Caroline stepped off the greyhound bus and onto the dusty red earth. She threw her backpack onto the ground and watched a plume of red smoke rise up. She put her long arms over her head and stretched upwards, towards the early morning sun. She squinted as the bright sun pierced her sleepiness and she twisted and turned her body, back into its normal position after the overnight bus from Alice Springs.
Caroline watched as the bus drove away and noticed how no one else had got off the bus at Elliot. She thought at least someone else would have got off the packed bus for the remote town in the Northern Territory. She also thought it had been strange that the bus driver asked her twice, if this was her stop. She rummaged into the top of her backpack and pulled out her phone. She checked her last email confirming the details of her rural work;
Subject: Farmwork – 88 days
Delighted to have you on board Caroline. Please can you start your 88 days of regional work with us on 1st Feb. I’ll send someone over to collect you from the bus.
Don’t worry she’ll be alright,
Caroline looked up and down the side of the Stuart Highway. There wasn’t a single sign of any other vehicle. No one it seemed came in or out of Elliot. Anxiously Caroline checked her phone and began googling the town. She probably should have done her research before now. As she scrolled through her search results, a long black battered Mercedes pulled up along side her. Cautiously she peered into the window.
“es tu Caroline?” came a voice from inside the car.
“Eh yes I am. Are you Fred?”
“I am Phillippe, Fred sent me to get you. Put your bag in ze back”. Caroline kept her bag with her and climbed into the front seat of the old car. She coughed as she closed the door and inhaled the stale smoke that shrouded the front seat. She looked down and noticed an overflowing ash tray of cigarette butts sitting underneath the old turndial radio.
“Eh sorry, I cannot open ze windows as it is too hot and zis car is a piece of shit from the 70’s .No air con.”
Caroline smiled meekly at Phillippe and turned to look out the passenger window. The smell of body odour from Phillippe now filled her nostrils. He looked about the same age as Caroline. He was tall and muscular with slicked back blonde hair and an attempt at a beard was forming around his chin. Phillippe swung the car around and drove them towards Elliot.
“So, you are ‘ere to help Fred in ze parlour yes?”
“Yes I need to do 88 days of regional work to secure my second year working holiday visa. Then I will be straight back to Sydney. I am hoping Fred will be good and just sign me off after a few weeks, so I don’t have to stay.”
“Eh.. Fred is a nice man for sure but I don’t think you will be able to leave early. I am ‘ere 32 days and counting.” Caroline grimaced and they travelled in silence for the rest of the journey.
“‘Ere we are!” Phillippe stopped the car outside a wooden motel in the centre of Elliot. Caroline got out of the car and looked at the flaking yellow paint and the one dusty window of the motel. A few random bar stools were scattered around the front wooden porch and a rickety Tooheys New sign hung overhead.
“Eh Phillippe, I don’t think this is right. I am due to stay with Fred. He said I had a room above the parlour so I would be able to do my own hours. I’ll be doing make up and nails etc.”.
“Yes I know. Zis is it!” Phillippe gestured towards the motel as if unveiling a winning prize on a tv game show. “Fred owns the motel where I work and you will work in the parlour next door.”
Caroline stood rooted to the spot. She turned slowly and looked to the right of the delipidated motel. A small glass door was hiding at the edge of the motel porch. A large window was next to it, filled with an orange dried flower arrangement. Caroline couldn’t engage her brain as she stood staring at Phillippe and then at the sign that hung over the glass door. Fred Burrows Funerals.
“I…I….I don’t understand. He asked was I a beautician. He said he needed help in the parlour, the beauty parlour. I am supposed to do makeup …..I don’t understand.”
Phillippe picked something from his teeth and sighed. “I am sorry Caroline. You will be doing ze makeup but it er it will be on ze dead people.” He lit up another cigarette and handed it to Caroline. Her hands trembled as she took it. She had never seen a dead body before.
“Come on, let’s meet Fred. He is a good man eh, don’t worry”. Phillippe steered Caroline through the door of the motel and into the bar.
“Ah Philly great you’re back and this must be my new beauty! How are ya doll? I’m Fred.” Caroline shook Fred’s big rough hand. He was a huge man with an even bigger smile. She couldn’t find the words to speak as she stood trembling and sucking on the end of Phillippe’s cigarette butt.
“Ah struth you’ve done it again, haven’t you?” Caroline turned to see a small thin woman appear from behind the bar. “Hi, I’m Lyn Fred’s wife. He told you it was a beauty parlour didn’t he? Flamin’ dingo. Does it every time” Lyn said as she dried her hands on a tea towel and then swatted Fred with it. “Don’t worry, putting make up on dead dolls is much easier; these customers can’t complain! Come on I’ll show you your room, you look like you might need a shower”.
Caroline followed Lyn through the bar and towards a set of steep stairs. She ducked as she walked under a hanging sign saying private and climbed the stairs in silence. As they reached the top, Caroline took in her surroundings. There were 4 doors at the top of the landing and one at the far end of the corridor by itself.
“That’s you doll” Lyn pointed towards the door furthest away. “This is me and Fred at the top, Phillippe is next to us and that door in the middle is the bathroom. I’ve left some towels on your bed for you. Just come down when your ready and i’ll fix you some brekkie.”
Caroline smiled meekly at Lyn and watched her jog back down the stairs. She walked over and turned the round wooden doorknob on the bedroom door and stepped into her new room. An old metal framed bed was pushed up against the wall on the right. Next to it a single bedside locker sat with a lamp. In the middle of the room, in front of the doorway, there was a large floor to ceiling sash window. To the left of the window, stood a washbasin and in the far corner, an old wooden wardrobe occupied the last ounce of space. The room was clean and bright and Caroline had to admit, a bit cute. She threw her backpack onto the rug in front of her and threw herself onto the bed. She sank into the soft mattress and exhaled for the first time since arriving in Elliot.
Maybe it wouldn’t be so bad Caroline mused. Fred and Lyn seemed nice and it didn’t seem like there could be that many funerals in Elliot, judging by the lack of people. Hopefully she could get through her 88 days without ever seeing a corpse.
After Caroline had scoffed Lyn’s homemade breakfast, she was given the tour of the place by Fred. He told her of her duties, she would work in the motel helping Lyn clean the rooms and any other errands. However when there was a funeral, she would be full time in the funeral parlour with Fred. Fred showed Caroline where they embalmed the bodies and where she would apply make up. He talked her through the correct funeral etiquette and how to organize the parlour for a viewing.
“Don’t worry Caro, once you’ve washed one naked todger you will be ready for anything!” Fred laughed and slapped Caroline on the back before leaving her alone in the parlour. Caroline sank into one of the wooden chairs that lined the walls. Her stomach hurt and she bit the skin at the side of her nails viscously.
“Are you ok Caroline?” Phillippe had appeared at the door carrying two large boxes of beer.
“No Phillippe I don’t think I am.. I don’t think I can do this. I didn’t know I would have to wash dead people! Like seriously, I barely wash myself, what if they smell? What if they are cold and stiff? What if I snap someone’s dick off like an icicle?! Oh God I have to wash dead dicks!!!” Caroline burrowed her head in her hands and began to sob. Phillippe placed the boxes of beer onto the ground in front of him, slicked back his hair and sat next to Caroline. He gingerly put his arm around her shoulders and attempted to soothe her.
“It will be ok. I am sure Fred will do ze men. Plus Fred told me they haven’t had a funeral in months and they are broke. So perhaps there will be no bodies or no job, so don’t worry. Come on let’s have a smoke.” Caroline wiped her tears with the back of her hand and followed Phillippe out to the front porch. He pulled up two bar stools and offered the cleanest to Caroline along with a cigarette.
” I don’t even smoke” Caroline laughed lightly. “It must be the stress of all this.” They sat on the bar stools at the front of the motel in companionable silence taking long slow drags from their cigarettes. They looked out at the empty dusty road and squinted as the Nature Territory sign was attacked by crows. Their silence was eventually broken by Fred appearing at the door.
“Mrs. Wilson up on main street isn’t feeling well. I’m going up to check on her, see if we can schedule her in for an appointment with you Caroline!” Fred laughed at his own joke as he hopped into the black hearse and drove away.
Later that evening Fed arrived back and silently drank whiskey at the bar. His usual jokey nature subdued, as he stared into the bottom of his crystal glass tumbler. Mrs. Wilson had passed away while he was visiting. Caroline watched him intently, as she hovered around the bar anxiously.
“You can finish early tonight doll. “Lyn called from the back kitchen into the bar. “you will be pretty busy over the next few days with Fred so take a rest now while you can.”
Caroline nodded slowly and folded the tea towel in her hand and placed it onto the bar in front of her. She drudged up the stairs and locked her bedroom door behind her. She knew she would have to help Fred with Mrs. Wilson, however she had naively hoped he had forgotten she was a beautician. She had hoped he considered her bar staff, just like Phillippe. She cursed herself, thinking about the tray of glasses she had dropped earlier.
As Caroline lay on her bed she mentally wrote a list of all the reasons why she wanted her second year visa. She compared each item on the list against touching a dead body to decide if it was worth it. She tossed and turned with her comparisons all night.
The next morning unable to eat breakfast, Caroline followed the sound of ACDC thunderstruck and met Fred in the funeral parlour. Fred shuffled on one leg playing the air guitar, as he tried to pull on a pair of overalls. “Morning Caro. I’ve some overalls on the bench for you. Just pop them on and let’s get started. It’s probably best we protect your good clobber from any splashes.”
Caroline felt cold but her hands were sticky as she approached the bench. “Eh Fred, why would there be any splashes? I.. eh …I thought I was just doing hair and makeup” Her voiced trembled and her hands shook as she pulled on the oversized green overalls. Fred stopped hopping about and gentle placed his hand on her shoulder. “It’s ok doll, we are just going to give Mrs. Wilson a little bath, nice and gently. I’ll do it but I might need you to help a little. After that, we need to embalm her and I promise it’s straight over to you for the sprucing up.”
Caroline pressed her back into the wall as Fred appeared moments later with a trolley. She could make up the shape of the body under the pale blue sheet that was draped over it. “Ok Caro, grab her feet and let’s lift this old dear onto the workbench.”
Caroline obediently did as Fred instructed. She muttered “Bondi Beach” over and over to herself in an almost meditative chant. Fred washed Mrs. Wilsons body with soap and water. Occasionally he would ask Caroline to pass a sponge or lift a limb. Surprising herself she obliged each and every time and the lump in her throat began to subside. Fred gentle patted the body down with paper towels after it was washed.
“Now the fun part!” Fred grinned at Caroline as he pulled a scapula from his overall pocket. He skillfully pierced Mrs. Wilsons skin just under the clavicle and made a small incision. He placed a long thin tube into the hole and secured it with some plaster tape. “Hit track 4 on the stereo Caro” he called as he doubled checked the tube was secure.
Caroline pressed play and was immediately horrified as the sounds of Denzel’s, Pump it Up filled the funeral parlour. She watched as Fred turned a valve on the large machine behind him with one hand, as he fist pumped the air with the other. The embalming fluid began traveling from the machine, down along the long the thin tube and into Mrs. Wilsons body as Fred sang pump it up at the top of his lungs!
Caroline watched fascinated as the body in front of her, filled up. No longer afraid, she asked questions and watched as Fred extracted the air from Mrs. Wilson with a trocar. He then gentle closed her eyes and mouth and took a long dress from the wardrobe beside him. He took a scissors and carefully cut the back of the dress straight up along the zipline and it floated open like a hospital gown. Fred lifted Mrs. Wilsons arms up as Caroline slid the dress along them and tucked it behind her shoulders. They carefully tucked the dress along the back of the body and placed Mrs. Wilsons hands together to meet on her stomach. They interlaced her fingers and stood back to survey their work.
“Right Caro, time for your beauty skills. I’ll leave you to make Mrs. Wilson fit for her last ever party!” Caroline felt a touch of excitement as she looked at the pale face in front of her. She felt a huge sense of responsibility to help Mrs. Wilson look her best to meet her maker and bid farewell to her friends and family.
When Caroline had finished, she took off her overalls and wandered into the bar where Phillippe was leaning against the beer taps, chatting to Fred. “Oh Caroline I do not recognize you, is that a smile I see?” Phillippe mocked her as she sat down on the bar stool.
“Very funny. I’m sorry for being so miserable guys. You were both right, it wasn’t so bad after all” she responded sheepishly.
“Good on ya doll, you did a great job!” Fred toasted her and sank his beer. “I’ll have to get you some more customers so you can showcase your talents!” Phillippe and Caroline laughed and toasted Caroline’s first funeral experience with their schooners.
Later that night, Lyn and Fred lay in bed discussing the events of the day. ” I was sure Caroline wouldn’t last. I thought she would be like the others but she really surprised me.” Lyn remarked as she snuggled into Fred’s shoulder.
“Yea she did alright. Now we have someone full time, I can concentrate on getting us more customers so we can keep this place a float.”
“Ok babe but please be careful. Maybe we should stick to smothering old dears rather than knifing the backpackers, what do you think?” Lyn asked looking into Fred’s smiling face.
“Sure thing doll. I’m too old to be dragging these backpackers into the woods anyway.”
Fred turned off the bedside lamp and they both fell asleep.