The only sign of life is birds of prey circling high above the remains of a cow, its skin in pools around a skeletal frame, melting into the landscape like a Dali painting. I sit on my rucksack somewhere along the border between the Northern Territories and South Australia as they Greyhound bus becomes a dot on the shimmering horizon. I started as a troop in the army of backpackers crawling up the East Coast, stopping in each major city to drink heavily and shout loudly like a Viking raid. As the last few dollars rattled around in my purse, I began to spend time in the vast spaces between the cities picking fruit, building fences and endlessly weeding in exchange for food and board.
After fifteen minutes of silence, a single truck rolls past. The driver stares at me like he hasn’t seen another person in days. The wail of crickets rises. The rust coloured earth and scrubby plants bend and flex in the waves of heat. Panic stabs me in the ribs. Did I get the right day? The only indication that I’m even in the right place is an old oil barrel spray-painted with the words “Thorn Hill Cattle Station”. I pull my mobile out of my pocket. No signal. I don’t know what else I was expecting. This is the farthest from anyone I have been in my whole life.
My ears catch the faintest rumble of an engine. If the driver is female, I’ll stick out my thumb and ask for Alice Springs. I tell myself. At least I know there are hostels in Alice Springs. My eyes stay glued to the point where the road meets the clear blue sky. Nothing. Ok, even if the driver is male… I start to think. A cloud of dust hangs in the distance and I notice a couple of tyre marks in the sand that might pass for a track. The engine noise gets louder and a silver car winks in the sun.
“You must be my volunteer.” A woman with cropped hair, floppy cowboy hat and sunglasses that glint like beetle shells steps out to greet me.
“Well, I’m Barb and you’ll meet Rex later,” she says, her mouth a tight line. She peers over her sunglasses taking me in; a weedy Scottish girl who looks like she’s never seen a steak before, let alone worked a day on a cattle station.
Vast sheds, old trucks and piles of metal rusting in clumps make up the yard, rising out of the otherwise barren landscape. I scuttle after Barb to a dilapidated caravan.
“This is you,” she says, opening the fly door.
A juddering fan moves hot air around and everything has a thin layer of red dust on it. When I open a cupboard and find myself looking at clear blue sky through a large hole in the wall. I close the door again and try not to think about what moves around in the sand at night. My face has already broken out into a sweat so I run the tap in the cramped kitchen space. It shudders to life as if water hasn’t travelled through the pipes in years. The water is rough on my skin and over the years it’s left a green smear in the sink.
“Don’t drink the tap water,” Barb says.
I’m about to ask what I can drink when she point to a plastic door coming off its hinges.
“You’ll sleep in there.”
I peer into my room; a sagging single bed and a chest of drawers – minus the drawers. My home for the next two months.
“Generator shuts off at ten, so best be in bed by then,” Barb says, “It gets pretty dark out here.”
“I’ve ridden a quad bike before,” I say, breaking the silence as Barb rummages in a shed full of every shade of rust under the sun.
“Have you now?” she says, dragging out a ladder. “Well, Rex does the herding, so I guess it’ll be clearing gutters and mucking out sheds for you.”
My heart sinks. The advert said they herded cattle over the 200 square mile grazing land using quad bikes. I had fallen in love with the idea of bumping over the scrubby bushland, hair streaking out from under my bandana like a modern cowgirl. My social media accounts would ping with likes and comments.
The burning metal of the gutters made my fingertips raw as I scooped sun-crisped leaves and let them flutter like drunken butterflies to the ground. The heat climbed into the high forties and sweat rolled down my forehead, stinging my eyes. Stringy saliva rolled around in my mouth. After an hour something moved across the yard. A crane rumbling across the earth, something hooked to the top of it, swinging back and forth. As it got closer I realised it was a cow, split open and spread like an ink-blot test. Dinner, I guessed. Once I’d finished the gutters I was desperate for water.
“What are we going to do with her, Rex? She doesn’t look like she can lift a fly, never mind cattle fencing” I heard Barb’s monotone through the open window. A grunt came as a response.
“She’s not like us. I don’t think she’ll last a second out in the bush,” she continued.
I held my breath as I clattered through the fly door. The living room came into focus; seventies décor, an old trucker radio taking up an entire corner and pictures of cows everywhere. An old man with a scraggly beard and coat hanger frame lent against the sideboard. A saggy grin hitched up the corners of his mouth.
“Can I have some water?” I asked.
“Don’t take too much,” Barb replied, pointing to a jug in the corner.
It was lukewarm, but I didn’t care. I wanted to tip the whole jug over my head. Barb watched with narrowed eyes as I gulped and Rex’s grin seemed like it was frozen in time. Neither spoke. Perhaps they hadn’t spoken to another soul in years.
“What should I do now?” I asked.
Tractors, ploughs and quadbikes stood silent inside the vast shed. Rex handed me a broom and I expected him to mount a quadbike and power off into the distance. Instead he shuffled to a rusting deck chair in the corner. An old oildrum was his picnic table. A jug of frothing milk that still smelled like cows and a bottle of rum were his lunch.
As I swept, Rex made vowel sounds and pointed at invisible patches of dust. The hot throb of lower back pain pulsed through my body and swirls of dust made my lungs raw, but I was desperate to prove myself.
Darkness descended outside, though it was still hours before sunset. Through the open door I saw the landscape tinted an eerie yellow as lumpy grey clouds built up over the sun. A red mist hung in the distance. Rex creaked to life as if someone had wound him back up. He dragged his deckchair outside to watch the sky. Change tingled in the air, or perhaps electricity. A fork of lightning licked silently through the grey clouds.
The wind picked up in seconds as the storm got closer. Flecks of dust grazed my eyes as the world turned red with sweeping sheets of sand. Somewhere out there, Rex sat alone in the storm.
“You alright?” came Barb’s voice from behind me.
“Yeah, but Rex…” I started.
“He’s not what he was ten years ago,” Barb sighed. Her eyes shone as she stared out into the storm. “We can’t do it by ourselves anymore.”
I didn’t know what to say, but an entire desert of sand covered the floor so I cracked my back and started sweeping again.
“Urgh, bloody dust,” Barb said, wiping her eyes. “Maybe tomorrow we’ll get you on a quad bike.”