‘Ladies and Gentlemen, boys and girls,’ Rick began, ‘It gives me great pleasure to welcome you here today, to these wonderful celebrations which mark the founding of this great nation.’
He was already sounding like a typical politician, so I was already fearful of just what this was going to turn into.
‘It was on this day, in the Year of our Lord of 1788, and under the command of Captain Arthur Phillip, when the First Fleet arrived safely at Sydney Cove, after setting out from Portsmouth in England on May 13th, 1787. Eleven ships, one thousand three hundred and seventy three people – of the one thousand four hundred and twenty who originally set out – along with supplies for the establishment of a colony and an assortment of livestock, survived one of the greatest maritime journeys on record. And it is thanks to them, and those who came before them, and those who came after them, that we are standing here today.’
‘Invaders!’ someone called from somewhere down the back, I suspect from amongst the crowd of people who were standing behind the rows of seats. Depending on who you ask, of course, Australia Day commemorates either the settling of this nation, or the invasion of the continent by the white colonists, so it was hardly surprising that there would be at least a few nut-jobs getting around and trying to stir up trouble.
‘Whities go home!’ someone else called out, which earned a round of laughter from at least a portion of the crowd.
To say that racism didn’t exist in this country would be totally wrong. It did. There was no denying that. And while it might be fair to say that white people were the main offenders, that isn’t always the case, as sadly, racism was experienced by all cultures and at all levels in this modern, multi-cultural society of ours, with the white population being on the receiving end as well in some areas. Why everyone can’t just get along is something that has always perplexed me, yet, given the levels of extremism which seems to be infiltrating society in this day and age, it is something that I fear will be with us for a long while to come yet.
‘And so, before we get too far along with today’s proceedings,’ Rick continued, ‘I would like for us all to be upstanding for our national anthem, as we welcome to the stage, a young lady who many of you will know as a student from Thompsonville High School . . . Anita Delgado.’
Those of us on the stage stood up, as did all of the crowd, as far as I could see, as an extremely attractive young girl of about sixteen, with long black hair and an almost exotic, dark complexion, walked up the steps and onto the stage.
I couldn’t be sure of her nationality; possibly South American, or Mexican maybe, but with a family name like Delgado, I was fairly certain that this young lady’s family were newcomers to this country, which I thought was fitting on a day such as this.
The Mayor moved aside and let Anita step up to the microphone, and then the band, who I noted seemed to be mostly high school kids themselves – once I managed to see them up close and personal – struck up the familiar introduction, before Anita chimed in. Her voice soared above all else, including that of the backing choir of a few hundred rusty local voices.
Australians all let us rejoice
For we are young and free
We’ve golden soil and wealth for toil,
Our home is girt by sea:
Our land abounds in nature’s gifts
Of beauty rich and rare,
In history’s page let every stage
Advance Australia fair,
In joyful strains then let us sing
Advance Australia fair.
Beneath our radiant Southern Cross,
We’ll toil with hearts and hands,
To make this Commonwealth of ours
Renowned of all the lands,
For those who’ve come across the seas
We’ve boundless plains to share,
With courage let us all combine
To advance Australia fair.
In joyful strains then let us sing,
Advance Australia fair.
When the anthem had finished, everyone broke out into some rousing cheers and applause, which seemed only to embarrass the young songstress. As Anita took a bow and then left the stage, returning to what must have been her family in the front row, somebody in the crowd yelled out our nation’s modern war cry of, ‘Aussie, Aussie, Aussie,’ which was quickly followed with the standard response of ‘Oi! Oi! Oi!’
This was carried on for a few minutes, loud and boisterous, but still a good deal of fun all the same, before our MC was finally able to bring some order to the proceedings and quiet down the crowd. Once more the microphone was handed over to Rick and, surprisingly, he gave us a short, but very succinct speech about the values of this country and just what this day means to us all.
‘And now, without any further ado,’ Rick delivered, ‘It gives me great pleasure to introduce to you a man who really needs no introduction, especially for you followers of the mighty Jets, our official Australia Day Ambassador, Kurt Hewson!’
Predictably the crowd when crazy, with applause and whistles and calls of, ‘Go the Jets!’, as Kurt stood up and walked to the microphone, waving to the crowd. When he reached Rick they shook hands, with Rick then being handed a framed award by one of his assistants, which he quickly presented to Kurt.
‘Thank you, Mr Mayor, it is truly an honour to be back here in Thompsonville,’ he said, and then, suddenly remembering the protocols that were supposed to be observed on such occasions, added, ‘And to the distinguished guests, ladies and gentlemen and boys and girls, it is a pleasure to be here to talk to you today.’
From the crowd there were a few chuckles, as well as a few groans, but I think that most people would have made some allowances for him, after all, he was a typical boof-headed footballer, even if a cute looking one at that.
‘It has been quite a while since I left this town as a teenager, to attend the sports academy down south,’ he said, which immediately explained why I hadn’t known anything about him. ‘So, it is indeed an honour to be presented with this citation for being the Australia Day Ambassador for the town in which I spent my childhood.’
He held up the award and showed it to the crowd, while a photographer out the front of the stage captured the moment, before Kurt walked back to his seat and placed the award on it, and then returned to the microphone.
‘When I was asked if I would consider coming here today I was both surprised and deeply humbled, simply by knowing that the folks from back home remembered who I was. Just thinking about that also made me think about the opportunities that I was given as a child growing up here, and I don’t mean just those opportunities my parents could give me, but also what the community gave me. I may not have realised it at the time, but looking back now it is easy to see, and that means more to me than I could ever convey to you in words.’
He paused for a moment and pulled some sheets of paper from his pocket, then quickly slid them away once more.
‘You know, I had a speech all prepared for today,’ he said. ‘I was going to talk all about opportunities and about the community embracing all cultures and all of that sort of stuff, which is kind of what the Australia Day committee suggested . . . do you know that they have draft speeches already prepared for folks like me?
‘Anyhow, that’s beside the point really, because today has been more of an eye-opener to me than I could have ever imagined. You have all been so welcoming, and that got me thinking about all of you, and about this town. So, what I’ve decided is this. I’m going to throw that speech out the window, because what I really want to talk to you about today isn’t about me and how I got to where I am today. What I’m going to talk about is the real Thompsonville, and how this town has made a difference in the lives of some people, two people in particular who I have only met for the very first time today. They were outsiders when they arrived here, but they were adopted by the town and its people, just like they had been born here.’
Suddenly I was starting to change my opinion of the guy. Maybe he did have a brain after all?
‘The first of these is the young lady who you heard singing just a few moments ago, Anita Delgado, who I’m sure you will all agree did a wonderful job on our national anthem. I spoke with Anita earlier and she was telling me about how her family arrived here with little more than the clothes they wore and the belongings they had in the suitcases they carried. With a little help from the locals, her parents soon found jobs, Anita and her little brother started attending school, and it wasn’t long before the whole family was not only involved with the community, but they were accepted by it. Today, the Delgado family will be receiving their Citizenship Certificates, and if that isn’t a sign of having been accepted, then I don’t know what is.’
The crowd broke out into wild applause, and in the front row I could see Anita being hugged by her parents, which was a sight that would make even the hardest of souls weep. When eventually the noise died down, Kurt continued.
‘And now, the second person I wanted to talk to you about is a man who came here as a boy because he had nowhere else to go, and despite his being different in one small way to most of us here in the community, he was still accepted, and without question,’ he said, while casting a glance in my direction, which immediately had me on edge.
I looked back down toward Guy, who was smiling up at me, as were his companions, whose numbers seemed to have swelled in the last few minutes, as besides Aaron, Carol, Joel and Kieran, there now stood Luke and Matt, as well as Luke’s family, along with Tim, Scott and Justin. I was beginning to think that I had just been set up.
‘He found a loving home here,’ Kurt continued, ‘and he hasn’t looked back. These days, if you go into a bookstore, chances are you will find a whole pile of his books in a stack near the front counter. He is, of course, the guy who has helped put this town back on the map, and if you don’t know who I’m referring to just yet, it is none other than Thompsonville’s own literary golden haired boy . . . Tony Scott.’
Once more the crowd started clapping wildly, with a few whoops and hollers being thrown in for good measure, which mostly sounded as if they were coming from my own personal cheer squad.
Kurt looked across at me and grinned, then walked the short distance to where I sat and held out his hand to me, which I duly shook, then he dragged me to my feet. Together we waved to the crowd, before he quietly said, ‘When I finish in a few moments, I’ll hand over to Rick, then we’ll ask you to come up, okay?’
I nodded, then he returned to the microphone.
‘And so, ladies and gentlemen, as you can see, I don’t need to make a long speech here today and ask you to care for your fellow man, or be accepting of those who come from elsewhere, or lecture you about being tolerant of someone whose sexuality differs from that which you consider normal. I don’t need to give you a speech about these things, because you are already doing just that.
‘I was deeply honoured by being asked to come back here today. I wasn’t sure just what I would find in my old home town, but let me tell you this. Thompsonville can be proud of what it has become. It is a shining example of what a tolerant, multi-cultural society should be like, and the rest of this country should sit up and take note of what has gone on here. Maybe they could learn something!
‘So now, I’ll just say thank you for having me here today. I’ve really enjoyed my visit and catching up with everyone I knew from way back when, and I’ll be sure to come back again soon. Have a great Australia Day everyone, and now I’ll hand you back over to your Mayor, Rick Campbell, and hopefully we can also get someone who is much better with words than I am to say something as well.’
As the crowd broke out into loud applause Kurt stepped back from the microphone and waved to them, then Rick stepped back up and joined him.
‘Thank you Kurt for such kind words about our little town. And we’d certainly love to see you back here again soon. Maybe the Jets can finally break that hoodoo and lift the Premiership this year, then you can bring the trophy back and show it off?’
There were more cheers and applause, interspersed with, ‘Go the Jets!’, and lots of laughter as well, as Kurt stepped back in close to the microphone and said, ‘I’ll see what we can do!’
‘So that brings us to the more formal part of the days events,’ Rick went on. ‘As you would know, each year on this day we make a number of presentations, the first of which is always to our Australia Day Ambassador. Now, you’ve already heard from Kurt, who is this year’s official Australia Day Ambassador, but this year we’re doing something a little different, because we actually have a second Ambassador, simply because he is one of our favourite sons and he just happened to be in town. So, as you already know who he is, please join me in giving a big Thompsonville welcome to, Tony Scott!’
I guess that was my cue, and so I reluctantly got up and made my way across the stage to where they both stood, giving the crowd a wave and a smile as I went.
Looking down to where my family and friends were standing I could see them applauding, just like everyone else was. It also looked like Joel and Kieran were hard at work recording every moment for posterity.
When I reached Rick and Kurt there was more hand shaking (didn’t they ever get tired of that?), and then I was presented with an award, similar to that which Kurt had received; a beautifully framed, gold embossed certificate, which I couldn’t help but admire for a few moments, before turning it around and showing it to the crowd.
Rick stepped back from the microphone and asked me to say a few words. I nodded, then stepped into the spot where he had been standing.
‘Thank you Rick, and thank you Kurt. I’m not going to stand here and bore you for too long, there are far more important duties still to be performed here, but this is a truly unexpected honour and I’m so glad that I was able to be here to share this occasion with you all today.
‘Much like Kurt, I didn’t quite know what to expect when I arrived back here in Thompsonville this week. I wasn’t sure if the town would have changed, or whether the people had changed, or whether I would even be welcome. What I found when I arrived here, though, simply blew me away. It was as if one of those TV home renovation shows had swept through the town and given it a makeover. The place looks fantastic, far better than when I was living here, and you people out there were even more welcoming than I could have ever hoped. Kurt was absolutely spot-on when he said that Thompsonville can be proud of what it has become, and the credit for that can only go to you folks who live here.
‘So, thank you Thompsonville, for being such a welcoming town, for giving people like me, and young Anita out there, and all the other people who have gravitated to this place over the years, a place where we have been accepted, and have been nurtured, and have been allowed to be ourselves. This is a good place to grow up and live, as good a place as any in this country, and I am looking forward to the day when I can once again call this place home. Thank you.’
‘Are you trying to tell us something there?’ Rick asked, as he stepped in close to the microphone.
‘Oh, I think it will happen one day,’ I cheekily replied. ‘Though I’m just not sure when that day might be.’
‘Well, rest assured, we will all be looking forward to it.’
‘Now, let’s get on to the rest of the proceedings, shall we, and if I may impose on our two Australia Day Ambassadors, I would like to call forward those who will be receiving Certificates of Citizenship,’ he announced, then just quietly to both Kurt and me, ‘Would you fellows like to step down and present these in front of the truck, then once they are done we will do the pledge.’
Kurt and I both looked at each other, then nodded, before climbing down the steps and walking to the front of the stage.
We noticed Rick open a folded piece of paper, which held the names of the dozen or so people, then said, ‘Now as I read out your names if you could all come forward please to receive your certificates, then we will recite the Australian Citizenship pledge.
‘Okay then, first off we have the Delgado family, of Phillipe, Anna, Anita and Pedro,’ he said, after which the family stood up and nervously walked toward us. Rick passed us down the certificates to be presented to them, which were rolled up, like scrolls, with each tied by a piece of green and gold ribbon.
Kurt and I handed out two each and shook the hand of each of the family members, whose faces all beamed with proud smiles that would have put the sun to shame.
As the Delgado’s moved to one side, Rick carried on, reading out the remaining names, either one at a time, or as a family, depending on what the case may be, while Kurt and I continued to carry on with our duties.
Once finished, Rick asked each of the new Australian citizens to repeat the lines of the pledge, after him.
From this time forward, under God,
I pledge my loyalty to Australia and its people,
whose democratic beliefs I share,
whose rights and liberties I respect, and
whose laws I will uphold and obey.
When that was over he said, ‘Congratulations to you all. We welcome you as new Australian citizens.’ Then he started clapping, which everyone else in the crowd quickly joined in. The sound rapidly built to a wild crescendo, then, once it had started to die down, that’s when the cheers of ‘Aussie! Aussie! Aussie!’, soon followed by, ‘Oi! Oi! Oi!’ started once more.
To be continued . . .