…the blackguard who drinks alone…
I'm sitting here holding my Dad's hand. It's all rough and there's a big bump where he broke it punching his old man in the jaw, a story he loved to tell when he had a few in. Now it's limp. He's breathing in bits-and-pieces. His face is all bloated and dark purple like the cheap plonk he's been drinking. He's in a coma. They say he's going to kick it any day.
It's six in the morning and I'm supposed to be getting ready for school but I’m not going. My matric exams are coming up pretty soon, so I’m staying home to study. I'm the only one left with me dad. Mum took off a few years ago. She was fed up with his drinking, my auntie said. I can't blame her. But I didn't go. I liked it here because I could do anything I wanted and nobody cared.
This isn't fun though. Watching my Dad die. They want me to blame him for it, I know they do. They reckon he's disgusting, and me — I dunno — they think I'm a poor little shit that's got to be saved from his Dad. They try to stroke my hair, even hug me. I push them away. They should mind their own business. The old pub was Dad's life. I don't blame him for that. The booze is killing him. So what? He had a lot of fun, and a lot of good mates. Cut short by the booze, but shit, anyone's life can be cut short, even mine, can't it? I've nearly been killed a couple of times just crossing the Melbourne Road.
Dad's wheezing now. I let go his hand. I think he’s coming to. Dad? Dad? Are you in there, Dad?
I'm doing barman's work in the night cupboard, filling up the glasses on Mrs. Counter's tray for her customers in the Ladies Lounge, the Snake Pit as they call it. Mr. Counter will pay me good tonight. I'm going to live it up, have a few, then do that little sheila I saw come in here with her old man last week. Saved up and bought a new jacket and pants. Can hardly wait.
A bloke comes up.
“Gimme a flask of Corio,” he says.
I reach up to the shelf and dust one down.
“Five and ten,” I says. He gives me a ten-shilling note. I ring up the money and give him his change minus a shilling. He doesn't look at it. I look back up at the shelf. There's a flask of Gilbey's gin there. I'm going to swipe it for tonight. I dust off all the bottles and rearrange them. Mr. Counter will be pleased. It might throw him off when he counts the stock. He doesn't do it every day anyway.
Today I'm fourteen and I'm going to get screwed tonight. I'm in the paddock behind the old pub. The back fence leans right over like it’ll fall on me. It stinks of piss and beer. It's getting dark and there's a red glow all over the paddocks. The stubble of burnt grass crunches under my feet. I squat, trying to hide in the giant scotch thistles, bastards of things, without getting pricked. I'm in my best clothes, white sports coat, navy pants, blue suede shoes. Hair slicked back. My ass grazes a thistle as I drop down. The flask of gin slips out of my pocket and clanks on a rock. It's the one I stole last night.
It's dark. The cops cruise up and down, sitting in their car like pervs at a keyhole. They shine a spotlight and it hits the old pub fence. I freeze, scared shitless, not of the cops, but my old man if he found out. Got no idea why they're cruising round here. The pub's been closed for over three hours. All the drunks are well gone. The spotlight strays by my hand that's gripping a rock to keep me steady. I stop breathing, thinking they could hear me. It's the Preacher! I think to myself. Then suddenly it's really dark. The cop car drifts away. I struggle to stand up, my hand slips off the rock, and I fall back into the thistles. I roll over on to my elbow, right on the burnt grass so now I've got black all over the sleeve of my white sports coat. Shit-head cops! I take a swig of the gin. I have to force it down. How anyone can drink this stuff I don’t know. But I'm making myself do it. I’ll get laid tonight no matter what.
This crazy bitch, she says she's fourteen. I'd say she was thirteen at the very most. She comes up to me out of nowhere just as I turn the corner on Sparks Road. The church hall's lit up and the rest of me gang's hanging around the door.
“Going to the flicks?” she asks.
It's Iris. I can barely make her out in the dark. She comes up real close, nose grazing my cheek.
“Dunno. What's on?”
There's hardly anything of her, skinny as a rake, a little bulge at her breast, but a soft face, pale in the dark. She pushes her lips up to my ear. I imagine they're full, lush, like a rose sprayed with water.
“Let's go anyway,” she whispers.
Blood rushes to my cheeks and elsewhere.
I stick my arm around her waist and plant a kiss right where I think her lips are. She's on to me. We kiss like buggery. It's like kissing a serpent with a beautiful soft face. Her lips are wet and slippery. I'm half out of my mind.
The movies have started. We get to the church hall door and stop by the mums selling the tickets and the lollies. I buy a box of Jaffas. One of the mothers looks at me with a I-know-what you're-up-to look. I say, “thank you Mrs. Lester,” and take my change. We head straight for the middle of the fourth row from the back. That way, the sticky-beaks can't see us. The Movietone news is still running. I see the Beatles getting off a plane somewhere in America. Then we're into it.
She's got a hold of me. I pull back. Don't want to mess my underpants.
“Wanna swig?” I ask, sliding the bottle of gin out of my pocket.
“Nah, hate the stuff. What is it?
The movie's half way through. The lights go on while some kid's father puts on the second reel. We start eating our Jaffas. Iris drops one and it bounces like a ping-pong ball on the wooden floor. My mates look back to find me, grinning. They see I'm busy.
That was two years ago. Now I'm here with me Dad across the road from the old pub where he spent most of his life. We're in the old sleep-out on the back veranda that Dad added on to our commission house when I was little. I'm holding his hand trying to keep him going, jabbering to him, saying whatever comes into my head. I get up and go to the front room to look at the old pub, the walls, once red brick, painted a sickly cream, flaking away; the rusted gutters clinging to the veranda over a cracked concrete path; the big window with LADIES LOUNGE painted on it in fancy gold letters, the tall red chimneys, magpies perched on wires, white spots beneath.
They say the pub won't be there in a year or two. What will I do then? I'm only seventeen, well, nearly seventeen. I'm still at high school. My last year's about done. My mates around here think I'm crazy. They all got jobs a couple of years ago. My Dad always said I had to get a good education. He was telling me that right up until his coma. I should be studying right now, doing my one hour a day that I promised myself I’d do. Only I hate sitting in my bedroom at the desk he made me. I used to study right here where he’s out to it, on the little cot. But Dad took it over when he got home from the pub and flopped down here after he’d had a piss in the toilet that was right next to the sleep-out. Anyway, I’ve read my economics, history and geography notebooks over and over, I know them off by heart. What else is there to do? What the hell are those smart kids at school doing when they’re studying all day? Of course, there’s English, but you can’t really study that, can you Dad? You either can do it or you can’t. And then there’s my favorite subject Latin that I muck around with and I’m really good at, but none of the other kids at school know that, not even that I got my funny old Latin teacher to loan me a book that was what he called vulgar. I spent a lot of time copying out the whole book, all the rude words. A lot of fun that was, Dad. And you’d come up to me at my desk and say, “what the bloody hell are you doing all this time studying?” And I’d close the book and say, “nothing, Dad. Just my Latin.”
Remember telling me about high school, Dad? I was in sixth grade and I asked you where was I going next, to the tech school like you did? And you went red in the face and said you'd go and talk to the teacher because he shouldn't be putting stupid ideas like that into my head. Next thing at school, my teacher, Snozzle we called him because of his big nose, draws two columns on the blackboard, one called “High School” the other “Tech School.” He writes in the high school column, “4-6 years, then “Latin or French,” and in the tech school, “4 years” and that's it.
“Raise your hands all those going to high school,” he says.
I raised my hand along with one other kid.
“You going to do French or Latin?” he asks.
“Latin,” I reply.
“Why not French?”
“My father said only the smart kids do Latin.”
Snozzle wrinkled his nose a bit and the girls in the back row started giggling. “You'll all be going to girls’ tech to learn how to cook,” he told them.
And when I came home and told you what happened, remember what you did? You took me to Geelong and bought me a kitbag for when I went to high school. And I've still got it, Dad. It's right under my bed. I never take it to school though, because it's too big to fit in my locker.
Thanks to you Dad, I'm doing my matric exams in a few weeks, and then, like you wanted, I'm going to Teachers College next year. Yes, I know. Don’t need matric to go to Teachers College, but I know you wanted me to do the whole six years and that’s what I’m doing. I'll have lots of money, so my mates say. The Education Department pays us. Pretty good wicket, like you said Dad. I feel his hand twitch. His chest rises. He even licks his lips. I've made him happy, I have. I squeeze his hand and I'm sure I see his eyelids flutter just a little. “Don't worry, Dad, I love ya, truly I do.”
They call the old pub the “blood house” but its official name is the Corio Shire Hotel, and I love the place. There's bloody fights on the street outside every Friday and Saturday nights. Only fist fights though. There's rules. No knives. No broken glasses. If ever that happens, the blokes grab the bastard and let the other bloke pummel him.
My Dad was easily the pub's best customer and he never liked me hanging around the place, but I did odd jobs for Mr. Counter, the publican. I ran errands, learned how to joke with the customers, and on race days carried bets to the back of the pub and placed them with Skeeter the bookie. I made some good dough, especially if I carried a bet that paid off. And Skeeter paid me as his spotter. I only had to tip him off a couple of times though. Mr. Counter had a deal with the cops.
Dad had his own place in the corner of what was called the “old bar” of the pub. He'd go on and on about how the old stone walls were a hundred years old. And he'd say how much better it was than the “new bar” that was built a few years ago showing off its u-shaped bar, with lots of space and fancy beer taps. The old bar was always crowded, shoulder-to-shoulder. Dad liked it. Reckoned he felt close to his mates that way, even though he always drank alone. And it was where most of the brawls broke out when a bloke's elbow spilled another bloke's beer. That's all it took. Mr. Counter's bouncer, Grecko, a champion heavyweight boxer, wouldn't stop the brawl. He'd just grab them all and push them out to the street. And all the blokes would cheer them on.
I kept out of Dad’s way because he looked kind of embarrassed when he saw me. But later, when things were not so good, he was happy to borrow a few bob from me.
I was thirteen when we moved into the commission house across the road from the pub. I took the bus to high school in Geelong every morning and it dropped me off at five o'clock every day in front of the pub. I was really scared. The tipsy blokes would come up to me and start chattering away about nothing. You couldn't be sure whether they were friendly or would hit you. And they'd breathe their fumes right in my face, grab my shirt or my loose tie, just as I was trying to cross the road. And the road was the Melbourne Road, a big strip of concrete with cars speeding up and down it all the time.
It took a few weeks before I was game enough to step into the pub. Then I nearly pissed myself! I put my foot on the old bluestone step, the greasy green and white striped canvas in the doorway rubbed my cheek, then a wall of stale beer and smoke hit me in the face. I turned and ran home straight across the Melbourne road, without looking, cars screeching to miss me.
The next day, though, I was back. This time I stepped past the old canvas and sidled up to the bar, but I slipped on the slime-covered floor and before I knew it, I'd called out “shit!” and all the blokes in the bar laughed at me. A bloke called out:
“You shouldn't be in 'ere ya little shit! Get the buggery out!”
Panicked, I ran out and across the road and nearly got run over again.
The next day I was back, and once more put my foot down on the old bluestone step. It was about five o-clock. I heard the siren at the Ford factory. There'd soon be a crowd of blokes crossing the road and fronting up to the bar. I turned and saw them coming at me. I jumped away. I'll come back tomorrow, a Saturday, no school, and see it all close up.
Me mum, she was still home then, made me eat a German sausage sandwich with lots of butter. I loved those sandwiches, but all I could think of was getting across the road to see what was going on in the pub. I chomped down the sandwich and took off, mum calling out where was I going, but I was gone.
It was well after five and a hot night. The pub was packed, and it was hard to work my way through the big crowd outside. Being small, I slipped through the gaps between drinking schools and made it through the old bar entrance. Shit! The blood rushed to my face. I came out in a hot sweat; my ears went numb with the blokes yelling to each other. A bloke grabbed me by my arm.
“What ya bloody doing in 'ere?” he says with a big grin. He's a red-faced bloke dressed in oily overalls, no shirt or even singlet. I was scared shitless and couldn't talk. He didn't wait for me to answer. I pulled back, but couldn't see the doorway, only the windows and the iron bars that stopped drunks from falling through. Hot sweaty bodies closed in on me. I crawled along the filthy floor and bumped into a stool. A hand grabbed me by the hair and pulled me up. It was my Dad.
Remember that, Dad? And you know what you did? You grabbed me by the scruff of the neck and shoved me through the crowd and growled, “get back home and don't let me see you here again!” We got to the door and you gave me a push and I ran straight across the road. A car screeched. I was nearly run over again Dad! You must remember that. Nearly killed by my own father! Nah, Dad. No worries. I'm only joking. I'm squeezing the old man's hand. His knuckles are white, his fingers thin and bony. I lean over and look into his puffy face. His eyes are nearly closed, but there's a flicker. My nose is nearly touching his. It's OK Dad. You did a good job. Look at me. Going to Teachers' College next year. Just what you wanted. Pretty good deal, you always said, didn't you?
I've been moping round the house, stretching my legs, talking to myself all this time. It's kind of easier talking to myself than to Dad, because I don’t know what he hears and I don't want to upset him. Who knows what's going on inside his head?
“You silly old bastard, look what you've done to yourself,” I say, sitting in the old lounge chair beside his cot, grasping his hand in mine. Shit, you’re drinking yourself to death all your mates reckon. I don't care what they say. I'll give you another glass of plonk if you wake up. You know who I saw yesterday? Yarra the chunderer, Remember him? They called him Yarra because his puke looked like the water in the Yarra. I was on this bottle drive, collecting beer bottles for the church. We went to his house. I didn't know it was his till I went around the back. There's a huge pile of empties stacked against the fence. A great find! And then I look across to the back door and he's sitting on the step. I go over to say hello. I couldn't believe it was him. You know how funny he is. I tell you Dad, I never saw such a sorry sight in my life. His eyes were all big and puffy and watery and red rimmed, just like a cocker spaniel's. Poor bugger. He looked at me. I pretended I never knew him. I didn't know what to say. He cadged a shilling off me. I couldn't say no, taking all his bottles away, you know. His little kid wanted to come with us. We couldn't let him of course. I thought he was going to cry, not the kid, Yarra himself. A grown man, for heaven's sake! What do you think Dad?”
Mum wouldn't go to the pub. I used to think it was because of Dad, but he said it was because she reckoned it was a disgusting place. Who knows? Like I said, my first time in the bar the smell of stale beer and sweat knocked me over. But now I don't even notice it. Of course, I'm not talking about the shit-house. If mum had seen it, she'd have wanted to move to a house a mile away!
Dad's coughing a bit. His eyes are half closed. I have to keep talking to him to keep him going. I'm starting to say the same stuff over and over. Dad, did you know I once sneaked in the pub after hours? Found an open window in one of the guest rooms and climbed through. I told mum I was at C of E boys club. A couple of years ago I suppose it was. It was creepy. I no sooner got in, I heard voices, loud voices and laughing and I peeked down the passage and you know what? There were cops boozing. Would you believe it? I got back out. I wasn't scared. I had to pee. I wanted to go bad, and I knew there was a toilet down the passage, but I wasn't game to go there. And to get to the shit-house out back – you must have done it a thousand times — to get there you had to walk down the side of the pub past the old cypress tree. As soon as I got that far I knew it was close because of the stink! Dad, I don’t how you put up with it! It just stunk so awful, and everything round it and inside was all green and slimy. I stood up to the urinal, aimed high, but I couldn't go! It was awful! Thank goodness it was after hours and there was nobody there! I turned and ran back out. Forgot to button myself up even. I get to the cypress tree and there's a bloke there, drunk as a nut pissing full bore right under the tree, which happens to be right outside the pub kitchen. The cook, she's yelling at him and banging on the window. He turns full on to her and says, “sorry missus, didn't know ya wanted to see the bloody lot.” I ran across the road and got home just in time. Nearly pissed my pants!
There's a little twitch at the corner of Dad's mouth. I'm sure he's trying to smile.
I'm in the bar, doing my job collecting empty glasses. I catch my foot in the lino that's worn through and turned up at the ends. I bang into a bloke's elbow and spill his beer. I'm scared shitless. My face turns red. “Gees. Sorry mate!” I say, “here, let me shout you another one.”
I don't have the money but I know if I don't make the offer I'll get bashed up. He's a big brawny bloke with bare arms, bulging muscles, sun-burnt skin and wearing one of those white singlets that’s gone yellow under the arms. He's looking down at me. I'm staring at his lips, waiting to be clobbered. I squeeze my way past his mates and make it to the bar. The barman looks down at me. He knows I'm in a spot. I shove the empties over to him, and push one forward and say, in a squeaky voice, “can you fill this one?” I nod towards the bloke. The barman, a good bloke if ever there was one, puts up two new glasses and fills them and pushes them across. The bloke pushes them back and gives me a fierce look. I'm done for, I reckon. He grabs my arm and I wince. Then just as quick, he lets go and roars laughing and his mates join in. He pats me on the head and says, “didn't I see you down at the old Clarendon pub?” I see my Dad out of the corner of my eye. He's staring straight ahead. Hope he's not listening.
“Me? Nah, never been there,” I lie. I was there alright. It's the pub just across from the Geelong footy oval. He's lost interest though. He grabs his two free beers and he and his mates get down to it. I slink away. My Dad never said nothing.
Dad’s breathing stops and starts again. I think he's going to kick it soon. I suppose someone should tell mum. She went and stayed with my auntie in Yarraville, Mr. Counter told me. She's been gone for a while now. She was only going to be there till she found a job then she'd get a place of her own. I don’t know. I don't remember much about her to tell the truth. She never hardly spoke up. Was always in the kitchen cooking. I'd light the stove for her each morning. She'd cut my lunch and I'd run off to school. She ought to know that Dad's going to kick it pretty soon. She probably does. Don't think she'd care, though. Not that Dad beat her up or anything. He wasn't that sort. He was, like they say over at the pub, a quiet drunk. Just sat on his stool in his corner and drank from nine when the pub opened till five minutes before it closed at six. Then he'd buy a flagon of plonk and take it home. And the next day he'd start all over again. Mum just stayed in the kitchen and cooked and didn't say nothing. Except on Thursdays, she'd run out of money and ask him how she was going to feed us. I was about eleven or twelve then, I think. Somehow, she always put something on the table. I was never hungry. She must have been a good Mum, I s'pose. Then one day, she just wasn't there. She'd gone. My Dad never told me nothing. I had to scrounge for myself. Lived on bread, butter and Vegemite. Good old Mr. Counter at the pub let me into the kitchen and the cook gave me leftovers. So I did all right. Then one day my auntie Connie showed up and tried to get me to go away with her. But I wouldn't. Dad just stood there, sipping his plonk, looked at her, like she was some kind of dog that strayed into the kitchen.
Dad? Are you in there, Dad? Are you all right? Take a deep breath, Dad. That'll make you feel better. Would you like a sip of plonk?
I'm feeling under his cot. There's always booze under there.
Hey Dad! Remember that night we were round at Millie's? Remember her? I bet you do. She really liked you, I know. She liked me too! A bit too much, to tell the truth. I could have done her, but you were there. Well, sort of. She tried to do me, but I just couldn't do it with someone three times my age. Anyway, she was yours, wasn't she? Don't think you're hearing this, are you? And just as well. I told my mates at school all about that night. They couldn't believe it. You couldn't drive, remember? I wanted to drive you. There were cars all down the street. Millie's place was right across from the police station. Unbelievable! I already knew Millie from the pub. I'd go into the Snake Pit, what they called the Ladies Lounge, and all the women would go crazy over me. I loved that. Trouble was they were ugly as shit and too old! Anyway, we get in there…
What’s up Dad? Squeezing my fingers? You’re in there, are you? Oh, that's right. She wanted you to be best man at her wedding! That was a riot! I left that out, didn't I? So I'm in the Snake Pit and you walk in. And Millie latches on to you — hey Dad, do I see a little smile on your face? Are you coming good? — and she says, “I wantcha to be best man at me wedding tonight.” And you look at her and say, “I'd be honored, Millie me love.” And she grabs your arm and drags you over to her table.
“You see here?” She says, pointing to an old leather case, “it's me going away case. Packed all ready for me honeymoon.”
And you say, “shit Millie, that's great.”
And she says, “Don'tcha believe me? Here, look inside,” and she opens the case and tips everything out!
She was really something, Dad, wasn't she?
So we get to her party that night. We go in the door and you trip over this drunk passed out in the hall, and you’re lying on your back.
Millie calls out, “Hey! Whatcha doing looking up me dress?”
And you say, “gimme a beer, Millie.”
“It's me wedding night,” she says, “'and all you bloody think of is beer!”
You struggle up — I think I helped you — and you give her a peck on the cheek. Don't know how you could do it, Dad.
“Now can I get my beer?” you say.
“Somebody get me best man a beer,” she yells, “ and get me another brandy you pack of bastards!”
The smoke and the drunks are killing me. I grab myself a lemonade and take off out the back door. Then I’m gawking at the back yard. It's a circus. One of the cops from the police station across the road is driving round and round the rotary clothes line on his motorbike with a red-faced drunk sitting in the side-car singing Round and Round the Mulberry bush and sucking on a bottle of plonk.
Remember that Dad? And they tie the bike to the clothes line and the cop revs up the bike and makes it go faster and faster. Crazy bastards! Then wham! The bike breaks free of the line and smashes into the fence and the silly buggers go flying in the air. Were you there for that, Dad? I saw you, I think. Millie was hanging all over you, crying because the bike ran over her veggie garden.
I did see you, Dad. I never let on to you, or anyone else, except my mates at school, that is. Can you hear me this time Dad? Squeeze my hand, Dad. That's right. I know you’re in there. So I was there that time at Millie's. I was standing right there in the bedroom doorway. You and Millie were going at it. I dunno what I was thinking. It was a horrible sight, but it got me all worked up. The two of you were on the bed. You tore off her dress. You were starkers. And Dad, I hate to say it, but you were so drunk, you were dribbling all over her tits. And she was lolling around, her tongue hanging out of her mouth like a thirsty dog’s. A shit-awful sight, I tell you! Oops, sorry Dad, didn’t mean to swear, hope you’re not upset. I mean it was so bad I couldn’t look any more. I couldn't last it out to the end. It's my big regret. I never saw you finish her off. I had to go to the toilet, you know?
The ride home that night was pretty scary Dad. But then you probably can't remember. You and Mr. Counter were both drunk and I wanted to drive, and you wouldn't let me because I never had a license. We were going to get more beer, remember?
Mr. Counter drove all over the place and you egged him on, reckoned he was doing a great job! Shit, Dad. I was scared and I was huddled up in the back seat. Then there's this sudden swerve and screech and I look up and there's this lamp post coming at us. And Mr. Counter lets go the steering wheel and out comes this huge burp, and Dad you slide off the seat on to the floor. And there's a big jolt as the car hits the curb and bounces up on to the footpath. I feel like I'm floating and I see a shadow or something, arms flung up in the air and then there's a thump and I sees this bloke's face squashed against the windscreen, then slide back as the car stops, and the body rolls off. Shit, Dad. It was really awful. You were swearing and trying to kick open the door, and Mr. Counter was slumped over the steering wheel, snoring.
Someone peeks in and yells, “are you blokes all right?”
Dad, you were the most violent I ever saw. You kicked open the door and fell out and grumbled, “where's the bloody beer?”
I climbed out and a bloke tries to help me and I shake him off. Then I saw the body slumped across the gutter and the blood coming out of his mouth. He was one of the regulars from the pub. And he was drunk too of course. Did you know him Dad? I think you did. What happened about that, Dad? Do you know? Was it Mr. Counter's fault? Should have been. But nothing happened to him, did it?
I got knocked out this day over at the pub. It was just before mum walked out. I was helping out in the beer cellar and one of the extractors blew out of the barrel and banged me right between the eyes. I was walking round in a daze with blood coming down my face and someone called out for Mr. Counter. The cook cleaned me up then Mr. Counter brought me home. Mum opened the door and Mr. Counter handed me over and he hugged my mum and said, “he'll be OK.” And mum just looked at me and I went straight to my room and went to bed. And as I lay down I tried to convince myself that they were just being very friendly and mum was thanking him for taking care of me. She asked him in. Do you think something was going on, Dad? Gees, Dad, did you know? Don't suppose you cared anyway. I know it’s none of my business. But I can’t help wondering.
I’ve got your hand, Dad. Do I feel you squeezing me again? I don’t think so. You’re too far gone, that’s what I think. I found a little flask of brandy under the cot. Here, taste it. I put my finger into the bottle then tip it up. Brandy runs down my finger and I lick it off. Then I put my finger in Dad’s mouth. I have to force it in. How’s that Dad? Bring back old memories?