The Tree’s Human

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There’s a big eucalypt growing in the street outside my place. I live on the second floor, like Luka of sacred memory, facing west, so my windows look directly out into its foliage. Its birds and bees. Its nests: currawongs one year, magpies the next. Just about to flower now, with creamy white blossoms bursting from the buds. Then making woody seeds. Last Thursday I was out the front talking to a friend when a fellow he knew stopped and joined the conversation. He was an aborist. I asked him if I should ask the council to trim the tree, as they did the other day to the one outside the building next door. He looked at the tree. It’s a Tallowwood, he said. Eucalyptus microcorys. Then he said, yes, probably, it looks like it has a problem in the crown. I didn’t see it then but I did later. A rather large branch had become detached from the trunk, high up, and fallen into the lower branches. It looked precarious. It looked like it might cause some damage when – not if – it fell to the ground. It could kill someone. It could bring down the wires feeding electricity to my building. It could damage a car. At 8.30 next morning I rang the council. The recently amalgamated Inner West Council, a behemoth that has replaced our local Ashfield Council, of fondest memory. I used to know the ex-Mayor. You could go for a walk around the neighbourhood with him. Not sure if we even have a Mayor any more. Anyway, the woman at the other end of the line took down the details and said she’d pass them on. I was out for the middle part of the day. When I came back, around 3.30, the branch was still poised precariously above the footpath and the road, the service wires. I rang them again. Friday afternoon: what could happen? This is Australia. Nothing much. Second verse, same as the first. Saturday I voted. Not for the clowns who currently run the place, for some other clowns. A fellow called Tom Kat (I kid you not, or only a little: it’s Kiat). Monday, nada. The neighbours on both sides had noticed that Damoclean branch by now and they had rung up too. Nothing happened. Tuesday neither – except they were cleaning the gutters for the first time in months so I went out and spoke to a fellow with a shovel who was clearing the dirt around the tree. As soon as he saw the branch he got on to his phone and called the council. Apparently someone came out later on that day to have a look and pronounced it ‘stable’. Yeah, right. Today’s Wednesday. It’s hot, windy: nor-easters. 32 degrees. There’ll be a southerly change later on tonight. When I came back from my walk I saw the branch had shifted. I rang the State Emergency Services. They have a depot in Haberfield, just over the other side of Parramatta Road. They gave me instant attention. She took my number and, minutes later, a guy called Alex rang up. I told him the story again: I knew it by heart by now. I was watching the branch, out the window, the whole time we were talking. It was moving in the wind. Alex said he’d call the council. Half an hour later, a ute pulled up and a bloke in a fluoro vest got out. He was clearly here about the branch. I turned down the element that was heating the beef bisque I was having, with buttered toast, for lunch and went out to talk to him. He was on the phone. Stop right there, he said. There’s danger. I know, I said. I stopped. He was talking to an aborist and, while we stood there, facing each other, about three metres apart, the branch fell. With a sound like a sigh. Didn’t bring the wires down, didn’t hit a pedestrian, did scrape the side of the florist’s van. Lucy’s. Their son does the markets every morning and leaves his grey Hyundai outside my place. A minor scrape, but still. I heard the bloke say to the aborist: it’s down, don’t worry, see you, and then he hung up. We had a chat and he shook my hand. That was nice. Like I’d done my duty as a citizen. A good outcome, I guess: no-one was hurt. This arvo I went down to the florist to tell the woman there what happened. They’re Chinese. He’s a nice guy but kind of non compos. She runs the business. I guess she’s Lucy. Not a great command of English. Turned out the clean-up guys had come down and asked her to shift the van; but no-one told her it was damaged. She said she couldn’t shift it because her son had the keys and he was elsewhere. I gave her my card. I said: I’m a witness. I said: the council has to pay for the repairs on your van. The bastards. Their chainsaws and their leaf blowers ruined my afternoon. I couldn’t concentrate. I kept thinking about a line from a Tom Waits song. About how the cops always stop for coffee on the way to the scene of the crime. It was a bit like that. They could do the clean-up, quick smart, but they couldn’t avert the disaster. But still. It wasn’t really a disaster. No-one got hurt. The branch is down. I will always remember the moment when it fell between us, me and the bloke, he was called Mike, with a sound much like a sigh. Tallowwood. They can grow to be very large trees indeed. 70 metres high, if the soil beneath is deep enough. The name comes from a greasiness in the wood. Much used for fine work. Cabinet making and so forth. But not such a good suburban tree, because it needs those deep roots to grow tall and who knows what’s underneath us here. The complications of drainage. The underworld. Mostly sand, probably, originally. Black sand. Tallowwood flowers are beloved of apiarists; therefore, of bees. Leaves a koala can eat; if only. Koalas in Summer Hill!? The Latin name, microcorys, small helmet, refers I think to the nuts that will form after the creamy flowers are done. This very year! While I still live here! While I am still alive! I love this tree. I think of it as my tree. But, actually, I belong to it. I’m the tree’s human.

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Albert Namatjira’s Copyright

22. Albert drinking

I had a request for this piece on Friday night, wrote it over the weekend, finessed it with a lawyer on Monday, and with the editor last night and this morning: and here it now is. 

image: Albert in a bar in Alice Springs c. 1958

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The Secret Sharer

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There was an alarm going off all night long. Eighty electronic pulses followed by about twenty beats of silence. I’m estimating, obviously. The noise was faint, far away, but once I had locked onto it, I couldn’t help but listen. At first I noticed that I tended to fall into a doze during the periods of silence then wake when the beeps resumed; but after a while, it was the other way round; and I’d re-surface when the silence began again. It was odd not knowing where the alarm was coming from; odd, too, that its battery never ran down. As a means of occupying my mind with something other than listening for its pauses and resumptions, I decided to see if I could remember the names of Joseph Conrad’s ships. I knew there were eighteen of them: could I count them all? The Mont-Blanc, the Saint-Antoine, the Tremolino, the Mavis, the Skimmer of the Sea, the Duke of Sutherland, the Europa, the Loch Etive, the Palestine, the Riversdale, the Narcissus, the Highland Forest, the Vidar, the Otago, the Roi des Belges, the Torrens, the Adowa. I counted them up on my fingers. Seventeen. There was one missing. A chronological list, so where was the gap? I thought and thought and then I remembered reading some letters the young officer wrote from a berth in Calcutta to a Polish friend in Cardiff. What was that ship called? It returned to Dundee with a load of jute. (Another sentence came to mind: ‘It was jute that made Dundee.’) Ah yes, I had it now: the Tilkhurst. After the Narcissus and before the Highland Forest. So there were the eighteen. I rehearsed the sea routes that they followed and, where known, the cargoes that they carried. Jute, coal, teak, sugar, wool, wheat, linseed, horns and bones. General cargo, which could mean anything. The Atlantic, the Indian Ocean, the Southern Ocean, the Pacific. The South China Sea. The Mediterranean. The Black Sea, the Sea of Azov. The Western Ocean the only one he never sailed. Never a passage to North America, unless you count the crossing he made, as a passenger, very late in life, to be feted in New York in 1923. I must have drifted off on speculations such as these and then Joseph Conrad came to me in a dream. Not for the first time. On the other occasion he was a grizzled old sea captain lying back in a big bed in some inland town, perhaps South American, smoking a cigar. Disinclined to speak, unless in riddles. Now he was a younger man, alert and charming and talkative. But I cannot remember our conversation, only that it continued for quite some time. Or was it like the writing I do sometimes in dreams, which does not really exist but is a dream of writing? Anyway, I remember the last exchange. He was sitting opposite me, at a small table. My bookshelves were behind me and from them I plucked a volume with a yellow cover and gave it to him. ‘Here is a book to read,’ I said. The yellow was a pale jasmine, a pale lemon colour, the colour of a Light 15 Citroën I was lucky enough once to own. At the top, the letters of a title: The Secret Sharer. Joseph Conrad’s face was a wonder to behold: amusement, consternation, incredulity, dismay. ‘But I wrote this,’ he said. ‘You have given me a copy of one of my own books!’ Indeed I had. He was not annoyed. Surprised, rather. I woke up. The Secret Sharer! Was I, or rather was my mind, trying to saying something to the figment it had entertained? That he and I were secret sharers? The tale came out in 1909, I think, during an interlude in the writing of Under Western Eyes. (Just as, nearly a decade before, Heart of Darkness came out during an interlude in the writing of Lord Jim.) It is based upon a true story. The bucko mate on the Cutty Sark struck and killed an insubordinate seaman, a black man with whom he had argued, and fought, before. His captain, rather than taking him into port to face the courts in Singapore, probably, (they were near the entrance to the Java Sea) let him go over the side and swim to another ship. That captain himself went over the side four days later, a suicide, unable to reconcile himself with what he had done. The mate escaped but was picked up, years later, in London, tried and punished. In Conrad’s story a mate who has killed a man arrives at the side of a young captain’s first command near the mouth of the river that leads south from the port of Bangkok; and the captain allows him aboard. The man’s name is Leggatt. The captain, who is never named (‘I’), conceals him in his cabin, conceals him from the captain of Leggatt’s own ship, the Sephora, when he comes looking for him, conceals him from his crew during a voyage down the Gulf of Siam; until, off the rocky island of Koh-Ring, he takes his (also unnamed) ship so close to shore it is at risk of wrecking, that his secret sharer may slip over the side and swim to safety. We never learn his fate; but the young captain is somehow, mysteriously, through his illegal act and his compassion for a fugitive, confirmed in his vocation. It’s clearly a doppelgänger tale and perhaps that is why I chose it in my dream: because to have the temerity write about another author, especially one as esteemed and, as it were, untouchable as Joseph Conrad, is to claim him as a double? Is that why? When I woke up after the dream and lay there rehearsing it in my mind, the alarm was still beeping in the distance of the night but I could already see, faintly, at the window, the first grey light of the coming dawn seeping, like arcane knowledge, or even  inspiration, through the ochre curtains.

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images: the Queen opening the restored Cutty Sark to the public, Greenwich, 1957; Unknown man and his doppelgänger.

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Départ

departure

Departure, yes, from the illusions of life to the essential realities that lie hidden beyond.

Max Beckmann, 1932

Right

We leave everything behind. And take it all with us too. How could it be otherwise? My beloved holds a lamp in her right hand, while the German dwarf ties the last of his bonds tight around her calves and my arms, which are crossed behind my back. The doorman in his blue uniform stands next to us, holding a fish. Blind-folded, so as not to see where we are going. As if he didn’t already know. I am the upside down man, did you know that? In my green coat of wind. We are both bound, and bound one to another, by the ties of fate. Soul and body, body and soul. The accoutrements are classical, the falling down world. Friezes, columns, reliefs. Staircases, scaffolds. Gods. All fall down. The man with the drum, a cadaverous cataleptic wearing a peaked cap, beats on. Marching out of the picture, marching into the past. Or the future, whichever comes first. We felt the whole thing in our bones; or, if not in our bones, in our blood. In our heads. The strange history play in which we found ourselves acting. All five of us; and the fish makes six. You cannot ask if we were willing; it is the wrong question. You will notice that she has one breast free and in that gift, if it is a gift, is all the hope we can carry. We left everything behind and took it all with us as well. Could it have been otherwise? Her face, indomitable.

Left

This was the cost. She was bound again and made to kneel half–naked before the globe: a crystal ball? Our blue planet? Or something else, a palantír perhaps. She will be violated if that has not already occurred. Who is doing this? I cannot tell. Where was I? Bound too, both my hands amputated, the marbled flesh like some atrocious echo of antiquity. Or the other fellow, pink-shirted, turned away, his hands intact but also bound and standing in a barrel—like Diogenes? All three of us bound and no-one left to paint the bulbous still life, the pear, the apple, the grapes, on the table top, itself upon some kind of plinth. It seems we are still in ancient times. The green curtains, the toppling columns. Or in some theatre of the absurd. I do not know why the man in the striped blue and black shirt holds high, like a mattock, a bag from which a fish’s head protrudes. A tail too. He looks as if he might be about to chop down the tree of life. Or is it an axe against the frozen sea within? Maybe he is just landing his catch. Again we are six: add the green-beaked bird, before the draperies, swallowing its own red eye. There remains the goddess, her marbled flesh, bound and looking down into the globe wherein may be found other departures, or all departures. And that strangely concave board she kneels upon, with its drawing of trees: are there other ways out of this hell?

Centre

Who is doing this? Who is speaking? Painters do not speak, we paint; and paint is silent. Our language is blue. The ocean and the sky are neither sky nor ocean, they are blue. The robe the crowned figure wears slung over his shoulder, turning away, his hand raised, is blue. If that is me I am pleased to see the rosy tint returning to my flesh. The pink behind my hand. Our flesh. My clothed Queen, holding the golden-headed child. A sturdy boy. He is staring behind her at the ancient of days: look again, do you see that antique profile? Odysseus? We are again six, and one of us is again a fish. Held, now, in the hands of that flaxen-haired Viking with his helmet, no less than his hair, obscuring his face. His one cyclopean eye. Or am I wrong, is he the father of the child? Are we both fathering the child? Who fathers the child? It is every child, antiquity’s child, Odysseus’ child, the child of Theseus. Why is she looking at that helmeted man, with the gold bands upon his arm, with his abnegation, his inscrutability, his fish. Is it a challenge; or in recognition? I know that we will never know. You will notice that I have a casual hand upon the net wherein the jewelled fish are caught. You see the oar that kisses the surface of a blue which is different from the blue of the sky. The blue, the green and the white of the landed fish. The golden scuppers of our ship. It is like heaven, all gold and blue, apart from the red of that Viking’s robe. His blue mouth. Always my eye returns to that profile, he who is hardly there at all, he whom without whom we would have no destination. The king that in the caves of history dreams. Yes that is exactly what I mean. Our ship has no prow and no stern. We drift upon the endless blue. Sky and sea, and sea again. If we are going nowhere, it is because we have already arrived. If we are going everywhere, then so be it. If anywhere, then anywhere will do.

 

 

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Rattling Spears

A review of Ian McLean’s excellent account of Indigenous art in Australia since 1770.

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Home

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I have an essay in this fine collection, edited by Thom Conroy, from Massey University Press; and here’s a link to a radio review of same.

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Ghost Walking The Tamar

 

I

Cimitiere Street

Door

A murmuration of starlings rose from the perimeter fence as we walked across the tarmac from the plane to the terminal: a small one, but a murmuration nevertheless. Apparently each bird co-ordinates its movements with respect to the seven nearest other birds, each of which also takes account of the movements of its nearest seven and so forth and that’s how they do it. There’s almost always a raptor nearby. Perhaps a brown or a grey goshawk although I didn’t see one. The sky cloudy bright with evening coming on. The air biting cold. We drove down a wide valley. I thought it must have been a moraine scoured out by a glacier but geologists say the tributaries of the Tamar—North Esk, South Esk, Supply—actually run down ancient fault lines which date back to the Gondwana break-up. Horsts and grabens, ups and downs. There are igneous remnants: dolerite not basalt. The Tamar is not a river but an estuary, a drowned valley, its waters saline and tidal. The city was full of curiously made buildings, as if each structure had been copied from a lost original. A compendium of eccentricity. Or anthology of strangeness. Sometimes in these southern towns it can seem as if an honest attempt to mimic the buildings in the metropoles of the north has led to the invention of unprecedented styles which yet remain uncatalogued. We turned off Wellington into Elizabeth, drove up a dark corridor of  verandah’d shopfronts into Arthur, down High Street and then into York. Our hotel was a mansion once; then a nursing home, perhaps also an insane asylum; now a B & B. There are two ballrooms within but we never saw them. Intricate stained glass in the doors and windows, even in the skylight above the grand staircase. Room Number Five, the Honeymoon Suite, was ours, with a spa bath built into a corner of the enclosed balcony and a view over the city. A little old lady sat up all night in the north-west corner, watching us. Or so Maggie said. In the morning, the sky out the window was the colour of pink gin. Angostura Bitters, I learned, was first distilled in the 1820s by Johann Gottlieb Benjamin Siegert, the surgeon-general of Simón Bolívar’s army in Venezuela. It was to cure Bolívar’s troops of stomach upsets and is still thought by some to have medicinal qualities. Siegert was living in the town of Angostura, now Ciudad Bolívar, at the time; hence the name. He used locally available ingredients, brought to his attention by the botanical knowledge of native Amerindians. Angostura Bitters is 44.7% alcohol by volume and, even now, when the elixir is made in Port of Spain, Trinidad, the full recipe, passed down hereditarily, is known to just one living person. Plymouth gin, sweeter than most, is preferred by connoisseurs of the pink. I was on the wagon so when we went out I drank lemon, lime and bitters. The tiny amount of alcohol in the glass had no discernible effect. That morning, as the pink in the sky faded to grey and then the heavens turned cerulean, we went down to Cimitiere Street to look for the cottage in which my great-grandfather and great-grandmother, James Edmond and Catherine McLeod, were married on May 15, 1872. Why cimitière? No-one seems to know. It’s true, however, that the colony was founded, near the mouth of the Tamar, in 1804 after a panic caused by Frenchman Nicolas Baudin’s voyage to the Antipodes: what if he claimed Van Diemen’s Land for France? Cemeteries are, properly speaking, burial places not associated with churches; those are called graveyards. And yet, allegedly, by military decree, issued around the same time Angostura Bitters was first distilled, none of the seventeen churches in this municipality has a graveyard; though there were numerous cemeteries. These days you have to go out to Carr Villa in Kings Meadows if you want to be buried. My great-grandparent’s marriage took place in one of a row of low working-people’s cottages on the south side, towards the eastern end of Cimitiere Street: but which one? No-one knows, because the marriage record neglected to include a street number. James Edmond, a builder, was 23 years old. He had come out on the Prompt in 1857, the son of a gardener and labourer from Stirlingshire in Scotland and his dressmaker wife. The description of James as a seven or eight year old child—stout figure, broad face, well-looking, dark hair—reverberates down the years. It could be my grandfather, my father, his older brother, one of my cousins. Catherine McLeod was the same age as her husband-to-be but had been three years longer in the colony. Her family came out on the Sir Allan McNab in 1854, the first ship carrying free emigrants to arrive in Hobarton after the abolition of convict transportation the previous year. The McLeods were native to the Western Highlands, Gaelic-speaking crofters from Ardmair and Strathan near Ullapool, victims of the Clearances. Catherine’s family spent about ten years working as labourers and servants out at a place called McRae’s Hills, and then she lived half a decade more on the freehold property they bought at Silver Mines, now Winkleigh, in West Tamar. After their marriage James and Catherine went to Melbourne, where he was already established, and where she lived out the rest of her days. She bore thirteen children, ten of whom survived infancy, and died of tuberculosis and exhaustion in 1905. My grandfather Charlie (b. 1890) was her youngest. In 1872 there had been a shortage of men on the island: they had been sucked out of circulation by the ongoing depression, especially in the building trade. James probably came back to Tasmania looking for a wife; Catherine was perhaps visiting her older sister Ann, married to a Tulloch and already living in town. My cousin Rod Edmond, whose research this is, speculates upon a colonial artisan version of an Austen marriage plot. It is as likely as anything else. Most of the houses have been restored, gentrified; some were for sale. There must be a dozen or more in the row. Maggie decided the right one was #31, now a B & B called Thyme Cottage. If there had been any thyme growing in the garden, I would have picked a sprig but there was not; lavender, yes, rosehips and daisies; crab apple trees. There was no wind but I felt the air on Cimitiere Street move in my hair anyway; the phantom breath of generation.

 

II

Ghost Walk

Doctor

Bethany was a Beauty Therapist from one of the southern suburbs, moonlighting as the cicerone of a ghost walk. Her mother was a psychic too. We met outside the Royal Oak, where we had just eaten: the walls of the dining room hung with magnificent photographs of old sailing ships, barques and schooners and clippers, all of which used to visit the river port back in the old days. Bethany pulled a tablet out of her handbag and began showing us pictures of ghosts; strange, murky collations of ectoplasm emanating from stairwells and mirrors, alcoves and cul de sacs. Pareidolia gone mad. All were plausible, none entirely persuasive. I realised she was suggesting that we attempt, during our walk, to capture such presences on camera as well. We being four: Maggie and I, a woman and her schoolboy son, locals like Bethany. She took us down into the bowels of the hotel and showed us a room lined with mirrors and full of eclectic junk. It is where the jazz musicians who play upstairs hang out between sets or before and after gigs. No lights, just lanterns: my own image in the mirrors was more than I could stand. As you age, you attenuate. You diminish. Becoming ghostlike perhaps. Your blood thins, your hair falls out, your skin goes papery, your belly hollows, your shanks spindle. I pulled up my jeans and avoided looking any further into the mirror’s otherworld. Bethany was telling the story of Cyril, who loved Elizabeth, who loved him in return. Cyril was a cheerful soul, a worker, the maintenance man at the Royal Oak; Elizabeth was a lady. Her father forbade the match, gave her away to a banker and they moved to a southern town; there were no children. Cyril lost his cheer. He became morose. He worked all day down here, fixing furniture broken in the frequent pub brawls, and then went upstairs to the bar for a jar or two, speaking to no-one, before going home alone to his empty bed. Until one night he came in changed, his old self again, cracking jokes and shouting drinks. Someone, he confided, was coming to meet him; he would not say who. As the evening’s violent thunder storm abated, however, and the night wore on, Cyril’s confident scrying of the door turned anxious, then glum. At closing time he went downstairs as usual, hitched his horse to his cart and gee-ed it into the road. A white shape loomed ahead on Tamar Street, the horse shied and reared, the cart turned over, with Cyril underneath . . . at the climax of this hoary tale, Bethany pulled out from somewhere a severed head and let it dangle gruesomely by its hair in the lamplight. This was Cyril’s and if we wanted to see the rest of him, we were advised to photograph the mirrors or in the corners of the room. The next place was also within the purview of the Royal Oak, a dank old set of undertaker’s rooms next door that had been re-purposed as, of all things, a backpacker’s lodge. Men in the morgue, women in the embalming room. There’d been a fatal fire a few years back, a lanky Scotsman, name of Callum, burned alive. It was actually murder, Bethany whispered. He’d found out someone was milking the till and this fellow started the fire in order to silence him. Callum was locked in his room without a key. Then she distracted us by pointing to a picture of the undertaker on the wall behind and, at the same time, artfully knocking out the prop holding a coffin lid open, so that it banged suddenly shut and scared us all half to death. Everybody screamed. I trod on my own foot. Confected from subterfuge, bad faith and naivety, it was worse than any ghost could possibly have been. I was thinking, if she took us into another of these dreary underground cells, I’d go back to the hotel and leave them to it; but after the Royal Oak the walk turned into a history and hearsay tour instead. We stood near an ochre wall, against which pencil cypresses grew, while Bethany told us about the Lavender Lady who has haunted the Princess Theatre since the night when, hurrying after interval to take her place in the chorus line of The Merry Widow, she plunged headfirst into the orchestra pit and broke her neck. That show has not been performed again at the Princess. Her ghost companion is Max Oldaker, singer, actor, composer, who once understudied Rex Harrison as Henry Higgins in the English stage production of My Fair Lady. His ghost blows kisses to ladies from the balcony; is said on occasion to pinch men’s bottoms. At St John’s Anglican church we heard the story of the commandant’s mad wife, she who wanted an edifice built four times the size of the monstrous one before us; who was, despite her husband’s edict against burials in churchyards, herself immured somewhere in that great Gothic pile. Maggie reckoned she knew exactly where, having seen her ghost peering from a window above the nave. Outside the former Church Grammar Boys School, now the Quality Hotel on Elizabeth Street, we heard about the headmaster who drowned three of his more recalcitrant pupils on an early morning boating excursion on the Tamar, buried their bodies in the basement of his austere Georgian house across the road, then took his (slightly reduced) English class, as usual. These boys scratch their names on the window panes, they run rampant through the building night and morning, guests hear their shrill high voices calling down the corridors. On a corner opposite an ornately built and luridly lit nineteenth century church (now a design centre) on St John’s Road, lived a doctor who kept his insane and/or deformed patients locked in the basement and operated upon them while they were still alive, practising lobotomies and leucotomies, dragging their brains out using long metal hooks inserted through their nostrils. After dark he would trawl the streets of the town and bring back comatose drunkards upon whom he would continue to prosecute his nefarious experiments. Bethany said the building is still owned by a medical man, a pathologist called John Wayne Millwood, who had recently been convicted and jailed for paedophilia; there was a petition going round demanding he be stripped of the heritage award he received for his magnificent restoration of the premises. It was while we were standing there on the street corner, looking across the diagonal to the doctor’s rooms, that Maggie said she could smell something medicinal upon the wind. And indeed I smelled something too; and so, when prompted, did the others. Formaldehyde, I wondered. Hmmm, said Bethany, that hasn’t happened before; and added it to her list of manifestations. It could of course have come, not from some netherworld of mutilation and agonising death, but from the nursing home up the road. Who is to say? There was a bronze statue of a good doctor on the steps leading down to Princes Square, the first man in the country to use, way back in 1847, ether as an anaesthetic. Dr William Russ Pugh administered the ether, using a device he made himself, in order to excise a tumour from the lower jaw of a young woman; later to remove a cataract from an old man’s eye. It was in fact Pugh who built the rooms we had been looking at, with his own laboratory, wherein he made the anaesthetic—boiling two parts alcohol and one part sweet oil of vitriol (sulphuric acid) and then distilling the vapours. In the very place which his inheritors have so shamed with their perversions and indulgences. So maybe it was not formaldehyde at all that we had smelled, but sulphuric ether? Our last stop was at a stable down a laneway, where one brick had been removed from the back wall, making a slit too high to press your eye to the gap to see the ghost horses shifting and blowing within. Here Bethany told us the culmination of the Ballad of Cyril and Elizabeth. She had returned, with her banker husband, to this northern town, where he had been assigned to manage the local branch. Cyril was still at the Royal Oak; they were still in love; the banker, who knew, confined Elizabeth to their house and refused to allow anyone but her sister to visit. It was with the sister, then, that she conspired to elope with Cyril; and, on the night of the thunder storm, packed a suitcase and made her way down here, to the stables, to hire a horse for the flight. But the sister, as sisters will, betrayed her; and, while lightning glimmered and thunder cracked, the banker accosted Elizabeth in the laneway and stabbed her with a knife until she was dead. It was her ghost, so recently severed from its flesh and bone, which surprised Cyril outside the Royal Oak, causing his cart to overturn, decapitating the faithful retainer. They are, of course, together forever now. Their horses too.

 

III

McRae’s Hills

Road

The Norfolk Plains were blanketed with mist, out of which appeared high-wheeled tractors like war chariots from some as yet unmade Star Wars movie. The fields were full of arcane machinery which laboured, I presume, in the service of agri-business: but what was the product? It wasn’t clear. Orange merinos in green fields, just as we had seen them once outside of Wagga. Vines, perhaps. Opium poppies: Papaver somniferum, used to make codeine and morphine, is grown around here. Longford, where the painter Tom Roberts is buried, was drawn out, a main street slow as a wet week, down which we drove as if through an avenue of dark facades looming from the white of the mind. Maggie was on her phone, formatting the photographs of ghosts she had taken the night before so that she could send them to Bethany. I didn’t really know where McRae’s Hills was; in my head was the advice—from a website called Tasmanian Gothic, in a post entitled The List of Lost Things—that it was in the Bracknell district. So towards Bracknell we drove, through a maze of narrow roads, confusingly signposted and, because of the mist, impossible to fix properly, geographically: we were heading south and west and that was all I knew. Somewhere out there were the foothills of the Great Western Tiers, a series of bluffs which make up the northern edge of the Central Highlands Plateau which, in turn, forms the mountainous interior of the island. I had not seen so much road kill since passing through south-western Queensland ten years before: possums, mostly, but also wild cats, small wallabies, and other unidentified marsupial corpses squashed into the macadam. Bandicoots, perhaps; quolls and potoroos; pademelons and bettongs. The crows—actually ravens—grown fat and glossy on this bounty, flapped or waddled casually to the verge as we went by then returned to their bloody feast. Unaccountably, miraculously, the mist lifted as we drove in to Bracknell: a flat town laid out on a grid of wide streets, with no discernible centre. The pub was closed, there were half a dozen expensive cars parked outside the church hall, a showground sported the characteristic double goal posts used by members of the Australian Football League to play Rules. The local team is called the Redlegs. All the streets were named after women and on each corner were portraits, painted on tin, attached below the signs: Ada, Louisa, Maria. We went on towards Liffey, looking for someone to ask for directions. We found him near a T intersection, just below the blue bluffs of the Western Tiers, a cheerful fellow with a Jack Russell at his feet, talking on his mobile phone and doing something in the back of his ute. He ended the call and came over. Yeah, he said slowly, I know McRae’s Hills. It’s that way. He gestured towards the east. See that line of ridge? Down there. Past Cressy, Poatina way. Near Brumby’s Creek. He noticed I was still wearing on my leather jacket the sticker Bethany had given me on the Ghost Walk. Plenty of stories like that about McRae’s Hills, he said. Like what? I asked. Blackwood Creek Road, he said, pointing down the left fork of the T junction. Horse and cart goes along there on dark nights. People say. I asked who drove it? I dunno, he said. Nobody does. The most famous legend about McRae’s is this one, told in the words of local historian K R von Stieglitz: McRae’s Hills was named by Christopher McRae, who arrived with his wife in the 1820s. His brother John owned Abyssinia on the Clyde River, near Bothwell. Christopher and his wife were sitting by the fire one evening when a knock came at the door. McRae himself went to answer it. His wife heard him speaking in low tones to some other man for a few minutes. Later he went out, shutting the door behind him, telling his wife that he would not be long away. Two days later, following an intensive search, his dead body was found in a hollow log up on the run about two miles from the house. It was supposed by many that the murder had been committed by a bush-ranger who had come that night to lure him away into the bush. Others knew that there were more sinister implications connected with the tragedy. The house is a stone-built, two-storey, ochre-coloured, slate-roofed Georgian mansion, standing on a slight rise, its back to the Western Tiers, looking north over the Norfolk Plains. My cousin went there: It was a ruin. Most of the roof and all of the window frames had gone. The keystone above the front door had fallen and pulverised the steps leading up to the entrance. At the back of the house was a rickety framework, the remains of an abandoned attempt by a previous owner in the 1980s to restore and extend the building. The house was open to the weather and to animals, its floor thickly encrusted with sheep shit. It was a squalid and dejected place. Our ancestors, the McLeods, lived there in the 1850s and 60s, working for John Stronach, a relative, who was in turn employed (at 100 quid a year) as farm manager by John Thompson, who’d purchased the property, along with a couple of others, as recently as 1853. They worked and saved for ten years, until they had enough money to buy a place of their own, marginal land away to the north at Silver Mines. But what were the sinister implications Stieglitz mentions? I have no idea: unless they are contained in this passage, immediately following the one quoted above: Opposite McRae’s Hills across the road, was Sandridge, a property that belonged to the Saltmarsh family in those days. Part of the old place has now been incorporated into the new Bluegong house. It is recorded that Mrs Saltmarsh was young and beautiful at this time. Adultery, then? And a crime of passion? We decided not to go to McRae’s Hills after all: the house is off the road, on farmland, and my cousin had to get permission to walk in there. Instead, we’d go north to Silver Mines, aka Winkleigh, to look for further traces of the McLeods there. I thanked the fellow with the Jack Russell and, just as another ute pulled up, climbed back into the car. I was thinking about the next passage in Stieglitz’s history: At the Racecourse Hotel in Longford, where many a weary waggoner called in to wash the dust from his mouth, there arrived one Saturday night, some harvest hands with all their wages to be spent. One of them put two gold sovereigns on the counter and called for drinks all round. As quick as a flash, a woman standing near the bar put the sovereigns into her mouth and swallowed them. Three of the men forced her jaws apart, but when they found that the money had gone out of sight, they killed her by hitting her on the head with a bottle and then cut her open to find the cursed gold. The three men were hanged on Gibbet Hill afterwards for this murder.

 

IV

Silver Mines 

Grave

The country north of Westbury was hilly and wooded and we sometimes saw logging trucks, the bane of every island highway or so I have been told. It could have been New Zealand—the Taupo-Rotorua road, perhaps, or somewhere near Murupara—except there were no dark plantations of pinus radiata such as you see in the old country. After we turned off towards Glengarry—scattered along the edge of the road like bits and pieces after a car crash, Rod wrote—the landscape became gentler, more cultivated, rolling hill country, green-brown paddocks where sheep and cattle grazed, the odd orchard. Always a strangely shaped blue rampart on the horizon in the distance. A dead cat lay squished on the side of the road, a live cat sniffing at the corpse: it turned and slunk back into the long grass and we wondered if it was a feral or a farm cat? Soon after that we saw a cluster of gravestones on the side of a hill and realised this must be the cemetery Rod had written about: . . . on a hill sloping up from the road. The grass had been kept down but was rough and uneven and wild flowers grew around the older graves. There were trees above and around the graveyard and across the road was open pasture stretching to a low range of thickly wooded hills. It was peaceful and sheltered with a gentle prospect. There was a melancholy completeness to the scene and for the first time I felt in touch with what I sought. I left sprigs of heather on the two unmarked graves. These are probably those of our great-great-grandparents, Murdo and Margaret McLeod, the father and mother of Catherine. They repose within an ornate wrought iron enclosure next to what is, to my eye, the handsomest stone in the cemetery: upright, grey, with a rounded top, a ridged back and patches of rusty orange where lichen has grown across it. There was a wreath with what looked like a lily flower upon it engraved into the stone at the top and beneath that memorial lines for Alexander Stronach and his wife Georgina. Alexander was likely Margaret McLeod’s older brother or half-brother. There are no other McLeods commemorated in the cemetery however; but there are Camerons, McKenzies, Stewarts, even some Campbells. (When I told this to my friend, who is a Mcdonall, he remarked: Campbell is a very poor choice of an ancestor.) These are the names of families who came out on the Sir Allan McNab in 1854; they dispersed to different parts of the island, worked as wage labourers until they had enough money saved, and then reconvened, as it were, purchasing tracts of what was in those days uncleared land in the area then called Silver Mines. It was most poignant to think of these people, all born within cooee of each other back in the Highlands, now lying at rest in the same piece of foreign, if hallowed, ground. Their graves all facing east, in sure and certain hope of the resurrection. I could imagine them muttering to one another in Gaelic—or whatever language the dead speak—in their cold entangled catacombs underground. At the top of the slope stood two benches, with elegant open wrought iron fretwork in their backrests. I sat on one of these, in full sunlight, facing away from the graves, and asked Maggie to take a picture. She did then said: why don’t you point away to where your ancestors are? I did, and those images are keepers. In one of them you can see, across the other side of the road, a wrecker’s yard full of car bodies, silent analogues of the old tooled stones beneath which lie huddled those Scottish bones, amongst which are the pair which bore a proportion of our DNA with them halfway across the world. Silver Mines, the district’s original designation, is a misnomer: there is only forgotten silver here. Even Winkleigh, if it ever was a town, is one no more. Just the cemetery and, further down Flowery Gully Road, a wooden church (deconsecrated, sold off) and a community hall. It was a Presbyterian church and there my people would have prayed and sung. We went the other way, towards Supply River and, on the far side of a stone bridge, found another church. Timber-built, in 1861, it belonged to the Methodists and, unlike the one at Winkleigh, still held services—albeit under the auspices of the Uniting Church. It was locked, of course, but you could peer in through the facetted windows to the plain unadorned wooden interior, the hard upright pews, the small organ to the right of the altar, the lectern where the preacher stood, the old photographs hung upon the east wall. It had a graveyard too, and a special plaque on a stone plinth which listed the names of those who lay here without a marker upon their burial plots. A tiny emerald-green spider moved across the engraved and inlaid metal as I read. As at Winkleigh, certain names recurred: Brown, Kerrison, Stonehouse. Hitchcock the most resonant. There was another kind of spider which spread its webs horizontally across the wet grass, like so many dropped and dewy ladies’ handkerchiefs. A corrugated iron dunny stood out the back, before the fence line and a row of macrocarpa trees. The Supply River rises near Kelly’s Lookout in the Mount Careless Forest Reserve and flows north-east into the Tamar at Robigana. It received its curious name in 1804, when those on the Lady Nelson, despatched from Sydney to prevent the island being claimed by the French, used a waterfall just a few hundred metres up from the confluence to replenish their water supplies. The road follows the river for a way and we followed the road, eventually trending south-east towards Exeter and then directly south and so back to Launceston. I had a cheese, bacon and Mount Grim beef pie for lunch and Maggie one filled with cauliflower cheese. We walked up Brisbane Street to Petrarch’s Bookshop, where I spent ages trying to decide whether to buy Stella Bowen’s memoir Drawn from Life (1941). She was an artist and writer whose fate it was to spend the best part of a decade (1918-1927) as the companion of Ford Madox Ford. It was during this period that Ford wrote his account of his friendship with Joseph Conrad and I thought there might be some mention of this in Bowen’s memoir. Alas, no. I left it in the stand, next to Douglas Stewart’s book about Kenneth Slessor and Hazel Rowley’s biography of Christina Stead (all second hand, from a local collector’s library) and bought Nicholas Shakespeare’s In Tasmania instead.

 

V

Cataract Gorge

gorge

We drove over Kings Bridge—single arch, wrought iron, pre-fabricated, floated into place by pontoon in 1864—parked the Hyundai, crossed the road and started along the Cataract Walk. This is a cliff path built by volunteer labour in the 1890s, running along the northern bank of the South Esk River where it flows, through a spectacular gorge, into the Tamar. It was cool and damp in the lee of the tumbled rocky walls rising above us. The river hissed and roared below. Maggie was still taking photographs: she must have made about a thousand captures by now. I used to wait for her but now I just keep on going, knowing she will catch up eventually. We have our phones if we miss each other. At a look-out halfway along I paused. I could see First Basin ahead, with a suspension bridge crossing to the south side and a chairlift, the longest in the world. (Launceston also has the world’s longest park bench, and used to have its smallest public park—go figure.) The people rocking and lurching in chairs suspended above the dark green water looking like ungainly birds; while their reflections resembled something more ominously insectivorous. I was looking at the piled outcrops of rocks on the further shore. Like so many formations elsewhere in this land, they seemed to contain within themselves images of the ancestors of the first people. Pareidolia again, I suppose, with the added complication that these presences were generally thought of as real by the totemic animists who preceded us. And, if this is so, persist existentially, if not in any other sense. The Palawa (a contested term) entered the island perhaps 40,000 years ago. There may have been four waves of people before the land bridge finally sank beneath the waves 8000 years ago, an occurrence still remembered in the oral tradition. They resolved, over time, into two moieties, the Nara in the west and the Mara in the east. These are language groups. Maybe 100,000 strong, maybe less: the first estimates were not made until after sealers had already brought in Western diseases. Smallpox, influenza, measles and the rest. The people who lived round here, according to some sources, were called the Lairmairrener and the gorge was one of their sacred sites. An unnamed clan chief, returning from exile in Wybalenna (Flinders Island) in 1847, was at first jubilant and then fell into lamentation over what he had lost. The Lairmairrener were the first clan of the so-called North Midlands people, one of the nine (or eight) nations of the Palawa, to disappear from the land: after about 1830 they were no longer to be seen along the Tamar. They called the estuary Kanamaluka; Launceston was Taggener; though both these names, and indeed all linguistic reconstructions, are speculative, perhaps even fanciful. Their neighbours to the west were the Panninher, whose lands included those we had driven over looking for McRae’s Hills. They mined ochre and flint and exchanged it with the Lairmairrener and with other clans and nations. There was a massacre of Panninher near Cressy in the 1820s and record of a retaliatory raid, a war party of 100 to 150 stout men, led by a man called Eumarrah, somewhere near the base of the Western Tiers in 1831. Stout men: Tongerlongetter, chief of the Paredareme (Oyster Bay) people, away to the east, was said to have been six feet ten inches tall. He lost an arm in a claw trap set in a storehouse to prevent pilfering. The trap was found about 100 yards from the hut, and the hand in it. The unfortunate creature must have undergone dreadful agony, as we hear that the sinews and tendons of the arm were drawn out by main force, and to use the expression of our informant, resembled those of the tail of a kangaroo. By contrast, Truganini, a Nyunoni woman, popularly thought of as the last of her tribe (she was not) is said to have been under four feet in height and of much the same measure in breadth. Who knows? The first Vandemonians seen by Europeans (the French) were, like the Patagonians, accounted giants. How could Truganini have been less than four feet tall? There are photographs in which she does not look in the least bit midget-like. Another description: exquisitely formed, with small and beautifully rounded breasts. An American ship’s captain, who saw her near the end of her life, remarked upon her beautiful eyes. A necklace she made survives: of green Mariner shells, each the size of a child’s tooth. The shells got their colour from being steeped in urine before their outsides were scratched off. In the picture I have seen of this necklace, it resembles a map of Tasmania. When Tongerlongetter, aka King William, in exile on Flinders Island, died of pneumonia in 1837, he was given a Christian burial. His companions, wearing European clothes, sang: From Egypt lately come / Where death and darkness reign / We seek a better home / Where we our rest shall gain. Truganini’s last words, just before her own death in 1876, were: Don’t let them cut me, but bury me behind the mountains. When it rains in the Central Highlands, the water in Cataract Gorge can rise twelve metres in half an hour. But what flood could sweep away the stain of this island’s stories? I had a song in my head. North Wind Blowing, by The Stranglers: When hollow victory has been won / Who will join in the celebration of / An evil that can’t be undone // North winds blowing / I wish they’d blow you all away. I was still standing looking at the rocky faces opposite when two women came up. One, about my own age, had crimson hair and an interestingly lined face; her companion was a bit older and they were both from New South Wales: Drummoyne and Berry, respectively. They wanted to know how long it was until they would see the confluence of the South Esk and the Tamar. I wasn’t sure: ten minutes? Maggie arrived, her eyes bright with suspicion. They’re lesbians, I said, as they walked away. Lesbians are women too, she said and then she laughed. Later, as we were going back to the car, they passed us, returning the way they had come. It was our last day on the Tamar. We were leaving in the morning, leaving all those ghosts behind. And yet: isn’t it the case that any ghost, once seen, or otherwise perceived, remains with you always? Weren’t we taking with us a vast freight of images, some in the camera, others in our heads? How would we ever be free of them? Did we even want to be? There are no answers to these questions, which isn’t a reason not to ask them. The Palawa knew many spirits: nama burag, ghost of the thunder storm; ragi roba, ghost of the dead, who flies on the wind; laga robana, dreadful spirit of the dead; maian ginja, the killer, bringer of death; bade nala, shadow man; kana tana, bone man; muran bugana luwana, bright spirit of the night, a lovely woman clothed in grass; nangina, a sprite who lives inside a hill, fond of dancing and of children; buga nubrana, man’s eye, who is the sun and thought to be benign; and many more now lost to human memory. As the plane rose into the air, I saw the North Esk River, Lakekeller, running through the wide brown valley below. When the drinks cart came along, Maggie asked for a Bloody Mary and I ordered lemon, lime and bitters. Go easy on the bitters, I said. Bitters.

Stromach

 

All images c. Maggie Hall

 

 

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