Elly McDonald

Writer

Roadtrain (1986)

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Hugh is getting tired. The more tired he gets, the faster he drives. His eyes are glazed; he should be wearing glasses, but he always manages to leave them behind. Constant small losses; Hugh isn’t thinking about it.

Hugh, in all truth, is trying hard not to think at all. The highway is hypnotic – not winding (no deviation), but occasionally undulating, up and down. Endless white dots are an arrow down the centre, an imperative leading straight to the horizon. Hugh feels as if the white dots power this road. The van is on a conveyor-belt; the white links are the chain on which the mechanism turns. The van rolls forward, propelled by white lines, and to Hugh it seems that speed and destination have been pre-set. A process is in train, and no choice remains but to keep the van on course.

“Where are we heading?” asks Liam, from the back. Part-Irish, part-Aboriginal, Liam is low-voiced and sleepy-eyed. He trusts Hugh.

Hugh does look away from the road. “Wherever the white lines take us”, he says, and Liam, who is used to Hugh’s deadpan humour, nods.

“You’re not still thinking of Jim and Derry?”

Hugh thinks too much. He loves Liam for his intuition; Liam can always tell what’s on Hugh’s mind.

“Naah”, Hugh mumbles, after a pause. He knows he should throw out a throwaway line. Failing anything suitably ironic, he bites his lower lip. Liam leans forward; all he can see of Hugh’s face from behind is the harshness of the ridges marking brow, eye, cheekbone and jaw. Hugh is craggy, closed and worn – sensitive to too-close scrutiny. Right now he feels alone. He can tolerate Liam, but Hugh’s glad the rest of the band is asleep.

The van crests a slight rise. Hugh feels completely disconnected. He imagines he is dreaming, sitting in the care of a long rollercoaster, staring at ground far below. In the dream his hands are off the wheel. He’s waving at the ground, and the expression on his face is amazed.

Over the rise, on the upwards side of an oncoming hill, a roadtrain is ditched. All down both lanes of the bitumen behind it are black and grey skidmarks, coiled tight, doubling back almost over each other. Gouges savage the sides of the road; gravel has thrown up banks, furrowed troughs. As Hugh drives by he stares at the truckie, squatting beside his broken rear axel. The truckie looks scared. Half-blocking the road on the far side of the truck is a long, dented wheatbin. All down the road, twice the roadtrain’s length, are its entrails – spilt wheat, training blood betraying a wound.

Hugh can’t take his eyes off that truck, that wheat, that man. In the late afternoon glare he sees the wheat’s brightness not as gold or blood-red but as flame. He sees Derry and Jim, trapped in the cabin of the roadcrew’s truck: Derry unconscious, barely breathing, Jim screaming, desperately trying to bash through fire. The truck, glowing molten, roars in the heat. It lies on its side, by the side of a highway. Jim can’t get out, and even in his dreams, Hugh can’t reach him. They’ve been trapped there in Hugh’s mind a year now.

“Here”, says Liam, gently. “I’ll drive…”roadtrain2_96694170

Author: Elly McDonald

Art lover. Loves her family and her dog. Worked in the Australian rock music industry as a journalist and published widely as a poet before moving to London and spending the better part of a decade in advertising agencies. Returned to Australia and briefly tried teaching, primarily teaching English to non-English speaking, newly-arrived refugees but also as a high school classroom teacher. Has travelled Western Europe, North Africa, Russia, Northern India, East Asia, coastal USA, some Pacific Islands, and Australia.

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