Outback mystery: what happens when one of a town’s 10 residents disappears? | Kylie Stevenson

Paddy Moriarty vanished in December from Larrimah. Now the tiny town’s sharp divisions are in the nation’s spotlight

It was an appallingly hot October day in 2016 when I stood in Larrimah’s small bush cemetery with Paddy Moriarty. The temperature was stretching for 40C and the flies were inexhaustible. I was marinating in my sweat as Paddy and his mate of 15 years, Barry Sharpe, erected a tombstone on the grave of another friend, the writer Andrew McMillan. There were just four graves there then: Andrew’s, a couple of station owners and an Overland Telegraph worker who died in 1899. None of us could have known that Paddy’s grave would be the next to join them. That is, it will be if his body is ever found.

Paddy, a 70-year-old smiley moustachioed fellow, disappeared from the red dusty no-horse town of Larrimah in the Northern Territory on 16 December 2017. That day he’d been drinking at the Pink Panther hotel before heading home for dinner. Police say his house was in order, the date crossed off the calendar, his bed made and his dinner on the table ready to be heated up. His signature hat, which he was never without, was on the table, alongside his keycard and his reading glasses. His kelpie cross Kellie is also missing.

Detective Sergeant Matt Allen, who is in charge of the case, says extensive land and air searches of the area have uncovered nothing, the timeframe for survival has expired and Paddy’s disappearance is being treated as suspicious.

Paddy Moriarty and Barry Sharpe at the grave of writer Andrew McMillan at a little bush cemetery in Larrimah.
Paddy Moriarty and Barry Sharpe at the grave of writer Andrew McMillan at a little bush cemetery in Larrimah. Photograph: Kylie Stevenson/The Guardian

“We don’t expect Paddy will be found alive,” he says.

Unusual is often the usual in Larrimah. It’s the kind of place where you might find a wild donkey at your back door or a death adder in your bed. A place where neighbourhood disputes sometimes result in a wallaby carcass being thrown into a person’s front yard or one’s pet peacocks being fed to the resident croc.

So when I first heard one of the town’s handful of residents was missing, it struck me as strange, but not entirely out of the realm of normal for that odd little outback town where I once spent two weeks trying to bash out a novel. When I heard the missing person was Paddy, and a week later he still hadn’t been found, it was a little more disquieting.

I had a drink with Paddy most days during my time in Larrimah. We chatted about his freezing cold, poverty-stricken life in Ireland, about how he came to Australia on the Fairstar as a young fellow and went to work on stations across the north. His 16-year-old border collie Rover was always by his side – the pair of them appeared on the cover of the book Every Man and His Dog. I heard his beloved pet passed away a few months after I left.

Paddy was a creature of habit. He’d turn up at the pub in the morning to help out around the premises, cleaning the toilet block or mowing the lawns before melting into a bar stool where he’d drink eight XXXX Golds, then hoist Rover on to his quad bike and head home.

Sunday was “church”, where he and publican Barry Sharpe would sit silently in front of the television, sipping beer, catching up on the latest in rural news. “Church” is ABC’s Landline.

“That was our little ritual of a Sunday,” says Barry. “We’d get here before Landline and the hymns would be on, so we called it church. It was our little joke.”

Karen Rayner managed the pub for two years and saw Paddy almost every day. They’d watch cooking shows together and whenever she responded to any of his yarns with incredulity he’d reply “true word”.

He was a neat and tidy person, she says. He was honest, pedantic about paying his bills on time, and if he planned on going somewhere, he’d let them know, often months in advance.

“I want people to know he was a good bloke,” she says.

Barry describes him as a gentleman, “always cheerful and laughing”.

“He was the type of bloke you wouldn’t think would have an enemy in the world,” he says.

But both Karen and Barry admit that while most people did love Paddy, he wasn’t without detractors. In fact, no one in Larrimah is universally liked by the rest of the town’s residents.

The population hovers around 10, and that small number is split into factions. Some neighbours have ignored one another for more than a decade, others occasionally yell abuse at each other.

At the height of Larrimah’s long-running civil war, two rival progress associations existed, a fight erupted over stolen recipes for buffalo pie and yes, Barry confirms, those peacocks were fed to the pet croc in an act of revenge.

“There have been a lot of problems in that community and people who don’t speak to each other,” Allen says. “But just because people argue doesn’t mean they’ve gone out and killed him.”

The Larrimah Pink Panther Hotel.
The Larrimah Pink Panther Hotel. Photograph: Kylie Stevenson/The Guardian

And even though the town’s history doesn’t paint Larrimah as a glowing civic example, Paddy’s disappearance has showed that strong mateship sits alongside the animosity. In a big city would anyone notice if a 70-year-old man wasn’t seen for a few days? Here, Barry noticed his absence immediately when he failed to turn up to “church”.

“I thought he might be crook so I went to check on him, and when he wasn’t there I thought maybe he’d gone to a mate’s place for the day,” Barry says. “But when he didn’t turn up the day after that, I went and reported it to police.”

Although he doesn’t expect Paddy is still alive, Allen says they haven’t given up. Police are still appealing for any passersby who might have seen anything and have put a call out for anyone who might have come across Paddy’s dog, Kellie.

“We’re never going to stop looking for Paddy and Kellie,” he says. “However long it takes, whatever it takes.”

And what happens when such a small town is down one man? How do the other residents get on with life?

Karen says Paddy’s disappearance has left “an awkward hole here”; Barry describes it as “a big vacuum in our lives”.

They can’t entirely ignore the flecks of hope that Paddy and Kellie might one day emerge from the red dust, but they know in all likelihood they’ll be back at the little bush cemetery to farewell him.

“Of course we have hope he might be alive,” Karen said. “We don’t want to have a service just in case. We can’t say goodbye to Paddy, we can’t give him a service. We are stuck in the middle.”

• Kylie Stevenson was the recipient of the inaugural Andrew McMillan Writers’ Retreat held in Larrimah

• On 8 February 2017, this article was amended to correct the year the author was in Larrimah

Contributor

Kylie Stevenson

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
What anti-Adani protestors can learn from the Jabiluka blockade | Scott Ludlam
Like anti-Adani protesters today, those who stood up at Jabiluka were attacked. It’s good to remember that people can prevail

Scott Ludlam

02, Apr, 2018 @6:00 PM

Article image
This is what happens when you call out sexism in Australia | Erin Riley
Usually what happens when you call out sexism in sport is precisely nothing. But this past week in Australia, I seem to have hit a nerve

Erin Riley

24, Jun, 2016 @11:33 PM

Article image
Shoplifting or graffiti or stealing a garden gnome. Maybe I did some of these things when I was 10 | First Dog on the Moon
In Australia we put kids in jail. 10 year old kids

First Dog on the Moon

29, Jul, 2021 @1:04 AM

Article image
Black lives are not safe in this country. What more do white people want? | Nayuka Gorrie
Despite 95% of Australian leaders being white, some conservatives feel under threat

Nayuka Gorrie

24, Apr, 2018 @5:06 AM

Article image
What happens after Barnaby Joyce resigns? | First Dog on the Moon
Aren’t even bumbling agrarian-socialist hypocrites entitled to their privacy?

First Dog on the Moon

14, Feb, 2018 @7:19 AM

British outback victim claims compensation
The girlfriend of a British tourist who went missing after an ambush in Australia's Northern Territory over a year ago has filed a compensation claim for her part in the ordeal, it emerged today.

Staff and agencies

21, Aug, 2002 @2:41 PM

Article image
Comm Bank scandal: what happens when too much power is placed in too few hands | Tom Westland
The money laundering breaches engulfing the Commonwealth Bank expose the cult of the leader and its effect on the economy and society

Tom Westland

08, Aug, 2017 @6:00 PM

Solar cars race in Australian outback - video

The Veolia World Solar Challenge features cars racing 1,864 miles between the city of Darwin in the Northern Territory and Adelaide in south Australia

17, Oct, 2011 @1:30 PM

Article image
Why did the 'settlement needle' not make it into the NT royal commission report? | Jack Latimore
If we wanted to better understand the depth of state-enabled abuse, the Northern Territory royal commission has failed

Jack Latimore

01, Dec, 2017 @8:00 PM

Article image
Like that young fella shackled to a chair, it seems like we have little say in our fate | Louise Taylor
Indigenous people are supposed to see images of their children tied up, stripped naked and brutalised and meekly accept assurances that the government will, this time, find a solution

Louise Taylor

02, Aug, 2016 @2:36 AM