When I stepped back out into the bright morning the peace and quiet was suddenly shattered, as my ears were assaulted with the sound of a long wolf-whistle.
‘Lookin’ pretty sexy there, Tony,’ I heard Guy say from the back door of the house, once the ringing in my ears had subsided.
I looked at him and grinned, noticing that he was looking pretty sharp as well, even if he was only wearing dark jeans and a dress shirt.
‘And just who did you get all dressed up for?’ I asked.
‘Sssshhhh … don’t tell anyone, but there’s this guy I’m trying to impress,’ he replied. ‘Always got to try and make a bit of an effort, don’t you know?’
Moments later Luke came out the back door as well. He was wearing some nice blue pants, a white polo shirt with a small logo on it and dark sunglasses, looking every bit the movie star.
‘Wow! You scrub up all right sometimes too,’ I teased him.
‘Haven’t you been told that image is everything?’ he asked.
‘It only counts if you’ve got the bank balance to back it up,’ I joked.
‘Fuck, there goes my shot at fame then!’
It was nearing twelve o’clock and the three of us piled into Luke’s car, as it was the only one still here. I suggested to Guy that he should get in the front seat, while I climbed in the back, that way if we did happen to spot Aaron or any of the guys it wouldn’t be too easy to spot me through the tinted windows. It wasn’t that I wanted to avoid any of them, it was just so that when I did meet Aaron later it would be on my terms and, hopefully, without anyone having already told him that they had seen me in town.
Luke started the car and backed it out of the yard, then pointed it toward town. It finally looked like I was going to see the old town again, and that thought excited me.
When we turned off our dirt road and onto the main road into town I started looking around, as I always tended to do, and quickly noticed how much the area had changed. Like the country all the way out from Macquarie Harbour, this had largely been open farmland, but now, as we got closer to town I could see that there were more and more houses as the farmland had been subdivided up into smaller lots, although they all looked like they were large blocks of ten acres or so, which was far better than just small house blocks, I thought.
‘Wow, it’s starting to get a bit crowded around here,’ I said to the guys as we drove on.
‘Yeah, it seems the lifestyle really suits a lot of people,’ Luke said. ‘Just wait ’til you see the town though.’
‘I can hardly wait.’
‘Oh, I think you’ll like it, actually,’ Guy said. ‘All the old dumps have been tidied up and the place even looks half respectable these days.’
‘What about our old haunts, like the old pub, and that little Chinese place we used to go to? And please don’t tell me that the seafood joint on the boardwalk has changed!’
‘Nah, it’s all good, mate. The pub hasn’t changed. Charlie’s Chinese joint is still exactly as it was. But the boardwalk has gone slightly up market, compared to what it used to be, and there are a few more places to eat there now as well,’ Guy replied.
‘I guess that’s progress then, eh?’
‘Well, at least it’s better than having the town fall down around our ears,’ Luke added.
‘Yeah, that’s true I suppose.’
Before long we passed the sign on the edge of town which read Thompsonville and reached the beginning of the rows of old houses and the first of the smaller streets which turned off the main road.
I could already see the changes in this part of town, with most of them having had a fresh coat of paint in recent years and their gardens being given a tidy up. Even most of the old half fallen down fences which I remembered had either been removed or repaired, so the overall general look of the area was a vast improvement on what it once had been.
The road swept around a bend and then straightened, leading directly into the centre of town. It was there that I saw the first building with what I could call a distinctly alternative appearance; one that had been painted two different shades of purple.
‘That certainly looks interesting,’ I remarked.
We soon passed the road that led down to Scott’s caravan park, and I couldn’t help but have a glance down along there. I was quite surprised, yet at the same time pleased, when I saw two young guys, wearing only their board shorts, walking along the road and holding hands.
Not long after that I saw an old shop with a huge mural painted on its side, of what looked to be a group of people standing amongst marijuana plants, at least that’s what I thought they were, judging by the shape of the leaves.
‘What the hell is that all about?’ I asked my companions.
‘That’s the hippy information centre,’ Guy answered with a chuckle. ‘They give out information for all the alternatives who come through town, like the good places to stay or things to see around here, as well as sell souvenirs, and … I suspect … other stuff.’
‘Why am I not surprised?’ I laughed.
I noticed the old pub that we all used to visit, along with the sports club, with its bowling greens facing the street, had both also received a tidy up, then we were almost at the main shopping centre, which was in effect only about two street blocks long.
Everywhere I looked I could see change, whether it was new paint, or even in some cases completely new buildings. With all the bright colours and artwork (my favourite of which was a mural depicting a beach scene with two guys with their arms around each others’ shoulders, framed by a massive rainbow in the background) the effect on the town was quite remarkable.
In a few places I also saw flags and banners of various colours flying, or hung up in front of buildings, which only added to the change in atmosphere.
‘So, what do you think?’ Luke asked me as we pulled into a parking space a short walk from where the boardwalk ran along one edge of the lake.
‘Actually, I’m gobsmacked,’ I replied. ‘You wouldn’t think it was even the same town when compared to how it was ten years ago.’
‘No, it’s certainly different to how it was the first year we came here on our schoolies break,’ Guy remarked.
‘Fuck, that seems so long ago now,’ Luke added. ‘How time flies when you’re having fun, eh?’
‘Is that what you call it?’ I asked.
‘Absolutely! Especially when you consider the alternative that we might have all faced … being stuck in some homophobic, hick town in the bush, most likely unemployed and waiting on our next social security cheque so we could head down to the bottle shop to stock up!’
I raised my eyebrows at him questioningly, while Guy gave a chuckle.
‘Well, maybe that was a worst case scenario,’ Luke added. ‘But you know what I mean. Have you seen how many people in my old town are unemployed these days? And the growing number of empty shops? Especially after the carbon tax and mining tax were both introduced … and not to mention how industry in this country has been crucified, all for the sake of free trade! Man, we’ve really got it made here!’
‘I guess I see your point,’ I said, wondering just how, when and why he had suddenly generated such strong political views.
After stopping the car we all got out and stood on the foot path for a moment while Luke locked the car, then the three of us headed off along the street.
‘Do you want to take a walk along the shopping centre and check it out?’ Luke asked. ‘We can head down to the boardwalk from the other end just as easily.’
‘If you like,’ I replied.
Being Saturday lunch time there were quite a few people around and I soon found myself partaking in one of my favourite pastimes – that of people watching.
With it also being January, the middle of summer, in a town where inhibitions seemed to be getting thrown out the windows, it looked like clothing had almost become optional around here these days as well. I watched with some amusement as both guys and girls wandered the streets wearing very little and leaving little to the imagination. Equally amusing was watching the reactions of some of the town’s older residents, with quite a few men craning their necks for a better view as some attractive girl wearing a skimpy bikini, boobs half hanging out, would wander past, while interestingly enough, it was both men and women who seemed to stare after all the hot young guys with surfer looks, tanned skin and a suspicious bulge in their shorts as they passed.
As we passed two guys standing on the edge of the side walk, one older and respectable looking and one young and a bit rough looking, but still quite hot, all the same, I heard the young one say quietly, ‘Hey mate, you couldn’t help me out could you? I haven’t gotten off in days!’
The older guy quickly told him to fuck off and get out of his way!
‘I don’t think it was quite like this the last time I was here,’ I quietly said to Luke after hearing the exchange.
He just grinned at me.
A minute or so later I found myself checking out a particularly good looking young guy of about eighteen who had been walking toward us. I had obviously been caught out, as he gave me a wink and a smile as he passed me by.
After he had passed us I kept watching him, turning my head and continuing to walk in what I thought was a straight line, while checking out the view. As the boy glanced back at me I promptly walked straight into a post that had a street sign attached to it, hitting my head quite solidly.
‘That’ll serve you right for perving!’ I heard him say, before giving me another wink and disappearing into a crowd of people.
No, this place definitely wasn’t like this the last time I was here.
* * *
We made our way through the Saturday crowds, an interesting and colourful mix of people of all types, before we finally found ourselves turning down the hill and approaching the boardwalk. Even from this distance, I could see that it had also had an upgrade, with several new food outlets now standing alongside the seafood place we had always liked coming to.
As we followed the foot path down the hill toward the boardwalk, which ran alongside the road, we could see people sitting around at the tables outside the shops, while out on the lake there were more people having fun in the summer sun.
‘I can see the place is still popular then,’ I said.
‘More than ever,’ Guy replied. ‘You’ve only got to look at the new shops down here.’
‘It goes a bit quiet again during winter,’ Luke added, ‘but if the weather is okay it can still get busy enough from June through to August.’
We soon passed the old public toilet and shower block, the dead old red bricks I remembered now having also been given a new lease on life with a coat of paint, so I told the guys I needed to make a pit stop.
‘You guys go and find a table and I will join you in a few minutes,’ I said.
‘Okay,’ said Guy. ‘Don’t go doing anything now that we wouldn’t do.’
‘Not me!’ I replied, as I set off for the building, while the guys continued on down the path.
Heading inside I soon noticed that while the place was clean enough, and a coat of paint had once done the place the world of good, it had been neglected ever since, it seemed. Now it just like any other similar public amenity you would come across; dirty and smelly and with the walls plastered with messages that you wouldn’t want your mother to read.
I headed into the first cubicle and locked the door behind me, quickly noticing the amount of graffiti and smut which adorned it, then, as I sat down I soon heard the sound of footsteps coming inside.
They were work boots, I imagined, and I then started to wonder what their owner might look like. I heard the guy, whoever he was, relieve himself at the urinal, then zip up his pants, flush and wash his hands, before leaving.
A few minutes later, when I was done, I washed up and headed back outside, where I soon noticed all the guys standing around down near the eateries, with Matt and Tim having arrived right on time.
‘So, how did you go? Everything all right?’ Luke asked as I approached them. For some reason I thought he looked a little worried, then when I glanced at Guy, so did he.
‘What?’ I asked, now somewhat confused.
‘What happened in there?’ Guy asked.
‘I had a crap, is that all right with you guys?’
‘We’re not actually talking about that,’ Luke chided.
‘We’re talking about Aaron,’ said Luke.
‘What about him?’
‘Didn’t you see him?’ Guy asked.
‘No, that’s later,’ I said, growing more and more confused by the minute.
‘Not later. Just then. In there!’ Luke exclaimed, while pointing at the public toilets.
When it finally dawned on me exactly what he was saying I suddenly felt the blood drain from my face. That had been Aaron who had walked in while I was in there and I could have been within a few seconds of coming face to face with him.
‘Oh, shit! That could have been awkward,’ I stammered.
‘Ya think!’ said Guy. ‘He was getting himself some lunch when we got here, before he was going to head out to home, he said. We didn’t think he would go into the toilets, but after starting toward where his old truck was parked he then just changed direction.’
‘We thought for sure he would see you in there,’ Luke added. ‘We were almost holding our breath waiting for something to happen.’
Ever since I had heard his voice on the phone earlier I had been thinking about just what would happen and just what I would say when I did finally see Aaron. In my own mind I wanted things to be perfect, and I would then be able to say exactly what was on my mind, and that I was, among other things, deeply sorry.
The last thing I imagined was for it to be some chance meeting in a public toilet.
‘Mate, are you okay?’ I finally heard Matt ask, shaking me from my reverie.
‘What? Oh, yeah, sorry. I guess I just had things worked out in my mind about how I wanted to meet with him again, and meeting him in a place like that just wasn’t supposed to be how it was going to happen,’ I said.
‘Well, at least it didn’t happen that way,’ Matt offered. ‘So now you’ve still got a chance of doing it right.’
I could only nod in agreement.
‘Come on then,’ Luke said, ‘I think I can hear a lobster calling out my name.’
‘Lobster?’ I asked.
‘Of course,’ he replied. ‘If we’ve finally managed to get you to dip into your wallet, I’m going to make the most of it!’
‘You’re an asshole,’ I said to him.
‘Yeah cuz, but you know you love me!’ he replied.
* * *
Our lunch was a pleasant affair, with the five of us sitting on the boardwalk beneath a large umbrella, chatting, and listening to the sound of water lapping against the pylons below us. From nearby we could hear the squabbling of seagulls and the occasional bout of shrill laughter, coming from children playing by the water’s edge.
It was a day just like many others I had spent here when I was younger, and yet another reminder of what I loved about the place.
True to his word, Luke made a point of ordering the lobster, although the other guys took it easy on me. We all made sure that we got a taste of Luke’s treat, however, so by the end of the meal he didn’t fare quite as well as he had hoped.
Yet, despite this companionship and joviality, I couldn’t help but feel that there was something, or should that be someone, missing from the day, and that left me feeling somewhat restless.
When I had finished my meal I got to my feet and walked over to the counter, with Luke’s eyes following me all the way. I settled the tab, making sure that I added another round of drinks for the boys and a tip for the staff, then returned to the table.
Leaning in close to Luke I whispered, ‘Would you mind if I borrowed your car?’
He looked at me with a confused expression for a moment, then his face broke out into a smile and he reached into his pocket.
Placing the keys on the table in front of me he said, ‘Go for it, mate. Good luck.’
‘Thanks,’ I said, then picked up the keys and stood up.
‘I’ll see you guys later,’ I said to them.
‘Thanks for lunch. We’ll see you at home in a while,’ Guy said, while giving me a wink.
‘Take your time,’ I answered, then headed for the car park.
* * *
For the entire trip out to the house, as short as it was, my heart was racing and my palms were sweating.
I couldn’t remember having ever been in such a state before.
Luke’s car quickly ate up the few miles and before I knew it I was slowing down and turning into the driveway at the house, where I soon found a small tray-back four-wheel drive with a trailer on behind it parked in front of the garage, while a tanned and quite fit looking guy loaded a lawn mower onto the trailer.
At first I don’t think he noticed who was driving Luke’s car when I pulled it to a stop beside his vehicle. When I stepped out of the car and stood up, however, while pulling my sunglasses from my head and looking straight at him, he stopped what he was doing in mid-stride and just stared straight at me for a moment, before finally finishing what he was doing.
‘Hello, Aaron,’ I said to him.
Without saying a word he closed the back gate on the trailer and then just stood there staring at me once more, a frown etched into his forehead and lips drawn together in a tight line.
‘It’s been a while,’ I said, while taking a couple of steps toward him and offering my hand.
‘Yeah. I guess it has,’ he offered, while ignoring my outstretched palm.