Mr Brown Goes Out
It was a fella at work gave Joe the name and an address in Kings Cross. “Ask for Mick.” Joe planned on something for their anniversary. He wasn’t good with dates. Never had been. He often forgot her birthday, so Thelma had to remind him but this being their tenth wedding anniversary she’d been dropping hints for days.
He’d exchanged his overalls for his one and only suit and was on a tram heading up to the Cross. Not that he wasn’t wary of anything black market. He’d had his fingers burnt once before when a bottle of sly grog turned out more metho than gin and by then the bloke had scarpered with his dough. But Joe sensed this Mick character was on the level, so it was worth a try and what with a War there wasn’t much choice on his wages. He was after a bottle of gin and maybe some sweet sherry, Thelma’s favourite.
Most of his friends were in the army fighting overseas, but he’d been knocked back. Poor eyesight they told him, even though he said he was fine with glasses and they said, “Yeah, but you got to be able to see to shoot straight. Besides what if they break?” At school he’d been called Bottles for bottle glasses.
He knew others who’d been knocked back. One mate lost his leg as a sixteen-year-old, running for a tram in Pitt Street. A car came up behind him and took it clean off below the knee. He’d had a wooden leg ever since. Like a skinny wine barrel strapped to the stump. But it hadn’t stopped him fronting up, boasting he could march and swim with the best of them. Ride a bike too if he had to, but the sergeant shook his head and said, “And who’ll piggy-back you out the jungle if you slip and break it?”
Now they both worked in the same place making airplane parts. Before the War the factory-made fridges then the machines were converted and now you couldn’t buy a fridge if you tried.
Okay so it wasn’t like the Blitz in London, but they still had air-raid sirens and Sydney had its own brown out with all neon signs off, only soft pools of light falling from street lights and otherwise everything else dark, supposed to keep the city safe from the Japs - if they landed. And no street signs for ten miles inland to make it harder. That’s assuming the buggers could read English. Buildings all had their blinds and blackout paper and houses, heavy curtains. Black caps covered car lights and instrument panels were dimmed.
All this half-light gave the Cross an eerie feel like some huge stage set or scene from a movie where everything was both strange and familiar. Like people were up to no good somehow. They went about their business still, hurrying wherever it was they were headed and if you saw a couple busy in a doorway you might wonder but turned away out of politeness and maybe next day there’d be a used condom on the ground as evidence. People lived for the moment and who could blame them? Here today, gone tomorrow, was the by-word. Maybe for good.
Tram destination panels were blinkered either side so you could only read it them if you stood in front, hoping to hell the driver saw you before he ran you down. Inside the carriage was dim too and he asked the trammy how she managed to give the right change every time. “Took a bit of getting used to,” she said, “pennies and florins being the same size but florins is heavier.”
Trams could cause chaos too. The government had to make do, patching and re-patching with whatever parts they could get, but things went wrong. There was the time the brakes on a Broadway tram failed and it screeched downhill, crashing into a stationary tram near Mountain Street and sixty people killed. The injured ended up in Prince Alfred Casualty.
The tram had reached Kings Cross now and he got off at the Hotel to make his way down Victoria Street looking for 145. It turned out to be a terrace like those either side but less grand. More “lived in”. Run down. He pressed the button but there was no answer at first then a voice said, “Yes?”
“My name’s Joe Brown. I’m looking for Mick.”
“Mick? What do you want him for?”
“I’m told he could have a package for me,” remembering what he’d been told to say.
“Upper floor, No 8, room at the back.”
Years of cooked onions and old cabbage assailed his nostrils as he groped his way up the dark staircase, a single globe hanging from the ceiling was all between him and tripping. Mick stood in the doorway of a room with bed, armchair and table, triangular basin squeezed into one corner and an old dresser, paint peeling in layers of white and green.
“I was thinking gin, and a bottle of sweet sherry maybe??”
“I can’t promise anything. It’ll be whatever I get. And it’ll cost you.”
“I don’t mind. Within reason. See what you can do. It’s for the missus. Our tenth anniversary.”
“I don’t have anything here. Come back in an hour. And you can’t wait here.”
“But it’s gone six. The pubs’ll be closed. What’ll I do?”
“Get yourself a coffee at the Hasty Tasty. Up the top of the road.”
The door shut behind him and he made his way downstairs, hand firm on the bannisters. Since it was Friday, the streets were already busy with more people about. Men in uniform. Some women too. Others flashily dressed, ready to party. Kings Cross was no theatre of war but it carried its own sense of danger. Most of the toffs had fled their fancy apartments for the Blue Mountains leaving those who’d moved in at bargain rates, ready to party.
He bought a Mirror from the paper boy on the corner and crossed the road to the Hasty Tasty. Slipping into an empty booth, he reminded himself the coffee would be essence, chicory based, tasting nothing like the coffee he knew.
“What’ll it be?” The waitress sounded tired already as if at the end of her shift not the start.
“Coffee. White. No sugar. The wife made me give it up. To save coupons.”
“Good for her. Be back in a jiff.”
He opened the paper for the hour’s wait, but since no one was eyeing his
table, he relaxed. He read the news, scanned the sporting pages, then borrowed a pencil from the waitress for the crossword.
When the hour was up he paid and left, returning the pencil with a wink and a “Thanks, love,” keen to see what Mick had got for him.
He beamed. “Gin and sherry! I can’t wait for Thelma’s face.”
“You owe me twelve quid.”
“Take it or leave it. There’s plenty of others keen enough.”
“No. It’s alright. Just more than I was expecting.”
He held the brown paper bag close to his chest as he headed for the tram.
You’ve done yourself proud Joe Brown. It’ll leave you short for the week, but it’ll be worth it.
It was suddenly much cooler. A sharp wind had set in and he pulled up the collar of his austerity suit against it.
Later, inside the Hasty Tasty, a constable was interviewing the waitress. She’d been crying and the manager had told her to take the rest of the night off.
“I’d gone out for a cigarette. A five-minute break since we weren’t busy. That’s when I saw him. He’d been in for a coffee earlier and I was thinking, Nice man. Gentlemanly. Not like some round here. Then he suddenly stepped off the kerb and the car hit him. He had this dark suit on, and the driver probably didn’t see him. It all happened so fast, but the funny thing was, as he fell, he looked like he was trying to save what was in the paper bag.”
Thelma placed the plate on the saucepan. I’m off to bed. I thought this time, maybe. But he’s forgotten again, and I’ll bet he’s been at the pub and now he’s shickered. But he won’t have forgotten his tea.
© Vashti Farrer