This story is by Tim Nicol and was part of our 2017 Winter Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
My white Toyota shakes as it hits the last deep hole on the road from Waratah Station. A weathered sign with a spattering of bullet holes leans over the interface between red dirt and cracked bitumen. It reads: Welcome to Crocodile Creek. Relax, you’re on Creek Time now! Enjoy your stay.
Back at the Station, twenty elders are waiting with as many lawyers for the Federal Court Judge to arrive for the hearing tomorrow morning. If the Judge is convinced that the tribe retains a cultural connection to this land, they will get it back. Two hundred years of waiting will be over. But one elder is missing. Old Jimmy. He holds the Creek stories, crucial to proving the claim. And I’m here to pick him up.
It should be easy. I’ve made all the arrangements in advance.
I pull up outside the biggest building in town. The walls are rough-hewn stone, the veranda lacquered wood. The words Crocodile Creek Pub run along its corrugated iron roof. A bell jingles as I open the heavy wooden door. The only person is a blonde woman behind the bar.
“G’day, what can I do for you?” she asks in a slow drawl.
“I’m looking for Old Jimmy Ferguson. I’m supposed to meet him here at nine.”
The woman lets out short cackle.
“Jimmy, eh. I’ve not seen him for a month or so. But if he said he’ll show, guess he will. Want a coffee while you wait? Or a beer?”
Creek Time, I remember with a shudder. Slow, like the water in the river. It’s not my kind of time. I do billable fifteen-minute intervals. People aren’t late.
“Coffee,” I say, too bluntly.
The woman purses her lips and leaves. Warming wooden beams creak in the quiet. Eventually, I receive my coffee, burnt and over-sugared.
“Where you from?” She asks. “You don’t seem like the usual Land Council type.”
“Sydney,” I reply, “I was seconded out here to learn about Native Title Law. Then I got sent to pick up Jimmy.”
She nods, expecting more. I glance at my watch. It is already twenty past nine. Time to take control.
“Do you know where he lives?”
Her eyes widen.
“Jimmy doesn’t really live anywhere mate, but you might find him at Meeda Crossing Community. Half an hour on the down river track. It’s a bit rough, so take it easy.”
I pay for the coffee and leave. Outside, the heat has hit. Breathing the humid air is like drowning in an oven. Desperate flies descend seeking moisture from my mouth. I choke on one.
What am I supposed to learn here? The human capacity for involuntary fly consumption?
My car bumps past a few small houses where sprinklers are struggling to keep spindly grass alive on the unforgiving red dirt. Then the track turns into wheel ruts between the dense riverside shrubs. Branches squeak on the car doors. Sky and dirt alternate in my windscreen as the suspension overcompensates for my speed.
Twenty-minutes later I see a line-up of rundown Toyotas, and then a few small cottages with wide verandas. A group of Aboriginal teenagers in singlets saunter along with a panting dog.
I lean out the window.
“Hey there, can you help? I’m looking for Old Jimmy Ferguson?”
The kids look at me, and then run off towards one of the houses. I pull up on a piece of clear ground. The air smells of heat and wood smoke.
A lanky brown eyed woman comes out of the house towards me, watched by two older ladies on the veranda.
“You looking for Jimmy?”
“Yes, for the land title hearing.”
“He’s not here. Gone fishing up the creek,” she replies, pointing back towards town.
“When will he be back?” I ask. But she shrugs and walks off.
Thanks for nothing, I think as I climb into the car.
Twenty brutal minutes and I’m back in town. Thank goodness this is a hire car.
I take a quick detour to the river. A sun-bleached jetty wobbles between the white trunks of the paperbark trees. Two old dinghies are beached on the river bank. I head back to the pub. Still no sign of Jimmy.
“How do I get up the river?” I ask. The woman is visibly amused.
“Try Jacko at number six,” she replies over a cup of tea.
It isn’t hard to find Jacko’s place. Homemade extensions sprawl out from the faded cottage. Vehicles in various stages of disrepair litter the yard.
It’s harder to find Jacko. I walk around calling his name. A couple of large dogs watch me from the shade.
Eventually a rotund unshaven man in a beaten old hat emerges from a shed.
“You have a boat I can take up the river?” I ask.
“Well, G’day to you too,” he retorts, and walks back into the shed.
“G’day then…,” I start. He looks at me and waits.
“I need a boat to find Old Jimmy, he’s fishing upriver.”
“Better you wait for him I reckon.”
“I can’t, there isn’t time.”
Jacko smirks at me. “Boats are all broken. How’s Tuesday when I get my spares delivered?”
I look at him in disbelief.
“I need one now.”
He returns the disbelief.
“What about an outboard?” I ask. “I can use one of the boats lying around by the jetty.”
Jacko looks slowly around. The shelves, workbench and floor are piled high with tools and vehicle innards. Eventually he pulls out a dented twenty horse power and a jerry can of fuel.
“That’ll be a pineapple, fifty bucks,” he says. “And don’t tell anyone I helped you steal a boat.”
I hand him the yellow note.
“I’m not stealing, I’m borrowing.”
“Whatever,” he says as he turns away, “take it easy up the creek, lots of banks, snags and crocs.”
I’m quickly out the door. The heat hits me and threatens to push me into the ground. I look at my watch: already midday. He mentioned crocs. I shudder. But I’m not a quitter. I can do this, I think.
It takes twenty minutes to fit the outboard, but I succeed. I am soon cruising up river sending a neat wake slapping against the rounded mud banks.
But then a big splash jolts me alert. Crocodile, I think. I turn to look, and that’s when I hit the sandbank.
The hull crunches hard, and the boat stops. But I don’t. I do a full somersault, and my face hits the cool tea-stained water. I struggle and then surface. My nostrils sting and my clothes are heavy on my limbs. I can almost feel bone crushing jaws dragging me down. I see the boat, not too far away. I force myself, stroke by stroke, to swim back towards it.
My feet find the sandbank. I stand and look around. I am completely surrounded by deeper water. I look at the dinghy still stuck on the sand. The bow has been holed by the collision. The croc surfaces, just thirty feet away. I can see its cold calculating eyes.
I’m not only going to fail. I’m going to die.
There is only one hope. I push the boat back out into the river. Water streams into the hole but I launch myself into the far end of the boat. The hole lifts out of the water. The boat floats. The outboard starts.
I look upriver. Jimmy is probably there. He might not be. I realise I don’t know. I’ve lost control.
The croc is somewhere under the water again. There is no time to think. I turn the boat and head back towards the jetty.
When I get back, I climb out and feel solid wooden boards under my feet. I breathe a mouthful of the hot humid air. It feels good to breathe; now I’m thinking about it. I look up. A light breeze rustles bright green leaves. The sky and clouds contrast in brilliant white and blue.
I lie down to dry out. I’m not sure how long.
Then I hear a noise behind me, and tilt my head back. A short and wiry Aboriginal man with a squat nose and a beard down to his chest is standing above me.
“I hear you been looking for me,” says Old Jimmy with a smile.
I let out a sigh of relief and my shoulders relax a little.
“Just admiring these paperbarks,” I reply.
Jimmy sits down next to me, his legs over the edge of the jetty. He mumbles a few words in his language at the river, before replying.
“We’ve waited 200 years, so I guess another five minutes won’t hurt.”
I smile despite myself. Crocodile Creek runs slowly underneath us. It dawns on me. Creek Time, it is treacle time. The harder you push, the stronger it pulls you back, so that everything happens when it is meant to, and not a moment too soon.