles, besmirched glass in the bain-marie, no tables and no ashtrays. Messrs Kim and Cha lean either side of a tiny servery which is clogged with parcels, fruit, cartons and cans of soft-drink. They stand ankle-deep in discarded wrappings. The attendant, splotches of batter stuck to his hairy forearms, glares pointing at the window of the cash register. A squad of steely-eyed bikies, oily and leathered, loiters around my passengers.
“Nine dollars ten cents,” Batter-boy snarls. “Youse blokes gonna pay or wot?”
But Messrs Kim and Cha assail him with winsome smiles and appreciative nodding. They continue feasting. The bikes are restless, Batter-boy exasperated.
“Excuse me,” I plead, stepping carefully past the bikies. Mr Kim sees me and confers noisily with Mr Cha. They proffer fish cakes, chips, a hamburger and a couple of cans of drink, exhorting me to tuck in. “Please excuse my friends,” I beseech Batter-boy with all the reverence I can muster. “They’re from Korea and they don’t speak English. Their customs, as you know, are completely different to ours. In Korea you don’t pay for your food until you’ve eaten – truly.”
Batter-boy shrugs, grunts. Meanwhile, Mr Kim has unwrapped a teacake smeared with pink icing. He sniffs its bouquet and removes the cap from a sticky bottle of barbecue sauce. He trickles three dollops on to the cake, spreads the sauce with his index finger and takes a generous bite. “Mmmm-mmmm!” he declares, despatching the remaining portion, licking his fingers.
A disquieting silence.
Several bikies crack thin smiles as Mr Kim calls for another teacake. Batter-boy hands it to him on a square of paper. Mr Cha smiles at all, resumes eating a piece of fish. Some bikies draw closer. Batter-boy leans through the servery. Mr Kim loads his cake with sauce and downs it with unreserved relish. Someone giggles. Batter-boy stares unmoved, his face as expressive as an egg-flip. Slowly Mr Kim slides to the floor. Propped with his back against the wall under the servery, he fondly pats his stomach. “Ahhhhh,” he sighs, with the expression of a sated god.
Mr Cha gathers the remaining parcels, an apple, an orange, cans of soft-drink and a carton of milk. They glance at their wristwatches, nod to each other and Mr Kim picks himself up. He slaps twelve dollars on the servery. Scowling, Batter-boy counts the notes and tosses back two dollars. “Hoy!” Messrs Kim and Cha shout in unison. Mr Kim pushes the note across the servery. He has adopted an air of offended dignity. He and Mr Cha shake their heads reprovingly and then walk out, acknowledging the assembly with broad smiles.
An unremitting duet of snores filled the cab all the way back to Kings Cross. Outside their Victoria Street hotel they settled the fare, around a hundred dollars with the extra running. Mr Kim handed me a generous tip, placed a hand on my shoulder, saying: “You . . . numbah wun . . . Joe.” They stood shoulder-to-shoulder on the kerb, bowed stiffly to me and waved until I could no longer see them in the rear-vision mirror.
At the bottom of the street I was hailed by a surly fellow who reeked of booze. He demanded I take him to the Hilton Hotel in the city. So what if he’s drunk and obnoxious – I’m basking in the afterglow of my best ever day driving the cab. Anyway, it’s only five minutes to the city and this churlish brute will be my last fare before I return the cab to base.
A curious thing, human nature. When I stopped outside the Hilton I was roundly abused and threatened with the police – because the fare ran ten cents more than he said he usually paid for the journey.
Copyright © Maurice Batcheldor 1983, 2011.