The grounds of the Gove Peninsula Life Saving Club were packed to bursting. It seemed that the whole town had come down to see its prodigal son.
After dropping his bags back at home, Barney had headed down to the Aussie Rules football oval. The local children were running their after-school practice drills, with groups of five or six running around various portions of the field. Standing in the centre of the oval was a middle-aged man, barking orders to the children whose training he was supervising.
Barney confidently strode towards the man, who was facing away from him.
“Hey Mathulu! Give your bud a kick of the footy hey?”
The man looked either side of himself before turning to face Barney. The man wore a ragged black singlet, the Aboriginal flag emblazoned on it, and a pair of white footy shorts. Mathulu let out a whoop of excitement and ran towards his friend, his impossibly large smile encompassed by a greying goatee. The pair gave each other a hip and shoulder charge before shaking hands, and Barney rubbing the close-cut grey hair of his friend.
“It’s about bloody time you got back, Barnaby. We expected you back a week or so ago.”
Barney shrugged. “I would have been, but the bloody boss made me drop off some gear to a few of his friends before heading home.”
“And it took a week? Where’d they send you?”
“Europe and Africa.”
“Bloody hell! Talk about taking advantage of an honest man.”
Mathulu cupped his hands and yelled at the kids training. “Kids! Get in here quick! I got someone here.”
The divided groups all headed in towards Mathulu and Barney. Many of the kids recognised him, the smiles bright on their faces as they surrounded him and began to overwhelm him with questions.
“Hey Barney! How was Barnumbirr? You didn’t piss her off, did you?”
Barney laughed. “The whole planet’s constantly pissed off. It didn’t need my help.”
The crowd laughed. Mathulu stepped in to quell the crowd. “All right, you lot. That’s enough footy for today. Head on home and let everyone know that Barney has finally graced us with his presence.” He gave Barney a quick elbow to the ribs, which was answered with a push on the shoulder. “We’ll head down to the Life Saving Club and make sure it’s all set up.”
As the kids all ran off to spread the word, Barney and Mathulu headed east to the beachside establishment. The grassed area facing out to the sea was set up with tables and chairs. Looking out across the waters he had always loved, sitting with his best friend since childhood, Barney had not felt this content in the three years since he had left. The pair sat and caught up on what had happened to the other in that time.
Within two hours, the grounds were swarming with people, the air thick with the smell of meat and the sounds of people talking. Everyone came over to greet Barney, the men shaking his hand and the ladies giving him a hug. He exchanged pleasantries, truly feeling like he was back amongst his people.
After having a feed and a few drinks, he looked for a nearby table. Seeing a long wooden table, he stepped on the seat and onto its surface. He whistled to get everyone’s attention, and a cheer went up when the crowd saw who was trying to get their attention. The scene brought a smile to his face, and tears to his eyes, as he realised just how much he had missed his home.
He raised his hands to quell the applause. It slowly died down until everyone was focused on the interplanetary traveller.
“G’day everyone. You have no idea just how good it is to be back.” The cheers rose again for a time, until Barney again gestured for quiet. “I must thank everyone for taking the time to attend, and I look forward to some travelling time around Arnhem Land. If you want to come for a walkabout with me, feel free. I’m sure I will need your help, in case I get lost.”
The crowd laughed. The Aboriginal people living in the area were taught the stories and history of the land from the moment they could talk, and taken on the walking treks around the land as soon as they could walk. To forget the lay of the land was practically impossible for them.
Barney raised his can of drink. “Be sure to eat your fill, and I’ll see you all around over the next year or so.”
The cheer went up again as Barney stepped down off the table. Mathulu was waiting for him, and they moved through the crowd to greet anyone they had not. After a time, Barney realised he had not seen someone.
“I haven’t seen Aunty Djuli around. Where’s she hiding?”
Mathulu lowered his eyes. “Sorry I didn’t mention it earlier; I didn’t want to spoil your return. She’s been in the hospital for a good few weeks now. She’s getting old, Barney. It is just about her time.”
Barney felt angry for a moment, but realised his friend had been trying to be considerate. “I had better go and see her tomorrow. It would be terrible to not see her if her time does come.”
The pair continued their socialising with the press of people, though Barney seemed a bit more sombre from then on.
– X –