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Pymble had been sitting at the bar for a couple of hours, slowly drinking and taking in the scene. He knew no one, and no one knew him, which suited him because he liked the anonymity--the ability to watch without participating. The Borroloola Pub was an unsophisticated arrangement, little more than an untidy aggregation of prefabricated boxes scattered around a central, scruffy building. Borroloola was just a village, poised near the west coast of the Gulf of Carpentaria in northern Australia. The boxes had been added to the pub slowly over the years as the number of clients increased--visitors who were often awed by the arse-end-of-the-world, rough-and-tumble, frontier atmosphere of the town and its only pub, and who were desperate to rent one of the boxes to escape the tormenting heat and try and grab a few hours sleep after a day's exposure to a relentless Dry season sun.
Not that it was easy to sleep. The only fitting in each of the minuscule rooms, other than two single hard beds and a tiny cupboard, was an air conditioner which, if turned on, rumbled monotonously and shook the thin metal building with an incessant fervour. Guests of the pub injudicious enough to adjust the thermostat so that the aircon cycled were guaranteed sleeplessness as the equipment turned off unexpectedly with an asthmatic sigh, then vibrated violently a few minutes later as it started again. There were four alternatives to cycling the aircon. One was to turn it off altogether and stifle in the room. The next was to open a window and be attacked by mosquitoes and sand flies. The third was to leave the aircon running continuously and shiver all night. Jack Pymble was attempting toarrange the fourth option in the guests' bar of the pub. The idea was to get pissed enough not to care. Jack was very carefully drinking beer and Scotch chasers, intending to get just so intoxicated as to ensure a reasonable night's rest. So far, the booze didn't appear to be working.
He surveyed the room again. The place was clean but incredibly shabby, a slipshod style developed with the obvious attention of well-meaning but inept bush mechanics. In the wall behind the bar was a square hole through which the barmaid, a petite and attractive blond girl with long hair and a slightly prognathous cheeky grin, hurled empty cans and bottles with unerring accuracy. The hole had been framed in unfinished timber, and one side of the frame extended about an inch out from the edge of the wall, as though the persons responsible had been lubricating their brain with booze while working out the measurements. An improvised wall separated the guest bar from the other major drinking hole in the building. A door allowing access from the one area to the other had been locked about an hour previously. The door bore marks suggesting that patrons may have taken out their anger on it from time to time over the years.
There were about twenty-five people in the room behind him, most of them Aboriginals. Until it had been shut down an hour ago, the noise from the bar on the other side of the wall had been incredible, an ululating screaming wail punctuated by the crashing of glass. It was impossible to decide if the noise was caused by fighting or by good humour. Pymble knew the sound was occurring especially loudly on this night because many royalty cheques had arrived in the community that day. He had seen them being passed over the bar in exchange for thousands of dollars in cash. As traditional owners of the land, many Aboriginals were paid royalties by a local mining company. Inevitably, a lot of the funds were converted into booze.
He turned his gaze to the clot of young bloods at the guest bar. They were trying to chat up the barmaid, and she was running rings around them, but in a friendly way. One of the group was ignored by the others. Dressed in new jeans, a new work shirt and wearing a new black Stetson with a chequered band, he was asleep, his head on the bar, a rum and Coke clasped in his hand. Lined up in front of him were four more drinks in the same style. Pymble wished they were his--the beer and Scotch mix might help him to sleep, but the rum and Coke was a softer, sweeter mix. He looked up at the clock over the bar. Half past eleven. The pub was supposed to close at ten thirty but obviously that wasn't happening today. The blond girl laughed prettily at something one of the young blacks said to her and demanded he pay for his drink, mock-sternly. She'd been doing that pay-for-the-drink trick for most of the night and Pymble wondered how she had the patience to keep arguing with the barflies. The dress contrast in the Aboriginals she was serving was astonishing. Some of them were in obviously new gear; others looked as though they'd been dragged through mudholes and then dried off. Some wore peaked caps, some headbands. One thing they had in common--they all wanted more booze and lots of it.
A short white guy stepped up to the working side of the bar and spoke to the girl. Pymble knew him as the owner of the pub, Errol.
"Don't serve 'em no more if they give you the shits, Alicia."
"They don't bother me," she replied, and bustled off with a tray of dirty glasses. Errol checked briefly around the bar, then disappeared. Pymble decided Alicia had a nice arse to go with the grin, then slumped in his chair a little, wondering what his girlfriend Susan was doing. He hadn't seen her for about three weeks and was missing her. It was the first time they'd been apart for more than two or three days since they'd come back from Cape York after the helicopter crash nearly eight months previously. Even Pymble's intensive training with ASIO hadn't separated them, because Susan was running rehearsals at the same school, resting between jobs.
Pymble sipped his Scotch and slipped back a few months in his mind. Who would've thought, he mulled, I'd be an ASIO agent? And have an ASIO agent girlfriend? Me. An ex-bloody accountant! He raised his eyes and examined his face in the cracked mirror over the bar. He saw a lean, tanned, blue-eyed bloke with very dark curly hair staring back and decided, if nothing else, the training had been good for cooking the excess fat off. Jack was about to raise his glass to himself when suddenly the air was rent by a retch-inducing hawking and spitting noise from a corner of the bar near the door to the next room. He turned to see a massively built Aboriginal engaged in a furious argument with another coloured guy. They were squatting on high stools, one on each side of a small circular bar table completely covered with empty beer cans. More cans were being kicked around on the floor as the big bloke waved his legs backwards and forwards. He hawked and spat again, and Jack felt his gorge rising as something resembling an egg-white splattered down.
"Hey, Johnny, no spitting in here--you know that." Alicia was back, staring angrily over the bar, and she wasn't happy. Big black Johnny looked at her and turned away as though she didn't exist, continuing with his argument. His voice grew louder--it matched his stature, incredibly deep and resonant. Pymble turned back to his drink, only to hear the hawking noise again. Apparently Johnny was punctuating his sentences by gobbing on the floor. Alicia went out the back of the pub and came back a few seconds later with Errol, who called out to Johnny;
"Johnny, I told you before, no spitting in here. Cut it out!"
Johnny seemed to be out of humour. He stood up.
"You get fucked! I spit in 'ere if I want to!"
Errol wasn't fazed. He leaned on the bar.
"I told you, Johnny, no spitting in here. I won't serve you."
"You get fucking fucked! They no sign here says 'No Spitting'! I spit if I fucking want to!"
And he did.
Errol stepped to the bar-flap, lifted it up and walked out into the room, confronting Johnny. It would have taken three of him to build a Johnny. Errol chose his words carefully:
"Johnny, I don't need a sign that says 'No Spitting.' Nobody spits in here because they know they're not supposed to spit in here, and that includes you. Now, cut it out!"
Johnny eyed him, turned his head to one side, and spat on the floor.
Errol put his hands on his hips.
"You get out of my pub right now."
"Fuck you. I got as much right to drink here as anybody."
"Get out or I'll get the cop to come and get you out. And you know how much he likes to be roused up at this time of night."
Johnny stood up.
"Fuck you. You should respect me. I'm an elder. Fucking arsehole."
"I do respect you when you don't spit."
"You just a white cunt. I spit when I like. Fuck you."
Errol turned, picked up a towel and hung it over the beer taps. He yelled out, "Bar's closed! No more booze! Until Johnny apologises to me--and stops spitting on the floor."
He turned off the TV, and the noise slowly died away as the crowd realised what was going on--no booze. Johnny was getting madder and madder.
"Fuck you. You got no respect for me! I been drinking here for years. You got no right..."
Errol stared at him as he ranted. Alicia stared at nothing--she was tidying the bar. The bloods stared into their drinks. And Jack stared at the scene, fascinated.
"You apologise to me, Johnny, and we'll open up again. If you don't we're closed. And if you don't leave with the others, I'll get the cop out. Sit down and cool off."
"Fuck you. No respect."
"Cool off. I'll buy you a drink if you apologise."
"Get fucked." But Johnny sat down.
"Where's the apology, Johnny?"
"You got no respect." Johnny turned and faced directly away from Errol.
"We can all have a drink if you apologise."
Johnny said nothing, gazing at the wall. Errol picked up the phone and started to dial. As he dialed he spoke to Alicia:
"Okay Alicia, we'll close up now..."
"I'm sorry, Fuck you."
"Drinks on the house, Alicia. Hey Johnny, what gave you the shits today? Have a rum..."
Pymble had a rum too. And then he went to bed to try to dream about Susan. It didn't work.