Riverside Bottleshop

1997,  87 x 190 cms

Walking home from work one night, I could see fifty metres ahead, three dark bodies bathed in a cadmium cone of streetlight. I recognised Petrina's cry as Xavier poked a knife into her back, then hurtled off up Undoolya Road into the dark. Another man, Johnny Stirling, had also been cut by putting his hand out to protect her.
I ran home for my car and we headed off for the casualty ward at the hospital. If you wanted a gauge on the state of Aboriginal health in Central Australia then this clinic was it. I'd never seen so many bandaged and bruised bodies, nor such a profusion of people on crutches. All were black. Some were in civilian clothes. Most were garbed in hospital-issue pyjamas. Johnny's cut needed stitching. With such a conspicuous amount of blood, we advanced rapidly up the waiting bench.

The nurse came to ask what had happened. Could Petrina stand by herself? She removed her blouse, and a tear fell to the linoleum as Petrina dragged herself to her feet. Her body was a carapace of wounds inflicted by Xavier. He had assaulted her so often, the nurse reported that her file was sixty centimetres thick.

Though feeling sorry for herself, on the way home she asked if she could get a cask from the bottleshop with the same ten dollars that Xavier had knifed her for. Johnny also took the event in his stride. Once stitched up, he asked if I had any videos they could watch at my place.

Having driven from the hospital, the car hummed in the bottleshop driveway as Petrina waited for the attendant to arrive with a cask of 'fruity'. As we rolled out of the bottleshop, Xavier lunged at the car from the darkness and tried to drag Petrina by her hair through the passenger side window. I managed to free her of him by vigorously shaking her and drove off, depositing Petrina and Johnny just inside Whitegate.

I was back in my flat, pondering these events, when Xavier burst through the front door shaking his finger close to my nose. He shouted at me, telling me that he felt betrayed. I had not been his friend and I had sided with his wife.

'Me finish with you!' he said

'But you've just poked Petrina with a knife.'

'Yes. This one.' He produced a penknife. There were tears in his eyes as he angrily waved it in my direction. 'You not my friend,' he said gloomily and stalked out the rear door, straddled the fence, and was off into the bush.

What should I make of his loss of friendship and dignity? For a moment, I sensed him debate whether I was worth knifing. But I came to sense that I was outside the issues that generated intolerable violence. By and large, my natural placidity meant I didn't risk incurring wrath or vengeance.

Riverside Bottleshop alludes to the intimidating aggression around the bottleshop driveway. Xavier's wasn't the only incident I experienced there. Almost on a daily basis, the police cruised the area to prevent scuffles and quieten drinkers. Twice I've been at the wheel by the traffic lights and brawling drunks have clambered over the bonnet. And it is not uncommon to see drinkers asleep on the footpath or the road.