I remember the first time I flew into Tennant Creek. Red desert country stretched out in every direction and a slither of an airstrip blinked up from below. Dusty leather seats and crushed velvet curtains heralded a bygone era when cattle magnates did business in the skies.
Ferrying to the arrival shed I wondered what the week would hold. Would this cheeky dog picture book project actually work? Would Dion want to work with me, an unpublished writer? And if he did, how would I go translating my manuscript into sign language for Dion to understand?
I needn’t have worried. The moment I met Dion’s carer, Joie Boulter I knew everything was going to be just fine. A spritely woman in her sixties with a wicked wit and a no-nonsense approach to life, Joie and I hit it off on the short drive back to Dion’s house. Dion proved a harder egg to crack. Our first meeting went something like this:
- Joie (in Auslan): ‘This is Johanna with the curly hair from Darwin. She’s just flown down on a small plane to work with you on the picture book for children.’
- Dion: suspiciously glances my way and then turns in his wheelchair so that his back is facing me.
- Me (via Joie in Auslan): ‘Hi Dion. How are you?’
- Dion: more suspicious eyes.
- Me (via Joie and my very awkward beginner Auslan): ‘I really love your drawings. I have one on my bedroom wall at home’.
- Dion: A very long silence and then to Joie in Auslan: ‘I want cheese and vegemite for breakfast on those crunchy biscuits. You know, the ones we had in Alice Springs’.
My heart sunk. For the next five minutes I thought the project was over. Dion didn’t like me. End of story.
Then there was a knock on the table. Dion was trying to get my attention to show me something in the Alice Springs newspaper. He grabbed my hand and signed something. I had no idea what he’d ask and was just wondering how to reply when Joie jumped in and interpreted for us. So began a long discussion about a little white dog that had gone to the Tennant Creek show with Dion but had somehow become lost. Camouflaged and hidden in the long grass, Joie and Dion had searched for hours but to no avail. The little dog was never seen again.
Over the next three days as we worked on early illustrations for the book, Dion shared this story and many others. Between mouthfuls of cheese and vegemite on crackers and swigs of ginger beer we created the backbone of the book that would later become Too Many Cheeky Dogs.