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Jackie Onassis and John Lennon Sunnies – a story

October 5, 2010

I’m still writing my follow-up post on ‘voice’, so today here’s a story I wrote recently instead. Yesterday it received a big fat rejection from a literary competition. You often don’t hear when you get rejected. It just dawns on you gradually that the publisher is probably not going with you. Then you check their website and see a list of competition winners that doesn’t include you. I suppose this happens in romancing as well as publishing. You don’t hear back from the person you’ve asked on a date then you check their Facebook page and see that they’ve just married someone else.

Anyway,  here’s my story and I hope you like it. You’re welcome to give feedback, including blistering criticism. Go on, anything would be more than I got from the publisher.

***

Jackie Onassis and John Lennon Sunnies

A police van cruises past the servo as I’m pulling in, so I reverse into the shadows.  It could be the same patrol we saw on the highway a few minutes ago.

‘Don’t we want petrol?’ Shelley asks.

‘Yeah, but I need to check the tyres first.’

I get out and bend over the bonnet as if I’m inspecting for dints, obscuring the number plate as I do so. What a man will stoop to, literally.  When the cops have gone, I hop in and glide back to the pump.  Police are probably not a worry yet, especially as I hired the car in my brother’s name, but I can’t be too careful.  Better swap vehicles as soon as we get to a big enough town.

Back on the road again, Shelley is pleased with everything and chatty and I know I’ve made the right decision.  My troubles simply evaporate into the huge hot light.

‘I never thought the outback would be so bright,’ Shelley says.  ‘It’s like a film.  Dirt as red as bricks – and how about those gorgeous purple flowers over there.’

I glance where she’s pointing to an ugly mauve mist in the hollows.

‘That’s Patterson’s Curse unfortunately, a weed that poisons cattle.’

‘Oh.’  Shelley deflates.

‘And the dirt’s actually rusty.  That’s the colour.  It’s full of iron ore, the backbone of Australian industry.  Those native broom flowers and the tiny white ones over there are natives.  Delicate, aren’t they?’  She shrugs and turns from the window.  It does me good to talk to her like this, fill her in a bit about the environment – and God knows she needs it.  Her ignorance is lamentable.  After a moment’s silence, I say, ‘Any coffee left in that thermos, darling?’

I’m getting tired, which is hardly surprising, and I ask Shelley to look out for a truck stop.  For the next half an hour, she points out picnic tables and grassy clearings where other cars and campervans are already at ease, until I spy a place with a dilapidated toilet and a gravel road that snakes off out of sight.  No one else is there, which makes it our place.  I park under trees as far away from the road as possible.

‘Look, I found us some shade and a loo so what are you complaining about?  Now don’t let me sleep too long,’ I say as Shelley opens the door to step out.

‘Ouch,’ she says, shrinking her foot back.  ‘This is bull ant country.’

We peer.  Bity critters of all sorts map the ground, and the bare earth is littered with stones and grey twigs that look suspiciously like animal skin and bones.  A dead body would crumble and return to compost within days out here, or simply be carried down in bits to termite colonies.  At the horizon, low scrub rises to a mountainous escarpment – postcard-sized at this distance.  The only other beings in sight are cockatoos flying overhead, wailing at us in high-pitched voices like kids being chased by a bogeyman.  You have to stop up your heart against a sound like that.

‘I’ve got to sleep, Shell.  Just a couple of hours.  Not long enough for you to be lonely.  While you were snoring all night, my hands were glued to the steering wheel, don’t forget.’

I’m quickly out to it but so caffeine jittery that I wake up by myself at nothing more than the rumble of a passing road train.  Either that or my sixth sense.  A car with flashing red and blue lights swoops along the road, probably just to catch the speeding truck, but I sit up in panic to look for Shelley.  There she is leaning against a fence and reading a book.  Her bag is open and the contents are spread out on the ground – a notebook, a couple of hard backs, some pens, a water bottle.  I call to her, and she gathers her stuff and comes back to the car without a word.  Her phone, which was almost flat when I picked her up, is on her seat where she left it.

The sun is high above us when we reach the next outpost of civilisation.  The town approaches us gradually, even shyly.  First, there’s a paddock cemetery sparsely scattered with little groups of graves huddled together in the ash-fine soil.  Next, after another five minutes of sitting on the speed limit, there’s a little old home-sweet-home with a flappy iron roof.  It’s so quaint, I feel nostalgic.  Whoosh, and we’ve passed two eyeless cars in a yard, closely followed by an optimistic water tank attached to a closed café.  All of a sudden, the highway turns into a street, and here’s the BP station I need.  The hire car company certainly ripped us off with this petrol guzzler.

‘You want a sandwich, Shell?  Don’t worry, I’ll get it.  You stay in the car with the aircon.  It’s a furnace out here.’

She stares glumly through the window.  ‘You think I want to set foot in Hillston?  It’s a hole.’

‘A country town.’

‘Like I said.’

But as I’m paying, she comes into the kiosk and saunters up and down the aisles.  There are a few people in here, so there’s nothing I can do but smile brightly at the sour-faced kid behind the counter.  Don’t blame me for your loser’s job, I want to tell him.  If only you’d worked a bit harder in school, eh?

‘No need for a tax invoice, mate.  Bit of a hurry, actually.’

I feel a nudge from behind me, and Shelley dumps a large packet of Twisties and a giant cup full of blue slush on the counter.  These items – you can’t call them food, certainly outshine the two salad sandwiches I’ve selected.  Shelley’s diet is not an insignificant complaint, frankly, but I can’t do anything about that in here.

‘Add these to the bill, thanks,’ I tell wage slave.

He takes his time with the change, until I turn to see what he’s ogling over my shoulder.  Shelley is trying on sunnies from the rack next to the counter.  Two older men are lined up in the queue now but are quite happy to wait their turn while the blonde checks out which shades make her look sexier.  She swaps the John Lennon for the Jackie Onassis and back again, pouting into the tiny mirror at herself, her hand on her hip.

‘Which do you like best?’ she asks.

I’m distracted by the look on the face of the bald pig next in line.  His eyes have gone to dreamland and a slight smile plays on his lips as he watches Shelley.  It would feel very good to kick him hard where it hurts right now.  Then something else occurs to me like a whisper from my guardian angel, and I actually throw the bastard a knowing wink.

‘I can’t decide if you can’t, babe,’ I tell Shelley.  ‘Why don’t we get both?’  The counter boy has lost all trace of boredom and gazes from me to Shelley in open admiration as I motion for him to take the cost of the sunnies out of my change.  Yeah, she’s made his day, all right.  ‘Keep ‘em on.  You look fabulous,’ I say as Shelley and I exit to a silent chorus of wolf whistles from my well-wishers.

‘No, really, which pair is more sophisticated?’ she asks as we’re driving off.  She pulls the rear vision mirror around so that she can look at herself.

‘Hey, don’t do that or we’ll crash.  Those ones, definitely,’ I say with complete sincerity.  ‘The big ones.  They make you look mysterious.’

She gives me a curious look.  ‘Okay, thanks,’ she says.  ‘It’s just that you’re not usually so… I don’t know, generous.  Anyway, I mean it, thanks for getting them for me, and buying those clothes in the other town last night too.’  Her reflected image twists and grins in the side window.  ‘Yeah, sophisticated, mysterious.’

And older, I’m thinking, as I hold up my hand to acknowledge a passing ute.  It’s annoying, this habit country drivers have of greeting each other.  You assume the outback is empty, but it’s actually full of traffic, and everyone is so nosy.

I try to keep up the chat, but after a few minutes, Shelley’s enthusiasm dissolves into silence again.

‘Kangaroo!’ I shout.

‘It’s dead.’

I bite my lip as we whip past the roadkill and refrain from telling her my next joke, the one about a kangaroo, a possum and a koala walking into a bar.  Five hours ago, she would have laughed.

#

My outback map is also a brochure for the region’s attractions: a dried-up lake, historic mining towns, aboriginal rock art.  These hotspots will be crawling with Japanese tourists and grey nomads, and you can bet all the souvenirs will be crazy prices.  We certainly don’t want to go near any of that fakery.  No, give me the hidden heart of the country, instead – the untouched wild lands, the eagles’ territory.  That’s where the real charm is, as I tell Shelley.

She doesn’t agree, but at least she’s stopped bugging me every time we pass a touristy signpost.  In fact, she’s left all navigation to me since yesterday, and I’m free to turn down one-lane roads that take us over cattle grids, the bright dust sifting over the verges.  It’s hard driving because at every second turn we scatter emus or goats who think the road belongs to them.  Heat rattles the distance, and dead black trees hold up their branches beseeching the sky.  The floodway signs are obviously a joke.

So what?  It was drizzling and cold when we left the city, and this is the perfect climate for a winter holiday, I reckon.

Shelley speaks only to answer my questions now.  To mask the monotony, I play CDs, her favourites, all brand new, and each one a surprise.  As soon as the last track on one finishes, I reach into the console and bring out another, breaking open the plastic wrapping with my teeth.  I tell Shelley not to look at the cover until the music starts.

‘And this is …?  Guess from the opening riff.’

‘Powderfinger.’

‘I knew you’d get it.’  I thump the steering wheel.

‘I’m not into them anymore.’

‘Don’t bother trying the radio, Shell.  There’s nothing on.  Come on, you love Powderfinger.’

‘They split up.’

Dusk cakes the day in coolness, making me think of a beer beside a pool out the back of a quiet motel.  This vision is too relaxing, and my eyes sting with fatigue again.  I swerve to miss a lizard standing up in the road like a rind of tyre rubber and nearly roll the car.  Got to concentrate.  I’m confident we’ll make the South Australian border and the next town before I have to fill up.  Still, it was smart thinking to buy that extra jerrican of fuel at the last servo, and I’ve got a spare tyre, puncture repair kit, and enough food and water for a week.  Good if anything goes wrong, good for anything.

Shelley’s voice startles me out of my thoughts.

‘Where are we stopping for the night?  It’s getting dark, and we should find a motel.’

‘Not tired yet, surely?’ I say.  My cheery voice sounds so false, and I’m suddenly overcome with dread.  I know I could go from euphoric to suicidal in a matter of seconds, but I soldier on.  After all, it’s just the physical strain of all this driving.  ‘Why don’t you snooze for a while, babe?  Then you’ll be fresh for dinner.  There’s this gourmet pub I heard of up the road.  Counter tea suit you?  Big steak, chips.’  Hunger is a good way to get to this chick, who’s had nothing but junk food to eat all day.  I’ll pretend the pub was closed and wake her for fruit and the leftover salad sandwiches in a side road after dark.

She closes her eyes and curls away from me against the window.  When I reach out to rub her bare calf beneath her skirt, she doesn’t move.  Stiffens, if anything.  Well, if she wants to pretend I’m not here for a while, that’s fine.  It allows me to drive on further before we stop.

#

The next day, a police car drives slowly up the road towards our caravan park.  I spread my legs, fold my arms, and stare out across the desert with a serene expression.  The cops will see an ordinary camper soaking up the morning sunshine and wondering about breakfast.

That is, unless they’re coming for me.  This road leads nowhere else.  Their destination must be the caravan park, and we’re almost the only people here.  How weird does it look for Shelley and me to be staying here out of school holidays?  It doesn’t matter how weird if they’re coming for me anyway.  Of course, they are.  They’ve only taken three days to follow the links, but what did I expect?

The cop in the passenger seat peers at the onsite caravans.  They must have noticed me by now.  I’ve just go to hold my nerve and stand here looking cool.  Luckily, Shelley tends to have long showers, and she’s only just gone to the shower block.  If those cops see her come out in her towel and make her way over here, they’ll think I’m a sleazy old man, if nothing else.

Oh God, the car’s turning in.  They’re stopping outside the office.  There’s the manager coming out to enquire.  Her voice sounds friendly enough – no note of alarm in it.  Both cops step out of the car.  This is very tricky.  What do I do now?  Pull up a chair, yes.  Wish I had a newspaper and a cup of coffee.  Now there’s an innocent pursuit.  Perhaps a beer from the esky.  No, not at this time of day.

The cops have gone into the office.  That’s right, Mr and Mrs Plod.  Close that screen door behind you.  That’s right, face the counter.  Don’t look out towards the shower block.

Here comes Shelley.  If she sees the cop car, it will make her wonder the same as me, and I’ve got to steer her thinking away from that.  She was going to ask the manager for some coins for the washing machine too.  I’ll tell her we won’t worry about the washing for now.  We’ll go into town instead.  No, not town, the dried-up lake on the other side of town, or those hot springs I heard about.  But I promised her I’d buy her some binoculars.  Have to go into town for them.

‘Good shower, darling?  We should do a survey of all the camping grounds we stay in, based on the amenities.  Where are your sunnies, by the way?  The Jackie Onassis ones, the big ones.  And I need the John Lennons.  It’s so bright out here.  Why don’t you go into the van and doll yourself up so we can hit the lake.  You have the van to yourself for the next half hour.  I promise I won’t peek until you’re ready.’

Instead, she flings herself into the chair next to mine, gloomy.  Not facing the office, at least.

‘Who was she again?’ she says.

‘Who?’

‘Jackie Onassis.  A film star?’

‘Something like that.  Seriously, Shell, you need to go in the van and get sun block on and then we –’

‘I don’t want to go to the lake.  There won’t be any water in it, anyway.  I’m hungry.  And what about the washing?’

‘The washing can wait.  Hey, look at that eagle, will you?  Away there over the sand.  Just look at that bird … fly.’

‘I want a counter lunch.  I want lasagne and sticky date pudding.’

‘Honey, we’ve got fresh bread and all those things I bought from the roadside market.  The fish cakes will go off if we don’t eat them.  We’ll make a picnic and take it to the lake.  I heard it’s pretty, and you never know, it might have water.  Now, please, go into the van and get dressed.  Please.’

‘Dad,’ she says and turns her mournful eyes on me.  ‘Why can’t we ring Mum and tell her where we are?  Does she even know you picked me up from school last week?  Did you really let the teachers know we were going on a special holiday?  Dad, tell me the truth.’

I glance from her to the police in the distance.  They’re waving to the manager, who’s holding the door open and smiling.  They all smile.  The cops get back in their car.  They start the engine, accelerate out of the gate, turn out, left.  Now they’re receding down the road.

‘Yes, of course.  Your mum said it was fine for us to go away for a while together.  And she agreed to see what it’s like for you to live with me for a change.  For a little while.  It’s just an experiment, a complicated custody thing worked out between me and your mum and the court.  You do still want to try living with me, don’t you?  You do still want to try and cheer up your old dad, don’t you, Shell?  There’s a girl.  Now, go and get changed and I’ll make a picnic.  Of course, we’ll have a big slap-up counter dinner.  Not lunch.  Dinner is better.  But not in this town.  I’ve heard the pub here’s no good and doesn’t let children in anyway.  We’ll stop for a while in the next town, I promise.’

Photos:

Outback road by Shek Graham

Driving, Flinders Ranges by Howard Russell

Gum trees near Alice Springs/West MacDonnell Ranges by Jaap van’t Veen

John Lennon by fab4chiky

Caravan – Andamooka Beauty! by Michael Coughlan

Cracked earth by Nicky Fernandes

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4 Comments leave one →
  1. Tricia Bertram permalink
    October 6, 2010 11:47 am

    Great story Fran, I love the way the tension builds and I really like the open ending. Who knows what comes next? The photos bring and added dimension.
    David sent me a copy of Sleepers Almanac with your story Heirloom, another well written, multi-faceted piece (the pun was not intended)
    Your voice is inventive, original and worthwhile. Don’t let the rejections tell you otherwise
    Tricia

    • October 6, 2010 10:50 pm

      Thanks, Tricia. My community of fellow-travellers keeps me moving on from rejections. So often you hear that a writing community is important. I’m beginning to see that it’s crucial.

      Fran

  2. January 20, 2011 10:42 pm

    Hi Fran,
    Great writing. Very interesting plot twist, at the end! I was thinking that this is a man who pulled off a seriously illegal move (which he did) and he somehow picked up a seriously dumb blonde on the way. I thought she was his romantic interest–a, um, f-buddy, at most. So I was surprised to learn Shelley was his daughter and he had just abducted her! Whoa. I certainly picked up on the building tensions but I kept wondering, “Why is this guy so freakin’ nervous? What exactly did he do??” I’ll be honest, I’m an impatient person and therefore an impatient reader…if I picked this up in the store and read the first page…I probably would have put it down because it took too long for me to find out the reason why this guy was so nervous. If however, the fact that he had abducted his daughter a little sooner, I probably would have been hooked. Also the fact that his daughter sounds like a stereotypical “dumb blonde” was a turn-off…I couldn’t understand the reason why he was so invested in her…

    My only other issue is a question of language. I’m American and I just didn’t get some of the colloquialisms used so of course some of the meaning was lost on me. I didn’t realize until just now that JK Rowling’s editors must have changed the colloquialisms used in the Harry Potter series!

    Cheers,
    Kim

  3. January 22, 2011 2:30 am

    Thanks for the feedback, Kim. I’ll think about it closely on my next rewrite, if I do one. Interesting about the colloquialisms. Perhaps JK Rowling’s English slant was edited out, and of course at least one of her titles was changed for a US audience. I know of Australians who have been asked to change words too. Peter Carey, a well-known Australian writer, said in a talk once that he’d been asked to dispense with ‘dunny’ and other slang. (‘Dunny’ means outdoor toilet.) A friend of mine whose story was accepted for an international anthology was asked to take out references to Melbourne trams and replace them with trains.

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