A rural township on the western plains of New South Wales. 1966. A rugby league match between the local team and our outfit of visitors from the tableland amid the sludge, blood, sweat, spittle and savagery so characteristic of that so-called ‘sport’. The game over, feted like heroes, we processed to the nearby hot mineral baths − ostensibly to cleanse ourselves of mud but mainly, to relieve the bone-deep ache resulting from the legal thuggery just concluded.
The baths supervisor, a bruin of a man, his florid face split by a crooked gap-toothed smile, greeted us genially and we were motioned to drag our filthy bodies post haste into the steaming waters of the tub. So directed, we eagerly immersed ourselves in the warmth of those welcoming waters and luxuriated while the mineral salts loosened the afternoon’s grime. Eyes so recently mud-blinded were now newly restored and clear so it was inevitable that the less than pleasant reality of a tub-full of grubby men should quickly fade to be replaced by more diverting images…of privileged persons being pampered as they deserved to be; tourists on some holiday island, staff pandering to their slightest whim; a tropical pleasure pool − and now, on a platform above, for their beguilement, a performance was about to begin…
Enter the players. Three boys. Fifteen? Seventeen? Light down above upper lips. Tall. Slender. Thin legs and ankles. Dark skins. Indigenous lads, perhaps locals, for they came, not as we did lugging bags, but only with what they were wearing – T shirts, jeans and sandshoes. Bright-eyed boys, one short-cropped, two looking out from under nests of unkempt, bushy hair.
The supervisor’s demeanour instantly metamorphosed into one somehow more suited to his grotesque physiognomy. “You lot stop there!” he snarled, red jowls tightening. “Where ya think y’goin?” The tone was an accusation.
“We goin’ in the pool,” replied the short-haired young man. He spoke mildly, politely.
“Oh yeah, are ya now?” sneered Bruin through clenched teeth, rising threateningly from his seat at the entrance and blocking them. “And where’s yer money then?” He spoke in a manner insinuating that the boys would have none.
“Here boss,” said the spokesperson, fumbling in his trouser pocket and tendering coins for admission.
“Not yer boss, fella! Don’t play the smart-arse with me!” he menaced. “Been stealin’ ole ladies’ milk money, have youse?” He counted the coins on the pulp of his palm, slowly, then again. Apparently satisfied that the amount was correct, he raised his voice perhaps in disappointment that his taunt had received no reply or reaction in annoyance from the boys.
They, their eye-line lower, began to edge sheepishly down the ramp leading to the cubicles on the lower level around the broad circle of the pool. “Youse git inter them showers an’ clean y’selfs up before y’se think of gettin’ inter the pool!” Venom spread like cancer through his command. Dutifully the boys complied. “Hope youse blokes don’t mind this fer company,” Bruin shouted down at us. “No worry though. What’s in dat water gonna kill anythink!” Racist. Demeaning.
Guffaws from around the pool gave approbation to this derision that should have torn at the deepest sense of dignity of these young men. A submarine eruption resonated. “No matter mate,” the team jokester called back, “We just fumigated down here. Pests not gonna live through that!” A chain reaction of sniggers, splashings, dunkings, profanities and general approval of what was taken to be great witticism followed.
While this was happening, the boys obsequiously showered their clean bodies. Their bland expressions and brows slightly furrowed with perplexity betrayed the change in their mood. When they entered the pool and eased themselves in, no one took notice: it was as if they didn’t exist. Soon enough animation lit their faces and they were indulging in the merriment of their own banter and childish hijinks, indistinguishable from any others.
I wanted to speak for the boys. I was feeling the indignation that they should have been feeling. I wanted to ram those shameful taunts down the supervisor’s throat. I wanted to sever myself from the whole racist grotesqueness with which, by my silence, I was complicit. What I did do, all those years ago, was to leave the pool, shower, dress and hurry to the car for the long drive back to the tableland.
I let it all be. But as much as I wished to salve an uneasy conscience by claiming youthful naivety and callow inexperience, one stark fact remained: evil on this day had been allowed by me to fester unchallenged!
The road groped its way through falling darkness. Around me in the car’s confines a sickly epilogue was soon being enacted by a company of players from the theatre of my guilt, actors whose timeless mime communicated their messages unequivocally. As the car tunnelled on through the darkness these figures assumed the force of some elemental human tragedy. Upon the windscreen of my inner eye were the flickering insights and timidities of the day. Finally, illuminated in the headlights of an oncoming truck, I saw the sweating hands of a nineteen-year-old Pilate upon the steering wheel.
I’ve long since come to accept that my inaction that day was inexcusable; that much I carry with me yet. But another impression remains; the real pity at heart and core had to do with those Indigenous lads and their reactions to all that poisonous disparagement that should have affronted the depths of their humanity. That they accepted abuse as if it were normal and offered not so much as a whimper in either defence or defiance, raised the appalling likelihood that, in that town, their dignity had no meaning. Long ingrained racial prejudice, it seemed, had ground these boys down to their bellies. European supremacy and not even a whimper to oppose it!