There are those that hate the idea of living in a small town: the claustrophobic feeling of a small community, the idea that everyone seems to know everyone else’s business, but it must have some advantages. Small towns tend to be friendlier – in a city where people will button their coats to the collar and avoid eye contact, it is refreshing to have a stranger greet you with a smile, say hello and then stoop down to pat your surprised dog.
The pub last night was an altogether different place than it had been the previous two days. While Monday it had been empty and quiet, save for a couple of pensioners having a counter meal and Tuesday had been subdued, the atmosphere was charged and busy on the Wednesday night.
Something was going on, something that the regulars knew about and looked forward to. There was barely a space at the bar to squeeze into to place an order. Men sat on stools in twos or threes making loud conversation and jokes. They seemed to be possessed of a youthfulness of spirit that their appearances belied. A plate of free bar snacks that had been provided by the hotel lay discarded on a table in the room having been passed around and ultimately rejected: three pickled onions, some sliced pieces of chicken schnitzel and cold ham lay on the platter slowly glazing over under the heat of the lights.
Everyone at the bar seemed to know eachother, blokes in shorts and T-shirts, younger guys with blonde dreadlocks and board shorts drinking spirits and the older fellas in shirts with their glasses of beer.
Marion and Fred entered the bar and took their seats at a table, aware that they were witnesses to the revelry and not a part of it.
‘It seems pretty lively in here tonight,’ she said as they sat down at the table.
‘Skimpy night,’ he replied.
Sure enough, behind the thick wall of men leaning at the counter she could see a tiny figure darting behind the bar. A woman – well, a girl really – who could barely have been twenty, who was employed in the grand old tradition of leering Australian men.
Marion approached the bar to place her order and the men, with exaggerated gallantry moved aside to make room for her at the counter. The young barmaid was not wearing anything see-though as the skimpies used to, but was dressed in very tiny shorts and an even smaller scarcely buttoned cropped white shirt, secured just under her breasts, which were pushed up by the bra she was wearing to resemble a couple of grapefruit. She had even sprinkled her exposed flesh with glitter gel, which made her seem even more vulnerable as she moved behind the industrial bar machinery, like a teenager who had sat in her bedroom trying on various accessories in the belief they made her look more sophisticated.
The evening wore on and the older men returned to their wives and to their caravans but the younger crew remained. Someone put some money in the jukebox and someone else turned the volume up loud as it churned out selection after selection of heavy metal hits. The air was think with the energy of menace.
It got so loud that they resorted to chatting over instant messenger.
‘Do you want another drink?’ Fred asked.
‘Not really,’ she said, ‘I don’t like this music very much.’
A shout went up from the group of young men who were now playing pool. One of them staggered over to the jukebox, his head nodding emphatically in time to the beat as he fed the machine more coins.
The bass continued to thump as Fred came back with their drinks.
‘I feel like I am trapped in a box of hell,’ Marion tapped into a message.
Later she went to the loo, only to run into another girl, this one dressed incongruously in a fluorescent lime bikini, the botttom half of which barely covered her buttocks. The second skimpy of the night, here to finish the job. Apparently one improvement that had been made to the practice was to limit the number of hours they worked semi-clad, so that not only did they have to work practically naked, but they could earn less money for doing so.
The remorseless music continued to pour out of the machine, like a monster giving birth, accompanied by the shouts and jeers of the young men.
‘Let’s get out of her, shall we?’ she said.
As they left, another young woman was leaving too.
‘I have seen here here a few times,’ Fred observed, ‘she drinks a little too much.’
Even the outsiders can get the measure of those in a small town with relative ease.
The young woman was being helped by a tall man. ‘I will walk you home,’ he was saying.
‘Okay,’ said the girl and then, ‘Whoops,’ as she stumbled in the fresh air of the night.
As Marion left and watched the tall man reach to steady the girl, she realised that this was a scene that had been played out countless times in countless bars between young men and women all over the world.
Nevertheless, she could not help but hope that this time, it was the genuine offer of chivalry it sounded like and that the young man’s head was not filled with drink, the heavy force of the music and the memory of light dancing off the glitter on a barmaid’s breasts.