The white light broke through the shadows and he was revealed standing on the thin strip between desiccated grass and rippling tarmac. If I wasn’t tooling along pulling my first full trailer, I might have missed him. I would have been another pair of red tail lights racing north on the cracked black highway. His dog was at his knee; its blue- black head punctuated by the comma of its lolling tongue.
The previous night I had said goodbye to my own dark-coated dog. My sister and I tolerated each other for the sake of my invalid Dad, but she was a great pet owner, even I could admit that. My Mac loved her Kelpie, Winton, and she didn’t blink an eyelid when I said I would be back next week, after my trip to Sydney, to pick him up. Later when I sat on the front porch with Mac’s big head in my lap, my feet in the dust, and the stars so close I felt my head might be among them, frissions of excitement and sadness coursed my spine. I said, “Hey big fella, this is my last night before leaving town. I want you to be good for Sarah, Ok.” He gave a doggy sigh and nuzzled my thigh, as he alone had noted my activities of the last four days. It amazed me how observant for gossip’s sake, and how clueless for a person’s sake the locals could be. When they saw me carting stuff to my shed, and packing boxes in my trailer some of them stopped to gawk, “ Having a garage sale , luv”, Mrs Walker from across the street led the charge. When I did not reply in the negative, I said nothing; a rumour was circulated that everyone should support the garage sale at my place on Saturday. “She must be a bit hard up”, Mabel Simpson whispered, “My blender’s getting a bit long in the tooth, wonder if she’s got one.” I sighed and scratched Mac’s head. As if athletics loving, smoothie hogging me would give up a blender with life left in it. She’d probably seen it through the gap in the sheers on the kitchen window; it sat on the bench right underneath it.
He opened the passenger side door slowly, and his dog rested its head on the fabric seat, leaving hairs from its old white muzzle. It’s funny what you notice in moments like that. The dog rubbed his jaw over the fabric seat, and the light from the full moon through the windscreen lit up the glistening white hairs. “Thanks for stopping. “
I nodded, and said “I’m heading to Sydney.”
“Yeah, that’ll do.”
The dog jumped in the back, and he nestled his guitar, in its worn leather gig bag between his legs. I glimpsed a gleam of golden wood through the gap at the end of the zip. He tried to stuff his aging dirty knapsack down beside his legs. Giving up, he stretched between the seats and placed it in the back. The dog sniffed it.
After a long period of silence, during which I fiddled with the radio, and then opted for a Coldplay CD, not too loud, he spoke. “The dog is Hank and I am Nel.” I started as he said his name. The sound of Nel conjured up images of a buxom maid in uniform and frilly white apron, while he was broad shouldered, with dark, silver-flecked hair. He wore ripped blue jeans and a Led Zeppelin T-shirt. He had a brown weathered face, but his green eyes were laughing eyes. I could hear the voice of my hypochondriac mother who had summoned me to Sydney, to her side, because she said “I’m dying this time”, go quiet in my head. It might be full moon madness to pick up a hitch hiker on a stretch of road between Jerilderie and Wagga Wagga, but my intuition told me he wasn’t a creep.
“I’m Linda”, I said, and both of us knew that I did not want to tell him that.
“Can I play you a song, Linda?” I nodded, and he was tall enough to see from where he was. He began singing, predictably I suppose, a Led Zeppelin song. My Dad had all their albums and had passed on some of his enthusiasm. It sounded like Ramble On and I turned off the CD. My curiosity about his name would not let up. I blurted, “Why are you called Nel?”
“Short for Nelson, my late mum a historian named me after Lord Nelson.” He shrugged and picked at his guitar: the sound was both soothing and kept me awake. It was a long time since I’d heard such a great player close up. He played just loud enough so that it wasn’t jarring in the confines of the car. The guitar hummed as the kilometres slipped away, and I forgot to ask him why he let people shorten it to Nel.
I pulled into Macca’s at Wagga, and my guitarist paused midway through Stairway to Heaven. “You can’t be serious. You are not stopping here.” I turned around in my seat, and looked at him. His laidback manner had vanished, and his dog sat up and whined. He patted Hank’s head. “Smart boy.” “What’s wrong?” I said, my hands reaching for my wallet inside the console. He shook his head.
“We’re not going to eat here. I can’t play guitar after I eat here.” Searching for a smile, I was struck by his earnestness. “I’ve been through Wagga Wagga about a year ago, and I had a really good burger from the Roadhouse, the truck stop just out of town.”
I sighed. “It’s closing anyway. They’ve just turned the sign over. We’ll head out.” He picked up Stairway to Heaven right where he left off. His left hand had never left the fret board. I drove the short distance to Gumly Gumly and pulled up next to a bowser. “I’ve got it” he said, reaching into the battered knapsack. Turning away, rubbing my keys, I entered the restaurant and headed to the toilets. I was so curious about him I wanted to turn reporter, but the whole situation relied on a kind of anonymity, didn’t it? He had asked for a ride the hitchhiker way, and I had picked him up. It didn’t mean he owed me anything, but his guitar was better than my overused CD collection. So far it was ok. When I came back in, he was standing at the counter. At the table as we waited for our food, it was quieter than it had been in the car. I pushed a strand of hair behind my ear. “Ask away”, he said. I glared at him. “I can tell you’re the curious kind. I’m not exactly wet behind the ears.” I shuffled my feet. “Oh”, he said, “before you do, you might like to move the car, and lock it.” Irritated, I grabbed my bag and ran to the door. Outside there was a truck and three cars, one parked behind my trailer. I groaned.
When I returned to the table, we sipped two glasses of water and stretched our limbs. I was working up to another question when two giant, greasy burgers and a heap of chips arrived along with a tomato sauce bottle. “I love these things”, he said “I spent a bit of time in the states, good burgers there, but they don’t use beetroot, and then nothing’s like Aussie fried onions. I’m looking forward to this.” After a few bites, I asked a question.
“Why do you let people call you Nel? How—“
“I’m eating right —.” He took a big squelchy bite, and another, and another, while I nibbled on some chips, before attempting the burger. Getting up I went to the counter and ordered two coffees. He continued to eat his burger, but nodded and smiled, lettuce between his teeth and grease on his lips, when the coffee arrived. Three quarters of my burger was still on the table and feeling guilty I managed half a dozen bites. He finally finished, including all his chips, grinned and sighed. “Thanks for the coffee”, he lifted it to his lips.
Back on the road, I discovered that Nel had brought some mint lollies, which he chewed loudly while he played. Hank, who had eaten the leftover burger, rested his head on his paws and shut his eyes. Nel played Brown-eyed girl, and then slipped into the gentle strains of Coldplay’s Yellow. He began to hum loudly, and Hank opened his eyes and howled. I wanted to ask him why he was playing such a recent song, but it seemed probable he could just hear a song and play it. I stared at the lights on the road, and the dark sky sprinkled with glitter, trying to imagine the last few hours without them. Nel played a riff, then began The Scientist, another Cold Play, and all three of us hummed and howled.
Soon we were in Gundagai; the Dog on the Tuckerbox came to mind and reminded me of Mac. Why had I run away from him? First I saw the lights of a motel, then shining from the Service Club door and carpark, and four minutes later there was the dog on the tuckerbox with light at his feet. I pulled up beside it and got out. Nel wound down the window, but stayed in the car. I felt tears come to my eyes, sorrow and guilt flooded in. I didn’t want to leave Mac behind, but caring for my kooky mother in the city would be difficult, and it was no place for such an energetic dog. I couldn’t live with my mother for a long period. I swallowed the tears and got back in the driver’s seat. “We can talk now”, Nel announced cheerfully. I sighed, sniffed, and listened as he seemed to understand what a curious girl like me would want to know
He didn’t want to be called like his Dad, so he let people call him Nel.
“I thought you said you were named after the Lord.”
He shrugged, “Artistic licence.” I smiled.
He went on to explain that a lot of kids called him Neil anyway. He regretted his choice when he went to Secondary School. He picked up the guitar when he was ten, and never put it down. He had played all over. The guitar he was playing now had been played on stage by Stephen Stills, and it was Maple and Spruce. He spoke passionately of the frets, the fingerboard and the tuners. I didn’t quite understand, but was delighted to hear that when he wanted to talk he had plenty of words. Interest was keeping me awake. I thought of my Dad, who would have loved to hear all this, and talk about his own musical exploits. Guilt assailed me. I had left Sarah in charge of his care, and after 15 years my Dad wasn’t coping well with his Multiple Sclerosis. Preoccupied with my thoughts, it took me a minute to realise that Nel wasn’t talking anymore. I glanced back at him despite being behind the wheel. “You’ll be OK”, he said. We drove in silence for a while. Then he picked up his guitar, and played The Dog sits on the Tuckerbox. He riffed into the next song and I asked, “What is that song?” In reply he began to sing, and Hank joined in. When he finished, he said “That’s The Traveller’s Prayer. Slim Dusty wrote that one.” I nodded. He plucked and stroked the strings, and his hands beat a rhythm on the guitar’s body, as he played a rhythmic instrumental. The moon sank towards the horizon.
The lights of Sydney appeared, and grew closer until we were drawn into the city’s neon busyness. “Where should I drop you?” I asked. “I have a reservation at a place in Cronulla,” he said.
I was surprised as it was the same suburb my mother lived in. He had sounded so casual when he said Yeah, that’ll do. I dropped him at the Cronulla Motor Inn and drove to Marsh Avenue, only a minute away.It occurred to me his dog must be well-trained if he was going to hide it at a motel all night? Nel was an eccentric one.
Mum’s car was nowhere to be seen, and the double garage doors were down. I reversed the trailer right up to the garage door, and headed around to the back door. I was walking while scrounging in my bag for the key, and banged into one of mum’s hanging planters. I yelped, and inside mum’s Fox terrier Missy started barking. Darn. I pushed my key into the door, and by the time I opened it the light was on in the kitchen.
“Hello, dear, don’t look so worried”, Mum said. “I was lying in bed thinking, awake anyway. I’ll make us a milk drink.” I put my arms around her as she shuffled toward me. She looked ill. As we headed to bed around five am Mum said, “Don’t get up early. I’ll be ok.” I couldn’t believe my mother’s attitude now that she was ill.
I lay flat on my back and opened my eyes. My eyeballs felt as if they had been sprinkled with sand. I shut them again. I could hear light traffic noise and voices. One was Mum’s and the other was… I staggered to the wardrobe, and scratched around. I kept a set of clothes in this bedroom closet leftover from past visits: jeans and a button up shirt. I brushed my hair, and made my way downstairs in bare feet. Seated at the breakfast bar was Nel. I blinked in surprise; he grinned from ear to ear. Mum turned towards me, still in her dressing gown. “I’d like you to meet an old friend of mine, Nelson. He’s come to see how I am. Isn’t that nice?”
Hank’s claws skittered on the tiles as he came toward me, barking in excitement.
Some media and music links associated with this story
The Murrumbidgee at Wagga Wagga
The Dog sits on the Tuckerbox
Cover instrumental of The Scientist by Cold Play