Rebecca stirred from a restless sleep with a film of sweat wrapping her body. The kookaburras had laughed her awake and as she watched them through the gauze window, she envied their cool treetop perch. Despite the early hour, the sun had made a sauna of her canvas bedroom and she flung off the damp sheet with a heated huff. At the end of her camp bed her feet wore the outline of a thong, tattooed in dirt. It was week two of three and the constant grit was getting to her. Why any adult would choose to camp at the world’s dirtiest campsite was beyond her. When she grew up, Rebecca vowed to only holiday in luxury.
As she stepped out of the tent she tripped on the zippered doorway, but frustration gave way to relief in the fresh air. There were no signs of life from her parents’ tent so she set off on the trek to the toilet. She had two choices. The first, a two-cubicle hut, was frequently out of paper and full of spiders. But it was close. The second was cleaner and arachnid-free, but she wasn’t sure her bladder could hold out for comfort. As she stepped through the wire fence onto the bush track, Rebecca kept a close eye on the ground for red ants. These dragons of the dirt were afraid of no-one, they stalked the path with aggressive commitment, rearing up on their back legs and flashing their fangs at anyone in their way. She’d tried squishing one once with her sneakered foot, but it just unfurled and reasserted itself with renewed intent.
As she passed behind the other tents in her row, she avoided the gaze of the breakfasting campers, suddenly self-conscious of her skimpy nightie. Not that it mattered. That was the funny thing about camping; it was fine to parade around in your pyjamas. But it was hard not to stare as big fat ladies in brunch coats aimed for the amenities, their unfettered boobs swinging with every step. Thankfully, the toilet block was empty, the paper roll full and the spiders scarce.
The walk back to the campsite was a more leisurely stroll without the pressure of her bladder hurrying her along. But the red-ant vigilance persisted and she kept a keen eye on the sandy track, almost missing a big goanna that crossed her path on the hunt for a snack. She watched as he meandered into the bush, unfazed by the kookaburras who’d broken into a frenzy of song, frightened for the safety of their freshly laid eggs. As she followed the lizard’s gentle climb up a towering gum, the spell was broken by a flash of pink in the grass. With a more studied squint it appeared to be flesh, an unexpected hint of human. She approached it with curiosity and caution, looking behind to check she wasn’t too far from safety. About a metre away, she noticed that it was indeed flesh, flesh that belonged to a big toe, a man’s toe attached to a man’s leg that led to a man’s body that was, as the buzzing flies around his bloody head signalled, very dead. Reality hit with the sudden waft of a foul miasma and she dry retched, her body heaving over a termite mound. As she caught her breath, she had another quick glance to check she wasn’t hallucinating before sprinting back to her tent as fast as her dumpy legs would allow, the dread of ant bites a now incomparable fear.
“Muuuuuum!” she screamed, “Muuuuuum!”
Troy sat at his dining table staring at the mound of cash before him. $1700, his biggest win ever. Not that he’d played much; his dad had disapproved of gambling. But now it was just Troy, he was free to splash his cash about as he pleased, although he felt a twinge of guilt at having put some of his meagre inheritance through the pokies. Oh well, at least it hadn’t been for nothing. He spread the pile of fifties out in front of him, before carefully counting each one into a neat pile again, the old bird facing up, her grim face a depressing contrast to his child-like glee.
Troy looked around the dingy shack and imagined all the ways he could spend the dosh. Paint for the mouldy walls, a rug for the stained floor, or perhaps a leather lounge and a flat screen tv. Picturing his dad’s pleasure at Troy making his old house a home, some of his pangs of conscience dissipated.
But right then what he needed was another beer and he headed to the kitchen. While the old Kelvinator was looking a bit worse for wear, it still kept his longnecks drink-ready and as the twist top released with a hiss, he relished the sight of the amber gold flowing into his schooner glass. With a fart and a nudge of his balls, Troy shuffled back to the table to sit once again with his new wealth.
Having spent a schooner-length of time staring at the cash, Troy felt the call of nature and headed to the loo. As the longneck drained from his bladder, he studied the picture above the cistern, a Swiss scene of idyllic meadows with a windmill in the distance. Or was it Denmark? Troy neither knew nor cared.
Flushing and reefing up his shorts, he caught a movement through the frosted window. Strange, the neighbours were away and he wasn’t expecting visitors. With his ears pricked, Troy returned to the table and stashed the money in the sideboard. The thud of the closing drawer was echoed by the click of the side gate and he moved silently towards the back door. As his hand reached for the latch, the door flew open and a figure lunged at him with a cricket bat poised to strike.
“G’day mate”, the intruder greeted him with misplaced calm. “Saw you had a bit of a win back there.”
“W,W,What? Dunno what you’re talking about.”
“I saw ya, mate. Now where is it?”
“I, look, I” Troy stuttered for an answer before offering, “What about half?”
“The lot, now!”
Calculating his chances as he stumbled back towards the dining room, Troy turned and made a dash for the front door. Bursting outside he looked frantically about for signs of life, but the street was deserted. He heard the front door slam shut and running steps in pursuit so he made for the caravan park across the road. The nearest entrance was a bush path behind the campsites and he headed for it in the hope his assailant would lose his way in the unfamiliar terrain.
No such luck, with a twist of his head he saw the cricket bat looming closer. Troy turned and tried to shout, but his heaving breath rendered him silent. It was too late anyway. The bat cracked across the back of his skull and he fell face first into a red ant’s nest, the burning bites of their angry fangs his final earthly sensation.
Olivia rifled through her suitcase, throwing t-shirts, shorts and underwear on the floor. Realising the futility of her search, she flopped onto the bed and considered the mess she’d created. On top of the pile was a frilly pair of knickers, totally impractical for camping, but she had thought perhaps useful in returning some spark to her marriage. Fat chance, their holiday had descended into what seemed like one long argument and she despaired at the thought of staying for another week.
As she moved the knickers aside with her toe she saw that the lace was coming away from the elastic and the satin had yellowed. Underneath was a green t-shirt with a bleach stain on the fraying hem and next to that a faded pair of jeans worn away in the crutch from the constant rub of her ample thighs. She couldn’t remember the last time she’d treated herself to a new outfit and she couldn’t envisage a time when she would.
But anyway, she’d promised her daughter a trip to the movies after an awful day, so resumed the hunt for her only decent blouse. Having emptied her case she thought that perhaps she’d put it in with her husband’s things so opened his bag. His collection of clothes was just as woeful as hers with washed-out shirts on top of ragged shorts and tatty boxers. As she rummaged through his holey socks she noticed a strange bulge in a zippered pocket. Prising apart the metal teeth she took an involuntary whoosh of breath. Money, more money than she’d seen in a long time. Suddenly aware of the transparency of the tent she crept over and pulled down the window flap. With privacy secured she slowly took the wad from the pocket and counted 34 golden notes. Bloody horses, she thought as she shoved the find back into its hiding place and made sure to return the bag to where she’d found it.
Olivia stepped out of the bedroom into the front room and saw last night’s raw steaks going bad on the table. She wasn’t going to move them though. It was his fault they were spoiled and she wasn’t going to give him the satisfaction of destroying the remnants of another boozy night out. She sat down and waited for him to get back from his hangover-cure swim. That money would not go undiscussed.
Brian stared down at the red and white ticket. He knew these slips of paper like the back of his hand, but he needed this one to be his lucky charm. The pencil danced over the little boxes as he debated spending his last $100. He glanced up at the clock, it was 8pm. The horses were finished so he had to take his chances on the dish-lickers. He knew his wife would be tut-tutting in the tent as the steaks went uncooked, but he didn’t want to face her now. He was three sheets to the wind and on a losing streak. No time to front the missus.
He scratched $50 each way on race six, number three and fed the ticket through the machine.
“Hundred bucks, thanks mate.”
As Brian handed over two fifties, he felt a steely rebuke from the old lady on the notes and hung his head. Perched on a stool with a beer in his hand, he waited for his race, his foot tapping out an anticipatory beat on the garish carpet. If this didn’t come off, Brian was screwed.
Finally, the greyhounds of race six broke from the boxes and bolted for the irretrievable bunny. Funny, he thought, the plight of these hapless creatures on a sprint to nowhere was much like his own. As they turned into the home stretch, Brian could see that his fate was sealed. While number three wasn’t coming last, there was a cricket pitch between him and the leading dog with another two in between. Without waiting to witness his final humiliation, Brian scrunched up his ticket and sloped towards the enticing trill of the poker machines.
Having fished a dollar from his pocket, he slotted it into his favourite game, the Queen of the Nile, and watched the pyramids, Cleopatras and eyes of Horus whir into a hypnotic blur. Clunk, clunk, clunk, the symbols fell back into place and Brian pumped his fist in victory. Three pyramids, he’d won the feature. He revelled in the daggy electronic music as he watched his ten free games spin away. His 100 credits turned into 500 and he felt sure the tables had turned. Upping his bet, he pressed the button again, sure he could go back to his wife with his head held high. Clunk, clunk, clunk, a winless spread of symbols filled his screen and his credit returned to zero. Adding insult to injury, the silence of his machine amplified the triumphant tune coming from the back of the room. Brian slunk from his chair to sneak a look at the bastard who’d pulled a rabbit out of the hat. Sitting in front of a sea of dancing coins was a young bloke wearing a stupid grin doing a solitary jig as his credits flew up and up.
Brian backed away with a sigh and while he could have murdered a bourbon, he took his empty wallet outside. Stepping away from the buzz of the club, he felt a wave of nausea and he just made it to the bushes as a flood of beer cascaded from his guts. He fell on his backside with a thud and felt the anger rise from his churning belly.
Why should that little dweeb have all the luck, he thought. I bet he hasn’t got a wife and kid always whinging at him for money. School this, groceries that. They could all go to hell. So deeply engrossed had he become in his misery that he almost missed the young bloke come stumbling down the steps. He passed by not noticing the pathetic figure of Brian, who pierced his cashed-up back with hateful eyes.
He hadn’t meant to follow him, but Brian found himself mesmerised by the checks on his shirt and he stumbled along behind him at a safe distance. Hidden behind a tree, he watched the winner let himself into a rundown shack and as the lights went on, Brian turned towards the campsite.
The row of tents leading up to his was pitch black, the young families inside having turned in for the night. He imagined his wife lying awake in his bed and he scowled at the thought of the dressing down he was in for. As he reached the neighbour’s tent, he tripped on the tow bar of their trailer and hit the dirt with a dusty whump. The throbbing in his head intensified and he felt the red mist descend. Lying in fury he searched the darkness until his eyes finally rested on the red handle of a cricket bat.
Rebecca’s discovery was the talk of the shower block. As she stood under the soothing spray, she heard whispers from the surrounding cubicles.
“Sounds like he was murdered.”
“Nah, pissed I reckon.”
“Little girl found him.”
“I know, poor thing.”
Rebecca felt disappointed at the ‘little girl’ tag, but important at having been the one to provide such juicy gossip. Under the door she could see the shuffling shadows of feet in the queue, but she took her time, feeling deserving of an extra hit of cleansing.
“Come on love, you’re not the only who needs a wash.”
Rebecca stepped carefully into the dry section of her stall and as she dressed with delicacy, careful to avoid dropping her clean knickers on the sandy tiles, she pondered what lay ahead. The police had spoken to her parents and the other campers, but no-one knew what had happened. Or if they did, they weren’t telling her. Her mother was convinced he’d been murdered, but her father leaned towards a less dramatic solution and was determined they see out their holiday.
Feet finally clean and hair washed, Rebecca set off for her tent. And she wasn’t the only one. Throngs of campers were heading towards her road, the dust flying from their hurried feet ruining Rebecca’s brief moment of feeling fresh. She tucked in behind an old couple she recognised from the permanent vans and eavesdropped as they speculated.
“I wonder who it is.”
“He put up a fight, someone said.”
Mary from the shop caught them up and butted in.
“Who’ve they arrested? Do you know?”
“No, but we’ll soon find out.”
The crowd was gathering at the end of Rebecca’s road and she squeezed through to the front of the pack. There was a policewoman holding them back, but through the melee, Rebecca could make out a scene at her parents’ tent. Avoiding the feeble attempts to hold her back, Rebecca raced towards the paddy wagon.
Her father was lying on his front in the dirt, a policeman cuffing his hands behind his back. At the sound of his daughter’s voice, Brian lifted his head and met her eyes. To his right, Olivia sat sobbing with the neighbour, a defeated figure in patched culottes.