New Year’s Day 2004, the slowest day of the year at any bottle-o, the Boozehound in Merriwood no exception. ‘We copped a flogging, didn’t we?’ Dan, the assistant manager, said. Dressed in the company polo-shirt, black with an orange logo, he was doing the rounds with his clipboard, making notes on what needed ordering—practically everything—and I walked with him rather than facing the desolation of the fridges alone. We surveyed the scene: empty fridges, some with a lone stubby remaining unloved on the shelf; decimated wine displays, some providing an illusion of plenitude where in fact there was nothing behind the front row; palettes stripped, plastic wrapping strewn every which way
‘What did we take in the end?’ I said.
‘Nearly thirty grand, not far off what I make in a year,’ he said, tallying his list. ‘We’ll need at least ten palettes.’ Dan scratched the back of his head with the pen. ‘No way we’ll get the main order, but. Warehouse isn’t open today.’
‘We’ll be needing a palette of Coldies, at least. Maybe two.’
‘I’ll give Phil McCracken a ring.’
Until recently I’d been working at a different bottleshop in Belmont. I’d been happy enough until the boss started cutting down my hours to curtail what he called my “wage explosion”—by that he meant I was regularly earning more than three hundred bucks a week. There was no way I could cover the rent, keep my car on the road and the fridge stocked with beer without at least that much coming in. Now that my Centrelink payments had been cut off that meant getting a full time job. In late November, I’d résumé-bombed every drive-through, walk-in and pub in the northern suburbs and the Boozehound down the road from me was the first to respond. They’d just been taken over by a supermarket chain and they were hiring in the lead-up to Christmas.
That first shift, I knocked on the office door at eight, just like I’d been told. The door opened and a burly bloke with blue eyes and closely-cropped blond hair asked me if my name was Will, and I said that it was. His name-tag said DAN. He extended his hand, but he didn’t try to crush my fingers like a lot of guys that size do. He had a gap between his front teeth and I guessed he was in his early thirties, maybe ten years older than me. ‘I’m gonna be the arse-sistant manager here,’ he said.
It was a dark cavern inside, messy and dimly-lit. I was introduced to the manager, Phil, whom I’d spoken to on the phone. Tall and weedy, with red hair, freckles and glasses, he looked entirely too young to be in charge of a drive-through bottle-o, especially one up here in darkest Merriwood. My first task that morning was filling and presenting the fridges with whatever stock came to hand. Keen to impress, I threw myself into the work, opening cartons of beer and premix, loading the shelves with four and six packs, flattening empty cartons and piling them into a trolley. When the trolley was full, I wheeled it around the back and stuffed the cartons into the soon-bulging bale, and when the bale was full I changed that, too. I took disorder and made it into order, or at least that’s what I told myself I was doing. Someone else might have said that I wasn’t putting my newly-inked liberal arts degree to its best possible use.
‘Nice work, buds,’ Dan said, surveying my fridges. ‘You live around here, do you?’
‘I could walk to work if I was really keen,’ I said.
‘Yeah? You’d have to be pretty keen to live up here, I reckon,’ Dan said. ‘Come and meet Troy Boy, they tell me he’s a Boozehound veteran.’ Troy was one of only two guys who’d kept their jobs after the takeover. He walked with a pronounced limp from some unspecified workplace injury and a cigarette was never far from his lips. ‘Troy, Will. Will, Troy,’ Dan said, introducing us.
‘Looks like I get to show you the ropes, don’t I?’ Troy said, limping off in the direction of the cool-room. Dan left us to it. We stood amidst the jumble of loose cans in milk crates and the detritus left by workers who’d known for some weeks that they were going to be out of a job come Christmas.‘You open a lot of cartons in this job, eh?’ Troy said.
‘And there’s a lot of piss in here, isn’t there? Look at all them loosies.’
‘There sure are a lot of loosies, Troy.’
‘And it’s pretty dark. Most of the lights in here don’t work too good. Why d’ya think we never replaced them lights, Will-o?’ Troy shuffled over to the door and peered through the grimy glass. Reaching into a crate of loosies, he groped around for a can of Jack Daniel’s. Finding his prize, he shuffled around to the back of the cool-room, where the cartons were stacked high in such a way that you couldn’t be seen from the door. This, I began to understand, was the way Troy liked it. He cracked the Jack’s and took a long draught, wiping his mouth on the sleeve of his jumper. He placed the half-empty can on a shelf and bent over another crate. ‘What’ll you have?’ he said. ‘My buy.’
‘Smirnoff Black,’ I said. This was the right answer, or one of many right answers, and it was worth a manly slap on the back. In my eagerness to please, I sucked down the whole stubby in one gulp, felt the alcohol and sugar rush up to complete their pleasure circuit in my head.
Troy supped at what was left of his Jack’s. ‘What’s the next part, smart arse?’
The empty Smirnoff bottle sat on the shelf. ‘Conceal the evidence,’ I said.
‘No shit, Sherl. Here’s how.’ Troy dropped my bottle into an empty carton and filled the carton with flattened boxes, thus hiding the bottle. Draining his can, he put it into the carton, handed it to me, slid the cool-room door open and sauntered—as far as a mildly-crippled man can saunter—around the back of the store. I followed him out to the bales with the carton. ‘You get the idea,’ he said. ‘Thirsty work, this.’
Later that day, Troy introduced me to survivor two of two. He had a huge Carlton FC logo tattooed on his upper arm. ‘This here’s Jimmy, my best fucken mate in the world,’ Troy said. ‘He’s a jockey. Knob-jockey, that is.’
‘Only one poofter around here,’ Jimmy said.
‘Me and Jimmy are on probation with these supermarket douche-bags,’ Troy said. ‘Better be on your best behaviour, Jim dog. I’m warnin’ ya.’
‘I’m fucken thirsty,’ Jimmy said, sliding open the cool-room door. ‘My shout.’
A few days later, between Christmas and New Year’s Eve, Troy rocked up for his shift at least fifteen minutes late. His fingers greasy from the chips he was still eating, he slung the plastic bag with all his chicken bones in it into the bin between the tills. Phil, constructing a wine display in another part of the shop, said nothing. A white ute pulled up. ‘Carton of VB, mate,’ the driver called out. He was one of a legion of sunburned tradies tasked with transforming this area from pristine coastal bushland to the latest McSuburb. Fortunately for him, he wasn’t being paid by the hour.
I went over and he handed me a fifty. There were empty bottles strewn across the floor of the passenger side. ‘Stubbies or cans?’ I said.
‘I said a carton, not a block, didn’t I?’ Troy rung up the order and made with the change while I went into the cool-room. ‘Make sure they’re ice-cold,’ the tradie bellowed. I made sure they were ice-cold, twinging my back in the process. I hauled the carton onto the ute’s tray and it drove off.
‘Aw, that Trick’n Cheat’s gone straight through me,’ Troy said, clutching his guts. He went off in the direction of the office and the toilet beyond. As if by magic, both drive-through lanes immediately filled up with cars.
‘Phil,’ I said between runs to the cool-room. ‘Need a hand.’ He looked up from his wine display.
When Troy finally returned, Phil and I had been run off our feet for more than half an hour. Now there was a temporary lull. ‘What time is it, Troy?’ Phil said.
‘Just gone five, mate.’
‘And what time did you start today?’
‘I reckon four.’ Troy did more than stand his ground; he actually leaned over the counter at Phil. ‘Can’t help it when nature calls, can I?’
‘If you aren’t feeling well, then you should go home.’
‘Nah, I’m good now. You want to dock me an hour? Fair’s fair.’
‘I think you should go home.’
‘And I said I’m all good,’ Troy said. ‘Rarin’ to go.’
Another car pulled up and I went over to serve it. ‘Cold carton of Carlton Cold,’ the driver said.
‘That’s a bit of a tongue twister.’
‘What’d you say?’
Troy’s belligerence would have seen him out of a job soon enough, but him and Jimmy getting tanked up on half-litre bottles of Czech Princes on New Year’s Eve sped things right along. Unbeknownst to them, hidden cameras had that morning been installed in the cool-room and in strategic locations around the shop. It was just dumb luck that I was rostered on the late shift that night and didn’t start until five. When I arrived, Troy was milling around out the front of the shop. The way he was swinging his plastic bag full of loosies from hand to hand, I could tell he was giving some serious thought to slinging the whole thing into the shop. ‘Fucken ranga gave me the arse, didn’t he?’ Troy said. ‘I’m gonna teach that pair of clowns a lesson, Will-o. You fucken wait.’
’You want to settle down a fraction, Troy,’ I said. ’Got any plans for New Year’s later on?’
’Revenge, mate. I’ll be hard at work plottin’ me revenge.’
I went into the office and found Dan sitting at the computer, his clipboard covered with near-illegible scrawling. It wasn’t much of an office, barely big enough for two people to sit in, one of them squashed up next to the safe. That’s where I sat. The computer screen showed footage from the recently-installed surveillance system. Six cameras and nothing moved on any of them.
‘Easy money today, isn’t it?’ Dan said.
‘Sure is. Will it pick up later?’
He shook his head, his eyes bleary. ‘Nup. We’ll do a grand today, two if we’re lucky. Lotta people out there with sore heads and I’m one of ‘em.’
‘What time did you get to bed last night?’
‘Three, four? Can’t remember. Don’t even get double-time-and-a-half like you do, Gomes,’ he said. He’d taken to calling me Gomez or Gomes after the Addams Family character that I apparently resembled. I figured it was better than Phil McCracken.
‘And you had to open up this morning,’ I said.
He grinned. ‘It’s all good; I’ll get a day off in lieu.’ He blew out his cheeks and closed his eyes, leaning his head against the wall.
‘Want me to get you a Red Bull or something?’ I said.
‘Onya, Gomes.’ Dan pulled out his wallet. There was a lone ten in there.
‘My treat,’ I said, waving his money away. ‘I can make ten bucks in the time it takes me to walk to the deli and back.’
‘Get us a packet of chips then, you lucky prick. Cheese and onion.’
I trawled the deli aisles for something to amuse us with, finally settling on a jumbo box of gourmet jelly beans and Dan’s snacks. When I got back, he was serving a customer and his face had taken on an unhealthy pallor. ‘What does the old bastard want?’ I said, not loud enough for the customer to hear from his busted-up rattletrap.
‘Bottle of Napoleon 1875, if you can believe that.’
I walked over. The old guy fumbled through his wallet, but drew a blank in the actual currency department. ‘I’ve got my key card in here somewhere,’ he wheezed. He finally found the card and handed it to me. ‘You can put it through the what-see-duvy, can’t you?’
‘You’ll have to come out and key in your pin,’ I said.
‘Bring it here, would you? It’s my knees, you see.’
I looked at the EFTPOS machine on the counter. ‘Won’t reach, mate.’
‘Takes me a while to get out, you see.’
‘Bring it here,’ Dan said. He swiped the card through the machine. ‘Cheque or savings?’
‘What’s your pin?’
I dunno if I should—’
‘You want your brandy or not, grandpa?’ The old man called out the number and Dan keyed it in. I gave the man his brandy and he puttered off, leaving us in a cloud of slowly-dissipating carbon monoxide.
It was the easiest $46.28 an hour I’d ever made. We sat in the office for ages trying out different combinations of jelly beans, as per the instructions on the box. Very occasionally I had to serve a car or a walk-in, but for the most part I just listened as Dan regaled me with tales of his exploits and misdeeds. ‘European girls, right?’ he said. ‘When you’re rootin’ them, they don’t say “oh yeah, fuck me” or something like that. Know what they say?’
‘They say, “oh ya, oh ya ooonts.”’ He even did the facial expression. ‘End of season trips, mate. Best fucken days of my life.’
‘You were a footy player or something, weren’t you?’ I’d overheard him talking about it with Phil.
‘Eighty-five AFL games for the Richmond footy club,’ he said, folding his arms. ‘Or something.’
‘Far out, I didn’t know that,’ I said. I hadn’t watched much footy in the nineties and I couldn’t recall seeing Dan play. ‘What year did you retire?’
‘‘99,’ he said. ‘Played a bit of WAFL in 2000. But once your knees are shot, they’re shot.’
‘Sorry to hear it.’
‘Those first couple of years were a ride, especially ‘95. Only year we made the finals. Won a semi at the ‘G in front of ninety thousand people. Imagine that, Gomes. Played in the prelim, got massacred by Geelong.’ He shook his head. ‘Did my knee in ‘96. Never really made it back.’
‘But you had some good times,’ I said. ‘You won that semi-final.’
‘Yeah mate, we did. You’d be an Eagles man, wouldn’t ya?’
‘That I can take. Bunch of fucken losers, like my mob. I actually barracked for the Tiges as a kid, y’know? I was seven in 1980.’
I didn’t appreciate the significance of this and it must have showed.
‘Bet ya weren’t even born then. Last time the Tigers won the flag.’
‘Born in ‘81,’ I said.
‘They’ve made the finals twice since then and I played in one of those years. That’s gotta count for something, right?’
‘Yeah, nah. Cos if it did, I reckon I wouldn’t be bustin’ my hump in this place for thirty-three grand a year, now would I? I made more than that when I was twenty-one.’ I was twenty-two and I wasn’t making anything like that much, but then I only had an Honours in Literature and Creative Writing. ‘I always go and watch ‘em when they play at Subi,’ he said. ‘You could come and be a Tiger for the day, buds. I’ll lend you a scarf. What d’ya reckon?’
‘Sounds awesome, Dan.’
‘Beauty,’ he said, foraging for the fixture he’d mislaid in the desk drawer. ‘Damn, no Dockers this year, just Eagles. Saturday arvo, May 29th.’
‘I reckon five months’ warning is long enough for Phil to find someone to cover us?’ I said.
‘Lock it in, Eddie.’ Dan looked at the screen. ‘What time are you knocking off?’
‘Two, I think.’
‘Make it Chinese Dentist. I’m going around to the chippy.’
My expression must have conveyed my confusion.
‘Tooth hurty!’ he said, baring his teeth.
Dan got up and I sat arranging what jelly beans we hadn’t eaten. It after two by the time he returned, meaning that I stood to make another $23.14 just for listening to him prattle on for another half hour. ‘Took your time,’ I said. ‘It’s been going off the Richter in here.’
‘Reckon it has.’ He looked down at my creation, a pink and white outline of a love heart in bubblegum and coconut. ‘You got a girlfriend, Gomes?’
‘I did right up until last night. Now she’s dumped the fuck out of me.’
‘Did something you shouldn’t have, did ya?’
‘Did someone, more like.’ What I couldn’t tell him now and probably not ever was that that someone had been a man.
I went home $208.26 richer that afternoon, but it didn’t make me feel any better about myself when I opened the front door. Dirty clothes still lay where I’d left them and the spoon in my half-eaten Weetbix had cemented itself into the bowl. There were still an awful lot of unpaid bills on the fridge. I’d never been one for New Year’s resolutions, but I thought it was as good a time as any to try to change my ways. I washed and dried the dishes and put them away. I changed the sheets on the bed and vacuumed the carpet. The backyard was a mess too, empty beer bottles everywhere, so I tidied up out there as best I could. I even went through the bills, making a list. I’d be able to knock a couple of them off once I got paid, as long as I stopped going out on the piss all the time.
By the time I was satisfied, the wheelie bin was full to the brim on the roadside. I sat at the glass kitchen table. There was a crack in it where I’d thrown a jar of marmalade, of all things. I’d been angry at Gillian and no doubt she’d been angry too. I hadn’t thrown it at her, I’d just thrown it. Must have been a tough jar; it’d cracked the table and dented the wall, and yet now it was safely back in the cupboard. I didn’t like marmalade.
Putting my feet up on the chair across from me, I stubbed my toe on something hard. I identified the offending item: the oven dish, still caked with the remnants of the veggie casserole from the night before last. Who’d left the dish there?
After I’d knocked off that arvo, my mate Chris and I had picked up some beers. He had long hair, a big beard, and he was the smartest guy I knew. He was supposed to be starting a PhD this year. Chris had been staying over for a week or so, as he hadn’t been getting on with his old man. We walked through the door just as Gillian was taking the casserole out of the oven. Chris said the casserole smelled good.
‘Thanks, Chris,’ Gillian said. ‘Did you get me a Moscato like I asked you, Will?’
‘We got it,’ I said. ‘I’ll pour you a glass.’
Chris and I set the table and Gillian served up the food. I poured her a glass of wine and we started eating. Chris and I drank our tall cans of super-strength Scottish lager. ‘This shit is awful,’ I said, meaning the beer.
‘Fuck yeah,’ Chris said.
‘I can smell that from here,’ Gillian said, screwing up her face.
‘It was on special,’ I said. The four pack had cost just ten dollars. It was out of code and nine percent alcohol. I drank my two half-litre cans in quick time, but I couldn’t finish the casserole. Gillian took the plates away while Chris and I talked. He wasn’t drunk yet but I was well on my way. I had a long-neck of VB as well, but I couldn’t get it down. My insides had turned rancid.
‘Hold your nose,’ Chris said. ‘Apparently that helps.’ It did. My nausea dissipated and I was able to scull my long-neck. It was still early but I was ready to pike out.
I went into the bathroom, which adjoined the master bedroom. Getting into the shower, I tried to wash the alcohol away. ‘You’re sloshed,’ Gillian said.
I think I slept for a while after that, but then I was scrambling on hands and knees in the direction of the shower, vomiting all the way. I was dimly aware of Gillian abusing me. She stormed out and returned promptly with bucket and mop. ‘Start scrubbing,’ she said.
Things had gone rapidly downhill for Gillian and I. Six months earlier we’d been perfectly happy together. She’d been pregnant and I’d been studying a Diploma of Professional Writing as a way of suckling the government teat for a while longer after I finished my Honours. Now we were fucked.
He’d had a name, the baby: Kurtis Michael. He’d had two names and yet he hadn’t had the requisite one chance at life. We’d been blasé about the whole thing, had had no idea of the hurt we were in for. We rocked up at the nineteen week scan the same way we’d rocked up at the thirteen week one. It was just another errand. Alarm bells ought to have been ringing for both of us when the doctor spent an inordinate amount of time looking at the baby’s brain on the ultrasound. The doctor didn’t tell us much, other than that we’d have to come back tomorrow. They were having a hard time imaging a part of the baby’s brain, apparently. Alarm bells still didn’t go off. We even went out for dinner that night. I joked that Kurtis was “the baby who confounded science”. The next day we went back to the hospital and this time it was a different doctor. ‘I’m sending you down to King Edward,’ she said after little more than ten minutes of poking around. ‘They have better equipment than we do.’
The doctors at King Edward Memorial Hospital didn’t mince words: ‘The baby has a severe form of spina bifida.’ Kurtis’ brain was malformed and he had advanced hydrocephalus. He would need shunts in his brain to drain the build-up of cerebro-spinal fluid. He’d be born a cripple if he lived at all, and he’d be profoundly physically and mentally disabled. We had to see the Genetic Counsellor. He told us to think carefully about what we wanted to do, but that if we wanted something done it’d have to be soon and probably tomorrow. Late term abortions were permissible up to twenty weeks gestation, he explained. After that, permission could only be given by a specially convened panel.
We talked, Gillian and I. I told her that ultimately it was her decision as it was her body, but that I thought we should have a termination. To my surprise, she agreed.
The Genetic Counsellor was pleased. ‘It’s a brave decision, a courageous decision,’ he said. ‘Now go home and try to get some rest. We’ll see you bright and early in the morning.’
I couldn’t sleep that night, and by the time the dawn arrived, I’d given myself a crash course in spina bifida. There were degrees of severity, but we’d been told that Kurtis had the most severe form. I kept telling myself that. When Gillian finally delivered Kurtis, he was no more than twenty centimetres long, his skin the colour of beetroot. He was surprisingly heavy and I held him a long time. The only mark I could see on him was a tiny gouge at the base of his spine, as though someone had scooped a piece of him out. Later, realising that some of the pains were from hunger and not just grief, I went to get us something to eat. But when I got back up to Gillian’s room, she was gone. The bed was made, the room empty. Not only was no one here, no one had been here. I went into the corridor, thinking that I’d entered the wrong room by mistake. No, it was the right room, but the painting on the wall had been altered. I stood there for some moments before it dawned:
I’d pressed the wrong button, but if there were differences in the layout of the two floors, I hadn’t been aware of them. I got back into the lift. Gillian was right where I’d left her, but Kurtis had been taken away.
The next time I saw him he was ash, not flesh. We scattered him at Mushroom Rock in Kalbarri. We went right out onto a secluded ledge above the ocean, but when we did the deed, the sea breeze blew him right back into our faces, and we breathed him in.
I picked up my mobile phone and dialled my friend Sharon. A man answered. ‘Hello, who is this?’
‘It’s Will Carver. I’m after Sharon. This is the number she gave me.’
‘One moment please.’
The normal calling out and commotion ensued.
‘Hey, this is Sharon.’
‘It’s Will,’ I said. ‘What are you up to?’
‘Not much,’ she said. ‘Bit of Tarot. Walk on the beach. What’s up?’
‘Was that your boyfriend just then?’
‘That’s Mike, my landlord. I dunno why I didn’t give you my mobile number. I live in a share-house, you know?’
I didn’t answer.
‘Is something the matter, Will? You seem down.’
‘Gillian’s gone,’ I said. ‘Packed her things and cleared out.’
‘What? What did you do?’
‘I was a fuckhead, I guess. I got pretty busted up last night.’
‘Yeah, but it’s New Year’s. That’s the whole idea. Look, fuck her. Come over if you want; I’ve got something here that’ll cheer you up.’
‘Thanks, Shazza,’ I said. ‘I’m on my way.’
I had a shower and put on a pair of jeans and my You Am I tee-shirt. It wasn’t long before I was admiring the view from Sharon’s bed in her second storey room. I could see all the way along the cul-de-sac to the ocean beyond. I had a good view of Sharon too as I fucked her from behind. I finished in a flurry and wrapped the condom in a wad of tissues. My heart hammering, I wrapped myself in a towel and went across the hall to the bathroom. When I returned, Sharon was dressed in knickers and a singlet and was sitting cross-legged on the bed, writing in her journal. She was in her mid thirties, tanned and blonde: a surfie chick. ‘I had a dream last night,’ she said, looking up at me. ‘I was searching for money. First I kept finding small amounts—fifty cents, a dollar—and then I kept finding more and more. I think it’s a sign.’
‘That I made the right decision to do my Dip Ed this year.’
I sat on the bed next to her. Though I’d originally intended to study a Diploma of Education this year myself, Kurtis had changed all that. Now I didn’t want to see any more children than I absolutely had to. In this regard, a bottleshop was the place to be. ‘Let’s grab a drink and head down the beach,’ Sharon said. ‘But first check this out.’ She went over to her wardrobe and showed me the biggest bag of marijuana I’d ever seen.
‘Whoa, where’d you get that?’ I said.
‘Bought it off a friend in Albany.’ She transferred a quantity of pot from the large bag to a smaller one.
‘You gonna smoke the lot?’
‘Not all of it,’ she said. ‘You’ll have a choof with me, won’t you? It’s good stuff.’ Sharon put on her jeans and we went downstairs.
Mike, the live-in landlord, was in the kitchen. ‘You two have finished studying, I see,’ he said.
Sharon went over to the fridge and grabbed a six-pack of Lime and Soda UDLs. ‘Time for a break, Mike. Will and I are off down the beach.’
‘Happy New Year,’ Mike said.
‘Same to you, mate,’ I said, following her out.
‘I told him you were a uni friend,’ Sharon said, getting into her grey Lancer. ‘You’re helping me with an essay, right?’ I got in the passenger side, UDLs on my lap. ‘Giz one,’ she said, so I opened a can and passed it to her.
‘Uni semester doesn’t start for ages yet, Shazza,’ I said.
She grinned at me. ‘Yeah, but I’m doing summer school.’ She turned the corner onto the coastal road and stopped the car in the middle of a massive but very nearly deserted car park. She opened the centre console and ferreted around for her pipe. Finding it, she started packing it with pot. ‘Got any matches? Car lighter’s busted.’
‘I don’t smoke,’ I said. ‘Not cigarettes, I mean.’
‘I think there might be a lighter in the boot,’ she said.
I went and opened the boot, which set loose UDLs rolling around. ‘What are these for, in case of emergency?’ I said. There was a lighter half-hidden beneath a picnic blanket that was covered in dry grass. I grabbed the lighter, closed the boot and handed it to Sharon through the window.
‘What’s your problem?’ she said. ‘You’re all antsy today.’ She lit up.
‘Look, it was just a root, all right? We don’t have to do it again if you don’t want to.’
‘It isn’t that.’
‘Then what is it? Are you devo about Gillian? I thought you two were on the rocks anyway.’ She passed me the pipe and I took a drag.
‘We were,’ I said.
‘Then what is it, Will? Tell me.’
‘I can’t. You’ll think less of me.’
She took the pipe from my hands. ‘Not possible,’ she said, grinning. ‘Hurry up and spit it out.’
The Stringybark was a steakhouse for real men and real women, or so the sign proclaimed. The place was decked out in faux-American kitsch: saloon doors, sheriff’s badges and revolvers on the walls. The place smelled of hickory sauce and it was packed, being New Year’s Eve, but I’d made a booking for the three of us so it was all right. ‘Let’s have a plate of those buffalo wedges to start with,’ Chris instructed the Wild West themed waitress. She wore jeans and a cowboy hat and had an imitation stock-whip hanging from her belt. Chris had that crazed gleam in his eye that told me that he’d been drinking all day.
We drank our beer and ate our buffalo wedges. ‘This is nice!’ Gillian said. She probably didn’t mean to shout, but that was the volume required to make yourself heard over Johnny Cash, who’d been dead a year now. Chris had polished off three beers already and I was onto my second.
Our steaks arrived in and we got stuck in. The steaks were almost as big as the plates they were served on and tasted nearly as good. I had to smother mine in chilli to get it down, and despite my appetite I was soon defeated. Notwithstanding her love of steak, Gillian fared little better. But Chris was on a mission. He shovelled steak into his gullet, washing each mouthful down with beer. The empty bottles stacked up around him. ‘Time to break the seal,’ he said, striding in the direction of the dunny.
‘He’s pissed,’ Gillian said.
‘Off his face,’ I said.
‘Don’t let him drink any more.’
But Chris did drink more, much more. He grew rowdier by the moment, his commentary on the pernicious influence of popular American culture on Australian society more pointed. ‘I’m from the fifty-first state, W.A.,’ he said to the passing waitress. ‘Why won’t they let me vote for Dubya in the Presidential elections?’ Other diners were starting to notice, but if anything they were spurred on by these pronouncements, not themselves sharp enough to recognise his particular brand of boorish satire. And the sight of the dessert that he’d specifically ordered, a banana split, brought him to the boil. ‘I asked for a sundae!’ he said. ‘Is this even American?’
‘Banana splits are a type of sundae,’ I said.
His eyes scanned the congested room the waitress. ‘Hey you! I want to speak to the chef about the origins of this dish.’ The waitress looked at us in alarm and scurried off. Gillian got out of her seat and followed her to the counter. ‘What did you say the name of this restaurant was?’ Chris said, and I reminded him. ‘Thought so,’ he said, scooping ice cream into his mouth. His beard was flecked with white. I pushed lumps of fudge brownie around my plate, but I couldn’t eat another mouthful.
An aproned woman, presumably the chef, came over to our table. ‘Is there a problem with your dessert, sir?’ she said.
‘The dessert is fine, thanks very much,’ Chris said. ‘My colleague has clarified for me that it is indeed an American dish.’ The chef smiled. ‘But there’s another problem,’ Chris said. ‘The name of this restaurant. It perplexes me.’
‘Judging by your star-spangled décor, this is clearly an American-themed restaurant, is it not?’
‘Then why have you chosen an Australian term, “Stringybark”, as the name for your restaurant? You must be aware that this term refers to the many species of Eucalyptus tree?’
‘I’m sorry, sir, but I don’t—’
‘—trees that are grown around the world, including the United States, but are in fact native to these Australian shores. Not only do I consider this a particularly malign form of cultural colonialism, but the use of the term is itself a misnomer. You wouldn’t—for argument’s sake—refer to your American-themed restaurant as “The Koala” or “The Kangaroo”, would you?’
We were asked to leave, but not before Chris had expounded on his thesis even more heatedly. We paid the bill in disgrace, at which time it became clear that Chris had only twenty dollars remaining in his wallet—Australian dollars and probably not recognisable as legal tender anyway, he said—and so Gillian and I were left to foot the remainder of the bill. She apologised to the chef and wait-staff profusely, before driving us home. ‘He called her a transvestite,’ Gillian whispered to me in bed later that evening. It wasn’t yet midnight but Gillian had decided she’d had quite enough of 2003.
‘Did he? I didn’t hear him say that.’
We listened to the screech of tyres and the boom of gunshots emanating from the lounge room. Chris was watching a DVD. ‘Tell him to turn that racket down,’ Gillian said. ‘I’m going to sleep.’ Chris looked up as I entered the darkened room. I picked up the remote and turned the volume down. We watched the rest of the film without saying a word, not even when the new year ticked over and we heard revellers yelling all down the street. As the credits rolled, Chris got up and lurched out of the room. I heard him crashing around. To my surprise, he came back and sat on the couch next to me, not on the other lounge where he’d been laying before. An erection was bulging through the front of his shorts. He saw me looking at it and I didn’t say anything. He made a noise in his throat and flipped out his dick. It stood straight up. He looked at me and didn’t say anything. I put my hand on it.
‘So you were both off your chops,’ Sharon said. ‘Shit happens.’ The car was full of pot smoke.
‘Nothing like that’s ever happened to me before.’
‘And Gillian came out and saw you two like that? Fucking hell.’
It was all confused in my mind. Maybe she’d seen us, maybe not. Either way, when I woke up this morning she was gone and so were most of her things. Before starting work, I’d driven Chris to the train station. If he remembered what had happened the previous night, he gave no sign.
‘Look, if you want her back, I reckon you should give her a ring, you know?’
I thought about it. ‘Gillian and I are finished,’ I said.
As soon as the pot wore off, I drove north along the coastal highway in the direction of Merriwood. It was wall-to-wall suburbia for most of the way, except for a short stretch past Burns Beach where the suburbs were replaced by scrubby bushland. But then the car went over a rise and there was suburbia again, like an unwelcome dog turd on a footpath. Welcome to Merriwood.
Sometimes I liked to drive to the end of the highway, no more than three or four kilometres north of where I lived, and look at the suburbs-to-be, the castles in yellow builders’ sand. This had given me an idea for a short story that I’d written and sent to a couple of magazines. I hadn’t got anywhere with it. In the story, some unspecified malaise has cut Merriwood off from the rest of the world. One day the protagonist tries to drive to work and finds the main road cut off. No one else seems to notice. In the following weeks, people begin to disappear and housing developments roll back to reveal the bushland that had been there before. The protagonist has to move to the old part of town as the rampaging bushland gobbles up the terracotta jungle, and finally he’s alone on the beach with no fresh water or food, dying in the sand.
‘Too depressing and it doesn’t make sense,’ one magazine’s reader had commented.
It wasn’t the suburbs that were themselves to blame; it was the people. People thought that because Merriwood was brand new and close to the beach, life would be good up here. No such thing. Some had been forcibly moved up here by the government and others had rushed in to buy up the cheap land, but they ought to have left themselves behind.
And I couldn’t roll any of it back.