THE COURT JESTER
ALEX REECE ABBOTT
Three goes on the Big Dipper were fabulous.
Four was one too many. Lee’s heart and stomach lodge at the back of her throat, fighting for space.
You were right.
That’s what I should say, thinks Lee.
She’s still swaying when Annie shunts her aboard the clanking tram, right outside Luna Park. They get off in the noisy, main street of Prahran, with Annie swearing she knows just the thing to settle her stomach.
Cool and dim, The Court Jester is one of Annie’s favourite watering holes. Not too smoky, not too blokey. The bar is a battered crescent moon of dark wood. A silent jukebox flashes like a siren in one corner, and the murmur of drinkers is broken by the gentle chink of billiard balls kissing on green baize.
Annie heads straight for the bar and orders two sambuca con la mosca, the Italian rolling off her tongue. The chirpy barman seems to know Annie from somewhere, but Lee’s noticed how guys often say that. He serves them a couple of clear drinks with a grin.
Doubles, without asking. In each liqueur glass, three coffee beans float like flies.
“Ready?” he cocks an eyebrow.
Annie meets his gaze. “Always.”
The barman sets their drinks on fire. Sapphire flames flicker around the rims of their glasses, mesmerising them.
“One wish for each fly!” calls Annie. “Health, wealth and happiness!”
She extinguishes her drink, then downs it in a single swig.
The barman gives Annie a wink. She nods. He serves another round.
Lee lets her drink burn out. She sips the sticky, smoky aniseed, scorching her lips on the hot glass.
Annie nudges her and laughs. “Bar-maaan,” she calls. “Same again.” She turns to Lee.
“This time, put it out straight away before all the alcohol burns off. No point wasting it.”
Three, maybe four, sambucas in, Lee musters her thoughts. It’s a work night. Her stomach has swapped churning for rumbling. They should stop now, get something to eat, then go home. Through the sweet, aniseed haze, she remembers she’s on holiday – with nowhere to be in the morning. Annie has an office to go to, but Annie doesn’t care.
Lee is still sipping her shot, when the barman plants a couple more flaring torches on the bar mat in front of them. She can never keep up with Annie.
As the barman turns his back, flaming trails creep down the outside of the glasses, licking the booze-sodden mat. The fire crawls along the towelling with ease, sparking blues, yellows and greens, consuming cardboard coasters along the way.
Annie laughs and nudges her. Lee is about to call the barman, when Annie yanks her elbow. “Wait – see how long it takes him to notice.”
They giggle like children. They hate being frightened. They love being scared.
They screamed their lungs out on the Big Dipper. Rigid. Sweating. Hearts pounding. Now they clutch the bar rail, leaning away from the fire, watching and waiting. Will the flames consume the entire bar mat? Will the bar catch fire? Fire alarm or Barman – which will come first?
It’s the old guy rooted at the far end of the bar like another piece of furniture, who alerts the barman. “Maaa-te,” he croaks, pointing a gnarled, accusing finger in their direction.
“Thrill-killer,” mutters Annie.
The barman hustles over, and puts out the fire with the blasé efficiency of someone who’s done it a hundred times before. “What are you like?” He winks and clicks his tongue at Annie as he pats down the embers.
She beams and wraps an arm around Lee. “This…is my little sister,” she announces, wrapping an enthusiastic arm around Lee’s neck and almost tipping her off her bar-stool.
The barman raises his eyebrows with the same bare disbelief Lee sees whenever Annie introduces her. He sees no sibling, only a chaperone, a hindrance to be overcome before the end of his shift.
“Really?” He lays out a clean bar mat, and flashes Annie a smile. “One for the road?”
Lee understands her allure now. The way Annie mixes being sophisticated and totally juvenile. Everything’s a joke. She’s game.
But, Lee likes this too. In small doses.
Her mouth is bitter, gritty from crunching scorched flies. Lee orders water.