He rolled into the Simpson’s Gorge with the intention of hunting down a mechanic. His vehicle was having issues, classic campervan problems like the CD player glitching on an eternal loop of Slim Dusty’s Greatest Hits and the kitchenette cupboards banging open on every bend. Those, however, were an easy fix with duct-tape and an ocky-strap. He was in need of a mechanic, this was a professional job. The engine light had been glowing for a solid ninety kilometres and made strange hissing sounds when he stopped to pop the bonnet, but he was too far from the Alice to turn back.
Simpson’s Gorge had a self-contained truck-stop with adjacent caravan park, a line of motorhomes with fringed awnings and potted succulents, unphased by the furnace-breath breeze. A transient space for the ones who chose to rest their calloused feet under yellowing bedspreads. The independent petrol station backed onto a general store-come-pub complex, which boasted ‘The Coldest Beer In The State’. Beyond that, the gorge glittered silver sparkles in the late afternoon sun and flocks of lime budgerigars peppered the deep blue sky. Smears of white in the distant blue hardly threatened a drop of rain. Not that the area needed it of course- the gorge overflowed with still waters, the occasional ripple of aquatic life surfacing for just a moment, or two.
Jerking about his legs, he arched his back and heaved a mighty yawn. He hoiked up a wad of phlegm and noted its grit as flecks of red dust congealed on the ochre earth. He walked through the petrol station, paused to delight an aviary of caged finches, then pushed into the general store. A splintering piano covered in old leather boots adorned the front porch and a dusty kelpie raised its eyebrows as he passed. Beyond the holey fly-screen, the general store was a few degrees warmer than outside, accompanied by the low hum of a freezer sporting ‘fresh calamari’ well past its use by date. Dust stirred about his shoes as he rested his elbows on the counter beside a glass terrarium housing a thick web and a very active Black Widow spider.
A sun-kissed woman in her mid-forties came up to the counter flaunting her leathery breasts spilling from a low-scooped singlet. “How ya doin’ love? I’m Lorna.”
“Yeah, not bad thanks. Look, I’m after a mechanic. Stupid vans, can never trust ‘em.” He flashed her a smile.
The woman leaned forward and he noticed the faint smell of jasmine. “I’m sorry sweetpea, just missed him. He comes back next Monday, you in a rush?” This threw the man a little. He cleared his throat and rubbed the back of his neck. This wasn’t ideal, but maybe the unscheduled pit-stop would grant him a little ‘me-time’.
“Uh, sure, I- well would I be able to stay till then?”
With a bat of her eyes, she perked up, “Absolutely! Stay as long as you like, in fact stay forever if you want!” she joked. “Don’t be a stranger, make yourself at home. Want a spacious room?”
“Nah, think I’ll just stay in the van, yeah. Get a lot of privacy in these parts?”
“For sure. I’ll come hook you up to the electricity and water, that okay? ‘Far as privacy goes, you could scream for days and no one would hear you for miles. Pure bliss. Sure you don’t wanna stay in one of my vans? Gets cold at night.”
“Um, actually,” he stammered. “No need to worry about hooking me up. Looks like your pub should do the trick,” he winked.
“Sure, no dramas,” she smiled. “There’s a long drop, but that’s it for amenities. If you need a wash, most of the campers go to the gorge. Want me to fix you up something for dinner?” The thought of a lump of rare steak got his blood pumping. In a flash, she was serving him, then sat herself beside him. A cockatoo sat perched on a bar stool and cocked its head to the side. “Don’t mind Jack, he’s my precious boy. Anyways, wanna come back to my cabin for a couple of drinks after I close shop? My treat.”
He looked down to his navy workman’s singlet and thickly haired arms. “Sorry love, you’re too good for me.”
“Oh, stop it! Catch ya, love” and as she took his empty plate, he gave her slap on the ass and she shrieked. Before he left the store, he bought a packet of deep red hair dye, a half-litre of grape juice, some crackers and marmalade.
Back in the campervan, he crawled up the ladder to the double-bed overhanging the driver’s seat, unfastened the safety net and rolled himself beside a girl. Her breathing was slow, her wrists bloodied from where the cable ties bit into her, her streaked mascara created a dry roadmap of enlacing lines. He snaked in beside her and lay on his stomach.
“Got us some wine to celebrate our little holiday! Well, it’s only grape juice, but it’ll do. Got you some crackers too, and some marmalade. What a smorgasbord! It’ll be like having High Tea.” Her eyes fluttered and she gasped, coming to her surroundings. At this, he started, climbed back down the ladder, grabbed a syringe of ketamine and jabbed her in the neck.
“Phoar. Anyways, I bet you’re up for a wash. I’ll help you. It’ll be nice. Got some dye for your hair too. Jean was more of a red-head see, but you’ll do.”
Her eyebrows twitched as sweat trickled and tears surged. He loaded up a sling bag with things for the picnic and grabbed the rug, planning to give her hair a quick rinse through, and watch the sunset by the water. Afterwards, well that was up to how she behaved in public. “Remember these?” he showed her the wire-cutters and bamboo toothpicks before slipping them into a side-flap. He added a wink too, for he loved her reactions; her breath quickening, her lips quivering. He found paralysis most effective, almost thrilling. It was like playing with a doll, only softer and warmer. He could do anything he liked.
He hauled her up onto his back for a piggy back, pushed open the door and trudged on into the twilight.
The water at Simpson’s Gorge was clear. Murkier in the depths as shadows moved with a thick silt to create a cooler undercurrent. A willy-wagtail kept watch and a water monitor sunbaked in the last rays of the day, leering over at him from a couple of yards away. The water lapped the banks where he very carefully lay out the picnic rug and meticulously arranged the food and drink. He inspected his fingers, dismayed that such a delicate job be done by dirty hands such as his- red dirt was caked under and around his fingernails.
He lay her down on the water’s edge and tore open the auburn hair dye with his teeth. He didn’t need to read the instructions, his hands ran on autopilot. He undressed her, trying unsuccessfully not to reopen any old wounds from before. Her fresh blood coursed in a steady flow into the water like a ruddy stream- must’ve pulled off a few crusty scabs. At that, the reeds began to rustle as the wind picked up a melancholy howl through the gorge. The water monitor looked on, unblinkingly. As her body became submerged in the water, the undercurrent seemed to draw her in. The silent waters of the gorge were no longer still and the mud sucked her down.
He rinsed her hair. In the water, the red plume clouded with her rusty blood. With the gradual lapping of the water, her ivory skin became enveloped in a thick mask of river mud, and silt. The nutrients from the ancient waterhole soothed her wounds and clothed her after he had so salaciously undressed her. Her shoulder-length hair splayed out into the water, like searching tendrils.
He was stopped mid-rinse by a whisper among the reeds and a rustle from behind. He turned to see the monitor destroying his High Tea set-up, then it locked eyes with him. Covered in red dye up to his elbows, he hitched up his waterlogged shorts and made for the reptile, fire welling in his chest. The willy-wagtail whistled an alarm that set off a chorus of shrieks from all around him, setting off the caged finches from the pub. Jack back at the Lorna’s bar cried in reply.
The calm waters offered the girl solace and cool respite. She slipped into the shallows.
He turned. “What. The. Fuck.” It all happened so fast. One minute she was there, the next, well there wasn’t even a ripple. He spent a good fifteen minutes searching the empty shoreline, in a heavy silence, wading in for his exquisite Jean.
After some time, he felt the bite in the air that came with dusk. He wandered in a confused daze back up to the lights. Lorna was wiping down all the surfaces, making sure all the glasses were streak-free. The captive spider reared up and Jack the cockatoo screeched when He walked in.
“Ready for that night cap?” she purred.
“Fuck me, been a helluva day.” He slumped on a bar stool.
She sidled up to him, and perched herself on his side of the counter. “Tell me ‘bout it, love? Been a while since… well it’s been a while.” She caressed his neck.
“Don’t really wanna talk about it.” He hung his head in his hands.
“Your hands, is that the dye you bought earlier?” She stopped touching him, her brows knitted. He had nothing to say. “Did you bring a woman here? And after you was flirtin’ with me so? After you lead me on?”. They locked eyes.
He recalled the sting of the smack. He filled his fist with her hair, breathing in her floral scent and closed his eyes. He could dye her hair too, he figured. She would do as a replacement. “I love way you smell,” he panted.
Spying the auburn dye and the red caked under his nails, she tilted her head. She plastered on a saccharine smile, the kind of smile that doesn’t reach the eyes and regained composure. “Come here, pumpkin.” She planted a sticky kiss on his cheek. “Lemme show you somethin’.”
She took him by the hand into the darkness outside, peering over her shoulder at him. “This is the long drop I was telling you about. If you look inside, you can see where all the lovers have etched their initials.” He stalked into the outhouse and peered into the black abyss. “It’s kind of a thing around here. Leave your mark behind. Wanna leave yours?”
He felt a blinding crack on the back of his head, then tumbled into the blackness.
Lorna hotwired the engine of his campervan and backed it up beside all her Winnebagos.
With the threat removed, the gorge returned the girl. She resurfaced at daybreak.