Australian fiction, poetry, essays, book reviews
  • Time to read 11 minutes

His guts churn something shocking, so he reaches for the pills and washes down a couple with a good clump of spit. The knot loosens, relief flushes. The kitchen sink is clean. Did the dishes last night. Do the dishes and wake up to a clean caravan. New man, new decisions. Sign of things to come. 

The sun chases him over the mattress until one more roll will see him face plant the floor. Been a while since it’s had a mop. Plus, imagine yelling out to the other long termers and asking to help lift him up: all six-four inches and a hundred odd kilos. 

He kicks the sheets off and swings upright. Picks out sleep and plans out the day. No eggs. Means a trip to the shop. Needs baccy anyway. Means he could grab the paper. Means he’d have done his exercise. Then have brekkie, a cuppa and a dart to look forward to. Delayed gratification, they call it. Sign of things to come. 

He pulls on the old footy shorts. Loves it when the kids ask. Three senior games with the Fitzroy Lions. Back pocket to Roosey’s Full Back. Tells anyone who’ll listen. Kids listen. Whoa, they go. Yeah, their eyes run over the face, the belly, the caravan. And they see something he doesn’t think too hard about. But before that was “Whoa.” Keeps him going that does. 

He pulls on the old footy shorts. Loves it when the kids ask. Three senior games with the Fitzroy Lions

Stubs into thongs, winces at the silver frost on the lawn, but psyches up for a bit of hustle. Crashes through the door, hobbles down the steps —cold as a nun’s nasty— shifts to the rope he’s knotted between the two trees that is the clothesline (scouts knot-tying champion three years running), whips off the damp towel, whacks it over his shoulder, and cuts across the grass—

‘Bernie, Bern?’ 

It’s a guilty freeze, like maybe he’ll cammo into the surroundings. Yeah. But nah. ‘G’day Jan.’

‘Haven’t been around for a sun-downer in a while?’

Cups his guts. ‘Yair, bin watching the booze.’

Jan’s all skin and bone with a puff of red hair, like a matchstick. She nods along with that mad relentless smile she fights the world with. Attack is the best form of defence, his old man always reckoned. Her eyes flick to his garbage bin. Overflowing with empties. Whoops. ‘Freezing me bits off, Jan. Catch ya round.’

Her gloved hands open with her mouth and she wants to say something. Except she’s not the sort. He takes a few steps—

Bernie McDonald. Man you’d always want in the trenches. Not much of a man, taking advantage of kindness. Making hard decisions. Sign of things to come. Jan’s still in the same spot, mouth still open like she’s setting a trap for the words she needs, steam on the wane as the cold touches her throat. 

‘Jan… How’s your…financial…I mean, need that coin, do ya?’

‘Bern, I’m so sorry, I mean I really hate to ask, it’s just—’

‘Jan. S’all good. When do you need it?’

‘Well, now, see, the rent—’

‘Has he been into you again?’

‘Oh, Bernie, no, please don’t say anything. I don’t want him to...’

‘Today. Get you ya coin. Save us a spot for a sun-dower.’ That brights her lights up. And his. Something to be said for taking control. 

The shower tiles are icy. He scoffs at the signs asking for short showers. Pays his rates, he does. The first five minutes is just unfreezing. The next twenty-five is eyes-closed, head-on-tile revving himself up like that mean Pacer he owned. Can’t believe that rodent, Steve, has been standing over Jan again. Ex-detective, corrupt copper from the big smoke. Always in the papers. Ran away up here to take over the caravan park. Escaped charges. Has it in for Bernie doing cheap maintenance for other long termers. Wants to charge arms and legs. Tried to stand over Jan, using Whinging Wayne’s complaints that Jan parks the Datto two centimetres onto his area. As if Whinging Wayne doesn’t complain about everything and everybody: too many visitors, tourists walking into the long termers spaces, non-existent needles. Bernie told them both, he did. He wishes Jan had told him about the rent. For God’s sake, Jan, you don’t go getting into people like that. Not Jan’s fault, Bernie. Who owes her coin?   

Time to make a stand.

Man of his word.  

Sign of things to come.

Cans the exercise, the eggs, the cuppa, the smoke. 

Big changes mean big sacrifice. 

And it hits him.

The ring. Sell the ring. She’s not coming back. She was never coming back. Gone, long gone. Over when he lost the house, the job, the truck, the money. Lost it when he done his back and couldn’t drive the truck and first walked into the—

Not thinking like that any longer. Never been a sulker. Choices got him into this. Choices can dig him out. Thoughts of a poke flutter up in his belly and out through his limbs and he gets that taste in his stomach and saliva pools.

Yeah. But nah. Wasn’t the answer then. Not the answer now. Wife’s not coming back. Making hard decisions. Delayed gratification. Taking control of the future. Sign of things to come. 

On top of the box is his proudest photo: Him and Donna, arm in arm, little Charlie clinging his neck, just after he’d bought the brand new second-hand truck and trailer. Red and shiny. Chrome swan with perspex wings on the hood. Getting paid to see the land. Made good quid. Saw it all: different shades of red. Splattered cow and roo on the bull bar. Wasn’t natural to spend so long sitting down. Pinched nerves in his back. At home with all that WorkCover. Donna working the checkout and Charlie in child care. Jesus, Mary and Joseph he wishes he had of chosen art classes or pottery or any of that gay shit. Anything else. Under the photo, under the matt, inside the box, he turns the key to the lock that contains the lot. The ring.

Doesn’t Bernie scrub up when he wants to? His red and black chequered flanno, Fitzroy beanie, jeans and boots. I don’t know if he hasn’t made a move because he thinks I’m past it, or because he is? But just now: something different about his walk. Back straight, head raised and the click of his boots. You can see him for the big, beautiful man that he is. Asks if I need anything brought back? Drinks, groceries? Not included with his owing, of course. No, I don’t want that. Want to call out that he doesn’t have to pay me back. Want to. Except I’m skint. And Sophie needs more for the kids again. And while I suspect she’s using, I can’t bring myself to question my daughter. Steve has threatened to kick us out if we don’t pay the rent. I know it’s because he doesn’t like Bernie. Doesn’t like being stood up to. Did he find out Bernie owes me money? Sophie shooting her mouth again? I’m scared of what life would be —or more importantly, what it wouldn’t be— without the grandkids. It kills me to confront Bernie like I done. He’s always been so kind: offering to do the bins, fix things and talk to Wayne. I love his friendship; hate the way he’s been avoiding me. The Bernie McDonald’s of the world are rare in places like this. 

The town hockshop is chockers: kayaks, computers, Engels, rods, watches, exercise equipment, jewellery, amps. You name it, they got it. Has a gander at the rings when the young daego fella with earrings, shaved bits into the side of his head, and a spiffy mullet, approaches. Asks him in that way they talk nowadays if he can help him.

‘Yair, looking to sell.’ Presents the ring with a bit of swagger, he’s that proud.

The fella pulls it close to his eye, does a frowning nod that seems to mean not bad.

‘That’s an 18karat gold with a pink Argyle.’

‘Not bad, sir. You mind if I?’

‘Be my guest. People will rip you off if you let ‘em.’

He drums his belly and runs the numbers. Should get at least fifteen hundred for the ring. And he has one hundred and fifty-seven in the bank. And he owes fourteen. Means he could buy a bottle of Jack to celebrate. Something uplifting about taking control. Sign of things to come. 

He drums his belly and runs the numbers. Should get at least fifteen hundred for the ring

The young fella struts back out, suitably impressed. Good, Bernie doesn’t want no games. Used to hate those games. All one way traffic, like the diggers marching up them hills. ‘Can do ya two-fifty.’

‘Two thousand five hundred? Lock it in, Ed.’

‘Excuse me, sir. Two hundred and fifty dollars.’

Once upon a time, Bernie had a mean right hook. ‘Mate, you reckon I’m a mug? This isn’t anything under two grand online.’

The wog sucks the air through his teeth like he’s been winded. ‘Mate, can I be honest wif you? You want this off the books? Coz if we gotta melt it…’

‘What’re you talking about? It’s my fucking ring… Well, I bought it. Was my wife’s.’

‘Excuse me, sir. I am so sorry.’

‘Yeah, yeah. Ex-wife. Lives in Perth now with... Just, what can you do?’

‘I’ll do ya seven-fifty.’

‘Seven-fifty? It’s at least two grand.’

‘Eight hundred.’

‘Shit on a stick.’

‘Sir, It’s all I can do, honest to God. If I make a mistake—’

‘Last price. And I’m walking.’

‘Gee-wiz. You are really driving a hard bargain. Tell you what, last offer: Nine hundred. But seriously, this is like, unheard of.’

He knows he shouldn’t take it. Knows it’s worth more. But how long would it take to get a fair price? Mean a trip up to Sydney or down to Melbourne. Means buses and trains. Means accommodation. Means bought meals. He’s heard of selling shit on the net, but never figured the prick out.

It hits him.

Serene calm. 

For a second then it’s—

Bright lights and big nights. 

Tummy queasy and critter-jitters.

No other option. Hit the slots and make a lot. Man of his word. Pay back today. Not his addiction. Doing it for someone else. ‘Onya, Jan.’

‘Pardon, me?’


He folds the pineapples into his back pocket. Floats to Joe’s Diner and thinks about the brekkie. Not the day for toast or penny pinching. Going all in. Orders the brekkie with the lot. Gets an extra bit of white bread to sop the leftover juice, the mushie, the tomato, the bacon fat, the baked bean sauce, the runny egg. Drains his cuppa. 

Treats himself to ready-mades. Floats down the street with one hand in his pocket, ‘and the other one is flicking a cigarette,’ all monotone.   

Warning pangs sear thoughts.

Don’t lose your nerve.

Through the door to plush purple carpets, it’s all big nights, bright lights and the jingle jangle noises. Sniffs it in. Big Ming. Zoro. The Nile, The Canals, The Jungles, The Sunsets, The Pyramids. Always loved history. No smoking inside. Smokers: last of a dying breed. The signs and stickers cause him to bite his tongue. The shame of it. Makes memories and feelings scream. Shuts his eyes. Just like the ciggie stickers. Block ‘em and lock ‘em. Fucking Greenies. Don’t they know a man’s choice is his voice? 

Floating, still floating, all the way to the bar. Coughs up for a shot of JD and a pint. Reverse psychology. Summons up all the memories and feelings and sits them in the shot. Sinks the memories and the feelings and burns them on his throat. Got debts to pay. Man of his word. Sign of things to come.

Surveys the room from the bar, sipping the pint. It’s always been Golden Century. Big Ming. Big Ming for the win. By the door, too. By the door’s the score. He’d heard all about the myths. Machines with no memories that won’t pay out. As if they could hold all that coin if you kept feeding them? Where else did it go? Had to pay out. Law. Simple fucking logic. Machines that don’t pay out more near the door? As if proprietors set them around the place willy nilly. By the doors the score. Brings the punters in. Logic.

Still floating, right on up to the soft red seat: the cartoonish music, the wacky Chinese symbols. Five dollars bets. Get in and get out. One win can tip him into the red. He makes that deal to himself.

Fifteen minutes in he’s dropped a hundred bucks. Play the long game. He’s in control. Two dollars fifty bets. Bernie McDonald: back pocket to Roosey, man of his word. Hits a Big Ming. Big Ming for the win. Free spins and keeps hitting. Wins one-twenty back. Happy because he hit. Spewing he lost his nerve. Free spins and hits a few emperors. Seventy bucks. You beau-tay.

The nerves and nasties flit and froth, but he knows he’s only one big hit away. Bring home the bacon. Man of his word. Sign of things to come.

 Five hundred down. Smoko time. He sets a piece of paper on the seat that reads machine in use. Will skull fuck anyone that dares take his place. Wanders outside for a ciggie. Will buy another pint and steady the nerves. Glances at his watch and isn’t surprised at the surprise of hours passed. Time flies when you’re—

 He could still get out. Pay half now and eat Weetbix bricks until next payday. Figure out another way to get the rest of the splash. What other way? Live two weeks with zilch? Bernie McDonald: caravan renter, no computer, no car, no... Bernie McDonald, not a man of his word? Plus, he’d filled up Golden Century so much it had to pay out soon. Had to. Bring home the bacon. Don’t lose your nerve now, Bernie. Do it for Jan. Flicks his ciggie and fist pumps, ‘C’mon.’

Tourists giving him the wide berth. Germans or Scandinavians, he reckons. Eyeing him like he’s the wrong kind of Aussie. Come into town to stock up before heading down the river or up the mountains. He moved here for all that stuff. On the turn, catches himself in the glass of the TAB. White whiskers and deep lines. Hard to look at. Something that the kids see. 

Oh, no you fucking don’t, he thinks to the man in the red jacket placing an ice cream container full of coins beside Bernie’s machine. ‘Oh, no you fucken don’t.’

‘It’s a free world.’

‘There was a sign.’

‘The chair was free.’

Bernie nudges the stool with his leg. It clatters on the ground. The man goes to pick it up. Bernie steps in. ‘Go on. Pick it up. I dare ya.’

‘Oi.’ Bernie turns. The manager. Holding up the phone to his ear. ‘That’s enough. Phil, come here, mate. I’ll pour you a drink. On the house.’

‘But the machine was—’

The proprietor looks at Bernie and sees that thing sometimes people see. ‘Phil.’

Bernie takes a few deep breaths. Been a while since he’s been that worked up. Takes a seat. It’s all too predictable, the disbelief —button by button— as it all turns to shit. He wonders if he should save fifty for a bottle of Jack. He’s just chasing a jackpot now. Gotta be in it to win it. He spins again and—

 An emperor. The lolling sounds. Another emperor. His lids open. Another emperor. Lolling sounds. Another one. Holy shit. Holy shit. If he can just—

Yeah. But nah. 

Bernie McDonald. Knot tying champ. Cross country trucker. Three seniors games, back pocket to Roosey. Not a man of his word? 

Could a things been different? Yeah, they could a. If he could a chosen to choose a different choice. Bernie McDonald: Dumb cunt.

Bernie strolls into the caravan park mumbling to himself and eying his feet. He sparks up when he sees me, though. Says he’s come for that sundowner and holds up a bottle of Jack. He's cut his hand but he waves me away when I go to inspect. I get ice, a couple of cans of coke, and chop some lemon. He even has ready-mades. I know it’s coming but he says it like the man that he is. He says he’s run up a bit of bad luck, and he can’t… but he’s put things in place —solid things— to have me my money by week’s end. I don’t say anything about Steve threatening to kick me out, because I don’t want to upset him. He tells me that life is about taking responsibility for your choices, and people could say a lot of things about him, but they couldn’t say he wasn’t a man of his word. Call me naive, but you would have had to know Bernie and see his face to understand how I could trust. I ask him if he wants a cooked tea, but he says it’s time for a lie down. I go in and begin cooking my Friday night treat: fish fingers and chips. When I come back outside to turn my porch light off, Bernie’s clothes are on the ground. And his clothesline is gone. And I think, oh, that’s a bit odd. 

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About the author:

Benjamin Mason

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Ben founded the Bunbury Writing Group and hosts quarterly spoken word nights. He has been published in magazines and journals, including Grok and Swinposium. His work has been listed and won awards in national fiction competitions, including The Margaret River Short Story Competition and KSP.