Ali forbids me from driving to The Lonely Sock for laundry retrieval, so we pick up a taxi out front and make a roundtrip. The cabbie’s very chatty, a young man from Pakistan. The conversation’s all light until near the end of the trip, when he singles out all Somali youth as incorrigible. Not truly icky, but weird. So many factors at play. A&V repack and call for the automobile, pointing it to the northeast. We are heading to Echuca to spend the weekend piloting a houseboat on the Murray River. An hour or two into the trip, we’re famished. Ali spots a little café in a tiny, dusty town named Elmore. It’s called The Copper Kettle. The young couple have been operating for a month. Lunch is okay, but the two of them are disarming. He – diffident with a twinkle and German accent. She – all bustle with floury hands. Their handmade pennants fly from the arcade over the sidewalk and a small white car parked directly in front has “Brekkie” written on a chalkboard on its roof.
On we motor, ever-attuned to the continuing saga of Jim Holden and the frigate Rocinante hurtling across the Solar System. Prior to reaching the Port of Echuca we must stop and shop for a weekend’s worth of groceries – three dinners, three breakfasts, and two lunches – in preparation to be houseboat-bound for three days. We’re met at the wharf by a cheerful, efficient woman named Julie. All’s in order. Is it okay if we park the auto under the large eucalypts over there? We schlep our miscellany down to the Mayflower, a floating rectangle. After signing some kind of waver, a young man named Chris gives us a quick tutorial. The boat has a generator to charge the battery to run the systems, an independent water pump, and, of course, the goddamn ignition (what the key is for). He provides instructions on maneuvering, tying off to the shore, and, counter-counter-intuitively, motoring on the righthand side of the river. He hands me the wheel and vanishes. We’d been towing his getaway skiff. What’s to become of us?
Ali’s reaction to being cast adrift is to freak out, which flares for a while. She paces. She feels nauseous. But when she latches onto her father’s earlier egregious misrepresentation of himself, her mood brightens. I’d introduced myself to Chris as ‘Rob’, a name I have never ever used. “Rob? Rob? Where did that come from, Dad?” She remains, nevertheless, bummed. We cruise for a time, confused by the map they gave us and wary of oncoming river traffic, but jabbering continuously. The ‘Rob’ issue requires lengthy discussion. “Slow down, Dad.” I had been barreling along. “I mean … Rob.”
A good place to moor for the night appears and I bring the Mayflower in successfully. Two ropes, one at each corner of the ‘bow’ must be secured to trees. Now we can survey our lodging. The Mayflower is an exceedingly compact three-bedroom apartment. Two of the bedrooms contain queen beds and the other, a set of bunk beds. The queens fill the rooms so totally it will be necessary to stick one’s legs into the hallway in order to pull one’s pants on. This means we will use the bunk room as a dressing room. Up a flight of stairs is a covered deck, perfect for hypothetical relaxation. In the bow there’s an open space with a galley kitchen, dining table, and uncomfortable sofa. The helm with a chrome wheel is on the left side. Ali places the Royal Flying Doctor Service co-pilot koala on a shelf by the ignition.
Our bow is right up against an embankment of yellow earth, while across the river, distant hubbub rises from an elaborate caravan park. Two kids in funyaks paddle up to the Mayflower. Their intention is to assemble rows of lumps from the pale gray clay that runs in veins through the ochre dirt of riverbank. They’re chatty but focus intently on their blob project. We fix dinner, a rotisserie chicken and broccoli, then we pour the 1,500 pieces of the jigsaw puzzle out onto the glass-top table and commence edge-piecing. Twilight is painting the river with gold. “Shhh,” whispers Ali, “Look.” Ten yards away, three wallabies have come down to the river to pray.