Aaron wandered unfamiliar streets studying buildings as he went. He was a recent arrival in Sydney. Many of these buildings had the run-down appearance of a once thriving community now in apparent disrepair. While his skin colour didn’t carry the tell-tale pinkness of a predominantly Caucasian population in most areas of this vast city darker skins in this area paused to study him carefully as he slowly made his way through the suburb carrying a backpack. He was a stranger in their community, he was obviously not one of them.
He’d done the regular tourist thing around the harbour area. It was beautiful and impressive, but he’d travelled across the ocean to find out what made this country different from ones visited the few years he’d been backpacking the world. He’d several places of interest scattered around Australia marked on a crumpled tourist guide in his backpack. But his habit was to seek out places not featured as this was beyond the veneer presented to strangers and into the reality of life. He was a seeker of truth! He was a seeker of a place to settle and call his spiritual home and one by one he’d crossed countries off his bucket list and was about to do a thorough examination of this one. Could this be the place he could call home at last? He was not after a veneer existence, he wanted substance and contentment as he matured and settled.
The harbour had been one of the most beautiful places he’d visited in his travels, but it was just like those other beautiful places. People scurried about day and night locked in a dance of survival and pleasure. No one just sat and looked at that beauty and appreciated it as a gift. It was a means of travel, a place to fill in time without seeing. He wanted more!
He’d been lost in thought as he took in the disrepair trudging along. Traffic scurried past needing these streets as a means of travel, but hastening lest somehow that disrepair should stick as they sped through.
Aaron suddenly became aware of a girl leaning against a traffic light watching him. He smiled involuntarily as he’d learned to do. A practiced non-threatening gesture as he traversed cultures speaking languages he couldn’t understand. It was a cultivated habit that was supposed to communicate, “I come in peace!”
He turned toward her and asked if she could tell him what lay ahead of his unplanned journey. Where was he heading and what would he see when he got there? The map was just a set of lines and street names but gave him no information about this part of the city. It was a backwater. It was a place the tourism industry was too embarrassed to feature in their slick brochures.
The girl stretched and eyed him suspiciously. No stranger walked through these streets. It belonged to her, to her people. But he was not Caucasian, there was an odd one or two here and there in the suburb but they were too poor, too distanced from their own kind they’d nowhere else to go. She knew them all and despised them. She gave a slight signal Aaron did not notice and within seconds was joined by a mob of young people like her. Aaron smiled his winning smile to them all. He’d been through this before. Prejudice knows no colour or nationality only a fear of the unknown invasion of a cultural norm. Hostility to his appearance as a stranger to the community had been broken down by that winning smile in the past and he hoped it still worked on this occasion. From his point of view, he was a friend of the world!
The mob surrounded him and began pushing as they began the process of evicting Aaron from their territory. One began to sort through his pockets. Aaron didn’t carry much cash with him. He had one card that accessed whatever money he needed, wherever he needed it. That card was secured safely in a hidden cavity in his shoe. He did take precautions as he travelled the world as he’d learned while a refugee in early life to secret whatever he needed to have for his survival. You could always buy a new backpack, or replace the little cash carried. The search yielded only twenty dollars. “You can keep it,” said Aaron agreeably.
The girl issued a sharp command and Aaron’s assailant quickly handed the cash back. “Sorry!” he murmured.
The girl fired a string of commands and the mob melted back into the shadows.
“Who are you, and what do you want here? Don’t you know it’s dangerous for strangers not like us to walk around this part of town. The whole of this country is ours, but there are some parts of it we don’t tolerate intrusion. You are in an intrusion zone, but I can see you’re harmless.”
Aaron continued to smile. “My name is Aaron, what’s yours?”
The girl relaxed and laughed. “You would never be able to pronounce my name so you can call me Jill. People outside our world call me that.”
Aaron produced his phone from a hidden pocket inside his shirt and checked the time. He was feeling hungry.
Jill nodded appreciatively. “You’re very smart, I bet you have other valuables hidden so I should have let the brothers check you out more thoroughly.
This time Aaron laughed. Now Jill had shed her scowl and smiled he noted she was very beautiful and obviously smart too in a way. Perhaps he’d find this dangerous suburb more interesting than the gorgeous harbour he’d shared with friends overseas from his smart phone the day before.
“Can I buy you lunch?” Aaron looked at Jill hopefully. He was intrigued with this visit and wanted to know more about this sub-culture.
Jill thought for a moment and studied him carefully. “You have money to buy me lunch, and you think you can do that with twenty dollars? This I must see!”
Jill commanded in a language Aaron didn’t comprehend and immediately Aaron was surrounded again. There was a long conversation back and forth in that language then she turned to Aaron.
“I’ve told them to see no one troubles you while I’m away. I’ll be back in a few minutes.”
Aaron attempted to engage in conversation but was met with silence as the group studied him.
Jill returned in a dress that accentuated her beauty. She smiled. “This is one of my bait dresses,” she said matter-of-factly.
Aaron’s eyelids raised in surprise. “What’s a bait dress?”
“You have to dress this way to lure outsiders into our territory. Then my brothers relieve them of their surplus worldly wealth.” Jill laughed out loud.
Aaron was shocked! “You rob people?”
“We only rob the enemy, not innocents like you!”
They talked as they walked back through streets Aaron had entered as he moved into this suburb. Then hailed a bus to town. Aaron warmed to this interesting girl. It was obvious she felt alienated from society in general and he’d felt the same as he’d escaped war with his parents and established life in Europe long ago. While he’d been schooled in the West and learned several languages in the process there was a restlessness in him that he was trying to satisfy in his travels around the world. He’d done well financially as he reached maturity and saved diligently to make this odyssey.
Jill indicated some cheap eating houses and Aaron recognized them as places he’d visited to sample Australian cuisine. To his surprise, he discovered the same European and Asian tastes he’d left behind .He was looking for something unique about the food of this country.
He looked at Jill, somehow this called for something more special than his cheap eating places. He could afford to do something better occasionally, so he led her to an upmarket Italian restaurant. Now it was Jill’s turn to act surprised.
“She sucked in air in her surprise. “You must be loaded, maybe we should have checked you out more carefully?”
Aaron smiled. “I can assure you I’m not loaded. I have enough to get around Australia and then decide where to make my future before returning to Europe. This is a special occasion for a special person.”
Jill softened and murmured her pleasure. “I’m glad we didn’t rob you. I thought there was something different about you and decided to stop the game. My brothers were disappointed I saved you, and even more disappointed I agreed to come to the city with you. They listen to me!”
During their meal, each shared their backgrounds and found they had a lot in common. Jill seemed too nice to be living a life of crime and Aaron decided to probe that. Jill’s mother was a tribal who’d lived with a rancher and had children to him. But the call of the desert had enticed her one day and she departed on walkabout never to be seen again. The children had been brought up to teen years on the ranch then the same wanderlust gripped them and they’d been drawn eventually to this suburb in Sydney where many of her culture lived. Unlike the ranch where life was more uncomplicated the city accentuated a racial divide for the many nationalities pressed within its borders. While it was a melting pot, some ingredients melted slower than others it seemed.
“I hate life here,” Jill said.
This interested Aaron. He did not hate life in Europe as Europe had been good to he and his family. But he had a restlessness that he hadn’t been able to satisfy.
“Where would you be happy?” He waited for her reply eagerly.
“I was happy on the ranch,” she murmured grudgingly. That reality had not occurred to her before.
Aaron thought for a moment then blurted out. “Would you take me there?”
Jill studied him doubtfully. “You’d never survive the dust, the heat, the flies, sparse vegetation. It’s not like Sydney Harbour, in fact most of the time inland river beds are dry and we must rely on artesian water from under the earth. It tastes metallic too!”
“I want to go there! Will you take me?”
Jill smiled and wiped her mouth with the napkin. “This will be the only fancy meal I’ll have in my whole life. Thank you!” But if you’re serious then let’s get out of here and I’ll show you my real home. I hope you’ll like it as much as I do? Do you have things to pick up in the hotel, and how on earth are you going to pay for this meal?
Aaron cast a furtive eye around the room to see who was watching then removed his shoe and a card from a hidden crevice specially built in.
Jill exploded with laughter and other diners frowned as they observed Aaron replacing his shoe. He moved to the counter and paid the bill. Then both hurried downstairs eager for a new adventure. They went to the backpacker lodge to collect Aaron’s few belongings, moved on to a storage facility where rental was paid for three months and keys to a steel safe where important documents and his few possessions could be temporarily stored. Off to a transport hub where tickets were purchased and then back to the suburb where Jill hugged her brothers and told them she was going walkabout. No questions were asked, no surprise shown.
Several days and many miles later they arrived at the ranch hot and sweating. The countryside was as desolate as the faint memories of his original homeland before war snatched it from him. Heat lulled him into an aching tiredness and he was grateful when evening came and they could relax in pools where hot artesian water spouted from deep within the ground. Aaron thought over the last few days of travel with Jill. On the bus, she’d slept with her head on his chest. His heart skipped as he luxuriated in her softness on him.
In the morning as she woke she sprang up in alarm. “I’m sorry!” She said.
“It’s OK, you’re so soft, I’m not used to being that close to a woman before and It was a nice feeling!”
Jill looked at him for a moment then laughed. “What did you expect? Stone age woman, Tarzan’s wife? At least the bait dress worked well this time, I dragged a stranger into my cultural orbit”
Aaron looked out the window with embarrassment. He was still coming to terms with the directness of this enchanting woman. Feelings were stirring in him as he felt her beside him.
There was to be another surprise as Aaron reached his destination. People at the ranch were a mixed lot, they came and went without notice so it was no surprise Jill had returned, nor was it a surprise she had a stranger in tow. Stranger or not he was sucked into the work routine which started on arrival. He’d asked innocently where he was to stay and was shocked at her answer. They think we’re married you stay with me. But don’t worry, there are no obligations. I’ll sleep on the floor.”
After work he’d retreated to the hot pool to think things over with the other men. This place certainly wasn’t Sydney Harbour, she’d been up front with him on that. He remembered asking her on the bus how old she was. She’d thrown the question back at him. He’d answered truthfully that he was twenty-two.
“I’m twenty-one she said as she pretended to be interested in the kangaroos leaping in competition with the bus.
Aaron smiled, “Give me the truth, how old are you?” He was beginning to understand this woman.
“Eighteen, she shrugged choosing not to meet his eye.
After the hot pool, Jill informed him that there was to be a corrobboree down by the dried-out creek bed.
The rhythm of sticks beaten together and chants along with the sight of bodies dancing against a backdrop of a camp fire mesmerized Aaron. He imagined he saw Jill among them, and it really was her discarding the west for the tribe. She moved toward him and beckoned him to join them. He observed the moves and tried his best but the mystique of it had taken over and he swayed, mouthed the sounds and was sucked into the re-enactment of that dreamtime celebration. Then he realized the tribe had settled and he danced on eyes on Jill whose painted face stared at him through sparks of fire.
Later when his head cleared and they were returning to their quarters at the ranch with Jill at his side he remarked nervously how sorry he was he’d embarrassed her.
“What did they think I was doing there dancing by myself, it was nothing like what you were doing.”
“I explained to them it was your foreign wedding dance,” she replied through the blackness of the night.
Then his feelings came pouring out. “It was, it was Jill!” I haven’t known you long but it seems like I’ve known you forever. It was my proposal to you!”
“And I told the tribal leaders I’d accepted you. They’ve given their blessings! Now come on, we must sleep because early in the morning before the sun comes up we need to do our part working at the ranch. You have so much to learn.”
I think I’ve found the place I’ve restlessly longed for all my life he said reaching out to take her hand in the dark.
“Do I feel soft like I did on the bus?” Jill’s happy laugh echoed through the night time air. A dingo howled its response of approval in the distance.
“© Copyright Ian Grice 2017 All rights reserved”