Karen
 
 

Adelaide... and it's mid afternoon on another long hot day of continual sun with hardly a breeze. I'd arrived from Melbourne that lunchtime by courtesy of 'The Wayward Bus' and was still finding my way around when at the end of a wide, bungalow-flanked road I stumbled on the racecourse. Not only had I emerged near the starting gate, but at that moment the traps were holding several restless snorting horses all ready for the off. Then the gates opened and the impatient animals kicked the turf and were gone like they were chasing a supercharged thunderbolt. How can they race horses in that heat, I wondered?

When I turned back, Karen stood in front of me. She hadn't been there before. At least I hadn't noticed her. There was no-one else in the street. My immediate impression was of a vagrant on the scrounge, though maybe a dope-head bohemian was closer. Either way and despite the stifling weather, I should have turned on my heels, as they say, and pelted.

Where are you headed, she said, as I wandered past ignoring her open hand. I can see you’re a tourist on a shoestring, she added, but you don't have to be a Scrooge. That's when I should have broken into a sprint, but instead whether from curiosity or fascination, I smiled, looked her in the eye, and said: tourist, shoestring... you sound very certain; and continued walking.

Isn't it obvious, she replied skipping along beside me, the backpack for a start, she said, though yours is suspiciously small, what does that mean I wonder, then the general scruffiness, unconcern for appearance. You're right, I said as I walked a bit faster hoping to leave her behind. But with several leaps she pranced ahead of me, which for a thirty-something I couldn't decide was comical, tragic or just weird. Where are you staying, she asked when we were level again, do you have somewhere?

Ah, I thought, she's touting for digs. This time tomorrow, I reflected, I'll be on the Ghan to Alice; I already had the ticket in my pocket bought earlier at the station. OK, I mused, maybe it would be interesting to play along with this eccentric weirdo even if she does wheedle a few dollars?

Are you offering somewhere, I asked? Not me, she laughed, twirling around. In that case, I said, I'll book in at the hostel. Exactly what I thought, she replied, now dancing along the pavement, I'm Karen and let me guess, you're... Brian, breadline Brian? That's not my name, I said, and I'm not on the breadline, at least not quite.

Well, you look it, she said, struggling to keep up. It's a ploy, I replied, to prevent me being pestered by people like you.

Ha, she chuckled, your ploy's failed, and you're a joker too; I like that; but jokers are usually generous. I reckon you're a bit of a joker yourself, I said, and just because I don't dish out to just anyone doesn't mean I'm broke nor that I'm a Scrooge. Well, she said brightly, I'm not just anyone so you won't mind helping me out... just a little... it's not asking much.

boheOK, tell you what, I said stopping, and don't get any wrong ideas, but as a gesture of goodwill why don't you let me buy you dinner tonight; I noticed several modest-looking restaurants when I came through town earlier?

She frowned deeply as though in thought, so I continued: it's purely, you understand, for the pleasure of eccentric... I mean spirited company. Then grinning she said, you're on, spirited, ha ha. But suddenly her expression changed again; she looked at me sternly and said, but I need something now.

OK, I said, you're just so crazy. So I dug my wallet out, removed $2 and handed it to her. I didn't like the serious, focused way she watched me do that. Is that all, she said? It is, I said, adding: I'll be at the hostel after about 17.00... now I'm going to look around more of the city. I knew if I started jogging she'd be unable or unwilling to keep up, but I couldn't think of an easier way out at that moment with only a few more hours to see Adelaide.

So off I went, down Aldridge Avenue towards town. Oh, it's one thing to dance and lark about, she chided as I moved away, but much too hot for that.

Was it unkind of me? I don't think so. I left her $2 richer - enough for a beer - plus the prospect of a free dinner in couple of hours.

The fact is I like company, especially anyone weird, but I like being alone more. Alone, one can do what one likes and think what one likes, undisturbed, wander in and out and around anywhere, dilly dally, whatever. When there's someone else you have to compromise, stop when they stop, go when they go... you're no longer autonomous, independent, free... and your thoughts too are somehow compromised, reined-in or other-directed.

I'd only been going a few seconds when I slowed and looked back. She was gone. Where did she go? How so quickly? It was a wide road, open and clear. She appeared from nowhere and disappeared to nowhere. OK. She was right about it being too hot though. I removed my shirt, stuffed it in the back-pack, which I now carried in my hand like a bag, and walked on, slowly. As for the smallness of the back-pack, it's true I don't carry much. What does anyone need in permanent summer? Actually it's winter, but Aussie winter is like UK summer, which explains why in Darwin they call summer the 'suicide season', though I guess the humidity has more to do with it. OK.

Eventually, after a search, I located the hostel. No-one on the desk until 17.00, it said. At least I could leave my back-pack in a locker.

So I wandered off to spend the rest of the day exploring first the myriad of little alleys and walk-throughs in the centre of town, then the park, botanical gardens, etc.

It was after 17.30 when I checked my watch. Then it took a while to find the way back. And there she was waiting, lounging lethargically on a hostel bench-seat out front looking hot and tired. Beside her, stuffed full, was one of those big rainbow-coloured cloth bags that were popular then. But what was this, she looked so gloomy I'd hardly have recognised her if she'd been wearing different clothes.

Here at last, I said, but what's wrong, did you think I wouldn't turn up? No no, she replied, nothing's wrong. OK good, I said, I guess it's the heat. I have a couple of ideas, I said, but first is there anywhere you'd recommend that's modestly priced? The Harvester, she said, is nice... it's a pub and restaurant just round the corner from here. Perfect, I said, I've walked far enough today as it is. But I'd better just go and book into the hostel.

Reception was slightly hectic with hostellers milling about as well as queuing at the desk for internet tokens, etc. When I reached the front the guy said, sorry fella you're a bit late, $15 dorm beds are all gone. We have twin rooms for $35, that's $25 for one. I gave a sigh and said, I guess I'd better have that then, and handed over $25. Room-16, he said, down the corridor on the first floor. I retrieved the back-pack and climbed the stairs to room 16. The bed by the window looked fine so I slung my back-pack there then went back outside.

Karen was still slumped on the bench-seat. OK, I said, let's go. I offered to carry her bag, but she declined, holding it close then lugging the handle onto her shoulder. I had the impression she thought I might run off with it - though I'd have had to be a prize athlete to run with a thing like that. Ten minutes later we sat on the terrace of The Harvester reading the menu.

It's a bit pricey, I said. You can afford it, she replied, and I'll have the scampi. Fine, I said, and I'll go for the blue mackerel. She seemed a different person from earlier. I said, I reckon you're... don't tell me... an actress? What makes you say that, she said? You switch so easily from cheerful to gloomy, I said, maybe you can do it in a flash; it's what actors do all the time. There was a flicker, a mere hint of a smile, then it vanished and the gloom returned. I grinned at her and nodded, so have you performed in any famous plays?

OK, she said, you've sussed me. I give in. Good, I said, so now you can smile again; and I should say your act this afternoon was great, but it did puzzle me at first; people don't normally prance about like that except on a stage. The fact is, she said, I'm out of work and surviving day to day, living on the street, begging even. I'm very sorry, I said, that's bad luck... at least you've landed briefly on your feet by stopping me.

When the waiter appeared I ordered a couple of beers which he brought straight away. I aim to go on a short walkabout at some point, I said, I mean in the outback as they like to call the desert here. You're mistaken to think it's desert, she said, it's a lot more alive and fertile out in the bush than most people think, poms and other foreigners that is... everywhere has little shrubs and trees, stunted and struggling maybe and sometimes extremely sparse, but always something; and it's solid with all kinds of deadly insects and other life too, birds especially. I guess so, I said, I'll find out. There's all kinds of bush tucker as well, she continued, the aboriginals know how to survive; I know it better than most people, she added, in fact I was born out there, away from so called civilisation, miles from anywhere.

Really, I said? I must have sounded interested because then she began to unfold a long history from before she was born. Apparently, 38-years ago her parents had planned a holiday trek into the outback, as far as they dare go. They'd only intended a long weekend and failed to inform anyone. The day they set out they hadn't even reached where they aimed to camp... some waterhole oasis on their map... when they stopped for a picnic. That was fatal, she said: Dad got stung on the ankle by a scorpion, Mum wasn't sure if it could have been a spider, she said, because within minutes he was kind-of paralysed and could barely move. It made Mum hysterical and she was unable to get him in the wagon and drive back, nor did she dare leave him. To complicate things, she was heavily pregnant with me. Luckily for her they'd brought food and drink for two people to last several days. But Dad died after three days. There weren't mobile phones back then, she said, and even if there had been I don't suppose there'd be a mast or a signal out where they were. I suppose not, I said. That was when a bunch of aboriginals appeared, she said. The stress of it all caused me to be born there prematurely. Luckily, the abos knew what to do and looked after us both; it was several weeks before they could get a message back so someone would come out there and take us home.

That's some story, I said. Then the scampi arrived. This is nice, she said, and I don't mind giving you a palm-reading in return... how does that sound? A palm-reading, I said? I examine the palm of your hand and tell your future. I'm afraid I don't believe in that stuff, I laughed. Oh, you should, she said, there's a lot more about people the reading reveals than they know; the palm gives away a lot.

OK, I said after a delay, I'll go along with it. Whether you believe it or not, she said, you'll know; then you can be ready for whatever the future holds. The future is mostly unknown and unpredictable, I said, I could get run over by a mad driver tomorrow. Well, I can't see everything, she continued, there's too many variables and outside forces, but it gives a general idea of what you can expect according to your inner-directed self. Whatever that means, I said? It means, she replied, that what your palm reveals is your inner potential.

When we'd finished the meal she said, give me your hand. I put my left arm across. No, your right hand, she said. Does it make a difference, I asked? I'm more used to reading right palms, she said. So I put my right hand across and she examined it carefully, or pretended to.

Your future is very bright, she began, within the year you'll meet a beautiful girl about your age, maybe 20 or 23, and you'll be very happy together. But what do I see here, she said in a low voice turning my hand slightly, the near future looks pleasant but with problems, some kind of loss. What, I asked, like the death of a friend? No no, nothing so bad, she said, you altogether have a positive future, and a resilient nature that will allow you to overcome any difficulties. Now my eyes are misting a bit.

She said a few other things that made little sense to me, then let go of my hand. We had another drink. I said, do you live in Aldridge Avenue?

Oh no, she replied, but I'll find somewhere, a bench seat maybe, or some corner? At least it's not cold, I said. There's insects though, she replied with a shrug, look. She pulled her dress up a little and showed me some bites on her leg. I said, do you have $10? - that's all it would be for a bed at the hostel. I'm skint, she replied, otherwise I'd get in somewhere. Don't you have friends, I said, someone like you must have loads of contacts. Oh yes, she said, but they're mostly in the same position as me, otherwise they only have a small place and are already helping a sofa-surfer.

What the hell, I thought. Then said, you can stay at the hostel if you don't mind sharing; I have a twin room and it's another $10, which I guess I can just about afford. Her face brightened like a light. You see, she said, I was right about you. I'll make economies, I said, I have a couple of months left to see Alice and Darwin and Cairns and Brisbane... And Sydney, she added. Right, I said. I should make it around OK, then I fly back to the UK.

We had another drink, again at my expense obviously, then at around 22.00 we retired to the hostel and room 16. She didn't say much after that. She just pulled her big flowing dress over her head, threw it on a chair and got into bed. Then she turned to the wall and so far as I could tell went straight to sleep.

That's when I discovered my wrist watch missing. How hadn't I noticed? The strap must have broken - as had happened to me once before. That was annoying, it was a good watch. Oh well, I thought, I can get a cheapo digital one in the market on my way to the station in the morning.

So with a sigh I turned off the light, got into bed and went to sleep. Although I'm a light sleeper I always sleep well when travelling, regardless of general disturbances like traffic or insects and so on. Yet the slightest unusual disturbance will wake me, briefly, and I'll fall quickly back to sleep.

The next thing I knew I was woken by a rustling sound. I opened one eye. A faint red sun was hitting the ceiling above my bed and reflecting from across the room onto the lowest windowpane. Clearly it was early morning. Then the rusting sound again. It was coming from opposite the end of my bed. Was she up already and trying to peer through the window? I lay dead still, wondering. Then I heard her move back to her side of the room. I could see a distorted red reflection of her in the window. She was taking something from deep in that huge bag of hers. Some kind of folder, which she opened briefly then closed and replaced deep down the far side of the bag. I was still pretty tired and about to let myself fall asleep again, but something stopped me and I just lay there still. Then I heard the door open very quietly.

There's always one or two people in a hostel who get-up early. But there was no other sound, so I guessed it wasn't even 6.00 yet. Suddenly I could hear the distant sound of a shower starting. I looked up. The door was slightly open. Then something occurred to me and I got up and went to the chair at the end of the bed to check my wallet. Stupidly, as ever, I'd left it in the back pocket of my shorts. Christ! All gone. I'd had $450 in there. Now there was nothing. So that's what she was up to, the bitch. I quickly went over to that huge rainbow bag of hers and dug my hand into the far side. The first thing I felt was my watch. Hell, she must have removed it during the palm-reading. What a scam, so that's what her palm nonsense was all about. I dug my hand down in the bag again and pulled out a massive wallet. It was stuffed full. The address was there too... Aldridge Avenue, and there must have been maybe $2000... I stood there holding it wondering. Gawd, I thought, what a twister.

Then the shower stopped. I quickly counted out $500, put the rest back and shoved the wallet down the side where I'd taken it from. Then I leapt back into bed with the $500 and my watch, just before she came back into the room. Now I was facing outwards and she could see I was awake or waking... I said, you're early.

I remembered I have to see someone, she said pulling on her dress, adding, I'm late already; but thanks for everything. You've been a really nice guy.

How she got ready to go so quickly was amazing to see, but within seconds she was heaving that bag of hers onto her shoulder and leaving the room, calling out as she went: have a good trip.

I turned over and dozed for another hour or so hoping she wouldn't discover her loss too quickly. Even so, I reckon it was break-evens... maybe I gained $20. It was tempting, but I knew it would have played on my mind if I'd taken more. She, on the other hand, seemed to have no concern that I might have been left destitute. Maybe she guessed I could somehow access funds to continue my trip... who knows? Either way, it was pretty obvious that she didn't care, otherwise she'd have left something.

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