Authors: Melissa Lucashenko
Melissa Lucashenko is an Australian writer of European and Goorie heritage. She received an honours degree in public policy from Griffith University in 1990 and published her first novel,
in 1997. It won the Dobbie Literary Award for Australian women's fiction and was shortlisted in the New South Wales Premier's Literary Awards and regional Commonwealth Writers' Prize.
was followed by the Aurora Prize â winning
a novel for teenagers, and
which was shortlisted for the 2001
Book of the Year and the New South Wales Premier's Literary Awards.
a teenage novel about class and friendship, was released in 2002. Melissa lives between Brisbane and the Bundjalung nation.
Bookclub notes for
are available at
It is a truth universally acknowledged, reflected Jo, that a teenager armed with a Nikko pen is a pain in the fucking neck, and if it isn't then it fucken well oughta be. For here came Timbo wandering up the hill, his tiny brown chest tagged with fat inky swirls:
No Justice, No Peace. Better pay or I ring DOCS.
And in certain parts of certain cities that would be Aboriginal art. Teach the lad to stand still, and people, we've got ourselves an installation.
Timbo beamed at Jo from beneath the number-three haircut that Kym gave all her boys until they were big enough to resist the onslaught of the clippers. What her nephew mouthed was drowned out by the roar of the Mullumbimby Council's ride-on mower.
âHey?' Jo cupped her hand to her ear.
âI got dadoos,' Timbo yelled, his arms outstretched in demonstration.
âI can see that, darlin.' Jo grinned as she drew the Honda to a halt. She took off her hat, hung it on the cracked grey-black knob of the gearstick, and mopped her forehead with her arm. Dollops of sweat flew sideways onto the newly shaven couch grass. Pulling the boy close, she used the bottom of her damp red singlet to remove a transparent snail trail from beneath his nose. For the thousandth time she was struck by his beauty: perfectly feathered dark brows above the blackest of black eyes. Keep your pink-cheeked dugai cherubs, she thought, gimme Kym's boys any day.
âWhat's that tattoo say then, bub?' she asked. The child's forehead
crinkled, and he traced the loud black ink of
pay me a living wage
with his slender brown index finger, as though he could take in the written word by osmosis.
âIt says ... Tim Bone Walker.'
âEllenâ' Jo yodelled towards the white metal donga that was their home. âStop tagging ya cousin! How many times?' The ink couldn't be doing his little immune system any good â not to mention who would have to scrub it off before his mum picked him up in an hour!
There was no reply from the donga. Ellen would be onto a different art project by now, headphones blaring hardcore rock into her thirteen-year-old head and the tedious task of babysitting her cousin sidelined, if not forgotten altogether. Jo frowned. She had lots more mowing to do, nearly all the Protestants, and maybe she could make a start on the RCs as well. She couldn't be watching Timbo while she worked. That's what she was paying Ellen six bucks for.
âYou go back and see what Ellie's doing, darlin,' she encouraged Timbo, âand later we go for a feed. Hot chippies, hey?'
âFish n chips?' Timbo brightened. He was the Bruns Co-op's biggest fan. Jo had shown him years ago how to lie on the splintery jetty, watching the water through the narrow cracks in the pale grey timber. If you spat down a mouthful of chewed chips you could always bring up the large school of wily jalum that lived in the river. They came joyously to the clouds of food, came close enough almost to touch, but always refused to bite for any misguided jalum bira tourist who might chuck a line in. Lying prone there in the sun on the Bruns jetty was a meditation upon fish, and on temptation, and on gullibility too.
âCan we get dem little fish baits?' Timbo pleaded.
âWe'll see. Aunty a bit broke this week, bub,' Jo replied, like there were weeks she wasn't. âYou go see Ellen now, darlin. And stay away from that road, orright.'
Timbo turned away. His tiny brown back beseeched her:
Laughing, Jo pulled her hat down onto her forehead, and surveyed the expanse of lawn she had yet to mow. Before her lay one hundred and fifty years of dead white Mullumbimby.
The cemetery where she worked and lived was an oasis of mature eucalypts, surrounded by thick scrub on two sides and on a third by the neat gardens of houses set well back from the quiet side street. Dappled sunlight fell through the high tree canopy, splashing the hillside with gold in the early and the late of each day. Ruined headstones lay scattered in regimental patches: RCs. Methodists. Salvation Army. Most of the memorials to white lives were old, and a few were ancient by Australian standards, mossy and unreadable except for tantalising remnants. In her first few months as groundskeeper, Jo had often stopped to try to decipher them, wondering whether
... oc.... elly, b.18.. d.1928,
had been a man or a woman. Was
Bain ... Mc ... ett
lying next to his wife or his child in that double grave? These stories that had once been so important to the town, that had needed carving in granite â where were they now?
After those first months Jo let the stories be. Wherever they were, it wasn't here anymore. And there was something about the cemetery that put things into another perspective altogether. Spend enough time among the silent majority, Jo discovered, and you found yourself worrying less about tomorrow, and more about today. There are so many tomorrows, after all. How could a person possibly keep track of all of them?
She didn't have a lot of visitors at work, of course. Eeh, too many mooki there, sis, the local Goories â the Watts, the Bullockheads and the Browns â muttered in disdain, before they quickly changed the subject. It's not the mooki that worry me, Jo would reply airily, it's the living, and this was mostly true, though, if she was being totally honest, she wasn't in any great hurry to investigate odd noises once the sun slipped down behind the hospital across the way. But those noises had only happened a few times; so far it was always the Mullum kids trying hard to lose their virginity under a full moon, and who, surprised by Jo suddenly looming out from behind William Protheroe
generally demonstrated a mastery of Anglo-Saxon nothing short of remarkable. She cackled aloud at the memory of the last screaming pair disappearing
around the corner at a rate of knots, gravel flying in their bare-arsed wake.
Still grinning, Jo turned the key and brought the Honda roaring back to life. As she plunged forward beneath a row of Chinese rain trees heavy with salmon-pink blossom, she wondered whether Cecile Johanna Mallett and Thomas Edward Compton had really been close enough in life to warrant lying beside each other, there on her right-hand side, today and ever after till kingdom come. Once you were in the ground, that was it: no more rent or eviction notices, but no freedom of association either. Not that everyone in the three acres below her was dead, mind you. No siree, she wouldn't be making that amateur's mistake. Thelma Margaret Farina
for example, was
and she was a pretty fucking sound sleeper at that, since Thelma Margaret hadn't noticeably stirred in the fifteen months that Jo had been mowing around her granite monument with a six-horsepower mower that needed its muffler replacing, if Trev at Farmcare could ever get around to ordering the bloody part.
And if that's my biggest problem, Jo told herself, revving the mower up the incline, then I could be doing a whole lot worse. The Goories might shy away and suck their teeth at ghosts, but a modest life of mowing and brush-cutting and keeping an eye on which flowers needed chucking in the compost, it suited Jo. She had her sister in Brisbane, a few mates in Ocean Shores and Bruns, and Ellen was as happy as any clever, artistic kid was going to get in a one-horse country town. If Jo missed the excitement of the band, well, all good things come to an end. It wasn't as if she'd played a lot of gigs the past few years anyway, not with Paul around being Eeyore and dragging her into his tight white world as much as he possibly could. The hectic days of jam sessions and after-parties and joints as fat as your thumb were a whimsical memory now, as though they'd happened to some distant relative and not to her at all.
Jo slowed the Honda to a loud yammering crawl. She could see, but not hear, Ellen emerging from the donga at the base of the hill
to unchain their two ecstatic mutts, check the fireplace, and lay a few more dry tallowwood branches across the embers that were smouldering from breakfast. Jo checked her watch. Four o'clock in mid April, and Timbo still running about with no shirt and a runny nose. Jo sent a loud cooee echoing down the slope.
âShirt â putta shirt on him,' she yelled through cupped hands. Ellen looked up, fat black earphones sitting on her head like they were bolted on, and cast her arms in the air. Jo tugged at her shirt, pointing at Timbo. Ellen nodded. As a fresh plume of white rose from the firepit, Jo got moving again, wondering about her chances of Ellen cooking some dinner if she kept stubbornly mowing for another hour. Slim to nonexistent, she told herself, especially since Timbo would surely have reported the likely prospect of hot fish 'n' chips.
Arniejo said so.
Jo narrowed her eyes and pursed her lips in a sudden recognition of tactical defeat. That would have been the entire point of sending the lad up to bother her, of course. Ellen was too fucken smart for her own good, and understood people in a way her mother never would. Jo sighed. Horses and dogs were the people for her; her favourite humans all lived in the pages of novels. She racked her memory till some lines of Whitman bubbled up:
Yeah, the old poofter genius was on her wavelength, alright. Jo could stand and look at horses long and long, because yarraman were proper easy. Probably it was no coincidence, Jo mused, that the people she worked with were all dead.
She put her foot down and steered carefully around Kathleen Mary
drifting back, as she did so, to the year Kathleen had been born. What would the Mullum cemetery have looked like in 1866? No narrow bitumen track splitting the hill for one thing. The graveyard for the brand-new hamlet of Mullumbimby Grass would have been too tiny to need any real road. Here on the hill everything would probably have been forest. At the bottom of the slope a dirt track made by bullock drays might have trailed into a clearing, but no more than that.
Jo shrank the cemetery in her mind, lopping off three quarters of the plots, and replacing the headstones with tall strangler figs and silky oaks drooping with lawyer vine. The Big Scrub would have towered where the Mills and the Garrards now lay under green mottled marble, the rainforest still healthy and filled with animals and birdlife, not yet doomed by the axes of men who â months or years from anything they thought of as home â had tried to slash and log and burn their way into freedom here. A funeral back then would have been a big effort, she thought, seeing the mourners sweating and slapping at mozzies as they forged their way through Bundjalung mud to a six-foot hole in the good red earth.
Who had cleared that first dugai gravesite for the mortal remains of William John Collins, and what had been here before him? Had the Bundjalung watched his muddy funeral from the forest edge, or even from among the crowd? Had the Mullum hospital always been just a little to the south, and was this spot the distance that a full coffin could be carried from there by a few strong men? Or was this clearing simply the pragmatic distance that meant no funereal stench could make its way back into the main part of town?
Uncle Freddy Humbug would have an opinion on this, Jo mused, for despite his madness and his painful coterie of hippy admirers, the old man often made sense, especially in off-pay week. Uncle Humbug, yeah. Aunty Sally Watt, too, if Jo could catch her between meetings. Wondering what the elders might have secreted in their memories about the history of the cemetery, Jo decided to mow just the Protestant half of the hill for now, and let the Micks enjoy their
peace and quiet a bit longer. She was starting to taste those hot fish bites with vinegar herself.
âTime to get our own place, now. I've had just about fucken enough of being Trailer Trash,' Jo told her sister across the coal fire. She popped a chip in her mouth and licked tomato sauce off her fingers, looking at the black half-moons that were revealed. She wondered yet again where the nail clippers might turn up. It was a constant mystery, how she and Ellen could live on top of each other in an eighteen-foot metal box and still things managed to get lost.
Kym looked at the headstones and shuddered.
âI dunno how youse do it, living ere,' she said, wrapping the last remnants of burnt chip ends back into the butcher's paper and chucking them on the coals where they immediately burst into brilliant orange flame.
âThe dogs woulda eaten them, Aunty.' Ellen said, disapproving of the waste.
âDon't be fucken myall,' Jo told Kym. âMooki not gonna hurt ya unless you've done something really wrong. Nah, the big problem here is worrying what to tell Basho if Daisy and Warrigal start excavating and run up to someone at a funeral with a bloody great shin bone in their mouth.' The women cackled.
âThey never started digging, eh?' Kym asked, glancing at the dogs, who lay just inside the firelight, mouths open, enjoying the warmth as well as the human company and the prospect of greasy chip crumbs.
âNah. Course they're tied up most of the day. Prisoners, arncha, Dais?'
Daisy wagged a red cattle dog tail at the sound of her name, while Warrigal just kept scratching.
âHe needs a wash,' Ellen observed redundantly.
âHe's allergic.' Jo frowned. âTo everything.'
âGot fleas too,' Ellen told her.
âYeah, well, put it on your list,' Jo responded brightly, âcos mine's looking a bit bloody full. You can wash them both first thing tomorrow, alright?' There was no reply. Ellen started pulling fleas off Warrigal and bloodily crushing them between her black-inked fingernails. That Nikko pen had had a workout lately and no mistake.
âAlright?' Jo repeated in a harder voice.