Short Story: Ponzi in the Pilbara

Kangaroo sign in remote outback of Australia
Kangaroo sign in remote outback of Australia

A ‘priceless’ opportunity from spruiker Trevor promises an escape from a humdrum existence in Karratha for Pina. So why the nagging doubts?

That day. That day in January, 43-degree heat, tide going out, heading back from Hearson’s Cove. First, the corrugated dirt track, skirting the Burrup Peninsula. The old Pajero jolted along, red dirt embedded in tyres, mud flaps and wheel arches.

Pina’s thoughts jumped in unison with each corrugation and Becky ahhhed to hear her operatic voice distort. The girls were in a band, Sticky Slap, with a couple of guys. All just out of high school. They penned originals and had played a few gigs around town.

Next, bitumen road, with the ammonia nitrate plant, humming across the flood zone. Then, 110 kilometres per hour, bleached-blue sky, Dampier Salt, engine noise, hint of smoke.

“What’s that noise?” shrieked Pina. “Could be a stick caught under the Paj. It’s not far, just wind up the windows! It will be fine,” Becky said, not wanting to acknowledge the problem. They wound up the windows.

Becky turned up the stereo, to the Sun Trippers’ Chase the Flavour and Plasma Baby.

Their own songs, Forgot the Forks, Edge of Teen and Piss Head Town, followed.

“Bloody oath, turn it up!” yelled Becky, fingers already on the volume dial twisting it clockwise, with the music hammering the hot air trapped inside. Singing was a satisfying distraction, until momentum ended and their arrival was heralded by a cloud of thin, grey smoke. In chorus, their words were unrepeatable, as the smoke hissed from the dying engine.

Engine burnt out by the naïveté of youth.

Pina’s heart sank into her worn Converse shoes. Becky consoled her with a hug, concealing her guilt.

For the next couple of days, dead Pajero decisions and pushbike repairs wrestled with Pina’s limited funds and a tsunami of teen emotion.

Pina’s history was never a secret to her. Her mother flamboyantly told her, from a young age, that she was the result of a tipsy one-night stand with a foreigner, who came for a two-week stint at the gas plant. Her blonde hair begged a Nordic answer, but her father never knew she existed. Piña coladas were consumed – presumably due to her mother’s lack of tact and lack of imagination.

Pina lived in a share house with Terry and Kudy and her cat, Kitty Ironic (KI for short), and Dopamine the dog. Her mother had recently moved to the tropical bliss of Bali to sacrifice her midlife crisis with spirituality. The share house was ’80s vintage, two kilometres from the intellectually indifferent town – statistically speaking, that is. A town where money passed hands like an infectious disease. Pina wrote Piss Head Town on a $20 note and it returned to her three times in a month.

Karratha January heat, no breeze, sweated Pina to work on bike legs. The absence of hills was a blessing well-disguised.  She trudged through that next Tuesday, serving mediocre coffee with soul-destroying cake to locals and FIFOs. This is how she eked out her existence.

Close to the end of her shift a man, around 47, waltzed in, with a smile as wide as Hancock Gorge at Karijini. He was as rounded, pink and smooth as the Exmouth beach stones she had collected in her childhood. A contrast against grimy men in fluoro safety gear.

With his order he gave his name, Trevor. Pina thought he was trying to chat her up, which happened with pessimistic frequency in this testosterone-dominated town. But it was financial advice, kindly placed. Priceless it was, he emphasised. Fate brought them together, spruiked Trevor: Pina was in the right place at the right time, and he could help her out of her economic dilemma.

This wasn’t a tree scheme. This was bricks and mortar. Sunrise Developments was redeveloping an aging beachfront resort in Queensland. Trevor handed her the impressive invitation, with gold-embossed lettering, to that night’s seminar at the Karratha International. It oozed exclusiveness, but it ebbed something sinister. The scam was taking root, with trust and promise, like clean white hotel sheets, and views across an infinity pool to a calm aqua sea. Pina was being primed for this dream. Trevor was well-oiled by greed. This well-devised Ponzi scheme would make him and his third wife, Charmaine, multimillionaires.

The seminar was a lavish affair, and the locals dolled up. Charmaine flirted into the conference room, gold bangles clinking, Botox lips pouting, as she aimed her attention to the men in the audience. Was she smelling excessively of expensive perfume to cause a distraction or to intoxicate guests, Pina mused.

Trevor worked the room like a tomcat, marking his territory. The sight of $100 notes peeking from his jacket pocket was part of the charade, which was perfectly timed, rehearsed and then digested by the smiling guests as they downed the free alcohol.

Pina was drawn in 78 per cent so far. A cantilevered truth balanced precariously in her brain. She couldn’t put a finger on it, but she had doubt. Just a small blob of doubt. Becky was sucked in over her head, along with their other friends.

“Rippa night!” Becky shrieked with vodka breath from a short distance away.

The room was alive with billions of neurons firing billion-dollar dreams, cascading in action potentials, that rivalled a rock concert.

Immersed in this high, Pina drunkenly shimmied over to Trevor and Charmaine.

“You guys want to come see the petroglyphs on the Burrup in the morning?” Pina slurred.

“Begin again, my sweet,” Trevor purred.

“Come see the rock art. It’s wicked. Largest amount in the world, more than 500,000.”

“Oh, alright. Got to be quick, the investors’ lunch is tomorrow,” retorted Trevor.

“I’m hanging by the pool tomorrow, darling, you know I don’t handle the heat,” cooed Charmaine. Trevor gave her a knowing smile.

“Rippa. I’ll come in the morning at 7.30. Can we go in your car?” beamed Pina, assuming that Trevor was as thrilled as her. “Right you are, my sweet,” said Trevor, stifling sufferance, to secure Pina and her friends’ buy-in.

Hangover morning arrived. Dull, throbbing, hot, dehydrated. Trevor and Pina hit the wide bitumen, right turn, narrow bitumen, right turn, four-wheel-drive track, then the walk to the majestic Burrup Peninsula. The angular, eroded boulders looked like they were dumped there. If you threw a stone at them they clinked, akin to a metal spoon hitting a cast-iron pot.

Pina led Trevor to a creek bed, dry now, awaiting cyclonic rain. The carvings were simple yet distinct in that morning light. A fish, a kangaroo, an echidna, some kind of bird, and one Pina called Guitar Man. Climbing up to them was easy enough for Pina but a slight challenge for Trevor and his indulged hotel legs.

They disturbed the red kangaroos and smaller euros, which bounded across the rocks then stopped and watched them from a distance.

They climbed higher and sat on a rock etched with a goanna and viewed the gallery of art across the creek. Echoes chased a stone bounced down by Trevor. Soft thumps followed. Trevor was out of his material world among squadrons of flies and reverent rocks.

Nature’s silence scared him but he was acclimatising slowly, while a battle was culminating in his head: ‘What the hell am I doing here? I don’t give a shit about these bloody rocks.’

Oily sweat escaped from under the brim of his hat and diverted into his eyes. Blinking and swatting flies destabilised his horizon. He misjudged, tripped and landed skew-whiff on a large flat rock carved with an emu. His leg was scraped and the blood began pushing through his pink-white office skin.

“Are you all right?” Pina shrieked. “Arrr, bloody rocks and flies. It’s a scrape and a few bruises and a hell of an inconvenience,” snarled Trevor. He pulled himself up, his right hand brushed his shorts pocket – revealing an unaccustomed flatness. “Where in hell’s name are my keys?”

“I’ll look,” Pina quickly replied. She scampered above Trevor and crouched, peering into the crevices that punctuated his path down to Emu rock. “Ah, I see them.”

Pina threaded her thin arm into the crevice, splaying her fingers like octopus tentacles, hoping to hook the key ring.

“Too far in. I’ll get a stick and try.”

“Okay, I’m going back to the car, it’s getting hot and the flies are vampires. I will call Charmaine,” Trevor replied, in forced politeness, while staring at his cracked iPhone screen.

Pina shouted “Okay” as she scrambled down to the creek bed, lined with stunted trees. She had to get those keys, or hitch back, as there was no phone reception out here, which she avoided mentioning to the already-enraged Trevor.

She snapped off a less-than-supple acacia branch, headed towards Emu rock and climbed two rocks above.

Pina had a plan and worked the stick around the keys, trying to spear the loop and pull the keys closer. She managed part of the plan. The keys were hooked, but the tip of the branch bent and pinged the keys further in, xylophoning deeper down.

The word for the situation was on Pina’s lips, ready to escape. The flies halted her response. She hurried down the rocks. Trevor was spitting out a fly or flies back at the car.

“No luck, I’m guessing,” growled Trevor. Pina gave a sorry smile. “Phone doesn’t work here,” he hissed through his teeth, avoiding flies.

“We can walk to the road and hitch back. It shouldn’t take long.” Pina’s tone was hopeful.

The track made by four-wheel-drives had spinifex lurching from either side of the wheel tread. Trevor’s legs became an art work.

Time was running away, the bottle of water running out and the flies on the drying blood on Trevor’s leg moved in crescendo with his Beethoven hand sweeps.

An old Cruiser pulled over.

“What youse doing out ’ere? A bit of rumpy pumpy? I was just stopping for a piss. True. Hop in. I’m heading to town. Jock’s the name.”

“We lost the keys in the rocks!” said Trevor. “I’m Trevor and this is Pina. We are certainly not an item.”

Jock then pissed on the rear passenger wheel. He believed it was legal. Trevor and Pina climbed into the heady stench of fish guts, sweat and burley.

“Got a dollar?” quizzed Jock.

Pina and Trevor fossicked through their pockets, a kneejerk reaction, in vain, while Jock cackled through yellow-teeth drool. “Dollar, where are you?”             

Dollar licked Trevor’s neck. He felt like puking.

“Dollar’s me blue heeler. Beauty, isn’t she? True. I’m never short of a dollar,” rattled Jock.  “A lift requires a favour. Lassie, could you oblige an old bloke, for something in return?”

Pina’s disgust rose like sour milk rising to the surface of that long-awaited coffee.

Her curdled response: “Not sure I want to.”

“This could be your lucky day. True. Dad can come, too.”

“She is not my daughter!” blurted Trevor. “I have to be at a clients’ lunch at the Karratha International in 20 minutes. Can you drop me there?” Trevor was blunt, corrosive even. Pina’s 22 per cent doubt in Trevor’s scheme doubled four times.

“Almost there. Lassie, will you come meet me lawyer at Lotteries House?” queried Jock. Pina waited. The words hung. Longer. They arrived at the hotel.

“Thanks, Jock,” said Trevor. See you at the lunch, Pina.”

“Yeah, maybe Trevor. Sorry about all this,” apologised Pina.

In unison with the thud of the Cruiser door, Pina turned to Jock and demanded, “What’s this about?”

“I’ve never been short of a dollar or two, lassie. True. I made a little bet with meself to give all me things to the next person I ran into. You won – so I’m leaving you all me money. Dollar as well. She needs looking after. I’m close to becoming red dirt. Dead in the end you know. True.” Jock grinned.

“Oh. Really?” Pina was shocked, expecting sleaze.

“Look after Dollar for me.” Jock’s words cremated as they left his dry mouth and merged with the Pilbara heat.

“True,” he murmured softly.

About our MiNDFOOD Short Story author: Marie-Louise Anastas

In 1977, Anastas had her first piece published in the school yearbook. She studied urban planning at university, married a musician and moved between Perth and Karratha for the next couple of decades. She began writing song lyrics in 1993. Anastas’ one-act play, Love in the Classifieds, was performed by Black Swan Theatre Company. In 2002, she won the Pilbara Literacy prize for poetry.



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