Jon Dootson woke up in the morning to find he’d been transformed into a long, skinny white man. He looked down at himself to see a pale belly, hands and feet. His areolas had turned pink.
Jon sat up and caught sight of himself in the broken mirror that hung above the bedside table. Luscious blond hair sprouted from his head, flowing in straight lines past his ears. There was no trace of his usual frizzy locks.
‘Oh no,’ Jon cried, ‘I’ve turned into a white man!’
His voice sounded unusual to him. Lighter, and a little higher in pitch.
There was a knock at the door.
‘Uncle Jon, is that you?’ It was his niece, Missy. ‘What are you doing up at this hour?’
Panicked, Jon bunched the bed sheets around his body.
‘Don’t come in, I’m naked,’ he shouted.
‘Alright, well keep your voice down. Everyone’s still asleep.’
The sound of Missy’s footsteps faded as she walked off down the hall. Jon slowly removed the sheet and stood to examine himself. He seemed a little thinner and had a certain posture when standing: ‘lanky’ was the word that came to mind. Apart from that and his hair, everything looked pretty much the same. Only his pigmentation had changed.
Jon paced around his room, wondering what to do. Perhaps this was a dream and he just needed to wake up. He gave his creamy flesh a hard pinch, but it did no good and left a large red mark. He jumped into bed and pulled the sheets over his head, hoping that if he went back to sleep he would wake up black again. But it was no use; the shock of turning white had left him wide awake.
A thought occurred to him. He should tell his father. Mike Dootson was a respected elder. He would know what to do. Jon found a pair of underpants and stood at his bedroom door.
‘Missy,’ Jon yelled, ‘Missy, are you still up?’
He wasn’t quite ready to venture from his room, not in his current state.
‘Uncle Jon, what’s wrong with you?’ Missy sounded annoyed. No doubt she was upset that he’d pulled her away from watching Yamba. It was probably for the best; she was getting too old for that kids’ show.
‘I need you to go and get Grandpa Mike.’
‘Can’t you just put some clothes on?’ she whined.
‘This is an emergency,’ Jon said, in strained tones. The last part of the word ‘emergency’ came out as a squeak. Missy must have heard the desperation in his voice, because she left without another word. Jon heard heavier footsteps approaching his door.
‘Jon, are you okay? Missy is worried about you,’ his father said. He sounded half asleep.
‘I have to show you something,’ Jon said, ‘but you must promise to close your eyes before you enter.’
‘This isn’t another penis joke, is it Jon?’ his father said impatiently. ‘Your mother’s still recovering from the last time you put on a puppet show.’
‘No, Dad, it’s nothing like that. Do you promise to close your eyes?’
Jon took a deep breath and opened the door, just enough for his father to squeeze through. Mike was covering his eyes with one hand.
‘Okay, now I want you to open your eyes slowly. But be warned, you may be shocked by what you see.’
Mike sighed but did as he was told, slowly removing his hand from his eyes. Jon stood self-consciously in front of his father while he was examined.
‘Jon? Is that really you?’ His father squinted at him. ‘You look like a white fella.’
‘Yes it’s me, Dad. This morning I woke up white.’
‘You haven’t been listening to John Farnham again, have you?’
Jon gave his father an impatient look. ‘This is no time for jokes.’
‘Sorry. I just never expected to have a white boy.’
Mike walked a slow circle around Jon, looking him up and down, a hand on his greying beard.
‘What should I do?’ Jon wailed in his newfound tenor.
‘You’d better stay inside today. We don’t want you walkin’ around. People will want to see your permit, and I’m assuming you didn’t wake up with one.’
‘Fine,’ Jon said glumly. ‘But I better be black again tomorrow. I don’t want to miss Alec’s initiation ceremony.’
With little else to do, Jon lay down on his bed for hours feeling sorry for himself. He wondered what he’d done to trigger this unfortunate turn of events.
Later there came a soft knocking at his door.
‘Jon, sweetie, it’s me, Daisy, your mum.’ From the way she was speaking, Jon guessed that his father had told her.
‘Mum, I’m just white,’ Jon said. ‘I haven’t developed amnesia.’
‘Oh sorry,’ she said timidly. ‘Your father explained what’s happened. Everybody knows. Why don’t you come out and have some lunch?’
‘I’m a hideous creature,’ said Jon. ‘Nobody wants to see me like this.’
‘You stop that nonsense, Jon. Just because you’re white doesn’t make you a hideous creature. Now march yourself out of that room right now.’
He was still uncertain about revealing his transformation to the rest of his family. But since his father had told them about his new appearance, he supposed they wouldn’t be as shocked as he’d been that morning. Jon’s stomach growled at the thought of a good feed.
He turned the lock on the door and opened it to see his mother standing there. Her eyes widened slightly but her expression remained steadfast. Her dark lips were tight and her hands were on her hips. With that body language, Jon knew she wouldn’t take ‘no’ for an answer.
In the kitchen, Daisy doled out the chicken lunch. Mike, Missy, Alec and his cousin Murray were all seated around the table. Missy and Alec looked like twins but were a number of years apart. Both were curly-haired, dark skinned and far too thin. Murray, on the other hand, was a little on the tubby side and of an age with Jon, although Murray often acted much younger.
They all pretended not to notice Jon. Most avoided eye contact, except for Murray. Murray stared at him like he’d just disembarked from a spaceship.
‘You gone and turned yourself into a white man, Jon? What, are you too good for us now?’
‘Enough of that,’ Daisy said, rapping Murray sharply on the knuckles with her wooden spoon.
The family ate their meal in an unusual silence, staring at their plates. Murray, sitting next to Jon, nudged him with an elbow and whispered in low tones.
‘Now you’re balanda, why don’t you take a trip up the road and get some grog, eh? No questions asked. You’ll be a hit with the boys.’
Mike put his knife and fork down loudly and fixed Murray with a hard stare. Murray withdrew and studied his food. He knew better than to upset his Uncle Mike.
As soon as lunch was over and the plates were washed, Jon retreated hastily to his bedroom and stayed there for the rest of the day, away from judgemental eyes.
When Jon awoke the next morning, he stared at the ceiling a good long while. Please let me be black, please let me be black, he repeated in his head. He made sure to say the phrase at least twenty times before he finally allowed himself to look down.
Jon was still white.
‘Noooo!’ he howled. His cry roused the whole house and the McInnes family next door. Someone came and banged loudly on his door.
‘Quiet down in there,’ Murray yelled. ‘It’s bad enough we got a white boy in the family, now you gotta carry on about it too?’
It was clear now that Jon wasn’t going to turn black just by sitting around, so he decided to take a different approach. He hopped in the shower and scrubbed at his skin. With the hot water turned up as high as he could stand, he scrubbed and scrubbed at his flesh, but the paleness refused to go away. When Jon finally stepped out of the shower, he saw that he had in fact managed to change his colour. He was now blotchy all over and looked as pink as a galah.
As he stared miserably at his reflection, he realised he’d gone about it the wrong way. What he needed was to take the opposite tack – he needed to cover rather than remove. He felt a renewed sense of hope as he dashed outside to scoop up a handful of charcoal from the old fire pit out the back. If he hurried, he could still meet up with his friends for an hour or so before they left for the ceremony.
He made a paste and smoothed the wet sludge over his face and hands. Once he’d painted up, he put on a long-sleeved shirt and tucked his blond locks into the back of a cap. A pair of sunglasses to hide his baby blue eyes completed the look.
It was still early, so Jon managed to make it to the river without being seen. He found his friends about to launch their fishing boat. Jon raised a hand in greeting as he approached. Hoping to catch them before they cast off, he raised his voice.
‘Eh, you mob. Wait for me!’
The men turned, their usual looks of welcome replaced by confusion and shock.
‘You gotta be joking.’
‘Who that clown?’
‘Fellas, it’s me. Jon,’ he said with a grin, hoping they’d recognise his deadly smile.
‘Jon?’ one of them said. ‘Jon’s at home sick. You’ve got some nerve showing up here, makin’ fun of his disability.’
Jon’s smile faltered as his friends began to scowl.
‘No really, it’s me,’ he said and tried quickly to think of something that would prove who he was. ‘Watch this.’
Jon bent at the knees and began to shake a leg, dancing a sacred dance that only an initiated man would know. At least, that’s what he attempted to do. His new gangly legs buckled beneath him and his arms flopped awkwardly before he tripped into a heap on the ground.
‘First you come here in blackface and then you make fun of our culture? Get out of here before I put another hole in that ugly face of yours,’ one of them said.
Fear washed over Jon. His friends really didn’t recognise him. He scrambled to his feet as they began to advance towards him, brandishing their fishing equipment, before he ran all the way home.
Jon climbed back into the tub to wash off the ridiculous make-up. It seemed his problem wasn’t going to be so easily fixed. On the way back to his room, he passed his father in the hallway. Mike looked him up and down and shook his head.
‘I’m sorry, son, but you can’t come to the ceremony looking like that.’
‘I know, Dad,’ Jon said sadly. Alec was Jon’s favourite nephew and he’d been looking forward to participating in Alec’s rite of passage. ‘You men head off, I’ve got to go apply for my permit anyway.’
His father patted him roughly on the shoulder.
‘We still love you, you know.’
His son returned a weak smile.
Jon didn’t really have any white fella clothes to fit his new lanky body. The closest he came was a pair of jeans and a T-shirt. As Jon crossed town, he noticed everyone stopped what they were doing to gawk at him as he walked by.
‘Who that balanda?’ they whispered to each other.
‘Didn’t know it was tourist season yet,’ someone else said.
Jon was glad to disappear into the community centre, away from prying eyes. He marched himself up to the government representative.
‘How can I help you, sir?’ said the white man behind the desk.
‘I need to apply for a permit,’ Jon said, ‘And to pick up my payment.’
The man processed his request.
‘The permit will take a week to arrive – it has to be approved. You really should have applied for one before coming into the community,’ the man said, handing him a wad of money. Jon looked at the cash in confusion.
‘No, I think there’s been a mistake.’
‘Mistake?’ the man said. ‘You are still unemployed, aren’t you?’
‘Yes, but shouldn’t some of this go on the Basics Card?’
The government employee laughed.
‘That’s only for the …’ he coughed, ‘for the Aborigines. You’re free to do whatever you want with your money.’
Jon hadn’t been handed money like this in a long time. It usually went into the Basics Card and could only be used at certain stores.
‘What kinda gammin deal is this?’ said Jon incredulously. He was glad to get the money, but somehow it didn’t seem fair.
‘No joke, sir. That’s just the way it is.’
Jon returned home, unsure how to feel. Perhaps being white wasn’t going to be so bad after all. In some ways, it was too bad Alec and Missy weren’t also white – they’d be able to attend ceremony during the dry season without being punished for absenteeism at school. On the other hand, if they were white, they wouldn’t be able to participate in the ceremony anyway, just like him.
Jon could feel his whole world beginning to turn on its head. He wasn’t accepted by his community. He’d forgotten the sacred dance. It seemed like it was only a matter of time before he would forget how to paint, the words to the songlines, or worse, his father’s language. Weren’t these the things that made him who he was? He wondered how he could continue living in a place that was beginning to seem so alien to him.
By the time Alec and Mike returned home from the ceremony, Jon had made a decision. He had no choice but to pull out his worn duffel bag and begin packing.
When he emerged from his room, his family was crowded around the television, watching the Marngrook Footy Show. His father pressed the mute button to silence the TV.
‘Mum, Dad, cousins, nieces and nephews,’ Jon began. ‘I’ve come to a decision.’
They all looked up at him with wide eyes, shades of light from the TV’s flickering images dancing across their faces. How he wished he could join them on the couch and make wisecracks about Grant Hansen and the rest of the sports panel, like any other Thursday night.
‘I’m leaving for the city.’ Jon said. ‘I don’t belong here any more and I think it’ll be better for everyone. I should be able to find a decent job in Sydney, meet a nice white girl and raise a white family, away from all this.’ Jon spoke with tears in his eyes. ‘Living out on country is no place for someone like me. Now my country is Australia, and my home will be the city. If any of you should drop by …’ he paused, thinking it was unlikely but still possible, ‘I will be happy to meet up with you for coffee, and put you up in a nice hotel with harbour views. I’ll forward my number, once I purchase a mobile phone in the big smoke.’
With that, Jon picked up his suitcase, kissed his mother on the cheek, and left.
Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.
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