I spent three years in Bourke. A few people said to me when I’d announced my next career move was going to be Bourke, ‘have you heard about Bourke?’ …’It’s got problems’ … ‘It’s dangerous.’
For some people, it might be.
I had been around, but I had never seen anything like it. I said I would be there for three years. And I was, give or take a week or so.
I have nothing short of respect for the people I met in Bourke.
I ran a crisis service for kids in Bourke. I was backed up by a big quiet, unassuming and purposeful guy, and it wouldn’t have been possible to live and work there without him. My 14 to 17 year old clients were what the locals called the ‘bad kids’. The kids who were not going to school, who were in and out of the courthouse and juvenile detention, who caused trouble in the street, and who didn’t have access to safe and secure accommodation in Bourke.
It hadn’t been my first choice of a job. I’d been approached three times and asked to consider it. My reasons for demurring were I felt under qualified to deal with all their issues, and the kids, who I could hardly tell apart, kept breaking into my house.
It seemed very few were enthusiastic about working with them, and just like everyone else, I had some ideas about what ‘someone’ should do about the situation. But in the end I agreed to take it on because the only way I was going to survive the town was to get to know the kids.
I was clear about my rules – no swearing, no yelling, no standing over each over, every kid in a seatbelt or there is no room for you in my car, and do not smoke or spit anywhere near me.
I didn’t mind loud music, so long as it wasn’t somebody screeching about bitches and ho’s. That was non negotiable.
And how did that work out for me?
How many kids followed the rules? 99%
How many did I work with? Too many to count.
We were under resourced and overwhelmed.
I had a tiny set of rooms in a prime location. The service had been operating for some time. I wondered how they coped with the boredom because at first, it was empty. Then I met a few kids. They just walked in off the street. Then more came. And in a few weeks we were full. We were over full. We had to be mindful of fire hazards and get around the OH&S issues, and so many other things. But the last thing we had to worry about was getting kids to come near us.
They were children. Not adults. They weren’t evil masterminds and mercenary predators. They were just kids. They had rough lives and were mixed up and traumatized, but they had curiosity and hope. They were clever, funny, loving, interesting and beautiful in their youth. Some of their dreams were as outlandish as any other children, from anywhere. They adhered to a tribal morality, with definite ideas about how to behave towards each other.
The children I knew now have children of their own, and some of those kids are roaming the streets of Bourke tonight.
A writing exercise.
It was late afternoon when the child scootered across the wide road and rested his foot up against the bottom rung of my wire fence.
‘Dad said if the kids steal some of your stuff he’ll give it back to you.’
I looked briefly in the direction of where you’d expect to find his drug dealing father this time of day. He’d be sitting up in his spick and span home, dealing drugs till it was full on dark. Taking cash and stolen stuff in exchange for small plastic bags. The kids traded stolen goods – the items you’d expect kids to pinch and have secreted in their voluminous track suits for a quick deal – money, phone’s, cd’s, toiletries from the supermarkets, and occasionally jewellery.
I asked about school, while he made some shadow passes with his barefoot on the dry grass. My dogs had silently moved into position between me and the fence.
He asked, ‘do your dogs bite?’
I had a range of answers, I’d been asked so many times. This time I went with, ‘Do they look like they bite?”
The three silently studied each other through the fence.
I let this hang for a long moment. ‘They’ve never had to mate. No one comes in my yard.’
Not now they didn’t. I had been broken into six times before I got two pups from a breeder on a river block, over the back of Bourke. There was never any significant damage, just robbed. Six times. In the end it was mostly food they took. The last time the police caught two of them.
Driving down the road I’d glanced down my street to see a paddy wagon outside my house. I did a u-turn on them and rolled my window down. They told me my neighbours had rung them, and they’d apprehended two kids breaking into my house.
‘Apprehended..? You mean you have them..in the back of your wagon..now?’
Next I am out of my car and up against the grill, on tippy toes peering in the gap at the top of the door. There were people moving in the back of the wagon.
‘Come closer, show me your faces,’ I snapped at them.
And two small faces, about ten years old leant closer. The freckle faced one was tear strained, the other looked scared.
I was shocked when I saw how young they were. ‘What the hell are you doing?’
Then outraged, ‘I am black. Just like you.’
The two police moved away and I stared down these two little kids through a grill in the back of a paddy wagon.
Then I got two dogs. While they were growing I woke one night to see a twin standing in my bedroom. There were a few sets of twins in town, and one set was identified as Good Twin and Bad Twin. They were identical, but I’d take a guess that it was Bad Twin in my bedroom that night looking for my car keys.
He was fast out the doors he’d opened, across my yard and over my fence with me behind him. I never caught him. But later when I knew, at least half the time, who he was I would yell at him in the street, day or night. Everyone knew why I was yelling at him because I had told enough people.
I can’t recall why I was walking through the park after midnight one night, apart from being on my way home. I could see there was a group sitting on the centre thing in the middle of the park, which was right about where I wanted to go. I recognised one was the kid I had seen in the paddy wagon out the front of my house months before and the rest were more adult than teenager.
My choices were take the long way round, or walk through the group. I thought about it and decided I’d stick to my route.
As I approached I heard them say my name as they talked softly amongst themselves. By the time I was on them they had tshirts wrapped around their faces so only their eyes showed. The smallest one said my name, louder this time,
‘Give us some money.’
I snapped my head in his direction, and could see the screwdriver in his hand.
’I don’t make enough to be giving it out in the street – wake up to yourself boy.’
There was a moment as I passed when I thought I was most vulnerable to a jab from a used syringe between my shoulder blades. A bloke had told me he’d been jabbed a half a dozen times in the park one night. I never understood what he could have done that would have warranted that. He had been drunk, he’d told me but I was cold hard sober, walking fast and I didn’t break stride.
They didn’t say a word or make a move. And by the time I got to the edge of the park I could hear them mimicking me for a block or so … ‘wake up to yourself boy’.
. . . . . . . . . .
The kids walked in groups. Going on dark they were on the move looking for food, and to meet up for safety, and to maybe have some kind of fun.
Walking past my place, I could hear them talking softly,
‘She’s there, sitting on the verandah.’
Most would call hello, and I'd name them as they passed. My dogs would barely raise an eyebrow, and laid around the open doorways, snoozing. They’d be on duty all night. Not that I expected any trouble any more.