My piece on the Death of a Mining Town
The Sunday Age 22 January 2017
My piece on the Death of a Mining Town
My piece on the Death of a Mining Town
The Sunday Age 22 January 2017
By the time we disembark in the town we have travelled most of the day. The streets are a desert in the empty way of a Sunday afternoon in the country. We need to buy food supplies but all is quiet. Nothing moves. The air tastes hot. Breathing becomes an effort.
Up and down slow wide streets we prowl, looking for a supermarket. Hello! This is Woolworths. A cluster of cars baking in the carpark. Signs of life. Or recent life.
We tumble out, one grizzled grandfather, two ratty ten-year-old twins. Woolies is open! In the course of the following twenty minutes I load a trolley with fruit, vegetables, cheese, pasta, milk, yoghurt, confectionary bribes, cans of tuna, smoked salmon for the sybaritic grandsons.
The boys have disappeared. All other customers have disappeared. Someone turns off a lot of lights. I wrestle the trolley to the check-out where the twins lie face down, arms outstretched, fingers groping in the narrow cracks beneath the checkout counters, Their long curly hair wears a diadem of dust. Their once-clean shirts from long ago – this morning – are grimy. Their faces are coated in dirt. They wear expressions of intense concentration. When I call their names they do not respond. They pay no heed. Business as usual.
I pay a distracted-looking checkout person who asks me whether the boys are mine.
Technically they are not. But I admit to the connection.
Checkout person says: ‘That money doesn’t belong to them.’
‘What money, I wonder?’
I call the boys and advise them I am about to leave, the store is about to close, and I will collect them at opening time tomorrow. If I remember.
The boys surface, faces aglow with dirt and triumph, their hands full of coins. ‘Look Saba! We found all this money under the checkouts.’
‘That money doesn’t belong to you’ – checkout person again.
‘It doesn’t belong to you either’, says one cheeky voice.
‘Who does it belong to?’ – challenges another.
‘No it doesn’t.’ – two voices in chorus.
‘It can’t belong to the shop, Saba. The people paid the shop. The people dropped the coins. It’s not the shop’s money.’
‘Whose is it, do you think?’ – asks the grizzled grandfather, who isn’t really too clear on the legalities or the morals here.
The boys have an answer: they’ve spied a tin chained to the checkout counter. The tin has a slot for coins in its top.
The boys are busily feeding the coins into the tin, counting as they go. ‘Twenty two dollars and thirty-three cents, Saba! All for charity.’
The boys were unerring in their reading of the moral landscape: the label on the tin reads: HELP DISADVANTAGED CHILDREN.
A winter’s afternoon in a northern outback town. The sun broiling my white skin in the current slow-roast mode. At the taxi rank outside Coles I stand, waiting, midst my regretted plastic bags filled with food purchases. A few metres distant stands a compact Aboriginal lady with her bags, also waiting for a cab. A roaring from the middle of the street, busy with Friday afternoon traffic. The roars emerge from the centre of a bearded black face. The face sits atop a tall and rangy frame. Long limbs convey trunk and roaring face across the street between moving vehicles that pass and part as the Red Sea waters. Mister Beard’s legs weave in a singular, sinuous, almost swimming gait. He makes shore just beyond the waiting lady, who half turns to him, speaks a quick, quiet word to him, at which he desists from his roaring.
As the man passes the woman his whispered promise to her drifts on the warm air to my ears: “No humbug!”
Approaching me now the man is taller and wider than I appreciated. His articulated body parts have a folding, telescoping tendency, now unseen, now seen briefly, in the fluidity of his motion. The man stops at half a metre distant, I atop the kerb, he on the roadway. He bends forward, lowering a shaggy head to the level of my face. “Goood Afternooon”, he croons winningly, his large and elastic lips sliding into smiling. “I will tell you my story, story of my country.”
The man checks his speech to extend an upper limb towards me. The hand that grasps my own (size eight surgical glove, “large” in an operating theatre) hand now hides mine entirely. Soft, cool, its palm a pale honey shade, that expansive hand shakes my own: “Welcome to country”, it says.
The winning voice speaks again: “What is your name, sir?
“Howard – a good name: the Prophet Howard. I am” – a deep bow, the crooning speech – “I am Mohhses…the Prophet Howard and the Prophet Moses!”
“Well Moses, it’s good to meet you. And Moses is a good name, a very good name. I am not so sure about the Prophet Howard. The last Howard leader we had was John Howard.
Moses’ wide face contracts in thought, opening again into full flowering grin: “No, not so good really”. A gust of laughter blows a fruity aromatic breeze to my nose.
“Sir – Howard – would you lend me two, three dollars?”
My brain falters as my hand dives to the bottom of my hip pocket where the coins gravitate during shopping.
“Just four dollars, five.”
My thinking self doesn’t buy alcohol for a drink-ruined man. But here he is, ‘Mohhses’, in his large physicality, in his irresistible humanness. Here he stands, but a breath distant from me.
Human impulse and slow judgement wrestle within me, a longish bout apparently, for now Moses moves unexpectedly, half a step backwards, as his knees flex, his torso descends, his head recedes downwards, down toward the tarmac.
A sudden shout breaks from me as my arms grasp and yank the man’s shoulders: “No! No! Moses don’t you ever do that! Don’t you kneel before me.”
The man rises. His rueful grin concedes, “well, that ruse didn’t work”. My own voice, murmuring now my small mean thoughts, “Moses, I don’t think you really mean I should ‘lend’ you money. Don’t you mean ‘give’?”
The face is at rest, now pensive, now lit anew: “I will sing you a song. My song. I come from Kohhhlahhhmbarooo.”
Moses pauses as he feels the weight of a cluster of small brazen coins entering his palm from mine.
Now the man sings. Listening acutely for the secrets of country, I stand poised on the pavement, even as my cab approaches.
The singing voice is sweet, the phrases protracted, Moses in motion with the rhythm of the song and the ruin of his proprioception. The honeyed voice, draws sound from the great body, sound that flows and undulates in no tongue familiar to my ears.
The cab is upon me, an electric window slides down and a Philippino face asks me, “Where to, mate?”
And Moses sings on. Now the words take shape. “Do nooot forsaaaake me, o my daaaarling…”
I thank the man from Kolamburu and hide my hand in his. We shake, I reclaim my limb and climb into the car. As we drive away, Moses sings on, “On this ouuuuuur wedddddding daaaaaay….”
When I was a boy I came across cultural truisms like, “Aussies will bet on anything; they’ll bet on two flies walking up a wall.” What I heard was something to celebrate, a playfulness in the Australian spirit. When I inherited from a great uncle a curious little plank with two identical circular depressions, someone had to explain this relic of “two-up”, a national pastime. It spoke to me of the irrepressible Aussies of “Songs of a Sentimental Bloke”. As a more than commonly sentimental bloke myself, I was not disposed to judge or diagnose any malady.
In 1972 I met Darkie Harris. I was the new GP in an ethnically homogenous semi-rural community, an oddity in a skullcap. Somehow the community embraced and included me while excluding the pig-raising Maltese and my only co-religionists ‘the Jews on the hill’.
Darkie Harris differed from everyone and in ways solely his own. Unprepossessing, short, stocky, swarthy, with a face marked by scars and improved by large purpling lips and a vocal tone that ranged from a growl to a bark, he looked older than his fifty-four years and fiercer than anyone so old (I was then exactly half his age) had a right to look.
Darkie distinguished himself by a sort of verbal pugilism. By word and facial expression, and yes, by facial complexion, Darkie dared everyone he encountered to fight him.
What was it that Darkie wanted to fight against? One thing, one thing only. Racism: I don’t care if you’re a chinaman or an abo or a white man. If I cut you, you’re blood’s the same colour as mine.* Darkie was the only person in the town who saw this Jewcomer doctor as undifferent. In equal parts alarmed and charmed, I found I liked him. To most in town I seemed exotic, to some a too shiny exception (‘you’re not like the others’), to some an emblem of a nobility I never earned.
Darkie was retired by the time I met him. He’d take up his position on a bench outside the Chinese café and the fish and chip shop run by a pair of Maltese brothers. He’d sit and glower, softening into a winning chivalry towards women (a sweep of the hat, a flash of gaptoothed smile, “Good morning, Ladies”) and to engage toddlers in amiable conversation while uncertain mothers tried to hide their nervousness and drag their children away.
Darkie sat on his bench and kept vigil. He was waiting for the unguarded comment, any reference he could take exception to, any sneer at the immigrants he championed.
Young hoons and would-be thugs about town learned to shy away from Darkie. As he informed me on a number of occasions, I’d sooner have a fight than a feed. Darkie was referring to his younger self in the Depression days when he was a runner for an illegal bookie, a risky position in a volatile industry. But in 1972 his interlocutor would take Darkie at his word as he’d rise and stride, frothing, barking menacingly to confront the casual bigot.
Darkie never gambled. Those were not the risks he’d take. He described his working life as an honest buccaneer. He served his boss – some degree of criminal – honourably. He’d take the blows and deliver his own and he’d return home and hand his earnings to Joyce, his leathery wife, who subsisted in a cloud of tobacco. Before Joyce Darkie would humble himself, confess his escapades and worship.
The stories of Darkie and flies on a wall and two-up created the sketchy image I had of gambling in Australia. We must have had gambling addiction but I never knowingly met one. I knew dimly of the ancient rabbinic edict that disqualified a gambler as a witness in court proceedings because an addict could neither trust himself or be trusted by others.
In 1976 I went for an early morning run in Launceston, pausing to poke a curious nose into the local casino, a gruesome cellar where women in curlers and moccasins sat mechanically before fruit machines from six in the morning.
Shaken, I ran away.
For some years in the late nineties my younger daughter, a psychologist, worked as a therapist at Gambler’s Help. Her stories of human wreckage at our dinner table opened my eyes. In 2000 I met Alan, a shining youth who became my patient. He starred at hockey, graduated from his elite school, studied business, was recruited by a leading financial institution that trained him as a currency dealer. Two years ago Alan married his golden girl Helen, a primary teacher. They bought a house together in the regional city were she grew up. Neither Alan nor Helen yet realised the bank Alan worked for had trained him as one of their corps of gamblers.
A year ago doctors in the city’s ICU worked on Alan through a Saturday night and all the next day and night. At 27 years of age, Alan’s life seemed at its end, his blood pressure unrecordable, his breathing and heartbeat negligible. It must have been his hockey that saved Alan, his underlying fitness, that brought him back from where his overdose had taken him. After gambling away the contents of the joint bank account, Alan punted on the marital home and lost it. On a weekend when Helen was out of town for a friend’s hen’s night, Alan wrote a note and swallowed the tablets that were to end his self-loathing and his shame. Only Helen’s dog, locked out of the house all Friday night and Saturday, raised the ire of neighbours with her barking.
The marriage died and was buried in a divorce. In the settlement there was little to apportion: Helen took her dog, Alan his shame. His need, his comfort, his fateful hoping – I mean his urge to gamble – survives. It is a daily battle which Alan does not always win.
I turn on the TV to watch sport. Sport still has the power to inspire me, to express nobility, to create wonder, to delight, to unite and uplift. Before and after and between plays, the gambling industry shouts its messages of slim hope, seducing, reducing the game to mere exchange. It is not possible for a child to watch sport on TV without seeing gambling ads. I turn off and prowl my bitter old mind and think of Alan.
In these wrinkled years the past glows, the present moulders, the future threatens. We need someone to blame. That’s why we elect governments – there are some things you just can’t blame on your wife. In the matter of our gambling pandemic I blame governments. Governments bankrupt of funds fall hard for the revenue that streams from gambling. Soon the treasury is addicted to gambling. A few budgets later, we have a government bankrupt of judgement and ultimately of morality. In their lonely amorality, our representatives fall into bad company, the Gambling Lobby. Governments collude with the industry to prevent and foil the simplest attempts to ameliorate our national malaise.
Over two decades I have witnessed the card games in remote Aboriginal communities. Large numbers, women usually outnumbering men, sit on the ground beneath huge trees and gamble from first light to nightfall. Darkness falls and the players shift to the bitumen and sit on the roadway and play through the night.
In Arnhem Land once a nurse and I battled through a long day to save an underweight, undersized infant with life-threatening pneumonia, the child starved because his mother had no money for food. After the necessities – I mean cigarettes and Coca Cola – the young mother consumed the family income at the card games.
Grey day. Not cold, just damp, a case of Melbourne having weather instead of a climate. Striding along Collins Street to keep an appointment, I sight ahead of me in the gloom a lone figure sawing away at a violin. The sounds, initially thin, fill and broaden as I near the performer, a slender young woman. Closer now, and the sound is rich and spacious under the leaden canopy of wet cloud.
The violinist stands alone in her parallelogram of space as Melbourne’s skulkers scuttle to shelter.
I chuck a coin into her empty violin case, thanking her for beautifying this unbeautiful day.
Further down Collins Street, I stand in the drizzle awaiting my appointed meetee. A thin man approaches, veers towards me and slows: “Wanna buy a diamond ring?”
Sixty-eight year old ears don’t pick up such fine print.
Did he ask for money? He looks like he could go a feed.
My hand locates the ten dollar note in my pocket.
Uncertain, I ask: “What did you say?”
“Do you want to buy a diamond ring?”
The thin man flashes a thin silvery band before clenching his hand around the ring.
“What? No thanks. I don’t need a ring. Thank you.”
The man peers at me
He is shorter than I am. He sights my kippah.
“Are you a Jew?”
Credit: Gutenberg Images.
“That’s good”, he says. Reassuring me. “You wouldn’t have a spare dollar…?”
My ready hand finds the ready note and produces it. The man palms the note, opens and considers it, then says, “You wouldn’t have another ten, would you?”
“Piss off!” Smiling.
The man extends a skinny arm. His paw pats my shoulder –
“Thanks sir” – then slopes away up Collins Street.
This bus I await
Is not mine
In the dark
On the 91 Line
I took the 91
Missed my stop;
Now look around
Outside a shop –
In a doorway
Homed on the 91 Line
Her eyes closed,
His rest denied
On her face, her shirt;
His face younger
Looks harrowed –
Not an iphone
At his cheek
But a fruit ice –
A second peek
In not yet dawn
She wants warm
While he applies ice!
Wondering in gloom
I check my cash
Two large notes
None small; rash
“Could you use a quid
Or two?” “Mate,
I could.” (A schooled voice.)
Note unnoted, palmed, hid.
“Toothache?” “Mate, agony,
Three days now…”
Pain cries for relief
I’ve three green
Gel tabs, ibuprofen:
These given, palmed,
Expose the fifty. Now
He sees, amazed
And I, running late
Escape on the 91 –
The wrong bus;
Separate us –
While eating my breakfast cereal this morning I noticed a small brownish-black, curved item, the size and shape of a carraway seed. It didn’t taste like carraway, lacking that distinctive aroma.