‘Better to be safe than sorry,’ George said to himself crossing the Narrows. On the Causeway the weary bones of the four-wheel drive shuddered above the stripped, hollow whistle of the AM news broadcast. The toolbox split open in the back with a clank and George missed the regional weather update he’d been listening out for.
It was past midnight. The evening was still warm from the latent heat of summer. It hung in the air, refusing to move. ‘The Doctor,’ as George called the sea breeze decided to spend the night out at sea, on the cooling temperate waters of the Indian Ocean and so there was not the typical respite from the daytime heat. When George walked up to the arrivals hall Mark was waiting outside. He was dressed in a dark, heavy woollen coat, like the pea coats the Navy boys wear, with a hacked up guitar case and a large single backpack he laid down on its side and sat on like a wooden log.
‘Gees, must be warm in that son.’
‘Beats carrying it-plus I doubt I’d fit it in.’ Mark slapped the pack between his knees to emphasis the solid density of its contents.
‘Makes sense-been waitin’ long?’
‘Gave it a good fifteen minutes grace-thought you’d get slowed down at customs and collecting ya luggage.’
The dry air snapped up the end of George’s sentence like it was moisture so it had no time to linger. George peered up at the stars and rocked back and forth on his heels. Mark got up and stood his backpack up against the front of his legs so it wouldn’t fall down.
‘Must get you folks on and off the planes these days like you’re cattle.’
‘Sure do dad-where did you park?’
‘Over there.’ George pointed at the car park behind him.
‘Bought the Patrol-just in case.’
A small grunt spat between Mark’s clenched teeth as he hoisted the pack onto his back. George lent over to grab the guitar.
‘I’ve got it.’
‘Yeah-get used to carrying your own load ‘round after a while.’
Mark threw his gear into the back of the Patrol.
‘You know you could have just parked in one of the pick-up bays dad and you wouldn’t have to pay for parking.’
‘Better to be safe than sorry son.’
They headed towards the glow of the city. George commented Mark’s accent had gone a bit Pommy and it was a good thing he’d come home when he did.
They coasted through the pre-dawn central business district. Their silence matched the empty streets and abandoned terraces. George pulled up behind an orange Kombi Van at a set of red lights. Its tail was a postcard collage canvas of pictures, places, slogans and national icons. George spotted a yellow ringed sticker label for some beer he recognised from highlights of the English football league.
‘Whatcha think about that beer?’
‘Crap. They joke that it’s made in a chemical factory, not a brewery.’
‘Really! Whatcha drinking then?’
‘Stick to Guinness or shorts-sometimes an ale if there’s a good one on tap and the locals are drinking it.’
‘Wife tries to put me on the light stuff these days.’
‘I hear Oz makes some of the best light beers. Not much call for them in the UK. People are pretty traditional there. If they’re driving they’ll have a shandy instead.’
‘Had no idea they did that.’
Out of the city it was still another fifteen minutes drive to get home. George and Mark didn’t say much the rest of the way home.
Two days later a six-pack of Guinness Export sat on the top shelf of the refrigerator. It still wore the pristine, plastic coat of thick packaging wrap when Mark passed through in in the early evening. Mark recognised the old man buying beer that wasn’t VB was significant. It was like changing allegiances – Weetbix to Vitabrits, Colgate to McLean’s, Imperial Leather to Palmolive, Coon cheese to… well Mark couldn’t think of an alternative to Coon. And it didn’t happen often. He still hadn’t returned to the local tavern after they stopped VB on draught five years ago.
It was Thursday, when George made his weekly stop at the local drive-thru. He had to tell Tod to return the mix slab of VB and Carlton Mid stubbies. He was embarrassed to find he only had enough dough for the Guinness along with the wife’s half case of plonk. And he had to send Tod back a second time with the remaining half a slab of stout he couldn’t afford.
Mark bought a litre of Glenlivet & Bullet Bourbon duty free on the flight home which he preferred to drink. Mark wasn’t bother by the bottled stout. It had an import price tag even though it was brewed under licence down the road and he preferred the cream-flow draught cans anyhow. He must have mention something. A week after than two four-packs of 440ml imported Guinness draught cans with widget technology stood tall in the fridge.
Mark signed on the dole, but his job seeking efforts were incidental and unenthusiastic. Like most travellers he returned home and faced a life unchanged, still warm like bed covers waiting no matter how long he’d been away for. The dark prospect of revisiting and slowly integrating into that which he left for a reason made him petulant and indolent.
The trend of different worldly beers appearing in the fridge each week continued over the next month and a half. His choices of Stones, McEwans, Tennants and Beamish were embarrassingly domestic and ill-considered where Mark had been living. Other times Mark was truly tempted by Old Peculiar and Black Sheep but George never offered it.
Summer surrendered to autumn. George put a can of Caffrey’s, straight from the fridge on the mantle, bent down and flicked the switch beside the gas fireplace. The pilot flame tick-ticked like a cicada followed by the mellow whoof of clean heat and the appeasing cosmetic sight of flames over false logs. George grabbed the can, sat down in front of the television, wrestled his body’s own weight for the remote control he sat on and eventually turned the volume up on the TV in time for introductory commentary on Friday night footy-Eagles versus the Cats. He cracked the can and a sensual hiss and watery fizzle escaped. George didn’t bother with a glass. Mark sat across from his dad, put his bare feet by the fire to warm them and studied the television guide. And every now and then he glared at his dad take a mouthful of beer from the can.
‘You know son, now it’s coming onto winter there’s not much to do up on your Uncle’s farm. But I talked to Jim the other day and he said there’d be plenty of work come mid-August.’
‘Thanks dad-I’ll think about it.’
‘Well it’s just an option, you know-there if you want it.’ George took another gulp of beer.
A week and a half later Mark announced he was leaving to go back to the UK. He said there were better opportunities over there and he preferred it. Even though he had the same backpack and guitar and case George drove Mark out to the airport in the Patrol to catch a mid-afternoon Qantas flight to Singapore.
It was six and a half months later at Christmas George opened the liquor cabinet. He and the wife last heard from Mark in October through a postcard he sent when he was in Cuba on holiday. It had a picture of an old man leaning in a wooden chair against a wall coloured like a faded t-shirt with a beer balanced in a one hand. The wife stuck in on the fridge with the others.
George and the Missus both had their chosen poisons so the liquor cabinet was rarely opened. It was only during the festive season and the few occasions in the year they entertained company. And in those times the hospitality conspired so that the offering of an after-dinner port or Bristol Crème sherry for the ladies and nightcap of Chivas or Red Label for the gents was of the same etiquette that replenished the cabinet with wrapped bottles guest’s brought as gifts.
There was the classic assortment of an unsustained liquor cabinet spanning almost two decades – crème de menthe, vermouth, apple brandy, Angostura bitters, Benedictine and a litre of Cinzano, perhaps stretching all the way back to when cocktail parties were the Australian barbeque and George last seriously entertained. Most bottles of hard liquor were never opened – still there in cheerful wrapping from Christmases, birthdays or office functions. George never remembered bottles of whisky, bourbon and gin that were there from last time. When he returned from mass on Christmas morning and took a traditional whisky he didn’t even notice they were all exactly three fingers full.