Reportage

Scratch the Surface - Trespass

Arecurring dream had run throughout the half-century of her life – a dream where the foundations of the house she was living in were being washed away by high tides. The dream was not unusual, she knew – and was no doubt tied to subconscious fears of some kind. The details didn't interest her – they were all bound to be bad. Who needed reminding of their insecurities these days?

The night she'd driven past 33 Earle Street – past the first old weatherboard home the family had moved into when they'd come to Australia – and watched unfamiliar urban profiles looming high over where the house stood, it had felt a lot like being in that dream – except different.

She'd been on her way to a party when she'd passed the house. Social occasions were becoming rare enough to call for some attention to detail but on the way, in the car, she'd felt awkward and overly prepared. It occurred to her, travelling across the Story Bridge, that there was a good chance she'd got it all wrong, that the car might be a kind of delivery vehicle that had got the orders mixed up, and that she might in fact be some kind of human croque em bouche on the way to a minimalist sushi do.

The fret about appearances and fitting in continued the entire snaking route past the familiar gothic sprawl of the old museum, the vacated dish of the Ekka Grounds, the meiotic annexes of the hospital. By the time she'd reached Windsor, the spectre had wrenched her out of her self-focus.

In the slow crawl of early Saturday night traffic, strange shapes loomed to her right – unfamiliar silhouettes that seemed to have come from another place, another time. Their indistinct outlines might have been apparitions from an H.G. Wells kind of future – a future predicted so long ago it was already out of date. But the river of lights carried her past the house before she'd had a chance to determine what she'd seen, and all through the night, in between passages of practiced pleasantries, she'd pondered just what it was she might have passed through. The house had been a site for her subconscious rather than a place she'd frequently visited, but the fact that it was there – that it had remained as proof of her having lived – seemed somehow important. At the dinner, she couldn't wait to leave.

On her way home, she took the detour off Lutwyche Road, stopped the car and slid a little deeper into the wash of disconcertion. Away from the hum of traffic, the domestic quietness blanketed the scene in a layer of unreality. It was as if her old home had been teleported into a crepuscular de Chirico piazza and dropped in between tall, blank-faced towers and silos – looming, anonymous shapes that seemed totally out of place and time in the humid Brisbane night. Only the ribbon of mangroves survived as a familiar umbilicus – their dark, brooding conspiratorial shapes huddled shoulder to shoulder all the way along the snaking banks of Breakfast Creek. But right next door to the house – in the allotment where ‘the Italians' had lived, and all the way down to where the cement works had been in the elbow-bend of the creek – the land seemed to be occupied by massive structures from another time, another place. It was too difficult to tell what these structures were in the dark, so after sitting for a while parked in the quiet dead-end of the street, she'd started the car and turned back home.

On the drive, she tried to collate any shards of memory about that first home in Queensland. But the memories seemed strange and far away. Uncertain, faltering – the ice-man arriving, a huge block of green dripping solid wetness clipped between iron pincers. She remembered her mother wrapping it in towels, like a giant frozen angular baby, before putting it to bed in the chamber of the freezer, a metal box in chipped duck-egg green paint with cold metallic handles that stood in the corner of the kitchen with scraps of lino wedged under its feet to keep it even.

She could recall the local produce store, right across the road where the creek turned and ran down to Northey Street. The shop had been dark. An old man with white hair and quiet manners; meal and produce, legumes and flour served out of sacks, delivered portion by portion in big metallic scoops; chook mash; oats and mix for horses that must have lived somewhere nearby. All that so close to the city. Right on the tramline that ran into the Valley. The ching-ching of the leather-strap-tug-stops all the way through to McWhirters where an infinite range of city pleasures were housed in caverns that seemed, at the time, completely measureless. And among those wonders, the vitrine of the doughnut maker, where fat circles of pale mix dropped with mechanical regularity into the shallow amber vat of fat and on tanning were turned by mechanical spatula into sticky trays of sugar and cinnamon. A world within a world. As good to peer into as the offerings were to eat.

Her own backyard had seemed bucolic enough: a chook run and a rickety trellis that every year lurched nervously to one side with the weight of an abundant harvest of thick-skinned, sour grapes. Heavy and tightly packed, each bunch dusted with a fine coating of semi-transparent fur. Further down the back there'd been a mango tree – not a Bowen, but a mango nevertheless, every summer ringed with the half-eaten remains of its stringy fleshy fruit abandoned by drunken bats from the night before. Like the bats and the possums, her newly arrived family tried everything, mesmerised by the fecundity. Even the pale, segmented interior of themonsteriosa deliciosa, where tiny claws clung like invisible demons to those who dared to sample that wet flesh.

The land had proven fertile. Potatoes and a lemon tree and tomatoes held upright on thin sticks. And over the bleached wooden palings of the fence the produce was even more fascinating: the alarming blue-black tumescence of the aubergines; vines that ran thick with runner beans; the strange unfamiliarity of okra. Another world again. She'd known the neighbours ate olives with their lunches.

Her yard was long and thin – starting at the cool dark concrete under the house where the bitch had whelped, right up where she couldn't be reached, where the wooden pylons were shortest, where the redbacks lived, where the concrete gave up and the damp wetness of the forever-soil took over. The yard ran all the way down to the silver metal chain-wire gates attempting to mark the perimeter where the unchannelled edges of the street swarmed with fat taddies after rain. Beyond the fence, an uneven tarmacadam, and across from that again, the sullen oily banks of the creek.

There was no knowing that waterway, even then. A place of ancient darkness, where hessian bags of kittens were drowned, and where they'd buried Skipper after he'd died of a glass bait. A place where the mud was as thick and sucking and stinking as a bog; where the mangroves were as mute and uncompromising as foreigners. Except that they weren't.

Throughout the night, the far howlings of trains and the clank and clatter of Slessor-esque station filtered through the black lace of their leaves from the train lines beyond. Sounds of shunting. The final exhaustion of big engines. The sense of others working on through the night; the house cloaked in a thin shell of family.

 

SHE'D MENTIONED HER APPARITION TO HER FAMILY, and on one unusually wet Saturday she'd found herself driving the four of them back there. In the wet, flat light of midday, the scene looked no less strange. Half the street had indeed been flattened, and the huge concrete slabs were just as other-worldly as they had been in the moonlight. Makeshift fencing ran right up to the edge of the house, warning signs and keep-off notices strung at regular intervals. It was easy enough to get through though, and the house doors had been left open. A tunnel-world of pipes piled down the length of the yard. The concrete edges of the original garden remained, but all else lay flattened.

Inside, the house hadn't changed. Like so little of the rest of her life, the proportions of its rooms all seemed to fit with how she imagined they had been. The placement of windows, the edges of the veejays, the height of the ceilings seemed to obey, to be compliant to her memory. A little shell. Only the views from the windows had altered.

Later on, she realised that the enormous structures and silos marked the end of the proposed under-the-river tunnel. That the house had been left, for the moment, as the last domestic structure to stand in the way of the freeway and was being used, probably, for smokos and storage for the workers on the job.

She wasn't sure how to feel about the entire process of coming across the house in this way. She imagined it felt a bit like coming across a family member who'd fallen on bad times and wondering whether one should have taken more time. Taken more care. All of which she knew was all so irrational. What she was watching was a marker of her own short life being erased.

As she pulled the car away, she followed the street along the bend in the creek, up past the long grass where kids used to gather together to burn Guy Fawkes every year. How strange that celebration had seemed – somehow chilling and out of place, and as macabre as the dark hand-made body twisting and contorting in the dancing heat of the flames. She recalled the way the light of the fire had reflected back off the waxy dark green of the watching line of mangroves, sullen and slow and forever.  ♦

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