As it turned out, fate intervened and I didn’t have to arrange for anything unfortunate to happen to Jackie. We had only just started our hike in the McDonnell Ranges when she remembered a phone call she had to make. We arranged to meet at a trail intersection later and she headed back to the visitor center to use the phone.
We didn’t see her again for four hours. Through some kind of colossal misunderstanding, which I swear I had nothing to do with, Jackie went to the wrong spot. Meanwhile, I had hours to get to know Claudia. I learned that she wasn’t just lovely, but smart too. (At 26, the leader of her own team of internal auditors at the biggest accounting firm in Switzerland. You want to know the location of every penny in your corporation? Just turn Claudia and her team loose for a few days and they’ll tell you everything you need to know. That dime you lost last week? It’s under the couch. Claudia knows.)
Brave too. It turns out I wasn’t the only one with the courage to go traipsing off to Australia all alone. A few months before I met Claudia her life was on a seemingly normal track. Good job with great pay and benefits. A boyfriend of six years to whom she was engaged. She was going to have a nice, comfortable, successful Swiss life. She and her fiancé planned the trip to Australia for their engagement holiday.
Then, for some mind-boggling reason, the durned fool up and decided he needed to date other women. He actually thought he could do better! (Idiot.) Brokenhearted, Claudia moved back in with her parents.
But something strange happened. Claudia decided she was going to go on the Australia trip anyway. Because, screw that guy. She’s brave and stubborn and she’s going to go anyway.
As the date approached, he suddenly woke up and begged her to reconsider. Maybe he’d made a mistake. She told him she’d think about it on her trip and he could ask her again when she returned.
Then she flew into Darwin, way up in north central Australia, where the winters are hotter than most summers in the Sahara, rented a car and started touring the country. Camping out and everything. On her own in the big, wild Outback. Because that just what bad-ass jilted Swiss girls do, that’s why.
When I met her she’d already been on the road for a couple of weeks and she was doing just fine. She wasn’t looking to meet me or any other man. She was just seeing the world.
I was just blown away. I’d come to Australia half-thinking I’d find myself a nice Australian lass like the other men in my family. Only it turned out they already had enough loud, drunken louts in their own country and they really, really weren’t interested in me at all. But somehow this incredible Swiss woman seemed to be. The world is full of mysteries. Go figure.
While chatting we decided that having a nice wine and cheese party that night would just be wonderful. (Wine and cheese are kind of the go-to party items for the Swiss.) Claudia being Claudia, she wanted to invite Jackie, Nick, Ivan—whoever wanted to come along. Knowing we were all basically penniless, she even offered to pay for it all. (She was collecting a pay check while on this vacation and her per diem was more than I was spending to live on each day.)
Somewhere along the way Jackie popped up on the trail, full of tales about being lost and bubbling on. But I wasn’t really listening. I was scheming. Claudia told Jackie about the wine and cheese and she was naturally enthusiastic. After all, she’d just spend 10 days in the Outback with three barely-civilized fools, eating canned food and bad Australian snags (what they call sausages).
As soon as I got a chance, I pulled Jackie aside. I knew where her weakness was. I knew how little money she had. You might want to pass on the wine and cheese, I warned her in my best friendly big-brother fashion. It’s going to be pretty expensive. (She doesn’t know how lucky she was, having me there to look out for her.)
Jackie made an excuse and one obstacle was out of the way. Ivan was nowhere to be found when we got back to town. I basically just threatened Nick with bodily harm if he showed his face anywhere near the picnic table at the allotted time.
So it was with great, albeit fake, regret that I showed up for the wine and cheese party alone. Claudia had bought quite a bit and was understandably somewhat dismayed by these unreliable people who kept canceling on her, but I consoled her in my own inimitable fashion and she seemed to get over it pretty quickly.
By the next day Claudia didn’t even attempt to invite the others along when we headed out for a picnic at the old telegraph station. We ate, sipped wine and then snuggled on a blanket for about four hours, barely talking, but communicating all the same.
And that’s when the wheels started to fall off. That’s when my carefully-laid plans to steal the lovely Claudia all for myself ran into the one thing I hadn’t planned for. In retrospect, I should have seen it coming. After all, it was obvious to everyone else.