Hurtling to Oblivion by Dave Field by Dave Field - Read Online

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Hurtling to Oblivion - Dave Field

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G.

Introduction

Hurtling to Oblivion is a work of fiction. As such, it’s intended to entertain, hopefully engross, the reader. Many of the places described in this story exist. Some don’t. None of the people mentioned in this story exist—perhaps some should.

There are no characters depicted intended to resemble any person who lives or has lived. The positions of people in public life—for example, political appointments—have been used; however, the personal qualities of the characters in the story are not intended to represent those of real-world politicians holding similar positions.

Similarly, government departments and industries mentioned do not exist, though there are obviously parallels to be drawn with the real world.

The events described in the story didn’t happen, though in some cases, fairly similar events did—or could—take place.

The story is set in the Northern Territory of Australia. There are three reasons for this: It’s where I live. It’s where I learned a lot of the things about which I write. And it’s a place with a largely pristine environment, which should be protected. Yes, there’s an underlying message in the story. It is, if we don’t stop destroying our world, we’ll end up destroying ourselves.

The scenarios for Hurtling to Oblivion could be transplanted to almost any coastal venue in Australia, or in many places in the world for that matter.

The followers of Wicca appear in the story. If I was going to have a ‘religion’, Wicca would be my first choice. Actually, Wicca seems more a way of life than a religion. The paranormal attributes suggested in the story are my fancies, not drawn from any investigations of Wicca.

There’s a bitter truth to the tale. It’s a fact that, despite an infinity of advice and warnings from people who are paid to give us heed when we are doing something wrong, we, in our typically arrogant and indifferent human manner, are fouling and killing the only place where we know for a fact that we and all other earth life-forms can exist.

Hurtling to Oblivion is dedicated to the thousands of scientists and technicians who work assiduously to provide good information intended to allow proper environmental management practice.

It’s also dedicated to Margi, my partner. Finally, Hurtling to Oblivion is dedicated to, and was written in a vainglorious attempt to help our planet.

DFF, Darwin, NT

Prologue

Darwin, Northern Territory, Australia

July 1986

I’d seen him around before. He asked me out, and he was beautiful, like a film star. The eyes and everything.

The girl shuddered at the memory, sinking back against the starched white hospital pillow. Her face was pinched, faded, and she seemed far older than the seventeen years indicated on the clipboard at the base of her bed. She lay still for a moment, then took a deep breath and spoke again. The words came out slowly, forced. She didn’t want to think about it, yet couldn’t stop.

"It was about an hour after sunset when he came around to pick me up. His car was a bit ragged round the edges—you know—paint flaking and noisy. Smell of mould inside. We were supposed to be going to Jessie’s for the disco, but he dithered off into Malak. He smoked the wheels as he swerved around the corner from Matthews Crescent and nearly lost it. He was sort of laid back into his seat, grinning like an idiot, with his foot planted.

We flew up by the bus stop, and just as we passed Adrian Street, he slipped his hand up my skirt, all the way between my legs. Then he turned his head and leered at me. He looked...sort of...animal...evil. And he was squeezing, digging with his fingers. I was terrified.

The girl reached for a cigarette, hand shaking, then drew it back when she remembered where she was, that she couldn’t smoke in the hospital.

There was a hot, alive feel in his hand, almost as if he wasn’t controlling it at all. It could have been a different, separate creature altogether. After a minute, I couldn’t help it, I just spread my thighs apart for him, pushed my feet up against the dash and closed my eyes. He made me feel like a slave, but I didn’t want him to stop. He kept watching me, worming his fingers into me—and then he looked ahead and saw the old truck parked up ahead, loaded with scaffolding. He slammed the brakes on, but even though we’d nearly stopped before we hit the truck, a pipe ran through the windscreen and pierced all the way through his head. He was just hanging there, like a piece of meat. Still grinning.

Tears streamed down the girl’s face. She turned her head away and started to pick at the faded green hospital coverlet. Her fingernails were bitten to the quick.

No one had any idea she’d overdose with the tranquilizers she’d been given less than a month later. When her body was found, curled up like a baby in her father’s garden shed, it didn’t even make the headlines, because by then there was too much other bad stuff happening.

Chapter 1

Shaun Spencer

Dalwood Crescent could never be called a quiet road. Broad, winding up through the outskirts of one of the newer suburbs, it lies ready to carry most any kind of fleeting vehicle on its back for the few seconds necessary to shift from one place to another. Vehicles fly up and down the road constantly, especially at night—throaty, growling transport often driven by young hoons eager to please some underage soon-to-be-ex-virgin. Typically, she’ll be writhing in the passenger seat, quivering in an ecstasy of fear and anticipation as the hoon screams the car through the curves.

The houses lining the street are absolutely normal—simple living places. There’s not a vastly expensive mansion to be seen; they’re exactly the sort of place where you or I would live. I did live there for a while, and I first became conscious of the problem looming for Darwin when I decided I needed to live somewhere else.

It all came together as a warning for me way back in 1986, around the time of the Northern Territory election, in June.

Apart from what was to happen, it wasn’t a good time for me, my family or the Territory. There’d been several years of Australia-wide depression; and even though things were picking up nationally, the Territory lagged, as it usually did. Someone once said northern Australia did better than the rest of the country when it came to being lucky. They were wrong—what happens is that trouble takes longer to reach that part of the world. By the time it starts to bite in the Territory, the rest of the country’s starting to pick up again. Ho-hum, anyway—who cares about economics?

I was driving a ’dozer on a big construction site, one of the Gold Coast-style canal estate developments investors were trying to bring into Darwin. Not a very auspicious kind of work, but it was a living and I didn’t have to think about it much.

I wasn’t thinking about anything much. My only kid had died of leukemia five months before, after reaching the astonishing age of six. Two months after that my wife decided to freshen up her miserable existence by swapping me for a new man, one who wasn’t climbing into a bottle to try and get his daughter back from the grave. We’d been a happy family until a year before, when Jody was diagnosed. Her real name was Justine, after my wife’s mother, but she’ll always be...always was Jody to me.

Yeah, we were happy. We had everything going for us. I was making a big success playing the markets, building on a lump of dough my old man willed me. We had our modest house on Dalwood Crescent, and a block at Howard Springs we were planning to build on—we’d even talked to architects about it.

Mirielle, who was my beautiful French wife a million years ago, was working for an advertising company part-time, and she had them by the balls, she was so good. Then the rogue cell sank its teeth into Jody, and we turned from the get-ahead family into a brittle travesty of the famed Australian Good Life. Sure, we kept up appearances for a few months, especially when Jody had a remission. But soon, when she’d lost all her hair and most of her teeth, when she was bleeding from her gums and when she threw up any food we could force down her, it wasn’t a fun game anymore.

The Lord, such as he is, took Jody at three o’clock one Thursday morning. I can still hear the emptiness when she stopped breathing. The nurse—there was no reason for a doctor to be there, there was nothing he could do—simply looked up from the book she was reading, then stood and placed a hand on Jody’s neck for a moment.

She’s gone, she whispered.

Mirielle was sitting next to me in one of those arse-numbing, bone-hard, shit-brindle-coloured hospital chairs. She stood and walked over to Jody, touched her hand to my child’s dead face, then turned to me. Her face was hard, sunken with shadows from the worry and the frustration of being unable to help the kid.

Take me to the house.

That was when our home officially stopped being a home and became simply a house.

Since we’re going to be talking for a while, I’ll introduce myself. My name’s Shaun Spencer. I used to be a bulldozer driver—hell, I used to be a Leopard tank driver for a while in the Australian Army, which is how I eventually got to drive ’dozers. I used to be a moderately wealthy man. I used to be a husband. And a father. Now I’m just someone with a story to tell.

Chapter 2

Mirielle

I’d been living in Darwin for around eight years when Mirielle walked into my life. I remember the scene perfectly. It was a cool-for-Darwin Friday evening. That meant it was about twenty-six Celsius, and most Darwinites were noticing a pinch in the air—crazy stuff in the real world, but when you’re used to tropical living, a drop of a few degrees is enough to have you coughing and shivering.

I was standing in the bar of the Koala Hotel, waiting for a real estate salesman friend, named Wally Jenks, to front up. We were going to talk a little business, then go and shake things up at the casino later. It didn’t really matter whether we shook up money or women. Either would do.

The main bar’s a noisy place, especially on Friday nights. A melting pot for groups of people who meet there, then move on for a little hell-raising of one kind or another. Folk were jostling each other around the bar, and Jimmy Barnes was screeching his latest message from huge black speakers bolted to the walls. I was considering ordering another beer when, suddenly, the remains of the one I already owned was smashed from my hand by a woman who rapidly followed it down to the smelly carpet. I grabbed her instinctively, inadvertently but nicely copping a generous feel of firm breast in the process, and stood her upright.

Sorry, thanks. She gasped. My heel has broken, I think.

She was slightly built, her almond-shaped face haloed by very long, straight hair in a sun-streaked, blond-brown hue. A tight red dress, low-cut, reinforced what my right hand had already encountered. This lady had norks. She stooped to examine her shoe, and the impression was confirmed. No bra, either. I was impressed, and decided the evening was improving.

She looked up, spoke again.

Yes, it is broken. Oh, well... She made to move off, and I touched her arm lightly.

Why rush? The shoe’s bust. You may as well have a drink to commiserate. Yeah? I’d put on my best hopeful-youth expression.

She contemplated me for a moment. Her eyes were green, with tiny brown flecks in the irises. An amused expression meandered over her face and lifted the corners of her mouth. A little point of tongue flicked over her lips.

Why not? A rhetorical question.

Wally Jenks never showed, and I’ve never bothered to ask him why. After a couple of drinks, Mirielle Sabhanne accepted my offer of dinner at Peppi’s—which, I explained, was just over the road. The barman at the Frontier accepted her damaged shoes for the rubbish bin with gruff grace, and she wandered with me, barefoot, to the restaurant.

It turned out Mirielle had been in town for just four days. She was up from Sydney, researching for a big advertising push for a national women’s clothing chain. She’d decided it was a waste of time—women in the NT just don’t fit in with the Australian norm when it comes to clothes, and there aren’t enough of them to encourage development of special lines. My new friend was leaving Darwin the next day.

It took me around forty-five minutes to talk her into sticking to her original schedule and to stay in town for two more days. I promised to show her around, take her fishing. Anything to get her to stay. I already knew I wanted her.

Twenty-four hours later, on a towel spread out over a patch of almost-white sand by the Reynolds River a couple of hundred kilometres out of town, I found out just how much she wanted me. It was nearly midnight, and the moon, almost full, cast an eerie soft light, just short of what was needed to bring proper colours out. Mirielle lay on her side, head resting on one hand, watching me. The tiny smile again. Her nipples were almost black in the weird light. My battered old white enamel mug, brimming with brandy, sat nearby on the sand. Fumes from the spirit swam sharply in the clean, fresh night air.

Shaun... The tongue flicked over the lips—I’d come to recognise that precursor to talk. I think I have made a decision.

I struggled up into a sitting position, not too sure if I’d make it after the screwing I’d just had. Behind us, a frightened bird crashed off through a bush. A little way up the bank of the river, our dying campfire made tiny snapping noises as the last of the bigger logs fell apart

What about? I was nervous of a decision, so soon after making love with her for the first time.

I am going back to Sydney the day after tomorrow.

My heart sank at her words, soft in the night, and couched in her delicious accent.

She continued, speaking quickly. And, I will go to my boss and tell him I wish to come and work here and that he must help me find a job here. He will do this—he knows many people in the business. Then I will come back here, and you will invite me to live with you. You may invite me now if you wish so we know where we are, yes?

I stared at her, speechless.

The amused expression crinkled her eyes. She pushed me back onto the towel.

We French call a spade a spade. Now I will convince you.

I’d always thought it was the British who called a spade a spade, but I was in no position to argue. She had me in a leglock and a liplock at the same time. We married a few months later, when we found she was pregnant with Jody.

Chapter 3

Ian Underwood

The man pored over a heavy, spiral-bound book, slowly turning the pages. He pushed on the black frames of a pair of thick-lensed glasses periodically when they’d slipped far enough down his nose to annoy him. From time to time, he muttered a phrase, or let out small noises of exasperation. When this happened, he reached for a little pad of yellow sticky notes, scrawled something onto one of them, then stuck the slip of paper onto the page of the book so that it flagged some point or other with which he didn’t agree.

Ian Underwood was an employee of the Northern Territory Government’s Department of Environmental Protection and Development. He was an environmental liaison officer. His office, on the fourth floor of the O’Grady Building, gave him a good view of Darwin’s harbour, and the shoreline extending some ten miles away, as far as Palmerston. Lucky man.

Ian wasn’t regarded with a great deal of favour by his superiors—the reason was quite simple, he had an unfortunate habit of bringing out the truth when it came to environmental matters, and this didn’t sit well in the restrained, sometimes rarefied atmosphere tending to prevail at many interdepartmental meetings.

He slammed the book closed, leaned back and rubbed at his eyes. The O’Grady Building was new, and its wonderful air-conditioning system was efficiently distributing a nice, lethal vapour mix of all the solvents used during construction. Eventually, that solvent miasma would dissipate, to be replaced by God knows what other airborne crap. It was the norm in buildings—a part of civilisation.

Underwood had been reading what could be described as the mixture as before, a slick, well-presented compilation of inadequate information intended to substantiate the environmental acceptability of yet another development near Darwin. It had been produced by a firm of consulting engineers, using few of their engineering skills but much of their ability to garner the small pool of information available about the NT environment, then mould it into something regarded as suitable. Suitable meant arranging it to match the official requirements for a big money-spinner—to be an environmentally-acceptable development.

This one was another canal estate project in the mangrove shoreline between Winnellie and Palmerston, á la Gold Coast of Queensland. They called it Serenity Canals. The company was already ripping out chunks of the shoreline for one that had been approved only a few weeks previously.

Underwood had been sifting similar stuff for years, and the process had slowly turned his hair grey. At thirty-eight, he was round-shouldered and white-faced. He alternated between sickness due to bad digestive processes and sickness due to bad migraines. Although he didn’t see it that way, the most advantageous thing that had happened to him in a decade was two years back, when his wife decided to depart and seek her fortune with a brother of the Methodist ministry. She’d always been a religious pain in the arse, and he didn’t miss her. Much.

What gave Ian the shits was the futility of what he was doing. Day after day, week after week, he followed guidelines to evaluate the environmental consequences of development proposals, or public works, or some other sort of land use, or harbour use, or sea use. And always—always—he came up against the barrier.

Barrier? Simple—it was the word insignificant. Everything that happened was supposed to be insignificant.

The idea, of course, was that insignificant meant no perceptible effect. The problem, as Underwood saw it, was twofold. Firstly, no effect by whose perception? And secondly, but far more important, what about the cumulative effect of all the developments? Nobody—and nobody could be in capital letters—was looking at the totality of the problem. His department, with all the others, had been quite baldly instructed that each project must be considered on its own merits. It didn’t matter that there might be another one next door in three years—that was irrelevant, and to introduce it as an environmental argument was unfair to the developer.

Underwood lifted his head, and gazed at a poster on the wall. It showed the Earth as seen from space, a blue-green sphere, with shadowy marks indicating land mass below thin cloud. He knew quite well, as did most in the environmental business, that the Earth was now well and truly a finite resource. He knew that rubbish and poisons could be detected in the farthermost reaches of the world’s oceans. He knew that the atmosphere was threatened similarly. And he knew the world’s soil was being stripped and squandered by farming practices designed for short-term gain.

He was supposed to be protecting that tiny part of the Earth called the Northern Territory. Underwood knew damned well that, at best, all he was doing was slowing down the rape.

His eyes moved back to the spiral-bound book.

This development will bring a better standard of living to all Territorians, the introduction had ranted.

What’s it going to do for me? he wondered. What’s it going to do for the kids going to Wulagi Primary School? Give them jobs when they grow up? Will they be able to go to Serenity Canals and fish? Will there be any fish? Course not!

He flung the book to one side and stood, ready to get out of the building, to go home. Tomorrow, possibly, he’d find an angle. Maybe at the meeting, the one where they’d be discussing the project. Underwood locked his office and walked down the corridor to the lifts, a short, paunchy, round-faced and unmemorable figure. He knew what the chances were.

Chapter 4

Jimmy Bandy

Smoke from the little fire curled up almost straight, now that night had fallen and the sea breeze had died away. Jimmy grunted in approval as one of his wives pushed at the turtle carcass with a green stick to bring it more closely into contact with the embers to one side of the low mound of smouldering twigs. Behind, the new baby squalled as her mother prepared her for sleep, safe as houses in the resting place under the blue plastic tarp Jimmy had bought with some of his pension money.

He’d taken the turtle that afternoon, in the clear, calm waters a few hundred metres off the west coast of the Gulf of Carpentaria, near the mouth of the Limmen Bight River. Turtles were always a welcome dish, easy to prepare and plenty of meat.

He closed his mind to the wailing sounds rising from a pile of blankets a few feet away from the fire. Two of his older kids, Vincent and Tina, had earaches again. It seemed almost every night they were troubled. All the kids he knew had ear sufferings, and some had eye problems, too.

Jimmy was an old man by Aboriginal standards, nearly fifty-seven. He was sure kids weren’t sick like this when he was eight years old. And the grownups weren’t sick like they were now, either. Kidney disease, and the sugar thing—dia-something. Sickness in his family didn’t make sense, because he had his pension to buy good-tasting food in the stores, and his wives could go and see the nurses at the hospital. Why should people be sick?

A low booming sound stirred him and he stood up, a short, intensely black man, thin as a rake, pushing his battered Stetson back on his head, the better to see in the tropical night. The noise increased rapidly, and he picked out the lights of a large helicopter approaching rapidly from the northwest. It swept almost directly overhead, quite low. Jimmy turned to watch as it bored on through the night, walking a few paces after the flying machine. He guessed it was visiting the peculiar ship moored a little way off from the mouth of the river.

The ship, a strange and ugly thing, had been moving slowly around in the gulf, not too far from the river, for several weeks. Sometimes he’d heard strange screeching and grinding noises, and seen plumes of brown streaming away from it through the water, carried off by the currents. He wondered what it meant.

The turtle-cooking wife called out softly, and he stepped back to the fire, shivering slightly as a chill settled onto his bones. He felt uneasy. Something was looming. Something bad.

* * * *

The helicopter eased down towards the tiny platform at the stern of the mining ship Amarillo Six. The ship was old, well past her prime. This job would be her last—she’d been deployed here because the Gulf waters were considered relatively sheltered in terms of mining industry standards, and because she could run for shelter to either Groot Eylandt or the Sir Edward Pellew Group if there was a threat of a bad storm.

Amarillo Six was set up to excavate alluvial minerals from the seabed. Two small support vessels placed her four anchors out for her, and she winched herself slowly along, dredging seabed material. It passed through her processing factory, and, on this job, diamonds, gold and silver were extracted into concentrates. Periodically, barges carried the concentrate away.

ProGeo was licensed to mine in the area by the Northern Territory’s Extractive Industries Authority, the most powerful government organization in the territory. The Northern Territory government had made it so because of the vast amounts of money to be made from mining.

Talk about mining to most people, and they think of a hole in the ground—either a little hole that goes a long way down to chambers from which the ore is removed or a big hole on the surface in which huge machines tear up the valuable minerals.

Marine mining is different.

It’s been known for years that precious metals and gemstones are often concentrated in alluvial deposits in near-shore waters. Where rivers drain from and over appropriate geologies, diamonds, gold and silver are moved down into the estuaries and inshore areas by the inexorable push of water as it returns to the sea. A huge advantage of this process is that only the hardest and, therefore, most precious diamonds will survive the trip. Another advantage is that the gold-and-silver-bearing ores are reduced to coarse sand, which is less expensive to process than rock. Thus, marine mining offers the opportunity to capture first-quality diamonds over a relatively small area, and to extract gold and silver from an easily worked substrate.

Of course, before this can happen, there must be an exploration phase. ProGeo was expert at detecting suitable sites, based on the company’s experience doing exactly the same kind of detection and extraction work on the African coast.

It isn’t easy to deduce just where suitable sites may be found, and ProGeo used the most modern techniques during initial exploration, over a large area. Satellite imagery, structural analysis, photographic interpretation, radar, seismology, magnetics and sidescan sonar take the process to a certain level of confidence, eliminating much of the target area. Later in the search, more primitive but definite techniques are introduced. Divers produce direct observations and small samples, albeit expensively.

Eventually, test drillings and grab sampling provide a more meaningful appreciation of the specific site.

ProGeo had been through these processes, and narrowed down the extraction site to a commencement area a little to the south of the mouth of the Limmen Bight River. Approval for this Gulf project had been fast-tracked, amidst a great deal of protest from those who said the proposal was an environmental nightmare.

It was a nightmare, for four reasons:

The first was that the dredged material, supposedly to be returned exactly from where it had come—the dredged hole—wasn’t. While most went into the hole, some was cast out to one side by the prevailing current, creating a shallow trench and low mounds. So, the seabed had been changed from a naturally smooth gradient running out to an almost perfectly flat subsea plain to one scored by a series of parallel troughs and ridges.

The second reason was that, during dredging, all of the larger benthic animals were evicted from their homes; and most were thrown back onto the surface of the seabed, with varying degrees of damage.

The third reason was that the dredge waste was returned indiscriminately—tonnes of particles with naturally adsorbed poisons such as heavy metals weren’t buried deeply, as they had been before. They were near to or actually on the surface of the seabed, available to be carried around by currents, subjected to chemical fluxes and brought into food chains.

And the fourth reason was the most immediate—Amarillo Six. She was a huge, twin-hulled vessel, designed to operate as a stable heavy-lift platform in relatively shallow water. She’d passed a survey inspection in a Singapore dockyard just a few months previously. But during bad weather on her trip to the Gulf, she’d taken one big wave too many. One hull had twisted so that its nose was down and the stern up. Just a few centimetres. A few too many. The complex geometry of ribs and spars linking the two hulls was over-stressed. The mining ship’s back was weakened. Amarillo Six was going to die if she hit bad weather.

And she was full of processing chemicals.

The helicopter’s skids kissed the deck, and Andy Ruger immediately pushed down on the collective to get as much of the chopper’s weight onto the helipad as quickly as possible—seas could be deceptive and he didn’t want the aircraft rolling off the pad because of a little wave action. Andy was proud of his job and of his aircraft, a Sikorsky S-76A. The type was considered the finest helicopter operating in support of the offshore exploration industry. The A in S-76A indicated the upgraded version of the machine, powered by twin Turbomeca Arriel 1S turbines rather than the less-powerful Allison DDA250-C30s fitted to earlier models. Andy could carry up to twelve passengers in the machine, although on this trip, he had just one. Most of the payload consisted of stores and equipment for the mining ship.

Two of the ship’s crewmen ran up and clipped quick-release ties on to the chopper’s strongpoints; Ruger ran through his shutdown procedures. A voice crackled through his headphones.

What were the fires back there, just before we left the coast?

It was the new mining manager, Oakley. Ruger had met him for the first time only two hours previously, back in the shithole general airport lounge in Darwin. Oakley was a big man, tall and broad-shouldered. Very short blond hair, blue eyes. Tanned skin and slightly off-white teeth, one in the front chipped. Ruger had a feeling he wasn’t going to like him very much.

He answered the question. There’s an Aboriginal outstation near the mouth of the river. Annugan, I think it’s called—it’s an outstation of...

Fuck the black bastards! Oakley spat the words out, ripping off his headset. He unclipped his safety harness and wriggled out of the chopper. He was, reflected Ruger, one big, awkward unpleasant bastard. The chopper’s rotor slowed to a gentle woosh-woosh-woosh, and eventually, Andy sauntered down to the luggage locker to grab the rotor tie-down line.

Fuck you, Oakley, he decided.

Nafid Street branched off from Dalwood Crescent. It was a little bow of a street, only around fifteen houses on each side, and it curved back into Dalwood further up towards the high end of the Crescent.

Edwin Moorcroft and his wife had been living on Nafid Street since their house was built, around nine years previously. Edwin and Winifred were retired, happy in their little single-story home. They both enjoyed nothing more than spending time in the garden.

On a June day in a life filled with weekends since he’d become a retiree, the man of the house was digging a hole for a new lime tree they’d picked up from Ironstone Lagoon Nursery a couple of days before. Edwin was strong and healthy despite his sixty-three years. He was attacking the coffee rock at the bottom of the hole with a massive metal crowbar; he intended to break through and make damn sure there’d be good drainage around the lime tree so it didn’t succumb to root-rot because of the soil being too wet. Winnie, as he’d called her for the best part of thirty years, was rattling pans around in the kitchen.

The crowbar was nearly as tall as he was. Standing with legs apart, he successively lifted and then rammed it down into the soft rock. It was around eleven in the morning, and he was working up a sweat. The waistband of his old khaki shorts—all he had on apart from a pair of jocks, his socks and boots—was dark with moisture.

The bar easily smashed the rock apart, and he was considering setting it aside and using a shovel to clear the debris when the steel bar abruptly sank down for almost the whole of its two metres. Edwin lurched back in amazement, staring from his abraded palms to the few centimetres of sweat-stained metal he could still see then back at his palms again. An awful thought slipped into his mind. ‘Have I busted a big drain open?’

Winnie! Come and look at this!

He squatted down and wriggled experimentally at his digging tool. It moved easily in the hole. Winnie appeared beside him. She wore a white pinny over a simple lilac-coloured dress, and as always, she looked quite wonderful to him. Actually, Winnie was sick with cancer of the uterus, but didn’t know.

Look! It’s hollow down there! I think I’ve bust...

He tugged at the bar as he spoke. It pulled up and out of the hole quite easily, and as it emerged, they could see it was coated with an oily orange-pink liquid. A heavy scent riffled into the air.

Hydraulic fluid, his wife suggested. She’d worked at a service station for five months, just before Cyclone Tracy hit in 1974.

"Must be in a forty-four standing