Ellery Creek by Anne Vines
By Wasafiri Editor on January 19, 2014 in
Anne Vines is based in Melbourne, Australia. She was shortlisted in the Henry Handel Richardson Short Story Award, The Age Short Story Award and the Alan Marshall Short Story Award and commended in the Varuna Harper-Collins Award and the Victorian Premier’s Literary Award. She won the Boroondara Prize in 2104.
Every five minutes, the scenery changes. As their four-wheel drive rolls along the road from Alice Springs to King’s Canyon, they see long, craggy lines of ranges in the mid-distance, bright red and gold. In five minutes, there are plains and rounded hills, green and grey-blue with stately ghost gums and feathery desert oaks. Further on, a huge copper-coloured wall appears, the flat edge of a kilometre-wide crater, relic of a meteor too long ago to imagine.
The four travellers, white Australians from Melbourne, are excited by the variety and grandeur of the outback country, its huge features and delicate, then rough textures. The younger couple currently live in Alice Springs and have seen a lot of the surrounding land. This road is not new to them. They far prefer travelling off sealed highways, on the rougher dirt tracks. Later they will take her parents onto the Mereenie Loop and then they will feel in the country rather than speeding past it on bitumen. They can’t wait to show her parents the hilarious handmade road signs on the rutted, twisting Mereenie; not white style speed limits, but ‘Plant im Foot’ and ‘Lift im Foot’.
They are bound for King’s Canyon eventually, but on the way, they stop at each inviting gorge, waterhole or creek. It has been an unusually wet season and now autumn is lush. Each gorge has leafier trees than in most years, more undergrowth and flowers, more light and shade — and more water. Chasms and holes that are usually shallow are now full and deep.
Simpson’s Gap is familiar to the older couple from film and photographs, but the actual place seems bigger and more mysterious. The narrow cleft in the high rock walls and the path below feel like secrets recently found. Yet the indigenous people have visited this place for an unknown length of time, way before Simpson ‘discovered’ it and someone used his name to claim it for white colonists. Some years back, when Australia relinquished some of these new names, the older man was thrilled; labels he had grown up with – Ayres Rock, Kings Canyon, the Olgas – were changed to indigenous words rich, sonorous and strange: Uluru, Watarrka, Kata Tjuta.
They stop next at a less famous waterhole; they don’t know the indigenous name for it, only the somewhat awkward English label, perhaps a combination of the official and the colloquial names: Ellery Creek Big Hole. Later, the older woman can’t recall if the sign had an indigenous name or only the English one. As they drive in, the track is rough. At the car parking area, they are surprised to see a bus among the few cars there. They walk down the path to the water. It is like a lake, expanding then narrowing into the distance from a grassy hillside and small sandy grey beach. The water forms a large round pool before the rocks of the gorge narrow it to a line of bright sunny water finishing in a dot on the horizon.
The younger two want to swim. The older man thought he would but is daunted when he feels the icy water on his feet and ankles. With his wife, he sits on the grassy hill overlooking the sand and watches their daughter and her boyfriend swim. The boyfriend goes out a long way and emerges at the centre of the pool, framed by the rocky walls. A photo, the older woman thinks, and grabs her phone, takes one of the boy with the light behind him and one of her daughter closer in.
The young man has prepared a picnic. The four travellers sit on their folding chairs under thin, graceful trees in mottled sunshine to enjoy juice, coffee, fresh salads, dips and breads.
Their conversation is quiet and becomes sporadic, for they are entertained by a group of indigenous boys on the beach playing football. The two adults in charge look white. The travellers know this can’t be assumed from appearances, but they notice that one of the men, who it soon becomes clear is the bus driver, has a north English accent. The other man, called ‘sir’ by the boys, is a teacher and sounds unmistakably Australian. The boys develop a game which includes running up to the highest hillside and jumping into the water, as well as emerging onto the beach and marking or kicking the ball. The boys seem about nine or ten, perhaps a little older. They range in size, though most are thin and wiry. All are agile and fast. They leap, roll and dodge like football stars in the making. The old man watching wonders if they are a team or just a class.
He recalls with a mental shudder the few excursions at his school with a team or a class. Teams were shouted at and castigated if they lost. He winces at the misery. Somehow he doesn’t remember a good match when they won. He wasn’t good at football, not in the better teams, rarely won, spent a long time sitting and standing by, freezing in the Melbourne wet winters. Even his younger brother, a talented player, hated the teachers and despised their coaching. This teacher is warm and encouraging, like a dad. It is a Friday and perhaps the teacher likes this better than school.
The old man’s own teachers had brought the strictness of their school with them, even on long bus rides to the country. Once, on the worst excursion, he saw a boy thrown off the bus — he twisted around to stare out the window at the ousted boy as the bus ploughed on, leaving the boy on the side of the highway, far from any town. On the bus, the pupils hardly dared speak. No one laughed or protested or asked how the boy would get home. Later, they learned that the master on the second bus had stopped and picked up the forlorn boy, but for his kindness or merely his practicality, he had been scolded at school assembly as harshly as a pupil, and forced to apologise to the Head.
Fred was the Head’s nickname. In train stations and railway bridges across the suburbs, huge hand-painted letters declared:
What the signs didn’t say was that he beat boys about the head while he foamed at the mouth.
The football and diving game is boisterous and joyful. The old man grins at the players. They’ve never been strapped for pushing their caps back on their heads or stalked to milk bars and given detention for playing sinful Elvis records on a juke box. These little kids swear and talk freely. It isn’t just their bodies that seem free. Yet when they get older, what choices will they have here or anywhere in Australia?
When one of them kicks the ball up into a thin high tree, the old man wonders at the calm reaction of the teacher.
‘Hey, Corey, you’re a good climber. How about going up and trying to shake it down?’
The kid called Corey is tiny. Narrow, thin and short. But his face is perky and he says, ‘Maybe too high sir. The ball’s too far out to get.’
The teacher explains that he doesn’t expect Corey to climb out to the fine, fragile branches where the ball is.
Corey runs at the tree, walks up it a way and hoists himself with arms and then bent legs till he is way above them all at the top of the main trunk. He gives a violent shake and the top of the tree moves back and forth, swinging him wildly. He lets out a scared squeal. The boys below laugh and a few jeer.
‘You try it,” Corey yells. “It’s high up here. Shakes like mad.’
He does and then clings on, leaning his head on the trunk. After a few moments he calls, ‘Throw me something.’
The bus driver produces a plastic bottle filled with water.
‘Pour half out,’ says the teacher. ‘It’ll be too heavy.’
‘Yeah, might knock me off.’ Corey half laughs, his voice excited but wary too.
‘What a great kid,’ the young man says to the other three watchers. He and the young woman snuggle together watching Corey.
The bottle is thrown. Wide. Again. Closer. Again. Hits the tree, which shakes. Corey yelps and the boys below laugh.
‘Eh. You come up here then,’ Corey shouts. He shakes again for ages, his body leaning against the waving tree, but the ball doesn’t move.
‘Throw me the bottle,’ Corey yells. ‘I can try to hit the ball.’
So they do. The four travellers move to allow more action directly underneath the tree. They tidy up and heave on their backpacks. They stand to watch, hoping the ball will shift. The older man gets involved, takes off his backpack, picks up the bottle and hands it to the waiting boys. The bottle is often buried under bracken and they all search for it side by side.
‘I’ll give a reward to the boy who gets the ball down,’ says the bus driver.
‘You can share it,’ says the teacher, ‘but the winner can choose first.’
After a long while, the younger woman mentions the time. There’s a fair way to go for their accommodation that night at Glen Helen. The older man nods, puts on his pack and they wish the searchers good luck and move off.
They are halfway back to the car when the older man stops. ‘My watch,’ he says, his face aghast. It’s a gold one, belonged to his father, worth a lot, but it’s not the money he cares about.
‘Maybe it fell off when you were scrabbling in the undergrowth,’ says his daughter.
He nods but says with a grimace, ‘God, I hope that’s the explanation. I don’t want to think it could have been taken but you can’t help wondering, can you?’
They all feel ashamed. Except for the daughter, each had wondered. She doesn’t believe it was theft for a moment. She feels a surge of anger at her parents. When they finally come to visit her new home, they bring their old Australian prejudices. Why must her father bring the bloody watch everywhere? Who wears a Rolex in the bush, for God’s sake? And how does her mother tolerate it — why must she go along with every silly habit of his?
The mother thinks it might well be a case of theft – such a temptation – but there’s another likely story too. ‘Could you have pushed it off when you were taking your backpack off?’
The older man goes back to look.
After a moment, the young man says to the daughter, ‘Maybe you should go and help.’
They both worry that her father might be tactless. Not that he’d accuse anyone in words but he wasn’t good at masking his feelings.
The young man waits with her mother and keeps his impatience hidden. He feels depressed; the last thing he wanted was to be in conflict with those kids. The old man was full of sympathy for the Aborigines but, as soon as he met some, he assumed they might be criminals — old lefties can be so sixties; the older man’s travelling has been utterly urban.
A few kids come strolling back from the waterhole, past the young man and the old woman.
One of the boys says, ‘Now they’re all looking for the old bloke’s watch. He’s gonna give fifty dollars reward. Fifty dollars!’
The old woman smiles but feels anxious. She fears the watch will be too hard to find if it is in the bracken and if it is in someone’s pocket, how will they confess?
The daughter stands on the beach as her father tells the boys that the watch was his father’s and offers the reward. She thanks the kids for searching.
‘He your dad?’ asks one kid and she says yes. ‘Old dad,’ he says and she smiles.
Soon she’ll look old enough for a dad that old, she thinks. She starts wanting a baby even more than she has for the last while.
There’s a sort of rustling near the teacher but neither she nor her father sees what happened. The teacher hands the watch to the old man.
‘Gordon found it,’ he says. ‘And look, there’s no need for a reward.’
The older man shakes his head, takes out his wallet and peels off a fifty. ‘You can make sure they all get a share in this,’ he says but he tries to look Gordon in the eye. ‘Thank you, Gordon,’ he says.
‘Okay,’ the boy mumbles, his head down, looking to the side. The older man knows that is their way.
Her father echoes that. ‘Thanks, boys. Well done. I’m really pleased to have it back. My father gave it to me.’
In the car, the younger two are pleased and laugh about the result. When the older man says perhaps a kid gave it to the teacher after the reward was mentioned, they don’t find that convincing.
‘Anyway, who knows,’ says the older man. ‘I’m delighted that it turned up, not just for me, I mean, but for the sake of the kids. I felt so awful seeming to accuse them the longer we kept looking. But why do you think it was the teacher who gave me the watch?’
They discuss the shyness and privacy of indigenous people — was it that? Was it because they trusted the teacher or automatically thought he should know first, he was the authority, the one to go to? Did he tell them to bring it to him? They hadn’t heard him say so.
‘Wonder what they will do with the money,’ says the daughter.
‘Have chips and pizza or go to a movie,’ says the young man.
She laughs. ‘You should have heard the kids all saying — there’s a reward! Fifty dollars! He’s going to give us fifty dollars!’
The father protests that it seemed a reasonable amount even though the watch is worth so much. The young folk laugh and tell him it was fine, that he did the right thing. He feels such relief to have the watch back — it was what he valued more than anything he owned. But he is relieved too, that the boy or boys did the right thing; he would love to believe they didn’t take the watch; he doesn’t believe they took it off his arm, only that they might have picked it up when it fell. But it makes him happy enough that they made the decision to give it back. Maybe they felt sorry when he said it was from his father. He enjoys thinking that.
The young man feels sad that they have reinforced the might of the dollar. The kids will want more of it, will remember the money most of all from that day, not the wonderful climb of Corey nor the joy of the recovered football nor the decent, ordinary gift of the cake. He feels contaminated — labelled as a rich white man. Before this he had been comfortable in his role as a benevolent part time worker and progressive graduate student of development, this year taking the back seat to his girlfriend’s professional job. But what happened today will get around the whole indigenous community. And her parents will think they have met indigenous people now. He is the only one who has lived alongside them, up north and who intends to again. He shifts in his seat.
The young woman is delighted at the memory of her moments talking with the kids. As she drives, shestill sees their open faces, sparkling eyes, their quick movements and laughter. She loves these people. She loves their places. If only she could really meet them, visit them, not as a professional offering advice, but as a friend. She feels glad her father has his favourite possession back. What a dear, sentimental man he is, for all his rational talk. He’s so fond of the memories of his father, whom she can hardly recall.
The older woman is relieved too — she had feared a scene; had feared that they would spend hours fruitlessly searching when the school children had given up; had feared her husband would grieve for his watch forever. She had worried that their day would be ruined. Their time with the young pair up here was bringing them so much closer – especially her husband and her daughter, often so likely to irritate each other. Thank goodness the child had found – or given back – the watch. The young couple could keep their belief in the innocence of the children; their altruistic sense of brotherhood was lovely and made their life in the Centre pleasant. They had to work with the indigenous, after all, in their jobs. The schoolchildren were delightful and she was glad to have seen their playing, their fitness and their exuberance. It counterbalanced the fat, drunken groups she had seen through the glass from the hotel restaurant in Alice Springs. She smiles and stares at the dark blue sky and then the red roadside. She had feared the loss of the watch would spoil the whole holiday and take the shine off her daughter’s adventure in the Alice.
Each of the four falls silent, seeing Corey in the tree, remembering the faces of the children and wondering what it’s like where they live.