My Sixth Birthday Party
Psychologists often say that episodes in a person’s childhood cause or motivate certain actions or decisions in adulthood. It certainly rings true to me. At the launch of “Turn on a Light” in 2016, the MC, as a good radio announcer and journalist can do, suddenly switched from chatting about the novel to a pointed question: “Dave, what was your inspiration to write?” To answer, I drew on an episode in my childhood, which, as a story, not only inspired me to write, but became the rationale for the work I do.
My sixth birthday was about to happen in Tammin, a wheatbelt town on the Great Eastern Highway to Kalgoorlie.
It had been a farming town from the mid-1860s so it had had ten or so decades of western development by the time I arrived.
My dad was the headmaster of the primary school and mum did a lot of relief teaching to help out. My sister, Helen, four years older than me, and I both liked the town and living in the country.
It was the 1950s, and the place reflected the general social divisions of rural Western Australia in that era: wealthy farmers at the top level, then professionals and business people in town , to migrants from Europe working as railway gangers or their wives cleaning or washing , and finally, the Aboriginal Noongar people. And those people were legally compelled to leave town at 6.00 pm each evening and not return until sun-up, so they basically had to live outside the town limits. Nor, by the way, could they attend schools run in towns if non-Aboriginal people objected.
As a child nearing six, I wasn’t aware of the existing social structure or the impact of those laws. All I knew was that most of Aboriginal families connected to the town lived over two miles out to the south in brush, corrugated iron and/or cardboard humpies in a gravel pit off the Quairading road while the remainder were in a couple of tin sheds on a farmer’s block of land at the eastern end of our street.
But it didn’t affect any of us as kids. We worked together in classrooms and, apart from a gender division, played together in the school yard. So as my birthday approached, I asked dad and mum if I could have a birthday party. They agreed and I was asked who I wanted to invite. I chose the boys from my Infants class : nine non-Aboriginal and three Aboriginal boys and mum sent invitations to them all. On the Saturday of the party, the nine non-Aboriginal boys all arrived, but none of the Aboriginal boys.
After everyone had gone, I asked my mum, “What happened to Moopy, Clarrie and Eugene? Why didn’t they come?”
She stopped washing dishes, looked at Dad, and the two of them beckoned me to sit with them.
After a pause, Mum told me, “Well, one reason is because maybe they didn’t remember it was your party today because they might not have have calendars or clocks and, anyway, two of them live a long way from town.
My six year old brain solved that issue stating that mum and dad could have reminded them by going to get them. After all, my party was hugely important.
Mum went on, “And another reason is because I don’t think they could afford presents, so they didn’t want the kids to come and be shamed.”
Again, my brain solved that problem. Mum and dad could have bought them each a present to give to me: a simple solution.
And then, after a brief pause, Mum added, “And maybe they wouldn’t have been comfortable in our house.”
This time my brain was silent. Decades later, it still grapples with her words. But over those years, I’ve come to believe that my inspiration to engage in what I reflect on as my life’s work and to write novels from and about those experiences was motivated and is still driven by seeking solutions to the discomfort of people having to be in my “house”. In other words, how can people who are different from each other find ways to be comfortable together without having to visit, or live in, each other’s houses? How can we meet, connect, enjoy each other’s company, work together and even solve problems together, and then be able to go to our own houses, families and ways of knowing and doing at the end of the day?
My current solution, as is explained in my novels is to work in a “between world”, a place between our houses, where we can meet and connect equitably as equals, seek solutions that offer mutual benefits for all participants and do it without exerting power or control over the wills of others.