In the summer of ‘98, there was a flood in the valley. Up in the hills north-west of Canberra, a wildfire burnt hot and bright and out of control. Dan remembered being caught in the middle of it, alone, sitting on the porch of his shanty and watched as it grew closer. The radio would crackle to life every now and then, and a warning would sound for the Southern Highlands, and Dan, in response, would crack another beer. He wondered, for the briefest of moments, would it be better to have burnt in the tin-roofed house, where they would find his bones charred and cracked but still dignified. His face, contorted in pain and even bubbling, would have been roasted off the bone. There would be nothing to confirm his suffering. Just a pile of bones.
Or would it be better to have walked down the hill to the creek, and to walk into the water with an almost-silent ripple to have drowned peaceful underneath the Southern Cross, but to have been found hours or days later, bloated and torn apart by wildlife. With limbs rotting off, with half a stomach and face, to be found by someone who will look upon you and wretch.
Fifteen days before
The Sydney Post
Golden glimmers for Harden’s darling
24 April 2016
The quiet town of Harden in central New South Wales is today erupt with the nomination of local girl, Mathilda Holbrook, for the prestigious Golden Logie. Better known by her stage name, Hilly, Ms. Holbrook and her family moved to Harden when she was just five years old. Her father, a real estate agent, took moved his young family from the crowded streets of Western Sydney in 1986, and as Hilly put it in her interview with Australian Vogue in November, ‘slipped into the leisurely country life like it was a second skin. They’ve been there for thirty years now; I don’t think they ever want to leave.’
A familiar face on our screens, Hilly is best known for her role as Claudia Fischer, the matriarchal character in the coming-of-age television drama Spirit, a role which saw her take out a silver Logie in 2014. She described playing Claudia as a ‘wholesome, rewarding experience,’ but an experience that drained her mentally and physically.
Now she’s set to line up against the heavyweights of Australian media in the fight for the Golden Logie. Ms. Holbrook is also nominated for outstanding female lead for her latest role as Ophelia Clove in television mini-series, Westbrook, an Australian adaptation of Shakespeare’s play, Hamlet.
As well as her acting career, Holbrook has enjoyed a successful philanthropic adventures as a patron for education. In early 2015, she and four colleagues cycled from Sydney to Darwin over two weeks to raise money to fund medical scholarships for Charles Darwin University, in the hopes of relieving the shortage of doctors in the Northern Territory.
Out of the spotlight, Ms. Holbrook keeps her relationships private, though she has been linked to rising AFL star Trent Michaels in 2013 and most recently, Melbourne radio-announcer and comedian, Andrew Shane. Holbrook and Shane have been dating since January 2014, and recently purchased a penthouse in Sydney’s northern beaches.
Whether or not Holbrook walks away with gold this Sunday, the long-serving Mayor of Harden, Amelia Cosgrove, told The Sydney Post that the local actress is still, ‘a golden girl to the residents of the small town she helped to put on the map.’
The Logies airs from 8pm on Sunday the 8th of May.
Eight days before
There were only three reasons there would be so many people in The Royal, a red brick pub on the corner of Main and Neill street, and that was either because someone had seen out another year, or someone hadn’t, or there was a football game on. On the long Sunday afternoon when Daniel Jefferson walked into the bar, there was a football match on, though no one – not the eighteen-year-old girl behind the bar, with a ponytail as high and perky as her small tits; or the men, thin waifs some of them, with four-days of prickled silver growth, the others, old and swollen, lining the bar – were watching it.
There was a flock of women – farmer’s wives some of them, though his was not among them, in the corner by an old jukebox. A hairdresser. A florist. A woman who took his wife’s job after she’d had Chloe. In the centre of them all was Margo Holbrook.
With a small wave, Dan ordered a beer. She told him, curtly, to take his hat off. He did so, but slowly, and as the hat, old and stained and bleached, crossed his line of vision, that was the only time he took his eyes off the swollen, red face of Margo Holbrook.
‘Hilly moved to London,’ said Dr. Christopher Jenkins, the local radiographer.
‘I always knew,’ Mrs. Ellis nodded along, ‘when I taught her in year eight, she was destined for great things.’
‘Getting out of this town was the best thing she ever did,’ said someone else.
‘Robert is a dear man, really.’
He was not the kind of ma
He wonders if there had ever been a time someone had not talked about Hilly Holbrook. He wonders, just for a brief moment, what the world would have been like without her – for she had stretched so far across this small town and a little further, it was impossible to meet someone who did not know of Holly Holbrook.
She was a miracle child, Margo would say. For she’d had a terrible time getting pregnant in the mid-eighties, and so she’d prayed – something she normally didn’t do, ever – and God had blessed her with twins. From the second she’d know of the two girls, she’d given them names – Madeline and Hilda. Madeline, at twenty-four weeks, was found floating lifelessly in the same sac as her sister. They’d kept the corpse inside of her, and Hilly, when her eyes had unsealed for the first time, would have seen the lifeless, deformed and greyed corpse of her sister floating beside her.
They’d delivered them together – the dead one first. Dan imagined her to be like a rotten plum. All wrinkled and if you weren’t careful your finger would go right through. Then comes Mathilda, screaming. She’s perfect. She’s a miracle.
It had been normal for Margo, a woman of thirty-three who was now considered medically barren, to idolise her daughter. Her living room was a shrine. Daniel even remembered reading the newspaper article of her birth, the clipping of her christening – someone in this town had saved every single thing about Hilly’s life.
A sickness had fallen upon the town; Daniel was sure of it. It was a sickness he knew well, a sickness he’d known for seventeen years, but now, he’d broken the fever. He’d come out the other side immune. But for a second, he’d been sure he was to drown.
Hilly’s name creeped the corners, it walked the streets, it was in the ear and the tongue and the brain of every living person within the Harden valley, and she had not been more talked about than these few weeks. She was to be married, one day – she was pregnant now, to a man in London. A son, maybe who would be the first boy in so many generations.
Daniel, with half a beer, was approached by the Leigh, the veterinarian – a man he’d known for fifteen years, who had the body of a thirty-eight-year-old, but the face of an aged, sallow man. His hair, blonde and limp, was bleached by the sun until it bright and golden. But the sun had increased the wear on his eyes, and there were lines like deep like the dried river bed that ran right through the middle of his property, splitting it right in two.
‘How’s Janie and the kids?’ Leigh lent against the bar.
‘They’d be getting on now.’
‘Mac’s three next month. Chloe’s is almost eight.’
Leigh nodded and finished his beer. ‘How’s everything out there?’
‘Fine. We got less rain than the other side of the town last week. That was good, ‘spose.’
Leigh looked across the room to his wife, who was in the group of women surrounding Margo Holbrook. Then, he put the empty glass down on the worn wood of the bar. The sharp sound hit Daniel’s ear and made him wince.
‘Shame what happened to that poor girl,’ he said, standing up straight. ‘Shame, shame.’
‘I should go. Janie’s got an appointment in Young this afternoon.’
Leigh nodded. ‘The missus wants to stay for a bit longer, I think. Catch you, mate.’
Dan left the bar, fishing for the keys in his jean pockets. Above him, the sky was a muddle of deep grey and blue. The clouds stretched across the town like they were reaching for the other side of the horizon. The great fingers followed him out of Harden and down the meandering, hillside road and across the narrow bridge of the dried up remains of Jugiong creek. By the time he’d turned into the gate of the farm, he could see the tell-tale smear of rain as it fell down over Harden. He could smell it in the air, too, the wet and the mud, how it was something to crave and something to fear.
I am waiting for him on the veranda. Rain is smattering on the red tin roof of the veranda and the day is cold. In the garden on the side fence, a parrot takes a sunflower seed from a feeder. It fluffs it’s emerald feathers and shakes all over, revealing it’s soft, downy, centre. Standing on the steps of my home, I watch him with my arms crossed. I watch him eat for a moment longer – he’s a he, the females are duller and smaller usually. There’s no female to be found. Perhaps she’s back tending to their young. Perhaps there’s none at all. Perhaps she met the front side of a semi or ute and her carcass is stuck in a searing grill on the highway between here and Canberra.
The sound of my husband’s approach in the old utes scares the bird away. He flies into the damp gums, but he’ll be back.
‘You’re late,’ I say, putting on my boots and coming down the steps.
‘I know,’ he says as he leans over the passenger seat to open the door. ‘I got stuck in town.’
‘You got stuck at the pub, you mean.’ I can smell it on him.
‘Where are the girls.’
‘At my mothers.’ I buckle in. The seatbelt stretches over my stomach. ‘Can we go? We’re gonna be late as it is.’
My husband turns the radio back on and we back out into the driveway. The road is hard, flat and made of dirt, but on days of heavy rain, puddles like small lakes fill the crevasses and holes and it’s an effort to dodge them all. In late autumn, rain rolling from brings the night in with it. The land is dark and the wind howls through the trees.
Our driveway meets with Dan’s old driveway just before it meets the road – the real road, I mean. Dan’s old driveway takes you right up the hill to his childhood home, the old weatherboard tin-roofed farmhouse with a veranda all the way around the front. His mum and dad and brother used to live up there when we went to school, but now it’s fallen apart and I hardly go up there anymore. I don’t know if he does.
We wait for a truck to pass us, it’s heaving and chugging, struggling to find the momentum through the hills with its enormous weight. Dan lets it pass and we sit behind it for the next twenty minutes, watching it wind through the hills.
When the radio goes and the silence sets in, I lean forward to switch the channel. All I get is static. Desperate to have some noise that isn’t the squeak of the windscreen wiper against slick glass, I find the ABC.
Weather warning for Canberra and surrounds for the next week: heavy rains may lead to flash flooding for the Canberra and South West Slopes region. Remember to report all fallen trees and powerlines to the SES. For emergency assistance, call 000.
If he hears the radio, he doesn’t slow down. The truck splashes water into the windscreen. My husband doesn’t speak when he drives. He goes into his own universe. He does a lot of thinking. So I listen to the sound of the car, this old car we’ve had since we got married fifteen years ago, feel as it rattles along the road. I listen to the wind as it passes through the gums that line the hills. My arm rests against the seal of the window. The glass is ice cold.
The truck slows. It’s break lights flash a blinding red, casting a tinge against our skin. My husband slows with it until we almost stop the car. We wait behind the truck. A car comes from the other direction and passes us, and then slowly, slowly, like horse rising from its haunches, the truck inches forward and begins to creep across the bridge above Deep Creek.
The bridge is old. Decrepit. And the creek isn’t really like a creek when it gets to the bottom of the hill, it’s a torrent. Parts of the bridge have crumbled and the road is warped and bubbled and cracked, like the roots of a tree underneath a footpath. It’s only wide enough for one car to cross at a time, and so a national highway between the central west and Canberra slows from its speeding pace, to slowly and courteously cross the bridge over Deep Creek.
I look over the side of bridge. My nose is against the window, but even in the little light left, I can see how it rushes and churns and gurgles as the water from the hills cascades down to meet. The waves lick the edges of the bridge. It won’t be long until it floods.
‘They need to rebuild this thing,’ I say, rubbing away the fogged mark of my breathing. ‘I mean not a patch-up like they do every other year. I mean a real tear-out and rebuild. Reroute the road if you have to.’
‘They won’t,’ he says. We’re on the other side now.
‘Someone has to. Some councillor. We could make a petition. I mean, it’s downright dangerous.’
My husband nods his head. ‘It’s an accident just waiting to happen.’