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TALES OF THE MACABRE AND ORDINARY
by Chris Mikul
I’d been driving for almost six hours straight since leaving Yass. My neck and shoulder were aching, my belly was rumbling and it was as hot as fuck. When a tin sign that read “Waratah Café, last gas for 40 kms” flashed past, I turned back.
I pulled up by a long, low, originally white building with cracks in the walls and a couple of petrol pumps in front of it like a two-finger salute. Sliding out of the ute, my feet scrunching into red gravel, I stood stretching my searing back and rubbing my left shoulder. A blond kid about 12 with thin legs and scabby knees sat on an old oil drum, kicking his heels against it and staring at me.
“G’day,” I said.
“You got a cigarette?” he said.
“Bit young for that, aren’t you?”
I got the pack out of my shirt pocket and gave him one. “Don’t smoke it all at once.”
Rubbing my handkerchief over my face, I walked past some parked trucks and into the café. It was cooler than outside but only just. A few men sat at tables with formica tops and battered chrome legs, talking and eating. Behind the counter, a dumpy woman wearing a pale blue polyester work dress moved something sizzling around on a hotplate. Slim Dusty sang on the radio. It was a bloody time capsule of the 1970s, though not in a good way. Still, I was touched.
The blackboard above the woman offered pies, steak sandwiches, chips and the famed ‘Waratah’ burger. I went for the steak and eggs. I asked what they had to drink and she pointed to a fridge in the corner. Finding a bottle of lemon squash among the plastic containers full of sausages and raw meat—call the health inspector!—I raised it to my lips, my neck letting out a little squeal of pain as I drank. At least it was cold.
That’s when I saw him.
He was sitting at a table by the window, eating a plate of sausages and mashed potatoes, his head in a newspaper. He wore a blue and red checked flannelette shirt and jeans, and looked about my age and my build. His thinning blonde hair was cut short, like mine. He had a reddish complexion, a thin nose and a cleft chin.
Just like me.
I leant against the counter, finishing off my soft drink. I thought maybe I was a bit tired and my mind was playing tricks, but the more I looked at him the more convinced I was. We could have been twins.
“Steak and eggs,” said the woman behind me, depositing a plastic tray on the counter. I paid her and went and sat at the table next to him.
So I was sitting there eating me dinner and thinking about Becky and what I could do about the situation, when this bloke next to me asks me for the salt. So I hand it to him and look up at him and bugger me if he wasn’t the absolute dead spit of me. It was too bloody weird.
And I didn’t know what to say.
I had to say something.
“How ya goin’?” I said.
“Alright.” He must have noticed the resemblance but he didn’t say anything. He started to eat. He looked like a city bloke, I thought.
“Where you headed?” I asked.
“Moree,” he said with his mouth full. He was getting stuck into his dinner in a big way. “What about you?”
“I’m on my way to Lismore, to see me sister. She’s got a new kid.”
“Congratulations to your sister.”
“Yeah, she’s me favourite sister. Well, I like all of them, apart from maybe Kelly, she’s me half sister. She’s a worry. You got sisters?”
He shook his head.
“Well, I got five. And I can tell you, growing up with five sisters, it’s pretty full on, mate.”
“Must have been very interesting.”
“Oh, you’re not wrong. Hey, I bet you’ve seen one of me sisters.”
“She’s on that bank ad, one of those singing flowers, she’s the one at the end who’s the daisy. You must’ve seen that.”
“No, I haven’t seen it,” he says.
I sliced off another piece of my steak, which was thick and surprisingly good. This guy was crapping on about all these sisters of his, one of those fellows who likes the sound of his own voice. Now he was talking about the drought and work, looking for work, not much work around.
“So, you’d be interested in a job?” I asked him.
“Why, sure, never say no to work. Got to take what you can get in this life. Why, you know of something going?”
I picked up the plastic sauce bottle that sat on the table and squirted some onto my egg. “This guy I’m going to see. . .”
“He grows canola and that. I’m helping him out for a couple of weeks. A mate of mine was coming up with me but he dropped out, so you could take his place. Pays OK, too, this bloke.”
“Hmm.” He put his elbow on the table and his chin on his hand and thought for a while. I could almost hear the wheels turning in his head. “Two weeks?”
I mopped up the last of my egg with the last of my steak—it’s always good when you can get the timing right. “You can come with me if you want—got the ute outside. I was planning on doing another few hours tonight, get an early start tomorrow, should be in Hay by midday. Don’t mind sleeping out, do you? What do you reckon?”
He had another head-down, deep-in-thought moment, but finally said, “Well, I think I might take you up on that. Yeah, I will. Thanks.”
“Don’t mention it. You’re doing me a favour.” I laid my knife and fork together on my plate and got a serviette from the stainless steel dispenser to wipe my mouth.
“I hear they’re doing a bit better round Moree way,” he said, “been getting some rain.”
“Yeah, they’re alright.”
“So, what are we gonna be doing? Cutting down canola?”
“That’s about the size of it.”
“I love the colour of that stuff,” he said. “You know how it’s. . .What’s the word? That yellow, like it’s glowing.
“Yes, it’s amazing.”
Well, bugger me, this was a stroke of luck! I knew Frances would always be pleased to see me, but she’d be even more pleased to see me if I had a bit of money in me pocket, and between you and me I was down to me last two hundred. This guy was a lifesaver! Did I mention he was a handsome bastard too?—hee hee.
So anyway he’s finished his dinner and goes off to powder his nose while I go back to me paper. There’s a picture of a really good-looking blonde sort in mole-skins standing next to a pony, and when he comes back I slide it across the table to him and say, “She’s a bit of alright, eh? You wouldn’t kick her out of bed for farting, would you?”
Yeah, she’s not bad,” he says, and stands up. “I’ll be back in a minute.”
He goes into the little shop next door, and comes back a few minutes later with some things in a white plastic bag. He’s keen to get going. “You got everything?” He says.
“It’s all in here,” I say, holding up old faithful—me duffle bag. And I sling it over me shoulder and wave goodbye to the lady behind the counter.
“Do you know her?” he says to me.
“Never been here before in me life,” I said. “But those were good sausages.”
He’s got a nice little blue ute parked outside, and I plonk me bag in the back and we get in.
“You smoke?” he says, offering me one.
“Nah, mate,” I said. “Bad for your health, didn’t you know?”
“I know,” he says, lighting one. “I’ve been trying to commit suicide on them, but it hasn’t worked yet.” And he starts up the ute and we’re away.
I settle back in the seat, feeling good. I reckon it’s about time things started to work out. I’ve been at a bit of a loose end lately, me.
“So, mate,” I said to him, “you married?”
He laughed, but not like it was funny. “No way.”
“Why, never found the right one?”
“No, no. Women are bad news.”
“Oh, you’re not wrong,” And I thought about telling him about Becky and all the strife she’s been causing me, but then I decided not to. He’s not much of a talker this bloke, and I’m not really feeling like talking myself. In fact, I’m feeling pretty tired and drift off for a while.
When I wake up it’s pitch dark and I’m feeling a little crook. My gut aches. Pretty soon I think I’m gonna throw up.
“Can we pull over?” I said. “I’m not feeling too good.”
He looks at me as if I’m mad, but he stops the ute and I fall out the door and I’m sick on the road. Oh, bags of it. It was really embarrassing. I hadn’t done anything like that for a while.
He was moaning about being sick, so we stopped by something called 4 Mile Creek, a creek only in name, and he rolled around on the ground a bit and chucked, and then he seemed to get better and rested his head against a gum tree.
“Might as well stop here anyway,” I said. I went and got some wood together and some newspaper out of the ute to make a fire, and pulled the blanket off the front seat and threw it on top of him. I leant against the ute and lit a cigarette, and stood rubbing my shoulder. The crickets were making an unholy racket.
After a while he started to come good again. “Strewth,” he said, “I wonder what that was.”
“Must’ve got a bad sausage.”
I sat down in front of the fire. “Nice night.”
“I suppose.” He still had the towel over his head.
“Beautiful night.” I said. “Don’t get stars like that in the city.”
“No, you’re not wrong.” He sat up, his arms folded around his stomach, leaning towards the fire.
I threw some sticks into it and watched them curl and burn. It was a nice night, quite cool after the heat of the day.
“So, let me ask you a question,” I said. “What do you want out of life?”
“Hey? Whaddaya mean?”
“You got any ambitions?”
“Yeah. Yeah, I got ambitions, course I have.”
“Well, y’know, I’d like to have a wife and kids some day.”
“Is that all?”
“Jeez, that’s enough to be going on with, isn’t it?”
“Tell me something. Have you ever put your life under the microscope and found it wanting?”
“Huh? You sound like a bloody priest or something.”
I took a swig from a bottle of water and handed it to him. “It’s OK, mate,” I said. “Don’t worry about it. I just get a bit philosophical sometimes, on a beautiful night like this.”
He’s lying propped up on his elbow, in front of the fire, looking at me in a bit of a strange way. And I’m thinking, bugger me, maybe this bloke’s a snafter. He’s not married, and he didn’t even look at that good sort in the paper. I’m thinking maybe I’d better watch me back.
Then he stood up and stretched and said, “Reckon we’d better turn in if we want to get that early start.” He went over to the ute and got something out of the back of it and tossed it over to me—it was a pillow.
“Oh, cheers,” I said.
He didn’t get into the ute straightaway though. He came back and stood staring at the fire, which was almost out.
“Not tired?” I said.
“Oh, yeah. I’m tired enough. Tell me, you ever had any money?” he said. “I mean real money?”
“Me aunt left me three grand when she died.”
“Three grand, that’s nothing. Go through three grand on a weekend in the city. No, you’ve got to have more than that.”
“Well, that’s OK if you’re born with it,” I said.
“Bullshit,” he said. “You’ve got to make your own luck in this life. And money’s there for the taking.”
“What do you mean? Like robbing a bank or something?”
“Could be robbing a bank.”
“Nah, you’d get caught.”
“What if you couldn’t get caught?”
“What do you mean, couldn’t get caught?”
“Positive thinking,” he said and tapped his forehead with his finger. “You ever read that book, ‘The Power of Positive Thinking’? We make the world with our thoughts, my friend. This idyllic setting here, these stars overhead—I haven’t seen stars like that for years—we make it all. And if we weren’t here, none of it would be. None if it. Anyway, think about it. Sweet dreams.” He walked off.
Strange bugger, I thought.
I found a flat spot of ground, brushed some leaves and that away, wrapped meself in the blanket and put the pillow under me head. I thought maybe I should stay awake for a while, just in case he tried to go the grope, but being sick has knocked me around and I fall asleep. I dreamt that some wild animal was scratching near my face, and I was trying to move and get out of its way but I was wearing this strange overcoat that Mum had made for me that buttoned all the way down to the feet and I couldn’t get out of it. And then I woke up and I was just tangled in the blanket. I needed to pee and walked into the bush to do it.
When I got back, he was sitting in the front of the ute. I could see the tip of his cigarette glowing.
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