Martin Edmond

Wiradguri Country

Our room at The Manor was vast and shadowy, dimly lit by three large apricot-coloured globes that you turned on and off using braided, tasselled cords suspended from the pressed tin ceiling far above, where whispers and echoes of the refrain from an unfinished, now lost, Banjo Paterson poem lingered. He must have slept here once, staring up at the frieze of pink roses running around the walls too high above the wainscoting to be reached. Each of the two windows at the end of the room gave out onto a different view of the same eternity: blue-pink sky, grey-green trees; the crows that gave this place its name. The house had been built in 1878 by a teetotal doctor, he and his family lived up here with the persistent Victorian clutter while downstairs, under the same roof as the Temperance Hall where meetings were held, was his surgery. In the parlour I found a copy of Ancient Evenings and read the beginning silently to myself while waiting for breakfast to be served. Menenhetet’s recursions through the Duat, his strenuous reincarnations, seemed somehow redundant amongst the time-lapsed furniture, the broken chandeliers, the dusty encyclopaedias. At the conference a man held a sheaf of papers in front of his face, obscuring his words as he spoke of the Russian Pacific, the voyages of Bellingshausen and Krusenstern, the pilgrimages eccentric Antipodeans made to sit at the indifferent feet of Leo Tolstoy in his dotage. Next day we drove over to the Wagga Base hospital so that Maggie could see the place where she was incarcerated all those years ago now. Gissing House, whose name had nothing to do with George, was to be bulldozed in a few week’s time, the inmates and the staff moved to the gleaming white facility erected next door. There the open door to the room where she was held. There the lounge, where vacant people sat vacantly on vacant sofas. The nurse allowed us out into the outside, the recreation area from which all of the clover, with its uncountable four-leafed leaves, had gone. There was a song playing on the radio, the chorus cut like a knife; and a single man rocking on a bench before a sunny wall at the far end. Big Nurse returned and said that was enough, people might start getting upset. Her name was Robyn and her granite features almost cracked when we said goodbye at the door and left. The Army Training Facility at Kapooka is named after General Blamey, who may or may not have been guilty of profiteering from the sale of purloined army boots during the war. It looked more like a golf course; there was a cut out black cat, rampant, stuck in the ground at the edge of the nearest of the greens. The fellow in the watchhouse was gingery, supercilious, with a moustache like a wire brush. There was no question of us going inside. You know the rules, he said to Maggie and fixed her with his pale blue watery eyes. She held his gaze for a long time before replying. Later she told me that he would have been insulted when she called him ‘Sir’; that was for civilians. We spent quite a while looking at the map of the training camp on the big white board next to the hoarding advertising the movie (Jack the Giant Slayer) showing at the Kapooka Cinema. Maggie was retracing her progress through the various facilities. On the road to Junee I saw a small deco building with an old fashioned braided wire antenna tower on the roof, derelict in a paddock full of weeds: a 1930s radio station that looked like it was still broadcasting the ghost voices of Eleanora Harris or Huddie Ledbetter into the uncomprehending air. White kites hovered over fields of white stubble; there was one dead at the side of the road, a sheaf of feathers like the papers the scholar held before his face. Further on, orange sheep grazed upon electric green grass; they were merinos and the green that of sprouting wheat; the way the white was stubble of harvested ground that would later be burned black. At the Liquorice and Chocolate Factory in Junee I heard a sepulchral voice, Tom Waits perhaps, singing The Road to Gundagai; which sounds different when the actual road goes past the door of where you are. The singer’s name was Rob Moss, he played guitar and, for the solos, picked up the clarinet laid next to his bare feet and blew that. Time After Time, he sang; I Won’t Back Down. While his dreadlocked girlfriend looked adoringly at him and applauded every number. Later we visited St Josephs, the Catholic church on the hill, where Maggie photographed the plaster saints and I rehearsed the Stations of the Cross; at the Ninth, a dazzle of afternoon light came through the stained glass window and I wondered if I was having a religious experience. There was a rugged football ground below the abandoned school, with the low pipe iron goalposts almost over topped by rank grass and weeds. On the other side of the railway line, pigeons clustered along the Edwardian mouldings of the Commercial Hotel, prop. J J Edmonds (no relation). We took a back road south, following the train tracks, past fields full of corellas and galahs, and suddenly I realised this was Colin McCahon’s Australia, the one mentioned in the letter he wrote from somewhere north of Wagga: The greens are quite unbelievable and the soil all light red. Trees everywhere but no undergrowth. Hill shapes very different from ours too and the feeling of distance even in small areas of landscape enormous. The hills in the distance really blue becoming ink blue further away. The derelict wheat silos rusting by the gleaming rails at Bomen would have been brand new when he came through here more than six decades ago now; the year before I was born. We passed the Black Swan Hotel on our way into town and saw, on a brown still pool of the Murrumbidgee, pelicans gathered. I had not thought to see them here, so far from the sea, in Wiradguri Country. Nor the men like small boys, clutching their remotes, navigating their meticulously crafted and painted miniature boats across the shag-haunted waters of the lagoon.


The girls in Duty Free, smiling vacantly before the perfume counters, wear tight black sheath dresses and hot pink wigs. Monday morning. It’s raining outside. We drift like somnambulists towards Gate XX and there learn the flight has been delayed. Bad weather, a medical emergency, the usual obfuscations come through the tannoy. Still, it feels alright to be waiting in this limbo full of warm bodies with their urgent physical needs and their empty minds. And natural, later, to choose that title for the inflight movie that will lull me across the Tasman. Warm Bodies is set mostly in a derelict airport, outside the city walls, and its hero, Arr, lives, if the undead may be said to live, inside the fuselage of a passenger jet much like that in which we are flying. He plays records on an old phonograph and at one point I glimpse the cover of a Doors album: This is the end / Beautiful friend / The End. Watching the zombies lurch and stumble through the concourse of the defunct terminal makes me feel peculiar, as if this is a veritable image of the place we have just left; or, equally, the one we are going to. After they serve breakfast Maggie orders wine and, reaching for her zombie book to make a note on the flyleaf, upsets the plastic tumbler, which spills its contents in a great wet stain down the front of her burgundy dress. There is a thin sour smell in the air and the IT guy sitting on my right purses his inscrutable lips. By the time we commence our descent, however, the stain has dried to a barely perceptible watermark and Arr, miraculously, is no longer a zombie. It’s cold outside, the streets deserted for the public holiday and when we make a quick foray down to Cuba Street for a glass of red and a steak, I sense the ghosts of nightclubs past haunting the southerly air. Lou Reed is dead but I don’t find that out until lunchtime the next day. His liver gave out and the new one didn’t take. I remember him in the old Town Hall thirty years ago, a little pot-bellied fellow in tight jeans and a T-shirt snarling into the microphone, making us feel, as we were, unbearably provincial. I think of Laurie Anderson, alone now, who at the Opera House beat upon the drum pads concealed beneath the sleeves, the trouser legs and the jacket of her white suit; and played a violin with a bow that used a string made of audio tape to scrape a few syllables out of a pick-up affixed to the body of the instrument. White lily, she whispered, evoking Berlin Alexanderplatz. We are in the World Head Quarters of the Verb or so my mother wrote and after lunch we find, near the western end of Para’s Bridge, the actual concrete slab with those words upon it. I stand there, as I have a few times before, reading the quatrain and trying to figure out what it means. Everything? Or nothing? At the ceremony I think about beginning my speech with that equivocal line but in the end decide not to because it might sound derisive, like a bad joke or a deliberate wrong note, and I don’t want that. The venue turns out to be where the Murder House once was and some among us recall getting drilled in the very place where now the little stage stands, in a bow window, in front of the dark trees moving mysteriously outside. There isn’t much more to say except that Roger Steele is present and if I’d known this before I spoke I would have acknowledged him as the person who published my first essays and reviews. He says I have to get back up on to the stage and do the whole thing again, which is funny because how can I do that? They are already giving us truffles and shooing us out the door. Next morning, while I’m waiting for Maggie to dress, I wander up the road and find the Sexton’s cottage at the entrance to what’s left of the Old Bolton Street Cemetery. The stones are inscribed with familiar names, Barraud, Blundell, Pharazyn, Plimmer, and then I come to a place where a brass book lies open upon a concrete plinth, saying that in a vault beneath the green dell below is the mass grave that holds the bones of those whose resting places were bulldozed to make the motorway that now bisects the cemetery. About 3700 of them. It must be that phrase, mass grave, that causes a hot prickle of tears behind my eyes, a catch in my throat, and turns my brief walk back to the hotel into a zombie lurch and slouch. The dead have a lot of time on their hands and they do not relent. They are still with me at the reading, great clouds and thickets of souls that will not let us be, panting after our blood and breath. We do what we can, as always, to appease them and then for a moment they remember who we are and graciously stand back to let us pass. Then, as always, crowd in behind again. In Victoria Street I remember Hans Bones clutching his genitals as he shouted his anabasis: There are no fences on the sun . . . why should I pay for light? The wind has gone northerly, there is a sleety, slanted rain falling on The Terrace as I go in to look at St Andrew’s in the City, the first place I ever stood up in public to read. At the pulpit, from the Bible, in a Nativity Play. Towards Bethlehem. Half of those I appeared with are dead now too. There in the hotel lobby is James in his Astrakhan hat, taller than yesterday, with his big teeth shining beneath the slick of a very good Riesling, talking about Richard Coeur de Leon. Things begin to blur, this is the third day, too much has happened or perhaps I mean not enough. They come again in the night, whispering their imprecations, their holy disappointments, their ineffable tormented desires; my father my mother my sister like the three black birds that perch among the bare branches of the tree on the plain before mountains in that Rita Angus water colour from 1943. Of course the flight out is delayed too but when we finally take off I see a flume of souls mingling with our vapour trail then falling away as we hit blue sky. And say again those words we always have to say: Te hunga mate ki te hunga mate; te hunga ora ki te hunga ora. Aue, aue, aue.

Martin Edmond was born in New Zealand and now lives in Australia, where he has worked as an author and a screenwriter. His Double Lives : Rex Battarbee and Albert Namatjira will be published later this year by Giramondo.
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