They say you can tell a man’s heart by how he treats his dog. And if that’s true then Rob Burgess’s heart was solid gold. The Cobargo community would have seen Rob walking his Great Dane, Jensen, up and down the street on a regular basis until just a couple of months ago when his advancing cancer put an end to that.
Mumbulla Hall in Bega, Saturday morning. A ragtag crew of a hundred or so, mostly women but enough men to cushion our sound. Shrill sopranos, mellower altos, the velvety tenors and the gravel-toned basses. I don’t know what I am but I’m standing with the basses when we divide ourselves up, and I don’t move easily, so I give it a burl. Can’t reach some of the low notes so I shuffle towards the tenors, where I kind of stay. By the end of the weekend I suspect I may be an alto. It doesn’t matter.
It’s hard to spot, but there’s a path into the bush in the far corner of the Quaama Cemetery. As you pass the main cluster of graves – the smart new granite of the Colemans, the Conways with their river rocks and shells, the green trellis over Pato Taylor – you may see it. Enter the scrubby remnant forest here and continue down along the path, deeper under the trees. It’s cooler in here. The light is dappled, filtering through the canopy. You can hear bellbirds’ chimes, the occasional whipbird, the zim-zippery wagtails’ calls.
There are nine wombats on the road between Bega and Bemboka. Nine dead wombats. And it’s not even a bad season, a dry season, when what little rain we get runs off the roads and pools in the ditches beside them, creating green oases in a land of brown. Those oases bring the wombats to the roadsides in drought. But this time we’ve had plenty of rain, and still they come to the road. There they die bad deaths: deaths bouncing off bumpers, deaths crushed under wheels, deaths dragged by undercarriages until they’re just stains on the bitumen.
My friends Vicki and John hit a kangaroo once, on the Tanami Track, in the Tanami Desert. Didn’t kill it. But they got out and had a look, and it was clearly injured. No WIRES in the Tanami. They made a decision; who knows if it was the right one. What would you do? They decided to finish what they’d started.
A common sight in Quaama, until recently, was a big old blue Falcon doing the morning run from Fieldbucketts Rd along Bermaguee St to the store, apparently with no driver. But then you’d hear a friendly ‘bip’ as it passed – Joan spotting a friend. Joan Horne, the little lady with the big presence.
Picture, if you will, a forest clearing. There’s the chatter of birds in the treetops. A dirt track, recently graded. Heavy equipment stands idle all around – bulldozers, knuckleboom loaders, chainsaws. At one end, a ragtag group of people in beanies and coloured clothing, with backpacks and thermos flasks, sits chatting. At the other, workmen in fluoro vests and helmets stand with arms crossed.
There must be more efficient ways of ridding a citrus tree of stink bugs than with a vacuum cleaner, but certainly none more satisfying. Thwok, they go as they hurtle up the tube. Thwok, thwok! A slurry of tinkling thwoks as a column of the little orange-backed bugs is sucked up the metal tunnel.
I’m gazing across my desk and out the window as a hearse glides down my street, a seemingly endless parade of cars in its wake. I wonder briefly who has died in this small town, to attract such a crowd. I mentally list the old and the sick, reach no conclusions and return to my work.
The next day I take my usual mid-afternoon ramble with the dogs, out the back gate, across the small village common and down the dirt track to the cemetery. It’s not hard to spot the new grave, still heaped with dirt and strewn with flowers, a small white wooden cross at its head. “Arnna Marie Clarke”, it reads, “aged 45 years”.