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We decide to experiment with a few things. Kate drives and I push. We try reversing. We let the tyres down. It’s no good though so eventually the only thing we can do is dig. I’m using the axe again and Kate’s got one of the tin mugs. I notice that it’s my blue one.

In no time at all we are covered in mud. I’m kneeling in it. I can feel it squeezing between my toes and fingers. I want to lie in it and push my face into the cool softness.

Digging is hot work and soon we have to stop for a break. Our eyes meet across the roof of the car. The mud on Kate’s face is already beginning to dry and crack like a living, crumbling statue, except on her forehead where it is moist with sweat. She wipes it very slowly with her arm, leaving a bright red smudge between her eyes. There’s something about that gesture, the crimson dirt...

I breathe out hard and feel my stomach tighten.

Hey, I say, why don’t we visit the Americans?

Brad and Mary-Jo arrived late yesterday afternoon, just when we thought we had the place to ourselves. Not that it’s a real campground or anything. They just spotted us here and decided it was a nice enough place to stop. After it got dark, we wandered over to say hello and they opened a warm bottle of Chardonnay. Later on, Brad got out his telescope to give us a demonstration.

Brad and Mary-Jo are over here working for the government. Spies, I reckon, although they look pretty straight. They’ve been married for nearly two years, don’t have any children yet and enjoy bushwalking and the theatre. They asked us what we did and when I said I hadn’t decided yet everybody was silent for a while. I don’t like to give too much away. You never can tell.

I can see them now through the trees, moving about in their sky-blue waterproofs. Mary-Jo is bending down to pick up sticks which she cradles in her arms. As we get nearer, I can see they’re not bogged like we are but that the weight of their vehicle has caused it to sink slightly. Brad is using a small shovel to dig the wheels out and Mary-Jo is placing her sticks in a long row in front of the tyres. The sticks are all the same length.

Hi there, I say, and they look up from their work. Mary-Jo acts like she’s pleased to see us but Brad seems a little shy today. Maybe it’s all the mud we’ve got on. We talk about the thunderstorm and what we plan to do. Brad says they’re in no hurry to get going. He doesn’t predict any problems but it’s better to be prepared. He offers to lend me his shovel.

Walking back through the trees, we both start to pick up sticks. Brad’s shovel makes light work of the digging and soon we have two gently graded trenches running up from the rear wheels. The trenches are lined with lots of sticks and stuff. It’s a terrific sight. I walk around admiring it, adjusting the odd twig or scraping a clod away. It’s funny to think that it will all get wrecked when we leave.

I get in position to push from behind but I’m not needed. The car slides out as sweet as shit. Kate yells at me to get in but I’m already off and running, crashing through the undergrowth towards the other camp.

When I get there Mary-Jo is standing alone as if expecting me. She’s wearing a pair of pink washing-up gloves just like a pair we used to have. My first thought is that it’s funny to see them again after all this time and, for a moment, I can’t help wondering what she’s doing with them.

Mary-Jo starts talking to me, speaking very quickly and softly, but I’m too busy looking at the gloves to pay much attention. She reaches inside her waterproof – the pink fingers disappear behind the sky-blue plastic – and pulls out a tiny piece of paper. The pink fingers take hold of my hand – I can feel the rubber cling to my skin – and the piece of paper is placed in my palm. Mary-Jo folds my dirty fingers over the piece of paper and gives me a meaningful look like somebody secretly offering a sweetie to a child.

Suddenly Brad appears from behind the off-road vehicle and I have to stop staring at Mary-Jo’s pink gloves. We stand around for a while looking at each other and then I remember that I’ve still got Brad’s shovel in my other hand. I hold it out and say, thanks for the use of your shovel, mate. Good luck. I hope you make it.

Brad nods at me slowly and wishes me Bon Voyage. I look at Mary-Jo and she smiles at me. It’s the sort of smile you might give a young man, just nineteen, as he leaves to do his duty. It makes me feel raw and wild and confused....

Next moment, I’m back in the trees again and heading for the waiting car. As we drive off, I lean out of the window and wave but there’s no sign of Brad and Mary-Jo. They’ve already vanished into the bush and the only thing I can see are two pink gloves hanging from the branch of a tree. I keep on looking at the gloves, trying to keep them in view for as long as possible, but eventually we round a bend and they disappear from sight.

That’s when I realise the piece of paper is no longer in my hand.