Nakata Brophy Prize winner: Backa Bourke

We were fourteen kilometres out of Wilcannia when the rain pulled us up. A long gash of water had formed across the dirt highway, and we sat on our bikes, on the wrong side, swearing at it. A cop at the servo had told us that if we made the first fifteen, we’d have no worries. You’ll gun the rest of it, he had said. He’d nodded at Mick’s battered Yamaha, still sturdy as anything, like he knew all the places it’d been. As if he could size it up just from the colours of the dust that had caked in its tyre tread. I don’t think the cop had looked over at me, or my bike, during that exchange. He would have seen me filling up the tank of the Guzzi and he probably would have laughed.

‘That’d be right,’ Mick said, swinging a leg over the frame of the Yamaha. He hopped off lightly into the mud. He was agile for a big fella: knew his way around a bike. When we were young, he always had some new stunt to show us. Jumps, burnouts, wheel stands. We’d called him ‘The Gymnast’ after we’d watched the ’84 Olympics on TV at Aunt Karen’s and saw the men’s pommel horse event for the first time. He hadn’t liked it. I saw him shove Curt against the brick wall of the garage before I had bolted, still laughing.

Mick followed the perimeter of the water, which was swelling in the rain. He stopped to kick the foaming edge with his boot. ‘The mud’s too thick to go around. And then there’s this shit,’ he said, pointing to the wiry scrubland. It stretched out over the wet earth, impenetrable all the way to the horizon.

A blue Kingswood sat in the middle of the water. It was bogged to its axles. The shell of it was old and rusted so it looked as if it had been abandoned ages ago, but the bonnet was steaming. The smell of the car hit me then – petrol and rubber and clay dug up by the tyres. Mick noticed it too. ‘The driver’s nearby,’ he said, eyeballing the country.

We walked the bikes straight down the belt of the road, engines off. The mud under water was a lot denser. It sucked at the soles of our feet, willing us forward and holding us back. The Guzzi’s pipes became submerged and the bike didn’t roll alongside me anymore, so I wrangled with the handlebars, trying to pull it forward. I grunted with the effort but it didn’t move, it just stood there lopsided in the rain, like a ruin.

Mick laughed from behind me, a deep laugh that seemed to have rattled its way up a mineshaft and hit the air above with awful clarity. He left his own bike in the shallows and took hold of mine from the other side. ‘Stubborn as a fuckin’ sow,’ he said to the Guzzi as he gripped it tight. In a few goes we yanked the bike clear.

The Yamaha was heavier but it came up out of the mud without a fuss. Mick muttered that they’re made for this, these sorts of conditions, the mud and all that. He looked at me and wiped his face, slick with sweat and rain, with an even wetter forearm.

Marta was a Swedish nurse from White Cliffs. She was heading home on foot when we saw her on the road ahead of us. As we came round the bend on our bikes she was flapping a black scarf from side to side, waving us down. It clipped at her ears like a magpie. She told us that she’d been to Wilcannia to treat a Barkindji woman whose bad heart was playing up again. Yes, that was her car in the bog, and no, she did not want a lift to White Cliffs, but she would appreciate it if we sent someone to tow her car.

‘Yeah, darlin,’ Mick said. ‘We’ll send someone for ya.’ He grinned and his eyes flashed bluer.

‘Are you sure you’re right? Out here?’ I looked up and down the length of the dirt road. There was nothing around except a few kangaroos sprawled lankily in the shade of a Mulga bush. No-one seemed to hear me. The sun had come out and stirred up the sodden soil, bringing it right up out of the ground. I could smell it everywhere. The air was earthen and thick and suffused with expectation.

‘Where are you going? You’re not from here.’ Marta looked over at my city bike resting at the side of the road.

‘Back home, to Bourke,’ Mick said. ‘For a funeral.’

My heart thudded hard and I turned to squint at the roos. I tried to make out their faces in the distance so I didn’t see Curt’s. I didn’t want to try to be a part of the conversation anymore. I didn’t want to pretend that Curt was just our neighbour or our bud. My bud.

‘You’re going the wrong way to get to Bourke. This is White Cliffs Road,’ Marta said. ‘That’s where the road will take you,’ she added, shifting her weight from one hip to the other.

‘We came this way lookin’ for you. Just seeing if you were alright. We saw the opal sticker on your boot, so. Thought you might have been from there,’ Mick said.

Marta nodded. She was the tiniest woman I had ever seen. She hunched a bit, as if she’d pulled a bush rabbit from a trap and swung it over her shoulders. It made her look older than she probably was.

I sat on the Guzzi and revved it up. Mick was telling Marta that we’d stay in White Cliffs for the night, that we’d send someone to help her out. He must have spotted the small plastic container that she carried in the crook of her arm, and because he can’t help himself, he asked her what was in it. With the gravelly engine going, Marta’s voice sounded like a faraway song. I think she said that it was full of red cordial.

We pulled into White Cliffs just over two hours later, coughing up the dust in our throats. We’d had to stop when I’d noticed that the Guzzi’s rear rim had a buckle in it, and again when I’d spotted a hairline crack in the front rim. A couple of shearers passing through from Wanaaring had helped me patch it up in exchange for my flashy bike gloves they said they’d sell at a garage sale.

Mick and I had only been to White Cliffs once, when we were kids. Mum had needed to get tests done on her lungs that day, so dad had driven into town to pick us up. I was excited because I’d seen a postcard of the place: an aerial shot of a pockmarked landscape that looked like a strange, red moon. Like someplace I’d been in a dream, running away from Wile E Coyote. I don’t know if I had really thought it looked like a moonscape. Maybe I’d just read that word in the description of the town’s opal fields on the back of the card.

Dad had told us that almost everyone in White Cliffs lived underground in dugouts because it was much cooler below the earth’s surface. The spaces were chipped out of a sixty-million-year-old seabed, he had said, before pausing, turning over the information in his mind. That’s even older than Murri culture, he told us, eyebrows raised.

Even then, we knew he’d been reading off the plaques in the museum and pretending to know it all by heart. Neither of us had minded though. A moonscape was the best sort of place for yarning up big, drunk on sherry. He’d leaned over my shoulder to point out an opalised plesiosaur named Eric, and I’d smelt it on his breath, familiar and sickly sweet.

At the White Cliffs Hotel, the only pub in town, I asked the barman about what had happened to the plesiosaur.

‘Our mate Eric! Well, they carted him off to Sydney, didn’t they! Don’t know where. Reckon he’s not coming back either.’

‘I think I heard about that,’ I said. I turned to Mick, who was four Foster’s deep and leaning on his elbows at the bar. ‘Do you remember seeing it at the museum that time?’

‘I dunno what you’re talking about. What’s it called? Sounds like pelican.’

‘Plesiosaur,’ the barman said. ‘It’s a shallow-water marine dinosaur. Flippers and everything. They say that some of the species could grow to the size of a whale.’

‘Not Eric, but. He was no more than two metres long, surely,’ I said.

‘Nah. Not him. He was a little bugger. Even so, an American collector offered to pay one million for him.’ The barman walked the length of the L-shaped bar, mopping up schooner spillages. He was an old whitefella who still Brylcreemed his hair back into place. It was the only part of him that was polished. The rest of him was rough and leathery, as if he’d already done a thousand wild things in his lifetime but if you asked him, he’d still be up for pig hunting tomorrow.

‘Amazing to think that this was all underwater, though.’ He cast his eyes around the place as he said it, for effect probably. I think he’d spun the yarn a few times.

Eric the Plesiosaur had been the talk of the town. Even as a kid in Bourke, I’d heard about him being dug up out of the ground. I had imagined a fully formed dinosaur skeleton with a frightening, hollowed skull and a long arching spine. But on TV, his chalk stick bones looked small, and there was a lot of him missing.

‘They had him on the news, you know. That brought a lot of people to town, not just miners,’ the barman said, on cue. ‘Of course, we’ve had a few film crews come through, haven’t we? The ANU – that’s a university in Canberra – designed the solar power station out here. You’ve probably seen photos. It was the first one of its kind, the first one to supply electricity to an entire town in Australia, or thereabouts. We had all the major news stations in here at some point for a drink and a feed.’ The barman jabbed his meaty index finger on a coaster, confirming that it’d happened right there.

‘Is that right?’ I said, listening harder.

‘Yeah. I fed ’em all kangaroo steaks for a laugh. They told me it was the best mutton they’d ever tasted.’

Mick snorted into the last of his beer froth as it slinked up his glass and into his mouth.

‘Silly bastards,’ the barman said, grinning madly. ‘But a good bunch.’ He reached for the tap absentmindedly and poured another Foster’s for Mick. ‘So where are you fellas from, then? Bourke? I heard you came across Marta, bogged outside of Wilcannia.’

Mick shifted in his seat, interested now. ‘From Bourke, yeah.’

‘You been riding motos for long?’

‘Since we were kids, I spose.’

‘How’d you find the floodway out on White Cliffs Road?’

Mick shrugged. ‘Easy for the Yamaha. She came up good. Can’t say the same for Jacky’s Italian bike.’

My skin prickled and suddenly I could feel the sweat all over me, where it clung and dripped.

‘What type of bike is it?’

‘A Guzzi,’ Mick said, and it was all I heard. I’d tuned out by then, let the blood throb in my ears, let the laughter wash over me. I sat tensely on the edge of the barstool and I wanted so much to lean over and flog him, but the memory of last time kept me where I was. My busted-up face pressed in the dirt, aching knuckles, deliriousness. Mick standing over me, wild-eyed under the street lamplight, like someone I’d never met before.

I had to get out. I stood on the pub’s wraparound porch and thought about other things, like whether it was hotter inside with those idiots, or out there on the cement as the sun dipped, scorching everything under the corrugated awning. The sun would take its time to go down, especially now that the clouds had gone. It would burn across the plains for ages because there’s no mountain anywhere to blanket the heat.

Aunt Karen would be sitting down to watch Wheel of Fortune before the news. There was a payphone bolted into the cement, so I dug into my pocket for some coins and dialled her number. It only rang a couple of times before she answered.

‘Aunt, it’s Jacky.’

‘Oh, how are you bub?’ Her voice was soft, and she unravelled each syllable slowly with a heavy tongue. It felt good to hear it again.

‘I’m alright, thanks. Just here at White Cliffs.’

‘What are you doing over that way? I thought you and Mick were coming up.’

‘Yeah, we were on our way, but we had to help out a nurse whose car got caught in a floodway near Wilcannia.’

‘Ah, poxy weather! Mucks everyone up.’ She cleared her throat and then fell silent. I could tell she was trying to ask me something.

‘Your Uncle wants to know if you can do Curt’s eulogy.’

It was what I had thought. I didn’t say anything.

‘I know it’s short notice but you speak so nicely, bub. And you knew him better than anyone.’

That night, I lay in bed thinking about what I might say. Curt had been a gun javelin thrower. A moto lover. A teller of filthy jokes. I could say any of those things because they were as known and familiar to everybody as a handshake. I wouldn’t mention the things I remembered most: that we’d smoked every afternoon, after school, so we could be around each other and not have to talk. That Mick had caught us together behind the Olympic-pool shed. That Curt was stuck in a place of in-between, in the middle of a highway, in a swamp. That I had loved him anyway.

I set off for Bourke alone, just before dawn. On the long, dry stretch of road, the Guzzi felt powerful. I watched the sun roll its first light over the prickles of shallow scrubland.

Marika Duczynski

Marika Duczynski is a writer and bookseller based in Sydney. She is currently undertaking postgraduate studies in editing and publishing at the University of Technology, Sydney.

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