As an English youngster, Peter Lingard told his mother fantastic tales of intrepid adventures enjoyed by him and his friends. She always said, ‘Go tell it to the Marines’. When he asked why, she said, ‘They’ve been everywhere and done everything, so they’ll want to hear about what you’ve been up to’. Peter joined the Royal Marines as soon as he was old enough. A decade later Peter emigrated to New York where he lived for 25 years before uprooting and going to Australian shores. More than 300 of his stories and poems have landed in more than 60 magazines, E-zines, radio shows, and performances. Ruffians, Rogues and Romantics is Peter’s third published book.
The first thing I did was get laid. Then I got drunk. Those out of the way, I went to see the ‘broker’ and freed up some of the money I’d hidden from the authorities. I was slightly put out that he took twenty per-cent but he’d done a good job looking after my cache, plus he owned a few places where I could stay; places not grand enough to make a parole man raise an eyebrow. Cash in hand, I bought some expensive threads and suitable accessories. I was about to throw away the dated clothes I arrived in, but decided to keep them for said probation man. They do say appearance counts for a lot. Next was a set of German wheels that I could always say were borrowed.
I visited an Irish gin joint where people I once knew sometimes used to hang. Alan was there. He seemed genuinely pleased to see me and, after we’d caught up on each other’s news (not that I had a lot to relate), he invited me to a party at the weekend. Not a party thrown because I’d returned, but a party that was happening in spite of it. He reckoned nobody would mind if he took me along. I wasn’t so sure. The idea of seeing some half-forgotten faces and have them tell me they’d completely forgotten me wasn’t too appealing. That’s what spending time in prison does; makes people forget you. Mind, the idea of running into my ex was a definite positive.
‘How’s Helen doing?’ I asked.
‘She’s good. But I think you’ll find she’s moved on.’
Whoever owned the place would be popular with the banks. The party was out back on an expansive patio that sided a more than ample swimming pool. The booze was top shelf but I checked all the whisky labels before I ordered a large 25 year-old Talisker. Alan merely ordered a scotch but I suppose, given the bottles on array, he couldn’t go wrong. The spikey-haired barkeep with deep, dark eyes and tightly synched black bodice gave him Talisker too.
I couldn’t hang onto Alan’s shirt tails all night so I got a refill and drifted around the corner of the pool to say hello to Dave.
‘Jesus,’ he said. ‘Where the fuck did you come from? You a free man now?’
‘Nice to see you, too,’ I said with an open smile.
Dave was one of the guys you knew you could always depend on, whatever the circumstances. He introduced the woman he’d been talking to but she wasn’t impressed. As Dave and I caught up on our histories, she began to tap her right toe and look pointedly at her flashy watch. I think she was embarrassed by all the furtive glances people were making in my direction. He got the hint.
‘Look, we’ve gotta go, Coop,’ he said. ‘We’ve got another do to go to. You got a number? No, never mind.’ He fished in his pocket and extracted his business card. ‘Call me on my mobile tomorrow.’ He gently thumped my shoulder and left.
It was time for another refill and I met Brian at the bar.
‘Fuck me, Coop!’ he said. ‘Where did you come from?’ He guffawed and clasped me in a hug. I had to be careful not to spill my drink. ‘Are you back here for good, or just passing through?’
‘I dunno, Bri. I figured I’ll see how things are; whether I’m welcome or not.’
‘Shit man, of course you’re welcome.’ He was another of the good ones.
‘Brian,’ called a distant woman.
‘Over here,’ he yelled and waved his arm in a come hither movement. Penelope joined us. She’d always been in his life and I was glad she was still in it. ‘You remember Coop?’ he said.
‘Of course I do,’ she said before she hugged me and gave a kiss. ‘How are you, Cooper.’
‘I’m good, Pen. You look great.’
‘Yes. You know Helen’s here somewhere. Won’t you be a shock to her system! She was in the house last time I saw her. You should go find her.’
‘Yeah. Thanks for the info.’
I got some more Talisker before I left the bar area. Helen was in a group of four. A man and a woman with arms around each other’s waists seemed vaguely familiar. Were they a couple I once knew? If so, they can’t have been important. The other man was acting like Helen was his possession. Perhaps he’d heard I was in the vicinity. They all grew silent as I showed intent to join them.
I had to open things. ‘Hi. Cooper Clark. It’s been a while.’
They all stayed quiet but Helen’s smile grew slowly, like the sun appearing over the horizon. Her eyes shone with what? A tear? The guy with her looked leery. His eyebrows got closer together and his nostrils flared. I figured him for a Queensbury Rules type; take a stance and put up your dukes. Prison violence had made me a nasty, formidable fighter and it wouldn’t take much to snap a couple of lover boy’s bones.
It was possible Helen had feelings for the good-looking bastard and that thought gave me more reason to hurt him. Then I realised it wouldn’t score me points with Helen if I broke the bones of the guy she was sleeping with. The lengthy silence stretched itself. My focus on the situation had grown so intense, the sounds of the party had become muffled in my ears. I waited for a response from any of the four.
The other woman was visibly nervous, her eyes growing wider. ‘Come on,’ she urged her man. ‘We’ve got to catch up with Mike and Sylvie before we leave.’
Her man nodded, said a hesitant goodnight, and they left.
‘This is Bradley,’ said Helen. ‘We’re good friends. Brad, this is Coop.’
We didn’t shake hands.
Brad was weighing me up; measuring me and his chances if things got ugly.
‘Yeah,’ I said to him. ‘How dya do?’ I turned my attention back to Helen. ‘How come you didn’t write or visit?’
‘You told me not to. Remember? And I don’t think you ever called to tell me different.’
I did remember. It wasn’t morally uplifting to have the woman you loved visit you when you can’t hold her and someone is listening to your conversation. The void created after she left was less than pleasant and I’d thought I’d be better off forgetting she existed. Now that I was standing in front of her, I wasn’t sure it had been a good decision. ‘You could have ignored me, like you sometimes used to.’
Her smile widened. ‘You can’t have it both ways, Coop. Besides, I didn’t like the idea of remaining chaste for seven years and your request made things easier in that regard.’
She looked surprised. ‘You did what?’
‘Stayed chaste for seven years.’
‘Yes, well, you were incarcerated. I wasn’t.’
So you partied. I noticed a wedding ring on her finger but couldn’t be sure if it was the one I’d put there. Alan had said she’d moved on.
She followed my eyes. ‘We’re still married, Coop; you and me. The men I’ve seen over these years, and I admit there’s been quite a few, have been distractions, including Brad here.’ She turned to him. ‘You knew this day might eventuate.’ She gave him a look which I couldn’t interpret.
He remained rooted at her side.
My glass was empty and I wondered if I could ask Brad to get me a refill. Perhaps not. ‘I don’t think Brad sees himself as a distraction any more,’ I said. He gave me a look of pure hatred and I gave him a cold smile.
‘Watch out for those smiles, Brad. They can be deadly,’ Helen said sweetly. ‘Why didn’t you tell me you were coming home, Coop? I’d have baked a cake, or something.’
Brad clenched his fists.
‘I wasn’t sure what my standing was/is here. Seems some are happy to see me though. What about you?’
She paused for a second, maybe two. ‘I’ve been waiting for this day, hoping you’d come back instead of relocating. I wish the circumstances were a little different, but it is what it is. I worried you’d go to Perth or some bush town and I’d never know how to find you.’
‘Yeah. Brad’s been hoping for that … ’ I turned my eyes to him, ‘ … haven’t you, mate.’
He took a step towards me but Helen pushed him back. ‘Enough of this chit-chat,’ she said. ‘I want to know if you can accept my not so indiscreet liaisons and love me like you used to.’
‘What am I, chopped liver?’ said Brad in a tone somewhere between anger and pleading, clenching and unclenching his fists.
‘You knew what the story was, Brad. Then again, he hasn’t accepted me back yet. Perhaps you’re still in with a chance. What do you say Coop? Who am I leaving this party with tonight?’