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A Nullabor Christmas

112 in the shade, but there's no shade.

The melting tar of the road danced its way off into the infinity of the heat haze. Miles in either direction, and not a sign of life, not a breath of wind to stir the dust. Too hot even for the ubiquitous magpies to be bothered scouring the sky or scrub.

"I've done it now," he thought. "Who's stupid idea was it to hitch across the Nullarbor? Stuck out in the middle of nowhere, on the hottest Christmas Day in South Australia's memory! It's all right for radio announcers to parrot that from the comfort of an air-conditioned studio. The reality is another matter."

The idea had seemed a lot better from the other side of Christmas Eve, when he'd set out from Sydney. He'd always wanted to go to Perth, but somehow he'd got stuck in the Sydney rat-race for three far-too-long years. In a couple of weeks he'd be leaving without the dream achieved, and that was too much of a challenge.

So first thing Christmas Eve morning he'd caught the train out to Liverpool, and was hanging his thumb out to the traffic by seven. Things had gone incredibly well. It took only five lifts to Adelaide, and the fifth was a travelling salesman in a hurry to be home. They'd sat on a steady 80 throughout the vast wheatfields of South Australia, the horizon seldom broken by the faintest hint of a hill, and even bluegums appeared as an intrusion on the flat landscape.

It was almost the tick of midnight when they hit Adelaide, and the dormitory of the YMCA provided a few hours sleep before he was on the road again. Christmas Day - but the almost clinical lines of the Adelaide city centre in the deserted grey morning failed to communicate to him the world's celebration of a new birth, and he hurried to get out of the city.

The sun came up like a warrior off to battle, making short work of the early cloud before casting round for fresh victims. He was grateful that rides were frequent, if not long.

It was Port Pirie when it started to hit home. A barren place at the best of times, its main existence the great mining projects of the southern state. At midday on Christmas Day, almost hostile in the blazing heat.

Years of childhood Christmases fell on him, and he felt an urgent need to somehow recapture briefly that spirit of the past. But apparently that spirit no longer dwelt in the hearts of the Port Pirie hoteliers. None would take an unscheduled traveller for dinner, and as each turned him away the laughter from the rooms beyond cut a bit deeper.

In the end, the best he could do was a couple of cheese and tomato sandwiches from a dairy which he caught just closing for the day. He also bought a couple of cans of juice for his pack, hoping they'd be some shield against desert thirst.

The sandwiches lasted him half a mile, and a few minutes later a grazier in a battered utility picked him up. It turned out to be the shortest lift of the whole journey, though - 15 miles out, before the farmer said cheerfully, "Here's where I head for my Christmas dinner," and dropped him before turning off onto a dusty track that disappeared through the mulga scrub towards some low hills five miles or so away.

Too far to walk back to town in that heat, goodness knows how many miles to Port Augusta, next up the line. And passing traffic non-existent, almost. It was an hour before the next car, and the shouted "Merry Christmas" from the two youths and two girls inside was almost lost to the roar of the souped-up engine as they sped past. The dust settled again in the oven-heat stillness, and he savagely shattered a pair of cast-off beer bottles with a couple of well-aimed stones.

He fell into a semi-trance of drifting thoughts, so he had no idea how much time had passed when a low thrumming announced the approach of another vehicle. Only half-hoping, he thumbed it, breathed a thanks as it stopped 20 yards on, grabbed his pack, and jogged up to the passenger side.

Not wanting to give the driver a chance to change his mind, he hopped straight in, and tossed his pack over the back seat. "Can only help you to Port Augusta," said the driver, and that's when he realised with surprise it was a woman.

"You're taking a risk, aren't you?" he asked. "Woman drivers on their own don't pick up hitch-hikers."

"And neither do I," she replied. "You can thank a flat tyre for the change in policy." He raised his eyebrows. "I was half-way to Port Pirie when it blew. I could see a service station not far ahead, limped in there to get it changed, but the mechanic was on holiday and the attendant was only a temporary help and couldn't fix it. He changed the wheel over for me though, and while I was waiting I went into the pub over the road for a shandy. One of the chaps in the bar had given you a ride further back, and told me about this guy hitching to Perth that he'd picked up. When I saw you standing there, I figured from his description you must be the same person. He seemed to think you were harmless, if nuts, so I broke my rule."

"Well I certainly appreciate the lift - it's baking out here, and I was certainly beginning to feel like I was the one being prepared for dinner," he said.

"I can assure you, it's even hotter for me in my condition," the woman remarked.

"Condition?" It took him a few moments to realise that the woman was in an advanced state of pregnancy. The surprise must have shown on his face.

"It's okay, I'm not due till next week. Though I must admit the lousy state of these roads hasn't made me any too comfortable. I haven't been feeling too good since Port Pirie," she said as she slipped the car into gear and moved off. "If I don't improve, I might have to trust you to drive a bit," she grinned.

They had scarcely picked up speed before a look of consternation came over her. "What on earth!" she began, and then found herself struggling with the wheel as the car veered to the shoulder of the road, bucked viciously off the macadam, ploughed into scrub and finally came to rest in a shallow ditch.

He was shaken but unhurt. "Are you okay?" he asked anxiously. "I think so," she ventured. "What on earth happened? A blow-out?"

"Stay here, I'll have a look," he said, opening his door with difficulty against a mulga bush. The thorny branches scratched mercilessly as he clambered round the car. When he got to the rear the answer was obvious - a wheel hanging at a crazy angle.

"Is this the one that had the puncture?" he called out.

"Yes."

"Then I'd say at a guess you've been the victim of an incompetent. He can't have tightened the nuts when he put the wheel back on. I'd have a piece of him." And he made his way round to the driver's door. The woman didn't answer, and he was startled to see her white-faced, clenching her teeth, hands gripping the wheel.

"What's the matter?" he asked anxiously. After a moment she relaxed a bit. "While we were bouncing around I hit the steering wheel. Must have been harder than I realised. I'm……" She gripped the wheel again, screwing her eyes in pain.

"Good grief, you haven't started the baby coming?"

"I don't know. Don't feel like labour pains."

His mind went into a spin, and he grabbed the roof gutter to steady himself. With effort, he forced his mind to slow down and try to think of the best course of action.

"Look," he said, "We've got to get help. There's been no traffic for hours, and we can't rely on waiting for a car to come along. I was dropped off here by some farmer, so he can't live too far away. I'm going to run and see if I can find his house. You're not in any fit state to move, so you'll just have to try and stay as comfortable as you can. Does your driver's seat lie back?"

He adjusted it, found a cushion in the boot to prop under her head, gave her his two cans of drink, and set off towards the station track.

Half a mile's effort quickly showed up the effects of city life, and he was soon gasping in the stifling air. The rest of the journey was a nightmare of stumbling along a corrugated track, scratched by thorns, pain - and the fear of the woman's safety - drumming through his head. He tripped several times, first sweat then blood from a cut where he fell on a sharp stone half blinding his eyes. He did not know he went on like this, almost delirious in the searing heat, when he blurringly saw a homestead loom up, and then found himself half incoherent hammering on a door. Figures appeared, shadows to his brain, and he gasped out some sort of story before collapsing.

He woke with a throbbing head, to find himself lying on a bed in a darkened room. A searching hand discovered his head bandaged, then suddenly remembering the woman he sat up, pain stabbing him. Hearing sounds through the door, he gingerly made his way over, and opened it into a lounge where a small group of people were sitting talking quietly. Seeing him, the man he recognised as the farmer quickly got up and helped him to a set with a cautionary, "Take it easy. It's all okay."

"What happened? The woman! where is she? Did she…?"

A man he decided was a doctor advised, "You'd be better to calm down. You've suffered pretty badly from heat exhaustion."

The grazier chuckled. "You looked like some character out of Saltbush Bill when you fell on our doorstep. I didn't recognise you at first. Took us a while to work out what you were trying to say, and even then didn't get it properly. However, there was obviously something wrong down the track, so I took one of the hands to check it out. Gave us a fair fright when we discovered her, and her condition. She was pretty far gone, I can tell you. It was a tortuous ride back, trying to hurry but not jolt her too much."

"Was the baby coming?"

"Oh yes, it was well on its way. But it's not the first time my wife's delivered - and after all, we had all our own right here in this homestead," he added proudly.

"Why was she travelling on her own, if she was that close to having a baby?"

Another voice chipped in, "I can tell you that," as a third male entered the lounge from an adjoining room. "I'm Peter Stevens, and my wife Dale was the person who picked you up. I'm a consulting engineer, and I got called down to Wyalla a fortnight ago. We had some urgent modifications to do on some of the mining equipment, and decided to use the Christmas break to do it without disrupting production. It meant I had to be away for Christmas - neither of us liked it, but we needed the extra money, and I thought I'd be back home well before the baby was due. But Dale suddenly decided she couldn't bear Christmas Day away from me, and she took off in the car."

The grazier's wife looked concerned. "You're not thinking of going back to Wyalla tonight, I hope."

"I really should. We're starting again first thing, and besides…" The protective brood feathers could be seen raising. "Nonsense! Your wife needs you right now, and she's in no state to be moved. No job is that important. We've got tons of room here, for you as well as for this young man. As it happens, we had been expecting our daughter and her family for Christmas, until at the last minute they couldn't come. So there's no problem. Can't think what my husband was doing leaving this young man down by the road side in this heat anyway."

A strange expression crossed Peter's face. "Well I for one am grateful he did. Otherwise…" There was an embarrassed silence for a moment until the hitch-hiker gave a wry smile.

"I get the strong impression I'm the only one who hasn't seen our new arrival yet. Is it possible…"

Peter started. "Good grief, what am I thinking of. Heavens, yes. Dale's a bit groggy still, but she's been asking after you. Come on." And he helped him to his feet.

The glow of a dressing table light threw a peaceful atmosphere over the bedroom in which the woman rested, softening much of the strain still lining her face. When she heard them enter she opened her eyes, and tears began to well at the sight of the bandaged figure. "How can I ever thank you?"

He avoided the question. "Where's the baby?"

Peter lifted a bundle out of a bassinet next to the bed, and carefully handed it to him. He gingerly pulled back the shawl and peeked at the red, wrinkled face.

"Is it a boy or a girl?"

"A boy."

"Unto us this day is born a son," he mused. "And his name shall be called… what is his name?"

Peter laughed. "We've been fighting for months over names, and we can't agree yet."

"Well little man, you're not the first to arrive in a rather unorthodox fashion on this day." Then he gave a small cry of dismay. "But I have no gift to bring him!"

There was silence, until Dale exclaimed, "Yes you have. What is your name?"

"Mine? John. John Andrews."

"Then may that be your gift to the baby. We'll call him John Andrew Stevens." And their combined laughter floated out to the group in the lounge, and beyond through the window to the cooling evening air, heralding the joy of a new son to the world.

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(c) Copyright John McNeil, all rights reserved. Apart from the purposes of fair review, this work may not be reproduced in whole or in part in any form, physical or electronic, without the express permission in writing of the author. He may be contacted at jandhmcneil<a>paradise.net.nz