Sieving dry earth through my fingers, I make little towers that crumble immediately. Sweat trickles down my spine and I brush needles of grass from my jeans. Staring into the distance, the outback reminds me of a lumpy picnic blanket with yellow-green tufts. It’s not much to look at but at least the days of pavements and puddles are over. Sliding a mirror from my backpack, I notice my cheeks are pink and I smooth sunscreen over.
‘Have you got any lip-gloss?’ I ask.
Jane looks up from the magazine and fishes in her pocket.
‘Catch.’ She lobs a small tube and then returns to her reading, pinching the pages that have flipped over in the breeze.
‘Perhaps we should’ve caught the Greyhound.’
‘We can always do that tomorrow, if we don’t get a ride today.’ Jane talks to the celebrity photos in front of her.
When the sun casts a honey-glaze on the land, a road train approaches. Squealing brakes bring it to a stop and I stand beside the second of two huge containers, each set on dozens of wheels, all taller than Jane. The cab door opens and the truckie leans out, beckoning a hand blotchy with tattoos.
‘You girls shouldn’t be hitching,’ he shouts. ‘The Territory’s a wild place. It’s only safe to take a lift from a truckie. Where yous heading?’
‘Darwin,’ I splutter.
‘You’re in luck – get in.’
Jane nods, auburn curls tumbling into her eyes and I take the cue, climbing the treads. The cab is roomier than I expect: a bench set back from the windscreen, the steering wheel sprouting from the middle of the floor. I push sweet wrappers and old newspapers away, making space on the seat.
‘Too right.’ The truckie speaks from the corner of his mouth. ‘Make yourself at home.’ He slaps the bench indicating where I should sit and Jane settles at the end.
‘What d’they call yous?’
‘I’m Claire and this is Jane. Thank you for stopping.’
‘No worries. Poms are yous? I’m Gary.’
‘Good to meet you,’ I say, but I forget his name at once.
Air rushes through the driver’s window and a fan pulses but the atmosphere is stuffy. Besides the odd grunt, the truckie doesn’t say very much and I struggle to keep the conversation going.
‘Hey you. What’s yer name? Jan is it?’
‘You want to take a sleep in the back?’ He nods in the direction of the bunk behind and Jane peers into the space. Throwing aside a T-shirt that smells of diesel, she scrambles inside.
‘Right!’ The truckie slaps my thigh, clawing the denim with his jagged nails. When he removes his hand to change gears, I wriggle away and shift my bag from the floor, wedging it between us to prevent further contact. He looks at my new position and laughs.
Through the windscreen opaque with dust, I trace the road as it slices the land. Decaying kangaroo carcasses mark the route like milestones, victims of road kill. I turn and watch the truckie as he rolls a cigarette, the paper and tobacco balanced on his knee. The radio crackles as if creatures from outer space are trying to make contact. The truckie coughs and tosses me a small container that rattles with pills.
‘Smoking’s a killer’ he says. ‘Try some speed.’
I fiddle with the lid and shake a pill into my palm.
‘One’s not enough – pass them to me!’ Upending the container against his mouth, I hear the drugs tumble and as the truckie crunches, speckles of white pattern his face. He throws the pill bottle back towards me and I’m conscious of him watching as I shake out another tablet. Aiming one and then the other at the back of my throat, I swallow. What the hell – it’s going to be a long journey.
The road becomes like a mesmerising snake as it shimmies into the retreating distance. I lose track of time as my eyeballs roll and my chin bounces against my chest. My mouth falls open only to be clamped shut when my eyes ping into focus. When it’s dark the truckie brings the road train to a stop and he jumps to the ground.I listen for his footsteps as he wanders into the inky night. Peering through the glass, a swollen moon shows his silhouette walking away.
‘I’m beginning to regret this.’
‘Too late now.’ Jane slithers from the bunk onto the seat next to me. We rest our foreheads together, our clammy skin sticks. Taking turns, we look over the dashboard. He’s out there, whimpering and thrashing around. Smoothing a lock of hair between my fingers I suck the ends.
Pummelling and scraping sounds interrupt my trance-like state. Jutting forwards, I see a mass of dark hides turning the earth black. Like floodwater, the cattle spill across the land, their heads nodding up and down like mechanical toys. The truckie jumps and swings his arms, a matchstick figure weaving between the herd. Once he’s free, he recovers his power. This time he gives a rasping shout, and through the barren landscape, he strides towards the truck.
Leaping onto the metal ladder, the crashing footfalls announce his progress. He pants as he works his way upwards, and with each step I shrink a little smaller. The cab tilts as he balances his weight, and he tugs on the door but it doesn’t swing free. Instead, he lurches on top of the engine, sprawling in front of us, the windscreen our only protection. He levels his bloodshot eyes and mouths incomprehensible words. Grappling with the wipers, he gets to his knees then he surges onto the roof of the cab. Kettledrum beats echo while he dances, singing to a tune I struggle to recognise. My breathing shallows as the fear creeps. I count his footsteps until the pace slows and I guess the roof will hold his weight while the truckie sleeps. Jane ducks her head as if the truckie’s pressing her down and my neck feels short with my shoulders all tense. I look towards Jane – our eyes meet then part again, meet then part again – until I’m consumed by sleep.
Coming to consciousness, my eyelids flicker and daylight shoots through the cab as the driver’s door jerks open. I feign sleep as the night-time memories invade. The truckie hums as he moves around the cab. Jane’s body is warm next to mine and I brave a glimpse through slit eyes. The truckie’s fumbling for a silver container among the plastic and glass bottles wedged by the door. He yawns and turns towards me.
‘G’day,’ he says. And aiming the aerosol of deodorant, he sprays.
This story is currently appears as a podcast on Cypruswell.