Theme Parks and Obstacle Courses – A Novel

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3.

Melbourne congealed on the horizon; a vast grey monolith slumped beneath an iron-grey sky. The vista filtered through a windscreen that teemed with rain. Johnny drove from the exit of the freeway along Flemington Road, through the roundabout at the top of Elizabeth Street and down past the Queen Victoria Market. Pat’s nostalgia came on like a reflex.

“What’re you doing for a crust these days?” asked Pat, scratching at the piping that edged his seat.

“Same as before, but now I’m down in Melbourne exclusively. Me and Steven live down here now.”

“What did you do with the other hotels?”

“Sold ‘em. It’s too much worry for an old man.” Rain was swept along the chrome window gutter by the slipstream of wind.

“Do you still have nude day?” asked Pat.

“Had to scrap it. You’ll see why.” Pat watched the raindrops smear and flare, tainted by dust as they turned to mud.

The car came to idle like a cantankerous bull at the lights of the Elizabeth and Collins Street intersection. Pedestrians swarmed, heads down against the drizzle whose momentum was gathering into rain. The lights changed and the car returned to speed again, its voice a heavy, demonic growl in the exhaust.

“How much does this cost you in petrol?” By way of reply Johnny opened his hand on the steering wheel and closed it again, as if dropping his concern into the foot-well.

 **

He turned the car right into Russell Street and then suddenly in a tight arc around a corner and into a one-way street, hugging the kerb to avoid the standing lane of traffic. He then turned again into another alley. Johnny drove to the right angle at the end, popped the big car into reverse, then forward again so as to incrementally turn the corner.

He reversed into a shallow alcove, barely wide enough for the doors to open. Johnny pulled on the handbrake and switched off the motor. He reached over Pat’s lap to open the glove compartment. He dropped a disabled tag into Pat’s lap.

“Disabled, Johnny?”

“I used to resent it,” he replied, “But they’ll still ticket me, the bastards, until I get a commercial permit.” Pat slotted the permit onto the suction cup on the windscreen above the registration sticker.

Johnny was so skinny he could have walked sideways through the crack in a refrigerator door but Pat was bigger at one hundred kilos and six-foot-four. He held the door so as not to mark it against the wall of the alcove and squeezed through the gap, hooking his gladstone bag up out of the footwell last of all.

“Check this out,” said Johnny, and they walked along the walls of the alley formed by buildings that rose like a featureless concrete canyon on either side.

A red, sliding steel door stood open in the blank concrete wall. The two details that distinguished it from the delivery entrances of the restaurants and businesses that faced out onto Flinder’s Lane were a large angel that spread her embrace over the door like the maidenhead on a ship, and a red and black panel just below her that presumably bore the name of the establishment: The Re:Public.

“Republic, Johnny?” asked Pat.

“And I’m the fuckin’ prime minister! Ha ha!” And with a kick of his long, skinny legs, Johnny leapt through the door.

 **

The room was dark; low-lit by a series of ovoid, low-hanging lamps that hung from the raw beams of the roof. The floor was carpeted in dark red and because the place was empty, it was haunted by the poisonous aroma of stale cigarettes and spilled booze. The air was filled with the whine of a steam cleaner, hard at work at the far end of the long room which tapered down to a dance floor. Against that wall was a stage.

Johnny waved his arms like a muppet to get the cleaner to turn off his machine. Pat’s eyes followed the line of the bar, glowing red from the lighting underneath, along the glass shelves that carried expensive spirits. The bottles were lit by their own down lights. Above them was the beer list, chalked on the side of a beam. With the exception of Victoria Bitter and Crown Lager, everything was imported.

And propped at the near end of the bar, fingers clamped around a Marlboro burned down to a drooping cylinder of ash, stood Wally Kleiber. The carpet cleaner shut off and Wally looked up.

“Thank fuckin’ Christ,” said Johnny.

“Paddy! How are ya!” When Wally moved, the ash on his cigarette broke. He suddenly remembered it and stopped, dropping the butt in the ash tray. He came forward, arms open, to reach up and embrace him. Pat bent down and hugged him back.

“I’m great, Wally,” he said. Wally’s reception resolved the ambivalence he’d carried since the airport.

“You’re back!” said Wally, releasing him.

“I am.”

“For good?”

“I reckon so.”

“Where are you staying?”

“I just got here. From the airport.”

“Have you got somewhere to stay?”

“Yeah, I…”

“You told me you were sleeping on someone’s couch,” said Johnny.

“Bullshit you are,” Wally said. “You can stay next door.”

“Upstairs?” asked Pat, turning to Johnny.

“You haven’t told him?” Wally asked.

“Not yet,” said Johnny, his grin spreading wider.

“Fuck!” he took Pat by the elbow. “Come this way!”

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