"Would you like to borrow my electric kettle?" Brian asked.
"No thanks," I said, looking at the dirty appliance, "but thanks for asking."
"It would save you setting up your stove" he insisted, "and it would be quicker too."
"Okay then," I said, bowing to the inevitable. In truth, our kettle was pretty grotty too.
Brian grabbed the kettle, poured some water into it from a nearby tap and set it boiling on the power outlet near his tent. He then came over and sat at our table.
"I'm Brian," he said. Karen and I introduced ourselves as we regarded our new neighbour.
Brian was barefoot and bare-chested, his only clothing being a beat up pair of nondescript shorts and a broad-brimmed, black felt hat, the latter almost giving him the look of a Quaker. Detracting from the image was a long, straggly, grey beard which contrasted with his equally long and straggly brown hair. He also appeared to have misplaced his dentures. When the water had boiled and we were all sitting down to a cup of coffee, we offered Brian a Scotch Finger Biscuit which he dunked until it was soft enough to gum into a pulp while he explained that he had only five teeth and biscuits sometimes gave him trouble. His age was indeterminate, anything up to sixty five, but Brian later confided that he was forty five.
"How long have you been in Wyndham?" I asked, just making conversation.
"Twenty five months," Brian replied.
"Are you working here?"
"No, the government put me on a permanent disability pension."
"So what's the attraction of Wyndham?" asked Karen.
"The next place could be worse."
Brian's appearance had given us a hint that he might be a touch strange, and the conversation was confirming our initial impression. It was time to steer the conversation into less personal waters.
"We've heard the Five Rivers Lookout is worth seeing," Karen said. "Have you been up there?"
"Sure have," Brian said. "The whole road up to the top is sealed now, thanks to me. The town was going nowhere on the issue and I just went in and set everybody straight and got the whole project going. If you're going out to the port later, check out the bike path too. I was responsible for getting that completed as well."
When faced with madness, Karen and I always nod in agreement, doubt nothing and accept everything. In this situation, we followed our policy to the letter. We quickly finished our coffee and excused ourselves, saying we had to go into town to buy dinner.
"Don't worry about the aborigines in town," Brian called after us. "They used to be pretty rough but since I whipped them into shape and reorganised the police force, the town has been a pretty safe place to walk around. Took a while, but it was worth it."
The following day Karen and I had a lazy breakfast, did some washing, and then embarked on a scenic tour of Wyndham on Elle and Mel. A small mountain range known as the Bastions overlooks the town. We rode three kilometres to the base of the range and then four kilometres up to the lookout, all the while silently thanking Brian for providing such a good road. Despite a heavy overcast, the views from the top were pretty impressive. Wyndham lies about eighty kilometres from the open waters of the Timor Sea on a narrow inlet called Cambridge Gulf. Five rivers flow into this gulf near the town - the Ord, the Forrest, the Durack, the Chamberlain and the King, and all can be seen from the lookout. Below us stood the actual port, located to the north of the town.
We enjoyed the long coast back down the hill, visiting the Big Croc for a photo before finding another scenic attraction in a back street consisting of a number of aboriginal and animal statues, all larger than life size. Brian had not done as good a job on the bike path to the port as we had hoped. It was littered with broken glass so we kept to the road. After a fish and chip lunch we took a self-guided historical tour of the port area and booked a Bungle Bungle day trip for three days hence before returning to the caravan park.
Brian was sitting in his chair, smoking, just as we had left him. Karen and I kept ourselves occupied for most of the afternoon with bike maintenance. I repaired the punctured thorn-proof tyre with a patch and glue, and put new rubber sleeves over the tyre liners to prevent a recurrence of our Mr Tuffy problems. We cleaned the bikes and lubricated all chains, cables, gears and miscellaneous moving parts, the repacked our gear in preparation for an early start in the morning. Karen walked into town to do some shopping while I sewed up some holes in the drawstring liner of my rat-chewed pannier. Just as dusk was falling Brian called out to me.
"Do you know about the comet?" he yelled.
"Yeah," I called back. "We've been watching it for quite some time now."
"What's it called?" Brian queried suspiciously.
"Hale-Bopp," I replied, realising I was being tested.
"And where can we see the comet now?"
"It had been getting lower and lower in the western sky," I said, "and now it's near a star called Aldebaran."
"Ah, Aldebaran," Brian enunciated, placing most importance on the last syllable. "I've heard of that. So where exactly is this star?"
"It's in the Hyades. It should be visible now," I said, glancing at my watch. Our view to the west was partially blocked by a large tree, but I walked over to the front of Brian's tent where the panorama was more open and pointed towards Aldebaran.
"There's the star," I said, "and if you sort of look just below it you can see a fuzzy patch. That's the comet."
Brian seemed satisfied. "Where's Karen?" he asked.
"In town, doing some shopping."
"It's pretty dark. She should be back by now."
He got up and walked down to the caravan park entrance, looking up the road towards the town to see if he could spot Karen. In the next twenty minutes Brian went down to the park entrance on another two occasions, his concern seemingly quite touching. Karen arrived soon after and Brian began his questioning again.
"Brett tells me that you have been watching the comet for a while. Is that right?"
"Hale-Bopp? Yes we have. We first noticed it at Edith Falls a few weeks ago," Karen said.
"Where is it?" Brian asked innocently. Karen immediately swung around and looked for the comet in the west, no mean feat given Karen's sense of direction.
"It should be just above the horizon behind that tree," she said.
"Okay," Brian conceded. "You know where it is. A lot of people say they know things but they really don't, you know? Most people are stupid, ignorant, imbecilic barbarians, but you two are different. You are a lot like me. It's good to meet intelligent people. There's not too many of us around."
Evidently we had passed some sort of initiation test and had now been accepted into Brian's circle of friends. Now that we could be trusted, Brian must have decided to let us into some of his secrets. He expressed his beliefs in the role of women, peppering his explanation with some anatomically accurate descriptions of the female sexual organs, which he apologised for using. He then proceeded to the subject of etherics, the latter a term I had heard before in connection with auras, which Brian went on to describe and explain as well.
"I suppose that you have seen the Star Wars movies, with its talk about the Force?" he asked. "Well, it really exists and I know because I am in touch with it. I can make it rain by slicing clouds in half with energy bolts like lightning that come out of my fingertips." He waited for a reaction, as if trying to see exactly how much he could get away with.
"Really?," we said.
"Yep, and I can heal people's sickness and injuries, simply by the laying on of hands as well."
Karen and I were both wondering why he did not lay his hands upon his own mouth and make his teeth grow back, but we were not game enough to say anything in the presence of so much weirdness. Karen and I managed to extricate ourselves from the conversation by making acceptable excuses for retiring early, referring to our need for a good night's sleep to ready ourselves for riding out in the morning.
"Actually," Brian confided as we backed away, "when I was a little boy my father chopped me up into small pieces with an axe. I put myself back together using the power of the Force..."
Neither Karen nor myself slept too well that night.