Sensual degrees of separation

Q: Mum, how can you tell when politicians are lying?

A: Their lips are moving, sweetheart.

I MUST HAVE been a masochistic child. I loved talking politics with Dad: his history with the Labor movement, the horrors of Communism, the right­ness of our participation in Vietnam, the unease and suspicion World War II's alleged "Brisbane Line" strategy could still evoke – we were, after all, hundreds of kilometres from protection, sitting on the Tropic Line in Central Queensland. Was the Brisbane Line an indicator of how little the southerners valued their northern Aussie sisters and brothers if Menzies and his cohorts were prepared to sacrifice the top half of the country – read Queensland, never mind the underpopulated Territory and Western Aus­tralia – to save themselves from the advancing Japanese Imperial Army? Would they really have abandoned us? Would they still? What if we lost in Vietnam? I had no idea – and if the family did, they practised a Queensland version of Sicily's omertà – that northerners were regarded by the south as different, strange, unfinished and unsatisfactory in fundamental ways. Like our tin-roofed weatherboard or fibro houses perched on high stumps, we lacked something essential, some essence of solidity and focus – sanity – that could only be found in brick homes with wall-to-wall carpeting, fireplaces and tiled roofs, whose yards featured, not feral lantana, athletic, vital weeds and long brown snakes, but red, white and yellow rose gardens, miraculous hydrangeas and scissor-trimmed couch grass.

At St Mary's Catholic Primary School, North Rockhampton, we studied maps which showed large, broad, red and yellow arrows pointing down to Australia from China and South-East Asia – Communism and the Yellow Peril. What chance did we have? And please don't mention Neville Shute, Dad's favourite writer, author of On the Beach, a novel about the world's destruction through nuclear holocaust, where the only safe place, apparently, was Melbourne. (The right place to make a movie about the end of the world, attributed to Ava Gardner, but made up by journalist Neil Jillett as a joke quote – sounds like a Queenslander, doesn't he?) The Cold War was icy and thriving in the tropics.

With Reds under my bed sniffing up the rheumatic fever germs in the dust, Yellow Hordes camped downstairs in the old dunny and mysterious Melbourne about to become my last refuge, what was a girl to do but run to Mumma. I ran. My mother, Maisie, didn't see the world politically as far as I could tell. She had no interest at all in nuclear fission. But despite her best efforts to encourage in me a replication of her own benign and bemused indifference, from the time I was old enough to pronounce gerrymander, I venerated Gair, Santamaria and Mannix: two suits, one soutane. B.A. "Bob" Santamaria and Archbishop Daniel Mannix were the Melbourne connection, Vince Gair the conduit, a Rockhampton Christian Brothers' boy made good, son of two of the founding members of the ALP. Gair was my father Jim's political leader in the 1960 Queensland election, the one following the 1957 split that spelt disaster for Labor, pitting the ALP against the expelled Gair's QLP, dividing Labor voters and guaranteeing 32 years of uninterrupted National/Liberal rule. (PTJD – Post Traumatic Joh Disorder remains alive and well in the minds and hearts and 3am flashbacks of Queenslanders everywhere.) As far as Maisie was concerned, they were big boys playing policy games, drawing strategic maps in the dirt under the house, pledging allegiance to the anti-Communist, Roman Catholic cause. She knew Dad would lose in 1960, and so did he. It wasn't about victory, it was about prin­ciples. It was also gratifying that he pulled enough votes (13.68 per cent) to surpass the QLP's average for that election: 12 per cent. Gair lost his seat but in 1964 became the DLP's senator from the sunshine state.

Years down the track, Maisie told me her version, sans ideology, of Gair and Santamaria visiting Rockhampton during the state election campaign to support the candidates. What concerned her was ensuring that they all stayed downstairs under our house when they had their meetings. High stumps were good for catching breezes in summer and avoiding floodwater and politicians anytime of the year, and Maisie valued our privacy above almost everything else. She also had my grandmother, her mother, to worry about. Cate lived with us. The house belonged, not to Mum and Dad and the bank – Dad earned just enough as a railway electrician to keep us in basic repair – but to my Uncle Mick, Cate's first-born son, a successful butcher-shop owner. The house itself had been brought down the hill from Mount Morgan, 40 kilometres away, around 1950, and plonked on a corner in Deacon Street. Maisie, the youngest of 11, cared for Cate, and in return we lived rent-free in Mick's house. Cate had endured several strokes and, as a bonus, had chronic "nerve" trouble – Largactil was the apparent cure, though now that I know it's an anti-psychotic, I also know it was a heavy case of overkill, but that's another story – about rural and provincial areas and the incompetent medical people who hid in them.

Maisie fed the downstairs guests sandwiches and cake and watered them with Ovaltine, tea and coffee. She reminded Dad that they shouldn't shout or make sudden loud noises of any kind lest they kill my brother's finches and canaries, asleep in their cages nearby. When the campaign strategists called for a group photo to tout Dad's traditional Catholic-family-man image, Maisie dressed us all in our glad rags and we posed appropriately on the genoa in the lounge room. You can tell her heart wasn't really in it. It's a ghost of a smile I see when I stare at her and try to read her mind in that old black and white. My father has just the right look, as you would expect of a true and faithful believer; my brother is eight and pathologically shy, but calmly grinning nonetheless; and I, the two-year-old, stare at the camera as though it's full of maggots.

Q: Dad, where do you look for the ancestors?

A: In the linen press with the other skeletons, darl'.


MAISIE WENT SO far and no further with the nonsense of politics and religion,being more consumed with the nonsense of family life, the counterbalancing act. They were both losing battles; it was a matter of keeping up with, or better still, getting ahead of the losses and staying there. It may have been something to do with the quality and strength of the light in the sub-tropics, good old mango madness, or it may be that such things are inevitable when there isn't enough darkness to retreat into to recover from extreme exposure. Isn't there a school of thought that Vincent van Gogh went loco because of the intensity of the sun in Arles? Whatever it was, my experience with "family", both directly and as reported to me, an impres­sionable youngster, by Maisie, helped to place the rheumatically challenged Reds and the milling Yellow Hordes squarely in their places, and as for reli­gion, those that wanted it could have it.

In fact, Maisie took the minimalist approach to explaining how we came to be together, a family, in Rockhampton of all places, and why we behaved the way we did. We simply were. It might have been Greenland for all the talk there was from Mum about where we came from and why we were here, now. Life was too uncertain, in her experience, to be so taken for granted that you would speak with definite certainty about anything much. If politics was the art of the possible, families, according to Maisie, were the art of the improbable. They were a daily event, which might or might not lead to a life-time's worth of memories. The most I learned about her arrival in the world was that, at six weeks, she became critically ill, and the quack advised Cate to take her home and let her die "peacefully". Cate's midwife, a woman given to disregarding the self-important opinions of men in expensive suits, fed my mother, so the legend goes, brandy mixed with egg white.

The simple truth was, Maisie didn't care for history, or nationality, or whether one lived north or south. Living, with a modicum of comfort if pos­sible, was enough. The ancestors, on both sides, were barely present in the house, and not in our minds in any useful form, which was why I became an amateur genealogist in my 20s, after Maisie died. I needed some kind of con­nectedness now that she was gone and Jim had, I realised, lost his guiding light. We came from Ireland, Germany and England, fleeing the potato famine, escaping wicked Hessen stepmothers, the deaths of first wives, and in one case, vacating a Thames prison hulk to serve out a sentence for highway robbery in Botany Bay. Nothing spectacular there, but was that latter piece of information a big secret, a reason living now was enough? No, the surviving siblings claimed they didn't know that bloke was a felon.

I discovered though, that Cate and her husband, Martin, were first cousins (direct descendents of the convict). Big deal. Yes it was, apparently, to my mother and her siblings. Even in their 60s and 70s, Maisie's sisters would change the subject when I dared to bring it up in the interests of col­lecting a little oral history. It was as though no one else in the known universe had ever experienced such family embarrassment. I think they feared insanity would strike them all some day, somehow. And if not them, then the next generation, me and my cousins, or the next. Does this fear explain that among Cate and Martin's 11 offspring, four had no children and the remaining seven managed a combined and measly 10? It seemed they were also waiting with terrible anticipation for a newborn with physiologi­cal anomalies: two heads, three eyes and the body of a mermaid, for instance. My brother and I gave them a few palpitations when we were born – a bit boofheaded, I guess you could say, potential future newsreaders and talk-show hosts.

I used to think that Cate and Martin married because of a paucity of choice, social opportunity and population in a small, relatively remote place like Mount Morgan in 1907. Their parents and grandparents made escape definitive all right, coming to rest not in Sydney, or Brisbane or even Rock­hampton in their trans-hemispheric flights from famine, destitution and unhappiness. They sought work, adventure, gold, some kind of limb-stretching freedom, fresher air. Would Cate and Martin have had the opportunity to fall in love in the big city? Maybe it was easier to keep it in the family.

Whatever it was, my father's side made up for it in a different way. His father, my Pop, sweet-natured, adorable, World War I veteran Graydon, boasted two families simultaneously, sometime in the late 1940s and early 1950s. He was a road surveyor and, what with one mile of Central-Western Queensland expansion leading to the next pole, chain and furlong, Pop moved further and further from the comforts of home, hearth and Nana on the coast and closer and closer to the laughter and heat of a desert welcome. Wondering about those half-cousins, I also occasionally wonder, late on a Sunday night after the movie and after I've replayed in my mind's eye the Queen trooping the colour on her faithful steed, Burmese, as the Grenadiers belt out God Save you know who, exactly how many other half-cousins I have that I've never met in France and Egypt. He wore his slouch hat at a very rakish angle, my Pop, 18, a loyal British citizen and full of yippee beans on R and R in Paris and Cairo.

Q: Why do we have cousins, Mum?

A: So you'll always remember how lucky you are to have your brother, precious.


QUITE A BIT of what I gathered about how the world worked from Maisie and from my own limited childhood observations had to do with the cousins I knew and certain other family members who drifted in and out of our house and our lives. They were exemplars, of something: chronic sunstroke from living too high up in our stilted houses? The crim­inal under-funding of our state's education system? The effects of consorting too often and indiscriminately at cattle saleyards with sad-faced, mad-eyed steers whose briskets ended up on our plates? Uncle Mick, for example, threw us out of our home, his home, for a few weeks back in the early 1960s. There was some dispute or other about Cate's care and the need for an extra pair of hands to help Mum occasionally. Cate was, after all, partially paralysed, and Mum, after all, had been her carer for 16 years altogether, on her own, with no assistance from her many other siblings. Initially, Mick refused to find the few guineas a week and we washed up in a flat near the railway station on the other, even poorer, side of town. That was my first inkling of Maisie's uncertainty principle. I didn't know then that my mother was the embodiment of Beckett's "I can't go on. I'll go on."

Uncle Mick was one of Maisie's siblings without children and therefore, according to her, without feeling, but there were several others, like her, who'd taken the risk, with varying results. I had a cousin with a "scar" on the brain, which meant she had "fits" occasionally, requiring hospitalisation. This was, I learned later, the way the family accounted for her very unhappy marriage to a man who worked in the GPO in Brisbane and before that, Sydney. He blamed her unhappiness – translation: severe, debilitating, endogenous depression – not on the problems within their relationship, but on where she'd come from: Rockhampton, the north, yokel central, which, in the scheme of things, wasn't so illogical for him. This husband was English and older than my cousin by a number of years. Brisbane was small and hot enough for him after London, never mind the melting visits to Capricornia, sweltering. He wore sandals and socks on the beach, and accessorised these with a knotted handkerchief on his balding head. He ground his teeth on a pipe wedged in the corner of his mouth. He had a handlebar moustache that grows larger in memory as I grow older. He was not one of us and he would never realise that the real north was the Far North, Cairns, the Cape. That was the exotic part of Queensland, of the country – closer to the Equator and more deeply affected by Torrid Zone influences. We were marginal to the Torrid. Things were more temperate in the central parts of the state, rela­tively speaking. Mild.

Southerners didn't seem to get that we'd fit right in below the Brisbane Line. We were just like them but they couldn't see that the true eccentrics lived up there, away, in a place that was actually hot.

Another cousin, Uncle Mick's favourite nephew, suffered from excruciat­ing headaches in his teenage years and had had the misfortune to be born not wanting to be a butcher like his father and uncles and grandfather. His mother didn't like telephones, she was positively terrified of them, and she never thought it possible that if she took her son to a specialist in Brisbane, there might be a diagnosis and hope, God forbid, of a cure. If she was traumatised by telephones ringing and ringing, this woman of the bush, how could she not be terrified of cities and people? My cousin shot himself accidentally on purpose through the mouth one lonely day. His poor mother maintained the self-delusion (quite successfully, from all accounts) that her son slipped in the creek mud in his thongs, causing the rifle to flip at an awkward angle into his mouth and discharge. The rest of the family, if they ever talked about it – not often – conceded over time that the lad "just couldn't take it any more". Take what? I never got an answer and I was too young to remember anything about him. In one of his baby photos, he has very sad eyes, so I see now, with the benefit of hindsight.

A third cousin developed an obsessive-compulsive disorder over many years. At first, she picked real fluff off her clothes, but eventually, after being married to an Englishman for some years (yes, another Englishman), she took to fairly constantly picking off invisible fluff. Englishmen aside, I some­times speculate on whether or not traumatic childhood incidents may have contributed to this cousin's anxiety. There was, for instance, the occasion when my brother cut the hair off all of her dolls and said, sincerely, that it would grow back, in time. There was the incident when he explained that he'd trained our dog, Toy – a small and lovable-looking but bitey mongrel – to attack my cousin on command, and that no one could predict when that command might come. Some may ask, what was wrong with my brother? There was, of course, the time when my cousin, then a teenager, was run down on her way to work by an off-duty ambulance driver on his way to work. She was comatose for two weeks and took months to relearn how to read and write, type and take shorthand. I used to help out by reading her the postcards she had sent home from her South Pacific holiday.

Q: What do you like most about Rockhampton?

A: Not being there.


THIS COMATOSE COUSIN was the one who inspired me to take my first trip out of Queensland. She went to Fiji on a cruise ship when she was 17. The ship may have been the Oriana or the Arcadia, something like that. Posh, different. It was the first time any member of our family living in Central Queensland had travelled overseas, if you exclude our great– and great-great grandparents. In January of 1978, I exercised my adult right to travel as far as I could without actually leaving the family. I bought a wool blend coat on special from Woolworths in honour of the trip and flew to Melbourne to visit my godmother, Mum's sister, Aunty Dot, another childless one, and Uncle Alan, in exotic Essendon. Melbourne, after all, was on the cut-out, if not the cutting edge of the country (that would be the Emerald City, n'est pas?), and there were those other political and nuclear connections from the past.

So cold, so classy, so forbidding, so clothed, Melbourne, even in summer. And yet, so Australian, wasn't it? Whenever Aunty Dot came to Rocky, she brought with her the vapours and vibrations of the big city: trams, trains, markets, espresso coffee, perhaps a little garlic, speed walking, foreign accents and languages. At last, I'd taken myself to her and her gas-heated imitation fireplace, to the Moonee Ponds markets, to St Patrick's cathedral, to Queen Elizabeth's Royal Silver Jubilee Exhibition Train at Spencer Street Station, to the Victorian Arts Centre where I heard women speaking to each other in French (half-cousins?) as I selected postcards to send to Maisie and Jim in pokey little Rocky, to Uncle Alan's sister, Rita, in even more exotic Hei­delberg, where she lived in a very small former Olympic Village brick cottage. Who might have stayed there? Which gold medallist? I had, I was certain, arrived at an appropriate level of sophistication and integration with my southern fellow citizens as I sat in Rita's teensy lounge room sipping tea and nibbling cake from her best Shelly china.

On the second Saturday of my visit, Uncle Alan introduced me to his next-door neighbour, whose wife's chronic sinusitis was permanently cured when she was dumped by a wave at Surfers Paradise one summer holiday years before. The things you learn about people. I made polite conversation with this man about his immaculate lawn and Uncle Alan's beloved rose trees and the anticipated wet weather (the neighbour had a cracked roof tile), but after a while I got the impression there was something about me that was troubling him. He asked me where I came from and when I said Rockhamp­ton, Uncle Alan enlightened him with the further fact that it was the Rocky in Central Queensland where Dot was from. The neighbour's consternation and the look of, well, I could only describe it as a mixture of pity and confu­sion, had to do with the slowness of my speech, the fact that I barely opened my mouth when I spoke, and the consequent flatness of my vowels. Once he knew my provenance, once he'd pegged me as a northerner, the world was back in balance.

A couple of months after that trip, Maisie died suddenly and I found myself in a different Australia, the one of grief and loss, of true unpre­dictability, where there were always fires on the Berserker Range between Rocky and the Pacific, and where it was hard, for more than a while, to decide whether to be Icarus or Daedalus. For some reason, it seemed impor­tant at the time to bury Mum beneath a rose tree in the crematorium garden. I've seen it flower once in 26 years.

Several months ago, I attended a state reception for Melbourne-born but Queensland-raised Janette Turner Hospital. During her speech, Janette explained that, at a writers' event in Melbourne a few years ago, a man asked her where she was from. "I'm a Queenslander," she replied. "Ah," said the man, smiling, "God's own idiots."

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