Spending an afternoon by the lake was yet another thing that I had always treasured while I had been living in Thompsonville. When we were younger, and more carefree, without any commitments at all, Aaron and I had done this often. We would watch the kids out on the water, sailing or paddling the floating trikes, or even simply throwing a line in along the shore with their grandfathers, perhaps trying to catch something for dinner, or perhaps just sharing some quality time together.
Doing that same thing again now brought back more memories of good times we had once shared, but also brought with them a yearning for more memories to be added to the collection.
When we had finished our sumptuous feast and disposed of the rubbish, then packed everything back into the hamper and returned it to the truck, we decided to take a stroll along the water’s edge. We had no trouble with walking hand in hand once more, even though there were a few odd glances cast in our direction. But even so, for every odd look we received there were more nods and smiles than I could have ever imagined that a couple of guys like us could receive.
Several times we were even stopped by seemingly friendly locals, which I figured was most likely because they had recognised Aaron, and in turn had then recalled who I was. It seems that Aaron’s story was well known around town, which also meant that as folks recalled who I was I received a few looks and remarks that, while probably well intentioned, were carrying barbs that were pointed enough to sting; or perhaps would do if aimed at someone with skin that wasn’t quite as thick as mine.
On a couple of occasions, however, I was even asked for autographs, so at least it didn’t look as if the whole town would be joining the lynch mob for the way I had treated Aaron in the past.
‘Doesn’t it bother you,’ I asked him at one point, ‘that everyone around here knows your business?’
‘Not really,’ he replied, after taking a moment to think about it. ‘It is a small town, after all, so there’s not much of anything that happens that everyone else doesn’t know about.’
We strolled on for a few yards more then he added, ‘I did think about moving into Mac Harbour at one stage, but what was the point? I wouldn’t have known anyone there, as all my friends were still here, so what would I do in a place like that?’
‘That’s a point, I suppose.’
‘Anyhow, I actually think that staying here and having people know everything has, in a strange way, even kind of helped me.’
‘It has? How?’
‘I think all these frustrated housewives took pity on me and wanted to help me out,’ he replied, while flashing me a wide grin. ‘When you hear those desperate housewife stories about them wanting to bed their gardeners, you can take it from me that they are all true, even when the gardener is gay!’
‘I’m serious! But once they all knew they wouldn’t get none of that action here, they backed off. Still, it didn’t stop them from sitting on their front verandahs, sipping on wine and enjoying checking out the sexy lawn mower man wearing only his King Gee shorts.’
‘You are such a slut!’ I teased him.
‘And loving it!’ he replied.
I could only laugh, before then asking, ‘And what about desperate househusbands? Did you get many of those?’
‘A couple,’ he sheepishly replied. ‘But I always managed to fob them off by making something up and telling them I was seeing someone. I told them they could look, but not touch. They got the message pretty quickly, but then …’
He stopped, so I stopped as well.
‘But then, what?’ I asked.
‘But then I would go home and I would start thinking about you again…’
‘Oh god, Aaron.’
‘I don’t know how many nights I cried myself to sleep, wondering if I would ever see you again …’
‘I’m here now, babe,’ I said to him, then pulled him to me and hugged him tight, as I felt his body shake with a few muffled sobs.
I truly felt terrible that I had caused him such pain, but even so, we both knew that there was more to his story than just what had happened between us. There was also a family out there who had virtually thrown away their first born child, even if he was twenty years old at the time, and that was something I could never forgive.
‘I’m sorry,’ he said. ‘I wanted this to be perfect for you, and now I’m ruining it. I’m still feeling like I’m so fucked up, like I’m …’
‘No you’re not,’ I snapped, as we stood on the shore of the lake and I cradled his face in my hands. ‘You’re not ruining anything and you’re not fucked up.’
He didn’t say a word, instead he just stared back at me with wide, tear-filled eyes.
‘If the truth must be known, I think that considering what you’ve gone through, you’ve come out the other side in remarkable shape. You don’t have a chip on your shoulder about the world conspiring against you. You’re not depending on others, or the government, for your survival. You’re running your own little business and you’re getting by. You may not be rich, or drive a fancy car, but you’re actually doing better than most, and no one can take that away from you! I’m so fucking proud of the person you’ve become that I want to shout it out to the world!’
‘You … you d-don’t have to do that.’
‘I won’t. But I should. When I see this world so full of no-hopers, drugo’s and dole bludgers, who think the world owes them a living, then I look at you, I can’t help but be so proud of you and want to be with you. You’re a good person Aaron Nathaniel Wagner and you deserve so much more than the crap hand that life has dealt you. And I intend to do whatever I can to help turn that around for you … if you’ll let me!’
Aaron buried his head in my chest and we hugged each other even tighter, oblivious to anything that might be going on around us as we stood there with gentle waves lapping at the shore just feet from where we were standing. It wasn’t until we heard someone walk up to us and asked if we were all right that we finally separated, with Aaron wiping his hands across his eyes and brushing away the tears.
‘We’re fine, thank you,’ I said to the grey haired man. ‘In fact, I don’t think things have ever been better,’ I added.
The man frowned slightly, then said, ‘I’m sorry for disturbing you. You just looked as if you had the weight of the world on your shoulders.’
‘Yes, it probably has been, but I suspect that things have just turned themselves around now. Thank you for asking, though. It was very kind of you,’ I said to him.
‘You’re more than welcome. I’m glad things are working out,’ he said, before then wandering off along the foreshore on his own.
I watched him as he walked away, wondering to myself whether or not, when I got to that age, I would still have enough compassion left in me to ask if someone was okay when I saw them in need or distress. I could only hope that by then the world won’t have turned me into a total cynic, or cranky old fool, but the way things were going these days I was beginning to wonder just what might be in store for us all.
‘Come on,’ I said to Aaron, let’s finish that walk we started.
‘I’m sorry for acting like such a fool,’ he whispered.
‘Sorry? Sweet Jesus, mate, you’ve got nothing to be sorry for. Now, let’s forget about all that, eh? Right now I want to talk about the future, not what’s happened in the past.’
‘Yeah, like tomorrow, and the next day for starters,’ I replied.
‘Well, I need to work tomorrow,’ he said, as we started off along the shore once again, heading in the direction of the boardwalk. ‘I put off the jobs I was supposed to do today so I could spend it with you.’
‘Okay, then. And I really need to do some work as well … I have to get something finished for my agent, so tomorrow we’ll both be working. Then on Wednesday I have to go into Mac Harbour for the writers group meet and greet, which will be for most of the day I think. What about tonight? Do you feel like Chinese? Just you and me.’
‘I’d love to.’
* * *
We eventually made our way around the entire shopping centre of Thompsonville, which was only about two blocks long and the same distance wide, passing the boardwalk, strolling along the creek that led from the lake out to the ocean, and then turning up the main street and wandering back toward the point where we would need to turn and head to where Aaron’s truck was parked.
It was a leisurely stroll, and as it was getting on in the afternoon there weren’t too many people about, but that didn’t stop those who knew us, or those who recognised me, from stopping and chatting. Personally, I didn’t think my face was that well known, as in most places I could get around undetected, but here, in the town I had almost made famous, it seemed like things were quite different.
‘Does this happen to you often?’ Aaron asked me as we started walking again.
‘Not usually, no,’ I replied. ‘Maybe it’s something to do with where we are?’
A frown creased his forehead for a moment, before it eventually dawned on him.
‘You mean, just because we’re in T’ville?’
‘Yeah. I think so. People are just more familiar with me here because of the books and they probably even expect to run into me when they visit.’
‘But you don’t even live here?’
‘A lot of them probably think I still do.’
‘They’re crazy. They need to get a life!’
‘We all have things that we hang on to, mate. It’s like those people who stalk movie stars, who think they are their number one fans and no one else is allowed to even like them. The world is full of nutters. I’m afraid it’s an occupational hazard for people like me.’
‘You don’t have any stalkers do you? I’m not in any danger for just being seen with you, am I?’ he said, while nervously looking around.
For a moment there I thought he was deadly serious, but when he looked back at me and was smiling I knew he was taking the mickey.
‘Just for the record,’ he said, with all seriousness, as he placed a hand on my chest, then took hold of my shirt and pulled me toward him slightly. ‘I’M your number one fan, so anyone who tries to come between you and me had better watch themselves.’
He winked at me and then, right in front of the Main Beach Bakery, placed his other hand around my neck and pulled me to him, kissing me on my lips, in plain sight of anyone and everyone who may have been on the street.
‘Hey, you, Aaron! Get a room, why don’t ya!’ came a gruff voice from the bakery doorway.
We broke apart and turned to see a big man standing there leaning on a broom. He was wearing black and white checked pants, a white t-shirt and a rather grubby looking apron, no doubt the end result of a long day cooking and serving in the bakery.
‘Fuck off, Bruno!’ Aaron replied.
‘You bloody cheeky little poofter,’ the man replied, while taking a half-hearted swing at Aaron with his broom, which was easily evaded. ‘Who’s the toy-boy then, eh?’
‘Bruno, this is Tony. Tony, Bruno,’ Aaron said, introducing us. ‘Bruno here, he makes the best meat pies on the east coast. They’ve even won prizes and all. And his Vanilla Slices are pretty okay too.’
‘Tony?’ Bruno said as we shook hands. ‘Hmmm … you’re that writer bloke?’
‘That’s him,’ Aaron answered. ‘You want him to autograph that big ‘ol hairy backside of yours?’
‘You want me to shove this broom handle where it won’t ever see no sunshine no more?’
‘Jesus, are you two like this all the time?’ I chuckled.
‘Usually just Tuesdays and Thursdays,’ Bruno laughed. ‘On the other days he torments poor Mrs Hamilton.’
‘Ahhh … right. Well, today is Monday and he’s already been there today.’
‘See, what did I tell ya! So, what brings you back to town, Tony? It seems you have quite a reputation around here.’
‘Yeah, so I hear. I had no idea about that until I got here on Friday. It’s been five years since I was last here. As for what I’m doing, I actually came back to do a workshop for the writers centre in Mac Harbour on Wednesday, plus catch up with all my friends of course. I think I might have got more than I bargained for after running into this punk though,’ I said, as I ruffled Aarons already untidy hair just a little bit more.
‘Ha. Yeah, he kind of has that effect on folks sometimes.’
‘Hello! I’m right here and listening, people!’
‘It’s okay babe, I promise to only say good things about you,’ I said.
‘You might have promised him that,’ Bruno bellowed. ‘But I ain’t gonna sugar coat anything!’
Aaron looked up at me and his expression clearly said it was time to go. I wasn’t sure if it was because he didn’t want Bruno saying anything he didn’t want me to hear, or if it was just that Bruno was getting a bit loud and he didn’t want a scene. I had one arm draped across his shoulder and I gave him a gentle squeeze, just to let him know I got the message.
‘Well Bruno, we might have to compare our notes about young Aaron here some other time,’ I said. ‘I’m sure that you’ll have plenty of stories you can tell me later when he’s not around.’
For that I received an elbow in the ribs, which I will concede wasn’t entirely unwarranted.
‘Come and buy your lunch here one day. Oh boy, the stories I could tell you …’
‘It’s deal,’ I replied as I shook his hand once more, while Aaron tried to drag me away.
‘See ya, Bruno,’ Aaron said.
‘See ya, kid,’ Bruno laughed, knowing full well that he had Aaron worried now.
We walked a little further down the road, past various shops and offices, before stopping in front of a real estate agent, which boasted photographs of the many properties that were for sale around the area. I couldn’t ever remember it being there when I had lived here, so I figured it must have been one of those businesses that started up when the place had started to boom.
‘So, what’s with you and Bruno?’ I casually asked as we looked at the photo’s on display in the window, noticing a few places that I reckoned I could handle living in if I came back here.
From the corner of my eye I saw Aaron looked at me sharply, but I pretended to ignore it. Eventually he said, ‘Oh, he’s like that all the time. He’s a great guy, I often get his left-over pies and stuff for nothing and stick them in the freezer, but he does get a bit loud sometimes, in case you hadn’t noticed.’
‘Ummm … yeah,’ I chuckled.
‘You’re probably wondering what I’m worried he might tell you about me.’
I simply shrugged and said, ‘Mate, it’s your business, not mine. So what if he knows stuff about you … everyone else around here seems to as well. You’ve said that yourself.’
‘Yeah, that’s true. But not everyone else has caught me sucking off their son!’
‘Oh, relax, it was before I even met you. I went to school with his boy, Ricky. It was about the time when I started to … errr …’
‘Experiment?’ I prompted.
‘Yeah, something like that.’
‘Fucking nothing, that’s just it. But he never lets me forget it! We got caught in Ricky’s bedroom almost as soon as we’d dropped our trousers, so that was the end of that, and that was also the end of my friendship with the delicious Ricky. After that we hardly ever even spoke.’
‘Oh man, that’s a bummer.’
‘Well, not really. You came along not long afterwards. But that hasn’t stopped Bruno from putting shit on me from that day to this, even if he is good natured about it.’
‘And what happened to Ricky?’
‘Last I heard he was smoking dope and living in Queensland somewhere.’
‘Ahhh well, you win some, you lose some.’
‘So they keep telling me.’
‘But Bruno seems to like you though. He must look after you a bit if he gives you stuff from the bakery?’
‘Yeah. He’s actually a good guy, even if some days he goes just a bit over the top.’
‘Oh, fuck no! Today was a quiet day!’ Aaron laughed, as we started walking again. I made a mental note to come back and check out the real estate agent again before I left town and went back to the city, which I would undoubtedly have to do, even if to just tidy things up before I leave there for good.
We came to the end of the block and stood on the corner looking around us.
‘So, what do you think about the town these days? It’s a bit different to when you first came here.’
‘That’s for sure. It kind of reminds me of Nimbin now, except maybe it’s a bit more civilised.’
‘Really? I’ve never been there.’
‘It’s certainly different. Will you let me take you there one day? You’ll love the place.’
‘I think I’d like that.’
‘There’s lots of place I would love to take you to, if you’d let me.’
‘Let’s just start with Nimbin first, eh?’
‘Okay,’ I replied. ‘Then tomorrow, the world!’
We crossed the road and walked to the end of the next block, passing the old pub on one side of the road and the sports club on the other side. When we stopped Aaron pointed toward a building that was familiar to me.
‘Well, at least it still looks the same,’ I said. It was the auto store where Matt worked.
‘Let’s go say g’day to him.’