UNLESS your butt was parked on a towel at Bar Beach, summer in Newcastle sucked.
Especially in Mayfield.
Okay, that wasn’t true, Jacob conceded. He loved his adopted suburb. Usually. But today it was a furnace. And unlike his Merewether-bred mates, he had to work for a living.
Sweat itched Jacob’s bushranger beard and trickled from under his felt fedora. He’d had the beard for six months but still didn’t feel like a true hipster. Plus, he couldn’t banish the niggling idea that his fedora might already be passé. Perhaps vintage tortoiseshell glasses would be better?
Jacob’s parents weren’t fans of his new look. “You look like Ned-bloody-Kelly,” his father grumbled whenever he dropped off the washing his mother insisted was no trouble, darling. “And put some socks on!.”
It made more sense for him to live at home in Waratah – which was closer to uni – but Jacob relished share-house life in Mayfield. Cheap beers and a Sunday roast at Wests with the old ducks, live music at the Stag, the 10-minute walk to his barista job at the latest poké-bowl-serving café on Maitland Road. Cafés loved employing bearded hipsters. Especially ones who could pronounce “kefir” and knew the difference between a macchiato and a ristretto.
A loud curse broke the Saturday morning quiet. He grimaced.
“Yeah, they’ve started early, luv.” The husky voice startled Jacob. He halted. A wrinkled woman in a chenille dressing gown and slippers (in this heat?) sat, cigarette dangling from her fingers, on the front porch of a worker’s cottage.
Jacob shared a look with the old lady before plodding on. He knew, of course, who she was talking about. All the locals did. A bunch of old men with nothing better to do who gathered at the rundown house near the bowlo. From mid-morning till dark they sat outside drinking and reminiscing about God-only-knew what. Beer bottles clustered like nine-pins on a plastic table out front. The men were harmless, but, Jacob sniffed, they were hardly a salubrious part of the gentrifying neighbourhood.
Some Novocastrians, his parents included, lamented Mayfield’s gentrification. As far as Jacob was concerned, it couldn’t happen fast enough.
Laughter ahead. Two houses away now. Jacob pulled out his phone and pretended to be engrossed. As he drew level, he risked a sideways glance. Four of them today. “Bobby! Give us a light, will ya?”
“Yeah, yeah. Hold your horses, big fella.”
A ruddy-faced, stocky man stood up unsteadily, bumping the flimsy table and setting the bottles quivering. One see-sawed more violently than the others, finally falling. It clinked to the cement path, miraculously intact. Jacob put his phone away as he passed.
“Where’re you going, kiddo?”
One of the men had fallen in alongside him. The man’s wispy grey hair had been brushed across his scalp in a comic attempt to cover his baldness. He had the shrunken look of someone who’d once been large and strong. Jacob didn’t reply, hoping his manner might deter conversation.
Jacob’s manners kicked in and he nodded.
“It’s a furnace out here,” the man continued, and Jacob was disconcerted to hear his analogy repeated. “I used to work on the furnace. At the BHP. You’re too young to remember that, I suppose. The blast furnace, it was. Mind you, it wasn’t as bloody hot working that thing as it is out here today.”
He cackled, revealing discoloured teeth. They reached Maitland Road. The man gestured in the opposite direction. “Nice chatting, kiddo. I’m off to the grog shop. Need a few more coldies. Have a good one.”
That’d be right. Jacob mentally shook his head. The sooner these old no-hopers are bought out by developers the better.
He reached his café and opened the door, inhaling the bitter aroma of brewing coffee. Yep, this. Right here. This is Mayfield’s future.
Forty-five minutes later, when the sirens started, Jacob was too busy frothing milk to notice. He knocked off late in the afternoon, feet aching. As he trudged to the Beauford, Jacob’s thoughts returned to the old men. Part of him was jealous. Of their easy lives. Of their laughter. No doubt they lived off pensions. The thought still grated as he pushed open the door to the front bar. He peered through the gathered men, spying his housemate Nate in their usual spot by the window.
Bloody Nate. His flatmate wore round tortoiseshell glasses. Jacob yanked the fedora from his damp head and sat down. At least Nate had bought him a beer.
“Hey, Jake. You see this? I heard about it earlier.”
Nate pointed at the TV. The screen showed a suburban home engulfed by flames. “Happened today. Just round the corner.”
Jacob recognised the house. A nice place. Renovated.
“A kid was inside,” Nate continued. “Some old guy pulled him out.”
The headshot of a man appeared on screen. He was younger, with thicker hair, but it was definitely him – the man who’d walked with Jacob that morning. The photo was at least 20 years old. The man wore a boilersuit and stood with his shoulders back, arms crossed, and a wide grin.
“The old guy didn’t make it. Smoke inhalation. Apparently he used to be a supervisor at the BHP. When it closed down, it was the end of him. Wife got sick of him mooching around home. She left and the kids moved to Sydney.”
The photo disappeared, replaced by a blonde reporter standing outside the smoking shell of the house. On the lawn sat a six-pack of beer. Jacob saw one bottle had come free and lay broken on the grass.
“Pretty sad, hey?”