- Published: 5 July 2022
- ISBN: 9780143778349
- Imprint: Penguin
- Format: Paperback
- Pages: 384
- RRP: $22.99
He wasn’t coming back. The finality of it hit and hot tears welled, the blindfold growing soggy once more. Her head thumped and now that the blood had dried, the side of her face felt pinched and hard. She couldn’t feel her legs.
In the beginning she could kick away the ants that swarmed, but now she imagined them converging, all those creatures crawling over helpless limbs. From somewhere in the scrub, a bird gave a long, drawn-out cry. She knew at that moment she would die, and she waited for the bird to cry again. If only it would cry, she thought. Then she would not feel so lonely, it would not be so bad. Please cry again, bird, she whispered, aloud or in her head. It was hard to raise any moisture in her mouth and she couldn’t have shouted if she’d tried. Her breathing slowed. The time for screams was over and the world became quiet and still.
She thought of her family and her home, so far away. With a deep sadness, she felt a yearning to tell the world that once she had existed. She wanted to write her name in the sky so that everyone could see it. She wanted someone to read her name. The urge to do so became overwhelming and the pounding in her head thumped with the words: My name, my name.
The splinter of wood she’d concealed for hours in a vague thought of attacking him took on a new and final purpose. Gripping it between the base of her two thumbs, she summoned all her remaining energy to carve her first initial into the tree. Her arms, wrapped around the trunk behind her, felt almost numb. It was hard to balance the piece of wood; her pen. She traced the second letter, tried to push in hard when the bark would not yield. She took a short rest before raising her head and gritting her teeth. The third letter was more difficult and, after pressing the splinter in, she felt it break. A dry sob escaped her. But with one final reserve of energy, she used her ragged thumbnail to finish carving out the last letter of her name, barely feeling her skin tear and bleed as she did so.
It was done. Her head dropped.
In the deep darkness, she listened for the bird. But the bleak and desolate world was still.
New Year’s Eve, 1989
Ingrid sat on the side of the road and unbuckled her backpack, buckled it again, unbuckled. She was like a cowboy from one of those Westerns. What was the word to describe the gunslinging action? Quick-draw. She did it again, imagining herself walking into a saloon, drawing the gun and shooting some bad guy before they got the chance to do her in. Split-seconds, that’s what counted. She did it again: buckle, unbuckle. Bang!
God, it was hot.
The air was thick with flies and she waved them off her leg, watching the black mass descend just as quickly again. She wiped her forehead and felt about in her pack for a drink. A small ant climbed onto her bag and up her arm. She let it travel for a while as she drank water from her bottle before flicking it off. Jesus, don’t the insects in this place ever rest?
She lay down, resting her head on the pack and reached her hand out to the side of the road, where the heat made the asphalt soft. She pressed a forefinger deep into it. It gave her a warm sleepy feeling. She did it with her other fingers and then, using a stone, made an imprint of her initials – I.A.M. Head to the side, she inspected it, wondered vaguely if it would stay that way when the road firmed again.
She closed her eyes. An insect flew into her mouth and she coughed it up, spat it out. She took a sip of water. Tired and bored. Tired. And. Bored. She let out a scream of frustration in her closed mouth. Where was Joanne?
The little rocks underneath her back grew hard and she stood, wiping herself, looking up and down the road. Its dark surface shimmered in the heat. To the left, it went right up to the horizon: no bends, no hills, low trees spaced apart. The Stuart Highway, Alice Springs almost 1000 kilometres away. To the right, a yellow roadhouse and the sign ‘Hot food, cold beer’ banged hard against a metal pole. Not a car in sight.
This was a shitty day. Sunday afternoons would have to be the worst time to catch a lift. Trucks usually made the journey on Fridays for their Darwin run and the oldies would already be settling by their vans in some free spot, party hats on and drinking their moselle. Happy bloody New Year’s Eve, she told herself.
She opened and shut her mouth, feeling the dryness in the air. She could do with a moselle right now. Probably make the time go faster in this hellhole. All that drinking after Year 12 must have given her a taste. It might help to dull this bloody ache in her chest anyway. When would that ever go away?
She took a bite of the sausage roll she’d bought a few minutes before. Bits of hard gristle stuck to her lip and she spat it out, the dry flakes falling on her top. It was disgusting. Probably been pickling in the bain-marie for days. She threw the rest of it over her shoulder and onto the red dirt. Ants converged. Gross.
She was hungry and she needed a drink, but there was no way she was going back to that roadhouse. Bloody old sleazebag; in the store mirror she could see him ogling her through his Coke bottle glasses. Probably a paedophile. She needed to go to the toilet too, but apart from the roadhouse there was nothing, not even a tree nearby to squat behind. She hummed a Roxette song to try to forget her hunger and her bladder. It worked a little, but not really.
A sound to her right and she turned to see a white Commodore pull out of the petrol station in front of the roadhouse. She hadn’t even seen it drive up there! Straightening, she took a few steps and held her right arm out, thumb extended. As the car moved towards her, gathering speed, she caught a glimpse of a man at the wheel and a blonde woman leaning into the passenger window, looking at her.
‘Hey!’ She gave a wave before reaching out her thumb again. ‘Hey!’
But the car sped up, the driver gazing straight ahead and the woman giving her a half-smile as they drove past. Ingrid kicked the stones about her. Bloody couples, she thought. They rule the world. She sang the Roxette song again and pulled her cap lower on her face, looking as she did at the sun, sinking fast.
Now she really needed to go to the toilet, and where the hell was Joanne? The whole day had been a failure. Waking up in Yorkies, the dingy Port York backpackers, to a note from the manager telling her Jo had rung and would meet her at the Mendamo Roadhouse at 2 pm.
Was it definitely this roadhouse? Yes, it was; she’d written it down and Mendamo was the last one before the road headed north up the Stuart, through the desert for nearly three hours to Cutters End. She should have just caught the early bus the whole way through from Port York to Cutters End, even if it did cost a mint. She could have slept off her hangover for six hours in a comfy seat instead of all this waiting-around business. What had she saved in bus fares? Twenty bucks? Pathetic. And now she was here.
Ingrid thought back again over the evening before, trying to recall the details of the night. Drinks at the backpackers and then at the pub where they’d met two Swedes. The one called Nils had bought her a drink and she’d been in hysterical laughter with him about something. What was it? Her hungover brain struggled to remember. The painting of dogs playing pool, perhaps? The barman who looked like MacGyver? They’d danced in the beer garden to ‘Summer of ’69’ over a scratchy sound system and kissed briefly before she decided she wanted to go home.
She tried to get Joanne to come with her, but her friend was stuck to the other Swede and said she’d be back later. Ingrid watched them dance. After a while, she left, giving Nils a wave on the way out. He was already talking close with some other girl, but she didn’t mind. Outside the pub a group of older men leered and she walked past quickly, arms covered, listening to the usual jeers about tits or arse.
Back in the hostel, she fell into a deep sleep, only to be awakened at 4 am by some couple shagging in the bunk opposite, and then later by the manager who told her Joanne had rung and said to meet her at the roadhouse. Yorkies, what a dump.
Where was Joanne? In any case, she wasn’t here, and it was now past 4 pm. She’d have to go back to the roadhouse and work out how best to get into town again. Fat chance of that on a Sunday. Failing that, there were little cabins here you could rent for the night, though she’d probably have to barricade herself in the room in case the old creep tried to come in.
Bloody hell! So much for sleeping in the Underground Hotel at Cutters End, and the New Year’s Eve party there that was meant to be legendary. It was even mentioned in the Lonely Planet. Their original idea, way back when they’d been planning the trip at home, had been to be in Alice Springs for New Year’s Eve, but the Swedes and the night in Port York put an end to that idea. Ingrid lugged her pack over her shoulders and started to walk back to the roadhouse, feeling in her pocket the fifty-cent coin she’d need to ring Yorkies to find out if they’d heard anything more from her friend.
She wasn’t too worried. No doubt there’d been some mix-up and Joanne had missed her after she’d left. Oh God! Ingrid stood stock-still on the side of the road. What if Joanne brought the Swede with her when they met up? That would be the worst. All she needed right now was to be around a loved-up couple.
At the side of the roadhouse she looked left and right to see if anyone was coming, then quickly squatted behind a water tank. Finding a tap on the side, she gave her hands a rinse before patting her face and neck. Pulling her pack by the side-strap now, she walked over to the phone box, opened the door and squeezed in, pack beside her feet. With one hand she dug out the coin and with the other she fished for the phone number of the hostel. There, in the front page of her diary, were the numbers scrawled in red pen.
She put the money in the slot and heard the satisfying clunk, waited for the dial. After three rings, someone answered – not the reception guy, a woman.
‘Hi,’ Ingrid called. ‘It’s Ingrid from room 16. I stayed at Yorkies last night.’
‘I wanted to know if my friend turned up, Joanne. Same room. She’s Australian.’
‘Hang on a sec.’
There was a pause and Ingrid could hear a hand being placed over the receiver. Still, she heard the muffled yell: ‘Anyone here see Joanne come back today? Aussie, room 16.’
A pause, murmuring from another person.
Ingrid jumped up and down on her feet. Her money was running out fast.
‘Love?’ the other woman said. ‘Joanne came back.’
Out the corner of her eye, Ingrid saw a vehicle with a covered ute pull up in the station beside a bowser. A man got out and looked briefly to where she was, before turning to fill up with petrol. She focused her attention back to the phone.
The other woman spoke again. ‘Want me to see if I can get her for you?’
‘Yes,’ she answered – but with one final clunk the money ran out.
‘Shit!’ she said. ‘Shit, shit, bloody shit.’ She tried to rummage around deep in her pack for her purse, knowing it was usually at the bottom, but couldn’t find it; she needed more space. Opening the door of the telephone box, she pushed the pack out with her foot. Once free to move, she knelt in the dirt and undid the zips on the side to open it fully.
‘You need a hand?’ It was the guy who’d pulled up just before. Ingrid looked up at him; an older sort – weather-beaten and a big build.
‘I’m right,’ she said, turning back to the problem at hand.
‘Suit yourself.’ He headed into the roadhouse.
She found her purse. Only notes, crap! Remembering the night before, she fished out the jeans she’d been wearing and felt in the pockets. If I don’t find coins, I’m stuffed, she thought. I’ll have to go in and get change from the old paedophile. And then, some luck – twenty cents! She gave a little cheer. And what was this? A scrunchie! She’d been looking for it for ages. Unreal! She quickly tied her hair into a ponytail. Joanne had her other scrunchie, the black spangly one, but this one was her definite favourite.
Now, she needed more change. Change, change. She shoved the jeans back in and rummaged about for her Country Road windcheater, the one with pockets. Where was it? It took some time. She pulled at a sleeping sheet and a crumpled pair of undies came flying out.
‘Where you headed?’ It was the man again, back from the roadhouse, standing closer to her this time.
‘Cutters End,’ she said, grabbing the knickers in her fist. ‘But fat chance of that now. My friend hasn’t turned up, so I’ll have to stay here or get back to Port York somehow.’
‘On my way to Cutters now,’ he said. ‘Could give you a lift if you like. Only up the road.’
She looked up at him again.
‘Isn’t it three hours to get there?’
He snorted. ‘Maybe if you write tourist books it is. It’s two hours ten at the most. If you want to come, let me know but I’ve got to get going. Missus’ll have the roast on. Beef.’
Ingrid thought about it while she lifted out her windcheater. She could be in Cutters End by 7 pm, wouldn’t have to go back to the hideous Port York backpackers or face the creep in the roadhouse. Joanne could catch the early bus from Port York to Cutters End in the morning and they could be together by lunchtime tomorrow for a New Year’s Day recovery session. She would even get to go to the New Year’s Eve party at the Underground Hotel.
Ingrid felt around the pockets of her top. Another twenty-cent coin! She grasped it in her hand. It was like a sign.
The man waited a moment before turning and walking towards his car. He looked like a roast, she thought. Thighs like two sides of beef.
Ingrid made a snap decision. ‘Okay,’ she called after the roast man. ‘I’ll come – but can I ring my friend to let her know first?’
The man shrugged. He lifted up the bonnet of his vehicle and looked deep inside.
Leaving her pack outside the phone box, she opened the awkward door once more and hurriedly shoved the coins in the slot. The phone was answered after two rings.
‘Yeah?’ Same woman.
‘Hi, it’s me again – Ingrid. Can you please tell my friend Joanne that I’ve got a lift. Tell her to get the early bus tomorrow morning and I’ll meet her at the Underground Hotel in Cutters End.’
‘Sure, love, you’ve got a lift – she’ll get the bus and meet you tomorrow.’
‘Thanks for that. Money’s about to run out.’
‘Can’t have that.’
‘Please tell Joanne.’
The phone went dead. Satisfied, she opened the door again, zipped up her pack, hauled it over one shoulder, and walked across to where the man had finished with the bonnet and was wiping his hands on his jeans. As she approached, he moved to her and took her pack. ‘Jump in, mate,’ he said. ‘I’ll put this in the back.’
She opened the passenger door and climbed into the vehicle. In the rear-view mirror she could see him lifting up a tarpaulin and placing the jerry can, then her pack, in the tray of the ute. He hooked up the cover again and climbed in beside her.
‘Thanks for this,’ she said. ‘You’re a lifesaver.’
She could see the old creep from the roadhouse staring at her through the window, the fading light on the glass giving him a ghostly air. She smiled back hard, giving him the finger as they pulled out. Stuff you, you old sleaze, is what she thought. I’ll never have to see you and your shitty shop again.
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