Confidences in the Hot Pool
A short story by Don Gazzard
Ralph slid into the hot pool at the St Kilda Sea Baths thinking to himself that this was one of the great luxuries of modern times, and then reminded himself that the Romans had made a fetish of bathing and hot baths, even heating their villas through ducts under the floors two thousand years before. Kate had given him a subscription to the pool and the gym for his birthday to help overcome some stiffness he had, so he positioned himself in front of one of the jets and let it pummel his wonky shoulder. He wasn't keen on the gym with its exercise machines and loud music, or the young Pepsi's who ran the place, but the pool was great. He liked the daylit, vaulted space with the full height glass walls that gave eye level views between the palm trees over the beach to the horizon of the blue bay; in the right sort of hazy light it reminded him a bit of the French Riviera.
After his last visit when he'd found himself telling a woman who just happened to be next to him about his wife's younger daughter and the break-up of her defacto relationship and their worries about her children, he decided there was something about being semi-naked and anonymous in hot water that invited confidences. This time three barrel shaped men were in one corner of the hot pool talking in Italian. The tone of their voices made him think they were being indiscreet, confident no one could understand. He tuned in but his Italian wasn't good enough for their rapid speech, until he heard the name of Bruno Brunetti mentioned with much laughter. There is a well known bar and restaurant in Carlton run by a Brunetti family, but it was clear that they were referring to the Labor politician in Sydney who'd helped Ralph with his first novel.
He was curious to know what they were saying, hesitated for a while and then finally butted in saying scusi signori, apologised for his poor Italian and introduced himself in English. They were all more or less the same age, they joked and were friendly, and Ralph learnt they'd all been union officials but were now retired. Ralph told them they would have a lot in common, and explained how he'd been a political reporter for both the Age and the Sydney Morning Herald for years, and had had a lot of dealings with the Labor side of politics in both Melbourne and Sydney. As they were leaving one of them told him they met there every Tuesday morning, that perhaps they'd see him around another time?
Ralph made sure he was there the following Tuesday, and with the gentle persuasion developed over forty years as a journalist turned the conversation to politics. Without realising that the author was standing next to him, one of them, who had just read Ralph's recent novel, started to praise it for its under-standing of the inner workings of Labor politics, so Ralph had to confess he was the author. They were delighted with this revelation about their new friend and invited Ralph to join them for coffee at Di Stasio in Fitzroy Street. It seemed a bit curious only having coffee in such a posh restaurant, but it was before lunch and they knew the proprietor.
He casually brought Bruno Brunetti into the conversation but he needn't have been so cautious, they had no hesitation in claiming him as a mate. Bruno had visited Melbourne fifteen years before when he'd been an ACTU official, part of his earlier life Ralph knew nothing about. He had predicted that the union movement was in for a rocky time, with declining numbers and attacks on working conditions by conservative governments. He thought unions should remain financially solvent against these eventualities, and was therefore against unions having their funds locked away in property, that being property owners made officials too conservative when it came to a fight!
Bruno advised them to get their properties rezoned and sell the sites for larger commercial developments, in which they could still retain rented offices. The increase in value created by rezoning and selling could then be invested against difficult times ahead. They acknowledged that Bruno had been right and each of their unions had followed his advice. One of them, who'd been an official in the Waterside Workers Federation, claimed that they had only managed financially during the dispute with Corrigan because their assets were liquid and they could roll with the punches no matter what Corrigan or the govern-ment did.
This all fitted Ralph's picture of Bruno as a good political operator, so he was all the more surprised when they laughingly revealed another side. He'd been involved in a television interview, a debate really, with a right wing lawyer well known for being anti-union. She was an attractive blonde and they struck sparks off one another, it was more than just the subject, there was some animal magnetism between them. They both clearly felt attracted to one another, so Bruno wasn't surprised when she came up afterwards and demanded, 'My place or yours?' It was more than a one-night stand and raged for the week or ten days before Bruno was due to return to Sydney. Both of them had busy schedules, and neither of them wanted to be seen publicly in the company of the other. Ralph's new friends had been tolerant and amused at such an attraction of opposites and had clearly kept it to themselves.
His affair, dangerous as it was from a publicity point of view for both of them, had been overshadowed by a much more serious matter. During his time in Melbourne, Bruno had been made aware of a dodgy group in the waterside union who had a racket stealing stuff off the wharves. As a result he had been bashed one night on his way to the Trades Hall in an attempt to discourage him from pursuing the matter.
It was a mistake on their part. Bruno had come up the hard way, and had worked in the Storeman and Packers Union years before. When much younger, he'd been educated by the older blokes exactly how stuff could be nicked and the theft covered up; he knew all the angles. He talked the union into collaborating with the stevedoring company in setting a trap for these guys. When they were caught, Bruno had been able to show how the documents had been falsified, and persuaded the union rather than the company, to ask the police to bring charges. It was an anxious time for all, the union officials had had their suspicions of course but there was an understandable reluctance to see their members charged, and the bad publicity that went with it, but Bruno in his ACTU role had forced the issue.
'This is the ugly face of unionism,' Bruno had argued, 'that can only give ammunition to our conservative opponents and must be stamped out. When someone like the PM goes on with ideological rants about greedy unions, I always think first of those unassuming service unionists on low wages, people like nurses and teachers, garbage men, policemen and emergency workers, the people who keep society going; we owe it to them to clean out the bad apples.' It had been a nasty business all round, and many unionists didn't like the idea of ratting on their mates, but Bruno had been unbending. It was a long story with many ramifications and Ralph's new friends were keen to spell it all out for his benefit.
Ralph came clean and explained about his debt to Bruno, that he had educated him in the inner workings of the NSW Labor government, and how this had enabled him to write in a way that was so psychologically acute. 'What I'd like to do,' he told them, 'is write a similar novel about the Kennett years, but I was out of the State then and I need to find someone who was close to the action to confide in me so I get the nuances right.'
All his new friends were from the other side of politics, and were unable to help him, until one of them who had been silent, reluctantly admitted that he had a young niece who'd actually been an elected member in the Kennett government. It embarrassed him, he said, hastening to make it clear that she wasn't from his branch of the family.
'She became involved with the Young Liberals at university through her husband who hankered after a political career, ' he explained. 'He'd been given the opportunity to stand as the Liberal candidate in what had, till then, been seen as a strong Labor seat. But the bugger had tickets on himself and declined, he didn't think it was possible to win the seat and thought he deserved something better. So my niece offered to stand as a sacrificial candidate instead, she door knocked the electorate hard, and to her surprise was elected in the first Kennett landslide. However her success in winning the seat and then her long absences in the House had tested an already shaky marriage and triggered their divorce.'
Much as he disagreed with his niece's politics, they were still friendly whenever they met on family occasions, and his new friend thought she might be willing to talk to Ralph. They arranged to meet in Cacao, an upmarket coffee shop in St Kilda run by a Frenchchocolatierand Ralph warmed to her immediately. Her name was Carol, was in her thirties and nursing a new baby. Ralph had no children of his own and was a sucker for small babies, whatever it was they always stopped crying when he gave them a cuddle, and baby Louise was no exception.
He soon realised that compared with Bruno, Carol was a rank amateur as a political operator. She wasn't an ideologue either, and her two term election to parliament still surprised her. But she was smart and pragmatic, and had both a keen sense of a good story and good recall about the key events of her time in parliament. She was very funny in mimicking Kennett, and provided just what Ralph needed to flesh out the dead files of the Age. Carol was delighted to have an audience for her experiences in Spring Street, and enough time had passed that she was ready to try and put it in perspective for herself. They met for afternoon tea every Wednesday for several months and became firm friends, and Ralph became a de facto godfather to Louisa. Kate came sometimes and became an extra ear for Carol's great stories, and both of them admired her courage in jumping into the political snake pit the way she had at such a young age, and reacting so intelligently.
Early in the piece one of the older Liberal Party functionaries had quietly advised Carol to keep a detailed diary, it would be useful, he said, when she needed to pin down what had happened when, so she could prove her version of events when something went wrong. She described how party meetings were not debates or discussions but long speeches by Kennett as though he was the MD reporting to the Board of Directors of Victoria Incorporated about decisions he'd made. He didn't feel any need to consult the share-holders, but the voters didn't like this governing-from-on-high without any public discussion, and it eventually led to his spectacular fall from grace. And Ralph started to get the sense of the style of his flamboyant one-man government so unlike the complex factional one in Sydney.
By the time they'd talked themselves out, Carol handed over her diaries in confidence, so he could relate them to the political events of the day. While Ralph had always instinctively disliked Kennett's policies, he'd always admired for the way he had reformed local government. Ever since Ralph was a boy, local councils had been a running sore in both Melbourne and Sydney, and Bruno openly admitted that the large number of small councils in Sydney was a joke and agreed that in some ideal world they should be amalgamated. But even the thought of the upheaval that would be involved affecting so many of his mates, made him firmly rule out even canvassing the idea out loud.
Kennett on the other hand had simply announced that one of his policy planks was to reform local government and within weeks of being elected he'd sacked all the local councils, amalgamated the metropolitan ones, usually three of them into one larger council, installed an administrator to run them and then called elections twelve months later. There were big political protests but Kennett was quite unmoved, and now most people couldn't even remember the old order. It was a rare example of real political leadership, of having the courage to do something sensible regardless of the political consequences.
Ralph was quite open about his motives, and offered to let Carol read the draft, and asked whether she'd like to be a real person in the novel, retaining her own name, or whether she would prefer to be subsumed into a fictional character. In the end she opted for the latter, some of her reminiscences were rather frank and she hadn't spared some of her former colleagues. She was totally realistic about the hubris that led Kennett to forbid his colleagues to speak to the Press in his final election campaign. 'He was totally responsible and brought it all on himself, ' she said, 'just like a Greek play! '
Carol didn't have any ambitions to resume a political career at this stage, something would come up by the time her babies were at school, she might open a shop or do another degree and educate herself about economics. If she were ever tempted into politics again, it might be for the Greens, she thought. Ralph talked it over with her uncle, and he agreed with Ralph, that despite having got mixed up with the wrong lot, Carol was honest and credence could be placed in her memory.
Bruno was pleased to be remembered by his mates of course, and happy to have his role praised. He guessed Ralph would have heard about the other business, and asked him as a mate to leave out the sex. Ralph was so delighted that there was now some real link between the two books that he was happy to comply. 'In any case how could I ever describe whatever it was that caused these two to be attracted with such passion? Quite apart from complying with Bruno's wishes, nothing like that had ever happened to me, and I simply couldn't write about it convincingly.'
Ralph had interviewed Kennett once for a Herald profile,so he asked for an in-depth interview, citing the book he was writing. Kennett was now running an organisation called Beyond Blue that was concerned with countering the prevalence of depression in our society, and Ralph wasn't entirely surprised when he refused point blank; it seemed entirely in character. All that was in a previous life Kennett told him, and he wasn't interested in, or care much, what people thought about his time in politics. If only I could get him into the hot pool, Ralph thought.