Authors: Michael Costello
The seasons changed. It was now winter. The yellowed leaves of the jacaranda were all but gone. The overnight temperatures dropped dramatically. Lighting the gas stove for a hot breakfast helped warm the house from the buffeting of the cold westerly winds. Of an evening Dad would light the large log fire in the lounge room as soon as he arrived home. The heat it generated would last until early morning.
This night we started the evening meal as usual, with Dad saying Grace – all eyes closed and heads bowed.
"For what we are about to receive, Lord make us truly thankful."
"Amen," we all responded.
Nan had made lambs fry, ox kidney and bacon. She dollopped the mash potatoes then spooned the meat with its rich gravy over our plates followed by the peas Doug and I had shelled earlier. Once we'd finished talking about our day at school and Nan had given us the date of her next CWA afternoon tea, Dad went into a serious mood. I had this strange feeling we were about to cop a talking to, but for the life of me I couldn't work out why.
"Fellas, this Saturday morning, I want you to come with me. I've got something to show you."
"Where to?" asked Doug, just before me.
Doug and I looked at each other and wondered what it could be. The tone in his voice meant it was something serious, but we were too afraid to ask. At least there was no 'Dougal' or 'Patrick' so we weren't in any trouble.
"Then after, I've heard some pictures have arrived in town." We let out a high pitched squeal.
"Lord Almighty. Quieten down. You're not outside playin' now," snapped Nan.
"One's an old Errol Flynn one,
The Sea Hawk
; and one's, oh …" It seemed like he was acting dumb on purpose, but we hung on every word. "A Tarzan one." I opened my mouth to give another squeal, but luckily Doug's kick to my shin stopped me in time.
"What did I just say to you two?" Nan warned. I looked daggers at Doug.
"They've got a Bette Davis double on at night.
. Give you a night out," he put to Nan.
"I'll ring some of the girls."
"After the matinee, how about I pick up some takeaway from the new restaurant? Something different for a change. Give you a break from the cooking and time to get ready," Dad offered.
"Lovely," she struggled out, barely hiding her misgivings. "Wonder what it tastes like – Chinese food. Just don't pick anything too spicy." Doug looked at me and miaowed softly as Nan was talking. My excitement over going to the pictures took a bit of a dive. One of my favourite meals, beautiful velvety rich lambs fry and kidney was becoming harder to swallow.
"You feelin' a bit off colour?" Nan inquired, as I fell behind everyone at the table.
"Just not that hungry."
"Might need a good dose of castor oil. What do you think, Dad?" Nan suggested.
Appetite restored, I finished everything on my plate, much to Dad and Nan's amusement.
As soon as we had permission to leave the table, we raced into the lounge room, talking non-stop about Saturday's programme, trying to guess what the stories might be and letting out a Tarzan call every now and then until Dad called out.
"If you two don't keep that noise down in there, there'll
no pictures." We continued in excited whispers, beating our chests and doing silent Tarzan calls, lion roars and mimicking the bow-legged walk of Cheeta, Tarzan's chimpanzee, while they talked on at the table – just loud enough to be overheard.
"You should be takin' someone ta the pictures. You should."
"Mum please. I've told you, I'm not interested in dating."
"It's a small town, love. Everyone knows yer circumstances. You'd stand a better chance with that ring off ya finger."
"I've no intention of taking it off."
"Then you're a fool."
"That it? I'll join the boys inside."
Saturday morning couldn't have come fast enough. Dad had told us to rug up as it was going to be cold. We realised we must be going to visit one of Dad's sick patients, because he was loading a heavy metal pot full of casserole and two dampers I saw Nan make the day before, onto the back floor of the car. We were almost ready to leave, when Mrs Symonds hoyed us from across the road, before running over and handing Dad a box with some old blankets, a tin of powdered milk, bars of soap, as well as two loaves worth of sandwiches.
"I think we're going on some sort of picnic," I whispered to Doug. But what was Poppie's old water drum that he used to fill stock troughs with, doing in the boot, we wondered.
"Here Harry, take these."
"That's very kind of you, Esme. I'm sure they'll be much appreciated – especially the blankets." She gave a small smile.
"Hello boys. He's a good man, your dad. Well you are. Let me know if there's anything else I can do, Harry," then she darted back to her house.
It wasn't long before we were at our destination. Dad got out with his medical bag and we followed over the brown sandy loam.
Before us was this big fenced in area and in the distance several large gum trees and just a few others scattered around. We entered the enclosure. Some of the fencing looked like it had been deliberately pulled down.
"This is the old Aboriginal Reserve or Reservation, boys." Doug and I both dropped open our mouths at the same time, with anticipation. We were a bit apprehensive, but felt safe with Dad.
My fear and excitement soon dissolved into disappointment. Where were all the tepees and horses like the American Indians on Reservations we saw at the pictures? Where were all the bare chested men with feathered headdresses and women with papooses on their backs? We made our way further onto the Reserve. Sheets of corrugated iron were lying on their sides on an angle, sticking into the air. They were propped up by tree branches, and other twigs and smaller branches formed sides to them. What passed as a dwelling looked like it could so easily be blown away. They were empty, but each had a small fire near it that hadn't been used for some time.
"What are they?" I asked.
"They're called humpies. That's what some Aborigines sleep in."
"Where are the tepees and horses?" Doug asked, echoing my very thoughts. Dad stopped and came down onto his haunches to our level.
"Fellas, you're thinking of American Indians. These are Aborigines. Just like those near the creek on Cracker Night. The tribe in this area are mostly the Wiradjuri people. Here
thousands of years ago. Old as cavemen." We couldn't hide our disappointment, and though still curious to explore, kept very close to Dad as we moved on.
"Don't the Abos get cold?" I asked. Dad jerked my arm roughly.
let me hear you use that word."
"That's what Mr Wood calls them," I reasoned meekly.
"Bob Wood is living proof you don't have to have a long neck to be a goose. He calls them that as a put down. How'd you like it if someone kept calling you, 'whitey' or 'shortie'? You wouldn't like it would you?" I could feel by my bottom lip starting to quiver that tears were close.
"It's okay, I'm not having a go at you, mate," putting an arm around me and pulling me to his side. "They're called Aborigines. And it's important we respect them by calling them by their right name. Now, you asked me whether they got cold. Well, that's why there's all those little fires near each humpy. There used to be a lot of people living here, but a lot have moved on. Sergeant Farrar, Penny's dad, was in charge until it was closed down. We, or rather the white authorities, put the Aborigines here in the first place."
"For their own good," I offered, quoting Mr Wood again. Dad put a hand on my shoulder.
"Son, look around. How could living under these conditions be for their own good?"
As we continued on I could see that in the centre was a bathhouse with its two water tanks – a disused small wooden building with a gap of six inches all around at the base of the walls and a dirt floor. It was partitioned into 'men' and 'women'. The windows and doors were freshly boarded up. Close to it was a small timber and corrugated iron shed bolted and padlocked. It looked like it had been a store for provisions. Next to it was an old water pump with a shiny new padlock on it as well.
Nearby was an open-faced shed like structure built of iron and bush timber with an earthen floor that had rows of rough-hewed wooden benches like church pews but without backs to seat about fifty people. At the front was a small wooden table or altar and behind it, attached to one of the poles, a plain wooden cross.
There were a number of separate houses, or single rooms to be more precise, made of bits and pieces of rusted corrugated iron and old metal advertising signs, dotted over the area. They only had three sides and a hessian curtain for the front, and didn't look like they could keep out the cold, let alone any rain. Most had old mattresses on the ground; a few had iron beds as well. Dad came to a stop again.
"I'm sure there were some in government who thought they were doing the right thing," he continued. "But others just wanted to get them out of the way, because they were black, because they looked and behaved differently to the rest of the community. I'd imagine the owners of the new Golden Sea restaurant are doing it tough as well. People not going there, even though they'd like to taste something new, just because they're Chinese."
Dad was passionate but remained calm as he tried to explain it all to us. I looked into his eyes as he spoke. There was sadness behind the passion. It was obvious he had been thinking about some of these things for a long while, maybe even before he went to the War. He'd served in both the European and Pacific campaigns, but never wanted to talk about any of it or march with the others on Anzac Day. He began to smile.
"Someone even started the rumour that they serve cat, just to harm the business. Can you believe people could be so stupid as to believe such rubbish?" I gave Doug an 'I told you so' look.
"I guess it doesn't seem right."
"No Pat, it doesn't. That's why I'm out here now, to try and help these people the only way I can. You see fellas, I took an oath. That means I made a promise when I became a doctor, to help anyone in need of medical help – be they black, white or brindle. Oh there are other Reserves all 'round the country marginally better than this. Ones where they get food and schooling and shelter and doctors visiting and they're looked after a lot better. But not this one. Do either of you think you could live here?"
"No sir," we both freely admitted. He began walking again towards the centre.
"They only got basic food, water and shelter. No vegemite or cream cakes, just things like sugar, flour, tea, salt, barley and a couple of tins of powdered milk. Barely enough to survive. If they've earnt some money they can buy meat from the butcher but they usually get by on meat and fish they've had to hunt for themselves. They were here ages before Captain Cook and the white settlers, roaming all over Australia freely. Then they're virtually told by the white authorities, 'the land inside those fences is the only land you can have. You must stay there.'
"We took the land and gave them our white man's diseases in exchange. Herded in here out of the way like they were some sort of unwanted livestock you wouldn't even waste a bullet on. Just like your American Indians on their Reservations. That was supposed to be for their own good as well. Same with the Jews in the War.
"Saying it's for their own good though boys, is often the way people make themselves feel less guilty about what they are doing to them. Not seeing Aborigines about town lets people like Bob Wood out of any sort of responsibility to care or treat them just like any other human being. Those very same people, who do nothing to help them or turn away, would be the first to kick up a fuss if it happened to them and their families. And now, the government's decided that it doesn't want to run this Reserve and others, any more."
"That's good then, isn't it?" Doug offered.
"They can roam the land again," I put forward.
"But where do they go, boys? First they've had the land, their freedom, everything taken from them, then placed in here. All the good land with watering holes has all pretty much been taken over by white people. And the new owners don't want them squatting on their land. When this place was still up and running, they had to get permission to leave to work the land for the white owners of a day for little money just to eat, when their rations had run out. And they had to be back here by dusk. And now they're abandoned completely. Good enough to fight as brothers beside us in the War, but not good enough to live as brothers with us in peace time."
"That doesn't seem fair."
"No Doug, it doesn't. You wouldn't do it to a dog. And people like Bob Wood and Mr Green don't want them anywhere near town, so where do they go?" Dad came to another stop. "You know, my best mate in the army was an Aborigine. We fought and slept side by side."
"What's his name?" I asked.
"His Aboriginal name was Girra. He said it meant 'creek'. The officers called him Trevor, but he was always Girra to me."