Sunlight glinted off the window of Sally’s car as she unlocked the driver’s door. While she gave the hot air inside time to rush out, she marvelled at the cloudless sky above, a rare sight due to it being the middle of a ‘build up’ season. Usually this time of year resulted in skies shrouded in heavy clouds, shielding heaven from the inhabitants of Australia’s most northern capital city. That it was Christmas Eve made this calm sky even more special. Sometimes you just get lucky, she thought.
The seat croaked as Sally rested behind the wheel of her Datsun 120Y Coupe, a light but durable car that had survived trips down the track to Mataranka, Litchfield and even as far as Kakadu, though that one had been touch-and-go. It was over to Darryl’s place, along with all the other Melbourne orphans who called Darwin home, for the party that would last until Christmas morning. While they didn’t all work at the hospital in town where Sally did—some were builders, tradesman or just free spirits—they shared an anniversary: two years in town. It would be a grand night—vinyl spinning, fondue melting, and the standard party activities. What might happen between her and Darryl’s mate Ben also played on her mind as she drove her car toward the outer suburb of Anula. She’d met Darryl, at the Darwin Hotel, the pride of Mitchell Street and a popular watering hole for politicians, nurses and regular folk alike. It was where they all met after long Friday shifts. Darryl was high up in the Department of Land, and one of the first to have his house built out in this suburb, surrounded by scrub and near the dusty airport. Ben also worked for the department but he lived in an old Darwin stilt house that, in the heat of a day like today, would make a party difficult to enjoy regardless of the amount of beer or iced claret a person drank.
The Datto swung into the dirt track of Coronet Crescent. Darryl’s house was easy to find, the only one with lights on, and one of five in the street with a completed roof. As she rode the clutch to ease the Datto to an orderly halt, she wondered again why he would live out here—until five months ago it had been a cleared block, and a month before that bush scrub used by the local army base. The only reasoning he’d ever supplied was when he told her that the blocks were huge and gave him freedom to “build a jungle”. In this climate, he said, all you needed to do was throw a plant into the ground and it would grow. But she knew he had done little to start the process, instead allowing the native scrub to creep onto his block. Territory scrub was daunting during the ‘build up’, mainly greys and greens, but there were some that displayed an awesome array of reds and yellows when the dry season arrived. It would take a long time for Darryl’s ‘jungle’ to grow, to make his house a home.
“Your brother better show up tomorrow morning or your mum will fucken’ crack it.”
Darwin had spread out immensely, culminating in a new satellite city, Palmerston, which in 2014 was mainly embodied by its Hog’s Breath Cafe. As we drove along the Stuart Highway toward Darwin’s outer suburbs, a B-Double belched as it passed in the opposite direction, rumbling into the beginning of its 3500km trek south to Adelaide.
“He’s a pain but he’ll be there, at least to eat.”
Amy sighed, hoping more than stating a fact. Her brother, Mick, had battled his demons since he was a kid, from truancy to drugs; the latter still a feature but seemingly under some sense of control. What her sigh didn’t say was the concern that Amy, her mum and her dad all had for Mick’s mental health, his occasional vocal outbursts that meant any dinner spent together was spent on tenterhooks.
What brought them together, at the very least, was Mick’s close proximity to the family home, nestled in suburban Anula. Rounding the corner into Vanderlin Drive, I stole a look at Amy. “Have your folks considered seeking professional help?”
“I don’t know. Every time I bring it up Mum changes the subject or finds some way to dismiss the idea. And Dad is reluctant to start with Mick in case it upsets Mum.”
Amy’s tone was determined but after years of this scenario the likelihood that a real change in Mick’s behaviour would occur seemed unlikely. I focused on the road ahead—a slow lane split into Coronet Crescent.
We pulled up outside the garden-shrouded Grollo house that had been the Souter household for 35 years and strolled though the front gate, the bell on it jingling as it shut behind us. I didn’t grow up in the house but, after years of coming here, I’d learnt just how important it was; not just in the spiritual sense that a house becomes a home with the years of family life it contains, but in the literal style of the build and, especially, the role of the garden.
Grollo houses were built to withstand just about anything. Solid concrete spans that were the roof could have a soccer match played on them, such is the size and strength. But it was also important that, while solid, the house was airy and cool to bring some relief from the blanket of humidity—also known as the ‘build up’—that settled over the Northern Territory during the months of late October through to May. But it was the garden that really kept the place cool. Amy’s dad would often joke that anything could grow in a week during the hotter months. The relief that a forested garden could bring was heightened when the rainy season arrived, reducing the level of humidity to bring a slight break from the heat.
Every time I walked through that gate, I’d marvel at the pawpaws, bead trees, palms, bromeliads, and magnolias that surrounded me, noting the difference in heat from the street to the carport. Greens, pinks, yellows, whites. Not all the colours of the rainbow, but amazing variants of those base colours that I could never name. I’d never known the smell of the Milkwood until I came to this house, or the sight of a Jackfruit dangling precariously above my head. An Eden of the suburban north. No Terra Firma here, only fertile land. Until Mick arrives that is.
It was a few hours into the party when Sally noticed the wind. It had started as a strong warm northerly, blowing dust through Darryl’s carport. But as the night wore on it bolstered and began to whistle noticeably over the stereo. Sally seemed to be the only person who noticed, but Ben’s arrival with a cup of cool Claret interrupted her thoughts.
“It’s blowing up a bit outside, eh?” Ben said. “Might have a light show tonight if the storm takes.”
“I missed the news on the radio this morning, but it’s the joy of the season. Hopefully it’ll cool down a bit more.”
She almost yelled the last statement, someone cranking the stereo louder to account for another increase in the noise outside.
“Does anyone here work at the weather office?”
Ben opened his mouth to say something but was interrupted by a strong gust that blew the lounger room door open so quickly that its pane of window glass shattered. The room would have been deathly silent but for the Led Zeppelin record midway through ‘Black Dog’.
As Darryl strode to the window to try and clear the glass away the wind drove a second gust through the room, throwing cups and paper plates everywhere, even knocking the stylus across the record with a scrape.
“Darryl, which room has the least windows?” said Kevin. Before Darryl could answer a few others started talking about going home, before the storm got worse.
“Look guys, I’m sure it’ll pass over with a few fireworks to bring in Christmas Day but it’ll be OK.” Darryl put his hands up. “But we’ll move into the den to make Kevin happy.”
Everyone laughed and someone hurled a styrofoam cup at Kevin. Ben put his arm around Sally.
“We could head back into town?”
His smile made her consider the idea, but another gust that shook the house settled the matter; she couldn’t be sure her little Datto wouldn’t be blown off the road. As the party moved into the windowless den, the lights went out and a huge roar heralded the arrival of the cyclone.
“Well if you didn’t live in Melbourne off Mum and Dad’s money then you would know what the fuck is going on.”
Mick had started soon after the food was served, the small party falling quiet at the sound of his outburst. He stood silently, slightly bug-eyed, over Amy who stood in front of him. It had started when his mum had mentioned a prize Amy had won at work, to which Mick responded with “Well la di da.”
Amy had gone quiet, but her mother interceded. “She’s not living off our money Mick, she’s studying.”
“Oh fuck off Mum, you don’t know anything. If you did you’d stop fucken’ lying to yourself that we’re the perfect family! We’re not, we’re fucked; Dad’s fucked and I’m fucked.”
The plate he held flew past us, connecting with the wall but not breaking, the impact leaving a food Picasso on the family room wall. Party attendees flinched, but others looked at their plates, averting their eyes. The awkward silence that followed dragged to the sound of distant thunder.
Mick connected with my shoulder as he pushed past me and the party guests, striding to the front door. As he passed the hall he slammed his fist into the laundry window, smashing his fist through it with the sickening sound of bone meeting glass. The family dog barked.
I headed out after him, running down the hall past the broken glass and along the driveway, reaching the car just as Mick closed his door. I strode to the driver’s side as he started it. Mick began: “I didn’t mean to say that to Amy, but she gets all…”
“Look mate, I don’t care about your shit but you can’t keep doing that anymore, not to Amy and especially not if I’m in the room, are we clear on that?” The fact I’d cut him off surprised him, I could tell—he had the look of a wounded animal, cowed but with the potential to turn aggressive any second.
“Mick, you’ve got to talk to someone about this stuff, about your health. You’re scaring everyone.”
His look softened, losing the hard edge that burned when the outburst had begun. This was his moment of contemplation. He put his foot down and the ute’s tires squealed as he hurtled down the road.
Adrenalin pumped through her, hours after the roaring had finished and the rain had subsided. While the den had held together—but only barely—Darryl’s kitchen wall was in the backyard. Guests huddled in sMickl groups in the street, between fallen trees and other debris, shaking from shock or the inexplicable cold that had descended, despite the humidity. The upstairs level of the house had collapsed, narrowly missing the gas tank. Scattered electrical wires sparked.
Shortly after the group had moved into the den, the wind had escalated into cyclonic gusts that mercilessly whipped Darryl’s house. When the kitchen wall went down, Sally grabbed Ben. The force of the kitchen’s demise clouded them in plaster dust, which hardened on the group when rain swept through the open gaps. Ray was hit by falling timber, later diagnosed with a broken shoulder by another nurse at the party. Various scrapes and cuts adorned everyone, but they were all alive. It had felt like they were inside a washing machine, open to the elements but unable to escape.
Sally felt a pang of nausea. Her little Datto was totalled, thrown aside like a Barbie car, its light weight no match for the cyclone. They have names, Sally thought, and I wish this one could be Cyclone Fuck Off, but she knew it would be something more tactful.
An army jeep turned slowly into Coronet Crescent from the main road, weaving toward them through the detritus on the dirt road.
“Anyone badly hurt?” a soldier called from the passenger seat.
“A broken shoulder and lots of bruises,” said Darryl. “Can you take us into the city? We’ve got medical staff that need to get to the hospital.”
“We can take about 10 but it’ll be a squeeze. Might take a while to get into town. Tracy really did a number on us.”
Sally looked back at the house. The record player was somehow still upright against the remaining part of the lounge room wall, a monument to the few hours of peace they’d had before the chaos descended.
A warm breeze flowed through the door over us, four people sitting down for Christmas lunch. Amy’s mother was sullen, responsive but only in brief statements. Amy’s father attempted to raise the mood, speaking softly but continuously to break the silence. Mick’s meltdown had been expected but more brutal than usual, and my lecture didn’t seem to have had the effect I hoped it would—Mick was a no show today. Amy said very little.
The explosiveness that had peppered his words was harsh but symptomatic of an illness untreated. His presence today might have signaled a possibility. Change could come.
The gate bell rang, there was a familiar clack of thongs, and Mick walked through the door. Amy turned to me, a magnificent look on her face.
From the TV came a reporter’s words: “The winds were officially recorded at 217km/h before the Bureau of Meteorology equipment was destroyed. On the 40th anniversary of Cyclone Tracy, survivors share their stories and remember the night that changed their lives…”