Right bower. On top of the left. And the Ace. Good hand. Winning. What a nuisance. She sighed and hoped someone would go No Trumps or Misère. It wasn’t that she didn’t want to win—just not tonight. A bit nervy again. Didn’t want to attract attention, even good-natured congratulations.
She loved card night but sometimes she needed to hide a bit. Lie low. Like tonight. She could tell by the breathiness at the base of her throat, the flutter.
Let me just sit here and listen to the talk, the scandalous stories, the retelling of impossible bedroom dramas, the breakfast barneys.
And then she got the Queen, and the ten. Blimey.
The cards were flipped, the tricks fell, Roma finished a story about what he said and what she said big time, and then he goes, oh well that’s it then, and she goes, yeah, and he goes, right then, and … Jesus, Rene, you had every trick. You lose points for that, calling six hearts and then winning the lot. Aren’t you concentrating or something?
Rene frittered the edge of her beer coaster and mercifully Kerry asked, so what’d she do then? Nothin’, said Roma, he just left, packed everything in the ute and left. Jesus. Yeah. She’s better off. Yeah. You wouldn’t think so, bawling her eyes out, she is. Is she? Yeah, desolate she says … wouldn’t come to cards or nothin’. Jesus. Yeah.
A man walked into the bar, a stranger, thick woollen truckie’s jacket; they sized him up in one glance. Little pub like this, only stop on the highway in the middle of the ninety-mile forest. Had to be a truckie. Heard the air brakes too.
He glanced at them, nodded, it was that sort of pub, too small not to acknowledge those already there, stood for a moment with his back to the fire, a brace of wood-chopping trophies bristling from the mantle behind his shoulders.
It wasn’t rude to hog the fire for a while, almost everyone did at this time of year, even strangers, it was a magnet.
Porterhouse is on special, love, if you want it, Vera called from the bar, ‘cause that silly Veronica didn’t come tonight, mopin’ about some man. You want it, love, with chips ‘n’ vegies?
Strewth, a man who ate salad. Still, it got rid of the porterhouse she’d cooked out of Monday-night habit.
Where’re you from?
Yeah. Load of cattle.
Good-o then love, steak won’t be long. Don’t get mixed up with them girls, though, they’re … voracious.
All the voracious girls giggled, some even touching their hair or the top button of their card-playing blouse, the second best, satin, sort of.
He bought a glass of light beer. They noticed that. Responsible. He sat with his back to them and plucked at the pages of last week’s Forest Leaves: old badminton results, desultory fishing reports, front page bagging the minister about criminal forest policy, crucifying the bush, again.
Vera brought his plate and an army of sauce bottles and condiments. He cut into the steak. Not very hot but it’d been in the warmer for a while. The chips were good.
Rene wouldn’t go to the bar to get her own drinks. Had to have company. Moral support. Usually Roma would go with her. Nothing bothered Roma. Anyone who wore men’s work pants and a plaid shirt was obviously impervious to shame, but she wasn’t as tough as she looked, she stuck by her mates, she’d never let anyone pick on Rene.
The man watched the smaller woman. Neat. Nervy like a finch, but tidy in her poverty if he wasn’t mistaken. The clothes were Kmart for sure, but they’d been chosen with care, kept clean, pressed, never washed together with socks or towels. He could see that. He studied the profile of her face, recognised the history written there.
The cards were flipped, greeted with triumph or disdain, the stories slipping in between the shuffles, but quieter now, not as bawdy or as cruel.
A couple of men shouldered their way into the bar, bought their beers and set up a game of pool, acknowledged the women’s comments with practised indifference.
Geez, your bum looks big in those, Michael.
Got Eileen pregnant again, Rog?
The click of the balls punctuated the flip of the cards.
Roma escorted Rene to the bar for the next round but veered off to the toilets. The truckie picked up his empty glass and casually took it to the bar and waited for Vera to fill it. Rene was pretending to pick up her drinks but her little hands were never going to get around four pots.
He turned to her with his back to Vera and spoke so no-one else could hear.
You’re Koorie, nah?
She looked up startled, the breath fluttering at the top of her throat. But she nodded.
So am I, where’re your people from?
Don’t know, the little woman breathed.
Don’t know? So what’s your name?
But me mum was a Kane.
Kane? And you don’t know where they’re from?
Know anything about them?
He heard the toilet door slam and knew Roma was returning but she just leaned between them, scooped up three of the pots and carried them back to the card table, winking extravagantly to the girls. Well, he didn’t seem a bad sort of bloke—and she could recognise bad sorts of blokes, had kicked plenty of them out. But bad blokes seldom ate salad. In her experience. Which wasn’t small.
Rene kind of shrugged. She wasn’t very used to talking to men. She knew nothing about her family. But I’ve looked, she told him, there was this book I saw in the mobile library.
And you looked under Kane and couldn’t find anything?
Did you spell it with a C or a K?
K, I’ve always spelt it with a K. That’s what Mum said it was.
Rene was twisting her pot on the bar towel, hoping Roma would come and rescue her, even glanced towards the table, but they all seemed oblivious.
Did you look under C?
You’re a Cane, I’d bet anything on it. Your grandmother and grandfather are heroes. Took on the government when they tried to kick the people off the mission. Your family’s famous.
Oh no, famous, how could I hide, why doesn’t Roma come and help me?
I bet your family is looking for you. I’ll tell you what, I’m coming back next week, next Monday it’ll be, card night, isn’t it? I’ll find out for you if you like.
He watched her face. Her lips moved a bit, there was a sort of nod of assent. Or it could have been a jerky intake of breath.
Well I’ll see you then. Next Monday.
The cards fell, mostly from Rene’s hands. Come on, Rene, you’re not concentrating, they yelled at her. Don’t worry, he’ll turn up, his type always does.
His type. She tried to get the cards into suits but kept fumbling them.
You trying to advertise that ace, Rene?
But eventually they heard the air brakes.
Your shout, Rene, Roma called, even though everyone knew it was Kerry’s. But Roma stood up and handed Rene her purse. Time to let the moths out, darl. She grinned. Well, Roma thought of it as her grin. Dogs put their tail between their legs.
Roma escorted Rene to the bar and left her there just as the man opened the door. Like a lot of big women, Roma’s timing was pretty good. Light on her feet. Surprisingly delicate. Delicate in dungarees.
He nodded at Rene, bought his beer.
Porterhouse, darl? Vera called. Make you a fresh one this week, Veronica’s stopped sookin’.
Vera bustled off to the other end of the bar. She was loud but not stupid. They all liked Rene. Protected her. As you do the smallest in the litter.
Cane all right, he said, taking a sip from his glass. Irene Cane.
Yes, Rene, I for Irene. You never knew?
Your mum never said?
The home said she died when I was ten. Only saw her a few times.
Rene, she died three years ago. They were bullshittin’ ya, the home.
Rene froze, clutching her purse. Roma came up and took it out of her hands, plucked a note, slapped it on the bar and returned to the cards, which were stalled, waiting, even the gossip abbreviated, half-hearted. Hard to concentrate when you were listening so hard.
Those homes are full of shit, Rene, I was in one too. I saw it in you straight away. I’m sorry about your mum but they do that to you. Lie. Lie through their teeth. For your own good. So that you don’t know who you are. And you’re famous, Rene.
She glanced at his eyes in panic.
You must have known, Rene, you’re so dark.
Her lips went to move but only kind of wriggled.
Your family fought the government. They were heroes. Still are. Your aunty is a big shot in Canberra. Got ‘em all bluffed, she has. Real tough cookie. Gotta be or they’d crush her like an ant. Would you like to meet her? Your family? I could take you up there if you like. In the truck.
He put his hand in his pocket and withdrew a crumpled note and some coins.
Buy you a drink, Rene?
Roma saw the hand go in the pocket and come out with the money. No wallet, she thought, poor as … poor as a half-black truck driver. Still, he was a decent poor half-black truck driver. Decent, she could tell that. Stood out like a beacon. Not her type. She liked ‘em dangerous. Stupid bitch, she was. Dangerous and big enough to throw her across the room. And some of them did. Even her, Big Roma. Still …
What do you say? I’ve got a house in Liverpool. Me uncle’s really. He’d set up a room for you while you had a look around and then I could bring you back next week if you wanted.
Wanted. She’d never dared want.
They know about you, Rene. Your family. Never knew what happened to you. Your sister went looking for you but the home said they didn’t know where you were.
Sister? Rene stared up into the man’s eyes for the first time.
He saw that look. Yeah, sister, you’ve got a sister. Two. They cried when I told them.
So did Rene. Right there and then, couldn’t help it, bubbling like a brook.
Plopping fat tears onto the bar towel so that Vera plumped the plate of steak down on the bar with two beers and scuttled off.
Strewth, Rene’s cryin’. Something’s up.
Who are you? It was Roma. Big and bustling, hoping she hadn’t made a huge mistake.
Kevin Murray. I’m her cousin, sort of.
Cousin! Rene was too damp to gasp.
So that means you can make her cry, sort of?
I know her family. I know her sisters.
Sisters, Roma said, glaring.
Yes, she’s got a whole family looking for her. Koorie family.
Don’t take us for mugs, Kevin, it’s obvious what she is, but she’s our mate, and you hurt her and the Texas Chainsaw Massacre’ll be nothin’ on what we do to you. But look, she’s just won the raffle jackpot.
What jackpot? Vera went to ask.
The jackpot, you stupid fat bitch, the Monday $100 jackpot.
Oh yes, Vera tried to cheer up, number 49 Blue. She handed over the $100, hoping the other girls would cough up part of it. Sort of like a dowry or something. Even if he was a sort of cousin.
Roma put her shoulder between Rene and Kevin.
Hurt her and we’ll kill you, she muttered. I’ll kill you. No funny business. She’s got a family, you take her to her family and bring her back. And after that she can decide. But a new family. It takes thinking about. All right?
Kevin didn’t bother to reply. Useless. But he wasn’t about to be intimidated by bluster. He knew what he knew and he’d do what he’d always done. What he thought was best. He didn’t need to be lectured. He stared her down. Or tried to. But she’d met enough truck drivers not to shift her gaze.
She doesn’t need any more bad luck.
Roma talked as if Rene wasn’t there.
This is good luck, she’s got a family, sisters. With our people that’s good luck. Roma just looked at him. He didn’t need to tell her about his people. Small bush mill towns. Plenty of his genes spread around those places. Paid not to look too close, to ignore unexplainable suntans. Not to ask too many questions. Even about your own family. But sisters. That was different. Rene had sisters.
Roma steered her back to the table and they finished the game after reacquainting themselves with their cards.
Don’t mind Roma—what’s your name?
Look, Kevin, Vera went on, don’t mind her, she’s too big for her boots, and she’s got bloody big boots, but she’s also got …
A heart of gold?
Well, what’s wrong with that? She’s only lookin’ after her mate. Rainbird’s a small town, Kevin, we look out for each other, especially the women. And Rene’s been ripped off a few times.
I’m her cousin.
So you say, after drivin’ a truck up to the pub after dark, but she’s our mate. I know that and I am her cousin.
Good—and Kevin, your truck plate is RA 1390 and your CB is 863030. We only know who you say you are but we know where to find you … And you won’t need another drink if you’re driving to Sydney.
Well, Canberra then, I suppose someone has to go there.
They threatened to kill me, he said.
Rene just looked down the tunnel of light that sucked them through the forest. She wished she hadn’t got in the truck. She clutched her purse, couldn’t see a place to put it. He might be wrong. They mightn’t be her sisters, and if they were they mightn’t like her.
She was better off back in the bush. Knew where the teapot was. Feed the birds at the back step. Watch the quiz shows. Amazed by the answers. Cards on Monday. Knew it, knew where she was, where she belonged, safe at last, pocket money from part-time at the post office.
What was she doing in the truck? With a stranger? A cousin she didn’t know. He might be wrong, easy for him to say he knew all the answers, but if he was wrong think of the upset, the … problems.
Put your purse in the glovebox, Rene. Listen, your grandmother wrote to the government and said they couldn’t just turn around and give the Mission to the farmers. It was her home, she told them, and it was given to her people by the Queen. That’s what she told them. Told them they’d have to carry her out. But she was smart too, told ‘em she’d seen the original document, where it said while the people are still alive and want to live there the place was theirs. She could read and write, see, very smart woman.
They tried to say that because she was living with a man who wasn’t her husband she’d have to go. She said that’s your rules, not our rules and your document says nothin’ about who has to live with who. She could quote them letter and verse, Rene, she was a smart woman, a hero, and if you weren’t able to take your place in that family … it’d be a crime. Like they’d been successful at last. Got what your grandmother had stopped them from getting. That’s all I thought, Rene, I thought you should know and your sisters should know and we should know, all the rest of your family, we’d know that they hadn’t won again. That’s all, I didn’t mean to upset you.
She looked down the tunnel veering through the rushing trees.
You’re famous, Rene, we need you.
My teapot, my flowers, the thrush won’t get his cheese, who’ll be a millionaire?
If it doesn’t work out, tell my uncle, he’ll get you back home, he’s the best man alive. He’s your uncle too, sort of. He’ll get you home. Or I can drive you next week.
Sisters and uncles was one thing but that thrush needed her, sang to her, what would happen to the thrush? It might think she’d deserted it, never given it another thought.
Can I … she began … can I ring Roma on that thing, she indicated the CB radio, can I ring Roma and see if she’ll feed my thrush?