Part FiveBack To The Community
Billy had just stepped out of the shower. He had never felt so clean in his entire life. His last shower had been just before going to his buck’s party and this was his first serious attempt at cleanliness since then. It had been a huge relief to peel off his clothes and get totally naked. He hadn’t thought that just standing under a steady flow of water could be so uplifting. In the backyard Doug had told him how traditionally they had never washed with water. It was much too precious. They had used smoke. Billy decided that there were some things he could do without but a refreshing shower wasn’t one of them. When he eventually finished showering he felt like a new man and was firm in the opinion that smoke just couldn’t equate to water. The supply of hot water hadn’t lasted very long, though, before it had plummeted in temperature. This hadn’t deterred him and he had let the cold water flow over him until shivering had set in. He had stepped out only when the clattering of his teeth had begun to strain his jaw.
He stood dripping on the tiled floor with his eyes closed and waited until the heat of his surroundings began to elevate his body temperature. Eventually he stopped shaking. Only then did he open his eyes. Looking down at his naked body he decided his first task should be to search for a new set of underwear. Rob had lent him some clothing but underwear was one item which Billy considered should remain exclusive to the individual who wore it. He didn’t feel it was the sort of thing you shared. Pangs of hunger suddenly pierced his stomach. Food, as usual, was his first concern. He relegated the search for fresh underwear to a minor priority and decided to go without it for the time being. He added it to the mental list of problems he still had to solve. He dressed himself and set about scraping something together to eat. From previous experience he knew the cabin had nothing to offer. He made up his mind to see if he could find something appetising at the general store.
Upon stepping out of the cabin Billy was enveloped by a cacophony of noise. It was early morning and thousands of birds were heralding the day. The bush had come alive. Billy marvelled at the sound. On exiting the cabin on his first morning, everything had seemed so dry and lifeless. It was as if without the scorching, midday rays of the sun everything had come out of hiding and felt free to express itself. The noise represented life itself. It was certainly thriving here. He stopped and listened, letting the warbling and chattering flow over him. It was invigorating. It gave him energy.
The ground beneath his sneakers was still cold from the night before and a chill rose up his legs. A crisp breeze played over his skin, making the hairs on his arms stand up. He stepped forward into a corridor of sunshine which was cutting its way between the cabins. He turned his face towards the light source. Its brightness made him squint but it failed to provide much warmth. It had yet to make its impression on the day. He rubbed and shook his arms. He jumped up and down on the spot. His blood began to circulate but he wasn’t rewarded with an elevation in body temperature. He blew warm air into the palms of his hands, checked his bearings and moved off towards the shop.
Billy strode immediately to the rear of the store and stood in front of the freezers, whereupon he lost his momentum. He stared at the glass doors and was once again racked by thoughts of his predicament. He wasn’t entirely sure why he had come back to the community or what he was going to do with his time there. He watched the icy water running in rivulets down the inside of the doors. At least the water had a purpose, he mused. It was going somewhere, even if it only ended up in a puddle gathering at the bottom of the freezer. Every droplet would find its way there eventually. Compared to him, the droplets had it all sorted out. They at least knew where they were going. He, on the other hand, felt no nearer his target. Whatever that was.
He stood deep in thought for a time, mulling over his situation and gazing glassy eyed at the freezers. After a moment he pushed the thoughts aside. He shook his head, trying to clear them from his consciousness. He didn’t have any answers and it was pointless to get bogged down. He brought his eyes into focus and took a closer look at his reflection in the glass. The swelling on his face had subsided. Before stepping into the shower he had removed his bandages and hadn’t bothered to replace them. He pressed his index finger gently around the wound on his forehead. It still hurt. At least now it looked better than it felt. He guessed it would take a few days before it completely cleared up. He was pretty sure he wouldn’t have any permanent scarring.
‘Did you find it?’
‘Your way home.’
Billy spun around. Doris stood a few steps away with a smile upon her face.
‘No. Not yet.’
Doris scrutinised his face.
‘Looks like you’ve been in the wars.’
Billy dropped his hand self-consciously from his forehead.
‘You might say that.’
‘Yeah, you need to be bit careful with those fellas in Alice.’
‘You heard what happened?’
‘A little bit. Mabel told me. Don’t really need to know the details, though. It’s one reason we keep it dry around here. The grog has done a lot of damage in the past.’
Billy nodded solemnly.
So, have you decided what y’ gonna do?’
‘Maybe you should hook up with some of the boys. You already seem to be getting on pretty well with Rob. They can show you around and we can always use a bit of help around here. We’ve also got a bit of a cattle station which needs managing. Maybe you can help out with that.’
Billy was indeed getting to know Rob and realised he at least had a starting point. The idea of working a cattle farm was completely foreign to him, though, and he assumed he would require some basic stockman experience. He also cringed when he remembered their laughing at the announcement that he was an accountant and didn’t think they would have much faith in his rural abilities.
‘Don’t know that I’ll be much good doing that. Can’t say that I’ve ever been on horse and I can’t speak cow.’
‘No worries. I’m sure you’ll pick it up. You got this far, didn’t you?’
Yes, thought Billy. He had made some progress. He was capable of adapting to something new. Doris’s words buoyed his confidence. He took a deep breath and puffed out his chest.
‘Yeah, you’re right.’
Doris’s face lit up watching Billy’s posture change.
‘Tell you what, if you ever just wanna chat, you come and see me. I’m in the house at the end of the street and my door is always open.’
Billy smiled in gratitude.
‘Maybe you should just start by getting your bearings a bit. If you go behind the big hall out back of the shop here, you’ll find a path. If you follow it, it’ll take you up the hill behind the town. There’s a great view from up there.’
‘Thanks, I’ll do that.’
‘And once you’re up there, you can follow the path a bit further. It leads to a little waterhole. It’s kind of a sacred place for us. I don’t have time today but maybe later in the week I can show you around up there. One of the boys can do it too, of course.’
‘That would be great.’
‘Good. Like I said, I’ve got some things to do. Gonna have to be getting off. You have fun exploring, ok?’
Billy felt the urge to shake her hand, or perhaps even give her a hug. He was so grateful to have some purpose again. He had to stop himself. He barely knew the woman. He settled for a broad smile and a nod. ‘Thanks, I will.’
Doris walked down the aisle towards the cash register. Billy quickly scoured the shop for some basic supplies, eventually settling on some eggs and bread. He would make himself a decent breakfast and then follow Doris’s advice and climb the hill. He completely forgot about his underwear situation. After paying for his shopping he stepped out into the street. Looking to his right and down towards the end he saw a well-maintained house with a collection of flowering shrubs in front of it. Doris was climbing the stairs onto its verandah. She turned, saw him standing there and gave him a friendly wave. He overzealously returned the gesture and then felt self-conscious that he was being a little too enthusiastic. She acknowledged his wave and gestured up and towards his right. Billy turned back and looked where she was indicating. A hill rose steeply behind the shop. He looked back down the street to thank Doris but she had already gone into her house. He shrugged and with a renewed lightness in his stride made his way back to the cabin.
Billy wandered up the hill behind the town. The dirt road narrowed until it became a small track, only wide enough for one person to traverse. The bush on either side closed in around him and blocked his view of the surrounding landscape. Slowly the track became steeper and he was climbing up, away from the desert floor. At some point the scrub thinned out and was gradually replaced with rock. Billy stopped for a moment to catch his breath. He was glad he had made himself a decent meal. The exertion of the climb was starting to sap his energy. He turned and looked behind him. He could now see the town in its entirety below him. It was incredibly small. A jumble of little white houses, their corrugated-iron roofs glinting in the sun. He could make out the main street, carving its way through the centre of the town before coming to an abrupt halt at a house to his right, on the edge of the town. Doris’s dwelling. To his left it exited the town and stretched in a straight line away from him and far into the distance before being swallowed up by the bush. He now had a better overview of where he was. The town was nestled at the foot of a low mountain range and on the edge of a wide plain. In the distance he could see another line of hills running parallel to those he was presently on. It was as if the town lay in an enormous river bed. A wide, expansive river that stretched almost as far as the eye could see. Billy recalled reading that at one time the centre of Australia had been inundated by an inland sea. Looking at the vista before him he could clearly visualise the whole place under water. The hill he was climbing had perhaps once been a steep river bank. What existed now was another story. Even with the recent heavy rains everything still appeared brown and burnt. It all looked so incredibly dry and shimmered in the merciless heat. He looked down at his feet and was surprised to see wild flowers growing on the side of the track. Their vivid colours sprang out of their dry, brown surroundings. Clearly the rain had penetrated deep enough into the hard soil to provide nourishment for whatever lay beneath. It had revived this new vegetation from its dormant state. He looked out across the plain once more. He squinted. On closer inspection he could make out splashes of colour emerging from the brown palate. The desert was coming to life. Maybe it wasn’t as inhospitable as he had first assumed.
Billy continued up the hill. It was just before midday and the heat and the climb swiftly took their toll. The exertion depleted him of all his energy and he was relieved when the path dived into a narrow crevice, shaded by steep cliff faces on either side. He had set out entirely unprepared. He had no food or water, but going back straight away wasn’t an option. First he would need to find a place to rest. He forged on further. The scrub gradually melted away, revealing only bare rock. The crevice slowly opened out and he found himself standing in a large, natural amphitheatre. It was sheltered on all sides by high, craggy rock faces. The ground beneath his feet was also solid rock and devoid of vegetation. It was polished smooth, with gentle undulations. Water lay in small pockets where the rock floor was more deeply eroded. Beneath a sheer cliff face in the far corner Billy could see a pond. It was bordered with low bushes. He stumbled over the uneven ground towards it. Upon reaching it he saw it was a lot larger than he had expected. The pond extended out to one side of the enclosed area through another break in the rocks. Although he could see no movement on its surface Billy assumed it was a natural catchment where the water had run down from the rocks around the corner. He was parched and covered in sweat. There was a large opening between the bushes and the rocky floor sloped down into the pond. He walked down the slope and knelt beside the pond. Leaning over the water he cupped his hands and dipped them into it. He splashed some of it into his face before throwing some down his dry throat. It was cool and refreshing.
All of a sudden an uncomfortable feeling swept over him and a cold shiver ran down his spine. He sensed that he was no longer alone. Billy raised his gaze and to his surprise saw Pidgin sitting on a small ledge protruding out of the rock face above the water. He stared directly at Billy and was almost within arm’s reach. Billy sucked in his breath and scampered quickly backwards, away from the water’s edge and onto the dusty surface of the rock floor. Billy looked up again at Pidgin and their eyes met. Billy felt drawn into them. He shifted position. Moving slightly forward towards Pidgin on his hands and knees, he stopped and sat back on his ankles. Their eyes remained locked. Billy focussed solely on Pidgin’s pupils, which even in the daylight glowed strangely. Everything else in his field of vision blurred and melted away until Billy saw only those eyes. A voice in his head softly told him to close his eyes. Billy obeyed. His entire body went limp and his head slumped forward, his chin coming to rest upon his chest.
A myriad of images flickered rapidly through his mind. It was as if a camera was taking snapshots with a flash. Each time there was a spark of light an image sprang out at him. They began in rapid succession, flowing by as in a flip book. The images flashed by as if spat out by an old slide projector, before slowing and gradually coming to rest on a single image. Billy began to perceive movement within the stationary image, like a fragment of film. This was not only a visual experience; there were other sensory attributes. He could taste and smell and feel. The film played out for a short period, followed by another rapid burst of images. They slowed again, settled on a solitary image, and another little film followed. This sequence repeated itself.
In the first ‘movie’ that played out in Billy’s head he saw a woman lying in a hospital bed. She was in excruciating pain. She writhed on the bed and bared her teeth. Although he could hear no sound he saw that she was screaming. Suddenly he dived into her body and was plunged into darkness. He could no longer see but could feel the body he was in. He felt pain and was overwhelmed by her agony. It cut through him. He opened his mouth and tried to scream but couldn’t. The wave of torment momentarily subsided. Everything went calm, and he felt the soft kick of a baby in her belly. Before he had time to soak up this feeling, he was jerked out of its brief respite and racked by another wave of pain. It flowed through her entire body, but the source of her suffering was not the baby. Running through her body he sensed another affliction which he couldn’t quite place. Before he had a chance to consider this he was wrenched back out of her body and became detached from it. Once again he was just an observer. He caught a good look at her face. It was familiar. He was shocked to recognise his mum.
Across the water Pidgin sat calmly on his ledge and watched Billy closely. Billy’s eyelids fluttered rapidly and his body jerked. He rocked backwards and forwards on his knees, occasionally lifting himself off his haunches. His sneakers scraped on the rocks as his body snapped this way and that, producing a soft swishing sound. Every now and then he grunted faintly or muttered something to himself. An outside observer would have assumed that he was having some form of seizure. Apart from these muted sounds there was complete silence in the amphitheatre. Even the wind seemed to have stopped blowing.
The first image evaporated and was replaced by another. Following a bright flash of light, he saw the rising mushroom cloud of an atomic explosion. It immediately dissipated and was obscured by a burgeoning pall of black mist. His view swung from the growing mist to a clear view of the ground directly below him. He was hovering above an enormous crater filled with water. On the edge he could make out a small group of people. It was a family consisting of two adults and two children. They were accompanied by three dogs. Around the crater he could see a number of animal corpses. The bodies fanned out in all directions. His attention was drawn to a rising cloud of dust in the distance. It was trailing a line of motor vehicles which were heading directly towards the crater. Suddenly he was blinded by water gushing in his face. The flow stopped as suddenly as it started and he realised he was looking through someone else’s eyes. They were looking at themselves in a full length mirror. He was in the body of another woman. She was naked, and cowered against a white, tile wall. Her fear was palpable. It permeated him to the point that he feared for his own life. His heart beat faster.
There was a sudden flash of light and he looked at his hands. However, they were not his hands. These hands were calloused and tough, not soft and manicured like his own. A heavy chain with large links lay across them. There was a sudden jerk on the chain and he felt as if he were choking. He gripped it with both hands and was dragged forward. His eyes followed the now taut chain. It ran up the back of a naked Aboriginal man and was attached to his neck. The carrier of the chain swung his head around. He opened his mouth to yell. Billy saw the butt of a rifle descend towards the man’s head and with it a sheet of darkness.
Again there was a bright flash and suddenly he was underground. He watched a teenager crawling on his stomach through a tunnel. The tunnel was tight and claustrophobic, and the boy stopped for a moment and began scraping at its walls. Another flash and he was looking down on a huge gathering of people. He pulled up and away from the scene. There were pockets of people bunched in small groups around campfires. One fire was especially large and a group of men danced wildly around it. He was swamped by happiness. A smile spread across his face.
Peering down at Billy from the ledge Pidgin imitated him. His beard parted to expose a set of bright white teeth with a centre incisor missing.
There was another flash followed by pitch darkness. Billy heard the sound of approaching horses’ hoofs, pounding on soft sand. There was a lot of screaming and a peculiar, acrid smell. It was if someone was having a barbecue but had splashed too much fuel on the fire. The smell bit into his nostrils. He choked on his own bile and involuntarily coughed. He grunted and cleared his throat. Overwhelming sorrow swept over him. It took his breath away.
There was a final, bright flash of light and Billy’s eyes snapped open involuntarily. At first he saw nothing. His chest heaved and tears streamed down his face. They rolled off his chin, the droplets falling between his knees, slapping the rocks and raising small puffs of dust. He struggled vainly to calm himself before relenting and giving in to the feeling. He lurched forward onto his hands and knees. He curled his hands into fists, scraping his nails on the rocky floor. He arched his spine and drew back his head. A low whine rose in his throat, slowly growing in pitch and volume before unleashing itself as a bloodcurdling howl. It echoed off the circumjacent cliff faces and reverberated savagely back at him. It battered him on all sides. Incredible pain racked his body. He felt the agony of thousands of people, all crying out at once. He felt their fear and hardship. He was overwhelmed.
After a moment the feeling subsided and his head dropped forward. Most of the sorrow flowed out of him. He was relieved to let it go, although it didn’t completely desert him. Some of it lingered. It gnawed at his chest. His hearing slowly tuned in to the sound of his own weeping, which brought him back from his semi-dream state. He sobbed loudly a few times and then stopped. There was only the sound of a gentle breeze in the trees. It hissed through the leaves and he heard the call of a solitary galah in the distance. Billy took a deep breath. He breathed in through his nose and choked on snot. He savagely spat it out and switched to breathing through his mouth. A calm gradually settled over him. He opened his eyes and stared down at his teardrops in the dust before raising himself up and sitting back on his haunches.
He looked across the water to the cliff face in front of him. The wall of stone was almost completely covered in handprints. The hands themselves were in the negative: they weren’t painted but were outlined in a spray of red ochre. There must have been the prints of several generations on the wall. Pidgin was nowhere to be seen.
Billy gingerly stood and dusted off his knees. In complete silence and still in a trance he walked away from the waterhole and retraced his steps down the hill and back to the town. All the while he had the feeling that someone was behind him. He could almost feel their warm breath on his neck and felt as if eyes were burning a hole between his shoulder blades. He didn’t dare look back.
Upon reaching the cabin he was totally exhausted and could barely walk. He was thankful that the town was so quiet and that he hadn’t encountered anyone. He couldn’t face talking to anyone. He needed time to process everything.
With some difficulty he opened the door and went inside, dragging it shut behind him with a satisfying click. For a moment he leant against the door, unsure where he was. He scanned the room and took some consolation in its familiarity. His eyes settled on the bed. He went directly to it and climbed in, clothes and all. He pulled the blanket up over his head, leaving a small gap through which to breathe. He closed his eyes and almost immediately fell into a deep sleep. His slumber was punctuated with the same vivid images he had seen at the waterhole. No one disturbed him and it was the following morning before he awoke.
Billy stared at the photograph. It was just like looking in the mirror. The face in the middle of the picture was practically his own. He checked his reflection in an adjacent window before looking at it again. Even the eyes of the subject in the photo were strangely familiar. They jumped out at him and everything else around them blurred.
The photo was old, very old. It was fading and two of its opposing edges were curling up out of its frame. It was mounted on a wall that evidently received a lot of sunlight. A broad yellow line ran through the centre of the photo where it had caught the most sun. Under the curled edges it still maintained the full spectrum of black, white and grey. At the moment it rested in the shadows. The sun had not yet fully illuminated the room.
Billy had hitched a ride with Rob to a slightly larger community further down the main road. He said he had some errands to run and had set Billy down near an old missionary church. He told him to have a look around. The place seemed deserted and Billy had invited himself inside through the open front doors. It was late in the morning and the heat of the day hadn’t yet taken hold. The interior of the church was cool, almost like a cave, built as it was from solid stone. Fine dust played in the growing streams of sunlight filtering through its stained-glass windows.
In the photo were four figures, a man, a woman and two children, a boy and a girl. The girl was very young, about three years of age. She held onto the woman’s hand and looked up at her. The woman looked back down at her. The boy was on his knees, playing in the sand with a short stick. The man was the only one looking at the camera. He wasn’t just looking; he was staring. He glared straight down the barrel of the lens and through the portrait maker. It was unnerving. Billy had a curious feeling that the man was looking straight at him. He self-consciously looked behind himself to check that no one was standing behind him. He was alone.
The man wore an enormous grin. He exuded happiness and his smile was infectious. Billy involuntarily emulated the smile and a grin cut across his face. He checked the reflection of this new pose in the window. The resemblance was uncanny. He peered deeper into the picture and could just make out the outline of another figure behind the family. It was barely discernible, just the outline of a human shape. It blended into the trees in the background. Only one feature stood out, and that was a long, flowing beard. Billy blinked and refocused but the figure wasn’t any clearer. He couldn’t be certain if it was a trick of the light and the shadows of the trees, or if there was really a fifth person in the portrait. The intense staring hurt his eyes and he relaxed his gaze. He massaged his eyes with the backs of his hands.
The photograph made Billy consider what he had. All the trappings he had left at home seemed to have little worth now. The people in the picture clearly had very little. Just the basics; not even clothing. However, they appeared to be entirely content. The man’s smile confirmed this. Over the past days Billy had adapted to similar conditions. He had shed all his belongings, except for the clothes on his back. He no longer had to contend with the day-to-day pressures of the city. He didn’t even feel the urge to go back. He wondered what he had been doing all the time down there anyway. There didn’t seem any point to it all. Take one day at a time. He didn’t need more. He had enough right where he was.
He scrutinised the photo closely again. This time he focused on the woman. Billy caught his breath. He knew her. He was certain she was the same woman he had seen in his vision at the waterhole. The woman in the mirror, racked by fear. However, unlike the image in his head, she was untroubled, relaxed and serene. He was unsure if he was looking at the same person. He became confused, questioning his own sanity. What was going on? Who were these people? He looked again. There seemed to be a family resemblance, not only to the man but also the girl. She reminded him of the photos he had seen of his mother. He could barely remember her in real life. The only physical evidence he had of her were a few photographs. He had no real, firsthand experience of her. He again regretted knowing so little about her. He looked around the photo for a caption or explanation of who the people were. There was nothing. He moved around the room and looked at the other photos. There was quite a collection. Some had dates, mostly from the early nineteen thirties, but they provided no clue as to who the people posing in them were. Eventually he was drawn back to the first one. He stood and stared at it for a long time. He made a mental note to ask Doug about it the next time he saw him. Maybe he could provide some answers.
Where was everyone? Was Rob going to return?
Billy had moved outside and was sitting under the trees next to the church when a beaten-up Ford Cortina drove up and broke his contemplative silence. It slid to an abrupt halt in front of Billy and the billow of dust filing in its wake caught up to it and swirled around him. As it slowly settled the driver cranked down his window. It squealed in protest.
‘Hi, I’m Wally.’
He swung open his door and climbed out of the car. He was tall and gaunt and stepped purposefully up to Billy. He extended his hand. Billy shook it reservedly. Who was this? His face was heavily swollen on one side. The injury looked very recent.
‘I’m Billy,’ he said.
‘Have you been check’n out the museum?’
Wally threw a thumb towards the church. ‘Yeah, used to be a church. Now we’re try’n to collect a bit of history from the area and put it on show.’
‘Oh,’ said Billy, ‘and the people in the photos? Are they all from around here?’
‘Most of ’em, although we’ve got people from all over here. Missionaries brought ’em in. They’re also the ones who took the photos. There’s someone managing it, but he’s not around today. You’d have to come back another day if you wanna know more.’
‘Thanks, I might do that.’
Wally fell silent for a minute. ‘Look, I met you in the pub the other day. Well, at least, so I’ve been told.’
Billy thought he looked familiar but couldn’t quite place him. ‘Really?’
‘I owe you an apology.’
‘Is that so?’
‘Kinda lost my head the other night.’
A pang of fear ran through Billy. This was his assailant. He cautiously took a step backwards. It dawned on him that he may have come to finish what he had started.
Wally noticed his apprehension. ‘It’s ok, I’m not gonna hurt you. I just kinda lose it when I get on the booze.’
‘I’m waiting for someone, a guy called Rob. He was supposed to pick me up.’
Upon the mention of Rob’s name Wally averted his gaze. ‘Sorry, I don’t know him.’
Billy suspected this wasn’t the truth but decided to let it go. Even so, another troubling thought entered his head. He wondered if Rob had been the person that had rearranged Wally’s face.
‘Look, if you need a lift somewhere, I’d be more than willing to help you out. It’d be the least I could do considering what happened.’
Billy took a moment to mull over the offer. He had been waiting a long time and had begun to doubt that Rob would return. This community was even less familiar to him than where he was staying, and he didn’t want to risk having to spend the night in yet another strange place.
‘Ok, thanks for the offer. I need to get to a little town further down the road.’
‘No worries. I know where you need to go. In you get then.’
Billy thought it strange that Wally knew so much about him but decided to go with the flow. He walked around the front of the car and sat in the passenger seat. Wally climbed in next to him. The car spluttered to life and Wally gunned the engine and threw the Cortina into gear. It lurched forward. He steered in a wide arc around the church square, raising a substantial cloud of dust behind them. Billy gripped the armrest on his door with both hands until his knuckles whitened. He began to doubt the little trust he had placed in Wally. Billy searched for his seatbelt, secured himself as best he could and steeled himself for the ride. Wally flashed him a sly grin and then pointed the vehicle onto a street leading away from the church. They cruised out of town.
The blanket of dust made its way into the church, rolling through the open front doors. Some of it came to settle on the photo that had captured Billy’s attention. The smile on the man’s face dissipated and appeared to fade to a blank look under the newly created film of dust.