That night in Mitchell was the first night of the trip where I’d needed to zip my sleeping bag all way up and snuggle down; people said it had gotten down to 8 or 9 degrees, and I believed them. Autumn had arrived. It occurred to me that I’d better get my skates on if I thought I was going to make it out of Australia without needing a hoodie.
I furled my damp tent and headed into town. I was looking forward to my day in the hot springs like nobody’s business. I had my bikini, my shampoo, and a clean change of underclothes rolled into my towel at the top of my pannier, all ready to go. After three days without a shower I was feeling a little greasy, and my hair had developed some kind of vicious matting at the back near the base of my helmet. Getting a comb through it again was going to be a real treat.
I was, however, a bit too keen, arriving in town well before spa opening hours. I decided to treat myself to a coffee and a finger bun at the bakery.
Ever since I’d left Sydney I’d been carrying a ziplock bag full of five and ten and twenty cent pieces, just for such luxuries. Back in my previous life, my dear flatmate always used to discard his small-denomination coins at the end of each day, putting them in a bowl on the kitchen table in preference to carrying them around in his pockets. In a long-standing ritual, I would then ‘re-home’ the coins as coffee money, reasoning that discarded money may well be used for luxuries without guilt. All I had to do was apologise to each and every one of the baristas to whom I handed a fistful of silver coins.
The ladies at the Mitchell Bakery graciously accepted my silver coins and I settled at a little table out the front, where I could admire Beastie and watch the morning stirrings of a Queensland country town. A few people in four wheel drives came and went; rural people in Landcruisers, mining people in fluoros. After a little while, a small white hatchback laboured into view. It would have been twenty or thirty years old, but my goodness, this car had had a hard life too. In addition to the usual dirty crumplings that you see on a rural car that has hit its share of kangaroos, the rear right pillar was all stoved-in too. It looked like someone had backed the car into something with considerable persistence.
I watched the elderly occupant back the car into the mid-street parking zone, riding the clutch all the way. He got out – slowly – and went into the bakery. A few minutes later, he came out of the bakery, and asked if he could sit at my table. There were two other unoccupied tables on the footpath beside me.
Inside, I sighed a little bit. Everyone now and then, an old man will see me on my own and proceed to sexually harass me; they’re exercising the privilege of being old, and working on the assumption that my good manners are too deeply ingrained for me to tell an elderly man to fuck off. They are, unfortunately, right. Putting up with a bit of sexual harassment from old men doesn’t kill me, but it bothers me: it’s such a blatant abuse of good will and politeness. Oh well, I thought. Here we go.
Sure, I said, you can sit here. So old mate sat down opposite me, and we watched the street for a while, sitting side by side with our backs to the wall of the bakery and our feet to the street.
I’m pretty sure he hadn’t showered for even longer than I hadn’t showered.
‘Do you smoke?’ he asked.
‘No, sorry,’ I said straight away, almost automatically. I turned then and looked at him, and saw that he’d put a packet of loose tobacco on the table. He was left handed, and his left elbow was massively deformed by a bony growth slightly larger than a golf ball. He hadn’t been trying to bum a smoke; he was hoping I would roll him a cigarette.
He shrugged and gestured at his elbow. ‘Arthritis,’ he said. ‘It makes it hard.’
I felt bad. I have been known to enjoy a cigarette with my whiskey, but I know nothing of the art of rolling my own.
‘Do you smoke cigars?’ I asked.
‘Oh yes,’ he said, ‘I’ve had a few. Very nice.’
Well we agreed on something, then. I too like a good cigar, and in amongst my tools and camping gear, I still had a few. They were a vestige of my old life; a luxurious gift from a friend (thank you, Dave) that I was rationing out slowly, for special occasions, until they were all gone.
I put down my coffee and went and dug through Beastie’s tailpack until I found what I was looking for. I took out a cigar – a solid four and a half inch Nicaraguan – clipped the end, and slid it back into its cellophane wrapper. I gave it to old mate.
I reckon he deserved a break.
‘For you,’ I said. ‘Enjoy.’
The look on his face made my day too. He was thrilled.
‘Thank you,’ he said. ‘You are a kind girl.’
Well, I said, so many people have been so very kind to me too.
He lit up the cigar then and there.
I left him there at half past eight on a Thursday morning, sitting out the front of the bakery smoking that stogie like a king.
To the ladies at the Mitchell Bakery: I don’t know how you felt about the front of your shop being completely enveloped in Nicaraguan cigar smoke, but I hope it was okay.
I went down the street to the thermal spa. There was no-one else there; just steam hanging over the pool as hot water gushed, under pressure, from the Great Artesian Basin far below. I stood under that gushing water until I couldn’t stand the weight of it anymore; I floated in the hot pool until all my thoughts emptied out of my head, and then I dipped in the cold pool so that my skin tingled. I did yoga and stretched in the sunlight as all my joints became supple and all my muscles relaxed.
I closed my eyes and was completely still.
There was nothing I had to do that day except enjoy the feeling of the hot water on my skin.