Via facebook, my Edinburgh flatmate and fellow Saints fan, Sharife requested:
Milkshakes by Kelis + Edinburgh Trams + St Kilda
Sally took her wine glass from the damp cloth atop the bar, wiping the bottom of the glass with a nearby napkin as she walked towards her usual seat. The dank smell of stale beer was still in her nostrils. She wouldn’t have allowed a cloth that damp to remain, ignored, in her day. Still, many things had changed since her time.
She looked around the club, drinking in the sights and sounds much like the patrons around her skulled their beers. Friday nights were always busy, what with happy hour, raffles and pokie jackpots. Tonight was no different, a mixture of singleted tradies, office workers and young families settling in to drink and eat away the weekday blues.
Real quality entertainment to bring out the locals, she mused to herself: a tray of raw meat, a ridiculously large chicken schnitzel and the chance to lose your bonus on an automated machine.
Judging by the attendance, North Canberrans appeared unperturbed by the recent negative publicity surrounding unions, or at least were willing to separate their opinion of such events from their choice of dining venue.
Perhaps they were here because of the club’s recent ‘revamp’: the large open space bar and bistro had changed some ways since she had overseen the club. There was the newish orange carpet (a sensible colour choice in any drinking establishment), a fresh coat of paint on the walls and a slightly remodeled bistro kitchen and bar.
But the constant tinkling of the mind-numbing poker machines from the surrounding rooms was still there, as was the prevalence of schooner glasses in various states of coming together, reaching parched lips and being slammed on tables. The smell of the place was also unchanged – the unique scent of sweat and spew and beer and wine was ever-present, apparently soaked into every corner of the building.
Hence why she was now retreating to her favourite part of the club as quickly as she could.
She entered the old tram and sat down. There were a couple of small children climbing around one of the old wooden seats at the far end of the carriage, which warmed her heart. She recalled a time when children would race towards the trams inside the club, dragging their parents behind. It was nice to know, even in this digital-era, full of i-this and android-that, kids still liked sitting inside a tram.
Maybe it was the ‘old-worldliness’ of it. This one in particular, the last of the eleven, felt particularly dated now – with its wood-paneled walls, narrow bench seats and flip-board style numbers.
Whatever the reason, she loved it. The club around her might depress her, but this was an island of tranquility; not just within the confines of the Dickson Tradies, but compared to the broader city and country outside its walls.
Another adult entered the carriage, facing away from her and started talking to the children.
‘Michael, Keli, it’s time to go eat now. Your Dad is here to collect you and Mum needs to go back to work.’
Sally immediately recognised the younger woman. Her name was Soph and she had started in Sally’s last few weeks before retirement.
‘Hi Soph,’ she called.
The younger woman jumped and turned around for a moment.
‘Oh, Sally, it’s you. I didn’t see you there.’
‘No bother, you’re not the first person to get a shock on this tram.’
She looked around the carriage as she said this, recalling darker days.
‘Really? What do you mean?’Soph asked, intrigued, losing focus on the children for a moment, who resumed their climbing.
‘Oh, just ancient history.’
‘About the club?’ replied Soph. ‘I love that stuff. I remember coming here as a kid. Feels like the place has changed so much. I’d love to hear about how things used to be.’
Sally smiled, convinced Soph was just humouring an old woman.
‘Well, I’ll still be here, sipping my wine and reading my magazine when you finish your shift. If you want to hear some old war stories, pop back and see me then.’
‘Deal!’ Soph exclaimed. She returned her attention to the two children, and realised they were again crawling all over the seats, the smile disappearing from her face.
‘C’mon guys – it’s time to go. And where did you get those crazy drinks?’
The children shrugged their shoulders, before quickly emptying the contents of two glasses in front of them filled with a combination of cream, ice cream and pretzels. Two large straws emerged amongst the sticky mess. They slammed the glasses down on the table, racing out of the tram.
Soph struggled after them.
‘I’m looking after the tram tonight, so I’ll deal with the glasses when I come back!’
Sally waved and settled back into her seat, enjoying the quiet. As she sipped her wine, she tried to block out the monotonous sounds of the gawd-awful pokies away somewhere in the distance.
But for some reason, tonight, she couldn’t quite block it out. Perhaps the sound reminded her of him.
Well, she would finish this glass, grab another chardy, and if Soph hadn’t returned, head back to her quiet Downer flat. That had once been walking distance to her first workplace, the old Downer Club. But it had closed years ago, forcing her to drive the extra few kilometres. It was a shame, as she had loved that place almost as much as this tram. It was smaller and less grandiose then many of Canberra’s other clubs, and unique for its planetarium installation that brought visitors from far and wide.
She flipped through the magazine in front of her, not really taking in what she was reading, but feeling more at ease with something to keep her hands and mind occupied.
Her mind never drifted far however from him.
She became so enthralled in her memories, that at some point she stopped turning the pages, and leapt in shock when Soph called out to her as she entered the tram some time later.
‘Sorry Sally, did I scare you?’ she asked, sliding into the seat opposite and putting a glass on the table.
‘Just took me by surprise…I don’t generally scare easily.’ Sally replied, a wry smile on your face.
‘So, tell me all about your memories of the club,’ Soph said, leaning eagerly towards her.
‘I don’t have much to tell you about the club, Soph….but I can tell you a little about these old trams,’ she said, gesturing at the walls around her. ‘They damn near ended my career. Not that I regret it, not for a second.’
‘The Trams?’ Soph asked, surprised and apparently a little disappointed. ‘I didn’t know you were a train spotter?’
‘I’m not. Not at all. But I suppose I’m like you….interested in my local history.’
Soph leaned in again, her interest reignited.
‘Soph, do you ever wonder about where these trams came from? Or more particularly, where the people that worked on them came from? And where they are now?’
Something about Sally’s tone perturbed Soph, and she pulled her cardigan tighter around her shoulders. It was a cold, wet Canberra night outside, but so far that evening she had felt snug and warm inside the club. But here, now, it felt like the temperature had suddenly dropped.
She wasn’t quite sure how to respond to Sally’s question. She searched the woman’s face, looking for some clue. Her features were partially hidden by a layer of make-up, the thickness coupled with her dyed blonde hair, nearly to the point of being white, revealing more about her age than the wrinkles underneath.
However, her expression gave nothing away.
‘I’m not sure Sally,’ Soph offered. ‘How would we know something about that? I mean, the club must have some information on the history of the trams, but the people…’ she let her voice trail off, hoping it would prompt Sally to speak. After a moment’s reflection, to Soph’s relief, she finally did.
‘I suppose I should start at the beginning….well, the beginning of all this for me,’ again, she indicated to the walls around them as she spoke. Soph followed her hands, but wasn’t exactly sure what she was referring to. She sipped her wine and shuffled in her seat, trying to keep warm.
It was a night much like this one. Cold and wet. That always seemed to be the best conditions to communicate, although once contact had been made, talking seemed easier.
I had just started as Assistant Manager, and my primary duties were to make sure things ran smoothly in the bistro and bar, particularly on the busy nights. I’d worked my way up, first at Downer, and then here. I’d thought about leaving plenty of times, but each time, a promotion came. I think they’d just dropped the ‘Tradesmen’s’ and switched to ‘Tradies’ to try and be less sexist, and I thought they deserved me sticking around for that. Then they offered a promotion. Kevin, who was General Manager, had a real thing about cleanliness. Although, looking back, he probably knew more than he was letting on, and perhaps that was what it was about. Anyway, he told me in no uncertain terms that I had to keep the place clean, particularly at the end of the night, to make things easier for the morning shift.
It was my first night as boss, and it had gone okay. A few hiccups here and there, a few new girls and boys not knowing what they were doing, but generally okay. We were packing up, probably around 1, and asked one of the older guys, Jeff, to go and check on the trams. We had two left at that time, this one and the one that used to be next door.
Well, he refused point blank. ‘No way!’ were his exact words. Now, I wasn’t always the kindly older lady you saw towards the end of my career.
Soph tried to hide a smile. Even now, Sally Monroe was known around the club as ‘dragon lady’. Her reputation was anything but ‘kindly old lady’. In fact, Soph had been partly keen to sit with her to try and win some respect from her co-workers. If she could win over the dragon lady, surely that counted for something.
I had a bit of a temper, particularly if staff didn’t follow instructions. So I ranted and yelled at Jeff, but he didn’t budge. He mumbled something about it being a cold night, and walked away. Said I could fire him if I liked, but there was no way he was going to enter either tram after midnight. I tried a few of the older staff, and they refused as well. Finally, with the promise of additional shifts, a new girl – I think Julie was her name – agreed to go and clean them up.
Except she returned five minutes later, ashen faced and shivering. She resigned on the spot and walked out of the club. I never saw her again.
Well, now I was pretty frustrated. Kevin had made this big deal about the place being clean, and the end of my first shift in charge and the trams were likely a mess. Huffing and puffing I walked into the first tram myself, determined to clean it up and then hire some new, more responsible staff, in the morning.
I’ll never forget what I found when I first walked in. The carriage was an absolute pigsty. Food and drink spilt all over the floor, cutlery strewn all over the place. I shivered as I entered, and wondered if the club’s central heating was broken, as the temperature suddenly seemed much colder. I felt a crunching below my feet and looked down to see the remains of a smashed plate. Just as I wondered how that had happened, anger at my staff growing all the stronger, I felt a whooshing of wind close to my face. I looked up just in time to see a plate fly past my nose and smash into the wall next to me. A centimetre to the right and it would have crashed into my face.
I was furious now, and looked up ready to give hell to whatever good-for-nothing staff member had thought it would be fun to throw plates at the boss.
Except there was no one there. The tram appeared completely empty.
‘Come back here!’ I yelled, assuming the thrower had slipped out a side door or one of the windows. I ran down the carriage, slipping and sliding on food and drink as I did. I looked through the tram windows as I ran and reached the far door to find it was locked from the inside. I flung it open and looked out at the bistro floor, searching for the coward.
Except there was no one there. I mean no one. The club was deserted. Apparently all my staff had gone home.
It was just me.
My anger was now mixed with a sense of confusion, and that’s when I saw the message. Scrawled across the back wall of the Tram, the same wall that the plate had smashed into. It was written in a red substance, which I assumed was tomato sauce, but looked eerily like blood in the dim light.
The word ‘Dining’ was written, except a thick line had been put through it. I started to walk closer towards it to try and make it out more clearly, when another plate flew past my face and crashed into the wall behind. Again I searched the tram, and again I could see no body inside.
I had no idea what was going on. Surely this was some kind of prank.
‘Whoever you are, the joke is over. If you are brave enough to show yourself, and explain what the fuck you’re doing, I might not get you charged with assault,’ I yelled.
Silence was all I received in return. If someone was slipping in and out of the trams to throw these plates, they were doing it incredibly quietly.
For the first time, I began to question my perceptions. Had I imagined the plates? Was I working too hard? Was this some kind of weird dream?
But I didn’t have long to think before another plate flew past me, even closer than the last. And then another, and then another.
Now truly scared for my safety I scrambled through the mess and leapt out of the tram, the plates continuing to smash behind me. I slammed the door closed, determined to return in the morning and clean it up. I locked the doors of the tram and put a ‘closed for repairs’ sign on the door, and scrawled Kevin a message apologising.
My heart was beating fast all the way home. My mind was racing, trying to make sense of what had happened. I barely slept, and by seven decided to get up and go in early to clean the mess.
I expected Kevin to be furious with me, but he was strangely very reasonable. Almost as though he wasn’t surprised. He suggested I grab a couple of the staff to give me a hand cleaning the tram up. He suggested ‘these things never seem so bad in the light of day.’ But I’ll never forget what he said to me as I left his office.
‘I hired you to keep the place clean, Sally. I think you have the skills to make that happen, but it won’t be easy.’
With two colleagues in tow, I tentatively unlocked the tram door and peered inside. It was exactly as I remembered it, although the message on the far wall was harder to make out because the tomato sauce had slid down the walls. I braced myself as I entered, terrified of plates whizzing past my nose. God knows what the two girls with me thought. But nothing came flying at me, and I took note of the temperature. It was much warmer in the tram than what it had been the night before.
It took the three of us two hours to clean it up, punters peering through making smart ass remarks the whole time. But no more plates came crashing towards us, and I wondered if hadn’t been subjected to some strange initiation by Kevin.
I recalled for the first time the other tram, the one we are sitting in now. I hadn’t even thought to check it the night before. It must be full of mess too. Both trams were popular, particularly with children. Even without the scrawled messages and broken plates, it would be full of dirty plates and glasses.
I peered in. Incredibly, it was immaculately clean. The night staff must have cleaned it after all, despite their assertions that no one would enter after midnight.
I couldn’t stop thinking about that message on the tram wall. What did it mean? I spoke to Kevin on my way out and told him I wanted to trial banning food from the tram, just to give me and the night staff a reprieve. He reluctantly agreed, but only on the basis it was a ‘trial’. And he made it clear he still expected me to work that night, and to find a longer term solution.
I spent the day talking to some of the old hands around the club, and going through the books. I wanted to know more about the history of the trams.
I started my shift exhausted and tired, already sick of spending the whole day here. But it was an icy night, the coldest on record I think. Got down to minus eight outside, so the club wasn’t that popular. The few punters that came in were happy enough to avoid eating in the trams.
I waited until we had closed up, and all the staff had gone home, to visit the tram again. I didn’t really know what I was thinking, or what I was going to do. But I had a theory, of sorts, and when no one was around, I thought it was worth testing. I turned the heating down in the bistro and then walked on to the tram.
It was freezing, and dimly lit. I’m not too proud to say that I was a little scared. A lot scared, actually. My heart was beating a million miles an hour. I braced myself for the plates, but as I walked in, the carriage was quiet. It was still clean from our earlier work, and all the glasses had apparently been collected through the evening. I sat down, took a deep breath and spoke.
‘I’m sorry you don’t like people eating on the tram, but this is a club…that’s what people do. They eat.’
I felt a shudder in the air around me and sensed great anger. The air seemed to shimmer and buzz with emotion. I was really scared now.
It seemed my theory was right.
‘So, what are we going to do about it?’ I asked, trying to sound confident and calm, but my voice sounding timid and scared to my ears.
Incredibly, it seemed to get even colder on the tram.
And then he spoke.
Very quietly at first, but a man’s voice nonetheless. Hoarse and thick with a Scottish accent.
‘I will not have food on this tram. It is not a dining tram.’
The voice reverberated around the tram, but it seemed to come from behind me, the direction the plates had originally been thrown from. Trembling, I stood up and moved to the seat across from me so I could face that direction. There was no one there, but I sat and continued talking nonetheless.
‘It might have once been a different sort of tram…’
But the owner of the voice didn’t let me finish. The air shimmered in front of me and I was able to make out a blurry image in front of me. It looked a bit like the shimmering image you see just before you figure out one of those three-dimensional hidden pictures.
It was the blurry shape of a man, wearing an old tram conductor’s uniform. He was staring deeply into my eyes. Deeply into my soul.
‘My dear lady, this is and always has been the number 96 from St Kilda beach to East Brunswick, and back. It has never been a dining tram and it never will be.’
I stared back at this shape…what was I talking to? How should I respond?
‘My name is Sally. What is yours?’ I said at last, reverting to social niceties out of habit. I don’t remember actually consciously thinking that would be a good thing to try. But it helped, as it looked as though the face of the strange image was smiling.
‘It has been a long time since such a fine creature asked me a question like that,’ he replied, in his thick accent. ‘My name is Andrew, and I have been a conductor on this beautiful carriage since 1965.’
He winked at me as he spoke.
It turned out this thing fancied itself…himself, as a bit of a ladies’ man.
I took a deep breath and tried to pretend I was talking to a human man.
‘Nice to meet you Andrew, and I must say I like your accent very much. The thing is, this tram is no longer in St Kilda…or Melbourne for that matter…. it is sitting within the walls…’
The tram suddenly shook and the lights flashed on and off. Andrew’ face appeared to have reddened and he looked back at me with pure anger in his eyes.
‘Och! I know where it is, but that is precisely what angers me so. How dare you place such a wonderful machine as this inside a building for children to spill ice cream on its wooden seats, and fat women to drip sauce over its floors!’
He seemed to be moving closer towards me as he spoke, and I recalled the flying plates of the night before.
‘Okay Andrew, I understand, but I don’t run the club. I just work here. It’s not my decision, but perhaps I can help.’
The lights returned to normal, and the image of Andrew appeared to retreat a metre or two.
‘I’m sorry dear lady, please accept my apologies. But I have witnessed the greed and debauchery on this tram for the last time. I will not allow such a grand old dame as this to be treated so shabbily. She should be trundling along Melbourne’s streets, not locked up and defiled here.’
I nodded, more to show I understood than because I agreed. I had no idea how to respond to that claim. I needed to buy some time.
‘Okay, I understand. I can stop the food being here for a little while, but you’ll have to give me some time to think of a longer term solution.’
The image nodded.
‘Cannya not do anything about the god-awful tinkling sound from all around? What on God’s green Earth is that?’
I paused for a moment, trying to make sense of what he was asking. And then it came to me.
‘The high pitched ringing and tunes you hear? That’s probably the pokies?’ I offered.
‘Pokies?’ he asked, confused.
‘Umm…poker machines. They’re for gambling.’
‘Och, that’s what you listen to in your drinking holes here? Where I come from, we like to sip our beer and eat our dinner listening to a live band, or watch some form of entertainment. We don’t feed money endlessly into a machine until it plays us an awful tune. It sounds like some corrupted juke box. Is there no way to stop it?’
‘I don’t disagree Andrew, but no, I don’t think I can do much about that. We have live music here from time to time, but most of the clubs in Canberra are like this one. They all have poker machines.’
‘What a tragedy,’ he mused in return.
‘So, what about it? Can you give me some time? No food for a week, but no smashed plates either?’
He was quiet for a moment, but I noticed that the lights stayed on. At last he spoke.
‘Very well. But on one condition, dear lady, if you would bring me news of the home country, and my beloved St Kilda, that might placate my tortured soul a little longer.’
I nodded, and despite everything, found myself smiling.
I spent the next few days speaking to people around the club and researching options. I barely slept, racking my brain for options. Each night I would return to the tram late, when the club was empty except for the distance sounds of vacuum cleaners, and speak to Andrew. I would print off information about Melbourne, and St Kilda and Scotland, attempting to placate him.
‘I thought you would like this,’ I said one night. ‘They are putting a tram line into Edinburgh.’
‘A tram line into Edinburgh, about bloody time!’ he exclaimed. ‘What about my beloved Rangers, how are they going?’
I paused. Had to be careful with that information.
‘Well,’ I said at last. ‘They won the title.’ I made sure not to mention which division.
‘Good, beat those fu…bloody Catholics, pardon me language my lady. And what about the mighty St Kilda team….how are they going?’
I couldn’t fudge that one.
‘Well, none I’m sorry. But they’ve made a few grand finals since.’
‘Grand final? They don’t play Grand Finals in the Scottish Premier League. I was asking about the St Kilda Isles football team, in the north west of Scotland…’
I gulped, afraid how he might react, as I had no information about the St Isles football team, whomever they were.
Then suddenly, he let out a loud cackle.
‘I’m only teasing you Sal. I have no idea about the St Kilda Isles. I’ve never been, but I bet they don’t have a team in the SPL. I was talking about the mighty Saints. No more Premierships? One in one hundred and fifty years! The crowd at the Junction must be going spare.’
‘Well…they don’t play at the Junction anymore.’
‘They don’t play at the Junction? Where do they play and train?’
‘Their home ground is in the city, in an undercover stadium….’
‘They play indoors now! The soft…’
I checked notes and quickly cut him off, hoping to calm him down.
‘And the Club is based at Frankston…’
‘Frankston!’ he exclaimed, apparently even angrier. ‘Frankston! That’s not even in bloody Melbourne, let alone St Kilda. Playing indoors, training down the coast. No wonder they’ve only one once!
Another time I told him about the planned referendum for Scotland to separate from the UK.
‘Crazy talk, I say. We’re too small to be on our own.’
In-between such conversations, I ran options past him, but he just wouldn’t agree to food on the tram.
‘But this is a club, it serves food and drink. The point of the tram being here is so people can sit and eat.’
‘Then it shouldn’t be here!’ Andrew exclaimed in reply.
That gave me an idea.
‘What if it wasn’t here anymore?’
The shimmering red-haired ghost looked at me more through eyes that appeared to be squinting.
‘What do you mean?’
I wasn’t sure exactly what I meant, and even if I had the ability to do it, but I felt I was getting somewhere.
‘What if we moved it, and you, somewhere else?’
Andrew went silent, and I braced myself for the lights to flicker again, or for plates to come flying towards me. At last he spoke.
‘Dear lady, I would give anything to return to Melbourne…just to see St Kilda beach one final time, as the tram swung around past Ackland Street and the Esplanade.’
‘In that case, I’ll see what I can do.’
The next day I found myself back in Kevin’s office, pitching an idea I’m sure he wouldn’t agree to. But I couldn’t see any other option.
‘I think we need to move the tram somewhere else. Just the old number 96. I think that will fix the issue. We should still be able to serve food in the other tram, and the staff won’t be afraid any more. I’ve found a place in Melbourne that I think might just work.’
‘I was hoping it wouldn’t come to this. But tell me, do you think that will solve the problem? We’ve tried this approach in the past, and in the end just passed our problems on to some poor museum or another club.’
Could it be that he really knew what I was saying? It seemed he understood far more than he was letting on.
‘I’m very confident that if this tram is transferred back to Melbourne, that will be the end of these issues. Provided he…I mean ‘it’…is transported through St Kilda ’
‘We’ve never had this level of intelligence, and been so specific about which route to take. You’ve done well, Sally. I’ll take it to the board.’
And to my surprise, and some sadness, the board voted unanimously to transfer the old 96 back to Melbourne. I didn’t get to spend another night with Andrew. I did go on board and say goodbye, before they took it away, but by then the weather had warmed up, and even with the temperature turned down, I wasn’t able to see him. But I sensed him. And I thought he was happy.
And that’s how the trams of the Dickson Tradies nearly ended me.
Soph sat completely still, her mouth wide open. She wasn’t sure how to respond. Was this woman crazy? It certainly seemed like she believed her tale, and she had told it so well. At times during the story Soph had been genuinely scared. But ghosts? Here, in Canberra. Soph decided the best plan was to humour the poor dear.
‘Oh, it is such a relief to know the ghost has gone.’
Sally smiled ruefully.
‘A ghost is gone.’
Soph stared at her for a moment, trying to comprehend what she was saying.
‘A ghost?’ she asked at last.
‘Well, my dear, all these trams have been haunted at one point or another. Why do you think the board got rid of such a wonderful attraction? The ghosts of course. All that remains is friendly old, Marshall.’
She look longingly around the tram.
‘He always was the nicest. Bit like Andrew, he doesn’t like the mess. But he cleans it up himself. And even better, he’ll make things from time to time for the punters.’
Soph looked back at her stunned.
‘Make things? What sort of things?’
Sally smiled wryly in return.
‘Gifts, food….sometimes drinks. He tends to follow whatever is trendy. I think he reads the papers when no one is around. I get the feeling he likes you, he might even concoct something for you.’
Soph looked back stunned.
‘I thought you were just trying to scare me with that story.’
Sally continued to smile.
‘I’m afraid it was all true. You’ve seen proof yourself tonight. How do you think Michael’s lemonade and Kelis’ milkshake got made earlier? We don’t make freakshakes in the bistro?’ she said, indicating towards the far end of the cabin where the two children had left their glasses. She had forgotten to put them away.
Sally turned, a sick feeling growing in her stomach.
What she saw on the far table didn’t make her feel any better.
The two empty glasses had disappeared.
Freakshake photo courtesy of Patissez, where you can sample Canberra’s finest Freakshake, minus the ghouls! https://www.facebook.com/patissez.pty.ltd