Tim, I live in Yuin country on the East coast. The black and white communities here keep to themselves, in the main, and my contact with the locals is fleeting and superficial—a nod exchanged with the group who drink at a picnic table beside the carpark in Bega; a closer yet single-themed half hour a week I used to spend with kids in the literacy program at the school.
My strongest awakening, till now, was reading Kate Grenville’s The Secret River then stepping outside into an altered light, wondering for the first time what bloody events of dispossession may have occurred on my own half acre.
When I heard about Spill Simmer Falter Wither I thought, lovely, a book I’ll enjoy, then lend to all my dog-loving friends.
It’s not a long book. I finished it, breathed for a while, and went to scratch the heads of my own two dogs—both reprobates. The larger one has gained notoriety as the local chook killer and must now be kept on the lead at all times when off the property. Lucky it was only chooks, I guess. The other one, a terrier of some sort, once returned exhilarated from a run in the bush, snout and bib drenched in blood. We had to rinse him off at the tap in the cemetery before we could walk him back through the village.
Hush, the babies are sleeping, the farmers, the fishers, the tradesmen and pensioners, cobbler, schoolteacher, postman and publican, the undertaker and the fancy woman, drunkard, dressmaker, preacher, policeman … And the anthracite statues of the horses sleep in the fields, and the cows in the byres, and the dogs in the wet-nosed yards; and the cats nap in the slant corners or lope sly, streaking and needling, on the one cloud of the roofs.
You can hear the dew falling, and the hushed town breathing.
Only your eyes are unclosed to see the black and folded town fast, and slow, asleep.
Dylan Thomas could have written the opening of Under Milkwood for me, prowling around the house at two, three, four o’clock in the morning, while the gentlefolk—and stock, and pets—of Quaama village slumber on. Or maybe not the cats. I hear them prowling too, and yowling their territorial warnings.
I often think of Nelson Mandela as I wait, door ajar, for my shower to warm up. I have done so for years, ever since I read his autobiography. Mandela, imprisoned on Robben Island, had to endure cold showers for 30 years. It gets pretty icy on Robben Island. And I whinge about waiting 15 seconds for the water to run warm.
Of course, cold water isn’t my problem; hot water is. I used to wonder why I felt like a ragdoll after my shower, weak and unbalanced for half an hour or more. Now I know to keep the temperature moderate. No hot water on my head or back.
And don’t start me on hot baths! These days they’re a rare luxury for when I know I don’t have anything else to do that night – and when the Mechanic’s there to help me climb out. Or for severe neuralgia episodes, when a brief bout of lower limb paralysis is a small price to pay to make the pain go away.
I’ve stopped driving. Funnily, or not, the impetus happened one day when I almost didn’t stop. I was heading towards the turnoff out of Quaama onto the Princes Highway, saw a car coming from the north, went to brake… no response. Went to brake again… still rolling down towards the highway. Looked down to check where foot was: not on brake. Planted foot on brake, stopped car just before give way sign.
I was crossing the Princes Highway the other day on my mobility scooter, opposite the south exit to Quaama, my village. The speed limit on the highway there is 100kph. But I have a big, all-terrain scooter which can do 15kph on the flat, and the highway is only two lanes, and there’s good visibility in both directions. In my mirror I noticed a four-wheel drive waiting behind me, then I took off. The four-wheel drive overtook me on the other side of the road but then stopped at the village store, where I caught up with it.
‘Whoa!’ the driver said. ‘We were really worried! From where we were, we couldn’t see if there was anything coming, then off you went!’
It’s hard to spot, but there’s a path into the bush in the far corner of the Quaama Cemetery. As you pass the main cluster of graves – the smart new granite of the Colemans, the Conways with their river rocks and shells, the green trellis over Pato Taylor – you may see it. Enter the scrubby remnant forest here and continue down along the path, deeper under the trees. It’s cooler in here. The light is dappled, filtering through the canopy. You can hear bellbirds’ chimes, the occasional whipbird, the zim-zippery wagtails’ calls.