by Max Cullen Posted on 03:30PM, 27 August 2010 Be the first to comment
My Grandfather “Narromine Ned” was a drover. He worked with Aboriginal stockmen all his life and learned a lot from them: Where to find water in the desert; how to predict the weather; but most of all he learnt how to read people. The story goes that my grandfather could spot a man approaching from the horizon and by the time the stranger was in spitting distance he’d know all about him; by the fall of his hands he knew the work he did, by his stride he knew if he was coming or going, he could tell if the man was married or not, which part of the country he was from, if he was a murderer, a liar, a thief, and whether or not they would be friends or rivals or not even exchange a glance as they passed. “Narromine Ned” died the year I was born – but that’s what they tell me.
As an actor it’s been my privilege to work with Aborigines. Acting in a play called “The Cake Man” in The Black Theatre in Redfern I got to meet a “magic man” named Zac Martin. Zac, I was told, could be in two places at once. He was in my place one day and we were playing that game of staring into each others eyes until one would blink. But as I gazed into the abyss of his mischievous, all-knowing, ageless orbs something very strange happened; the kitchen wall and gas stove behind him and everything around us evaporated – “Don’t look away”, he whispered, “you’ll get lost.”
Maybe he didn’t speak at all, maybe I imagined it, but it was not my imagination that all of a sudden we were in Central Australia, on red earth and under bright blue sky with Zac standing on one leg and holding a spear … “Don’t look away.” He warned again. I think.
I stayed focused until the room returned to normal. Zac smiled and gave a cackle. “How’d yer like that, ay?” Zac had “magiced” me.
Not long after that, at the height of a torrential rainstorm in Sydney, Zac came knocking at my door. I invited him in and as we sat at the table with our cups of tea Zac suggested that we should write a screenplay together, we would call it “Cousins” and it would be the story of Zac’s life. “It will have to be a TV series,” he suggested, “’cause it’s a big story.”
“That’s why it has to be a movie,” I told him, “movies are big.”
“TV series is better.” He wasn’t going to argue.
So I took notes as Zac described the opening scene: “I’m riding my motor bike. The rain is falling down, like it is tonight. There’s a bridge over the creek. I lay the bike over taking the bend before the bridge and lose it. The bike hits a greasy patch and we crash through the bridge. And I’m up in the air and … the bike … and we freeze frame. That’s just the opening shot, before the titles, before my story starts. The rest is flash-back.”
That’s as far as we got with the script that night. The rain was still bucketing down and I made up a bed for Zac on the couch and bade him good night.
“Don’t be surprised if the ghost of my father appears and stands at the end of your bed,” he said. “He does that all the time.”
“Don’t you be surprised,” I told him, “if my old man is with him. He’s been visiting me ever since he died ten years ago. The first time he was in a shroud and covered in dirt, fresh from the grave. He gets younger every time I see him, he’s nearly my age now.”
“He’ll stop coming then, when he’s your age,” said Zac all knowing. And he was right.
Next morning Zac was gone. The sun was shining, birds were singing and the day was sparkling and new. Then I noticed a cricket, a shiny little black cricket all alone in the corner where Zac had stood. I left the door open in case he wanted to leave.
Month later I ran into Zac and told him about the cricket.
“You didn’t kill him, did you?”
“No,” I said assuring him. “It’s bad luck to kill a cricket.”
“He’s my Dreaming,” said Zac looking serious. “The cricket is my totem, you know – that fella, he’s my Dreaming.”
I didn’t run into Zac for a couple of years after that, then one night at a party I was speaking to the actor Justine Saunders and asked her had she seen Zac lately.
“Haven’t you heard … ?” she began.
“Don’t tell me,” I said, “he was riding his bike, it was raining and he skidded and crashed crossing a bridge …”
“Oh, then you know,” she continued, “he landed in the creek, hardly a scratch on him, and then he drowned in about four inches of water.”
I still see Zac from time to time I’m sure, at protest rallies and peace marches. I continue to avoid stepping on crickets. And as I’ve been writing this piece the rain has bucketed down. It just stopped.
Max Cullen is an acclaimed Australian stage and screen actor. Max has appeared in many Australian films and television series but is best known for his role in the film Spider and Rose and the television series The Flying Doctors and Love My Way. Cullen was also a regular arts reporter on the Sunday current affairs television program. He has also worked as a professional and motivational speaker.