I walked home from the public swimming pool, having swum my mandatory forty laps. Thinking-time in the pool helped wash away my nights on call, if only to refresh me for the next. The clay path skirted the Todd’s dry riverbed, where I knew many of my Aboriginal patients camped—not that they were visible, except for the flicker of a campfire at night. They’d told me the coarse sand stayed warm, and with a few blankets and some grog onboard, the cold was not so bad. I hadn’t yet ventured into the riverbed; I felt threatened by the camp dogs and my fear of snakes.
Living in Alice, I missed the sight of water. On all the maps, the Todd River appeared as a great blue serpent winding its way through town and between the ranges. The reality was an expanse of dusty beige sand, lined by stands of river red gums. It was merely a promise of water that could not be quenched.
On a stinking hot afternoon, I had no objections to working in the emergency department; at least the hospital was air- conditioned. I would follow up all the patients whom the junior doctors had called me about overnight—a local bitten by a snake (he only went out to collect his washing); some youths ejected at high speed from a car near Tennant Creek; a young mother assaulted with a star picket; a child with an infected dog bite to her hand.
I was in the office when one of the nurses, Dianne, thrust an ECG before me. The heart tracing was perilously slow and deranged. ‘Whose is this?’ I asked her.
‘It’s Bundy’s.’ Dianne motioned with her thumb to the resuscitation bay.
Bundy Morgan had been brought in from a different riverbed, a community some 500 kilometres away. I walked over
I glimpse him from a distance, a Drizaboned mirage on the road. He tips his flask upside-down and his shoulders drop.
Do I stop? I shouldn’t leave him here.
My vehicle slides past. He is an iron statue, powder coated in russet. He makes no eye contact. I stop and check my rear-view mirror. Nothing but red dust haze.
The windscreen amplifies the sun. I emerge sweltering. My boots crunch on the gravel.
I hear a crow. Perched on the fragile limb of a solitary tree, clothed in black, it caws. “Waaa Waaa Waaaaaaaaaa.” It ruffles its feathers and stares.
I look back for the man. I can’t make out his silhouette.
My vision stretches across the featureless land. Death belongs out here and I pick up its stench before I see the evidence. Few remains are scattered, the trucks and birds having reduced the corpse to dust.
Outback Sentinel was runner-up in the Fellowship of Australian Writers (FAW) Microfiction Award – National Literary Awards 2015 “Outback Sentinel was remarkable for the writer’s ability to distil atmosphere using the sights and sounds of a deserted country road.” Lynn Smailes, FAW judge
Follow this link to my review of the U.S. band Calexico from Tucson, Arizona, who are currently on tour in Australia and New Zealand. I was lucky enough to see them twice, at Hamer Hall in Melbourne and Meeniyan Town Hall in South Gippsland, Vic.