From Weipa we went on to Bamaga. Bamaga is the Australian mainland’s northernmost town. It’s right up there, right at the very, very top.
It is very small, but it has a school; a school in which I was able to finish grade four. It had only taken six schools to get there: Barkly Highway State School, Central State School, Balaclava, Hambledon, Weipa and now Bamaga. (I still got straight As, because despite everything I was still a tiny, tiny know-it-all shithead.)
Living in Bamaga was a challenge. I learnt a lot of things, usually the hard way. Things like: don’t lean on the trees for too long, because they’re full of green tree ants who can’t tell tree bark from warm flesh.
Also, don’t stand under the trees for too long because the green tree ant’s understanding of gravity is scant, and if anything, half a dozen green tree ants falling into your hair is even worse than a hundred green tree ants marching up your arm.
Also, don’t shake or bump the trees because green tree ants use a special combination of teamwork and special ant bum-glue to stick leaves together and create large, elaborate nests; however ant bum-glue isn’t very strong so all it takes is a slight nudging or a stiff breeze to completely compromise the structural integrity of the nests, turning them into green tree ant cluster bombs.
With alarming frequency I could be seen running in a mad panic into the ocean to wash a colony of ants off me; trying to avoid this happening:
Actually, a lot of the things I learnt were mainly focused on how to avoid being stung, bitten, scratched, poisoned or eaten. And that’s just from the other school children. ZING.
No, but for real, I spent a lot of time bewildered and anxious. This wasn’t at all helped by the distance from home, the language barrier (most people in the Torres Strait speak Pidgin, or at least incorporate some of it into their everyday speech), the mystery of what we were doing or where we were going, and the fact that I couldn’t get anyone to be nice to me. It wasn’t their fault: we were always relying on the hospitality of people Dale knew, and he wasn’t exactly the world’s most gracious guest. Not once during our travels north of Cairns did we stay somewhere on our own. So these poor people always had this annoying whiny white kid getting all up in their faces. I wouldn’t be nice to me either.
The net result was I spent every day trying to figure out my place in the world; trying to put my universe the right way up, and always failing.
The only time I really knew my place in the world was when a sign pointed it out for me.
One day—perhaps our second day in Bamaga—mum and Dale went to nearby Thursday Island. I don’t know why, but I didn’t know they were going. (I’ve since been informed that I was indeed told they were going, in which case I totally forgot, which isn’t out of the question: I had a lot of things on my mind, like where the fuck are we and when can we leave and why does nobody ever eat anything other than seafood has nobody heard of chips?). At any rate, they were gone and, apart from a vague idea that people often went to “T.I.” for the day, I had no idea where they were.
I spent the day in the care of some woman. I can’t remember who she was, but she was courteous to me, if not openly pleasant. She gave me a late breakfast, let me read for a little while, and then took me for a walk to the town’s only set of shops.
During the walk back from the shops, it started to occur to me that my mother had been absent for longer than I was happy with. But I was determined to be a big grown-up boy about it. So, while nonchalantly dragging a stick through the dirt as we walked, I casually asked: “Is my mum coming back today?”
“Wa…?” came the reply. I tried again.
“Is mum with Dale?”
“Did mum go with Dale?”
“Dale. Did he go with mum somewhere?”
This went on a few more times. I just kept asking the same question over and over. I was tenacious, but not imaginative.
“Is my mum coming back today?”
“Is my mum coming back TODAY?”
“Is my mum coming BACK today?”
“Is my mum COMING back today?”
“Is my MUM coming back today?”
“Is MY mum coming back today?”
“IS my MUM coming BACK toDAY?”
All the while I was trying to figure out in my little head what this woman’s game was. Was she deaf? We had communicated alright, if sparsely, earlier in the day. Was she unable to speak English? I had heard her speak plenty of unfollowable Pidgin, but again, we had come this far. Was she just tormenting me? This was possible; I was only young but I was starting to learn that not all grown-ups are nice people. I just couldn’t tell what her angle was.
Eventually it got too much. I didn’t want to cry, but when that first swell of emotion hits that threshold between the chest and the throat there’s really nothing you can do. I stopped walking and let the tears come. After the first wave of blubbering had crashed I took a deep breath and screamed at the woman.
“TELL ME WHERE MY MUM IS RIGHT NOW!!”
The woman suddenly realised what was wrong. She grabbed me and hugged me and said “HEY HEY, BOY. ‘WA’ MEANS YES.’”
She’d been speaking Pidgin the whole time.
She spent the rest of the afternoon teaching me words I would probably need to sabe (know): the main one among them being wanem, which means “what?”, which I would use five hundred thousand times over the next few months. She taught me how to properly ask when (wataim) my mum (ama) was returning (kam bai’gen). She then took me back aus (home) for kaikai (food) which I steadfastly refused to kaikai (eat) because I was being a fussy little shit (fussy little shit).
I take back what I wrote earlier: I got one person to be nice to me. Thanks, lady whom I’ve almost entirely forgotten: you were the nicest person I met the entire time I lived that far north. You taught me how to communicate so I wouldn’t feel quite so alone, and kept me distracted enough so that I was able to spend at least one entire day not getting rained on by green tree ants.