The Wrong Address
Springwood NSW, 1956
Sassafrass cut easier than gum
But burnt worse. My steel wedges rang
At short sharp violence from the barking sledge hammer.
A world-weary ten year-old, I sweated and grew biceps,
Violating the tough old fibres of fallen timber :
Learned the dry, astringent smell of freshly lifted bark
And sniffed the soft layers of life on death
At the core of rotten logs.
In sparse mountain bushland west of Sydney
Our home had grown on hope, and little money.
The first stone was cut on-site,
Crow-barred from leached sandy soil and cracked, split
Shaped by a blasphemous hunchback, reputed mason
Paid in whisky, fed on possums newly shot at night
As they scampered, natural thieves, about the campfire.
Each great block of yellow sandstone emerged
From a hundred million years of rest
Into the clear dry furnace of bush air,
Stood with an ordered multitude at the founding
Of the first house of William May.
I am born of an elemental man.
My father would be patriarch
Of his clan, created from his seed
Housed in his dwelling, fed at his hand
Defended with his anger and commanded at his will.
My father's grasp was hard, his face hawk-tough,
Burnt and beaten craggy by the Mask-maker, yet
His blue eyes on a clear day could capture us
In a merry troupe; the kids expected
When dad rolled home from the pub, to get an update
On his pantheon of heroines and villains
Disguised for our simple, credulous gaze
As truck drivers and bar girls -
The caste of an Australian Ramayana.
We shared the tale, told without fear
Of daylight denouement, mythmade hour by hour
Until, riding within this brocaded panoply ourselves,
My family came to pity
The drab trudge of ordinary lives.
Luckily for the foundation of empire
My mother believed in her man and proved
Perilous with a block hammer against the cunning grain
When stone and fate resisted sweat and tears.
Country girl, city brat, a patch of bush scrub
Where each scented drop of luxury was wrung
From thin pay packets : I remember being dirt poor
And cherishing rare treats - a chocolate
A threepenny piece picked off the footpath, a strawberry
Or a peach (only one) maybe once a year.
Not that we were hungry - there was meat
With fresh green beans and buttered potatoes
And after-dinner memories,
A new web of stories for the old day.
Our world wobbled, its weekend axis
Jumped the coastal plains of short dry grass
To mountain scrub; gruff Mary
Delivered us with bumpy grace.
She was a family member, this vehicle
Adopted, honoured, abused,
An ancient and amazing bitser, sacrilege
Of a nineteen twenty-seven Willies Knight coupé
Cut down with a hacksaw, coachwork rebuilt
In masonite and hardwood painted grey.
The lady's mighty, slow-revving, twelve-cylinder power plant
Had been transplanted by a boozy mechanic.
Now a geriatric with bionic innards, her tired bones hid
A racy 1948 V8 Mercury engine, improbably grafted
To a five ton truck gearbox. Father wrenched her
To death-defying speeds,
But could find no brakes to care for.
He crashed her into crawler gear in desperate moments
And clung like doped spider
To the heavy steering wheel of dovetailed spruce.
Mary built Tarawonga.
We quarried far down the valley sides
Heaving rock onto the Y-fork of a tree trunk :
Cabled it to the old car's awesome crawler gear
And let her loose across the tufting grass
Solo at a steady five miles an hour,
So that forgotten one shimmering Saturday noon
We caught her over the next rise
Patiently climbing a farmer's fence.
Slowly an imprint set itself upon the earth,
Heavy sandstone foundations, a vast fireplace of cut rock
That you could sling a hammock in. My axe arm
Would curse its maw for years to come. Topsides
My father's craft began to lash commodious gables
Of redgum and oregon, with lingering attention
From an inner eye, and rich invocations to the deity
If one of us, clinging to scaffolds
Barely fit for blind cats, dropped a piece of four by two
Into the clattering abyss.
A final migration in Mary parted us
From the sand hills and the ocean,
From a fibro shack in a horse paddock
Inherited by the ghost of our pussycat -
As the old bitser, piled high with furniture
Whined and rumbled onto the highway, pussy
Leapt howling out of a cupboard drawer,
Argued with gravity for an instant too long
And hit the bitumen in a technicolour farewell.
Now it seems (so long ago), that somewhere on that trip
I crossed a line from first childhood
And knew too much; while my parents passed beyond
Those early springs of tireless possibility
Where Age could not find them :
We came to Tarawonga, "meeting place of pigeons",
To shape a panorama of heroic dreams
Within the raw bounds of our own hands.
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© copyright Thorold May 1995 All Rights Reserved
published by The Plain & Fancy Language Company ACN 1116240S Sydney, Australia
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