Under skin, in blood

They call me Aunty and I pretend to these young things that I mind. ‘I’m not your Aunty,’ I say crossly. Cheeky mites. But those words, that name, they are medicine to these tired bones. ‘Outside with you, you little buggers. Don’t get under my feet.’

They tumble out, four little ones with their wildly curly hair, their mass of limbs flailing, and yells peppered with peals of laughter. It’s the sound of the carefree. And that’s how it should be for these mungas.

Their squeals are muffled through the window pane and it’s just me and Merindah left in the kitchen.

‘I’ll make the tea, Nana Faye,’ she says. I don’t usually like people doing things for me but I don’t feel that way about Merindah.

Her back is to me as she fills the tin kettle under the tap and places it on the stove. Although I can’t see her face, I know it so well – the dark lines of her mouth, her dark eyes, strong, wide forehead. These are the stamps of her father and he inherited them from my husband. It comforts me to see them in her face, though she is so young and beautiful. She is at the time in her life when her beauty is blossoming. Her father and grandfather died well after their bloom had gone. The hardness in their lives had too quickly changed their faces, but to see glimpses of them in Merindah is a visit from welcome ghosts.

She sits down on the opposite side of my little kitchen table. The red plastic tablecloth, faded and bubbling with age, is covered with catalogues that I comb through for bargains. I rarely get to buy anything – I save my pennies up for Christmas – but I like to know what things cost should I ever need something. You never know.

Merindah is young, but I can see now in her eyes that she is not without worries. There are dark circles under her eyes that do not belong on a face as young as hers. But whatever these troubles are, she is not sharing them with me today.

‘So what are they teaching you at that university?’ I ask casually. It lifts my spirits to think that she is there. I didn’t know anyone who went to one when I was her age. Truth be told, I didn’t really understand what they were all about back then. How could I know? We weren’t taught with white kids when I was young, though later they let a few bright ones join their classes. We were only destined for domestics if we were to work at all. At least that’s what we were told.

People like my son wouldn’t take that for an answer and I was always proud that he would stand up and say what he wanted.

‘Jack,’ I’d say, ‘I don’t know where you get that gumption from but it heartens me to see it.’ He didn’t get it from me or from his father. We were ‘don’t rock the boat’ kind of people. I’ve often wished, in the still heart of those nights when sleep won’t come easy and my thoughts are filled with him and Henry, that I’d said more of the things to him that I thought in my head.

But back in those days, people didn’t talk so openly about what they felt inside. Not like they do today now that there is Oprah. There were things my Henry and I didn’t even say to each other in private, so it was not like I was going to say them to Jack, or to anyone else for that matter. Henry would say, ‘You have to play with the hand God dealt you,’ and at the time it always seemed to make sense, ’cos that was all we were able to do.

Merindah plays with her nails as she speaks. They are long and painted bright pink. It looks like she does no housework with such fine fingers. Can you imagine? It was all I was trained for – to clean up after other folks – and with those nails, I don’t see how she can even clean up after herself. We had to make things from scratch that you just buy today – bread, candles, soap – and I lived in a place with no water or electricity when I was a young girl. I wonder how Merindah would cope, though I’m glad she doesn’t have to.

‘I’ve made some good progress on my research project,’ she says with a click of her nails. It’s as though she taunts me with those long scratchy claws of hers because she knows I don’t understand why she keeps them so long.

I find this research thing a puzzle. We lived through these things and now they come and study them. It was just our lives and we never thought about what it all meant. Part of me is glad that these young people don’t forget their history and how hard life was before. But the truth is that the other part of me is just sick of answering lots of questions and of feeling like a creepy-crawly under the microscope.

‘Darwin was so hot and steamy. I could barely move. But the clouds would build up during the day and then there were the most amazing storms in the evening.’

That’s the thing with these young people. Everything is ‘amazing’ or ‘awesome’. And they say ‘like’ a lot. Merindah is not so bad because she talks really pretty.

‘So is that what you learnt then? Does that pass as research?’

‘No, Nana Faye, not just that,’ she says with a laugh. She is used to the way I ask questions and takes no offence. ‘You know I’ve been trying to find out every-thing I can about a place that was used as a home for “half-caste” children.’ Merindah wiggles two fingers on each hand as she says half-caste.

I like this sensitivity around words. It wasn’t like that before. ‘Sticks and stones …’ my Henry would say. And I agreed with him back then because we were playing the hand God gave us, but I never liked the names. I did find them hurtful, even if they weren’t stones.

‘It was called Kahlin Compound and between 1911 and 1939 there were high rates of leprosy there. Leprosy was around a fair bit then so it’s not surprising that there would be cases, but a lot of older people with memories of the place, people who were there or knew people who were, believed that they used the kids at Kahlin as guinea pigs for experimental leprosy treatments.’

‘And did they? Did they do something so cruel?’

‘Well there are lots of explanations as to why people may have thought these things were going on. The official story is that back at that time treatment for leprosy was being developed so it was experimental in nature, relatively ineffective and pretty unpleasant until about 1950. They also say that the symptoms of leprosy would have been exacerbated by the effects of other diseases like hookworm and malaria that were also rife then. So they conclude there was nothing unusual going on.’

Leprosy, malaria – and small pox.

The most lethal thing these wundas brought with them was invisible. It wasn’t their guns. It wasn’t their alcohol. Those things would wreak their own kind of havoc, unleash fast and slow murder. But, flowing through their veins, floating in their blood, under that skin like bark from a ghost gum tree were microbes far more deathly than bullets.

My grandmother’s country is on Gadigal land. It is the land that Sydney was built on so it’s not surprising that I have ended up back here.

My grandmother had stories, many of them, she said, were told to her by her grandmother. I liked hearing them, knowing they had been handed down from one to another. My grandmother, who lived a life as strange and unknown to me as the way we lived as children is strange and unknown to Merindah, would hear these stories so often and remember them so she could then tell them to my mother and tell them to me. Not only is the blood handed down to the next generation, so are our stories. We have good memories and they are long.

I remember my grandmother telling me as we passed the south end of Hyde Park where there was a war memorial that once upon a time this had been a place where blackfellas from the southern tribes had met and camped. There was conflict – violent conflict – between them and the first settlers. I always thought since then that the we should have a war memorial that honoured our heroes, our warriors, too.

They had their violence, these white people. But it wasn’t the fighting that broke the spirit of the blacks.

They say that in the first year of whitefellas starting their colony in Sydney, over half of the population of blacks in the area died from disease. Bodies were found on beaches and rocks by the water with the remains of small fires on either side of the corpse and a small amount of water within reach of the body.

Soon there were no longer people alive or well enough to carry out the burial practices; others moved out of the Sydney region to escape the danger. The area, once alive with the sounds of camps and ceremonies, was silent.

Aboriginal people had no immunity to the diseases that the sailors, soldiers and convicts had in their system – smallpox, syphilis and influenza. Disease ravaged the bodies, the people and the culture that had been around for forty thousand years, well before Britain was even Britain. There must have been so much grief. And I know what too much grief can do to a community.

I shake my head. ‘And that’s the official explanation is it?’

‘Yep. That’s it. The official explanation. It’s all complicated by the fact that a cyclone destroyed records in 1937, more records were destroyed when Darwin was bombed during the Second World War and the rest by Cyclone Tracy in 1974. So there is little, if any, official documentation. All the medical records from Kahlin Compound were lost.’

‘Well, I never trust the official story.’

And Merindah knows the truth of that.

The hardest thing is to trust these people. These people who have the power of life or death over you, and use that power carelessly. These people we are mute to argue against. And our words never seem a match for what they wrote down, even though we have good memories and they make mistakes.

‘There are plenty of people around who dispute it,’ Merindah says. ‘I interviewed people who had relatives who worked at Kahlin Compound. They said it was often said that children there were used as guinea pigs for leprosy treatments. It made them very, very ill, almost killed them. But there is no documentation to back their story up, even though it is one that needs to be told. And some people are reluctant to talk about it because it was so awful and they don’t want to relive what happened. And I don’t want them shamed.’

Don’t I know what it’s like to have a story to tell, one that everyone should hear but no-one hears.

When Henry and I married, I went to live with him in Baryulgil on the lands of his people, the Bunjalung people. It’s pronounced ‘Bay-ul-gil’. I don’t know where the ‘r’ went but it’s not there now. It’s not easy to get to and not the kind of place you pass by chance. You drive from Grafton on the coast of New South Wales and head to Casino, but go to Coaldale and then to Baryulgil on a road that doesn’t seem to go anywhere. That’s because Coaldale and Baryulgil are what’s left of a road mapped out long ago so the people of Grafton could establish a new dray route to Tenterfield. You can see why it’s not needed now.

I remember the first time Henry took me there and I watched the red dirt slowly turn to white. I thought it was sand and wondered why it was so far away from the water. I’d never heard of asbestos back then.

When Henry’s ancestors lost their land to pastoralists, they lived at a camp called Baryulgil Square. They stayed to be on their country, their home, where they could still do their ceremonies, or what remained of them. Henry’s father used to say, ‘We live here. We can’t go anywhere else because this is where our people lived. It mightn’t mean anything to anybody else but we’re part of this country and when we die we go back to this land.’

The mine opened in Baryulgil in 1944 and everyone said we were lucky. And people felt lucky, too. We had employment and all the things that employment brings. Government people talked about assimilation and said we were a good example of it.

The number of people living at Baryulgil Square while the mine ran would be about one or two hundred, depending on the seasons. And the men who worked the mine came from this community. The foreman, truck drivers, mill drivers, engine drivers, the whole lot of them were black. The only white men that worked there were the manager and the fitter. All the other jobs were done by Aboriginal men.

And they were all exposed to lethal levels of toxic dust.

Henry would carry bags full of asbestos. In the afternoon, when he finished work, he would shower and the fibres would come out of his skin, create sediment around the drain. Asbestos would come out of his fingers, his thumbs, his toes.

That should have been the first tell-tale sign, but we didn’t know what it meant. We didn’t know that the asbestos exposure was scarring his lungs.

And it wasn’t just Henry’s lungs. The dust infected the town. The mine was open cut so the dust just mingled straight with the air.

Children played in mounds of asbestos tailings scattered throughout the community. The school was built on chippers and the dust used to fly around in the wind while the children were in the classroom. A big pile of tailings sat in the schoolyard while it was being built and the children would play in it as though it were a sand dune. They would slide down it and imagine that they were by the sea.

There were piles of asbestos sand around the town. The waste from the mines was used to fill holes in driveways. The local council used the waste to repair washaways on most of the nearby roads. They would dump truckloads of asbestos, mounds of tailings up to a foot deep, on the roads and driveways around the mine. There were even tailings dumped at a local picnic spot.

And we reused the hessian bags that transported asbestos in our kitchens and homes, as coverings or to store things.

No matter where you were, it was dusty. It would be in the gutters and on the leaves. The dust would fly through the house whenever the wind blew. It would get in your food and on your clothes. It would get in our mouths and ears. I would even wipe it out of Jack’s eyes.

And it got into the water supply.

We didn’t know it was lethal. How could we when it was used in so many things? Henry told me they needed the asbestos, those people who mined it, because it had strength and flexibility against acid and heat. And they put it in everything. It was used in the brakes of cars, building materials, clothing that could withstand fire and insulation. They wanted to be able to make cheap houses. And they did. Australians, Henry told me, used more asbestos for each person than any other country in the world. In the economic boom that followed the Second World War, everyone wanted one of those cheap houses made from asbestos. And Baryulgil was part of the boom.

Then our men who worked in the mine started dying. They were only forty or fifty years of age. We started hearing that this was happening in other places where people mined or handled the asbestos. Then people outside started hearing about what had happened in Baryulgil and how the dust was everywhere and too many people were sick and dying.

The mine closed in 1979.

Henry suffocated slowly. His scarred lungs became stiff and could no longer work properly. His chest was tight, he would say, and his constant dry cough would keep us awake at night and haunt him in the day.

Later, as it became worse, his skin had a bluish tinge. The doctor said that this was due to the lack of oxygen in his body.

Then the lung cancer came. He was also a smoker. Everyone was in those days. So that only made it worse.

And then came the mesothelioma. I couldn’t say it at first but I heard that word so many times I could spell it in my sleep now. I’m no educated person but I learnt words I could barely pronounce through those years. Mesothelioma grows quickly and spreads widely before symptoms appear, so it is hard to detect and even harder to treat. When they finally found it had infested Henry’s body, they gave him only six to twelve months to live. He made it to a year and a half. And every extra day was a blessing I still thank the spirits for even though he had to fight to breathe through every single minute.

It only takes a small amount of exposure to the asbestos, the doctors told me, to trigger the cancer. And only a small number of people exposed go on to develop mesothelioma. I often wonder which breath it was, which particles of the dust of all the billions and billions that floated around us and in us, were the ones that took lethal hold in Henry. And I wondered how long it sat inside him, waiting patiently, biding its time.

Turned out, Henry would discover before he died that they began to know about the link between the asbestos and cancer and all the other problems in the 1960s, a decade before he took ill. The mine we felt lucky to have, that gave us the benefits of work and kept the community together, was slowly but surely killing us.

There were some inquiries into the mine and what it did to our community, after he died. People came in from the government. They took notes. They asked us questions. They were shocked at what went on. They seemed to share our outrage.

I only remember two things they said out of all that paperwork. And I’ll never forget them. One was that the mining company didn’t give any warnings about how dangerous asbestos can be and that, if workers aren’t told about the dangers, they can’t do anything to protect themselves. That was it in a nutshell.

But if that weren’t enough, the second thing I remember from those inquiries was that it turned out that the mine was barely profitable and only continued to operate to prevent permanent unemployment among the Aboriginal workers in the area. Turned out this employment that was supposed to be doing the community a favour was actually a death sentence.

The mining company tried to avoid taking the blame at first. They said they weren’t responsible. I didn’t understand how they could avoid it when they had paid the workers. Merindah tried to explain it to me. Something about legal entities and who is and isn’t responsible. It made no sense to me. All I knew was, Henry worked in the mine and the asbestos killed him.

We lost more heart after that. It’s one thing if people don’t know. But if they do know and they do nothing, well, that’s a whole different thing. Henry said, and I never forgot it, that this neglect would not have happened if we had been white.

Merindah later explained to me that there had been an inquiry that said that the mining company couldn’t avoid paying compensation to people and so it would set up a fund with the government. This would, she said, cover men from Baryulgil. Seemed like a slow kind of justice that was no kind of justice at all. It was justice that wouldn’t help the town.

It wasn’t just the workers who suffered – it was our children too.

When the mine closed, after the boom had gone and the men who had worked there were on welfare, we still lived with the mine. We still lived in the dust.

Decades after the mine closed, it was still with us.

Jack lived in the dust, played in the tailings, breathed it in.

When he turned thirty, he developed a tumour, a cancer. It grew behind his eye and eventually pushed his eyeball out. He had to have the whole eyeball removed.

He’d had Merindah by then and was raising her on his own after his wife ran off. I knew when he brought her over from Casino that she wouldn’t last. She was one of those restless types and there is no excitement to be found here.

Jack’s whole life had become Merindah until that tumour took over him. The asbestos not only ravaged his body, his looks, his spirit; it eventually ravaged his will to live. His fighting spirit, his gumption, that left him too.

His neighbour found him hanging from the tree in his backyard. It must have been an awful sight and I count my blessings that I didn’t see it. It was bad enough having to see him laid out, ready to be returned to the ground, looking like he was sleeping but not waking up. He left a note that just said: Get her away from here, Mum. Please. Just get her away.

My heart broke losing Henry. We knew that it was the dust and it made both of us angry. We could aim all that rage at the mine and its asbestos.

But with Jack, it was different. We knew that the dust had taken his sight and took his independence with it, but he was the one who took his life and that raises a lot of hard questions, especially for me. You think a lot about what you should have said and what you could have done differently.

I went through the motions of burying my son and I remember little of that time. I can’t tell you how I got through a day, how I got out of bed. Maybe I was sleepwalking. A numbness set in and it didn’t break until the mundane tasks of packing up his life drove me mad.

I had to close up his house, get rid of his things. When I took his clothes from the closet, I could smell him on his shirts. I held one up to my nose to deeply breathe in the scent. And the next thing, I thought I heard myself scream but it was the sound of the clothing ripping. I tore at his shirt like it was this tear in my heart. And before I knew it, all his shirts had been ripped into rags. Looking at the scraps of his shirts scattered over his floor, well, that really made me cry.

I had a lot of anger in me about all of that, I can tell you. And each time we had to lay someone to rest, that anger would just fester and grow, along with all the cancers the town was carrying.

And it would have eaten me, all that anger, if I didn’t have to look after Merindah. I could see the ghosts of Henry and Jack in her face and I felt strangely comforted by that, to know there were still pieces of them living, not just in my memory.

We all knew that the town would never have been infected if we were white, not black. They said it wasn’t because of our skin that we were forgotten, but because we were so isolated we were invisible to the government, trade unions and the rest of Australia. Well, I can tell you, sometimes you are invisible because you are black. That’s the hand you are dealt.

Eventually they did put some money into the medical service in Grafton and they relocated many of the families to the nearby settlement of Malabugilmah to get people away from the asbestos. But many people didn’t want to live there. They wanted to live at Baryulgil. It was their home – they had grown up there and their loved ones were buried there.

I can understand that. Henry’s family had been there before white people came and they didn’t want to let it go. Nowhere else meant anything to them.

We had too much grief in Baryulgil. Families were wiped out and it takes a huge toll on the heart of the community. I did what Jack wanted and took his girl away from that place, and Merindah and I have been here on my grandmother’s Gadigal land ever since.

Merindah has washed the cups and saucers. She is wiping them with the tea towel as she leans with her back against the kitchen bench and faces me. She knows I’ve been in my thoughts and she has been silent. She knows when to talk and when to shut up. I like that about her.

‘You know, Nana Faye, you should come to Darwin with me. You’ve never been and it’s like no other place.’

‘I sure would like to see that before I die,’ I say to Merindah.

‘Put it on your bucket list,’ she says.

‘My what?’ I thought it might be like a shopping list.

‘A bucket list. It’s a list of all the things you want to do before you kick the bucket, before you die.’

‘Pffttt,’ I say back to her, blowing my breath between the teeth biting down on my lips. ‘Pffttt.’ I make the noise again because it sounds like a cat getting huffy.

I like that, a bucket list. I’ll write one out but I better remember where I put it. I’m always forgetting where I put things these days.

The back door opens with a bang and a small army of feet and loud mouths tumbles into my kitchen. ‘Aunty, can we go up to the park?’

‘Bugger off,’ I say. I shake my bony arm at them like I am shooing flies. ‘I’m not your Aunty.’

But as I turn a little away from them, my lips quiver into a smile and I let Merindah see it. I bundle up my purse and ready myself to take the noisy buggers up the street.

Larissa Behrendt

Larissa Behrendt is the author of award-winning novels Home and Legacy, and is currently a Professor of Law and Director of Research at the Jumbunna Indigenous House of Learning at the University of Technology, Sydney

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