There’s a man clinging with his back to the jutting rock of the first of the Three Sisters, the only one you can actually get to without climbing gear.
A black man, in scuffed jeans and an old work shirt with a checked pattern on it, white and red, washed soft. His hair frizzes around his head, smushed into the stone at the back, where he presses his skull against the uneven face of the rock, like a half-hatched egg the rough rock-pillar gave birth to.
They are called the Three Sisters after all. Why shouldn’t they hatch a man-sized egg?
No sign of climbing stuff either. No harness, no ropes, like Madison had to wear on that adventure camp thing in the first week of school this year.
And with or without climbing gear, the man shouldn’t be there. The sign says so.
Madison and Sarah shouldn’t be here either, but there’s no sign about that.
Just a great big pile of poo and one hideously furious Mum waiting for them when they get back to Sydney.
‘What’s he doing?’ Sarah whispers, her fingers digging into Madison’s baggy jumper. ‘He’ll fall!’
That’s the point, Madison doesn’t say. What is wrong with today? Like the day got it into its stupid head to mess up every single little thing from start to finish. Madison wants to go back to bed; start over. Without Sarah.
‘Stay right here,’ she hisses, stabbing her finger at the ground. She doesn’t have time to think how much like Mum she sounds, as if they accidentally brought a piece of her with them, stowed away in her rucksack maybe, or caught in the ragged edge of a pocket’s lining, with the fluff, mushy chewing gum and weird Australian money that looks like English money, but different.
‘No!’ Sarah’s face bunches up in a scowl. She’s still whispering, but with an urgent kind of whine hinging the single syllable in the middle. Stubborn as a mule.
Less hassle to just go with it.
Madison turns from her, steps onto the short wooden bridge that spans the gap between the mountain and the first of the Three Sisters. More than a gap; a chasm. Somehow, it seems further than the whole distance from here back to Sydney, those two long hours on the train.
The man hears her, maybe has known they were there all along. He doesn’t exactly look at her; his face still turned out, toward the mountains, in their woolly coats of trees, where they meet the sky. But his eyes veer toward the sound of her, the barely-there sound of her trainers padding across the stubby bridge.
‘Excuse me,’ stupid thing to say, her voice too loud. ‘Are you ok?’
Stupid, stupid, stupid. Obviously he’s not ok.
‘He doesn’t look ok,’ Sarah says, right behind her.
Madison rolls her eyes.
‘Tell him he’s not supposed to be there.’ Sarah’s hand grips her jumper again, the other going up to her head, like she’s trying to hold her hair on, where the wind is whipping it around.
‘Not to bother you or anything, but, did you, like, see the sign?’ Madison tries again.
The voice when it comes, is husky, but not as old sounding as Madison had expected: ‘I seen plenty of signs. What sign you mean?’
Thirteen Years Before
De island’s alight. On fire, in every way you can understand de words. Smoke everywhere, stinking bad, making yer eyes sting and tear. You’da thought it’d take longer, to set de whole damn thing on fire, but seems some things is just ready to burn, and dis here island’s one of dem.
Dey saying terrible things happened to his cuz’s Da, Eric’s Da, Mister Doomadgee. Mulrunji, dey started calling him now. Tribal na Out of respect.
The worst things, but he doesn’t wanna believe it, anymore than Eric does, coz he’s parta dis here family now. He’s invested.
He’s gotta live on in this family since he come back from Cairns, and he don’t need no bad luck curse. Sure, he’s grateful dey took him in. Dey didn’t havta, no sir. Just don’t be needing no more bad luck, is all he’s saying. Had his fill, is all.
Like Punishment Island ever delivered any other kinda luck since de day dem white men started throwing his people’s troublemakers here, like dey were nothing but garbage. Worser’n dat. Like der industrial waste dey all try so hard to hide. Like some shameful secret dey got rich on the back of.
Eric say his Dad only went out dat morning, couple of weeks ago now, to git himself down to de beach with a big ol’ bucket. Said he was gonna dig himself some crab. Maybe stop over at Eric’s Auntie too, see dat new baby of hers.
Dat man. Any excuse for a good time, for a glass with his mates. And did Eric wanna come?
Hell no, did Eric wanna go. Like der ain’t enough babies kicking and screaming around de place, like any kid would give up dey place on the ol’ humpbacked couch to go get an eyeful of another one. Even if Eric did just have his nose in some ol’ book, even if dey woulda bin a bit of yer sly grogging.
Wish he’d gone now, Eric says. Wish he had. Dunno what he coulda done though.
Coz dat was de last time his cuz saw his ol’ man walking, wasn’t it? Went an’ got himself arrested on de crime of being too happy, singing that stupid ol’ track.
Who let the dogs out?
Like some big kid, Mister Doomadgee, Mulrunji, was. Dat happy, dat easy to please.
Ol’ man coroner said about internal injuries, broke ribs, ruptured – whaaa? – spleen. Parts he didn’t even know a body had got broke, broke bad. Dead bad.
So now it’s chaos. People milling around, trying to git back from de smoke, or trying to make more smoke, standing off bare-faced and angry against the white-white police in their special gear. You see any of us with special gear?
Where was Mister Doomadgee’s gear when them same white bastards came after him in his cell? Huh? Where? All he’s asking.
A big ol’ mess of rioting.
Burned dat police station first. Goddamn.
‘Five a year, when I was a just a little kid, you know dat?’ White teeth, lip-stripped, in a glare of sun.
First words he says. No, Madison doesn’t know, doesn’t geddit. Obviously. I mean, like, what?
Sarah tugs on her fleece. ‘What’s that mean?’
‘How should I know?’ Madison hardly ever swears, though all the popular kids do, back at school. Her Mum, when she’s angry, too. She wants to swear now. Her mouth is too dry. Like a mouthful of sand and grit. She’s sick of being the go-between, Sarah’s mediator, between her and the real world. ‘Ask him yourself, if you want to know.’ She doesn’t bother to whisper any more. Can’t see the point.
‘Ask me what? I standing right here. You got a question gal, go-on and ask.’
Sarah pushes between Madison and the splintery wooden hand rail. Leans her whole weight on it. Peers at the clinging man. ‘Five a year,’ she says. ‘Whatsit mean?’
‘Suicides,’ he says in his scratchy voice. Maybe he has a cold. It seems stupid to die, to kill yourself like this, when you have cold. Madison doesn’t know why.
‘Like you?’ Sarah asks. Looking down at her sister, Madison sees Sarah’s eyes big, huge, with curiosity, with this new piece of information.
‘Nah,’ he says, shifting his hold, his feet, infinitesimally on the rock. Any second, any small crumbling of stone or misplaced weight, and he could fall.
Madison suddenly, badly, does not want him to fall.
‘Why?’ Sarah asks.
‘Why? Why what?’ The man looks at them, like he’s measuring them, learning them. His voice like he genuinely wants to know.
‘Why five suicides every year? Is everyone really sad? Or like those Japanese pilots in World War Two? Madison told me about them,’ Sarah turns her face round and up to her sister. Her mussed hair shifting, tendrils and rattails teased by the wind. ‘Tell him, Madison.’
‘He probably knows. You know about the Kamikaze pilots, Mister?’
‘Sure, I know.’
‘That what you’re doing, Mister?’ asks Sarah, eyes so wide, it’s like she could scoop him and his bit of mountain right in to safety with them.
‘Naaw. Dat was all sacrifice for Empire and Country.’ Madison sees his nearer hand twitch on the rock, like he wants to lift it free but can’t. He’s one of these people who speaks with his hands. Caught like a starfish splayed against the rockface, it’s like he’s only half himself, he can’t bring the whole of himself to bear on the conversation.
Guess he wasn’t much expecting a deep and meaningful conversation about Kamikaze pilots.
Then again, neither was Madison.
For the first time it occurs to her: maybe they should be trying to rescue him. Talk him down, save him from himself, like they say on telly and stuff. Or maybe they already are. They just didn’t know it.
The Night Before
Madison is gonna catch a kangaroo. Same as how she always tried to catch the lizards and hummingbirds, back when they used to go to California on holiday. Nevermind that she never actually managed it. She was just a little kid then anyway, like Stupid Sarah. She caught that mouse under a teacup that one time, didn’t she?
Not that you’re gonna see one just bouncing across the pedestrian crossing, or having a beer at some pub in Sydney. Only wildlife she’s seen so far are drunk Auzzies.
Just seeing one in a zoo is totally not the deal. Zoos are for babies – Sarah again. Once you realise how pathetic they are, how lame, keeping a bunch of miserable, droopy animals with half their fur missing stuffed in glass cases or behind chain link fences, you stop getting excited by the dumb old zoo. Not that Mum will take them to the zoo anyway. Says it’s too touristy. Like they aren’t obviously – hello, earth to planet Mum – tourists.
As if Madison cares. She’s googled it already; where to find real ones, how to get there.
Mission Kangaroo Part One: sneak cash from Mum’s purse. Easy peasy. When Madison gets cold, Mum lets her hold it in her lap, all big and floppy, canvas with a turquoise zebra print and about a million zippy pockets inside. She knows where the emergency stash is, the same pocket in the lining where their passports live.
If she took her passport, maybe she could escape to New Zealand. The perfect hiding place, all craggy and foresty and green, like in Lord of the Rings.
Part Two: She’ll take the train from Central Station. First thing in the morning. She’s googled the times, she knows where the station is, not far from their hostel.
She hates that they are staying in a hostel, when other kids stay in proper hotels, even resorts, with pools, private beaches, barbecues, pony-rides.
Then, train to Katoomba, where she’ll catch a bus to the Jenolan Caves. It’s a long way to go for a kangaroo, hours and hours. The actual kangaroo catching part, she’s not sure about yet. She’ll come up with something when she gets there.
Of course, it doesn’t work out that way. Of course it doesn’t.
Coz stupid Sarah, annoying, cling-on Sarah, can’t mind her own bees-wax. She looks up from playing with sugar-cubes on the cracked formica table just as Madison’s slipping Mum’s secret cash-stash from it’s secret (ish) purse pocket.
‘What are you doing?’ Sarah says. The sugar-cube in her mouth cracks between her teeth.
‘Nothing,’ Madison says, shoving the two rubber-banded $50 notes deep inside her jeans pocket.
‘I saw you,’ Sarah says. Crunch, crunch, crunch. ‘That’s stealing.’ She licks her sticky lips with her stupid pink tongue.
Everyone thinks Sarah’s so perfect. Like an angel, with her stupid blonde hair.
Only Madison knows the truth: that Sarah’s actually a stubborn, goody-two-shoes, suck-uppy monster.
‘I’m telling Muu-um,’ Sarah says, slurping sugary juice.
Madison wants to strangle her.
The Week Before
He take the ferry to Townsville. Packs hardly any damn thing; a change of shirt, underwear, socks. Two hour on de ferry, an’ he stays on deck de whole damn way, feeling de sun on his cheek, de sea spray.
Doesn’t know where he’s going, not at first, not exactly. Just away. He doesn’t tell nobody. He will not end it on Punishment Island. Home. Home? Not nearly. He still got him some pride. He will not make dem good people ta clean up his damn mess, or to clean up de mess of him after. No suh.
Nine in the house, dey spill out of it, some of dem just scrappy foster kids like he was. Nah, no way will he bring his trouble down on dem. Dey got enough trouble, had enough trouble, already.
He has in mind to see some more of dis country de whites stole first. Der are still places where some of the ol’ mobs keep the traditional ways, preserving the land, de bounty it brings forth, de tightrope balance of man and nature’s needs. Nagara. He still remembers: listen, hear, think. To the elders and the land, the path to wisdom and survival. Never know, could be something redemptive in dat.
In Townsville, he goes straight to de train station, though he’s parched for coffee. It can wait. Eyes de departures board, head tipped right back, as commuters in der fancy office clothes scuttle around him. Like crabs busy on a sand beach.
Picks him a train right the way to Sydney, pays a one way fare. No, Ma’am, he doesn’t have no Opal Card. No, Ma’am, he don’t need one today.
Not much point, is der.
Shoulda done dis a long time back, if he’s honest. No call to lie now, not to himself or any man. Shoulda done it when his cuz Eric did, back in twenty-oh-four, back round the time of de riots, when de goddamn white men, de djaraba, the police, sent Mulrunji to meet his maker. In some goddamn police cell. All for singing some damn song.
Clear as day, Eric knew der wasn’t no out, knew things was as bad as bad an’ never would git better. Dem police didn’t suffer none. Dem bastards got clean away with it. Never was a dark one, Eric, apple of his Daddy’s eye and all. But after all de killing, and dem po-lice jus’ walking free, not so much as a slap on der lily-white wrists, and how dey all keep on keep on with der prejudicial ways, nah, Eric got himself out. Week after his Daddy’s death, de man but hardly in de ground, and already dat kid saw how it was gonna be.
Hanging from an old palm tree dey found him.
Shoulda knowed then. Shoulda took de hint.
But he really done thought he could push on through. Felt a kinda duty to dem good people de Doomadgees what took him in, in der hard times. Didn’t want to cause em no sorrows, not when it seemed like dey were putting another soul in the ground every damn week.
Well, he got him some schooling, such as could be had on such a puny, no-money island, and he tried t’stay clear of de sly grogging, just like dat good woman told him. Even had him some work for a spell. But de place got over ninety per cent unemployment. Nine-ty per cent, man. So hell was dat gonna last.
It was all jus’ fairy tales and dreams for kiddies. Fairy tales de djaraba feed dem, to keep dem quiet. To keep dem down, and in de place de djaraba put dem, so dey can take all de rest.
Djaraba, de ol’ word for white men? Dat word mean fire stick, mean musket. Mean guns. The way he see it, ain’t nothing changed.