Jack catches Thomas again in the crowd, where sharp empty syllables beat and thud and stink of grubby fingerprints and flickering sunlight turn them through the cotton and silks in a volley of unheard sentences. It is only men down here, where light is slit and the racetrack exists only in the daydreams expelled from each man’s mouth, pulsing around their ears. Against the swing door and across the tiles they convene at matching urinals.
“So how did you bet?” asks Thomas. But his eyes are fixed ahead on the unexpectedly white porcelain.
“I’ve got the winner,” says Jack. He grins to himself. “$1.22 on Happiness. It’s a dead certainty.”
“Bullshit. Happiness is the favourite. The favourite never wins.”
“Then how are they the favourite?”
Thomas waves the last droplets onto the bowl. There is a cue forming behind him, watching the curl in his spine and his fingers in his crutch and the chunky outline of his wallet in his jeans pocket.
“So what did you bet then?” He presses.
Jack twists his neck, grinning simply on the white and black edge of Thomas’s eyes. Thomas keeps his head down and fumbles his fist back into his fly.
“That wasn’t good enough for me,” says Jack. He is grinning. He can’t help himself. “The odds of winning by more than a head are $5.32. But then the odds of winning by more than a length are $10.95.”
“It’s a dead certainty.”
The two men zip up their flies. Their eyes don’t meet until they have washed and dried their hands, fended the crowd and convened high on the bleachers with beers sweating and slipping inside their fists. Thomas shakes his head.
“Drinks are a rip-off here.”
“Then why are we drinking?”
“Because it is about the experience,” says Thomas. He takes a sip to push his point.
“And I can’t have this experience without a drink?”
“Jesus;” Thomas is shaking his head again. “Can’t you just take things for how they are?”
Luckily for the two old friends, the silence can be filled by the race announcer, singing to the beat of hoofs. The crowd is spattered with dresses of all different colours and the ark of tanned shoulder-blades; the fabric falling perpetually from their backs into the cheap plastic seats. Each man can’t help but watch. But why not? They are men after all.
“So what did you bet?” Jack asks at last.
“I’ve got the sweep.”
“My money is on I Told You So. The odds aren’t good, but that is how it always is.”
Jack could not know any better; not like I can, with the gift of hindsight. He will win the sweep and bring his wife a fat envelope stuffed with creased bills. He will not let it out of his fist on the train home.
“No-one ever wins the sweep.”
“That doesn’t make sense.”
It is easy to forgive Thomas for his naivety if you know him like I do. He is simple and jovial. You may not be able to read that from this situation but in his head (and in the little silences between sentences) he is happy in his daydreams. Here he is buying a round for the bar (a gesture his stinginess would never allow in any other reality) and taking the blonde in the blue fascinator home in his pocket. He buys a nice car to park in his nice house. He drives the car over to Jack’s house. “I told you so,” he says; but of course this is a lie. Again, hindsight aligns me with the tragedy of this story. Thomas is deceased at the time of writing. I have his eulogy in front of me. It is really quite nice.
Thomas Franklin died far too young. He was a kindly friend and a hard worker at the ammunitions factory that he loved and dedicated himself so dearly towards. He will be sorely missed by his wife of three months: Clarissa Franklin.
I know; it is rather brief. Thrity-eight years and that is his noteworthy achievements. But then, why do we feel that it is necessary to catalogue someone’s achievements at all? For the convenience of the priest? In the sunlight, coloured and bursting like streamers through the tinted glass, the dark tinge of his underwear could be made out through his gown. I couldn’t help but laugh.
The two men are silent, watching the frenetic tangle of horses and silks and whips drifting in orbit around the grass. They do not feel any need to talk. They know each other too well to bother with the trivialities of conversation. So when Thomas finally speaks, it comes as a surprise to me too.
“I was at the bus stop the other day, actually it was Tuesday. And it was just me and this girl waiting there in the chill. She was wearing a scarf tight around her neck, pink, like skin. She had dark gloves and a short skirt and high heels and she was standing with the backs of her knees conked into the bench, just watching the traffic go past. She was gorgeous. Beautiful. So I had to talk to her. I mean, I didn’t know her from a bar of soap. So I asked her how she was on this morning, Tuesday. And then she said, she said…”
“What? What did she say?”
“She said she was just waiting for the bus. So I asked her where she worked and she said she was retrenched. Then I didn’t really know what to tell her. I’m sorry? I’m not really. I don’t even know her. I mean it made me sad to hear it, but I couldn’t say that. I couldn’t say ‘That makes me sad.’ I mean, who says that? Nobody says that. I couldn’t think of a single way to tell her how I felt. But then she just comes out and fills the silence. But she doesn’t even say anything. She just hugs me. Full on. She presses her whole body against me; her chin, her breasts, her stomach, her crutch, her knees and all I can do is just take her by the small of the back. And I just feel good, like nothing can ever go wrong again because I don’t care anymore and I am happy. Then she leans back and places her palms on my shoulders and I am looking her in the eyes with my hands still around her and she says to me this thing I can’t get out of my head because she sounds so convinced, so sure. She tells me she will throw herself under the bus.”
The race is over. Men in suits are walking about the grass, patting horses on the nose and shouting at each other. The crowd murmurs a mash of syllables.
“And I don’t know what to say. What to do. So I just tell her that I won’t let her. I link my fingers around her back. I hold her there. And I tell her the truth, because I can’t think of anything else. I tell her to think of me; this stranger that she has just hugged, that she has made so happy. I tell her how inconvenient it will be for me if she does throw herself under. I tell her I have a predisposition to depression. I tell her that if I am late to work then I will lose my job and then I won’t be able to pay child support or my rent. I don’t know really what I was thinking. I guess I just thought that she was telling me a lie. Then she takes me around the shoulders and pulls me onto the pavement and there is a cigarette butt crushed against my forehead and she is laughing and I am thinking about all the people in the cars driving past, watching us and wondering what they will think. And I am holding on. Then she is on top of me and she kisses me because nothing else matters except what she is feeling inside.”
“And then what happened?”
“The bus came and I got on and went to work.”
“And that’s it?”
“And she looked at me behind the tinted window – I don’t know if she could even make me out – and then she mouths ‘See you tomorrow.’”
“And then what happened next?”
“Nothing; Nothing happened next.”
“You didn’t see her again?”
I know that the story is a lie. On Tuesday morning, Thomas Franklin waited at the bus stop with a novel bent around one hand. Then he got on the bus to work.
“I also had an unusual experience this week,” says Jack. He squeezes the form guide in his fist and stares into the pale skin of a woman’s back. “I was at the King’s Arms in Collingwood when this lady came and sat at the bar next to me. And she smiles at me and so I buy her a drink.”
“What did she look like?”
“She was stunning. She had this low-cut blue dress and dark brown hair and dark drown eyes and she said her name was Melody.”
“Like in a song?”
“This isn’t a very odd experience. It may be for you.”
“Give me a chance.”
“Ok. Go on.”
“So I buy her a drink and I don’t know what to say to her. So I decide to lie. I mean, why not? I came into this situation with nothing. So my first lie was pretty simple. I told her I was good, thanks. And then she asks me what I do and so I tell her. I say that I am a soldier fighting in
. I am back in Iraq on leave. She tells me that she doesn’t support the war. I tell her that I don’t either. But I support the army. I support defending Melbourne . She tells me that I am just a political tool. I tell her that I know. I don’t believe it though. I think that life and death cannot be defined so simply. She asks me why I am fighting in a war that I don’t believe in and so I tell her that I am defending my friends. You know, play the good guy act. She tells me I nee to grow up and I laugh it off. I tell her about the bravery medals I won defending my friends when we were ambushed by insurgents. She tells me that she is a ballerina. She is playing the lead in Australia at the Art Centre in September. She lives in Toorak. I tell her that I won the lottery last year – Mega-draw. Then I tell her I am a published author. She says she hasn’t heard of me. And I tell her that I drive a Porsche and I was born in a slab hut in the bush. She says that she was too. I tell her that I overcame years of poverty and she says that she did too. She says that she is happily married, then we kissed. Swan Lake
“Then what happened?”
Jack looks sternly back at him.
“Then I got her number and went home.”
Thomas smiles but his eyes are on the stalls. Their race is about to begin. I watch the two men, with their eyes forward, completely oblivious to me; I may as well not even be here. So I speak up. I mean, how could I not?
“Do you think it is possible,” I ask;” that it was the same woman in both of your anecdotes?”
“No,” says Thomas.
“I really doubt it,” says Jack.
I lean back in my seat and shrug.
“What does it really matter anyway?” I say, but they aren’t listening.