There was no moon when he left the camaraderie and noise of the pub at Taylor’s Arm just before midnight. Closing hours were flexible in the more isolated villages away from the gaze of constabulary. There’d only been a few patrons in the small pub that evening, but the bonhomie and beer had flowed. His chance encounter with a trainee nurse from Macksville had provided some hopeful conversation and female company, but she’d left with her brother an hour ago, and Frankie was leaving alone. A bracing May air greeted him as he stumbled across the verandah towards the darkness and Frankie realized he’d probably had a couple too many. He could sleep it off for a while in his car on the roadside just outside the lonely cluster of small wooden houses, pub and 3 streetlights. In 1972, that was the extent of Taylor’s Arm. Stabbing his key unsuccessfully in the dark several times, he finally located the keyhole, engaged the Ford Zephyr’s clutch and roughly jammed the column shift into first gear. Yeah, drive a few miles out of town to the west on the Hickey’s Creek Road towards Millbank, then pull over and close the eyes for an hour or so. At this time of night, there would be no vehicular intrusions in either direction.
The western route was a narrow dirt road that only led to even more remote farming areas, therefore not a sensible place for a mechanical breakdown. Bravado and false confidence are often by-products of excess booze and youth, but Frankie’s nineteen year old head was able to cut through the mask of alcohol enough to recognize that the thirty minute drive through heavily forested, hilly and winding dirt road towards Millbank could be dangerous in this state of impairment. There was also the likelihood of fogs rolling in around the hillier sections of Hickey’s Creek Road.
A short way out of Taylor’s Arm, Frankie’s bladder urged him to stop the vehicle in the middle of the roadway. Should have used the toilets at the pub. The high-beam of his headlights pierced ahead through the desolate blackness and while he peed on the gravel roadway beside the car, he was acutely aware of the somewhat comforting sounds of the idling motor of the Ford, the splash of urine on the roadway, and the quickening of his breath. As he rebuttoned the front of his Levi’s, Frankie cast his eyes around the black ink that enveloped him and suddenly felt an overwhelming sense of vulnerability. Turning to clamber back into the relative security of the driver’s seat, something crackled in the bushes at the side of the road nearby. It rattled Frankie enough to give out an audible yelp as he leapt in and slammed his door. At the side of the road it was too dark to see anything, but he guessed… no, hoped… that it had been an animal, maybe a wallaby. Jamming the column shift into gear he abruptly released the clutch… and stalled the engine. A heightened sense of alarm rapidly diluted the effects of booze as he restarted the Zephyr and released the clutch successfully. He gunned the car forward to put plenty of space between himself and the crackling noise adjacent to the damp patch of road where he’d stopped. It was half a mile later that the Ford’s screaming engine alerted him to change into second gear.
Some of the physiological changes that occur after a fright include dilation of the pupils and changes in blood pressure and respiration rates. In the seclusion of his car, and hidden from view in the darkness of the night, Frankie wasn’t aware that his eyes resembled pizzas but he knew his heart was beating faster and his breathing was quicker. The haze of alcohol seemingly diminished as he drove much faster than he ought towards Millbank, and the relative security of the isolated farmhouse where he was recently employed as a farmhand. All thoughts of a kip in the car had now vanished.
There’s a section of Hickey’s Creek Road that’s notoriously winding and hilly. It passes through tight curves and areas of thick forest. It was in this section that Frankie became aware he was driving in fog, so he switched his lights to low beam and reduced speed. Emerging from a tight corner, in the middle of nowhere, Frankie involuntarily froze. The small muscles at the base of every hair follicle on his body contracted causing his hairs to bristle. His muscles clenched taut and his face tingled in reflexive response to the shock his eyes perceived. His right foot involuntarily slammed on the brake and the car slid to a gravel-spraying halt less than 20 yards behind a headless human who was levitating roughly 6 feet above the roadway. The torso was dressed in a light coloured long coat and was back-on to the numb and disbelieving Frankie who by now managed to scream out a blood-curdling obscenity.
The 3 or 4 seconds it took for Frankie to make sense of this apparition took a lifetime to pass. Through a barrage of heart palpitations and frantic exhalations of breath, he watched as a head appeared on the torso. It was still just a back view to Frankie. As the head slowly turned round towards him, Frankie was now able to discern through the blackness, the fog, and his inefficient lights, that the torso was alive and it wasn’t actually levitating. It was, in fact, seated on a black horse in the middle of the roadway. It gave Frankie a small wave with its hand, then its head slowly tilted back down onto its chest, appearing as headless again, and the black horse clip clopped unguided to the edge of the gravel road to allow Frankie to pass.
Apparently, Ned Corden and his horse were legendary around Taylor’s Arm and Hickey’s Creek. Ned would often ride into the Taylor’s Arm pub from his shack eight miles up in the bush and have an all day binge. His black horse would take him home unguided while Ned wobbled about on the horse in a drunken stupor. Ned would have had no understanding of the lifetime effect he had on young Frankie, who drove frantically back to his sleepout behind the farmouse in Millbank. At 1am, he roused his boss, the weary farm owner, from sleep. In the porchlight at the front door, Frankie blurted out the details of the assault on his senses that had just occurred.
“Arrr. That’d jus’ be ol’ Ned Corden and ‘is ‘orse ya seen,” the farmer drawled.
“Jeez he frightened the crap outta me. Does he live nearby Hickey’s Creek Road?” Frankie inquired.
“Used ta. But he died a few years ago. Now go get some sleep. We’re up fer milkin’ in three hours.”