Chapter 1. By a billabong
Dingoes howled in the shadows as we lay stretched out by the fire on a moonless autumn night. We’d camped by a billabong in the sandy bed of the Finke, the ancient river west of Alice Springs. When the embers faded and the wind rose we retreated into our troop carrier, Gisela taking the lower bunk, I the upper. We fell asleep happy, our thoughts roaming over the four hundred kilometres of dirt track that lay between us and Walungurru. After almost ten years we were going to visit old friends out west, where we’d once run the clinic. Teresa was pregnant at last: the news had galvanised us into action. In the first light, as the grey edges of the desert dawn seep into our vehicle and into my dreams, I hear Gisi stirring below me, then the click of the back door opening. It creaks as she climbs down onto the sand to pee. Minutes later, through a sleepy haze, I hear her clamber back into the vehicle and settle on her bed. My head sinks into the pillow, but only for a moment. A loud, unearthly groan, like a wounded animal, sounds from below.
‘Aaaah . . .’ Oh god, what has she done this time?
‘Oooo . . .’
Bumped her head on the cupboard?
‘Ooow . . .’
Pulled another muscle in her back?
‘What’s up?’ I say.
‘Aaah,’ she groans again. ‘My head is killing me.’
‘Did you twist your neck?’ I throw off my blanket, groping for my clothes.
I drag on trousers, wrestle with a shirt.
‘Do you need a hand?’ I’m slithering towards the back of the vehicle.
‘I have to throw up . . .’
‘Hang on, I’m coming down . . .’ I hear her struggling with the back door again as I swing my legs down onto the lower bunk. She throws herself out of the vehicle, and there’s a thud as she crash-lands, the deep sand cushioning her fall. She starts retching as I leap down beside her in the half-light. The horizon is a rosy fringe under charcoal sky; a chill breeze stirs the river gums around our camp. Crouched on all fours, she heaves again, and again.
What the hell did she eat last night?
She leans away from the patch of spew and collapses on her side in the sand.
‘Bring me some blankets; I’ll just lie here for a moment. My neck . . . my head is exploding.’
She must have banged her head on the cupboard . . . and twisted her neck. I haul a groundsheet from under the vehicle and pull blankets from the back. Nudge her from the cold sand, half-rolling, half-pushing her onto the groundsheet. Place a pillow and a towel beneath her head. Fetch a bowl to catch the vomit.
She is lying curled up under the blankets, shivering.
The sky is lightening, the horizon now an orange rim. I gather tiny twigs and dry leaves, uncover last night’s coals, coax the fire. She rolls over, moans, and throws up in the bowl. I crouch down to cuddle her, to retrieve the bowl, to adjust her blankets. I have a billy boiling in minutes and coffee filtering into a mug. I squat beside her, stroking her brow, brushing the greying hair away from her face, while my eyes rove across our campsite. The troop carrier is poised, slightly tilted, in the sand. It’s loaded with camping gear and food and bags and bags of second-hand clothing that Gisela has been collecting for Teresa’s family.
What the hell is going on?
First ever migraine?
It won’t take long to break camp.
Extraordinary neuralgic attack?
Getting her back into the vehicle could be a challenge though.
Or else . . .
Thunderclap headache. Vomiting.
I pause, standing over her, paralysed, as time billows and bends around us. The birds are awake and starting to flit through the trees. Or else . . . or else she is bleeding from a burst blood vessel in her brain.
A ruptured cerebral aneurysm.
She lurches sideways again and retches once more, but nothing comes, just a shuddering groan. Her skin, usually a light tan, has taken on a ghostly pallor, and beads of sweat are collecting on her forehead despite the cold. My heart is pounding as the possibilities multiply in my head: she needs a brain scan. She needs it now.
The bush materialises eerily out of the receding gloom. Should we head for the old Glen Helen homestead, just ten kilometres down the track, and call the flying doctor? Then wait there for the retrieval team? Or do I heave her into the back of the troopie and start driving, as fast as she can tolerate, the one hundred and fifty kilometres back to Alice Springs? The sun’s first rays splinter through the clouds on the horizon – a murky grey dawn. If she does have a bubble on a brain artery – an ‘aneurysm’ – that has burst and is leaking and causing all this pain and vomiting, it’s likely to continue bleeding. One in five victims do not make it to hospital alive. And of the four who do make it, two will die in hospital, and one will be permanently, seriously disabled. Only one of the five pulls through intact, if they’re lucky. If she is bleeding into her brain, she needs someone to open up her skull, identify the bleeder and clip it. Urgently. The only person who can save Gisela now is a brain-surgeon, in a dedicated neurosurgical operating theatre.
I kneel beside her, a hand on her wrist, feeling her pulse. Fast, soft, regular. The nearest neurosurgeon would be . . . in Adelaide. Fifteen hundred kilometres away. Via Alice. Gisela is lying as still as a corpse under the blankets, murmuring. If I leave her here on the ground she’ll end up with hypothermia. We need to move fast. Really fast. When we lived out at Walungurru in the nineties we sometimes waited hours for the flying doctor, even in an acute emergency. If I take that option now – waiting over at Glen Helen – it will be at least three hours before we reach Alice, the hospital, the nearest CT scanner and the most direct route to Adelaide. I down my coffee in a gulp, toss the mug into the tuckerbox. We’ll get there in under ninety minutes if I drive flat-out. If all goes well. Water on fire then sand. Kitchen gear in the tuckerbox then onto the front seat.
But what if she deteriorates en route? Starts vomiting again? The pain increases? Or worse? As the accumulating pool of blood presses on her brain, more and more brain cells will shut down. First will come drowsiness, then confusion, then fitting, then coma. Worse still, if the cells in her brain stem are affected, they will stop working, her breathing will falter and she’ll die in the back of the troopie, hurtling down the Larapinta Highway. Across the lightening greyness, a pair of red-tailed black cockatoos – yirranti, my favourites – are flying east, back to Mparntwe, Alice Springs. I hear their sharp lamenting cry, between whistle and squeal, beckoning and repelling at the same time. I kneel down in the sand again.
‘Gisi, darling, I’m gonna help you back in the troopie. We’re going back to Alice. To the hospital.’
‘Let me just lie here for a few hours and see if it settles.’
What a good idea, let’s just stop here and . . .
‘No. I don’t think we should do that. I think something more serious might be happening.’
She doesn’t reply. Her dark eyes widen momentarily then jam shut again as she rolls away from me to spew onto the sand. I bundle together the blankets, throw them into the vehicle and clear a space on the bed. I pull her up until she’s sitting then take her weight and half-carry, half-steer her to the back door. Perching her first on the tailgate, I launch her up onto the bed.
‘The bowl, the bowl.’ I pass her the spew bowl, but nothing comes now, just retching.
‘Oooooh,’ she slumps backwards on the bunk. Brow wrinkled, jaw clenched in pain.
‘I’ll just clear the camp and we’re out of here. OK?’
No answer. The groundsheet under the front seat. A quick check for leftovers. The fire is out. I scramble into the vehicle, up onto the bunk beside her, adjust the pillows, pile on the blankets. She trembles, grimacing with the pain. I reach for the ceiling, pull down the collapsible roof and buckle it tight….