ONCE a week when Don Bentley worked in Townsville, he would go on walk-about during his break.
Bentley usually went home for dinner but on Wednesday nights he had a night off from this routine. On Wednesdays his wife took their young son to play roller hockey and this gave Bentley an opportunity to visit some of the many pubs that dotted the Townsville city centre, or its beach and port-side fringes.
Bentley loved pubs and his favourite during his time in Townsville had become the Great Northern Hotel, a colonial, balconied establishment that was built to coincide with the arrival of the railway to northern Queenslandin the late 1800s.
On many a night as he sipped a cool beer in the Northern, Bentley’s eyes would follow the steel rails of the tracks, illuminated by moonlight, south to where the main line passed another pub steeped in railway history. Unlike the Great Northern which had seen its railway patronage decline over the years, like the railways themselves in an age of air travel, the second pub still retained a railway connection. It was situated just over the tracks from Townsville’s extensive railway workshops and it served as a convenient watering hole for railway workers.
There was another attraction for the railwaymen. The pub, the Wheels of Fire, advertised topless barmaids and strippers at certain times, usually on a Wednesday and Friday evening, and it never seemed to be short of patrons on these nights.
One evening when Mrs Bentley was away at the roller hockey centre, and Bentley was looking for a new experience during his hour-long break, he decided to take the 15-minute stroll along the tracks to the Wheels of Fire. Usually it would be a little too far to go with the limited time available, but this particular evening promised to be a slow night at work. It was the summer holiday period, the papers were not as big as usual and Bentley could add a half hour for so to his break and not be missed.
Bentley told himself the visit to the Wheels of Fire was purely in the interests of his social research into the workings of the tropical city, and had nothing to do with bare female flesh. All the same, Bentley chose not to tell Mrs Bentley of his outing. More importantly no one in the newspaper office would know, especially the chief sub-editor, a female who, promoting women’s rights in the workplace, would no doubt frown on any activity that could be deemed exploitation of the fairer sex.
Any notion of the fairer sex was certainly not in play in the steamy, pulsating interior of the Wheels of Fire. It was a hot, humid night but the atmosphere inside the pub gave no relief. The air-conditioning clearly could not keep pace with the sheer number of excited patrons, and their combined rising temperature.
Bentley pushed his way to the bar, elbowing and leveraging aside the tightly packed patrons. The strip show had not started and all eyes were fixed on the barmaid who was topless. A new barrel of Castlemaine XXXX had just been connected to the pumps and as Bentley ordered a schooner of beer, the froth spat out of the tap. Foam formed on the barmaid’s breasts.
“Want a lick?’’ the barmaid shouted with a laugh and Bentley looked away in embarrassment. A coy Bentley kept his eyes firmly on the barmaid’s face and not her foamy breasts as he paid for his beer. The journalist then turned to what promised to be the focus of attention, a platform erected in the middle of the bar forming a stage of sorts. Bentley could see the stage was actually a panel of wood laid on a pool table.
“And gentlemen, for your pleasure and entertainment, just arrived from Sydney, we have the lovely, the exciting, the stunning Chantel,’’ an announcer shouted through a tinny tannoy and the crowd parted to allow a diminutive blonde woman to make her way to the pool table from the back of the bar.
A chair placed next to the table allowed Chantel to climb on to the temporary stage, and then the song “Big Spender’’ rang out amid cheering. With high kicks, Chantel began to strip off her clothes.
Bentley had seen strip shows before, of course; in his youth on the fringes of London when young men were expected under peer pressure to view such spectacles as a right of passage to manhood. He was not quite prepared, however, for what was being unveiled here. It was raunchy, and without inhibition. Bentley was shocked and asked himself, “Whatever happened to G-strings?’‘
Chantel was totally naked and Bentley thought that would be an end to it, until another song started up and Chantel invited members of the leering, cheering crowd to put a gold coin in her moneybox.
It was time for Bentley to leave, acknowledging that he was not quite as broad-minded as he had supposed. It was either that or the role of the stripper, and what she stripped, had moved on from the times young lads nudge-nudged each other in excitement, dry-mouthed in awe, rapped in innocent expectation in the Surrey suburbia of his youth.
Bentley made his way to the exit, but first he decided to go to one of the windows, which were shrouded in heavy blinds to keep what was going on in the bar a secret from prying eyes outside. He pushed it slightly to one side so he could look up the street. It was about the time Mrs Bentley would be returning in the family car from the roller hockey centre, passing the pub, and Bentley did not want to be seen leaving such an establishment. Giant signs outside advertised what went on in the pub on Wednesday and Friday nights, signs that had brought protests from readers in the letter’s page of the Express, signs that had in recent weeks been modified to erase nipple and bare backside.
“What’s up mate, eyes too big for your penis?’’ a patron muttered to Bentley as he left the side of the stage.
“Penis indeed,’’ Bentley said to himself. He was annoyed that is curiosity had led him to the bar, and he now needed the civility and security of the newspaper office, and later the cold beer that Mrs Bentley would have put in the fridge for him.
Thoughts of the loving Mrs Bentley, and a cold beer, were to be rudely interrupted in a way that Bentley, when he had set out for the strip-tease adventure, could not have imagined in his wildest dreams, or nightmares. He had barely reached the exit when suddenly the pub’s front door flew open with such force that it released a jet of balmy summer air into the premises.
“Stop, police,’’ a voice boomed out and to his shock Bentley saw about half a dozen burley Queensland Police officers storming the pub. The stripper, still naked, hastily gathered the flimsy items of clothing she had discarded to Big Spender. She leapt off the pool table and dashed for the back of the pub, shrieking as she went. The music stopped and a silence fell over a bar that had been so raucous moments beforehand.
“Right. This is a police raid as if you didn’t know it,’’ shouted the police officer in charge.
“The Queensland Police are acting on suspicion of indecent, illegal, lewd, dare I say it, obscene behaviour on licensed premises, in contravention of the laws of the state.’‘
Bentley craned his neck, straining to see where the authoritative voice was coming from. He peered over a sea of bowed heads, like subdued waves on a tropical ocean following a storm, patrons looking to the floor and trying desperately not to show their faces.
“Right, we want you all to line up. Particulars will be taken down,’’ the police officer leading the raid continued. Bentley could see him clearly now, a stern face hidden under a peaked cap festooned with gold braid.
“I’ve already had my particulars taken down, sweetie,’’ shouted the stripper who had now returned to the bar, wearing a white T-shirt and skimpy red knickers. A weak titter rippled across the bowed heads as the patrons formed into five or six lines, with policemen, notebooks open, at their head.
Bentley shuffled to the back of the queue nearest to him.
“Christ,’’ he muttered to himself. It crossed his mind to give a false name, as no doubt it was crossing the minds of the majority of the patrons. Foolish really, he reasoned after a while. That would only make matters worse. It would amount to perjury, or obstructing police. Bentley’s plight would be even more dire. Better to come clean. His thoughts were now on what he was going to tell Mrs Bentley. That would be the easy part. What would be tell the chief sub-editor, Sue Barber? By now she would have probably noticed his absence as the copy to be edited built up.
Bentley’s thoughts also turned to the beckoning police station, as the shrinking queue brought the policemen with open notebooks closer. Those patrons who had been processed were being led to a line of police vans parked on the main highway outside the Wheels of Fire.
Would Bentley be told he could make a single phone call, like he had seen on the movies? The call would have to be made to the chief sub-editor. Mrs Bentley could wait. How would be explain his dilemma, his absence. Would he make a joke of it, a pun; describe the scene of his indiscretion as the “wheels of ire’‘.
Then again, he could just lie. “Sorry I didn’t make it back to the office. Had a little accident on the way home to dinner.’‘
Bentley had decided there was no point in lying. The truth would out, his name would be among a list of culprits caught at the Wheels of Fire. He would probably have to edit the story himself if he got back to the office that night, and write a headline. The Wheels of Ire? Bentley thought not, this was not an occasion for puns as he had already determined.
The police officer at the head of Bentley’s queue, licking his pencil, looked up to see that the end of the line had nearly been reached. Just two patrons, one of them Bentley hiding at the back. It was to be Bentley’s moment of truth.
At that moment Bentley felt someone tugging at his elbow. He ignored the tugging at first, preoccupied with the looming police officer, but finally he turned to see a familiar face, eyeing him from behind horn-rimmed glasses. It was the Townsville Express police reporter, confirming that it was actually Bentley standing there. The reporter had his notebook open; notebooks were contagious.
“What the Christ are you doing here?’’ asked the police roundsman incredulously. He only knew Bentley as the man who sat diligently at his computer terminal each night, or the Express employee seen strolling the Strand beach by day, with his binoculars at the ready, engaging in his hobby of bird-watching.
“Too difficult to explain,’’ Bentley said hastily, looking at the policeman ahead of him, and realising finally that giving a false name was totally out of the question, because the reporter knew who he was. “No point in saying I’m innocent, but I am really. Well sort of….’’ Bentley said to the reporter, straining to smile. Bentley felt too embarrassed to go on. There were no words to describe his predicament.
“But what are you doing here?’’ Bentley asked the roundsman. It was a silly question, as Bentley realised as soon as the words had left his mouth. Bentley was not thinking straight. Obviously the press had been tipped off about the raid. The Express, in the light of the letters it had received, was running a campaign itself to have the more extreme “men’s only’’ joints closed down, or at least made the subject of tighter controls. Readers supported by the Express were worried about the impact such establishments were having on the morals of the young men in town.
Now one of the Express’s own had been caught in the dragnet, and Bentley’s thoughts switched to the impact this would have on the newspaper’s credibility. Double standards, hypocrisy; the newspaper had enemies among politicians it had crossed swords with in the past and this could be an opportunity for them to gain revenge.
It occurred to Bentley that his job, and reputation, and perhaps his career in journalism was on the line.
The reporter tugged at Bentley’s arm again. He could read the anguish on Bentley’s face.
“Just you leave this to me,’’ he said, before calling across the bar to the police inspector leading the raid.
“Inspector. This here’s Don Bentley, one of our boys. We sent him in earlier under cover.’‘
The inspector looked at Bentley approvingly before addressing the reporter.
“Well I hope he reports what he saw,’’ he said.
“Don’t you worry about that, inspector,’’ replied the reporter, leading Bentley to the pub’s door.