We woke up in a camping ground on the West MacDonnell Ranges to one of those stinking hot mornings where it was going to be 40 degrees by nine o’clock. And George and Helen were gone. They hadn’t said a word. They’d just packed up and left. The six of us were travelling around Central Australia, back in the days when tents were made of canvas. It was me and my husband Jack in one Suzuki and our daughter Addy and her husband Adam in another. Jack and I were getting close to fifty then, but didn’t think of ourselves as old until we spent a few nights on a blow-up mattress.
Then there were George and Helen. They were Adam’s parents, and about the same age as Jack and me. They’d joined us after we’d driven from Melbourne across South Australia to their dairy farm near Yankalilla.
On the morning we drove to their farm, we met George mending the fence line.
‘How you going there, Georgie-boy,’ Jack called. ‘Oh,’ George grunted. ‘We’re supposed to be heading off today,’ I reminded George.
George took off his hat to swat away flies. ‘I wouldn’t know,’ he said. ‘I haven’t spoken to Helen for three weeks.’ He gave us a rueful smile.
Jack shook his head at George, and forced the car into gear. George was famous for his sulks; they were like dust storms that never quite settled. Jack and I feared Adam was turning out the same: we fretted over the grimness we saw creeping into Addy’s young face.
Five days after George and Helen had joined us, we went for dinner somewhere near Ellery Creek. A waitress with huge bosoms served us and George and Adam kept clearing their throats to place their orders without snickering. It had gotten to the point where all of us were on the edge of hysteria. The waitress glowered, tapping her pencil on the orders pad.
When we managed to place our orders, she gave George one long, cold look before stalking to the kitchen.
‘You’d never run out of milk around here,’ George cracked out the side of his mouth. We exploded with laughter. The waitress stopped walking, but didn’t turn around. We couldn’t stay, so we tumbled out of the restaurant, skidded into our Suzukis and laughed all the way back to the camping ground.
But in the morning, George and Helen were gone.
‘What’d we do?’ I asked Jack as we stood blinking at the bare earth where their tent and car should have been. ‘Blowed if I know,’ he replied. His eyes moved to Addy and Adam’s tent. They were both nineteen and had been certain they could marry without turning into George and Helen. Or us, I suppose. ‘Oh Addy,’ I said.
Jack put his arm around me. ‘George is fun though, when he’s good.’
We both sighed and began to dismantle our tent.