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


Kylie Stevenson

The GuardianTramp

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