Old Tin Lizzie
was the first car
in Kookynie ---– the fella
owed me money and wanted me
to take it in payment,
the kids pestering
and me understanding
that most of all they wanted
to be the first kids in town,
for a little while at least.
I told them we couldn’t
afford to run it…
From Perth to Wooroloo
the train wheezed and rasped,
clanked and jostled.
The sanitorium opened
on one side to allow
fresh air, protected
by no more than blinds
during storm weather,
which the men who couldn’t
opening and closing.
The chill morning air
would bite like razors
into their collapsing chests.
This was the open-air treatment.
The children, arms laden
with flowers grown in rich soil,
played at their feet,
and they harboured no bitterness.
Despite a dozen hotels
I would continue past all, straight
to the coffee palace with its wood
and whitewashed hessian walls.
I was happiest when working the Cosmopolitan,
it being in the middle of the town
and not much travelling.
And the war stripped the district
clean to the bone,
and the few mines left open
I mean, he had to tell them himself
really, didn’t he?
From Wooroloo to Perth
the train clanked and jostled,
wheezed and rasped
in tireless travel…
She tells me the eldest
is working as a seamstress
and can no longer visit
I get them to bring me
the newspapers…I read
year after year
of the continuing boom.
They came once, the photographers
from the newspaper ‘the city newspaper’
and had us all sitting there: bleached, dry,
though liquid faced.
And then I caught the boy
floating in the red creek
in an old rainwater tank,
though I left him to it,
it not having rained
And I said that if my church isn’t good enough,
then I’ll be damned if I’ll go into hers.
And I left water
on the verandah
for the wanderers
of the desert
Once lost in the desert
it becomes the fullest memory.
Where those who weary
of their clothes
scream for cover
in the hours before sunrise.
The red desert,
where every particle
Afghans came in the end.
On camels…with their clocks,
boxes and scented furniture.
They gave me water.
The town was almost dry.
His lips were blue.
I’ve barely room for this.
And to find a place for it
in this household of a brain
I’ve been left with after
years of shuffling our lives.
Ah, his feet so cold
his eyes glazed and receding,
SHE DIDN’T LIKE it when father went out into the scrub without his horse. She would try to delay him by challenging him to a memory game, which he couldn’t resist. He was proud of his memory. He could recite so many poems and stories ‘verbatim’, as he said. Writing ten words on a page, he showed them to her for a minute then asked her to recite them back. She got eight of them. Then she wrote down twenty words for him in her fat, correct handwriting: he remembered all of them! She was always bragging to the kids at school about his ‘accomplishments’.
She loved to hear Paddy Shine’s gramophone. That was heaven. Heaven was real, even during the dust storms which racked the town. She listened to the Christmas recordings outside his hotel, sitting on the verandah, wondering what would happen if dust got into the music, into the words. Her father was going out to Urilla but she wouldn’t ask to go. Not even her brother could go and especially not the babies. The babies got dirt and grime in their thick folds and their white bonnets looked like little red riding hoods, all bloody with foreboding. Did she think that, or did someone else say it?
The Afghans go out to Urilla. They camp there with the Hunza donkey people. Father would go out there with Tiger, his retriever dog. No, she had forgotten, the times were all mixed up – Tiger had died not long ago, a black snake bite. No one was allowed to say Tiger was dead. Tiger was still with him, though you couldn’t see him. Father even liked dingoes but mother told the girl not to mention this to anyone else in town. Mother liked her goats, which she milked, sometimes making butter from their milk, though the girl liked tinned butter best. The tinned butter came in on the train.
The girl hated being laughed at. Since she couldn’t swim, her mother told her not to go into the dam in the old bathtub, because she would spin round and round and drown. She assured her mother she wouldn’t do such a thing. She wouldn’t want to be dead and most of all, wouldn’t want to be laughed at for being silly and drowning. But she went to the dam anyway and oared herself out, and a hole in the bathtub made the vessel spin and by the time she had rowed back it was almost capsizing and she was soaked through to the skin. She left her dress over a bluebush and wandered back to the shack – the house…they were proud of the desert house – semi-naked. Her mother didn’t laugh but scolded her severely and said she would tell her father, a foreman of the Cosmopolitan and South Champion Mines. The girl insisted to herself that she would never be taught to swim down at the baths, which were always full of water that flowed in via pumps and an aqueduct from the shaft of the Englishman Mine. Never. She didn’t want to swim because she didn’t want to be laughed at trying to learn. People learning to swim look so silly out there on the edge of the desert. She’d seen pictures of children paddling at the seaside – that looked sensible and less embarrassing. Then her mother opened a can of butter that had come all the way from Adelaide, a strange liquid in the desert that set on the colder nights and gave the girl a scoop to lick.
‘Don’t tell your brother or your father about the butter,’ she whispered, though there was no one else around to hear. ‘You won’t need a bath this week!’
Despite the scarcity of water, she was a clean girl. Even when the dust storms buried the town season-in season-out, she’d find refuge in some sealed-up place and keep the dust out of her hair, out of her clothes. She kept her fingernails as clean as possible, though they had to be fixed every night. The dust was just matter of fact – it was no mystery, no second coming.
She liked the cleaner shops. She wasn’t one of the ragamuffins that stole nuts from the grocer’s shop. When Niagara Dam dried out, they waited for the water carters and siphoned the water off at more than a week’s wages. ‘Water, water everywhere,’ her mother would say when they went to her sister’s, the girl’s auntie’s, for a cup of tea, a pint of clear water sitting in the middle of the lace-clothed table, like gold. That was ostentation, said her mother. ‘My sister has always been a bit of a glamour puss, a show-off!’ She said it affectionately, though she winked at the girl.
Mrs Jewers, who was well off with a horse and sulky, came in and offered to take them all out, sitting high above the desert. Mrs Jewers said, ‘You’re a clean and bright little girl. Clean and bright as cornflowers.’
The girl looked at Mrs Jewers and wondered what cornflowers looked like, and what they meant – what they stood for. She would look it up in their book The Language of Flowers.
The girl liked to watch the Afghan teams come into town, bells ringing on their camels, their packs full of sandalwood which would go to China for the making of carved chests. She watched the trains turn slowly in the street and followed them out to nearby Ghantown with its beautifully pitched tents. Though entranced, she didn’t go close. She wondered what a Chinaman looked like. Her father talked about the Chinese on the Victorian Goldfields, where he’d come from. Her mother had come from the same Goldfields but a different workings, to help run a boarding house with her sister.
She wondered why the ‘official’ people took the native babies away. She and her brother cried and cried, she was so sad. Her father said, ‘It was for the best.’ But she couldn’t understand. She clutched her raggedy doll and said, ‘You won’t take this away!’ She said to her boyfriend Errol, a year older than her, that they wouldn’t take their baby away and she clutched the raggedy doll harder. They watched natives stacking wood and Errol pretended to throw spears at them and the natives pretended to throw them back.
The town bustled and the children held hands walking to school. Don’t bother the miners, mother would say. But the girl poked her head into a Scotsman’s house, one of her father’s men, to see an even younger girl who’d just come to town and she offered to ‘hairdress’ her. She cut off a curl and the Scotsman came in and said, ‘Off with you, ya liddle bugger!’ And her own father gave her the biggest telling-off but didn’t smack her. He never did. He was the only father in town who didn’t smack children.
THE AREA AROUND Kookynie had been excoriated. Every tree that could yield wood for mine props, or to fuel boilers for pumps and other mining equipment, had been extracted for many miles around. Mines are hungry. The prospector ventured further and further out, north-east, knowing that his few days off from the Cosmopolitan might be better spent with his wife and children, who would be scared at night as they always were when the dingoes came to the edges of town and scraped against the pasted hessian walls of their home. The thought of the lino on its baked earth floor under his bare feet making his way to bed sent a pleasant shiver through him as the winter’s night approached. He had enough food and water for a few days and he had his rifle.
How he got lost he could never say. He wasn’t sure what drew him further and further out, and when his water ran low he told himself at least it wasn’t the 120-degree days of summer. He knew there’d be easily found water – it hadn’t rained for an age, though over recent weeks the idea of rain had teased and tormented. A year back, there had been floodwaters rushing through from cyclonic rain further north, but those had dried out long ago. There was still just enough in Niagara Dam to water the trains. And the baths in town were always full from the Englishman and there was an endless supply of water from the rapidly flooding Cosmopolitan mine which had reached almost 1,900 feet. The pumps weren’t coping. So much water deep in this deadly dry place, the bluebush lightening the evening, cold as the mountains of New Zealand where he’d take his young family when he had enough money. His family back there were scholars and would give them a good education. But here on the edge of the desert it was dry. Dry as powdered snow.
The next day was hot, really hot for winter and hotter the following day. He shed his swag and gear and tracked the sun. Somehow he misplaced his rifle but didn’t really notice. There seemed to be a rainbow across the brilliant blue skies. He would have to walk back west, clear as day. The orange-red dirt mocked him and wave-like lines of iron pebbles reminded him of the seacrossing so long ago. Ballarat had been a failure for him. And here, so much to be taken if you could find it. For yourself and not working for another man. He coughed. A wet cough gone dry. All his men coughed. Half of them were almost dead already. It was a cost.
He told himself he would climb the next breakaway, the hard ground suddenly crumbling beneath his feet and the wind-eaten, sandstone caves with the impressions of euros’ bodies in the sandy residue. Thornbills rustled round and he thought of waterholes. The stone was soft and powdery and he wondered if it was too porous to hold water. Nothing will stay, nothing will hold. He climbed, a highpoint in a low place. He kept repeating this. A refrain. He scanned the horizon searching for Mt Remarkable or a minehead. Nothing. The sparse, low scrub rolled and rolled outward, and a bird of prey came into view, still too far away to identify. The birds mad with the day. So many species and he can’t identify anything much. The world opened blue-purple with distance and the spreading sameness became saturated with its infinite variation, and he grew more disorientated. Each step empty and full at once and his aloneness echoed into blankness with the minister’s sermon from a week or two ago, blessing the police, blessing the miners, the rich and the poor, the Empire. ‘War is coming,’ the minister said. He thought over his second eldest girl getting in trouble at school for jamming tobacco tins onto her shoes – high heels – and then hiding in the dry watertank with embarrassment, the teacher calling her out to strut her stuff in front of the school. She’ll tell that story all her life, he thought. It will outlive me, outlive her, her children, their children. One school. Thirteen pubs. Thousands of single men. His men.
He should have walked Champion Road and started adjacent to the sun. Headed south. He would never have got…disorientated. To where the woodcutters had stopped and the desert trees sang low but strong in the wind. The red-orange dust was the erosion of erosion and each step altered the flatness, each imprint capturing grass seeds to make tussocks into a new pattern. The hope the expanse offered was of secretiveness, but without learning it is lost. It was filled with the inventiveness of time. The spindly desert plants, the eremophilas drinking dry air. He couldn’t drink the wavering heatlines, even at this coldest time of year. The blue wasn’t wet here.
He seemed to be walking into the sun. He must be heading west. But then the sun was behind him and the ground glowed gold with pyrites, rose quartz, apricot quartz. He thought of canned fruit his wife kept stacked at home ‘for special occasions’. He could prise one of those cans open right now. The shadows of the low scrubby bushes. What were their names? He knew all the names. He was a reading man, a listening man. He knew names, demanded to know names. But the names didn’t come. Mulga, hoveas…acacias…of sorts. Emu bush. What were their names? Which of them were for him? Which were edible? Which would give him drink? There must be a plant that was his, that spoke his name. He tried to think back to his conversations with the blacks. The natives. They were always pointing to something, saying something. He couldn’t understand their language – some English, some of their own, something in-between. Was it in-between? Between what?
There was the fella, a fettler, who jumped in off the Niagara Dam wall and got his head wedged between boulders and didn’t come up. To him, the dam was the deepest lake, the widest ocean. There was no rescue, no ship to take him back to landfall. The long boat trip to New Zealand, his father a harbourmaster, the ship rounding the Horn with bullion and going down. The family wealth. And then to Australia, the sea again. Staring for hours, days, at the wake, the foam of infinitude. He recited an old poem of the sea each day on deck, a poem he could no longer remember. But he had an excellent memory. He wondered where they came from. Were they always there, in and around Kookynie? Did they come from the deep desert? Were they born where there was no water, or were they the progeny of the inland sea? His thoughts run and grow and became silhouettes full of dwelling, full of their place, their own place that won’t hold on to him, that will let him go.
It would be a cold night. The sky growing orange-pink with sunset. The outlines of the scrub razor-sharp, blacker than night would ever be under the stars. He wondered what he’d done with his swag, clutching his sides. He needed to light a fire. He thought of the fires around Niagara Dam, the townspeople picnicking there, the donkey teamsters and Afghan cameleers camping a bit out in the sticks, plucking wood where there was little wood left. And the natives hunting nearby, always hungry, always after damper. He wondered why the thought of the women, the native women, naked embarrassed him. He’d never been warm in their arms like his men. Never gone to the ‘yella wimmin’ at the brothels, the Japanese women who looked after your every need. He was getting cold. He was from a cold climate, a long, long way back. He was an old father with a young family. He had to get a fire started. He focused on the task at hand, the sun gone and the light of the in-between world guiding his hand to brush, sticks, match.
He sucked a pebble. It didn’t really help. There’d be leaves to chew, but which leaves? He seemed to know and couldn’t remember. He was an educated man. They’d asked him to write for the Kalgoorlie Miner. Local colour. Something from the North Coolgardie Goldfields. The trouble with the Afghans. Crime. The white Australia he was part of. And rhymes: anything funny, topical. He’d always fancied himself a poet. He tried to make up a rhyme about being lost but couldn’t focus. He laughed. A choking, coughing laugh. He cackled.
Insect noises didn’t fill the silence but a light, cold breeze was coming from the west and he could hear distinct voices in the broom bushes and desert sheoaks. Sheoaks? Yes, he fancied he could taste moisture on the breeze and lapped at the air with cracked tongue and chapped lips. He scratched at the itchy, broken skin beneath his beard. He concentrated on the itch for a while and rubbed the skin raw.
Should he have taken the car? The only car in town. McHenry owed him a packet, fifty quid. The prospector had bailed out McHenry three times over the last year. The money went straight back to the teamsters – gambling debts. The prospector himself was no gambler, but he was also open to an investment and McHenry said he’d give him twenty per cent on the loans. He felt trapped by McHenry’s gift of the gab, listening silent as McHenry reckoned the teamsters were winning the war with the Afghans and would be carting all the necessaries that didn’t come in by train, especially the wood the mines needed. But the money vanished and McHenry offered him Old Tin Lizzie instead. Imagine Tin Lizzie out here! He cackled to himself again. The children wouldn’t let it go. All our friends could go for a drive with us, they clamoured. But it’d break down in a week and there’d be no repairing it out here. That’s why McHenry never drives it! And the wife, the wife wanted what the kids wanted, he knew, but she wouldn’t say so. She’d back him, she’d agree with him. He was always there on her arm on a Sunday going to church and she prized him for that, he told himself. He wouldn’t be there this Sunday.
Awakening with a shudder, the prospector stared then wondered where his fire had gone. There were no embers. The stars suggested a burnt outline like a succulent plant spreading from a scoop in rock, working it larger. A night bird said something he couldn’t understand. He slapped his sides. Below freezing and he couldn’t feel the howl inside him grow. No, it’s dingoes making their ‘frightful racket’, as his wife often said. He calls out, ‘Ya! Ya!’ and the noises turn to whimpers. He suddenly doesn’t like dingoes. ‘Curs,’ he says. He’ll put them in a rhyme. Dingo verse.
When dawn broke with a sick chorus of desert birds, he thought he was finished. But as the sun lifted and the day grew warmer, he found life in his bones. He took his knife out and breathed on the metal, then licked the condensation. I’ll turn some rocks and branches over, lift some bark. Eat what I can find. Drink the blood of this bloody soil. Sleeping lizards will be woken early.
He stumbled around and stared at the eastern sun. Not that way, not that way. That is the way to the void, he said. He ate insects. He coughed like a dingo. There was no noise, he thought. He had heard nothing. And yet, there before him was a man. An old native with white beard and scars on his chest. The prospector didn’t recognise him. Should he recognise him? Should he ask if he spoke English? Instead, he studied the quiver of spears the black man held. The prospector knew the old man must be walking to a waterhole and he must follow him. He said nothing but fixed his eyes on the burnished, fire-hardened points of the spears held over the shoulder and stumbled behind him. Occasionally the old man looked around, said something in his language which the prospector recognised as that of the Wongai natives around Kookynie and continued steadily on his way. They walked until the old man stopped and pissed a deep yellow that the prospector could almost have fallen upon to drink but he drove such thoughts away. He had drunk his own urine the previous evening and gagged and vomited it out. Now there seemed to be no more piss in him, just a stinging dryness that went through to his rear. They walked until the sun was above and at a place of granite monadnocks and outcrop, a deep gnamma hole was revealed. The old man scooped water in his hands and drank and motioned for the prospector to do the same. He did and as the brackish water, stained black by the natives with a preservative bark, ran down his throat, he briefly thought, what an ignorant man I am. Yet just as quickly he said to himself, ‘But I am learning and I don’t need to be here.’
He suddenly considered himself a visionary, a pioneer who would take back knowledge to be reinvented in the world of the fully-clothed. His story would be told. He said all that to himself and then fainted on the rocks, his epiphanies deformed and forgotten during the minutes it took for him to come around and find himself alone by the gnamma hole with a pile of karlkurla – silky pears – beside him. He’d eaten them before and he ate them again. They were moist inside. He remembered their name but couldn’t remember if he’d seen any in the vicinity of the town. How far had he wandered?
He was angry now at being abandoned. He thought up punishments for the old man. He’d confer with his best friend back in town, the owner of the cordial factory. They’d take the matter to the police who’d take it to the native affairs man. And then suddenly he wasn’t angry but grateful. It was mid-afternoon and he’d have to prepare for the night. He had to think it all out. He had to have a plan.
When the camels were close, he knew. He knew camels, the smell of their fur, their odd noises, the bells, their dropping to their knees, better than he knew horses. He never felt comfortable on a horse, though he’d ridden one all his life. He asked himself, at this moment of crisis, why he’d said to his wife, ‘I will leave the horse for you; I will walk out this time. There’s no water out there for the horse. I will only be gone a few days. Not far out past the cutting lines, past the woodline, just to see what I can find on the surface – to see if there are any signs. Of gold. Of something else.’
He wasn’t a religious man, but he knew there must be more. And he’d brought up his children to believe he was a religious man. Even his wife thought he believed wholeheartedly. And he did believe, as he should, but at an angle. He was interested in angles. He was a fine mathematician. How does a good mathematician get so lost? He climbed to the top of the outcrop and toyed with the angle of the sun to the horizon, to the irregular regularity of scrub and aridity. All low and impacted. He felt sure he would see meteorites that night.
The cameleer’s turban came into focus first. Somehow this made sense. After seeing to his camels, the cameleer placed a rug on the ground, facing where the sun had come from and prayed. The prospector was familiar with this, very familiar. He stood watching, even imagining he wasn’t there himself. When prayers were finished, he spoke. ‘Do you speak English?’
‘What is your name?’
‘I know your name. You were attacked.’
‘Yes. And you are alone. Lost.’
‘Yes. I am alone, I am lost. I am hungry, though I have drunk from where you are about to drink.’ The prospector found the matter-of-fact irony completely normal, to be expected. He was somewhere other than where his body was. The silky pear was churning in his guts, and he concentrated on that gripe as the nature of his body, as a fact of his presence.
‘The black’s black water.’
‘How did you come to be here?’
He wanted to say, why are you tormenting me? Because I am damn well lost, I am lost! He figured clarity was returning to him. Known as a taciturn and witty man, such a comeback would be expected of him. But maybe not from Goolam Mahomed. Then he was going to say, ‘prospecting’, but he had no equipment. He was on foot. He was bereft.
‘I am lost’, he repeated. ‘Just lost, plain and simple. Lost.’
‘You are from the town, from the mines. From Kookynie. I have seen you there.’
‘Yes. And I have seen you there, too.’
‘Do you know the man who went to the fancy dress ball as a Muslim?’ asked the cameleer.
The prospector waved flies from his chapped lips and struggled to keep from collapsing again. This conversation…my situation. Fancy dress ball. Fancy dress ball?
‘Yes, your Church of England.’
‘I am Congregational, not C of E.’ The prospector did remember the ball, though. He’d been working when it was held. His wife had been desperate to go and went alone. Not usual. She donated money to some cause or other. Two shillings. And he’d read the article in the Kalgoorlie Miner before laughing it over with his wife. He’d read it aloud to her. The ball was on 22 July, 1904 but the article came out a few days later. His perfect recollection frayed at the edges. He started to speak it out: ‘The Sultan Mocha forgetful of the dignity of his position danced with the two little girls in blue, the chorus and Irish peasantry…’ He thought of his son and daughter who’d gone out to collect the morning’s wood and wandered and wandered, coming across a cameleers’ camp and running home in fright, lest they be spirited away. He told them to stay away from the Muslims and also the white teamsters, all those men who wandered the roads and old tracks of the blacks with their camels and donkeys. ‘They have no respect for your body,’ he’d told them, and his wife had looked shocked and angry at the roughness of his speech. Goolam Mahomed was staring at him. The prospector continued, ‘The Afghan and black trooper, regardless of the policy of white Australia, seemed quite at home.’ He started muttering to himself, filling in spaces where he knew other words must be. He couldn’t remember more.
Evening was close. Goolam Mahomed washed himself and then spread his mat. He said ‘Maghrib’ to the prospector, then bent in prayer. The prospector stared, confused. The rare water had been contaminated by the cameleer’s hands and feet. He closed his eyes and said the Lord’s Prayer to himself and then, shocking himself, made the sign of the cross and genuflected. He was no liker of Roman Catholics. They were trouble. Some Scottish were Catholic, but he was Protestant through and through. As his wife said, ‘I’ll be damned if I’ll go into their church if they won’t come into mine.’
A short while later, as darkness made a nimbus out of the glassine orange of sunset, the two men said nothing but worked together to light a fire. The cameleer opened a saddle pack on the side of his lead camel and took out cans of bully beef. We can eat this, he said, it will be all right. The prospector looked quizzically at his…saviour…then took an overlarge mouthful of the meat and almost choked on it. They sat either side of the fire, their gazes burnt out before reaching each other. The prospector wanted to ask the cameleer if he was allowed to eat the canned meat but refrained. He didn’t want to display his ignorance. He was not an ignorant man.
In the crackling fire, insects were extinguished and the stars were lost. The prospector fancied he could hear ticking. Ticking. Ticking cancelling and extending ticking. He had taken leave of his senses days ago so let his imagination guide him.
‘You are carrying clocks in your bags?’ he asked.
The cameleer looked suspiciously over the flames. After a while he answered, ‘Clocks, yes, to be put inside sandalwood cabinets.’
‘Oh.’ The prospector studied the camels sitting a way off. The bulging bags, the line between one camel and the nose-peg of the next, strung out across eternity. They looked blue in the bent light-dark. ‘Blue, blue the camels will come,’ he said to the desert. ‘I need to get back to my family, to work at the mine, can you take me there tomorrow?’
‘Yes. I can. I will. But are you one of the men who want us out of Australia?’ asked Goolam Mahomed.
‘YONGAH HILL ARMY Base to become the Yongah Hill Detention Centre?’
‘There’s gunna be fury, mate.’
‘Fury at refugees being detained like they’re criminals?’
‘Nah, mate, like they’re queue-jumping, invading terrorists.’
‘You can’t be for real.’
‘Shut ya fuckin’ cake-hole, mate, or I’ll shut it for ya, ya greenie bastard!’
That’s precisely how it went and that’s how Jade Coker put it to the television interviewer when asked what her thoughts were, what she felt the mood of the town was. Her comments weren’t aired.
When a bunch of kids in her Year 10 English class said she had no right to speak about Australia because she was a greenie, Jade pointed out that her great-great-grandfather had been a miner of note in the now almost ghost town of Kookynie, a major ‘gold-producing’ centre. That she was a greenie with a gas-guzzling six-cylinder which she ‘doted’ on.
Jade felt the need to put scare quotes around everything she said because there was no room for subtlety. What you said was what you were judged by. When the principal called her to his office to say there’d been complaints from parents about her pushing her left-wing politics down children’s throats, she watched the scare quotes fly off out the window, down the road, across the Avon weir and into town, where they settled on a map of Australia on the back of a four-wheel drive, a map emblazoned with ‘Fuck Off We’re Full’ painted over it.
That same night, watching footage of a flood of locals meeting in the town hall in which ‘concerns’ (there she went again) were raised over Afghans and other asylum seekers being housed near the town and the likely threats that entailed, a meeting she herself had attended, she noticed two of her Year 12 girls baring their chests to the cameras, shaking breasts and logos from side to side, pictures of boats with red slashes through them. ‘Bomb the Boats’. The pair were treated like winners of a beauty pageant. Miss and Miss Xenophobia.
A warm November night, T-shirt weather. She herself had been wearing a light blouse and jeans. Not so hot as to be incendiary. Cool enough for people not to get too over-heated, she’d thought. But it had been a bloodbath; she actually heard the words: rape, paedophiles, al Qaeda, terrorists, molesters, freeloaders, invaders, criminals. Used always in conjunction with Muslims. The town went into meltdown. Those who couldn’t get into the stuffed hall grew agitated. Someone yelled out, ‘The Red Witch. They’ve just dropped it on us. No warning, no consultation.’ A local official said the hospital which was already under pressure would fold under the strain or something along those lines. She couldn’t remember. It’d be reported wrong in the paper. No one would remember the same words being said. She’d start forgetting, then she’d remember with clarity. A tattooed man was arrested. Why did she notice the tattoos? He was pointing and poking, he was angry enough to burst. She herself had said to a neighbour that despite being opposed to such incarceration, ‘It’ll be no less than a prison camp’, she would volunteer to teach English to the men. Another neighbour, eavesdropping, screamed, ‘You just want to profit out of this country’s demise!’ She was sure, shortly after this, that the word crusade was used. It was that brutal and there was nothing literary about the episode when she wrote it up in the journal she’d been keeping since she was a child.
Jade was a woman of indeterminate age who felt she cared less than she should about health, looks and position in the world but she did care about her origins, as disturbed and elusive as she felt they were and she felt implicated and complicit in the hatred brewing in the town. Uncertain as she was, she knew part of her belonging was so deep-rooted she had to speak out, to act.
NORTHAM. REGIONAL CENTRE. Wheatbelt town. Town where postwar refugees were housed and ‘integrated’. Now she was hearing elderly women, who had escaped Poland with the clothes they stood up in, fearing they’d be raped by tribal Islam. She sat in her car in the Woolworth’s shopping centre carpark. Two of her Year 9 girls were working in the Target across from where she’d parked, after school, on Saturdays. ‘Hi, Miss,’ they’d say shyly, when she went in to buy socks and knickers. Butter wouldn’t melt.
Three boys walked past the windscreen, another on a bike, pulling stunts, then dropping back. They saw her and laughed and one of them made a wanking motion with his hand but ambiguously enough. Year 11s waiting to go to the mines so they could buy scramble bikes, get heaps of speed and fuck prostitutes to their hearts’ content. She shook her head at her own scepticism. Generally she thought better of them but now she felt between a rock and a hard place. All the small-town social problems, all the issues. She knew one of the boys as a card-carrying racist whose father had been a member of a real nationalist terror group. That boy had been suspended from school not long back for fighting with Nyungar boys. He said it bluntly, ‘I hate blacks, Miss.’ Swept under the carpet. One of the senior staff had said to her, ‘These natives had free breakfasts for long enough. I was a migrant to this country and did it hard. I had to put up with being called wop and greaseball, it was tough, but I worked hard and got on top of the pile. No room for favouritism, we’re all Australians together.’
She bristled, ‘But they were here first.’ Which went unheard, with the same mantra of ‘equality’ repeated. That was the world she lived and worked in. Dark storm clouds were over the shop roofs, coming over the river, the palms, the pines of the park, a Nyungar meeting place, place of the introduced white swans who struggled to exist in their enclave, the river toxic and vandals killing them off.
Jade flicked on the radio and listened to the ABC news. Gillard again. The two Australias. She turned the radio off and forced herself out of the car and towards the electric doors of the shopping centre, where the guard smiled at her. She laughed deep inside, the black inside, the part of her that was Wongai in a way she hadn’t fully tracked, ascertained, worked out. That part she didn’t talk about but knew was there.
‘You have such snow-white skin,’ the first man from Northam she had slept with said. She’d been posted to the town for three months, went out to a dance and ended up in bed with a divorced farmer. She was always working against her best interests but he was a rich cocky and a good catch. Out at his place, the galahs screamed late morning from the high mast of the television aerial. He’d said over and over, running his finger from her neck to her arse, perked up, her vulva red and wet, ‘Your skin is so white, so snow white,’ before adding, ‘Those bloody galahs, I’ll take to them with my shotgun later.’ White as the driven snow. Cocky. Cock. Swollen cock the gun. Son of a gun. She mantrad herself into a doze and woke to him trying to put his cock into her anus.
And there he’d been, among the crowd inside the town hall, right near the front, hands raised like salvation above the writhing hate. A temperance man, a reasonable man, a man to be listened to, to be reckoned with. He had married a church woman not long ago. Jade couldn’t help thinking, ‘that was quick work.’ I am getting glib as I age here. The woman, his wife, was next to him, in a floral print dress, her whiteness sullied by red anger. She looked rabid, frothing. Jade knew she deeply feared being taken into a harem, being forced into ‘Mohammedan’ wifehood, into a life of coffee and anal rape, veiled from the world that wouldn’t see who she really was.
Jade knew she was becoming a bitch – Northam was getting to her. The stereotypes were making her stereotype. She’d noticed her farmer reaching for his iPhone. Palm pilot. Wanker. Connections just rolled through her head – the arteries of suspicion and incitement reaching out in a nanosecond. Rousing it all up.
She’d tried to teach her Year 12s about metonym but it had been lost. Perhaps not entirely. There was one boy, one brilliant boy who wrote stories. A Nyungar boy she’d championed and then been told to cut loose – people were wondering. She’d been shocked, genuinely shocked. Wondering about what? Northam. Northam. Supermarkets, petrol stations, car dealerships, medical facilities, coffee shops, electrical shops, legal services, newsagents, bakers, pubs. Your complete regional needs. All here.
She’d be out of a job soon, or transferred to Hall’s Creek. That was the punishment. She’d been seen drinking – drinking! (in a town of boozers – down at the park near the suspension bridge with Nyungars. She’d taken a swig, a single swig, from a bottle during a rock concert. She’d come out from hearing Little Birdie, her students pointing and whispering as if she was something obscene and she’d seen the boys drinking and said to herself, ‘They’re only a word, a proper noun to me – Nyungars, blackfellas of this place…maybe some not of this place…how would I know? I never speak with them like there’s this huge barrier. They’re just there, drinking and laughing, happy and sick and well and pissed and talking family and cops and everything else, talking the world, talking bullshit and sense, these people, people with lives, shared lives their own lives…fuck, who am I? I teach the plays of Jack Davis to Northam kids, I teach No Sugar and The Dreamers, I talk about the Moore River and the Stolen Generation, and talk about the apology and who are these people and why do I compartmentalise them? Why do I write all this crap rural poetry full of guilt and angst and hide my own origins? My ears are ringing and I am thirsty and I want to take a swig of everything they’ve got. And I want to give them my rent for the GEHA house I keep so well. I want them for neighbours, I want them to want me as neighbours. I want to fuck the handsome young bloke I’ve seen playing the didge down in Freo. I want, I want, I want!’
But: ‘Hey, boys, could I have a swig?’…and a yeah, and a single swig and a walking off into the Northam night of nothingness and all hell broke loose. She heard later that she was suspected of selling ecstasy to her Year 12 students at the concert. She was wearing a hippie dress with bells on the bottom, one mother told a friend of Jade’s, who told Jade without humour. When humour goes, trouble is not far away, she tried to joke. It all fell on deaf ears.
Past the guard she avoided smiling at, past the discount books stall she went, backtracking to check the price on a Brontës Sisters’ Novels edition, with Wuthering Heights, Jane Eyre, Villette and poor old Anne’s Agnes Grey thrown in for good measure. Six bucks. A bargain. She had all of them as paperbacks, but the glossy plasticated hardcover had her name on it (as well). She’d be seen buying literature, the only novels among the war books (mainly war books), model-making coffee table specials, dinosaur books and literally, Barbara Cartlands, macramé and cooking books. So many war and cooking books. She bought the edition and lugged it into the supermarket.
At the checkout one of her apparently ex-students spoke rudely to her. ‘I saw you at the meetin’,’ she said. ‘You aren’t part of this town and your opinion doesn’t count. And you were a shitty teacher anyways. It was because of you I went to the Catholic school. Then I had to go to the city to finish upper-school. I came back last year. You took three years from my life.’
Jade looked at her wondering if she was joking. She couldn’t remember the girl. I must have taught her in Year 9 if, say, she did Year 10 at the Catholic school. I’ve been here too many years.
A pleasant voice called hello from a neighbouring till and Jade reflected that it wasn’t all bad, that the shit going down in town was just leaving a bad taste in everyone’s mouth. In her mouth. She studied the girl serving her. She had an Australian flag stud in her right ear, hair tied back. Returned home from the big smoke. From the city bearing inside information about the conspiracy to destroy country people’s rights. To impose Islam on their freedom. Crusade. She had heard that said. Time for a Crusade. That’ll be thirty dollars and fifty-two centres? Cents? Do you want cash back?
MARTO DROVE THE ute up to the gates of the detention centre and Sultan took a stream of photographs. The surveillance cameras hummed and twitched. ‘Got ’em, Marto’. They’d taken photos from many angles now, from up high on the hill under the telecommunication masts, from behind, along the Kep Track. They took them back to the house and downloaded them onto Sultan’s laptop, a cool MacBook Pro he’d bought with his last FIFO cheque. They both had a week off now and had plans. They’d been at a piss-up on the weekend where an old bloke dared them to do something about the towel-heads in the detention centre and they’d listened. The old bloke had some killer skunk and they stayed up with him till daylight pulling cones and getting more info on Muslims and 9/11 and the war that’s being waged across the world against the jihadists. They’d had to admit, they’d never really understood the meaning of that word. That night Jack McEndrick took the name Sultan Mocha, which he found looking up the history of Afghans in the Goldfields online, his beloved goldfields where the Paddington Gold Mine gave him sustenance and purpose, mates and a history. He even loved the Gidji Roaster as it spewed out sulphur and mercury and other shit, a landmark visible forever across the flat woodlands where fossickers still stumbled on fortunes. The Goldfields were opportunity, you could fly the Southern Cross, it wasn’t like the city, all feminism and communism and bullshit, as the old bloke said. It was God’s own.
Jack…that is, Sultan – Sultan Mocha! – and Marto were going to move from Northam to Kal, away from the Afghans and other asylum seekers, away from the lefty trendy bullshit where there wasn’t even a shred of humour left in the world. Only three weeks earlier, Marto had scaled a tree along the Goldfields Highway and stuck a Vote Greens 1 sign up – had the blokes in the mess rollin’ around laughing. A blast. Kal was the golden heart, Kal’s girls were nourishment and Kal was the true-blue old Australia.
Sultan said, ‘Remember when that bitch of an English teacher said to you, “You’re so real, Martin, that you’re the perfect cliché?”’
‘Yeah, bitch. It’s people like her. I never forget, Sultan, I never forget.’
SULTAN RAHZ KNEW it was a kangaroo as soon as he saw it emerge from the bush. Through the arcades of razor-wire, over the cleared no-man’s land, he saw it emerge from the dull green. He didn’t know the names of the trees and shrubs, though he intended to. He would ask the teacher, his visitor, Jade, what kind of trees grew around the hill. She was reading the Koran, she told him, she told all the men she taught. He didn’t think she would leave her faith. What was her faith? But it gave her a better chance of deliverance. She told them she’d been to a Muslim wedding on the weekend. ‘The Imam’, she said, ‘had been a real Aussie bloke, who joked with the father of the groom about the footy and told them that, though the wife answered to the husband, she now controlled the finances!’
Sultan Rahz didn’t find it funny and wondered if the Imam had blasphemed. Certainly the Mullas where he came from at the foot of the mountains would say so. He reminded himself this was what he was escaping and he feared for his family. But he wasn’t escaping his faith, which had seen him through so much to get here, to find himself behind these wire fences, to be imprisoned. He’d been in the neighbouring village when Australian soldiers ‘accidentally’ shot children in a fire fight. And he’d been a boy still when the Australian singers flew in to perform for the soldiers. He had heard horror tales of undress and blasphemy but had also been strangely intrigued. He was one of the few young men in his village who had any English and that was from working the black market with American soldiers. A black American soldier told him about the Pakistani people smugglers in the border country, who could get him to Australia where his good business sense would prosper.
He was sick of the killing. He’d been born during the Russian occupation and his father had been an ‘advisor’ of a minor leader who spoke Russian and American and who later played the Taliban off against the government authorities. It surprised Sultan Rhaz that Jade didn’t really know anything about where he’d come from. About why his life was at risk ‘back home’, as she called it, for all her sympathy. He expected more from her. She was respectful and covered her head in a scarf when she taught the men, when she talked with him, though she needn’t have. As they were told again and again, they would have to face up to the reality of the west when…if…they eventually got out.
But getting out seemed a distant dream and the threat of being dumped at the feet of the Taliban was more than a whisper, fostered in that dismal nothingness more pitiless than the deepest snow of the highest mountains. Jade had said to him, ‘I have been to the Himalayas, to the mountains of Nepal. That must be similar.’
He ran his finger through brown dust that accumulated on the surfaces in the dry, in the heat, untransfigured by the dead-souled air-conditioning, and said, ‘This dirt is closer to where I come from than Mount Everest.’
‘Anyway,’ she continued, ‘it was a simple and matter-of-fact and beautiful wedding. He converted for her, of course, but I can’t say he believes.’
She could see the discomfort on his face. He could understand the nuances of her speech perfectly well. Was she a spy? What did she want from him?
The kangaroo lifted up on its jumping legs and leant back on its tail. Sultan Rahz was surprised at how big it was. He knew it was a male. Yes, a male. Then a small group moved slowly up behind and sniffed and chewed the dead grass. The male, Jade would tell him, was called a ‘boomer’ and that these were ‘western greys’. It used its small forepaws to scratch its chest, then flicked its head from one side to another, then returned to crouching position and hopped back into the scrub – she said the scrub was jam trees, York gums, sheoaks – followed by the mob. He wondered what he felt. This Aussie symbol. Had he connected with Australia?
Jade said, ‘They…we…slaughter our national symbol by the tens of thousands every year. Not long ago I was looking at images on the net from the Goldfields, surfing, returning to my forebears’ birthplaces and saw a painting in a lonely pub showing a roo feeding, with its head showing through a tyre and crosshairs, gunsights, on its head and a ute in the background with its spotlights shining out towards the viewer…the person looking at the painting.’
Sultan Rhaz, who had seen so much slaughtering of humans and animals, who had slaughtered animals himself in the way ordered by God, was not sure what Jade was getting at, but he did think it appalling that the symbol of his deliverance should be treated in such a way.
Jade told Sultan Rhaz that she’d been reading a history of Afghans in Australia and that his people went right back to the earliest white explorers. ‘Without those camels there’d be no highways,’ she said. Sultan Rhaz said nothing but the truth was far beyond silence. His great-great-grandfather had been arrested in Kookynie, Australia, in the early twentieth century, and was lost to the records. He had been told this not specifically, not about Kookynie, by his father who’d said there was an ‘Australian connection’ in his life, in his heritage. He’d told him when he was almost too young to remember. Then his father had been killed and that was an end of it. Until the Americans and Australians came with their version of freedom.
He and his family had seen so many versions of freedom. He wondered over and over again if he could trust Jade, ask her to find some information about his ancestor, the cameleer. He wanted to trust her. She seemed so ignorant, but he had no one else to ask. His reading English was improving every week but it was still at a very basic level. He asked her to print information and read it to him, or help him read it.
Jade showed him various articles from newspapers. ‘It’s uncanny,’ she said, her scarf falling from her face with the excitement. ‘I think we are strangely connected,’ she said. ‘Our past intertwined. Destiny.’ Sultan Rhaz shuffled in his seat and looked over at his countrymen who were engaged in other exercises, other conversations, aloneness. They sometimes hinted to him that he was risking all, that he would be punished. But he was a powerful man in that prison and carried a family reputation. He was diligent with his prayers, and quickly quelled opposition.
‘Now, it may be a coincidence, but I found someone with your actual name in Kookynie,’ she said. She tried to show him on a printout but he felt dazed and couldn’t focus. His mind had been wandering lately and he gasped for air. ‘I’m afraid it’s not a nice story, but I will read it to you, if you want.’ He asked her to do so, rigid and eyes fixed on the table.
‘It’s the March 5th 1902 issue of The Kalgoorlie Western Argus – Kalgoorlie is a gold town out in the arid zone, on the edge of the interior – and it reads, ‘The Afghan Affair – Charge of malicious wounding in Kookynie…Goolam Mahomed charged Sultan Rahz and two other men, Abdul Karin and Fuk Kuddin with malicious wounding.’ Jade kept her eyes down on the page, waiting.
‘I don’t think that’s my ancestor,’ he said.
‘No, probably not,’ said Jade.
‘My name is not unique,’ he added, twisting ‘unique’ in a way that bothered her and impressed her with his expanding English-language vocabulary.
‘It was not an easy time for Afghans in Australia,’ she continued. ‘It was the time of the White Australia Policy. Have you heard of that?’
‘Only the guards making jokes about it. I didn’t think it was real.’
‘It was real…some would say it’s still real. It was the first piece of legislation passed by the Australian federal parliament…when the colonies joined together and became a country.
‘I am trying to read an Australian history at the moment. And we have books translated into Arabic. But I am trying to read English. There isn’t much mention of my people but I have seen photographs of camels and Mahommedans, as they called them. Many of those people weren’t from Afghanistan but from the Punjab and other places.’
‘I have more articles,’ she said, trying not to betray excitement at his interest. ‘Here’s one about local European opposition to Afghan woodcutting in 1905. The Anti-Asiatic/Afghan league were pressing businessmen from sharing patronage to Afghan carriers’…and a little earlier, Friday 12 July 1901, in The Western Worker also about Kookynie. ‘Mr Con O’Neill jocularly remarked that if everyone were of his mind they would have the Afghans running away from them as our local policeman (Constable Malone) ran away from burglars lately.’
‘What does ‘jocularly’ mean?’
‘They are making fun?’
‘Yes, they are. They made fun of anyone who wasn’t white.’
‘Funny,’ said Sultan Rahz, ‘there’s no snow around here. They wouldn’t know what white was.’ He didn’t laugh and though Jade wanted to laugh, she resisted.
‘I’m afraid they saw your ancestors as invaders and a horde. They saw you as black.’
‘We’re not black.’
‘I’m a black,’ said Jade.
‘But your skin is the colour of snow.’
‘Black isn’t a colour, Sultan Rahz. It is much, much more than that. My great-grandfather was a prospector out at Kookynie and he probably treated Afghans and Aborigines as badly as any other whitefella. But here I am, and I have a Wongai ancestor too. I am sure this is a fact. Desert people. Blacks. Natives. Curios for museums. I copied this piece for you as well so you’d know about where I come from in sharing this information with you, ‘14 February, 1903. For the past few weeks the Aboriginals have been making themselves very objectionable to residents. Lately the police took the matter up, and cleared them outside the municipality. The natives are driven from the back country through want of water, and the feeling prevails here that something should be done by the Aborigines’ Protection Board to afford them some means of sustenance.’
‘So they wanted to help them?’ he asked, studying her face as he rarely did.
‘Much like “helping” you,’ (she made scare quotes in the air, more for herself than him). ‘They’ll feed you and enclose you to control you. You know I shouldn’t be saying any of this.’
‘I know, it is wrong of you to do so.’
‘It was their country and it was stolen and they got nothing back but death and crumbs they were told they should be grateful for.’
‘So this is their country?’
‘Theirs and other Aboriginal people’s country. But…maybe?’ She paused and got lost in her thoughts. Sultan tapped the table impatiently and she picked up the thread again. ‘You have as much right to be here as any of the others who came and stole it. At least you’re not coming with a gun and raping and murdering. It’s called irony and as a language teacher I see my prime purpose to teach you the nature of irony. And as a dab of extra irony, Afghans were in Western Australia long before many other non-indigenous peoples. I say, you are welcome!’
‘This has been a very strange welcome,’ said Sultan Rhaz who looked pensive, disturbed and depressed. Jade was so caught up in her mission that she didn’t detect something near breaking point behind her pupil’s thick beard and hair and wire glasses.
MARTO AND SULTAN Mocha parked in the Main Roads area just down from the Great Eastern Highway, on the corner of Spencer’s Brook Road and the Baker’s Hill Toodyay Road. They hoiked their backpacks and rifles from under the tarp and saddled up before taking their first steps north, shadowing the Great Eastern Highway. Marto pissed on a flooded gum after only a few steps and Sultan said, ‘You markin’ ya territory mate? ‘Our territory, Sultan, our territory! That’ll put them off the scent.’
They’d thought of using trail bikes but that involved opening too many gates and attracting too much attention and really not being in the spirit of the thing anyway. They felt they could melt into the scrub and work the farm paddocks easier on foot. A bit of a hike but worth it.
‘It’s about belief and commitment, mate.’
Neither of them had been in a church since they were baptised but both called themselves Christians and at this moment they were filled with the glory of just being. Stepping out across the creek, they felt at one with the land, that it was all connected and went far and they went with it. Both of them had been known to pray to an absent God in difficult moments, especially when it looked like they’d be busted carrying speed up to Kal on the plane. But they’d got through and made a heap. The mark-up over a mere 600 ks travel distance was massive. Sometimes they drove rather than flew and would pack it behind the door panels. When they moved to Kal they’d do so in style. Someone yelled. Yelled at them.
JADE HATED THAT she was now living in Perth. She even preferred Northam, despite all that had happened. She missed her house with its garden full of grevilleas and birds on the south-west edge of town – still on the market. Nothing was shifting in Northam. She planned to go to England for a while, on her severance pay, to Brontë country. But before that, she just had to drive, alone, to Kookynie and beyond. She needed to fill in the blanks, complete at least some of the puzzle, some of the bits of white sky where pieces all had the same colour but were different shapes and fitted together in obscure but precise ways.
She sorted her CDs for the drive to Kal overnight before heading out – The Jon Spencer Blues Explosion, Yothu Yindi, Midnight Oil, a world music compilation, Suzanne Vega, the Warumpi Band, Violent Femmes, Tori Amos…Kate Bush…she felt so old-school, so uncool. She almost missed her students.
She felt guilty filling the big six-cylinder Holden with fuel but mused that it purred at one hundred and twenty on the open road. There was a bit of the hoon in her, she admitted. She wondered how the rear-screen sticker would go down. ‘Australia for Everyone.’ She’d found it especially for the occasion. She took a slug of oj and accelerated to eighty up Greenmount Hill, that all-too-familiar entry and exit point.
Passing through the hills from Jarrah to Wandoo, she wondered why she was doing this now. Sultan Rahz’s suicide had left her half a person. In her fever of anger and bewilderment, she had even thought of finding a way into Afghanistan, a false press-pass maybe, like the one she was offered in Bangkok as a young backpacker, and finding his family. But she knew that was bullshit. She told herself there was nothing to feel guilty about, truth is truth. She was going out to the desert to find the ghosts of his ancestors and the ghosts of herself, of what made her. And the ghosts of Sultan Rahz.
She could only find answers through herself.
‘What else do we have in the end?’ she asked aloud as she switched over a CD track she didn’t like and eased back on her speed, which had reached one hundred and thirty out of the Lakes. She hated her own confidence.
Haworth. She’d been eighteen and stayed in a place supposedly visited by the Brontë children on a regular basis. In the morning she’d walked out on to the moors to hear gunfire and see flags being waved. Red grouse-shooting season. A rare bird now. Shot out. The moors were alive with purple and dead red. Feathers flying. The village cemetery was crammed so full with the dead that corpses stood on top of each other. Emily walking among the thirty thousand bodies crammed into the equivalent area of a suburban Perth backyard. ‘This is certainly a beautiful country!’ She wondered which part of her felt connected to that land, that country. Something did and not just the sisters’ words or those of the addicted and addled brother she had a timeless crush on. She always loved in the past. She loved the dead, they excited her. And from that window Mr Brontë, really an Irish Prunty, reinventing himself as English curate, took potshots. Not much of Jade was English; much of it was Celt. But that’s all bloodlines stuff and she rejected that. Yet not the narratives, the ghosts, the chemistry of body and country. There was more to that. She was after the local gods and they were after her. ‘Sometimes, while meditating on these things in solitude, I’ve got up in sudden terror…’ As a child, sitting as high as she could go in a pepper tree, reading Swallows and Amazons or Storm Boy, she wondered how far she could project herself into other places. She burst out laughing, hacking a little with phlegm brought about by her reversion to smoking. Been off them for four years and now back to a packet of rollies a day. The cough took hold and turned into something slightly worrying. Shit, I’ve gotta’ give up again, my lungs are shot! Gee, I was out of my tree as a kid…still am!
She needed to piss; so early in the journey and so close to Northam it annoyed her. She went to pull over at Clackline but a minibus of tourists had established themselves and were filing into the single tin-clad toilet, with others taking photographs of the standpipe. Of the standpipe! There’s a camel farm down Spencer’s Brook Road, maybe they’re heading down there for an Avon River safari! Though she’d been a tourist herself in many parts of the world, she’d developed a deep dislike of the whole idea. I am becoming too bitter, she remonstrated with herself. Then she thought of the Main
Roads reserve just around the corner and drove in past the bridge and the Mundaring–Kalgoorlie pipeline – the life force of desert colonisation – into the blue-metal and sand with its etchings of burnouts, thinking she’d crouch in the scrub alongside Nanamullen Creek – needs must.
She saw the boys, Marto and Jack – Sultan Mocha – rifles in hand, backpacks looking uncomfortable, vanishing into the thin scrub of York gums, she-oaks and the odd flooded gum behind a pile of blue-metal and woodchips, down into a creek running under the highway bridge, continuing alongside the work area riddled with power poles and road equipment. What on earth? She processed it quickly. They were a long way from anywhere…probably ten or fifteen ks to Yongah Hill, further to the town. Why did this leap to mind? All paddocks and remnant bush between here and there. What the hell?
A NUMBER OF old photographs had motivated Jade to head towards the edges of the interior. She found three of them in a book in the Battye Library. Not an historical book but rather a regional Goldfields guide published for locals and tourists. Another photo was uncovered in a large box of prints left to her by her grandmother and until now barely investigated. The photos in the book were a view of Kookynie in 1899 and another in 1901 – from a few rough shed-like buildings to a substantial town with what people would now term Federation architecture and a deeply disturbing photograph marked, ‘A Wongai group with Dr Charles Laver, late 1890s’. Jade told herself she was not attuned to her identity enough to be unsettled by seeing those who are now dead depicted in the photo, but she was aware that in some still largely unspoken if not hidden way she was connected to the Wongai in the photo. She found the photo intriguing and insensitive at once. She was angry and offended that children were shown naked when possession and display of such a photo of naked white children, historic or not, would be equated with paedophilia. She thought of the reports she’d read of the Afghan cameleers coming for white children, of sullying and besmirching the white race’s purity. It sickened her. And the white doctor (of what?) with his boater and collar and tie. Was he a good man? An exploiter? A pervert? The invasion of desert communities under the guise of a national emergency of child molesting still made her shake with anger – all military and mineral rights. She wondered about the tactics to move people on around Kookynie. Where there was water, there’d be tribal groups. But in the men and women of the Wongai in the photo she detected knowledge and understanding. It wasn’t noble savagery on her part, she was sure (she understood that impulse perfectly well, of course) but she reddened with embarrassment for even having processed this thought. She remembered a time when she was teaching at Northam and a Nyungah boy called out to her across Fitzgerald Street from a seat outside the Arcade where he was sitting with an old man and two younger girls who covered their faces as he yelled at her (and she imagined they were saying shame), ‘Pay the rent, teacher. Pay the rent!’
She thought of that photo of the Wongai group night after night and grew bothered in the dark. She lay there for hours. She hated sleeplessness. She remembered photos of herself as a child that made her cringe every time people looked at them. Her thoughts wandered on the verge of sleep, then she started to sweat. She reached across the bed for…no one. She hadn’t slept with anyone for months, not since hearing of Sultan Rahz’s death. She had wanted to go out on the town, paint Northbridge red, get fucked by some racist bikie pig in a motel on the edge of the city. Anything, really. But she didn’t. She thought of the men in the photograph and tossed and turned. What was she thinking? You can’t think like that. It’s wrong. And then she shuddered at the thought of men using the photo of naked women and children in similar ways. But it was only a photo, after all. Only a photo. Yet that line from To Kill A Mockingbird jumped out, the only line most of her students would remember into their post-school years, where Atticus says, ‘You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view – until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.’
In Jade, history and tradition, custom and the good life rattled around to make a destructive brew. But it was only in her head and no one else knew. Maybe they did – the things said about her by the immigration people, by others among the men held in the detention centre, by the education department, the good people of Northam. She was a pervert, a freak, a trouble-maker. But it wasn’t like that; what she admired in the mens’ physiques, their studied looks, was knowledge, was belonging and connection, was who she was or at least what she wanted to be. She looked to the men; the women seemed so far away from her present state. She must understand that as well.
The photograph from her grandmother’s collection was of her great-great-grandfather sitting with his workmates at the Cosmopolitan Mine in Kookynie. He was the foreman of the mine, as he would become foreman of a smaller mine when the Cosmo flooded in its bowels and the town started to die, the war calling the men away, gold a dubious if obsessively desired commodity. He was sitting with a tall, hide hat perched on his dusty head, hair straggled down over the ears like a Big-Sur-gone-desert-1960s rejection of humanity. His face was long and drawn and full of what she felt certain was a kind of Celtic knowledge, his eyes sad and drooping and his moustache like clotted oil. Behind him, his miners looked much the same, with more or less hurt in their eyes. And behind them, tailings and a giant wheel turning to unmake the rock that held the gold, the gantry wheels turning to lift or drop men, but stilled for the eternity of that image. In the faded grey of the sky, all potential blueness that might speak through the ‘black and white’ image had been eaten and the orange-red dirt decomposed into a negative of living. Every man in the photo was white and burnt. Their colour was changing. One of them might have been sitting on a rooskin, hard to tell. Everything would have been done to excess, she thought. Killing, fucking, drinking, being decent and raising a family. But she’d been told by her grandmother that her grandfather (dead before she was born) wasn’t like that, that he was an honest and upright man. She kind of clung to that. Then she wondered, if the photo was reproduced in a book, if some women would get conflicted feelings and want to possess the men of the past, her great-great-grandfather, want him body and soul. To eat his ghost.
IF JADE HAD continued her journey to Kookynie, maybe, just maybe, it would have gone much like this. Drive through the wheatbelt towns of Meckering (of the earthquake fame), Cunderdin, Tammin (of the massive roadhouse and skyscraper pristine Hindu Kush-like height – as one local wit intoned), Kellerberrin, Merredin; past the salmon gums and gimlets. Gimlet wood had always fascinated her with its square-peg-in-a-round-hole feel, and hard as hell. One of her relatives used to say hard as axe handles and the clumps of she-oak by the wet areas, many dying off as salinity increased; more and more wheatbins lifting above the flat, salt-scarred country, the breakaways and hills, the sites of towns, the hope of water, as the C.Y. O’Connor pipeline snakes its way whitely north-east towards the Goldfields. The pumping station museum, the agricultural college, the military and train museum, the pieces of discarded farm machinery evoking nostalgia and pain in equal measure, the new salinity eating at the edges of spray-seeded paddocks, the spiderweb over marsh rushes on the edges of possession and habitation, the water crystals of salt arching over erosions that are the beginnings of winter creeks, that will feed salt into the catchment and the conserved and pitted bones of dead sheep reaching to the skies with one empty eye at a time. At that time of year, a thin green cloth of wheat and canola, growing thinner with the distance growing inland, with pitiful farms hacked into scrub where little rain falls, and with no scrub, less rain. Places where the mallee fowl once prospered, where Friday night is roo-shooting and a piss-up. The girl lost to pressures that only exist in the rarefied confusion of neo-colonialism, a colonialism that knows no way of identifying itself, no way of appeasing its hunger.
This is what Jade would have thought on the run to Southern Cross and beyond as she breached the Great Western Woodlands, the Goldfields. She would have thought this because she has that kind of mind because she processes everything because living is anguish and the ghosts of the past are catching her now as we speak, as we discuss her condition, as they consume her from the inside out, a salt scald on an easterly, a bushfire raging out of control, eating the crops on the verge of harvest, taking on the remnant bushland.
The road between Southern Cross and Coolgardie is 200 km of privacy or aloneness. Where the low-lying scrub ignited by a foolishly-thrown cigarette from a car moving at high speed can change the face of a thousand square kilometres or where summer-storm lightning-strikes with clouds bearing little rain will make a conflagration of such heat, such biblical and any other religious proportions, a construct of hell, by incendiary easterlies which make malign character out of thin air, a rolling fire that destroys all plant and animal life in its path, even mocking and destroying seed released by fire. This über-fire, this anti-paradise that encodes beyond biological memory into a haunting that will disturb a thousand years after it has been forgotten and exist only as carbon data to a carbon world.
She would have fuelled at Coolgardie where the streets are wide enough for camel trains to turn around with their packages of silks and fancy dresses, mining and even gardening tools. Jade’s grandmother told a story of her mother managing to grow a single geranium, keep it alive, and watch it flower in the desert. When Jade responded, ‘But the desert, when it comes into flower, is a riot of colour, a beauty like no other,’ her grandmother said, ‘Ah, but this was planting and nurturing something not equipped for the place, that was the challenge.’
‘Or the colonisation,’ muttered Jade and her grandmother stared hard at her first-year uni eyes, full of politics and ire.
Pouring a cup of coffee, her grandmother continued, ‘My grandfather was never really a drinker, he’d walk right past the hotels and straight to the coffee palace. He liked coffee and that was brought by the Afghans, though there was trouble with the teamsters and bullocky drivers over that. We had eggs in tins from France! Between the camels and horses, donkeys and trains. Funny thing is,’ said the old lady, ‘geraniums survive more heat than just about any other introduced garden species I’ve come across. When you’re older and have your own garden, I’ll give you some clippings. They are clippings from that very geranium. They’ve travelled a long way and been through many generations. They don’t forget their origins.’
Yes, she would have fuelled at Coolgardie with its stalwart stone buildings, its residues of past wealth, its houses with detritus from rubbish tips, its collections of bottles, its pub quenching the thirst of the mines that start to come thick from that point. She would have thought of the names of trees and plants ripped out without second thought and wondered where the names came from and why they appeared like thought-bubbles in her head: redwood or wapara, jam wattle or murrun, marrunyu, that was Salmon gum, marrunyu, the name came back and obscured its white-man’s name, its Latin,
eucalyptus salmonophloia, emu bush, quandong. Was it the season for quandong? Her grandmother had made quandong jam when she was a child. She could taste it through the car’s tepid air-conditioned, slightly heated air. Gold, iron ore. Whatever they can rip out and sell, the workers so distant from the end results outside their cars and phones, their city aspirations. The distance between cause and effect. And the Coolgardie camel farm. Not run by Afghans who were ‘driven off, we know not where’. She suddenly remembered quandongs were parasites, their fruits the fruit of another. She wondered what that meant and avoided trying to draw conclusions. She had such a tendency.
And she would have wondered about a photo she’d seen in the travel section of a newspaper, of white Australian tourist guides leading tourists on highly adorned and healthy looking camels on mini-treks around Uluru (they’d said Ayers Rock in the article), to have the true-blue Aussie experience. A still photo; she could see the thrill in the tourists’ faces, caught mid-sway behind the camels’ – Camelus dromedarious – monumental humps rising like declarations of persistence against the red of The Rock. The cull rate for feral camels in the Australian outback that year alone was in the thousands. That’s what she would have thought, had she been there at that point in time. And she would have dwelled on the Latin name, on where their ancestors came from. Maybe war-camels imported from Rajasthan, later connecting, connected, with Afghan cameleers. All business. And she would have turned the expression camel safaris over in her head until its bitterness was concentrated into an image merging past and present, human and animal, the exploiters. She would have considered this because everything related to her origins interested and bothered her.
Then she would have been in Kal. At university, Jade had written an essay on Western Australian poetry. Lines Spinifex wrote and published in 1902 she could recite off by heart, a talent her grandmother claimed came through their New Zealand and Scottish side, though the Irish and Cornish strands claimed much the same:
The night descends in glory, and adown the purple west
The young moon, like a crescent skiff, upon some fairy quest,
Has dropped below the opal lights that linger low and far
To havens that are beckoning by the Pilot’s evening star;
And slowly, softly, from above the darkness is unfurled
A wondrous curtain loosened on the windows of the world.
Then suddenly, like magic, where smoke-stacks fumed the while,
Ten thousand lights flash out aflame along the Golden Mile.
And in the comparative way her mind worked, she drew on good ol’ ‘Dryblower’, stalwart of Federation Westralia when the gold was being poured faster than it could be extracted:
Mulga and the Gins
Six o’clock in Hannan’s town, Mulga Bill and I
Do a wander up and down, as the girls go by
Mounting cars to Boulder City, glimpse of dainty feet,
Chattering in groups, the pretty milliners of Hannan-street.
Mulga thinks them sure enough, angels without wings,
All these little bits of fluff, in their dip-front things;
Blouses showing rounded arms, hinting bosoms white,
Skirts suggesting other charms, hidden from our sight,
Wicked eyes are not a few: glancing up – and down,
Some are radiantly blue, some demurely brown.
Mulga says he’d like to own, a sweet and dainty queen,
Like that Brennan donah, in her hat of green.
Mulga men are full of guile, and of open hearts,
But it’s hard to snare a smile; from these little tarts.
Mulga, since he got a look, fairly has the knock,
On a little tom who took, a car to Boulder Block.
Mulga William reckons it, ‘Shiniest of cops,
For the blokes who work their bit, in them drapers’ shops.’
Reckons it the gift of gifts; dealt us by the Fates,
‘To be working all day shifts, with them long-haired mates.’
Mulga, with the hands of ham, thinks he’d cut a dash,
Shooting down the little tram, ‘Them wood balls of cash.’
Mulga, with the hairy face, and the little gins,
Serving yards of torchon lace, pennyworths of pins!
No, old Mulga, not for us, are these pleasant joys;
We as usual, miss the bus, leave them to their ‘boys’.
We must see some other fellows, take them out to tea,
‘Ivory handled umbrellas’ were not made for such as we.
AH, THE GOLDFIELDS’ bards. A night in the Miner’s Rest behind Hay Street. Driving past, she tried for a moment to imagine putting herself on display in those booths. Flesh and glitz. Not very feminist of me, she thought. A cat tried to squeeze its way into her motel room but as she gently pushed it aside. A bearded man wearing a fluorescent yellow work jacket, his boots unlaced, covered in red dust, said, ‘There she is! You bad cat. You’ve got to go home to the girls to keep them company between shifts.’ Of no discernible ethnicity, teeth missing, halitosis, he looked up at Jade and said, ‘She’s the Establishment cat and belongs over there,’ pointing with the cat, mewing contentedly in well-fed pampered bliss, in his hand, to the brothel. That night she ate from cans, drank a six-pack of Emu Bitter, smoked on the verandah, nodded at the numerous FIFOs who had been billeted in this not-cheap four-star accommodation, drinking piss, farting, and speaking Klingon, watched a movie in which the three hundred Spartans became cartoon characters with fluxive depth, then crashed out on top of her bed and got a chill towards dawn.
She didn’t hang around to hear the blast at the Super-pit, to take in the folly of the York Hotel with its carnivalesque façade, so celebrated by fetishists of Australiana. Nor the righteous declarations of presence and belonging at the Exchange Hotel. As she drove down the main drag with its massive roads, every second car was a utility with a flagpole to catch the eye of Haulpak drivers coming over rises at the mines. Every uniformed worker that got in and out of vehicles formed a politics with their slightest movement. These are my people also, she lamented. She hit the road to Menzies, out past the Gidji Roaster and passing the turn-off to Ora Banda, that’s the epicentre of another war. That’s the way it would have been, that’s the way it was for her.
Once, when Jade first arrived at Northam, a fellow teacher who wanted into her pants (a local expression she found hard to accept, but had since adopted with brutal recognition of its truth), had asked if he could drive her up to Lake Ballard to see the sculptures. You have to be polite to people you work with, but he was a sports teacher and she didn’t see much point putting on a front, saying, ‘Anyone who would drive out into one of the most sublime landscapes on the planet to see a bunch of pseudo-spiritual mimicries of indigenous presence dressed up as the chthonic universal, and yes, there is something of a paradox in that, is a fool.’ The teacher had stared, nonplussed. Jade went on, with over-emphasis, ‘A Brit who thinks he’s tapped into the spirit of salt and dust and scrub is enough to make me spew. No thanks, I am going to stay home and make papier-mâché statuettes for my back verandah.’ She couldn’t help herself, never could. And there was someone else who would never speak to her again.
And so she would have passed another road train and opened it out to one hundred and forty. It felt too good. That one was carrying sulphuric acid – such healthy cargo. She wanted to give it the finger but thought it’d be her luck to break down ten ks along and need to flag the driver down. Road train on road train, four-wheel drives. She hadn’t seen another sedan since Kal.
And so she would have wondered why there was so little roadkill. Roo hunters? The dry? Both? Through Menzies up to Kookynie Road, she made the turn-off the main drag with trepidation. She needed to piss, so pulled over on a floodway, an achingly dry creek-bed and pissed into the bleached red dirt like an offering. Then she felt guilty, as she always did, for blaspheming. Just taking the piss, she laughed. She was feeling more lonely than she should. Sultan Rhaz came into her head and she felt dismal, looking around the scrub, noticing a burnt T-shirt, Hahn beer bottles, a pair of women’s knickers that looked like they’d been ground into the dirt by a boot. She was thinking of him independently of considering this find, the situation of the moment. She was thinking of his steadfastness, his commitment, his intelligence. She realised she could have loved him. Nothing more to say. She screamed so loud a dozen species of birds she couldn’t identify fled from the bluebush and acacias, from the hoveas and eucalypts. She visited Niagara Dam, full of temporarily deserted (if new and clearly inhabited) caravans and campers, watched a fairy martin decimate insects above the water as the guide signs indicated, walked the eroded sandstone and lost herself in the moment but eventually climbed into the car to confront Kookynie and what lay beyond. She would have done this been this, and more.
‘WHERE ARE YOU boys heading?’ she yelled, against her better judgement. She had to. No choice. It was her voice – she could hear it resonating in her own ears.
They had heard a car come in but had kept to their task. To pissing and chatting and accepting that the world was theirs. But when they turned, they decided to confront.
Facing the approaching woman, balancing on some slippery, lichen-encrusted granite caprock along the creek, they glanced at each other, turned away, and Marto said, ‘Gotta deal with this.’
They could hear the woman running towards them. She was at the edge of the creek, yelling the same thing again. They recognised the voice. ‘It’s the bitch teacher,’ said Sultan Mocha. They turned on her together, fast and aggressively, rushing towards the creek, a retreating Jade. ‘What the fuck d’ya want?!’
‘Whoa, boys,’ she said, raising her hands as if to ward them off.
‘What the fuck d’ya want, woman?!’
‘Just wondering where you’re heading?’
‘What the fuck business is it of yours?’
She wondered briefly what-the-fuck business it actually was of hers. She didn’t want to look nervous but probably did. She knew she’d made a wrong shot selection and started to back down, back off. She was still bursting for a piss and felt a drop move. She felt the world was full of urine. Water, water everywhere.
‘No business of mine really, boys. Just curious. Had to pull over to check my tyres and recognised you. Northam’s a small place and all that. You going camping?’
Marto lunged forward, raising his rifle-case to just below the horizontal and barked, ‘Skit!’ Sultan burst out laughing and spat on Jade’s sandshoes. ‘Skit, bitch!’
Jade turned and walked steadily, on the verge of running towards her car, waiting for the sound of boots on jam-tree leaves then gravel then blue metal. They’d be on her before she had a chance to draw the attention of the minibus patrons in the distance, over a hill, out of sight. She could hear truck after truck rumbling past on the bridge above the creek but that compounded her isolation, the risk. She put her hand on the car door and pulled at it. Something struck her on the cheek. She took her hand from the doorhandle and felt the blood running and dripping from her chin, blood cold before it touched her jacket; caught the strands of her long, straggly hair, unwashed for days.
‘IT’S GOOD TO be out here,’ said Marto. ‘Good to get away. We’ll follow the firebreak across Ako’s place, and walk on the eastern side of the pipeline, then cut through the bush down to Murray’s. We’ll go on and off the Kep track, make decisions as the need arises. Gotta be flexible, prepared to act.’
‘I still reckon we could have a problem with some of the landowners, Marto. Not the same as when we were kids. It’s all been broken up and there are some real weirdos living in shacks on small holdings.’ Sultan was worried. Then kicking at a wet ochre clod on a firebreak and looking anxiously over towards the highway obscured by York gums, he added, ‘And it must be fifteen bloody ks!’
‘It’s an expedition, mate. Don’t forget, we know this place like the back of our hands! It’s our bloody place.’
‘It’s still private property – your old man didn’t know everybody even if he did own three thousand acres, Marto.’
‘Nah, it’s not a worry. How many times do I have to tell ya? Just out shooting. If there’s a problem we’ll cross onto the track. As long as we keep the rifles in their cases, there’s no problem. And I’ve spoken to a few of the people Dad knew along here and they said fine, just shoot responsibly.’
‘Yeah, responsibly!’ And they laughed.
‘Bag a couple of rabbits. Skin ‘em and wrap ‘em up in the tinfoil and cook in the fire. I checked with old man Murray and he said we could light a fire and shoot on his place. Heaps of rabbits, a plague. Remember that Abo bloke who used to shoot foxes and trap rabbits around our place when we were kids? Fuck, he was a master. Could pop a fox off with his triple two at two hundred metres. Wasn’t bad for a black.’
They hiked up to higher ground with its stands of wandoos, then out into the open, trailing a firebreak alongside a shin-high wheat crop, then into a small reserve where they hid themselves from intruders, and sat and smoked and yarned. They had all the time in the world.
‘Whaddya reckon about her? Trouble?’
‘Nah, fuck her. Nosey bitch. What’s it to do with her? Fucking un-Australian to have a go at us for camping out. I reckon she’s got an unnatural fear of guns.’
‘Penis envy!’ said Sultan without thinking.
‘What? What are ya? Fuck, you’re as fucked up as she is. Penis what?’
‘Just a joke, mate. I reckon she got turned on by our rifles. You know…our pricks?’
‘I don’t know, mate. You’re a sick prick, Sultan.’
‘I’ve been thinking, Marto. I don’t wanna be called Sultan anymore. I mean, those towel-heads haven’t bothered anyone much. My aunt was saying the detention centre is pouring heaps of dough into town, one way or another. And they’re suffering in there, mate, really suffering. It ain’t all plain sailing for them.’
‘I still hate ’em, mate. They’re still Muslim terrorists and I’d like to see the place burnt to the ground. Don’t go soft on me now. Don’t forget who your mates are.’
‘It’ll be mint having our own place, Marto. I’m sick of living in motel rooms and dongas. It’s fucking boring.’
‘Heaps of stars out tonight. Pity there weren’t any rabbits, but nothing wrong with tinned pies. Toss one of those branches on the fire, mate.’
‘You know she had a kid when she was like fifteen or something.’
‘Whaddya on about?’
‘I heard it when we were at school. She had a kid and they took it off her.’
‘Where’s the kid now?’
‘Fuck knows!’ said Sultan and he kicked Marto’s boot for no particular reason but felt better for doing so. ‘Shouldn’t have thrown that stone at her. Made me feel fucking guilty making a teacher cry.’
‘She’s not our teacher.’
‘You know what I mean. We humiliated her.’
‘Jeez, mate, truly, I reckon you’re getting softer by the day, ya wimp! Gonna have to keep my eye on you. You know what happens to traitors.’
‘I dunno, Marto. I’m not sure about much at the moment. Maybe something’s wrong with me.’
‘Too much fucking speed!’
‘Yep, that might be it. Hey, did you know my old man kept a bayonet under his bed? It was my grandfather’s. From the war.’
‘No shit! I’d like to have seen that. Why didn’t you ever show it to me?’
‘The old man would have killed me. I only ever saw it once. It looked like it could kill people real easy. The metal was blue-black. He bought me some great toy soldiers when I was small. I mean, not toys, but really life-like miniatures with all the equipment and stuff. There were Germans and Americans, Australians with slouch hats and even with an Owen gun and a heap of Japs in spread-eagled positions firing machine guns and with rifles with bayonets in jungle uniforms and even Gurkhas with curved knifes. He also gave me miniatures of Leopard tanks and Shermans and Centurions, like the Australian Army had before they upgraded. I had whole wars in my room and wars between times, you know like Dubya Dubya. Two soldiers fighting early ’70s soldiers, all of that kind of shit.’
‘We should join the reserves when we’re settled.’
‘Yeah, we should. Why not? Give us some history and, you know, structure to our lives. I’d feel better about things, ya know. Much better.’
‘Imagine if those boat people got out and eventually joined the Aussie army, Sultan. Fuck, imagine that. Traitors in the ranks before you even got to the battlefield. Imagine cartin’ back to Kabul or wherever. You see stuff like that, you know, Afghan soldiers turning on their American allies. Imagine if they got into our army.’
‘Yeah, fuck, never thought of that.’
Marto picked at a callus on his hand, then chewed it for a while, spitting a chunk of thick, dried skin at the flames, an undefined orange over his face and said, ‘Those bloody boat-people have stolen the Northam army camp! They’ve even got Viet Cong in there now. They’ve fucking won the war a second time. Never satisfied, greedy little pricks. Lesson to be learnt. And they’ve even bloody escaped from the place. We need security. It’s all about security, mate. That leisure centre is a fucking box of liquorice allsorts.’ He pulled out a couple of spliffs he had stashed away, lit them, handed one to Sultan, and said, ‘Gonna listen to my iPod now. Nothing like smoking good dope under the stars on a cold night with a fire and the Gunners playing.’ He lit up, plugged in his earphones and was soon singing ‘Paradise City’. When he got to ‘the girls are pretty’, Sultan put his own earphones in, turned on, took a drag of his own spliff and tuned out to The Beatles’ Rubber Soul.
THE PROSPECTOR WANTED to ask Goolam Mahomed if he could ride on top of the baggage on one of the camels. But Goolam was walking himself and the prospector didn’t think it right that he should ride when his saviour was walking. He pondered the distance between plants where there was little or no water: no garden, just isolated species together under the one roof within shouting distance, all of them extracting moisture from anywhere it might appear. He held his hand to his mouth and his breath felt dry. He had water now but never enough. The cameleer doled it out when he thought it was time. The prospector wanted to drink and drink but didn’t want to ask. He didn’t want to say much at all. He walked close to the stinking camels, who were bad-tempered and tried to walk in the cameleer’s boot-prints, as if it would give structure to his day. A means to an end.
And so the prospector staggered through the silence, grateful for a cool breeze out of the cassias. He leant down and plucked one of the fluffy tips of a cotton bush and rolled it in his cracked, blackened fingers. He suddenly said to his saviour, ‘My wife teaches our children Sunday school at home because the ministers only come every few weeks – they do the circuits. When Bishop Riley comes it’s something special, but the children prefer to go to the Salvation Army meetings where they can clap their hands and make a noise.’
The Anglican Church was where he’d had his children christened, though he was a Congregationalist if anything. A flight of budgerigars lifted in the distance and headed for seed and water somewhere. He liked those birds. They comforted him like the wood or metal of the cross, the kneeling, the prayer books. He knew the Bible inside out as he guessed the cameleer knew the Koran. Of course he did.
‘That’s not right,’ said Goolam Mahomed.
‘What’s not right?’ asked the prospector, having lost track of the conversation.
‘Your religion is wrong.’
‘I won’t be impolite enough to say the same about yours,’ the prospector heard himself saying in a voice that belonged to the family home in New Zealand among the artefacts and luxuries, the certainties and inheritables of the old country. Then, not wishing to offend his saviour he added, ‘I don’t know…at least we both believe in God, which is a help out here. The light of God here is a harsh light.’
‘It is a beautiful light,’ said the saviour.
‘Yes,’ said the prospector, ‘it is a many-faced and beautiful light at times. A dome of many-coloured glass. What does the Koran say about light?’
’Allah is the light of the heavens and the earth; a likeness of His light is as a niche in which is a lamp, the lamp is in a glass, and the glass is as it were a brightly shining star, lit from a blessed olive-tree, neither eastern nor western, the oil whereof almost gives light though fire touch it not – light upon light – Allah guides to His light whom He pleases, and Allah sets forth parables for men, and Allah is cognisant of all things.’
After a long trudging silence, in which the camels made noise from deep within their damp interiors, dust haloing their coats, Goolam Mahomed spoke in a steady stream of English and a patois the prospector couldn’t understand. But what he did follow he imprinted on his mind, in his own way of ordering and understanding what was said. Later, he realised it sounded like his own voice.
‘I’ve always had a good reputation and my faith is part of that reputation. I am growing old now. I was one of the first of my people to come here. My camels worked the Port Darwin Overland Telegraph Line and that’s almost forty years ago. These are my own camels, born of camels I imported here myself from north-eastern India. They aren’t a white man’s camels and I work for myself. And when I employ other Afghans – and some of them are Hindus and not of my faith and not even Afghans – I pay them properly. The white bosses call us blacks and piebalds. We are hated. If I laughed aloud at your ideas of superiority I would be killed. I have had three wives, and none of them was white and two of them are dead. We pay taxes for the roads out to the gold places and our camels don’t even walk on the road. The white carriers hate us the most and spread bad stories. In Kookynie two months ago I was told by the policeman that someone had said I’d cut off my wife’s nose for insulting the Prophet. She still has her nose. I live in what you call the Ghantown outside Kalgoorlie. My house is no better and worse that what most of the miners in Kookynie live in. Maybe what you live in. I am respected in business. I deliver what I’ve promised and don’t overcharge. They hate our desert ships but need them. The white man worships what the camels can do. They run camels themselves. But we explored places before white man set foot. They’re always one step behind. We followed the lines of the blacks. You walk in our footsteps.’
The prospector shuffled his feet and tripped over, altering the timing of his stride. He knew he must be sick and delirious to be swallowing all this. But he listened to the diatribe, transfixed. ‘This will pass,’ he said. ‘Things will be as they were again.’ He suddenly thought over part of what the cameleer was saying and regretted he’d missed the words. They had time to fill. Time that belonged to none of the clocks tink tink tinkling on the camels’ flanks. What was it he had been briefly thinking? That one of his men had fathered a son by a gin and the native protection man was after him to pay compensation. Couldn’t be proved but he knew the man, a boozer. He’d go into camp with his mates and they’d drag a girl away and threaten to shoot the native men who he knew would get revenge in one way or another. Still, he had to stand by his men. It was the right thing to do, the white thing to do. He made up a rhyme in his head and broke into raucous laughter and his saviour stopped dead in his tracks and gave the prospector a harsh…a vicious look. The prospector heard himself apologising and wondered why it was he hadn’t signed up to the Anti-Asiatic League. He wasn’t really a joiner. Not really. The last Harvest Festival popped into his mind like a salve. His eldest daughter was born the day after a Harvest Festival in their two-room home. A home. They worried they would lose her to typhoid, which was racing through the community. After a while, the cameleer continued, and under his words the prospector was saying to himself, even if I find myself liking this Afghan I will never find myself liking the Chinese.
‘Most of my friends and even family from the same village were forced out of the country after the Immigration Restriction Act. I am alone.’
The prospector blurted out to his saviour, confused: ‘We are together, you are not alone!’
Goleem Mahomed stopped the camels again, took water from a skin and washed himself, spread his rug and prayed. Then they ate in the shade of the camels.
‘Our camels are taxed. Why aren’t the white carriers’ animals taxed? It’s discrimination.’
‘Yes, it is. It is meant to be discrimination. You are not to be part of the future of Australia. Australia is one country now and it is a white country. There are many here who aren’t white and many think there are still too many. And your people brought disease into Australia.’
‘Your people brought disease that killed many blacks, as well as yourselves, as well as my people.’
Cottonbush flared under the winter, midday sun. The cameleer said, ‘I gave much money to help build the mosque in Perth. You people tried to stop us every time we tried to build a mosque.’ He then added, looking to the sky and a falcon that was arrowing downwards, ‘My wives never lived in degradation and servitude. They were not my goods. You can say what you want and people believe it.’
‘I am not saying anything,’ said the prospector, watching the same falcon rise back into the sky with something small and dead in its claws.
‘I learnt to read English when I was first came here,’ said the cameleer. ‘I was taught by one of your famous explorers. I helped him find what had already been found and he taught me to read. I can speak the language of the natives here and in three other regions of Australia. I have books in my house. Here,’ he said removing the book from a bag, ‘here is the Koran in Arabic. I read that too. How many languages do you read?’
The prospector bristled and said, proudly, ‘I learnt Latin at school and later German and French as well as my own language. I am a learned man.’ He wondered if the cameleer had thought him so blind and ignorant and delirious as not to notice the book coming out each time he prayed.
‘Then you should know better.’ Tugging at the lead camel’s rope, he added, ‘And you’re not getting inside my head. None of you will. You’re not taking my stories.’
The prospector felt he was still hearing and seeing things and didn’t understand, concentrating instead on the clocks, on the good order of time. He thought he was listening to the sound of his own voice. Whose words were these? The beginning and end of things. He knew the meaning of the word Kookynie but couldn’t recall. It seemed important. He wanted to asked the cameleer but resisted, wanting to hold onto something – his dignity, his confidence of knowledge, his reason for being there.
Then his saviour said, ‘The natives call this area Lunkutjarra. It means “black snake”. My camels have to watch for the black snakes.’ And the prospector thought deep inside that Kookynie means waterhole but he was keeping that to himself. He would believe himself the sole owner of this information, this fact. The flooding mines.
SULTAN MOCHA HAD set his phone to wake them an hour before dawn. ‘Fuck, it’s cold and damp! I slept like a log, though.’
‘Let’s get going – want to be there before dawn.’ They packed their swags and sorted their backpacks and guncases and headed off towards Yongah Hill detention centre. If there’d been doubts and avoidance in Sultan the night before, in the brisk pre-dawn awakening these had fallen away…scales from his eyes. He knew he couldn’t let Marto and the others, all the others down. He knew who he was.
They marched in military fashion along firebreaks and fence-lines with torches, crossed the road below the telecommunications masts not far off the highway. On and off the Kep Track. One of them said, ‘Let’s walk the Bibbulmun Track one day. It’s bloody neat the way we can walk country in Australia: hike in the wilderness, like it matters.’
They heard dogs from a nearby kennel going mad and skirted the holiday chalets. They grew angrier than usual when they spied the remnants of the army camp, its land having been eaten out by the detention centre’s silver overload – the glinting wire that burnt into their imaginations from every daytime passing and the nightlights that spoke warfare and prison camps. The enemy amongst them.
Unpacking their gear from the backpacks and then stowing the backpacks in the bush, they heard a late owl and paused. ‘Listen to that, Marto. Fucking cool, isn’t it? I love owls.’
‘Yeah, they’re fucking spiritual birds, aren’t they?’
‘Yep, they make me feel connected.’
As the sun rose, Marto stood outside the southern fence wearing a balaclava. The few marri trees left from the expansion of the military base into a detention centre made shadow bridges across no-man’s land that Marto walked across then stepped aside from, into the gaze of the sun. In one hand he held an old-fashioned porno magazine image of a white woman being anally fucked by a black man and in the other hand he held his rifle. Sultan took pictures on his phone and sent them immediately through to a right-wing blog they’d been dallying with, for posting their efforts, along with the captions, ‘She says, Fuck Off We’re Full!’ and ‘Take a potshot…a detainee a day keeps the Dr away’ and ‘Don’t take our jobs…’ with a smiley face emoticon after it. Within a minute they were taking off down the track as security responded to the threat. If they were caught, what of it? They were licensed to carry firearms and had been shooting on private property, then were walking past and having a laugh. Marto even had a few hundred-dollar bills on him to slip anyone that proved a problem. And if they got hauled up, what the fuck, they hadn’t done fuck all.
But no one came after them and they picked up their backpacks and started the long hike back to their ute in the Main Roads car park down at Clackline. They were almost shitting themselves laughing rather than shitting themselves with fear. They felt confident the infrastructure of AUSTRALIA would look after them, protect their rights to humour. ‘We’re fucking larrikins, mate,’ said Marto. ‘Fucking larrikins. Fuck, Kal is gunna be good when we’re there all the time.’
As they balanced their rifles on the other side of a barbed-wire fence, stepping over and joking they’d shoot a few white corellas on their way to the car, one of the rifles discharged in its carry case.
LETTING DOWN THE tyres of the boys’ ute, Jade wondered why she hadn’t confronted her mother all those years ago and just taken her child back. Had she wanted the child? Maybe she wanted to go to Europe instead. Get lost.
She walked away from the now-disabled vehicle, paused, listened to a crow mock her, turned back and ran a coin the full length of the ute, both sides. She snapped the windscreen wipers off and left them on the bonnet. Then she went back to her own car and drove up to the Great Eastern Highway. Indicating to turn right to Kalgoorlie, she actually turned left back towards Perth. Back to her photographs and the transported remnants of her past. She started to laugh-cry, and knew, for once, who she was.
THE PROSPECTOR ATE his meals in silence for days after returning. The children worried, his wife was careful. Then his eldest girl, always one to speak, never one to be laughed at, said, ‘How did you find your way home, father?’
He looked at her sadly then resumed chewing his food. The girl remained silent and the boy, who had finished eating, said, ‘Can I please leave the table? Bobby wants to play a game of rounders and I’m up for it.’
‘Father?’ asked mother.
‘Go on, go boy. Go and play with your friend.’
‘Let your stomach settle first,’ said his mother as the boy raced out into the dust of Cumberland Street, almost knocking over the grand widow of the town, dressed in sequins and feathers, who gave him a cuff under the ear as he passed.
The prospector, stirred from something, looked across at his daughter, timid almost and said, ‘I was saved by black men. A native and an Afghan. Not something to be proud of.’
‘Not much to tell.’ He chewed thin air and tapped his fork on the table. ‘There have been a few willy-willies lately,’ he said to no one. ‘Summer-like willy-willies. I heard one of the places out back of here was torn down.’
‘Our place won’t be torn down, Father?’
‘No, dear, no it won’t,’ he said blankly after a while.
‘There’s a donkey team in town, Father. The drivers are from the Hunza Valley and will live forever.’
‘I don’t know about that. I wouldn’t know. I’ve got to get back to work.’
‘Father, why do you work work work?’
He looked at her and said, ‘I’ll be late this evening. Might stop in and have a drink at the Cosmo.’
A GUARD SAYS to Sultan Rhaz, ‘You, my son, are going mad with cabin fever.’ The guard sniggers. They all snigger at him. He has fallen into the trap. He didn’t expect it. He has not been a bad man. He has respected knowledge.
Sultan Rhaz considers the annihilation of spirit. He has kept his Sufism tied-down, bound to expectation and convention. Secretive. Why? In his head, the qawwali music plays. He remembers the Taliban coming into a shrine and he thinks of his father and his musician brother. He wants to find fellow Sufis among the inmates, to stage an ecstatic zikr. He couldn’t tell the teacher – his ‘visitor’ – a woman and a stranger and a disbeliever, about it. She was his only real link with the outside, the Australia, the place where they shot kangaroos. She’d say things like, ‘How’s the rice in here?’ or, ‘Lot of blokes to be stuck in this hole with!’
Was she trying to be comforting? He recognised it as a form of humour but it wasn’t funny. It couldn’t be funny. Even her being in there and teaching men was offensive to him. Among the men inside the prison, the centre, he could encourage mysticism. No, no, absolutely not. He is alone and thinks of his Chishti Sufi fellow-believers. Where are they now? He lived between worlds there, crossing, here. There were different cultures, different beliefs and no belief at all. This is, was his world and their world. He looks inside himself for the Truth. He does not want to betray his spiritual lineage. He knows Allah can see him. He knows Allah could see him. He says the names of God. He needs to feel close to the Divine Presence.
He once struck up a conversation with a Hazara inmate and they discussed a recent escape attempt. I’ve already escaped, he said, escaped here, into myself, into nothingness. And for all the brightness and all their lighting, I find my body in the darkness. He reads: ‘God is the Protector of those who have faith: from the depths of darkness He will lead them forth into light. Of those who reject faith the patrons are the evil ones: from light they will lead them forth into the depths of darkness. They will be companions of the fire, to dwell therein (For ever).’ He reads. He reads and listens and the darkness closes in. He dreams of kangaroos and for him this is no cliché.
JADE HAD CLOSED her blinds and locked herself in her flat in front of the television. She drank and smoked and sat in a daze. A history of the Goldfields lay open on her lap. Then she saw a news report, a fellow teacher, one of the women who’d always ignored her, standing in front of the detention centre with a senator and a bunch of others with signs saying, ‘Welcome refugees’, ‘Free the refugees’.
‘Jesus’, she said. Who would have thought. ‘There is a fucking God.’
That night she was in Northam knocking on the door of her old colleague. Can I come in? Sorry to turn up like this. Visible discomfort, uncertainty, hesitation, then the crack widened into an open door and she was invited in.
‘I just drove up to say I am proud of you.’
‘Of standing up for the refugees. Not easy in a town like this!’
‘A town like…Alice…Northam…Timbuktu?’
‘You know what I mean.’
The woman, Val, softened, flopped into a vinyl sofa, pointed to another chair, and said, ‘Yeah, yeah, I know. But there are good people here too. This town was a migrant centre after the war, you know. Good and bad stories with that.’
‘Yes, I know.’
‘So, what have you been doing? Are you working?’
‘No one will have me. Thinking of going to Europe or the desert…’
‘Yeah, something like that.’
‘Would you like a white wine?’
‘Why not. Thanks.’
Val went to the kitchen and Jade stared out the partly opened curtains into the lit Northam side street. Just down from the repertory theatre, which was clearly having a night of it because cars were pulling up and people getting out, making their way to its doors. She called to the kitchen, ‘Play on tonight?’
‘Yeah. Midsummer Night’s Dream. School play. Saw it last night. None of my kids, who are in exam-prep mode. Year 11s.’
‘That old chestnut! They wheel it out every other year!’
‘Yep, but it’s a goodie – kids love performing it. They get it.’
Jade noticed some familiar faces out there. A couple of teachers. A few parents and kids she’d taught when they were thirteen, older now and probably not much wiser but, smart for the evening. It all looked so placid and rural and middle-class and white.
‘Guess who’s playing Titania?’
‘Remember Doris, the Nyungar girl who wrote that Anzac Day essay that was read out at assembly a few years ago?’
‘I do! That was something else. I thought there’d be a riot.’
‘No one understood it, I realise now. Anyway, she’s playing Titania. Probably shouldn’t think twice about it but here it’s a big deal. It marks what some are calling…a shift.’
‘A transitional figure. A bridge?’
‘Maybe,’ said Val, glasses in hand. ‘You know, Jade, I never liked you much. Couldn’t really be bothered giving you the time of day. Thought I should say that up front – it’s not like we’re long-lost friends who’ve found each other.’
‘What was it that pissed you off about me?’
‘Arrogance, my dear. Your pure, unadulterated arrogance.’
‘You blame that death on me? Most do.’
‘At Yongah Hill.’ Jade watches Val processing, trying to work out what she’s referring to.
‘No, no, not at all. It was good of you to befriend someone. He had his own torments, exacerbated by that hell place. No matter how much the government tries to hide the facts or dress them up, it’s inhumane and contravenes every edict of humanity that’s decent. You did right there and it was unfortunate. And as for the stuff at school, I actually thought, You tell ‘em, girl.’
‘You never said that to me.’
‘No, you were insufferable. You have, had, a superior air about you. Like you were more experienced, more knowledgeable, more…entitled.’
Jade wanted to snap back, ‘Maybe I am’, but sat there and gently quaffed and took it all in the crepuscular rays of the street light. Maybe she was finally fronting up to her real self. As they say, and she did laugh enough to discomfort her host, ‘finding herself’. It was then she noticed that an image of Buddy Franklin, mid-kick towards the goals, was frozen on the screen. An old-fashioned video paused with the knock on the door. ‘You a Hawthorn fan?’ she asked Val.
‘Yeah, guess I am, ever since Chance Bateman was playing. He’s a York guy you know, champion runner at York Primary when I was teaching in the district high there aeons ago. Nice kid. Champion stamped all over him. Respected in the town. You know.’
Then there was nothing much more to say. They sat there in silence, looking at the transfixed Buddy on the screen and drank slowly. After a few glasses, with Jade rising to go she knew not where, Val said, ‘What makes me so sick is how illogical as well as inhuman it all is. The facts are distorted in the press and the hearsay around town and elsewhere is just garbage, all myths and stereotypes, all sayings and clichés.’
‘You always liked logic. I guess it’s why you like teaching Jane Austen?’
‘Yeah. She thrived out of slavery you know.’
‘But all that Emma rationality, where does it get you? Us? Her?’
‘It’s all part of a game, really. Teaching. Preparing them for confronting their own, well, prejudices. So they can recognise them then dismiss them.’
‘You know, I’ve been reading newspaper articles from the early goldfield newspapers. They’re an eye-opener because they show how little has changed outside the effete circles of those who care.’
‘The chattering class.’
‘Yes, with a twist. The drinks the chatterers drink are spiked.’ She looked into her empty glass, passed it to Val and said, ‘See ya later.’
And Jade walked out to her car, glancing at the theatre because she could hear loud applause. Clearly interval.
WHEN HIS WONGAI deliverer, his saviour too, came with two young men offering to collect wood for him, for his household, the prospector immediately thought of the safety of his wife and girls. He slapped his leg for thinking this, handed the old man a coin and pointed to where the wood should be piled. It would be quite a haul from where the vegetation had been cleared, where it now began. They barely looked at each other as the deal was done but the elder nodded to the ground and called out to the young men, who headed off behind the house towards the distant scrub. The prospector called the old man back, invited him into the shade of the lean-to verandah, went inside and emerged with a pannikin of fresh water which he offered. The old man drank it steadily and slowly, without thanks, without a smile. He handed the pannikin back and walked after the young men without looking back.
The prospector went slowly towards the mine, pausing outside the Cosmo Hotel, nodding to a few of his men who were readying for their shift, then walked on alone. He wondered in whose heart the damage lived. He almost wanted to understand what he would never admit he could not. His sister-in-law would have said, ‘Not a hope in Hades.’ Not a hope. The mines digging deep below it all, far too deep, far into the beginnings, into the residue of the great, abundant waters that created life. He followed a magpie lark towards the mine as it skipped its dusty way and sang its determined, mysterious song. A dervish on the edge of the desert? He wondered, wordless.
IF JADE HAD in fact driven into Kookynie she would have found the width of the camel trains and the detritus of mines. She would have been greeted as she entered the zone with the affirmation ‘A Living Ghost Town’ with the iron-work silhouette of a camel team, a figure the camel is looking up to certainly not dressed as an Afghan, the outline of a happy European family. How could she tell from these rusted cut-outs that they were European?
She would have had a piss and maybe a shit in the clean and well-kept toilet by the tourist information board, respected the water tank that fed the toilet and circled the bizarre sundial roundabout that centrifugally sends you off into spokes of the desert, an arid tool of navigation that might take you to the last watering-hole, its ‘keep left’ sign a reminder of a politics that never found its footing even among the workers with their opportunism and almost American ‘strike’ hopes. Was that naked lady bush nearby?
And the Grand Hotel, with its shady white-gums planted as more than hope and its Australian flag, with a beer in the front bar, or a game of pool out back in Bill’s Bar with a ghost or the handful of miners still taking gold from the find. Sex might be in the air, but in a kinked and tangential way that would worry her if she thought much about it. She might head up the main street and look at the lone arch of one collapsed hotel, muse over the PVC water pipe sitting like irony above the soil, wonder if the dog-shit in a dip in the dirt road opposite the ruins of the Cosmopolitan Hotel was from a dingo.
Next to Fergusons were the Keens. He ran the menswear store. Next to the Keens was a German man who married Mr Macmillan’s sister. That was down in The Area. There were lots of places you couldn’t play but you could play there.
Mulga. Waterbush. Vegetables thriving in a wire-fenced pagoda. The last old-time miner’s tin shack. Sample, example and home. The ’50s school house where the fin de siècle hessian school house had stood and fallen. True Federation architecture. Keep Out – Private Property, the water tank high as a modern, realist painting, ship’s containers holding deadly or banal truths.
Across to Site 8, a random logic of excitement. The metal plaque reads: Theme: Commerce and Mining. The W.A. Bank and Woodard’s Shops
And a quote from, so many quotes from… In old age she’d been called out of her Kookynie childhood to reminisce, create oral history, set the record to rights: ‘In the shops most things were booked up because men just paid when they could. My mother always said, “Whatever you get always pay for it, or do without. You won’t die of starvation and the same clothes.”’ She would have stopped there, and the rest of the words filtered into the way she read the place. Her own mother had said the same thing. Her own mother was full of sayings and advice and cautionary tales. Her mother from her mother from her mother. These were her words. These were Jade’s words. Who owned them now? This ghost town, its haunted or haunting residents?
The O’Connells – an epidemic of infantile paralysis, expecting one of their girls to die. They were Irish and everything had to be done as it was in Ireland – the mother bought a bolt of black cloth and dressed the entire family in preparation. But the girl did not die and they had to go on wearing black for years on end so it didn’t go to waste. These words had been passed down to Jade. That’s how they were said.
Jade waited for her great-great-grandfather to walk out of the wreck of the Cosmopolitan Mine but wasn’t sure how to recognise him. Her great-great-grandmother was buying wilted vegetables at the grocer’s, but she looked obscured, out of focus. She wanted to play with Martie and Jackie, but the twins Myrtle and Doris were calling her. Whose friends were they? Whose families? The dogs were barking. A cold front, thin in rain but heavy in backlight, had closed in now. A few spots of heavy rain fell and the lead train rolled by deadly slow. Pepper trees claimed ownership and longevity and a shanty town of mulga parrots formed as one on the edge, the very edge, the edge before the expanse before the edge of town, of claim.
Iron flapped over and within the ruins of the Cosmo Hotel. It had a sick but excited beat. No one was there to hear it when suddenly a sedan with a P-plate and crumpled door panels raced through the roundabout and straight towards Mount Remarkable, a wet dust clinging to its wake. Around here, planted eucalypts had become trapped in their tyre nurseries, now necklaces of a disturbed past. Semi-petrified echoes, that even in cooler weather gave off a repellent odour. In a large tin shed she guessed mining equipment. Old telegraph poles. The wreck of a plough for God-knew-what.
Maybe she would in fact manage to collect herself and read more of her great-great-grandmother’s words or was it her great-grandmother? Whose family was it? Is it? Who is that woman who speaks the memories of a child, of a three-year-old, a ten-year-old, a twelve-year-old…whose father got dust on the lungs, the miner’s disease? Half of those she knew working in the mines would suffer the same slow deaths. She (who? whose mother or grandmother or great-grandmother?) would become a seamstress and travel to Wooroloo in the Hills from Perth on the train to see her father, the prospector, dying as his lungs shut down, the canvas blinds of the sanitorium opened to the cooling sea-breeze in summer which carried the sound of barking sheep dogs from a nearby farm. A refuge for death.
She might look…she looks down Champion Road into the heavy weather, and its broad dead blood stretches to vanishing point and widens to a scrub that claims it will always make a comeback. She will never leave.
THINKING OF NEW Zealand, the prospector lies emaciated on a deckchair as the breeze reaches into the Wooroloo sanatorium and tells his daughter that she would have received a good education there. He asks if they’re growing roses in the garden. There is so much more rain in the city. And suddenly, amongst the Jarrah trees, he calls up his saviour, Goolam Mahomed. He’d be such a very, very old man now, annihilated not by the desert but by us. Who are we? We are the ones who denied him when he greeted us in the main street, turning his camel train years later, grown to many camels. The prospector turns to point to the dresser, to a clock encased in sandalwood. ‘Remember that?’ he says to his wife. ‘Do you remember? We found it at the front door one day with a note in English and what I later discovered, what I worked out was Arabic. It said, “God is Great!”’
‘Yes, we all remember. You need to rest now.’
‘There’ll be plenty of time for resting. Isn’t the light strange here? The trees tint the brightest light. It’s a strange light here, isn’t it?’
‘Yes, yes, it is. We always say so.’
And then the prospector, as always, would signal to them that it was time to go, by reciting:
Tyger! Tyger! burning bright
In the forests of the night,
What immortal hand or eye
Could frame thy fearful symmetry?
And then like a mantra he would add, ‘I could never understand their desert songs, though I knew they were beautiful. I didn’t say so. I spoke as a respectable man. A man of the town. I should have said otherwise. But then that would have been it. It would have all been over for us.’
And then his daughter, his wife, his family, would go to their futures, and leave him to his past.
Edited by Sally Breen
John Kinsella would like to acknowledge the traditional owners of the land he writes. He notes that use has been made here of a tape left by his maternal grandmother, Joyce Heywood (née Coupar), recorded in her nineties, recalling her life at Kookynie. Her words are on many of the plaques around the ‘ghost town’. He has also made extensive use of early Western Australian newspaper accounts of the region, as well as the work Muslims in Australia by Nahid Kabir (London: Kegan Paul, 2005), and a variety of online resources (including http://www.cameleers.net/). He wishes to thank Tracy Ryan for accompanying him on his journeys into the Goldfields and ‘beyond’.