A good kicking on the way home from the pub, by the hobo chic quartet (excerpt from a novel – The exit line)
I’m being repeatedly kicked in the ribs by four pairs of feet. I can feel blood pouring out of my mouth. It’s pissing down with rain. I remember people telling me you stop feeling anything after a while when you’re being beaten up, and I thought they were talking shite. They’re right.
For some inexplicable reason, I have the song My Old Man’s a Dustman going through my head. I wonder when they’re going to stop. It feels like they’ve been kicking me for such a long time. I’m going to be a right mess in the end. Cindy’s being held back by two women. She’s screaming her head off. A good lass that one, probably the best woman I’ve ever met.
I really hope I live through this because I want to spend more time with her. Come on fuckheads, finish up and let me bleed on the pavement while Cindy holds my head up and tells me she loves me. That’s my cue to be all debonair and smile, then tell her that everything’s going to be alright. Deep down I’ve always been a gentleman.
Stuart’s final words to me as they finally stand back are, ‘That’s what you get when you mess with us’. What an idiot, he’s stolen lyrics from the chorus of Karma Police by Radiohead. The irony is mind-blowing. They walk down the street and I roll over onto my side and moan very loudly.
I’m really fucked up. Cindy’s immediately by my side holding my head up and kissing me on the cheek. The rain’s stopped. I don’t want the rain to stop; it feels more cinematic that way. Somebody’s shouting, ‘Fuck you, you Pommy cunt!’ I think every one of my ribs is broken. I haven’t lost any teeth, which is a total result because dentistry is expensive in Australia.
Cindy’s crying really loudly and swearing. I tell her everything’s going to be alright. My heart rate’s quickening, I can’t fucking breathe. Cindy’s stroking my head. I’m going to pass out.
Brian Cho sits behind me at work, and calls himself The Brian. He’s the kind of person who strolls into meetings he’s not invited to and contributes like he’s organised the meeting, while everyone else sits there, too polite to say anything.
The other day, I was having lunch at my desk, when The Brian swivelled around on his chair and said: “Callum, I got your email about looking at your friend’s website and I wanted to know more about your relationship with her. What does she mean to you?” I told him she’s one of my closest friends on the planet. To this, The Brian replied: “Then I will make sure I give it my complete attention”.
When I gave my friend The Brian’s feedback, I told her what he’d said, and she teared up and said: “What a lovely man, he must be great to work with”. I nodded, took a sip of my drink and ordered a tin of sardines.
I’m moving out of Ye Olde Lodge in two weeks and the prospect of leaving is making me miserable. I’ve been there for four and a half years now, and it’s the longest I’ve ever stayed in a house since I was 17 years old. So, I’m now going to tell you why Ye Olde Lodge (YOL) is the most important building in Brunswick.
The first reason is that it’s located at No. 1 Sydney Road making it the first house you see driving into Brunswick if you arrive via Royal Parade. Yes, it’s that place on the corner with the clocks that don’t work and yes, it looks a little bit like a half-way house for more discerning vagrants. But no, it used to be a hotel in its heyday and when you open the huge front door you can smell about five different dinners cooking at once. That’s not a reference to it being a hotel but at any time of the day you can actually smell five meals being cooked at once. The government calls it high density living. I call it living up somebody’s arsehole.
However, arseholes aside, the walls are thick, so once you’re inside your flat, the smells dissipate and all you can hear are the trams clanking down Sydney Road or the urgent throttle of a local Bandido racing towards another MENSA meeting. Is it a mere coincidence that the rise of bikie crime in Australia has occurred concurrently with the popularity of Sons of Anarchy? Anyway, I digress.
At YOL, I live across the hall from the weirdo of the building; let’s call him Dan because that’s his name. On Sundays, Dan climbs into the roof and can sometimes be heard raking around above my flat doing something. I don’t know what he does up there but I hope he’s been having fun. Dan once gave me a six-pack of Asahi because I complained about the noise of his renovations. He genuinely thinks he’s bought me after that act of benevolence, and every time I see him on the tram he nods at me like those six beers changed my life.
Then there’s the lad downstairs, who always calls me ‘neighbour’. Last summer we argued about him using my parking space. I was drunk at the time and told him that if he parked in it again I’d smash in his car’s windows with a baseball bat. He took this seriously and called the police. When the police called me, I told them that my ‘neighbour’ had urinated in one of the plant pots out the front of the building. By Monday morning the plant pots were gone.
The woman who lives right next door to me is Janice, and she’s in love with Blake Carrington from Dynasty. We’re friends and are now the longest standing residents of YOL and she’ll be sad to see me go because she hates Dan and has never received a six-pack of Asahi from him. Instead, Dan has spent a long time in her roof being single. There was talk of Dan having a girlfriend but I suspect the closest thing he has to a girlfriend is a pork chop, in a tumbler.
Dirti Cunti is the building’s body corporate. My top tip to anyone reading this is to never, ever employ these people to look after anything. Getting these so called property managers to take any form of responsibility is like asking Jack the Ripper to work as a temp in a remotely located brothel and asking him to promise not to brutally murder any of the employees.
But dysfunction aside and the odd call from the cops, I love this old building. It’s been a good home to me, Callum Scott, and many of my boisterous guests. It was in this building that I had a remarkable alcoholic delusion. Two friends came round and found me leaning against the toilet door having an argument with my girlfriend, who they assumed had locked herself in the toilet because I was being a nightmare. They coaxed me away from the door with more beer and I sat drinking with them at my kitchen table, occasionally going back to the toilet door to shout something, until I eventually passed out in an ashtray. As they walked down the stairs they passed my girlfriend returning from the supermarket with much needed supplies, and to their credit said ‘hello’ like nothing had happened.
Anyway, there is something incredibly spiritual about a home you love. The very walls seem to imbue a sense of harmony that’s impossible to articulate. In a real home, everything is perfect, even the things that don’t work and, really, that’s the whole point of building a home in the first place. I’ve lived in places that didn’t feel like a home and the knock on effect to the rest of my life was palpable to everyone, especially me. When I don’t have a home, part of my brain ceases to function properly.
When I have a home everything makes sense because I have somewhere to go when everything doesn’t make sense. I think of all the long days I’ve had over the last four and a half years and how getting home at the end of one of those days was better than anything else I could imagine. Opening the door, smelling my home and placing my keys in the little plate by the door. Simple pleasures, the kind of routines that work on me like functional therapy. I hope everybody experiences this at least once in their life because after that you won’t settle for anything less, and nor should you.
So, goodbye Ye Olde Lodge. Sometimes life was stormy and tempestuous but you were always there for me, and most of the time life was perfect because I knew you were there, on the corner of Sydney Road and Park Street. A loveable collection of bricks with a generous soul…
…and the broken clocks who only told the right time twice a day, which was good enough for me.
I’d been out of rehab for about two weeks. Everybody knew. It was one of those things. Usually only actors and football players go to rehab but I was lucky enough to be admitted into the club. James sent me lots of emails when I was there and I didn’t reply to any of them. Too busy watching DVDs and going to group therapy and smoking cigarettes in the garden. Cigarettes are all you have in those places. When I got out James called me. I didn’t know it was him so I answered the call. He was really excited and didn’t even mention the emails. I arranged to meet him at a cafe across from my office for a coffee, just a coffee but he asked if I could reserve several hours for him.
I like James or liked James but he’s one of those socially awkward introverts who latch onto you and use you to generate some fun and excitement in their lives. Being a reformed alcoholic all I could offer him was coffee, maybe some lively conversation once the caffeine kicked in. When I was drunk we used to talk for hours about every subject imaginable. I spent a lot of time with James, a lot of time drinking myself to death. During the group sessions in rehab James became a symbol of my downfall. I know this is unfair but I began projecting much of my guilt onto him because he was there and never once said anything about my behaviour and when I did finally fall he didn’t notice. When I left rehab I regarded myself as cured not only of alcohol, but of James.
From across the road I could see him sitting at one of the pavement tables, outside the cafe. Upright, stiff, like an eagle that’s afraid of heights, he had a glass of water in front of him and his old black brolly leaning against the side of the table. Upon seeing him I almost turned around and ran back to my office. He reminded me of a time when I was out of control and did that bad thing that cost me a lot of friends and eventually landed me in that place. But I owed him at least one coffee, a parting gift to Mr Hyde.
When I sat down opposite him his huge mouth opened to reveal those twisted canines, spiralling onto the underside of his top lip. I managed a nod of the head and extended my right arm for a shake. He grabbed my right hand in both his hands and then motioned for the waiter to take our orders.
– What will you have? He asked, I checked this place online last night and I already know what I want.
– It’s good to see you James.
– I’m going to have the strawberry cheesecake.
The waiter stood over our table as James’ canines slowly slipped back into his mouth, accompanied by a slight gurgle of saliva.
– I’ll have the cheesecake.
– And yourself? Asked the waiter of me.
– Strong latte please mate.
– It’s a lovely day, he replied, sure you gents don’t want a beer? Bottle of white?
– Nah, I said.
– Come on? Live a little, replied the waiter.
– I’m a recovering alcoholic and I just want a latte so I don’t get drunk and start thumping customers and sexually harassing your female staff members. Ok?
– Sure thing champ. Just askin’.
When you give up the drink the hardest thing is dealing with other people’s attitudes to drinking. By saying no to a drink on a sunny afternoon you might as well throw your hands up in the air and announce to everyone you’ve given up on life because it’s just plain wrong to settle for coffee when the sky’s blue. The waiter went off to place our order. Through the window I could see him motion to our table with his head and exchange some words with the blonde woman behind the counter. She smiled and patted him on the shoulder.
James immediately launched into a long winded theory he had about something I can’t even remember now. No, ‘how are you?’ or ‘how was it?’ or ‘how do you feel?’ Straight back to where we left off two months ago. There was one night we were in a back alley bar having one of those racy arguments about another of James’ social theories concerning Gen Y when a man from another table interjected because he believed he was an expert on the subject of binge drinking. He put forward a well-informed argument defending the youth of today, telling us that binge drinking had always been a problem and the current Government were using it as a smokescreen to distract us from their imperialist foreign policy. I had to agree. Not James though. James went to the toilet for fifteen minutes. I had to end up knocking on the cubicle door to see if he was ok. When he came out he’d obviously been crying, so we went to another bar and talked about stationery.
Now James was hammering on about some other issue. He has a permanent drip that hangs from his nose, which he wipes occasionally with a blue handkerchief he keeps in his trouser pocket. He can wipe that drip without missing a beat. Sometimes the drip gets so big you can almost see your reflection in it.
After two months the only things that were different about him were his short haircut and a lime green Hawaiian shirt that actually suited him. James is a tall man. I am not a tall man but I don’t get angry about it. Tall people are always surprised at how calm I am for a short man. I once met a tall man who was terrified of dwarves; he had what is technically referred to as Nanosophobia. James is afraid of dogs (Cynophobia) but obsessed with cats. If he passes a cat he’ll stop for at least fifteen to pat the cat, and cats love James. Generally speaking people do not love James, he’s not loveable. Normal people detest him.
I leaned forward over the table and put my hand on his shoulder.
– Are you going to ask me how I am James?
– You look like you’ve just been for a cruise on the Med.
– I haven’t.
– I know but that’s what you look like.
– I’m not embarrassed about it.
The waiter came over with the cheesecake and the latte so I sat back in my chair and stretched out my legs to release some tension. He placed each down quietly and went back inside. James grabbed his fork and plunged straight in. I watched him scoop up the first bite and hold it in front of his mouth and nose for a few seconds before delivering the package onto his tongue. He closed his eyes, sat very still and then began to chew, gently at first, then slowly increasing movement in his jaw muscles. I hunched over and pinched the bridge of my nose between thumb and index. I’d been getting sporadic headaches since I’d given up the drink and pinching the bridge of my nose helped. The waiter was back up at the counter motioning towards us again. The girl was laughing. He was young, with long dark, curly hair, wearing sprayed on skinny jeans, worn half way down his miniscule arse and a tight black t-shirt. James was oblivious.
– So what have you been up to while I’ve been away? I asked.
James brought up his hand to silence me while he enjoyed the final taste of his first bite. It was the kind of wave you’d have expected from Marie Antoinette.
– Sorry, he said at last, I’ve been thinking about this moment for at least twelve hours. Best strawberry cheesecake I’ve ever had. May the Epicurean gods be blessed. So what have I been up to?
– Reading mostly.
– Got a job yet?
– No. Don’t want one. I can live off five dollars a day if I put my mind to it.
– I remember you telling me. Do you want to talk about that thing?
– No. Not yet. Later.
– Why not? I’d really like to get it out of the way. Get the elephant out of the room so to speak.
– I want to enjoy my cheesecake.
– Ok. Up to you. But I haven’t got long.
– I thought I asked you to put aside several hours.
– I can’t. I’m really busy, got loads to catch up on.
– But I asked. I specified several hours. In fact I used those very words.
– I know you did but I really can’t. I’m snowed under. Lucky to get my job back if you ask me.
I’m not completely sure how we became friends. I was so drunk for such a long time; much of my recent history was a blur of bars and toilets. The addicted end up spending many more hours in toilets than normal people, they’re safe havens, places to dispose and consume. Ironically enough being sober for the first few weeks was like being drunk and waking up in a strange toilet and not remembering how you got there. Suddenly you’re surrounded by all these people you don’t really know. Mostly other fuck ups but some of them are the dispossessed, only capable of being with people drunk enough not to notice how odd they are. It’s that strange feeling you get when you’ve been at a club all night dancing, drinking, on pills, mixing with beautiful people, then at 6am it all begins to wear off a bit and by 7am they turn on the lights and all you can see are half finished drinks everywhere, sticky carpet and tired, drawn faces.
I genuinely don’t know what I had in common with James. He irritated me. When I watched him eat that piece of cheesecake I wanted to reach over and break his nose. Smug wanker with his green shirt and that glass eye of his that he always dropped into people’s drinks for fun. A young woman slapped him in the face one night for doing it to her and then there was the time I was in bed with this woman and he was perched on the end of the bed, half in the shadows, watching, smiling, rolling that eye in the palm of his hand, his crooked canines moving in and out of his mouth.
All I wanted was to be back in my office working. The councillor told me not to throw myself into my work but that’s all I had. All you do is swap one addiction for another. He took another bite of the strawberry cheesecake. Same routine. It was unnerving me. I got up to leave. James stopped chewing, stared directly at my untouched Latte.
– Sorry mate, I said, I’m really under the guns. Got a five o’clock deadline.
He did that thing with his hand again and continued savouring the cheesecake. The waiter came back out to clear a table, his little blonde friend trailing behind him. She stifled a giggle when she saw James with his cheesecake. I didn’t blame her, it was a hilarious image. A green-clad beanpole and his cheesecake, shaking on a fork, centimetres from his nose and mouth. Plus that drip under his nose was gaining momentum. The clouds shifted and I was hit with the full force of the sun. I squinted, protected my eyes with my hand. James whipped out his hankie and caught the drop in mid air.
– Enjoy your cheesecake, I said, laying twenty dollars on the table. And good luck.
I crossed the road and stopped on the pavement. I turned to see if James had watched me leave. He hadn’t. He was holding a fork-full of cheesecake in front of his nose and mouth again. The waiter and the blonde were nowhere in sight. James was the only patron sitting outside. People walked by him on the pavement looking quizzically at this wingless eagle as he enjoyed the moment. I turned to walk away and stopped again. When I turned around he was gone. I saw the waiter run out of the cafe looking up and down the pavement. He called out to the blonde woman. They both stood on the pavement looking up and down.
Some call it The Espy of the North but it’s unfair to position The Retreat below the mighty Esplanade Hotel in St Kilda, or even compare the two. The Retreat has its own sense of greatness and a long history of watering punters since Miss Amelia Shaw first opened the doors in 1842*. I’ve been going to The Retreat off and on for about nine years now and, even so, I’ve always had a love/hate relationship with this Brunswick institution.
Now, I wouldn’t say I’m a hardcore regular at The Retreat and I’m not on a first name basis with the staff but I do consider it to be one of my locals. One of many locals I frequent in Brunswick, including The Sporting Club and Bridie O’Reilly’s for the $10 lunch specials (the beef and Guinness stew is excellent). When I do go to The Retreat, I always sit in the front bar, tucked up on a high stool opposite the beer taps and I’m not comfortable sitting anywhere else in the building.
The front bar of any pub is the heart soul of the building, the no bullshit first point of contact that rejects pretentious menus; settling for the good old fashioned pub fare of beer and urine soaked peanuts. I am not a fan of beer gardens because I go to the pub to soak up the ambience of real, old school pub culture and the front bar fulfills this quasi-religious need. There is something wonderful about being in a front bar at 3pm with a good mate, three pints down, euphoric and unaware of all the bad shit transpiring in the disappointment of reality.
The front bar at The Retreat is a thing of wonder. Of all the pubs I’ve dragged my drink-soaked body through, this front bar has the most hectic décor I’ve ever seen. It incorporates a mélange of themes from Rock-a-Billy to that particularly Melbourne sense of ironic retro kitsch. Anybody who’s lived in the inner suburbs of Melbourne knows what I mean by this; doilies on the wall, op shop paintings of horses, sagging brown couches and one of those nodding Chinese cats near the cash register.
The Retreat’s front bar is a shrine to eclecticism, a museum of stubbie holders and slogans, band posters and other random paraphernalia. The carpet is drenched with the footprints of a million punters in a thousand different states of mind. It’s like somebody has collected all their experiences of life and thrown them into one room and then fired a few rounds of hedonistic wear and tear into the rapidly fading wallpaper. Sometimes we find comfort in chaos. The moment I walked in there, years ago, my heart told me I was home. If you haven’t been, drop everything and go now.
So, while I’m at home with the physical ambience of The Retreat I do have problems with some of the attitudes it embraces. In a nut shell, The Retreat reminds me of a mate of mine from school who only listened to obscure bands because they were obscure bands and he thought that made him cool. Some of you may remember a subculture in the early nineties that was obsessed with rejecting anything that they called ‘mainstream’. To those people, being mainstream was all about liking blockbuster films, listening to top 40 music, wearing high street fashions and loving the sitcom Friends. Instead, they embraced more indie music, converse trainers, acid, pills, smack and the films of Hal Hartley. The Retreat seems to embody much of this counter culture ethos yet still charges $18.40 for a jug of Carlton Draught.
I can’t be too judgmental about this ethos because I was a bit like that myself. I was at a subcultures book launch a couple of years ago and the keynote speaker was John Safran and he talked about subcultures and how those involved in a subculture are obsessed with authenticity. Safran then went onto say that as you get older this desire for subcultural authenticity diminishes as you become more confident in your own identity and you begin to reject much of the subcultural accoutrements you once held so dear. The Retreat has never grown up even though its prices have, and when I’m in the front bar I feel like I’ve been transported back in time to an era of more hair, rancid leather jackets and the smell of mid-morning bongs in a share-house in Collingwood.
As you can see, I’m rather torn when it comes to my relationship with The Retreat because while the pretentious factor bothers me I still like going there but never after 7pm. And that’s the next thing, The Retreat undergoes a massive transformation after 7pm. Up until that point, it’s local people just enjoying their beverage of choice but after 7pm the building is invaded by suburbia, particularly from Thursday to Saturday. By around 10pm, you have to queue to get in and after the bands finish the dining room turns into a sordid denizen of mainstream music and classic songs that everyone can dance to. I was once subjected to a medley of ABBA songs. Basically, The Retreat’s counter cultural soul is sucked out of the building not to return until it re-opens at noon the next day.
Some people may argue with the above and say, “Callum, you’re just a pretentious old fucker who hates the kids”. This is not true and if you don’t believe me spend an afternoon and evening there and see for yourself. The Retreat has two distinct personalities that are completely at odds with each other. It’s an anti-mainstream pub that only welcomes the mainstream after dark. Again, this reminds me of my mate who loved obscure music because years later I found out that he secretly listened to Boyz II Men under the covers of his bed on an old tape recorder. His sister told me this in confidence.
So, behind every subcultural aficionado there beats the heart of a minor mainstream devotee. I don’t care what people like unless they’re trying to foist it upon me and then I will react with extreme prejudice. But what I do care about is an extended happy hour, which The Retreat doesn’t seem to have. I was walking past the Brunswick Hotel the other day and they were doing jugs of Boags for $10 all day but it’s the Brunswick Hotel and all the value in the world won’t drag me in there. I suppose this is the trade-off (to be explained in next month’s blog).
As long as I live in Melbourne, I’ll always go to The Retreat because I genuinely like it and Sydney Road, Brunswick wouldn’t be the same without it. However, I will always regard it as my pretentious friend who swears by indie music but furtively listens to Boyz II Men under the covers and, for some reason, this makes everything okay because it balances things out.
* When the pub first opened in 1842 it was called The Retreat Inn but was rebuilt in 1892 and then became The Retreat Hotel.