The first time I met Frank and Rosalyn, few words were exchanged. I was an outsider observing their peace. They were asleep together cradled into each other like spoons under the shade of a large tree, on a blanket with another draped over themselves. The lawns were being misted by sprinklers. It was 7am. I was walking Tessie before work. She pulled me toward them…and gently roused them from their sleep.
People tell you to watch out, to be frightened and alert. But, I felt drawn to them….thier life looked so peaceful. I could see why Tessie was keen to meet them.
The man was friendly with Tessie; he smiled at me and gave her a cuddle. All I could muster was very timid “Hey”.
I wanted to say more but I was afraid I was being rude, I was technically entering their home. Tessie led us off in another direction and following after her I said “Bye”.
Frank and Rosalyn are Aboriginal Australians and they live in the streets here in Perth.
Before today I had seen them together lying in the shade of the large tree a few times, always looking content and relaxed. I was having my lunch break when I saw them again today under the same tree.
I’ve lived in Australia for 3.5 years. They are the first Aboriginal people I’ve ever met. Which is sad, it’s why I want to speak with them…and help if I can. Segregation unfortunately, is alive and well in Australia.
This time there were three people. I spent a mere moment thinking about it…and decided. I approached slowly.
“Hi, I am Holly. I was wondering…well I, I was, I have seen you a few times here and I always think you look peaceful. And I was hoping maybe we could talk some time? I have questions.” I was so nervous that I was stumbling over myself.
The man and woman both agreed. “Yes. That’s ok”.
The third woman turned to me “Is she a gunjie?”
“Wait, what’s a gunjie?”
The couple start smile and laugh. They tell me it means police.
“No….haha, definitely not”. It was rather funny. I was wearing a long sleeved, navy shift dress with heels and sparkly earrings. I definitely did not look the part.
The females discuss something privately, and Frank introduces himself.
I said I had questions that I’d like to ask them about their life, about the way things are. I asked if they would be there later in the day. They would. I told them I would finish work, and bring them some food. They seemed really nice. We all shook hands and I made my promise that I’d return in a few hours.
I finished work in the afternoon and began to worry that they might have been put off and maybe they were just being nice to me. I realised there was a chance they might not be there when I returned.
I rushed home and changed into jeans, and a simple shirt as fast as I could. I dashed to the local shop and purchased three chicken kebabs.
They were added to the lot: canned tuna, cashews, apples, oranges, bananas, cookies and crackers (a friend at work helped me collect this food and also supplied me with a donation, Thanks Su!).
I collected a note pad and briskly walked to where I had seen them last.
When I couldn’t see them, I started to doubt that they stayed…
Ah, but they had moved a little and were there, under the shade of another tree, cuddling and dreaming.
Placing the box of goods gingerly on the ground I crouched close enough to whisper their names. Rosalyn’s eyes open, and I actually startle her. I feel bad for waking her this way, and still feel as if I am intruding. She props herself on her elbow and looks at me directly. I ask her if it is alright to ask her a few questions while Frank is still asleep, I will ask him some when he wakes up.
She says that’s ok. I tell her whats in the box, and hand her a (still very warm) kebab. She looks at it, and thanks me. Frank is rustling in the background still deep in sleep.
She smiles at me “Franks’ really hard to wake up!”.
Rosalyn is 27. She looks much older. Her face has scaring, and her teeth are worn down to the gums. She was born in Kalgoorlie and moved to Perth with her family at 9 months of age. She has been homeless since the age of 14. She has one son. He was taken into custody by a sister under a restraining order, she has not seen her son since he was 3. He is 11 now.
“I just got out of prison”. (I’ll admit this did make me slightly nervous at first).
“What happened? Why were you in prison? How long were you there for?”
“I was with this other guy for 13 years. During that time he “bashed” me a lot, and so to stop it I gave him a warning. And stabbed him in the shoulder. That’s why I was in jail for a year. People in jail they knew me, they knew not to mess with me. If you went to any place in Perth and said my name, they would know who I was.”
“Fair enough. If someone did that to me, I’d probably do the same thing, you have to protect yourself. I’m sorry he was bad to you.”
Her mum left her and her siblings when she was 6 years old. Her mother had postpartum depression after finding the youngest dead from sudden infant death syndrome. She has seen her mum on and off over the years. They are not close. I tell her I can’t relate exactly but I do know what it’s like not to have a mum around, as mine has been out of the picture since I was 14.
Her father was not to be seen until she was 16 years old. She shared a drink with him for 30 minutes and that’s all she knows of him, she’s never seen him since. I asked her how they found each other, and she told me “we found each other on the streets. He is homeless too”.
She tells me she is from the combined (verbatim) Igibarrni – Nagi – Mulba tribe. She does not know the history and culture of her people, she was never taught it growing up in Perth.
She is not close with her family, I ask her why. She tells me that she was sexually abused by her uncles, and hates her family. I can understand that.
Frank is beginning to stir in the background. Roslyn hands him her kebab and he digs right in. At one point he exclaims that it’s really good. And I’m glad, I wanted them to enjoy some good food.
I ask her how she met Frank. “I met him on the street. I stay with him because he is good to me, and doesn’t drink. He’s sober. Sometimes I’ll have a drink every so often but I like to drink alone”.
Frank is 53. He has kind eyes, and flashes me a grin for a smile. His black hair is speckled with white. He is from the Wadgeree (verbatim) tribe, and has only been living in Perth for 18 months. He has 17 kids all scattered around, and has moved down to Perth from Geraldton.
I ask him why he moved to Perth, and he tells me “I wanted get away from Geraldton, and get my bond back with the kids. I wasn’t there for them when they were young. I had a falling out with my youngest son, who is as big as me. He knocked me around pretty good, but now he’s in jail. I was in jail too. On and off for 20 years”.
“Why were you in jail?”.
“I was with my woman, and I would drink and get angry and bash her. She was also an alcoholic, I found her cheating a few times and would bash her”.
“Wait…. WHY? Did you keep getting back together?” and they laugh a little.
“It’s funny what we put up with for the sake of the kids.”
Franks mum was a cook on a station and his dad was a bush ranger up north. “They were together like the old days, when you were with only one person”. Dad and mum passed away within two days of each other. His mum from a broken heart. (It wasn’t clear what the father had died of).
He knows he is a violent drinker, he openly admits this to me. When I speak to him now, he is calm and happy…very present. It’s hard to imagine he could become violent, but then again the drink does strange things to the best of us.
Frank has three brothers and two sisters. One of his brothers is no longer living, as he was “given a dirty shot” 5 years ago.
“What is a dirty shot?”.
“It’s a needle, that someone changes whats in it, and when you use it it kills you”.
“Oh, like heroin?” Yep. “Ok”.
I wanted to tell you, you’re the first aboriginal people I’ve spoken to. And I’ve lived in Australia for 3.5 years. I wanted to get to know you, because to me…coming from Canada it feels wrong. There is a large divide between the blacks and the whites”.
So what do you think when you see someone like me? A white person?
Roslyn: “White people walk around this park all the time, they don’t look at us. It’s a different world over there, we live our way over here. The only white people we’ve talked with are also homeless, but they are cool. The ones that walk around here don’t look at us. Maybe the odd person might offer a cigarette, but they don’t come to sit and talk with us like you have. We have friends who are racist against whites and get angry if they get cut off at a bar. But we think that’s wrong. They will shout at the bartender and shout discrimination, and complain that they were here in Australia first and shouldn’t be cut off. We don’t agree with that. If they cut you off it’s for a good reason”.
Do the police ever give you trouble?
Frank: “Yes, if other blacks are drinking in the area and we’re nearby…we will get arrested as well. It doesn’t matter if we aren’t a problem, we will get picked up too. When our friends visit us and they want to drink, it’s ok. But if they get loud we tell them to move on. We just want to have our quiet time. I noticed I’ve stayed out of jail since I stopped drinking”.
Roslyn: “One day the blacks and the whites will change. But it’s up to the people”.
Near the end of our conversation Frank recalls a memory. “Do you know Slim Dusty?”.
“No, I don’t but I’ll make myself familiar. Who is he?”
“He is a legend. He gave me a guitar when I was 13.” Frank smiles and recalls what Slim Dusty said…
“There is a little Aboriginal boy in the crowd who has the same birthday as mine, bring him up to the stage!”. Slim pulled Frank onto the stage and signed his guitar, and shook his hand”.
“A real legend”. He pauses. It’s time for me to head out so they can eat in peace. An hour has passed.
I am a photographer…would also love to take your portrait and give you some copies if you’d like…next time?
“Yes (Frank smiles), we would love that”.
“Thank you for sharing your lives with me. I feel really good talking to you, and want to tell you that I was drawn to you right away. You seem so happy and peaceful. Maybe we’ll be able to talk again? If you ever need anything please let me know, I’m not rich but I can help in other ways.
“We knew you were good too, when you walked up to us you gave us good vibes. Our friend was saying negative stuff, but Rosalyn pulled her up on the spot (this is when the women were first talking privately) and told her you’re ok. We know you.”
I’d like to write about meeting you. Is that ok?
“Yes, and you can come and sit with us whenever you want. You’re welcome with us”.
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My only hope is that more people will stop and take time to help Aboriginal and homeless people feel welcome.