THE PRIMORDIAL LINE
* * *
A warm gust of air enlivens him. He sucks a reviving breath deep into his lungs. His eyelids open. His vision is unfocused. He is unconscious again.
A hand-span from his face, a shining metallic chrysalis hangs from a twig. The nymph inside quivers and kicks it’s legs until, the chrome-like skin of the pupa splits.
The elementary cycle-of-life triumphs as a lesser-wanderer butterfly emerges from the spent cocoon. If he regained consciousness our man would witness this lesser-wanderer spread its wings for the first time and soak in its new beginning. Eucalyptus trees heated by the sun emit their scent and ignite billion-year-old reactions in his brain.
He remains unconscious.
Anyone passing would justifiably think the worst of the situation. Anyone that is, except international agent Nicholby Hardup. Nicholby Hardup would stop, straighten, then strike a pose of recognition before leaping into action.
His name may be unfortunate but not his steep descent through the talented trickling DNA of his ascendancy. Youngest son in a long line of what they call “Private Dicks” and “Crack Team Specialists”, Nicholby is a direct descendant of Sir Leonard Woolley the famous archaeologist who uncovered significant finds from Mesopotamia in the nineteen-thirties.
In the vicinity of our man, enticing pink-pavonia-reds and shiny-pansy-yellows attract bees and ladybirds. Pad-footed creatures have worn thin tracks on the ground between spiky-spinifex and orange-blooming-pigface. Ants trek along their own smaller paths, sniffing for directions like microscopic black dogs or minuscule bubbly iguanas. Succulent sunshine-warmed groundcovers covet moisture at their roots. Unruly trees loom haphazard, casting mottled shade. The greatest impressionist painters could not improve on the natural wonder of it all, nor would they dare. This raw tranquillity is too pure to fault. A jewelled-gecko nestles in the spinifex soaking-in the sun.
Agent Hardup will happen upon this particular patch quite soon. But on this day, resplendent with optimism, Nicholby is discombobulated in his own quandary.
The lesser-wanderer dances over our man’s ruddy face as he dangles upside-down cocooned in his tangled parachute. It takes flight as Nicholby comes to a standstill below our unconscious fellow.
Following its instinct towards nourishment, the lesser-wanderer alights onto a magenta pigface bloom.
Nicholby’s blinkered stare reflects an echoing conversation that rotates in his mind like the latest number-one-hit on the swinger’s-pop-charts.
Hardup scrutinises his recollection for a clue.
* * *
Back in the cold grey dusty gloom of headquarters, Agent Wegener spins his words like an automatic sausage machine in action.
‘Nicholby you’re a damned fool. Damn it, we’re relocating you tonight!’
Flustered, Nicholby says, ‘Sir I -’
‘Listen Hardup, I’ve had enough. Attracting unwanted attention. Why didn’t you realise?’
‘Now look at what you’ve done. It’s not the first time Nicholby.’
Nicholby interjected, ‘Most sincerely-’
‘Call yourself a crack team agent? Wretched fool. And so – the consequences. It was either Scotland-’
A chord of relief shot through Nicholby.
‘Och-aye, sir,’ he trilled.
‘What?’ Wegener hissed. ‘No Nicholby, it’s time for an extended leave. You’ll attend to a glitch in international communications. Less exacting than renegade number-crunchers and, further afield than Scotland. Much further.’
‘Sir,’ chirps Nicholby. But he’s cut off again.
‘Take this envelope. Usual despatch-papers. You’ll get a knapsack on the aircraft. Turn your frown around Hardup. Girt by sea under azure skies what? Admittedly it’s crawling with just about every venomous creature that came off the ark.’ Beaming into Nicholby’s eyes Wegener brightened his tone. For a moment he seemed less like a sausage machine and more like an old grandfather clock in need of a thorough polish. ‘There’s a beach that runs forever along the coast. Breathtaking, postcard views. Sometimes it dips below the ocean and leaves ancient-cliff-faces to wear the ozone-spray, but it spreads itself out luxuriously from side to side. Rich. Visceral. Anciently resonant.’
A frown civilizes Wegener’s prosaic flourish moot. ‘Read your itinerary,’ he croaks, as he snatches a wooden ruler from his desk and wields it, like a devilish conductor’s baton. ‘Hardup, we do so often hark back to the rulers of yesterday,’ he snorts and laughs at his own pun. ‘Now is a time for deep reflection. I expect everything to be crystal clear next time we talk. Hark!’ Wegener taps the end of the ruler against Nicholby’s forehead. ‘You know what this is?’ Nicholby suppresses a wince.
‘It’s a ruler sir, for drawing a straight line, discerning accurate measurements.’
‘Quite. When I was a boy at school, we learnt multiple ways to leave an impression with one of these. I’ll show you. Close your eyes.’
Nicholby closed his eyes. ‘It goes like this, I say; hark?’ Wegener smacks the ruler against Nicholby’s face. Nicholby’s cheekbone burns like blistering nipples. Wegener instructs, ‘Now you give the answer, yes? What was that?’
‘And you’ve won the round; hark?’ Wegener whacks Nicholby’s face.
Nicholby’s cheek burns. ‘A ruler.’
Ruefully Wegener sings, ‘Whipped me first game you bugger! Best out of five before they escort you to the air-field what?’
* * *
The lesser-wanderer flutters its wings and lifts into the air. The breeze intensifies and shifts direction taking the butterfly by surprise. Nicholby has a rush of conclusive thought. Definitely subterfuge! Wegener was being cryptic. Office full of bugs. Key biblical reference was ‘Noah’s ark’. But why go on about the beach so? Enjoyed slapping my face, but I don’t see the key. Unless it’s an agent Noah coming to brief me… that’s it!
Nicholby spies the lesser-wanderer panicking in a tangle of dry spinifex. It struggles for liberty, fatally arousing the interest of a spotty-jewelled-gecko. The vision is so alien that, for a moment, Nicholby can’t make out where the lizard starts or the butterfly ends, at least not until the reptile gulps the insect down.
Nicholby investigates, extending a hand to shift some spinifex aside. His intrusion astonishes the spotty-jewelled-gecko which leaves a diversion as it escapes. He grabs the writhing bulbous tail abandoned by the lizard. The slither of flesh squirms in his fingers. He lifts it closer to his face. He tightens his grip attempting to control its thrashing spasms. A stream of clear liquid squirts out of the tail in a fine spray over his face.
‘Putrid!’ Nicholby gasps dropping the tail. ‘I suppose it’s some kind of blasted poison!’
Victim of the spotty-jewelled-gecko’s secret weapon, Nicholby sputters and wipes his face with his handkerchief. ‘Better go and consult the blessed knapsack for notes on antipodean venomous reptiles,’ he mutters. As Nicholby back-tacks towards his knapsack, the breeze contorts and a cold shower of rain starts.
‘Fine mess if agent Noah arrives to find me poisoned.’
The cascading downpour lashes Nicholby. Loud yelps and eerie grunts rise through the constant teaming of the heavy shower. A high pitched metallic voice startles him. ‘Knee-deep!’ it cries.
Nicholby’s eyebrows reach for each other. ‘Who’s that?’ he asks over the swelling cacophony of weather.
An immediate reply echoes from somewhere else, ‘Pee-o-wit!’
‘Do you want to buy a postage stamp?’ shouts Nicholby.
‘Knee-deep,’ comes the cry again, then, ‘Tee-o-wee, pee-o-wit!’
Nicholby scans the area searching for the source of either call. Discordant crescendos of sounds rattle him as wood splinters and crunches somewhere distant, a short harsh shout peels, and a brisk high pitched yodel dashes intermittently. Disoriented, he turns on the spot then stops. He reiterates, annunciating clearly, ‘Do you want to buy a postage stamp?’
No reply, but a lashing of wings. Wild screeches. Birds he thinks. That was birds. May have been agent Noah. What bird yodel’s in a squall? Bizarre place.
The rain stops.
I expect that was sufficient to rinse away the poison. Deranged weather. All those clouds rolling over. So bloody noisy.
Silence doesn’t have a chance against the erratic dripping, rustling treetops or expressive birds that have now joined the throng. Shivers of cold moist air trickle over him as he wipes his wet face with his kerchief.
‘Are you right, mate?’ It’s a woman.
‘Ah? Oh? Do you want to buy a postage stamp?’
‘No, keep your fucking postage-stamp. Was that your swag on the road? I come ‘round the corner in me ute and collected it with the fucking roo-bar. You trying to kill someone?’ Her blue eyes flash, ‘Who leaves a swag-load-o-shit in the middle of the road out in the middle-o fucking nowhere?’ She sums Nicholby up from under the cover of her broad brimmed hat. The moment passes. ‘Jesus,’ she barks, ‘It got a bit mashed anyway. Should’ve left it in your vehicle- By the way mate, where is your vehicle?’
‘I was dropped off.’
‘No worries. Sound like a pommy-bastard,’ she smirks.
‘They may have been a bit off course actually.’
‘You think? Moomba’s three hours north, that way.’
‘What a curious name…’
‘Innamincka’s further up. At the border. I’m going the other way, if you need a lift. Down south, to Beltana.’
‘Beltana. Down past Arkaroola.’
‘Belt Anna… What did poor Anna do to you?’ A blowfly attempts to walk up Nicholby’s right nostril. He snorts and blows through his nose. Her eyes sparkle. Steady as a rock she says, ‘Pommy-bastard comedian eh? Keep trying, I may warm up.’
Blowing his nose into his wet handkerchief Nicholby thinks, not Noah, just the ark. As Nicholby wipes his nose, she calculates the number of bullets that have scattered out of his knapsack over the wet unsealed road.
‘Weather’s turning. Grab what’s left o’ your stuff. Let’s bugger off.’
‘Yes… indeed Missus!’
‘It’s Ms,’ she smirks.
* * *
Bluish-white spots on the tailless-spotty-jewelled-gecko glow in the moonlight as it dashes out from the safety of the spinifex. Defying gravity it scurries up the trunk towards its prey until the swooping of wings halts its advance. Fixated on the sight, the creature waits for danger to pass.
Ancient instinct keeps it alert, but with a belly-full of lesser-wanderer there’s energy to be patient. Completely still, the tailless-spotty-jewelled-gecko stares at the gigantic chrysalis silhouetted in the moonlight. It waits, for the inevitable metamorphosis, and the ensuing hunt. It licks its lips with primeval anticipation, oblivious to the crested bellbird about to strike.
* * *
Hours beyond his final breath, our man’s remains have begun their return to the primordial soup.