Excerpt for Sunlit Shadow Dance by , available in its entirety at Smashwords



Sunlit Shadow Dance


Crocodile Spirit Dreaming - Book 5



Graham Wilson




Copyright

Sunlit Shadow Dance

Second Edition

Graham Wilson

Copyright Graham Wilson 2017

Published by BeyondBeyond Books

Smashwords Edition

ISBN



All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced or

transmitted in any form without prior approval of the author.

For permission to use contact Graham Wilson by email at grahambbbooks@gmail.com




Reader Reviews

Great Five Stars - Great end to an outstanding series. But don’t begin here. Begin with the first book, ’Just Visiting’ and see if you can guess where the story goes.


I highly recommend this series; if you enjoy suspense novels or reading about Australia and especially both, you'll be happy you got a hold of this.


Exceptional story. Just loved it. The sense of place and aboriginal culture is great too

You must read this series ….. the content is excellent

it's superb. So sorry to finish it. 


I read this series one volume at a time, over the last two years. It's very entertaining, well-written and really makes you feel like you're there with the characters. I can't praise it highly enough!


What a good series, so many stories, so many lives, growing darker with a thread of hope


A compelling story, told with sincerity. It would make a good plot for a television mini-series! 


I thoroughly enjoyed this combined series. It is a nicely composed, thrilling script with essentially a fairy tale goodness. With this book I had my virtual tour through Australia. 






Author Note

This book series has been a labour of love, assisted by many people along the way. You are too many to name and some do not want to be named, but you know who you are. I thank you all. Telling this story has been a long journey, both for me as for the story. It is both satisfying and sad to be at the end.

For readers who have enjoyed the series, thus far, I thank you for your time spent in reading. Special thanks for those who told me of enjoyment through reviews and other means. I hope this final part lives up to your expectations. For those who have not found it to their liking, and said so, I thank you for this too, both for your time to read and to let me know. In revising these books this feedback, both good and bad, has helped.

Final thanks to so many people from across the place called Australia’s Northern Territory. You, and its vast landscapes in their ever changing hues, have given me the ideas which grew in my mind to become this story.

Special thanks to an unnamed English backpacker, one I met briefly in Cairns and who then came to the Northern Territory for a short stopover to see its remote places. She spent two days travelling with me in Kakadu and Arnhem Land, seeing places similar to those in my book.

None of the awful things of this story happened to her and she returned home to England for a happy and successful life. However, for a brief period she was a delightful travelling companion and her English mannerisms and joie de vie remain burnt brightly in my memory.

From this memory came the kernel of the character who sits at the centre of this story, my imagined Susan. She now lives on in the minds of thousands of readers, having gained her immortality through the medium of this book. It is likely that her memory will continue on long after we are gone. But, without a real person to inspire the idea, she never would have been. So to the real English visitor I say a profound thank you. I am in your debt for giving me a joyful memory as the foundation for this story.




Prologue

It was a small hour of the morning, number around three or four. Her mind was sharply awake in an instant but she did not know where her body was, except that it was in a bed and the bed was unfamiliar.

There was the sound of another human drawing breath, in and out, regular but not loud. She moved her arms around to explore the bed space. There was another body lying not far away, source of breath sounds, it was a hard and angular shaped, a body of elbows and bony protuberances. It must be a man. She had no idea of this man’s name or face. She knew only that she was here and he was there, sharing this time, space and place.

Who and where was she and who was he? Her mind held no image of an identity, hers, his or other. It held no image of a future or any past; she knew only that the present was an unfamiliar place.

And at the farthest edge of her mind and vision she glimpsed another place, a desert landscape of late bright sunlight reflecting off glowing hills. Within this fading light sunlit shadows were dancing. They were shadows in part familiar, as if she should know them but did not. Faint music came from where they were, it seemed that they called to her, but she could discern no voices or meaning, only that they seemed to be calling to her to come and join them, calling with yearning and sadness mixed into bitter sweetness. She knew them not, yet their kinship reached into the very edges of her mind

She willed her return to sleep so as not to have to discover a present reality, feeling hope that she would awake to a new morning reality where memory and perspective again became clear, where knowing was returned.




Chapter 1 - Daybreak

It was early morning when she awoke again. She knew where she was and she knew her name was Jane, she was Jane Bennet. That was the name she had been holding in her hand when she had discovered herself, a person without a past, some months ago. The name was on a baggage label, written in crude marker pen writing. It was attached to the small overnight bag that her hand was grasped around. The bag held a dress, a pair of loose track pants and top, some underwear and canvas shoes. And it held an envelope with cash, Australian dollars to a value of around seven hundred. Her person had no other label; her memory held none and the name Jane seemed to fit. Jane rhymed with plain; plain Jane, an ordinary person. So she took the name and used it.

That first morning of her remembered life she had awoken in a roadside shelter, lying on a bench seat. The shelter was built from four timber posts with corrugated iron on three sides and a roof. The fourth side was open to an empty dirt road which had seen no traffic since she awoke. It looked like a place built by a local farmer to shelter his children from sun and rain while waiting for a school bus to come. Its furniture was two planks of rough-hewn timber, bolted into a seat shape. It stood on four timber legs which rested on bare red dirt. That was it, her temporary home; it had been a place to sleep but it was not a place to stay.

She knew she was in Australia, somewhere. It was not cold so it was probably somewhere in the northern half. And it was not desert as there were good sized trees growing nearby, though the ground was dry and the grass was dead and brown not green. But that was as far as her knowledge and memory could take her, beyond having her own written name which she was determined to hold to. It was the one thing that felt solid.

She looked at herself. There was no mirror so she could not see a face, but she had thin pasty arms and legs, objects long hidden from the sun. Her hands were soft and free of calluses so they must have done little manual work of late. Her hair was shoulder length and, when she pulled it to her face, it appeared to have a dark brown or black color. It smelt unwashed. A loose fitting smock, like any other cheap dress, covered her body in a shapeless manner. It had a pale floral design and was otherwise indistinct. It gave no clues. As she ran her eyes over her dress she saw that her belly protruded greatly. She smoothed her hands over it. The realization came that she was well and truly pregnant, expecting a baby and the baby was not far off.

As she contemplated this new fact, and what it signified, she heard a distant sound. She saw a plume of dust coming towards her, it was a sedan car. As it came close she saw its occupants were an aboriginal woman driver and another aboriginal woman passenger. She waved to the car and it pulled to a stop.

These people evidenced little surprise in seeing her, not a greeting of recognition, but a casual welcome. It seemed this was a place where people came and went. She was but one more.

They spoke in broken English, “You want ride?”

She nodded; then held out her hand, saying “Hello, I am Jane.”

The driver nodded, pointed to herself and said “Me, Rebecca, that one Suzie.” They took her proffered hand in their own. Suzie opened the back door and pushed a dog off the seat to give her a place to sit. After perhaps an hour they came to a place where people lived, other black people. It had a shop, petrol station and signs for a hospital and school. The ladies let her off at the petrol station and waved goodbye before driving on through the town.

Now she had to decide what to do and say. She did not feel lost, she did not feel scared or as if she was running away from something. She just did not know how she came to be here. She had no memories of a life before today. She felt reluctant to say she did not know why she was here or where she came from, it sounded weird to talk that way in plain daylight.

So she found a twenty dollar note in the bag and walked into the petrol station checkout. She purchased a coke and a bag of crisps, then asked for directions to the toilet. In the toilet she washed her face and tidied herself in front of the mirror. Sure enough she had dark brown black hair, with a wavy Mediterranean look, and bright blue eyes in bland but not unattractive face. Her face did not trigger any recognition in her memory, it was a face that could have belonged to a hundred people walking along any city street, a plain Jane face.

She wondered if she had actually been on her way here, offered a job. Maybe she had bumped her head and lost her memory which would return in a day or two. She decided that was the most likely explanation for being in the middle of nowhere on her own. So, perhaps, she should just ask the man behind the counter at the petrol station about any jobs going, say she had been told they were looking for someone to work in the community and she had made her way here in hope that a job was on offer. So she asked the attendant if he knew of any jobs here.

He looked up at her, showing little surprise and was not unfriendly. “Well we are not looking for anyone here right now, but I hear tell the shop just across the road is. They were expecting someone to come from the town the day before yesterday, to do some bookwork and ordering along with stacking shelves, but the lady never showed. Perhaps they got their days mixed up. It may be the job you heard about. So why don’t you head over there and ask about it. The lady in charge’s name is Matilda, maybe she is expecting you.”

She walked across, carrying her overnight bag. An aboriginal lady was serving at the checkout and she asked if she was Matilda. Instead she was directed to a small office at the side. An older aboriginal woman, sitting at a desk, looked up at her with a smile as she came to the door, saying, “Hello.”

Jane introduced herself and said she understood that they were looking for someone to work here doing bookwork and ordering, along with other work, and she hoped they might have a job for her.

Matilda explained that the local employment service in the main town had been seeking a book keeper type person for her. The last one had fallen through, so now the job was hers if she wanted it. It seemed straightforward. There was a detached building, a one bedroom cottage, behind the shop. It went with the position. The salary was $40,000 for working five days a week as a shop assistant book keeper. She agreed and the job was hers.

They would sort out the paperwork later but Matilda was glad to have engaged the services of Jane Bennet. She was shown to a second desk with a computer in the office. It was hers to use along with a set of files to maintain.

Matilda suggested that she go to the cottage, have a shower and a walk around the town to get familiar with her way around, then come back after lunch when she would be taken through their systems for an hour or two before she began proper work tomorrow.

Matilda called out in an unfamiliar language to the lady at the checkout. She brought in a set of keys to the cottage which she handed to Jane.

Since that day almost a year had passed, people called her by the name Jane Bennet, she lived on a small aboriginal community on a place called Cape York in north Queensland. She had two children almost a year of age, delivered in the local hospital with a minimum of fuss, she had given them the official names Anne and David Bennet, children of Jane Bennet, father unknown. She knew Anne and David were their right names, though she had yet to choose middle names. She thought she should know what these were but could not remember.

A year on her new life was beginning to create its own new memories and joys. She was planning a birthday party for her two babies in a month’s time, a time when her extended friends of the community would come and celebrate this landmark with her.

Only occasionally, like last night, did she wake up with fragments of another life somehow running through her mind and body, seeking release. But, as always, with the new day her current and simple reality returned.

It was a reality where hers was the only body alone in the bed, except sometimes when her children cuddled with her. It was a reality where she felt almost no curiosity about what had been before. It was a reality where, if someone had asked her if she was happy, she would have said yes. She could think of nothing else she wanted or of any other place she wanted to be.




Chapter 2- A Gulf Muster

Vic had spent a week mustering on Vanrook Station, way up towards Cape York on the eastern corner of Gulf of Carpentaria in North Queensland. It was a huge block, several adjoining stations under the same management running to over four million hectares with somewhere around a hundred thousand cattle. They had a few dry years but last wet and this had been good and they were now putting together lots of export steers to go out of Karumba for the South-East Asian markets, Indonesia mainly.

It was further east than he knew or had ever worked before, but beggars could not be choosy, he had a big loan to pay back for his new helicopter. So he grabbed at the offer of this block of work, ferrying across from Borroloola after two days of work for Macarthur River Mine, looking at prospective new mineral sites, alongside the NT border. Next week was booked to work in the Barkly Tablelands, the week after Buck had booked him to work in the VRD.

So he had two solid weeks of mustering after this job before he could take a week off to go to Darwin to meet with Anne and Alan and see how the investigation into Susan and the other missing girls was proceeding.

He had flown to Darwin for a week three months before in his helicopter, spending that weekend in the town of for the memorial ceremony for five Lost Girls on a headland looking out over Darwin. It was a peaceful place with a beautiful view, but he found that day was absolutely gut wrenching. Five sets of parents and other friends crying over lost daughters, along with other families searching for missing sons and daughters too. Everyone had their own story of loss, every story told of devastation for those concerned. He felt for them all, pain on pain, though his heart really only had space for one missing person.

It was now about eighteen months since Susan disappeared. He still felt a raw ache in his chest every time he thought of her, one day she was there with him and it was wonderful, the next day gone, just utterly and totally vanished. It felt like a huge piece had been torn from his insides.

In his wildest dreams he could not imagine what had happened to her since that day when she had never come to the hospital, first him ringing Alan and asking him to go and check his flat for her, thinking she would be fine but he was just being safe. But the flat was empty, her few things were still there, but no her. It was like the movie “Gone Girl”

Then, a month later, they had found the pair flat shoes, borrowed from Anne, she had been wearing. They were beside the Mary River billabong, a bare kilometre from where Mark was eaten by that huge crocodile. Anne was sure, or at least as near as she could be sure, that the shoes were her own. If this was right it could only mean that Susan had gone back to the billabong where she killed Mark, a place full of lots of huge crocodiles.

After that discovery, other people said that Susan had deliberately gone there to return to Mark. They thought her body, if any of it remained, was somewhere there. Some thought she had swum out to meet him, some that she had been pulled off the bank. But there was no other trace, no footprints, no scuff or drag marks, just two shoes in a plastic bag lying in the dirt about ten meters from the water’s edge. Some said they should shoot the big local crocodiles and open them up lest her body was inside; some said they should search the bottom of the billabong in the same way they did to find bits of Mark. But as the shoes were found more than a month after she vanished, with no other evidence of her before or after, it had seemed pointless. So that never happened.

Instead Alan brought that old man, Charlie, the one who had first found Mark and had now found the sandals, back to the place and asked him what he thought, whether her body was here too?

Charlie sat by the water, with him, Alan, Sandy, Anne and some others all watching on. After a few minutes he stood up and shook his head. “Maybe, maybe not, She not here now, no crocodile spirit here,” was all he said. When they tried to question him further about what he meant he just shook his head emphatically.

Vic did not know what to think, but he felt a kinship with this old man. A small part of him felt relief Charlie could find no trace of her presence here. Vic could not be sure it was not true, that she had not returned to the crocodiles and Mark, she was pretty messed up from everything that had happened. But in his heart of hearts he refused to believe it and give up hope that he might one day see her again.

He did not really know what love was supposed to feel like, but he had spent four nights holding her body next to his. The wonder of that memory was burnt into his brain. Now there was just a great big empty hole in that memory place. He had been with plenty of girls over the years but it had never been like this. It was both her dependency on him and how her being had gone deep inside him, mind to mind and spirit to spirit, in a way which made him feel whole. It was as if, in the same way their bodies were joined so too were their souls, become a fused person. He had loved her totally; that body, her body, filled with another man’s children; that face with the laughing blue eyes, that smile that could charm angels.

So now, sometimes, he would dream of her but she was fading and it was getting hard to remember. So, mostly, he worked non-stop. Often he would have an extra beer of two to try to sleep and forget. And when he got the chance he would go to Darwin and meet with Sandy and Alan and see if there were any new leads or anything else he could do to help them find her. He would not admit to her being dead, he had rescued her once, he would do so again. But first he had to find her and he had no idea where to look.

No one else had any ideas either, endless dead end sightings. At first all had felt hope when these sightings came in. But soon they realized that these people, who saw a girl in her twenties with dark hair and an Englishy accent and would report this person as a new maybe Susan sighting, were never right. Too many people who looked vaguely like her were walking around the towns and cities of Australia. So, while not instantly dismissed out of hand, it was easier not to keep hoping through these false alarms.

But if Susan was alive she must be somewhere. Vic’s mind refused to contemplate the alternative therefore he must keep trying to find her. So he was looking forward to getting to Darwin even though it was still over two weeks away. The idea of this trip gave him hope and kept him going with all the day to day flying. He planned to finish here this afternoon and ferry home to Borroloola tomorrow before going down to Anthony Lagoon for a daylight start the day after, the beginning of his week of Barkly work.

But now, just as he was fuelling up and getting ready to leave Vanrook and fly to Normanton for the night, on the way home, a telephone call came in asking him to do a job further up the Cape tomorrow; nothing too big. It was an aboriginal station, out along the Staaten River somewhere. It had a few hundred cattle in a back paddock that he needed to put together then bring to the yards for their yearly branding muster, as well as some steers to muster for the boat.

He had been tempted to say no. If he took the job he would miss his day at home and have to ferry straight to Anthony from here. But it was hard to keep up with the bills for his new chopper when most months he took off a week in Darwin to continue the hunt for Susan. He could not afford to lose this chopper, it had been hard enough to get the loan for this new machine when the insurance came up short from the crash in the Fitzmaurice, and flying his chopper was the one thing that kept him sane.

For those few hours each day, when he was working his machine hard, he was too busy to think, living only on his reflexes. Then it was like the bad stuff got pushed away and he felt passion and joy again for a little while.

So he would take the extra day of work and the money even though it meant a whole month when he never got home. There was nothing at his home for him anyway, just a bush timber shanty at the edge of Borroloola, with a view down to the river.

So he accepted the phone call, booked the job and, as they did not seem in a great rush to get started, he told them he would ferry over first thing and be on-site, ready to start, about eight o’clock. Perhaps he would make a stop over there tomorrow night, see what the community, a former mission, offered before he did a long day of ferrying across the Gulf and black soil to Anthony Lagoon for the day after. The station manager, who had just booked him, told him they were having a barbeque tomorrow night and with the job came a bed for him if he wanted to stay on in town that night.

As he put the phone back on the hook one of the ringers came and tapped him on the arm, giving him the drink sign, beers in the station mess hall. So he followed him across and ripped the top off a barbed wire yellow stubby, savouring flavour as beer washed the dust out of his throat.

Next morning, with an edge of a headache, he walked over to his new machine. His leg was paining today, that place where the steel plate was bolted in from when they had cut and re-joined the crooked broken bone.

He felt a niggling resentment at this metal plate, he would rather have been hobbled with a half crippled leg than to have gone to hospital for the operation, only to wake up and find Susan gone. He knew if he had only stayed with her that night then she would still be here now, something bad had happened when he was not there to mind her. She had run off to God knows where. Now his leg was playing up today. It had not done that for a few days. He hoped it did not signify further trouble; it seemed to have a mind of its own and acted something like a barometer of change.

As he roared into the air, his helicopter blowing a huge dust eddy that the south-easterly wind picked up, he felt his mood lift. Today was a chance to see some new country and this country, as vast grass plains rose into the hills of the Cape, was spectacular. It gave him a buzz.

An hour’s ferry saw him at the station. A half white manager, Rick, a man much his own color, greeted him. With him were six aboriginal stockmen who had horses saddled ready. They all sat round a table with a map and in five minutes a plan was agreed. The stockmen rode off, heading towards the back half of the paddock where he would start working, putting the mob together for them to walk back towards the yards.

Vic talked to Rick for a few more minutes as he topped up his fuel before they both headed out, the manager driving a bull catcher. Vic then flew to the south-east corner about ten kilometres away, it was a pretty big paddock and the manager reckoned there should be six of seven hundred cows with calves in it along with their yearling steers. They both figured they would have these cattle yarded up by about eleven and then there were another couple hours of work to be done after lunch help to muster the bullock paddock which had a couple hundred biggish size boat steers. They would join the Vanrook steers on the next cattle boat to Indonesia.

It was after three pm before the boat steers were yarded, and when done Vic knew he still had time to get back to Normanton before dusk. He was restless and was tempted to thank Rick for his hospitality offer and head away, to have a night in the pub at Normanton. But there had been too many of those pub nights lately and they gave little joy, the empty hole remained after a night of drinking, along with a new hangover.

There seemed something kind about these people here in this little place, like they had a sense of family and belonging. It reminded him of Alice Springs, with his aunts, uncles and kids all hanging around, and he felt the loss. Plus he loved the kids here, their chatter as they gathered around the helicopter, asking questions, eyes bright. They made him feel good.

So, what the hell, he would stop here tonight even if he thought this barbeque here would be a tame affair. He could get up early and head off to his next job in the morning.

So he walked over to the yards to watch the activity. They were drafting up the cattle. He climbed onto the top rail, sitting alongside ten or more school children. The excited screams and chatter, as they watched the cattle work, lifted his mood. Vic felt a wave of nostalgia for similar happy times of his own childhood, and with it an even stronger desire to go back to Alice again to see his mother and favourite sister, to play with her children.

One of the children sitting next to him turned around and shouted out. “Miss Bennet, Miss Bennet, Come and see the cattle.”

He assumed Miss Bennet was a school teacher, as school was out. He turned to see who this person was. There was a lady in her mid-twenties, with dark hair tied back, walking towards them along a dusty road. Two toddlers were walking beside her, each holding a hand. Her eyes were blank as she looked towards him but she was so achingly familiar.

Several of the children jumped down from the rail and ran towards her, two bigger ones taking up the two toddlers in their arms. She patted the black heads affectionately as her own children laughed with excitement at their new found playmates.




Chapter 3 - A Mirage

It looked like Susan, the children looked like her children, but her eyes were empty. She looked at him as if he was nobody she knew or had ever known, perhaps with the vaguely curious appraisal which a new visitor to the town would expect, but no flash of recognition or even significant curiosity.

His eyes bored into her, desperately seeking something more. But nothing came back, except perhaps a trace of annoyance at why this stranger was staring so intently at her, as if it was an invasion of her own being.

His feet impelled him; he climbed down off the rail and walked towards her. He tried for a smile but it came out wrong and in return she sent back something, half of smile and half of frowned puzzlement at his interest, not quite unfriendly but guarded. And yet the eyes were blue and they looked just like her eyes except their sparkle in the light and their joy was missing.

Was it Susan? Or was it just a mirage which he, in his desperation to find her, had created, his mind playing tricks?

He walked towards her, hand outstretched. As he drew close she raised her own small hand which he took in his. “Vic Campbell, helicopter pilot,” he said.

A trace of a smile edged her eyes as she surveyed him appraisingly. “Yes I knew you were the pilot but I did not know your name. Hello Vic, welcome to our small community.”

Vic thought it sounded like her voice but was wrong, the intonation was English but curiously flat, missing her Susan’s vibrant sibilance and confident projection, like but not her. Vic waited for something more, Nothing came; he still held her hand and she had not attempted to withdraw it. It even felt like her hand. He searched her eyes again for some pimple of recognition; still nothing. He found his voice again. “And you are?”

It was like his second statement roused her to life. Quickly she withdrew her hand, glanced at her children to check they were OK and then replied, “Jane, I am pleased to meet you Vic.”

Now she turned to the other children were gathered around and spoke to them. “So today is cattle mustering day and you are all here, watching. Would you like me to come over to the yard for a little while and watch with you, before I take my children for a bath?”

“Yes Miss Bennet, come and watch,” they all chanted in sing song voices.

So she walked towards the rails at the edge of the yards, taking care now to keep her two children in hand. The other children all gathered round her, chattering excitedly, half to her, half to each other.

Vic walked along, a couple steps to the side, not really part of the invited group but there anyway, wanting to talk to her, wanting to ask questions but not knowing how to begin.

As she came close to the yards she looked indecisive. Her face seemed to say that holding the two toddlers up to look, together, was going to be difficult. Perhaps she was looking to find one of the older children to come and pick one of her toddlers up, but they had all deserted her for the top rail and a better view.

Vic saw this was his chance. “You look like you have your arms full with two. How about I lift one up to give a view and then you will only have one to worry about.”

She nodded; a grateful half smile.

He picked up the closest, a boy, who looked at him with a curious and slightly cheeky grin. As he looked at Vic with the smile crinkling at the edges of his eyes, there was something that was so like Mark that Vic felt a jolt pass through him. It was as if he had just been taken back in time to when Mark was barely more than a baby and he had just seen him for the first ever time, a time more than twenty years before he had ever met him as a grown man. That look held something distinctive, as if this small boy had later became the man he had known. It was a look-smile which screamed out his past friend’s name. Almost involuntarily he spoke. “God you look like Mark”

The kid stared back, uncertain now, as if he may begin to cry. Vic realized that this Jane person was staring at him intently.

Now he felt awkward. He shrugged an apology. “Sorry, your boy looks really like someone I once knew, the similarity startled me. I hope I didn’t frighten him.” Before she could reply he hoisted the boy onto his shoulders, bringing his head was to the same level as the other children on the top rail and giving a full view of the yard. From here the kid chortled with delight and patted his small hands on Vic’s head.

Now this Jane person smiled again at him, almost a full and genuine smile this time, then she also turned back to look at the cattle.

Vic found himself tongue tied, it was hard to think of anything useful to say. Making polite conversation seemed inadequate. So he stood beside her, drinking in this person’s presence, like the scent of a long lost fragrance. He thought he knew her, the age fitted, the looks fitted, the kids fitted, even the mannerisms and voice sort of fitted. She must know him. He could not shake this huge conviction that it really was her.

But yet she did not seem to know him at all, not even the name of Mark had triggered any recognition. He did not think she was trying to hide it; there was no trace of anything evasive like that. Yet she looked at him like he was a total stranger she had only first met a bare five minutes ago.

They stayed like that for five or ten minutes, not talking, just watching the action unfold as cattle were drafted this way and that. Soon the yard nearest them was filled with cows bellowing to be re-united to recently separated calves. Vic found himself transfixed by unspoken communication with a little person who sat behind his head, a small boy who was captivated by the scene before him and who expressed his enthusiasm with whoops, pats on his head and kicks of his little feet.

For a minute he forgot about the woman beside him as her shared this child’s infectious delight. Then he realized that this woman had laid her hand on his forearm and was talking to him.

“I am sorry; I will have to head away now. I have to bathe my children early. I have promised the others to help set up the barbeque. So, if you don’t mind, I will have to retrieve him from you now,” she said pointing to the child on his shoulders.

Vic grinned, “Of course, let me carry him along for you as you walk home for a little way. I think he is enjoying the ride up there.”

Now the lady gave him a genuine smile. “I think you are right about that. Well if you don’t mind, I live about 300 yards down there, behind the shop. Your place for the night is half way there. I will point it out when we get to it. So why don’t you walk along with me, until then. After that I will take them both on home from there.”

They walked along, side by side, kicking little clouds of dust in the dirt street as they walked. Vic asked politely. “What are your children’s names?”

“Oh,” she said, apologetically “they are David and Anne. Sorry I should have introduced them as well.”

All too soon they reached the front of the bunk house where Vic was staying. She reached for David as Vic handed him down.

David shook his head as Vic went to hand him back, “No, not go,” he said. He grabbed onto Vic’s arm tightly and tried to stay with him.

Jane raised her eyes and said, “Well that is unusual, he will almost never let a strange man pick him up. Yet here he is, him not wanting to come back to me. That really is a change. He must like you.”

“Just the view,” said Vic, patting his head with a deprecating smile. Turning to the boy he said, “Well you can ride up there anytime you like. If you want to get a really good view, get your mother to bring you for a ride in my helicopter.”

She laughed in return, “I think he has to grow up a bit before then.”

Vic responded, “I was inviting you too, along with little Annie.”

She replied seriously, seeming to let the humour pass her by. “Well thank you. Not today; perhaps another time. I have things to do now.”

With that she walked off down the street with her two children toddling beside her, each holding a hand.

He watched, unmoving, as she went all the way until where the road turned a corner and she disappeared out of sight. As she passed from view she turned back to smile at him, giving him a little wave, before she vanished.

Vic fought down an overwhelming urge to run after her, to call out the name, “Susan” and see if she turned back. But he could not do that, she surely would not have ignored him if she already knew him. If she knew him when they first met she would have come running, with a bright smile on her face, flung herself at him and hugged herself to him. He knew that was how his Susan was.

So who was she? Was she the wife of another man who lived here and who just happened to be a dead ringer for Susan? Was she just a lookalike who Vic had imagined was Susan in his desperation to find her? Or was she the real Susan, with all her memories and former life turned to dust? Could she just be a mirage that he had imagined out of nothing in his mind, one like those seen far out on the black soil plains and, once he came to where he had first seen her, she would vanish into the air and never be seen again.

He found himself unwilling to move from this place, lest he break the spell, lest he find out it was only a mind dream of a person who no longer walked on solid ground. He felt great dread she had returned to the crocodile spirits so now just a faint essence of her still walked in the world of people. He could not bear it to be so, but he felt no other certainty in his mind.

He could not ask her who she was, he could not tear at broken memory strings, but he must find out about her. Tonight at the barbeque he would try and discover, from others, who she was.

It was still too early to go inside so he turned and walked back to his helicopter. He had a photo of the real Susan in his briefcase. He would get that out and look at it and see if there were any tell-tale clues that either linked her, this Jane, to that picture or made it clear she was someone else.

As he came back to the yards the manager, Rick, was there, standing near his helicopter, with some papers to sign, receipts for fuel used. In Vic’s captivation he had almost forgotten about his regular business, now it came back to mind. He wrote out an invoice for five hours of wet hire for mustering and two hours for fe rrying, with the fuel taken from here deducted. They both countersigned and the bill payment was promised within two weeks.

Then he asked Rick, “Who is that lass with the dark hair and the two small children, she was here at the yards for a bit.”

“Oh, that’s Jane,” Rick replied. “She is an odd fish, isn’t she? She is the bookkeeper at the shop. She has worked her for around a year and a half now. She doesn’t seem to have any other family or friends from outside, she just keeps to herself, apart from going to church and singing in the choir. She is a looker and a few blokes around here fancied to try it on with her. But she never takes any notice, she never seems properly interested in anything or anyone but her two little kids and maybe God. All the rest of the world passes by and she barely seems to notice it. It is like some part is missing inside her head. Still she is sweet and nice in every other way. So we have got used to her now, stopped asking questions.”

Vic went to the helicopter and found the photo of Susan. He showed it to Rick. “Do you think that looks like her?” he asked.

Rick looked at Vic curiously then looked hard at the photo and frowned. “Well yes and no,” he said, “looks wise she is almost a dead ringer even though her hair is cut differently. But the girl in this photo looks so alive. This Jane here, when you look hard at her it is like she is not really alive at all, like you can look straight through her and she is not really there. So it could be her but it is more like two identical sisters, one who is alive and normal and the other was born without a soul, as if someone took it away at birth. So all I can say is, maybe, but I don’t really know for sure.

“But I know you know more about this one,” he said, pointing to the photo. “So, if you tell me the whole story, maybe I can help figure it out.”

Vic looked at him, serious and intent, as if considering. “I would love to tell you. But, as yet, I don’t begin to know what the answer is myself. Once I work it out a bit more I will let you know.




Chapter 4 - Barbeque

The sun was now falling low in the sky and Vic was conscious of his need to spruce himself up if he wanted to make a good impression tonight at this big social event of the town, the barbeque.

He pulled out his overnight bag from behind the helicopter seat, hoping he had something clean amongst the pile of dirty clothes he had been intending to wash once home at Borroloola. He suspected the pickings would be slim, but he wanted to make a good entrance to his next meeting with this girl, Jane, whoever she really was.

He whistled as he walked back to his room, at least she was real, that was what he had got from his conversation with Rick. So now he needed to turn on the charm and find a way to get inside her head, to see what secrets were hidden, even if buried deep.

He showered, shaved, found his cleanest shirt and gave it an iron so it looked almost spick. He checked himself in the mirror. Not perfect but it would do; at least nothing to short-circuit his charm offensive. He saw a monogrammed hanky that his mother had given him; it was sitting inside his bag still, the only article not yet in the dirty clothes pile. That may come in handy if I spill some food or drink, he thought. He tucked it into his pocket.

Someone had said that the barbeque was in the church hall alongside the church. He had seen the church with the cross on the roof as he made a circuit of the town when he first landed. It was at the other end of the town past the shop and petrol station. He stepped out, feeling lightness in his step that had been missing for the last year or more.

Soon he came alongside a grey haired couple walking steadily along the street. He hailed them as he passed. They returned his greeting, smiled broadly, and introduced themselves, the church pastor, Doug, and his wife, Ruth, out for an evening stroll before they too went to the barbeque.

Vic fell into step with them. As he joined their conversation a sense of courtly manners and wise kindness radiated from them. He found himself telling of how he came to be here, almost by accident and how he had to dig deep into his limited clothes to find something suitable to wear. They had a presence like some of the missionaries he had known as a child, simple good people, and he felt at ease chatting with them.

They told him that, as of today, he was a minor celebrity in the town, the aboriginal helicopter pilot. Now he had half the school children wanting to follow in his career. They told him how their good friend, Jane, and they spoke her name with obvious affection, had told them how he had made a big hit with her toddler, David, who up until then would not let any other men come near him. They all shared a laugh at this. They asked him how long he was staying.

He said he had to fly back to the Northern Territory in the morning; he had a distance of about 800 kilometres to fly before daylight Monday.

The pastor asked, “Would you have time to come to church in the morning before you head away?”

He shrugged and grimaced slightly. “Well you know Pastor, not really my cup of tea, so I better not make any promises, plus I had planned to go early. So I won’t say yes, but stranger things have happened, so you never know.”

Doug and Ruth both smiled and nodded knowingly as the conversation moved on. Vic found himself wondering at his even half agreement, it was more than he had intended, but perhaps he was in the current of something much bigger and he just had to go with the flow.

Soon they came to the church hall and Vic was introduced all around. There were maybe 50 people gathered, a quarter white, three quarters black and a few of in between shades, like himself. They were standing in loose groups, conversations drifting here and there. A gang of children, maybe twenty, ranging from toddlers to ten plus ran around between the adults grabbing handfuls of nibbles, while the grown up’s chatted and drank fruit punch. It was friendly and welcoming. Vic found himself looking for Jane.

Suddenly there she was at his elbow, carrying a platter of savoury pastries which she was offering around. She treated him to her brightest yet smile, not quite Susan like but somehow more familiar and welcoming than before. He thanked her and she moved away, continuing her rounds.

She was dressed simply and plainly, no glamour of make up or hair style. Her clothes were probably op-shop hand me downs, neat but without any concession to fashion. Yet he still thought she looked lovely. He felt a huge compulsion to talk to her, to get to know this reincarnation that looked so like Susan, even if the light at her core was missing.

However that was easier said than done in this busy social gathering. She continued to take a lead in the service of food and he had many people who wanted to talk to him; ask his advice about the cattle work, find out about how he came to be a successful helicopter pilot, trade stories with him of the bush. He enjoyed it and found it engaging, yet part of him wished for a quiet place where there were just two people and they could talk alone.

However he participated with good heart, knowing he must be patient for a chance to come. He found himself seated with a big plate of food, surrounded by several stockman and Rick, all telling stories of cattle work. Jane was seated now at another table talking to the Pastor and his wife. Her two children were like unguided missiles, shooting amongst the floating mass of others, running here and there, sometimes eating, mostly laughing.

He felt something grab his leg. It was David. He hoisted him to his lap and directed pieces of food his way as the conversation continued. David seemed content for a minute just to sit there and gaze around this crowd of men’s faces. After a few minutes he wriggled back down and ran off.

Vic watched him as he hurtled back towards the place where his mother sat. Suddenly a small foot caught a chair leg. Vic watched as he crashed face first into the wooden floor. Vic was up and over to him in a bare second, lifting him up before he could start to cry. He did not begin to understand how his reflexes had moved him so fast.

David had a cut on his lip and looked to be about to burst into a crying fit, but then he saw this man’s face holding him. He took a deep breath as he calmed himself and controlled the tears. There was something so ‘Susan like’ in that little gesture. It shook Vic to the core, that ability for self-control.

He took the hanky from his pocket and dabbed it on the cut, just a smudge of blood. He gently held it there for a minute while the boy remained quiet. He removed the hanky and the lip seemed OK though no doubt it would be swollen in the morning. He returned the boy to the floor, giving him a pat on the head and saying. “You are a brave little fella.”

David toddled off, minor injury forgotten. Vic looked up to see Jane’s eyes on him. They were serious, not smiling but seeking, as if trying to find some tiny fragment of another self. As he caught her eyes she looked away.

It seemed all too soon when the night was ending, no late night revelry here. He had found no chance to talk to her in anything approaching a private setting. Now he saw her walking towards him bringing her two little children, one holding each hand.

She stood before him, in a simple and unassuming manner, saying. “I am sorry, I need to take my children home to bed now, they are both tired. I just wanted to say thank you for minding David, particularly when he fell over.

“I am not sure if you can manage it in the morning, before you leave, but if you can it would be really nice if you could come to church. Service starts at nine o’clock and our choir has been practicing some songs to sing. I would like it if you came.”

He wanted to jump up and escort her home, but something restrained him. He had a sixth sense that he had to take it slowly, allow trust to grow and give her time to open up when she was more comfortable. He still did not know if this lady was Susan or someone else, but it no longer mattered so desperately. He just wanted to know her more, the face of the enigma. So he stilled his impatience and watched her walk out the door, knowing that he was destined to be at church in the morning.

He looked up to see Rick looking at him in an appraising manner, “I don’t pretend to know what is going on inside your head, but there is something happening there. And not just for you, our Jane has shown more animation tonight than in the year and a half she has been here.”

Vic nodded, “You could be right. I promise I will tell you soon. I need to do more work around here, so as to have a reason to make some more visits. Make sure my name gets to the top of the list if you hear of helicopter jobs going, hell I can even drive a bull catcher if it comes to that.”

Rick nodded. “I get it, jobs north, south, east and west of here with ferry stops and overnights here. I might need a commission to act as your local agent, but I will see what I can do.”




Chapter 5 - Monochrome

Jane dreamt of lying in bed, without memory, with the unknown man, again that night.

It was a broken night of sleep. David was restless and irritable with the cut to his lip. In the end, she brought him into bed with her to help him settle and, of course, Anne would not stay alone without her inseparable brother in the crib next to hers. So they both ended up sleeping in her bed; fortunately it was a big double bed so they all had space to stretch out. She put them on the inside where the mattress was hard against the wall. That way she knew they would not fall out of bed and wake up screaming.

So, for a couple hours after she came to bed, she lay there in a restless state, soothing her children until they finally settled. After that she found her own mind was wide awake and active as it relived her remembered life, the almost eighteen months since her memories had begun in April last year, just at the end of the rainy season, with her children born in early May. It was now late September and the nights were getting hot, she could feel sweat on her skin from places where her children were touching her despite the ceiling fan whirring away. The covers, which her children needed to settle, seemed too heavy on her skin and made her hot.

She found herself wondering about David and why he had taken to this strange new man, the one that looked at her with such piercing eyes, as if she should know him, though she had no idea why he thought that.

He was just another stranger who she had seen for the first time earlier today. The funny thing was he had begun to have a color in her imagination this night, a nut brown color, not all of him, but the bare skin on his arms, those strong arms which had effortlessly picked David up and hoisted him into the air, sitting on his shoulders. She found herself smiling as she remembered the way David had chortled as he sat on top, loving the view and patting this man’s head like a pet dog.

Every other time a man had reached for David, to pick him up or restrain him, David had cried out in fear and she needed to take him and comfort him. Even now, after well over a year, he would barely allow Pastor Doug to touch him though he went happily to his wife Ruth and to other children. Yet he had gone straight to this man, Vic, without hesitation. When he offered she had intended to give Anne to Vic to hold, knowing she would be fine. Instead he had picked up David before she had a chance to suggest that.


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