Fiction

The compound

A TROPICAL SUMMER. 2006: A Monday. Wendy, the story: the compound, the day, her telling me in Mackay her dream of going to England one day, her smile, her confidence. She will enact her dream. Up the winding road into the highlands from Mackay to Nebo in her four-by-four with the black number eight on its yellow doors and roof. Breakfast at Frank’s place and we talk till lunchtime. No work is done. Natalie joins us. She is using a cane now, her weight too great for her to bear without support. After lunch we visit Pink Lily Lagoon. Stand on the bank and gaze at the still waters; freckled (or maybe speckled) ducks paddle about on the water, ignoring us. The kids chase each other and scream. Dinner after dark at Natalie and David’s, the open space of the house, the workers coming in for their meal at evening, parking their rigs, young men, fit, strong, they come in at the door, two at a time and glance at me and then at each other. Frank calls them over and introduces them: ‘My friend, Alex Miller.’ It is enough. Frank is their general. His authority holds them. We help ourselves to Natalie’s cooking. Natalie watches us. I am the only white man among them.

In the morning we drive out to the Burton Downs mine and walk the escarpment, looking for signs of Frank’s Old People. Buffel grass masks the ground where there was once an open spread of native cover. We gather in the shade of the sheltering group of trees at the edge of the lake: Elphinstone, the heart of Frank’s country, and drink tea and stare at the glowing surface of the lake in the heat. After lunch we follow the rise of the country and come upon the cave with its knowledge map. It is Col who tells us this is a map. A written document. To me it resembles the dance of linked stick figures, crayoned onto the rockface in red ochre. Nigel asks, ‘Why did they cover the map with white hand-stencils, Uncle Col?’ Col says: ‘They heard the white man was coming and they didn’t want him to read the knowledge.’ He lights the cigarette he has rolled, silent for a time. We all gaze at the complex map. ‘The Old People didn’t know the white man was illiterate,’ he says. They are not figures. Each ‘figure’, Col tells us, represents a location along the river. It is writing. The runes of the Barada Barna. The Celts would have acknowledged it as script, text. To know this map is to know Frank’s country. 

Frank is happy. He has always had the map in his head. He is pleased now to see how it corresponds to the source. He sits alongside Col under the overhang and invites me to sit between them. I decline. Frank offers me everything. I take only his photo. This is all I take. Old friends and comrades as these two men are. They look at each other. It is their cave. Their knowledge. Old men now. The people of Elphinstone Station have preserved the site for generations, for a day when a man such as Frank will come and ask. They are pleased. ‘We have always expected you.’ The heart of his country. The birthplace of his meaning. 

 

TUESDAY WE WALK the Burton Downs mine site again and find numerous scarred trees. A kingfisher alights on a branch of the bush beside me where I am sheltering from the sun. The bird is intelligent, inquisitive, unafraid. The temperature is over 40 degrees. My left hip is aching. The pain slowly recedes. I hear Wendy calling from the height of the escarpment. I get up and go on. I can see no one. The heat and the silence. From a distance I hear Wendy call again. Steven is lost. Les calls him on the two-way radio and Steven answers, his voice crackling. ‘Where are you, son?’ 

But he is lost. ‘I don’t know, Dad. I’m lost.’ They both laugh. 

Steven describes the lie of the land where he is standing. Les turns aside and speaks to Frank: ‘He’s on the plateau.’ They smile. It is country they mustered when they were young men, it wakes in their bones, in their dreams it nurtures them.

 

WEDNESDAY AND A green-glass storm gathering over the Nebo Creek. We stay in the house and I watch the approach of the storm from the picture window. The young men play darts. Rain cascades onto the tin roof in a sudden tempest. I stand at the window. I can see no more than twenty metres, the pall of rain lashing the paddock. Frank comes and stands beside me. He is a big man, tall and broad, upright and inward in his thoughts. I have known him since Col introduced us in the ’80s. Frank was struggling then to bring his people home. Now he has secured the reality of his vision and they are with him. Together we watch the rain giving his dry country new life. I am thinking of the success of Frank and Col’s enterprises: giving the young a framework of purpose and meaning; rescuing their people from prison and drugs; offering discipline, status, money, responsibility. I have never heard either of them complain about their lot. That they are owed this or not. And Frank a gifted leader; there will be no one to replace him. His authority will go
with him.

The artist, John Clare, has a bold claim tattooed on his biceps, or is it a lament? The Beast. When he and I are alone later he confides to me his understanding that artists, as he deems us both to be, must share our sense of things. I watch him painting goannas, filling in space that isn’t space. Multitudes of convex dots of white paint that stand up like tiny upturned porcelain saucers against the polished midnight of his ground, each one lucent with presence. The rain thundering on the roof. He pauses and we look towards the window. The Beast will return to prison. He is confinement’s familiar. With his art he permits us to know each other, he and I. No words, just those porcelain saucers of hidden light. His source.

It is night and Frank invites me to step outside. The air is sharp and immediate with the scents of the bush. He does not speak. I look up at the porcelain stars that hang over Nebo against the polished ground of the night. Frogs creak on their hinges in the dark. John Clare, The Beast, is returning, who knows from where? When he leaves he tells no one his business, the whitefella’s pressing need to know remains unsatisfied. The lights of his truck flashing in our eyes. He begins to speak as soon as he steps down from the cabin, the headlights doused, his half-wild dogs glowering at us from the tray body. His voice in the darkness, the light of the stars, the house behind us soft with its kerosene lamps. He tells us, it seems, everything he has reflected upon in his confinement, a mirror to his life. He has not spoken of this before. Now it comes out of him as if it was only yesterday. But what is the passage of years to this man who communes with the stars? Recounting in detail the adventures and misadventures, exploits of his life, not failing at each turning point in his narrative to describe the useless, the feckless and ignorant people with whom he has been required to transact his business. He talks as if he has rehearsed, as if he spent his years of confinement alone rehearsing this eloquent soliloquy, correcting himself, his faulty memory, improving his delivery. And it might be a rehearsal for the opening night of his life, adding a detail after the fact, an explanation here then there, as if he is dabbing at his painting, retracing his steps to punctuate a pause. Frank has heard it all before. Each subject seems to arise naturally and without pause from the subject that precedes it – the country of his memory is rained on. A genealogy of the intemperate political life of the country that has oppressed his spirit. And how he rose above the mindless oppression and began to paint his inner world, the lucent saucers of hidden light within his soul. He ceases speaking and we three stand and look into the night. The dogs rattle their chains and he unchains them and leads them away over behind the machinery shed to where his caravan is parked beside the anthropologist’s caravan. Frank and I return into the house. Frank says nothing. The silence is immense.

Frank knew the challenge of his mission was dangerous. That he might not only not succeed but might fail spectacularly. His spectacular success has left him lonely among his rescued people.

 

THE OTHER WHITE man, the anthropologist, the Englishman, the exile, the foreigner, let us say, he is encircled, his environment examined and described. I remember him as if he were myself then, that other foreigner, sitting outside his caravan that night after the storm, writing in his notebook by the light of a pressure kerosene lamp, the hiss of the lamp slowly diminishing. It needs a pump or two every quarter hour, brightening the flame, so that it lights up the wall of the machinery shed and glints in the anthropologist’s spectacles and rouses John Clare’s dogs. He reaches for the tumbler and takes a drink of the rum. It is overproof. The bottle is on his square table. He has rigged up the table from a discarded piece of iron sheeting, which he has set on four piles of besser bricks. His packet of cigarettes and his brass lighter lie on the table beside the bottle and the lamp. He writes in his notebook, which he balances on his knees, and reaches for his glass without taking his eyes from the notebook, his fingers feeling for the glass like a deep-sea creature feeling for its prey. He has been there for years, discovering his purpose. He is myself in all but purpose and history, as one man ever might be another.

It, the story, the intrigue of his situation. His surroundings. His social environment. He leaves Frank’s compound and, like The Beast, does not tell anyone where he is going, the landscape inducing silence and privacy. He doesn’t lock his caravan. He has an old Fargo utility. It is painted dark green. A few months later, when Frank’s people have begun to forget him, they wake one morning to hear the Fargo returning along the Nebo Road. I have not forgotten him. He and John Clare, The Beast, are forming the outlines of a friendship, a mere sketch of possibilities as yet. For they are slow to unearth each other and their latent friendship may never fully emerge. The anthropologist has formed a closeness with the largest and fiercest of John Clare’s dogs. John Clare says nothing but he notices this and his interest is captured. The dog, which he named Lightning when he rescued it from a man in Mackay who he saw beating it with a length of galvanised pipe as he was passing along the main street in his truck, that dog, it lies at the anthropologist’s feet, its eyes open, its large splayed front paws crossed. It closes its eyes and opens them again only when the anthropologist replaces his glass on the iron surface of the make-do table. A muffled drumbeat of awakening. A tympanum’s resonance silenced by the calming touch of the fingers of the musician. There! The sound of inadvertence. It is late. The morning hours at their lowest point, the tide right out, exposing the emptiness of the foreshore, the distant tremor of the mine, a throbbing in the still coolness of the air after the rain. The anthropologist scratches his left ear then examines the end of his finger. There is nothing to be seen. The frogs begin creaking again. Lightning lifts his head and sniffs the stillness.

The mine, the miners, the busy highway, the small town, busy trucks and four-by-fours coming in and going out again, black numbers painted on their yellow sides and on their roofs, so that a helicopter pilot, or his passenger, can identify them from the air. The crackle of radio communications. Frank’s compound five kilometres out along the highway, set back 200 metres from the road, the buildings only visible from the passing traffic in quick flashes of tin in the daylight or the intermittent flicker of kerosene lights at night. The compound where the young men and one or two young women gather after their long days in the cool air-conditioned, sound-conditioned cabins of their great yellow thundering machines – the operators. A caste to themselves. The thud of darts hitting the board. The click of snooker balls. And a sudden flowering of laughter, like an outbreak of colour at sunset. The Beast works alone. The anthropologist. The mystery of human existence. The rules always leave someone outside. The privileged exception. The Englishman. The anthropologist and his rum are beyond the reach of Frank’s anathema and cannot be excommunicated – the anthropologist is not truly a member of the group but occupies a special region of his own, a moral region which must have its own rules, its own divinity. Does he suspect that I am writing the small compass of his life from feelings of love? Does he know? Frank, the great leader of the Barada Barna, he doesn’t ask what these rules are but respects difference and distinction. The anthropologist is not to become one of them. He cannot. The fragility of human purpose is posed in the group of tiny upturned porcelain saucers, given by the charmed hand of The Beast. There is mystery in this too. What does the anthropologist write in his notebook every night while he drinks alone by the hissing light of the Tilley lantern? Seated on his director’s chair outside the open door of his caravan, the lofty iron walls of the machinery shed behind him, his shadow the shadow of a giant, hunched, head bowed, contemplating the inward signs. Solitary.

Frank has laid down his rules. There are to be no exceptions among his people. No alcohol. No drugs. No adultery. No illicit sex with someone else’s spouse. The compound is a place of purpose and discipline, a region of moral decency. No fighting. No cruelty to animals. The punishment for disobedience is expulsion. There are no degrees to be considered. Wrong is wrong. ‘Why have a rule,’ Frank asks me, his voice calm, looking off towards the banks of the Nebo Creek, ‘if you are going to make exceptions?’ He explains to me that the idea of a second chance is in his view an indication of weakness and uncertainty. ‘Death is death,’ he murmurs. ‘We get no second chance.’ He believes in the persistence of his Old People. It is their justice that is his justice. He doesn’t waver. There is no appeals tribunal. His judges look outward, their backs to him. He faces the same way they do. He turns away from the window and says to me, ‘Natalie’s got us a feed. We’d better get in, old mate, before the boys beat us to it.’

The distant drumbeat of the mine in the dark night. The earth shakes. The longwall never stops. But it will stop. The anthropologist knows it will all come to an end. All this. The booming, bustling mecca of the mine, the high-tech race to extract the coal, the high-tech race to trace the past times of Frank’s people. The anthropologist knows it will all end suddenly. An abrupt silence will settle on the earth. The miners will leave. They will drive away along the highway in their numbered utes and four-by-fours and not return. Until the last one has gone. Returned to the coast. The highlands abandoned. The machinery will shudder to a stop and not restart. And it will lie there rusting. He has seen the rusting boilers and gold stamps out in the desert. The past will be left to deal with itself. Coal mines are no different. It is all extraction. The men and women will shower the coal dust from their bodies and change into their weekend clothes and they will climb into their vehicles and drive away for the last time. The dust will settle. The funds will have been cut off. 

He reaches for his glass and brings it to his lips. It is empty. He sets the glass on the iron table and reaches for the rum bottle and unscrews the cap and pours a generous amount of the amber liquid into his glass, which trembles slightly, drumming on the iron. The rum sparkles in the light of the hissing Tilley lamp. He lifts the glass and holds it to the light and looks at it. Before he drinks, his eyes narrowed, gazing into the depths of the drink, he wonders if he will have a home to go to when the silence falls on this hinterland and he returns to England. The foreigner. He drinks, savouring the liquor. Overproof. It hits his gullet and burns its way down into his stomach. He closes his eyes. She has come into his thoughts now and he is thinking of Wendy standing in the sunlight looking back at him from her eminence on the prow of the stone escarpment. She lifts her hand and signals to him. I shall visit England one day, she says, and she turns away and is gone in among the timber, the old trees where they have stood for ever. He drinks again and sets the glass down on the iron and picks up his pen and begins to write. What is it he writes? The anthropologist. Will he publish it one day? Does he think of Wendy while he writes? Does he write about her? Caravans and trailer homes. Communal dining rooms. The smell of food to hungry men and women. Individual rooms, each with a bed and a wardrobe, an air-conditioner fixed in the wall. It will all come to an abrupt end. He turns his head. The Beast has come out from his caravan and stands on the step looking. The dog by the anthropologist’s feet grumbles and gets to his feet and goes to his saviour. The Beast leans and fondles the dog’s ears.

The anthropologist says, ‘Goodnight John Clare.’

The Beast responds, ‘Good night sir.’

Several times the anthropologist has asked John Clare not to address him as sir. He suspects a note of irony. He does not know if John Clare thinks he, the anthropologist, is in the way. A nuisance. An impediment. To what? They are free men, after all. 

For a moment it seems possible that they may begin a conversation, then John Clare speaks to his dogs and turns and goes back inside his caravan. He closes the door, the van adjusting itself on its moveable foundations. The anthropologist resumes writing in his notebook. Is it a journal of private confessions or something professional? An analysis of the compound and its inhabitants? What is it that anthropologists do?

He does not reckon on destiny. For Frank’s people maybe but not for himself. He acknowledges the ineluctable hold this place has on him. That to struggle against it is useless and will bind him more securely. Although he does not belong, he will submit to it. Knowing this, he knows he has already submitted.

 

IN HIS LESS vivid memory he has a wife and three children in England. They live on in the house in Sevenoaks, with its broad spreading chestnut tree outside the window that was once his own bedroom window. The house was his father’s and his father’s father’s. It is old and needs expensive repairs that he and his wife cannot afford. They have spoken of moving to another, newer, house, a more convenient place where there is not the constant need to dust and there is not the clinging smell of decay in the winter. A decision has been held off until his return. Destiny is something else. Destiny is not necessity. Destiny is something others know of themselves. These people, Frank and his mob, he observes with professional detachment. ANTHROPOLOGY (the science of man) denotes the natural history of mankind. In the general classification of knowledge it stands as the highest section of zoology or the science of animals, itself the highest section of biology or the science of living beings. He is a scientist and no knowledge is forbidden him. The world and its mysteries stand open to his gaze. There are no limits. There is no place, no matter how sacred, where he cannot go.

He says goodnight to John Clare’s dog and gets up. He takes off his glasses and lets them hang against his chest from the thin red-hide thong Frank gave him and he stands a moment looking towards the darkened house. As he stands looking a lamp is lit and a figure moves across the big open room. 

Since he came to Australia to deepen his knowledge of the science of man, to deepen his knowledge of himself, the Indigenous people have become part of his own story. It is inevitable. He admires Frank. They too have become friends. Frank and his mob can never in the future, whatever that future is to hold for him, be left out of his own story without him creating a lie of himself. Even in Sevenoaks, if he should return, his friendships will remain with him. And when Wendy arrives in England for her visit it will be he who meets her at Heathrow and it will be with him and his family in their old house in Sevenoaks that she will find her first introduction to life as it is lived in England by the whitefellas, where she will deepen her understanding. And if he does not return, it will be his wife, Karen, who meets Wendy’s plane. He carries the Tilley lamp and his notebook into his caravan. The dog doesn’t move but watches him, its brown eyes glinting, the lantern reflected in the depths of those eyes. The beauty. The anthropologist has left the nearly empty bottle of dark overproof rum and his empty glass on the iron table.

Inside the caravan he sets the hissing lamp on the green and gold laminex fold-down table, first pushing aside with his elbow his breakfast bowl and lunch plate and his grimy coffee mug and a jumble of newspapers and journals. Now he sets the notebook and his pen beside the lamp and he turns and closes the door. He is alone in his home in the remote hinterland in Australia. Frank’s country. His home. He sets his lamp on the floor beside the bunk and he gets undressed, putting each of his garments aside on the bench. With only his underpants and singlet on he climbs into the bunk. He lies down and reaches out and turns off the escaping gas. The lamp sputters and goes out. The man, the subject of his own science, lies still on the bunk, the single blanket held close to his chin. It is a warm night and a sheet would be sufficient covering, but it has been his habit since childhood to hold a blanket up to his chin before going to sleep. The darkness is profound. He closes his eyes and is soon asleep.

He is woken by an explosion in his head. He was dreaming and thinks he has been asleep for a long time but he has slept for only fifteen minutes. The explosion leaves a sharp memory of itself, almost like a smell. The smell of cordite. He gets up and strikes a match and gives the Tilley a couple of pumps, then lights it. He stands in front of his disordered bookshelf and reaches for volume eight of Proust’s great novel: part eleven of Cities of the Plain. He takes the worn and tattered book in his hand and adjusts his glasses on his large and rather misshapen nose and he opens the book at the page where he closed it. He has left a marker at this point, a corner torn from the Mackay Daily Mercury. The newspaper is already brown, as if it is many years old, but it is relatively fresh. He sits on the bunk and begins to read at page 174 and over onto page 175 of volume eight of the uniform twelve-volume edition of the novel first issued by Chatto & Windus in 1941, while the Blitz was on, the searchlights he saw crisscrossing the sky from his bedroom window, the distant flashes of anti-aircraft guns and the bronzing of the sky in the east, over London. The translation is by CK Scott Moncrieff and is no longer the translation favoured by English readers of Proust. He knows this. It is his father’s old copy and is familiar country to him. It would not be an exaggeration to say that he, the English anthropologist, loves this book that he is holding in his hands. For Proust it was the sound of a bell in his head that woke him. For VS Naipaul it was an explosion in his head. The anthropologist has a faint and uncertain memory that Nabokov also spoke of this phenomenon, perhaps in his novel about the possessed chess player Luzhin. The anthropologist likens his own violent awakening to the sound of a bird striking a window in full flight. The sudden bang that interrupted his reading one afternoon when he was sitting by the window of his bedroom in the house at Sevenoaks. A jay, was it? He’s not sure; chasing a blackbird. The violent collision with the window awakened him then from his deep immersion in the world of Ford Madox Ford’s novel Parade’s End. The scene where the hero is seduced in the train carriage by the beautiful young woman. This new explosion in his head wakes him with a shock. It is guilt he acknowledges. The guilt of the voyeur observed. 

He sits with the volume of Proust open in his hand and finds himself staring up at the photograph of an old timber cottage at the edge of the forest, a few sheep grazing in the meadow that goes right up to the tank and the steps of the cottage. There is no fence or garden. Just the loosely constructed modest building. Old river red gums stand alone in the meadow with the sheep. The photograph is mounted and framed, a thin black wooden frame. He came across it at a flea market in Mackay. It is a photograph from the south. Possibly somewhere in Gippsland. The cottage and its clearing still have the look of the pioneer days. He doesn’t wish he had lived there. He was walking past the stall when his attention was arrested by the photograph. ‘Ten dollars,’ the woman said. He took out his wallet and handed her a $10 note. He knew he could have got the photo for $5, but he has never bargained. If he wants something he gives what is asked. The woman handed the framed photo to him. Now he sits looking at it by the soft light of the Tilley lamp, a light that is wavering. He doesn’t pump it but allows the pressure to drop slowly. He has forgotten Proust but an echo of Proust and Nabokov and Naipaul resonates in his head along with the dreaming of the photograph that someone in a previous century loved enough to have professionally mounted and framed. There are a few brown spots of foxing on the meadow. They are all there on his jumbled bookshelf, Nabokov and Naipaul and Proust, mixed together on the shelf as their meditations are mixed together in his head. They have been his music. His consolation. The only other picture in the anthropologist’s caravan is a lightly hand-coloured photograph. This photograph isn’t framed but has been backed onto a piece of cardboard. It leans against the books, obscuring titles and authors, its edges broken, and a brown stain like a map of some unknown island running along the bottom edge. It is a worthless photograph that he paid $4 for. Again, without bargaining down the asking price. It is a photograph of the casino at Heliopolis. It is dated in pencil: 1916. He has owned this photo much longer than he has owned the photo of the settler’s cottage set in the meadow against the virgin forest. He bought the photograph of the casino at Heliopolis in a charity shop in Lewisham. He was walking along Lewisham High Street after eating a sandwich in a café. He remembers the tea was lukewarm and pallid and the cup thick and chipped, but he cannot remember why he was in Lewisham. The sandwich was ham between slices of white bread spread with tasteless mustard. As he walked along Lewisham High Street after paying for his sandwich he was wishing he had gone to a pub for his lunch instead of to the café, when he saw the photograph propped in the window of the charity shop, a rack of dresses and jackets behind it. He recognised the subject of the photograph at once and was astonished to see it. He had just been looking at this very image, only in black and white, in WG Sebald’s recently published work, The Emigrants, which he was reading while he was eating his sandwich only a moment before. He went into the shop and bought the photograph and when he came out, he stood in the street and opened his briefcase and took out Sebald’s book and opened it at the page where its author had inserted a photograph of the casino at Heliopolis. His was the same photograph, only hand-coloured. 

He was moved in an inexplicable way by this coincidence. It was so much in the strangely other-world mood of Sebald’s book that the anthropologist felt an urgent need to close off the experience, to end it decisively, for he knew his search for a meaning in this coincidence would haunt him with its strange power to unsettle. He is a scientist. He is not a superstitious man. And yet the coincidence will plague him, as if only a superstitious response to it will serve to satisfy the nature of the experience. He returned the book to his satchel and fitted the photograph in alongside it and closed the satchel and walked on.

He remembers now, sitting in his caravan at Frank’s place near Nebo staring at the photo, that as he walked on along Lewisham High Street, the photograph and the book snuggled side by side in his satchel, he was troubled by the unusual word marasmus. He doesn’t know the meaning of this word. And although he probably looked it up in a dictionary when he got home that day, he has forgotten the meaning given in the dictionary. That gradual loss of flesh, of strength. That wasting, that ageing.

The Tilley lamp fades suddenly. He stands up and places the volume of Proust among the pile of books and he picks up the lamp and returns to bed. And with the darkness the inspiration of his mystery is withdrawn.

On a hill overlooking the abandoned diggings is the saddest place in the world: the children’s cemetery set among grey box trees. The graves are marked by collections of stones of the kind that are scattered on the ground nearby. There are no names, no dates. Just stones.

 

Author’s note: this is a work of memory, fiction and imagination. It is my impressions, and these impressions belong to my memories of certain people. I give some of them their real names out of respect; for those I have lost touch with, some other names have been changed – again as a mark of respect.

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