The soldier has been on the line for two weeks. No-one has come. The electrified fence stretches across the desert, north to south, south to north, going as far as the eye can see without bending or altering course. In the heat its distant sections shimmer and float. Only at dusk do they return to their true positions. With the exception of the break at the soldier’s post the ten-foot high electrified fence is uninterrupted. Although, further up the line, perhaps twenty miles along, there may be another post similar to this one. Perhaps there is not. Perhaps the break at this post is the only entry point, the only exit point—no-one has told him. No-one has told him anything except that he must not ask questions. The officer who briefed him told the soldier only what was considered necessary: that the area to the west could be considered the United States, although, in fact, it was not; that the area to the east of the line could be considered to be Australia, which it was; that no-one, with the exception of U.S. military personnel carrying a special pass from Southern Command should be permitted to cross the line at this point. They gave him a photostat copy of an old pass, dated two years previous, and drove him out to the line in a Ford truck. That was all.
No-one in the United States had briefed him about the line—its existence was never mentioned. No-one anywhere has told him if the line is part of a large circle or whether it is straight: no-one has taken the trouble to mention the actual length of the line. The line might go straight across Australia, for all the soldier knows, from north to south, cutting the country in half. And even if this were the case, he would not know where, would not be able to point out the line’s location on a map. He was flown from the United States, together with two cooks, five jeeps and various other supplies, directly to the base at Yallamby. After they landed there was no orientation brief, no maps—he waited fifteen hours before someone came to claim him.
So, for all he knows, this line could be anywhere in Australia. It is even possible that there are two parallel lines, or perhaps several hundred, each at thirty-mile intervals. It is even possible that some lines are better than others, that not all of them stretch through this desert with its whining silence and singing in the line.
The road crosses the line, roughly, at a right angle. The fact that it is not exactly a right angle has caused him considerable irritation for two weeks. For the first week he was unable to locate the thing that was irritating him: it was something small and hard, like a stone in his boot.
The bitumen road crosses the line at the slightest angle away from a right angle. He has calculated it to be, approximately, 87°. In another month those missing three degrees could become worse.
The soldier, who is standing on double white lines that run the length of the road, kicks a small red rock back into the desert.
The solider sits inside the door of the caravan, his eyes focussed on the dusty screen of his dark glasses, his long body cradled in an armchair. He was informed, three weeks ago, that he would be permitted to bring a crate of specified size containing personal effects. From this he gathered some ill-defined idea of what was ahead of him. He is not a young soldier, and remembering other times in other countries, he located an armchair that would fit within the specified dimensions. The remaining space he packed with magazines, thrillers, and a copy of the Bible. The Bible was an afterthought. It puzzled him at the time, but he hasn’t thought of it or looked at it since.
He had expected, while he put the crate together, that he would have a fight on his hands, sooner or later, because of that armchair. Because he had envisaged a camp. But there was no camp, merely this caravan on the line.
The soldier polishes and cleans his dark glasses which were made to prescription in Dallas, Texas, and stands up inside the caravan. As usual he bumps his head. His natural stoop has become more exaggerated, more protective, because of this caravan. He has hit his head so often that he now has a permanent patch that is red and raw, just at the top, just where the crew-cut is thin and worn like an old sandy carpet.
But this is not a caravan, not a real caravan. It resembles an aluminium coffin, an aluminium coffin with a peculiar swivelling base constructed like the base of a heavy gun. The soldier has no idea why anyone should design it that way, but he has taken advantage of it, changing the direction of the caravan so that the front door faces away from the wind. Changing the view, is what he calls it, changing the view.
No matter which way you point that door the view doesn’t alter. All that changes is the amount of fence you see. Because there is nothing else—no mountains, no grass, nothing but a windmill on the western side of the line. The corporal who drove him out in the Ford said that things grew in the desert if it rained. The corporal said that it rained two years ago. He said small flowers grew all over the desert, flowers and grass.
Once or twice the soldier has set out to walk to the windmill, for no good reason. He is not curious about its purpose—it is like the road, an irritation.
He took plenty of ammunition, two grenades, and his carbine, and while he walked across the hot rocky desert he kept an eye on the caravan and the break in the wire where the road came through. He was overcome with tiredness before he reached the windmill, possibly because it was further away than it seemed to be, possibly because he knew what it would look like when he got there.
The day before yesterday he came close enough to hear it clanking, a peculiar metallic noise that travelled from the windmill to him, across the desert. No-one else in the world could hear that clanking. He spat on the ground and watched his spittle disappear. Then he fired several rounds in the direction of the windmill, just on semi-automatic. Then he turned around and walked slowly back, his neck prickling.
The thermometer recorded 120°F inside the caravan when he got back.
The walls are well insulated—about one foot and three inches in thickness. But he has the need to have the door open and the air-conditioner became strange and, eventually, stopped. He hasn’t reported the breakdown because it is, after all, of his own making. And even if they came out from Yallamby and fixed it, he would leave the door open again and it would break down again. And there would be arguments about the door.
He needs the air. It is something he has had since he was small, the need for air coming from outside. Without good air he has headaches, and the air-conditioner does not give good air. Perhaps the other soldiers at the other posts along the line sit inside and peer at the desert through their thick glass windows, if there are any other soldiers. But it is not possible for him to do that. He likes to have the air.
He has had the need since he was a child and the need has not diminished so that now, in his forty-third year, the fights he has fought to keep windows open have brought him a small degree of fame. He is tall and thin and not born to be a fighter, but his need for air forced him to learn. He is not a straight fighter, and would be called dirty in many places, but he has the ability to win, and that is all he has ever needed.
Soon he will go out and get himself another bucket of scorpions. The method is simple in the extreme. There are holes every two or three inches apart, all the way across the desert. If you pour water down these holes the scorpions come up. It amuses him to think that they come up to drink. He laughs quietly to himself and talks to the scorpions as they emerge. When they come up he scoops them into a coffee mug and tips them into the blue bucket. Later on he pours boiling water from the artesian bore over the lot of them. That is how he fills a bucket with scorpions.
To the north of the road he has marked out a rough grid. Each square of this grid (its interstices marked with empty bottles and beer cans) can be calculated to contain approximately one bucket of scorpions. His plan, a new plan, developed only yesterday, is to rid the desert of a bucketful for each day he is here. As of this moment one square can be reckoned to be clear of scorpions.
The soldier, who has been sitting in his armchair, pulls on heavy issue boots and goes in search of yesterday’s bucket. The glare outside the caravan is intense, and in spite of the sunglasses he needs to shade his eyes. Most of the glare comes from the aluminium caravan. Everything looks like one of those colour photographs he took in Washington, over-exposed and bleached out.
The blue bucket is where he put it last night, beside the generator. Not having to support the air-conditioning, the generator has become quiet, almost silent.
He takes the blue bucket which once held strawberry jam and empties a soft black mass of scorpions onto the road, right in the middle, across those double white lines. In another two weeks he will have fifteen neat piles right along the centre of the road. If you could manage two bucketfuls a day there would be thirty. Perhaps, if he became really interested in it and worked hard at it, he could have several hundred buckets of scorpions lined up along those double lines. But sooner or later he will be relieved from duty or be visited by the supply truck, and then he will have to remove the scorpions before the truck reaches the post.
He walks slowly, his boots scuffing the road, the blue bucket banging softly against his long leg, and enters the caravan where he begins to search for a coffee mug. Soon he will go out and get himself another bucket of scorpions.
The sun is low now and everything is becoming quieter, or perhaps it is only that the wind, the new wind, suggests quietness while being, in fact, louder. The sand which lies on the hard rocky base of the desert is swept in sudden gusts and flurries. Occasionally one of these small storms engulfs him, stinging his face and arms. But for all the noises of sand and wind it seems to him that there is no sound at all.
He stands in the middle of the road, his shoulders drooping, a copy of Playboy in his hand, and gazes along the road, as far as he can see. Somewhere up towards the western horizon he can make out an animal of some type crossing the road. It is not a kangaroo. It is something else but he doesn’t know exactly what.
He gazes to the west, over past the windmill, watching the slowly darkening sky. Without turning his legs he twists his trunk and head around, to watch the sun sinking slowly in the eastern sky.
He squats a little, bending just enough to place the copy of Playboy gently on the road. Walking slowly towards the caravan he looks once more at the windmill which is slowly disappearing in the dark western sky.
The carbine is lying on his bunk. He clips a fresh magazine into it and returns to his place on the road, his long legs moving slowly over the sand, unhurriedly. The noise of his boots on the roadway reminds him of countless parades. He flicks the carbine to automatic and, having raised it gently to his shoulder, pours the whole magazine into the sun which continues to set in the east.
He lies on the bunk in the hot darkness wearing only shorts and a pair of soft white socks. He has always kept a supply of these socks, a special type purchased from Fish & Degenhardt in Dallas, thick white socks with heavy towelling along the sole to soak up the sweat. He bought a dozen pairs from Fish & Degenhardt three weeks ago. They cost $4.20 a pair.
He lies on the bunk and listens to the wind in the fence.
There are some things he must settle in his mind but he would prefer, for the moment, to forget about them. He would like not to think about east or west. What is east and what is west could be settled quickly and easily. There is an army issue compass on the shelf above his head. He could go outside now, take a flashlight with him, and settle it.
But now he is unsure as to what he has misunderstood. Perhaps the area to the geographical east is to be considered as part of the United State; and the area to the west as Australian.
Or perhaps it is as he remembered: the west is the United States and the east Australian; perhaps it is this and he has simply misunderstood which was east and which west. He was sure that the windmill was in the United States. He seems to remember the corporal making some joke about it, but it is possible that he misunderstood the joke.
There is also another possibility concerning the sun setting in the east. It creeps into his mind from time to time and he attempts to prevent it by blocking his ears.
He has been instructed to keep intruders on the outside but he is no longer clear as to what ‘outside’ could mean. If they had taken the trouble to inform him of what lay ‘inside’ he would be able to evaluate the seriousness of his position.
He considers telephoning the base to ask, and dismisses it quickly, his neck and ears reddening at the thought of it.
It is hot, very hot. He tries to see the Playboy nude in the dark, craning his head up from the pillow. He runs his dry fingers over the shiny paper and thinks about the line. If only they had told him if it was part of a circle, or a square or whatever shape it was. Somehow that could help. It would not be so bad if he knew the shape.
Now, in the darkness, it is merely a line, stretching across the desert as far as his mind can see. He pulls his knees up to his stomach, clutching the soft socks in large dry hands, and rolls over on his side.
Outside the wind seems to have stopped. Sometimes he thinks he can hear the windmill clanking.
The alarm goes at 4.30 a.m. and although he wakes instantly his head is still filled with unravelled dreams. He does not like to remember those dreams. A long line of silk thread spun out of his navel, and he, the spinner, could not halt the spinning. He can still taste the emptiness in his stomach. It is not the emptiness of hunger but something more, as if the silk has taken something precious from him.
He bumps around the caravan in the dark. He does not like to use the light. He did not use it last night either. He is happier in the dark. He spills a bottle of insect repellant but finds the coffee next to it. With his cigarette-lighter he lights the primus.
He could go outside, if he wanted, and take boiling water straight from the artesian bore, but he is happier to boil it. It makes a small happy noise inside the caravan which is normally so dense and quiet, like a room in an expensive hotel.
It will become light soon. The sun will rise but he doesn’t think about this, about the sun, about the line, about what the line divides, encircles or contains, about anything but the sound of boiling water.
The blue flame of the primus casts a flickering light over the pits and hollows of his face. He can see his face in the shaving-mirror, like the surface of a planet, a photograph of the surface of the moon in Life magazine. It is strange and unknown to him. He rubs his hands over it, more to cover the reflected image than to feel its texture.
The coffee is ready now and he dresses while it cools off. For some reason he puts on his dress uniform. Just for a change, is what he tells himself. The uniform is clean and pressed, lying neatly in the bottom of his duffle bag. It was pressed in Dallas, Texas, and still smells of American starch and the clean steam of those big hot laundries with their automatic presses.
In the middle of the desert the smell is like an old snapshot. He smiles in soft surprise as he puts it on.
He stands in the middle of the road. It is still cold and he stamps up and down looking at the place where the horizon is. He can make nothing out, nothing but stars, stars he is unfamiliar with. He could never memorise them anyway, never remember which was the bear or the bull, and it had caused him no inconvenience, this lack of knowledge.
He stands in the middle of the road and turns his head slowly around, scanning the soft horizon. Sooner or later there will be a patch, lighter than any other, as if a small city has appeared just over the edge, a city with its lights on. Then it will get bigger and then it will get hot, and before that he will have settled one of the questions concerning east and west.
He turns towards the east. He looks down the road in the direction he has known as ‘east’ for two weeks, for two weeks until he was crazy enough to watch the sun set. He watches now for a long time. He stands still with his hands behind his back, as if bound, and feels a prickling along the back of his neck.
He stands on the road with his feet astride the double white line, in the at-ease position. He remains standing there until an undeniable shadow is cast in front of him. It is his own shadow, long and lean, stretching along the road, cast by the sun which is rising in the ‘west’. He turns slowly to watch the windmill which is silhouetted against the clear morning sky.
It is sometime later, perhaps five minutes, perhaps thirty, when he notices the small aeroplane. It is travelling down from the ‘north’, directly above the wire and very low. It occurs to him that the plane is too low to be picked up by radar but is not alarmed. In all likelihood it is an inspection tour, a routine check, or even a supply visit. The plane has been to the other posts up ‘north’, a little further along the line.
Only when the plane is very close does he realize that it is civilian. Then it is over him, over the caravan, and he can see its civilian registration. As it circles and comes in to land on the road he is running hard for the caravan and his carbine. He stuffs his pockets full of clips and emerges as the plane comes to rest some ten yards from the caravan.
What now follows, he experiences distantly. As if he himself were observing his actions. He was once in a car accident in California where his tyre blew on the highway. He still remembers watching himself battle to control the car; he watched quite calmly, without fear.
Now he motions the pilot out of the plane and indicates that he should stand by the wing with his hands above his head. Accustomed to service in foreign countries he has no need of the English language. He grunts in a certain manner, waving and poking with the carbine to add meaning to the sounds. The pilot speaks but the soldier has no need to listen.
The pilot is a middle-aged man with a fat stomach. He is dressed in white; shorts, shirt and socks. He has the black shoes and white skin of a city man. He appears concerned. The soldier cannot be worried by this. He asks the pilot what he wants, using simple English, easy words to understand.
The man replies hurriedly, explaining that he was lost and nearly out of petrol. He is on his way to a mission station, at a place that the soldier does not even bother to hear—it would mean nothing.
The soldier then indicates that the pilot may sit in the shade beneath the wing of the aircraft. The pilot appears doubtful, perhaps thinking of his white clothing, but having looked at the soldier he moves awkwardly under the wing, huddling strangely.
The soldier then explains that he will telephone. He also explains that, should the man try to move or escape, he will be shot.
He dials the number he has never dialled before. At the moment of dialling he realizes that he is unsure of where the telephone is connected to: Yallamby base which is on the ‘outside’, or whatever is on the ‘inside’. The ‘phone is answered. It is an officer, a major he has never heard of. He explains the situation to the major who asks him details about the type of fuel required.
The soldier steps outside and obtains the information, then returns to the major on the ‘phone.
Before hanging up the major asks, what side of the wire was he on? The soldier replies, on the outside.
It is two hours before the truck comes. It is driven by a captain. That is strange, but it does not surprise the soldier. However, it disappoints him, for he had hoped to settle a few questions regarding the ‘outside’ and ‘inside’. It will be impossible to settle them now.
There are a few words. The captain and the soldier unload several drums and a handpump. The captain reprimands the soldier for his lack of courtesy to the pilot. The soldier salutes.
The pilot waves from his open cockpit. The soldier returns his greeting, waving slowly from his position beside the road. The pilot guns the motor and taxis along the road, then turns, ready for take-off.
At this point it occurs to the soldier that the man might be about to fly across the ‘inside’, across what is the United States. It is his job to prevent this. He tries to wave the man down but he seems to be occupied with other things, or misunderstands the waving. The plane is now accelerating and coming towards the soldier. He runs toward it, waving.
It is impossible to know which is the ‘inside’. It would have been impossible to ask an officer. They could have court-martialed him for that.
He stands beside the road as the small plane comes towards him, already off the road. It is perhaps six feet off the road when he levels his carbine and shoots. The man’s head drops.
The wings tip slightly to the left and then to the right. In the area known as the ‘west’ the small aeroplane tips onto its left wing, rolls, and explodes in a sudden blast of flame and smoke.
He has a mattock, pick and shovel. He flattens what he can and breaks those members that can be broken. Then he begins to dig a hole in which to bury the remains of the aeroplane. The ground is hard, composed mostly of rock. He will need a big hole. His uniform, his dress uniform, has become blackened and dirty. He digs continually, his fingers and hands bleeding and blistered. There are many scorpions. He cannot be bothered with them, there is no time. He tells them, there is no time now.
It is hot, very hot.
He digs, weeping quietly with fatigue.
Sometimes, while he digs, he thinks he can hear the windmill clanking. He weeps slowly, wondering if the windmill could possibly hear him.