The gobsmacked look on the blokes when he stopped for a word with the kid standing at the bar, the statue that spoke.
Us regulars at the sailing club know his gaze. It sets him apart.
Same time each afternoon, won’t give you the time of day. Orders his schooner of beer, no more, and sits, back to the club, at the far window. Watches the broad river flow into the bay. A tricky spot, the sailors say, just where the waters mix. Thirty yards either side and it’s smooth sailing.
No skin off our noses, if he won’t join us. We’re the Monday-to-Friday mob. We’re mostly retirees and not all sailors. Some get jack of the boredom. Some do a runner on the nagging. Others hate turning that key on an empty unit, family in whoop-whoop. Some enjoy the club’s Wednesday lunch with the missus. Plenty of time for bear talk with the boys the rest of the week. Saturdies and Sundies the joint is chockers with weekend yachtsmen and their broods. That’s when us oldies give the mad club a miss.
No bark off our knees, his stopping there. Blokes still greet him from their tall stools near the bar. Not greeting him—now that would be an insult.
He looms up silent as an iceberg. Always a surprise although the blokes know he’s coming. They sense him, his stillness. A stubborn quaff of stiff, grey hair. Like it’s defying us. Wide athletes mouth for gulping air. Unsmiling moosh. Dead eyes, hazel buttons in pools of piss. Never a ray of light in those stale waters. His monica between the blokes is Dead-Eye Dick.
Funny though, in his interviews after games he was a blushing, smiling, young bloke. Nowadays he is a familiar, forgotten face. Know that bloke from somewhere? Time helps him travel unrecognised.
Not the usual look for his game: nicks and scars if you look close. A good plastic surgeon. His old team mates with faces like crash test dummies.
No sin his stopping at the bar for a word with the kid. Can’t put a finger on it but there’s something about that kid. Everyone likes him. Makes you feel important. No, better—wanted. He works behind the bar and makes the coffee. Damn good coffee. We call him The Barista. Nice looking young fella, bit on the small side, with bright caring eyes; easy smile against tumbling hair. A quick, smart, kid. Step ahead of what you want. Never have to repeat your order. Good for the club he is, after the no hopers and the dead shits the committee has put behind the bar. If those galahs had any turf in their topsoil they’d look after this kid, hang on to him. Surly buggers some of these club employees. Getting a good one is like finding salmon in a lake full of eels.
Well, this bar stop thing goes a while. No worries, we greet him all the same. Someone always does the honours, “Ed,” says Rex.
Often its little Bluey. Bit of a crawler Bluey, likes his brush with fame, “G’day Ed.” His Claytons answer. The nod you get when not getting a nod.
It don’t matter. The whole group or just one. It’s a greeting. Takes his schooner and pads down towards the corner table. Passes the wealthy Europeans who have made their piles in building. The cement millionaires. Their palaces squat round the bay. Mansions full of fountains and front yard pools nobody uses. Only a spit to the bay pools. Signs that say, Grind your feet on the bottom in case of stingrays.
Reaches his corner, sits in his usual, under his own cloud. We are used to him down there in the afternoons when it’s slow in the club. Stares out over the blue water to the mangroves on the other side. A few weekday yachts prancing about. Couple of swimmers ducking and diving. Some mums tanning before going home to do the soccer shuttle. Kiddies filling their buckets with sand. Across the water the shimmering bridge with its bowing street lamps. The traffic hauling up one side braking on the downslope with no sound.
Just leave him to himself although there are those who think he is an arrogant prick. Locker room rumours always had him as standoffish, “That bloke’s got his head up his arse,” Bluey reckons. Changed his tune, Bluey. Get to that in a minute.”
“Tickets on himself,” says Rex.
Maybe you have to be like that when you are that good. Separate. He was always the target; Stop Ed Lalor and you stop the whole show. His the hurt, his the injuries, we know. Bin there, done that, on our own level. The aching knees, the frozen shoulders, the locking hips. The doc’s that say, “Well, I could operate, but at your age what’s the use.”
Course, it’s none of our business what happened with that scandal at the sports club with wives for wives. Then that awful smash where he lost his woman and the two young uns. Grapevine says he was over the bottle, but the club pulled strings with the coppers. Quiet word. Higher ups to higher ups. Got clout the big sports clubs. You know. Mates rates. Still, no one knows how the poor bloke stayed sane, let alone sober. It’s enough to send the creepers up your spine. Lucky it was before the internet. Imagine trending with that.
No use trying to yarn with him. Blue gave that a whirl. You know Bluey. Wants to bathe in the faded glow. I can see him now, I was talkin’ to me mate, Ed Lalor, at the club—. Whinged to the bloke about the committee putting in that huge screen slap in front of the windows with the best view over the water and all that. Goes on about the million dollar outlook, the club’s main pull, and they bloody block it off. True, he says, There’s plenty to see out the other windows, but wouldn’t you think the committee would have had the moxie to put the bloody thing in the back corner. Keeps bending the bloke’s ear. I don’t know what Bluey was expecting; just getting in good, maybe finding help to tackle the committee?
But he looks straight at Bluey with those dead fish eyes, then comes the flat voice, “It’s their screen,” he says and glides down to his corner.
So the jaws drop when he first parks himself at the table on the far side of the bar near the kid. The noise among the cobbers fades to a murmur. But we’re soon shooting the breeze again.
He couldn’t give a rat’s about us. From his new seat, he bores through us with his stone dead eyes like we are the furniture. He offers a word or two to the kid. No big corrobboree, but a few comments, while the kid rubs down the bar top, stacks the glasses, tops up the napkins, fills the toothpick holders, snappy as. All this new goings on doesn’t pass unnoticed. Rex and Bluey have their opinions. And, among the blokes, they have a go at him. Some reckon they’re spot on; others aren’t so sure.
Next, when he’s ordering his beer, he’s calling the kid, Richard. And when he’s ready to go and the kid is busy elsewhere, he doesn’t slip off his stool and just leave like he used to. He waits to say goodbye. Fond farewells as Bluey says.
Then one day, waving some kind of receipt, he ambles round to the kid on our side of the bar. We hear him say clear as a bell, “Thank you, Richard, good on you but I don’t drink that stuff.” Do we see in his eyes the smallest light, a human gleam? He hands the slip back to the kid, turns away, and buggers off.
Waving the piece of paper, the kid calls out, “Anybody want it? It will just go to waste.”
Bluey is up there like a shot. He knows what it is. His eyes are shining. Odds on he’ll frame the bloody thing in his pool room; Oh, that. Me mate Ed Lalor give it me. It’s an in joke. He brings the chit back and flashes it around.
Thank you, you have been
rewarded with a free cup of
coffee; tea or hot chocolate.
Please present this voucher to
the Barista on your next visit.
The blokes rib Bluey on his windfall. You’d think he’d won a sheep station.
Born in South Africa, Alf Marks spent his early childhood in that country before moving with his parents to Zimbabwe (then Rhodesia) where he grew up. After emigrating, he earned a degree in Journalism in Canada and an M.A. in Education in the USA. His journey subsequently took him to Australia where he has lived for many years.