He leaves Ceduna on a hot day, driving east towards Adelaide, his car stuffed with literally everything he owns. Making reasonable time on the thin strip of tar which dignifies itself with the title of Highway, he reaches Wirrulla and pulls into the town.
The railway tracks make his car rattle as he goes over them a little faster than he should. He parks in the main street of the tiny town, one or two little shops in the shadow of the silos, and checks his phone reception. Three bars but no messages, they should have called back by now, he thinks and his already high level of anxiety goes up a notch.
He walks up the main street for a few minutes to stretch his legs. The town is so quiet he can hear traffic back on the highway in one direction and birds in the paddocks in the other . He looks up at the towering silos and wonders how long they’ve been there. Fifty years? It’s a guess but he takes it as gospel for lack of better information. He feels pretty sure that nothing has happened in this town in that time. The one little shop, the falling apart where it stands pub and the dusty Post Office tell him that much. Those silos have stood there like the Australian version of the pyramids over a few hundred people living in the town and literally nothing even remotely exciting has happened.
He idly thinks about the lives the local people must live. He tries to imagine the years and decades of not much happening in this little cluster of buildings surrounded by paddocks and watched over by the silos. He compares this to the chaos of his own life, currently running from Perth and the mess he left there as fast and as far as his limited funds can take him, and thinks that maybe these people have it better than him. Briefly he lets his imagination run wild, he envisions himself settling in this tiny town, finding a job, maybe meeting a local girl and living a long, quiet and happy life. He imagines himself sitting down years from now with his kids grown up and himself telling them the story of how he just happened to stop here and meet their mother.
He shakes his head at his own ridiculous imagination. If he can’t get to Adelaide tonight and if his sister won’t let him stay at her place for a while he is sleeping in his car for the foreseeable future. That’s reality, he grimly thinks to himself, no happy ever after in a little country town for me.
He contemplates his immediate future with soul crushing weariness. He’s sick of drifting through life, he’s sick of running from messes in different parts of the country and more than anything else he’s sick of being broke. Would it be so much to ask for a little stability and prosperity? The silence of the tiny town is neither comfort nor answer.
He gets back in the car and heads out to the highway again. Turns east towards Adelaide and the grim prospects of the future. The road winds a little and patches of scrub break up the otherwise uninterrupted farmland. Dry paddocks of wheat stubble are being slowly grazed by sheep under a sky so blue it almost hurts his eyes.
He tries to keep his mind off his troubles. He had to leave Perth in a hurry so he only has a couple of CDs in the car and he got sick of them somewhere near Norseman. He flicks through the radio until he finds something. It’s the ABC regional radio station, for lack of better options he listens to that for a while. The station is a country one so the news of markets, trade agreements and weather take priority over everything else. He hadn’t known there was so much discussion to be had about beef exports to China but the radio gets almost an hour out of the subject.
He checks his phone and notices that he’s out of range again. I won’t get anything until I get to the next town, he thinks and looks for a distance sign. One appears shortly and tells him that it’s fifty K’s from Poochera. He decides he’ll stop there, have lunch and maybe try calling again. If he has no luck contacting her it’s a night sleeping in the car for him, maybe several nights.
The first he sees of Poochera is the silos standing sentinel over the plains. They should stop bothering to name these little towns and just call them “Silo Town 1” and “Silo Town 2” and so on. It would make it more convenient.
He pulls in at the little roadhouse and tops up with fuel. He pays and then moves the car out of the way so he can sit in the little roadhouse café and make some phone calls while he eats a sandwich. He tries his sister again and finally gets hold of her. Turns out she had got his earlier message but didn’t really want to reply. She doesn’t say that of course, she’s too polite, but he can tell from her voice that she really doesn’t want to be having this conversation.
‘What is it now?’
Her voice lets him know that this is a burden well beyond anything that could reasonably be expected from a sister.
‘Well here’s the thing…’ He continues, knowing he isn’t convincing her.
He reassures her that he’ll only need to stay for a couple of days. He tells her his plan is to head back up to the NT. He left there on good terms just over a year ago and he can probably get one of his old jobs back, maybe that gig he had in the mines, if he makes a couple of phone calls. He swears he’ll be no trouble and stay out of her way, all he needs is a couple of nights in her spare room.
She reluctantly agrees and he thanks her profusely. Inwardly he curses her for the privileged selfish bitch she is. Mum and Dad’s favourite who always towed the line and never set a foot wrong. She will hold this over him for years to come and use it as ammo in family arguments whenever it suits her.
The immediate danger is passed. He got out of Perth and over the state border before they could get him. He has a place to stay while he plans his next move. Everything is going to be more or less ok. He repeats this to himself inside his head like a Buddhist meditating.
He sits for a while in the tacky little café and watches the slow drip of highway traffic go past out the window. The rather dull woman at the counter idly restocks the fridge while the TV in the corner has a midday talk show playing.
His mind wanders and he finds himself daydreaming about life in a little town like this. Maybe he could work in this roadhouse. Live like a hermit in this little town. Refuse to ever get involved in anything remotely dodgy again. Grow old and become one of those old men who potter about little towns. He smiles to himself. This latest drama in Perth has made him world weary, he recognises that in himself, once he’s stable again and back earning decent cash he’ll chase action again. Then maybe a year or so from now he’ll find himself doing a runner across the country again. That last thought sobers and depresses him. He gets up and decides to get back on the road.
The woman behind the counter looks up as he leaves and mumbles something vaguely pleasant at him. He pulls out onto the highway and picks up speed as he leaves the little township of Poochera.
A sudden urge to piss makes him pull off the road. He parks in the front gate of a farm, there isn’t a soul in sight so he doesn’t worry about being seen, he relives himself and then pauses to look around. The gate is open and there is a dirt track leading through seemingly endless paddocks. In the distance he can see a house and some sheds, presumably where the farmer and his family live. There is a sign right next to the mailbox at the gate it reads:
T.J Whitby and sons
He reads and thinks in the harsh sunlight and empty silence of wheat paddocks. This family have been here since 1904 according to the sign. They have a place, they belong somewhere, they have roots.
He looks back at his car parked in the dust. The boot and backseat are piled high with everything he owns in the world. He will sleep in his sister’s spare room tonight and endure her resentment and probably get a small lecture about what he’s doing with his life in the bargain.
He looks at the sign again. He envies the Whitby family with all his heart. He would do just about anything to trade places with them. But he knows you don’t get to choose. Life gets handed to you on a plate like leftovers at a soup kitchen and you have to eat it and be grateful.
He gets back in the car feeling worse than ever. He still has a long way to go before he reaches Adelaide.
Words by Lewis Woolston
Lewis Woolston grew up in small beach bum town in Western Australia. He left as soon as he could and travelled around the country, living in several cities as well as the bush. He spent years working in remote roadhouses mostly on the Nullarbor and in the NT. He currently lives in Alice Springs with his wife and daughter. His short fiction has previously appeared in Flycatcher Magazine.