Short Story

Play Along

Oli parked his van nose first in front of the 7-Eleven and beside a white ute, a shiny Toyota Hilux. The ute was pulled up tail first and 7-Eleven was on the east side of the carpark and the entrance west. So the tray was hidden behind the car body when he drove in. He only saw the three men in the back of the ute after he cut the engine and craned to the left. They looked right at him.

They were a sorry sight, all unkept, wearing baggy tracksuit pants. They sat on upturned crates, drinking cans of VB. One with an orange beanie threw an empty can into the carpark. Oli thought about reversing back out, but he didn’t want to be paranoid either. Outside he nodded to the men. The air was bitter cold and neighbouring shops on the strip were bolted closed.

‘Want to buy us some cigs while you’re in there, mate,’ the one with the beanie said.

He looked homeless but he spoke like he was entitled. The man’s facial hair was scraggly, hair long and matted, and eyes bloodshot. No doubt he was a fisherman. Many lived in the harbour town. They journeyed to sea for two months and returned salt-encrusted and bloody with half a year’s salary, which explained why he seemed both displaced and well-heeled. The drunk fisherman’s two friends were of the same ilk, but they were younger and thinner, lacking the same nerve. One had a rat’s tail and the other a mullet, two haircuts fashionable in an ironic way, but Oli could tell the irony escaped them.

Oli’s head hung low as he locked the van.

‘Oi,’ the drunk fisherman said and chucked a can.

The can hit Oli’s shoulder with blunt force, sending liquid flying. Foamed beer dripped down his face and clothes, smelling badly of yeast. The friends laughed, a low-pitched guffaw. Oli wiped his face, bent down, picked up the can. Still a quarter full, he sat the can on the tray’s edge as a white flag, a peace sign, no matter the provocation.

But the drunk fisherman threw the can at him again. ‘You deaf? Said more smokes.’

The friends laughed again. He walked to the 7-Eleven.

Doors pinged open. He looked around room, past the rows of sweets and slushy machine. On the other side was a door streaked with handprints and a small placard that said toilets. He beelined toward it and pushed it open. In the bathroom, he unfastened his pants in the cubicle and plonked himself on the seat, relieved. The cheap curry from an asian restaurant with dead ducks hanging on display had turned his stomach, and the public toilets at the beachside car park where he planned to sleep in his van were locked. At the sink, he splashed water on his face and headed back to the LED-lit shop. He grabbed a Coke, holding the cold bottle to his hot forehead, as well as a bag of chips on the way to the counter.

‘You alright?’ said the cashier behind a plastic screen. He was a scrawny man with short hair and a thin moustache. His eyes were bloodshot, like the mens’ outside.

‘Felt better. You?’

‘They’ve been out there for hours.’ He tilted his head to the right, in the direction of the men.

‘Tried to come in a couple of times. Banged on the glass for a while. No way I’m letting them in.’

He pointed to a green button that opened the doors.

‘I’m sort of glad you came. They’re making me a bit nervous,’ the cashier went on.

‘They hang around here much?’

‘They’re just here for smokes. They hang out down there.’ The cashier pointed west. ‘At the beach carpark. All day in that Hilux, drinking and smoking and cat calling those girls along the promenade.’

‘They cause havoc there too.’

The cashier nodded. ‘Beat up a man just last week. Broad daylight.’

‘Serious?’

‘Yep. The man was surfing. He dropped in on one of their mates apparently. He wore a loud wetsuit. Had a nice haircut. Spoke in that camp way. Obviously not from around here. They gave him a couple of good knocks and let down the tires on his Volkswagen. Poor bloke.’

‘He report it?’

‘Don’t think so.’

‘Anyone call the cops?’

The man shrugged. ‘They’re locals. I guess people know about localism here and don’t provoke them and if they don’t know they find out pretty quick.’

‘Sounds awful.’

As if on cue, a loud bang stopped their conversation. The cashier jolted. There was another knock as the fisherman thumped his fist on the window.

‘Give me those smokes,’he said.

The friends laughed again. They were the fisherman’s little entourage. They didn’t actually find the man funny. How could they? The man had the humour of a neanderthal. The laughter was a pack animal thing. Leader tells a joke. You hoot like he’s the funniest man in the world.

‘I better buy him some smokes so they leave you alone,’ Oli said and walked to the window so now his face was close to the glass, around half a meter from the fisherman’s.

‘Can you hear me?’

The fisherman nodded.

‘You got cash?’

The man reached into his pocket and pulled a 50 dollar note out.

‘What brand? I’ll bring them out.’

‘Winnie Blues,’ he called.

The cashier got the packet of 25s from a draw on the back wall and slid them over the counter and said, ‘I wouldn’t count on him giving us the money.’

‘I’m not.’

‘You don’t seem worried. You in law enforcement or something?’

‘Not quite.’

‘As in, not quite worried? Or not quite in law enforcement?’

‘Both, I guess.’

‘You don’t look like you’d be into that sort of thing?’

Oli was above average height and lean and tanned. He had overgrown stubble and a thick moustache and wavy hair down to his shoulders, streaked blonde with the sun. And he wore an op-shop shirt with psychedelic patterns. So no, he didn’t look like he was into that sort of thing, but he was, or had been, in a strange capacity.

‘Thank you,’ he said and got out his phone and dialled triple 0.

A lady answered. He told her about the men.

‘What have they done?’ she said.

‘Nothing yet.’

‘There’s a car ten kilometers away. They’re busy, but I’ll get them to circle around when they’re done. Call us again if they do something.’

‘Who was that?’ the cashier said.

‘Cops.’

‘What did they say?’

‘They might pass through here eventually.’

‘So what should I do?’

‘We’re going to give him what he wants and hope they leave.’

Oli gave the cashier forty bucks for the cigarettes, Coke, and crisps.

He waved his hand and said, ‘It’s on 7-Eleven.’

Oli put the packet into his shirt’s top pocket and turned to the fisherman. He, the fisherman, was back in the tray, opening another tin, but he was still watching.

His stomach cramped again. Oli lifted his index finger, gesturing to the fisherman that he’d be a minute, and went into the bathroom again. Back in the shop, he stood at the entrance, waiting for the automatic doors to open. But they didn’t.

‘You have to press that button,’ the cashier said.‘They disable the automatic function at night time. Exhibit A.’ He nodded at the tray. Which caught Oli’s attention.

The friends were no longer in the tray, just the fisherman, and as Oli moved his hand to the green exit button on the wall to his left, he saw something flitter in his periphery.

The buildings on this high street were colonial architecture and the shops were set back, about two meters from the street, so if you were either left or right of 7-Eleven’s entrance on the footpath, you were hidden. But in the fisherman’s friend’s case, one of the guy’s blue sneakers came into Oli’s view and then retracted again.

‘What’s the matter?’ the cashier said.

‘The guys are going to jump me.’

‘How do you know?’

He told the cashier.

‘I’ll call the cops.’

The fisherman stood up on the tray and shouted, ‘What are you waiting for? Give me my cigs, you pussy.’

Charming.

‘I can see your little friend there. I’ll come out when you’re all on the tray, in sight.’

‘Just come out, you pussy,’ one of the friends said. It was the first time one of them had spoken. He had a high-pitched voice.

‘What did the cops say?’ Oli said to the cashier.

‘Said not to go outside. Said they’re busy, but they will circle around.’

Oli walked back into the bathroom. In front of the mirror, he emptied his pockets, piling the contents on the table, next to the sink. Wallet, keys, old phone, a receipt from a petrol station an hour south, and a little bag of weed. He considered the contents. It was 11:05 pm. His alarm was set to go off in five hours and he had a long day of driving ahead of him if he was to reach Exmouth like he planned, a 12-hour voyage. He began to get impatient.

He picked up the grass. It was a type of Indica strain called Grandaddy Purple, very high in THC with low psychedelic properties, used by insomniacs. Oli slept well enough, but he had nightmares, inspired by a time in his life he’d rather forget. This strain was developed to help you skip the REM stage, when you dream, and go straight into the deep sleep. A very small amount can knock out a big man for eight hours.

Clearly the fisherman and the friends were after more than cigarettes. They were vacuous country folk who had reign over the joint. Oli had come across localism like this in other surf towns. You could count on the unsuspecting camp man in the surf last week not being the only victim of the men’s entitlement. Now they were drunk and bored and wanted entertainment, the type that drew blood. The police would eventually get here, but who knew when, and the poor cashier was on his own.

Oli opened the cigarette packet and pulled one out. Then he emptied an eighth of tobacco, funnelled the Grandaddy Purple into the paper, and packed the withdrawn tobacco back in. He repeated this with three more cigarettes until the bag was a quarter empty and exited the bathroom.

‘You alright?’ the cashier said.

‘Better now.’

Outside the fisherman and one of the friends, the mullet guy, were in the tray and shouted nonsensical expletives at Oli. The other one, the rat’s tail guy, was nowhere in sight.

At the door, Oli saw him. The rat’s tail guy’s stupid sneakers was sticking out again from around the corner on the left. Moreover, the fisherman kept looking at his friend, blowing his cover. Oli reasoned they’d planned to deck him to avoid paying for the cigarettes. Rat’s tail would knock Oli over with a singular blow, with his fist or maybe he had an object, and give him another kick on the ground for good measure. Propped with testosterone and new-found power, he’d ask Oli for the cigarettes and Oli, dazed and bruised, would conscientiously hand them over, pleading for no more. Oli was sure that’s how they imagined the next minute would go. They were intimidating, though comically dumb.

He pressed the button and said to the cashier, ‘Play along.’

The doors parted and Oli took three steps. Rat’s tail’s shoes shuffled back, readying himself. With his right foot, Oli stepped forward onto the street, but he kept his weight on his left, so before his right foot touched the ground and all his body weight went forward into the line of the oncoming blow, he could retract the foot back, which he did. Rat’s Tail drew a large metal object down, but Oli had pulled back enough out of the line of impact, and he saw the object whoosh past the front of his face. Unable to stop the momentum, Rat’s Tail swung the object to the ground and, not expecting a miss, was thrown off balance and stumbled forward, so now he was directly in front of Oli who gave him a right cross punch into the side of his head, which was enough to bowl him over.

The fisherman and Mullet jumped onto the ground to rescue their friend.

Oli held up both hands and shouted, ‘Woah, woah, woah.’

They stopped.

‘No need for this to escalate,’ Oli went on. ‘He went at me first. It was fair game. I just came out to give you your cigarettes, free of charge, providing I could have one with you.’

The men were confused and stayed put.

‘What? You think I paid for these.’ He held up the cigarettes. ‘No way I’m giving money to that asian in there.’

The fisherman looked at the cashier who was looking back. Then he, the fisherman, dropped his shoulders, revoking his fighter’s posture.

‘Ha! Bloody oath, mate. We weren’t going to pay him either. The Chinese taken over enough.’

The cashier certainly wasn’t Chinese. Likely third-generation Australian with roots from some south-eastern country. He had an occa accent and a blend of anglo-saxon features.

Oli thumbed behind him, toward 7-Eleven. ‘Probably gay too.’

Everyone laughed, except for Rat’s Tail who was holding his head, all dazed like he was still trying to figure out why he was on the cement pathway.

‘That’s what I said!’ the fisherman said. ‘Bloody poofter.’

Oli tapped the packet, so the three cigarettes laced with weed jutted out.

‘You smoke weed?’

‘Bloody oath,’ the fisherman said.

He pulled out the weed bag from his back pocket and pinched a bit of green.

‘Maybe just a little bit, aye,’ the fisherman said. ‘Pretty cut already.’

He sprinkled some on the ends of the cigarette and offered them to the men.

‘A little bit to get you through the night.’

‘Hey, you’re alright, aye,’ the fisherman said, taking the bait.

Mullet took one too, though he was more suspicious.

He offered the last laced fag to Rat’s tail on the floor. He refused, still rubbing his head.

‘Go on, there’s only a small amount,’ Oli said. ‘Might help with the sore head.’

‘Macka, take the cigarette for fucksakes,’ the fisherman said. ‘It’s only why we’ve been hanging outside this shithole for four hours.’

‘I don’t feel like one,’ said the guy with the rat’s tail named Macka. He was sheepish now and looked like he was holding back tears.

‘Don’t be a pussy, Macka,’ Mullet said.

Macka tentatively accepted the cigarette.

Oli pulled one out, lit it up, threw the lighter to the others.

‘So where you from?’ the fisherman said, dragging on the cigarette.

‘Originally? Born in France, first few years in California, the rest of my life here, in WA.’

‘California, aye? Heaps of college chicks, aye,’ the fisherman said.

Oli changed the subject. ‘Show me your Hilux, boys. Been thinking of getting one myself.’

‘Oh, mate, she’s a beauty. Get you anyway this thing.’ The fisherman walked over and glided his hand over the tray.’Got this one because of the bigger tray.’

‘Yeah?’ Oli glided his hand over the aluminium too before jumping up into the tray.

The men followed suit, except once again for Macka who took two drags on the cigarette and was now in a deep slumber on the concrete pathway, all curled up like a little boy.

The tray had three milk crates. They all sat on one and looked up at the stars.

‘Sorry about the can before, aye,’ the fisherman said.

‘No biggy,’ Oli said.

‘Bloody, hell, this hooch really make your head spin, aye.’

‘I reckon, aye,’ Mullet said. ‘I’m fucked.’

‘Not for me,’Oli said.

The two men finished the cigarette. The fisherman swayed, not being able to stay up, and Mullet was blinking, trying to stay awake. Oli relaxed into the silence. Another five minutes and the men simultaneously hopped off the crates. They leant against the edge of the tray, before nodding off to sleep. Both snored loudly.

Oli shuffled them further down, so they were lying on the tray next to each other. From his van, Oli got scissors from his First Aid Kit and, back in the tray, knelt down next to the fisherman and began cutting his brown Billabong t-shirt. He cut down the middle and each arm sleeve, allowing Oli to fold back the material and exposing the man’s upper torso. He did the same to Mullet. Then he returned to the fisherman and cut down each tracksuit pant leg, as well as his undies. Oli folded these cloth materials too, so now the fisherman was stark naked under the moonlight. He repeated this procedure on Mullet, and shuffled them closer together, making the fisherman the big spoon. He pulled their clothes from under them. Without this evidence, it looked like they simply were having a nice little naked cuddle. With his phone Oli took a picture of the rendezvous and walked back into the 7-Eleven, stepping over Macka as he did. He could stay clothed, poor dude.

Inside, the cashier said, ‘What. The. Hell.’

‘Trust me.’

‘What do I say when the cops come?’

‘Just say they walked down the street, came back naked, and went to sleep in the tray? Unless you have cameras that caught that whole thing.’ Oli failed to think about that.

‘We’ve only got views of the street.’

‘You have footage of that guy banging the glass.’

‘Yeah.’

‘Got access to it?’

‘Yeah?’

‘And a printer?’

‘Everythings out the back here.’

‘Show me.’

Oli disappeared into the backroom and, twenty minutes later, came out with a big pile of paper. At the counter, he got his Coke and chips and said to the cashier, ‘What’s your name, by the way?’’

‘John.’

‘Oli. Good to meet you. Don’t think these guys are going to hang around here anymore.’

John watched this strange traveller walk out, get into his van and exit the car park, exactly two hours after getting here. Three hours later, the police came and John explained the curious situation, just as Oli advised. The two officers acted suspicious, understandably so. ‘They were very drunk,’ John qualified. The officers then had the awkward job of waking the men and John enjoyed watching the spectacle of two burly blokes finding themselves in a tight, naked embrace. The fisherman exploded into a fury, making bizarre accusations of why he was found like that. ‘You cops drugged us and bound us, you fucking pervets,’ he shouted, driving off with a towel around him. The officers turned to the other guys and, with a deflated tone, said they would give Macka and Mullet a ride home. An hour after that, John finished his shift, tagging with the next shift worker.

When he woke late in the morning, he walked into town for a coffee and as he reached the town’s main high street he passed an A4 sheet of paper taped to a street pole. In the photo was a man with his fist on the glass of the local 7-Eleven and, next to that image, was another one of what looked like the same man hugging another guy, stark naked. Above the words were, Local fisherman tried to break into local 7-Eleven and escaped after being found an hour later having a nice cuddle with his friend in the back of a ute. If you know this man, call Crime Stoppers. $5000 reward. John laughed. Upon realising where he was, though, he quickly suppressed the laughter into a small snigger and tensely looked around his shoulder. No one saw, and he relaxed again. As he got closer to the cafe, he realised others on the high street were reading other street poles. However they weren’t repressing their laughs, so he allowed himself to join them and he walked with his naturally straighter posture, shoulders back, and ever so slightly gaudy movements of the hips.

. . .

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Fiction, humor, essays, doodles. Author (Life’s a Batch), copywriter (Brew Copy), journalist (WA Today, SMH). Perth, Australia.

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Jayden O'Neil

Jayden O'Neil

304 Followers

Fiction, humor, essays, doodles. Author (Life’s a Batch), copywriter (Brew Copy), journalist (WA Today, SMH). Perth, Australia.