Thursday, January 20, 2005

there's more to life

Yesterday I took the baby into town to the aquatic centre to enrol him in swimming lessons and on the long walk back past the bush reserve, the sound of cicadas lulled the baby to sleep in his stroller. At the entrance to the reserve there was a sign saying "The Sanctuary" and I smiled and made a mental note to come back sometime and take a photo of us in front of it for my blog.
When we got back to the main street I saw a man at the traffic lights who seemed vaguely familiar. He looked to be in his forties or fifties and had on jeans with a shirt tucked in, and silver glasses. As we approached I realised it was a writer I had got talking to once before. He had told me back then how a professor had encouraged him to get his life story published. Now I called out to him, "Hey, you're the guy who wrote that book, aren't you?" and he stopped and said he was. I said I'd been trying to remember the name of his book so I could look for it at the local library.
"There's More To Life," he said. We started walking towards town together and he explained he was on his way to a job interview as a nurse's aide. I wished him luck. I asked if he'd been doing any more writing lately and he said yes, he had just written some new articles. I asked if I could read them and he said, "Do you have time to come back to my house? You can read them there."
So we walked a couple of hundred metres to a small light-blue weatherboard house with a fading sign out front indicating it was a holiday unit.
"Housing Commission bought it," the writer explained as he helped me lift the stroller up the stairs into his house. We entered the living room which was dominated by a large oval wooden table covered in sheets of paper, some typed, some handwritten. The handwriting was perfect cursive, every letter formed with care. He waved at a chair and handed me a sheaf of typed paper and I started reading, rocking the stroller with my foot. The articles concerned alcoholism, child abuse, marital breakdowns. As I read, the writer elaborated on the material with heartbreaking tales of his family life.
"Where did you learn to write like this," I said finally, amazed at the language skills and vocabulary. Sure, his sentence structure wasn't always perfect, but then, whose is?
The man shrugged. "The professor said I had a gift," he said. The stroller started moving so I took the cover off and helped the baby sit up and see where we were. The writer held out a tin of butter biscuits and offered the baby one. The baby took a biscuit in both hands and chewed thoughtfully, looking at the man with interest.
"First time he's seen a blackfella," I said.
The man looked wistfully at my child and told me how much he missed his grandchildren. He said he was always praying they would visit him from Sydney, but that they never did. He had separated from his wife after many years of marriage and she had then alienated him from his children, and now his grandchildren as well.
"Take a look in the bedrooms back there," he said to me. I hesitated, feeling uncomfortable at the idea of going into a stranger's bedrooms.
"Go on, take a look."
So I dutifully ventured to the rear of the house and looked in the bedrooms. In one, there was a neatly made double bed. In the next, there were three single beds, again perfectly made up. Each bed had a teddy bear sitting on the pillow.
I came back and touched the man's shoulder. He had tears in his eyes. The baby ate another biscuit and listened as the man and I got talking (or really, I got listening) about the plight of the suburban Aborigine. He told me how it felt to have grown up with no links with his traditional culture and yet, not ever feeling part of white man's Australia either. He said he'd once had a group of Italian friends staying with him. Over dinner, they had got into a spirited conversation between themselves, but had stopped talking when they noticed him crying. They'd asked if he was upset that they were talking in Italian. He had said no, he was upset because he had lost his own language.
The writer changed the subject. He told me he had recently begun dating a woman called Linda*. He shuffled through some papers covered with the beautiful handwriting and started reading out aloud some of the love letters he had written for her.Linda, I thought. Do you know how lucky you are to get love letters like this?
It was time for the writer to go to his job interview. He wrote the title of his book and his pen-name on a slip of paper and gave it to me.
"Koorie Dhoulagarle", I tried out his pen-name. "What does it mean?"
"Aboriginal Spirit", he said. We said our goodbyes and I promised we'd come visit again next time we were in town. I walked away thinking of the stories he had told me of his family. His father who'd been into an English-speaking school and forbidden to use his own language. One day, they'd asked him to spell 'apple'. He'd simply drawn a picture of one. And now here was his son, who wrote English as if he had a university education.
Anyway, maybe next time I'll ask him if he'd like me to publish some of his articles here.