No - this is definitely not home. There are no grids of bitumen or architectural landmarks. There’s no coastline – just land, undefined. With no grid it’s impossible to hold a mental map! There is only the sun tracking across the sky to define the compass points - but can it be trusted? With no knowledge of what lies to the north, south, east or west – the universe shrinks. Dependent on people who understand this country – confidence shrinks. There is dreadful disorientation.
A person has to find a way to cope in these circumstances.
Control is one way of coping. Control over something- anything.
She chose dirt. Daily, she wrestled dirt and its companion - mess. Her fight was confined to her body and the transportable and although she never won, she found the cleaning to be therapeutic. Returning from a journey over sandhills, salt lakes and claypans, her eyes glued together, crusty nose and split feet, she had a place to clean herself – a private place. A place to wash, scrub and soak: itching lice from her hair, red dirt from her knees and elbows, roo blood from her skirt and smoke-sour blankets. And when all that was done, she had a stainless steel sink to shine with Ajax, a mirror to polish with Windex and a floor to sweep and mop with OneGo. She had a place from where she could push away the sand and push and push and push back the wilderness of space and sky and people and be thoroughly, comfortingly, European and urban.
The transportable house was a shell from which she could peep out and then contract. Like a snail. Like a hermit crab
A little boy – a Tjungurrayi drifted along a track. He held a can to his nose and breathed. Through the oily haze of petrol, he picked out the transportable. It was locked and he was hot and thirsty. He walked around the back looking for a tool. Finding a piece of metal tube with one end flattened, he squeezed it into the crack where the door met the frame - and levered. The screws that held the slide bolt and pad-lock groaned as they were jemmied free and the door swung open. From bright, Tjungurrayi stepped into dark and had to wait for his eyes to adjust. It was good out of the daylight; his head ached from petrol. A line of sweat shined above his lip. His mouth hung open and his breath wheezed. He stepped up to the sink, wrapped his lips around the pipe, turned on the tap and guzzled. Then he cupped his hands, let the water fill them and splashed his face. Water ran down to his elbows and onto the clean floor where his foot turned it into a squidge.
Above the table, at the end of the room, food was stacked on shelves, away from mice. Even in this dingy light, the labels looked bright and swam in front of his eyes – Weet-Bix, Rye-vita, Spam, Baked Beans, Sardines, Spaghetti, Two Minute Noodles. Looking at the food made something move inside his stomach and he felt a pinch in his gut.
He sat on the clean white toilet and moaned through the cramp. There were more shelves in front of him. These ones were stacked with White King, Rinso, Sard Wonder Soap and Kleenex. The pain eased. He screwed up his nose at his own stink, pulled up his jeans and went into the place she called, ‘The Bedroom’.
This is where they slept. She didn’t like tchi tchi going in here. She’d say, ‘Wiya. Wiya. Wanti. Ngurra ngayku.’ No, no. Leave it. My place. But sometimes, if there were only two or three children, they could persuade her to let them in. She had books with pictures and a sewing tin. He turned to a cupboard with a long piece of pale material hanging in place of a door. Pulling the cloth aside he reached for the tin. The lid came of with a fftt sound, like a fart, and he smiled. He reached inside for the pincushion spiked with pins with coloured plastic heads. Cradling it so as not to prick himself, he sat crossed legged on the swag on the floor and began to play the game. He scanned the pins and sorted them into colour categories and then put them into pairs. Then he chanted, “plue plue, red red, green green, yella yella.’ But it was hard to think after petrol. He stared at the patterns until the pins blurred. It was good in here, in the dark, all by himself. Palya. Good.
“Sss tch tch tch.’ a voice hissed and clicked behind him. It was his uncle. He startled. He hadn’t heard anyone coming. Rising woozily to his feet, he dropped the pincushion. The man grabbed his arm and dragged him outside, and like a boy with no bones, he gave no resistance. His eyes screwed up tight. He hung his head in shame, and tears, snot and sweat rolled down his face.
The air was heavy and humid. Before she even got out of the Toyota, she saw the door had a bruise from being levered open and the slide bolt swung from one screw with the pad-lock still snapped to it. Inside she saw no damage. There was a muddy mark on the floor, a turd in the toilet that resembled a small black snake, the sewing tin had been opened and the pincushion was on the floor.
Across the sea of sand and flapping rubbish that divided their dwellings, she watched her neighbour, emerge out of the dust and limp towards her. A kind man, a family man, and visibly distressed. “Sniffer,’ he said. ‘Little boy. A Tjungurrayi. No stealing. No stealing.’
And she wondered. What kind of person does he think I am?
It was hot – very hot. A big cloud hovered over the community growing darker by the minute. It looked like the old Tjupurrula who camped by the airstrip with a camel. It was Tjupurrula all right - the same bulging nose. Rapidly, it stretched out until the nose and jaw became absurd like a cartoon and then it had no shape at all. She made tea and sat on the step, sheltered by a veranda. The camps looked deserted. All had gone to ground – too hot to move, air too thick to breathe. But people were there, muttering, beseeching in their language, ‘please let it break right here, let the rain fall directly onto this place’.
And then - Bang! The sky broke open and it came in buckets - too much for the ground to absorb. Like a switch had been thrown - instantly it was cool. The earth turned terracotta and released a delicious smell - spicy humus, a clean smell, slightly pungent. The camps burst into life. The rain was so loud people had to shout to be heard. Children popped up from everywhere – from under sheets of iron, car doors, and rusted drums. Faces ecstatic, they danced and sang and scudded up the road to swim in the tip with the old mattresses and the dead dogs.
‘I’m cold.’ The boneless boy appeared at her elbow. He shivered and his skin was covered in goose bumps and sores. She poured him a cup of sweet black tea and he wrapped his hands around the enamel mug.
‘Someone came into my house while I was away.’ she said
‘Sniffers. Bad boys.’
‘You sniff petrol.’
‘Wiya. I’m a good boy now.’
It was late in the afternoon. The big shed - The Canteen, was closed for the day. The only light inside came through the holes that peppered every sheet of iron - straight as spears and lazar-bright. Motes hovered thick in the shafts. It was enough to empty the tills and count the day’s takings. The cash-drawers were stuffed with orange notes. Two twenties bought a box of sugar or a drum of flour. While counting the notes into wads of a hundred, she heard a scraping sound. Turning she saw flickering through the holes as someone moved about on the other side. A skinny black finger poked through a gap the size of a bottleneck and wiggled. ‘Napaltjarri?’
‘Whose there?’ she leaned close to the hole. The finger withdrew and then a mouth closed over it. She smelt bronchitis and petrol. ‘Tjungurrayi?’
‘Yuwa.’ It was just a whisper.
They stayed like that, both breathing on opposite sides of the wall, the shed creaking around them. Finally she said, ‘I have to finish now. I’ll see you when I’ve finished.’
‘Yuwa. Apter pinis time.’
No moon makes a black night. Away longer than she’d planned, she wove her way through the camps to the transportables. Fires smouldered on either side of the track illuminating pink palms and red eyes. Dogs barked and bit the tyres, and there was wailing - loud keening from the women, in voices that sliced through the dark making it bleed.
A generator chugged loudly and rhythmically. Like festive ships the buildings blazed with electricity - anchored and going nowhere. The nurse, hearing a car, emerged from her door and walking briskly across the track waved her arms - her thongs slapping the soles of her feet. She was not one to mince her words.
‘There’s been a car accident’, she said. ‘A boy is dead. A Tjungurrayi – a broken neck.’
Dead. Quick and simple. Gone for good.
She lit the stove and a placed a kettle on the hob. A cup of tea was the thing. Looking for tea bags she saw, at the periphery of her vision, a redback had woven a mess of web in the corner. It hung there elegantly. A can of Mortein shaken vigorously - a hit with a powerful jet of spray and it dropped. But it was playing dead. Another shot and its legs curled. Gone for good. Forget the tea.
She sat on the step, her arms wrapped around her knees. The sound of the generator and spill from the lights blocked out the camps and the wailing. The mechanical throb synchronised with the beat of her heart.
In the Centre - where land is sacred, where sand hills roll like waves to the horizon, where she-oaks whisper, where colour is alive, where wild food tastes like nothing else, where birds sing and people dance – I remember a boy died in 1984.