WIDE OPEN ROAD
A remote service station and its friendly proprietor are not all that they seem in Georgia Oman’s peculiar short story. Illustration by Paul Lacolley.
Nathan’s hands on the steering wheel were tanned an unfamiliar shade of brown from days of driving in the harsh February sun. His watch, when he took it off at night before going to sleep at yet another roadside motel, left a strip of white skin around his wrist the shape of a hospital ID band. At first they had tried sharing the load, carving up the journey into manageable chunks and marking their switchover points at convenient locations on the map in red pen. But on the morning of their second day, as they navigated truck traffic on the outskirts of a large mining town ringed with roundabouts and flyovers, a small kangaroo bounded out of the roadside scrub. Laura, who was driving, didn’t see it in time through the early morning lowlight. It disappeared beneath the roo bar and passed under the rear tyres with two twin thumps, Laura wincing with each one. Knuckles white on the steering wheel, the grey mound of fur in the centre of the road growing smaller and smaller in the rear vision mirror, she had continued on to the next rest stop, at which point she announced her refusal to drive any further. Leaving the car running, she removed her crumpled plastic water bottle from the driver’s side cup holder and her packet of gum from the door pocket, barely waiting for Nathan to awkwardly manoeuvre himself over the central console before sliding into his vacant seat.
Nathan now drove for hours at a time, punctuated by brief stops at roadhouses of varying decrepitude where they used echoing cement toilet blocks and paid for overpriced petrol. He watched for the names of these tiny settlements as they first appeared on the giant green signs that lined the highway, moving higher up the order each time another town flashed past the window. The length of their names seemed to grow even as their size diminished, an ever-expanding array of consonants and syllables picked out in bright white letters. The column of corresponding distances would grow incrementally smaller until a welcome sign reared up unexpectedly, followed swiftly by another thanking you for visiting.
Laura, feeling guilty in the passenger seat, overcompensated in her role as navigator. She had brought a large map that had belonged to her dad back when people still used them, one that draped over her legs like a blanket when unfurled to its full extent. The distance guide was in miles, not kilometres, and there were tears along the creases where it had been folded and refolded. At least the roads and topography were the same, she said, as she traced her finger along the bold marking of the highway snaking across the faded ochre that demarcated the desert.
‘We should make it to Moolalling by tonight,’ she said on the afternoon of the third day. ‘It looks big enough to have accommodation.’
Nathan shifted his weight to alleviate the numbness of sitting in the same position for too long. His left ankle was stiff from hovering over the clutch.
‘Is there somewhere to stop for a bit before then?’
Laura peered closer at the map.
‘There’s a service station at a place called Cunderrin, according to this.’ She leaned over his shoulder to glance at the fuel gauge. The arrow bobbed somewhere between half full and empty. ‘We might as well fill up, while we’re at it.’
Having decided on a plan, they settled back into a comfortable silence broken only by the single CD they had bought for the journey. It was playing through the sound system for the eighth time, radio reception having been lost days ago. Three more road signs flashed past before Nathan spoke again.
‘I haven’t seen any distances to Cunderrin.’
‘It’s probably too small,’ said Laura, absorbed in picking out the raisins from her fruit and nut mix. ‘We shouldn’t be far away now.’
As she spoke, the rough outline of a low-slung building became visible on the horizon.
‘That must be it,’ said Laura, craning in her seat. Nathan relaxed his foot slightly on the accelerator. A gnarled and stunted desert tree grew by the side of the road, its branches blackened by fire. Nailed to the trunk was a small sign: Welcome to Cunderrin.
There was little to be welcomed to. The sparse, scrub-covered plain stretched out indefinitely on both sides. The highway bisected the red dirt like a ribbon of black treacle, worked into the landscape by the cross-country trucks that thundered through at all hours of the day and night. Only the service station provided any evidence of human habitation, with not even a few dilapidated houses or a pub in sight to make some sort of claim to a township. A hand-painted sign, promising them friendly, courteous service and clean toilet facilities, directed them down a small turnoff away from the main highway. Nathan slowed down further as they approached.
The service station was a low-lying yellow brick building, its pitched tin roof topped by a giant Coca-Cola sign faded pastel pink with age. The windows, shaded by striped awnings, were covered in brightly coloured lettering that had begun to peel, advertising Party Ice and Car & Truck Batteries & Oils Available. A handful of petrol bowsers were shaded beneath a corrugated iron canopy. The dirt car park was empty, save for a sleek, maroon Holden straight out of the seventies. Nathan pulled up at a petrol bowser and cut the engine, relieved to get out and stretch his legs. Laura reclined in the passenger seat with her feet up on the dash, flicking through the liner notes of the CD booklet as he flipped the lever of the fuel cap and went to fill up.
‘Jesus, how old is this thing…’ he muttered, regarding the bowser.
‘What was that?’
Nathan stuck his head through the open window.
‘This thing’s only got two grades, super and standard. No premium, unleaded, whatever.’
Laura spoke without looking up from her booklet.
‘Well how much does it cost?’
Nathan’s head disappeared from sight as he checked. Laura heard him swear loudly before he reappeared again.
‘It’s under 10 cents per litre!’
Now Laura looked up.
‘That can’t be right.’
‘I’d better go inside and check,’ murmured Nathan to himself, replacing the pump.
‘I’ll come too,’ said Laura, unfolding herself from the passenger seat with the squelching sound of bare skin peeling off leather. ‘I’m burning up in this car. It’s like someone switched on the heat.’
A small bell rang overhead as Nathan pushed open the heavy screen door, momentarily blinded by the transition to darkness from the harsh midday glare. Laura’s eyes were the first to adjust to the gloom. The interior was smaller than it appeared from outside, just a single room. The counter stood along one wall, topped with a stack of newspapers and cardboard boxes filled with cheap lollies and chocolates. Another wall housed a row of fridges, stocked exclusively with what looked like ice and various brands of chocolate milk, while a lone plastic-wrapped sausage roll basted in a tepid pie-warmer.
‘This place is like something out of a movie’, Laura whispered, instinctively feeling the need to lower her voice, despite the emptiness of the room. ‘The service station that time forgot.’
‘The service station that air conditioning forgot, too,’ muttered Nathan, fanning himself with his wallet. His forehead was beaded with sweat and dark patches had begun to spread across his shirt. ‘It’s even hotter in here than it was outside.’
Laura took a step towards the counter.
‘Look at these names,’ she said, rummaging through one of the lolly cartons. She gave a small gasp and seized one blue-wrapped chocolate bar, holding it up triumphantly like a prize fisherman’s catch. ‘I haven’t seen one of these for years.’
‘I thought they discontinued them,’ said Nathan. ‘It’s melting, by the way.’
A steady stream of brown liquid had begun to drip down Laura’s wrist. She replaced the chocolate quickly, rubbing her arm against her denim shorts. She heard, rather than saw, the door behind the counter open.
‘Can I help you?’
A man stood behind the counter. His face, weathered and wrinkled from the sun, was of an indeterminate age that could have been anywhere between forty and sixty. Speckles of grey flecked his dark hair, but the eyes that surveyed Nathan and Laura were clear and blue.
‘Oh, hi,’ said Laura, holding her chocolate stained arm behind her back. ‘Are you the owner? We just wanted to ask about the petrol price outside. Is there some sort of mistake with the sign?’
‘Yes I am, Ken from Cunderrin,’ he replied in answer to her first question. He pointed through the bronze tinted windows to the pumps outside. ‘And there’s no mistake. Nine point seven cents per litre. It may not be the cheapest, but it’s as good as you’re going to find round here, and it’s a long way to Moolalling.’
Nathan and Laura glanced at each other.
‘That seems very cheap,’ said Nathan slowly. ‘Are you sure there’s no mistake?’
‘Quite sure,’ said the owner gruffly, rapping smartly on the counter for emphasis. ‘We’re not running an extortion racket out here.’
He paused, looking over their t-shirts and thongs as if noticing them for the first time.
‘Where are you two headed, anyway?’
‘Across the bight,’ replied Laura.
He let out a low whistle.
‘Hot time of year to be doing it. Haven’t seen a summer like this in a long time.’
‘You can say that again,’ said Nathan. A brown puddle had begun to pool on the counter beneath the carton of chocolates and was dripping down the front of the counter.
‘Yep,’ continued the owner, resting a forearm on the till, an ancient model, with large square buttons and no computer screen. ‘I haven’t seen a summer like it since ’54.’
He was clearly much older than he looked. Over his shoulder, Laura noticed a rotary dial telephone hanging on the back wall. She was trying to lean forward as unobtrusively as possible to get a closer look when she caught the unmistakable scent of something burning. Nathan nudged her gently.
‘Look, the pie warmer,’ he whispered.
The sausage roll in its flimsy plastic wrap was charcoal black, completely burned to a crisp. The acrid smell of burning grew stronger but the owner seemed completely oblivious. He also seemed not to have noticed the torrent of melted chocolate seeping off his counter.
‘Excuse me, Ken,’ said Laura. ‘Your pie warmer seems to be broken…’
He continued on like he hadn’t heard her.
‘In a hot summer like this you need a thirst quencher for the drive. We have a fine selection of chocolate milk in the fridge behind you, if you have a mind.’
He gestured to the row of refrigerators lining the wall behind them. Nathan, feeling the expectation in his smile, nodded slightly and pulled open one of the doors, a rush of hot air escaping from within. The bags of party ice were completely liquid, and from the rows of chocolate milk came the sour odour of spoilt milk. He quickly shut the door.
‘I’m alright, thanks,’ he said. He re-joined Laura at the counter, who was engrossed in one of the newspapers. He felt an acute desire to get back on the road. The temperature inside seemed to be growing hotter with every moment, and the burning smell from the pie warmer was beginning to catch at the back of his throat.
‘We had better be going,’ he said. ‘Lots of ground to make up. I think we have enough in the tank to make it to Moolalling, but thanks for your help.’
He reached for Laura’s hand. She was flicking through the pile of newspapers now, scanning the front-page headlines. As Nathan watched, the edges of the pages began to blacken and curl slightly, as though singed.
‘No worries,’ said the owner. ‘It’s always a pleasure to meet passers by. It gets a little lonely out here some times.’
‘I’m sure,’ said Nathan, pulling discretely at Laura as he moved towards the door. When he reached for it, the door handle was scorching hot and he recoiled in pain, clutching his scalded hand. Laura wrapped her own in her t-shirt and pushed open the door, the owner calling out to them from inside.
The baking midday sun seemed a relief after the intense heat of the service station. Neither Nathan nor Laura spoke or stopped to turn around as they crossed the dirt parking lot to their car. They climbed inside wordlessly, reversing with the sharp crunch of wheels on gravel back to the small turnoff that led to the highway. They were several kilometres away when Laura broke the silence.
‘I was looking at the newspapers,’ she said, staring straight ahead through the windshield at the scrub flashing past on either side.
‘It was all about some speech the Prime Minister gave on wage indexations.’
Nathan made a non-committal noise in response.
‘He was the Prime Minister before I was born,’ said Laura, turning to look at him. ‘The newspapers were from February 1976.’
Nathan was silent for a moment.
‘All of them?’
‘Every single one,’ said Laura, returning her gaze to the window. She noticed a small rest stop coming up on their left, with a few park benches and a toilet block. She sat up in her seat.
‘Pull in here.’
Without asking for an explanation, Nathan veered sharply to the left and into the rest stop, causing a large freight truck to sound its horn angrily as it thundered past.
‘There’s an information plaque,’ said Laura, directing him towards the toilet blocks. Nathan guided the car towards a small bronze engraving mounted on a stand beside a rusted drinking fountain. Laura had opened her door before he even cut the engine, and was standing over the plaque by the time Nathan removed his seatbelt and climbed out to join her.
‘History of Cunderrin, Moolalling shire,’ she read aloud. ‘Cunderrin was founded in 1873 to house workers on the cross-country telegraph line. At its peak, in the 1920s, Cunderrin was home to more than 100 residents. The population began to fall following the discontinuation of the telegraph line, and by the 1960s only a service station remained.’
Nathan began to read too, their words whipped away by the dry desert wind as they were voiced.
‘In 1976, this too was lost following a fire that claimed the life of its proprietor, long-time Cunderrin resident Ken Dowling.’
They stood silently over the plaque for a few moments. Then they returned to their car, Nathan rolling down the windows to catch the stiff breeze that rolled across the plains. It blew through the car, carrying with it only the faintest trace of smoke.
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