By Harry F Rey
We left our old life quite suddenly one morning before dawn. We’d been working in a busy country hotel in Mildura at the top end of Victoria until Dad shook me awake. “Mon lad, get up,” he said with an unknown fear written plain over his face. I never asked why we had to go. I never did.
Like all those times before, I packed a solitary backpack, still dusty from the last time moving, with a few clothes and things sixteen-year-olds have. He hurried around the office, clattering about and knocking things over. Not many minutes later we set off in silence and darkness, abandoning the few other staff that had loyally served him, the trunk full of things I didn’t know.
We drove straight out of town and crossed the state line into New South Wales just as the sun rose and began to bathe the bare brush of the land in the early light. The lines on the map just a different perspective on the roads sprawling out across the flat earth. No other activity passed our truck all morning, but the occasional farmer or doctor’s plane would cut low across the blue sky as we made our way north. When by lunchtime I dared to ask where we were headed, all he said was: “Time to go, son. Nae bother in hummin’ an’ hawin’ about the past now, is there?” In that broad Scots accent which he’d never been rid of, like the ghouls from his past.
We were out to find us a new place to work, he said. The rent there had been no good, or the water stopped working, or some other reason that wouldn’t stand up to scrutiny. But we just had to drop in on a few friends dotted here and there around the outback, then we’d be in the clear. I wondered what mess he’d left behind this time.
In a way I knew why we had left; to get away from all the things I didn’t know about. I tried my very hardest not to wonder, as I had for as long as I could remember. Our journey took us through the great tracks that cut through the bare land of the backcountry; the great Australian interior; home to travellers, criminals, and exiles.
Dad passed the time by telling me half-remembered stories of the land, or about great wars or what Bob Dylan was really singing about as we listened to tape after tape. I’d spent the year since stopping school working in his hotel, but this time with him was like a second education. Despite it all, the man who’d come from less than nothing, raised in a rainy Scottish orphanage before being shipped off to Australia, had the world to teach me.
Over days we drove on through fields of yellowed earthy brush plains and billowing wheat farms around the top of New South Wales. We reached so far North that we even skirted the edge of the tropics in the wet and humid green of Queensland, and passed through whole towns of dirt roads and blackfellas in the Northern Territory. We drove endlessly, crossing the dog-eared map that I’d lie in the back of the truck and study, on forever towards the horizon before a town might suddenly grow out of the bare earth.
Those days laying out on the back seat, kept cool by the air blowing through the open windows, with my back to wherever the sun happened to be, I did little else but study the maps. I learned the highways, the names of all the places in the bush and the lines that connected them. It was an unrealized, unknown fear of being lost on a whole continent that kept me reading, kept me learning the names of all the places we had named in this land.
Our stops offered some punctured relief from the journey. But we’d never linger, and each stop was essentially the same. Dad would make some calls from a payphone while I picked up supplies and looked for new tapes from whatever shops existed, casually avoiding stares or conversations. I easily looked like any other farm boy travelling through the harsh land for some unknown purpose. My tanned skin, sun lightened hair covered in a broad felt cowboy hat and a keen interest in maps and cassette tapes meant I easily blended into every place without suspicion. It gave Dad all the time in the world to conduct whatever business had caused us to be here.
Sometimes we’d take our truck to a flat-roofed house at the edge of the town and sit for hours until dark before Dad would get out and enter the house all of a sudden. At first, he’d pull together some bullshit story about visiting an old friend as we passed through, but towns later he wouldn’t bother, and I didn’t ask. I knew there were no friends, not in this state or any other.
Our purpose was as implied as it was unspoken. We’d pick up things from people, take them somewhere and drop them off with someone else. Back at the Mildura hotel, there was an evident but subtle truth that a shadow business carried on all around me, one I’d never wanted to know about, but so evidently affected my life whether I knew why or not.
One afternoon that slowly turned into purple dusk a good month after we’d begun the backcountry trip, we arrived at a town called Ceduna. My hazy dozing left in an instant as the name of the rusty place located itself in my head. We’d reached one of the last outposts of man on the eastern side of the great Southern continent. Somewhere not so far away was the sea. I could almost smell it. The rocks and edges of South Australia clashing against the Southern Ocean, held together by the A1 road that ran west along the cliffs. Beyond us, the sun set over a red, rocky callus earth. I looked out to the horizon that gave way to an infinite dreamtime desert, to the west.
Out there existed a land of green treed roads and feather-white beaches that frayed along a sunset ocean. The red sun that sank in front of us pointed the way. I realized what all those tales from Dylan meant, they were about the escape from the west. It was a different west, but in my mind, it was the same; it was freedom.
“Am gonnae drop you off next tae the bottle-o, all right? Wait for me there and I’ll be back in a couple of hours.”
Tires whirled up red dust and he sped away. There was no cricket oval to sit by or kids to watch. Just the open road. I kicked a rock that crumbled into a dirt clod, squeezed the twenty dollars in the back pocket of my cut-off denim shorts, and gazed around at the flat-roofed buildings. They were nestled to the side of the unpaved road as if afraid of being sucked into the desert by the great sandy monster. A breeze came in from somewhere and rustled the plants, perhaps from the ocean.
I spun around in a flurry of sparkling red dust. The man chewed tobacco like the men I used to pull pints for back in the Mildura hotel. He wiped oily hands on dirty overalls then brushed his grizzled face, half-hidden under a frayed red baseball cap. I couldn’t take my eyes off it, the cap. I’d never seen anything like it. The words NY Yankees were embroidered to the front in white stitching. I caught a glimpse of a metal clasp at the back. The visor perfectly rounded to shield his eyes from the sun. It wasn’t something from Target, it was real. A genuine artefact from the great American dream.
“You deaf, mate?” Lips chapped from the sun twisted like he’d found an injured joey who didn’t want to be helped, but soft blue eyes radiated some kindness to me.
“Waiting for my Dad. He’ll be back in a few hours.”
“So you just gonna stand here?” He looked around the dusty road. I took a glance myself but was afraid to ask whom I might bother. “I got some coolies in the back. You can come help me with the truck. Standing round here a dingo’ll get ya.” He gave a smoky laugh and clapped me on the shoulder.
I could do nothing but follow rubber boots as they scraped across the brush toward a tin-roofed workshop. The low-fi buzzing of bugs in still air soon joined by the sound of machines plugged into electricity and the humming of an old fridge.
I found a perch on top of a pile of giant tires that gave me a side-peek to the road should Dad come back and wonder where I was. The truck with its hood popped took up most of the space in the confines of the open-ended shed. A closed-door led to a connected house. I took another good look at the incredible red cap as he dived inside an eskie; even the back had a miniature Yankees logo stitched into it.
He must have been to America, I decided. He’d gone straight after high school. Probably with an older brother. They’d been to LA then flown to New York for a few days, and right in the middle of Times Square, he’d gone and bought a red baseball cap. The kind worn by the young blond boys that hit balls with bats in tight leggings then took showers together.
He threw me a beer and we cracked them open together. Embarrassed, I wiped dribbles of it from my chin.
“Where did you get the hat?” I asked. He hooked one side of his mouth up in a quizzical smile, a brushy upper lip from an unshaved smack of dirty blond hair which blended into dirtier blond skin. His lip looked like it could turn to a growl or a laugh with only a flick of an eyebrow.
“America.” He said, placing his beer down and diving back into the open truck surgery.
I nearly spat more beer out my mouth. If I was right about that, what else might I have divined? Sometimes I wondered if I had psychic powers, maybe from my mother, whoever she’d been. I always knew when a bar fight was about to break out. I could smell the change in the air. The way men looked at each other dropped like a storm approaching. The violence always bubbling under the surface just ready to froth up and spill all over everything. I felt their feelings often before they did.
“When were you there?”
“A long time ago.” His voice echoed from beneath the truck’s hull. “Before I took over this chop shop from my old man.” He came up for air and swallowed half the can in two great big gulps. A breezy interlude trundled over the brush and swept around under the tin roof, puncturing my lustful dreaming with the cold reality that night would come soon. “What’s your old man up to?”
The question was asked with the tone of underlying acceptance that men who leave their sons on dusty roads at the edge of great wildernesses were somehow up to no good.
“We’re heading west.”
“I guess. To the sea, anyway.”
“Perth’s nice. Quiet. Although not as quiet as here.” He glanced at me. I could feel his eyes running across the lines of my bare leg, tucked underneath me, my shorts perhaps now riding up a bit too much for polite company.
“Where’d you come from?” He now leaned against the truck, arms folded, inspecting me. A chill cut through my bones like a social worker had just entered the room, or I’d bumped into a teacher who asked why I didn’t come to school no more.
“Victoria. The country.” I swallowed a gulp of beer.
“Me and Dad get around.” The weight of his eyes lifted and he turned back to the truck.
“You know engines?”
“Uh, a bit.”
“Well get on over here and I’ll show you what I’m doing.”
I hurried over, eager for the opportunity to stand just a little too close. He did a double-take on me but carried on pulling stuff from the underneath. He talked about the engine and I listened, nodding to most of the things I already knew. But every time he moved his arm I got a chance to rest against his hot skin. To smell the moisture emanating from him, the underlying musk of sweat and manly stuff.
I felt the night-time hunger that creeps up in the silence of my darkened room before I sleep. The great and terrible monster that watches over me, day and night, sometimes hidden, but always there, inside my head.
The monster has many faces. A boy at school some time ago in silky purple football shorts that barely contained his milk-white muscular thighs. The young truck driver who sat and drank in Mildura hotel on his way to and from places. I always rushed to refill his glass, living on the winks he shot me and the times he called me son. Or any number of anonymous faces and bodies who passed me by on their ways and wanders. Those who let me sit and steal their images for the goings-on inside my head. Un-abreast of my thoughts and unaware that I feed their toned and tanned bodies to the monster in my head.
“You’re quiet,” Dad said to me as our truck shuddered along the night-time road, breaking the silent sound of darkness. “Did that bloke gie you the hat?” I pulled the frayed red brim further down my face, tucking myself and my monstrous smiles from Dad’s eyes.
“Good on him. Nice fella,” Dad said, now to himself. “Sorry, it took me a bit longer, son. But that’s us all done now.”
I turned around in the seat, the brim of the hat pushing against the window and giving just the right amount of pressure against my neck to make it almost comfortable.
The lines of the road flashed into existence then out into nothing. Illuminated by the presence of our headlights. If we had not been here to bring the light, would there be any road at all? Did it actually exist, this line in the map, a thousand miles long, or was it simply laid out before us because we decided to travel on it? Part of me wondered if there was really any west at all. I’d never seen it. Only the sun rising in the east then setting over mountains and desert. Only my Dad and maps told me it was real. And one of them lied to me. One lied all the time.
“We’ll get some good grub tomorrow, all right? First thing. In a few days, we’ll be there. You’ll like it, I know you will. A real beach, warm sand, endless ocean.”
This time the monster that came at night felt different now. Less like a monster, more like a friend. A friend who once gave me a beer, and who I helped with his truck while my Dad was gone for hours and hours. A friend who all at once made the monster real, but showed me there was nothing to be afraid of. Monsters made you feel bad, not good, and I felt so good. Monsters didn’t hug you tightly afterwards, kiss you on the cheek and give you their favourite hat they’d brought all the way from Times Square.
“I’m telling you son, things are better out west.”
Maybe this lost old man was on to something. I wasn’t lost, just unfound in unfamiliar surroundings. Going west meant going into the unknown. Not as me anymore, now I’d shed the virgin skin of a child. Now I had a token from someone else. My existence had been seen, acknowledged, desired. I’d been crowned with a lover’s gift. I was no more imaginary lines on a dog-eared map or the watcher in the shadow. I wasn’t lost, just undiscovered. Yet with the first inklings of the body of land, I could be. Now, going west, I could be real.
Harry F. Rey is an author and lover of gay themed stories with a powerful punch. He writes sex-positive stories that explore realistic queer lives and loves, including royal drama series The Line of Succession, the queer space opera epic The Galactic Captains, and outrageous gay romance All The Lovers. From contemporary to historical, romantic to dramatic, his books are packed with love and heartache, action and adventure and gripping characters which range from erotic shorts to galactic space operas to tender gay love stories. Harry strives to deliver plot-twisting, action-packed, edge-of-you-seat queer stories he wished he had growing up gay in Glasgow. Find Harry on Twitter @Harry_F_Rey and discover more about his work on his website.