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Image: ‘Kata Tjuta’, Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0)

So much for being in the middle of nowhere, Robbie thought as she stood to watch the flashing blue-and-red lights speed down the strip of bitumen towards them.

‘They’re coming,’ Viv yelled to the boys staggered on the eastern slope of the massive rock, heads down, ears filled with the roar of blowtorches. The wail of the sirens saw sections of the desert light up: fancy canvas domes, tarpaulin mansions and tiny taco tents glowed. The headlamps of backpackers in their swags collided like lasers in the night. Someone had called it in, a mysterious spatter of orange sparks spilling down the side of Uluru.

Lifting his thumb from a blowtorch, Charlie pulled up his goggles. He was drenched in sweat.

‘It’s cool, Charlie,’ Jay called. Charlie nodded slowly and pulled down his goggles. Digging out a lighter from his shorts, he relit the torch, his tongue poking from the corner of his mouth in concentration, bringing flame to metal.

The wail of the sirens saw sections of the desert light up: fancy canvas domes, tarpaulin mansions and tiny taco tents glowed.

Charlie was a big guy, shy. Seventeen years old. Past initiation age, but the elders hadn’t put him through ritual yet. He hung with the younger teenagers in the community: Jay, Reg, Rose, Viv and Jez. The kids Charlie’s age were too fast – driving, having sex. Some already doing time. ‘He was an alcohol baby, Charlie was,’ Eileen told Robbie. ‘You can hear them in the early morning: when the community is still and quiet, they start up bleating like sick lambs.’ Charlie sometimes worked in the art room where Robbie was assisting Eileen, who managed the remote community’s art program. ‘He’s a beautiful painter,’ Eileen said, ‘but only if you intervene in time.’

When Robbie first saw Charlie make art, she was mesmerised. He played with the paint like the younger kids played with fire and spinifex in the evenings, pulling the long grass from the dirt and lighting it, fearlessly winding it around their fingers like a cat’s cradle, hands swifter than the flame. Charlie seemed to knit the hues onto the canvas just like that. Often, he’d be painting so briskly that he’d grab a second brush to use in his other hand. As though each colour were a note, he’d create a melody – from the bottom of the canvas a landscape would rise out of shadows he had already laid down. Then, after a time, Charlie would fling aside the brushes and use his fingers to push the paint around.

At this point, Eileen would get ready to slide between him and the canvas. ‘That’s enough now, Charlie,’ she’d say in a singsong voice, and he would look at her, bewildered, as if emerging from a trance. Then he’d nod, letting her take the painting away.

Robbie had been left in charge one day when Charlie was painting, and she’d been so absorbed watching him – his large clumsy body hardened to a single focus, the painting forming like photographic paper in a chemical bath – that she forgot to step in. At first, she didn’t notice his fingers start to push the paint more fiercely, only that the sky seemed to churn. Then he pressed his palms flat, making wide circles, building boulders before skidding them outwards.

As though each colour were a note, he’d create a melody – from the bottom of the canvas a landscape would rise out of shadows he had already laid down.

‘Charlie?’ Robbie said, worried for him. He stopped, body heavy again, arms by his side, muddy hands dangling. He was panting, struggling to control the rise and fall of his chest. He hung his head. ‘Sorry,’ he said quietly. Robbie saw he had bitten his tongue, bright red pooling on pink. He looked so sad that she had to fight the urge to hug him.

But on her second day in the remote community, the cultural relations officer, Quinn, had told her that showing affection was inappropriate. ‘These are traditional people, you know. An ancient desert culture, very conservative.’ He had looked at her T-shirt, eyes on her breasts. ‘I’d suggest a looser-fitting shirt as well.’ Robbie set her jaw. Quinn was a prick. She had figured that out almost instantly.

In his office, he sat close, pulling his chair around. He told her he had a skin name given to him by the local people and had witnessed ceremonies he was not permitted to talk about.

‘Then why are you telling me?’ Robbie asked, and he sat back, sizing her up.

‘There’s hierarchy out here,’ he said. ‘It’s best you know where you’re placed.’

In hindsight Robbie wished she had walked out of his office then, told him to piss off, but she was already learning that the tyranny of distance meant having to rely on all manner of pricks.

Still, Robbie wasn’t acclimatised enough to call Quinn’s bluff on hugging. Instead, looking at the wrecked canvas, she said unconvincingly, ‘I like it,’ but Charlie was slow, not stupid. He made a muffled noise as he got up to leave, wiping his hands on his pants. Robbie thought about a couple of the babies she had seen, the ones born from briny alcoholic wombs, their limbs scrawny, chests caved in. Their constant bleating, always thirsty. Born with a hangover. She tried to imagine the ache in their heads, how the light of day glared at them. The health workers, when they flew in, focused on the alcohol babies: took their measurements, gave them shots, revised their formula, shushing them when they arched their backs, tiny furious bodies opening and closing like scissors.

She tried to imagine Charlie as a baby: shrivelled and grey, bulbous in the wrong places, thrashing in the heat. There was a gracelessness about him; he walked as if he’d made numerous adaptations to cope, one shoulder lurched forward, neck crooked, eyes on the ground. It was only when painting that he briefly found his grace.

Eileen was annoyed that Robbie hadn’t intervened in time to rescue the painting. ‘You have to grab it before he does this,’ she said tersely as she wet a sponge, rubbing as much paint off the canvas as she could. ‘He doesn’t paint anywhere near as much as he needs to make a living.’ Robbie nodded, watching. There was something sad about Charlie’s painting being washed down the drain, even though it was mostly awful to look at.