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.
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.
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...
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 ?
© copyright Thorold May 1995 All Rights Reserved
published by The Plain & Fancy Language Company ACN 1116240S Sydney, Australia
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