‘Right, folks,’ calls our driver. ‘One hour. Grab a bite, hit the shops or queue for the loo. Take yer pick.’
I snort at that last one. No doubt another one-toilet town, for too many anxious women.
‘I thought we were stopping at the roadhouse,’ I say.
“Yeah, we usually do. I don’t know why I chose here. Impulse, I guess,’ says the Irish Bus Driver.
‘Shopping any good?’ calls someone from within.
‘Alright,’ he says. ‘Depends what you’re looking for.’
‘Ooh, darling. An antiques shop,’ coos Bertha, from behind me. I look up to investigate and feel a shock to my stomach.
‘Yeah, nah. I’d avoid that one, missus,’ warns the driver. ‘Not too welcoming.’
The gauntlet thrown, goosebumps, skin tingling, adrenaline piqued.
I’m on this bus today because I’m a thief heading to Melbourne for a fresh start. Away from bad influences, the reputation that haunts me, the criminal environment I inhabit. One throwaway comment though clicks on my opportunity radar. The body replies, challenge accepted.
My heart and soul, however, hold a different opinion.
Standing in the aisle, foot tapping, Malodorous Man mumbling at my shoulder. I ignore him, like we’ve all been trying to do for the last four hours.
When I reach the bottom step, I hover, one foot dangling in space, suddenly afraid. Caught between the urge to return to my seat and wait this one out, ignore the psychic challenge, and the hulking, angry passenger.
‘Another ‘nuthin town on the road to ‘nuthin,’ he growls, impatient.
I drop onto hot, sticky bitumen, eyes glued to the storefront of Gundegai Antiques. I feel the serpent of fear as it slithers through veins, hoovering blood, excited sweat upon skin.
I am unprepared for danger. One moment enjoying sweet harmony with the driver, his dry humour at his passenger’s antics, his amazingly acrobatic brows. Trapped in the twilight world of touring terror, too close to strangers with their snorts and farts and quietly urgent domestic disputes.
And Malodorous Man, whose loud muttering, forehead slapping, atrocious body odour and lack of sense of personal space, makes us uncomfortable.
This was a new chapter, an attempt at a better me, complete with the new job in hospital administration. Arranged by the friendly neighbourhood Klepto Anonymous group I’d fallen into before Christmas, when alone and desperate I’d landed a meeting with legs surrounded by shopping bags celebrating the best places to pilfer gifts.
Good daughter, great friend, brilliant student but pathologically unable to resist the genetic urge to steal. The merest hint that I should not, set me off on the wrong path.
Like a true believer, I followed the anti-commandments as closely as a book of twisted Ikea instructions and the urge to thieve embraced idolatry, jealousy, greed, deceit and adultery.
I’d managed to obey, do not kill.
My life depended on taking a 180 turn, adopting a new attitude, a break away from the straitjacket of expectation. Blue skies, green meadows, fresh start.
Yet here I was. Urged by opportunity to commit a felony, to pilfer trifles, invade the sanctity of the vendor’s domain. And the shop knows it.
It breaths. It waits. Eager. Hungry.
I feared yet wanted it. Danger, risk, reward. The rush. The shop was just another mark, but with attitude.
The paunch of Malodorous Man nudges from behind and I fall against the building, one hand on its window. Glittering treasures call my eye. I peruse the offerings. Junk. Nothing that I want or need. Yet, I hunger.
Vintage jewellery, wooden toys, items of agricultural equipment, scary looking dolls. I hate dolls.
And the building breathes. There’s an audible pop as I push myself away.
Spooked and desperate not to steal, not to cave to the need, I race across the road without checking traffic. A bakery entices for all the right reasons. Delicious wafting smells. I buy a pie and coke, snaffle a couple of sauces on the way out.
I perch on the outside bench. Directly opposite my opponent.
I eat, and I watch. And hunger.
Neighbouring stores display a collage of advertisements and signs. Loud posters announce touring comedians and musos. Ubiquitous SALE notices. Discounts publicised on oversized star icons.
The antiques store too is covered in paper. Fine print though, too small to read, inviting the unwary closer. Enticing. Curiosity to overwhelm the cat.
I was hardly unwary, but it was working. Spidey senses on high alert, I was still an idiot. The urge to steal versus malevolent warning – not good.
A dry gust of wind, gritty with sand, grabs at the brown paper pie bag. I lurch as it whips away from me, skitters across the road, under the tour bus and splat against the window of the antiques store. It holds, and holds, then slithers toward the door. When it opens, the bag flashes through and out of sight.
I chew on the pie and pick gristle from my teeth, swallow a grease clearing mouthful of coke and glare at the storefront. Movement to the left, a feral cat. Movement from the right, bored passengers, biding time. Shopkeepers on either side of that haunted store, hover. One sweeps the never to be tamed dust. Another shakes out a rug. The hairdresser leans against the door jamb, with her takeout coffee.
The Irish Bus Driver rests against the grille of his bus, sucking on a cigarette like his life depends on the smoke flooding his lungs.
Malodorous Man sits beside me. I slide further along the bench. He manspreads, and armspreads across the back of the bench, generally taking too much space.
‘Mate,’ he says.
I look in his direction. I hope for glacial disinterest.
‘I recognise the look,’ he says. ‘The eyes of a desperado. What’s your inclination?’
‘Get lost,’ I say. Classy.
‘I can’t work it out,’ he says. ‘I know you’re spiralling, but you’re staring at a bloody secondhand store. Not booze then, not drugs.’
‘Piss off,” I say.
‘Granted, there is something broody about that shop. Have you noticed? Nobody’s gone in since we’ve been here. It’s too quiet.’
A malevolence. It’s not just me then.
I give him proper attention. Turn toward him and gesture a waving hand that takes in his whole being.
‘What’s your deal then?’ I challenge.
‘Too long a story and not your business. But, I’m prepared to say that I’m pulling myself out of a dark place and getting there.’
‘I’m prepared to say, you could use a shower,’ I offer.
‘You’re a bitch, you know?’
‘Granted. Mum would be disappointed,’ I begin to stand, and say ‘I reckon I should investigate.’ Only to discover legs that won’t hold me. I fall into his lap. One large, hairy hand stops me falling further.
The other rubs a filthy handkerchief across his face, removing sweat and crusted on dirt. He’s a decent looking bloke under there.
‘Have you a tenner? It’d be good to have a feed.’
‘Sure. There you go, ten dollars and ah, I picked up your wallet,’ I say digging it out of my bag. ‘If I don’t come back …’
‘I’ll send in the army,’ he says, grinning. Bad teeth!
Deep breath and shoulders back, I step onto the road. And sink, infinitesimally. I pause and think hot tar. Second step, sink. Lift, but more effort required. Another. Stuck.
I look down at my feet in surprise. The ground appears solid enough. I watch as tendrils of tar reach to hold me in place.
‘Wrong,” I say aloud.
‘You alright, mate?’ calls Malodorous Man.
‘Sticky,’ I call back.
‘Bloody hot, bound to be soft,’ he calls.
There’s intention here, holding me in place, keeping me from the shop.
‘I need to face it,’ I whisper. And step forward.
Freed to go to my doom, I cross the road. A zombie abandoning all hope.
Like a soldier on patrol I sweep eyes across the field of danger. The hairdresser could be my own mother, all compassion and concern. Except for her dead eyes. I falter.
The deli owner leans on his broom, paused in his pointless pursuit of standards. He shakes his head, no. In mute terror.
Under the blazing sun, I shiver, suddenly cold. Fingers of fear creep along my skin, into my hair, jelly replaces my legs.
Now I can read the warning signs that plaster the store. Shoplifters will be destroyed. Enter at own risk. No mercy to be found, here.
An Australian, bastard, building. Direct. No bullshit. Fair warning.
‘I wouldn’t,’ said the hairdresser.
‘You’ll not come back,’ said deli owner.
‘You look like you’re gasping for a beer,’ offered some random.
Walk away, my inner voice warns. You are a lunatic. Yet the store beckons and I obey, like a mindless robot. Hair raised with static, tears falling, lizard brain fighting to be heard, stomach bitching.
I place my hands flat against the window and fall into the heartrending terror of lost souls. Pain, fear, dread. Trapped in fire, twisted, bleeding and flayed. Innumerable. Interminable.
Sucked into a hell of writhing bodies, the soggy mass of bodily fluids, poisonous filth. I can’t move nor breathe.
Vignettes of life flash in the dark. With my parents as a child, on the beach, laughing, burning. My mother birthing a monster, cackling maniacally. Bus passengers peering from windows, faces disintegrating, horror melting away.
A child calls, Mumma! My father calls, Becky!
My eyes open. And there he is, my long dead father. Distorted face, wretched in terror. Howling my name. Armed robber, killed in jail, knifed.
‘Go, baby,’ he howls.
‘Daddy,” I wail.
I try lifting a hand to pummel, to plead for my dad, but I’m stuck. All the strength of my body can’t pull me off.
A psychic energy pulses through me and I push. Beside me, I feel the presence of clean strength. Malodorous and Irish, hands against the window.
A high-pitched whine from the building, pleading No! Windows implode.
A tremendous howling wind blows inward, dragging me over the window frame. I feel the sting of glass splinters as they prick my skin. Then I’m blown viciously away, into the light of hope.
Breathing hard, bent at the knees, fat hot tears land on the pavement.
‘Daddy,’ I whisper.
Strong arms support me, Malodourous Man to the left, Irish Bus Driver to the right.
‘Thank you’, I say.
Dusty and blood streaked they lead me back to the bus, push me gently up the steps.
Hands reach to touch me as I pass. Before I fall into my seat, I hand her iPhone back to Bertha.
Someone hands me an icy coke. I gulp at it, feeling its soothing bite channel a way through, cleansing.
The Mercedes engine hums to life, while around me people settle.
I look out the window, afraid of what I’ll see, but all that is left is a rubble filled space, danger removed, malevolence disembowelled.
The storekeepers stand ghostlike in the street. Covered in dust, or fading away, surplus to requirements.
I stand the winner in this battle for my soul.
‘Thank you, Daddy,’ I whisper, as the bus pulls away.