Of Ashes and Rivers that Run to the Sea (3 page)

BOOK: Of Ashes and Rivers that Run to the Sea
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‘Ere,' she says and I look around.

What the fuck! I stifle a scream as I am momentarily startled by the sight of the singed furry forearm of a wallaby just inches from my face, its little claw clenched in defiance at the miserable bastard who is about to make a meal of it. I can't believe I'm actually expected to put it in my mouth and eat it. The events of the day suddenly become all too much for me, and I feel my stomach start to heave. I lurch towards some nearby bushes and falling to my hands and knees disgorge a gutful of plane food and wine. It smells like fermented cabbage which makes me dry-retch a few times and my eyes water. But somewhere through the haze I look up and see three old men coming
down the road. Despite my blurry vision I instantly recognise the middle one. He's my grandfather, my aminay. Although the years have separated us I still remember him and by the smile on his face he still remembers me. His feet come into view and he crouches down beside me as a gassy belch hisses out of my mouth.

, you grew so beautiful,' he says, and I look at him and start to cry. I can't stop blubbering and to make it worse people have materialised from nowhere and are watching me make a spectacle of myself. I get up with my aminay and walk back over to the woman who says she is my mother. She is sitting there picking her teeth with a piece of dried grass and making some weird hand signals to a woman at the house next door. The woman signals something back and disappears.

We are sitting on mummy's veranda and I am worn out by the passing parade of strange faces who have come and said hello and shaken my hand. Although Father Fallon wrote in his letter that I had two brothers, it appears I have three brothers and a sister, Louis, Mario, JJ and Lorraine. JJ and Lorraine are adopted. In addition to that I have two sisters-in-law, Louis' wife Gemma and Mario's wife Theresa Anne, and their baby Casmira, and they all live at mummy's place. Aminay has assured me that the woman who is supposed to be my mother actually is and I am to call her mummy. It is shocking news as I was expecting an older version of myself and
I digest this piece of information while I sip on another much-needed bottle of ‘apple juice'. At this rate I'm only going to have enough for the night so I make enquiries about the nearest bottle shop. To my horror I am told there is no bottle shop. The only place alcohol can be bought is at the club, but only by men and widows and you have to sit there and drink, you can't bring anything home. I am devastated and I savour every drop of my last bottle.

Because my brothers are black and I'm a few shades lighter it's obvious we don't have the same father so instead of asking directly about my other parent, I ask mummy where her husband is. But everything goes silent and everyone looks around awkwardly and fidgets and then Aminay tells me he passed away and we aren't allowed to talk about people who have died in case their spirit hears us and comes back and hangs around. I bite my tongue and anxiously scan around for ghosts.

Eventually the sun goes down and the streetlights come on and mummy yawns. It is a magnificent yawn, wide and expansive like a lion and showing all her teeth, and she doesn't put her hand over her mouth either. Such freedom, I would have been flogged if I'd yawned like that as a kid. She declares it's time for bed.

‘Where am I going to sleep?' I ask. I'm quite curious about this because I noted earlier on that there were no beds to be seen.

‘Ere,' she says as a bed-roll appears out of nowhere. I wonder how much English she can speak as she seems to have a fondness for the word ‘ere'. She pats a spot beside her for me while JJ and Lorraine make themselves comfortable on the blanket as well. With no other options I reluctantly lie down. There's nothing to cover myself up with and I feel exposed. We are situated in front of the window right next to the front door and in full sight of anyone who wants to come and look. No one shuts the front door and when I mention it to mummy she says to leave it open as it's too hot. I guess she doesn't have to worry about her possessions being stolen as she doesn't have any, but I can't get the thought out of my head that someone might watch me or do me some harm while I'm sleeping. I hear JJ scratching next to me. I have noted both JJ and Lorraine were energetically scratching their heads earlier and I crawl at the thought of what might travel over the blankets in search of greener pastures during the night. Then I hear mummy scratching her head too. I am surrounded.

My restless night is punctuated by dog fights and after a particularly nasty one right out the front of the house, Panacua, mummy's dog, wanders into the kitchen. I hear him rustling around in the dark. He walks past a few minutes later with a hunk of damper in his mouth and disappears down the front steps. I can't wait for the dawn.

The next day Aminay has decided that no one is to
speak English to me, but everyone rolls around pissing themselves laughing when I try to copy their Tiwi words. Arseholes, I think, as I march off to sit on the front steps while they look sideways at each other and try to keep straight faces. Then I hear Lorraine and JJ mimicking me and sniggering behind their hands while mummy joins in. I wonder if I have been born into a family of sadists.

I have no pen or paper to write words down so am forced to consign any new ones to memory and I'm finding it a real struggle. Mummy has taken Aminay literally and if I don't ask for food in Tiwi she ignores me and leaves me to go without. I'm starving and have been eating scraps of bread and chips that JJ gives me when no one is looking. But hunger does strange things to the memory and in the middle of the night I find myself suddenly remembering the word for food.

‘Mummy,' I say proudly as I shake her awake. ‘

She grunts and rolls over and goes back to sleep.

,' I say to myself over and over as I fall asleep. But morning comes and I've forgotten it again.

‘Can you teach me some swear-words?' I ask mummy, but she indignantly declines. She says something in lingo to my brothers and I know by the smirks on their faces that she's telling them not to teach me either. When mummy goes for her afternoon nap I pay JJ twenty dollars for swearing lessons. It's amazing how words crucial to
my survival go straight in one ear and out the other, but swear-words are instantly absorbed. My little brother is really pleased as I practise my swearing out on him and his friends who stick their thumbs up and nod their heads in approval. I feel like I'm finally getting somewhere.

A few days later Aminay decides that we're going camping and I'm excited. He has also lifted the ban on speaking English which makes life a little bit easier for me and with the pressure gone I'm beginning to get the hang of Tiwi. Mummy isn't impressed with my progress though, telling me that English was my fifth language by the age of three and I should be speaking Tiwi ‘propply'. JJ has forgiven me for the flogging he got for teaching me to swear and we sit together in the back of the ute looking for wallabies and bird nests as we cruise along the road heading west that I'd seen from the plane. I'm glad to be leaving Nguiu behind for a few days and am looking forward to seeing the beach and the ocean and eating fish cooked in the coals. Everyone says this is the best ‘tucker' along with mud crab which doesn't sound too appetising. Mummy has brought some of her dogs along who I have discovered are hairless because they suffer from a skin condition caused by some type of bacteria, and not because they are a particular breed. They also have things called ticks which hang from their ears and off their bodies like bunches of grapes. Thankfully the dogs are travelling in the other ute.

As soon as the vehicles come to a standstill everyone leaps out and rushes down to the sea with the fishing gear while mummy and Aunty Blanchie set up camp next to the trees. But the beach isn't what I was expecting. There are no toilets and no shelter. We have to sleep out in the open under the stars. No one else looks bothered about it but I'm feeling really stressed. Mummy gets the billy boiling and while aunty is out of earshot I ask her where I go to the toilet. She looks at me for a moment as if assessing my stupidity and then at the bush all around us. Deciding not to dignify my question with an answer she turns her attention back to the fire.

For our evening meal we eat the much-lauded fish cooked in the coals. Enough fish has been caught for everyone to have a nice big one for themselves and along with Aunty Blanchie's damper it's delicious, until JJ rushes past and kicks sand over my plate. I manage to wash most of the sand off my food but the crunch of grains between my teeth puts me off and the rest of it goes to Panacua who has been salivating on the sidelines. Mummy makes JJ give me some of his fish but I notice he kept the best for himself and my bit is full of bones.

Although I am uncomfortable about sleeping at mummy's place with the front door wide open and nothing covering me, the wide expanse of sky is terrifying. The sky seems to go on forever and I feel like an amoeba under a microscope. The trees rustle menacingly above while
the noises of the night keep me on edge. There are little rat-like creatures flitting around the pandanus and I pray they don't get curious about our camp and come down to investigate as I've heard about rats trying to eat people during the Great Plague of Europe. The crashing of the waves is annoying the hell out of me and every time I hear a mysterious splash I freeze in case it's a monster crocodile sneaking out of the water to attack us and I have to run for it. My exit strategy to the back of the ute has already been planned and I'm keeping my fingers crossed that crocs can't jump that high. I'm grateful for the campfire though and am sleeping with my back to it for warmth and so that I can keep an eye out in case anything tries to creep up on us in the darkness. Not that I can see much, of course, it's too dark. Everyone is snoring, even baby Casmira, I don't know how anyone can sleep with all that racket.

I've tried hard to enjoy myself for three days but I hate it here. I haven't stopped scratching my fucking head and with the way mummy pats her dogs and then sticks her fingers all over my food before she hands it to me, I'm going to have to give myself a good worming when I get home. I've worn the same clothes for the whole time because some arsehole has stolen my spare ones, and I stink. I've got a strange rash on my arm that I think is scabies, I'm sunburnt and if I feel gritty sand between my toes for much longer I'm going to scream. Louis has killed
a wallaby and is gutting it just above the tree-line. I think of its soft brown eyes and the little paws like Skippy ‘the bush kangaroo'. I'd only recently learnt that the little paw on the TV show that opened doors and picked up keys wasn't Skippy at all. It was a kangaroo's paw stuck on a stick. That really disappointed me and I think that sometimes it's best to remain ignorant about things.

It's evening and some huge green turtles have decided to land on the beach and lay their eggs. Mummy tells me that they always come back to the place where they are born. Everyone is quiet as they drag their huge bodies up the beach because if you make any noise they'll turn right on around and go back into the sea. I'm fascinated as I've never seen turtles like this in the wild and I know that I am experiencing something truly amazing. Then when they've laid their eggs and are lumbering off again my brothers go over and start to turn them on their backs.

‘What are they doing?' I say to mummy. But she just ignores me as she detects another bout of hysteria coming on. I think of the effort it took the turtles to drag themselves up the beach and lay their eggs only to end up in our bellies and something inside me snaps. I run over to my brothers screaming at them to leave the turtles alone. They don't know what to say and stand there warily watching me as I've had a few hissy fits over the past few days. These turtles aren't like the little ones kids keep for pets, they are as big as me, but I manage to turn the first one over and
am struggling with the second one when Aminay calls out from somewhere behind me. He tells my brothers to let them go. So they turn them back over and let them go.

I've had enough and I just want to go home. Aminay feels my suffering and he comes over and sits beside me on the sand. We watch the waves. Each one that rolls in and away is taking me closer to the time when I can get the hell out of here.


The sun has just risen over the top of the trees and turned the sea a pearly pinky gold. My mum hands me a cup of black tea and my eyes water as the astringency of the tannin hits my tongue and makes it shrivel. As usual it tastes like the whole packet has been tossed into the billy and left to stew for a week. This is bad enough but the thought of all the powdered milk and piles of sugar that everyone else puts into theirs makes me cringe. I hold my breath and pour it down hoping once again that it won't damage anything on its journey through my intestines. I'm still in a huff from the episode with the turtles the night before and I gather my bits and pieces together in silence while I listen to the chatter around me. Last night was the tipping point and I'm going home today as I can't stand the thought of spending another minute here. Old Aunty
Blanchie is still in a huff too after watching the turtles, her favourite food, swim off, and there is a tension between us as tight as a bow string. She shoots me a dirty look before turning her back on me. My mum says it's just me and Aminay going to the airport and we need to be there by eight o'clock for the morning plane. I'm hurt that mummy isn't going to see me off. She doesn't even wave goodbye as we drive away, she just goes on chatting to Aunty Blanchie who turns to give me one last filthy glare before resuming their conversation.

The bush looks different and not as vibrant as it had the day before. We pass the spot where my mum told me there was a native beehive they call sugarbag. What a stupid name I think, sugarbag, why don't they call it a beehive with honey like everybody else? Thinking about that makes me feel even grumpier and I just want to get on that little plane and fly right on out of here back to my old life. I'll write and send Christmas cards, I think magnanimously. I won't give them up completely, after all they are family, but I know I don't want to go putting myself through this again in a hurry. We pass the Tarntippi turn-off which cheers me up because I know we're nearly there.

But we have to go right back to Nguiu instead of stopping at the airport as we have to ring up to see if there's a seat available for me on the plane. The thought hadn't occurred to me that there mightn't be and desperation paints pictures in my mind of me stealing someone's
tinnie and boating back across that seventy kilometres of Arafura Sea where there are no whales but, according to my mum, lots of sharks and stingers and crocodiles. Aminay emerges from the telephone box and gives me the thumbs up and my knees go weak. I've got a seat, thank fuck for that.

,' says Aminay giving me a hug at the airport. And then he drives off down the road without even a backward glance while once again the sandflies and mosquitoes arrive in their thousands to feast on me.

But something feels wrong about all this. I didn't want it to end this way. Although I've had a crappy time I wanted these people to tell me they were sorry I didn't grow up with them, and that they loved me, because that would have made all the crappiness of this strange place bearable. But no one did, not even mummy. I try to console myself with the thought of the bar waiting for me at Darwin Airport but my heart feels like it's sitting on the bottom of the ocean.

BOOK: Of Ashes and Rivers that Run to the Sea
4.31Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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