Part SixSerious Business
Wally had dropped Billy off on the dirt road leading to the community and just within sight of it. Then, without saying a word, he had thrown the car into gear, swung it around and roared off back towards the main road. Billy watched him go and shielded his face with in the crook of his elbow against the cloud of dust that engulfed him. He held his breath until it settled. He then turned and walked the last few hundred metres towards the town. The sun was ferocious and he laboured under its heat.
For a great deal of the drive back to the community Wally and Billy had sat in silence. His former attacker had maintained his focus on the road and not made any attempt to instigate a conversation. Billy had thought it best just to let him be. The apologies had been made and there didn’t seem to be anything further to discuss. At one point they were forced to talk, though. Wally had slammed on the brakes without warning and sent Billy flying forward in his seatbelt. The belt had cut deep into his neck and the force of it jarring against his chest had taken the wind out of him. Billy had cursed and thrown an angry look at him. Wally had nonchalantly lifted a hand and pointed through the windscreen.
‘Emu,’ he said.
Billy peered through the dirty glass and saw the tall, awkward-looking bird loping slowly off into the scrub on the side of the road. It blended very well with its surroundings and was quite difficult to spot. Had he not known it was there he would have been oblivious to its presence.
‘They always travel in twos,’ said Wally.
Sure enough, a moment later a second emu cantered gracefully out of the bush, crossed the road in front of the car and made off after its partner.
‘They’re my totem. It’s up to me to protect them,’ said Wally.
‘Yeah, it’s my responsibility to make sure they are killed and cooked in the right way. Out here when you’re born you get given a totem.’
‘So you can’t eat emu, then?’
‘Nah, it’s not like that. I’m sorta more of a caretaker.’
‘Oh, I see.’
Billy didn’t fully understand but felt uncomfortable pressing for more information. He was still finding it difficult to talk to him because of their previous altercation. Wally focussed back on the road ahead and didn’t seem to want to elaborate anyway. He put the Cortina back in first gear and slowly accelerated. As he did so, he peered through the cars grimy side windows and made sure there was no other wildlife waiting to spring out of the scrub. Once satisfied, he settled back into his seat, planted his foot on the accelerator and returned to staring blankly through the windscreen. They listened to the roar of the badly tuned engine for the remainder of the journey.
Billy stopped and wiped his brow. He had made swift progress along the road towards the town. The sun was beating down relentlessly upon him and he had pushed on in order to get out of it as soon as possible. He inspected the sweat on the back of his hand. It had turned black from mixing with the red dust. He continued on and had reached the outskirts of the community when he heard a woman’s high-pitched yell. ‘No!’
A glint of metal in the sun caught his eye. Just off the main road was a small clearing between the dried-out gum trees. Rob’s Ford was parked in the middle of the clearing. It looked almost as if it had been abandoned. It appeared as if the car had careened off the road as it was heading into town. There were deep crevices in the bulldust on the side of the road where the tyres had slewed into the dirt. Billy felt uneasy. It looked as though the driver had lost control and just managed to avoid hitting the trees before the car had come to rest.
As he approached, Billy could see that the driver’s door was slightly ajar and the interior light was on. He could make out a pair of shadows struggling in the front seat. The car was rocking gently on its suspension. Billy cautiously approached. He recognised Rob spread out across the seat with his back to him. He appeared to be doing push-ups. Rob stopped, sat back up on his knees and seemed to be trying to force something down. Billy was standing next to the driver’s door and could now see clearly into the car’s interior. A pair of bare legs was spread around Rob’s waist. They were kicking and thrashing. Over Rob’s right shoulder Billy recognised Mabel’s face. Her teeth were gritted and she was covered in sweat. He saw an odd mixture of rage and fear in her eyes. She saw Billy and the anger took over.
‘Get off me, you arsehole!’
Billy was nailed to the spot and watched as she opened her mouth to scream. Before she could utter a sound Rob slapped his wide, right hand across her mouth and forced her head down against the seat. Billy was uncertain what to do. Clearly Mabel was not a willing party to this. For a moment he hesitated, trying to decide if he should intervene. He was torn between the affection he felt for his new-found friend and this situation. He was not really a part of their world and was confused about his role in it. So many strange and new things had happened that he doubted if he had the right to intervene. But deep down he was horrified by what was going on. One human being was attacking another. It didn’t matter where they were. This was not right.
Billy gripped the door handle and pulled. It refused to respond. This surprised him as the door was slightly open. He grimaced and cursed. The damn doors on this rust bucket! He tried again, this time using both hands and all of his strength. The door swung open with a loud squeal and Billy stumbled backwards, landing squarely on his arse. Rob spun around in surprise. Seeing Billy he opened his mouth to speak but no sound came out. He sprang from the car, surprisingly fast for such a tall man, and in one deft movement holstered his now flaccid weapon and zipped up his pants. He stood over Billy and reached out his hand, making an attempt to diffuse the situation. ‘What y’ doing down there? Hav’n a dirt bath?’
Billy was astounded by Rob’s flippancy. ‘I think I should be asking you that question.’
‘Just hav’n a bitta fun.’
‘Didn’t look like it was reciprocated.’
Billy rephrased with irritation, ‘It didn’t look like both of you we’re enjoying yourselves.’
He stood up and dusted off his jeans. Stepping around Rob and purposefully avoiding looking at him, he moved to the side of the car. Softly he called out to Mabel and inquired how she was. She didn’t respond and cowered in the far corner of the front seat, hard up against the passenger’s side door. Her chin against her chest, she looked timidly up at him from under her eyebrows. She was shaking violently. He reached into the car and gently beckoned her out. She shrank back further into her corner. He smiled at her and reached out his hand.
‘It’s ok, you’re safe now,’ he said.
She studied his eyes for a moment. Upon registering that he was genuine she let her body relax. She slid across the seat and cautiously took his hand. He helped her out of the car and together they turned to face Rob. There was a moment of silence. Nobody moved and it felt like a standoff.
Rob was simmering. Billy saw the rage boiling up in him and could see this was not going to end well. He gently coaxed Mabel behind him, using himself as a human shield. Billy felt her grasp his arm. Digging her nails into it she sneered at Rob, ‘Fuck you.’
Rob ignored her, focussed solely on Billy.
‘What do you think you’re doin’? Eh? This is none of your business. That bitch is one of ours.’
Billy grimly held his ground. Rob exploded.
‘Fuck you,’ he screamed and lunged forward with his right arm, his fist in a tight ball.
Time slowed almost to a stop for Billy. He saw the fist approaching but was riveted to the spot and felt powerless to move. Suddenly an outside force propelled him sideways. He felt his sneakers sliding across the sand but he wasn’t the driving force. Over Rob’s shoulder he could just make out a figure half blended with the trees. It was Pidgin. At first Billy was startled. He then stood mesmerised as his entire body went numb. It was as if he was paralysed and having an out of body experience. He no longer had control of his body and was an innocent and helpless bystander. He saw the fist approaching and even felt the wind it created, caressing his cheek as it flew by. Rob quickly adjusted his aim and threw another punch. Again Billy’s body slid sideways and just out of range. Rob stopped. Panting, he straightened his back. Time for Billy accelerated back up to normality. He stared down at his body. He felt power returning to his limbs. He wiggled his fingers and toes to test that they were indeed his to control again. He exhaled softly through pursed lips, took a deep breath and waited for Rob’s next move. He peered over his shoulder and into the scrub but could no longer see his silent saviour. Rob let his shoulders slump and dropped his hands. Billy composed himself and turned to Mabel. ‘C’mon, let’s go.’
Rob contemplated stopping them but looked defeated and could only manage a half-hearted, ‘C’mon, mate.’
Billy ignored him. Mabel was still shaking and obviously in pain. She could barely walk. He slung an arm around her waist and together they hobbled back to the road and towards the town. Billy could feel Rob’s piercing stare drilling a hole between his shoulderblades. He resisted the urge to look back.
Doris sat Billy at the kitchen table. With slow deliberation, she made them both a cup of tea and sat in front of him. He cupped his hands around the warm mug and tried to settle himself. He stared at a few loose tea leaves circling around in the milky concoction. He looked up and met Doris’s gaze across the table. He could see a mix of pain and compassion in her eyes.
‘Are you ok?’
‘The other women will take care of her.’
He nodded slowly.
‘What will happen to him, to Rob?’
‘I dunno. It’s up ta the men to decide that. They’ll know what to do with him. It might take a bitta time, though. Doug has been called and he’s on his way from Alice.’
‘There’s a phone here?’
‘Of course there is. We’re not completely isolated, you know. There’s one in the town office opposite the store.’
Billy was taken aback. ‘Really?’
‘Yep, why? Do you need to call someone?’
‘No, not anymore. Shouldn’t we call the police though?’
‘Not right now. What can they do anyway? It’s for us to decide what to do. If necessary we’ll let ’em know later. We have our own punishments. We’ve had a lot of trouble dealing with their law and ours. They’re two very different systems. In the past they’d first make decisions according to their laws. It was only later on that we’d have the opportunity to settle the case our way, if at all. It’s our people, our law. Either way, our punishment has to be carried out otherwise the case won’t be closed. This time we’ve decided to do it the right way around.’
Doris paused. Sensing that more of an explanation was necessary, she continued, ‘In the old days, we women had our secret stuff and magic and the men had theirs. It was forbidden to know the men’s business. If a woman saw something she wasn’t supposed to, it could mean death. Also men had certain rights over the women in the tribe. What just happened might have been allowed under certain circumstances. I won’t say that we were exploited, but for the good of the tribe there were occasions when it was expected that we give favours. That was a long time ago, though. Now things are different; but because of us having two laws to abide by, the white man’s and our own, things are also much more complicated.’
‘But rape is not right.’
‘I agree, and you did the right thing stopping him, Billy. What happened has no connection with traditional law. It’s just plain wrong. In the past everyone knew what was expected of them. We knew what’d happened if we didn’t follow the law. We accepted it. Things were just the way they were. In some ways life was simpler. The rules were clearer. You see, it works like this. There are three things: the law, the land and the people. They’re all linked. If you break the law, the land and the people suffer. You can’t hurt one without affecting the others. That’s why it’s so important that Rob faces punishment for what he’s done.’
Billy nodded slowly before straightening in his chair. ‘I’m guessing he’s gone. What if they can’t find him?’
‘Don’t worry, the men will find him. It’s in their hands now. If he has any sense he will know he has to face up to what he’s done and won’t shy away from the consequences. He’s a good boy and I’m having trouble understanding why this has happened. I think alcohol played a part in it.’
‘Yes, it could have been. I smelt it on his breath.’
Doris sighed and looked down at her cup, a troubled look on her face. Billy lent back in his chair and rested his fingertips on the edge of the table. He took a deep breath and tried to relax. This had been a lot for him to take in all at once. He was struggling to understand the intricacies of their law and wondered what the punishment would be. He realised it was important to let these people deal with their own. However, he didn’t completely agree that the police should be kept out of it. A crime had been committed. Yet, because of the people involved, it was very difficult for him to keep an open mind. Someone he had just begun to get to know had done something terrible. Before this happened he had felt that they were forming a friendship. Now he didn’t know what to think about Rob. And why did the victim have to be Mabel of all people? She had been kind to him as well, and although he didn’t really know her, he thought they had also been building a rapport. Two of the people who had helped him begin to connect with this place had somehow been taken away. He felt deserted. On the other hand, through this turn of events, he was suddenly a sort of honorary member of the community. He wasn’t sure if that was what he really wanted. He was also disturbed by what would happen to Rob once they got hold of him.
‘What will they do with him if they find him?’
‘The men will decide.’ Doris studied his face. ‘Maybe I should tell you a bit about how things used to be. Now it would seem quite rough, maybe even … What’s the word? Barbaric. In the old days we had laws for a reason. They protected us. There was no other way.’
She sipped on her tea.
‘I remember when I was a child, Doug was really sick. He was lying on the ground and not moving. Someone called for the spiritual man and he came. I watched him do the healing, even though it wasn’t allowed. The spiritual man came out of the bushes and began searching Doug’s body for something. He then stood up and leapt into a nearby bush.’
She half stood at the table and mimicked diving sideways. Puffing from the sudden exertion she eased herself slowly back into her chair.
‘He came back out with something carefully cupped in his hands. He bent over Doug and returned what was in his hands into Doug’s body. It was his soul. Our beliefs explain that all sickness occurs when the soul departs the body. The further the soul is away from the body, the sicker the patient.’
She held the cup of tea in front of her and ran one finger over the contour of the handle.
‘The next day Doug was better, walking ’round just like nothing had happened. Nobody knew I was there, which was lucky. They probably would have killed my mother because of it. I was her responsibility, and she let me see these things, so she would have been punished, even if she wasn’t aware that I had been there. I guess that’s pretty harsh, but like I said we knew the law and what would happen if we disobeyed it. It’s all about respect.’
She looked up from her cup and across at Billy. ‘I’m sorry. I suppose I’ve been going on a bit.’
‘No, really. It’s fine.’
She scanned his face carefully. Satisfied that he was genuine, she gave him a reassuring smile. ‘Good. I think it’s important you know why we do things a certain way. It might help if you understand a bit about how we had to live. Everything we had came from the land. There were good and bad seasons. Most of the time we women had to provide for everyone. We knew where food was in the ground and usually could depend on it. Sometimes the men would kill some meat—kangaroo or something—but hunting didn’t provide a lot of food. Generally it was up to us.’
A broad smile cut across her face and she chuckled. ‘You know those men like to think they were running the show, but hey, they would’ve been lost without us.’
She stopped for a moment and the smile slipped away and her face darkened. ‘Having kids was also pretty difficult. If you gave birth to twins, which happened sometimes, there’d usually be a weaker one. In that case the weaker one would be killed. The same would go for someone who was too sick to care for. It was all about survival. We didn’t have very much out here in the desert, so anyone who put extra pressure on our resources was a problem. It could be very costly for the whole tribe. They were hard decisions, but in the end you had to do what was best for everyone concerned. Now there are taboos that prevent such things happening, mainly based on Christian morals. I dunno what’s better, keeping someone alive artificially with medicine or letting nature take its course. In the old days we didn’t have the luxury of such choices.’
She paused and lent forward over her tea cup. Her voice softened. ‘In the past if someone died, we would bury them and stay away from their place. Now if someone dies we clear out their house, give it a bit of time to settle and their spirit time to leave. Then we repaint the house, give it a bit of a makeover. Then someone else can move in. We don’t mention the dead. We leave them be.’
Billy was so deeply engrossed in her stories that he sat bolt upright when there was a knock at the front door and someone pushed the screen door open. It screeched loudly on its hinges. It was Doug. He stood in the doorway, his body blocking out the sunlight.
‘We’ve found him,’ he said.
There Quarters Of The Way