Fiction

The colour of kerosene

IT HAD FELT wrong from the moment he'd picked up the fare outside the hotel on Marine Terrace.

‘Turn here,' the man said.

They drove on, almost to the end of Rifle Range Road. ‘That's the one,' said the man, pointing to a weatherboard Housing Commission home with a dying wattle tree out the front.

‘Didn't know you could kill them,' said Luke.

The man didn't answer. He hadn't said much since talking Luke into the job ten minutes earlier: a three hundred kilometre trip to the east, to a station. The promise of a $600 fare and a tank of free diesel when he got there was too good to pass up. Luke could use the money.

The man wound down his window, leaned a meaty arm across Luke and depressed the horn two, three times.

‘Jess!' he shouted.

They waited. The front door opened and a woman appeared. Her dress was shapeless but for the slightest hint of hips as she came down the steps. A still-pretty face, dirty blonde hair, meagre breasts. She walked up to the car and Luke could see that she had the same unnaturally translucent blue eyes as the man.

‘Where's Annabel?' asked the man.

‘Inside. She's coming.' She stood beside his door, passing a Coke bag from hand to hand.

‘Pete, are you sure I should come?'

‘Get in,' Pete said, nodding towards the back seat.

She opened the back door and climbed in.

 

ANNABEL LOOKED A couple of years older than Jess, in her late twenties perhaps. Smooth, brown skin and lots of it. They headed east, the nude hills of the Geraldton plains, stripped of their trees a century before, leaning into them on both sides as the car climbed into the marginal country. Behind him, Luke heard the gurgle of fluid sluicing out of a bladder and into a cup, smelt the sweet stink of cheap wine.

‘Jess, you get to meet the Greek,' said Pete.

Annabel laughed - a gurgling, resonant chuckle. For Luke, it was hard to hear that laugh and not think of her body and how it must look, feel and smell.

 

FIFTY MINUTES LATER, approaching Mullewa, Pete leaned over, his breath sour and hot on Luke's face.

‘How's ya' fuel?'

Luke looked at the gauge. ‘About a third,' he said. ‘Should I get some here?'

‘Na. We'll make it. Two hundred clicks to go. You can fill up there. Take all ya' want.'

The Railway Hotel on their left, worn-out rolling stock on their right, a church, dusty roads lined with ugly cottages, their yards defeated by drought, a petrol station. Not a soul in sight. By the time they'd reached the eighty kilometre sign on the outskirts of town, Luke was doing a hundred and ten.

Pete fiddled with the glovebox, opened it. Luke, turning to him as a road train blasted past on his right, tried to make a point of holding his gaze.

‘Hey! What's this?' said Pete, rummaging among Luke's rego papers and petrol receipts. ‘Didn't know you were packin' heat.' He laughed, holding the little blue gun that Luke's nephew had left there the week before.

‘Put it back,' said Luke.

‘Spray me,' said Annabel, gurgling. A sound like water going to waste.

‘I'll piss in it at the next stop,' said Pete. He rested his hand on the dash, pointing the water pistol at a Landcruiser rushing towards them. His arms were brown, scarred, his forearms as thick as pythons - not the defined, neat muscles of the gym; they were arms you got from working outside, straining fences, hoisting bales of hay, holding an animal still while someone else went to work on its horns, teeth or balls.

We're not stopping, thought Luke, eyes on the odometer, willing it to tick over, conscious of the needle on the fuel gauge falling backwards. An hour later, the car full of cigarette smoke, he pulled up at a truck-stop. Pete belched, opened his door and got out. He stood in front of the car, his back to them, pissing. Luke resisted the temptation to throw the car into reverse and roar away. They were now closer to the station than to Mullewa, and he wasn't sure he'd make it. Luke turned to look at the girls.

‘Anyone else?' he asked.

Annabel looked out the window. Flat land all around, the car hemmed in by scrubby bushland as if the world ended at fifty paces in each direction. Jess groaned.

‘You okay?' Luke asked.

She shook her head, fumbled with the handle, opened the door, leaned out and vomited loudly on to the ground. Luke got out. Pete was throwing rocks at the rest area sign, thirty metres away.

‘She's always been like that,' he said over his shoulder, ‘since she was a kid.' The sound of rock hitting metal and he shouted, triumphant. Luke poured water into Jess's cupped hands from a plastic milk carton and she spat, then brought her hands up to her face, rinsed, then spat again.

 

'NOT FAR NOW,' said Pete.

Ahead, the road veered to the left. The day was easing into dusk and the scrub racing by was softened by shadows, its upper foliage picked out here and there in gold. A forty-four-gallon drum marked the turn-off to the station. Luke concentrated, keeping his wheels out of the deep ruts that scored the track. It looked like it hadn't been graded for years. He kept driving, through one open gate, then another, then past a row of dark, misshapen pines that, more than anything yet, he 
found worrisome. Then a homestead, dead ahead, squatting sullenly in the gloom, its 
veranda sagging. He opened the windows to the smell of pine, sheep and smoke. Somewhere, a fire was going. The needle on the fuel gauge didn't even move when he turned off the engine.

The Greek was skinny, with a beer belly. Late forties, face and nose reddened by booze and sun. He emerged from the side of the homestead. The girls and Pete got out. Luke stayed where he was, keys in the ignition. Pete said something to the Greek, and he spoke back softly - too softly for Luke to hear. Pete came round to Luke's side of the car and leaned on it.

‘Pump's locked.'

‘Locked?'

‘Yeah. We're gonna have to wait for Frank.'

‘Who the fuck is Frank?' said Luke, fighting to keep the thin vein of panic rising in his body from coming out his mouth.

‘Manager. Got the key. Should be back in a coupla hours.'

‘A couple of hours?'

‘Gonna have to wait.'

THE FIVE OF them sat on the veranda, cards in hand, the light from a pair of battered hurricane lamps spilling around and leaking into the night. The Greek was organised. He had a box of casino chips - everything from ones to fifties - a brand new pack of cards, a slab of beer beside him. Luke hadn't wanted to play.

‘Might as well,' suggested Pete. ‘Fuck all else to do.'

It was clear, without being said, that his $600 fare was also linked to Frank's arrival. Luke cashed in the $25 he had left in his wallet and took his first hand of poker. Jacks and threes and he won $15 with the Greek seeing him with a pair of kings. Luke soon had $60 in chips in front of him and he relaxed a little, took the beer that the Greek offered. The girls stopped playing.

‘Jess,' said Pete, nodding his head towards the front door. ‘Get us somethin' to eat will ya?'

She shuffled off, and came back a minute later with a bowl of beer nuts and a bowl of chips. The game changed to blackjack and somewhere around his third beer, Luke realised he wouldn't be driving anywhere that night even if Frank turned up. He sighed, sat nodding softly to himself, a jack and a nine on the floorboards in front of him. He had $25 riding on it, Pete had bust and the Greek, the banker, had a queen and a seven.

‘Might as well go for it,' said Pete, and the Greek smiled and his red face glowed and he turned over the three of clubs. That was the start of a bad run for Luke. By the time he'd finished his fifth beer, Annabel was writing down his borrowings. She did it on Jess's calf, with a biro. By midnight, there was a ‘50' with a line through it, a ‘100' above it with the same treatment, and above that a ‘150'.

‘That's it,' said Luke, swaying slightly as he got up. ‘That's a hundred and fifty I haven't got. I'm goin' to bed.'

In the weird, piney darkness he got the picnic blanket from the boot and climbed into his car. He put the little blue gun carefully back in the glovebox, thinking of his sister, Claudia, and their plan - long shelved - to run a bookshop in Geraldton. Thirty-odd thousand people and no proper bookshop. Maybe there was a reason for that. He laughed. He made sure each door was locked, then reclined his seat and draped the blanket over his chest. At one point he woke up, hearing someone shout. He wound down his window a notch, heard Jess's voice, pleading, ‘I couldn't do nothin' about it'. He wound the window back up.

 

HE WAS THE first one up. He went for a walk, past the pines and towards a small rise to the west. Stunted eucalypts all around him. Luke remembered the first time he'd seen this landscape, how he thought that they must all be young trees, saplings. ‘Where are the old trees?' he'd asked his dad as they drove east into the scrub on a disastrous family ‘holiday'.

His dad had camped them beside a murky, mosquito-infested waterhole and had spent three days criss-crossing the ground with a hired metal detector, searching for gold, finding nothing but the bottle-tops and ring-pulls left by the campers before them. On the fourth morning, on seeing her third ‘holiday' snake, as she called them, Luke's mum had shut them all up in the car and tooted the horn until his father, grubby with dirt and frustration, had relented and packed up his gear.

Walking back to the homestead, Luke found the diesel pump near the first gate, behind a water tank. The padlock's shackle was as thick as his finger. He kept walking.

Jess was on the veranda, her head sticking out of a bundle of blankets. Her face tried a smile, gave up and fell back on itself. He stood in front of the veranda. Her eyes were the colour of kerosene. He couldn't hold her stare.

ater, the men came out with plates of bacon and sausage. Jess cooked some for Luke and he sat there with them.

‘He'll be here soon,' said Pete.

Luke said nothing, ate everything on his plate and then put it down beside him on the veranda. He watched as the Greek got the cards out again, cut them, shuffled and placed two cards in front of him, picture-side up.

‘Double or nuttin'?' asked the Greek. Luke knew this game, In-Betweens or Stupid, as it was sometimes called. It was one of the simplest games.

‘Okay,' said Luke. It was a generous offer. He had a king and a four in front of him and had just been offered double or nothing on one hundred and fifty dollars that the next card the Greek turned up would land between them. But the Greek drew the four of hearts. He shook his head. ‘Your luck will change,' he said, dealing him another hand. This one was even better. A king and a two. Luke looked at him.

‘Okay,' said the Greek. ‘Hey, we like you. You're a good boy. Same as last time? Double or nuttin'?

Anything other than an ace, a two, or a king and his debt would dissolve and they'd still owe him the fare. Luke nodded. When the Greek turned over the two of spades, it was like everything in his life had been building towards that one moment in time and he just kept nodding.

‘Looks like we're just about square,' said the Greek. He wouldn't look at Luke, and Luke could see Pete out of the corner of his eye, grinning. Annabel stifled a laugh. Luke got up from the veranda and walked over to his car and then just stood there, leaning against the driver's door.

IN THE LATE afternoon, sitting in his car, he felt something drop into his lap. He looked up. Jess's dirty blonde hair and tired face peered over his right shoulder.

‘I'm coming with you,' she said.

He looked down. There was a key in his lap.

‘I seen them both go out the back, down to the dump. I dunno what they're doin'.'

Luke sat there. He had the vague feeling that he was being set up.

‘I seen them go,' said Jess, a note of urgency in her voice.

They pushed the car over to the pump. Jess filled it as Luke sat in his seat, fingering his keys. She jumped in next to him. The car exploded into life and Luke gunned it, dust pouring out behind. He pointed it at the track, nearly hit the gate, and then they were through.

‘Those boys are too screwed up,' said Jess when they were clear of the station. ‘Didn't let me sleep hardly at all last night.'

‘Who's with who?' asked Luke.

Jess shrugged. ‘Don't ‘fink it matters. Pete says for men it's like lancing a boil or somefink,' she said. She moved in her seat, adjusting her skirt. ‘Says you gotta' get the poison out before it drives ya' crazy. Says he's gotta' do it every day.'

Luke looked at her legs, looked back at the track.

‘He'd prob'ly do it with the Greek,' Jess said. ‘If there was no one else around.'

‘He's your brother?'

‘Step,' she said. ‘Same mum. Different dad. But mine didn't hang around either. Mum never had no luck wiv' men.'

‘Where's Frank?' Luke asked as they turned onto the main highway.

‘Frank's dead.'

Luke nodded, humming a tune to the sound of the wind rushing by. She started telling him how she'd been abused by her stepfather, a fisherman her mother had taken up with after her own father had wandered off.

‘I'm sorry,' said Luke. ‘I don't want to hear that.'

‘Saved your life,' she said. ‘You owe me.'

She stretched out her hand and rested it lightly on his thigh. Her left leg was turned towards him, resting on her right knee. He could see the ‘50', the ‘100' and the ‘150' of his debt written on her leg. His mother's ‘holiday' snakes suddenly came to mind and he laughed out loud. The low, ugly trees whipped by the window. Luke knew he'd have to stop the car soon; relieve himself. Where he was headed was endless glare and haze. The road curved and then straightened out, lancing towards the sun.

 

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