Peter’s Tales

I established this blog in order to publish the many short stories I have written. These vary greatly in length and subject matter. Some have been published elsewhere, in magazines and anthologies. Some have been short listed for prizes. Most have not previously been available.

Scroll down and you will find thirty-two stories posted so far. I have also posted a non-fiction account of my time working as a psychiatrist in Iraq in 2009. You will find this at the bottom of your scroll, after the short stories.

Depending on your internet speed, the scrolling down may stop from time to time as more material is uploaded. Stopping does not mean you have come to the end of what is available. Just be patient and the scrolling will start again.

Happy reading.

Peter

My posts in the order you will find them are:

Bakshish

Wisdom

Maningrida

London Story

The Journey

If Interested

Healing Leaves

Frankie

Multimedia Presentation

Tasmania Revisited

Kevin Chivers

A Man’s Best Friend

Hearing Ear Dog

The Mother

New Guinea Doctor

Night Errand

Out in the Open

Light Relief

Harry

Childhood Memories

Gladys

Mount Ialibu

Homecoming

Longlong

Hunting Story

A Memory of Colonial New Guinea

Life Among the Reindeer

Cocky

Julien

Wantok

Time Lapse

My Iraq

Bakshish

In a Nubian village the houses have no roofs, since it almost never rains. The streets of dry sand are befouled with camel dung, donkey dung, goat droppings and chicken shit, making it just as well to arrive by camel.

‘Lawrence has returned!’ a small boy shouts up to me, holding out his hand for a bakshish.

My saddle has no front to it, and I cling unheroically to the fur on the back of my camel’s neck, as I have done all the way on the slow camel stroll here from Aswan. I have no free hand to search my pockets for coins, but I enjoy the remark – probably the boy’s only words in English. Other small boys have galloped past me on the way, shouting the same thing. They did not hold on with their hands at all, waving and laughing, perched on their mounts in the lotus position, careering across the desert with their friends.

My camel lowers himself to the ground now, for me to dismount, letting forth the usual loud groans, which do not mean that the camel is displeased, I have been told, but to be amiable in intent.

My guide dismounts too, pays the bored camel drivers their fee and leads me into the house where he has arranged for us to take our evening meal. Inside, under the darkening sky where the first stars twinkle, the floor of sand spreads clean as an ocean scoured beach. We take off our shoes and feel the warm fine grains under our bare feet. Spirit lamps illuminate the painted walls, one white, one burnt orange, one pale blue and one violet as the sky. Rugs have been layed on the gleaming sand, dark red woven with black geometric patterns. My guide indicates we should sit down on one of these.

I hear the tinkling of tiny bells as Nubian maidens arrive with bowls of water for us to wash our hands and metal trays piled high with rice and steaming curried goat – or curried donkey for all I know. I am completely charmed and eat with gusto. Teenage boys are summoned now from their twilight football out the back, play their guitars reluctantly and sing earnestly, before hurrying away. Their mother seems pleased enough with them and comes to us next to pay her respects.

‘I have one more I especially want you to meet,’ she tells me with the guide as our interpreter.

Another boy, perhaps ten-years-old, is presented to me by an older sister. He hardly dares to look at me, but hands me his school exercise books to examine. I do so obligingly, not understanding much of what I see in them, except that his work is extremely neat.

‘This one is very clever,’ his mother says, ‘but we have no money to continue his schooling. We would be grateful if you would give us money for this.’

I feel that familiar perplexity of traveling in a foreign country and not knowing whether I am receiving friendship or salesmanship, being given a genuine request or being conned.

‘The boy is not for sale, is he?’ I blurt out my worst fear to the guide.

‘My God, no,’ the guide answered, clearly horrified at the suggestion. ‘This is a good Muslim family. I have heard of this boy who is a wonder at his school. They say he could go far.’

I wish I had someone else to advise me what to do.

‘We must pay the family for our food, of course,’ the guide continues.’ That is what I arranged. That is all you have to do.’

‘That is all I have to do,’ I say.

The mother’s eyes shine in the lamplight. The clever boy’s eyes shine too, as he glances at me quickly, then away.

And so it is that I part with a much larger sum, without regrets. I will never know if this is wise or foolish. I only know that we Westerners are very rich and some other people are very poor.

Wisdom

To-Ken had intimations of mysteries. He had seen trees change sides of the road then change back to their original position next time he passed. Round the village fire at night he had seen the old people come back to stand silently on the edge of the surrounding darkness. And when To-Norman died in Port Moresby, at the hands of a gang of raskols, he knew in his intestines that this had happened and informed the rest of the village. A white man came from the town centre with the news received by email and found the village already in mourning.

When To-Ken went to Port Moresby himself for several days, to buy European medicines for his little village pharmacy, he told his wife that he would know if she had any kind of intercourse with other men while he was away. She had no choice but to remain faithful, which she would have done anyway. Her name was Ia-Dorit and she loved To-Ken. They were friends. Both had difficulty making the usual friendships in the village with members of their own sex, and were close for this reason. To-Ken found other men unimaginative. Their attitude to white people was one of pointless blaming while he had always found the white people endlessly fascinating. Other women found Ia-Dorit awkward to talk to, because of To-Ken. She never complained about him, ever, for example.

Meanwhile, everyone in the village, male and female, had reason to be grateful to To-Ken. He wrote letters for them on the rare occasions when they need such a thing. He dispensed cures on the rare occasions when they were unwell. He spoke to the terminally ill without fear. He had good advice for parents in dispute with their adolescent sons and daughters. In his youth he had trained as a nurse and had later gone part way towards becoming a doctor, until homesickness had forced him to return to the simple life. Later he worked for a Toyota spare parts company and now ran a general supplies store in one of the new settlements and a pharmacy in his own place of origin.

He loved the discovery of scuba diving that white people had invented, and had his own tank which he refilled at a dive shop for tourists. Other men continued to fish from their canoes, but To-Ken scuba-dived on his own. They told him at the dive shop that this was unwise, that he should always go with a ‘buddy’, but he ignored the warnings. Other men bought too much junk food from the stores and grew fat, but To-Ken remained lean and fit.  He sometimes scuba-dived underneath the reef in pursuit of fish, or swam into dark underwater caves all alone. He did not consider himself brave. He understood the technology, and that made him safe.

The big test of his standing with Ia-Dorit, and the village, came when he decided to pursue greater knowledge of the ancient magic arts. He established a pupil-teacher relationship with the much-feared, ancient To-Nebuka in much-feared Matupit village, and was soon tempted to engage in dark deeds. He paid To-Nebuka a large sum of money to cast a spell over a beautiful young woman from New Ireland who worked as a hair dresser in town. This caused her to fall in love with To-Ken and to follow him about whenever he went to town. Others were scandalized, but To-Ken persuaded himself that this was a useful experiment and part of his training. At other times he told himself that, as a man, loyalty to his sexual desires surpassed all other loyalties. Ia-Dorit was betrayed but still she did not complain. Other people felt confirmed in their suspicions that To-Ken was too clever for his own good. No-one was on his side in this, not even his teacher To-Nebuka.

Inevitably the girl became pregnant and returned to New Ireland from whence she had come. Inevitably To-Ken asked his wife if they could be friends again, but it was too late. She removed herself to live with her brother and his family. Inevitable To-Nebuka stopped training him, feeling betrayed himself, despite his complicity.

Now To-Ken is old and ponders these matters dispassionately. He has intimations of mysteries, but avoids thinking about them. He reads white-people’s books incessantly but finds no satisfaction there. He talks to himself but gives no answers to himself. Even so, he has regained his status in the village and is considered a wise man.

Maningrida

If this how white people live, why they not feel bored and empty as we do? We supposed to go to school, but we don’t like. Not like learning from our old people. Sometimes, living in this town, different clans fight one another when they drunk. Bored and empty. We boys like to watch. Sometimes Billy and me sniff petrol. The stories in our heads play out like they on television. Nothing else to do.

Plenty to do at the swamp, but we not allowed to go there. Long way, too. Long way from here in Maningrida, where we have to live now. I could go with the men to hunt. Sometimes wallaby. Sometimes magpie goose. Sometimes fishing. Sometimes I could go round that swamp by myself. Watch out for crocodiles! I am brave boy my father said.

I like to go to rocky country too. Long way. Also not allowed now. My father knows many stories of the rocky country. He sings many songs. I can sing too. Some. He tell me the stories of the paintings in the rocky caves. I feel afraid hearing those stories They tell us how we should live. I feel happy listening to those stories, and I feel afraid.

Are we afraid of the police in Maningrida? Billy says he not afraid. They tell us what we doing wrong every time, but don’t make sense. That old one – Joe Crack-arse, we call him – he very stupid one. But we do what Joe Crack-arse say or he twist our ears. Sometimes we get drunk, Billy and me. Some old men give us beers. What can Joe Crack-arse do about that?

He can send us away, he say, to Fanny Bay in Darwin. That very terrible the old men say. We should be very afraid. But so bored, I don’t mind trying that Fanny Bay for a change. Don’t care what happen to me now. Not happy in Maningrida.

Except they got art centre here, opened by one old white lady, Mrs Burningeyes. I very afraid of her. Just the way she look at me, I can’t look back. I look at the ground. I look at my hands. I don’t know where I am looking. Not at her. Except I like the art centre she run. Some old men go there to paint on their arms and legs, and on paper and on pieces of bark. One tell me he still sad, but a little bit happy when he is painting. Some women too. That surprise me, to see our old aunties painting pictures like they was men. No ceremonies there, but painting to remember the ceremonies, and to remember the stories.

Back at the swamp my father also teach me how to paint my dreaming on my skin. Now I draw my goanna on a piece of paper for that white lady, but my hand is trying to shake. I go very slowly, to get it right.

Mrs Burningeyes stand very close. ‘That lovely work,’ she say.

I not try to do lovely work. I try to get it right. I try to be with my dreaming. Very slowly. I try to be happy.

‘You can come here every day,’ she say.

She does not tell me what else to do, but I know if I wish to paint I cannot sniff petrol. If I wish to paint I cannot get drunk. I know what will make me a little bit happy in this bored and empty place.

I come to the art centre when Mrs Burningeyes not here. I sit with men who are strangers to me. Also painting their own dreaming, they do not speak to me because I am small boy not from their clan. I paint the body art of the swamp people and the rock art of our rocky country. Some. I paint very slowly. When I do those criss-cross lines I make it like a perfect net of shining light over the body of my goanna.

Mrs Burningeyes comes especially to see me one day. She tell me again I make lovely painting. ‘You a clever boy,’ she say.

I not try to be clever. I try to reach my dreaming. I try to be a little bit happy. ‘If I clever boy,’ I say, ‘You must send me back to my swamp to learn from my father. Then I will come back here.’

That takes a long time to arrange, but Mrs Burningeyes powerful white woman. She can do this for me.

When I get there – for two weeks only, they tell me – I just want to go hunting. Then I want to go fishing. Then my father and my elder brother go to the rocky country, and my father tell me many new things about the rock paintings I never heard before. My elder brother never heard these things either, but he not interested. He has wife now, and children to feed. Finally I ask my father what I can paint, by our law, and he tell me at that Maningrida art centre I can paint anything I like.

‘That not ceremony,’ he say. ‘That painting for white people who do not understand. They like to buy our painting for their own reason, which we do not understand. No good you tell them out stories. No good you answer their questions. You paint, they buy, and you give money to old people.’

At Maningrida art centre I paint many things after that. Sometimes I paint only the shining net of light. Very slowly. Very perfectly. Mrs Burningeyes tell me she will send me back to my people again. I try to look at her, because I know she is pleased with me.

My father knows I am special boy. He tells me many things from the old people each time. Mrs Burningeyes knows I am special boy. ‘Lovely work, lovely work,’ she say. People buy my bark paintings too.

Now I old man, the most important man in my clan. I know the stories from the old people. I know ceremonies and songs. In Maningrida, I am the most important artist at that art centre. Many artists try to paint like me, with shining nets of light. I also been all over the world by now.

London Story

London disappointed me. The people seemed angry, not proud, and at twenty-five I had my expectations. At twenty-five, nineteen seventies London seemed old and stingy really – to a young man from Australia on his world adventure.

          But not in Hampstead, as it happened. In Hampstead we were poor but we walked in blustery weather on Hampstead Heath, seeing the drizzle-clad city far below us. In Hampstead the landlady was high-born: she served the supermarket butter on family silver; and she smoked cheap menthol cigarettes through an ebonite holder, clenching it between her teeth or holding it obliquely, beside her elegant face. We talked into the early hours, the landlady and I. Never mind how old she was, I fell in love. And London disappointed her too, she said. Nowadays.

          That was years ago and the particulars of the afternoon I want to tell you about occurred despite her really, as I remember it now. Its excitement, still remembered, occurred despite her being responsible for the circumstances of the occasion. She merely poured the tea, while the interest for me was masculine, boyish perhaps, independent of her grandeur and sexuality.

          It was one of her guests who enthralled me that afternoon: an old man of nondescript demeanor – grey haired, his tweed jacket brown and worn. He slurped his tea, and I shared the battered chaise-longue with him, and wondered what to talk about. The floral pattern on my china cup had ceased to be of interest to me, and I was bored, I suppose, and not much company for him. Yet he wanted to talk, and that is the point I want to make: he had something to say.

          He told me that he had long since retired from his university post but that he still continued his researches, undeterred. He still studied the world-wide distribution of insects and the messages from the ancient past that distribution might encode.

          ‘Often,’ he said, ‘I don’t sleep for nights on end, my head is so full of fleas and ants and dragonflies and beetles.’ His eyes shone. ‘They are my darlings,’ he said. ‘I have adored them all my life.’

          Eons ago, he told me, a great continent broke apart, and its parts moved about the surface of the earth. They coalesced to form new continents, and then they too broke up. Those parts regrouped to form other continents, and eventually to form the continents we know today. That breaking up of those great plates, and their movements about the globe, were events of infinitesimal slowness as millions upon millions of years accrued. The time is beyond our imagining of it, he said, so great was its stretch, so gradual those events.

          Yet the insects were there. So vastly more ancient than ourselves, the insects lived and multiplied and adapted to change. And the insects’ living space broke up too and reformed and broke and grouped again. Each continental plate a raft of primeval life slipped and turned and slithered about the globe, and the insects of the current world carry the evidence for all that then occurred.

          ‘Often,’ he said, ‘I don’t sleep for nights on end, my head is so full of the pieces of that great jigsaw puzzle of insect-bearing plates.’ His eyes gazed into mine. ‘Compare,’ he said, ‘the ladybirds of the west coast of South America, with those of east Africa, for a start. See how the mouth parts have modified and colours merged with the vegetation, yet ancient clues persist. See the Egyptian hammer fly and the central Asian night wasp.’

          ‘I’m from Australia,’ I said, desperate to add at least something of my own.

          ‘Most wonderful, to come from Australia.’ He seized on my meager contribution like a new discovery. ‘And do you know,’ he said, ‘Australia is an entire continent today, separate from the rest.’

          ‘Of course I know…’

          ‘But do you really know that? As I know it? Do you?’

          ‘Well…’ I began.

          ‘I’ll tell you,’ he said.

          ‘I suppose you will,’ I said and then regretted my rudeness.

          ‘You think I’m an old show off?’ he asked.

          ‘Yes.’

          We both laughed.

          ‘I’ll tell you something else I can do too,’ he said, by no means offended. ‘I can recognise instantly where any insect comes from, from anywhere on earth.’

          ‘That’s impressive. How?’

          ‘When you are as familiar with the little darlings as I am, it’s easy of course. Whether they are ants or ticks or cicadas, the African ones have an African look to them, the Chinese ones look Chinese, and the Australians are clearly from Australia. It’s all obvious to me, you know.’

          ‘How do you mean, they ‘look African’ or they ‘look Chinese’?’

          ‘Like the landscape. Or the vegetation. They look the same as other elements of the total scene. In whatever part of the world they come from they resemble their surroundings in that way. They’ve evolved that way.’

          ‘But why should they?’ I said. ‘Why would they evolve to look like the landscape or the vegetation?’

          ‘Of course they do. It’s simply a matter of Mother Nature having a sense of style.’

          ‘Oh,’ I said. ‘I see.’

          I don’t know now whether anything the old professor said was the truth about the ancient happenings to which he referred. He may have made it all up. As for ‘Mother Nature’s sense of style’, I will leave it to you to decide what you think of that. You can see things how you want.

          His claims passed untested by me, of course. I had no Australian grasshopper in my pocket at the time, or South American stick insect, or Arabian gnat that I could whip out and say: ‘So where does this come from?’

          He told me nothing I now believe and I never met him again. Yet I remember forever that occasion in disappointing London long ago.

The Journey

The journey begins in a spirit of cheerful anticipation. Headlights illumine a negotiable way ahead, and signposts, road forks and crossways offer choices to the traveler – choices between acceptable alternative routes and new discoveries. The rear vision also reassures with dwindling distance covered. Only the dark foliage of the trees, sometimes meeting overhead in intricate array, tells of moonlit paddocks on either side, of sleeping houses, of ranges, realms and night creatures unimagined.

Sometimes the road winds through open country and sometimes straightens into the streets of towns. A crowd sometimes enlivens the traveler’s eye with bicycle lamps and illuminated taxi signs, and the baleful headlamps of tourist coaches bearing down. Then the traveler may see families and young lovers on fairground hurdy-gurdy rides, sales displays and old men on wooden seats. But sometimes only an empty road accompanies him, and only the geometry of the dark is shape to shape his curious brain, as he peers through the insect-spattered screen that guards his face from night.

The traveler rests at times, holding his face with his hands, squeezing vertical lines into his tired forehead, as the car engine grows cold. At times he sets off again, only to find the road become tendentious or too steep. The car engine loses power and coughs in the thin air. At times the traveler stops again and eats and reads the news.

But on this journey he may find his heart’s desire along the way. Through finding this thing, this fellow creature, this Shangri La, he knows what is in his heart and what is the nature of his desire. Or he may find, as well, that thing he fears, and by that too he knows himself and what he fears and what manner of man he is. Everything on this journey reveals him to himself. Evil reveals his sense of evil, astonishment what comes to him as surprise, disgust that which disgusts him, intrigue that which intrigues. Even should he see death career headlong towards him, that is his own mortality he carries always with him on his way, and now he sees.

For some the journey is well observed and a famous enterprise. Letters home, letters to the editor, letters to men in high places, ensure their whereabouts is known. But most travelers on this night journey are mostly lost. Sometimes we pity them.

If Interested

I was probably rehearsing my plans for the day, as usual, as I arrived. Not that I need to go over in advance what I am doing on a Monday at work, but that is my habit. I enjoy having plans – what I would call a ‘satisfactory routine’ – and, what is more, that is how I get myself into what I call the ‘mind-set’ for the day. Then I saw the woman in the foyer. She was using a public telephone, unusual in itself these days, and kept talking to whomever on the other end, or maybe no one at all. She returned my stare quite definitely, as if to make sure I knew she had noticed I was looking, rather than to show any reaction to me. A beautiful woman must somehow learn to deal with her effect on others. I had never thought about that before, as far as I could remember. A beautiful woman might sometimes deal with the matter in that way, I realised. She returned my stare ‘blandly’, I would say, as she listened to whomever on the phone, or no one at all, her curved lips showing the slightest suggestion of amusement at whomever’s words. Or was it at me? So I am the embarrassed one here, I thought, while at the same time feeling reassured that I might not have to be.

All this got to me, I can tell you. No sooner had I gone inside my office, than I was out again, pretending I had remembered something I needed at the reception desk again. She was no longer on the phone. In fact, I all but missed seeing her again, as she hurried out past the desk. She had put on a coat. She seemed more beautiful. Then she was gone.

I saw my pile of folders sitting on a chair. How on earth had I come to leave them there? I picked them up, and a small piece of paper fluttered to the polished granite floor. It was a torn scrap from a hamburger store advertisement with yellow and red printing on one side. On the other, in neat handwriting, was the message: ‘Same time tomorrow, if interested.’

This must be from the porter, for one of the chamber maids, I told myself at first. But I knew it was from her to me. The idea entered my mind with quite a jolt. The piece of paper looked different then. Or could it be for me from someone else? I wondered. Or from her for someone else? Am I just slow on the uptake? I wondered. Does this kind of thing happen to other people all the time? Has it happened to me before, and I have not noticed? Have I missed out?

Well what does it matter if it is from her to me? I thought then. Is she really interested in me? Is she selling drugs, perhaps? Is she a prostitute? A spy? What have I got to offer?

I looked at the note many times during the course of the day. I folded it, then unfolded it. I screwed it up, then smoothed it out again. The message neither increased nor diminished with rereading. Sometimes I decided she was kind, and sometimes cruel. Sometimes that she was merely impulsive and would not return. Sometimes that I was more attractive than I had thought.

Eventually I threw the note away, only to wish later that I still had it and could check it once again.

This morning I turned up the setting on my razor by one notch, to get a closer shave. I shaved even more carefully than I usually do, to avoid any inadvertent nicks or abrasions to my face. The result was satisfactory. I chose to wear the same clothes as yesterday, but brushed my jacket painstakingly before setting out from home.

She was there when I arrived, but so were a dozen other people in the foyer.

‘Hello again,’ said a man I recognised but could not name.

‘Hello,’ I said to him.

She seemed not to have noticed my arrival, but walked off along the corridor towards the lifts. I followed and caught her up.

‘Did you write me a note?’ I asked.

‘Who are you?’ she said. She stepped into the lift and was again gone.

But I can’t leave it at that, can I? Not now.

Healing Leaves

 ‘I’m sick of telling this story,’ says Auntie Jean, the old aboriginal woman. She giggles like a naughty girl.

‘Thank you for your honesty,’ says one of our group, laughing too.

‘My sister mad about this story. She tell it all the time.’

Our Arnhem Land tour has come to this sandy spot among the trees, to learn about the aboriginal use of leaves of a particular shrub as a healing tool. We might even experience some healing applications for ourselves.

‘These old ladies have healing hands,’ our group guide has said.

‘And I am cold,’ Auntie Jean complains, giggling again and looking mischievously from face to face.

It is an unusually blustery day at a time of year when the weather is supposed to be hot and still. She wears two brightly coloured cardigans, one over another, and sits with several other women beside a fire of sticks, which flares and flickers as the wind blows.  Water filled with large green leaves warms on the fire in a metal tub.

‘Tell us a different story then,’ someone calls out.

‘Tell us where babies come from,’ someone else jokes.

Auntie Jean giggles some more, her large, well-cardiganned body shaking like a jelly. Her aboriginal sisters giggle and shake too. She tells us how turtles are caught, how their throats are slit.

‘Their liver and guts and everything are pulled out through the hole,’ she says. ‘These leaves are put into the gutted turtle to give a good flavor to the cooked meat. They can be used to flavor bull and cow meat too. We gather them from certain shrubs in the bush. Only the women are good at recognizing them, but our young aboriginal footballers beat their bodies with these leaves to help them win a match. And old people in mourning. They beat their bodies with them as part of the grieving ritual.’

Her conversation wanders from topic to topic, each one only loosely connected to the one before, as we wait for the water to boil and the leaves to cook. She entertains us partly with the disconnected nature of her talk, as if filling the time with whatever comes into her head, and partly with the novelty of the information, but mainly by simply holding our attention with her eyes. Many of us chuckle and exclaim too.

Somewhere amongst it, she mentions that when the leaves are cooked in water they give out sticky oil which can be rubbed into the body to ease aches and pains. Soon members of our group are unbuttoning shirts or rolling up trouser legs. In the end all of us have one part of our body or another rubbed with hot slimy leaves by merry aboriginal women.

Of course we all feel better for it.

Frankie

Frankie, a bearded Aboriginal man with twinkling eyes, speaks to us in his own language, here in the dry bush of Arnhem Land. He tells us many things about the tall termite mound he has brought us to see, gesturing as he speaks, showing us how things happen. Not understanding, our tour group waits expectantly. Our English-speaking guide finally translates. The mound we can see, of dried brown earth, is only the ventilation system for the underground two thirds of the nest. A kookaburra has made the large hole at the top despite the fact that some of the termites are stinging soldiers who defend against damage.

On cue, Frankie produces a screwdriver from his pocket and pokes a hole in the mound. Fierce little creatures, like tiny ants with white bodies, swarm out.

‘But now,’ he shouts, as our guide translates, ‘we are standing here doing nothing! Our driver is standing over there! Our vehicle is waiting! Why are we not getting going from here?’

’Ok,’ we say. ‘Ok.’

We drive on, to a spot where a pandannus palm grows. Frankie shows us how the fronds are split along their length to reveal tough fibres which can be rolled on the thigh to make rope.

‘Women’s work,’ he tells us, sitting on the ground and rolling merrily. He then spits on his inner thigh and cleans it with his hand. ’I only do it to please you,’ he says, fluttering his eyelashes.

‘And you are just standing around again,’ he continues, leaping up. ‘There’s our vehicle! There’s our driver! Let’s go!’

‘Ok. Ok.’

The next stop is at a milkwood tree. Frankie breaks twigs to show us the thick milky sap. ‘It is used to bind the ochre for painting on rock or bark,’ he tells us. ‘It can also cause blindness.’ After a pause he adds, ‘It might also make you pregnant.’ He waits to see our reaction as our guide translates.

We begin to feel at home with Frankie now. We hear English words among those of his language, like ‘old people’ and ‘carving’.

‘Standing about again!’ he shouts. ‘Our vehicle! Our driver! Let’s move on!’

‘Yes, yes,’ we say.

At the fourth stop we see a round hollow in a flat stone where Aboriginal women have ground seed for hundreds of years. Frankie has a little plastic bag of red ochre which he grinds and mixes with water from a plastic bottle. He breaks a twig from a particular tree and chews the end to form a brush. Slowly and carefully he draws curving ochre lines on the smooth black skin of his inner forearm. The steadiness of his hand intrigues us, as a fat goanna takes shape. He shows this to us briefly, grinning, before washing it off with more water.

‘Standing around again!’ he shouts.

‘Yes,’ we say.

‘Our driver!’

‘Yes.’

‘Our vehicle!’

‘Yes.’ We are learning these aboriginal words by now.

Lastly we come to an iron wood tree, from which the old people used to make woomeras, to throw spears, Frankie tells us, because the wood is so hard. He has a painted woomera to show us, but his is made from timber from the store.

‘Why not from iron wood?’ we ask.

He ignores the question, pointing out that we are still standing around, and the tour is over.

Multimedia Presentation

I hear the didgeridoo first, as we walk towards the ‘welcome to country’ on the sandy shore. The gut vibrating sound is ancient and demanding. The old man playing it, we learn later, is revered by his people for his wisdom and healing powers. Arriving on the scene, I hear too the high pitched call of the storyteller singing on one note then falling away, singing on one note then falling away, as if transmitting information from a distant place. He tells the Galpu clan story of the Spirit Man. Clap sticks accentuate the rhythm, also played by a chosen member of the clan.

The Spirit Man walks across the land, hunting and digging for bush tucker, placing it in his dilly bag. The Spirit Man finds water, cups it in his hands and splashes it onto his body. The Spirit Man negotiates with the crow for possession of a sweet water hole. The accompaniment starts just after the singer begins each section of the story. It ends just before he finishes, leaving the voice trailing on for a few seconds alone.

Two young male dancers also tell the story, using stylized stamping movements, clapping at times, or stretching their arms on either side of their bodies like bird wings. The quick movements of their thin legs are also birdlike. At other times they blow through their lips, or groan, or shout, in rhythm. One of them is handsome and has great presence, and the other less so, appearing more to be going through the motions while gazing out to sea. Yet later the more accomplished dancer is too shy to talk or to make eye contact, while the other one is friendly. The dancers’ bodies are adorned with clay from a sacred place elsewhere. They wear white emu feather head bands as the Spirit Man does. Their dancing also starts and ends with the didgeridoo and clap sticks, just after the singer begins and just before he finishes.

Women also dance nearby in a restrained way, with no clapping or vocalizing. They wear rainbow colours to represent the rainbow serpent which is a totem for the clan. Small children and strangers join them in their dance. One naked toddler bangs tiny clap sticks together.

A female informant also tells the story to those being welcomed, like me, in ordinary words. She speaks gently but proudly, between the episodes of didgeridoo, clap sticks and male singer. She makes clear the importance of this story to her people. The whole performance takes place on a sacred site on which we are standing, she says. She points to a crow that flies in from the surrounding bush just as the singer refers to the crow in his storytelling, as if this too has been arranged.  Other clans have rights to other parts of a much longer account of the actions of the Spirit Man, she says, so the Galpu clan presentation is part of something larger, shared across clans.

I find the ritualized story-telling entertaining, of course, and feel honoured to be welcomed in this way. I marvel too at the multimedia presentation. That the performance establishes the status of certain members within the clan, including different roles for men and women. That it tells something about the clan members’ place in the grand scheme of things and also places the clan in relation to other clans in the telling of a shared story. I marvel as well at the familiarity of it all, yet how little I know about the fifty-thousand-year-old culture of the Aboriginal people of Australia.