short stories

THE MIRAGE

Waterless waste. To the right is the East West Rail-line To Perth and Darwin

A short story, by G Leane

‘Water! Oh for a cool drink of water,’ Mary wished aloud, her tongue was glued to the roof of her mouth. The water in her litre bottle seemed to say, ‘drink me’. Mary realised that it was all they had in the car.  She began to worry about what would happen if they broke down.

“We’ll be in Birdsville soon and you can have a cold beer,” Tom glanced at her, patted her on the knee.

“Is this all the water you brought?  I thought you were going to put in a five-litre container.”

“Nah.   I decided it would take too much room and only add extra weight to our luggage.’

“What if we broke down out here?  We’d be stuck for days before anyone found us. We’d be dead.”  Panic threaded Mary’s voice.  Travelling the Birdsville Track was no place to take chances where life could be on the line.

Mary had lived in the bush all her life and was wise in the ways of survival.Tom was a ‘Townie’ and very conscious that he didn’t always measure up to the men in the bush.  He wanted to impress Mary so she wouldn’t leave him.  She couldn’t make him understand that she loved him just as he was.  They lived in Birdsville.  She was a waitress in the hotel and Tom ran the local store. They were returning from a short stay in ‘the big smoke’.

Mary looked out of the car window at the passing terrain of rolling treeless plains of stunted saltbush.

A hot wind dried the perspiration on her forehead. If only Tom wasn’t so defensive and stubborn.  She just couldn’t seem to get through to him not to take chances in the bush. He seemed to think he knew all about the bush, but better people had fallen prey to the harsh environment.

This is the Finke river. It is mostly a dry river of sand. When it floods it turns into a raging river of water. The bridge is the rail line to Darwin. It wasn’t finished when we crossed the Finke River.

“Gee! I’m thirsty. I could drink a flagon of water.”  Tom said and grabbed the bottle from between their seats upending it.

“Well, don’t drink it all, save some,” Mary snapped, cross at her husband for trying to prove he was a bushman and tried to prise the bottle from his lips. “This is all we have, Tom.”

“Don’t panic, we’ll soon be home. Boy, was that good!  Nothing like a drink of water on a hot day.” Tom laughed.

“Well, I hope you’re right, Tom, and we don’t need it.”  Mary was hurt at Tom’s selfishness.  Of late she had become aware that he thought largely of what he wanted.

The kilometres sped by until they reached the sand dune country. Mary suffered her thirst in silence.  Tom sang along to the music on the car radio.

The Subaru shuddered up the loose face of a high sand dune and stalled.  The back wheels were down to the differential.

Tom got out and studied their predicament.  “We’ll have to try and dig the car out.”

“What with?”  Mary was angry. “You didn’t put a spade in did you?  No, it was too heavy or something I suppose.”

“Come on, Get digging, Mary.  I’ll pull up some bushes and see if we can’t get some traction.” Tom urged and he walked off to the side of the road in search of vegetation.  Mary looked at him in frustration.

“Where’s the water, Mary. Did you drink it all?”  Tom snarled.  He was hot and uncomfortable.  He hated the bloody bush.  He planned not to live out here another minute.  Blast Mary.  She could live in the bush if she wanted but he was getting out.

“No! I didn’t drink the water, you did. Remember? You wanted to drink a flagon.”

Tom looked sheepish at her words.  He looked around for a dam or windmill. He spied in the distance a great lake of water, shimmering and sparkling.  Picking up the bottle he took off at a fast walk.

“I’ll be back with the water, Mary.  Try to dig out the car while I’m gone.”

“Tom,” Mary yelled, frantic at his ignorance. “It’s a mirage.  There is no water there.”

“Don’t be silly, Mary.  Anyone can see there’s water over there.  Lot’s of it.”  Tom just kept on going into the westering sun.

Mary dug the dirt away from the back wheels and laid down the bushes that she had collected.  She was able to drive the car out onto the flat road.

Tom had not returned.  The sun had just set.  She called, “Tom, Tom.” She blew the horn to give him direction. But Tom failed to appear.

Mary fretted. Should she continue into Birdsville and get help?  What if Tom returned and she wasn’t here.  He’s just as likely to take off again and get lost.

As night fell, Mary made the decision to go to Birdsville and raise the alarm. But Tom was never found.

Mt Zondar or the Sleeping Lubra, rising from waterless plains. Never be caught in this country without water. Many people have perished.

It was years later, Mary was walking along the main street in Birdsville when she was startled to catch a glimpse of a man ahead of her. “Tom, she called, “Tom.”  But the man disappeared into a nearby café.  She followed the man but he had disappeared as though a ghost.

Through a crack between a fixture, Tom watched Mary searching for him.  Whew, he thought, that was a close call.  I should never have come back.  But I needed to pick up the stash that I buried when we got stuck.  Now I can really begin to live the rest of my life without Mary making me feel a little boy around the place.  Always pointing out how the men in the bush are better than city blokes.

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