The Queen's Head
The air smells like burnt toast. Ashes swirl like snow and settle on the shoulders of my coat. I brush at the ash and light a cigarette with the Zippo from my pocket. There is a stuttering crash, and the murmur of the crowd on the footpath swells to a roar as they gasp and sigh and draw back on shuffling feet. I shuffle with them, just another face in a faceless crowd. The Queen’s Head is burning.
The last time I was in this part of town must have been nearly a year ago, before. I haven’t walked into the Queen’s Head since I was thrown out on Deano’s birthday. I can still see the disgusted look on Bobby’s face as he stared down at me in the gutter from his lofty six-foot-four. JT didn’t even put in that much effort. He just stayed inside, chatting up some skank, telling her he was an air force pilot or a venture capitalist or an entrepreneur or a doctor. Funny that I don’t remember whether Deano joined Bobby or stuck with JT. It was his birthday that I’d been ejected from, after all. I suppose he stayed with JT and played wing man, as usual: blinded by awe and half-believing JT’s stories himself, even though he knew perfectly well that JT was just a grease monkey and had never left the east coast, like the rest of us. Except for Bobby, of course. Bobby ran his own workshop and gave the rest of us bums jobs, because that’s what friends are for, right?
But I figured that even Bobby had a limit. So the next morning, a dismal, overcast Saturday, I drove to my cousin Drew’s car dealership on the other side of town and asked him for a job. I must have looked like death warmed up – hangover breath, stubbly jaw, that sour smell that always accompanies people like me hanging around my head – but I was family and I’d stuck up for him to a bully in primary school that one time so he owed me a favour. So of course he said yes. I didn’t bother telling Bobby I quit. I just didn’t turn up on Monday. He called a week later and I ignored it, hurt that it had taken him so long to care. He tried again a couple more times before giving up on me, I suppose, like most people end up doing.
I managed the next six months pretty well before I got kicked out of another pub. I don’t remember the name of that one, or why I was there – I guess it was someone’s birthday or farewell or funeral, who knows, there was a bar tab so I was all over it. This time it was Drew’s face looking down at me in the gutter, but he sighed and held out his hand and helped me up and drove me back to his place, where I crashed out on the couch. That’s the difference between family and friends: family don’t abandon you when you’re lying in a gutter reeking and so out of it you can hardly stand.
A couple of weeks after that incident I saw Bobby again. He was in Woolworths examining a pile of Granny Smiths. I slunk past down to the frozen foods. I don’t think he saw me. I didn’t hear him calling my name, anyway, like I half-hoped I would. He was alone, which I didn’t really think about at the time, but when I got home I wondered where Carmen was, and why Bobby was doing his own grocery shopping. He’d never been any good at that sort of thing. Couldn’t even buy his own sandwich for smoko – that was always Deano’s job.
The next day I called Deano to ask him, but he didn’t answer. I figured he must be ignoring my number, so I tried again a few days later from Drew’s office phone while he was at lunch. Deano wasn’t too pleased that I’d gotten through. He told me that Carmen was in hospital, that she had some illness I couldn’t pronounce and that Bobby spent most of his time with her now, he was hardly in the workshop at all. I weaselled the hospital details out of him, then scrawled Drew a note and headed down town.
When I got to the hospital I just sat in my car for a bit, trying to pluck up the guts to see Bobby again. But it was no good, whenever I closed my eyes all I could see was his face staring down at me in the gutter. So I wandered the semi-familiar streets around the hospital until I found a pub and went in to gather some courage. When I felt courageous enough, I wove my way back to the hospital and found Carmen’s room. Bobby was reading Pride and Prejudice to her even though she looked asleep to me. I never knew Bobby was a fan of books like that. Although maybe it was Carmen who was the fan, I didn’t really know her that well. When I slid open the door, Bobby stopped reading and looked up with the resigned gaze of someone expecting a doctor who visits far too often. His eyes widened when he saw me. Then he got a whiff of me and that same look came over his face and just like that, it was like I was lying in the gutter staring up at him again. I shook my head to clear it and took a step into the room before Bobby was suddenly in front of me, blocking my way. I hadn’t even seen him move, he was that quick, it was like he teleported or something. His voice was soft, he was trying not to wake Carmen, but I got the message just the same: I wasn’t wanted there, I wasn’t needed there, I wasn’t a part of his life or her death.
Seeing Carmen lying there on the bed as white as her sheets, and Bobby looking at me like I was back in the gutter, I got angry. I don’t remember what I said, but Bobby’s face closed up like the book he’d just snapped shut and he told me to get out, to leave them alone. I refused. I guess I yelled, because something woke Carmen up and she pushed her emergency button and suddenly the room was filled with nurses and security guards and then I was outside in the gutter, with Bobby looking down at me again.
I don’t remember much of the next few months. I guess I showed up at work, because Drew kept paying me, and his car dealership wasn’t so flush he would pay me for doing nothing. Family charity doesn’t extend that far. In any case, I had enough cash to keep getting kicked out of pubs. I must have been kicked out of half the pubs in town. At one point I realised I should have been keeping track, I might have been able to get in Guinness World Records or something.
Then a few days ago Deano called me. Carmen had finally died of whatever had put her in hospital, and he wanted to know if I was going to do the decent thing and turn up at the funeral in a fit enough state that I wouldn’t get thrown straight back out. I told him I’d think about it but that I didn’t think Bobby wanted me there anyway. Deano said of course he did, he just didn’t know it himself, so I said sure, I’ll be there I guess, I’ll try to stay out of Bobby’s way, wouldn’t want to spoil his day or anything.
But this morning when I woke up I realised I couldn’t do it. I knew I would still see Bobby’s face looking down at me in the gutter, that unless something changed I would always be that guy on the black list of half the pubs in town. So instead of going to the funeral I came here, to see the Queen’s Head burn.