BOOKS > THE GARDEN GATE
how the book was described in the 1984 edition:
Garden Gate, a book full of stories and characters, takes
as its starting point a historian's invitation to his family
and friends to celebrate the completion of a biography. The
venue, chosen because the subject of his study is the botanist
Ferdinand von Mueller, is the Royal Botanic Gardens, and it
is through the several gates of this famous garden that the
characters enter our consciousness. The time is the late seventies,
the place Melbourne, and the members of the group, having dispersed
before the party has properly begun, are followed through their
intertwining lives until the book returns to where it began.
read some extracts from the book click here:
Baron von Mueller
Una and the mountains
Janis and Marina
read about the writing of this book click
Anglo-Australian, the gardens lay in sun, summating European
science and British connoisseurship. Strollers regarded flora
from six continents. In the lake, ducklings paddled; on the
island, a host of seabirds crowded heavily in the trees,
mysteriously distanced from each other, unmoving, like survivors
of a cyclone, and foreboding, like vultures waiting for a
death. Their presence contradicted the simple optimism of
azaleas, hydrangeas, and children feeding swans. Through
the gates of the garden came, variously, the members of a
picnic party, carrying baskets and cane hampers, and in a
flat overlooking the gardens, a fashionable South Yarra address,
lay the one member of the party destined never to arrive.
the kiosk gate came Murdy Miller, instigator of the gathering,
and his wife Christie with their son and daughter.
in here always makes me feel as if we're acting out some
corny rendition of a family,' said the man. His use of the
word family having connotations which downgraded her, the
wife did not deign to answer.
trying to be interesting, Murdy said, 'The Baron waited here
one time for two hours, but Euphemia never came. A year or
so later he waited somewhere else because, I suspect, he
thought this was where she might come in.' Christie, having
heard it before, remained silent. It was a matter of no importance
to the children.
Miller was the author of a biography of Baron Sir Ferdinand
Jakob Heinrich von Mueller, government botanist of the colony
of Victoria, and sixteen years director of the Royal Botanical
Gardens. The gathering beginning to assemble was to celebrate
the acceptance of the book by ______, publishers.
dozen people had been invited. Three of them — Bruce
Beck, his lover Barbara and his wife Janis — were at
that moment beside the herbarium in the high corner of the
gardens diagonally opposed to the plebeian kiosk entrance.
Trees, bushes, and the white herbarium enclosed a vestibule
of lawn before a gateway formed by bamboo thickets and a
pair of Norfolk pines. Janis, trying to efface herself, lagged
behind, but the interest she affected in the herbarium was
more obtrusive than if she had stayed close.
called, 'Oh Jesus, Janis, don't clear off on us,' but she
merely shifted her attention from the gumleaf motifs above
the ventilators to a bright azalea.
niggly with us,' said Barbara. 'Oh well, where's the picnic?'
She slung the carryall's strap on her shoulder and bent with
told her: 'He said it was the one spot in the gardens you'd
think for sure was planted by von Mueller.'
eh. Let's just walk through here and see what we find.'
mutinous, scared, Janis followed them past the sentinels
of Norfolk pine. These trees, for Janis, had the persona
of fairytale trees, something from a Rackham drawing; for
Barbara, trees embodied a concept of earth and wholesomeness
now under attack in capitalist society; for Bruce, they had
the masculine strength of timber.
little way beyond the narrow point of entry was a huge oak,
classified Quercus Alba. Barefoot Barbara put her toe to
the sign. 'That's what I'm trying to get away from. It's
got terrific potential, though. I'd like to see one out on
some moorland somewhere, with a mist rolling in, you could
really do something …' Bruce said, 'They had some good
rituals, those people, they really had themselves centred.'
had his manuscript open at the account of von Mueller's love
for Euphemia. It was a distressing episode, not least because
it was at this point that he felt insufficiently distanced
from his subject. Too much of himself had crept into the
account. Like von Mueller, he idealised love yet rejected
its consequences. Euphemia Ethel Elizabeth Spencer Middleton
Henderson ... he remembered Janis laughing when she saw the
name in full, and realised how much he wanted Janis; his
pretence of being friend and comforter was wearing thin.
He wanted to be the object of a love such as she was pouring
on Harry Hearn, who had more than he needed anyway.
than examine this jealousy, he read page 168:
was already a theme in Mueller's life. A man more concerned
to make his reputation in the botanical establishment ...
left wing, thought Murdy; change that.
would long since have accepted the Hookers' invitation to
work at Kew, but the same quirkiness and preference for working
in isolation which led to him surrendering, with ill-concealed
misgivings, the Flora Australiensis to Bentham ...
knew when he was beaten, thought Murdy, which says a lot
about the British ascendancy in Europe, or maybe it was simply
his luck in choosing a British colony for his consumption
cure. He even had Earl Russell refusing to let him wear the
honours granted by foreign courts which Mueller so dearly
longed to display.
made him a bad candidate for marriage. He was already thirty-eight,
and had created for himself a crowded existence, all of it
relating to his official position, which accounted for every
minute of his waking hours.
documents only suggest how his love for Euphemia crept upon
him, but it is clear that his unclouded bliss lasted less
than a fortnight. Journeying back to Melbourne after confirming
the engagement, he made light of setbacks ...
did not find, as we intended, fresh horses at Frankston.
We had thus to rest the tired creatures for some time and
reached, although we walked all the way, Mordialloc only
at 9 p.m. then were obliged to abandon our intention of reaching
our destination this night.
tired, as he must have been, the botanist was able to render,
albeit by post, to the woman he continued to call, in later
letters, his bride:
along in the cool, bracing, starlit night, I could calmly
muse over the incidents of the eventful recent days. Its
lovely pictures passing before my mind almost as a beautiful
abandoned, thought Murdy, or was it? Mueller had a glancing
fear of dying without an heir, as could be seen by his reference
to old Sir William Hooker:
looks like the oldest most venerable clergyman; his internal
peace, being conscious of having an heir to his labours and
force, has no doubt upheld him mentally and bodily as well
nine days after his rapturous tramp through the coastal tea
tree he was complaining about ill-health, that recurring
excuse for cowardice of spirit. There was no avoiding the
fact that the Baron had incredible energy when he wanted
it, yet when he needed an excuse, he could write:
attribute most justly the melancholy which I could not suppress
for many a wearied week to my failing health.
went on to talk about his 'increasing illness and ceding
strength.' Murdy smiled; he had a list of the Baron's privately
coined words — ephemerous, richdom, drippage, gayness,
helpingly, unpretensive, and the rest of them. They were
both irritating and endearing. He suspected that his man
did the same thing in German but didn't know the language
well enough to be sure. People in the German Department said
not, but he suspected them of wanting to protect von Mueller's
reputation. No different from me, thought Murdy, I love the
old fellow when I ought to despise him:
medical friends whom I have consulted on this question have
confirmed the conclusion which I have drawn, and as your
future, believe me, is dear to me I have, after long and
painful internal combat, deemed it more honourable to afford
you an opportunity of withdrawing from an engagement which
opens only a gloomy future ...
poor Euphemia! He waved his illness like a truce flag ...
health will not admit of my living for a lengthened period
in this restless, trying state of suspension ...
and, as if to shut out her pain, he groaned as loudly as
nothing in this world would I pass again through the agonies
and sufferings of the past few months. I only wonder that
I sink not further from them.
trouble, for anyone who admired Mueller, was that he had
gone into the thing with a way out prepared. While the friendship
was still ripening into love, he was writing to her:
some time I cherished the hope of visiting Europe for about
a year with a view to adding to my scientific knowledge,
but the visit may be deferred or altogether abolished.
fortnight later he was saying:
I have to bid you goodbye for some time, as I have been earnestly
contemplating to claim one year's leave of absence to which
the Civil Services Bill entitles me ... I should be sorry
to leave without bidding you farewell.
then, shortly before the visit when he asked for Miss Euphemia's
hand and was accepted, he applied for leave, half hoping
he would be refused:
chiefs may not be able to comply, and if so I must abandon
for ever my plan of visiting Europe; and then there will
be no necessity of bidding you goodbye ...
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remembered on the way home that they hadn't any nice cake
for supper; she made Bruce divert to the Jewish area where
the children were all eyes and she and Bruce searched for
something not impossibly rich. Coming out of the Acland with
some Stollen, she caught a familiar voice in a throng of
people. 'Anne!' she cried in high excitement: 'Anne! Anne!'
She so rarely raised her voice that Bruce was reminded of
the day Greg Paton died. She sounded strangely liberated
and equally inviolable. You could touch half of her and the
rest would escape. He'd fallen back from that point, though,
and felt a little embarrassed when Anne detached herself
from her friends and studied them: smiling wickedly, Anne
said, 'Well! What are you two doing out together?'
what you might expect,' Christie said. 'Bring your friends
to our place, we could have a party.' Again Bruce felt
that untouchable purity; she
was like a glass that was transparent till you tried to look through it.
Anne said, 'I'll ask them, they're pretty dog-tired though,
we've been running this
workshop on attitudinal change ...'
and the forces working against it, which are pretty considerable!'
Her voice became gutsy, savage.
organiser, she lifted her voice to
'Hey, listen everybody, we've been invited back to Christie's, who's
coming? Come on Robert, you're not that fagged ... Donna, don't tell
got the address, someone was sent to get grog from a
pub that wasn't fussy; driving even faster, because Christie didn't
and Leonard The
Lover to arrive at an empty house, Bruce said, 'You made that happen
pretty swiftly! We could use you up home!’
all a little away from ourselves,' said Christie; 'that's
why it's happening.'
children were allowed up till midnight, when Anne's friends
were flagging anyway; Christie apologised
for not having any dance music
later than Bach,
but they were mainly interested in rehashing the day's arguments
in less cogent form as wine took hold; Christie began to
feel a little
until she found Danseuses de Delphes, then seated herself at the
piano. 'It's quite beyond me but I love it,' she said, trying
to muster some weight of tone
for the opening lent e grave; Bruce, sitting in the deepest chair,
imagined the marble columns of a temple by the sea; the ten chords
that followed, stepping daintily down the keyboard, put him in mind
of diaphanous maidens enjoying
the privileged life of an heroic age. Strength and exquisite delicacy
balanced each other in the music. Bruce longed for the dainty chords
to come again, but Debussy, having stated them twice, referred to
them only by lingering suggestion;
it was as if they had embodied themselves in the timeless columns,
the sea-worn steps, the wildflowers rooted in the cracks. Bruce felt
a rush of inexplicable
excitement as the last growling note — Christie's tone was not
very steady — died
away; it was an ideal, and so much better than the one he'd expressed
to her earlier that day. Rather to the surprise of Anne's political
friends, he tried
to express the vision he'd seen: Christie, closing the music, commented:
'He does want to evoke things in us, I'm sure, but you see he seems
to have made up the names for his pieces after he'd written them
and it's doubtful whether
he ever had any pictorial associations in mind at all.' The mood
was so final that everyone but Anne responded when Christie announced:
'I think it's time we all went home. To bed.'
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back to Harry, Janis also realised that Lawrence wanted
revenge on his brother for knowing more, for somehow excluding
from what mattered most.
And how strange that this excited crowd, making the floor shake, should
make her feel she understood Hamlet! It was a matter of
release, a whole generation
felt released, and she'd slipped back five years to join them, and she
was terrified but incredibly excited. They were all crossing
new psychic territory, dropping off old shame and moralities, it was
a marvellous time to be alive! Janis stood still, letting
crowd lift her, someone
grabbed her into the action; for a moment she swung with the mob of them,
her whole body affirming itself to the shouts of Hoy! Hoy! Hoy, hoy,
hoy! and then she regained her sense of personal direction.
Letting go the man
who had never really looked at her, she pushed for that mysterious, desirable
figure beside the piano. He too was smiling. 'What is it, Harry?' Janis
thing,' he said. 'I just thought of a poem.' He seemed pleased
with himself. For a moment her brain seethed
the whips and scorns of time, The oppressor's wrong, the
proud man's contumely, The pangs of despis'd love ...
she called, 'Let me see it Harry!' because she felt it
would be hers. She had traced him down through the
birdcalls of his childhood and his
brother's memories and at the end of this search he was opening a little
his fine, neat writing ... 'In all this noise!' she cried, exultant
for him. 'How did you do it?'
very marvellous,' he said, but she squeezed against him on
the sofa. There was
a false start, and a completed poem, she assumed
were for her.
The false start read:
OF AN IMPERFECT EGG
have yet to be!
had bracketed these words and started again:
THE WAVE WAS
a dip; foam
loosely marking points,
moves and flotsam accommodates the shift.
poet says 'A wave!' but the wave has no identity,
a relation to other water
has no identity except in waves,
depths so fearful that sympathy cannot penetrate.
grasping poet sees it slip between his fingers.
his anger he dives at the wave's replacement;
him, it disappears, dumping him in a trough,
with foam that whispers in his ear,
thought I was, but now I know
never once began to be.'
said Janis. 'You are! You are! You are!' and she dragged
him into the swirl
of dancers. With deep satisfaction she saw a couple
burying the notebook. Swinging
proudly before him, she willed him to
put his fingers, as he sometimes
did, fanwise above her hips, touching that
the ovaries where she felt most
squeamish; moving Harry to touch her there was her sign
of certainty and surrender:
she used it
retaliated by trailing her fingertips
through his hair and
down his chin, as if to try
unwillingness to be handled roughly. The psychological
battle, not yet at its height,
began to show its contours — on his side, a
ridicule of passion; on hers,
the probing of that smooth meaningless exterior for the
weakness that needed her.
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Bond hadn't time to reply before they were distracted by
the entry of a man garbed in studded leather — black
jacket, pants and boots. Widely flaring gloves hid his hands;
his head, in a time of long hair, was covered in short, well-greased
spikes. His face, if examined, was bitter, but attention
was distracted by his emblem: an elaborate, blood-red poppy
which stood erect from a satanic epaulette. His target was
an apprentice hairdresser wearing a badge that said beverley
on her white coat. In a voice of brutal command, the bikie
said, 'Y'right?' Beverley, hands soapy from a client's hair,
looked as if the earth had opened. She lifted her eyes to
the clock. 'Not yet,' she gasped. Antoine, standing beside
her, snapped, 'Get on with it Beverley, what are you doing?'
but was plainly terrified. The bikie ignored the mauve rinse
and perm people, concentrating his gaze on Beverley, who
looked around the salon and found no support. Antoine snapped
at her again, but kept his back to the poppy-man, who clapped
a glove on the girl's wrist. 'Now,' he said. 'Right now.'
Mrs Miller studied the girl, whose haunted eyes betrayed
her double life. Her girl-next-door identity was supported
by a beige coloured rollneck beneath her white coat, but
a weakness of character was being cruelly exposed. Mrs Miller
addressed herself to the tempter: 'I'm afraid you'll have
to wait, young man. It's nowhere near twelve o'clock when
the salon closes. It's very busy this morning, as you see.'
The man kept his grip.
Miller stepped up the pressure. 'I think you'd be wise to
go,' she said. 'You're disturbing the peace, coming in here
like this. I think Antoine' — her voice grew firm,
directing the hairdresser — 'will have to ring the
store detective if you don't leave!'
had her win, but it proved hollow. The poppy-man dropped
Beverley's wrist and strode heavily to the door. Turning,
he challenged the salon: 'It's Charley's funeral,' he said,
as if that explained everything, and disappeared. Beverley's
indecision lasted barely a second. She wiped her hands on
a towel and took off the coat. 'Thanks,' she said to Mrs
Miller, 'but it's no good.' Forgetting her client, she said
humbly 'Sorry Antoine,' and left the salon.
that beats everything,' said Mrs Bond, but Mrs Miller felt
she had to know more. She rushed from the salon, the heart
of her world plucked out. By the time she lost Beverley near
the escalators she heard the roar outside. When she reached
the street, she found herself among a crowd of spectators
at a bikie gathering. Hundreds of bikes were filling a whole
block with an assemblance of black and polished steel, chrome,
leather, and the symbolism of their cult — skulls,
daggers, spiders, snakes, phallic knives. Some had women
and babies in sidecars, others rode, lean and contemptuous,
alone. Some circled violently, others talked easily, as if
letting their mounts graze. Traffic signals were turned off
and white-gloved policemen diverted traffic. Mrs Miller found
the tension worse than the noise: why was this insurrection
supported by the police? The sweaty smell of the garments,
the rankness of leather and the violence of the studded belts
repelled her. She caught one glimpse of the poppy-man threading
his Triumph through the throng at speed, a blonde, hair-down
Beverley, wearing a jacket, clinging hard to her rider, and
then the press of onlookers blocked her view. 'Weird sort
of outfit,' she heard someone say, 'Cops're actually encouraging
them.' 'Best way to get'em out of the city,' another voice
replied. The crowd was more awed than sullen, and seemed
to accept that preferential treatment might appease such
people. There was a tremendous roar of engines starting as
two gangleaders, each with a woman clinging to his insignia-covered
back, swung in behind a truck with a riderless bike mounted
on the tray. 'The late Charley's, apparently,' said a bitter
voice behind Mrs Miller. Mrs Miller caught the next remark
more by empathy than by the transference of sound, because
the movement of the truck was the signal for the whole concourse
to jockey for position. 'Mindless fascism!' said the bitter
voice, and it so echoed Mrs Miller's thoughts, though she
would never have expressed them, that she turned to look
at the speaker.
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and the mountains
Mercedes wound stolidly up the mountain. May turned the heater
on, but Una opened the quarter window so that a jet of icy
air played round her knees. Queena offered a rug from the
back seat, but Una refused; it was too comfortable in the
car, she needed another reality to cut in. 'When we get a
little higher,' she said to May, 'we must stop and walk about.
It's ages since I was in the snow.'
and Rosa recalled their last visits to the snow: twenty-eight
years for Queena; for Rosa, six weeks since she'd brought
husband and family over, and her husband wouldn't go skiing,
and wouldn't let the children on the chairlifts: it had been
a thoroughly frustrating day. She was thinking of the young
doctor at Bright, he'd take her skiing if he got half a chance,
she felt sure he'd have a lodge ...
under the pretext of taking care with her husband's car,
stopped to take in ... not the view, as she stated, but a
change she sensed was taking place in Una. 'Do you like the
mountains Una?' she tasked.
like country I can do something with,' said Una, stating
the point from which she departed, 'but today I'm liking
them very much! In fact, I don't mind how far we go!'
drops on Una's side became steeper, and Queena felt that
the sight of a wrecked bus might make Una frightened, but
the old lady stated phlegmatically: 'It must have been awful
being in that thing but there's nothing we can do for them
now.' May made a point of keeping well away from the edge,
but it appeared to make no difference to Una, who stared
down long valleys and over whale-backed ridges at the deep
blue ranges with their icing of white. She felt herself responding
as never before to their remoteness and indifference. How
amusing to think of God being interested in the affairs of
people; if the old boy existed he'd be craggy, separate,
chill and indescribably pure. Sky, ranges, cloud, snow — two
blues and half a dozen whites — surrounded them as
they reached a signpost. 'What do you think?' said May, stopping
for consultation. 'Go on,' said Una, and Rosa agreed; she
understood there was a hotel ahead, they could have lunch
and a glass of wine. 'We've got the sandwiches to fall back
on,' said Una, but she had no wish to dampen Rosa's enthusiasm;
the Italian warmth sat pleasantly against her own austerity.
The part of the road that was most disturbing for May was
the part most satisfying for Una; when they came onto the
knife-edge of a narrow ridge, a drift of cloud caused May
to brake in alarm. It passed in a moment, but May was hesitant
about going on. Queena too, was anxious, with a drop on either
side and nothing but cloud to hang onto, but Rosa urged May
to keep going: 'We must reach that hotel, there'll be all
the room in the world!'
kept her smile hidden. We already have all the room there
is, she thought; at every moment, we are surrounded by everything,
but it's only in rare moments that we see it. Wrinkling her
eyes like an explorer blinded by glare, she blurred the view
while she examined her feelings about it: north, an inland
she knew and loved; south, the coastal ranges, fertile lowland
and a sea she feared. Crawling forward, they seemed incredibly
close to the sky, as if it were a decision that might fall
on them. 'The men who discovered these places must have been
very brave,' Rosa stated sententiously, her imagination peopling
the track with moustachioed carabinieri, hats plumed and
rifles slung, who rode mule-sized horses and sang to keep
their courage up. Una again smiled secretly, before dismissing
the foreign vision. The explorers had been people like her
own family, alive to what they saw, but wanting to make a
place for themselves; and the voids on either side of the
car hovered above her land, and the high place gave her the
position to see its unity, and her own unity, in the last
phase of her life, with everything she'd ever done. I am
co-existent, she thought, with everything that ever was — cruelty,
prosperity, famine, human love. Now I am co-existent, too,
with everything non-human — the cloud shadows drifting
down the ranges, the void that cradles the clouds, the air
above them: there is no fear, she found, in absolute acceptance.
Turning, she beamed on the back seat passengers: 'What do
you think they'll be serving for lunch, Rosa? What do you
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them in the foyer,
ladies smiled at
his enthusiasm, and
to have it. I
like it. I'm getting
them — husband,
daughter, visitors — clattering
along like a
picked up her baby
the cot beside
When they came in,
at by all
her and sat
up. The baby
Bruce to tickle
her tiny palm;
if it brought
no smile, it
frown to disappear. He cooed at the
like a kid yourself,
dad,' but Janis
on him, the visitors,
and on Marina.
'It's an unusual
said Una. 'Does
what's it mean?'
that was cast
the footsteps retreating
passage — Bruce
could never be quiet on
a polished floor — Janis
conceived in flight
of Harry Hearn,
in the stairwell,
people moving from her
which was her unity
was a vast,
of force others
whispered. 'From the
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was sitting by the lake, shoes beside her; peeling off her
stockings had seemed immodest. The
man with the brochure and his forebearing wife were visible
across the lake, the man pointing excitedly at some English elms. This time,
Christie felt curious to know what the brochure told him. He was so stiffly
animated that she thought of a scarecrow guarding turnips. The ducks on the
lake were having a geriatric argument. ‘Errp, errp, errp,’ they
were saying to each other, as they had for years. When they swam in her direction,
expecting to be fed, she moved on. Their expectations were no more welcome
than any other.
past a densely planted copse, she noticed a wheeelbarrow
hidden. There was a spade propped against it it and a can
of drink on top,
but no one in evidence. A little further on she saw that a thick Japanese
bush, with branches
low to the ground, had been used to hide a rake; again there was no gardener
in sight. She plunged into the fern gully, hoping to be free of this extra presence.
the trees had such persona that the feeling became stronger. Initials
carved on the bamboo looked like runic inscriptions. The
aerial roots of
a fig had grown
thickly around the trunk, as if the tree were hugging itself. An old
lady palm had clusters of lilac beads at the neck. The water, trickling
wanted to talk. A motionless pipe suddenly sprayed: there was someone
aware, she looked about. Shafts of light found their way
the twisting trunks, but there was no way to see out. She half expected
Toad hall to rush along the track. There were birds high above her,
shopping busily, and, from points of the garden outside,
indistinct voices. Everything
in creation was talking. She felt that if she kept on, she should come
to a mysterious house in the woods. The track did lead to a small wooden
with a conical roof and rustic benches. She sat.
led past the shelter, while leaves, taking the air with the
help of their stems,
pressed in at the windows. Looking down one breach
in the foliage,
saw a man tapping his pipe against his shoe before resuming his sketching.
She thought of Miss Euphemia, whose pastime it had been to paint
watercolours in these gardens, and who had been noticed by
a courteous, bowing Director. She had come to know him … and
so the story had unrolled.
busy scratching sound in the leaves disturbed her. She peeped
out. Birds … but
they too were invisible. They were chattering over a find, and
scratching with redoubled vigour – but they were not
to be seen. I have to leave this hut, she thought, because
no one stays
anywhere forever, but I love it here.
A globule of water dangled from the sharp tip of a leaf. It’s
like a moment, Christie thought: if I touch it, it’ll be
broken. Even if I were tiny I couldn’t get inside it, because
formed apart. Sadly she left.
came to a row of hydrangeas with vulgar names like Intermezzo
and Emotion. Another bore the name of Harry’s Pink
Topper! A fourth, cousin to a Valkyrie, had been dubbed Krimhilde.
She wondered what sorts
of carpets and curtains
the flower breeders would have in their homes. Miss Belgium!
Wonder! Apothèse! Her rising amusement was checked by
one called Neige Orléanaise;
she had loved the snow in France. And there was a stick naming
a plot of earth for a bush that had been taken out:
was she, and where had she gone? Christie felt sadness in
the earth at her feet. The skin on her neck prickled. Everything
lived, and everything died; she had a moment of anguish for
her children, briefly
being children in the cellar of Barb’s hotel. She wanted
to go back to the shelter, but, although it was so close
she could see its shingled roof and wooden finial,
it was apart from her.
walked uphill a little wearily. The ducks were still saying ‘Errp,
errp, errp,’ in the lake. Presumably someone was
feeding them. What did they do when the gates were closed?
the day’s takings and paddle
to an island? She was glad it wasn’t dark; how frightening
to be locked in! Things might show some other side of themselves.
Trees might move, the
earth speak, unheard voices call enchanting, frightening
things that took away your identity. She wondered what
sort of tree, or bush, she’d be if she
were changed. There were many lovely things in the garden,
but if it actually happened, your fate might be something
less attractive than a rose, a radiant
white azalea, or a lily, floating like dead Ophelia on
the lake. Gross forms ran riot in nature; strangling vines
and poisoned fruit. Spiders lurked in leaves,
inimical to everything. From the wide lawn where she felt
secure, if exposed, she made her way to the kingdom of
Ulmus, Fagus, and the oak.
it, she looked up and caught for a moment the corner of a
building she hadn’t entered for three and a half years.
There was no point in entering it any more. The boy had been
cremated, he wasn’t in his flat;
she could, if she wished, imagine him on one of the empty
seats scattered on the lawn. A pair of such iron-scrolled
benches sat facing each other beneath
a scarlet oak; she sat on one. Not willing, yet, to look
closely at the other, she cast her eyes about. The forest
monarchs, tamed for this botanical zoo,
had been granted servants. At the foot of each, and uncomfortably
close because the trees had grown huge, was a tap, its
spout turned vertical like a begging
dog. Ruthless gardeners had taken away their handles
so they could utter nothing except at higher command.
Power and powerlessness attended each other, and which
was which? The giants needed water; the water seemed
almost to need to become the sap by a law as eternal
as the one that turned the green leaves into the brilliant
orange carpet under her feet. She looked at the empty
one moment was everything, yet the moments stretched
out like beads, and Greg had broken the thread. In
the seed was the tree; the gardeners would bring
their chainsaws to her oak when it grew rotten, and
plant another. All continuity
moved to remain in the same place. Anything could be
changed, but it would start out from its new base to
restore itself. She picked up a leaf; it was
a rusty orange, but if she let a beam of light play
on it, the leaf became more than itself; a point of
an intense gathering of light and
colour. And it was alive, or it had been; yellow veins
reached its extremities like roads, and an ever finer
net of tracks and paths made sure that no part
of the leaf was out of call. How wonderful to have
intelligence hear the universe as thoroughly! The sun
went behind a cloud, withdrawing
her illumination. Wishing there was more that she could
do, she put the leaf on
the empty seat, and stood.
swiftly, she made her way to the children, her husband and
at Murdy’s usual spot. The children were carolling
about having found three coins, and Murdy was telling
Harry about von Mueller’s fixation
on the vanished explorer Leichhardt. Harry, she felt,
was listening out of courtesy, and yet he was listening.
Coming up to them, she took Harry’s
arm, and said, ‘I’m sure Harry now knows
as much as if he’d
read your book. It’s time we all went home!’
‘But I have read Murdy’s book,’ Harry said. ‘I learned
a lot.’ He was greatly amused at her way of bursting
‘And hell,’ said Murdy, ‘we haven’t had our picnic yet.
We’ve been waiting for you! The kids would’ve scoffed everything
long ago if we’d let them!’
‘Oh,’ said Christie, ‘did
you wait for me? Why did you do that?’
‘It seemed to be necessary,’ said Murdy. ‘In
some way. You really want to go home?’
‘No,’ said Christie, ‘of course not. Let’s open the things.
Children!’ she called. ‘We’re having our picnic now. Sorry
I kept you waiting.’ The kids scrambled around her. ‘And open that
bottle of wine,’ she ordered Murdy. ‘It
would be nice to have it now.’
> back to TOP
writing of this book:
the day that William Heinemann decided to accept Hail
and Farewell! they took me to lunch and gave
me an advance of $300. Later that afternoon I bought six
wine glasses (I have
them still) and a recording of Debussy’s opera Pelléas
et Mélisande. I played it a few times then decided
I couldn’t get into it. Years passed and I decided
to write a book intertwining the lives of quite a few characters,
one of them a historian who has himself written a biography
of Baron Ferdinand von Mueller, the wonderful botanist who
recorded so much of Australia’s flora. I saw quite
quickly that the book would need me to change my style, and
I got out the Debussy opera I had found so impenetrable.
played it again and decided that, impenetrable as it may
be, it worked by mysterious principles which were what
I needed to understand if I was to achieve the book
I had in mind. I played the Debussy opera, or parts thereof, every day, and,
amazingly for me, I played little else on my gramophone for two years until
I was not only familiar with Debussy’s approach to
narrative but found it was second nature for me to look at
things in the same way. In the world of Debussy’s
opera, everything shifts and changes, everything is forever moving in relation
to everything else. Until The garden gate I had written as if the world was
firm. As a schoolboy I had been greatly affected by the powerful,
witty prose of Bernard
Shaw, a master of the exposition of ideas, a writer who used rhetorical devices
forcefully and as a means to amusement. Shaw had the gift of the gab if ever
anyone had it, and I loved the character of his prose. In writing my first
book, Hail and Farewell! I
had had to adapt the Shavian approach, but it was still
a characteristic of my writing until I conceived The
and had to change. Hence my long obsession with the French opera. I couldn’t
start my novel until I knew that the required transformation had been achieved.
had by then mapped out my characters. This included giving
them occupations which I researched to the extent that
I needed. I had made one of them a railway engineer, and
another a computer expert at a time when the electronic
revolution was beyond the comprehension of most of us,
me included. Harry, the computing wizard, was going to
write poetry occasionally, something I had never done.
Since Murdoch (Murdy) the historian had written about von
Mueller he would talk about
him, so I needed to become familiar with the baron’s
life. And so on. Preparations, and research, for getting
inside my characters took quite some time, but eventually
I felt ready to start.
only had my style to change for this book, but also my sense
of form. I decided that not only would the setting of the
Botanic Gardens, Melbourne,
me to develop my von Mueller theme, it would provide, first, a setting
onto which I could unroll my characters, and second a setting
for the book’s
finale when the time came to bring the book to its end. I spent many hours
in the great
garden, familiarising myself with its trees, its layout and its history
until I felt that I knew it well enough to make it a base
for my characters’ movements
some readers this may sound like some vast Rubic’s
cube of puzzle and elaboration: an impediment to a writer’s freedom.
My mind works in the opposite way. An elaborate schema gives freedom
because it offers a vast choice
at one and the same time as it offers both writer and reader a consciousness
of simplicity underlying complexity. If you can work your way through
the details, something you didn’t know was there can reveal itself
so I believed. This is all mentioned by way of indicating
the art of writing requires faith as well as intellect. You must believe
doing in order to find a way to do it. To do what? In this case, to
show that although life appears to be almost infinitely varied, and
can also discern
in it, underneath it, certain simplicities, like the idea that life
does pass some of the same points more than once, allowing the astute
some of the patterns, and rhythms, involved in its movement.
tricks of other people too. I had decided that my characters
at a certain spot I had chosen because I loved the trees that
had planted. I discussed a great, spreading Tristania with the Director
of my day, David Churchill, and he told me that it was not one tree
Guilfoyle, the Director who replaced von Mueller and completely reshaped
the gardens, had a way of planting a number of the same species very
close so that
as they grew they were forced to grow away from each other. The Tristania
I had admired was a cluster, disguised as one. Walking the gardens
I was able to see that the trick had been repeated. I began to understand
the mind of Guilfoyle as well as von Mueller, and saw that one of
tricks – he had a few in his psychology – was to set
up what I shall call false dichotomies. Would he do A, or B, he would
groan, lamenting, saturated
in self-pity and loud with misery, before he would do C. Or D. Something
else. Not what you expected. Very clever, my beloved baron, I would
say, and I watched
him harder than ever. I was not only writing, I was learning.
I decided, somewhere about two thirds of the way through the
book, might be very different in every obvious way, yet share a
validity. That is, each of us may need to feel that the way we
are living is right
unlike it may be to the life of someone very different. Our commonalities
join us as our differences divide. It is a democratic book because
it allows equality
to most, perhaps all. Let me now return to the theme of shape,
or form, in a book. While I was conceiving The garden
chapters each of twenty pages (of my typing). And it did.
One chapter over-ran itself so that I finished on page
403, not 400, but I made cuts that brought
the book back to a perfect square. This apparent limitation
is a means to freedom, and a way of intensifying the
book. Harry, one
of the characters,
writes poetry. When Harry’s poems are quoted, they
provide an extra strength of input for the lines they occupy.
Another character is a music librarian for
the local orchestra; when she sits at the piano to play
Debussy, another dimension slips easily into the book.
If you set yourself dimensions beyond which you will
not go, you force yourself to use well the space available.
Restriction, I like to say, can be freedom.
It’s a big book, but there’s
not much more to say about it. I could see that commercial publishers
wouldn’t want it so for the first time I
published a book myself. This was a learning curve for
me, because of that old rule that says that anything that
can go wrong will go wrong. It was also a wonderful
time for me because I was in love, and my lover wanted
to know me through the book and it seemed as if we lived
in it, as if the book, too, was a wonderful
garden where we were free to walk together, and did.
to TOP > back
to WRITING BOOKS
BOOKS > THE GARDEN GATE