She had come to Port Douglas in search of a new start.
We had come in search of adventure, booze and women. It was a mix like Mentos and Coke.
Briefly exciting but very messy.
I met Shelly through a complicated and unlikely series of events that involved Matthew McConaughey’s stunt double, McConaughey himself, a dollar-a-day rental campervan, and the rightly-forgotten box-office flop, Fool’s Gold. The details of all of this, while interesting, are not germane to our story, but in a not unrelated aside, Shelly had the same height, hair and general build as Fool’s Gold’s co-star, Kate Hudson.
Max and I were heroes for that summer. We belted up the Bruce Highway, hurtled along the baking road, eyes on the fuel gauge, praying for a servo, and listening to eucalyptus trees explode in the late summer heat. There was no wild-life, only roadkill.
There is a well-worn backpacker trail on the Australian coast - Brisbane, through Surfer’s, and up through the flat, oppressive stink of the sugar cane farms around Townsville, towards the dense warmth of Cairns, and then on further.
We were older than the gap-year British college rats with whom we shared the hostels. But not by that much. But we were richer, having been financed by the substantial income from six butcher stores in Southern Germany of which Max was the sole proprietor. The trip had become a drunken, chaotic circus of romance and sunburn, fights and blow-jobs.
I was probably still figuring some stuff out. I seemed to be capable of holding simultaneous contradictory thoughts in my mind and believing fully in all of them. It’s the kind of mental flexibility afforded to those with no responsibilities, and who nobody is really listening to anyway. Your mind in your twenties is racing a million miles a minute, and in a thousand different directions.
And one of these directions was with Shelly.
She was in her mid-thirties. At the time that seemed impossibly old. And she was beautiful in that way that only sun-kissed Australians can be - tanned limbs, healthy smile, easy manner, crinkled eyes and slightly damaged skin. She had just arrived in Port Douglas to begin again – in this alien space ship of a suburban holiday resort crash-landed on the outskirts of the gentrified Daintree rainforest. A new life for her and her son.
It hadn’t been the easiest life for her. She had had a high-school sweetheart, the handsomest guy on the footie team. An inevitable teenage pregnancy followed, then the abrupt imposition of real life too early. The jock-hero gets a dead-end job to pay for nappies and the flaccid dick of dashed hopes is expressed as harsh words, and then heavy hands.
Goaded by drink and buttressed by bad decisions, he robbed a store, cooked meth with bikies, and cut hot cars in a chop shop. After eight years of domestic disintegration Shelly picked up her son and ran. And who could blame her? She ran North to a town three thousand kilometres away. A hairdresser can always find work.
Of course none of this was true. Or it might have been. She was definitely a hairdresser with a kid. For all I know she may have just moved to Port for the climate. But in my mind I was coming in to rescue this woman. I imagined myself, in a very real way, to be the kind of silent, good-hearted, but troubled man that Ryan Gosling would prove himself to be in Drive. I was ready to build a world with Shelly.
I used to take the back way from our hostel through the trees and wide-bladed tropical grass, to the apartment complex where Shelly lived. A beautiful thin English girl had taught me to clap for snakes. When you walk through the undergrowth you should clap your hands loudly in front of you. The vibrations in the air would scare the snakes away, she said. I spent my time in Port Douglas clapping every time I set foot off concrete. While I lived in that town I saw parrots, geckos, a couple of big spiders, poisonous toads which people raced in the local bars, and a huge violent looking beetle that made a loud farting sound if you pressed its back. But I never saw a snake. Not even once.
Sitting by the pool at Shelly’s apartment watching her with her kid in the water, I felt like I believed in something. It would be me and Shelly, her new life and her ten year old son. At 25 I would be a father. A young, responsible stepdad to this blonde kid who was clearly going to grow up to be handsome and Australian, in all the best ways.
I would teach him things. How to fish, to carve wood, to build camp fires - probably other stuff too. That I didn’t know how to do these things was irrelevant. I would learn. There would be life lessons for everybody. I would work on a boat in the mornings, I would write novels in the afternoons, and in the evenings I’d swim and drink terrible Queensland larger. It seemed to me like an honest life. A true life.
It seemed like it would make a good Wikipedia Biography description of a writer. But truth, like Wikipedia, is unreliable. While I fully believed that I would rescue Shelly, I also believed that I was in love with Alana the free-spirited Christian Kiwi who I had met at the hostel. I believed that I was also meant to be with Rachel, the sea-tousled Scottish surfer who shared room 12 with Alana.
And I believed that clapping would ward off snakes.
Actually, while snakes do sense vibration, it’s generally through the ground. Slapping your hands against your thighs, might help because the vibration could travel through your legs - maybe. But clapping in the air? No. And anyway, there were no snakes around. I was taking an ineffectual action to ward off an imaginary threat. So I guess you could say in some ways it worked.
While I wanted to rescue Shelly, I also knew that I hated her. Charitably you could say she was otherworldly and ethereal. If you wanted to be a little crueler, you could say that she was emotionally stunted and a little dumb. “You’re so sexy,” she would say to me, with all the emotional intensity of middle-aged air steward tugging at the inflation cord on a demonstration life jacket. Shelly had taken a lodger in her two bedroom duplex, mostly for company rather than money. And since the lodger was occupying one room, Shelly had taken her son to sleep with her in hers. A ten year-old boy on the cusp of puberty, jerked out of school, fired half way up the continent to have no one but his mother for company, and then to suffer the indignity of sharing a bed with her. At the time, I did not find this strange, I think. Or if I did, I didn’t find it as damaging as I do now looking back.
Of course the fling with Shelly was short-lived. I was so in love with so many girls that it was impossible. And as Alana, the Christian Kiwi put it, “Why are you kissing that old woman?” So when I cowardly began ignoring Shelly’s calls, she began showing up at the hostel unannounced. She would flirt with with Max and our friend Luke, while glaring at me. And then say, “I can’t even make you jealous, can I?” (Although I always suspected that she would rather have been sleeping with Max rather than me from the outset).
I branded her crazy - an easy case to make to all the 18 year-old kids we were hanging out with who were fucking one another stupid, drunk on box-wine and sun. I called her a psycho. And yeah, Shelly didn’t handle herself with dignity. But I did everything I could to spin the story so that I would come out of this looking like a Lothario, yet a soulful, conscientious one. I scoffed while regaling everyone with the story of when she cursed me and spat out, “I hope that you travel the world and never find anyone to love”. Which doesn’t seem quite so funny now.
One night, before the curse and before her attempts at making me jealous, Shelly moved her sleeping son from her bed, and placed him on the couch downstairs, and we stayed in her room. It was the last night that we
We did not have sex because Shelly, though beautiful, tried to be sexy in the same way that a choir of deaf people might attempt Handel’s Messiah. Sure, they can get dressed up in the gear, stand in rows in a church and make some noise, but even the most generous spirited people would admit there’s something a bit off about it.
In the morning she slept late and I got up early. Downstairs the kid was playing Tony Hawk on the Xbox. I joined him on the couch. We would bond here, I imagined. A man and a child. I can’t describe to you how terrible the kid was at this game. It was like watching an extremely fat person climbing stairs and wheezing. It’s funny until you realise that the stairs are actually a real challenge to them - and that that’s, like, their life. He’d had it for ages and he was awful at it. On my first go I out scored him by many, many points. Doing combos or whatever they were called. There’s no way that a 25 year old should be able to kill a ten year old at a video game. The kid was traumatised. His eyes were getting dribbly and his world-view had been punctured by a little honest competition. I’m not sure if that refers to the game, or the affections of his mother. Or both. I was horrified. Sure, sure, I wanted to picture myself as a father figure. But I couldn’t be a father to a kid who was incapable of beating me at Tony Hawk. The fantasy was broken. I could see Shelly as she was - a woman having to choose between what would make her happy, and what would be right for her son. And maybe getting both wrong. I judged her for being so cavalier with her son’s feelings. I judged her for her immaturity. And I judged her for allowing someone like me come into her life.
I stood up and said goodbye to the kid, handing him back the Xbox controller. And I slipped out of Shelly’s sliding doors, circled the apartment pool and set out back through the undergrowth towards the hostel. Clapping as I went, as if applauding myself.