The Miles Between by Bruce Costello

A failed student is ready to give up hope - will a down-to-earth Maori trucker be able to talk sense into him? By Bruce Costello.

"Where're you heading, mate?" The driver of the Kenworth yelled down to the hitchhiker.

"Dumtin Bay."

"Hop in!"

The young man climbed aboard. The driver, a broad-shouldered woman with a tattooed face, shook his hand.

"Kia ora. I'm Oriwa Waihape."

"Mathew O'Malley. Awesome of you to stop."

"Someone to talk to. Fall asleep, otherwise. Just joking!"

The curved dashboard displayed a multitude of dials, screens and knobs. Furry mascots clung to the steering column and from the rear vision mirror dangled two teddy bears.

The truck rode smooth as a cloud. Oriwa's fingers danced over the 18 speed gear shifter, and the Kenworth surged ahead to soar effortlessly past a campervan.

"What d'ya do for a crust, Mathew?"

"That's a long story."

Oriwa threw him a quick glance and turned the CD down. "It's two hours to Dumtin Bay. I'm listening, son."

"It's not a nice story."

"It's not a perfect life. Tell me about yourself or I'll stop and chuck you out."

Mathew settled into the self-leveling air suspension seat and took a deep breath. "I'm - or I should say - I was, a medical student..."

"You're ten minutes behind schedule, driver..." came a voice out of nowhere.

Oriwa touched a button on the multimedia screen and the voice broke off. "Bloody boss!" she said. "Even knows when I stop to take a mimi. Carry on, son."

Mathew ran a hand over his long brown hair. "This was my intern year, working in a hospital, doctoring with real patients. But I just couldn't handle things. Did my head in. I got so bad, I couldn't get out of bed in the morning. Tried therapy but it didn't work, nor did medication. This morning I decided to give up."

"Just like that?"

"Yep. I'm going home to the farm with a $200,000 student loan on my shoulders. Back to my foster parents and my little sister, Maria. Last time I was at home, five years ago, Dad was drinking heavily and Mum was training pigs to round up sheep."

"You're going back to that! What's wrong with you?"

"I saw three psychiatrists and they all came up with different diagnoses."

The road was straight and wide and no other traffic was in sight. Oriwa turned to Mathew and peered into his eyes. "It's bloody obvious to me. I can read you like a book. You're not getting enough."

Mathew laughed.

"What's funny about that? Have you got a girl?"

"I had one. Trixie."

"An angel, was she?"

"I thought so, at the start, fell in love with her. Turned out she wasn't the girl I thought she was."

"That figures. You thought Trixie was God's gift to Mathew but after a while you discovered she was an ordinary human being who got pissed off occasionally, said what she thought, and could fart like a soldier?"

Mathew stared at Oriwa.

"Son, people are what they are - not what you want them to be," she said, her eyes fixed on the road.

Mathew gazed at a squashed bumble bee on the windscreen. "Three psychiatrists couldn't figure me out. How come you think you can..."

"I've been around. Mate of mine, panel beater, looked like you, used his woman as a mother instead of someone special to love and have sex with. Silly bastard was trying to get from his woman what he hadn't got from his nutty mother, nutty as a sack of peanuts. He sucked her dry. She left him and he went bonkers. Gave up his job. Couldn't get off his arse to mow his own lawn. Lucky I saw what was happening and put it to him straight." Oriwa grinned. "He got back with her and now they bonk each other silly three times a week. He's started up his own business, works like a demon and he's raking in the moolah."

"Pretty impressive," Mathew said. "But what you're implying about me and my mother seems a bit, well, simplistic. Maybe. I don't know."

"What don't you know?"

"I don't know what I don't know."

"But what is it that you don't know?"

"I don't know."

Oriwa's foot went to the brake. The truck stopped on a deserted stretch of highway.

"Are you going to tell me, or get off here, you silly bugger?"

A couple of hours later the truck pulled up at Dumtin Bay.

"I pass through here about midday every weekday, heading back south," Oriwa called to Mathew as he crossed the road to his mother waiting in a battered Ford pickup. On its high-sided deck was an enormous boar, tossing its head and baring yellow fangs as it watched Mathew approach.

"If you want a lift back to the city, just thumb me down again. Mine's the only purple Kenworth around."

Nothing had changed since Mathew's last visit home except to get older and worse. The leaning fence had toppled and was barely visible under long grass. The cracked concrete path was just rubble and weeds. Peeling paint on the front door had vanished with the wind. Thread worn carpet in the hallway was now a mass of holes.

Mathew's mother was an obese woman whose face seemed locked in a lopsided smile. Unfettered breasts wobbled as she led Mathew to the lounge, a small and gloomy room, its wallpaper yellow with age and nicotine.

A thin man with heavy dark eyebrows and a bald head circled by a narrow perimeter of wispy white hair was drinking beer.

"Yes?" he said, as Mathew entered the room. "Anything I can do for you?"

He half rose, wiping a hand on trousers held up with twine and offering it to Mathew. "The name's Michael O'Malley," he said with a serious expression, then his face exploded with laughter. "Just joking. Great to have you home again, Prodigal Son!"

"Stop playing silly bastards," Mother snorted, "or the poor boy'll take off back to the city."

"Where's Maria?" Mathew asked.

"She scarpered when she heard you were coming back," said Father, grinning, "but only into town to get her hair prettied up."

The ocean changes by the minute but stays the same. The lagoon freezes in winter and when you're a kid you can slide stones across it or pee yourself laughing at the sight of a long-legged dog chasing a stick. Mathew stares along the deserted beach, the collar of his duffel coat raised against the wind.

The memories are vivid, one after another, like a slideshow in his head. Maria running towards him, kicking sand, giggling. New father racing around the farm on his quad bike. New mother baking pikelets on the coal range. Farmhand with a knife on his belt, because if you fall into a pen, pigs eat you alive.

He and Maria, seven and four years old, with no family except for each other, shunted from one foster home to another until placed at Dumtin Bay.

"Good Lord! You've grown up!" Mathew said, when Maria walked in the door, later. "Five years ago, you were still a kid, with straggly hair, spindly legs and short pants!"

After dinner, Mathew and Maria walked through clover and cowpats to the beach and talked, sitting together on a driftwood log, swatting midges trying to fly up their noses or into their mouths. They watched as the sun sank into the sea.

"It's so sad," Maria said. "Dad's drunk most of the time these days and Mum's got worse. Plays with her pigs all day while the farm goes to ruin and they live off the benefit!" Maria raised her hands to her face. Mathew put his arm around her.

After a while, she blew her nose and turned to Mathew, her moist blue eyes glistening silver in the moonlight. "How can I think about leaving them after everything they did for us back in the day?"

Mathew squeezed her hand, stroking her hair and rubbing her brow. The idea flashed briefly into his head that if Maria were not his sister he could easily fall in love with her.

He kissed her on the cheek, humming softly.

Maria smiled through her tears. "Brothers last longer than lovers," she whispered, as if reading his thought.

"Still you and me against the world, eh?"

"The world? I'm trapped in our parents' world. You oughta escape while you can or you'll end up the same."

"The world's a scary place to be on your own, son," Oriwa had said, reaching across to grip Mathew's knee, just before they'd reached Dumtin Bay.

"Let me guess," Oriwa said, a week later, her fingers on the gear shifter, leaning forward across Mathew to look intensely at Maria. "This pretty girl is Maria and you two're going to flat together while you sort your heads out. You're going back to Medical School. And Maria'll train as a vet nurse."

She pulled out into the traffic and Dumtin Bay fell behind them.


  1. Good story. I enjoyed the strong sense of place, Mathew’s journey and the Maori trucker, who can almost be seen as a kind of spirit guide.


  2. This plays to my belief that a trucker would be a better shrink than a shrink. It bears repetition - people are who they are, not who we think they are or should be.

  3. Taut, tender and ultimately wise. Thanks,