Perth, Western Australia, 1979
12+ It's a hot summer afternoon with no sign of the Freo Doctor.
Despite the heat, I'm climbing the tree in Gran's backyard with my brothers and boy cousins while the girl cousins chat in the shade of the back veranda. Like the other boys, I'm in shorts with no shirt or shoes. Our tomboy cousin's up here, too. And though she's wearing a dress, she's also barefoot.
Mum and my aunts sit with Gran at the picnic table on the veranda. The women are shooing flies from salad bowls, refilling their wine glasses from a cask on the table and laughing over shared gossip.
Dad and the uncles are on BBQ duty, prodding and turning sizzling steaks and sausages, drinking cold beers from an esky, and discussing the latest news, including this morning's headline about an Aboriginal protest.
"You've got to understand that Aborigines are different from us," Dad says, responding to an uncle's comment, criticising the protest. "And we need to respect this."
"But I do," my uncle insists. "I respect all the Abos who play footy for East Perth!"
The backyard erupts into blokey laughter, drowning out the women and girls on the veranda and us kids in the tree. East Perth's my favourite footy team, and I have autographs from several Aboriginal players (Dad doesn't like me calling them Abos). So I swing down to a lower branch to get closer to the conversation. There's a rustle of leaves, and I glance back to see my tomboy cousin crouched on the branch behind me. We exchange nods, and I return my attention to the BBQ.
"That's not what I meant, and you know it," Dad tells my uncle over the laughter. "I saw a TV documentary that explained how Aborigines have a deep connection with the land. And it's why they go walkabout, to spend time on it."
"Well," my uncle responds, winking at the other uncles, "they'd better not go walkabout when playing for East Perth, or they'll lose my respect!" There's more blokey laughter, Dad shakes his head, and another uncle opens the esky and hands around more beers. And with a loud chorus of "Cheers", their BBQ discussion shifts to another headline.
I'm about to start climbing again when my cousin asks, "Do you think it's true?"
"What?" I reply, turning to face her on the branch. She's a year or two younger than me, with freckles and long fair hair, and she looks familiar, but I can't remember her name. I've got lots of cousins, and I've got a bad memory for names. But Mum says that's not my fault. It's how my brain works.
"Do you think Aborigines go walkabout to spend time on the land?"
"I don't know," I answer with a shrug. "We don't know any Aborigines. There aren't any at my school. And the only ones I ever see are on TV, or hanging about in parks or outside shops, or playing footy for East Perth."
My cousin nods and adds, "We had an Aboriginal girl in my class at school, but she's gone now."
"Where?" I ask.
"I don't know," my cousin mimics my shrugged response. "She and her little brother used to sit together in the playground at recess and lunch, but they never had lunchboxes. And then one day, she wasn't at school, and I haven't seen her or her brother since."
"Perhaps, they went walkabout?" I suggest.
My cousin nods again. "Perhaps," she echoes, standing and grabbing a higher branch. "Race you to the top."
I consider chasing her, but although she's younger than me, my cousin's a good climber, so I let her go. And instead, I sit on the branch and stare over Gran's roof at the horizon, reflecting on what Dad said about Aborigines and their connection with the land.
If East Perth's Aborigines went walkabout, would they come back and play footy for the team on the weekend? And what about the Aboriginal girl and her brother at my cousin's school? Have they gone walkabout? And if so, could they reappear in the playground one day?
Below me, Dad and the uncles are carrying the esky and cooked steaks and sausages to the picnic table, and Mum is calling for us kids to climb down from the tree. So these are questions for another time.