Billy woke up and, almost blinded by the light, tuned in to the sounds around him – mosquitoes buzzing, birds chirping, bacon sizzling.
Bacon! Oh me, oh my, he thought, as his vision adjusted to see a young woman busy cooking on a stovetop in a small compact kitchen. Billy scanned the room as his thoughts went to Woofie who he found at the foot of the bed he was on. Woofie sniffed the air and barked.
The girl turned and smiled. She put down the fork she was using to turn the bacon and went over and sat on the edge of the bed to pat him.
‘Hello little fella,’ she said.
Woofie nuzzled in for more so she picked him up and gave him a big squeeze. Works every time, thought Woofie, snuggling up.
She giggled as he licked her face. ‘I love dogs, especially cute ones like you.’
‘You won’t think that when you get to know him,’ Billy said.
‘Oh! I don’t think so,’ she said, not showing much interest in Billy. ‘This one’s a gem.’
She squeezed Woofie tight.
‘Help me,’ said Woofie, using telepathy. ‘She’s killing me, Billy. Distract her, grab her attention. Do what you have to do to set me free,’ he begged.
‘Ok, ok, ok, that’s enough now. You’ll spoil him and he’ll become even more demanding than he already is.’
He lifted Woofie from her arms and set him down on the floor.
‘I think that bacon might need you more than Woofie,’ he said, alluding to the burning smell in the air. ‘And Woofie might need that bacon more than you, so would you mind if we get the food sorted and then have a talk?’ he politely inquired.
He realised they were in a caravan that appeared to be parked in the middle of nowhere in the blazing hot sun. However, he refrained from asking all the obvious questions until they had all sat down to eat.
‘Perhaps I can help. How about I set the table and make the toast,’ he said.
‘Sure, and can you make the tea too?’ She pointed to the kettle whistling away on the stovetop. ‘Teapot’s in the cupboard there and the tea leaves are next to it. I’ve only got green tea, sorry.’
‘Green’s good.’ He glanced at Woofie and rolled his eyes. He didn’t dare say he preferred black tea.
When the table was set, the bacon and eggs cooked and the tea and toast made, they all sat down to eat.
She lowered her eyes and reached out her hands. ‘Let’s join hands and praise the Great One for us all finding each other and having food to share in an environment that is untouched by the civil chaos that I hear is unfolding around us.’ She sighed and raised her eyes. ‘Praise be.’
‘Praise be,’ Billy repeated.
Woofie wolfed down the food while Billy waited for their host to start, but was distracted by the smell of something pungent issuing from outside. The stench was so bad it put him off eating despite his hunger. The girl didn’t seem to notice it, but Woofie did and stopped eating to look across at Billy.
‘What is that putrid smell?’ Woofie said with a look.
The smell permeated the air and filled the room like poison gas.
‘Ask her,’ he said telepathically.
Billy felt nauseous. ‘Excuse me Miss, I was just wondering if you can smell something off?’
She stopped to look up from her plate and sniffed the air.
‘No, not really. Funny you should ask, though,’ she said, sipping her tea. ‘Other folk who happened to come by here, you know in the past, travelling from one place to the next looking for refuge, often complained about a putrid smell but, for some reason, I don’t smell it,’ she said.
Billy frowned and shook his head. ‘Perhaps you have something wrong with your sense of smell, Miss.’
The conversation was suddenly interrupted by a loud bang on the caravan door.
A man’s voice hollered from outside the door. ‘Claudia! I’ve been waiting for you to come down to the camp to do my dressings. What’s holding you up, girl?’
Billy mentally noted her name and deduced that the man was the source of the stench.
Claudia casually dismissed the intrusion. ‘Sorry J, I’ve got visitors. You’ll have to wait. Go back to the camp and wait for me. I’ll be there as soon as I finish my breakfast, and if these two ring-ins decide to stay, I’ll bring them down to meet you later as well.’
Billy caught a glimpse through a gap in the curtain of a figure wrapped in what appeared to be sheets as the man turned to walk back to a cluster of buildings that Billy assumed was the camp. And as the cloaked figure retreated, so too did the smell.
Billy was perturbed. ‘Where on earth am I? Claudia, I’m Billy and this here is my best friend, Woofie.’
‘Pleased to meet you both.’ Claudia reached across to shake hands before grabbing the teapot to top up her tea.
‘Want one?’ she asked, as she refilled their cups.
She pushed her now empty plate aside. ‘Now, let’s talk. I’ll talk while you eat.’ She pointed to his plate still stacked with food. ‘Go on, tuck in. Enjoy it while it’s hot.’
With his appetite restored, Billy started eating as he listened to her story.
‘I came here ten years ago when I was a child when the big dry began, and people were ordered to go back to their place of birth. My parents, who were originally from a city in the south, set out with me, their only child, in a horse and buggy, for their birthplace.’
She paused to take a sip of tea.
‘My parents were publicans in a small country town north of here and as there was no petrol to fill their car, they stole a horse and buggy from the stables attached to the pub. I remember the night we left like it was yesterday. We all tiptoed down the creaky back stairs to steal away under the cloak of darkness. Because of the shortage of fuel, people were forced to walk or ride bicycles to get wherever they were going, but father knew mother, being rather delicate, would not survive the gruelling trip, so he decided to steal a horse and buggy which happened to belong to a very important man about town; big mistake! To cut a long story short, this man was cruel and heartless and hunted our family down. The night he and his men came upon us I had been charged with collecting bush food and had wandered a long way from the camp. I was a child, you see, and prone to daydreaming, so when I had filled my basket with roots and berries, I lay down to listen to the heartbeat of the Earth. Do you ever do that – just tune into the world around you and get transported out into the universe through sound?’
‘Not really,’ Billy lied.
‘Well, I do, and you should try it – peeling back the layers of sound until you’re flying,’ she said with a faraway look in her eyes.
Billy and Woofie exchanged glances. They had never met anyone like this before.
‘Anyway, I fell asleep while I was listening to the heartbeat of the Earth and when I woke up and made my way back to the camp, my parents were gone. It was as if they had just vanished into thin air. Not a trace of them! The horse, the buggy, all our belongings were gone too and in the stillness of the night under the eerie black sky, I came to the realisation I was alone.’
Billy leaned in closer. ‘What did you do then?’
‘Well, the only thing I could do was make a bed of twigs and dry grass and sleep like a baby until first light. When I awakened the next day, I looked for tracks, but alas there were none to be found.’
‘Not bad for a child of five,’ said Billy with a hint of scepticism.
‘Seven,’ she clarified. ‘I was seven years old and no stranger to the bush. My father used to go out to the opal fields when he had time off work and would often take me with him. Living in a small town really got to him at times so, to get away, he would go bush. As mother would not let him go alone, he took me along, and from that exposure I learned bushcraft. That’s why I had no problem finding bush tucker and knew where to dig for water. It was rather stupid of me to stray from the camp and go to sleep, but in hindsight that act of stupidity probably saved my life.’
She had finished her cup of tea and looked at the time on her wristwatch while Billy wiped his plate clean with toast and finished his tea.
‘I’ve got to go now but I want you to stay in the van until I get back. I have more to tell you. It’s best you know everything before you meet him.’
‘Yeah, him that was just here. I’ve got to go and sort him out then I’ll come back to finish my story. Promise me you won’t leave the van.’
‘Promise,’ said Billy.
‘Good boy, Woofie,’ she said.
‘Good boy, Billy,’ she grinned as she grabbed a hat and turned to go.
‘Stay put and I’ll be back in an hour. By the way, as I cooked, I expect you two to wash up, so when you’ve finished your tea, chop, chop, hop to it!’
She smiled as she stepped out, slamming the door shut behind her.
The boys watched her walk towards the main camp.
‘She’s nice,’ said Woofie.
‘Sure, she’s nice, but who is she? Where are we and how did we get here?’
They cleaned up after breakfast then Billy began to look for clues. He started with the cupboard above the dining table and found a small jewellery box behind a stack of books. He opened the box to find a gold wedding ring inscribed with the initials D + J encased in a love heart. Billy thought it odd as they were his parents’ initials. He sensed something unusual about the ring as he toyed with it on his finger. However, his contemplation was cut short with the sound of footsteps coming towards the van. He quickly put the ring back in the box and returned it to the cupboard.
The door opened and Claudia walked in to find them sitting at the table where she had left them.
‘Phew, it’s scorching hot already and it’s only nine o’clock,’ she said.
‘How do you know that?’ asked Billy, curious as to whether her watch even worked.
‘What?’ she asked, pouring herself a glass of water.
‘The time,’ he said.
‘Oh that, it’s just a guess. This watch doesn’t work in case you were wondering. I just wear it for show. We have our own time out here. I tell the time by the sun, the moon, the stars, the elements, the flowering of the trees, the flight of the birds. I’m a fair dinkum bushie, remember.’
She winked and sat down to join them. ‘Now, where was I?’
‘You were at the part where you found yourself abandoned in the bush,’ Billy said.
‘Oh yes, that’s right. It was so long ago but every time I tell this story, I relive it.’
‘How often have you told your story?’
‘Oh, heaps of times. You’re not the first person to come by here in the last ten years, you know. At first, we used to get loads of people calling in, but he drove them off with his bad temper and apparently bad smell. No-one can stand him, which is why you need to know everything before you decide to stay and meet him or leave without an introduction. I prefer to let visitors stay in the caravan when they first arrive. It’s far enough away from the camp to give them time to think about whether they want to stay or go, that is, once I’ve told them the full story.’
‘You want more tea?’ she asked, as she stood to pour some hot water into the pot.
She poured them all a fresh cup. ‘I love tea,’ she said.
‘Where was I? … I keep the caravan nice. Just how it looked when I first got here. A lady used to live here. She was his lover, and they were very happy for a time. He even bought her a treadle sewing machine so she could make these pretty curtains,’ she said, looking up at the now faded red gingham curtains.
‘Nice,’ said Billy, as he looked down at his fingernails. He had stopped chewing his nails when he learned they harboured dangerous microorganisms that could set up home in his gut and eat him from the inside out.
He scanned the caravan. ‘Do you have any nail clippers or a manicure set perhaps?’
‘Sure,’ she said, getting up to retrieve an old pair of nail scissors from the drawer in the bedside table and handing them to him without question.
Claudia had the ability to live in the moment. She accepted the past, never thought about the future, and believed in the fundamental goodness of mankind. She trusted everyone, took nothing for granted and practised gratitude every day of her life. She also practised yoga daily and in that regard was a kindred spirit with Billy.
‘You were saying you spent the night in the bush on a bed of twigs and dry grass, waking in the morning to find yourself completely alone,’ he prompted.
‘Yes, I was sitting on a rock, crying my eyes out when a large wedgetail eagle appeared out of nowhere and began to circle above me. Round and round it went, coming closer with each rotation. Captivated by the sight, I stopped crying and began to watch the giant bird as it landed a short distance away from me. It just stood there looking at me, and I at him, until finally after an extended period of silence it said, “Come”.’
‘It spoke?’ Billy said.
‘I know it sounds strange but yes, it said the word “Come” and took off like a rocket. So, I stood up and began to follow it.’
‘Umm,’ said Billy, glancing at Woofie, wondering if it was their eagle.
‘I walked and walked behind the eagle for what seemed like days until finally I came here to this camp and met him, J. Fox.’
Billy jumped out of his seat. ‘What? Fox! Did you say Fox?’
‘Yes, J. Fox. He’s the man who was banging on the door before. Do you know him?’
Billy’s face contorted. ‘I sure do. He lured my mother out here and led her to her death. He destroyed our family, and my poor father, well, he never got over the shock of losing her. If Fox is here, I’m going to take revenge.’
Claudia held her composure. ‘Sit down. Don’t be rash. You’ll meet him soon, but first there’s something you should know about Fox …’