The sign the entrance of town is neither informative nor welcoming. To see it emerge, crystallise from the heat of the horizon, is to have travelled a measureless distance over infinite time.
The journey always begins prettily. The glory of a new dawn shines light around bends of peaceful ranges, pink and orange dazzling as it rises, warming your back, sending you on your way. Curves of rock sway then twist and you dance on hips and belly, shoulders and neck of the sleeping mountain-woman beneath. As you continue, a ridge line crests then opens. You tiptoe along it, tyres tickling her spine until a steep descent to cleared, encouraged green opens into paddock and field, the land at her base rocky and rich, both signs of fortune and luck.
Knife-sharp ranges and distant hills beckon. You continue towards them until eventually they dissolve into hints of ripple and crease. Finally, you hit the flat. And scrub. And flat and scrub it continues to be – bland and harsh and unforgiving. Wide. Bare earth, spare space, forgotten land. Black dirt meets red earth and turns metal hard. Hot springs and dried lakes hide motionless, waiting for reason to wake and flow. But this you cannot see; the scrub hides her secrets well.
You travel on and on, and on further still, numbed by endless coolabahs and tufts of grass and itchy blue blanket sky. Only when boredom, exhaustion and blindness take hold does life rise from the plains: a sign. Darnmoor, The Gateway to Happiness. You feel some sense of achievement; that you have reached a destination at the very least. Yet, as the sign states, Darnmoor is merely the measure, a mark, a point on the road where you begin to move closer to the place you really want to be. Darnmoor itself is nothing.
The town is a hash of ordered streets and neat houses, each home toeing a line of drab grey concrete, lawns folding out towards flowerbeds and vines. Rhododendron, agapanthus, lily of the valley and bougainvillea grow in perverse abundance. Tomatoes and roses wilt in the shade of the stubborn citrus trees that grow against the wooden or weatherboard or cement-sheeted homes, only ever cream or dirty butter or stone blue in colour. Huddling close, these squares line the way to the singularly important Grace Street, the sole route to, from and through the gateway.
The petrol station heralds the commercial beginnings of the town. Next to it stands Filtch’s Fishing and Farming supplies and then the National, a picture theatre-cum-meeting space. A happy coincidence sees the Great Inland Bank next to Darnmoor’s oldest building, the Colonial Public House and Bar. And it is here that the town offers up its most prominent crossroads – the first of its many internal divides. On the eastern side of the intersection are a ladieswear, butcher shop and the quaintly rendered white facade of the Darnmoor Country Women’s Collective stand. Next to this is Lehmann’s General Store, an establishment from which you can purchase almost anything you should need on the dirt-dry plains. All in all, it is a satisfactory strip, this side of the street; inoffensive, modest and calm.
Across the road is Hartford’s Grocery. Beside, the paper shop, barber and chemist pour into Antonio’s milk bar, cool, dark and low-ceilinged, its counter running the entire length of its side. Antonio’s smells perpetually of sugar and malt, an aroma that in searing heat curdles and becomes rancid.
On the other side of the intersection are the Darnmoor Soldiers’ Club, the town hall and council chambers, and the Drover’s Rest Motel, the only accommodation in town. Woodley’s Garage stands adjacent to the Drover’s. Beyond these are hobby houses and work sheds, gradually giving way to lots with tractors, trucks and other farming equipment for sale or repair in their front yards.
Bisecting Grace is Hope Street, its significance as the second-most important street in town seen in the old brick buildings of courthouse, police station and post office. A scattering of churches completes the centre of town, their small spires lending a sense of height and grandeur to the settlement, their simple construction and modest windows making them barely distinguishable from each other. Indeed, it is not unheard of for parishioners in Darnmoor to attend a rival service once in a while, the wish for slightly softer pews or a different vocal drone to ease them into their Sunday morning snooze more alluring than the doctrinal particulars. The remaining places of note in town are the Darnmoor District Hospital, school and sporting grounds.
Most of Darnmoor’s residents orient themselves by their proximity to the town centre, and specifically to a notable structure therein. Plunged into the middle of the intersection of Hope and Grace is a statue, a grey pillar encased in a roundabout that marks the town’s pure centre. Etched upon polished granite are perfectly spaced rows of alphabetised names, the letters of which beam outwards and into the street. Above this a column holds aloft a single, marble figure. A soldier, whitewashed, stands at attention, rifle resting at his side as he peers directly down the length of Grace Street, past Darnmoor and towards the far-off northern horizon. This monument bears the names of Darnmoor’s fallen sons. It bestows upon the town a bleeding and dead centre, around which all else revolves.
Cerulean envelops the soldier. It hangs over the streets and streams down upon the town. Its luminescence is blinding. As vast and taut as the ground below, the firmament above is deep. It pushes back into eternity while silently projecting the light of a single, solitary day. If the expanse possessed a seam and the stitching was punctured and torn, it would only reveal an identical coat of piercing blue. Rip that away and it would again reveal the same. The roof of the plains is profound and without end. To call it just sky would be but a half-truth, for the bleeding blue that shimmers above is also a watercourse, a heavenly highway that reflects the twists and bends of two great rivers that whisper through the land below. In times of flood, water lies upon the earth in the same manner that stars drift in the firmament. Sky becomes land, water and earth merge, and all things shimmer in cobalt brilliance. The complexion of country is the rarest of colours, the dreams of the plains are blue.
A wild bush track snakes away from the town’s eastern edge and winds its way into the scrub. Here seemed a perfect place to establish a dumping ground – an already flattened and cleared patch of dirt with an established track to and from. Strangely scratched gums were bulldozed for further access and the garbage mounds quickly grew, the stone framed circles of the old bora grounds consumed by rubbish, junk and the towns scraps. The pathway to the tip was given the name of Old Black Road.
A natural progression past the end of the road will lead you into the bush, eventually hitting the banks of the great Mangamanga. Hemmed by thousand-year-old river red gums, the Mangamanga River is known by some as the wide-bodied, liquid boss of the plains. A sweet watered sister flow, Malugali, ran to Darnmoor’s north, the two watercourses joining in a quiet patch of dirt, to the north-east of town. A mile upstream of Managamanga a settlement scrabbles a living, appearing at the end of a remnant cluster of purple potato flowers. The Campgrounds lean lopsided along the river’s edge, at the end of Old Black Road and within walking distance of the tip, the odour emanating from the ceremony grounds revealing the true gateway and the darker edge of town.
Margaret Lightning opened her eyes with the first soft stretching of birds’ wings, a waking pink sky beginning its creep over her hessian and tin home. A fog hung upon the river. It spilled over the lip of the bank and into the Campgrounds, blurring the edges of each gundhi and lean-to, suspending them in an exhaled breath. Only ants and eagles were up and well into their business, scavenging what they could from the dew-laden night before. Soon parrots would join, their shrieks cannoning along the surface of the water, a bush alarm to wake and to rise. This would trigger a chain of events: warm sunlight stretching across cold tin; roofs popping; warm muscles shifting under scratchy, too-short blankets; a series of stretches and farts then the opening of eyes. In a short while, smoke would rise to meet the fog and the smell of kitchen fires would permeate the riverfront. The inhabitants of the Campgrounds would rise to prepare for the new day.
As Margaret sat up and placed her feet upon the dirt floor, a family of sulphur-crested cockatoos dived into the enormous red gum at the front of her camp. She slipped her arms into her nightgown as they screeched, its hem floating like her own tail behind her as she walked out of her room, pulled aside the heavy canvas that hung as her front door, and stepped outside. Lifting the lid of the browning water drum and placing it silently down, she cupped her hands then submerged them, allowing the water’s icy pulse to stream into her veins. To take her mind from the stinging cold, she began to hum, careful to restrict the descending line so that only a series of squeaks and gushes of air emitted from her body. While her hands floated, she swam in the song. Margaret lifted her face towards the sky, its rising warmth pushing her chin upwards, closing her eyes. Heat crept into the lines on her face; she felt it drip into her eyes and trickle towards her lips from the pathways at her temples and her cheeks. With her hands in the water and her face to the sun, Margaret Lightning continued to hum. She hummed as she rubbed water into her face and ran her wet hands through her hair, as she then twisted and pulled it into her regular low bun. She even hummed as she prodded at the wiry strands of grey that had begun to spark at her forehead. The tune rolled on as she walked back inside and changed into her undergarments and slip, her uniform and shoes. Only when she took up her purse – a refashioned canvas water bag – from the kitchen table and left her home did she bring the sound forwards, daring to push it into the air in front of her. Her breath and words soon transformed timid tune into robust phrase, Margaret’s footsteps keeping time as she walked the first of the four miles into town along the river’s edge.
As the path diverted at a right angle from the river to become Old Black Road, words joined music. The song propelled Margaret towards the garbage of the tip and her tune rose to meet the smells that lingered there. As she passed the once-sacred clearing it began to pulsate, to sing a lilting descending reply, wafts of rubbish and mounds of trash beating with rhythm and refrain. Now a fully formed, potent melody, the morning song propelled Margaret forwards, its slipstream skidding upon the great Mangamanga River, sending ripples and whirlpools of remembrance along its spine.
When the purple bush blooms began to thin then disappear and the edge of a tarred road loomed ahead, Margaret’s voice began to soften. At the street sign, she pushed the notes further into the back of her throat, constricting their flow and burying them within her body once again. As her shoes hit the asphalt of Charity Street, she fell completely silent. Margaret noiselessly picked her way through the series of back lanes to her workplace: two large coppers, an incinerator, and a washing line behind Darnmoor District Hospital. Beneath an open bough shed on the far side of the hospital block was a two-trough sink, a mangle and washboard, a small drum for rinsing, and various brooms, baskets, buckets, stirrers and pegs. Margaret placed her bag on a nail in the bough shed, fixed her sleeves at her elbows, and began.
Her first duty was to fill the copper. She did this by transporting bucketloads of water from the tap at the corner of the building to the drums beneath the bough. With drums filled, Margaret readied the kindling and lit the fire, careful to keep it small and concentrated till it was strong enough to grow. As the fire took hold, Margaret entered the building through a side entrance, ascending a handful of steps and making her way to a cramped storage room. She checked the iron boiler she kept filled with cold, waiting water. Instead of the stained or soiled sheets she hoped nurses would place in there to soak, it held only two moths and a blowfly. Margaret backed out of the storeroom and slipped past the empty nurses’ station and Matron’s office to sweep through the wards, collecting the sheets and towels and gowns that had been flung into its corners. As she worked, Margaret folded the edges of the growing ball in on itself. It was a trick she’d learned long ago; while ensuring the dignity of the patients in the ward, it also stopped sickness and smell from tumbling out and into her shoes. She carried her load to the bins along the fence and scraped the guna and vomit from the sheets. She was pleased to count only three items that needed a good soaking. If she took a late lunch, she would have most of the wet work done by one.
There was no song to fill her mind or escape from her lips as she slogged at the washboard, just the rhythm her body and the water made as she rinsed and scrubbed and boiled. This she did through the morning, until a dull ache rose in her arms like clockwork, signalling it time for lunch.
‘Yaama. Dhii ngaya gaagilanha. Who wants a cuppa?’ Margaret pushed open the door to the hospital’s back verandah, its hinges squealing as she entered. ‘How are we all today? Sally? Baby have a good night?’
‘Hello, Aunty Marg. Baby’s goin well.’
The verandah was dark and hot, the sun now firmly leaning on the roof directly above. Margaret’s eyes took a moment to adjust to the lack of light. She removed the basket from her hip and unpacked its contents: four pannikins (one for each of the patients and one for herself), sugar, powdered milk, a billy of boiled water, treacle, a quarter damper and a half stick of butter in greaseproof paper.
‘And how about you?’ Margaret asked. ‘Will you sit up and have a cuppa?’
The young woman propped herself up, a tiny newborn bundled in white hospital fabric sleeping at her side. Margaret instinctively brushed the mother’s forehead. She managed to swallow her surprise; the young one’s skin was unusually hot and wet with sweat. ‘Maybe a wash first.’
A voice floated out of the dimness. ‘And ere she is, straight from the pits of ell erself, come in ta shake an prod an roll an poke ya outta the comfort of ya own death bed. Margaret Lightning. None other like er.’
‘And good afternoon to you too, Louie Lewis.’
The skin-and-bones old man was grinning at her from an armchair. To prevent any further cheek, she took up Sally’s sleeping bundle and placed it in his lap. ‘We need ya help. Maybe you could take a leaf out of this one’s book, so perfect and quiet. She’s not a trouble at all.’
‘Give er ta Idy. This is woman’s business.’
‘Dhabi-ya! You hush, or you’ll wake her.’
Margaret turned back to the young mother who was now shifting, wriggling herself to the edge of the bed. She saw a flash of red at the girl’s legs. Sally’s hand grabbed at the sheets, covering her lap.
‘C’mon, darlin, we’ll have a wash, and then you can have a cuppa and a bite to eat.’
Margaret took the girl’s arm and moved her to the darkness of the far corner, helping her to undress and wipe herself down, leaving her to change into a new gown. She returned and bundled the old bedclothes from the bed, expertly exchanging them in no time at all with crisp, new ones, smoothing and tucking in the corners and changing the pillowslips.
Sally returned and eased herself into a chair by the old man’s side. Margaret fixed a slice of damper, poured a cup of tea and handed it to the girl. ‘How about you, Louie?’ She pointed the butter knife his way.
‘Who made it?’
‘I did, last night.’
‘Gimme a look at it.’
She straightened to peer hard at him. He took up the challenge, staring back, the sleeping baby resting atop the scratchy plaid blanket across his lap, his blue slippers peeking out beneath. ‘And what exactly would you be lookin for?’
‘I aven’t laid my eyes on a lady’s ot little damper in a long time. I forgot what they look like.’ He winked at the sleeping baby in his lap. ‘Louie Lewis, you wanna stop your cheeky ways or Matron Harris’ll be in ere for you.’
‘There’s a damper I never wanna lay my eyes on, thank you very much.’
The patients smiled and sipped, chewing their bread as if they were back at the Campgrounds, home with their own.
‘He’s a terrible old man that Mr Lewis. Gagil nhama mari.’ Margaret spread the dark syrup, the old language swirling like sugary sweetness among them, coating them in kinship. ‘Whadda you say, Idy? Should I throw him out with the next load?’ Margaret pulled a chair close to an older woman, placing a mug into her worn hands.
‘Here, have some tea.’
The woman took it, her cloudy eyes staring through the mosquito netting into the bare back lot. At its far edge was a jumble of bush, a scrambled mix of coolabah, gum, grass and shrub. She took a deep breath. ‘I wanna go ome.’
‘Idy.’ Margaret leaned forwards, an attempt to bring her closer, back into the room.
Idy continued to sip and stare, her eyes remaining fixed on the bush outside, her only movement the deliberate and slow lifting and lowering of the mug to her lips. Her gaze was so fixed that Margaret too turned to look. The great expanse of powder blue hung like its own bright sheet above them. This was pierced then gradually dissolved by swirls of gnarled black fingers, the branches of the tallest trees known to that place. A soft rustling rose from their boughs and travelled to them, eventually bringing Idy’s gaze back to the verandah.
Margaret reached for Idy’s hand, her skin draped loose and empty over bone. ‘I spoke to Frank the other mornin. He tried to come up when you first came in but . . . well, he’s waitin to hear when he can fetch ya. I’m to Mrs Mulvey after this to find out when. He wanted me to give you this.’
Idy looked at the tattered photo Margaret had placed in her hand and rubbed her thumb over the feet of the young Frank.
‘Dheal,’ Idy mouthed.
‘What’s that, Ide?’
‘Wilga, she reckons. That one there.’ Louie thrust with his walking stick towards the crooked, drooping tree breaking their horizon.
‘Tell Frankie I’ll need dheal – for when I go ome.’
‘And when you do, me and baby’ll come and sit with ya, Aunt,’ said Sally.
‘She’s not talkin bout the Campgrounds, girl.’ Louie’s stick was now pointed upwards, directly into the sky. ‘She’s talkin bout up there.’
The old woman sighed and pushed the photo face down into her lap.
‘Come on, Idy, that’s enough of that.’ Margaret rose and, taking a brush from the small bedside table, began running it through Idy’s hair. ‘A fair few men got some chippin work out Barmar Station last week. Should be there for eight weeks, they reckon.’ As she spoke, Margaret gently styled the long grey strands into a soft plait. ‘And Suey Goldie sent her eldest two off ta Birriedool Creek, one as cook, other as nanny. Gunna miss them girls – hope they go alright.’ Margaret finished the plait and pinned it to the side. ‘Part from that, everyone else’s the same. Nothin much changes at the Campgrounds. As for town, well, I leave that to them. There –’ she patted Idy’s shoulders ‘– feel a bit better? You look a peach.’
Idy tapped at Margaret’s hand that rested on her shoulder. ‘Gaba, thank you.’
‘Now.’ Margaret moved away to butter a thick slice of damper, slathering treacle over it. ‘You have this while I tango with the devil.’
‘I’m pretty sure I need a towel down, sister,’ said Louie.
‘Don’t you sister me,’ Margaret said, slapping at his arm. ‘Need the bathroom?’
Louie lifted the sleeping child towards Margaret, who took her up and placed her in her mother’s arms. This allowed him to remove the blanket and rise from his chair. Grabbing his walking stick, he steadied himself then began to shuffle towards the door.
‘Grab me at, will ya, Margaret? A gentleman should never be without one out of doors, ya know.’
Taking Louie’s hat from the end of his bed, Margaret placed her other arm in his and walked him to the pit toilet at the back of the block. Then, leaving him there, she rushed back to change his and Idy’s sheets and pillows, bundling them with Sally’s into the basket.
‘The leftover damper is here,’ she told the women, putting it on Idy’s bedside table. ‘And I’ll leave the treacle here too.’
Margaret rifled through the bag Louie had tucked neatly beneath his bed, taking out a singlet, underpants and fresh set of pyjamas.
Running them back to the outside toilet, she returned a few minutes later with a fresh-looking Louie perched cheerily on her arm.
‘And don’t go tellin the missus about our little bathroom hincoun- ters either, Mrs Lightnin.’
Margaret rolled her eyes. ‘And which wife would that be? The one you got here, or your missus in Illaway, or the little round one you got tucked away in Ballendary?’
A grin spread across Louie’s shining face. ‘Now there’s a thought. Why don’t ya tell em all? I could do with a visit from a couple feisty wirringaa.’ He lowered himself back into the armchair.
Margaret slapped a pillow hard, then placed it behind his back. ‘I’ll come by again tomorrow.’ She gathered the washing and walked over to Idy, bending down close to her. ‘And I’ll find out what’s happenin and get word to Frank. We’ll have ya back at the Campgrounds in no time.’
She left them, walking swiftly to the laundry and dumping their bedclothes straight into the copper. She lit the incinerator and moved the old coals around to make it look and smell like she had a good burn going.
She was hanging out the last of Sally’s sheets, now perfectly clean and gleaming on the line, when the wiry-haired Elma Mulvey approached. Whenever she guessed she was due to see Elma, Margaret would transplant her work to the copper, its heat keeping the visit short and the ashy stench of Elma’s fag evaporated by its steam.
‘Marg, you have no idea what our mangy Matron has me doing today. She put me in the geriatrics ward first thing. Three of em shit the bed before morning tea. I left the sheets for ya in the storeroom. Couldn’t bring meself to put em in the soak – didn’t wanna see the bits floatin around. The smell was bloody terrible, nearly gagged meself. Was hard to swallow me tea and Madeira let me tell you. And that bloody Lottie swans around doin absolutely nothin. I’m to finish her round after this. She won’t even make a bed. Suppose that’s what ya get with boss’s daughter. No-win situation, I kid you not.’
Elma stopped briefly to take a drag then continued. ‘That girl is bad news. I caught her going through old Bertie’s drawer earlier on. I asked him on me way out here if he wanted me to duck down to get him a paper. “There’s a few bob in the drawer, Elma, maybe two or three.” I took a peek, nothing. Matron’s little girl’s got light fingers. She’s probably in on it too – bet she takes a cut for herself, the old bitch.’
‘Have you heard anything about Idy Brown?’
‘Mrs Brown, out the back, came in a few weeks ago.’
‘Old one, lost her marbles?’
‘She had a fall.’
‘Who’d ya say? Brown? Brown . . .’ Elma took another drag. ‘Oh, Brown, of course – the old darkie. Doc said she may as well go, there’s nothin wrong with her. He signed her discharge last Thursday. Matron hasn’t got around to it I’d say.’
Margaret bowed her head and stirred the boiling water. ‘And the girl, Sally?’
‘Haemorrhage. He’ll check on her later in the week. When she stops bleeding, she can go. Spose you want to know about the old bloke too . . . Larry?’
‘Yeah, probably cancer. Doesn’t have long – couple a months maybe. Better off with his own, I’d say.’ She fixed Margaret with a look, smoke saturating her curls. ‘You do remember to burn the sheets, don’t ya, Margaret? We can’t have any contamination. Well, best get back. Make sure you get this lot inside. And stay out of the way of Matron Maggot Face. She’s fouler than usual today.’ With that, Elma Mulvey flicked her butt and ground it into the dirt at Margaret’s feet.
When she was sure Elma was well inside the ward, Margaret bent down and picked it up, placing it in her pinafore pocket.
– Nardi Simpson, Song of the Crocodile (Hachette Australia)