Saturday, July 7, 2012


You have to sleep. It's been so many days and nights that you haven't slept. So while we lie on this mattress on the floor, I'll talk and tell you stories and you have my permission to fall asleep in the middle of it all. Okay?
Put your hand there, on my hip. Good ... I'll tell you about when I was a child on the cusp of being a teenager and my Dad drove me to Broome. Mum stayed in the south with the baby sisters. I'm not sure why she stayed home. We were in a brown Holden Kingswood. All our gear went into the boot. This meant the car sagged on its back wheels but at least we didn't look like tourists. Incognito, he reckoned.

We drove past the city, past the trees turned over by the wind, past Geraldton and we camped by the big soup bowl intergalactic speakers in Canarvon. The whole way up the west coast my Dad told me stories. He used to live in Broome. He'd left his comfortable city home in his late teens, of academics and ballerinas, gone hitchhiking north with a gun and a bag of rice. He told me stuff about Chinatown, about the pearling boats, cattlemen and the pearling masters in their white linen, the Malay divers, the Aboriginal women, about how when the Japanese bombed the town, they'd taken out the Dutch refugees trying to leave in sea planes with all their riches, how a beachcomber had found their diamonds and stashed them.

That drive north of Exmouth was a moonscape and the roadhouses owners were jealous of their water. We slept on the banks of extinct rivers, nearly hit the tribes of floppy-eared desert cattle, so different from the green grass milky breeds down south. The sky got bigger and bigger. Ant monuments loomed by the roadside.

We turned off at the Roebuck Bay roadhouse. Dad was beginning to get excited. It had been twenty years after all. The heat was like nothing I'd ever experienced. We passed a cow, dead on the verge, upended, its legs stuck straight up, a gash of red streaking its black flanks, its body horribly swollen by heat and internal gases.

That was my introduction to Broome. The dead cow. The next sight was rows of corrugated iron houses, shimmering in the heat. I didn't get it. I'd had a two thousand kilometre lead up of him telling me the stories and this place looked like a fresh hell to me.

He took me to the graveyard where the Japanese pearl divers were buried. The graveyard was overgrown with grasses and out of them sprung sand stone monuments with foreign writing cut into them. I think that's where I began to understand Broome. Then he took me to the pearl sheds. A few days later, he pointed out an island, just off Roebuck Bay. "It's named after a pirate. Well, he was a pirate once, before he became an explorer. You can get out there ... but I think the tide is a bit high right now." Still, he set out through the mangroves towards the island.

He wanted to show me the Catalinas. As soon as the tide was low enough we walked across the mudflats to where the wrecks of the Dutch planes lay. I didn't really understand what he was on about. It was a trek out there and lurking shellfish and mangrove spikes ambushed my soft southern feet. By the time we got out there the sun was going down.
He said, there they are.
Around us lay the barnacled engine blocks of the planes that were shot down during the second world war.

The tide was coming in. An Aboriginal man stood on one of the planes, his toes splaying across the metal. He was fishing the incoming tide. He wore not much, maybe a pair of shorts or a sarong or something, I remember as a kid (on the cusp of adolescence) that the late sun shone against his bare chest, that he held a fishing line and that he was the most beautiful man I'd ever seen.

I can hear your breath change.
Yes ... you are sleeping.
No ... I won't move.


  1. For Storm-Boy? Nice story - I wish I could sleep right now with those images.

    An antique dealer told me today that he was (last week) offered the skull of one of the last Aborigines to be killed in Tasmania, sometime in the 19th century. It had a museum label on it. I thought they had all been given back to tribal relatives, but this one must have been smuggled out.

    I asked if he bought it, and - thankfully - he had not.

    1. Um, not Stormboy.
      Goodness! A lot of people's bones and artifacts were repatriated and is ongoing I think. It would be good to buy it and then return it to the Pallawah. But I guess antique dealers are not in the game for good deeds alone.