Book extract: The Long Goodbye by PJ Parker

Spanning three generations, The Long Goodbye is about the the lives of an Australian family as they survive record-breaking floods, outlast epic droughts and face the unforgiving realities of life on the land.

This true story of grit and resilience is the debut work of Pamela Parker and depicts a family saga against the backdrop of rural Queensland where life and death are never far apart. Read this extract below.

***

October 2012

Dial tone.
‘Good evening. Charters Towers Psychology.’
‘I need to talk to someone but … I’m concerned about con-fi-dentiality.’
‘Our files are strictly confidential—’
‘I’m talking about … a crime.’
‘You’re concerned about mandatory reporting?’
Silence, speak for me.
‘We have to report if someone is in danger, at risk—or if it’s a crime of a sexual nature.’
No! No! No! Not guilty! ‘Can I make an appointment?’
‘Just one thing …’ Timely caution. ‘If our records were to be subpoenaed by a judge … ’
Fuck. Hang up!
So, here I am, dead mouthpiece in my hand, dead mouthpiece in my head …

I look above the kindling flame, and am unnerved to find my eyes regarding me from the mirror above the hearth. It seems strangely fitting, this outline of a disembodied head communing with vacant air: Your mother is dead …

From somewhere far away, the hall clock is doling out more hours, but I have slipped between heartbeats into a silence and a stillness inexpressible. In every lick of flame, ghosts are clamouring to be heard: a child feeding gidgee to an old wood stove, climbing a splintered staircase, playing hopscotch on a garden path of coloured stones … fragments of memory … that have led me to this point and place in time … my mother is dead, my father killed her.

Up ya bum!

Sunday morning.
The breakfast rush is on.
The doors opened at six thirty so Mum can catch the rodeo boys.
The ringers from Dotswood Station and The Star have come in for the Easter rodeo; the cafe is loud with voices, tramp of boots and Slim Dusty.

Mum is busy at her fully fired-up griller; it’s a shining square of stainless steel, lit by yard-long burners. The old wood stove is bubbling tubs of fat, and a four-ring gas burner is simmering Mum’s secret-recipe spaghetti sauce she got from Vince the Italian bloke, who used to own the cafe.

Caroline appears at the curtained entrance. ‘Two steak-chips, two sausage, one bacon, two scrambled, one poached.’
‘That’s the last of the sausages, love,’ Mum calls over her shoulder. ‘We’re out.’
Caroline is a lanky, fair-haired girl. She’s one of Mum’s best girls. She pins her order above the sandwich table. Mum won’t read it. My mum remembers everything: today she’ll cook up a hundred meals, some with none of this, some with double that.

Caroline dodges three young men come to the curtain. Cowboy hats in hand, their belts sport big shiny buckles with bucking bulls and broncos, and their boots are carved with wild mustangs too. The ringers all come out to the kitchen to say g’day to Mum.
‘G’day, Mum.’
‘G’day, Bernie.’ Mum doesn’t look up from her griller. My mum’s cracking eggs into silver rings with one hand, other hand flipping bacon.
Bernie grins. ‘How’d ya know it was me?’
Mum shoulders sweat from her face. ‘Steak, nine eggs sunny-side up? Could only be you, Bernie,’ she says, squishing sausages till they split and sizzle.

The Mosman boys think they’re Mum’s favourites. And I suppose the Mosman brothers are special: Tony, first to ride Powder Puff to time; Bernie, master of the bullock ride; and young Jimmy’s got his heart set on being Australian Buckjump Champion one day.
Jimmy sees me gawking, winks.

I dip my head. I pretend I didn’t see him. I’m sitting at the back door of the kitchen. I’m on the step that leads to the storerooms: our new home, just for now. ‘Just for now’ means until Dad helps some men build our real new house. Just for now, I got two metal buckets at my feet. In one, the water’s muddy brown with spud dirt; the other’s nearly full with potatoes. Just for now, I’m peeling spuds for Mum’s lunch rush.

The Mosman boys are in the way when Helen comes running. Helen’s the prettiest girl I’ve ever seen. She’s a half-caste, and one of Mum’s best girls. Mum’s known Helen’s family forever. When my mum was little, her name was Olive Chapman. Little Ollie Chapman lived far out in the bush and had a black cook and black maids from the Gugu-Badhun tribe, and her only friends were piccaninnies.
Helen’s carrying a tray of used crockery, but the wash-up table is a jumble of egg-smeared plates, tea-stained cups and coffee-pots.

Jimmy takes the tray, slides it under the table where the floor is cluttered too.
Helen pins her order, says, ‘Two steak, bacon-egg, mince burger to go.’
My mum won’t read it. My mum remembers everything.

The shelves are almost empty. Usually, you’d find columns of white dinner plates and bread-and-butter plates up there. And on the top shelf, cups and saucers and two-cup, four-cup, six-cup tea- and coffee-pots; only the eight-cup teapot is up there now.

I leave the potato bucket for the wash-up sinks.
Mum lifts fat-dripping bacon off the griller. ‘Wriggle yourself!’
Mum’s talking to the new girl. She’s fourteen. She’s on trial. New girl’s buttering toast and bringing the plates to Mum. New girl’s got mascara leaking down her face. If she wants to be one of Mum’s girls, she’ll have to wash her hair. And wear a longer skirt. My dad doesn’t like miniskirts—or mascara—but Mum’s good with bad girls. People say my mum can turn a bad girl into a good girl overnight.

I scrape T-bones into metal bins full to overflowing, pounce on a piece of pork sausage, wipe off tomato sauce—Puss doesn’t like tomato sauce—and put it with my stash I got hidden under the sinks.
‘More wood for the stove, love,’ Mum says to me.
I go out the back to the woodheap and pick a block of gidgee—one big enough to burn for a long time and small enough to fit in the stove door.

Fire stoked, I take a quick peek through the kitchen curtain.
Slim Dusty’s telling how it’s lonesome at night, when wild dingoes call …
Out there are seven tables with plastic tablecloths, and one long one. Opposite the lolly counter are four booths with red vinyl seats. In the afternoons, long-haired louts and layabouts sit at those booths. They stick wads of chewy under the tables, and stand around the jukebox drinking Bodgie’s Blood, puffing Marlboros and playing ‘Viva Las Vegas’ and ‘All You Need Is Love’, while teeny-bopper tarts in miniskirts tap ash from Alpine and Kool, and smile at the mirrored wall pretending Dusty Springfield: ‘You don’t have to say you love me …’
Wish I was Dusty Springfield.

Today, the booths are full of ringers and cowboys three deep at the counter and Slim singing about a pub that’s got no beer. Mum’s other best girl is out there. Her name is Helen too. This Helen is blonde. She’s taking takeaway orders and whizzing milkshakes in metal tumblers.

My dad is in the front. Mr Fred Bagnall, in dress shirt and shorts and long socks, is skewering chickens on the rotisserie at the front counter because Mum says the smell of roasting chicken always gets ’em in.

My big sister’s gonna baste the birds with melted butter. Her name is Robyn and she’s just turned seventeen. Robyn’s pretending she doesn’t know she’s being gawked at by all the rodeo boys.
Betty is clearing tables. Betty is thirteen and the middle sister.
And there’s me: Pammie, the baby.
My sisters like working in the cafe. My sisters like the busyness and the boys.
Me? Not so much.
I drop the curtain on good ol’ Slim, and his fire of gidgee coal.
‘Here, love,’ Mum says, handing me a swatter.

I crawl under the table. I don’t like killing flies. We learned at Sunday school it’s wrong to kill God’s creatures. But I don’t mind being under the table. I like being out-of-the-way, love while the rush is on. I like watching the busy feet and listening to the griller sizzle, toast pop and knives and forks clatter as Mum’s girls prepare trays for their orders.

‘Betcha two bob to a butcher’s bum cafe down the street isn’t packed.’
Everyone comes to Mum’s.
It’s a rude word: Bum!
I’m not allowed to say it … Bum! Bum! Bum!
Up your bum, with a bottle of rum, chum!
My mum showed those bank managers. My mum showed ’em all!

The Long Goodbye is published by Hardie Grant

You can buy the book here 

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