Death and renting in Broome

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.

broome hosue

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.

durack signs 001

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.

I may have been Krysti's tennant but I was subletting to an army of green tree frogs who had a permanent party in my bathroom and toilet cistern.

I may have been Krysti’s tennant but I was subletting to an army of green tree frogs who had a permanent presence in my bathroom and toilet cistern.

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.

Pimp my ride

Alice practices the all essential frisk or "pat down"

Alice practices the all essential frisk or “pat down”

The Northern Territory revels in its frontier image. There’s pride in the population make up, in the demographic break down of characters and chancers, bounders and bogans, misfits and miscreants. The newspaper is filled with stories of these people. They name their children Zyleem and Sequetia. They find brown snakes in the toilet and crocodiles in the backyard pool.  There are bikini clad girls dancing on crocodile traps and people having sex while they fill up at the service station. There are dildos thrown at engagement parties that cause hospitalisation. And if that wasn’t enough, there are still those special few who stick fireworks in unmentionable places (see my favourite NT News story of all time: “Why I stuck a Cracker up my Clacker”).

When I arrived in WA, I was disappointed to see that the Broome Advertiser had none of these hijinks. But just when I thought the Kimberley wasn’t nearly as renegade as the Territory, my friend Alice and I drove a paddy wagon all the way from Broome to Fitzroy Crossing.

We were at work when the cops first rang us up.

“Any of you girls going to the Rodeo?”

They were short staffed and needed a car taken over. Would we like to drive a police troopie to Fitzroy Crossing?

Why, yes. Yes, we would.

When Alice picked up our new ride, the on-desk constable reluctantly handed her the keys. And warned her against using the siren. Waterboarding may have been implied.

“DON’T you even THINK about it. We’ll know if you did, and there will be trouble.”

And so it begins. Alice and I get into the cop car, all denim mini skirts and cowboy boots, and start driving through Broome. From my new vantage point, I see a mate’s husband driving down Hammersley Street. He looks over and does a double take.

I wave.

We stop at Woollies first, and clamber out to get rodeo supplies – some wine, some meat for the BBQ. The car park goes silent.

As we head out of town along the Great Northern Highway, I pump the music up loud. We’re revelling in our new role as lady cops on a mission. I’m not sure what we’ll do if someone flags us down to solve an actual crime. We sing along to Creedence Clearwater, then The Travelling Wilburys. We get the finger from a couple of cars, a friendly wave from others. No one overtakes us.

Then Alice pulls off at the Willare Road House turn off and suddenly I hear woo-oooo woo-oo woo. I think it’s in the music; we’re listening to Daft Punk.

But I don’t remember that sound in the song. Tourists jolt up at picnic tables; everyone stops and stands to attention. What the fuck?

It takes me a second to realise. Alice has driven the car over some corrugations and it’s set off the siren.

What? Oh my God. We are gonna be in so much trouble.

There’s a button labelled CANCEL in the middle of the dashboard, and I punch it. The siren stops. Alice and I look at each other and laugh manically. And then tumble out of the car and grab a cheese and ham toastie from the roadhouse bain marie.

The tourists are confused.

Finally we get to Fitzroy Crossing three or four hours later. We meet our friends and drive to the campsite, start to put up some tents. The police are there quick as a flash. Four of them, it’s quite the welcome party.

“We’ll take it from here, girls.”

Alice offers to drive the car to the station but the lady copper says, “Oh no, no, no, that’s fine. We got it.”

One of the men takes his hat off, wipes his forehead, shakes his head.

“I can’t believe the boss let you do this.”

I can’t either.

Later that night we go to the Fitzroy Crossing Rodeo hoping to catch a cowboy, but all I get is some mid strength beer and a lot of Shania Twain.

Didn’t hear boo about the siren.

On duty

On duty

Broome small talk

Karen's house

Beth: So are you living at K’s place?

Me: Yeah, I am. I just moved in.

Ryan: We used to live there.

Me: Yeah?

Ryan: Yeah. Great place. You won’t have any problems. And you’re far enough away from The Bronx (Anne St).

Beth: But you might get a guy called Harold yelling for Cynthia outside your window late at night. All you need to do is call out that Cynthia doesn’t live here anymore. Cynthia is dead.

Me: Cynthia is dead. OK.

How to drive from Darwin to Broome

The Great Northern Highway, Kununurra to Broome

The Great Northern Highway, Kununurra to Broome

I broke up with my boyfriend, I needed to lose weight and I’d been in Darwin for at least 18 months so it seemed like a good time to move to Broome.

It was July, the year was 2008.

I was meant to start the job in six weeks and I was skint. On the facts, I decided that the best, most economic thing to do would be to drive 1800 kilometres in two or three days. I’d put my most precious possessions into the hatchback and start work the day after.

I told my Dad about this plan, driving from Darwin to Kununurra, and then through Halls Creek to Fitzroy Crossing and finally onto Broome. I’d never driven more than about three or four hours at a time before, but you’ve got to start somewhere, I thought.

Dad was less enthusiastic.

“On your own? That’s a stupid idea. What if you break down? Or hit a kangaroo? There’s a good chance you’ll get car jacked and raped in Halls Creek. And do you have enough insurance? You could get caught in a bushfire this time of year. Or an early cyclone. What if they run out of fuel at the roadhouse? And you’re going to CAMP along the way? No, no, no… I don’t think that’s a good idea at all.”

I suppose it wasn’t an unexpected response. We come from a longstanding family of fearmongers, and I can catastrophise with the best of them. I slept badly that night, dreaming of Halls Creek car jackers and rapists.*

The next day Dad rang me back.

“You know, I think a road trip from Darwin to Broome sounds like a great idea. I’ll come with you!”

And that’s how, at the age of 28, I ended up going on a five day driving holiday with my Dad.

On the face of it, a Yorkshire-born Canberra lawyer in sandals and the Australian outback aren’t natural bedfellows. But Dad wore his geek credentials with pride, and made friends along the way with everyone: surly petrol station owners, helicopter pilots, rural reporters, publicans and even the guys on the NT-WA border who frisk you for illicit carrots and cane toads.

He got excited about road trains and ate barramundi for dinner every night.

Plus he brought a good camera, a bunch of tools and spare parts I still don’t know how to use (give me a call if you need a spare fan belt sometime) and a credit card with a much higher limit.

Let it be said, travelling with Dad had many advantages over my original Go West Young Woman solo road trip.

But what he didn’t bring was music. Or rather, good taste in music. Or rather, my taste in music.

Turns out there are only three songs we both like –In My Life by The Beatles, Ring of Fire by Johnny Cash and Everybody Wants to Rule the World by Tears for Fears.

Mostly we compromised, but every so often our creative differences made the kilometres longer. It made me think of a song by Modest Mouse, sort of in the vein of the crowd pleasing “10 green bottles hanging on the wall…”:

100 miles is a long drive inside a car.

200 miles is a long drive inside a car.

300 miles is a long drive inside a car.

400 miles is a long drive inside a car.

500 miles is REAL long drive in a car.

 600 miles is a long drive inside a car.

700 miles is a long drive inside a car.

800 miles is a long drive inside a car.

900 miles is a long long long long wait in a car.

And a thousand miles is a LONG drive inside a car.

1100 miles is too far, inside a car.**

I would have played it, but it’s pretty shouty and Dad wasn’t really into Modest Mouse. Or music that was shouty.

We drove the Great Northern Highway in build up heat. It’s an intense and beautiful landscape; all boab trees and jilted car bodies. Termite mounds and red ragged ranges and bitumen. It drizzled with rain and the road smelled like burnt brown sugar.

We drove 1800 kilometres, and we didn’t get car jacked or raped. We didn’t run out of fuel. We didn’t get caught in a bushfire or an early cyclone. We didn’t break down, or hit a kangaroo, or any of the Brahmin bulls that liked to chew the cud best by the side of the road.

Just before we pulled into Broome, Dad remembered the only other song we both liked.

We crossed the town limits to Neil Murray.

Just in time to sit on the beach; stare at the moon.

*Having lived in the Kimberley now, I have many good things to say about the fine people of Halls Creek. And I reckon there are no more carjackers or rapists there than anywhere else in the world. We’re cool, right Halls Creek?

**Modest Mouse also wrote a great song called Talking Shit about a Pretty Sunset. I’ll get onto that another time.

Car bodies and boabs. Warmun, East Kimberley

Car bodies and boabs. Warmun, East Kimberley