Martha Gellhorn said, in Travels with Myself and Another, that the root of any horror journey is boredom. I’ve had my share of horror journeys, and I can say with authority that the most execrable part of being stranded in the outback after a car crash is the hours of walking to get home. But at least then I was in forward motion. The only thing worse than a horror journey is going nowhere.
And so it was, in a hostel in Perth during a searing Australian summer, that I was going nowhere, and horribly.
I was waiting on a job, and my strict budget only permitted ramen noodles, three dollar wine and the occasional kebab. There was a group of us in the hostel who were waiting on work, or for something interesting to happen: myself, two German girls, our good friend Roy, a trio of Welsh kids on their gap year and a smattering of interchangeable backpackers that drifted in and out. Welcome to Western Australia: Wait around, because we’re a world away.
We congregated day after stifling day in the back section of the hostel: two and a half walls and three long, lumpy couches surrounding a dirty table. Some days, we were too lethargic to speak. We sat in familiar silence, sweating and staring absently, like cats. Other days, the conversation got weird.
“So that farmer I worked for, he had a litter of puppies,” said M., “well, his dog had the litter. Anyway, he said the puppies were useless and stupid, so he was going to drown them.”
“Jesus,” I said, “that’s like killing a baby because he can’t hold his head up on his own.”
“Yeah, right, like what a stupid baby, can’t even feed himself.” said A.
A newcomer we’d neglected to include in the conversation, a wiry Irishman with tattoos screaming from his biceps, said, “I’d kill a baby.”
The girls and I looked at each other with bulging eyes. M. clapped a hand over her mouth. The Irishman went on to say that if the baby was from the enemy side — he was fresh from a tour in Afghanistan — he’d have no trouble killing it. What he couldn’t abide was how the Australians shot kangaroos like vermin.
“Anyway,” said M., “who wants to go to the bottle shop?”
It might have been the next day or three weeks later; who can tell when all the days are the same and so fantastically boring that my memory rejected them, like an incomplete job application. At any rate, it was another day, and I was buried in a book when I heard an expletive floating out of the kitchen. That was nothing new, so I read on. Soon the kitchen sounded like it had been invaded by a mob of squawking and profane crows. I put down my book and went to see what the kerfuffle was about.
Someone had, over the course of one night, drunk five gallons of milk. Milk pilfered from the plethora of cartons in the communal fridges. Whoever it was had drunk all of the milk. The hostel was collectively outraged. It was one thing to nick a dollop of milk or butter or a slice of bread here and there. There is a kind of backpacker karma: one day you mooch, the next you give. But to drink five gallons of milk that is not yours? Unconscionable. And anyway, how is that even physically possible? He must have had accomplices. Or been tremendously high.
The surveillance cameras were consulted, but the milk bandit had remained in the blind spot and was unrecognizable. It appeared, however, that he had worked alone: only one shadow was visible on the cameras. Smart enough to avoid detection, and capable of drinking obscene amounts of milk… what kind of monster were we dealing with?
Over the course of the next few days, items continued to disappear. A whole loaf of bread. A Swiss army knife. One shoe. People started locking their things away and regarded each other warily, like circling coyotes. In the months I had been there, this was the first time we’d had trouble with theft from within the hostel. A chilly, Soviet-style pall fell over us. Everyone was ready to turn in their friends on a soupçon of suspicion. Only the trio of Welsh kids, usually chatty, fell silent whenever the milk bandit came up, which was all the time. The corridors were full of whispers: Did you see anything last night? I think somebody went through my bag. Where the fuck is my shoe? Who is this jerk?
Tension hung in the air like clothes on a line that morning. Roy stalked into the back room, his face dark and murderous, and announced, “I’m missing one hundred dollars.”
A collective gasp; more swearing; surly mutterings about punching the thief right in his larcenous face. Roy turned around and went back upstairs, to the dorms, leaving the rest of us to speculate and seethe.
Meanwhile, Roy had a plan. He was going to catch the bastard red-handed.
Whenever a person stays in a hostel for a prolonged period of time, he or she will snag a bottom bunk and drape that bunk in bed sheets; the pretense of privacy. This is just what Roy had done. When he sat within his makeshift tent, he had a clear line of sight to the cupboard at the foot of the bunk, but no one could see him. And thus, he sat and he waited. Like a lion in the grass.
Before long, a lanky figure came into the room and sidled up to Roy’s cupboard. Roy couldn’t see his face, and since many in the hostel were tall and awkward and pasty, it could have been anyone. The thief opened the cupboard, slowly and carefully, put his hand inside and withdrew a cigarette from Roy’s pack. Roy didn’t budge; a borrowed cigarette is the white lie of hostel crimes.
Ten minutes later, the figure returned. He went straight for the cupboard, more confident now, and used Roy’s deodorant. Roy shuddered. Still, not a large enough offence, so Roy remained quiet, holding his breath until the bandit with no boundaries left again.
Another ten or fifteen minutes passed, and the bandit crept into the room for a third time. Roy was sure he’d get him now. The thief once again went into Roy’s cupboard, pulled out a 5 dollar bill and slipped it into his pocket. Roy stepped out from behind the sheets and clapped the thief on the arm. “Busted.” he said, “now, give my money back.”
Roy returned to the back room wearing his aviator sunglasses, and he dropped down beside me on the couch with a smile. He told me that the owner of the hostel was kicking the milk bandit out as we spoke. “So, who was it?” I asked. Roy slid his sunglasses down his nose an inch and nodded his head toward the opposite couch. There were only two Welsh kids now.
* some details have been changed and names omitted, except for Roy, because he is a legend.