Dave Murray, 44 yrs old. Still studying (Masters at Newcastle Uni) between full-time work as a Public Servant. Married to Michelle. Two children: Joe, 24; Shani, 11. Two Russian Blue cats. Likes reading Shakespeare for the words, gardening, drinking beer on Fridays and supporting The Sydney Swans. Dreams of surfing the North Coast one last time.
from "The Passenger"
The photos are mostly from my mother’s side: cousins, a great-grandmother, aunts, uncles with half-remembered names grouped in backyards or on “days out” at the beach. The eyes have a trapped-animal-gaze, caught in that moment freezing out death. Some of the faces are beautiful, some contorted from squinting against the sunlight. I look for inherited noses or lips, any gesture connecting the silence of ancestry – but find black & white uneventfulness rather than any dark secrets: labourers, compositors, housewives, nurses, teachers. Teetotallers or drunkards, prone to underachieving. All British, all intimate with depression and wars. The great-grandfather and wife in a Tasmanian portrait after the ship from Ireland in 1802; he was a shoe-maker. His face is severe. Victorian. His grandson (Mum’s Dad) followed the Newspaper trade to Newcastle after returning from French trenches dragging a six-pack Catholic family and a body (like so many) restitched and recycled in a front-line field hospital. He survived with medals and a belief in struggle, worked hard and gambled, a long shot in the 4th at Broadmeadow covered a cash down payment on a Blackalls Park block – a quiet Lake Macquarie backwater, protected by eternal gums, the penultimate stop on the Toronto line. The house my grandfather built sloped gently all the way to the forty-foot long jetty, that through certain angles disappeared into the still water, broken only by silver mullet flashes, confused by predators in the shallows. As these things go, it was sold after Nan carked it, the new owners replaced it with a terracotta, two-storey, mock Italian seaside villa, with uninterrupted water views.
* * *
The bodies are lithe from basic training and austerity rationing, just thicker than scrawny gums pinning the landscape in place. It is Dad’s first time away from his fucked-up violent soak of a father. He is Joe’s age. Half the men will not return, will never replace the mud and blood of Borneo followed by a future of prisons, disasters, marriages or working. Just over my father’s half-hunched shoulder – is one bloke rehearsing this, squatting down to shit in a hole. Dad’s eyes subconsciously avoid the lens. They suggest his private nature but also the eternal imperviousness of youth – no thinking of families, financial planning. No women. No future indicated here: hauling goods trains up the Hunter Valley after the war to the barracks at Werris Creek, the dislocated existence at the whim of the car I heard pull up out the front at night, the call boy’s feet trampling on the concrete stairs, as he slipped under the door the godforsaken wake-up call for Dad’s next shift. We wouldn’t see him for weeks at a time; he kept his homecomings low-key. One stinking furnace of morning I heard him ghost on the floorboards, got out of bed and spooked him through the house, following silently to the kitchen, watching as he quietly poached some eggs, leaning over a frypan, appraising them as they floated in simmering water, fresh eyes staring at the ceiling.
* * *
Dad avoided carpentry in the shed, reconditioning pushbikes, home handyman work. We were a mechanically inept family in a utilitarian town – never daring to understand you sometimes need to pull something apart to find out how it works. We kicked and slapped at machines that would not work. This instilled a misguided belief in magic and the potential for disaster. Dad’s training notebook from the war therefore seemed a fake: class notes on learning signal code phonetics, map reading, how to construct a mobile telegraph, use Morse code, work the Trembler bell, set up mobile aerial cabling. They are a family betrayal, a confirmed relationship with the world of things, the metamorphosis of electromagnetism into language; or a roundabout means to silence, power, breaking the connection – turn it off at will. The notes were the easy looping style of his day, where the pencil never left the page. No spelling errors, no mess of scratched syntax expected from 4th class schooling. Another Great Depression child. Dad also had a violent, growling drunk of a father to keep John Bull. Pop Murray’s reclining-Buddha seriousness betrayed the brass razoo in his pocket. Pop Murray’s World War One service records report three instances of losing two days’ pay for being drunk in a place called Zagazig (somewhere in the Middle East); one of verbally abusing a sergeant, and a week in some camp hospital for VD. My Dad on the other hand took to wowsering and gave up smoking at war’s end. His War Gratuity of 81 pounds, 15 shillings arrived a week before his marriage – he got a wife and the Catholic church for this investment. This released his latent Jesus gene, doing for others without reward, something useful, selfless and stoic – the full two-bob. It complemented his loner silence, cultivated in overnight train-driver barracks. He was his generation’s silence: coping, the denial of pain, the guilt of survival. My father doesn’t fit within the Aussie tradition as far as working class toughness – he accepted the boredom of local destinations but was never wounded by loneliness. He groaned about his country’s generation of lost cricketers. Wog Ball gave him a weekend acceptance of refugees and their hatred of Communism . He cut his hair American matinee idol fashion, if only to save on Brylcream. He travelled thousands of predefined kilometres sitting on his arse in trains. Always in the present while moving forward, or returning home in the rear cabin after a shift, his back to the future, half-awake, staring into where he’d just been.
* * *
Water is the city’s compensation. After the war, some workers nomadically obeyed the summer solstice. Lake Macquarie in some places became a six month shanty town/tent city. Fathers drove into Newcastle each day to work; older kids caught the train to schools or stayed to fish, sail and swim. Jim Holes can still tell you about somersaulting off the bridge into Throsby Creek during the annual regatta. The council started learn to swim classes for women in the fifties. The beach was a freedom from self. My wife sniggers at her image of me with straw-dry hair, wet towel, red back salty eyes and a board-rider’s wax-rash on my chest. To her, my office hands are too soft, unreliable pointers to coastal secrets. They are clerk’s hands, made for tapping keyboards or replacing photocopy paper. She gets smug about her North Coast origins – little coastal hamlets dotted with modest beach homes lined by sandy paths, half-hidden away in subtropical bush; water tanks for showers, a shit and shave; time measured by shore dumps just outside a window. She mixes country and coast. Newcastle to her is essentially metal. Catching the bus to the beach was my first independence, a rite of passage starting as an egg with a surfmat at Nobby’s shore dump, hiding your pie-milk-and-bus-money – to a twin fin, and a local home-break at South Newcastle. It kind of didn’t matter what you did or who you were. You could even ignore school, where the shit-hot surfers expected deification. It didn’t matter. The waves were the ultimate judge, and the salt-encrusted, sunburnt skin peeled away like my self-consciousness. It was after all about learning to stand up straight by yourself. Like any democracy there was a class system and fuckwits, with the occasional chest-puffing gang wars. But the ocean was too big even for that shit – it forced you to shut up and listen. Beach time avoided time. Tribal but monastic, ironically communal, you watched, minded your own business and learned to talk turkey in a clipped, monotone, coded cool. The harbour had a reasonably steep right-hand peak that broke perfectly (in the right conditions) just inside the breakwall. Here I managed my first fair dinkum barrel – pure adrenaline silence, stretching three or four seconds into minutes, with time to sketch the whole thing in my head. The sun miraculously flashing through the wall of water: its industrial-harbour-soup turned stained glass; its rush-and-suck dynamo hum; transfixed eyes on the exit; a sniper’s target site formed on a distant Kooragang smoke stacks; pimple squeezed back into the minor cosmos.
* * *
Stars eventually burn out and die. Your super massive stars do this quickly – millions of years, while smaller stars can take even longer. Nick went Red Giant in his late twenties and after numerous rehabs settled into a mild, White Dwarf. We meet occasionally – black coffee has replaced beer. We shake hands like foreign dignitaries greeting each other for the first time. His huge laugh remains, and his once-a-sentence apology for everything. In his eternal black suit, torn at the arms, he tends to frighten children, who see a potential monster rather than a wild, rare teddy bear. He chain-smokes – ultra-lights, 4 mg. His nicotine-stained, Byzantine gold finger points at the sugar. He pours too much into his cup. His barrister father has finally died, lifting the suspended sentence of failure he imposed upon Nick. The Nick who had potential. School dux, an atomic laugh, he played his Dylan/Taj Mahal/ Lennon influenced music on pub slow nights. He searched out trouble as an antidote to his family, who manicured and frightened pain into dark corners, never to be let out. He got drunk in public in the day time, as preparation for the dark, nomadically sleeping on lounges and friends’ spare beds, paid for with Oscar Wilde routines. He was known as a bed-wetter. His mess of unwashed black hair and hyper-nervous politeness frightened everyone’s girlfriends. He was known to the local working girls. He once almost married a Christian – until she spiked his left eye with a broken beer glass when Nick suggested handcuffed S&M sex held the secret to spiritual liberation. He was arrested for drunkenly reciting T.S. Eliot on a public bus. He lost ten kilos living on Cornettos and speed in Newtown. He hated Les Murray and his White-Trash-Dreaming. He called me one night at three am, stuck at some party (unsuccessfully chasing a girl) somewhere on the Central Coast, wanting cigarettes and a lift home. I said fuck off. He apologised. I imagined him next day – another morning of empty bottles, disappearing, rattling into a Wiz Bin, that sound muffling the sharp edges of another day, waiting at a bus, or a train stop, or walking home Jesus-style when there was no shrapnel for the fare. The goddam sun burning his shadeless eyes. Our relationship had reached that point health workers advise on – the alcoholics must hit bottom by themselves; I stopped day-tripping him around town trying to find a spare rehab place or valium scripts somewhere in his garbage tip wreck of a housing commission flat. There was a reason to this, removing the garbage meant passing his neighbours, skinheads who kept a bull terrier chained to their front door.