She can breathe now.
Two hours ago, on an empty country road, Marie had been blissfully driving, her favourite song blaring from the stereo. She was singing when the car bumped over a pothole. She thought nothing more about it until ten kilometres further along, it shuddered and gasped.
Her heart skipped. ‘Come on Bertha,’ she urged. Marie always named her cars. ‘You can’t give up on me now.’ Marie had to be in Sydney for her cousin’s wedding; she couldn’t afford the time it would take to stop, nor the cost of repairs.
Bertha seemed to pay attention to the request, Marie noted. She smiled, and turning up the volume, continued on her journey. Not five minutes later, however, Bertha’s shaking worsened. Marie took her foot off the accelerator and slowed down to a limp. Her shoulders tightened; she gripped the steering wheel until her knuckles turned white.
‘Bertha, be a good girl.’
A green road sign was ahead. As she edged closer, the sign advised Marie was 65kms from the next town; Sydney another 375 after that. She didn’t think she’d make it to Gundagai, to say nothing of Sydney. Still she could at least let her family know once she arrived. She urged Bertha along in a soothing voice.
Now, as she pulled in to the service and rest area by the dog on the tuckerbox, she let out all the tension in a whooshing breath. She stood from the car, her body stiff; it creaked groaned as she lifted her arms above her head and stretched. Feeling faint, she stumbled to the petrol station’s shop to buy water.
‘Thank you,’ she said politely as the attendant handed over her change. ‘Oh,’ she continued, almost forgetting she needed to make a phone call. ‘Could you tell me where is the nearest pay phone?’
‘Outside,’ he responded, with a quizzical glance.
‘My mobile’s dead,’ Marie offered. She wondered why she was explaining herself to a stranger, and a gruff one at that. Stepping outside, Marie looked around. The phone was just to her right, on a green patch of grass, the riverbed not too far behind it. Families travelling to holiday destinations picnicked around the area. A little girl, about five, was running in her bathers and thongs, giggling with delight as she was chased by her dad.
Dad. Marie needed to call him. She pushed coins into the slot of the phone and dialled his number.
Seconds into the call, she could tell he wasn’t happy.
‘Dad, I did my best, but I’m not going to make it,’ she said, after he’d yelled his disappointment at her.
‘Stay put. Get Bertha into a mechanic there, and I’ll come and get you.’
‘There isn’t time.’
‘I’ll make it. See you in three hours.’ He tutted. ‘And charge your phone!’ He hung up.
Marie walked back to the petrol station and ordered lunch in the food court.
‘Is there a mechanic around?’ she asked the young girl working at Maccas. ‘With a tow truck?’
‘Yeah, my brother’s a mechanic. His shop’s just in town. Wanme to call him?’
Before she knew what was happening, Bron, the McDonald’s employee had organised her brother to pick up Bertha, fix her and have her ready in three days. Marie settled into a booth to wait for her dad.
That was going to be the tough part of this trip.