The delivery truck was the only vehicle to pull into the roadhouse that day. Erin stood with the sun hard on her back, and watched the light splintering on the truck’s red paintwork as it made the turn. The driver stumped over to the roadhouse in orange shorts and a singlet, his crane legs pale and hairless. He hefted the boxes of frozen meat, vegetables, bread and cans onto the counter and tore off the yellow chitty for her to keep. After wolfing down an all-day breakfast and three Cokes, he climbed back into the truck and pulled out onto the highway, heading for Adelaide. He took the two Swedish backpackers with him—they’d worked hard for Erin the past few months but were dazed by the quiet and distant horizon—and left behind a carton that she’d been dreaming of for weeks.
She had a routine to eke out the pleasure of the monthly cartons. She made a fresh pot of coffee—ground not instant—and it was only when the plunger was plunged and the coffee poured, sugared and creamed that she cut the tape binding the parcel and lifted out the contents one by one. Word searches, puzzle books, story magazines, women’s weeklies, travel magazines. She guzzled them all. Each of them had competitions: for exercise bikes and beauty treatments, for electric woks and dog biscuits, but most of all for holidays. Holidays to Bali and the Gold Coast; Tasmania and Bangkok; and most excitingly of all, to Europe. Erin had quizzed the Swedish backpackers about Europe, demanding details of where they were from, where they’d been, and what she should be sure to see if she ever made it there. She scribbled all the details in a notebook she hid in her pants drawer.
‘Next summer,’ she murmured to herself, her fingertips stroking the glossy pictures of Italian lakes, Spanish festivals and Scottish mountains.
Next summer she was fifty. Fifty, and never been out of Australia. She dreamed of a year travelling round Europe, seeing all the places in the magazines. Her and Norm climbing the Eiffel Tower; holding hands in a Venice gondola; clumping around in wooden clogs. After twelve years working in the roadhouse, she reckoned they’d earned it.
The last parcel was from the catalogue. A pack of sleeveless t-shirts for her: one peach, one white; socks for Norm, and a new set of hair clippers. The old ones had conked out two months ago and Norm was starting to look like a sheep, even though she’d hacked at his hair as best she could with the bacon scissors.
A plume of dust bowling along the highway brought her to her feet, clattering through the plastic strips in the doorway and out into the sharp sunlight. A car. A blue four-wheel drive, the first customer for days. Her hopes brightened as it careered closer, then dimmed as it shot past the turning and kept going.
Erin watched the dust cloud dissolve. Solitude bore down on her. It wasn’t the silence. The bush wasn’t silent: there were the ticking petrol pumps, the groan of the windmill, the budgerigars squabbling in their cage near the picnic tables, and the buzz of the TV in Norm’s kiosk. Twelve years they’d lived here. The empty days crowded behind her; she daren’t face the days to come.
‘I’ll clip Norm’s hair, that’ll make them come, soon as I start that,’ she said, rousing herself, and went to fetch him from the kiosk by the petrol pumps.
Norm sat in the kitchen with a towel round his shoulders and paper spread beneath the chair while she sheared his hair to stubble.
‘You know, they cut me hair when I was inside,’ Norm said. When she didn’t reply, he continued, ‘They sliced through it like a combine harvester. All the hair was mixed together on the floor—mine and the other blokes’ who went in the same time as me. They’d been in before. Answered back to the screws, asked for hairspray and a perm.’ He touched her wrist. ‘You’re much gentler than that screw was.’
‘I should think so,’ she said, kissing the tender spot on his crown.
‘Screw didn’t do that, neither,’ he added, and she laughed.
‘Roly brought my magazines,’ Erin said.
‘Keep you quiet for a bit.’
‘Some good competitions this month.’
‘Ten days in Paris. What d’you think about that, Norm?’
He chuckled. ‘You’ll never win. They’re a fix, these competitions.’
‘I won that wet suit.’
‘Five years ago. And how often have you used it?’
Erin held his head steady as she clipped round his ears. ‘Don’t get a chance out here. But maybe in the future.’
‘We don’t have to live here.’
Norm swivelled round to face her. ‘Not live here?’
Erin switched off the clippers. The quiet was sudden and a pulse throbbed in her throat as she said, ‘It’s been long enough.’
Unspoken words crackled between them. It’s long enough since you came out of prison for people to have forgotten now.
Norm rubbed the towel over his head. Flakes of dust-coloured hair floated to the floor.
‘We could have a gap year,’ Erin said, folding the towel briskly. ‘Go to Europe, see all the sights. Just you and me.’
‘What about this place?’
‘We’ll get someone in to run it till we come back.’ If we ever come back.
Norm snorted. ‘Who’d want to live here for a year?’
‘We live here.’
‘That’s different,’ he said, not meeting her eye.
Erin slotted the clippers away in the box and swept up Norm’s hair. Biting back furious tears, she grabbed a plastic sack and pair of tongs and stomped round the picnic area scavenging up every wad of chewing gum, chocolate wrapper and Coffee Chill carton. Back inside, she scrubbed down the kitchen until her fingers stung.
Norm didn’t walk over for lunch. He buried himself in the kiosk, staring at local TV, hypnotised by old sitcoms and adverts for sheep dip, gawping at the news as though it was from a planet he’d never visited.
Erin took two slices from the top of a frozen loaf and popped them, still rigid, into the toaster, tipping it up first to check there wasn’t another frazzled mouse in the crumb tray. She carried the toast and a mug of coffee out to a picnic table and stared at the budgerigars in the cage Norm had built there.
When she was eleven, Erin had gone on a school trip to Ayers Rock. Many of the kids charged up to the top, but she walked round it, exploring caves layered with ochre paintings and waterholes rowdy with wild budgerigars. There were hundreds in a flock; so many the branches of the gum trees were hazy with emerald feathers. Now she hated seeing the dozen birds in the cage by the picnic tables, a single bare branch for them to perch on, and fretted that some instinct thrummed in them of open skies and waterholes teeming with green wings.
She slung the toast crust into the cage, then went in the house to complete the competition for the Paris holiday, writing her name and address on the coupon in a clear, round hand and slotting it into a white envelope which she addressed and fastened with tape. At the junction of the roadhouse track and the highway, an old fridge served as a mailbox. Erin trudged down to it, slapped the envelope inside and slammed the fridge door shut. The mail truck should be through to collect it in the next few days, enough time to make the competition deadline. It was something to cling to.
Erin sectioned her life into two distinct phases: before the roadhouse, and after. Before, they lived in an up and coming Perth suburb, a newly minted couple determined to meet the mortgage payments every month, working hard and excited about their future. A visit from the police ended all that. Norm pleaded guilty to causing death by drink driving and was sent to prison. By the time he came out, they’d lost their chance to have children. Early menopause, the doctors said. She and Norm never talked about it.
Norm was stronger when he came out of prison. He’d spent the years working out and keeping fit, but he was smaller. His shoulders rounded with humiliation and he couldn’t meet anyone’s eye. When they saw the lease on the roadhouse up for sale, they sold their house in Perth and washed up here. Erin never imagined their new start would also be the ending. Now she frowned at her reflection, at the pale creases fanning her brown skin and the pause button etched between her eyes. In Perth, she had her hair done every week. Here, she grew it long and sawed four inches off the end of her plait when it started to annoy her.
‘When I win that competition, I’m going to have my hair done,’ she vowed to herself. ‘Get it cut and highlighted and blow-dried.’
She thought of her new hair, glossy and bouncing against her jaw as she and Norm explored Paris together, holding hands and laughing. Starting again. Again.
For a few weeks, the roadhouse bustled with tourists and retired couples in campervans, and even a coach load of Japanese who spent the time taking photos of each other in the car park. Erin had forgotten the competition until she saw the envelope lurking in the roadside fridge. She tore it open with her thumb, scanned the letter, and squealed.
‘Norm! Look at this.’ She hurtled into the petrol kiosk. The TV chuntered away in the background. She thrust the letter at him, gabbling. ‘We could stay on, go to Italy and Spain, maybe Norway, see the fjords…’
‘With what? You need money for these trips,’ Norm said.
‘So? What have we had to spend our money on all this time?’
‘Your catalogues for a start.’
Erin tweaked the neck of her t-shirt. ‘Ten dollars for two. Sneakers—seven bucks a pair. Pants—twenty-five bucks.’
Norm hunched like a beetle about to be squashed underfoot. The look on his face was the same one he wore when the judge sentenced him; the same cowed, frightened look as the day he stepped out of the prison gate.
‘I’m fifty next summer, Norm,’ Erin said. ‘I’d like to see Europe. It’d be fun to go away together, just you and me. Start something new.’
Norm turned away.
‘Don’t you want to come?’ When he didn’t answer, Erin shouted, ‘Fine! You stay here. I’ll go on my own.’
She stumped outside and fossicked out the litter that was wedged into the frame of the picnic tables. Some prawn had rammed a can in there. The cat’s pee tang of acacia blossom cut the air. Skunk, that’s what the Americans always said. I can smell skunk. Nearby, the budgerigars squeaked in their cage. One was dead in the sawdust on the bottom. Erin opened the door and picked up the crumpled feathers. The other birds eyed her.
‘Come on! Door’s open! Take your chance!’ she cried, flapping her hands at them, mustering them towards the open door. They swerved away and huddled in the far corner. Erin chased them round for a few moments, then fastened the door on them, leaning against the cage as a sob welled in her throat. A snatch of TV jingle wafted across the forecourt. She imagined Norm in there, his eyes never leaving the screen.
She glanced back in the cage. The budgies were pecking at the seed on the bottom, chirruping at each other. One was jabbing at the wire mesh with his beak.
‘You had your chance,’ she said, then went inside, took out the letter saying she’d won the holiday to Paris, and ripped it to shreds.
The shadows were long purple bruises across the scrub by the time Norm left his kiosk. Erin sat at the picnic table, a cup of cold coffee clamped in her hands, staring at the evening star on the horizon.
‘Busy day, huh?’ Norm said.
‘Yep. Good takings, though,’ Erin answered.
A long silence swelled between them. Eventually Norm said, ‘About your trip. Maybe one day, eh?’
‘Sure,’ she said. ‘Some day.’
‘Get you another coffee, darl?’
She clambered up from the table, went to the bedroom and took down the box with the clippers in. She plugged them in and held the blades to her temples, feeling the buzz shimmy through her skull as the long strands fell in dusty puddles at her feet. It was time for a change.
KIM FLEET is the author of four novels: Sacred Site, Featherfoot, Paternoster and Holy Blood. Her website is kimfleet.com