Prize-winning author Ali Cobby Eckermann on her life as a squatter

[Book extract] I was given my own room. It didn’t have any glass in the window, but at least I could lock the door.

 |  5-minute read |   09-03-2017
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I lost respect for my upbringing. I lost respect for my family. I lost respect for myself. I lost my job at the outback resort because of my drinking, and I moved into town. At the pub some people, who were squatting in an abandoned building, invited me to stay with them.

The squat was an abandoned block of flats in the middle of town. I was given my own room. It didn’t have any glass in the window, but at least I could lock the door. One of my friends gave me her sarong for a curtain for the window.

She handed me a spray can to leave my mark on the graffiti covered walls. It took me hours to clean the room and furnish it with stolen milk crates. I didn’t have much, a few clothes, some books, and a pot plant named Phoenix. On cold nights I used my clothes like an extra blanket.

The kitchen was the dirtiest I had ever seen. The benches were black with grime, and the cupboards were filled with rubbish. I had never seen such huge cockroaches, and they crawled everywhere. Each morning I gathered wood from along the river to cook on an open fire in the front yard instead of using the kitchen. Sitting around the fire we watched the local traffic pass by.

The bathroom was putrid, with mould growing everywhere. I had to wear thongs on my feet in the shower, and we only had cold water. The Water Authority came every Monday and turned the water off at the mains. We would roll a joint, sit and wait for about 30 minutes, then go out and turn the water back on. It was a regular ritual. We didn’t care because we didn’t have to pay rent.

It was early evening, and I was walking along the track by the river. It was my favourite path back to the place I was staying. The trees seemed to emit subtle messages. I walked out onto the sandy bed of a river that rarely held water, and I sat quietly among a clump of trees, feeling the age and wisdom of the trees. I could almost feel the artesian water gurgling, protected and safe deep underground. I often enjoyed the intensity of this different place.

too_030817035912.jpg Too Afraid to Cry, by Ali Cobby Eckermann; Navayana.

I saw glimpses of movement through the trees, and I heard soft voices carried on the breeze as I dawdled among the trees. A family were camping in the creek. I smelt the fragrance of their cooking on the fire. Carefree laughter bounced from the children as they teased their father, who jumped to his feet amid squeals of delight. He grabbed one little girl and held her high into the air, laughing out loud with her, while the other children squirmed around his legs.

A beautiful moment captured by my prying eyes. As I moved away I saw the man’s arm raised, waving, bidding me well. His smile lit up his handsome face. I could not meet his eyes. He turned quickly back to the children and their play.

In that second of silence I heard other words. Words and whispers of hatred trapped inside my head, forcing me to listen: "Aboriginal people are like animals; Aboriginal families don’t care for their children." Where did those words come from? Where had I heard them before? Who had put that shit in my head? I knew Mum and Dad had never said those words.

I sat among the safety of the trees. I began to realise most of my life was a lie. It felt like the stone inside me was growing. I suffered silently with the pain.

Back at the squat I got very drunk that night.

I never spoke much about myself, or my family, to my friends. No one did. We never talked about our feelings either. Maybe everyone was pretending to be happy? I mastered the wit of sarcasm, and hid behind humour. As long as you can make people laugh you will always be invited to parties.

A few of my girlfriends started going out at night without me. I didn’t know why. I wondered if they had worked out I was Aboriginal.

One night they told me they were working for the escort agency. They were prostitutes; their drug addiction had forced them. I pretended I didn’t care, but inside I was feeling shocked. Some of them had toddlers; I worried about the kids.

I babysat a lot. But I could only babysit kids over the age of three. Every time I got close to children younger than that, I felt like vomiting.

The boss of the escort agency offered me a job as driver. It paid well, and I got to hang out with my friends. I drove around town all night, dropping them off, picking them up. They always shared their drugs with me. And they always had money now.

One night no phone calls came in, so I knocked off early. I knew some of their new friends were looking after the kids. At the squat I stood in the doorway. I watched as the adults injected drugs into their veins. I watched the children watching. I went off my head.

I moved out the next day. The stone in my guts got heavier and heavier.

(Too Afraid to Cry by Ali Cobby Eckermann has been published by Navayana and can be read on www.juggernaut.in.)

Also read: How Delhi compares with other capital cities through eyes of the world's finest poets

Writer

Ali Cobby Eckermann Ali Cobby Eckermann

Ali Cobby Eckermann is the 2017 Windham-Campbell prize winning poet and writer who identifies herself with her Yankunytjatjara/Kokatha family of South Australia.

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