I met him at the pub.
Hed had a tough time. Three months ago hed been picked up off the floor of the bar and dragged out by two strangers. He kicked and spat and told them to bugger off. Theyd persisted.
Cmon, mate. Youve had enough.
Back then he had dark circles under his eyes and a grey patchy beard. He lived alone and no one ever called, not even his old mates from the workshop. Every morning, the publican would find him waiting outside the pub for it to open.
The strangers took him out into the bright daylight. His eyes stung from the glare and he fought their grips the entire way.
A few blocks from the pub they stopped at an old warehouse and one of the men knocked nine times on an enormous metal door. Three short, three long, three short.
The door slid open on noisy rusted rollers. They pushed him inside and the door rolled closed behind them. He was dragged over to a lounge and told to lie down. He wanted to fight but the lounge was soft and swallowed him into fitful dreams. He woke to the sound of hammering. Metal on metal. Itd been over a year since hed heard a noise like that. He could smell steak being cooked.
A man came over dressed in oily overalls. The man wiped his hands on a rag and tucked the end of it back in his pocket. He held out a weathered hand, fingernails worn down through hard work. He was one of the men who had dragged him out of the pub. Joeys my name. The two men shook hands. Get yourself together and Ill show you around.
He tried to stand and follow but his head was splitting. The hammering didnt stop. The smell of oil made him dizzy. But it was familiar, comforting in a way. He was in what looked like a large railway shed. Solid beams ran the length of the building high above their heads. The corrugated iron roof had holes that let in streaks of sunlight. The place wasnt watertight, but it was solid. Built to last.
There were men all around him. Mostly his age or older, but a few younger ones too. Some were watching a large TV set up in a makeshift lounge area. Others were playing cards. The young bloke at the barbecue cracked pepper onto sizzling meat.
But what couldnt be missed were the cars. A 78 Torana with its engine in a thousand pieces on the floor. A 75 Sandman with the interiors removed. A 67 XR on blocks with two overalled legs sticking out from underneath.
And a stripped back 56 FJ Holden, just like his very first car, standing proud in the corner. He rose to his feet and made his way over. His legs felt like they were floating. He needed to be closer to it.
Great car, wasnt she? Joey said, now beside him.
He couldnt speak. He ran his hand slowly over the curve of the bonnet and gulped. He peered through the windscreen at the red vinyl interiors: bench seat, column shift and the thin-but-strong steering wheel with its bright red centre. Memories flashed through his mind. He smiled.
The next morning, he was at the metal door waiting for Joey to arrive. Joey grinned as he unlocked the latch.
Joey showed him where the tools were kept and turned on the radio. Cold Chisel, Led Zeppelin and a bit of Bowie.
He worked tirelessly for weeks. He felt stronger. He talked more. He laughed for the first time in years. But.
The FJ was just about finished when he relapsed.
The place wasn’t watertight, but it was solid. Built to last.
He couldnt pinpoint what caused it. A few things, he guessed. Three bills arrived in one week, a kid spray-painted his fence, and his son called to ask for money. He desperately wanted to go back to the shed but couldnt do it sober. He took a bottle of Scotch.
He knocked nine times and the doors rolled open. Joey was onto him right away.
Its the rule, mate.
He spat on the floor at Joeys feet. Bugger the rules.
He was physically thrown out just as theyd dragged him in three months earlier. But before the door closed completely, Joey stuck out his head and said, Sober up, then come back. You belong here.
When the door closed he smashed the half-empty bottle against the enormous door. The brown liquid ran down the corrugations and dripped onto the footpath.
He went straight back to the pub. Itd been three whole months since hed last stepped foot in there. Most of the regulars assumed he was dead.
Id been there since opening. When he took the stool beside me my vision was already blurring and I could barely make him out.
He sat there all day, not drinking, silently staring at the bar. I must have had 10 beers in the time he sat and stared. Finally he banged a fist on the wood in front of him and held a finger up to signal to the publican. The publican sighed, but nodded, and went to get him a Scotch.
He was looking at me strangely when the glass was put in front of him. He went to reach for it but something changed his mind. He pushed it away. Hed recognised my bloodshot eyes, my trembling hand, my stained shirt. And somehow he knew Id been there every day for weeks.
My legs crumpled when he dragged me off the stool. Fighting was pointless. His now strong arms moved me easily towards the door.
Cmon, mate. Youve had enough.