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  • Published: 2 August 2022
  • ISBN: 9781761046780
  • Imprint: Michael Joseph
  • Format: Trade Paperback
  • Pages: 416
  • RRP: $32.99

Five Bush Weddings

Extract

Queensland, 2019

Six twangy notes of guitar were all it took for every man in a hundred-metre radius to unbuckle his belt, drop his pants and do a dumb dance in his undies.

Stevie-Jean Harrison sighed and clipped the lens cap back on her camera; she’d shot enough country weddings to expect this response to ‘Eagle Rock’. While she loved collecting colour from the dancefloor, this was a sight that every Queenslander of a certain age already had burned into their memory. The happy couple’s parents wouldn’t be interested in seeing it immortalised in the wedding album.

Under an endless inky sky crumbed with stars, the groom’s brother and his best friend swayed in their boxers with their arms around each other, bow ties unclipped and collars loosened. Their eyes were closed in ecstasy as they sang along with Daddy Cool, a cigarette dangling from one’s lip.

At thirty-one, Stevie had seen this scene play out at weddings and wakes, eighteenths, twenty-firsts and B&S balls since she was old enough (legally or not) to hold a stubby. But it still brought a smile to her face, the literal abandon of men, young and old, dancing a shuffling two-step hobbled by the pants spilling over their boots.

Stevie recognised a cousin of the bride racing away from the dancefloor. Near the portaloos she stopped to grasp her mother’s shoulder, her face sunburned under a fascinator. Her eyes filled with tears as she inspected her feet in their strappy designer heels, now caked with red dirt like chocolate truffles. Not a local, then.

‘I don’t know what the hell is going on over there,’ she wailed, her fascinator pointing back at the dakked denizens of the dancefloor, ‘but I’ve gotta get out of here and there’s no phone service, let alone an Uber!’

Stifling a laugh, Stevie swung her camera strap around her body and followed, maintaining her eyeline strictly above the men’s chests. In her summer work uniform of a long, sleeveless black dress and Blundstone boots, she was glad she’d pinned up her frizzy, dark blonde hair; the sun had long set but the heat of Queensland in late January lingered. There was barely a breath of breeze to stir the leaves of the eucalypts or the strings of coloured light bulbs stretched above the hired dancefloor. The band were clambering back onto their stage, the back of a hessian-draped flatbed truck parked on the bride’s parents’ property. Floodlights beamed down over the Lions Club-run bar, where clusters of people were chatting and drinking. A few kids were still racing around, hiding from their parents’ attempts to put them down to sleep. Beyond the haloed lights was a darkness so thick you could almost touch it, alive with unseen creatures and swallowing paddocks and trees and channels and dams and tracks into one unfathomable expanse.

Stevie looked down at the boots she’d polished before leaving Brisbane the previous afternoon; now they were covered in dust after a long day’s work. Stevie had been on location from the first bridesmaid’s blow-dry and ill-advised early rounds of prosecco. She’d slunk around the cottage while the women were made up, captured the delivery of bouquets, the arrival of wedding cars, and caught the father-of-the-bride’s first look at his daughter, which had everyone welling up. She’d shot the ceremony from ‘dearly beloved’ to the last handful of confetti, and deployed her bawdiest jokes to keep the bridal party smiling through a series of poses. Then it was back to the reception, with barely time to snatch a canapé before she had to work through dozens of configurations of family photos, then race off into the paddock for kissy portraits of the newlyweds as the sun set.

As the guests filed in to the marquee and sank into hired chairs for a three-course meal, Stevie had no such respite. She shot the speeches, the cake-cutting, the couple’s first dance. Most other wedding photographers she knew ducked out after the first dance, but Stevie stayed to capture raucous scenes from later in the night. It was something she’d started doing when she was learning the ropes. Often she was shooting for friends and dancing around with her camera in one hand and a drink in the other, a tangled, glorious mess of business and pleasure. She’d caught some hilarious moments over the years, and now her clients expected it.

Having photographed more than a hundred weddings, Stevie barely had to think about her checklist of images any more. She was pretty sure she had it all, which was lucky given the flasks of Bundy rum now being passed around with increasing frequency. The ‘Eagle Rock’ moment usually heralded a turning point of sorts, after which her camera lens was less welcome. But she’d do one last sweep.

She ducked under the marquee, where empty wineglasses littered the long dinner tables. The candles had burned down, wax pooling amid scattered gum leaves and forgotten place cards, and Stevie clocked a quiet moment that made her lift her camera and inch silently closer, like a nature documentarian who’d spotted a big cat.

Red, the burly groom, was trying to feed his famished, tipsy bride a piece of wedding cake. It was a classic, old-school fruitcake rendered with a sturdy facade of fondant – a sign that this family was ruled by a powerful matriarch with a love of tradition and an iron fist – and Janelle was not interested.

Stevie knew this was their first moment alone as a married couple, and she also knew that Janelle’s untouched plates had been cleared while she’d been circulating among the guests, downing bubbly. She was now perched on Red’s lap: a generally capable and no-nonsense woman reduced to a giggling heap of tulle skirts. As Red tenderly nudged a forkful of cake between Janelle’s teeth mid-laugh, Stevie snapped a frame that said more about their relationship than any of the shots they’d posed for earlier.

Satisfied, Stevie made two milky cups of tea, grabbed a piece of wedding cake and pulled up a chair next to the bride’s great-aunt Mabel.

Mabel had proven herself an ally earlier in the day, when she deftly helped Stevie avoid a family faux pas while setting up the group portraits. But Stevie had recognised Mabel’s role as the family fixer as soon as they arrived at the church. Mabel was the sort of woman who carried an arsenal of floral hankies to hand out at the first sign of a sniffle. She’d headed off renegade relatives as they entered the church and guided them towards neutral pews with a kind but firm hand. At the reception she had stocked the ladies’ bathroom with baskets of tissues, deodorant, hairspray and perfume. She made sure the waitresses knew that Red’s grandma needed a tender piece of meat, and to take their time topping up Uncle Tony’s drink. She knew everybody’s business. There was something familiar about her; Stevie wasn’t sure if they’d met before, or if she was just such a staunch archetype of a bush woman of a certain age.

‘Ooh, thanks for the tea, love,’ Mabel said. She was ensconced in a plastic chair, a hefty woman stuffed into a taut jacquard skirt suit like an upholstered front-rower. From the set of her curls, it seemed she was single-handedly keeping Elnett in business. ‘You’ve been working hard today. Have you been a photographer for long?’

‘You know, I just realised this week it’s been five years since the first wedding I shot,’ Stevie said, blowing on her tea. ‘It was always meant to be a temporary thing before the next proper job. I dipped a toe in with a few friends’ weddings and here I am, still doing it years later.’

Mabel patted Stevie’s arm. ‘You seem like a natural. I don’t have much of an arty eye, but I can see the way you see people. You have a knack for spotting the little moments that mean a lot. And you’re one of us – you know the land, not like some city blow-in who’ll flinch at a bit of red dust on the wedding dress and cry over a dead kangaroo on the side of the road.’

Stevie laughed. ‘I guess it’s one of the few times being a hopeless romantic comes in handy.’

‘Hopeless, hey?’ Mabel echoed, her voice rising with intrigue. ‘Do you have a partner?’

‘Mabel, you might think you know about drought in this district, but I haven’t had a boyfriend in six years.’

‘Well, in the year of our Lord 2019, I worry for the men of this country if you can’t get a date with an arse like that.’

Stevie wasn’t sure she’d heard that right. ‘I promised myself after that break-up that I’d hold out for a grand, glorious, perfect love story.’ She added drily, ‘Still waiting.’

Mabel set down her cake fork, and Stevie, anticipating a lecture about being picky, prickled.

‘I’ve put myself out there, I’ve dolled myself up, I’ve tried everyone’s advice and met all the nephews and friends they wanted to set me up with. I swear I’ve met every eligible bachelor on the eastern seaboard. When you’re single at a certain age, everyone thinks it’s because there’s something wrong with you, but so much of it is just luck.’ Stevie jabbed at a slab of fruitcake with her fork. ‘Maybe it’s time to give up on the big love story and just embrace spinsterhood.’

Mabel huffed. ‘Why is “spinster” such a dirty word when “bachelor” is practically a compliment? You’re preaching to the choir, darl.’

In that moment Stevie felt the weight of all she’d done since 5 am pressing down on her. Not to mention all the all-nighters and dud dates and solo Sunday nights she’d endured for years. ‘I think maybe I’ve been waiting for my real life to start once I found the person I’d spend it with. And he’s not coming. Time to back myself.’

‘You could do a lot worse,’ Mabel said gently. ‘And not just in a “you’ll meet the love of your life when you least expect it” way. Be the love of your own life. If you’re still treating this job, which you’re obviously great at, like a temporary gig, maybe that’s a good place to start.’

‘Am I going to have to start acting professional?’ Stevie moaned. ‘Get a proper website and start using hashtags on my Instagram posts? Stop dancing at wedding receptions and say no to the after parties? Mabel, this doesn’t sound like much fun.’

‘Oh, you’ve got to have a bit of fun in your life. But stability, security, contentment? They don’t get enough credit. They’re too important to leave to chance – or to expect a husband to sort out for you.’

‘You’re sounding a lot like my mum.’

‘Point taken! But while I’m giving out advice, I’m a bit of a connoisseur of love stories myself, even if I am an actual old maid. If you’re looking for perfect, you’ll always find a reason to give up on people. And that includes yourself. Everyone deserves a second chance sometimes.’

Stevie swallowed a yawn and sipped her tea.

‘Well, I could chew your ear off all night,’ Mabel said, ‘but I think there’s someone else who’d rather be talking to you. Have a good night, love.’

Stevie looked up as Mabel heaved herself out of her plastic chair, and there was Johnno West. She had thought she’d spotted him in a back pew at the ceremony, but it had been so long she didn’t quite believe it.

‘G’day, stranger.’ His voice was low, his face cracking into the grin she remembered. The chipped front tooth was still there, a curl of dark brown hair falling into his eyes as usual, but this Johnno seemed somehow more at ease in his skin than the rumpled friend she’d known at university.

‘You rascal. I thought you were in London!’ She scrambled to her feet.

‘Got back last week. Time to face the future at Mum and Dad’s.’

‘If you ever posted anything on social media, I’d have known to look out for you,’ she said, punching his arm.

‘Ah, I like to keep you on your toes. C’mere.’ He put down his beer and wrapped her up in a bear hug. Stevie sank into it.

‘I can’t even remember the last time I saw you,’ she exclaimed, breathing in cedar against his neck. Hmm. Glad to see Johnno’s finally graduated from Lynx body spray.

‘I remember exactly the last time I saw you, Stevie-Jean: six years ago at the Black Dog Ball at the St Lucia golf club. You must have just got your camera – you were taking it everywhere then. It just about flew across the room when “Hey Ya” came on.’

That brought the memory rushing back. The camera was her best friend Jen’s ‘get-over-it’ gift after Stevie’s atomic-level break-up. ‘Well, I get paid to take the pictures now.’ She raised the camera to her eye and he pulled a James Bond pose.

‘You’re doing well, Stevie. I love following your photos.’

‘You’re on Instagram?’

‘Just to creep on a very select few. I don’t have your thousands of followers, that’s for sure. You’ve always had a fun way of seeing things. That photo you got of the couple in the cotton field with the emus popping up was amazing.’

‘Ah, it’s all good lighting and great timing.’ Stevie laughed, but it was definitely one of the shots she was proudest of. ‘Who knew you were so into weddings, Johnno. Are you back at your folks’ place? How are Penny and Rod anyway?’

‘They’re good. Ready to put me to work on the place. Mum’s relieved I didn’t bring a Pommy girl home, but I reckon she’s already putting together my application for Bush Bachelors. You know they’re desperate for you to settle down when they turn to reality TV girls.’

‘That’s desperate, all right.’

‘So, no bloke on the go for you either?’ Johnno fished.

‘Nope.’

‘Give it another year and I’ll have to remind you of the pact we made at uni to get married if we were both still single at thirty-two.’

‘You mean that night we broke in to every pool between the RE and college?’ Stevie feigned forgetfulness; they both knew exactly the night he was referring to. A classic steamy Brisbane pre-dawn, after their favourite pub had shut and they’d somehow lost all their other friends. It remained a confusing memory for Stevie, who still wasn’t quite sure who’d initiated the kiss at the second pool. She’d put it down to

a moment of madness and they’d wordlessly decided it was better

to keep it between themselves. Particularly given Johnno was best friends with Stevie’s on-again, off-again boyfriend at the time, Tom.

‘Have you knocked off yet?’ Johnno asked. ‘’Cause that dancefloor is calling.’

Stevie had already spent much of the night there, capturing candid moments. Red and Janelle had been bashful for their first dance, but they loosened up once everyone else spilled back onto the dancefloor. Stevie had ducked and scooted her way in between spinning couples and high-kicking, rum-drunk yahoos, her camera strap wrapped around her wrist, allowing her to shoot one-handed. She had kneeled for low angles and shimmied out of the way just in time to avoid a zealous young man dipping his nervous partner dangerously close to the floor. In the slow numbers, Stevie hovered around the edges waiting for tender moments between the bridal party and parents, grandparents and little kids.

But now, with her work well and truly done, all it would take was the opening bars of some B-52s or Neil Young to get Stevie on the dancefloor in seconds. No matter how compelling the conversation she was in, no matter how hard-fought the spot in the bar queue, certain songs begged a response.

‘I took the liberty of making a request,’ Johnno said, as ‘Love Shack’ started up. Stevie grabbed his beer with one hand, his hand with the other, and ran towards the music.

The drink in her hand might spill; let it. She shook her hair, whipped her skirt around, gyrated briefly in an attempt at sexiness. In the end she just jumped up and down, shouting all the words.

‘Ah, you don’t see moves like that in London.’ Johnno beamed before breaking into a series of school dance specials: the sprinkler, the shopping trolley, the lawn mower.

The years fell away, six years of separation overpowered by a cover band playing the hits of the nineties, and once again they were just two kids who were really, really bad at dancing.


Five Bush Weddings Clare Fletcher

As a photographer, Stevie’s been to enough bush weddings to last a lifetime. When’s it going to be all about her?

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