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Chapter 5.

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Before

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Belgo was beyond all that, over 200km of red rock and spiky grass separated it from the town of Hell's Creek. It had begun as a mission settlement run by a band of priests who called themselves the Little Brothers of Mary- their response to the horrors they saw in the fringe camps. Far from the bad smells of the highway, a dot on the edge of a crumbling red cliff which had been the shore of a forgotten sea, they built Belgo, starting with a church made from desert stone, in the hope it would keep the Cookatja safe from those who preyed on them, and closer to what they knew and understood.

When Belgo had been run by The Little Brothers of Mary it had been about order, religion and survival. The priests had slept on hard wooden boards and wore clothes that looked so ordinary your average person would have no way of knowing they were stitched together from some kind of itchy sack cloth. They had handed out flour and sugar, and insisted the locals form nice straight lines while they were waiting to get it, usually after mass.

Photos from the time, grainy and few and usually faded to a yellow tinted gray, capture them looking stern, though the truth is that they were kind in the only way they knew how.

Distance wasn't enough to keep the outside world away in the end. One by one the Little Brothers of Mary died of old age and were buried under the stones behind their church. Belgo become what it was- an airstrip, a school, a few sagging houses and the sprawling littered space of the Cookatja camp. Home to four hundred, all of them nomads at heart, Belgo wasn't a settlement so much as a cluster of people who usually found it easiest to stay in one place. They could have stayed there for two hundred years and it still wouldn't have really been a town.

Against the odds a store was built. It was a vastly ugly tin shed packed full of consumables trucked in over two hundred kilometers of desert. The thing was supposed to be a monument to free choice, and if a person could ignore the concentration camp exterior, inside it did in fact closely approximate a supermarket. Bread frozen half a continent away in Perth found its way out to the Belgo store where it was stacked next to kangaroo tails that looked just like pieces of wood when frozen. Even boxes of Grandfather's Watson's Country Cooked Bavarian Cheese made the journey without getting too much worse for wear.

Some sort of government minister had been flown in for the opening. He made a speech about how the occasion marked a new era of dignity for the people of the desert. He didn’t mention that the store was encased in a huge metal cage, and the only way in was a gate that slowly rattled up in the morning and could be brought slamming back down by the store keeper hitting a big red button under the till.

The store, like nearly everything in the modern Belgo, was made of tin. It caught the glare of the sun and warped noisily in the burning wind.

A generator was built to supply the place with electricity and the desert track that ran up to Hell's Creek was upgraded, not quite to the point where it could reasonably be described as a road, but enough that the trucks carrying fuel and cheesecake usually got through. To look at the generator was a unassuming concrete bunker, half sunk into the ground, but it belched acrid black smoke, and its sound, a low throbbing growl, was an awful alien thing in this place where before there had been nothing but quiet.

In and around all of this sprawled the camps where the Cookatja lived- accumulations of crumbling concrete, second hand sheet metal, grubby ashes and good intentions gone wrong.

Every decade or so word would get out that the people of Australian's remotest communities were sleeping rough outside for want of proper housing and more houses would be built. Every decade or so the new windows would end up smashed and the doors would go into the campfire and the cement between the bricks would somehow get whittled away. The houses were especially designed so that there was very little in them that could burn, but even then they inevitably ended up catching fire.

The Cookatja slept around campfires, the same way they always had.

No one had ever asked them if they wanted to live in houses.

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