The Wrong Address

 

Tarawonga
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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THE WRONG ADDRESS 
Fragments from an Australasian Life
Thorold MAY
© copyright Thorold May 1995 All Rights Reserved 
published by The Plain & Fancy Language Company ACN 1116240S Sydney, Australia
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