Span 37

Journal of the South Pacific Assoc for Cwlth Lit and Language Studies
Number 37, 1993
Yorga Wangi:
Postcolonialism and Feminism

Edited by Anne Brewster, Marion Campbell, Ann McGuire, Kathryn Trees

On Air

Carmel Macdonald-Grahame

This is about hearing a story.

And she has almost heard enough.

On the calendar in her kitchen, November's vivid flower has a deep red heart. Recalling it now, the image suspends itself in her mind's eye. It attaches itself, there, above the sea, between her and the sky.

This is 1992.

On her way home along the coast she listens on the radio to a white mother telling of an Aboriginal boy's death. Listening becomes like driving down the throat of the blood red flower hanging over a precariously blue sea, like driving down her own throat towards her heart where several true stories lie.

Another white mother tells of a boy's death. And, hearing, this one can only imagine it.

A dark night. A boy beside a road. Headlights pick him out from the tall grass. Night brakes. The car hits him. An athletic male figure races down a funnel of light towards the fallen youth, straightens his legs, arranges him, spreads him out, returns, a fast-moving silhouette. The car reverses, aims, runs at the boy again, runs over him. Again. The sounds of the engine, the thuds, the screeching away, the silence - none of it unimaginable. She ponders that.

There is a sudden intersection.

Into her memory drops her brother's twelve year old body, crumpled. Then, a driver zapped lanes too, that time passing the car - Bloody old fool! - slowing down at the cross walk for a pedestrian, who steps, tricked, into the path of testosterone. Sound shudders in the delicatessen where she is ordering two milkshakes, and running out, she knows before she sees him, crumpled, who's been hit. It is her brother who lived to tell the tale.

Her other brother's body can only ever thud in the imagination. The moment which flung him in a deadly arc to the back of a van is not available to living memory. And only ever a tiny abrasion on his waxen forehead to show for his flight. That many-times-imagined thud was a sound for which they must be grateful, said Everyone, the sound of his Instant Dying. Thank god for that really, Everyone said.

Yes, god.

Still the driver is distracted by the sea and the sky above it.

The white mother's voice insists on her return, though, to this story, to the agony of this boy's perforated bladder and spleen and bowel, of his collapsed lungs. She reports a coroner's pragmatic astonishment that he could walk at all.

Ah, she too doubts the meanings given to the speed of a death.

The driver changes lanes.

The sea and the sky murmur that the horror is everywhere. Rottnest floats gravely out there, a prisonship of history flickering on and off as it moves in and out of the blossom shadow, her red, deep-hearted blossom - full of promise perhaps, she thinks; one tilt, she thinks, and a heavenly spillage might occur. Burial grounds might be released, say, the island returned to its proper name. She fantasizes an engulfing of denials and madnesses, imagines a molten earth into which evil might sink outstretched the way you can fall back into a sea.

Fall back in the shape of a cross.

That other time, three boys travelling: her brother is killed instantly, the driver's back is broken, the third bruised boy goes for help. Help is, as ever, too long in coming. It is defeated by the driver's untimely death. Beaten by thieves who moved him, robbed him, robbed her own ragdoll brother tossed at the van's back door.

No grove of white crosses flourishes beside that road to mark the death spot either. She has peered often into the southern scrub wondering just whose would go just where. Now, listening, she is reminded of the presumption of white crosses and likens it to the presumption of those who rob the dead.

Listen. Listen. There's more than one way to rob the dead.

She clenches herself against the impact of the prejudice. A believer in holinesses, in the possibilities of fervour, she suspects herself of being an anachronism. She has recently cut into her forty-second birthday cake with what she thought was an honorable wish to be elsewhere. To those who pray, lord save us from moralisers, she is the first to cry, Amen. There is a distance between goodness and moralising which is her heartland. Spare us from the self-righteous, she would say, but spare us too from oblivion.

From out of the red throat, a whisper: Spare us too from the self-absorbed. Listen. Just listen.

Driving down the coast towards Fremantle, the sun shining around the edges of the sea, a woman's story connects her to another woman's story and another woman's story and on, out into the desert, taken by surprise.

Escape would not be honorable.

On her radio, a boy's white mother tells how he died on that bathroom floor in January, and why.

Yet still, she is tempted away.

On my calendar, the January flower, she recalls, is a white trumpet. She retreats to its remembered depths, to her fascination with an artistry of whiteness in greens and blues, an illusory whiteness of bloom arising from an aquatic spectrum. A floral tribute to distraction. The colour and the trajectory of racism.

The on/off button on her radio glares, Listen, just listen. Why should You exempt yourself?

He was in great pain, his white mother tells her. Had to go to the toilet over and over again. I helped him to walk. He asked me for water. Said "I'm sorry." Then turned his face away from me. And died quietly there on the bathroom floor. Died so quietly.

Two white men ran him down. One went back, straightened out his legs and they ran over him again.

How many times? I missed how many times.

She faces the volume button.

Dying, he asked the ambulance officers not to take him to hospital, just to take him home. They did. Perhaps they were simply most obliging officers.

"I'm frightened," he whispered to his white mother. "I'm sorry. I'm sorry," he said. And died.

There is more to this than a mother speaking her mind.

Driving south beside the sea she wonders about her right to weep. It is not her story. Not the story of a blond white son - her boy. By what right does she want to wail it from the treetops, to proclaim it, weeping? Perhaps in the soft broken centre at the heart of things there is something to be shared. A gentle boy lies crumpled in the road. Backwards, outstretched, a gentle boy descends into white lace and wood with only an abrasion on his forehead; lands easily in the soil, sinks slowly.

Turning, finally, towards where she has lived her whole life, where her grandmother lived, she sees lines to be crossed in time.

Her own soft pale-skinned son was born in 1973, in the same year as this story's true owner, the soft deep-skinned boy who was hunted down beside that road, whose story no white mother owns, whose own mother's story no one has yet heard. Whose own mother's story, as it comes, will surely drag at the throat like barbed wire and must lacerate the ear.

Tears fall now for the marks of her place in it all. She weeps for being unable. She grieves for lost possibilities. For an image of a boy like hers dying on a bathroom floor, because she sees he lies dying precisely because he is not an image of a boy like hers.

Not an image at all.

He's a terrified boy who says, I'm frightened. And, I'm sorry. A terrified boy who dies quietly.

She imagines the sound of him in terrible clarity beside the red and the white flowers she has suspended fantastically above the parody of empire floating and flickering here and there in an ocean called Indian - calling, calling, calling - another ancestral dishonour; as though such mindmade things can be infused with space, take shape, become pluckable formations stuck up on a sky for the sake of comfort. Images of a difference that speaks, though, images that hail the futility of her tears, the self-indulgence of her drift towards personal madness, the deaf ears turned on the confessions of mothers.

Which is what she thinks, listening, compelled to hear both the story and the silences beyond.

The white father is interviewed. His rage is a relief. He is pushing back fiercely at his legacy, turning aside the sins of the fathers.

He says, their boy's death nearly destroyed them, but they took courage from the dignity and stoicism of his dying; courage to take on the bureaucratic bullshit, he says, that made his life a misery.

There is talk, then, of the shame of taking him back to his people in Alice, in a coffin. Aboriginal people wait for their taken children to return, the white mother says, but we took him back to his living relatives, whom he had never met, and to his mother whom he never knew, dead.

How amazing, the interviewer interjects, banal, that while he was living there was no help for him to find his real mother and family, but that after his death . . .

And the white father describes the bloom of that desire in this child at fourteen. We promised to help him and failed, he says, because we obeyed, were polite, listened to white bureaucrats who file people's lives behind white law and then withhold them from their owners. But dead, we found a way, took him to his country and set out to find his people, our borrowed black son, and threatened to hold a press conference over his coffin unless his story was returned to him. They helped us then, he says, because we were angry enough. Then they believed us when we spoke of consequences. Then, to our shame, we were angry enough because of our grief.

Sons born in the same year. She feels no triumph in the survival of hers, just knows his uncertainty, his anger at the simplicity of pain, his sensibility and affection clenched against a vast hinterland of handshakes. Nineteen should not be outlived in such a way.

Time switches to a mall where the forgotten jacket lies, his return for it where the threat spreads out across the pavement silently, waiting for any youth in the wrong clothes. He runs. The jacket is lost. This is not cowardice, she says, seeing his flush at telling her. You don't have to face them down. Alone, you can't take back nights given over, see, to the uni-formed, the self-inflated, pricking their petty unimportances into catastrophe. She wonders, how do they form, these rogue males? They strut and cock and spray, the sins of the fathers incarnate.

Now her mind newsreels across the globe: she sees how national dress transmutes into camouflage - all the young men gone? Flocks of uniformed, pride-puffed men invade her television room nightly, clucking about danger, pecking away at bombs they were paid to drop last year. Miss the excitement, desert storm, money's good, somebody has to do it. From all over the world, they flow into her home these Braves, well-braced with guns. Claiming victory, they round their vanquished enemies from out of cellars, down streets, around corners, press them through mountain passes, across rivers; and cameras gather the dread gallery of faces: women who weep, crying children, the old who tolerate the search for refuge in contemptuous silence - they've been here before. In their wake comes famine. Cameras linger longingly on the faces of the women's dying. Lenses finger expiring children intimately. Men, and the boys following the men, nuzzle their vehicles, stroke their weapons.

By now, it would seem to observers that she has begun to rave in her empty car, this crying white woman. Actually, she is wishing aloud for the Aboriginal mother whose taken child was returned in a coffin, wishing for her some distractions, self-absorptions, times for flowering between the sun and the sea.

I'm sorry. I'm frightened.

Just listen. Hear this out.

And the white mother tells yet more, about the misery of her adopted son's life. He was affectionate, so he would open himself wide, she says, to voices outstretched from passing cars: "Boong!" "Black Bastard!" He didn't understand. We over-protected him. We didn't listen in time.

She wonders if it would be proper to say, I know what you mean. To tell about her Vietnamese daughter whom she mothered through her teens until the family could get here from camps in Malaysia, from France, from all the ends of their scattering like meteorite fragments when Saigon faced the finale of the guns.

When she came to us, she had seen things, this girl whose name is an enunciation of moonlight: a dead child's brains spill into a gutter, her mother imprisoned, her father's retreat into a skyward gaze.

Before being taken, a Saigon mother hides her daughters on a boatful of strangers and pushes them out to sea, towards a sliver of space she's heard exists between soldiers and pirates, towards the hope of an innocent hemisphere. The best she can do, she casts them adrift in hiding and fear, her daughters, because of their beauty and because of the contempt for it which she has seen for herself. Where the spittle has run between her breasts there are no visible traces, of tears, not a sign.

Later, a shopkeeper serves round and round My Vietnamese Child, binding her into invisibility. Big tough bloke, smart as a whip, says loudly that they don't serve Slopes here.

I ask for the fish, move quickly, over her head, anxious, protective, pretending to render the invisibility invisible. I scurry before her, smoothing away at the grubby shapes and tones that attach to whiteness - shapes of eyes, tones of voices, scrawled slogans on walls and fences.

She remembers her own buffer-zoning of a child against that white Australia, this woman. She remembers. And she sees now how she let it bloom behind her, toxic and intact.

Unfit. Infertile. Others. Mothers. Words pierce her recollections and insist upon her concentration.

And when we took his body back and found his people, our worst fears were realised. He had been taken from his mother, and another two of her children, been taken from her against her will. We couldn't have children of our own. He was given to us so he could have a better life. And we couldn't keep him alive past nineteen.

No Aboriginal kids should be adopted by white families. Ever. If you want to destroy a people, take away their children. And this is not history, the white father says and his courage resonates with rage, the genocide continues. He must be, like the gentle boys, one of the other men, a man who stands between himself and the fathers' sins.

And the white mother says, Our borrowed son is someone's stolen son. This is her story, her story, his real mother's story.

Until the story's owner tells it, without her, the heart of the story is cut out.

It is improper to tell her to speak. She may choose to abandon us to her silence, and that would be a justice.

Nor is escape honourable. The story has not ended. There is no arrival here.

Here, at best, is something about attachments. A parable about driving to the centre of an evasion. About discovering that white is the colour of racism, and weeping for it. Here, at best, is something about being suspended in desire. It is the most a story can be when its owner is not its teller, and its teller can only imagine. It is yet another story told where truths belong.

It can only ever be a story about a white woman listening to a white woman listening to a silence, then, but with respect. About her feeling of driving down her own throat and colliding with her screams at the emptying out of women's arms. It can only be about an intersection of sound and memory and grief and invention in one woman's heart, among all that clamour for space on the waves of the air.

This is a story about hearing.

Murdoch University


New: 13 December, 1996 | Now: 21 April, 2015