The calls don’t often come after midnight. The phone by the bed rings and wakes Sally-Ann before me.
‘Joe,’ she says. ‘Joe!’
I wake up to soft hits and answer the line with a groggy voice.
The voice on the other ends barks an address far off in the woods where the trees stretch out for a thousand kilometres in every direction. Across the border. Deep in the forest.
‘Can you repeat that for me?’ I ask and he does. Then he hangs up. I note it down in half-asleep chicken scratch on a loose piece of note paper and stuff it into the pocket of the trousers I slip on with a reflex as I slide out of bed.
‘Drive safe’, Sally-Ann says as if I don’t.
I finish dressing on the way to the truck and fire her up in the pitch black. I’ve got a habit of not checking the time on these kinds of calls. Best not to know. They pay me a flat fee and, anyway, I don’t want to be bitter if I’m a few hours off a good rest.
I roll out of the driveway as I fish for the directory. I balance it on my knee as the truck kisses the white lines on either side of the lane. No one is awake to see. There’s nothing to hit out here except trees or wallabies.
My left index finger finds the address. A winding back street deep in the forest and far away. I put the book away and accelerate. The engine growls and we push forward.
It is always easy to drive this early. The moon sits high in the sky but its soft light does not quite cut through the overgrowth. The headlights do, bathing the road ahead for hundreds of metres. You can see potholes easily but you can’t tell how far down the gullies are.
The climb through and around the range is easier in smaller cars. The lanes shrink and grow over and over but the trucks take right of way. Every breakdown out here is an emergency.
I swear and swerve to avoid a wallaby that bounces across the road. Feet slamming onto the brakes at 112 kays, the wheels screech and my heart jumps, and the wallaby runs off.
They all know about us, the people, driving endlessly across their backyard. They must know how it can go wrong but they never seem to learn. My mind lingers on an old incident with a joey in the silence so I turn on the radio.
The frequencies don’t cut through the trees so well out here and the antenna on the truck wobbles in its bracket. Sally-Ann won’t sit in the truck until I get it fixed. She says the seats are uncomfortable, that they throw her back out.
Besides, she says, we have the sedan.
Then white headlights cut through the darkness up ahead. High beams turning, spilling a gumtree kaleidoscope across my dash. In a moment, they’re gone. I rub my eyes and see nothing.
I should have made a coffee. I crave one as the phone in the console rings.
‘Joe’s All-Hours,’ I say.
‘It’s me,’ Sally-Ann says. ‘He’s calling again to see how far off you are.’
I look to the clock on the dash even though I don’t want to.
‘Forty minutes, I think.’
‘I’ll tell him an hour, but he asked you to hurry.’
‘Don’t,’ she reminds me. ‘Drive safe. It’s late Joe.’
‘It’s okay Sally-Ann. Always is.’
‘Hey,’ I ask before she hangs up, ‘did he sound funny to you?’
I know Sally-Ann shrugs on the end of the line.
‘Not funny,’ she says, ‘just… Russian.’
‘Dobroy nochi,’ she says in a bad accent.
‘Where did you learn that?’
‘From a movie I watched once. While you were out driving. Good night Joe.’
‘See you when I get back, love.’
She hangs up. I drive on, sent to find a Russian in the Outback well after dark.