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Namatjira

(I)

The old man squatted on his haunches near the low fire. A fly crawled solemnly across his wrinkled foot, and when the old man twisted the foot to shoo the fly away, a tiny mist of dust hovered in the air and then filtered back to the red earth. The fly settled back and recommenced its crawl across the foot, but the man took no more notice and stared out into an evening sky made transparent by the last traces of another hot day. There was no horizon where he stared - just a merging between the spirits of dusk below and day above. Even had it been light there would have been no horizon - just an angry interplay between the combatants: red earth, red sun.

A distance into the half-light, the mission homestead blinked at the approaching dark and voices of singing and talking mingled up through the air. Most of the young went there of an evening for the social life. But the elders preferred to stay in the camp and talk quietly, or perhaps sit and contemplate the outback night. It would be different if there was a corroboree; then the young would rather be outside, green saplings eager for their transplant into the trees of the tribal life. A fleeting smile touched his face. Time would come.

Time always comes quickly enough. Too quickly when the lessons are bitter ones...

"I am an old man.
Old not in years
but in the burden of years
and with the weight
of the things they taught me.
Not the things they meant to teach,
but the truths they could not hide..."

Inside the humpy behind the squatting figure a voice coughed; an answering cough came from out in the darkness, with the scrabble of steps in the dusk and a gurgling growl. The steps would have passed by if the old man had not called out:

"Hey boy!"

"Yes?"

The steps approached and half a face appeared in the fire glow; a hand was holding a bridle of rope attached to a saturnine camel's face.

"You were calling me, father?"

"I wanted to see the camel boy."

"You are a new arrival not to know the name of the camel boy?"

"I have heard of you in the wind. You are Namatjira, I think."

"You would not have heard my name in the wind, old man. My mother's people were of the rocks and the trees in the dreamtime; my name was born in the labour of the red earth which gave birth to these rocks."

"And such proud ancestry is come to this? Watering camels for the white-fella?"

"In return they have taught me, the good fathers."

"What name did they give you?"

"Albert..."

"It's a white-fella's name. What did they teach you?"

"I can write the name they gave me. They have taught me to earn my own living. And there is perhaps the chance one day to visit their cities."

"I have been to their cities."

"You have just come from there?"

"It's a long walk...but the city makes you want to go walkabout very soon."

The boy felt ill at ease with the stranger.

"Will you please excuse me, old man. Tomorrow is a long day, and the camels must be attended to."

"What is tomorrow?"

"A white-fella is here from the city. He paints pictures and I am to carry his things while he works..."

The voice faded into the night, until there was only the camel's snorts. Then silence, with an occasional clicking of cicadas. The old man nodded to himself as if agreeing with unheard voices, and the fire winked several times before sulking away from lack of attention.

"I learnt their lessons.
And lesson was
a dry land,
a land that lies
heavy on the mind -
and barren on the soul.
It suited them...

(II)

The day crept in slowly, like a baby learning to crawl; it picked its way across the saltbush tops and wondered at the stillness around; it silvered the moist edges of gum leaves and drew strange shapes on the red dust from the misshapen humpies - strange conglomerations of bits of packing cases, corrugated iron, bark and anything else that may have come from some ancestral rubbish tip to build a home.

Little moved in the thin air, except an even thinner voice singing a plaintive song in the mission kitchen.

An old figure raised his head from the ground and took in the stillness, but only for a moment before he lifted himself to his feet and stared impassively at the dead fire. The freshness of a young day had long since failed to have much significance for the old man; the years weighed too heavily on him for that. The business of existing was sufficient business for the moment.

He shrugged his shoulders, and gathered a few fallen strips of bark. A visit to a nearby fire which had been banked for the night solved the problem of relighting his. He looked up at a shrill group of crows circling overhead, then headed into the dry bush, the black shadows following his progress with interest. All was quiet again.

Shortly, he emerged from the bush with a large stick in one hand and a goanna in the other. The cacophony of crows in the distance proclaimed they had also found their breakfast.

Breakfast was a simple affair, and after it the old man found a shady patch beneath a ti-tree and took up his squatting position. He was facing the track leading to the mission, a track which shimmered its way out on through the plain into nothing. But even at this time of day the occasional mission vehicle melted its way along it. He watched the camp activities without emotion, except for a sense surrounding him that even as he watched this was not what he was watching. A sense that a million beings sighed from beyond the mists of the dreamtime to constitute his real existence. And a sense of waiting ...

"Power rests...
Power rests not
in the hot urgency
of an action
but in the placid
who will sit
and wait...
and confound those
who laughed...
outliving their laughter..."

Some time through the day the haze of dust grew thicker at the extremity of the track. It billowed towards the mission and someone gave a warning shout. Eyes stopped in their work, eyes opened from their sleep, eyes hunted out the meaning of the growing cloud, until the cry: "It's Albert!" brought a hundred running feet. A new car: dust-covered, thick with mud along the running boards, and the windshield spotted with innumerable insects caught unawares - but all the same, a New Car. Horn blaring, covered now in as many young bodies as could find a crevice or toe-hold, and all shouting and talking and laughing and singing, the car circled the homestead and stopped alongside the main verandah.

The driver climbed down and laughed at the eager bodies round him trying to touch the figure of the moment and share in the aura of the successful man. Albert mounted the steps to where the fathers were grouped and greeted them each in turn. Their faces said "welcome", and their manner said "your people have good cause to be proud of you", and the building said "allow me to honour you with my simple comforts", as it enfolded the group in the coolness of the frugal lounge. It gave begruding entrance also to the Arunda elders.

Outside, the men clustered around the new car and admired the symbols of success, while the women called children back and stood watching in a semi-circle nearby.

Throughout the boisterous scene, the old man squatted in his ti-tree shade. A slight sadness deepened his eyes for a moment, and then he uncurled, turned his back to the noise and wandered into the bush. Another meal needed finding.

It was late in the afternoon when Namatjira left the homestead to look round the camp, accompanied by dozens of hands eager to show him how things had changed since yesterday. See, Gully has produced another litter of yellow-brown pups; and this is the hide of the first kangaroo Tora has killed with his own spear; and look, one of your own paintings is hanging in a humpy, along with some of those poker drawings on mulga wood you used to do. There is no end of important things, Albert - look, here's one of those...Albert, you're not looking. Who? Oh him, we don't know; come and see this...

"Painting pictures is better than watering camels? The camel boy has come a long way."

"Do I know you, old man?"

"You know me, and yet you do not know me. Time has still to run its course."

"I seem to recall a night many years ago when an old man called to a camel boy; or was it yesterday..."

"The boy was a green sapling then; still proud in the totem of his ancestors, still wise in the ways of those who set the essence of his existence. Perhaps he did not realise a sapling is a green stick which still has life and can be bent to kneel before the wind."

"But there is still life. I learned to paint the things of my world - I took it to where the white-fella lives and he liked it. He put it in his galleries and he paid me for showing him my world."

"Except that you forgot to paint in the spirit... or maybe that spirit means little now. I think perhaps the totem objects of the white-fella mean more to you, like that suit you are wearing, and the car you drive."

"But old man, these are not only mine; they are for all my people. these are the things my people need. Yes, I did go to the white-fella's cities and I listened to what he had to say, and he taught me that our people can not remain in the past. If we are to survive in our own land, we must learn some of the other ways."

"You can buy these things from the white-fella. And perhaps they are for all your people. But how do you share a motor car with 500 others? And for all your fine talk, you have not yet bought your wife a new dress."

"There is time for all this to happen."

"Yes, there is time... as you say... You are going back to the city again?"

"In a few days. The King of England is coming here and there is to be a special showing of my paintings and I am to be presented to him."

"He will enjoy that. And they will be very pleased to have you to show to him."

"And do you know, they want to make me a citizen of Australia. I'll be the first aboriginal to be made a full citizen. This will be a proud day for our people."

The old man sighed his agreement, and stared out into the distance as if hearing again unseen voices. He said nothing for a long time, seemingly too weary to continue the conversation. Namatjira shifted uncomfortably on his feet. Finally, he broke the silence.

"Will you please excuse me, old man. I have many people to see, and much to do before I return."

"Yes... go and have your proud day." The voice sounded as if from a thousand years distance, straining to catch the echo of the present day. When the old man looked up again, the sun had set.

(III)

The sun was having its last look round when the figure of an old man approached the camp. It stopped near the edge of the bush, sat down and leaned its back against a convenient gum tree. The old man was weary, but he didn't enter the camp; there would be time for that later. Namatjira had had a long walk. In the heat of the day, the plain had seemed never-ending, but as the sun slid lower later in the afternoon, the earth was not so hot underneath, and he had found it easier going, slinging his shoes over his shoulder and continuing in his socks, at least for the few miles they lasted. By then he was beyond worrying about his feet; they were just appendages at the end of a set of dulled nerves several hundred yards in length, and responding with as much feeling.

He slid lower into the earth from tiredness, and his thoughts matched the slide, sinking as the voices crowded in...

Namatjira, the artist; Namatjira, the citizen; Namatjira, the ... no ... just Namatjira. Albert Namatjira. Yes, your Majesty, the first native to exhibit nationally. A most remarkable talent, your Majesty, discovered in the outback by one of our best-known water colourists...

Now the voices were a flood, jangling, clanging, full of high insistence, wrought on the anvil of a white-fella's city and thrust out onto a nerve-wire stretched longer than a savage land.

"Not as good as his teacher, Batterby; but promise, definitely promise..."

"... followed by an appearance at the Royal Easter show..."

"... another beer, Albert."

"Two men's suits, four dresses, six shirts..."

"... to pronounce you a full citizen of ..."

"... and a carton of gin to the mission..."

"...and did on that day ..."

"... to say for yourself?"

"... they said he bought it for his brothers..."

"...six months gaol."

The prison doors swung slowly to, shutting out the city.

A voice whispered from nearby in the bush; so near it could have been no more than a million years away. Namatjira looked round, but the only creature there was a tiny lizard, which blinked stupidly and darted off.

"I am an old man.
Old not in years
but in the burden of years..."

He nodded, half asleep, then shook himself.

Scarcely anyone was around now. Most were over at the homestead and the sun had just dipped below the skyline. Stiff from travel, and not hungry enough to raise the energy to find someone who might give him something to eat, he shuffled into the camp. The nearest humpy at which there was a water bag was sufficient place to rest, and he squatted to slake his thirst.

Little had altered since his last visit, but as he looked around something was missing. He knew no-one was expecting his arrival, but for some reason he had almost been prepared for a greeting, a questioning voice, to probe his presence. Someone, perhaps, whom he never knew, but who knew him only too well. Someone, perhaps, who had a message if one could have taken the time to listen.

He sighed and stared out into the evening sky made transparent by the last traces of the hot day. There was a cough, and a scrabble of steps out in the faded light. Puzzled, listening, and then understanding, the old man called out:

"Hey, boy!"

"Yes?"

The steps approached and half a face appeared in the dim light; a hand was holding a bridle of rope attached to a saturnine camel's face.

"You were calling me, father?"

"I wanted to see the camel boy."

................................

(c) Copyright John McNeil, all rights reserved. Apart from the purposes of fair review, this work may not be reproduced in whole or in part in any form, physical or electronic, without the express permission in writing of the author. He may be contacted at jandhmcneil<a>paradise.net.nz