He sat at his desk. The front door was thrown open and slammed shut. Heels clacked into the kitchen, then returned to climb, with intent purpose, as if on a stepper, the wooden stairs. He turned to her. She rested against the doorway.
“A good evening?” he said.
“Of course. You know what
Martha’s parties are like—well, no, you don’t—take it from me.”
He was silent, so she answered
the unspoken question.
“It got late. I stayed.”
He nodded. “Right.”
She released the doorway. “I
had fun—I drank vodka, I danced, there was music and happiness.
You don’t approve, I know. Not in older women.
“I’m glad you had fun.”
“Sure you are, Harry.”
She stared at him, then swung
around and clattered down the stairs. We should carpet them, he
thought, then wondered at the ‘we’ of it. The percolator bubbled,
and the aroma drifted up.
He turned back to his work. He
told his friends he was writing a book on Judith Wright, the poet.
It had been in the back of his mind for years—decades, even—but
nothing had come of it. You couldn’t, he admitted, plead pressure of
work. He had been a middle-ranking public servant responsible for
lower-income tenants of state housing. He had done his job
conscientiously, though largely without the thanks either of his
superiors or his clients. His position had been cut and he’d retired
early, with a package. The book was supposed to be the retirement
project. Meg had been unimpressed: she wanted him to become an
entrepreneur, working from home. He continued to resist, mulishly.
And now, it had to be said, there was nothing to be done but to write
It had been far more difficult
than he had imagined. He’d read until his eyes had blurred, had
jotted down references and notes and outlines, but had composed only
a few thin paragraphs which didn’t approach the prose of his
imagination. He wondered how you could capture the surge of the
poems as they broke in the mind. Perhaps, he thought, the decades
have choked the old springs. Or perhaps, after hundreds, thousands
of memos and reports, he’d simply forgotten how to write.
Judith Wright was twenty-nine,
he mused, and Jack McKinney fifty-three when they met, as the war was
ending—a bookish researcher from an old pastoral family, and a
veteran from the earlier war still suffering shell-shock. She wrote
later of his charm and overflowing talk and Irish wit. But beneath
the banter was a shared recognition that the flashes that had
obliterated two Japanese cities had changed everything. They saw it
had all gone wrong. He pursued the track of it through philosophy,
without academic training, with only the clarity and passion of that
bleak vision. She sought it in her own mind and heart, and in her
country and her family’s history, and made her poems from it. They
found a three-room weatherboard shack, and later a roomy house, in
the Queensland ranges above rainforests, and lived, and loved, there,
remaking the world because there was nothing else to be done.
What was that kind of life,
thought Harry, tapping a pencil on the desk, that partnership of
fire—purifying, sustaining, regenerative? How could you know it,
He picked up the book, a
history of the Queensland pastoral industry, but couldn’t settle. He
made a call, then pulled on a jacket and went down to the kitchen.
“I’m going to the park. For
“A walk? You’ll need more
than that. Look at yourself, Harry—obese at sixty. You’ll have a
“I’m not obese.”
“Denial, Harry.” Meg
smoothed her tights, her toned thighs. She’d cropped her hair and
dyed it brown, to take out the grey. It lay in wiry licks across her
head. “Join the gym, get running, anything. It’s not all over
“’Rage, rage,’” he said to
Her lip curled and she turned
“I like walking,” he said.
“It does me good. Albo’s coming.”
“Albo! So you’ll sit on a
bench and smoke.”
“I don’t smoke any more, you
know that. I don’t even have any tobacco.”
You smoke too much–Gunter
Grass, in a poem to his wife on their anniversary, with love.
Her back was held against him.
No obesity there—her ribs ridged through the cotton.
It was early spring and the
park was at its loveliest—the ovals still in their winter green,
the walks bordered by flowering gums, red blossoms swirled, as if by
a brush, against the glossy green. The wattles were still out, and
the path was golden under his feet.
Albo shambled amiably towards
“Nice day for it,” he said.
“Are we walking?”
“I doubt it.”
Harry nodded. They sat down on
one of the green benches placed for oval spectators. Albo took a
wallet from his pocket, flipped out a paper, teased tobacco into it
and passed it to Harry. They rolled their cigarettes with care,
appreciating the communal craft of it. The smoke drifted fragrantly
between them and into the leaves above. A young couple moved round
the shoulder of the running track and into the straight before them.
The man moved easily, spare, well-muscled, the woman in a flushed
bloom. His heart tightened and he looked away.
“You should be doing a bit of
that,” said Albo, gesturing with his cigarette.
“So should you.”
A flight of lorikeets burst
from the flowering gums and swooped away from them in emerald
“There’s a good story going
around,” said Albo. “Gough at the airport.”
Harry smiled. He’d heard it,
but it was worth hearing again.
“After he’d left politics.
He’s striding ahead, the lackeys behind him with the luggage. He
goes through security and all the bells and whistles go off. He
never blinks. ‘I think you’ll find it’s my aura,’ he says.”
Albo imitated the throaty disdain and fell into a coughing laughter,
the smoke escaping from his mouth in puffs.
“The old bastard,” said
Harry. “There was a lion.”
“A lion,” Albo spluttered.
“Look what we have now.”
“Not a bloody lion in sight.”
The best government we ever
had, Harry thought—just the two of them, Whitlam and Barnard. They
split the ministries between them and for two weeks spoke for us,
acted for us. It had been the breaking of the dam, of the despair
and anguish and, finally, unreasonable hope of a decade. You don’t
remember all of it—the war in the jungles excepted, of course—but
you do remember that: the hope. Meg in jeans, on one of the marches,
her hair falling in a river of light down the lovely line of her
back, speaking with grave intensity to a young policeman whose eyes
moved uneasily behind his baton. We thought there was only us—on
us, hardly more than children, the world of it.
The runners were stretching
now, their shoulders shining in the sun.
“Come on, Albo, we’d better
“’Jesus Is Coming—Look
Harry grinned. “Something
They stubbed their cigarettes,
disposed of them in a bin, and set off. The pools of sunlight on the
path were warm on their backs—your life rose to it, thought Harry,
Harry shrugged. “Business as
“She looks great—fit as a
Harry said nothing. They
sifted through a drift of winter leaves.
Another path joined theirs and
they turned into it, around the back of the oval. The runners had
pulled on tracksuits—or were they sweats, Harry wondered—and were
walking away, their hips meeting from time to time, their hands
interlocked. O my dears, he thought.
“I’m going away, Albo.”
“What, for good?”
“ Don’t be ridiculous. Just
a trip. To Queensland.”
“You and the rest of the
country. Gold Coast?”
“Yes, but not the beaches.
The ranges—a mountain—Mount Tamborine.”
“What would you want to do
“Some research—for the
“Your old poet? At least do
“She’s not mine,” said
Harry, “and she wasn’t old, not even when she was. And there is
rainforest on Mount Tamborine. There’s a forest boardwalk named
They were back at the bench.
“Well, why not,” said Albo.
“Any excuse. Strange man, you.”
Harry pursed his lips
judiciously. “So they tell me,” he said.
He flew into Coolangatta, which
had a pleasantly dishevelled air—still a country airport, in spite
of the Gold Coast gloss—and hired a small car. He drove north,
between the ocean and the hills. The big B-doubles passed him with
irritated roars. The looping line of the volcanic ranges from
valleys to saddles to sharp peaks struck against his southern
sensibilities, constructed as they were from rounded, flattened,
sandstone and slate. He turned off at Oxenford—diverted by the
incongruity of that ancient name on this brash coast—and drove
across the flats, which near the foothills were dissected by
watercourses into small timbered farms. Almost before he was aware
of it he was into the mountain.
The hairpins were soon
overlooking gullies, some cultivated, others cupping remnants of
forest. As the road dipped and climbed the forest closed in, walls
of green, shade broken open into pools of sunlight, with traceries of
red and blue and yellow as the birds swooped between the trees. You
came this way, he said, with Jack, over half a century ago. Did you
drive up, in an old wheezing truck, your boxes of books and suitcases
tied onto the tray and slipping backwards on the steep grades? No,
he decided, those were still the days of country trains and buses.
You sat beside him, listening to his talk tumbling over itself. You
watched his face, his blue Irish eyes, which were bright with love,
as you knew, too, were yours.
At the top of the mountain the road circled beside a small park, housing an information centre. He turned off, parked and entered. He only knew the names they had given to their houses: ‘Quantum’ and ‘Calanthe’—sorry. The young woman, her fair hair tied back into a ponytail, was sceptical: a famous poet, you say? You sure? She went off to call the Council. He sat down to wait, browsing the literature. Parks, gardens, walks, wineries, lookouts, galleries, craft shops, fairs, festivals—a busy tourist centre, these days. Poets, evidently, not on the list. The young woman returned, suitably abashed. Yes, he was right, isn’t that interesting. Calanthe, he told her, is the name of a rare native orchid. He was about to add that Tamborine was the local Koori name, not the name of an instrument, but thought better of it. She thinned her lips and gave him the address.
It was less than two minutes
away. He pulled up short, on the other side of the road, from some
impulse of politeness, of not wanting to intrude. There it was. A
rangy weatherboard house, sitting on the ridge, a second story down
the slope. There was a space around it, but hardly anything you
could call a garden. He felt obscurely pleased: it had not, at
least, been remade. In any case, you hadn’t needed a garden, you and
Jack: it had been all about you. Outside, the cycads and strangler
figs, the palms and hoop-pines, the orchids, the lovely, tangled
falls; inside, the other place, your own.
He got out of the car and
walked along the footpath, to a break between the houses where he
could see beyond their facades. The ground fell away over the tops
of the trees and across perhaps twenty kilometres to the blue of the
Pacific. Out there somewhere was the Reef. You sailed over it, in a
barge, Jack a deckhand, you a cook. You saw the coral gardens, as
they were then, in their full glory, before the starfish and the
bleaching. You fought for them, against the politicians and
companies who wanted to drill it. And you held them back. For a
little while longer.
And that is the point, isn’t
it. You never walked away. From the pillaged land, from its
dispossessed people, from the lunatic ambitions of nations and their
nuclear obscenities. Somehow you held steady and looked at it, and
fought it. You even made it into art, transmuted it, poetry that
people loved. You hardly think of Australians as loving poetry, but
they loved you. That’s something, to speak for a people, the best of
them, the best of us. You and Jack, your partnership of fire.
He returned to the car. A
Landrover pulled up at Calanthe—he found himself using the name,
although there was no heritage notice of any kind, just another
Queensland weatherboard house. A couple emerged from the car, with
two young children, a boy and a girl, and headed inside.
We were swamped, in the end.
We looked away. It closed in, became a pinched thing: from the
assault on a world of suffering, to the making of a living. It was
pusillanimous, small-souled. We didn’t have your spiritual
toughness, the fifth-generation bones of the country. We were
diminished. We diminished ourselves. It’s difficult to forgive,
each other, to forgive each other.
He looked back to the house,
and its family. He thought of getting out, of stopping them and
telling them, it seemed to be important, but they were gone before he
had resolved upon it. In any case, they looked content; and the
Landrover was a recent model. Why not? he said. He started the car,
swung into a u-turn and drove away, watching Calanthe in the mirror
until it dwindled and disappeared, and then as an after-image all the
way down the mountain.
On an impulse, he called Albo.
“Harry? Where are you?”
“Coolangatta. Waiting for
“How did it go? You track
her down, your old poet?”
“Yes. Took a while.
They’d never heard of her up there.”
“Well, that’s old
Queensland for you. Uncle Jo had it under martial law, remember
“Long time ago.”
“Long time. What have you
been up to?”
“Nothing. Gave up
“As of today.”
“What are we going to do
“Well, I don’t know. Got
to strike a blow sometime, don’t you?”
“Strike a blow, yes.”
“Next thing you know we’ll
“Stand easy, soldier.”
“Yeah, well, see you when
you get back. Best to Meg. It’s time, brother.”
“Yes, it’s time. It’s
It was early evening when the
taxi dropped him home. The evening star was just visible in the
west, a steady point of gold in the greening flames. He came through
the door. Meg stood in the hall, before the mirror. The silver
dress clung to her thighs. She balanced on high heels, a hand
fluttering at her necklace. She turned to him. Her face was wet
He placed his luggage on the
polished boards, took the few steps and put his arms around her. She
stood unresisting. The bones of her shoulders shook against him.
“I know,” he said, and pressed his lips to her long, soft hair.
© Geoffrey Wells 2020