Late Sunday afternoon. The town rose in slow motion out of the flat, endless wheat fields of the Wimmera, like a long tracking shot in a Terence Malick movie. A couple of grand-looking buildings came into view, boom era hotels wearing ostentatious iron lacework like a couple of ageing society dames. It's not until you get closer that you see the shuttered window, the gap in the wrought iron, the yellowing mail gathering in a dusty doorway. Nhill looks closed for business.
In the forecourt of a lonely silo next to the rail line a gaudy coffee caravan was touting for business, bizarrely contrasting the swapping fortunes of country and city commerce.
A Brunswick-style hipster coffee caravan in a place like this? It looked like an escaped animal from the zoo. Then it struck me. That crackly football broadcast on the radio in the middle of nowhere yesterday had been the Adelaide game – playing in Melbourne. Many of the Croweater fans make the journey by road, and Nhill is the halfway point. Accommodation suddenly looked scarce.
I saw the sign on the door as I walked into the manager's cabin in the caravan park. I hadn't noticed it until I pushed it open. It read No Vacancy. I stopped in the half-open door. A man was sitting behind a counter next to a small window.
"You just answered my question," I said to him.
"Hang on," he replied, and ran his hand down a list. "You could have cabin four. I'll do it for ninety." I paid up front. I wondered, why the discount?
The gaffer tape on the door of cabin four should have been a warning. The key stuck at first, but I managed to wrench the door open. It wasn't tracking properly. I walked into the smell of a month's worth of stale cigarettes smoked without any open windows. Had it been any earlier or had I not already paid, I should have moved on, but the task of negotiating an immediate refund this late in the day on the basis of cigarette smoke seemed too hard. So I opened all the windows instead. That got the smell out of the air but not out of the sheets or the blankets or the curtains of cabin four. I boiled the kettle to wash the dishes I would be using for dinner.
There was still an hour or two of daylight. We went our for some fresh air. We walked through the town, past the closed hotel. Further along were houses, some federation-style still well kept, others starting to look rundown, some actually vandalised if not abandoned. I noticed a couple of dishevelled characters who had not bothered to put on their Sunday best.
Back in the middle of town – literally at the parting of five ways – was a metal and glass extravaganza of a building, a postmodern marvel sparing no expense and looking like it embraced every sustainability refrain in the songbook. It probably even sucked the sun out of the wheat fields. It was the shire office. In that environment, it looked a like a space ship that had plonked itself in an alien zombie landscape of a B-grade 1950s sci-fi movie. A couple of the shady characters from the rundown end of town walked past, playing bit parts without realising it.
Back in cabin four, I boiled some pasta and cooked up a sauce, using the two of three burners that worked, and looked for a colander to drain the pasta. Nope. Not even a lid. I used a dinner plate held against the upturned pot and tried not to burn myself on the steam.
You can deal with gaffer tape and cigarette smoke and a stove with one burner not working. But then it was time for the children to go to bed. Right above the left upper bunk, growing downwards from the ceiling, was a thing. The thing was a bulbous growth, a mass of fungus, a mould about nine inches across and hanging down like a convex art deco light fitting. I hadn't noticed it earlier. You would have your face in it if you sat bolt upright in your sleep. It was green and hairy and it was directly above the pillow, where it might fall on you at three in the morning. We put the children in the other bunks; and we got out quick next morning.
Destination summary: In Nhill the shire officers seem to be doing alright for themselves.
Accommodation summary: Avoid cabin four at the Nhill caravan park. Cabins 1-3 and 5-10 might be palatial.
Phrase of the day: Nhill desperandum.