Highway One (Caroline Reid)
The husband was half asleep when he felt the car slowing. He opened his eyes to see a tall man in a funny hat rushing towards them, arms hanging loosely as if they didn’t belong to the running body. ‘There’s a sight for sore eyes,’ he said.
The tomboy giggled into her hand when the man squeezed in beside her. He was like a skyscraper in the car, shoulders wide, hat kissing the ceiling. He is all solid lines, thought the wife, watching him in the rear view mirror. ‘It’s warm to be out,’ she said. ‘I’d turn the air-con on for you but it’s broken, worse luck. D’you want a drink, luv? Some water. Get him some water.’
The man in the funny hat looked puzzled. The tomboy stabbed a finger at her mouth. ‘Glug-glug-glug,’ she went. The man touched his cracked lips, then smiled ferociously. His teeth were almost green. The wife glanced at her husband, who grunted and passed back some water in an old Coke bottle. The man bowed his head in thanks, his hat clunking the faded ceiling each time he lifted his chin.
‘Glug-glug-glug’ went the tomboy as the man guzzled the lukewarm water.
The wife pulled out onto the highway. The car lurched its protest as she climbed through the gears.
‘Where you off to, luv?’
The man spoke while pointing to a glossy mirage on the dead-straight road.
‘What’s he say, Mum?’ asked the tomboy.
‘I don’t know, sweetheart. I think it’s Russian.’
‘Turkish,’ said the husband.
‘I’m ten,’ said the tomboy. ‘This is my little brother. He’s a sissy.’ She punched him in the arm to prove it. The sissy punched her back.
‘Stop it,’ said the wife, who looked accusingly at her husband. They were his words all right. His son was a sissy. The husband knew he wasn’t supposed to have favourites but bollocks to that.
‘He smells of onions,’ said the sissy, pinching his nostrils shut.
The man in the funny hat lifted a bum-cheek and farted.
‘Gross,’ said the sissy.
The tomboy pretended to choke. The husband laughed out loud. The man grinned.
‘Don’t encourage him,’ said the wife. ‘Where-are-you-from?’ she asked, enunciating her words.
The man shrugged then ruffled the tomboy’s hair. She leaned away from him, into the sissy’s chubby arm.
‘Get off me,’ said the sissy, squeezing himself as far as he comfortably could into the car door.
‘I’m-from-Australia,’ said the wife, louder this time. She pointed at her husband. ‘He-from-England. And-you?’
They all turned to look at the man, who blinked and wiped sweat from his eyes.
‘Owstralia,’ he nodded. ‘Owstralia.’ The hat thumped the ceiling.
‘Gawd, you think he’d at least learn the basics,’ said the husband winding down the window. Hot, noisy air rushed into the car. ‘He’s probably simple.’ The sissy heard sour words fly out of the car into the blue.
‘I bet it’s lovely, where you’re from.’ The wife smiled into the mirror but the man in the funny hat wasn’t looking her way. ‘What about an orange, luv? Give him an orange.’
The man accepted the orange, making curious noises as if he’d never seen one before.
Instead of eating it, he threw it from one big hand to the other, as if the casual fling of fruit might loosen the stifling atmosphere in the car.
The tomboy wriggled and huffed. The sissy breathed through his mouth and used a greasy finger to draw ninjas on the window. The husband half turned towards the back seat, pretending to look at scenery, which was just an unremarkable plain with some tufts of grass, when what he was really doing was keeping an eye on the stranger’s tanned thigh touching his daughter’s leg. ‘No luggage?’ he said looking into the man’s face. ‘No water?’
The man held the orange still and squinted out the window.
The husband squeezed his daughter’s leg. ‘We’ll stop soon,’ he said to his wife.
The man gestured at a road sign up ahead.
‘I think he wants to get out,’ said the tomboy.
The wife took it to mean the man in the funny hat didn’t like them, and she had trouble with that. Maybe her husband was right – maybe he was simple. The car crunched to a standstill on the gravel shoulder. The husband got out first. ‘I’ll drive now,’ he said.
They left the man standing in the thin shadow of a green road sign.
‘He forgot his orange,’ said the tomboy when they’d gone a way up the road.
The wife peeled the orange. It was warm and sweet.