One Corner of a Poster in a BP Roadhouse28 February 2017
Pies in Ponds was the last pie floater stand in South Australia. Em found it drunk and dreaming.
They were coming off a pre-drinks that had gone harder than they were aware of. Shouting about how poor their grades were to nobody and singing with the ticket inspectors but thinking that they could easily pass as only three drinks in. Without telling anyone, someone, Em thinks it must have been Grant, just got off and they were all swept along with him.
So they ended up two stops from the city, on the fringes of the inner suburbs. Only avoiding the cops because they didn’t stay in one place long enough for the old people to get out of their beds and to their phones to complain. They played with a Sherrin they found in the middle of the road, stealing some poor kid’s Christmas present for the sake of ‘shenanigans’. Lara had her head on Em’s shoulder, crying about Grant, or some boy, or something, but Em didn’t take any of it in. Em thought about that kid, and the lecture they’d get from their dad about responsibility for their belongings and how the kid would beg please, please, they’ll do the dishes for a month if they can just get it back.
The rest of the night was a blur. The boys raiding backyards, appearing from nowhere with wife beaters and cork hats. Aaron shoving stubby holders onto her hands which Em thinks was flirting. Being shocked at finding a 7-Eleven. The smell of homebrand surface cleaner. Grant pissing on the counter. Running from sirens that they weren’t sure they were imagining, down side-streets and alleys until somehow they found it. Pies in Ponds.
Pies in Ponds operated out of a rusting second-hand Ford Transit. A window had been cut out of the side door with what could only have been a power saw, which would explain the tape covering the exposed, tetanus-infested edges. The counter was made of plywood. The ‘kitchen’ seemed to be a microwave and countless Tupperware containers. It was painted in a pea-green that didn’t do many favours. Pie floater was misspelt in the menu.
Inside, cramped and too tall for his van, was Shane. Hair on the forearms, rolled up sleeves, wouldn’t look too out of place in a Snowtown casting call. Shane spoke in grunts.
They tried to get Shane to talk but he wouldn’t.
He only spoke to tell them that they’d have to buy something or piss off. So they paid $3.50 to eat a swamp. Em ate it expecting some secrets of the elders. For it to open her third eye, or make her want to live in Adelaide until she carked it.
What she got was a half-cooked meat pie that tasted vaguely mush. Her eyes met Shane as if to say “What?” Shane smiled. He knew. Walter vommed and they called it a night. Em said goodbye to Shane and he nodded.
Em woke up on the floor, hungover and wrapped in tinfoil she mistook for a blanket. She opened her phone and deferred her next semester. Everyone laughed and tried to piece together everything over bottled shake-mix pancakes. They were convinced Shane wasn’t real. The others went on about how he was a creep and how shit pie floaters were and Em nodded her head but couldn’t stop thinking about that van.
The police came for Grant which was a whole thing for a while, but Em got off.
She waited about a week until she couldn’t stop herself from going back. She tried googling it but she couldn’t find an exact location, so she tried retracing their steps from the night. The 7-Eleven had closed down. When she finally found the right alleyway, after stumbling into two different drug deals, Shane was napping on the counter when she sat down.
“Remember me?” she asked. Shane nodded.
“Dunno how I could forget you lot.” She ordered a floater as an excuse to keep talking, which Shane didn’t do a whole lot of. Ask him his footy team he’d say Norwood. Ask him if he lives around those parts he’d say nah. Yea nah nah yeah yea yea nah fuck the Magpies. Have ya got a wife? Nah. And that’d be it. Shane would drop his head and start washing mugs that no one had actually used.
Em ate the rest of her pie in silence. Still nothing.
“I’ll see you tomorrow Shane.”
“See ya then,” said Shane, not believing.
To her word, she came back tomorrow. She sat down, and thought she hallucinated seeing two Shanes. She didn’t, it was Doug, Shane’s son. Doug spoke in grunts. Em watched as they grunted at each other. She bought a pie and smiled. Em came back day after day, but slowed down a bit after the honeymoon period. When she told her friends they all said ‘that’s nice’ but started a new group-chat without her.
Em learned a lot about Shane even if she had to piece together all the fragments. His dad had opened the pie cart back in the early days, and it was a really successful family business. It was a known treasure of the city back in the day, dating back to the late 1800s. Shane never wanted to run it. His dream was to be Australia’s first Olympic gold medalist in weightlifting. He was on track as well until a torn ACL ruined any chance of ever coming back (“they didn’t have the same steroids back in those days”). At the same time his dad died, and he didn’t have anything else planned, so he took over. While Shane never smiled, Em could tell he was smiling even less when he said this.
“What about your wife?” Em asked one day.
“I cheated,” Shane said. And that was it.
Em would come in and spout facts about pie floaters and Shane would listen politely.
“Did you know that the pie floater was named a heritage icon of South Australia back in ‘03?”
“Oh so that’s what that letter was going on about”. And so on.
Em fell in love for just a moment. Doug was washing the tupperware in the sink when they locked eyes. They’d have their reception out the back of the cart in the carpark of a nice looking church, with little artisanal pie floater canapés. Her dad would shake hands with Shane and they’d nod and maybe lean over something and have a dad chat about dad things, and he wouldn’t like Shane or Doug but he wouldn’t say it out loud for a couple of years ‘cos he loves her. Their honeymoon would be in Bali but she’d make sure to take him away from Kuta Beach to get the ‘real experience’. When they got back they’d take out a loan and get a reasonably priced but smaller than they’d hoped for home in walking distance of Norwood Oval. In the morning, she’d cook the soup for the cart and store it into the Tupperware they got from Shane when he cried for the first time after the wedding and told them he loved them. Doug would sleep in till two after getting home at three in the morning selling pies to drunks, so they’d have afternoon tea and coffee and the two would sit and read the newspaper and not say too much. When she didn’t, Doug would go to work while she slept, and would always wake her up when he crashed into bed but Em would never mind.
The next moment, Doug put the dishes in the rack and asked Em what she wanted. She thought about the church, the coffee, being woken up by the sheets moving every morning. “A pie,” she said. “I think I want a pie.” Doug gave it to her for free. She ate it. Maybe something?
“Y’know Em,” Shane said, “if you want, you can work with us if you want. I can’t really pay you, but you’re here all the time anyway.”
Em had never said yes quicker. Em put on an apron, smiled, and didn’t serve a single person.
One day Em came and the cart wasn’t there. She sat in the alley on a crate that smelled like the smoke of a uni student. “This is odd,” she thought. “Shane must be sick, and Doug must not have enough time to take over the cart. I will come back tomorrow.” So Em came back tomorrow. She sat on the same crate, with the same smell and the cart was not there. “This is odd,” she thought. “They must have taken an impromptu holiday, Shane did mention that he needed a break, and it is the lowest point of the pie season, so they’ve taken a week break. I will come back in a week.” So Em came back in a week. No cart. A month. No cart. The shops next door bought more bins instead. Em got in the bins and pretended they were a hip pop-up pie stand in a cute Melbourne alleyway. As she handed out a soy-latte to a bearded man that wasn’t there, she realised. Pies in Ponds was gone.
Em went into the fruit store across the road to see if they knew anything but they didn’t. An old lady by the pumpkins said that she knew Shane and called him a bastard. Said that she hung out at the pub Shane drank at and that he was a real piece of work. Em asked for the name of the pub and was looking up the quickest Metro route to The Old Colonial before she had even passed the bananas out front.
She took one tram and two sketchy bus changeovers to get there. The chalkboard out front showed happy hour prices that confirmed this was not a student hangout. Em walked in and hid in the ladies’ for ten minutes after making eye contact with one greyhound watching punter. The air smelt of stale cigarettes and cheap parmigianas. Em found a stool between two quiet men and faked a cough until the bartender woke up. She asked for a beer but panicked when the bartender asked what type so she fell back on West End and couldn’t tell whether or not he was judging her. With the voice of a private school kid trying to buy weed for the first time she asked: “does anyone know what happened to Shane with the pie cart here?”
It felt like the whole pub stopped. Heads turned and pints hung in stasis between table and mouth.
“Shane? Do I fucken ever,” said the bartender. Everyone knew what happened to Shane or at least had their own yarn of it. The son was sick of his dad so he took a golf club to the van and ran away. Nah nah, the cops were after Shane cos he’s the one that stole those three kids from the beach. Someone else heard it from someone else that he’d pissed off some Maggies fans when he was down at the Fisherman’s Wharf one Sunday and now they were out to get him so he was hiding out in Victoria. All the big blokes with beards agreed that he was buying heroin off bikies and owed them a fucktonne so they’d taken a torch to the Ford while Shane was inside it.
Em was yelled at on the bus home, drunker and more uncertain than she’d ever been. She wished she’d asked for a landline.
Sometime after, Em found herself on the Firefly to Melbourne. She wasn’t sure why, but her mum had said it would do good for her, so she packed a backpack and rocked up to the busport two hours too early. The driver had put on what Em assumed must have been a straight-to-DVD movie. It was something about a talking galah, which she watched with one earphone in. The kids behind her laughed.
Halfway to Victoria was a roadhouse just out of Ararat. She’d tried to sleep but it was 3a.m. now and nothing was happening so she got off. She ordered a fish-cake from the tired looking woman at the counter. The woman said they were out of fish-cakes but they could fry one up if you’d like and Em failed to see in the woman’s eyes that she really wanted Em to order something else.
On the wall was a faded poster from the ‘80s. Come see Adelaide. A rollercoaster in a West Field. Flared pants down Rundle Mall. Down in the corner: “you haven’t tried Adelaide till you’ve tried a pie-floater”. A couple smiles in front of a cart with a face that could have been Shane in a younger life. Could it? Em couldn’t tell, but it sure did look like him.
Em stepped outside. The clouds were out. The black of the sky crept up on the safehaven of the BP. It was so cold. She hoped for some stars but it was overcast.
Em went to Melbourne, but she doesn’t remember it.
When she got back, Em was strung along to an SANFL game. Norwood and Port. There was meant to be entry fee but the club waived it. Two thousand people were there officially but it looked like twenty. The Norwood cheer squad was a guy with a flag. The Port fans were drunk and angry. Across the field Em saw a crooked red-and-black scarf hanging like something.
Shane didn’t react when he saw Em so she didn’t either. They spoke in small talk. Darren had found some stable work and was dating a girl who was a bit odd but she brought out the best in him. Shane spoke of boys with muscles kicking balls that only he would know. He listened to Em list the three things that had happened since they’d spoken. They drank beer in silence and Em smiled. Then she turned to him and asked those lingering two words: “what happened?”
Shane was still. Visions of men on bikes, of needles in arms, Port fans with hammers danced through Em’s head. Shane sighed.
“I dunno what to say Em. People just don’t want pie floaters anymore.”
Norwood kicked a goal and the guy with the flag went nuts.