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 the book.
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, write 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.”
“A walk? You’ll need more than that. Look at yourself, Harry—obese at sixty. You’ll have a heart attack.”
“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 yet.”
“’Rage, rage,’” he said to the ceiling.
Her lip curled and she turned away.
“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 him.
“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 streaks.
“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 do something.”
“’Jesus Is Coming—Look Busy.’”
Harry grinned. “Something like that.”
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, like sap.
Harry shrugged. “Business as usual.”
“She looks great—fit as a flea. Nice.”
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 that for?”
“Some research—for the book.”
“Your old poet? At least do a rainforest.”
“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 after her.”
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 the flight.”
“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 that?”
“Long time ago.”
“Long time. What have you been up to?”
“Nothing. Gave up smoking.”
“As of today.”
“What are we going to do now?”
“Well, I don’t know. Got to strike a blow sometime, don’t you?”
“Strike a blow, yes.”
“Next thing you know we’ll be jogging.”
“Stand easy, soldier.”
“Yeah, well, see you when you get back. Best to Meg. It’s time, brother.”
“Yes, it’s time. It’s always time.”
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 with tears.
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