More like this

They had agreed to meet at 4am, under the river red gum at the end of the road. At half-past three, Shay slips out the laundry door and down the side of her house. She’s wearing her best outfit: a striped red boat-neck, stiff white denim skirt and the cream pumps left behind by her mother, their scuff marks easily covered using a little pot of correction fluid. She hasn’t yet been to bed.

There’s a single streetlight between Shay’s house and the meeting point. The glow it gives off is weak but she skirts around it anyway, imagining the light bouncing off her clothes and straight into the window of some stickybeak neighbour. They’re all stickybeaks around here.

Roddy arrives five minutes late. He stops a couple of metres past her and leans on one long leg. ‘You came,’ he says, sounding surprised.

‘Of course.’ Her stomach goes hot. ‘Why wouldn’t I?’

Roddy shrugs and touches the sculpted wave of his fringe. ‘Thought you might be chicken.’

‘Yeah, right,’ she says, looking back to her house. It stays dark. Her father sleeps like the dead and her brother doesn’t come home much. ‘Anyway. Why’d you want to meet up?’

His lip curls and her belly warms again, but in a good way this time. ‘Hop on,’ he instructs. ‘We’re going on an adventure.’


Shay dinks on the bike’s crossbar, both legs on the left because her skirt is so tight. Roddy’s arm brushes against her breasts and she doesn’t know if it’s an accident or on purpose. She arches her back.

‘You cold?’ he asks, laughing in a dirty way when she says no.

It only takes a few minutes to reach their destination. Shay dismounts, stumbling a little on her heels. ‘The airport?’ she says. ‘Seriously?’

‘Don’t you trust me?’

Shay thinks, Of course not. Roddy is nineteen and works at the service station next to the highway turnoff. Yesterday afternoon, she went down to buy a Coke and he propped his elbows on the counter and said, ‘Can I ask you something?’ Everyone in town knows what that means. Shay may be fifteen and still at school, but Roddy Sturt likes younger girls. Her brother and his friends say it’s because the ones their own age know too much.

Roddy takes her hand and they walk toward the airport’s perimeter fence, kicking aside stones and crumpled cigarette packets. Shay’s heard kids in town talk about coming to this spot to smoke and watch the plane arrive each week from the city, but interest must have fallen away. She and Roddy are the only ones here.

He goes and prods the fence with the toe of his shoe. Shay crosses her arms.

‘What are you doing?’

‘You’ll see.’

‘Are we watching the flight come in?’ She is disappointed. Shay and her father went with everyone else in town to watch the first time, but the excitement was short-lived. To her, the aircraft was cartoonish: swollen-looking and tipped back by its wheel stalks, fat nose aimed at the sky. Besides, you can’t get a seat on it even if you wanted to. It’s mineworkers only.

‘Better than that.’

Roddy was there that first morning. She remembers seeing him push up against the fence, diamonds of wire framing his eyes like spectacles.

Shay steps back from his digging so the dust doesn’t ruin her shoes. She takes a lipstick from her skirt pocket and runs it over her lips, staring south into the dark. You could walk into that country and go mad in five minutes.

The mine is thirty kilometres in the other direction. Shay’s brother works in the cafeteria there, but there might be a job going underground if he sticks it out. Cheaper to hire a local instead of flying them in, but there aren’t that many able-bodied workers around here anymore. Before it reopened, the mine had been closed for years and most people fled to the regional centre an hour away.

Roddy turns. ‘Ready?’ He’s pulled part of the fencing loose from the ground and draws it back like a stage curtain. ‘After you.’

Her instinct is to say no, but she’s here for a reason. A soft mist floats over the airfield. She’s never even been on a plane.

Shay ducks through the gap Roddy has created. He follows, letting the wire fall back behind them.

‘Isn’t there security or something?’

‘Nah.’ He grins. ‘That’s what the fence is for.’

‘You’ve done this before, haven’t you?’

Roddy laughs and pulls her against him. He smells of aviation fuel and his cheeks are moist with humidity, but she allows him to kiss her anyway. It’s bad, but not terrible, and soon enough he lets go.

‘Look,’ he says, pointing. A pattern of lights glitters in the sky. ‘Not long now. C’mon.’

They hurry towards the rectangular shed that serves as a terminal and crouch by the short end, where there are no windows. The air quivers with the low drone of the approaching aircraft, its lights growing brighter on descent.

‘The best part,’ Roddy breathes, pointing to the airstrip. A man is standing at one end, holding two reflective paddles. The plane locks onto them as if magnetised, dropping evenly out of the sky until its wheels kiss the earth. Gravel and dust spin in the air. The paddle man guides the pilots to a stop and the propellers begin to slow.

A door bangs open around the corner from Roddy and Shay and two young men in orange vests come out. Yawning widely, they head for the tubby silver plane. Shay recognises one of her brother’s friends.

Being this close is better than watching from the fence, but Shay still isn’t impressed. When she finally leaves, it won’t be on this plane. Better to take a bus to the next town and check out the second-hand car yard if you’re dreaming of escape.

The mining men file down the steps and stand with hands in their pockets, watching as the boys in vests unload their bags. Several of the passengers stare out to the east as if searching for the sunrise, though it’s still too early for that.

As the last of the luggage is coming out, a minibus with the mining company’s logo pulls around from the far side of the terminal and stops fifty metres from the aircraft. Faces shadowed, the workers shoulder their packs and walk towards it.

‘Roddy, can we—’


The last passengers tear their eyes from the sky and board the bus, and the driver makes a circle on the bitumen and leaves the way he came. Jobs done, the two young baggage handlers return to the shed, followed by the pilots in their glowing white shirts, the marshal carrying his paddles and the air hostess, her pantyhose swooshing as she walks.

Shay stands and sweeps dust from the backs of her thighs, then starts for the fence.

‘Where ya goin’, ya donkey?’ Roddy calls cheerily. He hasn’t moved.

‘Back to the bike?’

‘Forget the bike. C’mere.’

He holds out his hand, fingers long and bulbous at the end like a frog’s, and draws Shay down to the ground. They shuffle back against the side of the terminal, which is warm from the heater inside, and hug their knees. Roddy slips his arm along Shay’s shoulders and starts talking about his future.

He wants to leave town, which surprises Shay: she assumed he’d stay here the rest of his life, maybe take over the servo when his boss moves on. Seeing his excitement at the arrival of the plane, she figured he might even be keen on an airport job, moving the luggage like her brother’s friend, or—dream of dreams—pointing the paddles at the end of the airstrip. But he wants to be a mechanic, he says, have his own shop and live in the flat above. There’s nothing like that around here.

‘It’s my dream,’ he summarises. Shay is uneasy with the word, with the intensity of his eyes when he uses it. ‘I don’t care what it takes, that’s what I’m gonna do.’

‘I don’t know. Living here’s not that bad.’

She’s lying, but Shay doesn’t believe Roddy will ever get out. She wants to provide a soft padding for his fall.

‘I’d rather die.’

His determination makes Shay’s guts feel hot. She thinks of her father, who really will die here.

Roddy pulls her closer. ‘Is your brother into cars?’ he asks. His face glistens. ‘Might be a job going, if he’s lucky.’

Does Roddy know what her brother and his friends say about him? That they go to the petrol station when he’s on shift and steal things from low shelves while one hangs out at the counter, pretending to be his mate?

‘I don’t think so,’ Shay says, looking at her shoes. ‘I think he wants to work in the mine.’

‘Well, he can stay with us when he visits, anyway.’

When Roddy asks what she wants to do, she’s surprised to hear herself say, ‘Be a hostie. International flights.’

He breaks into a big smile. ‘Oh, yeah, ripper.’

She closes her eyes and sees herself a little older, hair in a tight scroll, standing at the foot of the Eiffel Tower clicking pictures on a snazzy black camera. She’ll never come back here, not even to the city. She’ll be on the move.

Out of nowhere, Roddy’s big wet mouth is on her, pushing her down along the side of the building. She kisses back reluctantly, thinking of the red dust that will be climbing up her back and over her sweaty neck. Her hair is full of gravel. The heels of the shoes will have to be redone.

Above her, Roddy is heavy and damp. He runs his hands down the sides of her body, fingertips dragging against the ground. The interlude seems to go on forever. His fringe is so stiff with paste it makes her forehead itch and his tongue moves like a paddle in her mouth, large but tasteless, its movements impossible to match. She concentrates on breathing through her nose.

Almost as abruptly as he began, Roddy sits back off her. He smiles down, the sky beginning to lighten behind him.

‘This is it. You ready?’

Flat on her back in the dirt, Shay’s chest constricts. She doesn’t want to have sex with Roddy, especially not in the grit and weeds of the airfield. She only kissed him for a few minutes, but she knows now. Roddy Sturt is no way out.

A rumbling sound comes from the other end of the shed. Roddy stands, eyes alive with excitement. ‘C’mon.’

He moves closer to the airstrip, ducking out of view of the windows on the terminal’s longer side. Shay sits up. ‘What’re you going to do?’

He doesn’t answer.

The mining bus pulls around the corner and parks in the same position as before. The door rolls open and different men emerge, talking loudly this time. These are the ones going home.

The baggage handlers come out of the building with their vests hanging open, followed by the pilots and hostess. The woman’s pumps, a smart black, seem to somehow repel the dirt of the airstrip. They reach the plane untouched.

Roddy is a statue. A bad thought comes to Shay. ‘You’re not gonna try and nick the bus, are you?’ she whispers. He gazes out at the tarmac like she doesn’t exist. ‘Because with the logo that big they’ll catch you in a second.’

Everything has been unloaded from the vehicle, and the baggage boys reopen the panel in the fuselage and start sliding the bags inside. The flight attendant takes her position beside the plane and greets the men, who joke and smile as they climb the stairs.

Roddy still hasn’t moved. To Shay’s relief, the bus driver closes the back doors. He beeps lightly at the baggage handlers before driving away.

Shay remembers something she saw in a movie. ‘Are you gonna stand behind the plane when it takes off?’ she hisses. ‘The force can knock you over, you know. I’m not taking you to the clinic on a goddamn bike.’

He licks his lips and stares at the aircraft. It’s the same one every time: the sausage body and surfboard wings, two big front wheels on triangular struts and a dinky little one trailing underneath. The final few passengers duck through the doorway. The boys finish packing up and press the button to seal the cargo door.

Roddy takes a jerking step forward. He’s almost in the pilots’ view.

‘They won’t let you on the plane,’ Shay says, reaching for the tail of his shirt. Pressure rises in her throat and she wants to cry with wishing he’d just talk to her. ‘Please, what are you going to do?’

The baggage handlers wave up to the cockpit and return to the terminal. The attendant steps into the cabin and closes the door. The sunlight bleeding in from the east means the man with the paddles isn’t needed. Everyone who was on the tarmac is now either inside the airport or onboard the plane, except for Roddy and Shay.

The propellers come to life.

‘Roddy,’ she says. Something in her knows what he’s going to do.

He turns and sees her as if for the first time. His smile is beautiful.

‘You coming?’

Shay shakes her head. She’s weeping.

‘Fair enough.’ He leans in and kisses her lightly. ‘Bye, Shay. I hope I see you again.’

No, Roddy, she thinks she says, but her lips don’t move.

The plane is rolling now, the pilots steering a wide, slow arc so they can take off from the other end of the airstrip. Once the turn is complete, Roddy Sturt breaks from the side of the terminal and jogs after them, staying directly behind the tail so no one can see. When he’s close enough he reaches forward to grip the diagonal bar that connects to one of the front wheels, then sweeps his legs up and wraps them round it tight. He hangs there like a monkey on a branch.

Shay is amazed. It’s like he glided up from the earth. Like he’s already flying.

The plane continues taxiing, and she watches, heart thudding sickly. He leapt onto the wheel strut like a magic man, but how long can he hang on?

Move! something inside her screams, and she stumbles around the corner of the building, kicking her shoes off as she goes. She wrenches the door handle down, but it’s been locked. No more flights today.

A giant’s whine from the top of the airstrip. The plane is in position, spooling up for take-off.

Shay closes her eyes, feeling the air rip around her as the plane speeds along the runway. In the shadows behind her eyelids is the slight width of Roddy sealed along the metal bar, holding on for his life, his expression blotted by swirling earth. The image fades and all she can see is stars: bright pinpoints falling through the sky. One of them might be him.

Read more from New Australian Fiction 2021or buy a print or ebook copy.