Peter Mitchell – True North

Twenty kilometres south of Murwillumbah on the Greyhound bus to Brisbane, Brad wakes and gazes out the window, a frown rippling his forehead. Did I make the right decision? Should I be on this bus right now? His night of sleep honeycombed by restlessness, his eyes are veined with blood, the edges gritty. He sits up and rubs them with closed fists.

He leans left from his seat and looks through the front window. The Pacific Highway is a meditation of straight-blue metal. He looks right and scans the horizon. The tip of the sun is just visible, a fire-orange curve peeking above the line of earth and sky.

The bus slows, stopping at a set of lights in Tugun on the southern end of the Gold Coast. In the distance, tall hotels and apartment blocks spike the skyline. He rests his head, the seat upholstery a firm support. The sun is now a large, orange-red orb.

Brad leans forward and stretches his arms in the still air. The tightness in his upper back and shoulders eases with the lengthening of his muscles, reminding him of the uncomfortable seat. Next time, if there is a next time, I’ll fly up to Brissie.

A solitary car is parked on the left-hand side of the freeway, its alarm shrieking, the hazard lights blinking. The sound triggers a recollection with his ex-lover, Phil.

*

I’ve rung to see how you are, reassured Phil.

Yes, said Brad, at least you’ve rung. He swallowed hard. Even if it is after two years.

But mate, said Phil.

The two words hung in the tight silence.

You were the one who threw me out.

Twenty seconds gathered more tension.

Remember?

Yes, but you … said Brad. His shoulders slumped, his words fading into the hollowness of the telephone lines. By that time in their conversation, he was sitting up, his left-hand cupping his face, his stomach knotted with guilt, anger and inadequacy.

But I’m only ringing to see how you are, repeated Phil.

Hmm. Brad sighed.

Phil offered a weekend in Brisbane where he lived. As recompense, he said. All expenses paid. On me. Phil’s voice by then was honey-smooth.

Brad recollects some of the braids of anger and guilt dissolving. Anyway, he thought at that time, it’s the middle of winter and its been eighteen months since I’ve had the warmth of another man’s body next to mine.

A religious advertisement stands beside the freeway. He reads an aphorism about the lord promising atonement. Call this number. Another detail from their phone conversation crosses his memory. Phil said he’d rung to atone for some of the things he’d done to him.

An uneasiness tethers Brad to a reality check. He considers the possibility of history repeating itself. Is Phil the genuine article? Or simply a conman?

The bus turns left onto the South-East Freeway.

*

During their relationship, Phil had travelled to the United States for three months. The Paul Hogan movie, ‘Crocodile Dundee’ was screening at the time. Australians were the flavour of the month. Phil had flattened his vowels, his voice as plain as a milk arrowroot biscuit. Brad remembers Phil’s brittle laughter as he recounted stories of gullible Americans thinking he was from the outback with his Akubra and R. M. Williams boots.

*

Ascending a small hill, the freeway curves left then right, snaking up the incline. On both sides of it, Nerang spread in square-shaped grids. Brad faces the front again, his view over the top of the seat in front of him, his right forearm resting on the window ledge. The suburban streets blur like a movie in fast forward. In the large, rear-vision mirror next to the driver, Brad notices the reflection of a second man in a bus uniform. Earlier in the trip, he’d seen the man staring at him for long seconds.

The bus ascends another hill and stops at a set of lights. He settles into his seat, closing his eyes. His hindsight returns to a weekend at Rainforest Lodge near Mount Warning. He and Phil were walking to the summit on a warm morning, the air damp and perfumed. They had stopped at a rest area overlooking the caldera. Phil decided to walk to a nearby lookout; Brad remained on the seat, admiring the view. Twenty minutes later, he was startled awake by Phil’s whistling. They resumed their walk. A blond surfer passing them several minutes later.

*

Brad swings his legs angrily back onto the seat, his back square against the armrest, his eyes glaring out the window. He flicks through a travel brochure to distract himself. On the inside page, there are addresses of hotels in Brisbane.

The bus stops at a shopping mall in Logan City. Pedestrian rampways criss-cross the air above the bustops. Several passengers disembark, two hailing a taxi. The third, a man in his early forties, hugs and kisses his female partner, their two children jumping up and down on the spot with excitement.

Brad sits up, his eyes plains of blue ice. The last day of their relationship projected onto his memory. For hours, he had questioned Phil about the surfie, asking him about his recent case of gonorrhoea.

I haven’t fucked any other blokes, Phil had asserted.

*

Brad considers staying at a pub as an alternative to the planned weekend and places the brochure in his overnight bag. He notices movement down the aisle in his peripheral vision. The second bus driver chats to an elderly couple eight rows from Brad’s seat.

That’s a long face, a voice suddenly says from his left.

Oh, says Brad, half-turning.

The second bus driver smiles at him. Brad half-smiles too, a little shy at the sudden and unexpected attention. It’s just boring emotional shit, he says.

The bus driver shrugs his shoulders. Do you mind if I sit here? He points to an empty seat opposite Brad’s.

Yeah, sure, says Brad. He lengthens his smile.

Where’re you from? asks the bus driver.

Sydney.

And travelling to?

Brisvegas, answers Brad.

The bus driver leans forward over the armrest. Anyway, he says, I’m Allan. He leans across the aisle a little further, holding out his right-hand to Brad. Al to friends, he adds.

Hi Al, says Brad, shaking Allan’s hand. Mine’s Brad. Hmm, a firm handshake. I like that in a man. Phil’s wrist was always so limp.

Have you been to Brisbane before? Allan leans back in his seat.

No, this is my first time. The soft upholstery embraces Brad’s broad back too.

Have you come up for the weekend?

Yeah, I’ve come to see the sights. He pauses and considers his options. How long am I staying? Will I mention Phil? He decides not to. Yeah, Brad repeats, I’m definitely staying the weekend and maybe for a few days after that.

Oh, great, says Al.

*

Phil wakes, exercises, breakfasts and showers. In front of the full-length mirror, he turns side-ways. Not bad for forty-four. He winks at himself. Back in his bedroom, he dresses quickly, grabs his car-keys and throws them into the air, catching them with his right-hand as they fall tinkling.

He drives his sleek, black Mazda 300ZX from New Farm to the Roma Street Transit Centre. He locks his car and looks at his watch. Fifteen minutes to spare. He crosses Roma Street, his eyes fixing on the sex shop sign one hundred metres away. Enough time for a quick squiz. Browsing the shelves, he gazes at black dildos and flicks through a copy of Honcho. A young blond man walks into the shop. Phil misses the moment when the bus carrying Brad pulls in.

The bus stops in a bay at the transit centre, the passengers disembarking. Several minutes later, cases and overnight bags island the parking bay. Brad looks at his watch a second time as he waits in the bright sun, his mouth a thin line, his overnight bag at his feet.

Phil rushes back across Roma Street. He looks at the blond’s phone number, pushing the piece of paper into his jean’s pocket. In the distance, he sees luggage spread out on the loading ramp. He hurries into the lounge area and looks around. He walks back outside, puzzlement furrowing his forehead.

A taxi rushes past, the back of Brad’s head a brown blur. Phil stands on the spot, his face a canvas of surprise, words stuck in his throat.

*

Brad sits in the back of the taxi and takes the brochure from his overnight bag.

Where to? says the cabbie

Oh, says Brad, the gay pub. He folds the piece of paper with Allan’s phone number on it into his wallet.

Which one? The cab driver looks into the rear-vision mirror. There are several gay pubs in Brissie now. The cab zooms along Roma Street.

Shit, says Brad. He looks up from the brochure. Sorry, I didn’t know. He scans it again. I’m not really sure which one. Do you know which is the best?

The Sporties seems to be popular.

The Sporties?

Yeah, the Sportman’s Hotel, says the cabbie.

Okay then, I’ll try that one.

The Sporties, says the driver still staring into the rear-vision mirror. Sure thing. He winks.

Brad leans forward and smiles. He admires the cab driver’s muscled legs.

Noticing Brad’s gaze, the cab driver smiles too. Sporties is the oldest gay pub in Brissie. There’s no bullshit about it.

Brad nods. So it’s the genuine article, eh? he says. Remembering Phil’s astonished expression he smiles at his ironic comment, a warmth blooming in his chest.

It has drag shows and trivia nights and you can play pool there if you like.

You seem to know it well, says Brad.

Yeah, says the cabbie, it’s my regular watering hole. The cab turns into Albert Street. The drag show on Saturday night is a hoot. It’s my favourite.

Uh-huh.

Here’s my business card, says the cabbie. He hands it over the driver’s seat. If you need a cab anytime, ring the number and ask for Joe Calvatori. He winks into the rear-vision mirror a second time. And maybe you’d even like a beer? Joe half-turns, his left-elbow on the top of the front seat. He raised his eye-brows as if speculating the possibility.

Thanks, says Brad. I’ll definitely keep the beer in mind.

Joe looks straight ahead, concentrating on the road.

Brad slips the card into a side pocket of his overnight bag. He settles into the back seat, a cool breeze blowing through the open window. Bloody hell! There’s gay men everywhere in Brissie. He enjoys the freedom of the currents of air ruffling his hair, his head resting on the headrest.

So it’s like an old-fashioned pub? says Brad.

The cab pulls into the gutter. Yep, says Joe.

I’ll ring you about the beer. Brad passes Joe the fare.

Great. Joe nods and smiles. Until then.

*

Let’s go to the Mine Shaft, says Joe. ‘It’s the backroom bar downstairs.

Um, says Brad, okay.

The two of them descend the flight of stairs to the basement, pay five dollars at the door and walk into the dim bar.

Two pots of VB, orders Joe to the barman. He hands Brad his beer. They stroll to a corner of the bar, Brad gazing around it in wonder.

What’s out the back? he says.

The backroom.

Yeah, I’ve heard about backrooms. I’ve never been to one.

Are ya serious? says Joe. His voice rises in surprise.

Brad nods over the rim of his beer.

Shit! Joe raises his eye-brows. Well, it’s my duty, mate, to show you around.

Fifteen minutes pass as they play pool. They finish the pots of beer and leave the empties on the bar. The two of them walk around a corner and down a narrow hallway. Near the end, they stop, their eyes adjusting to the blackness wrapping around them like thick blankets.

Brad hears the clang of belt buckles hitting the cement floor and loud moans orchestrating the thick air. This is the first time I’ve ever done this. Hmm.

Come over here, mate, says Joe, his tongue embracing Brad’s receptive mouth.

An eon later, the two of them stumble out the door laughing.

That was fantastic, says Brad. Pleasure sapphires his eyes.

Great, says Joe. What are ya doing tomorrow night?

How about the night after that? counters Brad.

Done, says Joe. I’ll ring ya. He walks down Spring Street to his taxi.

Brad stretches, his arms reaching for the dome of ink-night. His imagination soars to the heavens, his mind’s eye picturing his body floating on feather stars, pointing true north.

 

BIO

Peter Mitchell is the author of the poetry chapbooks, Conspiracy of Skin (Ginninderra Press, 2018) and The Scarlet Moment (Picaro Press, 2009) and crafts poetry, short fiction, memoir, literary criticism and a range of journalism.

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