It started off innocently enough. One day, I found him sitting next to a fellow uni student mate of mine. From my glass collecting orbits, I could gather that Pat was a clingy old fullah, who appeared to be doing most of the talking and occasionally reaching for Bruce’s leg. Bruce, the cool customer, stared defiantly at his newspaper, occasionally making a laconical remark about sport or something irrelevant.
‘You’re a real nice bloke,’ Pat slurred from the bottom rungs of his nasal cavities. He had something wrong with his cleft palate, which left his face sort of crooked. His eyes were deep sea moons through powerful glasses.
‘Yeah you’d be really good for social work, you seem like a caring sort of person.’
I’d told him of my desires to enter the field. Then left, for fear he’d want to give me another handshake with the caressing thumb.
My shift finishes. With Pat in the toilets, I go over to Bruce. His lazy eyes roll over the pokie horizon.
‘He keeps on asking me to move in with him. I just keep staring off into the distance, in the hope that it looks thoughtful.’ Bruce demonstrates one of these stares. He does indeed look thoughtful – an expression of one who has done too much thinking.
Pat returns. He is having another beer. I don’t really want him to have another beer. He sings my praises again. And squeezes Bruce’s knee. Bruce does not flinch. Bruce goes to the toilet. Bruce is buying the next beer.
‘I wonder where he is?’ Pat says, checking his watch. I estimate Bruce has probably been gone fifteen minutes. Bruce isn’t coming back.
‘I’m not sure,’ I say in a tone that says I’m not sure about anything. The place smells of cigarette guts. I run my fingers up and down the material of my work pants. There’s hundreds of lint balls to pick off. A blind person could make a story out of them. There’s half a beer. Chit chat. Pat’s eyes are two blue torches in my face.
‘You’re a real nice bloke Justin, I’m so glad to have met you.’
‘I’m glad Pat, you’re a real nice bloke too.’
‘It’s been a year since my wife died.’
‘Oh really? I’m really sorry.’
‘Yeah, I dunno mate. It gets so lonely in the house now.’
‘Yeah, it must be hard.’
Another silence. Pat fills the silences by staring at me with a look of someone who can’t believe what is happening to them.
‘You know what Justin?’ He leans in. Then pulls away, as if in two minds. He shakes his head. It’s all too much. ‘I could very easily love you Justin. You’re the kind of person I could love. But for all the right reasons.’
Yep. My gentle skin is pricked with alarm ripples. From this point on there will be no more small talk between us – ever.
‘I’ve got a secret to tell you mate, and I’m not sure if I should. I’m scared what you’ll think of me.’
‘It’s okay Pat, I’m not going to judge you.’
‘Thanks mate, you’re a real beautiful person, you know that? You are.’
I’m blushing in my uniform.
‘Oh mate, it’s hard to say.’ Pat lights the cigarette he’s offered to me a couple of times. I should have accepted.
‘I’ve been married 38 years, to a really beautiful woman, and I’ve had two kids. And I miss her like hell. But all that time we were married, most of that’s been a lie.’
‘I’ve got a thing. And it’s really hard to live with.’
‘I like blokes mate.’
He likes blokes.
‘Does that change what you think of me?’
‘No Pat not at all, why should it? I’m not worried.’
I’m not worried. I have a sip of my beer. My other hand is engaged in a handshake with the thumb.
‘I love you and I respect you Justin. I respect you mate. And I wouldn’t ever do anything to hurt you.’
I’ve shut down. I’m smiling and nodding. Pat has broken me with his intensity. I’m waiting for my beer to drain and the club to explode me out onto the street. I am hungering the hazy Saturday sun.
‘I’ve really got to go Pat. I’m going to a concert tonight.’
‘Give me a call sometime Justin.’ Those eyes staring at me. Those glass globes.
‘Yeah I will. I’ve really got to go mate.’
At 4:17pm, on February 21st 2002, a youth and a gentleman hugged in the old lounge of the Canberra Labor Club. No one saw. No one knew. No one cared and nothing changed.
Three months later. Today. Pat still says ‘you’re a beautiful person’ to me and ‘I love you.’ Now he has added ‘I only come in here to see you.’
‘Why didn’t you fuckin’ call me?’
‘Pat, I saw you last Saturday.’ My tone is defensive, which it never usually is.
‘I think about you all the time mate. I really want to have a beer and a talk with you.’
A beer and a talk has been promised since February, but so far I’ve dodged it. My heart is turning into a spa bath of blood. Today I am on tray service to the poker machines. As I wait for the barman to get my drink I glare out the side of my glasses. Pat is badly pixilated in the distance. I can make out his red and black bomber jacket and a small head with two giant windows facing me.
I can’t see his eyes. I don’t know if he can see mine. I am ignoring him.
My head jeers me. ‘There’s your boyfriend…hey Justin, your boyfriend wants to see you.’ If any of the bar staff said that to me I think I’d have a stroke.
Pat says I love you, like others say how are you. His hand reaches out to me whenever I serve him at the bar. His grip traps mine while his thumb stretches around like a faceless worm.
Two days ago, when Pat came up to buy a VB, he asked what my last name was and walked away. The next time he asked where I lived. I said the street. He asked who I lived with. I said my girlfriend and best friend. Then, with the honesty trigger which continues to get me into trouble, I said I was thinking about moving.
‘Move in with me. No, I shouldn’t put that pressure on you. But I’d love it mate. I get so lonely, I’d love to take care of you.’
Beer pouring, head screaming. I don’t need you to look after me. I’m twenty one. Beer comes out. No words.
I am uncomfortable in my own workplace. I am thinking about Pat. His very presence smears my chest with something thick and unpleasant. I am angry.
After almost backing out, I take my lemon lime and bitters and walk towards him. There is another work mate with him, whom I use as a support.
‘You’ve got a break have you?’
‘Yeah, I thought I’d better give myself one.’ I’m desperate to keep things jammed in small talk.
The other worker returns to the bar, leaving Pat and I alone.
Silence. Here comes the handshake.
‘Andrew’s a top bloke. But he’s not very happy here.’
‘No, he hasn’t been since I’ve worked here.’ I’m surprised and ecstatic. I must keep Pat talking about something other than me.
‘The place just wouldn’t be the same without him.’
‘No, he’s a top bloke.’
I take a sip of the bitters. It is all rich fizz and lemon. I am never confident that I’ve made them properly. The silence is too long.
‘I’m sorry mate if I’ve come on too strong. You just tell me, you say ‘Pat, back off’ and I will.’
‘Yeah, well, I think you should.’ Toy guns are blazing.
‘I love you so much Justin. As the song says you’re always on my mind.’ His voice is a brown suitcase stereo.
‘Yes well I’m not necessarily comfortable with that.’
Why use necessarily… don’t hold back.
Pat leans back on his chair. His pursed lips sit a good five centimetres out of line with his nose.
‘I can’t help it. You’re a beautiful person mate. When you’re in the bar I sit here and I can see right into your soul.’
My guts are buzzing. It’s my pager, which means I have to go and get someone a drink.
‘I’ve got an order,’ I say.
Pat is smiling.
‘I know mate.’
I spend the rest of the shift hoping he will leave, otherwise I will have to confront him and avoid having a beer. Half an hour later I check, but he is not there. I am wary and sceptical. He could have gone to the toilet. Fifteen minutes pass and I go inside the toilets to check. There is one cubical that is engaged.
I am still not convinced. I consider peering down to see the shoes, but this day has been extreme enough already. Plus, I can’t think what shoes Pat wears.
With half an hour to go of my shift I check the toilets. All the cubicles are empty. Finally.
As I turn to leave the door swings open, like the final shock in a horror film.
I fully expect it to be Pat, but it’s a Chinese bloke. I see Pat’s empty chair and cannot control the peace and joy in my heart.