G’day, you guys at Meanjin,
The reason why I’m writing you is because this is my story. My name is Ernie Cookson, but you can call me Cook. I’m not much of a writer but I like reading. I’ve read a few books now, and I like what they have to say to me. This is the first story what I’ve written. I know my granma isn’t perfect yet, and nor’s my spelling (that’s a joke), but please read it, because I’d do the same for you. It’s called “I dream of Uluru” and it’s about being homeless.
I dream of Uluru
Yo, reader, whatever you’re doing right now just stop, and take a pause in your busy life to read my story. Why? Because I would do the same for you. See, here’s the thing, I love reading. I’ll read anything, anywhere , anytime and anyplace. But it wasn’t always like that. My name is Ernie Abrahams, but people call me Cook, because I like cooking.
I recently lost my wife and daughter, and I want to tell you how and why that happened. Sometimes though, I think I’ll never know. My wife’s family buried her but I want to take my little girl up to Uluru and lay her down at the foot of that great mountain, that piece of solid rock.
Most of the rest of what I tell you will be true. Not perfectly, in all the details, but for the most part.
The reason people called me Ernie was because when I was younger, my favourite TV show was Sesame Street. You know how they talk about being stuck to the screen. Well, my mother just about had to scrape me off. I had to help out around the house a bit with the youngest. My real name is Errol by the way.
At school, I didn’t go much. Why? I guess I just didn’t like it. They didn’t talk about anything I was interested in. See, I like fishing and camping. Always have and always will. Oh, and I love kicking a football and hitting a ball. I was actually pretty good at both of them, especially football. I wanted to go pro before I did my knee. I could’ve been another Karmichael, my cousin reckons.
But I never liked books, not at school anyway. I hated maths, and I hated reading. Why? Because I’m black. And it just seemed like part of the white man’s world to me and the teachers never liked me anyway. Besides, I wasn’t any good at it. I kind of fell through the cracks, but they were some pretty deep cracks. I asked for a better word the other day. My reading coach told me a “crevice” was a pretty good word to describe what I fell through.
Me and my friends used to do crazy stuff when we should have been at school. When did yous learn to drive, for instance? I learnt to drive when I was ten! I could barely see the windscreen. We took it slow at first so the cops wouldn’t catch us. One day, I went fishing with my uncle and his friend. He parked the ute and we offloaded this canoe. God, that thing was heavy. Then, my mad bastard uncle said, “Here’s what I want you to do, Ernie.” I want you to paddle down the river for a bit, just past the old flour mill. We’ll park the ute and get the fishing gear out.”
“That’s ages,” I said. He said it was “a couple hundred meters.” This was at Cooper’s Crossing, by the way. Mad bastards sent me on a wild goose chase that day. I was paddling for hours. I started to cry at one point, but sometimes you’ve just got to pull yourself together and keep going. So that’s what I did. After a while, I thought I’d never find the bloody flour mill. So I tried to park the canoe by the river bank. And I literally, fell out the boat! Suddenly, you won’t believe this, a fish jumped in! I didn’t have a rod so I beat it, until it stopped. Breathing, that is.
I’m going to tell you quickly about Abraham, my best friend. If I don’t put my best friend in my story, what kind of a man am I? Abraham was crazy, but the thing about Abe is he is the kind of guy who would give you his own shirt off his own back if you didn’t have one. I’ve seen him do it once. He just did it and said, “No sweat, I’ve got too many, anyway. Plus its hot.” The thing with Abraham is he loves women. We both used to. I settled down but Abe’s got five, already. He used to call me Flynn and I used to call him Father sometimes. As in “Father Abraham’s got many sons.” It was an old church song we learnt at Cub Scouts. We used to sing it on and on, until he was red with anger or blue with laughter. But, he’s still my friend.
Let me explain what happened to me later. Do you remember the floods a few years ago? Well, my family used to live near Riverbank. Not the best place to be when the rivers overflow. Those were some crazy times, man. We even had bull sharks roaming the streets! It was like your whole life was being washed away. Everyone was going kind of survivalist, rowing boats to get supplies, and waiting on rooves for helicopters to come. I was lucky to survive. My house was destroyed and so I had to move into a temporary shelter. I’m still living there now. Everyone kind of forgets after the really bad stuff happens. It makes me angry, sometimes, but it’s just part of life. The same sort of stuff happens all over the world. A friend of mine told me about a place called Tohoku where he used to live. 20 000 people died. Talk about being homeless. Those guys were house less, they were apartment less, they were car less, they were- well there was a lot less of everything after that. I thought we had it bad. But it’s not the scale that matters, I guess. It’s just that bad things happen to people everywhere. You know what I mean?
So, I want to tell you about how I learned to read. After the floods, I was living in a temporary shelter. It wasn’t much really. There were a lot of scared and lonely and angry people around, I remember that much. But there wasn’t much to do. Suddenly, these guys started coming by with all of these books. They had comics, so I used to look at them, because at least I could understand the pictures. They had kids’ books too. I looked at them and thought, this is for babies and I can’t even read it.
Then this guy, Mark, came around and started asking us if anyone liked hip hop. Man, it was about the only music I listened to. He said, “Do you know the words?” And I said, “Sure.” He said, “How good’s your rap. Show me a bit of breaking if you know how to do that first.” “Piss off, man”, I said, “What do you really want.” And he said, “I want to teach you how to read because it looks like you’re not quite sure how to.” So he told me this plan, I didn’t have to do it if I didn’t want to, but if you slow down your rap a bit you can learn to read.
“I don’t want to read man, I hate reading,” I said, even though I didn’t. Just didn’t know how. “That’s cool,” he said, and grabbed this short book and said “Look at these pictures, listen to these rhymes- what’s the story really about?” He said, “No, it’s not about breakfast. It’s about triumph and overcoming” and a couple of words like that. “It’s about learning to like stuff you didn’t know how to do before.” I said “So why’s it called Green Eggs and Ham.” He said, because Green Eggs and Ham only exist inside the imagination, but imagination is the realest thing of all.
So I was pretty unsure about this at first. I liked the hip hop part but that other stuff seemed kind of whack, still baby stuff. And then he told me a story about a guy called Joseph who started off with an overcoat that was over used and old and worn out like he felt sometimes. But you can only make do with what you’ve got. So the overcoat gets smaller and smaller and changes into all of these different things and so does all of this different stuff until finally it becomes a button and gets lost. “The only thing you can do with nothing is this, use your imagination to make a story which shows you can always make something out of nothing.” And then he showed me the book.
After that, I started paying more attention to that part of the program. And that was how I met my wife. She was from Kenya and used to live near Inala. She had stories like you wouldn’t believe. Her family were part of a tribe of Bushmen- Bush people she used to say, because she was studying too. She used to tell me about her culture and I told her about mine. We had a lot in common. What I write now I write as my way of remembering her because she took care of me. She opened up her heart and let me in.
I will always love you. I’m entering a short story competition baby, it’s about homelessness. We’ve been there. Now you and my little girl have both up and died, and I lost my temporary shelter. But I wouldn’t change a thing. I am so sad our child was still-born because you had Ross River fever.
Our peoples have always been homeless. The concept of having a home never seemed real to us. Not really like it does to others. Within our culture we have always thought we shared the land. We have always thought that this land is our land. So long as we were under a sky, of whatever color or whatever hue, we always felt at home. When other people were under that canopy with us, that tent shaped by countless stars, we saw that they were family, that they were brothers, sisters and cousins. You saw land differently. You thought it was no-one’s and everyone’s. You taught me again that home was as far as the eye could wander. But several generations ago our dreams were taken from us, bit by bit our vision was stolen and our dreams were not kept. Now we dream dreams of isolation and despair. How I want to escape from the modern world sometimes. Even inside my mind’s eye I can see myself in Africa in that boundless terrain you talked about, running, forever free. How do I get there now? How can I go walkabout and feel good about it, in this world of broken bottles? I hope I get there one day, to that place you talked about. But for now I dream of Uluru. I love you Xixu. I hope you are in a good place. And you too, Kuki.
Kuki, my poem for you reads like this: Dear kuki. I’m sorry. The heart beat. Stopped. Love Erroll. It’s like a haiku, and I mean every little word of it. Now, I want to bury my little girl in Arnham Land, right at the foot of Uluru, right where that other white lady’s baby girl was taken by the dingo. Because someone took mine too.
got a dollar, bro…
END OF STORY: I was writing here partly because it has a wordcount! I also want to acknowledge a wonderful children’s book called something like Joseph Had an Overcoat. And to apologise to Strunk and White, for the punctuation.