I’m propped up in bed at 2:45am and have given up trying to sleep at least for the minute. My mind keeps being pulled back to a soggy piece of carpet across the other side of town.
The Balaclava Hotel on a Sunday afternoon.
From the moment I pushed open the heavy wooden double doors and stepped inside I felt as if I’d been thrown back twenty years. It’s that smell. If you ask me in daylight hours I’ll tell you it felt like coming home. I’d grin and a part of me would mean it. That beer sodden smell saturated with years of cigarette smoke.
I’m ten years old at the Mitcham Hotel with the family. It’s hot and I’m drinking lemon squash and about to order a chicken parma (you know the kind – with tinned beetroot on the side with a slice of plastic cheese and some limp bits of shredded lettuce) when Dad is told we can’t be served because my sister and I are wearing thongs. He’s furious and after giving the hapless manager a piece of his mind (my Pater Familias always did a great line in self righteous rage) and sneering at the offer of a free meal and my mum’s quiet attempts to soothe, we were whisked home for poached eggs on toast.
“A bloody insult is what it is. A bloody insult. I’m not putting up with that. I shouldn’t have to. All those years of us going there. The nerve of them. The absolute bloody nerve.”
I can still hear the tinge of pleasure in his voice at getting the chance to puff himself up. And see the way Mum tried to swallow her sighs and stared out the window at the passing traffic.
That’s only a small part of my sense memory of that pungent miasma. Pubs. Bars. Most of them in country towns from long forgotten holidays spent traipsing up and down the coast with my then-boyfriend-now-husband. When “going away” meant filling up the Mini, chucking a bag of ice in the back to keep the dog cool and throwing in the tent for guaranteed sleeping luxury.
But I’m not storming out or stopping in on the way somewhere at the Balaclava. I’m here to sing. Every second Sunday up to and including Boxing Day from five to 8pm. With my friend Dean. “Fallen Angels” we call ourselves. Later that night I’d joke that perhaps we’d fallen into Hell. Just as long as we didn’t melt wax to fix our wings and we could fly on home.
When we arrived mid arvo the place was already filling with young drunken Irish punters – the place is a magnet for them. I don’t know why but later the barmaid Allie tells me it’s because they have $5 pot of Bulmers cider – the cheapest in town. A Lily Allen look-alike (think down-at-heel-smudged-mascara-Lily) drapes herself over a skinny boy called Rufus.
“I like you, ya know? I mean you’re not the sort of guy to…” (she lowers her voice and leans in close to his ear – I can only hear the faint sharp kick of a ‘fuck’ or ‘Christ’)
“I mean you’re a real person – you know what I mean?”
I grab my raspberry and soda water and resist to the temptation to say “As opposed to what? A fucking unicorn?”
Rufus would later distinguish himself as being the first of a string of annoying prats who sway on up to Dean and I only to drape themselves all over me, intent on grabbing my microphone, or my arse, or both – all the while rather skillfully managing to drool on my neck. A little distracting whilst trying to sing “Rehab” but hey, that’s show business. Or so I’m learning.
It’s a strange swamp of a place the ‘Clava. On the one hand it is the dedicated haunt of a tight core of locals. There’s Eddie – 77 years old and unable to walk without a cane. Something he seems to forget after God knows how many pots. If he’s lucky he’ll grab an umbrella – also handy to swing at a singer who isn’t paying him enough attention. But more often than not he’ll make his shambling way to the loo only to get stuck and have to lie there until his mates remember him or else he’ll grab my music stand on the way back and take it and him down with him.
Then there’s his friend Peter from Croatia who told me in the first breath of meeting him that “I may live here but every night I put my head on the pillow I sleep in Zagreb.” At the time I sighed with the poetry of it. And then later I shrank back when, five or so beers in, that he has “done things I can never forgive myself for. Things no man should ever do.” The demon drink unloosing past ghosts as the amber flows and the music stirs the pot.
And there’s K9 – he’s got to be 65 and has the build of a trucker and the head of a pit-bull. He wants Dean to “sing more” – so do I – but, unlike K9, for reasons other than being smitten with his quintessential blonde rock god looks. When K9 isn’t playing a pool shot his eyes run up and down Dean like a paint-roller.
He told me he used to sing Roy Orbison. That’s another thing. Every second punter at the ‘Clava seems to have been a muso in a past life and they don’t feel any qualms in telling you all about it and how you could sharpen up your act. Like the bloke in the filthy sheepskin jacket who told Dean “You’re not bad – not great – but not bad.” Oh and did he mention that last weekend he jammed with the drummer from Powderfinger? Not for the first time I’m grateful for Dean’s quite calm. He just smiled and nodded – his face open, his body language carefully benign. Later we nearly choke with laughter at the unadulterated prick-ness of the guy. Dean dubs him “the arsehole in sheep’s clothing”.
Later, in a break between sets K9 asks me if I know any Charlie Pride. I sing him a few bars of “Oh the Snakes Crawl at Night” – I was raised on that and Perry Como.
He looks me up and down and grunts and says the last time I played “You told me to go fuck myself because I was singing along and you said you’re the singer and you’re the one getting paid and I should shut the fuck up.”
“No, K9, I didn’t.”
“Yes you did.”
“No, K9, you know I never said that.”
He adjusts his cap and grins at me. I can’t tell if he believes me or not. It doesn’t matter because he’s already gulping down his drink.
And so it goes. It’s like two countries. The world of the old-timers and the young drunken punters. Each of them with their own separate eco-system. The young ones flow into each other, drinking to connect, to dive into the arms of their friends, to sway to the music, to get lost in each other’s rhythms, to crash on each other’s shores.
But the regulars aren’t interested in the other puddles around them, they’re just focused on making sure their own patch gets filled. Sure they’ll talk to each other while shooting pool, or putting their foaming pots on the table. Or as another of their crew walks in the door. Then it’s shouts of “Trip!”, “Westie!”, “Herman”!
But most times they’re just as happy to sit and stare at us or talk to thin air. I’ve learnt not to make eye contact when they do this. At first I thought they were talking to me. And they are. It’s just not important to them at all that I hear them or respond. In fact it’s a nuisance if I do. It interrupts their train of thought.
Like the old bloke who came in with the Little Witch. The Little Witch is a woman no taller than four foot and about as round. My Gran would say she’s a few sandwiches short of a picnic. I’d say she was still trying to find a napkin to put in the basket. She came in all smiles with her pointy black plastic hat on – it was Halloween after all – and demanded to know if we played Elvis. When we told her we didn’t she asked if we played the Beatles. Out of luck again. She then sat down at the table in front of us and proceeded to yell at the top of her voice “Elvis! Beatles!” before, after and during every song. Sometimes she’d remember her manners and include an “Excuse Me!” All the while clapping out of time so skillfully it reached something of an art-form. The anti-clap.
But the bloke who was with her came very close to freaking me out. Not at the time. No. I tend to cope very well in the moment. It’s afterwards when I let myself really see what happened that I get clammy. And a bit scared. It was mid song. It always is. He got up from his seat where he’d been doing this weird jiggy-up-down dance that had him looking like a kind of a jack-in-the-box and stood right in front of my music stand. Where he knew I would look. And he kept bobbing up and down – jerking.
Then I saw he was doing this weird thing with his mouth. Bizarre, like he was puckering and pulling and stretching his lips as fast as he could. That was when I heard what he was saying. Over and over and over in this urgent whisper. That was also when my brain slammed tight like a bank vault and I slipped into my lyric “been driving, Detroit leaning”.
But I did hear it. His words seeped back into my brain at the song’s end, when he sat down. Like a dirty stain.
And when I looked at him, as he slumped in the plastic chair, fat fingers wrapped around his glass, I saw a flash of something, like a shark’s fin above grey waves. Cruelty. It was his face that woke me up. It just took me a while of spinning out the memories onto this page to remember that was what it was. His face.
So now I’ve fished him out of my dreaming river perhaps I can sink back into sleep?
But there’s so much I haven’t told you – the fight that erupted like a plume of lava, sweeping locals and tourists into a vortex of violence that spilt out onto the street. The way Dean stepped in between the mess and me, shielding me. All the while I kept singing “Mr Jones” – “Cut up Maria”. Not for a second did I feel threatened. Just a bit bemused. And touched by Dean’s protectiveness. His innate sense of chivalry.
Or how I sang Pink songs to Westie – a bloke probably no older than 30 who looks 45.
Missing teeth, lank rat hair hidden under a holey beanie. How he apologised for how rough it was and told me quietly that the locals were “a good mob”. The gentleness of him.
Or Carol who stopped and thanked us for playing and told us to “hang in there”. Or how Allie the barmaid came up and wanted to know what was that song we played that reminded her of her ex? I could tell she was still very much in love with him. She has an eight-year-old little girl called Tanisha who loves to sing but hated having lessons.
Or the woman who I saw in the toilets when I was just putting on the last of my make-up to start playing.
She was quietly sobbing to herself as she smeared palm-fulls of foundation on her red, blotchy and cut face. I wondered if I should ask her if she was okay. Usually I would. I’d think it was what I should do.
But God she was so brittle. And the anger came off her in bright waves. It was hard to even look at her except out of the corner of my eye and even then it was as if she was an octopus that could squirt ink to hide herself. You knew she was there but you couldn’t quite make out her edges.
When I whispered to my husband about it later I said it was as if she was cornered. Injured and cornered. He said that was exactly what she was. I left without speaking to her. I left and walked through the bistro and into the bar and smiled and Dean and took a deep breath and began to sing. And so the night began.
And now this day has begun and I think I can finally put my head on the pillow and sleep. Now the demons have been released into the dawn. It is 4:30am and of course I have a full day tomorrow.
But first I want to share something with you. I’m a clever little squid myself. Surrounding myself with ink so you can’t quite make me out amongst the rank smell of beer, the sway of the drunks, the smashed glass crunched into the carpet, the drone of the flat screen TV.
Because amongst it all I stand with my microphone, Dean beside me with his guitar between us and we play. He strums and pours himself into the music and somehow you forget where the guitar ends and he begins. I sing along feeling like a little boat tossed upon waves of sound. We play. And it all falls away. No, that isn’t quite right. It somehow becomes more. It shifts and swells a little. Song after song threading through the room, soaking into skins, wrapping around hearts. I’ve got used to seeing grown men sit quietly, heads bowed, tears dropping onto clasped hands. Or the bloke who sits up the back and never breaks his gaze with me when I sing “Chasing Cars”. The women are far tougher. But they erupt with joyous anger when they hear the opening bars of “Tainted Love”.
Take my tears and that’s not nearly all.
Amidst all the mayhem I am strong and I am happy and I’m sitting here smiling softly to myself because I know that feeling. Home. And when I put my mike stand and bags in the back of the van amongst all the speakers and cables and gear I feel like I’m eight years old and I’ve just got my first bike. Every damn time. That’s why I do it. Because of the fun. And because I can.
Now I can say good night.