The idea was to write a story as Ivan the Barman might tell it. Which means: rather confined knowledge of the English language and thick Russian accent (which I dropped in a very early state, for accents are treacherous little buggers, only to handle if you´re really familiar with them). Later I thought that this decision could easily turn out as the most embarrassing mistake of my life. I was fretting for a while – until I found, on the bottom of a glass filled with a rather her-percentage liquid, a message of divine origin, and what it said was: No worries. The world won´t crumble because of that. So, feel free to laugh about it. :)
Personal note: Any sexist, racist or other -ist notes are due to the characters of the protagonists and do not mirror my own opinion.
Plus: It was Lacerta who rummaged through a ton of information to find out that "cool" is a word people already used in the Thirties. Sometimes you ask for a dime and get a charity ball. Thank you, amazing person! :)
Plusplus: Story refers to the events described in Cantero de Ti. Just in case you´re interested.
Barnum & Bailey: Famous (American) travelling menagerie, founded in eighteenhundredwhatever
Boong: Derogative term for Aboriginal People.
Boshe: Russian for God
Budgie: Aussie slang for budgerigar
Chelovyek (pl. Chelovyeky): Russian for man
Malchik: Russian for Boy
Nichevo: Russian for nothing; also in the meaning of What can you do?
Saltie: Aussie term for saltwater crocodile
Za vashe zdarovye: Russian for To your Health (wassail)
Music: Bobby Vee, The Night has a Thousand Eyes
One Finger Length
Now, guys. Move over and I will tell you a story. You will not go home before dusk anyway, right? Does not matter. Bed upstairs is cold, no one warming it for me. Had a missus once, met her on the passage from Russia. Said she wants better life. Said Russian man no good man. One day a peddler from Queensland came and up and away she was. Women, I tell you. All the same, all over the world.
But there is no good storytelling when your throat is dry like paper. Come on, my boy, pass me that bottle. What you mean? Malchik, you bought it on tick, until you get your next pay packet it is mine! – And a glass. Thanks, drongo.
So that story. You noticed that guy who has just left, right? Of course you did, hard to overlook, isn´t he? Big tall man, dark hair, muscles that can make his shirt explode if he is not careful with breathing. Well, that is the Drover. Must have had a real name once, I mean, everybody has, but no one remembers. Droving cattle, that is what he is doing, so it is what people call him. After all Drover is not a bad name, if you ask me. Could be worse. Know a guy who works in cattle insemnation, if you know what I mean.
This guy, you are lucky you meet him here. Until recently he hardly came to town, only when somebody had a job for him. Never had a like for the city – or the people around here. Calm guy, never too drunk, should actually like him. I say ,should‛, for once he is here he always draws trouble. Mostly with the Carney boys. It is not because he works for the wrong team or for his business with the boongs. Sure, that is all part of it, but I think the real reason is that he rides his own way and gives no bloody fuck for their opinion. And that has not changed – both, I mean, the dislike and the Drover – when he made team with the new owner of Faraway Downs, that Sarah Ashley. True lady, I tell you, other than missus. Woman like that can make a man change his life and become a better person. Too bad I did not meet her twenty years ago.
Come on, pour me another one. No, I am not my own best client, thank you. Guys, I am trying to talk here, so can I have a little attention, please? Yes, that means all of you. Where was I?
So this is how it works. That Carney bunch, they go for the Drover and I need to buy new furniture. Must be kind of group thing. Of course they know they can not put up with him – this man has a punch that folds you and sends you right home in an envelope, post-free – but they would never admit it. Men, what am I to tell you. So, always it is same: They start a fight, he kicks their asses and I charge him for the smashed chairs – you did not think I would charge the Carneys, didn´t you?
And there that other guy comes into story. Carney´s right hand and his future son-in-law, Neil Fletcher. You surely have noticed him. White hat, croc leather boots. No one else around here with such boots. It is boots for gents, not for working men. For those who are just passing through: until of late Mr. Fletcher was station manager on Faraway Downs, but they say he was already tampering with the books for Mr. Carney. When Sarah Ashley took the whole business over, he quit – or that is his version. Others say that when she found out he plays double-cross she sent him packing with riding-crop. I do not care for other people´s business, but when he returned he had this lash on his cheek, still bleeding, and from Faraway Downs to Darwin it is a two day car ride. And now let me say a word about Neil Fletcher. When you see him you will think he looks like nothing. Like guy who comes to town for big cattle deal and stays in Plaza Hotel up on Smith Street. Like, when you leave this pub and you are pissed, because I chalk up for you no more, and you look for somebody to push into next puddle, you might think it is good idea to pick him. Because you think you only have to take man serious who can knock out your teeth. But l tell you this: he will not forget it, never, and one day he will come for you. And before you even know what happens he bites where it hurts and drags you down. Like saltie. That is Neil Fletcher.
And now we come to the point. This man, Fletcher, he hates Lady Sarah like poison. I think he is secretly afraid of her – because that is why man hates women, right? And also Drover, because he works for her and stuff, so it is quite same, even though Drover has never done him wrong. Of course he did not challenge him in bar fight – no chance he could ever win – but he mocked him when he could get him anywhere, for Fletcher is good with words, he just does not want people to know it. And then one day it all changed.
Nobody knows what happened. Gossip says that Fletcher and some of Carney´s boys set out to cause the guys on Faraway Down a little trouble. Chasing cows away, poisoning water, what men of this kind do to have fun. Just that something goes wrong, because a few days later they are all back, all except their boss, and nobody comes out with anything. For a week or something Neil Fletcher is like dropped off the Earth. And the next thing is that one day the Drover comes riding out of the bush and Neil Fletcher is with him, tame like baby lamb. And they go to Captain Dutton and Drover says it was Carney who ordered that raid on Faraway Downs. And Fletcher confirms it like a good boy – I would swear black and blue you need thumbscrews to make this bastard confirm anything! – and Carney has a hell of a bad time to fix things and keep all the bloody crap out of public.
But that is not what I wanted to tell you, guys. What I want to tell you is, that since that day something is different between these two. It is not a kind of mate thing, more under the surface. Subtle. Like, when they meet in a doorway and they do not even say hello, but squeeze past each other so close everybody else would take it as insult. Or when Fletcher sits on the porch of Carney´s office and the Drover passes by, and then the man gets up and slouches behind him, as if he got a call he can not refuse.
And suddenly Fletcher hangs around here all the time, just like Drover. Before that day he never came in; was not good enough for Mr. Soon-to-be Cattle King, my bar. And now he drops in three times a day, always with a good reason: Got a pie left, Ivan? Still got that Russian vodka, Ivan? The key for that shed behind the pub, where you store your whiskey crates, can I borrow it for an hour, Ivan? And then he disappears into that shack and one minute later the Drover sneaks behind him when he thinks nobody sees – I will be damned if I know what is so secret they have to talk about it in there.
What is it? Boring? Who says? Yes, I know it was you, malchik, thank you, and you still owe me eight pounds fifty. And now listen and tell me it is boring: maybe one week ago the Drover is here and again he has this little quarrel with some of Carney´s blokes. This time they do not fight – maybe the King has told them to be careful after the Faraway Downs disaster – so they have this little game running. You know, pub competition: I can booze harder, I can do longer, I have bigger gun. It is always harder, longer, bigger. Chelovyek games. Nichevo.
And see, chance brings it that Drover is just back from a cattle drove, and he still got this stock whip with him. You know these whips, guys, better than I do. Dangerous stuff, know a man who lost his eye when got hit by accident, and this special one is no exception. He is a tall man, the Drover, and tall men need long whips. Or this is what they believe, personally I think it is all part of the chelovyek game. As missus used to say: it is not about what you have, but about what you are doing with it. Should have listened to her when she was still around. You think this is funny? Ah, what do you know. By the way, have not seen your lady for a while. What was her name? Sarah? Sally? No no, come on, there is no need to get angry. Women, like leaves in wind, I tell you. Sit down boy, sit.
Anyway. It is early afternoon and there is not many people in the bar, which means lot of space. And the Drover takes his chance, he lets the whip swirl and makes it crack and swipe off somebody´s hat. And Mr. Fletcher, he is there that day, too. He does not give a cow´s arse for this little show the Drover pulls off, he does not even look in his direction. Just stands at the counter with a glass of rum and rolls himself a cigarette.
When I think back now, I wonder if they did not plan this from the start, Drover and Fletcher. But then again, nobody could know the Carney guys would start that game, right? So, Fletcher, when he has finished his cigarette he lights it and takes a drag. Now that cigarette, it looks not different from any other self-rolled. A bit crumpled, maybe, and about as long as a man´s little finger. You can see that because Fletcher holds it between pointer and middle finger, maybe two hand widths from his face – like that.
And now look. The Drover, when he sees it he makes this tiny gesture, and I would never say he gave the man a hint – let alone an order – but Fletcher puts the cigarette back into his mouth. And then he takes off his hat and puts it on the counter, like a man who has just come in and makes himself at home. Today I think he did it because the brim shaded his face, but that was not what it looked like. What it looked like was cool.
Now keep an eye on the cigarette. That cigarette that is hardly as long as a finger. A little finger, mind you. And keep an eye on Neil Fletcher who leans at the counter and takes one more drag. The way someone smokes can tell you a lot about him and I have seen Fletcher´s stubs, they are all littered with teeth impressions. This man´s tension is in his jaw, like other people´s is in their shoulders or anywhere else. Bet he gnashes in sleep – you know, everybody has his limit, and when he is full the tension must go somewhere. But this time, no tension at all. He holds the cigarette between his lips, so offhand a kid could swipe it away with one brush.
And then the whip cracks – you knew it, did you? – and there is no more cigarette. And with ‛no more‛ I mean you could not even see it fly. One second it was there and the other it was gone, like the Drover had spirited it away.
Look at the Carney men now. They are tough guys, no question. They piss whiskey and wipe their asses with barbed wire, and most of them know how to work with stock whip. But this whiplash, it was inside a room and it was really, really loud. And there is difference between wielding a whip and hitting something so small, shorter than finger length. What I am trying to tell you is this: nobody shouts, nobody says "Crikey" or what you folks say when you do not want to show how hard it hit you – Do not look at me like that. You can not run a goddamn bar for years and not know how men´s brain works – they are all quiet. But there is many sorts of silence and this is a miserable silence, the one you get when a bunch of blokes watches another bloke being kicked in the balls. You know, when it makes them think for a while, because it could have been them.
Finally that cigarette was found – in a water pitcher, behind the counter. But most guys did not even want to stay until that. They are not the brightest bunch of budgies, but even most stupid drongo must have felt it was time to go. Later I heard that since that day Drover had almost no more problems with Carney´s posse.
So what about Fletcher, you ask me? I can see you are dying to know. Come on, spoilsports, ask me! Did he faint, did he wet his pants, must Carney buy him a new face? Nichevo! Do you think he had even twitched, that dirty bastard? My ass! Cold like copperhead snake, as if the Drover would have him do this every day after breakfast. Just waits for a while, until dust has settled one could say, empties his glass, puts on his hat again and struts out.
And you know what is funny? Meanwhile it is not only the Drover they talk about. There are bets running that the game was rigged, that there was an agreement between Drover and Mr. Fletcher. And maybe it was, but I wonder how they think they will find out. Fact is, there was something special about them. I could feel it, you had felt it, even if they did not even look at each other. I for myself do not think they had a conscious arrangement, and do you want to know why? Because they did not need. Because it all happened by itself, like they were under a spell. Tamer and lion, just that it was not all clear which one gave the commands.
We will never know but I tell you this: if there was ever two people on this goddamn planet who shared a secret, it was these. And now I ask you: what are these blokes doing together? Practising for Barnum & Bailey?
There is one more thing. See, when the Drover left, not long after Neil Fletcher, guys, if I did not know it better I would say the man was carrying a super-size six-gun in his pants. Yes, I know how it sounds. And I will deny I ever said that.
This is a strange country with strange people. Back in Russia, things were in order. Not better, but in order. Here, things change every day. Take this Sarah Ashley, for example. Comes here, droves cattle like chelovyek, turns everything upside down. Crazy woman, never seen one like her. Boshe, if only I was twenty years younger.
Come on, give me another one. The night is young, and my bed will not get warmer. Za vashe zdarovye, guys