Tobruk

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Elizabeth was up before the sun.

Our apartment was bathed in the golden glow from the lamps that she had strategically placed around the room when we were setting up house together. It was only a few months ago, but it could have been years.

I have to get up in the dark — sparrows fart, my dad used to call it. The building industry starts early and is packed up by four, which works out well because the pubs shut at six — on the dot. The ‘wowzers’ rule this town.

A stray hair had fallen across her face as she cooked me eggs. She’d given up on brushing the hair away — too much effort.

“You don’t mind if I go back to bed when you go do you, Michael?”

“Of course not. I would if I could. Oh, and I’ll be a bit late tonight. I’m meeting Philip at the pub. I’m going to tell him what we’re planning. He could come in handy.”

Elizabeth didn’t answer. I don’t think she’s sure of Philip. I understand why she’s wary. If I didn’t know him he’d worry me too. He’s been through a lot and every bit of it shows on his face. He came apart at the stitching after Tobruk. They stuck him in this godawful hospital full of blokes who had lost touch with the real world.

They discharged him from the army once the Japs packed it in and told him he was cured.

He has trouble holding down a job.

He gets flashes.

He remembers stuff and his reaction scares the shit out of people.

I want to look out for him, but there is only so much I can do.

“Don’t drink too much. Remember we are going out dancing tonight — our new life,” says Elizabeth.

“Can you collect my dinner suit for me?”

“I’ll do it before I clock on at work,” said a very sleepy Elizabeth as she placed perfect scrambled eggs in front of me. I pulled my chair in closer, grabbed my knife and fork and dove right in.

In the army, you eat when you can and you develop the habit of gulping it down with one eye on your rifle. There are no guns in our apartment, but my habits are still echoing where I’ve been.

“Top tucker kid. Shakespeare would be proud of your eggs,” I said.

Elizabeth looked at me through dreamy eyes.

“What’s Shakespeare got to do with my eggs?”

“Apparently, he loved scrambled eggs. Wrote some of his best work on a stomach of Mrs Shakespeare’s eggs.”

“My head hurts. Put your dishes in the sink when you go. I’ll do them later.”

I finished my breakfast, picked up my jacket — it’s supposed to rain later in the day, and went into the bedroom. Elizabeth was fast asleep, rolled onto her right side facing away from my approach. I slipped my hand under the covers and leaned over and kissed her on the cheek. Her hair fell across her face.

“If you keep your hand there you are going to be late for work,” she said.

I wiggled my fingers and she jiggled her whole body.

“Until tonight then,” I said and I removed the intruding fingers. She turned her head and smiled at me. I love that smile. I could fall into that smile and never be seen again.

I walked, rather uncomfortably, out of our apartment and down the stairs, making sure that the front door was locked leaving my sleeping bride safely inside.

I didn’t notice how hard the work was that day. My mind was firmly in the future.

I arrived at the pub a long time before Phillip which was very unusual for me, I’m always late.

Running on ‘Arab Time’ someone once called it, and it’s true, I like to take my time, I don’t like to be rushed, so I sat and had a ‘small beer’. When the bartender asked me what I wanted I asked for a Melbourne Bitter.

I saw him go for the big glass, but I knew it was going to be a long night, and I also knew that Phillip could drink, so I said, “Just a little one thanks, mate.”

He hesitated, and I thought that was because no one ever asks for a small beer. He found a small glass and filled it, looked up at me and said, “You did mean the beer didn’t you mate, you weren’t referring to me?”

I honestly had not noticed that this bloke was barely five foot three.

Without hesitation, I said, “No, mate. I assumed I was standing on a box.”

He smiled.

I think he was just winding me up, but for a second I noticed that he had an Irish accent, and I knew that this encounter could have gone an entirely different way.

My quick and casual response probably defused what might have become ugly, and I was amazed at how relaxed and loquacious I was considering the roaring headache that was developing into a migraine.

My guardian angel must have been paying attention.

“When were you demobbed?” he said.

“How do you know I was in the army?” I said.

“In this job you get to read people. The eyes mostly.”

Now that he mentioned it, I knew what he meant. My mate Philip has it written in large letters across his face, but most blokes try to hide what they have seen — it inevitably shows in their eyes.

“Did you see much action?” said the barman.

“Kokoda, Tobruk, Palestine and a couple of other buggered up places.”

“I was at Tobruk. I thought I recognised a fellow ‘Rat’.”

“I wasn’t sure I’d get out of that one,” I said. I’d never said that to anyone, but a bloke who was there would understand.

The barman nodded and continued to polish glasses.

“Don’t take this the wrong way digger, but how did you get into the army? I had fuzz between my toes and they almost didn’t take me.”

“I lied about my height,” he said and we both laughed.

“Good luck digger,” I said and I meant it.

“You too mate, cheers.”

I sat quietly in a corner looking out the window and enjoying the passing parade. It was late in the afternoon and those workers who chose to start very early in the morning were now starting their journey towards home or beer or whatever they had been looking forward to all day.

The migraine I had been gestating showed itself in what has become known as ‘the light show’. Wiggly lights that trace a path across my line of vision.

The build-up is unpleasant but once it gets going things settle down quickly as long as I avoid intense light  — working in the sun doesn’t help. If I get my hydration up I’m fine—- hence the small beer. Don’t laugh, beer is one of those unusual substances that can cause or cure almost anything.

For a small beer, it lasted quite a long time and when it was almost gone Phillip appeared behind me and off to my left. My peripheral vision is pretty good even on a bad day, so I could see him standing there looking at me for several minutes. When I eventually turned and looked at him he laughed.

“Never could sneak up on you, you wary bugger,” he said.

I stood up and we hugged each other the way that blokes who have been through something together will do.

“Did you come from work?” I said.

“No. Got the sack. The mad buggers kept looking at me.”

“Mate, you need a job and blokes are always going to look at you if you explode at the slightest thing. Did you hit anyone?”

“Just a little bit.”
“How do you hit someone ‘a little bit’? One of these days someone is going to call the cops and being a returned soldier will only get you so far. Every second fucker is a returned soldier these days.”

“I know, but they shouldn’t look at me.”

“Wear a funny hat. That way they really will have something to look at,” I said and he laughed and for a moment I saw the Phil that I used to know, before the battles, before the hospitals. The bloke who rescued the kitten during ‘basic’. Kept it hidden from the Sergeant. Gave it to a little girl who lived in the Milk Bar near the camp when we got our marching order. I remember that bloke and I wonder if he is still in there.

“I’ve got a crazy idea of how we can get ahead — make something worthwhile after all the destruction. Are you interested?”

“You, me and Elizabeth?”

“Yes. All three of us.”

“I’m in,” he said and I hadn’t told him the plan yet. That was typical of Phil. He had followed me into far worse than nightclubs and movers and shakers.

“Just tell me what you need me to do,” he said.

“First up, you need a shave and a haircut and you need to get your nails done,” I said and Phil looked at me like I had asked him to stand up and sing the national anthem naked with a rose between his teeth.

“Can you get your hands on a dinner suit, a good one?” I said.

“Me dad still has his. I think it’ll fit me.”

“Good. Can you get your hands on a couple of service revolvers and some ammo?”

“Now you’re talking my language. Who we gonna shoot?”

“Take it easy. I’m just thinking ahead. They might come in handy one day. Never know what trouble we might find ourselves in. Best to be prepared,” I said and Philip nodded in agreement. I knew that he would wear a gun more easily than a good suit. But he would have to learn, otherwise, he would stick out like a sore thumb.

Phil bought another round and I told him to shout the tiny barman, “Tobruk,” I said and he knew what I meant.

With the frost forming on our beer glasses I told Phil of my plan. It sounded a bit thin in the telling, but it was richer and more fleshed out in my head.

Elizabeth, Philip and I had one thing in common, we were all good at seeing opportunities and rolling with the punches. Not that anyone had ever punched Elizabeth, but you know what I mean.

My dinner plate was on the stove resting on top of a pot of hot water.

“I got hungry,” said Elizabeth, “so I’ve eaten. Your’s should be okay. Nice and hot.”

I wrapped a tea towel around my hand and moved the hot plate to the table — chops, potatoes and peas, yum.

Elizabeth was at the table cradling a cup of coffee. I could smell it over the aroma of my meal.

“Philip is in, even though I don’t think he has the slightest idea what he is getting himself into. It will be interesting to see how he scrubs up in his dad’s dinner suit.”

“He scares me a little bit, Michael. He’s changed so much.”

“I know he does, but he adores you — would do anything for you.”

“That’s one of the things that scares me,” said Elizabeth.

I laughed.

When I finished my meal we did the dishes together.

“Now that suggestion you made this morning, the morse code you tapped out with your fingers? Do you think we have time before we go out? Before we launch our new career?” said Elizabeth.

“The night doesn’t really get going until eleven,” I said as I grabbed her. She kissed me and I kissed her back and afterwards we fell asleep until the alarm went off and our night’s work began.

Elizabeth looked like a woman born to wealth and I felt like we could take on the world as we stepped through the door.

The old lady from 315 stepped into the hall and let her cat out.

“Good evening Mr and Mrs Styles. Off out for the night, are we?”

“No. We’re off to conquer the world, Mrs Nunn.”

Mrs Nunn and her bemused smile stayed with us all the way to the Hotel Menzies ballroom.

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.