I have long been fascinated with the Australian pub. In my youth the pub was a site for the outcasts — I was told — the downtrodden, those forgotten or left behind. A couple of times a year, my dad would pack the boot of the four-wheel drive and we’d shoot off for a week to Bendigo, to Castlemaine, to Ballarat, to Dunkeld, and what fascinated me about these towns was the pubs that loomed over the ghostly main streets. The pub was a symbolic portal into a world slightly removed from my own, whose inhabitants gulped from the dark side of life.
Welcome to our pub series! My piece is inspired by a re-imagining of the pub as a site for the Gothic. Enjoy!
The morning after the fires settled, ash fell from the orange-stained sky and covered the slumbering streets in the centre of town. It was late January. I had never liked this time of year. The grass stopped growing, went yellow, withered, died. The days were stretched and the air so thick it felt as if you were breathing through the eye of a needle. The boys let their sweat drop onto the bar and demanded a cold one before their first was done. They cursed the drought to hell and back and even after the sky had dropped its dark blue blanket, the birds and the bugs didn’t rest and kept you awake to twist and spit through the night under a thinning cotton sheet. If you fell asleep you dreamt only of summer’s decay.
On the morning after the flames settled, I ate pears from the tin in the kitchen behind the front bar, rolled a smoke and breathed it out the window above the sink. I left the pub. The street was still; it was like an abandoned movie set, silent save for the beating of choppers. I turned my neck upwards and could just make out the black silhouettes of winged machines turning circles round the town.
Matilda’s Bakery across the road was closed. A stack of milk and bread crates piled in front of the window. The emporium of junk and antiques and the Rose’s deli closed too. No rock and roll filtered out from the garage, no one lingered on the steps of the small stone church with the weeds that crept up the coloured windows. No one walked through the plastic ribbons of Paul’s fish n chips. The tressle tables normally set up in front of number thirty-two had been packed away, all that remained was the sign hammered into the earth:for sale car parts and tools at dirt cheap prices.
Everything on the block, including the Great Northern- my pub, my home- leaned slightly to the west; a scar unfaded by a tremor in the ground some twenty or so years ago. Now with no cars, no people, the scene looked like a painting sliding down the wall at one corner.
I was upstairs, in the tub with the birds-claw feet when the alarm had torn down High street. It was around midday. I stood up, didn’t move for a few minutes and the water fell into the tub from my black sheets of hair. Voices cut through the alarm from the street below. I pulled the plug and let the water circle the drain as the sky blackened. It was, what I imagined, an eclipse would look like.
By the time I had got down to the outskirts of town, the bombs of water had been dropped from the sky, and like someone had twisted its neck, the fire bucked and turned around and the flames settled. The air was charcoal grey and I kept a damp handkerchief pressed to my face. Everyone was moving about with their arms in front of their bodies, finding their way through the smoke; it looked as if the town had been taken over by zombies.
Before the flames even reached the edges of town, I heard that the morgue in the city was already full, that hospitals and universities were being asked to store charred bodies until they could be formally identified.
I heard that there was a line of cars on Hobs road, the only road out of town, each hollowed vehicle like the carcass of a giant creature from the depths of the ocean. All the glass melted and the paint stripped from the bodies. A line of cars like a spine bent across the blackened wasteland.
On the night after the fires, there was a knock at the door on the corner. I was upstairs, mending a pair of trousers. I put down the needle and slowly navigated the stairs. They were old, splintering in parts and rotting in others. I stepped over the thick red rope tied at the foot of the staircase from handrail to handrail, and walked through the back room and round to the front bar. I pulled back the sheet that was slung down the glass door. The figure had his back to me; he was facing the street. I could make out the hunched silhouette. Douglas Creadle. He looked to be picking at the chipping paint on the porch column. I opened the door a crack. He turned.
‘Marcy,’ he said. ‘You open?’
I sheparded him inside, cast an eye across each side of the street, and closed the door behind him. I took a stool down from the bar and Douglas put his weight on the counter and pushed himself up. I poured him a pint of Coopers and unscrewed the cap on the scotch; poured myself a measure. He reached into his pockets and dropped a fist of coins onto the bar. I took the silver and put it into the till; slid the gold across with the beer. He picked up the glass. Sipped.
I flipped another stool and took a seat behind the bar. Douglas sipped his Coopers, wiped his chin with his wrist.
‘Everyone’s talking,’ he said. ‘Everyone’s an expert. I heard a few people say started down near Longpocket. Gotta be down that way; looks like it came from the west.’
I turned the glass clockwise and watched the scotch spin. Drank it in one. I looked about the place. The emerald was peeling off the walls. The cracks in the chess board tiles forked out from under the Persian rugs father bought from the city, years ago. The old couches in the corner were spilling their insides. This was one of the oldest buildings in town. A leaning leftover from another time. A relic that made it hard to move on, near impossible to forget.
This building sat tall on High street back when the street was only a handful of boarding houses and the lockup where they used to throw the locals from the outskirts of town. Savages, my father calls them. He never let them drink here when they were around. Kept a bat and a shotgun under the till just in case. Sometimes still I hear him at night through the walls of his room, cursing and spitting and muttering, ‘Not ever gonna let em near here. Ain’t ever gonna let em in.’ These days I keep a shotgun in the drawer beside my bed.
I look to Douglas. Down to the last few sips. His vacant eyes, eyes that have seen and felt the worst of the place before they were scratched with acid, point to the bottles behind my head. They don’t rest. I open the tin next to the till, roll, lick the edge of the paper and seal.