1986. In a secondhand bookshop in Guadalajara I pick up a copy of Bernal Diaz’s conquistador journal, The Conquest of New Spain. It’s a remarkable book, and it feels all the more remarkable to be reading it as I bus along dusty roads to towns that still wear the tiles and mosaics of colonial Spain on their public buildings. What puzzles me is the ease with which Cortes’s small band subjugate an empire; what unnerves me is the conquistadors’ utter self-belief in their mission.
2014. Pension day in Alice Springs. It’s hot, and the queue of people to get into the Riverside Bar of the Todd Tavern is pressed against the narrow strip of shade by the drive-thru. They’re twitching to be inside, the rhythmic thud of music and the laughter taunting them. Through paper-cut slits a security guard eyes the queue, controls the door. He’s past his prime, he’s grossly overweight, but the authority of his whiteness is enough to cow the crowd. For the first time in years I think of Bernal Diaz.
I go to a meeting. It’s boring and I don’t want to be there. I wonder why I bother to sit through it: I’m in my fifties and I should have the presence of mind and self-confidence to just get up and walk out, but I don’t.
An hour later I’m in a diesel ute and we rumble past the Riverside bar. The queue’s gone and red tape skirts the drive-thru; a lost thong and a bloody T-shirt are on the ground; the small, numbered cones that the police put next to items of evidence are scattered about. A cameraman from the local news service wrestles with a tripod.
Later, my dull commitments filled, I head back to the creek to see what happened earlier. I feel uneasy about this transparent act of voyeurism, but not uneasy enough to detour. When I get there the tape has gone, the thong and T-shirt have gone, the number cones have gone. The driveway has been hosed down and the dirt and cracker dust smells of wetness. Did it even happen?
The sun’s hot on my back but I feel utterly glum. The word “bleak” conjures up Dickens and Hogarth, the smog-filled slums of the East End. I can’t reconcile it to the eye-achingly blue sky of Wills Terrace on this pension day afternoon. And yet it’s the only word that fits.
Report: Centralian Advocate. Woman stabbed outside ‘animal bar’.