Type
Fiction
Category
Fiction

Smoke road

There’s a huddle of garden gnomes on the gravel strip outside the roadhouse. A huge hand-painted red sign advertises: Sale: Nomes. 2 for 1. Sandy hauls the heavy steering to the right and shudders the Holden off the red dirt highway. Maybe they’ll have urns.

It’s midday but she doesn’t need fuel or food, not yet, so she pulls up just outside the window of the pre-fab hotbox that houses the sole cashier, presumably the procurer of the nomes, and yanks the handbrake up. Through the dusty perspex she can see the roadhouse woman peering back at her as she opens her car door. A blast of fiery heat shocks her so ferociously that she has to quickly pull it shut again.

The woman raises the sliding window, enough to speak audibly without admitting heat. Her once white singlet has yellowy sweat stains under the armpits and along the crease where her two flat bosoms meet the cloth. She bats a fly away from her mouth. Her skin is sun-weathered red and her chest, Sandy notes, looks scarred.

‘You want fuel?’

Sandy winds her window down a crack.

‘I was wondering if you had urns?’ She gestures towards the gnomes, as if this explains things.

The woman checks Sandy out slowly. Sandy is used to this, but also thinks they are not so different, the two of them. Though the hotbox woman is skinny and Sandy is not. Her own more voluminous bosoms droop and sweat under her T-shirt and more sweat drips in between the rolls of fat around her waist and under her arms on her burnished, not red, skin. She’s used to people staring.

The woman is looking like she doesn’t know what to say, because it’s obvious, of course, why would she have an urn for sale out here a hundred kilometres from the nearest town? But maybe whoever got the lot of nomes might have got a lot of urns. The station sells sunglasses and packs of white-wrappered cigarettes with urgent black warnings, Golden North giant twin ice creams, jelly snakes and hot dogs. The woman has a pile of nomes for sale but no, she doesn’t have an urn.

‘Why would you want an urn, love?’ the woman says.

‘It’s for my cat.’

‘Ah,’ the woman says, nodding. ‘Is your…cat, um, with you there?’

Sandy laughs at this, and it feels good to laugh, after such a time.

‘No, he’s back home. In another urn, actually. But I need a replacement urn that looks just the same. Ideally.’ Sandy knows this is even more unlikely but then again, where she bought it back in Temba, there wasn’t a great deal of choice in urns, so maybe there was a lot of urns, just like the one that holds Smokey’s ashes, distributed all across the country.

‘I had a cat once. Lucky,’ the woman says, leaning one bony elbow on the ledge just under the sliding window. ‘I never got her ashes back. I guess you could use a vase, say, we might have one of those out the back.’

‘No, it’s okay, I just wondered, I need to be going,’ Sandy says. ‘Thank you, anyway.’

‘Right you are then, sorry about that, love.’

Sandy pulls back onto the road. It was worth a try. Her phone on the dashboard beeps at her, probably low on charge, not sure there’ll be enough to get her to Willamoo. She checks it anyway, one hand on the steering wheel. The screen is black. She throws it back on the dash.
As if protesting such treatment, the phone makes a pathetic vibration sound. Someone is trying to call.

Sandy grabs it again and tries to press the answer button, one-handed. No cars are coming the other way, anyway, as her hand slips on the steering. The screen lights up ‘private number’ briefly.

‘Hello,’ she says.

‘Hello – is that you, Sandy, it’s…’ SILENCE, crackle crackle. The phone cuts out, then back in again. ‘…dering if you are okay…’ SILENCE, crackle crackle.

Sandy struggles to place the voice. It’s a kind voice, so that narrows it to one of…three…four people?

But couldn’t be any of her friends; it wouldn’t say ‘private number’.

The voice comes in and out of range, punctuated sentences drift across. ‘worried about you…call the RESPECT number? …get your neighbour…’

The line deadens. That’s it. No signal. Or maybe the charge…? She’s going to have to pull over to check.

If only she had remembered the USB cord; she has a portable charger, somewhere in her bag. That could have been handy. But she’d left in such a hurry.

Maybe she could buy one of those cords from the woman back at the service station? Maybe the woman might have a charger and might just let her use the power point and she could sit for thirty minutes while it charged up.

Sandy makes a U turn and rumbles slowly back to the roadhouse. Slowly, because she’s not sure it’s really the right decision, to waste the time right now.

‘No worries, love, you can let it sit here for as long as it takes,’ the woman, whose name she has established is Leonie, offers. She’s admitted Sandy into her hotbox, swishing her in as quickly as she could, not much room in the pre-fab, and Sandy takes up a fair bit of it. Leonie closes the door quickly behind her. ‘If you don’t pass out in this heat. I reckon you better not wait in the car, or you’ll be needing an urn for yourself,’ she quips. ‘And I don’t have any, remember?’

Sandy takes two bottles of water from the small fridge, spills some coins onto the counter and goes outside again quickly so she can douse herself completely with one of them. The iced water turns lukewarm as it streams down her body. She re-enters the hotbox, where Leonie has helpfully plugged her phone into a charger cord and the wall socket.

Within a few minutes the phone beeps again. It can’t have been that dead.

‘Here, are you expecting a message? Do you want to check it, or leave it charging?’

‘Just from my daughter,’ Sandy says, not completely truthfully. She is expecting messages, yes, a barrage of them. ‘Don’t worry, leave it. It’s not going to be urgent.’

Leonie feigns lack of interest but Sandy notes her sneaking an inquisitive glance at the phone. She watches the expression on Leonie’s face as it charges. For the first time Sandy notices little circular scars on Leonie’s chest. A few on the tops of her arms. Burn marks.

‘Here, give it to me now, that’ll be fine,’ Sandy says, before Leonie might say anything. ‘I just want to have enough charge to get a message from my daughter.’ She’s in a hurry, suddenly, to be back on the road. It’s too small and too stuffy in here; at least the car has a fan. ‘Thank you. That’s really nice of you.’

‘As you like, love. Where are you headed? Do you have enough fuel?’ Leonie has crinkled skin, especially crinkled around her eyes.
‘Willamoo. I might just top up a little.’

‘Wouldn’t want to be caught out in this weather.’

Leonie steps out to help Sandy fuel up, probably not the normal practice, especially given the Celsius.

Sandy thanks her again, and starts up the car, mainly for the fan which blows only hot air. She sits a moment, checking for a text message from Lucie. Nothing. But also, no threats from him about smashing the urn. Good. She has to filter through all the ‘fuck you bitch’ and ‘your a fat slut’ before she gets to an automated one from voicemail.

No number left a voicemail. Please call 101 to access your messages.’

Does she have enough charge to call?

Just quickly then.

She turns off the engine and the hot fan to listen to the message, though it comes through patchily.

‘Katy… from…(fuzzy sounds…) Assistance in…glad … from you. … text or call …1800….’

She can’t waste the charge calling the counsellor from Regional and Remote Women’s Assistance now. Katy can’t help, anyway. Not really. The kind counsellor, and the Respect line, they all tell her help is at hand, but what they don’t understand is her shame. That she’s put up with it for this long; they would all think her so stupid.

She’s startled by a rap on her window. Leonie is washing her windscreen, sludging soapy water over the screen. The foam has turned red. Leonie sluices over dirt-browny coloured water, which makes the screen as dirty or dirtier and certainly redder than it was before.
It’s way too hot to be out there.

Leonie flashes her an uncertain smile, as if half expecting her to be mad. Sandy gives her a half smile back to let her know it’s okay about the windscreen. Maybe Leonie knows what it’s like.

Leonie comes around to the side of the car and taps gently on the window. She walks stiffly, as if she has a sore hip. Or has been injured.
Sandy winds the window down a little, slowly.

‘Love, is he likely to come after you?’

Despite herself, Sandy lowers her head a little. He could, yes, but she knows, also, that he couldn’t be arsed. He’ll only be bothered to work himself up to full bore if the target is right there, in front of his cowardly, hateful face.

‘No, it’s okay.’

Leonie doesn’t seem convinced. ‘Do you want me to call the police?’

Sandy half smiles, not through relief, but resignation. No, she’d never call the police. What she’s done and it’s worked to date has simply been to go into the other room with her headphones on so she can’t hear him. If she kept still, said nothing, then nothing more would usually happen, he’s too piss-weak. Until the day he threatened to smash the urn with Smokey’s ashes, because she wanted to go out, for once, by herself.

‘I just want to get Smokey’s ashes. The only thing I can think of is to replace the urn so if he smashes it, they won’t be his real ashes.’

Leonie doesn’t blink or smile or show any expression at all. ‘Have you got a neighbour’s number, love?’

Sandy hesitates. Maybe Carol would understand. Carol might figure out a way to do it. But she doesn’t have Carol’s number. ‘I know the woman who runs the Corner Café in Temba.’ It would save Sandy having to return. There might still be the same urn at the supermarket, or maybe he wouldn’t even notice if it was a bit different. Carol would figure it out.

She reaches down for her bag and fossicks through for a scrap of paper and a pen.

‘Here’s her name.’ She hands Leonie a screwed-up supermarket docket. ‘Carol…the Corner Café. Maybe you could try. If you get her, tell her…tell her…to get Smokey. That she can probably find the same urn at the supermarket. And to keep them safe…or…’

‘Does she know where the key is, love?’

‘Um…it will be open, I reckon.’

Leonie pushes the docket back to Sandy. ‘Write your number too, so I can let you know. So we can get them to you, somehow.’

She’s embarrassed to thank Leonie. The woman takes the docket silently and thumps on the car as she turns to march, again, so stiffly, towards her hotbox. She doesn’t look back, which is good because Sandy doesn’t want her to see eyes brimming up with tears and in fact here are a few right now sloshing down her cheeks.

She beeps her horn quickly as she pulls onto the red dirt road, changing gear with a confidence that doesn’t quite fit with how she’s feeling. But there’s a sense of relief, too, that she doesn’t have to go back. Doesn’t ever have to go back.

The phone beeps again on the dashboard. It will be him. She keeps driving. Drives for a good twenty minutes before figuring there hasn’t been a volley of messages, so maybe it just might be from Lucie.

The screen is about to go black again, but before it does, she catches enough of Lucie’s message to know she can keep on driving all afternoon and all night if she needs to.

‘Hi Mum. Tried to call. Where are you? Sorry it’s been so long. Love you.’

 

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Jane Turner Goldsmith's first novel Poinciana was shortlisted for a Commonwealth Prize in 2007. She has also published a junior novel and edited a non-fiction anthology of adoption stories. Jane has had short stories, poetry, flash pieces and articles published, both print and online. She works as a psychologist in workplace counselling and is embarking on a new novel-in-stories about essential workers for her creative writing PhD at the University of Adelaide.

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