It came in a song, at night, as if in a dream. Maybe it was. It was about him. It was about her. More than that I do not know.
Ash and Daisy-girl arrived, as they always did, around ten. They motored up from down below, from their home, near where the city first kissed the hills. Whilst the heat wave melted the metropolis, up on the ridge it was a little cooler – just. They were in the habit, in these days of extreme fire danger, of heading over to the rim rather than first going inside their pub to greet their help and make a start to a publican’s day.
Inside that help took the form of Beryl, a fusty blonde who showed every bit of her years on the planet. She could have been fifty, but she appeared every bit of sixty. Her employers knew something of her history, but nothing of her age. She had been up for hours, bustling around. She liked her bosses, particularly Daisy-girl. It’s what Ash always called her and it caught on with the locals too. Not that there were that many of those in the little hamlet perched on the ridge. And she knew that when Ash took over from Clarrie, a decade or so ago, he wasn’t real keen on keeping her on. He wanted fresh faced, youthful staff for the customers whom he hoped he would attract from the ‘burbs below. He’d run metropolitan hostelries and he knew what worked there. Ash felt he could transfer this knowledge to his new watering hole in the hills. He had. When he bought in it truly was on its last legs. Clarrie, towards the end, had let it go as he lost interest. In truth he had been running it off the sniff of an oily rag for years. He had enough sense to realise that he was old school and his time had passed; he was ripe for moving on. Ash gave old Marge her marching orders and employed a new, foreign bloke he’d worked with before to run the kitchen. Gone were roasts, seafood baskets and slabs of steak. The menu now was pretty flash, but not so flash as to be overly dear. And New Cook, as she called him to his bemusement, always made sure that there was plenty on the plate. Out went big brewery beer and in came artisan ales and ciders to the taps. The carpets had been replaced and new skylights put in to give the front bar and dining area an airier feel And gone too were the dozen or so regulars from this area. They definitely wouldn’t be good for custom. But Daisy-girl convinced him to renovate a room out back as she figured the old buggers still would need a place to go – there was nothing else for them in the village. She was soft-hearted, was Daisy-girl. She proposed it to Ash as keeping in with the community – and what’s more suggested that Beryl was the person to retain to run it. These days a few of the old fellas have passed on and most nights there were only one or two drinkers out back. As a result Beryl also helped New Cook in the kitchen, prepping and washing up. She didn’t mind. She’d do anything to keep her room upstairs. Pleasingly now she was also paid a bit of a wage and had regular time off. Clarrie had expected her to do it all for board and tucker. Still, he was once her life-saver. And then there was Bert. Old Bert was always there, in the back bar – a fixture.
The couple did not peer out across the city to the gulf and beyond (Daisy-girl reckoned she could see forever) as the punters did. Their clientele loved the view – a factor in tempting them out of town. Rather the pair looked down – down into the gully. Ash was twitchy about bush fires and knew there were units fighting blazes further into the hills. There had been thunder overnight, although no rain. He was wary of lightning strikes. There’d been no soaking precipitation for months and down there it was tinder dry. And yes, this Saturday morning, there was smoke – and quite an amount of it, it seemed to Ash, down in their gully. ‘Shit,’ he muttered and drew out his mobile. He placed a call into the CFA and spoke to a bloke called Pat. He was promised the first available chopper would make its way over and take a gander. There had been, Ash was informed, other calls alerting them to the outbreak. After he put the mobile back in his shirt pocket, he and Daisy-girl turned and walked back across the car-park to their pub. Being Saturday, at the height of the season, they knew they’d be flat chat.
That Saturday, early, Bert had seen the smoke too on his morning constitutional. As soon as he spotted the tell-tale sign he produced an about turn and hurried, as fast as his old pins could manage, back to his place, ringing the firies on the landline. He was too set in his ways for a mobile – who’d he call anyway? But that being said, he had recently discovered the joys of the internet. He reckoned there was hope yet for him in the digital age. He then settled down to his Advertiser and perused it as he waited for the pub doors to open at eleven. Saturday was his serious drinking day.
He knew he’d drink himself into a stupor. It kept the memories away. He went easier during the week – that is, unless the looking back became too much. He wasn’t silly. He realised what was his problem. Doing something about it was the issue. He made the excuse his lack of action was due to him being stuck up in the hills – but he knew there was more to it than that. It had been better up on the ridge, he would admit that to himself, than when he had the heebie-geebies down in the city – but he could feel he was still struggling with it. He knew how this Saturday night would pan out – just like all the others. But she was a haven of sorts. He could cope as long as he had her. Beryl.
The woman in question was hard at it polishing the cutlery in the front dining area when Ash and Daisy-girl walked in. They informed her what they’d seen down in the gully and then went upstairs to check progress on what they hoped would be their living area in days to come – their quarters, as they had started referring to the five small rooms that were being knocked into one large studio type apartment. Builders and the like had been busy the previous week doing some finishing touches. It was almost there. They could think about selling down below, moving permanently up and calling it home. It had been a long time coming. Beryl wondered what it would be like sharing the upstairs with other people again. During Clarrie’s tenure there were already other permanents aboding at the pub when he first put the proposition to her. A couple paid him a few bucks rent, others stayed for nix, just doing odd-jobs around the place. When she quizzed Clarrie as to why the discrepancy, he simply replied that he owed them.
Bert was at the door when Beryl opened up the back bar at eleven, as she knew he would be. She’d be worried if he wasn’t. He patted her on the bum as she walked past him to her station where she pulled his first of the day. There was only one tap – Coopers. Most of her morning would be spent helping New Cook in the kitchen put together his fancy fare, but she’d make regular checks on Bert, as well as any other strays that might wander in, to pour refills. She’d long since given up trying to convince Bert of the folly of his ways. He’d drink himself to oblivion every Saturday night, with her dutifully picking up the pieces. He was better on week nights, reasonably with it when he left – if he left.
As Bert nursed the first of the morning he thought back, as was inevitable, to those days when he fought that dirty war. He’d found out back then how pointless all of what he did; all of what he witnessed being there was. Bert was regular army, not nasho, so he should have been trained in what to expect. But the war was like no training he underwent. And yes, he was only nineteen when he was shipped over. That song. That bloody song. He was quite euphoric when he first heard it. He could turn any bludger away who might query what the hell was up with him and point the clueless clot in the direction of the tune. These days, if the Redgum classic came on the radio, he simply cried. He thought it’d become easier as he aged, but it didn’t. The memories of the blood and guts, of what a land mine did to a man, the burnt babies – how do you get over that? And then he was sent in to deal with friend and foe in the aftermath of Long Tan. It was a friggin’ mess and it almost finished him. But the drink made it better – and if that failed, there was always Beryl. She’d take it away – for a while.
Beryl’s thoughts were in the past too as she trimmed the beans. They all had to be the exact same length now with New Cook. He’d steam lightly before serving them up, almost raw. In the old days they would be boiled to within an inch of themselves and then dolloped on the plate. Today it’s as much about presentation as it is taste – but New Cook wasn’t as bad as some with their artistic micro-meals at fabulous prices. How it all changes, she mused – just as it had all changed for her. Her life pre-Clarrie had been a mess – although it started out okay. Now all she has is the pub – and Bert, when he needs her.
She was raised on the river at Murray Bridge. Finishing top of her class at high school, she thought she was destined for great things. She was brainy and had years of ballet training behind her. For a while she contemplated that as a career option, but as her body changed during her teenage years she lost her lithesome shape. Her breasts became fuller and yet fuller. She had a dancer’s figure no more so there was one idea scrubbed. Beryl reset her mind to becoming a lawyer and to the uni in Adelaide she headed. Beryl soon found she hated it – all that boring study. In no time she was skipping lectures, having taken up with a fellow law student, Stewart. He was a year or so older and he was almost as lackadaisical as she. Trouble was, he was much, much brighter too. He had a bit of family money behind him and they were soon shacked up together. They got along okay, smoked some dope together and he told her she was pretty good in the sack. The L word was never mentioned by either. Were it, would she be where she was now? They lived fairly openly – she knew he was seeing other girls and she had one or two fellas on the side as well. But it was like that back in those days – it didn’t mean much.
When she saw the ad she raised it with Stewart. He just shrugged his shoulders and muttered something about your life, your body. So she turned up for the audition, soon realising exotic dancing was just a euphemism for stripping. But as the money they were talking about was a tidy sum for back then, she gritted her teeth and performed a semblance of a routine for three fellows, done out in bling to the max, and a lone, brassy lady. She was required just to be topless – and she reckoned she could handle that. The woman, Pearl, took her aside, told her she’d been successful and gave her a date for starting. Pearl told her to come along to the Hindley Street address the day before she was due to face an audience for the first time. When she did, Pearl gave her some costumes, a stage name (Belle Angel – very cheesy) and a run through with the music she’d be removing her garments to the following evening. They hit it off, she and Pearl. She was hard on the outside, soft in the centre and they were soon bosom mates, despite the age difference. The first couple of nights Beryl was nervous. The punters didn’t seem overly interested. As time went on and she perfected the stagecraft, with Pearl’s advice, she became more at ease. Beryl soon figured out what got a man’s attention – or, at least, the type of men who patronised strip joints. She couldn’t say she enjoyed it having men ogling her tits, but the club wasn’t the worst place to work and management saw to it the men watching knew their place.
So, sashaying out onto a small stage and taking her gear off wasn’t so hard – but what increasingly became a pain in the butt was living with Stewart. When she offered, Beryl jumped at the chance of taking a room in Pearl’s inner city terrace abode. They rubbed along pretty well and Stewart drifted out of her life. When last she heard he was married and running a successful practice in Mount Gambier. That he got his act together to pass law was amazing. Any thoughts Beryl had of quitting stripping were soon gone – while she still had the figure she was going to milk it for all she was worth. Soon she had enough put aside to be able to afford her own place. During the seventies and eighties (her twenties and early thirties) the club was good to her and she for it. But time catches up and tastes change. Now to be competitive there was pressure to add more raunch. When management put the hard words on her to do so she knew going all the way was a place too far for her. Pearl tried to dissuade her, but she quit. She was told there were younger ones willing to do what she wouldn’t – and that was the refrain she received constantly as she shopped her wares around. Beryl was soon down to relying on the occasional topless photo-shoot for girlie magazines, buck’s parties and bookings in suburban pubs. She knew she was getting past it. As well, she had to deal with the sleaze factor – she hated what her life was becoming. The cash flow ceased and she found she had to give up some of her independence and move back in with Pearl.
It wasn’t long before it all became rather tense with her former mentor who, after a long hiatus, had a new fellow in her life. The sod was pressuring her to rid herself of her tenant so he could move in. Beryl had to find a new living arrangement, but how on the peanuts she was existing on? In stepped Clarrie. She took a shine to the man straight away. He’d booked her for a spot at his pub up in the hills. It was a fair drive, but beggars couldn’t be choosers. She found on arrival she was the only act at the advertised strip show – the first he’d put on to spice things up to see if he could attract more patronage. She did three routines during the evening to a crowd, she estimated, of less than thirty. Between performances she chatted to Clarrie, when he wasn’t pulling beers – in fact she unburdened herself of her woes to him. As she packed up he approached her. He stated that he had a proposition that may be of mutual benefit. He was also on the lookout for topless barmaids at weekends to go with the strip nights. If she was interested she could tend the bar other nights as well. He’d teach her the ropes. They’d be other bits and pieces she could do around the place in return for a room upstairs, all the tucker she could eat and assuming his plans went well, a percentage of the take. It didn’t – go well, that is. The other girls he employed were soon let go. Shortly he was telling Beryl to cover up as well. She was relieved – she knew her boobs weren’t what they once were. She was even more relieved, though, when he informed her that she was welcome to stay on. And that night they became lovers.
Clarrie was older than she was by close to a decade and was married. His wife, he told her that first night, was content living down in the city with their only daughter looking after the grandkids while the single mother was at work. He had a son too. He lived in the US these days. Marge rarely put in an appearance up on the ridge. He joined her down below for outings and although he was very fond of her, they hadn’t been intimate for years. He took his pleasure where he could, but was by no means what you’d call sexually active any more. Beryl reckoned she’d change all that – and she did. He was lovely to her, but she could see the pub was struggling and after a few years of togetherness, he announced to her one day, out of the blue, he’d found a buyer. He was retiring. Then Ash and Daisy-girl came into her world.
As he was helping serve the midday meals Ash realised he hadn’t heard a helicopter in the vicinity. But as none of the customers had mentioned smoke, he wasn’t unduly worried. Many would have sauntered to the rim to take in the sights offered from it. He’d double check for himself as soon as the rush was over, just to rest his mind.
Meanwhile, Bert in the back bar had his recalling on a roll. He was ruminating on how, on his return from ‘Nam, the Aussie public had turned their backs on the diggers in the Whitlam years. They didn’t want to know, compounding his problems. As for his fiancée, she tried for a while, she really did. But the man who came back was not a remote semblance of the happy-go-lucky lad who’d left – as in love with the army as he was with her. He received the engagement ring back in the mail. Bert quit the army and went bush. He intended to get as far away as he could, but in the end, when he found the little place he still owns up the road, he snavelled it. It was cheap. The area had yet to become popular with the tree-changers. He knew getting far, far away wouldn’t solve anything in any case. There was a pub nearby – the cottage, the pub and an occasional drive down to the city – when he was sober enough – that was his life for years. As the tourist boom hit the hills he found on-going work labouring for builders. Then, at fifty, he retired to the booze. He sold his car and now he relies on a bus to get him to the city and to the nearest supermarket for supplies – when he can be bothered. Sometimes he feels like a movie or just a change of scene, pub-wise, but mostly he doesn’t stray too far from from his spot on the ridge. And besides, it’s where he’s close to Beryl when he needs her.
He’d had a few women down through the years – but generally they didn’t hang around once they figured out they weren’t going to cure him. He thought, at one stage, a surfeit of sex would be beneficial, but in the end that too was only transitory. And these days the hope of any real relationship was fanciful. He knows how lucky he is to have Beryl just down the way. He knew in the past she was Clarrie’s woman – and when he’d up and left, for a while she was anybody’s. Back then she’d tried to sweet-talk him into her bed. Then, he wasn’t remotely interested – but he always declined politely. He’d seen her strip. He’d seen her serve topless. Still, he was mildly surprised that the old publican didn’t take Beryl with him when the new couple took over. He wasn’t rapt, in the beginning, when he was asked to retreat to out of sight, but he could see the licensee’s point. And what Ash has done has now given the old watering hole a new lease on life. Ash and Daisy-girl, he could see, would provide him and Beryl with a drinking hole and home away from home for the foreseeable future. Ash rarely visited the back bar, but his wife was regularly in there. He’d immediately taken a liking to her, who wouldn’t? She had laughing eyes and a ready smile,. She was free and easy with the customers, whereas Ash was more reserved. He was the brains, but it was his lovely lady who made the place so welcoming that the city diners would view positively her constant invitation to come back soon. In his view it was down to her as much as Ash’s good management that the place was running so well. He could see Daisy-girl had once been beautiful – in her youth – but she was one of these women who only grew more interesting as they aged. She was still easy on the eye and he could see that Beryl was similarly enamoured. The pair were always gossiping, whispering and giggling behind the bar. Where would he be now if things hadn’t changed with Beryl? Beryl, she was his constant in this place.
After the lunchtime activity had died down, Ash moseyed across the car park to take another look down at the gully. If he peered really hard he could just make out a whiff of smoke, but certainly, to him, there didn’t seem any imminent danger. He knew the firies had a real battle on their hands further inland. He noticed the traffic on the road opposite heading back down to the city was heavier than normal, perhaps indicating that some fleeing of what was happening in the back country was going on. Ash decided not to trouble fire central again.
Beryl was also taken aback, as well as very hurt, that she didn’t figure in Clarrie’s life post retirement. His wife had long gone to meet her maker, but she also suspected that her bloke had become more than friendly with an old mate’s widow. She visited the pub a few times and Beryl could tell, the way Clarrie behaved around her. She knew it was her past as a stripper that he was leery of. It devastated her for a while, but she picked up the pieces and got on with it.
Come the evening dinner rush all thought of the gully and potential danger had gone from Ash’s mind. He was just too busy. As well as the usual full house of a Saturday, the situation inland was becoming more dire and the passing trade increased as many evacuees stopped on their journey for a cold one, or to pick up some grog. Even the back bar was chockers that Saturday eve and as poor Beryl was being so run off her feet, he sent Daisy-girl there to help out.
For Bert, his change of mind about Beryl came five or so years back – and it was all down to that blessed song. The radio was always on in the bar, tuned to a city station playing a classic format. It came on – ‘Only Nineteen’. He screamed out for someone to turn it off. Screamed out over and over – bought the bar to a standstill. Beryl was the first to react. She switched off the offending song, rushed over to him, took hold of his head and pulled it in to her ample and soft old breasts – and let him stay there, sobbing. The few other customers discreetly left. When he had calmed down, she whispered to him, ‘Please stay’. An hour or so later, come closing time, he was still there, head in his hands. She told him she was locking up – he made no move to go. After she latched the door, she took his hand and guided him up to her room. ‘Undress, and hop in,’ she said, indicating the bed. ‘I’ll be back in a jiff.’ She quickly finished her duties downstairs. Ash and Daisy-girl had long gone – then returned, dispensed of her own clothing too before she joined him. She took his grizzled, bristly head again and settled it in to her ample cleavage. She reached down and gently stroked, before guiding him in. He cried some more, then he pulled her close and fell asleep. And now it is a habit – once or twice a week – and every Saturday night. He still enjoys the closeness, although the sex has largely disappeared. When he felt in need of her he simply remained settled as she finished up. Saturdays were different – she had to half carry him up those stairs. If Ash and Daisy-girl knew about the relationship, they didn’t let on. Beryl thought Daisy-girl would have a fair idea and that it wouldn’t worry her. About Ash she wasn’t so sure.
That particular Saturday night the owners were exhausted. Neither gave a thought to their morning’s discovery, down in the gully, as they left Beryl to do her usual tidy up. They knew she wouldn’t let them down, this or any other night. As for Beryl, she saw Bert was all but passed out. After she did her final checks, she took him upstairs, helped him undress and snuggled up beside him as he began to sleep it off. It was enough for her that he’d nuzzle down into her breasts, for she knew that helped the poor old bugger as he tried to forget. He’d told her a bit about it. She was sure, though, that he hadn’t told her the half of it. But Beryl was happy that she, as well as her breasts, were still doing some good in the world. The last thing she noticed as she drifted off into the land of nod was that there was now a cooling breeze coming in through the open window. That it was quite a pleasant change. And indeed it was, but it also indicated that the wind had altered direction; that it was now coming from the south.
Much later, down below on the fringes of the city, dawn was breaking as Ash was awakened by the mobile beside the bed. He was given a run down of what had happened. That southerly had rejuvenated the smouldering embers down in the gully and soon a substantial fire was heading up the steep incline towards the car park, licking at the wooden walls of his work place. It gained ferocity as it rushed up, fuelled by the parched scrub. The car park was no obstacle to it. Someone had raised the alarm that his pub was on fire and a unit rushed to the scene. They managed to save Bert’s cottage and the remaining buildings that made up the village on the ridge, but the hamlet’s only commercial enterprise was already gone – well before they arrived.
When the licensee and his wife arrived the flames were out and there was little remaining of their pub. Ash’s first thoughts were for the building itself, Daisy-girl’s for Beryl. The couple were told that the remains of not one, but two fatalities were found within. The bodies were together – that of a woman who died seemingly protecting the other, a man. Daisy-girl knew straight away that man would be Bert.
By the time they left the ruin of their dreams, Ash had resolved to rebuild on the site. Daisy-girl left knowing Beryl had polished her last broken soul.