A short story about love, timing, and the chocolate aisle at Coles.
Williamstown – or ‘Willi’ as the locals call it – is a quiet, coastal suburb in Melbourne, Australia. It’s an amalgam of several different identities – a small country town, yet it’s located 11km from the CBD, a tight-knit beachside community, a safe Labor seat but growing increasingly bougie with an exceedingly high housing market. Williamstown’s hub of culture, gossip, drama, and fresh foods is the giant Coles that sits smack back in the middle of Douglas Parade, a thoroughfare of cafes, bakeries, fruit shops, and boutiques that don’t make enough money. It’s the one place where you’ll definitely run into someone you know.
The soft sand weighs heavy on Annie’s ankles this evening, as she trudges her way through it on her daily run to the lifesaving club and back. The music pumping in her ears usually does the trick – convincing her she’s on some big chase in a movie, or she’s nailing a performance dancing her ass off, or just imagining herself achieving things – Logies, Emmys, a TV show of her own, a beautiful partner in a big house with lots of plants and Gorman homewares, and magazine spreads asking the ever-dull question how DOES she do it!?. But tonight, with the Southerly wind pushing her backwards and the sand thrashing into her shins, she’s having a rough run. Willi beach isn’t long, the beach itself is only 300 metres or so, but Annie chooses to run on the soft sand to give herself an extra workout. The waves next to her crash and retreat, crash and retreat, washing up seaweed, big jellyfish, and whatever other mysteries (or plastic) lurk below in the deeply navy-coloured waters of Port Phillip Bay. She can’t wait for this to be over, to be sitting at home, in the warmth, eating chow mein or whatever was for dinner.
The only thought cycling through Emma’s mind over and over as she watched the malevolent man in front of her screaming at this group of innocents was let this end. The group – terrified, sweating and completely under the muscly gentleman’s thumb – subserviently obeyed his every command. “Now lift those buns!” he said as if this wasn’t some form of torture after an already gruling day typing “as per my last email” and “we’ll touch base tomorrow”.
“Alright time to climb the mountain! Bring your gears up to 14! Climb the mountain! Let’s GO!” he yelled. Emma wondered if this toned, perky young man got some sort of pleasure out of making self-conscious women pretend they were riding along a hilly Italian countryside, when in fact they were all stuffed into a gym room just off Mason Street in Altona. She couldn’t wait to get home, make ravioli with some stir-through and basil, and watch Bachelor in Paradise.
Kerry’s late. Kerry’s always bloody late. The Westgate is consistently chock-a-block during peak hour (no shit, sherlock) and she’s always the last one to pick up her son from the bus stop. He’s always sitting there, with his giant school bag, looking as if he’s lived a harrowing life of neglect. As Kerry finally pulls up, Chris begrudgingly stands and trods over to the boot to dump his bags.
“Hey mate, how’s it going?” offers Kerry. She’d given up on apologising for being late years ago – it seemed implied at this point.
“Good,” grumbled Chris.
Kerry’s plan was to go to Coles straight after picking up her son, and cook a nice dinner of mash potatoes, lamb cutlets and veggies. Her plan changed, however, when she looked at Chris’ slumped demeanour and she thought to herself, same.
“Let’s get fish ‘n’ chips”, she conceded.
“Cool,” mumbled Chris.
Cool actually meant thanks so much mum wow you’re the best and I’m so thankful you pick me up day in day out after a hard day at work!!!!! Well, cool from Chris didn’t really mean that, but Kerry was trying to keep positive. They picked up the food and ate scolding-hot chips on the drive home in silence. It was their weekly ritual.
In Coles Williamstown, the chocolate aisle was a place many people slowly waltzed through. Some folks excitedly grabbed a chocolate block they so craved, others tempted themselves – making an internal promise that they were “just having a look” when really they were there to grab a block of Top Deck and break whatever diet plans they fooled themselves into having this week. The best time to go to the chocolate aisle at Coles is around 10pm. There was more of a sense of community around that time – everyone donning their ugg boots, trackies, big hoodies, leggings, messy buns, even pyjamas – you’ll always see at least one person in their pyjamas at Coles Williamstown after 10pm. No one holding a basket – their hands instead are full of their phone, car keys, wallet, and a packet of Tim Tams or a bag of Malteasers. It’s a mad, late night dash to the supermarket where you pray you don’t run into anyone you know.
In her old sports gear, a messy ponytail and sandy runners, Annie walked through the car park in the darkness, her eyes fixated on the bright, giant building and the glowing red letters spelling out COLES. At this time, on a Monday night, surely there shouldn’t be too many people she knew roaming the aisles. Mondays were a day where you were meant to have a firm grasp on the days ahead – you buy your groceries on Sunday to last you a few days, you haven’t diverted from the healthy plan you have in your head, and you go to bed early. At least, those are things Annie believed you should be doing on a Monday. But she was a uni student now. She had her driver’s license. She could do whatever the hell she wants! Even if she still lives at home! Once the glowing lights enveloped her, she beelined for the chocolate aisle, faltering from her war-path only briefly as she diverted slightly to see what baked goods were on sale. All the donuts were gone, so this diversion was a waste.
Back on track, she turned into the aisle and collided basket-first with Matt Anders, her primary school crush. A tall, handsome, brunette man who had battled puberty and come out on the other side having absolutely crushed it.
“Ahhhh I’m so sorry!” Annie cooed, gingerly picking up her basket and keys off the ground, hoping she was looking gorgeously normal but, like, also accidentally hot.
“No no no, it was my bad!” Matt chuckled.
They studied each other for a moment as they picked up their belongings.
“You’re Annie, right? I think… we used to go to primary school together?”
Annie pretended to pause, mull this information, and in a Meryl Streep-worthy performance she pretended a lightbulb went off in her brain as if she hadn’t thought about this man on and off for the last 8 years.
“Oh my god, we did! M-Matt? It’s Matt, yeah?” I’m a regular fucking Zooey Deschanel, she thought to herself.
“Yeah! We did grade 5 together I think” He pondered.
“And maybe grade 3?”
“Oh yeah, and grade 3! How’ve you been? Are you at uni this year?
“Yeah I’m doing Arts at Melbourne Uni this year. I’ve been good! So glad to be done with exams and stuff, so nervous about uni though” she said proudly. Annie had wanted to go to Melbourne Uni for so long, and she studied hard all through year 12 to get there.
“I’m going to Melbourne too! Doing Science though. I guess I might see you on the bus there? You have to get off the train at North Melbourne then get a bus apparently” said Matt.
“Ugh, true. A train and bus! That’s gonna be so annoying” she fake-laughed.
“Yeah I know”, he fake-laughed back. “Well I better run, I was just grabbing some snacks. Gotta beat the rain! Maybe see ya tomorrow on the bus?”
“Hopefully!” she chirped, immediately regretting it. And with that, he walked away. His footy jumper fading into the distance.
10 minutes later her phone buzzed. A notification gleaming back at her.
Matt Anders has sent you a friend request.
Annie’s heart raced. Her smile widened. This was really gonna be her year.
Emma, standing there in Coles in her big hoodie and trackies, grabbed a packet of double coated Tim Tams, some homebrand brie, and darted for the self checkout. She witnessed two babies – okay, they had to be at least eighteen years old if they were in Coles alone at this time of night – collide and awkwardly flirt about their upcoming uni adventures. Good riddance, thought Emma, that she didn’t have to relive those awkward days after high school where you’re not a kid and you’re not an adult. Those days are exciting, scary, and full of promise – but they’re also full of idiocy, mistakes, and thinking you’re an adult when you’re really, really not.
Once she was in her little red Yaris, she plugged the aux cord into her phone, put on some Amy Shark, and sped off out of the car park. You could drive a bit recklessly around Williamstown at this time of night, as there was truly no one else on the road and barely any traffic lights holding you back. She sang loudly, in time with the music, TELL THEM ALL I SAID HI feeling free, dangerous, alive. The music blasted, the car raced, and then–
Emma’s heart skipped. No. No no no no no no.
She immediately pulled her car over, looked out to the road, and saw a body lying limp on Victoria Street.
Shit shit shit shit, fuck fuck fuck no no no this isn’t happening please god tell me this isn’t happening she thought panickedly. When in reality, she knew it had already happened. She had seen it, she couldn’t pretend she hadn’t seen it, and there wasn’t any going back now.
Looking at the ice cream selection, Kerry couldn’t decide between a tub of Connoisseur or a pack of roasted almond Magnums. If any of the tennis mums saw her now, she’d die. Well, she wouldn’t die, but it was certainly a situation she’d do anything to avoid. So much so that when she saw Catrina Nichols from the club enter the aisle, Kerry panicked and grabbed the Coles-brand vanilla ice cream and briskly walked in the opposite direction. Surely Catrina had seen her, but maybe Catrina didn’t want to be seen either. That was the “community spirit” around this time of night in Willi – normal rules were on pause, you didn’t have to look polished, and no one wanted to be noticed anyway. Everyone pretended not to see each other, like it was an unspoken agreement. As she rounded the corner into a new aisle away from Catrina, she looked down at the panicked, random choice of ice cream in her basket. Nothing seemed to be going right for her today, and it was only Monday. In the chocolate aisle, she looked at the Yowies wondering if her sons would be happy if she brought some home. Surely they’re much too old for Yowies now, but they used to love them. She bought one anyway, for herself, or if – just in case – she mustered up the courage to give one to Chris. In the corner of her eye she spotted Pete and Susan’s daughter… gah, what’s her name? She coached the boys in tennis years ago. She profiled the woman again. Ohhh, it’s Emma. Emma Davidson. Little Emmy Davidson yes yes yes. Despite looking how everyone looked in this aisle at this time of night, under the flickering fluorescent lights, Emma had grown into a sophisticated woman. Good for you, doll.
When Kerry got home, feeling the Yowie in her pocket, she looked at Chris and bailed on the idea. Maybe she’d give it to her older son Matt, who had matured into a sweet, sensitive young man and maybe he’d appreciate the gesture. She looked for him around the house and couldn’t find him.
“Where’s Matt?” Kerry asked Chris.
“He ran up to Coles, doing a snack run” he grumbled.
Kerry was immediately annoyed. She had told the boys she was going to Coles, they could’ve asked her to put something on the list or hell, they could even accompany her, or – god forbid – they ask their mother if they could pick up something for her.
“He ran to Coles? It’s just started raining!” she was fuming. Chris shrugged and kept playing Fortnite. Kerry grabbed her car keys, deciding to see if Matt was still there and she could pick him up.
“Be back soon, love” Kerry said, to no response.
The streets of Williamstown after 9pm are desolate. The roads are breathtakingly quiet. Houses are lit up in the darkness, the smell of garlic and onions cooking lingers in the streets as the last people walking home from the station after a long day scurry to their doors, dreaming of microwaving the dinner they’ve missed. Driving on an empty road is an absolute treat in Melbourne. Most roads around here are perpetually busy, or they’re at least subject to awfully dense peak-hour jams. Williamstown is especially deserted in its quiet, off-peak periods. Sure, in summer there’ll be hoons skidding down the esplanade near the beach, blasting music and doing donuts. But now, in August, on a chilly Monday night, the streets sat silent, the roads untouched like pure snow. Everyone here thinks they have the roads to themselves at this time of night.
After receiving the friend request from Matt, Annie had waited 10 minutes to accept. You gotta be cool about it. And yet, cool she wasn’t. She hadn’t swiped the banner away from her notifications, despite the fact she’d already checked and responded to it. She just liked looking at Matt Anders has sent you a friend request every now and then. She’d rethought her uni outfit for tomorrow, deciding to opt for something a little more cute. Skinny jeans, black boots, and a black jumper. Very Melbourne indeed. She clicked Matt’s name to open up a new message, because now that he’s made a move, Annie should hit the ball back – initiate something bold herself. He hadn’t been active for over an hour.
Heyaaa! Nice seeing you in Coles tonight haha. How’s the snacks? 🙂
She stared at the message sitting in the drafts box. Should she be more forward? Or say something cute like save me a seat on the bus tomorrow? No, that would be insane. No one actually messages like that. She can’t really ask how he’s going, she just saw him an hour ago and he seemed fine. But she wanted to ask a question so he’d have to respond. She heard a high-pitched noise in the distance. Bloody hoons.
She hit send, and stared at her screen. She checked her phone again despite no notification coming through.
100 metres away, a little further down Victoria street, Emma Davidson sat in the gutter next to the body she had hit an hour ago. She hadn’t called an ambulance or the police, but she hadn’t run away either. She just sat in the rain, paralysed. She kept wishing, over and and over, that she’d left Coles five minutes earlier. Or later. Or had been focusing on the road. Not screaming Amy Shark. Why didn’t she just stay home? The streets were still empty, thankfully, which provided Emma time to think. Not that she was using her time very wisely.
Suddenly, blinding lights cut through the shimmers of rainfall and a car approached, lighting up Emma’s contorted face, and – not to mention – the twisted corpse that lay on the road in front of her. A figure – a middle aged woman perhaps, based on the length of cardigan (long), length of hair (short), and width of hips (wide) – flung the car door open and ran straight to Emma.
“What happened? Are you alright dear?” the long cardigan said.
Emma stared blankly, her face wet from the rain.
“My name is Kerry Anders, I’m a social worker – I mean, I’m not on duty right now but I’m here to help! Can you hear me? W-wait you’re Emma, right?” No response, just more blank stare.
Kerry looked around and saw the body – how had she missed the body? It lay there, in the rain, a tall figure splayed out on the asphalt. She felt a pang of fear deep in her chest. She felt the Yowie, now melted and deformed, in her pocket. She looked at the blood-covered hoodie and the wavy brunette hair swept across the road.
And she screamed.
Emma understood now why these types of screams were described as “blood curdling” – her entire body felt as though it was going to tremor out its own skin. Screams like this weren’t heard in Williamstown, and certainly not at this time of night. The scream cut through the town like a hot knife easily slicing a thick cake.
Emma didn’t know who this woman was, but she wanted to give her a hug. She felt sick, like her stomach had eaten itself, shat itself out, and eaten it again. The thought made Emma dry-heave.
On the wet, glistening road, the body’s trackies lit up. Kerry, now drenched and shivering, pulled the phone out of her son’s pocket. His phone. Matt’s phone continued to operate on his behalf, like an extension of his existence. But deep down, Kerry knew that’s not how life worked. Matt was gone. Taken from her by this… woman. Emma from the boys’ tennis days.
She looked at the notification on her son’s phone.
Annie Parker has sent you a message