A small white cross juts up crookedly out of the ground in the middle of a black patch of burnt grass. It's a simple, but stark reminder that death stalks these lonely places in the outback.
By Russ Swan
Another stretch of shimmering bitumen highway reaches into the distance as the van comes around the bend. The town of Katherine in the Northern Territory is not too far behind, and the country opens up on one side with scattered trees reaching back into some low hills beyond. There has been a grassfire through the area recently; leaving long patches of bare blackened ground beside the road.
A small white cross juts up crookedly out of the ground in the middle of a black patch of burnt grass, obstinately refusing to fall over. There is a twist of burnt grass stalk hanging off one of the arms but oddly enough, the cross itself is unmarked despite the obvious heat that must have been around it. There is no nameplate or any indication as to whom the unfortunate was that died here.
This is a simple, but stark reminder that death stalks these lonely places in the outback. Road crashes have accounted for more than double the death toll of Australians killed in four major wars, and cost in excess of $15b a year. At 21 percent, they are the second highest cause of external deaths, with suicide being the highest.
As I pass the cross I speculate idly what caused this particular fatality. Suddenly there is a fleeting image in my mind of a spectral entity sitting in the back seat of someone’s car. Perhaps it has powers it can wield besides the scythe that it carries around. Maybe it can reach into a victim’s psyche with ethereal wisps to create impatience, inattention, fatigue or stupidity?
The work must sometimes start even before an actual journey begins. Death would be nodding in satisfaction when an extra drink is taken at a hotel, or when a chance is taken on those worn tyres in the rain. It gestures soundlessly in triumph when a victim, with feelings of invincibility, contemptuously leaves the seatbelt unbuckled.
Out on the road, our unwelcome friend grins in anticipation as it caresses the mental state of the person behind the wheel. Perhaps it also looks at any passengers to cause some distraction as well. The plan is underway. Subtly, threads are weaved.
The driver becomes impatient, then frustrated and impulsive. Delays build up an internal explosion of emotion until the driver, blinded with the need to get past an obstruction, overtakes on a bend or a hill. The law of averages is tested in another grim game of chance. With lingering feelings of annoyance, the intended victim speeds off into the darkness in an effort to make up lost time.
Perhaps the poor individual back there had been involved in an argument and was stewing on the incident. Did Death replay it like a broken record time and again in the victims mind? Or was he or she mentally working out how to fix a problem, or anticipating a fantasy welcome from a loved one at the end of the journey? What’s the point of having warning signs if they stand uselessly as a vehicle rushes by, barely noted at surface level by the person at the wheel?
A rock wallaby bounds off into the bush beside the road. I wonder how many times it has watched people driving by, who didn’t see it sitting there. Most likely they’ve been going too fast to look around more carefully. They’ve just simply got to get home to start work tomorrow, or only want to get the trip over with. Perhaps they’re bored or tired. They start to hallucinate or even nod off, and our friend in the back seat waits for that split second of mental release when it can take control. Fatigue has slowed the driver’s reactions, and although quite sober, is driving as if drunk or drugged.
With a jerk I snap back to reality and feel a bit shamefaced that I have been mentally wandering myself. The small cross judders in the rear vision mirror as it disappears behind a clump of dirt. For a brief moment the heart reaches out to touch with those who put it there. Then it is forgotten as attention refocuses on the road ahead.