Make Room for Me, Mate!


I was half a world away from home, in a place where everyone talked and thought differently than I did. How could I ever fit in?

Make Room for Me, Mate!

I scooted across an old twin mattress and braced my back against the Toyota Land Cruiser’s cab. Jean jumped in at the same time, almost knocking off her gray Akubra hat. Jean was 15, one year older than I am. I’d met her here a week ago, on the first day at my new school in Alice Springs. Even though she was LDS, and there aren’t many Mormons here, her khaki shirt, olive neckerchief, and camouflage pants made her seem so tough to me that I didn’t think we’d ever be close friends.

“Ouch!” said another Aussie, this one seated near the rear of the truck. Her name was Cherie. She looked up at me like I was guilty of something. But it was Jean who spoke.

“Liz,” she said, “you’ve got prickles.”

Prickles, I thought, what are prickles?

Her comment sent my mind into a whirl. So here I am in Alice Springs, Northern Territory, Australia. When your dad’s in need of work, you go where you have to go, even if it’s all the way from Massachusetts to Australia. There are other Americans here, mostly with the military. I can get along with them. But what I really want is to be friends with the Australians. I’ve been here a week and it seems like a year. How will I ever fit in?

I looked at Cherie again. She was so pretty. I wanted to exchange my straggly brown hair for her luscious strawberry blonde. I felt my pale face, knowing it was smeared with sunscreen. I compared it to her tan complexion. She was certainly no stranger to the sun.

You’re the one with prickles, I thought, almost maliciously.

But as quick as I thought it, Jean was speaking to me again, pointing at my feet.

“Prickles,” she said. “In your stockings, mate.”

I looked down at my white cotton stockings. They bristled with burrs. But what was worse, I’d infested the entire mattress with the clinging black barbs, and Cherie, climbing in after us, had been stabbed by one in the palm of her hand.

Prickles, I thought. Australian for stickers.

“I’m sorry,” I muttered, and started pulling the stickers out of my socks.

This time it was Cherie who spoke. “Make room for me, mate,” she said, indicating a place between us. Now I was surrounded—Jean on one side, Cherie on the other, off the highway on a dirt road, on the edge of the outback headed to the sandy, silty, dry bed of the Hugh River. A couple of youth leaders were driving this truck; another Cruiser with more young men and women followed behind. Using four-wheel drive, the utes (short for utility vehicles), lurched forward through the soft earth.

To maintain balance, I grabbed a metal rod that supported the bed’s steel roof. I held on tight. Wheels ground over gravel. Dust flew. I coughed. Cherie bounced on the mattress.

“Yahoo!” Jean squealed. My knuckles were white from hanging on. My stomach threatened to foam over like a warm Pepsi (caffeine-free, of course). Just as I prayed for the truck to quit this nonsense and take us back to Alice, we stopped.

“So, howdja like bush bashing?” Jean asked.

“Um, I …” I never got a chance to finish the sentence.

“Bet you’ve never done this either, Yank,” she continued, pointing to a metal sled the young men were attaching to the rear bumper. “Here, let Liz go first.”

I got a quick explanation of how to ride the sled. I also got a quick impression that now Jean was out to get me, too. I felt like some sort of alien, at the mercy of my captors.

Then Cherie rescued me. Sort of. At least she came and sat on a second sled opposite to mine. She had a neckerchief knotted over her mouth, handed me one, and indicated I should tie it the same way.

“Scrunch up to the front of the sled,” she said. I obeyed.

Everyone checked to make sure the path was clear, and that we were in an area of smooth, soft silt. Cherie signaled the driver.

“Let ’er rip,” she said.

Jean let out a whoop and the sleds started skidding over the sand. My heart galloped, but I hung on. Surprisingly, it reminded me of water skiing on Chesapeake Bay back in the States. Look at me, I thought, I’m doing this!

That’s when the sled tipped sideways. I lost my water skis! Flumpf! I hit the dirt and was surprised how soft it felt, how instantly I was no longer moving, how much of the riverbed silt was now packed inside my T-shirt and my jeans.

I heard someone yelling, “Stop the ute! The Yank got dumped!” Cherie, Jean, and all the others were laughing. I’d had all I could take.

“You did that on purpose!” I yelled at Jean when she walked up. “You made me go first so you could all laugh at me!” I could see my whole existence turning into misery. But when I looked in Jean’s face, I knew I was wrong.

“No, Yank,” she smiled. “We let you go first because it’s an honor. You did great for your first ride. Everybody gets dumped—that’s part of the fun!”

And you know, it was. We kept sand sledding through the rest of the morning, and we only stopped when it was nearly noon and we knew we had to eat and drink or we’d wilt from the heat. All of us got dumped. All of us were covered with dirt. But all of us were laughing and talking and joking together. People kept telling me how well I’d done for my first time sand sledding.

I deliberately backed away from the group and looked around me for a while. We were in a beautiful location. Gum trees all around. Beautiful red rock country. A blazing blue sky. Hot, yes. Dry, yes. A lot different than my humid, green home in Massachusetts. But these were good kids here, Mormon kids just like me, having fun, trying to help each other live the gospel. How would I fit in in Alice Springs? Just fine, thank you.

I made my way back to the campfire.

“Make room for me, mate!” I said, wiggling my way between Jean and Cherie. One of the boys, Ian, was using a long-handled metal gadget to squish two pieces of bread and some sort of filling together and toast sandwiches over the flames.

“They’re called jaffles,” he said. “And the first one is for Liz.”

I picked it up and took a big bite. My jaffle was filled with spaghetti.

No Worries!

Think it might be tricky understanding Australian? Here’s a handy guide to some words and phrases you might hear teens and others use. But remember, it’s often just a word here and there, not a constant stream of unfamiliar language.

Australian

American

Good on ya!

Well done, good for you!

No worries, no problems

That’s okay, You’re welcome, It’s no big deal

Tomato sauce

Ketchup

Sand shoes

Sneakers

Capsicum

Green pepper

Rock melon

Cantaloupe

Bush walkers

People out hiking

Lemonade

Sprite, 7-Up

Bush bashing

Four-wheeling

G’day

Hello

She’ll be right, mate

Everything will work out fine

Bin

Trash can, garbage can

Mossies (say “mozzies”)

Mosquitoes

Woop woop

Out in the sticks, in the boondocks

Sunbaking

Sunbathing

Panel beaters

Auto body shop

Chook

Chicken

Bush tucker

Edible wild plants and insects

Aussie (say “Ozzie”)

An Australian

Sloppy Joe

Sweatshirt

Dummy

Baby’s pacifier

Spit the Dummy

Get upset

Chuck a wobbly

Throw a tantrum

Stiff bikkies

Tough cookies (tough luck)

Barrack

To cheer for a team

Stubbies

Shorts (especially football shorts)

Footy

Aussie-rules football, rugby union, rugby league, or soccer

[illustrations] Illustrated by Dilleen Marsh