The clowns I once called my friends begged me not to write any of this down. That’s not the way it’s supposed to happen, I told them. You’re supposed to encourage me, then congratulate me when it’s finished. But they couldn’t stand the idea from the start. Some of them even tried to stop me. They threatened me with various physical injuries. Snapped fingers, dead legs—the usual things. I told them respectable people were keen to know the finer details. People like the police, lawyers and, best of all, judges. But did they listen? No. It’s as if none of them could see a future for themselves in these respectable professions. And on that score, they were right. There is no future for us. I know that. It would be far easier for me to shut up and die. But I’m like a monk who gives up all his possessions and hits the road. Only my friends are my possessions; and this story is my road. I can’t help myself. If faced with a choice between telling it like it is and telling a lie—even if that lie will save my life—I’ll opt for the truth. Besides, I love reminiscing. Which explains everything—or nothing.
Unemployed at last!
JOSEPH FURPHY, Such is Life (1903)
. . . . . . . . .
Well, not exactly. Yes, they sacked me in the end. But it’s not possible that this magnificent event happened all on its own. Science tells us the opposite. There’s a theory of the Universe with which you may be familiar. It’s about the energy generated by the explosion that created said Universe. You know, the Big Bang. The theory goes that this energy gives momentum to everything that happens. Everything that happens does so for a reason. It’s not a question of chance. There’s no such thing. Unless you think a tiny speck of burning vapour flew out of the Sun and created the Earth by accident. If you believe that, I can’t help you. Everything that happens was always going to happen. Not only the present circumstance. Every single incident, past and present. There is another theory. It’s about me being a self-taught smart-arse, but you get my drift. According to this theory, I may make my own choices. Take my chances, the same as anyone else does. This theory suits me better, even though it makes life complicated. Especially when it interacts with the first one. But this second one explains why I’ve got so much time on my hands.
If none of that makes sense, let me put it in plain English. Things happen, then you die. Do what you want to do, or don’t. Your choice. But it’s all meant to happen, regardless. Even if nothing happens. Which is an exact description of my life, looking ahead. It’s over. I’ll be sitting around doing nothing from now on. And that’s a high-risk strategy. Because when you’re doing nothing, unpleasant people come around looking for trouble.
That’s fine by me. If the Big Bang happened, then the outcome of my story is pre-determined. And if I have free will, then I may tell that story. It’s my duty to at least try to get things straight. To shine a light on what happened, even if all I’ve got is an old torch with two rusty AA batteries. Who knows, I could end up helping my old friends understand something about their lives. That would make it worthwhile. So that’s why I’ll stretch whatever’s left of my so-called severance pay. Stock up on food. Bunker down. Right after I buy a real pen and some decent paper. Instead of scribbling on the backs of beer coasters with this blunt pencil.
But if the unpleasant people I mentioned before come around, I’ll be ready. They’ll soon regret the chain of events leading up to that knock on my door, should it come. They’ll wonder what could have possessed them. They’ll whisper: What were we thinking? They’ll feel the repercussions soon enough. They can give up any hope they might have that I’ll treat them kindly in these pages. It would be like your enemy offering you a sit down and a cup of tea. No-one falls for that trick. Even if it’s nice tea and there’re biscuits, too. They’ll learn, the hard way, what it means to underestimate your opponent’s resolve. Their threats will only spur me on to reveal more. Even the things I had no intention of revealing at the start. It’ll be like they’re forcing me to write each paragraph. Or as if one of them holds my hand, while my hand grips a poisoned dart, then plunges the dart into his own eye. Better yet, one of them might consider writing this entire thing for me instead. That would be less painful. For everyone.
Now, about that bit with the hands and the dart and the eye—don’t worry. This will not be one of those fictions full of fancy metaphors. I don’t do sensational. Given the lurid quality of the material I have at my disposal, you could say that’s a missed opportunity. But, as you’ll see soon enough, my skills as a chronologist more than compensate for this defect. Sure, there’s nothing fancy about my prose, but it’s worth its weight in pound sterling. People who know their way around the person also tell me I’ve got three basic advantages over others. One is my uncanny ability to see right through people. Two, as alluded to above, I can’t help but be truthful, and my memory is formidable. And three, I can describe acts of physical violence in the minutest detail. Whether performed on others or seen by me from a safe distance. That bit about the hands and the dart and the eye was only a taster.
Now, let’s get on with it. Let the energy from the explosion that created the Universe guide my pen. Let me use the muscles of my hand to convert that momentum into words that you can understand. And let me show you exactly what I can do with those words, using the three talents mentioned above. My proposal is this. I will choose a week, at random, from the period under cross-examination. Given my perfect recall—as you may also recall—any old week will do. Once chosen, I intend to express my recollections of that week in their entirety. It may take me some time to do so. I could choose a week when I had many conversations or travelled long distances. In that case, I would have my work cut out for me. Then again, compare this to recording a whole week during which nothing seems to happen. Because, as we know, things happen. Even when they don’t. Such a task seems Herculean, even to me. But as the observant reader knows already, the such-and-such is the stuff of life. Unless this thing we call life has another name, in which case we have much bigger problems to deal with.
The events in question occurred over a period of several months. My memory of those days is as fresh as ever, like a series of annotated diaries. Sitting at my mind’s table, I can pick up and open any of these diaries whenever I like. An individual page might only hold so many words, but that’s no problem for me. Each word holds more words. Each letter, more letters. A full stop hides multitudes. I can take as many as I need. I’ll always have plenty more to choose from. But now to the choosing of the date itself. Still inside that room in my mind with the table, I close my eyes, reach out and pick up one of the heavier volumes. I don’t know which one it is yet. Holding the book in my right palm, I use my left hand to unfurl the diary at random, and then open my eyes. The page before me is blank. It is the entry for Sunday 11 September 1983.
11 September 1983
Ivanhoe (Player’s Comf.)–Cobb Hwy–Bairds–Thomp. & Co.
Now, having said all that, I’m not sure I remember what happened on 11 September 1983 anymore. In fact, I have absolutely no record of the day. None. Yes, it was a Sunday, but you already knew that. And yes, I was serious about my prodigious memory but give me a break. I mean, this was over thirty years ago now. Can you remember anything that far back? I doubt it.
But let me think. If it was a Sunday, I must have been on the road somewhere. And if it was a Sunday in September, it must have been during Victorian Football League finals season. And if it was a Sunday in September 1983, Fitzroy must have played in one of those finals the previous day. And if it was the game I’m thinking of—which it was—I remember exactly who won. And given Fitzroy did not win that game, it’s no surprise where I woke up, in the aftermath, the following morning.
To be clear, I am not fond of losing. Some people can take or leave a victory, put a defeat behind them. You know what I reckon? Stuff those people. I understand losing is a part of life. I mean, look at me. But if you can’t help losing, there’s no point pretending you don’t care. You’ve got to eat that defeat, swallow it whole if you can. Only then is it possible to get on with whatever it was you were trying to do when that defeat first came along.
So, when Fitzroy lost that game, although it was no fault of mine, I felt like I needed to ingest that loss. To make it my own. If I did so in the public bar of the Player’s Comfort Hotel, Ivanhoe, that was my prerogative. And if a certain someone happened to be in my company while I was getting off my face, that’s none of your business. But it helps explain why I found myself in a room in the hotel’s accommodation wing that Sunday morning. Even if I was alone by then. I’m not proud of it but I’m not ashamed either.
I could tell already that the day would hold zero interest for me. On that point, yet again, I was one-hundred percent correct. Only not for the reasons I outlined as I lay there trying to teleport myself back to sobriety. Like any hotel room, this one contained very little in the way of creature comforts. But the bed was comfortable enough, and the water in the shower was warm. Noting the sign on the wall about minimising water use, I counted to fifty before turning off the taps. I stood, for a moment, in the rising steam. The hangover was still there, but at least I couldn’t smell it anymore.
I had a change of clothes with me, but my suitcase was in the boot of my government-issued car. It was an almost-new Fairmont Ghia. I’d parked her out on Columbus Street, the main drag of Ivanhoe. This left me with no option but to put on the clothes I’d worn the previous night. The white blouse had seen better days. But my short black skirt was still presentable, my stockings remained ladder-free and my low heels were by the door. The ensemble would get me out of the hotel, at least. I cleaned my teeth with the disposable brush provided, popped on the shoes and locked the door.
I found the owner of the Player’s Comfort in the bar, which was empty, smoking what smelt like a menthol cigarette. She had the radio on. It was playing Ronnie Milsap’s ‘Daydreams About Night Things’.
“Morning, Tamara,” she said, with a glance at the clock on the wall. “Sleep well, love?”
“Yes, thanks, Amy,” I replied, and I meant it. “Sorry, I’m a bit late checking out, I know. Big night.”
“That’s all right,” said Amy with a smile. “No other guests booked in today, anyway. You could keep the room until this afternoon if you like.”
“Oh, that’s very kind of you,” I said, “but I’ve got to get a move on.”
“All right, then,” Amy said. “Well, I’d offer you breakfast but the kitchen’s closed already.”
“Just my luck,” I said, cursing my late self once more.
“Aussie Eat’s opens at twelve.”
“Oh, great. How much do I owe you for the room again?” I asked.
“All good, love,” said Amy with another smile. “Paid in full.”
“What do you mean?”
“Just what I said.”
“Must be my lucky day after all,” I said.
“If you say so, love,” said Amy.
“Oh, hang on. Can I get that key back for a second? I think I left something in the room.”
In fact, I hadn’t just left ‘something’ in the room. When I opened the door, I was struck by a soft flurry of wings.
“Sorry, Pup,” I said, waiting for the animal to posit himself on my left shoulder. “Big night. Where were you hiding, anyway? Well, no matter. Shall we?”
After returning the key to Amy, I pushed open the front door of the hotel and stepped out onto Columbus Street. I’d parked the Ghia across the road, under the barely-there shade of a peppercorn tree. Although it was only September the bitumen road was warm. The midday sun glinted off everything—shop windows, rear-view mirrors, the glass of the public phone booth. As I approached the car, I noticed a pile of cigarette butts and the obligatory broken beer bottle in a gutter. But otherwise the street was deserted, save for the occasional passing car.
Feeling like an itinerant duchess, I circled round to the back of the Ghia. Making sure not to whack myself on the trailer coupler and ball, I got a change of clothes out of the boot. Then I opened the Ghia’s rear passenger-side door and climbed into the back seat. Despite the limited room for manoeuvre the space afforded me, I managed to remove the stockings and change my underwear. But the effort it took left me short of breath and so I collapsed lengthwise across the seat.
There was a two-litre bottle of Pub Squash on the floor close to my feet. Even the thought of reaching for it gave me a cramp. So, I let it sit there and closed my eyes. Several minutes must have passed in this manner. Me thinking of the Pub Squash going flat and getting hotter by the minute. The Pub Squash lying there on the floor, minding its own business. And a half-melted Clinker sitting there next to it, as I now recall. Neither the bottle, nor the sweet, so much as trembling whenever a truck or tractor boomed past.
But when Ivanhoe’s sole café, Aussie Eat’s—the stray apostrophe was important—opened, that was my signal. I reared up from my prone position and sconed myself on the Ghia’s low roof. The force of the blow caused my left foot to jerk out and then down, striking the Pub Squash bottle. I thought I’d twisted the cap tight, but I hadn’t been careful enough. The contents of the bottle spewed up and all over my skirt.
I got out of the car in order to properly survey the damage. It didn’t look good. The skirt would have to go. But the blouse would last another day. Underwear intact. I climbed back in the car, put on a pair of blue jeans and spread the wet skirt across the back seat. It would be dry in an hour or two. No point wasting all that sunlight. Finally, I switched the heels out for sneakers.
Two piping-hot sausage rolls smeared with tomato sauce later, I was ready to go. Pup flew straight into his cage. Turning the key in the ignition, I watched the fuel and oil gauges lift like boom gates. I rolled down my window, and the stale air inside the car freshened up at once. Then I settled into my seat, indicated and pulled that enormous vehicle out onto Columbus. We took the Cobb Highway south. About two clicks out of town the road kinked and crossed the railway tracks. The turnoff to the Ivanhoe railway station appeared on my right. I gunned past it and switched on the radio.
Soon enough I found a station that was hosting a post-mortem of the previous day’s game. Not that I needed to rehash the entire thing, but it kept my mind busy. I wasn’t in the mood for music, or silence. No, a panel of experts filibustering their way through an hour’s worth of analysis would do me fine. The highway laid itself out beneath the car like an old grey carpet with frazzled edges. The pink earth at the side of the road revealed the occasional roly-poly but not much else. There was a tussock or two of salt bush, an occasional telegraph pole, and one tree.
That was it for the next hundred clicks. Me and my pickled thoughts, squashed inside a premium passenger vehicle. Hurtling down a road under the wasted rays of the blazing dome. Ten yards behind the Ghia, as if tracking us, the greige trailer I’d christened Brumby Jack. Its load included a pair of mud-spattered motorbikes. Fastened tight with vinyl straps and rope. Known to friend and foe alike as Fancy and Bunyip. Fancy was an old government-issue Suzuki RM 125, while Bunyip was a Yamaha PW50.
The wheels inside the speedometer on the Ghia’s dashboard whirred away in slow motion. The road was so straight I could pull the seat forward and steer with my knees. In the rear-view the scrub country disappeared in a squiggly haze, the dome of blue-sky glass. Before me, as I drove, lay the real Riverina. Through the windshield spattered with locusts I saw a long, straight skyline of trees. The occasional sand hill sticking up had a cypress pine or two in it. But in every other respect the black soil plain was a desert waste.
I listened to the radio broadcast. To the voices of the presenters in their studio in Melbourne. The mighty Ghia flew south. The speedometer whirred, and the saltbush and scrub endured. Because of the earth’s curvature, it seemed like we were heading up and over it. In this way, the city grew nearer. It was there, beyond the tree skylines and several rivers, one of which was a border. Six hundred clicks, at least. I could have driven straight there that afternoon. But then, on the hour, the football program finished. On cue, the commercial radio station switched to advertisements.
I glanced down at the Ghia’s ultramodern Phillips premium sound system. It was in the centre of the dashboard. Right below the all-important Climate Control console, but above the government-issue two-way radio. I pressed a pre-set button on the radio dial. I watched that little orange marker crawl across to 675 kHz on the AM band. ABC Radio 2CO it would be, then. I caught the tail-end of the ABC News theme music and the one o’clock news bulletin began.
As expected, the bulletin opened with the announcer intoning a sombre report. The fallout from the downing of Korean Airlines Flight 007 continued overnight. Despite denying responsibility, the Soviet Union now faces a Security Council vote. Someone whose name I no longer recall had tried to make a joke about that flight number the previous night. But he’d met a wall of silence on my part. ‘Have some respect,’ I’d told him. Searchers on the Japanese island of Hokkaido continue to comb the shoreline for survivors. Finding only wreckage or the occasional body. It all sounded like a story from science fiction. The Sea of Okhotsk. Where even was that?
I may have vagued out a little during the next couple of news stories. Something about Norman Ross risking a fine for violating Sunday trading rules. I mean, who cared. Sydney was another country to me. But the newsreader’s mention of the heavy rains stirred my interest. Welcome rainfall across the southern part of the continent has brought widespread flooding. It felt surreal, given the degradation of the landscape I was driving through. No danger of flooding on this stretch of the Cobb, I thought to myself. Crop damage in northern Victoria has been significant. A flood warning is now in place for the Murray River above Lake Hume. Which wasn’t so bad, and a factoid worth depositing in the info-bank.
Then we came to the actual news: sport. I got another rundown of the previous day’s VFL results, in case I needed one. And I endured it with the humility that comes from downing one too many schooners at closing time. Although it gave me some satisfaction to learn of the reporting of an Essendon player in the other match. With any luck, that bludger would miss the final. Given I was close to the Barassi Line, the New South Wales Rugby League major semi-final also got a mention. The details of the match escape me now. But one can, I assume, extrapolate them from the relevant public archives. Should such extrapolation be of any interest, that is.
The real choice news item related to motor racing—one of my guilty pleasures. It was a preview of the Castrol 400 at the Sandown Raceway in Melbourne. An endurance race I’d been looking forward to watching later that afternoon. But, as you may have already deduced, this would not occur. My failure to remain sober at the Player’s Comfort Hotel the previous night had put paid to that. Not to mention the events that followed on from said failure. And it was these events, in turn, which made it impossible for me to accept Amy’s offer of a super-late checkout. The circumstances of my singular category error are, of course, irrelevant here.
Still, I could make do with a live report from the racetrack at Sandown, complete with sound effects. But the name on everyone’s lips today is that of Canadian-born driver, Alan Moffat. Can his left hand-drive Mazda RX7 overcome the Holden Commodore of his nemesis? Peter Perfect, otherwise known as the King of the Mountain. Picturing those two coming around Castrol Corner made me crave a branded cigarette. Meanwhile, Ford fans will pray for a surprise victory for Dick Johnson. Despite the man’s now-infamous anger-management issues. These guys’ quirks were as familiar to me as the Ghia’s hesitation when coming down through the gears. The touring car drivers, and the commentators and pit crews were, for me, a second family. One that kept me company me as I made my meandering way around the Premier and Garden states.
The final item, about a yacht race off Newport, Rhode Island, prompted me to switch off the radio. By then I had come to Bairds Rest Area, only a few clicks north of Booligal. It was without doubt the grimmest rest area I’d met on my travels up to that point. I hesitate to even use the word ‘rest’ in connection with it. Now, I’ve done the Wilcannia to Hay run more times than I care to remember. I’ve slept in the back of the Ghia plenty of times, sometimes even on her bonnet. I even took a nap under Brumby Jack once, when circumstances required. I’ve camped in ditches, hollowed-out trees and sand hills. Compared to these locations, five minutes stopped by the roadside at Bairds is a little slice of hell.
At speed, the sign announcing the Bairds Rest Area’s existence appears as a flash of blue and white. Milliseconds later, a tiny lane of road forks off to the left. One swerves and exits the Cobb proper via a shattering series of bumps, only to arrive at a glorified track. This track continues for a few hundred metres before re-joining the highway. Throw in a cement picnic table, a rubbish bin in the shape of a Star Wars droid, and a few chewed-up tyres and that’s Bairds. You’re done.
So, you’d be right in thinking I’d need a rather excellent reason to even bother to stop there. Let alone step from the Ghia’s plush sedan interior and onto the ground. But in the split second between seeing the exit sign and driving on, I’d caught sight of something else. It was a convoy of trucks, five in total. They’d parked in the rest area, one behind the other, making it difficult for me to spot them all. Camouflaged by the scrawny branches of a bunch of tired gums. But even in the sun’s glare I recognised the one bringing up the rear. The driver of that truck being an intimate of my brother’s, I had an excellent idea of the identities of the other four. And on that score, once again, and as you may have already guessed, I was correct.
With no further hesitation, I steered the Ghia into the death trap of the exit lane. We careened and bumped along the road, Brumby Jack threatening to fishtail but hanging on. Pup, throughout it all, remained asleep in his cage. I sashayed into a parking spot off the major lane, next to a small clump of bush. That would supply some shelter later in the afternoon, I hoped. For I knew, as if I could see the future of the world laid out before me, that this sojourn at Bairds could be a lengthy one.
A chorus of jeers greeted me as I appeared from around the back of the rear trailer.
“Well, if it isn’t Tamara Collins!” exclaimed Steven Thompson.
“The very same,” I said.
“How’s that brother of yours?” asked Robert Dixon.
“Still making number-plates, last time I checked,” I replied.
The three of us fell about laughing.
Ice broken, &c.
“Commiserations for yesterday, Tam,” said Thompson with a bright smile. “No hard feelings and all that. Your boys were unlucky. Only caught the last quarter, myself. But that was more than good enough for me.”
“Yes, right,” I said. “Unlucky, you say? Thought we had you there for a minute, anyway.”
“Well, welcome to the confab,” Thompson continued. “You’re right on time. In fact, we were only getting started.”
I then shook hands with each of the drivers, starting with Thompson himself. It was his twenty-wheeler, a 1979 model Kenworth SAR complete with 60-inch sleeper, that I’d seen from the rear. I’d given that old monster its name—the Wanderer—and I’m proud to say the moniker has stuck. Thompson once even threatened to have it tattooed on his neck. But a quick glance confirmed he hadn’t yet gone through with the threat. At least not on that part of his person.
Thompson introduced me to the other rogues. I’d met three of them before, but we went through the protocol, anyway. Dixon drove an eighteen-wheeler road train—another Kenworth W900, the Wombat. He was an acquaintance of long standing about whom I will soon have more to say. I didn’t have a clue who Cooper was, but she also drove a big rig. Another eighteen-wheeler, an as-new 1982 model Freightliner COE, name of the Hawkesbury. Then there was ‘Mount’ Tom Price and his daughter, Maisy, who always drove in tandem, even when unloaded. For legal reasons, their vintage fourteen-wheeler Bedford trucks had no names. But I’d seen them many times out on the Hay Plain and once bawling out of Balranald at dawn. Finally, there was a mysterious character called Willoughby. She drove no truck but appeared to have hitched a ride with either Thompson or Cooper.
The formalities finished, I sat myself down at the cement picnic table. Then I whipped out and cracked my last remaining can of Passiona. Given that I’d forgotten to fill the Esky with ice back at Aussie Eat’s, the soft drink was rather warm. But its choice taste blew away my hangover’s last cobwebs, and that was what mattered most. In the interminable silence that followed, I had time to reflect on my journey, and those of my new table mates. I also devoured a reasonable number of salt and vinegar chips from a bag that lay open on the table.
But I am getting ahead of myself. The very smart reader will already have twigged to an important fact. These six new table mates of mine were the very ones I called ‘clowns’ in my opening statement. For that clever reader’s sake, I will now take a moment to sketch their several personalities. There might once have been a time when I could vouch for their honesty and good will, sight unseen. But that time is long gone and may never have even existed. As they’re all so central to my downfall, nothing less than a clinical description will do. And as the attentive reader will also have realised by now, we may be here for some time. So, let’s not quibble about spending a little of that time setting my story straight. If you knew even half of what I’m about to tell you, you’d be begging for more. Then again, back in 1983, not even I knew one-quarter of it.
Steven Thompson was a Mexican. At least, he liked to say he was half-Mexican. Born out-of-wedlock in Ciudad Juárez and then whisked across the border to El Paso by his American dad. Or so the story went. Inherited his father’s oil fortune but cashed it all in before the bottom fell out of the market in the early 1970s. Moved to the Riverina in his early twenties and bought his first truck. Nobody believed any of it. You can’t spend fifteen years driving road trains and hope to get away with bull-carpet like that. Especially when you don’t even have the faintest trace of an accent, Texan or Chihuahuan. No mention of the mother, either. Although having seen a picture of ‘dad’, I’d have to assume she was a striking woman.
Then again, Thompson (if that was his actual name) was not what you’d call a typical truckie. Him not having an American accent was hardly the point. Unlike every other rig raider I’ve ever known, he was slow to anger and never, ever swore. He refused to shorten his word endings. In fact, his pattern of speech was so eloquent you’d almost mistake him for a schoolteacher, or a prat. But his sheer physical presence soon put his knockers at a queer ease and shut the loosest of traps. Thompson looked exactly the way a truck driver should look. That was enough for most people. And if you didn’t like the way he talked, well, nobody was holding a gun to your head.
Thompson and my brother Tom went way back. They’d hauled their fair share of questionable freight across the Riverina. For a few months they’d had equal shares in a greyhound both of them knew would never win a race. But the dog had served its purpose, as had the money they’d bet against it. More than once, though, the two of them had run-ins with constables of varying rank and talent for disguise. Their acquaintance with risk forced a change in tactics. They had an unspoken arrangement whereby they tried not to appear at the same race meetings. Or in the same quadrant of the Murrumbidgee Irrigation Area. But rest areas were fine, and as the Riverina was a massive and empty place most of the time, they managed to avoid each other. Still, as luck would have it, Thompson and I sometimes crossed paths. And I was always happy to see him. Even if he wasn’t Mexican.
Robert Dixon was also a dab hand at the dark racetrack arts. Thompson and my brother had run with him for a while, around the time of the greyhound arrangement. In fact, it might have been Dixon who sold them that dog. He was a man your mother might describe as easy on the eye. There was a crudity to his manner and physical bearing. I’d seen its devastating effect on many a punter, and on horses too. If you ever saw him in the betting ring, you’d swear he was a character lifted straight out of a romance novel. A Beau Geste type, minus the pesky honour code. But, as you know, I have zero patience for embellishment. So, it’s hardly controversial to state that Dixon was careless. One day he got caught out offering tempting odds to a detective your blind aunt could have seen coming a mile away. He’d then spent a month making number plates inside the Broken Hill Correctional Centre. The experience had seemed to do him good. Once released, he’d taken a contract job as a wool truck driver. And, after a period, he’d bought the Wombat outright and gone freelance.
Christine Cooper sat across from me at the picnic table. She was an unknown quantity, but that did not faze me one bit. We swapped itineraries, petrol prices and so on, testing each other’s nerve. She pulled out a packet of Cheezels, opened it and offered it to me. I declined. This confirmed something in her mind. When she started talking about the Hawkesbury, I realised she was from north of Sydney. She’d ended up out in this far-western part of the Riverina by accident, or so she said. Still, this was hardly her first rodeo. She’d dropped off a load of fencing wire up in Wilcannia the previous week. Now, with an empty eighteen-wheeler, she was heading home, searching for trouble. By the look and sound of her, you’d swear she’d been doing that for decades. And you’d be almost right.
Cooper’d bought a John Deere cap on her travels. She wore it low over her ears now, despite owning a head of wild, strawberry blonde hair. The cap, the tucked-back hair and the sunglasses on her wind-blasted face spoke volumes. But it was her voice that sealed it. Sharing her impressions of the MIA, she used a tone that would have shocked a wizened roadie. By the end of one particularly long and brutal chain of expletives, I’d divined her real opinion of the Riverina. And by the stunned expressions on the faces of the others, it looked as if she’d won over a few other minds, too, if not hearts.
‘Mount’ Tom Price sat listening to Cooper with a smile on his cracked old face. He’d heard far worse, he confided to the group, during the gold rush years. That would have put his age at around one-hundred and fifty, but we let it go through to the keeper. Tom’d been around the block a few times, for sure. Nobody at that table was about to begrudge him his spoonful of happy horse dung. He explained how difficult it’d been to buy and maintain two semi-trailers in the 1850s and we all nodded. I’d been hearing this kind of thing since I was a little girl. Pricey was already an old man back then. His longevity was so legendary I’d included him in my will. He’d know what to do with my petty possessions, such as they were. And the fact was that he had hung onto the two Bedfords, although they were by then considered vintage. Priceless, someone might have quipped. In other words, worthless. It wasn’t something you’d even consider saying to his face.
Or to the face of his daughter, Maisy. She let her father do the talking that day, and I can’t say I blamed her. But she knew her way around a vintage gear shift, I’ll admit that. Having reached seventy-five years of age, you’d bloody well hope so. For business, brawn and sheer bloody-mindedness, you might say she’d authored the book. If that book were a stream-of-consciousness diatribe. Delivered at full volume in a tone approaching common-or-garden authoritarian. For all that, she was a kind-hearted woman who enjoyed a shandy and a good yarn. And in the exalted company crowded round that concrete picnic table, she was every bit the equal.
You’d never say that about Kate Willoughby, though. I realised she was a hitchhiker of some sort, if not an outright bum. I’d seen her type plenty of times in my wide peregrinations. Before she even spoke, I knew the name of the English university from which she’d got her degree. The only thing I couldn’t work out was who she had a hold over: Thompson or Cooper. At any rate, she was riding her luck big time in this crew. She was like the female version of Dixon before his conversion. Could have passed for his sister, in dim lighting at least. But there was no way Willoughby could ever be a truckie. She’d never be of any proper use to a road rambler, in the technical sense, anyway. That’s not to suggest anything base about her character. Far from it. I could well imagine us spending a nice evening discussing my two favourite theories. But she looked like she needed a friend more than she needed a lift to the next town. And yet. There, again, was her confidence. So like Dixon as I remembered him. A poet exiled among the wildings.
I have now spent far too long introducing these unlikely characters. Their true personalities will reveal themselves of their own accord soon enough. The only one I have neglected to introduce is myself. I would not even bother if it weren’t for the sense of fairness that influences everything I do. I’ve been searing in my honesty about my fellow conspirators. It seems only fair that I apply the blowtorch to myself.
Let me say, in all simplicity, that I was at the time in question as much of a phoney as Kate Willoughby. I was a public servant of the lowest grade. I’d only achieved that status with qualifications I’d forged. My employer, the federal government, had appointed me an inspector of water licenses. Or, at least, that is what I told those six unfortunates at the picnic table on that fateful day in September 1983. For I was not an inspector of water licenses at all. I was, in fact, a deputy-assistant-sub-inspector of water license application forms. As for the licenses, well, they did not exist.
And neither did the water.