In this otherwise quietly living population of about three hundred people, no living soul remembered what the port had looked like before. No picture could be put on display in a showcase at the museum of scarce memorabilia, because no one at the time of the heyday thought it was worthwhile to take a photo. But everybody knew that this was Normal's river.
One day, someone in town, whose name is not worth a mention, was languishing around in a laconic stupor following the months of heatwave in the Wet season build-up, waiting for the rain to come. Lying flat out like a corpse on the bare linoleum floor in the hallway of a house exactly like the one next door. Capturing in a long sigh of appreciation the northern sea breezes that came waltzing straight over twenty-five kilometres of mudflats, whistling their arrival through the front door while, on the way out, slamming the back door open and shut. All of a sudden this someone of no consequence thought of changing the name of the river to Normal. And, in a town where change never came easy, it came to be.
There was a celebration by the local Shire Council. The occasion was the anniversary of the port's first one hundred years. It coincided with a spate of unusual happenings during a short-lived era of Aboriginal domination of the Council. Harmless coercing of the natives, the social planners hummed, anxious to make deals happen for the impending mining boom. Meaningful coexistence could now accommodate almost any request whatsoever, including changing a river's name to Normal. During this honeymoon period, those Aboriginal people who took the plunge to be councillors wisely used their time in public office to pursue scraps of personal gain for their own families living amidst the muck of third-world poverty.
All this was part and parcel of the excitement of Desperance when the first multinational mining company came into the region. Numerous short-lived profiteering schemes were concocted for the locals, in order to serve the big company's own interests as they set about pillaging the region's treasure trove: the publicly touted curve of an underground range embedded with minerals.
The elaborate white linen ceremony, paid for by the mining company, attracted Southern politicians who flew in for the day. Most of them were known by the local dignitaries as a bunch of fly-by-nighters. And what's more, as they rolled out the welcome smile, some locals whispered unmentionable insults behind the backs of their very important visitors. Other locals who liked the sound of their own voices attacked the politicians straight out with a diatribe of insults. Yelling out, the crowd picked up bits wafting in the wind gusts: Youse are always cowering down on the ground. Are youse the runt of the Australian political litter or something? Yah! Falling over yaselves to any foreign investor flocking up the steps of Parliament, knocking on the big door, and smelling like money.
The politicians and mining executives mingled uncomfortably with the crowd, then pushed themselves up against the old hero Normal for a photo opportunity, and got snapped by members of the media circus who had jockeyed for free rides on the official executive jets. Then everything got ruined by a normal sort of dust storm thundering in from the south. A thick wall of red dust mingled with all manner of crunched vegetation and plastic shopping bags gathered up in its path, damaging the cut sandwiches when it came through. The fidget-prone adults panicked, running for cover along with their red-and-green-cordial-stained screaming children.
Then came a violent electrical storm when the rain ruined the day anyway -- as the town's sceptics said it would. A taut occasion, despite these dramatic interventions; enough time for the now disposed-of State Premier to complete the ceremony of officially changing the name of the river from that of a long deceased Imperial Queen to "Normal's River." Traditional people gathered up for the event mumbled, Ngabarn, Ngabarn, Mandagi, and so did Normal in a very loud and sour-sounding voice over the loudspeaker in his extremely short thank-you address, although those who knew a fruit salad full of abuse in the local languages knew he was not saying Thank you! Thank you! and belly-laughed themselves silly because the river only had one name from the beginning of time. It was called Wangala.
Copyright 2006 by Alexis Wright
Blood at the Root
"A gripping, timely, and important examination of American racism."
- PW Starred Review
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