*all names have been changed
In June 2009 I was 20 years old and driving solo up the Eastern Coast of Australia. I was two months into my trip when my financial means dribbled away and I was dry. The only reason I’d even survived for this long, aided by measly Centrelink funds and the leftovers from a brief Sydney barmaid gig, was because I was sleeping in the back of my ute and living on stale food from service stations. I had actually made a point of not counting my funds when I left home, of not doing the math on how long I could last, because I didn’t want to discourage myself.
My entire teenage years had been rough. Since dropping out of school at 16 I had struggled to stay in the one place for more than six months and this latest venture was just another in a series as I tried to find a place of my own in the world that felt hostile to me. I normally took off on these habitual wandering trips solo, but on this occasion I’d left Melbourne with a friend, only to find myself yearning to be alone again after just a couple of days of travelling. Although a few years older than me, my friend hadn’t had any of the impulses to roam that I had and I felt her relying heavily on me to make every decision, to do all the thinking as well as be responsible for her, which was a nightmare for someone who felt anxious and overwhelmed in every moment of the day anyway.
It took us two weeks to get to Brisbane, pitching the tent every night at free camping spots not far off the highway, and once we were there I was grinding my teeth with the strain of spending every waking minute in the company of another person. I was also growing increasingly aware of my waning bank balance, but I was desperate to get to North Queensland before I settled down and put out feelers for another bartending job. Brisbane was nice, I’d thought at the time, but it just wasn’t far enough away from Melbourne, let alone Sydney which I’d left only three months before. I was a geographical mess.
I worked out that once I got one more youth allowance payment (I was completing my year 12 through distance education at the time, just to make things as difficult as possible for myself) I’d have just enough money to pay for my expenses to get to Townsville. But I’d received a payment not long after getting to Brisbane and it had gone into paying for my accommodation at the backpacker hostel. Through another backpacker I heard about WWOOFING (Willing Workers On Organic Farms) and she gave me a couple of numbers to contact which weren’t too far out of Brisbane. I got lucky pretty quickly with one, a tiny farm two hours north of Brisbane where the owner needed help caring for over 80 dogs she had rescued (which she turned out to be hoarding rather than rescuing and rehoming; but that’s another story entirely).
I figured if I could lay low for a couple of weeks while I waited for that sacred youth allowance to come through I’d survive. I explained my plan to my travelling companion- suggesting she stay behind in Brisbane and enjoy herself for a little while, making earnest plans to meet up with her again further north. All the while I made it sound like I was doing her a favour by not forcing her to join me, actually giving her an opportunity to realise her potential of operating as an independent person and discovering herself. Even then I knew it was a copout: I was too much of a coward to outwardly say I wanted to split up from her. I felt too responsible for her and the fact she was this far from home to abandon her entirely. Like everything I said, she didn’t protest, but went along with it, and said, unconvincingly, she was excited to play the tourist for a little while.
So not even a day later, I left Brisbane, shrugging off the weight of feeling accountable for my friend, and also a large chunk of guilt from my mind. Over the next few weeks I tried to get in contact with my friend to see how she was faring, and when she finally returned my messages she was back in Melbourne. She had flown back there a day after I’d left her in Brisbane.
Although I was only 20 I already felt like I’d been on my own for so long in one way or another that having another person tagging along, depending on me, actually felt vampiric in what it took out of me. More perverse still, was that what I was largely searching for was the same thing I pushed away when I found people like my friend who were willing to give it to me.
After three weeks WWOOFING on the small farm north of Brisbane, I was back on the road and had managed to land a shitty job at a country pub 50 km south of Mackay in Northern Queensland. On my first shift in the bar the overweight publican threatened to ‘spank’ me if I ever put my hands in my pockets again while working. He also liked to keep me updated on which balding, middle-aged patron wanted to ‘get into’ my knickers (which didn’t narrow things down too much when most of the clientèle were balding, middle-aged bar-flies).
I was staying in the ‘backpacker dorm’ above the main bar, which was really nothing more than a veranda turned into a six bedded room. The ‘dorm’ would throb all night with the beat of country songs roaring out from the jukebox downstairs and the babble of drunks. I was desperately looking for a new job when an advertisement in the local paper led me to the Retreat Hotel; a pub on a lonely patch of highway 65 kilometres west of Mackay, situated in between the mountains and the start of the outback.
The day I drove out for my interview at the Retreat I missed the turn-off. It was so far off the highway, stuck out in the scrub and straddled by a big cattle station.
I parked my ute in what I could only assume was the car-park, the only features to distinguish it being one other vehicle and tyre-churned dirt, and made my way inside to meet *Matt and *Gordon, two middle-aged locals of Mackay and lifelong friends, the owners and managers of the hotel.
They asked me what kind of hours I was looking to work. I replied ‘As many as I possibly can.’
I got the job minutes into the interview. All my meals and accommodation would be supplied for free and I was put on an unofficial two month contract.
I started work at the Retreat Hotel the next day.
Matt was a divorcee with two young children and a reputation that often preceded him for being egotistical and promiscuous (whether he was or wasn’t in a relationship). One colleague put it more bluntly though, describing him as ‘a man who didn’t let anything or anyone get in-between him and the needs of his dick’. I liked Matt but my relationship was often strained with him. I soon learnt everyone’s relationship was like that with him.
Gordon was another matter though. From the moment I met him I was very fond of him. He had two daughters my age and it wasn’t long before he started treating me like one of them, but with one difference: while his daughters, wife, and sisters were left ignorant of the goings-on at the Retreat, I on the other hand, was right in the heart of things. It made me feel special, it made me feel important, but most of all it made me feel loved. I felt enormous loyalty towards Gordon, and I always wanted to prove this, whether it was through working an average of 16 hours a day or enduring dehumanising harassment from the hotel’s patrons.
On my first day I encountered the contract labourers who would prove my tormentors for the entirety of my time at the Retreat. They were from a road-maintenance company which was using the Retreat Hotel as their six month base during the business week while their thirty-odd labourers were working on the highway. This road-maintenance crew were the main source of the pub’s income and I was told in pretty direct terms that the Retreat wouldn’t exist if it wasn’t for them, meaning I wouldn’t have a job if it wasn’t for the contract labourers. It felt as though I was being told I owed these strangers; I wasn’t even aware I was in debt to them.
My entire hospitality career had so far been in pretty rough pubs, bars and nightclubs in Melbourne and Sydney where inappropriate comments were as part of the job as pulling pints and vicious brawls (the aftermaths of which literally had me mopping up blood). After nearly two years in this working environment I thought I was pretty top shit at mastering witty comebacks to customers and handling drunks. Although I knew I didn’t have a thick skin, I thought by now I was pretty apt at faking like I did.
I thought I had a fairly good idea about what to expect from these sorts of men, but initially I wasn’t fazed over the prospect of what I might have to endure due to my ecstasy over securing the job and the prospect of being able to survive another few months. It probably took me two weeks to start feeling drained about the constant comments, the sneers, the leers, the propositions, and another week to start feeling angry about it. That first night it was mainly slurs like ‘Go on, shake those hips darl’, when I was simply walking back to the bar from clearing dirty plates from tables and ‘What size bra do you take?’. But towards the end of the night it became obvious to me that they thought I was there to do more than tend the bar and waitress. It was probably the comment, ‘What time do you get ya gear off?’ that did it.
I learnt that prior to my arrival at the pub every Thursday had been ‘Beers and Bikinis’ night. The two barmaids, my predecessors, who had carried out these festivities, had both been sacked days before I was employed, due to carrying out ‘self-employed, after-hours customer service’. After I learnt this I realised I needed to make my stance known as not someone of such inclinations, but when the hotel’s patronage consisted of labourers, cowboys, miners, truckies and general blow-ins, my civil explanations and refusals seemed only to encourage them. So, it wasn’t long before I took the alternative deterrent and made my stance known instead through their terms, answering questions like what ‘extras’ the pub offered (while being blatantly scrutinised from head to toe) with a swift and firm ‘Go fuck yourself’.
Matt and Gordon made it clear that they didn’t want to hear any sexual harassment ‘complaints’ from me, nor did they want me speaking to the customers like this, regardless of how vile and forceful they became. This came as a punch to the gut when neither of them ever witnessed what went on, and even when I became visibly shaken by something said or done to me they brushed it off as an overreaction or worse, a lie. I was left feeling like the exact thing the Retreat’s customers took so much pleasure in labelling anyone with fallopian tubes: a melodramatic, weak woman. I actually convinced myself they were right. I just needed to harden up, not take ‘any shit’, that I was ‘being tested’ and if I cracked under the strain it was much more of a reflection on myself than the men who were applying the self-loathing weight.
The long days wore on, and I kept my silence but I couldn’t stop myself from breaking out in a sweat or my hands trembling when five o’clock drew near every weekday, which was when the contractors would come trundling back down the road in their machinery after finishing work for the day. I started to even grow a bit proud of the fact that I stopped trying to mention to Matt or Gordon how bad the harassment was getting. Even on the one or two occasions where I felt physically unsafe by a bikie or a truckie entering the empty pub when the only other person on the whole site was much further than screaming-distance away, I patted myself on the back by not ‘complaining’ to Matt or Gordon about it. It was a tiny consolation prize for actually being frightened when I was just trying to do my job, but I took it.
The rest of the time Gordon was lovingly fatherly towards me in a way that I had never experienced but had always instinctively thirsted for and when this happened I didn’t even need to convince myself that what I put up all those other times was worth it, because I knew it was. When he gave me one of his big bear hugs, or told me to take a break to come have a drink with him (a privilege offered to very few), or, as
happened once or twice after a couple of drinks, he told me loved me like one of this daughters, it felt like he was acknowledging what I went through each day and what I kept silent about for the good of his business and was thanking me.
Then one night, out of nowhere I could conceive, he criticised me.
‘You’re paid to smile’ Gordon said so gruffly he almost snarled.
I went into shock and I tried to treat it like a joke. But his expression remained dark
and his eyes narrowed, and I realised there was no humour in the accusation. ‘Doesn’t matter who they are, you smile at ‘em.’
This hurt me far more than any of the patrons’ out-right abuse and demoralising disrespect ever did.
The next day I had the weekend off for the first time since I began working at the Retreat (a month prior) and early in the morning I jumped in my ute and drove and drove until I wound up at Airlie Beach. The weather was beautiful that weekend, or rather appeared to be from what I saw of it through the blinds of the window of my motel room. I hunkered down there for two nights and left only to get food, spending the rest of time watching movies, sleeping, reading and rage crying. I watched a movie about a woman who gets gang-raped in the forest then goes home to her house to get her gun collection and hunt down her rapists. I really enjoyed it.
I went back to the Retreat Hotel the night before I was to start work again and everything was the same, with the exception of the chip on my shoulder which had increased in size.
After a working week where I regularly clocked up 16 hours a day, often without enough of a break to take the weight off my feet, I would feel so bashed internally I started to think I must’ve somehow deserved the patron’s treatment and my bosses’ disregard. To combat it, I stopped showering every day, stopped wearing the mascara I had been applying every morning, I swapped my comfortable bras for bikini-tops- in the hope that their lack of support and padding would make my chest appear flatter. I began wearing baggier clothes; men’s t-shirts, cargo pants and Blundstone boots. I chipped and chipped away at everything visually feminine about my appearance. I even considered cutting off my long hair, before deciding that I benefited more from being able to hide behind it.
Bob, the Retreat Hotel’s resident sleaze-bag and chef (with more skill concentrated to the former than the latter), who had a tell-tale Bukowski nose, soon felt compelled to inform me, ‘Ye got such a pretty figure, why ye gotta hide it under clothes that make ya look like ye going to a ute-muster?’. He had seemed insulted when I wasn’t enlightened by such pearls of wisdom and continued to dress myself as unflatteringly as I possibly could without covering myself in my own excrement (which probably wouldn’t have deterred the harassment anyway).
But none of it worked. Every day, hour after hour was the same thing.
I tried to keep some kind of fire burning inside me, contain the good parts, keep them safe – ‘sticks and stones’, and all that school-yard nonsense – but I started to feel increasingly hollowed-out. At the end of a long day I would shake my head and try to talk to my only confidant, Violet (who we all just called ‘Vee’) about it all, try to make sense of it and reclaim the emotional innards I’d been gutted of that day.
‘They only need to look at me to suck another particle of my soul out through my eyes’, I’d tell her.
I thought I was stronger than this.
Vee became the recipient of my nightly tirades and vents at the end of a shift. She was the cleaner at the Retreat Hotel and also the kitchen hand and would tell me about the gross things she found in the rooms of my tormentors or we would just tell each other funny stories.
I would walk out the pub most nights at 11pm or midnight and take the footpath past the showers and toilets I shared with the truck drivers, veer off it into the garden, knock on Vee’s window and sing out ‘Vvvvveeeee!’. She would crack it open for me to climb through with a croaky ‘’ello darlin’, have another cunt of a night?’
We would smoke pot and drink beer, often until four or five in the morning. Most nights I averaged four hours sleep before my alarm would go off just shy of 9am to start the day again.
Along with Bob, Gordon, Matt and Vee there was also the weekend chef, Eric and his girlfriend Tess. I liked Tess but the others called her a ‘head-fuck’ due to her ability to prattle on continuously without the recipient of her babble ever offering even the imitation of an attentive response. The first time I met her I was mopping the floors when she appeared and had barely introduced herself before proceeding to tell me about her money troubles, how her mother had recently disowned her and how she had just been fired from her job all in the one twenty minute spiel.
‘Where did you use to work?’ I asked, concentrating on my mop.
‘Oh, in Mackay, at Goldfingers.’
I looked up, ‘Goldfingers?’
‘Yeah’ she replied.
I mused over the name for a moment, ‘What is that? Like a….’ I trailed off, unsure whether I wanted to finish the sentence.
‘A strip club’ Tess said chirpily, her tone striking a sharp contrast to my gingerliness.
I straightened, and then leaned on my mop, in some kind of semblance of being unperturbed.
‘What were you doing there?’ I said, pausing again, playing dumb, ‘Like.. bar tending?’
She shook her head, maintaining the same casual tone, ‘Nah, stripping’.
I later found out that Tess was one day older than me.
Over the months I lived and worked at the Retreat the men I encountered outnumbered the women 10 to one, but of the women I did meet about half either were working or had worked in the sex industry in Mackay in some form of another. I was no prude, but I was startled by how many women in the rural area were employed in the industry. It seemed like the men mostly went to the mines and the women went to the strip clubs in Mackay.
A number of years later I’d become good friends with a girl who worked as a stripper and had made yearly visits to Mackay and the small towns dotted around the big mines in Queensland. Her tone sounded audibly disgusted when she talked about Mackay and even more so when she mentioned the miners. But the mining boom had made Mackay worth the trek for a lot of girls in that industry. Strippers could earn in a weekend what it might take a week to make it Melbourne or Sydney.
Men in such a rural but economically wealthy place generally did seem to think of any women in the same locale as objects to be bought. I honestly didn’t believe many of these men saw me or other young women as human. We were just things to them.
And it didn’t matter how many times you told the same piggish creep ‘No’, they seemed to think if they kept hassling, objectifying, you’d eventually be dehumanised into forgetting you had a choice.
On a Thursday afternoon a few weeks later I was anticipating the contract labourers’ arrival and dreading it when Eric approached the bar with a grin slashed across his face, ‘My mum’s coming out to see Gordon about a job.’
I immediately felt a wave of panic. Whose job? My job? Am I being fired? For not smiling? For not humouring my harassers?
The familiar blanket of rejection and disownership draped itself around me, making my whole body feel heavy.
I was left isolated inside my own anxious mind for the entire afternoon until Eric’s mum and another woman showed up at the Retreat. I served Gordon the drinks he ordered for them and watched him take them outside to where the two women sat in the beer-garden sunning themselves in the still stifling North Queensland evening.
The evening rush began not long after that, and I forgot about the two women and the possibility of my impending termination as the labourers and miners arrived thirsty, hungry and full of their usual unnatural levels of excitement over being spoken to by someone with lady-parts. Eric’s mum and her companion didn’t cross my mind again until later on in the night.
I had just switched the lights off in the dining area when I saw them walk in through the pub’s entrance and go into the ladies bathroom. I stared after them, puzzled until Gordon came up to the bar.
‘You can knock off now, mate.’ He said, ‘Peggie and Grace will take over.’ It was only 8pm. As if on cue the two women emerged from the bathroom with their chests completely bare and their legs and groins encased in burlesque-like undergarments. They approached me, and Eric’s mum, Peggie shook my hand as Gordon introduced us. I tried to be polite, keeping my eyes focused on her face, trying to show both her and myself how open-minded I was, how grown-up.
I left the two women behind the bar serving drinks while the labourers and a few miners crowded the bar like pigs at a trough, hooting and slobbering on themselves.
Out in the beer garden I found Eric, drinking rum and looking nonchalant.
‘Did you.. know she’d be doing that tonight?
He nodded, ‘Yeah, she does it in Mackay too’.
‘Doesn’t that bother you a bit?’ I asked, but upon seeing offence flicker faintly across his face I dropped my questioning.
My mind spluttered and jerked as it tried to process this new oddity in the world of the Retreat, made stranger still by the fact that I seemed to be the only one who saw it as odd. To be honest, I sometimes even wondered if it was me who was the oddity, the incongruous thing. What was normal anyway?
Eric’s mum and her friend became the regular additions to a Thursday night. I heard men dub them the ‘tittie girls’, and there was something about that extra, unnecessary syllable, which left an especially bad taste in my mouth. I’m not sure why, maybe it was something to do with the falsity of it, the deception. Which was not just any deception either, but a childish and pathetic kind, intended to prettify the grotesque – that is, the female breasts as disembodied entertainment – rather than, the breasts being grotesque themselves. The word ‘tittie’ would sliver, mutated with its extra vowel, petulant-sounding from some gap-toothed, pungent mouth: a place from which expletives and grunts were usually the only other releases. Adult men hiding behind some kind of deranged childish name-calling, as the women ceased to come into the equation at all, as human beings were replaced by severed body-parts.
The whole charade went beyond the commonplace seediness of the pub back-alley or night-club toilet, and plunged into the murky-depths of the grotesque. I don’t know
why, but something about the deformed grossness of the men’s childlike fervour over female breasts reminded me of something from when I was still very young. As a child I would go help out on the family farm and would often find sheep lying on the ground, unable to stand-up for whatever reason. If I saw them breathing and they didn’t look too heavy for me I’d try to heave them back onto their feet. One day I came across a sheep whose side was clearly rising and falling, but when I got down to try to lift her up, part of her flesh fell away. I fell back screaming in horror as I realised it wasn’t breath the ewe’s body had been moving with, but thousands of maggots. The carcass was filled with them.
Eventually I got used to Eric’s untroubled demeanour seeing his mum willingly subject herself every Thursday night to the full brunt of the dregs of the district. And I got used to the strippers that would be organised to come out from time to time. I wasn’t even overly appalled when the appearance of one stripper saw the normally tight-arsed Bob ‘dipping his hand into his pocket for a favour’ (as Vee sniggered to me the morning after). I got used to it because I had to. But that didn’t mean it ever stopped snagging at something too deep down within me to articulate, even to myself.
Beside the contract road labourers who would loiter alongside the bar all week, there was also another group of workers, of a very different ilk. I called them the ‘Tower Boys’. They were three telegraph riggers who would climb towers of up to eight hundred feet high up in the mountains without harnesses or safety precautions of any kind, usually on no more than three hours sleep and rarely completely sober. Mark, usually staggering after only three beers would change his drinks to what he just called ‘tropical’ ones. Although he never gave the ingredients he wanted in the drink, and would only shrug when I suggested concoctions. ‘It just has to taste tropical’ he would order, and have a purple umbrella in it and a pink straw. He also liked to sit in front of the till, pull dollar coins from his pocket and line them up upon it calling for a song request from the non-existence jukebox with every new addition.
The Tower Boys were more than just a source of entertainment though. One night, towards 1am only four men remained at the bar, getting drunker and crasser with their slurred utterances to me, at me or about me with each drink. So I chose to only stand behind the bar when I had to, giving them their drinks before hurriedly disappearing to do some job out of sight. This had already been going on for a couple of hours when I left the bar for the umpteenth time, accompanied by a guttural shout of ‘Come on! Show us ya tits!’ and an explosion of laughter in appreciation for the shouter’s sharp-wit, and gone outside to empty a bucket when I saw a shape materialising out of the shadows. It was Tower Boy Trev.
He came closer into the light and his eyes were swollen and red and he had a vicious expression slicing through his features that looked ugly on his normally kind and open face. I guessed he’d been on the phone to his ex-wife, who he was the middle of a messy divorce from, and added to that, he’d been smoking pot and drinking in his room for the past three hours.
‘What are those farckin’ cunts saying to you?’ He demanded. An alarm in my head went off that just sounded like shit shit shit.
‘Nothing Trev, don’t worry. Go back to bed. You have to be up for work in two hours, ya silly git.’
But he remained plastered to the spot, glaring over my head into the luminous scene at the bar, as though already mentally picking out who he would start with.
‘Trev, leave it mate, please’ I heard the last word peel off into a high-pitch plea, sounding disconnected.
I grappled to regain control of my voice, reassure him everything was alright, stay in control, but most of all hide how badly I actually really wanted to see Trev beat the utter shit out of those bunch of tossers.
My voice came out as a barely intelligible mutter, ‘It’s the usual bullshit’.
I wasn’t convincing anyone. Sure enough, Trev ignored me and slipped past into the darkened dining room and then into the bar. I hurried after him, looking out into the beer garden for Gordon, but he was lost to me out there in the dark of the Outback night.
Trev made a bee-line for the pool-table, where he picked up a pool cue, and then, as if a penny had dropped the drunken labourers went silent. After a moment their conversation resumed with one notable difference: I ceased to feature in it. Or rather, my body parts did.
Trev stayed in the bar playing pool until close, looking up to smirk at me from time to time.
Once a month The Retreat Hotel would put on an event where a band was organised to play the night which Matt and Gordon called ‘Dos’. They were promoted for weeks in advance in the hope people would make plans to drink so they stayed the night at the pub, at the free camping site out the front in the very least. The biggest Do to take place was on the Saturday evening after the Vietnam Veteran bikie gang’s annual poker run. Every motel room, bunk house and even caravan on site had been booked out weeks prior. On the planned afternoon I was behind the bar when the ground began to vibrate and a roar like thunder grew gradually louder, until through the pub’s front windows we could see a stream of hundreds and hundreds of black-clad figures on bikes rolling down the highway and slowing at the entrance to the driveway.
I worked from 8am till 5am that shift and I only got an hour break because I asked for it. Gordon’s two daughters came out to work behind the bar with me for the night, and if the elder one hadn’t told me to go get some sleep at 5am I probably wouldn’t have.
As the sun was coming up I was half way to my room with my head drooped down and my feet dragging when the band yelled out for the crowd to give a cheer for the bar staff and in my delirious state I thought I was back in Sydney. I collapsed on my bed and went to sleep to the sound of motorbike engines being revved and the roar of drunken bikers. I woke up to the same sound two hours later as my alarm signalled
the start to my day, and I was back behind the bar at 7am, mixing hangover remedies for bikies and serving food to those who had the stomachs to keep it down.
By 11am everybody, save for one or two stragglers, had either gone home or were asleep and I was on my own again. In the early afternoon an acquaintance of cook Bob’s, who had come out to the pub every Sunday for the past month to try and finally get back the money Bob owed to her, arrived looking more tired and stressed than ever. As usual she asked me where Bob was and I told her he was asleep (he had been cooking food in the kitchen until around 11pm and then had stayed up boozing with Matt and Gordon until he needed to start the breakfast shift at 6am).
I decided to go and wake Bob up for the woman, partly because I felt sorry for her and wanted to help and partly out of spite that Bob was allowed to sleep and I wasn’t when I had worked twice the amount of hours as him over that weekend.
I went to Bob’s window and could hear him snoring loudly, I shouted his name a couple of times to no avail and then I heard someone behind me ferociously bark my name.
I turned around to find Matt standing at the corner of the building glaring at me. He cursed me for trying to wake up Bob when ‘the poor bloke had been working non- stop for days’.
I couldn’t help myself then, I started laughing. I didn’t say a word to Matt, I just laughed, and I walked back to the bar laughing the whole way.
That night I worked through until my usual time of 11pm and when I eventually shuffled off to bed I simultaneously felt immensely proud and incredibly used. But that weekend gave me the wake-up call I needed to motivate myself out of the destructive wormhole of the Retreat Hotel.
The next week marked my stay at the Retreat as being two months and two weeks and I knew that I had to get going. My friends at the Retreat: Vee, Tess and Eric had all already left. Vee hadn’t been getting enough cleaning work at the pub so she’d taken a job as a cleaner at the mining camp 40km away, while Eric had been fired because of a fight he had gotten into with Bob, and Matt and Gordon had as usual sided with Bob, even though Eric was clearly in the right. So what the hell was keeping me there?
The Retreat Hotel had consumed me, become the centre of my universe and there was something incredibly unsatisfying about having my microcosmic world dominated by aggressively misogynistic labourers and two bosses that told me they cared about me before turning the other cheek whenever some miner or cowboy would approach to make an unconventional request. Unsatisfying was an understatement. Dehumanising felt more apt.
The day I was due to leave the Retreat Hotel, Gordon wasn’t there. I waited around for hours, intentionally dawdling as I packed my ute, checked my map, and said my goodbyes, all while keeping one eye looking out on the highway, wondering where he was. He knew I was leaving that day. Where was he?
I’d been up since 7am and had been ready to go by 9am and thought I may as well wait a little while longer for Gordon. He had after all, told me he’d be out there to see me off. The hours wore on but still there was no sign of him.
By the afternoon I realised how ridiculous I was. I finally checked myself, told myself to harden the fuck up, said goodbye to Matt and Bob (avoiding his attempts to hug me) and drove away, staring at the pub in my rear-view mirror until I rounded a corner and it was out of sight.
I only got in about three hours driving before it became dark and I was forced to sleep on the side of the road because there were no hostels or motels nearby. I couldn’t believe I was only three hours away from The Retreat, from the bed I’d slept in every night for nearly three months, from the only familiarity I knew in this part of the country, and most of all from Gordon who would back at the pub by now.
The temptation to turn around and spend just one more night at the pub was strong. But then not long after I had found a spot to park my ute for the night the temptation to turn back became unbearable when Gordon rang me on my mobile. Things were made even worse by the fact Vee was visiting for the night too. They were both cheery and told me how much they missed me and Gordon said he was very sorry he didn’t get to say goodbye in person. After I got off the phone I’d never felt so alone in my life. I went back to my ute and curled up in the back watched movies and wept silently until I fell asleep.
I spent the next two weeks travelling north, mostly staying in hostels, but often in motels as I found so many of the backpackers I shared dorms with too loud, too young, too happy. They didn’t seem like the backpackers I had lived with and partied with for months in Sydney earlier in the year and it frustrated me. I found myself staying in motel rooms more and more because I wanted to be alone and temporarily feel some sense of being settled to fight against the tide of how overwhelming everything felt. I thought about The Retreat, Matt, Gordon and Vee so much it was emotionally taxing. I couldn’t cut these ties I felt and I consequently felt dragged down by them.
After two weeks of driving with no other aim but of getting further north and further away from The Retreat I found myself in Cairns at a huge, overcrowded party hostel. On my second night I got drunk for the first time in months and I sent a message I had been composing in my head sober for the entire time since I left the pub. The words which had slowly manifested in my mind during all those lonely hours behind the wheel had been echoed so many times both in my mind and from my lips they felt tattooed to some internal part of me so despite being too drunk to even stand when I eventually got out my phone to send these words to Gordon, the sentence I needed to say floated out effortlessly in one perfect string, devoid of all errors.
When I woke up the day next day fully dressed in my bunk bed with a half-eaten kebab beside my face on the grease-stained pillow, I found a new message on my phone from Gordon. After so many years I struggle to remember the text, but it was something short, unsentimental, and not particularly memorable, like, “Miss you too, mate”. That was when (with a great deal of dread) I looked into my sent folder and found the message I’d sent to Gordon’s phone very early in the morning. I was relieved to find words I’d chosen carefully which didn’t voluntarily surrender any more dignity than I already had.
It would be nearly a full year before I’d stop feeling so hurt and betrayed by Gordon and Matt, and the remainder of my fraught and hapless journey up the Eastern coast of Australia only lasted another few weeks before I suddenly had to rush back to Melbourne to sit the upcoming exams I’d completely forgotten about.
But it felt significant to me that in an already fractured state of heartache where I was rendered immensely vulnerable for a night through drunkenness I maintained enough self-control to say the words I’d planned with an intended overtone of ambiguity.
Even today, nearly six years on from that groggy morning in that dark period of my life, I remember what I sent to Gordon with the most crystal clarity.
I hope you bastards are missing me as much as I am missing you. Alana x
Image: Nicolas Raymond