TUMBY BAY - The old man looked down at the rippled and translucent skin on the back of his hand.
He slowly closed his fist but that just accentuated the brown blotches and spindly blue veins.
When he eventually lifted his eyes be became aware of being watched from the end of his bed.
He saw his two grey-haired sons and their plump, matronly wives and, tucked behind them, a favourite grandson with his wife and their two young daughters.
He wondered where the other grandchildren were before remembering they lived far away in another state.
He concentrated in a vain attempt to remember all their names and his mind briefly played a trick on him when he thought he saw his long departed wife hovering ghost-like behind them all. He smiled at his folly and closed his eyes.
He must have been sleeping for some time before he became aware of the sweet smell of rotting vegetation and something else he couldn’t quite place.
He opened his eyes again and looked down at his hand. Something felt like it was nuzzling his fingers. He recognised the other smell as smoke.
The sound of footsteps crackling through leaves made him turn his head and he watched the black dog trot back along a forest path to meet the uniformed police corporal striding towards them, his rifle resting over his shoulder.
He looked back at his hand and wondered what had happened to his wrinkled skin.
The corporal was smiling in the dappled light and pointing down the path. “Not far to go now, sir, I can smell the smoke from the village fires.”
From somewhere behind the corporal came the creaking sound of swaying patrol boxes and the chatter of carriers glad to be nearing home.
The old man took the kunda walking stick leaning against a nearby tree and patted the black dog on the head. “Lead the way Buster old boy,” he said and followed along behind.
After a short walk the forest began to open and the path widened. He adjusted the tilt of his hat to compensate for the increased sunlight. Soon he could see the thatched and smoky roofs of village houses.
A bevy of naked children appeared on the path, laughing and running towards him.
He patted several of them on the head and they grinned cheekily up at him before rushing past to meet the rest of the patrol.
Several of the village dogs accompanying the children set up a welcoming howl.
When they had passed through the village, the spreading valley became visible and he could see the airstrip sloping gently up to the station buildings.
The air was hotter in the open and the people gathered on the office verandah seemed to be in a slight haze. Among them the station clerk and another who he guessed was the new cadet patrol officer he had been expecting.
He glanced at the grey walled house on the rise behind the office and saw his wife and the grinning house cook coming down the path to meet him.
Softly and somewhere he heard the sound of sobbing but it faded away as his wife threw her arms around his shoulders and planted a kiss on his lips.
It was so good to be home, he thought.