Start of a novel. Does it work?
“Geez, I don’t remember the last time the bus stopped here.”
Karl turned his attention from the cloud of dust indicating where the interstate bus was fading down the main road back towards the highway and away from here. It had had to turn around; Karl was under the impression that in the other direction there was no longer even a road if you went far enough. It had cost him extra to be delivered here, more than fifty kilometres off the regular route between Adelaide and Alice Springs, and looking around he had the sudden feeling that it was all not going to be worth it. “That’s what the guy at the ticket office said,” he returned quietly.
The woman who had spoken smiled at him, wiping her hands on a greasy tea towel emblazoned clearly with a logo advertising the Gold Coast in far off Queensland. She finally offered a large paw which he shook with minimal enthusiasm. “My name’s Dawn. I run the shop here.” He looked over her shoulder at the building. It looked old, but the large glass windows showed all manner of goods inside, everything from food to pots and pans. A real general store. But the only thing outside indicating that this was the case was a small A-frame on the sidewalk with the word ‘OPEN’ printed neatly on each side.
On the front window was a small sticker that said, “Kandoo Creek Bus Stop – Enquire Within.” And that meant this was definitely the right place.
“I’m Karl,” he returned, his soft voice easily heard in this small place. “Karl Hawkins.”
Her brow furrowed a little as she dropped his hand and he took the opportunity to look at his surroundings in the mid-morning sun. A few houses were on either side of the shop. Across the road and down a little was a building he assumed was a church by the cross on its roof though no outside adornments indicated it was such, and two doors down from that was the pub, the only two storey building in town, its red ‘West End’ sign standing out in a street of browns and greys. He smiled. Even here, the state’s dominant beer company held sway. From what he could see three streets crossed this main road, itself a mere off-shoot of the main highway. On the other side of the shop, a little way down, was what looked like a garage with two bowsers out the front before the scrub of the Outback –much more vegetated than he would have guessed, with many trees as well as the bushes and grasses he had seen in photos – once more took over the landscape, probably spreading all the way to the west and Lake Torrens, the salt-water lake nearest to this place, broken only by farmland.
This really was the middle of nowhere…
“You’re the guy who’s come up from the university!” Dawn’s voice broke into his mental musings of the town in which he now found himself. “You’re the one Leroy managed to call in! But I didn’t think you were due until next week or the week after.”
Karl nodded briefly. “Yeah, plans were changed,” he muttered. “Sorry.” Then he shook his head. “Look, I’m sorry,” he smiled finally. “It was a long journey. Can I come inside and buy a drink or something?”
“You’ll have to wait till eleven when the pub opens,” she said casually with a nod of her head towards the building he had already surmised was the hotel.
“I meant a Coke or something.”
Her smile widened just a little. “Of course!” she enthused and led him inside.
She grabbed a bottle from a half-stocked fridge and opened it for him. He slipped his wallet out of his pocket but she shook her head. “On the house,” she grinned.
“Thank-you.” He was genuinely surprised and pleased and Dawn picked that up immediately. She liked this man straight away, something she had not expected to happen at all. “I rang Mr Foster from the bus…”
“Leroy,” she interrupted. “He’d hate that Mr Foster crap.”
He smiled a little again. “Okay, I rang Leroy from the bus and he said to be at the football club at twelve.”
“Well, you’ll find that behind here,” the woman said, indicating the rear of the shop with her thumb. “You go to the street two doors down, turn right. There’s one house there, then the oval, and the club’s at the far side. Leroy’s the club’s caretaker. His farm’s on the other side of it, next to the old opal field.”
Karl took a mouthful of his drink. “Is the whole town expecting me?” he asked carefully.
“Not really. There’s only a few of us Leroy really talks to about stuff like this.” She shrugged. “Guess I’m one of them.”
“So, what do you know about… about all of this?”
She shrugged again. “Look, when you said you’d come we were relieved because this might mean it’s finally going to be over,” she stated. “Most of the people here just want to leave it alone. But Leroy’s been trying to get some-one here for years, but everyone dismisses us as cranks and crazies so they never come. And look where we are. It’s so far away from everything. But then you said you’d come and we read your letter and you sounded like you believed us. You’re not here to make fun of us. You believe us.”
Karl chewed the inside of his mouth. “I don’t know if I believe it’s what you think it might be,” he said evenly. “But I believe that there is something here. It might be something quite normal. But I’m not going to dismiss it because I don’t know. That’s why I’m here.”
She was nodding enthusiastically. “But you believe we saw something!” she almost cried. “That guy from the newspaper from Melbourne came here and treated us like we were crazy inbreds, like out of that film Deliverance. It was as though all we do is get drunk and then think we see weird things on the edge of town. And already you’re treating us like we are telling the truth. Sure, you may not like our explanation, but you believe us!”
He looked at her. “How long you been here?” he asked gently.
She looked embarrassed. “All my life,” she replied. “When my dad died I got the shop. I also do a bit of work on the side…”
“How long were you in Adelaide?” he continued.
“How did you know…?” she started to ask, but then replied, “Nine years. Came back when dad got sick. Never went back. That was, oh, five, six years ago now.”
“Went to school there or just uni?”
Her mouth fell open. It was as though he was reading her mind. “Went down for the last two years of high school, then four years at uni, and then I worked for a while.” She leant closer. “How did you know?”
He shrugged. “You do not talk like some-one who has lived in this place all their life. Your accent is too fast and your language educated. I don’t mean people out here are not educated,” he quickly added, “but they have a different sort of education. You use language that is more precise than others I’ve met in towns like this. And when you heard who I was, you said ‘the university’, as though it was logical. So, I also guessed you graduated from Adelaide Uni, where I’m from.”
“I’m impressed,” she nodded.
“What did you study?”
“Physiotherapy. I make some extra money doing some stuff here. The doctor’s only in town once a fortnight for two days so I do basic first aid for him that doesn’t require drugs as well. It’s just the way things are out here.” The uncomfortable silence of strangers fell over them.
Karl looked at his watch. “I’ve got over an hour before I’m due at the club,” he stated. “Any chance I could get a map of the town, look around?”
Dawn dropped the tea towel and grabbed a ‘Closed till lunch’ sign. “Sure thing,” she grinned. “Personal tour.”
“Oh, I don’t want you to miss out on any sales…” he started, but she cut him off.
“You see any customers?” she laughed. “Look, most of the people in town are retired or at work at the slaughterhouse about ten k’s out to the north – you probably passed it in the bus – or even scrounge at the old opal mine. The kids, all five of them, are at the area school and that bus doesn’t get back here till almost six. First week back at school, so your timing’s great. But it’s the slaughterhouse that really keeps this place alive. So, yeah, I got time.” She laughed at herself. “And, Christ, it’ll give me something different to do.”
“Well, so long as you’re sure…”
“Yeah. Leave your backpack here. It’ll be fine. One hundred and sixty-six people live here, and I know ‘em all. It’ll be fine.”
Within half an hour Karl had seen everything. The few shops on the main street, along with the large pub, the old church, the garage with its bowsers, one for petrol and one for diesel, and a rusting Country Fire Service shed. There was a small tractor and farm equipment retail outlet off one of the side streets, and next to that a place that sold other farming supplies. There was even a bare patch of earth that was described by a sign as a “caravan park”, while a group of six joined wooden shacks was described as ‘family apartments’. He had been booked to stay in the hotel, in one of the three units attached to the side, a fourth unit having been converted into the town’s Laundromat. The town’s ‘Tourist Centre’ was also attached to the hotel, and he noted that the opals it sold as souvenirs came from Andamooka, not the town’s own mine, which Dawn explained lay only about a kilometre away, behind the football club.
They then headed in the other direction, towards the garage. “Is there something else out here as well?” Karl asked as they walked together.
“You’ll see,” Dawn smiled and they walked on in silence. Around a hundred metres on from what Karl considered the edge of the town she guided him towards a road that had become overgrown with weeds and half-obscured by sand, the bitumen cracked and broken. Up ahead, though, he could see the large buildings that were clearly their destination: An old railway station and an old hall. “I didn’t know the trains came through here,” he mused.
“Not for forty years,” Dawn laughed. “This is all abandoned. And the road that leads up that way sort of peters out to nothing. It used to make its way to the old highway, but now it’s nothing. There’s even a farm blocking it a few k’s out of town. The town’s a dead end.”
“So, this is like the end of town? Those buildings are it?”
“Yep. And they’re both heritage-listed, so we can’t do a real lot with them, either.”
“So, what’s with the hall?”
She nodded. “That’s the old Town Hall, built when the town was established. But it hasn’t been used since the 1970s after some pretty serious earthquake damage.” She pointed to regular shapes in the dirt on either side of the road. “There used to be maybe another forty houses here. After the line closed down we lost a lot of people, the houses were abandoned, never sold. Eventually they were said to be a bushfire hazard and so in the late 80s, after the Ash Wednesday mess, they were all levelled. Makes the town even smaller.” She pointed to a nearby house, its ‘For Sale’ sign faded and battered. “That’s been like that since Mrs Cooke died. But the town hall’s the main thing for you out here.” She paused and her pace slowed. “You’ll here about this from Leroy. But I think it’ll help you get a better idea of things if you see it first and know what he’s talking about.”
“This is where we’ve found the majority of the carcasses, and where it’s been seen most often.”
Karl stopped. “Then let’s go to the club,” he said. “I want to come to Mr Foster – Leroy – without any preconceptions.”
Dawn laughed and smiled and grabbed his arm briefly. “You’re going to fit in here real well,” she laughed, and Karl smiled. “I hope you can stay long enough to get this sorted out.”
Karl’s smile froze, but he maintained the expression. He had all the time in the world…
Leroy looked as old as the town itself. His face was lined with crags and cracks, his skin was as dry as the desert around them, and his hands were as gnarled as the tree roots that poked out of the earth. But his body still held a remarkable vitality, and he was clearly still as healthy as men half his age. Dawn had left Karl to go and re-open the shop and he had watched the old man finish repairing a bench seat with a minimum of fuss. He had just done the job and that was that, no nonsense.
Leroy was wary as he sat down, his eyes not leaving Karl’s. Dawn had warned Karl that Leroy was sick of being laughed at, and that it was only the fact he wanted to know what was going on in the town that he kept on making a deal out of it where everyone else was happy to let it slide and let it be their own little secret.
He had felt there was something she was not telling him about this, but he let it go for the moment; he was, after all, a stranger, no matter how well they may have got along from the outset.
Finally, Leroy asked, “Wanna drink?”
Karl almost jumped. The old man’s mouth looked like it did not move, and yet the resonant voice had clearly come from his throat. “A Coke or something, if you’ve got it, thanks,” he returned quietly.
The old man grunted as he stood and wandered in through the glass doors and emerged moments later with a Coke and a beer. Karl looked over the oval – devoid of grass, with not only football goalposts at either end but also a cricket pitch across the centre – from their position in front of the Members’ Bar, sitting on metal garden furniture beneath a canvas awning. It was just as Karl had imaged it would look. “So, you got questions?” Leroy asked gruffly.
Karl smiled and pulled a battered tape recorder out of his backpack. He opened the back and swapped a battery around, then pressed the red REC button. “Sure,” he said. “Your letter said that you think there is a creature living in the outskirts of the town that no-one can identify. According to you it eats meat and is quite dangerous, but you don’t seem to be able to find it. You said you’ve contacted the police, National Parks And Wildlife, the government, even the newspapers. And then you read about our university finding out what the strange thing washed up on Kangaroo Island was and so you thought you’d give us a go. You’ve been looking for this thing for maybe eighteen years. Have I got that right?”
“So far, ayuh.”
“Well, there was one thing that was missing from your letter.”
“What am I looking for?”
He simply stared at Karl. He was silent for so long that the academic thought he was not going to say anything. Then: “Have you heard of the kadnomeyu?”
Karl shook his head.
“The local natives never came here before white man did,” he muttered. “Said it was cursed. When the farmers found opal and the government did the mine, the natives wouldn’t work here. They said it was the land of the kadnomeyu and they weren’t allowed to come here. Well, the mine went bust after a few years and the town started to die real slow and the natives said it was the curse of the kadnomeyu.”
“Have you seen one of these?” Karl asked.
The old man looked at him for another long time. “Ayuh,” he whispered. “But only from a distance. My son, he saw one up close.”
“Can I talk to him about this?”
Another long silence. Then, so quietly that even though they were alone Karl struggled to hear him. “He’s dead.”
Karl was not sure what to say.
“They got him.”
Karl’s drink seemed to freeze in his throat and he stared at the man. There was no indication of any humour in his expression, especially not in his eyes. “Sorry?” he finally managed.
Leroy stood and without saying a word he walked off towards a distant tractor. He now appeared as old as his face said he was. Karl stopped the recorder and pulled out his lap-top. It took a little time to get a satellite feed, but eventually he was online and he typed in the word kadnomeyu. Nothing. He broke it down: kadno meyu. Still nothing. He logged into the university system. Locals, that would mean an indigenous language. He tried again with an internal search. Finally, something appeared. Kadnomeyu: Lizard-man.
Now he understood why Leroy Foster had been so keen to find some-one from his department… his former department.
He sighed and shut the computer. The department’s last bit of research funding was here with him. He had been told there was no job to go back to in Adelaide now that the academic year had started, and he was sure that nowhere else was hiring in this field. He still remembered the meeting. Dr Hubbard had refused point blank to consider anything else and was probably even now fighting it, Dr Smyth had accepted an automatic transfer to the Palaeontology department. Trevor had left the building and no-one had heard from him. And so that left him, Karl Hawkins, twenty-four years old, just finished the literature review for a PhD that looked like it would never be completed, to come out here and perform the last official function of the Department. Dr Hubbard had insisted.
And so he was going to be chasing a killer lizard-man.
No wonder there was not any more money for them…
He sighed and shouldered the bag, then made his way back towards the store where Dawn had promised to fill in any blank details in Leroy’s tale. And there were a lot of them.