Rocky Creek Dam. Tuesday, 12.15pm
She sits at the wooden picnic table, staring straight ahead, a paper plate in front of her. Behind her on the wall of the park facilities is a mural of the Rocky Creek Dam catchment area. She is small, frail and elderly.
Beside her, a younger woman with a large tray places a sandwich from it on the elder’s plate and wipes her mouth with a napkin. The elder doesn’t react and her eyes remain fixed on a group of young Japanese adults seated at the adjacent picnic table.
The young people are university students from southern Japan, barely into the second week of their four-week stay on the north coast. During that time, they’re studying English at Southern Cross University. That’s where I come in: I’m their teacher.
But it isn’t all classroom stuff.
Today, we’re free from the glare of fluoro lights, the smell of whiteboard marker and the trickiness of comparative adverbs.
Earlier, we visited the primary school at Dunoon whose students proudly showed us their school and displayed their musical skills on half a dozen marimbas. Every Dunoon student learns to play, and they played well.
The Japanese visitors were suitably impressed. Their own manual dexterity is more inclined to mobile internet than musical instrument. But they returned the melodic generosity by singing a Japanese song they’d practised in the classroom. (I’d suggested that such a reciprocation would be appropriate.)
Now, it’s lunch time, and ever the teacher, I have taught these visitors from the land of teppanyaki the finer points of proper cooking – the Australian barbecue.
The first fine point for these students of English is, of course, that ‘barbecue’ is spelt with a ‘c’ not a ‘q’, despite the word’s misleading aural signal, and despite how it’s spelt in giant letters on the shopfront of Barbeques Galore in Lismore.
The table is laden with plates of beef sausages, chicken steaks, fried eggs and bread rolls. There are bowls of fried onion and salad (lettuce tomato, cucumber). For taste, plastic bottles of sauces (red and brown) are lined up, ready for the squeezing.
And the students are noisily tucking in. They joke and laugh in rapid-fire Japanese. They like this place. So they should. Coming from a land where the water is threatened with contamination as a consequence of the Fukushima tsunami, the 31 square kilometres of catchment area surrounding the dam seem to be an Eden, producing clean, clear water which fills the dam and flows from northern rivers taps.
They are surprised when I tell them they can drink the water from the taps.
(I haven’t the heart to tell them that sodium silicofluoride will be added to their water during their stay here. By the government. Intentionally. They wouldn’t understand.)
The elder is not alone. While she ignores the sandwich on her plate, four other elderly folk eat theirs, assisted by the trio of carers. These other elders have grey hair, but she doesn’t. Her hair is dark. And her face has, I realise, Japanese features.
Being in this place of clean air and water, of barbecue sauce and chicken steak, a joy drops down on the students like a hungry kookaburra. One begins to sing the Japanese song he and his classmates sang at Dunoon:
Ue o muite arukou
Namida ga koborenai you ni
(I look up as I walk
So the tears won’t fall)
He has a sweet voice.
A smile blooms on the elder’s face, her eyes flash, and she sings, adding her loud, clear voice to the young bloke’s.
All the students join in and sing with her.
Omoidasu haru no hi
Hitoribotchi no yoru
(Remembering those spring days,
But I’m all alone tonight.)