An Encounter Unexpected, Unexplained, Unforgettable

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A video of a naked toddler running on the highway in America in the middle of the night is going viral on the Internet. The toddler’s run captured by the police car’s dash cam. That blurry image of a lost toddler triggers a buried memory from 1979 Darwin…

After an evening with friends, a workmate Ray offered to drive me back to the hostel where I was staying. Although a hot October night, the hovering storm clouds commonplace. Dark bruises hiding or foretelling sorrow?

My first week in the Top End of Australia marked with high humidity and tropical rainstorms. The start of the monsoon season—or as the locals proclaim, the suicide season. A time when temperaments become as mercurial as the weather. Anyone who can, escapes to more settled climes down south.

Work had sent me north. ‘Not the best time to be seconded from interstate, said Ray, ‘but if you survive you won’t want to leave. The Territory is full of surprises.’ He grinned. “I was sent up here for a week, five years ago.’

Along with intermittent traffic, Ray’s car sped citywards in racing mode. The clock on the dashboard glowed 11.50pm. The taste of wine consumed at dinner lingered on my tongue;  an alcoholic flush warmed neck and cheeks. I wound down the car window. Two delivery lorries roared past, the blast of air pushing my head back. Hair fluttered and skin cooled.

‘No speed limits here?’ I joked, hoping Ray would slow down, the car’s motion exacerbating a wave of rising nausea. Heat fatigue, alcohol, and a big helping of too–sweet Pavlova pressured my bloated stomach.

I don’t travel well in a car at the best of times having never held a driving licence, but in the moonlight, the six lane concrete highway became a huge swirling silver sea. Each bumpy ridge jolting like a cattle prod.

I jerked upright.’ Stop Ray! That was a child!’ The roaring wind distorted my voice.

‘What?’ Ray eased his foot from the accelerator, ‘Where?’

‘I’m sure that was a naked child by the side of the road. Stop so we can check.’

Silence.

Ray kept driving. Perhaps he thought I was drunk and hallucinating, or maybe it was just typical behaviour from someone whose mantra I suspected was don’t get involved.

I swivelled my head. In the distance, a little figure flitted across the road behind us—a toddler, perhaps three years old. Too young to be deliberately playing chicken with night traffic. ‘Please stop the car. Turn around NOW.’

Fair hair and pale skin glistened in the moonlight.

Miracle of miracles we were the only car on the highway at the time.

A subliminal flash of a bloodied lump of flesh splattered on the grill of a truck, or lying in the gravel as roadkill set me trembling. Ray obeyed the urgency of my voice and slowed almost to a crawl looking for a turnoff while muttering, ‘It really is none of our business.’

‘See, there he is,’ I pointed. ‘Hiding behind that pink frangipani. Stop and I’ll grab him.’

The child was slippery. Perspiration beaded his thin body. Grimy rivulets pooled around neck and groin. His face glowed red from the exertion of running across the highway who knows how many times. I managed to grab him before he launched himself off the kerb again. He giggled and wriggled as if being chased off the highway a regular past time.

A truck growled as it thundered past. Fear coiled in my stomach as I clung to the squirming mass of flesh. ‘What’s your name, son?’ More giggles and grunts. I sniffed at a profusion of purple wisteria dangling over a fence. Sweet relief from the boy’s stale sweat.

‘What’s your name, and where do you live? Where’s mummy and daddy?’ He struggled like a terrified cat.

I stared into the blackness, gradually houses rose from the shadows of shrubbery. Ray, a bemused onlooker to our wrestling match. ‘Let’s go for a walk down some streets and perhaps he’ll point out his home,’ he said.

Once, we were far enough away from the highway, I let Little Eel slide to the ground but still gripped his hand, cajoling him along the street, ‘Is this where you live? Point to mummy and daddy’s house.’

The boy’s reluctance to walk calmly and the lack of light and life from any of the houses exasperating. ‘We need to take him to a police station,’ said Ray, ‘let’s go back to the car.’

I hid my disappointment and picked up the squirming toddler. ‘I’m sure he’s escaped from one of these houses and his parents will be frantic when they discover he’s gone.’

The scorcher of a day produced a warm claustrophobic evening. I had hoped to find an open door or swinging gate to investigate. Most people would have left windows and doors ajar, allowing the night air to circulate, relying on fly screens to keep the mosquitoes and flying cockroaches out. A flywire door easy for this sturdy little chap to negotiate. Tall for his age, babyhood only evident when you were close; he seemed old beyond his years.

When we reached Ray’s car, I spied a service station over the highway–the bright lights probably the attraction for Little Eel.

‘Ray, let’s go over to the servo. They may recognise this little boy. We can ring the police, if there’s no joy.’

We stood beneath the streetlight. Ray stared closely at little Eel as if seeing him for the first time. His nose twitched at the toddler’s pong. He shook his head and grimaced at the glistening bundle with muck embedded in every crevice. Little Eel’s palms left marks on my blouse, and the soles of his feet, caked in grime accumulated over time and not just from today’s roaming, streaked my skirt. Ray’s brown eyes flickered towards the interior of his car, fluffy, sheepskin seat covers glowed white.

‘The servo it is,’ he said, ‘let’s go,’ and with a lull in the traffic, started to walk across the highway.

Little Eel looked even more neglected in the glare of neon lights with sweaty hair plastered and encrusted to his scalp. The man on duty at the service station tutted in disgust.

‘I don’t know the little fella’s name, but his parents come in here all the time when they run out of smokes. Don’t know where they live, except wherever it is they’ll be stoned out of their minds. The kid’s feral, brings himself up.’

‘I thought he lived close, ‘ I said. ‘We found him running across the highway. Lucky he’s not been hit.’

The attendant rolled his eyes, a flush of anger staining his face. His gritted teeth stretched thin lips into a murderous scowl.

Bored with our chatter Little Eel struggled to get down, ’keem, keem…,’ he whined, hands flailing. Surprised to hear words instead of the persistent irritating giggle, I nearly dropped him.

His whiney words clicked. ‘He wants ice-cream.’

A paroxysm of excitement shook his little body as the boy slid to the tiled floor. Although a relief to aching arms, I held firmly to his hand.

‘Can you ring the police for us.’ Ray asked the attendant, and glancing at me, ‘I’ll buy the ice-cream.’ The man gave Little Eel an icy-pole before ringing the police. I smiled as Ray redeemed himself.

‘They’ll be 10-15 minutes coming from town.’

Ray and the service station attendant commiserated about the levels of drug use and abuse in a growing Darwin flooded by people seeking work in the uranium mines or returning after the devastation of Cyclone Tracy. Christmas Day 1974 burned into the psyche of Territorians with thousands still struggling to come to terms with its aftermath.

I basked in the coolness of air-conditioned comfort and limited Little Eel’s exploration of the crowded shelves of the service station, and the sticky trail of dripped vanilla icy pole.

The toddler polished off the treat quicker than a parched lizard. Fifteen minutes stretched interminably. We all sighed with relief when the police jeep arrived and a male and female officer alighted to record our details, and a description of Little Eel’s capers. They knew him and his address, pronouncing the same opinion of his parents and home life as the servo attendant.

Ray hovered at the door like a runner on blocks as I relinquished Little Eel. I blamed hormones for the tears burning the back of my eyes as  the tiny hand left mine.

I watched the police officers wrap him in a towel provided by the attendant and pass him like a parcel from one officer to the other into the patrol car. The female officer adjusted the seatbelt firmly around the toddler’s frame with a, ‘Keep your sticky hands off the buckle!’

My last sight of Little Eel, a grinning face and grimy fingers wiping a farewell of sorts across the car window.

‘He’ll be all right,’ said Ray, ‘kids are resilient.’

‘So speaks a middle-aged bachelor,’ I snapped.

Ray shrugged as he unlocked the car doors. ‘My sister Sally is a widow with six children, I help out with money, babysit, and have the kids for holidays to give her a break.’

The night air chilled. I wished for a large hole to appear so I could slide into it as easily as Little Eel slipped away from me. A concoction of fragrant frangipani and enticing erysimum wafting in the breeze couldn’t remove the toddler’s smell from my clothes. I sunk into the car seat, surrendering to weariness and sorrow.

The journey home completed in embarrassed silence as evidence of the building boom flashed past. Damaged houses derelict since the cyclone, sat alongside empty blocks and new houses, rows of rotten teeth, cavities and shiny new fillings.

I didn’t have a solution or a magic wand to ensure Little Eel’s future. I prayed Ray was right and the authorities would protect the boy, but perhaps not…

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That night I decided not to accept the transfer to Darwin. It was a strange frontier town compared to Melbourne, the climate too hot and the encounter with Little Eel left me unsettled and sad.

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Outside a liminal glow spreads from an almost full moon and I wonder what happened to the child caught in the police video? How many Little Eels have suffered over the last thirty-seven years? Continue to suffer? How many more will suffer in the future?

If I had stayed in Darwin, could I have made a difference to the lives of families like Little Eel’s? What am I doing now to make a difference?

Pastor Peter Marshall said, ‘Small deeds done are better than great deeds planned.’

Some decisions are questionable and some questions unanswerable. There is no going back, but we can learn from experience.

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