The legacy of life lived, forever, in a small town…
I was filling up the truck when I saw Billy. It was late in the afternoon. Three days before Christmas.
Back in my old home town, stopping in for the night on the twelve-hour drive up to the in-laws. The wife and kids were flying up to meet me the next day. Somebody had to ferry the presents.
I didn’t mind.
There was the solitude of the drive, plus I’d snuck a board in. Hopefully I could squeeze some juice from the tropical low spinning down the coast
First I needed petrol. I hadn’t even made it to my parent’s place yet. I was due there for dinner by seven. But this was the only service station in town and I knew it wouldn’t open until six the next morning, even during the peak holiday period. I’d be long gone by then.
Billy saw me first, actually. Snuck up behind me and wrapped his filthy big paws around my eyes as I was at the bowser. The smell of petrol and nicotine mainlined right up my nose.
“G’day, you supercilious little turd!”
For a small-town bogan, Billy always had a way with words. Especially when it came to insults. I could pick the nasal twang in his voice instantly.
It would have been ten years since we’d caught up. At least.
Last I’d heard he was working at the wastewater treatment facility on the outskirts of our little geographical shitstain of a town, one of the only big employers around here outside the fishing boats. The few random times I did stop in to visit the parents he was always at work. On nightshift.
But here he was now, in oil-stained hi-vis and wraparound Oakley sunglasses, fresh from servicing some poor bastard’s car.
I pulled away from his grip. Looked him up and down. He was weathered. Wrinkles showing under the wrap arounds. Lips even skinnier. Still the same dirty brown dreads he had when I’d seen him last.
“Billy, how are you, mate? I thought you were still working over at the shit tanks?”
“Nah they booted me, hey. Didn’t like me being stoned on the tools it seems. These cunts don’t mind, though.”
He let out his high, twanged laugh, and ran a dirty hand over my late model Ranger.
“Fuck, not doing bad for yourself ay?”
He was my best mate from ages seven to seventeen. We’d done everything together, until I punched outta the town’s orbit. Got the degree. Job. Wife. Kids. Townhouse in the city, with no backyard and a lifetime’s mortgage.
Billy, well he just stayed being Billy. Forever locked in synchronicity with the place he was born.
“Yeah nah, we’re doing good,” I said, my old country drawl quickly shifting into gear to match his. If the boss ever heard me talking like this she wouldn’t recognise me. Probably fire me, too. “Got the wife and two kids now. About to pull up ten years at the consultancy.”
“You poor cunt.” He hacked up a giant ball of phlegm and loosed it at my feet. “Oi, what are you doing now. Wanna come surf?”
I checked my watch. It was almost five.
“Ah, I really can’t, I’m only in town for the night and need to see the olds.”
“Just call a sickie! I’m knocking off now. The waves are pumping!”
He punched me in the arm, his knuckles drilling into that tender nook of muscle like a sledgehammer. Dead arm, every time.
“Yeah, fuck it. Let’s go for a quick one.”
There was a decent-sized crowd out on the point, chasing the gentle three footers running down the protected side of the headland. Even for a town that’s resisted gentrification, one of the last remaining outposts on the east coast, holiday season could still get busy. Locals mixed in with day trippers from the city, van life girls on their mid-lengths, parents and their young kids enjoying the first slice of holiday.
We made our way around to the back of the headland, and came out through the secret keyhole to put us at the very top of the point.
I lucked into a set right after the jump-off. Billy took the one behind me. I watched him race down the line as I kicked out.
His board was about six inches and god knows how many litres too small, but he still surfed fast. Aggressive. As the wave shut down he unleashed one particularly lethal gouge, showering a nearby grommet with spray.
Billy jumped over the back of the wave. Zeroed in on the young kid. He couldn’t have been more than nine.
“Oi, you little cunt!”
The kid looked around, unsure if Billy was talking to him.
“Yeah you. You were way too close to me just now. You need to learn to get the fuck out of the way.”
“I’m sorry, I-”
“Yeah you wont be sorry next time, you little fuck. You’ll be dead.”
The kid froze. An older guy, his dad I guess, paddled over.
“We got a problem here?”
Billy sized him up. The dad, riding a new looking FireWire and in a top of the range Patagonia vest, must have thirty or forty pounds on him.
But Billy was undeterred.
“I don’t know, you pencil-necked cock muncher, you bourgeoise fucking learner cunt. Do we?”
Fucken Billy and his temper. Everybody in town knew about it. I still had the scars on my knuckles to show for it. But he was tolerated by the locals, for some reason. Like the shit tanks and their foul smells. He was part of the overall package.
I jumped in before things got too ugly.
“Billy, c’mon mate, let’s head in. I can probably still sneak in a schooner before I make it to mum and dads.”
Billy took one more look at the kid, mouthed ‘I’ll remember you’ and followed me in.
Like the point, the pub was also heaving under a holiday crowd. The kitchen was run off its feet, the same as every holiday. But just like the petrol station and its opening hours, they refused to change or adapt to accommodate it. I always found that lack of planning infuriating. One of the 4,337 reasons I left the joint.
Still, I spotted a lot of familiar faces in the crowd. It was good to be home.
Billy came in behind me. As he headed towards the bar, the publican., a bald, barrel-chested ex footy player who seemingly hadn’t aged a day since I last saw him, put his arm out in front of Billy.
“I hope you’re behaving yourself tonight,” he said in his deep, booming voice.
“I’ll try,” replied Billy. “I’ll try.”
We found a table in the crowd and posted up. Caught up on old stories. The trips up the coast to chase secret reefs. The trips down to the city to chase loose girls. Both usually resulting in the same type of failure. His energy had been infectious back then. Like a shot of adrenalin to the heart. The perfect tonic for a young kid growing up in a small town.
“Times have changed since then but, eh mate?” I said as I finished my beer.
He looked at me like I was from another planet.
I shrugged, and motioned to the empty schooners.
“Ken oath. I’ll come over too, I gotta get some bets on.”
As we headed back to the bar, a patron bumped into Billy. Some random tourist. He looked to be there with his wife and kid. Slightly balding. Slightly overweight. Tan lines from his sunglasses on his beetroot red face. Definitely not local. Well to do. I might’ve even recognised him from my other life.
The collision, if you could call it that, was a complete accident. But it was all Billy needed to fire back up.
“What the fuck are you doing, you devon-headed jerk?” he said to the guy. “Are those eyes painted on?”
“Hey look mate I’m sorry, I didn’t mean anything by it.”
Billy slid right up next to him. The whole pub stopped and turned.
“Like hell you didn’t. I oughtta fucken whoop your arse from here to Sunday you dumb fucken-”
From behind the bar the publican’s voice boomed.
He stopped. Took a deep breath. Looked up to the ceiling.
I jumped between him and the guy. My second bomb diffused in less than an hour.
“Look Billy,” I said, “I should probably get going anyway. It’s been great seeing you mate, maybe we can catch up on the drive home.”
I started to walk towards the door. I loved Billy, but couldn’t be getting involved in this type of shit anymore. I was an adult. Married. Kids. Job. Mortgage.
“Wait,” said Billy, grabbing a hold of my shirt. “Wait. You sure you don’t want to hang around?”
He pulled out a baggy of white powder from his pocket to show me. It might have been a quarter full, at best. More stomped on than a spider in a sandpit.
“Let’s get fucked up and stick it to these blow ins,” he said. “Just like we used to.
For a second I flashed back to the two of us as seventeen year olds. Surfing. Drinking. Fighting. Running the town like two derelict princes.
Was that when we were at our peak?
I quickly ran the equations in my head to figure out how I could stick around. Have one more little taste of what things were like. But before I could respond one of the old pelicans piped up from the poker machine room.
“Oi Billy, where’s that tenner you still owe me from last weekend?
Forgetting his offer to me, Billy turned to face his next threat.
“What are you saying to me, you stupid bitch? You noodle-headed toad? You’re a fucken leather bag with tits attached you are, you silly old bat…”
I slid out the door before he could notice I was gone.