Red Centre tour guide and all-round top bloke Geoff pulled Possum the bulky 4WD in at a dusty service station. "We'll stop here for lunch, get some petrol and be back on board ready to go and see Palm Valley in an hour."
Lunch usually meant either sandwiches or a sausage sizzle and we got out the bread, cheese, sauce, fruit and salady things and set them out for self-assembly on a shady picnic table.
I had a hankering for a cold diet coke and Sapphire and I wandered into the shop inside. As our eyes struggled to adjust to the gloomy light, we found ourselves standing in front of a bloke who looked as though he'd eaten Santa Claus as well as all the pies. He eyed Sapph.
"Hey darlin, do you play the piano?"
She shook her head, "No."
We took a step closer to the deli counter.
"Hey darlin, would you like me to teach you how to play the piano?"
She shook her head again. "No thanks---"
He grabbed her shoulder. "Well take a seat right here---that's right by the piano, and let's get cracking!"
Her anxious blue eyes looked towards me for rescue but I was still trying to grasp whether he was insane, intoxicated or deaf to her answers. "OK darlin' just play anything you want."
Giving up on being saved by her own mother, she timidly started a few scales. Pretty soon, a dingo trotted up and rested its head on the seat next to her. Sapphire glanced down distractedly and the bloke said, "That's right love, keep it up."
The dingo then jumped up onto the seat and walked across the keys, howling. As Sapphire played, he howled, Ooooo wooooo, Ooooooo wooooooo!
The audience, a large group of Kiwi tourists waiting their fresh-from-the-freezer meals of chicken nuggets and crumbed fish, clapped in approval.
"What's your name, darl?"
Sapphire started smiling. "Sapphire."
"Well Sapphire, thanks for playing along. Dinky loves a good singalong and is famous all over the world, did you know that? Give her a hand, ladies and gentlemen - yep, just take a seat with your mother over there and I'll tell you a little bit more about Dinky...."
Dinky, clearly no stranger to Jim's talks, flopped onto the floor beside his bulky owner and fell fast asleep, paws twitching as he no doubt played the piano in his dreams. Or Jim's face: time would tell.
Half an hour ticked by. Our touring group were outside under a shady tree, eating sandwiches and fruit, chatting and laughing. Sapphire and I, on the other hand, were trapped.
Trapped and hungry, plonked in front row seats sniffing hot salty chips being eaten by tourists around us as we heard more about the exploits of Dinky's owner than we wanted to. He pointed to yellowing newspaper articles, postcards sent from 'fans from all over the world', read aloud some pertinent facts from an old childrens' book about Australia's wild dogs and shared with us the time he met two other dingo owners as they alighted from the Ghan in Alice Springs.
Jim's beer belly became strangely mesmerising as it jiggled precariously every time he raised his hands to enthusiastically point out another Dinky-related item he had previously staple-gunned to the wood-panelled wall. It reminded me of a walrus about to jump from the rocks into the sea, wavering, waiting for that perfect wave. How Jimbo could stand straight with all that fatty verandah leaning three feet in front of him was beyond my understanding.
My reverie was suddenly interrupted when Love Chunks's bemused face appeared pressed up against the spotted fly-blown glass window behind Jim. "What are you two DOING in there?" he mouthed. Behind him, our tour group were starting to pack up the plates, scraps and cups as Jim droned on: "Dinky has a few other songs in his repertoire and we've been approached to consider recording a CD......."
It was time. To do that thing that every front-row hostage dreads doing - get up to leave during a performance. I did some useless miming of pointing to my watch and then pointing outside, shrugging my shoulders in an exaggerated apology and dragged a red-faced Sapphire out through the screen door which banged loudly in offence.
Geoff's shoulders were shaking with laughter as he saw the 'What the hell...?' expression on my face. "Ah it was YOU that got it this time, eh? That's why I never go into the shop if I've got a tour group with some kids in it, mate. We eat lunch outside, use the loos at the back behind the petrol pumps and piss off before he nudges Dinky awake."
It was the only time that entire holiday that I wished I'd been childless.