Authors: Gregory Day
Gregory Day is a writer, poet and musician whose debut novel,
The Patron Saint of Eels
, won the prestigious Australian Literature Society Gold Medal in 2006. His CDs include
The Black Tower: Songs from the Poetry of W.B. Yeats
, which was hailed by the Yeats Society of Ireland as the finest musical interpretations of Yeats ever made, and
The Flash Road: Scenes from the Building of the Great Ocean Road
. His second novel,
Ron McCoy's Sea of Diamonds
, was shortlisted for the 2008 NSW Premier's Prize for Fiction. He lives on the southwest coast of Victoria.
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Australian Copyright Act 1968
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All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted by any person or entity, including internet search engines or retailers, in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying (except under the statutory exceptions provisions of the Australian
Copyright Act 1968
), recording, scanning or by any information storage and retrieval system without the prior written permission of Random House Australia.
Every effort has been made to acknowledge and contact the copyright holders for permission to reproduce material contained in this book. Any copyright holders who have been inadvertently omitted from acknowledgements and credits should contact the publisher, and omissions will be rectified in subsequent editions.
Lyrics on page 373 reproduced from âSun Shines On' by Oliver Mann, with his kind permission.
This is a work of fiction. While some individuals named in this book may coincidentally exist in the real world, there is no connection in reality between any such persons and the fictional ones herein, and any act or condition attributed to any such individual in the book is not made as a true fact but as part of the fictional story. Readers must not assume that any part of this story has any real or factual basis.
This project has been assisted by the Australian Government through the Australia Council, its arts funding and advisory body.
The author would like to acknowledge and thank the Boyd family and the Bundanon Trust for the time he spent as writer in residence at Bundanon.
I realised early, even as a kid traipsing about the coves and clifftops and bush tracks here in Mangowak, that you can see pictures in fallen gumleaves on the ground, just like you can see pictures in the clouds of the sky. You can, in fact, if you're that way inclined, create pictures out of pure blue air.
Another thing I learnt early on, though a little after my revelations with the gumleaves, is that time is music. In all the long hours I've spent doing part-time jobs over the years, digging ditches for my brother in sticky pink clay, counting roadkill for the council on the verges of the Great Ocean Road, clambering up ladders to clean the spouting of seldom-used beach-houses, I've always reminded myself that it isn't drudgery I'm enduring, boring and demoralising, but rather a slow and difficult section of a natural symphony, a necessary movement that will soon be resolved with a sweet high note, a bright blast of brass, or a long and stately return of life's most luscious strings.
I've rested on that notion over the years and it's funny really because I'm quite unmusical, in the sense that I can't hold a note or play a tune. Of course like nearly everyone else on earth I do love music â I hardly know whether I could live without it â but the fact remains that I've stuck to working part-time jobs not because I enjoy those hardcore symphonic movements they provide but because they allow me the time I need to make pictures in my barn on the days off. Yes, my thing is vision. And there's no paint like the air. It's what I see that gets me moving. That's when the singing starts for me. That's when the planet hums.
Ironically it was that very singing, that visual music I live for, which seemed to have disappeared, along with time itself, at the moment when my greatest vision of all, The Grand Hotel, was about to be born.
I'd come back into town on the roads without names, the ones with just numbers from when the country round here hadn't even been settled yet. The fire blokes built them, and the council, and the coal plant, and I swung a wide arc along them for a day and a half without seeing a soul, until I was out the northeastern side of Mangowak and could make my approach.
I'd been gone nearly ten weeks. I'd been drenched and washed out, savaged by mosquitoes and bitten by ants, I'd gone hungry, and I'd hovered like a third-rate criminal under willows by the creeks at the edge of towns, with blank eyes, never daring to step onto a bridge. Time and again I retreated, walking back over the old dairies and the hobby farms, slowly back up the slopes to the hills above the coast, seeking shelter in the forest on the ocean side, in the clefts and overhangs I knew, from where I could gaze down on my home ground and try to come up with a way to continue, or even just a feeling, any feeling, anything but the terrible wooden sensation that had taken over my heart and mind.
To myself I called it the Reverse Pinocchio, that wooden feeling, because Pinocchio was a boy made of wood whose heart had come alive and I was the other way around â a man of flesh and blood whose heart felt like dead wood. I wasn't upset as such â there'd been no tears, I certainly had no particularly dark thoughts â it was more the case that I had no thoughts at all, and certainly no inspiration. Or that's how I saw it. Looking back, though, I suppose my getting up and going in the middle of the night was exactly that, an
. It just didn't feel like it at the time.
Fact was I simply didn't know what else to do. So I decided to go. I went to bed as normal that night but after midnight I got up, came down the ladder from my loft in the barn, arranged a small swag, a few clothes, a knife and plate and spoon, a ball of string, my billy, my sketchbook and ink, and a couple of cigarette lighters. I grabbed the shotgun my friend Darren Traherne had lent me, half filled a bag with apples from the tree on the way out, and headed off along the Dray Road. Out of town. Presumably for good.
That first night I simply walked, like a bit of a zombie I suppose. I walked up out of the riverflat and into the hills, thinking nothing, hardly even noticing the features of the bush about me, just putting one foot in front of the other. By the time the sun started coming up, I was on high ground, out past the Birdsong Quarry. I cut down through a swale of tall manna gums on a track there to the duck ponds, without even a hint of tiredness. I was the Reverse Pinocchio you see, incapable of feeling, even the most obvious things. I sat down on the lichened rocks by the ponds, took a drink from the river and watched the light rising. Eventually, when I could feel what little warmth there was of the day to come, I spied a stony cleft under a big blackwood canopy, crept in with my swag, and fell fast asleep.
That's basically how I lived during my time out there. I'd catch yabbies, fish, shoot a duck or a rabbit, then find a sheltered spot in the late afternoon to cook and sleep. Tragedy hadn't struck, I hadn't been betrayed in love or missed some great opportunity. It was something far more inexplicable than that, something that took a few weeks alone in the wind and sun and rain to understand.
The only other time I'd left Mangowak was when I went away as a teenager to art school. Back then, and against the wishes of my father, I'd left with relish and loved what I'd found: the charismatic people, the fantastic studios and expensive equipment, the new methods and techniques I was made aware of. It was an exciting life and I'd stayed on in the city for a year and a half after the course was finished, to save enough money to go to Europe.
But this was different. There was no creative purpose in this, and certainly no romantic stories of the different ways the artists of history had seen and represented the world. Instead I roamed in a kind of coma, from east to west along the ocean-facing ridge, and occasionally south to north when I felt the need to hover like a runaway near those little inland towns. In the bush I sought out the stone overhangs, because on the warmer days they were cool and when it rained they gave me shelter. Gumtrees, even big ones, are next to useless in the rain. Blackwoods are alright but they still drip, and sometimes the drips that gather and fall off tree leaves are heavier and wetter than the clear rain itself.
Of course I saw things in those hills, things you don't normally come across, things you never see in town. I saw a litter of fox cubs supping from their mother in a patch of cushion bush, a wedge-tailed eagle chick attempting to fly for the first time. I saw magpies soaring high up in the thermals, as if in admiring imitation of the eagles, and echidnas sipping daintily at the edge of creeks. I came across unexpected human things too, like the perfectly preserved shell-heaped haunts of the Wathaurong people, whose country this had been for so long until they were rounded up, or murdered, or had to flee to save their lives.
Nothing seemed particularly easy; even though it was winter, most of the available water I could find was brackish, I had to keep a lookout for spiders and ants, and at night it was genuinely freezing. But not once did I ever consider heading back into the comfort of town. Until of course I met the brolga.
I had found my way into a large patch of level ground above the course of the river. It was open to the warmth of the northern sky yet was protected from the southern and western winds by the river's dog-leg meander, and to the east by a high crop of ironstone. It also had an almost pre-prepared shelter between the solid boughs of two old mountain ash trees and a blackwood. I had arranged my swag under the shelter, made my camp, and before long started noticing odd things lying about: a rusted old hammer with the broadest, most oversized head; broken sections of what once would have been iron barrel hoops; bits of hardwood planking pronged with handmade metal ties; and in a recess behind the biggest of the two mountain ash trees a pile of ancient looking bright-green copper pipes. Later on in the day, when I was sitting up on the crop of ironstone, I found a sheaf of nineteenth-century girlie pictures wrapped in calico and leather and twine and stuffed into a small dry cleft between the slabs. Looking down on the camp, I realised this had obviously been somebody's private spot a long time ago. It was good timing. The bush had been drenched with rain, there was no dry kindling to be found, so the carefully stashed pornos started the fire. In the state I was in, I certainly had no inclination to put them to any other use.
Looking back, the brolga seems like a punchline to a joke, a joke at my own expense. There I was, a wooden heart among wooden trees, staring humourlessly from this camp on an upper reach of the Mangowak Creek, when it simply loped into the clearing, as if to say hello.
I was sitting by the fire, in my usual hunched state but just beginning to feel the benefits perhaps of the ghosty old dell I'd found. I remember noticing the homely warmth of winter sun on the side of my cheek and then a curious sense of something crimson away to my right.
On long stilt-like legs it preened in the stubble, the sinuous neck leaning down, before it stood abruptly upright and picked its way along. I had to double take. For a start it was so tall. As tall as a man it seemed. With its light-grey scalloped feathers, its long jointy black legs and the furry blaze of crimson on its head just the sight of it came as a real shock. It was an unbelievable looking creature and the last thing I was expecting to see.
Then suddenly it skipped, playfully it skittered, briefly spreading its wings into a fluttering cape before seeming to high-kick the air right in front of it. My jaw dropped. Unlike any of the other creatures I'd come across, this bird seemed not only at home in the bush but completely incongruous at the same time. Nevertheless I instinctively knew what it was, and slowly my lips began forming the word. Brolga.
The clearing beside the river stretched for sixty-odd metres towards the northern light and I sat entranced as the brolga moved about between me and the trees. Alternately it loped along looking straight ahead, browsed the grass, or scissor-kicked playfully in the air. At one point it picked up a twig in its beak, threw it high towards the sky, made a rough barking sound as the twig hovered, before catching it again as it fell. It was like watching a performance, a jovial play-act, a piece of whimsy, as if a bright spirit had entered the bush. Its attitude seemed neither predatory nor cunning. It simply pranced through the clearing, without a care in the world, and suddenly I felt a smile rising within me, for the first time in weeks.
It was then I remembered someone telling me about a brolga breeding program that had been mooted for our district. The bird had been a fixture in the landscape in times gone by, and now from what I could see it was about to be again. I couldn't believe my luck. Along with my smile, a deep affection was awakened within me for the bird. I raised my hand, as if to beckon it towards me, and for a minute I thought it was going to respond. It stopped still, seemed to look my way, but I soon realised it was not looking but listening to something. Something I couldn't hear. Perhaps its mate was not far off, I thought. I had a dim recollection that brolgas often travelled in pairs. And then it jumped again, made another guttural sound, flung its magnificent wings out briefly, before turning around and walking off the way it came.
Soon it was at the perimeter of the clearing, sniffing casually at the ground as it went. Briefly it hovered under a clutch of black wattles near the creek, pawed at something in the dirt, then drifted off into the larger trees further along the creek-bank. I began leaning my head this way and that but could only catch sight of it occasionally, through gaps in the foliage. A little while later it was gone for good.
I sat in a stillness, a deep fuzzy trance. Something must have been gradually loosening since I'd arrived in the old camp because now, with the visit of the brolga, I had quite suddenly come back to life. The bird had been so calm and so lighthearted among the difficult bush that I was left almost hypnotised. I didn't get up to follow it or see where it went. I just sat by my swag with an enchanted feeling, and an overwhelming sense of relief.
The night fell. My fire took centre stage. And yes, an endless procession of images danced once again before my eyes. Finally, after weeks of sodden solitude, and with the first clear thoughts of a new attitude appearing, I looked up at the stars, opened my mouth, and I laughed.
I laughed at the joke. The great joke that is life. I laughed at the Reverse Pinocchio, and at all the mad things back in town that had made me switch off, batten down, give up what I loved. The disappointments I couldn't face, that I was tired of facing, that had turned me away from home. All in a flash and by dint of one innocent creature, a revitalised brolga whose enchanted manner seemed to defy all contemporary odds, my little world had cracked open again. Like a seed. My wooden heart was split. Its sap was flowing again. The music had returned. And so I laughed, wild and long, and moist and easy too, and afterwards ate a feed of blackfish by the fire with a relish I hadn't felt for months.