THE TRIP: Danielle Haigh
Images of the crows persisted in Helena’s mind that long first day. Darting through her thoughts at odd moments, they gave her an air of distraction, which lingered to haunt her sleep in the stuffy motel.
Black crows, feathers glistening in the haze rising from the bitumen, dined alfresco – their meal did not fight back. Cleaved in two, the ‘roo lay dead and bloody. Stark images bordered on one side by the endless grey road, on the other by the red earth.
Contrasting the carnage, sparse roadside bushes sheltered abundant bird life. Helena watched as the tiny creatures flew alongside the car, racing it, showing off with ease.
She wondered again what it meant, this annual pilgrimage of a woman who grew more used to her comfortable life with every passing month.
There was a coastal town along the way. Last year two visits for supplies had convinced Helena and Steve it had few redeeming features.
This year fate decided the place deserved another chance. Car trouble! One night at a motel. One night at a grey nomads’ caravan park, all was silent by eight o’clock, but by six in the morning a blur of bowling whites.
A full day by the roadside fixing wheel bearings, borrowing tools from the car dealership opposite.
While Steve worked, Helena wandered into a secondhand shop, killing time. She overheard a woman telling the shopkeepers her son’s bike had been stolen and asking had they seen it? Would they look out for it? If they got a reasonably-priced boys’ bike would they let her know?
“My son is heartbroken, he saved up to buy that bike himself,” she said. “Is it me, or is it this town? What’s wrong with people?”
“It’s this town,” the woman behind the counter said. “It’s some people in this town.”
Not long after Helena returned to the car, a family of caravanning Queenslanders stopped at the dealership to see about a service for their vehicle. They talked for 15 minutes and Helena learned about the cars they had owned, a business they had run, where they had travelled, another couple they had met, and where they planned to go the following year.
The Queenslanders’ son was 16 and when he heard Helena and Steve lived in Margaret River he wanted to know all about the surf. He was a boogie boarder. He liked big waves. Would he need a wetsuit? What was the weather like?
The mother told Helena she wanted her elder son and his bride to see Australia before they started a family but the son wanted children straight away. She wanted the younger son to do an apprenticeship before he travelled. He said he’d be too old to travel by then.
“I’ll go on the dole and travel,” he said with a grin, obviously knowing the response by heart and provoking it sharply.
Before leaving the husband gave Steve and Helena advice on their repairs, told them they were the third bearing case he’d seen in a week, gave them an icecream container to help with the degreasing, and advised them to collect bits and pieces – like icecream containers – you never knew when they could be handy.
Helena was in awe. Brimful of their information without even knowing their names, she felt like a supporting character in Sylvania Waters. As she waved goodbye she remembered their kindness and silently wished them a happy trip.
Late in the day Helena was pressed into service to buy a carton of beer for the mechanics at the dealership. She hitched a ride with a woman who had booked her van in for a service three weeks in advance and was angry the work hadn’t been done.
“It’s because we’re pensioners,” she told Helena, “and pensioners always get left on the backburner. My husband is sick and I don’t like to leave him to walk to the mechanics twice in one day, but they didn’t bring the van back to me. They kept saying they would even though they hadn’t done the work. But they never did.”
Helena sympathised, thanked the woman for the ride and wished her better luck in the future. She didn’t explain why she was going into town.
After a transaction at an ATM she caught a taxi. The driver was nervous, shaking. The seatbelt Helena drew across her body was greasy, leaving her hands feeling tainted.
They stopped at the drive-in bottleshop, bought the beer and drove back to the workshop. It was a short ride and despite Helena’s best efforts to engage the driver in a chat to soothe his nerves, there was nothing to say.
Next morning Helena and Steve left town after checking their lotto ticket. They were not millionaires.
It took an hour to reach Wooramel Roadhouse where they breakfasted on the best bacon and egg sandwiches of the trip, washed down with coffee. For Helena that fusion was the flavour of car travel. For an inexplicable reason she found herself collecting postcards of the roadhouses along the way.
They passed a sign informing them they were leaving the North West. She and Steve shared a glance, feeling each other’s sadness.
Sheep grazed alongside the road. Steve beeped the horn at them. They’d heard it all before and not a single head lifted. Helena concluded northern sheep were more sophisticated than their southern cousins. Spread over large areas in tiny groups, they were independent, less fearful, though they led harsher lives.
An offshore wind tugged at the car. At times the road seemed endless, despite 10 days in the sun the holiday already felt distant. All that remained was driving and the road.
Some of the little trees along the road looked perfect, as though some bonsai obsessive was tending to miles of roadside. Others looked like miniatures of Africa’s savanna.
One reminded Helena of her favourite childhood movie, Hatari, starring John Wayne, Red Buttons, rhinos and baby elephants. In one scene Red Buttons was catching monkeys in a net. It had made her want to move to Africa and save rhinos.
Her mind wandered aimlessly during these endless driving days.
Red ochre on a white drum: ICE COLD BEER 2KM. Helena and Steve read the sign loudly and spontaneously as they passed it. They salivated like Pavlov’s dogs.
“Even amidst all this nothingness, advertising works,” Helena said and the thought stayed with her for a long time.
© Danielle Haigh 2021
Danielle Haigh spent 20+ years working in newspapers in Fremantle, Perth and Margaret River as a journalist, editor and photographer.
After assisting with the inaugural Margaret River Readers & Writers Festival, she was assistant coordinator in 2010 and festival director from 2011-2013.
Danielle returned to Fremantle in 2017. With Gary McHugh, she is a coordinator of Freo Writers at The Meeting Place.
Danielle is writing a memoir, a small-town murder tale and anything else that inspires her.
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