When the Smoke Clears

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Angie greets the day early; nervous butterflies tickle her very being. She loves to challenge her prejudices. The possibility of opening her mind energises her as she wraps the oversized dressing gown around her taught waist and whispers in her child’s ear, “It’s time to get up darling. We have a special day. Please wear something culturally appropriate.” 

Jess is only nine but she knows what these big words mean, she heard them before, when her mum took her to the Buddhist ceremony. She remembered her Grandpop hissing, “What? You gunna be a bloody Buddhist now?” Jess’s mum, Angie is determined not to raise a bigoted child.

Angie only bothers to do her hair and make-up once a week, but when she does, the results are so successful, other women scowl at her. She dresses in long comfortable pants, sensible flat boots and a loose, modest top. Her daughter appears in red track suit pants, a nice t-shirt, jacket and joggers; she has even done her own hair. “Perfect,” and Angie gives little Jess a big hug.

Mother and daughter fill their drink bottles and climb into the old, rattly Toyota. Angie hopes it won’t break down in the harbour tunnel. She passes the mansions in her street, not one of those families will let their kids play with Jess or invite her over for a cuppa because she lives at the end of the street in an old fibro house. They think she’s a low life and she thinks they’re snobs. Angie wants to wear an old-fashioned sandwich board that declares, I don’t drink, I don’t smoke, and I don’t sleep around. Stop judging me! The frustration makes her press down on the accelerator; she catches herself speeding and puts her foot gently on the brake, slowing the vehicle and her sense of superiority. They pass a man with a backpack full of poison, spraying his front lawn, then someone using a leaf blower followed by a large lady riding a lawn mower. She wants to rant, but bites her tongue. It’s a smooth journey to North Sydney and through the tunnel. As they re-enter the light of day, Angie squints as her eyes adjust and she nervously navigates the inner city and the unfamiliar streets on the south side of Sydney. Their slow pace causes the female driver in the SUV behind, to scream out her car window while shaking her fist, “HURRY THE FUCK UP!” Angie rubs Jess’s head and sings, “You are my treasure.” Jess squeezes her hand, “Love you Mumma.” They see the sign Aboriginal Markets, park in a nearby street and walk past wealthy people laughing in the trendy cafés.

They’ve never been to Botany Bay before and little Jess’s bottom lip suddenly quivers as she steps onto the narrow wooden bridge that leads to Bare Island. “It’s okay darling, I’m with you,” soothes Angie.

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On the other side, the market looks small. A blush of shame settles on Angie as she realises she has little knowledge of Australian Indigenous culture. Just some vague memories from school and what is fed through possibly biased media reports.

A middle-aged woman wearing vibrant tie-dye clothes is promoting a book she has written. Angie listens as the author performs her reading. Tie-dye lady talks about a horrific massacre in a remote Aboriginal community; white men on horseback forced the natives to chop up wood. Then, when the pile was nice and big, the white men shot the black men, raped and bludgeoned their wives and smashed the young children’s heads on boulders, then burnt the bodies using the wood the black men had chopped. Angie wants to throw up. She doesn’t want to hear this, but knows it’s important. She uses almighty force to prevent her feet from walking away from the horror. Angie’s eyes flick to her daughter, thank goodness; she is safe and distracted, looking at some boomerangs.

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Angie feels lucky, but also perplexed as to why her white skin made her safer than a person who had forty millennia of history with the land she’s standing on. The injustice of it! The author elaborates that the white men were ‘clearing’ the land for cattle. ‘Clearing’ meant killing the indigenous people and after all the bloodshed, the land was not even suitable for cattle. Angie has had questions swirling in her head about Australia’s indigenous population, things she’s too scared to talk about for fear of being labelled a bigot, but she wants to understand. It’s clear the author has been pondering the same issues herself. She has been so intrigued by the complexity of her Aboriginal heritage that she’s invested years writing her book. As she holds her newly released book in one hand, her other hand flies toward the sky as she erupts with all the same questions I have, but daren’t ask.

“How could white people do that to them? Why do the Aboriginal people waste their money on alcohol? How can whites expect integration when they have ravaged the entire landscape? But Indigenous Australians have been given many an opportunity with government jobs, etcetera, yet how can we expect them to be authentic or to become one of us when they have a different set of values, like nurture the planet, while whites value money and power? How could white men rip babies from their loving mother’s arms? Why does there seem to be a high ratio of crime and violence in the Aboriginal population? Perhaps the previous question is the answer. And what if they did not have access to alcohol? Perhaps there’d be no violence. Farmers rape young Aboriginal girls and then spit on the yellow skinned kids they produce!”

As Angie listens, a second dialogue plays in her head, “We have broken everything and expect to cover the mess with a Band-Aid, a ‘sorry’ and some weak Government attempts like offering cheap education and allocating a certain number of government jobs to indigenous people. Angie thinks it’s a band-aid approach. But there’s no band-aid big enough to hide, let alone heal this gaping wound. She enjoys listening to the author read some excerpts and is comforted to discover that someone of Aboriginal heritage has been pondering the same complex issues. Angie hands over $20 to the author who signs the book, For Angie, may you understand. As she reaches out to take her new book, the author suddenly grips Angie’s hand and glares at her, so deeply Angie feels as if the author is peering into her very soul. There’s a moment, a flash, Angie sees the past, the present and future—they are all one. She feels the height, the depth and the power of the ground beneath her feet. She sees the spilled blood and hears the plaintive, aching cries of those who have suffered so terribly. Angie pulls her eyes away and makes eye contact with her daughter, Jess. How can two people love each other this much? An official looking man with broad shoulders appears, he reaches down, rips Jess away and disappears into the crowd. Angie gasps, clutches her chest as her throat rises so high she almost chokes, she swallows … blinks and then twitches, no—it was a moment of understanding. How could they? Pain stabs down into her heart as she chokes back the tears. The author nods and gently releases her hand. Angie reaches for her daughter; Jess hugs her mum around the waist.  

They cling to each other as they pass hand-made jewellery, carvings and paintings. A necklace catches Angie’s eye, she has a tiny house, not one spot to put a decoration or hang a new artwork, so instead she collects necklaces. She wears them as reminders of where she has been and what she has learned. A silver circle, like the sun with a circular symbol of the Aboriginal flag in the centre, she hands over another $20 and smiles, she’ll wear it with pride. They wander through the market, looking at the few stalls, Angie’s heart breaks at all the work the stallholders have put into their art and now they sit while tourists look on with curiosity, barely opening their wallets.

They climb sandstone stairs and look over the beautiful bay. Sparkling water and blue sky flecked with white cotton candy clouds. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander flags flutter side by side in the gentle breeze. Behind the flags, in the distance, huge cranes stand tall, like big metal dinosaurs ready to march into the ocean. They are brightly painted, making them seem like cheery sideshow attractions rather than ominous signs of industrialism.

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They descend the stairs and encounter an Aboriginal man with a white ochre painted face. Jess wants to a buy a boomerang with a koala pattern and hands him a blue Australian note with pictures she’s never had the interest to examine. Aboriginal history seems so much more interesting than rehashed stories of the early settlers. The dark-skinned man sits squatting near the ground and smiles, he offers to burn Jess’s name on the back as he shows them his burning implement. Jess shakes her head, “It’s perfect. I don’t want to ruin it.” Angie’s chest inflates with pride and she asks if she can take the man’s photo. He poses with an intense glare and his hands flared open by his face, he instantly looks frightening and she can imagine him in the bush with a spear, hunting his next meal.

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They follow the concrete pathway and enter the old fort on the other side of the island. It’s time for the Aboriginal cooking lesson that Angie booked for herself and Jess. Although Jess is only nine, she is a self-imposed vegetarian; the thought of eating meat is abhorrent, even distressing to her. Angie had reluctantly mentioned this dietary restriction when she booked and hoped it wouldn’t be an imposition. Perhaps they’ll cook something like taro root with wattle seed.

A friendly young woman with purple hair greets them and takes them into a sandstone room, inviting them to sit on the white plastic chairs. Light streams in through the barred windows, the room is from the convict era. Mother and daughter both glow with excitement. For once they can pretend they don’t live in an old fibro home, they feel like royalty. They know this is important, they can both feel it in their cores.

The purple haired lady starts, “When the Europeans first colonised Australia they thought the Aboriginal people were stupid and that their beliefs were silly. They called anything that happened before colonisation Dreamtime. The term was created by the Europeans to mean that ‘anything the Aboriginals believe about the past is as silly as a dream.’” Angie feels unsettled; she used to think fondly of that term. The young woman talks about Aboriginal culture and history. Mother and daughter are sponges, absorbing the new, yet old knowledge. The lady talks about middens. They are piles of shells near the ocean where indigenous people harvested shellfish in the past. Westerners viewed them as Indigenous rubbish piles, but they have great significance. The Aboriginal people would eat a certain shellfish for a while and leave the shells as a sign to other clans who might visit, to show them what had recently been taken from the waters and that a different shellfish should be harvested next, allowing time for the previous one to replenish. Middens are a signpost of sustainability. The white colonists noticed a large mussel was in plentiful supply and thought the indigenous people were stupid for not eating them. The colonists started harvesting them and didn’t stop until they had decimated the population of that large mussel. Another story follows. An infant or child would have a hair or piece of twine wrapped around their little finger. The fingertip would go blue, then black and eventually die. The mother would take the child and flick the necrotic fingertip into the ocean. A gift to the sea. Recognition for all that the ocean would provide in the child’s life. An exchange. The fish will eat the fingertip. The child would grow to eat fish. Also, it was easier to wrap fishing twine around a hand with only four fingers. The daughter glanced sideways at her mother with an expression that said: Mum, that sounds really weird and cruel. The mother returned a look of:  Oh well, we’re here to learn, not to judge. Both looked back at the purple haired lady and forced themselves to accept something they wanted to condemn. The discomfort confirmed they were challenging their prejudices.

The lady handed them different plants. “This is for bites and stings … this one is a disinfectant.” Then an oval, bowl shaped piece of wood. “We use this wood to carry fire onto our boats so we can cook fish as soon as it is caught. We invented the first fast food!” The girls all laugh. “We also use this kind of bowl to carry our babies.” She lays a beautiful possum fur in the crevice and hands it over for them to feel. It’s incredibly soft; it would be cosy for a baby. Jess, the animal lover won’t touch it. The lady quickly lightens the mood again, “But don’t carry a fire and a baby at the same time,” she jibes and they all giggle.

Time to cook. “Because you are vegetarian, we are making lemon myrtle and macadamia nut rocky road.” Jess jumps off the plastic chair and a smile stretches from ear to ear. Packets of Cadbury chocolate and Woolworths brand coconut are opened; Angie chops nuts while Jess melts the chocolate. The lemon myrtle leaf and oil is added, the aroma is heavenly! Angie’s torn, she wanted to cook something more authentic but she knows she placed the restriction on the ingredients. Is it possible to have ‘restricted authenticity?’ she wonders.

They thank the purple haired lady and put the container of lemon myrtle and macadamia rocky road in the re-usable cotton bag with the boomerang and necklace.

Jess wants a snow cone. It’s expensive and tacky, so Angie tries to convince her to have something cheaper or more authentic. Jess is adamant; Angie concedes and then buys herself lunch. There is nothing on the program for an hour so they wander down to the beach, Jess eats a violently coloured snow cone and Angie ambles through her delicious barbecued crocodile roll. A couple appears nearby, she is crying and he is silent. “You fucked another one!” she seethes, with a slight accent. He puts his fingers to his lips and tells her to hush. “Why am I even with you?” she turns her back to him and sobs into her hands. He pulls his phone out and fidgets. An Asian couple descends the rocks in their wedding attire; their photographer arranges them in kitsch poses. A scuba diver ascends and exits the water. An Indian couple picnic with a huge rabbit in a harness, while fair skinned people work remote control cars in a carpark. Jess sits on a rock, transfixed by a lizard that’s gazing into her eyes.

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Back on Bare Island the girls purchase wild plum lollipops each and enjoy them as they find a spot on the grassy hill. Two men spin a stick ferociously; beads of sweat build on their foreheads as diamonds glisten on the water behind. The fire won’t start. One hundred people look on. It is as much a lesson in patience as it is in starting a fire with sticks. Finally, it lights, people applaud. An unhurried Aboriginal elder explains the significance of the branches on the ground and lays them on the fire. He emphasises that the last pile is for someone in the audience, a leader will put it on the fire. Angie’s heart pounds in her chest, if no one steps up, she will. Could she be a leader? Can leaders be poor and live in old fibro houses?

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Five lithe young men appear, painted in white ochre, wearing red fabric tied around their waists and legs. The main boy is fair, the others are dark. The lead boy clicks his tongue, thrusts his knees in and out while bounding forward and making strange sounds. The other young men join in time. The dance is enthralling, Angie’s entire body quivers. The purity of the sounds and movements … a taste of authenticity. Two men play Didgeridoos in the background. Angie wishes one of them wasn’t wearing a hoodie. The hooded one takes the microphone, “We are all going to do a dance in support of Adam Goodes.” Angie whispers to Jess, “This is important. We must do this.” Jess looks perplexed. “A man plays football and he did an Aboriginal dance and now people are booing him.” Jess is shocked, she can’t understand. Angie says, “I know, it’s disgusting.” They stand with the crowd; everyone dances for Adam Goodes. It feels good. It feels important. Dance the hatred away.

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The elder beckons for a leader from the audience to place the last pile of branches on the fire. Angie tries to summon her courage. The crowd gathers at the fire, Angie walks up the hill to gain a vantage point for a photo. When she returns, she finds Jess at the front of the queue. Jess warns her mother to stay back with an embarrassed wave. On the young girl’s face is etched a look that says, I am doing this. I know it’s important. I will bathe myself in this smoke. I am proud to be here. I want to do this on my own. Angie is shocked at her child’s confidence and slightly hurt she isn’t needed. Mum takes her place at the back of the queue while watching her daughter let the smoke caress her face and bring it into her very being. A little nine-year-old has taken ownership of her moral fibre and is publicly standing up for tolerance and respect. Angie swallows her tears of pride. Soon Jess is second in the queue, she can’t believe it—the branches are still there! Her heart pounds, she’s going to do this, she’s going to put the sticks on the fire, she’s going to be a reluctant, yet courageous leader. She reaches down, nervous, yet determined. The woman in front suddenly grabs the branches and tosses them on the fire. Jess’s heart sinks, maybe she lost her chance to be a leader. Maybe, with all this effort, she still won’t make a difference. The smoke is thick, she realises she has lost sight of her little girl, a moment of slight panic grips her.

A gentle breeze works upon the grey smoke cloud. When the smoke clears, the form of a proud little girl materialises. No hatred or prejudice has settled upon her daughter. They head back over the wooden bridge, Jess, no longer frightened, releases her mum’s hand and skips ahead, swinging a boomerang by her side.

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