Pop’s

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Not for the first time, the informant was a no-show.

It happens more often than you think.

In the movies, the detective gets a phone call from someone who won’t give a name, ‘but I got great information for yous’, and the scene cuts to the dark, dangerous meeting place. The informant does, or does not, cough up information in return for a handful of notes or a punch in the stomach — depending on the director and his taste for violence.

In my world, I meet people where I can keep an eye on them, but occasionally I will turn up to a deserted location like the old wharf at South Bank.

It wasn’t the warmest night on record, and I waited a reasonable length of time, but he wasn’t coming. There could be a hundred reasons why he didn’t show, but I was too tired to list them all, and besides, Pop’s doesn’t have paper napkins (it’s not that sort of place) so where would I write them?

Pop’s serves a weird assortment of goods including peanuts and ice cream, which is mostly for the day trade. At this hour of the night, a man was likely to get mugged for ordering ice cream. Beer was the order most heard. There was also whiskey, but I wouldn’t recommend it. None of it had ever seen the shores of Scotland.

The building is small, but there is a small verandah at the back that looks out onto the water. During the day, people tramp up the sandy steps sit and lick ice cream. At this hour of the evening (Pop’s never closes), cigarettes and beer help to accompany the view. You can hear the waves even when the wind is still.

Detective work is a lot like being in the army — moments of terror and excitement punctuated by long stretches of mind-numbing boredom. This was one of the latter.

Something will come along, it always does. The rent has been paid, there’s food in the fridge, and the tank on my Coupe is full. I could use a haircut, but that can wait. I haven’t been shot at for a while, which is good.

“Sorry to disturb you sir, but there is a lady just came in, and she wants to talk to you,” said the barman, leaning out of the door leading to the verandah.

“Why didn’t she come out here?” I said.

“I don’t know mate. Maybe she’s delicate and the evening air would adversely affect her completion. How the fuck would I know.”

The barman disappeared, I stubbed out my cigarette, sculled my beer and put on my hat.

This night was beginning to look up.

Full Circle.

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“How do you get the bubbles into the beer?”

“No idea.” Joe’s answer wasn’t correct.

He knew exactly how they did it, he just couldn’t be bothered answering.

People talk to bartenders, all the time.

If you want to be good at this job you need to be well organised, thick skinned, reasonable at arithmetic and, like a psychologist, be a good listener.

Bartending isn’t a job, it’s a vocation — you are born to it. Joe is a fourth-generation practitioner.

His great grandfather started it all, and by an interesting coincidence, it was at this very hotel.

He fell into the job after serving in the Australian army during the first Boer War in South Africa. Australia was not yet a country in its own right; not yet a federation.

When he arrived back in Australia, he needed a job. A mate of his was working at the Lord Newry as a cook. By the time that Joe’s great grandfather arrived at the hotel, his mate had quit over the question of mutton. The owner liked the mutton to be severely cooked, whereas the customers liked the mutton to be less abused. The chef thought that the owner was an idiot and in the manner of all chefs since time immemorial, he let him know in no uncertain terms. There were expletives and the occasional flying object, and as a result, dinner wasn’t served.

By the time that Joe arrived on the doorstep the owner was still angry and still without a chef.

“Can you cook?”

“For myself, I can, but not for a room full of hungry drunks.”

“Then you’re no good to me.”

“Before you make up your mind, you need to know that I’m good at killing people and I’m good at pulling a beer. Being good at killing people might come in handy if things get rough around here, and a pub always needs a bloke who can pull a good beer.”

The owner gave it a bit of thought before answering.

“Fair enough. When can you start?”

“Now seems like a good time.”

“Away you go then.”

The owner could easily have changed his mind, so jumping straight in was a way to show that he was keen.

The job was never meant to be permanent; just something to tide him over until something better came along. ‘Tide him over’ turned into a family tradition.

Being a soldier helped. Crazy drunks were no problem, and customers who needed someone to talk to were just like soldiers filling in hours between moments of sheer terror.

Good listeners are a rare commodity in any walk of life.

Joe’s grandfather and the owner formed a type of friendship; a kind of respect.

Joe’s favourite story from ‘back then’ concerned a horse, a drunk and a pumpkin. All three ended up in the public bar during the busiest part of the day. The drunk was well known, but no one recognised the horse or the pumpkin. The horse was very well behaved considering the close quarters, and the pumpkin disappeared without a trace. Joe’s great grandfather was remarkably calm throughout. A lesser man might have panicked, and the consequences might have been deadly. He led the horse out through the front doors and tied it to a post close to the horse trough. There was a strong possibility that the horse had been stolen or ‘borrowed’ from somewhere nearby. Calling the police was always the last resort.

The pumpkin ended up on the tables of the poorest families in the area.

The rightful owner, while walking home, recognised the horse and led him home. The drunk bloke slept in the shed at the back of the pub. When he woke up, he didn’t remember any of the previous night. Someone worked out that the drunk bloke carried the pumpkin for more than two miles. He found the horse in a yard, about two streets away.

The drunk-pumpkin-carrying-horse-thief- story had been told many times at Joe’s family gatherings. No doubt, the story has been embellished somewhat, but no one seems to care.

The next logical step for any bartender is to own his own pub. It didn’t happen for Joe’s great grandfather, but his grandfather took his inheritance and built on it until he had enough to buy a Brewery lease, which was the next best thing to owning a pub in an era when Breweries owned most of the pubs in Melbourne.

Before he died, he had accumulated enough to buy a pub outright.

Joe’s dad was a gambler, and everything that the family owned went into the pockets of the local bookie.

‘Shirtsleeves to shirtsleeves in three generations’, as the saying goes.

Joe was aware of all the stories, and some made him sad, and some made him glad, but mostly they made him wonder; what might have been?

Life had gone full circle, and here he was back at the Lord Newry Hotel. The area and the clientele had changed, Fitzroy Football Club had moved away, and into oblivion many years ago, so the Saturday game-day crowds no longer came into the pub.

Joe’s ‘listening ear’ was now employed on inner-city professionals, but people don’t change, no matter what their economic status. Love and money; the eternal source of happiness and pain.