THE ROAD BOSS
Gemma was on her way to the outback to marry Bruce Mannering. Before she had even arrived there, she met Tim Torrance, who promptly informed her that she was making a great mistake. How dared he interfere?
But when Gemma actually met Bruce’s family, she began to have the uneasy feeling that Tim might possibly have been right.
IT was a glittering, sun-soaking, heat-dancing day, but, smiled Gemma to the rear-vision mirror of her small car, what else, except when the Wet was on, could you expect from the centre of Australia?
The mirror revealed a long stretch of blue tarred road with a distant blur on it. That blur would be that road train trying to catch up on her again. She believed she had shaken it off at Forty Mile. She grimaced and put her foot down. Its arrogant driver had actually tried to pass her at Forty Mile; that gargantuan monstrosity even had got as far as the monster in the driving cabin being able to look down on her. She had remembered at once what Bruce had warned her about road trains and their operators, and had accelerated sharply. She had kept accelerating until the ogre was left behind. Now it seemed that the fight was on once more.
However, she still had the advantage of a distance of kilos, so there was no immediate panic. Gemma resumed her thoughts.
The rains, only recently finished, had comprised a Wet previously unparalleled up here, or so Godfather had written down, and when Bruce had called on Gemma in Sydney, he had said the same. Godfather had been ecstatic over it all. The intense rains had uncovered remarkable data for a scientist, he had gloated. Bruce on the other hand had been distinctly less than enthusiastic. It had been good to see the waterholes filled, he had admitted, but a lot of his cattle had been bogged and had to be dug out; also because of the resultant floods there had been a delay in road training the beasts south.
The mobs no longer were driven overland, Bruce had explained, but were trucked in road trains down The Bitumen, much less spectacular, for overlanding was a grand scale undertaking, but far more economical and reliable. There had always been big stock losses on the hoof, and it had taken a deuce of a time, whereas road transport entailed only minor losses and was certainly fast. Oh, yes, Bruce had told Gemma, trucking the beasts instead of droving them was the lesser of two evils. He had said this last with emphasis. He had made no secret of his dislike of truckies, or, as he had told Gemma they were known in the Centre, the road bosses.
Now this particular road boss was giving Gemma a go for it a second time. The distant blur had grown to a less distant smudge. Down went Gemma’s foot again.
The jerk forward upset the balance of the carefully spread-out gown encased in cellophane occupying the entire back seat. Muttering angrily, Gemma pulled up the car and put the dress back again. It wasted precious time, but it was, after all, very precious. It was her wedding gown. When she resumed again, the blur that had grown into a smudge had now grown into a shape. A road train shape. However, it was still a long way off.
All the girls in the office had envied Gemma her need to take to her marriage with Bruce only a wed
ding gown. (She was also taking a cake, likewise made by her own hands, but that was to be her surprise.) No linen to be transported. No six of this or dozen of that. No saucepans. Bruce already had plenty.
The girls also had envied Gemma the speed of things. Two weeks getting to know each other, then an engagement ring, then later Gemma hitting west with a view to marriage.
“Tony and I have had an ‘understanding’ for ages,” Noni had sighed.
“We’re waiting for two years,” Jean had complained.
They had called it whirlwind, yet it wasn’t, not really. Bruce had proved himself a fast wind, but he didn’t exactly whirl you off your feet. He didn’t sweep you. He wasn’t the type, and anyway . . . and a frank grin from Gemma . . . wasn’t she turned twenty-six and past sweeping?
“I’m twenty-six,” Gemma said to the mirror .. . the shape was quite clear now . . . “and at twenty-six you don’t get whirled or swept.”
She had been very proud of Bruce, though. Tall, nicely tanned, extremely polished. She had said to him at their first encounter: “You don’t seem like an outback man.”
“I was years at college, remember,” he had answered with a distinct college accent, and had proceeded in that college accent to deliver Godfather’s message along with Godfather’s letter.
“Do you see Godfather, then?” Gemma had asked, fingering the letter.
“Rudhill Scientific Block is only some hundred kilos from us, almost next door, you might say.” Bruce had smiled as he had said it to Gemma. “No, I don’t meet the scientists and geologists and what-have-yous at all, as a matter of fact we pastoralists don’t always see eye to eye with them, but when they found out I was coming down to Sydney, and believe me, everything is found out by the grapevine up there, and was asked to contact you, I could scarcely refuse.” A pause. “I’m very glad I didn’t refuse .. .
It had been such a flattering confession that Gemma had not thought about the possible alternative for Bruce, that of refusing Godfather. She had simply said: “Thank you. I’m glad, too,” and felt quite exalted. She had added, coming back to earth: “But what can it all be about?”
“Perhaps the letter—” Bruce had prompted charmingly, and Gemma had nodded.
“Of course, the letter.” She had opened Godfather’s note.
She had always called Bernard Drews that, called him Godfather. He
her godfather, and since her own father was dead ... her mother, too ... the little girl she had been when it all had happened had yearned for someone nearer than just “Mr. Drews” or even “Uncle Bernard”. Small Gemma had wanted a father.
your father,” Bernard Drews had insisted. “I’m your godfather. Call me Godfather.”
“Yes, Godfather,” Gemma had said eagerly. Bernard Drews was a scientist. Growing up, Gemma had seen very little of him, he had either been down in Antarctica or somewhere on the equator, but it hadn’t mattered, he always came back, and he always loved her, and she always loved him. Currently he
was north of the Centre, proving occurrences of Permian rock, the palacozoic and the carboniferous systems, if you understood what that meant. Gemma didn’t.
Others in Rudhill Scientific Block photographed cosmic rays, or were geo-physicists, or wolfram and mica men, which Gemma did not understand, either. She simply classed them all fondly as Brains. But fondest of all, of course, Godfather.
She had opened the folded paper.
“It’s to ask me to look out an old prescription of Godfather’s, have it dispensed, then take it up when I go." Gemma had looked worried. Godfather was getting on now. Was he as well as he always declared he was?
“You’re going up there?” Bruce had said.. . . Bruce Mannering, she had learned by now . . . with interest. “When?”
“In a month.”
“If only I could wait that long I could take you myself, but you know how it is on the land.”
Gemma had not known, apart from holidays at odd places wherever Godfather happened to be, she was a Sydney girl. But she had murmured : “Yes.”
“I would have loved that,” he had said eagerly, and at once had added: “As it can’t be, at least let us see as much as we can of each other before I go.”
would love that.” It had been Gemma’s turn to be eager.
It had been a fabulous fortnight. She and Bruce had gone everywhere, done everything. Then, to top it all, especially as regarded the girls in the office, Bruce had proposed.
Flattered, a little intoxicated with herself and her success alter Noni’s envious moans and jean’s wistfulness, also quite in love with six feet of handsome, tanned, obviously well-to-do manhood, for who wouldn’t be? Gemma had said Yes. The only thing that nice Bruce had insisted on had been marriage up there, not here.
“You have no people here in Sydney, Gemma, but a godfather close to Mannering Park” . . . Mannering Park was the Mannering stronghold . . . “while I have all my people up there, so naturally up there it must be.”
“Yes,” Gemma had agreed.
She had been a little regretful, for she had wanted to show Bruce off to the girls, Bruce with his polish and his good looks and his utter eligibility. Still, she had had to agree that up there made sense.
“You’ll fly, of course, dear,” Bruce had said next. “No, I’ll drive. You see, Bruce, I know I have nothing to take—I mean, no six of this, no dozen of that. I know Mannering Park has everything because you’ve told me, but there’s still my books, a few odds and ends I value, and” ... a dimple . . . “my wedding gown. Unless you don’t want me dressed up.”
“Of course I want you dressed up. All the Top End—well, all the Top End who matter—will be there. Planes will come from hundreds and hundreds of miles. Mother wouldn’t have anything less.”
“Your mother lives at Mannering Park, too?”
“All the Mannerings. We’re a self-contained little world. But don’t think you’ll be on top of anybody, dear, the bungalows are at least several miles apart.”
“Oh,” Gemma had said, relieved.
“Mother will love to have you in the family homestead until we’re married,” Bruce had continued.
“No, I don’t think so,” Gemma had declined cautiously.
“But, my dear, it would be hardly the thing for you to come to my house. I mean, not before.”
“Before the wedding, Gemma.”
“Even up there?” Gemma had disbelieved. Surely, she had been thinking, in this day and age—
up there. We’re sticklers, Gemma. So it will have to be Mother’s.”
“No, it will be Godfather’s. I’ll be married from Godfather’s.”
“They’re not, actually, they’re a block of very private units, where everyone keeps well to himself. I mean, Bruce, a cosmic ray man would have nothing in common with a geologist, and a rock man like Godfather—well, he’s the freakiest of all.” Gemma had laughed fondly. “No,” she had said seriously, “it’s not a barracks, it’s a set of villas, and ours—Bernard Drews’—is so far away you can’t see the others.”
“Interesting,” Bruce had nodded, obviously not interested, and Gemma had not blamed him. Permian rock was not exactly something that kept you on your toes.
“Well, dear,” he had said presently, “if you want to be married from Rudhill, that’s all right with me. And after all, it does concede to the conventions. But if you must drive up—”
“Yes, I must.” Gemma had said it a little abstractedly, she had been thinking of those “conventions”.
“Then,” had continued Bruce, “I’ll give you some advice. Do it in easy stages. Book accommodation ahead; these times no one stops out at night, it can be dangerous. Always keep your petrol topped, it can be disastrous out there to run dry. Most of all, and I repeat
most of all
, watch the road trains.”
“Are they that bad?” Gemma had disbelieved.
“They’d be bad enough on wide concrete, but on narrow tar they are a catastrophe. It’s the drivers. They’re ruthless, forthright, greedy, overbearing, presumptuous, spiteful, and really not far from savages.”
“Yet they do have a road right, too.”
“Not as much as they take.”
“But they have a wide load,” she pointed out. “And demand a wider share of the tar. Please heed me, Gemma. Take every precaution with a road train, and particularly the driver of the train. Road bosses, they’re called . . . and incidentally, they call us the terrorists.”
“Changed from tourists. Everyone in a private car is a tourist and thus a terrorist to them.”
“Perhaps they’ve had a bad time with tourists.”
“To my mind it couldn’t be bad enough,” Bruce had said.
“Will I have a bad time with tourists, Bruce?” Gemma had mused. “I mean, tourists do wander across the road looking at things.”
“They’ll be few around at this time of the year, especially after the recent bad weather. No, your only hazard will be the thirty-six-wheelers.”
“Thirty-six-wheelers?” she queried.
“The road trains.”
“Why do you call them that?”
“Because, counting their spares, they have thirty-six wheels.”
“What else about them, Bruce?”
“The vehicles are three-fifty horse-power, and I mean horse, not ponies. They have no timetable, their orders from their superiors are ‘Do it as quick as you can’ meaning, of course, as quick as you can
Now do you follow me, Gemma?”
“Oh, yes, yes, I do.” Gemma had shivered.
“So, dear, for my sake, for your own sake, watch out for them, for I can assure you they won’t watch out for you, not a mere terrorist.”
“Thank you for warning me, Bruce.”
“Just remember the warning, Gemma.”
“Oh, I will.”
Gemma glanced back at the shape again, now three shapes, three monstrous trucks fastened together in articulation, a lofty cabin in the foremost articulation, and she did as Bruce had requested. She remembered.