At a summer market, after rain, conversation is dominated by complaints about the oppressive humidity as the casual crowd avoids gloomy puddles. Jack ambles more casually than most, navigating the throng, glancing left and right at the various crafts and cookeries of bored, but relaxed-looking vendors. Not really interested in purchasing anything in particular, he’s found himself drawn to the market by the geographical convenience of his home and the lure of the sun-drenched beach, running parallel to the market and offering the tantalising promise of refreshing immersion. A curious mood: surrounded by so many people, yet a simultaneous feeling of loneliness and contentment. The faces in the crowd become a brush-stroke-smear of human features, in the manner in which all city-dwellers can relate, on a background of mud, grass and cheap-goods-stalls. Like focal colour on a painting, one face begins to stand out, approaching from the opposite end of the laneway. ‘Paul’, Jack recognises, as less distracted people dance out of the way of the two men approaching each other. Recognition manifests itself in a broad smile on his old friend’s face.
One of the last of the old pubs in the city; the sun begins its final descent behind the building, into the hills and rain leaks slowly through the ceiling, threatening the pool-tables. Men and women of weary but brightening moods begin to drift through the doors in order to begin one of the more pleasant routines of the week. Jack and Paul lean against weathered bricks, adjacent the entrance.
‘So your sister wants to join us?’ Paul asks with curious intent.
‘Yeah, she’s had a rough week,’ Jack says and pulls a packet of cigarettes from his back-pocket, taps one between his fingers and offers the pack to his friend, who declines with a dismissive wave and a shake of the head.
‘Not sure, just said she needs a drink pretty bad.’
‘She’ll be in good company then.’
While people-watching, Paul muses on the specifics of the pedestrians’ week, pondering their possible ups-and-downs and how they’ll use the weekend to reflect, if not working through, of course. A respectful sapling grows in his mind at the thought of a seven-day working week, but turns brown and withers as he wonders when it is that you begin to truly live, if all you do is work.
‘Here she is,’ Jack motions with the crimson tip of his cigarette past Paul, and the latter turns to see a veritable diamond of a lady; reflecting uncompromising beauty through her green eyes, auburn-hair and skin the colour and texture of fresh cream.
‘Paul,’ Jack says, gesturing to the man with his cigarette, for the benefit of the new arrival. ‘This is Stephanie,’ he gestures to her for his friend’s benefit. ‘My sister.’
They embrace among the crowd as brothers, albeit minus blood-ties, attracting curious, sideways glances from random passers-by. Jack proceeds to push Paul away, then hold him by the shoulders, and look him up and down with an elated smile.
‘Still in one piece I see,’ Jack says, darting his head around the other man in mocking examination. ‘I’ve heard they have great-whites as big as mini-vans in Western Australia.’
‘I saw sharks in New South Wales and South Australia, and witnessed a near-fatal attack in Victoria,’ Paul begins, with a mischievous smile. ‘But the scariest things I saw in WA . . . were the locals.’
Jack laughs as if he’d been storing them up, which startles an elderly couple, then throws his arms around his friend once more in a fierce, relieved hug.
‘C’mon, I know a great pub that’s just over the road,’ Jack says, leading the way beside a cake-stall towards the road, the sweet aromas refining the atmosphere.
‘What’s so great about it?’ Paul says, as they watch for gaps in the heavy traffic.
‘The schooners are fifty-cents cheaper than at the place three doors down.’
‘And what about the regulars?’
They cross the road with a light jog and Jack begins to chuckle as they ascend the three-steps leading to the entrance, then turns to Paul.
‘Yeah, they’re definitely cheaper too.’
‘She’s beautiful,’ Paul says, meaning his words more sincerely than he ever had, or would again.
‘She is beautiful,’ Stephanie agrees with a touch of exhaustion, gazing at their daughter with that limitless-as-the-universe type of love only a mother can rightly possess. The child is healthy, sleeping; perfect. Stephanie moves her attention to her husband, ‘I love you.’
Paul lingers his gaze on their daughter for a moment, not in an attempt to avoid his wife’s proclamation but due to a paranoid thought that the longer his eyes rest on his child’s sleeping fragility, the longer she will be happy, the longer she will be safe; the more significant and joyous her life will be. Finally, he returns his wife’s expectant stare.
‘I love you too.’
Stephanie winces momentarily, under the duress of stabbing pains.
‘Are you ok?’
‘Yes, I’m fine,’ she replies, having apparently recovered. ‘How do I look? Like I’ve given birth?’
“Thanks honey, but I know I never look good when I’m tired, and I’ve never felt this exhausted.’
‘What can I say? I’m biased. Are you sure you’re ok?’
‘I’m fine,’ she lies.
A double-knock at the door and a nurse enters, followed by Jack, who’s grinning so broadly it looks as if he’s trying to catch his ears under his molars.
‘Where’s my little niece?!’ he shouts loud enough to set back progress in the ear-trauma ward for an entire month, spreads his arms and advances on the couple who begin shifting uncomfortably in the path of his approach.