Emily Tempest, part aboriginal and part white, is back in Moonlight Downs after a long absence. She left to get an education and travel abroad, and wonders whether she still truly belongs in this remote, rough-edged world. But within hours of her arrival, an old friend is murdered, and the police have set their sights on a rogue aborigine as the chief suspect. It will be up to Emily to ask questions, and make sure justice is served.
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Fat flies and green water: the sunlit plains extended
* * *
I PARKED my little white ute on the outskirts of the camp and sat there, looking out at the scatter of corrugated iron hovels.
There's enough people here, I thought. Boys brawling over a flaccid football, girls bouncing a basketball in a cloud of dust, young men working on a car, pensioners chewing on the cud. A bare-arsed tacker raced past pushing a pram wheel with a length of wire.
Fifty, maybe sixty people all up. The Moonlight Downs community.
They stopped what they were doing and stared at me. Every one of them.
I climbed out of my seat, stood by the door.
'Er, hello ...' I called. My voice trailed away unanswered.
The only up-front individual in the place was a dog — a mangy leatherjacket with weeping eyes and a snout like a stubbed cigar which slunk up and sniffed my wheels.
A minute or two crept glacially by.
I took a look around. To the south was a row of rust-red hills, to the north the scorched yellow spinifex plains that would eventually crumble and fade into the Plenty Desert. The camp was nestled in between, its standout features a sidling windmill, a silver caravan, a long-drop dunny and a horse-yard made from lancewood posts. The amenities seemed to consist of a leaky tap and a solar-powered radio mounted on a pole.
Dust devils whirled, lifted scraps of rubbish into the air. Somewhere a child cried, somewhere a crow called. A trio of hungry-looking kite-hawks eyed me from the windmill.
We waited and watched. Maybe they knew what we were waiting for, but I sure as hell didn't. We were miles from nowhere. The nearest town, Bluebush, was four hours of rough roads away, Alice Springs another five beyond that. Even so, there was a nagging voice inside my head telling me to turn around and go back the way I'd come.
Fat flies came hounding out of the green water at the base of the tap. A toddler sat in the puddle and picked at the number eleven under his nose. A woman took out her teeth and inspected them, possibly for stress fractures or white ants. A burly, middle-aged bloke with an eye-patch, a fur hat and a T-shirt with a picture of a frog in a bun above the caption 'Cane-toad Burger' sat on the bonnet of a wrecked car and tapped two boomerangs together. The effect was more menacing than musical.
Then I realised who we were waiting for. He came crawling out of one of the rabbit-hutch humpies, scratched his pants and stretched his thin frame out to its full six feet. He shaded his eyes against the late-morning sun, squinted in my direction, then began to walk the same way. He was bow-legged and barefoot, wearing, as he'd always worn, a checked shirt, a white beard and a look of bemused anticipation.
I scooped my blanket up from the seat, threw it around my shoulders, kicked away a couple of dogs and took a step forward.
When he was ten feet away he paused, examined me more closely.
What would he have seen? A short woman in a blue denim dress with a mass of wiry black hair, a tawny complexion, a pair of apprehensive eyes. Anyone he recognised? I should be so lucky.
A stubbly smile crinkled his beard.
'Why, ello h'Em'ly!' he croaked, his brown eyes beaming.
A wave of relief swept through me. The years had taken a toll on his teeth but not his powers of observation. I hadn't seen him for over a decade, and he sounded like I'd just stepped out for a smoke.
He shook my hand, put an arm around my shoulders and said, 'I shoulda knowed you straightaway from that ol red blanket.'
When I was growing up, the blanket I was wearing had gone everywhere with me: in winter it was my coat, in summer my shade.
'I've been out the Jenny, Lincoln. Visiting Dad. He's been keeping it clean for me.'
'Mmmm,' he nodded. 'I see. Your Moonlight blanket, look like.'
He turned around and yelled at the milling masses: 'Hey you mob o' lazy myalls, come say ello to li'l h'Emily.' I smiled at the heavily aspirated pronunciation of my name. 'H'Emily Tempest! That Nangali belong ol Motor Jack. Get over an make 'er welcome! She come home!' Which they did; and which, for a day or two, I almost thought I had.
* * *
'Li'l Emmy, parnparr,' said Gladys Kneebone as we sat by the fire half an hour later. 'Didn't they feed you down south?' Gladys herself was a battleship on stilts. She wasn't much older than me, but she'd exploded in every direction. She was immensely tall, immensely fat, wearing a green dress and a coiffure that looked like it had been fashioned with a splitting axe. She thrust a pannikin of head-banging tea into my hand, fossicked through the embers with a stick and offered me a leg of ... A leg of what? I wondered warily. Rabbit?
'Good tucker that one,' she exclaimed.
I took a look at the scorched carcass grinning up from the ashes. Jesus, a fucking cat! Been a while since I'd had one of those. What the hell, I decided, it couldn't be any worse than some of the crap I'd endured in roadhouses on the way up here.
It wasn't. Kind of stringy, kind of greasy, kind of ... well, cattish, but I managed.
Many of the adults I remembered from my childhood — Stumpy Dodds, Spinifex, Timothy Windmill — drifted over and had a quiet word, shook my hand or threw their wiry arms around me. Cissy Whiskey slipped in through the ruck, touched my face as if it was a sacred object and gave me the long-lost-daughter spiel. Cissy was famous for her ash-baked damper. I must have eaten tons of the stuff, smothered in golden syrup and washed down with sweet black tea. Despite the damper, Cissy herself was as skinny as a picket, with piercing eyes and an aureole of white hair.
Lincoln's daughter, Hazel, was nowhere to be seen. My father had told me she was away out west, and evidently he was right. For that I was grateful.
Lincoln eventually hunted the mob away and we sat by the fire and talked, just the two of us. He was an easy feller to talk to, Lincoln. Always had been. He was the head stockman on Moonlight Downs Station, where my father Jack was the mechanic, all through my childhood.
He still carried himself with the quiet authority that had made black and white respect him. He was a smooth-skinned, handsome man, skilled in the whitefeller ways of cattle-work and motorcars, but among his own people a religious and community leader.
We talked about my father, nowadays running a small gold mine out at Jennifer Creek, a couple of hundred k's to the south. I told him a little about my wandering years: Adelaide, Melbourne, boarding school, university. I'd started three degrees and finished none of them, had a dozen different jobs, most of them in grungy pubs and bars. Done a lot of travel. Somehow, it seemed, always gravitating towards the drier parts of the world.
'So all them places you seen?' Lincoln asked, shaking his head. 'China. India. Africa. Uz ... whatever that one.'
'Uzbekistan. Yep. Went there too.'
'How were they?'
Jesus, where do I begin?
'Good country?' he prompted me.
I took a look around. Women were cooking tea and damper, men were playing cards, laughing. Kids were decorating each other's faces with puffballs. Two teenage girls had made a cats cradle out of lengths of hairstring, and were shyly glancing in my direction and grinning.
'Never as good as here.'
Lincoln nodded, clicked his tongue in the sympathetic manner he had for anybody who'd had the misfortune to leave Moonlight Downs, and then told me about their own homecoming.
For decades blackfellers had been deserting their traditional country and drifting into outback towns. But in recent years, as they won their land back through the courts, there'd been a counterattack. Blacks all over the Territory were packing their kids and dogs into motorcars held together with fencing wire and moving back out into a world of ghosts and songs.
It was the same with the Moonlight mob. For most of the time I was away they'd been squatting in a fringe camp in Bluebush, but they'd been back on Moonlight for a couple of years now. Technically, they were its owners, successful claimants of the property under the Northern Territory Land Rights Act.
When Lincoln talked about the future, though, there was an edge to his voice. The return to Moonlight hadn't worked out the way he'd hoped it would. For many, the move had come too late: the ghosts were gone, the songs forgotten.
'Still aven't scrape the bitumen from their boots,' was how he put it. The young were hanging out for computers and booze, the middle-aged for soft beds, fast food and DVDs. They scuttled back into Bluebush at the slightest excuse. Only the kids and the pensioners, it seemed, were content to be back on their own country.
While we were talking, I noticed a pack of young guys hovering in the distance but keeping a surreptitious eye on me, whispering into their fists as they mangled a rusty Holden ute. The car was balanced precariously on its side, propped up by a shaky-looking log beneath which they were nonchalantly working away. I had no idea what they were doing under there, but it didn't look like it involved fine-motor skills: their main tools were a sledgehammer, a crowbar and a length of wire.
When Lincoln looked like he needed a rest, I moseyed over to the young men, said hello. The biggest bloke, a young feller with cauliflower ears and a zucchini nose, ran a greasy rag across his mitts, shook my hand and gave me a familiar name.
'Why Bindi!' I exclaimed. 'I remember you! How'd you turn into a fucking mountain? I used to wipe your arse.'
He grinned shyly, scratching the arse in question. I hoped I wouldn't have to wipe it again.
'We goin huntin, Em'ly' he said. 'Why don't you come along? Mebbe getta turkey, pussycat. See a bit o' country.'
'No worries, Bindi. Love to.' I took another look at their transport, now restored to the horizontal. It looked like something the Japs had dropped on Darwin. Its tyres were as bald as the camp dogs. One of them — the tyres, not the dogs — had been repaired with spinifex and fencing wire. 'I'll bring my own wheels, though, if it's all the same to you.'
It was all the same to everybody. Word travelled fast. By the time I got back to my Hilux it was staggering under a load that would have broken the back of a Shanghai bus. There were old blokes squinting down their rifles, little old ladies armed to the gums with nulla-nullas — fighting sticks — and crowbars, young mums with undies in their hair and babies on their breasts, kids with globs of snot bubbling under their nostrils. Slippery Williams, with a confidence that belied his name, was casually reclining on the roof. Lincoln materialised in the passenger seat next to me.
We completed a noisy circumnavigation of the camp, then set out across the sunlit plains extended. Bindi was in the lead. The nine or ten guys in his car belted out what I first thought was some ancient Warlpuju hunting song but which gradually crystallised into the flattest rendition of 'Six Days on the Road' I'd ever heard.
'Sik DAY-on de road an ah'm a-gunner make it ome tonight!' My own car-load bellowed from the back whenever the chorus came round, roaring with laughter and punching air. Lincoln tapped out the rhythm on the door.
'What a hoot!' I said to myself an hour or two later. 'What a bloody hoot.' I'd forgotten the pleasures of hunting with the Moonlight mob.
The trip so far hadn't been much more than an excuse to see a bit of country and make a lot of noise. They shut up now, though: we'd just rounded a bend and pulled up behind the Holden, which had pulled up alongside a bush turkey. So alongside was it, in fact, that Bindi could have just about reached out and throttled it. When you have in your hands the miracle of modern technology, however, you're obliged to use it, and to that end a rusty rifle barrel came creeping out the window. The turkey looked up into eternity with interest.
I watched Bindi's finger squeeze back and closed my eyes, not wanting to see that naïve head blown off.
I opened my eyes. Another squeeze of the finger, another agonised silence. The tension was killing me, if not the turkey. Although it was, at least, beginning to look a little suspicious.
A long black arm emerged from the passenger's window and rummaged quietly through a box on the roof. Looking for a spear? I thought hopefully. A boomerang? Even a well-aimed spanner would have done the job.
It emerged with a can of CRC. Oh God, I thought. He's gonna persist with the high tech!
The hissing of the spray onto the rifle seemed to disturb the bird more than anything else thus far. It took a step or two to the west, but kept an eye upon us, still reluctant to tear itself away from the circus.
Lincoln, sitting next to me, had been fidgeting restlessly throughout the entire performance. When the rifle clicked yet again, he roared out the window, 'More better you run the bastard over!'
The rifle swung back in our direction and I ducked for cover. If the bloody thing was ever going to go off it would be now, for sure. 'What you bin say ol man?' yelled Bindi.
That was enough for the turkey, which lumbered into the air.
'I say you better let the pensioners ave a go!' Lincoln was out of the car in an instant, rifle in hand. He steadied his aim with an elbow on the bonnet. The bird was a hundred metres away and rising, but he dropped it with a single shot.
* * *
An hour later we pulled up for a break, my under- and over-aged passengers in need of a pit-stop. I stretched back, took a long, soothing drag of Champion Ruby, surveyed the scene around me through a haze of smoke. The old ladies were digging for yams and some of the younger ones were using a rake to drag a bush banana vine down from a bloodwood. The turkey on the back of my ute had been joined by a kangaroo, a couple of scrawny cats and a bucket of conkerberries.
It was their home country, all right. But was it mine?
I grew up on Moonlight Downs. Came here when I was four years old. My mother, Alice Limmen, was a Wantiya woman, from the Gulf country five hundred k's to the north-east. Of her I remember almost nothing except a thin, sweet face, a Wantiya lullaby and the enveloping breasts upon which I used to nuzzle myself to sleep. My father, Jack Tempest, was a wandering whitefeller who courted, married and buried her in the space of five years.
After Jack and I came to Moonlight I ran wild, energetically evading his half-hearted attempts to enrol me in the radio-based School of the Air. The blackfeller camp was school enough for me: I'd be down there at dawn and I wouldn't make it home till dusk. In the intervening hours my little mob and I would hunt in the hills, fish in the creeks, climb the skeletal trees, scour the countryside on horses borrowed from the stock camp.
Occasionally, when I returned from some such expedition dirty and dishevelled, wild honey dripping down my chin, lizards wriggling in a pocket, I'd catch my father glancing at me with a troubled look on his face. Presumably wondering what sort of a wild thing he'd created. But he did, at least, seem reassured by the ease with which I learnt to read, both the books on our shelves and the rocks through which he and I fossicked whenever we had the opportunity.
Jack was a part-time prospector back then, a gouger, and he reckoned I had a good eye. During quiet times on the station he'd take Hazel and me out bush for weeks at a time. The three of us would go rambling across country in his old Bedford truck, looking for traces of gold or working some little claim in the hills.
This wild, magical world came crashing down around my head the year I turned fourteen. Tim Buchanan, the station owner, died without an heir, and the property was taken over by a hard-nosed bastard by the name of Brick Sivvier. The Warlpuju, whose language makes no distinction between p and b, called him Prick, which wasn't that far off the mark.
Within a month of his arrival Sivvier had turfed everybody, black and white, off the place and brought in his own people, from Queensland. For me, this meant being shipped off to boarding school in Adelaide. For my father it meant transforming what had been a part-time interest — gold mining — into the full-time occupation that would eventually make his small fortune. For the Warlpuju it meant leaving their homeland for the ten-year exile in boozy, brutal Bluebush.
* * *
Still, I reflected as I relaxed at the wheel of my ute, knees on the dash, fag hanging off my mouth, they can't be doing too badly if they can enjoy themselves this much.
Bindi's clutch had packed it in, as a result of which he couldn't change out of first gear. Nor could he stop, since he wouldn't be able to start again so he circled slowly around us like a great clanking buzzard, cracking jokes and occasionally flushing the old boys out of the bushes.
'Aaaiiyy!' yelled Bindi. 'This drivin round in circle tangle up my brain ...'
My passengers gave up their various diversions and clambered back aboard. We inscribed a slow circle in the dust and headed for home, swapping insults, oranges, tobacco and, occasionally, passengers, as the kids took whatever opportunity arose to make death-defying leaps between the two cars.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Moonlight Downs"
Copyright © 2006 Adrian Hyland.
Excerpted by permission of Soho Press, Inc..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
Fat flies and green water: the sunlit plains extended,
A reading from the book of Blakie,
Tom Waits meets Tiny Tim,
I might try,
A ringer's breakfast,
All in the game,
A dirty green cardigan caught in the windbreak,
In the gaolhouse now,
A devil, a dove, an avalanche,
The Jindikuyu Waterhole,
A cup of tea at the Godsfather,
The secret ingredient,
The captain of the World,
The Sandhill Gong woz her,
That cake — it flew!,
At the Hawk's Well,
Looking down the barrel,
Dropping the rods,
A bit of a local legend,
The director's cut,
Sun Tzu out of Chicken Soup by The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People,
The boys are back in town,
A canopy of leaves and light,
A knockabout geology,
Springs of rushlit water washed to rainbow ford,
The diamond driller,