Cornish Pastie Territory
A solitary drop of sweat slipped gently off the end of my nose and fell, darkening the red dirt at my feet, as if my forehead were a leaky tap. The simple thought of water amid the state’s harsh aridity suddenly made my mouth dry, my tongue stuck to my teeth. At least I’m not covered in flies. I overhear somebody asking about this inside. The barman replies that where there are no cattle the flies are also absent. Still, there is a strong, unpleasant smell. Less barnyard, more unwashed human. Returning to my beer, I leave it behind for the acrid odor of pub floor and crushed cigarette butts.
Later, when the heat seems to have intensified in spite of the darkness – tightening around my head like an close-fitting hat – and I fall into conversation with Jimmy, a greasy-haired Aboriginal lad of about my age who tells me he’s on “walk about”, the sharp tang of filthy humans returns. His walkabout is his life, mine an escape. “Young men are supposed to go off for a while at this age,” he tells me, “you know, figure things out, get some of those demons out of their system. Good on ’em, our elders reckon.” Ironically, my family sees my trip as the devil having gotten in to my blood rather than the other way around. I ask him how far he is from home. “Only three days walk – but I’m going the rest of the way on the bus.” he adds apologetically.
Wherever he was headed I wouldn’t blame him for taking that option in this heat, regardless of how awful the bus is, but since his destination is Adelaide some 1500 miles to the south it is odd that he should feel the need to make an excuse. For my own part, I might consider taking to the road on foot myself after the previous night when I was thrown from my seat and awoke bleeding from my mouth, the bus having screeched to a halt after impaling an enormous red kangaroo on its bull-bar. In the glow of the headlights I could see a spray of crimson blood on the windshield. Happily for it, the poor creature had been killed instantly, much to the disappointment of the pistol-toting driver and several hooting rednecks on board. So tonight, at Tennant Creek in the center of Australia’s Red centre, I cautiously await the next bus south to Alice Springs, neither wanting to take it nor to remain.
Just as Jimmy was explaining that he had found his way unaided during his three-day hike by singing his route, the man who turned out to be the driver of the 12.26 to Alice – all khaki shorts, long-socks, and sunburned knees – approaches us and, in spite of Jimmy’s presence, tells me to watch out for “black fellas” who ply the bus routes preying on gullible kids like me, before inviting me back to the bar for a “proper Cornish pasty”. Aware that I should protest this blatant racism, but simultaneously keen to rid myself of a stinking companion and attack my first meal in three days, I head off with the driver. The ensuing meal has a slight guilty taste and I resolve to take Jimmy a pasty knowing he’ll be on my bus, all the while secretly hoping that this show of solidarity doesn’t mean we have to sit together.
Meanwhile, Carl the bus driver gives me a potted history of central Australia using a brown gravy-drowned pasty as the protagonist. Prodding it with his fork, he tells me that it is in the pasty that the ranching and mining industries of the red centre come together. The repast of immigrant Cornish mine-workers being filled with the stewed off-cuts from local sheep and steers once fueling their pursuit of copper and opals, now the rather less romantic extraction of uranium. Warming to his theme and, to my dismay given that he will be driving a multi-ton passenger vehicle in under an hour, ordering another round of beers, Carl regales me with tales of his family. “Fourth generation Territorians, real salt of the earth types. Not like them poofs down in Sydney. Up here in the (Northern) Territories it’s still all beers, beef and barneys!” he declares proudly, describing the rough-shod lifestyle in which booze-fueled bar fights are still common. In the newspaper earlier that week, I had read about a man in one of Sydney’s poshest suburbs dying from a spider bite, sustained while picking a dog turd off his front lawn. It made Australia seem to me like a dangerous place wherever you happened to be. However, I had also gathered – from another bus driver, in fact, who, upon crossing the NSW border into Queensland had cackled “Welcome to cockroach country!” over the intercom – that one’s state of origin is of great importance to the Australian’s sense of identity, and Territorians are passionate about being synonymous with the fly-blown outback.
Surprisingly, Carl, for all his bluster, turned out to be a sensitive soul and confided to me that his life as a long-distance “bussie” kept him away from his wife and teenage son up in Darwin. He even confided in me that he was convinced his wife was having an affair, and then, with a slight tremor in his voice, that I looked a bit like his son. For one awful moment I thought he might cry, but after rubbing his eyes and glancing at his watch he leaped to his feet and grabbed me by the arm with a cry of “Christ, time to get on the bloody road again!” Stumbling after him to the bus station in the pitch blackness, clutching a disintegrating pasty in a soggy napkin, Carl shouts that I should sit right up front with him where he can keep an eye on me. I was hoping he would keep both eyes firmly on the road ahead after the beers I watched him put away.
Before boarding the bus, I look in vain for Jimmy, who was nowhere to be found. I place his pasty carefully on the adjacent seat in case he shows up. We depart more or less on time and I fall asleep after several miles of Carl’s anecdotes about his years of driving across the outback, including one about the time floods had made the roads impassable, stranding him halfway to Broome for more than two weeks, and forcing him to cut the pockets out of his shorts to use as emergency socks.
As we near Alice, I wake to the harsh twangs of a local radio host denying that there is a race problem in the Territories. “Naow, not at all!” he cries. “What we have is a hygiene problem. Black fellas need to clean themselves up to be let into respectable establishments!” “Dead right!” Carl comments. “Is there even enough water around here to wash in regularly?” I ask, looking out of the window at the baked outback. “Sure, there is.” he replies. “Just you wait. This afternoon we’re supposed to get a thunderstorm. They could just soap themselves up stand outside!”
I was about to say that sounded a little treacherous, when we arrive in Alice. Apart from the fifteen or so other passengers, the bus station is deserted except for a trio of men slumping against each other on the curb. Bidding Carl farewell, I start my walk into the somnolent town. One of the men stirs, and spying the gravy-soaked pasty in my hand, asks for a bite. Glad to be rid of it, I offer him the whole thing, prompting effusive thanks and the offer of a swig from his bottle. Declining, I head off, but not before noticing the man’s grubby shirt, which read “Welcome to the outback. Ten billion flies can’t be wrong!”