The sun had not set made its presence felt, but already the day appeared as if it would be sultry, when Thomas, Rochelle and their infant daughter, Louisa, set off for the three day drive to spend Christmas with Rochelle’s parents, in south-western Victoria. While Rochelle fastened Louisa into her infant seat, Thomas once again checked the oil, water and tyres on their station wagon, before returning into the house to wash his hands and check the doors and windows were locked. Rochelle, dressed in a skimpy pink top, blue denim skirt and flip-flops, climbed into the back seat and waited for Thomas to return. Thomas, dressed in a green polo shirt, blue shorts and grey sneakers, climbed into the driver’s seat and drove off.
If there was one thing Thomas missed about his footloose bachelor days or his days prior to Louisa’s birth, it was being able to listen to cassettes at a louder volume while on long drives. He could still listen to the music of his youth, such as The Skyhooks, America, and the Doobie Brothers (Rochelle preferred ABBA) but at a lower volume, and had to switch it off if Louisa wanted to sleep. Louisa started to cry and he placed America’s A Horse With No Name into the cassette player and that had the same effect as a lullaby and she was asleep before the song was even halfway through.
After driving for around four hours, Thomas decided that they needed some petrol. He pulled into a small service station in a small town and began to fill the tank. While he was doing so, Rochelle had to answer a call of Mother Nature and told him, over the noise of the bowser, that she was going to do so. She walked into the service station, where the console operator, a thick-set, middle aged man with salt and pepper grey hair and a salt and pepper trimmed and lined beard (his whiskers extended from his sideburns and in a line along his jawline down to beside his mouth where his clipped moustache met with his chin beard. The whiskers on his cheeks had been shaved, leaving a dark grey outline and the same with his neck), whose solid, hairy arm rested on top of the cash register said, “What are you after?”
“Where’s your rest room?”
He turned around to the cigarette counter and reached down to pick up and empty plastic oil container, with a key attached to it. “See that door at the back there?”
“Just open that and the ladies is on the left hand side. And it’s just been cleaned, too.”
Louisa walked to the back of the shop and inserted the key into the lock and was greeted by the smells of disinfectant and air freshener. The light inside the rest room was dim. She didn’t want to sit directly on the seat, but still managed to do her business and while doing so, she heard the sound of a car’s engine starting up. She had noticed another car on the forecourt of the same model as hers and Thomas’s and assumed it must be that car, and then heard it driving off.
She washed her hands and opened the door and moved from the dimly-lit rest room, into the service station and her eyes widened as she looked out onto the forecourt! Their station wagon was not there!
She walked up to the console, where an older woman with ash blonde hair, blue eyes, fair skin dotted with some tiny freckles, and a pair of green framed reading glasses perched on her small nose stood.
“You right, Love?” she asked in a voice that was friendly, but suggested that she was a smoker.
“I’m not sure.”
“I’m just returning the key to the rest room. But, tell me, did you see? I’ll be right back.”
She went outside and looked over to the water and air parking bays, and there was a young teenage boy with a bicycle checking his tyres, but no car.
She went back into the service station. “Sorry, here’s the key.”
“Thanks. Now, tell me, Love, what were you asking if I saw?”
“A man wearing a green polo shirt, who was driving a red Falcon station wagon.”
“My husband’s just gone out the back. I’ll ask him.”
“Barry!” The woman walked away from the cash register and went to another door in the “Staff Only,” section, “Barry!”
He same man with the salt and pepper grey hair and beard came back in. “Can you help this lady, here, please, Love? She’s asking about a man in a green polo shirt driving a red Falcon station wagon.”
Rochelle folded her slender arms across the bared part of her tummy, suddenly feeling a little self-conscious.
“Yeah, there was a bloke in here, about five minutes ago. I thought he knew that you had to go to the rest room.”
“Of course, he did. I told him.”
“Oh, my God!” exclaimed Barry. “What can we do?”
“Well,” replied the woman, whose name turned out to be Kathy, “We could try ringing the radio station and see if they can put out a message in the news. What’s the man’s name?”
Kathy removed the pen that she kept behind her ear.
“Thomas Hedges. And you said it was a red Falcon station wagon?”
“What model, Love?”
“An XF, I think.”
“Tell you what, Love,” said Kathy, “we live just out the back. Why don’t you come around with me and I’ll make the call from the home phone?”
“Barry, you be right here for a while?”
Kathy led Rochelle around to a small weatherboard cottage, painted green, that was slightly elevated off the ground by concrete blocks. It had a capacious front porch, on which sat a cane lounge with felt style cushions. She opened the heavy, mahogany front door. “Come in, Love,” she said.
Rochelle stepped inside where she heard the roar of the air-conditioner and Kathy invited her to sit in the lounge room, a darkened room, which had a television that had wood casing and stood on four rectangular legs, a vinyl lounge and had a buffet table beside the television, and had thick curtains blocking out the sunlight.
Kathy picked up the telephone in the hallway and dialed the radio station.
“Yes, can you put out an alert, please?”
“The man’s name is Thomas Hedges, and he’s driving a red Falcon station wagon.”
“He’s left his wife behind at a service station.”
“Okay, thank you. Bye.”
“They’re going to put out an alert for him. Let’s hope he’s listening to the radio. Like a cold drink, Love? And are you hungry?”
“Oh, thank you,” replied Rochelle.
“I can make you a sandwich, if you like