Part TwoThe Community
The Day After
Billy opened his eyes. Everything was white. He slowly reached out his hand and felt a cool, hard wall centimetres from his face. He was alive. ‘Thank God!’ He exhaled.
He sensed something behind him and, pushing himself away from the wall with both hands, rolled over and swung his legs out of bed. His bare feet slapped the floor, jarring his ankles and causing him to wince. The bed was much lower than he had expected. He looked around the room. It was just as he vaguely remembered it from the night before. Something was lying on the table. With both hands on his knees he leant forward, letting his own weight pivot him into a standing position. He walked to the table and scooped up a feather. Curious, he reached down for his discarded jeans. Searching through its pockets he found what he was looking for. Pulling out the feather he had picked up the previous night, he laid them side by side on the table. He inspected them as if they were two pieces of criminal evidence. They were the same. A shiver ran down his spine.
The short meeting with Pidgin had truly unsettled him. He wasn’t completely sure what he had seen. After all, he hadn’t been entirely sober and the effects of an enormous hangover had dulled his senses. At any rate, it was clear that Pidgin had meant him no harm. He had even gone a step further and prevented him from becoming roadkill. However, Billy surmised, he probably wouldn’t have found himself on the highway in the first place if Pidgin hadn’t been there to attract his attention.
Even though his senses had been diminished he was relatively sure that Pidgin was real, or real enough. He had physical evidence to attest to this. What concerned him now was the feeling that he had been followed. He had found another feather. He picked them up and inspected them once more. They were exactly the same. He was no bird expert, though, and the second feather could have been there all along. He had gone straight to bed the night before and not really taken a good look at the room. The best thing would be just to wait and see if Pidgin appeared again. Billy wasn’t certain that this would happen, but he was convinced that the sudden strange apparition had a purpose. If Pidgin presented himself again he could try to confront him or detain him long enough to get more information.
Billy pushed the thoughts from his mind and attempted to focus on the here and now.
He was in a small, outback community. There was a bastion of civilisation, Alice Springs, somewhere in the vicinity. There were people he could call on for assistance. At least, he hoped this was the case. He still had to step outside. There was the minor chance that he would find himself in another place altogether. He decided to keep positive and trust that no more radical changes had occurred while he was asleep. He was starving hungry. He desperately needed to have a piss.
‘Shit, where’s the loo?’
He frantically looked around the room. His bladder was ready to burst. There were only two doors, the one he had come in through and one to the side of the small kitchen. He made a beeline for the door in the kitchen. He wrenched it open and was gratified to see a small bathroom with a toilet in one corner. After momentarily struggling with his underwear, he relieved himself, letting out a long sigh in the process. He pulled up his pants and turned to a small basin next to the toilet. He turned the tap, half expecting there to be no water. After some spluttering, water gushed into the basin. It looked clean and pure, unlike the water from the roadhouse. He splashed some on his face and ran his fingers through his hair. He then cupped his hands under the flow and drank deeply. He turned off the tap, straightened up and decided to go in search of sustenance.
Back in the kitchen he opened cupboards. They were particularly barren except for the very basics: salt, pepper and sugar cubes. He popped a sugar cube in his mouth and sucked thoughtfully on it. It made his teeth ache but he was rewarded with a small surge of energy. He turned to examine the refrigerator. Disappointingly it was completely empty, and looking behind it he noted it wasn’t even plugged in. He wasn’t going to get far on basic condiments. He would just have to take the plunge and confront the great unknown beyond the cabin door. He walked across the room, pulled on his jeans, socks and shoes. Sticking his nose under an armpit he inhaled deeply. He was on the positive side of what was permissible in personal hygiene, but only barely. With a heightened sense of purpose he walked to the door and flung it open. Harsh sunlight temporarily blinded him, coupled with a fierce blast of superheated desert air. He reached desperately for the door and pulled it shut.
‘Gonna need more sugar!’
Billy grabbed a handful of cubes and stuffed them in his pocket before flicking one deftly into his mouth. Then, without hesitation, he opened the front door and jumped outside.
Billy could hear music. Shading his eyes with one hand, he took a quick look around.
His eyes slowly adjusted to the glare and he took in his surroundings. In the broad light of day things didn’t look substantially different from the night before. Several single-storey buildings were scattered around him. Most were constructed of white, corrugated iron and were particularly modest. There were none of the usual things associated with the suburban houses he was used to. There were no gardens, no swathes of verdant lawn, no flower beds; nothing even to tell them apart. They were all the same, simple, little white boxes, with a small verandah tacked on the front. They could have been uninhabited. In fact, if it hadn’t been for the music, he would have assumed the whole town was deserted. There were no street signs, or even streets, for that matter. Just a hotchpotch of dwellings spread sparsely among a few particularly sad and dried out trees.
Billy focussed on the sound. It wasn’t difficult to work out where it was coming from as it was the only discernible noise in his immediate vicinity. Through the trees he could make out a relatively large building, also constructed of corrugated iron. It differed from the other dwellings in that it was unpainted and had the appearance of a garden shed, only a good deal bigger. He honed his hearing and was reasonably sure the sound was emanating from within. He decided to investigate. After all, it didn’t seem that Rob would miraculously appear out of nowhere and meet him as arranged. He couldn’t easily get lost here, and if all else failed he could return to the cabin. He made a mental note of its number. A hand-carved representation of the number three hung next to the cabin door. It was coated in faded brown paint, which seemed to be peeling off before his eyes. The heat was oppressive and he was melting on the spot. He felt some affinity with the paint. Sweat formed on his brow, even though he was standing perfectly still and had barely exerted himself. He hoped the giant garden shed would provide some form of refuge.
Billy set out with some haste, leaving a cloud of fine, red dust in his wake. He crossed an open area before ducking between some trees and heading towards the shed, which he now saw had two large doors. One of them had been carelessly flung open. It swayed a little on its rusted hinges in the warm breeze, emitting a small peep, not unlike a native bird. He stepped inside and immediately felt a marked drop in temperature.
The shed, which could better be described as a hall, was quite large. The only illumination was provided by sunlight streaming in behind him through the open door. The relatively cavernous space was set up as a mini theatre, with about a hundred well-worn folding chairs forming an audience area. A narrow, crooked aisle snaked its way between the chairs, dividing them down the middle. His eyes followed his own long shadow, cast down it by the light streaming in behind him. At the far end of the shed was a stage. The stage was raised about a metre and a half above the audience area and, apart from one feature, was empty. On the stage, on a wobbly chair, which appeared as if it would collapse at any moment, sat a figure, rocking backwards and forwards and hunched over an electric guitar. His face was obscured by a wide-brimmed Akubra stockman’s hat and he was completely immersed in playing his guitar, oblivious to his surroundings. Next to him was a small amplifier which emitted an incredible amount of noise. The noise filled the hall, almost to the point of bursting. It seemed as if the walls themselves were arching outwards and threatening to buckle under the strain. Billy considered himself a bit of a music aficionado and it sounded to him for all the world like Stevie Ray Vaughan going hell for leather. The music had its roots in the country genre but with a definite blues/rock influence. He was impressed. He stood in the aisle for a moment and, half closing his eyes, let the music flow over him. He rocked gently, pivoting on his ankles.
The music stopped. Billy opened his eyes. The guitarist was staring right at him, his eyes just visible beneath the brim of his hat. A voice called out from within the shadows in a corner to his right and a few rows from the front of the stage.
‘Did you have a good kip?’
Billy took a few tentative steps towards the stage and recognised Rob on one of the chairs, sitting with two other young Aboriginal men.
‘Yeah, good thanks.’
‘Come in and enjoy the concert.’
Billy looked up at the guitarist and realised this must be Rob’s passenger, Tex, from the night before. The amplifier was buzzing loudly. Tex reached over and adjusted some of the knobs, pulled his hat down over his eyes, and launched into another distorted blues riff.
Billy walked over to Rob who yelled out, trying to make himself heard over the cacophony. ‘Take a seat, mate!’
Billy accepted his invitation and sat beside him. He slid up close to him to hear what he was saying.
‘So, how you feeling?’
‘Oh, I’m ok. Well, I’m pretty hungry actually.’
‘Well I guess we’d better do someth’n about that. This is Daniel and Matthew.’ He indicated the two young men sitting next to him. Billy nodded to them and they reciprocated. ‘Daniel’s gonna open up the shop soon; then you can get some tucker.’
It occurred to him that he wasn’t even sure if he had any money. He sensed the bulge of his wallet in his back pocket. It prodded uncomfortably into his right buttock and he was somewhat reassured. He hoped there was still something of value in it apart from the wad of worthless receipts he invariably accumulated.
They all turned to face the stage. ‘Is that Tex up there?’
‘Yep. He’s not bad, eh?’
‘Yeah, he’s pretty damn good. I play a bit of guitar myself.’
‘Really? Maybe you two should have a jam.’
Before Billy had time to consider the offer, Rob had stood up and, edging past him, marched purposely towards the stage.
‘C’mon.’ He waved for Billy to follow and pointed beneath the stage. ‘We’ve got heaps of equipment under here.’
Rob got down on his knees and stuck his head under the stage. Billy joined him in inspecting the underside of the stage. Rob was correct. There was a lot of musical equipment there, a few amplifiers and a couple of guitar cases. There was also what seemed like a complete drum kit. Everything was dusty and didn’t look as though it had been used for some time. However, everything, including the chairs, was coated in the same fine dust. Billy concluded it was a result of the environmental conditions rather than a lack of interest in the equipment. Rob moved one of the amplifiers to one side to give better access to a guitar case before moving back. Affixed to the back of the amplifier was a number of what seemed like small, white cotton balls.
‘Better watch out for them.’ Rob pointed at the balls. ‘They’re red-back spider eggs. The mum is probably hanging round here somewhere. They’re pretty defensive, you know.’
Billy had been stung numerous times as a child by bees and had developed an aversion to anything from the arthropod community. He shrank back from the amplifier and out from under the stage.
‘I’m not that good a guitarist. Just a beginner really.’
Sensing that he might be insulting Rob’s generous offer he added, ‘To be perfectly honest, I’ve really got to get something in my stomach first.’
As if on cue, his stomach let out a long, low growl. Self consciously, Billy clasped his hands to it in a vain effort to silence it.
‘Sorry, mate, had forgotten you needed some tucker. We can do this later. Let’s see if we can get you someth’n.’
They stood and dusted off the knees of their jeans. Rob walked over to Daniel and said something to him, all the while motioning towards Billy. He beckoned Billy over. ‘Daniel will get you sorted. I’ll catch up with you later. I should really be doing some odd jobs at the moment.’
Billy thanked him and, following Daniel’s lead, walked across to the doorway of the shed. He stopped for a moment. Looking back he took the scene in one last time. Up on stage Tex was totally immersed in a world of his own. He was now arching his back with his eyes half closed. His fingers glided effortlessly over the fretboard. He was also shaking his head with such ferocity that Billy was amazed that the Akubra remained fixed to his skull. Watching Tex in full flight brought a smile to Billy’s face. He also felt a sharp pang of jealousy. What a life this was, so relaxed and carefree, unlike anything he was used to.
With regret Billy wrenched himself away from the scene. He followed Daniel outside, steeling himself once more against the renewed onslaught of heat and bright light.
The General Store
The store was dank and cool. The floor a simple plateau of polished concrete. It was like being in a freezer compared to the environment outside.
Daniel had taken his time opening up the store. He walked around flipping on switches before going behind the counter and turning on the till. Fluorescent lights flickered to life and made their presence known. Their starkness shone down from above but, with no white walls to reflect them, they barely penetrated into the far recesses of the store. Billy was used to brightly lit supermarkets with placards everywhere, enticing the clientele to spend more than they wanted. This was much simpler: three wide aisles, long and dimly lit. Well- worn price tags were stuck at irregular intervals on the shelves. The lettering on many of them had severely faded and was barely legible.
Billy was famished but didn’t know what to eat. He checked along the aisles. The shelves were filled, but only sparsely. Any shopping done here was for incidental items, things that had been forgotten on a trip to a better stocked supermarket. There were all the basics but nothing whet his appetite. Breakfast cereals weren’t at all tempting: they involved milk and his stomach was still recovering from the effects of his late night out. The abundance of canned food also wasn’t appealing. That would mean having to use a pot to warm one of them up. He also didn’t recall seeing a can opener during his search for food at the cabin and decided it wouldn’t be worth the struggle. At home he had been confronted with the same situation a number of times. He also didn’t possess a can opener and had often resorted to using other kitchen utensils. Invariably a large percentage of the contents of the dreaded can never reached their intended destination. He could picture a kitchen floor doused in baked beans and decided he didn’t want to go there.
The prudent thing was to first take stock of his financial situation. This would dictate what he could or could not purchase. Towards the middle of the store he found a slightly rusted, waist-high ice-cream freezer with a sliding glass lid. It was stocked with a limited variety of products. He rummaged through his pockets, turning them out one by one and laying the contents on the lid. In his front pocket he found some loose change—he estimated about three dollars—and his house keys. In one back pocket he found the two feathers. His other back pocket was bulging. He took a deep breath and mentally crossed his fingers before pulling everything out. He spread it all out on the freezer lid.
There was his misshapen wallet, a battered affair which had seen better days, and an envelope. As he had suspected, his wallet contained mostly worthless paper receipts, most of which he had no idea what purchase they were connected to. He screwed them up in a tight ball and made a mental note to discard them. He didn’t quite understand why receipts had been invented. You really didn’t need to keep track of every soft drink and stick of chewing gum you bought.
The envelope was the one paper container which may be of some use. It was crinkled and half folded, having taken on the shape and curvature of his posterior. It was sealed and he carefully peeled it open. Inside was a crisp—or, at least, it had been before living in his pocket—hundred-dollar note. He whooped and punched the air before looking around self- consciously. From the front of the store Daniel gave Billy a wide grin. Billy’s face flushed. He pulled the money out of the envelope, together with a piece of paper. On it was scrawled, in sloping handwriting: ‘Merry Wedding Day! Have a nice life and don’t forget about us, Your Mates!!’
His wedding day. By his own calculations that should have been today. He felt a pang of guilt mixed with fear. His fiancée was going to skin him alive if he ever made it back to her. He pushed the thought quickly aside. Facing her wrath would certainly come, but right now he had other concerns. Billy surmised that his friends had planned this ahead of time. At least, that was the impression the money and note gave him. Thankfully they had presented him with a way to get home. Although they probably wouldn’t have expected him to have travelled so far. He started to feel a bit better about his predicament. He was fairly certain he could make the money stretch until he found his way home. Nevertheless, he was cautious about how much he should outlay for the present.
He slid the money and note carefully into the recesses of his wallet for safekeeping. He picked up the feathers and studied them once more. They seemed to have changed colour, taking on a bright, bronze hue. Disconcerted, Billy shook his head. He was certain they had been light grey and quite plain; definitely not as spectacular as they were now. He put it down to the different light in the store. Or it might have something to do with the fact that he had just woken up when he had previously examined them. At that stage he had yet to gain complete control of his faculties. This reminded him to concentrate seriously on the task he had set himself. He returned them to his pocket for later analysis and scooped up the loose change before recommencing his search for breakfast.
He walked to the back of the store. The rear wall was completely filled with a long line of glass doors. Behind the frosted glass he could make out sections with juices, soft drinks, water, dairy products and frozen food. This was the best-stocked area of the entire store. Strangely, there was no beer. Of all the places where you could kill for one, this would be it. He walked along the wall and came upon the meat section. Bending down a little he could make out some long shapes on the bottom shelf. He opened the door to get a better look but was still unable to work out what they were. They looked like huge, furry sausages and were at least a metre long. Billy began to have doubts about the store’s standard of hygiene. If they were sausages then their present state went far beyond any laboratory experiment with bacteria. He could personally attest to this based on his own experimentation with neglected food in his cupboards at home.
Billy stood up in surprise. On the other side of the open glass door was a small, well- rounded Aboriginal woman. Her face was beaming and she exuded such warmth and joviality that he couldn’t help but smile back.
‘They’re kangaroo tails.’
‘Good tucker. You burn off the fur and bury ’em in the ground with some hot coals.
Depending on where you’re from you eat ’em rare or well done. Either way it takes a few hours.’
‘I-I’m Billy,’ he stuttered. The last thing he had expected was someone to advise him on the finer points of bush culinary procedure.
‘I know. Hear Rob’s been taking care of you.’ ‘That’s right.’
‘Bit lost are we?’
‘You could say that.’
Behind the well-informed little woman a much younger woman stepped from one of the aisles. She was tall and slender and quite beautiful. He took particular note of her hands: her fingers were long and well manicured. She looked out of place in her surroundings. He could picture her back in the city where she could easily have passed for a model.
‘Got what you wanted, Auntie?’
‘Yep. Just a minute. Need some eggs.’
She stepped around the door and, reaching past Billy, pulled out a carton of eggs. ‘Be seeing you ’round, I guess?’
‘Ahem, dunno. I’m kind of looking for a way home.’
‘Well, I hope you find it.’
Billy nodded at her and both women returned to the front of the shop. In a trance, held the freezer door open and watched them leave. He began to feel the chill of the freezer, and, shivering, slammed the door shut and rubbed his arms to warm them up, before finishing his promenade of the freezers. At one end he found the chocolate section. Not able to make a decision, he reached in and grabbed the first thing at eye level: a Mars Bar. He thought for a minute before grabbing a second one. ‘Gonna have to do for now.’
He walked to the front of the store and laid the chocolate bars on the counter. ‘Who were they?’ He gestured with his head towards the two women who had just left.
‘Oh, that was Auntie Doris. She’s like an elder around here.’
‘Well, were still pretty big on traditions around here. It’s like we’re all one big family and she’s kind of a mother to all of us. She knows a lot about the old ways and teaches us stuff.’
‘And the girl?’
‘That’d be Mabel.’
Now Billy could understand Rob’s infatuation. Mabel was a striking woman. ‘Mabel? Rob’s girl then?’
‘Na. He’d like to think so, but they’re just mates. They couldn’t have anything to do with each other anyway; they’re both from the same skin.’
‘Yeah, that’s also a tradition. You’re not allowed to marry anyone from your own family is basically what it’s all about.’
‘But you said you were all family?’
‘Well, we’re all kinda from the same tribe. The tribe is made up of a few families and you can marry into another family, but not your own.’
‘Interesting. Makes sense, I guess.’
‘You gonna pay for that?’
‘Oh, sorry, yeah.’
Billy dug deep into his pocket and pulled out the loose change. He dropped it on the counter with a clatter. Daniel slapped his hand down on the coins to stop them rolling off the counter and proceeded to count out what he needed. He then slid the remaining coins back across the counter.
Billy unwrapped the chocolate bar with relish. He eyed it for a moment and took a large bite before strolling outside.
Doug And The Storm
The glare that hit Billy as he passed through the double doors was like a slap in the face. A stark difference from the store’s dim interior. Night had become day in an instant. It seemed as if the sun was situated on the other side of the street and not somewhere millions of kilometres away in the heavens. The heat was more intense than before. He stepped out onto the wide verandah which shaded the facade of the shop and nearly tripped over a robust, middle-aged Aboriginal man sitting on the steps leading down to street level. The man was in mid sentence. He was extremely animated and gesticulated broadly as he spoke. Billy attempted to say sorry but with his mouth still full only managed a spray of Mars Bar. The man seemed unperturbed, and after a slight pause continued telling his story with even more gusto. Billy took a half step backwards and bumped into Daniel coming out of the store. He grunted an apology through closed lips, not wanting to lose any more of his breakfast.
As his eyes slowly grew accustomed to the piercing, midday sun he surveyed the street from under his eyebrows. He was taken aback. The deserted town had miraculously transformed into a thriving metropolis. There were people everywhere. A number of small children and young adults sat in a tight semi-circle on the ground in front of the man and were listening intently to his story. The rest of the main street was a hive of activity. At a glance Billy estimated that there were over a hundred people gathered on the street. There was a lot of noise. Small pockets of people were gathered in groups, deep in loud conversation. There were peals of laughter everywhere. It had the air of a large family reunion.
‘What’s going on?’ he inquired of Daniel.
‘It’s Welfare Day. Everyone’s here to pick up their cheques.’ ‘Where did they all come from?’
‘Oh, pretty much from all over the place.’
‘Don’t any of them have jobs?’
Daniel looked at him incredulously, clearly insulted.
‘It’s pretty hard going out here, mate. It’s not like we want it this way. We’d really like to get off of government handouts but it’s difficult. Maybe you should have a chat to Doug here.’ He waved his hand, indicating the man Billy had nearly tripped over. ‘He can explain it better than me.’
Billy looked down at Doug and decided it wasn’t a good moment to interrupt him. He was in full flight and had a captive audience. Daniel, on the other hand, clearly didn’t feel restricted by etiquette. Unperturbed he stepped forward and gave Doug a gentle nudge.
‘Fella here, wants to know why we’re bludging off the dole.’
Billy protested. ‘No, no, that’s not what I meant.’
Doug seemed unruffled by the interruption and grinned widely up at him, ‘Take a seat.’
Sheepishly Billy obliged and sat on the step next to him. Doug laid a hand on his shoulder. It was big and warm, and somehow felt very comforting, almost fatherly.
‘I was just telling the kids about this. My father took over this land years ago. First they tried to grow grapes. You know, the eating kind. We worked for years on it. Had to cart water from miles away. It was pretty upsetting when it didn’t work out. Problem was, the termites got to them. All we ended up with was firewood. Since then we’ve turned our hand to cattle and have a bit of a farm set up out there.’
He swept his arm in front of him. Behind the houses on the other side of the street Billy could only make out trees and low scrub. It all looked incredibly dry and lifeless, not the sort of land that would support anything of much substance. The idea of grape vines growing in such an environment perplexed him. He remembered how lush the Barossa Valley was, the wine-growing region north of Adelaide. It wasn’t conceivable that anything could survive for very long out there. The whole idea struck him as ludicrous. Billy took another bite of his chocolate bar. He could feel the sugar starting to course through his body and began to feel somewhat revived.
‘Right now we’re busy sett’n up a bit of a studio so we can make pottery. We want to become self-sufficient but need a bit of help to get it all up and running. We really don’t want to be reliant on government support. Everything you do with ’em comes at a price. We wanna run things ourselves.’
Doug spoke with an air of solid self-belief. He was fiercely passionate about this. Billy had the impression that Doug was a man capable of anything he put his mind to, that he could tackle and overcome any adversity. He hadn’t intended to pass judgement, but still wasn’t completely convinced that anyone could make something out of such a desolate place. It all seemed so barren and isolated.
Doug turned his attention back to his audience and continued to tell his story. Billy tuned out of the conversation and was preoccupied with the possibility that people could eke out an existence in such a place. He couldn’t fathom how anything could survive in the desert, let alone flourish. He looked at the layer of red dust on his sneakers. They had been in pristine condition a day ago, white and shining. He had only bought them a few days before that. Now they seemed to have merged into their new surroundings. He wondered if he was capable of achieving the same transformation.
A sudden gust of wind rose and turned into something more intense. The dust in the main street was whipped up into mini tornadoes which began dancing up and down the road. The sudden, alarming drop in air pressure was palpable. The oppressive heat waned.
Billy stepped into the street and walked to the middle of the road. Turning back he could make out an undulating mountain range rising up behind the general store. Beyond the hills black storm clouds were forming. They were gigantic and seemed to be growing steadily in altitude and breadth before his eyes. He stood in awe. He had never experienced such a swift change in the weather. Looking at the looming clouds he felt incredibly small and exposed, like a scared boy on his first day at school.
The street around him was a sudden hive of activity. People ran around, some hurriedly getting into nearby vehicles. Gone was the calm, friendly atmosphere of a moment ago, to be replaced by a scene of mild panic. Clearly everyone was expecting a ferocious storm and getting out while there was still time.
In the middle of the street one figure stood absolutely still, his eyes focused on Billy. In an instant Billy felt isolated and detached from the bustle around him. He stood rooted to the spot with the chocolate bar slowly melting in his hand. It felt odd being so static with everyone else running around them. No one seemed aware of them. They stood motionless, staring at each other. He envisioned himself in an old cowboy movie, standing on a wind- swept main street and waiting for the opposition to draw his pistol. Only the figure wasn’t carrying a pistol. He was leaning nonchalantly on a short club. The night before Billy had only seen Pidgin in the semi-darkness. It was a surprise to now see him in the broad light of day. He didn’t seem out of place at all, just another person on the main street, except that he was standing stock still. He was dressed as Billy had remembered him, his cloak billowing with every wind gust. It was almost as if they had been transported from their first meeting and dumped into new surroundings. A large cloud of dust swirled down the street past Billy and continued on towards Pidgin. It obscured Billy’s view of him and he squinted through the fine particles, trying to see him. Billy choked on a mouthful of dust and coughed loudly, trying to clear his throat. By the time he had recovered the dust had cleared and Pidgin had vanished.
Billy snapped back into motion. He looked around, trying to see if Pidgin was amongst the other people. Through the chaos and dust it was difficult to see anything clearly.
Pidgin was nowhere to be seen. Billy felt a tap on his shoulder and wheeled around. It was Rob.
‘You gonna eat that?’
Rob indicated the chocolate bar. Its contents had melted and were oozing out of the,wrapper and over Billy’s hand. He looked down at it for a moment, peeled back the wrapper and wolfed down what was left of the contents. He licked the wrapper, scrunched it into a ball and stuffed it in his pocket. He wiped his hand down the leg of his jeans and looked up at Rob.
‘Breakfast,’ he said.
‘Uh-huh. Hey mate, we’re heading into town. You wanna come with us?’
‘Alice Springs, mate.’
Billy was caught off guard. He was still trying to take in what he had just seen. He wrinkled his forehead and tried to process Rob’s offer. With all the activity, he sensed that if he didn’t take Rob up on it he would be left alone in the town. Everyone seemed to be clearing out. Up to this point he had let outside events guide his movements. He decided that the approach had worked well. It was probably best just to go with the flow and follow whatever opportunities arose. Anyway, there weren’t many alternatives. It also dawned on him that he still needed to tackle the problem of his wedding.
‘Ok, great. That would be really cool. Need to get to a phone and call my girlfriend.’
‘I knew it,’ Rob beamed with a satisfied grin. ‘Girl trouble. Well c’mon then. The car’s over here.’
Billy followed him down the street and around a corner. The Ford was parked under a tree which offered some welcome but scant shade. In the daylight the car stood out in stark contrast to its surroundings. Inexpertly painted bright, canary yellow it had rusted fringes. The sections that weren’t in the shade glinted in the intense sunlight, and before he even laid a hand on it he knew the bodywork would be extremely hot. Billy recalled the previous night and braced himself for a struggle with the rear door. There was the added complication of trying not to burn himself on the door handle. To his surprise he was relatively successful. He expeditiously snatched at the handle and wrenched the door open in one fluid movement. He slid into the back seat and slammed the door behind him. He made a mental note to take the same decisive approach next time. He wasn’t prepared to let something as insignificant as a car door slow him down.
Tex sat up front in the passenger’s seat. Billy wondered if he ever sat anywhere else. He mused that the shape of his arse was probably permanently imprinted in the bench seat. Rob slid into the driver’s seat. He turned the ignition and gunned the engine, gently eased the large vehicle out from under the tree, and turned onto the now-deserted main street. Heading past a few houses he drove to the outskirts of town. Billy attempted to wind down his window. The air was stifling in the vehicle. Air conditioning apparently wasn’t one of the car’s endearing features. The winder didn’t move easily and the whole mechanism felt clogged with desert sand. He could feel it grinding as he tried to coax the handle. He tentatively put his full weight behind it and mercifully it yielded. The breeze that blew in through the window, although hot, was a welcome relief.
The main street swiftly expanded into a wide, dirt road lined with small trees. Billy turned to look out the rear window and watched as the town slipped from view behind the trees. An ever increasing cloud of dust rose behind them, eventually concealing everything in their wake. Billy’s last glimpse of the town was of it shrinking beneath the imposing, blackening sky and being enveloped in a blanket of red dust.