I hadn’t seen McLeay since soldiering days, and there he was. Sat at a desk under the house where, in a manner both businesslike yet surly, he took $15 camp fees, wrote receipts and directed punters to shady green patches around the Telegraph Station where they could unfurl their trailers and tents. Mostly convoys of 4×4 families, travelling up Cape York, keen to circle the wagons and have a few beers before bedtime. A grey nomad couple and older guys, like me, were snagging quieter camp spots, further out, under the adjacent forest of gum trees, and I wanted one.
The campground was a refuge and I was knackered – rattled to bits by kilometers of road corrugations, those hard red horizontal ribcages poking from the ground. When I clocked my old sergeant at his check-in desk under the house, I almost turned round and vamoosed. I should have, but I was tired and sore, so stayed in the line.
A bickering family was in front. McLeay was dealing with them all. Never thought he would end up in the so called ‘service industry’. He didn’t like people, and he didn’t look pleased.
“G’day” I said quietly when I’d got to the top of the queue. He looked up at my face, slightly alarmed. Then saw it was me.
“Carlos you old cunt!” The family group was moving off like a herd of buffalo and missed his endearment. McLeay managed a smile, just. His skin was tanned, grey blue eyes hooded with distrust, a blondish thatch on his head, combed without conviction. Sour lines round his mouth (no surprises there). Shoulders strong, upper arms still taut but I could see his middle aged paunch all the same.
“How ya been, Lieutenant?”
I nodded. “Okay. You?”
A desultory willy-willy twirled off the airstrip and across the carpark, distracting us both. I smelt the dust.
“According to the Blackfellas those willy-willies are unsettled spirits because we haven’t been nice to their ancestors.”
“We haven’t,” I said. “And ‘specially not around here.”
Further south I’d read a blurb when passing through Battle Camp Creek. A bleak killing field where us white men warred with the local Indigenes. The Blacks took out more than a few early settlers and callow gold-miners before colonial forces shot or shipped them away to missions. Forces aided by the Native Police – their own people from further south, bribed by us whites to carry out “dispersals”.
And that, as we all know, is how you fight an insurgency.
“They tell me that’s why the weather’s so bad,” McLeay continued.
“The Blackfellas … because of their cranky ancestors.”
“Sounds as good as any reason, but I bet the weather was just as crap before we over-ran these sweeping fucking plains.”
It kind of shut him up for a bit.
“I’m off fishing at the tip of the Cape,” I added. “And through some of those island channels. They say the catch can be good. Got rods and a couple of nice reels too.”
“Fishing can be excellent when the tide’s right,” he replied. “That’ll be $15 bucks. I’ll come and visit a bit later on. Which is your vehicle?”
I pointed to the dirty Hilux. “I’ll be over there in the bush, away from the people.”
I shelled out. He gave me a docket to stick on my aerial. I walked back, eyes squinting to keep out the dust bursts, feeling displeased that I’d bumped into McLeay.
On seeing his ugly mug, I caught just a whiff of that burning petrol. The fire and smoke billowing from the mudbrick window. The landscape then hadn’t been as flat, and it had been much colder. I was half hoping he wouldn’t come over later, but it would be a shame if he didn’t too. We’d been very close once. Him, the senior NCO – and me, the disposable Lieutenant.
I drove the Hilux a short way to where a few large gum trees threw some shade into the clearing and did my daily house cleaning. I blasted my camper trailer with the leaf -blower raising a flag of red road dust, and cleaned out the creases in the canvas. Then a couple of swift maneuvers dropped the canopy. Everything was immaculate. Army taught me a few things, and one was how to look after my shit.
The double mattress was already made. I grabbed some bits of timber from a cage I’d welded on the truck’s arse and then stacked them, kindling first, in a metal fire pit ready to go. My afternoon ritual then propelled me to the portable fridge and a beer, while I contemplated the fire to be. I also contemplated McLeay and wondered whether I actually needed to be careful. He could be one angry hombre.
I chucked the crushed can in the fireplace and grabbed anothery, and then thought of Gretch as I often do.
After she left me I was lonely but the decision to embrace solitude was fair enough. As Gretch had quite rightly said, I was a big cloud of gloom for everyone around. I actually think Gretch did us both a favour in leaving me, and I hope she’s happy, because I’ve felt a lot lighter since I’ve been on my own and started my slow-mo journey around Australia.
I didn’t want to be a mercenary like some others I knew. Not for me. So more than two years ago I’d hit the road, leaving the house to our son and daughter, but that was no big deal – they’d almost grown up. They keep me briefed on comings, goings and repairs. They’re good kids. They check in – even pay me a spot of rent. Every week or so my Vets Affairs counsellor calls and asks how I am. But otherwise, I don’t talk much.
Dusk came, and the sun boiled red on the horizon then left the world murky brown. I’d lit the fire, let it burn for a good hour, pulled the embers back and chucked my trusty old grate over the pit. Another half hour and I threw on a steak on its bubbling surface and it hissed like a beauty. Nice smell. I sat both in my camp chair and contemplation, watching the meat, flipping it once only. I had the whole barbecue steak thing down pat by then.
McLeay almost got me. Walking up behind with his commando feet, but I caught him in time and said: “I hear you McLeay.”
He kept coming and awkwardly patted my shoulder on the way past and unfolded a dirty old canvas camp chair next to mine.
“Is that…?” I pointed at the chair.
“Certainly is,” he said, helping himself to my beer and settling in. “All the way from Operation March Tank.”
“Fuck me, it’s got a few miles on it then.”
I grabbed my steak and chucked it in a buttered roll, splattered the sauce and started chewing. “Sorry Mate. I’m hungry. I thought you’d be over later.”
“That’s ok. I’ve eaten,” he said, quietly.
In firelight McLeay didn’t look as crusty as he had in the camp office. Longer hair, trimmed beard. He was still muscular, toasted by the sun. He was a big bloke, and smaller weaker people could have been intimidated by him. I was big too, so didn’t care about his imposing stature – but I was still pissed about the careless havoc he’d wreaked.
We weren’t dishonourably discharged. Just told there would be no more missions. While the guys not directly involved were found other jobs, or even more rotations back into Afghanistan, me and McLeay and two other poor bastards involved in the melee were encouraged to resign and slink off. It was the slinking that killed me. The slinking probably killed McLeay as well, because we’d done our jobs, as asked.
I’d been upfront in my report and during the Commission of Inquiry. I’d done my best for the blokes, but as CO of the Patrol Group, but I was caught in friendly fire. I was responsible for the actions of my men. I never argued against that. We were forever bound by the top secret nature of the job, so there was nowhere to complain. I just felt deeply for the guys.
Up until the incident, we’d done a superb job as warriors. On the night in question we’d engaged in a bad firefight, rounds everywhere. Two firefights in fact. One at the Compound of Interest high up in the valley, and one from a Taliban ambush party on a ridge above. We acted with valour, and kept within the rules of engagement, except those moments in the aftermath of the battle. We followed all the rules ’til McLeay fucked it up and then tried to cover up his mistake. And from then on, none of the group were to be trusted by those up the chain of command. That’s war, I suppose.
I crushed my can, threw it in the fire and reloaded.
“So what’s it like here?” I asked.
“Oh, I chat to people perfunctorily …” McLeay was a reader and liked his occasional big word.
“Then those people move on and I don’t have to see them again. Suits me. I’ve had a bit of fun with a few itinerant backpacker chicks who work here during winter.” He wrinkled his nose. “That’s about it.”
“What do the backpacker chicks do?”
“Apart from me?” He laughed without a hint of humour which made me immediately doubt his boast. “Oh, we’ve got a bunch of cabins that need to be serviced for tour groups that blow through. And grounds work to keep the place neat. The café. Shower-blocks and the like to clean. And there are station-hands who come in for drinks. The local Blackfellas are good for a chat – like I said. They’re a quiet bunch – friendly but they keep to themselves. Easy work here – no one seriously argues with me. Specially those 4 by 4 dickheads off to smash their rigs up on the Old Telegraph Track.” He waved his hand at the rigs camped closer to the station house.
McLeay sniffed. He was starting to sound narky. “You’re not going the OTT, are you?” he added, checking. The Old Telegraph Track was a rough bash, the holy grail of Aussie off-road drivers.
“Nope. I’m going the civilised route round the bypass roads to the Jardine Ferry. I’ve done all my heavy off-road work with you, mate, in the good old days. On rocks.”
“Yeah, you’re no idiot,” said McLeay, more to himself than me. “Those dickheads think they’re off to adventure through the hard stuff. Fuckwits. I could throttle them sometimes. You should see what they do to their brand new $80,000 vehicles on some of those river crossings. For laughs! It’s criminal! Fuck me dead, they’ve got classy rigs and don’t know their luck, they don’t know how to drive, and they trash … I mean, you should see the tow trucks heading south with smashed up rigs on their trays. Some people have no idea…no idea how … spoilt they are…”
“Have anothery,” I suggested, and chucked him a tinny to snap him from his escalating anger. He caught it automatically. Reflexes still acute.
“Yair, well.” He tapered off and sighed looking at the can in his hand. “I know what you’re up to sir,”
“Don’t call me that,” I said in a quiet voice.
“Army had no choice.”
“No choice,” he echoed, tone similar to mine. Almost mocking. Could have been mocking. Could have been depressed.
“It was a big mistake,” he said, switching to Pashto – the language of southern Afghanistan which caught me by surprise. In case someone in the camp next door was eavesdropping? A little bit paranoid?
“I agree,” I replied in Pashto.
“Those kids weren’t supposed to be there.”
“According to the intelligence,” I added.
As if anyone could hear us chewing the fat of the past on this chilly plain in the middle of Cape York. The past was a big chunk of goat gristle, in my opinion. To be spat out and left behind. I shivered, half from the memories, half from the cold, and maybe from the fact that McLeay was still in denial about his unholy havoc. I kicked the barbecue plate off and chucked another log on the hot embers. McLeay’s face flared red and his look was unpleasant.
“I know. We walked into the wrong compound,” I reminded him in English, as if he needed being reminded. “Mischievous information. False positive. You know the findings.”
“We were the findings.”
“There’s no use beating ourselves up about it anymore.”
“We beat ourselves up every day,” said McLeay. “But I don’t feel guilty mate, just ashamed. I have my service record, my medals, my post career pension – its squared up and down, all the honours… but …” and he threw me a hostile look.
He clearly hadn’t forgiven me and my testimony for costing him our careers. We were thrown out of the bubble of certainty that was military service.
“Sometimes tho’, you’ve got to do the right thing – ‘specially when there are witnesses,” I said gently.
There was a long silence.
“Have you packed decent rods?’ McLeay finally said. “Don’t worry about lures up in the Torres Straits – the fish all go for the live bait. There’s a bait shop near Bamaga.”
“Live bait’s better,” I agreed.
“The fish are big. So are the crocs. Watch out for crocs.”
More drinking in silence. The air was cold now.
The whole evening was awkward. We continued through the “old comrades getting back together” motions and talked about where some of the other guys had ended up, McLeay finally had enough and abruptly stood, scrunched his can and said “seeya tomorrow,” and disappeared into the dark.
I poked the flames and reminded myself: I don’t beat myself up every day. But now, after McLeay’d banged on, the whole catastrophe was fresh again and so of course, I had the dream.
Dipped into the icy air at the top of the Valley. Really cold. Me crouched on the footpad under the target compound pushing McLeay’s back, his hard body armour pressed against the palm of my hand, other hand holding my gun tucked tight. There to arrest a hostile thought to be hiding out, but finding it was a Taliban ambush. McLeay and the others going in for the “hard knock” in the buildings with the shots zigging around, flashing in the dark, grenades going off, shouts and crying, then everything falling in a bottomless black pit ̶ me, McLeay, the squad, the Taliban shooters, the Afghan Army guys and the little kids, into the flames, and that sharp smell of igniting petrol that McLeay threw over their little corpses, and then a smell so strong and thick, acrid and sad, that it brought tears to my eyes at about 2 o’clock, and I woke, scrambling to make sense of where I was, heart thumping, and then I was unable to sleep for the rest of the night.
I remembered it all.
Through the mozzie mesh, I watched the tree crowns in the moonlight above me with their incessant creaking and swishing, the bush full of spirits talking, I think, to whoever listened, yet me unable to understand their old language, however hard I tried.
“It’s no good,” I told them.
At daybreak I steamed strong coffee through the expresso and boiled a couple of eggs and went for a long walk. After all the driving I needed a day off to exercise, and then there was the knotty problem of McLeay. I headed along the side of an old airstrip marked with white painted tyres, then veered into the scrub past those pallid termite mounds and black barked eucalypts. Crows sounded their dire croaks while honeyeaters called plik plik and flitted. I passed over a creek that had retreated into a couple of dry season puddles and veered further through the bush.
Took a few hours to get back, sweaty with effort – I got to camp well after noon, having decided to stay another night. McLeay was sitting at his counter drinking tea and directing a Spanish voiced backpacker about, but quite politely.
“Hey Sienna – this is my old army buddy Carlos. He was my officer in Afghanistan”
I never, ever, blurted about my past, but McLeay was front and center. Apparently he thought about it every day.
Sienna said “hi” politely, even carefully, and I said “hola,” and asked her in Spanish how she was.
Surprised an old grunt could speak Spanish, she stammered a muy bien and asked how long we’d been out of the army.
“Más de diez años,” I said. “Mucho tiempo.”
McLeay rolled his eyes. She was cute, but too young for me and for him, and I think maybe I’d blown McLeay’s chances and he knew it. She went off to deliver coffee to a couple of travelers huddled at a little white table.
I turned to McLeay: “One more night.”
“Yeah, yeah,” said McLeay, exceedingly unimpressed. He almost ripped the cash from my hand and gave me the chit and a look with his piercing blue eyes.
My name wasn’t Carlos of course. It was Adam Carroll. I had been Lieutenant Adam Carroll. Carlos was my code name and McLeay was being cheeky. We all had to protect our identities when on the prowl in case the Taliban or Al Qaeda got a bead on our transmissions and tracked us down, or worse still, tracked down our families back home. The logic of tribal warfare says that since we killed their families, they were obliged to come after ours if they could. And tribal is now of course, global. First world people forget that. Eye for an eye. Dog eat dog. Kill and be killed. Anonymity is crucial in the battlefield.
McLeay’s codename was Gantry because of his height. I was Carlos because I could speak Spanish.
The girl Sienna slid past me into the kitchen and gave me a warm smile. My Spanish must have reminded her of home. Either that, or McLeay was right about the over-friendliness of passing backpackers.
At camp, I rested on a mat in the shade and caught some sleep. I checked my pantry and all that was left was beans. For a nanosecond I contemplated catching a goanna for the pot, then dismissed the notion as absurd and wandered back to McLeay and told him I was coming to his for dinner and that I’d bring the beer. He gave me a curt nod and pointed to the staff quarters.
Once the day cooled, I wandered to his place in the charcoal dusk. There was some reluctance in my tread.
He cooked a good curry, McLeay. I joked about goat gristle, but he looked surly. We just chit chatted at the kitchen table of his self-contained donga (he was the manager and got a kitchen bench with a cooktop and a tiny living room) but I took it easy on the beer. I noted he was also cautious with the alcohol.
“What I don’t understand,” he said, “was why Army didn’t defend us more.”
I tried to smother my look of incredulity but something must have seeped out.
“You know our people were sympathetic,” I said. “Even the senior commanders, in their private moments. They told me it was just unfortunate it was our patrol in the firing line.”
McLeay barked his humourless laugh.
“Those civilians were human shields. Army knew that.”
“I totally understand your viewpoint, but …the casualties were kids. No-one was going to publicly support us. I warned you and the guys at the time – that’s not how Army works. They’ll go some of the way, sure, but you really had to be in that firefight to understand what happened.”
I could almost hear the drumbeats of anger hammering the inside of his skull. I could have added “the casualties were kids who you then desecrated” but I didn’t.
“They should have fuckin’ done more! They have no idea what it was like,” he spat, slapping the top of the table. “They weren’t fuckin there!” Bang, bang, bang, bang.
I tried to calm him down by agreeing. But I wasn’t genuine. Not sure if he sensed that. I knew then that staying one more night had been a huge mistake.
We were supposed to be picking up a local man of interest. That was all. The operation had been green-lighted under clear information. That night in the Valley, after pushing him forwards up the slope, McLeay had gone in and sprayed the room with bullets killing three little children, a teenage girl and their mother and granddad. In the other part of the compound several Taliban were actually returning fire, and they were taken out clinically by the other guys. McLeay hadn’t checked the room before he blundered in and started shooting. What’s more he didn’t stop until they were all slaughtered. The fool ran off behind the compound, found a jerrycan of petrol and torched the evidence, which broke several conventions of war, and criminal laws too. Killing the kids was terrible, but the torching of little corpses in the room was, for Army, a bridge too far. Of course other terrified human shields had seen McLeay going spacko.
Then we were engaged again further up the hill. We fought back, called in air support and finally won the skirmish with a missile. But McLeay was by then, officially and psychologically, cactus.
We were out, with our honour just intact, and only because we were under sustained fire from the other direction. The torching was covered up, the locals paid off with several thousand US dollars in reparation. And we were cut loose.
And while I’d exhausted myself with regret, picked myself up, and hit the road, McLeay was still full of denial and barely repressed anger. In the donga, I almost started again, going through my testimony to prove I’d been fair to him and the others, but shook my head, annoyed. I’d been there, done that.
Instead I said: “You know what I told them. You’ve read the unredacted testimony.”
Trouble was McLeay always thought I’d given further, undocumented testimony, off the legal record. He shook his head in disgust.
“Aw yeah?” he said in a sarcastic tone. The voice of a bitter man who felt owed. Who felt betrayed.
“Mate, look at me.” I said. He slowly looked up with his piercing eyes. “I wasn’t trying to save my skin, going through what happened. I wanted to make sure none of us would be actually court marshalled, dishonourably discharged and jailed. Lose all our entitlements. Don’t you get it, McLeay? It was a complete shit-fight.”
He didn’t answer and started to clear the plates with undue clatter, seething that I hadn’t seen things his way.
I complimented him on the curry and took leave early but as I headed down the steps I pulled the big knife from my boot, and stuck it in my belt just in case. The moon hadn’t risen yet and it was seriously inky.
McLeay came at me as I walked into the forest camp site. He was far too emotional. I heard him a mile off, and swung round just as he expected to administer a coup de gras with a big blade. As we grappled his face smelt of sweat and beer. Neither of us said a thing. We knew what we were doing and it didn’t take long, as he wasn’t expecting me to be carrying a knife. A couple of thuds and a low groan.
“You stupid prick,” I said to the mound at my feet.
I ripped up his shirt and slapped heavy tape on wound in his belly to staunch any further leakage, grabbed my night goggles and hauled him up over my shoulders. He was dead weight heavy – 110ks at least – and I was sticky with his blood, so I took the haul slowly, in stages, occasionally leaning him up against a tree as I caught my breath. The forest was deeply dark, black trees in the ink, the night goggles struggling to pick the terrain. I kept a good eye on my footfall and the GPS co-ords but it still took me almost two and half exhausting hours to reach the shovel and deep grave beside the creek bed I’d dug the day before.
Deep. Too deep for pigs and dogs to tackle. I stripped naked, wiped off as much of the dried blood as I could and threw in my clothes in and tipped him on top. For a moment I had to jump in with him, wary of the crumbly sides, to fold McLeay flat and foetal. Then a hard, quick in-fill of the hole with the shovel, followed by scratching the rocks and sand and a loose branch in as naturalistic a pattern as I could.
Water and worms would deal with the rest, as they’d probably done with numerous hidden graves around those parts – old mass graves of the Indigenous which must have been everywhere. Victims of that other insurgency, lying just under the crust, in rivercourses, under termite mounds which, through the goggles, loomed like huge green tombstones.
Just under the crust flows a river of wasted blood. A river. I could smell it.
I was thirsty and exhausted but found a fast pace back to beat moonrise. No one would have seen the filthy naked man in walking boots emerge from the forest, holding his GPS. By the side of the trailer I sluiced the blood, dirt and sweat from my legs, arms, face and boots with the cold shower nozzle, scrubbed myself clean and raw, and then toweled dry and went to lie on the bed, just in time, as the sky lightened with silver and the stars faded.
Violence is a business isn’t it?
I admit, I like a brawl as much as the next bloke, but I’m not permanently aggrieved and hunting for a stoush. McLeay’s violence was always explosive. Mine was curbed because I measured both the probabilities of winning, and the righteousness of my actions. We’re trained to be opportunistic, to use prevailing conditions to your advantage. You might call that cold and calculating but it’s the sensible approach.
Still, I killed a lot of men over the time, in Iraq and Afghanistan.
When we went into villages the old Afghan blokes would ask me (as I was the main man) “what is it about you lot? The English?”
Australians were always English because of cricket, and the fact the Empire was still alive and kicking in their old minds. To them it was just one long war wasn’t it? One long, long story. Started by the Brits 180 years ago, and never finished.
They’d often say: “Same old war you started a long time ago. You now invade us a fourth time, but you lost the first three invasions. Don’t you English ever study the past?”
I’d laugh and repeat the pathetic blah blah that we were peacekeepers, here to train the Afghan Army to keep terrorists at bay, help their sacred country to its feet. But they saw the deception through their wrinkly wise eyes and grizzled beards. The Americans, and us by default just wanted to pick a stoush because of Osama Bin Laden and then make Afghanistan our proxy. And me and the guys there were delighted, because fighting was what we did.
I thought of those old blokes and I found a smile, mainly because they were right.
After daylight, I pretended to wake, and stretch, and make coffee. I washed and threw a bucket of bleach and water over the area I’d sluiced last night. I packed the trailer, threw on a t-shirt and wandered across to the office. Only young Sienna was there.
“I’m going now. Is McLeay about?” I said in Spanish. “I should say goodbye to my old comrade.”
“I have not seen him yet,” she said, and added: “Your friend is strange. Always very grumpy.”
I agreed and asked Sienna politely where she was headed next and she said Airlie Beach.
“I’ll see if he’s in his donga, but if not, say goodbye to him from Carlos, will you?”
“Sure,” she flashed a wide smile.
“Best of luck with your travels.”
I also asked the grounds man who was moving sprinklers around the lawns whether he’d seen McLeay, and finally, I made a show of sticking my head in McLeay’s donga and shouting his name and walking off in a disappointed hunch. The dirty dishes were still by the sink. I left them there.
If the police catch up with me about the missing person, I’ll suggest they get the classified report from Defence about McLeay’s sad past, and add that the accidental meeting may have dredged up some wicked memories. I wouldn’t be lying there.
But it’s too late now. As for McLeay’s whereabouts – I’d hoped the grave I’d dug would have remained unfilled – just a hole, gaping up at the whispering tree-crowns.
The coordinates of my old Sergeant’s last resting place are in a drowned GPS at the bottom of the Torres Straits so I can forever remain truthfully perplexed about where the dead may lie.