Billy sat on a small bench of brick that stretched the perimeter of a group of small ferns and ate. The kebab was dry and tasteless, and the heat of the day shone down unrelenting. He watched a man sleeping on the concrete. Curled in a ball with his arm under his head, cradling a paper bag like a sleeping child with their favourite toy. As if at any moment the rightful parent would appear and scoop him up off the ground with a tenderness born from this witness of sleeping innocence, to carry him away to that awaiting bed. Billy felt the sweat swelling under his arms and loosened his tie. The sleeping man did not move. Baking in the sun among the stars that glittered in the concrete, in the microfibres of sand and gravel sealed within, the man had found his peace. Billy looked down at the remaining crescent of food. He looked at it a long time. Then he stood up and grabbed his blazer from the brick bench and walked up the road, tossing what remained in the nearby bin.
The pub was dark despite the sun shining through the street facing windows. The air was thick with the stench of stale beer. Portraits of famous faces from some unknown era hung from the walls, with small illegible signatures and thank-yous drawn shakily at the corners of the frame. There was a stage at the far end of the room and a large red curtain hung there from the roof like some enormous blood-soaked rag. Billy ordered a pint of beer from a bartender who simply nodded without a word. He handed Billy the beer. Billy nodded silently in return and went and sat in the corner by the window. When he looked back at the bar the bartender had vanished, as if he was sent only to fulfil that destiny and pass on. An old man sat by the entrance reading the paper and drinking a beer, his face a gnarled radish. Billy watched the people come and go – unrecognisable spectres drifting through the room.
He looked out the window and up the road until it vanished from his sight. Trees of eucalyptus, cedar and jacaranda lined the streets. They grew no higher than the hands of humankind would allow and stood by like shrunken sentinels at the end of a fading lineage, fearless in the face of the buildings that towered overhead. For Billy, the city had always seemed like such a bastion of hope. Of change. And sitting in the yard under the bowing jacaranda years ago, the brothers had conjured that fabled city before them like a shimmering mirage on some ancient desert highway. Shining in welcome, it beckoned to them and whispered false promises and plans and plotted with the raging spirit that rallied against the cages in their chests. Whispers of a better life. Then their mother had died. And as they had sat in silence beneath the old jacaranda, they watched their father drink whiskey through the window in the fading light of day until he disappeared with the coming night. Billy left for the city the following year. His brother stayed behind. That was the last time they spoke.
A stray cloud moved out from behind one of the buildings and then disappeared behind another and then all was blue and empty sky as if the cloud had never been there at all. Billy stood silently at the bar. The young bartender who had just clocked onto his shift looked around while pouring the beer.
“Drinking beer on a day like this. Nothing better,” said the bartender, “and shots of whiskey are six with every beer. A boilermaker, y’know?”
“Yeah okay. I’ll get a whiskey. Thanks.”
“No worries. You on your lunch break?”
The bartender turned around, talking to the backbar as if it were Billy still standing in front of him. “Or are you off early? Man, what I would give for that,” he laughed.
“Something like that,” said Billy with a forced smile. The bartender laughed loudly.
“Well, this’ll top it off all right. All you need is a couple of the boys and a stereo down at the beach, and you’d be set.” “Yeah.”
They stood in silence. Billy fumbled around his pockets for his wallet. The bartender shifted from side to side and looked around the bar.
“Man, what a day,” said the bartender. Billy pulled out his credit card and tapped the reader.
“Yeah,” he said.
The bartender opened his mouth as if to say something, then smiled and turned his back and began polishing a glass. Billy shot back the whiskey and then sipped from his beer, licking the foam from his upper lip. He looked into the beer, as if the foam could provide some impossible truth like a mystic reading the dregs in a cup of tea. Then he too turned around and headed back to his seat in the corner.
Behind the buildings, the sun was a glowing yellow tear rolling down the face of the sky. Billy looked at the empty glasses in front of him. Like waiting pieces of an unfinished chess game; a game never to be won or lost. His father had taught him how to play, and he had taught his brother. But his brother was too headstrong, too offensive. Billy would let him win occasionally if only to see him smile, to see him happy. But he always knew how that game would go after the first few moves. He was always more strategic, pinning down the future on a corkboard that stretched across his mind as if he had power over all things, over all the moving parts. But he didn’t. Nobody does. Maybe that’s why his brother had stayed behind, knowing the impermanence of it all. Maybe that’s why his brother did what he did. Knowing the impermanence of it all.
The bar had begun to fill, and people sat in groups and in pairs around him at the different tables. The old man with the radish face was gone. Billy looked at his phone and all those missed calls. He turned it off and placed it face down on the table. He watched the young bartender talking to the manager in the stairwell behind the bar. They kept glancing in his direction. Billy drank from his beer and looked around the room at everything and nothing all the same while the soft din of the bar continued to pulse. Like the sea, the room seemed to swell and subside. The rhythmic beating of the cocktail shaker stretched and elongated like a distant drum of hooves moving the march forever on. Cars went by the window in a stream like meteorites in space, flashing past in the growing twilight on that road with no beginning or end. As if the universe were encapsulated there in the tarmac. Endless.
The young bartender started collecting the pile of glasses from the table and nodded at Billy. Billy nodded back and drank from his beer as if to finish it. The bartender could feel Billy’s gaze upon him and kept his eyes to the floor.
“You know my brother would’ve been about your age,” Billy said. The bartender looked at the near-empty glass then looked away. “How old are you?”
“I’m twenty next month.”
“Yeah. Twenty is right.” Billy finished the beer and placed the glass on the table. “Twenty is right.”
“My manager told me what happened,” said the bartender. Billy didn’t say anything. The bartender caught his stare and then looked at the floor. When he looked back up Billy was still staring. “I’m sorry,” said the bartender. He grabbed the final glass and left with the glasses piled against his arm.
Billy waited in line at the bar. He was teetering like a puppet gone slack, some distant marionette trying desperately to keep the strings taught. He belched, and the people in front of him looked back in disgust. He simply shrugged and looked past them. He no longer saw the distinct lines of reality, looking at a world so hazy and blurred and simple – the sleeping man’s world, so content on that hot concrete. The world Billy wished to stay in. And perhaps he would. He was dragged to the bar by that struggling marionette and stared at the young bartender once more. He looked at Billy.
“Sorry man, I’ll be one second,” the bartender said, putting up his index finger and glancing around the room. Then he turned and headed into the stairwell. The bottles of various spirits on the shelves behind the bar were lit by a dim orange light that shone beneath them like trophies in a cabinet. Some of the bottles were covered in dust, untouched. The same dust that had settled on his brothers trophies in that all too cherished cabinet of their empty home. On his medals. His pictures. On the last photo that was ever taken of them, standing arm in arm in front of that jacaranda tree, in full bloom. That tree now bare. Then the manager was standing in front of Billy and the trophies were nothing but old bottles of alcohol, the young bartender nowhere to be seen.
“I’ll get a beer and a whiskey,” said Billy, spluttering out the syllables. “I think you’ve had enough for tonight.”
“I’ll get a beer and a whiskey.”
“Come on mate, I can’t do that.”
“To hell you can’t. I’ll get a beer and a whiskey.”
“Are you really going to make this hard?”
“You know what’s hard, James? Losing your fucking brother. Now that’s hard. That’s the hardest damn thing you’d ever know. So please–” Billy slammed his fist on the bar. “– give me a god damn beer and whiskey.” The people lining behind him looked around uncomfortably. The pulse of the bar had all but stopped.
“Look Billy, again, I’m real sorry about what happened, but I can’t give you anything more to drink. How bout I give you a water and then we’ll see in halfa?”
“Come on Billy.”
“Fuck you,” Billy said again.
“Go home mate. Before I have to ban you.” Billy stared at the manager, his mouth agape, the stench of alcohol wafting out from between his open teeth, as if anger had made his breath more sour, more vile. The only sound in the bar was the music thumping from the speakers, as if it were the heart of all those who watched. As if the music could stop at any moment and all would fade to darkness.
“You son of a bitch,” said Billy. He turned around and headed for the door. The people behind him parted to let him through, like a man on his way to the gallows. They all watched him in silence. He stumbled out the door and the manager watched him as he passed each of the windows and turned the corner. From within the pub the shaking of ice began to thump in the cocktail tins and that undecipherable chant of voices begun again and echoed out into the night. His blazer and phone were left on the table he had sat upon. Nobody touched them. Not even the manager. As if the items were evidence to some terrible crime.
Billy lurched down the street, walking in the middle of the road, his fists clenched, swearing. A car appeared at the end of the street, its headlights bright in the dark. Billy didn’t move. The car beeped its horn and swerved around him. He turned around and stuck his middle fingers up and kept them up and then raised them towards the sky, walking backwards up the road. A message to that winking firmament. To that indifferent universe. He tried to turn around but the strings of that marionette were tangled and caught up amongst themselves. He fell down heavy upon the road. He rolled over and looked up at the sky so dark and unfathomable, stretching on and on without compromise. How gentle that night used to seem. How senseless it seemed now. A warmth was spreading through his hair and trickling down his cheek. He touched his face and his hand came away bloodied, shining crimson in the streetlight. His life glistening on his fingertips. Their bloodline now converged in a single stream. The past poured forth like a roll of film that flickered across the spool of time. And he watched it all. Up until the witness of that decaying branch on that bowing tree, the bark all scorched and maimed from the rope. And there it stopped.
He dragged himself to the curb and pressed his hand to his bleeding head. Small streams trickled through his fingertips and down into his sleeve. He watched the pool of blood that was left on the road slowly descend the bitumen, catching the fallen jacarandas and carrying them away as if they were unmoored boats in a rising tide. He watched those purple flowers slowly drift far down the road until a passing car swept them away upon the wind. And then he wept.