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Sunday, December 19, 2010

My wicked start to life in Brisbane [Final Part]

He’d just got back with fresh supplies when the conductor turned up.
   Game over, I thought, but far from it. 
   ‘Have a beer.’ Jack opened one, still nice and cold from the dining car fridge, and offered it to him. On a hot January night it was irresistible. He looked up and down the corridor and it was all quiet, and accepted with alacrity. He would have been up for a game as well, but he couldn’t afford to go that far, especially with a full train to keep an eye on. He had a friendly yarn and then disappeared, saying, ‘Keep the noise down and close the corridor blind, that’s all. There are full compartments on both sides of you.’
   So the real game started. Jack oozed confidence and Peter played hesitatingly, continuing on with his practice of minimal bluff and betting only when he had good cards. They drank a lot more of Jack’s beer and smoked themselves silly with his cigarettes, though Peter was more careful than Jack about his grog intake. Then he started to win, changing his strategy to more aggressive play and shaking the other’s confidence. They did get a bit rowdy and there were minor arguments as they got drunker.
   The conductor came back, as it was getting late in the evening, and told them to wrap the game up shortly. Interestingly, he said to Peter quietly as he left, ‘We don’t want what happened halfway through last year, do we?’
   So, Peter put the pressure on Jack, who now played perfectly into his hands. What was happening was clear as a bell to me, as I had been watching them both on and off for hours by this time, and I could always see what was in Peter’s hand. He let Jack have a few good wins by deliberately losing a series of bluffs or throwing in his hand, and then waited to strike.
   We could both tell now by Jack’s body language when he had strong cards and when he was bluffing, especially now he was getting drunker, and then Peter came up with the hand he needed against what Jack thought was a winner. The bidding on the hand went on till both were totally committed, and Jack called Peter to show his cards, fairly confident that he was trying to bluff his way through yet again. Fatal error that time.
   Peter cleaned up with the win on that last hand – about thirty quid profit in all, which was a good night’s work. It was four times my new weekly allowance from the Department of Education, and that was quite a bit of purchasing power to start the new term, even at Nudgee College. He whooped and hollered joyously a bit, and it brought the conductor back in, after knocking loudly on the compartment door.
   ‘That’s it, boys. Pack it in now. Right now.’
   Jack took the remnants of his beer and smokes and left quickly. Conductors had been known to put people off trains at the next station if they became disagreeable, and that was a pretty sobering thought. Bundaberg was a good place for rum, but not the place to be late at night on a deserted railway platform, shared only with mosquitoes swarming out of the sugar cane fields that produced the raw material for Bundy's most famous product.
   ‘Here,’ said Peter to the conductor once Jack was gone. He folded and poked a five quid note into the top pocket of his uniform. ‘That’s for the boys when you get into a shout with them at the bar. Give them a round of drinks on me.’
   The conductor pushed the five pound note deeper into his pocket, bid us goodnight and moved on.
   Peter was happy with it all. I was tired out. It had been a long day.
   ‘You made a racket after winning that last hand,’ I said.
   ‘Of course.’ He grinned, lighting up for the final time that night. ‘I knew it would bring the conductor in. That way when I sting the other bloke, he can’t accuse me of anything or get snakey. He just has to get out if the conductor’s standing there. That’s why I always slip him a fiver.’
   ‘It wasn't a sting. You just outfoxed him. But how did the conductor know to be around at the right time?’
   Peter turned the face of his rather nice looking wrist watch towards me. ‘What’s the time now?’ It was not long past twelve. ‘Midnight’s a good time to finish a game, don’t you reckon?’
   ‘How long have you been doing this?’
   ‘Doing what? Playing cards on the train? A few times last year. I have six, sometimes eight trips a year, and you get to know people running these trains. When it was Laurie who clipped our tickets at Miriam Vale, I knew I was in like Flynn if I could just find the right type of blokes in the dining car. I’m not always this lucky.'
   He was drunk with success and Fourex, and became expansive.
   'It couldn’t have worked better than this time. It's always best on your own turf. In your own compartment. And it didn't hurt to have you here for backup. I saw you fight Tommy Little when you were in Sub-Senior the last year I was at Gladstone High. Remember?’
   Did I remember? How could I ever forget that Matter of Honour? My one and only fight at High School against a school bully who would have done Ripping Yarns proud.... We each got four cuts for that, Tommy Little and I; the penalty for fighting at school. It would have been six except I had broken his arm in the fight, and the Principal thought that four cuts with the cane on his good hand was enough before he was sent off to the hospital to get the other arm set in plaster. But that's another story.... and the last thing I wanted or expected to be on that night was Peter Moloney's backup in a gambling brawl.
   'So what happened last year?'
   He opened another stubbie. ‘Just a bit of a punchup when a bloke got nasty and reckoned I was cheating. It turned out OK. That's where it pays to have the conductor on side. You sure you don’t want a nightcap?’
   Oh my poor dear mother. Here I was just hours out of Calliope, fresh from the cowyard, a total innocent sharing a compartment with that nice Nudgee College boy; but in the eyes of the law, an illicit user of drugs and alcohol, a party to illegal gambling and, though I didn't know it till after the event, a bodyguard for a very slick con artist. 
   I could have been placed on the next train home, destined to milk cows for the rest of my life….
   After all, what sort of teacher could possibly begin their career with a murky start like that?!

FOOTNOTE: Sadly, I had to change the name of my Nudgee pal to protect the guilty, which is a huge pity, because he shares his real surname with one of the most notorious crim families in modern Australian history. 
   I can tell you for a fact that there is no family relationship between the two. Calliope people of my vintage will know why I changed it to 'Moloney', and have a bit of a chuckle. 
   'Peter' was simply acting in the compartment in exactly the same way as he would in a Nudgee College dormitory. A private school education does that for you. That's why so many of them are either spectacularly successful lawyers and politicians, or such glorious failures. Either way, the Old Boy network will never fail them.


  1. Excellent storytelling, Denis! I enjoyed it immensely. : )

    Pegs. : )

  2. Thanks, Pegs. It's rather disconcertingly true. And great to see you here, not blown away by tornadoes! Also nice not to be limited to 140 characters as on Twitter. I commented on one of your blog posts too, which I had been meaning to do for ages. Some cross-fertilisation of blog postings via Twitter seems a good idea.


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