By Ryan Darcy Sim
It was the hottest day of the year; the temperature had climbed to 44 degrees earlier. I felt the sun on my neck, more than just heat and light – like a firm hand holding me. My shirt stuck to my back with sweat. I put my guitar in the back of the van and shut the door. A tram grumbled past, heralded by the electronic whip of the overhead wires.
“So, I’ll just meet you at the venue?”
The rest of them were already piled inside, Phil and Matt squashed in back amongst the equipment, Billy up front, lounging, the passenger seat pushed back, big gut closing the void between him and the dash. He leaned out the window with a cigarette and grinned from behind his glasses, already half-cut. I’d volunteered to walk.
“You know where it is?” Jonno leaned forward in the driver’s seat to yell around Billy’s bulk.
“Yeah all good, mate. Got my phone anyway.” I waved it at him, as if he might not have seen one before. I was trying too hard to behave like I was ‘cool’ about the half-hour walk to the venue. It was a pub, over on Lygon, and it’s not that I was worried about finding it – it was just the fucking heat, which seemed to make the weight of other people’s expectations just that little bit too heavy.
“Well there’s plenty of pubs between here and there if ya get thirsty,” said Jonno, raising his eyebrows behind his sunglasses.
I just laughed. I’d known Jonno for about three years now, and he’d put out four different records I’d played on, but he never remembered that I don’t drink.
He let down the handbrake and started to pull out, checking for traffic.
“Hey brother,” said Billy, slouching out the window. “I’ll see you soon!”
The car merged into the flow of cars and glided away down Brunswick Street, Phil and Matt throwing me a pair of shit-eating grins from inside the air-conditioning. I picked my bag up off the baking sidewalk. It was heavier than I’d thought when I packed. I knew the subtle digs, the carefree teasing, and now the fact I was relegated to walk to the show, were the result of a quiet sort of resentment within the band. I didn’t share their belief in a certain mythology – I once did. The Odyssey, the Old Testament. Trials and triumphs. Punk rock spirit. The audience is rewarded with songs about them; friendship, the strength of community. The bands are rewarded with beer-drenched shows in bars that smell like bread and sweat.
I crossed over to the shady side and walked three blocks to a 7-11 where I bought a cold bottle of water and made a right turn. Brunswick Street was a constant buzz and clatter, but the activity was so concentrated, focused, specialised that it only took two blocks before it was extinguished completely.
A nameless pub squatted silently on the corner of a T-junction. Quiet terrace houses, a few cars parked a long the street, an empty shop front “For Lease.” The pub’s door was open, a Carlton Draught sign hanging above. Out in the searing sunlight, I couldn’t see past the entrance – just shadow. I shifted my bag on my shoulder. I could feel the muscle burning against the bone, and I dreaded the floor I’d be sleeping on tonight.
I entered and breathed in that yeasty aroma that emits from all the best pubs of inner city Melbourne; ageless mark of quality, Earthly in origin but transcendent now. My eyes adjusted to the dark, and somewhere behind the bar, Icehouse played softly on the radio. There was no one serving, just the slap of a 1980s snare drum emanating out of oblivion. I went to the toilet – a single stall and a stainless steel urinal. I slid the bolt home and hung my bag from the coat hook.
Just as I’d settled, I heard the outer door open.
“Scuse me.” A woman’s voice, harsh and matronly.
“Uhm, yeah?” I said to the roof.
“We’re not open yet.”
“Sorry. The front door was open, I just assumed.”
“Toilets’re for customers.”
“That’s fine, I’ll buy a drink when I’m done.”
No reply, though I could still feel her presence just outside the stall. She hovered for a minute, then left; the creak of the door as it swung open and then its heavy, final thud.
She was behind the bar cleaning when I came out, her hair wiry and a store-bought brick-red.
“We dun open til six.”
“I’m sorry,” I said, instead of asking why she’d left the door open in the first place.
“Was chuckin out the rubbish when you wandered in.”
I wasn’t sure if she meant for me to apologise again. “I’ll buy a coke if that’ll make us square.”
“Tap’s not on yet.”
“Okay. You got any bottles of soda?”
“Got Red Bull. Y’sure y’don’t want a beer?” She was already retrieving the can of Red Bull from the fridge.
“No, that’s fine.” I passed her $5 and she took it without saying how much it cost. She gave me a dollar change.
“You comin or goin?” she asked, nodding at my bag on the stool beside me. Her mouth was shaped into a permanent frown.
“Coming.” I swallowed my mouthful with effort. I hated Red Bull. I could feel the bubbles coursing through my veins, radioactive. “I’m from Brisbane.”
“Haven’t been up that way for years. Last trip I took’s with me husband. Before he bought this bloody pub.” She surveyed it now, the look in her eyes flickering between pride and disdain like an old VCR. She sighed and started polishing the bar again. “The cancer. Bloody cancer lit him up from the inside – burnt up all his insides til he looked tiny and dry. You seen someone at the end of cancer? Died – not even a year ago yet. Left me this bloody goldmine. It’s his legacy though, can’t sell it. He was so concerned – after the kids left – so concerned about leaving a mark. Wanted to make sure he did something.”
The drink was inconsequential now. I could imagine her husband – breath hot as like the bitumen outside, lungs like two squashed toads. It was all there in her face, her voice. I took another sip just for something to do. To buy some time. “I suppose it’s a relief though. When he passed. His suffering was over.”
She let out a loud syllable, cut short and jagged on the end. “No one you know’s ever died of cancer, I take it. Only people who haven’t seen someone waste away like that say that. I mean, his suffering was over. It’s not a relief though. Relief’d be waking up and realizing it was all a nightmare. He couldn’t even get me name out by the end of it.”
“Well. I’m sorry.”
She snorted, still polishing. “S’not your fault, love. Just life.”
Out on the street I tried to finish the Red Bull, but it was making me sick. I threw it in a trashcan, still half-full. I pulled the bottle of water out of my bag and drained it.
I crossed a main road into a back corner of Carlton Gardens. A path wound up through the green grass under huge elms and oaks. The sun couldn’t cut through their foliage. It was cool. A light breeze picked up and the white noise of the leaves filled the air. The path brought me up behind the museum. A great arboretum, with gums netted in, looking out at these immigrant trees shielding me from the god-damned Australian sun.
There was a wooden bench in the shade and I sat down. I could still feel the bite of an economy seatback in my knees. Flights were $169. How many hours over the past few years, wishing for just a little more space? Now I’m forced to walk across this city just play a show to get paid half of what it cost to get here, minus food, minus getting around. These friends you saw once every six months who sometimes forgot your name, their company was meant to subsidise the financial loss. Billy, Matt, Phil, they were all happy with this currency of sentiment. Even Jonno who’d been doing this for ten years. And I admired him. It’s noble, and thankless, putting out records only a few hundred people might ever buy. I knew in their minds, all the trials; shows with five payers, missed flights, vans that smelled of feet. The punk rock work ethic, an abstract form of flagellation in the name of their chosen sub-culture.
The pub was just through the park, then two blocks down to the left. I looked towards it, gauging the distance through the trees, and massaged my legs. I could feel my shin splints now, too.
Some young guys worked behind the bar and Husker Du rattled out of the speakers at a respectable volume. I ordered a lemonade and a bowl of chips and sat in my booth alone.
Recognisable faces began to show up, filtering in with an occasional flick of the chin in my direction. No one sat down with me. A woman I’d slept with last time passed by in a group of friends and she smiled and waved at me. I smiled back. I waited for the others to arrive, empty glass, empty bowl in front of me. I was still hungry. I thought about how what we’d discussed at our last band practice, in that stuffy, concrete room, about how this time we’d do things differently.