The moment I knew: she left $50 on my bed and a note that said ‘buy yourself another bottle of wine’ | Relationships

In 1993 I was working as a young criminal lawyer for Aboriginal Legal Aid in the Northern Territory. One day I was sent to the remote community of Yirrkala in north-east Arnhem Land to pay our respects at the funeral of Roy Dadaynga Marika, “the father of land rights”.

Overwhelmed by the beauty and richness of the ceremony and the shock of seeing my first dead body, I staggered out of the funeral shelter and turned back for a moment to take a photo of the pomp and colour of the scene, including the beautiful woman sitting right in front of me.

The moment I pointed the camera at her she turned towards me with a look of disgust that seemed to say, “Who is this ignorant tourist?” I later found out she was Merrkiyawuy Ganambarr, Marika’s adopted daughter.

Some months later I was back in Yirrkala, fishing at the local beach. An old lady had shown my dad a foolproof secret fishing spot on my previous trip. Merrkiyawuy was on the beach with her friends, assuring them I would never catch anything. Just then, to everyone’s surprise, I caught a massive cod.

Merrkiyawuy and her friends rushed over to congratulate me and offered to help me cook it but I was so shy in front of this beautiful woman that I grabbed the fish and took off.

A couple of months later we ended up at the same party in Darwin where everyone was dancing on the lawn. When the music slowed down Merrkiyawuy asked me to dance but I told her I didn’t know how. She dragged me to the centre of the lawn as the song changed to Anne Murray singing “Could I have this dance for the rest of my life?” I slumped on her, the way we did at primary school socials, as that was the only step I knew.

I asked her on a date the next night and took her to the best restaurant I knew. I made a big deal about rejecting the waiter’s suggested wine choice and insisted on the most expensive bottle for $50.

As we began to share our stories she told me she had been a backup singer with the band Yothu Yindi and was now working as a schoolteacher. She said she had two children but could not have any more. From somewhere outside my body I heard myself say, as if to contradict her, “I have a strong totem!” I still have no idea where that humiliating statement came from.

As we were leaving I asked the waiter for another bottle of the $50 wine and he explained we could take BYO wine that we hadn’t finished but we couldn’t buy wine from the restaurant. I gave him a nod and a wink and he opened a bottle for me and we took it away.

The emotions of the evening and the expensive wine took a toll on me. When Merrkiyawuy told me she was going to “sing” me (a form of love spell), I spewed on her! All I remember after that was her walking me up and down the street to sober me up.

At the time I was living under someone’s house in central Darwin with only shade cloth for walls. But it was just next to the offices of Legal Aid. And that is where I snuck off to the next morning, leaving her asleep. Mine was a true walk of shame. She was heading to a conference in New Zealand that morning and I knew I had blown my chances with this most graceful, clever, funny, beautiful woman.

After a day in court and beating myself up over my stupidity, I came home to find a handmade card on my bed. Merrkiyawuy had cut out a photo of herself and stuck it to the front. Inside was a $50 note and the words: “Buy yourself another bottle of wine.”

Her compassionate humour and the fact she could forgive me convinced me I was still in with a chance.

Fourteen months after our first date, we married. Our daughter, Siena, was born eight years after that. We will celebrate our 30-year wedding anniversary in December.

Merrkiyawuy Ganambarr-Stubbs and Will Stubbs will celebrate 30 years of marriage in December

Merrkiyawuy is now an award-winning author, the co-principal of Yirrkala school and the true Mary Poppins of the north, loved by the many children she has taught over three decades. Her eyes are always on the needs of the community. My eyes are generally on her. I am in constant awe of her grace, beauty and big brain.

Ten years after we married someone returned a pile of items from an old house I’d lived in. Included in the pile was the photo of my wife I had taken at the exact moment I first saw her. She was scowling at me. With good reason.

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