by Michael Botur
We’re ordered out of the beer garden so sudden we feel the wind against our faces, steered down the path away from the bar and the barbecue ribs and the shrieking girls JJ has just tossed his drink over.
Three seconds ago me and JJ had heat lamps cooking our shoulders, we were loving the night, deep and welcome. Now we’re exiled in the barrens outside PubGrub, wobbling over the gutter, trying to remain on the edge between the kerb and the black car park, as if we might catch our balance and march back into the light.
Nah, bro. Can’t walk back into the pub. It’s hard to stand our ground. The right thing to do is say sorry for the ruckus and leave. We fall a couple inches onto the hard tarmac. Scrapes and bruises and dropped ciggies. JJ’s ranting at the bouncer that he’s gonna fucking sue the shit out of her, not that she’s even a bouncer, she’s Kat, the pierced-like-a-voodoo-doll bar manager with the purple hair who’s told us to leave. Kat, legs planted like road cones, is blocking our return into PubGrub, searching in a potted plant for the vape that JJ elbowed out of her mouth. She picks it up and all three of us can see the vape’s cracked.
She’s hollered for rock-solid Fijian chef Vili to come help her finalise the kicking-out of JJ and me. Mostly it’s JJ who’s being booted out since he was the one ranting at the staff that if they trespassed him he’d come back and Burn this fookin place to the ground, mate.
JJ was exiled from Scotland for partying too hard. He’s brought a way-too-big partying spirit to our way-too-small town and we can’t handle him. As his wingman, I can barely keep up. I clean up his messes every night we go out drinking. I do his sorries and pay for the windows he breaks. Tonight’s just typical.
We disappear through an alley of dumpsters and kegs and a recycling bin spewing cardboard, storming away all indignant, JJ trying to press his foggy, dust-spattered specs back on his eyes, complaining about “Me fookin twisted ankle” in that exotic, aloof accent of his, and I fall into the space behind him, panting, trying to keep up, Hold up, hold up, ohmygod, bro, that was sick, hold up.
We come around a corner and collapse against a statue in the cobblestoned mall, chests puffing, wiping the laughs out of our eyes in the orange and black lights of Cameron Street, two boys owning downtown.
God, dude. My life was vanilla as fuck before I got paired up with Jay. These adventures, man. Like a drug.
JJ pulls a tile off the statue, smashes it on the ground, kicks the rubble, wincing as his ankle reacts. I look sideways for security guards or cops. We’re blessed with an eerie amount of grace right now, lucky no one’s got their arse kicked. I’m lucky my wife said at couples’ counselling a year ago she would permit me to go out and find new friends. Live a little. Buddy up with a crazy person, do an apprenticeship, reconnect with your sixteen year old self, she told me. Go to gigs and strip clubs then come home and be a better husband. Loosen up.
Totes, honey, totally. Tonight’s been like Disneyland on acid. Wild and hot and lucky. It’s definitely time to head home.
‘That’s our luck, man, all used up,’ I tell JJ. Our chests have gone cold now. We light fresh cigarettes. Final smokes of the night. ‘Better go home, catch the missus before she goes to sleep and wakes up all pissy.’
‘Get tae fook,’ the raving Scotsman tells me. ‘Ah’ve got half a pint in there.’
‘You need us to liven your night up for you. Is that not what ye use us for? I’m goin back in.’
He’s away, ten metres in a blink, then twenty, limping as fast as he can, shoelaces trailing behind his gimpy sprained foot. I try to dawdle on my statue, try to text my wife telling her I’ve had a wild night and it’s time to come home but that costs me two minutes and by the time I look up the mall is empty and I’m sprinting after JJ’s ghost towards the pub noise at the end of the alleyway where a beer jug is shattering and a girl is screaming and male lungs are bellowing and there’s a white XXL chef suit with a huge body in it throwing off a woman trying to restrain him so he can batter the man that lies flattened with an upturned table on his head.
My friend has been smashed into the cobblestones, lights out. Cold and flat as a corpse. Four girls in white dresses are spattered with barbecue sauce from a plate of ribs JJ seems to have thrown around. Vili, a tree-of-a-man with a neck thick as my thigh, is twisting and shrugging people off him, walking away back towards the kitchen, finished with this time-wasting shit, then he’s spinning back to stoop down and waggle his knuckles in front of JJ’s nose like smelling salts as JJ groans and wakes. Kat, soaked with beer, is trying to press her head against big Vili’s chest and nudge him back up the slopy path, indoors, and Vili accepts this at first, ‘It’s cool, it’s cool, sorry ladies,’ he’s saying to the sauce-spattered girls, pulling a flannel from his pocket.
I’m thinking it’s been a typical Tuesday night with JJ, he’s recovered from a hundred of these booze-melted blowouts, I can haul him up off the cold stones, let him wake up, arm around my neck, nurse the bro home, duct tape his broken glasses, give him a shower, soak up his hurt feelings, roll my eyes at his pledge to never spend another cent at PubGrub, and I’ll post a status update about our wild night and how we’re invincible together when my stupid mouth says in terribly-timed quiet spot ‘Get up, bro, fuck that pussy-arse nigger, he’s nothin,’ and big Vili turns back, throwing off his restraints, walks up towards JJ, who’s in a push-up position, aims for JJ’s head, kicks him back to sleep.
The rehab people in the outpatients department have put JJ in a big draughty wooden mansion with old oak trees like brown dinosaurs dripping leaves on rusted cars. Creaky steps, groaning deck with rotten timber. This rehab place, it’s never locked. Nothing worth stealing. People in and out. Broken, taped-up, recycled. It’s a flophouse for people with traumatic brain injuries. The house is exhausted, sagging stairs and fading lino and water-stained ceiling, like it’s been shaken up in a washing machine. Nowhere near as nice as the drugaholic-workaholic party-apartment he used to romp around in with the air hostess he was fucking whatever week. He’s had a brain bleed from being walloped in the skull with a size 13 work boot. Had a mild stroke which hurt his face muscles only a little but the real damage was his personality, which is rage-ier now. Resentful, bitter. Can’t work. Can’t afford an apartment. The government pays his rent now.
I find my friend sitting in a leather armchair in front of a silenced TV game show, smoking and glowering, tapping his ash on the carpet.
‘Good to see you, Jay. Brought you a house plant. It’s like a wisteria or something.’
‘That’s your apology, I take it? Wifey tell ye to give us that?’
My throat is empty.
‘First she tees up our little friendship cause our girls is at school thegither. She says jump, you say how hi. Eh? Chuck’er over there, ya softcock. Only plant this lad needs is Jamaican, ken wha ah’m sayin?’ JJ pulls a bong from beside the arms of his chair and takes a heavy suck. Bubbles under his chin. He offers me a toke. I decline, mumbling something about drug testing at work. JJ calls me a gaylord.
I push aside pizza boxes and stick the plant somewhere out of sight. It’ll probably die.
For six long minutes, we watch a woman on the telly in a tight dress change some tiles with letters on them.
‘Have a seat, anyway,’ JJ finally goes, gnashing and snarling til his glasses sit right on his nose. He’s texting someone frantically. His ex, Ananya, I guess. She’s told me he’s been hassling her for the past six months. Criticising every inch of her life. Sending her barbs and spears. Catching her off guard whenever she thinks she’s free.
JJ’s trapped in a broken world. He kicks and claws. Furious, inside and out. All the bad shit in JJ’s life is the fault of whoever’s in front of him.
‘Beers’re in the fridge.’
‘Can’t drink, man. It’s 3.30. I took the afternoon off work and everything.’
BLERRRRRRB. JJ belches for four long seconds, filling the house with gas. I cringe.
‘Be a bumboy, then, suit yesel.’
After JJ had his overnight stay in hospital to check his brain bleed was contained, he got moved on and his money got all fucked up. He’d had a pretty-alright income delivering canned drinks, giving free Monster Energys to the birds at dairies and service stations, giving them a taste of an alien party animal, getting phone numbers, racking up Tinder bangs. 118 girls, at last count. He can’t work now, though. The vibrations from the delivery truck would likely rattle the clot loose in his brain and it’d give him another stroke, the Outpatient nurses told us. Dude’s not allowed to drive, be around fireworks, smoke ciggies, eat salt or operate heavy machinery.
He can’t do customer service either, cause of all the fury and eruptions and swearing. I’m starting to think maybe I’m here to absorb all that shit.
JJ presses pills out of a blister pack into his mouth and washes them down with a long, thirsty glug of beer. Anticoagulants, I assume. This week my wife stayed up late with me, pillows between our backs and the wall, researching what to expect for someone with his condition. What kind of punishment the next ten years might hold for us both, cause I know that’s how long I’m stuck with him. Chained to my friend.
‘Here Malky,’ JJ says at last. He creases and uncreases a small leaflet. ‘Readthus.’
‘Uh – Mark, man. I’m Mark.’
‘All the same to me,’ he snorts. JJ’s still fixated on the TV. His face hardly moves. Some of the muscles are paralysed cause his motor cortex got all bruised from his stroke. Squished his brain like a lemon. His eyes peer out from the black shadow under a permafrown. Tired lines. Hot pink face. His cheeks are dirty, unshaven.
‘Go on, read, if you wannae know,’ he says when the adverts come on.
He holds out the creased paper like it’s dirty. Finally I take it.
Life After A Stroke, it’s called.
In the pamphlet is a checklist of symptoms. Increased risk of becoming depressed, erratic, unpredictable, irritable, withdrawn, violent. Poor impulse control. Your friends may not understand sentences you think you’re explaining coherently.
‘Absolute horse shite,’ JJ says, sealing a spliff with his tongue, spilling tobacco crumbs on the hospital quilt on his knees. He changes the channel two, three, four times, then snarls as he scrolls through thirty channels before settling on NASCAR. ‘Do ah seem annae different to you, Mark?’
‘You still got that Elvis Costello look!’ I lie, ‘It’s all about the glasses, bro. Smooth-as.’
Truth be told, JJ has a mishmash of duct-taped black frames and lenses perched across the bridge of his nose. He looks like a homeless Clark Kent.
JJ takes a deep toke on his joint and blows a spear of smoke at me.
‘So you going to pay for me new specs?’
‘Um – like, I guess I could. If you want me to.’
‘Want, pal? WANT?!’ He shifts his armchair 25 degrees, adjusts the blankets on his lap. Points the remote control at the TV and mutes it. ‘Need, more like. You fookin owe us. Cause it was your fault. You know that, don’tcha pal. I’s gonna get up and batter the cunt, and there was you. Provocating.’
‘Um, do you mean provoking?’
‘FOOKING SMAHT AHSE.’ A hand snakes out of his dressing gown sleeve and waggles its finger at me. ‘We coulda walked away. But here’s you. Running that fookin mouth ay yours.’
‘Dude, I was – I was trying to help, I – I –
‘You enraged the brute with that racist shite. Did ye not?’
‘I RAN BACK TO HELP YOU, FOR FUCK’S SAKE.’
I stride to the door, snatching my phone and keys off the counter.
‘HOLD YOUR HORSES JUST ONE MINUTE, KIDDO. Walk out all ye like. But this is on you.’
I turn my sheepish shoulders round to face him. JJ winces as he hauls himself out of the chair. He lumbers across the room as if he’s in a full body cast, with crutches.
JJ slaps my cheek affectionately, pushes a coffee mug into my hand, pulls a half litre bottle of bourbon from his pocket and pours hard liquor into the mug.
‘I got a payout this week, I did. Compensation. Ten fookin grand, mate.’
He winks. My friend is back. ‘Ye need tae celebrate with us. Get your keys.’
We bore through the sunset until night makes everything look less risky. It’s my work van, and I’m not insured. Almost always a no-no. But this may be the last time I break the rules with my mate.
JJ cranks AC/DC on the stereo as loud as it can go, hollers the lyrics, air drums on the dashboard, steering with his elbows, glugging bourbon from a McDonald’s milkshake cup between his thighs. Don’t say this to anyone, mate, he told me one time when we were on acid, But I’m destined to be a Rockstar. Ah ken feel it.
He drives at 120 kays most of the way, incoming wind shaking his hair like a dog, lips flapping, howling every time we hoon past a speed camera. He hits 140 kilometres an hour on some of the straight flat stretches, even 151 at one point, overtaking eight cars and a truck. I hold the handle on the ceiling and shiver. Cold in here, with the windows down. Bared to the elements.
It’s supposed to be a two and half hour drive but we hit Auckland in 98 minutes, the glittering buildings growing large before us.
I pick the sleep crystals out of my eyes. I’d been hoping for a blissed-out sleep tonight. Watch a movie with my wife, kiss her belly-folds, eat pasta, drink wine. As I was talking to JJ, I was saving up critical nuggets in my mind. I was going to tell my wife about how fucked-up JJ is these days and how it’s good to be past all that and how blessed we are.
Guess I’ll tell her if I get back. When I get back, I mean. We won’t die, tonight, will we? Surely not.
We push over the hump of the Harbour Bridge. Sky City Casino blots out the clouds. A concrete ramp opens up, closes its mouth, swallows. We slide down its charcoal throat into the underground car park. Back when my life was boring and beige and I gamed every night til eleven, I would’ve dreamed of a road trip like this.
We corkscrew down a concrete ramp, pull up the handbrake and with a jerk, and the opportunity to escape ends. Not that I accept it, at first.
‘I think I’m gonna go home, man. Catch a bus or something. I can’t see you pouring your money down a toilet, yo. I have to head back.’
‘Get tae fuck. You been riding my success for years, mate. Can’t quit now.’
A bottle rolls off his seat and shatters behind him. He’s locked the car already. The keys are in his pocket. No way I’m getting home.
The elevator doors part and he struts inside. When the brushed steel halves open, we walk onto carpet thick and patterned with spades and diamonds which expands like an endless ocean under a black hot sky. Zombified people everywhere shuffling across the carpet, black hair and purple hair and silver and blonde, t-shirts and suits and cleavage. Floor-to-ceiling fruit machines, all ding-ding and CHING! and cherry and Egyptian themes, Isis and Osiris and dollar signs and chrome handles and pink buttons and sparkling ceiling and flinch and grimace and deep breath, bro. You’ll be outta here soon.
I back my boy up as he roams the black canyon with golden pillars and yellow caves. He needs two dollar coins, so I break a hundred dollar note and get him a pottle. Needs cigarettes, so I put thirty bucks into the Marlboro machine. He fails on the Top Dollar, picks up his stool and bashes the screen. He loses the Pharaoh’s Chamber and rages at it, too. ‘Third time looky, third time looky,’ JJ says then sits down at a computer game of baccarat on a towering computery thingy and wins four twenties, then five, then eight.
‘Dinner’s on me, ya cunt.’
JJ leads us to the buffet, suit jacket flapping over his black disco shirt with an old brown blood stain on it. He fills his plate with bacon and lobster and shrimp and blue cheese. He can’t stop staring at a Singaporean-looking woman with tattooed tits wearing a throbbing tiara at a table of hen party princesses and midway through his $40 dinner he walks over, dusting his hands, wiping his mouth, sits down and busts out some lines. Makes her laugh. Leads her first to the golden bar, then the darker wall, then into the disabled toilet. Minutes later, she stumbles as she comes out. Falls on her face. Her friends flock to pick her up. Drunk or high or roofie’d, JJ intoxicates people.
While I’m still agape, my friend, buckling his belt, drags me to a table of blackjack where an unimpressed Sikh dude wearing a dostar dishes up cards. My blackjack’s unlucky, I go over 21 three times, win one, then hit a patch of six sequential losses, urgh, seven. JJ meanwhile is tossing insults into the table. We lose to the Filipino guy who’s played five rounds, then the pair of English backpacker redheads. JJ loses ten rounds in a row, his chips and cards raked away, and stands up.
‘Me and you,’ JJ says to the dealer, a pious studenty-looking cunt whose brown eyes widen as my friend threatens him. ‘Oi: parking lot. Square go. One on one. Cause you’re fookin crooked, you are.’
‘C’mon Jay, we gotta –
JJ rushes at the dealer. I catch my friend around the waist, crush his wings. The Sikh dude steps a metre back, presses a red panic button, brushes off his uniform.
‘GET OFF US, YA BAD LUCK BASTARD!’ my best friend growls. ‘This is your fault! All of it! Get us a fookin room. Ah need a break.’
Hotel room it is. The Albert Suite. They pre-charge my credit card $480. My thighs freeze and tingle. But it’s okay, Mark, I remind myself. Because this is an exit payment. Cause this is the last time, and there is no way I’ll let a so-called mate treat me like this in future.
The receptionist girl slides a tablet across the counter. Malaysian. Exotic. A woman to consume and brag about, if one were JJ, of course.
But I can’t do that again. Cause I don’t work for JJ anymore. Not after tonight.
I type my details and wince at the bill – plus tax, plus tip, plus breakfast, plus parking – and scrawl a signature with my fingertip.
‘What’s aw this?’
‘You’ve gotta read it and sign it, Jay.’
‘It’s all in fookin Asian.’
‘Literally, man, it’s English, bro. Here – I can read it out to you.’
‘Fook that.’ JJ drains his cocktail and dumps his spiralling glass on the counter. He walks over to wait for the elevator, whistling.
I stagger after him, sobered from the shock of the bill. Four figures, now. A whole week’s wages wasted.
JJ waits in front of the elevator clutching his chest, exhausted and red-faced, his glasses steamed-up. When we finally get a ride up and make it down the hallways and keycard open the door, he falls onto the bed.
We’re in our hotel room now, which is good, okay, whew. Good place to cork the night, except just as I’m boiling the kettle and putting two teabags in mugs, JJ continues rolling – oh Christ, he’s doing a Mission Impossible, rolling towards the window – and my friend hits the wall, wobbles til he’s upright, somersaults off the bed, crab-walks across the carpet, opens the minibar and begins emptying bottles of chardonnay and Dutch beer and – dude, you’re not – opening the gin, for crying out loud, and sucking flame through his pipe, stinking up the room, some awful bleach-stinking shit that he exhales out window into the black honking city.
It must be thirty minutes before he realises I’m in the room with him. I’ve been listening to his heavy, agitated breath. His skin is crimson. Fresh creases around his eyes. Glasses all foggy and limp.
‘Bitcoin, mate. That’s the future. We’re investing. Tonight. Every day we leave it is another day we miss out. We’re gaunae need, Christ… about eight thousand for a decent buy-in. Whip your mobby out. Good lad. Mount Gox – go there and buy us a stake, mate.’
JJ picks up the remote control and begins scrolling channels. I pinch the bridge of my nose.
‘Dude, you already won a couple bucks downstairs –
‘ARE YOU FOOKIN LISTENING? I’m securing your financial future, y’ungrateful bastard. This is aw because of you, y’know.’
‘Whatever, okay, fine. I’ll lend you.’
‘And ah’ll need about a grand, mate, for the tables. T’raise the, ehrm, the start-up, y’know. Seed capital.’
I sit against a wall, down on the carpet where the Sky TV magazine lives. ‘Dude. It’s, like – it’s two o’clock in the morning. You need to hold onto your money.’
‘Aye. My money’s mine. And I’m calling in what you owe us.’
‘I don’t owe–
‘THIS IS YOUR DAEIN. ALL A THIS. So dinnae say another fookin word. Kappish?’
We ride the elevator in silence. We know we’re on the casino floor when two men and three women with black tuxedos and white smiles spotlight us. JJ splats down $300 on roulette, walks away with $410, snorting. I’m a dick for ever doubting him.
Over to the baccarat table. JJ loses $500, then I stand behind my friend as he sits in on a game of poker, two dialled-in players from Dubai, three humans and a dealer, failing on a hand of Texas Hold’em, then JJ demands the game change to five stud and they send him to another table but not until JJ has demanded the dealer’s full name and address and told him Your days are numbered, pal.
I’m still in JJ’s shadow as he hauls his fuming frame over to the bank window and flirts with the tired girl on duty behind the bulletproof plastic, playing with her braids.
‘MARKO, YA TIGHTWAD, GIT OVER HERE’N GIZ SOME DOSH.’
I’m doing the maths in my head. Add up the money lost from the time off work, the petrol to drive down here, the four hundred for the suite, a hundred bucks of booze from the minibar, the thousand he’s going to spend in the casino then of course food downstairs, plus car parking, and adjust for inflation, with a koha on top and surely we can part ways now that I’ve paid the guy five thousand, maybe six. This, this last thing: this can be it. Exit fee. Payment for parting ways. Cheers for the years.
I swipe my American Express and drum my fingers. The girl – African; fuckable; worth 82 out of 100 points on the scale me and JJ created – continues to stroke her braids, unfazed, like she gets losers with their cards declining every night.
I try my work Mastercard and after half a minute of ticking screen it’s declined.
The only other credit card is this Gem Visa that IKEA issued to me when I got that lounge suite on hire purchase. JJ yanks it out of my fingers, sticks it in the electronic device, demands my PIN.
He’s thumping the counter while the device talks to the server.
A thick, wide bouncer comes and stands beside JJ and my bro says something sharp and the bouncer tries to pinch the smile off his lips. I’m distracted by the India-Pakistan match on a row of TV screens and when I look back over at the bank counter, the receipt is saying Declined.
I’m behind on the action, though. The bouncer is doing some kind of Heimlich manoeuvre, ass-fucking JJ, wrestling my red-faced friend away and out into the lobby. Arm around my friend’s bulging red face as he’s humped toward the escalator like a sheep that doesn’t want to be sheared.
I’m still behind the row of bouncers, twenty metres away when JJ throws two fingers up, yells ‘FOOK THIS’N ALL, ONE STAR ON TRIPADVISOR YA CUNTS,’ turns to march away, misses the top step of the escalator and plummets.
Rickety, this place. Painted ironic yellow, a happy colour for sad lives. Fragile; held together by wooden walls. As if that means everyone inside is delicate.
Used to be a Koha Care respite home I drove past every day, til it turned out this was going to be the place my best bro would live in for the second half of his life.
I enter through the sliding door, directly into the lounge. Roiling in here. Sticky summer.
I find my friend in front of a dock between a pair of speakers that plays music directly from his phone. His left arm scrolls through the tunes.
‘The Killers, you heard this yin? Glastonbury, 2012. Golden Days, mate. D’ye know ah took three tabs that day? Biggest fookin acid trip ae me life. Ah’s the life of the party, mate.’
‘Definitely, bro. Woulda been awesome.’
His blue eyes jab out from dark purple pits and spear me. ‘Ah would’ve been a rockstar. Right now. Ah’d’ve made it, definitely. But ah cannae get on stage like this, can I. Cause of what happened.’
‘Cause of what happened,’ I repeat in a watered-down voice. I roll a cigarette with a few hairs of sticky tobacco-moss, shove it in his lips and light it for him.
‘Ye’r gonnae load us up, aren’t ye, Marko.’
I blink, shake my head a little. ‘Where are we going?’
‘I didn’t say tae ask oos a bunch ay questions,’ says the talking head with the unmoving body beneath. ‘I says tae load us into the fookin van.’
Selling my car has cost three or four hundred in admin and auction listing fees and time off work to get it ship-shape to be sold – at a loss. I bought a people mover for JJ to roll his wheelchair into. It cost $9000. Modifying it to include a hydraulic ramp was $3500. Then separating from my wife. Cause she says I don’t see her when I look at her. All I think about is someone else. That’s what she says – said? – says.
Separating cost half of everything.
Not much cash, these days. Lotta sixty hour weeks to keep up. Five credit cards to pay off. Overdraft, too. And the payday loan.
I load JJ into his cradle in the vehicle, strap him in. I lean close and the rotten swamp-stench of his breath burns my eyes. I can feel JJ glaring at the world, eyes boring into my back as I drive.
I ease onto the road and begin cruising at a slow, safe, steady 45 kays an hour. We pass the kids’ school, its bright red slide swarming with joyful midgets in blue shirts. We pass PubGrub, the good-looking lunchtime cats sipping frosty glasses. Hit the industrial part of town, a thousand warehouse roofs. Smokestacks. Garbage dump, mountains of washing machines.
Apart from telling me to turn right or left or keep going, JJ won’t say where he’s taking us.
In the car – the van; the pitymobile – JJ tells me about busting a nut in his pants. Tells me about sucking her tits.
‘Ah’ve shagged 130 women now, young Magnus,’ he says, tapping his skull. ‘Memory’s not as dull and rusty as the boffins wannae convince us, eh?’
Next stop turns out to be Raumanga, with tired trees dripping tired leaves on fences.
‘Slow down, y’impatient knobhead,’ he tells me. He motions for me to steer into Second Avenue. We ease to a stop outside number 25.
It’s an exhausted property, half-screened away by bamboo, and inside is a frightened woman who doesn’t want to see us.
Ananya creeps onto the deck, looking around for help. JJ –at the bottom of two steps, hands on his wheels – begins accusing her of conspiring with the health board to cut back his prescription for morphine pills. Shouting, JJ pukes his rage out. I sit in the driver seat, drumming with my fingers. Wishing my life were better.
It ends after four minutes, though it feels like half an hour. The old white biddy next door is shrieking over the fence at JJ, filming him on her mobile. Jay picks shoes off of Ananya’s steps and throws them at her.
‘Hurry,’ I tell JJ, shoving hard to overcome the brakes on his wheelchair. ‘We have to be miles away from here, man. Cops are coming.’
‘PubGrub. Step on it.’
‘Ah’m late, ah’m late, for a very important date.’
‘You’re not… you’re not serious.’
JJ scowls through his glasses. I’m already driving. Pretty obvious he means business.
I’m wincing as I wheel JJ up the cobblestone slope and into the beer garden of the very same god damn pub that got JJ his head injury in the first place. I haven’t set foot in PubGrub since that night back in summer, back when life was open and promising. The ground is damp and black, now, moss growing in the cracks. I park my difficult mate at a table where a girl is fiddling with her phone – a girl in a stylish coat, painted fingernails, perfectly-balanced fringe above caramel eyes, way too sophisticated for my prick-of-a-friend. She’s brown-skinned with square, spiky black hair, two interesting piercings and a jaw that’s just firm enough to stand up to bullshitters. When she sees the wheelchair roll up to her table, she goes from looking bored to looking suspicious and bemused. God knows what lies JJ has been saying to her to persuade her to accept a date.
I brace for Kat to shout at me and fetch Vili to boot us out.
Kat’s too busy putting out menus to give us more than raised eyebrows. We’re not banned, it seems. She doesn’t care about us.
Bored, unwelcome, uninvited, without even being needed as a minder/nurse, I saunter into the indoor bar.
‘Want anything?’ Vili goes, wiping his hands on his chef jacket.
‘Bro – broooo. I’m so sorry.’
‘For us fucking up the place that night? Right?’
He shrugs like a shark that’s decided not to take a bite. ‘Let us know if you want something to eat. Just holler.’
While JJ works on his date, I play with a salt shaker, sip a caffe latte, dump three sugars in it to make my day a little happier. The place is mostly deserted except for the staff, plus JJ and his love interest. It’s like somehow all of us are working for JJ. Devoting the whole place to his pleasure.
‘It’s, like, 2 o’clock,’ I remark next time Kat comes past with rags and a bucket. ‘Look at JJ getting fucked-up. That’s cracked, eh. You reckon?’
‘Paying customer,’ Kat mutters.
2pm becomes 3. I watch JJ bombard the woman with words, sip beer, light cigarettes, dip French fries in aioli. I see the girl’s elbows, hard as the walls of a fortress, ease apart. She laughs, over and over, and gazes deeply into JJ’s stupid eyes.
God damn it. He’s going to bang her.
‘Kat.’ She comes, hovers, notepad out. I buy another coffee for an excuse to talk to her. I point at the gorgeous caramel model who’s now sitting on JJ’s lap laughing, their fingers scrolling something on JJ’s phone together. ‘That’s bullshit, right? Look at them, living it up.’
She shrugs. ‘But that’s what a minder does, innit.’
‘I’m not his minder, I’m his friend. He’s taking the piss, right?’
She shrugs again. ‘Can’t always pay with money, can ya. Speaking of which.’ Kat sets down the bill. Two hundred fuckin dollars already, and counting.
Vili, lugging a keg on a trolley, pauses behind her.
‘He’s unwell, isn’t he. Dude can’t help it. What’s your excuse?’
‘But it’s like being fucking punished, for fuck’s sake.’ I open my palms. Open my lips wide with exasperation. ‘Why’s this all happening to me?’
Vili and Kat look at each other and share a shrug.
‘Cause you’re his mate?’