A small bird lands at the roadside, scuffing the hot dust, and she asks the tour guide what it is.
“Zebra finch,” he says. “They’re what you wanna see if you’re lost out here.”
Eilidh watches the bird dab at the earth with its orange beak.
“Must be water somewhere close,” the guide says. “They never stray far from it.”
“I wouldn’t either,” she says.
Drops of sweat trace the shape of her face. The sun’s heat presses hard on the back of her neck like a branding iron. As Eilidh peels a wet strand of hair away from her eyes, the zebra finch springs back into the air, bearing north in the absolute blue of the outback’s sky. The tour guide – who is also the group’s driver – opens the bonnet of the minibus parked behind them. He decided to stop here on the highway’s shoulder to grant the engine a chance to cool, if it can, and everyone aboard savours the opportunity to free themselves of the vehicle’s interior that stinks of roasted upholstery and hot skin. German and Dutch backpackers hurry through the scrums of spinifex beside the road, looking for some privacy to pee, while the rest of the group – comprising older members of an Argentinian family, a Spanish retiree and two South Korean students – take photos of a huntsman spider that someone’s found brooding in the dirt.
Douglas, meanwhile, chooses to stand alone in the middle of the road – there’s no traffic or any prospect there will be. Walking to his side, Eilidh notices dark splotches of sweat on the spine of his polo shirt, reminding her of the inkblots of a Rorschach test. The fringe of his black hair is slickened against his forehead and a Nikon camera hangs by its strap around his damp neck. Tucked into the back pocket of his shorts is a national road map which he’s consulted often since the tour’s departure from Adelaide, enabling Douglas to keep her informed of which landmarks are due to appear, the mileages that the tour achieves per day and his best guess as to whether they’ll arrive in Alice Springs on time later this week. Eilidh can trust him to know what to expect.
After drinking some bottled water that Douglas passes to her, its taste boiled and stale, Eilidh stares at the bare road ahead of them, a straight line of tarmac searing across the country’s huge span of ochre dust and salt pans, shards of rock and ghost gum trees. White markings repeat themselves down the highway’s centre to their end in a burning haze which trickles over the horizon like acid.
“Doesn’t feel much like December, does it,” she says.
Douglas wipes a hand across his face and considers the sweat smeared on his palm. “I don’t know how anyone can live like this,” he says.
“It must be easier if you’ve never known anything different.”
“Aye, but if you ended up on your own out here you wouldn’t last a day.”
“You not taking any pictures?” she says.
“I would if there was anything worth looking at.”
Douglas doesn’t share her reverence of the continent’s landscapes or admit to their capacity for inspiration. Yesterday morning, when the tour group had stood in the presence of Uluru at sunrise – the monolith blushing under the glare of eastern light – Eilidh had said that it was beautiful yet Douglas disagreed, making the point that if she ignored the meaning that other people had attached to it, what was she left with but a dod of sandstone? Eilidh hadn’t responded, disappointment curing her sense of awe like a dose of anaesthetic.
Douglas takes the bottle from her hand as they return to the minibus. “We back on the road again soon?” he asks the guide, a short but muscular man from Darwin with a burnished face and a wealth of black stubble, who closes the vehicle’s bonnet and eases a forearm across his bald head to clear it of sweat.
“Do me a favour when you get back on,” he replies. “Get everyone to open the windows. I’m gonna have to turn off the air-con.”
“You’re joking,” Douglas says.
“Engine can’t take it,” the guide says. “Everyone’s just gonna have to get used to the smell of each other in there.” He grins, showing off his yellow teeth.
“And this is what we paid good money for,” Douglas whispers to Eilidh.
As the minibus continues northwards on the highway, the loss of air-conditioning scalds the atmosphere on board. Bloated air pushes down on every passenger’s shoulders and chest. Eilidh and Douglas, sweating on the rearmost seats, listen to the noise of the engine’s strain, occasional gasps of spray from cans of deodorant and the exhausted murmurs of conversations in other languages, the last of which provokes Douglas’ irritation.
“We’re sitting right here and they don’t bother speaking English,” he says.
“They’re not doing it deliberately,” she says.
“Any of them could be talking about us and we wouldn’t know.”
“It’s just in your head.”
“You’re not listening to me.”
It’s too warm to hold Douglas’ hand or even move to rest her head on his shoulder, acts of reassurance and distraction that Eilidh uses to calm his exasperation whenever she doesn’t keep the same faith in his perspective that he does. Instead, she asks for water. Douglas withdraws another bottle from the rucksack drooped at his feet and Eilidh sips from it, her mouth parching the instant she finishes.
“Wish we had something that tastes different,” she says. “I’d love a cold beer.”
“Because beer would do you so much good,” Douglas says, replacing the bottle’s cap. “This is all you need.”
Eilidh turns away from him in her seat, trying to be comfortable in the midst of her discomfort, for which she can only blame herself. After all, she and Douglas had come to this hemisphere at her request. On a Sunday afternoon last summer she’d stood by the kitchen window of their flat in Shawlands, eyeing the grey rainwater purling down the glass and over the tiles of local rooftops, while Douglas sat at the table speaking of the future and how it should be fleshed out. He’d announced that they could afford a package deal that year – another trip to Spain or Crete – before holidays had to stop for the foreseeable. Both of them had to start contributing more to the joint account every month to save enough for a house deposit by the end of next year. Only after completing the purchase can they begin saving for a wedding – Douglas had said that they’d decide when to try for children depending on the date set, more than likely to be June the year after. He’d queried what Eilidh thought and she’d felt as though she was being asked to vote in an election with only one candidate.
Douglas is so sure of his opinions that Eilidh often considers it sensible to hold fast to any doubts she might have, keeping them sealed in her mind, out of reach of his readiness for an argument. Nonetheless, as she’d picked at the bared quick of one of her fingernails, she’d managed to confess that she didn’t want to finalise buying a home until she’d accomplished an ambition, one that involved the kind of expenditure they wouldn’t be able to afford once they had a mortgage. She’d wanted to go to a place that she’d only ever seen in the pages of a book printed by Reader’s Digest, part of a collection stored in the front room of her family’s home – when she was younger Eilidh had used to kneel on the carpet with that volume about Australia, poring over its images of bloodwoods and Lake Amadeus and the Opera House, determined that when she was older she’d look at those scenes in person. Even when her parents wouldn’t stop shouting at each other again upstairs, Eilidh had found cause in the pages of that book to dream of contentment and warmth.
Douglas hadn’t understood her intent to upend his plans, however. He’d claimed not to know why he was even bothering, before stomping to the pub for rounds of lager with his mates from the rugby team. Staying put in the kitchen, Eilidh had glanced at the photos stuck to the fridge door by souvenir magnets, a select few of the eight years’ worth of pictures gathered throughout the flat on walls, bedside tables and the mantelpiece. Those shots preserve late nights in the student union with friends from their psychology course, sunny afternoons together in beer gardens, dinners at Douglas’ favourite seafood restaurant and birthday parties with his family, not to mention the occasional visits to Eilidh’s mother and stepfather or father and stepmother. Until that moment Eilidh had never thought about the difficulty of finding a photo of herself that isn’t under the influence of Douglas – he’s ever-present in those pictures with an arm laid across her shoulders, grinning in the background or, if memory serves her right, holding the camera that captured the shot.
Upon his return later that night Douglas’ tone had been softer, his manner peaceable. After talking it over with the lads he’d concluded that Eilidh’s wish was doable, but that they should pay for the flights with her credit card to avoid any debt being in his name. He’d told her that as soon as they got back they’d have to knuckle down and save even more than he’d budgeted for because they wouldn’t realise the future they wanted without sacrifices. Eilidh remains conscious that things must occur in the proper order: a deposit earned; a house mortgaged; and his proposal accepted, because when Douglas asks her to marry him no-one would believe that she’d say anything other than yes. To their social circle she and Douglas are a given, something definitive to which many of their friends aspire and compare their own romances to, this relationship being proof of first love’s ease and first love’s constancy.
A dry breeze blows through the minibus window and touches her face. Eilidh scratches her left forearm and notices that sunburnt skin has come loose under her blunt fingernails – gently pulling at those white shreds, she can see fresh, pink skin underneath.
Following an overnight stay at Kings Creek Station the tour group is driven to Kings Canyon just as the sun heaves itself over the edge of the land. Notices in the car park warn of the dangers of walking the trail without taking precautions against the heat. The guide addresses everyone as he slathers sun cream onto his face, arms and legs.
“People have died here because they haven’t listened,” he says. “I want everybody to keep their head covered and you’ll need a litre of water for every hour that we’re gonna be out here.”
Douglas spies the first section of the trail they’re preparing to hike – a vast, steep incline of a thousand or more steps formed of chunks of sandstone, wending to the crest of the canyon’s western side. He laughs without a trace of humour. “You don’t think anyone’s going up there in this heat.”
“We’ll be fine,” Eilidh says.
“No, we won’t be fine. Nobody’s going to be fine.”
“We can do it.”
“This is an actual joke.”
“But it’s why we’re here,” she says.
Douglas turns his eyes on her. “Why’re you never on my side anymore?”
She has not answered by the time the group begins the ascent to the canyon’s rim. Even in the early light everyone suffers from the exertion under the high pressure of the day’s temperature. Douglas strides ahead of Eilidh, his boots thumping on each broiled slab of sandstone, stamping the dust, and she recognises a tendency to place her own feet in his footprints. She begins to avoid doing so, looking for spaces on the ground that he hasn’t touched. When pausing for a breather, Douglas gulps from one of their water bottles before handing it to her – she downs the last of the water but the aftertaste is singed and foul, denying her refreshment. Douglas maintains a rare silence but continues to glance at her as though looking for signs of concern, the sound of his voice being something that she should grieve the loss of.
The climb continues. Clothes and hats are soaked through by the sweat leaching from everyone’s pores, yet Eilidh discovers that she’s not tiring, her muscles outstripping pain and her pace steady. She overtakes Douglas and the rest of the group, the top of the canyon nearing as her shoes pound on the stones, the heat of such intensity that she believes she can smell the rocks smouldering. She’s the first to reach the canyon’s apogee, her heart thudding at the inside of her chest as though it’s trying to escape. On the final step she turns on her heel and confronts Australia from a point closer to the sky – thousands of miles of red dust, amber dust and desert oaks meld and swelter beneath a white sun. For days thus far she’s witnessed the outback’s aura redden the light of every dusk and dawn; feral horses and mobs of camels trample through the sands; the black skeletons of cars abandoned and torched in laybys; tiger snakes hiding in warm shadows; and bush fires which char the scrub and ashen the open air. She’s fearful of and fascinated by the threat of desperation and utter beauty out there, the splendour and menace, the isolation and hard truth of the odds of survival. Life’s scope and power lies over the breadth of the land. She’d ask if the outback has scorched anyone else’s thoughts like this if there was anyone whom she trusted to comprehend.
Every member of the tour group trudges past, coping with cramps and a drenching of sweat, before Douglas appears – his breaths are loud and his polo shirt is blackened by perspiration, sticking to his torso like a second layer of skin. His weariness spurs all of her old affection to blend into a hope that they can stand beside each other and revel in what can be seen from here.
“You made it,” she says. “Just look at the view.”
“For fuck’s sake,” he says. “I don’t care.”
He yanks another bottle of water from his rucksack, swallows half its contents, and offers Eilidh the bottle.
“I don’t want any,” she says.
“Don’t be daft,” he says. “Take some.”
“I said I don’t want any.”
Douglas’ face and eyes glisten. He shoves the bottle into his rucksack and stalks away along the path, though Eilidh makes no move to follow.
The shadow of a zebra finch dashes over the rocks of Kings Canyon. Eilidh stands in front of the outback’s expanse and recalls that she’d once been positive that Douglas was a person who could make her happy, or if not happy then at least content, or if not content then at least accepting of a life she’d chosen. She’d been adamant that she would get love right at the first time of asking.
“You look serious,” the tour guide says, arriving at the head of the steps. Sweat seeps from his face and drips onto a camera slung around his neck.
Eilidh forms a smile. “This is a serious place”, she says. “Don’t know how long I’d last out here alone.”
“Doesn’t matter if you’re alone or not,” he says. “All that matters is that you’re prepared for what’s it like.”
Eilidh slips her sunglasses away from her face and takes off her cap. “Would it be alright if you took my picture?”