The Backroom Press Writing Prize 2020 … And the winners are…!
We are very excited to announce the winners of the first ever Backroom Press Writing Prize, announced for this year’s Corrugated Lines: A Festival of Words. The competition was fierce, but the judges finally decided on these three pieces:
First Prize: Jess Miller for “Curry”
Second Prize: Gordon Byers for “50 Years”
Third Prize: Myra Kendall for “Ebb and Flow”
Congratulations to the winners!
The winning stories are published right here on this page, so please enjoy. There were also a couple of ‘highly commended’ stories that we’ll also publish here soon.
First Prize: Curry
by Jess Miller
I’ve only spent one wet season here. Every time I arrive the first thing I do is head over to Town Beach.
There, turquoise water, turtles in abundance – just off the rocks. Most of them shy, quick to shoot off if you catch them with their head above water. Here, tangerine sand, hot peach, fine. Bleeding into the bay.
I used to head out of town for work. One time, early on, I went up the peninsula. Just to Beagle Bay.
It’s hot, sticky, everything unknown, but I’m not nervous. It’s got that country town feel. People are friendly, the streets are quiet.
I get taken, completely open-minded and ignorant, down a dirt track. Past houses with big yards. Down to a simple dwelling – something like the forester’s shack I had back in Queensland. Those mint green, fibro walls. It’s a roof, and four walls to keep the mozzies out. Posh, really.
We head further down the track, far down and out onto the saltmarsh. Careful to avoid squelching mudflats with bogging qualities – those famous places where tourists and dry seasoners have been marooned on fishing trips, only to be surrounded by salties with the incoming tide. It’s easy to shake your head at people. But up here most have been stuck in the mud more than once. Why jinx it by pointing the finger and laughing?
The creek at the end of the trail is calm, peacefully trickling out to sea. We stay back from the bank – for obvious reasons. Well, I do. My host likes to be right on the edge. Better him than me.
Evening sounds start to settle in: cockies, dogs in the distance, and the manic call of semi-domesticated donkeys. Across the mud-brown water: dusk. Bright blue topped by lilac, pink, dull gold. Keeps you sane. I can see how that would work.
But I’ve brought bad luck on Neil. No fish. None on my hand line (unsurprising), and none on his line either. Disappointment. Confusion. Extremely blasé surprise and finally, acceptance. Begrudging acceptance.
His eyes narrow in my direction. They’re always a bit piercing when directed towards me, in a sceptical kind of way – and super bright. Nothing gets past Neil. But he won’t let on.
We skirt our way back in the ute, between silver and green mangroves. Curry it is.
Second Prize: 50 Years
By Gordon Byers
My story begins in 1970. I was a young 22-year-old living in Melbourne, just about finished my plumbing apprenticeship. My father had promised me he would buy me a brand new Holden Kingswood on the condition that I got my plumbing license. Well that was an opportunity I couldn’t miss, so it’s exactly what I did and little did I know it would change my life for the better.
After I finished my plumbing apprenticeship and got my new Kingswood, I was always taking off on small weekend trips away, sometimes as far as New South Wales. We were usually off on shooting trips but this particular time we were in Canberra, where I met some young blokes who told me they were driving to Western Australia. Now Western Australia had always seemed so far away to me at that time but after a bit of procrastination it was planned and we were on the road. The trip was not without its adventures, that’s for sure. Somewhere on the road in South Australia we stopped off to enjoy a few beers and take a break from the long trip. We were caught by a couple of police officers while we were shooting our bottles off the fence. Although they approached us with guns in their hands, we quickly discovered they were only coming for a chat as they had also been out shooting crows not far from where we were camped.
After a few good weeks of travelling, we reached the Kimberley town of Broome. Broome might as well have been a ghost town when we arrived. There was not a single person in sight until we drove past the Roebuck Hotel, known commonly as the Roey. This is where I spotted a young, slim, tanned-skinned Italian woman named Marie, who was standing on the veranda with one foot on the railing… she was smoking a Rollie. I rolled down my window and shouted out to her, “Where are all the people?” She replied, “All the action stats at 4.30.” “Okay, so what’s all the action?” “Well, the pub opens,” she replied. I later discovered this was the time of day known as ‘Broome Time’ when everyone went home to lie under the fan for a few hours during the heat of the day.
Well, I thought to myself, with a few hours to spare I might as well go and explore this little town. I drove around for a bit and stumbled upon this red dirt track. I had never really seen red dirt like this, a deep, powerful red, so I followed it and it took me to the most beautiful beach I had ever laid my eyes on: Cable Beach. I spent a few hours exploring the crystal clear water before I went back to the Roey. It felt like I was in a different world, a lifetime away. The streets were full of people, all with beers in their hands, mostly drunk, some even fighting. There was the odd roo-dog that would come out from under the pub begging for scraps.
As I pushed my way through the winged doors, just like in those wild western movies, I approached the bar and noticed that it was about six-foot deep surrounded by people. I stood out like a sore thumb: all around me were people coloured in the most glorious ways… there were Manillamen, Malays, Aboriginal Australians, Japanese, Chinese, Koepangers, and the odd whitefella. We were definitely a minority. In the distance I could see a bloke ferociously waving a card in his hand, trying to get the attention of the bar maid. I approached him, wondering what he was waving — we didn’t have credit cards back then.
He explained to me that it was his ‘right to drink’ card… I couldn’t believe it, he’d actually had to sit an exam to prove he was educated and could hold a drink. This was only ever a process for coloured people, as white people were automatically assumed to have an education and were able to hold a drink. This was all part of the White Australia policy. Another bloke came over to me with a Champion Ruby tobacco tin filled with half-smoked cigarettes. He asked me if I wanted a smoke… I wasn’t overly enticed by the idea of smoking his butts. I pointed to a smoke on the floor that still had 3-4 puffs left in it, which he quickly scurried off to grab.
The next morning, I woke with a heavy head and a strong urge to pee. I found myself in a rundown motel room furnished with only a creaky old metal-framed bed. I stumbled outside to search for a toilet and discovered the motel guest toilet block which was in less than great shape. It had been destroyed by termites and was on its last legs. What was left of the toilet block was only being held together by the plumbing. There was a young carpenter nearby, doing his best to repair it. We got chatting and I casually mentioned to him that I was a licensed plumber. Little did I know that those simple words would be responsible for keeping me in Broome for the next 44 years.
The next morning, still in my $3.50 per night motel room, the door was pushed open and standing in the frame was this nuggetty looking man in a checked shirt, the sleeves violently ripped off, fraying at the edges. He was wearing stubby little denim shorts showing off his muscly legs, which were jammed into a pair of tattered old work boots. He looked down at me as I lay in bed and said, “Are you the plumber?” When I muttered “Yes”, he said, “Good, get out of bed. I’ve got work for you.” Well… Les Ross was his name and I quickly discovered that he was a local builder. He doubled as a tour guide as he pointed out all the highlights while we drove around Broome… not that there were many back then. We drove out to what was then the edge of Broome, Dora Street. There were at least six state houses, all in different stages of being built. My job was relatively simple: plumb each house. There were two carpenters, Terry Tracy, a big round Scotsman with a huge red beard, who always spoke to you like you were 100 metres away, and his offsider, Alex, who was a muscly but quiet man. They would start the houses by putting down the stumps, the frame and then the roof sheeting. After that, they could work in the shade of the roof and would start nailing down the floor. This is where I came in handy. Over the next week or so, I would live in the house and work on the plumbing. I would be given a small metal bed frame to lay my swag on and forget the dingy $3.50 motel room.
At one stage I even ended up with a labourer, George. A real Kimberley man at 60 years old, he was thin as wire and just as tough. George was one of those people who carried a little leather Gladstone bag with him everywhere. Inside the bag he concealed two bottles of beer, which of course we had for breakfast. My cup of tea went out the door. George was a hardworking man with the hairiest ears and nose I had ever seen… every morning I used to ask George, “When are you going to shave those ears of yours?” He never did. George lived in the Malay camp, not far from where we were working. The Malay camp had a Malay chef, as you would assume, and every night they ate the same thing… fried up sausages. One day George came to me and said, “Gordo, last night we had something different for dinner!” “What, no sausages?” “Oh no, we still had sausages but this time they were boiled.”
Well, I give George his due… every morning he had his beers for breakfast and then we would march out to where the septic tank needed to be and he would dig all day in 45-degree heat. Terry and Alex often vanished for a few days at a time, and when I asked Les where they were, he simply told me that he had paid them and they would be off on a four-day bender, not to return to work until the money ran dry.
The next year was 1971. I met up with some people who had just sailed a pearling lugger from Thursday Island to Broome. They had plans to dive for pearlshell, they told me. At that particular time in the pearling industry, it was dominated by Japanese and Malaysian divers. This system did not please the Australian Government and they wanted to re-introduce white divers into the industry. There had been an attempt with English hard-hat divers 100 years earlier, but that had failed miserably. This experiment would be complete success and I would find myself in the heart of it as a pearl diver, deckhand, cook and skipper over the next 30 years. I suppose that’s a story for another time. Now at the age of 72, it’s been 50 years since I moved to Broome. And if a picture painted 1000 words, what a picture my life would be.
Third Prize: Ebb and Flow
A story about the push and pull of life in Derby.
by Myra Kendall
I squint from the sun’s setting rays.
My eyes sting as the sunscreen residue mixes with my tears. I pull into our usual spot, two bays down from the gate. The blasting chill of the air-conditioning has finally kicked in and the sticky wet strands of hair start to lift off my forehead.
The click-clack of the car-seat buckles brings me back to the present and I hastily wipe my eyes. My two girls dive headfirst into the passenger seat. Layla reaches the power-window button first and the humid air jolts me.
“Can you see any crocodiles, Poppy?” I ask as I turn down the local radio station.
“Yep. I see a big one over there,” she says, pointing to the north.
“No there isn’t, Poppy,” her big sister declares, then looks at me. “Mum, Miss Clara taught us about tides today.”
“Did she? What did you learn?” I put the window back up and the cool air washes over us again.
“Well … the water rises and falls because of the gravitational pull between the Earth and the Moon.”
“That’s right,” I whisper.
“And it’s a full moon tonight,” says Layla. “That’s why the water is so high.”
“But it was all muddy before school,” Poppy says as she points towards the latte-coloured water.
“And now it’s just below the Jetty. It changes so quickly! Cool huh?” Layla says. “And Mum, did you know that Derby has the highest tides in Australia?” Layla gazes over Poppy’s head to the horizon.
I do remember that fact, from all the reading I did six weeks ago, before we arrived in this little Kimberley town. I also know we are exactly 2,353 kilometres from ‘home’, and before that fact can pull me under, I’m once again smothered by the warm moist air that rushes in as Layla opens the passenger door.
“Come on, Mum!” Layla helps Poppy out of the car. “You said we could get a milkshake.”
I join the girls in the thick heat, and we cross the car park to the kiosk.
We take our shakes to the rotunda. It’s so hot, I’d rather sit in some air conditioning. But at least if we stay here a bit longer it delays having to go back to the house.
A white sedan pulls into the spot next to our car. A lady and two kids about the same ages as my own head to the kiosk.
“They were at the library last week,” Layla whispers.
My girls put their milkshakes down and start hopping on the mosaic artwork that fills the centre floor of the rotunda. Jumping from the orange frill-neck lizard to the branches of the dark-grey boab, and one last hop onto the brown tiles that make up the goanna’s tail.
The girl from the white sedan races towards us. She plonks her milkshake on the wooden bench and starts jumping in unison with Layla and Poppy.
“Are you going to drink your milkshake, Milly?” asks the lady, as she sits beside her other child on the bench.
“Soon. I want to play!” Milly grabs Layla’s outstretched hand.
“The blue is water,” says Poppy, looking at Milly’s feet. “You can’t go on it.”
“Lucky you reached out for me then,” Milly says to Layla, and the three girls smile at each other.
“I’m Tess,” the lady says to me. “I saw you at the library last week.”
“You’re new,” she says. It’s not a question. “How are you finding it?”
I take a deep breath before I answer. “Hot!”
“Oh, tell me about it! You’ve come at such a hard time too — it’s the build-up to the wet season, so it’s even hotter and the humidity is ridiculous. We’re from Victoria, so it was a shock for us,” she says with a laugh.
It’s been a shock for me too.
I miss being able to pop into Mum’s for a cup of tea, playing at the playground without getting attacked by mosquitos, and drive-through anything would be so handy sometimes. The isolation is something I have not been exposed to and, just as the tide comes and goes, the tightening in my chest begins in the morning and eases in the afternoon.
The next day, Tess and her kids are at the rotunda before us.
“Where are you guys from?” Tess asks.
The girls are playing hopscotch on the twisted mosaic snake that surrounds the native flora and fauna beneath their feet. I take a sip of my ice-cold mango smoothie. One thing I now know is that nothing compares to the taste of mangoes grown up here.
“Jarrod, my husband, got a transfer to the high school.”
“Lots of staff come and go up here,” Tess says as she sips her smoothie.
I remember the conversation I had with Jarrod last night — how people seem to come and go in Derby. Just as the tide continues to rise and fall, so does the community.
Tess and I sit in comfortable silence watching the girls jump on the brown tiles that form the Brahman cattle.
On Friday, Tess is already waiting in the carpark. (I instantly get a rush of enthusiasm, followed by the awareness that I haven’t once thought of ‘home’ today.)
“I need coffee,” Tess grumbles as she approaches our car.
“Girls, you go play. We’ll bring the drinks over,” I say as I point toward the rotunda.
When we’re settled with our drinks I point to Tess’s handbag.
“I like your keyring,” I say.
“Thanks. I’ve started doing macramé. You should come around for a coffee and make one. They’re pretty easy.”
“That’d be nice.”
“I’ll text you my address.” Tess hands me her phone so I can add my number.
“Come over tomorrow. A few of us are getting together for a crafternoon — I’ll introduce you to some other mums.”
I add my number and give back her phone silently.
“It does get easier. I promise,” she says as she places her hand on my knee.
“What I’ve learnt is that the friends you make up here become the family you miss so much now.”
I nod in agreement because, if I talk, I know I will cry.
“Come on kids!” Tess calls. “We need to go to the post office!”
I can’t help but laugh.
“I never thought that going to the post office would be something we’d look forward to,” I say as I stand up with the two milkshakes in my hands.
“I know, right?” Tess smiles.
We walk together as a group to the car park.
Just as the tide is high this afternoon, for the first time in weeks, so are my hopes.
There have been plenty of days in the past few weeks where I’ve felt as though nothing has moved but the tide.
But not today.
“Ready to go, girls?” I turn to face them.
“Yep. Let’s go!” they say at the same time.
I look in the rear-view mirror and imagine a receding tide taking my yearning for home away with it.
We pull up in Tess’s driveway and when I open my door the sweet scent of frangipani floats past. It reminds me of the frangipanis in Mum’s backyard, but instead of feeling the pull of what is missing, I smile at the push of what could be.
I sip my hot chocolate and try to memorise the names of the mums and kids around me. The morning turns into six hours of crafting. After a few hot glue-gun burns, we decide to call it a day. Somehow, we decide to sign up for a stall at the next night market.
I accomplish more in these six hours than I have in the past six weeks.
Ten full moons pass.
We go to the red dusty speedway and our first rodeo. Jarrod catches a Barramundi. I learn how to toss a throw net and devour giant mud crabs. The girls even try mango on pizza!
More importantly, we connect with our community — loving, compassionate people from diverse backgrounds.
The tides are a predictable occurrence. We watch them every day.
And then another transfer notice arrives for Jarrod.
Jarrod is at work, packing his things. Layla is at school. Poppy is with Tess.
And I am at the Jetty.
I reach the far point of town and allow the power of the tidal water to sweep over the crevasses that now encompass my heart. I stay long enough to watch the water come in again and replenish the sun-baked cracks of the marsh.
The end comes quickly.
The day before we leave, Tess invites me over for morning tea. The water slide is up, and it takes no time at all for the kids to race towards the cool water.
“Here’s a little something to remember your time in the Kimberley.” Tess places a gift in front of me.
It’s the wooden chopping board with a gorgeous wood-burned Boab in the centre. The one I commented on at our first market together.
“Thank you,” I say, shakily.
“I wish you weren’t going back to Perth.” Tess places her hand on my knee, just as she did that afternoon at the Jetty. “People come and go in Derby,” she whispers.
“Just like the tide,” I say.
She nods. “You’ll find yourself back here one day.”
Six months later…
The one place I used to visit daily is the place I miss the most. The need for the Jetty aches inside me.
I travel to the edge of my new town.
It takes almost an hour to reach.
Here, I watch the waves crash onto the sand. I don’t feel the calming sensation that the slowly moving tides used to bestow upon me. My heart has again formed mismatched pieces, like the muddy cracks that used to surround me.
The pull to return to Derby intensifies with each day that passes and, as I look towards the horizon, I imagine myself being taken out into the open sea; the water changing from aqua to turquoise to the latte of the mudflats and then, I am there … at the Jetty, slowly making my way towards the edge of town.
I’m startled as Jarrod and the girls return to the car with ice-creams.
The wind whips at the power-lines and the car shakes.
I don’t know my way around this landscape yet.
I am home, but I am lost.
I need the tide to guide me.