Across and Beyond

Submitted into Contest #8 in response to: Write a story about an adventure in the desert. ... view prompt



It was the summer of ’86 and I had just finished my final exam. If I passed I’d be a qualified diesel mechanic.New Zealand mechanics were in demand worldwide and I was keen to travel. But not to anywhere anyone else was going, that was for sure.  

Mum lived in Perth and I wanted to spend Christmas with her and tell her where I was headed, she’d understand. I told Dad I was off to Perth to see her, but would be back soon. He didn’t mind too much, it had been a bitter divorce, but that was long ago—besides, he thought I’d be back in a few weeks, not a few years. My destination, that I’d kept a secret from everyone, was France. Since the sinking of the Rainbow Warrior, in tit-for-tat measures, New Zealanders now needed a visa to enter France. I applied and was granted one, for three weeks. Everything was set.

Sydney, what a place! I was nineteen and on my own, so it was straight to Kings Cross for a beer. My journey could wait a night before I hitchhiked the distance between Sydney and Perth. A test before the real test. 

Catching a train to get out of the city, I jumped off at the first country town. With my backpack on and thumb out, I started walking west. Two girls picked me up, young, friendly and, compared to girls from Christchurch, a little wild. We came to some road works and a guy with a ‘Stop Go’ sign, there were also 30kph speed limit signs, the road was shingle. 

“You’ve got to be joking,” she said, and sped through doing more than fifty. He didn’t seem worried and the girls just laughed. I was the only one concerned. They dropped me off at the local pub as they turned off the main drag, leaving me to my first night on the road. I would have to be careful as I hadn’t a lot of money and I not only had to get to Perth but also to the other side of the world. It had been a fun day, I bet they wouldn’t all be this good from here on, so a pub meal, a beer, and a bed upstairs, for tonight anyway.

My decision to walk rather than wait seemed to work, I got rides. I saw plenty of hitchers sitting on their packs, waiting. Therefore I never sat, instead, I marched out into the open heat. After the odd lift and a few hours walking on the second day a small, white, two door hatch pulled up, there were three people inside.

The driver was a skinny Italian, his wife a large Aborigine and the guy in the back another hitchhiker, who didn’t say much. In fact nobody said much as the Italian did all the talking. He would ask questions without waiting for answers, he was full of himself. A bit loopy too I thought. We were heading to Griffith, a big Italian agricultural town. He said he could get me and the other hitchhiker a job working for his Uncle, if we wanted work for a few days. We both agreed. From then on we were part of his family. He chatted away as the little car with its big load rattled along. The Italian asked me where I was headed, and actually gave me time to answer. I told him Perth and then onto France. He said he’d been in France a long time ago and turned around to show us both a tattoo on the top of his left arm, above the bicep. I recognised it as the ‘Le Grenade avec Sept Flamme’, the symbol of the French Foreign Legion and, underneath, were the words, ‘Je ne regrette rien’. I couldn’t believe it, this was where I was headed and here was someone who’d been there. The hitchhiker beside me sneered and the Abo lady just sat. I asked him a ton of questions. He said it was the greatest time of his life and he had served with ‘Honneur et Fidelité’.

“Where do you join?” I asked, as I was still unsure.

“Paris, Fort de Nogent,” he said.

Dropping us off at his Uncle’s market garden, he drove off. We waited for an hour and no one turned up, so we walked away. That day we made it to Mildura on the Murray River. My companion had opened up a bit by then and said we should find a quiet spot on the riverbank and set up camp. I walked into town and bought some beers and food to sort of say thanks for taking me in. We talked and drank into the evening. Ron had been in the Vietnam War and had been wandering for the last ten years, ever since he left the army in ‘76. He had gone home but couldn’t handle his family, or civilian life. 

I told him about my plan to join the Legion. He went quiet, then he spoke, “I figured that, but don’t do it mate, those kind of places will fuck you up! You’ll never be the same, look what it did to me. Killing and all the other shit they make you do, it’s not good, it’s not right.” He stood up, grabbed a stick of wood, and broke it over his knee, then threw the pieces into the fire. “Don’t waste your life, they don’t care about you, you’re nothing to them. You’re a smart boy, go home and get a job, forget about that bunch of mercenaries.”

Ron was angry, his demons were returning. He wanted to save me, because he couldn’t save himself. Silence again, he was brooding, but I was curious to know how something could change a man like he said it would. “I’ve always wanted to join, I need to prove myself and this is the best way I know.”

He shook his head in reply, “That Italian, does he look successful? No. He’s totally fucked up. Look at his crappy car. That’s what five or ten years in an army like the Legion does to you, they’ll suck all the goodness out and leave you empty. Don’t go, there are plenty of other things you can do to prove yourself.”

But I couldn’t think of any, so I just said “Thanks for caring.” 

We sat quietly staring at the fire, sipping our beers and listening to the dark Murray River flow by. Ron looked weary and sad. I think that was the most he’d said in a long time. It had been a heck of a day, so we both turned in to dream our seperate dreams.

I left early the next morning without waking Ron and hitched to Adelaide, then up to Port Augusta which is the last town before the Eyre Highway starts its long, straight drive west through the Nullarbor Plain. After that there’s nothing but 1700km of hot, shimmering tarmac, until Norseman, which is the first town into West Australia.

There were three guys sitting on their packs waiting for rides. I figured if I could get a lift here I would probably make it all the way to WA. I asked them how long they’d been waiting, one guy said two days. 

“See you later,” I said, and walked out onto the highway. 

After a few hours my water started running low and the sun was peaking. I was hot, but not worried, I plodded on. A big green Falcon pulled up and a guy in his mid-twenties let me in, he said he was driving to Perth to see his family and on leave from the Air Force. We drove on and, after a while, he said he needed to sleep as he’d been driving all the way from Melbourne and would I mind driving. Drive the Nullarbor? You bet. Watch out for kangaroos he said. I’d noticed the carcasses on each side of the road, biggest road kill I’d ever seen, they were everywhere. Night time was the worst, they’d just leap across in front of you, no warning, no mercy and hard as rock. If you hit them, serious damage, so I kept alert. I drove as fast as I dared for a solid eight hours, stopping only to refill the tank with one of the twenty litre jerry cans in the boot. There were no roo bars, only spotlights, which lit up everything in front of me brilliantly. With my peripheral vision switched on I managed to avoid hitting any bounding roos that crossed in front of the car. The stars in the night sky were as clear as anything I’d seen in the high country of Central Otago and any headlights approaching appeared from so far away it seemed they were coming up from the curvature of the earth. I kept the window down a bit to breathe the cool desert air. I could have driven forever. Then we changed and I slept. Another eight hours and we hit Norseman. I got out and thanked him for getting me across—he was heading up to Kalgoorlie, I was heading down to Esperance. I didn’t think it would be that easy, it’d been a damn long drive for both of us. I got lucky.

I had promised to look up an old school friend from Kaiapoi High. Kelvin Davis was driving tractors on a big wheat farm in the area, so I popped into the Esperance pub to make inquiries. It was midday and they said he’d be in about five. 

I sat at the bar and ordered a four-X. A European couple sat next to me, backpackers, Swiss I thought. The girl was one of the prettiest creatures I’d ever seen. She was dressed in cut-off jeans and a white singlet, no bra. Long wavy auburn hair, full lips and a generous smile. She stood, next to her boyfriend, and glanced occasionally at me. I was lost in her face until she raised her arms to hug her boyfriend and I noticed her unshaven armpits. It was both a shock and a let down. I looked at the barman and wondered if he had seen it and what Aussies thought of that. I finished my beer ordered another and went and sat at a table.

By the time Kelvin got there I was pretty drunk, lack of food and sleep and the cheap beer had seen to that. But seeing Kel again renewed my vigour. He said if I could keep drinking, he’d keep buying, he was earning plenty and didn’t mind. We carried on until they kicked us out, brothers-in-arms forever. I crashed on the beach and hitched out early the next day. A ride to Albany then another up to Perth and I reached Como just before midnight. I booked into an old pub and slept like a dead man.

Mum picked me up the following morning. She worked for The West Australian and wanted to write an article about me hitching all the way from Sydney to Perth to see her. I said wait and see if I make it to my next destination, then you’ll have something worthy to write about. I told her where I was headed and she cried—she was like that. I had Christmas with my mother for the first time in eight years. I wanted to stay longer, but I had to go, my visa would expire soon and destiny was calling.

Mum dropped me of at the airport for my Malaysian Airlines flight to Paris via Kuala Lumpur. On the plane I sat next to a pretty French girl who was a few years older than me, she’d been working at Club Med in Australia. We transited overnight in KL and had dinner and wine together in her room, she was a great entertainer. On the flight to Paris she asked me to stay with her at her parent’s villa in the south of France—I hadn’t told her where I was headed and she presumed I’d say yes, any normal guy would have. When we landed in Paris in the early hours of a cold winter’s day, my resolve was tested again when she asked once more. We both looked out at the drizzling snow on that bleak December morning at the Charles de Gaulle airport and wondered. She called me crazy, and I jumped into a cab.  

“Fort de Nogent,” I told the driver.

“Ahh, la Legion,” he said, nodding his head. And we drove down the slushy highway into the city.

The fortress gates, ancient and ominous, stood guarding my future. I knocked and the big door creaked open. A large black legionnaire with pinkish blotches on his hands and face, his white Kepi pushed low on his head appeared and said, “Passport.”

I handed it to him, and he retreated inside. This was it. I waited anxiously, shivering in silence. Then the big door swung open and the legionnaire, with a grin on his face, said “Entrée!” 

As I crossed over that icy threshold, I realised Ron was right, I’d never be the same. But then again, I didn’t want to be.

September 22, 2019 01:05

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