The Amateur's Guide to the Art of Running Away - chapter one


There aren’t many things that are glamorous about living in a van. For one, when it rains, your world is a ten-square-metre box – a glorified coffin. Showering is at best a sponge bath. And the toilet? Let’s just say it’s wise not to be caught short.

It has its perks too, of course.

The one thing that makes it really magic – worth the fetid air on damp days, the scrubbing of underwear in the tiny kitchen sink because you haven’t made it to a laundromat – is the fact it’s a bed on wheels. If you want to wake up to the sound of waves rolling into a beach, or the view of a mountain range made golden in the dawn light, you can.

Just respect the rules.

By which I mean to say, this story might best be treated as a cautionary tale.

On the upside, my morning started well.

One of the Hemsworth brothers – the one who plays comic book demi-gods and hasn't been married to Miley Cyrus – had just licked my lip gloss off and crooked a finger around the elastic of my underpants.

"Ermff," I said against his mouth and pulled at the fabric tying my wrists to the headboard, the desire to touch becoming a panic-edged urgency.

His breath blew heavy and very hot across my lips and then he raised a hand and rapped a knuckle against my skull. Taptaptap. "Hello," he said, smiling down at me, "anybody home?"

I wanted to tell him that I couldn't have been more present. That there were several parts of me, and one in particular, that found his combination of tongue and digits electrifying, but it was a bit hard to reciprocate when trussed like a chicken about to be thoroughly stuffed and roasted.

I opened my mouth and my breath refused to pass through my voice box.

It was at this point, of course, that I realised I was dreaming.

I cracked my eyes to the light of the real world and groaned at the injustice of it. Not only was the encounter merely a fleeting brew from the id, I had the great misfortune of being woken right before the fire-work finale.

Beside me, a black snout loomed glistening and pitted, the hair around its mouth drawing in and feathering outwards on each breath.

I sat upright, the morning sun heating what little air remained in the van, and pulled the twisted sheets from my legs. "Jesus, Cerb, when did you last floss?" I patted my forehead, expecting my eyebrows to have been singed to stubble by the toxicity of his morning breath. They were there. If a little damp.

I rolled off the bed and attempted to suck in fresh air before I had fully cracked the sliding door.

A man stood on the other side of it, hand raised to knock.

"Fuck!" I said, sitting upright.

He took a step backwards. "Dan, actually. You OK? I heard moaning."

I turned to the tiny dog on the bed. The only thing that moved were his eyelids. He offered me one blink and no apology.

"Some guard dog you are." I took a deep breath and faced the stranger. "I'm fine, thank you. It was actually going to be a really nice dream until you interrupted it."

The stranger's – Dan's – mouth twitched at the edges. It was a nice mouth. Red-tinged, soft-curved. He shuffled his feet and scraped his boots on the gravel, which drew my attention to his legs. They were long with brown, shapely calves and fine hair that glistened gold in the sunlight.

He cleared his throat and I raised my eyes to his face, asking, "How can I help you, Dan?" as if I hadn't noticed a single thing about him apart from his name.

He slid his sunglasses from the top of his head and placed them on the bridge of his nose. "Nice view that," he said, jerking his head at the water behind him.

When the van's engine had threatened to overheat the previous afternoon, I'd parked in a gravel patch overlooking a small, deserted cove. The turquoise-green water and the bush-clad hills above it gave me a beautiful and somewhat private spot to camp for the night.

I had to agree with him.

"The problem is," Dan continued, "the freedom camping bylaw in this district only allows vehicles with on-board toilets to park overnight in non-designated camping areas."

I shifted my eyes from the shine on his strawberry-blonde curls to the logo on his collared T-shirt. Tauihu District Council. Shit.

Dan was a parking warden.

"Does it? I had no idea, sorry," I lied. I had an app on my phone that told me all the areas I could legally park overnight, district by district. I had decided to take the risk last night. The cove was too beautiful and the population in the area small and unlikely to police freedom campers. It was an underestimation that could cost me two hundred dollars if I didn't smooth-talk my way out of it.

From Dan's expression, he suspected I was very well aware of my bylaw transgression, that I had consulted my phone, as every young freedom camper in the country would, and arrogantly thrown caution to the wind.

"No cell phone reception," I said, patting the bed to locate the device and thrusting it at him to prove information retrieval was impossible.

"You should have done your research when you arrived in the district."

I slumped. "Right."

The dog nosed its way onto my lap and sought my hand for a pat. With his small features, crowded by crinkly fur, he had the teeth-clenching appeal of a puppy. It was excellent timing and the officialness of Dan's demeanour dropped away. He reached out a hand to stroke the top of the dog's head.

"What breed's your teddy bear?"

"He's either a Peekapoo or a Cockadoodle." I shrugged. "He was a hand-me-down."

The parking warden looked between me and the dog and back again, before throwing his head to the sky and laughing into its vastness. "Is the selection criteria for poodle cross-breeds the ones that make the most ridiculous name?" He dropped his voice to a whisper. "Does he know? Have you told him the embarrassing truth of his pedigree?"

I shook my head. "He thinks he's a Labrador. Kills with love, especially if you have food."

 "What's his birth name?"


"Cerberus?" He eyed the dog and pursed his bottom lip. "Man, you really lucked out."

"It's the three-headed dog in Greek mythology that guards against the dead from leaving hell."

Dan raised an eyebrow. "I take it the name's ironic."

"No no. Get close enough and his breath will melt your face off." I smiled at him. "Try it. I dare you."

Cerb leapt down from the van in a couple of bounds, sniffed the warden's boots and, satisfied, cocked a leg.

"Oh God, Cerb, please don't," I said at the sound of liquid hitting leather. I looked up at Dan. "You're going to give me a ticket, aren't you?"

"Yep." He pulled a handheld device out of his back pocket and watched Cerb's progress. Cerb stared into the distance, the puddle at Dan's feet inching towards his hairy paws. "How does that much pee fit into such a tiny animal?"

I sighed. "He's been shut in all night. I'm really sorry. Please don't give me a ticket because my dog's an idiot."

Cerb lowered his leg and bounded back into the van, burrowing under the blankets and letting out a contented wheeze.

Dan shook a boot. Then the other one. "I'm not giving you a ticket because of your leaky hell-hound." He pushed a button and the machine whirred into life.

I allowed my baggy T-shirt to slide down one shoulder and said, "Surely you don't have to give me one at all." I peered out of the doorway, turning my head from left to right. "No one here. No one to know."

Without looking up from tapping his entry into the machine, Dan said, "I think you should get out and have a look at your vehicle."

"Okaaaay," I said after a pause. I slid down onto the gravel and hoped my T-shirt was long enough to cover my underwear and that Dan, having noticed how close to naked I was, would forget all about the ticket. I needn't have worried. His eyes were still glued to the device.

I hobbled over to where he stood, the stones biting into my bare feet, and turned. "Shit."

The van had been covered in an array of angry messages in thin, wobbly writing. DEATH TO FREEDOM CAMPERS. TOURISTS GO HOME OR DIE.

"Seems your presence has been noted."

"Geez. It's a bit on the harsh side." I pointed to a slogan scrawled across the front window. "What does that mean? Rap in your own backyard?"

"Crap. 'C' must have slid off with the dew."

I gasped. "I've never poo-ed anywhere except in a toilet. I even bag up Cerb's prunes and dispose of them properly."

"It only takes one to ruin it for everyone else. What's your name?" Dan said, frowning at the machine.

"Oh, come on. You're not really going to go through with it?"

"Yep. It's my job."

"Fine," I sniffed. "Last name 'Yousef', first initial 'F'. The 'sef' is silent."

Dan said after a beat, "I'll just use your rego number, then."

I peered closer at the graffiti. It had a three-dimensional quality to it. "What is that?" I said, touching the lettering. It compressed under the pressure of my finger and bounced back when I lifted my hand away. "Party string from a can?"

"What they had to hand, I guess. Be happy it wasn't spray paint."

"Kind of undermines the brutality of the message."

Dan grunted. "I don't think anyone would have actually killed you."

"I don't know," I said, widening my eyes. "They could have strangled me with their bunting while I was fast asleep."

Dan snorted. "Or lobbed in a few party popper grenades." We shared a smile and just as Dan's mouth threatened to break into a tooth-revealing grin, a ticket printed from the end of the device.

"Fuuuuuck," I said, closing my eyes. "I'm going to count to three and when I open them, all this will be a strange and temporary segue from my Hemsworth dream."

Dan helped me count. Then passed me the piece of paper when I opened my eyes.

My insides clamped together when I read the infringement fee. Two hundred and fifty dollars. A week's worth of petrol and groceries. My lungs expanded with the high-pitched whine of a
pierced balloon.

There was no longer any point in feigning charming, sexy, or nice. I planted my feet and stretched my spine as far as it could go, then wished I hadn't. The gravel was sharp under foot and Dan was very tall. The degree to which I had to crane my neck to meet him eye-to-eye weakened any effect the confidence with which I presented myself might have had. "Some bloody welcome to the district. Thanks Dan. That's two hundred and fifty bucks the local businesses won't be cashing. Bit short-sighted of council to drive away tourists, isn't it?"

The corners of Dan's lips rose as he re-pocketed the ticketing machine. "You can pay online or at the council office in Waitohi. Info's on the reverse of the ticket." He stepped up to the van and gave the dog-shaped lump in the bed a single pat before retreating to his truck. "See you later, Severus."

"That's Harry Potter, Einstein," I said into the van's interior as I climbed in to find yesterday's clothes. "You're mixing your classics."

I slid the door behind me, slamming it home and twitching the already closed curtains more tightly together. Outside, Dan's utility vehicle turned over and rolled away with a crunching of gravel.

I yanked my jean shorts over the underpants I'd worn to sleep in and changed my t-shirt for the one crumpled on the floor. "Come on Cerb, let's find some breakfast and get out of this money-grabbing dump." Sliding over the front seats, I turned the ignition and depressed the accelerator. The engine rolled over sluggishly, then in a cloud of exhaust-fed smoke, the van shuddered out its death throe.