Author's Note: Not mine … apart from Bob's mates, alas.
For the utterly wonderful Clive Carter and the awesome Tony Sheldon,
two of the loveliest "real gentlemen" it has ever been my pleasure to meet.
A Step in the Right Direction
"It's got my NAME on it!"
Les is falling-in-the-road drunk and growing louder and more obnoxious by the second; the other two stand confused and swaying slightly, unsure of what the hell he means. Neon lights reflected in puddles of scummy water blink weirdly up from the gutter, pink-blue-red, pink-blue-red, sort of hypnotic.
Bob raises his eyes with some difficulty and, squinting, focuses on the image of a woman in a huge feathered hat thing - headdress, that's the word - flashing on and off above the entrance to what looks like a nightclub.
"My bloody name, yeah!" Les is still yelling happily, pointing unsteadily in the vague direction of the neon woman. "My name, an' it says GIRLS, so that, boys, is where we're going!"
"Ah, y'know, I think - " Bob begins, but nobody's listening. So with a mild shrug he follows them across the street and into the club.
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It's a bit like being eaten by a sea monster, or a whale, Bob thinks, like that Jonah bloke. Like walking down the pink throat of something that's just swallowed you whole.
Pink everywhere. And an awful lot of leopard-print, too. It's enough to make him narrow his eyes a little, as though too much pink is bad for your eyesight. But it's nice and warm in here, and there's music coming from the main room of the club, somewhere up ahead; and so he keeps walking, hands in pockets, mooching along behind the others. They've gone a bit quiet, he notices, wondering if all the pink has finally succeeded where Bob himself failed. And then they turn a corner and emerge into the little auditorium.
Les whistles softly. Jimbo stands with his mouth hanging gormlessly open. Bob finds himself unaccountably grinning from ear to ear. He shakes his head in amazement, murmuring, "Far out. Oh wow … faaaaar out!"
They're shown to a table by an insanely glamorous (and intimidatingly tall) woman who seems to be dressed entirely in pink frills and lots of feathers; and when none of the others notice the way she looks at them - a kind of "boy are YOU in the wrong bar!" kind of look - Bob puts it down to his overactive imagination and thinks no more about it. Except that there's something not quite …
Something he can't quite put his finger on …
It's on the tip of his tongue …
But then the lights go down, the music starts, and Bob simply lets the nagging little worry slip away into candle-lit darkness.
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Les and Jimbo, scowling, barge through the crowd of late-night revellers as though they have something to prove. Bob practically has to run in order to keep up; and he can feel his temper rising, which isn't like him at all.
"Bloody hell," Jimbo mutters for the hundred-and-fifty-seventh time. "Bloody blokes in bloody dresses, Les, I mean! Stone the flamin' crows, what were you thinking?"
"I didn't damn well know, all right?" snarls Les, going scarlet in the face and wheeling to face the other two. "And I wasn't about to stand up in the middle of it and let all those … all those … let them know we were there, was I? Bloody bunch of bloody poofters - !"
Bob sighs to himself. Fists deep in pockets, he hunches his shoulders against Les's tirade as though against a physical blow, and tries not to get involved any more than he already is. Truth is, he found the whole thing hilarious. The looks on their faces when the dancers came near enough for them to finally work out exactly what was so different about that place … oh, it had been priceless. Bob's own awkwardness had lasted right up until the headline act had appeared, spot-lit, at the top of a flight of stairs, and making her (his? her?) way slinkily into the audience had proceeded to sing parts of the number directly at him, all the time with a knowing glint in her (his?) eye; at which point, he'd simply sat there open-mouthed and awestruck. And from that moment on, he'd loved every single second of it.
Jimbo and Les are still acting like the worst kind of macho morons, so Bob decides to cut his losses and head back to the hotel, if he can remember where the hell it is. It's his first time in Sydney; his last, maybe, depending on how things go out in 'Nam ...
Shaking his head to rid himself of that particular unwelcome thought, he glances back at his mates, manages to catch Les's eye, and mouths, I'm heading back, see ya later. And he turns before Les has a chance to argue, winding through the crowd back toward the main road - what are all these people doing out in the street this late? - looks up to see if he can spot a signpost, and crashes hard into someone coming the other way. He feels the side of his shoe scrape hard down the other's leg and then the awful crunch of his foot on theirs, and he tries to stop himself putting his full weight down, throwing himself off-balance.
He catches a glimpse of a young man, slightly taller than him but much skinnier, a mop of fair hair framing an ordinaryish face that would probably be quite pleasant were it not twisted with pain; and then gravity takes over and they both hit the ground in a heap.
Bob recovers first, scrambling to his feet and offering a hand to his victim, stammering apologies and feeling like the biggest idiot on the planet. The other man looks at the proffered hand in disgust but takes it eventually, pulling himself unsteadily upright. A pair of large, intense blue eyes, blazing with fury, transfix Bob to the spot, and for a second he fears the other will thump him.
Automatically, Bob ducks. "Hey, whoa, mate - I'm sorry, I didn't mean - " He takes a step backwards, recognising something in those eyes - softer now, but still simmering - that makes him feel a need to tread carefully.
His friend's uncle had a dog, when they were kids, a sort of half-breed dingo thing he kept for fighting, and the boys would spend hours dreaming up elaborate plans to set it free, because they hated seeing it caged and miserable. But whenever it came to it, they always chickened out. They pitied it, sure, but they feared it more. It was the way it looked at them - it would go for their throats, given half a chance, and they knew it - but not because it was a killer.
Because it was terrified.
It would attack simply because of the things it would suffer, otherwise.
Bob holds up both hands in mock surrender. "I'm sorry," he tries again, "I'm a clumsy great … are you okay?"
The fair-haired young man doesn't reply; he reaches down to give his left ankle an experimental prod and winces a bit. Then he tries to put all his weight on that leg, lets out a sharp gasp and a hiss of pain, and stumbles. Bob automatically reaches out to steady him; the other snatches his arm away as though burned.
"Oh, yes, I'm fine," he says then, in a voice dripping with sarcasm. Bob cringes.
"Look, I'm really - "
"Still," the young man interrupts, "one leg in good working order, I shouldn't complain, should I? It's lucky I don't have to dance for my living, or this would be really inconvenient … "
"Well, yeah, look on the bright side, that's what I always - " Bob begins hopefully, before realising a few seconds too late that his new acquaintance means the exact opposite of what he just said.
"Aww … shit," Bob mutters. He stares at his feet for a few seconds, fervently wishing for the ground to open up and swallow him; but when no such convenient disaster is forthcoming, he looks back up again, takes a deep breath and says, stupidly, "Hospital?"
"I beg your pardon?" One eyebrow raised, the fair-haired man's expression has changed from murderous to withering. Bob isn't so sure it's an improvement. In fact, given the choice, he would probably choose murderous. "Uh ... sorry, I meant ... d'you want me to get you a cab? To the hospital, or ... ?" Not actually having an 'or' in mind, Bob's voice trails off. The young man blinks in surprise, then shakes his head. "No ... that's all right. I'll just go home, strap it up ... the delights of the doctor's surgery can wait until tomorrow." He gives a small snort of what might be sarcastic laughter. The expression changes further; withering becomes almost wistful.
"But the dancing thing - " Bob blurts, without thinking.
"It'll probably be fine. I'll just have to ... you know, give it a go, see what happens."
It reminds Bob of something his old man always used to say, whenever Bob decided something was too hard before he'd even tried. He gives a little shrug and quotes, "You'll never know unless you give it a go!" His new sort-of-friend pulls a face, but laughs; this time, without the sarcasm. It feels like some kind of breakthrough and Bob relaxes a bit.
"Okay, well, if you're sure ... I'm getting you a cab, though, it's the least I can do."
"I'm sure." There's a brief pause; and then, reluctantly, "Thank you."
It's Bob's turn to snort. "Don't thank me, for crying out loud! I'm the great lump that messed up your leg in the first place!" Stepping to the kerb, he spots a cab with its light on, and all but jumps out in its path to make damn sure it stops.
"By accident," the young man says, sternly, when Bob returns to his side. "And you've offered to help, and you've had the decency to apologise ... that's a lot more than most people would - anyway. Never mind. But thank you." He allows Bob to take his arm and help him hop awkwardly to the door of the cab; and then he turns, abruptly holding out his hand. "By the way," he adds, as they shake, "what's your name?"
"Bob," says Bob, "How 'bout you?"
The most extraordinary expression crosses the fair-haired man's face, but so quickly that Bob thinks afterwards that he must have imagined it.
"I'm Ralph," the young man replies, smiling. "It's been a pleasure to meet you, Bob."
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