Some say Darwin is full of ghosts – a town of mokuys and poltergeists and feather-foot men, its Poinciana woman at East Point and its mimi spirits at the old Aboriginal burial ground at Mindil Beach. But in all my time living there I saw none. Just a few natural oddities, things that can be explained, with a pinch of logic and disbelief. Like the hailstorm that stopped my car one early Wet Season, thirty-five degree day. Or the mess of tiny, putrefying fish I found in the middle of my driveway at Darwin River once, two hundred metres from the creek, the morning after a storm.
While I was living there, I said.
But I had been gone five years the day I saw that hitchhiker standing by the side of the Stuart Highway, just before the Arnhem Highway turn-off. It was a humid, late September day. I was driving Ivan Chaloupka’s old car, which he had kindly lent me, while he was off at some international mathematics conference in Beijing.
The hitchhiker was tall and spare. His clothing was standard backpacker gear – old blue jeans, and an off-white T-shirt – and his finger stuck out like a wishing-bone. He had a sort of faded presence. That is what I mainly remember. He was like a gap between the trees, taking up space without seeming to trouble the light.
‘Hop in,’ I said.
He slid in without disturbing or even seeming to notice Ivan’s clutter all over the passenger’s side – spare thongs, flyers for bands and mathematics seminars, old copies of the NT News. He’s an eccentric, my friend Ivan. An internationally famous professor, but owns a dirt-bucket of a Monaro, an old manual that wouldn’t look out of place at the concert the Hell’s Angels used to organise on their block at Darwin River.
He had a sort of faded presence. That is what I mainly remember. He was like a gap between the trees, taking up space without seeming to trouble the light.
I had the air-con on high, but still the back of my shirt was soaked where it touched the seat. But this guy looked cool and pale. He had been out in the full sun, for who knows how long, and he hadn’t even raised a sweat.
‘Where are you heading?’
‘South,’ he said. His voice was soft. It strained my ears to make out what he was saying above the noise of the road.
‘It’s the only way out from here, isn’t it?’ I said.
He was taller than I thought, one of those bony people, all forearms and shins. I had the distinct sensation I had seen him before. In one of my classes, maybe.
‘There’s other places than south, around here,’ he said.
‘You’re right there. A lot of other places. I know most of these tracks.’ I waved, with what I hoped was a proprietorial air, at the little dirt roads that run off east and west of the highway south of the Kakadu turn-off – trying to impress him, maybe. ‘The badlands. That’s what they used to call it, when I lived around here.’
‘I wasn’t talking about the badlands,’ he said. He wasn’t laughing, nothing. You want a guy with a bit of a sense of humour, in these situations, when it’s just you and he and the road, for company.
‘I left five years ago,’ I added. ‘I moved back down south. I got sick of the heat. Although I keep coming back up here whenever I can. Most of my research is based up here. Not to mention my kids.’
‘You have kids?’
‘That’s where I’m going right now. Down to Katherine. To pick up the kids from the ex-wife. I was married twenty years.’
‘You research at the university?’ he asked, although it was more of a statement than a question.
‘That’s right. I’m a psychology lecturer. I was up at the Uni here, until a few years ago. I’m down at Monash, now. Game theory’s my field.’
‘I know a game,’ he said. ‘You give a scenario. Somebody’s died, or something. And you have to guess what happened. But you can only ask questions that can be answered with a yes or no. Say a man walks into a bar and asks for a drink. The barman pulls out a gun and points it at him. The man says thank you, and turns around and walks out.’
He must be very young, it seemed to me then. This was a silly game. A game for kids. I had a vague memory of having played this game before – at primary school, maybe. One of those schoolboy crazes. Kids play it every day for a few weeks, and then all of a sudden, like a plague of flying ants at the end of the Wet, it just disappears.
‘All right. Is the man scared?’
‘Does the barman intend to shoot him?’
‘Does he know the barman?’
We were down to a single-lane highway now. The bush starts to thin out, once you get past Noonamah. You get past the tradies, the townies, the blockies tooling about in their unregistered utes. Just past Acacia Store there’s a rise, and you see the ironwood scrub all around you, and the kapok trees in flower, and the occasional cycad among the rocks, and you realise – there’s nobody out here, now. Walk fifty metres off this road, and nobody will ever find you.
‘I know,’ I said, remembering. ‘The man’s got hiccups. The barman pulls out the gun to scare him, to stop the hiccups.’
‘That’s right. Your turn, now.’
Just past Acacia Store there’s a rise, and you see the ironwood scrub all around you, and you realise – there’s nobody out here, now. Walk fifty metres off this road, and nobody will ever find you.
Nothing about that scenario even added up. But then, this hitchhiker didn’t quite add up, either. He was staring out the windscreen. Somehow he seemed to shimmer, like the smoke from the grass fires that were still burning over the other side of Cox Peninsula, mingling with the high clouds, hanging above the trees.
‘I’m trying to remember it,’ I said. ‘Something about a guy who goes swimming out in a bay. Each day he swims towards something. A buoy, I think it is. Only one day he swims in the wrong direction, further and further out. Then he drowns.’
‘It’s a blind man,’ said the hitchhiker without hesitation. ‘He navigates by a bell-sound, the sound of the buoy. When the rope breaks on the buoy, the buoy floats away on the tide, and so the sound comes from the wrong place. And the blind man swims out to sea.’
‘You’ve played this game before.’
‘On this very road,’ he said.
I didn’t like the way he said that. I thought of the blind man swimming out towards the sound of the floating buoy – that feeling he must have had as he swam, that all the signals he knew were right, but there was something beyond what he could perceive, something wrong.
‘A man lives on the twenty-eighth floor,’ said the hitchhiker. ‘Every day he gets in the lift. He presses the button to the twelfth floor. Then he gets out, and walks the rest of the way. Why?’
‘Does he do it for exercise?’
‘Does the lift only go as far as the twelfth floor?
‘Is the lift broken, or something?’
‘The lift works perfectly well.’
I paused. My brain seemed numb. ‘I don’t know,’ I said. ‘I give up.’
‘He can’t reach the buttons, above the twelfth floor,’ said the hitchhiker. ‘He’s a short-statured person. A dwarf.’
He really did look familiar. I was still searching my memory – the different students, all the people who’d sat in my classes, or come to see me over the years. I’m changing every year, getting older and uglier, like the portrait of Dorian Gray, while the students sitting in front of me remain eternally young.
I thought of the blind man swimming out towards the sound of the floating buoy – that feeling he must have had as he swam, that all the signals he knew were right, but there was something beyond what he could perceive, something wrong.
‘Do I know you from somewhere?’ I asked.
‘I was a student,’ he said. ‘I went to uni in Melbourne. I was at Deakin, studying science. My name’s Chris Masterson.’
‘Masterson.’ The name did sound familiar. Maybe he had been a student at Monash before, and he had transferred, or changed courses, or something. I was almost sure, now, I had seen something about him before.
‘So what are you doing up here?’
‘I was on holiday, with some friends.’
It was almost sunset now. The bush had gone dark orange and papery. A faint pall of bushfire smoke hung above the horizon. We had got away from the traffic. We were heading towards – well, towards Katherine. Katherine, and my ex-wife, and my kids. They were both receding from my consciousness, now, all the fights we had had, and all the good times.
‘I’ve got one,’ I said. ‘A man is found dead in a phone box. The phone is off the hook. There is blood everywhere, and broken glass. How did he die?’
The hitchhiker was silent. Where were his friends, anyway? Maybe they had had some kind of an argument. Why else would he be hitching out here, carrying nothing with him, no backpack, no water, nothing, into the desert, all on his own?
‘The broken glass is from the phone box?’
‘He’d been making a call?’
‘Did the person on the other end cause his death?’
‘In a manner of speaking.’
‘You forgot something,’ said the hitchhiker. ‘You forgot the bucket of water beside him, and the fishing-rod.’
The moment he said that, I knew he knew the answer. The man has caught a fish, and he’s ringing his wife, telling her how big the fish was. It was a ridiculous scenario, probably the silliest of them all. The man puts out his arms, forgetting all about the receiver in his excitement, and he bleeds to death, putting both his hands through the glass.
‘My turn,’ he said. ‘A man is found dead in a flat on the sixth floor of an apartment block. He is hanging from a beam on the ceiling, his feet dangling about a half metre above the floor. The door to the apartment is locked, from the inside. The man is alone. At his feet is a large puddle of water. There is no furniture in the room.’
It was dark now. I turned off the air-con, wound down the window part-way. The air outside had grown a little cooler. It rushed into my face, bringing with it the smell of the desert, the emptiness, the baking smell of the earth.
We were a long way past human habitation now. Every now and then a set of lights came the other way, and you did the routine, flick lights down, flick up, two hands on the wheel, on your way. I wondered would anybody help if I weaved at them, or honked. Probably not. Nobody would stop for anything short of a major accident, not now.
The air outside had grown a little cooler. It rushed into my face, bringing with it the smell of the desert, the emptiness, the baking smell of the earth.
‘Are there any windows in the room?’
‘There is a window. But it is locked from the inside.’
‘Are there any other doors? Any exits? Any rooms?’
‘That is three questions. But the answer to all of them is, no.’
‘Where are you getting out, anyway?’ I asked.
‘I finish up here very soon,’ said the hitchhiker.
Finish up, I thought. The way he said it, it reminded me of the way the Aboriginal people spoke, like it was just one word. That old man, him finishup now.
I thought, too, of the other hitchhikers I had picked up, occasionally, over the years. There was the stoned guy, running away from a fight with the missus, his little girl with him, who he had kidnapped, maybe. I knew you’d pick me up, because of me kid, he’d said to me.
There was the single girl whose three male friends came out of the bush and piled into the back seat, just as I pulled up. I had never really felt frightened with any of them, not much, anyway. You always had the sense that they knew your position, and understood it, somehow. You could laugh about it, that was the key.
‘There’s nothing else in the room?’
‘Nothing else. Just the water, and the beam, and the rope.’
‘The guy wasn’t murdered?’
‘I don’t know. I have no idea.’
‘You give up easily, don’t you? It’s the water. The man stood on a block of ice, and jumped off it. The ice melted. That’s the clue.’
Chris Masterson. I repeated the name to myself. I had heard it before, I was pretty sure about that, and not too long ago, either. Maybe I had heard it from Ivan. Yes, that was probably it. Some story of Ivan’s, and not a very pleasant one, either, I seemed to recall.
‘I don’t think I want to play this game anymore.’
‘Just one more,’ said the hitchhiker. ‘Guy is found dead by the side of a highway. How did he die?’
We were south of Batchelor now, and flying south into the desert. I had a mobile phone in my pocket, but by now we were well out of mobile range. The GPS? Emergency call? I had not much idea about all these things. Besides, by the time anybody arrived to help, it would all be too late.
‘Which highway?’ I asked.
‘You can’t ask that.’
‘Was it in Australia?’
‘The Northern Territory, the Stuart Highway?’
‘Is it relevant to why he died, or how he died, that it was in the NT?’
I was just trying to ask questions, any questions. Keep the guy talking, talking at any cost. That’s what they say, isn’t it, in those hostage situations on TV?
‘Was he a hitchhiker?’
‘You’re getting close.’
Objects flashed by in the darkness – a tree, maybe, or a rock. I watched out for road signs, or fence-posts, even, anything that might give me some idea where I was.
I thought of all the stories I had heard over the years about hitchhikers and the Territory – about Bradley Murdoch, the Falconio case. Wolf Creek. Some other story, about a guy who got buried under a termite mound, years ago.
‘Can we stop?’ said the hitchhiker. ‘I need to take a leak.’
What else to do? Slowly, trance-like, I braked the car to a stop. The road, the shadows beside the road, slowly came into relief. They took on form, they became things again.
We were at a kind of roadside stop, I realised. One of the old World War II airstrips that still exist, every fifty kilometres or so, in the parts where the old Stuart Highway meets the new. Idly I wondered how the hitchhiker had known to stop here, in the pitch dark.
‘I’ll be back,’ said the hitchhiker.
I sat, both hands still on the steering wheel, while the hitchhiker opened the passenger-side door. I had left both the engine and the headlights on. The hitchhiker, though, did not go forward of the car. He disappeared into the blackness.
I listened. I could hear no sound. I waited a few moments, hands still on the wheel, my neck prickling. My brain was full of images of the hitchhiker returning, of the back door opening, of him sliding into the back seat behind me, of the point of a knife, or of a gun, against my neck.
Suddenly I was convinced that I was the solution to the last riddle, and that it was my body the police would find, next morning, by the side of the road. In a panic I drove off, headlights on high beam, lurching up the length of the airstrip, kangaroo-hopping, hands shaking, body shaking, willing myself to get away.
A few hundred yards up the airstrip, I stopped. I took a deep breath.
All was silent.
I looked behind. Still I was convinced he had somehow made his way into the back seat, and was even now sitting behind me, laughing.
I looked behind. Still I was convinced he had somehow made his way into the back seat, and was even now sitting behind me, laughing.
Nothing. Nobody was there. Taking my hands off the steering wheel, I turned on the car’s interior light.
And it was then I caught sight of the headline on the newspaper, one of Ivan’s old copies of the NT News, that he kept in amongst his detritus and scraps on the floor, and on the seat, on the passenger’s side of the car.
29 September, was the date on the paper. Exactly one year ago, to the day.
Highway death ‘a joke’, read the headline on the story.
Police are questioning a group of four tourists, students from Melbourne, after a man’s body was discovered yesterday. It is believed the four men, all students on a university holiday, were travelling in a hire car from Darwin to Adelaide, when the man’s death occurred. According to a police statement, the victim, Melbourne student Chris Masterson, got out of the car to answer a call of nature about 9.40pm on 29 September, when his mates drove off.
‘It was all a joke,’ added one of the men who’d been in the car. ‘We were playing a guessing game, and we just wanted to give him a fright.’
When the man failed to reappear, the car, still with its headlights off, then reversed in an effort to find him. It is believed the victim died instantly when struck by the reversing car.
Hands shaking, I put the car into reverse. The gearbox crunched, then screamed. With a miracle of self-control I managed to get the car moving evenly, steadily, in something like a straight line.
I turned, craning my neck backwards, peering through the back window. Even with the headlights on, it was hard to see where I was going. The motor screamed, protested, jumping the corrugations, following what I felt sure were my tracks until, in the end, we were back where we had left the road.
I stopped. I took a deep breath. Two, three breaths, until I felt sure I had my heartbeat and my voice under control. I listened. Silence, again. With the greatest possible care I opened the driver’s side door, turned off the ignition, put the keys into my front pocket, and got out of the car.
As my eyes adjusted to the darkness I could see the ti-tree bushes, the stunted scrub, the flat red rocks that had been there, baking, for millions of years. I called out, twice. The air was cooling, the night sky impossibly high and clear. The hitchhiker, if that was really what he was, had disappeared.
Back in the car, I looked at the time on the dashboard clock. It read 9.40pm.