Part ThreeAlice Springs
They had been cruising along the highway for about half an hour when Rob abruptly jumped on the brakes and brought the car to a virtual standstill. They were all catapulted forward out of their seats. Billy managed to brace himself on the front seat and barely avoided being launched into the windscreen. Tex slapped both hands on the dashboard to prevent himself from suffering the same fate.
‘Sorry, nearly missed the turnoff.’
He pulled off the main road and onto an unmarked side road.
‘Just got to pick someth’n up.’
Billy realised it was in his own best interests to seriously take into account Rob’s erratic driving. He searched for a seatbelt without success. Looking around the backseat the only thing that seemed to offer a secure anchor was the armrest on the door. He took hold of it with a firm grip and kept an eye on the road ahead. The storm clouds still hung in the sky in front of them. They had remained static for some time. It was as if the mountain range had stopped them in their tracks and they needed to further build up strength to breech and flow over them. As they drove down the side road and towards the clouds they grew steadily in stature.
He was intrigued by Tex’s guitar abilities and, even though he was competing with the din of the engine and the cassette player, decided to make conversation. The tape seemed to speed up and slow down, not unlike Rob’s driving. It distorted the music. Billy had encountered similar problems himself and assumed the tape had stretched after spending a good deal of its life baking on the dashboard of the car. The music was unfamiliar to Billy, an odd mix of reggae and rock. He asked Rob to turn it up.
‘Who’s this?’ Billy struggled to make himself heard over the music and roar of the engine. Rob turned down the music.
‘Coloured Stone, song called Black Boy.’
‘They’re not bad. Where are they from?’
‘Down south, ’round Ceduna. They’ve played up here before, though. They’ve been around for a while.’
‘Ceduna? My mum was from around there, I think.’
‘Yeah, but I don’t know much about her. She died when I was pretty young.’ ‘Sorry to hear that. Do you know where her people were from?’
‘Yeah, her tribe.’
Billy had never considered the question of his Aboriginality, let alone that he was from a tribe. His father had been a low-paid dockside labourer and they had not had a lot of contact with Aboriginal people, even though he had grown up in a town where the white population was in the minority. He could barely remember his mother and only knew that she had died after a long illness. His father had told him very little about her. It was a subject he had always avoided discussing. He did know she had Aboriginal ancestry but had no idea to what extent. He only knew that she had succumbed to cancer when she was still quite young.
‘Nope, my father brought me up and didn’t tell me much about her. He didn’t like to talk about her. Guess the memory was too painful.’
‘That’s a shame. Well, she could have come from one of a few tribes. A lot of folks got moved down to the coast during the British nuclear tests. Who knows, you could even be related to us.’
This last comment surprised Billy. It hadn’t occurred to him that he could have a wider family. His father had been a bit of a loner. They had kept to themselves and he had never had any contact with his relatives. The subject was starting to distress him. He wished he knew more. He regretted that he had not made more effort to ask his father about his heritage. He shifted the conversation.
‘So where’d you learn to play guitar, Tex?’ ‘Just picked it up.’
‘Played in any bands?’
‘Na, not really.’
Rob thumped him hard on the shoulder.
‘He’s lying to you. Played in quite a good one for a while. Doesn’t like to talk about it though.’
Billy was intrigued. ‘So who were they?’
Tex didn’t respond. After an uneasy pause Rob spoke up on his behalf. ‘Let’s just say it all got a bit serious and they wanted him to move to the big smoke, the city. He went down one time and didn’t like it. Lucky for us, I say. At least we get to enjoy his playing, eh mate?’
Tex remained noncommittal but seemed to lighten up a little and a sly grin spread across his face.
Rob slowed the car and scanned the trees at the side of the road.
He brought the vehicle gingerly to a stop. This time he made sure not to jolt his passengers. He then turned the car onto a narrow dirt track. Struggling with the heavy steering wheel and gunning the engine he launched the car up over a mound of sand on the verge of the road. He then skilfully manoeuvred it between the trees. Billy couldn’t even see a road and was convinced they would get bogged in the soft sand. However, clearly Rob was a capable driver in this kind of terrain. After a short journey they came to an opening in the trees. Under an enormous ghost gum was a ramshackle caravan. Its wheels had been removed and it sat on cinder blocks which were almost completely submerged in the sand. The place seemed deserted. Apart from the caravan there was very little to speak of in the immediate vicinity, except for the remnants of an open fire.
They got out of the car. Billy stood up straight and stretched. With his hands on his hips he arched his back, looking skywards. The dark storm clouds now hung directly above, holding their position. It seemed as if they were waiting patiently for a signal before unleashing their fury. Billy tried to get a sense of his surroundings but the trees and scrub blocked all views beyond the small clearing. He couldn’t even see the mountain range they had been previously driving towards. They seemed perfectly hidden. Even the caravan blended into the bush, coated as it was in a layer of dust.
Rob and Tex approached the caravan and Rob rapped his knuckles on the screen door. The inside door opened and a figure pushed the screen door aside. The interior was so dark that Billy could only make out a shadow. Rob stretched out a hand and it was heartily shaken by the figure inside. Rob motioned Billy over. Standing in the doorway was a very skinny white man, with red hair and a scraggly beard. He seemed surprised to see Billy, and a look of unease flashed across his face. Rob murmured something to him and his apprehension seemed to abate. They all stepped inside. The interior of the caravan was cramped, filled with all manner of junk. Billy could make out a small kitchen filled with dirty dishes. In what appeared to be a living room was an old couch and two reclining chairs, with a low coffee table as its centrepiece. The man stepped over the clutter and cleared some space on the well-worn couch. They all looked for somewhere to sit. Billy found a chair under a box and moved it to one side. Rob introduced the man. ‘This is Ron.’
Ron nodded at him and Billy reciprocated. He then took on the guise of a shopkeeper. ‘So what’ll it be today?’
He looked past Billy and indicated to someone that they should leave. Billy turned to see a small woman standing in the shadows. She dutifully obeyed and stepped out of the caravan. Billy heard the screen door clatter as she swept it shut behind her.
‘Just a small bag,’ said Rob.
Ron directed his attention to Billy, ‘You want someth’n?’
Billy didn’t know what that something was and shook his head.
‘Ok, no worries.’
Ron reached under the couch and produced a large Arnott’s biscuit tin. He put it on the table in front of him and pried open the lid with his fingernails. They were nicotine stained, and there was so much dirt under them that it looked as if Ron had been walking on his hands through the desert. The tin was filled to the brim with small bags of marijuana. He laid three of them in a neat row on the table. ‘Take your pick.’
Rob scooped up the centre one, stretched out one leg and fumbled in his front pocket, pulling out a crisp, twenty-dollar note. He passed it to Ron who redeposited the other bags in the tin and sealed it.
‘You guys want one on me?’
Tex and Rob nodded in acknowledgement. Billy wasn’t a regular dope smoker but had friends that were. He had the occasional smoke when out with them. Invariably this occurred when he had already had too much to drink. As a result it usually didn’t sit well with him. However, feeling decidedly sober and not wanting to offend his companions, he felt obliged to accept the offer. Ron reached around the side of the couch and produced a large Coca-Cola bottle, which had been expertly fabricated into a water pipe. It had already been prepared for the occasion, and the makeshift pipe protruding out from the bottle’s midriff was filled to the brim. He brought the mouthpiece up to his lips and lit the contents with an enormous, pink, plastic cigarette lighter. The water in the bottle gurgled loudly and he drew the smoke in deeply. He then passed the bottle across to Billy amid a grey cloud of exhaled smoke.
Billy took a deep breath and then let it out. He leant over the pipe and drew in a large mouthful of smoke. His eyes bulged as he tried to hold it in. He spluttered and choked. He only just managed to place the pipe on the coffee table before doubling over in an uncontrollable fit of coughing. The three other men erupted in an explosion of laughter. Billy ignored them, trying in vain to stop the coughing, and writhing painfully in his seat.
Ron pushed a dirty glass filled with tepid water across the table towards him. ‘Here, have some of this.’
Billy regained his composure somewhat and reached for the glass. He gulped down a large mouthful. Tears streamed down his face and he wiped them away with the back of his sleeve. The pipe proceeded around the group, all of them chuckling heartily. When it made its way back to Billy he refused. ‘Think I’ll be all right, thanks.’
They all smiled broadly at him. The water pipe did another circuit, after which its contents were exhausted. It then became the centrepiece on the table. All three men sank back into their seats wearing satisfied looks. It was deathly still. Billy could hear the faint ticking of a clock somewhere in the dark recesses of the caravan. Apart from that he could only hear his own blood rushing past his ears. The sound grew steadily in volume. He felt uneasy and guessed the drug was doing its job. He took another slow sip of water before settling back in his chair and joining the other men in studying the table decoration.
After what seemed an eternity, Rob broke the silence. ‘Think we’re gonna make a move.’
Ron nodded. ‘I’ll see you out.’
They all stood up simultaneously and waited for Billy, who was slow to react. He was firmly ensconced in his chair and had trouble getting to his feet. When he had raised himself to his full height he felt dizzy and it took him a moment to steady himself. ‘Ok, let’s go.’
Rob waited for Ron to move past him and followed him to the door. Ron kicked the screen door open and it clattered on the aluminium wall of the caravan, before swinging back and nearly hitting him in the face. Billy could hear the sound reverberating off the nearby hills. They stepped outside into the waning light. The sun had begun to set. Billy looked towards the horizon, which was painted a bright pink, graduating to a deep purple over his head. He marvelled at its beauty. He peered out into the half-light and wondered where Ron’s girlfriend could have gone, before noticing a slight figure bent over a small campfire. She looked like a child with the glow of the fire dancing over her shoulders and framing her in silhouette. He stood transfixed for a while, watching the flames. The others began bidding farewell to Ron. Rob called out to him and snapped him out of his daze. He turned reluctantly away from the fire and wandered over to the car.
‘See you ’round,’ said Ron.
Billy severely doubted this but replied with a smile, ‘Yeah, see you ’round.’ They all climbed into the vehicle. After a few failed attempts Rob succeeded in starting the car. He revved the engine vigorously to make sure it would keep running. ‘Think I need to get her tuned.’
He slowly turned the vehicle around in the small clearing. They all waved at Ron and Billy’s gaze settled on the fire. It mesmerised him once again. Peering through his window he followed its light. He turned in his seat to get a better look through the rear window as they pulled away from the clearing. A large hump in the road sent him crashing into the side door. He gently rubbed his shoulder. It reminded him of his secret oath to remain vigilant whilst in Rob’s car. The back seat was almost becoming a second home. He seemed to have spent more time there than anywhere else. He had gradually made more room for his feet after systematically shifting most of the rubbish to the opposing floor well. He stretched out his legs and settled back into his seat. Looking skywards through his window he noted that there were no stars yet where the sky was clear. The storm clouds were still blocking a great deal of his view of the heavens. He wondered if they would ever break or if the clouds would just clear without bringing any welcome moisture. The smoke had slowed his senses and he chose to be blissfully unaware of the conversation going on in the front seat. A smile spread across his face and then quickly melted as the car leapt over another particularly large mound. It lifted him completely up off his seat and he banged his forehead against an unpadded part of the ceiling. He cursed and rubbed the pain away with the palm of one hand, while gripping the armrest tightly with the other. Much to his relief it was the last bump before they turned back onto the relatively smooth main dirt road.
Rob guided the car into the middle of the road and planted his foot heavily on the accelerator. The back of the vehicle fish-tailed and its wheels spun before finding traction. It swerved sideways across the road before straightening out. Billy felt as if he was being launched into space, with the world outside descending quickly into an impenetrable, inky blackness. The only light inside the car now came from the glow of the dashboard illuminating the occupants of the front seat. They seemed larger than normal and he felt small and distant, pinned as he was to the back of his seat. He felt a surge of panic before reminding himself that he was under the influence of the drug. His heartbeat slowed and he closed his eyes, trying to concentrate on something familiar. His girlfriend. He had to call his girlfriend. ‘First thing I’m gonna do when I get to the town.’
‘Oh, sorry, nothing; just talking to myself.’
Billy was grateful that he was shrouded in darkness and that Rob couldn’t see the flush of embarrassment on his cheeks.
‘Betta keep tabs on that, mate. You know what they say ’bout talking to yourself?’
He felt a lump in his shirt pocket and was overjoyed to find another Mars Bar. The pangs of hunger were making themselves known once again. They vocalised their presence through the loud gurgling of his stomach. It took a few moments to extract the chocolate bar from its wrapper, as it had melted in its packaging. Having pulled it free he tossed the wrapper on the pile of rubbish at his feet. He wolfed it down, self-conscious that he hadn’t offered any to Rob or Tex. He decided he was due for a decent meal and made a mental note to add that to his agenda for the evening. As the car sped down the road Billy hoped it wouldn’t take too long to reach their destination.
Billy was confounded. Here he was somewhere out in the desert, miles from anywhere, in the epicentre of nowhere, and he was being barred entrance because of a dress code. Surely the casino needed all the clientele it could lay its hands on. He looked up at a sign on the wall. It spelt out in bold, block letters:
No thongs, no jeans, no collarless shirts.
WE RESERVE THE RIGHT TO REFUSE SERVICE TO ANYONE.
He was wearing torn jeans and his sneakers were a bit dusty, but they were both new. He wore a shirt with a collar. It was a flannelette shirt and needed a wash, but it was also in pretty good condition. He thought he looked quite fashionable; holey jeans were all the rage. After all, he wasn’t a bricklayer by profession. A security man the size of a medium-sized family car had stopped him at the entrance and he had been separated from Rob and Tex. He stood in the foyer feeling somewhat exposed. There were lights everywhere. He could hear the tinkling of poker machines clanging away every time someone walked in or out through the sliding automatic doors to the main room.
The place was not as appealing as he had first thought. He had been happy to arrive at what appeared to be a bastion of western civilisation. However, the short time he had spent in the wide open spaces had changed his attitude. He now felt hemmed in and not at all comfortable.
Rob had said they were going there to play a bit of poker, but Billy really wasn’t that interested. In the first place, he was terrible at the game and knew he would lose. It occurred to him that being barred from the place was a blessing in disguise. He would walk out of there with empty pockets if he stayed. Once inside he would get caught up in the whole thing and squander what little he had. He had already had enough surprises, and didn’t want to wake up the next day totally destitute.
Rob and Tex had already entered the club, so Billy felt as if he had lost his only lifeline. He considered his options. His head was still a little clouded from the marijuana but it was slowly clearing. He fought to get his thinking straight. To his relief Rob came back out of the casino. He was evidently looking for Billy and spotted him standing forlornly, alone in the centre of the foyer.
‘What’s going on?’
‘They won’t let me in.’
Rob screwed up his face in a mixture of surprise and bewilderment. Billy indicated the sign on the wall and in a deadpan voice, filled with sarcasm, said, ‘It seems I don’t come up to their standards.’
‘You gotta be kiddin’.’
Rob took a moment to think. He scrutinised Billy’s attire and then looked down at himself. Billy noticed for the first time that Rob was actually quite smartly dressed. Even his boots were polished.
‘Think I’ve probably got some clothes for you in the car.’
‘It’s ok. Don’t think I want to go in there anyway.’
‘Ah, c’mon, no probs.’
Abruptly Rob walked off towards the parking lot and his car. Billy followed reluctantly. At the car, Rob cracked open the boot and fumbled around inside. The distant street lighting made it hard to see anything, but the interior of the luggage space was coated in fine, red dust. Rob found what he was looking for and pulled out an old sports training bag. He slapped it a few times and a cloud of dust arose. They stood back to avoid it. Rob dumped the bag on the ground and another cloud of dust rose. He bent down, unzipped it and pulled out a pair of pants and a shirt. They didn’t look as though they would fit.
‘Think I’ve got a pair of boots in here somewhere.’
‘Look, Rob, don’t worry, mate. I’ll wait out here. Not really into casinos anyway.’
Rob looked hurt.
‘It’s no big deal. We’ll sort it out. C’mon, it’ll be fun.’
‘Na, don’t think it would be such a good idea. Don’t have a lot of cash anyway.’
‘You won’t need it. We’ll look after you.’
‘No, it’s ok, really. I’ll just hang out here.’
Rob could see he wasn’t going to persuade Billy to change his mind. He stuffed everything back into the bag, zipped it up and, after dropping it in the boot, slammed the door shut. They both jumped out of the way of the rising pall of dust. Rob pulled his shirt away from his chest and shook off as much of the stuff as he could.
‘You sure? Last chance.’
‘Really, it’s ok.’
‘Ok, suit yerself.’
They walked slowly back to the entrance of the casino and into the foyer. The bright lights and tinkling machines engulfed them once more. It was like stepping into a different world.
‘I’ll catch up with you later.’
‘No worries. Think I’ll just have a wander around.’
‘Ok. We can crash later at a friend’s place. Car’s open if you need anything.’
Rob walked back into the casino and was swallowed up by a cacophony of noise and flashing lights. Billy watched him go and then turned towards the door. Next to the main entrance was a yellow payphone, bolted to the wall. He hadn’t noticed it before. He had also completely forgotten the main purpose of travelling to town with Rob. He still had to sort things out with his wife-to-be.
Elizabeth, or Beth for short. That wasn’t the only thing that was short about her. There was her diminutive stature; and then there was her quick temper. He had a very real and palpable fear of it. She could just go off. He had no defence against it. He could stand up for himself, but with her it was a different matter. Even the night out had to be negotiated in detail to forestall her wrath. He felt hemmed in by her. She was too controlling. He couldn’t be entirely himself. He questioned if she was worth it. He used to think so. She could be the kindest person in the world. Once they had been inseparable and he was certain she was the one. Recently that had changed. He didn’t know what it was. Maybe it was the pressure of the whole marriage thing. Deep down he knew it wasn’t only that. He had doubts.
It dawned on him that he hadn’t even considered what he was going to say to her. It was going to require an enormous amount of tact. More than he possessed. He weighed up the situation. He was too late for the wedding, of that he was sure. She would not be in the mood for excuses. The whole idea of talking to her was daunting. Maybe she wasn’t even home. He needed time to think. As he was already late it wouldn’t matter if he waited a bit longer. The damage had already been done.
The brightly coloured phone seemed to be calling him over and urging him to face up to his responsibilities. He couldn’t do it. He needed fresh air. The whole place was stifling. With all the noise and lights the room was closing in around him. He pulled his eyes away from the phone. Its colour yelled coward at him. He made a snap decision to make the call in the morning. He couldn’t do it now. He had to get outside.
Billy practically ran out the entrance. He was barely outside when he collided with Mabel. She had her head down and was fumbling in her purse.
He shook his head. ‘My mistake,’ he said.
‘Hey, saw you today in the store. Billy wasn’t it?’
‘Where you off too?’
Billy took a moment to catch his breath. ‘Dunno. Not in there, anyway. They wouldn’t let me in.’
‘Bad dress sense, according to them.’
Mabel was clearly aware of the need to dress up for the place. On appraising her attire and make-up he concluded that she had gone above and beyond what was required. She looked fantastic.
‘Yeah, they’re a bit picky around here. I was on my way to meet some girlfriends but they’ve piked. I thought, seeing that I was already here, I might as well have a quick look. But if you like we can go somewhere else?’
Billy was taken aback. It surprised him how everyone he met here was more than willing to drop everything and spend time with him. He was also aware of Rob’s feeling for her and was reluctant to step on his territory. She sensed his reservations and put them to rest.
‘It’s not a date,’ she said flatly.
‘Oh no, of course not,’ he replied sheepishly.
Billy was reassured, but still found it difficult to relate to her forwardness. Everyone was extremely open and friendly. It was something he couldn’t quite come to terms with.
‘Got a car over here. Don’t come into town much, but maybe we can just go for a drink somewhere.’
Billy was grateful for the chance to put some distance between him and the telephone. It could wait.
‘Ok, you lead the way.’
As they walked across the parking lot thunder growled ominously in the distance and echoed off the surrounding hills. The rain still hadn’t come, but it couldn’t be far off. He could now feel moisture hanging in the air. Billy was certain that when it finally did arrive the heavens would truly open.
Not much time had passed since Billy had been in a public bar, but it felt like ages. Even though he had been a frequent visitor to such establishments, it seemed a strange environment after spending time in the community. As he and Mabel walked in they were confronted with an enormous bar. It stood at the far end of a large room and stretched along one wall. The rest of the cavernous room was remarkably sparse except for a scattering of tables and chairs. The bar itself took on the appearance of an island, well lit, warm and cosy, whereas the rest of the room was dimly lit, cold and uninviting. As they walked across the room towards the bar they passed a group of people dressed in cowboy clothing. Some were wearing Stetsons. About twenty of them sat together at a long table. They were huddled in deep conversation over their drinks.
Mabel and Billy each pulled a stool up to the bar. The bar itself was very solid, constructed entirely of old, jarrah railway sleepers, sanded and polished to a high gloss. It was massive, thick and unyielding, but the colour of the wood made it appear soft and malleable, almost like clay. Seated at one end of the bar was a lone, long-haired Aboriginal man wearing a heavy jacket and quietly sipping a beer. He barely acknowledged their presence. The bartender, a man in his late forties, very tall and built as solidly as the bar, asked what they wanted to drink. They both ordered beer and, for a moment, stared at their own reflections in the long mirror behind the bar.
Mabel broke the silence. ‘So, what brings you up this way? You’re from Adelaide, aren’t you?’
‘Yeah, this is a bit out of the way for me.’ Billy took a long look at Mabel and decided he could confide in her. ‘It’s a bit embarrassing, really. I was out with my mates and had a bit too much to drink. From what I can work out they stuffed me in a bus and I woke to find myself here. Well, not actually here. Rob kind of found me wandering around out on the highway. I guess you know the rest.’
In fact, the rest was so much more, but Billy really didn’t want to go into it. He was just getting to know Mabel and it didn’t feel right to burden her with all his problems.
‘Yeah, he told me he nearly ran you over and that you seemed a bit lost.’
‘Lost doesn’t even begin to sum up my predicament.’
Their conversation was interrupted by the bartender arriving with their drinks. The glasses were extremely well chilled. Icy vapour rose from them.
‘I’ll get these if you like?’
Billy, who was painfully aware of his financial situation, responded with a grateful ‘Thanks.’
‘So what are your plans?’
‘Finding a way home is pretty high on the agenda. Think I’ll make some calls in the morning then head home. Not really sure what I should do around here anyway. None of this was planned, you know.’
Mabel appeared to consider this for a moment. ‘What’s the big hurry? I mean, you’re here now. You might as well have a look around. I’m sure if you wanted to hang around for a few days someone’d put you up.’
Billy was unconvinced. ‘I’ll have a think about it.’
He swung around on his barstool and surveyed the rest of the room. Behind them the patrons at the long table were standing up and had started moving some of the furniture against a far wall. The bartender, leaning on the bar behind them, enquired if everything was to their liking.
Billy turned to face him. ‘We’re fine, thanks. What’s going on?’
‘Oh, it’s the weekly linedancing meeting.’
‘Linedancing?’ Billy chuckled to himself. He didn’t even know that this sort of thing went on in Australia. He thought it only happened in America. It reinforced his impression that he had found himself in the Wild West. One of the linedancers, a woman in her early forties, who was decked out in full country-and-western regalia, stomped up to the bar and began chatting with the barman. He made some adjustments to the control panel of a sound system mounted on the back wall. When he flipped a few switches on another panel next to it, the lighting in the room changed dramatically. The place was transformed into a kind of disco. Small, multicoloured lights on the ceiling flashed on and off in an irregular pattern. In the centre of the room a miniature mirror ball twirled above the dance floor. The woman peered intently at another console at the far end of the bar and hit a button. Country music erupted at high volume from speakers suspended above the bar. Billy Ray Cyrus began crooning about his achy breaky heart.
As the chorus kicked in Billy groaned. The song had been playing on high rotation on radio at home, and he found it profoundly irritating. He and Mabel took one look at each other and slid further up the bar, away from the din. They sat next to the lone man who was still engrossed in his beer. Mabel seemed to know him but avoided looking at him. She half turned away from him and Billy and watched the dancers. They had formed into three neat, parallel lines and were slapping their heels in time to the music.
Billy ignored them. He turned to the man and asked where he was from. He mumbled back over his glass. ‘Hermannsburg.’
The name was familiar to Billy but he couldn’t quite place it.
The man noticed his confusion. ‘It’s where Albert Namatjira’s from. He was my uncle, by the way.’
Billy knew a little about Albert Namatjira, mainly because when he was a child one of his prints had hung on his bedroom wall. He had seen a similar print on the wall of the hut he had stayed in at the community. Although he didn’t know much about the painter, he knew he had been widely respected for his striking artwork.
‘Had to show a film crew ’round out there today.’
‘Oh yeah? What were they doing?’
‘Mak’n a documentary ’bout my uncle.’
The man seemed reasonably friendly so Billy asked him if he wanted a drink. He acknowledged with a slight nod. Billy relaxed and decided to stretch his self-imposed budget. He felt like something stronger.
‘Would you like a whiskey?’
‘And how about you, Mabel?’
Mabel was still engrossed in the linedancers and took a moment to respond. ‘Huh? Oh, no thanks. I’ll just have a beer.’
Billy waved the barman over and ordered a beer and two whiskeys. Mabel quietly accepted her drink and continued watching the linedancers. Billy raised his glass to the man who returned the gesture. He downed his whiskey in one go and then moved back to his beer. Billy sipped thoughtfully on his. ‘So, are you a bit of a guide then?’
‘No, not really. I just know a bit about my uncle and those people wanted a bit of info.’
‘I’m kind of new up here myself. Maybe you could show me around a bit?’
The man was noncommittal. ‘Maybe.’
‘Must be kinda cool being related to Albert Namatjira. Did you know him well?’
The man didn’t react for a time and stared blankly at his drink. Slowly his body language changed and he appeared to stiffen. When he replied his tone had changed dramatically. ‘You know what? You people are all the same. You come up here and think you can just take whatever you like. You get what you want and then leave, and what do we see for it?’
Billy was surprised by his sudden irritation. He hadn’t intended to insult the man and wasn’t quite sure what he had done to warrant his reaction. ‘I think you got me wrong. I don’t want anything from you. Was just trying to have a chat.’
The man seemed to be caught up in his own thoughts and ignored Billy’s response. ‘As far as I’m concerned you can all go to hell. We just wanna be left alone.’
Billy was slightly taken aback but could see that he had touched a nerve. He let the man be and turned to Mabel. Abruptly, the man pushed himself away from the bar and stood up. He walked behind Billy, who assumed he was on his way to the toilet. Suddenly the man grabbed Billy by the hair and drove his head violently down onto the leading edge of the bar, splitting his forehead open in the process. Billy reacted quickly, bringing his hands up onto the bar, locking his elbows and bracing himself as the man attempted to repeat the manoeuvre. The big barman flew into action with surprising agility. He lunged over the bar and seized the man’s hand. A long struggle ensued, the two men fighting over possession of Billy’s head. His neck was wrenched about. He felt like a rag doll, at the mercy of the two men. His mind swam, and blood seeped from his open forehead and ran down his face. It felt as if his hair was being ripped from his skull. In the middle of all this a curious thought crossed his mind: he made a mental note to get his hair cut short at the next opportunity.
His eyes wandered over the wall behind the barman and settled on a dusty placard. It was nicotine stained and had turned a deep yellow from the cigarette smoke. It read: ‘You’re never more alive than when you think you’re going to die.’ Thanks for the poignant observation, he thought to himself.
He turned his attention to the mirror, stretching along the wall. In its reflection he thought he could see the man’s aggression beginning to subside. He could hear the barman talking softly to him and encouraging him to relax. In the shadows behind his assailant he could just make out a figure standing against the far wall. The disco lights flickered over him, creating strange shadows on his face and glinting off his cloak. A cloak made entirely of feathers. Billy felt drawn into the mirror and his eyes locked with those of Pidgin. His piercing, blue-green eyes dominated everything, and the rest of the room went out of focus. There was only Pidgin. A calm come over Billy and he relaxed his grip on the bar. His attacker and the barman followed suit. They cautiously release his head. The barman walked quickly around the bar and guided the man to a stool further down. Billy felt a hand on his shoulder and realised it was Mabel. He was dazed and had completely forgotten that she was also there. She grabbed a towel which was lying on the bar and pressed it to his forehead.
‘C’mon, let’s get you cleaned up.’
She helped him to his feet and led him away by the hand. He looked at her hand in his. She had very well manicured nails. He felt faint and followed her lead like a dutiful child. She took him into the ladies’ toilet and sat him down in one of the cubicles. She then proceeded to wet the towel and clean his face. She gently daubed the wound and inspected the damage. There was a lot of blood but the cut was fairly superficial.
‘Looks like you’ll live,’ she said jokingly, ‘but y’r gonna have one hell of a headache tomorrow.’
Billy could already feel the bump on his forehead swelling up. He didn’t feel well at all and fought to prevent himself from throwing up the meagre contents of his stomach. The same woman he’d seen earlier in the linedancing group walked into the toilet and surveyed the situation. She first looked down at Billy and then turned her attention to Mabel. ‘I think you’d better leave.’
Mabel nodded tentatively in agreement. Content that her directions would be followed, the woman left the room. Billy was confused. Why should they leave? He hadn’t been the aggressor. He hadn’t provoked a fight. It then dawned on him that he was the outsider and as such probably had fewer rights than his attacker. Still, it didn’t seem right. Mabel carefully scrutinised his head again. She folded the towel and pressed it to his forehead, telling him to hold it in place. She seemed satisfied that they could move and helped him to his feet.
‘Let’s get out o’ here.’
He nodded meekly, and together they walked out of the toilet. They crossed the room, skirting the dance floor. Billy peered out from under his makeshift bandage. The man was sitting quietly at the bar, staring once again into his beer glass. The barman was leaning against the freezers, keeping a watchful eye on him. No one seemed to be paying any attention at all to them. The dancers were in full stride, energetically stomping out a pattern in unison. The disco lighting flashed and panned over the whole bar. The music was unrelenting.
They slipped out of the front door and found themselves standing in torrential rain. They were instantly saturated. Billy let the rain pour over him. It was so intense that it immediately started to seep into his shoes. He removed the bandage from his injury and turned his head skywards. The rain played on his face. Great, heavy drops stung him as they hit his skin. He breathed deeply and took a moment to compose himself. He could taste salty, watered-down blood in mouth. He wiped his face with the towel before pressing it once again to his throbbing forehead.
Mabel laid a hand on his shoulder. ‘Let’s get out o’ this.’
More than anything in the world, that was exactly what he wanted: not to be where he was right now. She suggested he should stay at Doug’s house for the night. It was only a short walk from there. He was feeling miserable, soaked to the skin and willing to comply with anything. Together they walked down the street without saying another word. The rain pounded down even harder. It enveloped them in a cacophony of white noise. Not unlike the sound of static on an empty television channel.
Doug And Pigeon
Billy sat bolt upright in bed. A strange bed. Accustomed as he now was to waking up in unusual surroundings, this time it was different. He was in mortal fear for his life. The room was unfamiliar. It was dark and he could barely see anything. The only light came from a crack under a door at the foot of his bed. He thought he heard loud noises outside. He was sure someone was banging at a window to his right and trying to get in. He felt as if he was under attack. Yet the room itself was empty. Or was it? His eyes began to adjust to the meagre light. Slowly he made out forms in the room. He saw shadows everywhere and one in particular caught his attention. There was a giant bird perched on a dresser against the wall and next to the door. He screamed. The bird raised its head from within its plumage. It was the head of a man, an old man, with eyes that cut through him. Billy struggled to breathe. With considerable effort he filled his lungs and let out another piercing scream. There was the sound of heavy footsteps outside the bedroom door before it swung open and bright light streamed in. Another shadow entered. This one was, indeed, in the shape of a man. A large man. He stood silhouetted in the doorway.
‘Billy, it’s ok mate. It’s Doug.’
Billy’s mind raced.
Was he someone he could trust?
He knew a Doug.
Doug was the old guy on the steps in front of the store talking to the kids.
Doug was ok.
Doug was indeed someone he could trust.
Billy managed to calm himself somewhat. He raised one arm feebly and pointed towards the figure on the dresser. Doug wheeled around. He stood only about a metre from the cupboard. Doug took half a step backwards before letting his shoulders slump. He seemed to relax, and the atmosphere in the whole room seemed to do the same.
Doug began speaking to the figure on the dresser in soft but forceful tones. The bird man cocked his head to one side and listened intently to Doug. He trained his ears on the conversation, trying desperately to hear what was being said. It was impossible. Doug spoke slowly and in a low voice, almost a murmur. The conversation was entirely one way. Pidgin occasionally responded with a barely perceptible nod. Then his head cocked this way and that with very sharp, birdlike movements.
Billy tentatively reached up to his pounding forehead. It was very swollen. He could feel textile covering his skin and the pull of a wide plaster, stuck above his eyebrow. The events of the evening came flooding back and he realised he must be suffering from some form of shock. After all, he had received a pretty decent bump to his head. It became clear to him that he wasn’t under attack, although the unsettling feeling continued to bubble in his subconscious.
Doug continued talking to Pidgin for some time and when he was finished he turned to face Billy.
‘This is your guardian, Billy. He’s here to protect you. You musn’t be afraid of him. He was very concerned about you. He’s here to watch over you. He’ll appear in times of trouble or when he senses that trouble will arise. You must trust him. He looked over your father and your grandfather and all those who have gone before. He knows more than you or I will ever know.’
Doug turned to Pidgin and reassured him that everything was in order. Pidgin seemed to accept this and settled. He lifted his shoulders and his coat of feathers half engulfed his head. Doug stepped in front of Pidgin and into Billy’s line of sight.
‘Now it’s time you rested. You’ve had quite a night. Probably gonna wake up later with a bit of a headache. You’re safe here; no one’s gonna hurt you. Tomorrow we’ll talk some more. For now it’s better if you get a decent sleep. I’ll see you in the morning.’
Billy nodded silently, turned slowly onto his side and pulled the sheets up to his earlobes. He could sense the two figures staring at him and felt their concern. It had been a lot to take in, but he was no longer racked by fear. He felt safe and secure. He let himself slip away into what would become a dreamless slumber. He barely heard the click of the bedroom door shutting as Doug walked past the empty dresser and left the room.
Outside, the heavens had truly opened and the storm raged on. The iron roof of Doug’s house roared in protest. The sound was deafening, such was the deluge. Dry riverbeds flowed again and swelled up, breaking their banks. Dirt roads became impassable and were washed away. The hard-baked floor of the desert refused to let the water seep through. It was like concrete. The water sat on top of it and spread out in all directions, turning once parched plateaus into enormous lakes. Up in the hills, rocky outcrops were washed clean and torrents of water flowed hastily into waterholes. It filled them to the brim. By morning the rain subsided and stopped. The landscape had been transformed. As dawn broke, birds of all descriptions came to life. They sang and chirped and played happily in their new surroundings.