Runner-up, Neilma Sidney Prize: East west tiger

The ride into town was downhill. This meant he had six kilometres of uphill to get home after work. But if he didn’t think about the hell of going home, going in was awesome. He always tried to leave before Dad was up which was easy as given Dad’s usual state. He could free wheel all the way, but he pedalled hard anyway. Sometimes you really want to get where you’re going. Then you’re drinking speed. You’re a crushed spring being released.

Everything began to change as soon as he turned onto the limestone main road. He started to hear and see beauty again. The birds all waking up squeaking like gates, roos in the paddocks not even noticing as he sailed past, the sun still down but its light coming, merging with his jiggling headlight beam on the white stone. Each pedal stroke building him stronger. By the time he got to work he’d have been awake for over an hour and not spoken to anyone.

Then if the good luck continued and it usually did Aarav wouldn’t be in and he’d get to open the servo himself. Oh that trust. His own keys!

‘Acting manager,’ Aarav called him.

First he took the padlocks off the bowsers and flicked the big loop switch. The pumps clunked and started to hum. Then he opened up the shop, watching the glassy lights blaze their welcome to travellers on the east west highway. Click switches, unlock, stride around the concrete forecourt checking the litre counter of each bowser then hold the big yellow log book against his leg and slide the pen into the special slot for it in the East West Tiger shirt pocket and give it a pat, job done, all ship-shape. He’d stand there at the edge of the forecourt looking over the strip of lawn that separated the servo from the highway. In the middle of the lawn the granite cairn Sai had built for her lost baby. Twelve flat pink stones, one for each week they said it had lived inside her.

He’d stand there hands on hips, boots on concrete, blue East West Tiger shirt, with the Bengal Tiger logo. He liked to run his fingers over the orange and black cat. Below it his name in swirling gold letters – Steven – not Dopey or Knucklehead or Useless. He felt like something when he traced the bumpy letters, could feel Sai forming his name meaningful and proud, the chatter of her sewing machine as she sat at one of the little brown dining room tables and sometimes he saw her wipe her eyes as he passed by out on the forecourt and sometimes she looked so peaceful. The tiger logo and his name were imperfect, and perfect. The company had three shirts like this; one for Aarav, Sai and him. Sai had stopped wearing hers when her belly had got too big. Twenty-five weeks now they whispered, like they were praying or not wanting to jinx it, and the peaceful look growing.

Each shirt was blue cotton twill with a tiger slightly different, individual, not stamped out in a factory. He loved his shirt and the almost matching Yakka strides and Rossi boots he’d bought at Bird’s where Mum used to work. Kind Bird smiling at him shopping for work gear with his own money.

‘God bless, Stevie,’ Bird had said, holding his hand for ages as if he was about to head off on a walk across the Simpson Desert. Then the old man pressing his money into the plastic bag. He washed and ironed his uniform himself at home. When home look busy, or better still don’t be home.

After everything was switched on he liked to stand by the granite cairn and wonder at the world passing through all this space. Everyone on a journey to somewhere they wanted to go. Or had to. A sunlit jet trail with the shiny blink of a plane load of people at its head. A road train carrying complicated mining machinery or a massive tractor bound for Western Australia, gigantic tyres lugged over the edges of the tray. A grey nomad house on wheels. He liked it when heads turned and they saw him, and he’d give an important nod of G’day I’m the acting manager, got everything under control, if you need anything here I am. And sometimes they’d nod back or wave.  And sometimes they stared straight ahead like nothing mattered but where they were going.

This morning the first car that came in was a maroon Holden Commodore. Two adults, a teenage girl about his age in a bright lime tank top, and two little kids piled out. He’d seen them a few times before. They were all laughing and carrying on and the littlies started playing chasey around the forecourt.

‘Top day, eh?’ said the father as he started to fill up. The mother and the teenage girl went into the shop. The little kids ran in after them making a crowd. This freaked him out. He was only one pair of eyes and he’d been done by shoplifters just yesterday morning.

It had been a family in a metallic gold Landcruiser, all wearing surf clothes with bright logo swirls, the mother taking her time over whether to use EFTPOS or some of the wad of cash he saw in her purse and going on about how far it was from anywhere out here the distances are amazing what is there to do and where do you turn off to see the whales at the Bight, and two tweens in matching Roxy jackets swaggering around the shop texting and giggling. As they got in the Landcruiser he had a bad feeling about why you’d be wearing jackets this time of year. When he checked the racks of lollies and chewies looked light on. He was ropable. He ran out to the highway and gazed down it to the west in case they’d turned into the town or stopped at the granite Farmers’ Monument but nothing. He’d not known what to do. Tell Aarav? Aarav would go, ‘That is no good Stevie, but not to worry.’ But it would still be a shame job. Aarav might think he didn’t have a handle on everything. Still, the right thing to do was fess up so when Aarav came in he’d thought I’ll tell him now but he still hadn’t.

Now this rowdy mob was in the shop. The girl stood at the rack of chips looking at the screen of her mobile and at him. She gave a little nod at him behind the counter, a look of How you goin? Seen you round. He tried his best acting manager’s look of I’m watching you so don’t even think about pinching anything. Turquoise light from her phone screen or maybe the sour cream and chives chip packets bathed her face and neck and he felt like one of the bowsers being switched on in the morning, clunking and humming.

‘Have you got any hot food Steven?’ The mum said.

‘Huh? No, sorry I’ve just opened up.’

‘No worries. Kids grab an ice cream and a drink. It’s getting hot out there.’ The little kids got a Bubble O’ Bill and a can of drink each from the fridge. The girl didn’t want anything and she went to the door, turned and caught his gaze before he could pretend not to be looking and smiled. His mouth opened and he forced it shut again feeling dopey just like Dad said he was. The bloke came in pulled out a credit card and pay waved everything.

‘Thanks mate,’ he said.

‘You’re welcome Sir.’ Stevie opened the counter flap and went out into the shop as the mum chased the little kids towards the door. He had a quick look at the lollies and chocolate bar display. It was hard to do in a hurry before they got away and without them noticing he was checking up on them. But everything was right as. He strolled out onto the forecourt as they got in the Holden and the girl wound down the back window. The tips of her fingers came up over the door sill and formed into a little wave. His arm came up and sort of moved in a stunned Thunderbirds way. As the car drove out she stuck her head through the window, smiled and called out something, her dark hair wind splashing the maroon metal. He stood there trying to catch what she said, but the words got blown to bits before they reached him. Sometimes there’s just too much distance.

He went back inside and turned on the food equipment. He put on plastic gloves and stocked the Bain Marie with Chiko Rolls and chips, and the warmer with pies, pasties and sausage rolls. He set up the coffee machine, the caramel tang of beans shining and rattling into the hopper and he thought, I’m something here. A rumble came along the highway from the west. Two Harley Davidsons turned in. Stevie watched them through the windows. The riders took off black open face helmets, shook and scratched their heads. One was a stocky young bloke with worked out shoulders dark stubble and the glare of someone who had been riding behind a road train full of cattle. The other had a browny grey beard and it was like they were the scowl gang. The younger one came in and paid for their petrol with cash and grunts and a smell like they’d diverted into the pub on their way through town. As he was about to go out he turned with his hand on the half opened door.

‘Hey pimples, yousell motorbikoil in this dump?’

‘Yes Sir. The engine oils are there on your left. We have a full range.’

The bikie went over to the shelf. ‘Which one’s the best?’

‘The Castrol Racing, fully synthetic. Costs a lot but anyway you don’t need that quality for a Harley.’

The bloke held up the grey plastic bottle of Castrol Racing, his forehead crinkling, working out the insult.

‘Owma chisit?’

‘Thirty for one litre.’

‘Thirty? Fucksake. I only needa top up.’

The bloke kicked open the door carrying the bottle. Stevie went out, touched the Bengal Tiger on his breast, tried to breathe the tremor from his throat, forced his acting manager legs to take him over to where the man was kneeled at his engine, pouring in the oil. The older scowler sat on his Harley smoking a cigarette next to the NO SMOKING sign on the steel pylon.

‘Sorry no smoking Sir,’ Stevie said. The bloke took another drag and stared right through him. Stevie felt his thigh bones shrink into pathetic twigs. The young guy screwed his oil filler cap back on, stood up and shoved the bottle into Stevie’s hand. It was light, empty. ‘Let’s get out of this shithole,’ he said to his mate and slipped on his helmet and got on the Harley. The older one ground his cigarette into the NO SMOKING sign and put on his helmet.

‘Sir. The oil. Thirty dollars please.’

‘Fuckoff pimples. I only usedabit.’ Their engines shouted around the forecourt and Stevie grabbed the leather jacket.

‘You’ve got to pay!’

The bikes were a rumble fading east by the time he picked himself up off the concrete, cheek stinging where the bloke’s fist had connected.

‘I’ll knock your block off Dopey! Fucking useless pricks,’ he yelled at the highway, using Dad’s words. He’d worked hard not to turn into Dad but some things make you forget.

‘Don’t turn into your father, Stevie,’ Mum had said. He was going to tell her he wouldn’t, sitting there holding her hand listening to the hum of some machine connected to her.

‘You’re a kind soft boy and you’ll be a good man Stevie. Stay kind but not too soft okay?’ she said. After that he couldn’t speak with his insides all melted. Words and sentences all melted. And then it was too late.

He went inside, sat on the stool behind the counter, put his palms on his thighs and felt the shiver subside, the bones grow back. He wanted to be a good man but he wondered if he could postpone that a bit and get a gun. Those bikies might come back and he’d get the thirty dollars. Dad had three guns. He’d had nine before the Port Arthur massacre and John Howard made him give six of them up. ‘That was before you were born Stevie,’ Mum had told him. Dad liked shooting things. Dad said he’d shoot that knucklehead John Howard if he ever saw him.

‘Boo!’ He nearly fell off the stool. Aarav pushed him on the shoulder. ‘Ha ha got you.’

Stevie shook his head. ‘Don’t do that Aarav.’

‘What happened to your face Stevie?’

‘I dunno. Yeah. No. A coupla bikies. They stole some oil. I tried to stop them.’

‘For a second I thought your father… Sorry Stevie. I should not let you open on your own.’

Stevie realised his mistake. ‘I’m fine,’ he said. ‘They only got a litre. Won’t ever happen again. I’ll pay for it.’

‘I am not worried about a bit of oil Stevie. Do you want to go home? A hot day coming and you have got to ride that bike? Take a can of Coke? No, I will run you home in the ute when Sai comes in.’

‘I don’t want to go home.’

‘Well, actually I have some things to pick up so I might dash off for an hour?’ Aarav’s hour was usually three or four. He and Sai had got the abandoned Golden Fleece going again from nothing and he was flat out trying to stop Sai doing too much this time. Which was fine with Stevie. Aarav looked at his watch. ‘Sai will be in later. I will be back soon too. You will be alright?’

‘Easy as, Aarav.

‘Where would we be without you Stevie?’

When Sai came in through the back he was sweeping up lines of limestone dust left by the wheels of a farmer’s tray-top. She called and waved him to come inside. When he did she reached out and touched his bruised cheek with the cool back of her fingers. ‘Is your father hitting you again Stevie? I shall telephone the policeman at once,’ she said.

‘What? No!’ But he couldn’t tell her about the bikie. She’d have a go at Aarav for understaffing. The last thing he wanted was to be nothing here. A dopey useless knucklead.

‘You will tell me?’ Last weekend he’d seen her stand in the doorway when a pissed local tried to slip out with a packet of chips he’d grabbed on his way to the door. In a flash she was blocking the huge swaying figure.  ‘I shall telephone your mother,’ she’d said firmly, shaming him, hands resting on her belly, her face with the same deadly calm expression as the tiger on Stevie’s breast.  The bloke had put the chips back and apologised.

‘Yes, I’d tell you if it was that Sai. But it wasn’t.’

‘Have you had anything to eat at all today? Breakfast?’

‘Not hungry.’

She took his hand and towed him to one of the dining room tables. After a while she brought him a huge sandwich with green bits sticking out of it and a cup of Assam tea.

‘Do not move until you have finished,’ she said. Then she went out, walked across the forecourt and stood by the granite cairn watching Aarav’s old ute come down the highway from the town.

Aarav drove in, jumped out and didn’t even shut the door. In his hands he carried a shiny garden trowel and a big punnet of flower seedlings. He walked quickly across the forecourt to Sai, kneeled down and placed the flowers and trowel at the base of the cairn. Sai put out her hand and drew him up and into her kiss.

That night Stevie rode home with each heartbeat hammering at his cheekbone. The bike’s tyres tremored on the limestone road and sweat sucked into his shirt. He’d wash it tonight. It would dry easy as and be ready to iron before Dad woke up.

There was still a glow in the west and he thought of the maroon Commodore girl somewhere in that direction. He wondered what she’d called out to him. He’d ask her. He would. He’d be at the servo every day and when the summer school holidays were nearly finished he’d say to Aarav and Sai, ‘What if I work some nights after school and on the weekends? I’m sixteen now.’ And Aarav would argue about education and homework.

Sai would think for a moment and then she’d get it and she’d say, ‘Let us give that a go, if it doesn’t interfere with schoolwork? I shall telephone your father.’

‘No I’ll tell him.’ And he wouldn’t be lying, but maybe he’d leave that for a while or do it when Dad was too wasted to bash him. And he’d be there to acting manage when the baby was born. Flowers would bloom around the single granite cairn at the edge of the highway. And one day the girl would come in again. People did. It was the only highway east west. When she did he would unmelt the words in his guts and try to form at least one non dopey sentence before it was too late.

He pedalled uphill into the trembling headlight on the white limestone road, a pearl rolling into a dark enclosing shell. He wasn’t pedalling very hard. Sometimes you don’t want to get where you have to go.


Image: Old bike / Petras Gagilas


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John Scholz

John Scholz is a writer and teacher from South Australia’s Fleurieu Peninsula. His writing has been published in Australia and internationally. He has had success in many writing competitions including winning the SA Writers’ Festival Short Story Award twice, and the EJ Brady Award.

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