We’re passing through Airlie Beach when we notice her. A young woman who looks to be in her early 20s stands at the side of the road with her thumb out a few metres ahead of us. Her waist-length brunette hair is fashioned into dreadlocks. She has dirt on her face, and she wears a pair of torn floral shorts, a vest, and a baseball cap. She does not wear shoes yet her feet, like many other parts of her body, are covered in tattoos. My mother would have called her a hick, or a bogan, or a hippie. My mother likes to remind us how lucky we are that we are not like those people.
Much to my surprise, my sister Alice flicks on her indicator to pull over.
“What are you doing?” I ask in alarm. Whilst I had always felt sorry for those who had less than us (financially, mentally, intellectually, or otherwise), Alice generally subscribed to my mother’s school of not associating with them. Still, I suppose she pities the poor girl. I suppose I do too.
“Let’s pick her up, it’ll be fun,” says Alice “we have a long drive; we need to keep it interesting.” I am surprised that Alice wants fun. Due to a series of events that began with a virus and ended in unemployment, she is being forced to leave behind her lavish corporate life in Sydney and temporarily move back in with mum and dad. She has seemed down and weary for months as she attempts to retain a sense of grandeur in her life. Not to mention, I would never expect her to be the kind of person who would consider picking up a hitchhiker to be ‘fun’.
As she pulls up at the side of the road the hitchhiker walks over and leans into the driver seat window.
“Hi, do you want a ride?” offers Alice.
“That would be amazing, thank you” the stranger replies “where are you headed?”
“We’re going all the way up to Palm Cove” Alice tells her.
“Fab” the girl replies “I’m heading to Townsville.” She opens the door and flops into the back seat, throwing her bag in next to her. I watch Alice’s eyes flicker to the girls muddy legs on the pristine leather seats, and I can see that in that instant she is questioning her decision. The stranger leans forward with a wide grin on her face.
"I’m Summer Breeze, by the way.” She tells us. Alice and I share a glance, hoping that she won’t detect the sense of sympathy and ridicule in our eyes. I can only imagine what we will say when we arrive at our mother’s house. Summer Breeze, can you imagine ever being taken seriously with a name like that? Can you imagine going for a job interview, or ever trying to make something of yourself? I can hear my mother’s voice in my head as if she were sitting beside me.
“So… Summer Breeze” begins Alice, adding a pause before the girl’s name, and a tone of humour and disdain “what brings you to Townsville?”
“I heard there was some work going. It’s drying up in Airlie now, but it’s less seasonal in Townsville. And there’s a hostel where I can get free board if I work there part time” She explains.
“Lovely” I reply, trying to sound genuine. I feel uncomfortable, though. Here we are in Alice’s almost-new Audi, her pride and joy. And here is Summer Breeze, drifting from place to place, following the work and grafting in hostels in return for free board. I have never stayed in one myself, but I don’t imagine them to be very enjoyable. I almost shudder at the thought, but control myself. I know that my mother will exercise no such restraint when we tell her.
I glance back at Summer Breeze sitting so inelegantly in the backseat, one knee bent with her grimy bare foot up on the seat, leaning against the corner of the seat by the window. I peer at Alice perching beside me, ever the lady. We must look like an odd bunch to any passing motorists who care to notice us.
Summer Breeze tells us about her life as we push on north, and we nod politely, trying hard to disguise our pity. She asks about us and we tell her about how Alice worked in Sydney but is temporarily moving back to Palm Cove, and how I have recently graduated with a marketing degree. We explain that I am also staying with mum and dad until I find my dream job in a big city, and that I flew down to Sydney to help Alice to pack and keep her company on the drive. I can sense that Alice, like me, is holding back as we tell her about our lives, for fear of sounding like we are showing off to the girl who has nothing.
I’m relieved when Alice pulls into the gas station. Here, I can escape the conversation and wander off on my own whilst she fills up.
“I’ll pay for fuel” offers Summer Breeze, pulling a torn wallet from her back pocket. “It’s the least I can do.” My sister shakes her head.
“Don’t worry about it. We were driving this way anyway.” Her voice is laden with pity; she is far too proud to accept money from someone like Summer Breeze. For a second, I worry that Summer Breeze has also detected the pity in her voice, but she seems unfazed.
“Thanks, that’s so kind.”
We’re soon back in the car and my stomach is beginning to groan.
“When did you plan on stopping for lunch?” I ask Alice.
“I’m ready now” she replies, and glances in her rear view at our passenger.
“Are you hungry? If not, we can wait until be drop you off in Townsville.”
“Starving” replies our hitchhiker “and I know just the place!”
Summer Breeze’s choice of roadside eatery is like nowhere I have been before. It has an old-school American diner feel to it, with black and white retro floor and red furniture. Rock and roll tunes blast from the jukebox, and even the wait staff seem larger than life. I glance at Alice with a look of uncertainty, but she simply shrugs and settles into a booth.
“Hi, there!” booms the waitress as she comes to take our order. She is middle-aged and overweight with rosy cheeks, dark curly hair, and a wide grin on her face. “What can we do for you today?”
We order our lunch and settle down to wait for the food. As I observe the other patrons, a new song begins and some of the wait staff begin to dance, with the lady who served us even jumping up onto an empty table to boogie. I’m shocked – I have never known anything like it before. I have only known wait staff to be reserved and professional.
“Come on!” yells Summer Breeze, leaping out of her seat and up onto the neighbouring vacant table. She dances along to the music like she doesn’t even care who may be watching. I can feel my face redden because people think that she’s with us. I peek at Alice, expecting her reaction to be the same. What will our mother think when we tell her? I’m sure that we will all have a good laugh at the hitchhiker with no rhythm dancing on the diner table, and the jokes we will make about how we should all come back here.
To my surprise, a wide beam crosses Alice’s face, and she jumps up and grabs my hand, dragging me with her.
“Alice, no” I respond in horror, pulling my arm back. She shrugs and jumps up onto the table next to Summer Breeze, dancing along beside her. I have never seen my sister dance, not like this. I’m even more surprised when they are still there dancing together a few minutes later. That’s when I give in. If Alice can dance like nobody is watching, so can I. I join them on the table and as I begin to relax and let go we all laugh and dance together. I have to admit, it’s freeing once you stop caring what other people think.
We settle down when our food arrives and tuck into our meals, too hungry and worn out from the dancing to talk much. After lunch, we pile back into the Audi and head for Townsville. Alice uses the sat nav to direct her to Summer Breeze’s hostel. It’s a dismal place with grey concrete walls and a faded sign on the front. It looks run down and uncared for but Summer Breeze doesn’t seem to mind, her face smiley as ever.
“It’s been so lovely to meet you girls! Thanks for everything!” she calls as she gets out of the car. And as she walks away leaving just a dirty mark on her seat as evidence that she was here, we don’t say ‘that poor girl’ or ‘what a disaster’. We don’t say anything, and although we don’t discuss it I know that we share an unspoken agreement to not tell mother about this. Alice doesn’t, as I once would have expected, rush to clean the dirty mark immediately. We return to the road and I can see a twinkle in her eye and a smile on her face that I haven’t seen in a long time.