Penguins in the desert


Penguins in the desert

Fear and Loving on the Stuart Highway to Hell

The reality of where his life was at was sheeted home to Rory. It happened while he was attending the highpoint of Central Australia’s cultural activities, the Alice Spring Agricultural Show. It was when he came upon a certain food stand. The crisp clear desert air under the pin-pricked arc-lit firmament has a bracing effect on the many flocking to witness the fireworks and wind-up activities of this three day event. They were gathered here beneath the Southern Cross. They were the uninvited guests to the myriad constellations that flood the Milky Way in a phosphorus ill-defined sausage-shape that fills the sky in this part of the universe. It creates a breathtaking, celestial splendor. By Saturday night all the horses, cows, pigs, dogs, birds and sundry livestock have been judged. They have duly awarded their coveted felt sashes in primary colours of reds, blues and greens. It’s now time to celebrate. Similarly the cake-cooks, home-crafters and other craft competitors in various challenges of domestic entertainment have received their awards. Their coveted positions in the display cabinets have been eyed-over and admired a multitude of times amidst murmurings of jealousy and the occasional slips of praise. The cabinets like so much else in these rarefied parts, have been built by non-fuss tradesmen. They have hidden their rustic imperfections beneath thickly daubed paint from another era. Paint from a time when utility lauded over aesthetics.


Now it’s party time, none can deny, and while the arena, cattle yards and exhibition halls have dominated the attention until now, these last few hours bring together a wide assortment of locals and others. Many have trekked hundreds of kilometres to be there, and they want to let their hair down. Many, who live lonely cut-off lives, welcome this escape as a great relief. Such a change from their trapped isolation of a never-never existence far away from fellow beings.


A multitude of faces the moonlight, and flashing lights from the amusement alleys, reflect off belong to beaming young indigenous lads and lasses. They are scrubbed up, showing off their broad toothy smiles. Spruced up as best they can, they have come from their various local communities. From crowded broken shacks and seeping septic tanks surrounding the town. It is a grand time for them as it’s that one time of the year when there’s a level playing field. For one short moment in time they blend in as part of a seamless congregation disguised under the stars. They become part of a communal celebration of jubilant, though restrained, revelry. They are attracted like moths to the flame. These alleyways of carnal delight, bursting with budding youthfulness and promises of flirtation, are packed with dodgem cars, harlequin striped tents and caravans. There are shooting ranges, moving clown heads, dart throwing and whirly-gig rides. They range from those tame enough for kinder kids, to great monstrosities with a G-force that could send a whole cage-full of daredevils into orbit around the Earth should a safety catch come loose.


It was opposite one of these towering rides that the food stand was located which Rory was captivated by. However, in order to make sense of this it’s best to learn how Rory came to be in the central desert region.  Here the Show competes with other cultural highpoints for vital government funding. Contenders for the council cash include the Henley on Todd Regatta. This is an unlikely water-based competition that takes place on the water-less Todd River. It’s an event that requires competitors to combine the training of Olympic athletes with an ability to remain sober on the actual morning of the competition. That’s the catch, to be sober enough to partake in this rather strenuous activity. As well, race officials are fearful of physical or verbal violence, so they can put their foot down to stop people competing it they look too pissed.

Similar rules apply to the Camel Cup. In this, jockeys, clad in all forms of colourful clothing, attempt to cover the sandy course in the shortest time possible. Some even manage to do so while mounted on camels. There is also the Beanie Festival, another strong challenger for the culture dollar. Ironically this could upstage them all in the end. The Beanie Festival, a particularly local creation involves women bunching together with unusual assortments of pointed wooden implements to transform the outer layers of sheep into weird concoctions of apparel. These items are then subjected to intense media scrutiny that blights TVs across the nation. Fortunately it only lasts for a period of time shorter than it takes to recover from a mild case of food poisoning.


Rory’s presence here was due to a number of vague reasons none of which were interlinked in any real way. Most were not the result of any conscious planning on his behalf. Six months earlier the notion that he would be living in this part of the world was entirely ridiculous. He had never desired or had the inclination to go there during his fifty plus years of existence. The idea of him running the only honest pawn-broking business in town which kept a good number of folk on their feet from one pay cheque to the next, was simply bizarre to say the least. Yet that was the way the cookie crumbled. Despite the best laid plans of mice and men, on his way to Asia, the trip north was truncated at Cairns and from that point started to go haywire around Townsville and Charters Towers. He then found himself heading for Tennant Creek. This is a location flying doctor pilots can readily identify from the air at the end of the day when the sun’s rays reflect across the land. A sunlit glare from the glittering display of smashed and broken glass so tastefully arranged on the ground, flashes across the horizon. From Tennant Creek, in a series of fits and starts, he moved along spending time in Katherine and other places further north. Darwin was his turning point for after a month there he went south to Alice in search of promised work which, after a fifteen hundred kilometre journey, turned out not being there at all.


It was out of this strange brew that he became conscripted to a sartorial thespian to look after the day to day running of his well-established business. The thespian was more interested in pursuing his more endearing interests of acting on stage and screen. He also taught circus skills to indigenous youth on outlying communities. One doesn’t just breathe the fresh clean desert air, one hyperventilates on it, it seems. It empowers some to new levels of awareness. Rory, it transpired, was a god-send to this man, a former school principal. while this person’s life appeared simple on the surface, underneath it was a complexity of intrigue that not even he had a handle on. So, it came to pass that Rory was to rise to the top of the pecking order of this new barnyard. His first duty of the day was to arrange the stock and fittings for display. They had been jam-packed inside the shop from the previous day’s trade, and he would have to put them into their various positions around the front yard of the business. It required a tasteful and aesthetic display to show off junk secondhand items to appeal to passersby. The building, having been a former private residence, had gone through a number of changes. Earlier in the piece it had even been a butcher’s shop, but now its present function was as a second-hand store. It even had a lucrative sideline of lending money to the down and out at cruel rates of interest. It made banks look like angelic pre-school carers in contrast to his exorbitant rates of interest.


As a former residence it had a space out the front, a garden, which was now an open space with two thin concrete paths traversing it. It was now covered in a sandy gravel surface measuring roughly ten metres square. On the northern side were two large trees which provided shade during summer. They were a favourite roosting place for parrots and other bird life that regularly came to feed off the fruity buds as spring arrived with its verdant growth. On the southern side, the business part of the building extended right to the footpath. There was an unused front door with a full length display window next to it that led off, on a slight angle, and contained a dusty cornucopia of junk and curios.


Rory’s artistic sensibilities were needed to present the ever changing range of furniture items, bicycles, mowers, chainsaws and the like that were set up daily out front to grab customers’ interest. During the first six to eight months Rory was there, two items that never sold served in a strange way as focal points to garner customer interest. One was an old round plastic table, and the other, a penguin. The table had metal legs laminated over with a plastic covering in the same shade of off-white as the top. It was set-off with a burnt umbra coloured rusting at critical structural points, as well as having many deep scratches over it. Of greater interest, was the penguin that stood upon the table. A glibly manufactured mixture of petro-chemical plastic, injection moulded in some backyard factory in Taiwan or Shenzhen when cheap and nasty were the order of the order of the day, this was a plastic penguin that had also seen better days.


This penguin, stood just over a metre tall, and its glory days were well behind it. The three colours it possessed; the red in its bowtie and the black of its back and beak had faded to an insipid lifelessness, although the white remained reasonably colour-fast even though a dull greyness could be detected creeping in. It had a light inside it to make it shine brightly at night. Rory never tested the light though as it was only displayed during daylight hours. This didn’t stop him delivering it religiously at the beginning of each day to its off-white table positioned by the footpath. Added to its strangeness was its four metres of flex and the attached weighty transformer that accompanied it. They always remained attached, like an umbilical cord that had survived against all odds, way beyond its birth. Apparently it would never let go, or at least this was the respect Rory afforded it.


Someone else who came under the penguin’s influence was a man named Gordon, a fellow Victorian like Rory. This poor lad was going through a troubling enough time dealing with personal issues. He had a dependency on alcohol that only served to exacerbate his forlorn condition.  Almost weekly, he humiliated himself before Rory in his attempts to secure a trifling amount of cash from his few possessions that held any intrinsic value. He would regularly hock his wedding ring which was a reminder of a long lost stable life. Or else it would be his cherished gold bracelet. This was from a time when he had cash to splash. He’d hocked these items to get the dosh to drink and dull the pain until his next pay-check. On his way off the property as he stepped onto the footpath to head into town, the penguin would constantly cast its beady eyes over him. In his paranoid state, he could hear the plastic effigy mouthing the words, ‘Loser! Loser!’


It so happened that the Show was on in town and Gordon’s fortunes turned around. He got a job as a tent-show stall worker taking money off children and their exasperated parents by the bucket load. He was so good at this, like an ant to honey, he was offered work travelling with the show people. They were on their annual pilgrimage doing the local Shows on the circuit from Adelaide to Darwin. For Gordon a new phase had begun offering promising opportunities. That is until something from his past was to sneak up on him.


It was the penguin. It had originally been picked up at a lawn-sale for a dollar or two by Rory. It now carried a price-tag of $65. Although its price was excessive, the reason Rory’s master set the price so high was to keep it as a talking point for potential customers. The price always embarrassed Rory. He occasionally had to put up with the taunts of those who offered $20 or $25 to take it off his hands. Clearly no one was prepared to fork out the type of money Rory’s master had placed on it. Until, that is, at Show time. A stranger raced into the shop and up to Rory with the urgent request, “How much do you want for the penguin?”

‘$65’ came the low key response from Rory. He was too embarrassed to state the price out loudly in case someone would rag him for being such a rip-off.

‘Only $65??  I’ll take it!’ He couldn’t get the money out of his wallet fast enough. It seemed like he feared Rory might put up the price, or withdraw it from sale if he didn’t complete the deal quickly enough.


A good passage of time passed following this. One day Gordon re-appeared on Rory’s doorstep. It wasn’t for a loan this time. It was to recount how he’d been stalked by the penguin. It happened after the Tennant Creek Show when Gordon least expected it. It happened on the finishing night of the very profitable Katherine Show. By this time of night his level of inebriation had him looking at life, again, from an odd angle. As he lay legless on the ground, in front of him stood the penguin that had played upon his mind so painfully during his many shameful visits to the pawn-shop. One thousand kilometres away and here it was. The same penguin was once again rubbing his pride in the dirt. Again it was mouthing the phrase he imagined hearing countless times before: ‘Loser! Loser!’.


This news came as a relief to Rory in a strange kind of way. Rory would never even harm an insect, much less another human. However he sometimes thought about it and wondered what had happened to the penguin after the guy rushed off with it. This was the middle of the desert after all, where summertime temperatures blaze in the forties to fifties during the day. And still burn in the thirties throughout the night with no relief in sight! Why would anyone want a penguin in such conditions, is something Rory could never understand. When he learnt that it was a carnival operator who bought it for his Snow-cone stall, Rory felt there was still some poetic justice left in the world. However it didn’t prepare him for what was to come next. He turned away from the graviton ride monstrosity that sends its payload of punters into paroxysms of insensibility for $10 a hit, seeking some solice from the injustice of life. Instead of finding it though, he came face to face with the penguin. He remembered it instantly as the very same penguin he had carried and cared for, so carefully for over half a year of his life. That same penguin with its umbilical cord and all, that formed such a part of his daily routine for such a long period.


To Rory’s amazement, there was one penguin standing on the left side of the counter all brightly lit up showing off its red bow-tie in a gay and effusive way.  On the other side of the counter, there was a mirror-image, black and white penguin, resplendent in red bow-tie, standing there as well. ‘My God!’ he gasped, ‘these penguins are breeding, and in the desert too!’ This was all too much for him as he drew his camera, gunslinger fashion, so he could take some photographic proof of what he’d just seen. He knew he’d never be believed if he mentioned his penguins in the desert, as no one would believe him unless he had some photos. It was all too unbelievable!


His level of excitement from seeing this resplendent pair of penguins, and the zeal which had overtaken him caused alarm and consternation to the person behind the counter of the Snow-cone stand. He alerted the cops in case the penguins were under any threat by Rory. In the end he was able explained to the police sergeant that it was he who had been the one who sold one of the penguins to the owner of the stall. Eventually the cop let him off, and with a surly grim warning, he told Rory to clear off, and make himself scarce.


To recount on our journey; it wasn’t just an attempt to show that Rory had been dealt a rough hand in life. On the contrary he’d taken all he’d been dealt in his stride. He’d become a better person through these experiences. His master, the thespian, whose influence reached far and wide, unfortunately was overcome with illness despite all his good work and the value he brought to those he taught. The cancer that began attacking his system when he first took Rory under his wing, ended up dispatching him to a higher place much before his time on earth should have ended.  Rory eventually made it on his Asian odyssey. He now lives on a tiny island with water all around. This is a total contrast to the Todd River bank’s dry sand, and the path he would walk beside it with his two small dogs on his daily walk while thinking there must be less dry place to be.


Gordon too, managed to escape a mundane and boring existence. A turn-around happened in his life which changed him into an independent person with a future. He sobered up and now owns a successful construction company in a major town south of Darwin. His bsuiness is fairly crucial to the on-going development there. It is a salt-of-the-earth business whose employees enjoy working for him, and wouldn’t dream of being anywhere else. Come Show time in Katherine, Gordon shouts them and their families a free pass to the Show, and they all gather on the Saturday around the Sno Cone stall, under the starlit evening sky, to enjoy some snow cones, the fireworks, and to toast the pair of penguins that have become so well loved across the land, from Adelaide to Darwin, and all points in between.


S Francis Butler

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Currently a writer of ESL materials and a teacher of English and Japanese in Hong Kong, his journey to the East started in the 1850's goldfield town of Ballaarat where the Eureka Rebellion took place on Dec 4 1854. After 2 decades there he then went on to spend three decades in Melbourne to pursue studies at Monash Secondary Teachers College (Rusden) and La Trobe University before taking up an active role in (Asian) furniture making and design, alongside running a business with his partner that had a dramatic impact on migrant education in Australia, the opening up of the overseas student market to Australian schools and institutions, and provided a link for Australian educators to establish their expertise throughout the Asia region, particularly in Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia. On the way to Asia with an obligatory trip around Australia in mind to see his own country, Darwin and the Northern Territory captivated him. Shortly after arriving, he found himself resident in Alice Springs, in the heart of the Australia, where he had for the first time, contact with Aboriginal people and the problems that confront them in a land that has largely left them marginalised. That was a real learning curve for him and is something that empowers him to see they have their problems redressed in a just and equitable way. For a culture that has existed for over 60,000 years, the world's oldest continuing living culture, that had never been messed with prior to the 1788 British First Fleet of convicts, of whom some of his roots came from, the takeover of their land and their culture deserves nothing less. However the East has always been something that's fascinated him since childhood. After many trips to Hong Kong, Japan, Thailand, The Philippines and Indonesia over the years, it wasn't until 2008 that he was finally able to live in the heart of this region, in Hong Kong.