Motoring through the boring gum forest has lulled the two of them into pensiveness. He is aware of her working her mouth, her habit in conversation with herself, her still-pretty lips bitten into by the cuts of living. She too has been processing her thoughts on this return journey from his agent. Talk has been scarce since their visit and in the car they have hardly spoken, the forest shadows elongating their silence.
But now they shoot into that open country between tracts of forest, a shallow valley of straw-like grass, the service station and its café opposite, the strange building on their side of the road.
“Want a coffee?” he asks flatly.
“Do you?” she asks, her foot straying to the brake.
“Might as well.”
She surges. Never likes to stop. Slows. Pulls off on the shoulder just past the odd building.
“Want to chuck a U-e?”
She checks the rear view mirror, a graffiti of age etched into her profile, the fire of her hair doused to a cap of snow. A car barrels out of the boring forest ahead and zips by. She makes the U-turn, parks the Commodore in the lot next to the service station.
They step out into the heat, gums and resin fume in their nostrils. An unchartered miasma of wood and leaf will eventually bring them back to the refreshing sea; the coast road having lead them a little inland at this point.
She blips the lock, gives the car the once over, grudging the dust film settled on it its shiny surfaces. She protects her car, would never leave it on the shoulder risking damage. Safer in the parking lot and closer to the café. She doesn’t have to walk far. Her complaint to God is that he made her with legs instead of wheels.
She keeps the car like a new pin, washes it, vacuums inside, takes it for its services. It’s hers. He drives the ute, cares for it casually; it’s a legacy from their business.
She is a very good driver, safe, quick, decisive, skilful. He is happy to tootle from A to B.
She is the world’s worst backseat driver and some and twice on Sundays. She leans left, she leans right, her foot tramps the phantom accelerator, the non existent brake. She clutches the ghost steering wheel. She flicks her wrist, “Pass him, pass him, slow down, slow down. What are you doing, man! Is there anyone driving that car ahead! Drive it lady, don’t play with it!”
Three times, country driving, the cops have got him for heavy fines and loss of points on her urging.
“For goodness sake get past this wanker.”
“He’s my pacer.”
The impatient wave. “Get by, he’s dropped dead at the helm.” He speeds up over the hill into the gleeful arms of the coppers.
And, of course, you just cannot shut her up.
From their first dates and into early marriage, her behaviour inside a car had shocked him. Several times he’d pulled over and, furious, tried to chuck her out but with her force of will she wouldn’t budge, clinging to the door frame or the wheel. If he could have prised her loose, he would have left her on the roadside. She could walk from wherever.
Once he did drag her out by the leg and she hit her head hard on the door frame and he felt terrible. He’d learned that in the interests of harmony, in the interests of them as a couple, it was simply better to let her drive. Even today when circumstances force him to drive her, he dreads the moment, their old passions flare. He has joked to his friends that only one area in their lives could result in divorce.
It does not matter that he has a heavy vehicle licence, drove their five ton work truck countless times when the driver hadn’t shown, driven the three ton truck before that. She drives.
Sure she has locked up, they move cautiously through the almost empty parking lot, stumbling on the pinkish heads of sandstone rocks. In the even rougher truck lot, two timber rigs, laden with lozenges of wood, skulk in the leftover shade of some uncleared gums. They approach the servo wedged in the wilderness, the strange building across the road. They pass the worn bowsers emitting their body odour of grease, petrol and rubber hoses. The unchanged agaves in their faded pots stand sentry at the screen door. They walk into the laminate emporium and take a table at the window.
One table is occupied by an older couple like themselves and over in the corner the two rig owners are talking in low tones like conspirators.
He sighs. She attempts a smile. They have no ready conversation. They glance about. He steeples his hands in front of his mouth, his elbows drop to the table.
“Take your elbows off the table,” she snaps, “you look like a truck driver.” He doesn’t reply to what’s become a standard joke between them. He mostly tolerates the phobias she has inherited from her father.
The joke started at supper with the kids. Elbows on the table, he’d been eating a hamburger in two hands.
“Sit up straight, you eat like a truck driver,” she had spat out. “I am a truck driver,” he’d answered without hesitation.
The kids had cracked up.
In essence he’d spent a lifetime valuing other people’s furniture for resale. On the side he’d nurtured his literary hopes.
He folds his arms, leans back to avoid her badgering. Next to the odd building with its hopeful blue doors, he traces a weedy rectangle defining the last remains of a used caravan lot. A slight mound marks the perimeter, dotted at ankle height, with the strangled pieces of an engulfed cyclone fence. Pointy plastic flags cling to the broken mesh, some still flapping in their snares. He wonders after the failed owner.
The waiter, whom he remembers as a clean cut kid and who is now a clean cut man, comes to take their order. A tall, blonde, pleasant man, he has graduated to ownership. He is well turned out unlike the wait staff in Sydney who front you in food stained uniforms.
She orders a flat white and, unusual for her, a vanilla slice.
“Are they home made?” she asks.
“Yes,” the man replies.
He orders just a flat white.
“You don’t want anything else?” she queries.
The waiter moves off.
“Are you sure?” she asks concerned. “Have a hamburger.”
“I’m not hungry.”
“Not hungry, — you!”
“You’re forcing food down my throat. Usually you’re bitching I’m a guts.”
“C’mon Al, be nice.”
He watches the owner, a resurrected ghost from the dead of memory, levering the gurgling coffee machine. Like those moths that live for a day, he floats briefly in one’s thoughts before the mind obliterates him. Only springing to life the next time you cross the threshold of his dreary establishment.
“Those vanilla slices are great,” she says. “I remember them from last time.”
“We didn’t stop here last time.”
“I know, but when we walked in, I remembered them in the display case.”
He speculates on this turn around. His habit is to linger over food. Hers to swiftly down her cup, anxious to get going before he is half way through his coffee
“Since when are you the leisurely tourist?” he asks.
“Two birds with one stone,” she says. “Eat now and we won’t have to stop later.” She’s revealed her motivation.
“Noticed anything about this place?” she asks.
He casts about for something, can’t find anything, shrugs.
“The windows, — spotless “You can see perfectly. You never get that in Sydney.”
“So, it shows they care.”
“Clean windows don’t mean better food.”
But she is right. He hadn’t noticed. Only her sharp eyes and her preoccupation with cleanliness would have noted that. But he did see that the place was immaculate. “It’s well kept,” he concedes, “but I was looking for something outstanding.”
“And they give value for money. The food’s is always fresh.”
“You sound like a promo for Woolworths.”
“This place would go great guns in Sydney.”
“It’s not in Sydney, it’s a bush café in the sticks. Why try when there’s nobody to appreciate it.”
“You’re cynical again. You’ve hardly spoken all morning.”
His attention wonders again to the odd building, his gaze settling on its four hopeful doors in bright blue paint clamped shut like crocodile’s jaws. What is its earthly purpose, with its squat dimensions, its low tin roof? Storage sheds? But who would be ambitious or foolish enough to put storage sheds out here? To his judgement the rooms aren’t large enough for furniture or farming gear and too rough for personal things. The whole structure, with its closely fitting brick and those massive metal doors, looks too strong for its purpose. You could store nuclear waste in there. The place is built like a brick shithouse. He entertains the thought. Maybe it is a forgotten shithouse. It wouldn’t be the first country building lost to exhausted energy, whose purpose has been forgotten.
He vaguely recalls asking the owner, when the man was still a kid, about the place and receiving some useless reply.
The man brings their order.
“I can see that.”
“One wouldn’t know. You’re staring out that window. Al—”
“Al — don’t be disappointed.”
“She did her best for you.”
“I’m not blaming her.”
“She’s a very good agent. Very professional.”
“She also did an awful lot of work for no reward.”
“She’s as disappointed as you.”
“Al, don’t take it like that.”
“So they don’t publish short stories by unknowns nowadays. No shekels in that. They’re right, Africa was passé the day Mandela karked.”
“As a businessman you must understand.”
“I understand. Of course I understand, —And God forbid you criticise the new regime.”
“Al, give it a rest.”
“Okay, Okay. It’s all just polite for not good enough, anyway.”
She looks at him keenly. “You don’t believe that.”
“One begins to have one’s doubts.”
“If you’d had the endorsement from the famous writer earlier.”
“I’ve thought of that.”
“You have a wonderful daughter and two prize grand daughters.”
“You have a successful son and a caring daughter in law.”
“You’ve saved enough for a reasonable life.”
“I don’t know.”
She puts her small, familiar hand, dry as a leaf, in his.
“You have a wife who loves you.”
“Eat you’re vanilla slice.”
His eyes hypnotically rest on the abandoned caravan enterprise. He wonders how the demise of the place played out. Slow, day by day, the owner in his office without a single customer. Waking one morning did he think, that’s it, I’m never going in again? Or, after the worst day, did he shut up early and just walk away. Was there a moment when he finally realised he couldn’t pay the bank back? What happened to the caravans? Did the bank flog them off for a song? Why hadn’t the man made a go of it?
He wonders at the fate of places. Why this one hasn’t taken off while others just as far off the beaten track have thrived; put in bookshops and antique stores. Distance shouldn’t have been a factor, especially for country folk who drive like bats out of hell to the most remote places. Besides, this was the holiday coast. Caravan haven.
What was it about places anyway? What made one go ahead and another not. None and a thousand reasons. What made one life catch on and another not?” Whatever it was the natives of this tired blot in the universe didn’t have it in spades. How the hell had they come to settle in this god forsaken spot in the first place.
It strikes him that he’s never known the stop’s actual name, both of them simply referring to it as, “The Servo.”
He follows the small, straw stubbled valley falling away to the tree line. In all their journeys here he’s never seen it green. And it can be wet in this neck of the woods. Coming down the eucalypt forests sparkled, recent rains quieting the dust. All was expectation.
“Does this joint possess a handle?” he asks severing the silence between them.
She looks up, flinches at his suddenness, put off that she can’t rally him. “Does it warrant one?”
“Every place warrants one.”
“Deadsville,” she volunteers. “How should I know? Ask the owner.”
“I will.” He calls the owner over, the promising young kid waiter still serving as a waiter these many years.
‘Don’t call it a joint,” she hisses. “Be polite.”
“Would I be that insensitive?”
The man comes over.
“What, kind Sir,” he asks “is the name of your charming hamlet?”
“That’s what folk round these parts call her.”
“Yes, but what’s the name of the town. It’s official name?”
“I’ve never seen a sign.”
“Got busted. Don’t matter. It was a bit hidden in the trees.”
“Anyone try to get it fixed?” she asks, all her practicality coming to the fore.
“Somebody wrote a letter. But that was yonks.”
“Do you know what the name means?” he asks.
“What’s it does. But he hasn’t been in for a while.”
“Well, when he does come in would you mind asking him. And send him my regards.”
“You know him?”
“Just kidding, mate.”
The slow, pleasant smile. He moves away.
“Gonnarong,” he says shaking his head, smirking at the formica table.
He looks up into her opal eyes, running ripples of amusement.
“An apt name,” she says.
They rock with silent laughter.
“Would you like to drive? I’ll keep my trap shut.”
“You drive. That’s the pattern of our lives.”
“I promise. I promise.”
“Well, will you cheer up. I can’t stand to see you this miserable.”
“Yea, I’m a barrel of laughs already. Know what Gonnarong means in aboriginal.”
“Place where writer’s dreams come to die.”
They finish their coffees, pay the smiling blonde fellow, pass the rigs moved to the shoulder blocking half the road with their payload of slaughtered trees. She blips the lock, they climb in. The rigs roar off down the coast.
She chucks a U-e, says, “Last stretch, then the sea.”
They roll toward the boring forest ahead.
Born in South Africa, Alf Marks spent his early childhood in that country
before moving with his parents to Zimbabwe, (then Rhodesia) where he grew
After emigrating, he earned a degree in Journalism in Canada and an M.A. in
Education in the USA. His journey subsequently took him to Australia where
he has lived for over thirty years.
He has worked as a reporter, a teacher, and an old wares and antiques
His African short stories have been published in various magazines in
Australia and South Africa. His Australian themed stories have been
published in journals in Australia and the USA. This is his first appearance in Offcourse.