Category Archives: August 2013

It’s Too Late to Die Young Now by Andrew Mueller – Extract

It's Too Late to Die Young Now

Chapter 1

IN WHICH THE AUTHOR IS KICKED IN THE SHIN BY THE DRUMMER FROM A WELL-LOVED BRITISH SKA BAND

Everybody alive in the post-World War II world, in which music became commodified and efficiently distributed, can plot – and revisit at will – a soundtrack to their lives.

The first musical memories are usually those imposed by the record collections of their parents. These will include the first pop song to which they can remember knowing some or all of the words (for me, this was B.J. Thomas’s 1969 hit ‘Raindrops Keep Fallin’ on My Head’),1 and the first record they can recall deliberately, voluntarily listening to (the 1968 Original Broadway Cast recording of Hair, a favourite of my mother, the fervour of whose hopes that I didn’t understand a word of it can only be wondered at).

Then there will be the first artist or group about whom they’re pretty sure they consciously thought, ‘I like this artist or group.’ This will almost certainly be someone who just happens to be big enough to be on the radio a lot in your parents’ car, and in the cars of the parents of the other kids at your primary school (almost nobody discovers individuality before high school, as almost nobody turns into a desperate, insecure solipsist – and therefore a rampaging snob – before they’re a teenager). This will also almost certainly be an artist or group who play songs with tunes, as children like tunes because they haven’t yet turned into desperate, insecure solips­ists – and therefore rampaging snobs – and parents like tunes because they’re too tired to like anything else. So: Abba.

There will be, possibly around the age of ten, the first single purchased with your own pocket money (Blondie’s ‘Heart of Glass’, a choice so preposterously precocious that I wouldn’t dare invent it; I cheerfully and candidly balance this implicit boast with the confession that I subsequently saved pocket money for no end of inexplicable drivel, up to and including at least two singles by Racey).2 And the first video that made music look like it might be more than lyrics and a tune, that it might be a life, a world, more interesting and dangerous – and/or stupider and sillier – than yours. I don’t know exactly what this was, but I do know where I saw it, as does every Australian of a certain age – on Countdown, a weekly music program hosted by a mumbling man in a cowboy hat. This was Ian ‘Molly’ Meldrum, who now enjoys, through a combination of career longevity, nostalgia and (in fairness) seeming a basically decent egg, near universal affection in Australia. Indeed, a serious domestic accident in 2011, and his spirited recovery from same, almost certainly qualifies Meldrum for modern Australia’s highest national honour, only conferred upon well-loved celebrities following the overcoming of tribulation. This is, of course, the Our (see also Our Kylie, Our Delta, etc). While it would be churlish to deny that Countdown introduced some great international artists – Blondie not least among them – its local content was, overwhelmingly, inane provincial mediocrity. Though such is the dialectical nature of pop, and such was the dominance of Countdown, this may have been the reason that the Australian underground of the 70s and 80s was so vibrant. So thanks, Our Molly.

Around that time, there will also have been the first artist or group you got properly into via your own peer group, heedless of the tastes of your parents, and the appeal of whom was probably related to the degree to which your parents found them baffling, repellent, obnoxious, tuneless and witless (Kiss). The first artist or group whose poster you affixed to your wall (Kiss – the staggeringly crass photograph in which they are depicted, bloodied and bandaged, in a pastiche of a portrait of wounded Civil War veterans). The first album you asked a friend to record for you onto cassette (Kiss’s Double Platinum). The first album you successfully pestered your mother into buying for you (Kiss’s Kiss Unmasked). The first album towards which you experi­enced vague but discernible stirrings of disappointment and dissatisfaction (Kiss’s Kiss Unmasked again – although this landmark may be peculiar to the evolution of that chronically querulous stripe of person destined to become a rock journ­alist). The first artist or group whose name on a magazine cover enticed you to purchase said edition (Kiss, again – the issue of Juke which claimed to contain photographs of Kiss sans makeup).

I should state for the record that my views on Kiss today are broadly congruent with those held by my parents at the time, and that I’m therefore grateful – yet mildly reproachful – that the folks didn’t restrict my rations to gruel and pond water and dispatch me to the doghouse until I stopped bringing this rubbish into their home, and started listening to proper rock’n’roll like AC/DC instead.

*****

At some slightly later point, usually in mid-adolescence, the meaning of music changes. It develops from merely being words and notes arranged in an order you happen to find pleasing into a keystone of your personal culture, a constitution of codes and rituals to which you ally yourself as a means of joining some sort of community, and as a way of representing yourself to anyone who cares to take an interest. This is also usually happenstance, based largely on where you happen to go to school in your mid-teens.

I went to a lot of schools, as children of military personnel do. The primary schools I attended – one in Sydney, one in Point Lonsdale, two in Canberra – were okay, I guess. The first secondary school I attended, Holder High School in Canberra, presented a forbidding brutalist concrete visage which earned it the nickname ‘Holditz’. The prevailing musical tastes were standard-issue suburban, which is to say that the girls listened to Duran Duran and other such blouses in blouses, and the boys listened to Midnight Oil. I didn’t much care for Duran Duran, and I did like Midnight Oil, but I don’t recall possessing any especially militant opinions about these, or about music in general.

The second secondary school I attended, for third and fourth form, was the Catholic boys’ high school St Paul’s College, at the top of Darley Road overlooking Manly, in Sydney. It wasn’t anybody’s first choice – it was just the only school within walking distance of our new home inside the barracks of the School of Artillery on North Head, where Dad had been appointed commanding officer. St Paul’s was the only single-sex school I attended, the only private school I attended, and the only religious school I attended. Not coincidentally, I hated it.

My difficulties at St Paul’s were not, when measured against the lurid pageant of human suffering, noteworthy – probably no more or less than might be expected for the new kid, the (at the time) quite short kid, the lippy and sarcastic kid, the kid who was a calamitous liability to any sports team encumbered with him, the kid who wouldn’t kneel during church services (I’ve never understood why this refusal so upsets the religious, just as I’ve never understood the inability of people who are dancing to leave alone those who are not. My theory is that both the worshippers and the rug-cutters fear that they appear ridiculous, and that this concern will be assuaged if they can compel everyone else to participate in their nonsense.)

With a few treasurable exceptions, my classmates – and, I’m sure, not a few of the teachers – thought I was an insuf­ferable smartarse, and I thought they – and quite a few of the teachers – were a herd of oafish dimwits. An impartial observer would probably have concluded that everybody was at least half right. It was, however, at St Paul’s that my hitherto altogether normal interest in music – which is to say the sort of interest most people have, where they like the sort of thing they like, and regard everything else with amiable indifference – began metastasising into something more consuming.

*****

Noel Coward cannot have known how right he would be proven when he made his famous quip about the strange potency of cheap music. One of the charms of working as an itinerant hack in an age dominated by the popular culture of the West has been witnessing the radiant hybrids that occur as accelerating technology wafts assorted cultural pollen over ever greater distances, sprinkling seeds upon incongru­ous landscapes.

I have, in my time, sipped Guinness with the singer of an Irish-style folk band in Belgrade,3 watched an Abba tribute act from Russia conduct singalonging revellers in a park in Ulan Bator, listened to Seattlesque grunge outfits rehearsing in sandbagged basements beneath the ruins of Sarajevo, and quaffed bootleg grappa with members of an XTC-influenced rock group in Tehran.4 None of which seems any weirder than the fact that, in 1983 and 1984, at a Catholic boys’ high school in a beachside suburb of Sydney, a goodly proportion of at least one form were besotted with the ska scene which had flourished in the United Kingdom a few years earlier.

I never figured out how this happened. It’s possible that the phenomenon gestated in tapes sent home from London by someone’s travelling older sibling, but that doesn’t account for the half-decade time delay. It could be that someone in my form liked Madness, who’d had actual hits in Australia and been shown on Countdown, and wondered if there was more like that where they came from – though I can’t imagine how they’d have found out, given that Australia barely had a music press to speak of, and British music magazines, usually months-old sea-mail copies, were generally only to be found in bigger newsagents in the city (although at this point I didn’t know that, either). 2JJJ is another potential culprit – but that wouldn’t explain why I didn’t know of any other school in Sydney at the time where kids were reporting for roll-call sporting Terry Hall-style flat-top haircuts, incor­porating crepe-soled suede shoes into their uniforms and even, in a couple of cases, rocking checked porkpie hats until instructed to desist by bemused teachers.

I don’t remember when I first heard any of this ‘ska’ stuff, but I do remember vividly how I felt when I did: relieved.

Relieved because I actually, genuinely liked it – and there­fore probably hoped, as a result, to be spared at least some of the (half-arsed and low-level, but nonetheless debilitating and tedious) bullying inflicted by the flat-tops-and-crepes faction. I wasn’t, of course – the flat-tops-and-crepes faction merely adjusted their opinion of me from annoying dweeb to craven parvenu, and continued breaking eggs in my school­bag. Though I’d prefer not to think that the passion for music which has since nourished my soul and provided part of my living might be a lingering symptom of some adolescent outbreak of Stockholm syndrome, the first album I ever paid for with my own money, four years after its release, was The Specials’ 1979 self-titled debut, The Specials.

This was swiftly followed into the corner of my parents’ record cabinet that I’d annexed by The Specials’ audaciously titled 1980 follow-up, More Specials, Madness’s Complete Madness, The Selecter’s Too Much Pressure, The Beat’s What is Beat? and a couple of 2 Tone label compilations, all purchased from a Manly record shop clearly attuned to the quirks of its market. Even though there seemed little prospect of it ever being any real concern of mine, I was disappointed that Adrian Thrills’ sleeve notes on the This Are Two Tone compilation referred to the ska scene in the past tense. It was some consolation that at least one local band refused to admit this: I also bought D-D-D-Dance, the debut album by Sydney ska band The Allniters, and a T-shirt flaunting their name.

I had no idea that I wanted to be a journalist, still less a rock journalist – I doubt I had any idea that such a thing as a rock journalist existed. I hadn’t the blurriest notion who Adrian Thrills was, and no way of finding out, other than perhaps approaching strangers in the streets of Sydney’s hipper districts, wherever they were, and asking, ‘Excuse me, have you the blurriest notion who Adrian Thrills is?’ (He wrote for the NME, but I didn’t know what that was, either.) I wanted to be a doctor or a fighter pilot – ideally, a surgeon who also flew F-111s for the Royal Australian Air Force and on Saturdays played centre half-forward for Geelong, except during the summer, when I batted number four for Australia.

It is probably an unsolvable problem, but it cannot be beneficial to humanity that every man is an aching disap­pointment to his teenage self.

*****

I still have a lot of those ska records, or digital representa­tions thereof. Most of them, I think, have held up splendidly, at least the British ones. A twenty-first-century reacquaint­ance, via YouTube, with The Allniters’ breezy version of Bobby Bloom’s ‘Montego Bay’ – specifically, with the sound of white Australians affecting Caribbean accents – prompted a curling of the toes which may require surgical correction.

Those two Specials albums in particular are nigh flawless. The first, produced by Elvis Costello, is a bracingly articulate expression of young manhood, strutting awkwardly, preening uncertainly, radiating terrified bravado as it grapples with those questions which young men quaintly suppose have answers, specifically: i) why women are weird, ii) why people are unpleasant, and iii) why stuff just isn’t fair. The second, one of the great lost classics of the post-punk era, released just twelve months later, sounds like the work of people who have grown up vertiginously quickly: a clammy, queasy hallucination of apocalypse, topped and tailed with readings of the cheesy standard ‘Enjoy Yourself’, the first defiant and exuberant, the last possibly the most sarcastic 107 seconds of popular song ever recorded.

I’m not certain what aspects of these albums I related to. My experience of fleeing, as fast as two-inch soles permitted, from National Front skinheads through the mean streets of Coventry was limited. I’d never even sought admission to a nightclub, still less the sort of place that would be spelled ‘Nite Klub’. I didn’t know any girls who’d done too much, much too young – chance, indeed, would have been a fine thing. And while I’d received some instruction in the atomic paranoia which was the style at the time, from a couple of sandal-shod teachers and the recordings of Midnight Oil – the cover of whose 1984 album, Red Sails in the Sunset, depicted Sydney Harbour immediately following a nuclear missile strike – the likelihood of the beautiful view from our kitchen window being reduced to irradiated aridity never struck me as significant. The simplest explanation that fits the facts, where The Specials were concerned, was that I thought their records were riddled with belting tunes, and that the group looked imperishably cool on the sleeves: two judgements I stand by.

*****

My discovery that I enjoyed post-punk English ska may not have impressed my dullard tormentors at St Paul’s, but it did amount to the first steps on the path chronicled in this book. Roughly ten years later, during a regular Sunday afternoon social soccer match in Regent’s Park in London, I would be – during one of my rare and fleeting interludes in possession of the ball – enthusiastically (though not maliciously) clat­tered by Madness drummer Woody. If only, I thought, as I subsequently pursued him down the wing bent on barbarous vengeance, shattered shin guard flapping from one sock, they could see me now.

*****

1    This was written by Hal David and Burt Bacharach for the soundtrack of Butch Cassidy & The Sundance Kid. I would meet Bacharach nearly thirty years later, in 1998, when I interviewed him and Elvis Costello about the album (Painted From Memory) they’d just made together. I decided, I think correctly, to spare him the revelation of his role in my personal discography, anticipating that it would prompt complete nonplussedness.

2    One of which was definitely ‘Some Girls’ – a song which, I learnt many years later, was initially offered by its composers, Nicky Chinn and Mike Chapman, to Blondie, who turned it down. Racey’s rendering is a tinny glam shimmy in the vein of such inescapable wedding DJ favourites as Mud’s ‘Tiger Feet’ or Sweet’s ‘Ballroom Blitz’ (both also Chinn/Chapman productions). Mike Chapman went on to produce, among much else, most of Blondie’s albums, which means, of course, that he produced ‘Heart of Glass’; something about his works clearly resonated at this point (I also remember buying Exile’s ‘How Could This Go Wrong?’, another Chapman composition, and The Knack’s ‘My Sharona’, a Chapman production). Our affinity had limits, however, which is to say that civilised countries no longer countenance punishments appropriate to having been an accessory to the perpetration of Tina Turner’s ‘The Best’, anthem for the global diaspora of people who carry their mobile phones in little holsters on their belts. Legendary as quite the tyrannical perfectionist, Chapman once appeared on the cover of BAM magazine dressed as General George S. Patton. He was born in Queensland.

3    The Orthodox Celts, whose singer, Aleksandar Petrovic, I met while on assignment in Serbia for The Face in late 2000, shortly after the revolu­tion that had dismantled the squalid gangsters’ paradise presided over by Slobodan Milosevic. ‘When the parliament was on fire,’ said Petrovic, ‘I thought the destruction was bad – it is an old and beautiful building. But I remember thinking of the Easter Rising and the Post Office in Dublin. It was the same picture – a burning building with police and army in front of it. So it was a kind of Easter Rising for us, but it ended happily.’ Petrovic had gleaned an impressive knowledge of Irish history from the works of The Dubliners, The Wolfe Tones and The Pogues, among others of that ilk. You can get pretty much anybody to listen to a lecture on pretty much anything, so long as you set it to a tune.

4    127 Band, who enjoy the dubious privilege of getting to practise their art in a place where rock’n’roll is still perceived as a threat. ‘Somewhere in this city,’ singer Sohrab Mohebbi told me in 2007, outlining the bureaucracy that burdened all Iranian artists, ‘there’s a grown man, who gets dressed in the morning, kisses his wife goodbye, and goes and sits in an office and gets paid to decide that my band can’t play in front of thirty of our friends.’ This remains about as heartbreaking an illustration of the dreariness and stupid­ity of tyranny as I’ve heard.


Excerpted from It’s Too Late to Die Young Now by Andrew Mueller. Copyright © 2013 by Andrew Mueller.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Pan Macmillan Australia solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Hunting Eve by Iris Johansen – Extract

Hunting Eve

CHAPTER 1

Rio Grande Forest Colorado

It was Doane’s mountain.

He was the hunter, she was the prey.

Was he still behind her?

Eve tore through the underbrush at the side of the trail, lost her balance, fell, then struggled to her feet again.

She mustn’t give in to this weakness. She seemed to have been running through this wilderness forever. No, it couldn’t have been as long as it appeared to her. It had been late after­noon when she had broken free of Doane and the house where he had been keeping her, and darkness was only now falling.

But why was Jim Doane still behind her, dammit? He was no young man, and she should have been able to lose him long before this. As a painful stitch stabbed her side, she paused and drew a deep breath, listening.

A crashing in the brush behind her!

She started running again.

“I hear you, bitch.” Doane’s breathing was harsh, labored. “Come back to me. If you do, I may not kill you . . . yet. But you’re making me angry and I may lose control. I don’t want to do that. It would spoil everything for Kevin.”

Kevin, Doane’s son, whose reconstructed skull Eve had hurled off this mountain, less than an hour ago, to distract Doane. Doane’s obsession with his dead son was deepening with every passing moment. Did Doane actually think she’d trust him? Kevin had been a serial killer, a monster without a hint of conscience, and his father, Doane, had been his en­abler, the one who had made it possible for him to kill all those helpless children who had crossed Kevin’s path. While Eve had been Doane’s prisoner after he had kidnapped her, she had begun to wonder whether it was father or son who had been the true monster.

Perhaps it was both. There had been moments when she’d had the eerie feeling while working on his forensic sculpture that Kevin was trying to break through the bonds of hell and death and merge with his father.

Crazy. Imagination.

Or truth.

It was hard to tell the difference in this nightmare into which she had been drawn.

“You shouldn’t have thrown his skull off into that ravine. Did you think I’d go after it and let you escape?”

It was exactly what she had hoped. That damn skull was everything to Doane, and she’d gambled that he’d go down the side of the mountain to try to retrieve it.

She’d been wrong.

She felt the twinge in her side become actual pain. How long could she keep running?

Stop whining. She’d run as long as she had to run. She was far younger than Doane. She was strong, and she was fright­ened. Panic was a great spur.

And did she have Bonnie helping her?

For a little while she had thought that her daughter’s spirit had been there beside her, putting speed and wings to every step. It had been a comforting thought . . .

But now there only seemed to be Doane and her in this deadly race. No loving presence that might warm and save her.

It’s okay, Bonnie. I know you tried. There’s nothing he can do to me that will matter in the end.

The stitch in her side was easing.

She was running faster.

She should have known Bonnie would not let her falter, she thought ruefully. Not if Eve showed even a faint hint that she would not do her best to keep herself alive.

I wasn’t going to opt out, Bonnie. I wouldn’t do that to Joe and Jane. I was just trying to be an understanding mother. I know you can’t do everything. Well, I don’t really know what a ghost can or can’t do, but you seem to have some limits. I’ll keep going.

As long as she could. Her heart was beating so hard that it hurt. She felt sick to her stomach.

She could hear Doane cursing behind her.

Farther behind than he had been before. Was he faltering?

Yes.

He was shouting at her, each word broken and harsh. “Don’t think you’re going—to get away. These are my moun­tains. Kevin and I spent months out here when he was a boy. He particularly liked to kill the deer. How do you think he qualified to be in the Special Forces? I taught him to be a hunter.”

And had he taught him to hunt down those little girls and kill them?

“Do you hear me? I’m going back to the house and get my equipment and my gun. I’ll hunt you down like Kevin and I did the deer. I just hope that hypothermia doesn’t get you be­fore I do. It gets cold in these mountains at night.”

She knew it was true, but it was hard to believe when her entire body was hot and perspiring from exertion.

“I can hear every move you make in that brush. Do you know how easy you’re going to be to stalk?”

She was pulling more away from him with every second. Close him out. She was winning.

“And then we’ll go get Kevin and take him to that butcher who murdered him. I’ll let Zander see how it feels when I kill you in front of him. There’s no greater agony than a father feels at the death of a child.”

More madness. Lee Zander, the hired assassin Doane was sure had murdered his son, was not her father. How could he be? Eve’s father had disappeared long before she was born, and her mother was never even sure of his identity. This particular insanity Doane had thrown at her when he’d been enraged af­ter she had tossed Kevin’s reconstruction off the cliff to distract him. He had thought it would hurt her in some way to know she was a killer’s daughter and that she was to pay for Doane’s son’s death. It was just one more sign that Doane’s cold-blooded, calculated pursuit and abduction of her was completely bizarre and totally without reason.

Forget that nonsense. She was not the child of a murderer who was probably more deadly and ruthless than Doane. It was all part of Doane’s wild hallucinations. She just had to concentrate on getting out of these mountains or contacting someone to help her.

“Do you know how many people get lost in these moun­tains?” Doane’s shout sounded still farther away. “Some don’t survive the bitter cold and the animals and the mudslides. You might be glad to come back to me after a night or two.”

Not bloody likely.

“Do you think your Joe Quinn or Jane MacGuire will be able to locate you out here? You could be out here a week, and no one would catch sight of you. You’d have had a better chance staying at the house. I’m the only one who knows you’re here and how to find you. And I will find you, Eve.”

Keep running. He might be trying to fool her into think­ing he’d temporarily stopped the hunt. Don’t trust his words.

It was pitch-dark now. She couldn’t see anything but the shrubs directly in front of her. This was too dangerous. She’d be lucky if she didn’t tumble off the mountain.

She stopped and tried to hear something besides the pounding of her heart.

No sound.

Doane?

She stood there, listening. No rustle of brush. No harsh sound of his breathing in the stillness.

Safe?

Good God, no. There was no way she was safe, but maybe she’d have a brief respite from the fear that had been with her since she’d been taken from everything she knew that was safe and good.

Joe, Jane, the cottage on the lake where they’d lived so many years.

She could still hear nothing but the flap of an occasional bird’s wings and the wilderness night sounds. But they weren’t the same sounds as the ones she heard in the forest on the lake. This was wild country.

Keep moving. Put distance between herself and the place where she’d last seen Doane. Providing that she didn’t move in circles. She knew a little about the basics of surviving in a forest, but she wasn’t an ex- SEAL like Joe. He could survive anywhere with no problem. Her profession of forensic sculpt­ing kept her indoors most of the time, and even as a child, she had been a city girl.

So there were a few obstacles against her. She wouldn’t overcome them by self-pity or remembering how good Joe was at this kind of thing.

Or remembering Joe at all. The look of him, the way he’d tilt his head and stare quizzically at her with those tea-colored eyes, the feel of him. There were moments when you could afford to remember the ones you loved, but this was not one of them. The thought of Joe made her painfully conscious of the loneliness of being here without him. Perhaps that was what Doane had intended by mentioning him before he’d left. He’d meant to make her more aware of her isolation. Salt in the wound. Joe Quinn, her lover, and Jane, their adopted daughter, the two people she loved most in the world. Eve would never have wanted to have them here and in danger but it was the—

A sound in the bushes up ahead!

A large animal. A bear. A deer?

Or Doane? He might have circled around and gotten in front of her.

Damn, she had no weapon.

Freeze. Don’t move. The threat might dissolve and go away.

Darkness all around her.

She tried to breathe lightly so that she wouldn’t be heard.

Please, go away.

Doane wouldn’t go away. She just had to hope it was an­other beast looking for prey.

She was not prey, she thought with sudden fierceness. She would get out of this. She would find a weapon.

To hell with Doane and this mountain he thought be­longed to him.

It’s not your mountain any longer, you bastard. I’m going to make it my own.

*****

University of Southern California
Los Angeles

IDIOTS!

Kendra Michaels pushed open the heavy main door of Al­exander Hall and stalked down the tree-lined pathway that would take her to the parking lot.

Idiots. Narrow- minded fools.

“Dr. Michaels.” The voice came from behind her.

She didn’t turn around.

“Dr. Michaels, please!”

She didn’t have to look back to know it was Steve Whitty, one of the conference organizers. Kendra hated these things, and her experience here, at the American Psychological Asso­ciation’s Conference on Autism Causes and Treatment, re­minded her why.

She finally stopped. He wasn’t going to be discouraged.

Whitty ran around to face her. “You were brilliant.”

She pointed back toward the auditorium. “Try telling them that.”

“You got a lot of people thinking in there.”

“. . . Thinking I’m some kind of fraud. Were you even lis­tening to the Q&A?”

“Naturally they’re going on the attack. You’re on the bleed­ing edge in this field. Uncharted territory. Your work could make a good many of those people’s life’s work obsolete.”

“That’s not what I’m trying to do.”

“Look at it from their point of view. You’re telling them that music can actually help cure autism.”

“It’s not a cure. It’s a treatment. And I never said it was the only treatment.”

“But you told them that your study had results far more impressive than anything they’ve done. Of course you’re going to ruffle some feathers. Which is exactly why I wanted you to be here.” Whitty placed his hand on her forearm. “And when those researchers get over being scared and pissed off, they’re going to examine your data and look at those hours of sessions you posted on the Web. They’re going to see what I saw. They’re going to see how this amazing young woman was able to draw patients out of their shells and help them join the human race.”

Kendra took a deep breath, angry that she had let those fools get under her skin. She always tried to tell herself that the work was its own reward, finding the right instrument, the right chord progression, the right anything that would engage the interest of her patients and help coax them into a world beyond themselves. But she needed more, dammit. She needed to know that she was able to open those educators’ eyes so that they would follow her.

She looked away from Whitty. “Look, part of me under­stands why they’re skeptical. Believe me, I know that the music-therapy field is populated with all kinds of nuts and woo-woo, and they give my profession a bad name. But I treat it like the science that it is. I got input from ten researchers in that room when I was designing the study, and I was tougher on myself than any of them were in their initial feedback.”

“They’re surprised at your results. Just give them a chance to digest it.”

“I’ve found a way to help those kids, Whitty. And that study is proof of it.”

“Kendra, there’s a significant variable that some people feel you haven’t addressed.”

She looked at him in disbelief. “Impossible. I considered every variable.”

“Not quite.” He smiled. “The variable I’m talking about . . . is you.”

“Me?” Then she realized what he meant and cursed under her breath. He could be right. She had been nervous about the presentation and several times had caught herself trying to impress the other attendees. It was completely unlike her. “Oh, you mean the dog and pony show? I knew they thought I was a little weird. I just kind of slipped into it. I didn’t mean—”

“Hell of a carnival act, but there’s already been some spec­ulation that’s how you get your positive results. By being so perceptive and empathetic with your subjects, giving exactly what they need in terms of body language, tone, positive rein­forcement, the whole package.”

Kendra’s eyes narrowed on him. “That’s what they’re saying? If they read the study, they’ll see I wasn’t the only therapist. My techniques got the same results from everyone.”

He smiled. “I know that because I’ve read the study. And they’ll know it soon enough. You just need to relax.”

“If I’d wanted to relax, I would never have come to this conference. I thought for once that I could make a difference.”

“Kendra, come back inside.” He placed his hand on her arm again. He was trying to soothe her, dammit. He wasn’t a bad guy, and the mistake had probably been her own, but it didn’t matter.

She wanted to deck him.

Her BlackBerry vibrated in her pocket. Thankful for the opportunity to pull away from Whitty, she stepped back, pulled out the phone, and answered it. “Hello.”

“Kendra? Joe Quinn. I need your help.”

“Quinn?” She didn’t like the tone in his voice. Grim. Ragged. She turned to Whitty and mouthed an apologetic “sorry.” He nodded and headed back toward the auditorium. “What’s wrong, Quinn?”

“You name it, everything. I need your help.”

“Dammit, I’m not a detective. And I’m busy as hell. You can’t pull me into—”

“You’re always busy. You’ll have to drop whatever it is.” He paused. “It’s Eve.”

“Eve?” Kendra’s hand tightened on the phone. “What’s happened? Talk to me.”

*****

FORTY MINUTES LATER, Kendra was at her condo throwing clothes into a suitcase on her bed.

“You didn’t answer the door, so I used my key. What on earth are you doing?” Kendra Michaels’s mother was standing in the doorway of Kendra’s bedroom watching disapprovingly as Kendra threw clothes into the suitcase on the bed. “Besides packing with no regard to neatness or order. I taught you better than that, Kendra.”

“That was when I was blind, and you thought I had to be super-efficient so that no one would feel sorry for me because I was handicapped.” She threw another pair of jeans and a sweater into the case. “After the stem-cell operation I discarded that guideline and embraced chaos.”

“In more than packing,” Deanna Michaels said dryly. “I was worried about you for a number of years after those doc­tors performed their miracle and made you see. I never thought that you’d sow quite so many wild oats.”

“That’s past history.” Kendra grinned. “Now I’m just a bor­ing music-therapy teacher. I leave all the wild oats to you.” Her mother was a history professor at U.C. San Diego and was the most vibrant and young-minded woman Kendra had ever known. And the most caring. She had used that intelligence and forceful personality to raise a child blind from birth and make her as close to independent as was physically and mentally possible.

And every day Kendra blessed her for it. Though her mother could be difficult and definitely tried to manipulate Kendra and everyone around her to suit herself.

“That would be extremely clever of you. I like the idea of your leading a semiboring life.” Her mother crossed the room and started repacking Kendra’s suitcase. “But there are still lingering tendrils of that less-than-wise period you went through. Go get your things from your bathroom. Now that I’ve rearranged your clothes, I have a place for them in this corner of the suitcase.”

“Mom . . .” She stared at her a moment and turned and went to the bathroom. She had learned to pick her battles, and this one wasn’t worthwhile. A few minutes later, she brought her plastic bag to Deanna and handed it to her. “Keep it handy. I’ll have to pull it for security at the airport.”

“You’re flying? Where?”

“Atlanta.”

“Why?”

“I have something I have to do there.”

“That’s no answer. If you were still a teenager, I’d call it rude.” She frowned. “Why didn’t you answer the door?”

“I was in a hurry. I have to get out of here.” She smiled. “I wasn’t rejecting you. I gave you a key to the condo, didn’t I? That means you’re welcome anytime.” She paused. “Why did you decide to come today? I don’t think it’s a coincidence.”

“I dropped by your conference. I was going to take you to dinner.”

Kendra grimaced. “And you saw me almost blow my cool.”

“They were idiots. They should have known you were right. You were right, weren’t you?”

“Yep. But not diplomatic.”

“Thank God.” She paused. “I followed you out to the park­ing lot, and I was going to save you from that earnest young man, but you got a telephone call.” She shrugged. “You hung up right away and jumped in your car and left the conference.” She met Kendra’s gaze. “But I saw your expression. It’s happen­ing again, isn’t it?”

“Wild oats?” Kendra shook her head. “I like my life, Mom. I’m not going to fly off and leave those kids I teach.”

“You know what I mean. Who is it? FBI? The local police? Say no, Kendra.”

Kendra hadn’t thought she’d be able to deter her, but it had been worth a try. “I can’t do that, Mom,” she said quietly. “Not this time.”

“Why not?” Deanna asked harshly. “Those law-enforcement people don’t give a damn about you. How many times have you been hurt? And I’ve almost lost you before when they tapped you and ask—” She drew a deep breath. “You’re too valuable to waste. You’re good and giving, and you’ve worked too hard to become a complete person.” Her lips twisted. “The only problem is that you became a bit more than complete.”

“No, I won’t accept that. Anyone can do what I do. All they have to do is concentrate.” All during her childhood, she had trained all her senses to overcompensate for her blind­ness. At twenty, when she’d had the operation that had given her sight, she’d been amazed that the people around her weren’t able to use those senses in the same way she did. In a way, they appeared more blind to her than she had been be­fore her operation. It had been that ability that had brought her to the attention of the law-enforcement officers against whom her mother was so bitter. “And I assure you that most of those agents at the FBI don’t consider me loving and giv­ing. They consider me a bitch, useful but not comfortable to be around.”

“I never taught you to suffer fools gladly.” Deanna added, “There’s a possibility I might have gone slightly overboard. But deep down, you have fine instincts. The rest doesn’t matter.”

“And since you taught me, it must be the world and not me that’s wrong.” She leaned forward and gave Deanna a kiss on the cheek. “I’ll sign on to that.” She grabbed her computer case. “I have to go, Mom.”

“Not until you tell me who you’re going to see.” She added grimly, “I need to know who to go to for the body if they get you killed.”

Deanna wasn’t going to be deterred. Kendra had hoped she would be able to avoid explanations. She didn’t have time for them. “Joe Quinn. He’s a detective with Atlanta PD. You may remember my mentioning him. I worked with him when he was out here chasing down a serial killer; and then later he involved me in a missing-person case.”

“I remember you weren’t happy to leave one of your stu­dents at a crucial time.”

“It was okay. It worked out.”

Deanna was frowning. “And you were working with an Eve Duncan. You had problems with her.”

“We were a little too much alike. That worked out, too,” she said. “I liked her, Mom. She was kind of special.”

“So you’re going to be working with her again? That’s why you have to become involved?”

“Yes, she’s the reason.” She shook her head. “But I won’t be working with her. Joe Quinn called me and told me that Eve has been kidnapped by some nutcase. The man’s name is Jim Doane. Quinn asked me to help find her. I have to do it.”

Deanna sighed. “Dammit, then I don’t have a chance of talking you out of going, do I?”

“It won’t be that dangerous. I’m not going to be actively working the case. I just have to try to pull up any clues as to where this Doane took her. I’ll go in and do my job and get out.” She added softly, “I won’t tell you not to worry because that’s been your modus operandi from the moment I was born twenty-eight years ago. I celebrate that you think I’m still worth it. But this time, I honestly believe that there’s not go­ing to be any reason to do it. Okay?”

“No.” She stared at her a moment. “If you don’t get your­self hurt physically, you’ll end up an emotional wreck. I’ve seen it before. And this time the odds are leaning in that direction. You told me yourself, you like this Eve Duncan. You’ll get hurt again.” She turned and slammed the suitcase shut. “And I’ll be here to pick up the pieces. Maybe someday you’ll develop a sense of self-preservation.”

“I already have. Things just seem to get in the way. You’d like Eve, too, Mom.”

“Would I?” Deanna asked as she turned toward the door. “I’m driving you to the airport. You can tell me about her on the way.” She held up her hand as Kendra opened her lips to speak. “I’m driving you,” she repeated firmly. “I’m not letting you fly off into the night without having a solid hold on the situation. Grab your suitcase.”

Kendra shook her head ruefully as she hurried after her out of the condo to her mother’s Mercedes in the parking space in front of her condo. “We might have to go to a therapy ses­sion or two when I get back. You’re being domineering again.”

“Am I?” She got into the driver’s seat. “Oh, well, you can take it. Talk to me. Tell me about Eve Duncan.”

“She’s a forensic sculptor, one of the best in the world. She does a great deal of work re-creating the faces of skulls of vic­tims found by police departments across the country. She tries to devote most of her time to doing reconstructions of chil­dren. Perhaps you’ve heard of her? She’s very famous.”

“The name’s familiar, but I tend to avoid looking at skulls unless it has to do with something of historical significance. It reminds me of my own mortality. But a person is more than a profession. You haven’t told me about Duncan, just what she does for a living.”

“She’s illegitimate and grew up in the slums of Atlanta. Her mother was on drugs most of her childhood and didn’t list any name for the father on Eve’s birth certificate. Her mother wasn’t sure who he was. Eve had an illegitimate child herself when she was seventeen. It was a little girl she called Bonnie. She adored her. The little girl was kidnapped and killed when she was seven years old.”

“Dear God,” Deanna whispered. “How could she survive a blow like that? I don’t know if I could.”

“Eve survived. She went back to school and became a fo­rensic sculptor. She spent years trying to find the body of her daughter and only succeeded a short time ago. She adopted a ten-year-old street kid, Jane MacGuire, years after her daugh­ter disappeared, and she and her lover, Joe Quinn, raised her. Jane’s now an artist and temporarily living in Europe. Re­cently, Eve discovered she had a half sister, Beth, and they’re trying to build a relationship, but Beth lives here in Califor­nia. They don’t see much of each other.” She looked at Deanna. “Is that enough personal background for you?”

Her mother nodded. “She’s no lightweight.” She made a face. “Maybe I shouldn’t have asked you to tell me about her. I don’t have much ammunition to convince you not to go off and try to find her.”

“No, you don’t. She’s strong, and she’s real. Like you, Mom.”

Deanna didn’t speak as she changed lanes to get on the freeway. “If they know the name of this man who abducted her, why can’t they find them without you?”

“I don’t know. Joe said that Doane had been planning this for years. His son, Kevin, had been murdered and partially cremated, and Doane only managed to salvage his blackened skull.”

“Ah, and he wanted Eve Duncan to do the reconstruction on the skull?”

“Presumably. Doane let her call Quinn and check on the condition of Jane MacGuire, and she told him she’d made a deal with him to do it.”

“Condition?”

She hesitated. Her mother was not going to like this. “Jane MacGuire was shot by one of Doane’s accomplices, a man named Blick.”

“Shit. And this isn’t going to be dangerous?”

“I go in, then get out. Jane wasn’t killed, only wounded.”

“What a relief,” Deanna said grimly. “Wonderful.”

“It is wonderful.” She wouldn’t tell her about the CIA man who had been found with his throat cut on the lake property. “I’m not saying that Doane isn’t dangerous. He’s not stable, but I’m not going to have to deal with him. That’s Joe Quinn’s job. And he’s fully capable of handling it. Before he became a detective, he was with the FBI, and before that, he was a SEAL. He only asked me to look around and see if I come up with something.”

“And he wouldn’t try to pull you into the case if he thought it necessary? You said he was Eve Duncan’s lover. Th at doesn’t bode well for cool professionalism.”

Trust her mother to cut through everything to get to the truth. “No, Joe isn’t at all professional about Eve.” Kendra wouldn’t lie. “He’s crazy about her. They’ve been together for years, and it’s still a love story. Nice . . .” She added quickly, “But no one pulls me into anything if I don’t want to go. I’m not reckless. You know me well enough to realize that, Mom.”

“But you don’t have to be reckless if you get emotional. What about that case a few years ago, where there were kidnapped children involved? That nearly made you into a basket case.”

Kendra didn’t answer.

“Okay.” Deanna sighed. “I’ll shut up right now if you promise to call and give me reports how things are going.”

“So that you can get on your white horse and come to my rescue?” she asked gently. “Mom, you have to let me go some­time. You were the best, the most extraordinary mother a child could have. You fought a thousand battles for me and taught me to fight them, too. Now you have to trust me to make good choices. And, if I don’t make them, you have to trust me to make the situation work.” She added softly, “Just as you did all those years. It shouldn’t be so hard. After all, I am your daughter.”

Deanna didn’t speak for a moment. “Was that supposed to appeal to my ego? It is hard. You’ll realize that when you have a child of your own.” She pulled over in front of the terminal building. “And I will come to rescue you if you don’t behave sensibly. I’ll give you space, but I won’t give you up.”

“And that makes me a very lucky woman.” Kendra opened the passenger door. “How could I ask for anything else?”

“You couldn’t,” Deanna said brusquely. “Now, have you told me everything you know about the situation? If I have to mount that white horse, I want to know how to program this GPS.”

“How convoluted can you get?” Kendra got out of the car and retrieved her suitcase from the backseat. “I think you have the bare bones. I don’t have much more than that. Quinn was rattling off names and details so fast that I still have to get everything straight in my mind. I’ll probably be landing in Atlanta before it becomes clear to me.” She leaned back into the car and gave Deanna a quick kiss on the tip of her nose. “Now you know as much as I do. Satisfied?”

“No.” Her eyes were glittering as her palm cupped Ken­dra’s cheek. “And if you don’t want me to interfere, you’ll call and keep me informed. That’s not too much to ask.”

“Blackmail.” Kendra was laughing as she straightened. “What am I going to do with you?”

“I have no idea. I taught you to make your own deci­sions.”

“True.” She slammed the car door. “And there’s really only one thing I can do with you.” She turned away. “I just have to love you. I’ll call you when I get to Atlanta.”

She could feel her mother’s eyes on her as she headed for the glass doors. She lifted her hand and waved as she went through the doors into the terminal.

Her smile faded as she went toward the kiosk. She had tried to comfort her mother and she wished she had been able to be more reassuring. She knew so little, and she hated it. She wanted to reach out, to see, to hear, to touch. She was going into this hunt for Eve as blind as she had been during the first twenty years of her life.

And she had a terrible feeling that she wouldn’t be able to help Eve. Eve was very sharp, and if she’d been taken by this criminal, then he must be a formidable adversary. It was hard for Kendra to understand how the wary, intelligent Eve she had come to know had become a victim.

But most criminals left traces, clues that shined a light on their path. Doane surely wouldn’t be different. All she needed was to go to the crime scenes and everything would come clear.

God, she hoped he wasn’t different.

I’ll find him, Eve. Fight him. Give me a chance. I’ll do everything I can. I’ll search so hard for you. . . .


Excerpted from Hunting Eve by Iris Johansen. Copyright © 2013 by Iris Johansen.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Pan Macmillan Australia solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Outlaw Bikers in Australia by Duncan McNab – Extract

Outlaw Bikers in Australia

PREFACE

The ‘outlaw’ in outlaw motorcycle gangs (or OMCGs, as law enforcers around the world call them for short) is a self-adopted term by bikers who view themselves as outside the law. According to ‘Gangs in NSW’, a 2002 paper by the New South Wales Parliamentary Library Service, ‘The criminal activities differentiate them from the many recreational motorcycle riding clubs which comprise people who get together solely for the purpose of riding their motorcycles and socialising.’ The outlaws would have you believe they just love their bikes and have a few bad apples among their membership, but that’s nonsense. It’s fair to say that not all members of outlaw gangs are criminals, but the majority are. Those not getting their hands dirty know of the exploits of their mates but remain silent, even when confronted by bombings, arson, beatings, murder and drive-by shootings in the nation’s suburbs.

Outlaw motorcycle gangs have been in Australia for half a century. They started out as social clubs for blokes who loved bikes but weren’t keen on leading a life of quiet suburban aspira­tion or frustration, and they didn’t cause too much trouble until drugs became the common currency of their lives. The outlaw-biker violence that has swept Australia for more than a decade is the product of their battles for dominance in the drug market. The faces may have changed to reflect Australia’s multicultural make-up, but the motivations remain unchanged: profit and greed. And, just like those addicted to their product, the bikers have been at war with each other for so long it has become a tough habit to break.

In 2001, Tim Atherton, Western Australia’s assistant police commissioner, said there is ‘solid evidence of the bikie gangs linking with long-established and well-known organised crime identities’. He then said, ‘Have we underestimated the bikies? Absolutely. We can’t ignore them as just a ragged bunch of part-time criminals.’ Atherton’s remarks were stimulated by a recent visit to Canada, where, in the preceding five years, more than a hundred biker-related murders had happened. He said, ‘The very clear message given to me by the head of their OMCG task force was, “Don’t make the same mistake Canada made . . . we ignored them for too long.”’

It was good advice but two decades too late. The outlaws were here, they had jettisoned their roots as groups of bike enthusiasts, they were organised, they had a stranglehold on the recreational drug market, and the greed-driven war between clubs was just beginning.

In 2013, Australia has achieved a unique place in the history of OMCGs. For the US-based Hell’s Angels, this country was one of the first steps in their global spread and, for their compet­itors, the Bandidos, it was the first. The massacre at Milperra, in south-western Sydney, on Father’s Day 1984 was the first biker battle to achieve worldwide headlines, but this didn’t impede the growth of outlaw clubs, and today Australia has the highest per capita membership in the world. Australia can lay claim to spear­heading multiculturalism in clubs, and today we can also boast that some of our home-grown clubs are players in Asia and the volatile outlaw scene in Europe.

Australia is now exporting its own brand of outlaw biker, and these men bring with them decades of myths and mayhem.

1

JUST A PASSING PHASE

Australia’s first outlaw motorcycle clubs formed around 1960. Bob Menzies was in The Lodge and his Liberal–Country Party coalition, which had been in power since 1949, showed no sign of departing at any time in the near future. Over the preceding decade, Menzies, who firmly believed that communism was the greatest threat to the nation, had tried to have the Australian Communist Party destroyed by using draconian legislation that, at least in the government’s view, was appropriate to ensure Australia’s safety. The High Court didn’t agree and ruled the Communist Party Dissolution Bill to be invalid. The court would take a similar view to anti-biker legislation half a century later.

With the Cold War still in full cry, Menzies had kept up the anti-communist pressure, and good fortune came his way thanks to the 1954 defection of the Russian diplomat Vladimir Petrov and his wife, Ivanka. As part of his defection, Petrov exposed the depth of communist penetration into Australian life, and Menzies did what politicians invariably do when they have a conten­tious issue and the whiff of political point-scoring in the air: he called a Royal Commission to investigate Petrov’s allegations. A handy by-product of the Commission was that it fuelled the simmering row that caused the 1955 split of Menzies’ opposition, the Australian Labor Party. The split prompted the formation of the Democratic Labor Party (DLP), which was strongly Catholic influenced and which plagued the Labor Party for a generation, helping to thwart any chances of their winning government. By 1960, the Menzies Government was in full control and the opposition was in rebuilding mode under their new leader, Arthur Calwell, and his deputy, Gough Whitlam. For the country, it was a time of peace and growing prosperity. The tragedy of the Vietnam War was a few years in the future.

In Sydney and Melbourne, television, introduced in 1956 just in time for the Melbourne Olympics, had taken a firm grip on life in the suburbs. By 1960, around 70 per cent of homes boasted a flickering black and white picture, set in a fine piece of wooden cabinetry in the lounge room, and Graham Kennedy had the first ever Gold Logie on his mantelpiece. Television and movies were suffused with the pleasures of California’s beach culture. The bikini was in, board shorts were making their early appear­ance, the Gold Coast was a haven for honeymooners, and, in Kings Cross and St Kilda, nightclubs were swinging to the sounds of the Beach Boys and local rockers such as Johnny O’Keefe. Around the nation’s beaches, the first panel vans were making an appearance in the car parks, often swaying on their suspension late into the night, prompting the bumper sticker ‘If it’s rocking, don’t come knocking’. Australia’s youth were starting to have the good times denied to their parents thanks to the Depression, war and rationing.

However, not everyone embraced the gentility of the suburbs or the prospect of weekends spent enjoying surf and sun. In the UK, rock and roll had spawned youth gangs: the Mods, who preferred sharply tailored high-fashion suits and Italian motor scooters; and the Rockers, who favoured leather jackets, a bit of grime and fast motorcycles such as the Triumph or BSA. The Rockers thought the Mods were on the effeminate side, but both had an interest in using amphetamines to keep the party going. In the US, the Hell’s Angels and the Outlaws, the first of the outlaw motorcycle clubs that remain with us today, were causing a stir.

A smattering of Australia’s disenfranchised began to form their own motorcycle clubs, taking the lead from the Rockers and the US outlaw clubs (the term ‘gang’ would replace ‘club’ a few decades later). Claiming credit to be the first outlaw club in Australia were the Gladiators, from the New South Wales Hunter Valley. Sword-and-sandal film epics were all the rage in Holly­wood at the time thanks to the huge success of Ben-Hur, which was released in late 1959 and collected 11 Oscars in 1960, and the Gladiators based their name on it.

Like their US counterparts, some of the men in Australia’s outlaw clubs had grown up the hard way, and had spent time in the military or had occasional brushes with the law. These were not men sowing their wild oats before taking their place in the middle class. Instead, they formed motorcycle clubs with their local mates and kindred spirits. They liked to ride hard, fast and often en masse. Beer or Bundaberg rum were the preferred tipples, and, scandalously, they smoked marijuana. Sexual encounters weren’t a rollicking good time in the privacy of a parked panel van but conducted in the open and in full view of their mates. They didn’t aspire to a job for life or mortgages. The police in the 1960s, however, reckoned these early bike clubs were little more than a traffic problem and one best dealt with by the traffic police. They thought the bikers (or ‘bikies’ in Australia, but I have used the more international term throughout) were just a pack of misfits who smoked a little dope, drank a bit too much, didn’t bathe as often as they should and had a fairly liberal approach to relationships with women. The police reckoned the life the bikers liked to lead was just a passing phase, and one they’d grow out of before sprucing up and joining the rest of mainstream Australia. Police regarded the bikers as reasonably harmless but neverthe­less viewed them with suspicion. It was an Australia whose police forces and a large chunk of society were unsettled by anyone a little different, such as artists, the gay community, anyone not quite white, atheists, or those who didn’t vote for Labor, Bob Menzies’ coalition government or the DLP. ‘Not quite right’, as well-to-do suburban mothers would intone. The police also knew the bikers didn’t mind a bit of biff and didn’t complain, which made them an ideal target for some sport.

My father was a New South Wales traffic copper in those early days and mad about motorcycles. He recalled that he and his colleagues would turn a blind eye to the exploits of some people. Radio DJs, for instance, were like gods and could drive dead drunk, or at a speed that prompted witty opening lines by police such as ‘I didn’t think Jack Brabham was in the country’. The DJs got away with their indiscretions, and so our family had a fine selection of the latest recordings, often autographed. Doctors, lawyers and members of the judiciary, provided they showed a reasonable degree of humility, received the same treatment, with the copper working on the premise that some day he might find himself on the operating table, in need of a good lawyer, or standing before the learned judge or magistrate. A young copper’s use of discretion was a wise investment in his own future. However, it was a different story when dealing with the bikers. This had a touch of irony, as traffic police also had a passion for motor­cycles and riding fast and not always sober, but they did so with immaculately pressed blue serge uniforms and polished boots and leggings. Bikers referred to the police, with a glimpse of humour, as ‘the big blue gang’.

The bikers liked to take weekend rides, usually along the major highways and occasionally down a decent scenic road, stopping at a pub where they could sit, drink, smoke, talk, chat up women and enjoy the odd brawl, either among themselves or with any locals who also saw fighting as a recreation. Places such as Werris Creek on the New England Highway, Gundagai on the Hume, Doyalson on the Pacific, and the quiet backwater of Wisemans Ferry on the twisting and demanding Putty Road shortcut to the New England district all had suitable watering holes. Unfortu­nately for the bikers, the traffic police had a fair idea where they’d be heading on a tour and would be lying in wait, and in strength, for a bit of fun of their own. Compared with the activities of the Criminal Investigation Branch’s (CIB’s) infamous 21 Division, which was responsible for starting brawls and planting evidence, the traffic cops were almost genteel, but they were still annoying.

When word of an event seeped through to the headquarters of the Special Traffic Patrol, the large garage under the North Sydney approach to the Harbour Bridge became a very busy place. The traffic cops’ wickedly fast Triumph motorcycles – both solo and with sidecars on the occasions when another set of hands or fists might be useful – were buffed to a sheen, tyres were blacked, chrome spokes polished and engines tuned. When all was ready, the big blue gang set off to prepare their ambush. The police of the day used a technique that is still dominant in policing gangs these days: irritation, with the hope that being part of a gang just becomes tiresome. It’s a strategy that has limited success, as the current strength of the outlaw movement attests.

As the bikers rumbled up the highway, they would be inter­cepted and pulled to the side of the road. The police would then inspect their bikes, finding even the tiniest fault in their road-worthiness, such as a malfunctioning light globe, obscured number plate, noisy exhaust and so on, for which the hapless biker would get a fine and/or defect notice. Speeding fines were also popular and, in the days before radar speed cameras, were based on the copper’s professional estimation of the speed, which was gener­ally accepted as accurate by magistrates. Police officers didn’t lie in those days, or so the courts preferred to believe.

The bikers usually took these events on the chin – it was a lesson they’d learnt quickly, as resistance only escalated the police actions. However, there were occasions where timing and frus­tration saw common sense head out the window. If the mood was upon them, police would wander into the pubs where the bikers were drinking and enjoying the odd puff of illicit weed, and wait to either be provoked into a brawl or start their own. The net result was a bit of fun for both sides, but one that ended with a few of the bikers being arrested for relatively minor crimes such as common assault, resist police, unseemly words (which could be anything from an unkind suggestion about the marital state of the officer’s parents at the time of his conception, through to more colourful phrases using four-letter words). Convictions for minor offences didn’t faze them, so they usually pleaded guilty to get the problem out of the way quickly and cheaply. But those innocent days wouldn’t last forever. My father once observed, ‘We were a bit like them – passionate about the machines – but we couldn’t let the buggers get away with scaring the motorists, or getting pissed and being a nuisance in the pubs. The other drinkers didn’t like it, nor did the publican. It was our job to remind the buggers that they had to be well behaved. We wanted them looking over their shoulders.’


Excerpted from Outlaw Bikers in Australia by Duncan McNab. Copyright © 2013 by Duncan McNab.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Pan Macmillan Australia solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Planet Elephant by Tammie Matson – Extract

Planet Elephant

Prologue
Don’t call me Pygmy
Sabah, Borneo, September 2012

There are times to be brave. Times when life calls upon you to rise to the occasion, to find the honey badger inside you, to face your fears head on. This was not one of those times. This was a time to run.

At first it had just been the crackling of branches, a whisper of grey hide – blurry to the naked eye, pretty much invisible through a camera lens – in between a moving wall of green. It was barely a hint of the presence of an animal much bigger than me. Deep in the rainforests of Borneo, my untrained eyes couldn’t see anything further ahead than leaves ten metres in front of me where, based on the rapid gesturing of my guide, Sulaiman, stood a two-metre tall pygmy elephant. But if my eyes were fooling me, at least my nose wasn’t. The smell of elephant was all around me, wafting up like steaming tendrils of rotting cabbage. The elephant was there. I could smell him.

Pygmy elephants are the smallest of the Asian elephants, with bulls standing no taller than two and a half metres at the shoul­der. That isn’t really that small, at least compared to a midget like me, even though they are considerably more vertically chal­lenged than their savannah-dwelling African cousins, which can grow to over four metres in height. But this elephant was no matchbox-sized critter, as his name suggested, and he could do a lot more damage than kicking me in the knee.

‘He’s not in musth?’ I had asked Sulaiman a minute earlier, wanting to confirm that we weren’t walking into a mega-disaster. Any bull in musth – the temporarily aggressive, high testosterone state in which males have only one thing on their mind: sex – was potentially life threatening if you got inside his personal space.

‘No,’ Sulaiman replied, smiling confidently, and walked on.

I had followed him closely, checking behind me at regular intervals, in my mind’s eye plotting an emergency exit route back to the small dinghy we had arrived in, which was tied up to a sapling on the river bank. But within a minute of walking in the forest, I had lost my bearings. The thick rainforest was totally disorienting and I wasn’t even sure which way the river was, let alone the boat. Then again, if the bull charged and I made it to the boat, an elephant could crush even that in an instant. Elephants are masterful swimmers, with trunks that function like snorkels, and so this one wouldn’t be put off by a river.

It was mid-morning, barely 10 am, but in Borneo’s oppres­sively humid heat, I felt like a prawn dumpling in a bamboo steamer. The back of my shirt was soaked with sweat as I stepped off the boat onto the muddy bank. Immediately my Scarpa boots, which had served me so well in the last decade in Africa across all sorts of terrain, sank into the earth that was spongy with decomposing leaves and vegetation. A melee of insects filled the air with a hollow drone, punctuated at regular intervals by the cry of cicadas, a sound so loud and completely insane that it was more like a shriek from a mental institution.

In my short time in Borneo I had learned that there were as few as one and a half thousand pygmy elephants left on the planet. Asia’s most pint-sized elephants lived in a world of con­flict. Very little of their natural habitat was left, and they were forced to survive in islands of forest in a sea of palm oil planta­tions and escalating human development.

I tried and failed to adjust my camera to focus on the ele­phant, growing increasingly more agitated as I failed to find anything through the lens. As I looked up from the camera to see if I could get a visual on him, the bushes in front of us started cracking and moving. It was only then that it occurred to me that we were very close to this bull, much closer than I would ever intentionally have got, at least on foot, to a wild African elephant. It was because of the thick rainforest vegetation that we were so close to him, ten metres away at most, a distance that he could cross in seconds.

And then he charged. A lot can happen in three seconds. In the first second, the bull was coming straight at us through the trees. He only seemed to take about three giant steps before he was there. And really there. In the fleeting moment that he charged at us, no more than five metres away, I could see every last elephantine wrinkle with infinite clarity. In the next sec­ond, Sulaiman stood his ground, clapping loudly and shouting at the bull to back down. In the third second, I swore, which seemed like a sensible thing to do at the time, and then I did what every self-preserving human does at moments like this. I ran for my life.

As I bolted, the elephant let out an unmistakable warning scream, a heart-shaking, ear-piercing, get-the-hell-outta-here screech. The terrifying sound of it at such close range reverberated through my chest and seemed to echo through the forest. Adrenaline surged through my body, giving my legs enough power to beat Cathy Freeman on the track. A moment later, a second elephant trumpeted in reply to him in the distance, deep and hollow. The way their voices echoed through the dense for­est was otherworldly and eerie, almost like we were all under water.

I didn’t slow down, although I wasn’t going to beat any sprint race records running through this forest. Odd-shaped fallen logs and rambling vines tried to trip me at every step. As I tried to stay upright and cover as much ground as possible, my breathing sounded heavy in my ears, it wasn’t my proudest moment. I must have looked like a cross between a sloth and a dancing lemur on speed and I was very glad no one was there to witness the unfor­tunate spectacle that was about to end in me being flattened by an irate pachyderm.

I swerved through the trees, leaping over fallen trunks and dung piles, my feet barely touching the ground as I ran. I could hear something running behind me – branches cracking – and I didn’t know whether it was Sulaiman or the bull or both. I just kept running. I knew that if that bull wanted to catch up to me, he could easily do so. Elephants are not bumble-footed in the jungle as I am. They can push down trees in their path that I would have to take a wide berth around.

As the blood coursed wildly through my veins, the thought occurred to me that my number could be up today. This could be it. But I couldn’t afford to die. I had a child. Solo wasn’t yet three years old, and he needed his mum.

Let me go, elephant. Let me go.

chapter 1
eye of the elephant
Assam, India, late November 2008

Four years earlier I was working for the global organisation the Worldwide Fund for Nature (WWF) when the opportu­nity arose to become involved in making a documentary about human-elephant conflict in Asia and Africa. The idea of a film documenting the wars that were taking place between elephants and people, as well as some of the solutions being put forward across their range in Africa and Asia, was a subject that was very close to my heart. As a conservationist I had seen the human-elephant conflict in north-east India and southern Africa first hand, and I felt strongly that the more people there were telling this story, the more action there would be to solve the problem. The Sydney-based production company, Animal Media Australia, led by film-maker Stephen Van Mil, had just received an award for its film on Birute Galdikas’ pioneering work with orangutans.

Not long after I first met Steve, I left full-time work at WWF to write a book about my own experiences working on human-elephant conflict – Elephant Dance – which allowed me time to contribute to a film on the same topic. One late spring morning after several months of planning, I found myself in a queue at Sydney airport, waiting to get my boarding pass to India for the first part of the filming. Steve had arranged for me to meet Sydney artist Nafisa Naomi there as she was on the same flight and would be joining the crew to document the behind the scenes action of the film through her photography and art.

A woman with long dark hair and ebony eyes lined with kohl, wearing tight long pants and with an impressive cleavage, waved to me from across the check-in area. I waved back, feeling suddenly underdressed as she joined me in the line.

Nafisa was bubbling with excitement, not having been back to India, the land of her birth, since her childhood. I was happy to let her do the talking. My mind was ticking over with concerns about whether the producer and crew would get their visas in time to join us in India in a couple of days and whether we would get enough footage in the short time frame. I had a little time before they arrived to touch base with my contacts at various conservation organisations in Assam and set up the best places to film. It was going to be a tough ask to film everything we needed to in just over a week. We would have to film day and night to capture enough footage. On top of that, I needed to be clear in my own mind about what I was going to say on film regarding the very serious plight of Assam’s elephants, so that I didn’t come across as a total idiot or, worse still, a boring, rambling scientist.

On the flight to India I learned pretty much the entire life story of my travelling companion. The daughter of a Dutch mother and Indian father, she spoke with an Australian accent but had spent her early childhood in Hong Kong. Nafisa had studied medicine for three years before giving it up to work in fashion, and only much later in life, following a divorce, had decided to dedicate herself to art. I had seen some of her wildlife art and I had to admit it was incredible, but it was her human portraits and botanical art that had won her both Australian and international awards.

It was the middle of the night when our plane landed in Mumbai. As we collected our luggage, every eye was on Nafisa and her fabulous figure. I wasn’t sure whether it was because by local standards she wasn’t covered up enough or if they thought she was a Bollywood film star – or both. I was just glad that it was taking the attention off me with my blonde hair and it didn’t seem to worry her.

As we slept in our twin hotel room, we were oblivious to the history unfolding across the city at other tourist hotels just kilometres away. That night’s coordinated attacks by Pakistani terrorists would hit international headlines in the days to come because their targets had included famous hotels – like the Taj Mahal and Oberoi Trident – frequented by foreigners. While we slept soundly, at least 166 people were killed in these bombings and shootings, including 28 foreigners, and dozens more were taken hostage, some of them Australian.

It wasn’t until the next day, after flying to the capital of Assam, Guwahati, and driving for four hours to the town of Tezpur, that we heard anything about it. We hadn’t seen the news since we’d left Sydney, and it was only when checking emails a day after the bombings that we were alerted to the disaster that we had narrowly missed. Among my emails there were several urgent messages from loved ones asking if I was okay, as no one had any idea whether I was alive or dead. No one had been able to phone me because my cell phone didn’t work in Assam. I had learned on my last trip to this part of the world that the government con­trolled communications and made it pretty much impossible for foreigners to buy a local phone. I figured it had something to do with keeping on top of the ULFA, the United Liberation Front of Assam, the rebel movement that had a tendency towards bombing public places in this part of the world.

Tezpur, which means ‘city of blood’ in Assamese, was 175 kilometres and a long, slow drive from Guwahati’s national airport. Assam’s fifth largest city was a long way off the beaten track in one of India’s most remote and lesser known states. Few tourists came to this part of India, which is way up in the north-eastern corner, wedged between Bangladesh to the south and China (Tibet) to the north. It was my favourite part of India because of its incredible national parks, such as Kaziranga, home to greater one-horned rhinos, elephants and tigers. In the Assam jungle you felt like you were in a scene from The Jungle Book. Like the rest of India, it was heavily populated, but nowhere in Assam was quite as crazy and polluted as the bigger cities like Delhi and Calcutta, and the rice paddies and tea plantations along the heavily potholed roads gave it a more sedate, rural feel.

From the back seat of the Mahindra (an SUV) I watched women in sparkling saris of azure blue, flamingo pink and every other colour of the rainbow as they glided along the side of the road like flocks of radiant birds. Belching buses barged past, their roofs loaded up with mountains of luggage and the occasional forlorn-looking goat strapped on with rope. Barefoot children wearing dirty underpants with gaping holes ran along the streets and begged for rupees when we stopped by the road. Blasé Brahmin cows ruminated in the middle of the street, forming carefree road blocks that everyone seemed to accept as the norm. A man lay face down on the dirt by the road edge, his legs and two shoes sprawled across the tar road as if he had just stepped out of them and fallen flat on his face. Our driver didn’t slow down, just hooted and swerved like all the other vehicles going past him.

‘What is wrong with that man?’ I asked, worried that he had been hit by a car. People and cars were just ignoring him.

‘He have been drinking,’ our driver said, and pressing down on the accelerator.

Physical labour was still the way of things in Assam. Beyond the manifold towns lay a patchwork of custard-coloured rice paddies, most of it already harvested by this time of year, with just a few people picking rice by hand with nimble fingers. Neat piles of precious harvested rice plants, resembling stalks of long dried grass or hay, stood alongside the rows. Wearing only knee-length fabric wraps around their waists, usually barefoot but sometimes in well-worn leather sandals, skinny boys and older men alike pulled wooden carts loaded high with rice husks. Their backs shiny with sweat, these human machines were all pumping sinew and muscle on protruding bones. Four ducks waddled across the road to a pond with red algae forming a scum on the surface. An old man sat out the front of a ramshackle hut while watching children bathe play­fully in the water. I viewed it all whizzing by from the back seat of the Mahindra, present but not truly there, an observer rather than a participant, as if watching television.

That night at the Hotel Luit, a Kingfisher beer brought some relief. Nafisa, who apparently didn’t usually drink, downed a stiff local vodka. After that drive, she said she needed it. The hotel was dirty and ratty, just as I remembered it. It smelled of yesterday’s curry and stale smoke. On our arrival an Indian man with greasy hair had taken us to our room and in his limited English combined with hand gestures and a suggestive smile indicated that we might want our beds pushed together. Clearly they didn’t very often get two women unchaperoned by a man sharing a room together in this part of the world.

‘He thinks we’re lesbians,’ Nafisa exclaimed with amusement.

The man didn’t understand a word she said, just grinned sleazily back at her as he stood by the door.

As hotels went, there wasn’t much to choose from in Tezpur, and according to my conservation colleagues this was one of the best, but I decided immediately that there was no way we were going to spend more than one night there. I had a vague recol­lection of an eco-lodge next to Nameri National Park that I had driven past last time I was there, about half an hour from town. I was sure it would serve as a nicer base for us and the crew than the Hotel Luit, where I figured we would either catch typhoid and die or be stoned for suspected lesbianism. I wasn’t sure whether it was illegal to be gay in Assam, but I wasn’t taking any chances.

The next morning, we packed our things and asked our driver to take us to Nameri. Nestled in the forest adjoining Nameri National Park, the eco-camp was everything I had hoped it would be. Huge trees with broad dark leaves towered over quaint cabins that seemed to have been absorbed by the jun­gle, covered as they were in vines sporting bright pink flowers. I breathed in all that green and felt my lungs sigh with relief as the fumes of Indian towns were expunged. A tightness in my chest that until then I hadn’t even noticed was released. Living in the city, I realised I had missed the sense of peace I always feel in places with lots of big trees. How easy it is to forget what gives you peace of mind when you are caught up in the hustle and bustle of fast-paced daily life.

Early the next morning, on the way to the WWF office in Tezpur, our driver stopped at a bridge blocked by Assamese army trucks. The military were a common sight in that part of India, as the national army had been deployed there since 1990 to keep on top of armed separatists groups like the ULFA, who were seeking to establish Assam as a sovereign state.

Two weeks earlier I had been listening to the BBC news when it was reported that seventy people had been killed and three hundred injured in at least eleven separate bombings before noon on 30 October across Guwahati, probably by the ULFA. Now, watching stern-faced soldiers scanning the bridge with bomb detectors that looked like the metal detector I once used as a kid to search for coins on the beach in North Queensland, I was reminded of the risks of being in this part of India.

An army officer came over to our vehicle, peered conde­scendingly at Nafisa and me in the back seat, and began firing questions at our driver in an authoritative voice. I should have been pleased that the soldiers were checking that there were no bombs on the road, but I really didn’t feel comfortable with the eyes of this officer on us, glaring as if we might be spies. He didn’t look like a particularly friendly guy, with a rifle slung over one shoulder and a moustache big enough to threaten a ferret perched on his upper lip.

As a foreign, blonde woman in Assam, it was impossible to blend into the crowd, and that made me nervous. But it didn’t seem to worry Nafisa. She wound down her window, smiled win­ningly, leaned out with her camera and asked to take his photo. The officer didn’t seem to know what she was saying and was more interested in her cleavage, but he also wasn’t comfortable being confronted in this way by an overtly assertive woman, and I could see him getting riled up at the idea of having his photo taken.

‘No, no, no!’ he barked gruffly.

He spoke limited English, but his hand gestures demon­strated that it was obviously not on to take photos of army officers.

I didn’t know Nafisa well enough to be able to tell if this was fearless bravado or naivety or both, but I was growing increas­ingly anxious. The last thing I wanted in this situation was to get into an altercation with the Assamese army. We were two women from Australia who were a long way from home and without the compulsory male escorts that this part of the world demanded. India was not necessarily a place where women could rely on the police to get them out of trouble; indeed, they could end up causing more themselves. Assam was still an extremely sexist place by western standards. The majority of people were Hindu, but with recent mass immigration from Bangladesh, a growing part of the population was now traditional Muslim. Women here were expected to cover up and shut up.

It entered my mind that Nafisa might get arrested – and get me arrested too, by default. I really didn’t want to see the inside of an Assamese prison cell. I gave her a look that said please stop. I slunk lower into the seat as the driver tried to take back control of the situation. The officer stepped up his serious act, glaring at us while grabbing regular eyefuls of Nafisa’s cleavage. As our driver attempted to placate him, there was a yell from one of the army trucks on the bridge. In the hubbub of raised male voices, the officer waved a nonchalant hand at us, now distracted by something else that was going on in his domain. I breathed a sigh of relief as finally we were able to go on our way.

The following day we left in the wee hours before dawn to visit a village that WWF conservationist Soumen Dey thought might be a good one to trial chillies. These humble red fruits are an effective deterrent to elephants and an excellent cash crop for local people. On a previous trip here when I had worked for WWF, it had taken me a long time to convince anyone in India that chillies were worth a try to help reduce the human-elephant conflict, based on their success in Africa, but Soumen had finally agreed to give it a go.

In Zambia, the Elephant Pepper Development Trust had shown that elephants didn’t like chilli and across numerous sites in Africa they had demonstrated how the use of chilli fences, chilli briquettes (bricks made of elephant dung and chilli, with a hot coal on top that produces ‘chilli smoke’) and chilli crop buffer zones could deter elephants from crops. The other great advantage of chillies as an elephant deterrent was that the fruits themselves could be sold as a cash crop, provid­ing an alternative livelihood for people living on the poverty line. While I knew chillies alone were not the solution to the problem of human-elephant conflict, I believed they were a very useful tool for local people to minimise the serious nega­tive impacts and maximise the benefits of living alongside the planet’s largest land mammal.

It didn’t take much to convince Steve that filming the chilli projects, both the functional ones in Zambia and the one that WWF was planning to test in India, would make a great addi­tion to the film. It would show one of the positive options that existed to combat human-elephant conflict, and also would pro­vide a good contrast to the heartbreak around the conflict itself.

In India at that time, the mortality toll on both sides of the human-elephant conflict was severe. Elephants were killing at least four hundred people annually, while more than a hundred elephants were killed every year by being caught in low-hanging power lines, hit by trains and poisoned. The conflict was a direct result of habitat loss. Almost two-thirds of the natural forest cover north of the Brahmaputra River in Assam had been destroyed in the last couple of decades, leaving elephants with no choice but to move through the tea plantations, rice paddies and villages that had replaced the trees. That was often where the conflict occurred, and particularly during the rice harvest season, when elephants raided rice paddies for food.

Our arrival in this village, three hours east of Tezpur, was no small thing. Soumen told us that many of these people had prob­ably never seen foreigners. A crowd quickly gathered around us as we visited local people who had started growing chillies in their back yards. Soumen showed us where he wanted to help this community cultivate it on a larger, more commercial scale, in a nearby paddy field.

As Soumen and I talked with some village leaders, I noticed Nafisa eyeing one of the motorbikes parked nearby. The next thing I knew, she was riding it down the corrugated dirt track heading off into the distance. Now a huge crowd gathered around, run­ning after her and cheering at the entertainment value of seeing a foreign woman tearing off on a motorbike. Oh no, I thought, so much for the professional reputation I was trying to maintain. The men might be impressed, but I was sure that the women would be shocked and ashamed by such an act of boldness. But when Nafisa returned in one piece (thankfully), the women as well as the men gathered around her, in awe, it seemed, of her courage in a place where women have little status. To my amazement, to them Nafisa’s behaviour appeared to be empowering, perhaps showing them that it was okay to be different. They didn’t think she was crazy at all. It was like she was a Bollywood star. I reflected that I might have been too harsh on my travelling companion, too quick to judge through my conservative, scientific goggles.

These poverty-stricken people put on a huge curry feast for our lunch, and through Soumen they asked us questions like how old we were, whether we were married and had children. When Soumen told them that I was in my early thirties and Nafisa in her mid-forties, the women responded by saying that this could not be right as Nafisa looked much younger than me. Although she was clearly foreign, Nafisa’s Indian blood was a matter of intrigue. And I realised that while we had come here to share the story of these people and their battle with elephants, they too now had a story to tell.

‘What’s that?’

It was early in the morning, just before dawn, and my cohab­itant was clearly more awake than I was.

‘Don’t worry,’ I reassured Nafisa, ‘it’s probably just a cow.’

‘Really?’

‘Definitely,’ I said, in my most serious zoologist voice.

We had heard the strange, high-pitched sound at all times of day since we had been at Nameri. As the daughter of a cat­tle farmer, I knew that cows bellowed like that sometimes. But when we went to investigate shortly after, we discovered that it wasn’t a cow at all. It was a baby elephant, tethered to a tree not far behind our hut. Later we were told that she had been orphaned in the annual floods and rescued by Department of Forestry rangers. She would probably be raised there by the rangers to become a working elephant like the adult elephants nearby. Elephants were on the payroll in this part of the world as they were used to patrol the dense national parks along jungle trails more suited to them than to jeeps.

I am always cautious around wild animals and prefer that they come to me on their terms rather than the other way around. But this young elephant appeared to be desperate for interaction, reaching out her trunk to try and grab the nearest person’s hand. As I squatted near her, she drew my hand into her mouth and sucked on it. When I pulled it away, she reached out with her trunk and pulled it back in again. It was like she was saying, ‘Hold my hand.’

This little elephant was one of so many babies orphaned in Assam, not just during the floods but as a result of the escalating human-elephant conflict. During the conflict, babies can get separated from their herds, sometimes falling into wells or tea garden trenches. Gods they may be to many of India’s people who worship the elephant-headed deity Ganesh, but you sure wouldn’t want to be reincarnated as an elephant living in modern-day India.

Now that the film crew had arrived, we would be able to start filming the stories of the people who lived in this part of the world, like the children who slept in a tree house because they were too scared to sleep in a hut after their father was killed by an elephant, as well as the elephants themselves who were battling for survival.

The crew consisted of four men. In addition to Steve, there was Adam Harper, at that stage a co-producer, with whom I had worked at WWF, and South Africans Greg Nelson behind the camera and Kenny Gerharty on sound. Steve, Greg and Kenny had all flown in from the western side of India where they had been filming whale sharks for one of Steve’s other films, and Adam was still on his way, delayed by airport closures in Thailand. They were a day late, cutting into precious filming time, as their camera had broken and had to be replaced in the biggest city they could find in western India within twenty-four hours.

There was no time to waste. Within five minutes of arriv­ing, the crew started testing the camera and setting up shots of sunset over the river against the awe-inspiring backdrop of the snow-capped Himalayas. After a quick curry for dinner, Steve decided that they would try and get some night footage in the paddy fields near camp. It didn’t sound like a particularly big deal, and it wouldn’t have been except for the fact that there were a couple of vital things missing in this scenario.

One was torches. The night was pitch black and the paddy fields on the border of a national park were full of pissed-off elephants, giant dried-mud potholes where the elephants had walked, rice paddy trenches and other things that you could fall, twist or pirouette into in an ungainly fashion. There was also the not inconsiderable chance that we could walk right into armed poachers or, more exciting still, the occasional terrorist.

The other missing item was a local guide. One thing I’m not is an adrenaline junkie. I’ve never wanted to bungee jump or swim with great white sharks. Whenever I went walking in the bush among lions and elephants in Africa, I never carried a rifle, but I always, always had a local tracker or guide with me (and sometimes he was armed). His job was to watch not only my back but also to check the spoor (tracks) and signs of the presence of other animals. Local people always know the area better than I, as a relative new­comer, ever could. On this night, we were just half a dozen foreign idiots walking around in the dark without a torch.

It’s a good thing to be a little bit scared when walking through the bush on foot. It fine-tunes your senses, helps make you just that little bit more alert for when an elephant does charge out of nowhere. But there’s a thin line between courage and reck­lessness. As we staggered through the darkness that night, we wouldn’t even see an elephant, let alone hear it coming, until it was too late. After a couple of hours of tramping through the completely unfamiliar dark forest, I was relieved to hear Greg say that we had to go back because the replacement camera wasn’t working properly. After all that, none of the footage was usable anyway.

The next morning, I insisted that we buy half a dozen torches as a bare minimum before doing any more night filming. If an elephant or a terrorist was going to kill me, I damned well wanted to look it in the eye.

In the days to come, the crew filmed scenes of the devastat­ing forest destruction at the base of the Himalayas, the lens capturing incredible old jungles eaten away by the human settlements of primarily poor people who lived traditionally. Villagers re-enacted their experiences of elephant attacks, showing us the places where elephants had charged and people had been killed. The crew filmed the brewing of rice beer, which the elephants (and people) get supremely drunk on. It’s an evil brew that elephants will knock down houses to get to. They interviewed an old lady in a white sari (the colour worn during mourning) who was a widow of conflict. Her husband had been killed by an elephant right in front of her house and she now relied on the kindness of family to take care of her in her old age. We filmed until the early hours of the mornings to capture the war on elephants, with dozens of men camped out by fires beside their rice paddies preparing for that night’s battle to keep herds out of their crops. The cameras rolled as a hundred or more men brandishing burning spears and homemade guns yelled at a small herd of elephants running for their lives across a crop, with firecrackers and gunshots ringing out across the night.

But one of the most extraordinary things I saw on this trip wasn’t caught on film at all. It was nearing midnight, somewhere in the rice paddies, and we were bogged in a thick muddy ravine that doubled as a road. Outside, the dark night sky was lit up by a trillion stars, while here on earth the warring men’s burn­ing spears and bright torch lights flickered and flashed. When the vehicle had slid into the mud and didn’t look like coming out any time soon, I was too tired to care about the dozen or so men outside the car whose job it now was to make a plan to get us out of there. Minutes earlier I had lain down, trying to curl into the most comfortable version of the foetal position that I could manage in the back seat of the Mahindra using my back­pack as a pillow. I wondered what it must be like to be up there with the stars and the moon looking down upon this war zone in which neither side was winning. What would the stars think of us, fighting for space and survival? If there was a wager, which side would they back?

As I drifted off to sleep, I tried to block out the din. Punctuat­ing the backdrop of angry, shouting men, firecrackers and guns was the harrowing sound of screaming elephants. Mothers, babies, grandmothers. The breeding herd of largely females was being forcibly pushed out of the ripening rice paddies that had drawn them in from what little remained of their natural home. They were hungry – and terrified. This was a normal scene in rural Assam and one at which the locals didn’t bat an eyelid.

Some time later – maybe minutes, perhaps hours for all I could tell – I felt myself rocking in the seat. Let me clarify: some­thing was rocking me or, at least, the car had moved. Only half awake, I opened my eyes. The car was still. Had that really hap­pened or had I been dreaming? The answer to that question was clear a second later when the car jolted forward, almost knocking me off my seat. I sat bolt upright and spun around to look out the rear window. Staring right back at me was the eye of an elephant. In fact, not one but two elephants were giving the car a substantial nudge, while I had no choice but to sit there looking rather like a bleary-eyed meerkat caught in a sandstorm (and with hair to match). I had become an elephant’s plaything. Surrounding the vehicle now was a huge crowd, all of them local men, and most of them talking and shouting at the top of their lungs.

Suddenly the driver of our vehicle, yelling in Assamese, jumped into the front seat and started accelerating while the elephants gave the car one more giant heave-ho. And then, in all the usual madness of India, we were off, driving into the night in search of more elephants raiding paddies to capture on film.

The long hours of filming may have been exhausting, but I had forgotten how emotionally draining it was being so close to the war on elephants. It’s a bit like working in a place where you are surrounded by poverty – you somehow get desensitised to the horror, but it takes its toll nevertheless. Although I had wit­nessed it before, it still broke my heart to see elephants running through paddy fields, screaming in protest and fear, as people chased them away back to a forest that now barely existed. It just didn’t seem fair. But the other side of the story was also incredibly sad. Assam had so many extremely poor, uneducated people in rural areas who were totally dependent on their rice crop to feed their families. There were some horrendous stories of elephants attacking people, including a ghastly one I heard of a pregnant woman being ripped apart.

I could understand why people wanted to retaliate, but it was also obvious why it was happening. The forests were disappear­ing and so elephants simply had nowhere else to go. The human population was increasing, which meant that the problem was only going to get worse. The more I thought about this, the more questions I had and the fewer answers. My brain was threaten­ing to combust with all the cognitive churning that was taking place in its convoluted channels. The truth was, it all came down to habitat, really. The clearing had to stop, but it had gone so far that it was also necessary to recreate safe, natural corridors of habitat for the elephants so as to link the remaining islands of forest. And in my view, there had to be more opportunities for local people living with elephants in Assam to benefit from their presence through industries like ecotourism. It was a hard truth to face, but elephants had to be a part of this state’s development or they would have no future there.

I’ve long held the view that much can be learned from south­ern Africa’s approach to conservation. Countries like Namibia, for example, have experienced great success in combating poaching and increasing wildlife populations by mastering the art of community-based wildlife conservation. Communal conservancies provide truly local ownership of the animals that roam on their traditional lands. Those animals have a financial value and the community’s ownership of them is legally recog­nised by the government, providing an engine for economic and social development that is truly sustainable. Wildlife-based industries like ecotourism and trophy hunting (where hunters pay for the privilege of a controlled hunt of certain selected animals as ‘trophies’) provided tangible benefits like jobs, income and food to communities who would otherwise be living in poverty. It isn’t really that complicated. Some refer to this solution as ‘what pays, stays’. In fact, management of the animals isn’t really about the animals, but about managing people and their livelihoods. And as a way to increase wildlife populations, it works.

In the years that I lived in Namibia I watched incredibly successful conservation programs emerge since this country gained independence from South Africa in 1990, ending a long civil war during which poaching was rife and wild species were decimated. Now many local communities who once received no benefits from wildlife had entered into joint tourism ventures with commercial ecotourism companies like Wilderness Safaris, and were receiving training, employment in safari camps, and percentages of the profits. Wildlife populations there were on the rise because people living alongside them had a genuine stake in their future. Some communities, like the San Bushmen of Nyae Nyae Conservancy, where I ran a project on human-elephant conflict in 2005, had entered into a partnership with a trophy hunting operation, which gave them not only jobs and income for the community, but also much-needed meat. Whether or not I liked trophy hunting at an emotional level, the local people I had surveyed there did because of all the benefits it provided. To the Bushmen, meat in their bellies meant more than western ide­ologies about protecting elephants at all costs. Such sentiments were worth very little in the stern face of daily survival in the developing world.

When the locals were on board, anything was possible. People in Africa are really just like people anywhere else – they want a better life for themselves and for their families. I had seen in southern Africa that if wildlife helped people to achieve that, then it would be cherished and nurtured just like any­thing of ‘value’. If elephants destroyed their crops and lions ate their goats, then they were considered the enemy. These people are no different from farmers in Australia who shoot the dingoes who threaten their livestock, or the American ranchers at war with wolves and coyotes. We may look different, have different religions and cultures, and speak different languages, but at a core level, we humans are still the same species. We are all just animals that need food, water and shelter in order to pass our genes on to another generation. No matter where you come from, whether you’re a Himba nomad in the desert, a rice paddy worker in India or a farmer near Birdsville, everyone just wants to lead a safe, healthy and happy life.

From what I had seen of India, although many people wor­shipped the elephant-headed god Ganesh and revered elephants, there was still some way to go to convince villagers living with them that conserving wildlife was a smarter option for them and their families than driving it out and destroying the dwindling forests in which elephants lived. In Assam, people were so poor that any threat to their meagre crops was devastating. Much of the damage to Assam’s natural habitats had been done dec­ades earlier with the clearing of forests for tea plantations and commercial logging. Thankfully the era of intense commercial logging had passed, but the deforestation still continues as every day piecemeal bits of forest are removed by local people, who load up their bicycles with impossibly high piles of wood for local sale. All of these little bits add up, resulting in more human-elephant conflict as the elephants follow ancient migration patterns that no longer wind through old jungles but through human settlements.

The head of the Wildlife Trust of India, Vivek Menon, described the state of India’s wildlife like this:

In today’s day and age almost every wildlife preserve in India is in danger. In danger from poachers waiting for the author­ities to take their eye off the ball to enable a strike. In danger from fringe villagers whose idea of usufruct rights [rights in relation to common property] run counter to conserva­tion imperatives. In danger from knowing and unknowing development lobbies. In danger from the ignorance of the Indian populace and its polity that overlooks the fact that our Protected Area system is actually a vital national heritage.

The year before, in 2007, when I had been in Assam with WWF to advise the state minister for the environment on some ideas that were working in Africa to reduce human-elephant conflict, my question to the WWF team in Assam was, if south­ern Africa was starting to have some success in realising genuine conservation outcomes, couldn’t the same principles be applied to India? It seemed a valid question to me, but I met with huge resistance, perhaps because I was a woman, and a foreign one at that, in a place where women still had very little status and foreigners rarely visited. All of the conservation staff at WWF and the ministers I met were men. And, as expected, there were half a dozen reasons why most of the people I spoke to didn’t think my outlandish ideas would work.

There were too many people in India, and too much corruption, too much political instability. India was different from Africa (if only I had a dollar for every time I heard that one). One argument put to me by one conservationist was that raising income for conservation through trophy hunting wouldn’t work as a management option because most Indians were philosophically opposed to hunting. These reasons were all valid and fair. But I had more questions that were met with automatic no’s. What about tourism? Not enough tourists were visiting Assam because they were scared of the rebel insurgencies and the bombings and, besides, the locals didn’t want loads of visitors. What about high end, low numbers tourism? But that would just make national parks unaffordable for Indians, who constituted the majority of visitors to them (seventy per cent). Why not increase the number of foreign visitors? These things don’t happen overnight, you know.

I was starting to get the picture. Clearly, I couldn’t possibly understand (you aren’t from here), and it wasn’t that simple (you really should know your place, woman). India’s problems were complex. How I grew to hate that word. Complex. Conservationists used it whenever they found it too hard to give me a straight answer or didn’t know the right one. The reasons why Africa’s approach wouldn’t work went on and on. Some of the points were valid, but I couldn’t get past the thought that negativity and a sense of being overwhelmed by the problem were inherent in the psyches of many of those working in conservation, creating a culture that was unable to see the wood for the trees. I wasn’t suggesting cutting and pasting Africa’s model onto India, because obviously there were differences and there had to be local ownership, but negativity towards ideas that weren’t their own didn’t stop me thinking that some of the approach that was working in Africa could in some form also be applied to India.

Thankfully, at least one of the staff at WWF had been will­ing to give the idea of chillies a go after the Assamese minister for the environment had spoken out in the newspaper about his sup­port for it. But it was early days for Soumen and his chilli project and while I encouraged him from a distance, only time would tell if it would make a difference.

After filming the war zone and WWF’s proposed chilli site, it was a mild relief to visit the Wildlife Trust of India’s Centre for Wildlife Rehabilitation and Conservation (CWRC), near Kaziranga National Park, to film the orphaned baby elephants and other wildlife being rehabilitated there. I had met some of the elephant calves a couple of years earlier. They had been much smaller then, and interaction had been limited as a result. But this time was quite different. There were about six baby elephants there now, and each of them had a unique personality, one of the centre’s resident veterinarians, Dr Boro, told us. We watched as Dr Boro and the keepers weighed the elephants and fed them with bottles containing special formula milk made specifically for elephants.

One of the youngsters, Deepa, was a little bit larger than the others. The oldest at just a few years old, she had taken on the role of matriarch for the group. In the wild elephant breeding herds are headed by a strong female leader known as the matriarch, whose commands are followed by the entire herd. What was astonishing about Deepa’s assumption of this role was that she had not had any older elephants to teach her this behaviour, but had simply taken it upon herself to lead the group of babies. One of the calves tried to push me over playfully, nudging me with his fuzzy forehead, and pulled my hand into his mouth just as the young elephant at Nameri had done. With their hairy heads and innocent, observant eyes under long lashes I completely fell in love with them.

Dr Boro told us how one of the little females, Soni, had been separated from her herd when she was only four months old. Her herd had been raiding a crop when it was driven away by villagers. Soni was roaming alone in a tea garden, no doubt trying to find her mother, when villagers found and attacked her in retaliation for the damage that the herd had done to their crops. They cut her tiny trunk with a machete, leaving a deep wound, but thankfully did not cut it off completely before she was rescued by the CWRC.

Tikla, a two year old male, had fallen into a tea garden drain and become trapped. When he was eventually freed, he could not be reunited with his herd. His story was not unusual as elephants, particularly youngsters but also adults, often became trapped in these trenches.

The stories of these orphans were harrowing, but their char­acters were endearing. It was impossible not to be won over by their playful antics and obvious sense of humour. The goal of the CWRC was to help these elephants return to the wild, as they had successfully done with elephants in the past, relocating them, when they were old enough, to the World Heritage listed Manas National Park in northern Assam. I had never been comfortable with seeing animals in captivity, but these orphans had been res­cued from situations that would almost certainly have led to their deaths, and the prospect of them being returned to the wild at some point was enough to give me a lot of hope for their future.

The bigger question was, if the destruction of the forests continued in Assam, would there be any ‘wild’ left for them to return to? It was a question that I would have to leave unan­swered for now, because my time with the crew was coming to an end. Much as I had loved being out in the field and seeing the crew film one part of the bigger global story of human-elephant conflict, I had to get home. The other part of the story we had yet to film was in Africa. If the company’s production funding came through we would film there the following year. But for now, it was a matter of urgency that I board a plane back to Sydney. Two weeks earlier I had married my boyfriend of the last year and a half, fellow conservationist Andy Ridley. In three days’ time, the official post-wedding party for our friends and fam­ily in Sydney was on and my new mother-in-law, Lizzie, had already arrived from England for it.

But getting home might not be that easy, I realised. A little disturbingly, there were a few rather large obstacles in my path that hadn’t been there before I left Sydney. There had been riots in Thailand so Bangkok had closed its airport, which I was due to fly through. The airline cancelled my flight and gave no indi­cation when it might be rescheduled. Then there was the state of Mumbai, which I also had to fly through to get home, and which was in complete disarray after the terrorist attacks the week before. It was beginning to look like I was going to miss my own wedding party.

But Andy wasn’t going to let that happen. He and a friend in Sydney managed to get me a flight home with another airline. Standing outside the CWRC after a morning with the orphaned elephants, one of the crew passed me the mobile phone lent to us by a local WWF staff member.

‘I’ve got you a flight, babe,’ Andy shouted over the crackling line, ‘but you have to leave now.’

I could hear the stress in his voice. Torn between the elephants and the man I loved back in Sydney, there was only one choice to be made. I would really miss being among the elephants, but guys like this only come along once in a lifetime.

Very early the next morning, a driver arrived to take me to the airport at Guwahati, leaving the crew to continue filming around Kaziranga National Park. I left the jungles of Assam behind, wondering when I would be back.


Excerpted from Planet Elephant by Tammie Matson. Copyright © 2013 by Tammie Matson.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Pan Macmillan Australia solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

The Vale Girl by Nelika McDonald – Extract

The Vale Girl

prologue

I live in Banville, a small town that begins and ends at no discernible point in the middle of bloody nowhere. My name is Sarah Vale, and I’ve got a story to tell you. It’s a story set in Banville, and the setting is important. We all come from somewhere. The dirt beneath our feet when we take our first steps is no less a part of us than the hand holding ours as we waddle along the path. I learnt this the hard way. You can take the girl out of the country, but not the country out of the girl, as they say.

There are plenty of stories told about Banville already, but they are just fairytales for the tourist brochures about the quaint gold rush town where all the houses are painted in heritage colours. Where you can buy jars of cumquat marmalade at the corner store with handwritten labels and chequered fabric bunched over the lids like little shower caps. Where the pub serves Devonshire tea on Sunday mornings and lamb roast on Tuesday nights, with a bread and butter pudding for dessert. And the publican, Reg, is a jolly red man with swinging jowls like a bulldog, who has a joke for every adult customer and a lollipop for every child. Where the main street is lined with sweeping silver gum trees and the verandahs in front of the weatherboard shops have bench seats covered in crocheted rugs and old tin Pauls milk signs leaning tipsily against the fence railings.

All those stories are true. But there is a lot more to Banville that the day-trippers do not see. It begins about two blocks behind the main street, going west as the crow flies. If the crow knew better it would fly swiftly in the opposite direction, as far away as it could get. But it’s only a crow. Here, two blocks west, you will see a sorry excuse for a park, a dusty triangular patch of land littered with empty chip packets swirling about in the hot breeze, and a broken swing dragging in the dirt. At the edge of the park, a homestead sits, looking over the wasteland in its lap. You can imagine that once it would have been majestic, surveying the town from this proud perch. But it has aged, like everything else. Now it has peeling grey paint and dirty windows and rusted guttering riddled with holes. There’s a ring of trees crowding around it, drooping down and huddling in like bent old ladies in green cloaks with their arms around the building, sheltering it from the world. If only they could. That’s my house, so we will start there. It’s as good a place as any.

chapter one

I wasn’t going to stay at school that day. I didn’t feel like it, and I had a library at home that was better than the one at school anyway. My grandfather was an arsehole, but he loved books. And here is what I’d noticed: If I dropped into school for the morning rollcall and then walked right out the front gate again when my name had been ticked off, nobody said a word. The trick was to do it with confidence, walking exactly as I would if I’d had permission to leave, looking casual, unhurried, bored. Bored was not difficult.

Mum was usually still in bed when I left, a lump under the bedclothes, and she didn’t stir that day, not even when I dropped the old cigarette tin with loose change in it right onto the wooden floorboards. The cigarette tin was one of my many stashes of money. I had them placed at various points around the house so I could always access cash quickly, for food or to pay Elspeth Mackey at the post office for whichever outstanding bills happened to be hanging the lowest over our heads that month. A strange thing happened to money in my house, if I didn’t get to it first. It liquefied, turned amber, or sometimes clear. And then the electricity got cut off again.

The cigarette tin was ingeniously hidden, if I do say so myself. In the lounge room was an old armchair with faded red roses on it and a brown velvet cushion stuffed permanently into the crevasse where the back met the seat. The obvious choice would have been to hide the tin behind the cushion, because nobody ever moved it. But I liked to go the extra mile. So I cut a slit in the arm right down low so that you could only reach it if you stuck your hand down the side of the cushion, and I nestled the tin in there amid the foam stuffing. A great length to go to, you might think, for ten dollars in coins. But ten dollars could feed us for several days, if I was careful.

Another good place I’d found was in the curtain rod. A rolled five-dollar note could fit snugly in the hollow. I also had a cut-out section in the heel of my school shoe, if you lifted the piece of fabric that lined the sole; there you would find four two-dollar coins. Also, three dollars fifty in the trick pocket I had sewn into the arm of my raincoat.

I had finally paid off our annual rates bill that month, painstakingly chipping away at it, turning up at the post office with handfuls of shrapnel until we were clear. And I’d done it. Which meant nothing much, to ordinary people. But to me, it meant there could be dinner on the table that night. A normal dinner, with meat and two veg, maybe even dessert. Even if dessert was just hot milk with sugar and vanilla essence.

When I dropped the tin I clenched my fists and waited, holding my breath, alert and tense. My mother needed her sleep. The night had been busy. I grabbed my bag and left, joining the tail of the train of kids traipsing up the hill to the school, peeling out of their front yards to meet their mates and walk together in laughing, swearing knots. They were so easy with each other, nudging and jostling and sharing cigarettes and swigs of Coke. I walked by myself. I tried to keep my head down, blend in, but Cameron Wolfe spotted me. He always does.

‘Saaaarah . . .’ he called, and came up behind me. I felt him before I saw him, the air growing thicker around me. He slung an arm around my shoulders and leant in close, breathing hotly in my ear. I tried to slip out of his grasp but he pulled me close to his side and grabbed my chin in his hand so I had to look at him. His eyes were bloodshot and had flat brown pupils like muddied creek water and pimples erupted in swollen clusters along his jawline. He smelt of cigarettes and cheap deodorant, and something else beneath that; something that made my stomach tighten. Cameron Wolfe had been tormenting me since he could walk, lying under the table in Home Corner at kindergarten to catch a glimpse of my knickers as I played.

‘Don’t run away from me,’ he said, slipping an arm around me so his hand cupped my shoulder. Dirt was embedded under his fingernails in little dark slivers. The flesh under the bed of the nail looked an absurdly plush pink in comparison. I tried to hold that in my mind, this part of him that was clean. Cameron turned to his friends and grinned. ‘Be nice, Sarah baby. I could be your next customer.’

He let his hand fall over my shoulder so it was resting just above my breast. I breathed shallowly so I didn’t have to take in any of his stink. It was too hot to be so close to anyone, I would suffocate. His friends laughed and whooped, circling around us tightly. They were all boys, except for Andrea Price and Marjorie Wilkinson. Andrea was reasonably new to Banville; her father had moved here to teach music at the primary school. Teachers got paid more for a country posting. It would want to be a lot more, to come here. Marjorie Wilkinson’s father was a lawyer and her mother, Monica, was secretary of the Parents and Friends Committee and the Better Banville Tourism Board. She was also the chairperson of the committee, and coordinator of the Grevillea Festival, the biggest event of the Banville business and social calendar, as well as sole journalist and editor of the local newspaper, the Banville Courier, issued monthly. ‘Uniting the Banville community!’ read the masthead of the paper. Apparently it made a very absorbent foundation for garden mulch. Last year, the Li family, who owned the fish and chip shop on the main street, had hosted a Chinese New Year celebration in their restaurant and invited everyone in Banville. It was all fun and games until Mrs Wilkinson saw Marjorie and Joshua Li kissing out the back on the concrete slab where Mr Li butchered the chickens. That was a little bit too much unity for Monica. She grabbed a wad of tissues from her purse and rubbed at Marjorie’s mouth, howling at her that she would get ‘infected with the Chink germs’. It was quite a show. Everybody except Monica Wilkinson knew that it was a bit late as far as germs were concerned. Marjorie had shared her personal bacteria with just about every boy in our grade.

She and Andrea moved up the hill a bit, dawdling, but still watching. The last of the other students disappeared through the gates, and their shouts and laughter faded. The street was empty, quiet and still but for us. Andrea looked uncomfortable, like she wished she was somewhere else, but Marjorie was focussed on Cameron, her eyes following his every move. I could feel the itch of sweat prickling my scalp. I tried to catch Andrea’s eye, but she wouldn’t look at me. She had helped Tommy Johns and me thread worms onto hooks for bait at the creek one Sunday a few weeks back. She hadn’t talked much, but I’d thought she seemed nice. I would have to revise that. Salvatore D’Angelo slapped Cameron on the back and leered at me, moving in to my other side. I hissed at him like a feral cat, and swung my elbows around, trying to land a blow somewhere.

‘Easy, tiger,’ Cameron said, and locked me under his arm.

‘Yeah, hasn’t your mum taught you anything, Sarah?’ Sal leant in, his face close to mine. ‘First rule of business: the customer is always right.’

Cameron looked around at his friends. He smiled. ‘So this is right,’ he said, and fitted his whole palm over my breast. I gritted my teeth and swallowed hard, and Cameron pinched me and pressed his crotch into my hip. The other boys sniggered. I summoned all my energy and pushed back, trying to twist away, but he held me too tight, strong and stubborn like a bull. From somewhere behind me, I heard the laughter of a girl.

‘Show her what else is right, Wolfey.’

‘Yep, get her in training. Her mum’ll need an apprentice.’

‘Even the town bike starts out with training wheels.’

‘L-plates, like.’ The boys clutched their stomachs and wheezed with laughter. Cameron smiled but looked distracted, as though he wasn’t really listening, and slid his hand down to cup my bum. Bile started to rise in my throat and tears needled behind my eyes so I fixed them shut and tried to think of something else. He couldn’t hurt me if I wasn’t really there. And I couldn’t let him see that I was upset; he fed on that. Better just to stay still and quiet, like a dog playing dead. Lately, these episodes had been happening about once a week.

I craned my neck away from Cameron and looked into the Montepulciano yard across the road. A currawong swooped down from the guttering that rimmed the roof of the squat brick cottage and landed on the netting shrouding the tomato vines at the front fence. It perched on a stake and watched me with yellow eyes. From the open window at the front of the house, a ginger cat arched its back and then jumped onto the grass of the yard, lowering its belly down to the ground and slinking through the grass towards the bird.

Go, I tried to signal to the currawong with my eyes. It cocked its head at me. The cat was gaining ground, head held taut, eyes narrowed. Cameron was saying something and his mates were laughing and egging him on but I kept my eyes on the bird. I could have held it in my two hands and felt its tiny heart beating under the warm feathers of its under­side. The bird hopped over to the next stake. The cat paused, and then continued its pursuit. Cameron’s hands slid down me and I pictured them leaving a trail of dirt in their wake and cringed. He grabbed my wrist so hard that a loud sound came from me, a low moan like the sound the possum had made when Tommy and I found it caught in a snarl of barbed wire down by the creek, the pelt on her stomach peeled back to reveal the wet, pink heave of her failing organs. The currawong started at the noise I made and took flight, circling over my head. I followed it with my eyes, moving my body slowly around so I faced Cameron full on.

‘That’s it, baby. I knew you’d come around,’ he said, and began to guide my hand down. The other boys moved closer, and I could hear them breathing. As Cameron drew my hand over his stomach, I brought my knee up and rammed it into his crotch as hard as I could. I felt my kneecap connect with the sponginess between his legs and I ground it in, smiling into his twisting face. His eyes rolled back in his head and he doubled over and fell to the ground.

‘You fucking little bitch,’ he said, surprised. ‘You fucking little bitch slut.’ A dribble of saliva rolled out of the corner of his mouth and pooled, glistening, on the bitumen under his cheek. Sal grabbed my wrists and pinned them behind my back, and someone else took hold of my ponytail and yanked my head back. I saw a flicker of pink as a painted finger­nail grazed my cheek. Across the road at the Montepulcianos’, the gate creaked open and Mrs Montepulciano ambled over to the letterbox. A purple scarf was tied over her hair. She lifted the lid, peered inside, then shut it again. She glanced over at us, at Cameron still curled up on the road with his hands cupped over his groin, and then at Sal with his fingers cuffing my wrists. He let go. Mrs Montepulciano turned away, but didn’t go back inside. She began to pinch the yellowed leaves off a shrub that was poking through the fence.

‘Les’ go,’ mumbled Sal to the others. Two of the boys grabbed Cameron under his arms and hauled him to his feet. He stood, slumped and panting.

‘You shouldn’t have done that, Sarah,’ he said, and his voice was hoarse. He bent over at the waist again for a moment. I looked at the greasy waves of black hair tumbling over his scalp like wet tar. When he straightened again, he pursed his lips and hawked a gob of phlegm onto the ground at my feet. Over the road, Mrs Montepulciano started humming to herself, off-key.

‘C’mon, let’s go,’ Sal said again. His family was Italian. They would be hearing about this. He started back up the hill towards the school. The others followed him, and Cameron limped along behind them. Marjorie carried his bag, as loyal and stupid as a pack mule.

‘I’ll see you,’ Cameron said, turning back after a few metres. His face split into a grin and I saw his teeth, the same yellow as the leaves Mrs Montepulciano was picking off her shrub. I shrugged, but I couldn’t keep my eyes on his, and he laughed as he turned around again. I stayed where I was, trying to breathe normally. At her fence, Mrs Montepulciano stopped plucking off the dead leaves. She turned her face up to the sun. A gust of hot wind came and fluttered her apron over her lap, and she held out her hand and released the leaves into the breeze. They spir­alled up and up, spinning and flitting above her roof, and I thought of Cameron’s teeth, plucked from his mouth and launched into the sky. I watched them until they disappeared. When I looked back down again, Mrs Montepulciano was gazing at me. She smiled a little, and then turned and walked back down the path and into her house. She closed the door behind her. Up at the school, the bell started to ring. I tucked my hair back behind my ears, shouldered my bag and started up the hill.

At assembly, I slipped into a seat near the back doors and kept my eyes trained forward so that nobody else would talk to me. Which was pretty low-risk anyway. People didn’t generally speak to me – Cameron and his cronies didn’t count as people. A year eight girl hissed ‘moll’ at me as I shuffled past her to get to a seat. Her friends giggled and squealed.

‘Kell-ee, shusshhh!’

‘You’re so mean, Kel!’

‘It’s not mean if it’s true.’

‘Good point.’

Giggles again.

Assembly began. The principal got up on the low stage at the front of the hall and started to speak. Mr MacLachlan was tall and thin with a prominent chest and a fuzz of curly silver hair. He wore tortoiseshell glasses pushed down low on his nose and tilted his head back to look down at us through them. When he was angry, which was most of the time, his voice broke in the middle of sentences. He carried a black briefcase everywhere he went and rumours were rife about its contents. A whip? A guinea pig? All the girlie magazines that were confiscated from the boys? Ten thousand dollars in clean, crisp banknotes?

Mr MacLachlan roamed around the stage like an animal staking the borders of its territory.

‘Students, as you are aware, the Grevillea Festival is on the horizon. Accordingly, we have been asked to nominate a group of you to represent our school on the day. We will be selecting a boy and a girl from each grade. Only the most shining beacons of scholarly dedication will be chosen. Students who reflect the academic excellence and community spirit of our fine educational institution. Of course, these students will have to balance their Grevillea Festival commitments with their curricu­lar demands at school. This will require great discipline.’

I stopped listening. He wasn’t talking to me, and now he had got on to his favourite subject. He’d be there for a while. The annual festival was Banville’s chance to make the Sydney news. It was billed as a celebration of the Banville and districts ‘community’, if that is what you call a collec­tion of people who are geographically close, but would push each other in front of a train over the Under-8s footy results. Mainly, it was a chance to lure the tourists out from the city. And Banville had grevilleas planted all along the main street. I guess they had to call it something.

Mr MacLachlan must have realised his audience was drifting, because he raised his voice.

‘Discipline,’ he said, pointing at the rows of students before him, ‘will get you everywhere.’ His voice broke and squeaked out the last syllable. His eyebrows drew together and he twitched his head like a mosquito was nibbling at his ear.

‘Discipline!’ he shouted again, and the PA screeched, ‘is the mark of a strong and worthy person. A person who will achieve their goals and aims in life.’ He went back to his lectern and everyone shifted in their seats. His secretary, Ms Steph Bay, was at the side of the stage, nodding and smiling with her hands clasped in front of her bosom. Death Ray, the kids called her. She looked sweet with her golden curls and floral blouses but she had cold, empty eyes. She could spot a forged signature on a permission slip from ten metres away, and was the most unsympathetic sick room attendant imaginable. If you came to her bleeding profusely from a knife wound to the head she would grudgingly give you a Panadol and then send you back to class. She had a massive crush on Mr MacLachlan. Not reciprocated.

‘Discipline will lead to success of the mind. And of the body.’ Laughter trickled through the room like a draught from an open window. I scanned the rows until I found Tommy Johns, a few rows in front of me and to the right. He was leaning down and writing something in a notebook. He was close enough that I could see the curls of brown hair at the nape of his neck and his long skinny arms bent into the space around him. He was so tall, now. I made myself look away. I’d messed everything up.

When I turned back to the stage Mr MacLachlan was staring right at me. But I didn’t flinch. I stared right back at him until he turned away. What a hypocrite, actually getting up on stage and talking about disci­pline of the body in front of the whole school, in front of me, like he was a model of it, a paragon of bloody virtue. I had seen inside his briefcase just a few nights ago. He had left it on my kitchen table, so I felt per­fectly justified in looking. And it wasn’t even locked. But all that was in there was a pack of chewing gum and a few stray paperclips. That would be fucking right. There was no mystery in this town for me anymore. I had seen every last secret laid bare in my own house, every briefcase in Banville gaping open. But I had missed one.


Excerpted from The Vale Girl by Nelika McDonald. Copyright © 2013 by Nelika McDonald.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Pan Macmillan Australia solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

What the Ground Can’t Hold by Shady Cosgrove – Extract

What the Ground Can't Hold

 

1 Emma Woods

I was walking back to the cabin to knock snow off my boots when the cracking roar echoed across the valley behind me. It sounded like splitting timber giving way. Turning around, I could see snow breaking loose high along the Cerro Blanco ridge, dropping down in a majestic, lolling rhythm. At first it moved slowly but once it fell over a rock ledge it gained momen­tum and power, like a giant wave bearing down the mountain. The sheer force was hypnotic – beautiful, even – and plumes of ice-powder billowed up like smoke. The avalanche dropped lower, swallowing up trees and boulders. It was exciting and frightening, and for a moment I didn’t even think about Jeremy and John. And then I scanned the mountain frantically, unable to place them. Time warped – those six or seven sec­onds stretched out and then compressed – and when that giant surge of snow swept across the trail and over the cliff, I had no idea if they’d escaped.

Pedro didn’t look at me; he just pulled the binoculars over my head and stared at the trail. We were in the middle of the Andes, a six-hour hike from Bariloche. No road access. No helicopter. Our stillness was making me panic – we had to do something. Finally Pedro thrust the binoculars at me and ran inside. ‘Look for their red jackets.’

Sliding the view into focus, I could see where the cornice had fallen into the ravine but my hands were shaking. The wind had blown the snow into a frozen wave – a Japanese woodprint etched against the sky. It shouldn’t have been so lovely. There was no sign of Jeremy or John.

Pedro leaned out the front door.‘Did they have transceivers?’

I didn’t know what he was talking about.

Pedro’s voice was urgent. ‘Avalanche signals give us their location. Strapped to their chests? Anything?’

I shook my head and he disappeared again. When he emerged, he was pulling on a pack loaded with poles and a shovel. ‘It’s only us.’

I knew that. Everyone else was hiking around the lake. ‘How much time do we have?’

‘Fifteen minutes, maybe twenty . . . They could be in an air pocket.’

It would take that just to get to the slide, but he was already running ahead and I had to work to keep up. I slipped at the river crossing, clinging to the overhead cable, but Pedro pulled me to the bank. We set off again and when we were within fifty metres of the rubble, he started shouting out for Jeremy and John. The avalanche had taken most of the snow, and a big slab of trail, into the ravine. We were faced with jagged blocks of ice and uneven piles of snow.

I had no idea what to do but Pedro was already climbing onto a mound of compacted snow.‘Do you know how to search for someone?’

‘No.’ I scrambled after him.

‘We imagine a grid. That rock: the top corner. That tree, the bottom. We walk back and forth and explore for anything solid. Take this—’ he handed me a metal rod that looked like a collapsible tent pole. In his other hand, he had a long piece of bamboo. We combed the closest pile, moving in line with each other, probing as far as we could, about seven or eight feet down. It was a relief to have something concrete to do.

‘Something here,’ Pedro said. He grabbed one of the shovels and began digging, shifting the snow in fast, clean arches. I tried to control my chest, filling it slowly with air. I needed to keep it together.

Copying Pedro, I pried up blocks of ice that were in the way.

‘Come on, Jeremy and John,’ I said under my breath. ‘You fucking dickheads need to be alive.’

My shovel scraped a hard surface and I was certain we’d gotten to one of them. But Pedro jumped forward and pushed away the snow to reveal the waterlogged bark of a tree. I yelled out in frustration.

Pedro stood back up. ‘Keep going. Work perpendicular to the fall line – the debris path is usually safe but we don’t want another avalanche.’ Pedro knew the terrain – he’d lived up there for years, managing the cabin.

I clambered over the rubble and kept searching. The quiet was cold against my ears. Only a faint murmur sounded from the wind.

I pushed down and hit something about three feet beneath me. ‘Oh!’ I was hopeful.

Pedro whipped around. ‘Solid?’

I nodded.

Again, Pedro started digging. I scooped the snow away with my gloves and pried back pieces of ice like rock. Everything could still be okay. We would find them and they’d be alive and we’d carry them back to the cabin. But then Pedro’s shovel hit something hard, a heavy clank, and we unearthed the top of a boulder.

We were working ourselves closer to the ravine. I tried to keep calm. Maybe the boys had run clear of the slide. The incline was too steep for us to check if there were footprints at the other side, but surely it was possible. I could imagine them hiking along the main trail – laughing at their close call with an avalanche. Punching each other and mucking about.

Pedro called out. ‘John? Jeremy?’

I began to call out too and he shushed me, listening. But the air was empty.

Pedro had stripped down to his flannel shirt. Time was passing and it made our search even more desperate. The mountain was too huge. All I could see was snow. We worked the grid until we reached the sharp incline of the cliff and I didn’t have a choice; I had to stop. My arms felt like they were going to fall off.

It was sinking in: we were out of our depth. The avalanche wasn’t going to be undone by me and Pedro and a couple of shovels. Jeremy and John had made a stupid decision and now they could be over the edge or trapped under snow and there would be no helping them. I buckled over, throwing up.

‘You okay?’ Pedro asked.

I nodded, wiping my mouth. ‘We can’t leave them.’

He looked at me – inquisitive, calculating – and I wondered how much he knew. I wondered if Jeremy had said anything. But Pedro glanced back towards the cabin, wiping the sweat out of his eyes. ‘It’s not safe. We risk a collapse.’

‘Please?’

Over an hour had passed and our mission had shifted from rescue to recovery. It was subtle – a bird crossing the sky: at what point is it directly overhead, at what point has it passed? Even if they were dead, I needed to find the boys.

Sighing, Pedro forced the bamboo pole down and I followed, giving us another two rows in the grid. ‘Then we go back,’ he said.

‘Thank you.’

We were about halfway along when I felt the snow shudder­ing beneath us like an earthquake tremor.

‘Up there, move up there!’ Pedro yelled. Tiny creaking sounds echoed beneath us like breaking glass. We needed to get off the snow mound before it caved in. I scrambled as fast as I could, jumping over an ice ledge but I didn’t know where to go. The whole ridge could cave in on us.

‘That open area,’ Pedro called out. It was twenty metres ahead, out of the mountain’s steep shadow. Sunlight was pool­ing onto it as a loud groan shook beneath us. The pack was ready to fall and it wanted to take us with it.

My thighs were burning as I pushed through each step but I didn’t seem to be making any distance. This was it. I’d been too careless, urging Pedro to go further, and now we were going to die. I felt Pedro shove me on. We were running but in slow motion. I had no sense of what the mountain was doing behind me. I focused only on the flat, level section waiting for us. We were ten metres away, then five. And finally I threw myself down on the ground just in time. A chunk of snow, about fifteen metres across, sloughed off and teetered down the mountain. I’d never been so scared in my life.

‘I’m sorry – I didn’t want to leave them.’ I was gasping for breath but there was no excuse for my stupidity.

Pedro was beside me, both of us staring at the empty air where we’d just been standing. ‘I’ll radio down. Club Andino will know if they arrive in Bariloche.’

‘What are the chances?’

Pedro shook his head like he didn’t want to promise more than he could deliver. He helped me to my feet and we started back towards the cabin. I could barely walk, my legs were shak­ing so badly. I was glad when he took the lead and we were forced to move in single file along the trail. I wouldn’t keep my composure if he tried to talk to me.

For the last two years I’d been planning to backpack through South America, and Argentina had been on my list of coun­tries to visit. But a month before I left, it became my focus: I found out I was adopted. I was twenty-nine years old and giving blood, the bag rocking back and forth on the scale, when the nurse made a bland comment about how the bank needed more AB. She said my parents should donate because blood type was hereditary. I knew Dad was O, but the nurse said that wasn’t possible. When I got home, an internet search proved she was right, leading to a series of exhausting confrontations with my parents. Turned out I’d been born in Argentina and my biologi­cal parents had died in a plane crash.

I didn’t handle this revelation gracefully. I ignored Mum and Dad’s phone calls as I packed and finalised bills. I couldn’t fig­ure out how much I’d known, how much I should have known. My parents were both pale and that inspired niggling suspicions when I was a kid, but doesn’t everyone have those – don’t we all fantasise of another tribe waiting for us? Mum told me I took after Grandma Gilly.

When I finally boarded the plane and found my seat, I fell into a deep sleep that was closer to passing out, and the air host had to nudge me to put on my seat belt. My first days in Buenos Aires were spent walking around, reeling. It was a city of monu­ments and statues. Modern skyscrapers tucked next to gothic domes. Gargoyles staring out over excavators and building works. I roamed the streets, staring at the majestic crumbling apartments, wondering if I could have lived in them, peering down hallways when anyone opened their front door.

Three shopfronts down from my hotel, in the ultra-bright florescence of the chemist, my lips formed the words cepillo de dientes – seven syllables for toothbrush. It seemed crazy that this musical, macho language could have belonged to me. The city’s rhythms were also strange: I would wake at one in the morn­ing, absurdly alert with jetlag, and listen to the Argentineans wandering home after dinner on a week night.

On my third morning I wandered into Recoleta with my daypack. I thought I’d visit the National Library and research the crash that had changed the course of my life. The library was hard to miss: it looked like a cubed UFO with landing gear had dropped onto the lawn. Inside, the detectors were out of order, and the security guard raised his hands in a gesture that said ‘All this technology and what is it good for?’ We laughed as I walked around.

The stairwells were patterned with repeating circle motifs. Upstairs, rooms jutted out over an open work area so you could look down at people below, sitting at the long timber desks. Beyond them, a huge expanse of windows let in the winter light. The space overhead, all that air, made me feel small.

In Australia, I was a research librarian. I loved libraries – they were epic buildings. All those books, floor-to-ceiling. Each volume a physical manifestation of an idea. It was humbling in a way that made me think of cathedrals. And all that organisa­tion: if you knew what you were looking for, you could find it. Didn’t matter if you were in another country with another language – it was all Dewey decimal.

There wasn’t a line at the information desk so I walked straight to the counter, dropping my pack on the floor. The woman behind the computer didn’t seem to care that it took me a moment to gather my thoughts. She wasn’t in a hurry.

My Spanish was passable – Dad was a director in the Depart­ment of Foreign Affairs and had been stationed in Peru and Mexico when I was growing up – but I asked if she could speak English.

Claro. Yes.’

I told her I was looking for information about family friends who had died in November 1977. A plane crash.

She nodded. With black metal glasses that matched her suit, she reminded me of my mother’s friends: competent and styl­ish. She must have been in her late fifties. ‘We have newspaper archives online and in microfiche. Can you read Spanish?’

‘A little.’

‘You can search the obituaries. Check the English-language ones first. My name is Julia.’

‘Thank you.’

It was a quiet morning so she walked me to a computer ter­minal in a windowless room. I sat down and she reached over me for the mouse, entering a password and following links to the archives. She smelled of pressed powder. ‘Good luck.’

I searched for my birth parents’ names. Eduardo and Maria Menendez. Nothing.

Then I looked for articles about plane accidents, narrowing the date of publication. Still nothing.

Next, the obituaries. I scrolled through every edition of the English-language Buenos Aires Herald between September and December 1977. Then the Spanish equivalents – Clarín and Crónica. Two people with the surname ‘Menendez’ had died but one was a teenager in a car accident and the other an elderly man who suffered a heart attack.

I stopped at Julia’s desk and thanked her.

She smiled. ‘Any luck?’

I shook my head.

Her eyebrows lifted as though my lack of success reflected on her and the library. ‘Who were they?’

‘Friends of my mother,’ I lied.

‘And they died in an accident of airplanes – you’re certain?’

I wasn’t certain about anything. ‘No.’

Julia was frowning, her forehead creased above her glasses. ‘Were they political?’

‘What?’ I asked.

She studied me for a moment. ‘Do you know about the Process of National Reorganization?’

‘The “Dirty War”?’ I knew a bit from my guidebook. Thirty thousand people had been kidnapped and murdered by the government in the 1970s and ’80s for being left-wing.

‘It might be worth talking to the Madres of the Plaza del Mayo,’ Julia said.

I was confused. The Mothers of the Disappeared used to march in front of the presidential palace to protest the disap­pearance of their children.

Julia nodded. ‘They coordinate all the records. I can call them.’ She scrolled online as she picked up the phone. Her Spanish was quick and she motioned for me to write the names I was searching for on a piece of paper. She recited them clearly into the phone, spelling them out. Covering the mouthpiece, she looked at me. ‘They have databases.’

‘For what?’ I asked.

She opened her mouth to answer but then grabbed my pen and began scribbling on the piece of paper. I couldn’t read her writing or follow what she was saying – she was speaking too fast. Her voice would lift as she asked a question and she’d nod her head, eyes trained on me. I smiled, trying to convey a sense of appreciation, but I wanted to know what she was saying. Then she covered the mouthpiece. ‘You should speak to them yourself.’

‘Why?’

‘Your mother’s friends were held at La Cacha, a detention centre.’ She glanced at her notes. ‘According to records, police raided their home and took them into custody on 2 October 1977 and that’s the last time they were seen. Their names appeared on a prisoner list that was smuggled out. Eduardo was a teacher at the university. He and Maria were members of the Revolutionary Workers’ Party. Maria was eight months’ pregnant . . .’

‘What happened to the child?’

She looked up and I wondered if I’d been too careless – but she shrugged, the phone still tucked between her head and shoulder. ‘It’s in the courts now. Babies adopted in secret.

People in their thirties now, forced to take DNA tests, finding out their parents aren’t really their parents. Imagine that. The Grandmothers established a national register to help families find each other. There’s about five hundred missing children.’

I had to sit in one of the red chairs in the study hall. It was too much to think about. My biological parents had probably been murdered and somehow I’d ended up with Mum and Dad. A couple of Australians. If it were true, and they had a friend who organised the adoption, you had to wonder how much they’d known. Were they having dinner parties with people who ran death squads? It didn’t make sense – Mum had set up micro-enterprise schemes so women in the third world could start small businesses. Dad had overseen the establishment of twenty-five rural schools in Asia. We’d had arguments around the dinner table about paternalism – how much are you really helping a country when you try to fix their problems? – but my parents believed in free speech and the right of protest. They wouldn’t have conspired with a military dictatorship. It wasn’t possible.

I searched the library for English books about Argentina’s Dirty War, and stashed them in my backpack. I walked around the detectors, smiling at the guard like we were still sharing the joke. Usually I hated people who stole books but I reckoned the library gods would forgive this one.

In the outside foyer, a teenager with heavy eyeliner stood in the telephone booth, shouting at someone – a parent, I guessed – and snapping her gum. When she slammed the phone down and scurried out, the booth smelled of artificial strawberries and grease. I punched in the numbers on my card.

‘Hello?’


Excerpted from What the Ground Can’t Hold by Shady Cosgrove. Copyright © 2013 by Shady Cosgrove.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Pan Macmillan Australia solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Hold the Line by Matthew Scarlett – Extract

Hold the Line

INTRODUCTION

I was born to be a full-back. That may sound weird, and many over the years have told me that I’m crazy to enjoy playing in the toughest position on the field.

But I’ve always been this way.

For some reason, I thrived on the pressure of being the last man standing, locked arm-in-arm with my opponent.

The bottom line is I hate losing.

I can’t stand it. I don’t accept it.

As long as I can remember, with anything, all I’ve wanted to do is win.

I can’t even let my daughter win at ten-pin bowling because it doesn’t sit well with me.

There are so many stories of me as a kid tormenting my mates at footy or cricket because I would never give an inch.

It was everything. It consumed me. And that was what drove me in my football career. Every marking contest, every scrap for the ball – even if it was at training – I had to win. I was obsessed with winning. I still am.

Chapter 1

FOOTY WITH MY MATES

‘You have to stay down there and not go after the ball.’ The words from my U/11 football coach didn’t make a lot of sense.

I’d been made to play full-back which I didn’t want to do, and because the ball hadn’t come down there I’d chased it up the other end and kicked a goal.

Then I’d been taken off. Now, they didn’t want me to go near the ball.

I was only a few games into my football career with the Bears in the YMCA Little League in Geelong.

I’d started playing later than most, although I was always having a kick in our street with my two best mates: Trent Perrett, who lived across the road, and Luke Trevaskis, whose parents were best friends with mine and who lived just around the corner.

It was actually Luke who got me into the Bears. He’d started going to training, and one day I decided to tag along. Then the coach, Trevor Whitten, coaxed me into it.

So, at the age of nine, I was a footballer. I loved it straight away and found it easy. Too easy, it seemed, for the administrators.

The boss of the league approached Trevor and voiced some concerns from the umpires. Initially, they’d requested the move to the backline. Then they’d wanted to get me off the ground, when they suggested the ‘stay away from the ball’ rule.

I got really angry, because I hated not being out there. There was even a suggestion that I should miss a game or two to try to even up the competition. I wouldn’t have a bar of it, as clearly the competitive juices that would be a feature of my adult life were starting to flow.

My father, John, intervened at the end of the season, and my stint with the Bears was over. He moved me to the Geelong Football League club St Joseph’s, which was linked to the Catholic secondary school of the same name, where the standard was a lot higher.

Sport had always been a big part of our family. My mother, Glenyce, was a very good netballer, as were my sisters, while I’d also shown a liking for the game as a youngster. Dad was the famous footballer, having played for Geelong and South Melbourne. He was midway through his final season in the Victorian Football League (VFL), as it was back then, when I arrived on the scene on 5 June 1979. My earliest memory of him as a footballer was when he played locally in Geelong for Newtown. I loved hanging out in the change rooms every Saturday, and I remember Dad kicking a lot of goals and carrying on, as they had a successful era back then, winning a few premierships.

It might surprise people but, early days, footy wasn’t a priority. Dolls were. Let’s just say my sisters enjoyed having a little brother. ‘Exploited’ having a little brother might be a more appropriate way of putting it. Sarah and Emma would treat me as their plaything. They would constantly have me wearing dresses and make-up while we all played with Barbie dolls and Pound Puppies. I was a very shy and timid kid, so my sisters looked after me. Part of that bargain was obviously to be treated like the other sister they never had. It got to the point where Mum got me my own Michael Jackson doll because she wanted to bring some male influence into the equation. An interesting choice in hindsight!

Mum was very protective of her only boy, and I was clearly the golden child. My sisters still take great delight in telling the story about how she eventually allowed me to get a skateboard – a long time after most of my friends – but on the condition that I only ride it down our carpeted passageway with a stack hat on.

The girls would get jealous of the way Mum looked after me. She would always start the shower for me – they say until I was about 16, but I say more like ten – and would have my clothes out ready, warming on the clothes horse. Sarah and Emma would have to get their own clothes.

It took me a while to emerge from the cotton wool of Mum and the sisters’ Barbie shows. Playing footy helped, but, just as that started, my life changed dramatically in two ways. Both were significant – and unexpected – but on very different levels.

The serious event was my parents separating. Kids never see what problems their parents are having, and it hit me out of the blue. I was devastated, and it certainly knocked all of us around for a little while. I stayed with Mum and the girls at home, while Dad moved out and initially stayed at my cousin’s house. The less serious turning point – but equally confusing for many – was my decision to become an Essendon supporter.

It came out of nowhere. I used to go and watch Geelong every week with Dad. It was during one of these visits to the Cats’ home ground of Kardinia Park that I was seduced by the red and black. Essendon were smashing Geelong on this day, and suddenly I decided I was a Bomber. To his credit, Dad didn’t try to talk me out of it, and soon he was driving me to Windy Hill each week to watch my new team play at home.

I became a member and a fanatical one. I loved Simon Madden and the hard blokes such as Billy Duck-worth, Kevin Walsh, Mark Harvey, Gary O’Donnell and Mark Thompson. One of my early favourites was Greg Anderson, a left-footed wingman from South Australia who had a cracking blond mullet. I actually wore No. 11 because of Anderson in my first year in the U/13s at St Joseph’s. Sean Denham, the hard-nosed tagger, also became a bit of a favourite, and I was regu­larly writing letters to him.

But the one who took over from all of them was Gavin Wanganeen. I had a life-size poster of Wanga in my bedroom and changed numbers at St Joseph’s to No. 4 out of respect for him. I made this huge flag with his name on it that I’d take to games, and I flew it proudly at the 1993 Grand Final, where I saw my boys smash Carlton.

*****

Before AFL football even started to appear on the horizon, I believed I was destined to play in America’s National Basketball Association (NBA). Well, that’s what I continually told the knuckleheads from Corio, whom I played against in a team with my cousin Jeff Morgan. That might sound innocent enough – a bit of lively banter on the basketball court – but it’s not when you’re 12 and the opponents are at least ten years older than you and can best be described as steroid-fuelled bodybuilders from the wrong side of town. But that didn’t stop me as I hit three-pointer after three-pointer in their faces, much to the angst of my cousin.

Despite an eight-year age gap, I was very close to Jeff. After my parents split, I spent a lot of time playing hoops in his backyard in Belmont. In many ways, he helped mould me into the person I am today and was certainly the one responsible for stoking my competitive fire. Any time of the day or night, there would be a game of one-on-one happening at his house, and I would be in the thick of it with him and his mates.

Despite being obviously smaller and a lot lighter than Jeff, I would keep fronting up, trying to beat him, even when he would regularly belt the crap out of me. They had a nine-foot ring attached to their garage – regulation height is ten foot – and he would try to dunk on me, so I resorted to standing on a pile of bricks against the fence and jumping off them to block his lay-up attempt.

I loved the game and the contest. That went up a level when I joined Jeff’s team in the weekly compe­tition, where the teams couldn’t have anyone over six-foot tall and it was played on courts with nine-foot rings. Jeff always used to get frustrated because my stirring of the Corio boys would inevitably lead to a fight. Even they wouldn’t have a go at a 12-year-old, so my teammates would have to step in and fly the flag. Importantly, it did show me the advantages of getting inside the mind of an opponent – something I would enjoy doing later in life.

I was constantly working on this tactic, particularly with my best mate Luke in our daily battles, whether it be footy, backyard cricket or on the Nintendo. We went to different primary schools, but as soon as the clock hit 3.30 pm we’d both rush home and start a game of something. Cricket always became fiery. A snick behind was an automatic wicket and we would blue for ages if one of us didn’t walk. Sometimes, we seriously wouldn’t talk to each other for a couple of days because of a dispute over someone’s – usually my – refusal to admit he had hit it. Computer games were also always interest­ing, and I may have gone through five or six controllers on the Nintendo, as I developed a habit of throwing them against the wall if I lost.

One year, for his birthday, Luke got a pair of boxing gloves. That spelt trouble. One night after school, he put the left one on, I had the right, and, for more than an hour, we proceeded to belt the suitcase out of each other.

This hatred of losing flowed onto the football field. I was a wingman early in my career at St Joseph’s, where Dad coached us in the U/13s and U/15s. He was pretty fit for his age, and his idea of training was match practice, in which he’d always join in. He never put any pressure on me, even though there was an expectation for sons of AFL footballers to follow in their father’s footsteps. The father–son drafting rule meant that the children of players who had played more than a hundred games at one particular club could be preferentially drafted by that club. A lot of people at school talked about what a great player my father had been – he wore the blue and white hoops in 183 games from 1967 to 1977 – but to me he was just my old man, and it didn’t have a great effect on our relationship. Dad was more interested in winning premierships, and we managed to win the flag in the U/15s, where I played more as a forward and kicked a few goals. It wasn’t until the U/18s that I first played as a defender. Like every kid when I was younger it had been all about chasing the ball, getting as many kicks as possible and kicking goals. The older you got and the better the standard, everyone started to find a niche and it came as no surprise that I found mine as a defender given my father had made a name for himself in the VFL at full-back. What I instantly loved about the position was the challenge of beating your man.

*****

The pathway for junior footballers who had dreams of one day playing in the AFL was through the Geelong Falcons in the TAC Cup U/18 competition. The best kids from around Geelong and the western district, stretch­ing as far as Warrnambool, were invited to be part of a summer squad, from which a list was selected for the season. The Falcons also had an U/16 squad, and I was invited to go down for a try-out. It was way too serious for me, and I figured I’d blown my shot when I missed the bus to a pre-season game because I was out having fun with my mates. That was basically all I cared about – playing footy with my mates at St Joseph’s – and at that stage I had no aspirations to play in the AFL.

Former Geelong great Michael Turner, who played with my dad, was the boss of the Falcons, and he was regularly in contact, trying to get me down there. It wasn’t until the urging of my U/18s coach at St Joseph’s, John Fitzgerald, that I finally agreed to do it. ‘Just go and give it a shot,’ Fitzgerald would keep saying. ‘Good things can happen if things work out.’

There was nothing good about the training, slogging it out at the Highton Oval in summer while my mates were out having fun. The professionalism shocked me and I struggled. I’d never really done anything resem­bling pre-season training before. I’d just been going down for a kick with my mates, but the Falcons was something completely different and I took a long time to adjust. There were plenty of times over that summer, especially during the intense running sessions, when I felt like walking away. Then when the season started I found the difference in the standard alarming. I was constantly questioning myself but Turner and the coach, former Footscray player Brian Cordy, helped keep me involved. They kept saying that I would improve by playing in the Falcons system and eventually I started to feel that.

By this stage, I’d finished school at St Joseph’s College. It’s fair to say the less said about my education the better. The one thing I’m proud of is my attendance record. I think I wagged once and got caught, so that was the end of that. My score for Year 12 was 16 out of 100, which says a lot. School for me was all about hanging out and kicking the footy or having a game of cricket at lunchtime.

My first foray into the workforce had been as a car-park attendant at the Arena, the local basketball stadium where National Basketball League team the Geelong Supercats played their games. It was the dream job, because I was already a season-ticket holder and would go to every game. When my next-door neighbour became the general manager of the team, he got me the gig, so I got to get up close and personal to superstars such as point guard Shane Heal, who would go on to play in the NBA.

Once school had finished, I started helping out at Dad’s security business, messing around with electron­ics and installing alarms. It was a means to an end and enabled me to get enough money to buy my first car: a little black Mitsubishi Magna.

At this stage, I had no idea what the future held. The 1997 National U/18 championships changed all that.

*****

Emma Scarlett (sister):

When Matt was younger, he was very shy and timid, and he always hid behind me and my older sister.

He would play Barbies with us, and Mum bought him a Michael Jackson doll because she didn’t want him to play with the blonde one that we had. We would often dress him up like a girl, put dresses and make-up on him – which my kids still do to him now, mind you.

My mum was very protective, and he was always a bit of a sooky little thing really as a young boy.

His middle name is Vaughan, which is after my grandfather. He hated it. Everyone would ask him what his middle name was and he would change it all the time because he hated it so much. So whatever friend he was hanging with at school became his middle name, and I think it was Matthew Anthony for quite some time.

When Mum and Dad separated, Matt was young, and I know everyone automatically goes to Dad because of the father–son and blah blah, but I think it would be fair to say Mum was much more influential than Dad ever was in our lives.

One funny story I remember was when he was about six, he came out of the shower and we were all looking at him thinking ‘What the hell is wrong with him?’. He’d shaved his eyebrows off. Mum had left a razor in the shower and he shaved off his eyebrows. I’m convinced that’s why he has such big bushy eyebrows now.

Even when he got a bit older, he was a real timid sort of a kid. When it was my 16th birthday, we had a party and some gatecrashers turned up. Mum was inside and she could hear Matthew snib his bedroom door because he was scared. Mum went out, then the police came and it was all sorted. Once everyone had gone, that was when he came out, and he was like, ‘You should have let me know, I would have sorted it out.’ Mind you, he’s locked away in the bedroom.

Jeff Morgan (cousin):

Matt and I were very close growing up, even though I’m eight years older than him. He spent a lot of time hanging out with me and my mates, playing basketball. We played together in a team when he was probably 12, and I’d say that’s where he really learnt how to trash talk. He’s a big fan of the NBA and American sports, so he really loved it.

He had no fear, and it certainly instilled in him that confidence. I think from a physical point of view playing basketball taught him a lot, like boxing out. When you saw him later in his football career, he was obviously so good against even bigger guys as he would just plant those feet and use the hips. He had a low centre of gravity and I think his basketball background really helped for sure.

I used to ride a motorbike back then, so I’d be taking him on the back, this little kid with the helmet on, cruising around to the basketball. He thought that was pretty good.

He always played a bit of footy when he was younger, but it was never serious and he was never an outstand­ing talent. Back then, when he was probably 12 to 14, basketball was what he was really good at. Everyone thought he was really good. He was a little bit taller than the average at that age and he was a good shooter.

He could have gone on with it, but it was probably when he was 15 that footy started a bit more. He started getting good at it.

He always looked like he was going to be a good sportsman at whatever he chose to do. I remember, in his first year at Geelong, I was saying to my mates, ‘He’ll be an All-Australian, without a doubt. I guarantee it.’

There was always just something about him.

Luke Trevaskis (best friend):

Our parents were best friends, so we grew up together and pretty much lived in each other’s pocket as kids. He was super competitive and, while we went to differ­ent schools as kids, we’d come home from school and straight away we’d be kicking the footy for hours or playing backyard cricket, and if we weren’t doing that it was computer games.

He initially wasn’t super keen to play at the Falcons and he had to pretty much be dragged down there. But once he got there, he dominated, and because I saw how competitive he was early, I knew he’d make it. There wouldn’t have been many times that I beat him at cricket or footy. I wasn’t as competitive as him and I’d be more like ‘Stuff it’, but he was just relentless.

I kind of had an inkling in the back of my mind that he was going to be successful.

Trevor Whitten (first coach):

I lived in the same street as John and Glenyce. I had a couple of kids too and we got involved with the YMCA in the U/11s. Before you knew it, Matthew was up there, and then we started playing and Phil Bainbridge, he used to run the YMCA, he came over and said, ‘Look, the umpires aren’t too happy with this guy you have here Scarlett.’

He was dominating everything, so they wanted us to move him down to the backline. We tried that, but he kept running down and still kicking goals from the backline. He would kick eight or nine goals a game. The other kids couldn’t get near it.

He was just ten, and then at the end of the season Bainbridge said, ‘I don’t think we can continue on with him.’ He was virtually saying he was too dominant for it.

His old man, John, got wind of it and dragged him out and took him up to St Joseph’s, and he played underage up there. We only had him for the one season.

It’s funny because Richard Holz, the president of South Barwon, and I still reminisce about the U/11 Bears and still picture him getting told off and being so dominant.

He was just a competitive young lad. Even at ten years old, and then when he was 15 or 16, he had this sort of look in his eye like that’s all he was living for.

He was a bloody good kid to handle, not cheeky or anything. The fortunate thing with him is he would listen to you, even if he might go away and perhaps do it the way he thought. He was always very well mannered.

The beauty of Matthew is he has never been an ‘I am’ sort of bloke.


Excerpted from Hold the Line by Matthew Scarlett. Copyright © 2013 by Matthew Scarlett.
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