The car sputtered and jerked to a stop at the side of the highway. The needle of the fuel gauge flatlined under the “empty” mark. Cars and trucks thundered past, shaking the old car and its two passengers.
He sighed and quietly cursed, despondent. He’d hoped that the old car would have just enough fuel to get them home to the caravan park a few kilometres away.
The angry girl with him was predictably contemptuous. She told him with bitter words that this was his fault alone. He shouldered the blame, as usual.
He tried starting the old car again, hoping for a small miracle. No miracle came. He pulled the bonnet latch and climbed out. He peered into the oil-covered engine and poked at various components fruitlessly.
The sun was setting over the sugar cane fields. Soon it would be dark. The angry young woman hurled pointed words at him from the passenger seat like sharp little stones. The old car was too near the side of the road, but the shoulder was narrow and bordered by a steep embankment that fell to a swampy field. He couldn't push the old car to a safer spot.
He put his hand up to oncoming traffic, hoping that someone would pull over. Motorists zoomed by, averting their gaze, pretending not to notice him. To stop would mean taking responsibility for strangers when all they wanted to do was get home out of the heat. Nobody stopped.
He and the angry girl prepared to walk back to the caravan park. He felt defeated and broken, like the old car.
But, just before they started walking, a battered farm ute pulled up in front of the old car. A tall, happy young man in an Akubra as battered as his ute stepped out and asked if he could help.
He explained to the young farmer what had happened. The young farmer offered to go to his farm nearby and get some fuel for them.
Shamefaced, he admitted to the young man that he had no money and could not pay for the fuel. The young man shrugged and grinned and said that he could wait to be paid another day.
The young man drove them to his farm and filled a jerry can with fuel from the farm tank. The angry girl’s fury was suddenly hidden, and she was charming and a little flirtatious with the young farmer.
The farmer drove them back and poured in the fuel. The old car spluttered to life. He thanked the young farmer and shook his hand. He promised to come the next day when his unemployment benefit came through and pay for the fuel.
They drove off towards home. The angry girl was angry again. But, he felt filled with gratitude. The young farmer’s kindness had restored his hope, at least for now.
The next day, with cash in his wallet, he drove back towards the farm, intent on paying for the petrol.
He turned off the highway on the track that he thought led to the young farmer’s property. But, suddenly, an angry old couple — farmers too — stepped onto the track waving their arms. Get out, this is private property, they shouted. He tried to explain that he was here to pay for the fuel, but the angry couple seemed to know nothing of the event. The angry girl yelled, and the angry farmers yelled. He felt surrounded by anger.
He backed up the old car until he found a place to turn and headed back to the highway. Perhaps he had chosen the wrong track? The cane fields all looked the same. There were many tracks through the fields. It had been dark, and he hadn’t even asked the young man’s name.
He stopped by the highway, trying to remember where the right farm track was. The angry girl told him that they should forget about it because they needed the money for themselves. She told him that the young man’s family was probably rich and didn’t need the money anyway.
Reluctantly, he drove back to the caravan park. He vowed to go back another day and try to locate the young farmer.
But he never did.
The next day, he got a job picking pears in a far distant southern town, and they packed up and left.
The years rolled by. In due course, the angry girl departed forever in a cloud of contempt, and he started to feel happy and hopeful again. He met a wise and beautiful person, a soulmate who healed and completed him.
But, he often thought of the young farmer and felt filled with regret. What if the incident had somehow changed the young farmer? What if it had been the first small catalyst for a descent into cynicism and bitterness? Perhaps the young farmer has stopped trusting people because the strangers he helped one hot, dark night never returned as they promised? What if the experience had stolen the boy’s kindness away?
Perhaps, by not honouring his promise to return, he had caused the world to be a little darker and harder.
He’d tried to pay it forward many times. He gave money to charity when he could and helped people through his work and in other ways. But, somehow, it never felt that he’d satisfied his little debt to the universe.
He had strange fantasies at supermarket checkouts. Perhaps the harassed single mum ahead of him in the line would not have quite enough money to cover her purchases, and he could step in and cover the gap?
Perhaps he would get the chance to perform a brave and heroic act like stopping a predator from stealing away a young child or pulling an elderly neighbour from a burning house?
Perhaps, he would come across a couple broken down on the roadway and be able to finally return the favour given him so many years before?
But such opportunities never came.
In his heart, he knew that the young farmer had most likely forgotten the incident long ago. Perhaps, the young farmer — wise beyond his years — may have never really expected him to return with the money. He knew that, in the course of a lifetime, his failure was of no real consequence. But, it still hurt him and haunted him well beyond the event’s relative importance in the grander scheme of the Universe.
He wasn’t a spiritual person. But, he prayed to the Universe that the young farmer was living a full and happy life. He prayed that the farmer was still kind and thoughtful and felt joy in helping others. He prayed that the Universe had repaid the young farmer where he had failed.
Perhaps, the Universe seems to tell him after he prayed, if he could forgive himself for letting down the young farmer, the chance for redemption would finally come.