I came home to Garnet Soak following an absence of five years. My mother had rung me from the tiny Northern Territory roadhouse to say that my cousin Annabelle had killed herself.
My first dazed reaction to this incomprehensible news was, I am ashamed to admit, a spurt of irritation. ‘Typical,’ I muttered, then heard my mother’s voice, thin and faint as though she’d momentarily turned her head away from the mouthpiece.
‘What was that, Charlie?’
‘I just asked why,’ I lied. ‘What sort of crisis was she indulging herself in this time?’
‘Charlie!’ she remonstrated, her tone suddenly strong again, like the woman herself. Then she sighed. ‘I don’t have the details. There was a letter, apparently, but naturally I haven’t seen it yet. Young Tom, the copper from Harts Range, brought the news – he’s only just left. It happened yesterday but it took a while for someone to call the local authorities. She was in New South Wales, Charlie. Some little town on the coast. The police there must have got onto the ones in Alice, then they rang the cop shop at Harts Range with the news. So Tom Cleary came this morning to tell me.’
‘How? I asked baldly. ‘Did she jump off a cliff? Though I can’t see that happening – too much damage and she wouldn’t like that. Or was it an overdose? That’s popular down here . . . What exactly did they tell you happened, Mum?’
‘They think she just took off her clothes and swam out to sea until she drowned.’ Mum sighed. ‘Of course, they can’t know, but why else would she leave her clothes? As to when it happened, they’ve based their timing on the tides. She left the note with her clothes, you see, all folded and weighted down with a piece of driftwood, and they hadn’t been washed away. Her watch was there, and her driver’s licence, but no handbag. So they think she must have left wherever she was staying with the intention of killing herself. She must’ve written the note and then just walked into the sea. That’s the official interpretation. The note she left is addressed to me, so the police have mailed it on. There was even a stamp on it, apparently. Not that I’ll get it before the weekend.’
‘No.’ Today was Wednesday, but the road mail that served the roadhouse and the half-dozen desert cattle stations along the Plenty River Highway only ran on Saturdays. ‘So, the upshot is there’ll be no certainty. Nor will we have a body to bury. How could she do that to us? Annabelle always thought of herself first, but really! Even I wouldn’t have suspected she’d go this far.’
‘Oh, Charlie, leave it.’ Mum suddenly sounded tired. ‘I know you two always had your differences but let them rest now, please. She must have been very unhappy, after all, to take such a step. I want you to come home. We’ll hold a memorial service for her here, perhaps put up a stone later on, but we can decide that further down the track. There’s only the two of us now, Charlie, and I could really do with your support in this. You will come, won’t you?’
As much as I wished to refuse the request, I knew that I couldn’t. Leaving Melbourne now would mean losing the latest spot my agent had found for me – a television commercial for face cream, the money for which would supplement my current earnings as a waitress, since the secondhand book shop where I’d previously spent three days a week behind the counter had folded under the weight of its unsold paperbacks. At twenty-six, my career as an actress had not so much stalled as failed to ever make a proper take-off.
Oh, there had been small parts, but never the starring role I needed to gather the notices that ensured a steady income, so my prospects had narrowed rather than broadened. A small part in The Students’ Party, understudy for the lead in a play that closed after two nights, a brief triumph as a harassed mother in The Baker’s Dozen back in 1991, but if a week was a long time in politics, three years was an eternity in the theatre. Nothing substantial had followed, just a slew of advertising slots staggered between auditions that seldom went any further than the ubiquitous ‘Wonderful, darling! If your name comes up, we’ll be in touch.’ Perhaps it was time to pack the whole acting thing in.
This wasn’t a new thought for me to entertain. It had been harder somehow throughout the past twelve months to maintain the hopeful outlook I’d once had, to convince myself that tonight, or tomorrow, or next week, I’d get my lucky break. That the stars would align for me and some perceptive director would be blown away by my brilliant talent. I’d never seriously considered any other career but perhaps it was time to face facts. There were hundreds of young hopefuls out there, many of them prettier and more accomplished than me. Yes, I’d had a dance coach, a voice coach, I’d had plenty of roles in high-school plays and had acted (when I could) in the Amateur Dramatic Society back in Alice Springs, but growing up in the bush meant a late start in my chosen field. Maybe too late for success.
‘Yes, of course I’ll come, Mum. I’ll need to tell a few people, give in my notice at the cafe. I could catch a flight maybe Friday. Do you think you could sort out a lift for me from the Alice? Or could old Bob come in and get me?’
‘I’ll fix something, Charlie. Perhaps one of the stations . . . Leave it with me, and ring with your ETA. We’ll expect you Friday evening, then.’
‘If I can get a morning flight.’ I hesitated; my mother wasn’t a gushy woman but I thought I detected something in her voice. ‘Are you okay, Mum? You sound a bit . . . tired.’
‘It’s come as a shock, that’s all, Charlie. Safe flight, then. Bye now.’
‘Yes, bye,’ I echoed. I tried to think of something more to say but while I stood dithering she hung up and the silence was broken by the burr of the dial tone, like a faint, reproachful reminder of the distance between us. I tried to remember the last time we’d spoken – something like a month ago – and that had just been to ask her to post my old copy of Romeo and Juliet to save me the price of a new book. And I hadn’t got the part anyway.
I sighed, wondering where to start. Leaving would mean that my flatmate would have to find someone else to help with the rent while I was gone, which meant that there would be no place for me to return to. It was one more thing to chalk up to my cousin’s account. Annabelle had been my elder by two years. I had shared a childhood with her, been forbidden to ever shorten her name to the more manageable Anna, and knew her to be selfish to the bone and out for whatever she could get. It had been five years since we last met and I couldn’t believe that she had changed one iota since. So what could possibly have compelled her to kill herself?
A sudden memory came to me: Annabelle at thirteen, preening before the mirror in our shared bedroom with the light falling on her lustrous, jet-black waterfall of hair that hung almost to her waist. ‘My name means beautiful Anna,’ she was saying complacently, ‘because I am. Uncle Jim said so. My parents must have known that when they gave it to me. Not like yours, Charlie. That’s a boy’s name.’
‘It’s Charlotte.’ As she well knew. But even as I spoke I divined that it was more than my name she meant. The sweeping look that had accompanied the words, up and down like a buyer scorning the goods offered, had held to ridicule my lanky childish body, my large feet and the frizz of tight, ordinary brown curls, made somehow worse by my wide mouth and tombstone-sized front teeth.
Annabelle’s mother was Eurasian, giving her daughter’s appearance an exotic edge that filled me with helpless jealousy. My cousin was petite and finely finished, with budding breasts and a discernable waist – everything that I wasn’t. She was everybody’s pet, unlike my awkward, brooding self. My father doted on her and seemed incapable of seeing through her lies or catching her out in any of the mean little strategies she constantly used to discredit me. Telling on her wasn’t an option with my parents. My father wouldn’t have believed me, while to Mum carrying tales was as bad as lying. The injustice of it all had seared my soul, aware as I was that neither my feckless father nor my impatient, no-nonsense mother could recognise the duplicity of the cuckoo in our nest.
But people like Annabelle manipulated their way through life. She was a stranger to remorse and guilt alike, as far as I could tell. The Annabelles of the world didn’t stand meekly in a queue waiting for life’s handouts; they marched smartly to the head and demanded what they wanted. So why had she killed herself? It was as much a mystery as the method she had chosen. Why not pills and a beautiful corpse? My cousin had loved herself too much to purposely damage her body. Perhaps she hadn’t considered what prolonged immersion and the attention of sea creatures could do. Or was the idea to vanish completely, leaving only the memory of beauty behind?
That, I thought, was the more likely answer. Cynically I worded the headline I was sure she must have visualised: Tragic death of young beauty. Only, twenty-eight wasn’t that young, was it? A moment later I felt ashamed of my callousness. Mum was right, my cousin must have been appallingly unhappy to have done such a thing. It was years since we’d spoken; perhaps now, when it was too late, the time had come for me to draw a line under past grievances and forgive her.
To get from Tullamarine to Alice Springs meant flying via Adelaide where, predictably, there was a delay. For a while it seemed as if I might even have to overnight in the city but my anxious calculations of the extra cost of hotel and taxi fares were cut short by the announcement that the flight would proceed after all. It was a smaller plane than the big jet that had brought me from Melbourne, and I’d lucked a window seat that gave me a firsthand overview, when we began our final descent, of the little outback town snugged into the hollow of the MacDonnell Ranges, a familiar sight for me, heralding as it did the start of many a boarding-school holiday.
It was May, with the soft blue sky and brilliant desert air of the Centre, and my heart lifted in response as my feet carried me across the tarmac. The red earth, the spinifex-covered slopes, the solid uncompromising line of Heavitree Gap and the wide, sandy bed of the Todd River, which I knew awaited me just a short drive away, were constants of my childhood. At moments like these, I silently acknowledged, I would happily chuck it all – the city, the stage, the career that had never really gone anywhere – for the joy of being back in my own country.
Waiting in the baggage hall for my scuffed port to appear, I searched the crowd for old Bob, my mother’s longtime handyman. Grumpy old Bob, with his limp and disgraceful hat that he never seemed to renew. He had been helping out at the Garnet, as the roadhouse was known, since its inception when the station of the same name had been sold off to Abbey Downs, the large company-owned property next door. My father had retained only the old homestead, which had originally done duty as a stopover and refreshment point for travellers until the present-day premises had been built. The sale had gone through in 1966, two years before I was born, so the roadhouse was a new venture then. I had spent my childhood there, within the embrace of the ancient range, in the company of my family and old Bob.
Bob had been curmudgeonly even twenty-six years before, not a man to dote on children, however winsome. I had respected the boundaries he set and was gradually admitted to his friendship, something that Annabelle had not achieved. It had been solace to me as a child, balm to my smarting ego, knowing that Bob was seemingly the one person in all the world whom my cousin had never been able to fool. Staff and travellers alike had doted on her fairy-like prettiness and angelic smile.
But there was no sign of Bob now in the press of greeters. Perhaps his colicky old Land Rover was playing up? Hitching my shoulder bag higher, I turned back to where the luggage trailer was inching its way into the concourse and almost bumped into a tall, grey-haired man with a weather-beaten face. He wore a short-sleeved white shirt with little brass crosses set into the shoulders and a familiar logo on the pocket. A smaller, white-haired woman beside him offered a smile as he spoke.
‘Miss Carver? I thought so – you’re very like your mother. I’m Padre Don Thornton, Uniting Church. My wife, Rae.’
We shook hands. ‘Molly asked me to meet you. We’re heading out on patrol, so I told her we’d fly you home. Have you much luggage?’
‘Oh, that’s wonderful. How kind! Thank you both very much. I was looking for old Bob. And please, call me Charlie. Luggage . . . just the one bag. Hang on and I’ll grab it’ – for the trolley had finally arrived – ‘and this.’ I handed my shoulder bag to his wife to hold while I did so. ‘It’s not too much, is it?’
‘No, I think we can manage.’ His faded grey eyes twinkled briefly. ‘Might be a different story if you were fat. How tall are you, Charlie?’
‘A hundred and seventy-nine centimetres. It’s why I wear flats.’ He took the bag I’d retrieved from the stack on the vehicle and we began to walk, his wife asking about my journey. I said hesitantly, ‘Mum would’ve told you, then, about Annabelle?’
‘Yes,’ Rae replied soberly. ‘Poor child. Our hearts grieve for her, Charlie, and for you and Molly, of course. Were you close?’
‘I haven’t seen my cousin in five years. Maybe Mum has, I’m not sure. I’ve lived away – in Melbourne mostly. This is my first visit home since I left. So, how long have you worked in the Alice, Padre Don?
‘We were posted here from Karratha three years back. Ah, here we are.’ He dumped my bag on the tarmac and fished from his pocket the keys of the single-engined Cessna we’d stopped beside. ‘You’re bush-bred – you’ll have flown in small planes before, Charlie?’
‘Yes, of course. I didn’t know the church had a plane though. When I was living at home we’d see old Bill Handly every three months or so, but he drove a station wagon. He was the Anglican man. And there was the Catholic bloke who went to Upatak and Red Tank – the Himans and the Mallorys are Catholic. He drove too, but he never came to the Garnet – knew we didn’t belong to his flock, I suppose.’
‘Well, as I said, I’m the Uniting Church bloke’ – Don’s eyes twinkled – ‘and I go everywhere they’ll have me.’ He opened a hatch and began loading my gear. ‘You ladies can hop in if you like while I do the checks. We’ll be on our way soon – you must be longing to get home.’
It was the best way to arrive, I thought, watching the country unroll below me, its contours briefly overlaid by the shadow of the tiny plane. We flew north-east over Randalls Peak, the country looking bare and rocky, the trees no more than blobs on the landscape. I traced the winding course of what I thought had to be the Hale River, its dry bed lined with thicker blobs than appeared on the hills, and a myriad of other nameless creeks and gullies until the solid block of the Harts Range was below us, its hollows indented with shadow in the late afternoon light. North of us, running east, was the thin ruled line of the highway. Ruby Creek was down there somewhere, and the old goldfield, and many an abandoned mica digging – the Harts was full of minerals and semiprecious gems. Water too, according to old Bob, more valuable than anything else dug from the earth, but you had to know how to find it . . .
Padre Don pulled off his headset to call out but the engine noise drowned his words. Speech was impossible. I shook my head and he pointed below as the engine note changed and the plane banked, beginning its descent. I looked down and saw the distant complex of the roadhouse, tin roofs flashing in the sunlight, the garden trees enlarging from blobs to objects as I watched. There was dust on the road heading out between the swell of two ridges, beyond which lay the short gravel airstrip. Somebody coming to meet us.
Then we were drifting down and the details of our surroundings sprang into view – gravel surface, clumps of whitewood frothing with pale green blossom overlaid with powdery red dust, the solidity of the range, the pitted surface of a boulder, then a great cloud of dust catching up to us as the plane slowed to walking pace, turned and began to taxi back to where the vehicle and its lone occupant waited.
It was Bob in the same old station wagon – no changes there, then, or in his greeting as he nodded tersely at me. ‘G’day, Charlie.’
‘Bob,’ I said, ‘how are you?’
‘No good complaining.’ He took the bags Don was unloading and stowed them in the back of the vehicle.
‘Nobody listens,’ I agreed. ‘You know the padre, do you? And his wife?’
‘We’ve met.’ He nodded at them both while poking a finger up under the brim of his hat to lift it slightly in acknowledgement of the woman’s presence. ‘Padre. Missus. You wanna get in?’
We drove back in silence. It took only minutes but it was time enough for the familiarity of the setting to enfold me again. The long shadow of the vehicle scurrying before us, the lavender tint of the range deepening to purple as the sun sank, the smell of dust, the untidy scribble of scrub amid a white mass of dried buffel grass, the spinifex rings a dusty olive across the ochre ridges and, then, half hidden behind the roadhouse we had pulled up before, the crooked roofline of the old homestead settled deep amid the shade trees and oleander of its eighty-year-old garden.
‘Welcome home, Charlie,’ Bob said as he switched off the motor. ‘I reckon it’s about time yer came back. Molly needs yer here.’ He pushed his door open and got out to unload the luggage, leaving me sitting there, stunned into silence.