When I moved to the Kimberley, the mining boom was reaching its zenith. The airports were a sea of fluorescent vests and real estate agents were buying Moet. The baby journos in Karratha were paying $300 a week for a bedroom in a donga and Broome wasn’t far behind. The Global Financial Crisis was only a couple of months away, but I didn’t know that at the time.
I set about house hunting straight away, circling all four possibilities listed in the Broome Advertiser. I drove to look at a tiny flat just off Anne Street, not far from a notorious block of units where Bradley Murdoch, the convicted murderer of Peter Falconio, had lived for a period of time. My knuckles grazed against the door when I rapped and a skinny man in his 50s opened the fly screen. The lounge room stank of cigarettes and bong water. He showed me a bedroom the size of a pantry. I could share the flat with him for $250 a week.
The other frontrunner was a room in a sharehouse of seven people; one of them managed The Bungalow, Broome’s notorious (and only) nightclub. They had a pool and a BBQ, and thinking of the crack den I’d seen earlier, I said yes.
The next day a colleague at work threw me a bone.
“I know someone with a granny flat. It’s beautiful, used to be an artist studio. You should go and have a look.”
It was right in the middle of Old Broome, a stone’s throw away from the Courthouse Markets and Roebuck Bay.
I pulled up in the driveway and K was pulling weeds out of the red dirt of her garden. Her daughter P was next to her, nude, painting on butcher’s paper.
“Are you much of a gardener?” she asked.
I surveyed the big granny flat: two dongas joined by a verandah. I took in the extensive garden, the towering mango trees and the notable absence of bongs on the outdoor table.
Yes, I lied.
She offered the place to me for $360 a week and I agreed.
$360 a week in rent didn’t leave me with much small change, so my approach to interior design was minimal. I had a camp chair, a small box television and my swag in the lounge room; in the other donga, a bed and a single rack for my clothes. I used sheets and sarongs for curtains, and put up a hammock on the verandah.
The property had quite a history. Someone told me it had once been the second general store in Broome. Before K, it was owned by the Durack family, first Elizabeth and then her daughter Perpetua.
Elizabeth Durack was famous for her place in that pioneering Kimberley pastoral family and also as an artist. She was infamous for painting under an Aboriginal name, Eddie Burrup. Elizabeth painted dreaming stories and Aboriginal children and Kimberley landscapes. She had turned the main house, an old Broome hut with cyclone shutters and an elevated verandah, into her gallery and lived in the pre-fab out the back.
Broome was a hard place to live in many ways, but I loved the house. I loved the worn patina of eccentric lady artist. The party of green tree frogs in the toilet. The banana tree that groaned with purple flowers and hanging bunches of green fruit. The mango trees that gave shade over the native pindan garden.
Donnie, our next door neighbour, was a born and bred local and great friends with the Pigram Brothers. Of an evening, I’d hear them playing guitar around an oil drum fire. The singing would waft into my bedroom after dark.
While I was installed in the dongas out back, K and P lived in the main house, the former Durack Gallery.
K was intense and fiery. A lawyer and activist. After a miscarriage and years of wanting a child, she’d fallen pregnant at 38 and at 40 was a single mother.
She adored her daughter. K told me she held a smoking ceremony when P was born and buried her placenta under the biggest eucalyptus tree in the front garden. At P’s second birthday party, I watched them unwrap presents together. One package held a collection of books, all inscribed with “kisses from Mummy, who loves you forever”.
K was asset rich and cash poor, but I watched her give away money, food and other bits and pieces to anyone who asked. She smoked rollies on the back step. Sometimes she held court on the verandah with friends and a motley crew of small children, her opinions and chatter louder than everyone else. But often she was alone and I knew she hankered for company.
I was friendly but kept my distance: I had enough problems of my own. But when Christmas came around, I invited K and her daughter and a few other mutual friends with their kids. I cooked for hours: baked fish, roast lamb, salads and pudding. I bought presents for the kids: little purses and plastic helicopters. I hid gold foil covered chocolate coins in the sand pit.
I was getting dessert out of the kitchen when I heard Krysti’s voice ricochet across the verandah.
“Who gave you chocolate???”
I had inadvertently given K’s daughter her first taste of the most dangerous white powder drug of all: sugar.
I never helped in the garden, but K and I happily co-existed for my twelve month lease before I left Broome for good. We lost touch soon after.
A few years later I caught up with some old Broome mates in Melbourne. We were sitting at a rooftop bar, rugged up and drinking cocktails from jam jars.
Ryan suddenly turned to me.
“Oh my God. Did you hear about K?”
K had neuro-endocrine cancer. She was only in her 40s, with a young daughter under the age of five. As a lawyer, she’d fought hard for Aboriginal people. She was needy and anxious and fierce and kind. I probably still owed her money for an electricity bill.
It struck me that I knew K both intimately and not at all. Knowing and not knowing her made the news of her death a strange pain. Like the shock of a needle going into your arm. Then there’s nothing. And then, a dull ache that lingers after the nurse plugs the pin prick with cotton wool and medical tape.
My brain started reeling. I remembered the Christmas dinner I’d held on the verandah. The gold foil covered chocolate coins. The little ashtray of cigarette butts on the back step. The time K lent me her swag and gave me a washing machine because I couldn’t afford one. I thought of the rotten mangoes that piled up on the driveway every October and the pindan garden she would never weed again.
I know that dying is the one constant. It’s the one event we’re all guaranteed to attend. The invite stands from the moment you’re born. But death before old age seems so arbitrary, so unfair. Like the reaper stood on a lazy susan in the middle of a packed Chinese restaurant and spun around drunkenly to choose his victims. You, you and you.
I thought about the collection of board books that K had bought for P’s second birthday. The inscriptions she’d written; at the time I thought they were so over the top. Suddenly they were priceless.
I thought of the dust under the Eucalyptus tree where P’s placenta was buried.
I thought about the way we belong to a place, the way we carve ourselves into a piece of earth and make it our home. I thought about the way we share those homes, those patches of dirt, with people for a time.
Some of them we never see again.
I’m still thinking about that.
It was the weekend of the Daly Barra Classic and the Banyan Farm Tourist Park was chockers when I pulled in at dusk.
It had been a long, lonely drive on a road with signs that said “No Shooting”. I wasn’t quite prepared for wall to wall fishermen. But there they were, and with all the gear: tinnies, tents and caravans for the fancy. The uniform was short shorts and thongs, with a Bundy and Coke. The air was ripe with competition and under arm sweat; mosquito repellent and the kind of words you don’t use around Nana.
I was in the Daly for a few days of work and I stuck out like a hipster at a rodeo.
“Dinner’s a communal thing”, said Kerry at reception when I checked in.
“Are you happy to eat with everyone else? Otherwise I can set up a table for you on your own.”
Of course, sure, no problems, I said.
“I’ll put you with some of the nicer fellas”, she said kindly.
At 7pm, I walked into the dining hall, a solo woman in a room filled with tattooed testosterone.
Gazza and Terry waved me over immediately.
“You better sit with us”, said Gazza. “Those other blokes are a bit rough.”
We shook hands. Nice to meet you both, I said. How’s the fishing?
Gaz and Terry laughed.
“Let’s just say this”, said Gaz. “It’s fucking lucky I brought plenty of Devon sandwiches.”
I crinkled my nose.
“Devon sandwiches”, said Gaz. “Life does not get better than a Devon sandwich.”
Terry nodded his agreement.
“I even have my own recipe”, Gaz confided.
“Two slices of your freshest white bread. Make sure it hasn’t been frozen. Margarine. Devon – I like a couple of bits, but each man to his own. And a layer of tomato sauce. Bloody beautiful, that is.”
Terry winked and wrapped his mouth around the steak that had been plonked in front of us.
“I could go on and on about Devon”, said Gaz. “So much you can do with it.”
That started a debate down the table. Was it actually even called Devon? What about Fritz? Polony? Baloney? Was it the same thing?
“Well”, said Gaz. “It’s not fucking Pro-siu-to, I’ll tell you that much.”
Gaz was a Michelin star chef when it came to Devon, and he waxed lyrical about his art for our entire main course. Turns out, there are just so many ways to eat Devon. In potato salad. Pasta. You could even put it in a stir fry.
“What about wrapped around those stuffed olives on a toothpick”, said Chris from Knuckey’s Lagoon who was sitting at the other end of the table. “What do you call those? Cocktail olives. I quite like that.”
Gaz pushed back on his chair and swung his legs. His eyes rolled back in his head with ecstasy.
“Devon and olives on a toothpick? I’ll have to try that one.”
Gazza was about the most delightful man I have ever met. He could have found common ground with Kerry Packer, held court with Somali war lords, made peace on the West Bank. In that dining hall near the banks of the Daly River he kept up a gentle pitter patter of conversation that included everyone: me, Kerry from reception, the young guns from Broome who were ready for a barramundi blitz and the older blokes from Larrimah who were short a few teeth.
Gaz told me he had moved to the Sunshine Coast after a long stint on a block at Humpty Doo.
“Yep, I miss the Territory. But you know something? I left for the education. My daughter was at high school in the Rural Area. And they said she was doing great! Middle of the class. Nice girl, doing well, bullshit, bullshit, bullshit.”
“She was colouring in! In Year 9! I’ll tell you what, I wasn’t much good at school in my day, but I’ll be damned if my daughter was going to come middle in her class for colouring in. Now we’ve moved to Queensland and there’s no more colouring in. She’s the bottom of her class, and I could not be happier.”
Gaz beamed with pride and Terry patted him on the back.
The conversation got rougher from there. It started with shoes: how none of the guys would be caught in anything other than a pair of double pluggers. Gaz conceded that he DID, however, have a pair of going out thongs. For special occasions. Adam from Broome said he’d laid down the law to his missus. If she wanted to get married, he was only going to do it in thongs.
Then it got onto footy trips to Bali and what really happened to Adam’s tooth brush when Craig had one too many Sex on the Beach in Kuta.
That’s when I took my leave, but I felt touched to be included for so long.
I didn’t go anywhere near the water, but that Daly Barra Classic was one of the best lessons I’ve ever had on men and fishing and boys weekends away.
I finally got it.
Fishing wasn’t about catching anything. Unless you were a Broome young gun with a competitive chip on your shoulder.
It was about talking shit.
It was about who had the biggest rod and a Shimano reel, and who forgot to bring the gold bombers.
It was about sharing recipes for Devon sandwiches and Bundy and Coke and wearing double pluggers and sweating like a pig.
It was about the time Craig stuck Adam’s toothbrush up his ass in Bali and took a photo, which he didn’t show Adam until the end of the trip.
It was about Gaz telling long stories to Terry and Terry not having to say anything much at all.
It was about male friendship, Territory style.
Dearest and most hearty blog readers,
Forgive my hubris/self-promotion, but in the vain hopes that one day I might give up my day job, I entered the Australian Writers Centre blog comp.
If you’d like, you could vote for Postcards from the North in the People’s Choice Category.
But then again, there are a few pages to scroll through and there are many cat videos on the internet that you could look at instead.
Or you could read this ten month old’s letter to Santa – hilarious!
Lots of love,
Ask anyone you like, Australia is in severe drought.
A man drought.
From Perth to Melbourne, Sydney right up to Brisbane, there’s many a single, smart, sassy, sexy woman who can’t find a man her equal. But in my neck of the woods, the roads are veritably paved with fellas: six to one, once you cross the Berrimah Line. Ringers, Army Jocks and diesel mechanics. Fitters, turners. Fitters and turners. FIFOs and fishermen. If you’re a lady looking for a bloke, this is the Holy Grail, especially if you like rough diamonds and men in high vis.
Yep. The odds are good, but the goods are odd.
That’s an expression that gets bandied about regularly by women up here. The dating world up north is rife with mercenaries, missionaries and misfits. I’ve dated many from their ranks: from aspiring politicians to helicopter pilots and professional gamblers with mother issues. I once went out with a guy who wore his bike helmet for our entire coffee date. Another time, I met up with a bloke who was about to get kicked off his mine site for three drug test fails in a row. When it comes to the odds being good and the goods being odd, believe me, I’ve done the leg work.
But the story I’m about to tell you was the oddest experience I ever had. And by odd, I mean freaking bat shit crazy.
His name was Rashid. And he was very good looking.
I met him in an ugly coffee club in the even uglier Broome Boulevard, in between K-Mart and half-price Sex and the City DVDs at Sanity. I wasn’t really a Broome Boulevard regular, but my friend Jen was up from Kununurra for an Internet date and she wanted a taste of the big smoke.
Jen was a character. She drove trucks at the Argyle diamond mine. Big trucks where she only came up to the hub cap by the scrape of her hard hat. All day, she’d drive back and forth, backward and forward, taking dust and rubble and miniscule flecks of diamonds from the pit.
Jen had done a bunch of outback jobs; working as a governess on a station and in a pub at Fitzroy Crossing. And it was from working in Fitzroy Crossing that she knew Rashid, who was trying on sunglasses across the Boulevard.
They waved and he raced over to give her a big hug.
“Jenny! Been a long time!”
They swapped gossip and tidbits from down the track, and when he left, I pumped her for details.
Who was that?
“He could be good for you!” she said. Jen didn’t remember too much about him, but he was a nice guy, she said. She hadn’t seen him for a few years, he had disappeared a bit suddenly after a goanna hunting trip with some of the local boys. I was intrigued.
Later that night, we went to Diver’s Tavern for drinks, gossip and to check out the local talent.
Rashid was there too, and he came over to talk. He sat right next to me and our thighs just barely touched. Later he came over to the bar when I was ordering a drink and lifted up my hair.
“Hello gorgeous,” he whispered.
A couple more hours, and a group of us moved on to the Roey, The Roebuck Hotel, made famous by wasters and wet T-shirt competitions. We hit the dance floor. Rashid performed the lawn mower, fed the chickens and imitated an eagle. He was the worst and best dancer I’d ever seen and I was smitten.
I didn’t expect to hear from him again but I did, the next day. We met at the Courthouse Markets. He said he missed me. I thought it was intense but thrilling.
That night we drove to Gantheaume Point and he spotted sting rays in the waves for me.
We watched the sun set over those red and ochre rocks. Rashid told me about how he used to be a paramedic, but one day he’d been handed a baby with barbed wire around its neck and he couldn’t do it anymore. So he moved up north, to the Kimberley.
We cuddled and he stroked my hair.
“You’re so beautiful, Bub”, he said.
A few days later, we walked on the beach, and his sister rang. He told her all about me.
“You’re going to love Miranda”, he said. “She’s the best girl I’ve ever met.”
Pretty soon, we started spending long afternoons and longer evenings in my Old Broome flat.
A couple of weeks later, my best friend was in town and she liked Rashid a lot too. Thought he was cute. Affectionate, sweet. We had a big night out together, dancing at Zee Bar, and they got on like a house on fire, although his hanger on mate didn’t do much for her.
After that, things started to go strange. One night, I asked Rashid to pick up some rice for dinner but he said his wallet had been stolen.
A few days later, he disappeared for hours to comfort a friend. It was past midnight when I got a knock on my screen door and he came in smelling of cigarettes and tinned rum. He got angry when I asked him to have a shower.
Rashid wouldn’t let me go over to his house.
He’d ask me to drop him off at the servo on the corner.
“I’m sorry, Bub”, he said.
“It’s just my housemates. And the house. That house is a mess. Pizza boxes, dirty dishes, the works. I don’t want to take you there. They won’t like it that you’re a white girl.”
Other times he’d tell me very bloody bedtime stories. Fights he’d seen, fights he’d been part of. The time they dug up his grandmother’s grave and found blood on her bones. And the cousin who lost his mind and cut off his penis. Rashid found him on the toilet, bleeding profusely with the dick still in his hand.
One day, I came home to find Rashid sitting on a fold out chair on my deck, head in his hands. He’d just got a phone call from home, Lightning Ridge, to say that his brother had committed suicide.
I was shocked. I didn’t know what to say so I just put my arms around him. We looked up flights on the Internet.
He disappeared to talk to a friend from work and packed a suitcase.
That night, we held eachother and didn’t sleep much.
I offered to take him to the airport.
“No Bub,” he said. “It’s OK. John from work will take me. I’ll be OK. I’ll call you as soon as I get there.”
He called me three hours later.
“I’m here, Bub, it’s pretty awful. I miss you already.”
Three hours seemed quick: Broome to Perth to Sydney and a train to Lightning Ridge. In fact, it didn’t seem possible.
“That was a quick flight”, I said.
“Yeah, yeah, they got me onto the best connections because of what happened, Bub.”
We got off the phone and I went for a walk on the beach with my friend Beth.
Rashid called me again, mid walk.
“Where are you?”
He sounded desperate.
Just on the beach, I said. The sand and wind were whirling around us, and the phone was cutting in and out.
I’ll call you when I get home. I hung up.
Beth suddenly launched into a story. She’d been living in the UK a few years ago, dating a girl who was a bit high maintenance. Big mood swings. Beth was just about ready to call it off when this girl’s grandmother died, and she flew back to Australia.
The next day, Beth walked into her local bar to find her girlfriend, sitting on a barstool.
“I don’t know why I just told you that story”, she said.
We looked at each other.
“He’s still in town”, she said.
He’s still in town.
The next day, after my radio show, I did a drive-by of Rashid’s workplace. And then I called their number.
Hi, there, I said…I’m looking for Rashid.
A voice that sounded very familiar said, “Who may I say is calling?”
I panicked and hung up.
Rashid rang me almost immediately.
His voice was hard. “Hey Bub, I haven’t heard from you for awhile. Don’t you like me anymore?”
Sure I do, I said. How are…how is….Lightning Ridge?
“My family are crazy,” he spat. “I’m going to come home.”
Don’t you think you should stay and help, with your brother and his family?
“Nup. Not after what they’ve said to me.”
Rashid, I’ve gotta go.
His voice got harder still. “Yeah? Go. You should go. The next time you see me, I’ll be hanging from a tree, I’ll be hanging from that mango tree outside your house. There’s nothing for me to live for anyway.”
That night, I could feel shadows creep around my pindan garden. My flat consisted of two dongas, with my bedroom in one and the bathroom in the other. I was too scared to cross the verandah.
The next day, I left the house to have dinner with a couple of other friends and told them the story.
“I know,” said Kate. “Tomorrow. I’ll ring his work. He won’t know my voice. I’ll ask to speak to him.”
She did it from work, from our blocked number.
“Hi, it’s Kate Matthews here. Can I please speak to Rashid?”
“Speaking!” replied a cheery voice.
She hung up. He was in Broome. He’d never left Broome.
Rashid rang me straight away.
“Hey Bub, what’s going on?”
I said he was lying. I said there was no Lightning Ridge and no brother and no one had died. I said he’d been watching me and hanging around the house and he should get some help.
He huffed and puffed.
“Actually…Actually, I just got in this morning. I was going to surprise you, But thanks a lot Miranda, thanks a lot. Thanks for nothing.”
He hung up.
I called the police and they promised to keep an eye out for me. I worried each time I reversed my car out from under the mango tree, worried that he’d be hanging from the branch. I still felt him around the house, at the end of missed calls and watching me from the car park when I went to work early in the morning.
Eventually I broke down and couldn’t leave my bedroom. I had to call in reinforcements. My friend Flic brought over a male friend one night, a solid station boy who had never told a violent bedtime story in his life. He shone the torch in every pindan crook and cranny. Nothing.
My friends Beth and Ryan put up security lights, triggered by human movement. In the meantime, I stayed in their spare bedroom. I was still scared of my house, of the shadows and especially of the mango tree in my front yard.
I felt like I was going crazy, so I ran away to Darwin for a few weeks. When I came back, I walked up and down Cable Beach, trying to decide whether I should stay. Eventually I found a trident shell the size of both my hands on the low tide watermark. I took it as a sign. I’d stick it out in Broome, at least until the end of my contract.
I never found out who Rashid really was. If he’d ever been a paramedic. If he was just a guy who liked to cheat on his girlfriend with gullible newcomers. If his housemates really hated white girls. If he had a drug problem. If he was a compulsive liar, or if he was mentally unstable.
It took me a long time to go on another date.
As they say, the odds are good but the goods are sometimes very odd.