Robert Iverson looks down at the punctured tyre, exasperated. He is already late, and this is the final straw. After a moment’s consideration he reaches into the car for his mobile. He must, he thinks, tell them he’s going to be even later. The screen of the mobile tells him that there is no signal. In his mind he says fuck! but even though he is alone on a small country road he refrains from actually saying the word. He never swears. Not out loud.
He goes to the rear of the car and opens the boot. There, under the carpet, is the spare wheel. He lifts it out. It’s quite heavy, and he is not dressed for this sort of thing. He has trouble keeping the wheel away from his cream linen trousers. He wishes, too, that he had some gloves: this isn’t doing his hands any good.
He rolls the wheel around the car and leans it beside the punctured one. He pauses to assess the job. He opens the back door of the car and takes a small square mat from the foot well and places it on the ground to kneel on. No point in ruining his pants. He wishes again that he had some gloves.
He finds the jack in the boot, and when it is firmly in place takes the winder and begins to raise the car. He sees with some satisfaction that the whole system works. He can do this.
Before the wheel leaves the surface of the road he must loosen the wheel nuts. He fits the spanner on the first of the nuts and tries to turn it. He can’t make it budge. He tries again, but with the same result. He tries one of the other nuts, but has no more success than before. Fuck! Fuck! Fuck! he thinks.
He sits back on his heels and considers the problem. He needs something with which to hit the spanner. He returns to the boot, but there is nothing there that will do the job. He looks around and sees a rock beside the tarmac. He kneels on his mat, and strikes the end of the spanner with the rock. The spanner flies off the nut, landing two metres away.
He puts the rock down and retrieves the spanner. This time he holds the spanner in place with his left hand while he strikes the end of it with the rock. Nothing. It doesn’t budge. Shit, he thinks, why are these nuts so bloody tight?
He is concentrating on his problem, so he is surprised when a ute draws up beside him. He looks around and climbs to his feet.
The passenger window is open and a woman is resting her arm on the door. She is looking at him with interest. ‘G’day,’ she says.
Robert notices that the ute has two large aerials bolted onto the huge roo-bar at the front. ‘Hello,’ he says.
A second woman climbs out of the driver’s side, and turns towards him, resting her forearms on the roof of the ute.
She nods at him. ‘G’day.’
‘Good morning,’ he says, and smiles. ‘I’m having a little trouble loosening the bolts on this wheel.’ He nods towards the aerials. ‘I wonder if you could call a garage or something? I can’t get a signal on my mobile.’
The driver looks at him for a moment. ‘Nah, you wouldn’t. Not out here.’
‘But that’s a radio aerial, isn’t it?’
The driver smiles broadly. ‘The two-way? She’s fucked.’
‘I beg your pardon?’
‘Fucked. Kaput. Crapped out.’
‘Oh,’ Robert says uncertainly.
The passenger climbs out of the ute, slams the door and looks at the punctured wheel. She is wearing faded, torn jeans, very dirty, scuffed boots and a checkered shirt with the arms roughly removed, a rim of tattered threads circling her tanned shoulders. She is a big woman. She probably weighs more than Robert, her shoulders broad and her thighs bulging. Her breasts strain against the material of her shirt. She has blond hair worn in two pigtails, none too clean by the look of it.
She turns from the wheel and looks at Robert, deliberately looking him up and down. She takes in his neat brown slip-ons, dusty now, and his carefully creased pants, the belt matching the colour of the shoes and buckled with a neat silver clasp; a light shirt with the sleeves carefully rolled two turns, bringing the cuffs to mid-forearm, the slim, close-shaven face and the well-cut light-brown hair falling in a wave to his forehead. ‘Not from around here, then.’
‘No,’ he says. ‘Look, I’m terribly late. Could you possibly go and fetch some help?’ Robert looks from one to the other, an appeal in his eyes.
The two women look at each other. The driver moves around the front of the ute and leans against the wing, raising her leg to rest her foot on the roo-bar. She is dressed in the same way as her passenger, though her hair is caught in a single ponytail.
‘So, why can’t you undo the nuts?’
‘They’re too tight. I can’t budge them.’
‘Fuckin’ air hammer,’ the driver says.
The passenger nods. ‘That’d do it,’ she agrees.
Robert has no idea what they are talking about.
The passenger leans over to rummage in the back of the ute.
Robert can see all sorts of tools there, chains and crowbars, coils of barbed wire. She pushes things out of the way and pulls out a big six-ended wheel spanner. ‘Here, give her a go with this.’
Robert takes it and sees it has a socket on each of the ends. He turns to his car, and puts one end on the nut. It is far too big, and just spins. He turns back to the women. ‘It’s the wrong size,’ he tells them.
The women snigger. The driver raises her eyebrows. ‘You wanker,’ the passenger says, and the driver guffaws. ‘There’s a different size on each end. One a them’ll fit.’
Robert can see that now. He feels a complete fool. He examines each of the ends of the tool, and compares them to the size of the nuts on his wheel. He tries one end, but it is just too small. His second try is successful. He slips the spanner over the nut, and tries heaving on it. The big spanner gives him a lot more leverage, but he still can’t turn it.
‘You got to put some beef into it,’ the driver says.
He swivels his head to look at her. He is beginning to resent their air of superiority. ‘I can see that,’ he says, and tries once more.
‘Try stampin’ on it,’ the passenger says, but he has no idea what she could mean. No matter how hard he tugs at it, he can’t make the spanner move. He is sweating, and feeling incompetent.
Robert is a senior executive in a large agribusiness company. He is in command of a department running feedlots and abattoirs across the whole country. Revenue this year is likely to amount to something approaching two billion dollars. He is not used to feeling stupid, nor incompetent.
These two... the first word to come into his head is ‘hillbillies’, but that seems ridiculous... these two stupid women obviously think he is unable to deal with the situation. ‘Right,’ he tells them. ‘This is obviously not going to work. I want you to drive to the nearest town and get me some help, someone who can fix my wheel. I’ll pay your expenses, of course.’ As he speaks he leans into the back of his car where his blazer hangs on a coathanger. He reaches into the inside pocket and draws out his wallet. He takes a crisp fifty dollar note and holds it out to the driver.
She looks at it and bursts into a loud laugh. Her passenger joins her, and for a moment they are helpless with mirth. Robert looks on, perplexed. What on earth is wrong with them?
Eventually the two women calm down, the guffaws reducing to outbursts of sniggering. ‘You realise, dontcha, how far it is to the next town?’
Robert shrugs. He has no idea, actually, but he’s not going to let these women know that. ‘Of course I do,’ he tells them.
‘An you reckon fifty bucks’ll cover it? You gotta be joking.’ The passenger looks askance at Robert.
‘Well,’ he starts uncertainly, ‘where were you headed?’
The driver jerks her head up, as though indicating a direction. ‘Coupla ks up the road. Fencin’. Got a good day’s yakka ahead of us.’
Robert has difficulty understanding, but gets the gist of it. ‘And where have you come from?’
She points a thumb over her shoulder. ‘Home,’ she says. ‘Ten ks, give or take.’
‘So couldn’t you drive back there and phone?’
‘Got work to do, mate. Boss’d go bananas if we turned up just to make a call for you.’
The passenger nodded. ‘Fact is, he wouldn’t be too pleased to find us nattering to you, either. Now, r’you going to use that wheel spanner or not?’
Robert looks down at the spanner. He is beginning to feel desperate. ‘I can’t get it loose.’
The passenger looks at him with disgust. ‘Fuckin’ wanker,’ she says, and turns away to spit on the road. ‘Give it here.’ She thrusts him out of the way, and takes up the spanner, fitting it on one of the nuts. She holds the end of the spanner with one hand and puts her foot on the one of the projecting ends, stamping down firmly. It doesn’t move. ‘Fuck,’ she says, looking up from her crouched position. ‘He’s right, the wanker.’
The driver moves forward, and takes hold of the pivotal arm of the spanner in both hands. She crouches, and rests her elbows on her knees. ‘Okay, Shirl,’ she says, ‘Give her a real good belt.’
The passenger nods, takes a step back and then pounces forward, both feet landing with force on the projecting end.
The driver grunts with effort, but looks up again with a grin. ‘That did it, Shirl. Give her another go.’
The passenger, Shirley, takes a step back again, and this time uses just one foot, stamping down hard. The spanner spins.
Robert relaxes. He realises, however, that he would not have been able to deal with the nuts without the help of these two women. He may perform well in the boardroom, but out here he’s hopeless.
The two women stand, the driver still holding the spanner. She offers it to Robert. ‘There,’ she tells him. ‘That’s the way to do it.’
He looks at the spanner stupidly. Does she expect him to undo the rest of the nuts?
She pushes the spanner towards him again. ‘Take it, Mate,’ she tells him. ‘You don’t expect us to do it all, do you?’
He takes the spanner. ‘But I can’t do it by myself.’ He sounds pitiful, he knows.
‘Fuckin’ drongo,’ Shirley says. ‘Stick the fuckin’ thing on the nut and hold it steady, right?’
He squats, but realises that he is stretching the material of his trousers. He stands and teases the material up as he squats again, seeing with despair that his hands have left oily fingermarks on his cream linen pants. Shit, he thinks. But he fits the end of the spanner over the next nut and braces himself to take the pressure as Shirley steps back once more to prepare for her stamping. Both feet leave the ground and stamp down hard on the end of the spanner. Robert gasps and the spanner flies from his hands. The nut has not moved.
Robert’s hands are stinging from the force transmitted through the spanner. He waves them in the air, reminded of his reaction when he was given a caning at school.
The two women are looking at him in disbelief. ‘Shit,’ the driver
says. ‘You’re as useless as you look, aren’t you?’ She bends down and takes up the spanner, crouching as before. Shirley takes a step back and stamps again, and the nut loosens.
There are three nuts to go, and the two women deal with them in turn, quickly and efficiently. They offer Robert glances of contempt as they work, and he stands back in shame, unable to do anything.
When the last nut has been loosened they turn to him, and the driver tosses the big spanner into the back of the ute. Robert takes the fifty dollar note from his pocket and offers it to them.
‘Shove it,’ the driver says.
‘Up yer arse,’ Shirley tells him. The two women get into the ute and slam the doors. Neither of them look at him. The engine roars into life and the ute shoots off up the road, spraying gravel and a cloud of dust as they roar off.
Robert looks after them for a moment or two, then turns his attention back to the wheel. It takes just a few minutes now to complete the operation. As he returns the punctured wheel to the boot he sees that the tyre has been torn open, clearly the work of a sharp stone on the dirt road.
He slams the boot closed and claps his hands together. They are filthy with oil and dust, but he has nothing with which to clean them. He is disgusted. However, he tells himself, it’s all over now and he can get on his way. Thank heavens those women came along. He’d never have changed the wheel without them. Brutish types, of course, but capable. He remembers Shirley’s breasts straining against her shirt, and as he starts the engine he realises that he is becoming aroused.
Three minutes later he passes the ute. It has turned off the road and the two women are unloading material from the back, obviously preparing to do something or another, Robert can’t guess what, to the fence beside them. He presses his horn twice, and waves as he passes them. They look up, and he sees Shirley’s breasts again, bursting out of her shirt. He turns his eyes back to the road, but the picture in his mind increases his arousal.
He drives for another twenty-five minutes, driving too fast, he knows, on the dirt road. He is beginning to feel a little more relaxed when the car lurches and the steering wheel starts bucking in his hands. He slows the car as quickly as he can, stops and gets out. It is one of the front wheels this time, flat as a pancake.
As the dust settles on the road behind him he realises that there is still no signal on his mobile. ‘Fuck!’ he says, but this time he says it very loudly indeed.