Authors: Peter Carey
For my mother and father,
with love and thanks
Australian history is almost always picturesque; indeed, it is so curious and strange, that it is itself the chiefest novelty the country has to offer and so it pushes the other novelties into second and third place. It does not read like history, but like the most beautiful lies; and all of a fresh new sort, no mouldy old stale ones. It is full of surprises and adventures, the incongruities, and contradictions, and incredibilities; but they are all true, they all happened.
More Tramps Abroad
, London, 1897
Illywhacker A professional trickster, esp. operating at country shows [derived by Baker (1945: 138) from
1941 Kylie Tennant
183-4: An illywacker is someone who is putting a confidence trick over, selling imitation diamond tie-pins, new-style patent razors or infallible “tonics” … “living on the cockies” by such devices, and following the shows because money always flows freest at show time. A man who “wacks the illy” can be almost anything, but two of these particular illywackers were equipped with a dart game.
1943 Baker 40:
A trickster or spieler.
1975 Hal Porter
15: Social climber, moron, peter-tickler, eeler-spee, illy-wacker.
G. A. Wilkes,
of Australian Colloquialisms
My name is Herbert Badgery. I am a hundred and thirty—nine years old and something of a celebrity. They come and look at me and wonder how I do it. There are weeks when I wonder the same, whole stretches of terrible time. It is hard to believe you can feel so bad and still not die.
I am a terrible liar and I have always been a liar. I say that early to set things straight.
. My age is the one fact you can rely on, and not because I say so, but because it has been publicly authenticated. Independent experts have poked me and prodded me and scraped around my foul—smelling mouth. They have measured my ankles and looked at my legs. It is a relief to not worry about my legs any more. When they photographed me I did not care that my dick looked as scabby and scaly as a horse’s, even though there was a time when I was a vain man and would not have permitted the type of photographs they chose to take. Apart from this (and it is all there, neatly printed on a chart not three feet from where I lie) I have also been written up in the papers. Don’t imagine this is any novelty to me—being written up has been one of my weaknesses and I don’t mention it now so that I may impress you, but rather to make the point that I am not lying about my age.
But for the rest of it, you may as well know, lying is my main subject, my specialty, my skill. It is a great relief to find a new use for it. It’s taken me long enough, God knows, and I have not always been proud of my activities. But now I feel no more ashamed of my lies than my farts (I rip forth a beauty to underline the point). There will be complaints, of course. (There are complaints now, about the fart—my apologies, my fellow sufferers.) But my advice is to not waste your time with your red pen, to try to pull apart the strands of lies and truth, but to relax and enjoy the show.
I think I’m growing tits. They stuck their callipers into me and measured them. That’d be one for the books if I turned into a woman at this stage of life. It’s only the curiosity that keeps me alive: to see what my dirty old body will do next.
I’m like some old squid decaying on the beach. They flinch when they look at me and they could not guess that there is anything inside my head but gruel, brain soup sloshing around in a basin. My voice is gone, so they could not know what changes have taken place in me: I may even, at last, have become almost kind.
I read too. I didn’t read a book until an age when most men are going blind or dying in their beds. Leah Goldstein, who has a brain as big as a football, deserves the credit. She was the one who got me going and once I was started they couldn’t stop me. By the time I was in Rankin Downs gaol I was known as “The Professer” and I was permitted to take my Bachelor of Arts by correspondence.
Back in 1919 the books on Annette Davidson’s bookshelves meant nothing to me. But now, if I wanted to, I could invent a library for her. I could fill up her bookcases carelessly, elegantly, easily, stack volumes end to end, fill the deep shelves with two rows of books, leave them with their covers showing on the dining—room table, hurl them out the window and leave them broken—spined and crippled, flapping on the uncut grass.
Books! Books are no problem to me any more, but until I was in my late fifties I could only recognize ten words in print and two of those made up my name. I was ashamed of it. The ingenuity and effort, the deception, the stories, the bullshit, the lies I used, just to persuade people to read me the paper aloud, all this was far harder work than learning to read.
It’s a blessing my eyes are as good as they are and with all my other vanity gone this one remains: my eyes. I speak not of their efficiency, but of their colour, which is the same colour, that clear sapphire blue, which illuminated my father’s pale—skinned face. These eyes—which I so much admire in myself—I detest in him. I will tell you about him later, perhaps, I make no promises.
My father will wait. I’d rather start with a love story. It’s not the only real love story I’ve got to tell—there’ll be plenty of hanky—panky by and by relating to love of one sort or another—but there is little that I look forward to like this one, this flash of lightning, which occurred in November 1919 when I was thirty—three years old and already dragging out too many hairs with my comb each morning.
I wished to discuss Phoebe, but there is Annette Davidson to explain first. As usual, she is in the way.
They are, the pair of them, in that little rickety weatherboard house in Villamente Street in Geelong. It is a dull overcast day and there are, below the blanket of gloomy grey, lower clouds, small white ones scudding along from the coast at Barwon Heads. A red-nosed boy is driving a herd of pigs past the house towards Latrobe Terrace and the windy railway station. The pigs sum up everything Phoebe hates about Geelong. She would drive them over a cliff if she could, just to have done with it, just as now, as she sits down, she does not do it like a normal person, happy for life to take its easiest course, but impatiently. She drops into the chair. The windows rattle in their frames and Annette Davidson, in the process of fitting a de Reske to her cigarette holder, looks up and frowns. There will be no ignoring her. She insists on an explanation.