Each year the town had its own special day. On this day the main street was cordoned off from the bottom petrol station all the way to the top petrol station, and market stalls lined the streets selling Pluto Pups and other types of deep fried food, or else novelty t-shirts and cheap toys. At one end of the street near the top petrol station, a band played in the park, and there was a jumping castle too.
The day celebrated the fact of the town being a town. For one day in autumn, just before the biting morning frosts set in, people were invited to acknowledge that they lived in the town. It was an opportunity to feel warmly towards the town, and given the festivities, and the coloured lights that criss-crossed the main street at night, and the thousands of litres of beer involved, few could resist being part of the occasion.
I attended the town’s day because I was having trouble writing my book about disappearing towns. Adult couples, teenagers and troublemakers milled the streets, browsing keepsakes they could purchase at one of the dozen or so stalls set up in the area. The stalls sold shirts, stubby holders, flags, stickers, plush koala bears and car decals, all decorated with the Australian flag and the name of the town. In the park there was a special cordoned-off area where people were permitted to drink beer from tin cans. It was necessary to line up to gain entry, but since few people left the special cordoned-off drinking area once they had entered, I was not able to enter, and so not able to have a beer. Instead, I bought a can of Coke and sat on the grass as the band played a cover of ‘Electric Blue’ by Icehouse.
Jenny from the pub eventually called over to me. She was serving beers inside the cordoned-off drinking area, and motioned that she could get me inside. Soon enough the security guard manning the entry waved me over and I was welcomed in.
In the cordoned-off drinking area customers lined up, bought their beer, and then joined the end of the queue again. As she opened beer cans for townspeople, Jenny explained to me that it was her biggest business day of the year. Her pub hardly did any business anymore, aside from mine, so it was lucky that her father was friends with an organiser of the festival. The money she made on this one day was enough to sustain the pub, so I should be grateful that the festival existed, she told me, since I was the only person who ever drank in the pub.
Jenny was always making comments to me like this. But I wasn’t about to complain—I was privileged that she spoke to me at all. Especially on this day—there was no need for Jenny to speak to her customers in the cordoned-off area, as there was only one variety of beer, and it was not permitted to buy more than two beers at once, as per council regulations. Jenny automatically served two beers to each customer. If asked for only one, Jenny would insinuate that this person had consumed enough for the day, and should get some fresh air, i.e., leave the cordoned off drinking area to make room for someone eager to buy and drink two beers at once.
I watched as Jenny served the beers. At one point Rob rattled at the fence nearby and motioned me over. He wanted to get inside the drinking area. He said he’d do anything to get in, and besides, I wasn’t drinking anything so there was no reason for me to be in there.
He was right that I wasn’t drinking any beer, but I liked watching Jenny work. Also, I did not want to exploit my privilege by requesting a swap. I told Rob that he might as well drink at one of the pubs on the street, two of which had a view of the stage, but he was not satisfied with this solution. The line into the cordoned-off drinking area was blocking the view of the stage, and besides, he really wanted to drink with his friends, who were already inside. I explained that it was impossible and he marched away.
At that time of evening, as the sun was starting to go down and the band were becoming a little more upbeat, the line to the drinking area was snaking around the perimeter of the park, to the extent that the whole park was enclosed by a wall of thirsty revellers, none of whom would ever have a beer this year in the cordoned off area – they would need to wait until next year.
But on closer inspection it was obvious they were all drinking. Many, if not all, of the queuing revellers were sipping from small flasks, and hidden cans and bottles, and probably becoming more drunk than anyone in the official drinking area. I explained the situation to Jenny, who was amused.
Of course they’re getting drunk, she said. No one was going to not drink, even if it was against council regulations to drink outside of the cordoned-off area.
I wondered aloud why the people wanted so badly to enter the area, since they were able to drink outside of it anyway, albeit illegally, and Jenny made a gesture with her head which suggested I had already made her point.
You’re exactly right, she told me. To be in the official drinking area was to be officially drinking. Then she waved vaguely at the queue, and suggested it would be safer for me to stay in the cordoned-off area.
The mayor was scheduled to give his speech at 8:30pm. When the time came he ascended the steps and waved to the audience at the front of the stage, which comprised only 20 or so men, women and children. Everyone else was lining up at the perimeter of the park. He stood in front of the microphone, tapped it, and made what must have been a joke, because he laughed loudly. And then he spoke at great length.
I asked Jenny whether she enjoyed what the mayor was saying, but she was too busy serving beers. She probably couldn’t hear either; amid the noise of the cordoned-off drinking area it was impossible to make out his words. Occasionally there was a moment when his voice stopped echoing around the park, and these magisterial pauses were met with ironic hollering from the queues. From a safe distance, the people of the town were demonstrating to the mayor that they believed he wasn’t very good.
The mayor is a prick, Jenny said. I asked why she disliked the mayor, but she motioned that she’d not be drawn on any political topic during work hours. Just look at him, she muttered.
As the speech was delivered, those lining for beers inside the cordoned-off drinking area settled into a murmur. They faced towards the stage with neutral stares, letting the mayor’s platitudes wash over them like a television commercial. It annoyed them to have the mayor speak during an event designed for drinking, but they were resigned to it, and might have believed the mayor was entitled to his moment, since they had been lucky enough to gain access to the drinking area.
As he droned on, I gestured to Jenny that I might have a can of beer after all. She handed me two and I edged towards the cordon to survey the festivities. From there, it was easier to understand what the mayor was saying—his speech centred around how the town was good, how it had always been good, and that it was the hard work of its citizens that made it good. The few teetotallers sitting in the grass were packing up their picnic blankets and mustering their children, squeezing between the fences of queued drinkers on their way to parked cars. Finding nothing but the queue and the evacuated grass, I wandered back to the bar and watched Jenny dole out her beers. After another fifteen minutes there, with Jenny refusing to be drawn into any light conversation, I inspected the grass again. The mayor was still offering the same commentary as before: that the town was good, and that it was the townspeople that made it good.
Jenny glared at me when I asked if the mayor’s speech would ever end. It was an indictment on my character that I noticed its length at all. The line for cans of beer inside the cordoned-off area was longer than before, snaking around in double queues. It seemed at that moment that just about every attendee at the town’s day was lined up for something.
And then the mayor’s speech ended. A stubborn quiet lingered for a minute or so, as no one wanted to be seen to have enjoyed the mayor’s speech. A defeated animosity seemed to pervade the main area, but the official drinkers in the cordoned-off area soon caught a second wind. Many started to sing improvised songs about the town. Outside of the area, queued people dispersed and let their guard down as the band returned to the stage.
Jenny pointed as the mayor left the stage. See, she said. Now the queues will fall apart.
I could see that several men were removing their shirts despite the autumn chill. Two collaborated in the removal of a park bin from its metal frame before tossing it aside, the bin and its contents spilling across the green grass. Many other men and women started to roam around the park in search of things to destroy, while the rest stood cross-armed at the outskirts, still in rough queue formation, ready to witness the spectacle. Empty cans of soft drink were pegged, picnic mats were torn apart, celebratory banners were dismantled, tree branches were cracked from their trunks, and shirts were set alight, twirled and thrown. A monotone hymn erupted from the dispersing cordoned-off drinking area queue, resembling a more religious version of the improvised songs about the town.
It was a yearly ritual to destroy a bulk of the park’s facilities after the mayor’s speech, Jenny explained. After a full day of drinking in the sun, it was the only gesture the people could muster.
The destruction was carried out in a jovial fashion. There was no anguish in the eyes of one man who, climbing a nearby electrical pole, removed and set alight a cardboard placard celebrating the town’s day. Another woman smashed a glass bottle against a floodlight encasement, but she did so with tears of joy in her eyes, and her efforts were rewarded with encouraging hoots and hollers. No one made an effort to conceal their prohibited alcohol any longer. Instead, the people flaunted their public drinking by skolling conspicuously from two-litre bottles of bourbon and vodka. These bottles were dutifully smashed against a nearby surface once finished with.
There wasn’t actually much to destroy. According to Jenny, no one dared destroy anything which might land them in prison for a night. It was enough just to be seen to be destroying something, preferably of low value, and ideally belonging to a friend, or no one at all.
A couple of brawls had erupted in the crowd among the shirtless men. These did not appear to be good-spirited fights—the blows landed with impact and no part of the body was off-limits—but people watched with a strange, languid calm, if only out of a sense of duty.
Jenny pointed through the chaos towards a man jeering a group of wrestling boys, a tin of some or other alcohol in his fist. It was Steve Sanders.
Now would be a good opportunity to get the bashing over with, she said. It would be sensible because, according to Jenny, fights at the town’s day were more likely to be light-hearted. I might even get off with just a few hard punches to the gut. There were too many other people—and she waved at the drunks—eager to put up a solid fight. Steve Sanders would quickly get fed up with me and go for someone stronger and more combative. He might even respect me for wanting to get involved in the fights. She added that she would call an ambulance if he made a mess of me.
I could not make out his face from that distance, and his clothing or posture didn’t stand out among the other men of the town. He wore a blue shirt, presumably with a national flag on its front like so many others, and a pair of blue jeans.
I knew it was inevitable that Steve Sanders would bash me if I approached him. Though I was about to go seek out the bashing, I secretly knew that I could hide among the patrons at the Railway Hotel if I lost my nerve. As I pushed through the queue and out of the cordoned off drinking area, Rob tried to approach me. I ignored him, fixing my stare on the man Steve Sanders.
As I reached the wrestling boys a large tattooed man picked another up and dropped him on his head, prompting horrible jeers from the crowd. The band stopped, leaving a shameful silence. Those who had witnessed this act of violence levelled accusations at one another, shifting the blame, and the mirth turned ugly. Four policemen emerged from nowhere and started to corral the drinkers who were closest to the incident.
Someone always has to go too far, Rob said, suddenly by my side. He was drinking from a longneck of beer, but did not seem very drunk. He told me things went too far every year, each time in a different way. The year before someone had thrown a broken bottle at the band. Before that, someone had set a tree on fire. Ten years ago, someone had tossed a dog onto the roof of the petrol station. Rob waved towards the closest petrol station. Destruction and chaos is in their blood, he said as I took a sip from his beer. But mostly they’re a tranquil bunch.
Soon enough the park was deserted, save for those in the cordoned-off drinking area.
This piece is an excerpt from The Town, published by Brow Books. You can purchase a copy of The Town by clicking here and at all good bookstores.
Shaun Prescott is a writer based in the Blue Mountains in New South Wales. He has self-released several small books of fiction, including Erica From Sales and The End of Trolleys, and was editor of Crawlspace Magazine. His writing has appeared in The Lifted Brow, The Guardian, Meanjin, Australian Book Review, and other places.