Today at work a little girl walked up to the counter, just barely hooking her chin on the edge, and looked at me with wide brown eyes, giggled and said, “What’s your name?”
“Jamie, what’s yours?”
“And how are you today, Rosita?”
“Chicken and chips!”
I’ve been in the outback, working at Redgum Store, for a little over a month now. It seems as though I’ve blinked and a month has passed. Time has a funny way here. Days ooze into nights and back again; life is punctuated by events not the clock. Our customers are predominately from the surrounding indigenous community, and the Alywarra dialect doesn’t have the same conceptualization of numbers that English does. When I ask someone how long a kangaroo tail takes on the barbecue, or how far away they live, they just shrug and say, “oh, a while”. It’s great. There is a unique freedom in not having to worry about schedules or appointments, aside from making the thirty-second walk from my caravan to the shop at around 8:30 in the morning.
Redgum Store is on a cattle station owned and run for the past eighty years by generations of an Australian farming family. It originated as an outpost where landowners would ration out food and tobacco to the Aboriginals. Now it’s expanded into a grocery, auto repair, electronics, clothes, post office: an everything store. The Aboriginals are given allotments of money from the government, some of which comes in cheque form and some of which is put directly onto a debit card or into an account and is not allowed to be used for tobacco, alcohol or pornography. As one would expect, there is a complicated relationship between the locals and the Westerners. Culturally, they have rules against sharing too much with outsiders (for example, the full meaning behind their paintings – while many are designs or maps of where to find food or meeting places, many are of the dreamtime or creation stories and much is left out when relating to outsiders), and this is further impeded by the language barrier. I read somewhere that they also have rules against mothers in law speaking directly to their sons in law. Not a bad strategy.
A while ago, a family who had driven in from Tennant Creek (500 km north of Alice Springs) – going to the shop here is not a quick pit stop, it’s a whole extended family outing – got a flat tire as they were driving away at closing time. Flat tires are the vehicular common cold out here – the roads are rubbish, like sand that’s been inexplicably corrugated. So they trundled back to the shop and set about fixing the tire. Flo, my coworker and housemate, and I brought out cookies and sat with them. A woman was minding a young child, probably about seven or so months old, and the two of them sat next to me on the ground. Despite the babysitter’s best efforts to keep her in one place, the baby resolutely explored the ubiquitous red dirt and eventually, she crawled into my lap. She snuggled into me like I was a bean bag chair and she was getting ready to watch a movie. About five minutes later, she turned around and looked up at me as if to say, “hold on, you’re not my mom”. Then she did the baby equivalent of shrugging and snuggled in again, and we resumed watching the tire changing