Two quick beers needed to be expunged from my bladder to make room for more. It could have been the excitement of the occasion, it could have been the two schooners of pale ale. I excused myself from the raucous conversation and backslapping I’d been sharing with three men from the class of 1996, and walked purposefully towards the toilets.
The 25 year reunion of Newcastle’s St Gregory’s Boys’ High School had been in planning for almost a year and 73 ex-students had indicated their attendance. It was going to be a hoot. Some of the ‘boys’, now men in their early forties, had remained in the Hunter Valley area. Others had gravitated back, but the majority had been swept up in a diaspora of young St Gregory’s men who were now scattered around the planet. A few had apologized, being stranded overseas due to the pandemic. Also, a planned roll-call would note that four of the old boys were, sadly, now deceased.
The evening was to be a celebration of youth, exploits, successes, failures, camaraderie and memories; a rare opportunity to re-live the heady days of St Greg’s and their sporting achievements. A chance to re-kindle bonds with mates. The organisers had chosen to make it a partner-free evening, and the venue was the Foghorn Brewery in King Street, Newcastle. Half of the industrial-chic brewhouse was cordoned off from the usual Friday night hordes of hungry and thirsty inner-city hipster types.
Emerging from the toilets, I wound past the labyrinth of chilled brewery pipes and steel vats, a feature of this popular craft brewery. With renewed bladder space I was eager for another craft beer and a whole lot more banter and socialising. I quickly fronted the bar, almost shouting my order through the ambient noise of thumping house music and the general exuberance of Friday night patrons. Beer in hand, I turned to push through the throng towards the area cordoned off for the St Greg’s old boys. An attractive woman in a very tight red dress turned at the same time. Our beers almost struck and she avoided me with a deft swerve causing her to momentarily roll an ankle in her stiletto shoe.
“Oops! Sorry,” she quipped.
“My fault,” I replied, as we both wandered away from the bar, trying to avoid waiting customers.
“End of a working week? TGIF?” I asked.
“Well, yes and no,” she smiled.
She didn’t seem to be heading back towards a table of friends. Perhaps this gorgeous lady was here alone. Damn, even though I was single again, I just couldn’t afford to strike up a conversation with her tonight. I’d waited 25 years for this evening with old mates. We walked towards the cordoned off area.
“I’m Eddie,” I said, “Eddie Loader.”
“I know,” she purred.
I laughed in her face, quietly impressed with the flattery. “No you don’t. I live in Brisbane, and I’m not wearing a name tag. You’re not trying to hit on me are you?”
“I’m Stephanie. Stephanie O’Mullane. We played in the same football team at St Gregory’s.”
In retrospect, I’d love to have seen a video replay of the gobsmacked, blinking goldfish that my face began imitating at that moment. Stephanie noticed it and grinned. I struggled to compute what she’d just told me. And, I’m glad my arse was securely attached to my hips. I’m sure it would have fallen off otherwise.
Stephanie deciphered the confusion, the knitted brow. She continued, “I’m Stephanie O’Mullane nowadays, Eddie. When I was a student at St Gregory’s, I was Steve O’Mullane.”
Scanning the glossy red lipstick, the cut of the jaw and cheekbones, the long blonde hair, a sense of familiarity eventually flowed over me.
“Specs?” I stammered, beer slopping from my shaking glass. “Shit! You’re Specs O’Mullane?”
“Yep, front and centre. You haven’t changed much at all Eddie. Maybe a bit pudgier, a bit of a bald patch, but I recognized you as soon as I saw you at the bar. Have I changed much Eddie?”
“Um… a little bit,” I muttered. Then we both snorted with laughter.
“I shouldn’t have surprised you like that,” Specs giggled, “ Obviously I didn’t have boobs or long blonde hair 25 years ago, so yeah… you’re right, I have changed a little bit. And, I don’t wear those hideously thick glasses anymore. Thank God for the miracles of modern surgery, huh Eddie?”
Far out! Specs O’Mullane. The winger from my school footie team. In a red hot dress! When Specs ran, he had the grace and urgency of a giraffe being pursued by a pack of wild dogs. It was comical to watch. Legs and arms swinging inelegantly in all directions but when he wound up his pace, he was unbelievably quick. Opposing players must have been hindered by their own belly laughter as they attempted to chase and tackle those flailing legs. And Specs was a really top bloke, a team player, just a little socially awkward, and very self-conscious of his glasses with the Coke bottle lenses.
“Bloody hell! Great to see you again, Specs.”
“You too Eddie, but I’d prefer you to call me Steph. Don’t want to be accused of dead-naming do you?”
I proffered my hand for a shake but Stephanie pushed it aside.
Motioning for us to put our beers down on a nearby table, she reached welcomingly towards me with both arms and embraced me warmly.
“Give me a hug, Eddie. But don’t you go peering down my cleavage or I’ll slap you,” she snorted. We both laughed. Gut laughs.
“Are you coming in here, Steph?” I asked, motioning towards the reunion.
“You betcha!” she replied.
Wow. I’m silently in awe of her unparalleled gutsiness. I don’t want to demean our reunion with further questions of Steph. I don’t want to imagine any trials, self-doubts or hostilities experienced along Steph’s 25 year life-journey since we last saw each other. Back when we were rampant teenagers running and passing a pigskin ball, crashing into opponents, rucking and mauling, bleeding and breaking bones on a parched Australian rugby field. She was obviously self-confident about confronting any masculine insecurities and macho posturing tonight; potential legacies of an all-boys High School. I could sense that she was prepared for the probability of varying degrees of friendly fire, even enemy flak. Stephanie could probably disarm all that with salvos of deliciously self-deprecating humour, and I would be her wing-man with my fervent hope and belief that in 2021 we surely live in a more tolerant and inclusive society than we did 25 years ago.
“Hey Steph,” I ask, “you wanna walk in with me?”
“My pleasure Eddie. Let’s get in there and lob a grenade. See what happens.”