This story is dedicated to all those caught up in the Tsunami tragedy. May the rest of us be grateful for the small problems and keep it all in perspective.
Murphy’s Law – states that ‘Everything that can possibly go wrong, WILL go wrong’.
Wanting to see family for the holidays, Laeti (my girl) and I set forth from Melbourne, Australia on the approximately seven hundred kilometre journey to my old home town of Adelaide. We were going to take Dude the Dog, but despite his impeccable good nature and social grace (well, except for the public defecating thing!) we decided to take up the very kind offer of our neighbour Veronica to look after him. As it turned out, this was a very good thing. We were travelling by means of Old '85, our convertible Toyota Landcruiser that we had just spent $1400 getting fixed. It had first gone in simply to get serviced, but then, due to a discovery of unfortunate and epic proportions by out lovely mechanic Clive, it had to be pulled apart and stuck back together again at great cost to my already groaning hip pocket. When I went in to pick it up, Clive kind of winced and mumbled something about the clutch being 'bad'. Well, either he mumbled or I sort of unconsciously applied my incredible skill for 'selective hearing' that my mother had always commented on as I was growing up. The point being that by the time I drove out of the shop, the whole clutch thing had been filed away in some remote quarter of the brain marked 'Denial' (which incidentally, I refuse to believe exists!).
We met up with some chums of ours a couple of suburbs away who were also heading back over to Adelaide in a well worn van overflowing with backpacks, suitcases, bicycles, Christmas presents and several good looking, smiley hippy kids. We call this method of travelling 'the convoy' and it is employed to prevent undue hardship in the case of any break downs during long journeys (mechanical ones primarily but probably not a bad idea in the event of any emotional or familial breakdowns also!). I distinctly remember thinking snidely to myself that it was unlikely to be us that would be needing any help…and no doubt you can see where this is heading!
Strangely, despite my usual scepticism towards ‘bad luck’ or ‘jinxes’, I can’t help but sort of partially feeling that a certain, indisputably lovely, young man named Fred was somehow cosmically responsible for the ensuing car trouble – even though most of me regards this theory as being a load of total bollocks. The thing is, he seemed very interested in our car, Old ’85, as we were farting around prior to departure. He walked around it a few times, made some nice comments about it and enquired as to the state of it’s mechanical health. I told him that it had been pretty good for the year or so that I had owned it but that it had just caused us a little trouble, and he made some fairly comforting remarks about how it would be par for the course for us to have do a little work on the car, especially given how little we had paid for it. Nothing unusual here, fairly normal conversation. I shall return to this point however…
So we eventually get under way, after a period of me sitting in the car feeling a little impatient (despite my best efforts not to) as I we had a long day of driving ahead of us, and it was going to be a scorcher of day – 38 degrees Celsius no less (that’s 100.4 degrees Fahrenheit). I was keen to get on with it in order to beat the worst of the heat, but there was no chance of that – the larger the group, the longer it takes to get moving – immutable law of interstate travelling.
As we begin to drive, I realise, that whilst Old ’85 ain’t exactly the fastest car on the road, it sure goes faster than (my beautiful friend) Odette’s old van. She is piled up with people and stuff to near bursting and it is taking her plenty of time to get up any steam whatsoever. I sigh to myself and try to resign myself to a long slow drive. I am after all, supposed to be Mr. Flow-Like-Water right?
Sure I am! But after a couple of hours of being the second car in a long train of vehicles (the front two being the only carriages without frustrated head-steam pouring out of them!) I begin to get bored and decide to fly on ahead for a while. Then we stop for a piss and my girl, for reasons completely unknown to myself, takes freakin’ ages in the roadside McDonalds toilet (maybe she was sneaking in a burger or two in some kind of clandestine act of culinary two-facedness?), which leaves us now a fair way behind our friends. Great! I genuinely think, this means I can cruise at a hundred K’s until I catch them up.
When I do they are stopped at some run down hick pub eating snacks and taking photos. I stop a little down the road and wait. And wait. And wait…
Eventually I get a little impatient (just a little, my friends, and let us remember, all things are part of the Tao – including lack of patience!) and circle back to give them a little nudge along. It is here that I make my now infamous comment. When asked if there was a problem by my lovely, smiling friends – I sarcastically replied ‘We are moving too slowly’ and of course I was implying quite obviously that it was their fault. So they crack into gear and get ready to roll. At this point Fred decides to jump in the back of Old ’85, which we had decided not to do before due to lack of seatbelts and no roof – which was both dangerous, excessively windy, and bound to attract unwanted attention from hot bothered cops with un-Christmassy attitudes. But Fred thinks that it would be a good idea to lighten the van’s load a little and so he hops in with someone’s large and heavy backpack also.
No sooner are we five minutes down the road, sharing some of Fred’s home made chilli chocolate (…Mmmm…chilli chocolate…) when Pfffft! The clutch goes! At first we don’t realise that this is what it is, because it just seems like the car isn’t taking the extra weight – but this is unlikely and besides there is a strong burning smell. Nevertheless I boot Mr Fred-The-Jinx-Man out and give it a go sans passenger. But we can’t get any speed up, the engine is revving over when I try to accelerate as if I was in neutral, only slowly increasing in speed. We stop; men lie down and look under the car body, and poke their noses around the burning engine. It is official, burnt out clutch. We can drive, but not for too long, and not real fast.
It is fifty kilometres to the next town. Now I am the first carriage in a long train of automobiles – but this time all of the carriages have steam blowing out the top, including mine! Seeing as it’s only me and Laeti in the car, I let go for a few minutes and truly let rip with a big temper tantrum complete with the incredibly the colourful language that I am vaguely infamous for. But I am not really serious, I just believe in the theory of ‘Let it Flow – Then Let it Go’. And besides, its 38 degrees remember?
We eventually dribble into the town of Ararat. Not the smallest town in the world, but not exactly the largest either. I pull over into the first mechanics I see only to be slowly informed by the old mechanic (who looked like Grizzly Adams) that they are not interested – being Christmas and all. So I ring the RACV (auto club) and they come to ‘rescue’ me. But they tell me with genuinely kind but unabashedly amused smirks on their country bumpkin faces that they can’t possibly fix it until after New Year. Great. Thanks for nothing. So my car is still in the wonderful township of Ararat as I type!
Of course this last paragraph took about an hour but I am trying to hurry up so I can go to bed!
We chat to the gang – it is pretty much impossible for us to catch a lift to Adelaide with them because their really is zero room in the van. And we would get fined by those un-Christmassy cops for sure ($200). So we run around trying to figure out a bus to catch. No bus until tomorrow. Same for Trains. So we try to hire a car. No car hire in this town, only in the next main (bigger) town, Horsham. Horsham is one hundred K’s away.
Out of desperation we squeeze into the back of the van, bicycles squeezing up against our legs, knees to chest, backs bent into van roof shapes. Extremely uncomfortable and mighty hot and lacking in oxygen. By the time we get to Horsham it is official that there is no way we can do the next five hundred miles in the back of the van – the pain would be excruciating.
So we run around to the three hire car joints on Main Street – not one has a car! One has a Ute, but they want to charge us $700! Huh?
It has been about three hours now since the car buggered up, and my friends are being extremely patient, as am I and my lovely girl. But with this car hire debacle, she starts to unravel a little bit. She is of French birth and never really got used to the Australian desert heat. Her face is turning bright red and I am worried that she might be about to crack. So I give in and suggest that we would be best to find a motel with a pool and check in for the night. Despite her impatience to get on, the pool sounds tempting in the heat so we do it. We wave goodbye to our friends, God Bless ‘em…
I leave Laeti in the smelly little motel room while I go into the office to use the yellow pages and organise a bus for the next morning. Only I can’t get one for the morning, only for the afternoon. This means we won’t get into Adelaide until 6pm Christmas Eve. Bugger. Still, at least we didn’t bring our (bloody huge) dog. What would we have done then? No motel room or bus or train will take dogs in Australia. Either a dog loving truckie with plenty of room would have picked us up, or it would have ended up being the longest walkies ever undertaken by man, girl and hound!
I strolled back to the room, my mind turning to a nice dip in the pool. I enter the room to find that my prediction was correct; Laeti was on the brink of cracking up and had indeed done so while I was in the motel office using the phone. The news that we were stuck in the middle of the desert until after lunch the next day didn’t help. Only a few minutes silence followed by the suggestion that we hit the pool eventually stemmed the flow of tears.
As we stroll over towards the pool, towels casually slung over our wilting shoulders, the motel owner notices our intent. He continues banging the dust out of the floor mats from his Ute as he unapologetically calls out ‘Don’t bother with the pool mate, it’s stuffed - had to drain it dry…’ I am then greatly strained by the desire to scream at the good man that his sign should perhaps read ‘NO pool’ instead of the confident neon ‘POOL’ that had so dishonestly attracted our custom. But I remained calm…although my face was no doubt kind of grumpy looking!
We curse Murphy and his stupid Law and debate what to do next. I have had it and just want to go to a pub and get pissed, but Laeti is on the warpath and wants to see if we can get a train out of here before Christmas (which is not very far away!). But neither of us are thinking very straight by now and we stagger around the boiling concrete main street of the town looking for an internet café. Eventually we realise that there just isn’t one out here - just bakeries and fish and chip shops, most of which are shut anyway. Then Laeti decides that we should just walk until we find the train station. ‘It’s a fair sized town,’ I moan, ‘could take a while to just stumble into it.’
‘Just start walking!’ she snaps. At this point I realise that we are delirious and burning up in the late afternoon sun and drag my darling Frenchie kicking and screaming into the nearest pub and order us a couple of cold ones. As sanity begins to follow the cool of the beer and the air conditioning, we suddenly both realise that best way to contact the train people was sitting in my pocket – the mobile phone of course! Sure enough, our luck changes a little and before I have finished my second brewskie we have purchased two tickets to Adelaide via the wonders of satellite technology and plastic money. The train leaves at 1:56am precisely, and arrives at 8am in the morning. Lovely! Looking on the brighter side again, we order a huge buffet meal and then get righteously and deservingly pissed (well, I did anyway!) before staggering back to our motel room for a sleep, safe in the knowledge that a cab would pick us up at 1:30 am.
Now the way this story is going you are probably thinking that the cab doesn’t rock up and we sleep through and miss the train, right? Wrong, but nearly as bad – although not in retrospect. In retrospect the next bit of our silly pre-Christmas tale seems, well, just that - silly! But at the time it was truly horrible, my least favourite part of the entire ordeal. The cab driver picked us up (I got no sleep) and cheerfully remarked that we could have walked to the station as it was just around the corner. Sure enough, two minutes later we were their and he left us standing at the platform bleary eyed and twenty minutes early. Looking around us, we suddenly both sort of simultaneously came to the conclusion that we were in an extremely undesirable situation indeed. Now maybe we are just two city kids who have an irrational fear of isolated rural towns, but this train station was just plain spooky. Remember it is about twenty minutes to 2am on a hot night; we are standing at this tiny station that is just a small building with a couple of seats out front; these seats are lit up by an extremely bright spot light; all around us there is nothing but rail yards, pitch black and silent except for the odd creaking and groaning of wood and metal. Directly to the right of us is the road which we arrived via, it crosses the railway line and provides the passengers of any passing cars a fabulous view of the brightly lit up station where we are sitting, knees knocking together in Scooby and Shaggy proportioned paranoia. Every minute or so a car rumbles past. Almost all of the cars are big old ‘tough guy’ cars, full of bored, savage looking local roughnecks, hanging out of the windows, beers in hand. Maybe we have had a long day and are a little wired, but the thought that if any of these hoods decided to pull into the station car park, jump out and kill me and rape her, they could and no-one would be likely to see or hear, starts to freak us out. We count each slow, hour long minute until the train is supposed to arrive. The night is dark and silent in both train line directions and the possibility that the train might just not rock up at all seems frighteningly real. Laeti can tell that I am uncomfortable with the situation as I clutch the mobile phone, knee bouncing, eyes flitting nervously at the road, around the rail yards and left and right down the lines (we had no idea which way the train was going to be arriving).
I was just unconvincingly trying to convince her that I wasn’t scared and that she should just relax, when I jumped a mile. Aggh! A huge black shape approaching very quickly! It is an extremely large black dog. It looks mean and feral. Thankfully it doesn’t seem to notice us.
When the minute of the train’s scheduled arrival finally comes, and then goes…I wander down to check out the time table on the wall. The lady on the phone has given us the wrong time! She has given us Thursday morning’s time instead of Friday morning. Damn! One train a day and she gets it wrong! Laeti curses the unknown phone woman in scary venomous tones. We have another twenty minutes to wait. All up - forty of the longest, scariest minutes of my life. I don’t know what it was but there was a bad, bad vibe at that station. We both felt it. There was something to fear there…something evil.
Eventually the train did arrive. Weirdly it was almost silent, and almost all its lights were out. It seemed like a ghost train to my delirious mind. I waved at the driver’s window but couldn’t see him to see if he had noticed us. The train just kept cruising past. It was extremely long. As the last carriage was approaching I started to panic. Maybe that woman on the phone was completely incompetent and they didn’t even know we were here, waiting to be saved!
Thankfully (of course) a head poked out of the last carriage door and a smiling gentleman in a waistcoat helped us aboard. We both agree that we have never been so happy to get on board any kind of vehicle ever in our well travelled lives!
Laeti fell asleep quite soon but I was too wired. I stared out the window all night at the unremittingly sparse and thirsty South Australian landscape. When she woke up in the morning I was glad to see it was with a smile on her face. Surely today would be a better time – after all it was Christmas Eve! But then half an hour later Laeti started gnashing her teeth and pulling her hair out in dismay. All the Christmas presents she had spent an entire day making by hand – she had left them in the fridge at the motel! Boxes of wonderful home made candies and toffees, lovingly prepared and individually wrapped to make a good first impression on all those relatives she had to face for the first time. This, more than anything else, really upset her, and it saddened me to see her so genuinely shaken and disturbed.
Twenty four hours after we left for Adelaide we arrived at the train station. It would usually have taken about eight. ‘We could have flown to visit my relatives in Paris!’ Laeti dryly remarked as she dried her harried cheeks. I grabbed her hand and we crossed the train lines to meet my Step-Dad who had come to pick us up. ‘Ah well, we are safe and sound, that’s all that matters!’
Just then we heard a commotion behind us. Some train line official was yelling and carrying on. He was running in our direction, and I quickly realised he was screaming at us!
‘You can’t cross the train lines there! Do you want to get yourselves killed?’ He was red faced and puffed up with self-importance. He had run a long way to bark at us, about two hundred meters.
‘Where should we cross then?’ I politely enquired.
‘Why! On the marked crossing of course!’ He yelled, pointing to a painted patch of bitumen about two feet from where we were crossing, as if it made any difference!
For the first time since the car had blown up I publicly gave up my calm exterior demeanour. This man was just getting off on his pathetic little bit of power, yelling and screaming at us in front of hundreds of people. Normally I would just have laughed and done as he asked to keep the peace. But this morning, after all we had been through, and exactly zero hours sleep, I had had enough.
‘Go and Get Stuffed Mate!’ I growled and then I flipped him the bird! Deep inside, I think that gesture was really aimed at old Murphy and his ridiculous, irritating and unnecessary Law. Personally I reckon the bloke ought to be held accountable - bloomin’ trouble maker!