The Wrong Address


This is the true tale of an epic journey. In 1962 my family made a doomed trek across a vast continent in search of a dream. Our family was financially poor, but rich in hope. My father was a carpenter. The dream had sustained and united us right through my childhood. Then one day we came to the end of Australia, and our dream collided with time. We lost it forever, but to have lived that trek and the years which came before it made us what we were - something special in a down-at-heel world.

Billy Mays Bedford 1962

 

Traveling North
Australia 1962

 

Howl metal, vibrate my bones.

God, where is he taking us? The road swirls

And whips; gravity heaves the truck

Down, the razorback plunges

With its paroxysm of jungle

Waiting to suck the searing rubber, tear us

Off this sliver of bitumen.

 

What is the old man doing? Hell

The brakes! That's it, something wrong...

What a way to go, sacrifice in a red garden chair.

So all our futures have arrived; family dies on mountainside,

Youth found under refrigerator on back of truck .. it's slowing

He's smashed her into crawler and the gearbox is screaming,

Hold us hold us Bedford .. shudder, that's it ..

Don't break up old girl ..

We've hit the rise, it's gonna' be okay.

 

A cut brake line, our moment of transit

Out of control, almost, saved by wit and desperation

For living out the dream. Such a dream to live by..

Traveling across the years of our lives

The power of mirage has saved us

From plain surface reflection in supermarket windows;

Our words have swept stream upon current,

Time upon mystery.

 

And far into the memory of hope five lives hurtle

In this red Bedford truck

With its high-pitched canopy like a prairie waggon :

Parents and a babe are packed in up front

Catching the drama, a roar of engines, near misses,

The breeze, hissing rain, birds rising in alarm,

While out of sight and mind a girl

Crouches on a precipice of questions,

Insecure as the bouncing truck tray; her brother clings

To the slats of a lashed-down garden chair,

His vision framed over the tailgate

In an arched horizon of the long road back.

 

A time past, when the rainbow snake roamed

My unspoiled valley

Supreme with promises of things to come,

Stories that shimmered fell from my father

As he shaped and brought the speech of heroes

To our house. But then one day

He went north, we went south

To winters, stony paddocks,

Warm pungent milk from uncle Shorty's cows,

A village school in pine trees.

 

Travelling north, father was gone.

The Catalina flying boat whined, bellowed,

Hurled him into cloudbanks : invisibility

Windowed with brief letters, hints ..

Wide shadowed bungalows, engulfing vegetation,

Downpours, earthquakes, Chinese trade stores,

Rank cigarettes rolled in two foot tubes

By dark men painted bright.

And always his singing hammer on corrugated iron,

The carpenter burnt, buckled in the savage sun.

 

They shipped him out, I heard it

A lifetime later, for hunting with the blacks,

Shooting birds in head-high kunai grass

While the master-race sipped pink gins

In their fan cooled club and sneered

Until he cracked, by their standards :

Lay calmly on a grassy bank, set the Lee-Enfield

At a deadly range

For the contract foreman's bungalow

And wiped its gleaming roof

With good-bye kisses of hot lead.

 

Adrift from New Guinea, southbound

At five hundred feet, afloat on air again,

The great bird rocked Billy May gently,

A glint of sun on its wings,

As he fingered silver cutlery, wine in chilled glasses,

And a promise floated in between raw worlds.

The islands of paradise were way below,

The stupendous Australian barrier reef

Strung in green and gold on a turquoise sea :

To this he would return.

 

All or nothing,

The break point, the parting.

No more putting off tomorrow now.

It is Christmas, nineteen sixty-one.

This year I finished school in a weary Sydney suburb,

Quarantined as "dux", drafted

Head prefect (h'-who?), still a stranger

Kicking at other people's gateposts.

 

But now

Here at toe's end is a path, a beginning :

How is the dust on your shoes, hombre,

And the bedazzled light in your eyes ?

The dream will change, it whispers,

If only I can see

Above the eyebrow of hard roof-lines

To that ancient rainbow snake again :

Gaudy arch of supreme promises

In the shimmer of mist falling

From the walls of our valley.

 

Is today written with the quality of passing ?

Pedestrians drift in hypnotic shoals :

Who amongst them knows the high wire

Of sudden self-awareness, the vertigo of teetering

On the very edge of escape ?

Which of them cares ? Looking into the flabby faces

I abandon them, step through the facade,

Burn off their narrow strip life of shop-fronts and carparks

To embrace the grey sky.

In wasteland at the city's outer reach

I crush the rough vigorous grass underfoot,

Impatient for takeoff.

 

We've sold the house, tarted and disguised

To New Australians scratching for varnished memories,

The crumbling brickwork of old Europe ...

And have camped for two weeks above a Chinese restaurant,

Collecting pungent catalogues of souvenir aromas.

In a pub yard below the Bedford waits,

Lashed shipshape, loaded to the gunwales

With everything in the world we own and dare to keep.

The caravan, flash with new paint, rocks astern.

Later, in the winding miles on miles

To the ends of a rugged continent

That van will pitch and smash its chassis to a tinder,

But on this first brave, tremulous day

Our waggon-train moves out unmarked

By the city's self-obsession.

 

Here is a festive season tale, brushed in water-colour,

Rich tones blurred, warm afternoon summer rain in torrents.

We cross the Queensland border already intoxicated;

Our dry Southern vision is numbed by potent green

Canefields, banana groves in volcanic ochre soil,

Lush wild undergrowth at every verge.

Ancient obelisks, the Spyglass Mountains, are anchors in time

Against a gunmetal sky

Where Tyrannosaurus Rex surely sundered the landscape

With tidal savagery, the trick of an eyeblink gone.

 

Now picture the blackness of a tropical night,

Gaslight in a steamed-up window, faint outlines

Beneath some hint of spreading branches, shelter

From heaven, for this is the Deluge,

And a close encounter with Christmas Eve. Very close

In a sixteen-foot caravan with ankle-deep mud by the door.

Dad is checking out the local wildlife in a pub

While mum and the kids find time to drift,

Solace in pretended sleep

Where each untethers a small island of private space

Between bunk's edge and a plywood bulkhead,

Floats behind the roaring wall of water...

And away.

 

Later there are scrapes and thumps,

Muted swearing, a new weight on the bedclothes

Explored with cautious toes.

At daylight we are reassured and bereft :

Santa Clause has called for the last time, we know

That night we lost permission

To be just kids at home.

 

Then gradually in a haze

Between cloudlight and rising dust, our trail beam,

Our vision, our fragile hope diffuses.

Maybe it is the platinum blonde with mauve eyes,

Selling buns in a lonely crossroads store,

Who is the sentinel to raise alarm. Her coolness.

Outlanders are not welcome. But it takes a while

To notice the swift stiffening glances

At our truck number plates, the generosity withheld

Against them southern intruders. A casual contempt

Which takes money

Without touching the hand that holds it.

We haven't planned for a battle of minds

Amongst the bouganvillias.

 

Times are hard,

Jobs as rare as a 1930 penny.

In the tatty caravan parks, just outside the lamplight limit

Of peeling coastal towns

Folk stand that stance of "those who are took"

And know it. Shallow anger, a shrug

Old sandshoes shuffling in the damp paspalum grass,

A tired slap at mosquitoes.

Their hollow eyes size up our rig :

"Going north ? Ain't nothing north mate".

For each drop of petrol scrounged

To satiate rusty Holdens and sputtering Vauxhalls

Their desperate, blindfolded quest leads south.

 

Bang ! Swerve. Shudder. Bang !

A rhythm of destruction that owes nothing to rock-n-roll.

Bang ! Stiff bodied, this truck.

The caravan barges left, swings right

Like a cantankerous elephant in captivity.

Already it has wrenched three towbars

And now the superstructure is tearing

With a rasp and crackle at each lurch.

What have we done ? Is our hubris so great ..

This journey seems branded

For torture by a crescendo of collisions.

 

The continent wrinkles on its eastern edge

With a two and a half thousand mile frown,

Cut to wind-worn bedrock, ancient and unyielding,

Giving a meagre sustenance to low shrubs,

While on the gully ledges wiry gums and sassafras

Survive leaping summer scrub fires.

Harmonies of this astringent country are in my footfall

And axe hand : I understand its laws

For my people have mostly dwelt

On an apron between the mountains and the sea.

 

But at Capricorn's tropic latitude, Connor's Range cleaves

Almost sheer to the Coral Sea

And wet breath from the South-East Trade Winds

Feeds a green profusion in the deep ravines.

Rich and poisonous for the unwary;

We don't yet know this face of nature.

Our perilous unbraked rush to paradise

Is meeting with the ordinary terror of the earth.

 

Turgid broth laps the beaches at Mackay,

River mud from short sharp streams,

Trapped behind a travel poster reef.

Someone forgot to mention that before,

Or speak of the missionary who ran screaming from the surf,

Aannointed with nerve poison,

Trailing invisible box jellyfish tendrils,

Dead in three minutes. I put my flippers away.

 

North country, you love us, you love us not.

How shall we choose ? Bowen

Dry as bleached bones, her bays limpid,

A dozen shades of blue and green. Ingham

Nestling in the sugar fields

Under a brooding mountain, wreathed with summer storms ..

How you charm and puzzle us;

Vignette of gentle muscle-bound Italians

Gathered by the hitching rail of a collapsing barber shop.

Cairns sprawled in languid avarice

For the tourist buck that's gonna' come, they mutter,

Just as soon as them buggers in Canberra

Are exiled to god's gulag archipelago.

 

At some midday nowhere point, lost in rank grass

We run out of road,

So as north as north can get

The expedition stops to study its navel,

Scratch its damp hair, prickly with heat and insects,

Wipe back the rivulets of sweat.

Should we ask after the Vision?

Or wonder who's paying for tomorrow's dinner?

Let's find our new address.

 

There is a shack to be had

Standing into the sea and the sky

On a headland at Port Douglas,

A one-pub town made famous in the Dreamtime,

By vanished gold;

Now every owner of an elbow on the bar

Has a movie-set tumbledown house

Waiting to be discovered by visiting millionaires.

 

Meanwhile the mayor, gorgeously attired

In dirty cotton shorts and his birthday suit,

Loops a fishing line around one big toe

And drops his bait

Into the shifting reflections of the bay.

They are waiting for Godot at Port Douglas;

The stingrays wing lazy as V-bombers

Under the movie-set crumbling wharf.

 

Sydney town, nineteen thirty-three :

Empty factories, soot-stacks silent, dead;

Rusting steam-boilers; queues of desperate men.

Mitha's boys got threepence for luck

To buy lunch with ... enough

If you skipped school

For a trip by tram

To the very edge of promised lands,

Where new paling fences swaggered,

Pegged the land developers' momentary horizon.

Highways now bandage the body-bulges of suburbia there,

Geraniums struggle in concrete pots

Where my dad hunted rabbits through scrawny brush,

Set bird traps, became free.

 

New Year, nineteen sixty-two.

Billy May is at the end of his track.

His small clan waits, saddens.

Seventeen years the hammer has sung,

Joining and shaping,

Crafting shelter for strangers,

Building the maker out. For when they tidy up,

Polish the windows, pay off the slaves,

A carpenter is always on the street.

 

And now this small, angry man

With arms like iron hoops, and towering pride

Is trudging from door to door

In paradise without an admission ticket,

In the deep North where southerners have no rights,

No friendship, and boom times haven't arrived.

Naked we came and naked we will go :

No place shall be called "Our Home".

 

I put the dream away.

It is, after all, a time for surviving.

You there with the pointy ears,

And you of the insouciant beak, yes you too

Lounging with your tail in your pocket :

What do you mean by it ? Being alive

On a day like this,

And as for the cheek of you argentine ants

Counting breadcrumbs without permission,

Don't you realize that my jackboot

Is about to crunch you to a cipher ?

 


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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