I'm walking down George Street, passing what used to be the Albert Arms when there's a knock on the window.
Phil's mate, Richard Tattle. Rat. He's holding a handle of beer.
I nod, smile, and keep walking, but he knocks again and waves as if he's been waiting, as if we've organised to meet at just this pub, at just this time.
Me and Phil were mates at school and then university. We were both short and had the same surname. We talked the same and, like all our friends, we dressed the same in rugby jerseys and jeans. At school and university, at pubs and parties, people often mistook us for brothers. While I stayed with Mum right through, Phil flatted from first year on. 163 Albany Street. Phil's place. He was a charmer — his flatmates liked him and tolerated us — and so for four years that's where we drank. Rat knew Phil from primary school and now and then he'd turn up. He worked the stop/go sign on a road gang. He did a few papers at polytech. He shaved off his hair and went around shirtless. When he was there we drank even more. There'd be whisky shots, beer bongs, spotting knives and hash oil. People threw up, things caught fire. He liked chants and songs and putting his fist through windows, then pissing into the hole he'd made.
He's walked the length of the pub to get to the door and now he leans out with the smell of melted cheese and beer and says, ‘Gidday, Doug.’
‘Gidday,’ I say, wishing I'd stayed with Mum.
‘Have a beer?’ he says.
‘Better not,’ I say, gesturing in the direction of the hospital. ‘They're getting the old lady ready for an operation.’
He comes out to get a view of where I'm pointing.
‘It's a reasonably straight forward procedure,’ I say, parroting the surgeon.
Rat lights a cigarette. ‘I'm just back from Melbourne,’ he says. His head's still shaven, but there's no longer any ferocity in the way he holds himself.
‘Bit of trouble there,’ he says.
Fighting, nicking bar-stools out of pubs, blowing up televisions: getting in trouble at university was well respected.
‘Yeah?’ I say, sniggering in a way I haven't done for years.
For a moment he puffs up and there's a grinning glimpse of the old Rat, then the wind blows a sandwich board over and out onto the street. A student on a bike rounds it, an old man stops to look, and when I turn back Rat's shrunk again.
‘What've you been up to?’ he asks, speaking fast like he always did, but without the volume.
Next payday I'll save the last five hundred I need for my first decent car, I'm a regular at the gym beside my work, Thursdays I go to Vietnamese cooking class, every Sunday I call Mum and give her the run-down on my week. I'm thirty in two months. Overall I'm happy. Things, as Mum always tells me, have turned out well.
‘Just working,’ I say. ‘Auckland.’
‘Lot of guys there,’ he says.
‘Yeah,’ I say, ‘and Wellington.’
‘London,’ he says. ‘The big OE.’
I look back at the hospital.
Rat flicks his cigarette onto the road. In a low gear, a packed school bus goes through the lights. ‘Not the same without him here, eh?’ he says.
‘Nah,’ I say, backing off, ‘anyhow...’
Rat looks at his shoes which are brown leather and worn — the kind we all used to wear. ‘You wouldn't have seen me at the funeral.’
I stop retreating. I didn't make it either. It's why I'm wary of people from the old days. But when Rat glances up I don't admit a thing, just shape my face and hands to suggest the hopelessness of Phil's death.
‘Yeah,’ he says, ‘anyway, you better...’ he nods towards the hospital, and opens the door. Again there's the beer and cheese and warmth.
Relieved, I say, ‘Right, yeah.’ And then with Phil in mind, I sign off just the way he used to, ‘You take it easy mate.’
Rat stops at the door and looks over his shoulder, not at me, but at the cold grey footpath. ‘Come back later,’ he says, ‘I'll still be here.’
I don't commit, just sort of shrug and nod, and though there's a meter man on a scooter and another north-bound bus bearing down, I sprint across the road, and instead of stopping when I get there, I run all the way back to the hospital.
Mum's in the first bed by the door. Her thin arms are bare and there's a bandaid on the inside of her elbow. My shoes squeak as I go into the room. She opens one eye.
‘How did you get on?’
‘What happened to your arm?’
‘A blood sample, for tomorrow.’
There's a seat by the bed, but when I sit I'm too low.
‘Well?’ she says.
‘It's just the same,’ I say, ‘same people, same buildings.’
She takes a breath in pain. I stand. She smiles at me. ‘That's how we like it.’
Wincing, she suddenly raises her pelvis, twisting towards me as if there's a knife.
I hold her hand. She gives it a good squeeze and then carefully exhales, deflating back into the mattress.
‘I saw a guy I used to work with,’ I say, as a distraction.
Mum associates university and my mates back then with what happened to Phil, so it's best to lie.
‘John,’ I say, ‘we're meeting for a drink later.’
‘He comes south to look after his old mum and spends the whole time out with mates,’ she says, smiling at the woman in the next bed.
Dinner arrives. I bring up the back of Mum's bed and prop her with pillows. She's sweating as she exposes the meal — spud, stew, a pottle of red jelly. Since I've had a decent job, she comes north twice a year, and now, looking at the food, she leans into me and whispers, ‘We're a long way from Ponsonby Road.’
One night at a pub in suburban Melbourne someone spiked Rat's drink. His last memory was going out for a cigarette. He woke in his flat to the sound of what he thought was thunder. Guns drawn, six cops roared into his room. ‘STAY DOWN MATE, STAY THE FUCK DOWN.’
Rat's face and neck are full of blood and in recalling that night he again comes closer to the Rat I remember. But now, as he did outside, as he sits back and sips his beer, he shrinks.
‘Kidnapping,’ he says.
‘Apparently when I left the pub I got in a cab. The driver was off duty — waiting to collect his wife from some line-dancing thing. We argued, punches were thrown, they're saying I held a pencil to his eye and made him drive me home.’
‘Shit,’ I say, ‘but?’
‘Bail,’ he says. ‘My old man covered it. They let me come back. Trial's in a couple of months.’
I finish my drink — my second — and though I'd told myself to have one, two max, I go to the bar for another round. The pub is quiet. Car racing on the television with the sound turned down, a man with a pint and a beard reading a book, the silhouette of someone in front of a machine in the pokie cave — the machine's gentle bells and jingles.
‘Two more?’ says the barwoman.
‘And two whiskies,’ I say.
I carry the drinks over, pleased I manage it in one go. ‘For the old days,’ I say, putting them down.
Rat takes the beer, but shakes his head at the spirit. ‘Can't,’ he says, ‘I shouldn't even be in here.’
I encourage him. ‘Rat,’ I say, using his nickname for the first time, drawing it out into a growl.
He smiles, but shakes his head.
An hour passes. I drink two more beers and both shots. We talk about growing up in the city and the great Otago teams of the nineties. Twice when I try and steer him towards university days, he goes for cigarettes. Out there it's dark and raining. People pass the window in jackets and woollen hats. Car tyres make their juicy sound. Coming back from his second smoke he says, ‘Another whiskey?’
I make my arms wide as if there could be no other conclusion. He crosses to the bar and talks to the lady. Good old Rat.
When he comes back I start telling him about my career in Auckland. How I worked my way up the department, the number of people answerable to me, the cheap holiday accommodation I can access. ‘They paid for these,’ I say, taking off my glasses.
He doesn't say anything. He's finished most of his beer. I gulp back the whiskey and chase the taste away with a mouthful of my own.
‘You should come north,’ I say, wiping my chin. ‘After the, you know...’
Maybe, says his shrug, and I copy this movement and the way his eyes rove around the pub. After a moment, not looking at him, but giving the words real weight, I nod and say, ‘This is really good.’
I've got a few friends in Auckland and I get on with my flatmate and colleagues, but Rat and me come from the same place. We used the same chip shops and dairies, we had our hair cut in the same way at the same barber. I straighten up and take a long drink, trying to think of something to say about the man with the beard and the book — because that's what I remember, the laughter, cracking each other up. Of course the drinking wasn't too healthy, but we were mates. Whatever shit got handed out, in the end, we cared. Hey, it's William Shakespeare over there, or something about James K Baxter. Though would Rat know who I was talking about? But in considering these jokes I realise I'm drunk. Drunks slur. They get sentimental and go on about themselves. They tell bad jokes. Leaving the bearded man alone, I say, ‘So, your dad?’
‘Eh? Oh yeah,’ Rat says, rotating his cigarette packet, ‘he covered the bail, not that he was too –’
Eager to share — this is using alcohol to make a connection — I interrupt, ‘Did I ever tell you about my mum?’
Rat drains his glass and sets it carefully on the cardboard beer coaster.
‘Dad died when I was twelve,’ I say, holding up my hands to indicate it's something I've dealt with, that's it's something I won't go on about it. ‘He went to the kitchen for a coffee, Mum hears him collapse, goes in, and bang, he's dead.
‘So then it's just me and Mum,’ I say, being careful not to slur. ‘She got work taking first-aid courses at St John's: the same boring spiel day after day, the ruddy CPR mannequins, the role plays. And every night and each weekend she's out in the garden, or shopping, or taking me places, and you know what? Right through school and university, I didn't help around the house, I bitched about her cooking, I wouldn't talk to her for days on end...’
Rat stays quiet. He's got both hands on his cigarette packet like it's a buzzer on a quiz show.
‘I don't know,’ I say, ‘you know?’ And of course it's because of today — her hair pressed flat by the pillow, the food with shit smell — but I start crying. ‘All I'm saying is something bad happens right? And like your old man, she's there, no matter what. She's always been right there.’
For a moment I think Rat's trying to hold off his own emotion, but then I worry that what he's trying to hide is disdain. It's like a bucket of water. I stand briskly and clear my eyes. And maybe it's remembering the way Rat admitted to missing the funeral, or maybe it's just being drunk in Dunedin, but, wanting control of the situation. I say, ‘Let's walk to Phil's place.’
Rat's stood and put his jacket on. ‘Phil's?’ he says.
‘For a look — to see what's changed.’
He shakes his head. ‘I have to catch a bus.’
‘A bus?’ I say. ‘We'll walk down, then I'll get us a taxi. Where are you staying?’ I ask, carrying my parka like it's a suit jacket.
Rat doesn't answer. I follow him to the door and out onto the footpath.
The lines of traffic are short. The indicators of the turning cars splash the footpath with orange.
‘Rush hour,’ I say.
Rat lights a cigarette and crushes the box. ‘Aren't you cold?’ he says.
The rain's stopped. What's left is a steady wind. Straight off the Antarctic, Mum would say.
‘Come on, Rat. Ten minutes.’
‘What'll we do there?’
I shrug. ‘Let's just go and have a look. We'll pay our respects or whatever you do.’
He kicks his heel into the toe of his shoe.
‘Yeah, c'mon’ I say, ‘I'll buy you a beer afterwards. We'll get you another pack of smokes.’
He turns and starts walking, and I'm not sure if it's a yes or not, but he's going in the right direction, and I put my parka on and hurry after him.
Worried I'll get shit about crying, I stay quiet, but Rat's silent too, keeping a fast pace and a straight line so that the other pedestrians — mostly students with books and backpacks — have to give way, so that as we make the right hand turn onto Albany Street, I'm scuttling and dodging just to keep up.
‘I used to come this way all the time,’ Rat eventually says, smiling at the street and its buildings. ‘I'd get the bus into town and walk down to Phil's.’
It was the same for me. But Mum would drop me at the top of Albany — it was best if she didn't see the flat — and I'd walk the four blocks hyped up and expectant.
Past the Captain Cook, past the square of grass in front of the museum where lights now mark a diagonal path which is also busy with students and where, after the pub, we'd come to piss, make crash tackles and punt our shoes through the leafless trees. Past Poppa's Pizza where, one February afternoon — before the students returned and the campus and its surrounding streets were empty and still and hot — Phil got into an unlocked car, steering while the rest of us pushed until the wheel locked and we ran, stranding it to the middle of the road. Past the new university library that's lit like a UFO, its windows full of students staring at laptops, and I have to start talking because in panicking about all those brains sweeping out of the place and stealing my job, I again start worrying about Mum.
‘Phil Scott,’ I say. ‘Phil Scott, Doug Scott, Rat Tattle, Davy Davis.’
A car leaving the library carpark edges into our path and Rat makes a dramatic move as if he's almost been hit. His arms come up like a gorilla's, but instead of walloping the vehicle's bonnet, he keeps them raised and, as we walk on — past a chip shop, past leaky rubbish bags propped against power poles, past an uncapped, full bottle of beer sitting upright in the gutter — he makes our names a chant and then a song, ‘Rat Tat Tattle, Rat Tat Tattle,’ that echoes off the long, low building that houses the university's printing press and is directly opposite Phil's place.
Rat stops singing. I follow him across the road. There's light in the narrow windows on each side of the door and light behind the neatly drawn curtains of the two front rooms. New window frames, a new door and door frame. Woodchips and a rosebush where there'd been mud. The fence has been rebuilt. The empty recycling bin is set neatly in the doorway. Phil bought a couch and cut the legs off. One night he sawed the whole thing in two and to stop it being nicked he chained the halves to the poles that prop the roof over the doorway. The couch is gone. The poles repainted.
‘A fucking makeover,’ I say.
‘Looks like a ladies’ flat,’ says Rat.
‘A pussy pad,’ I spit, wanting him angry, wanting him to do something.
But he's just standing there. As well as the printing press, there's a coffee factory and when the wind gusts, somewhere out there, a flap of metal raps invisibly against another, heavier, piece of metal. Rat points in the direction of the sound. ‘I'd joe out on Phil's floor — in the morning when I heard that I'd know where I was.’
The mailbox is the same — sized like a shoe-box with a little peak over the slot. Phil used to have it on the ground, but now it's perched on one of the fence posts. Someone's painted it with whirls and made the street number with coloured beads and superglue. I could tilt back and boot it into the house.
‘Did you ever get one of his breakfasts?’ Rat's moved into the middle of the road.
‘Yeah,’ I say, but I never did. Mum always gave me money for a taxi.
‘A carton of eggs, cheese rolls, a kilo of bacon,’ Rat says, staring at the flat like it's a cathedral.
‘Someone mentioned it at the funeral,’ I say.
‘Phil's truck-stop breakfasts.’
Taking the measured steps of a tight-rope walker, Rat starts walking the centre line.
‘Let's get the mailbox,’ I say.
‘On the night of Phil's wake, we all went around in Davis's station wagon and nicked the mailboxes from the houses where Phil had grown up.’
‘What for?’ says Rat, coming back across the road.
‘We put them on his coffin with all the candles we'd lit. Then we did a haka.’
Rat shakes his head. ‘I've done enough hakas.’
‘We buried them with him,’ I say.
Rat leans on the fence like a farmer.
‘C'mon, Rat,’ I say.
A man on an old bike goes past on the footpath. He's wearing fingerless gloves. His nose is dripping snot.
‘Let's throw it through the fucking window,’ I say, through my teeth.
The bike clatters off the footpath and onto the road. When I look at Rat, he's staring at me just as he was at the pub.
‘Fuck it then,’ I say. ‘You're the one who missed his funeral.’
Rat steps through me and grabs the mailbox, wrenching it side to side so that the nail squeaks and moans as it's hauled from the wood.
I start walking backwards towards town. Blood whooshes through my throat. ‘Go on Rat,’ I say, like I'm talking to a sheep dog.
He frees it and I pause to wait for its flight. The curtain will muffle any danger. The landlord will pay. It won't be the only window smashed in North Dunedin tonight. But though Rat's feet are set wide, his weight coiled in his back leg, all he does is go forward and up onto his toes to carefully rethread the nail, settling it with the letter slot facing Phil's front door.
It's 9:30 a.m. and I'm driving Mum's car through South Dunedin to get on the one-way north to the hospital. The car smells of Rat's cigarette smoke and I've got the window down. We didn't taxi home. Rat said I'd be fine to drive.
‘I don't want to get DICed,’ I'd said.
‘Worse things could happen,’ he'd said.
It was okay. The streets were quiet and his parents don't live far from Mum. We were quiet in the car — I was concentrating on driving — and when I stopped outside his place there was no talk of swapping email addresses or phone numbers. He shook my hand, got out and then before closing the door, put his head back into the car and thanked me in a very formal way. Thinking about it now, he was taking the piss. Not that it matters.
I've talked to Mum already this morning. The operation's at 11am. They've told her she'll be out for at least two hours, but that I should be able to see her at some point this afternoon. She sounded good on the phone. Mostly she was worried about the cat getting milk with its biscuits. She said I was the only thing I needed to bring to the hospital.
South Dunedin's just the same: wide empty streets, dairies with signs out the front about discount cigarettes, two blind people wearing blue and gold scarves waiting at a bus stop, a teenager with a toddler on a leash attached to a pram, secondhand car yards, a butcher with yellowed newspapers where the meat should be, an old guy at the end of his drive watching the traffic, another, in a cloth hat, sitting on a bench outside a pub, a cordoned off play-ground, a dog crossing a boggy looking park, low grey sky.
Coming slowly towards me on the other side of the road is a phalanx of four motorbikes. In visor-less, round, black helmets, the riders’ faces are pale, their mouths turned down. I wind my window up as they go past. Further on there's a broad off-white funeral parlour and a man in a suit loading flowers into a hearse. People in sunglasses are out on the street. A fat man with the wind in his hair is standing with his hand up to stop traffic. A tall man with a toddler on his shoulders is wiping his eyes. A bus pulls out in front of me and two women draped around each other look like they're going to cross. Mum's car's a manual and in slowing down I stall. There's shouting and two men start running. I check the doors are locked and try and re-start the car, but they go past waving their arms. When I look into the rear-vision mirror I see that they're signaling to the four bikers who wheel as one and start towards me.