One of the men is pale, tired and developing a sty in the corner of his right eye. He is a lawyer and last night, after he arrived on a plane from Madrid, he hired a car in the city and drove through the night to the inlet where he was joining others for an artist’s retreat.
One of the men is tall and silent. He wears a hunting vest, so his business here may well be hunting, and he has a long grey moustache that guards both his words and his smile. He drove to the inlet with his brother last night and they went straight to the fishermen’s shack.
The lawyer travelled through little highway hamlets and stopped at an orchard town to refuel, one hundred kilometres from the inlet. After that the road thinned and was lined with tall columns of karri trees, too close to the road. The bitumen’s edges crumbled. It began to rain. He slowed. Kangaroos, caught in the glare of his headlights, watched him from the gravel verge. Behind him, a driver shone their lights full beam into the lawyer’s little car and the road, so narrow and winding with deep valleys, made it impossible for this nuisance to get past him.
The lawyer squinted through the rain at the road sign coming up. The American voice on his phone, guiding him through the night, had long since dropped out of range. Her words became caught in static and then, nothing. He slowed down to better read the wet sign in the headlights and the car behind him slowed too. The inlet. He put on his right indicator and swung onto the gravel. A sign pocked with bullet holes said ‘Rough Road’. The car behind him turned in too.
This car trailing him in the night alarmed the lawyer. His mind was besieged by the movies and news reports he’d seen about the Australian outback. A single man, usually. Sometimes it was a couple working together. The track was rutted with sharp corrugations, giving way to an occasional pot hole that glared with water in the man’s headlights. Every time he braked at a pot hole and tried to drive around it, the car behind him crept closer. Finally, the car passed him on the track, like the vehicle itself was fed up, it’s high beams flaring into the forest. This is where we leave the lawyer, because in a little while he arrived at the house where the retreat was being held. A woman stood in the forest dark by the driveway, her lantern glowing a mop of curly hair. 'We thought you must be lost,' she said to him.
Later, the hunter and his brother rolled out their swags in the back of the car. Light glowed through the plastic windows of the hut. They‘d carried a case of beer and some meat to the door of the shack and knocked, opening the door themselves. Inside, it was smoky and warm. T-shirts, waders and hoodies hung pegged to a rope above the fire and a row of whiskey bottles beside them on a shelf. Bluey sat near the fire, rolling a cigarette. Polly, his deckie, cooked something on a camp stove, sipping at a plastic mug that the hunter knew was Polly’s moonshine. Polly poured him some from an old Fanta bottle, added a handful of ice. It lay rough and warm in the hunter’s throat. His brother talked, he never stopped, in his twitchy, rambling way.
At around midnight, the fishermen retired to their swags on wire beds. The hunter’s brother shut his chunky black dog into the front of the car and climbed into the back. The hunter walked down the track and into the karri hazel a little way to have a piss. The moon was going down and the night would soon be black as pitch. Too late, the hunter knew he should have brought a torch.
He walked down to the shore and then decided to turn back into the bush. Take a shortcut through to the hut. It made sense, he thought, cutting through the bush to get back to the hut. But the massive marris seemed conspired against him. As the moon set the trees began their murmur to him.
Best you leave now. Best you leave.
By then he was staggering through a forest unknown to him. He knew he was lost and that the moon had gone down. There was no known navigation under this canopy. He couldn’t see any stars. He stumbled into a hole, or a gap in the undergrowth. Lying in the clutch of dead branches, he smelled a karri hazel flowers and realised he was back in the karri forest, a grey gloom of moulted bark stolid in front of him. Soft leaves brushed his face as he climbed to his feet. The leaves lightly touched his right eyelid and he swatted them away and soon the skin on his right palm and eye began to burn. Blister bush. He felt his eye close up with tears against the attack.
The woman returned from work the next afternoon and saw Bluey parked on the track, stabbing at his mobile phone. The back of his truck was loaded with blue and green plastic iceboxes and looking at the saggy back tyres, she thought he seemed to have a decent catch in there. She stopped and wound down her window. ‘Checking out market prices?’
‘Nah,’ said Bluey. His whole beard seemed to move with his words. ‘Cops are coming. Bazza’s gone missing.’
It started raining again just as she arrived home. She hadn’t eaten lunch, so she put an apple into the pocket of her raincoat, pulled on her bush boots and went to look for Bluey’s mate. She started at their hut, passed a white four-wheel drive and followed the track that she knew culminated in Bluey and Polly’s toilet, a plastic seat strapped to a milkcrate sitting under a bloodwood tree. Maybe the man had taken a wrong turn, ended up in the bush. ‘There’re not many options,’ Bluey had told her. ‘Snakebite, broken ankle,’ he grimaced, ‘heart attack’. Bluey had a heart attack in the hut the year before. ‘We even thought maybe he’d had jack of us and you’d given him a lift into town this morning.’
She heard thumping and crashing in the leafy hazel. A kangaroo crashes about like that, trying to get away, but the noise was coming towards her through the bush. A glossy black dog burst out of the emerald green and jumped up at her, his paws scratching on her raincoat pockets. ‘Go on then,’ she said to the dog while he gambolled around her, ‘show me where he is.’ She expected too much of the dog. She could see this hound was no Lassi and wouldn’t be saving lives or sniffing out missing men any time soon. In fact, the dog seemed like an untrained, overexcited unit as it jumped up at her again. A man shouted and the dog raced away.
Back out at the track stood a wild-faced man with panicky eyes and she guessed that this was the missing man’s brother. ‘Are you looking for your brother?’ She said. ‘I’ve just talked to Bluey.’
‘Yep.’ He cuffed the black dog.
‘What’s his name?’
‘And what’s he wearing?’
The brother leaned against the car. He looked exhausted. ‘Oh fuck, I dunno.’ He looked beyond her, towards the inlet. His eyes widened. ‘What that bloke is wearing I reckon.’
She turned around. A man walked towards them. He looked like he’d been punched in the face and his hands were covered in blood. ‘Is that Bazza?’
She was confused. The black dog ran to the man and launched at him. She turned back to the brother. ‘Is this happening in real time?’
The dog licked Bazza’s fingers. ‘You don’t look too good, mate,’ she said to the man.
‘Got lost, that’s all,’ he mumbled. ‘Stuck in the blister bush.’
‘For fuck’s sake. Get in the car Bazza, the cops are coming and the S.E.S, they’re all coming out to look for ya. Bluey doesn’t want cops out here. Get in the car. We gotta call them up. No range here. Let’s go.’ The brother bundled a mumbling Bazza into the car and started the motor. He was about to drive away when he remembered the dog. ‘Get in!’ He shouted at the dog and it jumped across his lap into the back seat, and then they drove off through the muddy forest.
On her way home, she met a pale man carrying a notebook and pen. He was the same man she'd met at the gateway last night, she thought. His right eye ran with tears, the lower lid swollen and red, but he smiled merrily at her. ‘Greetings! Do you know if they found that man yet?’