Selected for Best Australian Stories 2014
I’M BACK WORKING with the Dragon Lady after we both went overseas, again, and changed companies, again, came back to hospitality, again, and accidentally landed in the same shit-hole, again. We all go to our death, some walk, some run, some dance and some ride motorbikes.
‘I see the bulls didn’t get you in Pamplona.’
‘No way. I was on a rooftop watching them, too drunk to walk, let alone run.’
‘At least you didn’t let sunny Spain brighten your outlook too much. It makes me happy.’
‘I’m here, aren’t I?’
‘Here as the ninth letter of the alphabet.’
‘Fuckin’ writers. I read somewhere a lot of writers kill themselves. When are you going to do it?’
‘God knows. I’m not even finished my book yet. Any ideas?’
‘Maybe when you wake up and realise your God isn’t real.’
‘Chuck Palahniuk said, all God does is watch us and kill us when we get boring.’
She shakes her head and flicks the ciggy butt into the car park. ‘Ughh, I don’t know why I even talk to you.’
‘Because we work together.’ I smile.
This time we have to pretend we don’t know each other because Mikey the manager is such a jealous shit he won’t let us talk if he knows we’re friends. The bar we work in is generic. Lots of beer, lots of red, lots of white, lots of basics, plenty of cheap bistro food and lots of reasons to go and ‘have a poke’ in the meantime. On the walls are political agendas that no one seems to notice. Government warnings about problem gambling, problem drinking, problem smoking, plastered on posters in toilets competing with the club’s propaganda – footy playing kids who stare out from under worried frowns (who voted to cut kids’ sport funding?) the android heads of CCTV (who voted for more surveillance?). Agenda verse agenda, fear verse fear. Two national powers pulling at the heartstrings of people they don’t want to know. Maybe if we weren’t in the pokies we’d have more money for footy boots and clubhouses, but then maybe if we had jobs we gave a shit about we wouldn’t need so much relaxation.
The pokies bubble away after the beers stop pouring. Everyone knows gambling’s probably a bad habit, everyone knows they have it under control, everyone knows someone who won big. I watch the grey-hairs sit semi-happily under the slow bake of Pearl Treasure and Outback Gold and Pink Panther with shades of silver, yellow and magenta flushing wrinkles with reflections of bad electronic art. They share the row with the resident shadies.
A curved and jaded twenty-year-old leans up at the end of the row in her painted on mini-skirt. Even under seven layers of concealer and comically long lashes you can see she’s tired. She looks after her boss’s house when he’s away. Maybe a stripper, maybe a hooker, maybe a companion. Either way, free rides are never quite free. Sometimes I say, Hi. Tonight she talks more, says I should come around sometime, that she’ll be alone in a mansion on a canal and she gets scared when she’s on her own. I think about it carefully, say maybe.
Her friend, Rat-face, is a nobody in criminal chic. Sleeve tattoos of Japanese demons and Koi fish, crazy silver tribal-style Tapout shirt, shiny black Adidas trackies, gold chain and bum bag over the shoulder. Connected but not clever, the speed-byproduct dutifully punches fifties into two machines at once betting five bucks a spin until the hotel closes or he wins most of it back in freshly laundered notes. The guy is rude-ish but he tips the attendant when he wins a grand or two. They’re here every night I am.
Generally all I do is babysit semi-functional adult alcoholics while I try not to get caught watching sport or reading the papers. The club has to have me here by law and my manager resents me for it. He’s the kind of guy who joins tipping comps and lays on multies where you can’t remember who to cheer for. It’s not about team colours or parochialism or pride or prejudice. It’s all about the multiplier, the long odds and the short. Everyone loses in the end and he resents them for it.
At one in the morning I kick everyone out and walk a pensioner to the car park after they’ve all gone. She has eight hundred dollars in her pocket and the way is dark but she repeatedly refuses my help because she lives close and she’s drunk. I’ve barely even seen her drinking. It’s so hard to tell when they’re just sitting there, not speaking, sipping. I watch her cross the public park on jelly legs until she falls face-first into the turf. I race over but when I get to her she chuckles in embarrassment and is twice as determined to make her own way home. She smells like cut grass and stale plums, with a hint of liquorice and Port Royal on the back palate. Reminds me of my grandmother.
The Dragon Lady is waiting back at the doors, pulling hard on her smoke.
‘Thought you were dead.’ She smirks.
‘No such luck.’
‘Did you pull grandma out of the grass?’
‘I tried but she wouldn’t have it.’
‘I’ve seen her before, she’s so fucking miserable. She should just kill herself.’
‘I don’t think she will after what she won tonight. Not until she’s told everyone how she got it and how she lost it.’
‘She’ll be lucky if she makes it on those legs.’
‘My grandma wants to die. I thought about helping her once.’
‘Why didn’t you?’
‘I dunno, same reason she never did it by herself I guess.’
‘She ever try it?’
‘Mum says she tried to. She got hold of a bunch of sleeping tablets but didn’t know how many to take so she fed them to the dog first. Rolled them up in balls of cheese and mince. The mutt spent a day and a night heaving and throwing them up all over the carpet. She botched it so bad she decided she better not to do it to herself.’
I lock up and we sort the cash from the night’s pokie takings into bundles of fifties, twenties, tens, fives, which is slightly illegal. We feel the pointlessness like a weight. Piles of green, orange, red, blue, pink, high on the table like a fiscal rainbow. Years of our working lives sorted in neat stacks at the end of every shift, every night. The government takes a huge cut. The company takes a huge cut. The rich get richer. And me, the Dragon Lady and Mikey the manager resent them for it.
I wonder why anyone would ever risk trying to rob a bank. Put a hole in the pub window and walk in with firearms and I will hit the floor while the staff show you to the cash. Forget the vault. Quick in, quick out, no fucking around. I think about whether it would be worth it with a uni degree on the shelf, no career prospects and a steadily maxing credit card. But then I think about accomplices. I think about Rat-face and his twitchy fingers and hard grey eyes. I think about the Maybe-stripper and her maybe habit and her big mouth. I think about the guys that dropped out of school and got probation or prison for weed and hooning and generally being dickheads. I think I’ll leave them to it. All this shit is linked.
I FINISH UP and wait ‘till we sign out paging through copies of the Courier-Mail and Gold Coast Bulletin disinterestedly. There’s been a spate of hold-ups, but a shooting at the Pacific Pines Hotel twenty minutes down the highway is actually news. A cop is in a coma. The reports are brief and padded with hard-core press conference rhetoric. Shocking crime…unscrupulous and evil act…yada yada yada. The staff was held at gun-point and a security guard bashed into submission for twenty-five bucks an hour. He didn’t physically resist, but they made an example of him after one of the staff called the cops on a mobile. The police arrived on the scene. A female officer and her partner jumped out. They were both experienced and he was willing. She lived, he died, the crooks ran and Australian Liquor Holdings made an insurance claim. Stupid fucks, someone must have fucked up. Why weren’t the cops together? Why did they go in at all? Why did the staff call them? Why did the idiots shoot a cop? I put the paper away. I don’t know the details. I hope I don’t know any of them – the cops, the robbers, the staff – or maybe, I just hope I don’t like any of them.
WE LEAVE AT 3 am and the Dragon Lady climbs up behind me on my Kawasaki and wraps her lithe frame around my heavy frame and breathes her light, hot breath on my dark, cold neck and presses her breasts against the top of my back. The old sports-bike coughs once, then rumbles and barks its complaint at the frosty night. My manager offers a warm ride in a big car and she shouts to him.
‘No thanks, byeeee! Love you Marky!’ and whispers to me, ‘but really I hate him.’
He doesn’t hear it, but he feels it. He resents us for it.
The next day I get woken up at noon by my boss.
‘Can you work tonight?’
‘Eleven till eight, solid nine hour shift mate.’
‘Eleven pm ‘til 8 am?’ My brain fizzes.
‘Yep, static shift, just hanging around.’
‘I gotta work the next morning mate, I gotta teach a class, I gotta prepare, I gotta do marking.’
‘Super easy shift mate, take your shit with you.’
I get suss. My brain ticks over and I remember the newspapers.
I think of the danger briefly but mostly I think of writing on the job with no one to harass me. I think of getting shit done that I should have done already. I think of writing up my story about how much I hate Ricky Stewart and how Queensland will annihilate the Blues in the next State of Origin. I think of mixing Origin and southern migration to the sunshine state in a story called, ‘You Play Here, We Stay Here’. I think of the other story I read last night of shootings and shit, but mostly I think of how broke I am.
‘Great. 10 pm. You’re taking over from Laurie, he’s been there since ten this morning. Cheers maaate,’ he chirps.
‘Oh by the way. Will I be alone?’
‘Yeah. But there’ll be coppers there.’
I take the lightning never strikes twice approach and scoot down the highway at nine. Pacific Pines is a bold suburban frontier to the Gold Coast glitz. My mate lives up the road in the manicured labyrinth of low-set brick places and cul-de-sacs. Comfortable and uniform and on the wrong side of the freeway, mushrooming on the west-side but looking to the east, they’re still only half an hour to Surfers, unless its peak hour, or a weekend, or a holiday, or raining.
When I get to the pub it’s quiet. The streets are wide and dark and black-asphalt-smooth. Nobody is anywhere. Two Coppa-dores and a white, red and blue Ford Territory triangulate the Pac Pines Tavern in wide flashes of siren-less lights. They pay little notice as I circle slowly on the bike. I wave as I pull up to a line of chequered tape and a dark figure drops the chain and points me to the drive-thru. I meet Laurie and I ask why we’re here when there’s six cops on site and he says he reckons it might be to stop the police from raiding the liquor barn. I say I doubt it and he says it’s gonna be a cold night.
I don’t wander at first. I just push the bike into the way of the wind. I think of my cousin, who didn’t get selected for the cops and my other cousin who quit after a few years with them. I wonder what the detective had that they didn’t. I wonder if I have it.
I lay out a pile of papers and pick up a pencil and the first one is a wild ramble from a student I know who’s a couple of bad debts away from holding up a pub. The writing is virile and hard to follow. Paragraphs buckle and cold simple phrases strain at the bit. It only makes sense because I can see him there on that corner of the canal with Rat-face and the Maybe-stripper. I know these people, these faces, these stories. I can see them watching dawn’s light glance in iridium bronze off the surface of the glassy channel. Q1 tower stretching heavy in the beyond like an Empire State for an estuarine people.
I imagine him plotting escape plans and calculating difficulties in a haze of sleep deprivation and antidepressants. This is where we go in. This is where we go out. The Maybe-stripper in the XR8 with the motor rumbling. Him with a handgun pulling crowd control with a couple of heavies, a couple of shadies. Rat-face in the carpark with the shotty. He’s good with a shotty.
Ripples on the watercourse make it shine like polished platinum. If you’ve taken enough acid or smoked enough dope you’d swear you could just walk across and take hold of those high-rises, tear ‘em down or just bring a little piece back with you. Traverse the fantasy. Push and pull the layers of the Gold Coast, like blinds and screens of laminate and tinted shades and gold leaf. Here dreams are sunk into sandbanks with foundations in the current. Beneath the glassy surfaces juvenile bream and mullet skim the white powder sending little puffs of sand up in lines. Feeding. Darting in and out. Playing games where lives end on a rising tide. Everyone knows the canals are full of bull sharks. It’s getting late. The dreams intermingle, like everything else in this place, the difference between characters and real life is not simple. The story slides through my fingers. My head drops.
BAT. I WAKE up after a micro sleep, or maybe a minute sleep. I check my watch. First of May, 4 am. I’m in the BWS drive-thru at the Pac Pines Tav. Today a cop died so tonight I have to work. I sit propped against a girder fighting to stay awake, grading papers from fair to fail as I pick through essays by Aussies who cunt spell and Asians who cunt grammar. Working while I work.
A tree shakes, a flying fox lopes out into cold air and beats hard against it pressuring into flight, chuckles mirthlessly as I round the pub and pick through a car park. Frag A, frag B, frag C, it takes a moment or two to realise, I’m in an evidence graveyard. There are fresh yellow spraycan markings that look like Main Roads work but it’s forensic graffiti.
Waves of blue neon taint the evidence with pokies room ambience as the Keno plays out relentlessly on big screens, green forty-three, lemon thirty-seven, cold electronics aping the spectres of fortune. A busted gate, a McDonald’s style playground full of neat holes, a dense spray of dark on the pebble pavers.
I think it’s nothing I should be looking at. I think it looks a lot like the oil stains in the car park. I think it’s a lot like a place where a cop’s face used to be. I think it’s time I got back to writing. I think there’s a bakery nearby.
I smell fresh baked bread and pastry and buns as the dough cools, the blood dries and…the blood dries and…the blood dries and it maps the last moments of a mind. All that brain wasted. All those convictions, assertions, experiences, all those exams, interviews, tests. All that criteria painted dark and heavy over the cold walkway of a pub that doesn’t have the decency to dim the jingle-jangle of the gaming room. This is all linked, I think. I wander back to my bright-lit post, stop and talk shop with a cop.
He’s SRT special response. That means he gets a Taser, spray, sidearm and a Kevlar vest, all the good gear that wouldn’t have done shit. Says the dead guy was in civvies, a ‘D’. The detective got a couple shots away but missed, got surprised by someone with a shotgun. They gave him both barrels. Blew a bit of the back of his head out from ten metres but he took a day to die. I ask if it was a solid slug or SGs. He says the hole in the front of his head looked solid but there were pellets everywhere. ‘Maybe two different loads, second shooter, dunno.’ Maybe he talks because I’m polite or because I bounce, or maybe he tells this shit to everyone.
He has that friendly way about him that good bouncers have, good stories, good injuries, a lack of pretence and the kind of matter of fact take on violence that betrays a friendly familiarity with it. None of that pent up defensiveness you get from people who can’t go there, can’t do that. I’m not sure if this is risky, writing it all up a stone’s throw from this man, probably less so than getting stoned on my way to this shift.
Crow call from low lights and its 5 am. The scavengers are circling already, having conversations on the wing as fit people assemble at a nearby gym. No lorikeets, I notice. Fitting, I guess, lends solemnity to the scene. The only pub that served no beer today. In the rising sun I spot pots and schooners half-drunk sitting on the rails of the verandah. A Tooheys tallie in the gutter reflects slow arresting flashes of blue, red, blue, red, while cold storage fridges drone on, preserving overpriced stock for an overdue opening.
Crows calling at the Pines Café. Peewees in the Poinciana bleating. Swifts hunt and pierce. A kookaburra lands and doesn’t laugh. The cop van sits in the entrance weighed down with flowers. The blue people have not always been my friends but we’d be worse off without them, like sleep they probably keep us feigning sanity. Like they say, money’s made round to go round. I see the shadies pumping cold notes through hot machines on the weekends. I see the old ladies falling face-first in the wet grass. I see managers counting money and busting humps. I see the cop chopper chasing schoolies through Surfers. I see a mining magnate bring down a prime minister over a tax. I see a detective at a crime site where there’s no detection required. All this shit is linked.
I see all this and I know I’m naive. But no one deserves to be cut down for revenue. No one deserves it while they work, wife worries, daughter sleeps. I resolve on this day to never die doing a job I don’t like for people I don’t love in a place that I hate. So if I tell you I can’t, then fuck off. I’m resigned to it, I will not do it. Instead – I keep pen on paper. Rubber to road. Brainium in cranium.