The sandy path from my hotel led past a massive squat water tank and then skirted the muddy mangrove-lined banks of Roebuck Bay before turning sharply left down towards Broome’s Chinatown area. I don’t know quite what I was expecting but it was certainly more than the broad street with a row of corrugated iron, beach style, huts on either side of a boardwalk. Despite the temporary look to the shops, they were by no means cheap, despite their tawdriness. Anasstaia’s Pearls – one of about ten shops selling Broome Pearls, Argyle Diamonds and Kalgoorlie Gold – stood opposite The Sun Picture Theatre – the world’s longest operating picture gardens (an open air cinema without a garden), where the shows change weekly – which shared the building with a Broome Realty business.
Despite the guide book’s assertion that a stroll past these tourist shops with kitsch names like “Kimberley Kreations” and “Shells Galore” would “evoke a startling sense of days gone by”, the squashed and scattered beer cans in the small park at the top end of Chinatown gave me a more realistic sense of the present. The Roebuck Bay Hotel had a slightly sagging wooden boardwalk outside and several completely sodden people inside. The bar was a huge cavern of a room with three pool tables at one end leading off to the adjoining TAB section. Several plastic topped tables were scattered around the room and four arcade games were lined bravely up against one wall.
A large notice behind the broad jarrah topped bar stated that footwear must be worn at all times and that no sarongs or singlets were permitted at any time. Thongs were allowed until 6:00 PM but men’s dress must be clean and tidy. A tall, bearded man slouched at one end of the bar wearing a collarless, horizontally striped T-shirt and vertically striped torn shorts that may once have been blue and white. I couldn’t see his feet, but it was a fair guess that he was wearing thongs. A narrow metal gutter, presumably for cigarette butts and rubbish ran along the foot of the bar but this had been tipped over and concealed his feet. Groups of overweight Aborigines lounged, shouting, at the tables and clustered noisily around the pool tables. A slatternly woman of indeterminate age with long, grey-streaked, untidy hair shrieked “C’mere you” at someone – was it me? as I edged into line at the bar. Australia’s best – Swan Gold and Emu Draft – were the only draft beers on offer so I ordered a middy before I noticed that all the men were drinking tinnies out of oversize Styrofoam stubby holders. The bearded man swung himself violently in my direction and thrust out a large hand at me “The name’s Greg, mate and this here’s Bill – the stupid bastard‘s just got himself divorced. Shit happens, eh?” As if to confirm this, Bill, ducked his head nervously and uncrossed his thonged feet.
“You’re a tourist, or what?” Greg asked, relighting the stub of a hand rolled cigarette.
I told them I was there for a conference and this was received in silence. Hastening to fill the gap, I asked Greg if he was involved in the pearling business without mentioning that he fitted my stereotypical idea of a cutthroat privateer but he was more interested in pointing out to Bill that divorce was not the end of the road.
“Jeez, mate, I jus’ come up from Perth 2 weeks ago cos I couldn’t pay me fines, y’know and then last week I gave the missus a ring in Brisbane and she tol’ me that she wanted a divorce. Jeez, I jus’ doan know”.
“What are you going to do now?” I asked him.
“Oh I reckon I’ll hang on here a bit and see what happens, I reckon I can pick up a bit of work here, y’know”.
A small, natty-looking, middle aged man finished his tinnie of Emu and got up from the table he was sharing with a blowsy Aboriginal woman, whispered something to her and walked towards the door. The Aboriginal woman moaned something I didn’t catch and then carefully checked his tinnie to see if there was anything left in it. Seeing me looking at her, she fumbled up the coins on the table and lurched towards me.
“Wha’s you name?” she demanded,
“Stephen” I said. She rolled one eye at me and said “Wha’?” “Stephen,” I repeated, “What’s yours?”
“Buy usmob a drink but”, she said, ignoring my question.
“Tell her to piss off”, Greg advised from the other side of me.
“What’s your name?” I repeated inanely. A tremendous effort wrinkled her weathered looking face and again one eye rolled at me “Name’s Margritta,” she slurred. “Whe’ you from? You bin come Darwin?”
“No”, I said, “I come from Ireland.”
“I knew youse was a paddy,” Greg said. “I was thinkin’ youse wasn’t a pom”.
Again a puzzled frown creased Magritta’s face and then enlightenment, “Ireland” she muttered. There was a moment’s reflective silence and then that odd roll of the eye at me again. “When Irish eyes are smilin…” she crooned at me, and then waited for a response. While I desperately sought one, she leaned precariously back on her stool and flung her arms wide in my direction and burst into “When Irish eyes are smilin…” again. This time I was ready. “That’s right,” I said, “That’s as much as I know, what comes next?”
Magritta sniggered knowingly and lurched a bit closer to me “C’mere you, buy usmob a drink.”
Before I could answer, there was a loud crash from the back of the barroom. The small, blonde barmaid behind the bar said “Danny” in a clear, calm voice and a square, young giant, with a crew-cut and a Roebuck Bay Hotel T-shirt stretched across his massive chest, came out from some back room and stood beside the barmaid, frowning impassively towards the back where an Aboriginal youth shamefacedly picked himself and his chair up off the floor to hoots of derisive laughter from his mates.
“C’mon, Stevo, I’ll give youse lot a game of pool” Greg suggested.
“You’ll just be in time for the end of happy hour if you order now” the barmaid piped up so I bought tinnies for myself, Greg, Bill and Magritta before following Greg and an unsteady Bill towards a vacant pool table.
“Jeez, mate, where did youse learn to hold a cue like that?” Greg burst out as I missed a simple shot. “Look, do it like this, see, bend your hand at the knuckles here and raise this finger up like this, see, an’ you’ve got a perfect bridge – no, like this, see, do this, can you bend your hand like this? Like you’re waving goodbye, yeah, like that, see, steady as a rock”.
“She’ll be right,” Bill chimed in as I contorted my hand into the required shape, feeling inept. “I guess I’ve always believed that proficiency in pool indicated a youth misspent” I joked. Greg paused, beer in one hand, cigarette and cue in the other hand and looked at me seriously “I’d say that’s fair enough” he agreed, “Whaddaya reckon on that one, Bill, eh”?
Magritta, lurching on her stool at the bar, leered, waved her tinnie at me and burst into “Irish eyes” again.
“Y’ver been divorced, Steve?” Greg demanded as he effortlessly potted three balls in a row.
“Yep, I said, “a few years ago”.
“Me too,” he replied. “See, Bill, what I was tellin’ you, shit happens. Best thing that ever happened to me, though.”
“Why’s that?” I wondered.
“Cos I married a Fiji princess then and I got myself a whole swag of land out in the Cook Islands. We’re gonna build us a swank resort out there soon for the tourists once I get my act together here in Broome. But I tell you, Bill, women, who needs ‘em, eh?”
Bill continued to look doubtful while another burst of singing erupted from Margritta as a group of fat, swaying women joined her.
“Mind you,” Greg pointed out, gesturing with his thumb over his shoulder, “She’s a bit of all right, int’she?” “She” was a blonde bikini-ed hussy draped over a leopard skin pillion of a Harley Davidson motorcycle poster, tacked to the wall behind us.
The noise, cigarette smoke and the crash of falling people and chairs were was building up to such a state that the square headed young man in the crew-cut, that the bar maid had called Danny, now took up a permanent stand down one end of the room, a fixed scowl on his young face.
Greg suggested going down to the picture gardens to see what was on and while Bill returned to his morose position at the bar, we sidestepped lurching groups of Aboriginals who stretched out long arms in half-hearted attempts to detain us. Greg weaved and ducked his way towards the door. “That’s Thursday for you, mate, it goes to their head, a bit, you know. When I looked puzzled at him, he added “Social Security, mate, why do you reckon they were all boozin’ up, but?”
Outside the Sun Picture Theatre, there was a decorous crowd of young people milling about, leaning on the roo bars of 4WD’s and eyeing the girls. Inside the theatre was a display of early film projectors and signed photos of famous people who had attended. Rows of linked deckchairs were lined up under ancient looking plane propeller-type fans dangling from a high wooden roof. Further down towards the screen similar deckchairs were laid out under the stars. A sign at the kiosk pointed out that no matter what the weather the show would go on.
Outside the theatre, Greg met a crowd of people he knew from ‘aut-ah town’ and despite noisy invitations, I decided not to return to the Roebuck Bay hotel with them.
Walking back the way I had come, I had to step over a group of sleeping people stretched every which way on the warm sand near the water tower, the squashed remains of a case of Emu draft beer scattered around them. One of them mumbled something at me as I walked past but I doubt it was “When Irish eyes are smiling”, so I kept going