In the Maranoa I met Billy Dodd, author of ‘Broken Dreams’ (UQP). I met his life. I recount his story to an able-bodied listener, who recoils on hearing how, three days before Billy’s eighteenth birthday, he came to fracture his neck and became quadriplegic. It’s the sort of shiver we feel as we recognise ourselves. As a child I dived into unplumbed streams. It was a normal action, part of the exuberant membership of the mad organism of many limbs without a brain that is a group of boys at play. We dove, we surfaced, we swam, we shouted, we splashed. Everything worked. We never thought on it.
But here in the singular house of Billy Dodd I do think on it. Alone of the houses in Ann Street in his Maranoa township, Billy’s is not a Queenslander. That is, the structure is not elevated above flood level; it squats, its threshold at street level, hospitable to a wheelchair. Billy is glad for my visit. Although he is the town’s literary celebrity the rhythms of his life are slow. His partner is devoted and admiring, her child attentive and respectful, but the days are many, the years long.
‘How old are you now, Billy?’
‘Thirty three.’ A smile moves across his face. His chest plays its rise and fall. Nothing else of him moves.
That’s fifteen years. Fifteen years to look back, so very many to look ahead.
From across the street Billy’s house looks small. From the corner of the parlour where he reclines in his motorised conveyance the quiet rooms yawn. The spaces feel too large.
‘I’ve started to write another book.’
‘Good on you, Billy. What’s it about?’
‘About my father, my family.’
‘How’s it going?’
‘Well, I’m taking a bit of a break…’
We talk about his family, about his father’s example, his standards. Billy’s admiration outlives the old man, who never reached oldness.
Billy’s partner speaks, ‘Tell him what else you create, Billy. The paintings.’ She fetches some paintings, done by mouth, like all of Billy’s acts and works. After only a few weeks the paintings do not stand clearly in memory.
‘A cup of tea?’ The lady – Billy’s wife, as I discover – smiles her offer. ‘No thanks, no. I’m on duty, just sneaked out of the hospital, due back now. But thanks…’
Awkward, uncomfortably conscious of advantage, of my spontaneous mobility, I feel some need to redeem the situation, to rescue the moment. I speak: ’ Where can I find a copy of your book, Billy?’
‘Take this one there, on the table, it belongs to the school across the road.’
I take the school’s copy and I take my leave, running away from Billy’s empty spaces. I liked him, I liked the woman and the child. Perhaps that’s why I ran.
I read the book that evening. A short book, written in unvarnished narrative fashion, a book of real energy, written with drive. The voice is young, it speaks of family and friends, of ordinary wildness. In his retrospect Billy marvels quietly at his own transmogrification, shedding few tears. The energy of the telling contrasts with the slowness of our meeting.
And yet there was energy in the house: the child, proud of his painter-writer-stepfather, loves him. The woman, large and kind, ordinary, extraordinary, loves him too.
The lack was my own. I alone felt heaviness, defeat.