“The End of the Road”, a short story

From the days of wandering the remote country towns of New South Wales in Australia.

 

The End of the Road

 

The man who had said that we would never make the distance was right.

It had been my idea to go ‘troppo’, forsake everything, hop on a motorbike and go around Australia.  I was, at that stage fed up with everything and, catching Harry in one of his low spots, he decided there and then he would join me.

For the first few days, we believed we were stark staring mad and talked about calling it quits, but perseverance made all the difference.  After two months we were glad we had the resolve to keep going, and in that time we had managed to see more of the Australian countryside than we’d seen all our lives.

That was until this particular morning when we arrived in Berrigum, what could have been called a one-horse town.  It consisted of one hotel, one general store (that sold everything from toothpicks to petrol) and an agricultural machinery depot.  It also had a station and some wheat silos, and this appeared to be the only reason for a town in this particular spot in the middle of nowhere.

And it was the railway station that interested Harry, who was, by this time, getting a little homesick and fed up with his motorbike.

After coughing and spluttering for the last week it had finally died, and the five-mile walk to Berrigum had not helped either his temper, or his disposition, and had only served to firm his resolve to return home.

It was hot but not unbearably so, unlike a hot summer’s day in the city, and even worse still in public transport.  For miles around as we tramped those five miles all we could see was acres and acres of wheat, but no sign of life.  It was the same when we reached the town.  It appeared all the people were either hiding or had left.  Harry suspected the latter given the state of the road, and the buildings, more or less the epitome of a ghost town.

Standing at the end of what could have been called the main street with only our own dust for company, one look took in the whole town.  In a car, one wouldn’t have given it a second look, if one had time to give it a first.  I didn’t remember seeing neither any speed restriction signs nor signpost advertising a town ahead.

And since no amount of argument could sway him from his resolve, the first objective was to get a train timetable, if such a thing existed, and make arrangements for Harry’s return.

The station was as deserted as the town itself, and a quick glance in the stationmaster’s office showed no sign of life.

Leaving the bikes on the platform outside the office, we headed for the hotel for both a drink and make enquiries about rail services.  Being a hot day and the morning’s tramp somewhat hot and dusty, we were looking forward to a cold glass (or two) of beer.

The hotel looked as though it was a hundred years old though there was no doubting a few relentless summers would reduce it to the same state.  It was as bad inside as out, though the temperature was several degrees lower, and we could sit down in what appeared to be the main bar.  We were the only occupants and still to find any sign of life.  Overhead, two fans were struggling to move the hot air around.

More than once Harry reckoned it was a ghost town and I was beginning to believe him when, after five minutes, no one arrived.

After ten, we stood, ready to leave, only to stop halfway out of our chairs when a voice behind us said, “Surely you’re not going back out there without refreshment?”

“I was beginning to think the town was deserted,” I said.

“It is during the day, but when the sun goes down…”

I didn’t ask.  We followed him to the bar where he had stationed himself behind the counter.  “The name is Jack.”  He stretched out his hand towards us.  “We don’t bother with last names here.”

“Bill,” I said, shaking it, and nodding to Harry, “Harry.”

Harry nodded and shook his hand too.

“The first one’s on the house.”  He poured three glasses and put ours in front of us.  “Cheers.”

In all cases, it went down without touching the sides (as they say) and he poured a second, at the same time asking, “What brings you to our little corner of the earth?”

“Just passing through,” I said, “Or at least for me.”

“And you?”  Jack looked at Harry.

“I can’t hack the pace.  I can truthfully say I have thoroughly enjoyed the trip so far, except for a few mishaps, but for me, it’s time to get back to the big smoke.  My ‘do your own thing’ has run out of momentum.  Do you know if there is a train that goes anywhere important?”

The publican looked at him almost pityingly.  “Important, eh?”  He rubbed his chin feigning thought.  “You make it sound like you are in purgatory.”

“Aren’t we?”

I suppose one could hardly blame Harry for his attitude.  After all, at the beginning, he had numerous accidents, caught a virus that stayed with him (and a couple of torrential downpours had done little to help it), and now his motorbike had finally died.  No wonder his humour was at an all-time low.

For a moment I thought the publican was going to tell Harry what he thought of him, but then he smiled and the tension passed.  “Perhaps to a city fellow like you it might be,” he said.  “The mail train which has a passenger carriage comes through once a week, and, my good man, you’re in luck.  Today’s the day.”

“Good.  How do I get a ticket?”

“You’d have to see the Station Master.”

“And where might he be at the moment?  We were at the station a while back and there was no sign of life.”

“Nor will there be until the train comes.  Meanwhile, there’s time enough for lunch.  I’m sure you will stay?”  He looked questioningly at us.

I looked at Harry, who nodded.

“Why not.”

 

Over lunch, we talked.

I remember not so long ago when I had to attend a large number of lunches where the talk was of business, or, if anything, mostly about subjects that I had no interest in.  It was always some posh restaurant, time seemed important, the atmosphere never really relaxed, and to get into a relaxed state it took a large amount of alcohol to deaden the despair and distaste of that one had to fete in order to secure their business.

How different it was here.

We talked about the country, and, after seeing as much of it, and worked on it as we had to fund our odyssey, we could talk about it authoritatively.  And, most of all, it was interesting.

The atmosphere too was entirely different than it had been in the city.  Out here the people were always friendly, people always willing to stop and talk, particularly farmers; share a drink or some food.

There was none of this carefree purposefulness in the city, and more than once I’d thought of the fact one could travel in the same train with the same people for year after year and still not know any of them.  It was the same at work.  Even after five years I still hadn’t known three-quarters of the office staff, and most of them probably didn’t want to know me.  Harry was virtually the only real friend I’d had at work.

But here, in ‘the middle of nowhere’ as Harry had called it, I felt as though I’d known the publican all of my life instead of the few short hours.

 

Some hours later and after much argument, where Jack and I tried to talk Harry into staying (Jack said he knew someone who could fix anything including Harry’s bike), Harry remained unconvinced and resolute.  Jack, to round off the occasion (we were the first real guests from outside he had had in a week) provided another on-the-house ale and then saw us to the station.  “After all”, he had said, “I’ve nothing else to do at the moment.”

By that time the station was showing a little more life than it had before.  A station assistant, moving several parcels with a hand trolley, slowly ambled towards the end of the platform.

And whether it could be called a platform was a debatable point.  It was a gravel and grass affair that looked more like part of cutting through a hill than a station.

At the station, Jack portentously announced he was also the stationmaster and would be only too happy to take care of Harry’s requirements.  It would be, he added, “the first passenger ticket sold for several months.”  Certainly, the ticket he handed Harry bore witness to that.  It had yellowed with age.

One would have thought with the imminent arrival of the train there would be more people, but no.  The only event had been the station assistant’s stroll to the end of the platform and back.  Now both he and Jack had disappeared into the office and we were left alone on the platform.  Very little in the whole town stirred, nor had it the whole time we’d been there.

“Well,” I said to break the silence.  “I’m sorry to see you going through with it.  I thought I might have been able to talk you out of it…”  I shrugged, leaving the sentence unfinished.

“I’m sorry to be going too, but a body can take only so much bad luck, and God knows that’s all I’ve had.”

“Yes.”  I couldn’t think of much else to say.  “But it’s been good to have your company these last few months.”

“And you.  When do you think you’ll get back?”

“When I get sick of it I suppose.”

“Look us up then when you get back.”

“I will.”

Thankfully the appearance of the train in the distance broke off the conversation.  I had begun to think of what it was going to be like out on the road with no one to talk to but myself.  The thought was a little depressing and I tried not to let it show.

We said little else until the train pulled in, three flat cars, seven enclosed wagons, a passenger carriage and the guard’s van.  The train stopped with only part of the passenger carriage and the guard’s van at the station.

The guard took aboard the parcels the station assistant had left for him earlier, and then put those that were for Berrigum on the trolley.

I shook Harry’s hand and said I’d see him around.  Then he, the motorbike, and the guard were aboard and the train was off, disappearing slowly into the afternoon haze.

The station assistant then repeated his amble to the end of the platform to collect the hand trolley.

“Staying or moving on.”  Jack had come up behind me and gave me a bit of a start.

“Staying I guess, until tomorrow or maybe later.”

“I had heard one of the farm hands is leaving tomorrow heading back to Sydney.  There could be a vacancy.”

“Sounds like a plan,” I said.

“I could put in a word for you.”

“Thanks.”

Jack just grinned and we headed for the hotel.

 

© Charles Heath 2016-2019

You know where you want to go, but getting there, that’s a whole different ball game

So I’m incorporating a plotline that is centered around a snow theme, and of course, we are going to New Zealand just so our granddaughters can see snow for the first time.

It’s what you call mixing business with pleasure.

Ok, forget the pleasure…

You would think it is a relatively simple thing to get to the snow.

Of course, there are a few necessities like skis, boots, poles, and warm dry clothing, but that can all be bought or rented when you get there, or if you are an enthusiast, you already have the gear.

So, you get in the car, set the navigator, and off you go.  Till you get within 20 k of the ski field, it’s all plain sailing, everyone is excited, and mentally preparing.

Then it all starts to go sideways.

Those last few kilometers to the top are going to be arduous particularly if it’s been snowing and the roads are icy, but the weather is fine with blue skies and no recent snow falls.  Were expecting a slow drive and a parking spot.  The road is open.

But…

So late in the morning, a sign at the bottom of the mountain warms all the car parks at the ski field are full, but we venture on anyway.

And for some odd reason, we picked the very day everyone in New Zealand also wanted to go up to the ski fields so parking, even near the Chateau Tongariro was gone and there were endless cars looking for parking spots and traffic wardens had their hands full trying to keep traffic moving

So, for us and everyone else, everything stops at Chateau Tongariro, and from there the only vehicles allowed up are buses.  It’s about 10:30 and we are advised the only way we were getting to see snow was to take a bus

Now, there are two types of busses.  You can go up on a local bus, from Whakapapa Village that costs $20 a person which in the context of the cost of skiing not very much, but if you’re not, it’s quite expensive.

The second, one we were advised to use, operates from a place called National Park, about 9 km away, a snow shuttle that costs $6 each.  The trouble is by the time we were ready to go there, to catch a shuttle, there were no more shuttles.

The granddaughters are disappointed, and I have a new plotline for my intrepid adventurer to get tangled up in.

Oh, well, there’s always tomorrow.

Conversations with my cat – 34

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This is Chester.  We are having a robust discussion about ethnicity.

I think it may have been a good idea not to bring up the subject of our forthcoming trip to China.

I’m not sure if it is because we’re going away, or because we’re going to China that has set him off.

Chester is Tonkinese.  As far as I’m aware, a Tonkinese is a cross between a Siamese and a Burmese.  They do not come from China.

That doesn’t deter him and he maintains that if I take him with me, he might be able to meet up with some distant relatives.

Maybe, if we were going via Thailand where it’s possible, but I suspect the Siamese relatives wouldn’t want anything to do with him.

Besides, I add, there are quarantine regulations to deal with, and whilst leaving the country might not present a problem, getting into another might.

You might have to stay in a cage for about a year to make sure you’re clear of any diseases or health problems.

Which sounds like a good idea now that you mention it.  You can torment a whole new group of people, and I can truly have a holiday.

You don’t mean that.

I don’t answer.

He sighs.  Maybe I might stay home then. It’ll be a holiday for me too.

Conversations with my cat – 33

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This is Chester.  Our discussion about me going away is not finished.

Not by any stretch of the imagination.

I’ve been trying to make the bed, fully away of the icy stares I’m being given.  THew old age issue is still very raw, and I found him back in his bed, frumping.

You do realize, comes the plaintiff cry, that no one ever remembers to come and refresh the water and food.

News to me.  Every time we go away, he had a constant stream of people coming to see him.

Old age, I say, is making you forgetful.

And when you sent me away to your brothers, I could barely tolerate that cat of his.  Common alley cat if there ever was one.

Class distinction, I didn’t see that coming.

We’re not all just cats, you know.

Perhaps not, but over the years we’ve had a variety of different cats, but not a purebred like Chester.  I’m not sure how that came to pass, but I think I preferred the non-fussy, undisdainful, and easily pleased ‘alley cats’.

Would you like me to send you to my brother’s then?

No, I didn’t think so.  Bed made, the discussion is over.

Conversations with my cat – 32

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This is Chester.  I’ve just told him we will be going away for a few days.

What, again?  You do nothing but go away these days!  That look of disdain is meant to move me, but, sorry, it doesn’t.

It is retirement, you know, I say.  I’ve waited for 65 years so that I can do what I want.

Poor you!  Any idea how old you think I am?

15, mate, and lucky to have lived that long, despite the fact you’ve tried to escape.

That’s a matter of opinion, but not cat years, fool, human years.

I’d never quite worked that out.  We had a dog once, and I know that for every dog year it’s seven human years, so it was, in human terms, rather old.

But cats?

I’ll look it up on the internet.

Interesting.  The first two years are worth 24 human years and 4 years for each successive year.  That makes you, wow, 76.

A smug expression takes over.  Old, he says, you don’t know what it is to be old.

Except at your age, you’re too old to be travelling.

He wanders off, the tail indicating his annoyance.  I don’t think it was what he wanted to hear.

 

Travel is part of the story – Firenze (Florence), it’s been around a long, long time

For a writer, a place takes on a whole new meaning as we subconsciously look for locations in which parts of our stories will play out.  Of course, at the time, we have no idea what those parts of stories will be, but notes, mentally and physically, are taken for future reference.

And, unlike the usual tourist, we always see it differently.  I know I do.

Apologies now if I have misspelled any street, piazza or any other names.

The first time we arrived in Florence was by train, from Innsbruck in Austria.  We had been booked into the Hotel Brunelleschi, based on the fact it was built over part of a 12th-century monastery, it was conveniently located, and was a luxury hotel.

We took a taxi, not knowing how far it was, and found it tucked away in a street, via Sant’elisabetta, not far from Florence’s cathedral, the Duomo.  The taxi barely fitted through the streets.  First impressions, it was very old, second impression, the room we were given was amazing, with a view over the main street, and wafting up from a food shop below, the aroma of newly baked waffles.  We had to have one.

Words cannot describe how amazing it was to wake up that first morning and look out at the bright sunshine and blue sky.  We were in for a hot day, but that wasn’t going to deter the tourist in us.  Of course, after we had a great breakfast.  I particularly liked the crispy bacon.

The first place on the list to visit was the Piazza del Duomo, where the cathedral is located, and the Porta del Paradiso.  We went into the church, and also did a side trip down into the crypt.  We did not climb to the top of Brunelleschi’s cupola.  We tried the pizza, and hearing that the gelato was very expensive in the main part of the city, ventured further afield and found a gelato vendor that was inexpensive.  As the day was very hot it was a welcome relief.

The Ponte Vecchio, the bridge that crosses the Arno.  We walked to the bridge, taking in the views up and down the river before crossing to the other side, then back towards the Piazza Santa Croce.  On our most recent visit there was a football competition, Calcio Fiorentino, in progress that had taken over the whole Piazza, and during the day there was a parade where all the teams and others dressed in the historic clothing dating back to the 15th century.

The Galleria dell’Accademia was also high on the list of places to visit, and we left the hotel early as we had heard the queues are long to get in.  They were right.  We were at the end of a very, very long queue stretching back to Via delgi Alfani.  We were in the queue for about an hour and a half and it didn’t seem to move very quickly.

Then some people passing by said that we could go to the Museo Di San Marco, and purchase tickets to enter the gallery at a particular time.  We had also read or heard something similar, and, taking a risk we left the queue and went in search.  We found it at the Piazza San Marco, purchased tickets for 13:30 and had time to have lunch before turning up at the entrance for our timeslot, and sure enough, with others who had also purchased tickets, we went in.

Just out of curiosity I went back to the queue to see when the people in front of us were, and they still had an hour before gaining admission.

We saw everything that was recommended, including the famous statue of David, though I had a lot of trouble taking a photo when people kept walking in front.

The Piazza Della Signoria has a large number of statues, including another of David, the Marzocco, the symbol of Florence, Il Perseo, the fountain of Neptune, Poseidon, Perseus with the head of Medusa, and a hall of statues adjacent to the Palazzo Vecchio.

Florence is old, the roads are cobbled and narrow, and there are many trails one can follow and discover something new at the end of every twist and turn.

I have to go back, other than the fact I need a new wallet and belt made from Italian leather.  My wife loves the purses and handbags, also leather, though the scarves have only recently been added to her list of most wanted items.  I want to simply soak up the atmosphere, relax, eat the pasta and drink the endless supply of Moretti’s.

 

Travel is part of the story – Rome, hotter than hell, but a writer’s paradise

We visited Rome in August

It was hot.

It was verrrry hot.

We flew into Rome’s Leonardo da Vinci-Fiumicino airport after a rather bumpy flight from London.  Unlike most other airports the plane parked at a satellite terminal and after we disembarked we had to catch a train to the main terminal.

The most notable memory of this airport was my daughter’s discovery of a salami shop.

We had booked a transfer to take us to the hotel the Roma Corso Trieste Mercure in Via Gradisca from the airport.  It was a white air-conditioned van and so far we had avoided the heat.

One of the rooms had a faulty air conditioning an absolute must as the rooms were very hot without it and necessitated a room change which was done quickly and efficiently.

The hotel was in the suburbs and without a car we were dependent on public transport.  According to the reception staff, there was a bus stop nearby, and a longer walk to the tram or light railway.  The bus seemed to be the best option as it would take us to the central terminal near the railway station, where all tour buses also operated from, and particularly the open top buses that went to all the major tourist attractions.

That first day basically was given over to traveling, arriving by plane and settling into the hotel, thus we didn’t get to feel the force of the heat.  That came the next day.

After a walk around the hotel precinct to get our bearings and see what shops and restaurants were available, on returning to the hotel we were faced with the limited choices of room service or to go out for dinner.

My daughter and l go for a long walk up Via Nomentana to find several shops and a restaurant.  We went into the restaurant and sat down.   We waited for 10 minutes and got no service nor did anyone come and ask us if we wanted to order food so instead we left somewhat disappointed and go next door to what seems to be the Italian version of a delicatessen and order sandwiches and beer.   I bought a half dozen cans of Moretti beer two of which I drank on the way home.

It was still very hot even at eight at night and the sandwiches are delicious.  It just might be by that time we were starving and anything would have tasted great.

The next morning we are up and ready to chance the weather and some history.  Breakfast at the hotel is limited but very good.

We were going to use public transport and I’d studied up on the Internet.

Traveling on the bus required pre-purchase of tickets which could be bought in certain shops and locally when exploring the area near the hotel, l found a tobacconist.

Next, we needed to understand how to use the tickets. There was no one on the bus who could help so when l tried to scan the tickets and it failed, l gave up.  We had the same issue each day and in the end, the tickets never got used.

The trip to central Rome by bus took about 15 minutes.  In the morning it was reasonably cool and showed us a little of suburban Rome.  We also saw the trams but we would not be able to use them because our hotel not on a direct route.

That first full day we decided to go and see the Vatican.

Not understanding buses and which one we needed to get to the Vatican, we took a taxi.

Wow.  It was the metaphorical equivalent of driving over the edge of a cliff with a daredevil.  It was quite literally terrifying.

Or maybe we just didn’t know that this was probably the way people drove in Rome.

Shaken but delivered in one piece we found ourselves in the square opposite St Peters Basilica.

The square is impressive, with the statues atop a circular colonnaded walkway.  The church is incredible, and took a few hours to take in and to top off the day we did a tour of the Vatican museum which took the rest of the afternoon.

Then it was back to the delicatessen for more sandwiches and beer, and an interesting discussion with several elderly Italian ladies, of which I did not understand one word.

The second full day we decided to use one of the open top bus tours and eventually decided on the hop on hop off tour simply because the bus was at the central transport terminal for trains and buses and it was getting hotter.

Our first stop was the Colosseum.  There were other monuments nearby, such as the Arch of Constantine, but as the heat factor increased we joined the queue to go into the Colosseum and gladly welcomed the shade once we got inside.

The queue was long and the wait equally so, but it was worth the wait.  It would be more interesting if they could restore part of it to its former glory so we could get a sense of the place as it once was.  But alas that may never happen, but even so, it is still magnificent as a ruin.

Outside in the heat, it was off to the ruins which were a longish walk from the Colosseum, taking Via Sacra, not far from the Arch of Constantine.  This day in the walkway there were a number of illegal vendors, selling knockoff goods such as handbags and watches, and who, at the first sight of the police, packed up their wares in a blanket and ran.

Included in these ruins were The Roman Forum, or just a few columns remaining, the Palatine Hill, Imperial Fori, including the Forum of Augustus, the Forum of Caesar, and more specifically the Forum of Trajan.  It was, unfortunately very hot and dusty in the ruins the day we visited.

We walked all the way to the Foro Romano and the Septimus Severo Arch at the other end of the ruins, past the Temple of Caesar.  I found it very difficult to picture what it was like when the buildings were intact, so I bought a guide to the ruins which showed the buildings as ruins and an overlay of how they would have looked.  The buildings, then, would be as amazing as the Colosseum, and it would have been interesting to have lived back then, though perhaps not as a Christian.

I lost count of the number of bottles of water we bought, but the word ‘frizzante’ was ringing in my ears by the end of the day.  Fortunately, water did not cost a lot to buy.

At the end of the day, we caught the hop on hop off bus at the Colosseum and decided not to get off and see any more monuments but observe them from the bus.  The only one I remember seeing was Circo Massimo.  Perhaps if we’d know it was going to be twice as hot on the bus, yes, there was no air-conditioning; we may have chosen another form of transport to get back to the hotel.

The third and last day in Rome we decided to go to the Trevi Fountain, see the pantheon and walk up the Spanish Steps.  We spent most of the morning in the cool of a café watching the tourists at the fountain.  By the time we reached the top of the Spanish Steps, we were finished.