In June she sold the house and on the first of July Detta cycled west out of Townsville with a tent, a small gas cooker, a bicycle repair kit, and no clear idea where she was going.
The Flinders Highway was busy and she had to concentrate to steer clear of passing road trains so they didn’t suck her under with the vacuum they created. She watched the tarmac ahead, and listened for sounds of trucks behind. Her mind was focused on that base instinct: to stay alive.
Detta pedalled hard. Her bike, an expensive Trek with Kevlar tires, had been a present from Jack on her fortieth, last year. She made good time. Fifty kilometres whizzed past before she knew it and when a rest area appeared with a sign, 23 hour camping allowed, she figured it was as good a place as any. She slowed, turned, hopped off her bike and nearly fell to the ground: jelly legs. She steadied herself and set up camp as the sun sank behind the branches of gum trees. A chill rose around her. Scenes from Wolf Creek flashed through her brain. An older couple camped fifty metres away with a massive caravan and satellite dish and she didn’t speak to them—just smiled and waved—but as darkness descended she felt a comfort in their presence.
Suddenly she was starving. Detta boiled a packet of instant noodles and scoffed them down, sitting on a flimsy travel towel in front of her tiny tent. They tasted better than she ever remembered instant noodles tasting. Opening another packet, she reached for the small gas cooker, decided against it and ate them dry. It was dark now and she watched the lights on the trucks hurtling past. Her muscles ached and she felt almost good until the tears came.
Jack was diagnosed too late. He should’ve gone to the doctor earlier; she should’ve made him go when he first had the headaches. The guilt hung like a weighty necklace she didn’t want to wear. She never liked jewellery or anything superfluous—even clothes felt redundant in northern Queensland. She always felt most at home in her own toned naked body—no fat, nothing extra.
Detta packed the food away with a headlamp—another gift from Jack—and crawled into a sleeping bag, also purchased by her husband. He’d liked camping shops more than camping—they went just the once, could that be?—to Hinchinbrook Island which was wild, green, full of a hundred thousand mozzies. And yet, when she thought of the island now—his sweaty body inside a tent, cockatoos screeching at dawn—it hung in a cloud of nostalgia.
Tucked inside her sleeping bag there was no escaping the loneliness of a one-man tent. But it was better than sleeping in the double bed they’d shared, the one he died in, and she congratulated herself on defying everyone’s advice. What did they know? Their husbands were still alive. She slept through the night for the first time in weeks.
Sun streamed through her tent just before seven and she woke with a shiver; it was the kind of inland cold that made her wish for summer. Jack was from Scotland, East Kilbride, just outside of Glasgow and used to tell her she was crazy to ever wish for summer in this country.
She ate muesli without milk, boiled water for instant coffee. A bird came down and pecked at an oat on the ground. Was it a wren? He would know, he would have chastised her gently for not knowing. She felt a deadness on her, like a snake skin she’d someday shed, but wasn’t yet ready to wriggle free from.
Then she was on the road, pushing pedals, focusing on the trucks, using all her energy to get to some place different. The landscape was mountainous, green—greener than Townsville. Brownsville. She cycled through Charters Towers and stayed in a caravan park on the edge of town, her tent dwarfed by the RV next to her. A couple of grey nomads sat in chairs under an awning, looking as if they’d sat there for years. “Fancy a drink?” the man asked. She didn’t. Nor did she fancy conversation. She dreaded the shadow that fell on people’s faces when she told them she was a widow. She’d end up consoling them.
“Thanks, but I’m knackered.” Knackered, his word.
The following day she pedalled up and down hills on narrow roads with road trains driving dangerously close. Then she saw a large snake, light in colour, three metres long, head raised—a taipan? It was on the shoulder and she veered into the road to miss it just as cars were coming in both directions. There wasn’t time to think. The car behind her slammed on its brakes, the other slowed and swerved into the verge; it happened fast—a screech of brakes, a cloud of dust—she wobbled, stopped breathing. And then the cars were gone. And the snake, too. She cycled on, alert, scared, wondering what on earth she was doing.
That night she camped for no fee behind a pub in Pentland, population: 250. Inside, a TV showed the news from America and a plump barmaid asked, “What are you after? We don’t have any beers on tap.”
Detta ordered mineral water with lime. They didn’t have lime. They had water. She played with her phone, avoided eye contact, but the barmaid persisted, “Where ya headed?”
“Go west, da da da da da . . .”the barmaid sang. “What’s your name?”
“Detta,” she said, speaking for the first time all day. “It was Bernadette before Pricilla came out. I was at uni, copped it bigtime for having the same name as a drag queen.”
They talked then about drag queens and bicycles and American politics. Those crazy Americans, they like their billionaires. Again, the expression was his. How much of her came from him?
The next day the landscape changed again: green faded to brown, fewer hills, still plenty of trucks. She had to concentrate, but there were periods between the trucks when she could let her mind wander to her life before, to Jack. He never wanted kids; she was childless. He wanted to save for one big holiday instead of lots of little ones, but they never got to the big holiday; they paid off the house instead. When she sold it last month and cashed in the life insurance, she bought gold, as Jack had advised. A safe option, but it felt odd now that all she owned was a bar of gold, 12.4 kilos. A block of gold inside a safe. Useless, really. What could you do with it? She was living off money earned from the sale of their cars and furniture and, at this rate, she could cycle round the whole of Australia for a year or two. There was so little to buy out here.
Beer cans dotted the side of the road and although she neither drank, nor approved of people littering, she pictured someone cruising down the highway, music turned up, swigging the last dregs of beer and tossing it out the window with wild abandon. Surely that was the definition of freedom.
She was thinking this when a group of young blokes in a ute drove past. She was expecting trouble, but they gave her a wide berth, smiled, waved. She tried to remember her own youth: where did it go? What did she and Jack do with all their years? Films on Friday nights, sex on Sunday afternoons. They worked—she in the most unlikely of jobs. Detta’s degree was in geography, but getting a job after uni proved harder than getting As, especially back home in Townsville, and she’d ended up at the front desk of the local gym; later she became a personal trainer and later still, she trained personal trainers. But training someone else to train a fat person to be fit is hardly fulfilling and she’d begun thinking of changing careers when Jack got the diagnosis.
West of Pentland was flat and dry. In a few days she was cycling down a dead straight road with the wind behind her. Someone or something was drawing her to the centre. In Mount Isa she bought a beanie and wore it to bed along with all her clothes. The nights were freezing and she was grateful for her down sleeping bag. The further west she pedalled, the more desolate it became—no towns for a hundred kilometres, a prospect at once liberating and terrifying.
She got to Camooweal and crossed into the NT without fanfare. She kept going—she wasn’t sure where or why—but she felt now that her body was part of the bike, and the bike was at one with the tarmac and the ground beneath as she pedalled through a treeless outback on a road that was straight and flat with hardly any cars, let alone trucks. She passed the odd four-wheel drive towing a caravan, fellow-travellers like herself, who smiled and waved and tooted their horns. The sky was big, the wind was strong and she flew along the Barkly Highway (the name had changed but the road was the same) away from the east and everything she’d ever known.
Then she saw him: cowboy hat, tight jeans, a man on a horse on the side of the road. So unlike Jack,
“G’day,” she said. She hadn’t spoken to anyone in two days. She was exhausted to the point of delusion and the situation felt ridiculous, hilarious. She laughed.
“Where are you going?”
“I can see that. Come in, I’ll get you a drink.”
She got off her bike and walked it, following him to a house not far off the road. She was hoping for water, but out here it was tea before noon and Fourex after; she took the gold can and drank—at least it was cold. Detta asked about his cattle station, how many head and he told her but she didn’t hear; she was distracted by the way he moved—deliberate, confident, so unlike her clients back in Townsville. He’d probably never done an hour of “exercise” in his life.
“Another beer?” It was the second beer she’d drunk this year and she told him. He laughed. “No pubs in Townsville? What do you do for fun?”
“Bike, swim. I do triathlons.”
“For fun, I said.” He grinned. She told him what she did for a living and he nearly died laughing.
“I guess I’d be unemployed out here,” she said.
“I guess. Personal trainer? I thought they were only in Sydney.”
She thought about going then, but he turned to get another beer and his bum looked good in those jeans. She was half-cut after one can—half-cut, there it was again, her dead husband’s mouth in hers. She felt unfaithful, not telling the man on the horse about Jack, but their conversation had been light—where to slip in widowhood?
Detta put up her tent outside his house and came in for a shower while he cooked steaks on the barbie. The shower tiles were brown with soap scum and mould, but the hot water felt good on her skin. He had shampoo, which she used for the first time in weeks, but no conditioner. He had to be single. But why? Any single man at 40 had a history—she wondered how many kids before telling herself it didn’t matter. She was just passing through.
“Personal trainer,” he said again as they sat with steaks, white bread, corn out of a can. “You should send them out here to work. I’ll get ’em fit.”
“Sounds like reality TV: Fatty on the Farm.”
He smiled. “You’re pretty fit. How many Ks a day?”
“Depends. On hills, wind. A hundred and fifty today.”
“Fuck!” he looked her straight in her eyes. She looked away, embarrassed, proud.
“You should stay here, rest up a couple days. You like to swim? There’s a creek on the property—no crocs. It’s running now. You ride a horse?”
“Once, as a kid. That creek must be freezing.”
“I’ll take you for a ride tomorrow.”
She refused to sleep in his guest bedroom, insisting on the tent. “I’m used to it,” she said, but fell asleep wishing she were inside and hoped he’d ask again the next day.
Detta woke to the sound of a rooster. When she went to the toilet, he was already up and dressed, cowboy hat and all. “Coffee?”
She nodded, making her way to the toilet.
“I just got to feed the animals,” he shouted after her, as if they’d known each other years.
She splashed water on her face, brushed her teeth, wished she’d dyed her hair before she’d left. It was light brown streaked with grey, but smooth and straight in the dryness of this barren country. She’d left Townsville two weeks ago, but it felt like months. Her days away from civilisation were long and languid and she wondered, briefly, if she could live on a station, then she wondered why women always thought like this, six steps ahead? Was it evolutionary?
Detta drank her coffee curled up in a corner of his couch, but the house was cold and she went to get her sleeping bag. When he came in and saw her bundled up on his sofa, he said, “I never switch on the heat. Sorry—I will now.”
“No! No, it’s fine.” But there was an awkwardness that wasn’t there before.
“It’ll warm up today—not inside but out. We’ll go for a ride in an hour. Two? You can watch telly if you like.”
She shook her head. “Got any books?”
“Books,” he bit his lip. “Actually, yes. My sister, she lives in Brissie now, likes to store her stuff here. Come.”
His sister—was it really his sister?—had surprisingly good taste. Peter Carey, Margaret Atwood. Detta had always liked books. She didn’t like talking about them, hated writing papers back in school, and loathed the idea of a book club, but she liked to lie in solitude on a couch with the company of a good book. She picked up Tracks, thanked him and curled up on the sofa.
“Gotta fix a fence, see about a sick cow. Help yourself to anything. I’ve got Weaties.”
I’m sure you do, she thought. She was craving fruit, but all she found in the kitchen was a tin of peaches which she ate standing up, then drank the syrup and went back to the sofa, where she read until curiosity got the best of her. She rose, slowly, and walked around the room, picking up objects, examining them, trying to draw a picture of this man. There was a photo of him with two kids, no woman. The kids were little, but the photo could be old. A few hunting and fishing magazines were stacked on shelves next to a large snakeskin. There was a door and she wondered if she should go in. She opened it slowly. Her mouth dropped.
The room was filled with dead butterflies, shelves upon shelves of them, all labelled with their Latin names. And there was Jack’s favourite—the Ulysses—with its gigantic, brilliant, iridescent blue wings. Each dead butterfly was shut inside its own clear plastic box, a pin stuck through the abdomen. She heard the click of boots and quickly shut the door.
That afternoon they rode on horseback and swam in the cold creek. That evening they had sex in his bed and after, she told him about Jack. “I’m sorry,” he said and pulled her close. That was all, no attempt at consolation and she was grateful. She cried and he kissed her head and she fell dead asleep.
The next morning she woke in a foetal position with razor sharp pains in her stomach. Doubled over in pain, she groaned.
“You OK?” he asked. “Is it my cooking? Is it that bad?”
She tried to laugh, held her breath, waited for the pains to subside.
She knew then that she had to go. After breakfast Detta filled her water bottles in his sink.
“Stay,” he said, putting his hand over hers until the cold water ran over. She pulled away and turned the tap off.
Then she was packed and ready, hands holding the bike, looking at the creased face of the stranger she’d slept with. She didn’t regret him and she wasn’t sure why she had to go, but there was something tugging at her. “Thanks, but. . .” She put her helmet on. “One thing?”
“You’ve been snooping,” he smiled. “Can’t a man have a hobby? They only live a day. Seems a shame to let all that beauty rot into the ground.”
“Right.” She thought: you don’t even let them live a day.
“Stop by on your way back,” he said, but she was off, pedalling down that long straight road.
As Detta cycled through the morning she realised she’d found it: a certain rhythm. Her skin was brown and her legs were strong and she looked forward to evening, to climbing into her tent and collapsing into sleep.
There was no way back now, only forward, with the wind carrying her along the Barkly Highway into the heart of the country, then south past Devils Marbles, to the Alice, then Uluru, where she’d stand on her own in the sun, breathing in that clear desert air, her hand on the sandstone, its ancestral beings still living—still alive—inside the ancient rock.
About the author
Sarah Klenbort has just moved to Brisbane after nearly ten years in Sydney, where she taught literature at Western Sydney University and creative writing at Sydney Community College and Waverley Library. Her fiction has appeared in Best Australian Stories, Overland, Island Magazine and various U.S. and U.K. literary journals.