Janet and Nelson didn’t appear to have anything in common except that they died on the same day.
Nelson was a multi-lingual black male political activist that had done some serious time. Variously alluded to as an evil Marxist and a troublemaker, or a saint and a national hero, Nelson was known by all of the world. Janet was a white female hairdresser from Dalveen. I don’t think anyone ever accused her of being a trouble-maker, but her kindness and openness to the good in humans around her was, in comparison to most of my workmates over the years, absolutely subversive.
Janet and Nelson both refused to talk negatively about other people whose values and ideologies weren’t the same as their own, although I think Janet’s shoe collection probably had more in common with Winnie’s. I have never met anyone who dressed so spectacularly from op-shops and garage sales. The boots in particular caused me much envy.
Janet helped people see good things about others, and her stories were always hilariously funny, with a positive slant. My particular favourite was her recounting of how her husband, an old-car fanatic, insisted on buying an ancient gas-guzzler on a trip to the States. The thing kept breaking down, and strangers kept bailing them out. One passer-by drove them fifty miles to a town where they could get replacement parts. A service station attendant lent them his car to go and find tools. People put them up for the night. ‘Americans are so friendly’ she marvelled , but I think perhaps it people wanted to help them, to polish the shiny, glistening energy field that surrounded Janet.
Optimism, relentless positivity and refusal to hate are rare.
For eight months in 2003 I picked rockmelons in a tiny settlement called Guthalungra, 50 kms north of Bowen on the Bruce Highway – a cluster of five houses, a service station that did equal duty as a store, a post -office, and most importantly a bar. The Canadian and I lived in the beach settlement 6 kms to the east of the roadhouse, where a gated dirt track followed the Elliott River out to the sea, ending in a cluster of fishing shacks. The whole small community was adorned with glass buoys, old nets, rusty beach-buggies, and a population of kangaroos so over-confident and so good at standover tactics with Lupa the cattle dog that food would go missing from the roof of our car in the middle of the night accompanied only by a gentle chomping, as a macropod made off with the bread.
It didn’t rain, and on every clear morning we drank our coffee and brushed our teeth on the edge of the Elliott, hoping to see a crocodile and watching the sun ooze over Cape Upstart to the north and Abbott Point to the south. Dingoes occasionally tried to abduct Lupa, and one morning some idiot in a four wheel drive hit a wallaby and didn’t stop to put it out of its misery, necessitating the wheel-brace method, but it was an idyllic place if you could come to terms with the midgies and the constant need to carry drinking water. We walked all over Abbott Point and Cape Upstart on our days off, and I trod on a stonefish and spent three days wishing I could die, or at least amputate my foot. My late best friend taught me to ride a motorbike on the forgiving sand, where even I struggled to hurt myself.
I don’t like stonefish much, but I am still pretty fond of all the other inhabitants of the reef, the bitey ones included, and of that big band of ever-changing coral that supports around 20 % of the marine life in our part of the world and ensures protection for coastal communities, the enormous biodiversity found in the mangrove stands along the coast, and the impossibility of getting a surf. That is why I am sending a crack team of stonefish after Greg Hunt. Feel free to help the stonefish out by signing any of the numerous petitions on the internet that are attempting to stop the madness at Abbott Point. If you’re a northerner, or former northerner, talk about why the reef is important to you here: http://fightforthereef.org.au/
Andrew had forty-something cars in his life. I like to think the magic number was 49, the age he was when he died. When I first knew him, at 37, he had owned 37 cars. He bought cars according to his mood, his preferences on a given day, his budget, and some strange principal of vehicle-love indiscernible to a mechanical Luddite like me. Once he bought some awful automatic Falcon wagon because it was cheaper than catching a bus from Townsville to Ayr and had enough fuel to cover that 90 kms.
He went through stages of desiring luxury: ‘automatics are like driving big comfy arm-chairs’ and the peculiar. I owned a Lancia Beta in the early days of the century, because I was charmed by its smooth lines and speed, and Andrew had suddenly decided he wanted the hideous ex-taxi on LPG that I had tired of owning because I felt like I was in a houseboat, without the view. So we swapped, and I got the only speeding tickets of my life. I was driving the Lancia when my cattle-dog refused to let me pick up a hitch-hiker one afternoon, leaving me to wonder forever what might have happened to me had Lupa allowed the harmless-seeming, very young and well-spoken bloke into the car, rather than attempting to rip his face off and wear it for a mask. I was driving the Lancia the night my friend M. had me tow his defunct Landcruiser 25 kms, on twilight, with us both under the influence of something not entirely legal (disclaimer: this was years ago. If you’re stalking me because I applied for a job with you, MANY years ago).
When we moved to Liston, Andrew bought the Volvo. It was a hearse of a car, with the great advantage of being long enough for tallish people to stretch out in on camping trips. I took it to Armidale for a couple of res schools in the early days of my academic endeavours and had a party with the Victorian lit people on the tailgate. Eventually the fuel bills got too high, and we retired the hearse to the nature strip. Andrew moved on, and turned us into a Subaru family by buying a small Subi sedan, the precursor to Lyle the brumby. When he died, he owned as an amusement car an old Mercedes that his brother D told me ran out of fuel as he attempted to drive it back to the Sunshine Coast. At that point, Andrew’ spirit was present everywhere. The running out of fuel thing was, D & I felt, a sign that Andrew was still with us.
Today we farewelled the hearse. The nature strip looks bare. Vale, Volvo. It was time to lose the Volvo, but it might also be time for me to get a Citroen 2CV, and some mechanical skills.