Authors: Shirley Walker
Shirley Walker is an Honorary Research Fellow at the University of New England. She is a Past President of ASAL, the Association for the Study of Australian Literature, and the Founding Director of CALLS, the Centre for Australian Language and Literature Studies at UNE. She has published five books including
The Ghost at the Wedding
which won the Kibble Literary Award and was joint winner of the Asher Literary Award. She now lives on the; far north coast of New South Wales, between the escarpment and the sea.
For Eileen Alannah
I would like to thank Carmel Bird, Alison Hoddinott, Brenda Walker and the elusive LF, all of whom read and commented on this work in progress. Their advice and encouragement were invaluable. I owe an enormous debt of gratitude to the Eleanor Dark Foundation for a Varuna Writers Fellowship in 1999. In the stimulating atmosphere of Varuna I was able to complete the manuscript. I'm particularly grateful to Varuna's Director, Peter Bishop, for his attentive reading, his judicious comments and, above all, his encouragement. My thanks are also due to Rosanne Fitzgibbon for her careful editing of the text and Madonna Duffy of the University of Queensland Press for her consideration and encouragement.
Italics are invariably used for quotations; they are also used throughout the text for passages intended to highlight the emotional impact of a particular experience or location.
I would remind the reader that no memoir is entirely reliable. Family stories in particular can't be trusted, nevertheless something of the essential is always preserved. For instance the experience of a small child, punished for wetting the bed by being made to stand in a cloister wrapped in his wet sheet until morning, represents the essence of orphanage experience; while the story of a father diving deep into the flood to retrieve a sunken boat and save his family becomes the truth of his character, of what a father is and does. It's the same with location, particularly the landscapes of childhood. A lighthouse on the Cape or the calm reflective surface of the Big River soon lose their geographical truth. They become focal points around which experience swirls, gathers, then settles into a pattern. Such locations and stories present a quite different truth, that of memory and desire.
. I live in a valley in the rainforest. Around us is the remnant of the Big Scrub which once covered the land from north of Murwillumbah to the Richmond River. Beneath the tangle of giant softwoods, cedar, rosewood and teak, the envy of the cabinet makers of the world, is a warm maze of fern and lawyer vine. The smell of cut timber permeates the air as the massive trees are felled and the logs hauled to the mill. The houses which line the single street of the village are for the most part built of raw timber, with tin roofs and tin fireplaces. Verandahs and tankstands are festooned with staghorns, elkhorns, haresfoot ferns and orchids from the scrub.
The valley with its two creeks, Terania and Tuntable, is encircled by the cleared flanks of the mountains, green with paspalum, studded with the stumps of the rainforest trees. Behind are high bluffs, and beyond them the serrated peaks of the Nightcap Range, and then Mount Warning. The great mountain, an extinct volcano, is seen only from the heights yet its presence is always felt, kingfisher blue, looming in the distance.
Returning to this place sixty years later I am stunned by my familiarity with a skyline imprinted on my consciousness since birth; it cannot be supplanted by any other sweep of horizon, no matter how much loved or newly familiar. There is an almost physical shock of recognition as the primal horizon superimposes itself on the mind and settles into its own place. This is home, the place of birth, of the birth of consciousness.
Here days seem eternal. One of the few time-markers is the noon plane, a Stinson I learn later, which passes over the valley each day on its way from Brisbane to Sydney. To us it is as distant as the moon, but still a reminder of the great world outside the valley. This is the plane which later crashes on the Lamington Plateau in a cyclone, a famous episode in Australian aviation history. The survivors are lost in the jungle for almost a week. One seeks help, crawling on lacerated knees through stinging nettles and lawyer vines. Bernard O'Reilly, the bushman who finds them, is a national hero, and the event becomes folklore, then myth.
Another time-marker is the lighting of kerosene lamps in the kitchens of distant hill-farms. We kneel, my sister and I, on a kitchen stool by the casement window, watching one light after another come on, and naming the familiar homesteads as the milking is finished and families come home to tea. We wind up the gramophone, a portable His Master's Voice left with us by a sophisticated aunt who is a typist in faraway Canberra, and play the hits of the thirties. âWhen It's Lamp-lighting Time in the Valley' seems written just for us, but we love the Gladys Moncrieff, the Bing Crosby and Jessie Matthews records which our mother brings home from Lismore, twelve miles away.
This then is the primal scene: the dusk is as perfumed as Aphrodite with the stocks, wisteria and may bush in our mother's garden; the rainforest edges closer with the strange cries of its nocturnal birds and animals; the full moon rises behind the great shoulder of the mountains; the gramophone plays and the lights of the valley come on one by one. All is well, and seems as permanent as time itself.
How difficult it is to recall the dawn of consciousness. Memory irons out the ambiguities, casts a sepia glow over the past. One of my uncles, for instance, states in his memoir that he
grew up in paradise,
and he probably did in terms of natural beauty. He doesn't mention however that his father died when he was two, that his older brothers tossed him screaming from one to another like a puppy, and often threw him into the deep water-hole to see whether he could swim or not. He's not here any longer but I'm sure he hadn't forgotten any of this.
Sixty-five years later I return. I need to distil both the beauty and the bitterness of this place. I also need to lay to rest the two contending spirits, those of my parents, whose lives were intertwined, not only through marriage and children, but also through the intimacy of recrimination, of the reliving and feasting off past hurts. Love and bitterness were hopelessly dependent on each other.
I sit in the butcher's shop at The Channon where my father once worked; now it's a restaurant and craft gallery serving quiche, carrot cake and oily, over-stewed black coffee. Somnolent flies crawl on tables covered with a plasticised Liberty print, Enya sings soothingly in the background. Noticeboards inform of parents' meetings, of home-birth clinics, of therapeutic massage and re-birthing workshops. The hills and mountains are now peopled with dope-smokers and growers, the builders of fantastic and gravity-defying dwellings, basket-weavers, flute players, Buddhist monks and Hare Krishnas. How can it be possible to reconstruct the past in a present so different? And indeed what are memories? Of facts and sensations there are too many. They come, prompted by place, atmosphere, the scents of garden and rainforest, but the mind is ever busily selecting, highlighting, suppressing. The craft shop is full of memories; one in particular of the sweet and pungent smell of the hay shed beside the shop, the discovery there of a mother cat and kittens, the squirming and purring of the kittens in the warm hay, and the chomping and stamping of the draught horses outside. Pure sensation, but contaminated by ambiguous memories of a father who is usually uneasy with his children, but who loves cats, and for once allows us into his territory to share his discovery.
I begin again, determined to concentrate on facts. I am seven. My sister and I live with our father and mother in a house which is at last our own after two rented houses at The Channon. It has electricity â the first time for us â with pull cords to switch the lights on and off and a pilot light above the power point in the kitchen. There are decorative plaster ceilings, and our first tin bath. This house is built on the site of an earlier cottage which burnt down, and my sister and I play with twisted and fantastic spirals of melted glass, some as beautiful as the products of Venetian factories. In the garden are dusty yuccas, Californian poppies, purple four o'clocks and a nightshade on the fence, flaunting its white flowers and poisonous blue-black berries. These are plants which have somehow survived the fire. There is a big shed with a floor of trampled gravel and a vegetable garden which goes right down to the overgrown and weedy creek. The soil is deep and black. Here vegetables sprout and flourish as if overnight, and there are oranges, lemons, mandarins, cherry guavas and macada-mia trees (which grow wild in the hills anyway). The ownership of this house is a big achievement for my father, who is still only twenty-eight years old.
We have two house cows. Olga is a raw-boned and hostile red cow and the brindle heifer is just the Brindle Heifer. We must find them each afternoon after school, and bring them home to be milked. The milk is then set in large enamel dishes, the cream skimmed off and made into pats of butter imprinted with the thistle on the wooden butter-pat. We go barefoot most of the time, hopping on one foot or the other with stone-bruises, or to avoid bindies, stinging nettles or scotch thistles. We wander after the two cows up the Tuntable or Terania Creek roads, blue-metalled and sharp on the feet. We wander far up into the rainforest, onto lonely bluffs where we survey the valley, trying to pick out the cows in the distance. Within the forest we enter a world of dim green light where the fallen boles of ancient trees are carpeted with plush emerald-green moss. We force a path through the maidenhair fern, dodging the stinging trees and the sharp thorns of the lawyer vines. Emerging onto the roadside we pick wild raspberries or limes, or play cubbies in the lantana, sitting on the rich red loam where it is always damp and the light never enters.
The village has one street, with the school at the top of the hill, the butter factory at the bottom, and the general store and the butcher's shop halfway down. The butter factory is alive with activity. Lights blaze until all hours of the night. Lorries pull up to drop their loaded cans of cream, with a roar of motors and clang of the cans. The noise of machinery is deafening. The large sign above the factory â
NORCO CO-OP PTY LTD
â is the first thing I learn to read apart from the school primers, and I puzzle over
Why is it
Timber lorries stir up the dust and there is still a bullock team to pull the logs out of the rainforest. One day a huge log, up to my seven-year-old eyes, is dumped in the wide road in front of the house, the rich heartwood and crumbling red loam spilling like blood from its centre. I watch the bullock team drag it there, straining, heaving, under the whip. I circumnavigate it warily, watching it bleed to death.
Our father works in the butcher's shop, chopping up the meat on a big timber stump, scored by years of chopping, and scrubbed and scraped down to a new surface every day. His hands are deft; he sharpens his knife on a steel, slices the meat with sure strokes, makes sausages by hand, does up parcels of meat for the farms around and labels them with indelible pencil. These are called
He starts work before dawn, harnessing the horse to the high butcher's cart and setting off on rounds which take him up precipitous roads and over the bluff called Koonorigan and almost to Nimbin, or along Tuntable or Terania Creek and, twice a week, past his mother's place at Keerrong.
He likes people and they like him, both men and women, but especially women. With a dry wit and teasing manner, he is the typical Australian larrikin. He is immensely attractive but his temper is unreliable, particularly at home. He is also the local football star. He has played for Country against the English team in 1929, and narrowly missed selection for the English tour. Now he wears his maroon football blazer with the white kangaroo on the pocket all winter, for he has no warm clothes. He whistles all the popular tunes, and we can always hear him coming whistling down the hill. My mother and sister sing along around the house: Irish and Scottish folk songs, nostalgic plantation songs of the American South, and inappropriate American hits such as âSouth of the Border, down Mexico Way'. I am tone-deaf, and told to keep quiet, but Georgia and Old Virginie become mythical places of my mind, and I'm sure that they are just over the hill, somewhere near Dunoon.
Our father knows all the trees and birds of the rainforest where he grew up. He disappears on shooting trips and comes home with a sugarbag full of scrub turkey and wonga pigeon, as well as the fruits of the rainforest and its verges â figs, cape gooseberries and tree tomatoes. He fishes for perch in Terania Creek, and we run to find him, his place marked by the bamboo fishing rod twitching above the she-oaks and wild cherries. Black snakes slither away in the paspalum and bullrouts lurk in the weedy creek, but we know we are safe with him.
He takes me on his rounds of the isolated farmhouses, as a rare birthday treat. The butcher's cart is elaborate and top-heavy, pulled by a skittish horse. It lurches dangerously around steep corners above precipitous drops. From our perch we look far, far down into the valley where the silver trail of Tuntable Creek flows. Fold upon fold of the hills, reaching up to the horizon against the sky, are defined by silky oaks and monumental Norfolk and bun-yah pines. Each farmhouse is hemmed in, protected from the sun by coral and jacaranda trees, imports from South America. My father whistles as he goes, but is ill-at-ease with me, his second child, born after he had left my mother to go shearing at Char-leville. Now they are having a second try at marriage, and to him I probably represent the reason for his reluctant return.
The cart is inscribed on the sides and back with many curlicues and scrolls and the label:
PETER SIVEWRIGHT BUTCHER THE CHANNON
. Even the cart does not belong to my father. Apart from the new house he has owned nothing and will own very little all his life. The parcels of meat are loaded and unloaded through double doors at the back of the cart. If my father is a long time in a particular farmhouse while I wait in the red dirt by the road or sit among the salvias by a drystone wall, or if the farmer's wife bids him a particularly warm farewell at the gate, I don't consider it unusual.
My own birth, I learn much later, was a dramatic occasion. I was born at Dongrayald Hospital, Lismore, in July 1927, after a twelve-mile dash from Keerrong in Councillor Green's car, an open tourer with a wide running-board down each side. Councillor Green is a member of the Shire Council, and therefore someone of distinction in this small community. He is always given the full title. According to my mother's account she howled, screamed, railed, tried to jump out, to throw herself under the wheels. This has been confirmed by her sister-in-law, a year younger than herself, who held onto her in the back seat, desperately trying to calm her. Her howls were not only for the physical pain, although she was never stoical about that; they were cries of utter desolation. Her husband had left her two months before to go shearing at Charleville, probably the furthest point he could then imagine, and his mother had taken her and her two-year-old child into an already crowded house. Later he became more ingenious, toying all of my childhood with the notion of escaping to New Guinea, where his brother was a district officer, and finally absconding to Tasmania after thirty-two years of marriage. She imagines that he is having a high old time in Charleville. He plays first-grade football with the Charleville Christian Brothers and is once again a sporting hero. He sends her a packet of snapshots, one of himself posed beside an open touring car in front of some bottle trees on the wide and dusty plains of central Queensland. The black-and-white snapshot shows the strange and grotesque trees, the uncertain light; he seems as far away as the moon. One of the snaps is of the shearing team and she notes with alarm that the cook is a woman, a raw-boned female called Olga, according to the writing on the back of the snapshot. Later she calls our hostile red cow Olga.