We walked down a red track between rough cliffs banded in orange and black. In a small clearing was a white shade tent, and underneath it a group of people dressed in a motley of hot weather clothes and formal wear – halter-necked tops, shorts, long-sleeved shirts, sundresses, long trousers, strapless dresses. I didn’t feel out of place in my raw silk top, black op-shop skirt and Keens. Two white-clothed tables were laid out with champagne glasses and frangipanis and beside them was a big esky.
The bridegroom, tall in a browny-cream linen suit, straw panama and brown shoes with a chequerboard pattern said, in his lovely South American English, ‘Welcome. This is a special day. Thank you for coming.’ He didn’t remember my name – I’d only met him twice.
When the narrow track was full of 4-wheel drives and there were about 50 of us, we walked 100 metres down a path lined with burnt shrubs, grasses and a yellow-spotted goanna, until we came to a red rock amphitheatre.
‘Come up close, out of the sun’ said the celebrant, a grey-haired Aboriginal man with a crutch under his right arm. We stood in a semi-circle in the shade of the rock wall, looking up at the rim of the amphitheatre, where backpackers in scarlet T-shirts looked down on us.
‘They might steal the champagne’, someone said.
‘Nah. They sounded French – no way they’d want Yellow.’
The groom stood with the celebrant, his best man beside him in a blue casual shirt, denim shorts and thongs. The groom’s best friend, who no-one thought would come up from Sydney or he would have been best man, wore a heavy gold chain with his white shirt and black pants. His shoes shone white in the red dust.
At last the bride walked self-consciously down the track to us, led by a substitute family. With not one of the bride and groom’s family in Australia, the groom’s workplace had organised pretend relatives to make them feel loved. The chairman of the board became the father of the bride, one of the program managers was the groom’s mother and her husband, the groom’s father. I don’t know if there was a mother of the bride. Perhaps no-one felt they could take on that responsibility.
The flower girl at the front of the procession wore a tight pink Thai costume, a jacket and skirt.
‘She gave herself a haircut last week’, someone said. Her mother had worked hard to drag back enough hair to make a little bun to support a high golden tiara. She concentrated hard on walking slowly and carrying her frangipanis, frowning with her mouth set in a straight line. After her was the bridesmaid happy in a short pink dress, and the maid of honour, in a white shirt and black skirt, carrying her sunglasses and looking awkward.
The bride was tiny and beautiful in a traditional cream Thai wedding dress, a jacket with a high collar and an elaborate belt over a long tight skirt. Her hair was up in looping black curls and a golden ornament, and her necklace and earring were swinging triangles made of gold tracery and coloured stones.
‘It’s good to walk through the past’, said the celebrant. ‘This is ancient country.’
The bride and groom had lived together for months, but as they met, he bent over, she climbed onto tiptoes and they fell into a long passionate kiss.
‘Not yet’, the celebrant said. They were pulled apart by the best man.
They said the traditional vows with meaning and emotion while backpackers on the walking tracks threaded their way around and through us, looking apologetic. The ‘You may kiss the bride’ turned into another long embrace.
We walked back to the shade tent and drank warm champagne and bottled water while the couple had photos taken among the rocks and grass. The tent and tables were quickly dismantled after the wedding party had left, and when I looked back the clearing was again a dusty patch of bush.
The reception was at the golf club, on the banks of Lake Kununurra. The lawns were green, the tall palms swayed, the dirt tracks shone and smelt of liquorice. They’d been sprayed with molasses, from the last of the Ord River sugar cane, to keep down the dust. One of the palms was quickly surrounded by a semi-circle of sandals and high-heeled shoes that were soon full of ants.
The party seated themselves according to race. The Anglos, the majority, sat on tables towards the front, the Asians sat on a table to the side and the Aboriginals tucked themselves away on a table behind a group of trees. If I could learn how to approach that table without awkwardness I’d be pleased.
I talked to an engineer, a shovel operator and a public relations manager, all from the Argyle Diamond Mine. I talked to a woman who represents the traditional owners in their negotiations with the mine.
I talked to the guitar-playing Cambodian chef from the local 4 star hotel and three other Asian women who stacked the shelves at Coles.
‘Good money, no brain’, they told me several times. They didn’t want any responsibility at all at work.
Towards the end of the afternoon I came across the bride in the brick toilet block. She had changed into a beaded emerald green halter top and about 10 centimetres of white skirt. She buttered her arms and legs with Nivea Creme and I helped her fasten a jangly bracelet. The groom was now in a loose red shirt and white trousers, and together on the green lawn they danced a salsa so sizzling it was as if they’d made love in front of us. We applauded politely, then followed the groom’s instructions to dance the basic step of the salsa ourselves, barefoot on the cool grass. Our moves were not sexy.
The single thirty-something women were sunburnt and drunk and falling down little holes in the lawn as we left.