Part OneThe Roadhouse
The Greyhound bus jolted to a halt and woke Billy from his alcohol induced stupor. Through the haze and as if underwater, he could hear indistinct voices. He fought to gain control over his clouded mind. As he did the voices began to recede in the distance. He opened his eyes and forced them into focus. In the semi-darkness and about half a metre from his nose he was faced with a cotton and plastic wall. It had a garish pattern. It was the rear of a steeply reclined bus seat. He unsuccessfully tried moving but realised he couldn’t. Curled up in a tight ball he was jammed between the aisle armrest and the wall of the bus. Totally soaked in sweat his right cheek was firmly attached to the vinyl seat. With some difficulty he managed to pry it loose making a loud ripping sound in the process. He cringed. Rubbing his cheek he gripped the headrest of the seat in front of him and dragged himself into an upright position. He attempted to peer out the window. It was dripping wet with condensation from the air-conditioning. With limited success he wiped it partially dry with the sleeve of his jacket. Looking through the moisture smeared out-of-focus window, he could make out some fuel bowsers and the facade of a roadhouse. Everything was bathed in a urine tinged yellow light. Billy untangled himself. He stretched out his long thin legs, clambered out from between the seats and stood up unsteadily in the narrow aisle. The rest of the vehicle was completely deserted. Fixing his sights on the windscreen at the front of the bus he lurched forward down the mild incline of the aisle. Half jogging and flatfooted, he barely managed to avoid falling headlong down the curved stairs at the entrance to the bus. He saved himself at the last minute by desperately grabbing the doorframe of the bus. Gingerly he lowered himself down the last high step. He let out a slight sigh as he felt the comfort of terra firma solidly refusing to give way beneath his sneakers. Steadying himself on the ajar bus-door he scanned his surroundings. The roadhouse and fuel pumps were well lit by several large floodlights, all of which were attracting a wide variety of insect life and were heavily festooned with spider webs. The bus itself stood on the circumference of the light about ten metres from the roadhouse, everything outside the reach of the lights was pitch black. He could make out the interior of the roadhouse and noted a small number of patrons sitting around tables. The waft of week old cooking fat swept under his nostrils and he felt the bile rising in his throat. He spied a half open door on his side of the building, the silhouetted figure of a gentleman in evening dress was placarded above the entrance. Billy held his breath, took careful aim at this newly acquired target and stumbled across uneven concrete to the door. Inside a filthy basin coated in a fine layer of red dust took pride of place. It was illuminated under a single flickering fluorescent tube. To his left was a cubicle with a seatless toilet bowl in a similar state. Which would it be he mused, before quickly choosing the latter of the two. With one hand placed against the wall he leant over the toilet and released the contents of his stomach with a grunt. His head started to throb. Stumbling out of the cubicle, he lunged towards the basin before supporting himself on it and turning on the tap. There was a distant creaking sound and thick brown water gushed out before turning somewhat clearer a few moments later. He cupped his hands under the torrent and splashed water up into his face, repeating the process several times before taking a large mouthful. The water had a distinct metallic taste. His vision, which had been somewhat nebulous up to now, began to sharpen. His head, however, was still thumping like a street percussionist with no sense of rhythm. Billy assessed his own features in the rusty mirror above the basin. He was in his mid-twenties, of medium build, his skin having a slight brown hue although due to his recent exertion it had taken on a definite red tinge. His prominent nose was flat and spread broadly across his face. His hair was jet black with light curls which many a woman would have relished. It was difficult to determine his ancestry and at first glance you would presume that he was of Indian or Pakistani descent. Billy gazed into his bloodshot eyes. Under healthier circumstances his right eye would have been a deep brown. His left eye was an odd mix of blue and green. He surveyed his creased shirt, and pleased that he hadn’t soiled it, made a futile attempt to smooth it flat. Billy’s eyes dropped to the gold chain around his neck and a number of events over the past twenty-four hours began to drift into his consciousness. Not all of them were clear but one thing was, he had no idea where he was right now. Not wearing a watch, he also had no idea what time it was, or even which day. He knew that the chain signified his recent engagement to his girlfriend. He also knew that they were to be married. He feared that he would, or had already missed, that most important of appointments as it was scheduled to occur the day after his bucks party. The party itself had begun in the early afternoon and he had spent it in the beer garden of his local pub with his friends, a group of ex-university students. They were all prone to consuming vast amounts of alcohol and also adept at planning boyish pranks. After spending several hours in the sun, combined with the alcohol, he had begun to feel decidedly unwell and all ability to maintain clear vision had deserted him. In the early evening his friends had offered to arrange to get him safely to bed and convinced him that he could sleep it off on the trip. He vaguely remembered them putting him in what he thought was the back seat of a taxi, now it was obvious that the vehicle was quite a bit larger and there was more than one back seat. He had then drifted off into a comatose state and that was the last thing he could recall. How his mates had managed to sneak him onto a bus was beyond him, but he knew they were capable of all sorts of miracles. In his university days he had once woken to find himself with both hands taped together, his body bound with rope to his mattress and in the centre of somebody’s dorm room where a wild party was in full swing. He had vivid memories of a very drunken woman attempting to release him with a pair of scissors. Much to his distress, and being fully incapable of defending himself, he recalled the mortal fear he felt that she would sever more than just the rope. Later that night his friends had transported him, mattress and all, back to his own room. They had generously stopped on the way to tilt the mattress to one side and stuck his head in a bucket, enabling him to perform what was commonly known, in college terms, as a technicolor yawn. It was clear that yet again he had been the victim of his own inability to curb his alcohol intake. It also slowly began to dawn on him that unfortunately this time a rescue party would not miraculously arrive to steer him back to the safety of his own bed. Billy shook his head violently and splashed some more water in his face. He made up his mind that it was time for decisive action. Clenching the basin firmly with both hands he stared intensely one more time at his own visage, before doing a deft about-turn and stepping out into the darkness. He heard the bus gunning its engine and the driver beginning to double shift up through all eighteen gears. In panic he sprinted towards the road. Before he had reached it all that remained of the bus were its taillights dimming in the distance. He turned back to face the roadhouse and noticed that all the interior lights were doused. He heard another vehicle driving off somewhere behind the building and then nothing. Only the buzz of the floodlights competing with the noise emitted by the myriad of insects encircling them. This was clearly, not good.
Billy stood silently swaying on the steep shoulder of the highway. “What now?” he thought. Sullenly he turn and walked back down the road and into the relative security of the floodlights. On the side of the highway was a battered road sign peppered with bullet holes. It read, “Welcome to the Middle of Nowhere: Population… Sheep: 22,500, Flies: 2,000,000 (approx.), Humans: 6.” So where were the humans he surmised, not to mention the sheep. As far as he could ascertain he was the only living thing in the immediate vicinity, except for the insects. He took a deep breath, turned his back to the roadhouse and facing the blackness beyond tilted his head toward the sky. His eyes slowly became accustomed to the dark. It was a hot moonless night, still, deathly still. There was a cool gentle breeze blowing on his face making the hair stand up on the back of his neck. Compared to their hushed surroundings the noise in the background of the lights and bugs sounded like a piece of industrial machinery running at high speed. The stars, Billy had never seen anything like them. He had spent his entire life in the city and rarely ventured out into the country. Except for the fireworks on New Year’s Eve, he had never seen so many points of light in the sky. He was astounded, there were millions of them. A thick band stretched from one side of the heavens to the other. It was as if someone had taken a wet paintbrush and flicked white droplets in a wide sweep. He felt tiny and dwarfed under the celestial canopy, no bigger than the insects circling the floodlights behind him. He also felt incredibly alone. He was used to the clamour and noise of the city. There was always someone around. You were never completely isolated. Even when it was quiet at night you could still hear the hum of distant traffic. This amount of silence was abnormal to him. It was almost tangible and he felt as if it was pressing down on him. Apart from the self-inflicted banging in his own head, all he could now hear was his own blood rushing past his eardrums. It was very unsettling. For a moment he stared with a mixture of awe and disconcertion at the view above him. He lowered his gaze. A shiver ran down his spine. Standing in the glow of the roadhouse lights and on the opposite side of the highway was a figure. In shock Billy sharply sucked in his breath and held it. The figure was predominantly human. For the most part he was an Aboriginal man of indiscernible age. His face was almost completely obscured by a long white beard and he was slightly hunched over what appeared to be a metre-long club. Both hands and his chin rested on it. The man was, from what Billy could make out, perfectly scaled down to about half the size of an average adult. He wore a long dark cloak, draped loosely over his shoulders and stretching down just below his knees. The cloak had a strange iridescent glow, reflecting the dim light from the roadhouse and appearing to subtly change colour as it flowed gently in the soft breeze. It appeared to be constructed entirely of feathers. Two other features stood out in particular. One was that his unshod feet weren’t feet at all, they seemed to be the talons of some kind of bird. Fascinated and transfixed by them, Billy watched as one of the talons flexed and grasped at the loose stones at the edge of the highway. It buried itself a little in the soft sand. The second feature that caught his attention were his eyes. In the shadows it was almost as if they produced their own source of light. They were a piercing bluish green and their intensity was such that they cut through him. Billy spluttered. He had forgotten to breathe. He took a few short gasps of air and attempted to compose himself. His head was swimming, the pounding in his temples had all but subsided to a dull thud. He heard his own voice inquire in his head, “Who are you?” To his surprise an answer came, “You can call me Pidgin.” Billy was totally disorientated and was unsure if the voice had come from within his own head or from across the road. The sound of blood rushing in his head began to increase in volume. It completely enveloped him. His eyes locked onto those of Pidgin’s and he felt himself drawn into them. They were mesmerising. Billy felt himself inexplicably pulled towards the strange bird-man and took one cautious step forward. He placed one foot on the edge of the asphalt. The road felt warm beneath his feet, still harbouring the heat from a day of baking in the sun. Pidgin raised one hand motioning Billy to stop. He held his ground. Suddenly there was the deafening sound of a klaxon and a blinding light coming from Billy’s left, flushing that side of his face. An enormous road-train roared between the two men. The associated wind blast lifted Billy into the air and sent him flying backwards. He came crashing down heavily in the dust. The vehicle finished rumbling past and rolled off into the distance. Billy lay spread-eagled on his back in the dirt with his heart pounding furiously. He waited until his heartbeat had slowed to a normal level before propping himself up onto his elbows. He peered through the dissipating bull-dust towards the other side of the road. There was nothing. The man had vanished.
Billy climbed painfully to his feet. Rubbing his hip and checking left and right for any other vehicles, he strode uncertainly to the centre of the highway. A single rust coloured feather floated down and came to rest on one of the dividing lines on the road. Billy stooped down and carefully picked it up. He closely scrutinised it but there was nothing unusual about it. It was a perfectly ordinary feather. He slipped it into the back-pocket of his stonewash jeans. He turned back to face the roadhouse and was shocked to see that just like Pidgin, it had also disappeared. He felt a surge of panic rise up in him. He swung around frantically and tried to get a bearing on his surroundings. In the bright starlight and with his eyes having become accustomed to the dark, he could clearly make out the curve of a road. He couldn’t tell if it was the same stretch of road that he had previously been standing on or a new one. Apart from the highway there were a few lone trees and some low bush scrub, and that was about it. He realised now more than ever that he truly was in the middle of nowhere. “What the hell is going on?” Billy thought. He began to wonder if he was functioning in the real world or that maybe at any moment he would wake from a dream. He pinched himself really hard on his forearm. The pain was definitely genuine and had the added effect of restarting the throbbing in his head. “Nope, that feels pretty real,” he said aloud trying to reassure himself, but in doing so startled himself with his own voice. In the distance he heard a vehicle approaching. “Better not be another truck,” he muttered. Listening to its noise he was reasonably sure that it was something significantly smaller. He waited in the centre of the road and watched as the headlights approached. As the car neared he began to wave wildly, but it didn’t seem to be slowing down. He began to yell loudly, squinting at the piercing headlights. The driver saw him at the last minute and swerved. Billy stood anchored to the ground, petrified. The vehicle missed Billy by a couple of metres, one set of wheels left the hard tarmac and buried themselves in the soft shoulder, causing it to careen sideways. With tyres screeching in protest, the car slid to a stop facing the opposite direction from which it had come amid a cloud of dust and smoking rubber. The cars engine died with a splutter. Billy was shaking violently but inwardly relieved that he was no longer alone. He shielded his eyes from the headlights, and after composing himself, walked slowly towards the vehicle. He called out. “Are you ok?” The sound of a pair of male voices came from within the vehicle, one of them cursing loudly. “What the fuck!” The drivers door swung open with a loud squeal and Billy heard someone wrenching themselves out of the car. “Ya idiot, ya could getcha self killed standing in the middle of the road like that!” “Sorry, sorry, I’m a bit lost,” replied Billy timidly. “That has to be the understatement of the century,” came the irritated reply, “Ya scared the shit outta me. Whatcha doing out here?” Billy pondered the question for a moment. “To be honest I have no idea,” he said. “What’d he say?” A gruff voice inquired from within the vehicle. “Think he’s on drugs or someth’n,” turning to Billy, “so ya just dropped out of the sky then?” Billy considered telling the facts that he knew, but decided it would be wiser to keep them to himself. At the moment extracting himself from his present predicament was his first priority and further ostracising his rescuers wouldn’t help his cause. “Just got dumped here and don’t wanna go into it right now.” “Girl trouble,” the driver remarked wirily to his accomplice who retorted with a snort. Both men then broke into a cackle. Billy sensed that apart from the initial shock, both of them were relatively blasé about their close shave with a serious accident. He saw his opportunity. “Ahem, can you give me a lift?” The laughing abruptly stopped and the two men started to quietly discuss the situation. Billy stood for a moment feeling very exposed in the bright light. He tried unsuccessfully to make out what they were saying. Eventually the discussion ended and the driver spoke up. “Ok mate, we can tell y’r in a fix. We’re on our way home and ya can come with us. We’ll find ya somewhere to crash and sort the rest out in the morning.” “Thanks a lot,” said Billy gratefully. He realised that up to this point he hadn’t even laid eyes upon his rescuers. They had been hidden behind a wall of light. He walked over to the drivers door and was slightly surprised to see a tall thin Aboriginal man standing in the glow of the cars headlights. His skin was the deepest tone of black. “My name is Billy,” said Billy. “I’m Rob and this is Tex,” said Rob motioning towards the shadow in the front seat. The shadow’s head was submerged in an enormous Akubra stockman’s hat and he barely acknowledged Billy’s presence. Exasperated, he responded wearily, “C’mon, I’m buggered, let’s get moving!” “You’ll have to put some elbow grease into the back door, it sticks a bit,” said Rob. On his third attempt Billy managed to tug the door open. He slid into the seat, requiring the same amount of effort to close the door behind him. The car, a 1970s Ford Falcon, had seen better days. Billy hadn’t had the opportunity to scrutinise its exterior, but assumed that the main material holding it in one piece was probably rust. The backseat had a number of rips in the vinyl almost deep enough to swallow him up, surprisingly the front bench seat appeared to be in pristine condition. “You might have to make a bit of room on the floor.” Rob wasn’t kidding, the entire floor-well was filled to the brim with cans, bottles and other assorted rubbish. Billy tried his best to ignore it, “My dad had one of these.” “Is that right? It’s my pride and joy mate, spend every spare moment I’ve got doing her up,” Rob said puffing himself up like a penguin. “Call her The Interceptor, ya know like Mel Gibson’s car in Mad Max? Cousin of mine worked on the film over in Broken Hill a few years ago, he scored a few parts from one of the ones they wrecked.” “So nobody uses the backseat?” Billy inquired, trying to find a stable space to rest his feet on top of the pile of rubbish. “No, not yet but I’m working on that too, her name is Mabel.” Tex chuckled, “Mabel wouldn’t be seen dead in this heap of shit, mate, not even in the front seat!” “Ok, ok,” said Rob defensively, “let’s get the old girl moving.” He turned the ignition and the car roared into life as did the cassette player. Slim Dusty blared out of the speakers, “And the biggest disappointment in the world was me…” One of the speakers on the back shelf of the car was only a few centimetres from Billy’s left ear. He instinctively pulled his head to one side and clapped his hands around his ears. “Hey! Can you turn it down a bit!” “Sorry,” Rob murmured sheepishly, and fiddled with the volume knob on the stereo. The speakers crackled loudly followed by a reduction in the volume of the music. Slim launched into another verse. “A lot more dinner times than there were dinners I learned a lot that hurt me at the time Then this quiet country boy went home a different man With a memory of distance on my mind” Rob swung the car around with some difficulty. He struggled with the big steering wheel and lack of power steering. Once he was back on the road, he accelerated down the highway. They all sat in silence for a while listening to the music. Billy was not a fan of country music. He wasn’t a country boy and felt quite alien sitting in a car with two characters that clearly were. He had met very few indigenous Australians in his time[ he had a vague idea that he shared their ancestory]. For the most part this was probably the longest conversation he’d had with one of them. He was aware of the political arguments over land rights and the stolen generations, but it had never interested him. The men were as foreign to Billy as any of the overseas backpackers that he met in his local bar. Even their use of the English language was a bit hard to follow. At the moment he was totally dependent on them, had no idea where he was or where he was going, but still appreciated their generosity. In the city this probably wouldn’t have happened. There it was every man for himself, or at least that had been his experience. Yet he felt a sort of kinship with his unknown saviours, he trusted them. They seemed honest and had taken everything in their stride, which was not at all like him. He was mistrustful of strangers and only spent time with his closest friends. He wasn’t prone to taking risks and, under normal circumstances, he probably would have ignored these people if they had asked for help on the street. Even so, he could relate in part to Slim’s words. He was clearly a long way from home and distance was certainly on his mind. Rob slowed the car down and turned off onto a dirt side-road. The previously smooth hum of tires on a sealed road turned into an undulating rumble. Rob called back, “We’re about a half-hour drive from here.” “Cool!” “Where ya from?” Tex spoke up out of the gloom. “Adelaide, where are we going?” “Uranda, little place west of Alice Springs.” Alice Springs, Billy was flabbergasted. His mates had really pulled off a coup this time. He guessed that they had expected him to wake up a lot earlier than he had. Still, at least now he had some inclination as to where he was. All was not completely lost, although he doubted that there would be a bus stop in the place where they were heading to. Maybe in the morning he could find some way to get to Alice Springs and head home. With all that had happened to him, his head was swimming. Thoughts of his wife to be and the wedding flashed across his mind. It was all to much to consider and he pushed the thoughts away. He let his head rest back on the seat and stared out the of the side window and up at the stars. The rocking of the car and occasional vibrations from it hitting corrugations in the road sent Billy into a restless slumber. A short time later Rob woke him with the announcement that they had arrived at their destination. Billy peered out the window. They were in a small town made up of an assortment of prefabricated houses. There didn’t seem to be a regular street plan. Just a few buildings scattered around and, as he had assumed, no sign of a bus stop. They pulled up at a small single roomed cabin constructed of white aluminium sheeting. Rob stuck his arm through his window and indicated the small dwelling. “Ya can sleep here tonight, it’s open and the light-switch is just inside the door. I’ll come ’n getcha in the morning and show ya round.” Billy, not yet fully awake, groggily murmured a grateful thanks before extracting himself from the car. He resorted to kicking the uncooperative car door with both feet to open it and it took all of his strength to slam it shut again. He waved a half-hearted goodbye as the car pulled slowly away before plodding the few steps to the cabin and opening the door. He felt along the door-jamb and found a light-switch. He turned it on, blinking at the sudden glare of fluorescent light. The room was sparse but clean. In one corner there was a small kitchenette, in the opposite a double bed. There was also a small table with two wooden chairs and a slightly overused two-seater couch. He was exhausted and had lost all sense of time. Although it could only have been a couple of hours at the most since he had stumbled off of the bus, it felt to him like weeks. He glanced around the room again. Hanging on one wall was an Albert Namatjira print depicting a lone Ghost Gum with rolling hills in the background. The painting seemed to spring off of the cream coloured wall, its vivid pastel colours lighting up the rest of the otherwise relatively barren room. Looking at it he felt better, it exuded its own warmth. Billy let himself drop on the bed. He tugged off his shoes and socks and threw them in one corner. He peeled his jeans down off of his legs and flung them over one of the chairs at the table. He then laid himself down on the bed and stared at the ceiling. A large Huntsman spider was trying to make itself invisible in the crevice between the wall and the ceiling. Realising that he had forgotten the light, Billy groaned and rolled out of the bed. He took one step towards the door, reached out and flipped off the light-switch. He sat back down on the bed and slowly leaned back. It was a relief to finally be able to stretch his body out full length. He settled himself and stared once again at the ceiling. Starlight was streaming softly through one small window and illuminating it. After a moment Billy closed his eyes and within seconds he was asleep. On the other side of the room Pidgin sat cross-legged on the small table, staring inquisitively at the motionless figure on the bed. He let his chin sink down onto his chest. His beard and coat became one. In the dim light it appeared as if there was a mound of feathers piled up on the kitchen table.