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Monday, 8 June 2015

The audible sound of silence

After I arrived at the Myall Creek Memorial building yesterday I talked with a number of people, as usually happens on these occasions, including Prof John Maynard of the University of Newcastle, who had been invited up to the memorial this year to speak to the gathering. Prof Maynard was like me one of the early arrivals. A few of us stumbled around the building starting up sporadic conversations while we waited for the bulk of the crowd to materialise in the bright winter sunshine.

It was soon pretty clear to me that there would be a lot more people this year than there had been in the past. My first year in 2008 was not so well attended. I went back in 2009, 2010 and 2011 but then because of mum's dementia I stopped going for a few years. I noticed this time that the car parking area was very full.

There were other changes, too. In the past, you had to declare your lunch needs to the Country Women's Association people in attendance before you went up the hill to the ceremony. This year in addition to sandwiches and soup they also had steak sangas and sausage sangas. And you didn't need to let them know you'd be eating. They had already calculated numbers. (If anyone went without lunch I can't say because this year I left early. I had intended to drive back to Sydney yesterday straight after the ceremony but once I passed Inverell on the way back to the New England Highway I lost heart, and decided to stay a night in Glen Innes instead. It was getting late in the afternoon.)

After the annual committee meeting with its votes and motions - including learning the news that Rev John Brown would stand down as chairman of the committee - everyone trooped or drove in their cars up the hill to the entranceway to the memorial trail. There, a group of people made a fire so that attendees could walk through the cleansing smoke Aboriginal people use for such ceremonies.

I choked up during the progress along the trail at several of the stopping stones. As usual, school children read out the words on each of the plaques set up on the trail to introduce the Myall Creek Massacre to the uninitiated. But even for those who have come here year after year the words are affecting. I think that this year they were for me even more affecting than they were in the past. I don't know why this is. It might have something to do with an increased awareness of mortality I have due to mum's situation, or the heavy year of worry last year when I was virtually silenced by a base note of low-level anxiety, a tone sounding through my life like a sonic anchor, tying me to the earth, making it impossible to escape and fly up into the air. It's hard to say why it was I cried so much this year at the ceremony.

I can say though that this year I felt the echoes of earlier ceremonies in me. This year I came to see the sorrow lying in me due to the history of silence on the issue of Aboriginal massacres. Of killings never reported. Of the kind of hatred my grandmother expressed toward the Aborigines when I was a child sitting in front of the TV as she raved away loudly behind me. Those are memories that seem to be coming back to me, that seem to haunt me. Like the imagined sound of a police siren as you are driving down the highway. It's not there visible or audible before you but you sense that it is there anyway.

This kind of audible silence is also there in the bull-necked ignorance of the locals I saw in the Imperial Hotel in Glen Innes last night when I went there for a few beers before dinner. In their casual verbiosity, their unacknowledged violence toward those who are different, who don't obviously fit in, toward the people outside the warm hearth of the pub's interior. The people outside in the cold, like the 28 victims of the Myall Creek Massacre; women, children and old men. People without mortgages or aspirations to go on holiday in Thailand.

I wept aloud on the trail this year as the bullroarer burred blindly behind the crowd gathered in front of the memorial rock. The donations of stones and leaves, I was told, got to make a pile so high they had to take it away two years ago. People come here to grieve for sins unacknowledged, for although some of the perpetrators in 1838 were hanged in Sydney for their crimes, the Aboriginal people kept being killed. It's just that people were more careful, down the track, to cover up the murders wherever they happened.

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