Non-fiction

Invisible histories

Excavating the buried past

IMAGINE YOURSELF A bird, huge, flying out of time through a smoky sky, back, back through millennia. Further than your own memory, deeper than your instinct: about 226 million years. Gondwana floats, massive, around the polar south. Umbilical. The shape of Australia, the place that will one day be your home, is still lost, a speck in the supercontinent, just recognisable from above if you know what you’re looking for. Still, you beat through temperate air; from your high currents you can make out great mountains and gouged valleys, the shapes of trees, small plants – delicate, lacy – and horsetails, mosses. Tree ferns, woody conifers, seed-bearing ginkgos. And there, between swamp and mountain, early dinosaurs – therapods. Young, toothless.

There is nothing here like you, with your twentieth-first-century brain and avian eye. And nor, miraculously, is there anything like a human. Nothing, therefore, human-made or even planned. Nothing imagined. Nothing named. It is elemental.

But this place, this Australia, is already ancient. It has roiled and erupted with the movement of the Earth’s great plates, the upward thrust of mountains, the violence of its volcanic temperament. The land has compressed and crumpled, flooded with sea, solidified, softened with the ocean’s spread and changed face with its withdrawal. The site of your future city and all that surrounds it is fascinating to the eye; geologically complex in colour and form, intriguing. The area that will become inner Brisbane is already cut sharply as if with the keenest knife: there are ranges of mountains, precipitous, and thin, plunging valleys between them. A landscape lonely and unknowable. What you see are the foundations of now.

Here, as you circle and watch, it will become even more dramatic, more complex. All around this place – what will become South-East Queensland – active volcanoes are stirring, brewing magma from parts of the Earth’s thinned and melting crust. Some are violent but relatively small: they spew lava over old mountain rock and around what will be the suburbs of Brisbane’s west. Some of the magma cools beneath the surface to become giant planks of granite. But from further north comes something else, something bigger, monstrous in its heat and power. Its strength indescribable.

Great volumes of rock explode from these northerly volcanic vents in clouds of gas, semi-liquid pumice and dust. The temperature: about 1,000 degrees Celsius. The cloud mass, higher than a skyscraper, flows south through the steep valleys of this speck of Gondwana at a terrifying speed, more than 200 kilometres per hour. Rolls ominously close to the ground, the gas a sticky lubricant. If the dinosaurs roll their reptile eyes upwards, they might register its shadow, its spectacle.

When this terrifying cloud slows and finally stops, the heat is still so intense that the material it carries compacts abruptly and is welded into the toughest rock. The pumice in the ash flow is smoothed out, and oxidation – of iron, of manganese – streaks these new rocks with colour. Much later, when it is cut and quarried, green, pink and ivory will spatter the blocks and slabs. The irony of beauty, of delicacy. It is given the name ignimbrite, Latin for ‘fiery shower’. A pretty and understated label for the savagery that produced it. Eons after the explosion, and more than 70,000 years after First Nations people first saw these extraordinary and particular cliffs of rock, it will be named by the colonising British: Brisbane tuff.

 

AFTER THE ERUPTIONS, the death of everything in its path – young dinosaurs, a chaos of vegetation, trees, mosses and cycads – the landscape will be utterly changed. Deep valleys have been filled, reversing their shapes, flattening smaller rises, creating small plains. The very character of the area is forever altered. It changes how the wind and the sky might interact with this place, this mere sliver in the wildly varied mass of all Gondwana. It is now a narrow band of scorched, scarred earth around a thick band of rock. Even you, bird, a sharp-eyed visitor from now, may not recognise this as the landscape you were recently born to, now choked with high-rise buildings and freeways, houses, industry.

Come back to this present and these rocks that still rise vertically above the river that has cut its way through them, twisting against them, turning serpentine. These familiar cliffs of golden brown that ribbon around the inner city: the rock that flashes and burns under night lights, and glows green, lilac, pink beneath the hammer’s claw. Physically, the cliffs dwarf everything man-made, the buildings and monuments and, at some angles, the bridge. This notion might confront those who, daily, throw out ropes to scale and conquer the cliff’s heights, to test muscle and brain against age-old stone.

But for most, and for you, bird, these cliffs are more than that. They pull at something in the animal heart of you. The wordless, inarticulate heart. They are the past thrusting into the present. They speak of ancestors, beginnings, endurance, of time and memory that is neither human nor animal, that is infused in the air in which you circle, the earth you light on, in the natural world that is your home. You glance towards them and away, euphoric, terrified. Recognising the particles you were born from.

After the explosions, after the conflagration and the destruction and the settling, the landscape subsides as if a deep breath has been inhaled and held and released. As if an eye has slowly closed and reopened. This is, after all, how the world responds to catastrophe. No matter which eon, which timescale: a bird falls from a tree, a war begins and ends, a dynasty crumbles. The eye blinks. The sun sinks and rises. We go on.

 

I WAS BORN and grew up on this ancient ground. The past trodden deep in its layers. Hidden but not lost or even silent: blazing briefly into the present in the rock beneath the dirt I walked on, the same rock my school was built on, that lined the streets I took to get there.

Even its name is hard – Brisbane tuff, pronounced toof – though I had no idea of that as a child. Had no notion of its name or its composition, its fiery passage towards the spot on Gondwanaland where Jagera and Turrbal people would one day walk. Where Brisbane would one day rise. Where these millennia later, in a corner of the future city, my seafaring father would choose to settle, would find my mother. The rock flowed beneath the house I grew in, the schoolyard I ran in, grazing my knees in a playground built on Brisbane tuff. The rock was named for this city and quarried for its buildings – to give them a sense of authority and rule, perhaps, some dominance in the landscape?

Despite the rare violence that produced it, this was – is – stable, solid rock beneath my feet. A barefoot child, I must have known this in my body. Like everyone else around me, I walked and lived unworried by the possibility of seizure, of the earth erupting beneath me, cracking open its dinosaur jaws. I understand this now that my son lives on the capricious ground that rolls beneath Christchurch: here we have all built shelters, grown gardens and dreamed dreams emboldened by solidity, made complacent by it.

Will my grandchildren walk too carefully, I wonder; will their dreams be precarious, will they forever look for cracks and uncertainties in the world? What do we owe to the geology of our homelands, to the geography and landforms of the places where we build our structures and our selves?

 

I WAS BORN to a woman who was young and sorrowful, and to a patch of ground, old, its skin layered with the lives of others who walked or worked or dreamed here, on this knuckle of land on the north side of the Brisbane River. I grew up slowly in the limbs and leaves of mango and loquat and mulberry, walking my streets and singing to the sky. Happy, mostly.

It is more than forty years since I left the treed yard behind the ramshackle house, and though I’ve lived in more than twenty places since and travelled far, and though the house is now gone and the yard much changed, its length and breadth are still, for me, the precise measure of home.

I’ve never questioned nor understood it: how a place that exists only in my memory can hold and ground me more than the places where I’ve lived with husbands and lovers and children, where I’ve sung to my grandchildren, written my books, grown my gardens. Where I’ve cooked and laughed with friends, expanded by wine and warmth and conversation. Places of retreat, of solitude, where I’ve hung my paintings and filled my bookshelves and lit my bright fires.

I hadn’t acknowledged this until I set out to write about my mother and my brother in what became a memoir, Boy, Lost. The book was an interrogation not just of the circumstances in which my mother’s first child was stolen – pulled from her arms by her violent husband when she dared an escape – but of the culture that condoned it, along with thousands of other child thefts perpetrated in Australia through two centuries. But Boy, Lost became more than that for me. It turned out that it was my story too; that the weight of lost things carried by both my mother and my father was like a watermark left on me and on my siblings and passed by us to our children. We had all inherited an invisible history, one that, despite its force field of secrecy, had played out through our whole lives. The weight of our parents’ griefs pressed like a bruise at certain times, the air heavy with it, but we were safe, and cherished; we knew that.

It doesn’t seem strange now that, in the throes of writing and understanding this, I found myself trying to explain the visceral ties I have to the geography of my childhood. I wrote about the trees, the grass, the open space, the joy and possession, the sense that we were indivisible, this patch of earth and me. But when the book was finished, I still felt uncertain.

The word inheritance nagged at me. I began to wonder if the invisible legacy of my parents’ stories was bound up in this place, was not only within us but vested in the very soil we grew on. Loss and longing, grief and love, honour and stoicism: my mother and my father brought their whole histories here, then shed them like old skins, insisting on renewal, on the possibility of joy. Sensing some old sadness, we children fell into line; it was up to us, we knew, to bring this happiness into being, to embody it here in this place of new beginnings.

Did we make this piece of land our own, my brothers and sister and I, by enacting our lives there day after day, by imagining ourselves happy? Even now, decades later, the words New Farm evoke a vast and intricate mythology among us, a colourful narrative loosely called our happy childhood. This is how, as adults, we create our pasts, our own fictional histories; we make meaning and construct ourselves through our longing and desires, through our need for love and safety and belonging. That’s what I did on that quarter-acre block in mid-century New Farm. I created, as Salman Rushdie puts it, my ‘imaginary homeland’.

And we had been happy here, hadn’t we? This is what we speak of now, when we are together: the shining happiness of our childhood in this place. The place our parents had created for us, this firm terrestrial stamp of their intentions. We knew this. And, I see now, we worked hard to convince them it was so. That we were happy there. As adults we resume the dialogue, test it each time, unknowingly. Both my father and my mother kept the past at a distance, trying for a clean slate. It wasn’t so unusual in the decade after the war.

With our mother’s death and, later, our father’s, the dialogue wavered, uncertain. No one said. No one conceded it, this heresy, this great disloyalty to our collective memory. But when our father died, I allowed the thought to come: had we been happy there for them? Were we happy so that they could be? Perhaps it was just a habit we’d fallen into, one that lasted their whole lives. I stood on the footpath where we’d played hopscotch as children, where the wooden awning once shaded the arrival and departure of guests, and stared at the brick flats that stood where the house once had. Let the tears come. Our home was gone, our parents. If we had been happy here for them – created our own myths to represent and replace our uncertainties and fears, to convince ourselves we were all right – then who were we going to be happy for now?

These days the past, and my own family narrative, insists on more than happiness. It presses its case to look further, to test those mythologies to explore what is missing; the absences that are more powerful, sometimes, than what is present or imagined. There was a hole in my family; we were schooled not to notice it. But noticing is paramount for a writer, and now that I am permitted, I remember an ancient sharpening tool found in our yard; I remember the single Aboriginal child at my primary school. All the things we have erased. Memory, cultures, homelands.

But there was another invisible history. The wider one, the one that belonged to all of us, was the one we didn’t see. It ran alongside our family’s and dug more deeply into that yard. Into the streets around us, the schoolyard, the hills and valleys and the river. It too involved theft and betrayal, on a scale we couldn’t know then and would not understand for years. (This unknowing itself is part of the betrayal.) The sharpening stone might have told its own story, if we’d listened, emitting the stories and griefs of those who’d used it – if we, our family and our culture had been willing to ask. Had been open to the answers. And to see beyond our limited view of ownership, of Aboriginal people and their lives. To acknowledge that others had loved this place before us.

Now this is my inheritance too.

 

BRISBANE TUFF WAS first quarried under the brutal command of Patrick Logan in 1826. The terrible labour of convict men abrading a cliff face with chisel and hammer. If the new buildings of tuff bestowed the heft and dignity Logan required, it was relinquished with the cruelty for which the colony became famous. Cathedrals, the Commissariat Store, the walls made by road cuttings like those in Brunswick Street and at All Hallows’ Convent, where a hill was sliced away to create Ann Street. This newly exposed side was wrapped by a high wall of tuff, a handmade cliff of rock that echoes its origins just a kilometre north at Kangaroo Point.

In the late 1950s, a twelve-year-old Aboriginal girl was taken forcibly from her family and locked inside the convent behind that wall to work as a ‘domestic’. She cried every night for her mother, a strong horsewoman who laughed, cooked up big pots of stew and porridge, and told stories in their home near Ipswich. Dawn Daylight still doesn’t know why she, and her two sisters before her, were plucked from their family and incarcerated at the convent – and it was an incarceration, with bars on windows and locked doors. Those doors were opened in the early mornings when Dawn and other Aboriginal girls were put to work, slave-like, in hot kitchens and laundries, scrubbing floors on their knees. And it was slavery: they were not paid; their lives were circumscribed, controlled. They were not schooled; they worked. Little Dawn made more than one attempt to escape over high fences. For eight long years she would not see her mother’s face, hear her voice.

The hurt and confusion of that little girl is still in the grown woman, though she has searched files and interrogated Church and government leaders, trying to make sense, to order memory and dream. When we first meet, this is what we talk about, the absence of a rational narrative of her lost years. And then we talk about our families. Tell me about your parents, she says. Around us, clues to her life now, who she is: fishing rods, guitar, paintings that reveal the warrior woman, the tender friend, the musician and artist she has become.

I begin my own stumbling story – my mother, and her lost child – and the tears come, as they always do, and I apologise, lowering my head, because she is weeping now too. Then, from across the table, her soft hand reaches out to wrap around mine.

No, she says. This woman whose face speaks of loss. This is what we must do for each other. We sit together and cry for our mothers. And in that moment another story begins, one bigger than I am.

 

I WAS BORN in the place my young father chose for us. He had been searching for years, even before he met our mother, though later he would describe his merchant voyages as adventures rather than quests. And perhaps that is how it felt. He’d left Sweden in 1948, fleeing a ruined marriage and farewelling a young son, so it’s possible he sailed without destination. With no intention but to forget.

He was a ship’s engineer, his work in the black depths of the hull, crossing and recrossing the equator, making odd but considered purchases at each stop: bright and colourful ties, cushion covers needled with Japanese gardens, small tools. A brooch for his true love, when he finds her: a silver scabbard with a miniature sword, subtle, delicate.

He has sailed in wartime and peace. The great oceans, he knows, recognise neither; they treat all vessels with equanimity, rolling, resisting, receiving and closing over their traces, their dead. He has seen this.

Those oceans, these ships. He has served them and they have served him. The grim depths and roar of engines, the company of men and limitless skies, the openness of the world’s waters, their loneliness – they have articulated his heartbreak, given him a language for it. He sees that this is what he wanted, and that the ships, his voyages, were mere vessels for it, crucibles. Understanding this now, he can explain these other years to himself: the hasty marriage, the treachery and deceit and grief. His absence from his son, his flight from country, from family.

This understanding brings him peace. Or, more truly, allows the bright carapace of reinvention. Of alchemic change. When he finds the right place, he knows, he can remake himself. He will be new.

 

HE STANDS AT the rail of a merchant ship on Brisbane’s river. What else is arrival if not renewal, a rebirth, an emergence into hope and light? It is a decision. Emphatic. A life imagined in the bright distance as the ship cuts between wide riverbanks. They are grubby with industry and disregard. The city crouched low behind them. He is looking for a place that, like him, might still be inventing itself. Not some big emphatic city; he does not want to step into a stencil, or fit someone else’s idea of who and what he is. Has had enough of that at sea, this subordination to another’s ideas of what should be done, and how it should be done, and when. He would like to be in a place where it is possible to have your own volition. Where he alone might be responsible for his days. To cut his own stencil, to make his own way.

 

HE’D FELT THE warm north-easterly as the ship neared Moreton Bay. As it made its delicate negotiations with the river, with shallows and sandbanks, the pilot boat ahead, he continued an old quarrel with his skipper – we don’t know its cause, or why he didn’t let it go; we know only that he is stubborn, that in argument he will not be moved. Does this influence how he sees the city, how it slips into his imagination with the incoming tide? Half-made, it kneels low to the horizon, a town still scrabbling to find its feet. He walks away from the skipper to stand at the rail. There is the sun at his back, birdsong, a long-legged wooden house on a hill. He breathes. It might be possible.

And so it is here, in this nondescript place on a subtropical coast, that he makes his decision. He will stop. He will disembark, step ashore, emerge. He will be delivered, he will arrive. Here.

 

HERE IS MY father, then.

The river beneath his boat is a brown river. This reach at least is industrial, a misused waterscape, humanised only by small passenger ferries that tack across its width, the occasional fisher with a line or a crab pot. Few houses. The riverside suburbs look poor, scabbed by belching factories and roughhouse wharves. This does not deter him. He has travelled through the deprivation and horror of a postwar world; so much of it is broken. So many have nothing, so many are poor – his own family is not far above them.

The ship has berthed at Hamilton, on the north side of the river. A cliff rears above the road, and there are intricate wooden houses on the hill above. But here at ground level the streets are plain. He shoulders his bag, £10 in his pocket, buys a map and a newspaper. Rooms to Let. His long, spade-shaped finger tracks along columns of type. And there, in a suburb around the river’s next reach: a small flat in a house warrened with others. He looks from the advertisement to the map and back again. The shape of this town, the river tangled with houses and factories, wharves and streets. He lifts his eyes. The town itself, he sees, is stunning in its ordinariness. The relief he feels. No streets of stone buildings and cobbles, or memory breathing cold through ancient walls and turrets. He could not bear the sting of it, the freight of grief in such places. But here! He tips his head back. Here the sky is limitless, empty. If the sky can forget, so can he.

The feeling is confirmed in him as he walks. Finding his way by map and by river, its lazy curves. At one point, confused by streets that are not parallel, he stops, stares down, running forefinger across paper once more. This river! It was reptile, a serpent’s tail, a piece of tubing that has been wound and then released. It looped and kinked, making dead ends and secret corners. He rummages around in his head, consulting boyhood geology. What forces had pushed or pulled it, twisted its course to these shapes? It is another mystery among many.

He moves steadily towards New Farm. What does he feel beneath his feet? He has sailed the seven seas, watched continents rear up before him, untethered from dream. He’d walked on them, around them, tested their consciences: were these places good? The word trust on his tongue. Were its people to be trusted, held to their promises? These are his most pressing concerns. Might his work be respected, his word? As he walks he regards this place, these streets, examining surface and exterior and form. The houses almost fantastic: where had he seen them before? In some wild imagining, as he worked endlessly in a dark hull? In schoolboy texts, learning the geography of New Guinea or Burma? He has not been to those places. Now he glances over fences for signs of life, the kinds of lives that might be lived here, that might be possible here. This is what he needs to know. The possibilities: of work, a good life, contentment. He no longer dreams of happiness.

What he sees is the unique and great variety of all cities: here are thin wooden houses, some pinched together, their walls hard up against their neighbours. Stray grass against fences, raw timber blackened by the sun. But others front the street with windows flung wide. Curtains rise and fall as if a house is breathing. There is grace in their proportions. Wide verandahs, huge, arching trees, vines that twist against balustrade and stair rail, blooming over door frame, through the warm air. At ground level, plain flowers splay out through a wire fence. A child’s hopscotch squares smudged on the footpath.

In all this he sees the life on offer, that work can be done here, hard work. Which can bring, he knows, a redemption of its own.

He consults his map. Follows the river, a narrow bridge across Breakfast Creek and past the intricate woodwork of old structures: a waterside hotel laced with sculpted iron, an elegant house sprawled on a grassy rise above the river and, further around Newstead’s curve and high on a solitary hill, the vaulting roof of a dance hall. Houses that straddle the steep hillside, precarious in their angles, might slip downwards, he thinks, if the dancing grew wild and unruly. Would men and women dance unrestrained in this place, where trees shoot skywards and leaves are plate-sized, where gardens break into windows like thieves? The thought confronts him a little. He is an awkward dancer. By anyone’s measure.

He doesn’t know that this place – where, deep inside him, he has already decided to stay – this nondescript place has been paved and heaved by violent eruption, these hills and cliffs and fantastical trees shaped by volcanic force. That the small flat he will rent – where he will be happy, where he will meet his true love – sits squarely on a river of volcanic rock that has determined the fate of almost everything around him: the course of the river, the first structures erected here, the very shape of the town’s inner suburbs.

The rock and the river: they have made the town, from the furtive curves and cul-de-sacs that at once disguise and lure to its modest heights and its foundations. And in the process they have pressed up hard against the nature of its people. For who could grow up in this town without knowing the mystery of the dead end, the secretiveness of blind alleys, the discovery of a boat, rather than a house, on a watery shore at the end of an inner-city street? Without the assurance that, in Brisbane, there is always somewhere to hide, something hidden. Someone hiding.

 

FOR WEEKS AFTER we buried our father, I struggled to keep my bearings and my faith in words. I put aside the vexed question of inheritance, of happiness, their frightening implications. My confusion about belonging, my growing sense of obligation. I had thought my need to sift and search the earth I grew on was really the need to fully see my father. Not just the man he’d invented for himself, the armour of the immigrant, but the boy he’d once been, the forms and sounds, joys and fears that teemed in the boy’s blood, his personal ecology. Who and what was beneath the exterior of the man, the engineer, the husband, the father.

Then a memory arrived, unsummoned.

In the kitchen of the house in New Farm, my siblings and I are jostling for position. Our father is lying on the couch, just waking from a nap. We glance at each other. The stakes are high: a kind of ownership. His back and shoulders, sunburned on our Boxing Day picnic at Redcliffe a week before, have begun to fray and peel. We all want the sensory pleasure of stripping off the longest piece of loose skin.

My own children grimace when I tell them: how we clambered over him, pincer fingers poised, the gentle lifting and probing. The slow, deliberate parting of skin and flesh. This soft, prone form beneath us might be a piece of exotic fruit; but no, it’s our father – we might be skinning him to see what he’s like underneath, to see the man beneath the father, to uncover him.

We’d already seen a glimpse of it at Redcliffe. Floating on his back in a calm sea, his body magically buoyant: he’s almost a different father here from the serious khaki one. Out of his work clothes, without his glasses. His face open as a boy’s. His angular body in box-shaped trunks, so unlike our mother’s with its curves and fullness. Our young, beautiful mother. Paddling in the shallows in black waist-hugging bathers, a child on her hip. She would not swim on any account. Her eyes on the water, and us.

Her olive skin was rarely sunburned. Even if it had been, I doubt she’d have let our prying fingers near her, our carnivorous eyes. She knew how thin the layers of self could be, transparent, fragile. She’d spent half a lifetime regrowing her own, making it thick, an impermeable shield against pain.

This story, I saw then, is an unpeeling too, of place and of self. Of the invisible histories we lived with and silently, blindly absorbed. What had happened on that piece of land; who had crossed it or lingered there over the millennia before mine? If I peel back its layers, back and back, through rock and soil and sea, will those layers reveal what was lost, will they tell me who I am?

I need the eyes of a bird, and its wisdom; the deep instinct that identifies air current and flight path, family, root and branch. The uncanny recognition of home.

I need to find my own root and branch, and who and what shaped the ground that held them, that grew me. On that ordinary quarter acre, its airs and soils and rock, and all that lies beneath.

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