Sunday, February 21, 2010

bush burial

This is a response to Elizabeth's discussion about dead babies.  It's my one and only grief poem.

let's do it   
grab knife         find matches

no moon    dog jumping        white trunks         withered grass

tear off paper        grey boxes        square labels        typed names

sharp blade     locked hard     prise open

start to cry

plastic bags            one each        rip hole        fingers scrabble

  sharp gritty        grab handful        throw     shower        sob wail    bent double 
  handful         handful

                swap sons            

sprinkle Christopher         scatter Joel

more ash        right hand            hurl stick for dog         with left

weep softly    press against cheek        scratch face         on triangular bone

upend bag        final shake        drifting motes         black space

collect twigs        sit         cold ground   

boxes smoulder        smoke curls        stars wheel         plastic melts

clutch together             up the track            rustle leaves            ringtail stare

    wash babies         off face 
scrub fingernails

    cling in bed        tears keep dribbling   

        3 am            sleep   

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Lord of life

tiger snake

Brian ran over a snake with the lawn mower today.  In honour of this - and because I haven't yet put down on paper the new piece that I have in my head - I've posted a piece I wrote in my pre-Kimberley life. It was published in Earthsong, a spiritual nature magazine.

I’m in my pink chair with a cup of tea, making plans to weed the garden bed next to the stump. As I sometimes do in summer, I rehearse my snakebite plan. It’s always a possibility – I see at least two snakes every year. Don’t panic, don’t run; ring the ambulance; then ring my husband to tell him I’m on my way to hospital. I sit for a few minutes more, looking through the window at the garden and the bush beyond.

A little head with glittering eyes appears over the sleeper that contains the rose bed on the other side of the lawn. Before I register what it is, the rest of its body flicks over onto the grass. It has a bright yellow belly – a young tiger, perhaps. I make sure Max the dog is still asleep on his mat before I go out to look for it. Gone. No weeding today, then.

Later I walk carefully up the stone steps to my studio, keeping Max close to me. I work on the computer for a few minutes, then hear the blue wrens screaming “snake” on the bed with the climbing roses. A quick glance shows nothing – back to work.

The bird noise becomes more insistent. Now they’re sitting on the sloping bank beside my studio, a male and female blue wren, and a scrub wren, screeching their heads off. From the bottom of the bank I look carefully on the ground where they are.
What happens next is odd, but it’s happened to me twice before. I’m looking at where I know there is a snake, but my eyes, or perhaps it’s my brain, cannot register it. After about ten seconds there’s some shift in my consciousness that allows me to see it where it was already, lying motionless and in plain view. There must be an explanation, but I haven’t heard one.

A slim reptile, with a yellow belly and spots on the scales around its mouth, is curled around a rock, facing the birds, which are very close to its head. The blue wren male is stretched out towards the snake, body almost flat instead of the normal 90 degrees between body and tail. His mouth is wide open in a continuous high-pitched scream. Do snakes eat tiny birds? Not this time anyway, as it slithers slowly back into the roses and weeds, showing its full metre length.

Next day, in my pink chair again after lunch, Max on his mat, I look through the window at the garden, and the same triangular head appears over the edge of the paving next to the house. The snake slides onto the bricks and explores the pergola. It comes nearer the window and freezes, stalking a lizard. On my belly beside the glass I have my first chance to look closely at a snake. At this distance I can see its eye: not cold, like a bird’s, but alert and intelligent and certainly not evil. I can see it breathe, see its skin rise and fall, once a minute. The lizard runs away, and the snake continues across in front of the window and around the garden bed with the clematis. I watch it slide, almost invisible in the short grass, past Max’s empty kennel. I stand at the back window, waiting, and its little head appears at my feet on the other side of the glass. It looks in the window, but shows no sign of noticing me. It moves to the next window and starts to rub its cheeks on the glass, one side then the other, over and over. It seems to be enjoying the cool and smoothness of the glass. I feel honoured to watch the small pleasures of such a wild, maligned fellow creature.

At the back of the house the snake slides onto the doormat. It rests for a few seconds, then slips down into the trench beside the back veranda bricks. It moves slowly, visible only as shining patches in the grass, then turns right, slides across the driveway and into a clump of kangaroo paw.

Later, I stand at the kitchen window eating a kiwi fruit that I nearly drop when the snake pounces out of a clump of grass, perhaps after another lizard, then slides towards the house, out of my sight. I check the back door, worried it will slide between the wire and the glass, and then come in when I next open the door. Not there.

Back at the front of the house, my hand is on the handle of the wire door, ready to open it and see where the snake has slithered to, when I hear a rough rasp familiar from other encounters. There’s a coil of scales on scales as the snake does a U-turn to disappear out of the space between the window and the glass door. Outside still, but it’s made my heart thump harder.

The tail flicks between the rocks that hold the front window shutters open. It stays there for a minute or two, then the snake comes out, stalking another lizard. The lizard escapes and the snake turns back to the blue pots at the front door.

Enough! I bang on the glass and the snake changes from hunter to hunted in an undignified second. It speeds away over the lawn and along the sleepers. I throw some pebbles that hit it and make it slip further under the banksia.

D.H. Lawrence’s poem is bright in my mind. How sad that I have to be the one to shatter its calm exploration of our house and garden. Everything else is left in peace – frogs, lizards, wombats, birds of every kind, native bees, even rabbits and snails, but not a confident, curious, young snake.

We leave next day for two weeks at the beach, hoping the snake will make a more graceful and permanent exit.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Happy Australia Day?

I wasn’t sure how it would be, spending Australia Day in this part of the country, so recently taken from its original owners. Would the local Aboriginal people have an Invasion Day March? Would us gadiyas flaunt our occupation with a street party and a saluting of the flag, complete with its anachronistic Union Jack?

The day began with a fine Aussie tradition – Sky and Nyx killed a small dark snake in the backyard. We’ve seen so many snakes since we’ve been here that we’ve bought a Field Guide to the Reptiles of Australia. Brian was able to identify this one as an Ord River snake: venomous, but not big enough to kill a human. Certainly big enough to kill a dog. I don’t think our two will last long up here –  they’ve been hunting lizards, and if now they see a snake as fair game, they’ll go the way of every other snake-hunting dog.

We watched them for a while, waiting for symptoms, but they watched us watching them, all the time wagging their tails, so we locked them up and headed off.

The town seemed its usual quiet holiday self as we drove through on the way to Black Rock Springs, 25 kms away. The road in was closed after the rain a few weeks ago, but since this is a drier than usual Wet season it was opened again, the creek crossings only a few muddy puddles and the sand wet enough to support our 4WD. From the road we could see the water pouring over the escarpment, 80 metres up, and from the car park we could hear it splashing. At the bottom of the falls a fern-circled rock pool held cool, clean water with only two other swimmers in it.

We stayed for a couple of hours, swimming and standing on ledges at the side of the waterfall, getting spattered with falling drops. Sometimes the cascade increased until it was almost too hard to bear, then it would suddenly lessen to a few streams dribbling down the rock face. I’d love to know why.

Other people wandered up to the pool, said ‘hello’, had short swims or took a couple of photos then left. We sat on submerged rocks, up to our waists in the water, with the 40° sun streaming onto our heads and little silver fishes darting around our feet and attacking dropped bits of pear.

With a glass or two of champagne and some cheese I could’ve stayed there all afternoon, but we hadn’t planned our excursion that well. Brian clunked the car into four-wheel-drive and we rumbled around to the next cleft in the escarpment, Middle Springs.

Down into a rocky clearing, and into the biggest collection of Australian flags I’ve seen outside an Anzac Day parade. I felt like we’d stumbled into an enemy camp – the effect was one of outright aggression. Each of the 6 white 4WDs had a small flag on its bonnet, and each 4WD was pulling a trailer with two quad bikes, each with a flag at the front. Two tents set up under the trees had full-size flags tied to their tent poles.

I’ve never understood domestic flag flying. I understand a flag over an official building, but I don’t understand what a flying flag on a car or house is supposed to say to me.

‘I love my country’?

What exactly do you love, then? Its people, its environment, its principles? And why do you feel the need to tell me? I live here. I know.

Or are you threatening someone? Terrorists? Refugees? Asians? Wogs? Muslims? I hate flagpoles in front gardens and I’m not too keen on nationalism. It’s not significant that we’re Australians, or even that we’re humans; to me we’re just Gaia, a planet trying to survive the best it can.

We couldn’t drive into the Middle Springs clearing – a car with trailer was parked right across the track. We waited politely until the driver noticed us, shrugged his shoulders, then eventually pulled out of our way. He didn’t smile or wave.

The place was full of archetypal yobbos. The men had short short hair and all of them were sucking on their stubbies as they wandered around in singlets and shorts, or sat in the water with only their heads and beer hands above water. The women were tubby in their bikini tops and shorts, looking after the children bright in their bathers and hats. There was a Blue Heeler wandering around the campsites, of course.

I felt threatened, but I’ve learnt over the years that nearly everyone I meet in my ordinary life is as ordinary as me, with much the same joys and fears, so while Brian climbed up over the cliff to find the pools we’d heard were above the waterfall, I sat in the water and watched.

‘Hey Yobbo. Yobb! You comin’ with us?”, one of them called to his mate in the water. So my stereotyping was correct!

This pool was 30 metres wide and shallow, surrounded by drooping paperbarks. Its waterfall was only about 10 metres high, a single stream flowing down a receding pink rock cliff studded with creamy spinifex clumps. The water was warm, its surface littered with bits of paperbark and weed. A black stain on the rock showed where it usually runs full in the Wet, but not this dry Wet.

Another white 4WD came down the track, this one with TWO flags sticking out its windows. The family clambered out into the heat and two boys ran down to the water near me. They were Aboriginal kids, their parents friendly Westernised Aboriginals, and they were flying the Oz flag – doubly! Because they loved the new Australia they’d been forced live in? To avoid confrontation? They sat in the warm water and talked and joked and they didn’t look worried at all.

Another revelation – some of the yobbos drinking beer in the water were speaking another language – not Italian or French – something like Croatian or Hungarian. Why would they fly the flag? Maybe their parents were refugees, or maybe they themselves were recent immigrants, come to breathe the fresh air and soak up the sun of the Great South Land. They talked and joked too, with their kids swimming in and around their legs.

People were packing up and heading back to town for work tomorrow. I sat under a paperbark and watched a black kite circle the clearing, the pale edge of its tail translucent against the sun. It swooped low again and again, then had the courage to land at one of the just-packed-up campsites long enough to pick up a scrap. It knew Australia Day was nearly over, too.

In a patriotic Oz Day mood, brought on by amazing scenery and fabulous swimming, I decided this place demonstrated the best symbolism Australia Day can offer me. The original inhabitants fly the flag, the colonisers fly the flag, the recent immigrants fly the flag. Maybe all for different reasons, or maybe all for the same Oz reason – any chance to have some fun!

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Highs and lows

Yesterday was a good day. Vietta came wandering up the driveway through heavy rain. On her head she had a laundry basket lid draped with a pink towel. She took it off and put it carefully under the carport. It was past 5 o’clock, and usually I’d say ‘too late’ when she knocked at the door, but she looked so forlorn I let her in while I talked to Lisa on the phone.

She didn’t ask me for one white paper, like she usually does. Instead, she chose a picture book from the box I keep their play stuff in, and settled on a chair. Later I saw she must have gone outside to get her towel and lid, because it was draped over her legs as she read.

The kids rarely come in alone – Vietta is the only one who has, and only a couple of times – but this time she looked like she wanted time by herself. I won’t ever know why – I don’t ask those kinds of questions, though I’d love to, and she never volunteers any information about her life. None of these kids do. By now her brother and sisters were running up and down our driveway, arms spread out dancing in the rain. Little Jordie ran naked, her pale pink soles flashing in the water.

When the rain stopped, Vietta came outside with me as I threw fertiliser on the garden. She didn’t speak, but I explained what I was doing and she followed me back and forth. I don’t know how much she gets out of my explanations. I’ve learnt at TAFE that though some people give the distinct impression that they speak and understand Standard English, when you have time to ask follow-up questions they often haven’t got even the main point of the communication. It’s definitely ESL territory here. I’m working at simplifying my sentence structure and vocab, but it doesn’t come that easily, even after all my remedial work. It feels patronising to speak in simple sentences to someone who gives every indication they are a native English speaker.

Later I saw Tyrell and Jordie were inside too, reading books. Little Jordie had had the back of her head shaved, with a long fringe of dark curls left to dangle over her eyes. She always looks cute and now even more so, from the front. From behind I could see a couple of big scabs on her scalp – maybe she’s got some kind of infection. Nits are a given. It’s a normal social interaction to comb someone else’s hair for nits, and after you’ve finished to pick a couple out of your hair and put them back in the hair of the one you’ve just de-nitted. So it wouldn’t be for nits. I hope it’s not scabies.

Vietta asked for six white papers and sat at the table to draw while the other two got out the dominoes and started to play houses with them. I was going to wait for a while before I brought out my surprise, but I couldn’t. A few days ago I bought a big box of Thomas the Tank Engine train set for $5 from the opshop, so I put the box on the floor next to Tyrell. He immediately got excited and started to lay the tracks out while Jordie ran around with carriages dangling and crashing on the back of an engine. I know she’ll break it - she’s only two – and as usual I have to decide how much destruction I can bear. Things don’t last long with this mob – they play roughly with whatever they have, it breaks almost immediately, then it’s left where it falls. I usually pick it up in here, and their mother must pick it up at home, because their yard is tidy – at other houses rubbish collects in piles all around.

I usually accept that whatever they play with will be broken very quickly. Sometimes I think it’s good that they’re not materialistic, other times I think they’re careless little monsters. But I like this train set – it’s well made – and I want to keep it for other kids to enjoy another time.

For now I just let Jordie play. She screams blue murder if anyone says ‘no’ to her. I say it all the time, because she climbs on the furniture and plays with the light switch and pokes the dogs, and if she cries too much I make her go home. But if I do, Kyra, the oldest girl and chief babysitter, has to go home with her, so I try not to confront Jordie too often.

After a while Vietta stopped drawing and asked for a train, so Tyrell gave her two carriages and kept the engine. The three of them played for a long while, setting up tracks and running the train around it. I love being able to give them experiences they don’t get at home or school, because they never attend: unlimited paper, sticky tape, glue, stickers, books, train sets. Anywhere we’ve lived we’ve had kids come in and play, starting when we were first married in Armidale, before we had Lian.

Eventually I reminded them that their mum liked them home when it got dark. None of them have ever said so, I just think it’s true. They packed up quickly and ran home in the drizzle.

A little while later it started to pour again, so I went out to stand in it: I take every opportunity to cool off. Vietta called to me from their veranda, then she came out onto the road. Jordie and Tyrell came too and we all played in the dark and wet. The game was me or Jordie throw a plastic water pistol and Jordie fetches it. The other two took turns to ride their new RipStik. The water was shining on the bitumen, and the lightning was far enough away for me not to mind. Every now and then Jordie would flatten herself face down on the road like a frog, arms and legs in Vs beside her. I guessed she was sucking up water. It was hard to see – her naked little body was as dark as the tar and my glasses were covered in rain. Kyra came out after a while and rode the RipStik too. Their older brother Cimarron stood on the veranda, then at the edge of the driveway. I wondered if he wanted to be out with us. Maybe if I hadn’t been there he would’ve. We haven’t spoken since I yelled at him to go to school when he threw a plastic bottle onto our driveway.

It was lovely out there. Twice a car came by and the call was ‘car coming Gretta’ as if I needed to be looked after a bit more – no-one told two year old Jordie a car was coming. Eventually Jordie held up two pieces of water pistol and said ‘broke!’ Tyrell saw it and said in a small voice ‘Is it broken?’ That’s all he said, but I realised I’d been caught up doing exactly what I accuse them of – playing roughly with perfectly good toy until it broke. I remember that earlier he’d said ‘Is that my shirt?’ when the other were flailing a piece of red material around in circles to make the water on the road spray up. I was sorry I’d broken his water pistol – but then, he’s broken a few things in here …

‘It was hard, now it’s ….’ – I wish I could remember the words Vietta used to tell me the rain was lessening. They were so close to English but not quite and I didn’t write them down immediately, because I was outside soaking wet on a watery road in a dark night lit only by distant lightning flashes. The words were so close to what I would say that I can only come up with my standard English words when I try to recreate them. This happens often and as a writer, it frustrates me a lot.

Probably she said something like ‘It was big and now it’s little.’ Anyway, the rain was stopping, so I said ‘time to go in’. We gathered on the footpath and I turned to see Kyra’s beautiful eyes and smile shining out of her dark face, right beside me.

‘Bye! Bye! Bye!’ Jordie repeated the word as they walked up their driveway and I walked up mine.

I have to remember these good days, because on Friday I was working at the opshop when a family came in and spent a long time looking through the racks. I helped the little boy try on baseball caps, then moved on to serve his parents. Brian was there, looking for Hawaiian shirts, and after a while he said ‘the cap’s walked out the door.’

I went outside and there was the five year old, almost around the corner, the tag already ripped off the cap. We always stay pleasant, non-confrontational, so I smiled fakely and said to his parents ‘I’d like the cap back please’.

‘Give the cap’, he was ordered, but there were no apologies from the parents, or recriminations for the boy.

‘He stole it’ said his sister brightly, not much older.

We lose a bit of stuff from the shop even though, as one girl told me that morning, ‘you the good guys, eh!’ It’s not just us. The guy from the Salvos around the corner told us he felt ransacked the day before. He was almost in tears, he’d lost so much stock.

A few months ago a huge toy dog somehow disappeared from a shelf right next to our cash register. One of the staff drove around the streets until she found a group of people with it sitting beside them. They didn’t argue, weren’t embarrassed, when she took it back. It disappeared again another day, so now it’s in the storeroom, too valuable to be displayed, but not worth paying $5 for.

As well as theft, good guys or not, our big front window was broken the Tuesday before. Some shops are targeted for vandalism and get trashed again and again, but people coming in to ours suggested it had probably happened during a fight, rather than as a deliberate act. They were sorry and shook their heads in disgust.

It was pouring rain on that day too, and while the opshop boss phoned the police, the glass people, the insurance, an old woman and a young girl sat outside, waiting for the shop to open. ‘We want dry clothes’ the woman said. She was the first of many to come into the shop soaking wet, complain about the rain, choose a new outfit, change into it, come to me to have the labels cut off and hold out a bundle of wet clothes to be put in a bag to take away. Then they walked outside, back into the pouring rain, without umbrellas or raincoats. I understood for the first time that if you don’t have a car, a house or a dryer, the wet season is a major difficulty, while for me it’s a lovely time of cool air and water.

Kids, fun, rain – the highs. Theft, broken windows, people suffering – the lows. The balance is OK at the moment.

Monday, January 11, 2010

Jesus hate red

‘Jesus hate red.’ Synae was standing in Nyx’s paddling pool, hosing herself and her little cousin, Chenole.
‘Oh’. That’s my usual feeble reaction to these regular pronouncements. ‘Does he?’
‘Yep. He only like blue and white and black and pink.’
I thought I’d heard wrong, as I often do, especially when it’s the kids talking.
‘Who hates red?’
‘JESUS’, said with great emphasis. ‘He like yellow and black and orange and white. And green.’
‘Who told you Jesus hates red?’
‘My Mum.’

I’ve met Synae’s mum. I waved to her, once, when she was at the end of our driveway with the next door kids. She walked up to me and her face was mean and hard – I’ve heard some of her life story since and I understand why.
‘My baby crying out for milk. You give me money for milk,’ she said.
I was really pissed off. I’d waved to her like another human being and she’d immediately treated me like a gadia. I didn’t know then that her baby is a one year old boy with Down Syndrome, but it wouldn’t have made any difference.
‘I’m not giving you money,’ I said. My Kununurra policy is to refuse firmly and clearly when I’m asked to give stuff or do things I don’t want to do, like give lifts into town. It doesn’t happen that often, but there’s no point trying to be polite. It worked - she walked off muttering about her crying baby and milk.
One of the tough young teachers told me later that she never goes alone to this woman’s house to ask why Synae and her brothers aren’t in school. ‘She’s the only one I’m scared of”, she said.

So, if Synae’s mother says Jesus hates red, I’m not going to argue.
‘You got no red,’ Synae said, looking at my blue and pink and white sarong. ‘Im won’t kill you.’
‘No, I haven’t’, I said, still not adding anything useful. But kill me? At last I understood. We’d been looking at the black sky racing towards us, and Synae had said ‘Rain coming.’ I realised that ‘rain’ meant ‘thunder and lightning,’ and storms are so close and powerful here that lightning strike is real.

‘I got no red. Chenole got red.’ She pulled at the little girl’s dress to show me the red flower pattern on it. ‘Take your dress off, Chenole.’ Chenole sat down in the pool – she was too young to know the danger she was in.
‘Oh, you mean lightning!’ was all I said. I’m working hard at not scoffing or gainsaying the odd things I hear. Who am I to move to this foreign country and say Jesus hates another colour?

Brian and I saw Jesus, or some higher power, looking at us, only two days ago. We were driving home towards a towering black sky in the south-east when it split from top to bottom, right in front of us. Behind the jagged rent in the clouds was a white hot light that glowed for a full two seconds before it shut with a monstrous bang.
I can’t remember whether we said ‘Fuck!’ or ‘Jesus Christ!’, but we said it in unison. The Universe had peeked at us – words can’t properly describe it.
The gods are closer here – in the rocks, in the sky, in the water – and it’s easy to believe their colour preferences are well known.

Friday is funeral day

Friday is funeral day in Kununurra. Every month or so on a Friday morning there are more than the usual number of dark figures under the trees in the park and along the green road verges. The whites who work with blackfellas pass the word, and the town uses “There’s a funeral on” as an excuse for everything.

Some funerals are bigger than others, and people have been gathering all week because tomorrow a young Aboriginal woman will be buried. A student told me they found her hanging at ‘The Ranch’, a community within Kununurra. The dead woman has left 4 little kids. It may have been suicide or murder – the girl telling me didn’t know. Suicide probably – homicide is uncommon here, but self-destruction is almost the norm.

The funeral notice in the paper said “Please attend in a sober manner”, but the drinking started yesterday.

A graffiti artist, here for only 2 weeks, organised a mural painting in the park with our high school kids for this afternoon. It was cancelled – the school decided it wouldn’t be right to take a group of students into a park full of drunks, even if the students are related to many of them. Sadly, the drunks in the park are family groups, with toddlers, babies and young kids as well as men and women.

I had a whole day of literacy assessments with unemployed people arranged for tomorrow at TAFE. They wouldn’t have turned up necessarily, but even me, a newbie, knew there’d be even less chance now. I explained to the agency woman. “There’s a funeral on.” She got out the appointment list and spoke formally to the Aboriginal woman at the next desk.

“Mary, with your knowledge of the community, will you tell me which of these people will be at the funeral on Friday.”

Mary nodded yes to a couple of names. Then another Aboriginal guy was given the list so he could visit each person and check whether they’d be coming or not. This morning an email told me all the appointments were postponed until next week. No pay for me, tomorrow. There’s a funeral on.

At the end of today I thought I’d break my weekend-only drinking rule and get a bottle of Rose` at Liquorland. I drove past the people staggering in the park and thought “the last thing this place needs is more alcohol,” but I still wanted it.

“I hope you’re just browsing, ma’am”, the shop guy said. Browsing in a bottle shop? But it was a formula he’d been given to help break the drastic news.

“Restrictions on. You can only buy light and mid-strength beer until 5 pm. Then you can buy one bottle of wine.”

It was 4.10 pm. I was so looking forward to a glass of pink bubbles after a big week, but I wasn’t desperate enough to wait, or go back later. The abuse of alcohol is constantly in my face here, and it makes me consider my own drinking– that, and calorie counting, is why I’ve stopped drinking during the week.

This is the first time I’ve experienced alcohol restrictions like they’ve had in Hall’s Creek for a few months now. The results down there have been spectacular – a huge decrease in crime and truancy – but the local bottle shop owner has maintained his rage and last week blamed the bans for the deaths of two people in a car accident. He claimed there were more car accidents because people had to drive to Kununurra to buy grog.

Of course, not all Aboriginal people are out drinking in the park. The woman next door took her children inside just after dark, as she does every night, and they won’t be sitting on the fence before 6.30 am. The thirteen year old I was working with this afternoon says her parents would never let her go to the park at night. The people who live in the house to the left of us are inside watching TV – I can see their screen flickering.

“You people just don’t get it.” That’s what the student said to me this arvo, after we’d moved on from the funeral news. I’d disagreed with her that punching someone who deserved it was the best way to get on in school. ‘You just break yo arm” she scoffed, and flounced off cheerfully to get another colour Texta for her “Walk to School Wednesday” poster.

Outside now is the biggest storm I’ve seen since we lived in Goroka. The sky is lit up non-stop and the thunder is making the dogs walk round in circles. Big drops of rain are smashing on the roof and the garden smells of cloves. There’s no guttering on the roof so the eaves are pouring waterfalls that have flooded the veranda already. I’ve got earplugs in my ears so I can type, but even so I’m jumping with the huge crashes right overhead.

I can’t imagine sitting drunk in a park in a tropical storm, and I can’t imagine having young children there with me. I can’t imagine punching someone and I can’t imagine hanging myself from a tree.

I don’t get it – but that’s irrelevant.

Toilet Fairies at the Kimberley Moon

The Ord River Muster is on, and the big event was the Kimberley Moon Experience last Saturday night. At dusk Brian and I wandered down the sweet molasses track, past so many white 4WDs we knew we’d have trouble finding ours again, through the hessian walkway and onto a huge grassy patch on the side of the Ord. There was a big crowd there already well sparked, and we spread our blanket on a piece of grass at the right hand side of the stage, near the front.

Beside us, on the other side of a white metal picket fence, 30 tables perched unevenly on the grass, set with white tablecloths, flowers, candles and many polished wine glasses. Eight people sat at each table, sweaty and out of place in black ties and suits or shiny formal dresses and high heels, while the rest of us, most of us, lolled on the grass in shorts, T-shirts and bare feet. Security men patrolled the fence in green fluoro jackets, but that would be more to keep the guests in, I thought, rather than us out.

These chosen, at $250 a head, didn’t have as good a view as we did in front of the stage, but they had their own fountain with jets that sprayed blue and pink, and their own Kimberley moons, three huge white balloons lit against the dark sky. The first one I saw fooled me until I found the real moon, much smaller and less white, rising in the centre of a tree that had blue lights flickering over its leaves. I didn’t know what kind of tree it was, which threw me even though it happens all the time up here. This is a foreign landscape, ostensibly my own country.

We’d got there just in time for the speeches, then a young woman twirled fire and swung on a trapeze. I ate a hamburger without a thought – the first time in many years. It wasn’t bad – a rissole like in the good old days in Bardia St – but bigger, and not cooked for quite so long.

At this party there were white and black residents, backpackers and grey nomads. The black families were over on the other side of the stage where I couldn’t see them. The whites around us seemed to demonstrate the live-for-the-moment, we-won’t be-here-long sentiment I’ve heard a bit since we got here. There were backpackers and grey nomads with no family, friends or neighbours for thousands of kilometres. They could be whoever they wanted to be because they knew no-one and no-one knew them.

All this meant that as soon as the Army Band from Darwin struck a note, a big surge of people of various ages ran up to the front of the stage and started dancing – there was no hanging back. The band did a good set, Blues Brother and Andrew Sisters – what most military bands do at this kind of event.

‘R-E-C-E-I-P-T’, I heard them sing, and I had to concentrate to remember the real Aretha Franklin letters. That was my Red Cross Op-shop training kicking in.

They sang ‘It’s raining men’ and the smell of strong fish wafted over the crowd – barra being served in the Puddin’ Paddock. It lasted until ‘I Shook Hands with a Digger’, which got big cheers, and then everyone sang along to ‘I am Australian’.

Australian at the Kimberley Moon meant the right for some of us to have a hamburger in paper and for others to eat barra in a bowtie and for all to be satisfied with their choice. It meant the right to have a big event peacefully, even though the land it was held on had been taken from one section of the audience by the other.

Think of all the good music that’s come out of WA and the NT – Gurrumul, John Butler, JW Stoneking. The next band made wonderful music – ‘Blue Shaddy’, from the wheat belt of WA, wherever that is. They were announced as ‘blues/roots/surf and funk’. I’m not sure where the surf came in – the only lyrics I heard were about willy wagtails, but we had to dance. They were the best dance band since ‘Les Hurlements de Leo’, which was a while ago now.

I was having a good time crushed in the moshpit (cool talk) when a young woman stopped in front of me, looked carefully at my new sparkly Kimberley shirt (with Glostick attached) and said ‘You’re a lovely little toilet fairy, aren’t you?’

I had no answer to that.

Back on the grass, sweaty and getting chilled for the first time in many weeks, I thought I’d put on my hoodie. Its fluffiness and smell going over my head was odd, almost unpleasant. How could I get so used to sleeveless tops and shorts in such short time? I could only stand it for a few minutes before I had to take it off.

Because I was having a dementia-preventing alcohol-free day, I could judgmentally watch the lots and lots of women my age who were very drunk around me. They were not quite staggering, but they popped corks, propositioned wandering young men and screamed loudly.

‘Sit down, Mum. SIT DOWN!’, one girl said, but her mother was calling after a toyboy and would not be shut up.

A young woman dressed in a silver evening gown (with shoulder tatt) laughed over the white picket fence with her friends. On this side the young men clutched three bottles of beer each, while she held a half-filled champagne glass by the stem. She leaned over the fence, touching the men and almost ripping her fancy dress until they wandered off into the ground and she turned back to the tables. It reminded me of The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas, where the privileged yearned to join the oppressed.

More and more conversations over the fence, drinks being passed over, cigarettes being lit. When the ‘Hoodoo Gurus’ started about twenty of the $250s crowded against the little white fence like a bunch of triffids, trying to get in on the action. They had their own wooden dance floor, full of large men, coatless, tie-less, white shirts crisp in the gloom, and admirable women who had still not taken off their heels. But some seemed to yearn for the grass on the other side.

The ‘Hoodoo Gurus’ sounded like a standard pub band to us, so we headed off. I stopped at the Portaloos on the way out, and there was my lovely sparkly new Kimberley shirt on at least three women. They were the toilet fairies, volunteers keeping the Portaloos clean, and my shirt was part of their uniform. The men fairies had their own uniform, the orange boab-printed shirt Brian bought to wear to the wedding last week.

I would’ve put my hoodie back on if it hadn’t needed to go over my head.

Kimberley Wedding

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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.

Monday, June 29, 2009

Stepping out

‘You could pull up a chair and I’ll tell you a story,’ this lovely Year 8 girl said. What a surprising, rhythmic answer to my dumb question ‘And what will I do while you eat your sandwich?’

Did I pull up a chair? Did I think ‘Wow. What an offer!’?

No. I’m a teacher. I spoke the script. ‘You’re supposed to be doing your homework, Mahalia. Eat your sandwich quickly and come back inside.’

Straight away, I hated my teacher self. This was one of the first face-to-face exchanges I’d had with an Indigenous Kimberley person. One of the reasons I came to Kununurra was to keep learning more about Aboriginal people, to figure out for myself what I thought about the black and white Australias, and I’d turned down a chance to do just that.

I grew up in Albury, a country town as Anglo/Irish white as the next one. In the fifties and sixties European refugees started to move in, but they were white as well. The first Aboriginal I was ever conscious of was Bobby Veen. My skin was so white, his so black, that I watched him every week at Sunday Mass from when I was about 7 years old. Even in a church of more than 500 people, he stood out. He was a year older than me, stick thin, with a head that looked too big for his body and eyes that flickered sideways, back and forth, as he walked down the aisle with his white brothers and sisters. We kids knew he was a poor little black boy that the Veens, a good Catholic family, had given a decent home to. This was 30 years before people talked about ‘the Stolen Generation.’

I remember Mum telling me sadly that Bobby had been teased so much at the local Catholic boys’ school where my brothers went that he’d been moved to the private school. In those days we believed that Catholics were the good guys, and we were disappointed when we weren’t.

Bobby’s been in gaol for more than thirty years now, on indefinite preventative detention, after stabbing to death a second man in 1983. His trial revealed the Albury of the sixties as a town of paedophile teachers and racists, not the quiet friendly backwater we thought we knew. One article I read talks about Robert Veen having ‘an abnormality of mind which must realistically be seen as having been at least partly caused by the oppressive and deforming yoke of emotional deprivation and sexual abuse and exploitation which society laid upon his formative years.’ I’m sad to think that my curious stare was part of the heavy burden he carried as a child.

In the early seventies Brian had Aboriginal friends at the WA Institute of Technology in Perth. They never mentioned their racial background, and to us they were just a friendly exotic bunch, a mix of all the races that came together in Broome. I met one of them two years ago at a conference where she was a guest speaker. She was polite and said she remembered us, but that was all. She carried an aloof air of self-importance I couldn’t reconcile with the generous girl I’d known in Perth. Her frequently proclaimed identity at the conference was as an Aboriginal elder, and I wondered if that meant she felt the need to distance herself from the time when she was just a person like the rest of us. I should have asked her.

In the late seventies I was at college with the first two Aboriginals to train as teachers in NSW. One was a big friendly man who was a fun-loving, hard-drinking student like the rest of us. The other was a small man who made us very conscious of him as a black person. I was wary of speaking to him, in case I said the wrong thing.

One day at college my friends came out of a lecture much disturbed. Jim, the angry one, had given a talk on the Bluff Rock massacre, where local Aborigines had been driven over a cliff at Tenterfield, not that far away. Apparently Jim told the story passionately, with hurt for a wrong done to his people, and we understood at last why he was angry.

That was the first time, in 1978, that I ever heard the word “massacre” in relation to Aboriginal people. 13 years of education and the only mention of Aborigines that I remember was a black-and-white sketch of a small bush tribe in a Social Studies text book.

I saw Jim too, recently, on TV. He’s now Curator of Koori History and Culture at the Powerhouse Museum in Sydney. He seemed more mellow, more relaxed than when were students together. His skin was bright pink in many places, from some kind of skin problem, I suppose. That’s ironic, because it was Jim who told me, when I got to know him a little bit, that some of his family and friends called him a ‘coconut’ – brown on the outside but white inside – because he was succeeding at tertiary study.

‘It’s hard’ he said, and once again Jim expanded my knowledge of his culture so I understood that success was viewed differently in his world.

Now, in Kununurra, I’m working exclusively with Indigenous students. Three times a week I hear a Year 5 girl read at a local school. She’s a plump, enthusiastic little blossom who’s about ready to become an independent reader. She attends school regularly, speaks Standard Australian English well, and will probably end up fully literate.

After I’ve seen her I help in a Year 1 class of at-risk Indigenous kids. They’re ‘at risk’ because they hardly go to school: some days there are four of them there, the most I’ve seen is ten, but there are over twenty enrolled in the class.

They are the most fascinating, loveable lot. They’re very tactile: they lean on me, sit very close, play with my earrings, imitate my voice – not rudely, but quietly, repeating and playing with my intonation and words. They can take a long time to answer a question, not because they don’t know the answer, but because they’re running through the possibilities in their heads. They often seem distracted, and some of them really can’t sit still, but most of them are paying attention even while they play with their feet.

They go from shy to cheeky quite suddenly, with no middle ground, but in this classroom they are easily brought back into line. They are almost all tired all the time. Their little faces are pale with dark-ringed eyes and they lie down every chance they get: on the floor, on us the helpers, or on their desks, but they want to learn. They try earnestly to guess what word will be the right answer to their teacher’s questions, and because I’m an observer, rather than the teacher, I can see them watching her lips and eyes for any cues she might give. This means they often give nonsense answers, or repeat answers to questions she asked a few minutes before.

I’m always surprised when they identify themselves as ‘Australian’ in various class discussions. Their Australia is so different from mine. They speak Aboriginal English, or Kriol, which I can follow a bit because it sounds like the Tok Pisin the local people spoke in Goroka. They speak Standard English, my English, with a distinct accent. Of course they’re Australian, and part of my challenge up here is to understand enough of their culture to fit it into my own picture of Australia, along with the Italians, the Sudanese and all the other people I’ve mixed with over the years.

While I’m writing this I’m listening to the bangs and crashes the girl next door is making on the metal fence between our houses. I know she’ll be standing on it in her pink dress, bare toes gripping the top. She grabs on a vine that’s hanging from a tree in her yard and swings into our yard and back, banging her feet against the fence as she does. She’s 11, the oldest girl in the family, and her younger sister and brother have gone to school for the first time since we’ve been here. She’s the one with her baby sister on her hip all day, the one who doesn’t come in to our house often because the baby is scared of the dogs and screams if her feet are put on the ground. The baby must be asleep, so the older girl is swinging while she can. I wonder if she’s bored, or lonely, or unhappy with her lot.

It’s not my business to ask her for her story, but at school I’d had an Aboriginal girl offer to tell me something about herself, and I’d hidden behind that old teacher crap.

When Mahalia finished her sandwich and came back into the classroom I said ‘Now tell me your story.’ It wasn’t about the Dreaming, or the Rainbow Serpent, or her connection with the land. It was an ordinary tale of embarrassment in front of a potential boyfriend, told with smiles and raisings of eyebrows. I told her about wetting my pants at school in Grade 3, and in personal and professional terms it was a worthwhile exchange. We understood each other a tiny bit better and had established a tiny rapport. She hasn’t been back at the homework program since that day, because even in Year 8, school is seen as optional.

An insignificant incident, but it made me remember that up here, away from everyone and everything that’s familiar, I’m in the ideal place to relax and step out from behind the white, middle-class teacher persona I’ve built for myself. It’s not easy.