Enchante Madame. The Frenchman bowed over me wife’s hand. “Pierre DuBonnet.”
The wife simpered as I looked .on a bit shirty. Ya gotta hand it to them Frogs, they sure know how to chat up a Sheila.
“Charmed, I’m sure, Mon-sewer,” she said, batting her big blues.
I said nuthin’
“And you, Monsieur, I am so grateful for your so kind ‘ospitality.”
The bugger don’t even sound his Haitches, I thought.
“She’ll be apples,” I said. “Just bring your gear and I’ll show ya where to kip down.”
I turned towards the house, expecting the bastard to follow me.
“Pardon?” he said.
“Granted,” I said.
“Ern”, Kayleen ticked me off, “Monsewer Doobongy is our guest. Give him a hand with his ports.”
“Orright,” I said “Don’t get ya knickers in a twist… Here, give us that green one.” (whoever heard of a green port!) “You’ll be kippin’ on the verandah tonight ay? account of the weather, though all yer swag’ll be in the guest room. C’mon.”
He was a strange lookin’ cove, the Froggie. A city gent I reckoned judgin’ by his shoes. Black winkle pickers they were. He wore striped strides and a poncy lookin’ jacket. You could tell he was a Frenchy but, on his head, he had one of them Berries, like some artist out of the Bulletin. He’d arrived on the mail truck. Bluey had delivered him like a parcel. Can’t get much out of Bluey when he’s in one of his moods, and it looked as though he’d been in one of them since he left Boonawindi…
I’ll give him this though, the Frog; he didn’t take long to settle in. When we had tea, a couple of big steaks each, and plenty of spuds and onions, he came up trumps with a couple of bottles of French plonk.
“I ‘ope it ‘as travelled well,” he said.
“Don t worry, mate. It got here ay” And it wasn’t a bad drop considering it was foreign.
“What do you do for a crust?” I asked him.
When we had sorted that one out, he told me, I was none the wiser.
“I am Anthropologist archaeological” He pronounced his words funny. “I interest myself in the affairs aboriginale.” He seemed to be thinking of the next word all the time. “I look for the pictures indigene…”
“You’ll be wanting to look at the abbo caves then. We got some good caves hereabouts. I take you there tomorrow. Not far. Only about twenty miles.”
We finished off the plonk.
“Dunno about you mate, but I’m gonna get me head down. Wanna make an early start if we gunna do the caves, ay”
Kayleen shot daggers at me. She likes to stay up all hours when there’s company. Stow it Kay.” I said, “The poor bugger’s had a long enough day with that trip from the city. Come on mate. I’ll show ya the dunny.”
We were up at sparrow’s and took off in the Land Cruiser, but not before Kayleen fed us some steak and eggs. Not a bad sort, the old woman, she’d even wrapped us a play lunch.
The track’s a bit rough this time of year, the wet had left a few new potholes. We went into one which bounced Pete (he told us that’s his name in English) into cracking his head on the roof. He bit his tongue.
“Merde!” he said.
You’re right there, Mate,” I said. “They are bloody murder, these tracks. “Don’t hardly ever use them. Must be a couple of years since I last came this way.”
He didn’t say much and he soon give up craning his neck to look at the scenery. Ya seen one clump of Spinitex ya seen ‘em all. He picked up a bit when we reached the hills. I suppose it is more interesting —those boulders,
“They call ’em The Devil’s Marbles’ I volunteered. “Still, they always call ’em that, those sorta stones, ay? Must be hundreds of Marbles scattered round Oz.”
He laughed politely.
The track turned and twisted. I was in four-wheeled drive now to get some traction on the crumbling sandstone. Three quarter’s of an hour later we came to the first of the caves. I gave Pete one of the big plastic lanterns, took one meself and we went in.
The front part of the cave is about twelve feet deep, well lit from its eight foot opening. It rises slightly to the rear. At the back in the left hand corner there is a ragged gap kinda like a low doorway. I led the way, ducking me head to get through. Pete was close behind. The cavern ahead was a surprise. It stretched a good seventy- five feet and widened to about thirty. The roof was arched and ten foot high.
All round the walls, as high as a tall man could reach, there were the hands. Pete was chuffed. He swept the beam of his lantern from side to side and muttered strange French words. Formidable! C’est Magnifiquel (I got him to do the spelling of this bit). We looked at the hands together.
“They are not really pictures, more like shadders, What’s the word?”
“Silhouettes.” said Pete.
Yair. An old abbo once told me that they chew up ochre and stuff, and blow it past their open hand against the wall. Must’ve been some pretty tall buggers amongst ‘em but. Look at the one up there.”
“Per’aps they stood on something”
“Maybe each other. They sure as hell didn’t have no ladders.” I said.
After Pete had took some pictures with a little camera, I took him to the far corner of the cavern. There, behind a big boulder, was a narrow passage leading off into the darkness. Our shoulders were touching the sides and we had to crouch as the roof got lower. A quick turn to the right, and we were through.
The inner cave was only a quarter the size of the Hands place, but it was covered with drawings: Kangaroos, emus, men, women, kids, some looking as if they had been drawn yesterday, some so old and faded you could hardly see them. Mostly they were black and white but there were reds and yellows, browns and greys.
Pete was rapt. He mumbled words into a little cassette recorder he took from one of his pockets. Did I tell you about his pockets? He was dressed in what he called his field gear. It was a bloody sight more practical than his city slicker clothes, they wouldn’t have lasted five minutes in the bush, but it was still very foreign. It was a funny looking yellow-green boiler suit and it was covered in pockets; pockets in the sleeves, pockets on the thighs, pockets on the lower leg, pockets of all shapes and sizes. I’ve seen the sort of thing that fishermen and hunters wear, but this was one right out of the box. One thing he got right but, his boots. They were quite sensible lookin, funny lookin’ but sensible. Good stout soles and uppers you could run a truck over. I liked them boots.
We went back to the truck, blinking in the strong light. I got out the play- lunches and tossed him a FourX out of the Esky. We sat quiet for a moment.
‘Well,’ I said, “What do you reckon?”
You have there a treasure. It is old, very old. Some of it many thousands of years — Before France, Before England. Before Greeks and Romans!”
“Why did they do it?”
“It is perhaps for them a church, a place of religion, of magic. Also it is an ‘istory book’. Some of the newer paintings are per’aps not a hundred years.”
We thought about this.
“In France, we too have caves with paintings. Also very old. Stone age. But they have buffalo, not kangaroo.”
We thought some more.
“Where are they now, these people?” he said.
“Me great-grand-dad chased the buggers off.” I said. “He had a lot of troubles with the blacks, did the old fellah, or so me grandfather said.”
Pete looked unhappy at this so I changed the subject.
‘How long ya reckon on stayin’?”
“I’ll go back to the city when Monsieur Bluey returns. But with your permission I will return with equipment. This was a reconnoitre. When I come back I will discover the age of the paintings. Who knows, you may become famous for ‘aving the oldest site of paintings in Australie”,
“Fame at Last!” I said.
I was sorry to see him go. A good bloke ,Pete, for all his Frenchy ways.
He was at it again. He’d settled up his board and that. Generous too. But before he went, he gave Kayleen a little bracelet with a silver Eifel Tower charm on it.
I couldn’t help thinking me Great-grand-dad gave the Abos beads, when he first came.
Pete, his bags packed, bent over the wife’s hand again.
Copyright H. St. V. Beechey