Just after the turnoff to Griffith on the Sturt Highway, Jackson hit the brakes. The tyres squealed. He pulled the truck over on to the shoulder of the road. He blinked to make sure what he was seeing in the beam of the headlights was actually what he thought it was. It really was a young woman with her thumb out, not some howling banshee. A strange place for a hitchhiker, especially at three in the morning. It wasn’t company policy but it didn’t feel right to just drive on and let her be.
He wound down the electric window on the passenger’s side.
‘Do you want a lift?’ he said.
‘What does it fucking well look like?’
‘I take it that’s a yes.’
Jackson applied the handbrake and hopped down out of the cab. He shivered in the cool of the early morning. An intense black sky pressed down on him. The woman reached for a battered old rucksack. Jackson said, ‘I’ll get that for you.’
‘I can get it myself,’ she said, picking it up by the handles and walking to the passenger’s side.
Jackson shrugged and got back into the warmth of the cab.
The woman got in and lugged the rucksack into the cab and placed it on the floor in front of her. In the piss-yellow light of the cabin Jackson looked her over. She was not too old, although there were lines at her eyes from spending too many hours in the sun. Early thirties, he reckoned. About the same age his daughter would have been. She had blonde-streaks through dark hair that was cut in a bob. She had a red scarf around her throat and wore a wool-lined denim jacket over a white top. On her left hand was a tattoo of some circles that he couldn’t quite make out. He thought she must have been attractive in her younger days.
She shut the door and the cabin light went off.
‘You’re not wearing any shoes,’ he said.
‘You don’t think I know that? Clever as fuck aren’t you?’
‘Must be cold though. I’ve got a pair of footy socks I can loan you.’ He reached behind him and rummaged through his overnight bag and pulled out the rolled up footy socks and handed them to her.
She looked at them as though they were venomous snakes. ‘Are they clean?’
‘Yeah. My wife always packs me extra pairs of clean socks and undies before I go out on the road.’
She took the socks, sniffed at them and started putting them on. ‘Weirdo,’ she muttered.
‘So where are you going?’ Jackson asked.
‘I don’t know,’ the woman said.
‘I’m headed for Sydney.’
’OK. I’m going to Sydney then.’
Jackson turned onto the highway.
‘Do you mind putting the seatbelt on. I’ll get fined if the cops pull us over.’
She pulled the belt and clicked it into place. ‘The cops. Imagine that? But aye, aye skipper, I’ll put the belt on. Anything you fucking well say.’
They took off down the Sturt. The high beams lit up just the lonely road and scrubby country off to the side. Above them the dark sky was studded with stars. It had been raining for so long Jackson was almost surprised to see them.
‘What is this shit music?’ the woman said.
‘Country music. And don’t call it shit.’
The song about a mistreated wife faded out and a news bulletin came on the radio. The lead story was about the funeral of John Stanhope, the famous swimming coach. The announcer rattled off the names of local dignitaries and international sports stars who had attended.
‘Poor bastard,’ said Jackson. ‘Imagine that, coaching all those famous swimmers to gold medals and to have his life ended like that. It makes you sick.’
As if on cue the announcer repeated the gruesome statistic that the whole country had learned off by heart … Mr Stanhope was found last Thursday with thirty-three stab wounds to his body.
‘Thirty-three! Disgusting. I really have no words,’ said Jackson shaking his head as a cattle truck bounced past them in the other direction.
‘Sicko paedophile. Got what he fucking deserved.’
Jackson took a hand off the wheel and pointed his finger towards her. ‘You cannot say that about the man. Everyone I’ve seen interviewed has nothing but good words for him. Don’t speak ill of the dead.’
‘I can speak ill of whoever I fucking well please,’ she said.
The news bulletin finished and the country music started up again. Troy Cassar-Daly crooned into the cabin.
‘My name’s Jackson by the way. Can I ask yours?’ He turned towards her but she looked out the passenger window.
‘You can ask, but I’m not going to tell you.’
‘Well, what should I call you?’
‘I don’t fucking know. Just call me Bambi for all I care.’
‘So, Bambi, can you tell me about yourself? Do you have a husband? Any kids?’
She gave an ironic laugh. ‘What do you reckon? You think when you picked me up out here I looked like some kind of happy fucking homemaker? Like I was out in the middle of nowhere looking for a needle and thread to mend my husband’s trousers? You’re weirder than I thought you were.’
‘What about your parents? Surely you’ve got some of them.’
‘You’re a nosy bastard aren’t you. No, I don’t have parents. They died. Both of them. When I was a baby. I have no memory of them at all. I was brought up by my grandmother you see. Any other personal information you want to know? What’s my bra size? I’ve bet you’ve been thinking about my tits ever since you picked me up. Probably just picked me up in the hope of getting a blowjob. All men are bastards you know.’ Her voice sounded rough. Frazzled. Like a vacuum cleaner that had sucked up a nail.
Jackson didn’t want to push her. ‘I mean you no harm at all,’ he said.
She folded her arms and mumbled something.
A police car overtook them and sped off.
Jackson turned the radio off and switched over to his iPhone over bluetooth.
‘What hell is this?’ Bambi said. ‘This is worse than that country crap. Don’t you have anything decent?’
‘It’s called classical music. You ought to try listening sometime. Might take the edge off whatever is making you edgy.’
‘Haven’t you got some metal or rock or something?’
‘Sorry. That’s all I’ve got except for The Bee Gees Greatest Hits.’
She made a gagging motion. ‘You are totally fucked up,’ she said. ‘Just turn it off.’
‘Look, I’m easy with just about anything but don’t go dissing my music. If you can’t put up with it I’ll set you down right here.’
She growled. ‘Bastard.’
The high beams picked out a roo standing dumbstruck in the middle of the highway. Jackson gave it a blast with the air horn. It hopped away just before he hit it.
‘Oh shit, we could’ve had us some roadkill,’ Bambi said. ‘Roo-burgers. I bet you’re pissed you didn’t hit the bloody thing. I know your type. Bloodthirsty bastard. Love telling your mates about how many roos you killed.’
‘I don’t like hitting them if I can avoid it. But if they don’t move what can I do?’
‘You’re a fucking animal hater. I ought to dob you in to the RSPCA.’
Jackson didn’t reply. Apart from the music the cab was silent for a while.
‘What’s this song? It’s not so bad.’ Bambi eyed the display. She screwed up her nose. ‘Satie. Gernoss… what fucking word is that?’
‘Gnossiene number 3, Erik Satie. Yeah, it is nice.’
‘My mum used to play shit like this. Not on the stereo. On the piano I mean. You can hear the individual notes so clearly. It’s played so bloody slow but… It’s actually passable for an old folk’s tune.’
‘I thought you said you didn’t have a mum.’
‘Well, I fucking lied and she was a poor excuse of a mum.’
‘But you remember her playing the piano.’
‘Yeah, but that was before everything got fucked up. Before Dad left.’
‘You had one of them too?’
‘Dad? Dad in name. He pissed off when I was fourteen and I never saw the bastard again, and if I did I reckon I’d stab him right through the fucking heart. Mum was never the same. That’s when she started hitting the piss.
* * *
Jackson got her talking about her childhood.
‘I was pretty shit at school,’ she said. ‘I just couldn’t concentrate you know. If I’d been diagnosed today they’d have said I had ADHD.’
‘Tough gig,’ said Jackson.
‘Yeah. I couldn’t keep still. Spent all my time training.’
‘Athlete were you?’
‘Fucking oath I was. I could run faster than any boy at school. I used to play in the boy’s footy team right up till I was fifteen. I could skate. I was a star gymnast by the way. But my favourite sport was swimming. My Grandmother used to take me to training five days a week. She really was something my Gran, wasn’t she? Imagine that, waking up at 5am every day to take your snot-faced ungrateful granddaughter to lessons. And all along she did it because mum was too hungover.’
‘You do any good as a swimmer?’
‘Yeah. I made state titles, national championships. Australian schoolgirls’ record for the hundred free and hundred fly. Yeah. I could have been something. Until everything went fucked. Why are you asking me all this?’ Bambi said.
Jeremy cleared his throat. ‘You remind me of my daughter.’
‘Your poor daughter. Is she fucked up like me?’
‘Well, she was.’
‘Was? Where is she now?’
‘She got drunk one night and crashed her car into a tree.’
‘Oh, shit. Sorry, man.’
Choir music filled the cabin. A tourist bus drove past in the opposite direction.
Bambi leant her head against the window. When Jackson looked at her a few minutes later she was asleep.
* * *
The sky in the east was lightening when Bambi gave a loud yawn and said, ‘What time is it’?
‘Nearly 5am. Are you hungry? There’s a 24-hour Maccas in Wagga we can go to.’
’I wouldn’t mind. McRoos on the menu?’
‘No McRoos I’m afraid. Drive through or dine in?’
‘Drive through. No, fuck it. Let’s dine in.’
Inside MacDonalds, the harsh lights made Jackson squint. A handful of customers were scattered among the tables. Mostly tradies and construction workers in high-viz. There were some truck drivers as well. A few people were standing in the queue. The restaurant smelled of salt, body odour, coffee and bleach.
Bambi sat down while Jackson went to the counter and ordered. He brought it back to their table.
‘What did you get?’ she said.
‘Sausage and Egg McMuffin, waffles in syrup and some hot tea.’
‘Tea! My grandmother used to give me tea when I was sad. Thank you. You know what?’
Jackson cocked his head. ‘What?’
‘You are…kind. Yeah, you are kind. A bit of a weirdo but kind.’
When she reached for the food Jackson finally could see what the tattoo on her left hand was. Olympic rings. In colour.
‘Excuse me,’ Jackson said, ‘but I need to leave for a minute. You know, call of nature and all that. Not number ones if you know what I mean.’
‘Ha, ha,’ she said. ‘You want to take a crap. You’re so fucking weird. Don’t worry I’ll still be here when you get back.’
Jackson’s bowels had never been that efficient. It was at least ten minutes of grunting and struggle before he came out.
The place was completely changed. The restaurant was bathed in the flashing red and blue lights of a bunch of police cars outside. At least a dozen cops, some with bullet proof vests and guns drawn stood among the tables. Where he was sitting the police had forced Bambi’s face into the table and were fastening handcuffs to her arms that were pinned behind her back.
Two homicide detectives led Jackson to a table and started interrogating him. Why did you pick her up? Do you know her? Were you trying to aid her? You should know that she is under arrest for the murder of John Stanhope the swimming coach? Don’t you know she stabbed him thirty-three times? What do you think you were doing?
It took Jackson a long time to convince the police he had no prior knowledge of the hitchhiker he’d picked up. He wasn’t sure if her screams of, ‘He doesn’t know me from a fucking bar of soap,’ as she was being led away helped him or not. The police told him they found a blood-stained knife in the rucksack they found in the cabin of his truck.
* * *
When they let him go the sun was up. It would be a while before it took some of the chill out of the air. Still, he took it as a good sign. He called his wife. Told her he loved her. He turned left at the first roundabout and headed towards Sydney.