‘Drink?’ Driver asked, shaking Punter’s hand.
‘Hang on,’ Punter replied. ‘I can’t concentrate on anything else until I’ve kissed your wife.’ He made a show of shoving Driver aside, wrapping Minnie in his arms and kissing her full on the lips.
‘You alright, mate?’ Driver asked, although he was relieved to see him in such good spirits.
‘Second most beautiful woman in the world. What else am I gunna do?’
Driver’s response was to cup a hand lightly around each of Steph’s shoulders and touch his lips to one cheek then the other. He turned to check that Punter was watching, then repeated the cheek kissing.
‘You could learn something,’ Steph said to Punter. ‘A bit more style.’ As Punter shrugged his shoulders dismissively Steph stepped across to Minnie and greeted her similarly.
Minnie had not spoken to Steph since the previous Wednesday when Driver told her about the affair with Frank Postman, so Driver watched his wife closely and was surprised to sense in her an unfamiliar stiffness to Steph’s touch, although he could have been letting his anxieties make him see things that weren’t really there.
‘Bubbles, Steph?’ Driver asked, receiving a nod. ‘Peroni, boofhead?’
‘Hey, just ‘cos it’s your birthday doesn’t mean you can be mean to me,’ Punter replied, feigning a persecuted tone.
‘Sorry, please forgive my lack of manners,’ Driver said, taking two steps towards the bar. ‘Oh, Minnie,’ he said, turning back. ‘I’ll get you a napkin so you can wipe Punter’s saliva off your face.’
‘Is this what happens when you turn forty?’ Punter asked Minnie and Steph, with Driver gone to the bar. ‘You turn all conservative and proper?’
‘One can only hope,’ Steph replied. ‘Fortunately, neither of us has long to wait.’
Minnie smiled conspiratorially. But she was keen to head off any potential nastiness between her two friends. ‘Punter, I really don’t mind,’ she said, presuming there was a good chance things had been a little tense at home, after what Driver had told her, and not wanting something so trivial to be the spark for a fight between them. ‘But only because you’re the second most beautiful man in the world,’ she added.
‘You’re good,’ Punter replied appreciatively. ‘You should be in politics … have I told you that?’
‘You have, Punter. And last time you suggested it I told you I couldn’t think of anything worse.’
Punter turned to Steph. ‘Help me baby, they’re ganging up on me.’
‘Don’t be so sensitive,’ Steph replied, playfully rather than spitefully. ‘You deserve it, anyway. And you know you do.’
Punter held his hands high to signal defeat, then grabbed the back of a stool and perched himself at the small, circular table. Steph and Minnie followed suit and they settled into the noise of the Saturday night crowd, swollen and animated by the warm weather and the general social grease that permeates Melbourne as the Flemington race week kicked off each spring. Saturday is Derby Day, followed by the Melbourne Cup on Tuesday, the Oaks on Thursday and Stakes Day the following Saturday. Punter and Steph were there for each of the days, with Punter’s official ministerial capacity giving him not just the licence but the responsibility to stay in the thick of the action, marquee hopping through the Birdcage. Driver and Minnie usually joined them for the Cup but while the invitation was still extended, Minnie wasn’t sure she wanted to go, with her due date looming.
As Punter sat at the small table, he withdrew from Minnie and Steph’s chatter, letting it fade back and mix in with animation of the broader crowd. Temporarily, he traded his good humour for the melancholy contemplation of a racing carnival unreasonably subdued for political expediencies. He knew he had to be on his best behaviour, with a state election to be held just two Saturdays away, but ‘best behaviour’ had never been Punter’s strong suit. And he was aware, as always, of people taking a second look at him to convince themselves he was who they thought he was. Only, with an election in full swing, the public’s capacity to recognise him had grown well beyond the usual vague interest. If they stayed in the pub for an hour, he’d be asked six times for a photo, according to the once per ten minutes schedule that he’d become used to those last weeks. Social media and the cameras in mobile phones had completely changed the way the public engaged with politicians, in Punter’s view. Three years earlier, Facebook and Twitter were not as entrenched in daily life, but Punter believed the 2012 election would be remembered as the campaign of the facie. Some of Punter’s wallflower colleagues had come to the conclusion that worst feature of mobile phones was that they put a camera in everyone’s hand. But Punter was not one to hide away. He wasn’t going to completely stop enjoying his life, even if he recognised the need to tone it down, particularly when he saw it as the central plank in his strategy to rescue his marriage. So when some stranger asked for a quick snap, he’d agree instantly and smile as freshly as if he’d never been asked before. They’d take the pic anyway, was Punter’s view, so you might as well make the best of it.
Punter gazed vaguely at the huge flat screen television hanging from the pub’s faux distressed brick wall. His reflections on the necessity and benefits of being scrupulously social were reinforced by the news item that was being aired. And the smile was brought galloping back to his face, something which Steph didn’t fail to notice.
On the screen was a graphic of a journalist’s pocket voice recorder (even though the recording had been done with a mobile phone – more evidence of the need to be eternally on message), with one of those squiggly lines that would flare and disappear as the recorded voice ebbed and flowed. For this particular story there was a lot of flowing and not much ebbing. And to the side of that graphic was a none-too-flattering still picture of Frank Postman which had been chosen, it would be safe to bet, for the sheer gormlessness of the expression he was wearing.
Despite having already heard the speech several times, the same person who recorded it having sent it to Punter before leaking it to the broader press, he bent an ear towards the TV to appreciate once more Frank Postman’s artistry at placing his size elevens firmly in his gob. But there was too much noise in the pub to properly hear the recording and Punter was conscious of not being seen, by Steph more than anyone else, to be paying attention too closely. So I will provide an account of what Punter’s wife’s lover had to say on the topic of homosexuals being a drain on the public health system – in response to a question from the floor – just the night before at a private function at the Tulloch Club, that bastion of even-tempered, apolitical, masculine appreciation of all things sporting and athletic.
‘If I were a smoker,’ the recording began, Frank Postman unable to mask the well-oiled slur in his voice, earned from too many glasses of red in the hours before taking the stage, ‘I’d be asking for a big apology from the homosexual community.’ He paused, not to gauge his audience’s response – he was likely too pissed to worry about that – but to allow the impact of his words to build in what he expected to be the temporary silence. ‘They have a right to ask,’ he added, then repeated it with raised voice in response to a restless murmur or two from the audience. ‘They have a right to ask, particularly when the gay lobby’s self-produced health statistics,’ … he really struggled with the word statistics, so obviously he used it again … ‘the very statistics they roll out when they’re looking for more government money, show that because of drug-taking and suicide and what-have-you,’ … what-have-you! … ‘the lifespan of a gay male is reduced by up to twenty years.’
The fledgling murmurings of disquiet in the Tulloch Club audience had been replaced at that point by a fearful silence. In light of what they’d just been witness to, most knew that a nasty train wreck was about to happen, but to Punter’s immense and repeated delight as he had consumed and re-consumed the recording over the course of the day just gone, not one of those witnesses had the gumption to intervene. Or maybe it was a lack of desire? Maybe they wanted to see the wreck? Anyway, for whatever reason, the entire audience decided to do nothing more than watch and listen as Frank Postman’s political caboose uncoupled itself from the party locomotive clattered well clear of the rails.
‘The life of a smoker, on the other hand,’ Frank Postman continued, ‘the life of a smoker is reduced by a comparatively modest seven to ten years.’ Frank paused for effect, the audience still trapped in silence. ‘So you do the maths and you’ll be forced to agree with what I’m saying … which is that the homosexual lifestyle carries these risks, these problems for us all. Their lifestyle eats into not just their own pockets, but into the pockets of each and every normal Australian,’ – you could hear a thump, thump in time with those words, which Punter concluded was Frankie’s index finger pressing the weight of each word into the lectern … each_thump_and_every_thump_normal_thump_thump_ Australian_thump … – ‘to the tune of two-to-three times the cost of the damage wrought by cigarettes.’ He paused again before concluding, ‘And the rest of us just have to accept it. And pay for it. For the consequences of the selfish lifestyles of the perverted few.’
In the wake of that the audience was so stony quiet, you could hear through the open windows behind the speaker’s lecturn, the random scratchings of stray cats fossicking in the rubbish three floors below in the laneway out the back of the club. At least, that’s what Punter gleefully imagined.
This is the 13th instalment of Fare Game. Please, feel free to comment!
Earlier instalments can be found by clicking the Categories and Archives links on the right of the page
© Mick McCoy, 2013