In 1980, when I was back in Auckland again, after some years away, a friend arranged for me to see a clairvoyant. She lived in the same suburb as us, at the end of our street, in a cream painted wooden villa with a green corrugated iron roof, set back a bit from the road. It had a front lawn in which a single lemon tree grew and a concrete path to the front door, a few steps up within a shadowy veranda. I often used to look at this house when passing by, going up St Mary’s Bay Road to the shops at Three Lamps, because it resembled so closely the one my parents owned in the 1950s; albeit ours was white with a red roof. I wondered who lived there. My friend made the appointment by phone and, at the designated hour, I went around and knocked on the door. The clairvoyant, whose name was Cushla, took me down a dim hallway, with a threadbare runner along its wooden floor, into the kitchen at the back of the house. She was a few years older than me, wearing a skirt, a cardigan and flat-heeled shoes, and with her hair pulled back from her face and secured behind. She could have been an older sister. She made a pot of tea and we sat down opposite each other, on plain wooden chairs at a plain wooden table, which had nothing else upon it but the tea things, in a room which was conspicuously tidy and painted, like the exterior of the house, in cream and green. There was linoleum on the floor and a coal range set in the north wall. The windows above the sink looked out into an enclosed garden where a white camellia was flowering. As we talked, about everything and nothing, I began to feel that she understood, in a way that I did not, the shape of my life. She saw my past as a narrative that unfolded in a certain way, was continuing to unfold, even as we spoke, and would keep on doing so as long as the present opened into the future. She made sense of the flow of time that carries us forward or which, being both stream and flow, we carry forward with us. She made no predictions; she neither prophesized nor warned. We talked for maybe an hour, about many different things, and then I left. As I walked away I felt a peace descend upon me; at the same time as a power arose; as if I had been given back something that was already mine but which I had somehow mislaid. She had returned me to the fullness of time; seeing my past, knowing who I was in the present and scrying the future, she made it possible for me to live towards any one of those futures, whatever they might be. To continue making a shape in time.
One day in 1981 there came a knock upon our door at 9 Thomas Street, Golden Grove. I answered it. There was a young, well-dressed, well-spoken Māori man there, who asked for someone whose name I didn’t recognize. He went on his way. Not so very long after, while we were out, the house was broken into, through the back door, and several things were stolen: money, clothes, a leather satchel, a machete. Of course I don’t know if it was the polite young man who robbed us but in my heart of hearts I believe it was him. We were about the same size and it was my clothes―a jacket, a pair of trousers―he took; my satchel, my machete. I didn’t mind too much about the clothes, and money can always be replaced; but those other two items were precious, indeed irreplaceable, and I still feel bad about losing them. Because, although I’ve said they were mine, they weren’t really. And, in a way, I should not have had them at all. They were my father’s and I had taken them from the parental home without asking or telling him; which I suppose is a kind of theft. The satchel, which I never saw him use, was made of several pieces of thick leather, sewn together, with a single flap with two straps upon it, which met two buckles on the body of the bag, and a looped handle at the top with which to carry it. It was in good nick and would easily have held a half dozen bulging foolscap files along with two or three text books; and I believe he bought it, or perhaps was given it, when his own father found him, after he’d left school, a place in a law firm. This was in Wellington in the late 1930s; Dad left Rongotai College, where he was Dux, at the end of 1938, and joined Morison, Spratt, Morison & Taylor. They were the solicitors who represented Todd Motors, where his father, my grandfather, worked. At the same time Dad enrolled at Victoria University College, as it then was, and began to study for an LLB. He also joined the Communist Party. Then, when his parents went on an overseas trip, in 1939, he took the opportunity provided by their absence to resign from the law office and enroll at Teachers Training College instead. And so the contents of his satchel would have changed, from law books to education texts; and, soon enough, must have begun to include student papers to mark or return. As I say I never saw him use it; he left it in the gardening shed with other things he had no further use for but evidently didn’t wish to discard: his khaki lemon squeezer hat, his two pairs of boxing gloves, the machete he must have been issued with when he went up to fight in the Pacific during the war. This was a black handled knife about two feet long, with a steel blade that curved up slightly at the end, and reposed inside a leather sheath which could itself be attached to a belt. It wasn’t ever very sharp and, like the satchel, I never saw Dad use it for anything. It lay in the shed with the other abandoned things. I don’t even know if it was wartime issue; just as I don’t know the precise history of the leather satchel. Nor do I recall exactly when I took them, or why I brought them with me to Australia. I think they may have had some value that was associated in my mind with a kind of masculinity I aspired to but did not know how to attain. Or maybe they represented some aspect of my father’s personality that he had lost or abandoned or, like his career in the law, just left behind. I hardly ever used the satchel either; just as I never used the machete at all; they were both tokens of something I didn’t really examine; until they were gone. When a thief steals jewelry, s/he doesn’t only take the artefact; its associations are also stolen, at least insofar as the future possessor of the ring, the brooch or the necklace is concerned. The same is true of my father’s satchel and his machete: their associations, with the law office in Wellington, with Training College, with his war service in Fiji and Tonga, in the jungles of Espiritu Santo and Guadalcanal, and at the Catalina base at Halavo Bay on the island of Tulagi, are lost to any future owner. I retain them; while I do not retain the objects themselves. There is a conundrum here which is difficult to interrogate; it has to do with the difference between what an object, or rather an artefact, is, and what it means. If I still had the satchel, would I oil it with neatsfoot or linseed, as I remember doing when I owned it? Would I clean the blade of the machete with steel wool, perhaps even sharpen it? Dubbin the leather sheath? Yes, probably. And in that sense, I suppose, they would have become like those precious things the people of Tanimbar keep among the rafters of their houses, wrapped in cloth, to be taken down on ceremonial occasions, anointed, caressed, perhaps even wept over; before being returned to their resting places. These may be beads of porcelain or figures made of ivory; carved tortoise shell combs or gold ornaments; if the latter, they might also be trophies of war. Called masa, these golden heirlooms have their own names and histories and are considered to be relics of the ancestors. I’m lucky, I suppose, on one respect at least. After my father died I inherited, legitimately, his walking stick, which had been his own father’s before him. It has a round, domed head inlaid with pieces of various New Zealand native woods; and marked here and there by the teeth of my dog, Mungo, who had a chew on it once. My father was shorter than I am, and so was his father shorter than him; if the length of the stick is anything to go by. I remember Dad using it, when he was old and frail and troubled by emphysema. He bought a blue rubber ferrule for it, so that the tip, which is worn, didn’t slip out for under him; and used to lean on it when he walked up the road to the Greytown Working Man’s Club for a drink; or from room to room in Arbor House, the retirement home where he lived out his days. I too have used it on occasion, when I sprained my ankle, for instance; and may, of course, use it again. When my next birthday comes around I will be the same age as my father was when he died. How many miles to Babylon? Three score and ten.
On Sunday I woke up with a tickle at the back of my throat. Oh no, I thought. Feels like a cold. It wasn’t bad, in fact quite mild, so I spent the rest of the day pretending it was nothing. Took panadol, aspro clear etc. That night, I had a blocked nose, just on one side; and a bit of a scratchy cough. Next morning, Monday, I was still in denial. I hadn’t said anything to M, but I’d made sure I hadn’t kissed her either. Still, we are so close, anything one catches, the other is bound to catch too. It wasn’t until about eleven o’clock that I went online to see where you go to get tested for Covid 19 around here. There was a place, Laverty Pathology, down on Marrickville Road. They were open until 4 pm. No appointment necessary. I told M and she, characteristically, swung into action. She had some things to pick up from the chemist. She would drive down and drop me off. Pick me up afterwards, as well, if I liked. Anticipating an imminent loss of freedom, for an indeterminate period of time, I said, a bit weakly, I’d rather walk. We drove. Parked the car and split up at the lights; she’d text me when she was done or I would text her. Laverty’s had a sliding door made of opaque glass. A fellow had just come out and was standing there, as if bewildered. A skinny little guy of about fifty who was swathed in some kind of cheap, heavily scented perfume. As if he’d just doused himself with it. He was in the way but he was wearing a mask. I reached around him, slid the door open and went inside. It smelt the same in there as he did. Probably his chem trail. There was no-one in the waiting room and no reception desk. A door into a corridor was ajar so I peered in. From a room on the left, a woman in green scrubs, masked, quite tall, looked around and said: Go! Sit down! I went, I sat down. The stack of magazines at my elbow looked uninteresting and a pile on the floor on the other side of the room turned out to be made up of telephone books. I wondered how long it was since I’d seen a phone book, let alone opened one. I sat back down and took out my mobile. The exasperated woman bustled out again. I close at 12.30! she said. The time was 12.16. She disappeared, came back. Fill out this form! I began; but before I’d finished she was back again, checking I’d put down my name and phone number, ripping the half filled out form from my hands. It had two parts, essentially identical, so maybe I was only meant to fill out the top one. Sign there! she said, pointing to the bottom. I signed. Then she went again. The sliding door slid open and a young woman came in. I recognised her, I’d seen her in the street while on my way from the car to here; I’d noticed her because she’d seemed hesitant, perhaps fearful. Now, despite her mask, she seemed even more so. I tried to smile at her but how do you smile when only your eyes are showing? It turned into a sort of a shrug and she shrugged back. The woman appeared again. She gave a form to the young woman and then turned to me. Come! she said. In there! She meant the second room down the corridor. Sit! I sat. Someone opened the sliding door to the street again and she went out to turn them away. Come back at one o’clock! she said. I guess that half hour was her lunchtime. She returned and began to take from its wrapping a long wooden implement with a pad on the end. It was brown and slender and I knew it was going to go up my nose. Open your mouth! she said. I was so intimidated by now that I actually asked her if I should take my mask off first? She didn’t bother answering that. Why are you here, anyway? she said. I think I’ve got a cold, I said. Humph. I’ve had my first vax, I offered. A-Z. Nothing. Firmly, but not roughly, she swabbed the back of my tongue and then used the same end of the same implement to take swabs from the further extremity of each of my nostrils. Then she put it away in a plastic bag. You go now! she said. When will I hear, I asked? Forty-eight hours? No, they tell you tonight. Text message. She didn’t say goodbye. As I staggered out, I felt my phone buzz. M was standing at the lights on the corner, we went back to the car together, drove home. If all she does all day is take Covid tests, M said, no wonder she’s bad-tempered. The front door closing behind us felt like a doom. I did sneak out later for a walk, I even went to the bottle shop at the pub, though I knew I shouldn’t have. You have to sign in there now, using a QR code, but my phone wouldn’t do it. The young woman who was serving asked for my number, signed in for me, and then recorded the digits of the code Service NSW sent me. Damn, I thought, if it’s Covid, they’ll know. The Henson will become a hotspot, all because of me. Damn! Nothing happened that night; I mean, there was no text from Laverty’s. Next day, nada. I woke up early and took a photograph of the front door, from the inside, not as an image of confinement but because the light was so beautiful. I went to my desk after breakfast, as usual, I did my work. I got a message to say there was a parcel to pick up from the Post Office but I didn’t go. I didn’t go for a walk either, or two, as I generally do. My cold hadn’t got any worse but it was still there. It wasn’t until 4.10 that my phone buzzed. It was from Medlab Pathology and read: ‘Dear Martin Jollw, Result of COVID19 test on your sample requested by Dr Lay Tay is NEGATIVE.’ I appreciated the use of upper case; the word ‘negative’ was the first thing I saw. I was interested to learn the grumpy doctor’s name. And I wondered how they got mine so badly wrong. Poor handwriting I guess. (My second name is John.) Anyway. I found my shopping bag and hurried down to the Post Office, where there was not one but two parcels waiting for me: In An Antique Land, by Amitav Ghosh, his first book, about Egypt; and the catalogue for the Surrealism At Sea show, about the Marek brothers, at the Art Gallery of South Australia. I bought a bag of oranges from the third Vietnamese shop and two bottles of good red wine from BWS; then walked happily home.
I woke up early, went to the toilet, went back to bed. Dreamt I was in a vast city in North Africa, built upon a high promontory that was sheer on the western side (like the pa site at Pataua, north of Whangarei Heads, I was looking at in photos the other day). It also resembled Brueghel’s painting of the Tower of Babel. Beyond was empty land which I knew I was going to traverse. Desert sands, distant mountains, after which was the blue Atlantic. I set out along roads that were far more comfortable than they had looked from the city. I had a staff and at one point was unable to prevent myself from flying up into the air and away to the south like a drunken wizard. Managed to discipline myself and return to the road. In a small town an older woman pulled up next to me in a car and asked through the window where I was going? I went back to her place, we sat in her 1950s New Zealand sitting room having tea and biscuits until she said it was time to go and play lotto, was it? Some game like that. I went on and in the next town fell in with two young men who said they would take my details and find me a place to stay for the night. There was a big, modern, travel depot cum hotel, blue and white, on the outskirts of town and it was there they were going to register me. On a small rickety deck one of the young men sat at a desk writing, while the other showed me an exotic variety of bamboo being cultivated in pots on the stairs. He was talking about the colours of fruit: oranges are really green, he said; pineapple, though seeming yellow, is green too. An image of the flesh of a pineapple, cut vertically in half, with the green coming through the yellow, appeared. Then a chart with other fruits upon it, all in essence green; but I cannot now remember what they were. After I was registered successfully we began walking, through crowds of people, towards the hotel. There was only one young man now. Watch out, he said, or people will just push you out of the way. We were going, under tarpaulins, through a dusty market place. It reminded me of the time I visited Iluka / Haasts Bluff in Central Australia. We ran into a young Frenchman, with a withered leg and a crutch, and spoke in a friendly fashion with him for a while; then continued on. Instead of going to the depot / hotel, however, we veered off and began climbing up a dusty, rubbly slope between two crumbling buildings, for what purpose I do not know. We were heading back east now and suddenly the place looked like photographs I have seen of Rimbaud’s Harar. I woke up with the illusion that no time had passed since I’d gone back to bed.
Over the weekend a friend emailed me a long piece, cut and pasted from an issue of the New Yorker, by the late Janet Malcolm. Soon after I started reading it, a feeling of déjà vu overcame me. Or should I say ‘already read’. After a while I figured out it must have been an early draft of Malcolm’s 1993/4 book The Silent Woman, subtitled Sylvia Plath & Ted Hughes. So it proved. I had not realised the entire book – which is not very long – had been published in the magazine; but when I reached the end of the extract, I couldn’t follow the link to the rest of it because it was behind a paywall. Never mind, I thought; I have a copy of the book. Even though I hadn’t seen it for years, it must still be around here somewhere. It took me a while to find it and when I did, it proved to be foxed and browning, and the spine cracked when I opened it. Nevertheless, it was readable and over the last few days I’ve read it again in its entirety. All 200 odd pages. It’s twenty-five years since I last did; and I can be sure about that stretch of time because of the peculiar circumstances in which this book came to me.
In the early 1990s I wrote the text for a proposed monograph about the painter Philip Clairmont (1949-84). I remember how difficult this was to accomplish and also that, as it neared completion, a boil in my groin swelled painfully; and then, on the very day I completed the draft, burst. I sent the ms, as I had promised to do, to the artist’s widow and copyright owner in the estate. Quite a long period elapsed before she replied and the reply was enigmatic: a package arrived in the mail and in the package was a copy of Malcolm’s book. There was no dedication and no note; if she had not put her return address on the outside of the package, I would not have known who it was from. I thought this was an elegant response, especially after I’d read Malcolm’s excellent book; which is, among other things, about the limits, if not the impossibility, of biography.
There were more substantial discussions of the text of the proposed monograph over the next couple of years until, by 1996, the estate and I arrived at a mutually acceptable version; after which I set myself to assembling the illustrations for it. I had a photographer lined up to take the pictures, I knew where all the works I wanted photographed were, there was grant money available to do the thing – and then the project foundered. It was, I realised subsequently, deliberately sabotaged by an individual who worked at the funding body who’d offered me the grant; for what reason I do not know. The one time I met this person, in 2004, all he said to me was ‘it was years ago.’ Someone else told me, quite recently, that he must have wanted ‘to thrust the knife into the wound again’. Even if this was the case, his motivation remains obscure.
I returned the money and wrote instead a quest memoir, an account of the research process which incorporated in one of its four sections a version of the original monograph. That was published, as The Resurrection of Philip Clairmont, in 1999 and illustrated only with black and white photographs; there are no art works reproduced therein. This because the machinations of the fellow at the funding body ensured the estate would withdraw copyright permission to reproduce art works. There is one on the cover, available because it was a commissioned work and thus the copyright was owned by the commissioner. I have to emphasise that this was not the result of a dispute between myself and the Clairmont Estate; it was because the funding body, for whatever reason, attempted to impose unacceptable conditions upon the estate; and without their grant I was unable to afford the costs of taking the photographs.
This was a source of grief to me for a number of years. We still lack a decent illustrated book upon the Clairmont oeuvre; but that omission will in time be rectified; and I look forward very much to the day when that happens. The book, when it arrives, may not be a resurrection; but it will be a revelation. However, to return to Janet Malcolm, what most struck me about re-reading her book was how deeply my own re-telling of the Clairmont story, in the unillustrated version, was influenced by her. I was, I think, unaware of this influence while I was writing; but it’s very clear to me now. And so I’m writing this to record my debt to an author who was an exemplary figure in the world of letters: for her clarity, her honesty, her generosity; her complexity and her simplicity; for the crystalline intelligence of her prose.
illustration: Starry Night by Philip Clairmont; hand coloured woodblock, 1982; whereabouts unknown
(a photograph of a photograph in my possession)
This morning, after breakfast, we got in the car and drove to Summer Hill. I had an appointment at the Village Medical Centre at 10 am and M wanted to sign up there because her GP is in Gladesville and they don’t do C19 vaccinations. We were a bit late but no-one seemed to mind. Everyone was masked. After I checked in the receptionist slapped a white sticker onto the back of my right hand and wrote 10.10 upon it. Moments later my name was called and I went into a small room just off the corridor outside reception. I took off my jacket and jersey and sat in the chair. A young African man told me it would be better if the injection went into my non-dominant arm; fortunately he was standing on my left. He prepared the shot while a female doctor, perhaps in her fifties, told me to wiggle my toes. Her manner was one I remembered from childhood: hectoring I-know-what’s-good-for-you-and-you-probably-don’t. Nevertheless, I wiggled my toes. Are you trying to distract me? I asked and then realised it had worked. I didn’t see the needle and I didn’t really feel it pricking in either. Afterwards the doc quizzed me about ‘flu vaccines. I said I’d never had one. I said I rarely got the ‘flu. The ‘flu is not a cold, she said. Yes, I said, I know that. I don’t get colds very often either. I’ve been vaccinated, she said; you should too. Last year was very quiet but we’re expecting a big ‘flu season this year. Thank you, I said, I’ll think about it. She gave a short, exasperated sigh; almost a snort. I also thanked the African man; he nodded and averted his eyes. Then I had to wait fifteen minutes, to make sure I didn’t go into anaphylactic shock. I didn’t. The walls of the Village Medical Centre were hung with paintings made by women at the remote settlement of Utopia, north-east of Alice Springs. Many of them featured herbal, or healing, dreamings of one kind or another. Some were very beautiful and most were for sale. I was attracted to a couple that featured kurrajong dreamings; we have a kurrajong tree that a friend gave us recently. I didn’t buy one but I may go back. On our way to the car we dropped into Vinnies and I picked up a second hand copy of Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go. Driving away I felt an inexplicable euphoria. Perhaps due to re-visiting my old home town, as it were, perhaps because of the A-Z vaccine fizzing in my body. Later, when I was walking back around the road with the pie I bought for lunch, I felt a brief sharp pain where the needle went in; but nothing else. Everyone says it’s 24 hours after you have the jab that the serious side-effects begin. I’m sanguine, with a little bit of anticipatory excitement, like waiting for a trip to come on.
image: Apeng (Kurrajong Flower) Dreaming; by Katie Kemarre
Review of Daniel Thomas, Recent Past – Writing Australian Art
Also amongst my father’s books is one called A True Tale of Love in Tonga / told in 23 engravings on wood and 333 words by Robert Gibbings, which Faber & Faber published in London in 1935. The flimsy red paper cover, with its image of two lovers surfacing from beneath the sea, is falling to bits; beneath it, back and front, is a splendid image of a black palm tree on a yellow ground standing before ocean waves. There is no name or date on the flyleaf and no indication anywhere else in the book as to where and when my father bought it nor for how much. Or was it a gift?
Robert Gibbings was an Irishman from County Cork, the son of a minister and his wife, an antiquarian. He fought at Gallipoli, was wounded, then repatriated. He studied medicine for three years but after the war decided he wanted to be a wood block artist instead. His early work was in advertising but, by 1923, he was illustrating Samuel Butler’s Erewhon; and soon after, with a loan, he bought Golden Cockerel Press, where he worked for a decade with, among others, Eric Gill. He was most proud of publishing a luxurious four volume edition of The Canterbury Tales; and, subsequently, The Four Gospels, both of which Gill illustrated.
Gibbings’ connection with the Pacific was serendipitous. He had illustrated A Mirror for Witches by Esther Forbes for Houghton Mifflin and when he sent the blocks to Houghton in Boston, he said, jokingly, in the covering letter: ‘Next time you give me a job, for God’s sake send me to the South Seas―I’m sick of English fogs.’ However the publishers took him seriously and commissioned him to illustrate a book on Tahiti to be written by James Norman Hall, author, with Charles Nordhoff, of the novel The Mutiny on the Bounty and its two sequels, Men against the Sea and Pitcairn’s Island.
Gibbings went out via Sydney to Papeete and spent four months in French Polynesia, during which time he also visited the Marquesas Islands. Hall’s text never eventuated but Gibbings nevertheless published two books from his Tahitian sojourn. Iorana, a semi-fictional account of his time in the islands, came out in two versions, one bowdlerised, the second complete; he later disavowed both of them.
The other book was based upon a tale he heard on the beach: The Seventh Man, a True Cannibal Tale of the South Sea Islands / told in Fifteen Wood-Engravings and precisely one hundred and eighty-nine words. Published in a limited edition by the Golden Cockerel Press in 1930 and never reprinted, it is now very rare; nevertheless, it provided the template for the one my father owned: a small, square wood cut print on each recto, with the bare minimum of words above and below, describing the action; verso blank.
For A True Tale of Love in Tonga, Gibbings used a story told by William Mariner, the fourteen year old boy spared after the massacre of the crew of the privateer the Port au Prince off Lifuka in the Ha’apai group in 1806. Mariner lived four years in Tonga and afterwards, with an editor, wrote an account of the islands and their culture; the transliterations of the names are Mariner’s own.
Gibbings opens with an image of the high chief, the Tooi-Tonga, as an aging tyrant surrounded by piles of skulls. His rival Veachi intends to overthrow him but the plot is revealed by a traitor and Veachi and all of his family are condemned to death. They are to be bound and placed sitting upright in leaky canoes which are then sent out beyond the reef where they will fill slowly with water then sink beneath the waves.
Veachi’s daughter Lyfotoo is, however, absent when her people are captured, and Toio-omoo, a chief of Vavaoo, who is in love with her, runs to warn her of the danger. He conceals her in a cave, off the island of Hoonga, whose entrance can only be reached by diving under the sea; he found it while fishing for turtles. He continues to visit her each night with food and water, always returning to Vavaoo before dawn; until he and his kinsfolk are ready to sail to Figi to wait out the reign of the Tooi-Tonga.
Toio-omoo is asked why he doesn’t take a Tongan wife with him to Figi and replies, mysteriously, that perhaps he may find one along the way. Off Hoonga he dives over the side of his canoe and disappears; returning, some time later, with a comely woman by his side; whom his kinsfolk recognise as Lyfotoo. They spend two years in Figi then, when the tyrant dies, return to Vavaoo where they ‘lived happily ever after’.
It seems to me that my father might have seen analogies between this tale and his own encounter with the Tongan girl on Tongatapu in 1943 or 44. Or perhaps I am being fanciful. In the absence of any solid evidence, I still think he must have acquired this book after his war service was over; that is, in the mid to late 1940s when he and my mother were, apart from a year spent in Dunedin, living in Wellington.
Oddly enough, Robert Gittings was also living there for six months around the same time, suggesting the possibility of a direct connection. He left England for the South Seas on VJ Day and spent eighteen months on a leisurely tour of the islands, visiting Fiji, Tonga, Samoa, the Cook Islands, the Tokelaus, the Tuamotus and Tahiti; with a side trip to New Zealand. He had a friend in Dunedin, John Harris, the librarian at the University of Otago, whom he’d known at Oxford in the 1920s.
When he visited Harris he gave him five vellum sheets, three from The Canterbury Tales and two from John Keats’ Lamia, for the library; one of the sheets from the Tales was illustrated by Eric Gill. It might have been through Harris that Gibbings met the artist Russell Clark, then working in advertising in Wellington. The two became friends and Clark made a caricature of Gill which was published in the NZ Listener in 1948. He shows him naked, bearded, garlanded, on top of a wave in a small dugout canoe, while the sun beats down from above and round about the flying fishes play.
Clark had been an early teacher of Colin McCahon, whose sister Bea married my father’s friend Noel Parsloe after the war. Gibbings spent his six months in Wellington holed up in a house in Eastbourne with his wife’s sister as his amanuensis, typist and lover, working on the book he was writing about his Pacific Island travels. Over the Reefs, with engravings by the author, came out from J M Dent and Sons in 1948 and is as charming, as evocative and as elusive as was Gibbings himself.
He does not write much about New Zealand therein, confining himself, in chapter 25, to some brief remarks about its bird life including, of course, the kiwi; which he drew, humorously, with a worm wriggling near the tip of its long curving beak.
While Gibbings was in Eastbourne, my father and mother were living in Salek Street in Lyall Bay, in a house temporarily vacated by friends who had gone to Auckland. No car, no phone; non-descript furniture, typical of rented dwellings of the time: the squeaky wirewoves and lumpy kapok of their beds, the ancient cream and green painting of their kitchens.
My father established the first of his many luxuriant vegetable gardens—carrots, leeks, cabbages, beans, lettuce—in the unpromising sandy earth, while my mother grew marigolds, asters, sweet peas, delphiniums and ranunculus out the front. He had a rehab bursary that allowed him to study towards an MA in Education; in the holidays he worked painting the high wooden gates down on the wharves.
She was teaching at South Miramar Primary School, just over the hill in Worser Bay. It was 1947 and she was pregnant; their first child, my sister Virginia, was born towards the end of that year, around the time that Robert Gibbings departed for England.
I like to think of my father going down Lambton Quay to Modern Books one evening after work or study and finding there on the shelves a brand new copy of A True Tale of Love in Tonga, buying it and bringing it home: to show to his wife? Or not?
When I talk about analogies with his own experience, I mean he might have thought the woman Lyfotoo in the cave beneath the sea resembled the unnamed girl he met in the fale in the village on Tongatapu; with one difference. Unlike Toio-omoo, he did not return; but left her there, abandoned as it were at a fork in the road which she, and he, would never take.
Whether he felt abandoned himself it is impossible to say. He might have had regrets whatever happened. His true tale of love in Tonga had no issue but the enigmatic presence of the Gibbings, the only art book he ever owned, in his library; and my uneasy stewardship of both the physical object and its equivocal, perhaps illusory, meanings.
The other day I found a leech in the garden. It was in the saucer under the pot in which the rosemary died, after a fungus ate its roots during last summer’s dry. I’d put the rosemary out under the edge of the shelter over the washing line where the run off soaked into the dirt, causing a green slime to grow over the outside of the pot and a black grit to gather in the saucer. It was in this grit that I found the leech. It looked healthy enough but seemed sluggish; it didn’t have the brilliant gold stripes along its sides like the ones I sometimes picked up at Pearl Beach. And it showed no inclination to suck my blood. I let it go in another water logged pot down by the compost bin. Later I found a second one, dead, beneath the ex-rosemary pot’s saucer, as if the rain had drowned then dissolved it into amorphous tissue. I didn’t know leeches could drown.
There’s a small blueberry bush, covered in pink and cream flowers, growing next to where this pot used to stand. Last summer we did get one or two small sweet fruit from it but the birds ate the rest. Serendipitously, I associate blueberries with leeches because, one time when we were visiting a blueberry farm near Wamberal, I took one of the boys down into a gully so he could go to the toilet; and while there we were attacked by leeches. Jesse, who was four or five at the time, screamed and ran and I had to go after him and catch him and pick him up and pick the leeches off his legs. They have a toothed V shaped mouth that suckers onto your flesh, then they inject an anaesthetic and a thinner into your blood; it takes some force to remove them. Later on that day, when we were driving away, I found one engorged, swollen like a tumour, between my toes.
Out on the path that runs down the side of the house, after rain, slugs gather around the pale purple lilly pilly berries fallen from the myrtle hedge onto the concrete. Their mucous trails make silvery webs. Or labyrinths at the heart of which lies a disintegrating fruit. It takes the slugs days, or weeks, to eat a single berry. First they gnaw away the skin, then they start upon the pulp and, after that, the seeds. Small creatures, they don’t need much. After the last spell of rain I found one dead, perhaps stranded when the path dried out. It was black and shriveled into a cigar-shaped crinkle of tissue. They are nocturnal and I haven’t seen one alive or feeding yet. Except when they crawl through the air vents and I stand on one as I walk around the house.
Today at my desk, after our swim, I felt something on the back of my neck and brushed it away. Some kind of bug. Later, in the sitting room, reading Pat Barker’s The Silence of the Girls, a re-telling of Homer’s Iliad from the point of view of Briseis and the Trojan women, I felt it again. That involuntary shudder you experience upon discovering the presence of an unknown creature upon your skin. I flicked it away and it fell upon the rug. It was a ladybird. Very beautiful, burnished gold and black, one gossamer membrane protruding from beneath the carapace over its wings. It was still alive, maybe even undamaged. I let it go outside. Whether it was the same one that was on my neck in the study, or another, I do not know.
Last February, after I returned from Japan, there was a deluge that lasted several days. It was the heaviest rain on record―since the time before. I did look it up but cannot now remember when that was. A hundred years ago maybe. Suffice to say this is an event which happens periodically and will obviously continue to do so. During this storm I realised our house, which we bought only recently, in the midst of Black Summer, with the smoke of hundreds of bushfires turning the air orange-yellow, is built upon the northern slope of a slight rise; so that the land tends downhill. As did the rain, roaring on the roof, pouring through the gutters, flooding into the drains.
When it stopped, and I was on my way down the side of the house to put the rubbish and the recycling into the bins, I met an animal. A rodent of some kind. Or a marsupial. Quite large. Brownish skin, golden along the ridge of the spine. A short, stumpy tail. A hunch in the back. It was foraging amongst the clippings I’d left to rot on the ground after the last time I clipped the myrtle hedge. It hopped, unhurriedly, across the path and into an open grill that leads under the house. Just before it went in it paused and looked up at me with a bright incurious eye: as if to say, you live here too, do you?
Subsequently I went online to try to work out what it was. There are a few possibilities. One is that it’s a brown rat, aka the Norwegian rat, the wharf rat, the ship rat, the sewer rat. Another is that it’s a native, also a rodent, sometimes called the bush rat. They are nocturnal, however, and uncommon in urban areas; whereas this one seemed quite at home in the broad daylight. The third possibility is that it’s some kind of marsupial. An antechinus perhaps. There are fifteen varieties of these here; it is a dasyurid, like quolls and Tasmanian Devils. The largest, the dusky antechinus, feeds mostly on insects and small reptiles but will eat fruits, seeds and so forth. It is diurnal and may come forth at any hour of the day or night.
I didn’t see one of them again for a while and when I did I still wasn’t sure what it was. One balmy autumn evening Mayu and I were sitting outside and saw a couple of them scurrying along the top of the green metal fence that divides this house from the one next door. They were smaller than the one upon the path, about half the size; but with the same hunch in the back, the same stubby tail, the same hopping gait. Subsequently we saw more of them, even smaller, about the size of a mouse. I watched one through the window of the bedroom at the front of the house for quite a long time as it snuffled in the leaf litter under a gardenia bush.
The people who sold us this house had two growing children and one of them kept pets in a wooden hutch out by the compost bin. Guinea pigs maybe; or rabbits. I don’t know. They took the hutch with them when they went, exposing an oblong patch of bare ground at the edge of the lawn. Over time, crumbs and seeds and other detritus must have fallen through the cracks in the timber and, once the hutch was gone, birds came to feed upon it: noisy minas, Indian minas, spotted doves. There might have been a bit of competition between these three species; or it might have been that the minas, of both kinds, weren’t very interested in the food we started putting out for them. After a while, the patch was only visited, several times a day, by a pair of spotted doves; later we started feeding them on the lawn.
We bought the seed mix from a supermarket and soon noticed that the doves, although they devoured everything else, did not eat a long wheat-like grain that was included in the selection. The rat, however, or the antechinus, or whatever it was, did. Over a number of days we watched one come out from under the house near the washing line, hop across the grass and then spend some time among the seeds, apparently stuffing its cheeks with grain. After that it would go back under the house, presumably to store its harvest, before returning for more. Sometimes there were brief confrontations with the spotted doves, who seemed, surprisingly, always to prevail.
Once when I surprised an animal out there, it hid behind the compost bin. There is what looks like the entrance to a burrow, now plugged, back there in the soft earth next to the fence, and I wondered if that was where it had gone. I waited and watched and after a while it came around the side of the bin, saw me standing there, and disappeared again. A while later it came back around the other side of the bin. Again it saw me and again retreated. Glossy and bright eyed. I walked away.
After that we stopped seeing them for a while. Perhaps they had stored enough grain for the winter; or eaten enough to make hibernation possible; if they hibernate. There’s clearly a family living under the house, the little mouse-like ones, the middle-sized ones we saw hopping along the fence, the big grand one I first saw out on the path.
The spotted dove, ubiquitous in Sydney, is not a native. They are an Asian bird, introduced to Melbourne in the 1860s, and flourishing along the east coast ever since. They are beautiful and shy, with a pale whitish-purple head, a pink breast, light brown back and wings, and a checkerboard pattern, white and black, on either side of the neck; which gives them their name.
They call constantly from the trees, a distinctive coo-cor-cor, which some people find irritating. Males and females look very much alike and when our pair first started visiting, we spent some time learning to distinguish one from the other. The male, who always flies down first, has a slimmer body, a whiter head, and a pointy tuft at the throat; the female is plumper, shyer and with a more purpled head.
And then there was one. Without a point of comparison, it took us a while to work out it was the male who was still coming: partly because of the way he started to flirt with Mayu. When she was out there he would fly down, walk importantly across the lawn, hop onto the deck and start arching his back, spreading his tail and extending his wings in the way that male pigeons do when they are courting. Sometimes he showed his cloaca. She responded by giving him food; and perhaps that was the point. She’d talk to him too, and he grew accustomed to her voice. He seems to like it when she speaks Japanese. He sat on the fence for about ten minutes the other day, listening to her talking to a friend on the phone.
Of course we wondered what had happened to the female. Spotted doves are monogamous and they mate for life. There are cats around―next door has one and there’s another, a bold tabby, who’s visited a few times. Was she dead? Did they break up? Or was she sitting on a nest somewhere? And then she came back. Her reappearance coincided with a period during which the male called incessantly from inside the myrtle hedge, though I could never work out exactly where he was.
Then, a couple of times, they made love before us on the deck. They would hop up, bill and coo, then she would settle down and plump up her feathers and wait for him. He’d strut around a bit, with his chest puffed out. If, in his afflatus, he forgot about her, she’d remind him with a peck or two.
After they’d consummated, they’d both perch on the edge of the deck and make a tender, triumphant sound. Calling out to their peers perhaps. Or to their descendants. Not long after that I found some pieces of egg shell on the lawn under the myrtle tree that grows beside the compost bin. They are sitting next to the Buddha now, on the ochre sill below the laundry window.
Apparently spotted dove nests are so frail, so flimsily built, you can sometimes see the two white eggs they contain from underneath. Nevertheless, they must be robust enough, because their numbers keep on increasing. We are now feeding the children, or the grand children, of the original pair. Not with supermarket seed, we go to a pet shop now. No preservatives, the punky girl that served me said. No additives.
Halfway down Peace Lane, where I walk most days, there’s a cohort of a dozen or so spotted doves, including several juveniles. They are slimmer than ours, perhaps because they live mostly on crumbs of white bread left out by the ancient Greeks whose back yards open onto the lane way. Spotted doves breed all year round but most commonly between September and December. Perhaps by next year we’ll have an even bigger family of doves visiting the lawn in our back yard.
When you buy property, you also buy an ecosystem. Or a portion of an ecosystem. We are living over what was once a swamp, in a valley of low-lying land with a creek running through it on its way to join the Cooks River, which then debouches into Botany Bay. Both swamp and creek were called Gumbramorra, a word whose meaning is obscure.
The Dictionary of Sydney records: Gumbramorra Swamp consisted of marshland at the foot of the declining sandstone and shoal ridges, in a relatively narrow area surrounded by low hills. At the mouth of the Gumbramorra Creek were mudflats, which were also evident in the swamp itself. Behind these mudflats and mangroves was a salt marsh. These conditions supported abundant wildlife.
Local historian Sue Castrique, in an essay on Gumbramorra, records: Aunty Fran Bodkin is a Dharawal elder who grew up on her mother’s traditional land. She is a botanist, environmental scientist and educator who has an intense interest in plants and climate and works to bring together Dharawal knowledge and Western science. The swamp, she says, was a special place for the Bidigal clan.
‘We were the bitterwater peoples, the oyster eaters because we ate shellfish from the swamps. We were the swamp walkers. We drank the water from the rivers and swamps, not quite fresh water, and not quite salt water. One thing we knew was that where the reeds grow you can drink the water, at the base of the reeds.’
Aunty Fran grew up when there were still remnants of the swamp, mostly near the river, in Midjuburri, now called Marrickville. There was so much edible stuff, she says. Black shelled mussels, other shellfish, eels and the reeds with their sweet tubers. When the myall wattle, Acacia binervia, flowered, it meant the mullet would be running in the river.
It wasn’t all about food. We used the mud flats on the banks as skating rinks. It was the most beautiful mud, it was so slippery. We would run and jump on the mud and slide for metres after metres. We would come home and Mum would be at the gate with the hose. Early European settlers, however, avoided Gumbramorra. It was useful to them only for watering cattle or for digging up clay in order to make bricks.
All that changed during a drought in the 1880s, when the swamp dried out, leaving bare flat clay beds behind. One Thomas Saywell drew up a plan for a new suburb there, to be called Tramvale, and then sold the land to three Sydney businessmen, Mathias Bohrsmann, Henry French and William Shirlow, a tailor, a draper and a bootmaker, respectively. They increased the number of blocks to 160, added laneways to the rear of the rows of houses to be built, and put the estate on the market. The blocks were small, prices were low, terms were easy and a real estate frenzy ensued. The buyers were working people, labourers, cab drivers, railway workers and, for some reason, a large number of widows. Locals who lived nearby knew Tramvale flooded―they had seen it under water―but, in 1882, Gumbramorra had been dry for three years.
Castrique continues: In 1889, after four days of torrential rain, Tramvale became a lake. The rain coincided with an exceptional tide, the highest for twenty years, and water rose rapidly. Women and shivering children were rescued by boat. Worse, once the houses dried off, they were coated in a greasy slick of sewage and tannery waste.
In 1867, a huge tannery had been built on the headwaters of Gumbramorra Creek. It drew water for the tanning pits from the creek and then dumped its waste back into it. Rushes grew profusely in the nutrient-rich waters, trapping a soupy mix of animal scraps and leather particles that choked the watercourse. At the same time, sewage from newly-built houses in Stanmore and Newtown flowed down into the valley, creating a black stinking mud whose smell was described as indescribable.
Subsequently, the Reverend Thomas Roseby, a Congregational minister, suggested the basin should be turned into a lake. There were precedents. Roseby had lived in Ballarat and knew Lake Wendouree, a natural wetland dammed during the gold rushes and turned into a reserve. Another example was in Centennial Park, a series of ponds created out of the Lachlan Swamp in 1887. How easily, wrote Roseby, the whole place might be turned into paradise.
It was not to be. Instead, house building continued, incrementally, and the floods continued too. The first pumping station began to be built in 1898 and gradually, piecemeal, over many years, some degree of control over the flooding was attained. The most vulnerable areas were rezoned and are given over to light industry. Those paint and automobile shops on the other side of Illawarra Road.
Meanwhile the brick pits, emptied of their clay, filled up with water. They were used by local kids as swimming holes; but they had their own dangers: if a little one fell in, s/he might not be able to clamber back up the slippery slope. There were quite a few drownings; and so, in time, the pits were filled in.
The one at the end of our street was made over into a velodrome that was used during the 1938 Empire Games. The closing ceremony was held there, with a crowd of about 40,000 attending. Henson Park is still a sports ground where rugby league, AFL and cricket are played; and, where, in all seasons, people walk themselves and their children and their dogs.
When I put a post up on Facebook about the rodent or marsupial or whatever it was I saw down the side of the house, Ray Goodwin, who used to live here but is now in Murwillumbah, wrote to say that the rats of Marrickville are legendary and have built networks of tunnels which go all the way back up to Circular Quay.
He said their lineage is ancient: if they are ship rats, they will have been here since the First Fleet arrived in 1788. Or, if one or two hopped off Cook’s ships in Botany Bay in 1770, even longer. And that’s to say nothing about earlier incursions by Dutch and Portuguese ships, all of which would also have had rats aboard.
When most people think of rats, they think of exterminators; but we are reluctant to poison whatever creatures we have living here; especially if they turn out to be natives. Even if they aren’t, it still doesn’t seem a good idea to leave toxic substances around. Hasn’t there been enough killing? What else might die?
Anyway, if this whole suburb is rat-infested, with entrenched populations, if we poisoned ours, wouldn’t others move into the space they formerly occupied? Mayu’s friend Big Sue, when she was staying here, put it best: so long as they don’t come inside, they’re not really a problem.
We did have an exterminator come around after we moved in, and the year after too. Matt is big, steady, calm guy with a ponytail. He drives a Hilux with the number plate PRED8OR and lives out west, along the Hawkesbury River. After he laid baits outside of the house for cockroaches, and checked for signs of white ants, he stood chatting with us in the kitchen. When I mentioned the animal that might have been a marsupial he gave me a long level look and said a single word: rodents.
It was December, 2019, at the height of the Black Summer bushfires, the first time he came. He told us his wife, a Dharug woman, was having a children’s book, which she wrote and illustrated, published through Broome-based Magabala Books; and was contributing to mural designs for the new airport being built out at Badgerys Creek. He said his wife said that other indigenous people out west, from a different mob, reckoned the fires we were having then recur in a 250 year cycle, meaning the last big burn had taken place around the time James Cook was sailing up the coast of eastern Australia in 1770.
I remembered reading in Cook’s Journals about the smoaks of many fires seen burning upon the land. I’d always assumed he meant cooking fires; but maybe they were bushfires. Who can say? I felt an obscure sense of reassurance in hearing about this long cycle of burning; along with the residual guilt that I might thereby become one of those who denies the effects of global warming consequent upon human behaviour.
I was thinking about Matt the other night when I saw a cockroach just above the sink on the kitchen wall. Blattodea are a very old species. This was a big one, with a white stripe along the outside of its wings. I’ve always thought, on no good authority, that they are native. Garden cockroaches, we used to say. It was immobile and stayed still while I trapped it under a glass, slid a postcard between the mouth of the tumbler and the wall, upended the glass then took it outside, where I let it go among the plants edging the lawn.
How did it get inside? Under the door perhaps. How do the ants, which cluster in the kitchen, enter the house? Today I saw dozens of them gathering around the twin power points on the wall next to the stove, for what purpose I do not know. Most of them will end up dead, from a surfeit of electrons perhaps, making a scatter of black cyphers upon the white bench below. The same fate awaits those which assemble around the hinges of the doors that close the pantry cupboard: what are they eating? Glue made from cow bones? If so, why does it kill them?
A house, however solid it may seem, is actually a membrane made up of other membranes, all of them permeable. Especially a house that’s more than a hundred years old, as this one is, and built over a swamp. Walls are one of the membranes and they too let things in.
Last winter we had to have the front bedroom resealed against rising damp: water overflowing from leaking gutters infiltrates the old, porous bricks, rises up and, having nowhere else to go, begins to ooze through the walls. Some mornings I found water pooled along the tops of the skirting boards; or lying puddled upon the floor. Moisture seeps in the windows too. Sometimes when we woke up, the insides of the glass were dripping with condensation. It couldn’t just have been our breath, there was too much of it.
Our own skin, which we like to think of as impermeable, exudes water every time we sweat. What does it allow in? Now, in a time of plague, we are sensitized to the permeability of our bodies, the way tiny rogue fragments of DNA, called viruses, can make their way into our mouths or noses, past the skin of our throats, our trachea, our oesophagus, our lungs and into our blood, there to reproduce and then go on to invade other bodily parts; the brain, the liver, the kidneys. After that they explode, in an orgy of generation, and we cough or breath them out, so that they can infect the cells of others. Our bodies, too, are ecosystems.
I find the continuity between self and others reassuring. I like the feeling of extension, and the implied interdependence of things; as much as I like the continuity between built structures, like this house, and the living things with which it is surrounded and interpenetrated. I’m reassured in the same way by the discovery that some of the uneaten seeds we’ve been leaving out for the birds have germinated and are now covering the ground where the hutch once stood with seedlings. I don’t know what they are but that does not bother me. We will find out in time; or else we will not.
What pleases me just as much is that what I thought was a vertical branch of the lilly pilly, growing over a corner of the garden, is actually a camellia, now covered in pink and white flowers; camellia is the plant from whose leaves we make tea. These ones, as if blushing at the thought of their own beauty, bend their heads down over the lawn.
Now and again a moon-coloured flower falls, to lie resplendent and rotting amongst the seedlings of whatever is growing there. The doves too, pink and grey, look elegant when they come down to feed on the seeds we leave out for them. As for the dusky antechinus, if that’s what they are, who knows? They are younger than us, and have been here for very much longer.
image : path down the side of the house, after rain