The Wickepin Hotel
by Mel Ciavucco
The creaky front door swung open and a blast of hot air rushed towards me as I stood behind the bar in the empty pub. Despite the absence of customers, the pub was heavily air-conditioned. Stools lined the bar, but there were very few tables. Dusty old sports pictures and score boards lined the walls, and a retro jukebox stood in the corner. A man walked up to the bar, looked me up and down, then up again until his gaze stuck at my chest.
‘Bottle of four-ex,’ he grunted.
I turned and reached into the fridge, snapped off the top with a bottle opener and placing it on the bar in front of him. He stared at me.
‘What the fack are ya doin?’ he said. ‘Bo-tt-le.’ He drew out the word in his thick Australian accent, widening his eyes and raising his eyebrows.
I stared at him, and stared at the bottle, baffled. ‘I’m sorry, what?’
He moved his hands apart to indicate something larger. ‘Bottle.’
I remembered being briefly shown the larger bottles of beer in a separate fridge out the back of the bar. Viv, the manager of the pub, had shown me during what would, in a normal job, have been an induction period. Here, it had only been a quick five minutes of few words and pointing.
‘Oh, right, sorry!’ I said, rushing out the back.
‘Finally the penny drops, you fackin…’ he trailed off, muttering under his breath.
He was my first customer on my first day working on the bar at the Wickepin Hotel, what a great start. He was the only customer for another two hours, other than Viv, who pulled up a seat at the front of the bar and asked me for a pint of raspberry cordial. He switched the TV to Family Guy and ignored me. I decided to confess.
‘A guy came in earlier asking for a bottle of four-ex, but I’m afraid I opened the wrong one.’
He glanced at me and grunted.
‘I didn’t realise the bigger ones were referred to as bottles,’ I continued talking slightly louder over the TV, ‘but I suppose it makes sense as these are called stubbies.’
I laughed awkwardly as I passed him the smaller bottle I’d accidentally opened. He turned briefly, took it from me and took a swig. He shrugged and continued drinking the rest, pushing his unwanted raspberry cordial my way.
‘What did he look like?’ he asked suddenly, swinging around to the bar on his stool.
‘Erm, well sort of tall, in dirty work overalls.’
‘That doesn’t narrow it down much here.’
In a town full of sheep shearers, he had a good point.
‘Well, he had a shaved head, he seemed quite fair with blue eyes.’
I really didn’t see the relevance of this line of questioning. I shrugged. ‘Dunno, sort of young-ish, early twenties maybe.’
He thought carefully for a moment. ‘Ah must be Nicko. He must be back in town.’
He fell silent again as he stared blankly into the screen. I waited for a moment, thinking he might follow through with an explanation, but he continued to stare at the screen.
‘So, who’s Nicko?’ I pressed.
He laughed at a Family Guy joke. ‘What?’
‘Oh right yeah. Just some arsehole. He’s from here but works away, comes and goes ya know. Don’t mind him, he’s a fackin gobby cant at times.’
It seemed a little too harsh to call someone such a thing just for being a little loud, but I had been in Australia long enough to know that such words were thrown around easily, even in affectionate banter.
Viv lived in the pub, in a sectioned off private area at the back. My room was in the ‘hotel’ part of the pub. It seemed that all pubs in the outback had a tendency to call themselves ‘hotels,’ but it was not to be taken literally. Although the Wickepin Hotel did have a few bedrooms to let, they were barely rentable. My room had a creaky single bed, a dirty orangey-brown floral carpet, which many decades ago might have actually been vibrant orange, and a TV which looked like it could have been the first television set ever made. It even had the popping square buttons and a dial for the volume. There were some grubby toilets down and a TV lounge down the hall, both seemingly neglected for some time judging by the layers of spider webs. The TV in the lounge was only slightly more modern than the one in my room, but at least there was a DVD player. Next to it were a few DVD’s: ‘Australia,’ ‘Mad Max,’ ‘Crocodile Dundee,’ and – rather unfittingly, but unsurprisingly – ‘Family Guy.’ I decided I would start with the latter and go from there depending on how desperately bored I got. All I had to do was try and stick Wickepin out for about two months and I would have topped my bank account back up to a slightly less worrying figure to enable a few more months of travelling.
My first shift on the bar was still dragging. Viv was still absorbed in the TV, Aussie rules football blaring from it. He had been silent for the last few hours except for the occasional ‘oooh’ or ‘ahhh.’ He’d give me a list of chores for the start of each shift which involved mainly cleaning and stocking up. I’d finished it within an hour so I tried to pretend I was doing something useful by wiping anything which remained still long enough.
‘They’ll all be finishing work soon,’ Viv said.
It took a moment to realise he’d spoken to me. He hadn’t even looked away from the TV.
‘Oh, who sorry?’
‘Everyone. The guys, locals, punters, you know.’
‘Oh, right. Good.’
‘You wanna smoko before it gets busy? You can just go out the back there if you like.’
‘No, I’m ok thanks. I don’t smoke.’
He shrugged. ‘We call it a smoko anyways.’
‘Oh right, well I’m okay anyway, thanks.’
The front door swung open and a man hobbled in, pulling up a stool at the end of the bar. He nodded at Viv, who muttered ‘gidday’ but didn’t move. The man kept his head down, his shabby cowboy style hat tipping forward. His shirt was faded but possibly used to be green, his breast pocket slightly ripped. He reached into his shorts pockets and pulled out a handful of loose change, which he scattered in front of him with weathered, cracked hands. His nails were short, most of them barely reached the ends of his fingers. I walked over to his end of the bar and he slowly looked up until he reached my gaze. His eyes seemed, for that fleeting moment, to be filled with sadness, until his face broke into a smile. A few of his teeth were black, and he was missing some, but his sparkling eyes seemed to brighten his whole face.
‘Well gidday darl’, you must be our new backpacker?’
‘That’s me.’ I smiled.
‘Where you from? Canada?’
‘Ah, a pomme. Haven’t had one of them in a while. Last one was Canadian, the one before Irish – we’ve had loads of blaady Irish ones, ay Viv?’
Viv nodded, not turning his head from the screen.
‘Fackin like their grog ay. Yeah we’ve had German, French, allsorts but those ones a bit harder to understand, mind you they don’t understand a word we say either but!’ He let out a loud cackle which resulted in a coughing fit. ‘Sorry darl’, I’ll have a stubby of Fosters if I may.’
I opened it and placed it in front of him. There was a slight awkward pause before he smiled and waved his finger toward the place where the stubby holders were kept under the bar.
‘Can’t forget one ‘a them , right. Gotta keep it cold.’ He took a long swig of his beer. ‘So what’s your name darl?’
‘Mine’s Mike, but everyone calls me Bugsy, not sure why.’
I leaned down on the bar. ‘Nice to meet you Mike.’
‘Call me Bugsy. So how long ya been in Australia, Liz?’
‘When are you going home?’
‘A few months yet, at least.’
‘Oh yeah? Would you live here?’
I was beginning to feel as if I was being interviewed by immigration, but fortunately we were interrupted by the creak of the door. An elderly man slowly made his way to the seat next to Bugsy’s.
‘Gidday Frank,’ Bugsy said.
Frank grunted with a single nod. He took out a handkerchief with shaking, stumpy fingers and mopped his brow.
‘Too fackin hot out there,’ he muttered quietly, undoing a few of his shirt buttons. I unwittingly caught a glimpse of a saggy nipple and averted my gaze.
‘Got a new backpacker, Frank,’ I noticed Bugsy had raised his voice slightly to talk to him. I followed suit.
‘Hello,’ I said loudly, ‘What can I get for you?’
He glanced up at me, but his gaze only reached as far as my chest, as he fiddled around in his pocket for what I hoped was money. I hadn’t even thought the top I was wearing was remotely revealing, so I tried to re-adjust it unsuccessfully, inevitably just folding my arms instead.
‘Midi,’ he pointed to the beer tap in front of me.
The theory behind midi’s in Australia do make perfect sense; slightly smaller than a half pint so it’s drinkable before it goes flat and warm, but as I was about to find out that created a lot of work for a bar maid.
‘What part of England are you from, Liz?’ Bugsy asked. ‘London?’
‘No, pretty far north of London.’
‘Well, closer to Manchester than London I suppose.’
‘About an hour’s drive.’
‘Ah, that’s down the road, mate!’ He smiled and picked up his beer. He clinked it against Franks and held it up to me. ‘Well, Liz from Manchester, welcome to Wickepin.’
The small talk continued, for days in fact. Bugsy and Frank were in the pub every night, and I’d started getting myself into a nice, yet boring, lie-in – work – Family Guy routine. The bar was quiet on the weekdays with just a couple of locals dropping in for a few beers after work, but the weekend was fast approaching. I was glad to be working a lot, not only for the money but also to have something to do. It’d taken me less than fifteen minutes to explore the town. There was a sparsely stocked shop next door, and a ‘resource centre’ to the other side, which was far from resourceful. There were a few pamphlets about the history of Wickepin with curled edges covered in dust, and two bulky computers which looked as if they could have come from the 18th century. Still, I’d been happy to find a means of communication to the real world, as my mobile phone had no signal. After waiting through the nostalgic dial-up sounds I finally left a Facebook status letting everyone know I was alive and well but had somehow managed to transport myself back to the 1950’s.
The Wickepin Hotel was the one and only pub, and the majority of the village lived in spacious bungalows spread out through the dry, flat land behind it. Beyond that was mostly nothing, just a few dead bushes, sand and red dusty land for miles. So what else was there to do at a weekend in Wickepin other than get trashed and stand on a table belting out Cold Chisel songs?
It was Friday night and the bar was getting busier. The drinks were emptying quicker and quicker and it was getting harder for me to listen to Bugsy’s chatter whilst I kept my full attention on re-filling glasses.
‘So what days d’ya get off?’ Bugsy asked, Frank sitting next to him with his handkerchief in hand.
‘Just Mondays,’ I replied, glancing and smiling at him but keeping my eyes fixed along the bar.
‘You could borrow my ute if you wanted, ay.’
‘Oh I’m not sure I’d trust myself driving a big truck like that!’ I laughed.
‘Ain’t much to hit around here, darl. Well, you could hit a roo if you were to drive at dusk or dawn but daytime’s ‘right. Bladdy roo’s… fackin pain in the arse.’
Frank nodded in agreement. ‘Fackin’ dopey cants they are.’
I nodded politely in agreement, although I had to admit, most of the time I couldn’t understand a word Frank said. He gestured for me to move closer. His face was leathery, heavily wrinkled, scarred and rough. He pushed a small piece of paper in my hand with a phone number scrawled on it.
‘I can take you into town on Monday if you like,’ he said quietly.
‘Oh, er, thanks, I’ll have a think about that.’
Frank smiled and let his gaze rest on my chest, again.
A man at the bar started coughing loudly, shaking his glass. I apologised to Bugsy and Frank and rushed over to serve him. I quickly began to realise I had to be watching for empty glasses all the time, never taking my eyes off the bar, like a matador and his bull.
I noticed a glass lying on its side at the end of the bar. There was a man still sitting there, but he hadn’t seemed to have noticed that he’d knocked it over. I went over, placed it upright and asked him if he’d like another. He looked at me as if I’d gone completely insane. The man with him started to laugh, and then they both laughed together, me still sanding frowning at the glass in bewilderment.
‘When he puts his glass on the side it means he’s done!’ his friend said, sniggering. ‘It’s not that fackin hard.’
‘Oh, I had no idea,’ I said, shaking my head as the man walked out of the door.
‘It goes in there now darl’,’ his friend, still at the bar, said. He pointed to the empty glass, then pointed down below the bar to where the dishwasher was. I grabbed the glass and bent down to open the dishwasher door.
‘Now this one too,’ he said knocking back his drink. ‘Only kiddin’ I just wanted to see you bend down like that again.’ He smirked, gawping at my chest. ‘I’ll have another.’ He shook his glass but didn’t shift his gaze.
I folded my arms and glared at him until he resumed eye contact.
‘Come on, I’m only having a joke with ya. Get us another drink darl, I’m parched.’
‘No, you ain’t havin’ any more’a that piss,’ a voice said from behind him. I hadn’t even noticed the woman come in. Her face was red and flustered. She wore dirty overalls like the men. ‘You’re comin’ home, dinner’s nearly ready you fackin useless old cant.’
The man scuttled off, but not forgetting to put his glass down on its side on the bar, and I couldn’t help smiling to myself.
The crowd gathered around the bar as the night drew on, and I understood why there were so few tables; it would just take too many trips for re-fills of drinks every two minutes, after all. There was a sudden stir in the pub as a group of five men pushed their way through to the bar. I recognised one straight away as Nicko, my first ever customer with the ‘bottle.’ I would be all the wiser this time. He said something but I couldn’t hear it over AC/DC blaring from the jukebox.
‘C-C-dry,’ he said again, frowning at me.
‘Pardon?’ I asked, having been able to hear him but not having recognised the name.
‘Pardon!’ he and his mates mimicked in a posh English accent as they laughed.
‘C-C-DRY!’ he shouted.
I pretended to know what he was talking about and turned to promptly search the bar for something which might resemble something he just said. I noticed Bugsy was vaguely wagging a finger towards one of the fridges. That didn’t narrow it down much. Getting flustered I went through each row twice but came to the realisation that I was going to have to ask again. My palms were starting to sweat.
I turned, preparing myself to look like an idiot, but he was already smirking at me. ‘FACKIN CANADIAN CLUB!’ He turned to his mates and shook his head, laughing, ‘Fackin backpackers all so fackin useless…hey Viv, VIV!’
Viv looked up from the TV briefly, now on silent as there was music on, but he had still been just as engrossed.
‘When you gonna get a decent fackin backpacker who has a good rack and can pour the right fackin drinks instead of useless cants like this?’
His speech was slightly slurred; I could tell he was already drunk.
‘She’ll be right,’ Viv shrugged, and resumed his TV stare. There was a flurry of laughter from outside the front door and Viv, much to my surprise, jumped out of his seat. I caught a glimpse of a group of teenage boys running down the street.
Viv shouted after them. ‘Get outta here, you know you kids ain’t allowed in here!’
For a moment the bar stood still as everyone stared at the door.
Viv shrugged and re-claimed his seat. ‘Fackin abbo kids again, they’ve facked off now, alright.’
I suddenly noticed Nicko glaring at me and resumed my fridge searching until I found some Canadian club and dry ginger pre-mixed cans. I slammed a can down in front of Nicko.
‘Well done,’ he spat, ‘now try the other four.’
I glared at him, but took a deep breath and turned to make the drinks. I knew it wasn’t worth getting angry over. He was just some drunk guy in a bar who, shortly, was going to get kicked out at closing time.
It was nearly 1am. I thought by that time we would have closed the bar and I’d be tucked up in bed but no, Nicko and his mates were still going strong and the bottle bin was overflowing with pre-mix Canadian Club cans. Everybody else had left, shaking Viv’s hand on the way out to thank him for his hospitality. Him! What had he done exactly? Nicko selected a new song on the juke box and asked Viv to turn it up.
‘Okay mate, but then you guys gonna go, right?’ Viv said.
‘One more for the road though?’ one of Nicko’s friends asked.
‘After this song!’ Nicko shouted and climbed up on the table, and started to sing along to ‘Working Class Man’ by Jimmy Barnes.
Viv looked slightly inconvenienced, but still sat slumped in his chair and made no effort to stop them.
‘Woo-oooaaahhh, I’m a working class man!’ Nicko sang, as he nearly wobbled off the table. He jumped down, aided by his friend and they swayed with raised cans to the rest of the song.
Nicko stormed to the bar as soon as it finished. ‘Beers now!’ he said slamming $50 down on the bar. ‘As many as I can get for that. Don’t give a fack what, just the cheapest, right.’ His words were slurring together making it even harder to understand with his heavy accent.
They took their beers outside and sat in the car park.
‘Are you just going to leave them there?’ I asked Viv as we finished closing up the bar.
‘Ah, they’ll be right. They’ll get bored and go home or pass out soon enough.’
There was a sudden crash and shouting outside. Viv headed to the door and I peeked out from behind him. Nicko and his friends were up on their feet shouting at some people further up the road. Viv closed the door again.
‘Oh fack, fa-ack,’ he groaned. ‘Why the fack did they have to show up again?’
‘What’s going on?’ I asked.
There was a bang on the wooden door and I suddenly realised how thin it was.
‘Viv!’ Nicko shouted from outside. ‘Viv, come tell these fackin’ abbo kids to get the fack off your property!’
‘I’m not getting involved this time, Nicko.’
Nicko banged on the door again, my heart racing as I thought his fist might burst through it.
‘Ok, we won’t do anything if we can have more beer.’
There was some shuffling outside and I heard more mumbled obscenities.
Viv sighed and walked back to his bar stool. ‘I’ll stay here for a bit if you wanna get off.’
‘Aren’t you going to call the police?’
‘Don’t know if you’ve noticed, but there ain’t no police here, nearest are an hour away and it’ll all have blown over by then.’
‘Are they the same lads that tried to come in here earlier?’
‘Yeah those blaady kinds, they come down here winding up the guys. Nicko’s nearly come to blows with them a few times. He should know better by now. Last time, their dad smashed his face into a wall, ‘ard facker he is. You don’t get on the wrong side of him, ay.’
‘But we’ve got to do something…’
‘Nah, not getting involved. Not worth it. Nicko’s only gonna get himself into shit again if he goes near one of them kids. Go on, you can finish, I’ll stay ‘til this shit has blown over.’
I rolled my eyes, astounded that he could be so laid back when a bunch of teenagers were about to possibly get beaten up outside. Making my way to the back of the bar to the side door of the pub which led to my room, I turned suddenly, even surprising myself. The heat of the night hit me as I pushed open the door and walked straight into the middle of the groups of guys. My mind went blank as I stood in the middle of the gangs in the car park, wondering what the hell I was doing.
Nicko came up close, he reeked of alcohol and sweat. ‘What th’fack are ya doin? Get back inside.’
‘Guys, this isn’t worth it, come on,’ I said as if I were a teacher trying to break up a playground fight. I fidgeted with my hands nervously, wondering what the hell I was supposed to do, wishing I’d actually thought it through first.
‘Who the fack is this?’ one of the aboriginal boys asked.
‘Just some backpacker who should be minding her own fackin business,’ Nicko said. I noticed, surprisingly, that he was shaking nearly as much as I was.
‘I just want to help-’
‘Well don’t. Stay out of it you fackin nosey bitch.’
I took a deep breath, trying to stay calm. Why the hell hadn’t I just gone to my room?
‘Why are you still standing here?’ Nicko said, pacing up and down. ‘Why don’t you fack off back inside. In fact, why don’t you fack off back to your own country! And why don’t you fack off too, whilst we’re at it,’ he stormed over towards the boys, ‘fack off back to your daddy!’
His mates laughed and cheered him on. The aboriginal boy at the front of the group edged towards him, his fists balled up, but his peers held him back.
‘What is your problem?’ I asked Nicko. The anger was bubbling inside me and my legs were starting to shake so much I had to keep shifting my weight. ‘You can’t say shit like that nowadays! We are in the 21st century you know, not that you can tell in this bloody town.’
‘Don’t you dis my town. I can say whatever the fack I want.’ He walked back over to me, puffed up his chest and stood right above me. He looked down his nose at me. ‘I suggest you shut your trap now, bitch or you’re gonna get yourself hurt.’
Fear gripped my stomach and I swallowed what felt like rising bile. ‘Why the fuck can’t you just accept people?’ My voice was wobbling so I coughed. ‘I came to this town wanting to experience another way of life, I thought people might be nicer about that and at least people would be respectful. But it seems that all Aussies want us “pommes” to do is come to Aus to spend our money and then fuck off. And you’re not ashamed of it! I’ve seen the t-shirts with “Fuck off we’re full” printed on them!’
I realised that my hands were flapping about, so I held them down to my sides. ‘It’s just…’ emotion was starting to build in my throat, ‘I try to remain open-minded and non-judgemental but your attitudes are just unbelieveable.’
Nicko glared at me. He turned and addressed his mates and the boys. ‘Oh poor lil’ hard-done-by backpacker! All feel sorry for her, ay. Boo-hoo!’
He strode back up to me and thrust a finger in my face. I felt as if a bit of wee might slip out.
‘Fack you, ya snobby little cant! I’ve learnt stuff about backpackers, ya’know – you’re all just as bad,’ he spat, swaying and still clutching a beer. ‘You fleet in and outta town every few months to come and have your fackin “experience,” you come and you… you laugh at us! You come to take the piss out of our lives, our jobs, from your fackin’ middle-class lives with parents who pay for your fackin’ plane here and all that, ay. You’ll go back after your “gap year”… study more and get a good job in a fackin huge chair in a fackin’ huge office and look back and laugh at us in Wickepin.’
I thought about the life I would go back to at home, I was in fact going to go back to uni, my parents had already set the money aside. Tears started to fill my eyes.
‘So you fack off back there and have a fackin big laugh with your pommy friends whilst we slog our guts out here. Have a big fackin laugh about us retard cants here, like we’re fackin zoo animals. You be sure to start now by updating your fackin Facebook status, betchya done that already, ay? Let everyone know what a useless fackin backwards hell-hole town you’re in.’
He was bright red and panting, his fists balled up, sloshing his beer everywhere. His friends stood behind him with their arms folded, nodding in agreement. The Aboriginal boys looked a little surprised but made no attempt to help me. I realised I was holding my breath. I let go but the tears started rolling from my eyes so I quickly turned so they wouldn’t see. I felt at a loss; if I turned and shouted back where would it get me? I’d be as bad as him. In that moment I actually felt like a snob, I’d been all too aware that I was only just having my two month ‘experience’ before I could go back to ‘normal’ life. But this was normal life for them. I wondered how many Wickepin residents had ever made it out of Australia in their lifetimes, and here I was rubbing it in their faces. I felt guilty and my tears flowed. I plucked up the courage to turn around and apologise but the lads were already arguing with each other again. I tried to call over to Nicko.
‘Ok, Nicko, I’m sorry. I understand now.’
He was near face to face with the leader of the aboriginal gang. ‘Fack off,’ he called to me, not taking his eyes off the boy.
‘Look, I’m sorry. Just don’t fight those boys.’
Nicko turned. ‘What the fack do you care anyway?’
‘Because there’s no point! It’s a waste of time, it’s not going to help solve anything! Is there even a real issue to solve here?’
‘Yeah, it’s fackin…yeah, they…whatever, they’re a bunch of fackin cants. They need to fuck off outta our town. They steal shit…fackin trouble makers since they moved here last year ay.’
‘We don’t do nathin’!’ the boys chorused. The leader stepped forward and addressed me. ‘Anythin’ round here gets stolen it’s always us, ay. They always say it’s us…my ol’ man says it’s coz they always blame us black fellas. Wickepin peoples, they hatin’ us ay, but it’s our home too, right.’
I look him in the eye and for a moment it feels as if we might have a slight understanding, until Nicko stormed towards him and pushed him to the dusty ground.
‘It ain’t your fackin home. This is my fackin town, now fack off.’ He put his dirty boot on the boy’s chest and turned to me.
‘I’ll tell you one more time little girl, stay outta this, get back inside.’
The aboriginal boys descended on him and his mates charged towards them. I started backtracking, my eyes widening at the scene before me, before turning and running back to my room. I curled up safely in my bed, trying to sleep to the sound of shouting and bottles smashing which would leave blood stains on the car park and in my mind for years to come.
* * * * THE END * * * *
Copyright Mel Ciavucco 2014