Peter Doyle‘s long-awaited Billy Glasheen crime novel The Big Whatever has just been published by Dark Passage Books.
Billy’s last appearance was in the story ‘Cold War, Hot Dogs’, which Contrappasso published in our first issue in 2012. Here it is again.
By Billy Glasheen, esq.
It’s September 1956, I’m killing time at the Sydney Motor Club. On stage three big-breasted hula girls are doing a Hawaiian-flavoured bump and grind, backed by a guitar, piano and drum combo. The combo happens to be led by my old pal, Max. The music is a mix of Latin, Hawaiian and show tunes. Not much jazz and no rock’n’roll. They play four sets a night, but no one pays any attention until the final set, when the hoochie coochie girls come on.
But the real business at the Motor Club is the bank of brand new, shiny one-armed bandits. Poker machines. They became legal just one month ago, and the hardheads who run the club are pinning big hopes on them.
Me, I’m just hanging around, hypnotised by the racket of two bobs cascading in and out of the new machines. The Indian hemp cigarette I smoked a while ago isn’t hurting, nor are the scotches and pep pills. And Perkal’s Latin mambo voodoo hoochie-coochie bebop doesn’t sound too bad right now. The dancing girls are doing a piece called ‘the fire dance of the Islands’ which gives the leader of the troupe a chance to show herself off, and that doesn’t hurt either.
She’s a Greek lass from Sydenham, named Helen, but known theatrically as Sweet Leilani, the Polynesian Princess. The truth is, I’m a bit sweet on her, but so far I’m getting nowhere.
Meanwhile I’m earning my keep providing services to the punting fraternity, and occasionally handling goods of doubtful origin. I also supply smoking substances to those who might care for same. Fact: the city’s entire market for Indian hemp is pretty well right here at the Motor Club, in the form of the hoochie coochie girls, the musical trio and my own good self.
The worst fiend of them all is the drummer Lachie Jamieson, a kiwi ex-servicemen who played with blues bands on Chicago’s South Side after the war then washed up in Sydney with a taste for bebop and hard drugs. He buys smoking gear from me on the murray, and now he’s into me for nearly fifty quid, and I’m shitty about it, but the code says you give the benefit of the doubt. I’m hoping to collect a part payment tonight.
Lachie’s got a gang of milk bar cowboys who he’s trained to do chemist busts. There’s a blond psychopath known as Skylight Reggie, and his none-too-bright offsider, the Spruso Kid. Lachie’s taught them how to hop through a chemist’s back window, find the drugs cabinet. He lets them have the pep pills and what have you, and keeps the narcotics for himself. Years later Lachie will claim to have introduced the chemist bust to Australia. Others will disagree. That’s one for the scholars to argue about, I suppose.
10 o’clock and all is mellow. Then the secretary manager tells the band to play a Pride of Erin. They ignore him. He insists. Perkal complies but then plays “Heartbreak Hotel”. This inflames the milk bar cowboys, especially Skylight, who decides now is a good to start throwing punches. Afterwards Perkal and the manager have a screaming row. Perkal storms out, never to return. (They find a continental piano accordionist to replace him the very next night). Lachie loads his drums, disappears without settling up.
But the night isn’t a complete loss. The Polynesian Princess and I have a few drinks after the show, and later she comes home to my flat. She’s a real goer, no risk, and the night is memorable, though not without incident. Helen’s not entirely right upstairs. For one thing, she’s got Elvis on the brain. Elvis this, Elvis fucking that. Even at the height of passion, she’s calling out to Elvis. She can call out to the Patriarch of Antioch for all I care, because like I say, I’m half smitten with her. She tells me later not to get too carried away, because she’s carrying a torch for someone in the old country, but an ancient blood feud keeps them apart. Or whatever.
A WEEK LATER I get a telegram. It reads:
IN MELBOURNE STOP OLYMPIC POSSIBILITIES VERY PROMISING STOP BRING MOTOR CAR DANCING GIRLS AND HUNDRED WEIGHT SAVELOYS PRONTO STOP HELEN HAS SAVS YOU FIND CAR
The opening of the 16th Olympiad is two days away. Australia’s gone Olympic mad. Perkal is carrying out a long held ambition: to sell hot dogs by day and stage a hoochie coochie boogie woogie jazz show by night. He expects that I’ll put my own pressing business matters aside and hie off to Melbourne. But I choose not to take offence at his presumption, because as it happens a trip south with the fair Helen by my side, and a possible earn to boot is just what the doctor ordered.
I ring Helen—she’s spoken to Perkal already and is keen to hit the road. Maureen and Cathy, the other two hula girls, share a flat up the Cross. I drop by, put the plan to them. They look at each other, and smile. “Well, yeah, maybe,” says Maureen. “It’s funny, but we were sort of thinking of something like that anyway.” She looks at Cathy and Cathy nods.
Things move fast. That night I borrow Lachie’s Customline, which really belongs to Skylight Reggie. In order to avoid unpleasantness I spirit the car away from outside the Motor Club. The boot turns out to be crammed with chemist shop gear, mostly pep pills, and this isn’t too bad a turn either. I fuel up at Barrack Motors, sample a couple of pills then collect Helen and the girls.
We have to stop off at Helen’s family’s house in Sydenham. The old man runs a chew and spew in Enmore and Perkal has clinched a good price on some slightly past their prime but arguably edible saveloys. We’re met by a couple of surly brothers, a mumbling black widow, and Helen’s leering old grandad.
Helen goes inside to pack her things. The grandad shows me out to the shed, where the savs are stored in a freezer. A greenhouse takes up the entire backyard. Tomatoes, okra, leafy stuff. Something else there too. I stop and stare. A big, sticky, smelly Indian hemp plant. Grandad looks at me slyly. “In October?” I say.
“You like this one?”
I nod non-committally.
“Special for you boss. I give big bag. All fleoss. Ten quid.”
Five minutes later the frozen savs are in the boot, and there’s a paper bag full of hemp on my lap, a lit reefer in my paw. Maureen, Cathy and I pass it around while Helen’s still inside screaming at her family. Then she storms out, plonks herself next to me in the front seat. “One day,” she says, “Elvis is going to come and sort those fucking pricks right out.”
But no one answers her. We’re too fucking stoned.
We hit the Hume Highway at one in the morning, and brother we’re flying.
AN HOUR LATER zigzagging up the Razorback. The road is empty except for the occasional Bedford truck lumbering toward Sydney, and the Customline is humming along sweetly. Helen’s twiddling the dial on the radio, and she can’t leave it alone. Bits of hillbilly music are coming to us from Central Queensland, the BBC news from Malaya, someone going 90 to the dozen in Chinese. Arch McKirdy beams in from Christ knows where, followed by some hot gospel raver, then bingo, solid sending rhythm and blues. We smoke another reefer. It’s a warm night. Mayflies and moths are hatching. The stars are out. All is mellow, all is bright.
Electric guitars and drums and jungle moaning. Kind of electric droning. Dig the droning. Going down the other side of Razorback now. The droning gets louder. The singers are really wailing. Dig the crazy beat. The droning is LOUD. It drowns out the radio. “Stop the car!” Did I say that? Was it in my head?
Saxes honk. Lights flash. Someone hits me on the back of my head. “Jesus, Billy! Stop the fucking car!” The girls are screaming. I pull on to the gravel and we fishtail for two hundred yards, then come to a sideways stop. The cop pulls up in front of us.
“What the fuck’s a motorbike cop doing out here at this hour?”
He’s walking back towards us. Big bloke, about my age, mid-twenties. His teeth are grinding. His eyes are wide. He’s revved up on yippee beans. Same as us.
I sit pat trying to think of what to say, but Helen bounds out of the car. So too Cathy and Maureen. They’re smiling. They sidle up either side of the cop. They turn it on. Two minutes later we’re on the road again, with a warning. Total cost a few kind words from the girls and couple of bottles of pills. He’ll be on nightwatch for at least a month.
WE BLOW A RADIATOR hose at dawn. On the road to Gundagai. Five miles, six miles, I don’t know. It’s OK. Still a day up our sleeve. We hitch into town, and book into the TV Motel. Tres moderne, with all mod cons except TV. The girls take a separate room each. I take another. A mechanic goes out to get the car. I’m at the local at 10 am opening time. The girls slip into the ladies’ lounge. They cause quite a stir, in their capri pants and mohair sweaters. A barman fronts them and they go into a pow-wow.
Back at the motel at three in the afternoon. Message from the garage: the hose section has to be to be sent up from Albury. We’re here for the night.
At six I go out at to find a feed. Three or four blokes are milling around the motel courtyard. I find an all right steak sandwich at the Niagara Cafe. Back at the motel there’s a different couple of blokes hanging around. When I come back from the pub at 10 there are 7 or 8 different blokes again. I’m about to tap on Helen’s door, when I hear a man laughing inside.
The car’s ready in the morning. Nothing is said about the nocturnal commerce. The savs have been sitting in the boot for over 24 hours now.
MELBOURNE is all a twitter, like Moomba, the grand final, Christmas and New Years Eve all at once. Which means it’s about as busy as Gundagai was the day before. But there are foreigners and journalists from arsehole to breakfast. And a shifty-eyed breed I know only too well: pickpockets, urgers, spielers. Scoundrels. And an even more shadowy bunch too: anonymous looking nobodies, faces you’d clock and forget in a second flat. But watch them out of the corner of your eye, and you’ll see that they’re watching everything, all the time.
I drop the girls at our digs—a couple of broken down caravans marooned along with a fairy floss stand in a paddock behind a fibro house in Heidelberg. I go back into the city on my own, hit a few pubs. They’ve still got six o’clock pub closing, so I’m forced into the slightly more salubrious sort of nightery: the Savoy Plaza, the Menzies, the Rainbow Room, Scotts Hotel. But they’re not my speed.
Late that night I meet up with Perkal.
“This is Squaresville,” I tell him.
He shakes his head. “You’ve got to know where to look,” he says. “You bring the savs?”
“They’ve been out of the freezer for two days now.”
“They’ll be all right. Nice Customline, by the way. Got any pot?”
NEXT DAY we prop Perkal’s hot dog stand—an ancient affair which hitches up to the Customline—outside the gates of the MCG. We get moved on in 10 minutes. We set up outside the Olympic velodrome, same result. Likewise Spencer Street Station. Permits required. Perkal manages to fob off the jobsworth at the basketball court by flashing his musos’ union membership. But a rival hot dog bloke calls a higher-up official, and we’re sent packing again. By the end of the day we’ve sold less than 50 doggies, at a bob each. On the brighter side, the savs themselves seem to be holding up remarkably well.
We’re munching pep pills the whole while, and having a jolly old time of it, despite our indifferent commercial performance. Perkal is spruiking in foreign accents, generally acting the goat. We’ve long since eaten all the little yellow pills, now we’re into these big ugly things, which Perkal tells me are known in the transport industry as “Queensland black bombers”. I’m trying to think when I last had a full night’s sleep.
We finally set up the stand outside the athletes’ village in West Heidelberg, a godforsaken bog of a place. But no one moves us on, and the athletes aren’t too bad a bunch. We get talking to a Hungarian cyclist. He’s eyeing me pretty closely, and I’m about to ask him if what his fucking problem is, when he blurts out, “Please. Can I have the giddy ups, please.”
“Don’t know what you’re talking about pal.”
“They’re vitamins, friend.”
“You help me, I beat bloody Russian sonofabitches.”
So I sling him a few pills, and magnanimously refuse payment. I mean, it’s 1956 and the poor old Hungarians and world affairs and whatnot. But Perkal is unimpressed, says they’re a bunch counterrevolutionary arseholes.
He gets a chance to square up a while later when a couple of Russkis sidle up to us. Big blokes, with buzz cuts. They’re no athletes, that’s for sure. They indicate by means of a none too elaborate charade that they too wish to get hold of some vitamin pills, and they’re willing to press the point. We oblige. Still later a trio of Americans hit us. They have little idea of the local currency and by close of business I’ve managed to trouser a nice wad of pound notes.
Perkal does the rounds of the nightclubs, trying to drum up bookings, but strikes out. That sort of thing might be all well and good in Sydney, they tell him, but down here, boyo, a certain level of taste and decorum is expected and blah fucking blah.
I hit the nightly parties in the athletes’ village, which are pretty well the only action anywhere in Melbourne, as far as I can see. But they’re OK, and the vitamin pills are a great favourite. The Aussie athletes, some of them, are pretty good sports: Dawn Fraser is a brick, of course.
After three nights on the tear I go back to our base in Heidelberg. Another couple of caravans, newer in style, have appeared. The girls have a van each now, spread out around the paddock. There are comings and goings all night long.
After midnight and the Polynesian Princess is sitting outside her van, smoking a cigarette. She calls out to me, would I like to come over for a drink. But, really, by this time, as far as she’s concerned, I’m no longer inclined.
I smoke a reefer on a my own and head off for a stroll.
Frosty grass crackles under my feet. The sky is clear. The stars are bright. Telegraph wires are humming. A dog barks in the distance, and way further off a truck revs low. I see a shooting star. There’s a flickering red glow to the north. I keep walking. Mice scurry in the vacant lots. My steps echo like there are caves deep underfoot. I hear people snoring in their beds. I pass a gasometer and can hear the gas swirling around inside. I see another shooting star, and imagine I can hear it screaming to earth. I head down empty streets, across paddocks, behind the back of factories and wrecking yards, towards the red glow. I don’t see a single person the whole time.
I come to a Golden Fleece service station, on a highway. There’s a café next to it. A couple of trucks and a taxi are parked outside. I go in. Bleary eyed truckies give me an indifferent glance. A juke box in the corner is playing Dean Martin, “Memories Are Made Of This”.
I prop at the counter. A waitress comes out. She has light brown hair, small, even features. It’s whatever hour it is, but she looks like she just stepped out of the sea. She smiles—business like, but friendly. What would you like?
A cup of tea. She brings me a pot, and a slice of toast. I drink the tea, leave the toast. She stays there.
“I like this song,” she says.
“How do they get you to work the late shift?”
“I don’t mind it,” she says.
“You must see some types,” I say.
She shrugs, and pulls out a cigarette.
I offer her a light. She draws on the cig then puts it down, turns sideways and fiddles with an earring. Her eyes are lowered. Her profile is perfect. She turns back, picks up the cig and smiles, like she knows what I’m thinking. In a nice way.
“No car?” she says.
“Just out for a walk. But I have a Customline. Well. Sort of.”
“Does it have a radio?”
“Well, if you bring it over,” she says, “I might let you take me for a ride.”
“Maybe I will. My name’s Bill Glasheen.”
“Linda.” She offers her small hand, smiling, and we shake.
I take a cab back to Heidelberg, and it’s a long way. Next morning I step out into blazing daylight, not sure if last night even happened. Helen sees me and turns away, and that suits me just fine.
THE WEEK plays out. We never crack more than a few quid a day from the hot dogs, but I’m doing a good trade in vitamin pills and the odd reefer. Olympic records are being broken left right and centre. Then Perkal gets a surprise booking for the Saturday night dance at Heidelberg Town Hall. He assembles a four piece combo.
I see the Polynesian Princess outside her caravan that morning. Her eyes are staring wide, her pupils like pennies. Her hair is streaming out wildly. She looks at me, points accusingly: “Elvis is coming!” she says.
Heidelberg Town Hall at 7.30. There’s already a big crowd inside. Mums, dads, oldies, littlies, and a big mob of louts and loutettes. There are sporting folk too, and hangers on. Secret police. Thugs. Christ knows who else. And they’re still coming.
We set up the hot dog stand outside the front door. “Jesus,” I say to Perkal, “there must be a thousand people in there?”
“Last week they had 2000 here. 3000 people at Moonee Ponds Town Hall.”
“So how come you got the job?”
He looks away. “I was wondering that myself.”
An hour later the mob inside is getting rowdy, which I can hear from outside where I’m flat out selling hotdogs. The band is plugging away playing a 50-50 mix old time and new vogue, which pleases no one much. There’s booing from the bodgies, and angry shouts at the bodgies from everybody else.
A green Holden with NSW plates pulls up a little way down the street. Skylight Reggie is at the wheel and The Spruso Kid next to him. They get out of the car. Reggie walks up slowly, stops at his Customline parked right outside the hall.
I abandon the hot dogs and nip around the back, but they see me and follow. I slip inside the hall. It’s packed. The PA system isn’t really carrying, and people have stopped dancing. The hoochie coochie girls are performing the Fire Dance of the Islands, which Blind Freddy can see is far too blue, or not blue enough for this crowd. Things are sliding out of control and no one in authority seems to give a fat rat’s arse. I understand now how come they gave Perkal the job: they wanted to get the numbers down.
The bodgies and widgies are down the front chanting “Take it off! Take it off!” and Cathy and Maureen are on the verge of doing just that, and a huge mitt crushes my upper arm, and a Russki gorilla is staring at me saying, “GIVE ME WITAMINS”, so I clock him in the face as hard as I can with my free arm, and he reels back into Skylight and Spruso, who are right there. I’m away, leaving the bunch of them in a tussle, but another couple of Ivans are on my hammer. The yanks are not far off, but there’s no hope that they’ll step in and save me from the commos, notwithstanding the arrangements our respective countries are supposed to have made. The Russki thugs are either side of me but then the crowd magically parts, and through the path appears a bloke I swear is seven foot tall, with a greasy black pompadour, wearing a yellow satin jacket with fancy embroidery on it. He’s knocking over men, women and children like they were nine pins. He picks up a fat Russki and holds him in the air above his head. The band stops playing, the girls stop stripping. The louts stop louting. The giant slowly rotates, still holding the Russian like he was a dumbbell. He turns 180. Embroidered in fancy lettering on the back is “Micky Mavros—the Greek Elvis”.
He hurls the Russian into the crowd, marches onto the stage. He and Helen embrace. They kiss. They exit, arm in arm. The louts cheer.
I’M ALREADY out of there. I sprint to the Customline. It smells of putrefying saveloys. I keep going, further down the street to the green Holden. Ignition wires are hanging loose under the dash, next to the Air Chief radio. I get in, make contact and then I’m off. I hit Sydney Road, get to the outskirts of Melbourne, drop a u-ey, backtrack until I see the Golden Fleece sign.
Linda is behind the counter.
“I thought you said a Customline,” she says.
I shrug. “It’s got a radio. Feel like coming for that drive now?” I say.
“Sydney. Further maybe.”
She looks left and right. “I can’t just walk out…” She drops her cigs and lighter in a bag, “I mean, it’ll take me at least two minutes to finish up here.” She takes a wad of notes from the till. She smiles at me. “My holiday pay,” she says.
We drive all night, don’t stop except for petrol. We talk for a while, then go quiet, then talk again. Either way it feels easy. At five in the morning on the crest of the Razorback mountain the motorcycle cop pulls us up. I sling him the last of the black bombers. He glances at the wires twisted together under the dash, then gives me a look. “Wasn’t me,” I say. “I’m taking it back to where it came from.” He shakes his head, then rides off.
Linda and I stay. We smoke in silence, leaning up against the Holden, our sides touching lightly. In the distance the sky behind Sydney is turning red.
I can see Linda’s looking at me. I turn to her.
“Is this going to turn out badly?” she says.
© Peter Doyle
from Contrappasso Magazine #1, August 2012
An earlier version of ‘Cold War, Hot Dogs’ was broadcast on
The Night Air, ABC Radio National, in 2006.
And see Rhett Brewer’s 2011 painting series The Golden Age, inspired by this story.
* * * * *
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
PETER DOYLE lectures in Media Studies at Macquarie University, Sydney. He is the author of City of Shadows: Sydney Police Photographs 1912-1948 (2006, with Caleb Williams) and Crooks Like Us (2009), two books which draw on the forensic photography archives at the Justice and Police Museum, Sydney. He is also the author of four crime novels featuring lurk mechant Billy Glasheen: Get Rich Quick (1996), Amaze Your Friends (1998), The Devil’s Jump (2001), and The Big Whatever (2015).