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I CLOSED MY eyes, felt the ragged harmonies flowing through my head.
Pitch dark, but the dawn couldn’t be far off. Hazel on the ground beside me, singing softly. Painted sisters dancing all around us, dust swirling up from bare feet. Cocky feathers catching firelight. Coloured skirts, circles and curves.
It was Young Man’s Time in Bluebush. Boys were being made into men. Here in the women’s camp, we were singing them goodbye.
The men were a couple of hundred yards to the west: a column of ghostly figures weaving in and out of a row of rattling branches. Clapsticks and boomerangs pounded the big bass rolling rhythm of the earth.
Gypsy Watson, our boss, the kirta, struck up another verse of the fire song: ‘Warlu wiraji, warluku…’
The rest of us tagged along behind.
My breasts, cross-hatched with ochre, moved gently as I turned and took a look around.
You couldn’t help but smile. The town mob: fractured and deracinated they might have been, torn apart by idleness and violence, by Hollywood and booze. But moments like these, when people came together, when they tried to recover the core, they gave you hope.
It was the songs that did it: the women didn’t so much sing them as pick them up like radio receivers. You could imagine those great song cycles rolling across country, taking their shape from what they encountered: scraps of language, minerals and dreams, a hawk’s flight, a feather’s fall, the flash of a meteorite. The resonance of that music is everywhere, even here, on the outskirts of the whitefeller town, out among the rubbish dumps and truck yards. It sings along the wires, it rings off bitumen and steel.
A disturbance—a slurred, drunken scream—somewhere to my right.
Maybe I spoke too soon.
Two women were yelling at each other. One was sitting down, obscured by the crowd. The other was all too visible: Rosie Brambles, looking like she’d just wandered out of the Drunks’ Camp.
Rambling Rosie, her dress a hectic red, her headscarf smeared with sweat and grease: she was built like a buffalo, with broad shoulders and spindly legs. She was drunk and angry. Nothing unusual in that; Rosie was mostly drunk and often angry, but this wasn’t the place for it.
Her antagonist was Cindy Mellow—mellow by name, far from it by nature—a manky-haired little spitfire from Curlew Creek. Sounded like their argument was about a bloke. Still nothing unusual. Rambling Rosie’s life was a succession of layabout lovers, black, white and every shade between. Cindy was being held back by her aunties, but they couldn’t hold her mouth: she cut loose with a string of insults, one of which was about a baby.
Rag to a bull, that. Years ago, one of Rosie’s babies had been found—alive, by chance—abandoned in a rubbish bin.
Rosie erupted: ‘Ah, you fuckin little bitch!’ She ran to a fire, grabbed a branch of burning lancewood, came back swinging.
Old ladies scattered, little kids screamed.
I jumped to my feet.
She held the branch like a baseball bat, oblivious.
I moved closer, one arm extended.
‘Rosie!’ I raised my voice. ‘Settle down…’
She looked around. Gunpowder glare. No recognition. Then she rushed at me with a savage swing of the brand. I curved back and it swept past my head, sent a shower of sparks and a blast of heat into my face. I smelled my own hair, smoking.
I’d thought I was ready for her, a part of me was. But another part was mesmerised, staring with dazzled fascination at the river of light the torch left in its wake. In that shimmering arc I saw galaxies and golden fish, splinters and wings, crystal chips. I saw the song we’d just been singing.
‘Emily!’ Hazel’s warning scream.
I rolled out of the way as the fire swept past my head.
Enough was enough.
I snatched up a crowbar one of the old ladies had left behind. When Rosie came at me a third time I planted the crowie in the ground. The brand crashed into it with another explosion of sparks as I pivoted on the bar, slammed a thudding double-kick into her chest. She staggered backwards, hit the dirt. Suddenly still. Looked up, confused, winded, heaving.
Christ, Rosie. Don’t have a heart attack on me. My first day on the job and they’ll have me up on a murder charge.
Hazel came stomping over. ‘What you doing, Rosie? Running round fighting, putting the wind up these old ladies and little girls!'
Rosie raised herself onto an elbow, stared at the ground, shamefaced. Finished, the fight knocked out of her. The women began to make their way back to their places. But I glanced at Gypsy Watson, saw that she was troubled.
I knelt beside her, put a hand on her knee. ‘Don’t worry, Napurulla. It’s over now…’
She looked out over the dancing ground, her mouth at a downward angle. I followed her gaze. Rosie lurching off into the shadows. One of the teenage girls swaying under a set of headphones, travelling to the beat of a different drum. Cans of Coke, crucifixes and wristwatches, corrugated iron, powdered milk. In the distance the whitefeller lights of Bluebush cast an ugly orange pallor into the sky.
Gypsy was a Kantulyu woman, grown to adulthood in the desert out west. Hadn’t seen a whitefeller until she was in her twenties. Last year, one of her grandsons hanged himself in the town jail. A couple of months ago her brother Ted Jupurulla, one of the main men round here, died of cancer—a long, horrible death. She’d been in mourning ever since.
She was watching her world fall apart.
‘Over?’ she intoned wearily, shaking her head. ‘Yuwayi,’ she crackled, ‘but what over? They killin us with their machine dreams and poison. Kandiyi karlujana…’
The song is broken.
Which song? The one we’d just been singing, or the whole bloody opera? I gave her a hug, stood up, moved to the back of the crowd. The ceremony slowly resumed, other women took up the chant. But something was missing.
Somewhere among the hovels a rooster crowed. Didn’t necessarily mean the approach of dawn—that bird’s timing had been out of whack since it broke into Reggie Tapungati’s dope stash— but it was a reminder. Time to be on my way. McGillivray had said he wanted me there at first light.
I threw a scrap of turkey, a lump of roo-tail and an orange into my little saddlebag and headed for the track to town.
I'D ONLY GONE a few yards when I became aware of bare feet padding up behind me.
Hazel, her upper body adorned with ochre, feathers in her hair, a friendly frown.
‘Sneakin off, Tempest?’
‘Didn’t want to disturb you.’
She grinned. ‘Disturb us? Heh! Even a tempest’d be peaceful after Rosie. You gotta go so early?’
‘Tom told me to be there first thing. Don’t want to give him or his mates the satisfaction of seeing me late for my first day at work. Especially the mates—’
She studied the distant town, a troubled expression on her face.
Somewhere out on Barker’s Boulevard a muscle car pitched and screamed: one of the apprentices from the mine. Apprentice idiot, from the sound of him. A drunken voice from the whitefeller houses bayed at the moon. A choir of dogs howled the response.
‘You sure you know what you’re doin? This…job?’ Her lips curled round the word like it had the pox.
‘Dunno that I ever know what I’m doing, Haze. I’ve said I’ll give it a go.’
She smiled, sympathetic. She knew my doubts better than I knew them myself; she’d been watching them play themselves out for long enough—since we were both kids on the Moonlight Downs cattle station, a couple of hundred k’s to the north-west. I’d flown the coop early, gone to uni, seen the world. Hazel had never left.
The little community there had hung on over the years, through the usual stresses endured by these marginal properties on the edge of the desert. It had held together, like some sort of ragged-arse dysfunctional family, thanks in large part to the influence of Hazel’s dad Lincoln Flinders and the efforts of Hazel herself.
Lincoln was dead now, savagely murdered not long ago. Just around the time I’d returned myself, come back from my restless travels and fruitless travails. Come home, hoping to find something, not knowing what.
I had a better idea now, though.
We’d taken the first tentative steps to independence: built a few rough houses, put in a water supply, planted an orchard. Our mate Bindi Watkins had started a cattle project, and was managing, in the main, to keep the staff from eating the capital. There was talk of a school, a store, a clinic.
The one thing we lacked was paid employment. So when Tom McGillivray, superintendent of the Bluebush Police and an old friend of the Tempest clan, came up with the offer of an Aboriginal Community Police Officer’s position we were happy to accept.
The only complication was the person he insisted on filling the position.
‘Join the cops, Emily!’ Hazel was still shocked.
‘Not real cops, Haze. ACPOs can only arrest people. I won’t be shooting anyone.’
‘Yeah but workin with them coppers…Old Tom, ’e’s okay—we know im long time. Trust im. But them other kurlupartu…’
I’d been wondering myself how McGillivray’s hairy-backed offsiders would react to a black woman in their midst.
‘Bugger em,’ I said with a bravado I wished I felt. ‘It’ll be an education.’
‘Yuwayi, but who for?’
‘It’s only a few weeks, Haze.’
That was the deal: a month in town, working alongside Bluebush’s finest, then I’d be based at Moonlight. I’d just come back from a short training course in Darwin in time to catch the tail end of the initiation rites.
The clincher in the deal—and this wasn’t just the cherry on top, it was the whole damn cake and most of the icing— was a big fat four-wheel-drive. Government owned, fuelled and maintained. The community was tonguing at the prospect; the goannas of Moonlight Downs wouldn’t know what hit em.
We paused at the perimeter of the town camp, looked back at the fire-laced ceremony. A chubby toddler broke free from the women, wobbled off in the direction of the men, his little backside bobbing. He hesitated, lost his nerve and rushed back into the comforting female huddle.
They all laughed. So did we, the sombre mood evaporating. Say what you like about me and my mob, there’s one thing you can’t deny: we’re survivors. You can kick us and kill us and drown us in bible and booze, but you better get used to us because we’re not going away.
‘So you’re out bush, first day?’
‘Tom got the call last night. Some old whitefeller killed at the Green Swamp Well Roadhouse.’
‘Dunno. Probably bashed to death with a cricket bat—deadly serious about their sport out there.’
Green Swamp Well’s main claim to fame—apart from the world’s biggest collection of beer coasters and mooning photos, its tough steaks and tougher coffee—was the annual Snowy Truscott Memorial Cricket Match.
Hazel glanced at the eastern sky. ‘Gonna be a scorcher.’
She was right: the drop of rain we’d had yesterday would only add to the humidity, and the radio predicted a brutal 45 degrees. Performing any sort of outdoor activity today would be like doing laps in a pressure cooker.
We were in the middle of the build-up. That time of year temperate Australia thinks of as spring: after the winter dry and not yet properly into the wet, when temperatures, tempers and the odd bullet go through the roof and the rain is always somewhere else. You’d be out of your mind if you didn’t go a little bit crazy.
‘Look after yourself,’ said Hazel. She kissed me on the cheek, returned to the dancing ground.
Table of Contents
Waiting for the man,
The man with the ice-cream face,
Hit the road running,
Motors and wheels,
Green Swamp Well,
In and out of the shack,
Wireless and the Paradox,
Meat shed man,
A woman on the edge,
A fissure in the ziggurat,
Fun for all,
A bird on the ground,
Weirder by the year,
Hit for six,
Oh Danny boy,
'It make me nervous',
Nor'-nor'-west of nowhere,
Mister Pig's Head,
Stiff and sore,
Breakfast at Jojo's,
Devil in the dark,
Running with the wonder dog,
B and E,
A bloodshot moon,
All for nothing,
Moving out there still,
Radio waves and green fire,
A hospital pass,
Playing under lights,
A moving target,
Roadblock, Territory style,
Banging heads and brick walls,
Into the abyss,
A single mind,
Make your mark,
'Look like you getting there',
Rowing to Eden,
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
First Line: I closed my eyes, felt the ragged harmonies flowing through my head.Working as an Aboriginal Community police officer, the half-Aboriginal, half-white Emily Tempest is working the harsh land of northern Australia. It doesn't take long for her to encounter her first dead body-- an old prospector she knew as a child. Trouble is, her boss has already figured out who the murderer is and wants Emily to mind her own business and work the night shift in town like a good little Abo girl. Emily believes the old prospector-- and the man they have thrown in prison--deserve much better than that, and she goes her own way, conducting her own investigation. Emily has never been afraid of getting into a fight, but during the course of her travels along Gunshot Road, she finds the hard knocks to be much worse than she'd anticipated.This is an excellent follow-up to Hyland's first book, Moonlight Downs (published elsewhere as Diamond Dove). Emily is most definitely an amateur detective; she leads with her heart instead of her head, and she has a tendency to make mistakes. If she's lucky, the mistakes aren't painful, but she's not always lucky. In fact, if you have a strong aversion to violence against women, there is one scene in this book that you will want to avoid. For that matter, Emily's world is dirty and rough. People don't always bathe as often as they should, they use whatever language they feel like using, and violence is often a way of life. Expect grit and realism as you read about Emily.Having a foot in two worlds, Emily has reaped some of the benefits of the white world: she has furthered her education, and she is a world traveler. However, she cannot and will not ignore injustice, especially to the Aboriginal people among whom she spent her childhood.Each character in this book seems to fit perfectly into the hot and dusty land, and as much as I enjoy Hyland's plot, pacing and characters, one of the main reasons why I love his books is because of the landscape. It reminds me of my own chosen one: "I wasn't paying a huge amount of attention to the road, I admit-- a nasty habit I've acquired since coming back out bush. Sometimes I even read while I'm driving. Nothing heavy, mind you-- crime, perhaps, maybe a magazine. I'm not the only culprit, I'm sure. Meeting another vehicle out here is an event of such magnitude you tend to get out and talk about it."Like the Australian Outback, there are places here in the Arizona desert where you can drive all day long and never meet another living soul outside of a snake and a lizard or two. If you do meet someone out in this vast emptiness, you acknowledge each other. You are no longer in the city, and anonymity can get you killed. Although Hyland's territory is an exotic one, it does feel familiar to me even if I don't always understand the lingo.Story, pacing, characters, setting... these are four very important things to any book, but Hyland adds yet another element that makes his writing stand out: the Aboriginal culture. As much as I enjoyed this book, one sentence engraved itself on my mind because it voices something I've felt for a long time without ever putting it into words: "He bin say you not from here. You move too fast: more better you slow down, take time for the country to know you."Take time for the country to know you. In Gunshot Road, that is important advice from a people who have learned to live in rhythm with a very special land. Outside of Gunshot Road it is excellent advice for us all to follow.If you haven't tasted a book written by Adrian Hyland, you've been missing a banquet.
Great plot. Interesting reading about Australian culture in the outback.
When Tom McGillivray, superintendent of the Bluebush Police and an old friend of the Tempest clan, came up with some paid employment for Emily as an Aboriginal Community Police Officer, she was happy to accept. The deal was that she would spend a month in Bluebush in training and then she'd be based at Moonlight Downs as its ACPO.Emily's just come back from a short training course in Darwin in time to catch the tail end of the Bluebush aboriginal community's Young Man's Time. On her way from the women's camp to work she stops and washes off her body art under a garden hose, and dons her oversize police uniform. That in itself seems symbolic, as she attempts to bridge two cultures.She arrives at work to find that there's been a murder: One oldie has killed another out at Green Swamp Well, and McGillivray is in hospital, his place taken by a new senior sergeant Bruce Cockburn. On their way to the crime scene Emily senses something out of place and discovers a Range Rover that's gone off the road, its occupants spilled into the gully and in need of help.When they eventually make it to Green Swamp Well, Emily finds that she knows both the victim, and the apparent perpetrator, two eccentrics who had a history of argumentation, but were underneath it all the best of mates.Emily was never going to get on with Senior Sergeant Cockburn: where he tries to simplify things, she sees complications. Emily's aboriginal background gives her a heightened sense of disturbed balance. He reminds her that she is simply meant to be a liaison officer not an investigator, but Emily really can't help herself.There is such a lot to like about this book: starting with Emily herself and her unexpected sense of humour, and then there is such a range of interesting and intriguing characters, and description that takes you right into the heart of the outback. I like the way Hyland layers our introduction to people and events. One or two characters from his earlier novel DIAMOND DOVE make an appearance. Emily herself seems more certain of who she is, and she has a status with the locals that I didn't pick up in the earlier novel.The author says, in the blog post he wrote for Readings:Takes a little time for the country to get to know you......It is this world-view, and its ongoing clash with the threshing machine of Western materialism, that lies at the heart of Gunshot Road. I find this conflict utterly compelling, and of great significance; I have no hesitation in recommending that you find a copy of GUNSHOT ROAD.