The Red Dress
The hot outback summer was slowly drifting into autumn. Annie swung her legs of the wire stretcher and rubbed her leg where she was bitten by a goanna many years ago. The pain of the bite returns the same time every year.
She limped outside the door of her little shack on the bank of the river, reached for the dipper, scooped some water out of the four gallon drum and poured it into a small galvanised iron bathtub. She sat on the bench, washed her hair with a bar of Sunlight soap, took off her old flannelette nightie and poured the cold water over herself. She dried herself and sprinkled rose talcum powder over her shivering body.
Her granddaughters always gave her rose talcum powder for Christmas and she wondered when she would see them again, as she slipped her dress over her best white cotton underwear that she kept for going to town.
It was pension day and Annie always walked across the bridge into the small outback township to buy her tobacco and groceries. She looked forward to this day, it broke the monotony and loneliness of her everyday life, and gave her the chance to sit with her friends on the wooden bench under the old bottle tree, outside Coorey’s Groceries and Haberdashery Store.
Today was a particularly special day. Annie was going to pay the last instalment on her dress, the beautiful red dress she fell in love with over six months ago. The dress had large puffed sleeves, a flared skirt with a net overlay dotted with silver sequins, and a bodice decorated with a matching red satin rose. She remembered the first time she saw it in the window of Coorey’s Groceries and Haberdashery Store. She knew immediately this was the dress she wanted to ear to the Yumba Ball.
Annie tied her dogs up so they wouldn’t follow her, closed her creaky old door and slowly picked her way along the narrow path winding around the huge white gum trees that grew along the banks of the sandy dried up river. The path was strewn with small branches fallen from the gum trees, the leaves still slippery from the morning dew.
The pathway took her along the river, past the cattle yards and over the railway line before joining the main road across the bridge into town. She like passing the cattle yards, she always stopped to talk to the cattle that come up to the fence. She would pat their soft noses and speak to them in her Bidjara language. This time she hurried past. A big angry Santa Gertudis bull was pawing the ground on the other side of the fence as it watched her walk by.
“No use talk’n to dat one. He must be for dem cowboys to ride at da rodeo next week,” she said to herself.
Annie continued on her way into town. As she stepped up from the sandy path onto the bitumen of the road leading across the bridge, she could see in the distance along the river, smoke rising from the roofs of the Yumba shanties.
Yumba was the name given to a group of makeshift buildings and bower sheds that housed the Aboriginal families. Living in the town on the other side of the river was only for the white people. The staid members of the Town Council made sure of that.
Throughout the day the Yumba was enveloped in clouds of dust. Kids kicking footballs or playing cricket; patrolling police utes; old beat up taxis picking up and dropping off people. The Council put a few street light among the houses and built a small school for the black kids near the railway line. The Aboriginals liked being among their friends and families and stoically accepted their living conditions. A few grumbled to the Council every now and then about the housing, but nothing ever came of their complaints.
The town prospered from the Aboriginal population in one way or another. There was plenty of work around. The Queensland Railways provided permanent jobs and outlying cattle and sheep stations employed seasonal ring-barkers, station hands, cooks and housekeepers. The Aboriginal workers spent their money locally at the shops and hotels alongain treet.
Eventually, the Council considered the Yumba an eyesore and when they arbitrarily decided to bulldoze the Yumba into oblivion, it tore the heart out of the town. Many Aboriginal families, homeless and unable to find accommodation in the unwelcoming town left, looking for work elsewhere in the larger towns and cities along the railway line. Many shops and businesses closed down. Annie didn’t live to see this happen.
She was content to live by herself on the river bank away from everyone. It was lonely sometimes but she preferred it this way. She walked to the Yumba every Saturday to sit down in the dust on a blanket under the gum leaf bower shed, to play cards or yarn and laugh with the women.
“Why don’ to lib here wit’ us Annie, What you stay ober dere for? You got man dere or what?” they would all laugh and tease her.
Annie was looking forward to seeing them all at the ball tonight. She helped them during the week to decorate the big bower shed with fresh gum tree branches, while all the kids lugged up buckets of water from the waterhole to sprinkle over the ground to harden the dirt floor for the dance. Later on in the evening they would light the fires in the four gallon drums to provide light for the dancers and for Joe the old piano accordion player.
Annie continued walking over the bridge thinking happily about the coming night. It was the first time she had ever gone to a ball, she was always out working on the stations until she got too old. She was quite happy going to the ball by herself.
“I don’ wan’ no man to take me. Next ting dey want come and live wit’ me in my hut and be nuisance. Blow dat.” She told her laughing friends.
In the middle of her reverie, she stopped on the bridge and glanced over the side at the railway line. She remembered her excitement last Christmas when her only daughter and her granddaughters arrived on the train from the east. She recalled her choking sadness when the train took them away again aving to her fom the carriage, until they disappeared round the bend. They want her to go and live with them, back there in the city. “Might do dat drekkly,” she said as she turned and walked on.
She passed the council swimming baths near the riverbank on the town side. She smiled to herself as she listened to the laughing and happy shrieks of the white children as they played in the pool. She wondered when they were going to let the Yumba kids swim in the pool. They could only swim in the waterholes in the river before they dried up.
Annie climbed the freshly painted wooden stairs to the Post Office, “ello Annie”, said the Post Mistress from behind the counter, as she counted out Annie’s pension money and pushed it towards her.
“You got your dress already for the ball tonight?”
Annie smiled and nodded happily, as she put her money in a little handmade felt purse her granddaughter give her, and tucked it under her bra. Her next stop was Coorey’s Store…
Many years later, an elderly woman stood by the gate outside of her home at an inner Brisbane suburb. The postman stopped and gave her a hand-addressed blue envelope. She turned it over and looked at the postmark and wondered who could be writing to her from her old home town.
She left there years ago with her family, when she was a teenager. She could still hear the roaring sound of the bulldozers as they tore down her home at the Yumba. She could still taste the salt of her tears as she tried to console her mother, her little brother and sisters. Her father had passed away suddenly, not long before.
She sat down at the kitchen table and opened the envelope, it was an invitation.
“We cordially request the pleasure of your company at the Yumba Reunion.”
She hurriedly picked up her phone to ring her sister. A month later the three sisters stepped from the train, onto the platform at the old railway station, and the memories came rushing back as they looked around.
They had already booked rooms in one of the hotels on the main street. Something they would not have been able to do all those years ago. The hotel was like the town, a little run down, but he manager was friendly as she showed them to their rooms.
“Big night tomorrow, eh. Are you ladies here for the reunion too? The other two hotels are already full,” she said.
The Town Hall was decorated with colourful streamers and balloons and a band was playing in the background. People were milling around laughing and hugging each other. There were shouts of joy as people recognised each other, some with tears and some incredulous at the changes the years had wrought on the faces of those they knew so well many years ago.
Tina felt a soft tap on her shoulder, she looked around and stared into familiar black eyes fringed by thick black eyebrows, now flecked with grey.
“Hello Tina,” he said
“Gabriel! Gabby Coorey! Fancy seeing you here. You are the last person I expected to see.”
“You haven’t changed much Tina, you’ve aged beautifully.”
“Thanks Gabby, you look great yourself. The last time I saw you, we were only teenagers. Why are you here?”
Gabriel took hold of Tina’s elbow and led her through the crowd to a seat along the wall. He sat down beside her and held her hand as he spoke.
“You know Tina, it is the least I could do. If my parents were still alive today, they’d be here too. All those years that my family had the store and haberdashery shop, it was you people from the Yumba who kept us going. It was you people who gave us your custom, your friendship, and accepted us as we were. Being Lebanese we had to deal with the racism in this town too, just like you. You people made it all worthwhile for my family. Many a time Mum and Dad wanted to pack up and go back to Lebanon, but you all kept us here, and for that we will always be grateful.”
Tina gave him a hug and they began to reminisce about their teenage years growing up in the town. Talking and laughing about people they knew, and the funny and sad things that happened all those years ago.
“Do you remember an old lady called Annie Sullivan?” Gabriel asked Tina after a while.
“Yes, Ngthali, she was like a grandmother to me, all us kids loved her. She would show us bush tcker and take us to the waterhole to swim. Yes I remember her very well. Why?”
Gabriel cleared his throat and told her this story.
“I was helping my parents in the store after school one day, when Annie came into the shop. She wanted the red dress in the window.
“She told me it was the most beautiful dress she had ever seen. She wanted to wear it to the Yumba Ball at the end of the year but she would never be able to afford it. I let Dad know, and the next time she came to the sop he told her he put the dress away for her and she could pay him every fortnight until it was paid for. Annie agreed to the arrangement, she was so grateful we thought she was going to cry.
“Without fail, every fortnight Annie did her shopping and gave us some extra money for her dress. She paid the last instalment on the day of the ball. We all stood behind the counter that day and presented her with the dress wrapped in tissue paper. She was so happy and excited, I have never forgotten the look on her face.
“The next fortnight when she came into the shop, I asked her if she had a good time at the ball in her lovely red dress. She just looked down at the floor and said she didn’t go to the ball. She bought her groceries in silence, and walked out.
“I found out later that she was walking over o the Yumba before it got dark, all dressed up in her red dress. As she passed the cattle yards, a big rodeo bull got loose and chased her. She spent the night up a gum tree, too frightened to come down and noone heard her cries for help, until the morning.”
They sat in silence for a while, then Tina asked.“What happened to her red dress?”
“Don’t know” said Gabriel. “She went to live with her daughter back east, I never saw her again.”
© Gloria Corliss 2015
Winner of the Dymocks Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Writer’s Award for Short Story, Northern Territory Literary Awards 2006