pencer Street Station was fourteen platforms of grey asphalt each flanked by two railway tracks. The station was roofed by corrugated iron that had seen better days around the time of the Gallipoli landings and its walls were the wrought iron pylons that supported the rooves. This morning was shaping up to be a fine January morning, light blue sky, the tang of chlorine slightly in the unusually humid air and the occasional covey of cumulus clouds chugging across it in the hopes of finding somewhere better than West to settle in. As yet, though, the heat of the day was only a promise and Melbourne’s weather is notoriously, famously treacherous. For this reason an Antarctic blast sailed through the heads and across Port Philip Bay to land as squarely as sucker punch against Dean McNair’s newly shaved cheek.
“Fuck it’s cold,” he said for the fortieth time. The weather did its best to live up to what it thought of as a request.
He had been waiting about twenty minutes at the station having walked in from the small bungalow he lived in in North Fitzroy, about twenty minutes away where he could walk along sunny streets or at least duck down the cobbled laneways to get out of this hellish wind, which whipped his long light brown hair around his ears, neck and baby-smooth cheeks. It wasn’t blowing strongly enough to threaten the battered slouch hat he wore outdoors but it certainly was cold. He regretted not wearing something heavier but realised he’d planned ahead against the promise of a hot January ay.
The 10:03 from Sunshine rolled into Platform 11 and Dean looked up and down the platform to spot his mate Brian getting off. He wasn’t immediately in view so Dean started to walk down the platform until the distant mobile blurs resolved themselves to be the sort of people who got off the 10:03 from Sunshine.
“Dean!” somebody shouted from the Western end of the platform. “Dean!”
“Huh/” Dean said, looking vainly around. Then he spotted Brian striding towards him with the confident stride that reminded Dean, when he saw it, of a pace bowler starting his run-up.
Brian Bacon was in fact a pace bowler for the Nunawading and District Amateur Cricket Club and usually batted at the number eight position. In the two years since they’d met it had seemed to Dean that he had grown about four inches and that he was never, ever, without a jumper. He had close cropped reddish blonde hair and mild grey eyes that, unlike Dean’s dark blue ones, could spot a cricket ball sailing towards third man usually while the actual third man was still searching for it.
“Nearly didn’t recognise you,” said Brian. “You look like The Edge.”
“The Edge? Guitarist for U2?”
“Oh! You Two. Yes. That’s that…song they have. Ummm…well, I’m not gonna sing it. But I know who you mean.”
“What’s their latest movie called then?”
“Er…’Guns Across The Mersey’?”
“’Rattle and Hum’. Let’s get to Platform 10.”
They quickly traversed the network of tunnels between the platforms and walked up the ramp, Dean panting a bit, in time to get the 10:19 to Lilydale. It was Monday, January 19th, 1987.
The previous Friday had been the Friday of the pay week at the State Bank of Victoria and Dean had walked in from the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade in Collins St in the blistering heat of a late January afternoon in Australian Eastern Daylight Saving Time. The State Bank had a tall octagonal building at Elizabeth and Bourke Sts across from the Town Hall and the fortnightly happy hour was held on the 18th floor. He waited patiently at the security desk for a few people to get directions and then tipped his hat to Ian the security guard, who waved him in without a word. It was a brief wait for the lift to the 18th floor cafeteria. Not that Dean needed to see the security guard to get into a cafeteria that was usable by anyone even visiting the bank but he was a sociable person who liked to make sure authority figures were on his side. The music in the lift was an instrumental version of the Beach Boys’ ‘God Only Knows’ and Dean felt a bit cheered by this familiar tune. He stepped out at the 18th floor into a crowd of people waiting for lifts to take them down to the ground floor and back home. The faces of these harried folk looked as flat and grey as the décor. Even the landscapes on the walls of the lift foyer featured pale mountains in overcast skies. The only flash of colour seemed to be the vivid suits worn by the younger ladies waiting at the lift doors. Dean smiled appreciatively at a few of them, none of whom smiled back. He mentally shrugged and moved left towards the doors that led to the cafeteria.
“Hey!” said someone behind him.
“Yep?” he responded curtly as he turned. He was wondering whether the questioner had the authority to hail him in that officious manner. The speaker was a well-rounded man in his mid-30’s who looked the type who tried to impress himself with how much he could throw his comparatively large weight around. Dean had brushed his shoes with less bristly things than this bloke’s moustache. They were both wearing casual clothes but this bloke had a tightly knotted red tie over a light blue shirt that had probably fit him about four hundred beers ago. Dean only wore ties to weddings and funerals and his shirt fit him like a shopping bag fit a peanut. He put a look of patient annoyance on his face. The other man put a stern look on his.
“Mind if I ask what you’re doing here?”
“Yes, I do.”
“Who are you?”
That was a fair enough question. “Dean McNair,“ he said, reaching into his jacket pocket for an ID he didn’t have. “Foreign Affairs and Trade.”
“And who are you here to see/”
“Need to know?” asked Dean, raising a polite eyebrow. This particular catchphrase had caught on recently in the private sector as Dean well knew. He let the politeness drain out of his expression and looked the man up and down, faking that he was memorising every detail about him, knowing he wouldn’t remember him forty seconds after they parted.
“Yeah, well…” said the other man. IN the background the lift arrived at the 18th floor with a polite ‘bong’. Dean knew a cue when he heard it.
“Your lift’s here.” The man looked fuddled for a moment, then turned to catch his lift. He didn’t give a backward glance as he boarded and Dean hoped, rather than knew, that he would forget the whole incident over the weekend. He turned back to the doors that led to the cafeteria, smiling as he thought of how he’d called an obvious bluff.
The number of women at the happy hour had nearly doubled since the last one, back in November. The bank usually didn’t bother with them over the Christmas break but there had obviously been some enthusiasm for these social gatherings in the women’s point of view—and of course more women brought more men.
Dean spotted Brian across the room and threaded his way to the bar. It was two dollars for a can of Carlton Draught but they were larger than a $1.40 pot at the Menzies Tavern and were at almost absolute zero. He popped the top and slurped out the top few centimetres in one long soul-satisfying gulp, then threaded his way through some chirping power dressers to Brian and his mates.
“Here he is. Got a beer?” said Des Scholl, looking right at it.
“I’m right thanks, Des.”
“How the fuck are ya?” asked Frasier Crane, just for something to say. In any large organisation there are bound to be people with the same name as some kid of celebrity, fictional or otherwise and the State Bank was no exception. Indeed, it probably stretched a point on the subject.
“G’day, Dean,” said Brian and Dean raised his can in salute.
“You in a shout?” asked the fourth in the SBV quartet, Sean Stanhope, ‘something to do with computers’. That was the way everyone introduced him and after a while you realised it was because he simply had nothing else about him to talk about.
“Just on a sidey,” Dean replied, “but I’ll get the next one, if you’re all square.”
“If you got here earlier it wouldn’t be a problem,” said Brian.
“We in the public sector can’t take the afternoon off at three o’clock and charge everyone bank fees to do it.”
“Why don’t public servants look out the window in the morning?”
“They get jealous of you bastards on another strike,” said Dean and got a few laughs.
“Yeah, out again on Monday,” said Brian.
“What for this time?” asked Dean interestedly. Industrial action in DFAT amounted to someone stirring their morning tea loudly.
“Delayed action on payrise for the second quarter of 86-7,” said Frasier.
“What? You haven’t had a payrise in six months?” asked Dean incredulously, since he hadn’t had one in two and a half years.
“It’s a question of profit,” said Sean. “If they pay us something they cut into their quarterly profits.”
“Whereas if we didn’t work here there’d be no bloody profits,” said Des.
“Their theory is that they don’t need to actually do anything to make profits,” Sean explained. “This new fee system they’re thinking up will take care of all expenses and make all staff redundant. No tellers to take cash in and ultimately no cash.”
“That’s typical,” said Brian. “How the fuck are they going to balance their books or even clean the bloody building without some kind of staff?”
“Well, there will be an executive branch to oversee this movement to a new technological framework and they’ll go to contract labour for the cleaning. The executives justify shareholder value by showing where non-deposit financial resources can be most efficiently spent.”
“Which would be on them and these new computers, I suppose?” Des asked.
“Oh, I’m gone, too,” said Sean, “just as soon as I get the last of the pornography off the tape backups.”
“Serious? What pornography?”
“Forget I said anything.”
“No, no, no,” said Frasier. “What’s this about porn? Can you get porn?”
“I’m not even supposed to be talking about this,” said Sean, knowing he’d get everyone’s attention, “but there are certain questions being asked at a senior management level about how some backup tapes of some ATM transaction listings suddenly seem to have become ‘corrupted’ in the last incremental backup and the ‘corruption’ seems to take the form of GIF files of a, er, certain nature.”
“Why does that bother anyone?” asked Frasier.
“The concern is they shouldn’t be there, we don’t know how they got there—officially—and some of the more ignorant of the suits think that we can accidentally print statements that the customers won’t be too impressed with.”
“I know I would be,” said Frasier. “I’ll start drawing out one dollar amounts and really thicken my next statement up.”
“What’d be the point of that?” asked Brian. ‘You might as well go and buy one of those tapes from Canberra.”
“If you’re looking for pornography,” said Des, “three o’clock.” Everyone looked to his three o’clock position to see a slender dark woman with bright red lips hitch her skirt back down along her long left leg, laugh and change her glass of white wine back to her left hand.
“Who’s that?” asked Dean.
“Helen Apostolou, new secretary to Mr Cable in that Tricontinental thing, 24, Libra, Bachelors in Commerce from LaTrobe, “ said Brian. “I’m surprised to see her here.”
“She’s here for me,” said Dean and “Fuck you’re a gossip,” said Des.
Dean waited patiently while Des finished his beer and then went up to the bar to get five more cans, three Victoria Bitter and two Carltons. Serving behind the bar was a delightful creature with long ash-blonde that fell well below her shoulders. “Hi, Mary,” Dean said sociably. She responded with a quick ‘Hello’ and bent down to get him his change. When you’re 5’2” in a low-necked dress, Dean thought, it’s not a good idea to have the change tray below the level of the counter. Unless of course you wanted men staring down your cleavage.
“What are you looking at?” Mary laughed.
“Seeing if I can drop a fifty-cent piece down there.”
“Fifty cents wouldn’t be worth looking for.”
“Two dollars would be.”
“Wrap it in a twenty and give me a call.”
They both laughed and Dean was still smiling when he got back to the group.
“What are you smiling at?” asked Frasier.
“Beer, beer, beer, beer,” said Dean, handing the cans over. “I’ve just been flirting with the barmaid.”
“So who’s your tip for the weekend/” asked Des.
“Where are they racing?” asked Brian, all ears.
“You don’t need to guess that,” said Sean, “the results have been worked out before Christmas.”
“Well, you’re the computer expert,” said Frasier. “Can’t you program to tell us what the result will be?”
“I can find you Waterhouse’s phone number. Phone him up and ask him.”
“And have my kneecaps broken? No, I need my knees for grovelling.”
Des, of course, had a weekend form guide with him and pulled it out. He unfolded the broadsheet and held it nearly at arm’s length to read.
“What the hell are you bothering with that for?” asked Frasier. “Their opinion’s no better than ours.”
“They get paid for their opinion.”
“If that’s all it is, pay us,” said Brian.
“Pick one winner and I’ll consider it.”
Racing wasn’t really Dean’s cup of tea and if it wasn’t for the lively banter about horses and the beer that came with it, he would’ve said it bored him shitless. He usually put on a few bets on the weekend to show he understood what they were talking about and agreed or disagreed depending on how well someone’s opinion was received, but the only day of the year he took the ponies seriously was Melbourne Cup Day. With half an ear on the conversation he looked around for the leggy brunette in the red dress. He spotted over in a corner talking to a tall muscular mid-level executive, if you could judge by the suit, whose glasses seemed at this distance to be even thicker than Dean’s. The executive seemed to be a friendly type who couldn’t hold down a conversation without moving his hands or touching the person he was talking to. The girl seemed to enjoying the conversation and as she laughed Dean strained to hear it over the hubbub of the cafeteria. The executive, as Dean looked at him, seemed to be using both hands in his conversation with the girl while still holding a glass of Coke in one hand. Dean wondered what kind of jokes the girl liked, where she would like to go to dinner, what her hair would look like spread across a pillow. He mentally plotted the evening with her, once he’d found out her favourite restaurant. Pick her up around eight, having obtained a car from somewhere—oh, and a licence to drive it—and then the money to afford such a restaurant. A suitable house to bring her back to. Some kind of banter to entice her to his boudoir. She tossed her hair as she laughed and Dean imagined them both on a yacht, sailing out to sea with the wind whipping her hair. She brushed her left hand down the executive’s arm. He rested his hand briefly on her shoulder just above her breast. Dean had only got up to pouring the first wine in the restaurant and it looked like this power-dressed couple were heading down to Queenscliff for the weekend.
“What?” Dean asked.
“Have you found somewhere to live yet?” asked Brian.
“Oh. Um, no. Still looking. I’ve got another three weeks before they take possession but after that…well, technically I’ll be homeless.”
“Jesus. You can’t afford somewhere or what?”
“Partly that. Partly—mostly—I can’t get the time off work to find somewhere. We’re flat out at the moment with this new audit.”
“What are they auditing?” asked Sean.
“People with multiple passports. After all that crap about John Standish, aka Joseph Steele, aka James Sidon, aka we’re still looking, the Government’s decided to get tough on fraud. So all leave is cancelled.”
“Yeah, but in three weeks you’re going to be homeless?” said Frasier.
“More or less, as such, so to speak,” said Dean embarrassedly.
“Well, so’s Brian. Why don’t you share a place?”
“What? I didn’t know that,” said Dean. “I thought you were living at your uncle’s?”
“I was,” said Brian. “ I am. But it’s a pain in the arse getting in here from Sunshine every morning. Plus Uncle Christ now reckons he could lose the place.”
“You should live in Pakenham,” said Des regretfully.
“Nobody lives in Pakenham,” said Sean. “It’s where people go if they want to die—by gunshot.” Sean had inherited his house in Kew and was somewhat proud of it, though its plumbing was about a hundred years old and the place was pretty much falling apart. Sean was going to get around to repairing and renovating it one of these days.
“Well, there you go, then!” said Des. “Billy Goodkind at the Club’s got a place in Blackburn. Well, his fiancée owns it. They need a couple of people in to help with the mortgage.”
“What do you reckon?”
“I don’t know,” said Dean. “I mean I’ve got all my stuff. And Blackburn seems further than Sunshine.”
“Won’t hurt to have a look.”
“Alright,” said Dean. “I think I can squeeze Monday morning off. ‘Pressing domestic necessity’ I’ll call it. If they bitch I’ll just point out it’s necessary to have a domicile to have a domestic necessity in. Whose shout?”
The train rattled over the Yarra River and Dean felt a strange pang as he realised he was leaving the inner city. He looked over at Brian but he was engrossed in the paper, probably trying to work out why he hadn’t become a punting millionaire over the weekend.
“Huh,” he said as they passed Auburn station.
“What?” asked Brian, looking up.
“Geebung Polo Club. It’s a Henry Lawson story.”
“It used to be the Auburn Hotel. My former flatmate used to drink there before he joined the Army.”
“Anyway, he was there the night the place got raided by Immigration and the police. The top floors were a brothel.. All these Thai refugees or whatever were kept imprisoned up there.”
“That was the Clifton in Kew.”
“Yeah. Where did your mate drink again?”
“I thought it was here, but if you say the Clifton… Maybe it was the Clifton. What was Michael talking about then?”
“I don’t know,” said Brian, “but you’ve had a story about every bloody station we’ve passed.”
“Yeah, well… If this all works out I’ll’ve said goodbye to all of them.”
“Bloody hell,” said Brian and went back to his paper.
The land rose around the rails and the houses gradually gave way to flats as they passed into East Hawthorn. The graffiti on the brick walls either side of the tracks got spelt better and then the train passed under the road bridge and into Camberwell statin.
“Huh,” said Dean.
“I’ve never been East of Burke Rd in my life. What station do we get off at?”
“I’ll let you know! For God’s sake,” and Brian made a noisy job of straightening out the paper. Dean sat back and watched the scenery to his left. The number of trees was considerably larger on this side of the river and he hadn’t seen a factory since Burnley. They rattled through dormitory suburb after dormitory suburb and Dean felt sleepiness crawling over him. That changed as he crossed Elgar Rd outside of Mont Albert and they rolled past businesses and car yards to Box Hill. Box Hill was an underground station by virtue of a shopping mall built over it. The shopping mall styled itself the Hub of the East. Dean, who’d shopped at little strip malls since his teens, was surprised at the size of the mall. He wondered if this was where he would do his shopping if he moved out here, and whether he could get a kebab.
“Probably no kebabs out here,” he said.
“Next stop,” said Brian without looking up.
On To The Second Chapter
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Get Me The Hell Out Of Here!