Suddenly Cec’s self-imposed exile was starting to mean something.
‘I’ve got to go out and see the camp,’ said Cec.
‘It doesn’t exist anymore. You won’t find much.’
‘I don’t care. I’m prepared to find nothing.’
‘Trust me mate, that’s what you’ll find. One or two ambiguous-looking tools and a tin cup.
Riley suggested they walk out together: ‘You see the country differently when you don’t travel in a car.’ It would involve overnighters with sleeping bags and bed-rolls, just like swagmen took in the olden days. They both knew it was a test.
If Cec was honest, he was so much a product of the city, so blasted onto it, that even getting out on the open road in a car made him feel edgy. People talked of the joy of a straight, long road to nowhere. But Cec didn’t feel that way about it. When he was driving a road that was too straight and empty, he felt the big blue sky pressing down on him—that the flat spinifex would go on forever, monotonous and boring, until the road fell off the far edge of the horizon. Now, here he was planning to get even more stuck in the Australian countryside. He was going to trek through it.
But he found the walk surprising. They trudged for 30 kilometres one day, staying overnight in the bush. They walked down country roads that were really dirt tracks, with names like Hellman and Kookaburra. He knew what
a kooka-burra was, but who was Hellman? What was he celebrated for?
Cec was surprised by the refreshing coolness of the ground and the variety in what he saw. A short while in, Riley stopped walking. Cec circled back to him: ‘Have we arrived somewhere special mate?’
Riley said nothing for a while, which made Cec want to fill the space with chatter. But he restrained himself: ‘Great spot for rabbiting here, I suppose mate.’
‘Yes but rabbits are not why we’re standing here. Can you see anything?’
Cec looked around intently, flicking his eyes from the distant hillside, shimmering its eucalyptus-infused blue across the wide, soft, downy grasses in front of them. He brought his eyes across to a little stand of gums, at the edge of their line of sight.
He fudged positivity: ‘Ah yes, the Australian bush, so majestic isn’t it? I’d love to be able to paint those distances, with shades of mute and colour, the way your people do, the way you do with dots.’
‘That’s not really where you want to look. Pull your vision in a little closer.’
‘Okay, hills, coming down to a path, a gate 100 metres to my left, then the one we walked through about half an hour ago, on the other side, the one that you asked me to close.’
‘Ah mate, I feel as though we’re playing pin the tail on the donkey.’
Cec wanted to say he was a little tired of feeling played. But he could have said that a while ago too. He smiled his friendly smile. Cec had learnt early to disguise worry in his easygoing vernacular.
‘Come on, come in closer,’ Riley said.
Cec pulled his vision in to within one or two metres. Trees and stumps of trees. And then a smooth surface, opened by tools. It could have been for all the world, just an ordinary tree, except for neat little criss-crossed carvings.
‘It’s a burial bora. This was a special place to my people.’
Bora. Bora. Bora. The word triggered another uncomfortable memory for Cec, another one which jarred and cut across the good things he was discovering.
Yes, he remembered. They are at the swimming pool at Kingsley: his cousins laugh and proudly tell him how their father had the pool built on a sacred site, that way no Aboriginals would want to swim in it.
So the word bora lay in the back recesses of his mind, ready to clamper out now. More ghosts that Uncle Bill had so casually diminished stood there ready to mock Riley’s bora. Cec resisted telling Riley what the word had conjured for him, that in his mind it had morphed into an offensive tactic to repel Riley’s people; that once again his family story, instead of creating a bond, was knocking and spoiling, whittling away at other people, cutting them down at the knees.
As they walked along Cec thought more about Uncle Bill. If he was such an unsavoury character, what then was the generation before him like, and the one before that? Cec had always seen Uncle Bill as an aberration. But was Uncle Bill the deviation from the family norm or was Cec, the small-l liberal from the city? Was Cec’s pride in his family’s history and social connections built on a fantasy?
Thinking about his own family story made Cec wonder about Riley’s.
‘Living the way you did, the traditional Aboriginal life, you must have starved,’ Cec said, gauchely, trying to turn his own thoughts back into conversation as they pushed on.
‘What are you talking about? We had access to really good food. Collecting wild food was something we liked to do. Most times we lived well. When Dad wasn’t shearing or doing other work, we survived quite well on bush food. We didn’t eat our totem food. But rabbit was always good. Mum and Dad would ask permission from local farmers to hunt and trap rabbits. They always said yes because it would help them eradicate what was a pest on their farms.’
‘We ate ducks too. We didn’t shoot them, we didn’t need to. We’d set a square trap with a funnel coming out. Dad showed us how to place a funnel towards the water, close to the river and he would lay seeds all the way in. So the ducks would come up to the funnel but they didn’t know how to get out.’
The next day, as Cec and Riley walked further along, an old man fixing barbed wire fences looked suspiciously at them through his craggy eyebrows. Riley explained what they were doing: ‘We’re walking an old blackfella’s dreaming track.’
Cec didn’t know whether Riley was teasing him or whether it was true.
But the old codger scoffed: ‘Well if you’re here to size up the property for a land claim or you’re a spy from the government, there’s nothing here for you and I told that to the environmental officer last time.’
As the old man ambled off to his ute, Cec chuckled at him: ‘He’s a bit paranoid.’
‘Oh no the land owners are all like that around here now. When you’re selling land, you have to indicate whether it’s got a significant site on it. People don’t declare them because they’re afraid of an Aboriginal land claim being made.’
When they arrived at the camp it was just as Riley had predicted. There was nothing to see, nothing but a wide clearing where the camp had been. But taking on board the gentle lesson in observing the little things that Riley had given him just before, Cec stood and watched for clues hinting at a once-busy life. He tried to peer into the past, pulling together fragmented ideas. Unimaginable as it may have seemed, 100 people had once lived here, in this very spot. So he looked at where 20 shanties once stood, some at an odd lean. He tried to visualise the kerosene tins, bits of timber, galvanised iron and bagging that made up homes, ones that would never have been acceptable to Angela, who liked her on-trend kitchen with its coffee machine or his mother who cluttered up every bench top with her aspirations, acquisitiveness and new kitchen toys.
Cec tried to imagine the people who had lived at this spot, sharing stories, sharing their dreaming, trapping animals, catching fish, surviving, thriving and loving. But all he could see was vulnerability; people exposed to the wind, sheltering under torn tarps and using tin buckets to try to control the rain. The narrow track led down to the river, a long walk for what must have been only a modest, unpredictable water supply. And what did the suggestion of cinders on the end of that wide piece of wood mean? Had there been a fire here? Cec couldn’t help himself: he felt sad, even though Riley would insist the lives lived here were joyful ones.
Questions continued to nag Cec. Why had the camp been shut down and cleared away? Complaints were often made about camps like the one that stood here for so long. But what could the objections to this one have been? The noise wouldn’t have bothered anyone, this camp was too far away from other human ears. If lice had jumped off children’s heads here, they never would have made it to the plaits of a white school-aged child, so isolated were these people.
A bit further along an iron bedpost rested up against a tree. Had Cec’s frightened grandmother given birth on it? Had two little boys, his father and uncle, shared that bed? These questions built up, along with forlornness, an emotion Cec found confusing, because he didn’t know much about it.
Cec picked up a bottle. At first he thought it was a beer bottle, a whiskey bottle or a gin bottle. But then he saw ‘Godfreys’ Ginger beer’ moulded into the glass. Remarkably, it was most likely made in the 1930s: an era of cotton stockings (most common colour ‘nigger brown’), scrubbing boards to wash with, roll your own cigarettes, wide-brimmed hats, a time when the traumas of the Great War and all its aches were finally subsiding, and there was no realisation a bigger, worse war was just around the corner.
Cec looked up again. There definitely were no liquor bottles in sight. So the crime of these people wasn’t drunkenness, that common accusation. Thinking of the camp’s innocence of that transgression made Cec even sadder. He’d done enough work by now to know, protectorate officers back then used drunkenness as an excuse to do all sorts of things, just as they do today. They could be nasty pieces of work.
But through happenstance, the protectorate officer who oversaw this camp, never had to be anything but benign. He had no aggregates, no data banks, no metrics, none of that bullshit for ensnarement. But even if he did, he worked with gut instinct and his gut instinct was right—the people who lived here were good, stoic people. He knew what his job was supposed to be but if there was an incident he let the little ones drive home in his truck to have an overnighter with his missus—and then he’d bring them back. Those little ones would be tucked back into their gunyas, three nights later, and no one the wiser, except maybe Jessie Green, the elder who sat cross-legged at the far edge of the camp, his badhung covering him.
As he walked through the non-existent camp, trying to puzzle out what had happened here, Cec couldn’t see the shadow of Jessie Green. But old Jessie, just a ghost now, knew. He knew the savage way the camp was cleared out and he knew the reason why.
And he knew the reason might appear to be something serious enough to lead to a combustion one night when a camp was burnt down. But he knew this was a wick that led back to somewhere else. He knew that it flicked and twisted in two families, as it slithered its way back to a long time before, like the gibirrngaan snake, when another, bigger fire was lit and its flames and stench flared up into the deep night sky.
This is an extract from a novel in progress, which was developed during the Faber Writing Academy Writing A Novel course 2017.
When DNA tests reveal Sydney banker Cec Raymond’s Indigenous heritage, he uncovers a family secret.
Eager to find more about his Wiradjuri ancestors, Cec’s search for the truth takes him on a road into an Australia he didn’t know. What Cec finds challenges everything he understood about himself but leads him on a powerful journey of self-discovery.
Should deeds committed by one set of Cec’s forebears to another change his view of himself? Should allegations about past events alter a man’s sense of who he is? And what do you do when you find proof something unspeakable is true?
After a fulfilling career as a Sydney-based journalist, editor and writer, Margaret Rice is now turning her attention to big picture projects. She runs a blog page, Good Grief, has written a memoir, But What Happens Next?, and is now writing her first novel.