A Place in the Country

Beyond the heavily frosted glass, lights flashed as a counterpoint to the threatening sky. Inside, Ray and Tom sat in their usual places. Tom, the older of the two, eyed off the stranger wearing the dark suit and the casually loosened tie who’d been sipping neat spirits for most of that afternoon.

Emma stood behind the bar as casually as she could. She felt choked by the viscid atmosphere. Her eyes moved from Tom, to Ray, to the unfamiliar person in the suit, to the appalling mark on the threadbare carpet, to the distorted lights dancing in apocalyptic savagery just beyond the window. Emma’s hand rested on the soft drink dispenser. Nervously, she traced the buttons with her thumb. Mentally, she checked them off one-by-one: C for Coke, D for Diet Coke, L for lemon, S for soda water, W to release a weak stream of chilled water.
Jesus wept. Not hysterically, not as an old Greek woman mourning the death of a husband, but softly. He wept with naked, vulnerable gentleness. Jesus, the outsider, the stranger in this strange land, shed tears so quietly that you wouldn’t have noticed unless you looked closely or unless there were only four of you in the room and a cadaverous stillness had recently engulfed the place.
Jesus wept with his face cupped in his rough hands just as Emma’s face had been held in her own hands when she was on the train last night. Emma watched a vein trace its way across the stranger’s brown temple. It reminded her of the time she’d wanted to hire a houseboat on the Murray but Jacob hadn’t wanted to go. There had been something on television.
Jesus was having a bad day. On the bar top in front of him sat the letter: official notification that his asylum application was rejected. He was to return to the Timor of his youth and young adulthood. He was to return to that odd, foreign place some bureaucrat in the cold of Canberra deemed his home.
First this letter, then the frivolous drinking and now that crazy old bastard they call Tom has blown everything, Jesus thought. The palms of his hands felt coarse against his forehead. He’d been laying bricks for ten years and so his hands had changed. They were the hands of a graduate lawyer once but he wasn’t allowed to practise here, so they were a labourer’s worn hands now. Through an alcoholic haze, Jesus thought about what Tom had said and done. About the rights and wrongs of it all. He thought about it like a lawyer, weighing up the truth.
Jesus slurped more of the liquid that had long since stopped burning his throat. He had been into the immigration department’s office again today. He’d played the game. He’d gotten dressed in a suit like he was going for a job interview. He’d done all they’d asked of him – and more.
Earlier that afternoon Jesus had sat swaying gently on the tram, mirroring its motion. He was on his way back from the immigration department in the city when he began to yearn for a drink. Just one single drink. He got off the tram and stood on the footpath looking across at a pub: The Queen and Country. Jesus had never been inside, but its exterior was as familiar as the ugly scuff marks on his one pair of dress shoes.
Sitting here in the bar now, Jesus realised that it was more than four hours ago since the idea of having one lonely drink had crossed his mind. He was now such a part of the place he couldn’t leave, even if he wanted to. Jesus didn’t know what he wanted. It was a plain and beautiful truth that he marvelled at it: the power of not knowing, of needing to know and not understanding. He really wanted to pee.
Ray sat on a stool directly opposite Emma. Ray had been the Country’s licensee for twenty years, since he’d tossed in the farm and returned to Melbourne after Maureen’s death. He sighed at the thought of Maureen lying dead in their cold bed, her body a cancerous shell.
Built the year Queen Victoria died, the pub was a decayed shadow of its former glory. The public bar was the erratically beating heart of the place. It was the sort of pub where you kept a shotgun in the bottle shop – just in case. Framed photos were scattered around the public bar covering rips in the smoke-stained wallpaper. Mostly, the photos showed faded images of horses flashing past winning posts but there were a few photos of footballers: Royce Hart, KB, Captain Blood. Every fragment of memorabilia held smears from where Ray had tried to wipe the stains from the glass. By six o’clock the Country emptied and regulars like old Tom, who knew the pub’s guarded secrets, held sway.
The Royal Hotel, a couple of hundred metres down the road, got a gaming licence nine years ago. Ray’s application was refused because someone discovered he’d been warned off racetracks for life when he was nineteen. His father had trained a sure-thing to run in the main event at Geelong one spring Saturday. Ray took matters into his own hands, swapping his father’s bay colt for a look-alike with a tendency to bleed. Then Ray bet his savings on an outsider, a beautiful grey mare, who’d under performed in her previous starts. And, well, bad things happen when you’re young, ambitious, unlucky and just a little stupid. The bleeder won in a canter.
Ray’s thick forearms rested comfortably on the bar. He tried to make out the distorted blue lines of a pair of tattoos he’d gotten etched into them on his twentieth birthday. The day he enlisted. It was that or jail on the race-fixing charges and the Army seemed like a good idea at the time. Vietnam. Who knew?
Emma was officially having the worst two days of her life. She stood behind the bar manning what felt to her like the hastily erected ramparts of her mental castle. Her mind was alive with conflicting thoughts and emotions that threatened to smash her fortress’ walls. Outwardly, she was calm. Inwardly, she felt like throwing up.
Emma’s woes had begun the previous night when she had come home from work to discover Jacob in bed with her friend Karen. Emma vomited as she backed out of their bedroom and made for the front door. Even now, her ears stung by the sharp savagery of Tom’s anger, she thought she could still hear Karen’s joyful moans.
Standing at the bar now, she watched the guy in the suit weep ever so softly. She felt tears welling up inside her again but her defences held. She’d cry herself a long river of tears. Just not now.
Emma had worked afternoons for Ray for nearly three years when university commitments allowed. Emma served behind the bar, took lunch orders and flirted hesitantly. She’d grown into her body late and she was still a little surprised when she caught men watching her. It felt odd, somehow unnatural to be the centre of their attention.
There were a few locals like Tom who protected her from the bastards and the sad old tossers like a grandfather should. Mind you, Emma could look after herself. More than once she had cut a man down to size with a well-aimed jibe. But today had been different; she felt fragile somehow. Not as fragile as the quiet foreigner in the suit though, Emma mused when he walked in and sat down at the bar. He looked like a doctor, or a disbarred lawyer maybe, but as soon as she put the whisky down in front of him she noticed his callused hands. He belonged.
Then, the smart-arse loudmouth from the tax department turned up with his co-workers. There’d been an afternoon of trouble between him and sad, stupid Tom. The smart-arse started it by cracking onto Emma and he wouldn’t take no for an answer. Tom stepped in, a mangy, toothless old lion looking after the youngest of the pride. Deep down, Emma knew why. Tom had told her more than once that she reminded of him of his daughter, Eloise, who’d been attacked and found strangled years ago.
A little while later Emma and Ray refused to serve the drunks any more. There was a shouting match and glasses were thrown. To pour humiliation on bitter ignominy the loudmouth reached over the bar and grabbed Emma’s left breast.
Emma felt a flush of scarlet colour her cheeks as she reeled from the aggressor’s savage touch. Tom staggered from his stool and went out through the door that led to the bottle shop. He returned a few seconds later. Emma took a sharp breath and noticed the time. It was four-thirty-four. After that, time seemed to stand still.
By twelve minutes past six Tom knew he was having the sort of day that haunts a man for life. He shifted uneasily on the bar stool and thought deeply about what the booming voice, nestled in the lights outside, had actually said. Finally, he reached forward, picked up his pot of beer and downed the last third of cool brown ale in one soothing gulp. He put the empty pot gently down on the bar as if it were a newborn baby and carefully turned the handle towards Emma in the time-honoured gesture. Emma, who looked to him so much like poor Eloise.
‘Fuck ‘em,’ he slurred to no one in particular. ‘Fuck ‘em all.’
Emma altered her attention from the stranger in the suit and looked at Tom. She should have finished work twelve minutes ago.
Tom continued, ‘Fuck the young and the short and the tall.’
He glared at everyone, silently daring someone to tell him to drop a dollar in the battered, rusty swear-jar where money was collected for the hospital.
No one moved. No one uttered a word. The outsider in the suit just sat there staring at his hand.
‘Well,’ Tom asked, ‘are you serving drinks Em’, or you just here to make the place look pretty? I sure am thirsty, sweetheart.’
Emma’s blue eyes swivelled in their sockets. Her gaze rested on Ray. Ray was pretty drunk but he read her look like it was one of those massive freeway signs. He nodded almost imperceptibly. Ray’s subtle nod or shake of the head was usually the law but both Ray and Emma realised that this evening, with the darkness gathering and the pulsating lights growing in intensity, there was no law in the Country. Not tonight.
Emma’s hand left the soft drink dispenser and reached for Tom’s empty pot. She saw how her hand trembled and wondered if anybody else noticed it shaking. Silently, she urged herself not to drop Tom’s heavy-handled pot.
‘Hey you,’ Tom addressed the stranger. ‘It’s my shout. Buy you a drink mate?’
Jesus was studying the marks on his battered labourer’s hands. He knew he shouldn’t say it but he did.
‘Yes, please,’ Jesus slurred.
‘Ray?’ Tom asked.
Ray nodded towards Emma and mouthed the word ‘usual’.
‘Thanks Tom,’ Ray said, catching his own reflection in the mirror behind the bar. Christ, he was getting old. Maureen never really grew old. There was a time there, back when he was Emma’s age, when he thought he’d never be an old man. He was wrong about that. He was wrong about most things.
‘Righto Em, that’s another scotch for our friend over there. Hey, what’s yer name?’
Jesus paused briefly before answering. ‘Jesus,’ he said.
‘I’m Tom. That’s Ray. This is Emma.’
Jesus nodded a salutation of sorts. Emma flashed him her gawky, self-conscious smile without even thinking. Jesus smiled back and Emma thought he looked so very sad.
Tom continued. ‘It’s a scotch for Haysoos, a pot for me and Ray, and have yerself something Em. You look like you could use it.’
Ray nodded at Emma again. He didn’t like his staff drinking on the job as a rule, but hell, this was the right time to rip up the rulebook. That was for sure.
Ray recalled his first ‘contact’ back in Vietnam. He’d never forget that long lonely night. That tosser straight out of Duntroon walking down the middle of the track whistling the tune to A Hard Day’s Night then the whole damn jungle lit up. After a while, brief silence, the all-too-familiar caustic smell of gunpowder and then the lieutenant lying on the ground calling for his mother until the blood drowned out his ever-youthful voice. Ray knew what Emma was feeling. He understood she needed a drink probably more than anyone else in the room – Tom included.
Emma distributed the drinks and poured herself a glass of red wine from the open cask. It tasted sour but she guzzled it anyway.
‘Have yourself a refill Emma,’ Ray said tenderly.
‘Sure?’
‘Yeah, it’ll do you the world of good, love.’
Ray recognised his lie but took a sip of beer to drink it further away, to bury the untruth deeper inside.
Tom felt certain there wouldn’t be anybody in the bar, even that fella Haysoos, who would argue that that shiny-arsed know-it-all near-to-rapist bastard didn’t have it coming. He took a gulp of beer.
‘Ray?’ Tom asked.
‘Yeah?’
‘Do you think I done the right thing?’
‘Mate, that’s not for me to say.’
Tom thought about Ray’s words. He rolled them around inside his head, wearing them smooth like a rock at the bottom of a slow-flowing river.
Tom continued. ‘It’s your place but.’
‘I know, Tom. But it’s your place too in a way. You did what you did, that’s all.’
Tom nodded. ‘What are we gunna do?’
‘We? Mate, there’s you, an’ then there’s us.’
Ray felt like telling Tom what he really thought, but he was no hero. Vietnam taught him all about the price a man paid to be a hero. God, he only had to look in the mirror to see that his hero days were gone. He was just some sad old bastard with silver hair who’d had way too much to drink spending his dying days running some shitty little inner-city pub.
‘What do you reckon Em?’ Tom asked.
It felt suddenly warm inside Emma’s head. The two glasses of red wine had hit the spot. Emma didn’t know what she thought. She was just too numb. Numb from today and from last night, from breathing in and remembering to breathe out.
‘Tom, you did what you thought was right.’
Ray smiled. She was a smart cookie.
‘Haysoos,’ Tom called across the bar. ‘You seen it, so what do you reckon?’
Ray swallowed hard.
Emma glanced at the clock. Six nineteen.
Jesus’ mind raced back to the time in Dili when the soldiers beat him like a dog.
‘That bastard,’ Jesus spoke coldly, deliberately, ‘I reckon he deserved it.’
Ray swallowed a mouthful of beer. The lines needed cleaning.
Tom nodded. ‘I like you Haysoos. Hey mate, where you from?’
Jesus held up his glass of scotch and waved it gently at Tom, being careful not to spill any of the distilled sunshine.
‘East Timor,’ he responded.
Jesus knew that he could have done the exact same thing as Tom earlier that day at the immigration department office. The two of us, we’re not that far apart, he thought.
‘Never heard of it,’ Tom volunteered.
‘It’s another place,’ Jesus said.
‘Tom,’ Emma said softly. ‘What’s done is done. What matters now is what you’re going to do.’
Tom nodded into the middle distance like he was listening. He wasn’t. His mind was located in the events of two hours ago, and also in the happenings of nearly forty years ago so that the two were somehow intermingled: the pushing and shoving, the humiliation, the groping, the rummaging behind the counter of the bottle shop, the fear, the noise, the falling, the others racing for the door so that now there was only the four of them, the thought of Eloise lying naked in the scrub.
‘What are you going to do?’ Emma asked.
There was silence in the bar, save for a race caller on the radio talking up a greyhound running at Dapto that was called Home Country.
Jesus spoke up timidly. ‘I’d like to buy you all a drink.’
He fumbled in his breast pocket for some money and placed a red note awkwardly on the counter, not really knowing if it would be enough.
Tom broke his silence. ‘Thanks Haysoos.’
Ray burped quietly, downed the last of the beer in his pot and offered it towards Emma who refilled it from the tap.
‘Last drinks’, Ray called out to no one and everyone. Then he roared with laughter but the fire of his own bitter expectation tempered his jocularity.
Emma wondered about Jacob, about Jesus, Ray and Tom. She wondered about the loudmouth, the savage grope and Tom’s response. Most of all, she wondered about herself. She scooped some ice into a tall glass and filled it with the water that came out of the dispenser in a weak stream. She took a long swig and let the coolness anaesthetise the pain inside her.
Home Country won.
Tom downed the rest of his beer and offered Emma the handle of his empty pot.
Emma refilled Tom’s pot from the tap and placed it carefully on a coaster, right beside the sawn-off shotgun, the barrel of which, she imagined, was still piping hot.