The Great Ocean Road waxes, wanes and stretches out across the eroding spine of Victoria’s coastline. Its movements are a comfort, familiar, so much so that Tamar doesn’t even notice the rain until they’re driving through it.
Past the empty paddocks, blurry road sign after blurry road sign, distances and destinations escaping their eye into the rear view.
They focus on the windscreen; hands sore from gripping the wheel. The speed limit out here is mostly 80, though regulars know to not take that to heart. Winding through a coastline of bushy scrub and farmland Tamar sits on 65 – they may rock up late but at least they’ll rock up at all.
Besides, as far as work routes go, this one is fairly scenic.
Tamar passes a blue sign with a petrol pump that says 2km. They slow right down to 50. Below that are the road’s own brand of adverts; “THE EIGHTH WONDER OF THE WORLD: THE TWELVE APOSTLES” a sign says and a little smaller beneath; “THUNDER CAVE AND BLOWHOLE”. The L-O-W has been scribbled out, replaced with U-T-T.
Tonight is one of those nights where Tamar kinda wishes they could drive and keep on driving, ’cos they drive the same route on the same road every day and have seen the peppered signs for geological points of interest more than they’ve ever really seen the actual points themselves.
A car creeps up behind them, as much as something going over 100 can creep. Tamar sticks to their 60. The car tailgates.
On the barest of straight runs, the car behind overtakes, pressing hard and long on its horn as it passes then speeds out ahead, swerving the next corner.
Ten and two, Tamar’s hands are on the wheel, they slow down to 50.
The servo’s a blurred glow. Its lights cut through the weather like someone bat-signaling “FUCK YOU” into the sky. There are stars overhead, thousands of stars. The rain seems to warp them a bit, stabbing hard through the night on an angle.
Four hundred metres. Three. The turn-off isn’t sharp but feels it in the rain. Tamar pushes the Sedan’s tired engine up the exit lane, ignores the luxury of a practically empty car park by just pulling into the first spot they see. There’s service stations all across Australia and Tamar’s one, this one, is not the worst of them – just one of many pit stops along the world’s largest war memorial.
Washed out in the lights from the servo, Tamar sees a woman standing outside, who gives them a long, meaningful look before dissolving.
They’re getting started early tonight, Tamar thinks, stepping out of the driver’s side. They can’t see the tail lights of the other car anymore, but can still hear the horn in their ears.
OPEN TWENTY-FOUR HOURS. Tamar steps under the sensor of the door and slips inside. Pale, chilly, they hear that familiar humming white noise you kinda get used to after a while. They hear Friday.
It’s as accusatory as if Tamar’s own mum had spat it at them.
Friday’s sitting up on top of the front counter, the way melted cheese and tomato sits on top of a Parma. She draws one knee down, foot collapsing onto the ground; a load bearing leg. “Could you drive any slower?”
“Please,” Friday rolls her eyes. “Relax, seriously. It’s been slow and no one else’ll be out now.
They know betta than that.”
“I’ve seen a couple.” Tamar says.
Friday pffts. She doesn’t get it.
“I mean, I’ve seen a couple.”
The sudden epiphany going off in Friday’s head is lit up by a set of lights, headlights Tamar decides, from outside. They glance out but the pumps are empty. No one’s there.
Friday’s expression twists. “Just,” she tries while shuffling past. “Just chill out, mate, okay? Y’know. Grab a Coke or something. Stand in a circle of salt. You’ll be good.”
Though she’s not wrong it’s not exactly comforting.
The only lights outside Tamar sees for the next hour are Friday’s peeling away from the car park and onto the road.
Alone, Tamar stands behind the counter and watches the shadows shift on the wall in front of them. The cameras don’t work here, security risk, yeah Tamar knows, but that doesn’t mean they’re not being watched. Just not being watched by anyone able to help them if something does go wrong.
Tamar smiles at the first customer who enters, a woman, but it’s not acknowledged. She’s lost in her own thoughts, perhaps, probably. She buys two sludgy coffees and a pack of chewy, then leaves.
Tamar doesn’t tell her she should probably stop for the night.
Tamar’s second customer—a couple they can only describe under the low lights outside as white and middle-aged—pull up in a roaring Four-Wheel Drive, shattering the silence of the night.
Tamar watches the couple through the window. The woman sits stationary in the car until the man gets out and smacks his fists down on the bonnet. It feels like anger, not real anger though just, the kind that’s around in video games and in TV. Their voices, when the woman slides out are muffled yet raised. It’s not aggression when the guy scoops her to his side by her waist, but aggressive. They break apart as soon as the servo doors slide shut behind them. She’s gunning for the far side of the servo, while the man with his pinched sweaty face comes up to the counter.
He wants to know how far off the nearest beach is. Tamar thinks for the second time that night yet says for the first that they feel the couple should maybe stop for the day.
It has to be almost midnight. The road gets crowded around then; blind bodies shuffling—
“The roads here on out are pretty narrow.” Tamar goes on, “there’s a motel nearby in the next town—”
“I asked ya about beaches not bloody motels.”
The man’s eyes are red and veiny around the iris, while his partner glances over from browsing the chips. The man slams his hands on the counter. “I asked ya—”
“Apollo Bay, like I said is the closest,” Tamar swallows. “But while unpatrolled, the beach is closed to swimmers.”
“How can you close a beach!”
“I—I don’t know sir.”
The man is put out by being told this.
“This is Australia,” he says, as though Tamar’s unaware.
They take a deep breath. There’s an urge to slam the drawer, but Tamar doesn’t do it. They do make the man reach for his change though, hold onto it tight, just that extra second longer than they should, so he has to tear it away. The man jerks one thumb over his shoulder.
“Step outside and we’ll finish this.” He takes a step back.
“C’mon, Steve. C’mon,” the woman’s there now, tugging on Steve’s arm. “I’m tired.”
She pulls him a few steps backward. Steve looks to her, red-faced and reflective under the buzzing servo lights.
The lights flicker. There’s the sound of a bulb popping, the crunch of glass on tile.
Steve’s so friggen keyed up he jumps, starts, and spins. Tense like barbed wire. “What the—”
“Steve,” his partner tries again. “C’mon.”
Tamar’s smile does not fade; they have perfected customer service to an art. “Have a good night, sir.”
There’s no glass on the floor when Tamar goes to search for it. All the lights above them, though cracked a little, are whole. They buzz quietly.
Tamar buys and eats a Kit Kat on their break because chocolate is a natural antidepressant. It’s not really any sort of dinner or breakfast, but labels like that don’t really fit when you start your day at midn—
There’s a crash from the back room, the sound of something breaking.
The servo’s cool rooms and freezer are in a nook next to the toilets and chips. Facing the used-to-be-mens-bathroom which now is appointed as “FOR ALL”, there’s a sliding door that leads into them. Tamar ducks their head inside and sees cases of V ripped from the shelves, cans scattered all on the ground, milk pulled open leaving a white creamy puddle.
They stare at the mess, people steal from the servo every day, but damn it they’ll have to write out a report now. They turn—
There’s a pale carroty-haired girl standing beside the batteries. Tamar closes the door behind them. The girl fizzles. Oh…alright then.
“Hey,” says Tamar.
She doesn’t blink or look away as Tamar edges past her. Her eyes follow their feet into the next aisle, stopping when they stop. She stares at the floor under Tamar’s shoes as though there’s something there. Tamar pauses just off from the counter, glancing down; there’s only white tile beneath and their own dark shadow—
The girl turns and bolts. Feet pounding the tiles as though something’s after her.
The woman outside, the breaking glass, the fridge mess, this. It’s early, it’s too early.
Chilled, Tamar heads into the office to turn up the heater.
Tamar can’t say for certain how many people have died on the road, from its explosive construction to its tragic completion, to now. The people who take narrow corners sharply while trying to choose the perfect filter for their pic are as much a part of the scenic 664 km drive as the eroding twelve—now eight—Apostles, the limestone cliffs, the London Arch, and the search for a solid floor in a bottomless Thunder Cave.
But what Tamar can say for certain is that at midnight, every night, the dead come to be served.
Time crawls. One ghost asks Tamar what it smells like here now. The servo, the road, the land, Tamar isn’t sure which he’s asking about. They listen as the ghost says he can still remember walking through the gums with his eyes turned up to the canopy, the dense wilderness of unspoilt coves and caves, the salt and tea tree scent on the wind, can Tamar smell it now over the steel trap machines that hurtle down the flattened cliff faces at impossible speeds? Tamar, while mopping up milk and rotating stock, tells him his land smells like armpits, now, sweating in the sun, like dust in an aircon, like warm Coke and petrol.
He asks what Coke is.
One lady, old enough to be in black and white but strikingly in colour, appears in the corner of the store and starts shrieking. Ragged, wet hair, sallow cheeks, she is never not screaming while she’s here. Perma-frightened, constantly lit under oncoming headlights.
It’s a good thing she never hangs around long. Tamar fetches a mop to clean up after her, then has to sit down for half an hour out back, pressed against the wall, knees pulled up to their chest.
All along the Great Ocean Road, ghosts wander through oncoming headlights like zombies. You have to flick your lights on and off, to confuse them into staggering across faster. Most are lost, Tamar believes, fumbling around for meaning, for something to do, for somewhere to rest. Others find their way inside.
The servo’s like a beacon. They come in, and the ones who can tell Tamar their stories, ask for directions, ask questions Tamar can’t answer. Some ask after tokens they think will release them. Others are stuck on replay right in front of them, reenacting echoes of their last moments, unaware of where and when they are. Most of the time, they don’t realise they’re dead.
Terry comes in sometime just before midnight saying the same things he always does.
He appears. “Evening,” Terry says, putting his varnish-stained hands up on the countertop. “A cuppa and a pie thanks, black. It’s cold tanight.”
“Yeah,” says Tamar, watching as Terry struggles with his cards as though anything electronic seems fundamentally magical to him. He decides, eventually, to just stick with cash.
“Heard about a bloke down the road a bit on my way in,” Terry says, rummaging. “Fell asleep at the wheel or something on a sharp turn, went right off the edge, right damn off, near here into the surf. Only in a dressing gown’n’moccasins, froze out there. Nothing but a dressing gown’n’moccasins, can you believe it? He’s in hospital now or something. Was all on the radio this morning.” Terry sets his coins on the counter and picks at the skin around the nail bed of his fingers.
“I’m sorry.” Tamar says. Tamar knows what they said back then, some platitude about watching the road, experienced drivers. They say nothing now. A dressing gown and moccasins. Terry’s own look like they’re soaked, falling apart.
Terry goes on not hearing them. He’s talking to himself here really. “Bullcrap Timmy, it’s all bullcrap—”
Tamar sighs. They don’t wear a nametag anymore, but unseeing, Terry acts as though they still are, as if they corrected him.
“Tamar? Ta-mar. That’s a helluva towel-head name Tamar.”
“It’s Arabic,” whispers Tamar, quieter than they proclaimed it the first time, that night months ago. “And I’m Jewish.”
Terry blinks. Coughs, scrubs his face. His ignorance somewhat benign now. “Sign says help wanted,” he points out unhelpfully.
Tamar looks to the sign out front. Servo’s always hiring.
“Any interest?” Terry asks.
There was a time where Tamar would say what they said back then, an actor reciting lines, but it was worse doing that, somehow, made them feel like their guts were somewhere up around their tonsils.
“I really am sorry,” Tamar tells him. “Really, Terry—”
“No one wants the graveyard shift, eh?” Terry smiles.
Tamar closes their eyes.
“Alright, yeah. Yeah alright,” Terry pays with no money, just empty gestures. He steps back. “You have a good night, now.”
There’s always that moment, while Terry’s going, that Tamar feels, for just a second that they might be able to stop him.
“S-see you Terry.”
Terry shuffles out, sipping at a coffee he doesn’t have, biting into a meat pie he cannot taste, his dressing gown flapping around his chicken-leg knees.
Tamar has to sit down again.
Becoming a ghost is never as difficult as one would expect. No murderous killers or unfinished business need be involved. A little aimless wandering while on holiday goes a long, long way. Some explosives to carve out the coast’s first road. One moment with eyes on a phone screen. Being on the wrong side of a railing. Rain. Sleet. Fog. Cloudy weather. Shutting your eyes for just a second.
It’s late (or early) when Tamar hears the first sirens of their shift. They whizz past. Whirls of blue and red flashing on white tile, on bottles of soft drink, on glass that, in the light from their spot on the cool tile floor, Tamar can see needs a scrub.
They’re starting early tonight then, Tamar thinks, and, after a second, pulls themselves up to their feet to get on with it.
Jes grew up on the land of the Guidjan people, who along with the Gadubanud, Girai Wurrung, Wathaurong and Gunditjmara peoples, are the traditional owners of the land along the Great Ocean Road.