Casey’s fingers clenched the steering wheel. It was only 20 minutes since they’d left home. How far would she have to drag the body away from the road? How deep would she have to dig? Oh God. How could she put up with this for a whole month?
It was meant to be special. A rare trip with her Pop revisiting the Simpson Desert, one of his favourite places.
“I’ve done the Simpson once every 10 years since I got my licence,” he shared at every opportunity, adding at their last family Christmas gathering, “this will be my last.”
“You can drive the easy bits, love,” he had said as he settled his sturdy frame into the passenger seat. They’d borrowed one of the business work utes and packed it with everything they’d need for a month in the outback. Gnarled fingers fiddled with the radio settings, cutting off her favourite FM station. After a few bursts of static, jazz filled the cab.
Pop sat back, humming like a flat-out bandsaw. Casey eased out the clutch and kangaroo-hopped down the driveway. It had been a while since she had driven a manual.
In the rear-view mirror, she saw Nan on the footpath, smile fading as she lowered her hand. “Are you sure Nan didn’t want to come?” she said.
“Nah. She’s happy at home love. She’s done this trip plenty of times.” He turned up the volume. They had just turned on to the highway when it began. “What bloody rot,” he roared at the news announcer. He shook his head at the story about a march to protest a spate of attacks on women in the city after dark.
“Women have a right to feel safe, Pop,” she smiled. Too late she remembered her mother’s advice. “He’s a dinosaur, Casey. It’s just not worth arguing with him. It’s akin to lighting a match next to a fuel bowser.”
Eyes on the road ahead, she clamped her jaw and ignored the finger that jabbed in her direction in sync with every word. “You shouldn’t put yourself at risk in the first place,” he spluttered. “The way you young’uns dress these days is just asking for trouble.”
Silence for the next 100 kilometres.
* * *
Months later, she could see the funny side. Pop had instructed her on the correct way to wave to approaching truckies and insisted on paying for all the food and fuel. Each night she tossed and turned in tune to the snores that infiltrated her swag no matter how far she pitched it from his.
“These look like interesting shops,” Casey had said hopefully as Pop slowed down to drive through a quaint riverside town. A few hours later he pulled up in a smaller town with only a pub, fuel bowser, and bakery.
“They make a nice vanilla slice here,” he announced as he pulled on the handbrake.
They settled into a daily routine of travel and setting up camp. Still his temper tantrums always took her by surprise.
There was the day he was grim-faced after filling the tank. “If you weren’t so heavy-footed, we wouldn’t be using all this fuel.”
“That’s not how you make a bloody cup of tea,” he yelled another morning.
Gone was the smooth-talking tradesman who had always charmed customers and family. Now retired and well into his seventies, he had no filter on his moods and opinions.
Casey started to take long walks after they set up camp. “Keep an eye on the light,” Pop would warn. With her emotions firmly clamped down, she followed Pop’s set itinerary. Not once did they deviate.
While Pop drove and when he wasn’t giving his opinion, she had time to think about Nan’s wan smiles and quiet demeanour. Casey’s nurse’s training kicked in and she recalled what she’d witnessed in the emergency department. The way some women said, “I tripped … I don’t remember … I’m clumsy.” No, Pop wouldn’t. To her knowledge he had never raised his hand. He just used silence and that steely gaze. But that was almost as bad, wasn’t it? Every time Casey would try to coax Nan out for lunch or a movie, she would reply, “I’ll have to ask your Pop first.” Now she thought about it, more often than not, Pop had some urgent task for Nan to do.
For 23 years Casey had been his princess. She’d loved visiting her Pop, sitting on his knee eating ice cream as a kid. He’d coached her on L plates, patiently sitting beside her as she got her hours up one summer holiday.
How could she have missed it?
Their relationship became cooler each kilometre they travelled. To get through it, Casey compartmentalised her emotions. She marvelled at the sunrise at Chambers Pillar and swam in the warm water at Dalhousie Springs before they started their slow trek through the Simpson. She snapped stunning photos of desert night skies and revelled in the simple joys of a shower and pub meal in Birdsville after they emerged the other side of Big Red. When they had signal, she posted bright chirpy messages on Facebook to mask her true feelings.
After four long weeks she had been grateful to return to work. But the realisation was like a festering sore. The more she scratched at it, the more inflamed it became. Both her mother and uncle brushed off her concerns.
“That’s just the way dad is,” her Mum said.
“Yep, tell me about it,” her uncle groaned. He’d had his own challenges in taking over Pop’s construction business.
Three months later came the call from her Mum. “Your grandfather’s had a massive heart attack. He didn’t make it.”
Casey arranged a few days of leave and drove to her grandparents’ house. Nan hugged her warmly. There were no tears.
Now, in the hall at Pop’s memorial service, before her sat all of his friends and their sons and grandsons, many of them fellow tradesmen. They had come out of respect, along with their wives and girlfriends to help out with the afternoon tea. Residents of rural towns stood together.
Her mother was nervous. “Remember, we don’t speak ill of the dead,” she had whispered as Casey stood to make her way to the front.
Casey started with stories of their trip and how her Pop had constantly tested her. “Many a time I planned a shallow bush grave.” She paused as a titter of sympathetic laughter rippled around the hall.
Should she say it?
She drew in a breath and committed.
“I always thought my Pop was a great man until this trip. Then I learned that he was a misogynist bully.”
The hall fell silent. In the front row her family bowed their heads. Behind, a sea of straight thin lips and hard eyes confronted her. Someone at the back muttered. The scrape of chair legs followed by the clunk of a door as they exited.
A soft white head of hair in the front row lifted. Casey met her Nan’s gaze as a tear rolled down her thin wrinkled cheek. Casey’s throat closed.
Larry, a bricklayer and popular MC for local events, stepped up to her side, his eyes evading hers. “Thanks Casey. Well, that’s a reminder that we all have a different take on life, I guess. But what a great trip with your Pop. Thanks for sharing.”
The reception afterwards was subdued. Zara, her cousin, came over and gave her a sympathetic hug. Mum glared at Casey before heading into the kitchen to supervise the food. Dad shrugged and turned to chat with some distant relatives.
Her uncle approached, face grim. “Could have kept that to yourself, Casey. There’s going to be a bit of flack. I still have to work with these guys, you know.”
“Sorry, didn’t think of that.” Inwardly she cringed. Business always came before family.
“Yeah, we could tell that you weren’t thinking. Do you know how hard Dad worked to establish this business? As kids we never went without food on the table, no matter how tough it was.” He strode off.
She blinked back tears.
A sympathetic arm reached around her shoulders. “Hello Casey, how are you?” It was Mrs White who lived next door. She’d lost her husband some years ago and often enjoyed a cuppa with Nan. “Always snooping for gossip,” Pop once said and only now did Casey recall the flit of pain that had crossed Nan’s face.
“Could be better, Mrs White. Seems like I overstepped the mark.”
Faded blue eyes studied her. “Something you might not know about your Pop. He gave me five hundred dollars to help bury my Ted. I believe he’s helped out quite a few people over the years. He was a good man, Casey, even though he did give your Nan a tough time.”
After Mrs White wandered over to speak to some other neighbours, Casey moved towards the urn for something to do. Miserable, she stood alone in the middle of the hall waiting for her tea to cool. Her cup jiggled in its saucer as a man brushed past. “There’s a time and a place love,” a low voice growled. “This bloody MeToo hype is turning women into man haters. Rob was a good mate.” He barrelled on towards the exit.
Another younger man stopped beside her. “Sorry about that.” Casey looked up into grey eyes beneath a closely cropped head of hair. A tan line marked his forehead. “I’m Kane.” He grimaced towards the door, “And he’s my father.” He held out his hand.
Casey felt callouses. Yep, another tradie. “Hi Kane.” No need to introduce herself. Everyone in the room knew her by now.
“I’ve never been to Chambers Pillar, sounds awesome. Must do it someday,” he said.
A loud horn honked from outside the hall. Casey saw a thin woman untie an apron as she hurried out of the kitchen.
Kane stepped towards the door then stopped. “What you said was good. It made me think about my mum.” His eyes lingered briefly on Casey before he loped out the door.
Watching the guests start to depart, Casey wondered if she’d be welcome at the private graveside service. It didn’t bother her either way. Maybe she could just walk back to the house and collect her car. It would take a few hours to get back to the city and an early start was probably best. “Casey.” Nan appeared and grasped both her hands with thin fingers. Casey felt the hard band of her wedding band and the diamond engagement ring that she’d been told would be passed on to her one day as the eldest granddaughter.
Tears welled. ‘I’m sorry, Nan. He just made me so angry.”
“I know, love. I could see it on your face when you got back. But on the bright side I don’t think I’ve ever thanked you for giving me the best holiday ever. Those four weeks alone at home were bliss.”
Casey managed a small smile. “Why did you put up with him all these years, Nan?”
Nan studied the wall over Casey’s shoulder.
“You have to understand love, that his father was an even harder man to live with. I guess that’s all your Pop knew how to be. He did try you know, but lately … it’s as if everything was a trigger. In his world the men are always in charge and making the decisions.” She squeezed Casey’s hands. “Maybe it’s a good thing that our generation is moving on. You darling girls won’t have to put up with any of this in the future.”
Casey thought about Kane and his father. “Or maybe it will keep getting passed down to the next generation unless we call it out,” she said softly.
She stared into her Nan’s eyes. Had they failed to protect her?
“Nan, you should have said something. I had no idea what he was like until this trip. You could have moved in with Mum or come to me.”
Her nan smiled sadly.
“No, I couldn’t Casey. Someone had to love him.”
About the Author: Kerry Anderson
Kerry Anderson lives in Central Victoria and explores outback Australia at every opportunity when she is not working in her business or sneaking time to write (which is really what she prefers to do). Observing community dynamics fuels a fertile imagination that is currently grappling with her first foray into non-fiction. Anderson feels extremely privileged to be a member of the All Write Club.