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Currajah (news & notes)

Famous Reporter # 33
 

 

 

MEGAN McKINLAY

The Big World

When he wakes, shifting uncomfortably in his seat, cursing the way his old bones have laid themselves down like pick-up-sticks one on top of the other without a thought for the morning, the curious orange shell is the first thing he sees.

He didn’t mean to fall asleep. It was a rest-stop, that’s all, his conscientious response to Drowsy Drivers Die. He groans as he straightens and looks groggily around at the gathering light. He’ll pay for it now, in his aching bones, and when he rolls into Brisbane hours behind schedule. And now this! He’ll have to back up – no small feat given the tight circle he wedged the truck into, or else – ? Yeah, it’s getting light now. He’ll just go over there, knock on the shell, which resolves itself slowly, through the clearing fog on his windscreen, into an old orange VW beetle – patchy paint job, Magic Happens bumper sticker and all. He’ll wake whoever it is up, give them a serve. Get back on the road. Get moving.

He jams a fist into each eye, rubs violently to knock himself awake, and jumps from the cab onto the hard, dry ground.

The door slams hard behind him and she’s stirring by the time he gets there. He sees the tangled head lift itself unsteadily off the back seat, the hand pushing the mess of hair back off the forehead. Then the eyes, wide at the window, staring straight out at him, the long, lean body, pushing the seat forward and clambering quickly out to greet him.

‘Sorry!’ She drags a finger down the side of her eye, trawling the sleep-encrusted skin. ‘In your way, am I? Good one, Ness!’

She can’t be any more than eighteen. With her long brown hair and fair skin, he can almost see his daughter in her, a few years down the track. She’d be sound asleep still, Stephie. He fights the sudden urge to call her, to reach back.

The girl climbs into the beetle and starts hunting around in the back seat. Over her shoulder, there’s a litter of discarded clothes, books, and crumpled maps. ‘Hang on a sec,’ she says. ‘I’ll just find the keys. They’re in here somewhere.’

‘It’s all right,’ he says. ‘No hurry. I just – ’

She turns back to him with a grin, a keychain dangling from her teeth. ‘Yehshore,’ she begins, then stops, and shakes her head, laughing, spits the chain out into her hand. ‘Yeah, sure. No hurry, you reckon? Aren’t you guys always in a hurry? When me and Carmella here,’ she gestures to the beetle, ‘are grinding our way up a hill.’ She smiles. ‘No offence, or anything.’

‘Yeah.’ He doesn’t know what to say. He’s been stuck behind enough grinding gearboxes in his time. ‘Yeah, I spose I am in a hurry. Shouldn’t even be here, really. Should be just outside Coffs by now.’

‘Coffs Harbour?’ She raises her eyebrows. ‘You are in a hurry, then. Here,’ she opens the driver’s door of the beetle. ‘I’ll get out of your way.’

She turns the key in the ignition, and leans forward, foot pumping the accelerator, fingers negotiating with the choke.

‘Don’t worry,’ she says. ‘She’s always like this. She’ll catch in a second. And then I’ll race you to Coffs.’

The ignition ticks again. Nothing.

‘Come on, Carmella, come on girl.’

Nothing.

Her face turns towards him, apologetic.

‘Sorry. She’s not usually this rough. I don’t know what’s –’

‘Better have a look, eh?’ He casts a furtive glance at his watch. ‘Pop the hood for us, willya?’

‘Oh, thanks.’

She stands aside as he pokes and prods, twisting and lifting, trying the engine over and over. She knows, but hasn’t let herself think it yet.

After a few minutes, he straightens and turns, kneading his knuckles the length of his cracking back. ‘Stuck here, love.’

‘What?’

She sits down in the dirt, the wind gone out of her, and hugs her knees to her chest.

‘Starter’s shot, maybe. How long you had this thing, anyway?’

‘Two weeks,’ she says. ‘500 bucks with six months rego.’

‘For this? Ripped off, I reckon. Surprised she went this long.’

‘Well. She did. And now she’s stopped. So here I am, I guess.’

It’s then that he realises.

‘Going to Coffs, though?’

‘Sorry?’ She’s staring at the beetle, her face a mixture of sadness and frustration.

‘You said you’d race me to Coffs?’ He swallows. ‘I reckon I’ve got you beat, you know. But I can give you a ride, if you want.’

‘You serious?’

‘Sure, if you want.’

‘Seriously serious?’ A slow smile grows on her face. ‘All the way to Coffs?’

He nods.

She leaps to her feet, grinning hard, then dusts herself off, and dives into the back of the beetle.

‘This is too cool! Hang on, I’ll just get my stuff together.’ He sees her grab a duffle bag and start stuffing the contents of the backseat inside. One large, creased map, though, she balls up and stuffs into the pocket of her jeans. All the time, she’s muttering, ‘You ratbag, Carmella. We were going to do it together. Girls on the road? Well, I gotta keep moving. Gotta see the bigs. You miss the banana, you’ve got yourself to blame.’

Her face appears at the window, a broad grin plastered across it. She clambers out, slings the bag over her shoulder and slaps the beetle on the bumper. ‘Let’s go, then! See ya later, girl. Send the cavalry back for ya.’

In the cab, they stare down at the beetle.

‘Blast it! Shoulda pushed it outa the way.’

She looks across at him, pulls her legs down off the dash where she’s set them up, nice and comfortable, already.

‘Do you want to…?’

‘Nah, forget it. I’ll just back up like I shoulda done in the first place. Saved myself the trouble.’

He catches the look on her face.

‘No, not you! I didn’t mean –’

She laughs.

‘No problem.’

As he slowly eases the truck back around, he watches her settle into the seat.

‘You know –’

‘What?’

‘It’s just, you shouldn’t…you should be more careful. What are you doing here, anyway, middle of nowhere?’

Her feet go back up onto the dash, staking out space.

‘I was tired, you know – Break the Drive, Stay Alive. So I did. And I’m alive, aren’t I?’

‘Yeah,’ he mutters, easing the truck out onto the highway. ‘But…you shouldn’t take risks like that.’

She smiles. ‘So, you telling me I should be worried? You a risk, then, are ya?’

The road taking him over now, he lets himself return the smile.

‘Nah.’ He leans forward, flips the shade down to show her the photos of Becca and Stephie.

‘Cute! I knew it. You’re more of the big softie type. Not your average axe murderer. Me, on the other hand? Can’t be too careful.’

He can’t stifle the laugh that rolls up from deep within him.

‘What’s so funny? I could be, you know. Don’t judge a book by its cover.’ She smiles, and shifts in her seat. ‘All right, you tell me who I am then?’

He scratches his head, eyes never breaking from the road.

‘Nah, I dunno.’

‘Come on! Take a guess! What’s my story?’

‘I dunno. I reckon…maybe you’re just driving. Bought a car, got no idea, just going anywhere. Not much use for maps.’

He gestures at the balled up paper crammed into her pocket.

‘This! This is crucial, mate. This is my guide to big things. See?’

She spreads the map out across the dash. It’s crisscrossed with so many creases from so many folds, you’d think the whole country was covered in tiny grey rivers. The right hand side is dotted with colourful stickers. Fruit, mostly. Where Coffs should be is a big yellow banana.

‘The Big Banana?’

‘Yep, and the rest. Everything big. That’s what I’m doing. An odyssey of big things.’

‘A what?’

‘An odyssey. You know, like the Greeks. A big, life-changing journey.’

‘To see giant fruit?’

‘Not just fruit!’ She smooths the map out, caresses the land. ‘Everything big. Every crazy thing that someone made even though everyone else said, "You’re nuts, mate." Every big thing that someone did that put them on the map.’

‘Right. And you’re doing this in the smallest car you could find?’

She bursts out laughing, her face dissolving into rivers and valleys.

‘I hadn’t thought of that! But yeah – because everything I have is small, somehow. I want it to be bigger, everything.’ She pauses, and looks ahead, blinking in the sun. ‘I’ve got, you know, ideas, stuff I want to do. My mum and dad reckon I’m nuts. But I reckon, if someone can build a big banana in the middle of nowhere and make a go of it, I can get myself to uni, or anywhere. You know?’

‘But…big fruit?’

‘Yeah, maybe I’m nuts. Bananas. Heh.’ She shoots him a half-smile. ‘But…I feel like I’m making things bigger, making space around me, you know?’ She leans back in her seat, falls into silence.

He does know. He understands about space, the lack of it, the abundance of it. Because there’s always this tiny cabin, always this big country, always those miles ahead. Always this driving to stitch one side of this enormous land to the other. Continent, he calls it, overwhelmed by its vastness. Island, he calls it, willing it to diminish before him, to carry him swiftly back to his life.

The bitumen rolls beneath them, and she lets herself fall towards it, loses herself in the white line as the distance passes relentlessly under their wheels. Around sundown, they roll into Coffs. Before the wheels have slowed, the promise of arrival shrugs her awake.

‘Just drop us off anywhere.’

He turns, smiles.

‘Whadya mean, anywhere? We’re going to the Big Banana!’

A slow smile grows on her lips. ‘You coming, then? Aren’t you late?’

‘Late? Yeah. So late it kinda doesn’t matter any more.’

He meets her gaze. ‘So let’s go see the big thing, hey?’

‘Cool.’

It’s deserted when they roll up, in the cool of the evening. No tourists, no buzz, just a single, enormous banana curving its yellow absurdity through the night. She leaps from the cabin as they pull up, and plants her feet squarely on the gravel.

‘Here it is!’

‘Yeah.’ He comes up beside her.

‘You must have seen this a hundred times.’

‘Yeah, but not really, you know. Just keep driving, flash of yellow, stupid tourists. Not like this.’

‘It’s nuts.’

‘Yeah.’

‘It’s perfect.’

‘Yeah.’

From the phone booth, he calls Stephie.

‘Steve! It’s a school night.’

‘It’ll only take a second. It’s important.’

And he can hear her, already up, sleepy-voiced behind Becca, padding softly down the hall. Is it Dad?

‘Just for a minute, then.’

The receiver clicks, and he hears her soft breathing on the line.

‘Dad?’

‘Hey, Stephie. Guess what? I saw the big banana.’

‘The what?’

‘The big banana, Stephie, you should see it. It’s so…big.’

So unexpected, so outlandish, so defiant, he would say if he could find words for the feeling that pulses through him. She hears them, anyway, understands.

‘Wow! Can we go there, Dad?’

‘Yeah, another time. I’ll bring you.’

‘Really? And sit up the front with you? Really go?’

‘Yeah. You can be my navigator. We’ll find them all, all the big fruit, sheep, whatever. We’ll call it an odyssey of big things.’

The girl’s nearby, feet shovelling into gravel, pretending not to listen. But she grins when she hears this and spreads her arms out wide, flattens her face to the night sky. Vaster, she thinks, more enormous than any island, any continent. Slowly, she begins to turn, arms rotating up into the night. In the corner of his eye, she spins and spins. Stephie breathes down the line. He says nothing, just listens. It’s enough. And he clutches tight to the phone, not ready yet for goodnight, holding just a moment longer onto the invisible strands that cross the expanse, binding him home.

 

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