This short story of mine recently won second prize in the 2016 Reconciliation Writing Competition judged by Jane Harrison, indigenous Australian playwright and novelist, and run by the Port Phillip Citizens for Reconciliation. It appears in their publication Building Bridges. The story comes from a moment on the Binns Track in the Northern Territory during our 9 month trip around Australia that my family and I did in 2010. Enjoy.
On the Binns by Meg Dunley
We haven’t seen a soul for days. On these roads, it’s rare to pass another car, and even more rare to see someone walking around. It’s over thirty degrees out there and the sun is bearing down on the earth highlighting the redness of the soil, the blue sky and the grey green trees. The road is soft, dusty. Behind us we leave a cloud of red that lingers in the air longer than the sound of our car and trailer rumbling along. As we turn one of the many curves through the central Australian desert we see him. He’s standing by the side of the road, the way someone stands waiting for a bus. But here there’s no bus-stop and it could be days between cars driving through. Matt pulls up next to him and I wind down the window. He wanders over.
‘Want a lift somewhere?’ I say. He nods, then climbs in the car as though he’d been waiting for us to pass this way, ready for us.
‘Where you going?’ Matt says.
The man nods and says, ‘Up the road.’ Matt pulls back onto the red dirt track. The kids settle in the back around the black fella.
I turn around and put my hand out. ‘Meg,’ I say. ‘Been waiting long?’
He shakes his head and gestures to the apple sitting between the front seats. I offer it to him and he takes it, biting into the crisp fruit loudly. My eldest son glares at me; this was his morning tea that he’d left it for later. ‘We’ve got more,’ I say.
I know he’s thinking about John, back in Broome. John had wandered up to us. He sat down at our picnic table next to Town Beach. We were just finishing up our dinner, and there was plenty left over. We asked him if he’d like to have some food, and he’d nodded and said, ‘Good tucker.’ Then he helped himself to a good feed. When he’d finished and drained the beer can he asked the kids what they were doing. They had been working on some beaded spiders that they’d been taught how to do the previous day by another generous traveller.
‘Making spiders,’ the youngest said. He held up the beaded spider his big brother had made for John to look at. John thanked him and pocketed the spider. ‘I’ll take it home to the missus. She be liking that.’
Matt offered him another drink. The evening was balmy and we were in no rush to get back to the makeshift caravan park in the footy oval. John took it from him and said, ‘She won’t be liking this but.’ We laughed with him, some things know no boundaries; wives thinking the same thing over.
‘Thought you might recognise me,’ he said and turned his head to one side, glancing back at us as though seeing him from that angle would trigger some memory.
I shook my head. ‘What from?’
‘You heard of that show? That bush mechanics show?’ He smiled real hard and nodded. ‘Yeah, you know, you seen me in it. I was the star of that show.’
His smile is infectious and his stories even more so. He entertains us with the story of his fame until the last of the light in the sky has gone. As we pack up, he stands to leave. ‘I’ll keep an eye out for you when I see the show,’ I say. He smiles harder and shakes my hand, strong, firm. ‘Thanks fella for the spider. The missus is gonna love it.’ He rubs my eldest son’s head roughly. My son shrinks away.
We drive back to our tent, our home for the year and try to explain the difference of white ownership and black shared-ship.
‘I’m Matt. What’s your name?’ Matt says to our passenger.
‘Anthony,’ he says between bites.
‘Where you going?’
‘Home. Footy game.’
Anthony tells us the name, but it is awkward, foreign to our ears and I try turning it around in my head so that it forms a word. I curse myself that there is such a gap even after two hundred years. I ask him to repeat the name of it while I look at the map to see if I recognise it. I don’t. ‘Up this way?’ I signal to the road ahead of us. He nods. ‘You’ll tell us when we’re there?’ I say and he nods again.
The kids look out their windows, and I do the same. I want to have some common thing to talk about, but I feel lost. Instead I wonder. I wonder who he is, why he was there, in the middle of, what seemed to us, nowhere. We travel for about forty minutes along the road until he leans forward and taps Matt on the shoulder.
‘Up here.’ He points to the right. Matt pulls of the road to a little track leading into the bush. On the left of the track is a sign with the paint flaking off it. The letters left don’t make any sense with broad gaps between them. We slow down. Ahead is a large grader in the middle of the track. The driver pulls off to the side slowly and Matt draws up next to him. The driver shuts down the engine and opens the door to talk to us.
‘Here for the footy game?’ he says, then hops down and peers into the car. ‘Oh. You got Anthony with you.’
‘G’day,’ Matt says. ‘We’re just dropping him off.’
‘You should stay. For the game. It’s gonna be a big weekend. Fellas coming in from all over the place.’
I turn to look at Anthony, to gauge his response. He seems to have shrunk more, like a teenager embarrassed by their folks. ‘Thanks, but we’ve gotta keep moving.’ I say.
‘No probs,’ the driver says and climbs back into the cabin of the grader.
‘Drop me off just up here,’ Anthony says. There’s nothing where he indicates.
‘We can take you right in, no problems,’ Matt says, but Anthony’s already climbing over one of the kids in the back to let himself out. He shuts the door behind him. Matt and I look at each, keep moving forward, or turn around and go back out the same way.
As though he heard our thoughts, the grader driver is at the driver’s side door. ‘Keep going through. It’ll get you out the other side, back to the road.’ Matt thanks him and puts the car into gear, then the driver says, ‘Don’t worry about him. He don’t talk much to folks. You stay if you want. Heaps of families coming. From all over. It’s a big game this weekend.’
Matt shakes his hand and we move off.
‘I’m not staying,’ one of the kids says. ‘We don’t even know them.’
I’m torn. I want to learn, understand, but I wonder if I will be accepted here. I wonder if the colonialist background of our families, our long distant relatives who came through and claimed everything as theirs, would stink too much for them to be comfortable.
We drive through the quiet community and we stand out like foreigners. I imagine the noise, the excitement of the weekend ahead of them. The festivities as the families gather to play footy, to catch up, to celebrate. We hit the red dirt road again, leaving them behind to relax and enjoy their weekend.
If you enjoyed this, please leave a comment. I love to hear from you! Thank you, Meg
10 thoughts on “On the Binns”
Took me back to my childhood, meeting indigenous drovers way out west, during annual two week September holiday safaris. I was reluctant, sulky, awkward. My father, bless him, was persistent. We usually shared a moment, understanding the strangeness and charm of drover meets suburban teen.
I had not thought of this for a long time, the interest in indigenous story seemed part of my persona. Now I have been reminded of my father introducing me to people who saw me as strange as I thought them, and laughing with them at my discomfort. A special memory recovered by reading your story.
Thanks Neil. I’m glad it sparked a special memory for you.
Well done on winning the prize with this story. I enjoyed the read and related to the tension and the desire to connect, but knowing that there is a such big divide in language,lifestyle and worldview
Thanks Sal. xx
Meg, your story moved me. It is an honest account of the personal confrontation of a world being reframed. We can’t grow without discomfort and your story nudges the process along. Thank you!
Thanks Jean. And it’s a pleasure
Somewhere there has to be a starting point to our interaction with our First Australians. Your discomfort is palpable, mine would be no better.
High time as a nation that we started to respect those people for what they were, before we arrived, not what we have turned them into. Dark Emu by Bruce Pascoe is a good start to gain so insight to the lies of our taught history. With respect, we may understand a bit better and feel more comfortable with our brothers and sisters.
Thanks Rowan. I agree. I have just read Dark Emu (brilliant book). I think we need to keep talking and bridging the gaps. This was from a trip 6 years ago and I think I have grown even more in my understanding. I have found Henry Reynolds books also a great way to relearn the history.
great writing Meg… a moment that speaks of the tension below the surface…. so much to yet know
Thanks Bec x