* FIFO: Acronym for Fly In, Fly Out, common practice these days for mine workers.
* OMO: Acronym for old man out, for obvious reasons.
* FAB: Acronym for fucking arsehole’s back, the reverse of the above.
* Skimpy: A type of barmaid named for obvious reasons. Not an acronym.
Newman is a town of well nigh three and half thousand partly transient people eleven hundred kilometers north-east of Perth, Western Australia. It lies in the middle of the Pilbara, and area bigger than Belgium with massive contrasts. An ancient land dotted with mining towns built on the cusp of the mining boom, a boom where there is no sense of slowing. A land where people can and have died, insane from thirst in the vastness where the heat is solid and angry. Newman huddles in propinquity to the Mt Whaleback iron ore mine, the source of its pleasures and pain and while it isn’t the middle of nowhere I daresay that on a clear day you could see it from what passed as the town lookout. All that overlooked however, was the mine and while that was impressive enough, a couple of visits were all that was needed to not need to see that particular sight again. I was never surprised that no-one ever seemed to go there. Another thing about Newman was the colour. It was red. Everything was red here, and what wasn't had only just arrived. It had its own inevitability. People, clothes left too long on the line and cars. They all turned red. It became a part of you as you became a part of it. You could tell how long a person had been here by how red they were.
Two groups of people dominated the town, the local Mardu aboriginal people and miners with beards and tattoos, usually both. They didn’t mix much except for a few fleeting hours on the football field every Saturday night during the season. I never cease being amazed at how a group of people more inimical to the aborigines would willingly go to a town where you couldn’t escape their presence. Perhaps it was a means to reinforce their prejudices as the Mardu seemed by their behavior to fit them quite well.
I arrived there in March 2001, just out of university with a degree in Aboriginal studies, a case, some ideals and no idea what I was getting into. I’d got a job in child protection with the Department for Community Development, partly because of my astounding interview skills but I suspect mostly due to being the only applicant. The flight up from Perth was in a littleish four-engine Qantas BaE 146, the passengers a mix of FIFO workers, managers, a skimpy or two and me. This was a common clientele for flights up to mining towns. It was a different world I was entering.
From the outside looking in our marriage may have looked ok. We entertained, had fun and went places when we could. But there were cracks, justifiable but not excusable, which I had put there over the years. The cracks went deep into the foundations, muted conversations we should have had and waited patiently for the inevitable that would bring the proscenium above us tottering to its fall.
I was to be picked up by the boss of the unit up there, a happy guy with a sprout of white beard, buck teeth and boundless optimism in a job that sorely needed it. His name was Mitchell and he was to be an influence in how I’ve worked with Aborigines ever since. He wasn’t Mardu but came from Onslow and what he didn’t know about working with the Mardu wasn’t worth the effort to try and find out. He wasn’t there when I arrived and as the crowd thinned and eventually vanished and the building that served, however slightly, as the terminal was locked behind me I wondered if I had been forgotten. Newman was 10-15 kilometers up the road and walking with a heavy case on a warm day with no water and no chance of getting any certainly didn’t appeal. The heat while I waited was salutary.
Eventually a haze of white vehicle hove into view. It turned into a Toyota Landcruiser 4WD with Mitchell behind the wheel. “Sorry mate,” he cheerfully apologized “family business came up.” I told him no worries; it wasn’t like I had anything else to do. He certainly seemed happy to see me, either because I really had impressed at the interview or he was happy he didn’t have to go looking again. He dropped me and the case at what was to be my house for the next eighteen months and drove off, leaving me to settle in after some parting advice. “That’s your car, drive it anywhere you like but don’t take it on the dirt” and “come up to the motel tomorrow night to meet some of the locals.”
I looked at the car, it was a Jackaroo 4WD. Normally you’d expect the dirt to suit 4WDs but Jackaroos are an entirely different beast, inherently unstable in the ruts and bulldust that passed for roads up there. I wondered with no little trepidation how I’d get to the remote communities I'd be responsible for. Not being able to take a 4WD on the dirt did limit one’s opportunities to get out and about I have to say. The next couple of days I settled in and arranged my things where I wanted them which didn’t take long and found my way around. It didn’t take long either since Newman is not a big place.
Sunday I found the motel and met the people I was to get to know and learn from. Mitchell was there, Ada a co-worker and her husband Paul, Eddie the gardener who was convinced every Muslim in the world knew that 9/11 was going to happen before it did and others who I forget. It was a good night and I wasn’t warned too much about what was coming. Probably a good thing too. I found out that with a population of 3,500 it seemed overly served with grog outlets. Seventeen I was told and after counting the four football clubs, two motels, one hotel, one bottle shop, the speedway, two wet messes at the mine, the sporting club, community centre (sometimes) and the roadhouse just past the airport turnoff I stopped counting. Seventeen seemed an understatement to say the least.
Every six or so weeks I’d fly back to Perth for the weekend but it didn’t take long for our house to bear only my wife’s seal. I soon became the stranger. What was once familiar had become the strange land of phantasms. I was becoming a cipher in my own life.
Alcohol was, it seemed, big business and a decent part of the social whirl involved drinking lots of it since there wasn’t much else to do. The Mardu drunk in the open, the whites behind closed doors and FAB and OMO packets. That and a semi-transient life were about the only thing the whites and Mardu had in common. Most of the Mardu came in from Jigalong and Nullagine to shop, drink, catch up with relations and head back out. They were a pretty genial lot in my experience but fighting was common when the grog was in them. They kept us and the police busy at times.
The house I lived in was a corner block and a heat sink. It had a sloping drive that in heavy rain needed elbow grease to prevent water getting inside. For reasons I cannot fathom most of the houses were dark brown with grey, almost black roofs and you needed to turn on the aircon in the morning because doing so in the afternoon would make little or no difference. I could not figure out for the life of me why they would do that. It was like some town planner in the city had said to himself, no woman would be that dumb, that the perfect colour for a house in a region where summer temperatures would rarely drop below 40c would be the one best suited to retain heat. Would that help miners relax after a 12 hour shift in the mine? I mean, really. At least some of the houses had been painted in lighter colours, whites and creams, but I didn't think my domicile would get that done any time soon.
There is one thing that you soon learn in Newman, a thing everyone learns and quickly. It is how to avoid the cockatoos. More correctly you learn how avoid being shat on. In the early evening they leave the tip and settle in discoloured serries on the power lines on my street. Directly under them is the ubiquity of their presence. It is the same colour as the birds and quite possibly healthier. You walked on the side of the footpath where the bird shit is, if not absent, rather less manifest hoping no-one comes the other way. It wasn’t hard to imagine two people standing face-to-face until one gave way or the birds left their roosts allowing the standoff to end without turning to fisticuffs. I would do that run walking to the shops each Saturday. And to the nearest bar.
The shopping centre was interesting on pension days and weekends, the Mardu would gather at one end of the car park near the community busses that brought them in and yell at each other across the tarmac while the whites would go about things with designed indifference as if they saw them only through a glass darkly. I got to know a few of them quite well and had a decent working relationship with the Nullagine mob, it took a while though, and they have had too much experience with white fugacity to let me in straight away.
Chicken Treat, bottle shop, Woolworths made up the bulk of the local shopping centre along with a record shop and other little businesses not needed in a mining town, like the Retravision that sold DVDs of log fires and aquariums. Outside in the car park people from Jigalong; in town for family business, to stock up on supplies and get the alcohol that was banned in the community, were to be seen gathered in family groups. As always they were on the side of the carpark near the pool away from the whites, chattering and yelling from group to group. A Landcruiser and the community bus was always standing by to take them back when their business was done.
Mitchell took me on my first visit to Nullagine. It was little more than a graded scrape through the scrub than the highway it was previously named before they built a new one to service new minesites. Suffice it to say that it was a different definition of highway than I had ever been exposed to. It was as if two grader drivers had decided to drive through the scrub to Port Hedland, got there, looked back at what they’d done and thought “That’s not a bad highway Bruce!” which then stuck becoming The Great Northern Highway. There’s a Dreaming place on the way, not sacred but a place where the Ancestor Spirit left water for the people in a place where it would never run dry. I would recognise it even now.
The community up there was called Irrungadji and we had major problems with it, not helped and mostly caused by the licensee of the hotel which was in walking distance. Suffice to say he was not a nice man. The people in the community knew it but what else could they do? If Newman wasn’t a thriving metropolis Nullagine was less with only a few small houses, a roadhouse, the community and the pub. We never got the issues sorted while I was there and no doubt they plague the people there even now. Its other claim to fame was a few kilometers out of town; a carved figure with the biggest dick you’re likely to see. It was certainly not what you’d expect to see in the showers after the game that’s all I’m saying. Good thing I don't suffer from feelings of inadequacy. It was at Irrunggadji where I had my first taste of goanna meat. If I said it tasted like chicken I'd be lying. It tasted like a goanna.
There is coldness in the house when I return. I cannot call it ours; it bears no mark of mine that I can detect. I am insubstantial now, tolerated and urged to leave and go for rides I do not desire so she can carry on her life as it has become. I know what’s happening though I ignore it. I fear the unknown and what it embodies.
Nullagine lay about 190kms north-east of Newman and a more remote outpost it would be hard to conceive of though they existed further out. The road was never dull though, it ran through flat scrubland at first before crossing the Fortescue River over a bridge designed and built to ensure it wouldn’t get washed away during cyclones. The river could be reached by a turnoff and was a quite restful and magical place. Sapphire blue dragonflies skimmed the water courting and hunting and egrets stalked fish with a torpid intensity, moving so slowly they were statues.
Further on the road ran through kilometers of termite mounds as tall as a man and hard as iron. No matter how often I stopped I never saw one termite, it was as if after they’d built their edifices they’d buggered off for a well deserved holiday. Yet further on the road wound through mesas of rock capped by iron ore basinets. They were hugely impressive and burst into view out of the antediluvian land that hid them so well.
I saw many things on that road, willie-willies a hundred meters high; wedge tailed eagles that dared you to make them move from the carrion of roadkill and spiders webs festooning the bushes for miles, the silk glistening and splendent in the morning sun. In the afternoons in early summer, lowering black clouds presaged fierce electric storms. Lightning stalked the land then, strutting along the horizon, sparking pyrotechnics as it went. One summer the lightning sparked a fire that was bigger than Greater Sydney. They let it burn, there was nothing out there that needed saving. You had to watch out for the cattle and you were well advised to mind them well. They were probably the most skittish and dumbest creatures out there, brains baked senseless by ceaseless light and heat.
It’s an old land out there, ancient and primordial. It is out here more than anywhere else that you glimpse just how fleeting human life is. Out there the land bears humans and their scoriations with the tolerance born of preterition. It leaves its mark on us far more than we do on it and will remain long after we have passed. The Mardu know this and walk it accordingly, they know of its archaism and tread lightly and with respect.
She left no term of endearment for the first time and the last time. She asks me to let her have her new man stay with her while I’m away and she would be with me when I came back. I came down to force the issue. Was it worth fighting for? I couldn’t say yay or nay at that point but something had to happen. A decision had to be made. It is over, the truth clanging a part of my life shut with a gong sound. The tabor tells me my time in Newman is ending. One more white guy who has come and gone.
I left Newman with sadness that only comes from the ending of one thing and the undefined unknowing of what will come to pass. Times change and so do we, living our lives and making our mistakes that in time take their destined place alongside our triumphs in what we will become. The duality of living goes on, diverging and converging like the helix pattern of DNA, splitting and cleaving together it mutates us, makes us something different yet still recognizably human. These thoughts and feelings left Newman with me and stay with me still. I go on living.
About the Writer
Tony Dews is a budding author from Ballarat, a nice little town not far from Melbourne, Australia. Right now he's staying in Hamilton, Ohio with his wife, her daughter and her mother which sounds way too Three Bears territory. He is 53 (too close to 54 for his own comfort) and has been writing for nearly 18 months. One day he hopes that he might get good at it.
He has three published stories: A Flash Fiction Piece in Inscribe Magazine, "Convergence" in The Ballarat Independent and "Glittering Were The Leaves" in Ho Ho Horror, an anthology published last Christmas (available on Amazon for not much). Which isn't too bad for a guy who has only been doing this writing caper for what has been only a short period of time so far. Margaret Mitchell should have been so lucky.
Divergence was a piece I wrote for an autobiography unit while studying for a Graduate Diploma in Creative Writing. One day I might finish it (I sucked at Linguistics, can't see how Shakespeare would have needed to know glottal stops in a remote Peruvian Indian tribe for some reason).