New Writing

Thirroul, 1984

Bella Peacock

Thursday night was Ladies Night at Ryan’s Pub. A lonely sign standing in the heavy heat announced half-price bubbles, wine and vodka Screwdrivers. Expectantly the pub prepared. Singlets tucked into shorts, curls crudely combed, bleached eyebrows flatted with spit. Ladies came for the halfpriced drinks, and for the lack of other options. They came to momentarily escape the cooked concrete, baked and crumbling like biscuit. Ladies came to escape their reality. Women too are not impervious to that need. The air inside Ryan’s was thick; belligerent words settled in the carpet. Heavy curtains shielded from the world outside. Sometimes, when the door laid shut long enough, it could feel like the suburbs, the homes, the lives beyond the four walls had melted away.

Ryan’s Pub was on the corner, across the road from the Bettie’s Pies, the bottle-o, and Thai Riffic, the town’s only restaurant. Beyond that, dead grass and brown brick houses. In one of those houses, the one with the rusted red roof, lived Kate Bougie. Next door to her lived Emma Thompson. Every Thursday for the last year the pair would meet on the crusty lawn and walk together to the pub. Emma and Kate had been neighbours since they were eight, and now, at nineteen, their alliance was as strong as their brick houses. Everyone knew it.

When puberty met Emma it flattened her stomach and evened her freckly skin, but when it reached Kate it had run out of charity, giving her only an uncomfortable awareness of her broad hips and wooden movements, followed by a few spots. Next to her pretty friend, Kate was always in second place. Emma worked at the fish and chip shop and Kate was a checkout chick at Coles, and on their lunch break Emma would sneak potato scallops with chicken salt for them to eat and the two sat out front the fire station giggling and gossiping.

“I better get goin’ now Kate. Marge is on her rags or somethin’, she’s a dragon today. But see ya tonight, yeah?”
“Yeah, but I’ll hav’ta meet ya there tonight. Gon’ come a bit later,” replied Kate.
“Aw what? Ya know I hate goin’ in there alone.”
“Yeah, but I’m gonna be bringin’ someone tonight. Just to like, show ‘em round”
“A boy?!” Emma gawked.
“You’ll see”
“Come on, tell!”
“Nah, you’ll see. Be there 8.30, promise. Cya!” said Kate, throwing her friend a smile.

Emma stood in front of Ryan’s Pub, unsure. Through the narrow slit of glass in the door she could see the bar, chock with Jim Beam, Bacardi and beer. Even though Emma had been there many times before, her legs stiffened at the thought of going in alone. She sucked down a few fags before someone walked by, on their way inside.
“Oi, Justin. Can ya tell Pete I’m lookin’ for ‘im?”
“Yeah, no wukkas. I’ll send ‘im out.”
“Cheers Jus. How’s ya mum doin’ then?”
“Yeah, alright. Still a bit rough round the edges, but she’s comin’ good.”
“Aw good. Good to hear.”
Justin pushed the door open and the stench of stale beer filled Emma’s nostrils. Why did they come here? Because they were in the middle of bum-fuck nowhere, and there was nothing better to do, that’s why. Sometimes (all the time, if she could bring herself to admit it) Emma hated living there. Kate and her often talked about moving away. Moving to the city, to Sydney, anywhere. But no one moved far.

“Oi Pete, ya missus is lookin’ f’ya. She’s havin’ a fag out the front.”
“Oath. Cheers mate,” replied Pete, emerging from the pool room.
Pete’s eyes screwed up in the sudden light of the slumped sun. “Where’s Kate?” he asked, looking around.
“Dunno. She said she’d meet me here later or som’in. Gonna bring a new friend with ‘er”
“T’ Ryan’s? Good luck!”
“Yeah dunno, she didn’t say much. Bit of a mystery.”

Walking inside, even with Pete, (strong, tall, bleached Pete) Emma was unpleasantly self-aware. Normally with Kate she didn’t register how outnumbered she was. With Kate she was in a team, she had an ally; they created a bubble. Tonight she was alone. Alone among men and a handful of ladies with fading hair. Her young body in its probably-too-short summer dress felt exposed, naked. Somewhere vague this discomfort registered with Pete, and he slung his thick arm around her shoulder.
“Whatd’ya want babe? Bubbles?”
Kate and her normally ordered vodka Screwdrivers. That day she took a beer.
“Let’s go sit in the beer garden,” she said to Pete, quieter than usual.
“But the fellas are in the pool room babe”
“Just while we wait for Kate, please Pete.”

They sat on a bench under the perspex roof without saying much. They didn’t have much to say. Emma and Pete had been going out since she graduated, coming on a year already. Pete had left school years ago. Dropped out, to do a plumbing apprenticeship. He still hadn’t finished. He was a sweet guy though, Pete. Emma liked him, a little bit because of his big arms and because he was soft with her when they were alone (funny that, the metamorphoses of men alone with a woman), and a little bit because there weren’t many other guys to like. He gave her something to think about. She wasn’t thinking about him tonight though. Why hadn’t she said anything sooner? She thought Kate wasn’t good at keeping secrets. And so when Emma heard the rowdy roar from inside plummet into silence, her innards turned.

In the next room Kate walked into Ryan’s Pub holding the hand of a crop-cut woman. Wayne, Jim and Johnny who, as a rule, never turned to look at strangers, all immediately swivelled their bar stools. Beers stopped short of mouths which had forgotten their words. Sentences dangled, cut shorter than the woman’s hair, who had become sheepish in front of the collective gaze. Yet this same gaze filled Kate, and she grew, her movements too growing, assured. Her chin, which had always ardently pointed at the ground, now directed a path before her. Her face turned to the ceiling and there was a sparkle in Kate’s dull brown eye. With an unwavering hand, Kate presented her catch. She paraded her through the dark carpeted room and out to the beer garden, where Emma failed to contain a tiny gasp.

“This is Pat,” said Kate, “Pat, this is Emma, and that’s Pete”
Like air pushed from an empty tube, Emma and Pat both made a breathless sound. Pete didn’t manage even that.
“So, what’s your poison? What are you drinking, Pat?” asked Kate.
“Just a coke for me. Thanks.”
“They do a mean Screwdriver here”
“Coke’s fine.”
“Alright. Anything for you two lovebirds?”
Pete got up hurriedly, brushing his shorts in some uncomfortable effort to busy his hands, “Uh, think I’ll just see what the boys are up to in the pool room.”
Pete followed Kate inside, stumbling on a bump in the pavement. His hue deepened.

“One coke, one Screwdriver, please”
Hushed words created a hum, like leaves flitting in the wind. Softly at first, yet growing to gale. The bartender handed Kate the drinks and as she turned to go a voice behind her called: “Who’s ya chick?”
“Pat” she replied, turning only slightly.
“Well bring’r in,” came another voice.
“Yeah. We wanna meet ‘er,” said another.
Kate grinned, her back to the crowd.

Outside the cicadas sung the disharmonious song of eternal summer, smoothing the pointy silence. They listened to the night as if it contained great secrets, Pat’s eyes fixed on a far off spot.
“So, where d’ya come from?” said Emma finally, catching Kate’s disapproving stare.
“Out West. Never been down ‘ere before”
After a pause Kate resolved not to wait for the question. “Yeah, we met ‘bout two weekends ago, when I went with Dad and Darryl out to Campbelltown to see the dogs, remember? Yeah, well we met out the back of the track, and gotta chatting. Pat’s done a apprenticeship in upholstery, not far from Sydney. She’s got some dogs too, they got a race down in Dapto tomorra. Yeah, so I invited her down a day early, thought I’d show her round the South Coast a bit. Whadda ya think? Why don’t you tell Em about that little bar you took me to after the races? Yeah, Em, it was great. I ditched dad to go with Pat to this joint in the next suburb. Real cool place, snazzy too. Not like nothing down here. There were all kinds of folks there. Didn’t I tell ya ‘bout it, Em?”
“Dunno, dun’ think so” relied Emma. Of course she hadn’t.
“Yeah, well dad was steamin’ when I got back. But it was worth it. Ya real lucky, ya know Pat? Like I said, we don’t got nothing like that down ‘ere,” said Kate.
“Yeah, great place. Sprung up a few years back, when I was just on the scene. But there’s loads of joints opening in Sydney these days… Look, I might go grab something stronger from inside,” said Pat.
“I’ll come with ya” replied Kate.

Inside, the room’s dense gaze made no attempt to conceal itself. At the bar Pat was uncomfortable, she wasn’t used to coming to pubs like Ryan’s, where the city’s arms felt years away. Her identity lost its legs here. She felt, for the first time in years, breathless and young. She felt the pub’s hand coming down brutally on her face. Involuntarily she shrunk; Kate, next to her, stood tall. She knew these institutions. These were the only institutions she’d ever known. From among the quiet patrons words began to waken, half-baked claims rolled out, still unformed. Kate remained poised before the stirring swell. A few more foetal sounds globulated on the glutinous carpet before the remark “why don’ ya give us a kiss then” tumbled forward, bringing behind it surge of agreement. With that, Ryan’s released its verbal wave. The words ‘dyke’ ‘lebso’ ‘homo’ rushed towards them, missing Kate by millimetres, but hitting Pat head-on. Ill prepared, Pat impotently shuffled her feet, her hands bound into tight knots. The pub was expanding, the room which was before only scattered with bodies, was now overflowing. It grew like a balloon, until it was bigger than Kate, until it got so big it could knock her down. The sound soaked through every crevice, every worn couch, every bar stool.

A trashing energy, that of an overwhelmed child, occupied every inch of space. Kate too grew nervous, yet her face still looked to the ceiling; she refused to recede with the tide. From the daunting bar stool of Johnny Watson came a snarl: “Give us a kiss then love. You’re real nice, for a boy-girl.” Like a cat dangled over a roof manically scratching, Pat grabbed a beer bottle from the bar and smashed it on the ledge. Kate, as quick as she’d ever moved, stood herself in front of Pat. Her body became a wall, protecting both Pat and the pub. The heaving noise became silenced, the boisterous energy stilled. Contained in the silent bubble of shock, time forgot how to move. Paralysis gripped all patrons, as if the room was solidified by invisible ice. From within her frozen form, Pat’s eyes darted frantically around the room.

Kate leant over and took the broken bottle from Pat’s hand. Defeated, Pat slumped forward onto her shoulder. Before the room thawed, Kate walked Pat out. Outside Ryan’s a warm summer breeze flew through the empty streets. The darkness welcomed them. Kate waited with Pat at the taxi stand. They exchanged few words, each inside their own head. Alone, Kate watched the taxi’s light disappear into the blackness.

The next Thursday, Kate’s presence was like piece of electricity in the blank pub. That night she drank for free.