The evening had begun its descent into a sepia haze as they drove the dirt track through low sparse scrub. A red cloud of dust rose around them, pummeled by the clatter of their tyres on the dry surface
The red kangaroo that bounded out of the undergrowth was enormous. It hit the grill with a trenchant thud and sprang all claws and massive thighs on to the shattered windscreen. The car swerved and rolled like a large toy until, with a savage jolt, it struck the wiry trunk of a Banksia. In this, Tony heard a bitter scream – it could have been his – and momentarily blacked out as his body was tossed about in his seat. His eyes opened to find himself squashed upside down, his head jammed against the ceiling amidst broken glass and the flaccid white of the airbag. He said,
“Katey! Katey! You alright?”
A feeble groan emanated from somewhere beside him. He was too slumped down to turn to see her, and some blood had trickled down his cheek into his left eye. He blinked to be rid of it, but his vision blurred to a watery red. He wondered how badly cut he was. He felt inside his body as best he could in his hunkered position, to see if he had suffered any great trauma, but was only able to register his knees pressing on to the underside – now the topside – of the dashboard.
He glanced out of the open side window at the spindly branches of the trees whose exiguous gnarled trunks were matted upon a darkening sky. He felt upwards for the seatbelt buckle and unclipped it, causing his head to slump further on to the ceiling and strain his neck. He reached out with his left arm to grasp for the passenger door and a savage shaft of pain tore through him. He swore, and twisted to grasp the door with his other hand. Hauling himself up slightly he edged through the window, the shards of windscreen and sharp rim of the door grating on his thin cotton shirt back. His feet fell with a painful thump on to the ceiling and he scrambled on his back to free himself from the wreckage.
Out at last he lay still and took a few breaths on the knobbly stones and night red dirt. Nothing seemed to be too broken, but his left arm hurt considerably, and he tasted blood from the cut on his face. He reached for it gingerly; it felt to his raked fingers like a long gouge, but not too deep.
He raised himself slowly, wincing when pointed stones bit into his hand while he levered himself up. He could stand at least, and he paused unsteadily as his vision reeled with the effort of getting up. The evening air at least was cool on his adrenalin hot body.
The underside of the car was all pipes and metal, with four black tyres mutely reaching from the upturned carapace like stumpy turtle feet. With his hand on the rim of the car he pushed through low sharp branches which scraped his back to check on his girlfriend Kate who had been driving. The door was jammed up against the tree, leaving no room to pull her out. He peered into the dim recess of the cabin and saw her crumpled body heaped in a contorted lump on the ceiling. Her eyes turned to him plaintively and she whispered “Tony.”
He reached in and touched her shoulder gently.
“Hon,” he said. “It’ll be okay. I’ll get you out, but I’ve got to move the car a bit to open the door.”
He tripped across the rocky ground to the far end of the vehicle and set his back against the scraped grey paintwork. With one foot against a tree and the other as securely on the ground as he could, he pushed as forcefully as his shaken muscles would allow, his face bulging with effort and blood seeping from the wound on his cheek. He groaned as he pushed and heard her cries of pain as the car moved slightly on the pivot of its roof. He checked the gap between passenger door and tree trunk and decided he needed to repeat the effort. Again he groaned with determination, and again she cried when the car moved. His left arm throbbed painfully and a mosquito buzzed about the sweat on his brow. Satisfied that he had made room to open the door, he inspected the darkening ground beneath him. Jagged rocks would make her extraction even more painful. So he flicked open the boot and watched its contents tumble out on to the ground. He quickly selected coats and a blanket and laid them next to the car door. He squatted down and said,
“I’m going to get you out now. You ready?” He saw her head nod and her eyes close in tears. He leant in to support her shoulders and pull her out slowly, and a shard of pain tore along his left arm. Gritting his teeth and panting, he fought it, and began lifting her through the window frame.
“Tony! Tony!” she called.
He looked in a saw the shin bone of her right leg protruding through her skin about to catch on the steering wheel. Blood covered her thigh, but nothing seemed to be pumping: no artery had been severed. He wanted to turn away, but knew he could not. He said,
“This is going to hurt. Sorry.”
Holding her back with his good arm, he reached in with his left to support her leg as he pulled her out slowly from under the steering wheel and through the window in a cramped and difficult manoeuvre. She screamed and he joined her as the pain in his left arm shot through his brain again.
She lay on the blanket breathing fitfully between sobs. Besides the fractured leg she had lacerations to her arms and face, and she complained in an agonised rasp that her chest hurt.
“Probably the seat belt sprained your ribs,” Tony said, and looked about himself to determine what to do now that Kate was out.
Night was forming, and with it came a chill. Kate shook, with shock and cold. Tony laid jackets over her to try to warm her. He cleaned her wounds gently with water from their drinking flask, and stared at the cracked and reddened bone projecting from the ruddy distended opening on her leg, like a clam choking on a spike. He was horrified, as much at his own ignorance of what to do as the sight itself. He retrieved a pillow from the back of the car and placed it under her leg. She gasped as he did so, but her back straightened, and he covered the wound in one of her soft cotton scarves to protect it from bugs.
Then he knelt down to retrieve their mobile phones lying amongst the litter in the upturned car. His was shattered and hers blank, out of charge. He swore, trying again and again to light a response from its blank stare. He tried his own, hoping for a response, but it too remained mute, a nighttime behind broken glass. He crawled into the car and found the charger cord. He tried to start the car but without success. It met his attempts with an insolent click. Not even the lights would fire.
This was real trouble. They were thirty kilometres out of the nearest town, on a little used dirt road, at night, where they had been travelling to a farm where no-one was expecting them. Now they had no contact with the outside world, no hope of an ambulance, or rescue, or respite from the fear and pain that was burgeoning before him. He stepped out on to the road. It lay dark and bottomless either side of him. No sound or light flickered. No car would come. Above, the night sky was vast and arrayed with a crystalline stillness. The Milky Way spun in a florid and motionless spiral, and reigned above the broad expanse of scrappy bushland in a rare and oppressive silence. The trees stood without expression, ghostly voyeurs of their fate.
He squatted next to Kate.
“Hon, we’re in a bit of a pickle. Your phone’s out of charge and mine is smashed. I can’t call an ambulance.” He took her hand. Tears welled in her eyes. “I’m sorry. I mean, I could try walking back in to town, which is, what, thirty kilometres. That’d be six hours at best. Or I could walk to the farm and get a quad bike to drive you to town. It’d be five hours before I got back, assuming I could find the quad keys. There are farms further up, but I don’t know how far. Truth is though, I don’t think I should leave you. Someone might drive by with any luck.”
How long was it til dawn, he thought, eight hours, maybe.
“Please don’t leave me,” she whispered. He lifted her hand slowly to his lips and kissed her fingers. They left dirt and blood on his lips.
“That’s settled then,” he said. He looked into her eyes and smiled. She returned the compliment. “I’ll make a fire, that’ll keep us warm.”
He retreated momentarily to the car to fetch another of her cotton scarves and fashioned a sling for his aching left arm. Then he stepped over to the shoulder of the road again and cleared a space with his shoes. He scoured the vicinity for firewood as best he could in the diminished light, sorting dirt from wood by kicking the ground in front of him. With one kick he winced as his shoe clashed with a stubborn mound. He leaned in closely and noticed it was a large red kangaroo, quite possibly the one they hit. Its snout lay bizarrely twisted from its body, and its dark empty eyes captured something of the starlight behind him.
He found matches and newspaper amongst the jumble from the car boot and piled it with the kindling at the road’s edge. It flew into flames, yellow and black shadowed, and he used its light to locate more substantial pieces of wood. Larger logs were more sparsely located about them and he breathed heavily as he forced dry twisted branches through the spiky undergrowth. Some he placed on the fire.
When satisfied he had enough, he sat down beside Kate. The heat from the fire reached across the little expanse and buffeted his cheeks.
“Warmer?” he asked. She nodded, almost imperceptibly, with her lips clamped tight.
“My caveman skills are still good,” he said.
He looked about them. Shadows flickered about the scrub like darting lizards, momentarily animating a tree or a branch, before abandoning them to the black pool of night. One time the inert back of the dead kangaroo threatened to jump up again, caught in a short frenzy of flame light.
“You alright?” he asked. “Leg not too bad? I should get you some Panadol. We packed some in the car.” He motioned to rise, but she held his knee in a weakened gesture.
“No? Okay then,” he said.
She breathed in short and shallow breaths, with pauses between each breath. Like a heart pump, he thought. The shadows danced across them, like fleeting pixies in the opaque land. He looked in the direction of her leg beneath the scarf. It cast no shadow.
Apart from her breathing and the snap of wood in the fire, the world about him was quiet. There was no breeze, and the smoke from the fire rose directly skyward from the flames, leaving unaffected the sweet aroma of the earth, the resin in the trees and split bark and dry detritus on the red ground. This air was all encompassing. It formed the spaces between them, between the trees and rocks and leaves and stumps and the beveled ochre dirt of the road. It was the void that reached the sky, an immanence lit by a trail of starlight in the far distance above them. When he breathed in, he felt its passing touch, a moment’s sparse contact with the arcane, redolent with life and emptiness. He heard himself breathe, and Kate in her intermittent shallowness, and spread his mute gaze about the canvass of dark earth and night cavorting in the shadows.
He turned to her.
“I’m sorry,” he said. “I’m sorry we were arguing. You know, I can’t even remember what about. Was it the creases on my shirt front?” She lifted her hand to his knee.
“You’ re a beautiful woman, Katey. You know that, or you should. I need to say it more often. You are wonderful to be with.” He looked at her fingers on his knee. “We’ll get you through this. The fire will keep us warm and someone will come along the road. We’ll be right.”
He prodded the fire with a long stick and sparks rose like a hive of vanishing bees. He shifted slightly in his position, causing a shard of pain to light in his arm. He grimaced and it was gone.
“The things I like about Kate,” he said. “That’s what we can talk about. The great things about you.” He looked down at her. Her eyes were closed. “First up, her smile. I think that’s what got me in. When you smile it lights up your face, and everyone else’s. We feel better for seeing your smile. Like the world’s a better place.”
He saw a fragile smile trip across her lips.
“You see, there it is. As bright as sunlight. And already I feel better. Number two: your presence. Your spirit, your joie de vivre, whatever the word is. When we first met you were with Karen and Sam and wearing jeans, t-shirt, suede jacket and one of your scarves you always wear and you were smiling and you were there. And I thought, yep, I’d like to find out more about this chick. And you’re still here. I’m a lucky bloke. The boys always josh me about you, you know. They always say I’m punching way above my own weight, and they’re not wrong, I got the better bargain.”
He paused a while to check the fire had enough wood. The flames on the larger pieces had dwindled and sprang nimbly along the topside of the charred surface. Brilliant embers dropped crimson and orange into the ash heap at the base of the fire. Its heat was constant on his front, although a frisson of a chill ran across his back.
“Number three: you like being with me. Well, you seem to. Maybe you just put up with me, I don’t know. I love our time together. I enjoy the stuff we do, our travels, the bush walking, our weeks on the farm. I’m a practical sort of bloke. I can fix leaky taps and broken fences and fires. So I’m sorry if I don’t express my feelings as much as you’d like. I’ll try more after this.”
He stopped and listened to her breathing. It was still fitful, but now the intakes of breath had increased in rapidity, and were repeated five or six times before a long pause.
“Can I get you anything?” he asked. “Water? Pain relief?” She moved her head to indicate no, and squeezed his hand a little. Something rustled in the bushes. He looked around but saw nothing. All was still again.
He rose and placed another piece of timber on the fire. It sizzled briefly as if welcoming a new occupant. A chunk of wood fell from another piece that had been burning for a while. He stood on the road and looked up and down. Blackness barred each end. They were the only ones in this little world, cornered by the flickering fire, book ended by darkness, a deep canopy of night air astride them. The shadows were less active now, and a constant glow adorned the lower trunks of trees and undergrowth. The body of the kangaroo was partially visible in the light. His arm throbbed when he bent to tend to the fire.
“I’m not thinking about what time it is,” he said when he sat down next to Kate again. “That’ll make dawn come faster.” Kate gave a rattle like cough, as if gagging and stopped breathing.
“Katey? Katey?” He touched her arm. There was no response. He nudged her. Still nothing. “Oh my god,” he said. “Katey!”
He knelt over her and put his ear to her mouth. He felt nothing, but did not know what he expected to feel. He glanced at her body laid out in the orange light of the fire, and pushed his mouth against her lips. He had no idea how hard to blow, so forced the air from his lungs into her mouth. There was a gargling sound and a spurt of blood bounced into his mouth. Revolted, he turned and spat it out, groaning at the repulsiveness of it. He thought I have to do this. He tried again, with the same result. He spat out the bloody effluence and cried out, thumping his knee with his right fist, and rose to try CPR. Using his right arm he plunged down on to her, straight arm on slim chest. It offered no resistance, but was sponge like, as if all her ribs had softened. And when he pushed again more blood gurgled up from her open lips and spattered her cheeks in dark splotches of shadowy red. He pushed one more time with no response and fell back on to his knees. Tears emerged fitfully on to his cheeks, like newborn cubs on their first time out of the den. He sniffed and wiped them off with his fingers. More appeared. He fought them back through gritted teeth and heavy breath. He crawled forward and wiped the blood off her cheek, and lay next to her, caressing her face with his hand and kissing her hair as the tears seeped from him in the hiddenness of night.
Some while later he rose, chilled to the bone. His legs were stiff and his arm roared with pain. The cold cut his ribs and his back was numb. The fire was almost out. He hurriedly placed kindling and new wood on it, and coaxed it back to life by blowing on it. The flames jumped again and threw the shadows about the space around him, and he stood and warmed his hands and legs as it rose in strength, the bush dancing on the periphery of his vision.
Certain of its viability, and somewhat rewarmed, he walked around the far side of the car to search for painkillers for his arm. Fumbling in the dark he swallowed two pills using a drink bottle from the car. Then he returned to his girlfriend.
He stood above her, in the yellow crackling of the fire and the amplified silence of the night. She lay like a frail thing, a creature just arrived but wounded. Her face was impassive, her eyes were closed, and her mouth ajar, as if about to remark on something and smile. Her magnificent smile. The light and shadows played across her cheeks, strange attendants to her distress. She was as immovable as the cold earth beneath her.
He turned his gaze to the black scrub and listened to his own breathing as if to make sure he was still alive. It was shaken and jittery, but unimpeded and regular. The bush was unmoving, trees like dumb dark sentinels of no remorse. The dead kangaroo occupied a corner of the shadows. The air abounded in the night, sombre, cold and glowing.
He reached behind his neck and undid the knot of his sling. He walked over to Kate and lay her hands across her chest, and gently placed the scarf over her face. He stood back and regarded her with a taut face.
The scarves on her legs and face, and the coats in between, were a winding sheet, a funerary shroud over her frail form. The collars on the coats were shaped by the dim light of the fire into wreaths placed in memory of what was and what was forsaken. She was coffin like, a space and substance formed by flesh and bone, broken and listless, leaden and light. She was anything now. She was the firelight playing at her side. She was the rocks, stapled to the dry earth. She was the air, slim, fine and vacant. She was the ground, a termite mound, a dense pack of mordant and benighted flesh. She was the inescapable presence of the void, here, gone, yesterday and the coming morning. She was with him and away, away to the earth, the trees, the fire, the sky. He looked up to where the Milky Way dwelt in extraordinary distances from them, in clouds of star white, fire and coloured light. A shooting star flashed across his line of sight and was gone, leaving the stars, the night, the teeming air and the wild silent world like minions at its feet.
He sat down on the rise of dirt that some time ago had been bulldozed to the edge of the road. His hips sank into the dirt. It was cool. The fire gristled in front of him and he lay his sore arm on his knee and stared in to the embers.
Fierce thoughts rattled in his mind. Their hopeless situation, the bitterness of loss. He tried to think about what he should do next, but could not find the resolve to focus. He knew she was there, not far from him. He knew the kangaroo was over there, a little way off. He knew the fire would die if he did not replenish it, and he would be very cold. That was his first task, his only task really, to heap wood upon the embers and bring the fire back to crackling life.
That done he sat down again, but further away as the fire flared. He watched the flames savage the new timbers and send grey lit smoke spiralling into the abyss above them. He cradled his arm. The Panadol had relieved the background ache, but any movement triggered a sharp reaction. He had no idea of the time. He could eat, he told himself, but he had no appetite. Kate was a good cook. She smiled when she cooked. She did things with grains and lots of greens. “Greens are good for you,” she’d declare and rip spinach or kale or some such thing into a platter with chickpeas and pomegranate seeds and goodness knows what to create a flavour that fair jumped in the mouth. He’d say, “I’m a steak and chips man,” and then devour what she made. She was great at most things.
She added decorations when she moved in with him. She’d gather dry driftwood and things like that which became a table display. She made the bed. He bought her flowers, which she arranged with a deft touch. She wrote thank you notes. Arriving home from work she’d toss of her shoes and declare “Well, that was a day!” and kiss him sweetly on the lips. It marked a border between work and them. Invariably her face was framed by one of her many cotton scarves, its threads dangling across her chest, dancing as she moved. He liked that. It reminded him of those renaissance ruffs. It accentuated her presence. It said, here’s my face, my smile, my shining eyes.
She was a looker too. He had no problem watching her move about the house. She’d lie on the bed and captivate him with the landscape of her body, the muscular incline of her back and the smooth mounds of her buttocks like dunes rising from the sheets. She’d pretend to be unaware of his gaze, and look up at him and ask “What?”. God only knows what she saw in him. She could have had anybody. There were plenty more blokes richer and better looking than he. Maybe she just wanted a rock. A tap fixing, hammer wielding, spider catching (“Don’t kill it!”) handyman.
“You’re easy to be with” she said once, when they skipped naked down from the farm house across the prickly grass patch to the dam, in the hot sun. Mud between their toes, the water breath-catching, the dam was deep enough in the centre to swim in. She duck dived, two buttocks flashing a quick hello and her head appeared above the flat surface, her smile broad and rich beneath a torrent of wet hair. It was as if the whole dam was one of her scarves. Her skin was alive and vital under the surface, and they held each other and turned and rolled about kissing and laughing and her squealing.
The world seemed topsy-turvy as they played, sometimes up and sometimes down. They were in a cup, the dam was an enormous cup of water and they were upside down in it, with the blue evening advancing above and below them. Water in his eyes glistened like stars and she called out to him “Tony, Tony!” and he saw her duck dive again back up into the bottom of the cup. He followed her, reaching for the white kick of her heel but missed and he dropped to the surface for air. When she called again he turned but did not see her. He called back,” Kate! Kate!”, but she did not answer. The water began to tremble, rocking him back and forth, as if a clothes washer had been turned on at the top of the dam. He called out again “Kate! Kate! Are you inside?”
The rocking grew more violent and a shock of pain shot though his arm and head. He heard a man’s voice,
“Mate, mate, are you alive?”
The bright sun bit into his eyes as he emerged heavy headed and sweaty from his dream. He saw a man leaning over him, a round sunburnt face, a moustache and a flurry of sandy curls squeezed into the brim of a broad hat.
“Are you okay?” the man was saying.
Tony pressed his fingers into his eye sockets and grimaced. His mouth was sand dry. Pain thundered in his arm. He licked his lips and managed to say,
“Yeah, I’m still here.”
“Oh thank god,” said the man. “I was driving along here and saw you and – all this – and I thought, well I hope this one’s okay. Name’s Kevin. Can you sit up, or stand? Let me give you a hand.”
He went to take Tony’s left hand, but he recoiled as another burst of pain struck him. The man named Kevin straightened.
“What’s up? Broken?”
Tony lay back on the dirt and shielded his eyes from the sun with his right hand.
“I think so.”
“What else ya got?
Tony indicated the cut on his cheek.
“That’s dried up pretty well,” Kevin said. “Might leave a bit of scar though. Anything else?’
Tony shook his head. Kevin squatted down beside him. He noticed the dirt ringed in Kevin’s round finger nails, black against the clean khaki of his shirt.
“Tell you what,” he was saying. “let’s get you sitting up. I’ll get you some water, and then we can start getting this sorted out. Yeah?”
Tony nodded and the man said “You take care of your arm, and I’ll hoist you up from behind. Ready?”
Kevin felt two sturdy hands reach behind him and lift his back. He hung on to his broken arm and bore the pain of movement with clenched teeth. His head spun and thumped inside his skull.
“You steady now?” said Kevin. Tony let his head fall between his legs and nodded a dull yes. His eyes followed Kevin as he walked over the red road to a ute parked on the side.
“I assume you hit gigantor over there. Monster of a roo. I mean, really huge. Must have come right at yer.”
Kevin was close again and a small plastic drink bottle appeared before him. “Here, drink this.”
Tony put the bottle to his lips and swallowed its contents voraciously, the thin plastic crackling under his grip as he inhaled the last few drops. He turned to Kevin and said,
“Thanks. What time is it?”
Tony squeezed his eyes shut briefly and exhaled. He looked around him. The trees were green again, with their sharp leaves and needles basking in the morning sun. The sky a radiant blue behind them. The dirt road was a strip of ochre sand muddled with cream gravel. He heard Kevin say,
“I’m sorry your lady friend didn’t make it.”
His lady friend. Tony inhaled deeply as a flood of grief suddenly broke within him, and all that had happened the night before tumbled upon him. The night fell upon him, the roo, the spin, the stars, the fire, the pain, Kate lying there, the hot dreams. He crushed the flimsy drink bottle in his fist and sobbed, his head bowed between his knees, and watched as the ember red dirt at his feet darkened with his tears. He wept in great gulping bursts for all that had happened and would happen, the accident, the loss of her, his rescue and all that would come, the future memories, her family, and the unimaginable endlessness of her absence. He heard Kevin’s voice behind him on a mobile phone,
“Ambulance. About 30 k’s up Palmer’s Rd, just past Jack’s Flat. Hit a roo sometime last night. Two. One injured, one deceased.”