This piece of memoir comes from the most radical Maggie who, if reports are to be believed, once skulled gin from a white china milk jug.
On the southern bank of the Clarence, corner of Through and Skinner Streets in Grafton, is Walkers Marina Hotel. The pub looks proudly over the big wide river and out to Susan Island.
Walkers is grand, old country money with all the charm and mystery of places you read about in books and hear in songs. Somewhere you would share your soul late at night with a stranger drinking liquor over ice, or dance slowly to a ballad as the last glasses are cleared. Walkers rose from being the dodgiest pub in town to somewhere ladies have weddings. The leadlight windows cast fragments of colour across the floor, and a huge staircase with dark balustrades leads upstairs. It is cotton frocks in summer, cold pots of beer, cigarettes, and red lipstick-stained stubble. It is falling in love near where the pianola stands.
I’d never been to a pub like this, but had always longed to. The town I grew up in only has ghosts of these places. They appear in stories, in photos at the library, but are altogether absent. Poppy said they were all knocked down in the seventies by ‘the closest thing the state’s seen to Hitler’. And so I sipped my first legal beers in a bar on the mall with red velvet curtains and a tiny stage. It cost me eight dollars for a stubbie and two dollars if I wanted some water. The kids in the bars were all dressed up, making statements with their shoes but not conversation. I came to crave a place where I could have my drink poured by an old man who would call me love and rest a cold glass on the bar mat.
One night at a party last year I met Duncan from Grafton who told me that his town had the most pubs per head in Australia in the fifties. He told me stories about ladies behind bars who’d take men upstairs for a bit of extra commerce, of the dodgy and the clean pubs. He told me where they know his name and where they don’t, and who pours a good pint.
I went to Walkers with Duncan for his brother’s thirtieth- a good few months after our first meeting- with my housemates in tow for some country-style drinking. We stepped inside and the air was thick with stale beer; we could hear a chorus of gravel voices from a room out back, and from a TV or radio, the commentary to some kind of race.
After we arrived we went touring the pub, cold pints of Coopers in hand. Duncan took us up the stairs and through the hallway, where black and white prints of the nightly swill hung from the wall. Men in shorts and long socks, all tan and hard work, staring into the camera. Women behind the bar pulling beers. Holdens pulled up outside for a swervy drive home. Duncan took us past the bedrooms, and out onto the veranda. The river stretched out below us; the levee wall between us and the water.
Downstairs, people sat outside on the grass at the back of the building. Men walked around with jugs of beer, topping up people’s drinks. Your glass was filled, sloshed over the rim and down your hand, before you even finished half. As the night began to comfortably blur, we moved from beer to scotch and emptied our pockets into the jukebox. We put Cold Chisel on and danced and sweated. We pushed open the thick, heavy bathroom door and wiped the lipstick from the corner of our mouths. We wrestled with the huge brass locks on the cubicle doors and went back out to drink some more, hoarsely singing along to the jukebox, spilling our drinks on the sticky carpet.