Begonning Man

Disturbed by the sudden shaking of the hill, a flock of budgerigars rose, swirling into a wheeling, boomerang formation. The Landcruiser’s driver paused briefly, then went back to watching the track.

Begonning Point, site of future LNG and iron ore terminal.” Butler mumbled to himself. He eased the 4WD and trailer off-track into a good spot, under trees, and popped the annexe tent for some welcome shade.

The flies kept coming, but now he could at least take his hat off to swat and wave.

Butler, originally a mining engineer, now a fixer-of-problems for the resources giant CMG, had a pivotal role in making that terminal a reality: supervising the creation of divisions among First People and other stakeholder groups, devising a few fortuitous accidents, sudden resignations and scandals, and judiciously applying a little seed money where it counted.

The work spanned both sides of legality, in a tensegrity as taut as the 4WD’s annexe. Things were made to run smoothly and quietly with obligation, apprehension and ambition, not to mention a little blood here and there.

The Cruiser and its offroad camper were equipped for the furtherance of that work, rather than a prolonged holiday, despite appearances.

Refreshing his memory on the task at hand, Butler swiped a sweaty finger through the dossier on his touchscreen.

Roger Jeffries – self-described pain in the arse: a mostly-solitary, currently-unemployed, archaeologist.

While Jeffries’ rough nature, ferocious thirst, Tourettes-like vocabulary and sporadic publication history took some of the edge off his reputation, the man had practically gone native, which gave his voice some credibility among the more vocal, and (literally) demonstrative supporters of native title.

He was somewhere in the area, according to sources.

Reports of Jeffries’ interest in Begonning echoed with the potential of controversy: the moaners, lock-on loonies, and abseiling banner-hangers could set developments back considerably if things were left unchecked.

* * *

While Butler was, on-record and ostensibly, visiting a potential CMG site in West Papua, the truth was another thing. A little artistry and some ugly, ill-fitting dentures had brought forth in his place the fictional Paul Mooney, retired teacher and keen photographer of wildlife, registered owner of the Landcruiser.

And late the next day, it was as Mooney that Butler hailed the battered Land Rover that dragged a trailing dust-cloud along the sole, narrow, navigable gap between outcrops and boulders.

What the FUCK are you doing in a place like this on such a bloody day?” yelled the Landie’s equally-battered driver, pulling up on a nearby sandy patch.

A cunt’d have to be mad!”

Butler feigned shock, slipping into the friendly, if a little staid, character of Mooney.

Introductions were made, a meal shared, and a long conversation was embarked upon, continuing from the annexe’s afternoon shade to the fireside under stars.

Butler had unwillingly built up an almost-encyclopedic knowledge of the North-West’s wildlife in his time overseeing the fall of a group of do-gooders. Their self-appointed mission was saving a number of plant and animal species they insisted were unique to the Begonning region. Combined with some impressive camera equipment and a few glossies taken by a passionate naturalist who no longer mattered, the Mooney persona’s narrative was well-stocked.

In turn, as hoped, Jeffries became effusive. He was following up a Garedji legend: a songline involving a number of rock-shelters and the art etched into the local hard stone, and three water-digging sites which led to the place he was seeking.

Pirrlu-nyarti, they call it: All The Dreaming Mother.”

According to what I could make of the story, or as much of the song I was allowed to hear anyway, there’s a womb of the earth, or a stone cunt of some kind, and all of humanity came out into the world through it.”

Not just Garedji, but everyone. If the oral record isn’t contaminated by influence from those trader fuckers up North, then the legend anticipates knowledge of yellow and white men by a few millennia.”

Then the people are supposed to have spread out, and the spirits allowed only the Garedji to stay and preserve the songs.”

With a show of tired disinterest, Butler pressed another beer on Jeffries. Stronger drink had been refused earlier, almost brusquely. The dossier had indicated a man who was often drunk to incapacity: either the report was wrong, or he was dealing with that worst of types, a motivated man.

The night wore on. Despite subtle pressure, Jeffries was not forthcoming with the location of the shelter.

I’ll have to hunt around a bit myself. You know how it is, GPS and radio seem to fuck up round here more than usual.”

Butler thought of the little black tracker he’d placed on the sweary man’s Landie, under cover of taking a piss. It should prove to be enough, but there were other ways.

Wishing Jeffries a good night, and thanking him for his company and stories, Butler gave him a case of Belgian beer from one of the trailer’s storage cabinets. “I’ve gone off this brand a bit, Roger, and I could use the space more than the beer.”

In the morning, both broke camp, and Butler departed first, taking care to raise a little excess dust as he went.

* * *

Roger Jeffries found the three soak sites with relative ease, using cues in the Garedji lore he’d picked up.

You had to take in all the stories to learn little, useful details, even if much of the explanation was spirits and talking animals. University wasn’t all that much different, he mused.

The sun was beginning its slow trudge from zenith to Western horizon by the time he found a likely-looking rock shelter, in a basin obscured by outcrops.

Fuck! Nearly missed this. Next time, I should look at bringing a drone.” He grabbed the driver’s side doorframe and swung down from the 4WD with the ease that frequent repetition brings.

While no painted creatures or stencilled hands decorated the walls, use of a torch highlighted cut-marks, almost certainly human in origin, in the rock-face.

There was no point in bringing too much gear into unknown conditions. Lowering his bags, Roger squeezed through the small gap at ground level on the shelter’s furthest wall, taking only a yardstick, his headtorch, pocket camera, and one cold beer from the tuckerbag.

After about five metres of knee-crawling and wriggling, the passage abruptly opened on a chamber wide enough for Jeffries to extend both arms, and, at his estimate, five metres high. The walls curved inward as they rose from the floor, receding again before meeting the vault of the roof.

I spy thighs, super-size. Freud would have a field day.”

Roger could make out the far wall, and a central dark opening, located between the narrowing sides.

Pirrlu-nyarti, I presume.” Jeffries examined the surrounding wall: this was a very likely candidate for the focus of Garedji lore.

After a few cursory photos, and before going about the dry work of lugging in the bulkier lights and recording equipment, Roger popped the beer and allowed himself a moment of frothy, thirst-quenching triumph.

After a minute, the chamber was still. Death had come to the place of birth. Butler’s special supplies tended to be one-use-only.

* * *

It was not until the next day Butler found the Land Rover. While the GPS component of the tracker had apparently failed, the UHF beacon pinged as soon as the Landcruiser breasted the rise and came within line of sight.

Butler, no respecter of lore or heritage, drove the now-ownerless Landie as far under the rock overhang as it would fit.

The swarming flies at the cave opening confirmed Jeffries’ whereabouts. There was no need to crawl the final few metres and make sure.

I’ll just leave him under this rock, where I found him”, said Butler, with a dry chuckle.

Butler returned to his trailer and unscrewed a wall panel. Some “insulation”, hardly fit for its nominal purpose, would finally do the job for which it was made. A few additions from the toolkit and various hidey-holes on the Cruiser, and the means to finish the job were at hand.

The Garedji language was dying. Without a significant heritage site, any valid objection to the terminal would fall, just like this shelter when the pillars exploded.

Of all the things Butler’s job required of him, Big Booms were still the most fun; a reminder of simpler days, when dirty work was more literal in nature. The charges were shaped and placed for maximum efficiency.

When the smartphone app indicated no satellites were overhead, he finally pressed the igniter.

* * *

Disturbed by the sudden shaking of the hill, a flock of birds rose, forming a curved shape which had never known a name. The immense, shaggy beasts, briefly vigilant, lowered their heads and resumed grazing.

Klein Bottle

“No, drop it! You don’t know where it’s been, Girl.”

Caution was warranted. The old man knew this creek well. Downstream of a fairly large country town, it held over a hundred years’ worth of throwaways, washaways and runaways, or their remains, in its banks and bed. Even after two decades of shuffling along the same stretch, the old man knew there might be something different.

Floods, and the occasional erosion landslip, laid bare little things. Big things turned up, too: the complete sail of a Southern Cross windmill, the chassis of a Hudson Terraplane from the 1930s, the greenish mystery object that weighed 11 kilograms and turned out to be a huge spigot fitting made of brass, part of a fire mains system from some long-demolished building.

It was probably just as well The Missus didn’t let him bring home the windmill or the car-wreck, really, he thought.

The dog, bounding through Council’s knee-high weeds, held another green thing… it looked like the top of a jar or pot, perhaps the size of a jam-tin. As she came out of the longer grass, the bottle became clearer. It was about the size of the Darwin stubby the old man had retrieved a couple of years ago. As usual, The Missus had made him put it out of the way somewhere. It was beside the shed in a crate, probably collecting redback spiders…

Standing on the dusty ground above the creek, he examined the dog’s find more closely, as she grudgingly let go of her latest plaything.

“Unbroken, really old, looks like poison, maybe sheep dip or some sure-fire bug killer”, he mumbled to the dog beside him.

There was no text on the dark glass, merely some squiggles which may have been a Middle-Eastern script.

All the memories and thoughts dispersed, buzzing, like flies from a dead rabbit, as the old man looked more closely.

“Dirt aside, it’s in pretty good nick, Girl. With that brass lid, it’s got to be something rare. Maybe there’s a few bucks for us at one of the antique places. Otherwise, The Missus will have it out back in the crates.”

He held the object up against the sun. A slight bluish tinge suffused the black, and roiled as if a thick fluid was inside. As he shook it gently, the contents slopped weightily.

“Wonder what’s in there… Lucky my wrists are in better shape than the shoulders, back or legs, eh Girl? It must be from marrying late.”

He removed his leather belt and doubled it back, with the lid in the loop, and applied some leverage. Eventually, after a few grunts and curses, the top unscrewed clockwise.

As the old man was wondering just whose products were so maverick as to be sealed with a left-hand thread, the opening of the bottle began to smoke, and a loud, deep, groan was heard, rising slowly in pitch and loudness.

“Fuck! Nerve gas!” muttered the old man, as he and the brave dog retreated a few yards.

The smoke rose to form a cloud as tall as some of the nearby camphor-laurel trees. Rather than dispersing, it gathered upon itself and thickened.

Looking on, the old man wondered whether he might have uncorked a US military or CIA chemical experiment, because what he was starting to see looked like something from the cartoons, come to life.

The Genie winked one of his family-pizza-sized eyes.

“Sure I’m blue. I have to appear this way, because it’s how your people think of Genies now. I’ve had a lot of time to think and catch the airwaves while I’ve been trapped in that accursed jar.”

The old man shuffled back from his retreat zone. “I’m glad I never saw the movie, or I reckon you’d be talking puns and free-associating nineteen to the dozen by now.”

A blue frown came from above. “I have some standards. I do all my own material, but it’s rather downbeat. After all, I spent the last few years with only a bottle of Djinn for company.”

The old man groaned, for he was no stranger to Dad Jokes. He and the dog inched closer as the Genie continued.

“Anyway, you’ve freed me, and I am obliged by the Code of my kind to grant you a wish. Please let me know your will, and it shall be done.”

***

The sun was dropping now, toward the silos a few hundred metres the other side of the creek. The old man smiled as he thought of a cup of ginger-honey tea The Missus would be making for him, and how one of his cookies would be broken, so the dog could have a corner.

He’d possibly be a little late this afternoon.

“So, Genie… I hope it’s okay to address you as ‘Genie’…”

“Certainly, old man.”

“Yes, I’m fine with ‘old man’. It’s better than what my father called me. Anyway, Genie, I basically just need to ask, and it will be given to me, or done, then I get to see what changes my choice has brought to be, like in all the cautionary tales. Is that it?”

The Genie settled on a tall stump and sighed.

“Those tales Richard Burton picked up? My people get a lot of bad press. We’re people of our word, and exceptionally kind and ethical for a group of vilified, oppressed magical constructs.

“We can discuss the choosing process if you like. Assume no physical or numerical limit. I could, for example, bring you more gold than the total of matter existing in this Universe. What happens to the Universe afterward is your own liability.

“You could, if you want, pull the old ‘Ten more wishes’ trick, but I have to warn you there’s a subclause in the Code that ensures you don’t enjoy the results of any of that sort of trickery.

“There’s no undoing your wish, and we can discuss it until the sun sets, before you must decide.”

The old man knew he didn’t have quite that long. The Missus wasn’t fierce, but the old man didn’t want to bring her Disappointed Face on. He briefly considered phoning her on what he termed “My Old Man Leash”, but decided against worrying her.

This would need to be quick. Bother! He hadn’t had to make quick decisions with big consequences in over twenty years. At least with the ‘marry me’ one, he’d decided right.

“Well, Genie, I’ve thought about property and money. We’ve got just about enough to see us over the line, and the people who pay the pension would start taking money away as soon as they noticed we had some. I could solve this with a few million, but I can foresee problems from relatives and random robbers. Only the intensity of the attack would vary, and I don’t want Dog put down for defending us.

“We’re kind of settled where we are, and even the dirty bits on the windows are familiar. Anyway, they stop the little birds from smacking into the glass.

“The old car has a few years left in it yet, and who’s to say what will become of petrol, or even civilisation, by then?

“I’m fairly sure your Code would regard it as a cheat if I tried to make The Missus, Dog, and myself a package deal for ‘Restore To Peak Of Health And Youth’… (the Genie nodded affirmation)… and anyway, I don’t think I want to be a teenager again.

“The older and further from it I get, the more fun I think it was, but still I know.”

The old man tapped his age-spotted temple with a large-knuckled forefinger, and continued.

“You’ve been listening to radio in that jar since broadcasting began, so you’ve got to know what I’m talking about here. Life’s like a song. A few verses, a chorus, a catchy middle bit, and if it’s a really good one, a One More Time. The fade’s as important as the intro, though. I wouldn’t want to be one of those bloody endless Yes numbers from the seventies, where even some guys in the band got bored and ate curry while waiting for it to end.

“You don’t want too much of anything, whether it’s wah-wah guitar or a drum solo. What would be really bad is if life got written to some pop-hit formula. It would take your choices away. You’d get bottled up in having to do things, because of the things you have or the things you have to be. Even my dog has a good life, and I don’t think I’d change her routine again. She will be with us till the end, like her old playmate Connie was.”

“What about I wish that I don’t want your wish? I’m not stupid enough to drown the world in an endless supply of chocolate biscuits.”

The Genie winced at that one.

“I am sorry. We must do something to use up the wish. Until we have finished that, I am tied to this accursed bottle, and the Code may require that I avenge myself.”

The old man bent and scratched the dog behind the ear. She had been more than patient, and had been quiet in the face of extraordinary things. Her tail swept to and fro in the dust.

After a few minutes, he straightened as far as he could, and addressed the Genie.

“Is the wish transferable?”

The apparition flickered for a moment, and rippled like a thumped 1950s TV set. Pop culture had a lot to answer for.

With a shower of what might have been blue static, the Genie refocussed.

“The Code has no restraint on altruism. It doesn’t say you can’t hand the wish on, but it must be given, freely, to a sentient being, and from what I see of the sun’s angle, we have half an hour.”

“Very well, Genie. You know a lot about these things, and how to use them. What’s more, you’ve had a harder time with the bottle than my mate, the Mad Blacksmith. The wish is yours, if you’ll take it.”

***

She galloped up from the creek, carrying an empty, black bottle, of surprising ugliness.

“No, drop it! You don’t know where it’s been, Girl. And you, Bluey, come back here, boy. Wait!”

Then the old man and his two dogs walked off toward home, as it might as well have always been.

 

A Word Of Faith

Out of hospital. All these changes to deal with. It’s the price one pays for not dying.

They’d discussed the possibility that my mobility would be reduced. Now at least I could go to costume parties as that Professor from the X Men.

My old flat was out of the question. The lift in that block was usually out of order, and the couple of hops I could manage wouldn’t get me up more than one or two stairs.

I reluctantly moved into the granny flat below Joe’s, the one which had seen the old man through his confused last years.

Joe and Sally made all sorts of promises about “letting me live my own life”, but there was this almost-palpable proviso that gay brothers in wheelchairs don’t need a love life.

If there was one unwelcome guy who was going to be a real issue, it was that particular flavour of Jesus Christ who appealed to my brother and his wife, and their vanload of badly-behaved, sanctimonious kids.

The late Chris Hitchens said religion poisons everything, and when the old man succumbed to Joe and Sally’s nagging and got converted, he’d have made a textbook case.

Under the tutelage of White Conservative Jesus, Dad had gone from a happy, humorous guy, a friend to people of many countries and creeds, to a white-bread bigot who spent his days, and his newly-learned internet skills, FWDing lame hate memes and those mean, shitty, xenophobic poems that have been going since about 1950, the “more in garden live in tent” kind of rubbish.

To me, he died early. The rest of the world saw him off about ten years later.

Compared to what I was facing as I wheeled into that place where I’d visited Dad once, the past few months were a picnic. My new residence had a wheel-in shower and other devices, but I could see it was going to be the biggest challenge.

The wheelchair stuff? Hah, I could do that sitting on my arse.

***

The kids wouldn’t leave poor bloody Uncle alone.

I was pretty sure Joshua wasn’t really as keen on his church youth group’s play as his repeated invitations in the lead-up to the event would have suggested.

On the other hand, Melinda’s smarmy delight that I’d given up smoking, and “do you remember how, when I was three, I told you that your cigarettes made Jesus cry” – well, that was all pure, undiluted Melinda. I could only hope she’d eventually marry some parasite wannabe pastor, and have lots of kids who inherited her temperament.

The bombardment continued. A succession of Nice Young Women from church came to dinner, which just happened to be held in the very accessible covered patio out back. I couldn’t tell if they were trying to turn me, or they were saving the young men from my gay germs, but it’s very hard to keep finding polite excuses when you live under the same roof.

There didn’t seem to be a crevice in the flat which didn’t have one of those bloody Chick comics in it.

Books and DVDs were offered, or conveniently left nearby. Occasionally Joe or Sally would ask me if I’d read or viewed them, and the conversation would tail off into End Times and that kind of hooey, before I’d suddenly become conveniently tired.

Joe and I have always had a fair amount of tolerance for each other, even if we haven’t been the closest, but I have my limits. One day, after a church invite too many, I was close to losing my cool.

“All right! What if I promise to go to church with you, just once? Will you ease off on the home crusade a bit?”

And that’s how I got to be here.

There was no way I was going to fold the chair and travel to my ordeal in the midst of Joe’s screaming horde. I phoned an accessible cab and got out near the door, to be met by the horde, plus their pastor and his wife.

I didn’t do my homework. The church meets in a rented function room above some squash courts. There’s no lift and no ramps.

Pastor Whatsisname beamed, condescendingly shook my hand, and made some hand signals over my head.

Without any warning, and certainly without permission or any trace of dignity, some clean-cut lads in their twenties grabbed the chair and lifted. Keeping their hands clear of any possible contact with me, they lurched me up the stairs, and swiftly wheeled me into a space in the front row of stackable chairs, where the Tribe Of Joe were seated.

There were songs. There was clappiness. There were announcements, and a big, condescending welcome to Joe’s Prodigal Brother, including some passage from the gospels about a crippled guy’s friends dropping him in through the ceiling, poor bastard. There were more songs.

Then the band guys put their instruments down, and stayed on stage. The very forgettable Pastor fronted the microphone and started some hooey about God pouring out his spirit in the last days, and about some men of God being given great measures, and then he announced their special guest, RAAAAAAAY SCRIVENERRRRRRR!

A blast of recorded music started. It was so close to the theme from Rocky only a copyright lawyer could have told the difference.

Out stepped Scrivener, a dowdy relic in hair-oil and a tan safari suit. The hundred or so faithful hooted and cheered. The annoying woman, who’d been blowing the ram’s horn during all the clappy songs, ventured an especially large bubbly fart noise through her instrument.

I’d heard of Scrivener before. He was a Queensland-born country boy, one of the earliest proponents of holy spirit hucksterism, and for some reason sounded awfully American when he got going.

Scrivener carried on with what I imagine was his usual shtick, sudden bursts of dramatic emphasis, and some phrases repeated three times – Three Times – THREE Times! – with increasing volume, and a whole lot of carny-style crowd warmup.

Of course God had a message or two for him tonight. Cold-reading aside, he would have gotten a lot of background on various potential targets out of Pastor over lunch, and of course Muggins in the wheelchair wasn’t going to escape: the burly lads had pretty well parked me in.

The band started playing that muzacky stuff fundie church bands play behind altar calls and other such theatre. The game of Hooking In The Victims was done with the usual showmanship. “You’ve been troubled with digestion” – to the obviously-anorexic teen, and so on, down to me: Captain Bloody Obvious.

I didn’t respond, and stayed put.

After starting at the other end of the half-dozen poor shills lined up for the congregation’s no-risk amusement, going through his bore-’em-stupid-and-suddenly-SHOUT trick, and letting the victims fall backward into the hands of some of those brawny twerps who’d lugged me up the stairs, Scrivener let the last one drop, wiped his sweaty brow, and suddenly loomed in front of my chair, leaning right into my personal space.

My first temptation was to grab him by the knackers. Perhaps I should have.

“Jesus has a word for you, son. Jesus says – RESTORE!” and a hair-oily hand tapped me on the shoulder.

At first I thought it was my mind reacting, despite my conscious reluctance, to the showground psychology. No, darn it, I could FEEL things happening.

The power returned to my tingling legs, like I hadn’t felt it since before hospital. The way things felt, with my back against the rest of the chair, confirmed my suspicion.

I stood and walked, under my own power, relatively firmly, to the mike where Scrivener stood mumbling in tongues.

He looked up, and with the loudest of Hallelujahs, asked me what I had to say.

Exactly then, the old pain hit, and I puked yellow down the tan polyester jacket and pants.

What else could I say but the bleeding obvious?

“Fuck this, my tumour’s back!”