John Butler
Western Highway, between Ballarat and Melbourne
Autumn, 1986

Well I was pretty young
She was young and pretty
I was so naïve
It was such a pity

Our would-be saviour squeezed his massive frame out of his small sports car. Silhouetted only by the car’s internal light, he was a daunting sight. Shaggy eighties perm, muscular hairy shoulders exposed by a blue tank top, a cloud of steam emanated from him as his body hit the cold night air. I recognised Cold Chisel’s Swingshift album playing at ear-bleed levels on his tape deck. The song was My Turn To Cry. I was hoping it wasn’t an omen.

J* and I had stuffed up. We’d run out of petrol returning from Mildura. Mobile phones were an invention of the future. We couldn’t even see a house light in the distance, let alone a public phone. On an increasingly chilly Saturday night we stood fruitlessly by the roadside, hoping someone would stop. This was our first bite. He’d been going so quickly it had taken him a couple of hundred metres to pull up. At least that meant he was probably keen.

He was almost certainly as high as a kite. Or mad. So I discovered, once I’d closed to within reasonable shouting distance. “Gdaymatelookslikeyouneedsomehelp”. I couldn’t really catch the rest. He was effusively friendly in a most alarming way.

Was this really a good idea? Probably not. But what were our options? A night snuggled with J in the car didn’t appeal. I had him pegged as a farter. If we were going down, we were going down together. I beckoned J and the three of us crammed into a two seater.

Chisel were rockin’. Barnsey was screaming. Steel was shipped. Astrid said goodbye. Our chauffer maintained an antic monologue, matching Barnsey for volume, if not coherency. I’d clocked the odometer to gauge the distance of our return. But I didn’t dare look at the speedo. The outside blackness hurtled past.

In what felt like both an infeasibly long and short space of time, we screeched to a halt at the Melton Roadhouse. As we tumbled out we could have kissed the ground. Our saviour tore off into the night.

The roadhouse attendant wasn’t a loquacious type. The only jerry can was on loan, or so he mumbled. I don’t think he liked the look of us.

What followed was a slapstick rummage through rubbish bins for whatever containers were available. Pickings were scarce. Try pumping gas into a Coke bottle one day and see how you go. Nevertheless, we finally reckoned we had enough.

Now we were on the other side of the highway. It was even later. Traffic was even sparser. And we needed another lift.

Despair was taking hold when a sensible looking sedan finally pulled up. Upon hearing our plight, the middle aged driver invited us aboard. I was riding shotgun. J was in the back seat. Thankful, but weary, I babbled inane pleasantries. Then I enquired of our new saviour what caused him to be out driving this late. He replied that he’d just come from hospital, where he and his family had decided there was no further option but to turn off the life support for his brother.

All these years later, I can guarantee you that remains my all-time 100 percent guaranteed conversation stopper.

In the stunned silence that ensued, I looked back at J for moral support. He was literally trying to disappear into the foot cavity between front and back seats. I was clearly going to be carrying this conversation on my own.

And so I did. Haltingly. Awkwardly. Painfully. I sought empathy but only achieved platitude.

Thankfully, our host was prepared to do most of the talking. In hindsight, this should have been blindingly obvious. Why else, on possibly the worst night of his life, would he stop to pick up a couple of dropkicks such as we? He needed to unburden.

Eventually our car was found, engine revived, and Melton revisited. We pulled in to Melbourne well after Barnsey would have been singing The Party’s Over.

Lessons to be taken from our One Long Day? Saviours may not be what you expect. Whenever you think you’re having a bad day, someone’s having a worse one. Never, ever, ignore a fuel gauge in the red. And whatever your predicament, Cold Chisel probably have a song to cover it.

 

*Names have been altered to protect the culpable.

John Butler has spent many nights treading the sticky carpet. You will usually find him down the back, or to the side.