More like this

Back when we were dwindling, we took our smokos on the wheelchair ramp, darts in our hands and pills in our pockets, and counted the cars on Princes Highway. We stared at the shadows in the windshields until they rolled up their windows and pined for the lights to turn green. Somewhere up the road, in the city many kilometres away, American movies played in the cinema, French nudes hung in the art gallery, and hotshots from Hong Kong put up billion-dollar malls so tall they made the neck ache. The drivers, chasing culture and charm, drove as quickly out of our gaze as the law would allow. We mumbled under our breath until our smokos ended, and then we scurried up the ramp and into the RSL to find a mop or a pan or a till, sorting the stools in the dank cafe, starting the stove in the dusty kitchen or sussing all the misspent money, putting the city and its oohlala out of mind.

Best not to fuss about our lives. Best not to fuss about the lives of our parents or their parents before them. Once we start fussing, we can’t stop. It only makes us crook to picture the burbs, then the docks, then the oceans, and then all those holy homes across the sea from where our ancestors were cast out, chasing turtles and trout, bound and whipped in the bowels of wooden ships, or sweating on a one-way flight with their rupees and their renminbi crammed in a single suitcase. To think we’ve all found ourselves here, one way or another, at the bottom of the world, where broken factory windows grin like mouths with missing teeth, where the creek curdles with the petrol that sunbathes on the shore. Best not to think about the RSL either, estranged from itself for decades, a pub so void of veterans that we used to wonder why management built your local at all… Better to be silent on a sunny afternoon, yeah, watching the cars racing elsewhere up Princes Highway.

If we weren’t watching so carefully, we wouldn’t have seen Philo when she came back. She walked up the lawn in that loose linen shroud, stepping over the dandelions with her bare brown feet, treading up the cracked pavement to the RSL. Three figures stood at the side of the road. Three sets of skins turned the colour of milk. The son, the grandson and the littlest. Two black suits and one black dress. The tops of their molars glistened at the back of their dropped jaws. Their eyes, like ours, were fixed on this, the most frightening thing we’d ever seen: her thin timber coffin, tipped off the ute and onto the bitumen, split open like a tree forked by lightning.

We felt her walk by us, we did, with all the warmth of a regular woman, plucking splinters from her curly hair, her shroud, as she glided through the bistro and towards the pokies.


Have a look around: everyone has their own little theory of death.

The grandson, thirteen, spent a lot of time on the internet. He knew bodies began to digest themselves mere minutes after going bung, that all our toxic waste begins to eat us from within, that after an hour our gases whisper out our bumholes and our mouths. He knew it took twelve hours for our muscles to go from soft to hard to soft again, which is why it was so easy to slide Philo into her coffin.

The littlest, seven, thought being dead was like going on holidays. She thought nan was having a boogie back in Bombay, and it was all right to eat whatever lollies she left behind in case they should spoil: in the old tins for butterscotch biscuits, in the pockets of her blouses and overalls, in the otherwise-empty purse above the telly.

Philo’s son knew more about death than most people. His wife had gone bung a few years back, and the sorrow really muddied his mind, so when his mother died he must’ve been sucked inside that same sad swamp. Or, maybe, just quietly, given how the last months had gone, he thought of Philo’s death with a bit of relief. He was free. No doubt he could hide such a shameful notion inside; he had the art of crying down pat. When he told us the news, a few days earlier, he caught his tears in the corners of his eyes until they overflowed, rich and heavy, peppering his no-name shirt where we could see them, right as rain.


We’ve told the reporters what we saw, but they aren’t too keen to hear it.

Two minutes before Philo walked into the RSL, the hearse carrying her coffin hit a pothole, bounced off its front wheels and swerved around the gas line. The coffin slid out the hearse and cracked on the road. The September sun washed over her body, the same body that had lain for three days, circled by standing fans to stop the rot, until the son found the money for the funeral.

There on the road, for all of us to see, she got up. She sat in the casket, staring at the endless trails of traffic on Princes Highway. She clawed at her neck, only it was bare, unadorned. Then her gaze sharpened and the corners of her eyes dotted with silver. It was the same look we had seen many times before, on some late-night shift when we told her we were closing, that she had to go home. When we had tried, yeah, to put her in her place.


Philo first came in a year earlier, in the lull between the footy and cricket seasons, those lengthening days when the telly behind the bar replayed the hounds running circles at the track. At the time, when management wrote encouraging emails about the late-spring slump, insisting the patrons would come so long as we kept up our grace and laughter, Philo entered the RSL to a set of smiles. She wore loose blue jeans, a grey cardi and streaks of gold in her ringleted hair. Draped around her neck, nestled over the buttons of her top, was a laminated icon of St Jude: the patron saint, we now know, of the impossible.

Philo was in town to put her son’s life back together. He was sitting his fourth attempt at a limo licence, having failed first for poor communication, second for anger issues and third, the poor fella, for missing the test the day his wife went down to a lump in her liver. Philo flew in from Mumbai, pulled her son out of bed, washed and ironed the clothes on the kids’ backs, and set the house straight.

That first day, with the hot sun setting a halo on her head, she sauntered into the bar, laid her senior citizen’s card over a coaster and asked for a Bacardi Breezer. ‘A little zest,’ she said, licking her fingertips as the slice of lime dripped down her hand.

Those were the days when management started asking about the missing customers, the regulars who’d died or stayed in bed, and every word uttered in the RSL only made the carpets heavier, the downlights more dull. The pokies presided in the back room, and those anti-ATMs, those silos of squandering, set a familiar stillness over us all. The rhythm of each coin lost in a slot, and the rumble of another dud turn, made Philo’s appearance no more than an awkward arrival.

We thought she would go elsewhere. We thought she would wise up to us, the hopeless employees of the pokies, who hurried along to mop and scrub and chop, all in service of the lost souls who wanted their beer cool and their parmas hot as they gambled away their pensions. Instead she gave us that look, that steely silver stare, and said, ‘Boy and girl at school, son on his debut shift… What to do? What to do?’

We shrugged. She peered past the faded posters spruiking AC/DC cover bands and Shania Twain impersonators, over the faces of the grogheads fixed solemnly on the bubbles rising up from their beers, and to the pool table. She strode across the carpet, clutching her St Jude icon as she neared the felt surface.

She took a cue, set the balls in their triangle and broke with enough menace to make our earwax avalanche. Just picture her: sinking the balls, striped or solid, into any which pocket, from any angle. She prowled around the table, stretching her spine with the cue across her shoulders. At three-thirty, when the worksites let out, the tradies sauntered through the bistro to their stools in the pool room. Their boots left clods of clay on the carpet. The stink of their bodies settled on the vases of tulips we taped to the tabletops. They were all neck tatts, bulging biceps under fluoro sweaters, beards like steel wool.

‘But must I ask you again?’ she said. ‘What to do?’

The tradies chuckled, and one took a cue and set her a challenge… And then, oh boy, wowee, the RSL started going off! She smoked the first bloke, then the next, and saw off the challengers one after another. Their laughter stopped. They could either go mad or let themselves marvel. She never missed, not even behind the back or off the wall. She wouldn’t sit still unless she had a cue in her hands.

We started doing our work wherever we could see her, sometimes standing to dry the schooners or scrubbing the stains off the bar with an eye on the table. She left around five and returned the next day at nine. She played with a persistence that made the muck tumble out the corners of our eyes. Every morning, when she ordered her Bacardi Breezer, we felt the chalk from yesterday’s play on the coins she clinked on the counter.

The son would park his limo across the street and wait for her to finish. When her game went overtime, he would frown against the window, two hands cupped around his head, his cheeks smudged against the glass, calling out between the bellows of the tradies. Our chests swelled beneath our uniforms at the sight of Philo sticking it to old age, and to these men who had ruled the felt for millennia. She was one of us, wishing she were elsewhere but making do. Suddenly there was excitement in our listless lives, a jolt of joy, a rush that made every man, woman and dog just quietly cream their dacks.


It goes without saying that the son had his own troubles. The monthly calculations weren’t hard: six hundred to insure his limo, a higher premium for three failed tests; seven hundred for his wife’s outstanding chemo bills; a grand to rent their flat by the train line. On top of all this, he wanted his kids to apply to the selective public schools in the city, those army barracks turned into academies for gifted boys and girls. He went asking for the best tutor in town. He shared his quest with the businessmen he drove around, from the airport to their penthouses, carefully plotting his dreams for his kids. Five seconds later, yeah, the flogs were probably looking down from their plush sofas, having a laugh at his precious plans.

The best tutors were asking for fifty an hour and, try as he might, he didn’t have the time to teach his kids on his own. He enlisted Philo, yeah. He took her away from us. She taught the kids algebra and statistics through the summer holidays, skipping her daily innings at the pool table. We would’ve told her it was hopeless. With all the migrating and the mourning in the kids’ minds, what space would they have for the periodic table or the posh ways to spin a sentence? We crammed the Bacardi Breezers back in their box under the bar. The tradies, having tasted and lost the best competition of their lives, stopped playing pool and took their ruckus to the rooftop bars. We felt the hopeless rhythm of the RSL, the loss that surrounded each passing day. We went back to our silent devotion, working beneath the hum of the pokie carousels, those mechanical overlords who taught us not to care about one woman’s whereabouts.

Six months passed. Winter came. Somewhere in those shortened days, management sent a warning: the lack of revenue meant the RSL might close permanently. ‘It’s wise to start looking for a new career,’ they said. ‘We don’t want you to be blindsided. We want to thank you in advance for your service.’ We spent our shifts sniffling at the bar, humming under our breath to stop the terror clawing up our throats. What could we be if not RSL employees? In what real world could we dare to exist?

Then one morning, with the dew frozen on the grass and the fog at nine like a doona draped from the sky, Philo returned. She shuffled into the bistro in those same blue jeans. The laminate icon peeked out from her pocket. Jude’s saintly eyes peered over the stitching, his fiery crown nestled against her wiry thighs. We tried to contain ourselves. We were so keen to see her. She ordered her Bacardi Breezer and stood at the bar, and we rummaged through the box to find the coolest bottle of the batch.

‘A straw,’ she said. ‘Please.’ She fumbled some coins out of her purse. They tumbled out of her hand and rolled under the stools. Her fingers curled in her palms. Her joints swelled. Her digits twisted in different directions. Arthritis, yeah. Rapid onset. Here it was. A woe as old as the wind. And no good for pool room hijinks.

Pressing the bottle between her hands, she ambled past the felt and into the pokies lounge. She sat at the Millionaire Maker. She took St Jude out of her pocket, lay him on the hood of the machine and sucked on her straw, nodding defiantly.

No one knew if she had discovered the pokies earlier, back before she flew into this suburban trap, or if that day the pokies discovered her, flashing red and green, humming at the end of the hall, purring under the coaster where she rested her bottle. Maybe the Millionaire Maker summoned her, precisely her, another hapless retiree with only enough dexterity to grasp a fiver, forego her fickle coins, bop the big red button and play the only game that took notes. It knew her: another geriatric with enough flesh on her bones to set her low, so low, into that stiff plastic chair.


Philomena Rowena Rodrigues (1946–2011), professional pokies player, the nan who lived for the ring-a-ding-ding of the reels, who spent fiver after fiver hoping to make it big, who crossed herself before each turn, who hid St Jude and a single note on top of the machine when we told her we were closing, whose hair turned from gold to grey with all her failures, whose steely determination melted out of her eyes and into every pore, leaving her weary and breathless as the days wore down. ‘Time to turn your frowns around,’ she’d say each morning when she took a seat and reached for the fiver above the machine. At best, she won a free turn or a twenty-dollar credit.

Once she was the angel of our backwater RSL, captivating all with her finesse around the felt. Now she was an utter wash-up, a loser like the rest of us, dumping every dollar into the mouth of the Millionaire Maker. She trembled when we asked, after ten hours in her chair, if we should call her son.

‘Just wait and see,’ she said. ‘All of you.’ The memory of the pool days became a nostalgic trap. We put them out of our minds, serving her drinks until the bottles jostled on the counter by her seat.

Management sent an email, noting the new revenue. ‘We haven’t had a nuffy like this before,’ they said. ‘Simply excellent.’ There was the possibility of extending our RSL lease. Maybe they wouldn’t have to let us go. We read the city address at the bottom of the email; we knew how the bosses liked to talk, they who called us ‘nuffies’, laughing as their tongue did acrobatics against their teeth.

The son started hunting for her on his work breaks, stalking through the bistro and over to the machines.

‘At first it was her pension, but her fingers find the money in every nook and cranny,’ he said, carrying her over his shoulder like a dead fig tree in a cracked clay pot. We heard about his bouncing cheques, the cut gas lines, the overdue rent. Three months later, he sold his limo for a regular taxi. The kids, without their tutor, started wandering the burbs, tagging their names on the back wall of the milk bar and tossing bottles onto the train tracks.

Surely, she knew. Surely she knew that every day only multiplied her losses, that failure times failure would not equal a win, that the pokies would take every dollar she touched so long as she kept dreaming of her millions. She was there every morning, rubbing St Jude for divine guidance, the ions buzzing in her blood, the adrenaline flaring in her nostrils.

‘What to do?’ we said, as we read the latest praise from management. ‘But what to do?’


Safe to say, their landlord was the real ratbag. It’s true. He parked his van outside their flat and played endless electro bangers out his subwoofer and through their flyscreen door. He left angry notices smeared with curry powder in the mailbox. ‘Pay up!’ he wrote. ‘I thought you Indians knew a thing or two about maths.’ He followed the kids, parking by the creek to watch them skip stones or collect cans. Most of the time, he sat at the steering wheel, whistling in the gloom, and some of us, walking home from our shifts, saw the son peering out the window with wet welts under his eyes. Sometimes we heard his long-distance phone calls, the arguments with his brother who wanted the kids sent back to Bombay for a thorough education and a return to a safe home.

Then one weird morning in September, when the cold returned and the overnight rain turned every lawn into a swamp, we found the son waiting at the wheelchair ramp.

‘I wanted to see you,’ he said, ‘before your busy day begins.’ He squelched to the bar, sliding his long, lean fingers over the legs of the upturned stools, and over to the lobby, where our attendant was counting the cash in the register. ‘Here I am,’ he said, ‘asking for your help.’

We gathered around him, dusting our palms on our aprons, letting soapsuds drip down our fingertips. We had never heard him talking to us before. His voice was just like a little boy’s.

‘My mother,’ he said, ‘Mrs Rodrigues, she comes here every day. You’ve seen her, I’m sure. She is sick. She has a very bad sickness. This kind of sickness is killing her, and my family also. I ask that you stop her before she comes to gamble. If she plays any more, it will be the end of us.’ He let out some tears. ‘You can stop her,’ he said. ‘Refuse entry.’

Our attendant lowered her gaze. She took a rubber band off her wrist and bound the fifties that glowed under the halogens, catching the light like sunflowers peeking at the sky.

‘I’m begging you,’ he said. ‘Do you want me on my hands and knees?’

‘All right, mate,’ said our bartender. ‘We don’t want no drama. She got as much right to be here as anyone else.’

‘This is a free country,’ said our cleaner. ‘You asking us to put a fence around the joint?’

‘A fence?’ said our cook. ‘If we put up a fence, people will start saying we’re being exclusive.’

‘It’s not like us to be exclusive,’ said our waitress. ‘That definitely wouldn’t be good for business.’

‘Have you tried having a chat with her?’ said our attendant, putting the money back in the till. ‘It’s Philo, after all. She’s the sweetest lady we’ve ever met. Why don’t you sit her down, have a nice long talk and tell her how you feel?’

He flinched. He really did. His neck twitched, his eyes bulged in their sockets and his fists balled below his hairless wrists.

‘If you stupid fools want her so badly,’ he said, ‘go on, take her. But I expect you to pay me, thank you very much, for every dollar of mine that she has given to you.’

His sadness moved us, it really did, but his anger… Gee whiz, what a piss-up. We couldn’t help but laugh at him. Our hoos and our hahs wobbled off the glass doors, through the bistro, around the rickety legs of the dining table and out into the rain.

‘You know she is a burden,’ he said, raising his hands above his head. ‘Go and have her. She will never set foot in my house again.’ He swivelled, his heels squeaking out of the lobby and onto the lawn, where the first of spring’s dandelions were beginning to blossom.

We went back to our posts. The day was okay. Philo wandered in, took her seat at the Millionaire Maker and reached above the machine for the fiver. She pressed the icon to her chest and left a little sweat on his brow. We were glad that she was here, with us, and not wandering the frigid streets or stuck in the flat with her hotheaded son.


How her end happened—we can only speculate.

Our shifts finished, the bistro emptied, and the last waiter told Philo to go home six minutes after midnight. She went over the lawn, across Princes Highway and through the foggy streets. She would’ve shuffled through mud and rainwater, squelching through gutters and garden beds, soaking through her skin and shivering under her damp blouse. The adrenaline of the pokies would’ve faded from her blood, her breath hanging in cumulous clouds above her head. She ambled past the landlord’s van, by the dollar sign painted on the front window of the flat and to the back door, where her key jammed in the new lock and wouldn’t budge.

The grandson woke at dawn. He liked watching the trains sweep along the gully. He opened the curtains and found her, Philomena Rowena Rodrigues, curled on the doormat, done and dusted, her gases fermenting inside her body. He shrieked so loudly we all awoke from our far-flung slumbers.


And so when Philo came back, her hair freckled with splinters, her waxen skin glowing in the sun, none of us knew what the Shane Tuck to do. Our breath caught up our noses. We were utterly unprepared. Whatever wisdom we might’ve earned in our crooked corner of the earth was void, lacklustre, and maybe it was true, yeah: we were just nuffies after all, with no sense of the machinations of miracles or the grace of God.

She left blades of grass on the doormat when she walked in. She strode past our gardener and our receptionist, eyes only for the pokies lounge, evicted from the afterlife in three days and here, again, boy oh boy, wowee.

The son ran across the road. His eyebrows arched and his lips curled at the corners of his mouth. The children followed, clattering in their matching lace-ups. The howling from the traffic faded. The drivers swerved around the busted coffin and on to their most important matters in the city.

Philo padded over the carpet, raised her arms from her sides and paused at the centre of the pokies, like a queen bee emerging from her hive. Her fingers twitched at the ends of her palms. The bottom of her shroud caught the conditioned air and lapped at her ankles. She breathed slowly and looked up from her feet, eyeing our bar lady, then our server, and a chill crept up the contours of our backs and our heads and the hair on our bellies bristled against our blue polos.

She took five steps forward, lowered her hands and sat at the Millionaire Maker. Her fingers slid up the console, over the screen, the laminated ads, the faded stickers for the gambling hotline, and up to the top of the machine, from where she pulled a fiver and the icon of St Jude. She held the card in her palm, whispering.

‘Ama,’ said the son. ‘So good to have you back, really.’

Philo’s eyes reflected the electronic reels. She fed the fiver into the machine. Rubbing the icon, she peered at the display as if looking inside the soul of the computer, that whirring of fortune that ticked and tocked outside our nuffy knowhow. The son came nearer, his shirt fluttering loose from his pants, and made to say something else. The machine started beeping and clattering. It made an otherworldly roll-up. The reels slowed, the symbols sliding into place: three green apples, all in a row, like a line of shining emeralds.

The winnings came like a spring unearthed at the bottom of a mountain. There were coins, there were notes. The littlest yelped and caught some money in the front of her dress. The son, suddenly quiet, stumbled to the bar, emptied a jug and held it to the machine. We abandoned our posts, swapping mops and butterknives and squeegees for any bucket we could find, our hearts cavorting in our chests.

The Millionaire Maker munted the money for more than an hour. The son wept, and though we were all so versed in this one man’s emotions, today his tears were tinged with joy and deliverance. The littlest giggled, tossed a coin over her head and tried to land it on the ceiling fan. Her father told her off, said to put the money in a safe place. The grandson, with his pale face and dark eyes, sat on the carpet with a glass of creaming soda sweating under his fingertips. The attendant took a photo as we collected every offering, every denomination, shaking the buckets and lining them on the bar, wondering how our RSL could suddenly be so blessed.


Somewhere in the ruckus, between the bellyfuls of laughter and the buckets brimming with money, Philo slid from her seat and wandered out of sight. So smitten by the lights and the sounds and the money, so endlessly ecstatic, so eager to lap up our own oohlala, we didn’t think to check where she went. And then someone called the press, and soon enough journos and telly crews swept through the bistro, their high-definition cameras glowing on their padded shoulders, their microphones trembling as we fielded their questions.

‘Yeah,’ we said, ‘there’s more to life than youse might expect.’

The crews filmed the buckets, taking close-ups of the coins, the faces on the technicolour notes, the buzzing neon lighting above the pokies. One reporter sat at the Millionaire Maker, beamed at the camera, and tried her luck. We clapped, our fingertips splitting behind our nails, but of course she was not so special. When she stepped back to her camera, the queue to the machine had already snaked through the gaming lounge and into the bistro.


Now, weeks later, the son has paid off his debts and has no reason to cry. He surrounds himself with nice things: a double-storey house, an in-ground swimming pool, a chauffeur to drive the kids from the private schools to the arcades in the city. He paid for his family to fly over. They’ve settled in the burbs and found work driving taxis, cleaning malls, keeping security at warehouses and government offices. When we come to work, his big brown eyes hover on the billboard above us. ‘Home to Mr Millions,’ it says. ‘What are you waiting for?’

Management gave us all a raise, sent out the plans for another pokies lounge, extended our shifts and rehired those they had furloughed. We stopped counting cars on Princes Highway. Instead we repainted the car park, installed a new gazebo and now watch the drivers circling the lots, hunting for an empty spot. We cut out the reports from the papers and download the colour photos from the internet. Millionaire Miracle Strikes Lucky RSL. We spot our faces beside the articles, printed and shipped across the country from Cairns to Coober Pedy. Fame and Fortune in a Forgotten Pokies Lounge. Our cheeks ache. We are so new to smiling, but we’re starting to crave it.

Our attendant showed us the photo of that afternoon. We see ourselves scrambling around the machine, our eyes lit by the terror of her resurrection, and the son and the littlest hurrying to collect the money. Philo has faded from the photo, leaving only an orange glow above her chair, the colour and shape of a ciggy burn.

Best not to fuss about her fate. No need. Our bartender heard she walked to the cemetery and tumbled right into her open grave. Says that if we want, we can go dig up her bones and smell her rotting. Our waitress says the train was delayed that evening, that the driver minced a body under the wheels, that the cops couldn’t identify the corpse, that all they found was a laminate icon of St Jude stained crimson under the crusty blood. Management, finally responding to our calls and emails, say we all had a mass hysteria, a collective waking nightmare. ‘Believe it or not,’ they say, ‘it doesn’t matter. She died, but you all went to heaven.’

Heaven feels a lot like the old RSL, yeah, only with more miracles to go round. Our shifts fill with tips, singalongs and endless queues waiting for the bread rolls or the loo. If ever we weary, we lean against the Millionaire Maker, drying our hands by the fans in the sideboard, ogling all you new patrons who come and sit and play.