A Small Town in the Bush

Water is the secret, the theme, the meaning, the life of the town. If the town is to die it will be the failing – or the flowing – of water that will see its death.

Driving in at night I missed the river. Unaware even of the fact of the bridge, watching always for suicidal kangaroo, I followed the bitumen and missed the river. After unpacking I ran the shower. Who farted? Mother earth, is the answer: borne on bore water were those sulphurous fumes from antiquity. I lathered and rinsed. And rinsed again. Still slimy with slippery salts I towelled myself with vengeful vigour.

In the morning I brewed a bore water cuppa. It tasted fine, of coffee, not of earth’s bowel.

Before work I went for a run. Here was Terry, a cheerful sixty-year-old hosing the wide grassy expanses that surround the hospital. Modern sprinklers invented in, say,1950, would see the extinction of this man’s job.

Memorial Park with its humble cylinder of brown marble rising less than three metres from its plinth. From its pediment I read names from the Great War. This very small town offered up too many. Two of the dead bore the same family name.

Below the names from the First War were listed those who died in WWII. These names took up two of four wide rectangles of space at the base of the monument. Two rectangles remain for future names of dead from a nation that has always fought the distant wars of others.

A team of workmen clustered at a roadside. Beefy men all in their high-vis yellows, they watched as one of their number swung a sledge hammer. The hammer was a mighty instrument, the hammerer broadest of all, taller when recumbent. Four watched as one swung. A cement gutter cracked, disintegrated. Five men at work, working to undo the work of yesterday.

The shops sit behind their generous tin verandahs, shaded by rooves supported on wooden poles. The shops, house-proud but not fancy, wear old livery touched up and respectable. A notice offers me the chance to buy one of two coffee shops in the main street: it lists ‘large shop, vacant possession, on generous grounds with six-car shed and outbuildings’. “Hunter’s Supermarket” sits in dignified desolation beneath its formal signage. Its windows are covered on the inside by broadsheet newspaper. ‘For Sale’, says the sign.

At lunchtime I visit the emporium. Triple fronted, its three doorways lead to three sections. One displays work clothes, a second sells ‘guns and ammo’ and cooking implements ranging from basic aluminium to imported chefware. The third section offers saddles, riding boots, rodeo hats. The floors are of wood, the high ceilings of patterned pressed metal. ‘Handsome ceilings’, I remark to the sales lady. She nods, smiles attractively, and observes, ‘They leak when it rains. And the owners aren’t keen to repair the roof.’ Water again.

I am not here for the superstructure but for my own infrastructure: I need new undies. Sales lady leads me to them and removes to a discreet distance. Slim, tall in her tooled rodeo boots, her jeans scrolled and silvered at the seat, she’s a distraction. I find a pack of two pairs in interesting colours. The brand name is ‘Heavy Lifters.’ The sales lady keeps a straightish face: ‘It’s the name of a whole range of work clothes, not just, ah, men’s personal things.’

I buy some men’s personal things.

I show interest in men’s work shirts. These too are in electric shades of lime and purple. ‘They’d alarm my bride,’ I say.

Sales lady points me to a different rack of iridescence: ‘Why not you buy your bride one of these pretty shirts for girls?’

I settle for Goondiwindi Cream Soap, picturing my wife’s limbs, clean as Gunsynd’s.

At work my patients are generally aged. One group consists of slow moving stout people, retired, in their fifties and early sixties, who live here in town. The others, slimmer, gnarled of knuckle and sun blighted, are in their seventies and eighties. These live out of town on cattle properties which they continue to work. For the trip into town these folk dress smartly. Lots of colour, a quiet elegance.

It’s more enjoyable doctoring the farm folk with their accidents of activity than the town folk, who, although younger, are less healthy with their illnesses of inactivity.

In the waiting room no-one checks a wristwatch. All appear unhurried and relaxed and friendly. All but one, a hunched small lady, 83 years of age, who wears a floral yellow dress and a fierce mien. ‘I won’t see that other doctor! And don’t you try and give that useless tablet he gave me!’

At this stage, unaware of the identity of that other doctor or of the useless tablet or of the condition treated, I am at a disadvantage. The lady has me pinned to the ropes where she continues to batter me for the next twenty minutes. ‘Those blue tablets, don’t give me those!’

‘Which blue tablets?’ – diffidently.

‘You know the ones. I won’t take them. So don’t try to make me. I might look old but I’m still manhandling steers and I’m not simple.’

I study her file for clues.

‘Well? What are you going to do for me? Don’t give me any of your soft soap, young man. I’ve put up with this for long enough.’

I point out that I’m not her adversary, that it’s up to her to decide whether or not to trust me, and if she doesn’t trust me she should not waste her time on me.

She falls silent, her large mouth hanging slack as she regards me in surprise. I am surprised too. I’m starting to enjoy myself.

A truce is declared. Later in the waiting room, she informs the office staff, bellowing, ‘That new young doctor’s all right. Don’t you try to make me see that other one. I won’t have a bar of him.’

Day after day the skies are cloudless, palest blue, arching high to eternity. Not a cloud in sight. But yesterday low grey cloud hovered. The waiting room was full of talk. Veterans of too much faithless cumulus, the farmers were skeptical. Today all is blue again; the old men were right. One old bloke with a great hole in his leg – he came off his motor bike, digging out a divot of flesh – tells me: ‘There are three year old frogs out on my farm that don’t know how to swim.’

He laughs. A wounded leg and a dry dry spring don’t exhaust his well of good humour.

‘Any cane toads?’

‘No, no toads. Too dry for them.’

He laughs again.

Not all laugh. The visiting psychologist tell me, ‘I go out to the farms and visit the farmers regularly. In the droughts some despair.’

The temperature reaches forty – in October – and no-one remarks on it. The Bureau predicts a thunderstorm. It duly arrives. One peal of thunder, the temperature falls but the rains do not.

‘How is it on the farm?’ – I enquire of every farmer.

All respond, ‘It’s dry.’

‘Are you worried?’

‘Yes, it’s very dry.’

‘Is this the driest you’ve known it?’

‘2003 was worse. But this is bad…’

No-one says so explicitly but the floods of 2012 were worse than bad. In those few days lives turned, settled families in their dynasties saw nature’s violent face anew.

By the third morning I still had not sighted the river. On previous morning runs I headed north and south. This time I went east. Past the library on the main street in premises vacated by the extinct cinema; past the pool gleaming fluoridated blue; past The Great Artesian Spa; up a rise to the edge of town – and there was the bridge, a modern structure of cement and steel, its slow length elegant against the sky. Below, far below, indolent waters were a silver ribbon. Tall green grasses pleased the eye.

A slender roo, disturbed by this sole intruder, widened the gap in graceful bounds, then stopped and looked me over at leisure. A moment of shared wonder.

At the approach to the bridge a wall of dark granite, cuboidal, taller than me and wider than the hammer-wielder of the first morning, detailed the floods. Undemonstratively, without self-sympathy, in the manner of farmer conversation, the wall of stone gave fact and context:

1864 – 9.56 m,1949 – 4.86 m, floods in 1950, 1954,

then, in February 1956 the waters reached 7 metres; and in April the same year, 9.26 metres. Photographs show island buildings, white against the silent black of inland sea. Some left town. Most remained to face flooding again – in 1983, 1990, 2010. Then came the waters of February 2012, peaking at 9.84 metres, breaking the record of 1864. People speak flatly of ‘before the floods’ and ‘after the floods.’ I hear the same throughout the state.

One farmer replies to my stock enquiry with a quiet,’The dams are both dry. It’s fortunate we have a couple of bores.’ I look at him, his face etched with decades of flood and drought. He knows fortune.

No-one in back in the Collins Street practice uses that expression, it’s fortunate.

Something missing here. Someone not heard, stories not told. Where are the first owners? Further morning runs uncover traces. At the Information Centre an elaborate sign invites me to follow the Yumba interpretive trail: ‘Mon-Thurs mornings.’ Below this a handmade sign amends tour times: ‘Tues and Thurs.’

And to one side a larger, handmade sign advises

NALINGU

ABORIGINAL

CORPORATION

WISH TO ADVISE THE

YUMBA

INTERPRETIVE TRAIL

AND MITCHELL YUMBA

IS CLOSED

UNTIL FURTHER NOTICE.

But the first people are here. I see them with their ailments and their children at the hospital and the clinic. In the main street, Nalingu has its dusty offices, and just down the same street is the Aboriginal Health Centre. Inside this hive a small lady of middle years buzzes with purpose. She searches my face, wondering whether perhaps I might be a JP. She needs a JP to certify photocopies of documents for the tall Finn standing at my side. He’s jackerooing on a station. (The Finn does not look Aboriginal. But some say I don’t ‘look Jewish.’)

The lady finds time for my questions: Yes, this is a health centre and yes she’s here four days a week helping local Aboriginal people with transport and health appointments in the bigger town one hour east of here. And no, the bigger town doesn’t have a doctor at the Health Centre either, not regularly, just a couple of days a month. ‘But I look after things.’ She tells me all this with evident pride, vibrating with energy and quiet command. She looks up at her curious visitor, radiating confidence and belief in her role. I guess she’s the dynamo of a community that might otherwise not be a community.

Back at the clinic, a tall man in his late fifties has plenty of time to chat. He’s intrigued by the phenomenon of a Jewish doctor way out west; and I’m interested in his experiences as a cattle man. He’s been out here all his life but he sent his daughters to boarding school in the city. I ask my usual questions – how’s the farm going, water, rain, feed?

‘Well it’s hard. If it wasn’t a challenge I’d have to go and find one. But surviving here calls for something. I like that. I like to be tested. Every difficulty demands something of me. I want to create, I don’t want a dull existence. I’m lucky with my life here.’ He smiles, a smile of good teeth and good skin, the smile of broad vitality. Why has he come to see me today? ‘I’m well, but I spend my life in the sun. Will you check my skin? Any other tests or checks a fifty-eight-year old should have?’

We do the medical stuff then conversation resumes. He employs backpackers from around the world. ‘I look for people others won’t take – people with problems. With patience you find the goodness in a person and help them become productive. I’ve had alcoholics. They come to the station, I let them dry out, I expect them to be temperamental until they settle. Then you find the person with a problem has some drive that might have got them into trouble; now they have a chance to direct the drive productively. There’s pride in that. A small start to a better way. After three months they leave, and we are both winners.’

The cow man has questions for me – about my origins, any children, a wife? He tells me about his girls, working in distant places, how he encourages them to pursue their passions in their occupations, not to settle for work that won’t fulfill them.

‘Have you been to Israel, doctor?’ – in the city this is the litmus question of my decency, out here it’s a question couched in curiosity or envy.

‘Israelis inspire me. They have never had it easy but you can see their drive to survive. And they do it by innovation, by creativity. They’ve never had enough rainfall where they are, but they farm, they feed their people and they have create a surplus to export.’

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8 thoughts on “A Small Town in the Bush

  1. Your lovely writing is a great start to a Monday morning. The description of buying undies a true delight but the ‘slow moving stout people retired’ a reason to stop and thank.

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  2. Until we had a farm I had never fully understood the importance of water and the impacts of too much and too little. The town you described could have been the town where I lived with its war memorial, names from the same family, the endless greetings of “How much did you get”. Water in this town has become a problem for another reason. Coal Seam Gas has started fracking which will destroy the aquifers which will change the life of the farmers forever.

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  3. Just love your writing Howard – so much emotion and feeling for people, no matter what their colour, creed, age, medical problem. Keep it going – we are really privileged(that doesn’t like it is spelt correctly, but what can one expect from a maths/science educated person!) to have you in Mitchell.

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