WHEN ANGELS JUMP OFF
I considered my new leadership role a breeze, but I had yet to encounter mutiny in the Toyota.
My boss, called me into his office. “I want you to lead the group traveling with you in the van.” He glanced at me, wise hazel eyes over silver-rimmed spectacles. “Are you okay with that?”
“Sure.” As a former secondary school teacher, I imagined a straight-forward venture; an uneventful hike up the Highway to the Conference on Queensland’s Gold Coast. All that the leadership required of me was a slight detour into the countryside of Wagga Wagga to collect Bill.
“Who else will I be taking?” I asked confident to handle anyone in the Toyota Van with me.
“You’ll have Rob,” my manager said. I pictured tall, scruffy Rob, in his early twenties as the quiet observer. My boss cleared his throat. “And three youth.” Their ages and quantities of either gender remained fuzzy around the edges until I met them. “I’d advise that you don’t let them drive.”
On the morning of my maiden journey to the Conference, Rob, with Karen (17), Tania (16) and Tom (18), stood gazing out the window of the unit my husband and I recently bought. I mentioned the tall eucalyptus trees out the front of our home would have to be chopped down. My young visitors condemned the slaughter of trees. The group seemed harmless enough, if they loved nature.
By the afternoon we bounced along in the trusty Toyota van, through the magical high country, a blur of misty mountains, crisp green pine trees and miles of white line on the grey bitumen. We powered northwards through Bright, wending through Wodonga, and over the river through to Albury. As we approached Wagga Wagga, the sun cast dusky orange over the fields and rolls of hay.
“Where are we meant to turn?” Tania, the chubby brunette of the youth-trio asked. A melted puddle of red in the west was all that remained of our natural source of light. I turned on the head-lights.
“Should be soon. What does the map say?” At the helm, I flicked the switch to high beam and peered through the insect-splattered screen hunting the sign.
Karen leaned her bird-like frame through the gap in the front seat, her blonde fuzz tickling my cheek. She asked, “What map?”
Behind me paper rustled and chip packets crackled.
I pointed behind me. “It’s there somewhere.”
The lanky Tom rolled his blue eyes. I dared not admit that the road map had become the latest casualty in the rush to depart. Left behind! “Anyway, don’t worry. I’ve been to Bill’s farm before.” The turn-off must be around here somewhere. A sign shrouded in darkness flitted past. Too late! On I go.
Rob stared out the window at the fading shades of blue sky.
We charged along the highway, in and out of Wagga Wagga, I was sure that the turn-off was the other side of the town. “Not too far,” I said.
“What road did you say?” Karen asked.
“I’ll recognise it when I see it.” I hoped I would. In the dark. Strange how the road I want always has the sign missing. I sped onwards, white posts every tenth of a kilometre, their red reflectors winking at me.
But none of the road names seemed right. With Wagga half-an-hour behind us, each kilometre of searching for this elusive road ate into our time. “Are you sure you know where you are going?” Rob’s question annoyed me.
“It’s just up ahead.” I wasn’t about to admit that I had no clue. I’m good at navigation. I follow my nose.
“l think we should turn back.” Tom’s deep voice boomed from the rear seat. “We should call them and get directions.”
“It’ll be a waste of time, but if you insist,” I said and turned the van around and tracked back to Wagga Wagga. These were the days before mobile phones, so we hunted down a working telephone box. I climbed from the driver’s seat and into the crisp September night. While the others waited in the van, I phoned Bill and received directions. With the precious piece of paper detailing the road to Junee and subsequent route to Bill’s block, I marched to the driver’s side of the van, hopped in and turned on the ignition.
“Stop! We have to wait for Tania and Tom!” Karen yelled.
We waited. And waited. Half an hour later, the pair strolled up the Main, cradling fish’n chips in newspaper and nibbling at steaming Chiko rolls.
As they climbed into the cabin, I said, “We could’ve been there by now, Bill’s waiting.” However, Bill had some more patience to exercise. His directions were not straight forward and an hour dragged by as we meandered through the farm blocks, one false turn after another on our tour to Junee in the dark. Tom, the young man of Aryan features, sat between the sniggering Tania and Karen. They doted on him and while sipping Coca-Cola, he lapped up all the attention slathered on him. After occupying their mouths with greasy food, the smell of which lingered, the youth tribe grew bored and simmered with repressed rage.
Acid comments spat and floated around the cabin. “Aren’t we there yet?”
“Sure you know where you’re going?…We’re two hours behind schedule…This rate, we’ll never get to Brisbane.” Under pressure, my fine skills of navigation evaporated.
In the mist, a pin-point of light appeared on the side of the road to Junee. As we approached, a white ute emerged from the fog. Beside the truck, we saw a man waving a torch. It was Bill.
With Bill and his gear bundled into the van, we sailed onto Orange.
Some three hours late, Tom was not happy. “We’ll never get there in time.”
The girls cuddled each side of him and chorused their support. “Yeah, if our leader didn’t get us lost!”
Bill reclined in the row of seats in front of them, making no comment. Rob in the front passenger seat, dozed as he rested his curly mop on the window.
Petrol at Orange and the youth filled their tanks with lollies, chips and soft drink.
I found the “ladies”, a grotty dive around the corner. Tania ignored me as she primped her ebony bob and patted her round cheeks with blush in front of the scratched-metal excuse of a mirror.
I sauntered back over the cracked pavement of the service station to the van crouching by the pumps. Tom sat there, in my seat, hands hugging the steering wheel and a grin on his lips.
“Right, we’ve wasted enough time, I’m driving,” Tom said.
“Are you sure that’s a good idea?” I asked. Tom was 18, full of testosterone and a sense of immortality. “What about your P-plates?”
“Pff! Who needs them, we’re in the country,” Tom replied. “The cops won’t care.”
My manager’s warning echoed in my mind. Don’t let the youth drive. This was a company van. “l think it would be better if someone else drives.”
Bill stretched out, comatose on the middle bench seat, while Rob leant against the bonnet, eyes averted and licking an ice cream.
“Rob?” I pleaded.
“It’s alright.” He bit into the cone. In a languid tone, he said, “I’m sure Tom’s a good driver.”
Tania planted herself in the front passenger seat. She curled her lip and snarled, “Better driver than you. At least we’ll get somewhere.”
“Fine then, I hope you know what you’re doing.
“Relax! I know what I’m doing. We’ll be at the conference in no time,” Tom said and turned the key. The engine puttered contented with its new master.“Anyway, we’ve wasted enough time with you stuffing around.”
I gritted my teeth and crawled into the dark recesses of the Toyota. I chose not to fight this battle. I needed a rest, but had an uneasy feeling about the next few hours.
Our new driver, engaged the gears, and catapulted the car onto the highway. Tyres whizzed on the bitumen. I smelt burnt rubber.
Bill rolled off his seat and woke up with a start. “What’s happening?” He rubbed his eyes, and then batted at the wads of sleeping bags, sweet wrappers and lemonade bottles. He craned his neck peering at Rob and me each side of the back three-seater bench with Karen holding her duffle bag in the middle. Confused, he pulled himself upright using the driver’s seat and eye-balled Tom. Then he looked back at us, eyes wide. “What’s going on?”
“Don’t ask!” I said. Reflector posts and shadows of trees flitted past. In the dim light, the whites of Bill’s eyes glowed. “You’re letting him drive?”
He jerked his muscular arms. “Do you know how fast he is going?”
“What?” I peered at the speedometer. The needle hovered between 160 and 170 kilometres per hour. “Oh, crap.”
The vehicle mounted a low rise and flew for a few seconds. The floozies strapped into their respective seats and screamed as if they were on a roller-coaster ride.
Bill gripped my arm. “You’re in charge, do something.
I tried. “Hey, Tom, I think you’re going a bit fast, could you slow it down a little.”
Tom ignored my pleas and we watched the needle creep up to 180 km/h. “Tom, slow down,” Bill urged. He patted the lad’s arm. “You’ll get a speeding fine.”
“No, I won’t,” Tom said.
“We have to make up for lost time. We’re already three hours late,” Tania whined.
“So what if we are late?” I begged. “Better that, than dead on arrival.”
Tom’s Teutonic features hardened like flint, eyes staring through the screen, mouth a thin line set in grim determination, and his jumbo ears deaf to our pleas. The more we urged and begged, the more resistant he became and the more he pumped the accelerator. The more we feared for our lives.
“Come on, Tom. We don’t want to have an accident.” Bill put a strong hand on Tom’s shoulder. “The angels jump off when you go over the speed limit.”
“No they don’t.” Keeping his sight fixed on the road, Tom flicked the hand from him. “We have three hours to catch up. I want to get to Brisbane by the four in the afternoon.” The needle pushed up to 190 km/h.
Bill, Rob and I withdrew, accepting our fate and praying that the angels will hang onto the van for our sake. I was not sure how much time had passed. For a moment, time seemed irrelevant. All was clear, all was calm. I forced myself to stay awake. We pelted along the highway in the dark countryside.
Somewhere along the stretch of Tom’s speedway, we rearranged ourselves. Bill moved to the front passenger seat, and Rob and I sat in the middle row. The girls curled up in the back of the van, putting their full trust and unbelted bodies at the mercy Tom’s driving. Titan-size trucks, sympathetic to our driver’s need for speed, waved us on and we passed the road-trains of travelling tonnes of steel.
“The angels jump off at this speed, Tom,” Rob said and then yawned.
Tom laughed and made the whole van wobble and swerve into the gravel. He then swung the van to the wrong side of the road and stayed there.
“I’m not happy Tom! What do you think you’re doing?” I batted him. Blinding lights bore down on us. “Watch out, Tom!” I pressed my foot on an imaginary brake-pedal and screamed.
“Calm down, Grandma!” Tom laughed as he slipped back into the left lane with only millimetres to spare. The van shuddered with the slip-stream.
“God! That was close!” Bill wiped beads of sweat from his forehead.
“That’s nothing!” Tom pressed the throttle to the floor and relished the roar of the speeding engine.
The needle on the fuel gauge sank into the red zone. Hope. We would have to stop for petrol. Using my finger as a signal, I alerted Bill to the need for petrol.
“Phew! Pooh! What’s that smell? Rob! You’re disgusting!” Tania revived by the potent fumes fanned the stale atmosphere with a spare cushion.
“Who me?” Rob shifted his skeletal frame and adjusted his pillow.
“Ugh! That’s foul! I’m opening a window.” Karen yanked at the sliding window and stuck her permed head into the stiff breeze.
“Looks like we’ll have to stop,” I said.
“Are we there yet?” the brunette whined.
“I’m hungry, can we stop? I have to visit the ladies,” the afro blonde said.
“No, and we’re not stopping, we have to keep on going, or we’ll be late,” Tom said and then swerved. A kangaroo skittered off onto the embankment and into a clump of bushes.
“Aw! I’m bored! I want a break!” Tania said.
“Are we there yet? This is so boring! How far north do we have to go, anyway?” Karen flung empty chip packets around the cabin.
I jabbed Tom on his skinny arm. “The tribes are getting restless and we are running out of fuel, or haven’t you noticed.”
The two girls chanted, “Are we there, yet? Are we there yet? Are we there yet?”
I turned the map bought in Orange around in my hands. The signs seemed unfamiliar and did not fit the expected location. “I hope this is a shortcut.”
Screech! In a matter of seconds, Tom slowed the van to snail’s pace and eased into some northern New South Wales town. At the Shell Roadhouse, we piled out into the icy air, and milled around while the sleepy attendant filled our tank. I shuffled to the kiosk, but I was jaded with the nausea of no sleep and exited with nothing.
Bill had another go at Tom. “Isn’t it time to let someone else drive?”
Tom anchored himself in the driver’s seat and refused to budge.
As I loitered by the plastic-coated restaurant, the smell of cheap coffee and stale hamburger grease made me queasy. I contemplated quitting the tour of terror. I filed through the meagre amount of notes in my purse. I’ll get a bus home. Anything but get in that van again.
Bill hailed me. “You coming?”
The girls scuffed in their Ugg boots towards the Toyota armed with packets of fantails, cola and salt-and-vinegar chips. So innocent.
I sighed and made the decision to trail after them. My minimal influence was better than none at all to get us to Brisbane alive. All aboard and plugged in, on my insistence, Mad Tom Max revved up the engine and the van like a bullet shot out of the station and into the moonless night. I strained to keep my eyes open in the hours of imminent death, singing, praying and talking, willing myself not to fall asleep. Bill sat beside the driver, rambling in conversation to a young man focussed on one thing and that was to get us to Brisbane dead on time.
The grey light of dawn crept over the horizon to our right. On the side of the road a truck burned. Bright yellow flames leapt and danced within the cabin. Tom slammed on the brakes and the van screeched to a halt, skidding on the gravel. We jumped out to inspect the bonfire of truck metal. A man stood behind his truck shaking his head and watching the monster “Mack” melt and burn. I lifted my camera.
“Don’t!” Tania glared at me. “That’s not appropriate.”
My cheeks prickled with humiliation; the shame of it, a 16-year-old girl telling me what to do. I spent a few minutes’ vigil observing the truck driver’s unrecorded misfortune.
Not to be out-done in true and noble acts that show up their leader, me, Tom hopped from his seat of privilege and targeted the forlorn truckie to comfort. He asked if he was alright. He was. They nodded and commiserated over the loss of a magnificent vehicle. The truckie indicated that help was coming in the next half-an-hour. Tom turned and strode towards the van. As he passed me, he tipped his pointy nose up at me, and the smug smile pasted on his mouth read: Look what a good a virtuous guy am l!
Ready to step into the driver’s seat, his smile switched to a scowl. Bill perched in the coveted seat, a wide grin spread between day-old stubble. “I’ll take it from here, mate.”
As we passed a shimmering green sign with the name “Brisbane” in silver on it, Tom brooded in the back of the van. Couched either side of this red-faced man, the girls soothed him, whispering schemes of revenge. Rob rocked and rolled in slumber in the middle row under a pile of patchwork quilts.
We wound through the Great Dividing Range, and I rested my head while viewing the lush green hills and the white timber houses on stilts that grew and multiplied as the out-lying townships morphed into the suburbs of Brisbane. We arrived at the Conference centre 23 hours after departing Melbourne.
I thanked God. The angels had hung on, this time.
© Lee-Anne Marie Kling 2016
Photo: Queensland at Last (c) Lee-Anne Marie Kling 1989
Note: Story based on real events. Names and sequence of events have drifted into the realm of fiction.