‘Kitty Blue’ is the stage name of Catherine ‘Kitty’ Bennet, a talented but down-on-her-luck singer, who lives in an outback town located near the mystical Currup mountain ranges in the Australian desert. Kitty has just broken up with her no-good boyfriend, fellow musician, Evan Wickham, and moved back into the Bennet family home to live with her matrimonially-obsessed mother, and two sisters. The girls’ father has remarried and money is tight. The Bennet family home may have to be sold, leaving the girls and their mother homeless. Kitty’s choice of career isn’t helping much, not when she is singing Karaoke at a rundown pub full of drunken miners. She is upset her best friend is getting married. But two men are about to enter Kitty’s life who will change everything. Murrandoo Martin, an Aboriginal artist born under the stars in the outback, is the last of a “lost tribe” forcibly removed from their remote homeland in the Currup Ranges. Now aged in his sixties and in poor health, Murrandoo decides to return to the Currup and to painting what he suspects will be his final masterpiece. However, Murrandoo does not know that high-profile lawyer Adam Clancy has arrived in Lisborne looking him. Kitty Blue is a re-imagining of Jane Austen’s much loved ‘Pride and Prejudice’.
Book Rating: PG
e x c e r p t
CLAUDE CROWECopyright © 2014 by Claude Crowe.
All rights reserved by the author. This book or any portion thereof may not be reproduced or used in any manner whatsoever without the express written permission of the publisher except for the use of brief quotations in a book review. Revised edition.
Author’s note: Although elements of this story were inspired by real events, the characters are fictional and resemblance to any person/s living or dead is unintended. Several indigenous Australian legends have been partly or entirely fictionalized. The “Currup Ranges” are inspired by Kata Tjuta National Park in Central Australia and the striking collection of rock art of the Burrup Peninsula of Western Australia.
For my father
The land cruiser chugged towards her, its headlights a dim yellow in the dawn light.
Adam Clancy was at the wheel, Blanche sat beside him in the front seat.
The cruiser came to a halt where she stood. Kitty threw her bag into the backseat and jumped inside. “Good morning,” she murmured as she fixed her seatbelt.
“Is that your house over there, Kitty?” Blanche asked, lifting a painted finger gracefully in the direction of Kitty’s family home.
“Yes, be it ever so humble,” Kitty replied.
Kitty’s cheeks flushed. She glanced at the tangled jungle of blooms in the front garden and the thick ivy spreading upwards over the two-story Bennet family home. She saw the curtains move in the upstairs bedroom window and hoped Adam Clancy would drive off before her mother had time to fling open the window and call out to them.
Much to her relief, they set off without incident. Kitty allowed herself to nurse some minor resentment over the barb she detected in Blanche’s words. She supposed Blanche would feel a need to keep insulting Kitty the entire trip but, whatever. At least she was getting paid for this trip and she needed the money.
They drove out of the town of Lisborne and headed inland, travelling east towards the Currup Ranges on the lonely highway that cut through Australia’s vast inland desert. On the horizon hung the ghostly shadow of a pale new moon, suspended in the deep blue sky.
Kitty listened to music through earphones for the first couple of hours. She let her eyes rest on the ruby desert landscape that rushed past the vehicle, with its splashes of dull green scrub and the majestic golden waves of spinifex grass.
She reflected on the telephone call that led to this trip. The call was from Ben Teakel, a Lisborne tour guide. Ben phoned the Lilley and Day office to say he had seen an elderly Aboriginal man camped near space baby meteorite crater on the most recent outback tour he conducted. Ben was certain the man was Murrandoo Martin, whose photograph he had seen on the front page of the ‘Lisborne Chronicle’.
“He was crouched there on the rocks at the north-eastern section of the meteorite crater,” Ben told Kitty. “At first I thought he was a rock wallaby or something, so I took out my binoculars and could see him, plain as day. He looks like the photo in the newspaper but a lot older. His hair is much grayer and he is quite thin and frail looking.”
Mr. Clancy spoke to Ben and became convinced this was the first confirmed sighting of Murrandoo in nearly a year. Clancy immediately changed their Currup travel plans, with the result that they would now be spending four nights at a caravan park near the meteorite crater, rather than staying near Camel Creek as originally intended.
The ‘space baby’ meteorite crater, as the locals called it, was approximately a ten-hour drive from Lisborne. No crater was immediately visible to the naked eye. Only fragments of its rim remained millions of years after the meteor strike. The jagged, eroded mountains that protruded from dense bush scrub did not look like the remnants of a giant meteorite crater. Geologists only realized the area was a meteor impact zone by studying satellite images of the area taken from space.
However, Aboriginal people who had lived in the area for tens of thousands of years told a dreamtime story of a baby falling to earth from the stars at the crater site. The legend was that a young mother travelling across the Milky Way set her baby down while she went dancing, and the baby slipped to earth, falling at the crater location. This collision was said to have blown stardust into the eyes of those living nearby, leading them to paint on the walls of the Currup Ranges for the first time.
In hindsight, it struck Kitty that the meteorite crater was the perfect site to search for Murrandoo. He was an artist known for painting on rocks and other surfaces. The legend of the meteorite crater made the location seem an obvious choice. Previously their search had focused on areas in the Currup Ranges where Murrandoo had lived in the past. Murrandoo was aged in his sixties now and not in good health when he lived in Alice Springs prior to his return to the Currup. It seemed logical that he might return to places he knew, where he had friends or contacts. That had been their logic but…
“Oh my God!” Blanche suddenly squealed at the sight of a bloated carcass of a dead kangaroo lying on the roadside, struck by a passing car and left to be consumed by the passing days.
Clancy cursed. “For God’s sake, don’t screech like that Blanche,” he said.
“But look at the size of that thing! Can’t the hick drivers miss something that big, or do you think perhaps they aim for them?”
In the back seat, Kitty rolled her eyes. It would do no good to explain to Blanche that kangaroos became mesmerized by car headlights at dawn and night, and leapt out in front of vehicles. She slipped back in her earpieces to listen to music but when the battery ran out five hours later, Kitty had little choice but to listen to Blanche’s many complaints.
It seemed the longer the journey wore on, the more unbearable Blanche became. She complained about the noise of the land cruiser’s engine, its lackluster air-conditioning, and the desert landscape.
“I mean, who could live out here?” Blanche asked. “There’s nothing; just awful red dust everywhere – and don’t get me started on the flies.” Nevertheless, start she did.
Even the sight of the Currup Ranges, a majestic formation of blood-orange colored granite domes rising dramatically from the flat red desert sands, did not please Blanche when they eventually came into view.
Nor did Blanche spare the outback roadhouses from her critical observations when they stopped for food and refreshments. “You’d think at least one of these places would see a competitive advantage in serving real coffee to customers,” she said. “It’s not as if coffee is a revolutionary new concept or anything.”
It was a comment Blanche served up at each roadhouse they encountered.
“Drink something else if you don’t like the coffee,” Clancy finally snapped.
After this rebuke Blanche was, thankfully, largely silent for the remainder of the journey.
They arrived at the Traveler’s Caravan Park located near the crater, at around six. It had been a long day – quite possibly the longest day of her life, Kitty speculated.
Clancy parked at the caravan park reception.
“I’ll go sort out the registration,” he said, pulling on the handbrake and leaving the engine running. Clancy alighted from the vehicle and hurried across to the building marked “Reception”.
He was gone a long time.
Kitty opened the back passenger door of the cruiser and unfolded her legs onto the ground, stretching and yawning.
Blanche also got out of the cruiser, slamming the door shut behind her. She was in a testy mood. “For God’s sake, what is keeping Adam?” she asked.
Kitty shrugged. They decided to go and see.
A bell tinkled as Blanche pulled open the bamboo-blind clad door at the caravan park’s reception office.
The middle-aged park proprietor, looked up as they entered. “Hello! I’m Amy Smithers. I won’t be a moment,” she told them.
Clancy also looked up. “Those women are travelling with me,” he told Mrs. Smithers. “It’s actually ochre,” he said, resuming the conversation they had been having previously.
“I was going to say that! But what precisely is ochre? I’ve never been too sure.”
“Ochre is rock which is colored by iron oxide. Traditionally indigenous artists made their paints from these rocks, grinding them into powder and mixing the powder with a little water or other liquid.”
Blanche marched over. “Adam? Is there some problem with the booking?”
Clancy ignored her. His attention was focused on a canvas unrolled on the front counter desk.
“This lizard is fascinating,” Clancy said. “I like the way the artist has inverted the silhouette.”
“My husband liked it. We gave the old fella a bit of cash and a free night’s accommodation in exchange for it.”
Kitty guessed immediately the painting was by Murrandoo Martin and pushed forward to see it. It was a simple black and white traditional drawing, of a large lizard. Kitty stared at the vibrant splashes of white, noting the precision of the dot artwork.
Mrs. Smithers pointed at the ‘Lisborne Chronicle’ newspaper on the counter with the photograph of Murrandoo on the front page.
“I am positive that was him. Black as the ace of spades, he was. He had longish hair like in the photo, although it is a lot grayer now.”
“Did Murrandoo say anything to you about where he was living?” Clancy asked.
Mrs. Smithers shook her head. “He wasn’t one for words,” she replied.
They searched amongst the rock and scrub in the area where Ben Teakel said he had seen Murrandoo but without success.
From their base at the caravan park, they drove the next day to an isolated part of the crater, known to have rock paintings. Here they scoured different locations following a grid map system which Adam Clancy had devised. They searched caves, scrambling up and down rock faces looking for any sign of Murrandoo, each wearing a whistle hanging around their necks with which to communicate for emergencies.
Kitty spent most of the day on her own, which suited her. Despite the fierce heat and flies that she continually had to brush from the corners of her eyes and mouth, Kitty loved being back in the Currup. The open skies soothed her soul. The powerful beauty of the ancient mountain domes in the distance was beyond words, perhaps capable only of being captured by song. She occupied herself for many hours trying to hum what she felt of the landscape, as she traipsed slowly through the red dirt, her eyes scanning left to right, searching for signs of disturbance, any indication of a fellow traveler passing through this land.
By the late-afternoon when the sun burned less fiercely, Kitty took a moment’s break. She stood under the shade of a white ghost gum and removed her hat, slipping off her loose long-sleeved shirt, leaving only the thin singlet top to protect her upper body from the sun. It was still hot. The air on the exposed skin of her shoulders and arms felt cool. Kitty wiped her brow, wondering how many kilometers she had walked today. She drank some more water and fanned her face with her hat.
The shrill piercing sound of a whistle sounded. She heard Adam Clancy shout: “Over here! I found something.”
Kitty placed her hat back, tied her shirt around her waist and hurried over to where Clancy stood, in the distance. He stood in a small depression between crumbling red rocks, poking the ground with a stick. “Someone was camped here recently – look, ashes from a camp fire. And some traces of white ochre powder – see that?”
Clancy called out Murrandoo’s name. There was no response.
Blanche came puffing from another direction to join them.
After an hour of fruitless searching with each of them banging tin plates and spoons, calling Murrandoo’s name, in fading light they piled back into Gus’s land cruiser to return to the caravan park.
The vehicle, however, stubbornly refused to start.
Clancy cursed and tried a few more times. The engine whimpered and quickly died – a flat battery. They got out of the vehicle. Clancy opened up the rear tray, looking for a spare battery or a satellite phone but found neither, only a set of jumper leads.
He took a final survey of the equipment in the back of the cruiser, rubbing the newly-sprouting stubble on his face. “Hmmm, not sure what we do from here.”
“I’ll phone that Smithers woman at the caravan park,” Blanche offered, pulling her phone from her bag.
“Your phone won’t work out here, Blanche,” Clancy said.
“You won’t get a signal,” Kitty said, nodding in agreement.
Blanche shot her a cold look.
“Well, what are we going to do Adam? It’ll be dark soon.”
“We’ll camp here tonight,” Clancy declared. “There are blankets and plenty of food in the back here, even a bottle of rum.”
Blanche protested. “What about the dingoes? I heard them howling last night from the caravan park.”
“You ladies can sleep in the cruiser. The back seat folds down, so there will be plenty of room. And you will be safe from dingoes in there, Blanche, unless any of them know how to open doors.”
“We should light a fire,” Kitty said.
“Yes, we should definitely do that,” Clancy agreed. “Let’s go collect firewood while there is still some light.”
After a few half-hearted attempts Blanche soon tired of the business of firewood collection. She volunteered instead to prepare the evening meal. This activity required Clancy’s prolonged attention.
By nightfall, Clancy and Kitty had amassed a collection of different-sized dry wooden branches, enough to keep a fire burning throughout the night.
Blanche had a small pot of rice and a larger pan containing four cans of beef and vegetable stew heating on the portable gas burner. The food smelt good. Kitty felt her stomach rumble.
Clancy arranged dry twigs and kindling and blew gently on the infant flame, carefully feeding the fire. They each watched, willing it to burn. Clancy splashed a little kerosene onto the wood. The flames responded hungrily, leaping into the air and licking at the wood.
“There, that should keep the dingoes away,” Clancy said.
He found a large, folded square piece of light blue tarpaulin in the back of the land cruiser and spread it out over the ground for them to sit on by the fire.
Dinner was served in battered steel bowls. They ate hungrily.
Night fell, the desert air chilled. There were no lights for a hundred kilometers. They were alone in the wilderness.
“Well Adam, I wouldn’t have thought you’d be such a Boy Scout and know how to make a fire,” Blanche remarked.
“I don’t see why you find it strange, Blanche,” he replied. “I used matches and kerosene. It’s not as if I had to rub two sticks together.”
“But look at how well it’s burning!”
The fire did, indeed, burn well. They were each seduced by its heat and flames.
“I wish I had my guitar,” Kitty said, absently, responding to an urge to recreate the sounds running around in her brain.
Blanche made a sour face. “Thank goodness Gus Lilley doesn’t carry an emergency ration of guitars. Actually, Adam, it might be nice to have a little nip of rum now.”
Clancy got up and retrieved the bottle of rum from the land cruiser. He poured the rum into three plastic cups.
“Sorry, there’s no ice,” he said, handing Blanche and Kitty their drinks.
“I’ll survive,” Kitty replied, deadpan.
Clancy guffawed and Blanche laughed her tight girly laugh.
Adam Clancy had found his attention increasingly drawn to his new secretary over the past couple of days in the Currup desert.
Kitty Bennet was fresh and fuss-free. Out here in the desert an energy seemed to radiate from her. On occasions it seemed to Clancy that Kitty’s sea-green eyes were comprised of the very ingredients that made the sun shine. One time, Clancy saw her clamber up a dirt hill, lose her footing and stumble backwards. He rushed over, mentally calculating if he had the right liability insurance to protect a casual employee out in the bush. But Kitty sprang to her feet, laughingly dusting the dirt off her shorts.
As they sipped their rum, Clancy launched into casual conversation with Blanche, asking her about her hobbies and where she had travelled, although he knew, or could guess, the answers. He then posed the same questions to Kitty.
Blanche quickly caught onto this tactic and immediately began to turn his questions back on him before he had a chance to learn much from Kitty.
Not for the first time, Clancy wondered why he put up with Blanche, who reached over to ask for a refill of rum. Her voice was already thick from alcohol. Clancy had seen Blanche drunk a couple of times at office parties. She was not generally a pleasant drunk.
“So, tell me Adam, what is your ideal woman?” Blanche asked.
Clancy did not, as a rule, discuss personal matters.
“I take people as I find them,” he said.
“That’s such a copout Adam! Tell us! What do you like in a woman?”
“The same thing I like in men – honest individuals with respect for others.”
Blanche groaned. “Kitty, what do you think? Is he deliberately avoiding telling us what kind of woman he is attracted to?”
Kitty glanced up from the fire, eyes distant. “Um…”
Blanche waved her hand dismissively.
“Never mind! You’ve been staring into that fire all night Kitty. If you had been listening, you would know Adam Clancy is leading me a lawyerly dance. But I must know. Do you, for instance, prefer blondes or brunettes?”
“I don’t make decisions based on hair color.”
Blanche giggled. “You work so hard at avoiding flirting! Do you know that?”
“I am not flirting.”
Blanche turned her attention to Kitty.
“What about you Kitty? Do you have a boyfriend?”
“No,” Kitty said, not looking up from the fire and Clancy sensed her discomfort.
He stood up.
“I’m going to collect some more firewood,” he said, picking up the torch.
“I’ll come with you!” Blanche scrambled up.
“No, stay here.”
Clancy needed to free his brain from Blanche’s inane chatter. He strode off. Very soon the night had swallowed him whole.
Presently Clancy returned and sat back down on the tarpaulin in the space between Kitty and Blanche who sat at opposite ends.
His muscles ached from the activity of the day, yet somehow he felt more alive than he had done in years. Clancy lay down on his back and stared in mute wonder up at the night sky crammed with bright, beautiful diamonds.
“There is nothing better than looking up at the stars, away from all the city lights and pollution,” he declared.
“I can think of a few better things,” Blanche replied. She lay alongside him.
Kitty also lay back and the three of them lay on their backs, bodies illuminated by flames, staring up at the riot of stars above. The brilliance of the night sky struck each of them numb, or perhaps it was the rum.
Clancy wondered if Murrandoo was nearby, staring up at the same night sky. He glanced at his watch. It was approaching eight-thirty. Time passed slowly in this country.
Kitty and Blanche had fallen asleep, no doubt tired from the exertions of their day, as was he. Neither of the women had stirred for twenty minutes or so. Blanche was breathing heavily, sounding like she might soon sink into a snore.
Clancy shifted his body weight carefully, trying not to disturb them, and saw Kitty’s eyes were open, watching him with a faint curiosity. He felt a strong urge to roll over and kiss her. Clancy resisted the urge and sat upright on the tarpaulin. This woman was his employee. He was wary of the situation, of taking advantage, especially with alcohol involved.
Kitty also sat up, casually hugging her knees, head turned looking at him. Clancy was unnerved by her easy familiarity around him.
“I thought you had fallen asleep,” he said.
“No,” Kitty replied.
“So you’ve just been lying there for the last hour, without saying a word?”
“Yes. And you?”
He was taken aback a moment by her question. “I suppose I was.”
“What were you thinking about?” she asked.
“Me too; plus other stuff. It’s quite strange when I come out to the Currup, I hear in my mind the sound of the women singing the land.” She turned her head, cocked slightly, as if listening to a distant song. He was enchanted. She seemed a creature in tune with the earth and with herself.
She smiled at him and Clancy’s face flushed. This girl reduced him to the status of a tongue-tied teenager.
“Who are you, Kitty Bennet?”
Clancy surprised himself with the question. He had been quick to judge her, yet found there was more to Kitty than met the eye. He especially liked that Kitty was not intimidated by him. She had a very direct manner and spoke her mind, yet was also whimsical and offbeat. She was not a person in the habit of censoring her thoughts. Perhaps opposites attract, he thought, for he was always very measured in his speech and behavior.
Kitty was puzzled by the question. “What do you mean, who am I?”
He tried to explain. “It’s just a little hobby of mine based on a lawyer’s bad habit of trying to sum people up in three minutes. It doesn’t usually take me long to work out what makes someone tick. But with you, it’s taking a bit longer.”
She smiled. “You’d have to be bloody good to figure me out in just three minutes, when I’ve been struggling for answers for decades.”
He had not heard her swear before.
She noticed his surprise and laughed. “Sorry, I probably shouldn’t swear in front of my new boss. Gus would not be impressed.”
“A few more questions then, to buy my silence with Gus. Tell me about your family.”
“Oh, we’re just a bunch of rural nobodies… No, I shouldn’t say that. There is actually a street named after my great-grandfather in Lisborne and the house I grew up in is heritage-listed, even if it is falling down around our ears. However, unfortunately, the last of any Bennet money disappeared a generation ago, mostly into the hands of Sydney bookies.”
“Please go on,” Clancy said.
“There’s not much more to tell. I spent two years in Sydney singing in pubs and clubs. Now I am in back in Lisborne and the singer in another blues and rock band. I moved back home with my mother and sisters and, just in case I am sounding too much like a winner here, I should mention that I am a journalism dropout from the Lisborne University of Technology. You probably hire all your best lawyers from there.”
Clancy chuckled. “Some of them.”
“My younger sister Lydia is still at school. My older sister Mary works in a library. My mother would desperately like to see us all married off and our wombs put to good use in the production of grandchildren.”
He smiled. “I should like to meet your family,” he said.
“That might be because you haven’t yet met them,” Kitty replied. She smiled at him. “You know, I feel like I’ve been sitting here reciting this rather dull monologue about my life. How much longer before you figure me out?”
A smile strayed across his lips. “Not long.”
“You are too confident.”
“I have a question for you,” Kitty said. “Are you as sensible as you seem?”
She waved her hand airily. “I swear I don’t possess the common sense gene.”
Clancy was amused. “Maybe if you told me about your faulty common sense gene at our interview, I wouldn’t have hired you.”
“With what little common sense I do possess, I knew better than to mention it.”
Clancy found himself staring deeply into her eyes.
“There are things I don’t really understand about you as well,” Kitty said.
“What would you like to know?”
“Your relationship with Blanche, for example. She said you share a hotel suite.”
Clancy’s face flushed with annoyance. “The suite is two rooms with an interconnecting door that is locked.”
“It was just that Blanche said…”
“I don’t care for gossip. I don’t have a girlfriend at present. Is that what you wanted to know? Don’t get me wrong, I’m not against marriage. I guess I just haven’t met the right person, as they say. It would be fair to say I’m driven by my own pursuits.”
“Like Murrandoo,” he readily agreed.
“That’s the other thing I don’t really get. Why you are so focused on finding Murrandoo? You said yourself there is no hope of successfully prosecuting his case.”
Clancy had been asked this question many times. Mostly he replied that it was Murrandoo’s art which had gotten him so interested in the case. But when Kitty asked, Clancy stripped away his usual answers and thought of his real motivations.
“Before I discovered he was a great artist, I think Murrandoo initially interested me as a man because of the way everyone in the office kept talking about him after his visit. He was the talk of Sydney legal circles for a week or two. It always struck me as strange that a painfully shy desert man would walk into a high-end city law firm without good reason. I mean, knowing what you know about Murrandoo, do you think he would ever do that?”
“No,” Kitty replied without hesitation. “Murrandoo exists only for his art.”
Clancy glanced at her with curiosity. “Yes, I rather think he does.”
Clancy glared intensely at the fire, fighting another overpowering urge to take Kitty Bennet into his arms, feel her breasts crush against him, seek out those sweet lips of hers.
Kitty began humming softly. Her voice had a melodic bitter-sweet quality that made him feel as if he knew her soul. Clancy felt his shoulders slump; a weight seem to slip away. A blissful tranquility settled upon him and he found himself lost in thought. Then he had it! He knew who she was. Kitty Bennet had the unconventional personality of an artist – like Murrandoo! Kitty was not the talent-contest-tragic he had imagined her to be but a real musician, and a very good singer.
“I thought you might be interested to know that I have worked you out,” he said.
“Well, please don’t keep me in suspense.”
“You are a singer, a creative type.”
She laughed. “But you already know that! Don’t give up the day job.”
Clancy could no longer resist. He turned and hugged her close to him. She melted into his embrace; felt like a part of him that had been missing all his life. Clancy barely knew what he was doing: kissing her, tasting her lips, which were as plump and soft as he had imagined. Clancy was fully aware of this moment. Life suddenly felt timeless, wonderful; the best it had ever been, with this woman in his arms, the two of them floating in their own personal cloud of ecstasy.
Then she said: “I love you.”
An internal brake activated in Clancy’s brain.
This was all happening too fast.