Tim Bishop: My Man and Me
This week – Tim Bishop is from Albury on the mighty Murray River, known as Indi to the Upper River First Peoples. Raised around open fires and kitchen tables, he is a singer-songwriter, storyteller and radio broadcaster, among other skills. Tim has worked professionally as an actor and voice artist, an arts administrator, a theatre and costume designer, stage manager, tour manager, a lighting designer and technician. He was Co-producer, Yabun Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Cultural Festival and was a founding team member of Gadigal Information Services, Koori Radio. He has also worked at The Redfern Community Centre as a teacher and mentor. This story appears in the Queerstories book, which I’m excited to say is released today, August 28th.
Queerstories has been published by Hachette and edited by me. It’s a beautiful collection of 26 of the stories. Some of them you’ve heard on this podcast, but they’ve been adapted, made longer or more literary. In the coming month, I’m hosting book launches in Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane, Aubury/Wodonga, Lismore and Canberra, so if you’re in any of those places, please come along. I’ll also be hosting book launches elsewhere in Australia next year. Please consider buying a copy of the book. You can buy it online or you can support your local independent bookseller and turn up in the shop, and buy it the old fashioned way. Anyway, enough from me. I’m really proud of this work and I’d love to share it with you. But right now, here’s Tim Bishop.
1997, my man and me, we travelled a lot. We got around. The first time I met him I knew I was in for something big just from the look of it, and I was.
Early days. We were sitting in a pub at the back of Newtown, a straight pub, and I said something across the corner of the bar that made him laugh, and he turns to me, that big cheesy smile half lifting him towards me, and says, “You know, I could grow old with you, I could really grow old with you.”
In the days before he died, I reminded him of these words that had stuck so strongly in my mind. I told him that I thought that over the years we had grown old together. He laughed, “God, is that what I’ve done to you?” But the truth was, we had come that far. Just like an old married couple, we travelled on from the falling-in-love, made ourselves a family and stayed together, and simply because we liked our lives this way; together. We were equals and we lived in balance with one another. I know I was the old woman, but I liked that because it meant that he was my old man.
There was fear that as quickly as I might let him into my life and my heart, he’d be gone. He had a habit of whizzing through people’s lives. I feared that every step deeper would be every step harder to then stand alone. The future was to be unknown, and that’s all that feeds fear, is the unknown. See it, admit it, but don’t let it stop you.
He took me home, the first summer, to his people. He was from Cabbage Tree Island on the Richmond River; I was from Albury on the Murray. North and South, top and bottom. He was salt water, I was fresh. He was from the warm, I was from the cold. But the biggest difference was that he knew his land as his peoples’, not just where he grew up but the land of his People since time. That land was part of who he was, part of his pride, a proud man of the Bundjalung Nation. To know him and for us to really be a couple, I had to know his land and his People. They’re all inseparable.
There was plenty for me to fear going in to this community, but I wasn’t afraid. He threw me in and I had to stand on my own two feet. But I was welcomed, and cared for, and respected as the person that their son and brother had brought home as his partner, and now he’d have to honour their acceptance of me. Besides, I hadn’t broken any law: I came from the South, couldn’t be related. The fact of my sex seemed to be overlooked, and I relished in my new role of daughter-in-law.
I got to hear all the goss’.
Before we’d leave, he’d pack the car with what he thought we’d need and I never knew what we had until we got there. All I had to do was pack my own clothes and it took as long for me to choose as it did for him to clean and pack the car, and tidy the house ready for our return. He got this from his mother, just like the way he’d spread the sheets when he made the bed, like he was swimming across it.
He’d mostly drive and it’d take us about twelve hours to get there. We had our dream car, a 1964 Holden EH station wagon, bench seats. Thankfully, to spite his lead foot, it didn’t go very fast, so I’d relax. And we’d stop here and there and out’d come the matching picnic set, the camera, the radio, and a blanket for my knees, and we’d have tea and cakes on the tailgate. And we’d be off again, ”C’mon Nanna!” Music, black music, joints, sex on the road, relatives to drop shoes off to. I’d just lay back and go with it all.
His family, by now, were living off the island, in homes spread through the bush and amongst the cane fields. His mum, she’d had eleven kids. We’d camp down the back of hers and Lewis’, our own place, a place still called Where Mark and Tim’d Camp because we kept coming back. And there, under them big kookaburra trees, with the moon rising up over the river, you’d hear the night; it’d bring you things, and you felt blessed. And there’d be kids for days, laughing and silly business, fights, tempers, music, parties, but most of all there’d be time’ time to sit and yarn with one another. You’d hear stories and you’d learn.
He died in Sydney at our place.
We’d been camped in the hospital for about six weeks and it hadn’t done much good. We decided together to go home and we had three days totally alone. We were ourselves again, and we had the chance to be intimate, to be lovers. We were home.
The day before leaving the hospital for the last time, we’d gone home just for the afternoon to try things out. They wanted us to see if we both thought that we could both manage. When we drove back to the hospital that evening, for the very last time, a big black bird swooped down and hovered over our bonnet. It’s wingspan across our windscreen, leading our way to the end of the street. We both said nothing. And I seen that bird come and go from around the house over the next three days.
And it happened. That moment that I’d feared the most, when I’d be lying with him but he’d be gone.
In the early light of that day, I rang to tell his Dad, and there was this big and brightly coloured bird through our window, one that I had never seen before.
We left in a Ford Pickup, farewelled Newtown and crossed the bridge, heading North, going home. I packed the picnic set for company but I didn’t feel the excitement. We drove that line that he had gone all his life – up and down – between the two places that drew him. And we stopped at the same stops, had tea and cakes, and we passed ‘em all on the way – Purfleet, Taree, Greenhill, Kempsey, ‘Bucca, Yamba – and all in between – to his own mob at Cabbo.
The driver, a blackfella, was a married man. He showed his respect for us and cared, knowing the honour of taking a brother home. We yarned a lot. We talked like men. And I told him about the best man that I had known, all the while him laying up over the back, listening and being with us. The driver showed his own pain as we’d reminded him of it. He’d lost his best mate some time back and hadn’t thought about him for a while till now. And there really wasn’t all that much difference.
For the first time, I’d be back there on my own. What would be their reaction to me? Would I cope? But I’d been shown to stand on my own two feet, and there was only warm love and respect for what had been endured. That night, we had a big party around the fire together, all of us. I still go to them and they still come to me, ‘cause we’re family.