Only a moment ago, their family had been there with them but now they were left alone—in the middle of the bustling but uncaring city. Oggy’s aunt—who Oggy called “Mum”—had just given them ten dollars with which to buy a snack. Oggy and Urban had headed toward a small sandwich shop but, when they paused to cross the swarming street, they realised they were alone.
Their sudden isolation was complicated by the incredibly distance they were from home. Urban and Oggy lived in a settlement on the edge of Alice Springs and their home was among the red, rocky ridges of the West MacDonell Ranges, where their people had lived for thousands of years. Now, these two Aboriginal seven-year-olds found themselves—thousands of miles from the wandering trails of their ancestors—lost and isolated amid the driven scurrying of one of Australia’s central business districts.
Realising their situation, Urban and Oggy looked about them frantically. They hurried in different directions along the street but, before they got very far from each other, they retreated to the point of realisation and clasped each other’s hands.
“I’m hungry—let’s get some food,” Oggy suggested the most practical next step.
“The others might be there,” Urban agreed, hopefully.
With the precious note, they bought a can of soft drink and a small packet of potato chips each. As they left the shop, they looked hopefully along the street but they did not recognise any familiar faces.
Without any real direction, they moved along the crowded street, eating as they walked. About half-way along the city block, a small grassed area between the concrete towers provided a small haven for those lunching. Urban and Oggy seated themselves beneath a scraggly bush. A couple of pigeons eyed them hopefully but the chip packets were almost empty and the hungry children made no offerings. As the food and drink were finished, the warmth of the afternoon and the dappled sunlight filtering through the bush lulled the children into slumber. Passers-by smiled at the picture of innocence the two sleeping children presented in the midst of the bustling city.
Urban woke first. It was late in the afternoon. They had had a morning of high excitement exploring the big city and their sleep was undisturbed by the city life happening around them. Urban slipped away quietly and surveyed the street. The afternoon rush hour was beginning to ease and there was no sign of their family. The small boy returned to Oggy and woke her roughly.
“Wake up, sleepy,” he laughed at her.
It took Oggy a few moments to remember where she was. “Where’re the other mob?” she asked, remembering their predicament.
“I don’ know,” was all that Urban could offer by way of reply.
Situated as they were in the canyon-like streets of the city, the sun had already disappeared from view. It was beginning to be cold in the shadows and both children quickly discovered their hunger. They drank, in turn, from a drinking fountain in the small park, before heading along the street.
They decided to look for a shop; Oggy still had a few coins in her pocket that was the change from their meagre lunch. There were very few shops open and they walked for three city blocks. This brought them to the front of a grand old building that was the city railway station.
On the broad stairs leading to the main entrance, an old man sat. He was playing an ancient-looking piano accordion with great vigour and the instrument’s case lay open before him, displaying a fair collection of coins. The music danced and Oggy and Urban could not help but join it. The old man noticed his appreciative audience and flashed them a wide smile.
Oggy edged closer to Urban and asked him quietly, “Are we allowed to take some money?”
“I don’ know,” he admitted.
Oggy moved closer to the instrument case. The old man favoured her with another smile, which she returned.
“Hello, young lady,” the old man boomed above the continuing music.
Oggy smiled shyly in return and reached down to pick up a shiny gold coin. The music slowed as the man seemed to ponder what he should say or do. Oggy looked up into his bewildered face.
“Thanks, Mister.” She smiled again and polished the coin, which already glistened in the flood of neon light.
“What …, what…,” but the old man just did not know what to say. Finally, he surrendered to his better nature and smiled at the little girl and her joy at finding a place that apparently gave away such bright coins.
The music regained its former exuberance and maybe it had even gained a little as the two children continued further down the darkening city street.
Their continued walking brought them to the front of a well-patronised city bar. Light flooded out of the open doorway and the establishment also shared its music with passers-by. Urban and Oggy paused and stood on tiptoes to see further into the inviting interior.
“Ooh . . . they got slot nachines,” Oggy was excited. “We could get some more money so we can eat and maybe get back home.”
Urban was not so sure. He looked up and down the street and, in his moment of indecision, a burly man dressed all in black step between the children and the doorway.
“You kids, better get on your way. You don’t need to hang around here,” the huge man growled. He folded his arms across his chest and pulled himself up to his full height.
Urban and Oggy shrank back and moved hurriedly away from the formerly inviting doorway. Oggy was a little shaken. “Why was he so mean?” she asked of Urban.
“I don’ know. Let’s keep goin’.” For a reason that they would not have been able to explain, they kept in the shadows as much as was possible as they continued along the street.
There were less and less people on streets of the city and the night—such as it is in a city centre—had taken full effect. Their wanderings had taken them a little distance from the city heart and the nature of the streets was different from the concrete of the city—older buildings were more common.
As the children—small for their age—made their way along the street, they attracted little attention. They were either unseen or ignored—either way it suited them. Without any idea where they were going, they walked on.
On a street corner, they saw a lady watching them as they came toward her. She was scanning the street in all directions but her attention seemed to return to them regularly. The lady on the corner was dressed scantily and should have been cold in the evening breeze. Urban noticed her apparent attention and slowed his progress toward her. Oggy slowed to match his pace.
A young man strode past them. As he approached the lady on the street corner, she stepped forward and spoke to him briefly. He ignored her and continued on his way in an apparent hurry. Urban and Oggy edged closer. Another—older—man came around the corner, and the children heard the lady on the corner mention an amount of money to him.
“Where’s our money?” Urban asked Oggy quietly.
Oggy pulled the few coins, including the coin from the busker, out of her pocket and handed them to Urban. He stepped bravely toward the lady and held out the money. She was bemused, unsure as to how to react to this small boy.
“I ain’t no beggar, boy,” she suggested but watched the money carefully.
“Thought you needed money,” Urban bowed his head, now ashamed of his impulse.
“Well, I don’t know what I can do for you for that much,” she was obviously thinking. “It’s probably not right anyway . . .” she broke off. “How ‘bout a hug?”
Now it was Urban’s turn to be confused. He shrugged, “OK.”
The lady knelt on the footpath next to the small boy and encompassed him in a tight hug. Urban hugged her in return and she held the hug a little longer than she anticipated. Oggy stepped forward out of the shadow and, before the lady stood up, joined the hug. After a long moment, they stepped apart. The two children smiled up at the lady who smiled back, her eyes glistening.
“Thank you,” she said quietly and she slipped the money into her small handbag.
Urban and Oggy walked away with a couple of glances over their shoulders. The lady on the corner watched them for a moment, then turned her attention back to her business. While not upset at the loss of the money, Oggy asked Urban, “What do we do now? We got no money—an’ I’m hungry.”
Urban looked about them. A brightly-lit hotel lobby was near at hand. “Let’s see what we can find in there.”
They approached the glass warily and, as if by magic, the glass wall parted before them. They stepped into the warm embrace of the room of light and glass. They explored further until a well-dressed attendant noticed them.
“What are you two up to?” came the yell across the lobby.
The children both jumped in fright. “Run, Oggy,” Urban whispered loudly.
They headed for an open door in front of them. It was a dead end. They cowered in the corner of the small room, as they could hear the attendant’s running footsteps getting closer. Suddenly, the door through which they had entered slid shut. The room began to move.
Urban and Oggy were terrified. They jumped up and started banging on the closed door. “Hey, let us out! Hey!” But still this mysterious ride continued.
They relaxed a little but then they were coming to a stop. The door opened and a well-dressed couple stepped toward the doorway.
“Run,” Oggy hissed.
They slipped out of the doorway in front of the two adults stepping in. Urban pushed open a door adjacent to their exit and found stairs going up and down. Climbing up, they ascended two storeys. Their running had slowed and they puffed. They could hear no sound of pursuit. They sat for a moment, catching their breath, then Oggy began to laugh, “That was close.”
Urban joined her laughter. “Let’s see where this goes.”
They climbed further, finally pushed open a door and found themselves on the roof of the building. “Wow!” they responded to the view across the city almost in unison. They watched the city for some time.
It was a landscape that was very strange to them. They chattered light-heartedly until Urban grew serious. His attention had been attracted by the apparent absence of stars. Above them, only a few stars could be seen through the glare of the city lights that were around and below them. “I don’t think the ’ternal people like the city,” he quieted Oggy with his serious tone.
“What do you mean?” she asked.
Urban answered quietly, “The other day, Gran told me about the ’ternal people who live in the sky and they never die and their land is always green and they never kill anything and the big river of stars that runs across the middle of the sky is their river and all the other stars are the campfires of the ’ternal people. The Great Father of them all has emu feet but they mustn’t like the city ’cause I can’t see many campfires.”
“Can we go see them?” Oggy sounded a little excited. Amid a day of wonders and strange experiences, this land of the eternal people sounded magically possible.
Urban sounded sad as he replied: “We can’t get there any more. Granny says that a long, long time ago there was a huge casuarina tree in the desert and ordinary people could climb it to the sky. But the tree was chopped down in the dreamtime and now people can’t get up there and people can’t live forever.”
The conversation lapsed into silence, above the sounds of the city. After some time, sleep overcame them again. They huddled close to each other and to a warm air conditioning outlet. Oggy and Urban slept high above the city. They could not climb any higher and the city lights blotted out most of the stars.
Image: Jason Wing, In Between Two Worlds, 2011.
This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at http://spectrummagazine.org/node/4017