The Sweet Smell of St. Lawrence Fuel

“Maybe we should pull in here”, my girlfriend suggested.

“Hmmm, I can’t imagine they’d have a petrol station”, I pessimistically retorted.

As prepared as we had tried to be in ensuring we had enough fuel for skirting the Australian outback north up the east coast from Rockhampton to Airlie Beach, we were cutting it fine.

“We’ll be lucky if we find any life there, let alone a petrol station”, I said, trying to add a little humour to a situation that was fast becoming a predicament.

We were only driving 500km but we certainly got a taste of Australia’s sheer landmass, even through the bug-splattered windscreen of our uneconomical camper van.

“Yeah, you’re right, we’re only at three quarters of a tank, we’d better fill up,” we insecurely concurred every time we passed a pump of any description.

Six km off the Bruce highway we were somewhat forced into a place called St. Lawrence in the hope of finding the oil-based amber nectar.

As we later discovered, St. Lawrence served as a convenient stop for long droving cattle runs between the main ports of Rockhampton and Mackay. Today it survives through some miracle of perseverance since it no longer benefits from passing traffic and has outlived its usefulness.

Aside from a scattering of a few houses on its outskirts and a few other nondescript buildings, the place looked like a ghost town. Slowly crawling onwards, I half expected to see tumbleweed blowing across the road in front of us, animal carcasses decaying at the side of the road in the heat and locals being thrown out of a watering hole for sinking one too many schooners of Tooheys.

“There’s one!” my partner pointed excitedly.

We rolled up by the side of an old solitary pump, which, due to a missing cover, presented its complex oily mechanism in full glory. It even had one of those rickety old manual ticker counters on top, the kind that makes you question its accuracy. As I stood there wondering why such a relic wasn’t in a museum, a large, rotund woman with a cross-eye so obvious it made me wonder if she could see round corners, shouted from the doorway.

“Hang on mate, I’ll turn her on!”

To our obvious relief, the pump fired straight into action and the smell of fuel slipping down into our tank had never smelled sweeter.

“D’ya smell that? That’s the smell of civilisation!” I exclaimed triumphantly as my girlfriend simultaneously tutted and raised her eyebrows.

As soon as I had pumped enough over-priced small-town fuel to get us to the next big postcode, I entered the store and almost ceremoniously awarded a fifty dollar bill to our new friend.

“You’re lucky”, she said, “We only just got that fixed yesterday after a week out of action.”

Looking around the store, it became clear that the place receives less than infrequent deliveries. Out-of-date newspapers and magazines sat on the shelves amassing layers of dust and the processed food in the refrigerator had long accepted its fate and had given up being presentable.

In the background leaning against a door frame was a balding, weedy-looking man in a white t-shirt stained with grease looking intimidating. The only thing missing from his image was a cocktail stick protruding from his mouth. Assuming that he must be her husband, given that they seemed of a similar age, I couldn’t help but wonder if they were also related. I pondered what went on behind the walls adorned with sparse, dust-ridden shelves and my imagination took me to a place that envisaged this same guy carving a human body into pieces to put in the freezer out back.

I left the store parting with the usual pleasantries and, luckily, since I had told her to keep the change, I didn’t have to wait around for my mind to conjure up any more unfair and outrageous fabrications.

Despite my colourful imagination, St. Lawrence was an extremely rural but charming town and our new friend seemed sweet. It is the kind of place that would offer a real Australian experience and it was a shame we didn’t have time to stay.

On the way out of town, the local radio station illustrated just how rural it was by giving out information on the regional beef expo and rattled out sheep scores in favour of football results.

“Hey, I wonder if they play the sheep Pools here on a Saturday” I said, being half serious.

N Burt

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