THIS IS THE kind of place people leave.
This town, Tamby East, sits a few kilometres off the North-West Highway. You’ve never been there, but once or twice you might have pulled off the freeway a few hours out of Melbourne to get petrol. There, merging with the northbound lanes, is the on-ramp from Tamby East.
Across the freeway there’s a matching BP station where, on the way home, you might have topped up the tank and bought a dirty coffee for those last few hundred k’s before reaching the city’s lights. That’s where the southbound on-ramp brings cars past the bowsers and onto the freeway. To get there from Tamby East, drivers cross the four lanes of the freeway high on a narrow bridge.
And then there are the off-ramps: the roads that leave the freeway and make their way to Tamby East. You don’t need to know them; they don’t even have signs.
What’s at the end of those roads? Some farms. Gold diggings, a hundred years abandoned, covered with scrubby bush. A few perfectly symmetrical hills coated with dark foliage, sticking up from flat yellow paddocks, their volcanic hearts exhausted. The old town. The new town: eight straight streets of red-brick houses, all from 1982. The Tamby River. A rail line (freight). A footy oval; a cemetery (half full). A half-acre yard scattered with rusted-out utes and things once attached to tractors.
Two hundred and twenty-seven human lives. And sheep. Lots of sheep.
IN SPRING, THEIR trees come into flower. Before anything is in leaf – apart from the ceaseless gums and wattles – the stubbly, messy collections of sticks that line the winter roadsides become, overnight, Japanese flower arrangements.
Pale pink starbursts line the boundaries of blocks, bright against blue sky. Beside the gravel tracks, mounds of white blossom stand like late snow, paler and purer than the low grey sky. In damp front gardens, the peachy red of quince petals mingles with the purple of rosemary. On the sides of little hills and in the long backyards of new brick homes, floral powder-puffs the shade of a lady’s made-up cheeks mark where there once were houses.
Sometimes there are daffodils, drifting underground from old kitchen gardens across the paddocks where the sheep now graze. On the land next to the hardware store, beside the abandoned heating-oil tank and the back half of a semitrailer, a sixty-foot magnolia flowers, trumpeting in pink and white.
Out of town, passed at a hundred k’s an hour on the highway, are wattles of such a yellow you forget daisies, sunflowers, buttercups.
But the trees those people planted are useful, English colours. They are trees for fruit, trees to frame a little cottage, trees to sit under in the summer on some green lawn. Surprising irises are white, yellow, two shades of blue, standing in isolated patches.
All year, they grow unnoticed. You’d pass them by, them and their accompanying mounds of rubble; stone piles overgrown with grass. In winter, they are only sticks. In summer, vague green things shaped like giant bushes. But for two weeks in September, they flower. They are mad fairy-floss, sun-spotlit patches of colour in the grey-green winter landscape. They appear in unexpected places: up on hills in what looks like untouched bush; down in gullies where only a fool would plant a tree; at random points in wide flat runs of grass where every spot looks so much like another that it seems likely that the house site was chosen by accident, by the breaking of an axle or the breaking point of a hungry, tired settler: ‘My God! I’ve had enough; this will do!’
One hundred and fifty years on, the words are gone from the air; the wooden houses are burned down, the fences crumbled. Cows graze across the vegetable gardens, shelter in corners of stone ruins. Still, every year the trees flower, the pattern of the past showing through like an early oil under a painted-over canvas.
HEARTH AND HOME
ACROSS THIS TOWN, in every home, there’s a hearth. Fires are burning, sending smoke up old brick chimneys built by Cornish miners. In decorative iron grates, neatly cut logs and small round coals are burbling with flame, warming the drawing rooms of long-dead squatters. At the pub, half a tree is roaring its death in an empty bar.
On East and West and North streets in the new town, identical Coonara heaters, metal boxes sprouting metal tubes that stick up through the roofs into the sky, are heating identical slate-floored recreation rooms.
It’s early morning: some of the hearths are cold. Pete Dalgety died in his bed late yesterday and Meals on Wheels isn’t due until eleven. Sally Smith is working in Melbourne this week, earning money for the mortgage and for the new water pump. John McKinsey switched to electric in 1992 because of his back, and he’s warm enough, in a regulated kind of way, though he still sits by the hearth, because the radio is on the mantelpiece.
Plumes of smoke drift across the town, rising into the air and mingling before dispersing into nothing. The smoke looks like the mist rising off the Tamby River, but the mist is a breath held, hovering over still water; the smoke is a restless ghost.
Each lit hearth pops and crackles; the steel fireboxes tick with heat; logs fall into the fire beds and the coals with resignation and
the heat pulses out into the rooms, warming the skins and flushing the cheeks of the people of Tamby East, before they have to go and face the day.
THE TAMBY RIVER
A STREAM IS perfect when it is neither too low – seeking its way between gravel piles that used to be submerged, lost in its wide bed like a child in her mother’s overcoat – nor too high – overflowing, bursting or threatening to burst its banks, overexcited and sweeping away that which it should merely pass by and water.
The middle way is best: the stream that in its flowing both contacts and respects its banks. It moves, but not too fast; a leaf fallen on its surface has time to turn and point its narrow tip forward with the current, and as it bobs along the surface, it may from time to time swirl and circle, edging towards one bank or the other.
In this stream, there are calm corners, places where the flow is not so much stopped as paused; hesitations, meditations, spaces where young platypuses may learn to swim, or fish may hover, attaching their eggs to the broad slick sides of reeds and underwater grasses. In these places, a bubble of air released by a yabby will rise straight up, floating to the surface in a silvery string, a series of tiny atmospheres each as perfect as the world.
In this stream, the colours are of shadow. A painter would add black to his bright green, his yellow-gold, would think of words like muddy, flash and flicker. He would think of Gerard Manley Hopkins as a trout passed by unseen, and praise the Lord for dappled things.
Sunlight, where it could penetrate the curtain of the overhanging gums, would be a soft-focus thing, a glow imparted to patches of a perfect scene. It would be the exception, not the rule.
This stream would show no signs of human interference: no bridge, no weir or channel. It would flow in every moment in full perfection, not flooding, not dried up, while admitting both of those were possible. At this perfect moment, it would move so gently, with so much assurance – tea-brown and the sum of all the rain that fell on all the bush around it – that drought and flood could be forgotten.
SOME THINGS ARE unknowable. A person’s secrets may be revealed by the things they leave behind; but what are they, those supposedly uncovered secrets? They are words, ideas: ‘an affair’, ‘a theft’. Dry and dead as dust. The love letters, the gold ring hidden under the pillow, they lack animation. They lack the life within a heart, a body. They lack the mystery, the whatever-it-is that lurks in the caves of our skulls.
In Tamby East, there are these things:
Under the football oval, four metres down, in the former mud of the former swamp, three canoes made out of the bark of a tree. In the front canoe, a small hook carved from bone.
Twenty metres downstream from the footbridge, there’s a flat place held in the curve of the river, a bit overgrown but not too badly, as it’s often walked on on a Saturday night. In roughly the centre of that place, a burned patch of ground where teenagers set bonfires sometimes. Bits of tin can turned rusty by the fire lie on the ground, mixed up with shards of exploded disposable lighters and cigarette butts. Under the fire ground, not far down, is another bed of coals, ten metres in diameter, built up over a few hundred years of full-moon fires. The last was lit a week before the sickness came, only months before the new men came over the hill with horses and a wagon drawn by bullocks.
Further downstream is an exposed bank where a tree fell in last month’s rains. Only an archaeologist would notice the odd regularity of the stripes in the mud wall revealed by the torn-away roots: the layers of white between the brown. It would take an archaeologist to detect that these layers are made from ground-up yabby shells and the bones of fish baked on fires – evidence, in other words, of regular feasts held on the high side of the riverbend.
From the quantity of shells and fish, a good researcher might surmise a regular pattern of gatherings and the use of technologies such as nets woven from bark and animal gut, weirs built across the river and other ways of collecting large amounts of food in a very short time; food for a very large number of people, more than the land and river would normally support. They might discern a meeting place.
But there are no archaeologists in Tamby East. There are a few people still living on country, keeping some stories and words alive. And there are names attached to places, names with double Os and Ls and sudden As that open up the jaw. They have a kind of river-rhythm to their structure, so that if you run them together, speaking quickly but only in a whisper, you can feel the old language roll around your mouth.
ON EARLY SUMMER mornings there’s a concentrated silence, still and breathless, after the animals have lain down and before the wind rises from the land.
Birds call across the bush, but do not fly. At the base of a steep hill, a tiny dot of a cyclist in a yellow jersey moves slowly up the grey road. She is not fast. She is on an old bike, a bike from the shed of a weekender, or bought from a garage sale yesterday morning. The hill is massive, covered in stringy grey trees. It bears the strip of road like a scar. The woman is so small and slow that her ever reaching the summit seems impossible.
Through the trees, to her right, down across the valley, the slope of another hill rises. The hills go on and on.
She breathes, pushes down on the pedals. The wheels turn. They are two tiny cogs interlocking with the curve of the hill, itself a mere tooth on the oversized circle of the earth. Vague rocks and mossy patches, fallen logs and new-grown saplings appear ahead, surround her, and pass back behind, but she can’t focus on them. She is climbing this hill.
The hill is old, rounded, worn. Close to the peak, the gradient eases slightly – still steep and difficult, but less so than before. Her legs hurt and she notices she’s inhaling hoarsely, dragging warm air down against the back of her throat. She’s not much of a cyclist and the cool morning has tricked her into coming too far from town. She knows she should turn back, that the longer she goes on, the longer the trip home. But the top of the hill is close and the enclosing trees are thinning out as the forest drops away.
For a moment, as the bike begins to roll under its own momentum, it’s as if the hill has not ended but lifted her up into the sky. She feels light, suspended, relieved of the force of gravity. Ahead, below, around are folds of open grassland, the valleys leaking mist, farmhouses set at the ends of tree-lined driveways. The road runs down a treeless slope of waving grass to a narrow river cleft where there are red gums, bushes, clear open pools of water. Gathering speed, she glances into the blue shadow of the shoulder of the next hill over and sees a single animal: a young kangaroo, upright and tensed to jump, square-jawed and prick-eared, watching her pass by.
Her body’s fixed in position on the bicycle, rolling downhill faster and faster towards the valley township.
SOMETIMES IT’S AN oddly regular pile of rocks, forming a line along the hillside for fifty, sixty metres. Other times it’s a gully, a ditch with sides eroded into cathedral columns, falling away from ground level like the Grand Canyon. These are the signs and traces of the rush.
In one south-facing hillside paddock, it’s a cairn-like structure; three sides of stone and a solid slab of timber still wedged halfway up the ancient chimney. A clump of bearded irises mark the front steps of the missing cottage.
Across the road from that deserted fireplace is a church. Well, the wall of a church, complete with mitred windows and tiny buttresses to hold up the modest wall. The peppercorn growing in what would have been the aisle is fifteen metres high, straggly and craggy, and can’t be less than fifty years in age. Cliché sheep graze in the lee of the old church wall.
The bush round here is dangerous. It feels it, too. But the ghostly silence, the brooding of the tired trees in the hot sun, Marcus Clarke’s weird melancholy, is a ruse. Although it brings to mind lost tribes, bunyips and ancient Dreamings, those aren’t what will get you. What catches the unwary walker is the more recent past; the holes dug in acre after acre of clay-soiled bushland, down five or ten or fifty feet, in search of gold. The mines like moon craters with their thrown-up rings of soil were left when the miners walked away. No one stayed to fill them in; there was no energy to do so once the gold was gone. Over time, fallen branches became the rafters for roofs of leaves and dust and twigs, and the mines became mantraps, giving the appearance of solid ground. If you step on one, you might fall a metre. Or you might fall deep into a pit of dirty water. And though sound travels in the bush, the walls of clay are deadening. You might be there for good.