After five days at sea as anchor wench and winch hand, one of the first things I did on land was put my back out. I managed it within 45 minutes, walking up the highway with a backpack and an esky full of fish.
We anchored the dinghy on the shores of a small holiday town and began the walk to the store. I stuck out my thumb before we'd even left the beach car park, hailing a pair of grey nomads. She wound down her window. "We've got no room in the back. Sorry!"
"Oh, they can climb on the running boards," said her husband, a dry pointy man on holidays. He was probably a banker in his real life but now he was living on the edge. I could see he really wanted to pick up the two boat people he'd watched pulling a dinghy into shore laden with a bag of rubbish and backpacks.
"But it's just not safe," protested his wife.
K was headed to the store to buy some phone credit and avocadoes, and then going back to his boat to wait out the sou-westerly. I was going home because my time on the Tearaway was regrettably up. We chatted through the car windows to the travellers and clung on to their roof racks.
"It's just like sailing!" I yelled across the roof of the car to K as he looked nervously at the four wheel drive coming in the other direction.
At the store I rang the bus company.
"Yes there is a bus leaving from Bremer today," the operator said. "Hang on, no there's not. Okay. Well there is a bus going from Ravensthorpe to Albany, going past Boxwood at 12.46."
"Boxwood's 60 k's from here."
"Well, if you can get to Boxwood, um ... no, the bus isn't stopping at Boxwood actually. It's going straight through."
"Can you contact the driver?"
"No. He's already left. Look, if you stand at the turn off to Bremer, you might be able to wave him down."
She must have been a metropolitan lass. Flagging down a bus flogging along at a hundred and ten. Right. Even if he stopped, there's no way I'd be anywhere near the verge when he hit the gravel.
So I said goodbye to K. He started fussing again.
"You can't hitch hike. It's too dangerous."
"I'll be fine."
"You don't have a gun."
"No, I don't have a gun.
It was hot. I had a hat, sunscreen and some water. I even had the hitch hiker's consolation - a tube of sweetened condensed milk - but none of these things served as an amnesiac to the old feeling of standing on the outskirts of town under the 80km sign for an hour and have locals and tourists ogle, drive past and wave. It was the most peculiar sense of rejection. I'd stick out a thumb, feeling ridiculously conscious of my bingo wings. I was eyed cautiously and then they would drive by with a merry wave. By then I'd tweaked the muscle in my back and I could feel it starting to spasm. I felt quite old, bound by gravity, by the road, and my need to get home.
Finally, someone in a white four wheel drive with government plates slowed down, only to pull into the water treatment plant a hundred metres up the road. Another four wheel drive followed it. Aghh. I pulled The French Lieutenant's Woman out of my pack. Like hitch hiking theory, I haven't delved into this book for twenty years. I suspect John Fowles was working with themes from Tess and even maybe Lady Chatterly's Lover. It is a delicious book. It smells good too.
I put on more sunscreen and thought about covering my bared arms but it was too hot to wear more clothes and anyway, my back was hurting too much to squat and rummage through my duffle bag. The two four wheel drives pulled out again and drove into town. A woman in a dusty Holden sedan who'd sped past me earlier came back the other way, stopped and wound down her window.
"Where ya going?"
"I just live up the road on a farm, sorry. But someone will be heading out of town. I'll let them know you're here."
She drove away and the two four wheel drives returned and slowed, slower this time. Creative visualisation Sarah, I thought, c'mon. A handsome lonely farmer who just happens to be heading for the city for the weekend. Tall, lean, quixotic. The horizon in his eyes.
One of the water treatment blokes pulled out again, stopped across the road from me and wound down his window. "Where ya going?"
"I can take you to Wellstead, if you like. At least you'll be on the main road then."
It's a reckoning for a woman, getting into a car with a stranger. It's an immediate sway of the power relationship over social contract observations. The resulting tension is thrilling rather than frightening to me. If I were a man, perhaps I might find my kicks on a cruiser beat somewhere just to experience that same exchange of power where the social mores are bent out of shape to fit the scene. It may sound weird, I don't know if I am explaining this well, but when hitching, I'm at my most vulnerable on the side of the road. Once I'm in the car, the relationship shifts. I have some modicum of control over my situation. If only K knew!
"I said to Steve, you know the other bloke at the plant there - " he jerked his thumb at Steve as we drove past. Steve gave a salute. " - that it's pretty unusual to see a sheila hitch hiking these days."
"There's no bus ... and I have to get home."
"I think the dangers are highly over rated anyway."
I looked at him. "I'm Sarah."
"Neil." He shook my hand. Sandy, almost strawberry hair, cut short. Bit of a goatee and a soft mustache. High, weathered cheeks. He wore mirrored sunglasses and he didn't take them off, but then nor did I remove mine. He wore his work uniform, navy blue with the department's name stitched to the breast pocket.
There is something of the satyr spirit in me and I don't know if this is usual in women, never having (to my knowledge) lived inside another woman's body and mind before. I do get the sense that despite certain liberations a woman is still frowned upon if she admits to sizing up every man within a decade or two of her own age for their fuckability. It's supposed to be a perfectly normal state for men but a subversive, predatory state for women; dangerous to the creaking machine of social relations and lacking in, um, biological discrimination. So I tend to keep any external manifestations of ideas approaching Erica Jong's zipless fuck firmly zipped. Belted. Laced up. Self immolation via social excommunication is really not my idea of a good time.
But a lanolin scent or the light catching blonde hairs on a man's wrist sets my mind awander down green gladed pathways. I'll always wonder what it would be like.
We passed paddock after paddock of plantation blue gums. The trees had been ripped out by their roots and all lay in the same direction. In the distance, two tractors were chaining down the remaining forest.
"What are they doing?"
"Ripping the lot out," he said. "Company's gone broke and the trees aren't worth anything."
"What are they going to do with the trees? Pulp them?"
"No. No. They'll pile them up into rows and set fire to them."
He nodded. "Yeah, obscene all right. There's ten years worth of good cattle pasture gone into growing those trees."
Neil owned ten acres of bush up on the hill near Dillon Bay. He pointed out the house as we drove by. He owned another house in one of the marginal wheat and sheep towns to the east as well. He told me he'd come out from England with his parents when he was eight years old and had lived between here and the wheatbelt ever since. Twenty kilometres away from Wellstead, he was talking about his love for the Fitzgerald national park and his frustrations with the current access into there. He'd slowed down to 80 kilometres an hour and seemed so happy talking that he wanted to drag it out. The sign 'Cheap 2km' passed. Recently, the owners of the store covered the 'Fuel' beneath the 'Cheap' with pictures of UDLs and beer.
"Do you want to go into the roadhouse?"
"No, just at the turn off," I said. "Just ahead there."
"Don't matter to me. I'd drive you to Albany if I could but my turnoff is 5 k's back that way."
When he handed me my pack and I swung it down onto the gravel by the side of his car, I remembered my injured back. He shook my hand again and I said it was lovely meeting him and thanks for the ride and then he turned around and drove away.
I was back in the blinding sun, with K's silly yachtie cap on, standing by a marker post, trying to ease my spine into something resembling comfort. The same old feeling came back as the recreational four wheel drives loaded with canoes or camping gear flew by me. March flies. Then I looked at my phone. The time was 11.11. Good good.
A semi pulled up with a shriek of brakes, turning out from the roadhouse, the indicators flashing towards Albany. I stuck out my thumb and he wound down the window. "Jump in."
He climbed down and went around to the passenger side. "Just gotta clean out the office for you." He didn't wear sunglasses and his eyes were very blue. He looked familiar to me in grey, lithe, middle aged kind of way. I have seen his like at boat ramps, trucking depots and pubs all over Australia.
I clambered up into the air conditioned cab and stashed my gear in the double bed behind the seats, breathed with cool relief.
Nolan was an owner driver, so he could pick up hitch hikers. "But if I crash or you fall out of the truck or something, you're not covered," he explained. "That's why the companies don't let the drivers take on passengers. Even family members have to sign a form."
He's been driving trucks all his working life. In his last four trucks, he's covered a grand total of five and a half million kilometres. When I asked him how many times he'd crossed the Nullabor, he shrugged and grinned.
"This girl, she's an '06. I shoulda replaced her by now. Every five years I get a new truck. But the cooling system went a year ago and blew the motor. Thirty grand for a new one so she's gotta work a bit longer."
Nolan does the run from Esperence to Perth to Albany a few times a week. He'd been driving since ten o'clock the previous day, though he assured me he'd slept at some stage.
"How is it on the body, all that driving?"
"Oh, it's not too bad. I'm used to it. The guys that aren't used to it, it's hard on them."
"You don't eat roadhouse food," I suggested pointing to his plastic containers of home made food.
"Nah. Three days of that stuff'll kill ya. Always have my own nibbles. When I'm in Perth I get home cooked meals. My friends, they invite me over for dinner." He looked at my uncomfortable squirming in the aeroglide seat. "If you muck about with those levers, you can put the seat up and down."
"I've hurt my back," I said. "If I can just put my foot up a bit ..." I rested it on the door's pocket. His whole truck was immaculate and I worried about my dirty feet. "I'm getting old. All I was doing was walking along the road and I did my back."
"Ahh, you've got a long way to go before you're old," he said twinkling. The way he looked at me and a few other things he said made me realise that an extra hundred k's and he'd be hitting on me.
That's the other thing about satyr spirits. We understand. Like the father who understands exactly what is going through his daughter's boyfriend's mind, we know. You know that old maxim: knowledge equals power. And so the hitcher-driver game begins. Deflection, distraction, stories, tell-me-about-your-children.
Where we must be afraid, should we ever be unlucky enough to find ourselves there, is not of the tentative grooming from a shy truckie but the raw silence of a raging misogynist who still has issues with his mother, the psychopath who leaches attack pheromones so subtle that only a potential victim can smell it.
We approached Manypeaks and the road suddenly became potholed and patched. The aeroglide chair ceased gliding and crashed my spine into every single hole. Nolan was talking about how he took his wife and kids to Vegas two years ago. "And we took the caravan up the east coast the year before that. Sydney, Brisbane, the Gold Coast."
As we rolled down the last big hill to Bakers Junction, he said, "But she's gone now."
"Been married twenty four years, together for thirty. I don't know what happened. I came home from a job and both the cars were gone, two of the kids, bank account cleaned out. Hundred and thirty grand in the bank, gone."
We were entering the outskirts of Albany. He'd waited until the last twenty kilometres before he told me about his wife and he just couldn't hold it in any longer. I thought about the water treatment man and how he'd slowed down before Wellstead so he could talk some more.
"Does it do your head in? The driving? I mean, how do you drive all day and not think about it?"
"I think about it the whole way. Esperence ... Lake Grace ... Perth ... all the way. She'd been planning it for three years, she told me. Three years. So I'll think about that. Wonder who she was seeing. Think I know the bloke."
We were in the industrial area, the ugly assortment of signs and buildings that seem to be the entry statement to cities all over the world. A plastic horse stood on the side of the road harnessed in a saddle and bridle. Hardly Normal shouted two hundred dollar fridges.
I wished that he had started talking earlier. He had just started on his unhappy narrative. The computer hard drives missing with all the accounts, the bare floorboards, his lawyer in Perth fleecing him, the small town conspirators ... these hard facts both sidestepped and illuminated how his boys were coping, the one son who wasn't, his bewilderment, his paranoia and his sense of betrayal. "She still lives in town but I haven't seen my youngest boy since
Christmas Day. I can't talk to her." He shook
his head, nearly in tears. "I can't even look at her."
I've heard hairdressers talk about their confidentiality clauses. People open up to them as they would counsellors or doctors. This was different. Nolan knew he would never see me again so I was a safe receptacle. But his candour - and his utter grief - really shocked me.
"But I've got some good friends," he smiled then. "They've been looking out for me."
"I'm really sorry," was all I could say.
He pulled the truck into the fuel depot where he was to deliver a load of car batteries. His face was composed by the time he saw the proprietor on the forklift waiting for him.
"Nice meeting you Sarah." Then he was at the passenger side door, taking my bags as I handed them down to him. "I hope your back gets better soon. Take care now."