I’d been delayed, and as I walked back to my table, the rising sun sent a soft golden glow across the Piazza.
My assistant was no longer sitting at the table. His working night had ended, and he was probably propping up the bar at Il Baccaro or wrapped around one of the night owl females who frequent this part of the city.
I love the early morning. Most of the evening people are seeking refuge in a cafe; bacon and eggs over the latest wholegrain toast, black coffee, no sugar and a bleary-eyed remembrance of an evening that will not come again.
As I approach the table I see my tally book lying where my assistant had left it. My keys lie on top of the book, undisturbed.
I like keys. I prefer an analogue solution to security wherever I can find it. I’m not disturbed by electronics; it’s just that I like the feeling of a key turning in a lock and the sound they make when they jangle in my pocket.
The huge black umbrella is not offering any shade to the two well dress gentlemen seated at my table; the sun is way too low. I have a sense that there was a third man seated where I usually sit. He hasn’t been absent from the table for very long, and I’m wondering if he is due to return.
The two well-dressed men give me a lazy glance.
I’m still in evening dress and although I’m a little dusty, well presented after a long night of keeping ‘book’ for the rich and famous. Millions of dollars and only a few slips of paper to show for all that activity.
My two ‘guests’ are dressed in expensive suits and carrying expensive guns, well concealed. The value of what they are wearing would purchase a well-kept second-hand Mercedes. Where they come from the streets are full of Mercedes and during their Civil War, a few decades ago, the news footage showed armed men, ambulances and swirling smoke. Even the taxis were Mercedes. The vehicle of choice for a Middle Eastern civil conflict.
My occupation didn’t require me to carry a concealed weapon, but I did. A large calibre two barreled Derringer strapped to my right ankle, and I’m proud to say that I’ve only needed to draw it once.
Part of my job is calculating the odds; seeing the trouble coming before it arrives. I have had to dodge the occasional closed fist and the well-aimed polished boot, but mostly I can calm a situation down before it comes to that. Sore losers are an occupational hazard.
I brushed the dust and a few flower petals off my seat before I sat down and the larger of the two well-dressed gentlemen said, “You may not want to sit there Mr Barker. In fifty seconds, it is going to be unhealthy for anyone who is sitting in that chair.”
Fifty-seconds isn’t very long to decide if he was just a smart arse and I’d used up a few of them calculating the odds.
It seemed safer to assume that he was telling the truth when he and his silent companion, who was directly in the follow-through line of fire, got slowly up from the table and walked away. The taller one had to duck to avoid hitting his head on the umbrella.
I picked up my book and my keys and left the table with as much composure as I could muster.
After I had taken a few steps, I heard the zip of the bullet and the crack of the splintering chair and table top. The bullet would have struck the quiet gentleman somewhere between the groin and the kneecap.
There was no audible bang. The shot must have come from a considerable distance. The police would work all that out at their leisure, but now I had some celebrating to do. I had ‘dodged a bullet’ and made a lot of money all over the course of an eventful evening.
Now, if I were lucky, Gilda would be home waiting for me.
I must say that’s misleading. Gilda never waits for me. She does her own thing. It’s just that we share a very expensive apartment, and we sometimes arrive there at the same time, usually early in the morning. On those occasions, we sometimes do the sorts of things that men and women like to do.
The apartment has glass walls on two sides, and I never draw the blinds. I love the view that it affords. The ancient part of the city is, by now, bathed in the golden light that this section of the world is famous for.
This morning, Gilda arrived home before I did. She is making eggs in her underwear. Her body isn’t perfect. Her torso is slightly too long when compared to her beautiful legs. I consider her breasts to be perfect, but some would say that they could be a little larger. She has long black hair, dimples on her bottom and delightful pink toes.
Last night she had been wearing a black bra and panties — lots of lace. I see the dress she was wearing hanging on the outside of her huge wardrobe.
Not including the bathroom, our apartment is one large room with a king-sized bed in the middle. I hope to be lying on that bed a little later and I’m hopeful that I will be knee-deep in Gilda, but it will depend on the type of night she has had.
My carnal ‘ace’ will be the story about nearly being shot. That kind of ‘near miss’ adventure story has given me the green light before.
Gilda gathers information and what she collects makes her a lot of money. It’s exciting and dangerous, and she loves every minute of it. She has an incredible memory and in her line of work it needs to be.
She knows I’m in the apartment, but she does not look up from her breakfast preparations. I remove my jacket, tie and Derringer and stand behind her. She smells amazing. Her scent produced over a long night’s work mixed with the remnants of her French perfume, and my equipment is on full alert.
I place my hand on her bottom and my expectations for the morning are in my hand. If she brushes me away, it means the night went badly and so will my morning.
She does not react, but neither does she dispense with my wandering hand. So far so good. My luck is holding.
“If you keep doing that you won’t get any breakfast,” she says in a voice that gives me further hope.
“That’s a tough choice for a man, food or carnal delights.”
“I didn’t say you had to choose.”
I couldn’t tell if she was smiling, because I was looking in another direction and imagining my good fortune.
A good breakfast and the delicious Gilda to follow.
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.