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.