For about four years around middle school, my only friend was an Aboriginal boy named Josh. We didn't have much in common, but we were always together, probably because neither of us had any other friends. I don't remember how we came to be friends, but it must have begun around year five. We would meet at the benches beside the playground every lunchtime, every day, except when he was sick, which was often. I was never sick. We never really did much, we didn't play on the fields, we didn't go to the library, we just sat on the benches and talked.
I remember a few times we dug grubs out of the bark of the Eucalyptus trees, until a teacher told us to stop. I think we did it because he was an Aboriginal boy, and we had both heard that grubs were something that traditional Aborigines sometimes ate. We never ate one. He was obsessed with the film Titanic, but he was mainly interested in the ship, he didn't like any of the characters and the story bored him. He made hundreds of drawings of the ship, with cross-sections of the bridge and the crew's cabins.
He lived in a small house nearer to the industrial side of town, I lived in a big house on a hill. Neither of his parents were employed, both of my parents were doctors. My dad drove a BMW, his family didn't own a car. At the time, I didn't see the significance of those things. Most weekends I'd go over to his house, and mum would take off her jewellery before she drove me there; I didn't realise that she was being polite. Dad never drove me to their house, I'm not sure if that was intentional. Almost without fail, Josh would wait for me outside their front door.
I felt quite guilty about the fact that I went to their house so often, and he came to ours so rarely. I asked Mum why this was, and she said that it was OK, that we "helped them in other ways". I liked spending the day there, but their house made me a bit uncomfortable. It smelled faintly of cigarettes, it was dark, their couch was very old and worn out, the linoleum floors were always a little bit sticky. We would play the Nintendo 64 or watch television, re-enact scenes from war films, or throw water bombs in the summer. Once I went into his parents' bedroom while he was on the toilet and looked through one of his father's Penthouse magazines. I remember there was an article on how to find the G-spot, it gave instructions like it was a street map for the female genitals, just follow the steps and you're guaranteed success.
I didn't see him for about a year, after we moved to a new town. We moved because the schools in this town were better, and I started year seven in a boys' boarding school. I was alone again. Josh and I didn't talk on the 'phone, I'm not sure why. That was my worst year in school, and I ended up spending my now-unoccupied lunchtimes reading comics in the library. Then Mum told me that Josh and his family were moving to our town too, and he would be going to the same school as me. Mum had arranged a bursary for him, so they could afford to send him there. So things were back to normal, we'd spend all lunchtime talking on the benches, just as before. Talking about teachers we disliked, the previous night's TV shows, plans for the holidays, all the same stuff that is only banal in retrospect. Not much happened in the two years following, at least not much that I can remember. I never went to his family's new house.
Then one day, a Wednesday, he said, "by the way," he and his family were moving away. He didn't seem to think much of it, and honestly, neither did I. I don't remember giving it much thought, we didn't talk about it; and the following Monday he was gone, and I was alone again. I haven't seen him since then.
He called me once, about eighteen months later, seemingly for no reason at all. I asked him how he knew our new 'phone number, and he said that his Mum had looked it up. He told me that they had moved to a new new town again, I asked him why and he said, "that place was shit." We spoke for about five minutes, and that was it. That was five years ago now, we haven't spoken since then.
I don't know a lot about the Aborigines, except what I learned from Josh and his family. The Aborigines are at the centre of a lot of social and economic problems in Australia. The average Aboriginal life expectancy is 20 years lower than that of white Australians, and only 30% live to be 65. They have an unemployment rate five times higher than the national average. Only 10% of Aboriginal children successfully finish high school. Australian prisons hold 18 times more Aborigines than white Australians.
All of those statistics are depressing and terrible, they show the huge divide that exists between white Australians and Aborigines, but I don't think of them when I think of Josh and his family. I think of his mother, who smoked and drank while she was pregnant with their fifth child. His sister, who had her belly button pierced when she was eight because she wanted to look like Christina Aguilera. His brother, who wouldn't go to school if he didn't feel like it that day, and his parents didn't step in. His father, who practiced boxing on the weatherboards of their house with John Lee Hooker tapes playing, and fell asleep in front of the TV. I remember how they had a Nintendo 64, a Playstation and pay TV but no dinner table, they ate from their laps on the couch every day. I remember eating takeaway every time I stayed at their house for dinner. I remember how Josh's parents walked away from a bursary that paid 90% of the fees for Josh's education at one of the best boys' schools in the state.
When I think about Josh and his family, I think about them still hopping from town to town, looking for a place that will treat them well, when they're really not treating themselves well. I think about his sister's teenage pregnancy. I think about Josh's little brother getting in with "the wrong crowd". I wonder how many new siblings he has now. I wonder whether his dad ever took up a steady job. I think about Josh dropping out of high school and living life in the same aimless way as his father, about him becoming another statistic in the great Australian socio-economic divide.
It seems to me that these problems arise because of the attitudes of both Aborigines and white Australians. I saw a few people stealing from a construction site, and the first thing people asked when I told them was "were they, y'know, Aboriginal?" There seems to be a prevailing idea that they're a lost cause, that they're all no good and no-one can change that. Bill Bryson wrote in his book, Down Under, that when he asked an Australian man about the Aborigines he replied, "They want hanging, every one of them. Every bloody one of them." A friend of mine said last night, "they're just idiots. If they wanted to get a job, they could."
I don't know how much of that is true, I don't know whether Aborigines are oppressed, lazy or just caught in a culture of pessimism. I haven't a clue what the first step towards social equality is, or whether such a thing can ever be achieved. I know, though, that Josh was a smart boy who could have gone far, but I doubt that he ever will; he's lived since his birth in an atmosphere of apathy.