She was the love of my life. I was seventeen and a half, for I was still counting halves in those days. I know my body was seventeen (and a half) but I do believe my brain was about fifteen.
Cheryl was the barmaid at the Rising Sun Hotel, nothing to do with Japan you understand, just a regular Australian pub, full of hard working, hard drinking blokes that, while not an endangered species, are less common these days. I don’t know why it was called the Rising Sun, certainly not because the sun rose differently in that particular part of Australia and not because you could see it especially early. In fact the sun had to climb over the church across the road before giving its warm blessing to the pub.
You might wonder how I could come into contact with my vision of happiness, given my tender age and knowing that at that time, the legal age to be allowed into a public bar was twenty one. As it happened, my uncle and his friends were very, very good customers and they had a choice of three pubs in the area. The publican was a guy called Skinny, who was more than willing to accept the story that I was a particularly young-looking twenty-one year old. Maybe the local coppers too accepted the story, not that I recall ever meeting one.
Skinny was a character, which was an essential skill for a publican then and he wasn’t fat either, which is almost what you expect from the nickname. After all, most red-head blokes were called ‘blue’ and it was sort of expected that if you had a particular characteristic, your nickname would be the opposite or at least a derivation thereof. For example, my uncle was occasionally called ‘ringer’ but that was not because he previously worked, dressed or looked like a worker from one of the western cattle stations, his last name was Bell.
Another bloke I knew was called Toad and I have to admit, it suited him far more than I was game to say. He was short and almost as wide, a block of muscle developed over the years driving big-rig cattle trains and massive double bogey semi -trailers around the country. His face may have been called interesting but there was not much to persuade you that he was called Toad because he was too handsome.
I always felt it was judicious to use his moniker in the most respectful tone and never ask him about it. That turned out to be one of my best decisions as I found out later, his mates called him that because of the inordinately high number of times he had a truck breakdown and had to be towed.
For those of you that don’t know, and I guess that’s most people, the bird symbol of North Queensland is the Brolga. It’s a very large grey creature, stands over a metre tall on immensely long thin legs that are particularly useful when you hang around swamps a lot. I don’t know if Skinny (aka the ‘brolga-legged-bastard’) employed Cheryl on other nights, but she was always there on Friday night when my uncle and his friends provided a shield for me to illicitly drink beer and leer at Cheryl.
Cheryl had big, big hair, the fashion of the seventies and always wore one of those ‘señorita’ blouses. You know the ones, falling off one shoulder and taking the long way round a copious bosom to arrive just below the opposite shoulder. To match this fine choice of blouse, Cheryl always wore a tight black mini dress, also very much in fashion and clunky shoes. She was amazingly nimble for an older woman, must have been 24 or 25 years old I think.
As always happens in matters concerning the love of one’s life, there is a particular night that is cemented into one’s consciousness. Until close to 8pm on this particular Friday night, it was business as usual at the Rising Sun, the conversations getting louder, the laughter more pronounced as the night wore on, when a hush came over the place. I turned to see a stranger, standing, just arrived through the bat-wing doors, confidently surveying the scene.
He was a sight to behold, clearly European but not quite Italian, which is what passed for exotic in our part of the world. The Italians had immigrated to work on the sugar cane farms and succeeded beyond all expectations, possibly due to the fact they were prepared to work hard, which kind of set them apart from most of the locals. By the second generation they owned most of the cane farms that stretched shoulder to shoulder up and down the coast for a thousand kilometres so we knew what Italians looked like; like us really, but better tanned and had more money.
In a moment he spotted my Cheryl and with the flash of a brilliant white smile and a gold tooth, he set out for the quick-serve bar. My mind raced into overdrive to take it all in as he sauntered over towards Cheryl. He was not tall, more average height I guessed, fit looking, very well-tanned and wearing impossibly tight black pants and shiny black shoes that came to a sharp point. They were even pointier than the shabby unpolished ones I was wearing. His belt was one of those big-buckle jobs with rhinestones or something sparkling in the buckle and a white, perfectly pressed linen shirt.
At this point I should digress to tell you about my grandfather’s friend. When I was a boy, my brothers and I lived a few doors away from my grandparents and spent a lot of time mucking about under the house and wandering between there and home.
Every so often, Grandpa’s friend used to visit him, but grandma would not let him into the house because he always carried with him a large white cockatoo which sat on his left shoulder and occasionally shit down his back. He did not seem to mind but grandma would only serve tea and biscuits in the garden fernery.
The reason I was reminded of my grandpa was this stranger, had upon his shoulder the most fascinating bird I had ever clapped eyes upon. It was not a large bird, not small either, but upon its chest wore an iridescent purple plumage, golden shoulder feathers and lighter yellow-gold feet. All this was topped by the most astonishing red head I had ever seen. I now know it was a member of the Psittacidae family of parrots of the New World order but then it was just the most amazing sight.
The stranger was not without some decoration either, his brilliant white linen shirt was unbuttoned to the waist displaying what could have been the pelt of a black possum for it had so much hair. Entwined through this mat were 3 or 4 chunky gold chains, matching a pair of gold bracelets on his right wrist and a large gold watch on his left.
As he reached the bar, Cheryl seemed transfixed, not a muscle moved and she stared at him, slack jawed, like a rabbit caught short in front of a fox, which in truth is not too bad a metaphor. I swear I saw quivers ripple across her ample bosom as she struggled for words or breathe possibly. It was probably a blessing that she was unable to move because I am sure she would have tripped over her panties which had already made their way to her ankles of their own volition.
More interested in their own stories, the novelty had worn off for the drinkers and the hum of conversation resumed. Only Cheryl and I were locked into this unwelcome (to me) ménage à trois with the stranger. Eventually a few words, that clearly started a long way down and finally found their way to her tongue, stammered and tumbled out.
She said “that is the most beautiful creature I have ever seen. Where did you get him?” to which the parrot replied, ”in Athens love, there’s bloody millions of ‘em” .
Skinny told me later she quit that night to go on a European holiday. I was already racking up more heartbreaks and unrequited love than any man should have to bear. After all, I was nearly eighteen.