About Getting Back Home
This story comes from the novel “Hiding Place”. It was generated by two different stories I heard. One was told to me by an old Wongatha (Kalgoorlie) man about he and his brother being taken from their mother in Kalgoorlie as very young boys and placed in Norseman Mission, about 170 kms to the south. Much of the story I tell is using his words and the ages of the two boys are as he described them. The other story, about hiding under mother’s skirt, came from an Arrernte man now living in South Australia who chuckled all the time he was telling it. “Sticking it up policemans is good thing!” he concluded.
The community was a collection of twenty dilapidated and dirty-looking houses that collectively were in two concentric semi-circles. All faced a cleared area, at one end of which were three tall, white posts. Most houses were corrugated iron and in varying states of disrepair. In front of each house, small fires burnt on the ground, tarpaulins were laid out and many dogs slept on the tarpaulins near the fires, or scrounged for food. At one end of the houses was a power plant and bore, in the middle was a structure that bore the sign ‘Clinic’ and at the other end, a grassed area with a fence that encompassed school buildings.
Garrick drove slowly to the second last house on the inner circle, flicking waves at various people he passed. He stopped, alighted and as Mick to joined him, community dogs gathered at a respectable distance, but at the same time, closely watched them. Most were a yellowy-orange colour, although a couple were black and one was black and white. Many of the yellowy-orange dogs were covered in scabs of various sizes.
“Their called camp dogs and a lot of them get mange,” Garrick explained as if reading Mick’s mind. A dog moved towards them and Garrick called firmly, “Charla, charla,” and waved a hand as he did. The dog retreated rapidly.
“It means ‘go away’,” Garrick told Mick, “and it’s a word to remember. Now, let me teach you some protocols about the meeting we’ll have,” and in response to Mick’s look added, “protocols are rules, Mick. The old man’s English name, like I told you, is Casey. But his traditional or skin name is Jumarra. He’s never told me what it means but he’s the TO—traditional owner—of this country.”
Mick now looked very puzzled.
“Here’s a first lesson, Mick.” Garrick leaned on his vehicle. “The other night in Alice Springs, you saw shit that can happen with Aboriginal people in towns. But not all Aboriginal people are like that. This mob is—or at least the older people—could be very different because they still know many of their traditions and values.
“TO is an inherited title that has been passed down for thousands of years, so in the Aboriginal way, Casey is the keeper of the country. That means he has overall authority for what happens on this land, including in this community. As I said, he’s doing his best to keep his culture alive, but his chances fade a little with each passing day.
“So when you meet him—when I introduce you two—thank him for the opportunity to visit his country and if you can remember, call him Jumarra when you say it. The other thing to do is to tell him a bit about yourself, where you’re from, and that you’re working for me. It’s always a good way to start with Aboriginal people; talk about you, where you’re from and connect them to your world through people they know, which in this case is me.”
“These houses look like they could do with a lot of repairs,” Mick stated, looking around.
“They were built years ago,” Garrick replied. “One thing the government has never done properly is to teach nomadic people how to live in one place. Casey, been Stone,” he added. “You been wake-up, old fella?”
After nearly a minute, a small, wiry, grey-haired old man shuffled from the house, a big, black jacket drawn around his upper body against the morning wind. He beckoned gently with his whole arm, and Garrick led Mick to two chairs and an upturned milk crate on what passed as the veranda. Casey eased into a chair and smiled at Garrick who eased into the other. Mick cmpressed his huge frame onto the milk crate.
“It been good you say we come, Jumarra, and thank you.” Garrick spoke quietly.
“So how you been, old man?” Garrick went on. “You been warm way night-time?”
“Need big mob log for night time,” Casey replied. Mick listened very carefully to try to understand the old man. “When been jumina way, been real cold for old man.”
“The old man says he needs wood for a fire at night time,” Garrick translated for Mick. “He says he needs it when it’s really clear at night. That word ‘jumina’ directly translated means ‘open’ but it can mean ‘clear’ or ‘cloudless’ too. So he means, when it’s cloudless at night, he’s getting very cold. It’s nice to see the stars but these poor buggers freeze to death.”
“I get Harry, or this fella, come Monday and take boys to get log for you,” Garrick added to Casey. “And, old man, this fella here been Mick. He been work for me this day.”
The old man’s dark eyes flicked to Mick’s face and he nodded slightly before looking away. Mick was unsure of what to do. Normally, he’d have stood and extended a hand, but it didn’t feel right. Then he remembered what Garrick had suggested.
“Um … thanks … for letting me come … with … um … Stone … to your place … Jumarra.”
The old man looked at Mick again and a smile flickered momentarily before he nodded.
“Tell Casey about you, Mick,” Garrick encouraged softly.
Mick struggled for words and took a long time to speak. “I … I come from Adelaide,” he started and was then surprised by what he added. “I was born and lived there all my life … until now. And then … my wife … took off with another man and she … took my kids with her. They’re just little kids: seven and five years old. I tried to find where they’d gone … but they’d disappeared. So I decided to look for them. I finished up … here in Alice Springs … and Stone asked me if I wanted a job. So here I am.”
Both men looked at him with soft expressions and Garrick nodded almost imperceptibly.
“Not been good one, when kids get took,” Casey said quietly and Mick looked away as his eyes brimmed. “Government mob do that when I been little fella … take me from mother and put me in home in Alice with little brother and big mob kids.” He stared steadily into the distance for a while but then looked at Mick and grinned. “But me and little brother, we run away one day … just bugger off and come back here.”
“How did you get back here from Alice?” Mick asked thickly.
“Walk night and sleep day till we get here.” He spoke matter-of-factly, as if it were normal to walk two hundred or more kilometres through the desert. “When we do, we find mother one. That been real good. Then one day after we been back, we been play in bush. Mother, she been watch us. Policemans and welfare mob come in truck. Mother sit on log and make us curl up under big skirt she wear. She pull it right down to ground and we hide good way. She tell us be real jumina: say nothings.”
He looked steadily into the distance again for a while, then chuckled softly and continued.
“Policeman ask mother where us kids been. She say ‘in Alice’. She tell him strong way, ‘you mob take them’. Policeman tell her we been run away and if we come here, she got to tell policemans straight away. She say ‘yuwa’ and when truck go, she take us bush, near Kunnari Tjinnyte.” He pointed over his head towards the range. “We live there long time, till I been ready for lore … to be man our way.”
“How old you been when you run away from Alice, Casey?” Garrick asked after silence.
“Little bloke … been maybe eight year old. Little brother, him been maybe six.”
Images of his own kids, and the matter-of-fact way Casey spoke, caused emotion to surge again in Mick, making him look down. And as he did, he marvelled at the capacity of someone so young to have made the journey he’d just talked about. It reminded him of the movie he’d seen a decade ago called “The Rabbit-Proof Fence” which he knew was a story that had really happened.