Underneath the Waves: Chapter 2

Read chapter 1 here.

Edward’s hand had all but healed. He periodically squeezed the steering wheel tight and released it to let the blood circulate through his fingers and knuckles. A talkback show ebbed through waves of static noise that washed through his truck as it moved beyond the range of the radio towers. Yet, even when the signal was strong, it was all white noise to Edward. He reached over and flicked off the radio and instead listened to the low vibrations of his truck, struggling to make it up the slow incline of the road. 

It was three in the afternoon and the Australian sun was burning hot in the sky. The road flattened out beneath the eighteen wheels of the truck. The vehicle continued straight like a comet, slicing through the barren outback, a tail of sand and dust in pursuit like a desert storm. Other than the occasional bumps in the road, the land was almost completely flat in all directions with small sand hills here and there. The red sand was a crimson ocean littered with green shrubbery. 

Edward had been on the road for two days. He had one more hour to deliver his cargo and then it was a five-hour drive back home to Gabrielle and the kids, including the time it took to drop off the truck and grab his ute. With time set aside for unloading and a short break, Edward calculated that he would be home by eleven o’clock that night. 

Heat lifted from the horizon making the distant road seem like a sheet of glass. Ahead, Edward noticed a light reflecting off what looked like a steel sign. Soon the mirage materialised into a distant man, trudging down the road, casting a long shadow that contorted sharply against the sand and rocks of the outback landscape. He had a shabby backpack and a guitar slung over his shoulder. His long hair was tied back under an old cowboy hat. He turned towards the truck, threw his guitar further over his shoulder and stuck out his thumb. Edward began to work his way down the gears. He wasn’t in the habit of picking up hitchhikers, but his automatic response to slow down for this particular man caused Edward to ponder. He came to a stop, covering the man in a cloud of bull dust as he did. 

The man ripped open the passenger door, “G’day!”. 

Edward gave a small nod as the man climbed into the truck. 

“Thanks for stopping. I was melting out there.”

Edward extended his hand and shook with a tight grip. 

“Edward.” He said, in a low, even tone. 

He flicked on the air conditioner and directed the vents toward his new passenger. 

“Thanks, Edward. I’m Leaf.”

“Leaf?” 

Leaf’s mouth curved into a smile of self-awareness. 

“Yeah, like a Leaf blowing in the wind.” He answered dramatically, his hand painting the words across the air. 

“That’s your real name?” 

“Sure! Why not?”

Edward laughed with his new companion and put his truck into gear. 

“Was your mother’s name ‘tree’?” 

The wheels crushed against the sand-covered road and the exhaust pipe exhaled like a rusty lung.

“I’m headed to Mount Kilda, then I’m turning back towards Sydney,” Edward explained. 

“That’s perfect. I’m headed to Karanga.”

“That’s quite a ways. What’s out there?” 

“I don’t know, yet. Could be nothing. Could be everything.” 

 Leaf rested his fingers on the air conditioning vents and closed his eyes. Bracelets and beads dangled from his wrists. On the inside of his right arm were tattoos of symbols and foreign characters. 

“You’re a musician.” 

Leaf’s head rested on the back of the seat. He opened his eyes just enough to inspect Edward’s level of interest. Edward took a quick sideways glance into Leaf’s eyes; eyes you’d expect to see in a bushman who spent his life wandering the outback with nothing but the harsh desert sun and trailing dust to keep him company. Edward himself didn’t know if he was making small talk, or if he wanted to know about Leaf’s music. Leaf could sense that it was the latter disguised as the former. 

“Would you call me a musician?”

“You look like one.”

Leaf studied Edward’s expression as he stared beyond the open road.

“You certainly don’t look like a truck driver, yet here we are.” 

 It was true, Edward wasn’t the picture of a rough Aussie truck driver, although he didn’t look exactly gentle. His light green, thoughtful eyes sat beneath thick, bushy eyebrows.  He had a weather-worn face that hid a deep frustration, betrayed in his constant frowning. His jaw was sharp and strong, with stubbles that acted like sandpaper against his callused hands every time he found himself lost in thought. His broad shoulders and thick arms made him look as tough as a bull, yet he slumped over his steering wheel like the wind had been kicked out of him. 

“It’s the lack of a well-developed beer gut that gives you away, my friend. Every truckie needs a gut.”

“I’m working on it.” 

Leaf closed his eyes and felt the air freezing the small rivulets of sweat running down the side of his face.  

“When I’m playing music, you can call me a musician.”

“And when you’re not?”

“I’m just Leaf, man. Call me Leaf.” 

For the next half hour, they travelled in silence. The sun painted the clouds with orange rays. A dry river bed appeared and disappeared among the dead trees and roots like a brown snake swimming through the sand. Here and there were anthills that rose from the ground like towering castles in futile lands. Some mounds by the road wore t-shirts from when tourists would dress them up and take photos. The horizon flattened and met the sky in a clear-cut distinction of red and blue. Soon hills and mounds began to rise and fall and the road began to curve and turn as the truck approached Mt Kilda. 

Mt Kilda was a mining town full of small families and tough men. There were two pubs, a cafe and a small row of shops. It was a sunburnt town stuck somewhere in the last decade. 

Edward broke the silence, “If you help me unload, I’ll take you through to Karanga.” 

“Deal.” 

Edward reached behind his seat and pulled out a dirty hi-vis and dropped it on Leaf’s lap. The truck approached a boom gate that automatically raised on their approach. A man sat in a booth by the gate and gave a small wave. Edward followed the signs to the loading dock and manipulated his truck to reverse perfectly into place. 

They jumped out and immediately started working. Leaf knew exactly what he was doing. He found a pallet jack and started moving stock from the truck into the storage facility. Under the guise of the hi-vis, leaf looked like a skinny ex-con who worked to feed his addiction. But close up, you could see the ease and calmness on his face. Everything seemed to soften the closer you’d get to him. His tattoos morphed from sharp wounds to curved subtleties. His messy hair wasn’t unkempt out of neglect, but was a free expression of his self that moved like the rest of his body, in relaxed waves; He really did suit his self-given name.

Edward found himself smiling, but he didn’t examine why. Perhaps it was just the company of another person making his afternoon easier. 

When they had closed up the truck and left the facility, Ed drove them to the local pub.

“It’s on me.” Leaf said, with a strange confidence. 

They walked through the pub door and the air conditioning washed over them instantly. A young man in his early twenties greeted them at the bar with an expectant look on his face. 

“Mate, you wouldn’t mind if I played a bit of music in here, would you?” 

Edward was taken aback. The bartender thought for a moment as Leaf pulled out his guitar before getting an answer. 

“Nah, mate, should be right. As long as you’re buying something.” 

“Just two steak specials, for now, mate, and whatever beer they want to throw our way.” 

Edward was observing the conversation like a child tuning into an adult conversation for the first time. 

Leaf’s guitar was a beautiful mahogany, made more beautiful, somehow, by the scratch marks and scrapings along the worn pickguard and soundboard. Its character built through erosion like a shoreline in the wind. 

He confidently pulled a bar stool into a corner of the room. The only other people in the bar were old men who looked over at the newcomer disturbing their habitat. Leaf strummed an A that turned into an A minor and slightly tightened his first string to resonate with the chord. Hearing the string tighten into pitch reverberated a forgotten feeling deep within Edward’s being.

The bartender turned down the radio. 

Leaf started playing. 

The worn, quiet men in the bar seemed suddenly sombre as Leaf’s first few chords hushed the somewhat empty bar. Their faces turned to the musician as he flawlessly turned six steel strings into vibrations that resonated with the hidden things inside the broken men. 

His voice was rough, but never off-key. He looked into the eyes of the people in trance and made his presence known. 

Edward watched as people came into the pub with a certain purpose, but immediately changed their gait as they crossed the room to get to the bar. They were walking into a church. Each hushed their voice and ordered in silence. Soon the room was full of clocked-off workers and the beers started flowing. 

Leaf was in-tune with something beyond the normal observations one has. In songs about loss he would make eye contact with the lost, in songs about love he would eye the family men, and in a song about regret, he looked straight into Edward’s green eyes.

That was the last song Leaf played. 

Soon the two companions were full-bellied and back in conversation, broken only by slaps on Leaf’s back and handshakes from strangers. The bar was now full with half the town’s inhabitants. 

“You made an impression.”

“Ah you know, it’s an easy crowd. They are all disappointing their fathers or failing their children, or the other way around. I have plenty of songs for them.” 

Edward sat with his arms crossed over his huge chest as Leaf swirled a chip around some tomato sauce. 

“Which are you?” 

Leaf smiled up at Edward. 

“I have neither.” He shrugged.

A little girl’s laughter ran out through the bar. A few tables over a grandfather was holding her upside down. 

“How long have you been married?”

Edward looked down at the wedding ring he was subconsciously fiddling with.  

“Sixteen years.” 

Edward looked off into the distance, contemplating this entity that sat in front of him. He began to think of himself as a young man. He looked at Leaf in a mix of jealousy and pity. He knew that Leaf would have all the freeing answers with none of the binding questions. He anticipated the probing questions, the expert advice from a dumb kid who hitches rides and plays music with no plans for the future. 

But nothing came. 

Finally, Leaf spoke, “Marriage is frightening to me.” 

Edward nodded to himself. 

“Hey, don’t worry about Karanga, I’m going to spend the night here.” 

Instantly, Edward felt a strange emptiness. 

It was nine-thirty when they parted ways with a nod and a handshake. 

When Edward finally left the pub and climbed into his truck, he felt comfort in the familiar loneliness of his work. The streets and towns disappeared into Edward’s subconscious. They were the empty channels of his thoughts, pathways travelled many times with nothing else to reveal. Nothing changed. No new trees were noticed, and no new signs or shops or motels. Edward drove through the night without any sense of where he was going or where he was from.

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