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Authors: Di Morrissey

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BOOK: The Songmaster
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It was Veronica’s usual eclectic gathering. She was famed for her dinner parties with politicians, corporate leaders, lawyers, artists and actors as guests. Veronica had once laughingly confided in Susan that the secret to a successful dinner party was to select guests on a scale of merit – something to say, an ability to listen, wit, and a caring attitude. This wasn’t to say that there wasn’t conflict, dissension or spirited debate, but tempers were held in control, bad language avoided, and opinions were rarely too far out in left field.

Susan came to the table and pulled out her chair. Andrew Frazer’s hand fell on hers. ‘Uh, uh. That’s my job.’ He smiled as she sat and he pushed in her chair before sitting opposite her.

Susan was introduced to the men on either side of her, the eminent Queen’s Counsel, Alistair MacKenzie, and a retired Supreme Court judge, the former Justice Michael Francis Duffy. Mick Duffy, as the judge was known to his peers, was admiring the label on the Margaret River Cullens Chardonnay ’95 Boris had placed on the table.

‘The west is getting quite stylish,’ he said, raising an eyebrow in the direction of Andrew. ‘Bit different when I was there. Spent a couple of years as a jackeroo before law school.’

‘Whereabouts, Judge?’

‘It was near Geraldton. Always said I’d go back and work in the courts up that way. Never did. Pity. I would have enjoyed the challenge. I thought I’d have a go at bending some of that
straight-up-and-down, small-minded thinking of the west. So where you from? On the land or are you one of those Perth entrepreneurs?’ He raised the other eyebrow.

‘I thought they were all in jail or had absconded,’ murmured Alistair MacKenzie on Susan’s left.

Andrew grinned. ‘On the land. Our place is Yandoo, in the Kimberley.’

‘Ah, a king in a grass castle,’ quipped Susan.

‘Only a prince at this stage,’ interjected Veronica.

‘A good read, that book by Mary Durack,’ chimed in MacKenzie, recalling the patriotic pleasure he’d had reading the Durack family saga,
Kings in Grass Castles,
while holidaying many years ago. ‘Captured the essence of pioneering in the outback like nothing else I’ve read. Do you know the Duracks?’

‘My father and grandfather knew them well. They’re such a legend in the north-west we all feel we know them,’ said Andrew.

Judge Duffy sipped his wine then caught Andrew’s eye. ‘The Duracks had an interesting relationship with the Aborigines over the years. Very paternalistic as I remember. What’s the story with your station?’

Andrew felt a little uncomfortable, surprised at the direction of the conversation. He recovered quickly. ‘Like everywhere else, I suppose,’ he said with a non-committal shrug. ‘Quite different from the old days.’

‘Indeed it is,’ said the judge, not letting the subject slide off the table. ‘The local Aborigines put in a land claim for your spread?’

‘We’re on a pastoral lease,’ said Andrew, wishing someone would change the subject.

‘Sacred sites, then?’

‘Everything seems sacred in their philosophy these days,’ said Andrew with a barely controlled edge in his voice.

‘So it seems,’ said MacKenzie. ‘Tell me, how long has your family been up there?’

‘My great grandfather settled Yandoo. We were in the wave of settlers that followed the Duracks,’ explained Andrew. ‘We run cattle, but have diversified in recent years thanks to the Ord River irrigation and new markets for new crops. Pastoralists have to move with the times or go under.’

Veronica cleared away the antipasto plates. ‘How’s your brother?’

‘Julian has built up quite an established vet practice in Kununurra and he uses a chopper to get around much of the country. That really appeals to him. He comes home as much as possible and does his bit for Yandoo. Vets cost a packet, so it’s handy to have one in the family. He dreams of getting his own plane one day. Been flying ours for a couple of years anyway.’

‘And how big is your plane?’ asked Susan.

‘Nothing flash, just a single-engine two-seater. We use it for bore runs, going to the
coast, up to Darwin or Katherine occasionally. Little things like that.’

‘Flying qualifications are as important as sitting well in the saddle these days. You fly, of course?’ said the judge. Andrew nodded.

Susan was impressed and was about to tell him so when Boris made a grand entry announcing the presentation of his paella flanked by Greek salad and hot herb bread. The food was served and more wine poured amid noisy exchanges that quietened as Alistair MacKenzie brought up the subject of bush tucker.

‘I went to a brasserie in Melbourne the other day with a couple of colleagues and had some of this Australian nouvelle cuisine. Sort of up-market bush tucker.’

‘Ah, witchetty grubs and wattle-seed cake,’ said Judge Duffy with a hoot of derision. ‘Really, Alistair, I can’t imagine you tucking into roo kebabs.’

‘Rubbish, Mick. You’re becoming too conservative in your old age. Yabbies are magnificent as is crocodile, even if it takes a little effort to acquire the taste, at least it’s a cut above McDonald’s hamburgers.’

‘And Australian,’ added Susan. ‘I rather fancy bush tucker will be a huge hit with overseas people at the Olympic Games.’ She turned to Andrew. ‘Do you like kangaroo?’

‘I don’t eat it. We kill our own cattle for meat. Catch our own fish. Only feed the dogs
on roo meat. I’m more into hunting through the freezer. Leave the rest for the Abos.’

As soon as he said it, he knew he had goofed. In this company ‘Abos’ was probably high on the list of politically incorrect words. The abbreviation for Aborigines was in everyday use at the station, amongst his friends and other white people of the region. Here in Paddington in Sydney, it would be almost certainly taboo, but it was out, and he couldn’t take it back from instant analysis around the table. The judge flashed a raised eyebrow, MacKenzie stole a quick look at the young man, Veronica closed both eyes briefly, Boris ignored it, and Susan stiffened.

‘And do the Abos, as you put it, have a chance to hunt through the freezer as well?’ asked Susan.

Veronica shot a glance down the table to Boris, who acknowledged it silently. This is what she loved about dinner parties. At some stage there would be fireworks, or a signal of a battle just over the conversational horizon.

The two legal men reached for the wine as if the movement had been choreographed. The field was cleared for Andrew and Susan. Their eyes met across the table.

Andrew was able to stay calm, even a little amused at her bold thrust. How could he get angry with such an attractive woman. He was painfully aware that the other guests were waiting with ill-concealed expectation.

‘As a matter of fact, they do, to some extent. There’s hardly a major community around now that doesn’t have some power, houses with fridges, or at least a store with several.’ He picked up his fork to return to the paella, signalling the end of his reaction, then as an afterthought he added, ‘Have you been into an Aboriginal community by the way?’

‘Well . . . er, . . . no . . . I rather . . .’

But before she could continue, Andrew interrupted, fussing for awhile with his food. ‘That’s the problem with what I call experts who’ve graduated with diplomas from television news and current affairs viewing. They get all fired up on the strength of biased viewpoints, of carefully selected pictures, of stories out of total context.’ He caught her eye again, ‘Though I particularly exempt you from that judgement.’

‘Oh,’ exclaimed Veronica with relish. ‘Why does Susan get off the hook so easily?’

‘Because she’s so attractive.’ He smiled at Susan and lifted his glass to her in a toast. The judge and the QC smiled benignly. Veronica closed her eyes again, waiting for the rocket to ignite.

Susan spoke firmly, without heat, but there was no mistaking the fact he’d touched a nerve. ‘Thank you for the compliment, but frankly, I’ve worked hard to get where I am in this world and I’ve done it on my merits, not my looks.’

Andrew recoiled, realising this time he’d
made a sexist comment. Mick Duffy and Alistair MacKenzie exchanged a swift look acknowledging they were out of touch with Generation X attitudes.

Susan had no regrets at speaking her mind. Andrew obviously didn’t have a lot of contact with modern professional women, she sur-mised. So, over the tropical fruit salad and minted lemon yoghurt, she tried to build a bridge over the gulf she felt existed between the two of them. ‘Tell me, Andrew, what tribes or communities, as I believe many prefer to be called, are there on Yandoo?’

‘There’s a mob down by the river, a few stockmen we employ, and their families. They’re a mixed lot.’

‘So what are the traditional tribes around that area?’ asked Mick Duffy.

‘Mostly Wurumbul.’

The judge leaned forward and tried to repeat the name of the tribe that rolled off Andrew’s tongue with what appeared to be the fluency of natural language. ‘Lovely sound to those Aboriginal words don’t you agree?’ he said to the table at large. ‘You speak much of their language?’

‘I’m afraid not. Just a few words, mainly about stock and work about the station. The main mob of them keep very much to themselves. They got together a few years back, broke away from the Kimberley Land Council and formed their own group. Lodged some land claim but nothing seems to have come of it.’

‘You don’t seem worried about it, presumably it didn’t affect your land then?’ commented Susan.

Andrew looked straight at her, enjoying her gorgeous green eyes. ‘Not at the moment. But who knows where they’ll stop. We’re talking about a big area here, or one with a lot of important sites – pastoral leases, mines, rivers. Everybody out there, black and white, is affected by these claims.’

‘You sound like you think they’re spurious. Whose land was it in the first place?’

‘And what about our continuous use and ownership?’ demanded Andrew. ‘We’ve improved the land, developed industries, brought money into the place, given them jobs and opportunities. Trouble is, most of them don’t want to do anything about any chance they’ve been given. The grog is still a bloody problem.’

‘Hard when they also want to be treated the same as whitefellas. Why can’t they get drunk and be obnoxious too, isn’t that the thinking?’ said Mick Duffy. ‘When they wake up to themselves and get off the grog, you see some individuals really get ahead. They’ve had a lot of role models in different fields, not just sports. Look at Pat O’Shane, not only a black magistrate but a woman.’

Susan waggled her finger at the retired judge. ‘How very politically correct. Now don’t you tell me in the next breath that some of your best friends are Aborigines.’

‘Wish I could. Where does an old bugger like me get to mingle with real people? I only met the activists and so-called troublemakers or blokes up before the court.’

‘Maybe that’s what we all need to do, meet a few more Aborigines for just ordinary exchanges, like you would with any new friend. But how do we do that?’ asked Susan.

‘Go to Redfern. Lots down there,’ said Judge Duffy helpfully.

Over coffee, served informally as the dinner party split into groups, Alistair MacKenzie asked Susan what sort of cases she liked to handle. They were in the back garden, discreetly lit by garden lights behind shrubs.

‘I get what I’m given, which tends to be soft female-type cases,’ she lamented. ‘Frankly I’d like to get more involved in jurisprudence. I’d like to see the law demystified for the general public who have to wrestle with it. For example, I’ve seen instances where people have become tangled in legal proceedings simply because they understood barely a word of a letter a solicitor had sent them.’

He gave her a charming smile. The suave QC, impeccably groomed, spoke with a soft, modulated voice that suggested private school and a privileged upbringing. ‘If the general populace understood the law, we’d be out of a job. But seriously, you want the law to be like
mercury, ever on the move. It can take a hundred years or so for a law to come into being, and another hundred to get rid of it. Change is a slow and careful process.’

‘But if the law doesn’t hear the voices of the people and adapt, what good is it? Surely it’s better to be one of the sheep than in the care of wolves?’

Judge Duffy and Andrew joined them as the QC lobbed her shot smoothly back. ‘I agree. Like a beautiful old clock, the law needs servicing, rewinding and setting to true time on occasion. The law is our master and we in this noble profession must bear in mind we are its ser-vants. At its best it should be the application of common sense.’

‘Of course. But why should it be cloaked in incomprehensible language and ritual? It’s allowing the legal profession to hold the key to the box of clarity, while lawyers mumble gobbledygook.’

MacKenzie gave a good-natured laugh. ‘Such heresy, young lady. What do your senior partners have to say about your views?’

Before she could answer, Andrew interjected, ‘No offence, but the law drives me nuts. Why can’t legal advice be spelled out in a straightforward simple letter for example.’

‘So why call on a solicitor’s services if you can solve your own problems with a direct conversation?’ asked the QC.

‘Depends who you’re talking to,’ said
Andrew. ‘Dealing with a government bureaucrat is different from dealing with a couple of Aborigines, for example. Though I have to admit that’s getting harder. Not like it used to be in my dad’s day – sit under a tree and have a bit of a yarn and sort things out. Now you have to deal with a whole Aboriginal industry; Land Council and legal service blokes behind every second tree. Money, everyone wants money, that’s the bottom line that screws things up.’

BOOK: The Songmaster
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