At her Tamarama café Shannon struggles with the loss of her marriage. A close friendship develops between her and Colin, an Indigenous elder, and Rafael, a Nicaraguan immigrant. When a worker plunges to his death on the building site opposite, journalist Vesna covers the story. But as their secrets are exposed all hell breaks loose and they discover they’re more connected than they ever imagined.
As Vesna awoke and turned over in the crisp, white sheets, she could hear whistling coming from the bathroom and it dawned on her she wasn’t in her own grotty bed. She was alone as usual but this time in somebody else’s place. Tom, wasn’t it? She thought she remembered his name.
She’d been woken by a dog’s incessant barking. Why do people have dogs if they don’t look after them? Her mind was still half left behind in a dream about a pack of animals roaming the streets of a Kosovo village as crows flew overhead. And why own a dog when you’re living in a city? What was it about Sydney people that they had to have everything?
She surveyed the bare room, dominated by a fireplace with a marble mantelpiece. Once coal was used to heat the house, now a gas heater was inside the fireplace. She gathered it was a terrace house that had undergone a major renovation. A few Aboriginal prints hung on the wall. Desert art by the look of them. That’d be right. Bloody dot paintings. What a trendy! And a clean one too. The place was spotless. He must have a cleaner, who wouldn’t have much to do – there was no clutter at all. Quite a contrast to her own slovenly digs; she was never home so why bother with housework?
It was almost claustrophobically warm; that gas heater really worked. French doors led to a balcony and she guessed rows of courtyards, each with their own pacing dogs probably.
She heard the toilet flush and the memory of the night before returned. She saw the glass of water next to the bed and downed it. How much had she drunk? At least eight wines? Her head was throbbing and she felt dizzy. The evening had started at Sweeney’s just around the corner from her city office and ended in some trashy joint at the Cross. It was all coming back to her. The waiter had insisted: “You have to eat if you want to have a drink here.” So she ordered garlic bread. So demanding for such a dive.
The door swung open and a tall, slim, swarthy man, wearing only a towel around his hips appeared. Vesna was reminded again how much she’d admired his body when she first saw him in the bar and now she was admiring it even more. She didn’t like to think of her own flabby tummy or her bats’ wings. Or as one unkind personal trainer had called them, her tuckshop arms. No wonder she only lasted two sessions. She pulled the sheets and the Laura Ashley doona up to hide them. She really hated her chubby body but she couldn’t be bothered doing anything about it. She made sure the bed linen covered the tattoo of a rose on her chest. Her early forties was perhaps too old for a tattoo but she’d got it when she was young and wild.
“Oh you’re awake,” the man said, not in the friendliest manner.
“Yep. I’m Vesna, how are you?” She let one pudgy hand emerge from under the sheet.
“Tom,” his fingers were long and thin. He shook her hand but didn’t smile.
“Yeah, I know.” Their encounter in a bar with her slipping off the stool came back to her.
“Look I don’t do this …”
“What? Get pissed in a bar and end up with a stranger?”
“No, well.” He looked uncomfortable as he searched his wardrobe for a shirt. Hanging in a perfect line, they were all as clean and crisp as the sheets.
“Why not? Too many knock backs?” she asked from the cosy bed.
Her thoughts were disturbed by a knock at the door. She was startled and dropped the photo on her bedside table. She wasn’t used to visitors, especially at night. She found a cardigan on her chair near the bed and, draping it around her shoulders, went to the door in her wedding dress and veil and slippers.
It was Rafael, in his civvies – black leather jacket, black polo-necked jumper, jeans and checked scarf – looking a bit wet but more handsome than in the dirty overalls he had been wearing earlier, although he looked good whatever he wore.
“All dressed up and nowhere to go,” Shannon laughed, trying to cover up her embarrassment. “You’re wearing different clothes?”
“Yes I went home and got changed.” He put his fingers to the lace of her bodice, touching the scratchy material.
Shannon pulled back, this guy was acting a bit odd. Then he slid his hand down her side to her hips, and she shivered.
“Beautiful. Is it silk?” He kept his hand on her hip.
“Yes. Too big for me now.” She knew her ribs were showing, there was no cleavage to fill it out; her breasts were almost flat.
She took off the veil and he put his hand out to touch it. “Let me smell it.”
“I don’t mind,” he took it in both hands and put his face into the tulle.
He was taking too long and she wasn’t sure what to do. She reached for the veil and put it on the hall table, catching a glimpse of her un-brushed, still-wet hair in the mirror. She looked a mess.
“What happened at the wedding?” His expression changed to one of horror as he stood behind her staring at her reflection.
I stop the car as a soldier waves me down. It’s a Contra. I’m shitting myself. He wants to know where we’re going. I tell him the next village. All over the road are strewn dead bodies. It’s a wedding party. All massacred. Thirty-three of them right there. The bride is wearing a white blouse and skirt embroidered with red flowers, but it’s not the red of the flowers I see but blood all over her. And mud. The groom lies a few feet away. Till death do us part.
The Contras must have ambushed the party returning to the village, believing they were Sandinista supporters. I am sure we too are going to die but Lana speaks to them. In her usual charming American journalist kind of way, she just goes and charms those Contras out of killing us.
“Hey, where were your rifles made?” she says. “FAL. In Belgium right? My government helped with that, right? You going to let us go, you know we’re CNN and we don’t take sides? Give us your message to the people, we’ll let the world know what you’re fighting for.”
Lana, she just charms those Contras out of killing us.
Rafael’s expression changed to a smile as Shannon moved sideways away from the mirror. Then his eyes narrowed as his smile turned cynical. Shannon was getting the creeps. What was she going to do with him? “What wedding? Mine you mean?” she asked him.
He turned to her. “Yeah, yeah. Sorry.”
“The wedding was OK, the marriage was horrible. Glass of wine?”
“I’d prefer a tea.” He followed her to the kitchen where he sat on a stool at the bench. There was only the sound of waves in the distance; the dog must have finally gone to sleep. Shannon lit a cigarette but Rafael snatched it from her, stubbing it out among the other butts in the ashtray.
Colin was well known to the librarians. His bandy legs, his well-worn colourful shirts and mismatched pants, his whiff of Old Spice. A bit bent over as if he had something to hide. But they seemed to like his cheerfulness, and his silly jokes.
“You want more on Barangaroo?” a middle-aged librarian with pale blue eyes asked him when he arrived on this cold, windy Sunday.
He nodded and she gestured to a desk and told him to wait there while she found the documents. He’d get to his family’s files and research on the Coota and Bomaderry girls after he first read the accounts of the first settlers of Barangaroo, the second wife of Bennelong, the well-known colonial figure, who was famous for journeying to England.
The librarian returned with a pile of documents and plonked them in front of him, as he took his glasses out of the top pocket of his jacket. He was always excited when he received new material to read, and colonial history was his favourite subject.
Although Bennelong was captured by the first governor, Arthur Phillip, the odd couple became friends but Barangaroo never liked the idea of this friendship. She loved to fish; she was good at it and could often be seen with her line bobbing over the side of her canoe. She was a member of the Cameraigal people, from the north shore of the harbour. She’d already had two children, from another man, but they’d died, apparently of smallpox. She was a toughie, she didn’t want the British here and she didn’t want Bennelong having anything to do with them. She was especially angry when Bennelong sailed for England. She was a fiery one. Colin was amused to see her described as a “scold and a vixen”.
Barangaroo was upset about how the newcomers treated the land, the sea and also each other. She hated their greed – the way they fished out the harbour, leaving little for her people. She also hated their cruelty. When a convict was being flogged for stealing fishing tackle from one of her women friends, Barangaroo grabbed a stick to whack the soldier who was flogging the convict.
She wore a bone in her nose and got around with no clothes on. Tench though described her as feminine, soft and modest, even if the saucy woman did take off the petticoat they gave her to cover her nakedness. Bennelong asked the British soldiers to help and they combed and cut her hair. And she seemed to like it, Colin gleaned from what he read.
But in 1791 she was pregnant. By this time hundreds of her people had been decimated by smallpox. There were bodies floating all over the harbour, washing up onto the beaches. She may have been thinking of a way to protect the rest of her mob. She asked Phillip if she could have her baby at Government House, down by Circular Quay. She used to go there often for meals. This was partly because Bennelong had brought Phillip into their kinship group by calling him ‘father, uncle’. He was known as Be-anga. So if born there, her child would have responsibility for that area, and power.
Another account says that Bennelong came to Phillip explaining that when Barangaroo’s time came he would bring her to his house, so that she could deliver there. The symbolism was if the child was born under Be-anga’s roof it would be under his protection as he was regarded as a king or godparent.
Phillip refused, believing she just wanted somewhere safe to have the baby and so suggested she go to the hospital. There’s no way Barangaroo would go to a hospital, Colin thought. She must have seen it as a place of death. His heart sank further thinking what a terrible dilemma she must have faced.
Colin read on. She had her little girl, Dilboong, which means bellbird, nearby in the bush. Phillip saw her only a few hours after the baby was born, pottering about picking up sticks for her fire, while the new-born child lay snugly in a soft bark cradle nearby. The baby only lived for a few months. Barangaroo also died later that year. They were both buried in Government House’s gardens.
Nobody knew why she had died. One of her family, Gooroobarooboolo, thought it was all a part of the evil influence of the white men. Barangaroo had felt great uneasiness as her husband became more familiar with them and took to the magic drink.
Colin felt choked up as he read, taking his glasses off and wiping his eyes with a hanky. He didn’t want the librarian to see. Barangaroo was everything that had ever happened to Aboriginal women, all the sadness, all the fear, all the hopes dashed one after another. But there was more he wanted to know about: more recent history. His own.
Amany didn’t normally do house calls – Shannon was an exception – and she never did office calls but this time she needed a lawyer. She’d made an appointment to see Tom in his city office and asked for him at the reception desk inside the huge glass doors.
“Level twelve,” the bored receptionist said, hardly looking up.
Rude girl, she thought. Young women like her had no idea what she’d gone through to get an education. These Anglos didn’t know how lucky they were. Everything on a plate, yet they threw it all away. Even Shannon with a husband, who was rolling in money, only worked as a hobby. He could afford to support her. Even if they had separated. And promiscuous. What was she doing with that Latino? They all had so few morals, or beliefs in anything.
On the twelfth floor there were a couple of chairs and a small table covered in business magazines. Amany picked one up and flicked through it – the dollar had risen one cent against the greenback. That had to be good news. Not really her thing, although she did do one economics unit for her degree. Why had she come here? What was the point? How could Tom help her? She was stuck in her situation, if only for her daughter’s sake. Stuck in an arranged marriage – he came from the same village in Lebanon as her parents. She’d gone through Immigration hoops in order for him to stay, but since it was a real marriage his residency was granted. Now she wasn’t so sure she wanted to be with him till death-us-do-part.
She didn’t know if she was anxious or relieved when Tom came through another glass door and held it open for her but she followed him into a small airless office.
“Amany, how can I help you?” Tom stayed in official mode.
“I’m not here to speak about Shannon or the baby, Tom.”
He looked surprised.
“No, this is about me, for a change.”