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A Tear in the Soul
By Amanda Webster
University of New South Wales Press LtdCopyright © 2016 Amanda Webster
All rights reserved.
A late-model station wagon, washed-out blue like the sky, makes a sharp turn into the Kalgoorlie Regional Hospital car park and pulls up before a brick-walled building. A thin bespectacled man steps out. He leans down, pokes his head through the open front window. Instructs his six-year-old daughter in the back seat: 'Stay here. I won't be long.' Straightens up and wheels around. Stethoscope in hand, pockets bulging with Minties, he hurries along an open walkway, his leather soles slapping the bare concrete. The girl waves at her father's retreating back. She's small for her age, thin with dead-straight hair, cut pudding-bowl style with a fringe. She looks around. The front passenger seat – the death seat in an accident – is forbidden territory when the car is moving; stationary it's fair game. She clambers over the seatback, her shoe buckles scraping the vinyl. She plonks herself down. Grasps the metal window handle and winds the glass up and down. Her gaze wanders to the driver's seat. She slides over, raising a small cloud of red dust and dog hair, and wraps her hands around the steering wheel. Tugs it this way and that. Rubbers her lips to make brmming noises. She fiddles with the indicator, and clicks her tongue, Ticaticaticatic. Black flies buzz inside the windscreen. Outside, eucalyptus leaves tumble over the bitumen. The air so thick with sulphurous fumes from the mines you could cut it.
Does a group of barefooted Aboriginal people straggle by, swatting at the flies and calling out to each other in words familiar yet incomprehensible? Does the little girl stare at their dark skin and then at her own eggshell-pale arm? Do a million small observations of difference and of how white people treat Aboriginal people coalesce into one burning question that falls out of her mouth the minute her father opens the car door: 'Daddy, are Aboriginals people?'
My father likes to repeat this story of a moment I've long since forgotten. For him, my childhood question belongs to a cherished compendium of such questions, no more significant than one from my novel encounter with a lift in a department store during a visit to Perth: 'Why are those people in a cage?' His remembering is similar in intent to me keeping my children's baby teeth, their effusive handwritten cards to 'the best mum in the whole wide world', their reluctantly surrendered dummies.
But for me the question has been like a lesion tucked away on a difficult-to-get-at part of the body, festering, pestering, irremovable, at least by simple means. Wishing I had never asked such a horrible question wouldn't make it go away. I needed to look at the question's root causes – was it a product of my own imagination, or did it come from a more general conditioning? – before I could decide its significance and what to do next, a similar process to my father lancing a boil so he could examine its suppurating contents and choose the appropriate antibiotic.
My father never relates his answer, might not remember. In any case, sometimes the question matters more than the answer. Sometimes the questions behind the question matter even more.CHAPTER 2
Quiet writing time ended on the first full day of our retreat on the Hawaiian island of Molokai in 2009, and preparations for dinner – 'potluck' as the other eight women, all American, called it – got underway. In the kitchen, two of the women sliced bread, boiled pasta and chopped and sautéed eggplants and tomatoes. My mouth watered at the smell of the fried vegetables; I hadn't realised how hungry I was. I helped another couple of women set the table, glasses here, cutlery there, jugs of water in the middle. We uncorked bottles of wine, folded paper napkins and distributed salt and pepper shakers.
By dinner time, confidence boosted by vodka shots beforehand, we were ready to tackle the world's problems. The volume ratcheted up a few notches. Discussion turned to ObamaCare. The Americans leapt in, some for Obama's changes to healthcare, one against, others uncertain. I took a sip of wine to moisten my lips and cleared my throat.
'You Americans need better welfare, like us,' I said, beating a self-righteous path through the thicket of voices.
Obama's critic glared down the length of the wooden table at me.
'You've no right to hold the Australian system up as perfect when you have a second-class society.' Her angry words fell into a room gone strangely silent.
My pulse raced, and I could feel my face burn with the blood rush. The silence lengthened, broken only by the scrape of knives against plates, the jangle of cutlery against glasses. A second-class society? What does she mean? My thoughts caromed like squash balls around the inside of my head. The women around me studiously tended to the task of eating.
Suddenly one clear thought spun out from the chaos: she meant Indigenous people. My insides twisted and my face burned hotter. I knew the problems: shortened life spans, alcoholism, diabetes, heart disease, deaths in custody, illiteracy, rural communities torn apart by glue- and petrol-sniffing and drugs, poverty and violence. How many times had I read the reports and studied the statistics? If not in newspapers, then in lecture notes or a textbook years before in medical school. By and large, my 'better welfare' comment did not apply to Aboriginal people. Yet how easily I had dismissed them from consideration, a consequence of their relatively low numbers, perhaps, and their underrepresentation in public forums. Or a consequence of how easy it was to ignore the plight of people beyond one's personal sphere, as had become the case for me as an adult. Whatever the reason, Obama's critic was right – the health and living circumstances of our Aboriginal population were no advertisement for our so-called universal healthcare. I slugged a few mouthfuls of wine.
'I guess you mean Aboriginal people. It's difficult in remote areas, where so many of them live ...' I faltered, aware of how feeble my excuse sounded. Aware, too, of how there had been a time when Aboriginal people were a big part of my life.
Did anyone mention parallels to Native Americans? I no longer remember. The room buzzed with alcohol-fuelled volatility, and the woman's accusation looped in my head. The other women, a nurse and a teacher among them, professed support for free healthcare and welfare for the less fortunate. Their comments once more provoked the ire of Obama's critic – free universal healthcare would encourage welfare bludgers, she declared. Her concern brought to mind a cartoon from my medical school years that mocked white paranoia about 'undeserved' handouts. The cartoon depicted a bike-riding Aboriginal university student with children: the ultimate and unlikely welfare recipient at a time when Aboriginal people rarely made it through school and still endured segregation in many situations. One of the women argued that bludging was uncommon, that people on welfare were generally in need. Another that a certain amount of bludging was the necessary price for a safety net for the disadvantaged. I agreed and subsided into silence, wary of attracting a repeat of the earlier vitriol. The women shifted the conversation to a more neutral topic. The books we were reading – Edwidge Danticat's Brother, I'm Dying and Barack Obama's Dreams from My Father, books that discuss racial politics. I barely noticed. Let their voices wash over me. Pushed my plate to the side.
I tried to anchor my mind in the present, to the hard smooth stem of the glass, the American voices rising and falling, 'r's rolled and vowels drawn out. But the wine turned sour in my mouth and I sweated under the the lights. Two images from my past, images I'd reviewed many times, kept bobbing to the surface, like driftwood in a storm.
One of a scrawny white girl in scuffed Mary Janes, a kilt and a home-made cardigan, deep emerald green, unlike any green in her landscape. In an instant I was once again that girl playing elastics with the other white girls, desperate to fit in. It's my turn to jump, but one of my two left feet hooks the elastic and I fall. I untangle myself, stand, rub grazed knees and bolt across the concrete towards the only tree and a group of Aboriginal girls from Kurrawang Mission, 10 miles from town.
'Mandy, Mandy. Come here, Mandy,' a voice calls, welcome as a summer breeze: Bronwyn, one of my best friends, has seen me. She draws me into the circle of Mission girls. Slings an arm around my shoulders, her deep brown skin warm. She wears a faded cotton dress (brown and white, my memory stubbornly insists). She's taller than me, and fleshier. When she smiles, her cheeks form soft mounds. Her scent reminds me of red dirt and the subtle, floral smell of the bush, whereas mine smells like soap from last night's bath.
Another Aboriginal girl, straight hair parted down the middle, threads her fingers through my hair. Dead straight for years, it has recently sprung into curls – I ate all my crusts, which I'm beginning to regret. The girl winds a stray ringlet around her finger. I relax, sunning myself in the attentive glow, happy for the spotlight on something other than my clumsiness. I want this moment to last forever, until next Christmas at least. The bell summons us, the Aboriginal girls to their classroom, me to mine.
As an only girl with two male siblings, I envy the Mission girls as a group, envy their closeness, their entwined lives outside of school that resembles, to me at least, an extended sisterhood. I have to make do with Tessie-bear. Even though I cherish her faded pink fur and the surgical patch Mum knitted for her neck where the intensity of my love had worn her hair thin, it isn't the same. Not even close. Nightly, tucked into my bed under the window of the sleepout that serves as my bedroom, I petition God to breathe life into Tessie-bear, to grant me a sister. When my prayers go unanswered, I figure I've overreached God's abilities. Switch to praying for Bronwyn to come and live with us. God continues to turn deaf ears my way. My mother grants me the next best thing: Bronwyn can come with us to our holiday house in Esperance, for Christmas. I can't wait. I'm still young enough to believe the world revolves around me, so I never spare a thought for Bronwyn's family.
Around me, the American women emptied and refilled plates and glasses. I examined a second mental image, twin to the first. From a distance of 20 metres, Tony Ugle, a Kurrawang boy, smiles back at me as he leans over the tap at the water tank. Boys and girls have separate playgrounds. We're in strife if we stray, so I never get to play with Tony. Sometimes we pass each other in line for class. I like the way the consonants leapfrog the vowels into his surname when I repeat his name quickly: Tony Ugle, Tony Ugle, Tony Ugle. And of course I love the openness of that smile. I think Tony is Bronwyn's brother, but I'm not sure why I think this. I don't remember talking about him with Bronwyn.
Raucous laughter erupted from my writer friends, their earlier tensions discarded like the dregs from a wine bottle. I knew I should relax too. I should lighten up, talk, laugh, be one of the gang. Fit in. I wanted to. But couldn't. I nursed my bruised feelings and glass of wine. Contemplated leaving in the morning to escape my shame. As soon as I could, I fled the dinner table.
In my unlit room, I mulled over my extreme reaction to the woman's accusation. Why had her words hit so hard? I thought about how Tony and Bronwyn's names had stayed with me all these years, even though we hadn't seen each other since the age of 11. I'd intended to find them, to try and renew our friendship, but had never got around to it. Now, for all I knew, they were card-carrying members of my writer-friend's second class citizenry.
If they were even alive. A valid concern, I knew; even though life expectancy figures had recently improved, Aboriginal people still died younger than non-Aboriginal people – 11.5 years younger for the men, with a life expectancy of 67.2 years, and 9.7 years younger for the women, with a life expectancy of 72.9 years, I would later learn from a 2005–07 Australian Bureau of Statistics study. If they were alive, my childhood friends, like me, would be gaining fast on their mid-fifties. A sense of time running out struck me, of having betrayed my intentions, of letting my former friends down.
Another memory, recurrent as a migrainous aura, came to mind.
Grade Six at Kalgoorlie Central, the top-streamed class, determined by ability. Forty white children paired behind rows of desks, with wooden lids and inkwells and pencil slots. Dust motes drift in a stream of sunlight. If I paid attention, I'd catch a whiff of sweat, wet grass and flatulence.
A knock on the door interrupts a lesson. The school nurse enters. We stand. Parrot a greeting. Flop down on our seats. Fidget and rock while the two women talk. The teacher announces a head lice check. Her face scrunches up and she says 'head lice' carefully and precisely, as if holding the words at arm's length, the thumb and a finger from the other hand squeezing her nostrils. 'Now get on with your work!' The nurse makes her no-nonsense way to the rear of the classroom. We return to our work.
The year is 1970, and colours rain from night skies as fireworks explode. Australians – not all, I was yet to learn – are celebrating the bicentenary of Lieutenant (as he was at the time) James Cook's arrival on the Endeavour Bark. He declared the east coast of Terra Australis Incognita, as the country was known to Europeans, to be Terra Nullius, or 'nobody's land', and claimed it for England's King George III, naming it New South Wales. No one mentions the subsequent demise of many of the estimated 500–700 Aboriginal nations. Or that only three years have passed since the 1967 referendum achieved the highest 'yes' vote ever – 90.77 per cent, giving Aboriginal people, including my school friends, the 'right' to be governed by the Federal government, which gave them access to social security benefits, the war pension and child endowment among other things, and to be counted in the official population census. No one discloses that in all Australia, my hometown Kalgoorlie recorded the highest 'no' vote.
When the nurse reaches me, she uses a knitting needle to lift the hair behind my left ear, and asks me to lean forward. I obey, flushing under the imagined gaze of 39 pairs of eyes. The nurse's breath on the side of my face is like the tickle of feathers. My own breath comes quickly, in short gasps. For a doctor's daughter, being found to have head lice would be even worse than having been caught with wet pants and a puddle beneath my chair in Grade Two. And that memory still gave me the willies.
The nurse presses the sharp point of the needle against my scalp. After the longest moment, she straightens. She smiles kindly and moves on to the remaining heads. I slump in relief, and feel my face cooling. Before long the bell rings.
Play-lunch flies by, a flurry of biscuits in greaseproof paper or a piece of fruit, a few swigs from a plastic flask of fast-melting frozen raspberry cordial or a Tetrapak of warm milk from the canteen. The bell rings and we hurry inside and find – and this is the moment that haunts me – a group of Aboriginal children huddled in the hall near our classroom. News spreads through the school as surely as lice between heads: the Mission kids have 'nits' and are being sent home by bus. Relieved to avoid such humiliation, I fail to notice if my friends are among the group.
Inside my classroom, I look around. No empty seats. No white kids have head lice. The rest of the day passes without incident. When the final bell rings, we leap up, push our chairs in and stand behind them. The teacher dismisses us. As I file past her, she pulls me, and only me, from the surging tide of children. She waits for the room to empty and slips a folded sheet of paper into my hand for me to give my mother. Without a second thought, I tuck the note in my leather satchel and tear out the door.
At home, my mother reads the note. She extends a hand and lifts my hair, as the nurse had done. Peers intently. Tells me I have head lice and to wait while she goes to the chemist. 'Back in a jiffy.' Dad's surgery is open at the front of the house and my brothers are somewhere, so I won't be alone. I nod; having avoided public humiliation, I'm more interested in getting my grubby mitts on some biscuits. My mother unties her apron and picks up her car keys and handbag. The back door clicks shut behind her. Shortly afterwards the engine of her Mini Minor thrums as she reverses down the driveway.
On her return, my mother shoos me into the bathroom. She douses my hair with a pungent-smelling lotion, to remain on for 24 hours. My eyes water, my nose runs, and despite being a big girl, I'm crying as the comb drags at my tangled curls.
Excerpted from A Tear in the Soul by Amanda Webster. Copyright © 2016 Amanda Webster. Excerpted by permission of University of New South Wales Press Ltd.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
The Skin Divide,
Layers of Skin,
On Noongar Land,
On Wongi Land,
Whither Should They Flee?,
Aboriginal Names and Aliases,
The Cyanide Code,
The Aboriginal Protector,
The Hypothetical Grandchild,
Living by Faith,
Not Just the Money,
For the Record,
Within Talking Distance of Town,
Making a Little Child's Life Complete,
Some of Them Were Promiscuous,
The First Fleet,
One of the Last,
To Be a Friend,
Bringing Them Home – to Where?,