JO WRAPPED HER arm around the square green veranda post of the Billinudgel pub and cursed her best friend to hell and back. Being Therese's latest pet project was like being clobbered by an avalanche of goodwill. She had been unstoppable on the phone a few hours earlier. 'You're turning into a bloody old fossil out on that farm, you know. A rock. A pebble. You'll have archaeologists turning up and excavating you any day now – is that what you want?
'How are you ever going to meet anyone new when you work with dead people?
'Don't give me that! Meet us at the pub tonight, and wear that red T-shirt you used to wear a couple of years ago – you'll be knocking the blokes away with a stick.'
Jo had tried to argue – the Nudgel pub! The Heart of Whiteness! – but it was no use. Therese was on a mission, and for some reason only the Billi would do. Grudgingly compliant, Jo had turned up as directed. And of course Therese was right, at least about the T-shirt. Obvious leers from young workmen in lurid orange safety vests told Jo she didn't have to go home alone. But big deal and uh-uh. Some of the local single mums might pick you up off the road gang and take you home occasionally, fellas, but I'm neither eighteen nor yet that desperate.
Jo looked straight through the hopeful safety vests, scanning the pub's interior for Therese and Amanda, but they were nowhere to be seen. Archaeologists, my arse. And what was wrong with being a pebble, anyway? A pebble had dignity. A pebble knew what it was and where it belonged. She should just go home, take her aching muscles into the bathroom and lie down in hot water, instead of going around dolled up on a Friday night looking for the other sort. Fuck Therese and her mad schemes to find her a man. Jo turned to leave.
'Whaddya waiting for, hotpants, a written invitation?' came a familiar merry cry from the far depths of the side veranda. Jo peered into the dimly lit space. Therese, Amanda and two male figures were parked on the deck overlooking Billinudgel's dilapidated tennis court and the defunct railway line to Mullum. Suspicious of what Therese was plotting, Jo wandered over, wrinkling her nose in mock disdain. Hotpants. She stored that little gem away for later, when Therese would pay for it.
As she drew closer, Jo saw that the men at the table were both Goories. And – hello – one of them was the blackfella from the bookstore, looking as good up close as he had from half a street away.
Ambushed, Jo glared at Therese and felt her internal defences fall into place, unbidden. Slam, slam, slam. They slid sideways and they slid vertically, like the doors on Get Smart. All of the doors were solid, locked and smoothly impenetrable. All of them had emblazoned on them the same simple message: Good-looking men are nothing but trouble.
At close quarters, she saw that the man's very dark skin – darker than most of the Goories she knew –wasn't due to Islander blood after all. A few strands of loose hair that had escaped his dreads had no kink to them, and his features were too Aboriginal to evoke the islands of the north, or of the Pacific either.
What mob you from, bala? Arnhem land, the Centre, the Kimberley?
Jo examined his face intently for clues, but got nowhere. The man's features were like an amalgam of blackfellas she'd known from all over remote parts of Australia. That, plus something else indefinable. Something to do with that beaky nose, a hint of eagle spirit in him. Something not quite like any Bundjalung she'd ever seen, or any Yolngu or Bama either. Maybe an Afghan great-grandparent, she thought, but whatever it is there ain't much whitefella inside that skin.
The weathered dreadlocks which cascaded down the man's broad back were tied together with a yellow cord that ended in a tassel of emu feathers. A narrow leather bracelet beaded in red, black and yellow circled one wrist. The man's right earlobe showed evidence of an earlier piercing, one of those big circular ones that had closed over ages ago by the look of it, leaving a sizable crease behind. Male vanity, mocked Jo silently. Though to be fair, the piercing was long gone – a youthful diversion, perhaps – and as for the dreads, well, dreads could be as much a cultural statement as decoration.
'...done professionally. I'm not having some webshite bodgied up by well-meaning dickheads doing a love job, or by students that don't know goonah from clay,' Bandicoot finished emphasising to Therese. Then he paused, and looked up at Jo, who was still attached to her safety post. He grinned hello, giving her that little chin lift that signalled acknowledgement, and he didn't look away from her gaze. Then he didn't look away some more. Jo, transitioning at warp speed from cautiously interested to transfixed, was consumed with lust from behind her slammed-shut doors. Oh for Chrissake, she snarled at herself, you're not fourteen. So he's spunky, and he's clearly not gay. So what? Get a fucking grip, girl.
'Which way?' said Bandicoot, still not breaking eye contact, his grin broadening.
'Hey,' said Jo, trying desperately to sound casual. Her pulse was surging in her throat, and she was frightened to say more in case she jabbered rubbish. She stuck her hands in her jeans pockets and bunched them into fists. Good-looking men are nothing but trouble.
At that moment Luddo lumbered past them towards the bar. As he squeezed through, his cumbersome potbelly bumped the edge of the long wooden table. Apologising for the sloshed drinks, he had to say Gerday, Jo twice before his voice even registered. Dave Starr, wandering through to the servery covered in red dirt and engine grease, didn't rate any kind of notice at all. Then Amanda finally leaned over, breaking the spell; she gave Jo an affectionate sideways hug as she pulled her onto the pine bench seat beside her.
'Hello, stranger. Geez, you scrub up all right, doncha? Jo – this is Bandicoot and Laz. The Jackson Brothers –straight outta Compton. Compton Road, Woodridge, that is.'
'The Jackson two,' Jo said, enormously pleased to have regained the power of speech.
'That's it,' Laz agreed from the opposite side of the table, next to his brother – a heavier, younger Bandicoot without the dreads or the juice. The gelded version, Jo thought, then mentally smacked her hand.
'Fellas – this is our good mate Jo Breen, the one with the farm I've been telling you about. And let the games begin.' Therese murmured these last words as she threw a crooked arm around Amanda's neck and flashed a look at Jo that said: Well? To which Jo gave her one straight back that read: Did I even say I was looking for a man? If I was looking, then maybe yes it would be him, maybe yes, but I'm not looking, and anyway don't you dare say a fucking word or you'll live to regret it. Hotpants my arse, you cheeky slag, with your 'meet us at the pub' and your 'wear that red T-shirt', ooh, your arse is so grass my friend, your arse is so fucken grass.
Therese's laughter pealed out, and she sculled her beer.
'STEVO TURN UP yet?' Amanda asked as Jo pinched a mouthful of her vodka and lime to buy a little time to compose herself.
'I wish,' Jo answered, wincing with the strain in her aching thighs as she leaned against the back of the long wooden seat.
'My little brother,' she explained to the Jacksons. 'We're fencing this weekend. Guess who hasn't shown.'
'Fencing's hard yakka,' Bandicoot answered. 'You'll feel that the next day.'
'Last time we done any real fencing was out round Yadjera as young blokes, eh?' Laz chipped in. 'Must be a good, what, fifteen years since I sunk any posts. Thank Christ!'
'Well, anytime you feel like rediscovering the lost art, brother, just say the word,' Jo replied, ever hopeful of getting some help on the farm. Like his brother, Laz was tall and well built, if paunchy. He looked like he could shift a fair bit of timber without too much effort. Laz shook his head, smiling broadly. No fucken way, his gap-toothed smile said.
'So, you fellas been around town long?' Jo asked, searching for some gold coin in the depths of her purse. She didn't even know what a beer cost; that's how much of a hermit she'd become.
'We drove down from Brissie with our old mum a couple of weeks back,' Laz answered. 'She gone home to the grannies in Logan now, but we're staying put. We're here in Nudgel for the long haul, sis. We got a nation to rebuild.'
And it will take a nation of millions to hold us back, Jo thought automatically.
'True. So you're Bundjalung then?' Jo replied with a faint hint of suspicion. You're pretty dark for Bundjalung boys. Where the hell are you from? Are we related, or enemies by default, thanks to some long-ago war that our relatives fought with each other? Or so distantly connected that we might be what dugais call strangers, that word that never existed here before Cook?
The temperature at the table dropped a couple of degrees. Laz became still, and the gap between his front teeth went into hiding. It was Bandicoot who replied, ice just beneath the calm surface of his voice.
'Too right we're Bundjalung. This is our great-grandfather's country we're sitting on here.' Bandicoot palmed the air, Tupperware-style. 'This pub's on our land. And that's our pie shop up the road there, la. Humble Pies. Nudgel. Burringbah. Crabbes Creek. Us Jackson mob are claiming the lot, onetime.'
Jo sat stunned. She could just about hear Uncle Oscar Bullockhead in Bangalow having a heart attack from where she sat. These two black bastards waltz into town and start chucking their weight around, telling lies about whose country this is...
Bandicoot waited for Jo to show some sign of assent, but Jo found she had no words. What was Uncle Oscar going to do when he heard about this declaration of war? And Aunty Sally Watt, his cousin? Everybody knew the Mullumbimby district was theirs, native title still pending or not. The silence at the table grew taut as Jo imagined the firepower of the Bullockhead and Watt families coming up against the two Jackson brothers. Send lawyers, guns and money – the shit has hit the fan.
'So you fellas really reckon you're the traditional owners?' Jo asked.
Her grin made this something between an innocent query and an outright challenge. The silence expanded, bulging at the seams with unspoken tension.
Bandicoot drained his beer, put the stubby back down on the table and then laced his fingers together behind his head. Slowly he leaned backward on two chair legs and gazed across at Jo with an air of utter certainty. His tongue found the inside of his top lip and pushed it out. The others fell silent and waited to see what he would say. Tension burned all their faces. With his fingers latticed behind his head, Bandicoot's biceps had flexed into dark sinewy peaks half showing beneath the snug orange and black T-shirt that was riding up his arms.
Jo wondered if he knew how gorgeous he looked, and thought that yes, he was a smart bloke and he probably did. But when Bandicoot finally spoke, there was no flirtation left in his voice or his eyes. What he was lusting after, Jo suddenly realised, was not a woman for a night or a week, but his country. The black man spoke with great emphasis, as though it was imperative that Jo understand what he was about to say.
'That's it, sister. I'm the true blackfella for this place, la. Our great-grandfather, Tommy Jackson, he knew this country back to front and inside out, and he knew who he was too, a Bundjalung man robbed of his rightful lands. Fred Walker kidnapped him into the New South Wales Native Police in 1874, and the first chance Tommy had – after about a week – he shot that sergeant, and he took off running and didn't stop till he got past Rockhampton. He didn't have any interest in murdering Goories for the benefit of white men and their bulagi. He didn't like that idea one bit. So he organised his life up North so he didn't have to entertain it. Married a station girl from the Cape, and they travelled all over the North together, droving and doing stock work. Laying low the whole time with a false name 'cause of that dead sergeant. But he knew where he really belonged, made sure all our family knew it. I still got his song, and I still got his meat. So now we're back to collect what's ours. Humble Pies 'n' all.'
'Oh, not Humble Pies...' interjected Amanda. 'I love Humble Pies!'
'You can keep loving 'em,' Bandicoot responded, still cool. 'I didn't say we was gonna close the joint down. We need our black businesses. But it's time for a few more Goori faces in there.'
'Black Power Pies,' joked Laz, waving a semi-ironic fist.
'Bloody oath,' agreed Therese amiably, holding her stubby to the light to assess its state, which was nearly empty.
In the next three seconds, Jo came speedily to certain conclusions. These were that (a) native title over Billinudgel generally, and the Jackson family genealogy in particular, was really none of her business, (b) getting involved in this particular shitfight between Jacksons and Bullockheads and Watts was asking for way, way more trouble than she had stomach for, and (c) above all else, her child and her farm with its title deed sitting in her kitchen drawer were the only things that really mattered. She had her twenty acres and her version of culture safely tucked in her back pocket. There's no chokecherry tree on my back, friends. I'm a free enterprise, freehold blackfella, beholden to nobody except my family and my own conscience. Politics was to be put up with or bypassed, in Jo's book; she'd circled right around the hideous distractions of colonial fallout, and bought back the ancestral land herself. Cash on the stump, you fuckers. Game over.
'Well, just don't you be claiming my farm,' she told Bandicoot, her eyes alight with humour. 'Or it'll be pistols at dawn, brother.'
The tension broke with this tacit consent to the Jacksons' wider claim, and everybody smiled with relief.
'You'd want to be a good shot, tidda,' Bandicoot counterpunched, before pausing for effect. 'Because I'm bloody hopeless.'
'You're a lover, not a fighter, is that it?' Therese flirted, as though she wasn't a dyed-in-the-wool dyke from the year dot.
Jo and Amanda rolled their eyes and groaned. Oh, puh-lease.
No, insisted Bandicoot, he was a lover and a fighter. Only we fight with lawyers these days, not with guns. So long as the Native Title Tribunal comes to the party, anyway. If they don't, then he'd be on the phone to al-Qaeda mob, onetime.
'Eh, knock off!' Lazarus chimed in with a frown. 'Start talking like that some dickhead'll have us in the paddy wagon before ya know it. CIA'll turn up in Wilfred Street.'
Therese shouted with laughter, and talked into where her wristwatch would be if she owned one.
'Radical blackfellas at two o'clock. Book 'em, Danno.'
'That might be just what it takes, eh,' Bandicoot twinkled at the three women sitting opposite. For the life of her Jo couldn't tell if he was serious. Surely not. There had to be a middle path, didn't there? Something between the white man's table crumbs and the Taliban? Else we're all fucked. For the first time since she sat down she forgot about Bandicoot's gorgeousness. Her thoughts went entirely to practical matters, like terrorism sprouting right in her own backyard.
'Uh, there's no Twin Towers round here, in case you hadn't noticed,' she suggested, gesturing at the one-horse town of Billinudgel. One-dog town would be more accurate. Wilfred Street was owned by the pub's antique cattle dog, which lay permanently flat-sided in the middle of the road, looking dead to the uninitiated and shifting for neither man nor beast. More than one honking tourist had been astonished to find his car surrounded on a Saturday arvo by vengeful drinkers, reminding him that he was in the country, mate, and to drive around the bloody dog next time or he'd have the pub to deal with. Jo grinned. Animal liberationists in a tiny way, though they'd kill anyone who tried to tell 'em that.
'No Twin Towers!' Bandicoot said in mock-horror, half-rising from his seat and looking around him at the weed-infested railway line and the tennis court with its rusted wire mesh hanging, half torn away from the poles. 'You mean we aren't in downtown Manhattan?!' He turned to Laz. 'This is another fine mess you've gotten us into, Pocahontas!'
Jo found herself warming to Bandicoot. 'Not to tell you your business or anything,' she said drily, 'but you might wanna get your continents straight before claiming them land rights, bala. This is Australia, y'know? Dead Heart. Meat Pies. Thongs.'
Bandicoot put an index finger to his pursed lips, thinking hard.
'And – waaait – it's America with the Statue of Liberty, and the Lincoln Memorial?' He feigned enlightenment, wincing and smacking his forehead, making the emu feathers on the end of his dreadlocks do a little dance. He beamed at Jo, who was grinning helplessly back.
He's spunky. Smart as a whip. And funny.
The workmen in the front bar roared as someone in another city scored a try.
'Titans,' said Laz to Therese, ignoring Bandicoot's performance. 'Titans and Rabbitohs.'
'What's the score?' asked Amanda, but nobody knew.
'I've been missing those land rights, you know,' Bandicoot said softly as he gazed at Jo. 'They really tied the room together.'
With that, Jo felt the hard carapace of her resistance begin to flake and crumble away. Years of armour fell from her tender heart. Great slabs of steel and granite hit the wooden floorboards and shattered into fragments. Jo stood wondering among the shards. This isn't happening. A black prince rocking up at the Billi pub on a Friday night. Fuck me sideways, she thought. I think I'm in lerve.
'Well, the dude abides,' she answered, in a voice which unlocked the first of the sliding doors.
'He certainly fucking does,' Bandicoot agreed, untying and shaking his dreads loose of their yellow cord, which he left lying on the table in front of him. 'But maybe not in Billinudgel,' they chorused, before busting out laughing.
Lazarus noticed the sudden softening of Jo toward his older brother. He knew this story very well, and wondered whether Bandicoot would fuck things up for them again with his tomcatting. There were more important things at stake in Billinudgel than whether Bandicoot got his dick wet tonight, Laz worried. Much more important things.
Bandicoot swigged a long mouthful of beer and circled back to the topic of Jo's farm. 'Well, anyways, if you're Bundjalung tidda, yorright by me. We'll let ya stay on ya farm.'
He leaned over the table and gave her shoulder a friendly squeeze as he winked. She could feel the steel of his strength even in that brief touch.
'That's bloody big of ya,' Jo retorted, tingling from his fingers on her and wanting more, more, more of the same. He was Koori, and gorgeous, and her desires were endless.
This story is an extract from her fifth novel, Mullumbimby, which will be published by UQP in 2012 – a modern story of romantic love and friendship set amid a native-title war in northern New South Wales.