“Don’t listen to him. He’s just being a dickhead.”
“Oi, didn’t ya hear me? Turn around!”
Dan clenched his fists. Nina grabbed his arm.
“Come on, don’t be a poofta. Show me your big black face!”
Nina was the one that took Dan down to the hospital. She drove him in their 1998 Toyota Camry, speeding down Athllon Drive. She noticed the brakes squealing before she noticed the police car behind her. Her thoughts were scattered like she imagined her brother’s brains were on the pavement.
Dan’s brain did remain in his head, but there was a bloody gash down the middle of his forehead where the skin had broken. The Canberra Hospital did not admit many Aborigines during the year. If they did it was late at night, usually the result of a glassing or a punch-up. This was one such case. Dan had been punched six times before his legs gave way and he hit the ground hard. Nick, the owner of the fist that did the damage walked away jauntily when it happened. He had also sustained a small fracture to his arm but he was too pleased with himself to notice.
It was the second major fight Dan had been in. The first fight was with Robbo, a childhood friend who lived down the road. Robbo said something that Dan didn’t like and Dan hit him. Nina was also the one that sat by Dan’s side in their three-bedroom home, giving him ice and quelling his words with softer ones.
Nina stared down the police officers through the passenger window. They looked past Dan in the front seat and gave her a stern warning. “Next time call an ambulance. A young lady like you shouldn’t be risking her life too.” She breathed in the cool air and took a breath. You’re here, you didn’t get a ticket and Dan will be fine like the last time, she thought as she opened the car door.
Dan was brought up into the emergency ward while Nina waited at the counter.
“Are you family?” the nurse asked.
“Yes, his sister.”
She could have been a friend. Nina and Dan did not look alike in the slightest. Dan’s skin was tanned and his hair was long black and curly. He was tall, taller than both Robbo and Nick, and he was muscly. He looked intimidating enough but Robbo and Nick knew that Dan was not a very good fighter.
Nina was a weakling. Her short-cut hair was in-between brown and blond and her skin was fair. Her nose was sharper than her brothers and she looked older than her age. She was eighteen years old when Dan was beat-up the second time. Dan was twenty-one.
Nina and Dan were each other’s best friends. They were aware that they stood out throughout high school, with Dan as the resident ‘agro-Abo’ and Nina as a quiet, keep-to-herself type. Dan’s nickname was coined when one of his classmates said he looked Aboriginal. His great, great-grandmother was half-Aboriginal, but somehow he inherited the strongest Aboriginal features in the family.
Dan’s other nickname was ‘Boonie.’ When Dan was younger, he used to pretend he was batsman David Boon at the school cricket pitch. “Boon swings a big one, he’s quick off the mark, he runs again, and again, he can do one more, what a run, Boon what a run!” he would commentate. But Boon soon led to ‘Boonie’ as it did for the real David Boon and after ‘agro-Abo’ was coined, ‘Boonie’ referred to ‘boong.’ Canberra didn’t have many Aboriginal people and Dan felt that he copped the weight of discrimination all by himself.
A few weeks after Dan came back from hospital, Nina was filling out an application for university. “Hey Dan, I’m about to submit it. The University of Canberra and ANU. Except for this last essay, I might just make the grades.” Dan nodded. He was determined that Nina achieve what she deserved. Nina did worked hard. She studied every night, revising math, chemistry, biology and physics. Her marks reflected her determination acing everything except for English.
Nina’s English class had finished watching The Rabbit Proof Fence. They were focusing on the theme of discrimination in respect to the Stolen Generation. Nina had never been raised anywhere that was not Canberra and any way that was not Australian. She was barely aboriginal by birth and she didn’t know of many of her mother’s Aboriginal relatives. Besides her brother’s appearance, there was nothing in her family that would suggest she was part Aboriginal. Yet, there was something – a feeling or lots of mashed up confused feelings – that stopped her from seeing the film like the rest of her class. It was pity, confusion, some mangled up connection with the characters and resentfulness. Guilt.
Nina’s teacher asked her to see her after class on the day the finished the film. “Nina, you’ve been silent as a mouse. You know that if you don’t contribute to class discussion, you won’t get a good mark.”
“Sorry, miss. It’s just…” Nina started. Those feelings again, like gum stuck in her throat.
“It’s OK.” Ms. Stein said at the silence. “We’ll go through it together.” Ms. Stein spent the next half-hour explaining her take on the film.
“In the end it worked out for the girls but in real life there are many people out there who continued to suffer without their families. Imagine if you had you’re your parents?”
Nina didn’t have to imagine too hard. Her father had left her and Dan to move into his mate’s place near the local sports club when they were young. Their mother Karen worked a lot and didn’t see her kids often except to muster a “Have ya done your homework yet?” when she arrived home often after 7pm.
“In the present day there are still Aborigines who can’t work and buy a house and participate in society because they have been so traumatized. Or that’s what my son says. Some of them I guess don’t need to work because they have welfare payments.
My son works with an aid organisation. Last year he visited an Aboriginal settlement to help them, you know, just to help them. He said it was difficult to help because all they wanted was alcohol because it wasn’t allowed there. The poor blighters used to be hooked on the stuff. No wonder the government banned it before they destroyed themselves – What’s up honey, are you alright?”
Nina’s confusion showed on her face. “I’m fine, miss. Keep going please.”
“Well, all I was going to say was that it’s difficult. You want to help because they get into all sorts of trouble now but then they just push you away, do their own thing and end up on the streets or in jail or in hospital.”
In hospital. Nina thanked Ms. Stein and excused herself promising that she would try harder in class. Nina was aware of that her breathing was becoming more ragged. By the time she left the building she was seething. Her hands were clammy when she reached for her phone. I’ll be back late tonight. Have dinner without me, she texted Dan.
Nina slipped her phone back into her bag and zipped it up, air still jetting out of her nostrils and maybe even her ears. She stormed to the bus stop, feet pounding on the wet grass across the oval. It was like teenage angst a few years late. She felt un-explained rage and despair.
Nina paid for her bus ticket and stormed to the back of the bus. It was a long bus ride and she had time to settle, to find out what it all meant. She thought about her meeting with the school advisor the day before.
The meeting was going well until, “you have great grades, Nina but English is going to bring you down. I’d suggest applying for a scholarship instead,” said Mr. Foster.
“That way you can avoid getting a really good score in case English brings you down.”
“A scholarship, sir? What scholarship?”
“Oh I had a look at your record. You’re Aboriginal so you can apply. It’s there to give an opportunity for who have been disadvantaged, now or from the past.”
It was Nina’s turn to say ‘oh.’
“I’ll do the form for you. You’re almost guaranteed a placement at ANU. They give out heaps of these each year.”
Nina forcefully pressed STOP at Old Parliament House. Her face was red but she was more composed than when she boarded. She jumped off and saw Dan’s reply, “Do you want a lift home?” No way, she thought. No squeaky breaks to cloud my thinking. She walked towards the makeshift dwelling adjacent to the large white building. She saw the placards and the ever-smoldering fire she had heard of. She was at the Aboriginal Tent Embassy.
The wet clover seeped through her jeans as she plunged each foot forwards to the large sign reading “RECONCILIATION.” Rolling up her pant-legs, she entered the embassy office, a caravan-like structure and the most solid structure among two or three tents.
“Hello is anyone there?” she heard herself ask. She was nervous. “Hello?” she tried again. No reply. She found a stool and sat down. I don’t need a scholarship.
“Hullo!” someone called. A voice emerged from a gaggle of cheery voices behind her. They were a group of students a few years older than her, Dan’s age. She looked at them warily. One of them, a boy, had hair to his shoulders. Another one sat down next to her and took of her shoes. Harmless, Nina thought. They’re just hippies. The one that looked the most normal who had called out to her came over.
“Hey, are you part of the action group?” he asked.
“No, I’m just visiting.”
“Cool. Well want to hang? We’re making dinner over here tonight if Jim’s still around to help us find some dry firewood.”
Maybe it was the late-teenage angst that made Nina feel rebellious. She was going to do something she hadn’t really done before. She was going to hang out them. Hang out with other people.
Nina mainly listened to the group chat as the fire was lit and dinner was prepared under the stars. The discussion was mainly about university; all very amicable until the conversation turned to the subject Nina was most apprehensive about.
“So did anyone hear about what old mate Tony said this week?” said the longhaired boy.
They shook their heads.
“He was opening up an exhibition at the gallery that celebrated the most defining moments of the nation. When asked to say what he thought was the most defining of them all, he said the First Fleet because it was when Australia first became part of the modern world.”
Heads shook again but in protest.
“Tony strikes again.”
“Yeah, this was on top of the comments he made a few weeks prior that Australia was pretty much ‘un-settled’ before the British,” another piped up.
“Typical. I bet he’s never even been to up north to meet the Yolngu or even the Ngunnawal here.”
“He’s probably never the left the cities to see what it’s like out there. To see the communities that have been left flailing after harmful government intervention. The ones that are bereft of effective government services now. Yet somehow to see how they continue their lives with spirituality and rich culture, lives without multi-layered bureaucracy [“ANU administration,” someone smirked] or dog-eat-dog corporatism. I would like to do that. I just want to get out of here, learn more about the Aboriginal peoples and really get to know them.”
“Mate, you’re learning about Aboriginal peoples in that course you’re doing.”
“Just get to know Jim before he goes to bed!” A few chortles.
“No but it’s different you know. Jim lives here and my lecturers aren’t… you know they don’t live out there. I want to see their traditional way of life for my own eyes.”
“What about the alcohol?” Nina blurted out. Everyone including Nina was surprised by the outbreak. She exhaled one breath and continued.
“My teacher at school said that Aboriginal people in settlements just wanted alcohol all the time. My mum knows some Aboriginal people that spend all their money on alcohol. They live at the bottom of our street.”
The students stopped to consider her comments. They were a friendly and clearly a big-hearted bunch. They were well versed in theories of change and other theories more sophisticated than she had imagined shoeless activists knew but there was something off in their reaction.
“I think the situation is different now,” one girl started.
“Yes, alcohol has been a problem in the past,” another began.
“We need to remember it was introduced by the whites,” someone else offered.
“There were a whole range of factors that influenced their decision to drink but the Aboriginal people were hardly complicit in introducing alcohol in their communities.
The Aboriginal people aren’t like that. They know what’s good for them, they know what’s good for them better than the white people – than we do – because they are so intensely connected to each other and their past.”
The conversation moved on to spiritual connections with the land, Nina’s question still hanging in the air over her head.
“Don’t tell me you were at the fucking library all this time,” Dan said as he opened the front door.
“I was at the Tent Embassy.”
“Right. What were you doing there?”
“I dunno. I was thinking. I saw my course advisor yesterday and he told me that I could apply for a scholarship because of our background. He said I’d have a good chance of getting in even if my scores for English weren’t amazing. I guess I was taken-aback by it. I forget we’re Aboriginal sometimes.”
“Oh, Dan I hope I didn’t upset you. I meant that we, well me and mum at least don’t look Aboriginal. We live in a house. We live in Canberra for God’s sake. It’s weird when people talk about you except that it’s not you at all.”
Dan looked at her wearily. He looked at their differences.
“But it is us,” Nina pressed on. “It’s like were not allowed to be living like this because we have too much freedom and they expect we’ll all be stuck on the dole. At the same time they have all sorts of things to say about the rural blackfellas.”
Dan scratched the scar on his forehead. He waited a few seconds before replying.
“You learn to accept that I guess. I didn’t know how to deal with it when I was your age. Instead of thinking about all the things people were saying about me or even thinking about a response when Robbo would call me ‘Boonie,’ I got aggressive then let him kick my ass. That’s why I started to practice throwing punches with dad’s old bag so I could fight back another time if I needed to. The practice felt good but I was lousy when the Nick thing happened. People always have shit to say about us, even if they don’t know us. Even blackfellas say shit about blackfellas. Uncle Tom would probably tell you not to go to uni because it’s a white man’s institution.
But you, Nina. You’re smart. Put all of that stuff in your head into your studies and you go and do us proud. Fuck Uncle Tom. Fuck the scholarship.”
Good thing Dan didn’t lose his head in the punch-up, Nina thought. He always had the right things to say.
Dan was lying on the couch inspecting a bruise while Nina sat at the computer. “Clicking submit now,” Nina told Dan. Dan went over to her.
“How did that feel?” Dan asked.
“Good, I think,” Nina replied. It did feel good and she did feel it. The click. When things clicked for her.
“I feel like a posted a letter. You know after you think of things to say, you put it in an envelope and send it off and then all of those things you had to say are gone.”
“Sorry to break it to you, sis. It’s far from gone. You’ll get a letter in the mail offering a place at ANU!”
“Yeah I suppose,” Nina half-smiled. “Those things never go away,” she said, shutting down the computer.