The Cane by Maryrose Cuskelly

Article | Issue: Feb 2022

Like to have a taste-test before you buy or borrow?

Here’s the the first chapter of The Cane by Australian author Maryrose Cuskelly to try.


They’re lighting the cane and Janet McClymont has not been found. A week after she disappeared, her mother Barbara walked into Jensens’ shop and bought every box of matches and all the Bic cigarette lighters on the shelves. She then stood outside striking the head of each and every match against the phosphorus strip, watching it flare before shaking out the flame and dropping the spent stick on the road. Then she drove down to the inlet and threw the lighters into the water.

No one knew what the hell she was playing at. Then it dawned on me. With the crush about to start, and all of us believing that her daughter’s body must be lying in the cane, some harebrained notion had got hold of her. She thought she could stave off the lighting of the cane fires until Janet’s body was found. You see, in Barbara’s mind, on top of everything else that probably happened to her daughter, burning her body would be yet another desecration. But nothing is going to stop the sugar crush. It’s already been delayed. We’re almost at the end of June, what with all the searching and the upset.

I mean, I understand Barbara’s need to hope that after all this time someone will find Janet’s body lying unblemished in the cane fields near where she found her daughter’s bag. Or maybe even that the girl herself is alive. You have to remember, apart from the fact that she’s been missing for so long, there’s no evidence that Janet’s dead. But hundreds of people combed through those drills from Quala to Kaliope and back again for weeks looking for her and found nothing. That hasn’t stopped Barbara, though. She still goes out every morning by herself, walking through the cane fields belonging to the Creadies and the Tranters, looking for her daughter’s remains. She comes back hours later, covered in dust and dirt.

I’ve got all the sympathy under the sun for her and Ted and what they’re going through, but if their girl is in the cane, she’s dead, and burning isn’t going to change that. And I tell you what, I’d rather find her bones after they’ve been scorched clean by fire than see what she’d look like after a month of lying in this heat. Fire’s cleansing, I reckon. When it goes through the cane, it burns off the dreck and drives out the rats, the snakes and those filthy toads. Sure, everything is scorched and black and there’s ash everywhere, but the real muck, the stuff you can’t bear to look at, it’s all been burnt away.

Not that Barbara sees it like that, and I’m not saying I blame her. It put me in mind of that time Dot dropped her pearl earring that had belonged to her mother on the kitchen floor. We heard it bounce and there were only a few square feet of floorboards where it could’ve possibly landed, but it was as if it’d disappeared into thin air. Just like poor little Janet McClymont disappeared into the cane as if something unseen had swallowed her up. But those fields have been searched thoroughly – dozens of times – and the cane must be harvested, and for that to happen it has to be burnt.



Maryrose Cuskelly authorMaryrose Cuskelly is a writer of fiction and non-fiction.

In 2019, her book Wedderburn: A True Tale of Blood and Dust (Allen & Unwin, 2018), was longlisted for Best Debut and Best True Crime in the 2019 Davitt Awards.

In 2016, she was awarded the New England Thunderbolt Prize for Crime Writing (non-fiction) for her essay on the 1972 abduction and murder of Marilyn Wallman.

She is the author of Original Skin: Exploring the Marvels of the Human Hide (Scribe 2010) and The End of Charity: Time for Social Enterprise (Allen & Unwin 2008) co-written with Nic Frances, and winner of the Iremonger Award for Writing on Public Issues.

Her essays and articles have been published in a range of magazines, journals, and newspapers, including Crikey, The AgeThe Australian and The Melbourne Magazine.

Visit Maryrose Cuskelly’s website



Book Format:


ISBN: 9781761069574

RRP: $

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