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They were cackling when Robbo came up the steps to the beer garden and he could pick each of them by the sound of their laughter: Paulie made a high-pitched wheeze that ended on a snort; Joe rang out loud and powerful to match his height; and Walker went uh-ha, uh-ha, uh-ha in tempo with his belly heaving.
G’day, called Robbo.
G’day, mate. Walker went for another round and Nipper crept beneath Robbo’s chair, resting his muzzle on two grey paws.
Robbo didn’t see her until much later; four or five beers later, and by then he couldn’t have made a decent job of it.
We was laying bets, said Walker. Before you arrived. How long it would take. He winked at the others.
So who won? asked Robbo, but no-one would answer.
We was out by a mile, mate, said Walker. Must be losing your touch.
Robbo nodded, staring at the girl. She was beautiful and he hadn’t noticed her.
Paulie nudged Joe. Might give her a crack meself, he said.
They looked at him.
Paulie stared at the table, gulped his beer. Might just do that.
Get away, said Walker. You wouldn’t know what to do with that one.
Robbo saw silver bangles gleam on tanned arms. Her hair was long. Brown. Shone as if it had just been washed and hung out to dry. Robbo knew her hair would smell good.
No, no, no, Joe was saying. Don’t you bother. This is a job for professionals, not little boys.
Paulie’s face reddened as Joe stood up, flexing his forearms downwards so the girls at the table across the garden couldn’t see. There was applause. Walker whistled, banged on the edge of their table and Joe swiped a hand through his close black curls.
The girls barely looked up when he went over. Robbo watched as she shook her head: Her hair turned like a sinewy animal swish-swish against the points of both shoulder blades. The other two weren’t in her league. One of them smiled, revealing crooked teeth, and the third, a fake blonde, stared into her glass in a fixed kind of way.
She’s drunk or a hard case, thought Robbo.
Joe was inviting the girls over. She looked at Robbo. Dead set, straight into his entrails. Robbo saw her nod, then she was standing. They followed Joe like three imprinted ducklings; his eyebrows performed strange dances, and his mouth was a slick crescent as he led them over to their table.
This is Sal, June and Callahan, said Joe. He performed the ritual of introductions the other way as they settled themselves into seats. Sal with the bad teeth sat beside Walker. June latched onto Paulie and Callahan sat beside Joe, opposite Robbo.
What are y’drinking? asked Paulie. June’s eyelids flinched as she said she’d have Scotch. Sal was drinking Moselle and Callahan said no thanks, she already had one. It looked like water.
Robbo wondered how she knew the others. Maybe they worked together. He would’ve asked, but the table was between them and Joe was saying something close to her ear. She laughed. Her shoulders fluttered up and down, just the once, and that mass of hair shimmied then settled.
Beautiful, thought Robbo. He couldn’t keep his eyes off her. Then he caught Joe’s glare. Back off, he was signalling. You had your chance.
At the session the next day the girls were already sitting at their table when Robbo arrived. He had shaved. His clothes looked as if they’d been ironed, and his cologne was so strong that Paulie said Nipper must be needing a bath.
Sal snickered like a rabbit and Robbo took note of Walker’s arm draped across the seat behind her.
When he glanced away, he found Callahan was staring at him. He smiled. She smiled back. She wasn’t sitting alongside Joe – he was next to Walker – and he calculated there was space. Robbo pulled up a chair and Nipper squeezed underneath.
G’day, said Robbo.
Paulie called out for another round. He frowned at Robbo. Must be your turn, he said. His speech slurred. Against his shoulder, June’s stiffened yellow hair caught the sun and shone like a golden helmet.
Robbo leaned towards the glow and asked what she was drinking. He saw her mouth fall open. Scotch, she said, then – snap – her mouth closed again.
Hard, thought Robbo as he ordered the round. Got her hooks into Paulie, too.
Robbo handed Callahan the glass of iced water. Don’t drink? he asked.
She shook her head.
So, how do you three come to be so friendly? Work?
We share a house, she said. There was an ad in the paper. It’s a nice house.
Robbo nodded his understanding.
What about you?
Went to school together. Grew up around here. Paulie’s the youngest. We give him a hard time. Joe’s folks came out from Italy.
She groaned. Mates.
There was coughing over the other side of the trestle table and Robbo took a while to twig. Joe’s face writhed and he was pointing with one shaky finger.
Robbo frowned. He held both hands, palm up, above the table.
Joe gestured to the toilet.
Excuse me, said Robbo. Joe followed.
What the hell do you call this? he started.
Joe’s cheeks were heavy and discoloured. You are claim jumping, he said slowly. This is no good….she is my girl.
Robbo laughed, but kept a close watch on Joe. Mate, he said. You were nowhere to be seen when I got here. There was room, I pulled up a chair. There’s nothing in that.
Maybe so, said Joe. Maybe that’s what you say. You’re forgetting that I know you too well, Robbo. I know you with the ladies. You stink like Myers’ perfume counter. What are you up to with Callahan?
Nothing. He was careful to keep the smile fixed. Honest. Not a thing, mate. I just got here. Bought a round. Said G’day. What could I be up to?
Robbo pulled a face, threw his arms out wide. Come on!
For a second Joe looked sheepish. I thought, he said. Ah, never mind. He clapped Robbo’s shoulders and they both grinned.
Walking back to the table, Joe kept one arm fixed to steer by.
So you and Callahan… said Robbo.
Joe’s eyebrows lifted. He navigated their course through the crowd.
And last night…
Joe looked down at him. What you mean? He cuffed the side of Robbo’s head with one big palm. We talked. We’re seeing each other. It’s fixed.
Robbo nodded. He sat down next to Walker and Joe pushed the beer over. There was laughter as Nipper bolted for Robbo’s chair.
You gotta watch out for him, Walker was saying with a sideways darting look at Sal. This man is y’original lady killer.
Sal’s nose twitched, so Robbo figured she was laughing, but he’d drunk enough not to care.
Some of the stories we could tell you, said Paulie. His eyes roamed around the table, flickering from one person to the next, never settling on one spot too long.
June looked up. Straight at Robbo. So what about telling us one of your stories, Paulie? she said. Her voice was low and whether it was the timbre, or a sudden chill off the water, the table went quiet and they were all staring at Paulie.
Ah, no, he said. Robbo’s me mate. Aren’t y’Robbo? Can’t dob on a mate.
June was still staring. No? she said.
Come on, Paulie, said Sal. We want you to tell us a story.
They were all waiting and Robbo saw the last of the day’s light die in June’s yellow hair. It is cold, he realised, rubbing at goosebumps.
Go on, then, Paulie, said Walker.
Paulie told the one about the woman Robbo had kept in the kennel.
It was the dog that finished her, muttered Paulie. He turned his beer in its glass and watched the liquid spiral. She started working on Nipper, see, because she didn’t like him being around everywhere all the time. Wanted some space. She got a basket and a kennel and fixed them up in Robbo’s yard…
Robbo glanced around the table. He was tired of this old story, of all the old stories, but he knew they’d laugh in all the right places. They always did.
He saw them taking a drink every now and then, but mostly their attention stayed fixed on Paulie; it had grown dark and he made a blur against the dull slate sky. There was a flash of gold and Robbo realised June had been watching him. All this time, he thought. She was smiling. Robbo felt tired, tired and empty, but he managed a smile back and they stared at each other as Paulie’s murmuring was lost in the dark.
Suddenly there was a burst of laughter.
Walker gripped Robbo’s neck. He said, That’s always a good one, mate.
Tiny lights like roadkill lit up the beer garden.
Aaah, sighed Sal, leaning against Walker. Just like Chrissie.
Callahan pushed back her chair. I’m off, she said. Robbo could see the swell of her dark hair. His eyes scanned down a snug dress.
Hey! called Joe, his eyebrows beetling. Where you going?
Home. She swung her bag over one shoulder.
How about I come with you?
Callahan laughed. I don’t think so. She turnd in a swirl of hair and the tiny dress kicked up to reveal long thighs.
Beautiful, thought Robbo.
The others looked away as Joe sagged in his chair, all the bravado gone.
Two of them, thought Robbie, looking from Joe to Paulie. June was still watching him and her smile spread like a warm stain.
Scotch? asked Robbo and June nodded. He brought in another round.