Martin Edmond

from Eternities

Callan Park

When I went onto the set for Terra Nova I found they had turned part of the old mental asylum into rooms and corridors of the eponymous boarding house. It’s so bleak, the cinematographer said to me then paused. Beautiful though—like a Dutch interior. He was on a break, we were smoking kreteks, looking out over the grassy parkland falling away towards the distant river. My eighteen month old son was in the crèche that was attached to the unit because the film had child actors in it. Well, one, Tuesday was her name, she was the daughter of the perhaps mad woman, Ruth, who had kidnapped her and run away from the parental home. Was it schizophrenia or post traumatic stress disorder? Or just a form of neurosis? She was afraid of her father, and of her mother’s collusion in her father’s depredations, whatever they may have been. I went for a walk around the buildings and found them eerie after the fashion of deserted institutions but there was something more. The way the light fell sharply into enclosed courtyards, the way precise inky shadows purpled beneath the verandas. Even though it was broad daylight—blue sky, hot yellow sun, green-brown grass—it still felt noir. As if a threat like a spider lurked in every drain pipe. The asylum was built in the nineteenth century on modern principles, water was gathered and recycled, there was a reservoir beneath the ground I walked upon, rumoured tunnels leading out to the river banks. The grounds landscaped with ha ha’s so that when an inmate looked out the window he or she would see no bounding walls but only parkland and water glimpses. I cannot remember who told me about the wing where the shellshock victims were : a rectangular high hall with tall windows made of facetted glass, isolated from the rest of the complex. In the 1920s nobody knew what the treatment might be for that particular affliction so the men were simply confined, some in restraints, some not, all prey to the terror incessant bombardment had initiated. They had lost their nerve, the saying went. Many were incontinent or worse; the stench was appalling; and in that oblong of hell they howled and wept or curled in corners rocking back and forth or walked up and down gibbering. When I thought of those whose work it was to feed and cleanse and otherwise tend to these men I felt I almost understood the cruelties of nurses and warders, taking revenge upon the alleged authors of their fate; their heroism and their sacrifice seemed beyond comprehension. There’s nothing much for a writer to do on a film set so it was only mid-afternoon when I collected my son and took him for a walk in the grounds before driving back up the coast to where we lived. By that house of former horrors I remember him on his bandy legs crowing as he stumped up the hill past the sundial and on into the shade of the eucalypts that grew along the ridge above the river; just before I ran to scoop him up again, I looked back and saw, beyond the formal gardens and the banked ha ha’s, gold light flashing from the windows of the empty asylum: as if the ghosts within were sending ironic messages of hope to we who have still to negotiate this vale of tears here below.

Dangar Place

One Saturday in June I was walking through Chippendale on the way to the Post Office on Broadway, hoping for good news: a cheque perhaps, one did arrive there once. I can’t remember what mail there was, nothing probably, but on my way back to Thomas Street felt a peculiar stillness in the air. A waiting. Not unusual in the deserted parts of the streets of Sydney in those days but most of the time you never heard anything more about it. This day was different. 27 June 1981. The sixth anniversary of my sister’s suicide, it’s always on my mind, not that it matters. No matter, never mind. I went on home wondering why there was that miasma of threat hanging like a toxic cloud over the warehouse district and then forgot all about it. Didn’t hear shots or anything like that. Did not go out again that night. Stayed home listening to music and watching TV. It was a period of great boredom in my life, I do recall that. Another city, knew hardly anyone, not exotic enough really to seduce: a Nightmare Version of Auckland, Arthur said, with Capitals. Little did I know that this was the quotidian, that aweful silence, that palpable sense of menace which hangs unspoken over everything . . . unless, or until, the explosion of gunfire. Which everyone waits for then deplores. Anyway. What happened in Dangar Place that afternoon in June was this: a small time heroin dealer called Warren Lanfranchi who’d transgressed upon a police operation was meeting Detective Sergeant Roger Rogerson of the Armed Hold Up Squad to hand over a recompense that most people reckon to have been about twelve grand; but when Lanfranchi reached into his pants for the money, Rogerson shot him. Dead. No money was ever found and the gun, allegedly Lanfranchi’s, that police produced at the inquest was a replica that could never have fired. Well they buried him. And, five years later, when his girlfriend, Sally-Ann Huckstepp, would not shut up about it they killed her too. Drowned in Busby Pond in Centennial Park by Arthur ‘Neddy’ Smith. Not the Arthur quoted above, an other. He stood on her back until she went and after said it was the most satisfying thing he had ever done. He got life but not for that. My former agent represented him when he was having his autobiography ghosted; Rose was excited about it, I remember that, before she got Alzheimer’s and forgot. I was around at her office in Balmain one afternoon when he was expected but left before he arrived. I’ve always been grateful for that, seeing him in the flesh would have changed things for me. Just as seeing Warren Lanfranchi shot would have changed things. Maybe a lot or maybe not much, who knows? When you walked that way from Golden Grove to Broadway, just after you passed the mouth of Dangar Place on the left there was Chippendale Cellars on the right, still extant and open for business on Abercrombie Street, and one Saturday around that time we bought four bottles of Long Flat Red with the plain yellow label for $2.00 each and drank them all before we were done with the evening. The only other person I remember being there was Diana. And the nightsweet flowering in the fragrant street afterwards. It doesn’t matter. Never mind. It will happen again and again and one of those times we will see it, all of it. And after that never more.

Womerah Lane

There the human flotsam and jetsam of the Cross, and perhaps the lagan too, overflowed and drifted past my door on the intermittent evenings or in the mornings of nights that didn’t end at dawn. If I ever left my car unlocked someone would likely use it as a place to have sex or else to shoot up in. Once at about 7 pm, while I was watching the TV news in the front room, a fellow crawled along the floor of my bedroom and took my wallet from the dresser. I chased him out of the house and down the road and through the school but he got away; a year later I recognised him casing houses in the laneway and had the less-than-complete satisfaction of telling him what I thought of him. Another time, on a sultry, stormy Thursday night in spring or early summer, someone ran into the yard of the house next door and hid beneath the stairs. The cops found him there and dragged him out by torch-light. It wasn’t me, it was me mate, he whined. That’s what your mate said, mate, the cop replied, definitively, I thought. One Tuesday morning I was idling on the step, taking a break, sitting in the sun, when I saw a small dilapidated saloon car pull up opposite in front of the ricketty wooden fence that enclosed my Greek landlord’s back yard. As I watched the over-weight man in the driver’s seat suddenly reclined his seat and at the same moment the woman sitting next to him loosed her brassiere so that her voluminous white breasts tumbled free. Then she went down on him. I felt unable properly to look or look away; it was embarrassing mostly because the bloke didn’t seem able to enjoy the experience. His eyes, which I could still see through the back window of the car, roamed incessantly about as if in fear of imminent discovery; but I was partially screened by a flowering frangi-pani tree and he never did see me, not even when I stealthily left my step to go back inside. Once I almost came to grief myself, walking down adjoining Womerah Avenue in the late afternoon with my shopping when two guys in checked shirts, jeans and sneakers glanced sideways at each other as we passed and I knew in the instant what they meant to do. I forced myself to walk normally until I turned into the short entrance way that led to the laneway proper then ran like hell until I passed the next corner—so that, when they reached the head of the dogleg, there would be no sign of me. It worked; but as I fumbled with the catch on the gate into my small, dusty back garden, a full can of VB fell from my shopping bag onto my big toe, leaving a painful bruise just back of the nail. On the bare wall along that entrance way someone once wrote the words Actually I’d rather be . . . I saw them walking home one night; and the next night too, when another hand, or the same, had written the words Nick Cave after the three dots. That must have been 1990 because it was then a friend, now dead, gave me a copy of And The Ass Saw The Angel with those four words written as an inscription on the flyleaf. I actually prefer the truncated version, with its promise of another life than the one I led then which, despite all indications to the contrary, was itself about the sense of infinite possibility we feel when we are young; about all the things we’d rather and yet never will be; and most of all about how wanting to be something we won’t ever be is somehow, paradoxically, also to be it.

Martin Edmond is writing a book about Australian painters Rex Battarbee and Albert Namatjira.
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Blogger rappel said...

intense situations - like fragments of movies you come across without needing to know more.

10:31 AM  
Blogger Unknown said...

Love that line about wanting to be something is in some sense to be that something. Love the internal and external landscapes, the danger and the less than honest characters.

11:15 PM  

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