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July 2, 2007

From the frivolous to meaningful in one fell swoop

I have decided it's time for a whinge about my love life because it's frankly pathetic at the moment and I cannot get excited by the numbskulls I have met so far in night clubs here. Last night I accepted a drink off a perfectly lovely and handsome Irish man who wanted to talk and swap phone numbers while I wanted to dance quick-step away from his hovering paws. I eventually dumped him with my house mate and ran off to the dance floor and the safe arms of my "flamboyant" friend, after which he looked all mournful and his eyes followed me like those off a painting in a haunted room. Once I'd finished the drink he bought me, I escaped into the night as the prospect of toast and vegemite was frankly more seductive than anything he could have served up.

I had a hopeless unrequited crush recently and have decided they are really a waste of time at my age. I flicked through that book "He's just not that into you" in the supermarket which gave me a good giggle as it stamped out sugary, hopeful fantasies in favour of cold, hard reality, wrapped up in Dr Phil styling - exactly what I needed to 'get over it, girlfriend!'

However, I am still feeling mulish and refuse to think that I have to settle for someone I'm not completely infatuated with - so there are slim pickings around here. Sigh. I'm doomed! I'm getting old and monstrous! I may as well get it over and done with and buy six more cats, start shuffling around in pee-scented clothing and grow out my hair to long, straggly proportions. It won't be that much of a stretch, I think. In the meantime, if anyone feels sorry for me and would like to declare their love after years or even weeks of burning secret desires, now's the time. Anyone? Hello? (No, mum, you don't count).

Anyway, tonight I type huddled in bed surrounded by a mini-menagerie, which seems appropriate. My two cats are involved in a fur-raising standoff with the tiny diamante-collared chihuahua we are dog-sitting for a friend and there is much muted hissing and growling going on. Considering we four are all in separate corners of the same double-bed, it seems like a pointless fight over territory. And, as I keep pointing out to them so sweetly, I am the queen of this particular domain.

Today was an interesting day. Although I woke smarting from a vodka-induced headache brought on by another party with the media crew, I remembered to keep my appointment with a local maven of Aboriginal culture, D. D is the son of missionaries who ran the Mt Margaret Mission near Laverton, a place which has churned out an extraordinary amount of respected indigenous leaders in this area. He is by equal turns a tree-lopper, art dealer, driving-instructor and concreter and somewhat unusually is a white man fluent in several languages unique to this region.

Earlier this week, he promised to introduce me to a few local "identities" for a story on indigenous elders, so today I found myself on a brief tour of the communities which pepper the outskirts of town. First we talked to a respected elder of the Central Desert's Ngaatjatjarra people who now lives and paints in Kalgoorlie. I've seen her around - she's short and round with a smile that splits her face in half and always seems to be wearing a colourful beanie. However, today there were few smiles. Only seconds after we shook hands she started crying and speaking to D in language in response to something he said and it quickly became apparent there would be no interviewing. Instead, we packed M and her friendly dog into D's car and drove to the shops, where we picked out a few groceries for her and chatted idly about painting. After we dropped her off, D admitted that he'd told her his 105-year-old mother died in Melbourne last night; to the locals, she was something of a saint.

I offered my condolences, but he smiled and said he felt worse when people asked him how he felt, and it was ok. He insisted on driving me out to Ninga Mia village, a fibro and iron ghost town some way out of town, so we could track down another artist he thought I should meet. The way was littered with broken plastic chairs, deserted houses and flapping doors and I couldn't help marvelling at the fact we were only minutes away from the beating heart of this country's economic boom. We pulled up next to a small campfire around which sat about 10 people, some of whom jumped up to greet D like a long lost brother and others who sat back and watched. I stood back as D announced to the group his sad news in language and the women got teary-eyed and shook their heads while the men stared off into the middle distance. There was a brief silence during which I watched a woman carve chunks off a kangaroo carcass with the sharp edge of a sardine can until D introduced me and asked if anyone would talk to me. I smiled hopefully at each of them in turn and finally, one of the women heaved herself off the ground and offered her hand to me before turning to D. I was asked to come back another day; there was going to be a funeral tomorrow, it wasn't a good time.

For the second time, we piled into the car and headed off in search of groceries, this time with a couple of women from Warburton. What struck me about D was his absolute acquiescence to every request that was made of him; for a file to shape a boomerang, $50 for some food, a box of teabags or a lift. He did not do these things with a sense of martyrdom or bad grace or nobility - he did them as if he was truly a part of the Aboriginal kinship system that dictates behaviour. People needed help, so he gave it to them. Simple as that.

So instead of conducting an interview, I found myself collecting firewood and stuffing it into the back of the car. Right now I can hear rain on the roof, so I hope it provided at least some warmth for a while.

I went home today feeling mildly frustrated, but not for the reasons you might suspect. It feel faintly incongruous to me at times that I have the "indigenous affairs" round tacked to my name at the newspaper, because there are certain barriers to me being able to do the job well. I can't speak the language, for a start - I am sure you can imagine how hard that makes the interview process at times and I would much prefer to let people tell their own stories unaided by interpreters. I am conscious of my own views and opinions threatening to spill over into my stories because I don't think I'm able to write sitting on the fence. I am on an upward learning curve, tiptoeing through the political quagmire - and you only need to look at this week's news to see what a hotbed of opinion Aboriginal "issues" can be. I find myself feeling guilty at causing wretched hangovers in my down time when I sit in court day in, day out, watching as people are sentenced for crimes committed while stupidly, pointlessly drunk.

But I'm also young and still learning, thank goodness.

Anyway, it wasn't until we arrived back at his office that D admitted to me that he had been talking with his mother on the phone last night at the very point of her death. He waved off my apologies and protests that he could have cancelled the appointment and said it had been important to see it through. He furnished me with a knock-down dot painting of snakes against a blazing orange background - a huge piece he insisted on giving to me for a fifth of its price - and asked me to write his mother's obituary for the newspaper. I told him I would be honoured.