This is a story with a difference – the difference being that it is true. It happened in the Australian Outback, that vast swathe of territory that covers the area of several large countries, and that, for all its unforgiving aridity, is a place of great character and fascination. The Outback may be empty in one sense, but in another it is full of life. Not only do the most hardy and adaptable animals live there, but so too do hardy and adaptable people. And these people, with few exceptions, are remarkable characters.
I had visited the Outback on several occasions, but had always done so in the winter, when the daytime temperatures were not only bearable but actually quite pleasant. That year, though, I decided to make the journey from Adelaide to Alice Springs in December – not an ideal time. Not only would it be uncomfortably hot – with temperatures soaring into the forties – but if rains came the unpaved roads – or tracks – could become seas of red mud, impassable for weeks. But provided it did not rain, the trip was certainly feasible, even if potentially uncomfortable outside the air-conditioned cocoon of the vehicle.
I had more than one reason to go. I had been invited to spend Christmas with friends who were living in Alice for six months. They prevailed on me to come – “You’ll like this place,” they said. “Some people come for a week or a month and stay for years. Give it a try.”
I thought that unlikely, but I was intrigued. Alice Springs has the distinction of being immortalised in fiction, in Nevil Shute’s great romantic story of the Second World War, A Town Like Alice. In that respect, it has the same status as Casablanca. What visitor to Morocco can resist the temptation of taking the turn-off to Casablanca, knowing full well that there will be no sign of Humphrey Bogart and Rick’s American Bar, but still, but still …
I decided to make the journey, and made preparations. As a visitor to Australia, I had some experience of driving in Outback conditions, but there was a lot of advice to be taken. I obtained the right vehicle, filled it with the right amount of emergency water supplies, studied the map, and set off.
You can do the whole journey on the Stuart Highway, a well-maintained paved road that cuts, ribbon-like, through South Australia and the Northern Territory. To do it that way may be safe, but it is also somewhat tedious. Driving for hour after hour along a road like that soon inures you to the scenery passing your window. You are in the Outback, but you are not really there. There is none of the flavour of Outback travel – none of the dust and bumps that give the experience its particular character. So I took an indirect and winding route, heading north and skirting that great inland sea, Lake Eyre, which that year had water in it from the heavy rains that had fallen in Queensland in the last wet.
I took my time, investigating some of the abandoned and dilapidated sidings that marked the old route of the Ghan railway. There is a particular air of desolation to these buildings, a sense of having been let down by something, a feeling of utter isolation; yet people worked in these places, led whole lives there. And they still do, of course, in the small towns and stations; they still cling to this shimmering landscape, this world of furnace-like heat, of white dust, of flies. They do so because it can seize the imagination, can claim the souls of those prepared to see its astonishingly beguiling face, its distant hills, its expanses of vivid colour, its heart-breaking natural beauty.
My route took me along a track that passed through a couple of small Outback towns. These towns are barely towns – they are often no more than a cluster of buildings, one of which may be a hotel where fuel and food may be bought and where information may be posted for travellers and locals alike. The notices on the walls of these country pubs often tell the whole story of the place. There may be a yellowing press cutting from a day when the town, for some reason, made the news. Sometimes these are cautionary tales – stories of motorists who left their vehicle when it broke down – but others are tales of local achievement or bravery. An entire social history, one suspects, might be written on the basis of these notices.
It was in one of these settlements that I stopped for lunch, four days before Christmas. It was not much of a place, although its hotel seemed busy enough, and there was an airstrip with several light planes parked beside a drooping wind-sock. There were several large cattle stations nearby, and they provided a population and no doubt a reason for the town’s being there in the first place. The name of this place is neither here nor there; it is typical of those parts and it could, in fact, be anywhere.
The hotel called itself The Grand, and this name was spelled out in large lettering along the curved tin roof of the veranda. Behind it, there was a large stand of gum trees, a water tank, and a windmill. Then, immediately behind the windmill, was the airstrip. Several rather disconsolate-looking houses lined two intersecting roads, and that, in essence, was the town.
I parked my vehicle and stretched my legs. Travelling on a dirt road is physical work for a driver – there are rocks and areas of sand to be avoided; it is more like sailing, in some ways, than driving, requiring the same minor adjustments of course, the same attention. Walking about for a few minutes restored circulation, and then I went into the hotel, relieved after even that brief time outside to be out of the fierce heat and back in the cool air of the hotel.
It was coming up to lunchtime and the bar was busy. Several people were seated on battered leather stools at the bar itself, while on a bench against a wall there were two or three others. By the look of them, I decided that they were locals; there is something about people who live in the Outback that sets them apart from those who merely pass through. There is a leathery quality, a tough good humour that proclaims the life they lead. There is something in their eyes; something to do with living in a place where the distances you contemplate are so great, where the horizon is usually so far away. W.H. Auden, the poet, expressed the view that people take after the land they inhabit. Had he visited this part of the world, his view would have been confirmed. These people, in their resourcefulness and resilience, in their ability to survive, neatly prove Auden’s point.
I ordered something to drink and scanned the lunch menu. There were several offerings, although I noticed that a couple of people who had already ordered their counter lunch were enjoying particularly tempting meat pies. I followed suit, and the young woman behind the bar noted down my order.
“Busy today,” I remarked.
She nodded. “Yes. Doc George is coming in. It’s always busy when he turns up.”
I raised an enquiring eyebrow. “Doc George?”
“Yes, Doc George. He has a few patients today. Over there.” She nodded in the direction of the bench against the wall. “And over there.” She indicated two men sitting at the end of the bar, each nursing a beer.
Everyone knows about the Flying Doctor Service, and I immediately made the connection. This place was sufficiently remote to need the flying doctor, who presumably was holding a clinic that day. And what better place to hold a clinic than the local pub? It was convenient, close to the airstrip, and presumably had the necessary hot and cold running water that the doctor needed to wash his hands before treating the patients.
“Ah,” I said. “The flying doctor.”
The young woman shook her head. “Not exactly. Well, he is a doctor, I suppose, but he’s a special one. He’s the flying psychotherapist.”
It took me a moment to absorb what she had said. Perhaps I had misheard. Perhaps there was a flying physiotherapist – somebody who came to deal with the sprains and bumps that go with working on a station.
“Did you say ‘flying psychotherapist’?”
She nodded. “Yes. It’s part of the Flying Doctor Service. Same outfit.”
My expression must have shown my disbelief.
“It really is,” she said.
“Do you mean to say that there’s a flying … a flying psychotherapist who comes and sorts out people’s …” I searched for the right term. “People’s emotional issues?”
“Yes, sure,” she answered. “It can get pretty lonely out here. And although most people who live in these parts are quite tough, it’s the same as anywhere else – they have their issues.”
I was at a loss what to say. The idea seemed utterly bizarre. The need for a flying doctor service is clear enough – the flying doctor was there to cope with medical emergencies, often life-threatening ones. But psychotherapy?
She looked at her watch. “He’ll be in any time. In fact, I think that’s his plane now. Doc George flies himself. Most of the docs use pilots, but he’s got his licence. He says he feels relaxed when he’s flying. It gives him the chance to think about what people have told him – time to sort out their problems in his mind.” She paused. “You want an appointment? I keep the appointments for him and I reckon he can fit you in. There’s been a cancellation. And there’s no charge.”
I do not know why I said yes, but that was my answer. After all, the idea of a flying psychotherapist was so extraordinary, so utterly unlikely, that I could hardly miss the opportunity to see if what I had been told was true.
“If he can fit me in,” I said. “That would be great.”
She consulted a sheet of paper beneath the bar. “No problem,” she said. “He’s seeing Bob first and then Sally needs a words with him. That shouldn’t take more than twenty minutes, unless Sally’s in one of her moods, in which case it could be an hour or so. You in a rush?”
I explained that I was in no hurry.
“Fine,” she said. “You go in after Sal. It’s in the room at the back there. I’ll give you a shout when he can see you.”
I ate my lunch in a state of anticipation. I had heard the plane landing but I had not seen Doc George come into the bar; I assumed that he had gone in the back. This was confirmed when the young woman behind the bar went over to have a word with one of the men sitting on the bench and he trooped off down the corridor. That, I imagined, was Bob.
Fifteen minutes later Bob came back, picked up his hat, and left. The young woman now came over to speak to me. “Sal’s not turned up,” she said. “She must be feeling better. Either that, or Norman’s come home. That always cheers her up. So you can go in. Bill isn’t due for his appointment until two: you’ve got at least half an hour.”
I walked down the corridor. The door at the end was ajar, and I knocked and entered. The psychotherapist was sitting behind a table, and in front of him was a chair for the patient. He looked up and smiled.
“A new face.”
I introduced myself. “Look, I’m just passing through. The woman in the bar told me about you and, well, I couldn’t contain my curiosity. I just didn’t believe that there’s a flying psychotherapist.”
He did not seem at all put out by my curiosity. “Not many people know about this service,” he said. “I wish it were more widely publicised. There are a lot of people in these remote communities who would benefit from it. It’s a great pity it’s so little known.”
“So you fly in to deal with people’s …”
He completed the sentence. “With their psychological problems. Yes. I deal with all of that. Phobias. Neuroses. Confidence issues. You name it.”
“But I thought the Flying Doctor was all about saving lives – that sort of thing.”
“It is,” he said. “And my medical colleagues do a great job. They handle that side of things; I handle this.”
I wanted to explore the implications. “So if you’re on a remote cattle station and you suddenly have … have a confidence issue, you fly in?”
He nodded. “Yes. That’s more or less it.” He looked at me. “What’s the trouble, then?”
I wanted to laugh. I wanted to say, ‘The trouble is that I simply can’t believe this’. But I did not say that. Instead, I said, “I suppose I need to move on.” It was a ridiculous, clichéd thing to say; but it just came out.
He nodded. “We all need to move on. You’d be surprised at how often that issue lies underneath the problems that I have to deal with.” He looked at me and I saw his eyes. They were shrewd, understanding eyes – the eyes of one who had seen a great deal of the world’s troubles.
“Here’s my advice to you,” he said. “Don’t forget forgiveness. You have to forgive others, and you have to forgive yourself. The two go hand in hand.”
“Yes,” he said. “Forgiveness is healing. We forget that, especially these days, when we’re so keen to blame others for our misfortunes. We forget the imperative to forgive. Forgiveness allows us to start again. Forgiveness makes it possible for us to look forward rather than backward.”
There was silence. I had come to see this man in a spirit of incredulity; now I felt quite different. Outside, a wind had arisen – a dry, wind from the north, with heat in its breath; the gum trees moved, the sound of the wind in their leaves seeming like the sound of the sea.
“Do you understand what I’ve just told you?’” he asked.
“And is there anybody you haven’t forgiven?”
“There’s always somebody in our past – a parent, a friend, someone we work with; there’s always somebody we need to forgive.” He paused. “Or who may need to forgive you.”
I listened in silence.
“So,” he went on, “go and think about it. And while you’re about it …”
“At this time of year, especially, think about something else. Think about the power of love. It’s remarkable, isn’t it?”
I nodded. He looked at his watch. “All right,” he said. “That’s it. I’ve got one more person to see and then I have to take off.”
I watched his plane climb up into the sky forty minutes later, gleaming white, catching the sun on its wing. Then I set off again, down the track in the direction of Alice Springs. I knew what I had to do.