When I get on the greyhound bus in Darwin, the driver tells me to find a seat anywhere except for the back. Another passenger is quick to inform me that this is because they try to seat all of the Aboriginal people in the back. “It’s the smell,” he says and crinkles his nose. The racism in Australia is continually shocking.
As we drive down the Stuart highway the trees thin out like hair plugs on an excessively foreheaded man, and termite mounds stretch skyward from the dusty ground. The air conditioning dries out my sinuses. By the time we stop in Katherine for a meal break, I’d forgotten about the heat and it smacks me in the face. I don’t know how women wear make up here without looking like a Salvador Dali painting.
Krista, one of the employees of the cattle station on which I am going to work, picks me up from the road house in Dunmarra, 640 kilometers south of Darwin in the Northern Territory. She’s friendly enough but keeps throwing me strange looks. She wastes no time in warning me about the woman who runs the cattle station. “Anthea,” she says, “is a… well, she doesn’t tolerate mistakes very well. As in, like, try not to make any.” I get the impression that she would like to tell me to get back on the bus.
Anthea is a formidable woman. She owns the cattle station, nearly half a million hectares and six hundred thousand head of cattle. She is a helicopter pilot and runs a helicopter school from the station, which is handy as much of the mustering on these outback stations is done with helicopters. She’s also a doctor. Krista tells me she once saw her flying a helicopter, wearing hospital scrubs that were still bloody from delivering babies the night before and as she skimmed over a billabong she leaned down, scooped up a bucket of water and took a long drink between drags of her cigarette. Evidently the only thing she isn’t brilliant at is interacting with people.
There are only two other staff members currently working on the station – there had been a mass exodus prior to my arrival – Dave, a cowboy and helicopter pilot, and Krista’s husband, the station manager, Shane. Over beers on the veranda, swatting mosquitoes and sweating wretchedly, they too tell me stories of Anthea. They do so with typical Australian humor and good natured charm, but their eyes are furtive and their voices low. There is a palpable Orwellian vibe.
My predecessor, a fellow backpacker called Stuart, lasted only four days. He had put a battery in one of vehicles the wrong way, and upon discovering the error, she left him stranded twenty-eight kilometers from the house, with no water. It was forty-six degrees that day.
When I see her for the first time, she’s standing in the spotless kitchen looking pinched and impatient. She’s short and wiry, drooping at the shoulder from a slight hunchback. She’s fifty-two but looks well into her sixties. A white haired gollum. She says a curt hello, tells me that I can sleep until seven am and instructs me to read the orientation binder and then leaves. I go take a shower and think to myself, “well, shit.”
The next day she clomps into the house and, with more grunts than words, tells me that I should go and help in the yards. They are drafting off cattle for live export to Indonesia. The dust swells into an obscuring cloud, like a Canadian blizzard. When we take a short break, Shane, a tall lanky character with rotting teeth and a quick smile reads us the warning label on his package of cigarettes, “Smoking causes peripheral vascular disease… What do ya reckon, doc?”
She takes a drags and looks over his shoulder, “I reckon with all this dust, smoking’s good for ya, makes ya cough.”
“Righto,” says Shane and he lights up.
Dave whispers to me when she’s out of earshot, “Everyone smokes here. Stress.” and he gives me the same look Krista did – the one that says, you poor, poor bastard.
We work well past sunset and into the hot night. The layer of sweat and grime on my skin is biblical. A steer breaks away from his mob and Shane goes after him on the quad-bike, but he pushes too hard and the beast falls and breaks a leg. Anthea tears off, screaming epithets like a vulgar tea kettle. Dave and I exchange helpless looks. After a minute, maybe two, the heavy darkness is cut by the crack of a gunshot. I briefly wonder whether it was aimed at Shane or the steer.
The steer’s carcass is strung up on the prongs of a tractor and gutted by the weak headlight of Dave’s motorcycle. Finally we’re allowed to knock off, except for me who is to make dinner. She retreats to her own quarters, preferring solitude and cigarettes to a communal meal. There is a tangible shift in mood. We relax, stretch our legs out on the front porch, and rehash the day.
When the inevitable happens and I quit, Herself is not phased in the slightest – she has gone through twenty seven of me this year. She gives me a small nod and a smirk and walks away. The truck doesn’t drive away fast enough. The road is littered with dead kangaroos, decomposing terribly in the sun. Live ones wait by the side of the road only to jump out right in front of the truck. Dave curses the stupid vermin. I wonder if these games of chicken the ‘roos play are in any way akin to the way moths are attracted to light, an evolutionary advantage but for human involvement. Or maybe they’re just nihilists.
For the first time in my travels, the rush of the road beneath the tires doesn’t ignite me. I don’t feel that familiar pang within my rib cage, the one I am irrevocably addicted to. I just feel hollowed out, a reflection of the emptiness that surrounds me.
Published: Frostwriting Literary Magazine (defunct)