An Aussie Outback Romance. (33,000 words.)
When his wife, and most he owned, was taken from him, Scott sought a new start in a fresh life. His converted freight van became his home while he searched for happiness away from the rain and cold. Stopping in a remote campground, he found two women, or maybe they found him. Seeing in him and his van, an escape from a life that had turned toxic. A mother and daughter that dreamed a future with him.
Life is never that easy. Never simple when love and honour and guilt mix. Scott faces choices and temptation he never expected, but the lure of the dream of forever happiness is strong and the determination of a young woman to live the life she dreamed bends his choices towards her dreams.
“Get a licence!” The red Toyota SUV was already gone, sliding a little in the wet. The driver looked like his wife. She wouldn’t have heard, even if the windows were down. She never did. Wet days were the worse.
“Tough out there today?” He was a regular customer, signing Frank on the docket.
“Only three for you. Everyone gets crazy when it rains,” Scott said, slipping the office copy of the docket under the metal teeth of his clipboard.
“You’ve been delivering longer than I’ve worked here, I don’t know how you can drive this city day after day. Maybe you need a holiday.”
“It used to be fun. Used to be the best job in the world.”
“Hard to find something else after all this time I suppose?”
“Too old for most,” Scott said, hand raised a little in a weak farewell, climbing back into the van for the next drop. The rain no better, but at least the heater worked well. It’s been a good van, he thought as he nosed back into the onslaught. Two more hours and the run should be done.
The one room flat smelt of dank cave as he pushed open the door. The only thing in its favour was the rent. Since the divorce, that was important. At least she’d left him the van so he could still work. TV on to fill the void and instant noodles warming on the hotplate. He needed an early night to face the rain again tomorrow. He’d need all the patience he could muster.
He sat on the bed, poking at the soggy noodles in the pot. Not worth dirtying a plate. The TV was squawking about the bad weather continuing. The whole country forecast caught his attention. Hot and sunny throughout all Queensland. It usually was, he thought. One day...
Now it was time for the one thing that gave hope to the day. Laptop set up and his current work on the screen, trying to write the great novel, the book that would change his life. Fame and fortune. All it took was dedication and hard work and he had plenty of time now for the hard work. Words not coming. Staring at the empty screen until it morphed into a warm sandy beach. The only thing wet was the tropical blue waves lapping the shore. He gave up trying and switched the computer to exploring YouTube videos. His current passion was for watching people living in vans, vans like his, converted into homes. He’d watched hundreds of them now, picking the best ideas for when he might convert his own. Ways to place the bed and storage. How to shower and toilet. Solar power for lights and computer. How to live for very little, much less than it cost him now.
Maximum stay thirty days. The gravel track morphing beyond the sign into two fingers of hard packed dirt, both pointing towards the only building visible. Scott re-engaged drive and let the van idle towards the reddish-brown brick building that seemed the sole indication of life in this wasteland.
His first regret was turning off the van engine when he parked near that building, although he didn’t realise it yet, still sitting in the driver’s seat, watching the air shimmering above the building’s corrugated iron roof. There was a round tank of the same material perched on a weathered frame of rough sawn timber attached to one end, desperate strands of brownish grass seeking sanctuary around the brick and timber edges. Bare dirt tracks, the sort cattle made in large fields, radiating from the building. This was clearly the heart of the camp. Scott pulled the plastic lever of the door latch and elbowed the driver’s door open, sliding from the seat to stand inside a furnace. Dry, boiling air, thirsty for moisture, sucking life from whatever it could. He’d been pampered too long in the cocoon of air conditioned luxury. Hardly daring to breathe in, lest the air suck the very blood from his lungs, he stumbled over the shrivelled brown grass towards the sliver of shade offered by the building’s edge. That proved his second mistake.
The bricks were hotter. Half a day of sun baking had reminded them of their birth in the kiln fire and they were now determined to celebrate that time, giving Scott a taste of hell as he touched them, only once. Sideways, like a crab, he shuffled around the building to find the entrance. He found two. Mistake number three.
He entered the first doorway. Only a little. Just enough to escape the overhead ray gun. His gut revolted, bent over, hand cupped mouth, he retreated into the full sun. There was no other option. Heat was better than throat cramping ammonia. Now certain he’d live, he took careful stock before he made any more mistakes. There were two doorways, one each end, each labelled with a newly minted rectangular sign. Real words, not those indecipherable symbols. White letters on a blue background. Ladies and Gents. His thoughts drifted to the council men sitting around a table debating. Retired farmers they’d be, the burnt ochre essence of this land flowing through their veins. None of this fancy city-style-new-speak for them. “Mister Mayor, I move we have the same signs we’ve always had… Here. Here. All in favour. Carried.” Solid and unchanging, there was a calming certainty this far out.
At the far end, a rectangular metal bin stood guard in front of the tank stand. Forest green to hide its presence in the landscape, making it even more obvious here. Red plastic lid, faded now but still hinged to the metal.
Both hands curled across his forehead, he surveyed the level acres, hoping for a suitable camp site to appear. Land had little value out here, that is unless it hid gas or coal or oil. This land hid nothing. The remains of what grass could grow had been mowed in all directions. Trees the only guide to a boundary, scraggly greenish brown trees in a nearly continuous perimeter, offering the combined features of potential shade and possible death from limbs sacrificed to keep the tree alive when rains were too sparse.
Three other camps he spied as he slowly pivoted around. All close to the trees. All spaced as far from each other as they could. Private people. People with pasts to deny and futures to avoid. You could hide forever in a place like this. He pivoted back slowly cataloguing each camp. Pushed well into the tree line near the shady side of the entrance, a small and ancient caravan, crafted at least half a century ago when things were made to endure. Curved like an egg, barely enough room inside for one.
The sunny side offered a stylish off-road camper. Blinding glare from the chrome and aluminium. Large and showy. Look-at-me, I’ve-got-money, showy. Solar panels filling the roof around the satellite dish. No shade trees for them.
Then there was the third site. Faded blue tents grouped under a drab olive tarpaulin strung between convenient tree trunks, looking like they were a permanent part of the landscape. Nothing moving. Not a sound to be heard. Not a sole to be seen. Maybe this heat had shrivelled them up and there was nothing but desiccated bodies waiting to be discovered in those camps.
The black door handle of the van burnt his hand. The seat like a grill plate, etching dark lines on his legs. ‘Make van go.’ He said to himself in his best Homer Simpson voice while he twisted the key towards Start. With the clatter of the engine came its breath from the dash. Fan switch fumbled to HI. Now the wait while the compressor did its duty and squeezed the burning from this air.
Somewhat recovered he set his mind the task of choosing a camp site. Solar panels on his roof limited his choice of shade. Morning sun should be enough to charge the batteries, that left possible sites with afternoon shade all near that group of tents. He chose compromise. Closer to others than he wanted but far enough to still get some shade.
The beeping of the van’s reverse alarm brought no one out to watch as he settled in his chosen spot. Home until his money caught up. Not the warm paradise he’d imagined he’d find in Queensland while he was existing in the wet and damp parts of the country. Maybe hot and hell better fitted.
It wasn’t until he was back outside and fitting the insect proof screen over the sliding side door that it registered. No bush flies. Every other place he’d stopped had flies. Sometimes just a few, but usually great swarms. Friendly flies that didn’t want to leave you. Small black things with wings and legs, crawling over every part of you. Landing unfelt on your face. Fighting to sit on the portion of food you had inches from your mouth. Walking under your nose so you breathed them in. Nothing could stop them, but maybe this heat had the power to suck the life from them that copious cans of fly spray hadn’t.
Side door now safe to leave open, he retreated inside, roof vent extended and fan on. Long drink of coolness from the small fridge. Quick shedding of clothes. Travel tired, he lay to wait out the worst of this heat.
The anger had gone from the light when he woke. Still hot, but without the burning intensity. Time now to laze out under a tree and watch the evening bring life back to the land. Camp chair unfolded with back set against a curled weathered trunk, positioned to watch the other camps. Positioned to learn the truth they hid.
He settled into the chair, his only chair, selected after trying every folding camp chair he could find. Fancy frills discarded until he was left with a chair that his body wanted to relax into. As he sat, the thought of work entered a bossy part of his mind, but he pushed it back with a promise of, tomorrow. There was always tomorrow in a place like this. Everything would still be the same, just another day older and closer to returning to the soil from whence it came.
He leaned back and let his gaze focus on his three camping companions, starting with that ancient caravan near the entrance. Now he concentrated he saw there was a small car under the trees alongside, one of those old fashioned English style cars, Morris maybe. Old and tiny and always needing attention, but their drivers seemed to love them. An old man, he guessed. Widower. Retreating from a world that only valued young and new. Better to end your days with freedom than locked in an aged prison, surrounded by people pretending to be your friends while they rolled you over to change your diaper before giving you another pill to make you sleep all day. That’s what I want too, he thought as he remembered those people looking out the windows while he delivered cartons of adult nappies. Their distant hollow faces haunted him some nights.
The new camper on the other side of the entrance had a vehicle now too. A large Toyota four wheel drive. All bright white and chrome and loaded with every accessory made. Those sort of people rarely stayed in free places like this other than to get a repertoire of holiday horrors to bore guests at their next dinner party.
That left the blue tents. A small white van, windows all round, sure to be a people mover, parked in the shade. Most likely a tribe of children, all camped out here for a cheap holiday. The flap to the main tent tied open and he could see shadows of movement inside, it was the only movement around, so he kept watching. He was right, children. Three boys came out, racing each other, one holding a football that they started kicking between themselves in front of the tent. They were followed by a woman, most likely their mother, although she didn’t seem too bothered with watching them. Her face turned directly towards him. Too much distance to see more than she seemed too young to be their mother. Maybe an older sister.
She tired of looking at him and started walking one of the worn trails towards the brick ablution block, her slender legs moving her purposefully across his line of sight. Her head turning every little while to check he was still looking. He watched until she disappeared into the far doorway.
Only a few minutes and her face reappeared, head pointing mainly in his direction while she retraced her previous path. He imagined she smiled when she registered him still watching, followed by a surge of guilt that he had been. Maybe she thought him a pervert. Maybe he was. She certainly seemed too young for him. Almost afraid to look now, he tried sneaking glances while pretending to be interested in those boys yelling and playing with the ball. She met his eyes at every peek, her body displaying a confident and tempting pose.
She passed the boys and slipped through the tent flap with a last glance in his direction, leaving him in a state he hadn’t felt for years. He recognised the symptoms from his youth. Chest tight, heart pounding and thoughts all over the place, hardly able to focus on anything other than her. A crazy schoolboy crush in a man of forty two. He’d only seen her walk back and forwards in front of him, hadn’t even seen her face or heard her speak. It was like he was eleven again and Delia had been in that other class. He only saw her walking in the distance and he was so in love. Imagining his life spent in her arms. Just being able to touch her flawless skin would have made him complete. Of course she never knew. She only had eyes for that trainee thug, Ryan. Years later he saw her, delivering a parcel from this very van to her rented house. She didn’t recognise him. Four snotty kids and her waiting for Ryan to finish his second stretch. And her flawless skin wasn’t.
The sun had hidden itself completely behind the low trees along the access track before he decided it might be time to retreat inside. He’d seen others moving around, but not her. He hadn’t even felt like this when he met his wife. Of course he’d felt something, else he would never have asked for her hand, but it was never like this. There was no TV in the van to distract him. It was a conscious decision. He never wanted to be sucked back into that ideal world it portrayed. His wife had liked that world, always wanting the latest fashion. He’d remodelled their kitchen when that was the craze. Then it was the new sofa. Uncomfortable to sit in, but she assured him it was the latest and they needed to be modern. She’d started on the bathroom before mister money appeared. Who knows what he promised her. She certainly fell for it, hook, line and sinker.
Mister money could afford the best lawyer. Mister money made sure his new girlfriend’s ex husband would be left with nothing but his work van. Mister money did him a great favour, even though it hurt buckets at the time.
He could have turned on the lights and worked at his computer, the batteries were fully charged from all this sunshine, and he had fitted the latest LED lights over his work area so it was as bright as day. He could have, but that could wait until tomorrow, there was no pressing hurry now. He decided to lie down and let his mind flow.
She was so beautiful. Not made-up picture-perfect, but vitally beautiful. The pure energy of life seeping from every pore. Eyes shining, pale lips curled up ever so slightly. She’d never be unhappy. Brownish hair flowing down to her shoulders, some stray strands dangling over her right eye, just enough to make you look harder into those wide smouldering pools of blackness, ringed by a light green flecked circle. She knew he was looking, twisting her head left and then right, strands of shining hair flowing across her face as she moved, before she faced him again, a wide smile breaking into a laugh.
“You like looking at me, don’t you?” More in taunt than scolding.
He’d looked enough, now he needed to touch to make sure she wasn’t an apparition. His arms reaching for her. Reaching to surround and draw her loveliness close. She was real. Her arms wrapping around him, drawing her body closer to his, hearts so close they were pounding in rhythm. Those soft sweet lips pressed against his before breaking long enough to both whisper, “I love you,” the moist words flowing over his face like the petals of a thousand roses.
He came. The soothing blissful warmth filled him completely. As it settled, the beauty in his arms transformed. Still the same face, only older. Still so beautiful. Still so alive.
“I love you too,” she said as the image faded and he woke.
There was no woman in his arms. He was lying naked on his bed in pitch blackness, a pool of wetness on his stomach and a feeling of satisfaction in his heart. Reaching for tissues, the pleasure wiped from his body before it slid off to leave a damp patch. More aware now, the blackout curtain still to one side, moonless darkness out the windows. Phone found and pressed - 1:20am. Curtain repositioned and back lying in thought. It had seemed so real. Felt so real. Certain it had been her. Absolutely certain. Eyes closed, he let dreams try to find him again. Let her find him.