An English Visitor
Book 1- Crocodile Sprit Dreaming
An English Visitor
Copyright Graham Wilson 2017
BeyondBeyond Books Edition
This is a novel set in Australia’s Northern Territory, a place where I lived and worked for four decades; including in small towns, aboriginal communities, cattle stations and amongst the remote, rugged and beautiful natural places for which it is famous, the Uluru’s and Kakadu’s. These provide the background to this story.
This novel is a work of fiction. The characters are not real people. However, elements of stories have a real basis, as experienced by myself, or as stories of the bush, told around campfires or over bars, somewhere in the Australian Outback. While the general locations described around the Northern Territory exist, many finer details are not accurate; they are created as a canvass on which to paint the story.
Backpackers are part of outback Australia. Occasional horror stories occur and get wide coverage. Some, like the Joanna Lees story, or those awful deeds of Ivan Milat have contributed ideas to this novel. However these are rare events, as likely to happen in cities or other countries. They do not typify most people’s experiences.
The setting of this novel is an external frame for the story. It tells of a journey of two people through places and within themselves. In bad situations they do awful things, despite desiring goodness. This reflects the human experience where all of us have the ability to make terrible choices and do great evil if we cease to value life, but even the worst of people may have parts that are good and decent. This book also tells impossible love story, where love is destined for destructive failure.
Alongside this story of two people this book seeks to capture the essence of a place called the Northern Territory of Australia, the centre and north of the Australian continent. This land remains alive in my imagination from when I lived and worked in it. Despite the coming of modern civilisation; with roads, air transport, communication and comfort; the intrinsic character of this place, the ‘Territory’, remains little altered. It is what Ernestine Hill called, in her famous book of that name, ‘a land too vast for human imagination.’ Wildlife remains abundant. Stations still muster cattle and buffalo for a living. Aboriginal people live off the land, as they have done for millennia past. Stockmen tell tales around campfires, gazing in awe at immense star filled skies. This is a place where life moves slowly, as befits a land where time is driven by nature. Brilliant desert colours, huge tropical storms and endless emptiness live on.
My thanks to innumerable real characters of the Northern Territory who contributed to the making of this story, through lighting creative fires in my imagination through sharing their own stories and memories.
He stands apart, part hidden by the foliage of a tree.
He returned to Cairns, landing early this morning, after tracking down a man and taking him far into the Arabian desert. This was a man whose end came there, a fitting end. What little remains of him now, after the birds and jackals have finished their pickings, will be bleached into a white colour, a matching shade with the white sands, soon to be covered and hidden from sight within the ever shifting dunes.
He feels no remorse, only satisfaction at what he has done.
Now he is back in his home, this vast empty sweep of his own, familiar land with its odd fingers of civilisation like that here, a tourist mecca on the beach. It is a place of visitors, so very many visitors, many beautiful. He has known and sampled others alike to this one. Some have gone on their way; some have never left this land but become a permanent part of it, for some it was due to his actions.
He feels some regret at their passing, but it now feels separated from him by layers of far distance, the distances of time and loss and, moving beyond that, the distance of new experience.
And now he desires another. He has just seen her, right now, standing on the beach. She appears like some he has known before, breathtaking in her beauty and naivety. He senses a wanton abandon in her as he gazes, distant through the tree. He sees her dipping toes in wavelets, dark hair flowing back over and behind her arched body, like a Greek goddess. He senses she is ripe for the taking; that she will come willingly with him if he but asks, hungry for other experiences and adventure. He must be more careful this time lest some new bad thing happens. He feels she is precious and breakable.
Susan woke up with jolt, feeling she had been wrenched back into consciousness. Her head had slumped into an uncomfortable position and her neck ached. The large woman squashed into the seat next to her seemed to have given her a nudge to stop Susan falling onto her; not exactly friendly. But then she had barely spoken to this lady in the last fourteen hours, during which time they had sat side by side on the aeroplane.
Since Susan had come back onto the plane in Singapore, their one stopover after Darwin, it was like she had retreated into a cocoon. She had done little more than sleep the hours away, with occasional brief interludes for loo breaks and food, before retreating back to a respite of slumber.
She felt totally disorientated. Here she was, on a plane approaching London, and a month of her life had vanished into nothingness. Gradually her mind pulled her back to fragments of those last awful days; a memory of a smiling man’s almost handsome face, but devoid of normal emotion, memories of crocodiles, blood and torn body parts, memories of a large white four wheel drive with a built in cooler on the back. She suppressed them with a shudder.
She looked around. It could not be far now; people were waking up and making preparations for a scheduled 6 am touch down at Heathrow. Some had raised their slide windows; and early morning grey daylight squeezed in through the gaps.
Breakfast was now being served. She felt ravenous. A few minutes later, when the croissant and scrambled egg breakfast was served, she ate with relish.
There was urgency as stewards quickly removed breakfast trays.
Now the plane was in final descent. She raised her own plastic slide. It was mostly grey outside. They were flying under a blanket of cloud, but with lighter sky to her left and behind her; she supposed this was southeast England, somewhere over Kent. They were scooting over farmlands, roads and villages, lush green in the grey light. Further away were glimpses of busy roads and large towns. The grey matched an unquiet anxiety within her. Was it really over and was she was safe home? Or would police be waiting for her at the arrival gate?
Suddenly a shaft of sunlight pierced through. It lit up the countryside with glowing gold light. Her mood soared with the light. It was as if a connection with the horror was broken by light. She could feel herself smiling all over. She could not suppress the joy she felt. She was alive, and her life would be good again.
How great it would be to see her family and friends again. None of them need ever know. She had made a visit to Australia, travelled around, seen interesting and beautiful places; that was her story. If asked whether she would like to go back, or where to next, she would say, It is good to have done the trip, but the travel bug is gone. Now I am happy back home.
Her fellow traveller alongside her must have caught something of her musing smile. Susan looked at her and the lady smiled. Susan smiled back; joy is an infectious thing.
The lady, Annabel—she now remembered that was her name—seemed friendly. Susan knew that it was she, herself, not this lady, whose demeanour had changed. She let herself be drawn into a conversation about trips and travel. She explained that she had been exhausted from her trip, but now she felt much better, after that long, long sleep.
Soon they were making a final approach. There was a slight jolt and body push as the airliner braked on the black tarmac.
She felt amazingly refreshed and confident. It was like a bad dream had ended with the morning sunshine—those anxieties belonged to another time and place.
She gathered her minimal possessions—an overnight bag, book, cardigan, purse—and followed the slow procession of departing passengers down the aisle and out to the concourse. She wondered who would be here to meet her, Mum and Dad of course, perhaps Tim, her gawky brother, maybe Gran Elizabeth.
Suddenly there they all were; all her family members as expected. She rushed into an overwhelming group hug.
“How brown you are!”
“How’s my girl?”
“Hi Sis, no new Aussie boyfriends in tow?”
“You look at bit drawn around the eyes dear, must be all the bright sun and late nights.”
A bit of surprise arose with no big bags of luggage. But she had this story worked out.
“It went missing on the last leg of my trip. I only noticed getting off the bus, arriving in Darwin. Didn’t have time to try and find it before my plane left. I’ll make some calls as soon as I get the chance!”
They drove home, to Reading, through the increasingly lumpy early morning traffic.
Her room was just as she had left it—was it really only four weeks ago?
Her Dad had bacon and eggs sizzling away, they sat around over coffee and chatted. She told stories of her first two weeks—the reef, Sydney, Melbourne, but not much about the trip through the outback. It did not matter, plenty to tell before then.
Then it was time for Tim to head off to Uni. Mum and Dad both needed to get to their work, just a bit late. Dad said he would drop off Gran to her own house on the way, as Susan would want to sleep off her jetlag.
As she watched the last car turn out of the drive onto the suburban road, Susan felt her forced gaiety draining away. She went to her room, sat on her bed and picked up her favourite childhood teddy; so soft, so same, so stable.
Her body shook as a creeping horror and numbness washed over her. Then came tears streaming silently down her face. Soon her whole body was convulsing in wracking sobs. She hugged her teddy and sat there. After ten minutes the emotion subsided.
She went to the bathroom and ran a hot shower, shampooed her hair and washed herself all over, then did it a second time for good measure. She dried her hair standing in a bathrobe, made up her face and found her sassiest outfit: tight jeans and a sparkling top.
She opened the overnight bag that had accompanied her back from Australia. She removed a book, wrapped in a hankie, and a heavy small cloth pouch which clinked. She placed these under her jumpers in the bottom drawer of her dresser.
Susan looked at her underwater camera, the only item she still cared about that remained in the bag. It held a handful of photos on the memory card from her trip, as well as others from other trips and dives. She felt that she should throw it out, but then this camera held a big chunk of her past life and she loved it. So she decided to keep the camera but ditch the memory card. She took the memory card out and put the camera back in its normal place in her drawers. She slipped the memory card into her purse; she must copy any photos she wanted before she threw it away.
Then she found a large empty rubbish bag. Susan placed the overnight bag, with all its contents, inside and tied the top shut. She went to the garage, where her Ford Fiesta was parked, and put this rubbish bag in the boot. Tomorrow, it would go into an industrial bin at her work, the place where the lab samples went for incineration. This would bring an end to those last fragments linking her to that last month of her life on the other side of the world.
She was OK; today was a glorious English summer day and she was going out into it. She would enjoy the first day of the rest of her life. The other was a past and finished visit to another place.
She had closed that book. Now she would put it away, behind all the other stories of her life, at the back of the very highest shelf, unseen and forgotten. She intended to leave it there, never to be taken out or opened again.
She pushed back into her airline seat and stretched. There was something delightful in finally being airborne and on her way. She felt like a kitten, unwinding her body into the warm sunshine, after having drunk a bowl of warm milk. The gin and tonics in the departure lounge were also helping to create this euphoric feeling.
Now she felt like she was really on a holiday and going to a fantastic, exciting, unknown new place—all by herself. There was something about doing it all on her own that was especially important to Susan. It was like a growing up ritual. But why was she thinking about growing up? She was twenty-four and had not lived at home, until recently, in more than two years.
Anne, Susan’s best friend, had offered to juggle her own holidays and come along too, but she knew that Anne already had her heart set on going to Greece with her boyfriend, James. Susan had insisted that Anne not change her plans. She wanted to do this trip by herself.
For four years it was as if Susan’s life had been taken over by Edward, her former boyfriend. They’d met in first year university; they had done history and archaeology together. They had just clicked; he the languid, tousled blond man with the slightly posh accent—as if he had gone to Eton; and she, the well read and exuberant daughter of professional working parents.
Edward’s father was a stockbroker in financial London and he had followed his family’s business flair with an Arts-Commerce Degree, focused on Commerce, with some psychology, history and archaeology thrown in.
Susan had studied Science, focusing on medical technology, but with an Arts anthropology and archaeology sideline. It was something to do with her fascination with early human history and civilisations and the way these societies had adapted to diseases and environmental catastrophes. She remembered, as a child, being fascinated by the Attenborough-Leakey stories of ‘Out of Africa’ and how the early humans moved across and colonised the world.
Really, she would have loved to go to Africa, perhaps Kenya or South Africa. But she had decided, with the stories of crime and violence, this was a step too far for a single woman’s first solo trip abroad. She didn’t want to give her Mum and Dad that sort of worry.
So Susan had turned to Australia, a country that held an almost equal fascination for her. The strange animals, the 50,000 years of aboriginal history, plus the Barrier Reef, diving, rainforests, and all those fabulous New Years pictures of Sydney Harbour Bridge, alive with fireworks.
And she knew it was a safe place to go. The people all spoke English—they had mostly come from her home country—and she liked the laid back laconic humour of the Aussies who frequented London pubs. It felt right. Sure there was the occasional story of backpacker murders and things like that. But she knew she was too smart for getting suckered like that.
Susan let her mind drift back to the last few months: she and Edward, living together, in their small north London flat, half an hour from her work. After university it seemed like the right thing to do, so they just did it. While they never really talked about it, it seemed like their life would go on linked together—in due course marriage, children and a settled life.
She had thought she loved that image, but then, deep inside, there had always been a slight restless streak in her. Perhaps it was that Edward was a bit of a snob. He didn’t like it when friends called him Ted or Eddie. Also, while he was very attractive, she did not think he was very manly. Edward was quick-witted with clever words. He was smart around money, with impeccable taste. But he was not very adventurous, not wanting to experience life beyond the normal bounds. At first it really did feel good together; nights in pubs, dinners with good wine and food, talk of success in their investments, trips to Europe and enjoying the good things of London. And their sex life had been great for the first year they lived together, lots of it and wild.
But then, as they each started to forge their careers—she as a medical technologist in a large hospital and then in a commercial testing lab; and he as a rising business man who looked likely to follow his father’s stockbroking career—they seemed to drift apart. They were often both working late, and while there was still sex, plenty of it, there was less real tender lovemaking. And there were the growing niggles that came from friends and families with different interests. However, she hadn’t thought there was a major problem.
One day Susan noticed a slip of paper lying on the bedroom floor. It seemed to have fallen out of his wallet. On it was written “Eva” and a mobile phone number. It was not a name he had ever mentioned before. It seemed a bit odd. There were also times when there seemed to be a strange perfume smell about him. But he worked in an office with lots of women, so she supposed that was to be expected.
What really pissed her off though was that he was such a good liar. She had asked him the next day who Eva was. Without batting an eyelid he told her a story about a girl in another group who he had worked with on a couple business deals, how he had needed her number to hand in their final stage negotiations. It all sounded totally innocent.
But then Susan met the real Eva. She was lying on her back, in their double bed, with Edward’s naked body on top of her, moaning as Edward said her name in passionate grunts.
Susan had stood, open mouthed, too stunned to say anything. Then, finally, Eva’s eyes turned her way and she gave a little scream. There were no introductions but the identity was obvious.
Edward had climbed off her, silent, looking almost proud of his erect member. Eva at least had the good grace to look embarrassed, trying to cover her blond bimbo dolly face and small, full-breasted body. After a few seconds of stunned silence, Susan turned, closed the door and walked out of the flat.
That was the last time she had seen him. The next day, when Susan knew he was at work, she went to the flat and collected all her things. She left a one-line note on the table, “Don’t ever come near me again.”
Then she went to the bank, closed their joint account and cancelled their combined credit cards. She bought a new mobile phone, with a new number, and changed all her web logins and passwords. That was that; life together finished.
Susan hadn’t gone into details with her parents; she’d just said that they’d split up. Her parents accepted her back with a minimum of fuss. She took her old room, which was now the spare. She found all her old soft toys in the cupboard and re-installed them in their favourite places—best of all was her big soft teddy who, from her earliest memory, sat on her pillow. When Susan had left home she’d forgotten and neglected him; now he seemed to give her a genuine welcome home each day.
Mum and Dad were busy with their own lives. Mum was a senior lecturer in the medical school at Reading University, where her brother, Tim, was a student. Her Dad was a top level public servant to the government, in No 10, with a daily city trip on the fast train to Paddington, or sometimes, for big occasions, a chauffeur. However, despite his high role, he preferred ordinary things: a train to work, a beer at the pub, and the great outdoors.
Some of her best childhood memories were going hunting or fishing with him in Scotland where her cousins lived on a farm in the Highlands. They would make a summer trip for a couple weeks, as well as going at other odd times throughout the year.
Her father particularly loved to take her with him in the autumn, when the leaves were golden. They would head off, his gun in hand, hunting pheasants, grouse, rabbits and sometimes deer.
They would walk for miles across the high heather, plunging into glens, dark and mysterious. Sometimes they made a big fire out of turf and almost-dry branches, which smoked then burned brightly, while they roasted rabbit and ate it with their hands.
These were warm memories. Now he was like a rock; he didn’t say much, but was in her corner. With Mum and Tim she would talk about ordinary life, but Dad was just there.
Edward made a few attempts to contact her, but Susan told her parents she wouldn’t take his calls and that she didn’t want to see him.
One day Edward came to the door with a bunch of roses.
She heard her father say, “Lad, are you a bit thick? Can’t you tell she doesn’t want to see you?”
Some smart arsed reply came back.
Then, “If you come again I will wipe that smile of yer pretty boy face.”
After Dad had closed the door, Susan hugged him fiercely. His normal mild manner was creased in a scowl and he muttered, “Fucking wanker. Good riddance,” before he returned the hug. She knew then that he had never really thought that Edward deserved her, but had refrained from saying so.
After this she got one letter from Edward. She burned it, unopened, and that was that. So much for a relationship that had consumed over four years of her life.
With Edward gone, her life felt very hollowed out, but she buried herself in her work and gradually started to re-connect with old friends. Three months after the break-up, Susan was looking at a couple mags, one with pictures of an African safari and one with sparkling photos of the Great Barrier Reef.
That was it, that night after several hours of Googling she had plans made. Next day she booked her holidays and flights. Now, a further three months on, she was on her way, four glorious weeks in Australia: first the reef, then Sydney, and lastly the outback.
Susan felt, deep down, that this was something she had waited to do all her life and, that when she came back, she would have really grown up and have left those bad memories behind.
The one thing that she had really missed in the last few months though was sex. Susan felt like she wanted to meet a real man. Perhaps she would meet an Aussie bloke, someone rough and tough from the outback and this part of her would come alive again.
She stretched out again, ran her hands through her thick black hair, feeling herself purring like a kitten, all warm inside at the thought.
Susan had loved her day in the air. It had been a total chill out after the dreariness of English weather. She had felt cold to her bones, when outside, and roasted in the overheated labs and family house after she had left Edward.
Then, just as spring was beginning, the idea for a holiday had come. It was like a light turned on in her brain, something to look forward to and focus her daydreams on.
But it was another three months of hard work until she was free to leave. Endless hours spent getting reports up to date and cross-checked on thousands of laboratory sample test results. Computers were fine, but real human brainwork was required to interpret decisions on many findings. No one could delegate her responsibility to review these reports. Not to mention validation and quality control for the laboratory, done behind the scenes.
As she ground her way through this work Susan longed to be in the outdoors, relaxing in comfort. She would picture herself walking along deserted beaches, sand and warm water squelching between her toes, blue sea, gentle waves and shady palms along the edge. It was a romantic and exotic mind space that she used to feed her motivation.
Once airborne Susan let all that English dullness slide away. She watched movies, she flicked through magazines with those same holiday destination pictures she was dreaming of, read cheap trashy novels of others’ adventures, and chatted to passengers. Most were heading out for similar adventures that she felt sure would come her way.
Sometimes Susan just sat in solitude, enjoying the splendid isolation of being herself; alone, nothing to do, no-one to answer to.
The pilot announced that they were half an hour out of Cairns and beginning their descent. The route south from Japan would bring them over the reef with sights of the corral atolls.
Susan pressed her nose to the window and marvelled at the white sands, little islets and the multicoloured waters they passed over, starting as tiny dots in a picture book image; then, as the height stripped away, they became clear and sharp. She was able to make out tiny waves and occasional boats.
The plane banked hard and turned into its final approach. Susan was now looking at dark green forest-covered mountains, with flashes of water in streams and falls. This view too fell away as they settled into their descent. Glimpses of roads and ordinary houses flashed past as they came over the tarmac and landed with barely a bump.
Cairns was less hot than Susan expected, but then she remembered it was winter here. As she stepped out of the airport building, wearing a short sleeved top and light skirt, she felt a warm breeze caress her skin. It was good to be here, almost dreamy good, but with that light buzz and thrill of anticipation that comes with new discovery.
There were innumerable backpacker buses, all touting their wares, along with taxis and regular shuttle busses to the city, but the day was still early so Susan felt no hurry.
While Susan inclined to do the backpacker thing, she knew she could well afford a hotel for a night or two. She liked the idea of a bit more solitude yet. It was barely 11 am, so she had the whole day to sightsee and look around before she needed to find a place to stay.
Susan caught a shuttle bus to the city centre. By the time she arrived there she had decided that a hotel for two nights was the way to go. She booked herself into a mid-range discount offering: two nights with breakfast thrown in for only 100 pounds. That was all she needed, her base.
She left her bags and set out walking along the fringing beach promenade past the city, barefooted with sandals in hand. Before long a side path led her to the seashore. Susan found herself standing in clear water, the waves frothing and bubbling as they spilled over white sand. Wavelets washed around her ankles and little fish nibbled at her toes.
She stood soaking it in for some time. Then, as the sun was starting to burn into her fair English skin, she decided it was time to go uptown for ice cream, sun-cream, reef tour booking and lunch, in that order.
She gazed out across the low sea horizon for one final minute of enjoyment, before running her fingers through her abundant black curly hair. She felt in her bag for a hair tie; then a second thought, I am free, let it be free too.
Back on the promenade, a solitary tall figure could be seen, also gazing out to sea through a filter of green leaves. Susan felt unspoken kinship, stranger to stranger.
Walking leisurely along the foreshore Susan passed an ice-cream stall. She bought a double mango and cream in a cone and continued on her way, licking at the ice cream as it melted and trickled over her fingers.
Susan stopped in front of one of the innumerable tour shops, complete with big gaudy posters of ‘Green Island Underwater Coral Viewing’, ‘Jet Cat Outer Reef Tours’, ‘Michelmas Cay by Sail’, ‘Steam Trains to the Rainforest’, and so on. She picked up a handful of brochures and sat on a shady bench outside to peruse them while she finished the last of her ice cream. She licked off her fingers, finishing those last delicious drops and read what was on offer.
There was too much information; confusing to someone who barely knew the time of day out here, so she went inside seeking assistance. A helpful guide suggested that, with only two days in Cairns, an outer reef tour for day one and a train trip to Kuranda for day two was a good plan. He also booked her a bus ticket on to Townsville after the train returned on the second day. From there she could catch the Magnetic Island ferry.
Her idea to go to Magnetic Island first came from reading about it in Captain Cook’s discovery voyage. Then a girlfriend told her about this same quiet island where she had a lovely few days in a backpacker hostel, sitting right on the beach, including meeting a hot German tourist. Perhaps a place to start her own love life again, or at least relieve that ache of desire, which sprung up when she thought of Edward—the bastard!
As she left the tourist shop she was vaguely aware of a tall man, with a distinctive eagle motif cap and sunglasses, brushing past her. Susan, abstracted by her thoughts, imagining her travels, barely looked his way.
A steak and glass of wine were her lunch at a local café. They left her feeling warm and sleepy. She made her way back to her hotel and fell onto the bed in her cool shaded room.
She woke as dusk was falling; she blamed jetlag for her three hours of afternoon sleep. She felt mussy and her mouth was dry. Susan found a mineral water in the bar fridge and went onto the balcony while she sipped it in the dusk. Susan decided to pass on going out tonight, as she planned to be early away to the reef, and the bed had felt so good.
The bathroom had a Jacuzzi style bath in front of a large mirror. She eyed it thoughtfully then let the taps run. When it was half full of steaming water, Susan took a bottle of sparkling wine from the fridge and filled a glass with bubbles. She tossed off her light dress and knickers and stood, examining herself in the mirror.
Thick dark wavy hair framed her fair English complexion. Oval face, small nose and pointed chin. She was of average height, as a teenager she’d wished to be taller, but she liked her body now. The smallish well-shaped breasts, round hips and slender legs drew occasional catcalls, particularly from behind, when she walked down the street.
Most striking were her pale blue eyes, a Nordic feature that did not quite gel with her Mediterranean hair. They were the colour of a milky blue tropical sea—this morning’s sea. Her more poetic friends said the colour was that of an English summer sky bathed in bright sunshine. Men loved her eyes. Perhaps a Spanish sailor, wrecked with the Armada, had found his way into the family Anglo-Saxon gene pool. She did not think herself riveting, but liked the package and felt good about herself.
Susan was never short of men trying it on; but that meant men liked only one thing she had to offer. She wanted a bit more depth. In hindsight, her relationship with Edward had a big shallow edge. Still, for now, a man to pleasure her would suffice. Deeper things could wait.
Before she stepped into the bath, she rang room service and ordered salt and pepper squid—the house specialty. On being told of a half hour wait, she plunged into the bath. Water up to her neck, Susan lay dreaming as she glanced through mags with pictures of rainforest, fish, exotic animals and Sydney Harbour Bridge. The bubbles of her wine slowly fizzed on the tip of her tongue.
Before she knew it the bell rang for room service. Susan dried quickly, donning a bathrobe, and then the door was opened and food brought in. By the end of dinner she was struggling to stay awake, that cursed jetlag, but what the hell. Leaving the plates, she cast her bathrobe aside and fell, naked, onto the bed and into a deep dreamless sleep.
She woke, cold, at 3 am. She snuggled under the covers with a novel until faint light on the horizon told her the new day was come. She stood on her balcony watching the sky go through its colours, deep purple with pink edges, then reds and oranges, and finally that brilliant gold as the sun burst over the horizon, somewhere far out in the Pacific Ocean. It offered the promise of excitement for a brand new day.
She had a quick shower then found her bikini, the pale blue skimpy one that Edward had bought her on a trip to Greece. He had loved it because he said she looked “So-o Sexy” and it particularly matched the colour of her eyes, it was the almost cornflower blue of a tropical sea, the one thing from him that she still had. She liked it and would keep it.
Susan admired herself in the mirror. She had to admit, even if she felt vain for thinking it, that she did really look good in this bikini, it worked for her. She liked the idea of being eye-catching for handsome blokes on the reef tour. Then, feeling a self-conscious at the direction her imagination was taking, she put on a T-shirt and shorts.
She came down at 7 am to the breakfast café in the hotel lobby. Boat departure was 8:30, so she ate well, but with purpose—resisting the temptation to dawdle over the papers.
Soon she was heading out, with an underwater camera and backpack of tourist accessories.
Susan had gained her diving qualification with Edward in the Mediterranean. Now diving was a great love, that separate underwater world, completely removed from all else.
On the wharf she joined a hundred other passengers milling around. Someone checked her ticket and asked her whether she wanted to participate in snorkelling or scuba diving. She said yes to both, and her name went on the list for the second dive.
Soon they were motoring slowly across the glassy water of the sheltered bay. The captain came over the intercom giving an outline of their day: an hour and a half to the outer reef where the best coral was to be seen, five hours of free time to swim, dive, and enjoy, home by 5 pm.
Everyone was fitted with masks and flippers. For the divers there was a check of existing qualifications and an introductory brief to the day’s dive from their dive master. It was followed by an instruction to assemble on the back deck at 11:15 for an 11:30 dive.
Now, outside the port, the jet engines powered up to a throaty roar. The Jet Cat surged across the wave tops of the half metre south-easterly swell. Susan felt the wind and salt spray whip her face. It was exhilarating and felt good to be alive.
The intercom announced that tea, coffee and biscuits were available, along with reef videos to show people what they may see. Susan was so absorbed by videos of fish and corral that she barely noticed the trip or the other guests. It seemed too soon when she felt the motors slowing as they nosed into their pontoon; it was arrival on the outer reef.
She had an hour for a snorkel before she had to be back for the dive. She was almost first in the water. The tide was low. She felt protected in the shallow water around the fringing reefs.
Susan kept the boat in sight and slowly worked her way around, trying to identify and keep a count of the myriad different fish types she saw. She was blown away by colour. She loved the different corals and the homes they formed for fish. The highlight was a large stingray, more than a metre across; it slowly flapped on its way above the sandy sea floor, stirring up little sand eddies in its wake. Then, seeing the divers from the first group returning to the boat, she realised her hour must be almost gone. She swum back and boarded.
There were two instructors and ten divers in her group. They were broken into groups of two, buddies for the dive, to stay together and watch out for each other. Her buddy was a lanky man, probably in his early thirties, lean and fit without the body builder look.
“Hoho,” he mumbled, as he fumbled with his snorkel fitting, “I’m Mark.” He held out his hand and she grasped it, a firm strong hand, callused from manual work.
“Susan,” she replied. She liked his smile, friendly and composed, not trying for over-the-top charm excess, a person who kept his own counsel. She thought the accent was probably Aussie—not really definite; perhaps he had lived or worked elsewhere.
“Have you done this before?” he asked.
“Yes,” she said, “got my ticket in the Med a couple years back. I love it. You?”
“A long time ago, so I am a bit rusty. Looks like you will be bringing me up to date.”
They went off the boat deck into the water, a second apart. They swam side by side, following the lead instructor a few metres ahead. They swam slowly, slowing their breathing to an even pace as they relaxed. Mark waved to her and she signalled back, “All good.”
The instructor pointed to his left, down into a big hole in the reef, where there was a huge cod, guarding his patch. Small brightly coloured fish swam around its massive head, staying just out of reach. Susan felt her face break into a smile at the cheekiness of the little fish. Mark seemed to be grinning too. They swam on. She noticed a disguised power in his long body; he diverted slightly then rocketed back towards her with powerful kicks.
The hour passed much too fast. It seemed only minutes before they were back at the boat. But wow, so much to see in this place: turtles, huge reef fish lazily working around the deeper holes, a group of white tipped reef sharks scouting the reef’s edge, and so, so many brilliant fish and corrals. She completely lost count of all their types, but just loved it all.
Susan could not help watching Mark as he pulled off his wet suit top. He had lean hard muscles and a scar, several inches long, running high across his back and shoulder. She turned away before he looked around, putting her own gear in the tub.
Then he was standing alongside her, and he looked at her. “Don’t know about you, but I am starved. Are you travelling with others or do you want to join me for some lunch?”
“No, just me, yes let’s have lunch.”
They both piled plates high with prawns, ham, salad, and bread rolls. They found a table with two seats facing. For the first few minutes they were both too hungry to talk, as they crammed their mouths.
Then she noticed he had stopped eating. She looked up from a huge bite as he smiled. The smile crinkled around the edges of his eyes. Captured in that moment he was striking.
“Looks like you needed that; must have been even hungrier than me,” he said.
Her mouth was too full to reply. She pointed to her mouth and they both laughed.
Soon they were both talking together, the way complete strangers do, exchanging details about lives, trips, plans, work; he said he had just come across from the Kimberley after a stint in the mines.
It appeared Mark was a jack of all trades: stockman, miner, bush mechanic—mostly in the outback but he knew big cities like Sydney and Melbourne as well. He had also spent time overseas, in the Middle East and Africa, but with a couple trips to Europe and England. So now the accent made sense.
He seemed warm and personable, but there was also a hard edge to him, something she could not fathom—not quite dangerous, but at the far edge of unpredictable wildness. Before their meal had finished she had told him briefly about her breakup with her boyfriend in England, and that this trip was part of getting on with her life, just her alone.
He said he’d always found he moved around too much to have long term steady girlfriends, but who knew, perhaps the right one would turn up, and he would find himself settling down. In the meantime there was so much to see and do.
Susan found herself really liking something about him; it drew her in like a magnet. Perhaps it was his understated way, his willingness to go anywhere and do anything, not tied to rules. He wasn’t classically handsome, but a raw vitality came from him that Susan found winsome and appealing. She also sensed a resilient tough independence, as if here was a man who took hard knocks and bounced up with an undiminished life force. She liked the way he told his stories with an edge of sardonic humour, hidden behind a slightly weather-beaten face and a self-deprecating grin.
As they were finishing lunch she got into a conversation with another girl, sitting by herself at the table next to them. She was English and her name was Maggie. The two of them had the same English humour and soon were swapping stories of London. Mark drifted off; he seemed to have lost interest in being part of this conversation. There was something solitary and a bit asocial in the way he just got up, left and moved away.
Then it was time to go back in the water; she and Maggie had agreed to go snorkelling together. As they came out of the lunchroom, Mark was on the back boat deck. They smiled to each other and she told him their plans, half expecting him to offer to swim with them. He nodded and went off in a different direction, apparently content to do his own thing.
She didn’t talk to Mark again that afternoon, just a brief nod as they departed their own separate ways. She felt faintly regretful, she was sure if Maggie had not been there they would have continued doing things together for the day. She felt a definite spark of mutual interest and wondered what might have been.
But she and Maggie really hit it off. They had both come out from England for a short holiday. Maggie had another friend, Jane, who had come with her. They had separated for this leg and would meet again in Alice Springs next week to go on together to Darwin and Kakadu. In the meantime Maggie was backpacking in Cairns before going to the Daintree in two days and travelling on from there.
Susan and Maggie arranged to meet for a drink, in a bar they both knew, an hour after the boat returned. After a quick shower at her hotel she put on a fresh dress: light but classy, and suitable for day or night, then headed out.
Sure enough, Maggie was there having a drink with two others from her hostel, Ryan and Trish, who seemed to be an item. Drinks became dinner.
Well into the evening, after a night of wide ranging conversation, lubricated by many drinks, Susan and Maggie discovered they were both going to Kuranda on the train the next morning. Mobile numbers were exchanged, and an arrangement was made to meet up on the platform before the train left next morning.
When Susan arrived back at her hotel, she felt light-headed from the drinks. As she passed through reception the concierge called her over.
In his hand was a pastel envelope. Inside was a slip of notepaper with a brief scrawl,
Sorry I missed you,
I called to invite you for a drink.
I enjoyed our dive together and lunch.
Hope your trip goes well.
Susan thought about what might have been, Ships that pass in the night.
Maggie and Susan had a lovely day at Kuranda and were both sad to say goodbye on their return, but Susan had a bus to catch. After a promise to keep in touch and an exchange of English addresses, they went their separate ways.
Susan didn’t know why, but as she climbed onto the bus she felt a bit down—perhaps it was just coming down after all the excitement of the last two days. She and Maggie had such a great time together and the thought of them going in different directions was a downer.
Susan also felt a twinge of regret for missing Mark last night. She mentioned his note to Maggie today, who responded with a raised eyebrow. Still she wondered what might have been there? Maybe a one-night fling, but there was a definite spark. She would have liked to see where it led.
She settled into a seat by herself and watched the green countryside, with the mountains to the west, slipping by. It would be four hours to Townsville, with a half hour stopover mid-way. She had booked a room for the night and would go on to Magnetic Island tomorrow for three days before flying south to Sydney.
As the bus rolled along Susan felt her mood lift again; there were new places to see, new things to do. The mountains faded into deep shadow, then final flares of light on their tips with a departing sun—an eerie and distinctly Australian beauty. Travel was such a mood aphrodisiac.
By the time they made it to Townsville she was yawning. But at least the jetlag was gone. Susan tumbled into bed and did not stir until bright daylight brought her awake.
After a leisurely breakfast she made her way to the ferry jetty. There was a 9:30 ferry to the island. Once on the island she caught a bus to Horseshoe Bay, which on her map faced out towards the great Pacific Ocean.
Here she found a backpackers hostel, recommended by somebody in Cairns who had said it was the best on the island. No one was in sight so she dropped her pack on a vacant bed. She put on her pale blue bikini and walked to the beach with a book. She sat gazing out over the vast blue expanse, soaking in the pleasure of the warm, endless ocean space. There were only a couple other people on the beach and they were far away. It was her own private piece of paradise.
Susan moved back under the shade and stretched out on a towel. Her novel told of someone else’s imaginary life. Her own life, whenever she looked up, also felt like it sat inside a holiday storybook.
Finally hunger brought her back to the hostel. In Townsville she had bought a loaf of unsliced bread, a pack of ham, and tomatoes. Now she made herself an oversized sandwich, with two thick bread slabs layered with ham and tomato.
There were bedroom noises but otherwise she had the place to herself. She carried her plate to a bench table by the window and sat facing out, away from the kitchen. Her view was along the beach towards a green headland. She ate with ravenous hunger.
Like an electric tingling up her spine, she became aware of soft footsteps behind her. Something else, familiar but not, had also caught her subconscious attention.
She turned around. As her eyes adjusted from bright light, she realised it was him, Mark. He was standing a few feet behind her, tall and broad in the gloom. Her gaze was drawn to his direct eyes and mid brown hair with sun-bleached tips. He was looking at her with what seemed like hopeful recognition.
Their eyes connected. She felt a jolt pass between them, tightness in the pit of her stomach, a raw emotion of physical connection. She knew he felt it too.
While this emotion washed over her, Susan’s face flashed in a smile of delight, attraction and pleasure, re-meeting someone familiar in this country of strangers.
Mark smiled back, but with guarded hesitancy, and said, “I thought it was you, but then I thought it was just imagination. You look great, even better than the picture in my memory. But, of course, absence of a face mask improves us all, even me.”
Susan burst out laughing, a kind of giggle fit. She felt breathless and flushed, like an adrenaline rush. She was also self-conscious that she was only clothed in her skimpiest bikini. It showed off lots of her body that he was clearly aware of.
She pulled herself back from embarrassment and, pointing to her sandwich, said, “Have you eaten?” Mark shook his head. “I have plenty of bread, ham and tomato, can I make you one?”
Mark nodded and said, “Yes that would be great.” They settled down to eat, side by side, facing the bay.
Susan could not help herself from chatting away and telling Mark what she had done in the last two days. Then she looked at him and said, “I was really disappointed I missed you that night at the hotel. It would have been great to go and have a drink together.”
“I felt a bit silly asking you, like I barely met you with diving and lunch. But I found you interesting and we seemed to like the same things. You’d said where you were staying in Cairns. So, I thought, what the hell, no harm in asking.”
“Well I am glad you did even though it didn’t work out. Now here you are. We have a second chance tonight.”
They sat there while a few minutes went by, both gazing at the view while they ate. Susan was very aware of Mark’s body. It was close, almost touching her. A couple times they brushed each other and she felt a little thrill.
Mark turned to her, saying, “What are your plans for the afternoon?”
“I hadn’t thought about it yet. What about you, do you know your way around this place?”
“I have been here a couple times. There is a lot to do, horse riding, jet skis, sea kayaks and more. But one thing that is particularly good in the afternoon is to go walking in the national park, out to the head of the bay. You often see dolphins and turtles in the sea; sometimes you see a koala in the bush. There is a lovely little sheltered beach at the end where you can swim.”
“That sounds like a great idea, shall we do the walk this afternoon then perhaps something more adventurous tomorrow?” said Susan
“Why not,” said Mark, in his slightly droll way.
He filled a water bottle, put it in a light pack which he dropped over one shoulder, and they headed off. He led the way, following the top of the beach. After a few minutes they reached a path into the forest, a mixture of gum trees and other scrabbly ones, with funny pointed cones that poked out at odd angles.
“What are they?” she asked.
“That’s a banksia tree,” he replied, “and those are the banksia men that live on it.” Mark added pointing to the cone-like things, “They attach themselves and wait until someone like you comes along. Then they jump out onto you.”
Susan widened her eyes, and said, “Oh really! I know I am just a dumb Pommie visitor, but even I know when I am being had.”
“Just testing you,” he said.
They walked on, climbing a rocky ridge. On their descent down the other side a breathtaking view unfolded: a little indented rocky bay with crystal clear water and a sweeping horizon of sea and sky, blending together far into the distance.
“Wow, this is really something,” said Susan.
Just as she spoke, barely twenty yards out, two dolphins, side by side, came leaping out of the water, frozen in a split second of perfect symmetry. Susan shook her head in wonder.
“I knew you’d like it,” said Mark, then added, “but that was amazing, like they turned it on, just for us.”
She linked her arm through his and gave a squeeze of delight.
He brushed her hair back from her face and touched her cheek. Then he pulled away. “Let’s keep going, it’s a bit of a way yet.”
They went on, mostly him leading and her following. Sometimes, when the path widened, she would come alongside. A couple times he lightly rested his hand on her shoulder. It felt good and Susan responded by placing a hand on his hip.
They came down off the ridge into a green depression: a small swamp that the path tracked around. It was open, with paperbarks in the centre, and huge forest gums at the edge.
Mark motioned quiet with a finger to lips. He paused, standing stationary for perhaps thirty seconds. Then he took her hand and raised it to point at a high branch of one of the big gums.
She followed the hand with her eyes and her eyes adjusted to the gloom. A small movement brought all the detail into clear focus. There, sitting on a high branch, was a mother koala. She was pulling a branch towards and eating off leaves, one by one.
Susan gasped. She knew it was a mother koala because on its back was a large baby, perhaps half her size. She watched as the mother directed the leaves towards her baby. It followed its mother’s lead and began to eat the leaves, one by one. It mimicked her exact movements as it ate with apparent relish.
They both stood transfixed for five minutes, watching until all the leaves were gone. Then mother koala curled up, baby now in front on her lap. They both closed their eyes and, for all the world it seemed, they just fell fast asleep.
Mark smiled, “Seriously something, Huh!”
“I feel so lucky that I got to see that,” said Susan
They walked on, now holding hands, not talking but moving along together, enjoying the peaceful forest.
Gradually they climbed onto the hillside again, tracking the edge of little rocky headlands that fringed the sea. Finally they reached the end where the path fell away onto a little sandy beach, facing out towards the wide ocean. They stopped at the edge of the sand and stood for a minute, fingers entwined.
Then Mark pulled away. “Come on, time for a swim” he said.
He pulled off his T-shirt and plunged into the ocean in his shorts, hard muscles rippling as he powered away. She lifted her dress over her head. She followed him in, wearing the bikini. They both splashed and swam separately for a minute.
Then she swam up to him. She stood in water, up to her waist, in front of him, looking up. “Thank you so much for showing me all this, it has been the most wonderful afternoon.”
He put his hands on her shoulders and looked directly at her, his steady eyes looking into hers. “It keeps getting better from here.”
She moved in close against him, feeling his firm body, and wrapped her arms around his chest. His arms pulled her tight. She could feel his maleness hard against her. Unconsciously, she pushed her pelvis against his leg, as a deep ache ran through her.
Her body longed for sex and here it was, in waiting, in the middle of nowhere, perhaps paradise. Normal restraints fell from her mind, there was only here and now.
His hand ran down her back and over her bottom, stroking her, grasping her buttocks. Then she felt his hands, inside her pants bottoms, touching her naked flesh with a sensitivity that made her shiver all over. He pulled back slightly, ran his fingers through her hair and tipped back her face, saying, as he looked at her.
“You have the most wonderful blue eyes, just the same colour as this beautiful bikini that barely covers you. Every time they look at me they make weak inside. Then I want to do this to you” he said, sliding his other hand down under her top and cupping her breast.
She felt a little moan escape. They both knew what they wanted.
Susan felt his hands on her bottom again, sliding down her bikini pants. Then there was incredible pleasure as he stroked her soft belly, all the while moving down and into that aching place.
Holding together, touching these places on each other, they came back to the beach. He spread a towel on the sand, and pushed her down onto it. Then he was on top and astride her. His body felt huge and hard, his face a silhouette against the light. She felt her legs come apart and her pelvis arch as he pushed inside her. It felt huge but exquisite, this long-missed pleasure of joined bodies.
The surges of pleasure came faster as they rode this rising wave together. At last she could hold back no longer. As Susan fell over the edge of the orgasmic wave she grasped him, wrapping arms with all her force around his hard back and let out, “Oh God.” It was like a signal, and he was exploding inside her, such a cascading, overwhelming, release, and relief.
They lay together panting and slowly subsiding. She could feel their combined wetness flowing out over her thighs. I needed that so badly and it was so good, she thought.
Then a sudden panic hit her. My God, I stopped taking the pill when Eddie and I broke-up. She hadn’t considered that until now.
Well it is past time to undo this she thought as she felt his hand stroke her and felt him begin to harden again.
Now they were doing it all over again. This time she pushed him onto his back and climbed on top, working herself up and down like a gymnast. His hands grasped her buttocks and stroked her as she moved, his mouth on her nipples. More and more, deeper and deeper, harder and harder. When it felt like she would pass out with the building pleasure, he grasped her and flipped her below him. He drove in with incredibly hard thrusts, almost hurting her. His sheer male dominance brought her to a huge climax, as he came again himself.
They lay still together for a while before they both felt the need to swim and wash. They splashed and swum, and then came together; Susan swimming up to Mark who was standing in waist deep water.
She dived into him, pushing her face into his belly and working down. She took him in her mouth and he hardened again. Mark lifted her effortlessly and placed her hips against his waist. He pushed her down onto him while his face was in her hair. They stayed in the water and made slow love in the little wavelets, first standing and then, when it felt like it would overwhelm them, lying together in the shallows.
Desire satiated, they sat on a rock soaking in the afternoon warmth, with occasional affectionate touches, before they decided it was time to head back.
The walk back had a pastel feel, like a dreamy painting, as if they had both wanted this consummation so much and, now that it was done, they just wanted to let the afternoon slowly ebb away together.
It was almost dark by the time they came back to the hostel and it was crowded with other backpackers. Mark suggested Susan sit on the verandah while he got them drinks. He returned with a six-pack. They sat together, almost silent, sipping their beers and watching the light fade from the horizon.
Susan finally said, “Do you make a regular practice of picking up female backpackers and taking them for a walk, wowing them with beauty and ravishing them, the way you did to me this afternoon?”
He replied with a half smile, “Well I have done something like a couple times, but never as good as with you. There is something about you that is different; it is like you are a free spirit who has never been quite captured by ordinary life.”
She snuggled into him and said, “Well, I knew I wasn’t the first, but this was really something for me too, I think it is your wild edge that gets me in.”
Mellow with beer they decided that a steak at the local hotel would be dinner. They both showered and put on best clothes for the night out. Over dinner Mark told stories and snapshots of his life, working in the outback, working in mines, working on an oil pipeline in the Middle East and other jobs in Africa and Asia. It was clear he had done many things, though he told little of his early life, family or friends.
Coming back the hostel was quiet; it appeared most others were already in bed.
Mark brought a mattress out on to the verandah, and she came into bed with him, laying her cheek on his bare chest. First they cuddled, then as desire grew they made languorous love, looking at each other in a faint glow of starlight.
Then they both slept.
In the early dawn Mark rose and directed her to her own bunk. He packed up his bedding and headed off into the early dawn, she knew not where.
She fell into a deep dreamless sleep in her own bunk. The sun was well up when she woke again.
Mark was sitting with a cup of coffee at the kitchen table when she came out and he fixed her another one to share with him.
They spent the next three days together jet skiing, sea kayaking, snorkelling, sailing. Best of all was horse riding. They had gone for a ride together, after breakfast that next day, riding sturdy ponies bareback along the beach.
Susan had done the equestrian thing in England. Mark, self-taught, was a superb rider, so well-balanced. They loved riding along together, sometimes walking and trotting, knees brushing; other times a lolloping canter and occasionally an all-out gallop as they raced frenetically to get to the front, laughing with joy and exhilaration.
On the first day it was proposed they go with an organised group. However, Mark sought agreement for them to ride alone, telling of his life working with horses on large stations. Having demonstrated their riding ability they were given the same two ponies, each day for two hours, to ride on their own. They would ride along the beach to the furthest end, walking, trotting and an occasional gentle canter, moving slowly to draw out anticipation of the pleasure to follow. Nearing the beach end their pace would quicken as desire grew.
Once out of sight they would fall into the water. It would begin with swimming, but soon, clothes cast aside, they would ravish each other. The return ride: a wild gallop—their way to begin each day.
Afternoons were on the water; sailing one day, jet-skiing the next, sea kayaks another, paddling around the point to their first day beach and repeating their pleasure there.
Initial plans were to leave on the third day, but they stayed two more days. They did not want their idyll to end. By the fifth day they knew they must both go separate ways.
Mark had a week’s work in central Queensland and then was heading on to the Alice while Susan was Sydney-bound and could delay her flight no longer.
They were sombre on the ferry back to Townsville. At final parting they hugged tight. Mark did not talk a lot. Susan felt the ache of impending loss; she’d grown huge affection for this sun-toughened man from out the back of somewhere, wherever that was. Many layers lay beyond where she had reached. She was sad; her days discovering him were at an end.
Susan had the option of flying to Uluru or Alice Springs for a week on her way home, with a home flight booked out of Darwin. Mark might be somewhere around there too, but she didn’t quite see how it would happen that they would be together again.
As he started to pull away he handed Susan a card with “Mark” and a mobile number written on it, saying, “Well, if you do come by Alice the week after next and want to see real bush, send me a text to let me know. I need to make a trip from the Alice to the Top End to do some business along the way around then. Perhaps you could come along too and see all the nature and emptiness.
“Just let me know, if that’s what you want. Then, if we can work the timing, I will line up for you to come along. The trip will take about a week, maybe a bit more. I will be mostly out of phone contact so a text is best.”
Susan felt a surge of hope mixed with uncertainty. It was indefinite, probably unlikely, but it was something.
She tucked the card in her purse and gave him a brittle smile and a wave as she walked towards the bus which was to take her to the airport. Mark stood there looking at her with an inscrutable look on his face, but it seemed to hold more than indifference.
Suddenly she did not want it to end like this, with an almost casual goodbye. She ran back to him. He put his arms out. She pressed her body against him one last time, nuzzling her face into his rough cheek She said, “Mark, I really want to see you again. I hate saying goodbye. This has been so special for me.
He said. “Me too,” and held her close. For brief seconds it was just the two of them, the other world faded away. Then the toot of the bus pulled her back and they separated.
Susan was both sad and perplexed as the plane climbed away from Townsville. The view of the reef and mountains was as spectacular as it was on arrival, but she barely looked up, lost deep in thought and memory.
Her time with Mark was wonderful, but intense; they had barely stopped for a minute. Now she needed to catch her breath. Their physical connection had been so powerful; and the sex, after a long deprivation, was beyond words. During their time together she barely thought about anything else; it was an all-consuming pleasure addiction.
She thought back to Edward. The sex had been a great part of the lives, and one of the things that kept them together, despite other differences. But with Mark, his wild physicality coupled with lack of restraint, strength and an insatiable virility, were something else again. She felt that part of her was worn out and needed a good rest. But then, as she thought of his sad remote eyes and warm hard body, Susan knew she would do it all again, without hesitation, if the chance ever came. It was something beyond her control, like stopping a bolting horse.
There was also something odd about Mark that she couldn’t quite work out. It gave her twinges of uncertainty. Part was how little she knew about him. Sure she knew lots of stories of his work and places he had been. But of family, friends, former lovers, or others in his life, she knew almost nothing. Not even where he had come from or grown up. Come to think of it, he had not told her anything really personal about himself.
Another part of her unsureness was her sense that he hid a dangerous edge, something ruthless and uncompromising that would not accommodate to anyone who tried to push him against his will. She had seen occasional glimpses, like that first day diving, when she and Maggie had struck up an instant friendship. Suddenly, he did not want to keep doing things with her; a shutter had come down, he’d blocked her out of his mind and plans.
The clearest example was at the hostel one day. A big loudmouthed American man had tried to get Mark to join a card game—they needed an extra player. Mark had politely declined the initial request, but this bloke did not want to take no for an answer, pestering Mark in a badgering manner. He was three inches taller than Mark, probably three stone heavier and it looked like muscle not flab. He was obviously used to getting his way; he assumed others would fall into line when he wanted something. After a minute of this pestering Mark had enough. He turned to walk away and this bloke followed him, still going on about how he must be a wimp if he would not play cards with them.
Suddenly Mark turned back to him and stared, “Mate, you seem to be missing something. I said ‘no’. I’ll spell it out if you’re a bit thick: N. O. It spells ‘No’ and it means ‘No’. Now get out of my face. I won’t ask you again.”
That was all he said and then he stood looking up at this big strong man, hard cold eyes intent and devoid of emotion. Susan had a strong premonition that it could end badly and not for Mark, he gave out such a sense of danger, like a snake in the millisecond before it struck. The other man dropped his gaze, lost for words. He mumbled something and backed away, trying to pretend he had not backed down.
Mark never moved a muscle until the man had left. Then he simply said to her, “I hate bullies.” An instant later it was like it had not happened; he smiled at her and said, self-deprecatingly, “Sorry, don’t let it spoil our day.”
But that incident was the exception. Normally he was great fun to be with, absolutely fearless and willing to try anything. And he was kind and gentle with her, giving her his undivided, full attention whenever he was with her.
But she did feel, except for the first night when they went to the pub together, that he had a strange reluctance to go to public places with her, little desire to hit the town or otherwise socialise with others at the hostel.
He was also reluctant to do group activities—organised tours he did under sufferance. When someone offered to take their picture together, he politely declined saying it just wasn’t his thing. In a way she had been happy to have him fully to herself; he had such charm and ability to captivate her that she had not desired more.
It was just that his private life and his emotions were such a hidden book, every time she tried to find a way inside she drew a blank. She knew he really liked her. It was not just the physical pleasure of the sex, he had said from the outset that this was more and he had an intimate tenderness towards her which was really quite breathtaking.
All in all it had been five wonderful days. She really missed his serious but smiling face, with those far away eyes, seeing places she did not know and could not begin to imagine.
Now she was off to Sydney, where she would get her fix of city life and society. She’d always wanted to see the famed city, with the sparkling harbour shown in boat races, the magnificent bridge and opera house, lit up with New Year’s fireworks.
Susan had cousins living there who she had met a couple times in England. They were great fun and had offered to show her the sights and nights, whenever she came along. They lived in a place called Newtown, close to the city, in what they said was a done up workers’ cottage. The spare bedroom was hers for the duration.
She planned five days, then on to Melbourne for a couple days. After this she had about ten days left until her flight left Darwin. She had the option of Alice Springs and Uluru then the Top End, or Perth for a few days before going on to Darwin.
Susan had a couple days yet before needing to lock in flights and travel after Melbourne. So she would let it sit for a couple days in Sydney until when she had some perspective. She settled back in her seat, looking forward to two hours of solitude before her Sydney arrival.
Her cousin, Ruth, met her at the airport with girlish screams of delight. They drove through the first real traffic she had seen since London. Ruth gave her a running commentary on Sydney and all there was to see and do. Soon they were crawling down a main road, choked with cars and people, which brought them towards the city.
Ruth’s older sister, Jessica, and Jess’s boyfriend Robert, owned the Newtown house where she was to stay. It was in a narrow street, about a hundred yards behind the main drag, King Street. It had three bedrooms; one rented by Ruth. The third one, part-time office, was now hers.
Jess was two years older than Susan. She worked in a busy law firm in the city in some management role. She and Robert had marriage plans in a year or two. But first they were trying to pay down their mortgage.
Ruth was around Susan’s age and they were good friends. She had taken the week off her work in a fashion shop in Oxford St, to show Susan around and have ‘girl fun together,’ that’s what she called it.
It was mid-afternoon when Susan had unpacked her things. After the ritual cup of tea, with the English chocolate and biscuits, which she had brought out especially for them, they walked along King St inspecting a myriad of restaurants, junk shops, and upmarket places.
This place had great buzz, people everywhere, a bit seedy, but familiar and alive; something like the best of where she had lived in London. Seeing it all gave her a strange sense of the loss of her life with Edward, they once had something very similar to this. Even though she had not realised it, when they split, she missed street society in big cities.
She and Ruth walked along, chatting and swapping stories, only half-looking at the sights. They picked a restaurant for dinner and made a reservation. ‘Mainly great vegetarian food, but with a couple good seafood options,’ said the paper clipping tacked to the window.
After dinner it was off to the Rocks and a live band with music. A few men tried the pick up lines but, even though they looked good, and Ruth gave them thumbs up, Susan felt little attraction. She told Ruth she was a bit worn out by a backpacker fling in Queensland.
Ruth’s boyfriend, Stephen, came along a couple of hours later with another friend. Ruth introduced them. They found chairs and expanded the table. The friend was David, “Call me Dave.” He sat next to Susan.
Dave was tall, well built and good looking, with sun bleached blond hair—close to gorgeous actually. Susan couldn’t help but be engaged by his smile and charm. He seemed to like her too.
He told her about his work in IT and biotechnology. David got Susan to admit she had a medical technology background. They chatted for while about this common interest.
But when David put his hand on her knee, Susan felt involuntary recoil. Even though she knew that there was nothing binding from her time with Mark, and this guy was handsome, charming, and appealed to her taste, she did not want that casual man touch.
His gesture seemed too forward, and it hit the wrong note. It made her wonder why she had responded so positively to Mark, throwing herself at him and seeking physical intimacy. Yet, coming from this attractive man, making the normal moves, it didn’t work.
Perhaps he seemed too confident in his attraction; perhaps it was her need to go more slowly; perhaps part of her was more caught up by Mark than she willingly acknowledged.
She didn’t want to be rude, and Susan was sure that she could enjoy David’s company and maybe a physical relationship with him, but she just did not want to go there—not now anyway.
Susan excused herself from the table and went to the toilets. It was to give herself time to think. She decided she would plead tiredness and an early night, without pushing him away directly. Who knows, I might like him more if I see him again in a day or two, she thought.
They stayed for another drink and another hour passed. David seemed to understand that Susan wanted more space and made no further moves. In fact, she realised, he was nicer than she first imagined. Part of her wished she had not pulled back.
They all caught a cab home, dropping off David at his own place on the way, while Stephen came home with Ruth.
The days in Sydney flew by, shopping in the city, visits to Oxford Street and various flea markets, days around the harbour, walking the two fluffy dogs of the house in local parks, nights of restaurants, music, and meeting innumerable friends of Jess, Robert, Ruth and Stephen in a wide range of bars and locations.
The third day, she knew she had to decide on the rest of her trip. While little misgivings still prickled in the back of her mind, Mark’s face and presence came back to her very strongly and she felt an aching desire to see him again. So she pulled out the paper with his number and found her phone, barely used. She had bought an Australian SIM card in Cairns but almost no one had the number. She sent off a text.
Fond memories of great times on Magnetic Island.
Let me know if you can meet me if I come to Alice.
Expect to arrive Mon next week
There that was it, the die was cast. Maybe he had forgotten her, now hooked up with another girl. If she didn’t hear back by the end of the day she would go to Perth instead.
Susan surreptitiously checked her phone every half hour during the day. No messages came back as the morning and afternoon rolled on. She tried to ignore the anxiety but was starting to feel flat and let down. Even if he was busy he could surely reply. She had to decide and confirm her flights tonight—that was the rule.
At 5:30 pm, as they were getting ready to go out for an evening drink, her phone pinged, a new message symbol flashed on the screen. Trying to look and feel nonchalant she picked it up.
Hi Mark here,
Just got message, out of town
Love to see you in Alice, Monday
Can you ring day after tomorrow?
Then we can work out details to meet
Susan put down the phone. Her hands were shaking, she felt vast excitement, but also strange dread; she really wanted to see him again—her body craved him—but why this anxiety? It pricked at her and made her feel uncomfortable.
Susan told Ruth to go on without her, and she would meet them in the pub in half an hour, she just had to go out and do a couple things.
Ruth looked at her inquiringly, saying, “Sure, that’s fine, see you then.”
Susan found an internet café, and locked in the flight booking. Melbourne to Alice Springs booked for Monday next week, arriving at 11:30 am.
Once it was booked she felt relieved, the decision point had passed. She could now go on with her Sydney and Melbourne holiday, as planned, without further thought.
She decided she would say nothing of her Alice Springs arrangements, except that she was catching a plane to Alice, seeing the Centre and going on to Darwin, so as to see the Outback. She would say she was going by bus if asked. Meeting Mark was a private thing for her; it did not concern anyone else.
The time in Sydney flew by, and she found she was on the train to Melbourne before she knew it.
Susan had decided to catch the day train to Melbourne. It would allow her to get a leisurely view of the southern Australian countryside, and arrive in Melbourne in time for a late evening of sightseeing in the city. She booked a small hotel in the heart of Melbourne, only three star, but very convenient and at a reasonable price. She was only there for three nights and wanted to enjoy the city.
As the train rolled along she thought back to Sydney and David.
She had seen him several more times, with Ruth and Stephen, and he was clearly keen on her. Part of her was being pulled towards him too but, particularly after she had made her arrangements with Mark, she felt sure that nothing would come if it.
She certainly had not intended to sleep with him. In fact, if someone had asked her about them becoming an item, two days before she left Sydney and after she had talked to Mark again, she would have given an emphatic No!
She felt that Mark, from somewhere out the back of nowhere, or wherever it was, had changed something inside her, at least for now. She didn’t want any more entanglements while she was with him, or even while that possibility remained.
It was a strange sort of faithfulness to an idea of possibility, even though she could not conceive what real possibility there was; two people with totally different lives, different backgrounds and careers, who lived on opposite sides of the world. So her mind was clear, nothing could or would happen with David. And yet it had.
On the second last night they went out as group, until late, drinking in a small pub. She had let him take her hand for a dance. His body had brushed up against hers and, she had to admit, it really felt good. She could easily have imagined spending the night with him. She knew he wanted this and he was patient in encouraging her.
At the point where the only decision was whether she would go home with him, or let him come back with her and share her bed, she froze. She liked him, both to talk to and in a physical sense. But she felt there was an almost tangible solid block in her mind and body—like a closed door that stopped her before that sort of intimacy.
Susan rationalised that it was because she had gotten her period on her second day in Sydney. There was some relief at this, part of her glad that nothing had arisen from her unprotected sex with Mark. She could have used her period as an excuse to avoid David’s desire for sexual intimacy. She knew that’s what she could say to David if he pushed too hard, yes she could have used this to keep him away without offense. But her period was as good as finished by that night, and she knew it was not the real reason. Instead, because of Mark, she had told herself she did not want to have sex with someone else, at least not just now.
Eventually Stephen and Ruth had gone off home, saying they had important things to do in the morning and needed a good night’s sleep. And they clearly wanted to do this sleeping together. They had become very intimate in the second half of the night and having sex together was clearly on their minds. She and David could both feel it, it was a private joke between them as the others were leaving, and it aroused their sexual awareness of each other, like a pimple of anticipation.
Susan said she was fine with them leaving, that she would find her own way home in a short while. She really had intended to go, once she finished her drink.
But she had decided, as the two of them sat there, together in the late night; that she wasn’t ready to go home, not right then anyway. Susan could feel her own sexual appetite returning, and didn’t want to have listen to what Ruth and Stephen would be doing through the adjoining wall—it would just make her horny. And she felt like staying here for a bit yet with David too. It wasn’t really sexual, her reason behind wanting to stay with him, she was just enjoying being out and he was good company.
So, when he suggested another drink, she‘d acquiesced. She suspected it must have been a double because it tasted pretty strong. Nevertheless she enjoyed it and liked the light-headed, carefree feeling that had started to envelop her as they sat together. When he suggested he walk her home, she had said yes to that too.
And when they came outside, into the cold winter night and David suggested going back to his place to listen to music, as it was only a brief walk from the pub, Susan had gone along with that too.
They had walked into the night, arm in arm together at first, but eventually with his arm around her shoulder and she leaning into him. Susan realised she was a bit drunk, but she liked the feeling his body gave her as he walked alongside, solid and stable.
Once at his place, he had fixed them both a drink before he put on some music. They had sat together on the couch just letting the beats thrum over them. Susan could feel the alcohol flowing through her brain, making her less conscious of where she was and what she was doing.
The music slowed down, transforming into a soft ballad—almost a waltz—moving and evocative. David pulled her to her feet and they danced together, bodies pressed against each other as they moved with the music. She could feel his male hardness against her belly.
She told herself she should stop this now, she should not go where this was leading, but she was unable to draw back. It was more comfort than sexual, she just liked that feeling of a male body against hers, holding her in strong arms in the late night. It was as if her physical being had re-awakened to male body contact pleasure and she now had this unmet need for it.
Before her brain fully comprehended what was happening, David had put his hands over her buttocks and was stroking and feeling her bottom in an intense and intimate way. Susan felt his hand lift her dress upwards and slide over the bare skin of her hips, slipping fingers down under her knickers from behind. Her mind was at the edge of a protest, but it was all a bid fuddled, and it did really feel good, she could feel her own place becoming wet with desire.
David’s hand came around to the front and stroked her from outside, first on her belly and then on down over her knickers. She could not resist moaning and pushing her pubis hard against his hand.
Before she fully realised where this was all going he had led her to the bedroom and undressed her. She could feel his hands inside her, and felt completely powerless to say no. Her body was responding to him of its own volition and, even if her mind was not quite there, it was not objecting.
She felt her body being opened up. He pushed her legs apart and then pushed his maleness inside her. She found herself moving, thrusting her pelvis back against him as his urgency mounted.
It was all a faraway mind-blur. It was not quite a conscious consent, but she felt herself being pulled along by the power of his need, it was a river and she was in the current.
David pulled a condom from somewhere and put it on; Susan was vaguely aware of being glad of that; not that she would get pregnant, but she preferred not to have his naked male organ inside touching hers, or his sperm left within; it was a level of separation from giving him total intimacy.
As his urgency mounted, she gained a strange sense of detachment, almost an out-of-body experience. His body was convulsing in orgasmic delight and then it was over. It had felt pleasant, but, in a detached way, she was glad it was done. Still, she’d liked the body comfort of him, next to her. She distractedly stroked his head as she fell asleep.
It was daylight when she woke. She had a dry, fuzzy mouth, and the edge of a headache pulsing at her temples. David slumbered beside her, his tousled hair beautiful in the morning light. She found him almost too attractive, something of the male model. At her core she was strangely unmoved by this physical perfection. She wondered if she could just quietly dress and go home.
But now her movement had aroused him. She felt him grasp her and pull her back towards him. He had a throbbing early morning erection, huge and hard. While not desirous of more sex, it was easier to let it happen one more time, than say no.
Susan lay back and let him thrust into her. She began to enjoy it, the physical pleasure of a man’s hard body moving against and inside her, her pelvis arching against him, his mouth on her breasts, strong hands grasping buttocks. It was over too soon, just when her own pleasure was building.
David drifted off to a semi-sleep state and Susan rolled to her side, facing away from him. She felt a little unsatisfied, as if something had been missed. She fell back to sleep.
The next time she woke it was mid-morning. David had set up orange juice and croissants, as breakfast, on a beautiful verandah looking out over the water and the city.
Inside, her own emotions were mixed; she would almost have preferred to wind back the night and wake in her own bed, alone. She sensed he had pushed her towards drunkenness to get her to have sex, though she had gone with it too. Her liking of him was nothing rapturous but he was good company. David entertained her with tales of Sydney and his work. Then he asked about her plans for the day.
Susan thought immediately of Ruth, suddenly concerned that she might be worried.
David must have seen the anxiety in her face, for he said, “I hope you don’t mind, I took the liberty of sending Ruth a text when I woke up, saying that you had stopped over for the night. I should have asked you first but you were sleeping. I just wanted Ruth to know you were OK.”
She couldn’t find it in herself to object. She would have preferred this be a private affair, but she knew that chance had passed. And she could have sworn this night with David was a result that both Ruth and Stephen had sought to aid and abet. Now it was out there beyond hiding.
Returning to his first question she said. “I need to go home and change, and then I promised Ruth to meet for lunch but that’s all. I planned to have a quiet afternoon seeing as I’m catching the train to Melbourne early tomorrow.”
“Why don’t I ring Ruth and see if she can meet us? Perhaps Stephen can meet us too, flex off at two. Let’s have a late lunch at Watsons Bay, at the mouth of the harbour,” David proposed.
Susan nodded, going with the flow. David was good company and trying to be the perfect host. She liked being with him and didn’t want to hurt his feelings.
So it was arranged. It was a glorious mid winter day, cloudless sky, and warm in the sun, with the lightest cool breeze.
David drove her, in his open topped BMW sports car, to collect Ruth. A few winks and nudges, but no more than expected, and they were flowing with the moderate mid-day traffic, along New South Head Road, passing Double Bay and Rose Bay.
Taking a circuit around Bondi, they stopped for a walk along the beach, taking in bracing sea air and dipping toes in the winter Pacific Ocean.
Ruth and Susan had time for some private conversation while David chased waves. Ruth said, “You and David had a thing last night? You did really sleep with him?”
Susan nodded, no use denying.
“Actually I am glad for you both. I don’t know if he told you but he had a very serious relationship until a few months ago, and was quite cut up when it finished. He seems to really like you. You should just enjoy it.
“You know, if I wasn’t with Stephen I would definitely let him put his shoes under my bed. Despite him being drop dead gorgeous, David is actually an extra-nice guy as well as seriously well-heeled. Not to mention his parents are lovely country folks with a farm just over the mountains. I’m sure he would love to take you there.
Susan winced, “Cut the match making. Yes I like him but it was a just one-night thing and I am gone tomorrow. I’m glad you’re pleased, but why do I have the feeling that you have been pushing us together?”
Ruth grinned. “Well you may be a bit right. Steve and I, we wondered, when we went home together last night, whether it would be your lucky night, too? We both wanted you and Dave to have a night of good fortune together. It seems our wish came true. I just wish you were staying for a few more days. Any chance you can delay and stay for another week? A week in the outback should be more than enough, don’t you think?”
Susan rolled her eyes. “You are incorrigible.”
Lunch was served at Watsons Bay; lovely luscious seafood washed down by bottles of bubbly and fine wines. Steve joined them around 3 pm, and Jess and Robert followed about 5 pm, just as they were finishing. David, of course, paid the bill, insisted so.
Ruth could not help ribbing him, “Not such a cheap night after all.”
They sat on the Watsons Bay beach, facing west, watching the last sunlight leaving the Sydney sky, their toes dipping in the tingling of cold harbour water. Then it was into two cars making the trip back to the city. Steve drove David’s car as David was a little drunk, “Intoxicated with Susan’s lovely presence.”
As they swept down the road from Vaucluse to Rose Bay, the lights of the city and the Harbour Bridge rose to meet them. Susan took a deep breath as she absorbed the beauty. Yes, she could live in such a city and perhaps with this man, next to whom she sat, bodies pressed together. David was a good man; the word honourable seemed to fit.
They stopped in Oxford Street, in a quiet little café, for an intimate dinner. It was just the six of them, now arranged and accepted as three couples. By 10 pm they were home to the Newtown house. Susan needed to pack tonight and be up early to catch the train.
It was not quite planned or agreed, but David just ended up in the bed with her. For Susan it seemed easier to just let things roll on, one step more. The sex was better than she expected. It lasted longer and she felt that she could get to enjoy it a lot more with David if they did it a few more times. Their bodies were starting to synchronise and his ability to pleasure her was increasing, not quite orgasmic but nice. This time the condom was forgotten, but now she liked the feeling of his naked male body adding to the wetness inside her. They both slept a deep and dreamless sleep, enjoying again that physical comfort of another body lying close alongside.
Then the alarm was ringing; time to rise.
She showered quickly and got ready for the train. They were all coming with her to Central Station, in Robert’s car, a people mover.
As they stood waiting at the railway station, David said, “I wish you could stay here for another week or two. You don’t fly out for another fortnight, why not stay here for another week and you will still have time for your week in the outback? I would love to bring you up to our farm in the country; beautiful mountain rivers, great horses, kangaroos and wildlife everywhere.”
Susan had replied, “It sounds lovely, but my plans are made and it is past time to change.”
David then asked if her could ring her over the next two weeks of her trip, or perhaps fly and meet her somewhere for a bit.
She’d said, “That will be too hard, I just don’t know where I will be.”
He’d looked dejected so she relented, giving him her mobile number and address in England, saying, “Why don’t you write once I get home? I love letters. Send me a letter with your news. I promise I will write back and tell you about the rest of my trip.”
He looked happier after that.
Last hugs and goodbyes, then the train rolled away.
Her mind said, Finished, it is only history now. Part of her wished there had been no one else since Mark. Even though they made no promises of faithfulness and, until the trip to Alice Springs was arranged, there had been nothing definite about them even seeing each other again, yet still it was there. Why should she feel this strange feeling of almost shame? It felt like a betrayal of Mark that she had been with someone else. And even more because she had started to like the feeling of someone else’s body pushed hard within hers.
It was strange how enjoyment and guilt could share the same space. She felt herself shallow and fickle. Perhaps it was just that primal sex drive in all humans, where faithfulness was a lovely, imaginary concept but where, in real life, when opportunities came one took them. And even more because, as a visitor to these places, it was done without any consequences, pleasure was briefly shared and life moved on.
It was like sliding doors. She had stepped through one sliding door when she left England and came to Cairns, she had stepped through another coming to Sydney and now she was passing through yet another door as the train rolled away. It was curiously enlivening and exciting, a life lived this way. So why did the doubt nag?
The train rolled along, and she enjoyed the peace of looking out across green countryside, not unlike England except for different gum tree colours and horizons. The day drifted by in a leisurely haze. Morning turned to afternoon, and to dusk. The last of the trip reached into evening, lights of towns and cars twinkling as they passed by.
Finally the presence of a big city was evident, continuous light and buildings; waiting was ended, they pulled into Southern Cross Station, destination Melbourne reached.
People had told her about the cultural life of Melbourne; museums, art galleries and the inner city delights of trams and street-side shopping. She knew she could easily pass the two full days she had available.
Plus she had heard great things about Melbourne Zoo. Zoos were a secret passion of hers, something she and her father had done together. Visits made to Regents Park Zoo, Jersey Zoo and Whipsnade, as well as to other great zoos of Europe. She and her father were both fascinated by the large animals of Africa: the superbly adapted predators like lions, leopards, hyenas and crocodiles, many other amazing animals like the rhinoceros, hippopotamus, elephant, and giraffe.
But, most of all, her own private fascination was with the primates; gorillas and chimpanzees especially. She had read and re-read “In the Shadow of Man” by Jane Goodall, and seen that wonderful film, “Gorillas in the Mist,” about Dian Fossey in Rwanda.
So, part of her plan was to go to this zoo, sit and observe these incredible animals, for an hour or two on her own. That link between the non-human primates and the earliest people coming out of Africa was an embedded fascination in her deepest psyche.
Melbourne was easy and comfortable as she settled in. She had made lists of places to visit and things to do. It was great to have these full days where she could immerse herself in all there was to see and do. With just herself to please she was amazed at how much she managed to fit in. It consumed her so fully that, until she was actually packing to leave, she had thought of almost nothing else; her time in her space.
By the end she decided that she would love to come to Melbourne again, maybe even stay awhile, there was much more that she wanted to see and do in this city. It had a welcoming and homely feel, much more like the European cities she knew, despite not sharing Sydney’s superb natural beauty. Perhaps it would be there for another trip, in another life, perhaps with another somebody, a person yet unknown, who would one day become part of her life.
Susan sometimes thought she did her best thinking on aeroplanes. They were crowded places in an empty sky. While you were jammed in with other people, you were almost entirely disconnected from all else in the world. This gave her free hours to sit and contemplate.
On other flights Susan gorged on movies, magazines, drinks and junk food. Today she just sat, thought and wondered what might be.
She didn’t regret her decision to come to Alice Springs to meet Mark. She felt no fear about travelling with him, she knew he was so thoroughly competent and in his element.
She also felt that she had moved on from Sydney and left all thought of David behind, pushed into a remote corner, somewhere in the back of her mind. Perhaps she would hear from or see him again, perhaps not; it did not seem important now.
As for whether she should feel ashamed at what happened, lover to two men in less than a week, with neither knowing that the other existed, well that was left aside too.
But now it was Mark that recaptured her mind. There was something in what made him up that she couldn’t quite fathom and it added an edge, making her uneasy and nervous in a way she could not define. Perhaps this would be a great journey of discovery of the real Mark, him more able to show himself in a place where he felt at home, without the need to conform to the rest of humanity. All she knew was that he was a huge and powerful force over her and the thought of seeing him soon gave her butterflies of anticipation. The time she had spent with him was the most exhilarating thing so far in her life.
She had phoned him the day after the text exchange but the conversation was brief. Just a confirmation of time of arrival and flight details and an agreement that he would pick her up at the furthest end of the terminal pick up zone.
Then, last night, a text had come saying he would be delayed getting into town and asking if she could catch the shuttle bus to the Alice Springs Mall. He would text her there when he arrived and arrange to collect her. She had no idea where they would go or what they would do from there.
So now she followed his instructions and brought herself, with backpack, in on the shuttle bus from the airport to the mall in the centre of Alice Springs. In anticipation of seeing him she had bought for him a beautiful little calendar notebook from Melbourne Zoo, each month separated by a beautiful animal picture. She had written in the flyleaf.
Really looking forward being Out Back with you
From Suz, with love!!
Now she was sitting in a café in the mall, enjoying lunch, waiting for the phone to ring; still a little bit in her own contemplative world.
She became aware that someone had stopped in front of the table.
She looked up.
It was him.
Today he was wearing a bright checked shirt and moleskins, an Akubra hat pulled down over his eyes to shade the glare. He looked just great, so seriously together, she felt breathless with delight. She sprang to her feet, spilling coffee, and hugged him tight, she didn’t care. She felt his hard arms encircle her, it felt good.
He looked at her with a quizzical eye. “I wondered whether you would show. When people get a taste for bright lights and big city they often don’t want to come out here.”
She said, “I wouldn’t have missed it for quids, plus it was you I most came to see.”
She fumbled and found her present. She passed it to him, feeling a bit shy. He took it and flicked through it, pleasure evident. Then he came back to the front page, and re-read her writing, with a half-smile on his face.
“Well, I hope not to disappoint. Out here is a lot of space and not much in between.”
Then he looked at her half eaten lunch, saying. “Do you want to finish up? We have a way to go this afternoon.”
Arching eyebrows she said “Oh, so secret, where to, pray tell?”
“My surprise.” he replied.
He led her to a car park around the back of the mall, flanked by a dry riverbed. Parked amongst other vehicles, was large white four-wheel-drive. He said, “That’s mine, a tray back Toyota Land Cruiser. I think of it as my little truck, it is like a home of wheels. It takes me and my gear anyplace I want to go. On the back was a cage, and a built in white structure, like a cooler box but much larger, with a locking door like a big fridge with a padlock. There was also a big swag, an overnight bag, some other locked metal boxes, a water tank in one front corner, along with two spare tyres attached to metal brackets in each back corner.
“What’s that?” she asked, pointing at the cooler box.
“Sometimes I catch a lot of fish, sometimes I shoot a camel or buffalo and take the meat to the local aborigines. It all goes in there, with a great pile of ice. That keeps it cool for a few days. Today only a carton of beer and a couple of juicy steaks,”
“What about the cage?” she asked.
“Sometimes when I go hunting I bring a dog. That stops it running away or biting someone, when I don’t want it to. Also has a great calming effect on anyone who might want to help themselves to something on the back of the truck.”
He popped her pack in the cage and unlocked the front doors, hers first then his. “OK, time to go,” he said.
Susan climbed in. With a clattering roar the diesel engine fired and they were away. They drove through a gap in the red broken hills, heading south out of town, coming along the edge of a wide sandy riverbed and went on past more low hills along the road, red rocky hillsides with olive-green trees and bleached grass, vibrant against the clear blue sky.
This looked like the way Susan had come in to town from the airport. She recognised landmarks, the train line, the Ghan Museum, a Road Transport Hall of Fame; lots of big trucks there. Just when the airport came into view and this seemed like their destination, they tuned right. A big sign said “Stuart Highway” and pointed to Adelaide.
“I thought we were going to Darwin,” said Susan, “I’m not real strong on my Australian geography but I thought Adelaide was in the opposite direction.”
Mark cracked a grin, “Really can’t pull one over you eh? Well spotted. We are doing a slight detour, thought you might like to see that big Rock, the one that the bloody tourists rave over, before we head north.”
Susan smiled widely, “That is a big surprise, thought we were going out into the ‘Never Never’ and here we are heading for Tourist Central. You know I could have flown straight there if that was the idea. Is that the big surprise?”
“Well part,” admitted Mark, “but there is a something else to see along the way.”
They rumbled along at a steady pace, passing around the edges of more low red rocky ranges and sand hills, featureless but pretty country, mixed low trees and bushes, occasional roadside patches of desert flowers. It was vast and empty, different from anything Susan knew. She sat there, letting the country roll by, feeling content and enjoying Mark’s profile as he gave his attention to driving, with odd descriptors of the country and places they passed for commentary.
After an hour, just as they were coming to some larger hills, their car slowed and turned left off the bitumen, following a small sign reading, “Rainbow Valley.” The road was sandy wheel tracks, crossing orange-red low sand dune hills. Occasional patches of heavy sand caused Mark to drop a gear. They passed a tourist four-wheel drive, going the opposite way. About fifteen minutes further on they pulled off the road, at the side of a low sandy ridge. Mark indicated to get out and they walked towards the top. It was three or four times higher than the car, and didn’t look like anything special, just loose orange coloured sand covered by wiry grasses with scattered stunted trees and bushes.
As they crested the ridge, there, opening before her, was the most spectacular sight she had seen. Below the sand dune lay a clay-pan, part covered in water. At it’s far side was a most incredible low range of hills. Eroded, broken, jagged peaks pointed skywards. The colours were what hit her, some parts were brick red, others faded into a rainbow range of soft pastels; orange, salmon, yellow and white. The hills formed a perfect silhouette in the lake, so it seemed a second mountain range sat there, just below the first. It was not in large scale, but perfection of weather-sculpted nature was here. The beauty took her breath away.
“I wanted you to see it from here; this is the best view of the whole,” said Mark.
Susan stood alongside him, resting her hand lightly on his arm and her head against his shoulder. “Worth coming just for this,” she said.
They drove to the car park and spent an hour walking and viewing it from all angles in the afternoon sun. As the sun fell towards the horizon, its light reflected back from the hills, lighting them in ever more iridescent hues of glowing colour.
Mark said, “I love the sunsets here. For five minutes, right on dusk, it is like the ghosts of people past, those who have lived in this place for over 50,000 years, come out and walk in the twilight, living in the magic of the colours. Then, as the light fades, they sadly leave behind this beauty and return to other lands which we, mere mortals, cannot see.
“In that soft shining light I feel as if I leave my body and walk with them, hearing their whispers and songs, telling me of times long gone. Perhaps one day, when I die, someone will scatter my ashes here, to mix with the spirits of these wise and ancient beings. I would like that.”
Susan felt goose bumps rise on her skin. She had never grasped a spiritual dimension in this bush-hardened cynic. This was a window into his soul she was privileged to see.
Then Mark pulled back from the moment, “We can’t stay for this evening’s dusk. It’s a long way to the Rock and we should push on.”
They walked back to the car and drove on, sharing silence for a couple hours, back onto the bitumen and south, winding through more hills, crossing two large and spectacular rivers, the Finke and the Palmer, more and more surreal in their colours as the sun sunk westwards. Then over vast short grass plains, grass glowing golden in the fading sunlight.
Another road sign pointed “Adelaide” straight on and “Uluru” right. They went right, driving towards a red sun disk, just above the horizon. Half an hour later came a roadhouse sign, “Mt Ebenezer Roadhouse”. Daylight was gone by now, diminished to a dull red glow in the sky.
“Still 200 kilometres to go; I thought we’d stop for a cold beer and a burger,” said Mark. They perched at the bar; the beer icy, the burgers good. They ate with simple enjoyment.
On they went, into the dark as the stars came out. After another hour a silvery light seemed to glow. Susan looked behind. A near full moon was rising, bathing grass plains and sand hills glimpses in silvered light. Far to the south was a large flat-topped mountain, a moonlit reflection. It was how she imagined that Table Mountain over Cape Town would look.
“Mount Connor, similar in scale and spectacle, but not in fame, to its Uluru cousin,” Mark said
Another roadhouse passed to the right, its sign proclaiming “Curtin Springs”. White-faced cattle stood near the road as they passed it by. Then spinifex covered sand hills rolled on by for an hour or more. Finally distant lights twinkled on the horizon. As they came over a sand-ridge Susan saw a massive bulk ahead.
It was another most incredible sight; a dark mound, shadow stripes running up and down its massive half-circle form. It glowed in moonlight, an almost deep purple with silver hues. It grew ever larger and more dominant, this huge elephant shaped lump, fallen asleep out in the middle of the sand, under a near full moon. This was Uluru.
Then they swung away and it faded from view behind dunes. A few minutes saw them rolling into a well-lit town. Views of hotels, caravan parks and wandering tourists reflected in headlights. They entered the car park of a modern hotel complex. The sign proclaimed, “Desert Sails.”
Mark said, “I thought we would treat ourselves to a night of the good life before we seriously leave civilisation behind.”
They walked into the hotel side by side, holding hands. Susan separated as he went up to reception, standing well behind as he signed the check in forms, squinting in the bright light. He already had a booking slip so it was a minor formality. He was given access keys, a map and a brief introduction to their hotel and location.
Now it was just the two of them. They followed the directions and walked along a passage to their room, in a back corner looking over a pool and sand dunes to the west.
She felt a strange trepidation to be alone with Mark like this. Their lovemaking had been out amongst nature or in hidden moments in public. She had never been alone with him in a totally private space. She had never spent an uninterrupted night with him in a full-sized bed. She hoped he would not find this intimate experience with her a disappointment, after the frisson of their almost public past lovemaking.
But Mark was totally calm and reassuring. They walked out the verandah and savoured the rapidly cooling night air for a moment. It was as if he was slowing the re-connection process down, giving her time to get comfortable and occupy her own space. She moved in next to him, her arm around him, enjoying his solidity.
He pointed to the bathroom and said, “You probably want to freshen up after a long day, or maybe, you’d prefer a drink from the bar fridge. I’ll get the bags from the car.”
“A hot bath sounds just fantastic,” Susan replied, smiling brightly. Mark left and she turned on the tap.
Taking off her clothes, while the bath ran and bubbles frothed, Susan looked at her silhouette in the mirror. She ran her hands over her breasts and she had an overwhelming desire to have Mark touch her like this. The prospect of a night together gave her a thrill.
She climbed into the bath, leaving the door open six inches, so he could not help but see in when he returned. She lay stretched out for a minute, letting the warmth penetrate all her pores. Then she pushed herself deep into the water, submerging herself completely. She lay there for a few seconds, an upside down underwater dive.
When she lifted herself and opened her eyes Mark was standing there, silent as a cat, looking down at her, holding a large bottle of bubbles, “Compliments of Management, thought you might like one,” he said.
She yawned sleepily, like a contented kitten, and said, “Lovely. But really, all I want is you. God I have missed you over the last week.”
He looked at her, eyes at the edge of a wicked smile, and said. “It has taken all my effort to keep my hands off you until we got here. Now I intend to spend all night catching up on lost time. I want to make you beg for rest. But first, let us drink a glass of this to celebrate.”
With a flourish Mark removed the cork and poured two glasses. He sat on the edge of the bath, in shorts and T-shirt, while they sipped together. Then, with his free hand, he scooped up some bubbles and placed them on her nose. Susan took his fingers and slowly kissed them, one by one, then moved them to her aching nipple. She arched herself towards him, bubbles sliding off her naked form.
Soon he was bent over her, mouth on breast, hand stroking thighs and her mound. Then they were both naked and trying to join together in the bath.
Susan giggled and stood up, pushing him back, “This is crazy, we have a superb king bed; let’s go there to really enjoy this.”
Mark stood and reached for towels to dry them. Then he picked her up, and carried her to the bed, where he lay her down, gently, but with eyes full of intent.
It was a night that was burned in her mind for all of her life, she like a sex starved kitten, her ravisher as a rampaging lion.
They began on top of the covers, but were soon under them as they explored each other’s bodies with their mouths, reaching a joint orgasmic climax. They watched a raunchy movie while he came from behind. Then another slow languorous bath after which gentle lovemaking saw them drift to sleep until early light reflected back off the hills behind brought them awake. They found each other again in early morning light, loving the sight of each other’s naked bodies.
“That’s it, you win, I can’t take any more, I am totally worn out,” said Susan.
She jumped up and pulled on a top. “I am starving! Let’s go have breakfast. Then let’s go see this famous lump of rock.”
They ate a leisurely breakfast: great lashings of bacon and eggs, tomatoes, sausages, and mushrooms, followed by pastries and multiple cups of coffee.
“I’m so full,” Susan said, looking at him with a slow smile, “A breakfast to remember after the best night of sex in my life. What can you do to top that?”
Mark, smug faced, said, “I can’t think of anything, except to do it again tonight, and the night after, under the desert sky.”
They climbed the Uluru, and marvelled at the view across to the Olgas and Mt Connor, amidst end-to-end sky sitting over endless spinifex sand-plains. They walked around the rock base. Mark showed her where the “Azaria” clothes were found; she knew the story of the dingo. They drove on to the Olgas and walked up the Valley of the Winds.
Finally, touristed out, they headed back in the direction of Curtin Springs, stopping in the mid-afternoon for a beer and a local steak sandwich—juicy, tender, well-flavoured beef, which the owner told them was station grown.
Mark and Susan drove on into the late afternoon, following a different route, which brought them towards Kings Canyon. It was a bitumen road so the driving was easy. They saw camels and brumbies walking through scrubby bush, silhouettes in late afternoon light.
An hour before dusk, they turned east onto a dirt road and drove a few kilometres before taking a side track north. They came to the edge of a broad sandy river that Mark called “The Palmer River.” He turned along a set of wheel tracks, following the river edge, and drove for few more minutes. They came to a waterhole nestled in the riverbed, viewed from a high rocky bank on their side, where he stopped. In the stillness of the evening it glowed in reflected light, rocky bank, clear water, sand and dry grass behind.
“I think this might be our campsite for tonight, what do you think?” he asked.
“Love it,” said Susan.
He pulled his swag off the car and placed it on the top of the ridge, looking down and out, across the river. “Why don’t you sit here and enjoy the view while I get a fire going.”
So Susan sat, alone and quiet, while Mark foraged for branches.
In the gathering dusk, an endless succession of brightly coloured birds were coming to the water to drink, small finches with a zebra tail stripes, others with red and diamond patterns on their plumage, beautiful blue wrens, and turquoise coloured parrots.
Susan heard a twittering noise and looked up. Perhaps a thousand, maybe more, iridescent green-yellow birds, silhouetted in the last sunlight came swooping in to drink. She realised these were the real wild budgerigars, ancestors of those seen in a cage. Thump, thump; a blue-furred mother kangaroo and her joey came cautiously across the sand.
Mark returned and soon a roaring fire of mulga wood was burning. He left again, but was quick to come back with a medium sized log—incredibly heavy and twisted. He put one end in the fire. “Best wood for cooking coals, gidgee. It will keep our fire going all night”
He opened a metal tucker box. Inside was a cast-iron pan and pot, a selection of food tins and jars and, tucked in a corner, wrapped in a tea towel, was a square glass bottle. Mark pulled out two tin cups, pannikins he called them, dusted off the bottle and handed it to Susan. “Would you like to try some Bundaberg Overproof Rum—OP for short? There’s ice and Coke in the Esky if you prefer it that way.” He poured half an inch into a pannikin and handed it to her. The fire almost took her breath away.
“Think I will try the ice and coke with it,” she said, taking the cup.
Mark nodded, and fetched a Coke and a handful of ice from the car, which he then added to her drink. He splashed a liberal half-inch of the rum into his own cup and took a deep sip.
“Just the thing for a cold night! When I started in the country, I had a week out northwest of Alice, out towards the Georgina River with an old-timer. I asked him what to bring, and he said a carton. So I went to the pub and bought a carton of beer. Next morning, when he picked me up, he pointed to my carton and said, ‘What’s that rubbish? That won’t last us a night, I meant a carton of OP Rum.’ So we stopped at a pub on the way out of town and I bought a carton of OP Bundy Rum. We almost finished it in that one week. My liver never recovered, but I got a taste for it,” Mark recounted laughing.
Susan laughed too, “Sounds like I‘ll need a lot of practice to catch up”
Dinner was steak and jacket potatoes, cooked in the coals and washed down with some more rum.
As they sat staring into the fire an eerie howl reverberated through the stillness. A few seconds later another howl came from a different location, then another.
“The dingoes are hunting,” explained Mark.
They retold the Azaria story to each other, each contributing parts and emotions, she from reading, he from seeing. Neither doubted the role of the dingo, but it had a chilling poignancy, spoken to the sounds of hunting dingos calling into the night.
And then the talking was over. For a moment they just looked at the fire in silence. But quickly they rolled out the swag and lay in it together, not moving for a long time. Susan felt incredibly dreamy and content, and drifted to sleep. She woke just as the fire was dying down.
Mark was looking down at her with an electric smile. “You didn’t think I was going to let you sleep the whole night through without something more, after my promise of this morning did you?”
In her half-asleep state, Susan simply replied, “Sleepy.”
But Mark was insistent, “All the more fun to wake you.” He turned her face towards him and kissed it with a ferocity that Susan was almost unprepared for. Then he was on top of her, forcing her legs apart and her body open, as he sought to push himself inside her. Susan’s first inclination was to clamp her legs shut and push him away, but he was way too strong. She was pinioned and powerless, with just a pimple of fear at how unrelenting he was.
But she really wanted this just as much as he did. Her body opened and responded to his thrusts. Soon she was as insatiable as he, a tigress, uninhibited, crying out with pleasure and pain as she climaxed. They took each other three times more before the dawn lit the sky. There was not a single inch of her body or soul that had not been touched, entered and pleasured. She felt like a hussy but loved this newly discovered wild sexual being within her.
In the early dawn Susan fell into a deep sleep. She woke a couple hours later with the sun well up. Of Mark there was no trace, but the fire had been stoked and a billy sat at the edge with hot water, and a basin of cold water, soap, and a towel sat nearby.
She realised this was for her and added hot water to the cold, until it was pleasantly warm. She washed her face and sponged off her body. She dressed in a tracksuit to push back the morning chill. She saw a pan with rashers and eggs sitting in it. She placed the pan with rashers on the fire. When it was sizzling she cracked the eggs and dropped them in.
As the eggs were finishing, Mark emerged from the trees fifty yards away, carrying a rifle, on webbing, over his shoulder. He waved to her and she waved back. “Breakfast’s ready, what did you get?”
“Nothing today, just scouting. You were sleeping so peacefully that I didn’t want to wake you. I often go for an early morning walk. Sometimes I bag breakfast, like a rabbit or wood-duck, but not today,” said Mark, but then added, “That smells real good.”
He dropped two pieces of bread on the dull coals and, after a few seconds, flipped them over. After another ten seconds there were two perfectly cooked pieces of toast. He passed her one and put a handful of tea in the simmering, half-full billy. He found two camp chairs tucked away on the truck, set them up and poured two cups of tea. They ate side by side.
“How would you like to see the real desert?” Mark asked Susan, “We could cut across to the east, around the edge of the Simpson Desert today and tomorrow, before heading up to the Gulf. You said you need to be in Darwin on Sunday week to catch your plane didn’t you?”
Susan nodded, more than a week seemed an eternity away.
Chapter 7 – Simpson Desert, to Barrow Creek – Day 19-21
Susan and Mark packed their things quickly after breakfast. Then before they got on the road he checked the two spare tyres, the water and fuel tanks, then the engine oil. “I fuelled up in Yulara so we have enough fuel to go about 1000 kilometres yet. But you still need to check. Doesn’t do to run dry in the middle of nowhere,” explained Mark.
Then they were on their way, turning back onto a main dirt road going east. They did a detour to the Henbury Craters and admired at the way a meteorite had scooped such a large hole out of the dry stony hillside. Mark and Susan walked briskly in the still and chill morning air, doing a circuit of the craters. No one else was in sight.
“Bit early for tourists, if we come back in a couple hours there’ll be plenty,” said Mark.
They drove north onto Stuart Highway, and as they swept down into a valley, with the green line of the Finke River ahead, they turned to the east, following a sandy dirt road heading towards the morning sun. Another hour and a half of driving followed, on a series of back roads, which crossed a succession of sand dunes interspersed with flat areas of open grass and scrub and small clay pans. They came to a solitary rock outcrop called Chambers Pillar for late morning tea. It stood alone, a silent pale yellow and ochre sentinel, surveying its empty desert kingdom of two lonely crows.
It was a tourist site and several visitors arrived as they were drinking their tea, walking around and climbing up to the base to witness the great views into the distance. They waved and called out distant hellos but otherwise remained separate.
Mark and Susan continued east and began to swing south, running alongside ever-bigger dunes that marked the west of the Simpson Desert.
Mark seemed to have an encyclopaedic knowledge of all these back roads, turning this way and that, cutting his way across the country, while maintaining a broad direction. He explained that creeks and rivers ran out from the ranges to the western edge of the desert where they ended in a series of swamps which he called flood-outs. These became massive pools of water after rain.
Now, with the heaviest rain of the year a past memory, these flood-outs were drying, but still lush. The roads that a year earlier were well underwater were now becoming trafficable. Mark told her that in remnant swamps lush vegetation grew to the height of a vehicle roof.
The swamps were populated by fat cattle, mostly enormous bullocks. They seemed to do little but eat. Many had grown so fat they waddled. A vast profusion of waterbirds, ducks, pelicans, swans, and waders, lived here too. As they passed these flew off in dense white clouds.
Then the swamps were left behind, and they passed alongside vast sand dunes, bank behind bank. As they drove they saw cattle and the occasional camel, sometimes they glimpsed distant buildings, which Mark told her were cattle station homesteads. They kept heading east and south along a mix of roads and tracks.
Now they were into the desert proper heading to the southeast, running between massive sand hills along a set of faint wheel tracks. All signs of human habitation had dropped away.
Mark told her they were heading for flood-out country at the very end of the Finke River where it ended in the desert at the border of South Australia and the Northern Territory, beyond that was a flowing bore where they would camp for the night. Mark said that it formed an oasis in the desert.
In the afternoon Mark and Susan stopped at a clay-pan, where water had pooled between a two mighty sand dunes. They lit a fire and had a cup of tea along with bread, cheese and cracker biscuits. It was followed by a mug of cool water that Mark poured from a waterbag, which Susan had noticed, hanging just behind the vehicle cabin. It had a slight canvas taste, but was cool and refreshing.
They had seen no one else for hours. Susan had never experienced such a total sense of solitude. She thought she should feel scared and isolated in this remote place, with this man she barely knew. Yet, instead, she felt contentment and elation. It was a place of perfection; the two of them, the desert, endless red hues of sand, splashes of purple, yellow, and white desert flowers and a rich blue sky that stretched away into infinity. It gave rest for her soul. She felt joy to be in the company of someone who drew sustenance from it as she did.
After eating Susan and Mark sat silent and peaceful, absorbing their quiet solitude and the land around them. Here was something beyond words. People had come to deserts for millennia to find this, man lost in vastness, on a scale that exceeded imagination.
Susan must have dozed off, sitting on the sand with her back against the swag, because the movement of Mark packing to go snapped her from her daze. Reluctantly she rose and they drove on.
Susan lost all concept of time, distance, and direction—other than an awareness of the sun and where it sat in the sky. With the glowing disc behind them starting to cast long shadows, the colours of the sand grew bright as it reflected the light.
An unknown time later, having passed yet more sand dunes and flood-outs, they came to their destination, the flowing bore.
Mark explained that, decades earlier, a drilling crew had sunk this bore. As they reached the water a huge blast of pressure had blown out the wellhead. For fifty years it had flowed, inestimable amounts of water, rising from far below the earth in a thing called the Great Artesian Basin, the aquifer that covered half of inland Australia, and which lay under this entire desert and a thousand miles beyond.
Some said the water started its journey in the New Guinea highlands, where hundreds of inches of rain fell each year. Slowly, over hundreds or thousands of years, it oozed through rocks far underground until it filled the ground below this place. It was like the immensity of the desert, unseen, yet at a scale beyond human comprehension.
When the bore water flow first began it had risen thirty feet into the air, a massive geyser. Now it was like a steady bubbling flow, rising to Susan’s chest height as it came out. Trapped between low hills it flowed out into a green space, drinking place of desert animals, place of green grass. After a few hundred yards all sign of water was gone, returned to sky or its underground source, and there was only desert again.
They made their camp on a dry clay-pan within sight of the bore flow. Mark found a pair of binoculars that he passed to Susan, along with a “What Bird Is That” book.
He encouraged her to try and identify some of the innumerable birds that came in to drink. He also suggested that she also keep a lookout for other animals that may come to drink, perhaps a camel or an old bullock.
Mark was seeking a big fat bullock for his larder. He explained that sometimes they came here to drink in the evening dusk or full dark. These were the escapees from stations, way up north, coming from hundreds of miles away. Some found their way into this place after floods or storms broke down fences and lived on years later, out in the farthest reaches of the desert, walking onward between sand dunes running southeast until they emerged here.
Mark pointed to a low succulent bush with bright pink flowers that grew in clumps around their camp. He broke off a piece and crushed it between his fingers, so the juice ran out and dripped to the ground, “This is parakeelya,” he told her, “After rain it grows between the dunes. Where there is parakeelya cattle do not need to drink, this gives both food and water. So they walk hundreds of miles, living on this. When a long dry comes, it dies away. Then they must come here to drink in the summer heat. But for now it is growing across the desert and they do not need to come here to drink.
“But cattle are creatures of habit, so still some come, perhaps there will be one tonight. If there is, I will take its meat, either as it drinks, or by following its tracks in the early morning. Usually, after a big drink, they don’t walk far before they stop to rest. Meat is good for trading with mines and aboriginal communities where we’ll be going.
“What lives out here no one else can lay claim to. So they’re free for the taking; that is, if you are smart enough to find them. But it’s easier said than done, they’re incredibly clever animals, they only survive if they can avoid people. I like to try—I enjoy the challenge. Sometimes I succeed.”
It was an hour until dark, so Mark suggested they climb up a nearby sand dune that provided a wide view of the surrounding countryside. The dune was surprisingly high and it was hard to climb. But they worked their way up, puffing as they went. At the summit they gained a panorama of the desert as evening settled. They sat in the lee of the dune, just below the top, where they could look back towards their camp. It was silent in the evening stillness, and they sat in this silence. After a few minutes Mark pointed out a huge eagle, circling above them.
“A wedge-tail, it must have a nest somewhere around. It’s looking for something, perhaps a rabbit, for its dinner.” As he spoke the eagle folded its wings and plummeted down to where the grass grew green on the edge of the soak. As it soared aloft again, Susan saw it was carrying a brown furry object in its talons, an unfortunate rabbit, now dinner.
A little time later they saw movement to the west, perhaps a kilometre away. Susan’s eyes tried to pinpoint where it came from, but it was indistinct in the evening haze. She picked up the binoculars and zoomed to where she had sensed movement. Now it came sharp in her focus, a group of camels were walking through the mixed trees, browsing as they went. There were six large ones and three smaller ones, females with some calves. About a hundred yards behind was an even larger animal, a bull camel tracking along behind the female group. Despite feeding, they moved along rapidly. Before long they reached the edge of the soak. There one raised its nose in the air, tasting the breeze. Without an obvious signal they formed into a file and drifted away, fading into desert at a steady trot.
“They’re like ships of the desert, the way they silently come and go,” noted Susan, “Why did they change direction before they ate or drank, and head away?”
“Out here they see little of people, but on the stations, back towards Alice, people shoot them because they break fences. Others round them up and catch them. So, to survive, camels try to keep away from people. They probably caught our smell, wafting in the evening breeze and decided they would rather be some place else.”
There was a scurrying noise in a clump of spinifex near where they sat. Mark put his finger to his lips. Seconds later a small, mouse-like, furry creature, ran out. With a springy step, it sniffed here and there, making little darting movements as it scurried this way and that. Suddenly it sprung high into the air and caught a large beetle in its paws, almost half the size of the creature. Mark and Susan watched, as it proceeded to eat it with apparent relish, crunching every last morsel then licking its lips. A few seconds later it was joined by a second, identical creature. The sniffed each other warily, then, as if frightened, they sprung back into the spinifex together. The shadow of a hawk passed a few feet above them.
Susan looked to her other side, hearing a faint chirp. In a bush, so close she could almost touch it, was a mother blue wren with a nest of chicks. The mother made little cheeps as she dipped her beak towards each open mouth, transferring food to each in turn. She moved so fast it was like little flashes of light as she darted hither and thither amongst the low branches alongside the nest. Then another of her kind was sitting next to her—a male, the female’s mate, with even more brilliant plumage, returned to contribute his share. He repeated the feeding of the chicks. Then, for a brief second, the two birds sat side by side on a small twig, making a ritual of re-acquaintance before flitting away.
Now a chill was falling in the still evening; Susan gave a shiver.
Mark noticed, “Time to return for dinner. It gets really cold out here at night, so you will want warm clothes.”
“I expect you to keep me warm tonight, that’s what you are here for.” Susan answered cheekily.
As they reached the bottom of the dune, coming alongside the soak, there was a whirring sound in the sky above. They both looked up. Framed in the last rays of the sun was a vast cloud of iridescent budgerigars, tens on tens of thousands, a number far beyond counting. They circled in a tight spiral whorl then settled en mass to drink. With another whir they were away, gone into the sky.
A wealth of wildlife lives here in this remote desert place. Far beyond what I ever imagined, Susan thought.
She and Mark settled into the evening, next to a fire, with sizzling sausages and another pannikin of rum. Of old bullocks there were no signs; like phantoms of the ocean, coming only when not expected or looking another way.
They were both tired and slept soundly, cuddled together for warmth. Lovemaking was forgotten until the call of a bird brought them awake in early dawn light. Then, well refreshed, they pleasured each other and slept again.
Mark got up to stoke the fire. While, Susan thought about joining him, she decided it was too cold out of the swag, and burrowed back, deep under the covers.
Later, hidden in her cocoon of comfort, she heard a noise above her. She poked her nose out. Mark was holding out a steaming mug of tea and a plate of toast, bacon and eggs.
“Something for her ladyship, made while she slumbered. It’s cold out, there is ice at the edge of the soak and the cabin thermometer reads minus six degrees. So I thought you needed breakfast in bed before you emerge to face the day.”
Susan put down the plate and cup and took his hand. “I hope you are coming to have it with me. The breakfast looks and smells fantastic, but what I most want is for you to come in here, sheltered from the desert cold, and warm me against your body.”
Mark began to climb in, food forgotten, maleness aroused. Susan put up her hand, “First we must eat. We’re going to need the energy.”
She made space beside her. Mark laid his body there as she climbed astride. She placed pillows under his head and, taking the plate, fed him alternating mouthfuls.
She could feel his maleness, hard against her belly. Still feeding him, Susan aligned her body and pushed him within her. Sex merged with breakfast. They devoured food; they devoured each other, alternating steps, increasing gusto, until controlled no longer.
After, lying in his arms, she said, “You are the sexiest, most precious man I have met. I am crazed with desire and don’t want this to end. Could we stay in the desert, forever?”
She felt Mark’s arms tighten around her and he pushed his face into her hair. No words were said, but it felt like an emotion that mirrored hers. His body shook slightly; it was almost like he was crying inside but his face was hidden.
She ran her fingers through his hair, and whispered inside her mind, I love you.
Later, Susan would remember this moment as their most perfect place of existence, the place before any shadow had come into their sky.
After breakfast Mark scouted the water edges. “Well, we missed nothing in our sleep; nothing came last night, no tracks. Still, I am glad you came here, very few do.”
Susan nodded, “Amen to that.”
After breakfast they walked for another hour along the soak and amongst the dunes. Sometimes she skipped, her joy outpouring into physical exuberance. Sometimes they held hands, or she hugged herself to him as he walked along. Once she climbed a dune to above his head, and rushing down, flung herself into his arms with total abandon. He caught her and swung her through the air with effortless strength. It was an aimless rambling walk, more about each other and the delight of togetherness than about a place in the desert. But the desert was their playground and the warming sun gave a sense of immortal delight. For a short time she could believe that their life could go on together, forever, just like this.
It was mid-morning when they packed up. They returned the way they had come for the first couple hours, following yesterday’s tracks. Then they took a different road, which travelled further north along the desert edge. The trip rolled along, not unlike yesterday, but with a sense of kinship between them that Susan had not experienced with anyone else. She sensed that Mark was feeling something similar. A couple times they stopped their car on a high desert ridge and gazed away into the endless space. They made occasional aimless conversation, but it was like punctuation marks between empty spaces, spaces without need of filling, as befitted this land of emptiness.
As they drove between two large sand dunes, in the mid-afternoon, Mark sighted a big bullock trotting east towards the ridge of sand a couple hundred metres away.
He pulled the car to a halt. “I have been looking for a big fat one, just like this.” He opened a long steel box with a heavy lock. He removed a heavy hunting rifle, with a gleaming polished scope. Mark cracked the bolt open and fed a round into the breach from the magazine, then clicked on the safety. Susan could see from his confident handling that he had often used guns before.
He walked away from the car to where a bent tree formed a natural rest at shoulder height. The bullock had stopped in a patch of scrub, at the foot of a big dune, now a good 300 metres away. It was barely visible and its head little more than a black dot as it ate some succulent foliage. She watched Mark ease off the safety catch and steady himself, a pause for maybe two seconds, then crack. The bullock fell down as if pole-axed.
Mark returned to the car and they drove over to near where it lay, picking a way across the bits of broken ground with care. Susan walked across to the body.
She looked at this massive animal, at least a ton, with rolls of fat flesh bulging around its hips and tail. She tried to see where bullet had hit it; it must have been a head or spine shot to fall like that. She finally located a small red dot in the brown skin, just below and behind the ear. Under this mark she could feel smashed bone. She was a fair shot and her father was good, but Mark had real skill to pull off a shot like that, accurate to the inch over 300 yards.
In half an hour Mark had boned out the carcass, loading the meat into clear plastic bags, which went in to the cooler on the large blocks of ice. She helped carry the smaller cuts and then with cleaning up. The large pieces were very heavy, completely beyond her to lift. Mark carried them with apparent ease. They packed up and headed on again.
It felt like “Out of Africa” or “English Patient” with panorama after panorama opening before their eyes. Over each ridge new rows of dunes emerged. Gradually to the north, blue in the distance, mountains ranges grew out of the horizon, the East MacDonnell’s, with Arltunga, their evening destination.
Finally, in the late evening, the hillsides glowing intense blue, they arrived at the Arltunga Bush Hotel. A pre-booked cabin with a hot shower awaited them.
Mark carried a large slab of meat to the hotel manager, a good friend. He was back in a minute. “We’re expected for dinner and drinks on them, in return for the meat.”
They showered, dressed and went into the bar. Dinner was homemade bush tomato-flavoured sausages, along with a large piece of roast meat, said to be camel, and vegetables. Their glasses were endlessly full and the cheer flowed.
This was the first place she had been where Mark seemed among friends, these people greeted him as someone they knew. He greeted them back and they all laughed and joked together. They all made Susan feel included and welcome.
After dinner a guitar was found and country songs were sung: mining songs, stockman songs, songs about the country and its people. Songs by people called Slim: Slim Whitman, Slim Dusty. ‘A pub with no beer’, ‘Leave him in the long yard – the baldy bay’. Susan sang along with gusto. This was the Australian bush of legend. It pleased her a lot to see Mark in his element, amongst friends.
Finally, sometime after midnight, last drinks then stumps were called. She and Mark walked, arm in arm, back to their cabin. Their lovemaking was perfunctory, both full of drink and soon asleep. She lay cuddled into him and felt even closer than before.
In the morning a cooked breakfast was served in the pub. Then, with backslapping farewells, they were on their way, heading towards the north-west across some of the biggest mountains she had seen so far.
They stopped for a cup of tea at a little mine that eked out a living from the rocky hills and their minerals. Mark passed another great slab of beef to the grateful miners.
They hung it in a scrawny mulga tree. Mark explained it would hang and dry over several days, up to a week. With a dry outside crust it would keep and not spoil. The flavour and tenderness would improve, day after day, until it would just melt in your mouth.
Mark suggested that a miner take Susan for a tour into the workings, a shaft cut into the side of the hill. A grizzled bull of a man, with calloused hands and little English, accompanied her. He showed her how they propped the walls and chipped into the shiny seams. He brought her to a seam that held possible gemstones. Pointing his torch, to capture glints and reflections, he showed her how to look for the colour.
Mark remained behind, deep in conversation with the mine manager. Glancing back, when almost gone from sight, Susan saw this man open a case and show Mark something. It appeared to interest him greatly. They were both absorbed and unaware, but her companion noted and said. “Maybe they trade.”
Susan found the tour interesting, but she realised what backbreaking work it must be. They had some mechanical equipment. But a lot of it seemed to require a pick and shovel in a dark dusty hole, with strange shadows from the electric bulbs. Still, she could sense the excitement in her tour guide, as he told her how, just sometimes, they found fantastic stones hidden amongst all the muck.
When they returned the two men were drinking another cup of tea, having concluded whatever their business transactions were.
They drove on. The roads were rough and stony and the mountains were steep. There were places where the road was little more than wheel tracks over the rocks creeping around the sides of huge hills. The side slope made Susan nervous, knowing where they would end up if they lost control, but Mark was concentrating hard and seemed in his element, fully confident. So she relaxed, trusting him as she left herself in his care.
Sometimes he drove in low gear creeping over broken ground as the engine chugged, other times they would come across flat valley floors, where he accelerated and went up through the gears. Other times they traversed broken-up sections of washed-out creek crossings, picking their way around rocks, holes and obstacles. It seemed very few people ever came this way.
Mark was knowledgeable about the country and its geology, giving her a running commentary, explaining as they went. She realised she was gaining a unique view of this country of childhood stories and imagination; it was becoming ever more real and fascinating as they drove.
They saw huge bullocks aplenty, along with scrub bulls. Mark explained that these were owned by the station Mark and Susan were driving through. These cattle were like a piggy bank full of thousand dollar notes. It could be opened when money was needed. Now, when times and seasons were good, these backcountry cattle were left alone to grow big and fat. When the dry times came again this four footed gold would be turned into cash.
There were also lots of brumbies, proud stallions with their necks arched, that herded and harassed their broods of mares, ears laid back. Once they spied two brumby groups meet near a waterhole. The stallions reared up and bared their teeth in threat. One backed away, herding his mares, while the victor galloped behind him for a few seconds biting at his rump. He quickly returned to his own harem, perhaps fearful that another would steal them away.
Around lunchtime they stopped at a place where a soak ran out of the side of a hill. Hoof marks indicated recent cattle and horse use, but now it was theirs, joined by multitudes of the little zebra finches and an occasional iridescent parrot.
Mark lit another fire of dried mulga, which burned fiercely. As it burned down he took a black heavy metal plate, about a foot long, from beside a spare wheel—“My mobile barbeque.” And from yesterday’s bullock meat, he sliced off two, inch thick, slabs and put them on the grill, along with half a kidney.
The scent of the meat was delicious, served on a slice of bread with pickles. The meat was rich flavoured and tender, best restaurant quality. Mark said it would improve more if hung for at least three more days.
In the mid-afternoon they finally emerged from the mountains onto a wide, open grass plain to the west.
“Yambah Station, one of the best blocks in the Alice,” Mark said.
Now they were heading for Barrow Creek pub where, that night, a bush band was supposed to be playing. It was over 200 kilometres north. They had a quick drink from the waterbag then went on.
Two and a half hours later, with late afternoon drifting towards dusk, they came round a bend. Alongside low rocky hills was a sign pointing to Barrow Creek Hotel. Rooms were booked out, but many people were camped out on the flat ground nearby, come in from the stations and camps to enjoy the night. Mark and Susan drove to one side and rolled out their swag. Half the population was aboriginal. This was Susan’s first introduction to these people who all seemed to know Mark well.
Mark explained he had done a lot of work around here, mining work, station work, work in these aboriginal communities; sinking bores, putting up windmills, fixing houses and anything else needed. These people had become his friends. He called to one older man named Johnnie, a tribal elder. Lifting out a piece of meat he offered it to him.
“This one good bullock, Johnnie. Found him eating parakeelya, on the edge of that desert country. You know, other side Artlunga. How about you take this one for your dinner. Pay back for that kangaroo you gave me last year.”
With a broad smile and some gesticulating thanks Johnnie carried it away.
Over near the pub the band was warming up, playing reels and jigs. A few bare-footed aboriginal girls were dancing in the dust. To the side were several cut down 44-gallon drums, with roaring fires burning inside them, to ward off the evening chill. Most people were drinking beer, though a few old-timers could be seen with their rum bottles and pannikins. A barbeque, with steak, sausages and onions, along with piles of buttered bread, coleslaw and tomato sauce, was on offer. The price was a donation to the Flying Doctor.
Groups were mingling, coming and going, warming up for the evening dancing. All at once the band struck up a full jig and the caller told everyone to put down their drinks and come and join in for the first dance. He led them slowly through their moves at first. Then they were on their own. The music got faster and faster and most people joined in and kept up, after a fashion. When the song was over there were cheers and calls of, “More! More!”
Sometimes Susan danced with Mark; sometimes other men sought her out. Eventually a supper break was called, and weary legs rested, before the band resumed for their final bracket. It was a great night, carried along by the music, dancing in the dust.
In the late-late night only a few remained, hunched around the fires; Mark, deep in tales with a couple old-timers, over a bottle of rum, sat with them around a fire.
Susan stayed on a while, but finally she signalled to Mark that she was off to bed. She yawned as she walked to their campsite and crawled into the rolled out swag. This was the first time she had gone to bed alone. While part of her missed Mark’s strong, warm body she was content lying out in an incredible star filled night, as the fires slowly guttered and died away. The only noise was a distant hum of a diesel generator and the mutter of soft conversation. A bright shooting star flashed across her vision. Susan felt happy in this remote but amazing place.
When she woke in the early dawn, Mark was lying beside her, fully dressed and snoring quietly. As the dawn lit the eastern sky she made her way to the temporary shower block, and washed herself, shivering in the cold. She returned, gazing at the sky. It was just another desert sunrise, ordinary in its extraordinariness. The light was what captivated her, golden lance shafts spearing from the horizon. Far above, at the outer edges of the world, they lit fine filaments of clouds in endless hues of shifting pastel pinks, extraordinary light, extraordinary colour, everyday desert ordinariness, she thought.
Mark slept on; she could smell the rum now she was washed. She cuddled into him again in their bed, content to be with him and enjoy their small window together. The sun was just a hand width above the horizon when Mark stirred. As he opened bleary eyes he became aware of her.
“You look so fresh and pretty,” he said sleepily, as he admired her freshly washed face. “Now time to give a man his pleasure.”
“But Mark, I’m all dressed. Plus it’s daylight and all these people will see us.”
He reached out and pulled the canvas swag flap over their heads. “Not now, they won’t.” He directed her hand to his hard maleness.
This lovemaking had an illicit thrill, in a hidden place of pleasure, with the noises of other people waking up and moving around them. They pushed it away, absorbed in each other. This was their cave of delight, under the shelter of the canvass. She knew this strange man was taking over and consuming her life. It was beyond any power she had to stop it.
An hour later Mark was off to shower and shave. They ate breakfast together, this time steak and eggs at the hotel bar. Mark left her there, saying he was off to top up the fuel tanks and give the vehicle another careful check over. They were cutting though some rough country to the east, where they would camp a night at a big waterhole, before heading up into the Gulf, leaving the desert behind for tropical scenery, weather and fishing. It was now mid-August, the end of Australia’s winter, but it was still cold here; Mark said the weather would warm up fast as they travelled north.
Susan sat at the bar and looked at the collection of curios spread over the walls. Lots of photos of people, some recent, some decades old—mostly station people and truckies, but some who looked like tourists and also many aboriginal people.
Susan’s attention was drawn to an old newspaper story that someone had put up: “Revisiting the site of the Conniston Massacre.”
As she read she realised that, only fifty miles west was a place called Brooks Soak, site of the last big aboriginal massacre in Australia, led by the policeman who had lived here at Barrow Creek. She had heard of aboriginal massacres in the 1800s, but this wasn’t back then; this was after the First World War. It was at a time when she thought countries like Australia had moved past that frontier mentality, to places with laws and consequences. It was within the lifetime of her own extended family, her grandparents and other people she had known were alive then.
As she read the journalist’s story of two decades prior, she realised that this journalist had actually talked to people who had lived through this time, both children from the stations around who had known the perpetrators, and relatives of the aboriginal victims—old people now. These were survivors from the Conniston community who had been there, felt the terror and seen what happened as dozens of their brothers, sisters, mothers, fathers, uncles and aunts, were rounded up and butchered like cattle.
It was payback for the death of one white dingo trapper, who had stolen from his killer. Estimates were that at least sixty, and probably more than a hundred, men, women and children had been butchered. What followed was a travesty of justice, at first no action was taken but, following heated demands from other parts of Australia and around the world, the ring-leaders were taken to Darwin for trial, only to be acquitted. The local jury considered that the actions taken by these ‘upstanding citizens’ were justified.
Susan felt shock for this callous event so close to here, a dark underbelly of the country; beautiful outside in its rugged remoteness; this brutality lay just below the sunlit surface. Susan shivered; glad that this happened in another time and was now passing from human experience, or at least from the places and experiences she knew.
As she stood, musing, in this black mind space, Mark came and stood alongside her. She pointed to the newspaper article, saying, “Did you know about this?”
“Of course, I have worked there. Some of those who lived it told me.”
“Isn’t it awful, that it could still happen within the lifetime of these people?” she said.
He shrugged, looking a bit perplexed, “Why do you find it surprising? Out here life is cheap, death is easy, and the pretence of civilisation is thin. It’s how it is in most places around the world and always will be. For the dead it’s no big deal: one minute alive, the next gone. But the living must protect themselves and take their own retribution. I would have put my own bullet into that policeman and each of his mates; then dumped their bodies in the far out desert where no one would find them, instead of sending them away and hoping for justice. It is better to kill bad bastards than pretend justice can be done by others.”
There was something ruthless in his voice. Susan felt sure this wasn’t idle talk; she sensed Mark really would have done the killing himself, if he thought it was needed, with no compunction and no questions asked. Still, Susan couldn’t disagree that his way would have served justice better for these people.
Now she didn’t want to talk about it anymore. She didn’t want her image of Mark, so kind and gentle to her, mixed with such brutality. All those days Susan had spent with him out here had been filled with a bright sunlight. She didn’t want darkness intruding and spoiling it.
“You’re probably right, better not to think of it anymore,” she said, flashing a smile and walking away.
It was mid-morning before they were away, and the sun was well up. Leaving with them were many other late risers from the previous night of revelry, now much subdued.
They travelled a few miles further north before turning off to the east side of the highway, taking a medium sized gravel road. It had old signs for some places that Susan assumed were stations or aboriginal communities; Murray Downs, Elkedra, Epenarra, Erelola Rockhole and Frew River, their distances ranging from one hundred to three hundred kilometres away. Alongside these old signs was a much shinier, new looking sign that bore the names of Davenport Range National Park and Old Police Station Waterhole, with symbols for camping and rough roads.
The first hour was smooth dirt road, but this ended with a turnoff to Murray Downs. After this the road deteriorated rapidly, with many areas of sand and corrugations along with broken stony ground. They often followed dried up creeks, their rock littered beds running between stony ridges, flanked by coarse spinifex sand plains. They drove through lots of small broken hills, the bright orange-red stony sides beautiful as the sun flashed off them. The wealth of wildlife was astonishing in and around these hills, the innumerable bright colours of birds, large goannas sunning themselves on rocks, snakes that slithered across the road. On the hillsides they watched large solid-bodied wallabies hop away on their approach.
They passed a sign for the Erelola Rockhole. Two rusted-out car bodies were visible in the bush nearby.
Mark explained, “There’s an aboriginal camp near here. They buy old cars. With little maintenance, they don’t last long on the rough roads. As they break down they’re abandoned where they stop. Then the occupants return to time-honoured foot travel, like they did before for tens of thousands of years.”
After they left this turnoff behind the road improved, with less traffic wear and tear, but the country got steadily rougher. Susan’s bottom was aching from all the bouncing over the rocky road.
Finally they came to a sign to the left that read “Frew River 4WD Loop Track” and below it “Old Police Waterhole 8.” An additional sign read, “Rough Road – Only for experienced 4WD.”
Mark stopped at the corner. He got out and stretched. Susan climbed out of her side. She asked, “Is something the matter?”
“No, just a bad road from here; it’s only eight kilometres but it’ll take an hour. There are lots of parts where walking is faster.”
After five minutes of walking and stretching they climbed back in. Mark put the car into low range four-wheel drive and they headed off.
He had not exaggerated. It was slow and it was really rough. She had thought yesterday’s drive through the mountains was rough but this was at another level, not big hills but endless ups and downs as they crossed small broken ridges and followed, crossed and recrossed the same rocky creeks endlessly. There were times where they practically crawled up hills covered with loose stones, with all four wheels spinning in the rock scree, gradually inching their way forward, as one wheel found temporary grip, then another.
Finally they crested a ridge, and there lying before them, was a vast waterhole, broad and clear in the midday sun, lying alongside a broken red range. It was isolated yet beautiful, a sparkling jewel in a desolate landscape of rocky spinifex hills. They had not passed any other car since the Rockhole turnoff. Now it looked like their own private paradise had opened up before them, it felt as if Mark and Susan were the country’s sole inhabitants.
They parked just back from the water, on a flat green grassy foreshore, interspersed with large shady trees. They were both starving, so lunch was quickly made; slabs of cold beef, sliced off a piece of cooked meat, were laid over bread slices and topped with tomato relish and a liberal sprinkling of salt, washed down by two cold beers each.
The water beckoned. The afternoon was warm with a cloud-free sky. A sandy beach in front of their campsite led to water so clear it sparkled like a shiny glass, freshly washed. The air was still. Opposite, red hills made almost perfect reflections on smooth water. Occasional light wind puffs and fish splashes made tiny ripples, fractures through this mirror. As they died glassy perfection reformed.
Susan walked down onto the sand. She stood, toes just sinking into the wet sand of the edge, absorbing the atmosphere.
Mark suddenly rushed at her, pushing her into the deep. She ducked under his arm and, as she did, scooped a handful of water, and splashed the length of his back, still covered by his shirt. The water was freezing, and Mark yelped and spun, two hands flinging water to drench her. She responded in kind. They were both laughing and splashing until soon completely saturated.
It brought to mind their first day of the little beach. She felt her desire for him welling up. Turned away from Mark, Susan grasped the hem of her shirt and lifted it over her head. Her bra had disappeared in their morning passion. Spinning round, Mark could see that her nipples were erect, as her breasts pushed into in his face.
She challenged, “Well, what will you splash now?” Mark simply picked her up, carried her into deep water, his mouth on her breast, and fell over, pulling them both below. They surfaced together, spluttering. They looked at each other and laughed, both knowing what they wanted now.
After their lust was satiated they lay together, side by side in the warm shallows, sharing stories and memories of other bush and camping trips, he telling her of safaris in Africa and she telling him of hunting with her Dad in Scotland.
She finally plucked up the courage to ask him about his early life, asking where he had learned his bush and shooting skills.
“I wish you could meet my father, I am sure he’d like you. He thought Edward, my last boyfriend, wasn’t quite man enough. I know he wouldn’t think that of you. Did your father take you bush or teach you to shoot like mine did for me?”
Mark was silent. It was as if he was weighing what to reveal, a brief flash of openness showed in his face, then the shutters came down.
“What does it matter? I don’t want to talk about my father. He was a dick—lazy, useless, a drunk and a bully.”
Susan knew she should leave it but a little voice inside her head would not let go. “Surely someone in your family was good to you, what about your mother?”
Mark winced and turned away. “I really don’t want to talk about it, but seeing as you are determined to know, my mother died when I was little. I can barely remember her. I suppose she was OK, but she was scared of my father. Then, one day she just wasn’t there anymore. A long time later my father said she was dead, had died in an accident. There was no funeral. It was like she was written out of our lives. Later I found out she had committed suicide, but I don’t think anyone cared or missed her.
She never did anything for me. As soon as I was old enough I went bush. Since then I have worked all over, doing anything that paid and getting on with my own life. I haven’t seen my father since; perhaps he died one time when he was drunk, perhaps he’s a bum who sleeps on the street, but I don’t think he even noticed I was gone.”
Mark stood, brushed himself off and said, “If it’s OK with you I’ll go off on my own for a couple hours and do some hunting?”
While it sounded like a question, Susan knew it was a statement of fact. This is what he would do and she was not invited. She felt a stab of hurt at the rejection. But she smiled back and said, “Sure, I’m happy to rest for a couple hours and read a book.”
As she backed off it was like Mark relented a bit too. He said. “If you feel like trying you might catch a fish on a line. You get yellow bellies in here and you can sometimes catch one on a piece of meat.”
He returned with a hand line, fitted with a hook and sinker along, along with an off-cut of beef, which he placed on a rock beside her.
Turning from her, Mark took out a medium sized rifle and a box of ammunition, which he dropped in a backpack, along with a water bottle. With a wave he was gone. Susan watched his retreating form until he was out of sight.
He didn’t turn back or wave.
It was like he had suddenly cut her out of his life, the tenderness of their lovemaking together, only a few minutes before, now vanished.
Susan felt deflated and alone. She wished she could telephone her Mum, or Maggie from Cairns, just to have someone else to chat with.
It struck her that she hadn’t spoken to anyone or told people of her movements since she was in Melbourne a week ago.
Mark had totally consumed her life, from the minute she had touched down in Alice Springs, five days before. Susan realised that no one she knew even knew his name, let alone that she was travelling with him in the far away Northern Territory.
Come to think of it, she had barely been anywhere in mobile phone range since she met him. She had charged her phone at Arltunga, two days back. Since Uluru she not noticed anywhere with a signal, though to be truthful, she had rarely looked at the phone or thought of contact with others. Deciding she didn’t want to waste the remaining 30% charge in the battery, she turned it off completely—just in case.
The afternoon sun was hot on her skin, and Susan was starting to turn pink. She became aware that she needed to put on sunscreen or go into the shade. Otherwise she would be red raw tonight. She had seen Mark with sun cream at some point, it must be somewhere in the cabin.
Susan climbed into the car and opened the glove box—nothing there. She tried the door compartments—still nothing there. Perhaps it was behind the seats? She slid the driver’s seat forward to look behind it; then she did the same on the passenger side, still nothing.
Then she noticed a first aid kit strapped to the back cabin wall, behind her seat. She thought that perhaps there would be something in the first aid box. She unclipped it and sat it on her seat. The kit had three slide-out drawers and a flip top. She started systematically at the top, lots of little things, bandaids, tablet blister packs, small tubes, sewing needles and some syringes—nothing helpful right now. On the next level were bandages and dressings, plasters and tapes; still no sign of any sun cream. The third level looked more promising: bottles and larger tubes of various liniments, alcohol, disinfectant, cough medicine; but still no sun cream.
There was one more drawer at the bottom. It was tightly packed full of things in cloth packages. It was hard to open, but she wiggled and it came out. It didn’t look promising but she thought, I have come this far; I might as well look properly.
The first package was full of surgical instruments, obviously for more major accidents requiring stitching. She thought the second cloth wrapped package would be the same and was mildly surprised when, instead, she found 3 number plates sets, each held together with a plastic band and all wrapped together in an old calico bag.
She lifted one out, separated the two plates and found a tiny sticky label on the back of one plate which read “Butler.” Curious, she separated the next set, a similar sticker with the word “Brown,” then the final one, and sure enough a tiny label, “Brooks.”
This seemed strange. But, after Mark’s negative reaction to her past questions, this was not something to ask about on his return, no doubt there was a good explanation.
Susan carefully wrapped up all the bits, just the way she had found them, and put them back in place. Then she returned the first aid box to its exact place. Something to muse over for a day or two she thought, wondering about the three extra sets of number plates.
She sat on her passenger seat for a second, thinking about her afternoon. Would she fish or read? Glancing up, looking over to the driver’s corner of the dash, Susan smacked her hand to her forehead. There it was, a somewhat battered bottle of sun cream sat on the dashboard, clearly visible. She wondered how she had missed it there in the first place.
That decided her; with sun cream on she would fish and read, sitting on the edge of the water in the afternoon sun. Susan carefully covered her face, hands and legs with cream, found a long sleeved shirt and floppy hat for her head, and took a novel from her pack.
She threaded the meat on the hook and cast it out a few yards into the deep. Sitting on a rock with her toes in the water, line loosely wrapped around a finger, Susan opened her book and enjoyed the warmth of the afternoon sun.
She had read one chapter and was just starting the next, fishing forgotten, when the line twitched—a definite bite. Susan felt butterflies of excitement. Imagine that, catching her own fish, all by herself, here in the middle of Australia!
Book cast aside, she turned her attention to the fish. She had fished in England, also with her father, and had a sense of how to do it. Patience, let the fish explore and try the bait, no hasty pullbacks. She settled her nerves and waited.
The gentle tugging came back. Let the fish investigate and pick up the bait, she thought, imagining it feeling and tasting the bait with its mouth. She hoped it would pick it up properly, taking it right into its mouth.
Suddenly it all changed, now the fish had clearly taken the bait and began to swim off, giving the line a powerful pull. Her heart skipped a beat, but she calmed herself. Applying steady pressure back through the line with soft hands, Susan worked the fish towards her. There was a sudden violent surge of tugging as it realised it was trapped, but she held steady and tried to smooth out the more severe jerks with her hands. The jerking stopped, she pulled in line, hoping it had not got off; but no, it had just swum towards her. There it was again, a desperate attempt to get free; however, the hook held and the fish stayed attached. Soon Susan had it in the shallows, and then it was over, the fish on the sand next to her. It seemed huge, perhaps one or two kilos, with glistening golden scales on its sides and belly.
It looked something like the perch she knew from England, but without the stripes on it sides, and a much more golden colour. Part of her felt sorry to bring death to this creature, now helpless at the water edge. Another part felt proud of her own success, without help, catching this fish for dinner. She couldn’t wait to show it to Mark, he would be impressed.
Susan found a knife in a box on the back of the car which she had seen Mark use. She dispatched the fish, the way her father had shown her. Then, feeling slightly squeamish, she opened its belly and removed its innards. She cast them out into the water. First there was splashing as small fish nibbled, then a sudden swoop. Out of the sky came a large bird, like a hawk or falcon. It swooped down, plucked the remnants up with a talon and, with a screech of success, flew across the water to a dead tree where it sat and ate.
Susan felt a continued excitement, as if she had mastered a part of this remote place. Reading was forgotten. She covered the fish to protect it from other hungry animals and decided to do her own exploring, walking along the water’s edge to where it ended in a dry riverbed.
At its edge she found a path of sorts, where animals appeared to use a gully to come down to the water. She worked her way up this for perhaps a hundred yards until she came to a place where she could reach the top of the red rock hillside.
Here she sat, at the cliff edge, gazing out across the hill to the river bed and water below; Susan’s view extending to the far horizon where endless yellow, spinifex covered hills met blue sky. Something in this harsh stone country was eating its way into her soul, a different but kindred desolation to that of the sand desert of days just past.
She watched the coming and going of the desert animals that relied on this oasis. Three kangaroos: mother, large offspring and a small joey, head out of pouch, approached cautiously. They drank in quick sips, alert to any other visitors, then hopped a short distance away. Here, mother and large offspring nibbled on some green riverbed grass. The baby came out to explore before a noise caused it to startle and, a quick, headfirst tumble later, the baby was back inside the mother’s pouch of safety. They moved out of sight.
Minutes later a tan coloured dog emerged from the river’s edge and came down to the water. It lapped noisily. Then it too vanished, that was the first time she had seen a wild dingo. Now it was only birds, lizards scurrying over rocks, and herself, left in this place.
Perhaps half an hour passed in solitude. Then she spotted movement. It was Mark, walking down the riverbed, carrying something over his shoulder. She clambered down and ran to meet him.
“What have you got?” she asked.
“Just a couple ducks, thought we might have them for dinner,” he replied, indicating the two birds tied together to a stick over his shoulder.
Susan shuffled her feet awkwardly and said, “Sorry about before, I know it’s not my business.”
Mark’s hard expression softened; Susan moved in close and hugged herself to him. “Thank you for bringing me here; this is something really special, every bit as special as the sandy desert in its own way.”
Susan could feel something struggling to come out of Mark. She thought he might show or say something—anything—that would tell her more about who he really was or what was going on inside him.
But Mark just hugged her close and held her against him, saying nothing. After a minute, he pulled an arm’s length away, gripping Susan’s shoulders tightly in his hands, “I’m not the best person for you. We should just enjoy our trip together then get you to your Darwin plane. After that, who knows?”
It wasn’t quite a statement of commitment, but it was something more than nothing.
She had almost forgotten about her fishing success but, as they were walking back, Susan glimpsed the fish’s tail from beneath its covering.
Almost bursting with pride, Susan pointed to the fish, “Mark, I caught a fish! A big one, a golden yellow colour.”
“A big one eh,” Mark reached for her hands and held them a couple of feet apart, “This big?” he asked, gesturing to the distance between her hands.
She laughed with bubbling excitement, “Well, not quite, perhaps half that, but really big for me.”
Walking towards the fish, Susan raced ahead; she uncovered her fish and presented it to Mark.
“Well,” he said, with a smile, “it is pretty big, actually it is just the right size for our dinner.”
They lit a huge fire, and while the coals formed Mark dug a pit with a shovel off to the side. He half-filled it with hot coals from the fire, lay leaves over and placed the ducks and fish, with salt and bush herbs in their bellies over this. He covered them with more leaves and then another layer of coals. Mark’s final step was to cover it all with some bigger branches and earth.
Mark dusted off his hands and reached for a large cast iron pot—a camp oven he called it—and showed Susan how to make a damper and brownie for their dinner and breakfast. These roasted side by side as their fish and ducks cooked.
After an hour and a half Mark pronounced their dinner ready and uncovered the pit. Susan’s mouth watered as he peeled the burnt skins and revealed the succulent flesh of the ducks and the fish. A final sprinkle of salt and it was ready to eat.
They feasted with their fingers, eating morsels of meat on pieces of fresh-cooked damper. Dinner was accompanied by a cold bottle of champagne, a Moët no less, that Mark had found in the fridge. After they had eaten their fill of the meats they leaned back against the swag and ate brownie and butter, washed down with large mugs of tea. They watched in quiet stillness, as the light faded from the western sky and the first stars came into the clear night.
Susan would remember this later, as the best night of their time together; it was their magic place. Like the night in the desert, but now they had become even closer, and she still saw no shadows on their horizon.
She sometimes wondered, in the months that followed, if she could have stopped the trip there, and looked no further, would she have? Then her memory of the magic could have remained untouched without the awful madness to come.
LIGHTS ATTRACT INSECTS
INSECTS ATTRACT FROGS
FROGS ATTRACT SNAKES
TURN OFF LIGHTS
FLYING DOCTORS ARE 2 HRS AWAY
This was the sign at Hells Gate Roadhouse, which greeted their arrival. It had been a long day of driving.
After their idyllic afternoon and evening at Policeman’s Waterhole on the Frew River, they had risen early, when there was barely any light in the eastern sky. Mark insisted they not dally, as there was a full day of driving ahead of them.
Breakfast was a mug of tea, warmed on the still glowing coals of last night’s fire. Mark ate some leftover cold duck, while Susan contented herself with the remains of the damper and brownie, which she coated liberally with butter.
Then it was an hour of slow and rough four-wheel driving until they came out on the road to Epenarra. From there the road was mostly good, made of dirt, but well maintained.
They stopped at a roadhouse mid-morning, on the Barkly Highway where the road to Borroloola and the Gulf branched north. They had a half hour break to have a late breakfast, before Mark did vehicle maintenance. While Mark was topping up the fuel, Susan freshened herself in the bathroom. She thought of using the roadhouse’s payphone to ring home and say hello to her parents, but with the time difference it was late at night in England, and her parents would be asleep, besides, the news could wait until she saw them in a few days time.
So instead she bought a second cup of coffee for herself, and one for Mark, and sat on an old bench in the shade watching him work. He was so focused and Susan found his effortless strength and skill incredibly attractive. Perhaps sensing her gaze, Mark glanced up and noticed her. Susan gave him a wave before gesturing to the coffee mug. As Mark walked over, Susan tapped her feet happily. Mark took the coffee and downed it in one and punched her affectionately. She just smiled.
“Ready for a long day’s boring driving? I was thinking, if you wanted to, that you could do a bit of the driving today. It’s a long straight road for the next couple hours, not much to see. I thought I could play at tourist while you take the wheel.”
The offer thrilled Susan; she felt that it was a symbol of the trust growing between them. So she climbed into the driver’s seat and, after introductory instructions from Mark, they headed off. Susan drove cautiously at first as she got the feel of the heavy vehicle, but soon she drove with increasing confidence. The road was a narrow strip of bitumen, just wide enough for one car and, a couple times, Susan had to pull over to share the road with cars passing or going the other way.
At first Mark watched closely to be sure she was OK, but he quickly paid no mind to her driving and looked around. Susan was elated with his display of confidence in her.
As they headed north they left the desert scrub behind and emerged into what Mark said was the start of the good cattle country It began as grass plains between low scrubby ridges, then it was just vast rolling miles of grass, extending from horizon to horizon. Mark told her how, at times, when a storm came rolling across this land, you could see it from more than a hundred miles away.
They passed occasional groups of big shiny-skinned cattle, “Santas,” Mark called them, “short for Santa Gertrudis.”
Susan drove on for another hour and a half, to what Mark said was the northern edge of the Barkly Tableland, then he took over again. Now the landscape outside slowly changed, more scrubby patches than rolling grass plains and less shiny and fat cattle.
They veered further east, heading away from the afternoon sun. The cattle country was left behind. They were now driving through broken landscapes of fast drying creeks and little gullies that ran southeast. The ground was mostly covered in coarse gravel and wiry dead grass, with no cattle to be seen.
In the mid-afternoon, they turned onto a small track off their road and stopped. Mark said he wanted to test and sight-in his rifles in a place where he wouldn’t disturb anyone. They were near the Nicholson Aboriginal Reserve, “A total no man’s land.” he called it.
Susan was happy for the break, welcome after the hours of driving. She helped Mark measure out fifty metres exactly using a tape, and put targets in place. Mark used the truck door to steady himself as he shot groups of five shots into each target. All shots were close together, all within an inch circle, though for one rifle, a 223, they were all about an inch low of the bullseye. Mark made a minute adjustment to its sights and then shot off a single round. It was almost dead centre.
Mark passed her the 223. “Do you want a go?”
She nodded and took her place, lifting the rifle to the target. Susan flinched on the first shot and it went wide. After that she got herself steadied and her breathing controlled. All her shots were within a ten-centimetre circle. She felt well pleased.
“Not bad for a Pommie girl from the city,” Mark said, sounding pleased. He put that gun aside and pulled out another. This new gun he handled with loving care; it was clearly his pride and joy. It was a 3006 rifle, with a glowing polished telescopic sight.
He offered it to her, “This is my safari gun from Africa; shot an elephant with it once. Do you want to try? It kicks a bit.”
She gave a tentative nod, and took the proffered gun. It felt huge and heavy.
He lifted out his swag and spread out a groundsheet. He suggested she try a lying shot, as the swag would help keep it steady.
She took her place, deliberately cleared her mind of everything, and then just concentrated on the target. She slowly squeezed the trigger. The blast felt huge and the jolt massive to her light frame. But she had done it, shot straight and steady without flinching.
They walked over to the target. Her shot was a perfect bull, she could not have placed it better if she had used a tape measure to mark the spot and then shot it from an inch away.
Mark whistled. “No one can beat that eh; not bad for a first time.” She felt inordinately pleased, glowing with pride as they walked back from the target.
Mark took the rifle and shot three shots to follow hers. All were very close to the centre, but none matched hers.
“Your father must be some man, teaching you to shoot like that,” Mark said, tipping his hat to her, “Not only are you beautiful and fantastic in bed, but you are the hottest hotshot I have met.” Susan blushed with this praise.
Then it was time to travel on. As they were both hungry, Mark opened a packet of biscuits, oatmeal, which they ate before they left accompanied by water from the waterbag. He also found a map of the region to give Susan an understanding of its geography and put it on the bonnet and pointed out the main features before they started driving.
“This is the top of the Gulf fall. Our last four hours have been spent travelling over the Barkly Tableland. Out on it the creeks run nowhere, but pool in huge swamps that form in depressions on the plains.
“We’re now coming into the headwaters of the big rivers that start at the top edge of the Tablelands and carve their way down into the Gulf of Carpentaria.
“Just north of us you have the Calvert and Robinson Rivers, which you will see tomorrow. Now we are coming into the headwaters of the Nicholson River, a huge river running back east into Queensland for a couple hundred miles, before it comes out into the Gulf at a place called Burketown.”
They drove on and continued to chat about this river they were following. Mark told Susan how it and its tributaries, passed through some fantastic gorge country further downstream, places like Lawn Hill National Park and the amazing Riversleigh fossil deposit where a huge array of bones of early Australian animals were being found.
This was of great interest to Susan. She had learned about Riversleigh as a student. “I studied some of those finds at university. I’d love to go there,” she said to Mark.
“Unfortunately time is against us. Long way and limited time to get you to your Darwin plane.”
Soon they came to a big sign, “Aboriginal Land. Permit Required.”
“Doesn’t that apply to us?” asked Susan.
Mark nodded, “It should, but I’ve done work with most of these people and they know me. They even gave me a skin name. They say to me I don’t need permits or any of that ‘white man rubbish’. I often give them a bit of beef or a kangaroo I’ve shot. We’re more in danger of being invited for a dinner of goanna and snake and being here all night.”
“I would love that,” said Susan, “You know I studied aboriginal customs at university but I’ve never really met any traditional aboriginals.”
Mark raised an eyebrow, “Well, they’re traditional here; utes, guns, fishing lines, power boats—you name it, they have it. But they can still go out with a spear and digging stick and get dinner from the land. I like their attitude and way of life, take the best of the new, when it suits, but also keep the best of the old.”
Mark deliberated for a second, “Tell you what. There is a camp an hour up the road and I still have one slab of meat in the Esky that I was thinking of passing on to them. Maybe we can call in for a cuppa and early dinner, I am sure they’ll have a fire going and something on offer.”
As they drove, Susan and Mark chatted about Australia’s early animals and how the people who had first come to this land had confronted these terrifying creatures. Both agreed they would have loved to see Australia back then, at the time when the aborigines first came and giant marsupials roamed. Susan was surprised at Mark’s knowledge and asked where he got it. Did he study somewhere?
He grinned ruefully. “Nah. More to do with time spent as labourer and dig assistant in the hot sun, along with many books read. I met all those professors who wrote the books at the digs. Sometimes they’d sign their books for me. I think it was their way of getting rid of books that no one would buy and even fewer could understand. Still, it is amazing how, when they show you their finds and explain them, it slowly all begins to make sense.”
The sun was falling away behind them. They drove on steadily, winding their way down into a valley. It ran below a large cliff to their north, mile after mile. Its western faces were lit in late-afternoon sunshine, a fiery orange red, while the gullies and eastern facing edges glowed soft pink in the shadowed light.
“That’s the China Wall, pretty amazing huh?”
Before they knew it they were turning into a local camp road. Aboriginal children ran screaming in excitement from all directions; Mark greeted them like he knew them well. Then an old lady, walking with a stick, came over grinning broadly. She had grey hair and thin bandy legs and wore a tattered blue dress, but carried herself with obvious authority, like the tribe’s grandmother.
“Dat Mark, how ya going, young fella. Got any beef in your tucker box? We bit hungry here.”
“Go way with yer there Ruth, I can see that kangaroo from here. What, not enough for an old friend?”
Soon they were sitting on tin drums round the fire, sharing a tin of sweet tea and slices of half pink kangaroo on damper. It tasted good, even if a little raw. Susan could understand little of the excited and voluble conversation, which flowed between the dozen people gathered, but she felt the welcoming spirit.
As they were making their goodbyes, Mark pulled out his last slab of meat, and waved Ruth over. “Probably don’t want this eh, so much food here, but it is yours anyway.”
Ruth waved a stick at him, “You one cheeky fella, someone need to give you good beating with stick like dis.”
Susan laughed at the thought.
From there it was a couple more hours of driving in the fading light and then full dark. They came to Hells Gates, the place where, when the first settlers came, their aboriginal guides told them they would take them no further, as the black-fellows going on from here on were too wild and dangerous.
Mark left Susan to set up camp. He said needed to do some business, which would take about half an hour, with a man who lived here. He needed to do it tonight as they would be gone early before this man got out of bed. Mark was a bit vague about what it was but Susan had the impression that he was trading some precious stones, similar to what she had glimpsed in the hills near Alice Springs. So she was left alone and started to take out the things she knew they would need tonight, the swag, chairs and a billycan for a cup of tea. Susan liked being entrusted with these simple jobs for them both.
With Mark gone, Susan went about arranging their campsite. As she was looking for some matches to light the gas barbeque, she found a little metal box, about six inches by four inches by one inch thick, like an old tobacco tin, with the lid jammed on tightly.
By itself the tin seemed unremarkable, but where it was hidden seemed strange. It was tucked away in a little space behind the spare wheel-mounting bracket, next to where he slid in the cast iron barbeque, concealed out of sight by the bulk of the spare wheel. A small metal plate normally covered the space. But the plate had come partly loose; one of the two screws holding it in place had fallen out, likely from vibrations of days driving over rough and corrugated roads. Now the plate could be rotated aside, showing what sat behind it.
She had pushed her hand into the narrow space, feeling for matches—thinking Mark may keep some next to the barbeque. Her hand had caught on the edge of this loose metal plate. It slid sideways as she pushed her hand against it. So Susan had shone a torch in to see what it was and if there was any sign of matches. Her torch lit up the small space and the loose plate. With her free hand she pushed the plate back. Now the torch lit up a small metal box behind it, not locked away, but put in a place where no one would normally ever look to find it. Mark would need a small screwdriver to normally access this space.
Susan lifted out the tin box and looked at it. It was grey, flat and looked well-used though the top would not pop open when she pushed with her fingers. Susan was tempted to investigate further. But her English sense of privacy made her put it back and finish setting up the camp. Occasionally she looked towards the car where the box was hidden, the curiosity niggling at her. This discovery made her uneasy. She couldn’t put her finger on exactly why. It was as if something was deliberately being hidden from prying eyes.
Mark returned five minutes later and showed her the true location of the matches. Susan lit the gas in the campground to boil the billy. Of her discovery she said nothing. They shared a supper of more biscuits and tea before they went to bed together. As she drifted towards sleep she again recalled the box. She still wondered why.
They were up early again the next morning. Susan was yawning and felt tired as she got up but Mark told her he had a special surprise organised for today. Mark’s eagerness was contagious, and Susan felt anticipation catch her too. She asked him what the special surprise was, but Mark remained tight-lipped. “You will just have to wait and see.”
Leaving Hells Gates they drove northeast for half an hour, coming to a sign for a roadhouse named Wollogorang. This marked the boundary of the Northern Territory, and Mark told her they were now entering one of its most famous stations; that with the longest continuous occupation since the 1880s, from which the roadhouse was named.
Mark was full of stories of the area. He seemed a goldmine of knowledge of early NT history. When Susan asked him about where he got it he replied, “Oh from lots of places, a bit from reading books about it, but more from talking to old timers across this country. You would be surprised at the stories they tell, sitting around a campfire over a mug of tea or sometimes over a pannikin of rum. While many tales get stretched in the telling they often start with the truth.”
Susan watched the changing scenery outside. After driving up the valley for maybe twenty miles the road began to climb. It wound through a series of gorges and cuttings as it worked its way precariously up the side of a mountain, until they came out onto a flat and barren plateau at the top, a wasteland of dry sandy spinifex and scrub.
A few miles later they came alongside an airstrip that ran next to the road. At its end was a sign for Redbank Mine. Mark turned onto a track that brought him to the airstrip. Near the end was an assembly of 200-litre fuel drums marked with a label saying Avgas.
Sitting alongside these was a helicopter with a large round clear bubble. Susan thought it looked something like a giant insect, perhaps a dragon fly. The round bubble at the front was its head, two holes on each side looked likes eyes, a wing like rotor blade above and a long metal tail with a smaller tail rotor. It rested on two skids, its insect like legs. It seemed alive and exotic, not like the sleek and streamlined modern helicopters that Susan had seen before on the evening news.
A slightly built man, with darkish skin and dark features, was pumping fuel from one of the drums into the helicopter tanks. He called out with obvious familiarity, “Hey Mark!”
Mark pulled to a halt waved to him. Turning off the engine, Mark and Susan got out.
“How ya doin, Vic?” asked Mark.
“Yeah alright.” replied Vic.
“How’s the old Bell 47?”
“Still firing on all cylinders.”
Then Mark turned to Susan and said, Sorry, I am being impolite, let me introduce you to a good friend of mine and the best helicopter pilot I know. His proper name is Vikram Campbell but we all call him Vic.
Vic waved at Susan and said, “Hiya.”
Susan nodded and smiled a greeting in return. “I know a Pakistani named Vickram in London, do you have family from there.
Vic grinned back, “Not to the best of my knowledge, thought they tell me that London is a big place full of Pakis and Indians so who really knows. My great grandfather was called an Afghan in Australia, though who knows where he really came from, some story about Kashmir. He worked the camel trains between the Alice and Adelaide a hundred years ago. He had a family with an aboriginal woman in Alice Springs. His name has sort of continued, down through the generations, most typically shortened to Vic or Victor.
“As best I can tell I am descended from a big mixture, the Afghan, a bit of Arrente, that’s the aboriginal tribe, and then other bits of Scots, English, Irish and God knows what else. The Campbell is from the Scottish branch.
“So I suppose the Afghan could really be Pakistan, but the name is common in that part of the world, there are probably a million other Vikrams and the detail of that part of my ancestry has got lost. However the name keeps some bit of this man’s memory alive. Now most people call me Vic but Mark knows the story and does his bit to keep it known.”
“I guess you figured we might need a bit of fuel,” Mark said, pointing to the helicopter and then turned to Susan, “Fancy a ride in this old girl?” She is getting a bit long in the tooth, but they are a super reliable old machine provided you look after them properly, and they are much cheaper to run than many of the new fangled jet turbine jobs.”
“Is that the surprise?” she asked.
Mark nodded. “You got it, only way to see this country properly. “Vic used to contract chopper muster scrubbers for me, now he owns his own machine. I knew he was working nearby so I rang him and asked him to take us for a spin this morning.
“Of course, I would love it!” exclaimed Susan.
Mark continued, “What you reckon Vic? Thought we might go along the gorges of the Calvert and Robinson Rivers, see if we can catch a few barra, perhaps get a pig or two. There is one particular huge boar I have been looking for as a hunting trophy for more than two years, and if we get real lucky we may find him today. Can but hope. Either way, Susan, it will give you a bird’s eye of some spectacular NT scenery.”
Susan felt amazed as she thought. All this for me; like my own private safari, with my own private safari guide. She was tongue tied for a minute. Finally, she managed to say, “Wow, that would be brilliant.”
While Vic continued pumping the fuel into the helicopter, Mark loaded two fishing rods, his 223 rifle, some ammunition, a water bottle and some other bits inside. Then he indicated the middle seat to Susan.
“That’s where you sit. Hop in when you are ready. I will be a few more minutes.”
Susan climbed in and looked with wonder at all the gauges and controls. A long stick came out of the floor with various buttons and knobs attached. Then there was a radio, headsets and lots of dials, other knobs and yet more buttons.
Vic finished fuelling up and walked around completing a careful check of all the parts of the helicopter.
Walking over to Susan’s window, Vic gave her a big smile. “He sure pulls the beautiful ones. How did he find someone as gorgeous as you? And him just a busted-arsed ringer. If you want to trade up to a bit more class let me know.”
Susan found herself liking this man’s warm open face and sardonic humour. She also thought his wiry body and dark features were kind of cute. “I am sure you have a lot of far more beautiful girls than me on a string, offering to take them for mile high rides in the sky.”
Vic laughed. Then he patted the clear Perspex bubble of the helicopter. “I wish! Ever been in one of these before?”
She shook her head, “No, first time and I can’t wait!”
He gave her a quick explanation of the main controls before saying, “I’ll just be a couple minutes. Mark and I have a bit of business to do, and we need to finalise our route on the map so I can call flight control. Why don’t you strap yourself in,” he said pointing to the seatbelt. “We will be with you in five.”
She clicked her seatbelt in, feeling a buzz of excited tension. She thought she should be nervous; but all she could feel was a huge thrill on anticipation—primal and almost sexual. It flowed through her. The more she saw of Mark, his generosity and sense of fun, the more she was captivated by him and this whole experience. It was far beyond anything she could have imagined. Huge warmth and affection flowed out from where she sat, towards him.
Then the other two were aboard, the engine started and the rotor was whirling, slowly at first, then faster and faster; the machine roared, wind blowing up dust eddies.
Mark passed her a headset and showed her where to push the button to talk; then he indicated that they should postpone conversation until they were in the air and Vic had called Air Traffic Control.
Vic was concentrating on all the controls, checking and zeroing various instruments. Then he slowly dialled up the engine and rotor revolutions until a thing called Manifold Pressure was in the dial’s green zone. He looked across at her and Mark and asked, “Ready?” Mark stuck his thumb up in the air.
The motor surged further then the engine note dropped as Vic adjusted a control on the stick. She could now feel the blades change noise and start to bite into the air. The whole helicopter was shaking like a caged animal seeking to flee its bounds.
Vic lifted the stick up an inch. The helicopter rose straight up; imperceptible at first, and then it was several feet into the air. He pushed the stick forward and their motion changed from a hover to moving forward, going straight ahead. They picked up speed, and made a slow circuit over the airstrip while he logged his trip with Air Traffic Control.
Then, with another small move of the control stick, the helicopter flared into the air and banked over to the side, making a steep turn to the northwest.
Susan was spellbound. She split her time watching as Vic deftly manipulated dozens of controls and gazing in rapt awe as the country opened before her. At first they flew across the barren flat plateau, a sand plain covered in spinifex with occasional broken boulders. They picked up a watercourse that gradually grew out of the flat lands, first a small scrub lined creek then it gathered size and started to cut its way down into the increasingly rocky hillside. Pools of water started to appear along it.
Mark spoke over the intercom. “We are following the headwaters of Karns Creek; a creek through a piece of tiger country that flows into the Calvert River, cutting through a series of gorges. Vic and I contract mustered here maybe ten years ago. We got out some of the maddest and wildest scrub bulls I have ever seen. They would try to crawl under the bushes and into the creek to get away from us. Sometimes they got so mad that they would try and hook their horns up into the sky to catch our helicopter.”
Now this so called Karns Creek was the size of a river, with cliff of two hundred feet along both sides. Magnificent paperbarks and water lilies fringed the edges and the water was the colour of clear weak tea, with a bright surface refection of trees and cliffs. They followed its winding length, staying just below the cliff line. Abruptly the helicopter flared up above its sides. There, before them, lay a huge river, the Calvert, cutting its way down through a gorge, running hundreds of feet below. She saw where Karns Creek joined the river. Then they were down between these monstrous river cliffs, heading north.
It was hard for Susan to think of any words to describe this beauty. The cliffs were several hundred feet high and sheer. Their sides held myriad colours and details; vibrant red, orange, yellow and black rocks, places where dark openings into caves were seen, dotted along. Trees grew in incredible places, twisted roots probing their way into cracks in the rocks. Perched along the cliff, leaping from narrow ledge to narrow ledge, were numerous rock wallabies. In a mad panic they sought to evade the helicopter, making phenomenal leaps from rock to rock. Occasional waterbirds were disturbed by their passage. A few times Susan glimpsed shadowed outlines of large fish in the water below. Several times she saw reptiles, perhaps 1-2 metres long, sunning on rocks. They would fling themselves forward and dive into the water at the helicopter’s approach. Susan eyes widened as she realised they were crocodiles. She looked at Mark as she pointed.
“Just freshies, but you do get the big saltwater ones along here too.”
Then the river valley widened slightly. It was the confluence of another creek and on one side there was a small swamp area with paperbarks and swamp grasses. Mark gave a sign to come around. They circled tightly above the swamp, perhaps 50 feet high.
Vic spotted something on the ground and pointed down. They saw a place where the swamp grasses had been rooted up. In its centre stood a huge black pig, with wicked tusks, several inches long, protruding from its mouth.
Mark smiled. “I have been looking for you for three years. Today is your date with destiny.”
He indicated to Vic to land 100 yards from the swamp where a flat grassy opening lay. As the helicopter touched down Mark was out, gathering his rifle and running in a half crouch across the intervening ground.
Vic indicated with his hand that Susan should stay sitting. He let the rotor slowly wind down. Then, with the engine stopped, they sat quietly for perhaps five minutes, Vic indicating to be quiet and stay put.
Finally a sharp crack broke the stillness, followed a minute later by a second one, then silence again. Vic gave a sign to undo her belt and they walked across the ground towards where Mark had disappeared. Half way there Vic called out, “Yoo Hoo.”
Mark called straight back, “Come on, he’s dead now.” They continued and Mark met them in another 20 yards. He led them on the final part.
Almost completely hidden, in a thick clump of paperbark saplings, lay a huge boar. It was longer than either man and twice their girth. One tusk was dug into the mud, as if in a final act of outrage at its untimely death.
Vic said “So you finally got him. I spotted him once, about six months ago, but I did not have a rifle that day. Plus I knew you wanted him more.”
Mark grinned widely. “This fellow will easily pay for our trip. I know a taxidermist who will give me at least 2 grand for this one. He is the biggest I have ever shot and close to the biggest I have ever heard of. You must be the source of my good luck, Susan.”
Susan answered, “You don’t need any help from me in the hunting department. Apart from one other thing which we better not talk about here, it is what you are best at.”
Mark looked uncomfortable, while Susan and Vic both laughed.
Vic asked, “Was he easy to find? Last glance I saw him heading for that thick patch at the other side of the swamp. I thought you would be hard pressed to track him in there.”
Mark said. “I thought he had gone that way too, so I cut to that side of the swamp but there were no fresh tracks. Then I realised that he must have been playing gamin to us and had cut back to the centre. I found a track coming back. So I scanned the swamp carefully but nothing was in sight. I finally realised that this little patch of saplings was the only place he could hide without being seen.
“So I worked back, real slow and steady, watching for anything. Finally, when I was only thirty yards away, I saw a tiny movement in the shadow, the smallest flick of his ear in reflex to a fly. So I brought my gun up and there he was in my scope. He was so well camouflaged that he was almost invisible, facing up with his head up sniffing the wind. He seemed so surprised when the first bullet hit that he did not know what to do, but you can see how mad he was by the way this tusk has ripped into the ground.”
They agreed they needed to get the boar to the chopper but there was a lot of weight. So, all straining together, they pulled him a few feet out of the patch of paperbarks. Mark carefully sliced him open and removed his innards. Then he used a short piece of rope to tie his back feet together.
Vic headed back to the helicopter to bring it round to them. After a few minutes Susan and Mark heard the helicopter roar to life and fly towards them.
Hovering the helicopter directly above, Vic lowered a chain. There was a large hook hanging on the end of it. Susan guided the hook between the pig’s feet, while Mark lifted these towards her. When the pig was attached Susan gave thumbs up sign towards Vic.
With a burst of power, the helicopter pulled the pig up into the sky. It hovered at fifty feet for a couple seconds. Then it was away, flying in a straight line to the southeast.
“Vic is going back to the airstrip. He will arrange for the boar to be placed in a cool-room at the Mine until transport is organised to take it to the taxidermist in Mount Isa.” Mark explained, “Now we have a couple hours for fishing and lunch before he returns.”
Vic had left the rest of their gear at the landing site. They collected it and walked towards the edge of the river. A sandy bar ran out from the bank, going a few metres into the water. It had the branches of a large dead tree to one side and clear water on the other.
Before they came close to the water Mark said, “There are some really big crocodiles in here and we need to be careful.”
They came to the bank looking out towards the sandbar. They sat on the bank and Mark watched closely for a couple minutes, scanning the banks and looking for any other signs to indicate that a large salt-water crocodile might be lurking. As he sat he pulled a crocodile, about hand’s width long, carved from dark timber and brightly painted in ochre colours, from his pocket. He looked at the toy crocodile closely and then at the water. To Susan it seemed as if he was talking in his mind to both.
After a couple minutes he said. “It seems OK, but don’t get too close to the water. I’ll fish on the side of the sandbar with the dead tree. There could be a big barra lurking under the snags. You should try the open side. There’s a good chance for something there.”
Mark asked Susan if she had ever tried lure fishing.
She shook her head “No, only bait fishing, and a couple times my father tried to teach me fly fishing for trout, but I never quite mastered it.”
He gave Susan a rod with a floating fish lure, about four inches long with two three barb hooks attached. It was a blue-grey colour with red and black side stripes, a “Nilsmaster” he told her. He said to cast into the middle of the clear water then wind back in at a steady walking pace.
He put a small lure with some green and yellow markings onto his own rod and looked for some clear water, amongst the branches, to cast into.
Susan’s first cast did not go according to plan. She didn’t time the line release right. The line flipped to the side as the lure jerked back, landing a few yards from her feet.
Mark came across. He put his hands over hers, guiding her with slow, deliberate movements. “Don’t try too hard until you get the hang of it.”
Susan tried not to get distracted by Mark’s closeness. Together they did a gentle cast and release with the lure hitting the water about ten yards out. “That’s it, work on improving from that,” he said.
She wound in and concentrated on getting her timing and direction right. Her next cast went out straight about fifteen metres and the third one went a good twenty. She had only wound in a metre when the line jerked and snaked through the water in a crazy zigzag.
“Mark, I have something,” she called.
Mark came across, but it was clear that Susan by now had it well in hand. So he stood back to watch.
Susan felt her heart pounding as she hooked the fish, but she knew she had to remain calm and focused to reel it in. With a jerk the fish exploded out of the water, skipping across the surface in a tail dancing run.
Susan shouted behind her, “Mark did you see that, it’s huge!”
“It is probably half a metre long, a good five pounder,” Mark called back to her.
In less than five minutes Susan had the gleaming barramundi on the sandy spit.
“Well, seeing as you’ve caught our lunch, I’ll get a fire going,” Mark said.
Susan could not restrain her elation, she felt like jumping up and down as she chattered with excitement. “Wasn’t the way it jumped out of the water and stood on its tail just amazing! I was sure it was going to get off.”
Mark laughed, “The first is the most exciting isn’t it. They are great fighters and often manage to shake the lure out of their mouth and get away. But you kept steady and did just great.”
Using a similar technique as the night on the Frew River, minus the pit, they cooked the fish. Mark shook his head when she suggested gutting it. “Don’t need to when it’s this fresh.”
Once the fire died down, he laid the fish in the middle of the coals and pushed coals from the sides up over it.
Fifteen minutes later it was done.
Mark scraped the coals from the fish’s centre across to one side and, with his knife, gently pushed apart a hole in the charred surface. There below was succulent white fish. Then he pushed the rest of the fire away. He lifted the burnt skin carefully off the top side of the fish. From his pack he found a metal plate and spoon for them each.
They sat on the sandy riverbank and ate plate after plate of white fish flesh, sprinkled with salt and washed down with cups of water from the river. Even when they both could eat no more, still half a fish was left.
Susan stretched out, feeling sleepy and laying back on the sloping sand, looking across the river to where the cliffs rose sheer on the other side.
She said, “How incredible is this! This is a life out of someone else’s story book, my own Northern Territory safari.”
Mark was silent but gave a half smile back, truth acknowledged.
It was hard to believe that it would end in another few days, and she would be on a flight to the other side of the world. She wondered if she would ever see Mark again after she left. It was almost too perfect the way it was now. Trying to reconcile their different worlds was something she couldn’t conceive. Perhaps it was meant to be a wonderful memory of a visit to Australia, and she would return to her English life, leaving this story to live only in their memories. Perhaps she would meet and marry an English doctor or lawyer and Mark would carry on with his outback life.
Could she and a man like this ever join their lives together? Or would it all tear apart, through difference and distance, when reality returned? Half of her thought it was better that way; the other half cried out against the profound loss and sadness she sensed would be left in her soul after their separation.
Mark lay back silently, staring at the sky, his face a mask, giving no clue to what he felt, whether he cared if they continued with life together. She wanted to ask him what he felt and thought, but no words would come.
She remembered the small carved crocodile that he had held when they came close to the water to go fishing. She asked him what it was.
He looked at her, as if he was deciding whether to reveal something significant. Then he brought it back out and handed it to her, placing it in her upturned palm.
She looked closely. The object was only little, it sat easily in her palm, but the creature it represented was not. It was made of heavy timber, with char marks in places, as if it had been hardened and marked in a fire before painting. It was surprisingly solid to hold and the ochre painting detail was intricate and lifelike. It was a crocodile, of great girth, broad head, body and tail. She knew without saying that it represented a huge and ancient creature. As she held it was as if she held the spirit of a live crocodile in her hand.
She returned it to Mark. He was watching her curiously, as if seeking her response.
She said, “It feels so lifelike, as if I am holding the spirit of a real crocodile in my hand.”
Mark said, “It is my totem, Crocodile Spirit Dreaming.”
She would have asked him more but a distant throbbing in the air now signalled the return of the helicopter. They both turned their heads skywards and the moment passed. Five minutes later the helicopter settled on the ground nearby. Vic joined them and helped to polish off the remaining fish.
Vic had brought his own rod. He told them he knew of a great pool on the Robinson River, the next river to the west, which was just alive with barramundi at the moment. The fish appeared to have been trapped inside a small pool since the river had fallen away to a trickle after the big rains of the last wet. As this place was at least ten miles walk from any road or track he was pretty sure the fish would still be there.
They walked back to the helicopter and flew west, until they came to the Robinson River. They followed it back inland. It was a big wide river in its lower reaches, without the massive gorges of the Calvert. After fifteen minutes they crossed a big dirt road, the road on to Borroloola, and then, a few minutes later, they passed to the side on an aboriginal community.
Soon they were in a gorge, every bit the equal of the Calvert, but with wider and higher sides. The river lay in a series of large broken pools below them. At first there were roads, tracks, and signs of human occupation, but as they climbed towards the plateau the gorge narrowed and signs of people disappeared.
Rounding a bend in the river they spotted the waterhole Vic had described. It was almost circular, with rock shelves extending three quarters of the way round and one side backing into a sheer cliff, which rose a thousand feet above them. A great sea eagle was overhead, riding the thermals high up near the cliff top. They saw glimpses of fish as they swooped over, and the fish were active, swimming and darting in the shallows.
They landed, and each took a quarter and got set up, perched on the rock shelf that ran around and above the pool, so their lines would not cross. The water was so clear that they could see down into the depths of the pool below their feet.
Vic was first to cast and on his first cast they could all see a big fish trailing his lure but nothing happened. It appeared to be the same the second time, but this time the first fish was joined by a second, following just behind. But, just when the lure was almost at his feet, a third and huge fish came surging out of the shadows, and grabbed hold of his line.
From then on the whole pool went crazy. It was as if the signal was sent that all fish better get in on the action or they would miss out on dinner. Often the three of them all had fish on their lines together, tail dancing across the surface, fighting to cast the lures from their mouths.
In half an hour it was all over. Twenty-one glistening fish lay on the rocks beside them; eight caught by Vic, seven by Mark and six by herself. The biggest was the first monster that Vic had caught. He pulled a spring scale from the helicopter and it weighed in at 23 kilograms. Mark and Susan had each caught one that was about half that size, both weighed between twelve and thirteen kilograms. The rest ranged from eight down to about two kilograms.
Vic eyed the big pile of a fish dubiously, “I am not sure whether we can lift all this and also ourselves in one trip.” Thinking some more he added, “I think it should be OK. I’m down to half fuel, and Susan’s not heavy; plus the air is cool in the shade of this rock. That will all help with the initial lift off. Anyway let’s give it a go. If I can get in the air it will be right, there is a good run straight ahead down the valley, to pick up speed before I need to get height on to climb out.”
So they loaded all the fish aboard, some sitting on wire baskets on the skids and some sitting in the cargo hold. When Vic was happy that the balance was right he signalled them aboard.
He dialled on the power. The engine revolutions rose up to the top of the green zone, tipping into yellow. He adjusted the blades to cut the air. They could feel the engine die back as it struggled with the load, but Vic kept dialling on the throttle. Slowly the skids came up above the ground. Once he was clear by about ten feet he eased forward. They were away, surging down the valley, piling on speed.
Gradually the ground fell away as they held altitude and soon the river fell far beneath. Then Vic put them into the second phase of the flight, where they slowly climbed out of the valley, foot by foot, at first pulling barely a hundred feet per minute of climb, but slowly they crept up. Then, as the altimeter passed five hundred feet, he directed their course to the airstrip to the east, flying increasingly easily as the time went by.
By the time they approached their destination they had topped out at over a thousand feet, enough to clear the highest hills on their way with a hundred feet to spare.
Mark and Vic divided the fish, with Mark packing his in fresh ice from the freezer at the mine. They gave the mine’s plant supervisor a mid-sized barra for his help, and Mark promised a side of a bullock next time he passed through with something suitable. They were invited to the mine mess for a beer and some dinner. Vic was pleased to accept, but Mark declined, saying they had a way to go and he wanted to call in and see some of his friends early next morning at Seven Emus Station. So, after a quick beer they were off.
Vic walked out to say goodbye. He and Mark hugged like brothers and then Vic turned to Susan, winking at Mark and saying. “Well, if he does decide to let you go your own way, don’t forget about me, always happy to show you what a real good time is.”
Susan laughed and gave Vic a spontaneous hug too. I think that one outback man is more than enough, not to mention my home is across the sea, on the other side of the world. But thank you for the kind offer.”
Mark laughed too. He said, “As you know my brother, I already have my heart set on this one. She is the best in every way and not for sharing.” Now it was Susan’s turn to blush.
Susan and Mark drove for a couple hours before setting up camp on the banks of the Robinson River, taking a maze of tracks that turned off the main road, near the road crossing, for a few kilometres downstream. Even though it wasn’t as cold as it had been in the desert or even at Hells Gates, it was well dark by arrival, and they both wanted the comfort of a good fire to sit by. They felt tired from their two full days, and Susan was in a relaxed, mellow mood from all she had seen and done. They did not talk much but their silence was one of quiet contentment.
For a change in diet, Mark suggested that he make a stew with left over beef, along with carrots, onions, and potatoes from his tucker box. Susan gave enthusiastic endorsement, looking forward to the hearty meal.
Also, feeling a craving for something sweet, she asked Mark if she could have a go at making a brownie like they had a couple days before. Mark agreed, seeming pleased to give her this role in the dinner. So she made a mixture of flour, golden syrup and dried fruit, with some margarine, and set it aside while the stew bubbled. They sat side by side, sipping pannikins of rum, making occasional aimless conversation.
It was then that Susan was struck by a guilty conscience. Mark had paid for everything in their trip thus far: all the fuel and food, as well as the accommodation for the nights when they did not camp and, particularly today, for the helicopter.
She didn’t know how he made his money, apart from odd jobs for various stations and mines. But it was hard to see how he could be rich from an income like that. She had allowed at least two thousand Australian dollars for this part of the trip and had barely spent a cent since arriving in Alice Springs. She had only a little over a hundred dollars cash on her when she arrived, as she had planned to go to an ATM in Alice Springs. She had spent a few dollars on drinks in the bar at Barrow Creek and some more for food and coffees at Roadhouses, but still, it was almost nothing. So, while she didn’t have the cash with her right now for a major contribution, Susan felt she needed to make one.
Everything had just happened so fast that there never had seemed to be the time to sort out payments and money, it had sort of got forgotten, and Mark had never looked for anything. But she really must find a way to pay her share.
So she broached the subject, feeling awkward. “Mark, I’ve had the most fabulous time with you. But you’ve paid for everything, and that’s not really right.
“I want to pay a share. So, please tell me what you think is fair and the next time we pass through a town with an ATM I will draw out the money to square up.”
Mark looked at her, his eyes seeming to see all the way through her, “You know you really don’t have to. I’ve loved having you along. You’re great company and no bother, and most of this trip I was going to do anyway, and, despite appearances, I am not short of a quid. So just enjoy the ride and let me sort it all out.” With that he grinned.
Susan looked back at him, pensive and a little unhappy; it didn’t feel right for her not to pay a share.
He looked at her serious face. “It bothers you doesn’t it? Tell you what; we’ll be in Darwin for the last night before you fly out. We can stay somewhere nice, and have a flash restaurant dinner and a good last night together. How about I let you pay for that. Much easier than trying sort the money out here.”
She let it drop, she felt reluctant about it, but did not want to spoil their bit of magic together. So they shared stew and brownie and joined their bodies together under the stars.
Just as she drifted off to sleep Mark said. “I’ll get up early in the morning. I want to go hunting down the river. There are often pigs along it and the Seven Emus mob are always keen for fresh pork, they have a great Chinese cook who does amazing things with it.
“So I will let you sleep in for an extra hour or two. The people we are calling to see never rise early. I figure we should get going about nine to be there for morning tea around ten.
Susan drifted off in to a dreamy sleep, liking the idea of an extra hour in bed in the morning.
She was vaguely aware of Mark getting up when there was barely light in the sky, dressing quietly and heading away.
Susan woke perhaps an hour later. It was still early, the sun just touching the horizon, perhaps 7 am. She gathered Mark would not be back for an hour or two yet. She thought another hour asleep would be nice.
But Susan was still feeling uncomfortable about paying her share and it was nagging in the back of her mind. Mark had indicated nothing to her about the cost of the trip and particularly the helicopter, but she had seen Vic hand him a sheet just before they left last night. It looked like a bill. She remembered Mark put it in a black plastic folder that he kept in the compartment on the driver’s-side door, the sort of thing that held car manuals.
Then a clear thought came to her. Why don’t I have a look, then at least I will know the real cost of the helicopter yesterday and be able to have an idea of how much to pay.
Susan pulled on a track top and pants to ward off the morning chill. Then, after she put a couple of fresh logs on the smouldering coals, she went to look for the bill. She found it, as remembered and expected, alongside the manuals.
It listed three hours of helicopter time at $600/hour giving a total of $1800, with a 10% discount coming in at $1620. That’s not too bad, she thought, my half share of that is about $800, I can easily pay for that plus for a final night in Darwin.
She was about to put the bill back when she noticed something odd. The name on it was different.
She looked at name on the bill, perplexed. She had heard Vic calling him Mark, he obviously knew his name, which she assumed meant his surname as well as the first name. And she had seen Vic pass him the bill, which he had happily accepted and countersigned without question. But the name on the invoice was Mark Butler, not Mark Bennett. Perhaps it was just a mistake he’d missed.
She was ready to dismiss it as that, but as she opened the wallet to put it back, something fell out onto the cab floor, a plastic card. Susan bent to retrieve it, not wanting to leave something to incriminate her for snooping.
It was an expired driving license, from the NT with a Katherine address. The man in the license photo was Mark. She read the name—Mark Butler—the same as the invoice, but why? Why use two names? The names were so similar—both created the initials MB.
Something about the Butler name rang a bell. With a spark of fresh recollection, she realised she had seen it before. It was the name on one of the number plates, written in tiny writing on a stick-on label. The other names came to mind as well, Brown and Brooks, MB, MB.
This was seriously odd. Four men, with the same initials, but different names; four number plates for the same vehicle. Who was her Mark? Was he one of these names? Or were they all fake and he was yet someone else again?
It was like all the odd and missing pieces were starting to connect.
She really liked this guy. In fact, if Susan was honest, she was starting to fall for him, big time, getting in way too deep. Before she let herself fall any further, she needed to know who he was.
Susan knew he kept business papers in an attaché case that he put behind his seat in the cabin. Perhaps there would be something there. She lifted it out and noticed the little copper monogram, MB, just below the handle. The case had a combination lock on the latch. She tried obvious numbers like 0000, 1234 and 9999. No success, so she put it back, it wasn’t going to help her.
The box she had found the night before last came back into her mind. She got the feeling that it was significant, the way it was hidden. Her instinct said she should look in there.
Susan was conflicted; she wanted to trust Mark, and she wanted to ask him directly who he was, but she knew that he reacted badly to personal questions like that. Something in the way he looked at her when she tried to probe really scared her, like there was a demon lurking inside waiting to be unleashed. It was like the horror film, The Omen, there was the beautiful child with the malevolent core. She shivered. No, this was all nonsense; she was letting her imagination run away.
But she still needed to know. Susan looked around in all directions; there was no sign of Mark and she didn’t think he would be back for at least another hour.
Well, she wouldn’t die wondering. She found a torch, went to where she had found the box that night and shone the light in. Sure enough, the bottom screw was still missing. She put her hand in, wiggled the plate out of the way and, with her fingernails caught on to the edge, eased the box out. It was just a plain grey metal box, nothing remarkable about it, but it looked like it had seen a lot of use. The metal had that polished lustre of regular handling.
She tried to lift the lid but it was stuck tight. She was just about to fetch a screwdriver to lever it when, in the bright light, she noticed something odd. Sellotape had been used all around the edge. It wasn’t obvious unless you looked closely. It was like a wax seal, if you broke it someone would know that the box had been opened.
However, Susan wasn’t one to let something like this stop her. She knew she had steady hands and good manual skills; this went with the territory for a lab technician. What she needed was a clean place where she could work slowly and carefully. She sat in the passenger seat in the cabin, resting the box on her lap. She looked at the tape closely until she found the end.
Then slowly and with great care she worked this end up, lifting with her nails, until a centimetre was sitting free. Gently, but firmly, she grasped the end and slowly eased it away; one side, two sides, three sides, four. Now she had half a metre of free tape. Carefully she attached both ends to the dash, making sure it was clean and out of the way so that she would not catch on it as she worked away.
Inside the box were two tightly packed brown envelopes, both about the same size as the box. Neither was sealed. Each was a couple of centimetres thick.
She lifted out the first envelope, inside were three bundles of documents, each kept together by a rubber band. She separated out the first bundle, careful to keep order. This was Mark Butler; passport, license, credit cards, and a range of other documents one would need for an identity check, a rates notice, a bank statement, and electricity bill. She put them back together and examined the second bundle. It was largely the same, the Brown documents, different name and address, but otherwise near enough to the same, including photo ID of her Mark. Brooks was almost another clone. So now she knew this was real, not made up in her head. It was creepy, but not really scary. Maybe he worked for the Secret Intelligence Agency, MI5, or whatever they called it here.
Opening the second packet she discovered four passports: one from the UK, one from Sweden, one from France and one from the USA. She flipped one open, expecting to see another Mark grin back at her.
Now she was scared, really scared. There was a face there, but it wasn’t Mark. It was a girl, a beautiful girl, she was Swedish. Her entry visitor visa was stamped over three years ago. But there was no exit stamp. What had happened to her? Why was her passport still in Australia? She should have left well over two years ago. Had she decided to stay and gone underground, got new identity documents? Had someone stolen her passport and sold it on the black market?
There was also another explanation that she didn’t even want to think about. She tried to lock it out but it kept sneaking into her thoughts. Those stories one hears about missing backpackers, and sometimes the ones found; rape, abduction, even murder; those were the sort of words used.
She couldn’t believe that of Mark, the tender, gentle Mark who was her lover, but she also knew that there was something unpredictable, even dangerous about him. She couldn’t say it was definitely impossible, be certain it was untrue.
She realised that this box needed to be put back and quickly, but before she did she needed some details to check on. She found a tiny notebook that she kept in her wallet. On it she wrote the girls full name, nationality, date of birth, and passport number. She went on to the next passport, she wasn’t surprised to find a French girl, similarly young and beautiful but dark haired. Again she wrote down the details. Then the American one, she looked like a stereotypical all-American varsity girl: freckles, brown hair, big smile, and radiantly beautiful. Finally the English one, well Scottish, actually.
There was something in this face that made the blood drain from her face, and her hands feel numb. Susan had seen this face before—she was almost certain. After digging deep in her memory she remembered. The Scottish girl in the picture had disappeared in Adelaide without a trace. There was no conclusive evidence to suggest where she may have gone; but her parents were beside themselves with worry. Susan remembered reading it in the local Scottish papers on a visit to her cousins. Looking at the name, Susan was surprised to see it wasn’t the name she recalled from the papers. This girl’s name was Fiona. She was nearly sure that the name she had read in the papers was different, or at least the Christian name seemed wrong. Perhaps she was mistaking this girl for a look-alike?
Susan recorded these last details, then she carefully—making herself move without haste—replaced all the documents and the tape. It was hard to go so slowly, knowing that Mark might appear at any moment. But she knew she must. She took a deep breath, trying to force calm into her flustered mind. She felt a slowing of her racing heart. Her trembling anxiety eased a notch.
At last it was done. The box looked the same as when she had first taken it out of its hiding place, maybe a bit shiny. She found a dusty rag, and tried to create the right patina. It would require extraordinary observation and memory to note that there was anything out of place. Before she hopped out of the cab she checked Mark was not in sight. Not seeing him she replaced the box, checked the cabin had no tell-tale marks, and walked the short steps back to their camp.
Susan was shaking. She needed to think. This was not something she could ignore. It didn’t have to be bad, but she needed to know the truth.
She thought of getting up and leaving now, walking back to the road and waiting for someone else to come along. Only she didn’t know where she was going, and she wasn’t really sure of the way out. It had been dark when they arrived last night, and, while she could follow the wheel tracks back to the next road, she didn’t know if she could find her way back to the main road. And if she ran off Mark would know she had found something and might start tracking her. She had seen him tracking animals, he was good and she knew that the aborigines could track people almost anywhere.
Susan realised that she had to stay, and she had to try to act the same as before. She knew they were driving to Borroloola today. The way people talked about it, it must be a proper town, with police, shops and things. She expected it would have phone reception for her mobile and a place to plug it in and charge it.
She would send a text to her friend Anne in England. Anne was a legal secretary and she was good at finding things out. Even though it would be the middle of the night here she would get the text the next morning and could find out who these people were and text her back if there was something to worry about.
Then, the next day, when they came to the next town, she would get Anne’s text back. After that she could decide if she needed to leave. So long as Mark didn’t suspect that she knew anything she didn’t think there was any real danger.
But she’d have to be careful. Mark was smart and a great observer, he would notice if she suddenly went cold on him. Susan would have to maintain the pretence and be warm and affectionate. But what if he wanted to have sex, what would she do? The thought of being intimate with someone who did bad things to others made her shudder with revulsion. But when Susan thought of the way he held and touched her, she didn’t believe he was a monster.
Susan decided she would have to turn it into an acting performance, like what she had done in the University Dramatic Society. She thought. When you act, all the things that you would never do in real life are possible, because it isn’t the real you who is doing them.
She found the idea of this almost exciting. If he wanted to make love to her she would play along, but as another person, a stranger who looked like Susan. Before she knew it she was fantasising; making love to Mark in the skin of another girl that looked, sounded and acted just like her. She almost wanted him to come back right now so she could try it.
But first there were things to do. She stoked up the fire and put the billy on to boil. She would make up some breakfast for them both, and she would put on fresh clothes, her favourite floral summer dress. She would wash her face, put on her makeup, brush her hair and make herself look good. Then they would go off together and have another fun day.
In her mind it had a dreamy, romantic loveliness. She filled a basin with warm water from the billy, then found soap and a washer and sponged herself all over. Teeth cleaned, hair brushed, she could almost feel herself glowing.
She lifted the dress out of her pack. Next to it she saw her most sexy lace knickers. In for a penny in for a pound, she thought, donning the underwear.
Finally she found her makeup, not much there. She was out of the habit of using it. But there was some pink lipstick, natural but bright. She applied it in front of the mirror in the cabin. Suddenly she saw the billy was boiling furiously, bubbling over. She jumped out and ran over to make tea, dropping the lipstick behind her onto the seat as she went.
She would tidy up her makeup later, but first she needed to eat, she was starving. She made toast and covered it with butter and golden syrup. It was delicious, just the pickup she needed. She was just starting on a third slice when she heard a distant shout. There Mark was, walking along the edge of the river, a hundred yards away.
Now the play-acting seemed phoney; she was just plain scared again. Mark would see through her and know. He would wonder why the change. But it was too late to back out now. She had rolled this dice and now had to follow the numbers.
So she stood up and waved back. As she did her playful spirit returned. It was easy; she skipped across to him, a bright smile on her face.
“Hello stranger,” she called. Susan didn’t need to ask about his success, she knew, with such a big grin on his face, that it had gone well, “So my victorious hunter, where’s the trophy, or the game for the pot?”
As she drew close Mark stopped walking and looked straight at her, staring. Susan suppressed a flash of panic. Had she given something away?
He whistled. “You look gorgeous, come here.”
She walked over to him, more sedate and demure now. She felt a bit like a naughty schoolgirl caught copying from her friend’s book. But she could feel her power over him; it was there in the way he was looking at her, it was like she had him on a string.
She stopped in front of him and looked up. She found herself mesmerised by his eyes. He put his hands on her shoulders, and pulled her in close, hand coming around her back and pulling her in. His hands were on her bottom now, feeling it through the flimsy fabric. It felt exquisite. He was so hot and hard.
“I was looking forward to breakfast, until I noticed you, now you’re all I want.” Sweat beaded on his forehead and she wanted to kiss it away.
She made herself pull back, “Not so fast, you’re all hot and sweaty and you’ll make my dress smell. You will have to wait until we get back to camp and I can take it off. It’s my last good dress, and a girl has got to dress up to go out on the town, particularly a big town like Borroloola. So paws off for now.”
She walked back, alongside him. Every now and then she would let a hand brush against him. She knew he was as acutely aware of her as she was of him. It was like a jolt of electricity every time their skin touched.
When they were close to camp she skipped away again. She picked up her half eaten slice of toast and slowly and luxuriantly ate it, bite by bite.
He looked at her with desperation in his eyes. “I want you so much. Right now.”
She flicked back her hair like a playful kitten, “Soon, but not now; breakfast first, then me. While you’re waiting why don’t you fix our bed? It needs to be straightened.”
She stood, with her arms crossed, regarding him as he worked.
“How’s that?” he said, stepping back, a half smile playing on his lips.
She looked at it, considering. “A little more fluffing of those pillows I think,” Mark obliged, “Yes that’s perfect now.”
Susan came over to Mark, took his hands, and led him to one of their camp chairs. Hands on his shoulders she pushed him down onto it.
She took two slices of bread and placed them over the coals. While they toasted she poured two cups of tea. She passed him his tea and took a leisurely sip of her own. When the toast was cooked she covered it liberally with butter and syrup and brought it over.
Then she stood in front of him, an arm’s length back. She tore a piece of toast off the corner. With great delicacy she placed it into his mouth, then another, and another. Each time she fed him she licked her own lips, savouring the taste in her mind.
When all the toast was gone, she passed him the second piece. “Now you can feed yourself. I have other things to do.”
Susan stepped back two paces. She placed her hands on her hips, feeling her own soft roundness. She slowly ran her hands up and down the silky fabric of her dress, accentuating the shape of her body underneath.
She lifted off one shoulder strap, and eased her breast free above her bodice. She paused for a minute to let him feast his eyes. Then she pushed down the second shoulder strap and lifted out her second breast. She tipped back her head, gazing up at the sky. Then with a quick flick she tipped her head forward, hair framing her face.
Susan gazed intently at her nipples, how she ached to touch them. She cupped each breast and stroked each nipple until it was swollen and cherry red. Finally she put her hands on her hips, and eased her dress down to the ground. She stepped out of it, now all she was wearing was her lacy knickers. She walked towards him and stopped just out of reach. She slowly pushed down her knickers until her mound was exposed, and gently stroked this place with her fingers.
Then she continued closer, until they were almost touching. Susan rubbed her nipples against his lips, first one, then the other. She felt incredibly aroused; her breasts were in his face and she ran her hands through his hair, feeling her favourite place, that muscular hollow where his hair met his neck.
“Now you can fuck me,” she said.
It was like a dam burst between them, their mouths were all over each other. Then Mark stood, lifted her to his waist and carried her to the bed. He kneeled down and laid her back on the ground. He tore off his clothes and, with an aching sound from his throat, Mark’s body was on top of hers as he pushed into her.
She climaxed as he entered, and he soon made her come again, then again. It was sex like she had never had it before, totally wild and uninhibited. It went on and on; when Mark came in violent shudder he just continued thrusting, as hard as ever, coming again seconds later. Susan felt that he would overwhelm her. Then finally they were both spent.
She lay with her face in his chest. “You know I am really nuts about you, I’ve never been with anyone like this before, but I just need to know who you are.”
Susan knew she had pushed too far, careless in their intimacy. She could almost see the wall crashing down in Marks’ eyes.
“Why?” he asked, anguished. “Isn’t this moment enough?”
In that moment, she knew that there was a terrible secret to be told, but one he could not share. Susan felt a deep compassion for him.
“It’s alright,” she said, “You are who you are. It is not for me to ask anymore.”
But deep down she knew that she needed real answers if she was to get to a place where she could be at peace with herself.
Forcing a break in their seriousness, Susan said, “I think it is time to go, aren’t we expected for morning tea somewhere.”
He laughed. “You know, you so enthralled me that I forgot to tell you about my hunting success. I have three fine young porkers down the river to collect, and I also have something else to show you. The pigs were too heavy to carry, so we’ll go in the car.”
After five minutes of driving, they had found the pigs. The place was marked by a flock of birds, some perched around in the trees and others circling overhead, feeding on the pig innards that Mark had discarded earlier. As they approached, the birds reluctantly abandoned their feast, squawking and squabbling over last bits as they flew off.
The bodies were lying on hard sun-baked earth and disguised by a blanket of branches. Mark lifted the pigs up, one by one, each around thirty or forty pounds, and laid them in the cooler.
Mark then took Susan her by the hand and led her down the pig track to the river below. In his free hand he carried the intestines of one pig. They passed through about fifty yards of swamp grass, and came to where the track reached a clear, still pool of water, tucked into the far bank.
Not a breath of air stirred the still surface, not a single bird-call disturbed the silence. She was about to talk but Mark signalled silence. He waved her to stop five steps back from the edge. Then, slowly and carefully, he went forward until he could reach the water. He threw down the pig guts, deliberately causing the water to splash as he placed them at the very edge of the pool.
Mark stepped back to join her and signalled to wait quietly. Five minutes passed and nothing, the stillness was absolute, the silence broken only by the sound of a blowfly buzzing at the water’s edge. Then, two small bubbles came to the surface, as far out as they stood from the edge. Stillness again, another minute passed.
Now a small knobbly stick lay on the water where none had been, two slits at the ends of the stick opened. Then two eyes appeared, two feet behind the stick. The eyes watched her with absolute impassivity. She stared back. Somehow, the knowledge that she was staring at a huge crocodile had passed into her brain, without any conscious realisation. The eyes moved forward.
There was a huge wave as the enormous creature rose out of the water. The crocodile opened its jaws, as if to display peg after peg of yellow teeth. It swivelled sideways, almost delicately, picking up the pig intestine. With a flick of its head, its jaws opened wide and snapped shut, the pig remains now gone. Gracefully it turned its ponderous body and slid back underneath the pond surface, giving barely a ripple. All was still again as before.
Susan’s heart was still pounding five minutes later, after they had returned to the car. She had known that crocodiles were huge, silent, and dangerous, but nothing imagined could have prepared her to see up close their incredible and silent power, first hidden, seen briefly, then gone as if never there. When she thought of those remorseless eyes, watching her as just another potential meal, she felt the hair rise on her arms.
Susan was sitting in the Borroloola Hotel. Mark had left her to do some more business. He said it would take an hour. He seemed to have connections everywhere; there was always a little deal on the side.
For now she enjoyed the solitude.
The morning had continued to be wonderful. Her image of the crazy abductor just did not line up with the man she knew.
But now she had to decide. Should she try and find the truth or just let it go? If she didn’t care about him the choice would have be easy, she would have just continued to enjoy the trip and maybe followed it up back in England, in safety, far away. But Susan did care, and she thought Mark cared about her too, she was almost certain of it. Commitment, in whatever form, meant honesty and truth. That meant finding where these threads led. With only five days until her plane departed, she needed to have an answer before she left.
Susan was now starting to understand NT geography and get a sense of where they were heading. Today, they were in the Gulf, at the bottom of what he called the Top End, to the east; tomorrow they would head up further, but cross over the western side, something about a big crocodile river, yet more crocodiles, almost a part of what made him. Then they would spend a day in Kakadu, right at the top, back east, before they would spend their final night in Darwin.
There were not many towns until Darwin and the end of their trip, where it looked like she could communicate with the world. There was one called Timber Creek, in a day or two, and perhaps Katherine, which they would pass through on the way to Kakadu. So, if she wanted to find out more, Susan needed to do something now.
She was enjoying sitting in the cool soft light after the harsh sun and growing heat of the day. It was getting warmer and warmer each day as they headed north. She would happily have sat there and sipped her lemon, lime and bitters, while she daydreamed about a future with Mark. Could she return and try living in the Aussie outback? Was she prepared to forgo her career in medical technology? But perhaps she could get a job in a hospital lab. Alice, Katherine, and Darwin were the main towns and they all seemed to want skilled staff. Then Mark and Susan could just see how it went without the pressure of forcing themselves together all the time.
Shaking her head to rid the daydreams, Susan reluctantly pulled her phone out of her backpack. She turned it on, only a quarter of its charge remained. She plugged it in to charge and found Anne’s number.
She would keep this simple and just follow up on the Scottish and American girls. They would be easier to track down. Had they been reported as missing—was there anything suspicious, when did it happen? If she gave each name, current age and town or city from the passport address, it should be enough for Mr Google or other search engines to see if there was anything of note—a newspaper article, missing persons notice or other similar. Once she knew that she could decide on whether to go any further.
The text was to the point:
Can you check out two names below?
Saw notice saying missing in a place I stayed.
? Whether home now and OK. Text back soonest.
Will check next town, where phone works.
Having a great time in Oz.
Love and see you soon
Then she listed the names Fiona Rodgers and Amanda Sullivan, along with age and origin locality for both girls. She pushed send and then checked the sent box. The message had gone. It was too late to pull back.
Feeling she had done her duty she turned the phone off and put it away. She had thought about ringing her Mum to say hello, but the time difference (3 am in London) meant it wasn’t a good time. Susan would try to remember one night, when it was morning in England, if she was in a place with reception.
Letting her thoughts drift, Susan thought of Mark and the morning she had spent with him. It was, it was—well not something she would tell her grandmother. But it blew her mind the way they connected with each other, and all the intimate things they had done.
That huge crocodile, so silent and so very freaky; one minute, nothing, then the next a ton of saurian scales surging from the water; such power and seemingly weightless explosive movement. Then the delicate way it had picked up and swallowed its pig treat, with an almost quaint relish. Then it just faded away to nothing again, a silent place. She had barely breathed as she watched it unfold. She shivered now at the thought.
Then there was their funny morning tea at the place called Seven Emus. Not the grand cattle station she had imagined, not much there at all really; skinny cattle, broken yards, a range of pets and chickens wandering here and there, in and out of houses. It was an extension of the Shadforth clan who had lived in this country for more than 100 years.
But there was something incredibly dynamic about them, their mixed ancestry, multi-coloured kids running free. It was a place with a mixture of old and new; parts of the house and yard looked like they had come out of the Ark. Alongside the piles of junk and broken down cars scattered around were much newer objects: a TV, microwave, satellite phone, books, and electronic games. There were also modern cars and boats, even a helicopter that sat to one side—bought to take the tourists on scenic flights.
They had passed a flash resort, the Seven Emu’s Fishing Camp, and turned down a little sidetrack to come to this place by the creek; it was unclear which part of the clan lived here. Mark said there were too many details to explain.
The people who lived here were lovely. Susan felt they really belonged to this place and had successfully managed to straddle the race and class divide, a son who was studying law at the university in Queensland, a daughter training to be a nurse in Darwin, another who was a police trainee in Borroloola. The parents were so obviously proud of their children and their achievements; the way they spoke reminded her of the way her Mum talked about her and Tim.
Then there was the cousin with a brood of small children, running everywhere, almost naked, snotty nosed, one carrying a pet chook. Their mother screaming at them and waving a stick, but rushing to hug one who had fallen and hurt his knee, while at the same time she scolded another for eating a piece of bread with filthy hands.
There was a grizzled old man, perhaps a grandfather, who still had his aboriginal heritage running strong. He told Susan a story of the early spirits of this land, the Emu spirits of his totem. He had walked with her to the creek, carrying a fish spear, and showed her where he could spear fish. He had told her of going in a small boat into the rough Gulf waters to catch dugong and turtle with a harpoon; he told her of being a little boy when a white man beat his father. The man accused his father of stealing a cow with no brand on their own land, said he knew this cow by sight and it was his own. He said his father had made it run away, so he hit him with a stick, over and over again until he lay still in the dirt.
The old Chinese cook, relationship unknown, was like a second grandfather; he made Chinese dumplings for their morning tea. He had received the pig offered, on behalf of the whole family, with gratitude. He had immediately hung it from a beam under the verandah. Later he would “smoke-im, real good,” but for now, dumplings.
Almost as an afterthought, he had sliced off a portion of cheek meat, to add to his menu. When it was ready, the dumplings and steamed pork were served steaming in a spicy sauce. The food was delicious, and Susan had eaten with uninhibited gusto.
It was such a hotchpotch, and yet it was so real and alive. Susan had always had an image of aboriginal culture, which she realised now was a stereotype—the noble savage with the spear, living out and alone, totally at one with the land. Instead, here was a culture that was a living and dynamic fusion, the old and the new all living and drawing off each other; a chaotic harmony, as if blessed by the spirit of this land.
Susan sensed this was a new aboriginal and Australian culture and, in maybe fifty years, the culture would evolve again, its people changing beyond recognition. Only the landscape would remain the same.
She was roused from her reverie by Mark’s hand on her shoulder, “You look like you were having such a lovely dream.” He said, “Let’s walk round the town, and down to the river, I’ll show you the sights for a bit, before we come back for lunch and travel on.”
She slipped her arm around his waist and they walked into the bright sunshine of a Borroloola dry season day. Susan soaked up the sun’s rays as a warm and gentle breeze caressed her skin. She felt good. Today was a day to be enjoyed while she waited for the chips to fall. She would not think about her message to Anne until there was something to know.
Later that night, Susan and Mark lay side by side in their bed in the little box unit room at the Heartbreak Hotel. It was the middle of the night, or more accurately the early morning. Mark seemed to be sleeping soundly, his breathing regular.
She felt overcome with warmth and tenderness for the man that slept beside her. Susan saw clearly now that she had fallen in love with him. She was in way over her head, she could not conceive of her life without him. Sure he had his odd quirks: he was secretive, defensive, and he didn’t like questions. But then, he had hardly had the best start: an abusive father, a mother who had given him little before vanishing. She felt sure this was at the root of his emotional wall.
Susan was in the mood to forgive all. Part of her regretted the text yesterday, digging into the girls’ identities. She was sure there was a reasonable explanation. After all the passports were out of date, or at least the Scottish one was. And the name didn’t seem familiar. She was almost sure that the name she remembered from the paper was Catherine or Katherine—not Fiona—maybe the surname was the same, but then she wasn’t really sure. And it wasn’t like Rodgers was an uncommon name.
Susan felt she was breaking Mark’s trust by going looking for dirty secrets. Especially when Mark was always so kind and gentle, well most of the time.
It had only been once or twice that she had seen a look in his face that scared her, but everyone has a dark side. Susan was sure she was just jumping at shadows. She just had respond to his affection with trust.
Mark had been true to his promise to make it a night to remember. On leaving Borroloola, they had driven up the road for an hour and stopped at a little town called Cape Crawford; ‘town’ was perhaps too large a word, as the town was really just a roadhouse called Heartbreak Hotel.
There was no mobile reception here.
The pub was not much to look at; the room Mark had rented for them was really basic, not much more than a box with a double bed and an air conditioner. There was a small TV, running from the satellite dish perched on the roof of the hotel. It gave a range of channels, mostly American, but some local. In the early evening she had feasted her desire to be connected with the outside world with an hour of news watching and channel surfing.
They had arrived mid-afternoon, and had checked in to the room immediately. Coming into their room, they sated their desire for slow and gentle sex.
Mark had looked at her with such tenderness, his low voice telling her how much she meant to him. He never quite said love, but from him it felt the same. This was the first time he had talked to her in an emotional way. It moved her far beyond anything she had known with any other man.
It had been lovely to be here with daylight to spare. After their time in bed they had gone for a drink in the bar and it was still only just after three, they had a long afternoon yet. Susan ordered lemonade, and mixed it with a dash of Mark’s beer.
After they’d emptied their glasses, Mark said he had something he wanted to show her, just a short drive away. In less than half an hour they turned onto a track with a small sign reading, Bessy Springs – Falls.
The waterfall wasn’t huge, less than a hundred feet high, but it had a steady flow that fell over ochre cliffs into a crystal clear pool. The pool was fringed by a prickly palm, which Mark called, ‘Pandanus.’
They first swam in the pool below, then climbed to the top of the waterfall and followed the creek back to a series of deep rock pools. On the way they passed through what, to Susan, appeared to be a city made of stones; Mark called it a lost city.
Over millennia the weather had eroded the rock in the creek valley into hundreds of stone columns. Seen together they looked like stone skyscrapers poking up through the trees, the layers in the stone were the building floors. Susan could almost see the inhabitants of these strange buildings in her mind; she pictured them all sleeping in the daylight, but coming out at dusk, carrying little lights, like fairies, bustling as they came and went.
They came to a hollowed out rock pool. It was an almost perfect circle, scoured neat and clean by the thunderous water flow of the wet season. Now just a gentle trickle ran into this clear water pool, buried deep in the stone, with sand and pebbles at the edges. Susan had waded in and had discovered that, in the centre, the water was deep and cold. It went well over her head when she tried to touch the bottom with her toes.
Mark had taken off her clothes and held her body against his. He did not seek sex, he just caressed and held her, and she held him in return. They gently touched and explored each other’s bodies and faces; she touched the big scar on his back that ran across his shoulder. Susan said she would imagine it was a gunshot wound, sustained in a wild-west gunfight.
Mark laughed, “More likely barbed wire from when a horse threw me over a fence.”
They returned to the Heartbreak Hotel just as dusk was falling. The sky was lit by a red sunset in the western sky, the sun turning from yellow, to orange, to red, to almost purple as it descended through the final layers of a distant smoky sky.
Dinner was “Surf and Turf” in the roadhouse: a juicy slab of Barkly steak, complemented by delicious Carpentaria Prawns and fresh Barramundi—so the menu read. It was incredibly delicious for roadhouse food. They washed their meal down with beer, poured into glasses from huge longneck bottles of NT Draught.
Someone struck up a fiddle, and next minute there were Irish set dances and jigs. The roadhouse patrons all joined in; instructions were easy and little was expected. There were around thirty or forty people in the bar but, surprisingly, for once there seemed to be no one Mark knew. Mark explained it was a tourist crowd; the locals busy with mustering and other dry season work. They wouldn’t be in until the weekend.
Susan didn’t mind, it meant that she had Mark all to herself; he seemed to like this too.
The night drifted by, the pleasant feeling of them being together, sitting side by side, sometimes facing and looking at each other, sometimes little touches of hands and thighs. She knew there would be more loving before they went to sleep, but the now was about enjoying each other’s company.
The evening drifted on, and Susan started yawning. Mark took her by the hand, pulled her to her feet and led her back to their room. He sat her on the edge of the bed, while he opened the small bag that held his things.
Susan got the feeling that something significant was about to happen.
Mark took something out of his bag and zipped it back up. He turned and padded softly to sit beside her on the bed. Almost shyly he took her hand and put an object in it.
Nestled in the palm of her hand was a blue felt box, the type that held rings and small jewellery.
Susan felt a flutter of excitement and looked to Mark, curious.
“Open it,” he said. Susan opened the lid. Inside was a ring, set with a beautiful milky blue stone the size of her thumbnail. Sitting delicately beside the ring was an almost identical stone, set into a pendant on a necklace of gold links.
“Came from the man I saw today in Borroloola. I got the stones sent off to be made up just after Magnetic Island. When I first met you in Cairns I knew they were perfect for the colour of your eyes. After Cairns I hoped I might see you again. I decided that day, after we met on the dive boat, that if I did see you again they would be for you. So in Townsville after you left I arranged to have these made and sent to Borroloola where I could collect them.
Susan looked up and met his eyes. She felt herself drawn within his being, a meeting of spirits. There was such intensity in their connection, at first it had been mainly physical but now it was as if there was a bonding of their souls.
Her gaze flicked back down to the jewellery, then back at Mark. She was full of wonder and surprise. She felt tears prick her eyes, “Oh Mark you shouldn’t have; they’re very beautiful.” She felt amazed that he’d made this decision on the very first day of their meeting, as if he had foreknowledge of what was to follow.
Mark took the box. He lifted her right hand, which was sitting in his lap, and tried the ring on her third finger.
The ring was a fraction too large, but she loved its elegant cut and the way it sparkled in the light. The stone seemed huge but yet was balanced and perfect. Then Mark placed the gold chain over her head and let the second stone fall into place. It sat just at the top of the place where her breasts met, partly hidden under her top.
Mark said, “I think I need to see it in uninterrupted view.”
Susan nodded and lifted her arms above her head. “Undress me,” she whispered.
Mark lifted her top over her head, his fingers grazing her skin, then threw it somewhere behind him. Then standing he drew her to her feet and eased off her skirt, discarding this too. He kissed each breast, then the little blue stone, and then each breast again. When he was done he lifted her under the covers and covered her body with his. It was incredibly beautiful, their sense of togetherness, as much as the pleasure.
After, she asked absentmindedly what made him want to get her such an amazing gift.
He said, “At first just your eyes, but now, all of you. I want you to have something to remember me by, when you return home.” He paused, then added, “Maybe, we can find a way to meet and do this all again, to be together again.”
Sleepily she said. “I hope so, Mark, I really hope so.” Half dreamy she murmured “Together Forever.” Now Mark was saying with her, “Together Forever,” or was it a dream.
It was still dark when Mark shook her awake. “Hate to disturb your sleep, but we’ve a long way to go today.”
They packed quickly and left the roadhouse. Nothing was stirring in the tourist parts, but a couple of workers were tidying up out the back. In five minutes they were away and driving west. Mark explained they were heading for Timber Creek and the Victoria River tonight, passing through Top Springs and the Victoria River District, his own favourite piece of cattle country. It was a long, long drive, so he wanted to get most of it out of the way before midday. He said they aimed to be in Top Springs for lunch, a mere five hundred kilometres away.
They shared the driving. He drove for the first hour while she fully woke up. Then he gave her the wheel. Susan drove until they reached the Stuart Highway, two hours later. They stopped at the Daly Waters Hotel, just near the junction, where they took on fuel for the car, and two plates of bacon and eggs for themselves.
After their late breakfast they headed south, which surprised Susan. She’d had the impression that they were en route north. Mark explained they had to first go south, back towards Alice Springs, in order to pick up their road out to the west.
It was less than half an hour’s drive before they reached this road. The sign read Buchanan Highway but Mark explained that the locals called it the Murranji Track, on account of it being an old drover’s route to walk cattle to Queensland from the Victorian River District and the Kimberley. It was only two hundred kilometres long, but was known as one of the world’s toughest droving routes. It had long waterless stretches; poor feed; patches of dense dangerous timber called lancewood, due to their spear like trunks which could impale both man and horse; and often the cattle would get spooked in the night and rush, “Yanks call it a Stampede,” Mark added.
Despite the shorter distance, it felt like a much longer trip to Top Springs than the first leg. They tried to talk but, as there was no roadside scenery, they had little of local interest to discuss. The noise of the vehicle bouncing and shaking made wider conversation difficult.
Despite this, Susan sat contented; she was happy to be in Mark’s company. She had taken the ring from her finger and slipped it on the gold chain round her neck. She hadn’t wanted to take it off, but was fearful it would slide off her finger, and get lost. She liked the feeling of it hidden beneath her shirt, sitting snug between her breasts. It was both private and possessive.
At last they left the scrub behind. The country opened out into grassy plains, with low hills on the horizon.
Mark enthused, “This is the start of the VRD, Victoria River District. It runs from here out to Western Australia, and down to the desert. It’s named from its river, which starts in the desert and runs north to the sea.
“For me it’s God’s own country. The place, where God said, after he’d made the rest of the world, ‘Now give me a space for man and beast, where the grass is good, the water is sweet, the fish are big, and the hills look over.’”
Susan looked at him and smiled, “So a man of poetry as well as many other things.’’
“Not my strongest talent I admit,” he grimaced.
At Top Springs they were met by a crusty old bartender who clearly knew Mark well. He flicked Mark’s hat as he came inside, grinning at him.
“What no fuel to buy?” he said to Mark.
“Here! You must be joking, you will rob me blind,” said Mark, laughing.
“You must think we are still in old Ma Hawke’s days,” the barman said.
“Anyone who trained under her must be like her,” Mark responded. It was good-natured banter.
Over lunch stories emerged about the infamous, Ma Hawke. Susan was in fits of laughter, hard to believe most of them, though the old bartender swore to their authenticity.
Mark backed him up. “Not that I knew her myself, but I have talked to too many old-timers who knew her, for it all to be made up.”
The stories ran on and on. “What about the one where she tried to sell a Stock Inspector 300 litres of petrol, from the pump, even though his fuel tank only held 240.”
“What about the time when she died and they called the local cops out from Wave Hill. Everyone knew there must be a money stash. Sure enough the cops said they found ten grand under her bed. Trouble was, next day after they went back to the Wave Hill Police Station, one of the cop’s own dogs dug up money buried in his back yard. A blackfella saw the notes blowing in the wind and thought it was Father Christmas.
“Turned out that cop pocketed another fifteen grand. When he saw the money in the wind he fessed up. But his mate didn’t, said he knew nothing about any extra money and stuck to his story and a search couldn’t find it. Even though the first cop said the other had taken his own share he wouldn’t cough up the dough. So the honest one got the boot. A year later I saw the honest one on the bones of his arse while his mate lived in a nice new flash house.”
After reminiscing for another while, Mark flicked his head. “One to carry,” he said, ordering another beer for them both. The old bartender passed two over.
Mark went to pay. The bartender shook his head. “On the house. It’s good to tell tales with someone who remembers. I know you came from the city one time, but you’re one of us now, stories are in your blood.
“The old-timers around here say you have a crocodile spirit they can see in the dusk, that last light when only the shadows dance.”
Susan felt goose bumps run down her arms and spine. She couldn’t imagine this hard-bitten old bushie bartender saw ghosts. But there was something in his tone that told her he could see over the horizon to the other side. She shivered.
Mark broke the mood. “Well old fella, thanks mighty for the drinks and yarn. Tell me who is working on the VRD?
“Well,” said the man, “everyone is pretty flat strap as you know. But this morning a big lot of trucks came through from Katherine, gone to collect a big shipment of steers to load on the cattle boat from Darwin tomorrow. Hear tell they’re putting them together on VRD Station. They say the numbers have come up short and they’ve cut an expensive deal with Humbert River Station to make up the load. I heard tell they’re walking a mob down the Wickham Gorge today.”
The bartender paused, “Don’t know if you know it, but tis tiger country up there. Lots of scrubbers in them hills. I reckon they’re likely to have trouble. You looking for a job?”
Mark winked, “Not today, hands a bit full as you can see.”
The bartender gave Susan a piercing look, “You be real careful, he’s full of charm, but there’s a wild place there too, danger goes with him.”
Then he said seriously. “But you’ll be right, a guardian angel watches over you. I know I’ll see you again sometime, maybe when his spirit returns to the crocodiles.”
Susan felt an edge to his words that made her squirm.
But Mark waved him away. “Ah, go way with you old man, don’t be frightening the lass. I’ll take good care of her.”
“Sure, and isn’t that the nub of the problem,” he replied.
It was such a strange conversation that Susan burst out laughing. “I could swear you are all mad Irish here, such superstition as I have never before heard.”
The barman winked at her. “Well isn’t me name O’Reilly, as was my Dad’s before.” Then he doffed his hat. “Will be seein’ ye agin.”
Susan couldn’t help laughing back, “Well I hope so.”
Walking out the door the man’s reply followed her. “To be sure, to be sure, tis written.”
As they drove off Mark said, “We’re a bit later than I meant. But it is hard to get away when the old man gets to telling stories; he knows them all and at least half are true. The blackfellas around here tell me he’s a bit fey and sees spirits. Me, I think the only spirit he sees comes from the inside of a bottle with Johnny Walker written on it.”
An hour later Mark and Susan came over a ridge. In front of them the air was full of dust. There were buildings and yards, and men on horses, and a couple choppers working, along with bull catchers pushing a mob of cattle up a laneway. Over to one side sat six big trucks with double-deck stock crates, each pulling two trailers. Another truck was pulled up to a loading ramp and people were pushing cattle up the ramp into it.
“Well it is a big day today,” said Mark to Susan, “all go at the home station. This below is VRD, properly known as Victoria River Downs Station, same name as the district. Once it was the largest cattle station in the world, before they broke it into four separate parts. VRD is one of my favourite places, and today is a good day to come, even if it is a bit busy. I thought you might like to see some real cattle station action.”
Susan nodded, happy to go along.
Mark continued, “A mighty river runs through this area, the Victoria River, which we’re going on tomorrow. Pity its pushing three o’clock, I had planned for the full afternoon here, but I didn’t know what was on. Plenty it seems. Let’s go over, say hello and see if they want a hand. The manager here is a good friend of mine.”
They parked near the yards, and walked across. Most people were busy but a truckie was leaning on the rail, watching as they loaded cattle onto a truck.
“Hi there,” said Mark, sticking out his hand, “I think I met you at Anthony’s Lagoon last year.”
The bloke stuck out his own hand and shook Mark’s, “Bill. Yeah, I remember those big mad bullocks for Queensland, fresh out of the swamp. They were a handful.”
Mark indicated to the trucks and yard, “Big lift, eh?”
“Yeah,” said the driver, “S’posed to go on that flash new cattle boat, the one that takes five thousand in a go, off to Indonesia, loading Darwin tomorrow. VRD promised fifteen hundred, but I hear they might be a couple hundred shy, they say that they were two hundred short when they mustered the Moolooloo Back Paddock. Still bringing some up from Sanford, as well as a mob of extras from Humbert River; actually one truck may have to go over there to load.” Susan recalled the barman describing the same thing earlier. “Anyway we’re all supposed to load tonight and be in the wharf in Darwin for unloading in the morning. Looks like it’ll be a long night of driving. Thank God I am at the front of the queue. These ones at the back will be lucky to be away by ten tonight and that doesn’t leave much time for sleeping. I’m lucky to be looking forward to a good four hours kip at the wharf before the boat loading starts in the morning.”
“Mark!” came a shout from behind them. A strong looking man hurried over that clearly knew Mark, “Bloody glad to see you,” he said, happily, shaking Mark’s hand.
“You too, how’s it goin’?” asked Mark.
“It’s been one of those days, cock-up after cock-up. Still, we’ll just manage, somehow. Maybe you came specially to help; God knows I need someone to put a shoulder to the wheel.”
Seeming to only just notice Susan, the man turned to her and said, “Well, he always was the last to introduce me to the lovely ladies, thinks I might pinch them, even though I got my own missus who is more than enough for me. Buck’s the name. I’m trying to run things around here.”
Susan put out her hand to shake, “I’m Susan.” She appreciated the man’s directness, he reminded her a bit of her father: total focus, no nonsense and straight to the point.
Buck smiled and turned to Mark, “We’re short and I cut an expensive deal to get more steers from Humbert. Trouble is that they were in that paddock in the far back corner and Humbert stock camp had other work and couldn’t muster them.
“It meant I had to send over a stock camp to do the mustering ourselves. All was going well at first; we’d put the mob together and were walking it back. We decided to use the Wickham Gorge way; you know that rough stony track? But there’s a road for the truck bringing the stores and lots of good fresh feed along the river, so the cattle should have full bellies, going over the weighing scales in Darwin. We had three hundred good sappy steers, just an ideal size. I knew we were short about two hundred and a hundred as spares is handy.
“Anyway, it was going well until this morning, we had maybe fifteen k’s to go till we cleared the gorge and got back into the good open country near this end. Then a mongrel scrub bull got in amongst them and stirred them all up.”
From the frustration in Buck’s voice, Susan figured this was a bad thing. She couldn’t quite follow all the cattle talk conversation, but Buck was easy to read.
Buck went on, “I hear he’s that one that busted away when they did the clean-up in there last year, a big horny red bull, with a big scar on his nose. The head stockman tells me you know him well, as you helped with that job.”
Mark said “Yeah, I should have shot him then, but he’d do above a thousand bucks on the boning room floor, so I let him go, thought he was next year’s pocket money.”
Buck replied, “Well he’s got the bullet now, but not before he split the mob, gone every which way, but at least they’re still in the gorge.
“Then, just for good measure, one of the young ringers, trying too hard to put them back together, got spat off his horse and busted his arm, bad break. So then we had to pull off the chopper that was putting the mob back together and bring our man out. We called in the Flying Doctor and it’s collected him from the homestead just now. So now it’s all go again, but we are down a good man and the day is near gone.
“The agent in Darwin tells me that the boat won’t finish loading until the next morning, day after tomorrow. So, if we can get them steers to the Humbert Station yards and get them loaded by tomorrow afternoon, we should still be OK.
“One good thing is the mob’s been left to settle along the river. With a good feed and drink they should be a bit easier to work now. So I am just getting two choppers organised to go and put the steers back together and get them moving again. I would go myself, but I need to stay here to keep the loading of all the trucks on track.
So, I need a couple spotters to ride with the choppers, if you’ve got the time. It helps to have a second pair of eyes when the pilot is working in that gorge, as you well know. Since your help with last year’s clean up, you know that country better than me. What’re your movements anyway?”
“Well,” said Mark, “just on my way to Timber Creek, job on the river tomorrow, but my afternoon is free. So now I am your spotter, lead me to the chopper. That’s assuming that Susan can ride in the other.”
“My plan in one,” said Buck. “There will be grub up in the mess when you come back and a bed for the night, if you want it. I’ll probably be here till at least nine to get the loading finished. I’ll need to find myself a new job tomorrow morning if there’s any more stuff ups from here.”
Then he asked, “How important is that job on the river tomorrow, can you put it back? Really need an extra in the stock camp to bring those steers along, they were a bit short before, I should have sent one more. But you know how it is, finding enough men for each job, when the pressure is on. But now that they are down one more, it will be a real handful to manage the mob, at least till they come out of the river gorge and make the open going.”
Then Buck turned to Susan, “Don’t suppose you can ride?”
“A bit,” she said.
Buck looked back at Mark inquiring.
Mark answered, “I had a feeling that something like this would come along. I should have been here by late lunch. But you know how they get you in with the stories at Top Springs. I reckon we can fit it in. Just need to be on my way by lunch tomorrow to get out and have an hour or two on the river before dark.
“And don’t worry about Susan, I have seen her and she can ride just fine. She just needs a steady horse. I don’t want to have to ring her Mama and tell her that she got busted up on a mongrel VRD horse.”
Buck laughed. “I think we can manage that. There’s a real nice four-year-old grey I broke in last year. They’ve worked him in camp for the year and they tell me he’s real steady now. He has a lovely soft mouth, turns on a pin, runs like the wind. I think that’s the one for her.
“When you land tell the head stockman to put him aside, Firefly is his name. Oh and you can have Bushranger, he’s the one that spat Mick today, he’s a big black late-cut colt, you’ll know him by the wildness in his eyes. Good horse, if a bit mad. You’re just the one to set him straight.”
“B’jesus, you are trying to get me killed, surely there’s a real tame packhorse somewhere for me?” said Mark.
“What, gone a bit chicken in your old age?” said Buck, grinning.
They walked over to the choppers about a hundred yards away, and Buck introduced the pilots. Dick was flying the lead machine, with Mark riding shotgun. Susan was to go with Tim who would work the flanks.
There was no delay, the machines were fuelled up and ready and they needed the rest of the day to get it done. Quick instructions were passed from Tim to Susan as the rotor was spinning up.
“This machine is a Robinson, designed for two, though it could carry three at a pinch. You’ll need to look out for cattle on your side, and back behind, also watch out for the tail rotor and tree branches” He showed her how to signal him to go in the different directions.
Then they were off. They soared into the sky, heading straight and low towards the southwest. The pilot pointed out as they crossed the line of the boundary between VRD and Humbert River Stations. Soon the flat country fell away, and they flying over scrubby broken hills, rising ever higher to the west. Then the ground fell away and down below them was the Wickham River Gorge.
Susan and Tim spied cattle in small groups scattered along the river, some standing up to their bellies in the water. The river itself was mainly a series of rocky pools with a few longer open bits of water. A set of wheel tracks ran along the eastern side of the river.
Parked just next to this track was a four-wheel drive with what looked like a mobile kitchen on the back. Four horses were saddled and standing next to the truck. Another few were grazing nearby. There was an open space fifty yards from the truck and they followed the other helicopter in and landed alongside it in this clearing.
The helicopter engines were left running as Mark got out and waved for Susan to come over. Both pilots, the head stockman and Mark engaged in a brief conversation and the riders were given instructions: two were to ride out a few hundred yards to a place where the valley narrowed and there was an open grassy area. They would block the cattle just past that. The other two were to head down along the valley and work with the choppers as they picked up the mobs and put them together, walking them along steadily and not crowding them. As needed one rider could cut out to help the chopper but the other had to stay at the tail of the mob. Then they would bring the mob towards the block up place.
They were off again, the two choppers followed the opposite valley edges keeping high, both for a good view and so as not to spook the cattle. At first there were lots of cattle in sight, then it was just ones and twos, and finally they saw no more. They flew on to the next river bend where the valley narrowed.
Here Mark’s helicopter landed and Mark got out and made his way across the ground, looking down. Tim told her, “Just checking for tracks, to see if any have come back this far.”
They held a slow search pattern as Mark checked, working the valley edges and looking for any sign. Tim explained they needed to keep a lookout for any cattle tracks and dung, as well as the beasts. “Sometimes the cattle will camp in a patch of bushes and, without seeing their signs, you wouldn’t know they were there.”
After a couple minutes the call came, “All clear, carry on.” Their chopper worked the edges of the gorge, sweeping searches from side to side, above and behind the first chopper that focused on the river and valley centre.
Tim pointed to the other chopper and said “He’s most likely to come on the cattle along the river, but sometimes they’ll run up the sides of the valley and try to break back behind his machine. It can be hard to see from down there, close to the ground. That’s why we sit up here and keep watch. We also check the valley edges where cattle are less likely to be found. Seeing as the afternoon is cooling down, a few cattle might start to walk away from the river to the valley sides to feed.”
For the next few minutes there was nothing. Then a call came over the radio, “First mob, five, in river.” The other helicopter dropped down amongst the river trees, hovering and going in lots of directions.
Four cattle burst out of the river, heading straight towards Susan and Tim. In a second TIm had dropped his helicopter to tree top level, zooming in to heel the cattle and turn them down the valley. There was one last straggler that came running out, the other chopper following at his heels. Tim immediately gained altitude, returning to their high side position.
The next two hours were exhilarating. The helicopter was like an extension of Tim’s arm, turning faster than she could see, or think where to go. Soon Susan and Tim were in sync.
She called out, “Two cattle at nine o’clock, fifty yards,” and he broke left almost before the words were out; “One under tree, twelve o’clock, don’t think they have seen him,” and, as the instructions were called, Mark’s helicopter in front was already changing course.
Now they had a good-sized mob, of maybe a hundred, stringing out in front, and the horse riders had taken position. The head stockman was holding the tail and his companion worked the flanks, coming from side to side, much like them.
They noticed there was one bull that did not belong. It wasn’t a sleek and shiny like the other cattle, instead it was reddish-brown and scruffy.
“Scrub bull,” said Tim, “Must have come out of the hills for a drink and doesn’t know what’s hit him.”
The bull was pawing the ground, looking to charge the outer rider. Some of the other cattle were also starting to drift back and away, seeing a chance to escape with the distraction.
Then, like a buzzing fly, Mark’s chopper was in the bull’s face. Thebull snorted, shook his head and made a run for the helicopter, which was hovering and advancing just above the ground. A loud boom sounded and the it turned tail and galloped back into the mob, moving right into the very centre.
“They won’t have any more trouble with him now; there’s nothing like a blast of bird shot to put a bull back in its place,” said Tim.
As the sun fell below the hills, they had the whole mob together on the little grassy flat. The head stockman said the count was about right, maybe one or two missing, but it was good enough for now.
The plan was to walk the mob on through a narrow section of valley until it opened out into a small grassy flat where another creek ran in. It would take about half an hour. Then they could settle the cattle and hold them there overnight. In the morning they would walk them the remaining twelve kilometres to the end of the valley and continue on into the yards from there.
The helicopters held position for a few minutes, until it was obvious that all was under control, then they zoomed away to the station, arriving just as the sun was tipping the horizon.
As they touched down Buck ran over to meet them. “That’s fantastic; I hear it ran like clockwork.”
Mark gave him a friendly punch on the shoulder, “I don’t know what you would have done without me, just needed an old pro on the job, now all I have to do is give your blokes a riding lesson in the morning on Mr Bushranger. We will soon see whether he thinks he can really buck or is just a great big pussy.”
Then Buck said, “Why don’t you go and have a shower and check into the bunk rooms. I’m afraid it will have to be boys and girls separate tonight—no spare rooms. I’ll meet you for some dinner in half an hour. My backup can keep the loading going, it is running well and the trucks should all be loaded by an hour after dark, touch wood.”
They arranged that Tim would ferry both Mark and Susan to the cattle at first light in the helicopter, if he took only half a tank of fuel the weight would be OK.
Mark turned to Susan and pointed towards some buildings a few hundred yards away. “That’s the station homestead. It is like a little town. That building to this side,” he gestured to the right, “is the bunk block where we are staying. Why don’t you walk over and settle in. I need to discuss a couple things with Buck, but then I’ll collect the truck and drive across.” Susan nodded and set out for the building he’d pointed to. Mark and Buck walked back to the yard, talking earnestly.
Susan savoured the soft evening light, the temperature was perfect, neither hot nor cold. The grass glowed golden, and the hills were an orange purple as the light ebbed away. A couple birds winged low across her path. She felt wonderful, so exhilarated from the helicopter dance. She felt a kinship with Mark’s love of this area; she understood when he said he thought God created this one place a little better than the rest.
Dinner passed in friendly conversation and banter; a mixture of male and female ringers, other station hands, a governess, the pilots. By the end she was yawning.
Mark saw and said, “You should go to your bunk. I’m not far off mine either. They’ll ring a bell half an hour before it gets light. That is the signal that breakfast is ready.”
Susan lingered a minute, lightly resting her hand on his arm. “It feels strange to be going to a bed without you.” And it was true; this would be the first night they’d spent apart since Melbourne, that many days ago. “I’ll miss you, but I’m sure I will be asleep in about five minutes anyway. Thanks for a wonderful day. It is hard to believe that any day can beat yesterday, or the day before, but I can’t think of any day better than this.”
He touched her cheek, “Me neither, but then yesterday and last night was pretty special too.”
He gave her a lascivious look as she rose to leave. She couldn’t help it, her face got hot as the pleasure of remembering tingled in her body.
All too soon a bell was ringing. There was no daylight yet, just a soft lightening in the window. She’d been so tired last night; she’d collapsed into bed. She couldn’t remember sleeping so soundly in a long time.
Mark was in the dining room when Susan got there, his plate piled high with bacon and eggs. She joined him, but contented herself with a coffee and toast, and thieving pieces of bacon from Mark. He pulled a face.
Soon they were both squashed into the helicopter with Tim at the helm. The air was cold as they took off, and colder still as they climbed. Susan tried to hide herself from the temperature by pushing in behind Mark; it was good to have his body to shield her.
“Missed you last night,” she said in his ear.
He replied without turning back. “No you didn’t, I looked in ten minutes after you left, thinking maybe I should join you, seeing as no one else had come back to the room. But you were sound asleep.”
The flight was quick and they were soon on the ground. The other stockmen were already mounted and heading out for the cattle. The two horses that Mark and Susan were to ride, Bushranger and Firefly, were already saddled and waiting. Mark held Firefly’s head as Susan swung up and then he adjusted the stirrups to fit her.
“Just walk him round a few times and get the feel of him. I will go and sort out my horse,” he said.
She gently nudged Firefly and he responded, walking out with a fast but smooth step. She pulled the reins. Too hard, she thought as Firefly stopped instantly—she mustn’t forget his soft mouth. He was incredibly sensitive to her commands and was fluid underneath her; Susan felt that she and this horse were as one.
Mark led his horse out into an open area, making sure that the ground was flat with no rocks or trees. Susan remembered that it had been described as a firecracker. The horse stared at Mark, eyes wild. It was a superb creature, big but perfectly proportioned. But there was a touch of madness in its eyes.
Mark paused and whispered something to it, whatever it was the horse seemed to relax a little. Then, almost before Susan could see him move, Mark had put his foot in the stirrup and swung his body over.
She sensed Bushranger was as shocked as she was, Mark had mounted so quickly. Bushranger bunched his muscles and then, abruptly, he was flying over the ground, head down, back arched, heels kicking behind; one, two, three, four, five bucks. Despite Bushranger’s wild movements, Mark never shifted in his seat; he was grinning from ear to ear. The horse seemed perplexed.
Mark sat astride Bushranger, totally relaxed. “Are you finished now? Are you pleased to get that out of your system?”
Bushranger dropped his head, almost as if nodding. Mark wheeled him around and Bushranger walked placidly over to Susan and Firefly. And that was simply it, a quiet horse and Mark with a big smile.
The morning was a huge thrill. Susan started at the rear, but once it was obvious she could ride well, she was directed out to the flank, to pick up and pull in the wanderers.
Firefly was wonderful; one minute they would be at a steady walk, next minute, as a steer would poke out and make a dash for freedom, Firefly would explode. From a standing start to sudden acceleration in one fluid motion, Firefly stayed in perfect balance and Susan barely moved in the saddle. Then, as he came alongside the steer, he would wheel on a pin, spinning to face the offender if it did not break back. A couple times he used his body to push the animal round. There was nowhere for the cattle to go. After a few seconds they would realise and return to the mob. Susan’s directions were minimal, the horse knew his job to perfection and mostly she just went along for the ride, though, as time passed and her confidence grew, she started to give fine direction and finesse, her balance complementing the horse’s flowing motion. From time to time she waved to Mark, mostly working the other flank, and he waved back, brimming with his own enjoyment.
It felt like no time until the hills were opening, the valley was ending. She felt a twinge of sadness; her time with Firefly was over too soon.
Half an hour later, they came into a large paddock. Just inside the gate were two vehicles, one station-owned and the other Mark’s four-wheel drive. The billy was boiling, there was brownie on a plate, and another man and Buck were walking up to greet them. Susan swung down off her horse, feeling regret at the dismount, she could have stayed at this for hours yet.
“You’ve made good time,” said Buck to Susan, “It is only eleven. I thought another half hour at least.” From the corner of her eye, Susan saw Mark dismount. Bushranger nuzzled into him.
“I see Mark has turned Bushranger into model stockhorse,” continued Buck, “He is one of the best horsemen I have seen you know—a born natural. I have yet to see a horse beat him, and I could swear he enjoys the challenge when they try.
“Anyway the billy is boiled, tea is brewed. I brought the car out for you to save an hour of riding to the station before you could get on your way. And I thought I would like a ride on my old mate, Firefly.” He patted the horse’s neck. “He’s a good horse isn’t he?” he said, the question more of a statement of fact.
“The absolute best,” Susan agreed.
Mark said it was a two hours’ drive to Timber Creek. There they would be meeting a small aeroplane to fly them to an airstrip, out towards the mouth of the Victoria River. Again this would be a new experience for Susan whose flying experience was limited to big airliners.
They had crossed the Victoria River yesterday, near VRD homestead, at a place called Dashwood Crossing. Here it was a big river, but running fresh water. There was only a low flow as it was the middle of the dry season, and it hadn’t rained for four months.
Susan had marvelled as Mark pointed out a place, high up in the trees, where driftwood was trapped in the branches. He explained that this had come from a big flood a couple years ago, when eight hundred millimetres of rain had fallen in just two days; the remains of a cyclone come inland. Susan said that was more rain than fell in England in a year.
It was hard to conceive so much water flowing down this placid stream. She realised the Northern Territory was a place of hidden surprises; things outside her imagination, here the unleashed power of nature seemed to be almost any everyday part of life.
Today they would be heading down this river, to a place near where it met the sea. Before they left Mark showed her a map and explained how, there, the river was huge, approaching a mile wide and that, over the next few hours, the tides in the sea, just beyond, would rise and fall by more than twenty feet. Then, as the water in these vast estuaries adjusted its level, it became a white water river, as seen in movies running out of mountains and racing through a gorge; except here it was huge, brown, full of silt and salt and the land was flat. It was also full of crocodiles, saltwater ones, built on the same gargantuan scale as their river.
As they drove, Mark told her about their plans. It was clear what they had to do, but less clear why, or who they were doing it for. They were investigating the down-stream reaches of the river, measuring rates of tidal water flow. There was currently satellite data, and flow modelling. Now they needed to cross check the computer predictions against real data from the river at a time when the biggest tides flowed.
So they had to be on the river in the one or two days before or after new or full moon tides. During new moon tides the sun and moon were in a direct line on the same side of the earth, pulling the oceans together and this gave the greatest flows. People called these the king tides.
The new moon was in two days, so this meant either tonight or tomorrow was ideal to collect data. Mark decided to do it tonight; the time of the tides in relation to daylight was best. He also said he didn’t want this job to interfere with having a final day with Susan in Kakadu and on the Mary River, before taking her to Darwin to catch her plane.
They were to measure the flow rates both in and out in the five hours before and after the high tide. It was to be done in a particular stretch of river, near the river mouth. High tide tonight was ten o’clock, so they needed to be on the river from 5 pm to 3 am.
While there they were to take close up photos of various points along the river, making descriptions of bank structure and type and depth measurements at various points. This needed to be done before dark, when the tide was not high. Today the low tide was about 4 pm—a good time for photographs. Tomorrow’s low tide was after 5 pm, closer to sunset, when longer shadows made photography more difficult.
A whisper was around that the company was in discussion with the government about construction of a tidal power plant, perhaps a joint project with the Department of Defence, who owned a huge block of land on the north side of the river, land that old timers called the Bradshaw Run. It was very hush-hush, 50% speculation and rumour—the way of most commercial big businesses.
Mark had been told the absolute bare minimum, just where to go and what to do. The work had come to him via a contact in the Middle East, someone who he had done pipeline work for in the past. They, whoever they were, needed someone they trusted to handle the organisation, logistics, collect the data, and not tell others who might leak it.
Mark had chartered a flat bottom boat, with three great big outboards on the back. It was stable in the running tide and could be pushed to 40 knots if required, though 10-15 knots was more comfortable. It also had a pile of high tech GIS gear on board, to log their track and record photos and measurements digitally. They also needed to take manual measurements to validate the digital ones, and as protection for equipment failure.
Last night, after he had agreed to help at VRD, he had arranged to fly to a nearby local airstrip instead of their original plan, which was to meet mid-morning at Timber Creek, going by boat down the river. Now he would meet the two other men and the boat out there, close to their investigation site.
These men were on their way with the boat, setting things up, waiting for him to arrive. The nearest airstrip was next to the river and an hour’s boat trip from their measurement site.
Tomorrow morning Mark would meet a company representative at Timber Creek. He would give the representative a verbal report and all the records; measurement sheets, boat logs, along with an external hard drive holding digital photos and instrument records. Every single thing was to be handed over, nothing kept.
So, for tonight, he needed a technical assistant, someone to write measurements on sheets and keep watch over his high tech instruments. He had a friendly barmaid in Timber Creek on standby, but he hoped Susan might help instead.
“Of course I will,” she said.
With their conversation she had barely noticed the trip, but now they were driving into a little town. The sign said Timber Creek. It had a hotel, a few houses and a shop. No much here, she thought.
Mark pulled up outside the pub. “We won’t stop. I’ll just run in, tell Tanya, my stand by assistant, that I don’t need her now.” He left the engine running and was back in a minute.
“Tanya is pleased; boats and crocodiles at night are not her thing.”
Then the town was left behind them and, in five minutes, they were pulling into the airport, not much more than a shed and landing strip.
There was a single small plane out on the tarmac waiting for them, the pilot standing alongside checking a map.
In less than five minutes they were taxiing and then soaring into the air, flying alongside a huge river which Susan realised was the Victoria River. Susan sat in front, next to the pilot which gave a superb view. The river swung away and they crossed range after range of broken hills. After twenty minutes they descended again, coming back down above the river. It was a vast muddy torrent, heading to a sea seen on the distant horizon.
As they flew along the river Susan spotted a crocodile so large that it dwarfed all she had seen before. It was slowly heading downriver, going with the flow, pushing a bow wave before it, its tail slowly waving behind. She pointed it out to Mark who nodded and said, “That is the mother of all crocodiles, I hope it does not want to play with our boat.”
Soon they reached their destination. As they circled for landing, Susan saw a boat with two men, along a tributary a few hundred yards from the river mouth. That was their pickup, waiting in place to collect them. They made a low sweep over the airstrip checking for obstacles. A mere minute later they were bouncing along it, braking to a fast stop.
A man driving was towards them in a utility. Mark said he was the Bulloo Head Stockman, Bluey, caretaking for a month. “At a pinch we could have walked to where the boat can collect us but it’s a good mile; very nice of him to give us a ride.”
They exchanged brief greetings. Then the pilot said. “Must be away; tourists for scenic flights in Kununurra, this evening.” He taxied out and flew off. They watched him for a minute but soon were driving past the station homestead and following the edge of the Bulloo River towards their boat. In another minute they were there.
As they climbed out Mark shook Bluey’s hand, “Many thanks, I owe you one, next time in town the shout is on me; just tell Tanya I said so.”
“No worries mate, pleased to help, you’d do the same in return. How’re you getting back from here?”
“Boat will bring us back up the river to Timber Creek when we are done, should be in town for breakfast or thereabouts.”
Their boat moved alongside the bank, just a few feet of shallow brown water between it and them. Mark tossed his gun case to one of the men on board who caught it.
A plank, about a foot wide, was dropped from the bank to the boat, then a metal bracket was dropped over its boat end to lock it in place. “Instant boarding ramp, Mark said.
Susan looked, took a deep breath and walked across, looking straight ahead, with only a slight wobble. Mark took two quick steps and was on board. The boat backed up slowly. It was easier than turning around in the shallow river with the tide ebbing out. Near the mouth they had room to turn.
They nosed out into the main river channel and felt the current catch. There was a roar as three big motors poured on the power and the boat was skipped across the surface. One man stood up front, keeping a close lookout, while the other steered.
Mark came over to Susan and put a hand on her shoulder. “How are you travelling? Sorry to rush you so much, I always try to fit too much in. But you seem to take in stride. I like that!”
Susan smiled back. “Actually I love it; you never cease to amaze me. Is there nothing you can’t do and do well?”
He laughed, self-effacing, “Not so good at the personal stuff; perhaps you’ve noticed.” Then he said,” We’ve still got another hour’s run down the river till we get to where we need to be. We’re heading for a place called Entrance Island, where the river narrows and splits into two channels either side. The tide is low now and will be at its lowest in just over an hour, so for now the river is placid. Later on it will be a different, particularly around midnight after full tide. It will get dangerous and be hard to keep control in the dark with a raging water flow. We will run through our course and take photos before we start our measurements. I need to have a good look in the daylight, and map out the hazards. It will be much trickier in the night so we need to know where not to go.
“So now, apart from getting our recording stuff ready, we should have a spell. It’s going to be a long night. There is an Esky with sandwiches and drinks over there; you should eat. Then there is a bunk in the cabin. It wouldn’t hurt to have a lie-down; you won’t get much sleep tonight.”
Susan sat on the deck, eating a sandwich. Mark was busy unpacking and testing things. He suddenly pointed forward and called, “See out there, a hundred metres at one o’clock, almost dead ahead”
It was a huge crocodile, almost certainly the one they had seen from the plane, swimming slowly downstream. Mark directed the boat driver to slow; they dropped their speed, the engines barely above an idle.
They took the boat close to the west bank, “We need to stay downwind,” Mark whispered. Slowly they eased alongside and then ahead of the crocodile.
It was probably two hundred yards away, maintaining a mid-stream position. In the binoculars it looked huge but, with nothing close by, it was impossible to get any good measure.
When they were two hundred metres past it Mark directed the boat back to the centre of the channel, directly in front of the crocodile’s path.
He signalled to cut the engines completely. The boat’s motion died away, now it just drifted along with the flowing tide. Mark took the wheel. With deft touches he managed to get just enough steerage to maintain their line.
On and on came the crocodile, seeming oblivious to their presence. All remained totally silent as slowly the crocodile approached, never breaking its steady pace, its tail continuing its leisurely wave. Fifty metres, then twenty, then it came past a bare five metres from their boat. As the head drew level with the bow the tip of the tail was still about a metre behind the stern.
It drifted on by, its swimming continued unchanged. Suddenly, when it had passed by a boat length, something must have given an alert, perhaps a tiny air eddy or a slight noise, nothing they could sense. An increased tail wave was the only sign as it sunk and faded from view. They waited a minute but no further sign was seen.
Mark signalled to power on again, and in a minute they had skipped past any place where it might have been.
Susan raised and inquiring eyebrow, “Well?”
“Well,” he replied, “our boat is 24 feet, I put the croc at 26, 27, maybe 28 feet; I have never seen another one quite that big.”
As they sat waiting to arrive, Mark told her about another crocodile he knew. “There’s another secretive crocodile on the Mary River, in a place where only I know and go. It is nearly as long and about as wide. I have only seen it twice. We may go there tomorrow. You must have the gift of talking to the God of Crocodiles to bring this one out today. Perhaps, if you call out to the Mary River crocodile, it too will come out to talk to you and we will both get to see it again.”
It was an eerie thing to say and Susan shivered.
Now they saw their destination before them, an island at the end of the next river stretch.
Mark finished checking the instruments before opening his gun case and taking out a big stainless steel revolver. He opened the chamber and placed in four heavy bullets. Susan looked inquiringly. He said, “Just in case a large crocodile should try and come into the boat with us tonight. This is easier than a rifle at close quarters. I leave two chambers empty to ensure no shots by accident.” He placed the gun in a holster that he strapped to his waist.
Mark brought Susan into the cabin to familiarise her with the instruments. Even though Mark would mostly operate them, and call out measurements for her to log, Susan needed to understand how they worked, just in case she also had to take readings.
There was a GPS, to log their position, plot their track and keep record of their real over-ground speed. There was a flow meter, to tell the speed of the water as it passed the boat. There was a depth finder that ran a continuous record of the depth below them. Finally, there was a side-scan sonar, which gave a reading of the shape of the riverbed.
The method would be to take up position just before the last big bend south of the island at five o’clock, and hold it steady for five minutes while they got a reference position fix and zeroed all their instruments, Then they would go down the river, passing through the left hand channel and returning up the right side channel, passing the island on both sides. As they reached their starting point they would rerun their course to the sea in the reverse direction, going down the right-channel, and returning back up the left.
After Mark showed her the instruments it was time to start their work.
First they would do a trial pass through, and take and log photos of the banks, and river structures; the islands, shoals, rapids, the places where rocky hillsides ran hard along the river, the places of back eddies and hidden obstacles.
Mark took the photos and Susan logged the locations. She also practised quickly and neatly capturing the written record they would later require. It was systematic and demanding work, like keeping track in a laboratory. Susan felt well at home with her task and proud of what Mark said was an important contribution.
She was learning how to use the barrage of equipment and how to work with the men who were driving the boat, the hand signals to manoeuvre slightly, to anticipate the drift and Mark’s needs as they did their work, the subtlety of boat, tides and hidden currents.
They came back to their starting point, meandering with the currents, waiting to begin their real work in the running tides. They cruised next to the north-eastern bank, in a place where big hills ran up against the river.
The afternoon sun sank slowly towards the horizon of a near cloudless sky. Below it was the thin crescent of a near new moon, a faint shadow in the sky. A little fresh water soak ran from the hill, the water glistening as it flowed over a narrow strip of sand to the river.
A big boar pig had come to drink here. It stood, head down in the soak, back slightly from the river’s edge. Susan looked away; watching as a flock of low flying geese wended their way upriver, flying a tight vee formation, with strong wing flaps.
Violent squealing rent the air. They all looked around. The boar and a mighty crocodile were locked in a death struggle. Somehow the crocodile had caught hold of a back leg and dragging it towards the water. The pig’s screams of terror were pitiful.
Mark watched with a rapt expression on his face. He seemed to be communing with the crocodile, oblivious to the suffering. Susan felt revolted and turned away. The awful screams went on and on. At last the noise ceased, pig and crocodile vanished into the murky river.
Mark’s fascination scared her to her core, she could not say why. It was, as the Top Springs bartender had said, as if some part of Mark held a kindred crocodile spirit, a sort of crocodile brotherhood.
When the noise ceased the ordinary Mark returned. But in her memory the chilling vision remained, as if some part of his human soul was missing, replaced by that of a crocodile. She remembered the carved crocodile he kept. He called it a totem, but it felt more like its crocodile spirit lived inside him.
They got to work and the hours flew by in a dizzy blur. As the light disappeared they turned on a barrage of spotlights. Now starlight was their only companion.
At first they were running with a rising river; the flow surged ever higher, the shoals hidden, the mud banks were gone, fish flapped on the incoming tide, waters flooded into side creeks, low banks overflowed. It slowed and it slowed; little by little this power of water went slack. Several crocodiles were swimming along the edges, mouths opening and feasting on the in-rushing fish.
Now it was ten o’clock; the tide and time stood still. They straightened and walked around the boat for ten minutes in the slack tide. Sandwiches and drinks were passed from hand to hand; they refreshed their bodies and cleared their minds.
Then they began again. Their first run was relatively gentle, the water in a full but steady flow. It started to surge as they came back up river. The second run became fast and dangerous. The flow through the narrows sounded a muted roar as it rushed through the constricted passage. Soon it was midnight.
The third run down-river was really scary, the water thundered through, all sound now blurred and buried below the endless noise assault of cascading white water. The boat felt like it was flying, their course wherever they could steer safely, keeping the boat clear of shallow edges, with danger of grounding and flipping in the falling tide.
Then came the return leg; three motors screaming in their effort to maintain speed against the thundering water. The helmsman’s job was hardest now, trying to hold a steady course against the buffeting water. At times water surges came bursting through and the boat was flung sideways like a cork. It seemed that they must surely be overwhelmed by the raging river. The fourth run was easier; control returned as the power of the river subsided.
Now they were all exhausted, buffeted by the endless movement, eyes gritted with strain. Finally they came back where they started. They all patted each other on the shoulders and backs; none could have believed it would be that hard. But they had done it and were proud of their success.
Mark took the helm. He told his two men, who for long hours had alternated between helmsman and spotter, to stand down and each take an hour for sleep. He would drive the boat and Susan would watch out.
Susan sat in the bow, watching the river as it flowed past. But her work was not needed now, the river was wider, passage was easy. She came to the back and sat alongside Mark. They drove this way until four-thirty, the darkest and most silent time of night, enjoying the peace as the steady thrum of the motors drove them on.
The early morning on the river, with the steady pulse of the large engines, and the muted rush of the river, seemed to provide a space for them to talk in a meaningful way.
Susan chose not question Mark’s past; rather she gave him space to volunteer his own small pieces. He told a little story about an uncle, whom he barely knew, taking him to fish on the Brisbane River; he recounted the thrill of the first fish he caught and of how proud he was when his uncle allowed to drive the boat.
He told of a time when a friend from school invited him to their farm in the country, his pleasure riding horses and going rabbit shooting in the fields; two things which remained great loves’ ever since.
Susan spoke of how her mother and father bought her and her brother a horse each, which they rode at the weekends; she remembered her joy in walking out in the Scottish Highlands alongside her father as he hunted and taught her about the land.
She told Mark about the first time she had killed a deer; the nervous anticipation as she held her aim, the instant ecstasy of success, and the poignancy of the moment when she realised what she had done as the magnificent creature lay dead before her. But then the pride as, with her father, they brought it home and it provided a feast for the whole family and her cousins.
Mark spoke of work as a research assistant in Kakadu, where, for many nights, they had to go out and catch large crocodiles to sample for heavy metals. He told her of the dangers of pulling a three or four metre crocodile alongside a small dingy to take their samples.
He told her more about this biggest of crocodiles which he had discovered on the Mary River. It was unknown to others due to its incredibly secretive nature. Something in the hidden danger and power of large crocodiles, their remorseless predatory behaviour, had captured his Mark’s mind. He spoke of this Mary River crocodile like his brother.
Time rolled by along with the river. Susan began to yawn, and she could not stop. Mark called the men and returned the controls to them. He directed Susan to the bunk and he lay on the floor. Both fell into a deep sleep, only waking when the boat slowed to a stop.
It was bright with early daylight. They had returned to Timber Creek. The boat pulled up to the bank just behind the airport where the car was parked. Mark returned the pistol to his gun case, locked away, unneeded. Then he packed up the record sheets, computer drives and arranged for all the other high tech equipment to be stored.
Mark and Susan climbed off the boat and followed a path from the river that brought them up to the vehicle. They were both mussy, yawning with sleep. They agreed it was a night to remember, a night of discovery of the river and themselves.
They drove back into Timber Creek in silence, too tired to talk. The night had sucked their vitality. With a night on their feet, and the buffeting river their bodies were both hungry and exhausted. They needed breakfast; their only food since yesterday morning was sandwiches and a piece of brownie.
“Let’s eat breakfast first; then I’ll meet the company representative to give him the data. After that we can drive towards Katherine a short way and find a place to roll out the swag, under a shady tree until lunch. We both need a good sleep.”
Susan nodded agreement. She wasn’t capable of much more than that.
Mark took strong coffee with his meal to clear his head for his business dealings.
Susan was oddly anxious as she ate her breakfast of eggs and toast. She couldn’t place the source as waves of tiredness swept over her. She told Mark she would wait in the car.
As she reached the car it came to her; I need to check my messages. But she was so tired; it was all much too much effort.
Fumbling around she found her phone and switched it on. There was barely a signal. Nothing could get through. She laid her head on the seat and fell asleep; her phone dropped to the floor.
She barely stirred when Mark came out an hour later. She felt him place a pillow under her head and move her into a more comfortable position. She was only vaguely aware that the car had started and they were driving.
Neither heard her phone ping as they drove out of town.
Mark was yawning too. Susan felt the movement of the car slow to a halt, and a shadow pass over her eyes. She heard Mark’s door open and close, and shuffling in the back. Then Mark was at her door. Susan felt strong arms lift her body from the seat, and lay her down on the swag that he’d laid out.
Susan stretched, aware of the soft comfort of Mark’s body next to hers. She cuddled into him.
It felt near midday when Susan properly opened her eyes. She lay for a minute; green foliage above her, dreamy but waking, feeling refreshed. She looked around and noticed where they were, parked under a large shady tree in a green grassy area which fell away down to the bank of a big river, probably the Victoria.
Mark still breathed deeply beside her. She would let him sleep.
Her mouth dry, Susan walked to the car to get a drink. Noting that her door was open, she detoured to close it.
Seeing the shine of her phone on the floor of the cabin she bent to pick it up. She touched a button, the screen lit up. One new message, it flashed. It was from Anne.
Susan’s heart skipped a beat, fear and burning anxiety surged, she did not want to know. She climbed into the car and closed the door, needing privacy even though Mark showed no signs of waking. The message read:
This FREAKS me, what I found:
Those girls came to Australia but are missing. USA one came 2 years ago, last seen Airlee, Qld, 6 months later. UK one came last year, last seen Adelaide, SA, 1 month later. Both listed as missing, but not under current investigation
Investigation summary –
– Girls may have wanted to disappear
– Both withdrew most of their cash before they left
– Both announced they were going on a trip – never seen since they left
– Did not say where were going or with who
– No current links between cases
– Last contacts followed up, no useful information
– Both girls seen meeting unknown man soon before last seen.
– One friend thought man’s name Mark – no such person located
– Parents are convinced of abduction or worse
– Re Fiona Rodgers, was her real name but everyone called her Kate – dead sister’s name from when a little girl – weird – looks a bit like you
This all makes me scared – Be Careful!!!
Take extra care if you meet a Mark.
Susan reread the message three times. Her hands shook; she was totally freaked; pattern and name both a match.
Who had she told where she was going? Did she tell anyone about Mark? No and no!
What was his real name anyway, or even the real car registration?
This was beyond stupid. She had to get away, she might disappear too. Her mind was racing; she needed a plan. Could she leave while he slept?
She looked up. Mark’s face was right there at her window.
Susan felt blood drain from her face; her heart stopped, her mind was numb with terror.
He was looking at her; he was looking at the phone. She couldn’t move.
Mark opened the door.
She was frozen, face stricken with horror.
He put out a hand for the phone. Not a request.
Susan’s hands shook as she tried to put the phone away. Too slow!
Mark grasped her hand, prised her fingers away from the phone, took it in his hand. He seemed more puzzled than angry. But of course, he did not know what she knew.
He looked at the phone, the message still illuminated. He scrolled up, and then down.
She watched his face transform, from puzzled to incredulous, to something like rage, but far more chilling, then finally to something that looked like anguish or grief.
She could not take her eyes from his face, she could not look away.
He stared, fixated, at the phone; he did not look at her. Finally he lifted his head.
Susan quailed at his stare. Something incredibly dangerous lurked in the depths of his eyes. The seconds ticked by. He just stared and stared and did not speak.
At last he spoke “Why?”
She heard anguish in his voice but was too terrified to answer.
“Why?” he repeated. Again Susan could find no words.
Mark’s temper snapped. “Why could you not leave it alone?” He growled roughly, “Why did you need to know so badly? You knew I didn’t want to tell you about the bad things in my past.”
Mark’s voice caught, “You promised to stop asking, and now this!”
Susan sat there mute; she tried to look down, anything to break the spell of his hurt eyes.
Mark reached his hands towards her and picked her up. Hands like vices grasped both her arms just below the shoulders and lifted her from the car seat. He placed her standing on the ground, back to the car. Her balance wobbled, her legs did not work. She held the car side for support.
He struggled to master his rage. He pushed his hands to his sides, clenched and opened his fists, all his muscles corded with emotion. He looked back at her face, his eyes boring in.
“Look at me and tell me why?” Mark said between gritted teeth. “And How? Did you search my bags? Did you look through my papers, what?”
His accusations hit like slaps, his anguish like punches.
She asked herself too, Did I really need to know? Could I not have let it be? Why me? Why now? Why him?
In her final question she found her answer.
“Because I needed to know; a man has captured me, heart, body and soul and I need to know who he is.”
“In answer to how: the passports. I found the passports. I didn’t set out to find them, I was looking for matches to light the fire, but then this box was in my hand and I opened it.” Susan’s words came quickly. “Four photos of beautiful girls. You had their passports. They had come to Australia, they had no exit stamps. What was I supposed to think?
“Then the small matter of who are you? There is a Mark Butler, a Mark Brown, a Mark Brooks, and of course a Mark Bennett. They all look like you, they all have the same initials, and they all have matching numberplates and licenses. Which one is really you? Are any of them you? Are none of them you?
Susan laughed bitterly, “Perhaps you’re Robert Redford and live in California? Perhaps you’re a transsexual who had a gender change and then a name change. Tell me, who are you!”
She didn’t give him a chance to answer her.
“I tried to ask you who you were but you wouldn’t tell me, instead you got so angry. But despite everything I’d found I couldn’t believe you were capable of this.” She gestured to the phone wildly. “No, not you, not the Mark I knew, not the Mark I loved. He’s no monster. But I had to know. That’s why I asked someone who would actually give me answers.”
Mark didn’t respond. His chest heaved with feelings she couldn’t interpret. Susan’s voice dropped to a softer tone, “Is it true? Did you know these girls? Did they come with you like I have? Did they lay with you like I have? Did they give you their bodies like I have? I bet they trusted you, the same way I thought I could. And then what, one day, you decided you’d had had your fill? You got bored? When you finished with them, did you finish their lives as well? What’s wrong with just saying goodbye? Couldn’t you have just let them go? Or did they know something the world couldn’t know, just like I do?
“Did you kill them out of convenience? Or was it for excitement—a cheap thrill? Did you shoot them for sport? Did you tie them up and watch them die? Did you do it with a smile?”
There’s no going back now, thought Susan. She couldn’t believe the tidal wave of rage burning in her veins. Her mind saw her anger flaming all around her, her hatred for who he was and what had done overwhelmed all her reason. His betrayal was overwhelming.
“Are you just a murderer, or are you a sadistic rapist pig as well?” she spat out.
An incomprehensible look came over Mark’s face, simple blind rage.
He drew back his arm.
Susan knew he would kill her, the power in the anger.
His fist was closed tight, knuckles white, coming straight for her face. Susan knew she should move, but was rooted in space. A death wish was present to die in this place. His fist halted, a bare inch from her face.
She sensed her calmness had stopped him; embracing her ending with grace.
It was a moment suspended in time, a flash of slow motion.
Now they both stood staring at each other.
Susan’s could feel her will to defy him undiminished, her anger still flaming. She spat in his face.
From outside her body, she saw his other arm swing, palm open, and hit the side of her face. The blow knocked her sideways. With her hands at her sides she landed face-first in the dirt, leaves in her mouth. She lay for a moment stunned, feeling her anger ebb away and fear take its place. She raised herself to her knees, facing away and tasted blood in her mouth. She looked back to the car.
Mark turned away from her and opened the door of the car searching for something. Susan tried to shuffle away, but the numbness in her head made her brain foggy.
She felt Mark grasp her hands from behind, and force something round her wrists. He pulled her backwards and upwards with rough hands, her head against his chest. She saw a roll of heavy silver tape in one hand. With his teeth he pulled back the end and ripped a portion off. Then it was rolled over her mouth and around her lips and chin, leaving only her nostrils exposed.
“That will stop that filthy mouth of yours,” he spat.
Next he took a rope and tied her legs together; she knew she would fall flat if she tried to run.
Then Mark lifted her bodily into the car passenger side and shoved her back onto the seat, with her hands jammed behind her back. He wound down both windows slightly then closed and locked the car doors.
She looked out to see what he was doing.
Mark seemed uncertain what to do now; he leant with his head against the car door on the driver’s side. It was the first time she had seen him look dejected and uncertain, as if confused by the situation he’d found himself in.
Despite her anger and fear, she still felt pity and tenderness towards him. She sensed he was in uncharted waters. It was as if before, whenever he was threatened, he had hit out, responded to threat with aggression. But now he needed another way forward.
There was nothing directly in what he had told her that said this. But it was the way she made sense of the little pieces about him that she saw. It was like the insight that comes when the first few pieces of a jigsaw start to take a defined shape.
But this was not Susan’s problem. She must find a way to get away from him.
She did not think he would try and harm her here, so close to where people had seen them this morning. She figured he would drive them somewhere else. That’s when she would look for an opportunity to get away. She had no plan yet but she would have to see what chances arose, and take them.
After a minute of standing there Mark seemed to form a decision and moved away. She could half see him rolling the swag in her side mirror, not properly but glimpsed. Then she saw him carrying it and she heard and felt, rather than saw as he loaded it in the back.
Then she could not hear or see him anymore. She did not know if he had gone away or was just sitting quietly, somewhere out of sight. For now there was nothing she could do except wait and see what happened.
Being tied up and gagged at first gave Susan a feeling of rising panic. She struggled to breathe, she felt she would suffocate. She wanted to retch but was scared she would choke on her vomit. Then her mind reasserted control and she calmed. She realised that if she took slow steady breaths through her nose she was fine.
Sitting squashed into the seat, barely able to move, the time seemed to move very slowly. She tried to count in her head but it was hard to think straight and she kept losing track. Then she realised she could make out the dashboard clock. She did not know why it comforted her to have some sense of the passage of time, but it did; it gave her a feeling of connection to a wider reality.
Now she began to discover how utterly uncomfortable she was. Her face and lip, where Mark had hit her, had been numb. But now the feeling was returning; a tingling sting at first which quickly turned into sharp pain, combined with a headache which throbbed from the force of the blow. The way he had taped her mouth shut was pushing her cut lip into her teeth, and the tape itself had hard edges and which was digging into her face. It felt like her face was on fire.
What sort of bastard was Mark to treat her like this? Then, in a funny way, she realised that if this was the worst she had to endure, there were others who experienced far worse.
She had never thought before about real prisoners and torture victims; they endured things much worse for weeks and months on end. Susan couldn’t comprehend their pain, thinking about how long a few minutes felt, let alone days or longer.
She tried to wiggle around and reposition herself, but there was no comfortable way to sit. With her hands locked behind her she was pushed forward in the seat. This posture was making her back ache. Her hands and wrists were hurting, jammed against the seat with sharp edges of the cuffs poking into them.
The air coming into the cabin from the cracked window meant she wouldn’t suffocate or get too hot, but with the gag she was unable to shout out. He clearly knew what he was doing, restraining her like this. He must have practised this sort of thing before. She could not reach the door locks with her hands behind her, and with her feet tied it was almost impossible to move around the cabin sufficiently to improve her situation and get at the door handle. Maybe a contortionist could have done something, but it was beyond her. It didn’t stop her trying though.
After a while she realised that it was useless to waste her energy on fruitless pursuits. She would be better served by saving her energy until a more promising situation arose. She would only exhaust herself if she struggled too much now. Mark wouldn’t go to this much trouble to confine her if he just planned to kill her now. More likely they would travel to somewhere more suitable.
She tried to figure out what Mark was likely to do, and what her realistic options were. She didn’t think it likely that he’d just let her go, she knew far too much and had told him so.
She knew of at least four of his identities. She had good grounds for belief that he had done something to four other girls. Be honest, she told herself, you mean killed. The logical extension of this was that Susan was destined to become his next victim. Yet it seemed too abstract to grasp, that somehow her existence would just cease.
She forced her mind to push away her fear and try to understand Mark, to make some sense of what he might plan for her demise. A truly chilling thought struck her. It came to her, like a jolt of insight, the picture in her mind turning her insides to jelly.
Susan now thought she knew what he would do: he needed her body to disappear.
If it was found it would prove that she was more than just missing, it would prove she was dead. And it would yield evidence that connected her to Mark. His DNA covered and embedded her.
He had this deep, abiding love of crocodiles, a seeming fascination with watching them kill things.
Susan shuddered, her mind flashing a picture.
It all made sense; he would take her to that place where he knew of an enormous crocodile, somewhere on the Mary River, out near Kakadu. Her body would go into the belly of this crocodile and she would disappear.
None of her family or friends knew where she had gone. She had told her cousins in Sydney she was en route to Alice Springs. But she had misled them about her plans from there. She had indicated she would catch a bus on, no mention of meeting anyone. So, if she failed to turn up for her return flight home, it wouldn’t be clear for a while that she had really vanished. People would think it was just as likely that she had gone another way, met someone and travelled to another destination, even chosen to disappear.
Her parents might not believe it, but many others would. She had broken up with her former boyfriend and come to Australia for a change. It was common for people like her; people with memories to run from, to drop out for a few months then reappear.
Even if they investigated and discovered her travel in the outback with a man, they would also discover her affair with David. So people would say she was having a series of liaisons as she travelled across Australia. David, Mark, then whoever came next.
Mark could simply say that she left him for the next one, that she went off with yet another man. Why would anyone really doubt that? They had been affectionate together, but relationships between travellers come and go, like the people themselves.
There were so many missing people and, without evidence to lead the way, the police could only investigate a handful.
She thought about where she had been with Mark and how averse he was to public places, like airports with security cameras, and town centres; he had barely been to any of these. Sure he had met her in the Alice Springs Mall, but then he was wearing cowboy clothes with a big, broad brimmed Akubra hat, which he had never worn since and, with the hat pulled down, there was little view of his face. Not to mention that his car was parked at the back of the car park where CCTV was unlikely.
Then at Yulara, while they had checked in together, she had stood well behind him and not interacted with any of the hotel staff—her mind had been on getting to their bedroom. Was it even clear she was with him? He hadn’t acknowledged her presence; he had pre-booked with a voucher, and who knows what name he had given. Once she had gone to the room she barely came out. Sure they had breakfast together, downstairs. But the restaurant was crowded with tourists. So they were unlikely to be recorded or remembered.
The best chances to connect her with Mark were the handful of station people and miners who had seen them together, but very few of them were likely to read newspapers in towns, and television watching seemed a rarity. So, even if her photo made it to the TV news or newspapers, it seemed unlikely that anyone would realise and connect her to Mark, particularly if months had elapsed.
She thought of her phone; that was something to cause him concern. She had some hopes of a connection there. It tied her to both Timber Creek and Borroloola and there were good odds that someone would remember them together in one of these places.
She wondered if he had become careless with her, it seemed like Mark had been more careful with his other victims, making sure to leave no clues. Susan wondered if that meant something about their relationship was different. Maybe he was overconfident. It seemed there was a slim chance he could be connected to her, but it was far from certain.
That’s why her body needed to disappear, and it was also why it couldn’t happen near here. So, somewhere like Mary River made sense—provided they arrived there at night, without being seen.
Susan thought it also meant that he would need to avoid major towns, like Katherine, where the chances of his movements being tracked were much greater. So they would go by back roads.
It also meant that, once they got there they would not stay long, as he would not want to be sighted there.
No doubt the next night he would be across in Western Australia with a plausible story about how he had left her to catch a bus, and then gone the other way. No one had seen anything bad happen between them, everyone would say they got on well together. If he said he dropped her off to catch a bus, who would doubt it? As no-one knew her plans no-one would know where she had gone, just another missing person, gone to ground somewhere in Australia, so many places, cities, and states to choose from.
She realised her mind was wandering. This endless speculation about how she might be traced would not get her anywhere. It was all about the time after the event. It would be of no use to her by then. She must turn her mind into more productive directions, think of what she could do in the here and now. How could she find a way to get away?
An hour had passed; she was getting really hot and thirsty. Sweat trickled down her face. Susan wished she had taken a drink before checking her phone.
Before she could think on it anymore Mark was back. He had silently appeared at by door. Now he was unlocking it.
He looked at her first with what appeared to be a combination of tenderness, sadness and confusion. Then that faded to a blank stare. The anger was no longer visible, but Susan almost wished that was still there instead of the detached coldness he now had. He seemed a small part regretful, like he would have preferred not to harm her, but now that it had come to this, he would do whatever was needed without second thoughts or remorse. The ability to put emotion aside was what made him most frightening.
He was speaking to her. It took a few seconds for her to realise, so locked was she in her own thoughts.
“I am going to take your gag off, provided you don’t start screaming. There’s no one to hear, but it will go straight back on if you do. Do you agree?”
She nodded, her eyes fastened firmly to the floor, she could not meet his gaze, because within any connection was only madness. Susan needed to keep her mind locked away from his ability to harm, so as to stay calm.
He pulled the tape off her mouth. He wasn’t gentle. There was no kindness in how he touched her. Maybe he too needed to put distance between them.
She decided, she must try and stay calm, not ask for information, not beg, not become dramatic or desperate. It was her calm after all, that had saved her from his fist earlier.
Without the gag her breathing was better. She felt less cut off. She experimentally moved her mouth around now that it was free. Her lip stung but otherwise it seemed to work fine. She asked, “Are you still angry with me?”
He grunted, he did not seem to know what to say or perhaps he chose not to answer.
Then she decided to try something more specific. “Could I have a drink please?” Susan asked politely, seeking to behave as if there was nothing unusual about her situation.
Mark nodded gruffly and turned away. He returned with a pannikin of water. She realised he would have to hold it while she drank. This was difficult, and the water slopped down her front.
“It would be easier if you released my hands for a bit, or locked them in front,” she said. Mark pulled a key from his pocket, reached behind her and unlocked one cuff. When she moved her hands to the front he relocked them in place. Susan took the cup, finished the water, then handed it back.
Without another word Mark shut her door, got into his side of the car and began driving. After half an hour they crossed a big river, following a road crossing that went through a couple feet of water. It must be the Victoria River, she reasoned.
He had a map open on the seat between them. It seemed as if this route wasn’t familiar to him and he occasionally gave it a glance.
Surreptitiously Susan began to look too.
There were few roads marked in this country, so now, by a process of deduction, she began to guess out where they must go. Once she worked this out she started to follow the topography on the map, where the hills were, where they crossed big creeks and rivers. She could also see the car’s trip meter so that helped her gauge how far they had gone.
She realised they would have to come along station roads and through a no man’s land, going west, then northwest of Katherine, in order to avoid the town. She could see a way through, and there were some alternatives. It looked like a long, slow drive.
There seemed little point in Susan trying to escape in the middle of nowhere. She noticed that the road, the one that she guessed they were heading for, crossed the Daly River near Pine Creek. It looked like a water-crossing not a bridge, perhaps a causeway. She remembered that the Daly River was famous for barramundi fishing. Maybe, at this crossing, there would be tourists or fishermen? From where they were now it looked to be about three hundred kilometres to reach it. She figured it would be late afternoon by then.
A plan was forming. She needed to behave as normally as possible, try to lower suspicion. Then, if she saw anyone when they came onto the river crossing, she would open her door and fling herself out, onto the crossing or into the water. Her door wasn’t locked and her hands were to her front, so that meant she could quickly work the door latch. Even if the water was deep she should be able to swim, after a fashion, and get to the side.
But, more importantly, she would be able to shout for help, as her mouth was not covered. It was hard to see that Mark would harm her in front of other people. If this gave no chance then the next opportunity would be Pine Creek. As it was a proper town she did not think he would chance reaching there it until dark. Still, perhaps if he drove down the main street, she could fling herself out there and be seen.
The afternoon passed slowly. They traversed miles and miles of bush roads. Mostly she could follow where they were on the map, using a combination of distances and features. They made occasional river-crossings. A couple vehicles passed by them in a cloud of dust, going in the opposite direction. Each time Mark accelerated and passed them with speed, so she realised that, even if she shouted, she wouldn’t be heard.
They stopped only once; “a toilet break,” he said. He released the bonds on her hands, but her legs remained tied. She shuffled away and relieved herself. As she returned Mark passed her a cup of water. She gulped it down and he gave her another. She drank all that too, then she said, “Thank you.”
Mark nodded; a minimal acknowledgement. Then she presented him with her hands to be cuffed again. He seemed surprised by this; she suspected he would have left this undone. But it was important to her plan that he thought her well restrained, so he would be less attentive. It would be the only way of getting away, should a chance come.
They came to the bank of a big river. Based on time and appearance it must be the Daly. Light was fading, but it was not yet dark. She could not see right to the river, but she could make out well-used camping sites.
Mark parked. He walked to the top of the bank where the road fell away, glancing back behind him to keep an eye on her. He seemed relieved that Susan just sat there, unmoving. Mark surveyed the river, assessing if it was safe to cross. After five minutes or so he returned to the car. But, instead of proceeding across, he drove off-road and went up the riverbank a few hundred yards. There they sat and waited until the darkness was complete.
Now they returned and crossed over, no one was in sight. Susan could have cried in frustration.
Desperation and fear grew inside her. Soon she saw the lights of a town, Pine Creek. But they passed by it without stopping. They never slowed, and there were no signs of any other human life around.
Just as Susan had started to think it was hopeless, she realised Mark was slowing, and pulling over to the road verge. There was a noise of flapping from a wheel. She realised it was a flat tyre. She thought they had only come a couple miles from the town.
Now he was occupied outside she felt she had a chance.
Mark was undoing the spare tyre, his attention focused on it. She saw headlights coming over the horizon, a vehicle was approaching. It crested the rise and came down their side; lights blazing forward were all she could make out.
She used the lights and noise of its approach as a distraction. She pushed open her door and jumped out. Like a kangaroo she hopped to the middle of the road.
All at once she realised this was no car, but a huge road train bearing down on her. It was only one hundred yards away and it showed no signs of braking. She realised that it had not even seen her; she must get off the road. Mark seemed unaware.
She tried to hop, but in the need for speed her balance was gone. She pitched forward onto the tar road, just managing to get hands in front to protect her face. She tried to lift herself and crawl but knew there was no time. Now the truck driver had seen her and the brakes were screaming, but she knew it was too late.
Mark’s attention was suddenly on her. He moved fast, scooped her up and lifted her aside; then the truck was upon them. As it passed by Mark waved and gave a thumbs up, the truckie waved back and powered on.
Mark was furious, “You stupid bitch! Are you trying to get yourself killed?”
She sat on the road edge where he had dropped her and cried: tears of rage, tears of frustration.
“You miserable bastard, why would you care? By tomorrow it won’t matter whether I am alive or dead with what you’re planning. I’d rather let the truck hit me than be your captive.”
Mark looked at her with a frustrated rage First he said nothing, just shook his head, then he said. “You do my head in; you think I’m crazy—well I’ve got nothing on you.”
He picked her up and threw her on the back tray. He climbed up and opened the cooler door, bent in and removed the few items inside. It was almost empty, just a small Esky holding a bag of ice and a couple bits of food, pushed into the corner of the big cooler. It wasn’t even cold.
“You won’t suffocate in here; there are some air holes in the top.” Then he lifted her again and tipped her head first into the space. A minute later he threw in a pillow and blanket. He slammed the door closed. She heard him click a lock.
Five minutes later she felt the car start and spin round, going back the way it had come. It drove on a smooth road for a minute. She felt it slow and turn. Now they were driving along a rough dirt road to God-knows-where.
The bouncing went on and on. At first Susan tried to brace against it, and protect herself from being thrown around. But it was impossible; the car was being driven fast and recklessly. It braked late into corners; it bounced over holes or rocks; swerved roughly around apparent objects. She supposed she should be grateful for the pillow and blanket he had thrown in, as an apparent afterthought; they at least softened a few bumps
With her hands cuffed in her lap she had only her legs to hold and manoeuvre with. And, as they were tied, even that was difficult. Her bare feet could get no grip on the smooth fibreglass. She tried to sit up; the roof was a few inches above her sitting head. But the box was too wide to rest her feet on the other side and she would find herself slowly sliding back down.
Then she managed to turn to sit sideways, using her knees and bottom to brace. But a big bump flung her against the roof, bashing her head, and causing her to bite her inside lip. She tasted blood. A second big swerve and bump slid her along and bashed her into the far end of the box.
So she lay on her side, on the floor, and let herself be flung with the movements. Her head hurt where it had hit the roof, her face hurt where he had hit her, her lip stung, her hands throbbed from being banged against things and her wrists pained where the cuffs caught at and chafed the skin. Her whole body ached from being twisted and flung around, along with being forced into unnatural places and spaces. It really seemed hopeless.
For a while she let the misery overwhelm her. She cried, almost silently, though she could hear her occasional gulping sobs. Then she lay in a mute and numb state for long time, seeking to remove herself from this time and place. Her mind went off to other places, her safe family and friends, her cousins in Sydney, other people she had met.
How could it have come to this? How did she end up the next victim of a cold and calculating psychopath?
Terror twisted her insides; Mark had killed four girls, what was one more? Any feigned softness was just his psychopath’s ploy to disarm his victims.
She hated the darkness inside this box, around her. It was utterly pitch black; she couldn’t even see her hands in front of her face. Susan wished she had something, anything, to look at, something to help push away the creeping dread that kept rising in her mind, threatening to overwhelm her.
She feared the loss of her sanity. If she let the terror take over she would be a crazy blathering idiot, fit only for a lunatic asylum.
A deep and burning hatred rose inside her. She thought of Mark, of his friends that seemed to like him—they mustn’t have any idea who he really was. He charmed the girls too, but it was smooth charm outside, callous and rotten inside, like an apple full of worms.
But Susan was not dead yet, and she was determined not to die as a passive victim, not make it easy for Mark. Her anger helped focus her mind and push away the pain. She may be lying in the dark but her mind was alight, teasing at the edges of possibilities, openings she might influence, ways to survive, and hopefully stop Mark from ever doing this again. If she wasn’t destined to live through this, she hoped to at least finish Mark off too. Susan swore to herself that she would be the last.
Could she find some poison and put it in his food?
Was there some way she could make the car crash? Ideally on a public road where a rescue would be called for? Susan sensed that he wanted her body to go to the crocodiles; he gained perverse pleasure in feeding those monsters; mindless, remorseless consumers of flesh. It had not bothered him in the least to watch the crocodile grab the squealing pig yesterday and drag it into the water.
She had watched, both enthralled and revolted; but Mark seemed only to gain sadistic pleasure in letting such violent nature take its course.
If he tried to throw her in perhaps she could pull him in too. There was even a chance the crocodile would prefer him to her—a long shot, but she would think on it.
She was filled with terror at both the idea of being killed and how he might kill her. Would she scream as the pig had when the crocodile seized her? Would he smile watching her body get dragged under, or torn apart?
What she really needed was a weapon. If she could injure him in some way—any way—then a chance may come. While she knew her ideas were all improbable, she didn’t care; thinking gave her purpose and helped push away the fear.
She had to appear confident and unafraid, maybe act a little cowed to appear unthreatening. She refused to be a submissive victim, consumed by terror. Slowly it came to her, she knew that she had one weapon over Mark that he could never take away—sex.
She had started to grasp how powerful it could be that day at Robinson River. Until that day she was mostly the recipient, rather than the initiator. But Susan had come to understand the power of her body over him, she knew she could stroke and fuel his desires. He would become reckless in his sexual conquest. Perhaps the opening she needed.
So it was a plan of sorts; stroke, seduce, satiate, and strike.
Part of her mind, that place called morality, was repelled by this thought; good girls don’t do that.
But there was also a perverse pleasure in taking revenge through an act that also brought her pleasure. She couldn’t deny that even to think of sex with him still brought her pleasure and excitement. Susan felt a sexual thrill as she imagined the hardness of his body within her as she drove her own weapon into him.
The car’s rough passage smoothed, and it felt as if the speed had increased. Susan guessed the texture of the road had changed. It was probably bitumen now.
She became lulled by the more regular motion and began to doze, waking occasionally. She had lost track of time. Was it early or late in the night? Were they going north, east or west?
Susan was extremely thirsty and wished Mark had given her a bottle of water. But, with the thought of water, her bladder began to ache. She tried to hold on and think of other things, but she could feel it leaking and her underwear becoming damp. It went on and on and she could sense no likelihood of stopping anytime soon. She knew she couldn’t hold on much longer and she realised it was better to do it with some control. It had become easier to maintain her balance now the road was smooth. She managed a squat and, with difficulty, pulled her underwear down her thighs. She then positioned the blanket underneath herself to hopefully avoid it sloshing and wetting everything. As it flowed out she felt both relief and as if she had rescued a tiny piece of her own self-control.
She pulled her clothing back into place and curled up as best she could in the opposite corner, trying to ignore the smell of urine in the air. She wrapped her arms around her body. Hugging herself gave her a certain comfort and she drifted back to sleep.
When she woke up again the motion of the car had stopped. What did it mean? Were they stopped in a town? Could she try to scream for help? Or were they stopped in the middle of the bush where no one would hear, and screaming would only make Mark angry, or make him gag her again.
She decided to count to one hundred and, if nothing happened, she would call out to Mark, quietly. If he answered she would ask him to let her out, she would ask nicely even though an undercurrent of anger made her want to scratch and bite him.
When the time had passed she called out. There was no answer. She called again, much louder. His voice came back, faint and muffled. “I’ll let you out in a minute.”
She felt a wave of relief.
Even though it was hard to tell he didn’t sound all that angry.
There was a creak as the door opened. He was up on the tray with a torch, looking in, face lit by reflection. She tried for a smile, and was surprised when he smiled back.
The air coming in was fresh and smelled sweet. But it was cold. Susan had not realised how chilled she had become, immobile in this box for hours. She started to shiver uncontrollably.
“I am sure you’re angry with me,” said Mark, not unkindly, “and I hope your trip was not too bad. Here we are here now, the place I wanted to show you where the big crocodile lives.
“The locals once called this place Point Stuart Station. It is on the Mary River, east of Darwin, half way to Kakadu. It is a place that the people rarely come to. I have come through a fence with a gate that keeps the public out.
“It’s about midnight. There’s no one around for miles, so there’s no point screaming.” Mark pointed, some distance away from them, “There is a big billabong full of crocodiles, just over there, and I will throw you in if you give me trouble. But if you promise to behave you can come out; I’ll fix some dinner and you can sleep out here.”
“Okay.” Susan answered meekly.
He reached in with both hands, grasped her arms and lifted her up. Her legs wobbled as she stood, body poking forward and out the door. She tried to climb over the doorsill, but without arms to steady her, legs tied together, she overbalanced and almost fell.
Mark was quick to grasp her and lift her clear, setting her down on the tray. There was something almost tender in the way he wrapped his arms around her. She was shaking like a leaf, and he seemed to hold her tighter, hugging her to him to give her warmth.
Susan tried to push him away, but it was too hard with her arms trapped, and it felt so comforting.
His hands caressed and stroked her back gently; it was almost as if he had forgotten what had passed.
She wanted to forget too.
She should hate him—she did hate him—but for now, just for a minute, she wanted to be held and comforted. And then she was crying, just tears and little gulps at first, but soon she was sobbing. Mark pushed her face into his shirt, and ran his hands through the back of her hair. She just wanted to die in this moment of human comfort.
But then the fire of control and independence flared in her mind, fed by anger at what he had done. She pushed herself straight, and said, with all the dignity she could manage, “Thank you for letting me out, you can let me go now.”
His hands dropped, he stepped back. “OK then.” He sprung down, agile as a cat, and asked. “Shall I lift you down?”
She tossed back her head with dignity. “No thank you. Just untie my legs”
He shrugged. He loosened the knots and removed the rope.
She walked to the edge of the tray. She grasped the side with her shackled hands, lifted one foot over, felt for the side rail. It was precarious but she thought she could pivot and vault if she used her hands for balance. Her feet got in a tangle. She overbalanced and pivoted forward, headfirst towards the ground.
Mark was incredibly quick. As she speared forward, he wrapped his arms around her. He pulled her to him, and set her feet on the ground.
“That was a near thing. I don’t want you getting hurt like that. I know this isn’t easy for you but it is better if we both cooperate.”
Suddenly she was laughing. It was so ludicrous and funny, her likely murderer and lover, tender and careful for her safety while treating her like a wild animal, tied up and confined to a box.
Then he was laughing too; they were both looking at each other and laughing, it could not all be real and true. It was like a circuit breaker, neither could laugh and hate at the same time. When the laughter subsided she held out her hands to him.
“Unlock me please, tonight I will cooperate; I am here to be happy. Tomorrow is for crocodiles.”
She collapsed into another fit of giggles, and Mark started to laugh too, but he was restrained this time. It was as if he had only just started to think through the consequences of his actions.
He ignored her outstretched hands and gazed at her, a bitter smile edging at his lips. “Why couldn’t you leave it alone? I didn’t want it to come to this. But you do know, and that can’t be undone.”
She looked at him earnestly. “Please, can we not talk about it, right now.”
He shrugged his shoulders, “Well tomorrow is tomorrow, and tonight is now.”
There was a sort of fatalistic sadness in his manner, tender; but it also seemed incredibly callous. She thought; this is the way he would look at a dog at the vet before the lethal injection was given.
Susan’s bravery quailed under this reality. But she rejected it.
“For tonight I will make a pact with you which I will honour. If you let me go, I won’t try to run away, and I will not try to hurt you. I will help you cook dinner and be your companion in the same way as before.
“But you, in return, have to tell me your story honestly. I want—” she hesitated, “I need the truth.” You must tell me of the life you have lived and what has brought us to this place. This is something I must know for my own peace of mind.”
Mark looked at her sadly. “I am not good at the telling but I will try.”
He released her hands.
They worked side by side. There was something incredibly tender and intimate in this moment. Dinner was simple, bacon, sausages and onions fried up, with a tin of tomatoes mixed through. They ate from the pan, each using a spoon. Once or twice they shared morsels.
Susan lent against his side; he was solid and strong, like a tree. Without quite realising what she was doing she put an arm around his waist, and laid her face against his chest. She felt tears running down her cheeks and pushed her face harder into him. He stroked her hair and kissed her forehead.
She pressed her lips against his, tasting the salt of her tears. “What would you do if we could make this all disappear?” she asked.
“I would do what I am going to do you, make love to you,” he said quietly. Sliding his hand down between her breasts he grasped the ring and locket on the chain. He lifted the chain from her neck and unclipped the ring. With the ring in his hand he looked at her with great seriousness, “But first I would ask you to become my wife, even just for this one night.”
She held out her left hand as he slid it on. “That means ‘Yes’,” she said.
They lay together in the dark night. The fire was gone. They made love, and they made love again. Then, when it seemed he could give no more, she brought him back to life with her gentle touching and stroking. This time the loving seemed to go on forever.
There remained only a couple hours before the dawn. He pulled away. “I have to fulfil the remainder of our bargain. This is my story.”
“My real name is Vincent Marco Bassingham. Vincent was my father’s name; Marco was the name of my mother’s brother, who died young. My mother, who was Italian, called me Marco. At school it got shortened to Mark, Mark B.
“I liked this name better than Vincent Bassingham, because I hated my father, and couldn’t stand being compared to him. He was a big burly man, quick with his fists and his temper. Few people could stand against him. Those who tried came out much the worse.
“He would hit my mother, mostly slaps but every now and then with a fist or a belt. She was terrified of him, she was naturally timid and he was a bully.
“Once, when he was hitting her in the street, a man tried to protect her. My father almost killed him. When the policeman came around to ask about it, he told him to ‘shoot through or he would do the same to him’. The policeman never came back.
“I was seven when my mum ran away, she was scared of him almost all the time and had to find somewhere to escape. He was really mad at her for doing this; he said it made him look bad.
“After she left she never tried to see me again; I think she was far too scared of him. Though my father looked for her, it was a long time before he found her. But he eventually did.
“He beat her so badly that she was taken to hospital. Though the police and hospital staff wanted her to press charges she refused.
“The day they discharged her, my father brought me with him to see her again. He told her she had to come back to look after me or he would thrash her again.
“The next day they found her dead. She had swallowed a whole bottle of pills. My father never told me what happened; she just was not there when I came home from school. I only found out years later, he just said she had died and he only told me that well after she was dead and buried. He went on with his violent drunken life without a backwards glance.
“I hated him, but I was frightened of him too. I could fight well enough at school, but with him I had no chance, he was three times my size and would hit me with anything he could find, belts, walking sticks, a horse whip, a cricket bat.
“Usually he went to the pub after work, and got home too drunk to do anything. Sometimes the lady next door gave me dinner; but mostly I just had to eat whatever I could find.
“I learned how to look after myself. I would shoplift, pick pockets, and steal from store-yards and from people’s homes. I was clever and almost never got caught.
“But, when I was twelve, a policeman saw me stealing a block of chocolate in a grocery store. He told the store manager. Other police were called and I was taken to the police station. As my father was drinking, and couldn’t be found, a neighbour was called to take me home.
“When my father got home and found out he flew into a towering rage and whipped me like a dog. My back was bleeding in lots of places. The next day, the police came around and took me away. They sent me to remand school for a year.
“I thought my father was a bully. But he had nothing on the guys who ran the remand school. They would line us up in a row for three hours most evenings. We had to stand still while they sat behind drinking beer. Every time someone moved they would belt him with a long whippy cane. They raped the prettier boys; they would take them to their rooms and often two would have a go together. The boys would come out bleeding and crying.
“They never got me that way, I was a bit smarter. But no one did anything to stop them either. A few times boys tried to run away but they were brought back and beaten, really badly. Some tried to complain but they got beaten as well, even worse.
“One day I was caught by one of the biggest guys, a warden that I really hated. He had taken to hitting me when I wasn’t looking. I was late coming down for school, I had tried to hide away to skip class, but as I came out there he was.
“‘This is my lucky day,’ he said as he saw me, then, ‘I have a big surprise for you.’
“First he took off his big leather belt, then started to unzip his pants. I knew what he was going to do, first thrash me with his belt, then when I was hurting too much to try and get away, he would fuck me.
“No one else was around. He grabbed me by the ear, right at the top of a big flight of stairs. He was planning to take me downstairs, to his room. He liked boys my age. He had already done this to most of the others.
“At the top of the stairs he tripped. I saw my chance and gave him a big shove. He went flying down the stairs. When I got down to the bottom he was lying there at a funny angle with his head facing the wrong way and not moving.
“I didn’t know he was dead, but I was glad I had hurt him because he was such a bastard. As no one knew I was there I snuck off to school.
“When I came back, after school, he was covered on a stretcher, ready to be taken away. The police were there and they asked a few questions. Had anyone seen what happened? Everyone said no. They assumed he must have had a heart attack or tripped, fallen, and broken his neck.
“After that I realised how easy it was to get rid of people I didn’t like.
“Later that year I ran away and got a job working on a cattle station. One day I was sent to help a man fixing the windmills, he was a bastard too. He used to hit me whenever something went wrong. One particular day he dropped a spanner from the high windmill tower. I was up there helping him, holding the bits together. He said it was my fault and laid in to me with a big piece of hard plastic pipe. I was scared he was going to knock me off the edge; he was hitting me so hard. So I kept my head turned away and hung onto the steel frame for dear life, waiting for my chance. At last he stopped.
“As he turned his back I gave him a push. He went over the edge; head first. I looked down and saw him lying, dead as a maggot, on the ground below. Back at the station I told the boss he lost his balance and fell off while I was below. The boss seemed happy to believe this. I think he was relieved that this man was dead too, to tell the truth.
“By the time I was twenty I had got rid of three more blokes like this. Nobody had asked any questions because each time, deep down, people were happy to see the end of these bullies.
“Then I heard there was big money to be made in the Middle East, so I got a job running security for the pipelines.
“We would get real smartarse robbers, mostly from African gangs, with no papers. They would try to steal oil and other things to sell. Our job was to make ‘em disappear; the more permanent the better. So we bumped off a few, dropping their bodies in empty wells, or shafts, places they couldn’t be found.
“The word got around pretty quick to leave us alone. We would catch and do another one every few months to keep things quiet.
“Then a guy who I was working with got me to go to the Congo with him, to do security there. There, as well as getting rid of men who caused trouble, you could take all the women you wanted and, if they got a bit difficult, you just shut them up for good. I joined in the same as all the others were doing. It was there I killed my first woman; she bit me when I was having her, so I hit her really hard and she was dead. We threw her body in the river and it washed away.
“I’ve killed maybe thirty people since I was a teenager, mostly blokes, but half a dozen girls. Generally the blokes were bad bastards and bullies and I reckon the world is better off without them.
“A couple of the girls were tarts who tried to touch me up for more money. One threatened to cry rape if I went to the police. Once you have done one, the rest are easy, one minute alive, the next dead with a surprised look on their face. Killing people is real quick and easy if you know how and don’t care.
“You just have to be smart to make sure that no one can identify you, keep away from CCTV and all that sort of thing. After you make sure the bodies and personal effects don’t turn up. That way they just get listed as missing persons, whereabouts unknown.
“With backpackers, when they come out here they go every which way. They rarely know each other’s names and yet they feel safe in each other’s company. So, provided they don’t know who you really are, or where you are going, it is real hard for anyone to connect you to their disappearance.
“And, of course, lots work illegally and choose to disappear for their own reasons. So it’s hard for cops to know where to start. I’ve picked up and made trips with maybe twenty backpackers in the last five years
“Most have been great fun, had a blast; quite a few still send me the odd postcard, to one of my alias addresses. A couple even came back for more on the side when husbands and boyfriends did not know. So people get used to seeing me with girls around the traps and, after a while, one girl looks much the same as another.
“Some girls want to spread it around a bit, try miners and stockmen and the like. I reckon good luck to them and the lucky bloke. When it happens I leave them with their gear and wave goodbye. They are usually too busy with someone else to complain and, even if they did, who would listen? They’re someone else’s problem.
“Only the odd one has been trouble, usually silly things. One demanded I stop the trip right there in the middle of the Queensland outback and take her back to Cairns even though it was a thousand kilometres away. I said I was happy enough to let her off at the next town. She said that if I tried to do that she would go straight to the police station and cry rape and abduction.
“With most of these girls I use a condom so they don’t get up the duff and try to claim paternity. But this one also said she was on the pill and not to bother. Now she was saying she wasn’t really on the pill, that she might be pregnant and would demand a DNA test to prove it was me.
“I think she thought she could trap me into staying around with her and make me do what she wanted. I told her to stop being stupid, but she spat at me, so I belted her across the face with a backhander. Then the silly girl tried to stick me with a big cooking knife, so I hit her, extra hard, and she didn’t get up again.
“I dropped her body down an old mine shaft, there were dozens in the place. Then for good measure I dropped a stick of jelly on top to bring down some rocks and make sure she was well covered. Then I took all her gear and put it in another mineshaft a few miles away. No one was likely to find it but again I used a rock fall to cover it.
“To be honest I have got much more selective over the last couple years, I don’t really want to get into these situations. Now I just take the occasional one I really like for a trip and try to show them a good time. I am a bit sad to see some go but then another sweet young thing comes along, full of desire to see the real outback. Usually by a week they are ready to head on and I am ready to be on my own again.
“But then you come along and it is different. The same in parts, the sex is good, you want to see the outback, but different as well; you try to find out who I really am underneath it all. I think, hey, she’s starting to fall for me big time, and I am hooked too. You feel like the best person I have been with and I want to make it really special for you, maybe even try and find a way to keep you around.
“But I know it is not going to work because I am one of those people who aren’t good to stay around, bad things happen, and I don’t want bad things to happen to you.
“In another life maybe we could have met like ordinary people, I could have got a regular job and we could have made babies together and lived happily ever after. But this is the only life we’ve got and I don’t see how we can get to that place from here.
“Deep down I am one of those selfish people who doesn’t want to give up the good things I have got. I know one day I’ll make a mistake and someone will take me down. But I won’t let anyone put me away, I will go on my own terms. I’m not going to spend my life in jail with a whole lot of other perverts and sad bad bastards. A year in reform was enough; I’m not going back again.”
As Susan listened she could feel this story split her mind and emotions into two parts, one which was horrified at his callous disregard for other people and their lives, and another part filled with compassion for this man who had never had a proper chance to be something other than a monster since a child.
She hadn’t said a word as Mark had talked and talked. She didn’t understand it all, but she got the picture, he had killed people, lots of them, including some young backpackers
It didn’t sound like he set out to do this deliberately, but when he was in a corner, or got angry, killing someone was the easy way out. He lacked any apparent remorse for what he’d done. She could sense there was a great evil in him. The way he felt that a person’s life could be so easily extinguished and that there wouldn’t be any consequences. After each death each person was left to one side and his life went on.
But then, wasn’t that what people did in war? They killed people because it suited their country’s interest, or sometimes just their own interests. Then when it was done they returned to their lives and families, and continued, just as before. Sure, a few got shell shock or PTSD. But, for most, the killing was left behind and life went on. Were these people bad people? Was Mark any worse than them?
He had just worked out how to do the killing easily and efficiently, without others knowing. As a kid he never really had a chance, no parents or other role models to give guidance and affection, no love to anchor his life to. If she had lived a life like that would she be any different? She thought not.
She had also seen what appeared to be another side to Mark, genuine and decent, his affection for his friends in the remote bush camps of the outback, his unsolicited gifts of meat and friendship with aboriginal communities. She knew that there must be something else in there. She needed to find it, the part where the decency, kindness and compassion lived, if buried deep.
She needed him to tell her about what was special to him, what he loved, what gave him real joy.
“Mark, tell me a time when you were really happy, something that makes you feel warm and smile inside.”
He thought for a moment, “When I gave you the ring at Heartbreak Hotel, and you asked me to make love to you. When you sat beside me as we drove across the Murranji Track and we barely talked, but you would give me little smiles.”
She wanted to go down this path with him but it was not the answer she needed. “I feel warm and happy thinking about those things with you too. But I mean something before you met me.”
He thought again for a while and said, “Soon after I first got to the NT I got a job at the Mine at Gove. The other white mine workers didn’t have a lot of time for me, I was just a young wet kid. But there were a couple of black boys who worked there next to me. They came from a local town.
“We became friends, and they invited me to come back with them, to meet their families: all their aunts, uncles, brothers and sisters. Soon I became one of the family, going fishing and hunting with them, they taught me how to shoot kangaroos and use a spear to catch fish, how to track animals in the bush.
“But most of all they gave me a sense of belonging. Since then I have always felt that the NT was my home, particularly this Top End country, though I love the desert too. Here was somewhere I would always be welcome. I never had a family in the city who took notice of me. But all these aunts and uncles wanted to tell me their stories each day. Even more importantly, they would sit and listen to all my stories. I finally felt I was someone.
“The most special day came a few months later. These boys, my friends, were to have an initiation to become full members of their tribe. Even though I didn’t have the knowledge for this, the elders decided that, on that same day, I should get a skin name and a totem to recognise me as part of their clan.
“They gave me their own skin name, and gave me the totem of the crocodile, their totem. They told me that as the crocodile was my totem, I had to look after crocodiles and the places where crocodiles live. To help me remember they gave me that carved crocodile spirit that you have seen, it is the symbol of my totem.
So, when I shoot a pig or catch some other animal, I often give it to a crocodile. While I shoot and kill many animals, I try not to harm crocodiles, though I am allowed to kill them if they threaten people of my tribe or family, as even with crocodiles there are bad ones.
“That’s why I have come here; this place is really special for me. In this billabong, lives the biggest crocodile I have ever seen, until you brought out that one in the Victoria River. He is very shy and hides away but, just occasionally, he comes out. Once before he took a pig I gave him. It was my original plan, on this morning, before this all happened, to go out and shoot a pig for him. Now I can’t do that because I will have to go away from here early in the morning. But maybe I will see him still and be with him before I go.”
Only an hour had passed but it seemed like a year. It was such a complex web of good and bad. She wondered where the truth and rightness lay.
He had done so many awful things; most people would call him a sociopath or psychopath, someone who lacked the empathy to restrain his ability to harm. But there was also a good and decent place within him; a part that gave her joy and made her feel warm.
And yet there was also that other half, the psychopathic mirror—the Jekyll to his Hyde. In a strange way Susan felt this split too, there was part of her that loved him without limit, had given her promise with full commitment to be the wife, but then another part of her hated him with a violent rage for bringing them both to this place, where every choice was a presage to disaster.
But now that he had told her his story she knew she must decide what to do. In this moment clarity came into her mind. Keeping this love alive was more important, it must rise above the hatred. She knew now what she must do from here.
She would go away, but she could do him no further harm unless he first tried to harm her. She had made her choice, her pact with the devil. She loved him and she would not act against him, despite all he had done. While she must leave him, she would still maintain her promise to him, even when she returned home. His secret would be her secret too; she only needed a promise he would not harm any others from here on. And perhaps, as time went by, they could try to build a real life together out of the ashes of this day.
She talked for five minutes and Mark listened, silent, next to her. She laid it out to him as she had laid it out in her mind. It was her only way to go on without more betrayal and violence.
He was silent for a minute.
“What do you say? Can it be so?” she asked
He said, “I wish, but no.”
Susan felt like he had slapped her.
How could they have lived all this, this night of their pact together, and he not have moved on; stepped beyond now and into a future which at least had a possibility where they would both continue their lives, even if not together.
He said. “It is easy to say you will keep my secrets. But you can’t un-know what you’ve found out, and what I’ve told you. What you know now will be a cancer inside you. It will eat you slowly, bit by bit. One day you will have to speak out. So it cannot end this way.
“Now I must bind you again for this night has passed. Tomorrow must be what tomorrow must be.
Susan stood up and replaced her clothes. Then she put out her hands to allow him to replace the cuffs. He took out long chain and padlock. He passed an end between her wrists and attached the other to the bull bar.
It could not end like this! Her whole being cried in outrage. How could love grow and die in the space of a night, how could a moth be let fly free then held to a flame until it wings burned away.
She did not want to beg, but she must implore him. It had to come from him, forgiveness and freeing of himself so he could free her too. He was wrong about her, so wrong. She was determined to find the goodness at his core. She could not let it; she knew it must not end like this.
Susan grasped Mark by the arm, to stop him walking away.
He stopped and looked back at her.
She thought he would look at her with regret. But his eyes held nothing, only chilling emptiness stared back at her.
She stared back, imploring with her eyes, not just begging for her own life but begging for his soul. He maintained her stare but nothing came.
Finally she looked away. A month of her life had just ceased to exist as she knew she would herself when the new day was come.
Mark walked away.
She was silent, just stood and stared at the endless sky. What was out there? Was there a god who could carry her soul to a place of peace? In the predawn sky there came a tiny pinprick of light, perhaps a star. She wished she could hold onto it, and that it could help her find her own peace and salvation.
Susan lay down on her bedding, and rolled to the side to hide her face from the small but penetrating light. She didn’t feel she could stand its scrutiny, the scrutiny of a god looking into her soul.
Away from the light her mind refocused.
The only one who could save her life was she. Susan had no hope in Mark’s words or actions, and there was not deliverance from the heavens.
Her chafed wrists were bothering her. She wanted a comfortable place for them without the covers touching the raw skin. As she settled on her side, she pushed her hands out from under the covers. She found her hands resting in dirt, just past the edge of the bedding. She went to pull them back to the softness of the bed.
As she withdrew, her fingers touched something in the dirt; it was cold and metallic. She felt for it again. It was a piece of metal: flat, six or seven inches long, and an inch or two wide. It came to a sharp point at one end. The other end was blunt and slightly rounded, like the inset of a knife into its handle.
That’s what it felt like, the blade of an old fishing knife that had been dropped in the dirt long ago. Its former handle had disappeared. She got her fingers under it and picked it up. The point and edges were sharp, though jagged, as if pitted with age.
A thought came to her, I have been seeking a way out and now here it is. That cold bastard couldn’t return my love, so now it is time for me to fashion my own destiny.
Mark’s two different faces kept flashing across her mind, one tender and loving, putting a ring on her finger, caressing her body; and the other with empty eyes that neither gave nor received anything.
One she could not conceive harming, but the other had no life force that she could reach or touch—it was just a hollow shell.
Susan didn’t know when she’d gone to sleep, but she woke in the early dawn light. Amazingly she had slept well and felt refreshed, despite the limited time and the discomfort of the handcuffs and chain. As her awareness returned, she felt a deep knot of terror in the pit of her stomach. How could this man, who had loved her so tenderly in the night, now be her executioner this very next day?
She felt like a prisoner on death row, knowing that only an hour or two of precious life remained, and there was an inexorable path forward to the end. She wondered if other prisoners still had hope at this point
She knew it would happen sometime this morning; she just didn’t know when. He would want to pack camp and be away early, before there might be others around. She wondered if he would feed her breakfast. With the bubbling terror flooding her mind she doubted she could eat.
Mark was squatting by the edge of the water looking out, his body almost motionless, but with a look of intense concentration. It seemed he was communing with the crocodiles before he offered her as a sacrifice, following an ancient ritual to placate the spirit beings.
Should she pretend sleep and try to delay the moment? But now the terror rose high, almost overwhelming her with panic. She made her mind retreat to a place of calm. She wanted cry or just die quietly in her sleep.
There was something so utterly horrid in this way. He really was a callous and hateful bastard. He could have just hit her on the head while she was asleep and she would not have had to endure this.
The anger came surging back and with it a ruthless coolness, allowing her to keep her mind in a calm place. While her nerve held she had to finish this. She must try and create a chance. She felt to her side, having to roll her body and move both hands, handcuffed together.
There it was; that piece of sharp metal, the old blade of a knife. It gave her a thread of hope.
She now slid the knife into her knickers, laying it flat on her belly with the point facing down, sitting over her pubis. She just hoped he did not want to give her a last bang before he got rid of her, one last quickie for good measure. She didn’t think it likely. Susan sensed that his mind and body had now moved on to another place where she, the living breathing Susan woman, no longer existed.
She made herself sit up and rattle her chain. Mark looked her way. He seemed agitated; perhaps he was surprised she was awake so soon – not ready for her and the day, when the dawn had barely come.
She tried to smile. A quick plan came to mind.
She would ask him to release her so she could relieve herself. She would do it with her back turned but remain in view. Then, still wearing her track bottoms and T-shirt, she would say she wanted to clean up and needed the cuffs off to wash herself. She would ask him to bring a bowl of water and a washer for her ablutions.
Then she would take off her T-shirt and track pants, putting the knife under her clothes pile, and start to clean herself. She would give Mark a thorough view of her naked buttocks as she washed herself.
She knew he would watch her and she would make sure it turned him on. Then she would call him over, saying she needed his help to wash her back. She would pass him the washer over her shoulder, keeping facing away. As he began to wash her back she would take up the knife and turn to him, keeping in close, with the knife out of sight. She wanted her breasts to be in his face, let his eyes focus on her nipples.
This was her best chance, her only chance. She would drive the knife into his belly, upwards, just below the ribs, into that soft unprotected skin.
She also needed a second weapon close at hand, should the knife not be enough, what could she use? She surveyed the site and located a piece of wood, a short piece of broken branch about a foot and a half long and three inches thick. If she could stand next to it then she would have a chance to pick it up and use it, if needed.
She knew she had to create real lust in her own mind to play the part convincingly. She must not rush the scene, so as to let his desire build and make him careless.
As she made her plan she felt as if her mind detached from and moved outside her body. She observed herself, as if from a great distance. She was a second Susan, one who watched and waited. Far away, another Susan, her body double, was acting out her own part. It was as if her mind had now occupied a separate reality to her body.
Seen from afar Susan felt surprise at how simple it was to set her plan into motion.
Mark released her body double when she asked. It walked away and relieved itself looking out across the water.
Then it said she needed to wash herself and asked for a basin of water, a washer and soap.
He unlocked the other Susan’s hands. He gave her a washer and soap. This Susan walked away and stopped at the place she had chosen. Mark poured warm water into a basin and carried it over to where she stood.
She watched as this Susan took the basin and placed it in front of herself standing alongside the stick. Like her this Susan understood it was best to have it close by, just in case.
Mark stepped back a few paces. She saw that he watched this Susan closely as she took off her clothes and got ready to wash. She watched her hide any view of the knife with her body as she took it out and lay it on her pants, covered by her top with just the tip of the handle visible.
As she began to wash a sudden wrench pulled her mind back into the body below. Now it was just her and him and she was really scared again. She knew she had to do this all by herself; she could no longer hide away from the reality of the actions she must take.
Mark seemed distracted, but once Susan started her wash down she could feel his eyes on her. She thought of their lovemaking on that other river, the Robinson River. She let it arouse her body, all the while keeping her mind locked away in a place of cold rage.
She spared a glance over her shoulder, Mark was watching her intently, and she could see a bulge in his pants where his arousal was growing.
She waved the washer and called out, “Could you come over and wash my back please? She could hear a husky sound in her voice, as if a throaty arousal blended with her fear, giving a tremulous quality.
Mark walked over. She passed him the soaped washer, and then rinsed her hands for a good grip. She took the metal blade in her stronger right hand, knowing that her body hid it from his view. She could feel her hand shake as she held the knife. She forced her mind to become calm again and her hand steadied.
She felt the washing cloth, his firm but gentle strokes, working down and lingering on her buttocks. She felt his other hand reach around and fondle a nipple, god that felt good.
With her mind in a totally detached place she turned slowly towards him, her breasts almost brushing him as she came around. His free hand stayed on her breast; she could feel his panting lust. His eyes were totally on her erect and pointy nipples. His second hand was now caressing her bottom.
She brought her elbow in under his arm. It was now or never. She focused all her attention on the one movement she must make. With her eyes turned down she looked at her target, that soft skin just below the left side of his rib cage.
She took a deep breath. With all her force drove the blade in.
It was harder than she thought. Her wrist twisted and buckled with the impact. But she saw the knife go in, almost all the way.
She felt the huge flinch of his body as he arced back, bringing his hands up in shock. It seemed to all happen in slow motion, a slowed silent movie without sound. His hands were grasping for the knife handle, she knew she must do more.
She ducked below his arms, looked to the side to locate the stick. Grasping it with her left hand, she turned and started to swing, then added her right hand for more power.
If he had been quicker he could have blocked her. But his two hands were grasping the short butt end of the blade that protruded, as if he would pull it out. In the last second he looked up. He saw what was coming. He looked to throw up a hand, but it was too late.
There was a look of puzzlement on his face, it seemed he could not comprehend how it had come to this. A trace of a smile creased his eyes, as if in admiration. His lips started to move but the word died unsaid.
The wood hit the side of his head with a dull crunch, it sounded like something had broken, whether within the wood or in his head she did not know.
Mark fell backwards, onto the ground.
He did not move.
Susan looked down at this man; she felt an awful horror at what she had done. She did not know if his injuries were terminal, or if she had killed him, but it couldn’t end like this. She couldn’t just leave his body lying there for another to find, even rescue.
In a flash it came to her. He would take her place with the crocodiles. Perhaps his crocodile spirit would bring the big one out of hiding and his body would be its feast. It was awful to contemplate, yet fitting. Susan looked at him again; he hadn’t moved.
There was a trickle of blood from his head and ear, and some more blood around the knife end, but not much. Was he still alive? She didn’t know, she hadn’t seen him breathe, but he was still pink.
Susan felt like she was carrying the weight of four dead girls on her shoulders, she was acting on their behalves, as well as her own.
It was about five metres to the water’s edge. She lifted Mark’s feet in her hands and tried to drag him, without success. He was too heavy to pull that way; her hands kept losing their grip on his thick ankles.
Susan came to his head and lifted him to a half sitting position. She was terrified he would wake up and grab her. Should she hit him again to be sure? No, that seemed too horrible.
She passed her arms under his shoulders. Knotting her fingers together on his chest, with his head lolling against her, she used her legs and pushed herself backwards, moving them both a few inches, then a few more; dragging him slowly. Now she was within a metre of the edge. She twisted and rolled his body until his legs were in the water. Then she pushed his head and shoulders with her feet until two thirds of him was in the water, but his head and shoulders still lay on the bank.
In her panting efforts she had almost forgotten the danger that crocodiles might pose to her, so near the water’s edge.
She looked up. There, watching her, no more than ten metres away, were two nostrils poking out of the water, and a little further back a pair of eyes. It was definitely interested.
Susan backed up, back to the place where she had stabbed Mark. She looked to the crocodile, then to Mark. Was it her imagination or did his chest just rise and fall? There had definitely been some sort of movement in the water where he lay.
But she knew it was too late to worry. The crocodile was swimming purposefully over to investigate. It nudged its nose alongside Mark. It was big, she thought, around five metres, not quite as big as the one on the Robinson but a good half-tonne. The crocodile bit at, and shook Mark’s legs a couple times with its mouth, then moved farther up the bank, now standing over his body, on raised forelegs.
It twisted slightly sideways, and grasped Mark around the abdomen, pulling him farther into the water. Now Mark was floating free, limbs lolling about. The crocodile released its grip and manoeuvred his body in the water, turning him parallel to the bank. It opened its huge mouth and closed it down over his chest.
Snap, then crunch as ribs gave way.
With almost leisurely ease the crocodile swam away trailing the upper body to one side and the legs to the other. It was half way back to where it started when there came a sudden swirl. Another large crocodile, similarly sized, had come alongside and grabbed Mark’s head.
They were now tearing at his body pulling in opposite directions. Blood stains were spreading in the water as Mark was torn open.
Just when it seemed that neither could win, a huge splash and swirl came crashing into both their bodies. A new crocodile grabbed Mark’s protruding waist and flung him in the air, half lifting the two other crocodiles from the water as they hung on. Now there were more tearing and ripping noises. Pieces of muscles, organs and blood floated in the midst of a thrashing and swirling cauldron. None would give a quarter but weight was with the big one.
Susan knew this was the big one that Mark had talked about. It dwarfed the other crocodiles, half their length again, and double their combined weight. It was clear who would win.
A leg was pulled free and one swam away with its spoils. Then there was a mighty tearing contest around the head and upper body. First the head disappeared, now there remained only a mangled torso, which the two crocodiles tore at.
With another loud rip, an arm and shoulder came free. The second crocodile abandoned the contest, departing with its prize.
The remaining crocodile, contest winner, cruised around the just floating body, pushing it a bit this way and that. Then, with the upper torso just in front of its nose, it opened its mouth, grasped and flipped the body into the air as it tipped its head back, mouth open wide. The body disappeared with a single huge swallow.
The crocodile did a leisurely circuit of the area, a victory lap it seemed. Then it submerged and was lost from view.
The water was still.
The crocodiles were gone. She could no longer see blood and body pieces in the water.
Susan felt the mind-numbing horror recede a notch. Rising up to meet it was an overpowering feeling of shame. She had thought, when she came to this country, she was too smart for the backpacker abduction trick; that she wasn’t one of those silly girls who took lifts with strangers, or put herself into vulnerable positions. Yet she knew, with an absolute certainty, that if she hadn’t found that old blade she would have joined that list of ugly statistics.
She was disgusted with herself. She had indulged in an orgy of sexual pleasure even after she had good grounds for suspicion about this man. Not to mention she had the chance to escape on at least two occasions and had done nothing.
Then there was the small matter of her conspiring to conceal evidence. From the time she had found the passports she had, within her power, the option of taking them to the police. She could have brought an end to the uncertainty about the fate of these girls for four sets of anguished parents.
Yet she had done nothing, preferring to hope for an alternative truth about the man who had captured her mind as much as her body. Only when her own life was a millimetre from extinction had she acted. That was merely for self-preservation; that wasn’t real courage.
She looked now at the morality deep inside herself. It was wanting. She remembered talk of others. those who looked askance at the Germans who, during Hitler’s time, saw nothing, did nothing and said nothing—despite evidence right in front of their eyes. Susan was no better; when the test of her moral core came, she’d failed it, utterly.
So here she was, now, reaping this whirlwind of her own actions. Despite Mark’s awful deeds, was she entitled to be both his judge and executioner?
She could justify using the metal blade to escape; perhaps hitting him was also defensible. But when he lay on the ground, unconscious, she knew neither whether he was alive or dead.
How could she justify pushing his body into the water for the crocodiles to finish? In her heart of hearts she knew he might have lived. She could have taken the car, driven for help, or called the police if she did not want to return herself.
But the real reason she hadn’t was that she simply did not want to face a reliving of her own part in this. Susan did not want to be part of a police investigation into this hideous man.
In her heart and soul she had wanted him dead.
Partly it was to pay him back for her humiliation, partly to let it end, but mostly because she didn’t want to have to give evidence, to describe his exploitation of her naivety, then her sexual and physical entrapment, which she had actively aided and abetted.
She most wanted the whole ugly story to vanish; she didn’t want to have to tell her parents or friends of her cowardice and abject foolishness, not to have testimony splashed over the tabloids, Australian and British; words like ‘British Slut, Murderer; Killer Feeds Man to Crocodile’.
So now she was here, she cold bloodedly gave this man his death wish with crocodiles. She could imagine his eyes had opened and awareness returned in those final seconds, as the crocodiles tore his body apart.
The worst part was that despite the shame that tore at her soul, much of her remained glad of what she had done; she had judged he was not fit to live, and acted on it. She even remembered his words at Barrow Creek, of taking personal vengeance when others did harm. It felt like a perverse moral rightness to use his own spoken words as justification.
Then Susan’s mind twisted in another direction, one of relief and rationalisation. Here she was, alive. Only she knew what had transpired. There was really no need for anyone else to know. Nothing would be served by telling the mothers, fathers, sisters or brothers of those other poor girls about their fate, destroying their remnants of hope.
Now her mind saw a way out. Her plane did not leave until tomorrow morning. She could make the whole thing vanish. No one had seen her and Mark here. She knew he had driven here in the night, coming from the other side of Katherine, with no stops. This was to avoid anyone else seeing him or connecting him to her disappearance or to this place. So that could work to her advantage, she was even more unknown than him.
The chance of his body being discovered, after the crocodiles finished, was remote. The crocodiles had eaten the main parts. The fish would finish off any scraps that remained.
The car need not remain here, where it was connected with this place. All the residual contents of their trip together could vanish, into the bottom of some billabong.
She understood about DNA and forensic evidence, her lab did that sort of work and she knew how to make detection difficult, if not impossible. And, without a basis for suspicion, who would even look?
All she needed was a few hours, with no one else in sight, and she could pull it off. Even if someone came now there was really almost nothing to show, nothing to arouse suspicion, and there was plenty more she could do to hide the traces.
What she needed was a careful plan that she followed. She felt energised, her shock and lethargy was pushed back by the need do something decisive.
First she found a notebook. She made a list of what she needed to do and tried to think of all the sources of future problems and of their solutions.
The campground—she needed to remove all traces of blood from the edge of the water and where she had hit him. She would have to ensure there were no items that could be connected with either of them left lying around. She would do her best to get rid of footprints, tyre tracks, soil on the car or other things that may link the vehicle and this place.
The car—it needed to be abandoned somewhere, somewhere that had no connection to this place. Perhaps it could take her to the airport then be dumped.
His personal effects—the clothes, food and personal items could be burned. The heavy items, firearms, camping gear and tools could go into the bottom of a billabong. Not here, but if she took them and spread them out, up and down river, the likelihood of anyone finding them and or connecting them seemed remote. As the guns had serial numbers, that might trace to him, they should be dumped somewhere else.
Her own things—she realised that her backpack and clothes would have his DNA all over them and it would be hard to ensure that it all vanished. So, all but a handful of her things must go, either burned or thrown into rubbish in various places. The few things she needed to take home could be dealt with back in England.
The car would have to be thoroughly cleaned to remove all traces of her presence, and all other identification, either of her or the other girls. There would just be an empty car. She couldn’t get rid of the cage or cooler box, but a good clean should see most traces gone. The cooler box would have to be cleaned extremely thoroughly, considering her time in there. No doubt bits of her skin, hair, blood, urine and more would be in there.
She would have to clean the car a second time after she got to her destination to ensure her DNA from the final trip was not evident in it.
Perhaps once she neared Darwin she could find a shop selling garbage bags, cleaning gear, and unworn clothes to change into for her final leg.
She would have to play some of this by ear. But each extra step was another level of separation and security. Susan wanted every last trace of Mark out of her life.
Before she could do anything, she needed to make it difficult to recognise or identify the vehicle if anyone turned up while she was still here. She retrieved some mud from the bank and smeared it on and around the number plates, confusing threes, eights, and other numbers with strategic dabs of mud. For extra cover she splashed the number plates with water and extra dirt to make them as near to illegible as was possible. Then she took the swag cover and a ground sheet, and draped them over the cool box and cage on the back, to make these less visible and identifiable.
With her plan made Susan started her clean-up; she added branches to the smouldering coals of last night’s campfire to create a big hot fire, one with plenty of flames to burn all the things that could burn.
She did a thorough walk around the site, picking up all loose items, along with any rubbish, and piling them next to the fire. She took a shovel and dug up the bloodstained soil. Susan threw this in the water, then levelled off this patch and covered it with some loose dirt and leaves. If someone looked hard one could see a disturbed area but it wasn’t obvious. She was happy that this dealt with the most immediate evidence.
Now she started with her own things, it was easier to begin with these. She removed all her things from her pack and separated what she knew she needed for her trip home. These she put it in her small overnight bag. Then, one by one, she placed all her other clothes on the fire and watched them burn to ash. There was something cathartic about destroying links to this trip and this place.
She went through the cabin of the car and emptied out all the compartments, under and behind seats and all the other compartments and spaces. She made two piles: what couldn’t be burned and what could. Piece by piece everything that would burn went into the fire. She kept adding wood, and stirred the fire with a stick, to ensure that no charred bits remained.
Then came Mark’s things. She felt revulsion about touching anything of his. But it had to be done.
First were his clothes. Each thing she recognised brought her back to the time and place where she he had seen him wear it.
There was a cap that she had did not remember seeing him wear, and yet it seemed strangely familiar, somewhere deep in her brain it rang a bell of association, though she couldn’t think why. It had a picture of a soaring wedged-tail eagle on the front, but the connection was out of reach. She threw it in the fire.
Susan felt a particular pang about the cowboy gear that he had worn on the day he had met her in Alice Springs: a holiday that held such promise. With these memories came new sadness at how those good times were gone. She stopped herself.
Then there was his leather satchel of papers. She felt obliged to open it, to see what was inside. It was still locked with a combination lock. She had no idea what the number was. So she found a big screwdriver and a hammer in his tools. She smashed the lock open.
She lifted out the pile of papers, and went through them, one by one. Mostly bills and receipts relating to work; she noted the two names Bennet and Butler but not the others. After a quick glance she consigned each to the fire. Now the main part of the satchel was empty, she was about to consign it to the fire.
In a side pocket she felt something that still remained. There were two things inside: a pouch and a book. She removed the pouch and opened it. The contents spilled into her hand. She gasped, here was a pile of coloured stones; glassy, many types, sizes and shapes. She did not know much about precious stones but recognised that indeed this was what she was looking at. There were probably fifty stones, ranging from a few millimetres in size to some as large as a thumbnail. She recognised the reds and blues of rubies and sapphires; a golden one, perhaps a topaz; some small glassy ones, maybe diamonds; and some flecked white and blue stones which she thought were opals. Most of all she recognised two milky blue stones, cousins to the ones he had given her. She took the chain and ring from around her neck and placed these items with the other stones, they all belonged together.
Susan deliberated on throwing them away. There was clearly value here, tens of thousands of pounds she imagined. Some might even belong to other people who had hired Mark to sell them. If so they may represent life savings of miners she had met. While she didn’t want Mark’s ill-gotten gains, she felt loathe to destroy the property of others. She decided she would keep them for now. She refilled the pouch and set it aside.
She put her hand back into the satchel and pulled out the second object. It looked like a diary. Instant revulsion rose at the prospect of seeing his deeper self through his own eyes. She held it in her hand, arm bent to cast it into the fire. Then she thought; perhaps there is something in here about me, and why he chose me, that I should read.
Susan flipped quickly through the pages; there were lots of small entries containing dates, places, and items relating to transactions. She saw the name Kate a few times, she realised with a shock that there were notes about the Scottish girl, Kate Rodgers. The others were probably here too. It seemed awful to burn the last record of these lives.
She could imagine her body destroyed and hidden in a remote place, then someone finding this last record and casually discarding it, denying all future opportunity to those who knew her to learn of this last part of her life. While she didn’t want anyone else to see this and read her shame, it was an ultimate disrespect to others to destroy a last remnant of their lives in this way. She decided to keep the book and hide it away.
Flipping to the last page, she saw her name. It must have been written within the last two days, perhaps last night.
Susan has really got to me, there’s something so brave and beautiful about her. Why could she not just leave alone? I don’t want to do this, but now I have to make the choice between me and her. What should I do, I must end it. It will be quick.
Perhaps I should let her go, trust her, see what she does—can I take this chance?
She read it, and she re read it and then she read it yet again. Had he really meant to let her go, or did he just have doubts that he overcame?
She could feel emotions welling up, love, hate, serious gentle eyes; ugly, ruthless psychopathic heart. What did it all mean? Tears pricked her eyes. She hated him, almost beyond thinking, and yet she really missed his smile. What a mess.
Susan looked around her. Should she just take this to the police and tell them she had made an awful mistake, it could all be unscrambled, even yet. Here was a record that told of what he was and what he had done. With this no one would blame her.
But then she realised that they would confiscate this book, take it as evidence and she would never get to see it again, except perhaps in court. She needed to have this for herself, whether to read it or not; there may be something in here to help her find herself again.
She decided she would put it somewhere out of all reach, in a bank vault perhaps, maybe left there till she died. But it held a story that she could not just casually destroy—that much she knew. Susan found a handkerchief that had not yet been burnt. She wrapped this around it, to separate it from the rest of her life yet treat it with respect. Then she placed it in the bottom of her overnight bag, along with the bag of gems and covered them with her clothes. Now the rest of his personal effects went into the fire; toothbrush, razor, shampoo, and deodorant.
She started on the back of the car. Fortunately the cooler box was almost empty. The inside smelt awful. She carried a couple buckets of water and emptied them inside; the cleaning part could wait.
Susan lifted each box off the back and opened it. She created a pile of non-flammables, to add to the small pile from the cabin. It was all destined for the bottom of the billabong; knives, tools, metal boxes, and cooking things. Steadily the pile grew. She filled a bucket with the contents from the pile and walked one way, almost a hundred yards along the waterhole. She threw all the items out in different directions. She repeated it five more times in different places.
Now only the guns and heavy tools remained. They would go somewhere else, perhaps in different billabong, once she was driving.
One of the last things to do was destroy the food. Susan had left it for near last, knowing that she may need to eat. She thought she must have been working now for over four hours, slowly and methodically, hunger forgotten. It must be past midday and she knew that she must make herself eat; she was starting to feel light headed, all her early morning energy long gone.
The thought of food brought Mark’s face into her mind; they had shared this food together so many times over the days until now, their own private ritual in which they shared an enjoyment of togetherness.
She couldn’t let herself think of the good times. All that was left was the image of his face, devoid of emotion. She pictured his eyes looking at her in that way once he had killed her. There would be no recognition of her life force gone, no anguish, just cool dispassion as he discarded her from his mind then moved on to the next task.
Then she thought of the large crocodile carrying Mark’s body in its mouth. That awful ripping and tearing sound, as all three crocodiles pulled and tugged, causing body parts to separate, the dismemberment of all that had been once a living breathing person.
A wave of bile rose in her insides; she retched.
Susan found a cup of water and rinsed her mouth. She had to keep going. She systematically started burning the food. The smell was bad, but she pushed on. She emptied the metal tins and glass jars, the plastic she burnt on the fire.
Only a quarter of packet of broken biscuits remained, crushed in travel. She took a piece, her mouth dry, chewed slightly then gulped it down with a mouthful of water. She repeated it with another fragment. Occasionally her stomach threatened to rebel, but each time she paused, breathed deeply, calmed herself and took another piece.
She realised she had totally forgotten about the most important thing, the thing that had started this path to madness: the metal box with the girls’ passports and Mark’s multiple IDs. Like the diary, she could not burn the passports. That would be like killing the girls a second time.
Susan thought of throwing the box in the water and burning his IDs, then just bringing the passports away with her. But she knew this was a crazy risk. What if she was searched at airport security? Four passports, all of which clearly did not belong to her, they spelt disaster, no possible way of explaining that. By a process of elimination she realised that her only real choice was to hide them.
She carefully examined the area around her, looking for landmarks. There was nothing distinctive close by, only a big waterhole with a partly cleared area along its banks; perhaps where people sometimes came to camp and fish. A few hundred yards away she saw a little rocky knoll, rising a few feet above the surrounding ground. She took a spade and the box and walked across to it.
The hill itself was bigger than she first though, ten or fifteen feet high and about twenty yards across the base. It was also rocky and hard to dig and there were no obvious cracks or crevices to use. On the other side a big flat rock, squarish and about a metre across, sat low on the ground, just beyond the rise. There was clear dirt just beyond it. She walked over and tested the ground with her spade. It was hard but not rocky. She chipped away at the surface. Her hands were blistered and sore and it was hard going at first. But once she was down a few inches the ground was softer, a dark sandy loam. She dug down about a foot, hard up against the side of the big rock, which kept going straight down.
Then she placed the box in the bottom of the hole. She saw another piece of flat rock, maybe twice this box’s size, lying nearby. She placed it, lying flat over the metal box, also in the base of the hole. She figured that would reduce the risk of rust or water damage. Then she backfilled and pushed the dirt down firmly with her feet. The remaining dirt she scattered around the area.
Not too bad, but a bit obvious if someone came looking over here soon. She laid another flat sheet of rock on top to hide the freshly turned dirt. Now with leaves to make it look a bit more natural, she defied anyone to know that something was buried here. So long as she could find the campsite, she could find this place again if she needed.
It was now mid afternoon as she walked back to the car. Only two tasks remained. The first was to burn their bedding, the last remains of their life together. It was too personal; she did not want to do it, these objects of their lovemaking. But she couldn’t stop now. She lifted the mattress, and threw it onto the fire; it smouldered and smelt awful, but eventually the foam burnt through and she pushed the ends together till only a pile of sticky burning goo remained. Then the pillow, quilt and sheets.
As she picked up the bottom sheet her lace knickers fell to the ground. It was a symbol of their passionate lovemaking, even when trust was lost.
At the sight of the white lace, Susan’s shoulders started to shake. The tears came quickly, silently, dripping down her cheeks.
She cried for herself and the loss of her innocence. She cried for him too, the loss of his life, and the loss of belief in his goodness. She had tried so hard to believe he was good, that he could do no wrong. Now it was time to let that go.
Eventually the crying passed, leaving her feeling utterly drained. Susan picked up the knickers, looked at them one last time, and consigned them to the fire.
The light was fading as the sun fell behind the trees. Susan wanted to lie down, she was so very tired, but there was one last task to complete. She had to wash the car, inside and out.
She washed the hateful cooler box first. Five times she carried water, sloshed it around, emptied and wiped it out. Her arms were shaking with fatigue as she lifted the bucket and her legs wobbled with exhaustion as she walked.
She repeated the procedure with the cabin. Then she did the tray and cage, then finally, the outside of the cabin. She scraped and washed the wheel arches and the under-body as best she could.
Now the daylight had faded to a red-pink glow. It was getting hard to see in the guttering firelight. She piled the fire up one more time. The groundsheet and canvass swag cover went on the fire, the oily plastic coating blazing brightly.
Next she stripped off her clothes and threw them in the fire, and used some water from the water tank and a cup to rinse her body, cleaning herself as best she could. She shivered in the cold night air, feeling naked and vulnerable. Quickly she put on the clean shorts and T-shirt she had kept aside.
Finally Susan dowsed the fire. In the dark she needed to be careful near the water. Cautiously she scooped a bucket out, but of crocodiles there was no sign. She repressed a shudder as she thought they wouldn’t need to eat again, they had already feasted today.
She picked up the ends of the burning sticks and threw them in the water. Then she threw her bucket of water on the coals. It exploded with a great hissing. She repeated this several further times until little heat remained. She took the shovel and, with it carried the piles of ash, along with any other fragments, to the water’s edge and threw them in. Finally only a slightly hollowed out depression remained where the fire had been. She threw some handfuls of leaves over this place.
With the fire gone the mosquitoes were thick. She swatted them away, but it was futile. She wished she had kept the repellent. There were noises of animal movements in the night. She desperately wanted to be gone from this place.
Susan made herself do one last walk around with the torch she had saved. She could see nothing that remained. However she tore a branch from a tree and walked around, brushing dirt in all the places where she thought they had walked, trying to hide obvious tracks. She tossed the branch into the water—satisfied she could do no more.
As she looked across the water there was a miasma of something sitting over its surface, mist like, but not quite. It eddied towards her despite the non-existent breeze. Involuntarily she found herself breathing it in. It felt like there was more in it than water laden air, as if a presence attached to the place came into her, giving her a fleeting sense of Mark’s grinning face merged with that of a crocodile. She shuddered and forced this awareness out of her mind, determined to let no residue of this place remain within her.
She stumbled as she turned, engulfed by weariness, driven these last hours by need alone. This air at the water’s edge felt like a spider’s web, sticky tendrils of nothingness catching hold of her skin.
She forced herself to stand straight. She must now summon the strength to leave this place.
Susan walked away from the billabong in the dark. It seemed like the longest day in her life and her body was shaking with exhaustion. She had not eaten all day except for those few biscuit fragments. Now that her work was finished she just wanted to crawl into a bed, under a warm quilt, lie in a foetal position and sleep.
She climbed into the driver’s seat and put the key in the ignition. Thankfully, Mark had left the key behind that morning, left it lying on the driver’s seat. The last time she sat in this seat had only been yesterday, but it felt an age. Susan knew she needed to start the car and drive away, but waves of nausea and exhaustion flowed over her. She laid her head back in the corner of the cabin, against the headrest, and closed her eyes.
The horror of the ripping crocodiles swam before her eyes. With extreme effort she pushed it away. She stayed there, immobile, her mind numb, beyond thinking. She must have dozed because she woke with her head slumped sideways and an ache in her neck. Her hands stung from the chafing of the restraints and the hours she had spent cleaning, scouring and re-cleaning to remove all the evidence.
She sat up straight now. Her head felt a bit clearer and the exhaustion seemed to have faded. She knew that she must get going now while her reserves lasted. She started the engine. The diesel roared to life. She let it run for a minute to warm up as she checked the gauges.
Everything seemed OK. She looked at the fuel levels. The main tank was down to not much, barely an eighth above empty, but the reserve tank still had a third and the light was on, indicating it was in use.
She found the light switch. With the headlights on she felt like she could push the darkness away for a few hours. She hated this whole place but felt better within the solid mass of the car, engine throbbing and lights bright, while she sat locked in her cocoon.
She found and engaged the gears, let out the clutch and was away. She remembered now all the water she had used to wash the car, and it came to her that there may be tire tracks or footprints in this wet ground. With supreme effort she forced herself to stop and go and look with the torch. Sure enough there were several clear footprints and a set of clear tyre tracks for about five yards, until the dry ground. She scraped at these with the spade until they were indistinct and then threw some fresh dirt and leaves over them.
Now she really was finished, she knew there was nothing more she could do here. She drove off and picked up the track leading away from the clearing, and drove out slowly, staying in first gear for a while, until she felt that she had reasonable control. She changed up to second and felt the vehicle move more freely. Sometimes the track turned sharply and she struggled to pick the direction in the headlights as she veered to the edge of the road. Once she thought she would scrape the passenger door on a tree at the edge of a sharp corner but she just avoided it with a last minute swerve.
She had only a vague idea of where she was, but hoped she would be able to follow signs to take her back to the highway, then on to Darwin. For the first couple miles there was a single track, which came to a closed gate. This fitted with Mark’s description of a private place. So far so good!
Now there were tracks going everywhere. It was hard to tell the actual road from yet another camping track. A couple times she picked wrong and ended up in a camping area alongside a billabong. A couple times she saw distant lights illuminating tents and turned away. She was starting to feel like she was in a maze, fraying at her fragile sense of purpose.
Then a bit of luck ran her way; she realised she was now on a main road going somewhere. After about fifteen minutes of driving she came to a big gate on the road. She was terrified it would be locked, but it was not. She pulled the gate open, and drove through. She was tempted to drive on and leave it swinging, but she forced herself to stop, get out, and close it properly. She left the engine running; the thought of stopping the car and being unable to start it again giving her a wave of panic.
She drove on. The road was wide now, well formed, and almost dead straight. But after another quarter of an hour it ended suddenly in a T intersection. The new cross-road seemed to be an important road but less so than the one she was on. She had no idea which way to choose.
For no reason in particular she decided to turn left. The road went on for a few hundred yards, and then, after some minor sidetracks coming off it, it deteriorated into a track. Susan followed this, living in hope it went somewhere; however, after another couple hundred yards, the road came to the edge of a vast open plain. No further road was in sight, just a vast expanse of grass, which seemed to run out to a river miles away.
Susan felt profoundly depressed, but knew she had to back track. She came back to the T-junction. She tossed up whether to return to the main road or try the other direction. In the end her need to be thorough overrode her desire for the ease of the big highway. She followed the other track. She almost felt relief when, a few hundred yards later, it ended in another gate. This time there was a lock that she clearly would not get through.
While part of her felt profoundly dejected to be stuck in this maze, another part felt that this was progress.
She found a place to turn round and headed back. At the big gate on the main road she now felt that this was the way out. So she drove on with renewed confidence. The road continued on, past a series of minor turn-offs, heading in a consistently straight direction.
Susan kept on driving. She knew that, if she came to another dead end, she would want to cry, lie down and die. But it just kept going, seemingly on and on, forever. She rechecked her distance, which she checked along the way as she drove. She had come twenty-five kilometres since the last gate. That meant she had to be going somewhere. Still the road went on, further and further.
At last there was a sign for an approaching T intersection. Susan slowed, almost to a crawl, as she reached what she thought was the intersection. Please God, let there be a sign. She felt rising desperation with nothing in sight. The road rounded a final bend. Gleaming in the headlights was a big shiny sign, pointing Darwin to the right and Kakadu to the left. It was a big wide bitumen road. The sign read Arnhem Highway.
She nearly cried with relief. As the car headed along this new smooth road there was a big sign: Darwin, 135 kms. Tension flowed out of her, and a huge wave of relief washed over her. She knew she had as good as made it. After another hour and a half or so of driving, she would find a place to rest for a bit before she went to the airport to catch the plane home.
The road was straight and easy to drive. She passed a lit up roadhouse called the Bark Hut Inn. She was tempted to stop, just to buy a drink, but knew she should not let anyone see her in this car around here. She came to a big river with the sign Mary River written on the bridge, watching a large expanse of clear dark water pass below. There were no headlights in sight and no signs of any people nearby.
Susan decided that this river might make a good final resting place for the guns and other things. She stopped at the far edge of the bridge, climbed out and looked around. Then she stood quietly and listened, just bush sounds. This will do, she thought.
First she picked up the box that held tools. One by one she dropped them over the side and into the water. As she was carrying the last things headlights lit up the eastern horizon. She quickly dropped the tools over and ran back to the car. She hopped back in and started the engine, ready to drive away if the vehicle showed signs of stopping. But it roared past and drove into the night. It was heading towards Darwin, seemingly impatient to be home.
Last she took out the gun case and false number plates. The gun case fell straight down like a spear, entering the water with a hollow splash. Next she flung the six unattached number plates in different directions. It was like casting the remnants of Mark’s identity to the four winds.
Leaving the bridge behind, as she drove on, it felt like a big first step towards removing this month from her life.
She concentrated on driving steadily, not too fast or slow. She passed a couple cars going the other way. The first time she forgot to dip her lights, until a series of angry flashes made her aware. After this she drove with lights on low beam, it was easier than trying to remember, another thing for her tired brain to do.
As Susan continued she started to feel like she was almost back to civilisation. As her anxiety faded the fatigue really began to hit her. She found herself yawning, what she really needed was a really strong cup of coffee. She pinched her face, she moved her shoulders and jiggled her legs; anything to keep brain and body awake. She saw lights in the distance and then she was in a little town, with a sign that proclaimed Humpty Doo. She forced herself on.
Reaching another big T intersection, this time with traffic lights and a sign for Stuart Highway and Darwin to the right, Susan let out a breath of relief—she actually knew where she was. Susan knew that the Stuart Highway was the main road from Alice Springs to Darwin. With Darwin barely thirty kilometres away, she decided that she would just drive for a little longer and then find a place to pull over and rest. Although it felt like the middle of the night the clock on the dash only read 9:30 pm.
Soon she saw a big sign for a roadhouse and supermarket coming up on her side. She pulled into the supermarket car park. There were still occasional shoppers—perhaps it stayed open until late.
She looked at her face in the mirror. Considering what she felt like inside, her face looked remarkably normal, a bit puffy under the eyes and her hair was a bit wild. She groped in her bag and found a comb, straightened her hair and checked her clothes for obvious marks. She took a last glance around—no one was close. Susan stepped out, careful to make sure she appeared casual.
As she approached the doors they automatically slid apart. She stepped into an overly bright, modern, fluorescent lit world. The air-conditioning was unexpectedly cold and she shivered.
No one seemed the least interested in her. She knew she had about eighty-five dollars in her purse. That would be enough to buy some food, a drink, some cleaning gear and maybe some new clothes.
She picked up a basket and worked her way around. A block of cheese, some dip and biscuits, along with a bottle of Coke. Next she collected a plastic bucket, detergent, methylated spirits, cleaning cloths, disposable household gloves and a packet of garbage bags. She also bought two cheap sets of clothes consisting of a tracksuit, T-shirt and socks.
There was a map of Darwin for sale. She opened it, memorised the directions to the airport and put it back. It seemed fairly simple and she expected there would be signs.
She paid, returned to the car and drove on. Another few miles and she saw a rest stop and toilet sign on the left. That was what she was looking for. The only other occupants of the rest area were a couple of large trucks; there was no sign of their drivers — likely asleep in the cabins.
After washing her face Susan sat at a little table outside with her cheese, dip, cracker biscuits and Coke. It was the first real food she had eaten in almost twenty-four hours. While part of her craved food, there was also nausea just below the surface. She knew she must go steadily. She ate slowly, one biscuit at a time, with a smear of dip and a piece of cheese, chewing each with steady deliberation, and following each with a mouthful of Coke. A couple times her stomach threatened to rebel as nausea rose. But she calmed herself with deep breaths.
After she had had her fill, Susan climbed back into the car, pulled the new tracksuit over her other clothes and curled up on the seat. What blessed relief to close her eyes and let it all go.
When she woke up the cabin clock read 3:13 am.
Time to get active again, she thought.
Susan opened the cabin and shivered in the chill air. Reluctantly she removed her new clothes, so she was back to her old T-shirt and shorts. She took out her overnight bag from the cabin and placed it, with her food and cleaning things, on the nearby table.
She set to work, starting with a bucket of water and detergent, she washed every inside surface of the cabin. Then she climbed on the back and did the same for the cooler box, washing it first, then wiping off the excess with a second cloth. Next she swabbed all the surfaces with a cloth covered with methylated spirits. Then she did the same for the rest of the tray. Finally she washed the rest of the outside of the cabin as best she could. Without a high-pressure spray she could not really do the under-body, but she didn’t think it was very important.
She surveyed her work; she thought it was enough. There was little chance of anyone recovering her DNA, should someone check the vehicle. It seemed important to her that there be no trace of her left in the car
She took her remaining clothes and divided them into two sets. One set, including the clothes she had slept in, went into her small overnight bag, along with her passport, ticket and her other personal effects. She left one pair of sandals on the back tray. She put her overnight bag and its contents inside a garbage bag; this was what she needed for the return leg on the plane. She double bagged it, and rested it on the back tray.
In a second bag she placed the rest of the cleaning gear, which she also sat on the tray. Then she washed herself off again, pulled off her clothes from before, and put them along with her other discarded clothes in another garbage bag. She tied this up and put it into a garbage bin nearby.
Susan was naked in the dark. She quickly dressed in the final set of new clothes using disposable gloves. When she was dressed, she put new disposable gloves on her hands and walked over to the car. She laid a garbage bag on the floor and sat inside, careful not to touch anything else. She slid her feet into her new socks.
Then she started the car and drove away, following the signs for the airport. It was just five am when she drove in to the airport concourse. There were a few people around, early morning cleaners and the like. She drove past the car park and looked in at it.
Should she park in there? Probably not, it was too likely to have CCTV to capture her image as she exited the car. She wanted no direct link between the car and her.
She had noted that the airport was only a kilometre or two from the main road, and on the other side of this road were housing estates. Susan figured that, if she parked on the street in front of one of these, it was unlikely anyone would notice a common four wheel drive. It would likely be weeks before anyone wondered whose car it was and investigated.
So she drove back out and parked on the side of the service road opposite some two-storey houses. There was not a soul in sight as she climbed out.
First she put on her sandals and lifted the other things off the tray. Then she gave the parts of the cabin she had used, and the back tray where her things had rested, a final wipe. She locked the doors.
She opened the garbage bag that held her overnight bag, removed it from inside and sat it on the pavement. She put all the cleaning gear and other unwanted objects back in its own garbage bag. With this garbage bag in one hand, the overnight bag in the other and the car keys in her pocket, Susan walked towards the airport, following alongside a cycleway, walking on the footpath.
She passed a bin at a bus stop and threw the garbage bag of cleaning things inside. She turned onto the airport access road. A few hundred yards along this road she crossed a creek. The car keys went in there.
She could feel dawn approaching, though there was not yet any light in the sky. Her spirits lifted, it was a new day and her ordeal was almost all over. Her freedom, back to her beloved England, was close at hand. She noticed that her speed had picked up and her step had become jaunty. Susan consciously pulled herself back to a more regular walk. Don’t get too cocky now; there are only a few more steps to go.
Her flight was due to depart at ten am. It was only five past six now, at least according to the massive clock inside the terminal. She was perhaps a bit early, but at least she had time for a shower and breakfast before she needed to check in.
Susan headed straight for the shower sign. She luxuriated in the hot water and steam for a good ten minutes; she was determined to wash every trace of the outback from her body, washing it out of her soul might not be so easy, but she would try. Breakfast was a bacon and egg muffin and coffee. She bought a magazine from a newsagent, wanting something to occupy her.
The lady at the check-in counter raised a snooty eyebrow when Susan declared she only had carry-on luggage. But Susan wasn’t concerned; it was her own business. She felt a twinge of anxiety as she passed through airport security, particularly about the little pouch of stones. But there was nothing in her bag that brought attention. Then she went on through passport checking and stamping. As she opened her passport for checking a slip of folded paper fell out and on to the floor. “You dropped this,” the man behind her said helpfully, passing her the paper.
“Cheers,” said Susan accepting it from his hand. She didn’t recognise it, but she placed it in her ticket wallet; she could check it later.
Then she was through and sitting in the departure lounge.
The minutes ticked by slowly. Susan tried to read her magazine, but beautiful girls in beautiful clothes weren’t a good enough distraction. She tried to relax and pretend she was enjoying herself, but she was wound up like a spring. She kept expecting someone to call her name out.
When boarding was called, Susan didn’t rush. Inside the plane a pretty stewardess, with long blond hair, directed her away from the entry door. A second stewardess, part way down her aisle, was directing passengers with a broad Cockney twang. Susan was comforted by the voice.
Susan said hello to the woman, who recognised her as English for she turned to Susan with a bright smile, “Another English visitor, I hope you enjoyed your trip to Australia.”
Susan forced a return smile; she could not quite bring herself to nod.
At last the plane was taxiing out and soaring up into the sky. As it levelled out Susan realised she was still clutching her English passport. She went to put it away. It flipped open to where it had just been stamped, Australian Visitor Visa – Departure.
That’s it she thought. That was what I was, just an English Visitor.
Susan found that returning to work was relatively easy; it was almost as if she had never been away. Some people hadn’t even noticed her absence and this suited her.
She was still staying with her Mum and Dad, though getting her own place was high on her list of priorities. What had happened in Australia had a surreal quality, as though it happened to another person, while the real Susan had stayed and worked away in England.
A week after she came back a letter arrived, postmarked Australia, with David’s name and address on the back. She put it aside, unopened.
She and Anne were still good friends, but she felt their relationship had suffered from the little she said about Australia, particularly about her text message. She gave a half-baked, disinterested story, explaining it away as mere curiosity about something she read in an old paper while travelling. Perhaps Anne believed her, perhaps not, but it slid away. She told her little bits about the things she did in Sydney and Melbourne and this seemed to satisfy Anne’s need for an Australian story.
Susan was never highly regular with her periods; she remembered one in Sydney and started to expect one a couple weeks after she got back.
During all her time with Mark, after that first day in the sea, they had almost forgotten about contraception, the passion and ferocity of their lovemaking had been all-consuming.
She had half thought of it in Sydney, when her period came. Then it was with a mild sense of relief, as she thought, “Well I am clearly not pregnant.” But it had never led to any active planning by her when they met again. If the issue had been considered by Mark it was never raised.
After she was back for three weeks she had a definite feeling of unease, but thought, “Oh well, I am often a bit late.”
As her work was busy it was pushed aside.
Then, one Saturday morning, still in bed, she realised she was back for four weeks. It jumped to the top of her mind; it was now over six weeks since her last period. This was really abnormal.
Her mind screamed out, It can’t be true; as it filled with growing panic and disbelief at this possibility, her with his child inside.
She looked in the mirror at her naked body. Why had she not noticed before? It seemed like her breasts and nipples were starting to change, breasts softening, nipples enlarging and changing colour. At that point she knew what her mind was refusing to believe.
It was true. She was infected with the Devil’s Spawn. She was carrying Mark’s child.
This horror movie refused to end. She was trapped inside it. She had tried to excise it from her mind. Now it possessed her body instead.
A man is watching her, goddess like, as she stands by the beach. He will have her, he will charm her. She will come with him like others have before. She is a beautiful, an English visitor. She sees no danger. This man has a wildness that intrigues and captivates her. She does not see dark shadows beneath. She goes with him, surrendering to his charms. They travel to places where no other person goes. But, little by little his secrets must out. She finds others have been there before and no one knows where they are now. She discovers a hidden predator within. One with a love of those creatures which kill, huge and ancient crocodiles. Now she cannot leave him. She is trapped. This is a substantially revised version of the first book in the Crocodile Spirit Dreaming Series (previously titled 'Just Visiting"). This series tells the story of an English backpacker, Susan, who comes to Australia looking for an idyllic holiday but becomes trapped with the awful consequences of events she could never have imagined.