The sign on the farm gate read, “FREE….. NOW YOUR COMMUNITY IS FREE OF FENELLA GOODMAN”
The lettering had been applied in a hurry, and the paint had run, making the sign seem simultaneously frantic and calming.
I didn’t know who this person was or why the sign maker was so pleased to see her go, but I was intrigued.
The road I’d driven down was barely wide enough for two cars to pass without rearranging bodywork. Still, some optimistic council worker had painted a white line down the middle of the bitumen.
My sat-nav had sent me down here, and I made a personal note to beat it to death with the cricket bat I carried in the boot. This was the third wild goose chase I’d been on this month.
My job is annoying enough without constantly getting lost.
The mobile signal strength is a bit weak, which isn’t all bad. A low signal means the office can’t annoy me as much as they usually do.
I was told that this small town has one of the best regional hotels in the state.
A top hotel and a one-hat restaurant somewhere between nowhere and somewhere else. I remember my eyes lit up when the job appeared on my phone.
Usually, jobs in outback Australia mean I’ll be sleeping in my car to avoid the deadbeat motel where kangaroos bang on your door in the middle of the night. But, at least then, I get to keep the hotel allowance.
Tonight’s stay is going to cost them a fortune.
I love cashed-up ‘tree changers’ with chef skills.
It wasn’t late enough to knock off, but it was deep into the afternoon.
I spend most of my time in the city and suburbs. They have a feel about them, but being out here, not far from the middle of nowhere, reminds you that you live in a vast, open, and hostile country.
If you take it for granted, it will bite you in the arse.
I’d just finished thinking this when something long, brown, and deadly slithered through the grass. I resisted the urge to thump it with something and probably get myself bitten and die.
Live and let live.
That deadly bugger lives here, and I don’t.
A gust of wind whipped up the dust, and I was reminded that city dust and country dust don’t smell the same.
So much of knowing where you are is olfactory.
The narrow road I was on didn’t stop me from turning around, so I did. My soon-to-be deceased sat-nav said the town was a few kilometres east, so I didn’t have to drive into the setting sun.
“Any idea who Fenella Goodman is,” I said to the bloke behind the bar.
“Sorry mate, I’ve only been here a few weeks,” said the barman, and I knew he was lying. Why lie? What did he have to lose if he’d only been here a few weeks?
Bugger him. I’ll find out eventually.
The woman at the hotel reception was friendly. She was medium height, had nice tits, good smile, but her eyes said she was not sure. Not sure of what, I wondered. Not sure of me?
There was a loose thread near the pocket of her blazer, and I really wanted to reach over and pull it, but it had been a long day and a long drive, and I didn’t want to get slapped before dinner.
My room turned out to be comfortable in a 1990s kind of way, which was okay by me. Once it got light again, I’d have a view of the main street. As it was, the street was quiet and bathed in that orange glow you used to get from street lights in areas where fog was a problem. My grandma’s house was on Brunswick Street and trams rattled by saturated in orange light. I imagined that god’s waiting room had trams and orange light, but I was a kid then.
A pretty young waitress showed me to a table for two, which wasn’t at the back of the restaurant near the toilets, which it would have been if this place was on Lygon street. City eateries hate lone diners. I’m as important as anyone else in the back of beyond. Either that or the waitress had not been ‘front of house’ for too long.
“Have you worked in hospitality for long?” I said.
“No. This is my first job,” she said, and I glanced over my shoulder at the table down the back, near the toilets where I would have been sitting.
“You don’t happen to know who Fenella Goodman is, or was,” I said.
“She died, I think. But I didn’t know her, she was old,” said the very young waitress.
“How old?” I said.
“Ancient. Probably forty five or even older.”
Inside, I was rolling my eyes.
“Do you know how she died?” I said.
“Nuh. What would you like to eat?”
I looked around the half-full room. Most diners were well into their main course. I vaguely remembered that the chef was known for steaks. I didn’t bother angsting about the prices. I wasn’t paying for any of this.
“Porterhouse. Medium to well done. Onions very well done. Beans on the side, lots of butter and coarse salt if you have it,” — they did.
“Something to drink?”
“Scotch. The most expensive one you have. Make it a double with water on the side,” I said, and I thanked her as she closed her notebook.
No iPad ordering out this way.
“I’ll ask the kitchen hands if they know that lady,” she said as she walked back to the kitchen.
“Fenella Goodman,” I said, and I enunciated unnecessarily. Then, finally, I saw her mouth the name as she pushed the two-way door.
Interestingly, she didn’t say she would ask the chef. Maybe she was frightened of him, or perhaps she was bright enough to know that the people who get their hands dirty for a living know stuff. Either way, a scruffy twenty-something bloke approached my table when I’d finished my steak.
“You were asking about Fenella?” said the young man. His demeanour was a bit stooped, a bit apologetic.
“Yes, I was, but I don’t want to get you into trouble with chef,” I said because I understand how kitchens work.
“No. No worries,” he said as he glanced back at the kitchen door, “can’t stay long though.”
“Sit,” I said, motioning at my spare chair.
He thought about it for a moment, then sat more like an older person than a young man.
“I don’t want to speak ill of the dead,” he said, but he did.
This bloke had wanted to spill his soul to someone, and here I was, ready to listen.
Twenty minutes later, a head stuck around the kitchen door and motioned frantically to my source of information.
“Better go, John. I would not want to be responsible for you getting the sack.”
John got up, stared at my tablecloth with the evidence of a meal well eaten and moved towards the kitchen.
“Thanks for listening,” he said without turning around.
He looked like a man heading for the gallows.
After what he told me, I wasn’t surprised by his demeanour.
Every town or suburb has one, but Fenella seems to have taken the art of destroying lives into an art form.