IT IS A truth universally acknowledged, Jo decided, that a bored teenager with a permanent marker is a pain in the bloody neck. And if it isn't, then it fucken well should be. For here came five-year-old Timbo wandering up the hill, his bare brown chest tagged with fat Nikko swirls saying CHILD SLAVERY – THE FINAL FRONTIER and BETTER CONDITIONS OR I RING DOCS. And in certain parts of certain cities that would be Indigenous art, Jo thought. Teach the lad to stand still and, people, we've got ourselves an installation.
Timbo beamed at her from beneath the number-three haircut that Kym gave all her boys until they were big enough to resist the onslaught of the clippers.
‘I got dadoos,' he announced.
‘I can see that, darlin.' Jo grinned as she drew the Mullumbimby Council's ride-on mower to a sweaty halt and killed its engine. She took off her hat, hung it on the scratched black knob of the gearstick, and mopped her forehead with her arm. Dollops of sweat flew sideways onto the newly shaven couch grass.
As Jo pulled Timbo closer, she used the bottom of her sweaty red singlet to remove a transparent snail trail from beneath his nose. For the thousandth time she was struck by her nephew's looks: perfectly feathered dark brows above the blackest of black eyes. Keep your pink-cheeked dugai cherubs, she thought; give me our kids any day.
‘What's ya tattoos say then, Timbo?' she asked. The child's forehead furrowed, 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.
‘It says...Tim Bone Walker.'
‘Ellen,' Jo yelled towards the white metal donger that was their home. ‘Stop tagging ya cousin! How many times?' The ink couldn't be doing his little body's immune system any good – not to mention who'd have the pleasure of scrubbing it off before his mum picked him up in an hour.
There was no reply from the donger, of course. Ellen would be on to a different art project by now, headphones blaring hardcore punk into her thirteen-year-old head and the tedious task of babysitting her cousin sidelined if not forgotten altogether. Josie frowned. She had lots more mowing to do, nearly all the Protestants, and maybe the RCs as well. She couldn't be looking after Timbo while she worked. That's what she was paying Ellen ten bucks for.
‘You go back and see what Ellie's doing, darlin,' she encouraged Timbo, ‘and later we'll go for hot chippies, hey?'
‘Fish 'n' chips?' Tim brightened. He was the Bruns co-op's biggest fan. Jo had shown him years ago how to lie on its splintery jetty, watching the water through the narrow cracks in the pale-grey timber. If you spat in mouthfuls of chewed chips you could always bring in the large school of wily bream that lived in the river. They came joyously to the clouds of potato, came in close enough almost to touch, but always refusing to bite for any misguided tourist who might chuck a line in. Lying prone in the sun there on the Bruns jetty was a meditation upon fish, and temptation, and on gullibility too.
‘Can we get dose little fish baits?' Timbo wanted to know. Fish bites.
‘Mmm, maybe. Or else just hot chippies – Aunty's broke this week,' Jo replied. ‘You go see Ellen now. And stay away from that road, all right?' When Jo had watched her nephew head safely towards the donger, she fired up the Honda again, 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 Jo lived and worked was an oasis of mature tallow-woods and ironbarks, surrounded on two sides by thick scrub and on a third by the neat gardens of houses set well back from the quiet street. Dappled light fell through the high tree canopy, splashing the hillside with gold in the early and the late of each day. Ruined headstones were scattered across the three acres in regimental patches: RCs. Methodists. Salvation Army. Most of the memorials to white lives were old, and a few ancient by Australian standards, mossy and unreadable except for tantalising remnant dates or letters. In those first few months, Jo had often paused to try and 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: where were they now?
After those first months, though, Jo let the stories be. Wherever they were, it wasn't here, not anymore. And there was something about the cemetery, too – the quiet, maybe, or just the inescapable sense of mortality – that put things into another perspective altogether. After enough time among the silent majority, Jo discovered, you found yourself worrying less about tomorrow, and more about today. There are so many tomorrows, after all. How can a person possibly keep track of all of them?
Jo's previous life and its discontents had faded over time to an intermittent blur that existed only outside these few acres on the outskirts of town. What remained inside the Weldmesh fence was Jo, Ellen, their two dogs, their donger, an occasional wallaby, and a funeral or two a week to remind Jo why she was allowed to live here and keep the place looking what white people deemed respectable.
Jo put the Honda in gear, lowered the blades and got down to work in a noisy cloud of dust and grass clippings. As she mowed up and down the rows, she reflected on her life as a single parent and groundswoman. She didn't have a whole lot of visitors at work, naturally. Too many mooki there, sis, the local blackfellas muttered in disdain, and quickly changed the subject. Ah, it's not the dead that worry me, she'd reply airily, it's the living – which was mostly true, though if she was totally honest she wasn't ever in a huge hurry to investigate unusual noises outside once the sun slipped down behind the mental-health unit across the road. But those noises had only happened a few times, and so far it was always the Mullum kids trying hard to lose their virginity under a full moon – who, when surprised by Jo suddenly looming out from behind William Protheroe (1910-1967), generally showed a terrific turn of speed coupled with a mastery of Anglo-Saxon nothing short of remarkable.
Jo paused in her train of thought, wondering if Cecil John Bennett and Thomas Edward Compton had really been close enough to warrant living beside each other till kingdom come. Not that everyone in the paddock was dead, mind you. Maahnd yew! Ooh, no, no sirree. Thelma Maria Farrugia (1910-1981) was apparently only sleeping, and she was a pretty fucking sound sleeper at that, since Maria hadn't noticeably stirred in the eighteen months that Jo had been mowing around her granite monument with a six-horsepower Honda that needed its muffler looking at, if Trev at Farmcare could ever get around to ordering the bloody part.
No, the Goories might look away and suck their teeth in alarm at the ghosts, but slashing and brush-cutting and keeping an eye on which flowers needed chucking in the composter suited Jo well enough. She had her mates in Ocean Shores and in Bruns. Ellen seemed about as satisfied as any clever, artistic kid was going to get in a small country town. And if Jo missed the excitement of the band, well, all good things came to an end. It wasn't as if she'd done a lot of gigs the past few years anyway, not with Gerry around being Eeyore and dragging her into his tight white world as much as he possibly could.
JO PULLED THE Honda up to a mumbling idle again, but this time she stopped at the top of the hill. From where she paused she could see Ellen emerging from the donger down below to unchain their two ecstatic mutts, check the fireplace and lay a few more tallow sticks across the embers that were still 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. She sent a loud cooee echoing down the slope.
‘Shirt – putta shirt on him,' she yelled through cupped hands. Ellen looked up, fat expensive earphones still sitting on her head like they were bolted on, and cast her arms in the air. Jo tugged at her shirt, pointing at Timbo, and Ellen nodded. As a fresh plume of white rose from the fireplace, Jo got moving again, wondering about her chances of Ellen cooking some dinner if she kept working for another hour. Slim to nonexistent, she told herself, especially since Timbo would surely have reported the likely prospect of hot fish 'n' chips. Aunty said so.
Jo narrowed her eyes in a sudden recognition of defeat. That would have been the entire point of sending him up, of course. Ellen was too fucken smart for her own good, that was for sure. She played poker like a fifty-year-old, and read people like Jo read books. Her daughter's was a strange kind of intelligence to Jo, who could scarcely raise the energy to understand people well enough to meet normal social expectations, let alone anything more. Horses were the people for her, and all her favourite humans lived in the pages of books. What had Whitman said about animals? The great misanthropic poofter had the right idea, whatever he said. She scrabbled in her head for the half-remembered lines. That's it:
‘They do not sweat and whine about their condition.
They do not lie awake in the dark and weep for their sins.
...not one is demented with the mania of owning things.'
Yes, animals were the people for Jo, but the golden age of the horse was long gone, and with it the chance for oddballs like herself to easily fit into an economy as grooms, or coachmen, or stable hands. She knew she was lucky to score the cemetery job and not about to complain, not with the rent of the donger chucked in cheap by Luddo, the big official dickhead in a big official council car that he was. A hundred years ago Luddo would have been driving about in a sulky, with a solid Clydie mare swishing her tail at his bulk.
Always with the horses, Jo realised: my monkey mind always comes back to the Yarraman. Thirty years after growing up with not enough paddock or grass or feed for my skinny ponies, I still drive around with horsewoman's eyes, seeing overgrown lawns as feed wasted, and fallen roadside timber as inviting jumps to canter over...if I'd been born a hundred-odd years earlier there would have been all the horses I'd want around. A hundred-odd years ago I woulda been on a station in Queensland like Granny was, she corrected herself. Or maybe on a mission, with God knows what happening around me.
It came to Jo that when the first graves had been dug here all those decades ago, there would have been no narrow bitumen path splitting the hill. The new cemetery for the brand-new township of Mullumbimby Grass would have been too tiny to demand any roads; everything would have been still all trees up where she was parked, on top of the hill. At the bottom of the slope a dirt track made by bullock drays might have trailed into the 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 Moreton Bay figs and silky oaks drooping with lawyer vines. The Big Scrub would have towered where the Dochertys and the Freemans now lay under mottled marble, the rainforest still dominant, still healthy and filled with animals and birdlife, not yet doomed by the axes and greed of men who – months or years from anything they thought of as home – had tried to slash and burn their way into freedom here. A funeral back then would have been a steamy, shady, mosquito-ridden affair, she thought, seeing the British-born mourners in their hot stinking clothes swiping at insects as they forged a way through Bundjalung mud to a six-foot hole in the good red earth.
Who had cleared that first dugai gravesite for the bones of Athol Jebediah Lacey, and what had been here before him? Had the Bundjalung watched his funeral from the forest edge, or even from in among the crowd? And had the hospital always been just over there to the south, and was this spot the comfortable distance that a full coffin could be carried from there by a few strong men? Or was this clearing in the forest simply the distance that meant no funereal stench could make its way back into the settled part of town?
Resolving to look for answers in the museum and library and among the older blackfellas, Jo put her foot down and got on with the mowing. She'd just trim up the Protestant half of the hill today, and let the Micks enjoy their peace and quiet a little bit longer, she decided. She was starting to taste those hot chips with vinegar herself.