Sometime around one in the morning I wake Bret who’s been sleeping in the pantry, slumped forward on a beer keg. The ability to drop off anywhere is just one of his many superpowers.
“This place is a morgue before two darling. A light goes off in their tiny minds and all they want is more booze to keep the come-down at bay.”
Night shift at the hotel was one of Bret’s staples; he knew its rhythm, knew the regulars and could predict with uncanny precision who would be needing sustenance or oblivion at ungodly hours. He also knew nothing much happened before midnight that I couldn’t handle. So he spent the time from eight till ten thirty shuttling back and forth between the lobby and the back kitchen, describing in detail the comings and goings of Melbourne’s finest 4 star patrons.
“She’s in again with that puppy, the Albanian boy who only sleeps with her because she takes him shopping in the afternoon; he’s obsessed with high fashion, the little tart. We won’t hear from them until the early hours of the morning and only then because he fakes it quite badly. I swear his moaning sounds like subliminal marketing; Oooooh…..Guuuuchi…Guuuuchi. Anyway…she’ll call up sometime around two for a bottle of chardonnay.”
Night shift in the back kitchen was usually a job for three but it’s mid-week so they’ve skimped and Bret and I have been left to our own devices. Once he’s given me a general run down of guests, their mores, foibles and when they’re likely to call up, he spends the next hour in the pantry practising his flute. Short classical themes and scale runs played at low volume are cut short only by the occasional buzz as the wall mounted phone demands my attention.
“Hi, room 132…can I have an er…the Spanish omelette with fries and (slightly drunk whispering) a prawn platter and a couple of Carltons?”
“I can’t do you the omelette and fries I’m afraid, it’s cold plates only after 11. The prawns are ok and the beer’s fine though.”
“Can you make me a British omelette then?”
“I can’t make a British omelette, a Spanish omelette or even a Chinese omelette without eggs and a pan. It’s cold plates only after 11. Sorry”
“Oh…just make it two prawn platters and the tinnies then mate.”
While I plate up the prawns, Bret emerges from the pantry and recounts room service tales from a few nights ago.
“You know those sparkly BBC dramas where the aristos have all got fruity things happening under their gowns and the servants run the show, totally pretending not to notice the goings on?”
“Well nothing’s changed. We’re still invisible you know. They talk like we’re not there at all. It’s like Merchant Ivory without the frocks round here.”
I realised a while ago that the best way to get a story out of Bret was to appear totally disinterested, so I carry on arranging prawns with my back to him.
“So, two nights ago I’m taking a hot cocoa and biccies up to one of the suites on the 5th floor and this woman accosts me as I’m sashaying out of the lift, saying that she has a wine emergency. So thoroughly intrigued I followed her back to her room where her lady friend proceeded to tell her tales of woe and debauchery but in a sort of clean and good natured Canadian way. She spilled the beans on marriage, divorce, multiple pregnancies, affairs with Iranians and untimely death while all the while I’m standing there uncorking two bottles of wine at a snails pace. Not a glance, not a hint of acknowledgement at my presence.”
I could tell he was put out; Bret lived to be noticed.
“So what happened to the cocoa?” I ask.
He sighs. “I weave the Canadian equivalent of Anna Karenina and you want to know what happened to the cocoa? I delivered it 20 minutes later. It was cold.”
“No. Cold cocoa is good for the soul. At least that’s what I told them. People generally accept anything if you quote something spiritual at them.”
And with that, Bret went back to the pantry with his flute and left me to see out a slow mid-week night-shift on my own. About an hour later I went up to the fourth floor to deliver a cheese plate and some wine to a couple from Holland and when I got back there was a note stuck to the phone.
“Clocked off early darling. Sleep needs me. Catch you.”
But I never did see Bret in a kitchen, a banquet hall or behind a bar again. The man who had kept me sane and highly entertained through so many shifts vanished from the Melbourne hospitality scene. Our paths didn’t cross again in uniform and we hadn’t exchanged numbers or details of any sort. All we’d shared was the here and now.
A couple of months later, not long before leaving Australia, I was walking through my neighbourhood, weaving round the blocks, working out some song ideas in my head when there he was, Bret, looking strangely civilian-like, dressed, not in black with a white shirt and a waistcoat, but in jeans and a hoodie. Turns out he lived just round the corner from me in a building I often looked up at and admired; a magnificent three story Victorian house with wrought iron balconies marred by two satellite dishes and a scattering of chained up bikes. He told me he’d been back from his Kontiki tour for a few weeks now and was trying to get into some sort of marketing course at uni. He was playing flute in an amateur orchestra and thought he might go back and do just a few more hotel shifts to tide him over. We stood on the pavement under a large overhanging bush spilling over a garden fence and quickly ran out of things to say. There was no one to bitch about, no common anecdotes to dissect and no one to observe. Our conversation ran dry. We walked off in opposite directions, waved and said we’d no doubt bump into one another again. That was the last time I saw him.