The Next Big Thing
2nd Oct 2020
How did I amuse myself during COVID lockdown and self-isolation…?
Welcome to the first chapter of my third novel…
The good people of Mitchell’s Crossing embark on finding a tourist attraction good enough to make people divert from the new highway by-pass and visit their little town. While there is initial excitement and enthusiasm, the townsfolk find unexpected opposition in a wealthy and powerful landowner, government bureaucracy and their own shortcomings.
The Next Big Thing
The sleepy little Queensland town of Mitchell’s Crossing had become decidedly sleepier. The state government whacked in a dual carriage freeway to bypass the town. It took probably fifteen minutes off the journey from A to B and took livelihoods, heart, soul and community spirit out of the poor little town that once provided travellers with fuel, food and a freshen up.
‘Stop, revive, survive’ was once the catch cry. Put the pedal to the metal and get there as soon as possible was the new unstated mantra. Stop and smell the roses had been replaced with go and smell the exhaust fumes.
Beryl Anderson was born in Mitchell’s Crossing in 1949. Her father-in-law fought in World War Two. His name, alphabetically, leads the list of those who paid the ultimate sacrifice on the memorial in Anzac Park. He died eight years before she was born, but she always felt as though she knew him. He looked handsome in photos of him in uniform and he passed his good looks on to her late husband, Robert.
Mitchell’s Crossing had three parks. As well as Anzac Park, there was also Cunningham Park, which was named after an early explorer and botanist. Appropriately, the garden beds were festooned with flowers. Bradbury Park was named after a bloke who played rugby league at state level sometime way before World War One. The Bradbury family had long ago moved on and his first name had been mostly forgotten.
Some people suggested that it be re-named Bradbury Park after the speed-skater, Stephen Bradbury, who won gold at the 2002 Winter Olympics when all the other competitors fell over in a pile up. It would be an excuse to invite a relatively current sporting celebrity to the town, to cut a ribbon or unveil a plaque. But the mayor, Paul Cameron, was a stickler for history and protocol. Paul was possibly the only person in town who knew that the footy player’s name was Mick Bradbury, and he played in the second row. Played against the New Zealand All-Golds in 1908. There was no place in Paul’s mind for false history. Paul had a photo of Mick, sporting a wild walrus-moustache. He had thought of installing a monument at the entrance, with the photo and a plaque telling Mick’s story, but the park was such a dismal place it would have been an insult.
If Olympic medals were handed out for parks, Bradbury would have received a very distant bronze. Cunningham Park was pretty, Anzac Park served a purpose but Bradbury Park was pretty much a tired vacant dustbowl with a couple of ancient picnic tables and toilet facilities.
The toilet block had been given a contemporary facelift. There was now a shared-gender disabled cubicle and the men’s and ladies’ each had syringe disposal containers. Obviously, someone decided that people with disabilities don’t use intravenous drugs or suffer from diabetes.
It was a Saturday morning much like any other unless there was rain, which was rare. Beryl Anderson and Paul Cameron had shared geography on this fine morning. They were either side of a butcher shop counter.
As well as being Mayor, Paul owned the butcher’s shop, Mitchell’s Meats. He also had a small property that ran cattle and pigs.
Paddock to plate.
Sashes and ribbons for award-winning livestock adorned the white-tiled rear wall.
Mitchell’s Meats was a family business. Paul’s sons, Luke and Troy, looked after the shop and his wife, Barbara, did the books for reporting purposes. Their daughter, Jesse, was a nurse at the local hospital. Luke and Troy were strapping lads who stood neck and head above their father while Jess could just reach Dad’s shoulder on tippy-toes. She was a pocket-rocket.
The three Cameron men were busy, focused on their own territory.
Luke was serving Mrs Anderson, Troy was behind the chopping block, trimming a carcass, and Paul had the sausage-making machine at full throttle, shooting mince into cases.
As well as prizes at the paddock end of things, he’d also won several awards for his gourmet sausages, but today’s recipe was just plain old pork mince, pork fat, seasoning, breadcrumbs, herbs and spices. No need to be fancy.
“What are you doing working back in the shop, Mayor?” Beryl asked. “Expecting a rush or something?”
“No. Not these days, Beryl. No, Father Ryan is doing a sausage sizzle fundraiser up outside the hardware. And one thing I’ve learnt in all these years, you can’t have a sausage sizzle without sausages…”
“Oo, I could go a sausage sambo. Save me making lunch,” she said.
Troy put his cleaver down. “How do you like your sangers, Beryl? Onion on top of the snag or under it?”
“It’s gotta be on top, Troy, otherwise the bread gets soggy.”
“I’m with you, but workplace health and safety now reckons it has to be the bottom, in case onion falls on the deck and someone slips A over T.”
“Oh, for Fred’s sake. Damn Freedom Nazis. I’d rather make my own lunch.”
‘For Fred’s sake’ was a turn of phrase Beryl enjoyed employing. She had once watched Jimmy Carr perform on television without wearing her hearing aids. He got a very big laugh by saying something that looked and sounded very much like ‘for Fred’s sake’. And if it engaged an audience for Jimmy, well…
Paul piled his sausages onto a metal tray and covered it with industrial-sized cling wrap.
“I’m sure Father Ryan isn’t a stickler for workplace health and safety, Beryl. He’s got God on his side.”
“Okey-dokey…” said Luke, wrapping Beryl’s red meat in white butcher’s paper and taking a pencil from behind his ear. He and Troy might have been millennials but Dad insisted they do addition the old-fashioned way. Quicker than a calculator and was part of history and tradition. If it were up to him, he’d still have sawdust on the floor. “That’s two lamb loin chops, one piece of rump, half a kilo of mince and one small chicken…”
He plonked the bagged chicken on top of the wrapped meat.
“I can get four meals out of a chook, you know.”
“Good for you, Mrs Anderson.”
“It’s Beryl, how many times do I have to…”
“I brought the boys up to respect their seniors, Beryl.”
“Well, Mrs Anderson died yonks ago. Dear old Mum-in-law, rest her soul. No, I’d rather be Beryl, thanks. That’s the name I was given… and while you can’t stop getting older, boys, you don’t have to grow up, do you, Paul?”
“Fine advice, Mrs Ander… Beryl…” Luke said. “That’ll be twenty dollars and thirty cents. Twenty will be fine.”
Beryl took out her purse and opened it.
“Oh, for Fred’s sake, I forgot to go to the ATM.”
“Any time you’re passing, Beryl,” said Paul. “I know you’re not leaving town.”
“Oh ta, Paul… Hey, Luke, you’re young and groovy. Do you know the name of that Afro-American Kardashian thing that’s running for President?”
“Kanye West,” Luke replied.
“Saw him ranting and raving on the telly. I don’t think he’s the full quid.”
“Of course, he’s not,” said Troy, returning the carcass to the cool-room. “The Full Quid is a different rapper. He’s in a band with Fifty Cents.”
“Just Troy’s attempt at humour,” said Luke.
Troy often shot from the lip with attempted humour, sometimes nailing the target and sometimes misfiring. It was partly why he had gained a reputation around town for being a bit of a cheeky smartarse. A loveable cheeky smartarse, but a smartarse just the same. Luke, on the other hand, was several years older and more a chip off the old block. He’d settled. He’d married Jenny and given Paul and Barbara two lovely grandsons.
Paul removed his blue and gold striped apron, picked up the tray of sausages and headed to the door.
“See you at Monday’s community meeting, Beryl?” he asked.
“I wouldn’t miss it for quids. Even if he is a rapper.”
Monday’s planned community meeting only had one item on the agenda. To have a communal think-tank brainstorm-thingummy to come up with a strategy to get people to turn off the bypass and pay the town a visit.
The meeting had been advertised in the local paper, on the local radio station and in the local newsagency. The newsagency provided window space as a noticeboard for lost and found, bought and sold and events like community meetings. The notification regarding the community meeting was on A4 paper next to a glossy poster promoting the upcoming Picnic Races and Race Ball. It read, ‘BYPASS COMMUNITY MEETING, MONDAY 5:30PM, ST URSULA’S CHURCH HALL. ALL WELCOME.’
Paul poked his head in the front door. The newsagent, Geoff Jackson, was behind the counter.
“Morning Geoff,” Paul said. “Thanks for sticking that in the window.”
“No problem, Paul. But why five-thirty? I’d like to be part of it but I don’t close until six, eh.”
“I thought you’d sell most of your papers in the morning.”
“Afternoon people buy Lotto and scratchies on the way home from work.”
“But on Monday everyone will be at the meeting.”
“Oh yeah. Good point. I’ll close early. Those snags for the sizzle?”
“Jane’s helping Father Ryan,”
“That’s good of her.”
“Might as well be there as here, eh. Very, very quiet…”
They were an interesting couple, Geoff and Jane.
As Geoff was more than happy to tell anyone who could be bothered to listen, he was very community minded. He was a member of Rotary, Lions and the Masonic Lodge. And he worked with the annual show, the bush Fire Brigade, the Men’s Shed, the Chamber of Commerce and the P&C. He also had a disconcerting habit of finishing sentences with ‘eh’, as if it was a form of confirmation or affirmation. No question mark by way of inflection, just a full-stop.
“If you want something done, ask a busy person, eh.”
Some people might have been as unkind to have called Geoff as dumb as a bag of hammers, but not Paul.
Paul always tried to find some way of describing people positively.
For example, he might have said that Geoff ‘had his heart in the right place, but was sometimes inclined to think beyond his means,’ and of Jane he might have said that she ‘had her heart in the right place, but was sometimes inclined to drink beyond both their means’. Other people, however, may have been as unkind to have called Jane a screaming, fall-down, grab-the-carpet, away-with-the-fairies, wino-dipsomaniac.
There were very few secrets in Mitchell’s Crossing.
Father John Ryan enjoyed a drink but was certainly no alcoholic. He was as sharp-as-a-tack, kind at heart and wily, witty and wise. He was trusted, liked and respected by Catholics and non-Catholics alike. He had the gift-of-the-gab and a likeable style of salesmanship. He could probably talk a vegan into chipping in for a sausage.
When Paul arrived at the hardware store, Father Ryan was in full swing with onions simmering and smelling wonderful on the hotplate.
“Morning John. There you go,” said Paul, putting the sausages on the table next to the barbeque. He was one of very few to call the good Father by his first name. Of course, he recognised the important role the clergy play as part of a community but he also saw him as a mate.
“Good timing, Paul. She’s nice and hot.”
“My turn with the tongs tomorrow. Looking forward to a social catch up.”
“Me too. Pity it’s not at my place as well as yours.”
“You never give up hope, do you? One o’clock?”
“Perfect. It’s eleven o’clock at my place.”
“No thanks, you might get us at Easter. Would you mind reminding your flock about Monday night’s meeting?”
“It’s in the newsletter and I’ll mention it again.”
He put some sausages onto the hot plate.
Paul looked up the street. He loved his little town. There was a lot of old-world charm. Awnings supported by timber posts covered the footpath. Form and function. It gave the street a heritage personality and shielded shoppers from the rain, which was rare. Window boxes adorned the facades with flowers spilling over the edges – petunias, geraniums, zinnias, begonias, impatiens and cascading vinca and heather. The flora was another nod to Cunningham the botanist and was instigated by Paul in his first term as mayor.
The town was named after the explorer and surveyor, Thomas Livingstone Mitchell who, when he wasn’t busy exploring and surveying, was busy procreating. He and his wife, Mary, had twelve children. Obviously before television was invented. Paul couldn’t imagine twelve kids under one roof, but he was mighty proud of the brood he and Barbara had raised.
Keeping up with innovations like broadband, wi-fi and satellite television connected the town to the rest of the planet and almost made Mitchell’s Crossing the perfect place to live. People provide a community, of course, and other people passing through provided the town’s arteries with oxygen. But the bypass had pretty much put a stop to that.
He looked across the street.
The Greek fish and chip shop was also a family run business. The local trade kept the bills paid for Theo and Sophie Loukassis but, without the travellers pulling in, it was a struggle. Likewise, next door, Sally Boland, the hairdresser. She didn’t rely on passing trade but locals had cut back on cuts and styles.
“The bypass affected your turnover, John?” Paul asked.
“Numbers haven’t dwindled but plate-takings have dropped. Belts are being tightened. Thanks for your support, Paul. Fundraisers really help.”
“Meat is just my way of putting something on the plate.”
“It is much appreciated. And I tell you, it’s hard yakka finding an optimistic sermon these days, what with Covid, the recession and the bypass.”
“I guess I’ll just have to be a bit more inventive in the tin-rattling department.”
“But there’s only so much tin-rattling a town can take.”
Geoff’s other half, Jane, joined them, wearing a hand-made apron and a vacant smile. She was sucking on spearmint Tic-Tacs. It was a habit she developed years ago, in case her breath gave away her well-known secret.
Jane moved with an unusual gait… a curious cross between a shuffle and a high-step. A Shetland attempting dressage. She put two loaves of white, sliced bread and a petty cash tin on the table.
“There we go, Father. Oh. Hello Mayor. Would you like a sausage sandwich?”
“Not until they’re cooked thanks, Jane.”
“Oh Goodio. Sauce?”
“Not until they’re cooked thanks, Jane.”
“Oh yes. Goodio.”
“So, tell me, Jane,” Paul said. “Is this bypass getting on Geoff’s and your goat too?”
“We haven’t got a goat, Mayor.”
Father Ryan smiled and turned the sausages. He and Paul shared a belief that the only good steak was medium-rare and that you could never overcook a sausage.
“Oh, and I know you’re not a follower, Paul, but I like the look of number six in the fifth at Flemington this arvo… Divine Comedy… could be divine intervention…”
“And it could be a hopeless joke. Good luck with it. Oh, hang about. What’s happening up there?”
The sound of a little burnt rubber turned their heads. A utility vehicle had screeched into a 45-degree parking spot in front of the Country Kitchen Café. U-Turns were easy in a street initially made wide enough to turn a bullock dray, but they were usually undertaken with less haste. Two men got out, the driver slamming his door shut.
They were dressed in what you could call ‘posh rural’ – pressed moleskin trousers, polished riding boots and expensive shirts with sleeves rolled to the elbow. It was attire that would be at home at the polo, a stock auction or the Member’s area at a race meeting and was a bit too upmarket to be stocked by the Mitchell’s Crossing Menswear shop. The men retrieved a large sign from the back of the ute and walked towards the café.
“Ohhh, it’s Gareth and his boy again,” said Paul. “He’s a nice enough kid. He’s lucky he fell a bit away from the tree. But it looks like Gareth is on a mission. I’ll catch you later, John…”
Paul headed towards the café with a spring in his step.
Gareth Baxter was a wealthy landowner. He ran a large cattle property and he once ran for Mayor against Paul. Unsuccessfully. He made a tidy sum when he sold the land for the bypass to the government and secured the rights to build and operate the leases for fuel and food franchise at the roadhouse.
Inside the café, the owner, Mary, was serving carrot-cake and coffee when Gareth and his son walked through the door carrying the hand-written sign. They propped it against the counter. It read…
‘TURN RIGHT TO MITCHELL’S CROSSING FOR MARY’S COUNTRY KITCHEN CAFÉ – THE BEST PIES IN QLD – AND WE’VE GOT SERVOS IN TOWN, TOO!’
“Right, Mary,” Gareth said. “What you are doing is illegal and downright irritating.”
“I haven’t done anything, Mr Baxter…”
“I know you didn’t personally swing the hammer. That would been your useless other half…”
Her ‘useless other half’ was her husband, Nick. Nick suffered from post-traumatic stress following a tour of duty in Afghanistan. He was on a military service pension but did handyman work around town. Things like cleaning gutters and changing washers and lightbulbs in the retirement village. He also mowed lawns. Beryl Anderson was one of his regulars.
“We’ve got to do something Mr Baxter. The bypass is killing the business. We used to rely on passing trade… and visitors to other businesses meant the locals could afford to come in here… not nearly as much anymore.”
“Not my problem, Mary.”
“No, it’s really not his problem,” echoed the son.
“Shut up, Angus,” he barked. It was the verbal equivalent of a clip across the back of the head.
“You’re my problem, Mary,” Gareth continued. “I’ve got a professional billboard that I pay good money for to advertise fuel and food two kilometres straight ahead. I don’t need your amateur signage to detract from it.”
Paul Cameron entered and took up a position between the Baxters and Mary.
“Good morning, Mary. Got an issue, Gareth?”
“Yes. Yes, I do, Paul. That crappy sign was illegally erected on my land, specifically to divert traffic away from my roadhouse.”
“I’d say more specifically to attract traffic here or to inform that there are choices.”
“Yeah, crap,” echoed Angus.
Gareth clipped him around the back of the head with a look.
“I pay the government a licence fee for my billboard. Do you, Mary?”
“It’s not technically a billboard, Mr Baxter. It’s a sign.”
“It’s a sign of the times and you are not going to get away with it…”
Paul cut across what was fast becoming a threat.
“You’ve made your point, Gareth. Mary will desist.”
“I can press charges.”
“You won’t. Now, take the sign and bugger off.”
“Take the sign?” Gareth laughed. “It’s not my sign.”
“Possession is nine tenths of the law, Gareth. So, you can return it to where you removed it from and lodge a formal complaint, or dispose of it as you wish.”
“I’ve got half a mind to…”
“Look for the other half. Goodbye Gareth.”
“Don’t pick a fight with me, Cameron.”
Gareth was seething. He and Angus picked up the sign. Angus turned to Mary.
“It’s too wordy as well,” he said.
“Shut up, Angus,” Gareth said through gritted teeth, dragging the sign and the son towards the ute.
“Thanks, Paul,” Mary said.
“No worries. But probably best not to do it again,” Paul replied with a wink. “There’s an old saying, ‘never end up in court against someone who owns their own plane.’ Okay, it’s not a saying, but you know what I mean. He’s not a man you’d want to cross.”
“He’s a pig,” said Beryl Anderson. “Here’s your twenty, Mayor. I went to the ATM.”
Yes, it was a Saturday morning much like any other in Mitchell’s Crossing, unless there was rain, which was rare.
Oh! Apart from a couple of kilometres out of town at the Cunningham Gardens Blueberry Farm where an English fruit-picking backpacker by the name of Oliver Maxwell was bitten by a bull-ant.
On his penis.
Oliver Maxwell. Or, as Troy Cameron would ask him after he started dating his sister, Jesse…
“Is that two first names or two last names?”
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