Summer Stories: A Small Town in the Bush

This blog has just now awoken from a long nap. While asleep the blog saw or visited or dreamed a number of summer stories. Here’s the first.

You might have heard of Avoca’s rushes. The gold rush, the coal rush, the bull rush.

You drive in on the main street and the first thing you notice is nothing. I mean the main street is wide, country town wide. And nothing moves.

You know you’ve arrived in an Australian country town when nothing happens. Unlike the classic barroom scene in the Westerns, where the arrival of the newcomer throws the crowded bar into silent, menacing scrutiny of the arrival, you arrive in Avoca unremarked.

People reside in Avoca but no-one rushes here. The rushes are over. The bull rushes persist, but they persist in a gentle way. The bulls graze, they browse, they produce their climate-malignant methane and they do their business and they leave their calling cards. Only when serving a cow does the Avoca bull rush. Avoca is no Pamplona.

In the main street the structural element of the bovine persists in the shape of the Cow Shed Café. I saw the cafe and, metropolitan coffee snob that I am, I drove past. On a later visit the Cow Shed Café was still there. So I stopped. I found the shop is wider than it is deep. Within the narrow oblong between the shop’s front and the high counter you stand closely surrounded, indeed compressed, by handicrafts. You can buy doilies and crocheted items that are rich in colour and of no function that I could divine. They look like something your granny might make for charity or for therapy. But these are for commerce. You can buy them. Postcards that show the Cow Shed Café sit on the counter awaiting your purchase. Next to the postcards an array of jams and sauces and syrups and chutneys gleams at you. These are Avoca’s café’s crown jewels. Behind the counter a man as tall and narrow as his shop stands and awaits your pleasure. He’d be fifty, perhaps a decade more, the skin of his brown face hangs in deep furrows, his voice is deep, resonant and very pleasing. You hear the voice and you know you want to have a conversation with this jam and doily man.

‘Who makes these jams and sauces?’

‘Mother. Mother makes them all.’ A sweep of a long arm encompasses all the handicrafts and the comestible preserves. ‘Mother picked these raspberries this morning.’ I hadn’t noticed the berries. Bright like the doilies they call, Buy me! Buy me!

‘Lived here long?’

‘All my life. Mother too. We’ll all leave one day, feet first.’ The man smiles and the smile and the voice merge, a single harmonious entity.

I buy some bright things and I leave.

The historic records evoke old Avoca: “In 1827 Roderic O’Connor wrote in his journal – ‘There is a vacant space immediately at the junction of the South Esk and St Paul’s River. We beg to recommend reserving it’. In 1832 military troops, formerly at ‘St Paul’s Plains’, were recorded as garrisoned at Avoca.”

By 1834 Avoca was a town.

Apparently old Avoca was always a place of drama and event, as today. The record goes on: “Bona Vista’ (circa 1842) is a magnificent Georgian homestead built by Simeon Lord and doubtless the centre of society at the time. Martin Cash is said to have worked there as a groom before becoming a notorious bushranger. In 1853 bushrangers Dalton and Kelly made a raid on the house, committed a murder and robbed the house. Blood stains remain on the steps. In 1890 a young man named Beckitt was murdered at the homestead woodheap, his body dumped in the South Esk River to be discovered by Tom Badkin Jr.”

The stone building calls to me and I approach and mooch around, here and at the church. A country quiet enfolds all. The afternoon wind softly sighs and soughs. The sun shines upon the green and the old convict stones speak mutely of endurance, modestly of grandeur. So fine these stone walls, their patterning and proportions so pleasing to the eye that sees not the aching backs and the cruel sufferings of the convicts who were the unwilling labourers.

A Post Office opened at Avoca on 1st Jan 1838. It stands still on the main road. I slow and read a sign outside offering the fine stone structure for sale. I stop and mooch. Naturally I want to buy it. I could do with a Post Office. But I’ll stand aside for you if you want it too.

Avoca lies in the Fingal Valley. Forty kilometres distant, Fingal is a town similar to Avoca. A nurse I work with tells me: ‘I grew up in Fingal. But I left. I realized single in Fingal might be my epitaph so I left.’

This House of Grief – by Helen Garner, A Review.

Helen Garner saw it on the TV news. Night. Low Foliage. Water, misty and black. Blurred lights, a chopper. Men in high-vis and helmets. Something very bad here. Something frightful.

It was truly very bad. A man had driven his car into a dam. He escaped from the car but his three small sons drowned. The man was charged with their murder and over the following eight years Garner attended the man’s exhaustive legal trials. She exhausted herself in the process of moral exploration of territory that is indeed, ‘dark, misty, black and blurred.’ Reading Garner’s ‘This House of Grief’ can exhaust a reader in turn.

Three hundred pages of scrupulous enquiry end with the author reflecting: ‘When I let myself think of Jai, Tyler and Bailey lying in their quiet cemetery…I imagine the possessive rage of their families: You never knew them. You never even saw them. How dare you talk about your “grief?”
But no other word will do. Every stranger grieves for them. Every stranger’s heart is broken. The children’s fate is our legitimate concern. They are ours to mourn. They belong to all of us now.’

Garner takes the deaths of the three children personally as if she were herself involved. She seeks to know whether they died by grievous mischance or by human intent. She needs to understand. She begs of fate, of the universe, ‘Oh Lord, let this be an accident.’ For us her readers – we who elect to follow her into this frightful something – Helen Garner attends the hearings as our emissary to that house of grief. We too need to know, we too seek to understand; the three lost boys are ‘our’ lost children.

Garner quotes three epigrams, each a succinct cry from a previous emissary, each a pair of hands flung upward in despair over the futility of the quest to comprehend.

He can’t possibly have done it. But there’s no other explanation.

There is no explanation of the death of children that is acceptable.

…life is lived on two levels: one in our awareness and the other only inferable…from inexplicable behavior.

On what account are Garner’s thoughts and reactions, naked here on page after page, a matter for a reader’s interest or a reviewer’s remark? What access has the reader to her deeps, her angst? Garner, the person on the page, our emissary, attends a day of ravaging evidence; afterwards she makes her way, blindly, solitary, to a bar for a vodka. On other occasions she resorts to magical thinking: If only Farquharson could be found not guilty, then the boys would not be dead…Garner pictures them in their domestic vitality, playing footy, watching cartoons, running with arms open for a cuddle. The only way I could bear it was to picture the boys as water creatures: three silvery naked little sprites,…who slithered through a crack and …sped away together.
Then, haunted by the chill of reality, she races homeward in her mind, to haul my grandsons …from their Lego and their light sabres, to squeeze them …until they squirmed. Young boys! How can such wild vital creatures die? How can this hilarious sweetness …be snuffed out?

And again, this longer account of the observer’s migratory flight of feeling: When I got home I sat on the back verandah mumbling to myself, sick at heart. My third grandchild came wandering around the house. He approached me without speaking, turned his back, and stood waiting to be picked up. I lifted him onto my lap. He was only a few months younger than Bailey Farquharson had been when he drowned. For a while the little boy sat on my knee. He relaxed his spine against my chest. Together we listened to the clatter of the high palm fronds, the wail of a distant siren. He glanced up sharply when a flight of lorikeets swerved chattering across the garden. Then he spread his right hand like fan, inserted a delicate thumb into his mouth, and tucked his head under my chin.

And yet only two hours later when he and his four-year-old brother disobeyed me… and went crashing and yelling down the hall to the kitchen like maniacs, rage blinded me. I ran after them, grabbed the nearest arm, and yanked its owner round in a curve. Before I could land a blow I got a grip on myself. The boys stood frozen in attitudes of flight. Nobody spoke. In a cold sweat I leaned against the cupboard door and took some trembling breaths.

Here Garner gives us her brittleness, her sense of near disintegration, her proximity in extremis to harming loved ones in her care; and subtly too, the boys’ “attitudes of frozen flight” recall the postures of failed flight of the boys in the drowned car.

There is a reticence, a holding back at certain points, a refusal to comment that shouts, no, screams, in unexpressed horror. Thus: The men from Major Collision looked into the car before they opened it to drain the water. Ten-year-old Jai was lying face down across the front seats with his head towards the driver’s door…
Seven-year-old Tyler lay on his right side behind the driver’s seat. His head was near the door and his legs were between the two front seats. Two-year-old Bailey was lying across the top of the baby seat, facing rearwards and still tangled in his safety harness.

It is not until the following page that Garner reveals the killer datum: all three seatbelts were unbuckled. It is this crushing fact that tells us that a child – or two children – struggled. It is this, delayed, that a writer striving for dramatic effect might have juxtaposed earlier and quite unbearably with those postures. As it is, the bodies lie diagonally, piercing my composure. I too need recourse to slithering fishes or to vodka or to clutching hard my own brood of near ten-year-old grandboys.

***

Writing to a friend some weeks following release of the book – a year or more I guess after the trial and the appeal and the retrial and the application to the High Court – after all had ended, Helen Garner said: “This is what I’ve learned from the last seven or eight years: ‘We are small. We are weak. We are mortal’… but I think I knew that already.”

After all had ended it had not ended at all.This House of Grief