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By Julienne Van Loon
Allen & UnwinCopyright © 2005 Julienne van Loon
All rights reserved.
Diana Kooper is running. She is looking straight ahead through the warm night rain, all silvery in the fluorescent streetlight. The footpath beneath her is so shiny and black it could be liquid.
God, how she can run.
A siren starts up somewhere behind her.
Diana is cutting through the old park near City Road, cool parcels of darkness enveloping her briefly between splashes of milky light. She passes the pool where they sometimes used to lie beneath the shade-cloth eating Drumsticks. The four a.m. rain is falling heavy on her face and her shoes squelch, once as the foot hits the ground and again as the heel is lifted. Squelch-squalch, squelch-squalch.
Diana is running for the intersection of Broadway and City Road. She can feel blisters forming on her heels, and glass shards from the car windscreen sliding about in her left boot. But she doesn't stop, can't. Her line of flight curves gently around the edges of an empty pond.
'Hey!' calls a drunkard, 'Hey carn, where ya goin' darlin'?'
A vehicle's brakes squeal to a halt at the traffic lights. Diana dodges a taxi. She moves diagonally across Broadway, passing the gas cookware shop and then the homeless guys standing around a lit gallon drum on Abercrombie Street. She passes a nightclub they went to once, where the entrance is a large red double door opening onto a steep flight of stairs. The place is all quiet now, the big doors closed. She takes in the sharp scent of urine as she goes by.
It's a mid-week morning and an hour before dawn. A street sweeper, its reverse warning blaring, comes out of an alleyway near the University of Technology. Diana's crossing the street again and she can almost see the clock tower now. Squelch-squalch, squelch-squalch. Her breath is regular now, her step firm.
Of course, in running, there are things Diana Kooper is intending to leave behind her. Some are everyday things: the soapy white heads on the morning beers she serves for breakfast punters at the bar in Botany Road; the sound of the drag queens arguing in the room adjoining her King Street bedsit; the glossy pictures of expensive destinations — Spain, Zaire, Chicago — in the travel shop window below. And then there are things that go beyond the everyday: the theft of all her valuables; the eviction notice owing to rental arrears; the letter from East Sydney TAFE documenting the extent of her failure in core units in the Certificate III of Photography. But worst of all, there is this latest incident. Back on the corner of City Road and Cleveland Street she has left a white Suzuki hatchback wedged against a power pole, doors open. And there's a girl on the passenger side, no pulse.
If that girl is dead, Diana reasons, it is not necessarily because of the accident. If she is dead, it is not entirely my fault. 'I love you, Nic,' she had whispered in the girl's direction. The car engine was humming, the shattered windscreen glistening in the night rain as she turned away. But before she could start to run, Diana was forced to vomit. She bent over the swirling roadside gutter and watched the stormwater carry the clotted mess of soupy mucus away.
Nicole Clarke is wedged halfway through a broken windscreen and is bleeding as her closest friend crosses up onto the footpath outside Central Station. The old clock says twenty past nine. That's not the correct time.
Diana slows her pace.
Central Station is full of people with nowhere to go. There are the homeless, the mentally ill and those too drunk or drug-fucked to find their way to any place else. Figures drape themselves across the orange plastic seats, many of them sleeping. Those that are awake gaze into the middle distance, avoiding eye contact with the wet girl as she makes her way toward the monitors announcing arrivals and departures. There are lumpy bodies sleeping on the cold hard floor, heads on bags, faces covered. An obese woman, her small orchestra of bulging plastic bags gathered around her, sits reciting the words to a Duran Duran song without much sense of rhythm or key. At the Eddy Avenue end of the large open station, charity workers hand out sandwiches and tea.
The first train out is at 4.52 a.m. It's going to Lithgow. Diana's pulse races as she leans forward to catch her breath, hands on hips. Her face is hot and red. She paces to cool down. She is thinking. She has nothing with her but the ATM card in the back pocket of her jeans. Her keys are still in the Suzuki's ignition and her bag is on the back seat. It's twenty minutes until the train goes. She can't go back. She waits.
Before long, Diana is sitting on the westbound country train, just as any normal person would. There is nothing unusual about the way she looks vacantly out the window, or listens to the routine beat of the tracks passing beneath. She dozes for a while. At Lithgow she exits the damp station building and turns right, passing the old railway workers' cottages on one side, the railway tracks on the other. She walks on.
The Suzuki will have been towed away by now, leaving a soft smudge of white paint around the metal pole and a sea of glass shrapnel along the gutter's edge. And Nicole? She'll be gone too, picked up by the ambos, laid out on a stretcher, taken somewhere else. The traffic on City Road will be racing by, regardless, brakes squealing, drivers cursing, the daily pattern of the city carrying on.
As Diana reaches the Great Western Highway the midmorning light shines gently, but after a few kilometres of walking, it starts to get hot. It's early December and the cicadas are deafening in the tall eucalypts along the roadside. Her mind is numb now, the heat distilling everything. She listens to the sound of her own breath in harmony with the drone of the insects, and notices small things: flies; a discarded cigarette lighter; ants. She walks with her thumb out to one side and after six or seven Ks — an hour, maybe two — a roaring black semi stops for her.
Diana climbs up into the high cabin of a brand-new Volvo. It's thoroughly flash, boasting lamb's wool seat covers, refrigerated air, a mini fridge. The dash is alight with digitation. Everything is gleaming.
'Where are you from?'
'Going home then?'
The driver's name is Zac. He is big and black, a Maori, pronouncing his 'i's and 'e's like a true Kiwi. There is something comforting about him, a kind of contentment coming out through a glint in his eyes.
'This machine's got everything a man could want,' he announces after a few minutes. 'The good Lord Jesus knew just what he was doing when he let this little baby off the production line.'
Apparently Jesus found Zac in the middle of a bender five years ago. Jesus rescued him from Satan. Jesus is the saviour. He is the only way. He also invented the Harley Davidson.
Diana nods a lot, looking forward at the road then drifting into short fits of sleep, but the shadow of Nicole presses into her mind so that she can almost sense the other girl's body right there in the cabin of the Volvo. Nicole might as well be sitting there, between Diana and the driver, taking comfort in the soft seat cover. Diana places a hand, palm down, on the blank seat between her and Zac.
The truck moves west, away, away.
'Let's see who can piss like a man!'
Four years ago, Diana walked into the girls' toilets at Nyngan High, aged fourteen and a half. She crossed out of the sunlight and into the cool cement damp, pungent with urine, white with cigarette smoke. There was the bare arse of Nicole Clarke. She was standing on a toilet seat, one foot either side of the bowl, the cubicle door wide open.
In the next cubicle, Artemis Takos was doing the same and further along Lee-anne Black too, green and white checked tunics held up above hips, undies scrunched in hand.
Diana smirked as the others pissed sporadically onto the toilet seats, but mostly onto their own shoes and socks, and onto the floor, shrieking with laughter.
'Oh, fuck me!'
'Oh, bad idea, Lee-anne!'
Nicole was first to jump down off the seat, avoiding the puddles, flinging off her netball shoes and ankle socks, trying to hoist her legs up into the long narrow handbasin and turning on a row of taps full bore.
Diana hadn't known whether to back out quietly or laugh out loud.
'So, youse are the tough chicks, hey?' She was daring herself to keep talking, Winfield Blue in hand, the first few lines crucial. 'And youse can't even piss straight!'
Nicole Clarke flashed her a look, all fierce brown eyes and round cheeks. 'Who the fuck are you?' she said.
'I'm the new chick,' said Diana. 'You're Nicole Clarke, right?'
'Diana Kooper. Your cousin Kellyanne in Wilcannia reckons you're all right. She reckons you and me are gonna get along fine.'
And Nicole smiled, broad and wide, her eyes glistening with the prospect of a new challenge.
It seems a lifetime ago, that meeting. That was when Diana Kooper was sharp, cool, quick. That was when Diana Kooper was going places. She and Nicole Clarke, new sisters. Family. She and Nicole Clarke. They wouldn't need school any more. Wouldn't need anybody.
Diana is awake again as she and Zac hit the other side of Dubbo. They pass lazy creek beds curving up beside the road edge and then scurrying away. Big trees stand lonely, sober in the middle of huge paddocks. Here and there salt rises up. Soon they come to the cotton country on the outskirts of Nevertire, little traces of white fluff wafting along the sides of the road like lost Santa trimmings. Toward Nyngan the bone-coloured squares of wheat and sheep or cattle and barley are woven loosely across the native scrub. Diana soaks up the familiar colour of it, the ghostly greys, greens and blacks against the dark orange dirt. She watches thin pencil lines of fencing leaning and breaking up as they speed by.
Back in Nyngan, when they were kids, Nicole's mum's place was always full of people. Nicole slept in the closed-in verandah which she shared with two of her sisters, and sometimes other kids too, if they had family visiting. There was no privacy there. Diana's mum's place, in contrast, was always empty of people, the linen in bundles on the floor, the fridge empty, the ashtrays full. The girls didn't like either house much, and spent most of their time down at the river where they lay in bikinis beneath the biggest gums.
Boys pulled up regularly in panel vans and station wagons, arms full of cold beer. They were mostly older boys who'd already given up school and who'd started mucking about with car engines and designing bongs.
'I don't like sex,' said Nicole one afternoon when she saw Peter O'Toole's Holden pulling up. 'It's boring.'
'Yeah,' Diana reckoned, though she didn't really know back then.
Nicole's skin tanned easily. It was a gorgeous, even brown. Diana's own skin could turn a healthy tan if she was diligent, but beneath the straps of her cozzies, or below the line of her ankle socks, she remained pale and pink.
On summer nights they walked all over town, declaring to each other matter-of-factly the long lists of things they would never do in the future. Never get married. Never work in the abattoirs. Never perm their hair. And there were the lists of things they might do, if they felt like it. Might become an actress. Might have heaps and heaps of kids. Might buy that old MG carcass Lee-anne Black's dad has in his garage and do it up, paint it canary yellow and drive it all the way to Sydney. Nicole knew who lived in just about every house in Nyngan, and she usually had some story about someone's uncle or their dog or their baby. Diana listened gladly, then swapped a tale about some family in Wilcannia or Dubbo or Cobar, painting Nicole a picture of every street and every town she and her mum had ever lived in. She and her mum moved all the time. They were always starting afresh.
Sometimes the girls walked right out to the edge of town, where the street kerbing fell away behind them and the sheep paddocks marked the huge flat world beyond. Here they forgot about the town itself, and looked toward a future without it.
'You'll get a reputation for yourselves, youse girls,' Nicole's grandmother would say when they wandered back to Nicole's place past three a.m. and found Nan Farley sitting in the breeze just outside the front door. She always sat there.
'And you're gonna regret it later, if youse don't quit waggin' school. You'll have no education.'
They turn on to the Barrier Highway and Zac pumps up the stereo. He's playing American gospel, all soaring harmonies and choir with great soul swing and rhythm. Diana doesn't mind it at first. It reminds her of the Rolling Stones and stuff her mum once played.
Freedom, oh freedom, oh freedom
Freedom is coming
Oh yes, I know!
She glances across at Zac who is humming a little and nodding his head and sometimes drumming his fingers on the steering wheel. On the stereo the gospel singers' fingers are clicking, hands clapping. Movement and music — it sounds good. But this sound system could make any sort of shit sound okay, even gospeltruckin' stuff.
People gettin' ready, there's a train a-comin'
Picking up passengers coast to coast
All you need is faith when you hear that diesel
Don't need no ticket, just get on board —
Nyngan is behind them now. Ahead the sunset lights up the saltbush country and masses of Eastern Grey roos gather too close to the road, taking off in swift parcels of flight back toward the scrub or fanning out across the road ahead as Zac's rig ploughs into the dusk. The choir carries on.
Joy, Joy! God's great Joy!
Joy, joy, down in my soul!
Sweet, beautiful, soul-saving Joy!
Oh, Joy, Joy in my soul.
The lyrics are starting to get to her. All this Christian hope and sunshine. It doesn't work like that. Not in the real world. She looks across at Zac, still tapping his fingers to the rhythm. Wake up, man. Shit! Look at him. This guy is unbelievable.
'Listen Zac, I'll bail out at Cobar, if that's okay with you.'
'Sure thing, sweetheart.'
Zac's brake lights blink at her as the rig pulls away. Diana makes her way down toward Linsley Street. It's a Thursday and late-night shopping. People move slowly as they wait to cross the street or put something down in the back of their ute. There are no traffic lights. The early summer dusk lingers as if reluctant to meld into black, but here and there night lights flicker on regardless.
She steps into the Public Bar at the majestic Great Western Hotel.
'I'll get me and you some Chinese, hey, Stretch?'
The barmaid is talking loudly to some old fella down the other end of the bar.
'Yeah, I don't mind a bit of Chinese. I could go a bit of Chinese. Food, that is.'
'You right, love?'
'Um, how much for a room for the night?'
The Great Western Motel is a strip of bright yellow brickwork edging the carpark behind the hotel. Diana lies down on top of a shiny floral bedspread in a single room and closes her eyes. When she opens them fourteen hours have gone by.
She brushes down her hair with a little bit of spit and a smooth of her hand and opens the bright green door, walking a few metres, squinting.
Out beneath the covered walkway in the morning shade, straddling a motley coloured collection of vinyl kitchen chairs, her fellow guests are mumbling into their bacon, eggs and beer.
'G'day,' one of them nods, shifting across to make a space for her at the table.
'G'day,' Diana says back, taking up the chair that's been offered.
'Kath, Ian, Craig,' says one of the three, pointing to the other two and then to himself.
'Diana,' she says. 'Diana Kooper.'
Diana recognises Ian as someone she'd been at school with somewhere, maybe Wilcannia, maybe Dubbo. They nod at each other.
'Sit down, mate. I won on the pokies last night. I'll shout you breakfast,' Craig grins.
'Don't listen to him,' says Kath. 'Breakfast is included in the tariff.'
Excerpted from Road Story by Julienne Van Loon. Copyright © 2005 Julienne van Loon. Excerpted by permission of Allen & Unwin.
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