December 2011 – January 2012

Essays

Janette Turner Hospital

At the Condamine Crossroads Motel

Illustration by Jeff Fisher.

Meg parks right between the goal posts of the Welcome to Condamine sign. Small print below Condamine, white against green, announces: Population 375. For the past two hours, the road has been unpaved, its surface the colour of bloodied rust. “At least we know where we are,” Natasha says. She studies the road atlas in her lap. “Intersection of the Leichhardt Highway and the Condamine River.” She lifts the map closer and squints. “Road frequently subject to flooding.”

“As though we hadn’t noticed.” They have been passing high-water markers every 10 kilometres. “Look at that one! Fourteen metres!”

“Dated ten months ago. We’re driving on the floor of last year’s ocean.”

“Explains the corrugations. Not that you’d guess the road had ever seen water otherwise.”

On the banks of the Condamine,” Natasha sings, “I lay down and drowned, and our Toyota ark floated away, before it got beached like a whale.”

“Can’t you stay on key?”

“No. Can you?”

I’ll hang my truck on a weeping willow tree,” Meg bellows, more or less in tune, and they belt out in unison: “And may the world go well with thee.”

“This isn’t a town, Meg, it’s a bloody truck-stop.”

“It’s a petrol station, thank God, when we’re close to empty. And a motel when it’s just about dark. Can you go in and find someone to work the pump?”

It would appear that the petrol pumps in the town of Condamine are pre-automatic and pre–credit card era. It would further appear that the town of Condamine consists solely of this intersection and this one building: a service station which is also a bar and diner with attached wing of ten motel rooms. A sign announces: Condamine Crossroads Motel. Every room with Ensuite, A/C, and TV. $20 per hour.

“Do you notice,” Natasha asks uneasily, “that we are just about the only vehicle with four wheels?”

“Not an adequate statistical sample,” Meg says. “It’s not exactly a traffic jam.”

This is true. Their Toyota troopie, complete with bullbar, is the smallest vehicle in sight, though there are three other mid-size utility trucks in the parking lot, all muscle cars with wheels on steroids. There are otherwise six eighteen-wheelers and two road trains.

“I think it might be a good idea to go in together,” Natasha says.

“You may be right.”

“What’s the bet that we’ll be the only women in the joint?”

“I’m not taking those odds.”

A cardboard sign, taped to the glass window of the diner, announces in broad black felt-tip marker strokes:

 

RULES FOR BAR AND DINER.
NO BARE FEET. NO SINGLETS.
 

 

“The dress code is promising,” Meg says.

“Not so sure about the drinking code though.”

Another cardboard placard, taped below the dress-code sign, announces the following:

 

New Responsible Drinking Policy: BE EARLY AND GET DRUNK QUICKER. 

 

“I think I’m going to comply,” Meg says. “Which means you’ll have to drive tomorrow.”

“Even though you know I can’t do gears.”

“Time you learned.”

“Why should I? I didn’t grow up on a cattle station.”

“Haven’t been back since I was 16, don’t forget.”

“But you were driving trucks at age ten and you know how to talk to these blokes.”

“I know how to talk about cows giving birth and the price of sorghum.”

“You know how to talk about gears.”

“You know how to flirt. We’re taking the rifle in with us.”

Every head turns when the women enter.

“Hey,” someone says. “It’s those sheilas with the Toyota.”

Meg leans the rifle against the bar and hoists herself onto a stool.

“What the hell?” someone says, nodding at the rifle. “What’s that supposed to mean?”

“It means: Don’t mess with us,” Meg responds. “You got rules against women at the bar?”

There is a quick fusillade of laughter. It’s never come up, voices say.

“Well then.” Natasha smiles her most come-hither-but-don’t-you-dare-touch smile. “It’s just come up, and the sheilas would like to shout you all a round of drinks. Would one of you hunks be willing to work the petrol pump for us?”


The room, which is reasonably clean, has a double bed with a thin tick-striped mattress on which there are rough sheets, neatly folded. There is just enough space between wall and bed on each side for one person to move. There is no dresser, no mirror. The bathroom comes with toilet, sink (a small mirror above) and a shower cubicle a metre square. The room smells of swamp and sulphur.

“It’s the bore water,” Meg says. “I can’t believe I forgot. You smell worse after your shower than before, but everyone stinks so no one notices.”

“So that’s why you smelled mouldy in high school. I never knew.”

“Very funny.”

The women have paid in advance, cash handed over, $45 for the room. This price was reached by negotiation. “We don’t usually rent for the whole night,” the proprietor explained.

“Let’s go eat,” Natasha says. “Those steaks smelled good. I mean seriously good. Not a whiff of sulphur.”

“One thing you can say about Queensland, we got the beef.”

The bar is crowded, though none of the six tables in the adjacent floor space of the diner is occupied. The menu is Steak & Chips or Steak & Mashed, both offered with beer on tap. The men at the bar are busily sawing and chewing and quaffing.

Meg and Natasha choose Steak & Mashed and ask for medium rare.

“Medium rare?” The proprietor raises his eyebrows, sifting possible translations. “What does that mean? You mean you want blood?”

“Not too much blood,” Meg offers, reassuring. “Just pink in the middle, you know?”

The proprietor shakes his head, as though saddened. “Name’s Reg,” he offers. “Owner, bartender, chef. Steak oughta be cooked right through in my personal opinion but I try to please. We got XXXX and VB on tap.”

Natasha squints in the fake electric candlelight and points to a dusty bottle behind the bar. “Dear God,” she says, “am I hallucinating? Or is that a bottle of Penfolds Grange I see before me?”

“What?” Reg blinks and looks behind him. “Where?”

“There.”

“Oh,” Reg says. “The bottle of wine? Been there since Eve cheated on Adam, I reckon. We don’t get much call for wine.”

“Can I see it?”

“It’s a bit dirty.” Reg, mildly embarrassed, swipes a damp rag across the label.

“Holy shit, Meg. This is Vintage 1990.”

“How much are you asking?” Meg demands.

“Hell, I don’t know,” Reg says. “Don’t even remember when I got it or what I paid for it. It’s probably past its use-by date. How about $10?”

“Done!” Natasha says, hand over mouth to tamp exuberance down. “Can you bring us two glasses and a corkscrew?”

“The wife used to have proper wine glasses,” Reg says. “Might take me a while to find ’em.”

“We’ll manage,” Meg says. “We’ll take that table by the window. We’ll have the wine while we’re waiting for the steaks.”

“You want a beer while you’re waiting for the wine?”

“Ah … no,” Natasha says. “We’ll have iced water while we’re waiting for the wine.”

“Ice?” Reg raises one eyebrow as though caviar has been requested.

“Water’s fine,” Meg assures him. “We’ll have tap water while we’re waiting for the wine.”


Time passes. The Steaks & Mashed have not yet arrived. Nor has the wine.

Meg and Natasha sip their water.

“You know that joke about a tall good-looking stranger walks into a bar?” Natasha asks.

“Please.”

“Well, don’t look now, but a tall good-looking stranger just walked into the bar.”

Meg turns to appraise. “He’s not a local,” she says. “Nobody knows him.”

Natasha frowns. “It’s stranger than that. They’re huddling. They’re turning away. I think they do know him. They’re avoiding him. I wonder why.”

Reg approaches with two plates and the bottle of wine. The “mashed” presents itself as substantial hillocks beside the thick slabs of steak. “I know I do have a corkscrew somewhere,” Reg apologises, “but damned if I can find it. Thing is, never had to open a bottle of wine.”

From the bar someone yells: “Round here, we open stubbies with our teeth.”

“But you paid for it fair and square,” Reg adds. “So take it with you.”

“Perhaps I can help?” the stranger offers, producing a Swiss Army knife.

“Fantastic!” Natasha claps her hands. “Will you join us?” She asks Reg to bring glasses.

“Wife must have taken the wine glasses when she cleared out,” Reg says. “Beer glasses do?”

“No worries,” Meg says.

“What’s your name?” Natasha asks the stranger. “You will join us, won’t you?”

“Name’s Dennis. Dennis Kennedy. Happy to join you but I’m not much of a wine drinker. Hell, not any kind of a wine drinker. Mind if I hang on to my beer?”

“No problem.”

“Mind if I ask?” he says. “What the hell are you doing here?”

“Nostalgia trip. I grew up on a cattle station west of Thargomindah,” Meg explains. “Haven’t been back for 20 years, but I have an itch to see it again.”

“I’m a city girl,” Natasha admits. “Grew up in Brisbane. Meg and I were best friends in high school. What about you?”

“Grew up here. Well, more or less here, on the family cattle station just outside town. Got sent off to boarding school in Brisbane when I was knee-high to a grasshopper. Christian Brothers, who whipped us into shape. Now I manage a station outside Cloncurry.”

“Is that why no one knows you here?”

Dennis frowns into his beer. “They know who I am. I’ve been away a long time.”

“Why’d you come back?”

“For a funeral.”

“Oh, I’m sorry.”

There is a long silence. Reg arrives with beer glasses and Meg and Natasha pour wine into theirs and raise them.
“To the pleasure of chance encounters,” Meg proposes.

“I’ll drink to that.”

“Your Cloncurry station, how many head of cattle?” Meg wants to know.

“Ten thousand, spinifex-fed. Grain-fattened in feedlots for the last hundred days.”

“The, uh, the funeral …,” Natasha ventures. “Your father?”

“Not my father, no.” A silence ensues. “Family though. Very rough on my parents. I sent them off to the Gold Coast to get some distance. Said I’d manage the property for a month. They need a break. We’re all doing the best we can. Where are you staying, by the way?”

“Here,” Natasha says brightly.

“You’re not serious?”

“Why wouldn’t we be serious? Where else can we stay?”

“You can’t stay here,” Dennis says decisively. “Believe me, you can’t stay here.”

“We’ve already paid.”

“It’ll cost you a lot more if you stay,” Dennis warns. “Believe me, when these truckies get drunk …”

“I don’t see what else we can do,” Natasha says uneasily.

“You can stay at Kilkenny Downs,” Dennis says. “My family property. You’ll be my guests. Get your stuff and follow me. I’m in the white truck.”


“Just outside town” turns out to be 40, then 50, then nudging 60 kilometres away. The road behind Dennis’ white truck is unpaved and rutted. Meg, as usual, is driving. The Toyota is her truck.

“Has it occurred to you,” Natasha asks nervously, “that we don’t know a thing about him? I mean, why were the men in the bar avoiding him? He could be a serial killer for all we know.”

“It has occurred to me.”

“Maybe we should turn around at this point and go back.”

“To the truck-stop motel? You’d feel safer? I don’t know … I liked him. I trusted him. Didn’t you?”

“I did. But I don’t trust my trusting instincts. I wish we weren’t so far from anywhere.”

“We’ve got the rifle,” Meg reminds.

“Do you actually know how to use it?”

“Of course I know. I’ve put down cows in difficult birth, and once a lamed horse.”

“Well, good. That’s a relief.”

“Mind you, I don’t think I could ever fire at a human being.”

“There’s our possible problem,” Natasha says.


Kilkenny Downs turns out to be a 40,000-hectare property, small by Queensland standards. The homestead, surrounded by lush bore water–fertilised gardens, is beautiful and sprawling, with wide verandahs on all sides.

“You can stay in my sister’s room,” Dennis says. “If you don’t mind sharing a queen-size bed.”

“No problem,” Meg says, though both women take deep breaths when they see the silk-draped canopy and the huge bedroom. Framed photographs cover the walls.

“My sister is a model,” Dennis says proudly. “She lives between Paris and New York. She’s done a lot of Vogue covers.”

“Holy shit,” Natasha says.

“Yeah,” Dennis acknowledges. “My sentiments too. She sucked up all the good luck in the family. But we all adore her.” He pauses. “She didn’t come back for the funeral. Listen, if you’re up for a drink, my Dad’s got some good stuff. Not that he drinks wine any more than I do. But, you know, we’ve entertained premiers here, so we’ve got good vintages, or so I’ve been told.”


“Can I ask,” Natasha ventures, after several glasses of excellent South Australian wine, “whose funeral?”

“My little brother’s.”

“Oh my God,” Meg says. “I’m so sorry. How … how little?”

“He was 30.”

“That’s terrible. What happened?”

“He was killed in an accident.”

Natasha paces around the room, studying the framed Vogue covers of Dennis’ little sister with her blinding lip-glossed smile. “I’m so sorry,” she says.

“Yeah,” Dennis says. “Me too.” He downs a XXXX with a gulp or two. “Just about wiped out my parents. I got some weed here if you’d like a bit of calm. It helps.”

“Uh … no thanks,” Meg says.

“I think I will,” Natasha responds. “Yeah. Thanks.”

“The thing is,” Dennis says, inhaling deeply. “My dad’s always been true blue, straight as a die. Never had time for weakness or bludgers or Labor Party commies or anyone on the dole. Wouldn’t stand for a word against the cops. And then this … He’s like a punctured balloon. It’s frightening. And now I’m scared he’ll do what Patrick did.”

The women sip their wine and are silent.

“He’s dazed,” Dennis says. “Lost. I can’t handle seeing Dad like that.”

He inhales deeply. “It’s worse to watch your dad’s world collapse than to see your own …” He puts his head in his hands. “When Patrick got into drugs, I can’t tell you how many times I bailed him out, hauled him up to Cloncurry, got him clean, kept it secret from Mum and Dad. I can’t tell you what I got to know about the police and the drug deals. Lost all my illusions pretty quick.”

He glugs down another stubbie. “Happened in Toowoomba,” he says. “Tried to keep Patrick in Cloncurry but he had to have his fix. Cops kicked in his door and beat him up because he owed money.”

“Cops?”

“Beat him up bad. Someone had to call an ambulance and the hospital called Mum and Dad. All downhill from there.

“Dad couldn’t believe Patrick was a junkie and he didn’t believe that cops … It just didn’t compute for him and he went and lodged a corruption complaint. That’s the sort of thing my Dad does. Did. Goes to Toowoomba and stays in a hotel and gets his lawyer to file a corruption suit and an assault and battery suit. Got to be a few bad apples, right?

“Well, next thing he wakes up with a gun at his head and a couple of cops telling him he’d better back off their mates. After that, it was like he couldn’t keep his balance. It was like …”

The silence is long. Dennis gulps down more beer. Natasha and Meg sip wine.

“He just sat beside Patrick’s bed in the hospital and he couldn’t stop crying. I reckon that’s what finished Patrick off.”

Natasha puts her hand on Dennis’ arm. “Your dad was at his bedside when he died?”

Dennis stares at them. “No,” he says dully. “Patrick got discharged. He was fine. A few bruises and a habit to feed. Dad brought him back home. Back here.”

The silence seems endless, but neither Meg nor Natasha dares to break it.

“He couldn’t handle seeing Dad broken,” Dennis says. He sighs. “He went out to the salt-lick to do it. Shot himself in the head. Mum called me in Cloncurry and I came down.”


Natasha wakes between the upholstered arms of a chair. Her back pain is excruciating.

“I drank too much,” Meg groans. “My head is splitting.”

“Where’s Dennis?”

The women stumble through the house and the kitchen. There is no sign of their host.

“Oh shit,” Meg says. “You don’t think—?”

To their relief, they find Dennis snoring in a wicker chair on the verandah. In the kitchen they find the makings of coffee. They wave a steaming mug under Dennis’ nose.

“Uh … what? Jesus, that smells good.” Dennis rubs his eyes. He is embarrassed. “Gee, thanks,” he says. He sucks down caffeine. “Uh … Don’t remember too much about last night. I know I talked too much but if I hit on you or took advantage I apologise. Drunk as a bandicoot. Crawl to Brisbane on my knees if you want.”

Not necessary, the women assure him.

“I hope I didn’t bore you senseless.”

Not at all, they reassure.

“We’ve had a death in the family,” Dennis explains, very earnest. “Rough on everyone. I didn’t want to be alone last night, so I did take advantage, truth be told, dragging you all the way out here. I hope you won’t hold it against me.”

Meg and Natasha lick their fingers and cross their hearts. We won’t hold it against you, they promise. Not ever.

Janette Turner Hospital
Janette Turner Hospital is a Visiting Writer-in-Residence at Columbia University. Her books include Orpheus Lost, Oyster and Forecast: Turbulence, which was published in November 2011.

Cover: December 2011 - January 2012

December 2011 – January 2012

From the front page

Morrison on song

The PM set some markers for the public service … but can he be trusted?

Image of Nigel Farage at CPAC in Sydney

Making sense of CPAC

Why the Conservative Political Action Conference should not be dismissed lightly

Image from ‘Midsommar’

Pagan poetry: the studied strangeness of Ari Aster’s ‘Midsommar’

The ‘Hereditary’ director micro-manages the mania in his new film

Impression, Sunrise (1872) by Claude Monet

‘Monet: Impression Sunrise’ at the National Gallery of Australia

Impressionism’s namesake painting is at the heart of a masterful collection from the Musée Marmottan Monet


In This Issue

Illustration by Jeff Fisher.

Work and play

Melbourne Zoo at 150

Words: Shane Maloney | Illustration: Chris Grosz

Gareth Evans & Ali Alatas

Illustration by Jeff Fisher.

Whirlpool

Primitive educational techniques, Sydney, 1965. © Hopwood / Fairfax Syndication

Phoney education


More in Summer Reading

Children performing for tourists in Sinuiju, North Korea. © Linda Jaivin

A day in North Korea

Big statues, high swings and a ‘Sound of Music’ sing-along

 Warrego Highway, Miles, on the Western Downs. © Nicholas Purcell

Pianos of small-town Queensland

A tour of instruments and their owners

Ocean Drive, Miami. © Virginia Duran

Back to Miami

A dip into childhood

Vincent van Gogh, The Night Cafe (1888). © Wikimedia Commons

To Holland and back with van Gogh

In search of home


Read on

Image of Nigel Farage at CPAC in Sydney

Making sense of CPAC

Why the Conservative Political Action Conference should not be dismissed lightly

Image from ‘Midsommar’

Pagan poetry: the studied strangeness of Ari Aster’s ‘Midsommar’

The ‘Hereditary’ director micro-manages the mania in his new film

Image of director Quentin Tarantino and actor Margot Robbie

Quentin Tarantino’s Sisyphean task

The polarising director and actor Margot Robbie on making ‘Once Upon A Time… In Hollywood’

Image from ‘Succession’

Heirs unapparent: ‘Succession’

The HBO comedy-drama returns for another gleefully toxic season


×
×