The garden gate
Written by Chester Eagle
Cover designed by Vane Lindesay
First published by Trojan Press, 1984
Circa 181,700 words
2,000 copies printed
Electronic publication 2006 by Trojan Press
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Here’s how the book was described in the 1984 edition:

The 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.

To read some extracts from the book click here:
The opening
Baron von Mueller
Mrs Miller
Una and the mountains
Janis and Marina
The ending

To read about the writing of this book click here.

The opening

Serene, 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.

Through the kiosk gate came Murdy Miller, instigator of the gathering, and his wife Christie with their son and daughter.

'Coming 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.

Still 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.

Murdy 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.

A 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.

Bruce 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.

'She's niggly with us,' said Barbara. 'Oh well, where's the picnic?' She slung the carryall's strap on her shoulder and bent with the weight.

Bruce told her: 'He said it was the one spot in the gardens you'd think for sure was planted by von Mueller.'

'Shit eh. Let's just walk through here and see what we find.'

Passively 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.

A 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.'

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Baron von Mueller

Murdy 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.

Rather than examine this jealousy, he read page 168:

Renunciation was already a theme in Mueller's life. A man more concerned to make his reputation in the botanical establishment ...

Limply 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 ...

He 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.

The 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 ...

We 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.

and, 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:

Walking 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 dream ...

Paradise 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:

He 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 ...

Yet 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:

You attribute most justly the melancholy which I could not suppress for many a wearied week to my failing health.

He 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:

Several 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, poor Euphemia! He waved his illness like a truce flag ...

My 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 could:

For 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.

The 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:

Since 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.

A fortnight later he was saying:

Perhaps 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.

And 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:

My 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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Christie 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?'

'Not what you might expect,' Christie said. 'Bring your friends home 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 ...'

Bruce showed interest.

'... and the forces working against it, which are pretty considerable!' Her voice became gutsy, savage. Then, the organiser, she lifted her voice to the group: '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 me you're exhausted ...'

Drivers got the address, someone was sent to get grog from a pub that wasn't fussy; driving even faster, because Christie didn't want Elsa and Leonard The Lover to arrive at an empty house, Bruce said, 'You made that happen pretty swiftly! We could use you up home!’

'We're all a little away from ourselves,' said Christie; 'that's why it's happening.'

The 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 bored. She rummaged 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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Pushing back to Harry, Janis also realised that Lawrence wanted revenge on his brother for knowing more, for somehow excluding him 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 boundaries into new psychic territory, dropping off old shame and moralities, it was a marvellous time to be alive! Janis stood still, letting the 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 asked.

'Funny thing,' he said. 'I just thought of a poem.' He seemed pleased with himself. For a moment her brain seethed with

... the whips and scorns of time, The oppressor's wrong, the proud man's contumely, The pangs of despis'd love ...

then 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 notebook with his fine, neat writing ... 'In all this noise!' she cried, exultant for him. 'How did you do it?'

'Nothing very marvellous,' he said, but she squeezed against him on the sofa. There was a false start, and a completed poem, she assumed they were for her. The false start read:


I have yet to be!

Harry had bracketed these words and started again:


is a dip; foam

slithers, loosely marking points,

air moves and flotsam accommodates the shift.

The poet says 'A wave!' but the wave has no identity,

only a relation to other water

which has no identity except in waves,

or depths so fearful that sympathy cannot penetrate.

The grasping poet sees it slip between his fingers.

In his anger he dives at the wave's replacement;

Lifting him, it disappears, dumping him in a trough,

sibilant with foam that whispers in his ear,

'I thought I was, but now I know

I never once began to be.'

'Harry!' said Janis. 'You are! You are! You are!' and she dragged him into the swirl of dancers. With deep satisfaction she saw a couple sprawl on the sofa, burying the notebook. Swinging proudly before him, she willed him to put his fingers, as he sometimes did, fanwise above her hips, touching that spot above the ovaries where she felt most squeamish; moving Harry to touch her there was her sign of certainty and surrender: this time she used it aggressively, and retaliated by trailing her fingertips through his hair and down his chin, as if to try his 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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Mrs Miller

Mrs 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.

Mrs 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!'

She 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.

'Well 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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Una and the mountains

The 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.'

Queena 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 ...

May, 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.

'I 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!'

The 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!'

Una 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 fancy?'

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Janis and Marina

It was almost teatime when they got back to Bright, but they felt they should call at the hospital. Bruce met them in the foyer, tired but excited. 'I didn't watch Jennifer being born,' he explained, introducing his daughter, who remembered the ladies coming to the house on an earlier occasion. 'That's right,' he said, 'I clean forgot about that,' as if all previous troubles had been erased. 'Janis was out walking.' Then he asked them if they'd enjoyed the mountains, which he seemed to be invoking as witnesses to the birth; the ladies smiled at his enthusiasm, and asked for details of the baby. 'Girl!' cried Bruce. 'She's named already. Marina! It's from Shakespeare, Janis had to have it. I like it. I'm getting used to it already. You like it don't you Jennifer?'

The daughter claimed she did, and the ladies would have gone, but Bruce insisted they meet Janis. 'She's sitting there wide awake, she doesn't know what to do with herself and she's looking so beautiful ...' The lump in his throat moved the ladies to follow him upstairs. Janis heard the six of them — husband, daughter, visitors — clattering along like a troop of cavalry, and picked up her baby from the cot beside her bed. When they came in, she felt she was being wondered at by all humanity; shyly she put the baby before her and sat up. The baby wrinkled her face, moving Bruce to tickle her tiny palm; if it brought no smile, it did cause the frown to disappear. He cooed at the child till Jennifer said, 'You're like a kid yourself, dad,' but Janis smiled serenely on him, the visitors, and on Marina. 'It's an unusual name,' said Una. 'Does it run in your family? And what's it mean?'

'No,' said Janis, 'it's not a family name. It means, from the sea. It's from an old story about a child that was cast adrift on the sea, and later found again, it's a wonderful story.'

'I like a name that has a story to it,' said Rosa, 'I think it gives a baby a good start.' Janis put the child in the cot, and they admired it again, then took their leave. Listening to the footsteps retreating noisily down the passage — Bruce could never be quiet on a polished floor — Janis considered that her baby, conceived in flight from Bruce and awe of Harry Hearn, had made her central; the footsteps, now sounding in the stairwell, were the sounds of people moving from her fixed position: the duality which was her unity with Marina was a vast, radiant field of force others were grateful to approach. 'Marina,' she whispered. 'From the sea.' Sea meant flux, change, and instability, and it had brought Marina.

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The ending

She 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.

Moving 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.

But 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 under tiny bridges, wanted to talk. A motionless pipe suddenly sprayed: there was someone attending her.

Tensely aware, she looked about. Shafts of light found their way between the twisting trunks, but there was no way to see out. She half expected Toad of 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 shelter, with a conical roof and rustic benches. She sat.

Paths 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, she 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.

A 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 it’s formed apart. Sadly she left.

She 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! Drap’s 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:


Who 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.

She 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? Count 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.

Entering 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 bench.

In 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 refraction, 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 one’s 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.

Walking swiftly, she made her way to the children, her husband and Harry Hearn 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 in.

‘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.’

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The writing of this book:

On 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.

I 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 garden gate, 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.

I 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.

Not 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 Royal Botanic Gardens, Melbourne, allow 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 and thoughts.

To 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 au fond.

Or so I believed. This is all mentioned by way of indicating how much the art of writing requires faith as well as intellect. You must believe in what you’re 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 is, one 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 observer to catch some of the patterns, and rhythms, involved in its movement.

The tricks of other people too. I had decided that my characters would gather at a certain spot I had chosen because I loved the trees that earlier directors 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 but several. William 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 after that conversation 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 Mueller’s 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.

Lives, I decided, somewhere about two thirds of the way through the book, might be very different in every obvious way, yet share a yearning for validity. That is, each of us may need to feel that the way we are living is right for us, however 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 gate, I decided that it would have twenty 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, occasionally 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.

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