Every time I see a pantechnicon, I wonder about the contents of that canvas bundle. It was a long time ago when I was just a bit more than a lad, but to this day I’ve never experienced such fear as I did that night.
The only ambition I ever had was to be a truck driver. Dad, bless him for his patience, put up with me through the years as I badgered him for driving lessons, almost before I could reach the pedals of the family utility. Sometimes he allowed me to sit on his lap and steer the tractor to the field where he was working.
Every day I measured the length of my legs after a lengthy session of stretching them. In the privacy of my room I lay face up on the floor, hooked my toes under the rail of my bed, grasped the bottom of the heavy wardrobe with my fingers and endeavoured to pull the bed towards me.
Inevitably, in God’s own good time, I grew. On Saturday mornings I hung around the local garage and made friends with Joe, the owner. I made myself useful, and gradually wheedled my way into the workshop where I fetched and carried for Mike the mechanic. At home on the farm I never missed an opportunity to drive. I drove the tractor, the truck and the old utility and eventually at the garage, Mike allowed me to shift vehicles, bringing them in and out of the workshop.
When I got my licence to drive, I left school and got a job at the local store. At first it was just delivering groceries and small items and I had the use of a small, rattletrap of a van. Then the management saw opportunities to expand. A new sign went up to replace ‘Coleman’s General Store.’ The new sign read COLEMAN’S GENERAL SERVICES and underneath in smaller letters, “we supply everything and deliver anywhere.”
Well, it all turned out in my favour and I got some good delivery assignments. That was how I came to be involved in the Pantechnicon incident.
The Pantechnicon was en route to Darwin. It had been consigned by rail to the Alice where its new owner was to take delivery. However, the best laid plans don’t always work and, for one reason or another, Coleman’s were hired to deliver it to Darwin.
Dick Coleman wasn’t one to miss an opportunity. He was not about to send an empty Pantechnicon on a thousand mile trip, so he arranged to kill two birds with one stone as it were. We had furniture to deliver to Tennant Creek and some crates bound for Elliott. And then there was the package we were to pick up from the hospital and take to Darwin.
It was morning tea time when I drove into the hospital grounds. I parked the van in the spot designated by the chap dressed in khakis and accepted his offer of a mug of tea while his two offsiders got the package.
I watched as they struggled with an awkward floppy bundle in a canvas bag. They heaved it into the back and slammed the doors shut. “There y’are, mate,” one said with a grin, “they reckoned Colemans’ll take on anythin’ but I’d a thought y’d baulk at a body!”
I looked at him dumbly. “Body?”
He nodded towards the pantechnicon. “Y’aint superstitious I reckon or y’wouldn’t be driving this ‘ere corpse all the way to Darwin.” I was in the process of swallowing the last mouthful of tea when it sank in that the canvas bundle held a body. A sharp intake of breath sent a few drops of the tea down the wrong way and I began to choke.
“Gee Mate!” my informative friend exclaimed, “are you okay?”
Still coughing and spluttering I managed to nod and croak my thanks as I climbed into the cab. As I drove slowly away, I tossed up as to whether I should go back and have it out with the boss for keeping me in the dark, or whether I ought to do the trip and argue about it later. Then it occurred to me the bloke might have been pulling my leg.
Since it didn’t worry me if I did have a corpse in the back, I saw no point in finding out one way or the other. I turned right and headed off up the Stuart Highway, whistling the tune “John Brown’s Body.”
The pantechnicon was brand new. The cab was well appointed with a well-padded bench seat that had a sort of moulded back support. I loved to drive and being comfortable was an added bonus. I took a cigarette from the pack in my shirt pocket and lit up, using the lighter in the cab.
I got to The Tennant five minutes before knock-off time so I wasn’t too popular. The two storemen who had to unload the furniture had a standard appointment at the Goldfields every night after work, and they resented being late. To get at the furniture easily, they dumped the canvas bag on the ramp just outside the pantechnicon door.
When the last wardrobe was set down in the warehouse, one of them began to close the pantechnicon doors. “Hey, don’t forget me passenger,” I said, pointing to the canvas bag.
The tall one who’d done most of the grumbling and least of the unloading, took hold of the bag and lifted. “Give us a ‘and, will ya – it aint light.”
His mate put the bolt down on his half of the door and took hold of a corner of the canvas. “Well,” he said, “it’s a dead weight anyway.” He laughed. “Dead weight – body – get it? It could be, ya know, a dead body, I mean.”
“Yeah, ya bloody dumbo – pity it aint your arse in there,” the sour one retorted.
I couldn’t help it. He was such a surly bugger I thought he deserved to know the truth. “It is indeed a body,” I told him, “I’m taking it to Darwin…” I paused because it occurred to me that if the bloke who loaded it in the Alice was not having me on, then I had no idea why a body was being transported to Darwin by me in the back of a pantechnicon, “for burial.” I concluded lamely.
“Shit!” the surly fellow exclaimed. The other fellow just looked stunned and then he burst into laughter. When I drove out, he was still laughing but, it pleased me to see, the surly one was emptying the contents of his stomach as he leaned out from the warehouse ramp.
I pulled up in front of the Goldfields. After driving three hundred miles I had worked up a bit of a thirst and I was looking forward to a couple of cold ones and a feed before I struck out for Elliott, a hundred and fifty miles further north.
The Goldfields was a popular watering hole and as always there were a few familiar faces at the bar. Jeannie the barmaid drew a schooner of ale and placed it in front of me without waiting for me to order. A hefty slap on the back had me spluttering over the first mouthful. “Hey, Jamie me lad – is it you drivin’ that fancy bit o’ machinery?”
“G’day Mike,” I said when I recovered. Normally I’d have been pretty annoyed at such thoughtlessness but I admired Mike as much then as I had when he was Joe’s mechanic. We spent the next hour swapping yarns and then I left him while I got a feed. I was tucking into a fat juicy steak when there was an uproar coming from the bar. The waitress informed me it was the usual commotion that went on when the Honourable Stanley was evicted from the premises.
Stan Gibson was the town drunk. In better times he’d been a Member of Parliament and a respected member of the community, but after a tragic accident that robbed him of his family, he sought solace in the bottle. Mostly he was treated with kindness, sometimes pitied, but occasionally he was target for the practical joker.
The plight of this unfortunate man took a little of the enjoyment out of my meal and I lost no time in getting on my way but the light was all but gone when I climbed into the cab and turned on the ignition. I felt relieved somehow, to be leaving Stan and his troubles behind me.
After I’d clocked up the one hundredth mile I began to feel pretty weary. Away in the distance the reflectors on the white posts shone in the headlights. Now and again they danced towards me and sometimes there were multiples of moving lights as cattle or kangaroos strayed on or beside the road.
I yawned. Through the drumming of the wheels on the tarred road I heard a sound. Instantly I was alert. I listened and heard a thump behind the cab. I relaxed. Something must have come adrift in the back.
A short time later the hackles rose on the back of my neck. I had the distinct feeling I was not alone. I glanced warily beside me – nothing. There was no ghostly form beside me but my heart was fairly thumping its way out of my chest.
I put my foot down on the accelerator, gripped the steering wheel harder and my heart leaped into my mouth. My brain registered a mournful moaning together with shuffling and thumping coming from the back of the van. By now I was in a cold sweat behind the wheel of the pantechnicon that was pretty well rocking with speed, and I was struggling to control it.
Through my terror-addled brain, words were tumbling erratically. “Stooooooooop. Fer Christ’s sake stoooooop.”
Just as the lights of the Elliott pub showed up in the distance, the meaning of the words sank in. Someone was telling me to stop. The knowledge that I was almost safe had a calming effect on me but there was no way I was going to stop just yet. When I did, it was with squealing brakes right outside the door of the pub. I all but fell out the door of the cab and staggered up the verandah steps to be greeted by a row of curious faces.
“Crikey, it’s Jamie – what the hell’s got into ya?” asked Tom, the publican.
I was shaking like a leaf and unable to utter an intelligible word. Someone gave me a good slug of whisky and after I’d calmed down enough to tell the story, a couple of blokes went out and opened up the rear doors of the pantechnicon.
“Hey Jamie,” Tom’s voice boomed out amid roars of laughter from the pub verandah, “this ‘ere ghost aint dead yet!”
Presently Tom appeared in the doorway with Stan Gibson swaying a little unsteadily beside him. By now the whisky had calmed me and I cursed the practical jokers at the Goldfields. “Bloody hell, Stan,” I blurted, “waddya want to scare the hell out of a bloke like that for?”
Stan grabbed the glass out of my hand and drained it. “You think you were scared, mate? You should’ve been in my shoes.” He sounded as sober as a judge. “I opened one of the crates. I was pretty dry, you know – next thing I know I’m sprawled out on my back and there’s a hell of a din going on. I curled up in a ball and lay doggo.”
“Oh, come on Stan! Those crate lids are nailed down – you couldn’t have opened one without a lever or something.”
Stan shook his head. “This one wasn’t – I tell you I just lifted the lid and got knocked flat.”
I looked at Tom who simply shrugged his shoulders. “Reckon we’d better check out the crates, Jamie old son. If yer mate ‘ere wasn’t sufferin’ from the DTs, we might jest git ourselves a ghost.”
As soon as I saw the crate I knew it wasn’t part of the Elliott consignment. Besides it was empty. Tom moved it aside. In the light of his torch we stared down at a prostrate figure. I really thought he was dead. It was the surly character from the warehouse and it flashed across my mind that I’d be up for manslaughter, if not murder, and the thought chilled me to the bone.
Tom squatted down and felt for his pulse. There was a sizeable bruise on the side of his head and Tom had a good look at it. Then he grinned up at me. “He’s still kickin’ – reckon he took a mighty wallop that knocked him cold.”
Next morning after I’d off loaded the crates and double checked the back of the pantechnicon for uninvited travellers, I called into the pub to pay the bill. Tom shook his head and grinned widely, “it’s on the ‘ouse, Jamie old son. Long time since we ‘ad good entertainment in Elliott. I reckon that ride’ll be enough to keep old Stanley sober for months. The other bloke’ll think twice before he pulls another stunt like that as well!”
Yeah. Well, I made it to Darwin and though I was dying to find out whether the canvas bundle was a body or not, I was reluctant to ask. As it was, the bush telegraph would be buzzing. I had no doubt the story was already embellished beyond recognition and had reached Darwin before I did. No point in giving them more ammunition.