The Wheatsheaf Hotel is in Thebarton, an inner-west suburb which has seen a remarkable transformation in recent times. Twenty years ago, the suburb was a real dive, half of it devoted to light industry, the other half made up of narrow and treeless streets with rundown cottages dating back to a time when people were a lot shorter than they are now. These days the suburb is still mostly a dive, but the real estate prices are so much better. It’s kind of like Fitzroy in Melbourne, but with only a fraction of the graffiti and the retro barber shops.
The suburb has a high Greek-Australian population, but whereas the Greek people have established a school, a bank and a church, they have not opened any nice places to go to eat or drink. This job has been left to people from other cultures, with a Lebanese bakery and kebab shop, a French dessert bar, and Thai and Vietnamese restaurants all located in the suburb. (In the neighbouring suburb of Torrensville there is an Afghani restaurant, which has become a local institution, serving amazing dishes of eggplant and lamb.)
And then there is the Wheatsheaf. The hotel, like most of the suburb, needs a paint job. They don’t have pokie machines and they don’t do food — they don’t even pretend to do food by serving ‘tapas’. (There is usually a food truck parked out the front though.) Their wine list, I am assured by those who say they know, could be better.
What the pub is known for is its beer list, which is as diverse and rich as its clientele. On a Saturday night the place has a real hum to it. People sit on old, shabby furniture, and they drink hoppy craft beers from around the world and talk. Of course, the hipsters, with their designer flannel shirts and manicured facial hair, are well represented, but the crowd is more diverse than that. There are young and old people, attractive and unattractive people, rough-looking men with neck tattoos and dapper old gentlemen with bow ties, stylish women wearing $200 skinny jeans with rips in them and daggy women wearing $15 Kmart jeans.
The Girl and I popped in for a quick drink one Saturday night in spring on our way to the Afghani restaurant. We ordered two glasses of Victorian Shiraz and then waited five interminable minutes for the bartender to open the last remaining cork bottle found in any pub in Australia.
Once our cheap glasses had been filled with expensive wine we went and stood in front of the open fire and talked about kitchen renovations. I was ready to make a move to the 1970s couch in stained orange upholstery fabric when a girl in her own 70s upholstery fabric came up and asked, ‘Youse sitting there, are ya?’
‘No, you go ahead, we’re fine here,’ I said.
She turned around and signalled animatedly, like a flight deck crew member on an aircraft carrier, to her friend across the room. She was a tall girl, built powerfully. She wore knee-high leather boots with white leggings to match the white woollen beanie over her long blonde hair. The multi-coloured, diamond-patterned dress she had on was quite busy, and had, I believe, the power to teleport you to another dimension if you stared at it for long enough.
Her male friend was a complete mismatch. He was a short and round Italian guy, tufts of chest hair sticking out over the collar of his T-shirt, and in his late-forties he was at least ten years older than the blonde.
‘That’s fucken awesome!’ she exclaimed after taking a sip of the wine.
‘It’s not bad, is it?’ her friend said.
‘Hey, this is fucken awesome,’ she repeated. At first, I didn’t realise she was speaking to us. But then she leaned forward, presented the bottle to us and said, ‘That’s just their house red, you know, but it’s fucken awesome.’
‘Oh yeah, where’s it from?’ The Girl, who was far more socially adept than I was, asked.
‘Mount Compass,’ the blonde said and grinned. She added quickly, ‘Nah, just joking, McLaren Vale. What are youse drinking?’
‘Yeah, where are you guys from, then?’
‘We’re from Adelaide.’
She stood up and came over to us. ‘Yeah, Adelaide, I can see it, you’re so… humble.’
Neither of us knew what this meant but we both nodded our heads. ‘Where are you from, then?’ I asked.
‘Melbourne?’ The Girl guessed.
I was going to say the 1970s but I didn’t know if this would have offended or flattered her, and I didn’t really want to do either. ‘Perth?’ I guessed instead.
‘Nah, I’m from Goolwa!’ And then she added casually, ‘I used to play netball for Australia, hey.’
We nodded our heads, trying to take in the randomness of the world. We had been to Goolwa. We had liked Goolwa. It was a nice little town, a bit windy being at the mouth of the Murray River, but nice. I didn’t have an opinion on netball.
‘What do you do in Goolwa?’ The Girl asked.
‘I work for a music magazine, hey,’ the blonde replied.
I nodded my head again. Of course. Of course, she worked for a music magazine, in Goolwa, when she wasn’t playing netball for Australia. It all made sense.
‘Whatta you guys do, hey?’ she asked.
‘Office jobs,’ I replied.
‘Yeah, that’s cool.’
‘Well, we work in the public sector,’ The Girl elaborated.
‘So you guys work together, hey?’
‘And everyone in the office knows you’re together, right?’
‘Yep,’ I said.
‘Fuck, you guys are so humble, I don’t believe it, honestly.’ She had a drink to us being so humble. ‘You guys ever been to the roller derby?’ she then asked.
‘Roller derby, sorry what?’ The Girl asked, confused.
‘Yeah, we’ve just been to the roller derby.’ She turned back to her friend on the couch and told him, ‘Oi dude, come here, show them the roller derby!’
The friend got up and came over and, without introduction, started playing a clip of the roller derby on his phone for us. ‘It’s great, isn’t it,’ he said as we watched footage of girls enthusiastically shoving and bumping each other while they skated around an oval track in a large hall. ‘We were just looking for something to do this weekend,’ the friend continued, ‘so I googled it and the roller derby came up, and yeah, we went, and they sell drinks, and you can have a glass of red and watch the girls go at it, it’s great…’
‘Yeah, looks like fun,’ I said.
‘Yeah, we had a couple of red wines at the thing,’ the blonde said.
‘Just a couple,’ the friend added.
That explained their friendliness. ‘Sure, why not,’ I said.
‘Some of the roller girls are coming here for a drink,’ he said.
‘We might miss them, unfortunately.’
‘Oh yeah, what are you guys up to?’ he asked, putting his phone away.
‘We’re going to an Afghani restaurant that’s close to here,’ The Girl replied.
‘So, you guys been together long?’ he then asked.
We looked at each other and smiled awkwardly, as you do when a total stranger in a pub casually starts asking personal questions.
‘Well, we’re both getting divorced!’ the blonde announced cheerfully.
‘Goodo,’ I said and took a gulp of wine.
‘Yeah, we’ve both got two kids each,’ the friend elaborated, unprompted, of course. ‘But they get on great, you know, and we’re just hanging out together and helping each other out. We’ll see where the road takes us.’
‘Well, that’s really nice,’ The Girl said.
‘Hey, get this, this guy tried to kiss me the first time he met me,’ the blonde blurted out.
‘Well, what’s wrong with that, I saw something I liked, thought I’d give it a kiss…’
‘Then after kissing me he tells me he loves me!’
‘Well, what’s wrong with that?’
‘Fucken creep,’ she said and leaned over and gave the guy a loving peck on the cheek.
‘Yeah, so you guys been together long, then?’ he asked again.
‘Ah, a year,’ The Girl replied.
‘That’s great. Living together?’
‘Ah, yeah, sure. Well, we’ve just bought a house together, actually.’
‘That’s fucken awesome!’ the blonde exclaimed.
‘Wow, congratulations,’ the friend said.
‘Cheers to that!’ she said and clinked our glasses. She then turned to the people on the table nearest to us and said, ‘Hey, these guys have just bought a house!’
One of the people on the table smirked.
‘Well, I need a smoke now after that news,’ the blonde announced. She put her wine down and rummaged through her handbag for a fag. ‘See youse in a tick, hey,’ she said and left.
The friend smiled and nodded his head. We smiled and nodded our heads back. He sipped his wine and we sipped ours. And then he sighed and said, ‘Yeah, I mean, this thing is going to cost me big time…’
‘What’s that?’ I asked.
‘The divorce. A hundred grand easy, and that’s just on the lawyers.’
‘I’ve already spent twenty grand and have nothing to show for it, just a few letters between her lawyer and my lawyer. Each bloody letter is costing me four grand and it’s, like, two pages long! And her lawyer just ignores it anyway and sends back a letter with her own demands. It’s madness already and we haven’t started mediation yet.’
‘Aha,’ I said warily, not sure where this had come from or where it was heading.
‘See, when I came to Adelaide ten years ago I sold a house in Melbourne and had half a million. Now I own a house that’s worth 1.2 mill, right. But she wants sixty per cent of it, right. So, if I give it to her it’s like I’ve worked ten years for nothing! And I have worked whereas she hasn’t, she’s been at home all these years. And now she not only wants sixty per cent of the house but also money to support her lifestyle and money for the kids’ education. So, I’m like I’ll pay for the schooling, but you need to go out and get a job too, I can’t support you too! It’s like she thinks I’m made of money or somethin’, you know what I mean, mate?’
No, I didn’t know. I didn’t know what he meant at all.
Why was this person telling us these things about his life? Five minutes earlier he’d been sitting on the couch minding his own business. Ten minutes earlier we’d never even met. And now he was giving me the divorce story, no less. He wasn’t aggressive or overly bitter, just boring and strange, and I couldn’t take it. I finished my wine in one gulp.
‘My friends had warned me,’ he continued, mercilessly. ‘My wedding day and they’re like, “If you want to leave we’ll go, you’re not looking right, mate, this ain’t a good idea.” And I’m like, “What are you talkin’ about, I’m fine, I love her.” And they’re like, “No, you’re not, and you don’t, so if you want to call this thing off we’ll just get out of here.” On my wedding day! But I should’ve listened to them! I should have listened!’
I turned to The Girl and pleaded with my eyes and my whole face for her to finish her wine so we could make our excuses and never come back to this establishment ever again.
Sensing my pain, she took a final gulp of wine, placed the glass on the ledge above the fireplace, picked up her handbag and said, ‘OK, well, we better…’
‘But it’s alright, we’ll sort it all out,’ the guy interrupted. ‘It’s only money in the end, it’s only life…’
‘Yes, yes, it is,’ I concurred.
‘Well, we better be off now,’ The Girl said.
‘Yes, Parwana, enjoy,’ the guy said and smiled. ‘And good luck with your house.’
I felt sorry for him at that moment. ‘Good luck with everything, mate,’ I said and shook his hand. And then we left.
We were half way across the street when the blonde from Goolwa called out, ‘See youse later, hey!’
‘Goodnight, Goolwa girl!’ we called back.
‘They’ve just bought a house together!’ the blonde shouted into the night.
‘Congratulations!’ the guy in the food truck shouted.
Story by Peter Michal