Despair

despair-2019938__340

Written December 2015.
Highly unfinished.

Trivia at the Megahole is comprised of three rounds, each made up of 15 questions. The first 12 questions are standard question and answer, normally worth one point but sometimes worth a second or third, which the host often refers to as ‘bonus points’. There will normally be one or two multiple choice questions among these 12, most frequently with three option to choose from. The trivia skews to sport, geography and pop culture — your bog-standard trivia fare — with secondary subjects like food and drink, history and science thrown in, along with recent news, the most recent week as it were, to keep the trivia upbeat and interesting. It is important to note that these subjects are simply a loose collective term and not a rubric guiding the individual question or the round. The host doesn’t say “Question One is, ever, sport; Question Two is, as regular players will be aware, Food; Question Three is, like Question One, Sport” but teams should come to know what the popular subjects are, the ones with multiple questions, and what the less popular but constantly appearing categories, like makes and models of cars, for example, and use this knowledge to assist their play. A common mistake amateur trivia hosts make is to prepare the questions in unmalleable pigeonholed rounds. In my first year at university there was a trivia night hosted by the elected Student Representative Council at the college hall I was living in and while it was meant to be jovial Saturday night in for any Young Turks not inclined to drink themselves to oblivion at one of the student bars in town, the use of seven strict headings for the rounds: Sport, Geography, [Classical, and this wasn’t specified during the pre-event primer] Music, History, Science, Australiana and, inexplicably, Contagious Diseases. You’ll notice that a lot of these categories are the same as the prenominate ones played at the Megahole but instead of it being a free form exercise with flexibility to ask any question at all, this college hall trivia became mired in monotony. After the first two or three interesting questions in each round, the question writer(s), or triverbalist(s), would have their creativity or intelligence, or at least their creative intelligence, stretched and the remaining seven or eight questions were built using the same framework, leading in one tragically memorable case to Junior Arts Representative Jenna de Havilland asking “What country was Chopin from? What country was Liszt from? What country was Mozart from? What country was Sibelius from? What country was Beethoven from? What country was Tchaikovsky from? and What country was Bach from?” It was as ghastly as the human detritus that extruded out of my friend Harrison Franks’ mouth in the garden outside the Hall’s northern entrance while I smoked a Peter Stuyvesant and he returned from a night out of consequence-free binge drinking. Questions 13 and 14 are always music questions, specifically the first 10 to 15 seconds of two songs will be played and you have to identify them by title and artist for one point each. Question 15 is always worth a lot more points than standard, up to 10 in my experience but there is no ceiling, with teams required to answer a multivalent question like What are the seven most populous states in the United States? or Name five of the Beatles’ first 10 UK #1 hits. Another common mistake amateur trivia hosts make is to value a game or individual challenge incorporated into the overall trivia so highly that winning the trivia comes down to winning that game or answering that challenge. At a later trivia night I attended during my tertiary education, this time hosted by the overall organisation of colleges’ SRCs as a battle between the various Halls, the trivia was going along swimmingly — they had accepted my note of constructive criticism to avoid established rounds — when suddenly the Intracollege Diversity Officer Jasmine Oh called upon each team to send up a first year student for a spelling bee. My Hall, Ennerwee, named for the pioneering Nineteenth Century Australian bush philosopher, furnished Toby Puttock, a particularly dweeby lad from Cowra who claimed to have read Lord Of The Rings when he was seven years old. The eight freshers from the different Halls were then tasked with spelling obscure and polysyllabic words in a single elimination format until the last remaining contestant — Toby fell on logorrhea — Lyndall Breckenridge from the Catholic-affiliated St Anne’s Hall won her team a disproportionately high 20 points, meaning winning the trivia simply came down to winning the spelling bee. The trick is to keep these frivolous games parallel to the actual trivia, with a separate nominal prize for the winning team or individual. At the Megahole, between the first and second rounds, the host will play a round of Heads or Tails, with the winner receiving three free drinks tokens. Heads or Tails involved the reading of a statement and if you think the statement is true you put your hands on your heads and if you think it’s false you put your hands on your backside. Most of these statements are things nobody could possibly know for certain, like whether Captain Cook was born in 1728 or not so it’s more about good luck than good knowledge, so best not to have it influence the actual trivia.

I like to arrive 30 minutes before the advertised starting time of 7:30pm on Tuesday evening so I can claim a table in the centre of the Megahole’s posterior, a rectangular dining area that extends out perpendicularly around the bar to the main public area that faces Military Road. This section is framed by a small TAB betting alcove with an automatic wagering machine and several small televisions tuned to the dedicated horse-, harness- and greyhound racing channels that is shared between the front bar and the dining area; a series of floor to ceiling windows looking out on Cabramatta Road, a crossstreet of Military Road; a kitchen connected by square holes in the wall that would otherwise demarcate it to a bussing and condiment station; a wall decorated with sporting memorabilia, mostly rugby union stars and achievements of the 1990s, flanked by doors to the toilets at the kitchen end and the poker machine room (“VIP area”) at the bar end, and the bar, which doglegs at ninety degrees to be accessible from both the street facing main area and the kitchen-backed dining area, taking up around 2/5ths the space opposite the windowed side, with the rugby union supplying the remaining 3/5ths. The reason I like to arrive early to secure this particularly centric table is so I can be highly visible to Elyce (sp.), the regular host who stations herself at the end of the bar, with her question sheets, pencil case, speakers and iPhone 6s all laid out on the polished chamfered cherrywood bar, while she sits on a 4-legged barstool that provides her with a vertiginous vantagepoint for overseeing the teams. I also like to be highly visible to players on rival teams. I plan on doing well at this trivia and the kneejerk reaction to a solo participant excelling is to assume he or she is cheating. To assuage my rivals’ unfounded fears-cum-jealousies, I like to keep my table completely clear of any paraphernalia: just an answer sheet, a pen, my book and a roughly 12-centimetre tall pickle jar that has been emptied, cleaned and filled with knives and forks (pointy sides down) and several tissue paper paper napkins arcing around the cutlery and hugging the inside rim of half the jar’s interior.. At the moment I am reading The White Tiger by Aravind Adiga. The book is to keep me entertained during the 30 minutes preceding the start of trivia and in the breaks between rounds while Elyce (sp.) marks the answer sheets. I tend to favour literature or at least novels with literary ambitions that are under 400 pages as I like to always see the end in sight. After placing The White Tiger and my home-brought felt tip pen on my favoured table, I used my $30 voucher from coming second last week to purchase a $4 300-millilitre glass bottle of Mount Franklin Sparkling Mineral Water from Millie (sp.), a very pleasant early 20s woman staffmember with whom I have become acquainted over the past few weeks. When I returned to my seat my intention was to read from The White Tiger till the trivia began but upon my return a group of five people had sat down at the table nearest to mine — in addition to my small table there were four other tables the size and shape of a card table, though of sturdier construction, arranged in a cinquefoil, as well as one much longer dining table made from Indian Laurel, more suited to be a boardroom in a small-to-medium sized publishing company — and started talking vigorously, especially the man closest to me, so much so that I couldn’t concentrate on the adventurous pretensions of the protagonist in the Booker Prize winning novel I had brought.

“I am just so sick of the Middle East, I have Middle East fatigue,” said the man closest to me, sitting profile but angling his body towards me so I could see his piggish upturned nose dominating his chubby head, even with his flamboyantly long eyelashes and engorged gums competing on what is a very memorable visage, framed by ear-length dark brown curly hair streaked with some unmissable grey follicles. He was wearing a black Everything Everything t-shirt underneath a dark blue sports jacket, very dark blue jeans and black Chuck Taylors. “I just don’t care what happens to them anymore. I’d be happy for America to just nuke ISIS and wipe them off the face of the planet.”

There had been another terrorist attack the weekend just past, when three suicide bombers attacked the piazza outside the Pantheon in Rome, killing 19 people, mostly Tottenham fans drinking there ahead of a Europa League clash with AS Roma later that evening. The death toll would have been much higher had two Roman Polizia di Stato, absconding momentarily from their assigned posts to purchase gelato, not been walking through piazza at that very moment in time and able to shoot dead the second and third terrorists before they could properly detonate their IEDs.

“That’s completely inhumane: the Syrian people are just as much a victim of ISIS as the those Spurs fans or the people at that concert in Paris; we need to cut a deal with Assad and put boots on the ground to defeat ISIS,” this riposte was by the near-Brobdingnagian man sitting two across from Piggy, looking almost directly at me. His handsome olive-toned face with close cropped hair towered over his company and looked a Google Image Search result for ‘preppy business casual’ in his open necked navy blue Herringbone shirt tucked into beige Country Road chinos and chocolate brown Wildsmith loafers. His complexion was redolent of the Middle East and he was drinking a beer so I assumed Christian Lebanese, perhaps Maronite, a branch of Catholicism practised by my university friend Charbel Bashir. “The west has a moral obligation to go in now and stop ISIS.”

“America keeps going into these hellholes and then when they get rid of the dictator and pave the way for democracy they just raise up another dictator that’s even worse than the one before,” Piggy again here. “I’m happy for it just to play out and see what happens.”

“That’s because America never resolves the underlying issue of these insurgencies.”

“It’s their mess, they should clean it up,” Piggy spoke the casual diffidence to suffering frequently espoused by those whose worst day involved the top scoop of their ice cream falling off the cone. Still, he had a childlike cheekiness in the way he delivered his aggressive Middle East solution that meant you couldn’t tell if he were being serious or playing for comedic effect, and the three other people at the table, two women and one man, were clearly finding his rhetoric amusing.

“The analogy I would make is to a gangland shooting,” Preppy was not offended but maintaining sincerity. “If there was a big shootout in a poor black neighbourhood in an American, like in Baltimore or Atlanta, the police would move in wearing riot gear and risk their lives to stop the shooting because that is their job, even though these officers might be white and live in a nice suburban area, because you have to stop the shooting so innocent people don’t get caught up in the crossfire. That intervention doesn’t stop the underlying issues like drugs and unemployment and easy access to guns and crime but it is still necessary: no-one is suggesting that these shootings just play themselves out.”

“I heard that during the riot in Baltimore, a group of black men looted a chemist: all that was left were condoms and father’s day cards,” this bon mot was delivered by the third man to rapturous laughter, even by the sincere Preppy one. He, the joke teller, had thinning hair and looked older than the other two, and was wearing a royal blue t-shirt with California written across it in golden text in Berkeley’s unmistakable font, a pair of off-white cargo pants and Asics trainers. Glowing in the success of his joke he sipped from his beer with his thin, broad smile. Even though I instinctively disapproved of the casual racism I had to stifle a laugh both to protect my veneer of respectability and to occlude my eavesdropping.

“We should put boots on the ground to defeat ISIS and then we need to resettle the Syrian refugees either in the West or back in Syria and then we need to rebuild the country,” Preppy again.

“Who is ‘we’?” asked Piggy.

“The West, the Coalition of the Willing, the Allies, us: America, Britain, Germany, France, Australia.”

“And are you prepared to go fight?”

“No, I am a coward, but we have volunteer armies and this is their job, just like police officers breaking up riots.”

“So no conscription?” California now interjecting.

“No,” replied Preppy.

“You know there’s a philosophical point that says a country should agree to have conscription before entering into conflict, because if you’re not prepared to send your own son, you shouldn’t be able to send somebody else’s.”

“Or daughter!” This was the first I’d heard of either of the two women, who up till now had been sitting next to each other with their faces bent down towards each other in deep commune, both with their smartphones, one of them a Samsung Galaxy S5, the other an iPhone 5s, in their right hands while they seemingly discussed whatever content they were consuming on their screens. The woman who spoke had dark curly hair and a welcoming face and was wearing a carnation pink cotton blouse and black pants; professionally attired, suitable for an office job. The other was perhaps 10 years younger and wore activewear from the decolletage of her coral Lorna Jane Camilla Excel Top to the elastic hems of her indigo polyester pants.

“I agree with you Charlotte,” Piggy through a laugh here, “I’m all for equal opportunity.”

“Just because men and women are equal does not mean they are the same,” California now, and from the intimate touch to Charlotte’s shoulder and knowing smile I sensed those two were a couple. “If we are to allow women serve on the front line then we also need to make sure men have the right to enjoy the unique beauty of childbirth.”

“Because men are such an oppressed minority.”

“Yes Charlotte, white men especially! There are dedicated rounds in the footy for women and for Aborigines and gay people — I’m a white 33-year-old man: where’s my round?!”

The table was laughing freely now and I simultaneously felt envious of their happiness and comfort in each other’s company but also disappointed in myself that I’d been enjoying such a flowing conversation that involved casual racism and sexism, even if the dark skinned man and the women at the table seemed unfussed by these microaggressions.

“Wasn’t there an American woman soldier in the Iraq War, the one after 9/11, and she got captured and they sent in a crack team to get her out? Do you remember this Joey?” California speaking to Piggy.

“Hmmm maybe it rings a bell,” Joey replied.

Jessica Lynch was her name and the TV movie hurriedly filmed to capitalise on her rescue and boost morale on the homefront was titled Saving Private Lynch. I had to show great restraint not to volunteer this information. Joey was sitting between California and Preppy, which fostered the assumption that he was the fifth wheel. He was also drinking from a schooner of beer while the women were drinking glasses of rosé.

“I don’t think there should be conscription but I do think if you are a volunteer member of an army you have made a decision that could lead to being sent to a warzone,” Preppy trying to get the conversation back on track; I could sense this matter was much more important to him than his extemporaneous cohorts.

“You’re such a warhawk Peter! I say we just say nuke ‘em.”

“Where would you nuke them? They are spread out and not bunched together like a army holed up in a city.”

“There.”

“Where?”

There!

“Where exactly?”

“Where ISIS is.”

“But where is ISIS?”

“There!

“If I bring up a map on my phone can you point out where you bomb them?”

“Can you point out where you’d put boots on the ground? Because that’s where I’d nuke them.”

“The collateral damage would be too great. There would be too many civilian deaths.”

There was no animus in this exchange. On the contrary, both parties seemed to be enjoying this sparring, even if the lives of millions of innocent Syrians were being considered with the gravitas of cannon fodder.

“Your way is proven to be disastrous, just look at the mess in Iraq and Afghanistan that we’ve left. On the other, nuclear weapons have a 100 per cent success rate: you guys (Joey signals to California and Charlotte) have been to Japan, it’s bloody brilliant for a holiday!”

“I’m not sure this is a practical solution Joe, though I also don’t think there’s going to be an invasion. Obama, Putin, Cameron: they all seem to be looking at each other hoping someone else will fix it. Of course, when The Donald becomes president…” California trailed off.

“Dave mate I think they feel the same way as me: Middle East Fatigue Syndrome — M E F S (Joey actually spelt it out) — they are just going to let it play out and then sees what’s left afterwards.”

Peter: “Complete failure of US foreign policy. Obama has been a disaster of a president. On his watch Putin has made Russia the world superpower and let Assad run riot and ISIS has filled the vacuum left by all the leaders overthrown in the Arab Spring. America should have been guide these countries through the transition. Look at Libya: it’s a hellhole now.”

“This is just victim blaming! You’re like an old man tut-tutting that a rape victim shouldn’t have worn a short skirt!”

“Hey! Joseph!” — the 20-something blonde woman now talking for the first time with a broad, rural accent — “Can I please get a trigger warning in future if you’re going to mention rape?” Having elicited rapturous laughter from the table Blondie promptly returned to her interfacing with Charlotte and their symbiotic relationships with smartphones.

“But you said it yourself Peter: these places are hellholes and it’s their own fault—”

“—it’s my round: what do you guys want?” David interrupting, standing and then pointing in turn around the table. “150 Joey? Old Pete? Rosés Penny and Charlotte?” He then walked towards the bar to order. I still had a few sips left in my sparkling water.

“The way I see it, there are two types of countries: Hellholes and Holiday Destinations. You can tell the difference between the two pretty easily. Holiday Destinations are socially liberal and have paved roads and democratically elected governments and the rule of law and flagship airlines that don’t fall out of the sky. There’s separation of church and state and women can drive and the gays can have all the anal sex they want. When you tell your grandma that you’re going on holiday to a Holiday Destination she says ‘that’s nice dear’ instead of fretting about you being carjacked. It’s not an accident that countries become Holiday Destinations: it takes a lot of work over generations to win this mantle. Hellholes are the opposite. Tinpot countries run by dictators that are always being overthrown by other rival dictators. They have elections but one candidate always wins 100 per cent of the vote and when you’re driving around the cities you have to run every red light because if you stop you will be carjacked. Whatever resources these Hellholes once had have been squandered fighting ceaseless civil wars and corruption infests every level of the government, which is of course dead set against anyone that looks different or sounds different or pray to a different god or prays in a different to the same god as whichever dictator just happens to be in power that day. Being a Hellhole now doesn’t mean you’ll be one forever: most of South America and Asia has advanced from Hellhole to Holiday Destination status in the last 20 years but I can’t see that kind of turnaround from any of these countries we’ve been talking about. If aliens came to earth,” Joey paused for effect, “I would be ashamed to show them Africa and the Middle East.”

“You really teed off there, I could hear you from the bar,” David had returned from the bar, holding three beers between his two hands in a triangular formation. He placed them on the table and returned to the bar to pick up the glasses of rosé. After placing them in front of the two women he said to Charlotte, “Are you almost finished there?”

“Yeah, almost, I just wanted to get Penny’s feedback on my application.”

“Charlotte is applying to be deputy principal,” David volunteered. “Actually, she had an interesting experience yesterday….”

“Since Karen the DP has been away on sick leave and no-one knows if she’s going to come back, I’ve been sorta doing the job while also teaching Year 4. A lot of it is simple admin work like making sure teachers are always on duty for recess and lunchtime and proofreading the report cards because the teachers make some of the worst mistakes but the other part of it is handling all the issues with kids that other teachers can’t handle. So  yesterday the Year 6 teacher Cate Docilis comes to me saying that kids are complaining about Aibarsha. Aibarsha is from Kazakhstan and she’s got the lot: Asperger’s, attention deficit disorder, oppositional defiance disorder, you know, the whole kit and kaboodle. And normally she can be managed with the pills all these kids are taking nowadays and she gets through the day. But now some other kids in the class have come up to Miss Docilis to say that Aibarsha smells.”

“Smells like shit?” — Joey.

“Wait — I’m getting to it. So Cate says to the kids that’s not nice to talk about Aibarsha that way and don’t be mean but they say that she stinks and then Amanda Coutts-Davies, who’s a little brat herself, says she absolutely refuses to sit near Aibarsha. This all happened while the kids were at recess so when they are back in the classroom for the next lesson, Cate walks over to where Aibarsha is sitting and it’s — (Charlotte is now recreating Cate’s reaction as it was first performed for her, presumably: tongue out, eyes closed, head tilted forward and that guttural dry retching sound so redolent of noisome gases) — Cate can barely stand it, she says it just completely overwhelming.

 

“So what she’s not wiping properly?” Joey had that streak of intellectualised vulgarity that naturally smart, as opposed to comme on lit book smart people, had.

“Cate said it was really, really bad BO; it was a hygiene issue. Now this family is known to the school and we know the mother is not going to be much use because she doesn’t speak English—”

“What about the father?” — Peter.

“He’s some executive at a bank and zipping around Brentwood in a BMW! But it’s a women’s matter and there’s all these cultural sensitivities we have to respect because they’re some crazy sect of Islam: sometimes it’s just easier to not involve the father.

“So is this girl wearing the full burqa to school every day?” — Joey.

“No she just wears the school uniform but the mother is head to toe, it looks like she’s been rolled in carpet. Anyway, so I tell Cate to take some money out of petty cash and during lunch go to the chemist across the street to buy deodorant and antiperspirant and tampons and all that stuff because I don’t know what she has and hasn’t got at home—

“You can do that? Teachers can do that?”

“You have to, Peter, or else it just won’t get done, they just won’t get purchased.”

Joey: “You’re thinking there should some separation of school and smell?”

“Let me get back to the story: because Aibarsha lives down the road from school, she walks to and from, her mother doesn’t come up to the school to pick her up, so we can’t speak to her then. Instead, Cate and I planned to walk with Aibarsha home and to try to explain to her and the mother that there was a personal hygiene issue that had to be addressed, but Amanda Coutts-Davies and Belinda Bannerman had been bullying her during lunch so much she ran out of school. I said to Cate, and she’s now beside herself because she thinks she’s lost a student, ‘you go back to class and teach the kids and I’ll find her’. I walked down the street to where they lived and it’s a perfectly nice house, from the outside you would never know the craziness unfolding within, and knocked on the door. There was no answer but I tried the handle and it opened. I called out to Aibarsha — (and at this point Charlotte reenacted the…) “Airbarsha? Airbarsha?” (…as part of her story) — there was no answer but I thought I could hear crying inside so I walked in thinking Aibarsha is in here crying. And the place was filthy. Absolutely filthy. Half-eaten pizza slices on the floor, bowls of cereal with the milk curdling, old newspapers and magazines everywhere, this terrible mouldy smell the whole way through. I walked through the hallways towards the living room where the crying sound was coming from and when I went in I saw Aibarsha, still in her Brentwood Primary School uniform standing in the opposite corner, her mother in full burqa on her knees cowering in front of her, and she was kicking and beating her and she landed each blow she made a ‘ugh’, ‘ugh’, ‘ugh’ grunting noise.”

Joey: “The kid was beating up the mother?”

“Yes.”

“Why?”

With a note of desperation: “I don’t know: because she’d seen the father doing it?”

Peter: “You know that or you’re just assuming?”

“I’m guessing but I don’t care what any of those moderate muslim women say, it’s a religion that hates women and treats women like second class citizens and this is what ends up happening.”

Penny, now: “What do you think of the Australian women who marry muslim men and then start wearing the hijab or the burqa?”

“I can’t stand them!”

This rebuke triggered laughs from around the table and I was hoping one of the intended audience members would act as an eavesdropper’s advocate by asking Charlotte what she did next, having encountered this mephitic 11- or 12-year-old shellacking her materfamilias, but her narrative flow was interrupted by a male voice over the public address.

“Does anyone wanting to play trivia tonight not yet have an answer sheet?”

‘Me’, was my first though. I looked over at the quintet I’d been listening to and, sure enough, there on their table was an answer sheet. I have become so transfixed by this group’s conversation I hadn’t noticed this young name, this other trivia host, clearly not Elyce (sp.) coming around to hand out the answer sheets. Nor had he, being a substitute, thought to ask me if I were here to play trivia, all on my pathetic lonesome. He obviously, though slightly incredulously, assumed that I had come to the Megahole to drink sparkling water and read The White Tiger, or not read it, as I had actually been sitting still, aimless as a beached shipwreck, listening to these strangers.

“Hi,” I said to the host, while still sitting, waving my hand gently above my head at him, stationed only a few metres away in Elyce’s (sp.) traditional spot.

“Hi there, you’re playing on your own?” he said, in a friendly manner indicating the potential to be impressed, and mercifully without pity, which I have experienced before from more seigneurial hosts when playing alone.

“Yes,” I replied. “You’re not Elyce…?” He placed an answer sheet on the table in front of me. I looked around and realised the area had built up substantially during my reverie.

“No, I’m Hugh; Elyce is sick. Good luck.”

The three other 4-sided dining tables were now populated by two groups of five (both three women and two men) and one group of four (three men and one woman). Because these tables are only designed for four people, the two tables of five, much like the table nearest mine that I had tapped into, involved the participants all sitting slightly off kilter from what would be expected, so their backs were not parallel with the edge of the table. If you were to use their heads as point to draw a plain figure, it would appear that a square had been wedged awkwardly into a pentagon. The longer dining table was now occupied by eight players with a combined age the wrong side of 450 — four bald or balding men and four dowdy women — a regular team (“The Optimists”) that has proven to be competitive when older music has been played but find songs from the 1990s or later an abortifacient to their aspirations.

In the three booths extending outwards from the bussing station towards me sat, from left to right, teams of four people (two of each sex), three women and four women. The three longer, higher set tables (longer and higher than my table) fixed at right angles from the windows on the bar’s right hand side as I looked towards the kitchen housed, from nearest to farthest, teams of four (three men and one woman), two (one of each) and six (five men and one woman). The people sitting at these windowside tables were perched on 1-metre high barstools with metal frames and a light brown wooden seat and back support. The aforementioned booth areas were furnished with a plush deep burgundy material of which I don’t know the exact make. Behind me over my right shoulder was a team of eight (three men and five females), all sitting on stools around two circular topped tallboy-style bar tables, dragged from the street-facing main bar area into the apron of the trivia area and placed together so that when viewed directly from above they formed a figure eight. I have based this sex analysis solely on visual assessment and I’ve not taken into account that any of these 58 people might be trans, intersex or convincingly crossdressing.

“Hi everyone! My name is Hugh and I will be filling in for Elyce tonight because she is sick.” Hugh wore his nerves as openly as he did the top button on his white cotton shirt. He had long, flowing and gently curled burnt blonde hair, the type of locks commonly seen on surfers or at least the coastally minded. His shirt had pockets on both breasts, clasped closed by black buttons woven with white thread, the same button and thread chiaroscuro appearing like open heart sutures down the front of his person. There were skinny black jeans growing out from under his untucked shirt and an exposure of ankles dividing denim from dark brown moccasins. Hugh has very dark eyes and a manscaped 1-day beard. A pointy nose is prominent on his angular face so he resembles the book description of Draco Malfoy but Tom Felton not so much. “We’re going to get started with the trivia here at Chameleon’s in just a few minutes so please come up to see me if you need an answer sheet or a pen.”

This place isn’t actually called the Megahole, nor has that ever been it’s actual name. When I first started coming here, shortly before turning 18, it was called the Metropole and it was a ghastly open plan pool hall set one storey directly above where I currently sat with a small bar in one corner, enough toxic smoke in the air to make a gas chamber jealous, so much dank in the carpet it felt like weeks’ old dregs were slooshing against my legs while I walked around and nobody ever on the door to check high school kids’ IDs. I didn’t make up the cognomen nor do I remember first hearing it, all I know is that my then contemporaries called it that without exception, and in the omphalic days of SMSes on mobile phones, we were often sending and receiving text messages that simply read ‘Megahole?’. I was away at university and not around to witness this first hand, so I am relying on information fed to me by my first-cousin-cum-co-Megahole-reveller Laurel, but the Megahole’s ownership changed hands and was refitted, and this ‘Under New Management’ scenario somehow involved the transportation of this licenced venue down one floor, to what had previously been a chiropractor’s rooms. This new iteration was christened the Hotel Hampstead after the suburb in which it is located and I now reside and was ostensibly a sports bar, with flatscreen TVs hung on the walls, a very prominent TAB area, an even more prominent poker machine room (“Dragon Lounge”) and only the most perfunctory pub grub meals — schnitzel, rump steak, fish and chips, mushroom risotto for the vegetarians — on the menu. Laurel told me all this in a phone call we had while she was at the Megahole and I was at university. She was trying to decide whether to have the mushroom risotto or the fish and chips sans fish, during which time she was also playing a poker machine — the Queen of the Nile — and my interest in her surroundings was piqued by her mentioning that she was at the quote unquote “New Megahole”, which I thought both a strange thing for her to say and a strange place for her to go, Laurel being pregnant at that time. It was then that she explained to me that the Megahole had undergone this gravitational and architectural metamorphosis but before I could understand any more about the particulars involved, a distinctive, jarring leitmotif traveled across cellular waves and into my aural canal when Laurel hit Pyramids on the first, fourth and fifth lines of her machine, triggering a 15-game feature and cutting short our conversation. When I moved back to Hampstead at the end of my third year of university the Megahole was still calling itself the Hotel Hampstead but whatever honeymoon period it had experienced following its relatively salubrious upgrade, including the replacement of sticky carpet with stickyish hardwood floors, had waned. Its clientele now largely consisted of the same committed and, it must be said, location-loyal alcoholics that had always imbibed there; fairweather and exclusively weekend rugby union fans, heavy drinkers the lot, thankfully for the licensee; desperately lonely and 100% male European football fans taking advantage of the multiple subscription TV transponders and late night closing times, a demographic that is more vocal than valuable, always drinking from the free coffee urn intended for machine tappers and screaming “OFFSIDE” — more parsimonious than passing money at us (hoteliers that is), as the saying might go; and the occasional female of the species, whose comparatively beautiful and fragrant appearance at the Megahole in its Hotel Hampstead days would trigger the music stops, jaw drops, time stands still scene often written into feelgood film scripts. The Megahole limped along like this for two or three years, no doubt underwritten by the machines (after the nuclear apocalypse, all that will remain, as the cliche goes, will be cockroaches and people playing the pokies, no doubt ones already themed on nuclear war, where the feature is triggered by hitting mushroom clouds), before the owner(s) decided on some more Bartox. The street facing area of the Megahole was refitted with Chesterfields and kneehigh coffee tables; whiskys and whiskeys were imported from five of the other six continents; a La Marzocco espresso machine was installed adjacent to the bar and, as well as a dedicated barista being employed for busy periods, all staff were trained in the latte arts; on the walls were hung framed portraits of Hendricks, Rubber Soul-era Beatles, Keith Richards and Janis Joplin, alongside more modern icons including Morrissey, Weaver, Cobain, Corgan and Vedder, plus a landscape oriented shot of Vampire Weekend and, most idiosyncratic of all, Lone Wolf. The taps that used to pour the house beers the aforementioned alcos knew and loved were changed over to craft ales, nearly all IPAs with hops all the way down, and this iteration of the Megahole, still called the Hotel Hampstead, suddenly experienced a jolt of popularity, especially among lesbians, and in time positive reviews from Sydney Expert, Time Out Sydney, Pub/Lished and Concrete Playground were printed out, framed and hung in and around the shots of musicians from yesteryear. This mishmash venue of late 2000s zeitgeist and quotidian nostalgia was actually pretty good! The TVs were all moved the rear of the venue — where I am currently sitting about to play trivia — and while the pokies room was unchanged it was at least mercifully barricaded off as a result of new mandatory smoking laws that required all indoor areas of pubs and clubs (and other business types besides) to be completely smoke free. The implementation of these laws had an unexpected consequence: the re-opening of the Megahole’s upstairs room, which had been left dormant since the original move Laurel had told me about on the phone. Under the imprimatur of a exceedingly well-educated and astutely entrepreneurial lawyer and architect — or Lawchitect as he chose to call his profession and firm — Dominic Camino, a man I met and spoke with at some length over several long blacks (he drank macchiatos) during this process, construction workers opened a clearway between the otherwise completely indoor pokie room and the big blue sky above, tunneling through the room upstairs and its ceiling and then building a red brick chimney to enclose this smoky space. Within the walls of this noveau structure were strategically placed a series of clear, heavy-duty, weather-resistant perspex shades, designed and hand-cut with meticulous precision by Camino’s crack team, so as to always pay heed to the anti-smoking legislation of which he was well schooled, to protect pokers and smokers below from any inclement weather, UV rays, the accident advances of natural light and the instinctive telling of the passage of time. To sit at one of those poker machines with a $50 note at the hopper and a Benson and Hedges on the lips was to feel completely inside, and to all intents and purposes you were, but not according to the letter of the law, such was Camino’s talent, and at the end of our conversation about his chosen field, I warmly complimented him for his outstanding vision. “Thank you,” he replied with a twinkle in his eye. With the upstairs room requiring architectural surgery in order to accommodate the nicotine addicts below, the owners must have felt pot-committed to do something more than simply brick up a quarter of the dormancy because the whole space received a workover. Tiles were laid throughout the threequarters that was not a chimney and an island bar was raised in the centre, so that one of its four corners kissed the improvised smoke stack’s completely exposed right angle. A Yamaha polished ebony piano was lugged up the staircase originally used to ascend to the Megahole — this flight actually opens onto the street, it is not inside the Megahole per se, and is currently still secreted in the wall behind the TAB area — and deposited in the wedge of space in front of the chimney and behind the island bar. Every Thursday, Friday and Saturday night (from 8pm till late), this newly christened Chameleon’s at the Hotel Hampstead would become a hive of middle class, middle aged, middle management, middle Australian revelry, magnetising accountants, solicitors, project leads, customer service operators, mortgage brokers, surveyors, dental hygienists, print ad salesmen, marketing coordinators, PR consultants, B2B haircare consumables dealers and even occasionally state MPs with its mojitos, cosmos, Red Bulls and vodka and tuxedoed tinkler playing 60, 70s and 80s lounge hits, the most popular of which inexplicably was Build Me Up Buttercup by The Foundations. At other times during the week it was empty and the door to the stairs would face Military Road closed and locked and those driving past during peak hour would have no clue to the sloppiness that oft lived on the other side. This version of the Hotel Hampstead, with its dual streams of hip civility downstairs and loose chicanery upstairs coincided with the most successful period of my own existence, but a few years later again, at the start of this year, the panel sidings went up again over the Megahole’s visage and the construction workers in overalls and day-glo vests started coming and going at all hours and we were all forced to drink somewhere else (save for those glorious Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights) until eventually the shutters came down and a new name was stenciled in on the awning, signifying that the Hotel Hampstead was no more and the Megahole was now, in its gestalt, called Chameleon’s. Gone were the comfy lounges and posters of musical royalty, the coffee machine moved behind the bar and the barista was laid off, artisan pizza menu with pies named for Brooklyn neighbourhoods was torn up and the bespoke racks cleared of international whisk(e)ys. In its place is Hampstead’s hip faux American saloon joint with market-leading smoking facilities and a sweaty nightclub open 3/7ths of the time. The sign says Chameleon’s and that’s what Hugh calls it but it will always be the Megahole to me.

“Question number one tonight is a movie question.” Trivia hosts often flag the subject of the first few questions to smooth their entry into the proceedings. It’s easy to forget that pub trivia is performance art, a particularly low-end sub-genre of performance art, but one nonetheless. Whenever you see those lists of things most people are most scared of, glossophobia is always prominent alongside arachnophobia, acrophobia, claustrophobia and mysophobia, and Hugh has the added anxiety tonight of performing in front of an unfamiliar crowd. Many seasoned public speakers will tell you that even after years of orating they still experience nerves before taking the stage — just as the CFO at the Mexico City regional head office of a global investment bank still clutches the ends of the Business Class armrests during takeoff and landing and trembles quietly while flying on his weekly visits to satellite offices in southern United States, Central American and South American cities; his aerophobia more managed than cured — and the trick is to acknowledge the nervousness and to treat it with cognitive behaviour therapy. “What recent Best Picture Oscar winner was based off a book called Q&A by a writer named Vikas Swarup?”

My heart races a little as trivia begin with an instasolve and the fingers on my fidgety left hand uncaps my pen awkwardly, so that the lid escapes by grasp and bounces lowly on the surface edge of my table and onto the floor, eventually resting next to Joey’s right Chuck Taylor. I write SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE in my uppercase blue script, the pen only leaving the page at the word break. “Sorry,” I said towards Joey to get his attention and he jerked his head toward me and our eyes met — he was a tad more handsome than I had first assessed, his overall appearance helped significantly by the eyelashes, of which I now started questioning the physical veracity — and I pointed at the lid of my pen now resting next to his right hoof. “Do you mind? I dropped it.”

“Sure,” he replied bending at the waist to scoop it up and place it in my out-stretched hand. “You playing by yourself?”

“Yes,” was my response and I moved a coaster to cover my answer to the first question as a muscle memory. Joey witnessed this covert act and made a facial expression conveying incredulity at my secrecy. This derision made me feel small and a little stupid for caring but I’m here to win trivia not make friends with pigfaced racists, no matter how charming their diatribes.

“Question two: what song starts with the line ‘Love love is a verb love is a doing word’?” and Hugh has intentionally read the lyric in the professional trivia manner: completely devoid of inflection or tone or pauses where commas or line breaks might be. As Hugh repeats the question I take a napkin from the pickle jar write down the quotation after “2.” so I know what question it refers to. This definitely rings a bell, especially the unusual use of ‘love love’ at the start, and I begin singing it under my breath with various melodies, even though I’m hopelessly tonedeaf I can still ‘hear’ the melody in my mind. Instead of mouthing the actual words, I whisper the shape of the word, so it sounds more like ‘duh duh id a duh duh id a do-in duh’ — if anyone could hear me they’d think me a total fucking spas — but I can now feel myself getting this, I know I know this song, I know this question is answerable. I hum it again — ‘duh duh id a duh duh id a do-in duh’ — and again — ‘duh duh id a duh duh id a do-in duh’ — a sensation flows through me like doors are being unlocked and an important passageway towards a treasure I’ve lusted over is being traversed with determination — ‘duh duh id a duh duh id a do-in duh’ — …

“Question number three is for two points.” Hugh is already the next question. “What major European city is served by an airport named for Leonardo da Vinci? And who is the airport in Liverpool in England named after?” Hugh has been asking these questions while standing at his designated spot at the end of the bar. He holds several papers in his left hand and the microphone in his right.

I move the coaster to uncover my answer sheet and two spaces below SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE I write ROME and then a straight vertical line to indicate an answer break before JOHN LENNON. This is a very good trivia question, combining travel, which people like to partake in, both to Italy and the United Kingdom, and culture, which people tend to attribute a lot of importance to, and the chiasmus provides it with an illusion of intellectual stimulation and gravitas, when it would otherwise simply be a question about airports.  Because parameters have been placed on the answers — a European city and a famous person — it means it can be worked out or educatedly guessed at. While writing my answers I overhear Peter saying “Florence” on the next table and then one of the women, I think it’s Charlotte but I didn’t see, saying “Rome or Venice”. I don’t pick up anything else from that direction and return to my ‘duh duh id a duh duh id a do-in duh’ing.

 

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