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By Christopher Morgan
Allen & UnwinCopyright © 2012 Christopher Morgan
All rights reserved.
Always there has been this funny little hill. Always there has been a crooked path of some sort running along its crown. Sometimes it could not be called a path; sometimes it was just a break in the growth of the tree trunks where the wind had pushed them aside when they were saplings, like the part in a head of hair, for the wind always liked to run up this rise and sail over the crest; and it has always been a place to stop and be still for a moment. Wallabies climbed the gentle slope to reach the top and always looked around, for it was a good place to see if safety was still a companion. Dingoes used the top of this slight hill to look back down the track in case there was anything small thinking it was safe to move. Kangaroos looked about from this spot to decide which way to go next; men stood here and looked for where there might be shelter. It isn't a big rise, not really a hill, but the illusion of height is fundamentally important to all animals.
Now there is a gravel road running east to west where the track once was, but the rivulets that the rainwater makes in the gravel look exactly the same as when there were only tree roots and branches bending in opposite directions in that spot. At the crest where the break in the vegetation was and where animals stopped to look about, there now is a church. Its spire is higher than the currawalli trees, even though some of them are two hundred years old. The gravel road is called Currawalli Street.
On either side of this road are houses with people inside living their lives sometimes quietly and sometimes loudly. And they are not houses that will be blown down by the next mighty wind; they are structures built to last, with young gardens that will grow. To the west, beyond the smaller road that adjoins the street, is deserted farm land. Forgotten paddocks of long grass. To the east behind the church is a patch of scrub and then another line of almost identical houses sitting along an almost identical street.
Running alongside Currawalli Street, behind the houses on the north side, is a train line. It is built up high to keep the tracks as level as possible. Trains run along there almost every day, making enough disturbing sounds to take up the space once filled by the cockatoos and silence.
Look at this young man, John Clarence Oatley, known as Johnny. He has finished picking the plum skin out of his teeth and he walks up to the wire fence at the back of his yard. The number five train from North Melbourne is due in three minutes. He and Kathleen have lived here in this house for ten months now and this train has been struggling slowly past with its one passenger carriage, two goods wagons and a mail-laden conductor's van every day, except Sundays. It is hardly ever late.
The plums are from next door. Eric gave him a bag. Johnny knew they would taste different to the ones Nancy, Eric's wife, had given to Kathleen, even though they are from the same tree. A man is much more careful about the quality of produce he gives as a gift to another man. That's why Johnny didn't give Eric any of his tomatoes. They just weren't good enough.
'Johnny, the photographer's here,' Kathleen calls from the open window of the kitchen.
'Coming. I'm just waiting for the train.' He turns towards the house to look at her as he speaks. She smiles at him. He can hear the train in the distance as it pulls itself up the rise.
Beyond the wire fence is a dry grass embankment thirty feet high. At the top of this are the train tracks. Johnny likes the moment when the vibration of the approaching train makes the tracks and the wire fence sing. At the very point where the rails reach Johnny and Kathleen's land, they stop climbing and run level for twenty yards before beginning to descend. And the train's journey becomes easier.
As the sound of the steam engine grows louder, Johnny also hears the photographer setting up his equipment by the side of the house. Kathleen is about to call Johnny again but she sees the steam engine appear through the currawalli trees and so she waits.
As the black engine struggles past as slowly as ever, belching oily smoke, the driver leans out of the cabin and waves to Johnny. As he always does. Johnny nods back and waits till the conductor, looking out of the open window in the van at the rear of the train, waves as well; then he turns and marches awkwardly round to the side of the house. He is wearing his good Sunday boots, not yet worn in. He prefers his other pair but Kathleen has insisted. She doesn't insist about very much generally. She wants him to wear these boots for the photograph. He doesn't tell her that these uncomfortable boots aggravate the pain in his back.
She has set a chair in the dirt next to the weatherboard wall of the house and the photographer invites Johnny to sit down. When he is seated, he kicks away a few clods of clay then looks up at the camera. Kathleen is standing behind him, looking so comfortable in her high-necked blue dress that everything else — the dirt, the newly stained wooden fence, the cockatoo in the branches above, the bright-red gumnut flowers trodden into the ground, even the photographer — looks out of place. The photographer, a tall, painfully thin man with long dark hair streaked across his forehead, has on a modern suit more appropriate for the evening than this time of day. He ducks under a black cloth behind the camera and Johnny feels Kathleen's hand on his shoulder.
From under the cloth, the muffled voice of the photographer. 'Don't smile. Sit still.'
Johnny looks at the lens, content to wait until it is all over. He wants to say that the photographer doesn't have to worry about any smiling because Johnny doesn't smile very often. It isn't that he is ever miserable or sad, it's just that his face doesn't fall to smiling. Instead, he says nothing. He sits still.
Just as he has asked others to sit still. He has gone from farmer to portrait painter without really knowing how. Life does these tiny little toe movements and before you know it you are doing an entire dance. An aunt gave him some oil paints as a gift; a horse threw him and then trampled him. He can't do farm work anymore. So he ends up painting forgettable pictures of forgettable people instead of mending wire fences and leading sheep to watering holes.
Aunt Beth, who gave him the paints one Christmas, was known in the family as a 'strange woman' because she took regular umbrage at the mildest of things. She was hardly ever invited to the farm because she always made people around her feel uncomfortable so he never saw her much.
'I'm not grumpy,' she told him once. 'I just expect people to do better than they think they have to.'
But everyone else assumed she was a permanently angry person. His father didn't like his own sister at all, and the times she did come to the farm, there would always be a crisis. The eggs weren't fresh enough; there were bull ants in her bed; the yard was a Chinese mess.
Johnny liked her. She told him about the fine art of belonging. Not necessarily belonging where you were. But belonging somewhere. Everybody belonged somewhere. There's an art to it.
'I still haven't found where I belong. But I will,' she told him.
And she did. In a grimy hotel surrounded by prostitutes and flash-by-night drifters. She never returned to the farm and he saw her only once more.
He and Kathleen had just arrived in the city. Aunt Beth was walking with a group of five fancily dressed people down a street of restaurants and bars. She came over to him.
'I can't talk now.' She moved to touch him on the cheek but she stopped as she reached out. He was an adult. No longer a marooned farm boy. She walked away to rejoin her friends.
An art teacher had come to the farm to buy some sheep from his father, saw Johnny's paintings and suddenly Johnny was attending an art school, seeing the city for the first time and everything that came with it. Noisy crowds, busy streets, painted women, men who preferred other men, gutters full of rubbish, the sands of an ocean.
And back home again to an unwelcoming farm. Then the accident and the terrible pain in his back. At first he couldn't bend over. And a farmer has to be able to bend his back. Johnny could only sit straight. On a horse or in front of a canvas.
A farmer bends his back. But a portrait painter doesn't.
A portrait painter has to deal with bank manager's wives, retiring lord mayors, spoiled children, dubious sportsmen. A farmer doesn't.
And that's one of the reasons his face doesn't fall to smiling.
Kathleen's hand grows heavier on his shoulder. He smells a perfume in the air. Honeysuckle. She must have picked some from the bush that grows along the front fence. He assumes that she is wearing her bracelet with the locket. Her sisters sent that over to her and this photograph will be sent back to them. In fact, it will travel to many places, across land, across seas, across years. He doesn't know how many people will look at it. He imagines Kathleen's family will put their copy on the mantelpiece in their sitting room. Who will see it there? Who will know what it really shows? England is such a long way away. When you apply that distance to a photograph, that photograph becomes only the flimsiest of depictions. It won't reveal anything other than a hazy outline of Johnny and Kathleen's life.
It won't show that it has been too hot for five days in a row; it won't show that you are tired of brushing away flies; it won't show that there is too much dust in the air because they are building another new home up the street or that the rain is long overdue. All it says is that you are sitting on a kitchen chair amid a pile of clay by the side of a new wooden house, and that you and your wife are still together. And you are wearing new boots.
He wants to yawn.
The photographer extends his hand, holding a square tray filled with a powder. Johnny has to concentrate not to look at it because the sun is reflecting off it like a kaleidoscope. There is a sudden flash and resulting puff of smoke, and then the photographer's head emerges from under the cloth. He is smiling as he slides a plate out of the camera box without looking at what his hand is doing, as if he is performing a magic trick.
'That's it. I think it will look good. You were both still enough.' He gathers up his equipment, says a quick goodbye and carries it all back to his waiting buggy. He is in a hurry to be somewhere else. Johnny wonders how anybody can survive such a hectic pace of life. He stands and Kathleen picks up the chair behind him and carries it back around the corner. He looks down to the honeysuckle lying in the clay.
After he has watched the photographer slap his horse with the reins and move off, he walks around the corner and inside to find that Kathleen has already changed. Her bracelet is nowhere to be seen, safely returned to the Chinese lacquered jewellery box. She has put back on her bread-baking dress, as she calls it. Plain calico with no frills.
Johnny looks at her hands while she moves about the kitchen, preparing the ingredients. They are big hands, but not so big as to be noticed as such by everybody. Kathleen sometimes says to him, when the sun has gone down and it is not yet time to go to bed, that she thinks her hands are too large. Johnny always disagrees. He holds one of them and makes a point of turning it over, considering it before answering. Then they always laugh. This is one of their scripted scenes. If the photographer was there at that time with his camera, then he would have to be concerned with smiling.
But the photographer wouldn't be there. Because they are the hours that are not meant to be shared with anyone else. Johnny remembers as a boy being confused by this time of night because there didn't seem to be anything appropriate to do. Now that he is married to Kathleen, these hours shine.
'Why don't we go for a walk after tea tonight?' Kathleen suggests as she sifts the flour.
Johnny likes to walk out and look at the end of the day. The light sits differently on the gravel road, and in the dusty trees, and on the clouds.
Dinner is a boiled chicken that Kathleen has bought from Maria three doors up. What they don't eat she will try to keep for tomorrow night, but Johnny is fussy about fresh food. They have a meat safe but the ice man hasn't come for three days because his wife is ill. Influenza. A strange word.
They tend to make their evening walk along the same route. Out of the front gate, turn left past Eric and Nancy's house next door, under the tree that is home to a family of apostle birds, on past number fourteen, the empty house. Johnny remembers what Aunt Beth said: 'An empty house is never finished.' Kathleen always gives the tiniest of shivers when they walk past. Then by William and Maria's, heading towards the church at the end of the street. They cross the short grass beside the church to reach an old kangaroo track that runs behind the houses on the opposite side of the road. They follow the path all the way down the slight slope until they meet the little road at the other end of Currawalli Street, coming out opposite the hotel. Sometimes on summer nights they walk around to the private entrance that leads to the lounge. They then have a drink each. It is against the law to drink in a pub after hours but there is always someone local in there, someone who has been invited to use the private entrance; sometimes the local constable can be found in there too. After the drink, they walk back up Currawalli Street past the empty blocks to their house. There are currently seven houses in the street, one under construction, and plans to build more. Johnny's mother would have said that the seven houses are sheltering under the shadow of the church spire. That's the sort of thing she said. He shakes his head when he hears her voice. He knows that the houses are just built where they are because that's where the best land is; the best part of the hill. And it happens to be close to the church. But she would have assumed that the people in the houses wanted to be close to God.
Tonight, at their front gate, the air full of the scent of evening honeysuckle, Johnny stops to look across the street at the empty yard beside number nine. The yard is already known as number seven even though all that stands there is a shed and a lean-to for the horses to shelter under. The framework for the house that Alfred and his wife Rose are going to build for their daughter one day is lying on the ground, ready to be erected.
Eric told Johnny about their building plans. Eric knows about them because Rose told Nancy.
On the other side of Alfred's house is a block of land that would be number eleven. Sometimes Johnny finds himself looking at it without having noticed that it has drawn his attention. He doesn't like it. He knows land like this. Nothing grows there. It is barren as if from a drier part of the country. Kathleen has said that she gets a cold feeling from looking at it. He doesn't tell her that most likely something bad happened there. He knew a spot like this near the farm where he grew up. The Aboriginal people wouldn't walk across it, they wouldn't eat anything that grew near it; they wouldn't drink water from the creek that ran nearby. It was a place where something evil had happened. Number eleven feels like that.
The wagons still aren't home. They are overdue by a week now. Johnny knows that Alfred, the owner of the wagons, is worried. Alfred's daughter, Elizabeth, has taken charge of an expedition for the first time. It has been a point of bitter contention between Alfred and Rose. Rose didn't think Elizabeth was ready. Alfred did. Johnny knows all about this too. Once again, Eric told him.
But the thing about these sorts of disagreements is that the point of bitter contention is not often what the real argument is about.
Johnny's mother and father were like this. They would argue about the direction of the fences, the colour the bedroom was painted, whether Johnny should go away to boarding school, whether Grandmother should stay with them, but never about the real issue. The issue even Johnny could see when he was still a child.
They were two completely different adults, unhappy together.
Currawalli Street in 1914 is on the outskirts of the city. Thirty years before, the area was easily an afternoon's cart ride away through rough bush, but the need for new homes grew and continues to grow and so houses and streets have replaced the scrubby bush. The city of Melbourne sits at the top of a long bay; if Melbourne was a woman at a church picnic with her skirts spread over the grass, then Currawalli Street is just at the hem of those skirts. There is still a surrounding band of deserted fields that farmers don't need to use and beyond that some dry bushland. On occasion the scent of wild country blows gaily in with the soft westerly wind and sometimes it creeps in surreptitiously like unwanted smoke with the hot north wind. But more often than not nowadays, the wild country isn't in the air at all.
Excerpted from Currawalli Street by Christopher Morgan. Copyright © 2012 Christopher Morgan. Excerpted by permission of Allen & Unwin.
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