The kangaroo they hit was a large one, a grey, probably a young male. She saw it lit up in the headlights, heard the thump of the impact, watched it fall. The foreleg looked disconcertingly human, a hand and an arm.
They had been driving through the gathering dusk too fast for the conditions, the only sound the rumble of the tires against the corrugated surface. The kangaroos had appeared to lurk in the scrub beside the road, choosing their moment to leap into the headlights, flying at them from left and right - and until then it had all seemed unreal: an inverted video game, where the object was not to hit them.
It had been a long time since either of them had commented on the living, moving obstacles in their path; she had long since stopped wincing, too, at the nearer misses. They just sat in their respective seats, leaning forward, tensed against their seatbelts as the final kilometres ticked down.
The last thing she had said, peering at the map in the half light, was thirty more Ks, and with the instinct born of the endless journey they had both looked at the speedometer and silently worked out how long that would be. Half an hour? That had been ten minutes ago.
It seemed to take a long time to bring the Toyota to a halt on the hard-packed gravel road.
Weve got to go back, she said. You had to check, make sure it wasnt a female carrying a joey. He wanted to reverse but she stopped him and they both climbed out into the warm dry air, walking towards the huddled lump by the side of the road, only just visible in the dying light of the day.
It was a male, at least, but alive. It lay patiently by the side of the road, one liquid eye open and watching, shifting back and forth between them.
I have to put it out of its misery, he said, setting his mouth as he looked down at the big quiet animal.
How? she asked, but he climbed back into the Land Cruiser without answering her. When she saw the reversing light come on she jumped in too, unwilling to be a witness to what was about to happen.
But it was worse to be in the car. She felt the hump of the wheels the ones on her side over the kangaroos body. First the back one, then the front. He put the car into first gear and drove forward, repeating the manoeuvre. The front wheel first this time, rising a little, dropping, then the back.
He drove on a little way and stopped.
Go and check if its dead, he said
I cant, she said. You go.
He swallowed, his Adams apple bobbing in the glow from the dashboard.
I cant, he said, then, Please.
She got out and heard the thrum of the insects, the slap and scrape of her sandals against the looser grit at the roads edge. The last remnant of daylight had gone now and there were stars, a great immensity of sky above her. As her eyes adjusted to the darkness she could make out the huddled mass of the kangaroo half shadowed by a bush. It looked very dead.
She walked past the shoulder of the car, out of sight, then stopped. She couldnt go any closer, couldnt face finding out that it wasnt dead. It would be soon, whatever. Nothing could have survived the grinding weight of the Land Cruiser. She waited a few moments, alone with the stars and the dark body of the animal, then returned.
His face was lit up briefly by the interior light, then disappeared as she closed the door.
Dead? he said. She nodded. You checked?
Yes, she said, too loud. I checked.
They drove on slowly. They would be late. It didnt matter anymore. After a while the kangaroos started launching themselves again, flying across the bows of the car. They sat in silence and he drove on, swerving slightly to avoid them.
That night he climbed wordlessly into the cabins bed and flung himself over so his back was facing her, his shoulder raised up around his ear. She sat on the side of the bed, unwilling to spend a night dreaming of the drive, the flying shapes lit up in the beam of the headlights. She whispered goodnight to his hunched form and stepped out barefoot into the cooling night air. There was a patch of soft grass outside the door and she lay and looked up at the stars until something shifted and she seemed to be looking down at them instead, feeling the whole weight of the world at her back. She stayed looking into the cold distances between worlds until the chill had entered her bones and she was ready to find what warmth she could in his turned back and rigid pretence of sleep.
Did you dream of them last night? she asked. They were flying out at me all night. Must have hit half a dozen. He flinched, as if she had meant to hurt him, but before she could apologise he was gone, out to check the car; she was left watching from the cabin doorway. She could see the sharp white line on his neck where his tan ended, a few stray whorled hairs catching the sun. The curve of his neck tensed as he turned to inspect the front wing where the animal had hit.
Hit a roo, eh? the owner had said when they arrived. Hed been dressed only in an undershirt and shorts, pulled from his evening meal. Shed tried to explain why they were so late. Any damage to the car?
They hadnt thought of that. They contemplated the solid body of the Land Cruiser. Ah no, Toyota, shell be right, the owner had said. Roo killers we call them, round here. He laughed, paused to pick his teeth. Bit of a dent maybe? But shell be right? The rising inflection of Australia, land of the unanswered, unanswerable question.
This morning, though, there was no dent. The mark they thought they had seen was just a cleaner streak across the wing of the car where the kangaroo had wiped off the accumulated dust of a thousand kilometres. There wasnt any blood. The owner laughed again, still in his undershirt, picking breakfast out of his teeth now.
Car cleaner, thats a use for them. He rolled a phlegmy laugh in his throat. Bit of roo fur gets all the dirt off, nice as pie. Youll have to hit another one on the other side, balance it up? She concentrated on packing up the last of their stuff into the back. The owner was waving, still grinning, as they drove away.
Another thirty kilometres and they were back on the blacktop. He accelerated smoothly up to the legal maximum and she looked at the map, calculating how far it was to the next town. She spoke only to confirm the distance and he nodded, once, and they settled back down into silence. Theyd long since grown tired of the music they had brought and the radio stations they found seemed to only give out stock prices. The landscape ground past: arid, empty, flat.
At some point of his choosing, no different from any of the others, he pulled over, stopped and turned the engine off.
I have to sleep. You have to drive, he said. She looked at him, unwilling. She didnt like driving the Land Cruiser. It felt heavy in her hands. The steering was like tipping an oil drum slow to respond at first, and then abruptly gathering momentum, uncontrollable. But his face looked weary and she knew he wouldnt ask her if he didnt have to. They climbed out, crossed in front of the car without touching and settled into each others seats. She started up slowly and he leaned back against the headrest and closed his eyes. The last thing he said was, and dont crawl along. Weve got to get off the road before nightfall this time.
Stung, she pushed down the accelerator and let the Toyota roar up to the speed limit, down the straight black of the road. No kangaroos, now, in the middle of the morning. Just wedge-tailed eagles taking off in lazy wing beats at their approach and, every few kilometres or so, a basking lizard, black and knobbled like a pine-cone, taking in the heat from the road and the outback sun. She watched in satisfaction as the kilometres went by, steadily racking up the distance as he slept. They were beating ever down to the coast, to the cities.
The road stretched on before her, a thin, melting ribbon. Pizza cheese, stretching endlessly. Pizza, that would be something right now. She was sick of camping, of barbecued food, of beans. A pizza with real mozzarella, pepperoni, an oozing slick of grease
The lizard on the road before her jolted her to full attention. She over-steered to avoid it then over-corrected, the car yawing wildly towards the left-hand ditch and then across the divider. She fought the urge to brake, to steer, and finally it juddered to a halt, crazily canted across the road.
He woke with a single wha
? instantly alert as she sat shaking behind the big black wheel. With the engine off, she could hear the ticking of the hot metal.
Get it over to the other side of the road, quick, before something comes.
He sighed, shook his head.
Just do it.
She turned the key and manoeuvred like a beginner across the road, parking under the scant shade of a thorn tree. She let the near-side wheels drop off the tarmac so the car tipped down, away from the road, then switched off the engine.
I cant drive anymore.
I have to sleep.
Sleep here, then.
He shut his eyes. She marvelled at his ability to sleep like that, one elbow hanging out in the sun. Hed driven so far this trip that his right arm was browner than his left. This way, at least, hed even things up a little. His face relaxed and the sharp lines that had begun to fold themselves around his mouth eased, became faint shadows in the bright sun.
After a minute or so, when his breathing had become regular, she got out, closed the door quietly and walked back down the burning blacktop. She felt invincible under the shade of her hat brim. She wandered over to examine the jagged streaks of tyre marks in the tarmac, some hers, others older. She walked past the yellow warning sign with its flying kangaroo, back towards the basking lizard, surprised by how far she had travelled in what had seemed like a split second. The road lay thinly on the red earth, no more than a slick of tar across the old gravel. There was no other sign of human life besides a distant wind pump, broken and motionless. She looked further up the road, wondered how far they were now from the body of the kangaroo and what had become of it.
The lizard raised its head, displaying at her nudging sandal. Its tongue was blue, and she drew her foot back, worried about poison. Everything was poisonous here, or dangerous in some way. Their Australian friends were quick to warn them of the spiders, the snakes, the heat. Even the sun was deadly, burning through the thinning ozone. She should go back and cover his arm.
She turned to look back at the car, to see if his arm was in the sun, and caught her breath when she could see only the empty road. She thought for a moment he had driven off and left her there, a tiny speck under the sky, alone with the curvature of the earth. She stood motionless, poised as though she were barely anchored to the world, as though it could suddenly lose its gravitational attraction and she could fly off if she made any unwary movement. Then she realised there was a bend and dip in the road, imperceptible, but enough to hide the car. They were reaching the edge of the great flat hinterland and were beginning to enter the rolling valleys of the coast, where the road followed the dictates of the land and the rivers, rather than the ruler-drawn lines of the map. Soon they would have left these wide horizons and would be in the closer confines of the valleys, and then the city, and then back to the cramped streets and glimpsed skies of England. This journey, which had come to seem endless, would have a conclusion after all.
The heat blasted up from the blacktop and down from the sun, beating against the felt of her hat. She could feel it through the soles of her sandals and in the shifting uneasiness of the melting tarmac. The lizard arched and hissed again, its tongue and everything about it improbable. Everything in Australia seemed to her to be backwards, inverted, some sort of cosmic joke, designed after a few beers. God made Australia last, she used to joke, when He should have been resting. Her Australian friends didnt find it funny.
She left the lizard and walked back until she could see the car huddled under the tree. His figure was invisible, even the trailing arm. She walked towards it, wondering how they had grown so far apart, bound now only by need, the tyranny of distance, the pair of them against this empty world. She reeled the car in, thinking of water, of shade, of taking off the hat and flapping it at her damp hair, of the coolness generated by speed. She thought about the beckoning Southern Ocean with its taint of the Antarctic, roaring against the coast.
She watched with tenderness as first his arm yes, pink and then his head, slumped against the seat rest, came into view. So vulnerable when he was asleep, the shuttered look of his eyes gone. She felt that the elastic that had bound them had not snapped but given way, slowly, inexorably. She saw now that they would not stay together much longer, not once their journey was over. They had done enough, she had done enough, to survive. As she stood, examining him, he was already becoming a fond memory, someone she could tell stories about. About how they hit the kangaroo. About how they had to go back and kill it. She would no longer have to adjust to his moods and whims, fitting herself into the space that he left. She breathed easier and looked down at him as he smiled faintly at some dream memory and shifted in his sleep.
She took off her hat and shaded his pink arm with it, reached in gently to kiss him on the tip of his nose. He blinked and stirred and grumbled in his sleep. Time was getting on. It was her turn to shake him into action, to push them both on. His eyes opened like a babys, softly gummed with sleep.
Wake up, she said, and smiled. Wake up, kangaroo killer.
What? he said, but she had moved away, crossing round to get into the drivers seat again and turning the key in the ignition.
Nothing, she said, smiling a little and setting off down the road.