Memoir

Falling to earth

GRACE DIED THIS March , in her ninety-ninth year. We had been willing her towards the big one hundred, urging her on. For myself, I'd been offering up the prayers of the faithless: arid incantations that they are. It was probably a kind of vanity on all our parts, for she wished very much to breast the centennial tape and we, the family, wanted it for her. But it would have been 
a pitiable show – a birthday cake and a forest of candles before a tired old lady with breath enough to extinguish barely a handful. And perhaps, in the end, she knew as much.

I saw my grandmother for the last time when I flew to Townsville for her ninety-seventh and my cousin Julie and I drank a little too much at a near-empty restaurant near the river, and Grace – who seemed as sharp as ever – had a glass or two as well.  That afternoon she seemed a certainty for a hundred. But the final ascent, in the rarified air of old age, was beyond her. This sharp-witted, stoical and gentle woman – twice widowed, much loved by her four children, and admired by all – finally succumbed to an irresistible desire for peace.

Sydney is beautiful at dawn and Townsville, two hours away by plane, no less a wonder beneath an early morning autumn sky suffused with a sharp, almost astringent tropical light. When I first catch sight of my parents at the airport, I notice there are no longer any tears. In some unspoken way, we are all happy 
for Grace.

‘Death came as a friend,' I hear someone saying, as we join the mourners.

The fans turn slowly under the nave of St Mary's in West End, a working-class suburb hidden from the kindly sea breezes by the great rump of Castle Hill – and my birthplace. A prosaic little weatherboard church just metres from an unfenced railway line, St Mary's today is rarely used for parish services of any kind. But it was Grace's church, and the priest has opened its doors for her one last time.

She lies in the central aisle, in her handsome hardwood coffin with its gilt handles. Grace chose the gold finish herself, sniffing at pewter. A saleswoman and sometime model, she always was fussy with appearances.

‘Were there fans when we were children?' asks a cousin.

I shrug. She shrugs. At that moment, I catch the gust of a distinct childhood memory.

My parents, solid rather than particularly earnest Catholics, would now and then entreat us at table to ‘say grace' – or bless the Lord – as a steaming roast was placed before us on a thirty-five degree Sunday summer afternoon.

‘Grace', my sisters and I would chant, before digging in.

 

INVOLUNTARY MEMORY IS the spry fugitive of consciousness: it strikes us aslant, and is gone in a flash. Rarely does it resemble Proust's slow-moving and richly upholstered procession of remembrance. It is never quite lost, and never quite found.

With the coming of autumn, the air is not nearly as viscous as I remember, and it's actually possible to sit without sticking to the church pews. Though there are fewer than a hundred mourners at the service, they take their time shuffling through the doors, spinning from one reunion to another. A number of sharply angled elderly folk from Grace's nursing home make a late entry, as if they have been rounded up for the occasion, and cut an arduous path to the pews. Time enough for me to take a walk outside, through a landscape reconfigured since my childhood, yet dimly recognisable as the playground of St Mary's Primary.

I am eight. The son of an airforce officer, every few years I fall from the sky. The last move was London. And now this: a torture chamber named Townsville. I am pale. I have an English accent. Some afternoons, I stand at the mirror and intone at my reflection, driving the posh roundedness out of my vowels; replacing the plums with strangled diphthongs. A kind of elocution lesson in reverse.

At lunchtime (my mother has a weakness for sardine sandwiches), I am strutting like a marionette around the grounds of St Mary's, one arm slung across a friend's shoulder: ‘I'm a four-legged monster,' we declare as one. Another boy joins us and the six-legged monster wheels around the dustbowl playground. Then another. And another. We are lightheaded, joyous. Our voices rise with every fresh recruit: ‘I am a ten-legged monster.'

Suddenly, there is a great flap of black and white drapery, like the snap of a spinnaker, and a violent thrusting and rending of the ten-legged beast. The sisters march us into a room where, for the first time, I feel the cut of the cane. My sin? ‘Courting Satan.'

I am the foreign boy, the outsider. Though born in Townsville, I was barely out of nappies before my first move. And now I am English. I must be to blame for this monstrosity. I am the bearer of an unseemly high-spiritedness. It must be driven out.

Later that evening, I decant this tale at a modest wake for Grace, and my uncle shoots back with an even stranger story of errant viciousness at the hands of the Christian Brothers.

But it is hard to begrudge the Church these failings, because at least it was a presence on this educational frontier. For much of the last century in Queensland, it was the church and private schools that did most to funnel their flocks – the former defined by creed, the latter by class – into the pro­fessions, academia and public administration.

Despite the creation in 1911 of a brace of state high schools at Warwick, Bundaberg, Charters Towers, Gympie, Mackay and Mount Morgan – and Brisbane State High a decade later – the state preferred to put its energies into primary education. In Grace's day, only a small minority of Queensland students went on to secondary school. I try to imagine an alternative path for her, and the public contributions she could have made if things had been different. Well into her nineties, she could concentrate with a ferocity denied to those half her age. Even towards the end, her lucidity never failed her. She could have done anything.

 

THE TOWNSVILLE OF my childhood was a rock. Today it is garden. Bursting from every suburban yard are great uprushing spumes of palm, fringe and frond. As the mid-morning sun caresses swathes of parkland laid about the town, they answer with the tennis-ball glow of tropical green. But I doubt my birthplace will ever be considered charming, even though real estate is booming and the future looks good. Named in honour of pioneer Robert Towns, the word ‘Townsville' reads as if it were coined by a group of dullards who could do no better than call their settlement at the mouth of the soupy green Ross Creek a town, together with the French suffix ‘ville'. In other words: Townstown. To this day, the place resists romanticisation.

Now I am fourteen. All those foreign high spirits have been redirected, focused inwards. No longer at a Catholic school, I am enrolled at Townsville's  Pimlico State High. The largest school in the state, it splits like an embryonic cell into senior and junior campuses. On the senior campus we feel a closer affiliation with the world of James Cook University – as if, by this move, we have taken a step towards loftier things – than with the rabble we have abandoned at the junior campus. In this environment I discover I am brainy, in an intense, undisciplined, rascally way. But the braininess has come on all of a sudden, like an affliction.

Being into books here is kind of cool. My first really deep and close reading of Shakespeare awakens some hitherto dormant language nerve, or muscle, or tastebud. In class we commit to memory the English poets. Keats, Donne, Coleridge – I still have them, internalised, and often hear their music, their patternings and possibilities. It is one thing to read a poem; it is quite another to possess it, and in turn to be possessed 
by it.

I am in love with ancient history, and my ancient history teacher. Correction: I fall in love with any female teacher not yet in her forties.

I am passionate about art, and paint like a Fauve. I am a Fauve.

Unable to map my world of books and ideas on to the world around me, I venture inwards. I am the time traveller. I devour Tolkien, Mervyn Peake, Jules Verne, the Arthurian fantasies of T.H. White and William Morris. From there I leap into White's Vivisector and Plato's Republic, together with Beat poetry and New Journalism; all of this consumed outside the syllabus, in my own time, turbo-charging the synapses. There are few books in the house, and yet in a family encyclopedia I find the gods of the Greek pantheon catalogued one by one. I'm entranced.

I sleep not in a room but a corner of the veranda, behind a curtain. My three sisters have their privacy, but I have none.

One day my mother bursts out, as I slink in after school: ‘Will you stop masturbating in the shower!'

But there is no other place.

I convince myself towards the end of a typically long, dry, cloudless winter that the rocky face of Castle Hill, which cascades down to a jolly ferry terminal, has about it something of the Aegean. Or perhaps the seafront promenade – this when I'm reading Camus' L'Etranger – is a dream of old Algiers.

On the ferry to Magnetic Island, I ask the well-travelled hippie sister of my best friend if, from this aspect, Townsville looks like a Mediterranean port. She doesn't so much scorn the remark as ignore it.

But it does get her talking about the real thing. The Cyclades. Crete. The ferry from Piraeus. And a fuse is lit.

 

THE PRIEST AT St Mary's has a sad face and lively eyes. He readies himself in his vestibule. Grace's service is about to start.

The highlight of the funeral is my father's eulogy. He tells how Grace's first husband, a young Irishman by the name of Joe Geaney, bought a flash Plymouth at a time when car ownership was a rarity.

‘When Grace suggested that she should learn to drive the Plymouth, Joe dug his heels in,' my father says, scanning the audience leisurely like the practised orator that he is. ‘She took the car, loaded the two children and set out for St Mary's for Sunday mass. As she attempted to drive across the railway line, the car stalled. One imagines the church bells ringing to announce the beginning of mass, so dear Grace left the car, which must have been very close to the railway track, bundled up the children and set off to the church.

‘Mass was interrupted when the train driver appeared at the door to ask for the owner of the car to move it – the first occasion in church history that holy mass had been interrupted by a whistleblower.'

Warm laughter rolls forward from the pews, and my father's lips crease with satisfaction.

But there is a turn in the story where my father will not go, a road forsaken. For both Joe and Grace's second husband, Bill Forno, were dead by the time she was fifty. Though hale in appearance, Bill secretly carried a heart condition into his marriage with my grandmother and died two years after their wedding. He was looking not so much for a wife as a nurse. Grace spent the next half-century a widow who refused to bow to loneliness. A talent forindustry, my mother once told me, is what kept her going – though we would be inclined to call it positive thinking.

I am a pall-bearer. I stand at the head of the coffin – surprisingly heavy for a frail elderly woman. In the few minutes it takes to walk unsteadily outside, I try not to think, not to remember, to steel myself against the dreadful intimacy of this gesture: my mother's mother is going to her grave.

At the cemetery, we lower the coffin into the ground, toss a few clods of earth down this eerie cavity, and say the final prayers. When I place my hand on my mother's shoulder, I notice she is shuddering like a child whipped by the cold.

‘Grace fell short of her hundredth birthday,' says my father. ‘But you know, she died in her hundredth year.'

So the landmark is not to be denied her – at least post mortem.

Afterwards, peeling away from relatives I rarely see, whose delight in the reunion temporarily outweighs the solemnity of the occasion, I take the measure of  a place I'd all but forgotten. This deeply unlovely town tuned my mind in ways for which I am grateful. It was the place where my intellectual journey began. Something here set me on my path.

In 1972, just a few years before I join the first group of Pimlico students in their own secondary college, Queensland abolishes the external exams for senior students and rolls out new primary and secondary syllabuses. So begins an era of reform undergirded by a dramatic increase in demand for secondary education: in the two decades to 1975, enrolments increased tenfold.

This is what I have learnt about the history of that time, but I was also inside that time, inhabiting that history; and the two stories meet and concur. This was a school system that had been energised, refocused, revitalised. Teachers had come from everywhere to meet a need, or join a cause: the upshifting demand for Queensland state secondary education.

 

SO I AM sixteen. It is a hot December day and in Melbourne's outer suburbs a dry wind is up. My friends – we've all been in touch by phone – are crazy with anticipation. We're waiting for the postman to deliver to us the code that will reveal, like the oracle's answer to the deepest of questions, our futures. The waiting is unbearable. Uncivilised. Inhuman. The envelope finally in my grasp, I tear it open with unsteady hands.

The results are, well, tremendous. I make a call to a help line: I can do anything I want. Be anything I want.

In my history class a few months earlier, a priest – I have once again found myself among the Catholic orders – plays a rather arch game. He moves around the room with a pompous sacerdotal air, pointing to each boy, speculating on his HSC results.

But he leaves me out. My hand shoots up: ‘Father! Father!' I want to know why. I am the only one whose fate, he admits, is beyond his powers of prediction. ‘I just have no idea,' he says.

Ten months earlier, I arrive in Melbourne as the caravan of the air force family moves on. Feeling once again like the boy who fell to earth, I've moved from a zesty if outsized state school in Townsville to a regimented Catholic college on Melbourne's suburban fringe. After a month with a class of my own age, I am catapulted after a campaign by one of the lay teachers into the last year of high school. After my first essay, this teacher takes me aside.

‘Where did you learn to write like this?' she asks.

‘In Queensland.'

She studies me with a sceptical air.

On the day the results arrive in the mail my mother calls my father at work and breaks the news. I get on the line. Dad seems quiet, pained, adrift somewhere.

‘It's because,' she later tells me, ‘he was crying.'

That evening, my mother calls a relative from home and breaks the good news. ‘A credit to the Queensland education system,' is all she says.

And, in a not altogether conventional sense, she is right. In a rough-edged town in the unlovely dry tropics, I learnt that the mind is the best of possessions.

I am eight, a new boy at St Mary's West End. School is over for the afternoon. I sit in the shade beneath the old house on stilts, taking in the liquid cool. Grace, in a long cotton dress of pale lemon, is busying herself nearby with some washing. We are bound in companionable silence, in a shared loneliness: the woman who had lost two husbands by her life's mid-point, and the boy who fell to earth.

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