“You can’t trust the damn priests. Can’t trust anyone for that matter. High & bloody mighty hypocrites in a robe. Father Ken would be around every week, yapping if I wasn’t at school, wasn’t doing my homework. Spouting his bloody minded views. Taking Mum for a right ride. And he ends up running off with one of the sheilas down Beckonsal way. Opened a bloody Wendy’s ice-cream shop. It’s no more hail Mary, it’s hail bloody Wendy for a couple bucks a pop. And yet he still gave me the strap 20 times over as a young lad. Can’t be telling Mum the church is up the shitter though. She won’t hear a word about it.”
The thundering high beam of a passing truck flashed blindingly in Tilly’s eyes as she leant patiently on the bench top listening to Damon Hughes spill his spurious and venomous tirade about the world and why it was so fucked up. Tilly would tilt her head slightly, propped up by her arm, gazing with apparent intent, her other arm crossed in front of her. Her appearance of avid interest didn’t betray the fact that she had heard every tale and opinion Damon had to share at least once before.
According to Damon the world was fucked up because of one of three reasons. The Catholics. Or namely the Catholic bloody priests and their stupid vows of bloody chastity. The foreigners. Or, all the bloody foreigners they let into this country of ours, take our bloody jobs, cow tow to some friggin allah caballah budda, then fucking expect a handout. But mainly it was just everyone else that lived in Calderane who generally pissed him off in one way or another.
Tilly Swanston wasn’t like Damon at all. She was a patient type of person. Kind. And so she would listen. Nodding with sympathy. Pouring out the wine, kept under the counter especially for Damon along with the bourbon stashed away for certain other customers’ preferences. He never had to ask her to fill it up. He could keep talking with vigour and spite this way without interruption. And uninterrupted he would ramble, his paunchy nose reddening. Tilly would have slipped herself a couple of small brims in the meantime. And then, Damon would eventually lurch around the counter.
There would be no talking at this stage. Damon would grab a handful of her ivory flesh. His hands rummaging under the t-shirt she usually wore, filching her stomach, or her breast, and sometimes, when she wore a skirt, her thigh. He’d maybe bite her neck a little. She would wrestle out of her clothes quickly. While Damon simply unbuttoned his fly, dropping his pants.
Tilly would often consider yelping a little. As if this is the kind of thing you should do. But she never did. Heaving once, twice, maybe three times, Damon would pull away and then fart. He liked the humour in it. Sometimes he even gave her a parting kiss.
Afterwards Tilly would clean up the shop, closing down all appliances, petrol pumps, locking up the roadhouse. Usually finishing up at one or two in the morning. But if one of the truckies called through to let her know they would be on their way, she would stay open just for them.
On rare occasions, at the end of an evening such as this, Damon might suggest, “How’s about we head off to your place? Handle a bit more of the Hughesy love machine?”
Tilly would barely contain her joy. They would walk arm in arm taking the long walk down the gravelled road to her home. Invariably another bottle of wine became a part of this ritual. Even cracking open a second. Damon would drink most of it. Then they would head to the bedroom. When it was all over and done with he would simply roll over and sleep. Tilly often thought about being held in those moments, at the end. Though, she was generally glad just to have him in her bed. She liked the idea of having a man in her bed.
Routine set in. Most days at the roadhouse peppered by the furtive love with Damon Hughes. And her long walks home in the pitch dark of night. The only respite from what her life had become was heading into Brinton once every couple of months to pick up a few things and make sure all the banking was done correctly.
Tilly would usually hitch a ride with the mobile library that Harry Kevil drove.
“Ready to head into the big smoke?” Harry was a congenial man.
“Yes!” She’d hop onto the library bus, squeezing onto the passenger seat with her multitude of bags and paperwork to carry.
“Suppose you’ve got your list of a thousand requests from everyone in town?”
“I do. Mostly bits of groceries we don’t store at the roadhouse. And Ventolin for Mary’s youngest.”
“How old is he now?”
And they would talk like this all the way to Brinton, eucalypts and cattle farms peeling past the windscreen. Tilly enjoyed the small talk she shared with Harry. And because he thought she was such a nice girl, he’d drop her all the way back to Calderane. Even though he lived the better side of an hour closer to Brinton. His kindness made her feel less alone. Less like anything she did in this life didn’t really matter.
The chassis of the mobile library would lurch and jolt coming round the bend into Calderane. A steep hill leads into town. Anyone driving too fast would have to slam on the brakes so as to not lose control. There had been a tiny white cross sitting at the bottom of that hill ever since Tilly had been living in Calderane.
“This is where the Sheps old dog kicked the bucket. You remember it?”
This was another story she knew, but liked to listen anyway. “No. I wasn’t here then. That was before I came.”
“Ahh. Shambles it was. Caused a nigh on three car pile up. Poor old mutt. Bitter they called it. As in, bit’er this and bit’er that.” Harry chuckled, and turned the bus off the highway onto the gravelled road. “Bitter had become slow and blind and crippled. Couldn’t cross the road as quick. And a truck fair ploughed into it.”
“That’s horrible!” Tilly exclaimed in sympathy, exercising the listener’s duty to exclaim appropriately at the tale being told as much as to the incident being recalled. “What happened then?”
“It was quite a mess as you can imagine. Craig Shepherd had been in the roadhouse, came out to find bits of that poor bloody dog up and down the road.” Tilly retched on cue, Harry continued, “Craig’s the middle child. He’s a good lad. Didn’t want his family to see the mess that had become their family pet. Him and the truckie that rolled over it went about scooping it up and quickly burying the mongrel. But they hadn’t moved the truck. Bloody fools.”
“Uh oh!” Tilly smiled and Harry’s enthusiasm for telling his story gained momentum. He leaned across conspiratorially, all the while with one hand on the wheel and the other changing gears according to the lay of the road.
“Well you know what happened next? Of course another car came speeding round the corner. Hit that hill and flew. Saw the truck, swerved like some kind of stunt driver! I was watching from the bus, all the while another car was coming up the other way! You should of seen it! The other car had no time to do nothing. It careened straight into the roadhouse. Took out the sign post, the bin, barely missed the petrol pump and ended up smacking into the shed wall.”
“There was a shed?”
“Yeah. The shed got knocked down. And do you reckon that got the wind up Damon!” Harry whooped with delighted recollection. “It was all worth it just to see Damon carry on and go the pork chop. Well, here you are love.”
Gravel and dust billowed around the stopping bus. Tilly stepped off. The load of stuff she had to carry took a few back and forth trips to the house. She waved goodbye.
The day to days become week to weeks. And most things don’t change. Damon would always have a beef about something or someone. And Tilly would wonder what it would be like to have someone that wanted her more than just for after the end of the day’s work, more than just after a few bottles of wine and more than just for stacking the shelves. Though, when each of those torpid moments came, she would languish in the assumed tenderness of the contact. Even when it wasn’t all that tender, she presumed that the contact itself was enough of a sign of the love she hoped for. Especially on those nights he stayed over.
Those nights became fewer. And more nights than most, Tilly found herself closing up all by herself. Damon sinking further into a stupor each evening that precluded any kind of interaction. Cursing became too effortful. He’d stagger home. Slapping a dis-affectionate hand across Tilly’s rump as a farewell.
Winter had long set in. The cool air quelled the usual heady scent of petrol fuel mixed with native bush and snow gum eucalypt, instead the snappy wind left a bristling upon the nose. Fiddling with the keys, Tilly rubbed her face upon her shoulder catching the mucousy drops that the cold excreted, onto her fleece jumper. She figured nobody was watching.
The familiar rumble sounded behind her. The whistle and whine of an eighteen wheeler, gearing down, brakes squealing, then the hum hum thud of it pulling up to a dead halt.
It couldn’t be a regular, she mused, but remained poised at the door nonetheless. Not the type to turn someone away. Not the kind to have anything to rush home to.
From where he sat, she looked like a rabbit caught in headlights. Startled. Hair mussed slightly, that dainty tilt of her head. An arm still outstretched to the door.
Her eyes glimpsed only his leg first, once her eyes adjusted from the overbearing brightness of the headlights being switched off. A sand-shoed leg, and from what she could tell, bare skinned, dusted with hair. He wore shorts. He must be mad. And the awareness of the cold made her shiver. He definitely was not a regular.
His shadowy silhouette approached her. And there they stood. Facing each other.
Nothing came to her lips, for the briefest of moments. A moment long enough to be a recognisable space in time. A seismic shift, where the routine and expectation of congeniality was fractured, and only impressions and visions perpetrated their influence.
Tilly physically shuddered. “Oh – I. Well…..”
“Excuse me. I saw you standing there, and, I was hoping, just for a coffee. And a bite to eat?”
“Of course” and Tilly relaxed into a wide smile, an edifice of her occupation. “It’s been a slow night. My brain slows down too at this hour.” She hoped she was effecting some kind of pleasant banter and not betraying her nervousness. “Come in. I just turned the coffee machine off… I’ve – we’ve plenty of food here. Just grab whatever. Been driving long? Where’d you come in from?”
Her effort of casual banter railed into an unstoppable chatter. Flustering around the store, flicking switches back on, one eye darting across to follow this mystery figure, weaving in and out of the aisles. She breathed a sharp intake of air, then stood, frail, tired, quiet now, behind the counter. He approached.
Now she got a good look at him. He was young. Her age. Blue buttoned up shirt, floppy hair lapping in front of an earthen yet charming face.
“Just come from Baldersea.” He lumped a pile of chips and junk food onto the counter, taking a seat upon the stool. “Long drive, alright though. Not even a quarter of the way I need to go.”
“By the sea?” she exclaimed. “Can you see the ocean?”
He smiled broadly, “Yeah. – And I’ll have that white with one.”
Tilly flushed embarrassed, realising she had been standing put, holding the coffee pot expectantly, but simply staring.
“You’ll join me… for a coffee?”
And she did. Pouring herself one too. And so there thyy were, facing opposite each other, Tilly leaning forward across the counter, clasping her cup, and he, animated on the other side. They talked for hours. Mark, he introduced himself as. Just Mark.
He asked her questions. Like, what did she enjoy doing? And how did she end up in Calderane? And Tilly was astounded. And did not have much to reply. So she responded with questions for him instead.
He was carting chickens, cold dead frozen chickens. All the way up north. He said it was good money. And it was good enough for now, to get him where he was going. Maybe buy a house with the money. He was earning shitloads. And travel, he said. There is a whole wide world out there, he said. A whole life to experience.
Tilly nodded in agreeance. Lapping up each word. Catapulting herself into the space he dreamed up. This world of experience, he planned to live, scooting through the countryside, taking time out to do stuff, he said. And his enthusiasm was invigorating. He seemed to like people too. Liked all sorts of things. And he fervently explained the majesty of eating a ripe grown Tangarine just picked from the tree. Take a bite into one of them, get the peel stuck in your finger nails, sink your teeth into it’s succulent flesh and have the juice ooze around your mouth.
“Nothing like it. They grow beautiful Tangarines out Berrickwood way.” And he sipped the last of his third coffee. Stopping. Smiling. Reaching for her face. Grabbing a strand of her auburn hair, pulling it out to a full stretch then letting it flick back. He delighted in seeing her smile. Her blue eyes twinkle momentarily. Then they dimmed into their habitual sadness.
Mark wanted more of that twinkle. So he reached over, pulling her face to his, and kissed her. She pulled back, laughed. Then, decided to let herself go. Mark led her back to his truck. They bunked in the sleeper compartment of his cab. Tight. Warm.
After, he held her. Gently. Closely. “I don’t normally do this kind of thing, you know”, he explained.
“Neither do I”, she said. And she thought how she doesn’t usually make a sound at all. And she had. But not a yelp, like she thought she should have, more of a low sounding growl, a howling letting loose from within.
The sun was up. Tilly knew she would have to open up the roadhouse. So she untangled herself from his limbs, long limbs. Lovely limbs.
“I’ll be back” he promised her. And then he was gone. Rumbling engine rolling on.
She sat then. On a rock, perched in front of the roadhouse. Crying. Big billowing tears, pouring endlessly out. And she did not know why she cried.
“Jesus Christ Till. You’re meant to be inside setting up for the day. Busload of bloody wallys and japs coming. No matter what I say people don’t bloody listen. Get inside. What else do I pay you for?”
She was unmoved. Her red tear stained face looked up to see Damon. Standing stumpy and unapologetic.
“Hush hush. Oh love, deary me? What is the matter? Now, you ignore my son.” Damon’s mother interjected. Tilly had not met his mother. Although she imagined one day they would meet. Not like this. “Come come inside with us. And don’t you worry, he’s always been a grumpy one. That’s why I surprise him with my visits, else he doth protest too much.”
Seeing her face, Damon was only a little remorseful. A bare flicker in his heart registered her abstracted desperation. But Damon’s heightened sense of injustice, knew, just knew she had turned on him. He expected it some day. And he went into the store. Saw the two coffee cups, and seethed.
Any effort of restraint Damon tried to muster for his mother’s benefit, whittled away. He flung the register open and shut it with violent intent. Flying fuck fucks all around the room. Ticking over in his mind each and every way he had helped her, every single thing that he had done for her.
“Damon”, the old matriarch chastised, “are you giving her time off? A woman needs some rest you know. Some comforts. The dear clearly needs a break. And you’re not too old to have your mouth washed out with soap!”
“I pay her to work.”
“Yes yes.” And to Tilly she whispered, “Is it a woman thing, love?”
And Tilly could only shake her head. Her tears would not stop.
“Perhaps it is something God can help you with dear.” And Tilly remembered Damon explaining his mother to be a pious woman in no flattering way. “You can pray for help you know. That helps me.”
“That’s right. Pray. And confess to your porking bloody priests” Damon growled in the background. He stamped and thudded around the store, clattering loudly, but not daring to raise the reality of what he truly feared.
And his mother tsk tsked, cooing to Tilly that she would take her home. Tuck her into bed. Maybe she was just coming down with something. And you could tell that Damon’s mother liked to fuss over people.
Tilly lay in bed. Tears now dried, crusty between her lashes, laying there thinking, in the dark, about why it was she felt like this. She thought about praying. Maybe. She thought about believing, in something. Anything. Hoped, just a little.
And then she heard the mulching sound of gravel. It was twilight now. Damon’s mother had left her soup that stood cold on her bedside table. Footsteps on her porch approached. And a fierce rapping on the door followed.
“TI-LLY! TI-LLY!” Loud drunken squalls reached her ears.
“Open the fucking door you bitch”, he slurred. Damon had never frightened her before, but now, the way he was, drunk, and angry. At her! He banged ferociously on the door. She could hear a scratching sound. Like metal scraping on glass. Rythmically. Up down up down. And the knocking and yelling persisted.
“I can fucking see you! Open the fucking door!” And she stood now in the hallway. She could see his shadowy figure through the frosted glass of the doorframe. “I’ll fucking break it down!”.
Tilly thought she could smell the liquor on his breath from behind the door. She hesitated. Then turned the doorknob.
He lurched forward. Eyes blazing fury, his face puffed red and engorged with blood. Enraged. And in his hands he held a crow bar.
He pounded the wall with his weapon; fierce and threatening. He needed to attack he thought, in order to defend. Defend himself against the tirade of wrongs the world thrust upon him. Plaster flew from the wall. He lunged forward.
Tilly leapt sideways into her bedroom, diving, under the only cover she could see. Her two feet poked out underneath the bed & there she cowered. Ludicrous, two ankles flailing, as Damon gripped, dragging her out feet first knocking her head on the bed frame then slamming her face back into the floor. Bruising her nose. She was screaming now.
Damon was a fierce violent ball of fury with a balding head beading sweat “you… you… you…!”. Spittle splattered Tilly’s calves.
And yet he had nothing, nothing to say. Shaking, he crumbled to the floor and cried. And Tilly could not help herself. Seeing him. So deplete. So lost. And she went to him. Circled her arms around him. And for the first time, the tenderness she imagined between them existed. He cried in her arms. A man twice her age, whimpering. Weak. Void. And then she pitied him.
As her nose trickled blood, and her own tears flowed into rivulets by their side, she grew in revulsion toward him.
Tilly went to work again the next day. Opening the roadhouse for the last time. Damon came in, but skulked in the office. Occasionally shooting bullets through his stare, but when she turned to look his way, he would scuttle back behind his desk, or duck behind an aisle. And he wondered with each tinkle of the shop door bell as customers entered, whether it was this guy, or maybe the next? No this one was far too old. Then again, she had been with him?
Mrs Hughes did a marvellous job of assuming Tilly’s vacant position. No discussion was required, nor entered into. Things would certainly change though. Damon had to start pulling his weight of course. Tilly thought it a brilliant trait that Mrs Hughes could deftly sweep under the carpet those nasty little improprieties of life until all she saw and would let you believe existed was that everything was indeed in perfect order and all as it should be. Her son squired most of the rigours of that trait with Mrs Hughes proliferating her shared opinion that Damon was a pillar of the community and important businessman to boot.
And Tilly slipped into the shadows of the town. Harry Kivel kindly offering her a day’s work a week on the mobile library, which she enjoyed enormously. It allowed her plenty of time to daydream, and gaze expectantly along the highway. She even took to dressing up a little. Buying a pretty flowing skirt at Binton. And on the next trip she purchased a pair of healed shoes. They would catch and roll, walking down the gravelled road, under the belting sunshine of the midday sun. Even twisting her ankle once. Though the pain was not so bad. She endured. And quite liked that the ache made her feel alive.
Craig Shepherd came onto the bus one day with his dad in tow, “We’ve got to consider alternatives” he was arguing.
“What? You joking? We’re cattle farmers. Always have been always will be”.
“But there is a market out there to be exploited!” Craig was insistent. “We could extend. Rotate pastures. Farm an orchard.”
“Berrickwood grows wonderful Tangerines” she was pleased she could offer advice. And even more pleased that it brought the thought of him back to her mind.
Craig Shepherd and his father just looked at her blankly, then Mr Shepherd enquired, “Do you have any John Grishams in?”
If the days were long and slow for her, it did not show. Her patience was inexhaustible. She had developed a peculiar smile that adorned her sanguine features. People in town talked. But they admired her resilience despite the malicious efforts Damon went to undermine any dignity or sensibility she attempted to retain. He continued a subversive tirade against her to anyone who would listen. Nonetheless, Mary and a couple of other women in town would invite her in for tea every now and then, marginal protest against the pillar of the community. And they would tell her how pretty she looked in her skirt. Even with her ankle strapped.
As the rythmic rumble of passing trucks swooshed by daily, Tilly considered each one a blessing. For each passing truck was one more truck closer to seeing her Mark. And she exalted in him. Creating in her mind an altar upon which he lay. Waiting. Waiting.
It was on a day, sunny and warm, walking back down the gravelled road to her quiet home that she heard that unmistakable shriek. Brakes locking in, metal on metal tearing. It ripped through her. The sounds. The feeling. Of knowing before seeing.
Tilly turned to face the road. The roadhouse on the corner, the hill bending down into a crescent dipping at the epicentre of the town, and where, she could see, bent gristly bits of truck.
She approached the accident. Gaunt faces of townsfolk moving in and out of focus, discouraging her, Harry’s hand held up in a shield pushing back, no no, don’t go. Without feeling their hands pushing, holding, beckoning her back, she shirked through. Among the bits of gnarled metal and distorted remains of the truck she found the cab. On the tattered leather seat he sat in a bed of glinting shards of shattered glass.
As if, in a final bid to un-keel the helm of death and thrust one last life lust out into the world, Mark’s head lolled backwards then slumped through the window toward where Tilly stood. She reached in pulling the arm, holding his hand gently. Still warm. She brushed her cheek against his fingers. Blood dribbled down his arm and pooled at her feet on the bitumen. Trying to find a way out. Absorbing nowhere. It ran, toward the edge of the road, towards Bitter’s cross.