New Year – Old Tricks

Is your glass half full, or half empty? . . . Lake Eyre, NASA photo.

Is your glass half full, or half empty? . . . Lake Eyre, NASA photo.

Her hands are like Lake Eyre in the years when it doesn’t rain.

I had watched in silence as she boiled the water over the fire, threw a handful of tea into the billy. She camped in the bush every year at this time then disappeared with the Boronia. I took her some spuds to go in the coals.

We sat with sprigs of eucalypt waving away the flies like windscreen wipers.

We waited. Smell of kunzea like warm honey.

She poured the tea into a chipped enamel mug.

Next the milk and sugars.

Her eyes were rheumy, the brows white and sparse, almost gone. She wore a coloured beanie that looked more like a tea cosy than a hat. She had no bottom teeth.

I watched her eyes grow dark with memory as she stared into the cup like a tealeaf reader.

She poured the milky brown brew onto the dirt where it pooled like a miniature river and ran towards the embers of the fire.

There was a sharp hiss as if the liquid itself embodied a serpent.

She spat. Her breasts hung like pendulums below her waist but all the children she had suckled were dead. ‘Boys gone ahead’, was all she said, her brown eyes wet.

The milk, the sugars, the tea—all foreigners—all sucking the land dry. Thirsty crops.

She told me the story of sugar cane in Queensland where her people come from; how sugar took over from cotton; how the Kanakas were brought from the South Sea Islands, boat people, to harvest the crops. Our very own slave class.

She dug her nails into the earth, and scratched out little pockets of dirt: The hard hoofed animals like sheep, pigs, cows and camels not made for Australia, she said. Only soft-footed animals meant to live on this old, fragile land. No dung beetle neither. Him come with the white fella. And flu and tobacco and grog, these were the poison flowers in the wreathes put on the graves of so many blacks.

She cackled and cracked a can of beer. There was a sharp hiss as if the liquid itself embodied a serpent.

‘You can make anything righteous’, she said. ‘But what good will it do yer?’

The fire stings my eyes till I shut them and give in to the images curling up like smoke.

I imagine a line of humans stretching back 155,000 years to Africa from where asylum seekers Adam and Eve emerged, black as tea leaves.

It is not just indigenous peoples who are survivors—we are all survivors, all boat people. We need to look at each other with fresh eyes full of wonder and awe as we imagine the almost infinite chain of miracles that has led to any one of us being born.

Most people don’t know the names of their great-grandparents—their identities are forged within a couple of generations, sepia photos marking out the shallow boundaries of our families. But there is a greater sweep of time that hums in all our bones. We are as old as the hills in which we all once lived in caves. Drinking tea over fires is nothing new.

I can no longer hike in the bush, nor stand the smoke from a campfire, but I have chosen this year to remember her wise words about not being righteous.

“When we lose our sense of grievance, pain, even physical pain, becomes more bearable.” — Power & Serenity, Germaine Greer.

Happy New Year.

And it never gets old . . . Imagine, John Lennon