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Authors: John Muk Muk Burke

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Bridge of Triangles

BOOK: Bridge of Triangles
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Table of Contents

Title Page

Bridge of Triangles





For Gwen and John
Bridge of Triangles
John Muk Muk Burke was born in Narrandera, New South Wales in 1946, of a Wiradjuri mother and an Irish father. He left school at fifteen and spent some years in the post office before going to New Zealand on a working holiday. After a number of jobs ranging from scrub clearing to factory work he was accepted into Auckland Teachers' College in 1967. He has taught in primary schools in New Zealand, Darwin and outback Northern Territory, and has been a specialist art teacher and music advisor for the Northern Territory Department of Education. In 1989 he took a year off to travel in Europe, and it was in France that the first draft of
Bridge of Triangles
was written. In 1992 he joined the Centre for Aboriginal and Islander Studies at the Northern Territory University as lecturer in History and English Literature, and is currently an Academic Support Lecturer for Aboriginal and Islander students in the Education faculty.

The leafy town was mostly on the south side of the river. At its centre was the Empire Hotel, the important looking post office with a clock, and, around the side streets a couple of brick towered churches. The biggest church though, the Church of the Good Shepherd, stood back from the main street a bit and just down from the Empire. Back in the previous century the townspeople had cleared the land and made their wide streets in a grid pattern. The river and the trees, those great solid river gums, were much as they had been forever. Once, before the invaders came with their sheep and bags of wheat seed and working men to dig canals, the trees had grown right across the land and kangaroos and emus were plentiful. And people had lived amongst the trees and hunted on the plains forever.

By the time the boy, Christopher Micky Leeton, was born up in the hospital which stood on a rise beyond the flood level overlooking the town, the most common animals, apart from the sheep on the cleared landscaped, were lizards and the raucous grey and pink galahs. Huge eagle-hawks floated high above the paddocks but many of them had been shot out because they could easily carry off a new-born lamb. Ancient goannas lumbered through what little remained of the bush and the area is still known for its huge bull ants. Some of the relatives of Christopher Micky Leeton still lived around the area too. Chris was born and no doubt at that moment the bull ants were streaming over the red earth and the pink and grey parrots were freewheeling against the deep blue sky and the public bar of the Empire was host to those who never questioned their belonging as they drank their middies. Some of the boy's uncles might even have been kicked out on that day too, all those years and years ago.

From the beginning he was an exile. He was pushed into this world with its immense fiery sky. The sky was an enormous hill and it seemed he'd just come over the brow and
was near the river and the trees to see if he might belong there for a time. The traveller looked at that place and thought pretty early that perhaps he might not belong there. For beyond his sweat and cigarette smoke mother he saw from the earliest days the vast sky-hill falling away, away, away, and it glowed fiery white with glowing torn orange-peel edges. The woman smiled and frowned—smiled and frequently frowned with wisps of brown hair and smoke rising into and across the vast sky which framed her face. The sides of his frame were wicker and smelt of sour milk and dirty wool and the faint shitty memory of other kids. Sometimes the frame swung into darkness and the great sky-hill swept away and he felt loss—he cried long for that great open plain of sky which had so recently and yet so distantly existed. Back in those days when he almost certainly knew more of the other world than this.

His mother was Wiradjuri and of the rivers. Her own mother, the Old Granny, had dwelt amongst the trees. His mum's father had been white and had given his name to the boy before spending his last six hours on this planet at the Empire Hotel. As old man Mick wandered back from the town he fell in his drunkeness into the swift black canal and drowned his watery death. But then as now the shining world kept spinning with its hills and streams and when the next morning it turned again into the sun and the waters were innocent and silver once more, you know what? The Old Granny painted her face and skipped to the Empire to weep for the change his going wrought and sat in the pub with her mob and the old man's mates. Lots of them would slip into canals and rivers and fires on other terrible nights too.

But the boy knew nothing of this except the coo-ing and frowning over his wicker frame. The Old Granny painted her face with great red lips and cheeks and hung shiny metal chains that looked like gold and silver all about her
thick dark throat and wore many rings that might have come from Christmas crackers and curtain rods. Her sound and smell of stale sweet sherry floated sometimes across the great sky-hill and welcomed the child and he tried to feel the welcome.

The boy quite possibly was the first of his mob to speak the exile. It was strange that those who seemed furthest away from their roots were the ones who searched the hardest to find them again. Chris early knew that he was possibly the weakest link in a chain. He had to ensure he was not the last. He looked beyond the painted faces and bright patches of colour to the softly shining home he'd left. He knew that the Old Granny walked in this world: he knew that his mum walked in this world: and finally he knew he had stumbled into a shadow world of sorrow—he did not, did not, did not—he couldn't feel what it was he wasn't except that a joy and longing came together when he saw the sky-hill falling away, away, untouchable and left behind.

He had been carried to a world of fire and smoke. The Old Granny and aunties and his mum all creased and laughing, cradled him in their brown, warm arms. And carried him into other worlds of fire where many smoking faces passed him along a line like a bundle. Of course he didn't think that till later.

Everything came later—there was only the feeling in the beginning of the period of exile. The feeling and the smell and the taste. Aunties spooning Farex, the Old Granny poking her ringed finger into his mouth. Sweet bread. And brown warm breasts of Mum and aunties flattened on his face and urgent in his mouth. Everyone coaxed him to stay in the world and this world stretched off into the dust outside the lace windows and beyond the fringe of straggling oleanders.

Eventually the boy walked in this world of fire. The shadows of this shadow land grew sharper. He found little
bits of fire which had fallen into the cool parts and lay there, for him. Had he brought them with him? He could reach into where the springy sharp twigs touched the ground and find the cold orange flowers on their tangy stems. He ate them all until he knew his aloneness again. Eating, shitting, playing, cuddling—were instruments of forgetfulness. But he could never really forget his sense of unbelonging.

Under the sky of fire he ran towards the enormous sky-hill past the springy oleanders to where the trough, half filled with black water had bright reds growing round the concrete. He could rest his face against the rough grey concrete and smell horses. Here were shiny little flowers—reds the three-year-old child named them. The reds were all on fire, standing in the shade of the trough like bright little suns. And so he held out his hands but they stayed cold. He raised his little snotty nosed face above the trough of slimy water and checked the distance. Away, away were the moving shadows which kicked up all the dust and made the distant crying. But this great fear couldn't get you because the long white fences and the tall power poles moaning in the wind trailed off straight and lonely until they reached forever. And that was where the big sky-hill came down to meet the road.

He thought he nearly knew why all the reds were cold.

The boy lay down into this world. The stretched out sky quickly lost its shining and the wind rattled the loose boards on their nails. Soon the blackness was complete.

He called the shapes to their dancing and they left the great sky-hill and came in through the window and danced for him on the elevated edges of their cave. He willed them to take him to their burning smoking mountains where he would join in their wild and sacred dust stirring. He felt the heat. Surely it would happen? Nearer and nearer they came and shrieked and pointed. Dancing. He saw their eyes—red: he saw the bodies dry as dust and strangely white like smoke. Surely it would happen? The wind buffetted outside and and the cave was closing in. Yes. No. Yes. No. Yes. Two huge bird-like beasts were cawing somewhere near the floating curtain and a fat goanna formed where the lino lifted in the swirling air that swept beneath the house.

And then the mornings. The rain still lashed the window and the room glowed with a dampened whiteness. The vast sky-hill loomed away across the streaky world into the immense and it rocked into its emptiness and silence before the house awoke.

His mum's name was Sissy and way back then she pushed the pram past the hedges of oleanders and the privet shrubs. The smell of leaves and flowers and dust floated in the thickened sounds of the solid rubber wheels and people breathed and smoked. Sissy walked with her lovely sister Rose and the twins. She stopped now to shove the sour smelling blanket under the boy's chin so he couldn't move.

“You fuss too much Sis. Give him some air for Christ sake. You'll kill him like that.”

“He's sick. I don't know what's wrong with him but he's not right. It's sumpin'.”

“He's got sumpin' bloody funny 'bout him I reckon.”

Rose dressed herself and the twins smartly and only some of their clothes were second-hand. By skin and bone and hair the women were clearly sisters but Rose's bloke Clarrie had money enough for his missus to carry herself with cheap style and was mostly able to avoid St Vinnie's. So Rose dressed herself like a queen in a play and always used lace hankies and people only knew they were sisters when they got close enough. That's what Rose thought.

Rose thought herself to be someone and believed she belonged in the great big world. Red lipped and tough, she had plans and they were enough for the rest of her life. She was a woman who drank cream sherry in the saloon of the Empire, (sometimes even with Clarrie) and smoked Craven A's, not rollies. Sissy thought her sister to be beautiful—just like a pearl she often said, especially after the terrible event. But Sissy's own face was lined with early anxiety and a kind of seeking after something more—some place where she could belong. The unknown hurt was sometimes helped by the beer you could buy at the Empire. Her face fought each day and she felt like an exile too. Behind her deep-set eyes overhung with ancestral brow she seemed sometimes to remember with a child's optimism just enough of an early happiness to keep her going. But mostly
a kind of resignation showed in her appearance, her straggly hair and downturned mouth. It was alright for Rose, she'd got a bloke with a bit of dough behind him and she could drive off to her own place with all those rooms she talked about any old time in that flash red car they'd driven into the bush in. But she wasn't jealous, it was just that Jesus knew she deserved a break after all she'd put up with. And Jack—useless bastard, had no get up and go even though he always thought he knew best. Sometimes enough of the child ebbed for Sissy Leeton to say she'd show him. She'd get up and go herself. With Rose. Rose had been in Sydney years now—Jesus—must be five at least since the war. Well, she'd heard enough. She'd be buggered if she was going to stay stuck here with Jack. Sure, Clarrie might have a few bob but so would she one day too. She'd show them, just wait. But then, all that time ago she still pushed the pram along its rough track to the town.

Sissy saw the other women with their mob of kids filing along their own dusty track that led up from the river. She saw their bare feet swirling up the dust around their ankles and saw the babies perched on bony hips.

These women were off to town too. Sissy noticed the slowing down of the other women, there were five or six of them stretched out in a line by the river. They were a group. Their great black eyes seemed only to look at the ground. Their hair was thick and knotted. Sissy felt her hand tighten on the pram handle and she moved a bit faster. It was as if there was some sort of agreement with this other mob not to meet at the bridge but Sissy did not want to think why this might be true so she quickly said, “They haven't even got bloody shoes.”

“They haven't got anything because they won't get off their black arses and work,” spat Rose and she smoothed her skirt with her brown hand.

“They don't get much chance either,” said Sissy and there was a tired self pity in her voice.

“They're a pack of thieving bastards—you speak to Clarrie.” Rose's voice was angry and self righteous.

Sissy laughed; after all they were sisters. “Well, you tell Clarrie to get a proper car—with a roof next time. Anyway, you don't know if they took his bloody beer.”

Rose saw that her sister was smiling. “Well I hope they enjoyed them, that's all I can say!”

The two women smiled warmly.

“Might go down the Empire and have a few myself after I get my stuff,” Sissy laughed.

They came to the white rails of the bridge and the pram wheels fluttered over the splintery wooden slats. Chris was awake in sweaty heat. From within the hooded frame the great shining sky-hill was knife cut by the railings of the bridge. He longed to reach out and touch the solid sky which seemed so close. But it swept back furiously fast and he fell back with rapid breaths of sickening green shallowness and the opportunity was gone. It was away, away—and he could only see the flickering orange border of his real home.

Way back then on that Autumn day when the wind was picking up leaves and heaping them against all the fences and the wicker pram was still of baby use before its wheels sped billy carts and Rose's pleated skirt transformed the boy's sister Mary into a princess, the two women came to the church. There was a big painted sign. “The Church of the Good Shepherd”. St Vinnie's was next to it.

Sissy sensed the change.

“Are you too bloody stuck up now to come in then? Well I'm not!” And she pushed the pram savagely to the shop.

Rose sat on the brick fence nicely and took out her Craven A's. The leaves were blowing round the Kiwi whitened shoes on her vinegar brown feet.

Sissy lifted her son out of his pram and they went into the shop. The place was stacked with other people's junk and clothes—arranged orderly on counters and hangers. It smelled of old paper and dusty glass cups. The shop lady had displayed china cats and dogs, leaping fish, salt and pepper shakers with “Greetings from Sydney” stamped on them. They should have been with the wooden-handled egg beaters and chipped willow saucers and dull meat grinders but the tight haired woman probably thought that such nice things should stand with the “ornaments”.

As Sissy rummaged through the jumpers and old shoes Chris found a stack of framed pictures, very dusty and chipped. There were about six altogether but only one he liked. He clutched it to himself. Here was something he knew—here was something he understood. Here he saw and recognised something. He felt the sharp little lion's feet on the corners of the tin metal frame, saw the crack across the bottom right hand corner of the glass. His picture of home. It had been snipped with scissors carefully from some magazine in an act of re-creation by hands perhaps now still forever. Faded pastels formed into a misted flatness impossibly far away—away. Somewhere above high streaking clouds was an eagle—soaring—although the boy did not know what to call the bird, and a winding track led away. The land showed no people. Years later he would know why he had wanted this picture. The missing people would return. One day. One day.

“A strange thing for the boy to want. Whatever can he see in it?” The lady waved a small toy and smiled with her teeth but not her eyes at the child's mother. Her glasses glinted. She was doing good in her full apron and tight hair and her smell of soap.

Sissy said, “How much is it?” Contemptuous.

The lady smiled, genuine. She tried to give the toy to the child.

“This,” said Sissy, touching the picture with one broken nail. She put a heap of coins and a crumpled note on the counter. “How much is it?”

The boy rubbed the picture on his jumper. He felt a link. Like something would one day be complete again.

The woman and her child gathered up the clothes and shoes she had bought and walked out into the weak sunshine. The stuff was thrown into the pram and the boy walked. A huddle of women with dusty ankles waited for Sissy to turn towards Rose before they too went into the shop. Rose stood some way off with her back to the church. The boy and Rose's two were dropped off at Mrs Ladell's for the afternoon and the sisters headed directly to the Lounge Bar of the Empire.

BOOK: Bridge of Triangles
2.66Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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