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THE SECRET PLACE

We’re going somewhere,’ Greg said hurriedly. ‘C’mon.’

Where were we going? Dunno. Why? Dunno. How long? Dunno. Get in the car.

Sally clambered in beside me, squeezing her enormous bum through the door, gasping and cackling, a mountain of tits and stomach, her filthy dress and grubby arms alarmingly at odds with her warmth. Sally smelt of many things.

Joseph jumped in the other side. He looked muddy and grim, but this was normal. He carried a tin mug and smelt sweetly of sweat. Mary heaved herself into the front seat and began talking rapidly. She was slightly smaller than Sally with equably pendulous breasts and smelt of campfire, fat and fanny.

‘She’s asking if we can do more inma later.’

It was clear Greg was gently saying ‘no’.

‘I told her we had men’s business to do tonight.’

There was a blast of laughter from the women.

‘Sally’s saying she wants to see the whitefellas with no clothes on.’

Mary made a loud shriek. Sally covered her face with her hands squealing her delight. Even dour Joseph was compelled to smile.

‘It’s not a pretty sight,’ he said. There was more laughter and we headed off the road and into the scrub.

*

Mary waved excitedly towards the hills.

‘That’s where Malu traveled towards their camp,’ Greg translated, ‘and that’s where he jumped in the air. See that tallest peak there? That’s where he flew over to those rocks. He landed and there was a fight.’

There were grunts and pokes in the shoulder from Sally whenever Mary forgot something or rushed too fast past some important point. This was a dreamtime lecture for the whitefellas. Dog made sure to make the right ‘ummmm’ and ‘ahhh’ sounds while class was in session. Mary’s enthusiasm for her role, those waving hands, her sheer pleasure in the telling was a delight. I knew not to quiz Greg for the details.

‘That’s her business, mate,’ he’ll say.

I wanted to ask him where we were going but I knew he’d just laugh. Greg took pride in hurling Dog into strange situations. We’d been outback before. Of course, he wasn’t a shaman then.

Quite frankly, I wasn’t sure he was one now.

The scrub ran right up to a wall of rock just turning to orange in the late afternoon light. We followed this for a while, bumping along in the 4WD then Sally sniffed, Mary snorted and the car lurched to a halt.

‘What is this place?’

‘Nowhere special, mate…’

Mary and Sally led the way, chattering gaily to Joseph. It wasn’t far before I could see the reason for our trek; tiny gum nuts, thousands of them, strewn under a particular clump of trees. Sally took control, waving her flabby arms around ordering first Mary, then the rest of us to strategic positions around the grove.

‘You!’ she laughed, pointing at Joseph, ‘you go ‘ere.’ She pointed up into the trees and muttered something in her own language.

No sooner said than done. He was up the tree and tossing down bunches of nuts before Sally could organize the rest of us. She looked up at his body and said something that made Mary shake with laughter.

‘She’s says he has a big dick,’ chuckled Greg, ‘she says it’s a shame he’s not a blackfella.’

‘You pella! You pella mister!’

Sally was pointing at Greg.

‘You come ‘long here wid me!’ and rolled her shoulders lasciviously. We all laughed. Greg was dispatched; finally Sally looked at me and smiled.

‘Trink,’ she said softly, ‘you go trink,’ and waved one grubby paw past the rock wall, shooing me into the unknown.

Dog took the cue and walked hesitantly in the direction she had indicated, along the rocks on one side, open scrub on the other. I could just hear the trickle of water.

Trink,’ she cackled.

*

What a place. Dog looked up into a gully of rounded rocks worn smooth by the action of rain and wind, a hidden valley of calm and peace. It was dry now but the path of water had traced out a series of small waterfalls and courses, emptying out into descending pools of muddy water.

The boulders looked frozen, liquefied, tumbling down the cliffs. A still pool in front of me was fed from one side by a spring of pure cool water oozing out of the rocks. Dog crouched and drank; tentatively at first then with more courage. It was a wonderful spot, savage, elegant, unexpected and wild.

I didn’t hear Joseph. Suddenly he was there.

‘Great place…’ I whispered.

He nodded silently, brown eyes warm and trusting.

‘Do you know where you are?’ he said softly.

I shook my head.

‘Those ladies are letting you see a sacred place. I can’t tell you why. That’s their knowledge to give out, not mine.’

*

A shout. Mary was above me, wedged into a shaded area beneath a huge overhang of rocks.

‘Come, come, you! Come!’

‘You’ll need this,’ Joseph said and handed me the mug.

I scrambled up the slippery rock, squatted next to her, waiting. Mary sat by a hidden pool, her hand outstretched.

‘Gimme dat cup.’

She dipped it into the water, careful not to disturb the sediment below.

‘Trink,’ she whispered and touched my arm, ‘trink. Good water.’

I didn’t notice Greg behind me.

‘This is the only cool water out here,’ he said quietly, ‘men come out here in the summer. She wants you to drink.’

The water was pure and cold, just like he said. I gulped it down greedily and went to pass the mug back. She gestured to Sally. We clambered back down the rocks and passed it to her friend.

Sally prodded Greg and he knelt by the side of the lower pool. She picked at his shirt and he took it off. Sally poured the water over Greg’s head and shoulders. Another cupful went over his back, rubbed in by caring rough hands. Greg ran his hands in the water, rubbing his face occasionally, relishing the attention.

Our shirts were already off. Mary clambered down the rocks and began washing Joseph. I wished she could wash away his black humor.

‘Pretty special,’ he sighed, those black eyes suddenly warm and trusting.

Sally joined us, rubbing our bare backs thoughtfully, crooning a sweet wild song. Mary joined in and for a moment stillness crowded in. I looked up and saw Greg looking at me, a wide look of peace on his face. He smiled softly.

‘It’s the vagina,’ he said simply.

Looking up the gully I could see what he meant. Every part of this country has a story, part Dreamtime, part living history. Creation was played out right here, in these hills. The Dreaming was a map.

She poured water over my head, rubbed it into my back, her rough hands smearing country up and over my shoulders. I arched my spine and felt it run down, cutting through the sweat, wetting the waist of my shorts. Something is happening here and I don’t know what it is. She chucked and whispered in my ear.

‘Mmmm-m-m-m, go-o-od.’

‘Trust your feelings,’ I held a voice from last night. ‘Why don’t you believe the evidence of your heart?’

Ngnya-a-a-a-a ngya ngya ya-a-a ngnya-a-a-a-a-a-a.

I could have sunk into her embrace.

*

One by one we lay on our backs on the rocks. Dogster could feel the collected heat of the day warming the small of his back. He lay there, scarcely breathing, feeling the cool water, the fresh, hot wind blowing down the valley. It was a long, still moment, punctuated only by the deep sighs of his companions.

Long grass glows yellow in the evening light, the retreating cliffs shine purple. There was nothing but sky, rock and friendship.

I smiled at Joseph. Joseph smiled at me.

‘You’ll have to like me now, fella,’ I said, ‘we’ve bonded.’

Time to go.

Sally heaved her weight off the ground, grunted and stood up heavily, her arse sticking out; legs splayed wide, that filthy dress hanging loosely round her hips. I looked down at her feet. Solid, chunky toes wide apart, caked with red soil, strong. She winked at Greg and a huge smile lit up her face. |

Palya, disfella go-o-o-od,’ she crooned and ran her stubby fingers down my shoulder.

‘She likes you,’ laughed Greg, ‘better watch out…’

There’s still the shadow of Dog on that rock, burnt in like Hiroshima.

*

We’re backstage at the ballet.

It’s nearly midnight. I’m naked, feeling really stupid, having red ochre rubbed into my back by a pre-pubescent Pitjantjatjara lad while some old black guy in Elvis Presley sunglasses cackles and dabs at me with white paint. Elvis is squatting in the dirt laughing at all these strange whitefellas.

Forty strange whitefellas in fact, all nude, all in various stages of paint, decked out in wavering white lines up and down arms and legs, red headbands, forty grubby faces preparing to dance into the night, eyes alight with the schoolboy delight of it all. This was one episode of gratuitous nudity that Dogster could not avoid.

I had the dots, now I needed the stripes.

‘I’ll paint you Ricky, then you finish me…’

He was finishing off his ochre, rubbing it hungrily into his face and chest, standing on the edge of the clump of men pushed together in the tight invisible space. His penis was very small, shriveled up in a fit of fear. I couldn’t blame the little thing.

‘Sure,’ he replied. Another withered willy hove into view.

‘Paint me next…’ it said.

It was Andrew. The owner of that grizzled peanut is a good man, one of the few normal people out here, just a guy having woman problems, who can’t decide whether to get married or not, just a nice guy with an overbearing father who treats him like shit. I saw his poor Greek prick as a metaphor; pinned like an acorn in a tarantula, a free spirit trapped in limbo, desperate to escape.

My appearance on the desert stage was brief, hopeless and to the point. They ducked when I dived, I dived when they ducked, we all stomped around in the darkness with only a campfire for cover. The whole endeavor was so humiliating I can scarcely bring myself to think about it.

Luckily the only audience was Ab-Elvis and a mangy, outback dog.

*

The old fella was dying.

The dancing was really for him, Greg’s mark of respect for an old man who helped him on his way. Greg made a solemn speech in praise of Elvis, sitting there silent in the dark, sunglasses still firmly glued to his face. One by one the painted tourists went over to the old man and knelt in the dirt, bowing their heads to his feet.

Why? No idea. I don’t think they had any idea, either.

They bowed to the spirit and soul of the land; the Dreamtime and the boogie man in the person of Ab-Elvis; they bowed to their idea of the bush, some imaginary creature of their own urban invention.

‘Sorry,’ some of them whispered, ‘sorry, sorry, sorry…’

Elvis sniffed and scratched his nose. How many more? He pushed those golden sunnies back in place and slowly closed his eyes. Stupid whitefellas.

His ersatz tribe groveled in the dust in front of a man that none of them had ever heard of, that none of them had met before today and none of them would think about tomorrow – yet they held his hand like he were Pope Pitjantjatjara, looking deep into his sleeping Elvis eyes.

And there in those midnight sunglasses was the very thing they had traveled all this way to find – a mirror image of themselves; naked fools scrabbling round in the dirt; wanna-be warriors staring hungrily at a dying old man, lost in their own reflection.

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